Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Altars in the World

Nature's baptismal font, Hawai'i

When you’ve finished reading this, I invite you to click on “comments” at the end of the post and share your favorite/most meaningful “altar in the world.” Click on “comment as” and if you do not have an account with one of the services listed, choose “anonymous” and enter your comment followed by your name, if desired. I will be publishing your comment later in the day. Thanks!

A seminary friend, Barbara Brown Taylor, has a book titled something like the title of this post. I haven’t read it yet, but having read three other books of hers, including Leaving Church, I have a sense that its theme parallels what I write here.

The contemplative life is about finding altars everywhere. Celtic “thin places” where heaven shows itself on earth. Creatures who, much like Meister Eckhart’s caterpillar, are so full of God a sermon is unnecessary. Leonard Cohen’s broken places that let the light shine in. Strangers who are angels unawares. The “least of these” who are Christ himself.
People who, as in Thomas Merton’s epiphany at a city intersection, do not realize they are walking around “shining like the sun.” Maya Angelou’s “caged bird,” Ruben Alves’s datesRumi’s beloved guide ShamsMother Teresa’s “Christ in a distressing disguise.” 

For a contemplative like Hildegard of Bingen, music is another altar: “a person often sighs and moans upon hearing some melody, recalling the nature of the celestial harmony.”

Etty Hillesum, who was to die at Auschwitz, might smile to be considered a contemplative, but who but a contemplative could observe the following in Nazi-occupied Holland, when Jews were forced to wear yellow stars of David? 
That man in Beethovenstraat this afternoon won’t get a mention in [the history books]. I looked at him as one might at the first crocus in spring, with pure enchantment. He was wearing a huge golden star, wearing it triumphantly on his chest. He was a procession and a demonstration all by himself as he cycled along so happily. And all that yellow—I suddenly had a poetic vision of the sun rising above him, so radiant and smiling did he look. 
In her “Spiritual Autobiography,” Simone Weil saw herself forever standing on the threshold of the church, because so much that she loved and that God loves is outside the church.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” Gerard Manley Hopkins declared, as so many poets, artists, visionaries, and mystics have witnessed through the ages.

The contemplative knows no bounds, no walls, no restrictive or exclusive way of experiencing the sacred. Altars are everywhere for those with fingers to touch or noses to smell or tongues to taste or ears to hear or eyes to see or bodies to be held or minds to imagine or love to be made or justice to be done. Anyone with any sense may know the altars of God’s presence and pleasure.

That’s why contemplatives often find more in common with mystics of other faiths than their fellow “believers,” why they find kindred spirits in so-called “primitive” religions that are more down to earth, or why, even among “godless” sciences they find a cause for awe and praise and—reverence.

Contemplatives do not have an exclusive view of their vocation: they learn from everyone, for, just as it is sometimes said “we are all theologians,” we are all contemplatives who do it more or less. The trick is to do more, to find ways to open ourselves to the altars in the world, to the sacred ways of other cultures, to the guidance and wisdom of other spiritual communities, to the diversity of spiritual experiences and practices even within our own faith traditions.

Listening is key. Self-Realization Fellowship founder and contemplative Paramahansa Yogananda wrote a song I use in leading retreats: 
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song;
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song:
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you;
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you—
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
“In this tempestuous, havoc-ridden world of ours, all real communication comes from the heart,” Etty Hillesum also wrote. Hearts may be altars as well, and listening is something we best do with our hearts.

Attending, attention, mindfulness, presence—these are our teachers, these are our guides, and these are the ways we bring healing to one another and to the world—one person at a time. “Ninety percent of life is just showing up,” Woody Allen famously quipped--and yes, comics may also be contemplatives. We need more of them!

So many places to find God; so little time!


To support this blog ministry: 
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rage to Ecstasy: Praying the Psalms

Prayers at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, 1981.

If I were to send into space one item that would explain the human experience to other civilizations, it would be the Psalms. They would serve as warning and explanation and exaltation of our capabilities.

Cross us, and we will dash your little ones against the rocks. Exile us, and we will nonetheless try to sing God’s song in foreign territory. Wow us, and our spirits and words will soar in thanksgiving and praise.

An agnostic boyfriend wanted to better understand my religious devotion, so I suggested that we read a psalm each day on our own, conferring occasionally. Soon into the exercise, he good-naturedly but definitively expressed dismay at the texts. He said something like, “I expected a more uplifting experience, but there’s a lot of vengeance and wrath.”

A retired church member whose lifelong partner died was about to go on his first trip without him. I suggested we pray the psalms together, one each day, as he travelled. Afterward, he said he felt less alone, knowing I was praying the psalms with him.

That’s a gift of the Psalms, that praying them, we feel less alone. Those who wrote the psalms were imperfect, much like us. They didn’t know everything, but they had feelings about everything. And, like us, they had multiple situations and events to have feelings about, some good, even great, some bad, even evil. They reflect the human range of experiences and emotions.

They are like us, but perhaps unlike us, they are willing to express even their uglier aspects. They are not pretending to “have it all together.” They are willing to offer their broken spirits to God, to one another, to us. They are the original 12 Step meeting, the first confessors, the first monastics using prayer as a place of transformation.

As much as they, like us, might pray that God will “fix” things, they understand repeatedly their need to hope in God, to trust in God, to witness the beauty and wonder of creation, from the heavens to the earth. And they give us wonderful images and metaphors for God: a good shepherd, a mother’s lap, the rising sun of justice.

For centuries, monastic communities have prayed the psalms during their daily multiple prayer services. My first real taste of that was visiting the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross at their Mt. Calvary Retreat House in the foothills above Santa Barbara, California. Over the years of my occasional retreats there, I found peace joining them in the reciting or chanting of the psalms. The brief silence between each line gave the words a chance to sink in, as one might pause after any line of poetry. And saying or chanting the words myself and with others gave the psalms an altogether different resonance than reading them silently on my own.

In praying the psalms, if we can’t identify with a particular mood or condition in the words, we might consider those in the world who are experiencing that mood or condition, praying with them or on their behalf. That makes the psalms at least one more way in which we realize we are not alone.

At the risk of offering a mere tautology: that the psalms are directed at the self and others and God makes them a resource of reflection and contemplation: an opportunity for dialogue with ourselves, with others, and with God.

The psalm that got me through my toughest times is the psalm divided between Psalm 42 and 43 that begins, “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God.” The psalmist was prevented from going to God’s house, perhaps by illness, but the longing presented reminded many of us in the LGBT community of the church’s exclusion.

More than once I have prayed with the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me” and “Restore to me the joy of thy salvation.”

And, during an extreme and extended period of multiple griefs, Psalm 73 spoke of my experience: 
My heart grew embittered,
my affections dried up,
I was stupid and uncomprehending,
a clumsy animal in your presence.
Even so, I stayed in your presence,
you grasped me by the right hand;
you will guide me with advice,
and will draw me in the wake of your glory. 
Psalm 73:21-24 (NJB)
“Even so, I stayed in your presence” became my mantra and my discipline that year, else I would have been lost.

My favorite psalm for contemplation when leading a retreat is 131, whose key mantra is, “I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms” (NJB).



Please support this blog ministry: 
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Peace! Be Still!"

Full moon over the Sea of Galilee, 1983.
(Intentional double exposure.)

How easily my calm was shattered as I started to write this post! My mouse stopped working, and I had to figure out once again how to open it, and then find a fresh battery. Still, it wouldn’t work, until Wade figured out to detach and reinsert its wireless receiver.

Then Jesus’ words came to me as balm for my exasperation as well as the title I was trying to come up with for this post on the Desert Mothers and Fathers: “Peace! Be still!”

Those of you who read last week’s post on memory know that I am reflecting on six themes of contemplative spirituality, and today’s focus is on the contemplative practices of those escaping “empire,” both politically and religiously, in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Ammas and abbas, the “mommies” and “daddies” of this movement, felt called to withdraw from the corrupting influences of society even as Christianity was embraced and entangled by “the powers that be.” They were true radicals, as in going back to the roots of a faith and practice that had earlier been marginalized, persecuted, and martyred.

Today’s Queer movement within the LGBT community is culturally reminiscent of those Christians who feared the faith would lose its cutting edge qualities through accommodation and assimilation.

When today we screw up our faces (and our psyches) trying to understand how so many Christians reconcile inhospitality, xenophobia, the death penalty, sexism, torture, economic inequality, and preemptive wars with the teachings of Jesus, we get a smidgeon of the distraught felt by those who went out into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, and Persia to pray, following the advice given to Arsenius: Flee, be silent, and rest (fuge, tace, quiesce).

Thomas Merton pointed out that “quiesce” is so much more than “contemplation”: “Quies is a simpler and less pretentious term, and much less misleading. It suits the simplicity of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers] much better than ‘contemplation’ and affords less occasion for spiritual narcissism and megalomania.”* Quies is Latin for quiet, and quiescere means “be still.” It was about letting go of all human pretensions of self-sufficiency and control, even our drama!

For Merton, crossing “the abyss that separates us from ourselves” would prevent human atrocities: “the great travelers and colonizers of the Renaissance were, for the most part, men who perhaps were capable of the things they did precisely because they were alienated from themselves. In subjugating primitive worlds they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.”** I would think that today this could apply to globalization of economic or ideological interests.

And, of our own time, he wrote, “We can profitably reflect that modern mass-man is the one who has returned so wholeheartedly to fanatical projections of all one’s own evil upon ‘the enemy’ (whoever that may be). The solitaries of the desert were much wiser.”*** This could’ve been written yesterday!

So first, the contemplative way of life served as a prophylactic against visiting our toxins upon other people and other cultures.

It could be said that the early Christian monastics were first and foremost about removing the beam from their own eye so they were better able to help remove the splinter in another’s.

Merton compared civilization to a shipwreck, with contemplatives scrambling to shore, not solely for their own safety, but so that once on dry land they could extend a saving hand to others struggling to survive. This metaphor is particularly apt when we think of the many present-day refugees on overcrowded and rickety boats seeking sanctuary on distant shores, from the Mediterranean to the South Pacific.

So second, contemplation may serve as the first act of activism on behalf of others.

More than once I’ve used the story of Jesus and the disciples caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee as a way of contrasting our usual prayers with contemplative prayer. Jesus, who regularly prays alone, sleeps soundly in the heart of the boat in the midst of a storm, while his disciples, frantic, call to him, “Don’t you care that we might lose our lives?” Awakened, with spiritual power, he tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And it was so. And the disciples are in awe.

Three qualities characterize the Desert Mothers and Fathers prayer of the heart: they are short and simple; they are repeated, thus unceasing, as in “pray always,” joining the rhythm of their lives; and they are inclusive of all concerns and, I would add, of all people, of all creation. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” it is not just for the individual or a family or a nation or all human beings, it is for all of creation, for all of the cosmos.

As to brief prayers: “One phrase on the lips of the tax collector was enough to win God’s mercy; one humble request made with faith was enough to save the good thief,” Henri Nouwen wrote in The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry.+

Amma Syncletica compared the contemplative’s work to that of a homeowner: 
For if someone who owns a ruined house receives guests there, harm is done because of the dilapidation of the dwelling. It is the same in the case of someone who has not first built an interior dwelling; loss is caused to those who come.++ 

*The Wisdom of the Desert, 20.
**Ibid, 12.
***Ibid, 22.
+The Way of the Heart, 81.
++The Forgotten Desert Mothers, 52.

Highly readable and helpful:
Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert and Contemplative Prayer.
Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry.
Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women.

To support this blog ministry: 
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Remember the Gift

Resting in God, temple in India, 1983.

My sleep was interrupted very early the morning I write this as I struggled with a request to co-lead a several-day contemplative retreat, doubting my qualifications. Suddenly my mind began structuring the course, bringing order to chaos. I continued organizing in a dream as I drifted off to sleep again. Waking, I felt more confident.  

I have yet to share it with my co-leader, so there will be changes to come, but I thought it would also be a helpful way to write posts that might speak to those of you who follow the spiritual season of Lent and Holy Week as well as those of you who don’t! So eager was I about this that here I am, up at 5:19 a.m., writing.

For the next six Wednesdays I plan to reflect on themes that could be used in such a retreat, in an order that roughly parallels the evolution of contemplation in the Christian tradition. Today I write of memory.

I have been told that studies indicate personal memory is unreliable. But I could not do my work or “do” my faith were it not for such a faulty instrument! My present self may easily be reshaping my personal narrative to suit myself. Lillian Hellman, believed to have reshaped her own personal narrative in her memoirs, famously wrote that the longest sentence in the world begins with, “I remember…”

One of the things I remember but have never been able to document is a line from W. H. Auden: 
Remember the gift,
The one from the manger,
It means only this:
You can dance with a stranger.
When I used to send Christmas cards, I created a card with that verse one year. It is in “remembering the gift” that contemplation begins. The first followers of Jesus told stories about him, recounted and amplified his teachings and parables, and remembered, re-enacted, and sometimes re-shaped his deeds and life events. Lent is simply remembering his 40-day sojourn in the wilderness after his baptism.

If personal memory is faulty, collective memory can be fanciful, and as it passes through time, evolves into myth. Myth, for me, offers a deeper spiritual truth. Jesus came to represent to those who followed him and those who followed them what the world needs.

Teilhard de Chardin (yes, I’m still reading him) writes, “However personal and incommunicable it may be at its root and origin, Reflection can only be developed in communion with others. It is essentially a social phenomenon.” I would add, a social phenomenon over time, a communion of saints over the ages. In another context, he writes, “Coherence and fecundity, the two criteria of truth.”*

This is what separates mythological truth from “alternative facts.” There is both coherence and fecundity in mythology: it makes sense to our inner selves and is fruitful in its outcome. The sacrificial love that Jesus taught and practiced and lived bears fruit in our transformation and in the transformation of the world.

Zen Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of a woman attending the trial of her son’s murderer. Overwhelmed with grief, at one point, she cries out, “I’m going to kill you!” After he was imprisoned, to his surprise, she came to visit him. “Is there anything you need?” she asked casually, and she began providing little things here and there whenever she came to visit.

When he approached release, she asked, “Do you have a place to go?” He said, “No, ma’am, I don’t.” So she offered him her son’s room. She also found him work with a relative. After living together for a while, she asked him if he remembered when she shouted, “I’m going to kill you!” “Yes ma’am,” he said, “I could never forget that.” The mother replied, “You see, I did ‘kill’ you. You are no longer the man who killed my son.”

Sacrificial love transforms. That’s why early followers of Jesus gathered to relive his sacrifice in the Eucharist in which all attending, not just the spiritual leader, spoke the Words of Institution that rendered bread and wine into body and blood.  The Eucharist was preceded and prepared for by the Service of the Word, the reading of scripture and a contemporary interpretation. Liturgy too is a way of remembering, spoken or sung or choreographed. And early on, art and architecture served the Christian memory, especially in a largely illiterate world.

In Jesus and the Eucharist, Jesuit Tad Guzie wrote that the meal was “above all, a natural way for Jesus to express the meaning of his impending death, a death which he knew lay at the heart of Yahweh’s promise of life and a kingdom for his people.”**

This, to me, is not a sacrifice to an angry God, but a sacrifice to show us a greater love.


*The Future of Man, 133, 182.
**Jesus and the Eucharist, 57.

To support this blog ministry: 
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.