I was privileged to spend my first two summers after college performing at the Sterling Renaissance Festival. The site is in beautiful woodland, close enough to Lake Ontario that, on quiet evenings, you could hear the waves lapping on the rocky shore. Some of the friends I made there are among my oldest and dearest, even after 35 years.
I've been an outpouring of poetry in the since the new year started, and Earth and Altar Magazine has been kind enough to publish several of my new poems. Here are some links:
Gracing the Rocks:
The Siege of Jaffa:
The Butterfly House:
“The success of a dinner party depends less upon what you put on the table than on what you put on the chairs.” –Miss Manners
A lot of people come for a Tarot reading telling me, “I just want to see what the cards say about” this or that. Finally, I began replying, “The cards don’t say anything; they are pieces of cardboard with pictures on them.” You—the client--and I, I explained, are going to answer your question; we’re going to read it in the book of your soul. The cards are just the illustrations. Or, if you prefer, miniature Rohrschach ink blots with slightly less baffling images.
One young man wanted insight into a long string of tragedies that had befallen his family over the years. After hearing my description of the personality type it represented, he identified the Page of Wands as his father. Much later in the spread, I described the King of Swords, and he again saw his father—but he quickly backpedaled as he realized how different the youthful, energetic, eager Page, full of what Sunryu Suzuki called “beginner’s mind,” was from the stern, logical, unswerving King of Swords. “I guess they can’t both be my dad,” he said.
I am naturally bookish, and good at memorization, and it took me a while to trust my intuition enough to loosen my grip on what the cards “meant,” and how their positions in the spread focused each card’s spectrum of possibility, and to remember that they are only useful aids in the search for significance. And when this client disclaimed his own intuition about his father, Miss Manners’ advice dropped into my head, and I immediately knew what to do. “Whatever meaning is present here,” I told myself, “is not on the table; it is on the chair.”
“No,” I assured him, “You are right. This,”—indicating the Page, “is the father you grew up with. This,” pointing out the King of Swords, “is the father you have now.”
Watching his face in the next few seconds was like seeing a high-speed game of Tetris, all the losses and hardships his family had suffered falling into place, transforming the open-hearted, pliable young father of his childhood into the disillusioned, dryly rational man of his latter years.
In retrospect, this conclusion seems obvious—but I would have sought it in vain by staring at the cards as though they themselves had anything to say. Because the meaning is in the client, not the cards. The cards are the extraction tools of meaning.
So I had this vision.
I was praying for a sick friend the other day, using a prayer-meditation called the St. Anne Chaplet. (Chaplets are strings of beads in various configurations, each associated with short, memorized prayers; I love them, and they are my preferred sitting practice. Buddhists and Yogis, think japa; Muslims, think dhikr. These are not exact equivalents, but they are analogous.)
I am usually careful not to project my prayers “out there” to some distant God or saint “in heaven,” but to be aware of the presence of the prayed-to with me as I pray. In particular, I make an effort to pray the Hail, Mary directly into my own heart, because it, like the “Virgin’s womb,” is where God is born.
But I have lapses, and often catch myself going through the exercise somewhat mechanically. This time, though, I noticed my straying attention, and redirected my prayer into my heart—and immediately began to tremble violently all over. As I continued to pray, I saw myself in my mind’s eye burst into flame—harmless fire that did not consume whereon it burned. And I saw my sick friend, saw myself reaching out to her as the flames leaped from my arms to her, and as we embraced we were both engulfed in Holy Fire. I finished the meditation, sat in rapt silence a while, and went to bed.
Edit: I mention all this because, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I am not a pure person. I am impatient, bad tempered, conflicted, sensual to the point of concupiscence, and I have so little faith that I would be hard pressed to defend against an accusation of functional atheism. But the unseen is so close to all of us—“closer to you than your jugular vein”(Qur’an 50:16)—and we never know how near at hand the grace of God is.
Within thy circling power I stand;
On every side I find thy hand;
Awake, asleep, at home, abroad,
I am surrounded still with God —Isaac Watts
I have found most hospice patients happy to see the chaplain, or least receptive. At worst, distracted or indifferent. But I once had a patient who was downright hostile, and made it clear that my visit was something to be checked off with as much dispatch, and as little engagement, as possible. He laid down on the bed in his worn leather jacket and dirty baseball cap, answering my assessment questions peremptorily: yes, he’d made peace with his children; yes, he’d said his goodbyes. He was fine, thanks, And that seemed to be all—until I learned that he was a retired union organizer.
I mentioned that some of my Dad’s uncles helped to organize the West Virginia coal mines. After a rich silence, he said softly, “That was back when you could get shot for doing this. Those guys left all the cushy jobs to us.” Before I left, we held hands and prayed together.
Near my old high school is a large property owned by a local limestone quarry. The property includes a lake, a waterfall, limestone caves, deciduous forest, evergreen forest, and wetlands. The area around the lake is replete with fossils, and the lake is so clear (due to the alkalinity of the limestone) that you can see to the bottom. There is also, deep in the woods, a large, flat rock at the top long rise, commanding a spectacular view of the lake and surrounding forest. I spent a lot of solitary time there in my teens.
My high school had standing permission to take students to this tract of land for various field trips, and there was a legend that some students once managed to purloin a large lump of potassium from one of the school science rooms, and throw it in the lake to watch the explosion. As I heard the story, people were picking fish out of the trees the rest of the summer. Kids would also go to the caves at odd times to drink beer and smoke weed, of course.
On the way to this high place, I first had to traverse a marshy area, with a very narrow footpath that went on for a long time, and invariably gave way to smelly marsh mud at least once along the way. Once I emerged onto higher, solid ground, I could see a low, ruined stone wall that follows the path for about 100 yards. It is all that remains of an 18th-century farm. The limestone hills of central New York State are dotted with post-Revolutionary war ruins, the remains of farms that were given in return for military service, and gradually abandoned as their unsuitability for farming became clear. (I once played a gig at an annual party that takes place in the foundation of a ruined farmhouse near some abandoned railroad tracks halfway up one of these large limestone hills.)
Of course, all the land used to belong to the Onondagas, the local branch of the Haudenosaunee, or "longhouse people." (The Native Americans more widely known as the Iroquois.)
As I continued along the path, I’d came to a stream, over which people periodically left planks, large branches or limbs, or fallen saplings by way of bridge. It was always an adventure getting over the creek on this makeshift pontoon, but I was grateful that it was there. Until, of course, the day when it wasn't, and it fell to me to scrounge up enough windfalls to bridge the creek.
After crossing the stream, I would walk on a wide path through the woods, with a steep slope downward on my left that led toward the lake, and a steep rise in my right that led toward a ridge where the limestone caves and my lookout rock were to be found. When I saw the faint path off to my right, I would leave the main trail and start climbing. At the top of the ridge I would hoist myself onto the large flat rock and into the sunshine.
I think about this place whenever I see the memes and tweets people post about the difference between what they blithely call "spirituality," and what they deride as "organized religion." My path to this high, open, sunny place with the amazing view was rough in places; it included the ruins of projects that didn't work out, and the land itself had been stolen from the previous inhabitants. There are silly stories associated with the preserve, and people definitely abuse it for their own gratification. Nevertheless, because of the people who trodden the path before me, I was able to reach my goal without having to resort to a machete or heavy equipment.
One of my composition teachers in college once said, "Composers who set out to create a new musical language usually end up not getting anything said." I am grateful to those who came before me, and spared me the trouble of having to reinvent the wheel. I am grateful to have been able to make my own small contribution toward keeping the place accessible. I am grateful that Jesus is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith," (Heb. 12:1) because I am not made of pioneer stuff myself. It's not a perfect arrangement, but it is there, available to help me reach my goal.
If all we have is "spirituality," we must all be pioneers, laboriously blazing our own trails. The trails that other imperfect people have blazed for us serve us in the same way that "religion" serves "spirituality." They make our inner strivings visible, or struggles relatable, and our goal attainable.
Scott Robinson is an interfaith minister, musician, and spiritual director in Philadelphia. Hear his music at www.mandalaband.net.