Wednesday, May 29, 2019

"Listen Up!"

For fun, I asked Wade to take this staged photo 
of me "meditating" in South Africa last August!

Benedictine monk John Main has reminded me of something I first learned reading one of Gore Vidal’s historical novels. Reading silently to oneself became a thing only in recent centuries. “The spoken word is the essential medium for the communication of the gospel,” Main wrote in 1982, the year he died. He explains:

…To meditate is to listen to the word. In the early days of our literate culture, the link between the book and the spoken word was not broken—St. Benedict warns his monks not too read too loudly while at their private lectio; and St. Augustine was reading aloud from his Bible when his great awakening occurred. Today our books are too private experiences that rarely communicate themselves to others. --Letters from the Heart: Christian Monasticism and the Renewal of Community, p 19.

I did not intend to offer two spiritual imperatives in a row on this blog. Last week’s “Be Still!” was a reflection on another book of Main’s. I ran across both books on my shelves, having no idea how I came by them and why I haven’t read them till now. This second one has a bookmark from Newman Bookstore in Baltimore, so maybe I purchased them on a speaking trip there, one of my favorite cities. If someone gave them to me, I thank them!

In a conversation about speed reading with fellow English majors in college, I remember now retired Episcopal priest Gary Hall commenting how we needed to “hear” literature at least in our heads to get the full effect intended by an author, as we were not reading simply for information. Tom Boomershine has argued the same for scripture, coaching readers in the art of re-telling rather than simply reading a text. Oral transmission was the original way many of these stories and teachings were “traditioned,” or passed on, after all.

John Main suggests “that tradition becomes just a historical memory when it is not one with personal experience.” That’s why I often invite listeners to hear a biblical text as personally addressed to them.

One of my novice mistakes was asking the brothers at Mt. Calvary Retreat House not to read to retreatants from my then congregation during mealtimes, explaining that one of the reasons church members go on retreat is a chance to talk among themselves. I had no idea I was denying those church members the monastic experience of listening.

I’ve written that the most challenging monastic vow for me would be that of “obedience,” thinking little of how the word obedience comes from a word meaning “to listen,” to attend to what another is saying.

We use the phrase “listen up” when we want to convey something vital, something important, possibly urgent. How true this is also of things spiritual.

For Main, in his other book, Word into Silence, silence is needed to catch the deepest cries, ahas, and awes of our hearts, of our world, of our universe. He writes, “The qualities we need in this fundamental encounter between ourselves and the ground of our being are attentiveness and receptivity.” [p 34] Main later adds:

The understanding of prayer that makes it merely a matter of telling God what we want or need and reminding God of our sins of omission only compounds our alienation from reality. For this was the liberating message Jesus came to bring: “I bid you put away anxious thought about food and drink to keep you alive and clothes to cover your body. Surely life is more than food, the body more than clothes (Matthew 6:25).” [p 65]

Main writes that the Lord’s Prayer was “a series of rhythmic phrases in the original Aramaic,” thus memorable. I have found each phrase can serve as a centering word, a mantra. Mine lately has been “Thy kingdom come.”

Along with other centering prayer advocates, Main believes such a mantra can quiet the mind and welcome a “reverential silence.”


Please check out the related posts, “Be Still!” and “Be Careful!”

I will again be co-leading a 5-day contemplative retreat: April 27-May 1, 2020 in Cullman, Alabama, through the Spiritual Formation Program of Columbia Theological Seminary. It is open to the public.

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"Be Still!"

Seattle waterfront. (crg)

Our mothers’ admonition to us as children is the first step of contemplation.

During my prayers the morning I write this, it occurred to me that, if we are still enough, we can sense the world breathe.

Doesn’t matter if we are under trees or skyscrapers, raining skies or starry nights. We can see or hear or feel the world breathe, and that breath is the breath of God.

God is not on a faraway planet, but within this planet, offering the breath of life to all creatures, to all creation. And to you, specifically and particularly.

Meditation aligns our breathing with God’s breathing.

To allow that, we need truly “free time.” Scholar comes from the Latin “schola” which means free time, or leisure time for learning. Free time allows us to become “scholars” of the spiritual.

Free time means letting go of all claims on us—in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, released from debts, trespasses, and sins, as well as those indebted to us, trespass our space and time, and sin against us. Also, we are free of obligations, expectations, and the day’s agenda. It requires an act of the imagination to do this, to offer the welcoming, existential prayer “thy kingdom come” and to believe Jesus’ words “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and “this day you will be with me in Paradise.”

“It is because this kingdom is established and is present within us that we can be made free of the limitations of language and thought,” in the words of Benedictine monk John Main in his 1980 book, Word into Silence. He explains of most Westerners,

We tend either to be alert or relaxed; rarely are the two states combined in most of us. But in meditation we come to experience ourselves as at one and the same time totally relaxed and totally alert. This stillness is not the stillness of sleep but rather of totally awakened concentration. [p 8]

I can’t find what translation of Romans 5:2 that Main is using, but I love the turn of phrase, “we have been allowed to enter the sphere of God’s grace.” [pp. 2-3] (I did an internet search for this translation and only found this wording in interpretations of “we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” NRSV)

The “sphere of God’s grace” releases us into free time. It forgives the past, and, in a sense, “forgives” the future. It allows a truly existential moment to bask in God’s presence, which is not other-worldly but here and now. We are Adam and Eve naked in the garden. We are Jesus, children being about our “Father’s/Mother’s business” in the Temple and beyond. Holy Spirit inspires us, overcoming divisions and dualities with unity and harmony.

As such we know ourselves, even as we yet puzzle over knowledge of God.

“Monks are essentially people whose first priority is practice rather than theory,” Main writes, “Such a monasticism…will be an inclusive rather than an exclusive movement in the Church. It will know that the experience has only to be really lived to be communicated. … It is the silence of monks that is their true eloquence.” [xi]

Be still, and attend to God breathing in your world and in your life.


Please check out the follow-up posts, “Listen Up!” and “Be Careful!”

I will again be co-leading a 5-day contemplative retreat: April 27-May 1, 2020 in Cullman, Alabama, through the Spiritual Formation Program of Columbia Theological Seminary. It is open to the public.

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
Scroll down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Ozymandias on the Nightly News

The Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor, Egypt, 
in which Ramses II is depicted as the god Osiris.
1981 (crg)

Watching the evening news recently, “Ozymandias” came to mind. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetic rendering of the transiency and impotence of inflated egolatry of the kings of ancient times speaks to the would be “kings” who dominate the 24/7 news cycle of our own time. I was thinking of one in particular, but there are many around the world who qualify.

So I looked up the poem in my good old Norton Anthology, whose footnotes explained that a first century B.C. Greek historian reported that the largest statue in Egypt had the inscription: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings; if anyone wishes to know what I am and where I lie, let him surpass me in some of my exploits.” The anthology explains, “Ozymandias was Ramses II of Egypt, 13th century B.C.”

Decades ago, when I visited Egypt as part of a religious studies class, it was pointed out to us that Ramses II had his name carved deep into the stone of structures he built so that a later Pharaoh could not scratch it out, which sometimes happened. In the poem below, the anthology further explains that “the hand that mocked” refers to the sculptor’s representation and derision of his subject, and “the heart that fed” refers to the king’s heart that served as the source of such mockery.

Ozymandias

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” reminded me of the frown, wrinkled lip, and sneer of a cold and callous politician that I frequently see on the nightly news.

It also made me think of my recent reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose familiar story has been told in multiple productions: offering his soul, Dorian Gray’s portrait takes on all his sins and aging so he can remain unblemished, untouched, unmoved, and unreformed. Dorian keeps the painting covered and hidden in an unused, locked room. He occasionally checks on it, finding it uglier and more distorted with each viewing.

Dorian finally decides he needs to change his way of life and he does something he considers good and unselfish, hoping to reverse the process, but in the end,

He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. … Had it been merely vanity that made him do this one good deed? Or the desire of a new sensation, as Lord Henry had hinted, with his mocking laugh? Or that passion to act a part that sometimes makes us do things finer than we are ourselves? Or, perhaps, all these?

Ozymandias could be said to practice the power of positive thinking, thinking of himself and his work in superlatives, but the sands of time are a great leveling field, Shelley makes clear.

Dorian Gray was above it all, privileged and pampered and proud, without good promise or purpose. Wilde’s implication is that conscience is necessary for the soul to survive.

“What does it profit a person if, in gaining the whole world, loses the soul?”


Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Parable of My Hydrangea Bush


You might consider this a belated Earth Day reflection.

The hydrangea bush inhabited another part of our yard here in Atlanta, but I moved it to a more prominent place so passersby could enjoy its blooms, between the sidewalk and the street. A rookie mistake.

I should have learned from the azaleas I had once planted in a similar location that disappeared, roots and all, the night before they were about to blossom. My optimism hoped, at least, as it was near Mother’s Day, that someone had taken them home to his mother.

I had just prepared our lunch when a knock at the door summoned me. A young man pleasantly complimented the hydrangea and asked if he and his wife might take a slip or two home to grow for themselves. “Sure,” I said, and trusted him to do this on his own without supervision.

But during lunch, my intuition or lack of trust kicked in and I went to check on my hydrangea just as the man grasped one last handful of stalks, tossing them in a bucket of water with others previously pruned and slamming the rear doors of his white truck as he jumped behind the steering wheel for a sheepish but quick getaway. To my dismay, I realized a florist had just made off with half of the hydrangea’s colorful blossoms. I shouted after him, but too late.

The following season, I called my mother one morning to proudly tell her how beautifully the hydrangea was blooming. She was pleased to hear of it, because we had one in the yard of the home I grew up in, and in which she still lived. My father had tended it, as he had all our plants and trees and lawns. Dad’s family had a farm, and she was pleased to think I had gotten his “farmer” genes.

Later that same morning, I came out on the front porch and noticed the hydrangea’s branches were drooping, dangerously low. I had earlier watered the lawn, so I inspected the plant to see if too much water had accumulated on the leaves, weighing it down. I saw a neighbor outside and asked if he had noticed anything unusual.

“Yeah,” he said, “A drunk guy collapsed on it a little while ago.” I had earlier noticed him stumbling near his truck, still parked nearby, broken down or out of gas in the middle of the street. Now he was nowhere to be found, presumably seeking help or buying fuel, but he had carefully dumped his used beer cans on the adjacent lot. Uncharitably I collected the cans and put them in the bed of his truck. My sense of justice was piqued!

I had other seasons when the hydrangea would return wonderfully from its winter dormancy, but the final insult came one winter when someone removed what he thought was a dead plant: my hydrangea! I was grieved and horrified, but I bit my lip and said nothing, because the person thought he was doing me a favor.

It reminded me of the time I saved a tree in front of my ground floor apartment’s picture window in West Hollywood. I enjoyed watching squirrels playing in it and birds nesting among the branches, like a Disney cartoon. Sometimes at night possums huddled near its trunk, pretending not to be there as I passed by. But one winter, the building’s maintenance guy came with saws and tools to take it down. I intervened, asking why. “Because it’s dead,” he declared, “It has no leaves.” I explained that the tree always lost leaves in the winter, and they grew back in the spring. “Oh,” he said, and was just as happy not to take it down.

Ok, so now I’m an old man rambling, but one more shrub story. I had a painfully prickly bush at the end of our driveway, again, here in Atlanta. A drunk apparently attacked that too, as I found tire marks in its garden bed and a major portion broken off, but carefully placed back in position as if nothing happened. I only discovered the subterfuge when that section turned a telltale brown. When it finally died, I decided, once and for all, to remove it. Big mistake! I had no idea how the bush had become my “North star,” guiding me as I backed out of our curved driveway. I’ve never been as good backing out onto the street since! Now I look like a drunk driver!

For all you biblical sharpies out there, you know that a “parable,” such as I have labelled this, is only supposed to have one point. The point being our relationship with nature.

But as many parables are interpreted allegorically, there’s more to the story. We exploit and even take credit for nature’s beauty. Our addictions plunder, pollute, displace, and even destroy it, and this includes coffee, sugar, cocaine, fossil fuels, urban sprawl, as well as a disproportionate distribution of fruits, vegetables, and flowers to the privileged. We fail to be mindful of its rhythms and we fail to fully understand and appreciate it.

And prickly, annoying shrubs, like prickly, annoying experiences and prickly, annoying people, may serve as guideposts to finding our way.


Related Link: My grandniece Elaine Sanders, interested in sustainable design, edited this brief recycling video for her campus paper: Beyond the Bin.

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Au Revoir, Notre Dame de Paris

A replica of a Notre Dame
gargoyle watches over us 
at night. 

Here I use “au revoir” in the sense, “goodbye until we meet again,” as it literally means “to the seeing again.” I believe in Notre Dame’s resurrection, thanks to the commitment of the people of France to rebuild after the fire that devastated it weeks ago.

Until then, we will carry it in our hearts.

The first time I visited the cathedral, we had a very personal encounter. A close friend of mine in Los Angeles asked me on behalf of his father, struggling with cancer, to light a candle and say a prayer there before the Blessed Virgin for whom “Our Lady” is named. I was only too happy to do that.

When I happened to turn on the news while putting away groceries and learned of the fire, my legs wobbled, my heart sank, and tears came. My voice quavered when I later told Wade, who was working from home. On Facebook I wrote that it was the first time since 9/11 that I “lost it” watching the burning of a building, though, in that case, it was not so much the building as it was the loss of human life and the loss of life as we knew it that overwhelmed me.

My first long fiction piece, an unpublished novella titled Tommy that I wrote in college, described the great loss congregants experienced when their church burned down. I based it on my childhood experience of a fire in my home church, Vanowen Baptist. I had witnessed firsthand how emotional my mom and dad and other church members became, though it only damaged and did not destroy the structure. There is something very personal about a church.

In the dialogue between minister/journalist Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Moyers observes, “There are women today who say that the spirit of the Goddess has been in exile for five thousand years, since the—”

Campbell interrupts, “You can’t go that far back, five thousand years. She was a very potent figure in Hellenistic times in the Mediterranean, and she came back with the Virgin in the Roman Catholic tradition. You don’t have a tradition with the Goddess celebrated any more beautifully and marvelously than in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century French cathedrals, every one of which is called Notre Dame” [p 170].

While male gods have been associated with aggression, Campbell suggests, the Goddess is about compassion, which he declares as “the beginning of humanity” [p 174]. In a related context, Campbell says:

The spirit is really the bouquet of life. It is not something breathed into life, it comes out of life. This is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions, where the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature. There was something of this spirit in the medieval cult of the Virgin, out of which all the beautiful thirteenth-century French cathedrals arose. However, our story of the Fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us [p 99].

In the chapter, “The Gift of the Goddess,” Campbell explains:

From mere animal-like carnality, one may pass through a spiritual death and become reborn. The second birth is of an exalted, spiritually informed incarnation. And the Goddess is the one who brings this about. The second birth is through a spiritual mother. Notre Dame de Paris, Notre Dame de Chartres [which Campbell described as his “parish church”]—our Mother Church. We are reborn spiritually by entering and leaving a church [p 179].

It is after this last point that Moyers reminds Campbell that the Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as the Mother of God in 411, and Campbell explains that this had been argued long before in the church, adding, “there is a story that when the council was in session, discussing this point, the people of Ephesus formed picket lines and shouted in praise of Mary, ‘The Goddess, the Goddess, of course she’s the Goddess’” [p 180].

Campbell continues, “Jesus took over what is really the Goddess’ role in coming down in compassion. But when the Virgin acquiesces in being the vessel of the incarnation, she has herself already affected the redemption. It has become more and more apparent that the Virgin is equivalent in her suffering to the suffering of her son. In the Catholic Church now I think she is called the ‘co-savior’” [p 180].

Any of us who have contemplated Mary near the cross, or a Pietà of Mary holding her dead son, or witnessed any grieving mother who has lost a child, can bear witness to the intensity of such compassion, a word which Campbell defines as “shared suffering.”

To repeat Campbell’s maxim, “Our Mother Church. We are reborn spiritually by entering and leaving a church.”

No wonder emotions run high when we witness the burning of a church, whether Notre Dame de Paris, or Vanowen Baptist, or the black churches arsoned here in the South.



Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.