Monday, December 26, 2011

Let Poets Be Our Theologians Now--continued

As we move past the winter solstice, into the increasing light, and toward the beginning of the secular new year, this poem of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado on the creative power of transformation comes to mind:

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

May we be surprised by the transforming power of life in ourselves and in our world in the coming year.

The Grace of Losing the Way

I am still and always losing the way, still and always beginning again.

Just this morning, feeling lost, I meditated.

I heard a voice say, “Walk out of the cave.”

And I saw I was hiding in a black cave, looking out through a narrow cleft. Outside was a world of light, blinding light. Inside, looking at the light, its fierce beauty, I was safe.

Again the voice commanded me, “Walk out of the cave.”

I couldn’t move. I was afraid. I wanted to stay hidden away. I didn’t want to step into that light. I would be exposed, burned, annihilated. The silly song I had sung so many times in Sunday School rang in my head:

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, Hallelujah.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Hide it under a bushel—No! I’m going to let it shine, Hallelujah.
Hide it under a bushel—No! I’m going to let it shine,
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

That song had disturbed my heart ever since I was three; I heard it calling me to do something, but what it was I had to do I did not understand. Hearing it as I stood in that dark cave of safety, trembling, looking at the light outside the narrow opening, I realized I had always been afraid of being in the light.

“Walk out of the cave.” The voice was pushing me now. I could feel it pressing me from behind. If I didn’t start moving, it would shove me outside. That would be worse than my walking out freely.
I extended my right foot and leg and set them down outside the entrance. After a moment, I extended my right hand and arm.

“Walk out of the cave.” The voice was more gentle now.

I turned my body to the left and squeezed through the opening. I was outside. But I was resting my backside against the cave behind me. I needed to touch that hardness, that narrow opening my hands and feet could reach in a moment to enter the darkness, my protection, my life.

“Walk out of the cave.”

I had to walk away from the cave. So far away I wouldn’t be able to find it again if I turned around, turned back.

I began walking, straight out from the entrance. After a few steps I realized I was walking on a path of light slowly inclining upwards. I kept walking. As I walked, I thought, This is the ladder of angels that Jacob, that conniving, thieving, ineffectual, and self-pitying father, saw in his dream. He was by no means a pure human being, no perfect body-mind-spirit he, yet he glimpsed this path of light that connects a realm of light to our world. He saw beings ascending to the realm of light and descending to our world. Not angels, but messengers, messengers of light, those who can travel between the two worlds. And these messengers included beings like himself, flawed human beings.

I kept walking up the sloping path. I came to a place where there were many beings walking about, all beings of light. It seemed to me that some lived there and some lived on earth and were visiting there. But they were all beings of light. All were free to come and go on that sloping path connecting the human world to this one. I moved through them, they moved around me, that crowd of beings walking in calmness, in beauty, all beings of light, shining, walking on light, through light, in light.

And suddenly I realized, There were beings of light walking on the earth right now. Walking among the dark crowds, hidden. I hadn’t seen them before. Will I see them now? I wondered. When I return to the ordinary world, will I recognize the beings of light walking about on the earth? Will they recognize me? I had to look for them, keep my eyes and heart open to see them. And I remembered Zora Neale Hurston’s image of human beings, mudballs that glitter. The only difference is that some of those mudballs have switched on their full light, stop covering it with mud, hiding it under a bushel, burying it in a cave. Those people are no longer balls of mud glittering with tiny specks of light here and there, sparkling in the darkness; they are shining with light. And what would our world look like if all those glittering mudballs started uncovering their light and shining.

I imagined walking on earth amidst a darkened crowd of mudballs speckled with reflected light, with a shining being slipping through the crowd now and then. And then, as those shining beings touched other mudballs, they uncovered their light and began to shine. Because the passing of the light, the spirit, is like the passing of a flame: The lit flame ignites the other without extinguishing or diminishing its fire. And slowly, as I watched in the darkness on earth, more and more darkened beings stepped out into the light and began to shine, as if their light had been ignited so they could shine on the world around them. Our darkened world grew lighter and lighter, more and more beautiful. It was glorious. And I realized that no matter how frightened I was I could never return to that cave of darkness and hide away. I had to go back down that sloping path of light and walk among all of us mudballs with my eyes and heart open to the light, everywhere it showed itself, everywhere it was flaming, setting the world on fire.

I needed this meditation to remind me, because I keep forgetting, even though this has been my daily prayer for many years:

O God of Seeing,
In Your light do we see light.
Grant me light.
Light in my heart.
Light in my tongue and lips.
Light in my ears.
Light in my eyes.
Light in my touch.
Light in my body.
You in whom there is no shadow, grant me light.
Light before me.
Light behind me.
Light on my right hand.
Light on my left hand.
Light above me.
Light below me.
Light within.
Light upon light.
Make me burn brighter
With Your wisdom, Your power, Your presence,
Your ever-flowing, ever-renewing life,
Your joy,
Your love.
Illumine me.

Even with this to keep me on course, I still keep turning away. I still keep losing the way. The grace of losing the way. The grace that turns you, again and again, to light, to joy, to the One.

Monday, October 3, 2011

How to Marry Religions?

What happens when two peoples or two individuals from different religious traditions encounter one another in an intimate setting of prayer or ritual? How does one honor both traditions as they are in in themselves and nurture in each a respectful embracing of the other?

This question arises more and more today for several reasons. One, we live in a much more globally aware world, where our neighbor’s differences from us and ours from our neighbors are much more immediate and harder to escape. We also live in the post-Enlightenment age, where people no longer simply assume the religious traditions of their families or cultures, but must make a more intentional choice to follow those traditions or to depart from them. The sociologist Peter Berger calls this “the heretical imperative” (in his book of that title), from the Greek verb at the root of the word “heresy,” which means “to choose.

In this climate of bumping up against the other and everyone making more conscious choices to belong or not to belong to particular religious traditions or paths, how can we think about this relationship among individuals, peoples, and traditions in a liberating way, a way that opens up to a wider and wider community of respect and love?

This past August I attended a wedding that lived out a model of such a relationship. The bride was Nez Perce, the groom Jewish. The wedding took place on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, outdoors by a clear, rushing river under an old stand of trees, on a site where Presbyterian missionaries of European descent had built a cabin when they came to evangelize the Nez Perce for Christianity. The very ground we stood on to witness the wedding ceremony was fraught with a history of relationship between these two peoples and religions that was oppressive. This model of oppression and suppression of the other, lower religion is, unfortunately a common model in history. The “true” religion” supersedes the “false’ religion, either swallowing it up and transforming it, including it as an earlier (and lesser) stage on the way to the “true” religion, displacing it, or eradicating it altogether. This was what Christianity did with Judaism for many, many generations. This was what many people who married “outside their faith” had to do: convert to their partner’s faith tradition.

Quite a different model for relating religions has also been common throughout history: syncretism, blending two different practices or beliefs into a third set of practices and beliefs. Certain Brazilian religions (Umbanda and Candomblé) in South America blended ancient African-rooted religious rituals and beliefs with Roman Catholic practices and beliefs. Many Native American tribes in North America did the same with their traditional beliefs and the various forms of Christianity they were forced and urged to take on. Many interfaith couples adopt and adapt this model toward running their households and raising their children.

But back to this remarkable wedding in Idaho and what I saw and learned there. The wedding began with a full Nez Perce ceremony, conducted by an elder, including drumming and songs for food, water, and shelter on the bride and groom’s journey through life, an exchange of feathers, a ritual walk of the bride and groom, and a ritual meeting of the two families who were also to now be joined. When that ceremony ended, there was a brief pause, and the guests shifted to a patch of grass right next to where the Nez Perce ceremony had just taken place. On that neighboring ground, a Jewish chuppah (with a tribal blanket for the covering) was walked into place and under that chuppah the bride and groom participated in a full Jewish ceremony, conducted by a rabbi, including a sanctification over a cup of wine, a ritual walk of the bride and groom, and the seven wedding blessings.

Side by side stood the two traditions, each standing its own ground (literally as well as figuratively). One did not trump the other. One did not stand above the other. One did not displace the other. Nor were the two blended into one ceremony, a third that was neither fully Jewish nor fully Nez Perce. They each stood tall, proud, in their full integrity and beauty, each on its own, yet each side by side. Equals. Beautiful in their equality. Both of them honored in their full individuality and their choice to stand in the world side by side, joined by mutual respect, honor, and love. Beautiful in their equality and mutuality.

The two traditions literally stood back to back, because for the Nez Perce ceremony, the gathered community faced one direction, and for the Jewish ceremony the community faced in the opposite direction. It was if to say, we stand back to back; we each face in a different direction, but we do this not to pull in different directions, but so that we may better look out for and look after each other as we move together through the dangers and joys of life; we join our two limited perspectives into a wider one.

And I thought, this is how we should stand with our neighbors from other traditions and faiths, just like this, two faiths, two traditions, two peoples standing side by side, in all the fullness of who we are confident that we are respected, accepted, and honored, and celebrated in our uniqueness even as we stand in relationship, facing the world together this way and journeying together this way, committed to this journey/adventure we call human existence, needing to rely on one another, support one another, nurture one another, feed and water and shelter and heal one another along the way.

And it occurred to me that this was a model for a liberating marriage of individuals, too. Two human beings standing in their full individuality side by side. Neither one dominant over the other or subsuming the other. Neither one giving up their uniqueness to lose themselves in a third thing, the marriage. Neither converting to the other. Neither becoming the other. Each remaining true to who they were and were called to be. Yet standing side by side, joined by hand, heart, and spirit, on the journey.

It was the most beautiful wedding I have ever witnessed.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mudballs That Glitter: More on the Body/Spirit

Near the opening of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston refers to human beings as “mudballs that glitter.” For over thirty years I have carried this image with me as a kind of shorthand for the spirit-flesh embranglement that we call “human being.”

Hurston’s image came afresh to me last week as I was walking along the rocky northern shore of the Atlantic Ocean. I looked up out of my reverie and everything was shining. Everything. Even the rocks. I looked more closely. It wasn’t reflected light. The grains of sand, the waves, the seaweed, the skate purses, the rocks weren’t reflecting the light of the sun; they were shining from within, with their “own” light, a light answering the light shining from the sun, a resounding antiphony of light. I looked more closely. It was as if everything was made of light, formed of light—not simply the sentient beings, but every being, even the rocks, and I remembered my Ojibwe friends in Minnesota arguing (against the vocal disbelief of other students) that rocks, too, are alive.

Even the rocks on this beach I was walking through were alive. I could see, feel the light enlivening them. That light, that energy, that creative power, that palpable generativity was one, One shining in and through them all, each separate being. The shapes and colors and density of each individual shining was no more than and no less than a declaration of the infinite variety of the One that was even now bringing it into being, fashioning it, sustaining it, accompanying it faithfully on its journey of coming into being and perishing.

Walking through this riot of light, I thought of the many circles of mystics from all religious traditions—both orthodox and heterodox, both those I am at home with and those whose dualistic or other doctrines are far from my experience of the world—who have witnessed to the light in the creation. The Hebrew scriptures (Psalm 97:12) say “Light is sown for the righteous,” leading many who came after to cultivate and reap that light. Gnostics of many sorts speak of light/spirit trapped in the matter of our created world. The Zoroastrians focused on the path to a world all of light through purity and righteousness. Augustine reports that the Manichees ate cucumbers and melons to imbibe the great amounts of light trapped in these foods. Lurianic Kabbalists speak of the breaking of the vessels at creation, which scattered sparks of light throughout the created universe, and of repairing the world (tikkun olam) by gathering up these scattered sparks. The Hasids, too, speak of our task as human beings as finding the One everywhere one looks and gathering the light shining in all that exists.

Whatever the differences in their worldview—dualistic, non-dualistic, theistic, nontheistic, atheistic—these mystics have seen something, something real in our world, a vision that often bears fruit in a moral life that recognizes the connection among all things and all peoples, and that draws one away from forgetfulness and self-absorption and cruelty and toward humility, justice, and compassion. This insight, whatever its (sometimes wild) accompanying imagery or concepts, invites human beings, beings of flesh, mudballs, to live in such a way that we, too, shine. It invites us to remove the veils that cover that light in us, to stop hiding the light in us from others, to stop trying to extinguish the light shining in us because we cannot bear it, or cannot bear its often confusing and disturbing coexistence with our fleshly selves, to become more and more transparent so that it shines through us the way it shines through the rocks on the ocean shore, through all being, gracefully, naturally, joyfully, for anyone walking by with eyes to see. To become not simply mudballs that glitter, but mudballs that shine.

Even the rocks are shining
Shining with the glory of you

Passing through
from this angle and this one and
lost in ourselves
we miss their offering
speckled, pocked, pooled
scarified with light
declaring the wonder of being

If these, too, can shine,
why not this battered tent of flesh?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Seeking and Being Found

Last week a friend and I took a long walk through the Washington Arboretum in the early evening. As we descended a path toward a pond, we saw a group of people clustered near the western edge of the pond. Four were standing on the small dock, looking through the lenses of their cameras. A woman and her two small children were watching from the side. “It’s owls!” the woman said as we approached. We slowly and quietly made our way to the dock and looked up. There, directly in front of us, on a tree limb six feet away and only a little higher than our heads were two barred owls. They were sitting side by side, still. I had often heard the owls calling in the arboretum, and once glimpsed one high in a cedar tree, but I had never seen two together and at such close range.

We watched them for about ten minutes then headed on our way. Not far away, as we ascended another path, my friend Kelly put her hand on my arm to stop me. I stopped and followed her eyes. There, on a tree limb, almost within our reach, was a single barred owl. It stared at us with its dark brown eyes. We were transfixed. The markings on its face and the stillness it exuded made it seem as if it were wearing a mask, a thin, symbolic boundary between this world and another, which we could almost feel just on the other side. Or the face/mask was a point of meeting between the two worlds.

Sitka, my Siberian husky, was with us. She walked ahead on the path, and the owl turned its neck to follow her. When she reached the end of her leash and returned, the owl turned its head to follow her back to us.

We stared at the owl and the owl at us in silence, reluctant to leave. A crow flew into the tree and settled itself above the owl, cawing loudly to harass the predator away from its nest. The owl was unmoved. We broke away and continued our walk.

The next day, at about the same time, I took Sitka back to the arboretum, hoping to catch sight of the owls again. As I entered the woodland forest area, I heard two owls calling to each other. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? That stirred me. I was sure to come across at least one owl. They called several more times. I revisited the dock on the pond. No owls. I climbed the path where Kelly and I had encountered the single owl. No owl there either. Sitka and I began wandering the pathways and byways, going through denser and denser woods, always looking up, ever hopeful. At the end of two hours, I had seen nothing. Tired, disappointed, I headed home.

Walking home I realized that this is often the way it goes when one is seeking. When one sets one’s heart on a goal or destination, that goal or destination eludes one. And when one least expects it, that is when one is given a gift, a gift altogether too wonderful to be anticipated by us of such limited experience. All at once, out of no-where, wonder erupts in our everyday world, interrupts our ordinary perception. In the middle of our busy lives, we are “surprised by joy,” as the famous title of C. S. Lewis’s book has it.

We seek and seek and do not find. Perhaps because when we are seeking it is our ego, our wants, our desires that are leading us, and they narrow our vision so we cannot see the world, only what we hope for. Nevertheless, we must seek. How else prepare ourselves to receive unexpected gifts?

When we are not seeking, when we are being, our eyes open wide to the world, to all that exists beyond the narrow confines of our limited selves. It is then that we are found.

Seeking and not finding. Not seeking and being found.

In that dance the life of the spirit is lived.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are Mystics Anti-Body? Befriending the Body-Self

The meaning of the body or the body-self has fascinated me for decades. Perhaps because I am female, and the culture that nurtured me never let me forget that for me, existing in that time in that place, the body meant everything, that I could not escape the limits of my body. Perhaps because I am one of those people born feeling at ease in the body, at peace with it—a lovely genetic inheritance. Perhaps because I experience emotions in my body strongly, so the fundamental integration of body-self and what is not body-self was always apparent to me. Perhaps the body intrigued me because early on I experienced blessing through the natural world, its beauty, its grace, its calm, its unselfconscious joy of being, its vastness, its inclusion of me in a larger whole, its oneness with and in what was beyond. Perhaps because I always wondered what the Paul meant in his first letter to the Corinthians when he wrote, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body," (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

No matter the reason, I was intensely interested in the body-self, disposed to like it, and aware of its intimate relationship with the spirit or spirit-self. That’s why many of the metaphors and theories of the body, especially in relation to the spirit, that I encountered did not appeal to me or seem true. For example, I found the Neoplatonic view of the body as the prison house or tomb of the soul insulting. The Gnostic view of the body (and all matter) as evil, a hard shell one must destroy to let the light free, seemed an even greater affront to the beauty and gift of the body and its dearness to the spirit. This put me off mysticism and mystics for a long time: I thought all mystics denigrated the body-self in this way, to elevate the soul or spirit, and I wanted nothing to do with what I felt was a false view of the oneness of being.

Contemporary views of the body among those who are not mystics were no more appealing to me. For many people, often those suffering illness, injury, or the pain of oppressive labor, the body is more a burden to be endured or the intimate companion who has turned traitor and betrayed one. For others, it is a mere hindrance, an obstacle to one’s success, while for others it is but a tool, a vehicle to accomplish one’s desires—nothing more, nothing less. Of course for some, it is the pride and goal of their existence, their riches, their identity, their all—until it fails them. For many human beings, consciously or unconsciously, the body is the enemy one battles every day—that which inexorably drags one toward decay and death.

Recently I came across a metaphor for the body and its relationship to the spirit that surprised me with its freshness and depth. In his book In Search of the Hidden Treasure: A Conference of Sufis, a conversation among Sufi masters of all ages, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan offers to the gathering of mystics this view of the physical body: Think of it as your favorite tunic, he counsels. You put it on, you take it off, you put it on again. You wear it next to your skin. It grows softer and more flowing with age. It absorbs your scent, conforms to your shape. Daily you care for it, nourish it, wash it, mend it, fold it hand it up carefully when you take it off—all lovingly, for without it, there would be no life, no action in this world.

For the first time in many years my heart stood at attention when I heard this original and rich, rich metaphor for the body-self. It says, we do not denigrate or try to escape the body. We do not mourn it as a burden or treat it as a mere tool. Nor do we identify with it. We care for it lovingly, delighting in it and grateful for it as a gift from our Beloved (my interpretation).

For me, the body-self is a gift to treasure, the dearest of friends. Friendships are complex—they encompass many ways of relating, all grounded in love, care, and respect, and they elicit constant gratitude for the joy and support they bring to our lives. For many years I have said that when I come to the end of my life, I hope that I have a chance to thank my body, my friend, properly, with love, before we part. Thank it for carrying me through crises, for supporting me every moment, for opening me to possibilities otherwise closed to me, for its faithfulness to me, its forgiveness of my neglect and abuse of it, its acceptance of me, its refusal to let go of its embrace of my spirit even when I tried to cut it away completely and finally in some vain attempt at transcendence, for delivering to me a son and a daughter, for enabling me to experience so much joy. One day before then I will write an ode to my body, this unsung wonder of a companion that I so often take for granted.

Perhaps this metaphor of body-self as friend is close to what Paul meant when he reminded the gathered community in Corinth that the body was a temple of the spirit. It is a dwelling place one enters for a time, a sacred space in which spirit encounters spirit. We must care for it lovingly and inhabit it in gratitude.

Some mystics (and non-mystics) are anti-body. Certainly not all. And some know and love the body-self as friend.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Do Mystics Belong to a Spiritual Elite?

Are mystics by definition better, more evolved, than ordinary spiritual people? Do their visions, saintly acts, unceasing prayer, fasting, charitable acts, or constant remembrance of the One bring them nearer to the One in this life or any other?

Not necessarily, says Ghazali. He recounts a story in The Path of the Worshipful Servants to the Garden of the Lord of All the Worlds of a series of servants who performed some or all these acts during their lifetimes and are turned back at the garden gate by the angels. Why? One engaged in backbiting, another was motivated by worldly gain, another treated those "beneath" him with arrogance, one was conceited about his spiritual prowess, one was not merciful and gloated over others' misfortunes, and another was guilty of spiritual ostentation. The last of the servants the angels let pass through the gate, for that one seems beautiful, inside as well as out, a true mystic. But the One bars that servant from the garden too, for the One who sees what is hidden sees that this servant's devotion was not absolutely sincere, that every act was intended for someone or something not the One.

The poor person watching all this, Mu'adh, then trembles and asks, "O Messenger of God, who is capable of these virtues?"

And he replied: "O Mu'adh, what I have described fro you is easy for someone, if God makes it easy for him. All that you need is to like for other people what you like for yourself, and to dislike for them what you dislike for yourself, for then you will have been saved and delivered." (106)

Sound familiar? It is very much like the summary of the law and the prophets that the prophet Mcah gave, that Jesus gave, and that Hillel and Akiva gave. We'll look at all their summaries side by side in a later post. But for now, listening to this distillation of the life of true devotion to the One tells me this: the task of a mystic is simply the task of every other human being--to become truly human, that is to say, to become a reflection of the divine in the world. And what does the divine look like that we should reflect? Someone who desires for others all that she desires for herself or himself, someone who does not desire harm or any ill for others that he or she would not want for themselves. That's all.

That's all and that is the most difficult for our conflicted, ego-driven, constricting hearts. Who has been given the grace of this purity of heart? It is a long and strenuous journey to reach that gift, to be able to receive it. And to whomever enjoys that gift of living as a truly human being all things are added. This is the fountain out of which all other acts of prayer, fasting, charity, visioning, and remembering God, flow--pure water from a pure well.

And in this a "great mystic"--whatever that might mean--is no different from an ordinary believer: It is the purity of the heart that determines whether they are truly human and near to the divine, whether they will enjoy the presence of the Lord walking together in the garden.

"Purify our hearts to serve you in truth," the Psalmist writes. That is the goal not only of mystics but every person of faith--for every thought and act to flow out of a purified heart.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What is a mystic anyway?

Like many people, I absorbed many cultural and religious prejudices against mystics and mysticism. I thought mystics were irrational, soft-headed, escapist, concerned more with their individual souls than the body and the world we share with others, fanatical--even to the point of crossing the boundaries of morality.  But over the years, each one of these lies about mystics and mysticism was worn away by my encounter with mystics' writing and my own experiences and encounters. From Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, nature, and other mystics,  I discovered the incredible variety and depth of mystic experiences.  And I discovered how close their way of being in the world is to all passionate people of faith, regardless of which tradition they stand in or whether or not they think of themselves as "mystics."

Because "mysticism" is such a "weasel word" (to crib from William James on the word "experience," you can find more definitions of it than there are flowers that bloom. Not all are accurate, not all are useful.  In the coming weeks, I will explore definitions of mysticism, on the way to forming my own.

For now, this is my working definition:  A mystic is any person who trusts radically in the One, who keeps turning toward the One, and who therefore experiences ongoing revolution of the heart.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Who are we? What are we carrying?

Waiting for the bus in downtown Seattle earlier this month, I witnessed a scene that I can’t forget.  Two police officers on bicycles rode up to an African-American man standing on the street corner. As they dismounted they greeted him cheerfully, saying, “Hi, David.”  “David” greeted them back.  They calmly explained something to him about his being in the wrong place or having been in the wrong place.  He did not argue with them. 

Then began a long methodical dance among the three, one they seemed to have danced before.  One police officer asked David to show him what was in his pockets.   David removed items from one of his coat pockets, held them out in his open palm to one officer, who would examine them and hand them to the other officer to hold while the first officer prompted David to dig again and David dug in another pocket.  The three repeated these steps many times, with the pile of belongings growing to an unmanageable mound in the second officer’s cupped hands.  For David was dressed in many layers, each layer seemingly full of pockets.  As he emptied his pockets, displayed his necessities, treasures, and secrets, and handed them over to the officers, the three talked calmly, all of them good-natured, no sarcasm, no whiff of aggression. 

As I stood to the side watching and listening, my heart went out to this man emptying his pockets on the street corner.  He was so vulnerable, so exposed, to sudden searches, to indignities of the spirit.  Part of me was angry that police officers, however polite they may be, are free to stop anyone and search them, force them to expose their intimate belongings.  And yet there was something more.  This man was not afraid, and he seemed to meet their intrusive searching with dignity, as if to say, “Be my guest.  Look at everything in my pockets.  That will tell you nothing about me, what I have done, where I have been, where I belong, nothing about what of me is truly hidden from you and you can never see.   Look, but you won’t see me.  I know who I am.”  

My bus arrived and I got on.

Over the next weeks this man David stayed with me.  He walked through the world carrying with him all that mattered to him, and he was required to display it—at any moment, without warning—to strangers, for their scrutiny and approval or punishment.   And, to me at least, it seemed that in the midst of this transitory, fragile, and exposed way of living, he possessed a grace and dignity.

His presence and interactions with the officers reminded me of the Hasidic story of the man who wakes up in the morning and does not know who he is, what belongs to him. There are clothes lying on a chair.  Whose are they?  Shoes on the floor.  To whom do they belong?  To make it through the next days, he must put notes on his clothes, his shoes, in his pockets:  “This is my shirt.  These are my pants.  These are my shoes.”  That way he will know who he is, what belongs to him, as he travels through this world.  He, too, in spite of having a room to live in, is vulnerable to a fundamental questioning of his self.  Who is he, really?  What makes him who he is? 

We think we know who we are, but do we?  Who are we, truly?  What makes us who we are?  The clothes we wear?  What is in our pockets?  Where we stand?  Live?  Belong?  How protected we are from random searches by "the authorities"?  We are all transitory, fragile, vulnerable, and exposed creatures living in this world that is continually perishing.  When we are required to display all we are carrying, do we have the grace and dignity of knowing who we are?

Friday, April 1, 2011

So Beautiful in Hindsight, So Terrfying Now

Almost ten years ago, just before my life descended into seven years of chaos and loss, I had a dream: 

I was in a four-person tour boat riding through a wild, turbulent, rushing rocky river in a remote jungle. We rocked though rapids, swirled in eddies, spun through hairpin turns, floated peacefully for a brief moment, then fell hundreds of feet down a waterfall, surfaced, gasped, and were on our way again--a terrifying roller coaster ride that seemed it would never end. At last the boat came to rest on the top of a cliff.  We sat there, soaking wet, and looked down, looked back, on where we had traveled. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of what I saw, every part of it. All I could say was, "It is so, so beautiful. I had no idea how beautiful it was. So beautiful."
This dream--on the days I had the calm and grace to remember it--brought me comfort. It showed me, in the midst of  my fears of death and other losses, when I was sick to my stomach from emotional plunges and spiritual challenges, when all my attention was concentrated on staying afloat, when I couldn't breathe for terror, that I would survive this journey. Not only would I survive, but I would come, one day, to be grateful for it, every moment of it--grateful to that journey for bringing me to such a place of beauty and calm, for opening my eyes to how precious life is, in all its turbulent and ever-changing glory, for opening my heart to experience that  beauty--so intense it hurt. And that once I experienced this, I would know, in my heart and lips and mouth, that it would be impossible to ever convey that  beauty in words--mute wonder the only response.

If anyone had come to me with palliatives during those years and offered me third- or fourth- or fifth-hand theories of how God never gives us more than we can bear, or how God tests our faith, or how God teaches our souls to grow by challenging them, or how without the dark, the violence, we would never know the light, the thrill of peace, I would have spat their words back at them as so much filth or sawdust.  Only the experience of trust I tasted through the story of the dream fed my hungry soul.

Today I taste this truth more clearly than ever, and it is even more delicious. How precious is each moment, each now.How beautiful all the moments strung together into a river of life running to the sea, the Infinite, the One. So beautiful.  Mute wonder the only response.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Graffito, Graffiti--What Little Scratches Can Do

When the words "mene mene tekel upharsin" mysteriously appeared on the wall of a banquet hall where a drunken King Belshazzar of Babylon was feasting with his drunken friends, only the prophet Daniel could interpret them. (They were in Aramaic, not Persian). They foretold, Daniel said, the downfall of the Babylonian empire and its oppressive, greedy,and  robbing ways.

Not all revelations are dramatic. But sometimes the writing is on the wall, in a language anyone can read, and it carries a message of hope, not doom.

On a drizzly gray afternoon in winter-gray Seattle, walking my gray Husky past an eight-foot high gray retaining wall, thinking gray thoughts about a gray set of years in my life, I suddenly came upon twelve words spray-painted a bright yellow.  They were arranged in two lines, each line a foot high and twelve feet long, and underscored with a flourish:  

You are a beautiful
person and I want you to be happy.
No need to explain why I smiled and kept smiling, and why I now walk by that message every day and tell everyone I know about it. 

To the artist who tagged the world with joy and comfort and surprise,
Thank you!

UPDATE ON GRAFFITI AND REVELATION:  Several days after this post was published, the City of Seattle covered this yellow message in a mottled gray paint, so the concrete wall looks pristine, innocent of meaning, as if it had never been the carrier of a message of hope. How like revelation this is--something appears, grabs hold of you, shakes you awake, and then disappears, as if nothing had changed in the world.  But it has: What changed was you. And whether the change that resulted will last or disappear like the moment of revelation is up to you.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cars, Bodies, and God

My 1994 stick shift is not as reliable as I'd like.  About three years ago, it just quit in the middle of the street.  No warning, no noise.  Just quit.  Turned out it needed a new engine.  My mechanic put one in.  Last year it often wouldn't start, even with a new battery.  This year it started stalling at the most inopportune times.  You might say, Get rid of that beast already!  If I could, I might.  But right now I can't, and since I prefer walking to driving, and I don't drive much, I've developed a driving practice:  I am grateful every time I arrive somewhere I need to be safely and without incident, and every time I arrive back home safely and without incident.  I actually lean forward, pat the dashboard and say, "Thank you!" or "Alhamdulillah" or something similar.   Every time.  My car--with its litany of problems--has taught me how to not take things for granted.

I try to apply this practice to everything in my life, especially my body.  I had whooping cough as a child, was anorexic in high school, and had chronic bronchitis and colitis in college and graduate school--all of which have left.  They taught me to remember to be grateful every morning I awake and every evening when I go to sleep that this complex vehicle gets me safely where I need to go and then home again, that this loyal friend has carried me through the day. One of my favorite morning prayers in the siddur (Jewish prayer book) helps me give voice to this gratitude:

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands, and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design.  Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist.  Praised are You, Lord, healer of all flesh, who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.

Would I be so thankful for arriving safely if I had a brand new car?  Would I be so grateful for my body if I had not experienced illness and pain?  Would I remember God now and be so grateful for that presence, if I had not  felt God's absence and abandonment in my life before?   I'd like to say yes to all these questions.  I wish I weren't the kind of human being who has to learn to recognize the good by experiencing the absence of good.   But I am.

I was reminded of this the other when I went to buy groceries.  I said "Isn't it a beautiful day?" to my friend David, who sells Real Change outside my neighborhood Trader Joe's.  I was thinking, How great that it's sunny and not raining, What a day to rejoice in and be thankful for.  It's true--any day in Seattle that the sun shines is cause for dancing in the streets.  But David's reply reminded me of a larger truth.  "Any day I wake up alive is a good day!"  he said with a smile.  Rain or cloud or storm or shine, gratitude is the response.

For Jews, as well as for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists one of the central spiritual virtues is gratitude.  The ancient rabbis define gratitude as hikarat ha tov, recognizing the good. If we can't see the good beneath us, standing in front of us, all around us, how can we be grateful for it?

I want to learn to recognize the presence of good, more and more--with fewer and fewer, and smaller and smaller reminders of it through its absence.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Joy--The Last Frontier

We are more comfortable with pain, grief, anger, anxiety, fear,  resignation, frustration, irritation, worthlessness, alienation, loneliness, boredom--almost any state--than with joy.  Why?

I once had a theology student who had been severely abused as a child and young adult.  She told me this was her prayer: "God grant me greater and greater tolerance for joy."  The most difficult part of her spiritual journey was welcoming and trusting joy. She knew her way around and finally through the other feelings.  But allowing herself to experience joy was a challenge.

For many years I have carried her teaching with me.  And several times over the last decades I have experienced the truth that she had come to know.  How joy hides under layers of anger and grief.  How if you dive below those layers,deep, deep, deeper, it is there, a fundament of joy.  I have felt it, touched it.  It always comes as a surprise.  A calm rejoicing in the beauty of the world, as it is, in this moment. An experience in which you feel profoundly at home in the world and grateful for all that is, overflowing with gratitude for the beautiful garden in which you live.  A moment that changes your way of being in the world, chasing out all anxiety, shame, grief, care and catching you up in wonder and oneness. This is joy. 

I know that fundament of joy is always there, supporting my existence at every moment, making it possible.  I know how enlivening, transforming it is to touch it.  And yet I still hesitate to touch it.  I am not sure why.  Perhaps I fear its intensity?  No. Does it make me uncomfortable because I feel I am not worthy of it?  Not any longer.  Maybe I fear the loss of joy, once that glorious moment of peace and oneness has worn off and I am once again left in my familiar and dull world drained of joy--better not to know what is possible, or to forget. Maybe.  It is hard to remember joy.  For in remembering our experiences of joy--with other people, in nature, with the One--we become acutely aware that that experience has passed, and we grieve its absence. Yet I would rather the pain of remembering.  No. None of these.  

                Remembering Joy

Once, undressing for bed, I found
my thighs—knees to hips—blooming with bruises,
smoky purples, brilliant reds, patches of dull yellow
washed with green, and blackened paths wandering
through the twin gardens.
A sudden shock of beauty.
Tender to the touch.

Had I fallen? Bumped a countertop?
And forgotten as one forgets the last breath?
Had a steel bar fallen from the roof and struck me?
Had someone truncheoned me for secrets?
But why?  And when?  Surely I would remember.
Was it disease then?  Hidden in my flesh for years,
surfacing now to announce my death?
I laid my palms on each warm thigh to hear
what they would tell me.
It was you, they said.  This morning. 
To learn the drumbeat of the songs, so you would not forget,
your hands were beating out the rhythms
on live animal skin stretched over a frame of bone.
You were dancing and drumming.  You would not stop.  It was you.  It was joy.

It took me over ten years to remember how surprised I was by this experience of joy.  It took the hard evidence of my bruised body to show it to me, then and now.  And what it showed me was  not only the surprise of joy, but my fear of it and resistance to it. 

Here is what I realized:  I fear joy itself.  Being truly alive.  If I touch that living reality, what will happen?  What waves of change will sweep my life, my world out from under me?  For nothing can remain the same afterwards. Something will be bruised.  And what will be required of me?  For something will be required.   Not as payment but as gift.

This memory of the joy I experienced drumming and the teaching of the remarkable student I once knew have urged me forward.  My prayer is this:  Wellspring of Joy, turn my fear into trust and open my heart to the fundament of joy.  Let me peel away the habits of fear, anger, and grief and learn the habit of recognizing and welcoming the joy at the heart of existence, the life-giving joy that is constantly present around, among, and within us, in our reach.  

May our trust and joy increase.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Simple Practice: Eat Your (Spiritual) Vegetables and...

Ghazali often quoted this Persian proverb:
"Eat the vegetable wherever it comes from, and do not ask where the garden is."

He quoted this, for example, when counseling people how to fight demons (The Marvels of the Heart). Why get caught up in origins, ontology, and metaphysics, asking what world demons come from, what level of being they occupy? The main thing is to conquer their temptations in your heart, with your heart so you can walk uprightly in this world, with love, justice, and humility.

But this proverb also expresses Ghazali's view of truth. He pulled his writings and teachings (which influenced many Jewish and Christian theologians) from many different sources, the Qur'an, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, colloquial sayings, Greek philosophy, and much more.

This practice and understanding of wisdom is a welcome one in our current situation, in which fundamentalists (among all religions) and militant secularists (from among all religions) have crowded the stage, pushing all people of faith seeking understanding off the stage, calling us "rebels" or "infidels" for holding a view of God with which they do not agree, or "idiots" for trusting in God at all.  Both these dogmas, as different as they seem to be, share a belief:  that the origin of an idea contaminates or purifies it.  For religious fundamentalists, any idea or image of God that does not come from the one true source that  their group identifies (the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian scriptures, the Qur'an, or others), as interpreted by them is not only suspect but false.  For the materialist or secular fundamentalists, those who reject any possibility of the reality of God, any idea or image  of God, especially if it comes from an organized religion, is false because it is nonsense, meaningless. For them, any statement that is not objectively verifiable, that does not originate in scientific thinking, must be false.

For both these varieties of fundamentalism, faith and reason are mutually exclusive. For the religious dogmatists, whatever does not come from (their) faith comes from human reason and is therefore deception (because human reason is clouded by sin and it is only pure revelation that can be trusted).  For the secular dogmatists, whatever does not come from (their notion of modern scientific) reason comes from faith and is therefore self-deception (because human beings are weak and childish and want an illusion of something greater than they are to depend on).

I am reminded here of the logical fallacy called "poisoning the wells." One identifies the one pure source of truth as the well one drinks from, and claims that all other wells, and everything springing forth from them,  every word, thought, idea, practice, is, by necessity, contaminated. Thus, they drink only from their wells.  They eat vegetables only from their gardens.

Ghazali's proverb can show us another way. "Eat the vegetable wherever it comes from, and do not ask where the garden is."

Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive.  Throughout history, in all religious traditions, western and eastern, there have been thinkers and communities who have not been afraid to recognize truth no matter what its source.  Not just mystics and radicals, but people at the heart of religious traditions have recognized and absorbed truths that came to them from outside their tradition or culture.  Philo, Jews returning from captivity in Babylonia, Augustine, Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Maimonides, John Calvin--the list could go on and on.  It was the medieval Christian theologian Anselm who gave us the common motto for this approach, faith seeking understanding.  But the approach knows no historical, cultural, or religious bounds.  Trusting in the Oneness and infinite wisdom of God, they strove to recognize truth whenever and wherever it appeared, even if that truth came from Greek philosophy, Persian religion, or the best science of the day.  For them, to reject a truth simply because one is unfamiliar with its source is to be ungrateful to the One; it is to reject the Oneness, infinite wisdom, and overflowing abundance of the One and the gifts that flow from God.  When one recognizes a truth, one sees that its ultimate origin is in God, not another person or community.  That is why one accepts it if one does.

So let's be discriminating, yes.  Don't eat cardboard or rancid meat.  Know what you're eating.  Seek out nourishing vegetables. And when you find them, don't subject them, or their growers or deliverers, to a long inquisition about the garden they came from, the mineral content of the soil, the rain levels, the integrity of the gardeners, and so forth.  Did this truth grow in the garden of faith?  No matter.  No reason to condemn it.  Did it grow in the garden of reason?  No matter.  No reason to reject it out of hand.  Let's move beyond the false dichotomy of faith or reason and start talking about what truths nourish us and that we share with others.

We could die of spiritual starvation in this desert of fundamentalism before all the garden questions are raised and answered.   The practice is simple and profound:  Eat your vegetables; and leave the garden, Pardes, paradise, which is more glorious and abundant and various than we could ever imagine, to The True.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Emptying, Emptying, and Again Emptying Our Vessels

Mystics often use the metaphor of “polishing the mirror of the heart” to point to the ongoing process of coming into deeper communion with the One. Ghazali speaks of the heart as being made of iron. It inevitably rusts unless we keep polishing away the grime and other impurities in the surrounding atmosphere that build up on it. This work is never ending. Once one has polished that iron into a brilliantly mirror that can reflect the beauty, love, and glory of the One, one still must work daily to keep that surface free from blotches, smears, and scratches, or the cloudy mists that settle on it and darken it. This is the work of the heart.  Part of this work is forgiving oneself for the spots and layers one must polish away and thanking God for the grace to see and remove them, and  giving thanks for the times when the mirror remains clear. Here is how he expresses this in On Knowing Yourself and God, or, as he called it in Persian, The Alchemy of Happiness, the summary of spiritual teachings he wrote near the end of his life.

     The heart is like a bright mirror; repugnant traits are like smoke and darkness which, when they touch it, darken it so that tomorrow one will not see the Divine Presence and it will become veiled (to one’s view).  Good traits are the light which reaches the heart and wipes away the darkness of sin.  It is for this that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)  said:  “Follow a bad deed with a good (deed) so that (the bad) may be erased.” At the resurrection, it will be the heart which comes into a desert, either bright or dark.  None will be saved except him who comes to God with a sound heart. (Qur’an 26:89)

     A person’s heart, at the beginning of creation, is like (raw) iron from which –if a person keeps it as he should—is made a shining mirror that displays the entire universe.  If not, it will all rust and become so that nothing will be reflected in it.  As God Most High said: Nay, but that which they have earned is rust upon their souls. (Qur’an 83:14) [Al-Ghazali On Knowing Yourself and God, tr. Muhammad Nur Abdus Salam, pp. 18-19]

Recently I had an experience that showed me a different image for this daily work, an image which led me to a deeper understanding of this process of cleansing or emptying the heart and the goal of this daily work. Here is the image that came to me.
This world was God’s storeroom.  Lined up on the shelves were billions of clay vessels of all sizes and shapes, each one unique.  When God needed a particular vessel, God would reach directly for it.  Only if the vessel was completely empty could it be used. If it was not completely empty, it remained on the shelf, for it could not contain what God needed it to contain; it could not be used. 
Different religious traditions emphasize different kinds of imagery for experiencing God and pruifying our hearts to serve the One in truth.  Roman Catholics often prefer visual metaphors—to see God or have a vision or the truth; “For with Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light do we see light,” as the Psalmist (36:9) sings, and Augustine and others love to chant with him or her. Protestants, picking up on the prophetic tradition of Israel, often prefer audial metaphors—to hear the call or listen for the Word of God, whether it comes in thunder or a still small voice.  Mystical traditions vary, too, with some, like Ghazali, using visual images and others audial images. Still others use sensual images—the fragrance of the spirit, the warmth of God’s love.  Individuals, too, though formed by traditions, have their preferences.

The visual and tactile image of the clay vessels that came to me helped me understand not only the process of emptying, but the goal of this emptying as well. What fills us up and makes us not useful?  Things and desires, distractions and addictions, yes.  But also anger, fear, grief, and disappointment.  And hope and expectations and longings—even the longing to serve, to be used.  These all crowd around us in out vessel, forming a barrier so we cannot feel the true shape of the clay vessel that God has shaped for us at creation.  To be present to the One, one must be wholly empty.

And how do we empty ourselves?  For many of us, it is God working through out lives who empties us, who batters our hearts until we exhale all we have been clinging to, leaving room for the presence of the One.  Some of us do what we can to aid and abet this emptying process:  We chant the name of God, Yud-He-Vav-He, the Jesus Prayer (Lord, have mercy), or Al-lah,  exhaling all that fill us up, all that is definite, the Yud, the Vav, the have mercy, the Al, and inhaling the Nothingness that is the One, the He, the Lord, the Lah.  

This was not all the image that came to me made me see.  When I saw the storeroom of clay vessels, I realized that not all the vessels that were empty were used.  They had to be ready to be used by God for whatever purpose whenever they and only they were needed, but being ready, empty, was no guarantee that they would be used, ever. Some vessels might wait 80 years to be used, some only a day.  Some might empty themselves  every day for 50 or more years, only to be full on the one day that the hand of God reached for them.  Some might empty themselves every day of their lives and never be used.  The goal was not to be used, to be of service.  That was a goal of the ego, a hope and expectation and longing that filled the vessel and made it unusable.  The goal was simply to be empty, to be usable, to be serviceable, to be ready, if and when God needed one, and to accept that this was up to God, not oneself.  If one sat empty on the shelf one’s entire life, then one sat empty on the shelf.  One does not guide her own destiny, chart his own path.  One surrenders, empty, emptied, emptying, to the One. This is our daily work and our daily spiritual nourishment.

Give us this day our daily bread—empty us. Give us this day our daily work—emptying.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Is Patience Always a Virtue? Protesting in Egypt and Beyond

Last week my car was in the shop, and the mechanics kept it longer than expected so they could figure out the mystery of its erratic behavior.  The last time they worked on it, I told them, “I love this car.  It has to go 20 years (it’s 17 now) or 200,000 miles (it’s now at 125,000).” When I picked it up this time, I told the woman at the desk that I didn’t mind being patient while they worked on my car, and I joked about how loyal I was—to people and things.

“Maybe you’re too patient with us,” she said, laughing. She paused, and then added, looking straight at me, “You’re good wife material.”

I laughed with her and then drove home—without stalling once.

But her words stayed with me.  “The wise person learns from everyone,” say the Hasids and many other spiritual teachers. 

After youthful years of speed and frustration, I have learned to wait patiently, for appointments, traffic, people, God.  It’s a peaceful feeling, this surrender, trusting that everything is working together for good, every detour and delay, postponement and cancellation, all nothing put passing outcomes that will be folded into a larger whole in which their meaning or lack of meaning will become clear.  I am thankful to experience it at last.

And now my teacher at the auto repair shop asks me to see something new.  Patience is a way; it is not THE way.  Walking through life requires not only steadiness but rhythm.  We walk in a world of seeming opposites—mercy and justice, security and risk, patience and seizing the moment. Our task is not to balance them, but to hear the rhythm so that we will know when we are required to lean to the side of mercy and when to lean toward justice, when to bear all things patiently and when to cry out for change, when to breathe slowly and when to run toward love and forgiveness. 

The people of Egypt have waited patiently for change for 30 years. They have trusted God and the destiny God has written for them as individuals and a people.  And now they are responding to a new call and a new cry—a call for an end to patience and a crying out for a new beginning for greater justice for all.  Should they be “good wives” and bear with a situation they know is harmful to their people?  Wait meekly for their autocratic “husband” to change?  No.  They are responding to the rhythm of abundant life in their country. Their protests have arisen out of their careful discerning that the moment for waiting has passed and the time of acting in creative fidelity has arrived.  Who are we,  who do not live and breathe their world, to tell them to go on waiting?
Life has taught me patience and acceptance. I have also learned how to speak up for justice, for myself and others  What I am still learning is how to dance to the ever-changing rhythm of life so that I make the right move at the right time.  I love dancing.  I want to be come a better dancer.

In all our lives, as individuals and as peoples, there is a time to be patient and a time to act,a time to hold back and a time to race ahead. Knowing how to hear the rhythm of life and move gracefully with it, listening deeply to discern when it is more life-giving to wait and when it is more life-giving to act decisively—that is a daily spiritual practice, one we can do only for ourselves, not for others, whether they are in our own homes or across the world.
May there be justice, blessing, abundant life, and joy for all the peoples in Egypt, soon.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Is Astrology a Victimless Crime? Do We Need “A Warning Against Astrology”?

It’s not just astronomers and skeptics who love to bash astrology.  Theologians, ethicists, and philosophers do, too.  Yet for many people, even those who agree with the criticisms of astrology as unscientific, illogical, a convenient escape from personal responsibility, a silly waste of time, or a scheme to make money selling people something absolutely useless, astrology still holds an irresistible appeal.  Consulting their horoscope for fun every day is one of their guilty pleasures. 

I want to reflect on three questions:
  • Why do people read their horoscope?
  • What are the theological or spiritual objections to astrology?
  • Is astrology harmless?
What are we looking for when we read a horoscope?
Here’s my confession (and it’s not an easy one to make):  I don’t know why most people read horoscopes—for fun?  for diversion?; I do know why I have read them.  There have been times in my life when I frantically consulted three, four, five or more daily or weekly,  monthly or yearly horoscopes.  I felt guilty doing it, and stupid.  I agreed with all the criticisms of it.  Yet I did it.   Why?  I was consumed by fear and anxiety.  I wanted control over my life. I wanted to know something about what would happen, even to think I knew something, to calm me.  I wanted to find a reason to hope, or simply to find reassurance.  In certain moments of crises, after a string of difficult years, when I feared in a post-traumatic-stress-syndrome way that my day or week would surely shock me with one more sorrow or catastrophe I could not have imagined, I would read and read—sometimes for an hour or more—until I found a horoscope that “promised” an end to pain or the beginning of something new,  or help of any sort. Sometimes I read until I found a warning about something bad happening--a legal run-in or personal conflict or financial challenge. That would calm me down. If something painful or difficult was going to happen, I wanted to know.  Knowing about a trauma before hand seemed far better to me than living in uncertaintiy, waiting for the next blow and not knowing when it would come, from what direction, or from whom, or why. If I knew it was coming, I could handle it, I thought. It was those unpredictable assaults, out of nowhere, that I couldn't live with. Reading “predictions” was my anti-anxiety drug of choice.  I needed it.  I couldn’t get through the day without it.

This is an embarrassing admission on so many levels, but especially on the spiritual level.  Yes, it meant that I was experiencing a lot of grief and  trauma and was not acting like my normal self.  But I don’t want to use this as a dodge.  What it really meant was that I was not trusting in the One.  I could not live in uncertainty, with seemingly nothing to hang on to. Why didn’t I just  pray and read the Psalms, as I otherwise did, for reassurance and comfort and a sense of community?  I am not really sure.  I think I was desperate for something that seemed more immediate, more concrete, more practical, a secret message meant for me.  This lack of radical trust made me flail my way across the Web looking for comfort and hope. 

What are the theological responses to astrology?

In the eleventh century the Sufi mystic and theologian Ghazali objected to astrology because it denied the absolute dependence humankind must have on God at every moment in life.  God directly causes every occasion, he argues, which is divine providence, and we are to trust absolutely in God, link ourselves directly to the ultimate source and ground of every act or event or situation, and not look to proximate or intermediate causes like stars and planets.  In the twelfth century, the Jewish mystic and theologians Moses Maimonides argued similarly, saying that believing in astrology denies the providence of God and also freedom of the will.

In the sixteenth century the Christian mystic and theologian John Calvin wrote a treatise called “A Warning Against Astrology.” He raises many objections to consulting horoscopes, including Ghazali’s and Maiominides's main points—that it displaces our trust in the only trustworthy One and therefore detracts from the glory of God who providentially cares for every detail of creation; and it denies our moral responsibilty.

But the criticism Calvin offers that always surprises me for its practical, modern sensibility, is this:  Astrology is anti-community.  God, he argues, placed the sun, moon, and stars in creation so that human beings can tell time and seasons and make plans with one another about when to worship together, when to come to courts of law together to settle disputes, when to meet for other social occasions.  They are community-building tools.  What if one were to consult his or her horoscope on the way to court and find it is not an auspicious day, and turn back?  What if one’s personal chart argues against one observing the Sabbath or a festival day?  To use God’s creations in this way to deny God and the image of God in our fellow human beings.   It isolates us from others.  Trusting in the One, however, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, links us to all other creatures, all the rest of creation—for that is part of our purpose here—to escape the prison of the self and experience communion with others.  

Is astrology harmless?
Many people make light of astrology, saying, “Oh, I don’t really believe it!  It’s just fun. It’s harmless.”  Our common greeting to one another, Good luck! Mazel tov! suggests how much we have absorbed the idea of astrological influences, even if we reject outright causation.  Mazal means a planet and its influence, so we're wishing for good astrological influences for others.

Maybe it's harmless to wish someone Mazal tov (instead of saying, "Ezrat Hashem, God's Help" or Retzon HaShem or Insha'Allah, God Willing).  But I’m not sure astrology is harmless.  Just as prostitution is often called a victimless crime, yet often leads to great harm, so astrology can cause harm.  It erodes one’s trust in the One. It corrodes one’s sense of relatedness to others and our responsibility, for one’s own actions and for the care of others.  It can keep us trapped in fear and anxiety, dependent on remedies that can never assuage our fears but only postpone or mask them.  It can prevent us from growing toward deeper trust and faith that bring the peace that passes understanding.  
Astrology isn’t “of the devil,” and consulting one’s horoscope isn’t evil--any more than anything else that tempts us away from depending on the One and befriending all that the One creates and embraces.  But it’s not harmless.