Thursday, September 23, 2021

from whence comes a vision...

Earlier this week, while still wandering in the mystery that is Montréal, I was buying groceries in a market off St. Laurent. While bagging my goodies, the young blonde clerk said, "I really like your bag." That caught me off-guard - the picture on the front is the Virgin of Guadalupe - and all day I had been wondering, "What are the metaphors and symbols that guide/shape contemporary people who do not embrace a faith tradition?" 

Over an extended lunch in a small park, you see, Di and I had joined another couple for an introduction to Québécois French. One insightful and naughty section took us through the curse words of this culture - and they are all religious terms signifying the long tension between hard-working, ordinary people and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. With an impish grin, our instructor told us that since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960's everyone uses these words to curse, but few know what they represent given the dramatic secularization of Québec society. We had fun explaining what the religious meanings of words like Tabernacle, Chalice, and stoles meant beyond their current curse value. McGill professor, Douglas John Hall, has written that within one generation there was a rapid collapse of public support for the Church in this province and asks: does this prefigure what secularization means for other Western nations? Walking home from the market I couldn't help but muse over the young clerk's appreciation for my grocery bag. What did she like about it? Why did she make the effort to say in both English and French that it was lovely? What value does the Mexican Virgin Mary hold for her? For others?

My curiosity continued as we hiked the Stations of the Cross yesterday in Oka. It is a two mile hike up the mountain dotted with seven small chapels telling the story of Christ's crucifixion. The view from the top looks out over forests, rivers, and the Adirondack mountains in the distance. Aesthetically it is well worth the effort and as the day evolved we encountered a handful of hikers who chose to do so: they were young and older, some clearly out for the exercise, others who found value in this embodied prayer. After the first chapel, Di and I wondered aloud about what metaphors, symbols, and clues give shape, form, and even meaning to this generation? 

Some have suggested the Leonard Cohen has become a secular saint. His devotion to poetry, beauty, struggle, sensuality, irony, and humility might be a clue. He certainly evokes sorrow and celebration simultaneously in songs like "Dance Me to the End of Love." He also freely borrows from Judaism and Christianity filtered through a lens of Western intellectual Zen Buddhism. But this is not the case for nearly a third of young America and probably more in Canada and Western Europe: they have no training or roots in spiritual traditions of any type. Walking slowly - and sometimes painfully - towards the top of this devotional mountain, feeling and thinking about the struggles of my journey through life, my own tradition clearly offers me clues about how to find meaning in the chaos. The liturgy of the Eucharist, the hymns, the texts, the various embodied prayers, icons and stories all help me sort out where I am on the road of life. So how do others without this grounding sort things out? Clearly, I have no idea... 

To be sure, I've read some of the studies conducted with the "nones" (none of the religious categories stated above) as well as SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) folk. Their analyses mention a mistrust of institutions, a desire for mysticism, and encounters with the holy. They also speak of a shared desire to live compassionately with a respect for the environment. But no one has identified the guiding symbols that give focus and direction to those living into this brave new world. The best clue I've come up with to date is mandolinist Chris Thile's new recording: Laysongs. (https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2021/09/16/chris-thile-laysongs-mandolin-review-241284) I want to listen to this carefully. If anyone who reads this has some other clues, please send me a note.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

following the tiny threads of synchronicity...

After an all too short trip to be with friends in the L'Arche Ottawa community on Sunday and Monday, we returned to home base in Montréal. It was a joy to party and sing with these dear friends and then spend a good chunk of Monday in various meetings to continue building tender community in the L'Arche charism. Beyond the uncertainties of COVID we face some rigorous challenges entering the community's 50th year. But that is what Jubilee is all about: reconciliation with authenticity and justice, compassionate accountability for past wounds, and a desire to walk humbly in God's spirit of trust. We have our work cut out for us. I closed our planning meeting noting that the words of Jesus from the finale of St. John's gospel are among my favorites:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.

After a pregnant pause, one wise soul said, "That's not your favorite scripture because you LIKE it, right?" We laughed and I replied, "No, but it is true - and it is where we are right now!" As the Psalmist used to sing: "It is so good and healing to be together with sisters and brothers in unity." Leaving was sweet sorrow and I am already anticipating my return in October.

Today we had an extensive lesson in Québécois French: it will take more time than the sacred has allotted to me to grasp the intricate and wonderful distinctions of this branch of the language - but it was a total blast giving it a shot. I am going to keep working on whatever French I can muster over the next year so that at the very least I can sing more songs a français in community. Already I'm working on a simple round to the prayer the 
Québécois shared during the pandemic: ça va bien aller - all shall be well - from St. Julian of Norwich. Our instructor, Alissa Bonneville, was sharp, insightful, a ton of fun, and wildly creative. Afterwards, as we looked for small souvenirs for the grandchildren I came upon a graphic novel telling the story of Leonard Cohen's life. Serendipitously, I later received a note from a friend in L'Arche that today is St. Leonard's feast day (born this day in 1934.)

While in community, another friend and community member shared with me a hand crafter ceramic crucifix that has been in her family for a few generations. It is poignant and holy - and I love it. I was told that it used to be the costume to give a crucifix like this to young Québécois families upon the purchase of their first home. I am honored in ways beyond words to receive this sacred treasure. My friend, who regularly translates my little Zoom homilies into beautifully poetic French said, "Looking upon the crosses on the wall of your study gave me the idea and I didn't want this to leave our family. You are family." Thanks be to God. I am so blessed. 

We have been so graciously welcomed by our Québécois and L'Arche friends both francophone and anglophone. It is a humbling responsibility to live into this love and it came at just the right time in my life. Those who read my words often know that I pay attention to the "little threads of synchronicity" that show up along our journey and gently whisper: follow me. As if by confirmation, when I walked up St. Laurent tonight to buy some groceries after the normal pleasantries of greeting, the young check out clerk said to me: j'adore votre sac (I love your bag.) It's a recycled grocery bag with the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. I smiled, touched my heart and replied, "Merci beaucoup. Moi aussi." There are connections of love and tenderness to be made everyday if we're not too tired, afraid, or busy to notice. Tomorrow we're off to the wetlands north of the city and then into the Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

random thoughts after a week away in Montréal...

We arrived in town a week ago today. I may have posted that our trip north was lovely and uneventful until we reached the border. It seems as if our COVID test was 74 hours old rather than the proscribed 72. Who knew such precision was essential; we thought 72 hours meant three days! Now we know better. So, after answering the young guard's questions, we were directed to a mobile COVID test site for a new fast test. We registered with the provincial government's online tracking site, swabbed each nostril for 15 seconds, inserted the swab in a sealed test tube and awaited the results. We were declared COVID free 5 minutes later and the entire affair took about 45 minutes. 

+ I am grateful that Quebec is being pro-active re: tracking and testing. Their commitment to the vaccine passport has been in effect since September 1st and all the venues we have visited have been conscientious in adhering to the letter of the law. This is prudent - unlike so many of my nation's local governments. Alas, there are clearly two United States: one respects science and lives into the common good while the other blindly resists testing and vaccinations. The former is discovering new and safe ways to move into our brave new world, the later are dying. Dare I say: talk about karma? I grieve the horrific deaths that are now flooding Southern hospitals with anguished and suffering people of all ages. AND this is NOT a tragedy: it could have been avoided and never should have happened.

+ Our Canadian friends are as mystified by the anti-vaxxers in their country as we are in ours: the depth of conspiracy theories, however, is greater in the USA. As we speak with local business people who have endured chaos, loss of business, governmental uncertainty, financial distress among their employees, and now belligerent and uncooperative citizens who oppose the new COVID protocols, there is a remarkable unanimity in their comments: life is upside-down now in the worst possible way. With time-tested solutions to the plague it is only selfishness and sometimes greed driving the anti-vax hordes. They are a discrete minority, to be sure, but still a troubling presence. I make a point of talking to both business owners and clerks about this and they all agree that there is a clear path out of this wilderness but it needs everyone's participation.

This was in full display earlier this week when we ventured down to Place des Arts for a Jazz Festival concert. Here's what was required to get in - and please know that I support it fully. First, we had to register on line with Ticket Master to get our free tickets; as a part of this registration was a COVID test questionnaire. Second, after securing our free passes - with both paper and smart phone authentication - we had to show our vaccination records to the Jazz Festival checkers. Third, we had to show the vaccination wrist bands to another set of festival guards. Fourth, after a check for weapons, we had to show our pre-registered free passes at one of four performance centers. The crowd for each concert was divided into a variety of groups so that social distancing could happen AND COVID tracking could take place in the event of an outbreak. It was well organized, reasonably efficient, and very, very different from the festival feel of previous concerts. It felt like a wise next step into what is still to emerge: subdued, masked, and controlled. 

That this reality is the polar opposite of jazz...? Well, let's just say we only went to the downtown concerts once. It's been much more fun to join our old friends at Diese Onze (where we're returning tonight) for an intimate, COVID safe gig with a top drawer jazz trio. A few other random thoughts:

+ For the past four months Avenue du Mont-Royal has been turned into a pedestrian walk-way. The hope was that this would bring foot traffic to an area of the city that needed support. It looked like a number of businesses that we knew from six years ago have given up the ghost to COVID. A few new ones have taken their place and the wonderful Avenue du Mont-Royal is tenuously holding on like the rest of us.

+ At St. James United Church the large open area in front of the Sanctuary has been turned into a massive sandbox for children and their families. A small Black Lives Matters information table was being staffed as downtown folk gathered in the open air. There is a bit of playfulness here alongside the desperation of the people of the streets. A few buskers were giving it a shot, too but the vibe is decidedly suppressed.

+ The streets of this grand city are in disarray as a decade's long replacement of aging water mains continues. When we were on sabbatical here six years ago, Rue Sherbrooke was a mess. Same too for Avenue St. Denis. The industrial carnage has now moved to side streets making non-residential parking even more precious than before. Thankfully the city's excellent mass transportation system of subways and buses works well. Given Di's reality, however, the Metro still needs to give attention to their handicapped accessible ports of entry and egress. 

+ Yesterday we gathered in the Anglophone section of the city near Marche Atwater to visit with the Montréal contingent of the English Farm: the online English learning firm they all work for. For the past three years, Di has been calling this group together whenever we can get up here. They are young, brilliant, funny, and creative people and teachers. We shared laughs, sushi, fresh fruit, and stories for three hours. After 18 months of solitude, however, my introverted sweetheart is feeling exhausted. We're both being way more physically engaged while here with lots of walking. We both love this but it's taking its toll on her so besides some evening jazz we'll take it slow.

Being so closely linked in this studio flat has been another learning time for me as I see how I can be supportive of Di when fibromyalgia flares. At home, in our quiet and monastic setting, each day is simple and easily paced. Here we face many more challenges: hills, steps, negotiating a bi-lingual world, being "on" after so many months of silence, etc. Medication has been a Godsend and yet even that has its limitations. What's more, we leave for a quick visit to my L'Arche Ottawa friends and community tomorrow. We'll visit, sing, and catch-up together on Sunday evening before I have a full day of meetings. Staying close to home today therefore is good medicine. 


Friday, September 17, 2021

embodied trust: wisdom from deep ecumenism - part two

NOTE: Yesterday I note two important 
insights from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
concerning the significance of embodied trust from within the Jewish tradition. Today I draw upon the research and reflections shared by the late Reverend Dr. James Nelson in his 1975 masterwork: Embodiment. Jim was an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ as well as a respected member of the faculty at United Theological Seminary. I have also found wisdom in Integral Christianity: The Way of Embodied Love by Roland Michael Stanich.

When considering modern works of spirituality, theology, or Bible criticism, I mistrust authors who too easily confuse personal opinions for rigorous scholarship. I am equally suspicious of those who are unable to critique their own tradition honestly and with love: humility and careful analysis always trump the mono-minded rants of most apologists no matter how much I might favor the intentions of the later. Consequently, when considering Biblical history or textual research, I look to the deep research scholars like Raymond Brown, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Phyliss Tribble, N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Sara Coakley, Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Amy-Jill Levine, Douglas John Hall, Lauren Winner, Dorothee Soelle, James Cone, James Washington, and John Dominic Crossan. Like authors Barbara Brown Taylor, Henri Nouwen, Cynthia Bourgeault, Kathleen Norris, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, and Marilynne Robinson, they illuminate rather than obscure and interpret instead of projecting ideology. They are time-tested and objectively valued by their peers.

Now I must add James Nelson to this pantheon of allies: his robust and profound historical, Biblical, and ethical treatment of embodiment is without parallel. That it came out in 1975 does not diminish his achievement; in fact, his prescient insights are as valid almost 50 years later as they were when this text was first published. I only wish I had paid more attention back in the day. Take Nelson's insistence that St. Paul was not thoroughly addicted to the dualisms of his Hellenistic culture. Citing John A.T. Robinson, Nelson writes: "the concept of body (soma) forms the keystone of Paul's theology." (Embodiment, p. 50)

'It is from the body of sin and death that we are delivered; it is through the body of Christ on the Cross that we are saved; it is into His body the church that we are incorporated; it is by His body in the Eucharist that this community is sustained; it is in our body that its new life has to be manifested; it is to a resurrection of this body to the likeness of His glorious body that we are destined.' Further, when Paul contrasts flesh (sarx) with spirit, it is a mistake to read this as unvarnished Greek dualism - the immortal soul over against the corruptible body. More typically, Paul uses 'the mind of the flesh' to refer not to sensuality as such but to the denial of human dependence on God and a reliance on the law as a means of salvation.

These "body" references presuppose the literal and traditional substitutionary or vicarious atonement theologies - Jesus died for me religion - where Christ's body becomes an innocent sacrifice offered to an angry God. As a substitute, the body of Jesus on the Cross ransoms all humankind as his execution fulfills God's requirement that sin be punished by death. This perspective very loosely borrows metaphors and rituals from ancient Judaism's various vicarious rituals of sacrifice. It has shaped Western Christian thought since the earliest days with periodic refinements such as Anselm of Canterbury's medieval doctrine of satisfactionary atonement - where Jesus redeems humankind by his innocent death - as well as Reformed Christianity's penal substitutionary doctrine - where Jesus pays God for the punishment we deserve by substituting his life for ours. 

I understand the emotional experience embodied by belief in these atonement theologies: they honor shame and guilt and offer release. At the same time, I reject any notion that we are ever fully alienated or separated from the sacred. Further, the image of an enraged deity who demands the torture and execution of any one - let alone "His son" - is unconscionable. That's why I find the most persuasive theology of atonement and the meaning of the Cross in the work of the French anthropologist Rene Girard. It is his understanding that Christ's sacrifice neither redeems sin nor pays off an enraged deity. Rather, what Jesus does on the Cross is document what human violence looks like from the perspective of the vanquished. 

Girard teaches that societies historically select weak and powerless people to demonize and project fear and anxiety upon. By doing this, elites evoke a sense of solidarity within the majority and reclaim validity for their continued authority. Most often, after a season of hate-mongering and blame, the demonized become scape goats who must be destroyed - an act that further united people. Think of the Third Reich's campaign against European Jews after WWI or the experience of the US after September 11th 2001.Girard believe that the unique spiritual truth that Jesus shows us is what it looks like from the perspective of the scape goat. Religion typically celebrates the destruction of the scape goat as salvific. Jesus gives us the upside-down truth of what violence against the innocent and powerless looks like in all of its bloody horror. The blessing that can come from this broken body is the sobering recognition of what our religious/political violence looks like and the opportunity to become allies with God's grace. We can end our addiction to demonizing and executing our scape goats. From a Girardian perspective, I would redefine the gifts St. Paul's body theology offer like this:

+ Christ's body saves us from body of sin by showing us the consequences of our lives without illusion. As we relinquish our dependence upon lies, scape goating, spiritualities of shame and fear we not only incarnate compassion, but also begin to realize that we are always embraced by God's grace and never unwelcomed.

+ Christ's body on the Cross does not purchase our health but offers us the alternative of love, renewal, and peace-making. This is the authentic source of sacred solidarity. In this, our very bodies practice trusting God more than self.

+ Christ's body in another form - the church - not only gives us a community of encouragement where we can practice living by love, it is also a physical home for all who have been rejected, demonized, shamed, and wounded. As the Taize community states: we become a sign of festival within the brokenness.

+ Christ's body as Eucharist trains us in finding the holy in our horizontal commitments; it never rejects the vertical aspects of our communion with God, but rather asks for a both/and spirituality much like the two bars of the cross +. Together we are nourished: mystically we ingest the essence of God, socially we practice acceptance and welcome, and spiritually we renew our commitment to peace. When we enter into this embrace, our own flesh becomes as Christ's to the world and we give shape and form to the resurrected body of Christ in a new albeit wounded form. 

Nelson's insights accept the contradictions of St. Paul as he apostle worked within a patriarchal milieu as well as a licentious context. His "concern for sexual purity through dissociation from the idolatrous practices of the pagans is clearly understandable." This does not, however, render him an opponent of embodied trust nor does it make him a celebrant of his culture's body/spirit divisions. It is true the the Apostle often embraces the sexism of his era and is inconsistent in honoring his "Hebraic understanding of the unity of body /self." But as Richard Rohr repeatedly reminds us, St. Paul uses the word flesh (sarx) to mean our broken self, our wounded self, our alienated and self-absorbed spirit, what we would now label our false self that is being transformed into our truest bodyself by God's love and our ongoing commitment to key spiritual practices. 

The Apostle Paul tends to use dialectics in his writing, jockeying two seemingly opposite ideas to lead us to a deeper and third understanding. One of his most familiar dialectics is the way he speaks of flesh and spirit. Paul uses the word sarx, typically and unfortunately translated as “flesh” in most contemporary languages with a negative connotation in opposition to spirit. John’s Gospel uses this same word, sarx, in a wonderfully positive way: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). So flesh must be good too! But Paul’s usage had the larger impact. If you read Galatians or Romans, you’ll probably understand these two terms in the usual dualistic way, which has done great damage: “Well, I’ve got to get out of my flesh in order to get into the spirit.” This was even true of many canonized saints, at least in their early stages—as it was with the Buddha. But I want to say as strongly as I can: you really can’t get out of the flesh! That’s not what Paul is talking about.

The closest meaning to Paul’s sarx is today’s familiar word “ego”—which often is a problem if we are trapped inside of it. So what Paul means by “flesh” is the trapped self, the small self, the partial self, or what Thomas Merton called the false self. Basically, spirit is the whole self, the Christ Self, the True Self “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) that we fall into by grace. The problem is not between body and spirit; it’s between part and whole. Sarx or ego is the self that tries to define itself autonomously, apart from spirit, apart from the Big Self in God. It’s the tiny self that you think you are, who takes yourself far too seriously, and who is always needy and wanting something else. It’s the self that is characterized by scarcity and fragility—and well it should be, because it’s finally an illusion and passing away. It changes month by month. This small self doesn’t really exist in God’s eyes as anything substantial or real. It’s nothing but a construct of your own mind. It is exactly what will die when you die. Flesh is not bad, it is just inadequate to the final and full task, while posing as the real thing. Don’t hate your training wheels once you take them off your bicycle. You should thank them for getting you started on your cycling journey! To easily get beyond this confusion, just substitute the word ego every time you hear Paul use the word flesh. It will get you out of this dead-end, false, and dualistic ping-pong game between body and spirit. The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!
(Center for Action and Contemplation, 
https://cac.org/flesh-and-spirit-2018-04-06/)

St. Paul's  emphasis on embodied trust points to the holiness of Christ's integration of body/mind/spirit. This is one of the blessings underscored in Integral Christianity where Roland Michael Stanich writes that it is not coincidence that the first of Jesus' miracles - turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana - prefigures the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Noting that the bread and wine which Jesus calls his body and blood come from the earth and are fashioned by human hands, Stanich invites us to see the unity of God's presence within Jesus and all creation. "The vastness" of Christ's mind recognizes "the vastness of his body and blood" that is born, formed and shared from Mother Earth. In this, none of us are separated from the sacred no matter what confusing dualisms our spiritual traditions may have sacralized. Small wonder I have found gardening to be a sacramental practice: I am figuratively embracing the very essence of Christ's body and blood. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

embodied trust: wisdom from deep ecumenism - part one

NOTE: Today is part one of a two part reflection on discovering the wisdom of my Judeo-Christian heritage concerning embodied trust. This post touches upon both Judaism and contemplative Christianity. Part two will consider the literal and figurative celebration of the body in the lives of Jesus and St. Paul.

While doing online research into the origins of "embodied trust," I came upon a blogpost by a colleague and friend: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat at Velveteen Rabbi. Her insights, reflections on scripture, poetry, and analysis of the always evolving Jewish traditions are edifying and enlightening. (For those who wish to know more, please see: https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com) The post that caught my attention this time hails from 2007 entitled (wait for it...) embodied trust! Two observations have been particularly helpful
(https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2007/09/embodied-trust.html)

+ First, she notes that in the Jewish tradition there are three discrete yet inter-related types of elemental trust: the trusting mind, the trusting heart, and the trusting body. The Hebrew word, emanuh, includes each of these aspects with "the highest of these is emunat ha-evarim, trusting with one's limbs, where deep trust penetrates every fibre of one's being." The wise rabbi notes that "Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzovsky, the previous Slonimer Rebbe" teaches that:

The classic example he offers is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. In that moment of leaping, he writes (in his commentary on parashat Beshalach), the children of Israel trusted fully in the One, and therefore the holy spirit rested upon them and sang in them (this is a Hebrew pun -- שרתה / shartah, rested, relates aurally to שירה / shirah, song) and song burst forth not only from their lips but in their very limbs.

+ Second, many of us are inclined to trust the sacred with our hearts - and our minds can be trained "through contemplation and study." But how do you help your flesh, blood, and limbs move through the day knowing/trusting/resting in the steadfast love of the Lord which endures forever? She suggests that ripening into this type of trust is a slow work that is always in progress.

In my own contemplative Christian tradition, two new/old resources are taking on greater significance as I incrementally give attention to embodied trust. The first are the various body prayers that model the pilgrimage into incarnational trust while simultaneously training our flesh to trust the unforced rhythms of grace: making the sign of the Cross at the start and close of meditation, lighting candles and incense while touching prayer beads, speaking and/or chanting my prayers, bowing, kneeling, feasting and fasting, praying with my eyes with icons, receiving and sharing Eucharist. Each and all of these resources prefiguratively celebrate trusting the sacred beyond the confines of abstract thought. 

Having been raised in the ways of New England congregationalism, where just a small wooden cross on the communion table of the Sanctuary was once considered idolatrous, has meant investigating the time-tested body prayers of the larger Christian realm independently. Like many little, white suburban children of the 50's, I learned the Lord's Prayer and "now I lay me down to sleep..." and that's about it. My dad came from an intellectual, Unitarian Scottish family while my mom was rooted in the world of working class Irish folk with both Catholic and Protestant roots. We started attending the Congregational Church in Connecticut as a compromise of sorts when I was in second grade but learning about prayer was not a strong point. As a professional colleague much later used to say: "Back in those days, worship in the Congregational church meant a song, a poem and a book report!"

I didn't know much about the physicality of prayer until a born-again, evangelical language instructor in Costa Rica told me that she continued to make the sign of the Cross during prayer from her Catholic days as a way of connecting to Jesus. This was frowned upon by the Protestant missionaries who arrogantly wanted to convert her from what they considered her quasi-pagan past, but she suggested it was a ritual of love. And that was ALL the permission I needed to start exploring the liturgical wisdom of both Eastern Orthodoxy and mystical Western Roman Catholicism. The physicality of these prayers felt like home to me. After an extended hiatus, I'm once again rediscovering these tools as guides into yet another encounter with embodied trust. Using all of my senses - including a return to Christian hatha yoga - resonates with every part of my being. These resources have been helpful:

+ An Invitation to Christian Yoga, The Reverend Nancy Roth, Cowley Publications, 2001.

+ Pray All Ways and Prayers for the Domestic Church, Fr. Ed Hays, Forest of Peace Books, 2007.

+ "How to Pray with Anglican Prayer Beads", Unspoken Elements blog @ https://www.unspokenelements.com/pages/how-to-use-anglican-prayer-beads

+ Chanting the Psalms, The Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault, New Seeds Books, 2007.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

walking, watching, listening, and trusting...

Yesterday we walked through Parc Lafontaine in the Plateau neighborhood of Montréal. We shared a late lunch lakeside accompanied by mallard ducks, seagulls, and cormorants. A few dedicated sunbathers lay on the hills soaking up as much warmth as possible before the weather turns harsh. And as evening arrived, we took in two smokin' Latin jazz sets at our beloved Dièse Onze under the leadership of Alex Bellegarde. Speaking with him during a break about the importance of live music, he said: the hardest thing about the pandemic for him as a performer (aside from the suffering and loss of life) was the absence of the energy created between an artist and those entering into the magic of the music. It was as isolating, lonely, and anguished 18 months that is only now slowly changing. 

Today is a slow, inward time for Di and myself as we write, take care of small administrative chores, and mostly rest after being so public and active beyond our habits. I will likely take a long solitary walk later just to feel the vibe of the city - and get a few goodies like TP and soap. Such is the rhythm we've embraced as flâneurs: we each need our own quiet time for physical and psychic space after wandering this world with awe and gratitude. Being older and a bit infirm adds to this reality, too. "To everything there is a season," yes? One of the gifts of this gentle trip is being cut off from the barrage of so-called "news" that has polluted so much of our North American culture. Even gasoline pumps now have TV screens blaring some upsetting headline at you with no OFF switch available. And as I learned six years ago while on sabbatical here, living in a Francophone area of town makes certain I listen more than speak and trust the silence ever more deeply. To be sure, we've been monk-like at home even before sheltering in place. Solitude and silence have long been our friends. But being in this part of town adds another layer of quietude that I have come to cherish.

After a simple monastic breakfast of tea and toast, I read a brilliant article by Ragan Sutterfield entitled, "Climate Change is a Symptom of Deeper Planetary Dysfunction" from The Christian Century. (check it out here: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/climate-change-symptom-deeper-planetary-dysfunction) It is an elegant invitation to humbly give up our anthropocentric worldview and habits:

We should seek to end fossil fuel use, divest our assets from companies that promote it, and invest in clean energy. We should replace our gas guzzlers with more efficient vehicles. We should quit flying whenever we have the whim to go someplace—we should make long-distance travel rare. We should do many of the things that have been promoted as responses to our climate crisis. But in all of this we must be under no illusions that this will mean the reconciliation of human life with the whole of crea­tion. Solar panels on every church rooftop will not be the healing we need. Instead, as with so many aspects of our broken world, the real healing of injustice comes through a long walk of humble mercy and the repentance that means changed hearts and lives.

He then suggests five inter-related embodied practices that have been time-tested as essential for living into the beauty of creation as a partner: withdrawal, geography, sanctuary, skill-sharing, and mercy. It is a rich and nuanced call to deepen what I am calling embodied trust so that from the inside out and within our bodies as well as the body politic healing happens:

The years ahead will be critical to the future of the life we have known on our planet. We need energy transitions, infrastructure changes, and much of what has become the standard response to the climate crisis. But that crisis is only a symptom of a disease that goes to the heart of the human relationship with creation. We must cut all of the carbon we can as quickly as we can. But we should seek to do so within a frame of healing the whole, of exorcising the demons of our dominion made manifest in industrial civilization. We should not build windmills at the expense of migrating birds. We should not trade carbon pollution for lithium waste. The world should suffer no more from human life beyond its creaturely limits.

On our walk home, I came upon this tiny reminder that in the midst of our pain, confusion, anger, and fear there is still the tender presence of the sacred for those with eyes to see. Right now Miles Davis et al are playing "All Blues" on our small portable sound system reminding me it's time to quit sitting in front of my computer and put on my walking shoes:

The sea, the sky, for you and I - I'll know we're all blues
All Shades, all hues, all blues
Some blues are sad but some are glad,
Dark-sad or bright-glad they're all blues
All shades, all hues, all blues
The color of colors the blues are more than a color
They're a moan of pain, a taste of strife
And a sad refrain a game which lief is playin'
Blues can be the livin' dues we're all a-payin'
Yeah, Oh Lord in a rainbow a summer day that's fair
A prayer is prayed a lament that's made... all blues

Monday, September 13, 2021

thankful for a time to wander...

Wandering again - and watching the world with awe in public! What a treat after 18 months of relative solitude. We arrived back in beautiful Montréal after a two year hiatus. Our last visit found us in a small flat above a liquor store on Prince Arthur not far from where we are staying now. We walked that pedestrian way again last night and found many of the former hot spots closed down and boarded up. The pandemic has been rough for everyone, but especially complicated for businesses dependent upon students and tourists. The open-air dining establishments were doing a booming business - and St. Laurent was hopping, too. But while the Plateau is returning to vibrancy, death and disease have taken a toll.

When we went to a jazz eatery in le vieux porte by the St. Lawrence, a young man was following covid protocols and checking that every patron held a vaccine passport. Tourists have not been included in this Quebec mandate as of yet; but he dutifully looked at our vaccination cards before saying, "I know that if you are here, you have been fully vaccinated in the United States. Please, enjoy and bon appetit." It was a new experience to be in a full restaurant - with live music - basking in the sunshine and seeing hundreds of unmasked faces. The wait staff, of course, remained fully masked. And guests masked up upon entering and leaving. But for the better part of an hour there was lively conversation, laughter, and a feeling of freedom among those taking-in some earthly delights on a late Sunday afternoon.

Such is the promise of the vaccine mandate in the USA, too: there will be a time when many of us can reconnect in public. Oh happy day! Di and I encountered a bit of this at the Joan Osborne/Madeline Peyroux concert at the start of our wee trip. Vaccination records were carefully reviewed, all the concert goers remained masked throughout the three hour show, and both artists were openly grateful that we were respectfully caring for one another - and them - as we all lived into a brave new world where live music was a real possibility once more. Osborne was visibly moved and close to tears. Why 80 million others have chosen to oppose safety, compassion, and respect for others in public continues to baffle me. With nearly 75% of Montreal at least partly vaccinated, the radical minority is slowly being shunned into new behavior - and well they should be. 

Today will be a bit more wandering in Parc La Fountaine (not far from our flat) and then an evening a Diese Onze (our favorite jazz club in all the world!) One of the city's finest contra basse players, Alex Bellegarde, is the headliner. While on sabbatical six years ago, we regularly took in his shows and particularly loved his Tuesday jam sessions where old timers and young music hot shots from McGill University waited patiently for the second and third sets when Alex invited them up to give it a shot. It was like the 40's in the jazz cellars of NYC all over again. It will be a reunion and delight for us to support a small business that creatively found ways to keep the music flowing during the worst of the lockdown and stay afloat with a take away menu. We'll hit Diese Onze a few other times during this stay for sure.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

embodied trust: a challenge to hating our bodies...

The appointed texts for this day, Sunday September 12, are poignant and pregnant with possibilities. The first reading from the First Testament is one of my favorites:

Proverbs 1:20-33: Lady Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.’

Note it is LADY Wisdom - the feminine heart of the holy - speaking to the masses. She calls out not the uncomplicated nor those who choose simple living, but rather "the simple" - pthiy in Hebrew - meaning the willfully naïve and/or those who choose to ignore realty and truth. This is one of the Biblical passages that sounds like karma: you reap what you sow. It is an earthy wisdom sharply shared so that we might wake up and smell the coffee that Mother Earth, Gaia, Lady Wisdom has brewed for us. She does not suffer fools gladly. Rather, she has grown weary with our hubris, angry with our greed, and broken-hearted over the way our selfishness brings pain to the innocent. It seems the more life changes, the more it remains the same, yes?

The gospel lesson in St. Mark 8 is equally bold: "Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?" Too often these words from the second testament are spiritualized, robbing them of any incarnational connection with the Messiah who loved to feast, and was chastised for hanging-out with drunkards. Too often these words
 become a denial of our flesh when Jesus doesn't say that - then or now - his focus on the Cross is a challenge to the self-absorbed life not contempt for our bodies. Yet, as the late James Nelson wrote back in the 1975: 

In the Christian West, theology has too often been a disembodied enterprise. It has been understood as preeminently a rational discipline, a matter for the head. There have been, of course, exceptions... (but for the most part) there continues to lurk a deep suspicion of the body... Suppose on a Sunday the minister were to announce as the day's text Romans 12: 1: 'I appeal to you, therefore... to present your bodies as a living sacrifice holly and acceptable to God as your worship.' Would bodies be interpreted by most hearers as the entire self (the body-mind-heart self as Paul intended?) Probably not. Would the mood conveyed by that text be the prospect of wholeness, joy, ecstasy? No, more likely it would be heard as the injunction addressed to the mind or spirit to engage in the dreary duty of disciplining and controlling one's body imposing upon it from outside and alien willpower. (Embodiment, pp. 30 and 41)

How does our distorted hatred of our flesh empower us to listen and heed the cries of Lady Wisdom? How does despising the flesh into which the essence of the holy was incarnated advance the cause of compassion? A spirituality of embodied trust is the antithesis of traditional Western Christian spiritual formation. As I walked around Montreal today with Di, whose body hurts and has slowed down considerably, I prayed that we might both rest in what has been given and make the most of our time together. We walked and rested. We talked and watched the beauty of the world move all around us. It was a quiet festival of incarnation that nourished my soul.

Friday, September 10, 2021

naunce and grace in embodied trust...

As I explore the practice and meaning of embodied trust more deeply, it's  become clear that I must expand my poetry canon beyond my treasured favorites. Decades ago I encountered the work of Alicia Ostriker in an Oxford anthology: Chapters into Verse - A Selection of Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible. A poem she entitles, "The Story of Joshua," moved me in its clarity, nuance, and paradox. That is most certainly one of the gifts of the Hebrew Bible: its variegated insights entwining literal insights within the sacred embrace of myth, archetype, contradiction, paradox as well as history recited factually and from a robust imagination. 

The Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann wisely notes in his Introduction to the Old Testament: Canon and Christian Imagination that given the evolving redaction of these texts by a variety of liturgical leaders ranging from the most primitive to the evolving priestly caste, words like "wilderness" and "chaos" are simultaneously part of ancient Israel's origin stories as well as a description of their exile in Babylon to say nothing of the inward/outward spiritual journeys of individuals. He writes:

The sojourn material is organized around a series of encounters at different oases, as Israel moves, in stylized telling, by stages. Attempts have been made to recover the itinerary of the sojourn by identifying
 various oases and connecting them in terms of realistic possibilities of travel. The narrative give the impression, however, that the oases are in fact only staging arenas for narratives of crises, so that any geographical recovery of the sojourn is likely impossible... it is important to understand the function of "wilderness" in the tradition. It is easiest to take "wilderness" as a geographical reference, and that is surely what the tradition itself understood. As a geographical location, the term refers to the area traversed by Israel between Egypt (slavery) and the promised land (and secure well-being.) This is clearly how the tradition presents the matter of wilderness. Since the exodus itself is something of an act of imagination, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the wilderness that is presented with geographical realism is an arena of imaginative construal. It is a launching pad for God-Israel transaction in an environment of acute risk and deep jeopardy. In the lived experience of Israel, it is plausible that the sixth century deportation, when Israel was removed from the land, provides (another) "historical" connection of Israel to the wilderness (where) the wilderness serves to comment upon the palpable experience of "exile... especially when noting that the tradition reached something like final form in the sixth or fifth century (where) contemporary experience is read into and through the ancient remembering. (pp. 59-60)

We know that families do much the same thing - blending fact with fiction, the truth with imaginative recollection - at reunions, funerals, and weddings. The arch of Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" books is a recent example of how the same story can be told from the perspective of four very different individuals. It is the same story, with the same events and players, but with dramatically different insights. The Christian texts of the second testament carry on this tradition in the highly selective and romantic rendering of everyday life in the faith community as given by St. Luke, the careful way St. Mary Magdalene has been written out of the story, as well as the symbolic retelling of Genesis from the experiences of the Apocalypse of John. The stories of the Hebrew Bible offer us a complex yet stunning mosaic of insights - and Ostriker illuminates this in "The Story of Joshua" like this:

The New Englanders are a people of God settled in those which were once the devil's territories. (Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World, 1692)

We reach the promised land
Forty years later
The original ones who were slaves
Have died
The young are seasoned soldiers
There is wealth enough for everyone and God
Here at our side, the people
Are made with excitement.
Here is what to do, to take
This land away from the inhabitants:
Burn their villages and cities
Kill their men
Kill their women
consume the people utterly.
God says: is that clear?
I give you the land, but
You must murder for it.
You will be a nation
Like other nations,
Your hands are going to be stained like theirs
Your innocence annihilated.
Keep listening, Joshua.
Only to you among the nations
do I also give knowledge
The secret.
Knowledge that you are doing evil
Only to you the commandment:
Love ye therefore the stranger, for you were
Strangers in the land of Egypt, a pillar
Of fire to light your passage
Through the blank desert of history forever.
This is the agreement.
Is it entirely
Clear, Joshua,
Said the Lord.

I said it was. He then commanded me
to destroy Jericho.

Choosing to hold competing truths together in tension is, I have come to believe, a part of learning to live with embodied trust. I know that within my life - and clearly within my heart - are opposing truths. Much like St. Paul in Romans 7 there have been times when I have known what is good, true, and loving, but have been unable to do such - no matter how hard I tried. I know that God's love shines on the just as well as the corrupt, too. Or as Bono says: Grace trumps karma! 

Most of the time I resonate with these truths intellectually, but now I yearn to trust them in my limbs. I suppose it's part of a twenty year sojourn that began one Christmas morning in Tucson when I announced: "I want fish for breakfast!" Before that morning I had been a conscientious practicing vegetarian of the ovo-lacto variety. I made that bodily commitment while on the road of living as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. It only made sense that I would stop eating flesh if I was opposed to killing. Like other young idealists, I was intent on eradicating contradictions from my life. Some fifty years later I smile at my naivete, but back in the day I was earnest and as doctrinaire as pacifist could be. That's why my Christmas pronouncement about a fish breakfast stunned my family. Really? Are you nuts? You've ALWAYS been a vegetarian. Why don't you wait until after the Christmas morning Eucharist is over: if you still want fish, then we'll do it. And we did. That breakfast of fried catfish was an incarnational prayer that confessed: Ok, I am a mess of contradictions, like everyone else, and I trust that God still loves me. My failings - and sins - were real. The wounds I had brought to those I loved did not disappear. And, I was making peace within my flesh with grace.

I still am - and this quest for embodied trust is growing deeper - as I learn to make peace with embodied paradox. Another wise poet, Scott Cairns, puts it like this in "Imperative."

The thing to remember is how
tentative all of this really is.
You could wake up dead.

Or the woman you love
could decide you're ugly.
Maybe she'll finally give up
trying to ignore the way
you floss your teeth as you
watch television. All I'm saying
is that there are no sure things here.

I mean, you'll probably wake up alive,
and she'll probably keep putting off
any actual decision about your looks.
Could be she'll be glad your teeth
are so clean. The morning might be
full of all the love and kindness
you need. Just don't go thinking
you deserve any of it.

Now it's time to pack for a few weeks of wandering with my sweetheart through our beloved Montréal.




Thursday, September 9, 2021

like a child upon her mother's breast: embodied trust

One of the best insights into embodied trust comes from Wisdom-Teacher and
Episcopal priest, the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault. About this time last year, while in Montreal (where we're headed in two days) I participated in her Introduction to the Western Wisdom Tradition online study. I also spent time scouring her book, The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart. Without reservation I can affirm that this small book holds a panoply of vital truths about ripening into a heart-centered spirituality. 

One insight warrants additional comment. In a chapter exploring "freedom and surrender" she writes: "Where there's surrender, synchronicity tends to follow, which is one of the most delightful side effects of the surrender practice." Then she gives a gift that keeps on giving.

Although there are any number of spiritual practices both ancient and universal to bring a person to this state of permanent inner "yieldedness," the most direct and effective one I know is simply this: in any situation in life, confronted by an outer threat or opportunity, you can notice yourself responding inwardly in one of two ways. Either you will brace, harden, and resist; or, you will soften, open, and yield. If you go with the former gesture, you will be catapulted immediately into your smaller (ego-driven) self, with its animal instincts and survival responses. If you stay with the latter regardless of the outer conditions, you will remain in alignment with your innermost being, and through it, divine being can reach you. Spiritual practice at its no-frills simplest is a moment-by-moment learning not to do anything in a state of internal brace. Bracing is never worth the cost.
(p. 75, Wisdom Way of Knowing)

Utilizing this practice has been the best way to incarnate a training regime for my flesh so that trusting God becomes embodied rather than abstract. It takes intentionality, of course, and awareness. But incrementally, along with other embodied practices, a shift from anxiety towards trust is ripening within. Not totally and not without confusion, but authentically and gracefully. As a TV commercial from my childhood suggested: "Try it, you'll like it!"


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

towards embodied trust...

To say that I've wrestled with a fundamental paradox in Western Christianity in many of its forms for most of my life would be an understatement: why is the way of Jesus, God's word made flesh, so abstract and cerebral? Why has our spiritual formation been essentially the training of the mind? Orthodoxy - right thought - rather than orthopraxis - right action? Not that I am advocating the know-nothing, anti-intellectualism that has polluted so much of our common life in these quasi-United States. I celebrate creative, in-depth theological queries and value the great religious minds that have helped articulate what a deep life of faith looks like in real time: Dorothee Soelle, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Harvey Cox, Joan Chittister, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, Kathleen Norris, Douglas John Hall, Walter Brueggemann, Henri Nouwen, Elie Wiesel, Parker Palmer, Amy Jill Levine, Lawrence Kushner, James Nelson, James Cone, Abraham Heschel, Paul Tillich, Carl Jung, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Paul, Ed Hays, and Howard Thurman to name the most important for me as well as the author of the anonymous mystical classic: Cloud of Unknowing.

Somewhere along the way a charismatic friend stated that faith was NOT only an intellectual endeavor: faith was the difference between thinking that a chair would support my weight - orthodoxy - and actually sitting in it - orthopraxis! My charismaniac phase put me in touch with some beautiful aspects of embodied faith - certainly the ecstasy of some of our worship back in the day was sensually exhilarating - and yet most of my formation (even in this subset of Western Christianity) was hyper-abstract and profoundly cerebral. I don't think that I ever came across a set of practices and/or teachings concerning embodied trust: knowing in my flesh and limbs that God's love is the ultimate truth of creation. Celtic spirituality has helped: it is grounded in God's first word in nature. The newly crafted liturgical season of Creation has deepened my awareness that trust/faith is incarnational, too. And, some feminist/womanist writing along with some First Nations spirituality moves in this direction as well.

+ I suspect that embodied trust is at the core of the spiritual practices Dorothy C. Bass et al at Valparaiso University and later at Calvin College have worked so hard to articulate and advocate, too. (see both: https://centerforcongregations.org/ resource/practicing-our-faith as well as https://goodfaithmedia .org/valparaiso-project-launches-faith-practices-web-site-cms-1077/)

+ Certainly this has been at the heart of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico as well as the insights the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault has shared in her Wisdom workshops. (see https://cac.org/introductory-wisdom-school/)

For the past 15 years I have been closing-in on this contradiction through my focus on a spirituality of tenderness. This put me back in touch with Jean Vanier and L'Arche. (NOTE: I was moved and enriched by Jean's writing. I was sickened and frustrated by his abuse - and the abuse done to him by his mentor. Sorting this out is still a work in progress, but as Krista Tippett has said: Jean's legacy is a mess that we're still unraveling.) At L'Arche, I have experienced radical acceptance, a way of being faithful that is simple, trusting, and incarnational. And a sense that grace born of listening and being present that is far more salvific than most of the words written about the meaning of faith. That is, living into a trust that is animated from the inside of our flesh outward is essential. 

As I gather my gear for our trek to Montreal and Ottawa - and as we walk about those grand places quietly - I am going to be practicing some yoga prayers as well as some silent, centering meditation. Maybe you want to join me...?



from whence comes a vision...

Earlier this week, while still wandering in the mystery that is Montréal, I was buying groceries in a market off St. Laurent. While bagging ...