I have been told that when physicians attach exotic diagnoses to commonplace symptoms, their colleagues say that they “heard hoofbeats in the hall and assumed it was a zebra.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "I am thirsty." But according to the gospel, he said it, not for the obvious reasons – that he had probably not had anything to drink since dinner the night before, that he had lost a lot of blood during a flogging, that he was hanging in the hot sun, that he was thirsty – but that he said it "in order that the scripture might be fulfilled." With all due respect to the author of John's Gospel, that sure sounds like a zebra to me.
After my recent spine surgery, between the pain and the virtual paralysis in my left arm and leg, going to the bathroom was such an ordeal that I basically stopped eating and drinking -- or rather, I ate and drank just enough to stave off the loving nagging of my attentive physician wife. This went on for five days in the hospital, and the first two or three days of inpatient rehab. But somewhere around the third day, I began to drink. A lot. The nurses kept the big Styrofoam cups of water coming, and I kept draining them as fast as they came; I simply couldn't get enough. Every cell in my body cried out for it; my blood, my lymph, my cerebrospinal fluid – all of them cried out to be replenished. I was thirsty.
Discomfort with the fact of Jesus’ bodily humanity has a long pedigree. The third century Alexandrian theologian Origen only grudgingly admitted that Jesus ate and drank at all, and insisted that he did so "in a manner unique to himself, such that the food did not pass from his body." Apparently Jesus wouldn't have had the same problem I had in the hospital.
The church’s troubled relationship with the physical body has persisted into our own time, and the world has been watching. I used to write for a large amalgamated blog that specialized in Buddhism and yoga. As one of only two Christian writers on the blog, I often had outraged yogis unload on me about the presumption of a Christian writer writing on a blog about yoga. After all, Christians hate the body. Everybody knows that.
Once I asked a commentor to quote me a passage from the Gospels that suggested a hatred of the body. He came back with about a dozen passages – all from the letters of Paul, not the Gospels. I decided to let that go. But I informed him that the New Testament uses two Greek words that are both translated as "the flesh." Soma means the literal, physical body, and it hardly ever appears in the New Testament. Sarx means the carnal nature, our tendency to sin for the sake of gratifying our physical desires. I looked up all of the passages the angry yogi had provided, and discovered that every single one of them used the word sarx where the English text said "the flesh." Not a single one of those passages referred to the literal, physical body.
And yet, it isn't enough to point that out, because there is truth in the angry yogi’s criticism. The Christian religion, which is predicated on God taking on human flesh, has often had an ambivalent-at-best relationship with the physical body. I believe the downplaying of Jesus’ physical humanity is part of what allows some Christians to applaud the possibility of food stamps and health care coverage being taken away from the poor. "I was hungry, and you gave me food," said Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats. "I was naked, and you clothed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink." There are no thoughts and prayers in the parable. It's all about concrete needs, most of them relating to the physical body.
Because the physical body is a huge part what the Christ project is all about. In Jesus of Nazareth, God lived a human life and died a human death, and along the way experienced hunger, thirst, pain, pleasure, heat, cold, desire, aversion, and all the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to – and all the messy emotional stuff, too: love, loss, grief, anger, and abandonment. So when we are suffering, we can turn to God in Jesus, and God in Jesus will revive our spirits.
In fact, if it were up to me to choose a passage of Scripture that the Christ project fulfilled, it would be this passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah:
Thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
But also with those who have a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite.
The unchanging, transcendent, incorporeal creator of the universe has stubbed his toes and blown his nose and seen his loved ones die, in a body just like ours.
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.
“The Adversary took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ --Mt. 4:8-9
Jesus knew that was a bad deal. Apparently, four in five white evangelicals in America do not. They traded in the Gospel for earthly power. They took the bait that Jesus would not.
Jesus never said, “Go ye out and become ye top dogs; yea, rule ye the roost in my name.” In fact, Jesus promised us persecution. And I don’t think he meant the crèche being taken off the courthouse lawn.
When the Emperor Constantine saw that the Gospel faith—a way of life that had grown by leaps and bounds in spite of being actually persecuted--was the only thing unifying his disintegrating empire, he made Christianity the official state religion of Rome. And even at the time, there were lots of brave men and women who knew what a terrible idea that was, and fled into the Sinai desert in order to have no part of it. They were the Desert Fathers and Mothers, known today for their radical hospitality to pilgrims and travelers, and for their rejection of political power.
I’m not advocating flight into the desert (or Canada), or living as hermits, or founding monasteries. But I am urging that we, who remember that Evangelical Christianity brought us the civil rights movement, the abolitionist movement, the suffragists, child labor laws and most other progressive social movements in America before being hijacked by the Republican Party in the 1980s, need to regard ourselves as being in a desert exile of a different kind, far from the centers of worldly power.
“When they go low,” said Michelle Obama, “we go high.” When the powerful church attacks LGBTQ folks, the exiled church must welcome them. When the powerful church rejects refugees, the exiled church must embrace them. When the powerful church tries to silence women, the exiled church must make sure women continue to have a voice.
A dear friend of mine adopted four Mexican girls. This morning, the seven-year-old declared, “We need to open our home to everyone that Trump doesn't want. We can make the room. We will keep them all safe".
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.
Our mental business is carried on much in the same way as the business of the state: a great deal of hard work is done by agents who are not acknowledged. George Eliot, Adam Bede
While a visitor in a church other than my own, I had a strong negative reaction to one of the lay ministers—some confluence of mannerisms and appearance just grated on my nerves to the point where I couldn’t stop watching this person, in the same way that one will continually pester a cold sore.
It being apparently a good morning, I was able to self-transcend enough to notice not only the irritating object, but also my own irritation. Isn’t that interesting, I thought; now why should I respond so negatively to this person?
Trying to run my thought process to ground, I began to catalog all the things about the person that annoyed me, and ask myself why I was so annoyed at each one. This strategy backfired. In no time, I had gone from being conscious of an irritant within my field of awareness to being entirely subsumed by irritation: I had absolutely nothing on my mind but how much this person annoyed me, and a laundry list of self-justifying reasons for being annoyed.
Then I remembered something that Martin Laird pointed out in his book, Into the Silent Land: when Satan was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus didn’t debate with him; he didn’t allow himself to be hooked. Instead, he simply met each temptation with an appropriate quotation from scripture. “It is written…,” he said, then shut up, never giving the tempter the time of day.
(I’ll interrupt myself here to share the only thing I ever learned in my brief career as a vacuum cleaner salesman: “once you have stated your case, the next person to talk loses.” When you are arguing with someone—a sales clerk or petty official, say—make your point and then absolutely clam up. It’s difficult, but often works; the tension produced by the silence just becomes too much, and your adversary will begin to babble in order to break it. Then you win.)
So I tried Jesus’ stratagem; abandoning my bogus self-examination about why this person rubbed me the wrong way, I simply told myself what God told Samuel in 1 Kings: “You see not as God sees, but as mortals see; for you look at outward appearances, but God looks on the heart.” I had to repeat this a few times over the course of the service, but it worked: I set aside my involuntary response and put my attention where it was supposed to be.
(The fact that this person turned out, in later conversation, to actually be a jerk is immaterial. I suppose. It’s not as though obsessing about the offending mannerisms was doing any good. And anyway, maybe being a jerk is just one more layer of appearances between me and the heart that God looks on.)
Fifty years before Jung opened his practice, George Eliot put her finger on the problem: “unacknowledged agents” in our minds do stuff without our awareness or consent.
Now Jung attributed much of this stuff to what he called “the Shadow”—those aspects of our personalities which we reject and repress, and which undermine and sabotage us in a bid for self-expression. And Jung believed that, in banishing the unwanted aspects of ourselves into the unconscious, we cut ourselves off from our creativity and self-realization. Jungian psychologist and Episcopal priest John Sanford likened the Shadow to Jesus’ “treasure hidden in the field” (Matthew 13:44). Make friends with your Shadow, the pop-psyche mavens tell us--and why not? If some repressed aspect of my personality is forcing me to read political blogs all night instead of going to bed so I won’t be irascible toward my children the next day, I’m willing to take that as a sign that some fundamental change in my life is called for.
But sometimes the Shadow just needs to pipe down. The Desert Fathers externalized their troublesome inner promptings as demons, and oriented much of their lives and practice toward silencing them—and surely not every vicious or self-destructive drive is potentially redeeming. Sometimes evil thoughts are just evil.
Martha Graham counseled Agnes DeMille to keep open to the urges that motivate her. Well and good; the forest is dark, but full of diamonds. But how do we distinguish between motivating urges that are potentially liberating, and those that are just plain bad? Or at any rate unhelpful? (“All things are lawful to me,” said Paul, “but not all things are useful.”) How can we tell the gifts of the Shadow from the Trojan Horse of the ego?
One thing I have heard before, but have only recently realized in my own experience, is that turning the attention from the object of one’s feelings toward the feelings themselves is a great disclosing tablet. When our whole field of awareness is filled up with the object, there is no room for awareness of self—the very reason, I suspect, that most of us “nurse our wrath to keep it warm” toward at least one person or situation: we don’t want to become self-aware on that score.
One evening I was at a motel desk with a friend, trying to get in touch with a mutual friend who was staying there and whom we had arranged to meet. Her room phone wasn’t working, and we were trying to get the desk clerk to somehow get a message to her—which, being more afraid of his employers than he was sympathetic to us, he refused to do. As we pressed him—OK, as I became angry--he became rude and dismissive.
Back in the car, my friend asked me why I so furious at this subaltern. As one reiterating the self-evident, I said, “Because he was rude to me!” “So what?” my friend asked.
And I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Later, upon reflection, I realized that if someone is rude to me, it constitutes an implicit statement about my relative worth—and that at some level, I take that statement at face value. This person is, by being rude to me, implying that I deserve no better, which some part of me already believes, so in order to distract myself from that externally validated self-assessment, I become furious at the rude person.
Lesson 5 in A Course in Miracles says “I am never upset for the reason I think.” The ego does a bang-up job of directing the attention outward in order to avert the inward gaze. Maybe the key to discerning between the (potentially) liberating drives of the Shadow and the cramping, self-protective machinations of the ego lies somewhere in there. Maybe if we have the keenness to discern and the courage to follow our redemptive inner promptings, we will find ourselves happier and more self-aware--whereas getting caught up in ego chatter invariably makes us more miserable and more aware of other people, other things.
Maybe these internal agents need to start carrying ID.
This post originally appeared at Little Teaboys Everywhere.
God is the offering, the One Who offers, and the fire that consumes. ~Bhagavad Gita 4:24a
I was walking through Center City Philadelphia on my way to a panel discussion on Creating Sacred Music. As I was feeling neither particularly sacred nor particularly musical, I cast about for a way to get into the right frame of mind.
Looking at all the colorful sights of the city, I remembered how, when my children were babies, everything I saw, heard, smelled or tasted would remind me of them. “Clare would like those flowers,” I’d think; street buskers would make me wish Sophie were with me; foods brought one or the other kid to mind, depending on their taste.
What if I could broadcast my experience directly into their minds, I thought, so they could experience my walk vicariously? Then I realized that we are called upon, in the Bhagavad Gita, to do more or less exactly that—with God as the audience of our sensory input:
Some yogis perfectly worship the demigods by offering different sacrifices to them, and some of them offer sacrifices in the fire of the Supreme Brahman.
Some [the unadulterated brahmacaris] sacrifice the hearing process and the senses in the fire of mental control, and others [the regulated householders] sacrifice the objects of the senses in the fire of the senses.
Others, who are interested in achieving self-realization through control of the mind and senses, offer the functions of all the senses, and of the life breath, as oblations into the fire of the controlled mind. (Bhagavad Gita 4:24-27; emphasis added[i])
As I walked along, I mentally transmitted all the sights and sounds to Jesus, as though He were looking out through my eyes and hearing through my ears. As I walked along, exercising this “control of the mind and senses” by offering “the objects of the senses” into the fires of perception, I not only felt extremely close to the Lord, but I found my usual way of seeing people–a highly judgmental and evaluative way in which I am subject and everyone else is object–giving way to a compassionate mode of seeing as Christ sees.
Icon of St. Teresa of Avila by Robert Lentz, OFM
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila:
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 about doing good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Shiva and Shakti
Tantra takes the relation of the senses to their objects even a step further, making the act of perceiving reflect the divine union of Shiva (the divine masculine and pure consciousness) and Shakti (the divine feminine and pure energy.)
A faculty and its object are like the primordial couple. The relationship of the eye to what is seen is the relationship of Shiva to his shakti. The ear and music, the eye and art, the tongue and flavour, all senses and their sensations are a participation in the eternal embrace.[ii]
I have written before about how the body–and in particular the senses–can be made the locus of divine service simply by an act of will by which we use them on God’s behalf. This act sanctifies both the senses and their objects, bringing us a greater awareness of the divine presence within and without, and preparing us to “be an instrument of [God’s] peace.” Going a step further, St. Teresa found such a dedicating of the senses to be a way toward divine union, in which Christ–the “bridegroom” of her Carmelite soul–entered into her and lived His risen life through her:
I was reflecting upon how arduous a life this is…I said to myself, “Lord, give me some means by which I may put up with this life.” He replied, “Think, daughter, of how after it is finished you will not be able to serve me in ways you can now. Eat for Me and sleep for Me, and let everything you do be for Me, as though you no longer lived but I; for this is what St. Paul was speaking of.”[iii] (1 Cor. 10:31)
[i] Bhagavad Gita As It Is, translated by Srila Pradhupada
[ii] Dupuche, John, Towards a Christian Tantra
[iii] St. Teresa of Avila, Spiritual Testimonies. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1. Translated and edited by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez.
I have always had heart trouble–by which I mean that I have always lived primarily in my head. In meditation, it is always much more natural for me to put my awareness in the ajna chakra between the eyebrows that in my chest area. When I chant the bija mantra “Yam” into the anahata chakra, I become aware of the heart center through the tingling of the sound vibrations, but maintaining awareness of a spinning green light, or any other attempt to be “aware of the presence of God in my heart” has always felt artificial and contrived. No matter how many times I mentally repeat the Jesus Prayer while going through my day, I keep “hearing” it in my head, not in my heart.
But I discovered this passage in Abdul Baha’s Prayers and Meditations, concerning those people with discernment to see the divine majesty everywhere:
Surely the lamp of Thy love is burning in their hearts, and the light of Thy tenderness is lit within their breasts.
This passage leapt out at me, demanding my attention, so I treated it as a subject for lectio divina, or "holy reading" meditation, repeating it slowly and deliberately in silence as thought it were mantra or a Centering Prayer “prayer-word.” I found it very focusing. Certainly, the image of a burning lamp in my heart was much easier to hold in awareness than an abstract “heart center” (even one with a rotating wheel of green light in it) and a flame much more concrete than an abstraction like “love.”
Something else that has plagued me for years is my tendency to sublimate and somaticize difficult emotions. When my mom was dying, I had suffered from fainting spells; before leaving home and fiancée for graduate school halfway across the country, I endured shortness of breath. My tendency to live in my head has pushed my body into advocating for my heart, demanding attention for my emotional challenges. Through the practice of yoga and, perhaps, through meditating on this image from this passage, I hope to be finally be able to allow, as the Eastern Orthodox contemplatives put it, the “mind to descend into the heart.”
Scott Robinson is an interfaith minister, musician, and spiritual director in Philadelphia. Hear his music at www.mandalaband.net.