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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

I’ve had occasion in recent weeks to have conversations – either in person or online – with people who self-identify either as atheists, agnostics, or “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).  A core question in these conversations seemed to revolve around whether or not there was a “spiritual” part or nature in human beings.

So my asking “What is ‘Spiritual’?” in this blog is not about the field or practice of spirituality, it’s more about how we might identify what in us is “spiritual” when we use that word.Church-New

First, let me say that at this core level, I would NOT say that our spiritual self is defined by belief in a divine being or a set of beliefs about God, faith, or church. I say that because I think there are people who are spiritual who do not hold to the belief systems of any religious tradition, per se.

At its most basic, I think the spiritual part of humans has to do with meaning – with discovering or creating meaning about life or about the events in our lives. After all, if we’re just a bundle of cells with a brain and nothing more than thinking meat sacks that are here only to eat, procreate, and create human culture for the moment, we wouldn’t seek or assign meaning to anything. If there’s nothing more to our lives than day to day existence – no larger story or reality – why would we even begin to ask what our purpose is or why we are on this earth?

But we are a species of meanings, of narratives, of stories. That is the way we are wired. We seek to see ourselves as part of something larger, to belong to a meaningful narrative, not as just at the receiving end of a lifelong parade of random acts of suffering.

I have to confess that for many years now, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about God, about spirituality, about theology, and about how that all fits with healing, wholeness, psychology, and just the basics of navigating our way through a world that is full of both beauty and terror. Joseph Campbell said that people are not really seeking the meaning of life but that we are seeking the “rapture of the experience of being alive.”  I’ve been so steeped in all things spiritual and mythological for so long that I sometimes forget that most of my fellow sojourners on this earth probably don’t spend as much brain time on these topics as I do.

That point was brought home to me again this week in an exchange with a man who identifies himself as SBNR.  He told me he does not believe in God and is not sure if humans even have a “spirit.” I’ve felt for a long time that one of the wisest voices about the human spirit and about faith is Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and Franciscan. In a recent meditation he wrote:

The Perennial Tradition includes a recurring theme in all of the world’s religions and philosophies. They continue to say, each in their own way:

  • There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things.
  • There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality.
  • The final goal of all existence is union with this Divine Reality.

I forwarded the meditation to my SBNR acquaintance, and he responded that he really doesn’t think very often about God, or divine reality, or scripture, and that he doesn’t place much value on those things.  In a way I found that kind of stunning, then I saw some humor in my being stunned, but I finally wondered about the value of what are seen as sacred texts to a secular world.

I sympathize when people choose to not affiliate with any organized religion – I understand why people find little of value in the Church today – even though I choose to remain within the Christian tradition. But I don’t understand why people would dismiss the wisdom of sages through the centuries who have spoken and written of encounters with divine reality. Do we really think they were all lying or having hallucinations?

It seems to me that for someone to say they don’t believe in the divine reality that others have experienced is like saying you don’t believe in Istanbul because you’ve never been there, or that you don’t believe in gelato because you’ve never eaten it.

Like Carl Jung, I don’t believe in God. I know God exists. I know divine reality exists. I’ve glimpsed it.

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I found my outer home when I was 46 years old, but even before that, I’d found my spiritual home.  This week, I’m fortunate to be able to reconnect with both while here at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, NC to attend the annual Haden Institute Summer Dream Conference.

Kanuga Conference Center, Hendersonville, NC

I moved to the metro Atlanta area shortly after I graduated from college and lived there for 25 years before I ran away to the mountains in 2006 to experience life in a small, rural community that I’d loved visiting for many years. Despite having been born and raised in NJ, I knew as soon as I found the 100-year old farmhouse for rent that I’d come home. The house was surrounded by eight acres of gorgeous land with pastures, woods, a creek, a lake, and a completely picturesque barn up on the hill. Though its perfection was marred slightly by its close proximity to a busy road, I grew to love that house and believed with all my heart that it loved me too.

It wasn’t just the house, but rather the whole region that spoke deeply to me. The landscape itself felt sacred and my soul settled in there in a way it had never settled before. Spaces seemed to open up inside of me that breathed freer and sighed more deeply than was true in any other place in the world that I’d set foot.  Western NC is a landscape cut from the same topography – tapping into the roots of the Blue Ridge Mountains – and so it feels much like home as well.

I’ve been living in southern CA since last July, and though it’s a good place to be, and I know it is the right place for me to be right now, it’s not the place my soul likes to put its feet up and kick back with its eyes closed. It’s not the place where I feel most rooted.

The joyful icing on the cake is that I am here this week in NC to join with about two hundred or more seekers to talk about our dreams and our relationship with the Sacred. The people who come to this gathering know or at least suspect that there’s more to those night visions than the looking-glass-world flotsam and jetsam that appears at first glance. Those of us who’ve been turning over dreams and synchronicities like archeological treasures for a long time know that there are deep veins of wisdom and grace running through them if we’ll only take the time to look.

At a time in my life when I wasn’t sure I could even remain a Christian because I’d become so disgusted with the public expressions of the fundamentalist and politically power-hungry religion that was masquerading as Christianity, a friend brought me a different kind of archeological treasure – a book by Joyce Rockwood Hudson called Natural Spirituality: Recovering the Wisdom Tradition in Christianity. In this book, Joyce showed me how the Jungian psychology that I’d felt so resonant with could be integrated with my Christian tradition in a way that brought life to it again. I knew I’d found my spiritual home.

I’m here at Kanuga until Friday, and my plan is to take as long and deep a drink from this Living Water as I can possibly manage, and to take as many long, loving looks as possible at those mountains before I leave here; at least enough to last me until next year.

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We are coming upon the end of the Christian season of Lent, with tomorrow being Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. Most people may not think about this aspect of these days much, but this course of days is a living out of the life-death-life cycle that we see everywhere throughout all of creation. It’s represented so wonderfully in a favorite hymn called “Now the Green Blade Rises,” with text written by John M.C. Crum in 1928:

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Most of us don’t think about that when the new plant life springs up, it’s a result of the death of the seed. We don’t like to think about death, but it’s as much a natural part of the universe as is life. And it’s a requirement for new life to come.
I recently went through my own death and rebirth, due to ideas about God that I was carrying around that had to die. The seeds of this death were planted in me just about three years ago, and so today I’m going to share an essay I wrote at that time in 2009 when I was living in northeast Georgia and did a silent retreat in Cullman, AL.

What Will Happen if We Wait for God?

Before the fruit is ripened by the sun
Before the petals or the leaves uncurl
Before the first fine silken root is spun
A seed is dropped and buried in the soil.

We are currently in the Church’s season of Lent, which, like Advent, is not a season of celebration.  These are times of waiting and of the kind of light-scarce in-between-ness that those who only visit churches on Christmas and Easter typically want no part of.  Lent is meant to honor the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tested.
So it’s fitting that I am spending five days of my own Lent this year in a retreat house run by Benedictine nuns in Cullman, Alabama.  I’ve been in some spiritual distress lately, and needed to immerse myself in the silence of a place outside of ordinary life, where I could seek some measure of resolution.

For the last several months I’ve been busy submitting applications for graduate school and though I’m very excited about this new pathway of theological education, some old familiar dragons have been rearing their ugly heads again.
Like many people, my early life was no picnic, and those years left a host of bumps and bruises on my psyche.  I’ve spent most of my adult life digging the corpses out of my inner archeology, but even after all that effort, I am still haunted by disembodied voices that seem to be able to moan only one tune – and it’s full of rejection.

Most days I can keep a lid on that voice and go about my daily business with confidence and cheer, but when that self-rejection demon is unleashed it returns with a vengeance.  It’s became very clear to me that this is not a voice I want to take to graduate school.

So I came to this monastery to find the courage and the loving space to deal with this part of my shadow.  I’d read a book in which the main character learns that running from his dark shadow only gives it more power, but turning to face it and recognizing it as a part of himself allows him to embrace it and, in so doing, to become whole and free.  I adopted “whole and free” as my new credo and came to the convent armed for spiritual dragon, ready for figurative sword fights.

I’m writing this three days into my retreat and things have not necessarily gone as planned.  I think God is asking me to put down my sword and to stop working so hard; that I don’t have to stand on my head to be loved.  I think God is telling me to take my hands off the wheel of this bus.

I think God is teaching me that God is not a big angry Father in the sky or even a Benevolent Cop that I have to appease by perfectly following all the rules in order to be given permission to live.  But I’ve lived my whole life turning myself inside out to please a stern Father-God so I could be loved, and feeling like no matter what I did, it was never quite good enough.
So what will happen if I let go of the reins and quit trying to make healing happen through my own sweat and tears?  If I just hang myself and my heart out here – naked, hungry, scared and vulnerable – will God come?

I don’t honestly know.  So I wait in this time of Lent.  I wait in the darkness before dawn, like the seed that is first buried in the soil before it is reborn to new life.  At least that is my hope.  Today we sang a hymn called “Before the Fruit is Ripened” by Thomas H. Troeger and Carol Doran and it ends with these words:

Before we gain the grace that comes through loss
Before we live by more than bread and breath
Before we lift in joy an empty cross
We face with Christ the seed’s renewing death.

* * * *

The rest of the hymn about the rising of the green blade goes like this:

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

I hope this season brings new life to whatever places in your heart are “saddened, grieving or in pain” and that the Sacred Life within you arises green.

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