In the Roman Catholic devotion called "Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament,” consecrated Host, or communion wafer, is exposed for viewing in a special holder called a "monstrance," so the faithful can pray in its presence. Although the risen Christ is said to be present everywhere, he is believed to be present “in a special way” in the consecrated Sacrament.
Nothing could be more alien to my Methodist upbringing; indeed, I have no doubt that some of my church mentors would have considered the practice idolatrous. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely for that reason, I have attempted to practice Adoration for many years, whenever I found myself in a Catholic environment in which there was Blessed Sacrament exposed for that purpose. In all that time, I never felt even a tingle – no connection whatever to Jesus in, or as, that piece of bread.
There is a sweet little Adoration chapel in the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré, and I visited it more than once during my pilgrimage of healing to the Québec shrine. (Below is a picture of it. I don't know whether photographing it is considered disrespectful or not; I hope not.) During my last visit, as I prayed the Adoration of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament Chaplet, I had the impression that the consecrated Body spoke to me. I don't mean that I heard a literal voice, and my ears were not involved; it was more like the words dropped directly into my head.
"You are the Body of Christ," the Sacrament said.
Then, all on its own, my mind supplied the remembered words of St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
The message was clear: get up out of that little chapel, and start being the Body of Christ in the world.
Now, I'm certainly not saying that there is no validity in Adoration of the Sacrament; in fact, I have no doubt that many, many people draw from the practice the very inspiration that empowers them to function as Christ's body in the world. Maybe you need to grow up with it in order for it to "take." At least, that seems to be the case with me. I seem to have been cut from the team.
It didn't happen all at once, but over the weeks since my return from pilgrimage, I have felt as though all the spiritual practices, all the reading, all the classes and workshops I have undertaken throughout my adult life have finally begun to bear fruit. I feel a little like Daniel in the movie The Karate Kid.
Mr. Miyagi, an Okinawan immigrant (played by Pat Morita,) undertakes to teach karate to Daniel (played by Ralph Macchio) so he can defend himself from some vicious bullies. During the first several lessons, Mr. Miyagi assigns Daniel a number of menial tasks – waxing his collection of classic cars, sanding his deck, painting his house and fence – all with very specific physical motions. Eventually, Daniel decides that rather than teaching him karate, Mr. Miyagi is simply using him as a household slave. As he stalks off, Mr. Miyagi calls him back, and directs him to reproduce the motions he used for accomplishing each of the tasks. “Show me wax-on, wax-off,” he orders, insisting on the specific motions he had originally assigned; he goes through all the tasks, having Daniel show him the physical gestures he had required to use in doing them.
Then he throws a punch at Daniel.
Without thinking, Daniel uses the car-waxing motion – which, by this time, he has used thousands of times – to parry the punch. The teacher throws an array of punches and kicks at the student, who blocks each of them using the gestures he has internalized over many days of performing menial tasks. “You learn plenty," he tells the startled boy. "Come back tomorrow."
Since my return from Canada, two friends have contacted me to ask for prayer about the same issue, as it appears in different forms in their lives. Honoring their requests, I have found reserves of self-application I didn't know I had. I have found myself much more able to remain present in the moment, more patient with myself about the things I find it difficult to do now, and happier to address myself to the things I can. And while I certainly still have stiff, sore days full of debility and foul moods, I am making great progress learning to function within the new normal, and spending less time regretting the past and dreading the future. As long as I keep coming back tomorrow, maybe I can keep the vicious bullies of my soul at bay.
So maybe I do have some healing to show for my pilgrimage; maybe the intercession of Good St. Anne did obtain some grace for me. Or maybe it was just the effort of the pilgrimage itself that awoke my latent spiritual gifts. If you've read much of my writing, you know I consider this a distinction without a difference, and it doesn't interest me much. So though I haven't been cured in the way I wanted, I seem to have been healed in the way I needed – and that is a lot to be thankful for.
In his 1988 memoir, The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas revisits Paris some years after having been stationed there during the Second World War. Unable to recapture the feeling he’d had during those heady days, he realizes that what he is actually searching for is his 22-year-old self, who, obviously, isn't there to be found.
I had a similar experience the first time I revisited the Sterling Renaissance Festival after some years away. My first two years at that show – living in the woods, swimming in Lake Ontario, performing with extraordinarily talented colleagues – were in many ways idyllic, and I was eager to relive the feeling of freedom I had had there in the first blush of my youth.
It didn't happen. No matter how I tried to re-create the experience I remembered, it simply didn't feel the same. Then one morning as I walked from my tent to the showers, I heard a voice say very clearly in my head, "Why are you standing here looking up at the sky?"
I knew at once the story the voice in my head was alluding to.
Then (the disciples) gathered round (Jesus) and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:6-11)
I had never really connected with this story. Centered on Jesus’s bodily ascension into heaven—an idea I have always struggled with—it had always left me unmoved. Likewise, the promise of Jesus’s bodily return is treated elsewhere in the New Testament, and is not the main point of this story.
For me, the operative part of this passage is when the angels ask the disciples why they are standing around looking up at the sky. As long as they all strain their eyes to catch sight of the bodily Jesus, they cannot look inward to find Christ in themselves, or outward to find Christ in others. Their preoccupation with the Jesus they have known makes them unable to "seek and serve Christ in all persons." (Book of Common Prayer) They were like Kirk Douglas and me, looking for their youthful selves rather than experiencing themselves and others as they are now. The disciples could not receive power through the Holy Spirit until they accepted that the physical Jesus was gone.
Now, my wife gazes meaningfully up to the sky whenever she catches me waxing nostalgic about our children's early years. When I start reminiscing about cute things they said and did when they were little, she reminds me that my smart, talented, kind, athletic, funny, beautiful teenagers are right here with me, ready to be enjoyed in the present rather than mooned over in the past.
I'm also apt to gaze up at the sky for a glimpse of the things I used to be able to do before spinal stenosis. It's easy to get caught up in missing those things: playing the concertina, going to contradances, walking for pleasure, picking things up off the floor without losing my balance. Hell, I even miss my hair – and I lost that long before my spinal cord turned on me.
If I am ever to be able to engage the life I have, I know I need to let go of the life that is gone. Not that I think anything ever goes to waste unless we let it; all those experiences – all of everybody's experiences – make us who we are, and are never lost. But as long as we stand here looking up at the sky, straining for a glimpse of them, trying to recapture what is gone forever, we cannot be of any use to ourselves or others in the here and now.
I have come to believe that one of the best reasons to read and listen to sacred texts many times over many years is that when we are ready, the texts spring into life and offer us the healing or insight we need
I have been anxious and on edge these past several weeks without understanding why. It had gotten so bad that my family was suffering because of it. Then, this past Sunday, I found myself becoming suddenly and inexplicably emotional, to the point of wiping away tears, during this portion of the Gospel reading:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
After the reading, I racked my brains in order to understand why this passage, which I have heard and read ever since I can remember, should have had such a powerful effect on me on this particular Sunday. I realized that I had recently begun a new per diem hospice chaplain job, and had just been contacted about interviewing for another. I still have not lost the weight I have put on since my spinal surgery, and have been frustrated with the painfully slow pace with which occupational and physical therapy yield tangible results, if they yield any. I'd been struggling to re-learn how to play the harmonium, re-establish my physical and spiritual exercise regimens, reclaim the weed-choked flowerbed and half a dozen other things.
In a flash, I knew what had been making me so anxious: I have been trying to build a tree for myself, when what I needed to do was to plant a seed and trust God that it would grow. I could cultivate it to the best of my ability one day at a time, rather than trying to force it all into existence at once. Because the trees we build for ourselves may stand up, more or less, but they don't grow, they don't make good signs of the Kingdom, and they certainly aren't hospitable to those who perch around our lives.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know that I have struggled off and on with depression for the past ten years or more. When I began blogging after leaving my university teaching job, I noticed that I always got very positive responses from readers when I wrote about that topic. Evidently, there are a lot of people out there who are dealing with this disease, and my thoughts on the subject were helpful to some of them.
For that reason, I decided to write a book on faith, spirituality, and depression. When The Sacred Feet Publishing Imprint--a project of the Jones Educational Foundation, which also oversees the Slate Branch Ashram--expressed an interest in publishing such a book, I sifted out my depression-related blog posts from Elephant Journal, Progressive Christianity and Recovering Yogi and dunked them into the boiling pot of my thoughts the way you might dunk a string into a pot of sugar water, and the book built itself around them like rock candy around the string.
If you have "Liked" Open to the Divine on Facebook, you will be getting notices of upcoming promotional events, such as combined book signings and kirtans in New York and Philadelphia. (And if you haven't, why haven't you?) In the meantime, you can learn more about the book here.
A friend of mine (I’ll call her M) is an aerialist, and often complains that, because she does her performing in the air, while most of us with cameras are on the ground, pictures of her in action (of which there are many) end up being “pictures of my butt.”
As a professional acrobat, M is, as you might expect, fit, strong, supple, athletic and attractive. When she posted on Facebook about having found a Science Fiction/Fantasy Writer’s Meetup website that featured a picture of her in the air on its front page—or, as she put it, “I found my butt advertising a sci-fi/fantasy writer’s meet-up,”—one of our mutual friends commented, “Is your butt sci-fi or fantasy?”
I had actually typed “Definitely fantasy,” and was about to click the Comment button, when the thought set in: “Wait a minute; I’m ordained now. I can’t say things like that any more.” And I left the comment unmade.
Opinion is divided on this little incident. My wife says I did right in not posting the comment--which, she maintains, would have been unbecoming in a clergyman. My seminary students, on the other hand, mostly disagreed; they were not seeking ordination, they said, in order to live a life in which they may not make innocently flirty comments to their friends.
So I’ve given this a lot of thought. I haven’t definitively solved the problem, but I have begun to form a set of guidelines around what is appropriate for people committed to a spiritual path--clergy or lay--to say to people. It’s a work-in-progress, so I welcome comments and suggestions.
1) Social media are difficult to control
Someone once told me that getting pictures off the Internet is like getting pee out of a swimming pool. It seems reasonable to me to broaden that advice to include comments.
M the aerialist and I are friends; we worked at the same theme park for several years. She knows from watching me perform that I am a floozy for a laugh and will not scruple to “speak more in a minute than (I) will stand to in a month” if it will entertain an audience. I had no apprehension that M would be in any way creeped out or offended by my comment. So my hesitancy had nothing to do with the fear of committing an actual impropriety; rather, it had to do with creating what is sometimes called the appearance of impropriety.
When comments can be seen by all sorts and conditions of people who may be anything from friends-of-friends to total strangers, or from fellow Christians to outright enemies of the faith, there may be no way of preserving the context and spirit in which a comment is made, or controlling how others understand it. If something we say could be misconstrued as it makes its way around the intertubes, let’s consider not saying it if it could, after it gets away from us, “bring the way of truth into disrepute” (2 Peter 2:2)—even if we meant it only in fun.
2) For teachers, clarity of role is important.
When the conversation in my high school Christian Ed. class turned to upcoming movies, I mentioned that I was looking forward to the new Noah film with Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson. Now, at the mention of Ms. Watson, I suddenly had the full attention of all the young men in the class. This made me feel old, of course—we’re talking about little Hermione, here—but had I felt at liberty to speak openly, I might have admitted that yes, Ms. Watson—whose father I could be by a wide margin--is gorgeous, smart and a class act; a very attractive young woman. But right there in Sunday School, it just seemed skeevy, so I bit my lip.
Self-disclosure can be a powerful tool for teachers, counselors, chaplains, and many other kinds of caregivers—but it must be handled with extreme care. Some of the most memorable classes I experienced as a student, and sermons as a congregant, were those in which the leader stepped out from behind the leadership role and spoke from the heart about his or her own feelings and experiences. But self-disclosure should always be for the benefit of those to whom the disclosure is made. If, instead of illuminating the topic at hand by exposing the leader’s vulnerable humanity, the self-disclosure hijacks attention away from the topic and onto oneself, it may be best not to self-disclose. Everything leaders do should be for the building up of those in their charge, and those who lead need to have the leadership role always before their eyes—especially when deciding whether or not to step out from behind it. “My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1)
3) Authority figures
Years ago, an adult Christian education classmate of mine had had an administrative job in a parish. When she returned from a lunchtime shopping trip with a bag of her purchases, her employer—the parish rector—asked her what she had bought. On learning that one of the items was a swimsuit, the priest asked her “jokingly” if she would model the item for him.
Never, never, never, never, never.
When one person is in a position of authority over another, remarks of a sexual or otherwise personal nature are never appropriate. The unequal footing may make it difficult for the victim to self-defend, and, in the case of moral authorities like clergy, may even make her feel guilty for trying to do so.
In relationships such as teachers to students, clergy or other religious or spiritual leaders to their congregations or disciples, employers to employees, managers to managed, law enforcement to civilians, or any other relationship with a built-in power disparity, the powerful are absolutely obliged to respect the boundaries and dignity of those for whom they are responsible. In the case cited above, there was a double inequality in play: rector-to-parishioner and employer-to-employee—so this priest is doubly culpable. With authority comes responsibility, and the obligation to model servant-leadership.
Jesus called them to him and said,“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
4) No hate speech of any kind is ever OK, for any reason.
Race, creed, color, socio-economic status, sexual orientation or gender identity—no one has the right to harass or belittle others for any of these things. Unfortunately, many people expect the churches--due to the headlines-grabbing behavior of some of the most rigid and judgmental among us--to do exactly that. Therefore, we must be all the more careful not to give anyone a reason to tar us with the same brush as those who claim to hate in the name of Christ.
This is true even when people outside the church engage in behavior that could reasonably be considered immoral. As Paul reminds us, it is simply not for us to judge them.
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)
That’s my list so far. What do you think?
 I should explain that, while my “home tradition” is the Episcopal Church, I am, by ordination, an Interfaith Minister, not an Episcopal priest or deacon.
 Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet, Act 11, Sc. 4
 Shakespeare, William. King Lear, Act V, Sc. 3
Scott Robinson is an interfaith minister, musician, and spiritual director in Philadelphia. Hear his music at www.mandalaband.net.