Thursday, October 11, 2012

Secularization, Good. Religion, Good

Let me be clear from the start: my goal in creating space between secularism and fundamentalism to talk about God is not to argue against secularization and for religion or vice versa. What I am opposed to is secularism,, the closed view that the finite world we perceive with our senses and grasp with our intellects is all there is, and , fundamentalism, the closed view that one’s God is the only true God and that one’s sacred text, which has one and only one meaning, is the only true text. My assumption is that both secularization and religion are valuable, in fact necessary for existence in the twenty-first century. Let me give you a sense of what I mean by these terms.

One of the best outlines of secularization is given by John E. Smith in the epilogue to his book Experience and God. Here is his answer to what secularization means.
The answer can be given in its most concise form by means of five outstanding traits that not only mark life in the most highly developed nations of the West, but which now fire the imagination and spark the wills of countless millions in those lands we have come to describe as underdeveloped. These traits are autonomy, expressed individually as freedom and ethnically as national independence or the right of self-determination; technology or industrialization which means science transformed into human power over the environment and even man himself; voluntarism, with its closely associated individualism acting as the drive to control recalcitrant forces both in the inner depths of man and the temporal stretches of human history; temporalism, or a sense of urgency expressing itself with sharp focus on present existence and the immediate, and a corresponding lack of concern for the abiding, the time-spanning, and the long-range goal.
The fifth trait, which is closely connected with the preceding, is one for which it is difficult to find an adequate term; the basic feature is a concern for art, for the senses, for free self-expression, coupled with a feeling of relief wherever it is possible to break out of conventional patterns. This trait may be called “aestheticism” if the term is not understood in a basically derogatory sense, and If it is taken to include the two elements that must always be comprehended in art, namely, an appeal to significant sensible form and an expression of “free play” indicating that the system in which we live has relaxed its demands upon us. (pp. 181-82)
These five traits structure and determine individual spirits as well as the spirits of nations and peoples, he says. They can be misused and indeed are often found in degenerate forms, as in the exploitation of the earth without regard for the autonomy of the earth, and the capitalist greed that drives technology without regard to its consequences to the earth and its inhabitants. But these traits of our secularized society are not, in themselves, the enemy of religion or any concept of God. They have, indeed, brought great good to the world, including for religion. We have a public space to talk about our various religions with respect now, for example. And, as Smith points out, it is the Western religious tradition that spawned secularization.

The question is, given that this is the secularized society we live in, what is the response of religion to that world? We may judge secularization’s abuses and deformations, but we cannot reject it out of hand and go back to a pre-secularized existence. Also, we have to ask what secularization has to teach religion about religion’s abuses and deformation? What does it have to tell us about religious traditions that use authoritarian tactics, running roughshod over the autonomy and free expression of its adherents? What does it have to tell us about religious traditions that force outmoded concepts and images of God on people who no longer even understand well what they mean? Or insist on a notion of God and humankind as the image of God that leads to the exploitation of the earth?

Today, if we are going to avoid social and natural disaster, religion has to be in conversation with the world we live in; it can’t stick its head in the sand and pretend we’re still living in the first or seventh or sixteenth or eighteenth or whatever century has been identified as the “pure” age for that religion’s expression. This is the world we live in, a secularized existence. How do we respond to that?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Making Space for Questions Between a Rock (Fundamentalism) and a Hard Place (Secularism)

Everyone’s so sure these days about God and religion and spirituality. The religious fundamentalists know God, they know the name of God, they know the ways of God, they know the judgments of God, they know who the chosen people of God are and aren’t—self-appointed messengers, they are the voice of God. The atheist fundamentalists know God isn’t, they know the names of all that exists and does not exist, they know the ways of the universe, they know how to judge all—infallibly—in the light of reason, they know anyone who is religious is not a member of the chosen, the enlightened ones—self-appointed iconoclasts, they are the voice of Reason.

But if everybody’s talking (shouting really), who is listening? Listening to other people, to other theories of human existence, to reality itself? To listen requires humility. And that is what is lacking, the humility that recognizes one does not know, that instead of filling up the void with words, a hedge against anxiety, one must sit still and listen. Religious and atheistic fundamentalists, as well as many artists who specialize in ironic distancing, share the same disease: a feeling of absolute certainty about things that cannot be known, a feeling that makes them feel superior to all who do not see or hear or feel reality in the same way they do, whose limited view does not match their limited view exactly.

I have lost all patience with all this absolutism and misdirected chatter incessantly coming from all sides. People are hungry for meaning. They thirst for new ways to imagine and interpret their lives, ways that nourish them and sustain them as they search for ways to live good and meaningful lives. With all this noise and heat coming from the fundamentalists, where is the silence and the light that will show us the way to a new understanding of the complex and mysterious existence we have been born into, a reality that is—whatever you call it—multi-dimensional, at the very least both material and something more than material, something that goes beyond the merely physical?

Let’s stop all the shouting and mutual condemnation. Let’s stop wringing our hands in despair at the state of religious discourse today. Let’s stop taking the easy way out in irony, winks and witticisms that reveal how bored, how above it all, how past it all we are. Instead, let’s get busy and start making space for uncertainty and questions, a space where we befriend silence and practice listening.

Maybe if we can clear a space like that, a place of openness and opening, there will be room for food to grow and springs to burst forth that will nourish the hunger and slake the thirst of those of us who know we do not know and find our way in seeking.
So that’s what I want to do—declare a pox on both their houses, the religious and the anti-religious fundamentalists, and start clearing a space where we can breathe freely, open or eyes, our hearts, our minds in asking questions, genuine questions, about who we are why we’re here, what matter is, what “beyond matter” is, what people mean when they say “God,” what it can mean to say “God” or “spirit” in 2012.

I will try. And I will begin by clearing away some obstacles. I want to dispel certain notions of God that have been dead for centuries but act as if they are still viable. Call them zombie notions of God. Before we can even start listening, we have to rid the world of religious discourse of these zombie ideas and images that suck the life out of every conversation, stop them dead in their tracks.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement --Tishrei 10

“Be still and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted on the earth.” Psalm 46:10

A meaningful fast to all.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Days of Awe: Each Our Own Life, Our Own Death

On Yom Kippur we pray the prayer U’Netaneh Tokef, attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, as related to Rabbi Klonimus ben Meshullam. Here is the most famous excerpt from that prayer:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. (Machzor)
Meditating on this prayer alone may help us review our lives, our actions, our hearts, our frailties, our vulnerabilities in the perspective of coming into the Presence, the One Without beginning and Without End.
And here is a companion prayer from Rilke, more interior perhaps, but also arresting, and in a modern voice that may also move us toward the perspective we need.
God, give us each our own death,
The dying that proceeds
from each of our lives:

The way we loved,
the meanings we made,
our need.
(Rilke's Book of Hours, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, p. 131)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Days of Awe—“Stir Filth This Way or That, It Is Still Filth”

Confession is not morbid. It is not wallowing. It is a transformative action that leads to creative action for good in the world. Long before we began hearing in the contemporary marketplace that we must "set positive intentions" and not focus on what is lacking or what we don't want, because words are powerful and help create the future we speak, the Hasidic masters were already offering us this wise guidance, like this from Rabbi Isaac Meir of Ger:
Whoever talks about and reflects upon an evil thing he or she has done is thinking the vileness he has perpetrated. And what one thinks, therein is one caught. With one's whole soul one is caught utterly in what one thinks and so he is sti8ll caught in vileness. And she will surely not be able to turn, for her spirit will coarsen and her heart rot, and besides this, a sad mood may come upon her. What would you? Stir filth this way or that, it is still filth. To have sinned or not to have sinned—what does it profit us in heaven? In the time I am brooding on this, I could be stringing pearls for the joy of heaven. That is why it is written: "Depart from evil and do good"—turning wholly from evil, do not brood in its wake, and do good. You have done wrong? Then balance it by doing right.
During these Days of Awe as we prepare for Yom Kippur, may we face our evil deeds, individually and collectively, with clear eyes, so that we may turn our thoughts to doing good.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Be Present—Elul 29

What if you can’t imagine yourself standing before anyone or anything, coming into any presence at all? What then? Do you go to shul on Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur and kibbitz with your neighbors or criticize the rabbi or chazan or feel inadequate because you’re not really davening or perhaps even paying much attention to all those words? Or do you just not go, because it has lost meaning for you, or because you consider yourself above it all?

Why let your intellect interfere so? Just show up and be fully present. And see what happens. One of my favorite sayings of the modern Hasid Martin Buber is this: “For those who are not present, there is no Presence.”

Friday, September 14, 2012

Coming into the Presence of the Friend—Elul 27

And again, coming into the Presence, the Friend. How do you stand before your dearest friend? You may do all kinds of favors for them, and praise them endlessly, but if you don’t know what pleases them, what good is all that when you are in their presence? If they are truly your friend, you know them and what pleases them. A friend is your friend not because you have done this or that for them, given this or that to them, because you are beautiful or rich or well connected. Friendship is mysterious. It can’t be earned. One loves a friend because one loves them, because they have found favor in your eyes. As God says to Israel, “I chose you to be my treasure. You weren’t the most powerful nation. Far from it. You weren’t the most numerous people. Far from it. I chose you to be my treasure because you found favor in my eyes. Because I fell in love with you.”

I was once asked by someone, “Why are you friends with that person? You two don’t seem much alike at all?” I was taken aback by the question, because for me friendship is always inexplicable. There was no way to explain why I loved this friend. I just did—in all her frailties and strengths. Friendship, like beauty, is truly in the eyes of the beholder. What I saw in my friend this other person could not see.

And that is how we stand before the Friend during the Days of Awe, coming into the Presence of our Friend, knowing that though others (or even we ourselves) may judge us ugly or wanting, in our Friend’s eyes we are beautiful and whole, cherished for no other reason that than we are.

Let’s go and meet the Friend.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Coming into the Presence of the Friend—Elul 26

During the Days of Awe we pray often that we may be remembered in light of the “merits of our ancestors.” I often wonder about this. Are we invoking some kind of substitutionary atonement here? Look at the faith and deeds of our mothers and fathers, not ours! No. We’re asking that the covenant with them be remembered, a covenant of mercy, and that we be enfolded in that same bond of trust and faithfulness unto a thousand generations.

Which makes me wonder about that bond made with Avraham and Sarah. What is it about that bond with the One that we want to recall in these days of awe?

Some say that the name Avraham comes from haver, for Avraham was a friend of God, and God visited with Avraham as Friend. That is how I want to imagine coming into the Presence during Elul, the Days of Awe, and every day—coming into the Presence of the Friend.

Imagine being in the presence of you deepest, oldest, most trustworthy friend. They know you. They see you. You cannot lie to them, or to yourself in their presence, for they see through to the heart of all you do and have been and will be. When you stand in their Presence, if you have erred, you don’t have to wait for them to judge you, you judge yourself for having failed, for you see yourself through their eyes, as a person capable of so much good. You don’t make excuses, for in that between of honesty you know how foolish such words would sound. You feel their disappointment in your actions as if it were your own, and you vow not to slip again; you vow to be the person you and they know you to be.

That’s one way to imagine coming into the Presence during the Days of Awe as we pass in review before our Friend—fully exposed to eyes of truth and love.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Coming into the Presence: “To Be Simply in Your Presence”—Elul 25

And a last prayer from Rilke for the days of Selichot, to prepare our hearts to come into the Presence.
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing—
just as it is.

I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones—
or alone.

I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.

I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
(Rilke's Book of Hours, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, p. 59)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Coming into the Presence: “It’s Not Too Late”—Elul 24

Here is another of Rilke’s outpourings that may give us the words our hearts need to unfold into the Presence:
You see, I want a lot.
Maybe I want it all:
the darkness of each endless fall,
the shimmering light of each ascent.

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.
Casual, easy, they move in the world
as though untouched.

But you take pleasure in the faces
of those who know they thirst.
You cherish those
who grip you for survival.

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late
to open your depths by plunging into them
and drink in the life
that reveals itself quietly there.
(Rilke's Book of Hours, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, p. 61)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Coming into the Presence: “I Am Praying Again”—Elul 23

Today and the two following days I want to share some selichot, penitential prayers of Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, in their book Rilke’s Book of Hours). His arresting images and intimate, fearfully honest conversations with the One may help us re-imagine—beyond God as our Father, our King—what it means to come into the Presence with our failings, our weaknesses, our resistances, our confessions, our longing.
Here’s the first one:

I am praying again, Awesome One.

You hear me again, as words
from the depths of me
rush toward you in the wind.

I’ve been scattered in pieces,
torn by conflict,
mocked by laughter,
washed down in drink.

In alleyways I sweep myself up
out of garbage and broken glass.
with my half-mouth I stammer you,
who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands
in wordless beseeching, that I may find again
the eyes with which I once beheld you.

I am a house gutted by fire
where only the guilty sometimes sleep
before the punishment that devours them
hounds them out into the open.

I am a city by the sea
sinking into a toxic tide.
I am strange to myself, as though someone unknown
had poisoned my mother as she carried me.

It’s here in all the pieces of my shame
that now I find myself again.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
in an all-embracing mind that sees me
as a single thing.
I yearn to be held
in the great hands of your heart—
oh let them take me now.
Into them I place these fragments, my life,
and you, God—spend them however you want.
(pp. 97-98)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Encounter on Sinai—Elul 22

We have come to the time of Selichot, the four days just before the Days of Awe, when we intensify our search for blemishes that will render the sacrifice of our everyday lives we offer unfit and we increase our prayers for forgiveness. Selichot, often translated as “penitential prayers,” is from the verb root “to forgive,” and this word, as a plea, Forgive, s’lach, is the opening word of the Selichot set of prayers and the refrain that runs throughout the Days of Awe.
Forgive us, our Father, for in our abundant folly, we have erred.
Pardon us, our King, for our iniquities are many.
This plea is followed by a prayer based on the beautiful witness in Exodus 34: 6-9 to the One who passed by Moses on Mount Sinai, showing him the backside of the glorious presence and Moses’ response to that Presence. In the siddur, in the Selichot and Days of Awe services, these verses take this form:
Adonai, Adonai, God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth, preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and who cleanses. May you forgive our iniquities and our errors and make us your heritage. Forgive us, our Father, for we have erred; pardon us, our King, for we have willfully sinned; for you, my Lord, are good and forgiving and abundantly kind to all who come upon you.
As we reflect on what it means to come into the Presence, to be awakened, judged, forgiven, made new, and reflect on how to respond to that Presence should we be so favored as to experience it, it’s worth it to take a look at the dramatic encounter between the Presence and Moshe that inspired the rabbis to write this prayer. In the Torah’s endlessly wonderful laconic way, it gives us a glimpse of the Presence and our response. In Edward Fox’s translation, the encounter goes this way:
And YHWH passed before his face
And called out:
showing-mercy, showing-favor,
long suffering in anger,
abundant in loyalty and faithfulness,
keeping loyalty to the thousandth (generation)
bearing iniquity, rebellion and sin,
yet not clearing, clearing (the guilty),
calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons and
upon son’s’ sons, to the third and fourth (generation)!
Quickly Moshe did-homage, on the ground, bowing low,
And said:
Pray if I have found favor in your eyes,
O my Lord,
Pray let my Lord go among us!
Indeed, it is a hard-necked people—
so forgive our iniquity and our sin,
and make-us-your-inheritance!
During Elul, Selichot, the Days of Awe and all the days of our lives, we, like Moshe, climb, each in our solitariness, a mountain—a mountain of distractions, a mountain of despair, a mountain of hope, a mountain of terror and trembling, a mountain of guilt, a mountain of shame, a mountain of confusion and darkness, a mountain of struggle and longing; we are climbing toward a clear experience of the Presence, to know who we are and how we should live to be always in that Presence.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Shabbat Shalom!--Elul 21

Shabbat shalom!
Selichot begins at midnight tonight. The first of my four Selichot posts will appear then.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Coming into the Presence of the Beloved—Elul 20

S.Y. Agnon, in his wonderful book Days of Awe, writes:
Everyone must prepare himself thirty days beforehand with Teshuvah and prayer and charity for the day when he will appear in judgment before God, on Rosh ha-Shanah. Then let him give all his heart to the service of God. And those who interpret the Torah metaphorically say, “The initials of the words, A niL e-dodi V e-dodi L i (‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine’—Cant. 6:13), when read consecutively read Elul. If Israel will long to turn in a complete Teshuvah to their Father who is in heaven, then his longing will go out to them, and he will accept them in Teshuvah.” [Mateh Moshe]
And so we move, so fluently, so gracefully, from imagining ourselves in this month of Elul, passing in review before a judge, to standing in the presence of “our Father in heaven,” to reaching out, full hearted, in longing to our Beloved, who in turn reaches out in longing for us. Coming into the presence in an embrace of love.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Coming into the Presence for our Hearts to be Considered—Elul 19

The world is judged at four seasons: at Passover, in regard to grain; on the Feast of Weeks, in regard to the fruit of the tree; on Rosh ha-Shanah, all the inhabitants of this world file before Him. As it is said, “He that fashioneth the hearts of them all, that considereth all their doings” (Ps. 33:15). On the Feast of Booths, the world is judged in regard to rain. Mishnah Rosh ha-Shanah I.2
We human beings are not alone in being judged, weighed in the balance. All of creation is weighed—the grain, the trees, the rain—to see if it has within it that which will make the creation grow and flourish and bear fruit. And on Rosh ha-Shanah, too, we do not stand alone but with the whole of creation, all hearts, the hearts of rocks and sand and water and beasts and birds and creeping things; with all of them we pass in review before the One who considers the heart fashioned in us, to know if that heart is still fertile and moist, as it was when it was created, or if it has grown sterile and dry, incapable of bearing fruit in the world, giving life to others.

All flesh is as grass: it comes into being and passes away. The question is, What happens in that moment between? That’s the question we should ask ourselves during Elul, on Rosh ha-Shanah, during the Days of Awe, and on Yom Kippur, when we consider whether we will be found worthy or not: What have we done this year with the heart fashioned in us for goodness and abundant life? Has it dried up? Or is it ever greening, ever rising to new life?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Graveyards and Epitaphs —Elul 18

Last weekend, for the tenth anniversary of our father’s death, my sister, my niece, and I traveled to the cemetery where he is buried. As we walked through the grave markers, almost every one of them a modest plaque flush with the earth—no statues or obelisks or worldly glory of any kind for these mostly Dutch Calvinist immigrants and their descendants—one epitaph appeared over and over. One word, directly under the name and dates of birth and death spanning their life: “Redeemed.”

Redeemed. It may strike one at first as arrogant. How do they know they are redeemed? Why are they so focused on their reward, the eternal life of their individual soul, for their believing? But this epitaph isn’t necessarily a sign of spiritual pride. For many it is simply a sign of their trust and hope, based on the verse from Acts 16:31: “And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” They believed, and they rested in the blessed assurance that they had been saved. This gave them comfort in life and their families comfort in their death, knowing that their sins had been washed away and that they were in heaven with the Lord who had atoned for them, not suffering eternal punishment for their sins.

As we walked among the redeemed, my sister noticed one marker that carried a different epitaph: “In His Presence.”

These three words, “In His Presence,” set me wondering, about the person who had chosen those words as the sign of his or her life to others, and how that sign might be different from “redeemed.” Was this person’s longing in life to be always nearer to God, more and more in God’s presence, trusting that when their body died and their life on earth ended they would experience that Presence fully, with no barriers? As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Perhaps this, too can be seen as arrogant, to claim that one is in God’s presence, has reached that station in death that was never possible in life, or been taken there as a reward for one’s trust while alive. For can we ever make such claims as fact? No. These epitaphs read as claims of fact, but they are signs of trust, and true in this sense.

You may say there is no difference in these two epitaphs. To claim, in trust, one is redeemed is to say one is enjoying God’s presence forever (as the Heidelberg Catechism says it so beautifully), and vice versa. But words matter. And this woman or man chose “In His Presence,” not “Redeemed,” to signify the direction in which his or her life was always moving. These three words focus less on the redemption of the individual soul from sin, and more on the joy of dwelling in the Presence of the Holy One, in this life, and beyond it.

I left the graveyard where my father is buried wondering. About that person who chose those three words, “In His Presence.” About what their experience of communion with God had been, and is. How they imagined coming into that Presence. Standing before the Judge? Wrapped in the loving embrace of “our Father in heaven”? Caught up in the joy of experiencing the end for which the world was created: enjoying God forever?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Gurus, Rebbes, and Lamas, Oh My! —Elul 17

What about the metaphor of standing in the presence of a great spiritual leader? Can that help us understand coming into the Presence? If you had a chance to meet the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, the Pope, Rabbi Schneerson, or any great guru, how would you prepare? What would that encounter be like?

I remember during the Watergate hearings on TV I by accident saw a late-night interview with Abraham Joshua Heschel. I don’t remember now his words, whether he was talking about marching for civil rights or Judaism or social justice or something else. What I remember is this: being overwhelming affected by this person’s presence, even across the strange, artificial medium of television. All these decades later, I can still recall it. Heschel’s presence was deep, rich, full, encompassing joy, love, forgiveness, wisdom, power, hope, truth, righteousness. And the effect of his presence on me was to make me want to become a human being like that. Not to be him, but to be the deepest, richest, fullest human being I could be. In that moment of standing in Heschel’s presence—even across the TV waves—I realized how much was possible for a life and my desire to strive for that was kindled.

This is one of the reasons villagers in the 18th century flocked to the houses of the great rebbes, The Baal Shem Tov and many others. Why in the last and current centuries they flock to the study of Reb Schneerson and other rebbes. Why they travel across the world to stand in the loving presence of gurus like Mata Amritanandamayi, known as Amma, Mother. Because to stand in the presence of another human being who has been graced with great love, to absorb the atmosphere such a person radiates, such a spirit tuned to the infinite, to the beyond that is ever near, is to be changed. By standing in the presence of such a person it is as if our spirits are tuned to that beyond that is ever near, and called to become something larger than we were or imagined before.

We may fall out of tune once we leave the presence of such a tuning fork, but the desire to be in tune may remain, and we will go on seeking it for ourselves.

This, too, may teach us something about coming in the Presence during the days of Elul, the Days of Awe, and every day.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Celebrity Worship—Elul 16

If we no longer know what it feels like to stand in the presence of a king or queen, what experience can help us understand coming into the Presence during the month of Elul, the Days of Awe, or any day?

I’ve always been baffled by celebrity worship. I don’t even ask authors I respect to sign their books. Maybe it’s the fierce anti-idolatry I was imprinted with by growing up Calvinist and that has only been reinforced by being a Jew. Like Mordecai, I won’t bow to any human being.

Many years ago, however, I read an op ed piece somewhere that argued that with the death of God and attrition of religion, celebrities have become our gods. That makes sense to me. We need something to believe in, to look up to, to focus our lives on. And our celebrities are indeed like the Greek gods—fickle, misbehaving, at the mercy of their passions, jealous, cruel, violent, vengeful, silly, lawless, all too human—at the same time that they live high above us on a Mount Olympus of wealth and privilege that most of us will never experience. They’re very human ness perhaps is what makes them dear to us. They are like us, yet not like us. Because they are like us, we are able to form a bond with them. Because they are unlike us, we are able to live out our ideal life through them. In identifying with them, their beauty, their wealth, their “highness,” somehow our lives are elevated from the mundane work and experiences we must slog through every day to survive. They perform that function for us: to incarnate an ideal to which we direct our lives. Perhaps not every one of these ideals is one we would choose to direct our life toward, but they are ideals nonetheless, and not to be held in contempt.

Does this metaphor work for coming into the Presence? Think about meeting a celebrity that would inspire a little trembling in you. It could be Barak Obama. It could be Elvis. It could be Toni Morrison. It could be Janis Joplin, Golda Meir, Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu. Whoever it is, you’d want to be your best self in that moment, wouldn’t you? You might be a little flustered, a little jazzed, but you would pay attention, be present, try to drink in as much of that person’s presence, their atmosphere, as you could in that moment, so that their shining, in whatever way it is that they shine, rubs off on you and changes you permanently, makes you be a better person from that moment on, because you had met them, come into their presence. And from that moment on your life would change; it would now be a life after you had met x, and that is what would make all the difference.
So, as silly as it may seem at first, maybe there is something to this way of understanding coming into the Presence after all.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Coming into the Presence— Fear and Trembling, or Fear or Trembling?—Elul 15

Here’s a quote from that great mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi—not the Rumi of sweetness and light and lover and bellowed and love that so many people want to excerpt today, but the man who also knew the One as slayer and violent batterer of hearts. Like Jonathon Edwards, Rumi was well-versed in the complexities of religious experience and he, too, guided seekers, though through poetry and not theological treatises. This couplet of his speaks to the false claims to absoluteness from which condemnation springs, which we saw with Jonathon Edwards. It speaks to our ongoing Elul reflections on “know before whom you stand” and “coming into the presence.” What does it mean to come into the presence with fear and trembling?

And, in true “doctor of the heart” fashion, this couplet guides those finding their way. Seekers often like to measure their progress, against themselves or against others (comparing again!). Rumi cuts through that urge while directing seekers to one of the paradoxes at the core of the life lived into the presence. In speaking of different stations along the way of the spiritual path, Rumi brings this arresting report of following the way from his experience:
It’s from his Mathnawi, # 228, as translated by A.J. Arberry (Mystical Poems of Rumi 2, p. 24):
Know as a station of fear that in which you are secure;
know as a station of security that in which you tremble.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Don’t Condemn, Forgive —Elul 13

The Days of Awe focus on teshuvah, turning, repentance and forgiveness, for our sins and for the sins of others against us.

One of the stories of Jesus that I always loved as a child was the story of the woman taken into adultery. I didn’t know what adultery was. I just knew that it was something so bad people could kill you for doing it, and that Jesus responded to it in a wholly different way.
Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.
2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. John 8: 1-11
Let’s put John’s polemics against the Jews (the “Pharisees,” whom he sees a law-bound and devoid of all forgiveness, which is not at all an historically accurate view of the movement of the Pharisees) aside for a moment and return to it later.

What does this story mean? And the related teaching of Jesus, “Judge not lest ye be not judged”? (Matthew 7:1)

We are so ready to pass judgment because we are so sure we are right, because we see so clearly from within the confines of our limited perspective. It all looks so clear to us because we are looking at one small corner or section of the painting, not at the whole composition in all its glorious beauty. We confuse the part we see with the whole, not understanding that what may look one way in a small section is actually something totally different when seen as part of the whole. Our judgment may be and probably is a spiritual optical illusion. So better not to judge. And instead open our hearts to see wider and wider, that we might understand more and forgive more.

When others judge our full and rich lives from their limited external perspectives, we cry, “Foul!” We protest, “They don’t understand, they don’t see the big picture, they don’t see where we have come from or where we are in our life’s journey, or we are or where we are going.” Hillel teaches: “That which is hateful to you do not do to others.” Or in Jesus’ version of the teaching in the Hebrew scriptures: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Don’t judge others from your limited perspective. Don’t condemn them from within your limited awareness of the justice and mercy of the One. Instead, open your heart to a larger justice, a larger mercy, a larger humility that acknowledges how limited our perception is.

This does not mean we should not fight to bring about justice in the world for our sisters and brothers wherever they may be. But we can do this without condemning persons. For what do we know of that justice? When we speak of condemnation and judgment, Hazrat Inayat Khan suggests we remember this: “There is only one thing that is truly just ,and that is to say, ‘I must not do this.’” (The Art of Being and Becoming, p. 208) Instead of condemning an action by another, use their action to confirm in your own heart the strength of will not to commit that act yourself. That is more powerful and will bring about greater change than any condemnation ever could.

So what about John and those Pharisees? Why does he find it necessary to condemn them, to judge them wrong to make himself and the fledgling Christian communities right? Because in his day the Jewish and Christian communities were so close, so entangled, that he could not step back far enough to see them both in a wider perspective—two spiritual traditions, one ancient, one just beginning, that came into being to help people follow the path of righteousness and mercy and glorify the One.

So when I read those portions of the Christian scriptures that are part of the anti-Jewish polemic, I try not to explain them away or merely condemn them. I try to say, I must not condemn another religious or spiritual tradition to reinforce my own.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them, Sign 3—Elul 12

This is the final sign Edwards brings forward as a way to discern if we are holy or not. In essence he is echoing the New Testament, “By your fruits ye shall know them.” It reminds me of a famous article that S. Y. Agnon wrote, “Halakah and Aggadah,” in which he insists that both halakah, law, and aggadah, narrative, are essential, for to flower is never the goal; one must bear fruit in one’s life.

Here are some excerpts from the wise Edwards on why it is important to look at one’s actions when one is reflecting on one’s holiness (all emphases in original):
“What makes men partial in religion is, is that they seek themselves, and not God, in their religion, and close with religion, not for its own excellent nature, but only to serve a turn. He that closes with a religion only to serve a turn, will close with no more of it than he imagines serves that turn: but he that closes with religion for its own excellent and lovely nature, closes with all that has that natures: he that embraces religion for its own sake, embraces the whole of religion.”

“True grace is not an inactive thing; there is nothing in heaven or earth of a more active nature; for it is life itself, the most active kind, even spiritual and divine life. It si no barren thing; there is nothing in the universe that in its nature has a greater tendency to fruit. Godliness in the heart has as direct a relation to practice as a fountain has to a stream, or as the luminous nature of the sun has to beams sent forth, or as life has to breathing, or the beating of the pulse, or any other vital act; or as a habit or principle of action has to action : for it is the very nature and notion of grace, that it is a principle of holy action or practice: for it is the very end of it, th a viewi to which the whole work is wrought.“

“Passing affections easily produce words; and words are cheap; and godliness is more easily feigned in words than in actions. Christian practice is a costly, laborious thing. The self-denial that is required of Christians, the narrowness of the way that leads to life, does not consist in words, but in practice. Hypocrites may much more easily be brought to talk like saints than to act like saints.

“Thus it is plain, that Christian practice is the best sign or manifestation of the true godliness of a professing Christian, to the eye of his neighbors.”

After insisting that even this sign is a sign that we show to or see in others, he goes on to say that we must take care in using this sign to discern because there are many varieties of practice and things that are external are limited and cannot be known with certainty; hence they cannot be judged or condemned.
”[N}o external appearances whatsoever , that are visible to the world, are infallible evidenes of grace. The manifestations that have nee mentioned are the best that mankind can have; and they are such as oblige Christians entirely to embrace professors [of Christian religious experiences]as saints, to love and rejoice in them a s the children of God... But nothing that appears to them in their neighbor, can be sufficient to beget an absolute certainty governing the state of his soul. They see not his heart nor can they see all his external behavior for much of it is in secret and hid from the eye of the world: and it I s impossible certainly to determine, how far a man may go in many external appearances and imitations of grace, from other principles.“
So what does Edwards conclude? Since you can’t know about your neighbors actions and what they say about the state of his or her holiness or relationship with God, don’t worry about your neighbor; worry about your self. What is your heart? What is your practice? What are your fruits?

His reason for tending to your own actions and not those of your neighbor is instructive: the goal is for all to let their light shine in their practice “before men, that others seeing their good works, would glorify their Father which is in heaven!” This is the last sentence of Treatise on Religious Affections.
So what can we learn from these three signs in Edwards’s response to the religious awakening in his day?
Instead of condemning others verbally or attacking them violently, physically and otherwise, for not feeling, thinking, or acting as we believe they should, we should look at our own lives and ask these questions with Edwards:
1. Does my life reflect genuine humility?
2. Is my heart a heart hardened by judgment into stone or a heart softened by the love of God into tenderness, a heart of flesh?
3. Do my actions blot out or desecrate the name of God or shine a light in the world that illumines the glory of the One?
If we would just take a moment to ask ourselves these questions before we leap to righteous indignation, judgment, and condemnation of others, the world would be a far, far different place.

Thank you, Jonathon Edwards.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them, Sign 2—Elul 11

Here’s another sign that Jonathon offers in his Treatise on Religious Affections that may help us put aside condemnation.

2. “Gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended with a Christian tenderness of spirit… [Gracious affections] turn a heart of stone more and more into a heart of flesh.” (IX)

In interpreting this sign he counsels that one must banish “servile fear,” the fear of punishment for wrongdoing, and let it be transformed into “reverential fear,” the awe and love of God for God’s own sake, not for sake of fear of punishment for sin or hope of reward for right doing. As Edwards explains, the person who lives for the sake of God is not afraid of evil, in himself or others, for he trusts in God.
When one trusts in God, one lives in and for God, and is not selfishly concerned for one’s own salvation or morbidly concerned with controlling the beliefs, affections, practices, and salvation of others. This reminds me of the ninth-century mystic Rabi’a, who prayed God to chastise her if she lived out of fear of hell or hope or paradise and not out of love for God alone.

We’ll look at a third sign from Edwards tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them—Elul 10

Hatred and condemnation, even of one’s own people, is an equal opportunity disease.

Anti-women violence by Haredi Jews: In the past years, chairs have been thrown at Jewish women praying in the women’s section of the wall in Jerusalem (, screams of rage and insults have been hurled at the women, as I myself experienced in the fall of 2011, and fecal matter has been poured on Torah scrolls carried by women ( (Read about Women of the Wall

Anti-abortion and anti-women violence by Christians: On May 31, 2009 Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed by Scott Roeder as Tiller served as an usher at church in Wichita, Kansas; recently in the Roman Catholic church, the pope and the bishops have been trying to muzzle and chain the women religious because they do not parrot the “church’s” teaching as they go about their works of compassion.

Anti-Sufi-inspired Islam by Moslems: Recently in Mali, Al Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in the Magrebh and other Moslem fundamentalists transplanted from other countries have physically attacked Moslems in Mali who follow a gentler path of Islam, forcing over 90,000 people over the border into refugee camps in Mauritania, to escape violence at the hands of their own people. (

I write this not to condemn the condemners, but to reflect on what makes a person pious—pious Jew, pious Christian, pious Moslem—and to consider what repentance and forgiveness mean in our world today, especially during these Days of Awe.

In what may seem to many to be a great irony, I take as my guide Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist whom people love to condemn for his fire and brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Jonathon Edwards lived during the time of the Great Awakening, the great mystical revival in New England, and he himself was a mystic. In a time of so much religious fervor and division, with so many people claiming to have had religious experiences and to have become “true” Christians, superior to others who had not had their same experience, and condemning those who had not had them, he wrestled with the question of how one can know with certainty whether one’s neighbor’s or ones’ own religious experience was holy. The result is one of the finest treatises ever written, Treatise on Religious Affections (The Works of Jonathon Edwards. Volume 1. Banner of Truth, 1974, pp. 234-364.), in which he argues the following.

There is no guarantee that a person is saved, is holy, is chosen, is spiritual because of what visions or spiritual experiences they have had, or because of what beliefs or doctrines they hold. If this is the case, then what are the signs by which we can distinguish what are true and what may be false religious affections?

Edwards mentions many signs. Here are three that seem to speak to our situation today.

1. “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humility” … [or] “holy humility.” (VI)
“And this may be laid down as an infallible thing, That the person who is apt to think that he, as compared with others, is a very eminent saint, much distinguished in christian experience, in whom this is a first thought, that rises of itself, and naturally offers itself; he is certainly mistaken; he is no eminent saint; but under the great prevailing of a proud and self-righteous spirit. And if this be habitual with the man, and is statedly the prevailing temper of his mind, he is no saint at all; he has not the least degree of any true christian experience; so surely as the word of God is true.”
This is a daring, radical conclusion: To believe oneself above others, and so certain in own’s superiority and the rightness of one’s judgment that one can condemn others and compel them to believe or feel or behave as one does is a sign that one is not as pious as one imagines.

This sign is well worth considering today in our stormy atmosphere or religion between, among, and within religious traditions: to judge another as unworthy is not to act in humility. In almost every religion, ancient and contemporary, true humility is a mark of communion with God or the sacred.

Tomorrow we’ll look at another sign Edwards mentions.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Fourth C: Don’t Condemn —Elul 9

Don’t complain. Don’t criticize. Don’t compare. We’ve reflected on these three. What about that last one, Don’t condemn?

Condemnation, too, comes all too easily to us, especially if you grow up in a household of condemnation and blame. Someone is unhappy? There must be something wrong and there must be someone to blame for that wrong causing the unhappiness, that sense of not-rightness. Once blame is assigned, a sense of “rightness,” “all’s well with our world” is restored.

The process here is similar to that when people criticize others. They feel insecure in their lives, their possessions, their choices, their being, so they put others down to give themselves a sense of security that comes from a feeling of superiority: My life, my possession, my choice, my being is better than theirs. When people condemn or judge or blame others, they often do so out of insecurity and a fear of their own unworthiness or fear of being condemned as wrong themselves. By condemning others they shift their insecurity and fear into the false certainty of superiority in their goodness: That one is not holding fast to the right order of things, not playing by the rules, not living or thinking or believing right, but I am!

An example: I’ve often been struck by how quickly people leap to blame the victim, myself included. Once, a student of mine reported she had been attacked on a summer day by a man running toward her on a jogging path, wearing a ski mask. When she ran past them, they turned and attacked her with a knife. My first response was horror and sympathy mixed with this thought: She should have known that a man wearing a ski mask in the summer was up to no good. Within seconds I realized my error born of my fear. Hearing her story made me aware of how vulnerable I was as a woman, every day, doing everyday things. To push aside this fear, I blamed her for the attack, which is to say, I constructed a world in which I would never be attacked in this way; for I would never have but myself in that position; I would have known right away this man was trouble and run.

I was reminded of this recently when I read my neighborhood blog. A man tried to rob another man of his iPad in broad daylight at a bus stop, the man gave chase, and the would-be robber beat him, but never got the iPad. People were quick to weigh in with their opinions on what the man should have or could have done to avoid this. What was he doing reading his iPad in public? many asked. Blaming the victim. Why? Because they are afraid this will happen to them when they are waiting for the bus on walking down the street. They want to reassure themselves that it won’t, so they tell themselves this story: that man was attacked because he was waving his iPad around in the face of a bull, but I would never do that, therefore I won’t be attacked, therefore I am safe in my neighborhood. This is similar to the way we used to (and still do, unfortunately) blame women who were raped on the street or date-raped: she was wearing provocative clothing, but I dress modestly; she gave her date confusing signals or she was drunk, but I’m always clear about what I want and I don’t drink.

We do this with people who are poor or homeless also. (By the way, William Ryan’s study of poverty in America, Blaming the Victim, is still a good read.) Blaming the victim is the story we tell ourselves to give ourselves the illusion of security and safety in what is a very uncertain world. I, I, I, we say, I am not her, I am not him, I am different, I am wiser, more savvy, more street smart, more aware, thinking that this incantation will protect us from all harm.

Before we blame or condemn, we should ask ourselves, Why am I telling myself this story? What do I fear so much that I am willing to throw away my understanding of and compassion for another and cast blame on them? Where does our true safety lie?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Another challenge—Don’t complain, Give Thanks—Elul 8

We complain even more readily than we compare and criticize, it seems. Go to the grocery store or anywhere in public and someone will complain about the weather. Too cold, too hot, too humid, too dry. Too too. The only time people say “What a beautiful day” is when the weather is perfect. Anything less than perfect we feel free to complain about and justified in doing so.

We complain about our bodies. We have a little cold. We’re just getting over a cold. We think we might be getting a cold. If our health isn’t perfect we complain.

As if we are owed perfection. As if we know what perfection is.

Maybe it’s harmless, all this friendly complaining, a way to connect with strangers and others. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a mindless habit that blocks our recognition of how much beauty and vitality we are surrounded by and given and depend on every moment of every day. What if we made a habit of recognizing the good instead of complaining about what is less than perfect?

And for many of us, certainly not all, what do we have to complain about? Often, when I feel irritated or disappointed, these words of St. Paul come to mind: “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.” Paul, once Saul of Tarsus, whatever you may think of him, a great Christian or a faithless Jew, was imprisoned for his politically dangerous religious views.It was because he was a mystic, a person with radical trust in, absolute dependence upon the One, that he was able to reach this place of acceptance and to say these words in witness of that, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.”

Neither did Bahá'u'lláh, another mystic, the founder of the Bahá'í community, complain when he was imprisoned, first by the Persians in the Black Pit, and later by the Ottoman Empire for 24 years, for his politically dangerous religious views. He, too, trusted in the One, in whatever state he was. He taught a similar, equally difficult and deep truth: ”Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity.”

That’s what trust will do, to enable one to say, no matter where one is, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content” and to give thanks in adversity.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Hand of God—Elul 6

We desperately need new ways of thinking about an imaging God, especially in this month of preparing our spirits to come into the Presence. If many of us are no longer comfortable with standing before the Father or Judge as our only way of understanding our relationships to God, how then to think of coming into the Presence? Here is an image from Jane Steger, an American woman born in 1878 who recorded her life’s “adventure of the spirit” in Leaves from a Secret Journal in 1928.
I sometimes think that we are to God as his fingers are to a blind person. Through us He feels of life in all its manifold experiences. Through some of us He feels of happiness, and through some He feels of pain. It consoled me somewhat, when I was unhappy, to think that perhaps He was feeling of suffering through me. ..
The fingers and palm of the hand seem to me to be a good symbol of our relationship to God. We are all separate and distinct and yet all rooted in Him, and we spring from Him as our fingers are rooted in, and spring from, our palm. (p. 51)
Steger’s lovely wondering gives me a new way to think about how to live out what the rabbis said was the focus of our preparation for standing before God: turning or repentance (teshuvah), prayer (tefillah), and tzedakah (charity). Have we amputated our fingers, cut them from their root? What textures of life are we feeling with our fingers? What are we using our fingers to do to and for others?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Kind of Atheist Are You? On Spiritual Defensiveness—Elul 5

I once asked a man I had recently met, “What kind of atheist are you?” This was after we had talked for many hours about deep and intimate personal experiences and had moved to the question of spirituality and religion. After I summarized my conversion to Judaism from Evangelical Christianity, I asked him, “What about you?”
“I’m an atheist!” he said.
“A true atheist or an agnostic?” I asked, having encountered many people who didn’t know or weren’t concerned that there is a difference between acknowledging that one knows nothing about God and believing and confessing that God does not exist.
“An atheist!”
“What kind of atheist are you?” I asked.
I was not prepared for his response. What I wanted to know was, Was he a garden-variety atheist? Someone who was not persuaded by a traditional religious or spiritual teachings about God and had had no experiences of God and concluded, logically, that God did not exist? Was he a “God is Dead” atheist, a person who believes the old concepts of God are dead and we must seek new ones that jibe with current science and philosophy? Or, Was he a Christopher Hitchens kind of atheist, that is, a militant, crusading fundamentalist who believes that there is only one truth and he has it: God does NOT exist; and that anyone who disagrees is misguided and irrational. IN short, I wanted to know how open his mind was to different ways of thinking of God and spirituality.
“Why would you ask that?” he asked. He was clearly miffed. “That’s offensive.”
“What do you mean?”
You wouldn’t ask that of anyone else? IF I were a Christian, you wouldn’t ask me what kind of Christian I was. In America today people single out atheists for abuse. It’s like we have to keep quiet, hide in the closet, because everyone has their church or their prayer group. And they treat anybody who doesn’t believe in God badly, with pity or contempt.”
I laughed. “No! You don’t know me! If you had said you were a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim I would have asked, ‘What kind of Christian or Jew or Muslim are you?’ If you had said you were a Presbyterian, I would have asked, “Are you a United Presbyterian, a Southern Presbyterian, or an Orthodox Presbyterian?’ I taught historical theology. I’m a lifelong lover of all religious traditions in their glorious variety. I’m really interested in the differences. And when I ask that kind of question, I want to know about you, where you feel at home, what your deepest values and commitments are. ”
“It’s an aggressive question,” he continued. “People attack atheists and we’re forced to defend our position, when no one else is.”
“I’m not asking you defend it,” I said, “just describe it, so I can get to know you better.”
He wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t, describe it.
He was just mad. Mad about all those religious people he had to live among. Mad about being a misunderstood minority. Mad about being questioned at all.
We talked more. I told him when I asked him what kind of atheist he was I just really wanted to know if he was a fundamentalist, meaning, a person who is closed-minded, who doesn’t admit that anyone else’s experience or values or beliefs are legitimate. Because it’s not just religious people who are fundamentalists, secularists and certain atheists are, too. It’s their literalism and absolute certainty that I worry about, not the particular way they understand the universe and its workings.
I don’t remember his response to that other than a denial that he was a fundamentalist.
I tried another tack. I explained to him that if he thought that “God” meant an angry old man out there somewhere, dropping down every once in a while to punish people or stick his finger in the machine of creation to get the gears unstuck or interfere with the course of nature, then I was an atheist, too; because I didn’t believe that god existed either.
But he didn’t want to hear about other ways of conceptualizing God. He didn’t want to talk about God at all. Just talking about God seemed to make him mad. He was mad. Just mad. So I dropped it.
I’ve been thinking about this conversation ever since. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog. People have such misconceptions about “God” and religion and spirituality. Old, dead ideas that the media keep playing on. Yet some people, not all, are hungry for new ways of thinking about God and spirit. So after Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur I will continue to talk about our images and concepts of God, the obstacles to our understanding, building on what I have started during this month of Elul talking about “coming into the Presence.”
I’ve also been thinking about how vulnerable we all are when it comes to our deepest values. We are quick to get defensive when we think someone is attacking the core of our being, that which centers our self and guides all our actions. We leap to protect ourselves with anger or certainty or distance, even if we perceive we are not being respected or we are being misunderstood. For who we are in those deep places is so tender, so close to the bone, so sacred, I might say, that it hurts for another not to honor it. This is true no matter how we define ourselves, as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Moslems, mystics, agnostics, atheists, or the ones who don’t know where to turn.
So let’s be careful out there. Let’s not leap to take offense where none is given. And let’s honor the hearts and spirit of the other. That’s another way to come into the presence of the One.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Coming into the Presence—Elul 4

On Rosh HaShanah we celebrate the creation of the world. On Yom Kippur we stand before the Creator to be judged for the way we have used the life we have been given in the last year. In the ten days between celebration and judgment, life and death, we turn toward the One.

Here’s a fresh way to think about coming into the Presence that sparks in me new ways to think about celebrating the creation of the world, turning to the One, standing before the judgment of the One, living a life of gratitude in the presence of the ever-renewing One. It comes from a Hasidic story recorded by Martin Buber in his book Ecstatic Confessions.
In the earliest morning twilight a tzaddik stood at the window and, trembling, called out, “Just a short time ago it was still night, and now it is day—God is causing the day to arise!” And he was full of fear and trembling. Moreover he said, “Every created being should be ashamed before the Creator. For if he were perfect, as he was destined to be, he would have to be astonished and awaken and catch fire over the renewal of the creature at every time and in every moment.” (p.147)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Coming into the Presence—Elul 3

On Rosh HaShanah and all through the ten days of Repentance through Yom Kippur, we sing and chant, Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King. We have a host of other metaphors for God in our festival liturgy, too. Witness these we sing when thanking God for remembering the covenant of love with us:
We are your children, you are our father.
We are your servants, you are our master.
We are your heritage, you are our destiny.
We are your flock, you are our shepherd.
We are your vineyard, you are our watchman.
We are the clay, you are the potter.
We are your subjects, you are our king.

Still, Our Father, Our King is the refrain of the Days of Awe. And indeed, these are the two metaphors that permeate and dominate not only the Torah, the writings, and the prophets, but also the Talmud and the Hasidic stories and most of the Jewish tradition, like most of the Christian tradition. They are beautiful, rich, evocative, lovely. God is a loving father, not a slave master. God is a faithful and generous and wise king, not a fickle, bloodthirsty, and foolish one.

It is not the metaphors themselves that are wrong. It is that our world has changed and these metaphors no longer speak to us in the liberating ways they once spoke to our ancestors. They’re dead metaphors. Unfortunately, many of us today no longer even know what having a father present at all means. And very few of us have experienced standing before a king.

Are we just stuck with going to services and praying these words without having a deep understanding of them? Without much of a way to relate to them so that they become meaningful to us? We can use our imaginations to help bring these metaphors back to life, yes. That’s good. But why not use our imaginations with new images so turning toward the Presence during the month of Elul and the Days of Awe is meaningful to us in new ways. Why not ask ourselves, What does it mean today to “Know before whom you stand”? What does it mean to “come into the Presence?” What gives us that experience of standing before someone who or something that existed before we were born, gave us life, sustains us in life, calls us into question, is larger and wiser and in all ways better than we are, showers us with favor, holds over us the power of death, inspires awe and boundless love and speech-defying gratitude in us? What is it that you would bow before, with dignity not servility?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Know Before Whom You Stand—Elul 2

“Know before whom you stand” (Da lifnei mi atah omed). These words, which one finds near the ark in many ancient and contemporary synagogues, are the words that will guide my reflections this Elul. There are many versions of this sentence in the Jewish tradition, including in the Talmud (B’rachot 28b), and even more interpretations. I want to follow where these words lead me during this month of teshuvah, turning.

Before I throw words at you in the next days, I invite you to muse on these words in silence: Know before whom you stand. Imagine yourself standing before someone who or something that or whatever it is that inspires awe, respect, wonder, and boundless love in you, that makes you aware of all your flaws, makes you long to be better than you have been and be all of who you are, that makes you want to live each moment fully, your whole being singing with gratitude and joy. Someone or something or some experience before which you would bow with dignity?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Know Before Whom You Stand—Elul 1

Today the month of Elul begins, the month of repentance or turning, when Jews concentrate their hearts and lives on turning to  God. Repentance or teshuvah (from shuv, turn) is  good at all times. God stands ready at all times, waiting, longing for us to turn back, turn around, turn toward the way of life.  It is we who are not ready.  We often need a push, a pinch, or a reminder of who we are  and what are lives are. The month of Elul is such a reminder.   It puts creative pressure on us by setting a limit of thirty days in which to prepare ourselves, to practice heshbon hanephesh or the examination of our souls, so we can enter the Days of Awe, the ten days of repentance that stretch from Rosh ha-Shanah through Yom Kippur, ready.

Every man must prepare himself thirty days beforehand with Teshuvah and prayer and charity for the day when he will appear in judgment before God, on Rosh ha-Shanah.  Then let him give all his heart to the service of God.  And those who interpret the Torah metaphorically say, “The initials of the words, Ani Le-dodi Ve-dodi Li (”I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”—Song of Songs 6:3), when read consecutively read Elul. If Israel will long to turn in a complete Teshuvah to their Father who is in heaven, then his longing will go out to them, and he will accept them in Teshuvah.  [Mateh Moshe, 1591, by Rabbi Moshe ben Avraham of Przemyśl: in S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, 18]

Thirty days of turning. Long enough to meditate on who we are and what it means to be judged by God the “Judge,” turn toward the “Father,” and stand before God in prayer and reflection. I invite you to meditate with me each day this month on what it means today to come into the presence of the One.

For those who want to follow a different set of reflections during the month of Elul, ones that are more focused on traditional Jewish texts, read my posts for Elul 2010, which begin with Turn, Turn, Turn. Just type Turn, Turn, Turn into the search box and you’ll be taken to the beginning of that set of meditations.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Joyous Eid ul-Fitr! From Ramadan to Elul—Bowing All the Way

A blessed Eid ul-Fitr! Today, as the world moves from ending one month of fasting, charity, and prayer, Ramadan, to beginning another month of fasting, charity, and prayer, Elul, which starts at sunset on August 18, I can’t help thinking about one ritual that marks both of these months: bowing.

Most people today, certainly North Americans, have a kind of visceral reaction against bowing. I’ve heard people say this in many different contexts: “I don’t bow to anybody or anything. That’s a sign of submission or subservience. It’s groveling. We stand upright, proud. We shouldn’t humiliate ourselves. We’re not worms that we should crawl on the ground before anyone, even God.”

But that’s the point of bowing when one stands before God, or comes into the Presence! The point is we don’t bow to anything else in the creation. We bow only to that which is worthy of being acknowledged as greater than ourselves. As the meditation before opening the ark in the Torah service puts it:
I am the servant of the Holy One, whom I revere and whose Torah (teaching) I revere at all times. Not on mortals do I rely, nor upon angels do I depend, but on the God of the universe, the God of truth, whose Torah is truth, whose prophets are truth, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In God do I put my trust; unto God’s holy, precious being do I utter praise. Open my heart to Your Torah. Answer my prayers and the prayers of all Your people Israel for goodness, for life, and for peace. Amen.
This bowing we do is not sniveling and groveling before the slave master or executioner. It is an act of dignity and honor. It’s an act of humility. An act of surrender of our little self with all its narrowness and pettiness to the One, to a truth that is larger than our tiny little minds can grasp or own.

That’s what Jews are doing when they bend the knee and bow their heads during the Amidah, the silent, standing prayer that is part of each of the three daily services; and what they are doing when on Yom Kippur they, like the High Priest who entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, prostrate themselves when praying for forgiveness. And that’s what Moslems are doing when they kneel on their prayer rugs five times a day throughout the year and with special repetitions during Ramadan, and bow repeatedly, touching their palms and foreheads to the ground. We are all saying with our bodies, “We are not all that is. We do not stand on a mountaintop looking down on everyone and everything else. We stand in awe before the Presence. We are servants of the Holy One, ready to be of service with our very lives.

Fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Moslems aside—let them argue about exactly how close to stand and exactly when and exactly how to bow—to me Jews and Moslems are one on this. Even the beloved and wise Abraham Joshua Heschel (May his memory be for a blessing) misunderstood this when in his book on the prophets he compared Islam to Judaism negatively by saying Islam means “submission” and Jews don’t submit, they work with God in the world. We both bow. We both surrender our lives, our selves to the One that we may walk humbly in the world, in beauty, mercy, justice, and truth.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

When You Trust, There’s No Need to Compare

When your perspective widens out from your self, your family, your community, your nation, your tradition, your race, your continent, your species, to all that is, and you accept your place in being, no more, no less, you trust that all that is to come to you will come to you, in time; and there is no need to compare yourself to the life of another, for you trust that they, too, will receive all that is theirs in this life. That’s the “order of things” as seen by the rabbi Ben Azai. Here is one of his sayings, one that reminds us that it is fear of loss and anxiety about not getting what we really need that makes us feel unhappy and compare ourselves to others, whom we think are receiving honors, land, goods, love that we should be receiving, now.
Ben Azai said:
You will be called by your name,
You will be seated in your place,
You will be given what is yours.
No one touches what is meant for another.
No kingdom touches its neighbor by so much as a hairsbreadth.
Hammer on the Rock: A Midrash Reader, p. 17 (a collection of sayings from the Talmud)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What Genesis Can Teach Us about Comparing

The creation story in the Hebrew scriptures has been used to justify many different kinds of order, from hierarchy to egalitarianism, from sexism to equality, from anthropocentrism to theocentrism. Here’s what it teaches me: that when one rightly distinguishes one has no need to compare or judge one as above or below another.

Here’s Everett Fox’s wonderful translation of Genesis 1: 1-21:

At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,
When the earth was wild and waste,
Darkness over the face of the Ocean,
Rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—

God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
God saw the light: that it was good.
God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light: Day! And the darkness he called: Night!
There was setting, there was dawning: one day.

God said:
Let there be a dome amid the waters,
And let it separate waters from waters!
God made the dome
And separated the waters that were below the dome from the waters that were above the dome.
It was so.
God called the dome: Heaven!
There was setting, there was dawning: second day.

God said:
Let the waters under the heavens be gathered to one place,
And let the dry land be seen!
It was so
God said:
Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living begins, and let fowl fly above the earth, across the dome of the heavens!
God created the great sea-serpents
And all living beings that crawl about, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind,
And all winged fowl after their kind.
God saw that it was good

In these three creative moments we see what was “waste and wild” being distinguished, the way a painter composes a work of art, separating light and dark, waters above and waters below, swimming creatures in the waters below and flying creatures in the waters above, to create something beautiful that we may enjoy. Distinguishing these pairs does not set up a hierarchy, to show us that the first is best, or that the last is best. Rather, this distinguishing brings forth a beauty that did not exist before. God saw the beauty and recognized the goodness in this distinguishing that led to this beauty—no light without dark, no dark without light; they speak to each other. “Good” cannot be said of light without dark or dark without light. What is “good” must include both light and dark. We are to enjoy the marriage of two distinct ways of being, not choose between them, not compare them.

If the goodness of creation necessarily includes light and dark, above and below, fish and fowl, all that can be distinguished in beauty, how can we human beings, frail earth creatures that we are, compare ourselves to others? How can we not rejoice in the beauty and goodness that depend on our very distinction from one another?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stop Comparing. Start Accepting.

We have not come into being to criticize; nor have we come into being to compare. Our intellect, our ability to make distinctions and to connect things, has far, far better uses than looking for comparisons that lead to judgments about which of the two (or three or more) is better than the other. Why do we compare? To make ourselves feel better, or worse, than another. Why do we complain? Because we center existence on ourselves, and feel the harm to ourselves, the slights, the pains, the injustices. Why me? Why do I have to suffer this and that one doesn’t have to suffer it? Why is this one given this and not me, who is equally deserving? Why are they rich and I am not? Happy and I am not? Because our perspective is so narrow that we think only of our little selves and our hearts do not open in compassion to others. If we could only stop comparing ourselves to others, or comparing people we meet, we would know true acceptance and joy.

Here are four stories that reveal the folly of comparing—our suffering, our efforts and rewards, our lives.

First, there is a famous Hasidic story about a man who complained and complained of his suffering and compared his life of woe to others who had easier lives. One day, he was given a chance to be free of his suffering. He was invited to enter a cloakroom where the cloak of every human being’s suffering was hung. He was to walk through the cloakroom and examine each cloak carefully and choose the one that seemed lightest and best. He spent many years trying on the cloaks and left wearing his own.

Another famous story is one told by Jesus, the parable of the vineyard and the laborers, as recorded in Matthew 20:1-16 (King James Version).
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
The strange logic of “how much more” of the kingdom of heaven (which does not nullify fair wages) means comparison is futile. Accept what is yours, what has been given to you. Are you diminished because another is favored?

Actually, this parable of Jesus reminds me of one of my favorite Hasidic sayings:
If I am I because you are, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.

To know oneself and the world truly is not to compare but to be.

Finally, here is a Sufi story that reveals yet another view of comparison and the limits of our perspective, one that shows how to compare, if one must compare.
There were once two brothers who jointly farmed a field, and always shared its yield.
One day one of them woke up in the night and thought:
‘My brother is married and has children. Because of this he has anxieties and expenses which are not mine. So I will go and move some sacks from my share into his storeroom, which is only fair. I shall do this under cover of night, so that he may not, from his generosity, dispute with me about it.’
He moved the sacks, and went back to bed.
Soon afterwards the other brother woke up and thought to himself:
‘It is not fair that I should have half of all the corn in our field. My brother, who is unmarried, lacks my pleasures in having a family, and I shall therefore try to compensate a little by moving some of my corn into his storeroom.’
So saying, he did so.
The next morning each was amazed that he still has the same number of sacks in his storeroom, and afterwards neither could understand why, year after year, the number of sacks remained the same even when each of them shifted some by stealth. (Idries Shah, Caravan of Dreams, p. 143)
Stop comparing. Start accepting, yourself, as you are; all others, as they are; all else, as it is.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

We Have Come into Being to Praise--Not to Criticize

We have not come into being to hate or to destroy;
We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.
Last week, in talking about the three fundamental actions of being human, to praise, to labor and to love, I focused on praise in relation to the One, the Source and End of All Existence. But, like the other two, labor and love, praise has two directions: toward the One and toward all that is created.

It is not enough to praise the One, That Which Is Without End, That Which is Beautiful, True, and Prefect, the Creating, Judging, Redeeming, and Sanctifying Power. Human existence depends also on praising all that is part of the One, all that flows from and back to the One. Few of us would stand in front of a great painter and criticize her painting. Or in front of a great sculptor and point out all the flaws in his sculpture. Or in front of a weaver and find fault with the pattern or the colors or the looseness or tightness of the weave. Yet that is what we do every day as we go about criticizing friends or family members or strangers—whether their clothes or their bodies or their actions or failures to act or habits or their wishes and dreams—or a landscape or the weather or the food we are served. This isn’t enough that. That isn’t enough this. We find it so easy to find the one flaw in all that is good. We do it out of habit, without thinking, as if it were our right to cast judgment in this way on everyone and everything.

We criticize so often, so carelessly. It seems as if it is nothing. Yet to criticize the works of a great artist is a grave offense. It means we are not acknowledging the good, not appreciating the beauty; we are not being grateful. But there is another deleterious effect we often forget about as we rush to give our opinion. (Our opinion! How consequential our preferences are! How important we are, we who can pass judgment on all things, with our profound knowledge, our wide perspective, our deep experience of the many ways a good life can be lived!). Here is the great harm we do with our careless flinging of judgments: our rush to criticize, our failure to praise, covers what we see with a dark, oily film, which makes it harder for others to see the beauty underneath. And it also makes it hard for that creature we have covered with our criticisms to breathe out all its beauty and goodness; like a seal or a seabird after an oil spill, it begins to die a slow, painful and cruel death, unless someone comes and removes that film of oil.

One of the stories Idries Shah tells in Tales of the Dervishes reveals the ingratitude and harm of criticism. It also points to the foolishness of making judgments of any kind from our limited perspective.
An idiot looked at a browsing camel. He said to it: “Your appearance is awry. Why is this so?”
The camel replied: “In judging the impression made, you are attributing a fault to that which shaped the form. Be aware of this! Do not consider my crooked appearance a fault.
‘Get away from me, by the shortest route. My appearance is thus for function, for a reason. The bow needs the bentness as well as the straightness of the bowstring.
‘Fool, begone! An ass’s perception goes with an ass’s nature.’
The next time you are about to open your mouth to criticize, remember the talking camel.

Try to go for a day, just one day, without criticizing anything, another human being, yourself, your life, the world around you. It’s a hard, hard habit to break. Our little selves, our false egos love this game. It makes us feel so superior. But try. And instead of looking for fault, just look at all that exists, look without judgment or expectation or preference, look with deep acceptance of and appreciation for what it is, for what is. And give thanks for it.

That would be a day of praise.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Freud’s Summary of Why We're Here or This One?

Freud famously summed up the basic drives of human existence this way: to work and to love. Pretty good summary.

Here’s the summary of human existence that my heart thrills to, every time I hear, say, or read it:

We have not come into being to hate or to destroy;
We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.
So close to Freud, yet so far away. This wisdom comes from a place Freud, with his views on Moses and monotheism, wouldn’t care to frequent: the siddur, the prayer book of the Conservative movement of Judaism. The lines, written post-Freud, I believe, are part of the Prayer for Peace.

That addition of the third phrase, “to praise,” is an obvious parting of the ways. It acknowledges that human beings are not limited to the world we experience here as we labor in relation to the natural world in a social context and as we interact with others. We are built for work and for love, much as we might like to deny either one at times.

But as this poem/prayer reminds us, we are also built for praise. Meaning what? That everybody has to have a certain kind of religion or they have “failed” the third test of being human? No. We don’t require that people labor in a certain way only, or love in a certain way only—only that they do labor, that they do love, each in his or her own way, according to her or his unique self and circumstances.

So too with praise. Each of us can praise in our own way. For some this means chanting ancient psalms in shul, singing gospel songs in church, kneeling in prayer in the mosque, or dancing ecstatically in the sema. For others it can mean making room in one’s life for a sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude for the gift of existence, a gift one is not responsible for and is not in control of. To praise: to recognize an inestimable good beyond oneself, a gift that one can never exhaust, never repay.

To me this is as basic to our existence as working and loving. It’s a third way of being in the world, interacting with all that is not our self, that cannot be reduced to labor or to love. When we labor, we interact with the world to produce a good. When we love, our desire for union and communion binds us to another. When we praise, we are not trying to produce a good by our efforts in nature, and we are not desiring or experiencing union with another—whether nature or another self; when we praise, we are acknowledging the vastness and goodness of all that is, all that is beyond us yet includes us and is related to us, and giving thanks for it, this gift that we can never exhaust and never repay.

Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice, as the saying goes. So the presence of these three basic ways of human existence in the Prayer for Peace mean: we are to acknowledge these three—all three—as fundamental to the dignity of each human life, to be able to work, to love, and to praise, and not to prevent anyone from fulfilling these basic needs or to have contempt for them when they do fulfill those needs; and we are not to judge the manner in which others work, love, or praise, though it may be radically different from our way of fulfilling those needs. Does this one pray once a day? Good. Does this one pray morning, afternoon, and evening, as Jews do? Good. Does this one pray five times a day, as Muslims do? Good. Does this one pray in the woods, silently, wordlessly? Good. For, we have not come into being to hate or to destroy; we have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why Is It So Hard to Live at Peace with our Body-Selves?

We human beings like to think we are such amazing animals. And we are. We carry forward with us the successes of eons of creative trial and error, a spectacular inheritance that enables us to act with deep wisdom and freedom in our ever more complex environment. But being human, becoming truly human, is also the greatest challenge of our existence. Because we are not at ease in these evolved animal-selves, this amazing body-self we have inherited. Why not? You’d think it would be the most natural thing in the world to feel at home in our bodies—not even to feel at home, but just be at home in our bodies in that wonderfully unconscious or innocent way most children have and some graced athletes retain as they mature.

But most of us don’t experience this natural grace. It’s not even that we’re not at home in our bodies. We seem to be ill at ease in our bodies, or even at war with our bodies. Why?

Answers abound—sin, Platonism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Greek Christianity, Christianity, Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, dualism of all kinds, spiritualism of all kinds, gender stereotypes, the media, the Freudians, our mothers, our fathers, those who have abused us physically or sexually. Whatever truth there may be in these answers, I want to look beneath them for a moment.

Look at how we’re built. Lumps of clay animated by some kind of breath who then go on to some kind of restless existence. Whatever you think of creation stories, all those observations, from so many different times and cultures, point to a deep truth about our existence here on earth. Whatever you make those stories or our interpretations of them, it’s hard to deny that we’re an unstable union of two different ways of being, matter and spirit, body and mind, and instinct and consciousness. The terms don’t matter; it’s the relationship between them that’s what trips us up. We want to resolve that instability once and for all, so we deny the part of it that we understand least and live with what is more comfortable for us. For some of us, that means landing in our bodies, tending to them, following their lead always, and ignoring anything beyond the realm of the physical because it is beyond our reach or comprehension. For others of us it means living the life of the mind or the ethereal life of the spirit and just plain ignoring the body, giving it its due, but treating it as a second-class citizen at best.

So we live as if one side of this difficult and de-stabilizing experience we call human be-ing doesn’t exist or doesn’t really matter. That’s one way to live out the challenge of what I like to call, using the language of physicists, “the “coexistence of incommensurates.”

But what if we took this unstable and difficult two-at-onceness of our being seriously? What if matter is coming to consciousness through us, the human creature, as many scientists, philosophers, and mystics have argued? What would our task as human beings look like then? The Sufi Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan puts it this way: “the reconciliation of irreconciliables.” Our job here on earth is not to give ourselves over to the needs and limitations and desires of our bodies and the physical universe, to just sink into it, whether by addictive behaviors or ordinary habits. Nor is our task here on earth to transcend matter by leaping into the spiritual realm, escaping the limitations of the material world by getting “high” through prayer or meditation or other spiritual disciplines. Our task is much more challenging: it is to live in such a way that these two irreconcilable ways of being are reconciled in our every feeling, thought, and action.

Why are we here? For this, says Pir Vilayat Khan: “the materialization of spirit and the spiritualization of matter.” It’s not enough to stay low or get high. We have to bring that animating force of the universe to our limited, cloddish, friable existence here on earth, to make it a thing of true beauty. And we have to incarnate that animating force, bring it to new beauty, a beauty never before seen on earth until this moment, now, in our lives, here on earth.

Forget alchemy. Forget fairy tales of dwarves spinning straw into gold. That is all child’s play compared to this task we have each been given: incarnating spirit and breathing life into our bodies and the world around us.

Our bodies are not our enemy. They are not the “prison-house of the soul” or second-class citizens. They are not simply the vehicle for higher purposes.

Our bodies, their jumble of needs and limits, desires and pleasures and pain, are not the whole of human existence.

Our bodies are the meeting ground where spirit is materialized and matter is spiritualized—a moveable tabernacle we carry and that carries us as we wander through the wilderness.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Another Good Saying for the Practice of Discernment

There is a famous Hasidic saying whose words are often sung, “The world is a narrow bridge; the main thing is not to be afraid.”
This is the spiritual counsel of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Like all his teachings, this one is rich in meaning. Here is one way to understand what he is saying.

I envision this bridge not as the straight and narrow path through sin on all sides or over a chasm of transgression, over which the faithful cross safely to purity, planting each foot on the solid wooden plans leading straight ahead. Instead, I see this bridge as some others do—as a razor-sharp high-wire that one must walk across gently, arms outstretched, eyes fixed on the horizon.

What lies on the two sides of that bridge? We are walking the high-wire, constantly balancing. What is pulling us to one side and what to the other? Name your paradox and it probably fits: mercy and justice; patience and boldness; or the paradox we spoke of last week, of our earth-ness, our humility and our spirit-ness, our dignity. For we human beings are creatures built of paradoxes and our challenge, though we meet it awkwardly, is live gracefully with all these paradoxes, to walk between these forces pulling us to one side and the other.

And here is where discernment comes in. We do not walk this high-wire in fair weather at all times. The weather is constantly changing. So we cannot find our “balance” once and for all and then think we have it made. There are gusts, there are heavy rains, there are tornadoes and hurricanes. We must adjust the way we walk that narrow bridge as the weather changes. When the force pulling us to one side is stronger, and threatens to topple us, we must lean more to the other side, to stay standing upright so we will not fall. Is the pull toward justice too strong? Then we need to lean to the side of mercy. Is a strong wind pushing us to take bold action? We need to lean toward patience in order to stay upright.

Sounds terrifying. It is terrifying. This is the human condition—never to be at rest, always to be facing new dangers, always to be at risk. Everything changes. Everything is changing.

As the Prophet Mohammed says, “Everything perishes but the face of God.” The main thing is to walk through all that is changing with our heart fixed on the One who is constant. And that is what Rabbi Nachman reminds us when he says, “The main thing is not to be afraid.” Fear, that is, lack of trust, makes us lose our balance and our steadying eye of discernment. It is love for the One keeps us walking steadily forward, discerning which side to lean toward to stay upright, which pocket to look in.

Think of the story of Thomas in the Christian gospels, when Jesus told him he could walk on water just as he did, that he needed no special spiritual powers to walk through life on earth in this way, heart fixed on the One, never sinking into fear, drowning in a sea of possibilities. Thomas tried. He sank. Fell in. Because he did not trust.

Trust is the root of discernment.