My thoughts and predictions on the state of the Papacy

I got online yesterday morning and couldn’t figure out why so many people were talking about the Pope. I don’t have too many Catholic friends on Facebook. Was he dead? Many of my friends pay attention to religion in some form. What I found was even more surprising.

At this point, you may be aware that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning. From what I understand it’s the first time in around 600 years that’s happened. The last time was during the Schism – a period of time when the Papacy was contested and a second pope set up shop in Avignon, France. It’s not like popes just resign if they aren’t feeling up to the task. This is a job that people keep until they die. So I find Benedict’s resignation many times more interesting and troubling.

Albrecht Dürer's Mater Dolorosa, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Albrecht Dürer’s Mater Dolorosa, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Why troubling? The ROman Catholic Church is struggling. And well it should! In the face of widespread injustice and abuse to children it has turned a blind eye and refused to take responsibility. Its avoidance of justice has cost the Church billions and brought added shame upon itself. I can think of nothing less Christ-like than the papacy. If the popes are to be Christ’s representatives on earth, they are doing an abysmal job. How does a lineage of white, hyper-educated Europeans heading an institution wealthier than many small countries represent an illiterate, poor, anti-estasblishment Palestinian Jewish carpenter?

The deepest pessimist in me wonders what new revelations will come to light in the next 12-18 months. I don’t think Benedict himself is guilty of impropriety. I can’t say why, but that’s my gut. I don’t think he is being ‘pushed out.’ But I’m wary. What new scandal is waiting in the wings?

There is a set of prophecies from a 12th century monk coming up in some discussions about Benedict’s resignation. Supposedly he is the last pope and after this the Church will crumble. If this is the case I will both rejoice and mourn. As I am about many things, particularly in the Christian world, I am conflicted.

I have no love for Benedict. As a graduate student studying theology I had to read quite a bit of then Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings (who he was before becoming Pope). He was and is a legalistic conservative. I deplore the direction he has taken the Roman Church. It is increasingly concerned with its image, its institution and its rules over the lives of women, children and the poor. In my opinion, the Catholic Church is failing its flock.

This makes me sad. The Catholic Church is an easy target if someone wants to Christian bash. The institution has done a lot of horrible things in the name of God and continues to run from justice and mercy in the name of (self)righteousness. But the Church is also really beautiful.

I’ve spent a lot of my adult years reading Catholic theology, from the Church fathers to contemporary thinkers. My academic speciality was the Virgin Mary. I very nearly converted to Catholicism when I was 23 out of a love for Our Lady. The Catholic Church has been the supporter and inspiration for a vast amount of art, music and literature – things I hold dear to my heart. The Church has found a way to incorporate myriad cultures and representations fo the Divine Feminine.

What I’d love to see is the Church revitalized. I’d love to see a much more liberal church. Of course, that kind of radical change takes time and necessarily moves slowly, but I’d love to see the Church even beginning those discussions. I want to see nuns supported, women allowed to be priests, clergy to be married, non-heterosexuals embraced, and extensive humility in the face of and justice for the victims of the sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and others in the Church’s pay.

But that won’t happen. This is an opportunity for that. I see people in the news or on Facebook saying ‘let this be the time!’ But it won’t be. I am pessimistic – realistically so, I think. The Roman Catholic Church has avoided all opportunities for healing and growth. Under Benedict’s leadership the Church has battened down its hatches even more – a defensive position against the modern world.

I also don’t expect the prophecies to be true. I suspect there will be a struggle over identity as the Cardinals choose the next pope. I think there will be a strong push for an African, mostly because that is where the Church is experiencing the most growth (last I read) and because that area is much, much more conservative than just about anywhere else in the Christian world. Ultimately I don’t think the Catholic Church is ready for a black leader. Perhaps a South American? A friend suggested a nice Europeanish Argentinian. That would make a lot of sense.

I’ll be watching and waiting, much like most of the rest of the world. May the ever-loving and always merciful Holy Mother look upon her people with love and strengthen their hearts in compassion and justice. Amen.

(This post was written while listening to Rossini’s Stabat Mater. It is only appropriate that we have a painting and a musical form involving the weeping of the Holy Mother, appropriately melodramatic.)

Collaging the year, part two: 2013

Yesterday I posted about my 2012 collage, what came to pass and what did not (click here to read that post).

For 2013 I did a tarot reading. I used the Mary-El tarot. I drew the 9 of Swords, the King of Disks, the Devil reversed, the 2 of Swords reversed, the Moon, and the Hanged Man. Basically, I have yet another intense year ahead of me. (What I’d like to do is take a moment to whine about how intense and challenging everything has been for the last few years and how I’d really love it if the Universe would cut me a break, but hey – I seem hard-wired for intense. I basically sign up for Challenging and Intense whenever I see it. I’ve done this to myself.)

Instead of feeling overwhelmed and depressed by my reading, I decided to collage what I wanted out of my year, using the reading as my guide. Here’s what I created:

Collage 2013

Collage 2013

The Olympia and 13 are self-explanatory, I hope.

First, we have the 9 of Swords: pressure, passing through challenges, the hero’s journey, facing fears, attending to business, dodging challenges with skill. Yet pressure creates diamonds. Facing challenges makes us stronger. Attending to business gets things done. I decided to use this period to focus on my work, with reminders to endure. To that end I have a picture of a study with lots of books – a reminder to read and write and think! A picture of an altar to Durga. I believe that picture of the naked lady and the owl is an advertisement for a band. It says ‘Tiger! Tiger! Cut them where they bleed.’ I like the art and love the contrast of wisdom, nakedness and passive posture with such aggressive language. That feels right and good at this time. Going radical speaks for itself… although I think I’ve already done that! It never hurts to have another reminder.

Next up is the King of Disks: the master of pleasure and his physical environment. The card in the Mary-El deck has a faun eating of Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – and liking it! I get a sense of ‘having one’s cake and eating it too.’ This is a reminder to enjoy the physical delights of life. Sex, for sure, as well as the bounty of this land – hence, the 5 oysters (maybe that’s my unconscious choice for a third child right there!). There’s a picture of a lake in Washington. The word ‘vacation’ is important here, because my husband and I have had only one vacation in our 9.5 years together. We desperately need another one.

With the Devil and the 2 of Swords, both reversed, I see me dealing with boundaries, demons, unresolved issues, and issues of identity. I don’t see this as necessarily negative. Dealing with these things can lead to more freedom and healing. The Economist (one of my favorite magazines) had an article on the history of Hell in its holiday double issue. I got the pictures of the demons from there. Why not have some explicit pictures of what I’m up against! I also wanted an image of strength, representing overcoming such demons, and that’s what the picture of Pussy Riot demonstrating in an Orthodox church represents for me. (It also never hurts to have bad ass feminists on display.)

As for identity, I love the photo of Audrey Hepburn laughing. She embodies grace. In this picture she looks like she might be in her 30s (appropriate) and I choose to face my challenges with as much grace and joy as possible. Also, ‘never hide’ – a reminder that while I don’t need to be all up in anyone’s face, I need never hide either.

After struggles of identity and demons, I have the Moon and the Hanged Man to look forward to. The Moon can be a time of instability, of dreams, of the un/subconscious bubbling up, taboos. It’s also a deeply feminine card, one of mystery, and can represent cycles. I wonder if this might coincide with an autumn birth? Or perhaps after dealing with my demons and identity and the inevitable challenge to taboos those things entail, I’ll just want some rest.

The Hanged Man is a card of chosen self-sacrifice. I would like to be more like Odin, who sacrificed himself to himself for the sake of wisdom, rather than like Jesus, who martyred himself to himself.

Both of the final cards indicate a need for retreat, rest, and contemplation. I could certainly use more rest. I’ve got a big picture of fresh, clean bed and a person meditating in a beautiful, serene spot.

There are other images: I think ‘wake up!’ shouts its meaning loud and clear; there is a person singing love into her surroundings (and I promised Kali I would sing); the hands releasing fire/magic; the altar image of Om and Ganesh is always an auspicious addition to any sacred art; the image of the Taj Mahal represents India and my possible trip there this year; the peaceful priestess.

What’s not on this collage? I don’t have anything overtly representing another child, nor anything regarding the possibility of buying a house this year. Adam and I are hoping to buy a house – maybe that big king-sized bed is a nice home waiting for us at the end of the year!

I do have other goals for 2013. I want to learn to wild harvest nettles and devils club. I want to get back to my yoga practice. I want to learn to make a variety of Asian cuisines.

Overall, that tarot reading for the year ahead makes me want to collapse on the floor and yell out ‘you win, Universe! Uncle!’ But my collage brings me joy and I feel inspired to tackle what comes.

What do you think your year holds for you?

Coming Out as a Polytheist

Earlier this week Adam and I went to visit with a family whose daughter attends the same preschool as our son. The kids had a great time, playing together happily, whilst we adults sat around talking, drinking delicious strawberry mint “mojitos” and eating amazing meatballs. It was a great party! Somewhere in there the conversation turned to my background in theology. As it does. I had an experience I haven’t had in a while: I was asked if I believe in God.

Buddy Christ, taken from Jesus’s twitter feed:

I was surprised at how the content of the conversation was only slightly different from the kind I had when I was a Christian. The awkwardness was exactly the same, even as my position was radically different. I remember being asked if I believed in God when I was a Christian, and feeling uncomfortable because, while yes, I did believe in God, I didn’t believe in God the way the questioner usually meant. Even ten, fifteen years ago I had a much broader understanding of ‘God’ and certainly didn’t think God was a He (or a She, for that matter).

This time I felt that awkward, uncomfortable pit in my stomach and I got specific. I said I believed that Yahweh was A god, but not THE god, and he wasn’t MY god. I came out as a polytheist. It was weird, but also very freeing.

Other questions were asked: Do I believe that Jesus is the king of kings? No, if he was I think the Jews would have jumped on board with him. Does that make him less of a god? No. He’s just not MY god.

See, a polytheist view-point sees the world as full of gods, full of possibility. I actually think it helps me be agnostic about a lot of things, folding in my own experiences without denying the validity of others’ experiences, without breaking my brain trying to fit it all into a monotheistic framework in which “there can be only one.” I feel completely liberated from having to work everything into a monotheistic framework; my brain is so relieved about that.

Another question to answer was, had I read any CS Lewis? I feel bad when people ask me this. You might be surprised at how often this question comes up! I am a huge fan of Lewis; I’ve read most of what he’s written, including his academic work in literature and his fiction. (Hm, I think it could be good fun to revisit a bunch of his work with my “new eyes.” Does that sound interesting to you?) Usually I’m far more familiar with Lewis than the person asking the question. He’s a smart, thoughtful author, who is completely a man of his time, place, and circumstances. For the average American those circumstances and that time and place are just not relevant anymore.

Perhaps my favorite CS Lewis book.

Many of Lewis’s arguments and the evangelical arguments for Christianity rest on a purely monotheistic way of looking at the world. In fact, most atheist arguments rest on this framework, too. If God (as the Christians envision him) does not exist then there is no god. Or, if there is a god it has to be Yahweh. Why I couldn’t see the profound lack of logic in this for so many years is a testament to just how much the Christian view-point dominates our Western thinking. Why does the Christian viewpoint (or Jewish or Muslim – the monotheistic view-point) have to be the only one? It doesn’t. It isn’t.

We got to talking about experience. My host said that he had a life-changing experience in his mid-20s while driving for work. He said it was revealed to him that the Bible was true. My response was, that’s wonderful! Having a spiritual experience like that is joyous thing. I absolutely think that he ought to worship Yahweh and Jesus. But please don’t expect me to. Don’t demand that of me.

I put in my time. I didn’t give Christianity a mere fortnight. I gave it close to twenty years. I expected Jesus to do what the New Testament says he’ll do; I had hoped that I would have the sorts of experiences and relationships that my other Christian peers were having. But I never did. I had other experiences. I really think that Jesus and I are not meant to be in relationship with each other.

But what if you are being deceived? I was asked that in full sincerity. A good question, but one I don’t need to entertain. If my sincere heart and efforts dedicated to knowing God led me elsewhere, why would I assume I was being deceived? Why not assume that I was being led by a God of Love to where I was meant to be? To deities that wanted me? Assuming that I am being deceived actually makes Jesus out to be a real dick. Why keep me waiting all these years? Oh, it’s not for me to question? Well, I’d rather go where I’m wanted, where all the skills and gifts I gained in my years of Christianity are used, welcome, and produce fruit.

My lack of relationship with Jesus and Yahweh in no way invalidates the experiences of Christians. When looking at this topic from a purely monotheist point of view the choices are either Jesus is the single only truth, or he is a liar or, worse, an insane person; I am either being deceived by the devil, or Jesus isn’t true. I don’t think we need to be so zero sum about it. I am not deceived, nor am I lying, nor do I diminish the truth and beauty that many people find in the Christian tradition. Even if Jesus did rise from the dead, that still doesn’t make him The Only god.

My embrace of the polytheist world view has given me new eyes through which to see the world, a new mind with which to accept my experiences and those of others. Indeed, I have a new heart with more compassion and less judgment than ever before.

I can appreciate the sincere desire of Christians to represent their truth to me. My only hope is that they will accept the truth of my experience – hard-earned – too.

Walk Like a God – a review

One of the blogs that inspired me to start my own is Rogue Priest, written by Drew Jacob. He is a modern-day Priest, Hero and Adventurer. What does that mean? Well, you’ll have to read his blog to figure it out. I don’t always agree with his take, but I love that he’s actively thinking about the big Life Questions and attempting to live the life he believes in. One of the things that I love about P/paganism is that it seems to create space to live the life of one’s imagination (fodder for a future post). Now, Drew doesn’t identify as a pagan – big P or little p – but he’s part of the wider family. His blog got me thinking – and writing!

Last fall he released an e-book, Walk Like a God. I bought it straight away and decided to save it for my Place quarter. I’m so glad I did. It lines up perfectly with what I’ve been writing and thinking about this quarter.

One of the things that I love about Drew is his emphasis on experience, not belief. One’s beliefs are of little depth if there is no experience to back it up. I can see how important this is in my own life when I look at my relationship with Jesus during the years I was a Christian. I still think Jesus is rich, complex and wonderful – but that’s mostly theory because he and I never developed a relationship. I had no experience to back up the ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’! That’s important if religion/spirituality is going to take  root in real life. Yes, faith is the belief in things not seen, and there can be virtue in that, but it’s not a solid foundation. Drew encourages the reader to embrace experience and things that we can see/touch/smell, etc.

I should mention a minor trigger warning: in the beginning of the book Drew mentions depression a few times in a casual way. I don’t think he is meaning clinical depression or meaning to use the term disrespectfully, but I know some people out there are very sensitive to mental health words. Get past those early pages and it never comes up again.

Drew discusses four areas where humans find spiritual connection:

*Celebrations and ceremonies: This area is most often associated with organized religion, but can also include raves, parties, communal actions, etc.

*Solitude: This can be straight up time alone, or perhaps practices that hinge on it, such as meditation.

*Nature: For me, this one is intertwined with solitude, but this doesn’t have to be the case.

*Great personal challenge: This can be either circumstance or choice.

All of the above have been important and powerful teachers for me in my life. Drew focuses on the bottom three.

Walk Like a God is basic and conversational – in the best ways! It’s ideal for people who are disenchanted or uninterested in conventional, organized religion, and that includes many forms of paganism. I also think that many of the mystically inclined and unconventional people in any tradition might find this book a welcome supplement to their practice.

One of the few things that made me cringe was Drew’s question to the reader early on: ‘Are you ready to be in control?’ Yes, this approach (and for me, Paganism in general is good at this) creates space for each individual to have more control over one’s spiritual life. But the mystic in me also feels like we aren’t fully in control – spirituality is a relationship. We can no more demand that the gods show up than we can demand that the ravens stay one place for our meditation. A minor quibble (but I didn’t study theology for nothin’).

While I am already practicing just about everything Drew mentions, I did learn a few new things. For example, leaving strands of hair as an eco-friendly and personal offering. Brilliant! I was also challenged by his discussion of adventure. Such a lack of adventure in my life! ….Except that’s not true. My adventures look different than his, or from the one’s I used to have when I was kid-free and younger. But I’ve managed to travel and move countries and take employment and artistic risks – all while partnered, with children. Adventure comes in many forms! For me, blogging publicly has been a risk and adventure, as well (another thought for a future post).  Still, I was challenged to think about what the next adventure will be…

I highly recommend this slim book. It takes 30-60 minutes to read. Drew does such a great job of summing up what my Place quarter is really about. Get in touch with where you live, find a new way to connect with yourself, the gods, and your land. You won’t regret it!


Why I Am Not A Christian

Reflections on Bertrand Russell’s speech from 1927. (Read the essay online here.)

This is the only essay of his I’ve read. I recommend it. It’s short, amusing and to the point. Many of the arguments he raises are still being raised by those in the New Atheism movement. I want to use this post to talk very briefly about Russell’s essay, even more briefly about the New Atheism movement, and about why I, Niki, am not a Christian.

We begin with Russell’s essay. It’s hard to deny most of his points: that many of the arguments made for Christianity just don’t hold water. Morally, the world will not fall apart if we’re not Christian. Plenty of moral people exist in other religions and no religion at all. No one can prove the existence of God in any scientific way. The argument from design is not compelling. Christ is a fascinating character, but equally problematic. I love the discussion of the fig tree story in the New Testament – Jesus passes by a fig tree, it isn’t bearing fruit and Jesus is hungry, Jesus angrily curses the fig tree to never ever bear fruit. Dude, what did that fig tree ever do to you? Jesus could stand to work on some anger management issues.

Like the ‘New Atheists’, Russell believes that only science is the way forward; science, along with “knowledge, kindness and courage.” I can support these things, and I think most people of faith can too. As great as the essay is I find that he raises up intelligence as a sort of God-like entity. And this is one of my main critiques of the New Atheism: that science becomes godlike. It is raised above all things. Our intelligence is trusted as the single most guide. I love science but it is a tool, not a god, not the end all and be all of wisdom.

Another of my issues with New Atheism is that science and religion (or faith, because often people of no particular organized ideology get thrown into the cart here) are not incompatible. There often is conflict between the two, but science and religion are not inherently opposed, nor is it a zero sum game where only one can stand victorious.

I have read some essays by the handful of (privileged, white, male) New Atheist writers, but I have not read their books. I do not want to as I find their tone smug and belittling. And yes, there has been legitimate critique of the movement as anti-feminist (this Ms blog post on the topic is a great place to start). I find that the writers in this movement are as closed-minded as the people the critique.

One of my biggest concerns is that many of the arguments laid against belief by atheists are actually quite specific to the Abrahamic faiths. Many of the things they don’t agree with or like are things I don’t agree with or like! When the average atheist is talking about why they don’t like God, I have to ask them which God. The Judeo-Christian monotheistic idea of and personality attributed to God is usually discussed as if it is the only one. I don’t believe in that God either. Millions and millions of people don’t believe in that God. So we all have something in common there.

I don’t want to spend too much more time on New Atheism. It’s been a few years since I followed the movement with any regularity; I’m sure I’m out of touch already on the subject. I will stand with them in support for a secular government and public arena, but I don’t support a religion-free world. I’m a big fan of religion. I like it. And there that is.

As for why I am not a Christian, the simplest answer is this: it isn’t my story. I’ve said that before, but it feels more and more true with each passing day. There is much I love about the Christian story: the Annunciation, the Resurrection, even the story of the Crucifixion. Jesus is a great and divine person. I support the social justice aspects of the Christian message. But Yahweh is not my god. I don’t believe that Yahweh is the Great Ground of Being, who created the whole universe. I do not want to bad mouth a god, from a spiritual point of view, nor do I want to bad mouth anyone else’s god, so I’ll stop there. While I love and respect the Jewish tradition, I do not see how the god of one group of people could be the god of all. I do not see how there could be now or have been then a Chosen People. How could one tiny tribe be chosen among all the tribes in the world? It doesn’t make sense intellectually, nor from a position of faith. I fully believe that Yahweh chose the Jewish people – but that is their story, not mine. I cannot be a Christian because so much of the Christian story and symbolism is dependent on Jewish symbols and stories.

I want to pause here and admit that I fear talking about the above because I am afraid people will assume I am anti-Semitic. I reject Yahweh, but I see that from a monotheist view-point it could be construed that I reject God entirely or people who believe in Yahweh. From a polytheist view-point, which is how I see the world now, I don’t reject God, just that specific god as mine, as the One God.

There are many other intellectual reasons for my moving away from the Christian faith – issues with politics, the roles of and beliefs about women, the body and sex, systematic examples of hypocrisy and domination of the weak and vulnerable by those in power. We can pick up any newspaper and find numerous reasons why the Christian tradition leaves a lot to be desired. But I know that those things are not the entirety of the Christian tradition. There are many beautiful and helpful parts too.

What it comes down to is personal experience. I am not a Christian because my deepest spiritual experiences have never been in church or with or about Jesus. My deepest spiritual experiences were in the wilderness, alone in prayer, or in decidedly pagan space.

It’s taken me a long time to let go of the Christian label. I wanted to fit in. I wanted all that was best about it, but I found that I couldn’t reconcile all the pieces. I have a great love in my heart for the tradition, as I do for the Jewish tradition. I still cannot read or watch people like Pat Robertson or Rick Santorum because their views hurt my heart. Physically, it hurts me to see their distortions of something I find meaningful and beautiful at its best.

But when we get down to the core of who I am, I am not a Christian. And there that is.


He is not here, He is risen!

Or, thinking ahead to Easter.

I’m a little premature. Easter isn’t until April, and I’ll be knee deep in the mud of my Place quarter. I haven’t celebrated Easter in any meaningful way in a long time. I dislike pastels and cartoon bunnies and cheap chocolate, so the mainstream/commercial parts of this holiday don’t interest me at all. I don’t want to start that with my kids, either. There’s enough sugar and cartoon-y fun in our lives as it is.

But I do love the resurrection story. Even though we are not a Christian household and even though Jesus is not my god, I love the power of the resurrection story. In a world in which horrible things happen every day, and some days reading the news (heck, just reading the headlines) can overwhelm me, knowing that love wins, hope springs eternal, and one person fully aligned with the divine can move mountains is a powerful antidote to the weary, cynical and depressing elements in life. Honoring the Christian Easter story is something I’d like to incorporate into my family life.

Icon of the Resurrection

Last week, Star Foster over at Patheos Pagan Portal posted a great article on Mary Magdalene, Easter and eggs. She reminded of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of dying eggs red, the connection to Mary Magdalene (not just Reformed Harlot- an inaccurate conflation of texts, but Apostle to the Apostles!), and perhaps the connection with older practices.

St Mary Magdalene

When I was living in Wales there was a gorsedd park in town, a park with a ring of stones. It wasn’t ancient; it was put there by a modern Druid group I believe, in keeping with Welsh tradition, when the park was made. But I thought it was really cool anyway. Our first Easter there, my son was 22 months old, and we walked down on a bright sunny morning and ‘hid’ eggs in the park for him. It was a fun, joyous occasion. But we didn’t repeat it, instead going elsewhere in the following years.

This year we have an invitation to go with another family to their Easter dinner and egg hunt. I think I’ll make a batch of red eggs to add in to the mix. I can tell the story of Mary Magdalene, bold woman who bore the news of Christ’s resurrection, and we can celebrate that every year the sun returns and new life bursts forth, that every day the sun rises, that hope always springs up, and that it’s our job to carry that joy into the world. After all, we save ourselves and each other.

Praying like a Pilgrim

I was hoping to have all of The Pilgrim’s Tale, a Russian spiritual classic, read for review today. Even with kids and limited reading time I can plow through a book if need be. This time? I’m savoring it. In fact, I’m inspired by it.

One of the things I love about the Eastern Orthodox tradition in all its ‘flavors’ (the Church is divided along ethnic and national lines) is that mysticism is front and center: in its liturgy, traditions, stories and practice. Mysticism is more than theology or incense or icons or even an embrace of mystery. Part of mysticism is the belief that every individual has access to and the ability for deep union with the Divine. The Pilgrim’s Tale is focused on the Hesychastic tradition of inner prayer, also called prayer of the heart or the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It can be shortened to: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

This type of prayer is essentially a form of Christian meditation; it’s a mantra for deep inner meditation. When I started reading the book I decided that I would start praying it as well. Except, the prayer as is doesn’t sit well with me. Jesus and I don’t have much to say to each other, and I while I believe in sin and that I am flawed, I don’t believe in sin and being a sinner the way this tradition does. So I altered the prayer to the following: Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy/Holy Mother, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy. It’s another form of Orthodox prayer (using God, instead of Mother), so I felt the spirit was there. I also didn’t just want to pray for mercy on myself. For a week now I’ve been praying this aloud or under my breath while walking, folding laundry, doing dishes, lying in bed at night, etc.

What has been surprising to me is how deeply this prayer affects me. I’ll just be standing at the sink doing the dishes, thinking about my day or what chore I’ll tackle next or which park I’ll take the 3-year-old to, and I find myself feeling things, things I didn’t know I was feeling, needing to coat those feelings in mercy.

See, I’m not so good with feelings. There’s a lot of Stuff I know I haven’t dealt with. This mantra prayer is like a distraction for my brain. While brain and body are busy forming the words, heart bubbles up Stuff and it needs mercy. I have feelings about being so frustrated with my son’s inability to stop pushing his sister over – have mercy on me for being so angry, have mercy on my son, may his feelings find a better outlet, have mercy on my daughter’s body, and thank you that she didn’t whack her head this time. I have feelings, mostly judgment, for various thing I’m doing or not doing – or even feeling! Have mercy on me, that I’ll be more compassionate to myself, that I’ve so far to go before enlightenment, that I’ll stop judging even that. Have mercy on the sadness that trickles out from the edges of my thoughts, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.

Just as the Pilgrim describes, the repeated request for mercy also comes out as a thanksgiving. Have mercy (thank you that we are so well fed and have mercy on those who aren’t and have mercy on the hands that made it possible have this food at all), have mercy (thank you that my friends arrived safely), have mercy (thank you for this opportunity, thank you for the support to push forward even when I feel scared). Oh have mercy. Oh thank you for this life.

There’s a lot in this book that’s repetitive and rather boring. It is firmly situated in the Orthodox trope in form and content; I’m used to it, but I could see it boring the crap out of most people. There are some gems in here, though, things that I think many people can relate to.

On the very first page we see the Pilgrim coming across the instruction in the Gospel to ‘pray without ceasing.’ He is stumped; how in the world is that possible? This entire book is his search to find out how and what happens when he does.

“I thought and thought but could find no answer. So I asked a cleric: ‘What does it mean to pray unceasingly and how does one do it?’ He replied: ‘Just pray it as it says.’ I asked again: ‘Yes, but how do you pray unceasingly?’ ‘You’re still asking?’ said the cleric and left.”

I love this. This is the opening. On one hand I see the frustration of a beginner, seeking and asking and basically being brushed off by someone who seems to know but won’t tell. I think many of us have had similar experiences. We want to know something, to go deeper and the person we’ve asked gives us some crappy line: ‘Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now you never will’ or ‘One either is ready and therefore gets it, or one is not.’ On the other hand, to pray unceasingly, we must start praying. That’s something this blog project has taught me: dive in, just begin, sort out the how later, it will make sense eventually.

The Pilgrim asks another man about this prayer:

“Unceasing interior prayer is the uninterrupted striving of the human spirit toward attentiveness in the divine center. … You will not understand. But if you pray as you know how, this very prayer will itself reveal to you how it can be unceasing. Everything takes its own time….”

I believe this is true of so much of the mystic life. Knowledge come from words, but wisdom comes from experience. Both are important, but all the words in the world will not give us the wisdom we seek.

This book has a few little one-off moments of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, and claims that the Hindu yogis got this meditative prayer from the Eastern Fathers (it is likely the other way around). This is par for the course in a Russian Orthodox book of this era. Despite these flaws, I will be keeping this book on my shelf. And I will be continuing to pray this prayer for the remainder of this quarter.