Not of this world

On my way to the grocery store I pass two churches. The first is a Lutheran church, an open and affirming one. I visited it last year, and while I thought highly of it, I couldn’t sit through an entire service. These days I barely notice the large brick building with its stained glass and preschool playground. Until it hosts the farmers’ market in its parking lot. Then I am there weekly, even if I bypass its front doors and sanctuary.

The other church is much larger (churches here seem to be large compounds, in general). It’s got a huge Christian school attached. Lately this church has been getting a new roof put on, so I have been noticing it more than usual. What’s interesting to me is that I get…… flashes of memory as I pass it. Phantom feelings. Misplaced muscle memory.

When I pass this second church I remember being a Christian in college. There is no specific associated memory, just a remembrance of what it was like to be a Christian in Washington state in the 90s. I remember the way these churches view the world and interact with it. I remember the way everything is ordered, everyone has a place, both in the church and in the world. I remember the unspoken gender norms. I remember how ordered the world seemed and how everything had neat boxes and a rather simplistic theology to explain it. I remember the plaid shirts, the goatees, the bible studies and fellowship groups. Judging by the people I’ve seen enter the building and by the website, nothing seems to have changed. Well, now there are  wireless mics and power point, rather than an overhead projectors.

Sometimes I think it would be so easy to slip back into that way of being in the world. We’d have automatic community and make friends right away. The kids would have activity groups. Our Sundays would have focus. I’d easily find a musical outlet, what with praise bands and worships groups. More importantly, attending evangelical church would make sense of modern American living.

One of the things I’ve found is that modern American living (commuting, box stores, overconsumption, CAFOs, gas guzzlers, social conservatism, Calvinistic social ‘darwinism,’ heteronormative gender hoo ha, etc) is really difficult to reconcile with Pagan values. But mainstream American Christianity fits right into it. They are peas in a pod.

I’m a Big Umbrella Pagan. By that I mean, I want as many disparate groups to identify as Pagan. I want that term to include Heathens, witches, Wiccans, Ceremonial Magicians, reconstructionists of various stripes, Druids, neo-Pagans, polytheists, Voudousaints, and others. Not all Pagan faiths are based on earth reverence. Not all of the values espoused in one group are endorsed by others. But I find that I have more in common at heart with most Pagan groups than I do with mainstream Christianity, even though my family superficially appears more similar to the latter than the former.

Christianity has at its core an idea that humanity/our souls/ Christians (take your pick based on your theology) are ‘not of this world,’ that we belong in Heaven. Not all Christianity thinks this world is evil or tainted. Some say it’s just humanity, but some say that everything is. This idea creates a world where you’re either a Christian or you’re not. You’re either with them or against them. The world is fine in the here and now, but in the Last Days it will be destroyed anyway (so don’t go getting all worked up about environmentalism) and Yahweh will create a new world. Plenty of other traditions also view the world/matter/humanity as a problematic and something from which to detach.

Yet Christianity is at home in this world. In the US Christianity is the norm. Its values pervade government and morality. Christian culture is everywhere. When I was in college pastors talked a lot about how the Pacific North West was the most ‘unchurched’ region in the US. I am pretty sure it still is. But if this is unchurched, well, I’d hate to see how many churches are in a ‘normal’ town. But for some one raised without religion at all, I feel like churches are everywhere here!

Most of Paganism embraces the world, but is at odds with the overculture. Most Pagans have a different set of values – or the same things are valued but for different reasons. While family, worship, devotion, and service (things Christians hold dear too!) may be honored, they may be expressed in entirely different ways or for different reasons. I find that most of the values of Paganism don’t sit well with mainstream, overculture values. At least, my values don’t.

I think how much easier it could be to sink into a ‘normal’ mainstream way of being if I’d go back to Christian life. I’d have more in common with my extended family. I could get involved, have leadership positions, a social network, a more obviously ‘god-driven’ life. But I know full well how miserable I’d be. I remember chaffing at the expectations. The tedious ‘god language’ and Father God prayers (“Father God…. I just…. I just want to thank you for just raining down your blessings…”). The bad theology. The confusion of culture with religion and vice versa.

I can’t do it. The same muscle memory that remembers what those churches feel like – in all their goodness, and there was good – also remembers just how unhappy my soul was. I remember how hard it was to find God there. I remember the cognitive dissonance. I remember I didn’t fit in.

[There is actually an entire Christian brand called NOTW, not of this world. I tried to upload an image of its logo and it kept displaying ERROR. I’ll take that as a sign.]

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Maxim Monday: Be (religiously) silent

I love this one.

Spring is in full swing here in Olympia. New colors from fresh blooms appear each morning. The sun’s heat is gaining in intensity, despite the bitter the breezes. The lilacs are blooming, although I can’t smell them because my sinuses are blocked up. That makes me sad, since lilac is my favorite scent. The birds are raucous in the twilight periods twice a day. Everything is a cacophony of scent, sound, texture and color.

But I’ve been feeling a little quiet lately. Not withdrawn so much as wanting to be in my body. I want to be outside listening. I don’t want to be on my computer, on the phone, or in the car. I don’t want to talk as much, nor overthink things. In some ways this feels akin to being religiously silent.

There’s a place for silence. Last week I wrote about the importance of listening to everybody. Good listen requires silence. Today’s Maxim builds on the encouragement to remain silent in order to listen and encourages us to remain silent for silence’s own sake, for the mystery of the void.

I think of being religiously silent in many ways. There is the wisdom of not speaking of things we don’t understand, or not speaking of treasured things to people who would mock, exploit or treat casually what we hold dear. There is the wisdom in remaining silent lest we break oaths or reveal secrets and mysteries. On a shallower note, we could view this Maxim as a way to appear more ‘advanced’ and wise than we are. There is a saying, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” But more to the heart of things is the quote from Proverbs (17:28): Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

Silence creates a void, a pause. As a singer I learned the importance of the pause, the rest in between notes. It creates a dramatic effect, but also it is in the space between notes where music might be made and felt. The same goes for meditation: the pause between thoughts and/or breaths is where peace and enlightenment might be touched. That void is important in the “passive” acts of reception, but it is necessary too in the “active” acts of creation. We must create space for something new to form, emerge, take root, or be gifted. Silence is often that space.

I used to struggle with this. Oh, how I struggled with rest, space, silence. In the last few months I have seen, felt and understood the beauty, necessity, and wisdom in these things.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Maxim Monday: Listen to everybody

The older I get the more I see the wisdom in this maxim. Listen to everyone. Don’t just smile and nod, but listen.

As some one who is a very quick learner, I spent countless hours itching to get started on assignments or tests, having read the instructions myself, but forced to wait while the teacher spent 15 minutes on directions and trouble shooting tips for the rest of the class. That attitude has carried over into other aspects of my life and I hate to admit it, but I’m often chomping at the bit, waiting for people to get to their point or to relay the information that I need to I get on with things. (Patience is a virtue, and it’s one I am working on.) This attitude excludes quality listening.

As a parent I’ve learned to listen in entirely new ways. Much of American culture completely ignores kids’ needs and desires. In fact, advertising to children is designed to cause them to nag their parents (I see nagging as a symptom of poor communication and listening). Learning to listen to my kids has taught me so much. I have learned to listen to body language in an entirely new way, since children must express themselves physically until they learn to speak. Even in the first years of language learning they are still expressing themselves non-verbally a great deal of the time. And what they are expressing is often of great value. Really and truly listening means we often can avoid pitfalls before it’s too late – for example, ‘Mama, my tummy hurts.’ My kids know I’m going to stop and listen, not just assume they don’t know what they’re talking about and continue on. We’ve saved getting covered in puke several times! But I’ve also learned more about how my children work and think, and that knowledge opens my mind to new ideas and creativity, too.

It’s much harder for me to listen to people I don’t respect, those who aren’t particularly articulate, or who refuse to communicate. If I can slow myself up, I find that not making assumptions on someone else’s part can ease our communication – as well as move things along more smoothly and quickly! Listening is a sign of respect, too. Even those who refuse to communicate are communicating something. In fact, those who can’t communicate well are often those to whom extra efforts ought to be given. The articulate and those with the resources to make their voices heard can do so – but those you can’t need us to listen a little more closely.

I think this maxim is one of enlightened self-interest. While I am often not genuinely interested in what every person has to say, I still recognize the value of listening (even if I’m still not very good at that in every situation). Listening builds allies, helps solve problems with solutions that work for more than just a few people, and creates an environment where people feel safe to express themselves. That’s an environment I’d like to exist in.

This listening also extends to our non-human world too. That’s advanced listening! Just learning to listen to other humans is hard work! Hopefully, once we start practicing listening to the humans around us, we can start learning to listen to what the other inhabitants of our communities are telling us.

Sacrifice

The ever provocative Sam Webster posted about sacrifice this week at his biweekly blog on Patheos. Many people seemed off put at the idea of animal sacrifice, but Mr Webster spoke about the many different kinds of offerings and sacrifices that can be made. I think sacrifice is important – especially for modern Western people.

What is sacrifice? It is a giving of something precious, something that ‘feeds’ the gods or spirits, but I also view it as a gift. A simple gift might be on par with taking flowers or a bottle of wine to a friend’s house for dinner. A complicated offering might be akin to saving all year for your beloved’s birthday present.

In Hindu ritual there are many sacrifices: oil, lamps, spices, incense, fruit, flowers, breath (in the form of mantras and japa), etc. Many Pagans offer wine, food, candles, and incense. I don’t think most people think of lighting candles and incense as sacrifice, but it is. All offerings are sacrifice.

Cain and Abel Offering their sacrifices - Gustav Doré

Cain and Abel Offering their sacrifices – Gustav Doré

And then there’s blood sacrifice. Many people today seem to equate this with a barbaric past. Most of those same people eat meat. Even the strictest of vegans kill things to eat. They sacrifice carrots and grains for their own well-being. We all kill in order to live. There is a baffling hypocrisy in most people’s food politics. How is eating factory farmed meat and cheese more acceptable than sacrificing a goat or a chicken or a fish and offering part of that to one’s gods? I think when we start to kill things with our hands we gain a greater appreciation of what our food means.

We eat a lot of meat in our house and most times as I prepare it I verbally offer up thanks to the animal, the land, and the hands that made it possible for my family to eat. I am cognizant that other lives died and other hands worked hard so that my family (and yours) could be fed. This is sacrifice.

There is sacrifice in choosing to spend money on food that is healthy and ethical. Financially, cleaner, more sustainable food options cost more, but it is a sacrifice my family chooses to make (as we can). Donating to a charity or cause is also an act of sacrifice. Perhaps if we are very wealthy a $20 donation is no hardship at all; perhaps that $20 is a huge sacrifice.

My family donates money every month to the local food bank. Food is a big theme in our house; we eat well and believe that is a form of justice, health care and comfort, and we want to help others have those things too. We have a set donation range monthly, if things are tight I donate at the lower end, if things are easier I chose the higher end. But every month we donate. It’s easier these days, but for much of our first year here it was often a true test of my dedication. We haven’t told the food bank, but our donations are in honor of Ganesh (I may make a notation in my donation soon to make this honor more formal). He has assisted us tremendously and is our household patron ‘saint.’ I believe donating to others is an act of ‘repayment’ for our blessings. It is also an act that cultivates generosity.

Burning nag champa, by Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons

Burning nag champa, by Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons

Most of us are blessed with so much: food, shelter, access to internet, etc. I believe that a practice of offerings to our gods, our Ancestors, and the spirits of the Lands we inhabit, be it a blood sacrifice, a first portion of our meal, regular burning of incense, or even a hair from our heads, helps create a spirit of generosity in ourselves, forge relationship and trust between us and the spirits, and yes, actually feeds the spirits.

I’ve written about fasting before and it too is a form of sacrifice. I don’t think it ‘feeds’ the spirits so much as feeds our own souls. Of course, the devotion and dedication present in a fast can bring us closer to those things for which we fasted.

Our spiritual life is about connection. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for greater connection. Even with our loved ones. I know that sometimes I really don’t want to say sorry; I might feel it is unwarranted or I’m still angry, but I know that a simple ‘I’m sorry I said X’ or ‘I’m sorry I was a rude about how I felt’ etc can bring healing and closeness. That stingy extraction feels like it costs me (pride?), but it feeds the relationship and strengthens connection.

In my own devotions I always light candles and burn incense. At various other times, I offer sweets, flowers, money, wine, food…. Occasionally I’ve offered my own blood and hair. I offer it all. Just as I offer up all of me to my partner and children and closest friends, I do the same for my gods.

The Body

What a complex site of confusion is the body. As spiritual persons we have a host of understandings about it to unpack. As a female in the Western world there are even more complications and understandings to unpack. I’m not going to get too theoretical about either of these points, but instead, as this blog is designed to do, I will talk about my own experience and understanding of the body.

Many religious traditions proclaim that the body is a negative thing. That it is a hindrance on our path to enlightenment or salvation. It is a hive of warring passions, a host of unclean fluids and matter, an obstacle and nothing more. This is primarily a dualistic understanding of the world. The body and all matter are separate from spirit. If we transcend our bodies, usually through renunciation or asceticism, we will be free from the enslavement of the physical world.

Some traditions embrace this world and all the various physical manifestations, seeing the physical as a site of pleasure and joy. If one sees the divine in all, then my toe and that tree and your cat are all embodiments of the divine. This can lead to a couple of different ideas, one being that anything pleasurable goes, and some ideas involving all things in moderation.

Some spiritual traditions don’t talk much about the body either way. But if you dig deeper almost all traditions come down somewhere into the two camps. And most of them into the first, body-negating one.

As a female in the Western world there are numerous other layers of body issues on top of the bedrock of philosophical and religious tradition. Most of it is dualist in nature. Almost all of it says that the female body is dangerous. Even with the comparatively hedonistic sexual flaunting and use of female bodies for selling things and entertaining in movies and pornography, the female body is an object to used by patriarchal forces for their benefit, never for the female’s benefit or enjoyment. The body is definitely used as a snare, but we are also supposed to have heroic spiritual self-control. It’s all very confusing.

In my chosen traditions the body and spirit are neither dualistic entities at war with each other, nor are they one and the same. I see the body as a gift. Embodiment is full of beauty. Some say that the spirits envy us our physical existence. We get to smell, touch, taste, feel. My body is my vehicle, my tool, but not some mechanistic flesh that does my mind’s bidding – again, a dualistic perspective. Ideally, my body and my souls work in concert for good of all my parts, to further connection among those parts, and with other creatures and spirits.

The extremes of pregnancy and childbirth once again drive home to me the joy and mystery that is embodiment. Watching dandelions and weeds force themselves through cracks in concrete is a testament to the spirit of life that thrums in us. Life is determined to live. While austerities have their place and use (mostly for purification purposes or gaining discipline), in my mind, any tradition that demands you renounce your senses and joy in this body is misguided.

Of course, our bodies and our senses can also mislead us. Too much of a good thing becomes no longer a good thing. Too much wine dulls our pleasures, too much food makes our stomachs hurt, too much sleep can leave us groggy, etc. And our bodies often ‘betray’ us. I am lucky that I have no overriding health issues. I do have whiplash in my neck and a jerky movement can leave me in mild pain for days. That sucks. It is hard, not just because I hurt, but because it keeps me from feeling at ease, hindering my ability to be present, keeping me from picking up my children, from connecting with my partner (I can’t tilt my head up to kiss him, sometimes not even on a pain-free day!). Pain hinders us from connecting; connection is, in my view, the core aim of the spiritual life. I have a greater amount of compassion for my friends and others who experience pain and discomfort, chronically or acutely.

And then we die. Sometimes we die suddenly, sometimes the body gets sick and slowly falls apart.

Christian theology views this as proof of sin. Adam and Eve would have lived for ever, but were cursed with toil, suffering and death. ‘For the wages of sin is death.’ That is no metaphor. Classical Christianity sees that as a physical truth. I think it is nonsense. At best, it is a metaphor. Pain and suffering of any kind are indeed a form of sin. Most of us suffer thanks to systemic sin. The Bible isn’t joking when it says we suffer the sins of our fathers for seven generations. Cycles of abuse, poverty, environmental degradation – all of those things lead to webs sin, and they lead to disconnection and death.

But we live in a world governed by physics, biology, chemistry. There is no life without death. We must eat, and whether that’s a carrot or a cow, something must die for something else to live. One animal’s defecation is a dung beetle’s joy. One rotting apple is another organism’s home or lunch. To think that the earth and humans could exist without death is baffling.

I spent several of my teen years and early adulthood using my body as a site of control. I felt I had so little control over other aspects in my life, but I could control what I ate and how fit I was. That obsession was a form of superiority (countering fears of inadequacy) and self-punishment (because I could not conquer my anxiety). I look back and while I was very healthy, I was also very, very hungry. An apt metaphor, as well as a physical reality.

I will admit that these days I tend to struggle with fasting and austerities. I sometimes look back at my past and wonder why I can’t be as disciplined as I once was. But I see that I love myself so much more now. Not in a self-righteous way, but in a fuller, more complete way. The strength of my discipline as a young adult was not coming from a place of love or health, but one of grief and fear.

I also see that I have given up many things in my life already. I can’t eat gluten and so as an act of love for my body I do not eat wheat in any form; there are many things I miss, homemade bread, French pastries, and fresh pasta among them. I have gestated, birthed, and nursed two children – that is austerity and sacrifice indeed. I am getting older and that combined with recovering from birthing drives home the fact that my body is not in my complete control. I am blessed with a healthy body that responds well and quickly to exercise. I am fit and healthy, but there is a humility in letting go of looking like my 25-year-old me. Even as every image in the Western world tells me that I should look 25 for as long as possible. That my worth is a youthful, slender body.

My body is a site of connection. I am my own world tree, the axis of my universe. I am both my body and not my body. If I gain 100 lbs or lose my legs or get burned in a fire, I will still be me. And not me. But this embodiment is all I know at this point.

I know that if I need to I can withstand and benefit from austerities. But why impose them if I do not need to? The world has sufferings enough as it is. I was hungry for several years for no good reason. Why not wait for a good reason? From this bodily axis in the universe I connect to that very same universe, and to you. I cannot transcend my form. Even if I gain enlightenment tomorrow I am still tethered in this body. And what a joy and a privilege that is.

 

Maxim Monday: Be impartial

Be impartial. Impartial means unbiased, fair, treating all equally, and remaining dispassionate. This is most definitely something I could stand to work on!

Of course, some ways are better than others. Some arguments are more ‘correct’ than others. Some actions and decisions more virtuous than others. But in judging others, in drawing conclusions, being impartial is the best course of action.

Impartial means unbiased, fair, treating all equally, and remaining dispassionate. This is most definitely something I could stand to work on!

As an American I would like to see impartiality closer to practicing non-attachment. Don’t be invested in outcomes or ‘winning.’ The idea of ‘treating all equally’ isn’t working out in the US. Judging from published rhetoric and public policy it seems that simply not helping others is considered fair. Don’t give any one an ‘advantage’ by providing assistance. Don’t judge arguments either. Treat all opinions fairly: evolution and creationism should be taught side by side in public schools because each ‘side’ should be treating fairly.

These false forms of impartiality make me apoplectic. Not very impartial, I’m afraid.

I’m terribly opinionated and judgmental. I could stand to contemplate being impartial quite a bit more!

Desire

Last night my husband and I went on a date. An actual dinner without children. We talked. We sipped drinks. Halfway through my sidecar I realized I was fired up, giddy about my subject matter, and rambling. That’s how I feel when I’m full of desire. It’s a stream of passion, enthusiasm, happiness, intensity, and a feeling of losing track of time.

Desire is on my mind. Yes, the sexual kind, too. Spring will do that to a person. I embrace the lengthening days, the growing sunshine, the increased outside time. I seek fresher and less food. I want to move more and sleep less. I’ve also been getting rested as the kids are sleeping a bit better. These things fuel the little fires in my body and my spirit. There is more motion all around me. The birds chirp, the insects buzz, the kids play loudly outdoors, and I feel stronger and more eager for motion.

By Marcus Obal, via Wikimedia Commons

By Marcus Obal, via Wikimedia Commons

This physical desire twins nicely with my obsession. What was I so fired up about on my date last night? My studies, my reading, my spiritual practices. If I’m not sitting at my altar, I’m thinking about pujas or offerings. If I’m not reading a book about something related to religion or spirituality, I’m thinking about when next I’ll get time to read. I’m seeking ways to embrace the fires, large and small, all around me.

I used to want to be the smartest girl in the world. For a long time I wanted advanced degrees, to be an expert, to write a book (I might still want to do that last one). Knowledge was what I was seeking, which was a form of power. I dreamed of being a stronger performer too, for performing is also a form of power. I sought both of those kinds of power out of a feeling of lack in myself. It was twisted desire, honest enough as it was.

I haven’t performed in a long time. I haven’t so much as sung scales. I sing a few lullabies at night, but that’s it. I’m hoping that when I sing again I’ll be prepared to be vulnerable, as that is where the power in performing comes from. Virtuosity is nothing; connecting with the audience is everything.

By Lin Kristensen via Wikimedia Commons

By Lin Kristensen via Wikimedia Commons

Now I seek those same forms of power, but I seek them from out of my own fullness. I see that a PhD in theology was not what I desired. I want the knowledge, not the degree. I want the development of ideas, not the academy. A PhD in religion studies was my secular, acceptable form of a monastic life. It was a way to approach my spiritual seeking without having to ask others for monetary support (like missionaries) or join some one else’s church or admit that I had such ancient (and impractical) desires

Clarity of desire, vulnerability, willingness to forego the acceptable, these are the things that spring is stirring in me. The surface layer is about health, movement, house hunting, cooking dinner, and so on. But the heart of my thoughts is desire. Desire for a spiritual life, for the mystery, for my own ashram.