IDENTITY

Identity begins with the cry of the newborn infant — yearning, craving, hunger. This is the cry to be known, to be seen, to be heard. This is the cry for love, love that unites the physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual. As the infant grows into adulthood, this yearning takes the form of questions: Who am I? What am I doing here? How can I make a difference? These are perennial human questions that have been asked since antiquity. These are the questions of identity.

Today these are not merely questions for personal reflection. They are urgent. The urgency stems from the seemingly crushing list of crises facing our world today — from climate change to war, poverty, violence, and persistent forms of illness. Surely every generation has had its share of urgent crises, from basic survival — finding enough to eat, shelter, clothing — to threat of invasion, as well as the violence done from one human being to another, best captured by the “seven deadly sins”. This is nothing new.

What is new, especially in the west, is that many no longer trust the institutions that historically have provided guidance and direction. As a result, we see major changes in societal structures that until fairly recently have been slow to change. This is true in religion, government, economics, education, medicine, entertainment, and sports, to name just a few. In the past, each of these institutions were a foundational building block that offerred security. Our identity was defined in terms of the religion we followed, the political party we belonged to, the level of income we generated through career, the education we received, and so on and so on.

Today, all of these insitutions are in flux, and questions of “who we are” as a society have never been more urgent. From racial violence to war to climate change to ObamaCare, we are living through times that challenge our sense of who we are individually and collectively as never before.

For many (certainly not all!) of us in the west, we have plenty of food, water, housing, and access to education. Ours are not so much problems of basic survival. Instead the questions of identity that we face are questions about purpose: “What am I doing here? How can I made a difference in a world that is plagued with suffering? How can I find purpose without falling off into into despair that tells us that human society is ultimately doomed by its own creation? How can we survive this crushing anxiety?

Buddhism offers tremendous power, both in perspective and in actual practices that can be helpful. Buddhism suggests that before we dive headlong into tackling the world’s problems, that we grapple with our personal sense of identity. This requires deep faith, for it means commitment to an examination of self, looking at all the many pieces of who I am, and who I am not, while trusting that this inner personal journey will have value in contributing to a more humane society.

What happens when we take this inner plunge? First, we discover that my usual way of answering the questions “who am I? “what am I doing here?” emerges as a long list of roles, like: wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister, neighbor; and categories of identification: race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation; and career choices. The answer to “Who am I?” becomes a statement, like: “I am a white female, of Russian and Irish descent, who is politically eclectic, a writer, dancer, teacher, wife, mother, and daughter.”

Each of these words captures some aspect of who I experience myself to be. But none of these roles captures all of “me”. When I am honest, I sense that even with this long list, there is some other “me” behind or beneath all of these aspects of identity. It’s not that any of them are false or untrue. They are merely the first rung to examine. To go beyond this rung is to tap into what Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron calls the “groundlessness” of our being.

Experiencing this groundlessness is not usually something that we welcome easily. Often it is triggered through an experience of deep loss. It may be the loss of a spouse, parent, child, or dear friend or companion; or the loss of a career, home, community, or cherished dream. We begin to experience groundlessness. It’s a feeling of “coming apart at the seems”, or “the ground shifting beneath us”, or “no longer feeling like myself”. We become overwhelmed with emotions like fear, anger, and sorrow.

This experience of groundlessness happens when our identity, or some part of our identity, is challenged, or we discover that whatever we are holding onto no longer exists, or is merely an illusion. We no longer know who we are and cannot imagine who we might become. In this shifting world of identity we are in a constant state of flux, seemingly unable to find an anchor in the world, or in ourselves.

Ironically, this state of groundlessness in which everything seems to be in flux, is exactly what science is telling us is the true nature of all things. This reality is poetically captured by John Philip Newell who writes:

All things come from you O God,
and to you we return.
All things emerge in your great river of life
and into you we vanish again.
At the beginning of this day
we wake
not as separate streams
but as countless currents in a single flow
the flow of this day’s dawning
the flow of this day’s delight
the flow of this day’s sorrows
your flow, O God,
in the twistings and turnings of this new day. (1)

This poem lovingly embraces the flow of reality; or to put it another way, reality is flow. It’s a beautiful concept, and conjurs up images of rivers and streams. Science echoes this deep mystical impulse, telling us in the language of “quarks” and “quantum particles”, that things are not what they seem. Physical reality is not solid and fixed but in a constant state of moving, of flow.

The theory sounds good. When we look at trees and plants and birds and human babies, we see that over time these living forms shift and change and grow. But science is saying more than that. Science is telling us that all matter is moving, and it’s moving, not over time, but right here, right now, in this very moment. In other words, the tables and chairs and the couch that are in the living room are moving. Now it’s one thing to hear a scientific theory expounded but it’s quite another thing to live into this perception. If I walk into a room and perceive the walls moving, I would probably be considered to be having in the midst of a psychotic episode. Welcome to the land of flow.

For most of us, when we look at tables and chairs and couches we perceive them as solid and fixed. Even when we look at living tree, for example, the tree appears still, motionless. Intellectually, we know that the tree, like all living things, is growing. But that is not what see with our eyes. To suggest that our eyes do not convey a true picture of reality is an enormous shift in how we view ourselves and the world. This shift is exactly what science demands of us.

We human beings don’t like this sort of change much. We didn’t like it when were told that the world is round, not flat. We didn’t like it when Einstein said that…………. We didn’t like it when the washing machine came along and changed time honored ways of doing laundry. When science, technology, or some other aspect of reality challenges our fundamental perception of how we view ourselves and the world, it threatens our identity — for identity is precisely how we define ourselves in the world. To change the world means that we must change. It means giving up some idea, perception, or ways of doing things that have been a longstanding part of our experience. My grandmother thought the washing machine was “of the devil” and until she died washed all her clothes by hand.

Most challenges to our identity are on a far more personal level, however. Loss is one of the most profound challenges to our identity. The loss may be through death of someone close — a spouse, partner, parent, child, teacher, or friend. Or the loss may be through the ending of a job or career, whether the ending came voluntarily or not. The loss may be economic, when we suddenly feel frightened not to have enough money to cover expenses. The loss may trigger feelings of despair, if we lose a sense of purpose. Often parents experience this when children grow up and leave the home. Some people look forward to life in retirement, only to discover that one’s sense of structure, purpose, and meaning has dissolved into a huge expanse of time, with no sense of how to use that time productively. losing a sense of purpose.

Any one of these experiences threatens our identity because the loss feels so deep, as if a very part of our body has been taken away. Initially we may refuse to accept the change but sooner or later acceptance comes. When we our identity feels threatened we touch what Buddhist meditation teacher, Pema Chodron calls the “groundlessness of our being”. Our experience of groundlessness happens when what we thought was solid, fixed, and unchangeable is now gone.
The very ground beneath us seems to break apart. This can be a terrifying experience. When something, or someone, or some part of ourselves is suddenly gone, we face the terror of facing the unknown, and may feel profoundly alone.

This experience re-ignites the yearning cry of the infant, no matter how old we are. There is no greater pain than to have this yearning remain unfulfilled. Yet beneath the cry of yearning persists the voracious hunger to live, to grow, to move beyond the experience. I know this pain, this hunger, this will to live.

I loved my mother dearly and was very young when she became ill. When she died, I felt ripped apart, as if my very body were being shredded. With every fiber of my being I tried to will her back, and as the reality that she was gone sank in, I sank into suicidal depression. As I grew into adulthood, I found much success in education and work, but there was an inner hole that no amount of success could fill. That inner hole was where groundlessness remained.

Buddhist meditation gave me a way of approaching that hole, learning to inhabit it. Slowly I learned how to breathe through feelings of groundlessness, and all the anger, fear, and sorrow that go with deep loss. As I learned to sink into my sense of identity as “a motherless child”, I discovered a deeper sense of myself as a child of God, belonging to the world, anchored in Life. The profound sense of loneliness that I had carried all my life began to lift, and I gained a sense of presence.

Though the details of this story are uniquely mine, the process of identity formation is not. The hunger that begins in infancy is a hunger that we all share, and our first experience of identity begins with the presence of mother. As we grow, our sense of identity is shaped through the totality of our experiences — relationships with parents and other caregivers, teachers, friends and intimate relationships; education in and out of school; jobs and career; travel; sports; entertainment and so on.

Deep loss often triggers a period of identity re-formation that emerges out of the sense of groundlessness. Moving through this process, we may find our inner being mirrored in images of hurricanes, war, and earthquakes. We hear the echo of our inner being in various kinds of literature, films, and other forms of art. This harmonic relationship between our inner terrain and exeriences playing out in the world around us is not accidental. Religious scriptures express practice to express this deep resonance between inner and outer reality, offering humanity a place to anchor one’s sense of self, our identity at the deepest levels of our being. Spiritual practice is the vehicle for nurturing the awareness of and trust in this resonance. As we let go the many forms of identity that we have collected, we learn to trust an inner authority. This isnot the ego, but someting deeper. We learn to trust more deeply the process of Life itself, Life moving thru us, Life as context that we belong to. A new identity emerges, more deeply tethered to universal Life.

21st century Christianity (like so many forms of religious and secular institutions) is going thru this same process of new identity formation. In the last seventy-five years, the institutional authority of the Church has been dissolving. This is a complex process of evolution in the west. While numerous explanations can be given for why, there is no question that is has happened. And for many Christians and others, this has been a terrifying process.

As the authority of the Church lessened during the last one hundred years, the institution has had to confront very real questions of “Who are we? What are we? What are we doing here?” This process of reflection has rippled through every level of the hierarchy of Christianity, from the smallest parish to the deepest reflections of the Pope; across all denominations, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and non-denominational forms of Christianity.

This is a process of institutional identity re-formation. Signs of new identity emerging are seen throughout Christianity: new ways of crafting liturgy, worship; use of new technologies; new forms of seminary education that train clergy; new denominations appearing; interaction between Christianity and other religious traditions, both in theological reflection as well as interfaith spiritual practices; in the endless books, journal and magazine articles and blogs about Christianity today —- what it is, what it is not.

If, as science tells us, everything is flow, is there some aspect of who I am that doesn’t change? If “I” am not the various roles that I play, nor my relationships, home, or job, who am I? In some sense, “I am my body”. But while I may think of “my body” as a solid thing — a collection of bones, muscles, organs, skin — these seemingly solid things are actually living structures, in motion with every breath. And how easily I ignore that “my body” is mostly water. “My body” is a potent example of “flow”. It turns out that “I am” is more of a verb than a noun.

And yet, the question remains, is there something beneath it all, even beneath the flow? In the fourteenth century, Catherine of Sienna grappled with this question and answered it this way:

“…. when I finally see myself as I am, I do not discover a little nugget of lonely selfhood…I discover myself being loved into existence.”

In a conversation with God, Catherine reports that God told her:

“…it was with providence that I created you, and when I contemplate my creature in myself, I fell in love with the beauty of my creation.” (2)
Centuries later, Evelyn Underhill echoes these same impulses:

“This is a secret that has always been known to men and women of prayer, something we can trust and that acts in proportion to our trust. Sometimes it is on our soul that He lays His tranquillizing touch and stills the storm; sometimes on the hurly-burly of our emotional life, sometimes on events that we think must destroy us or the people and causes we love and who are mysteriously modified by the Spirit that indwells and overrules them. We do feel sometimes as if we are left to ourselves to struggle with it all. He is away praying on the mountain, or He is asleep in the oat; the waves seem to be getting decidedly higher, the night is very dark and we don’t feel sure about our gear — we begin to lose our nerve for life and no one seems to mind. Certainly life is not made soft for (people of prayer); but is is, in the last resort, safe. The universe is safe for souls.” (3)

_________________________________

(1) John Philip Newell, Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pulishing Co, 2001), page 26.

(2) Catherine of Sienna, Passion for the Truth, Compassion for Humanity, edited by Mary O’Driscoll (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2005, 2013), page 94 (Dialogue 135).

(3) Evelyn Underhill, Light of Christ: Addresses given at the House of Retreat Pleshy, May, 1932 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1945), page 71.

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STEPPING INTO FLOW

“In the beginning….” says the writer of Genesis, “God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” So begins the first chapter of Genesis. This is the grand cosmic movement — God giving birth. The journey of awakening begins, as history unfolds — one event, one era leading into the next — a continuous flow, marked by time.

But what is this “flow”? According to the dictionary,“flow” is “a steady, continuous stream of something.” This “something” might be a river in perpetual motion, or the movement of the sun around the earth — night becomes day, and day becomes night. “Flow” is the emergence of flowers, trees, fish, and babies from humble beginnings as seeds and cells. The very nature of thinking is flow, as thoughts, feelings, and sensations pass through consciousness. This organic movement, the “steady, continuous stream” of nature, is “flow”, the context through which all life breathes, shifts, grows, and dies.

David Bohm (1917 – 1992) was a 20th century physicist who was an early proponent of the idea that all physical reality is one undivided flow — that “flow” is the nature of being, the nature of life. In one sense this idea of reality as flow seems obvious, and yet Bohm was ahead of his time. Since Newton, physics defined “physical reality” in terms of particles — discrete bits of matter, fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle. Bohm suggested that these particles, the building blocks of physical reality, were not particles, and that they were not discrete. Rather, reality was movement, an all-embracing unity of flow.

Why is this important? When I look at a tree, I see a thing, an object — something that appears to be solid, not moving, and separate from me. Intellectually, I know that the tree is growing; I may even observe changes in the tree from season to the next, one year to the next. But my basic perception of the tree is rooted not in movement but in non-movement. I see the tree as a static object.

Bohm observed that our normal perception — not only of trees but of ourselves and everything in the world — is shaped in part by the structure of our language, which is rooted in “subject/object” form. “I” am the subject. Trees, animals, mountains, and other people are objects, and the objects are nouns. Bohm challenges this way of perceiving. Reality, says Bohm, is not a noun but a verb. Reality is not split into subject and objects. Reality is a continuous, undivided flow, more like a giant movie that we all participate in.

My husband and I were recently in Thailand. Everywhere we went, we were surrounded by tourists from all over the world, most of whom were recording their experiences in video on cell phones. Never before has a generation had such a voluminous record of human experience. The accessibility of video means that increasingly we record our experience not merely as a collection of still photographs but as a “moving picture”, a continuous stream, a flow.

This is a dramatic evolution of human perception that brings Bohm’s scientific theory up close and personal. No longer is the “stream of consciousness” a private activity that occurs interiorly. Widespread use of video shifts the “stream of consciousness” into a shared expression of embodied life; our experience is recorded and so reflected back to us, as movement, flow. The impact of video is to change the very processing mechanisms by which we experience life. Video allows us to perceive life flowing in every human interaction, as well as in every rock, stream, plant, animal — every aspect of human experience unfolding in time.

Theories are never born in a vacuum. One theory builds on another. Bohm’s work built on the foundation of another major western thinker, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead was an English philosopher and mathematician who lived a generation before Bohm. He suggested that reality is a perpetual process of “becoming”; a continual movement, an undivided process through which all things are perpetually emerging from one form to another. Flow.

Whitehead, like Bohm, was also ahead of his time and his ideas were not well received in the west. However, Whitehead’s “process philosophy” — the idea that reality is an organic flow, a process of becoming — gained a receptive audience in Asia. Whitehead’s concept of “process” fit in well with the eastern concept of energy as the life-force, the animating principle, in all things. For thousands of years, eastern philosophy and medicine has been rooted in the study, examination, and techniques to work with this life-force energy. In China this energy is called “chi”; in Japan it is called “qi”, and in India it is called “prana”. Whitehead’s “process philosophy” seemed less foreign to the eastern mind than to his colleagues in the west.

Increasingly, disciplines from Asia such as acupuncture, shiatsu, martial arts, qigong and yoga are widely available in the west. This influx of eastern perspectives and techniques challenges our usual western way of approaching the human body. In the west, we tend to think of our bodies as objects made up of individual parts, each part assigned to a medical specialty, like cardiology, neurology, or psychiatry. We forget that our bodies are mostly fluid — water, blood and other liquids — and that tissues, organs, and even bones are living, breathing, flowing vessels of life, each intricately connected to the whole. When we look at the body from an energy perspective, as Eastern disciplines have done for centuries, we see the body more as a verb than a noun. We discover that, indeed, we are living in a house of flow.

Whitehead and Bohm suggest that we see everything — rocks, hills, trees, birds, and human beings — in terms of flow. They suggest that we learn to see ourselves and the world we inhabit more like liquids than solids; more of a unified field, than a machine with individual parts, or a jigsaw puzzle to be figured out.

It’s one thing to hear these ideas intellectually, and engage mental debates about the nature of reality. But something happened that shifted this material from being an intellectual exercise to an embodied experience — one that made a tangible difference in my life. The more I studied Whitehead and Bohm, the more I intellectually focused on the concept of “flow”, the more I noticed that my actual perception of myself and the world changed. As I absorbed the idea that reality is flow, I began to experience flow more directly.

To my surprise, the more I experienced flow, the calmer I felt. A deep sense of “well-being” spontaneously emerged. I was learning that the experience of “flow” was not neutral. Rather, the experience of flow provided a window into the compassionate presence inherent in all life. A journey that began in the realms of science and metaphysics led me directly into a spiritual experience. I had tripped into a state of consciousness that is cultivated in meditation, a realm that may be called by various names, a Loving Presence that exists in all things. Whitehead called this Presence the “subjective aim” or “lure” that is inherent in the “flow”, the unfolding of Life.

I continue to discover that exploring “flow” offers tangible experiences into this transcendent realm. As a practicing Christian, using religious language and imagery as a context for these experiences comes naturally.

Christianity tells the story of Jesus Christ who fully embodies the Loving Presence of God. Jesus lives a human life marked by great challenge, betrayal, and dies a gruesome death. The life of Jesus is also a life transfigured. This is a story infused with miraculous healings that transfigure human suffering. Jesus emerges as Jesus the Christ whose death is transfigured into resurrection, pointing toward the end of death for all. The path of Jesus Christ is the path of unconditional Love. This is the call to give unconditionally to others, to relieve suffering, and release the chains of slavery and injustice, whether these chains exist physically, mentally, emotionally, or institutionally. This is the path that the Buddhists call “The Way of the Bodhisattva”.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the story of God’s love expressed through an outpouring of forgiveness, tenderness, and all embracing concern for others; Love that transforms all suffering and breaks open the human heart. It is the story that captures the depth of human suffering, joy, intimacy, and service, and ushers into being what Christians call the “kingdom of God”. “Stepping into flow” is the reorientation of mind, body, and spirit into this mystical path of Love.

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WHY ZEN?

Why would a lifelong Episcopalian practice Zen meditation?

For most of my life, I have been an active member of one Episcopal Church parish or another, busily praying and serving and doing a range of “good works”. But as the years passed, I became increasingly uncomfortable in Church. I had learned to present a “Church-friendly” version of myself — a person that looked and sounded “good” but kept hidden the fullness of what was really going on inside. I had learned to maneuver around Church community, staying very busy doing “good things” but daring to express real grief or fear or doubt — especially doubt about God! Being “successful” in Church meant that I lived as a shell of myself.

A well of doubt lived beneath the pretense of “looking good” — doubt about God, about many of the Church teachings, and whether the teachings had any relevance to my life. These teachings included “articles of faith”, like the Nicene Creed, and various doctrines, such as the doctrine of the resurrection, incarnation and the trinity. And let’s not forget the real zinger, the doctrine of Original Sin. What do these doctrines mean? Are they merely teachings of old that largely reside in books on dusty bookshelves? or can they breathe new life into faith? Questions about these “basic teachings” are routinely shrugged off as either irrelevant or indications of weak faith.

The message behind the message of Christian teaching is often to “shut up and believe.” I was no longer willing to do so. I challenged the prevailing view of Original Sin that dooms human nature. I no longer accepted that Christianity was somehow the superior religion, while other religious traditions were inferior. I was weary of those who warned of the dangers of exploring other religious faiths and practices. These “dangers” were often cloaked in the language of Satan, suggesting that Christians who explore other faith traditions are going “against God”, as if the Christian God is somehow too small to include anything beyond what the Church claims is true. Increasingly, I felt unsure what the term “Christian” meant and whether I was willing to claim a “Christian identity”.

Gradually, as I spoke out about how uncomfortable I was feeling with Christian teaching and identity, I began to realize that I was not alone. The more I spoke out and listened to others share similar feelings and experiences, the more a painful reality dawned: the fullness of who we are — is not welcome in the Church. Church life demands that we “leave outside the door” the depth of what we think, feel, believe and practice in order to adhere to Christian teachings. In the process, many of these teachings no longer inspire or invigorate faith.

The sadness of this reality was overwhelming and frustrating. I yearned for a deeper understanding, hoping that understanding would alleviate my discomfort, or at least show me why the Church had lost her power to inspire, let alone heal, and had in many cases been a vehicle for harm. I went to seminary looking for answers. I read wonderful books, engaged in lively discussions with brilliant teachers and students, and discovered in myself a deep passion for the study of theology. Four years of seminary training had given me more words, concepts, and ways to debate questions of faith. But the sense of despair I felt only deepened. The Church has squandered her rich inheritance, building a hierarchy that no longer supports faith, dissolving into warring factions that maintain the illusion of separation, and focusing on maintaining power that has long since been lost. The clarion call of Jesus — to love God and neighbor as oneself (Mark12:28-31; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:27) and forgive (Mark 2:1-12; Matthew 9; Matthew 18:21-35; John 7:53-8:11, Luke 23:34) — remains buried in the ashes. I felt still more fragmented: my intellect had expanded, but my body seemed further away.

My first encounter with Buddhism was through the writings of the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. The titles of her books grabbed me — titles like: “The Wisdom of No Escape” and “Start Where you Are”. The titles became silent mantras that soothed my weary mind and body. Inside Pema Chodron’s books, I heard messages about “the essential goodness of human beings”, with an emphasis not on belief but on the practice of breathing and meditation. These messages echoed some of the messages in the Christian mystical tradition, especially the work of Fr. Thomas Keating and the practice of contemplative prayer. But the Buddhist teachings offered more specific ways of understanding and working with the inner world of thoughts, feelings, moods and fantasies. Practicing Buddhist meditation became a doorway into a deeper sense of authenticity, of myself and my relationship with the world.

Some years later, my son invited me to a zendo (a zen meditation hall). In my first zendo experience and in the many times I’ve returned since, I experience what I can only call “Divine Presence”. This sense of Presence is so palpable it’s as though you could reach out and scoop it up, like a ladle of soup. At first I was startled. I’d been taught that this Presence was available only in Church, associated with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But the feeling was unmistakable. No thought, confusion or doubt —just a knowing, as if held in the arms of Divine mystery.

Zen practice was giving me a whole new way to experience God. Ironically, this Zen way means putting aside all the language and questioning about God, Jesus and the Church. Zen challenges me to give up my most cherished images of who I am, who God is and trust that something new will emerge. In the process, I experience periods of overwhelming confusion, fear, and bewilderment discovering how hard it is to stay in the space of “not knowing” who I am or what I believe. And yet as I learned this sitting, I experienced tremendous relief — relief to admit “not knowing”, to accept fears and allow doubts to surface, breathe, and speak their reality; to “dress down” rather than “dress up”.

In sudden flashes of awareness, Christian doctrines begin to dance through my mind. I experience what the “doctrine of creation” claims to be true — that God is present in all that is, that nothing can be apart from God. Most Christians can probably parrot these words but Christian teaching promotes a very different experience: God is “out there”, separate from His creation; while Jesus, God’s Son, remains a distant, perfect, yet unreachable savior. As I learn to sit, breathe and let go what emerges is a deeper sense of authenticity, the very thing I was missing as a “practicing Christian”. This is a felt sense of belonging in myself, in the world, in God. This is an experience of breathing in and through the very fabric of Life, feeling Life breathing through me, in my body and mind.

The more I sit, the more alive I feel. As I learn to surrender who I think I am, to surrender the sense of “I”, what emerges is an experience of the interpenetrating unity of all Life: the Divine Presence breathing in and through everything, every being, every breath, every ounce of experience. Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is the Church? Who am I? Zen calls such a questions “life koans” — questions that gnaw at us, haunt us in the core of our being and shape our journeys. I’ve struggled with these questions for most of my life. Through Zen practice, I feel anchored in a more authentic sense of self and confidence in my own voice, learning to listen with deeper compassion to others. I experience a childlike sense of divinity which knows no separation between self and God. This is the closeness of the womb, of being at the center of creation. Breathing in, breathing out. The rhythm of life. This is a profound gift.

The great surprise of Zen practice is finding myself returning to Church! In sitting and chanting Buddhist texts, my Christian faith is invigorated with a new sense of awe and wonder, nourished through familiar Christian stories and the liturgical calendar. I discover new vibrancy in Christian liturgy and sacraments, the essential instruments of Church life. I find renewed hope that, with all her failings, Christianity holds seeds that have tremendous potential to help a suffering world. And I experience renewed energy to help those seeds flourish. This is not “inter-faith dialogue”. This is “intra-faith” experience.

In this essay, I offer many words to express that which remains inexpressible. Perhaps the words of the ancient psalmist are a fitting close: “Be still and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46.10)

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TRANSFIGURATION

TRANSFIGURATION

“After six days Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. He said, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up they saw no one except Jesus. (Gospel of Matthew 17:1-8)

This spectacular story is known as the “Transfiguration of Christ”. It appears in all three of the “synoptic gospels” (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).* The church calendar has set aside August 6 as the “Feast of the Transfiguration”, though most Christians have never heard of it, and those who have may prefer to ignore it. Yet I suggest that the story of the “Transfiguration of Christ” is no less important than the stories of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. The story of transfiguration — like the other narratives — are not just stories about Jesus, they are stories about us. The “Transfiguration of Christ” points to our transfiguration — the transfiguration of human beings, one by one, and of human society.

Early followers of Jesus were called “people of The Way”, meaning the way of Jesus Christ. Long before the time of Jesus, Buddhists used the same language — “The Way” — to refer to followers of Buddha. The Way of Jesus Christ and The Way of Buddha share deep wisdom — the wisdom of transfiguration. Transfiguration is The Way. Transfiguration is human journey. The only question is how deeply we embrace it.

What does “transfiguration” mean anyway? It sounds like a fancy version of “transformation”. Indeed both words refer to one form changing into another: day becomes night, winter becomes spring, the chrysalis becomes a butterfly, and so on. What distinguishes “transfiguration” is that the new form reveals something that was hidden in the original. The new form is a larger, more all encompassing form through which the original is still recognizable but seen in a new way.

In the story of the “Transfiguration of Christ”, this inner identity is no less than the divinity of Jesus. As divinity shines through, the physical form of Jesus appears larger, brighter, and more dazzling than his usual appearance. The story tells us that Jesus has God’s unequivocal love and support. The appearance of Moses and Elijah, two ancient figures long since dead by the time of Jesus, challenges our usual sense of time — the distinction between past and present blurs; time is simply here, now.

In saying that transfiguration is our story — the human story — I suggest that the purpose of our human journey is coming to know and allowing divinity to shine through our very bodies. This may seem heretical to Christian teaching that draws a sharp distinction between the divinity of Christ and human beings. But the consequence of maintaining this sharp duality beneath layer of theological gymnastics is to discourage human growth, while demanding the authority of the Church. Followers of the faith remain sheep to be herded — sheep who don’t think too much, question too much, and above all who don’t question the authority of the Church. Needless to say this institutional authority is crumbling under its own weight. As it does, we are left with the naked truth of transfiguration.

In the scriptural story, the transfiguration occurs as Jesus is praying. What is the link between prayer and transfiguration? The prayer life of Jesus, as it unfolds in the scripture stories, brings forth all his experience — his hopes, dreams, fears, and delusions. His prayer is not a set of words that are repeated mindlessly, or a means to getting what He wants, or telling God the Father what He should do. We learn to pray from following the lead of Jesus. When we pray with all that we are, prayer includes the full force of our pride, greed, anger, lust, and jealousy and well as our caring, compassion, and generosity.

Prayer takes us on in inward journey that reveals what Thomas Merton calls the “True Self” — the authentic part of our being which is beyond our usual personality or ego. This is the larger reality of who we are, the “selfless self”, the one who is no longer an isolated, independent creature limited to time and space but the one who knowingly exists as part of giant web of creation, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing”. This “True Self” is referred to in mystical language as the “Indwelling Presence”, the inner divinity within the human being. It is what the Buddhists call “Buddha nature”. This is the journey of transfiguration.

Prayer does not create transfiguration, but serves as the vehicle through which transfiguration unfolds. The journey of transfiguration is coming to know, to inhabit or embody this “larger self”, the “True Self”, or “Buddha nature”. Transfiguration brings forward the inner reality of compassion and wisdom; a consciousness that reaches out toward others, as it reaches within, dissolving the separation between self and other in the awareness that at the deepest level the human heart is one, regardless of race, culture, gender identification, or religion. We belong in and through this vastness, this “interbeing” that includes plants, animals, and all other living creatures. Prayer connects us — or raises our awareness of this connection — with the all embracing space of divinity, the “original goodness” of who we are; and teaches us to anchor in that deep connection with all Life. No wonder Christian teaching avoids the Transfiguration story!
Yet the essential divinity of human life is the great secret of the mystics and the Christian mystical tradition.

Human beings share the desire for happiness, and the relief of suffering. Each of us is born, each will die, and in between we breathe, taste, touch, smell, and hold as much reality as we can. But why is the journey so difficult? Why does Jesus warn that the journey demands we walk through a “narrow gate”? How is it that as St. Paul observed, we do the very thing we do not want to do. (Romans 15:8) We suffer and cause suffering in others. The ego dies hard. How are we to grapple with these human tendencies?

Throughout its history, Christianity has associated darkness with negativity: darkness is “evil”, “ignorant”, the “wrong way”, the “road not to take”; after all, as every Christian knows, “Jesus is the Light of the world”. Barbara Brown Taylor calls emphasis on light over dark “solar Christianity”. ** She points out that the (perhaps unintended) consequence of “solar Christianity” is that it instills a fear of the dark that leaves Christians in a perpetual state of fear of the unknown. Satan has no choice but to live in the dark, leaving the “light” to God. Taylor suggests that we need to re-orient and learn to appreciate the dark, to hear the wisdom of dark; and when we do, we discover not Satan but God.

Phantom of the Opera is one of the longest running shows on Broadway. And darkness is front and center. Erik, The Phantom, hides in the night to keep hidden his horribly scarred face. He becomes obsessed with the beautiful Christine, who loves another man. Erik invites Christine into his world with the popular theme song “Music of the Night”. The story climaxes when in frustration Erik strips away his mask, uncovering his scarred face. Christine, seeing Erik’s brokenness, kisses him tenderly, the first kiss he’s ever known, and in this single act of love Erik’s heart opens. His obsessive desire lifts and he sets Christine free to live her life.

Erik is transfigured, not because the scars on his face are removed but because he is freed from what binds him within, and the deeper love buried beneath his scarred face shines through.This fictional story resonates so strongly because it contains the deep truth of transfiguration. Each of us is scarred, desperately wanting love. Each of us is journeying toward realization of that love, discovering that Love is the very fabric of our existence. When we encounter the Love we seek, we are changed, we are transfigured. None of us is left behind.

What happens when we peer into the darkness? On March 29, 2003, as the “war on terror” surged in Iraq and Afghanistan, a picture appeared on the front page of The New York Times. *** The image captures an American soldier in Iraq, slumped on the ground, weeping as he holds a tiny child, an innocent victim who was killed in the crossfire. For a soldier to kill, he or she cannot afford to feel. In the picture the innocence of this child breaks through the inner walls that military training created, and the deeper reality of the soldier’s compassion is revealed. The soldier is transfigured — the greater truth of who he is shines through. He is a man, trained as a soldier to kill, yet cannot bear the consequences of his actions. As he holds the dead child, he sees the devastating consequences of war and is wracked with inconsolable grief. Darkness and light meet. The process is transfiguration.

Transfiguration is a process that includes what the Benedictines call “continuous conversion”, which means that in the spiritual journey we are converted, not once but again and again, toward God. In our returning, we become aware of who we truly are and the many ways that we turn toward and away from ourselves and God. Transfiguration is a process, not an event; a process that moves sometimes quickly, more often slowly. This is true for individuals. It is true for political, economic, cultural institutions as well.

Desmond Tutu speaks of the global “Principle of Transfiguration”, in which the dignity of all human beings is restored. This means insuring that all people are guaranteed the right to vote, access to education, clean air, running water, housing, and gainful employment. In the largest sense, transfiguration is the triumph of love over hatred; love that begins “by understanding that as much as God loves you, God equally loves your enemies.“ (from: Opening Address at The Gathering: South Africa; “Transfiguration” by Claude Nikondeha, Burundi. See: http://www.amahoro-africa.org/files/transfiguration—claude-nikondeha.pdf )

Transfiguration is a process that also applies to religious institutions. I submit that Christianity is experiencing institutional transfiguration as radical changes in structure continue to bring forth ancient deep wisdom. Pope Francis magnetizes tremendous energy in his simple acts of grace and humility: kissing a disfigured man, reaching out to the poor, messages of openness, forgiveness, and a willingness to confront darker sides of the Catholic Church. He embodies the teaching of Jesus, found directly in the story of the Transfiguration, that each one of us is claimed as God’s child.

Christianity is in the midst of cataclysmic change. Many parishes have closed or merged with others, leaving many clergy unemployed. Some clergy have turned away from their vows of ordination, no longer willing to support an institution they believe has lost its center. Some suggest that the church is dead. At the same time new churches and church structures are being formed. Church leaders are experimenting with new forms of worship — street worship, Internet worship, worship on Skype. An explosion of information and teachings offer people unlimited opportunities to explore various religious and spiritual paths and practices.

The purpose of religion — all religion — is to teach and support its followers in the journey of individual and global transfiguration. Christianity has often failed miserably. So, too, are plenty of examples of failures within other religions. But Christianity, like other religious traditions, began not as a religion but an experience — an experience of wisdom and compassion through which the early followers were transfigured. Jesus did not set out to create a religion. Neither did Buddha. For all the changes occurring within Christianity, and the world religions more broadly, I suggest that a deeper sense of unity is emerging. This is the unity of transfiguration.

How many times must I forgive, the student asks Jesus. “As many as seven times seventy,” he replies. Can we forgive religion? Can we appreciate that buried within her depths are the greatest teachings of wisdom and compassion, the keys of transfiguration? Can we embody the truth spoken in the words of Psalm 139:

“Darkness is not dark to you, O Lord;
darkness and light to you are both alike.”

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:

What does transfiguration mean to you? Have you witnessed transfiguration in yourself? In another? Do you believe it is possible? If not, why not? If so, what hinders the transfiguration process in you? what support and encourages transfiguration in people? In communities? In institutions?

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* Biblical scholars treat stories and events that appear in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) as essential aspects of the historical record of Jesus Christ. The thread of these stories and events are the foundation upon which much theological interpretation is based. For more on this: Dennis Bratcher’s article, “The Gospels and the Synoptic Problem”: http://www.cresourcei.org/synoptic.html; and Biblical Training.org http://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/synoptic-gospels. For more in depth analysis: Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation by Robert H. Stein

** Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning To Walk in the Dark; US: HarperOne, 2014; UK: Canterbury Press

*** The photo can be found: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mbvd/37-remarkable-photos-from-the-iraq-war-and-the-stories-behin

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MATTERING

“May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within….  May your compassion reach out to the ones we never hear from.”

John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us, p. 44-5

Pulsating at the core of every human being is the longing for love — to love and be loved. To perceive this core, and to strive to relieve the suffering that hinders love, is the purpose of human life. The purpose of religion is to draw forth this essential core, to shape, mold, and channel human energy in the service of Love. When this happens the dignity of humankind is revealed.

It is a lofty goal that Christianity has often failed to live up to, as a growing number of books, blogs, and movies unveil. These failures leave deep pain embedded in the institutional psyche of Christianity. It is pain that drains the energy and life out of faith and quietly grows like a cancer. Often today’s churchgoers are haunted by thoughts like: “Why am I sitting here? The service no longer has any meaning…” or “The priest says that I’m welcome but it’s not true…” or “So much talk about death, but there’s no room to mourn, not really.” Many conclude: “I believe in God, but I can’t go to church anymore.” They walk away silently, leaving hundreds of once-filled parishes empty.

This is the pain of separation — from God, from ourselves and one another. Ironically, Christianity has fostered this sense of separation in portraying a God who remains in a distant place, separate from His creation; and a view of human beings as being inherently flawed, forgivable only through an act of grace. Life is viewed as a journey of struggle which ends in physical death — at which point the human being is released into heaven, another dimension separate from “this world”, where suffering is absent. While theologians would argue that this characterization of Christianity is not theologically sound, such theological arguments ignore that this is the experience of many sitting in the pews.

This sense of separation has deep roots in Christian theology and doctrine. The birth of Pentecostal Church (known as the “Black Church”) in the 19th century was one attempt to bridge the gap between self and the “otherness” of God and neighbor. For the first time since the Enlightenment, Pentecostal services encouraged Christian expression of faith that included the depth of human joy as well as the pain of grief, rage and fear. Human emotion was poured out in “gospel hymns”, like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, bringing into modern consciousness the energy of the Psalms.

Pentecostalism brought tremendous life and energy into Christian worship by opening the door of human passion and emotion, and sharing those depths with God. This was a major turning point in the evolution Christianity and has inspired many other styles of worship, including “Charismatic” and other forms that integrate upbeat music and encourage emotional expression.

But while Pentecostalism and the movements that continue to evolve from it bring forward human passion, the sense of God as distant and separate from human beings remains firmly in place. This sense of separation ripples through most forms of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and non-denominational worship services. Cloaked in the language of Original Sin, there is a deep belief in the “essential badness” of the human being — that you and I are, by nature, not good enough. This is a perspective that traps Christians in a shame-based view of themselves, others, and the nature of humanity. It leads to a life rooted in fear and desperation, and keeps God and others distant and unreachable. The cycle leaves many Christians feeling alone and ashamed.

Christian teaching is marked by a “we/they” perspective. The “other” may be practitioners of other religions, or other denominations within Christianity, including “non-denominational” groups. The “other” may be based on sexual identity, gender, geography, musical or liturgical preference, or a variety of ways to name “other-ness”. Christians are so accustomed to living in this “we/they” perspective that it is hard to imagine another. If we dare to scratch the surface of the “we/they” perspective, we find many who crave intimacy with themselves and others, and with God, and who struggle to find that intimacy in the Church.

Christians have lost touch with the simple truth that human beings matter. We matter because each person, Christian or not, is a magnificent creation of God. We matter because we are made of the divine perfection that ripples through all space and time, known and unknown, in mysteries revealed and unrevealed. God is “in charge”, not as a punishing tyrant but as the spiritual reality who weaves creation out of love. We are living breathing molecules of this creation, not separate from it, not separate from one another. We forget how much we matter. Maybe we never knew. Or maybe we feel so lost in shame that we doubt our very right to matter.

If religion can make a positive difference, and I believe it can, it must show us how to live the reality of mattering. Religion can only make a positive difference if it demonstrates how to integrate the mystical, theological, and the practical into daily human life. Christians have a long history of reaching out to those in need, establishing schools, hospitals, orphanages, and helping those who are hungry and homeless. This is wonderful work. But Christianity has lost touch with a healthy sense of self and is unable to appreciate that “you” and “I” are two sides of an essential unity.

Christianity, for all its flaws, holds essential truths. The story is not over. Jesus continually points to the Greater Reality, called “kingdom”. “Kingdom reality” requires that we shift our perspective. This is the reality of interconnection, in which all aspects of Life belong to an unbroken web. We shift from “I” to “we”. Jesus encourages his disciples to trust, let go of fear and worry, to love neighbor as self. Spirit is not the possession of the Church but the fabric of existence. When we open to the experience of this Greater Reality, we touch Life in a new way, pulsating in every moment. We awaken to the essential goodness of human beings and of Life itself. 

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Journey with Augustine, Part 1

Greetings fellow travelers! Here is the first of a three part reflection on my journey with St. Augustine and his best known work, The Confessions. May my journey help you claim yours. Feel free to post your reactions.

JOURNEY WITH AUGUSTINE (PART 1)

Dad loved life, martinis, ideas, and books.  One of his favorite writers was St. Augustine, whose writings held a prominent place on our massive bookshelves.  Dad often quoted Augustine’s heartfelt prayer, “Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not just yet.” (Book VIII. vii. (17))

The quote is from Augustine’s spiritual autobiography and best-known work, The Confessions.  In that book, Augustine plunges into his inner being in a desperate search for honesty with himself and with God.  He reviews his life and reveals an explosive turmoil of passion, anxiety, restlessness, faith, and doubt, all held together by an unquenchable thirst for God.  I was afraid of that book, afraid that I wouldn’t understand it, or maybe that I would.  I was afraid it might force me to admit the force of my own inner turmoil.  Mostly, I was afraid of disappointing Dad.

It came as a big surprise that not everyone held Augustine in such high esteem.  In four years at seminary, I discovered that Augustine is the guy everyone loves to hate, whether or not they read any of his books!  Few seminary students had the interest or patience to deal with Augustine — his dark, brooding obsessiveness can be frustrating, repetitive, and downright boring.  Who cares about his doubts, anxieties, and endless questioning of himself, God, and the Universe? It’s easier to ignore him, or hate him.  Most people do.

There are exceptions. I remember one professor who drew our attention to Augustine’s power to name the peculiar inner conflicts that if we’re honest we all suffer: “In adversities I desire prosperity, in prosperous times I fear adversities. Between these two is there a middle ground where human life is not a trial?” (Book  X. xxviii. (9))  I get it! No matter how much success, fame, or whatever else I reach for, it’s never enough —  there’s always something more, some new desire to propel me into a frantic search for happiness.

It took years before I trusted myself enough to read The Confessions, but Dad’s love for Augustine was infectious, and eventually I dared to walk through the pages of that hallowed book.  When I did, I found a “companion on the inner way” (to borrow a Morton Kelsey title).

Augustine is on fire with love for God and God’s creation.  He aches to understand God, to know and surrender to God, while at the same time groping with the inner forces that keep him from God. As he reviews his life, Augustine rides waves of joy and sorrow, exaltation and despair.  What makes Augustine’s journey so compelling is that he directly confronts the powerful oppositional forces that exist within him: doubt existing alongside deep faith; fear and trust; arrogance and humility.  He discovers again and again what St. Paul observed centuries before: “I do the very thing I do not want to do.   (Romans 7:15)

In his groping, Augustine’s exploration of himself invites me to see what I do not want to face in myself: my doubts and anxieties, resistance and rage; my passion, unfulfilled longing, and endless questioning of myself, God, and the Universe.  Above all, Augustine helps me face my fears — a thousand different forms of fear that at the end of my life I will face God without having fully faced myself.

Augustine deals head-on with the paradox of human embodiment that has plagued Christianity from the start: if all that God created is good, if human beings are supremely good, why are there forces within us that propel human beings to act in ways that are destructive, uncontrollable and, seemingly, contrary to God’s intentions for humanity? How can that be? What are we to do with ourselves?

Augustine’s response was what came to be known as the doctrine of original sin.  Though the concept of original sin had appeared earlier, Augustine was the first to write extensively about it. Original sin was Augustine’s way of naming this aspect of humanity, reflected in the story of Adam and Eve, that leads human beings to turn away from God; to think and act in ways that are harmful to self and others and lead to suffering. But his point — the point of the doctrine of original sin — is to name human frailty, not to condemn humanity, nor contradict the message of Genesis that says what God created is good, very good indeed. (Genesis 1.31)

Augustine’s brutal honesty reflects a faith that trusts God absolutely; a faith in the perfection of God’s creation, including his creation of me. This is faith that who I am — including every drop of my restless, searching, grasping mind, and all OF my anxieties, resentments, and mistakes — is God’s raw material.  This is faith that God loves me, not when I get cleaned up and perfected, but just as I am, right here, right now. This is faith that says: Breathe, you are alive.  You are a perfect creation not in spite of your humanity, but because of it.

 

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The Light Within

“Let us explore together the secret of a deeper devotion, a more subterranean sanctuary of the soul, where the Light Within never fades, but burns, a perpetual Flame, where the wells of living water of divine revelation rise up continuously, day by day and hour by hour, steady and transfiguring.” (Thomas Kelly, Quaker theologian; from his book “The Light Within”, page 31)

Do these words resonate? Post a comment.

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