My first semester of college in 1968 I enrolled in RS 101: Man’s Religions (sic), one of the first courses offered by the newly established Religious Studies department of California State University, Northridge. Taught by Dr. Thomas Love, the department’s founding chair, it was my first immersion in biblical scholarship as well as the equal treatment of the world’s major religions.
Though I had already begun my disengagement from fundamentalism and biblical literalism, it was still a shock to my system, as if I had plunged into a baptismal pool filled with ice-cold water. After the 8 a.m. class, I had four hours until my next course, so I studied beneath a young tree I nicknamed my “axis mundi,” my “center of the world,” an allusion to one of our texts, Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane.
I usually felt depressed. The class questioned almost everything I had been taught to believe, but I wondered, why should that depress me? I could dismiss it and denounce it, as so many fundamentalists and biblical literalists do. But I realized the source of my depression: I believed the new information! I understood that to take the Bible seriously was to apply the best tools of scholarship to glean its spiritual wisdom. And I could not imagine that there was only “one way,” one spiritual path. Anyone who had hiked in the mountains and foothills of Southern California as I had knew better than that.
I woke up last Friday morning thinking of my personal axis mundi, that tree that became my place of contemplation. Years later I would discover it had grown large and tall. But on my last visit to the campus, I found it had been removed in favor of yet another building. Good thing I thought of it as a metaphor, or my whole world would have collapsed, like that tribe in Eliade’s book that died out after their totem was broken. Joseph Campbell warned that we get into trouble when we mistake our spiritual metaphors for the real thing.
During my morning prayers I’ve been reading Viktor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, the famed psychiatrist’s account of his time held in Nazi concentration camps. Friday I happened onto a passage in which he describes a woman aware she is about to die, but cheerful anyway. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told him, “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing to a tree outside, of which she could only see a branch with two blossoms, she confided, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness. I often talk to this tree.” Fearing she was delirious, Frankl asked if it ever spoke back. “Yes. It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”
In my prayers that morning, I thanked God for this woman, for her life, for her wisdom, and that she too had a tree to lean on.
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