May 29, 2013

The Power of Worms and Wildflowers

Thirty years ago or so, when I was going through a traumatic life transition, an image came to me in prayer that gave me strength to bear the changes of the moment and those to come in later years.  I saw myself meditating in absolute stillness in a summer meadow.  I could feel a lovely breeze brushing the downy hairs on my cheek, and the warmth of a buttery sun.  In the stillness I could hear a bee buzzing about.  I could even hear the earthworms deep in the earth below me doing their earthworm chores.  I noticed that my being was full with a sweet contentment; that I was home.  Meanwhile, in the distant background, the skyline of the city of my life collapsed under its own weight, silently, into great clouds of dust. 

The metaphor was apt to the situation.  My life did, indeed, feel like it was collapsing all about me.  But I did not yet hold the certainty that God was present with me through the collapse.  I was not yet sitting in the stillness, with the tumult at the periphery of  my awareness.  I was living, rather painfully, in the middle of the tumult, vainly attempting to shore up the collapsing walls of my fortress.  The image brought me the hope that I would survive, that my authentic self  was not the top-heavy construction I had created, and that the Spirit of Life was juicily inviting me to shift my attention from that constructed reality to God’s Reality. 

I’ve since had many lopsided life constructions collapse into heaps of dust:  a job, financial security, status, relationships, even health.  At those times I experience, once again, a painful tug at the heart strings for the familiar things that I have used to give structure to my life.  These are the things that I have used to tell who I am, or what I can do, or what I’m worth.  Even after the collapse is complete I have been known to be obliviously busy with the shoring up, unwilling to face the pain of losing what I thought of as myself.

But once I’ve come to my senses, once I begin to accept and feel the loss, I can also begin to remember the buzzing bee, the earthworms, the breeze, and my experience of deep contentment in that meadow of the soul.  Then I can remember to pay attention to what is, what was, and what always will be:  the abiding presence of the One who knows me and sustains me, who abundantly gives me all that I need to be content, and who doesn’t seem to give a hoot for the cityscape. 

Sometime later I was given a related metaphor that taught me something further about the powerful nature of this Reality.  While walking the grounds surrounding the retreat center where I was staying, I found a neglected sidewalk.  It had apparently once led to a building that had been torn down years ago; the sidewalk had been left to crumble.  Sections of the walk were entirely overgrown with lovely wild grasses and colorful wildflowers.  In fact, the only way I could tell that it had once been a sidewalk were the few sections of concrete that had not yet been overgrown, and the “shadow line” of a walk that could yet be seen in the grasses.  Like the city of my life, the sidewalk was being returned to the earth.

Somehow, in spite of the many heaving potholes in the road that we have to contend with each spring, we tend to think of concrete as solid and enduring.  But God knows better and is apparently content, barring human interference, to allow concrete to find its way back to dust in its own time.  God’s power is not the short-lived power of concrete, or even the power of the jackhammer that quickly reduces concrete to rubble.  God’s power is the unhurried and profound power of seedlings which, through the seasons, and with the help of rain, snow, and sun, break up the concrete of the thoroughfare, helping it on its journey home to the earth.  God’s power is the persistent striving to life that endures in the roots of wildflowers and grasses.  And in spite of our propensity to cling to the realities we construct for ourselves, God patiently reminds us again and again where the real power is. 

April 10, 2013

A Principle Which Is Pure

 "There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names." -John Woolman

Last June I wrote a blog called Postcard from the Lip of the Void. One small element of that experience included an experience of God/Not God as a pure principle, signified by a cold and perfect mathematical equation. I’ve been thinking about that image a lot recently.
Many of my friends, compassionate, warm, and loving people who are also highly intelligent, do not experience the relationship, visions, or emotional release that I experience when I pray. These friends seldom use God language, and feel a little uncomfortable with some of the ideas generated by the great religions through the ages. They accept the ethics of the Golden Rule, understand the human principle that an “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and experience awe in the presence of glorious art, music, and landscapes. The idea of surrender to and union with God, however, gives them the heebie-jeebies. They have never, in their own estimation, had an experience of God. And so, in order to be authentic, they call themselves “nontheists,” as opposed to “atheists” who are “against the idea of God.” They don’t hold a belief that God exists since they have never experienced God. And while they are not sure what they would do with a mystical experience if it ever came to them, some of them yearn for God events like mine, with relationship, consolations, comfort and awe. They just won’t pretend to a belief that is not based on experience.

I am ashamed to admit that I have felt a sense of superiority in the past about our experiential difference. In the same way that the math whiz might feel vanity about being able to calculate rings around the mathematically challenged, so I felt vanity about my very sensory and emotionally satisfying experiences of God. I confess this with regret.
Usually, however, when hubris makes an appearance, a learning experience is given to me. So, in order to help me learn, God led me to a startling vision in which God suckled me at her breast and simultaneously appeared to me as the Principle of Perfection – cold, abstract, unapproachable, mathematical, fearful. Awe-full.  This face of God was an alien one to me, frightening and inhuman. I liked my humanoid face of God – or even the formless, energetic face of God that is also part of my experience - much better than this one. I had found an aspect of God that gave me the heebie-jeebies.

I have never given the intellect – the logical mind – the credit it deserves. I have treasured my “right brain” functions: intuition, holistic thinking, imagination, openness to divergent possibilities. I have not felt so kindly toward “left brain” functions, including linear and analytical thought, logic, reasoning, and attention to detail. This type of thinking has seemed boring to me, a necessary evil, a tool for survival which we would someday outgrow.
But the vision of the Pure Principle has helped me understand that God can also be found through the intellect. How could it be otherwise, since we are “made in the image of God” and we have intellect, as well as intuition? I am developing a deep respect for the aspects of the mind that can focus, capture detail, detect inconsistencies, and reflect order. I have learned that God is not only sensed and felt but mentally perceived. That God is not only Something Greater than Ourselves into Which We Can Merge, but a Pure Principle that is separate from me, and which can be perceived dimly by the mind, if not the heart. I can’t really perceive God in this way; I don’t understand God in this way. But the glimpse of a vision has helped me understand that there are those who can. And that it is a valid way of experiencing God.

I think this might be good news for my nontheist friends. Those of you who yearn for an experience of God may have been experiencing God all along, as Principle. If so, you get to redefine God according to your own experience! You do not have to yearn for a way of perceiving which is not native to you. I would love to hear what you have to say about this.
And we theists, who favor the consoling warmth of a God we can sense, might do well to open our minds to the Principle which is Pure. And drop the hubris. Thank you, John Woolman.