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Author: lindacarleton



I really didn’t just go to Divinity School on a whim, as my mother suspected. Despite my parents’ hostility to the church, I’d been interested in religion all of my life. I’d shifted from being a Unitarian Universalist to an active member of a United Church of Christ. I’d taught comparative religion for twenty-five years and come to discover I was jealous of students who went on to study religion in college. I’d completed a two-year School for Spirituality at the nearby Mercy Center and worked with a spiritual director. I’d even had an Emmaus moment driving along the winding back roads to Munson, Maine when I’d known with profound certainty that I was being called to enroll in seminary. I just didn’t know why.

Part of the problem was that I was pulled in different directions by my Christian faith, my love for all the world’s religious traditions, my Unitarian past, and the atheism of my family of origin. I just wasn’t sure I was Christian enough to be going to Divinity School. Plagued by self-doubt, I went to see Peg Stearn a former minister and mentor.  Over lunch and many cups of tea she listened to my agonized ramblings and finally responded, “Linda, you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not whether you’re ‘Christian enough’ but ‘What kind of Christian are you?’”

I didn’t know the answer, but the next fall I headed off to Bangor Theological Seminary in the hope of finding out. I arranged my classes for three consecutive days in Bangor and spent the rest of my week secluded in a log cabin on a island off the Maine coast. It was on a blustery afternoon in March that I came to know my answer to Peg’s question. It happened like this.

That second semester I was taking not only the requisite classes in Biblical criticism and church history, I was doing an independent study on the Christian response to the world religions. I’d spent the morning wrestling with the three most common responses to the problem. The first is the one that claims that Christians have an exclusive claim to truth and/or salvation.  Although there is the most Biblical support for the exclusivist approach, I found it anathema. I was too attuned to the sacred truths of all the world’s religions to believe God wanted the world to all be Christian.

The next approach is often referred to as the inclusivist one. It suggests that those of other religions have access to God’s truth/and or salvation to the extent that their religions resemble Christian teachings. The theologian who popularized this approach is Karl Rahner, who wrote of “anonymous Christians” who are saved through Christ by virtue of living according to Christian values. Leaning on Romans 2:14 and Matthew 25, he wrote that those of other religions could have “in [their] basic orientation and fundamental decision accepted the salvific grace of God, through Christ, although [they] may never have heard of the Christian revelation.” I appreciated Rahner’s efforts to reconcile his belief in salvation through Christ alone with his appreciation for the goodness in all humanity. But his strategy struck me as essentially patronizing and dismissive of other religious traditions. I couldn’t help but wonder if rather than looking at others as “anonymous Christians” we should be thinking of ourselves as anonymous Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists instead.

That left the final approach described as religious pluralism. It’s the one that insists there are may paths up the mountain and many lenses that allow us to focus our sight on God. I believe that and look to Jesus’s assurance in John 14:2 that “in my father’s house there are many mansions” to support my sense that there is a place in God’s Kingdom for all people. Still, there was a problem. I wasn’t prepared to say that all religious teachings are equally valid, to give the same credence to Osama bin Laden as to the Dali lama. The “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach to the world religions left no room for discernment.

By mid-afternoon my head was spinning with unresolved questions and I decided to shift gears. After a frigid walk on the beach, I took out my church history readings from Hildegard de Bingen’s Scivias. In them she not only described the visions she had received since she was a young girl, she illustrated them. As I delved into her writings and entered into her mandalas, I suddenly had a vision of my own, a visual response to my theological quandary. I pulled out my watercolors and painted what I’d seen.

I saw the three strands of the Trinity woven together around a blazing circle of light: God the transcendent, God the incarnate, and God the spiritual presence. Within the circle the threads formed the shaped of the Tao and connected to the central truths of all the world’s religions. The transcendent thread of God the Father connected to the yang where the words Allah and Yahweh are written. The thread of the Spirit connected to the yin and the Om of Brahmin. And there at the center of it all, connected to the incarnate thread, was the cross.

William James wrote about three varieties of religious experience: the sacramental, the prophetic and the mystical. The  sacramental experience acknowledges the transcendent element of Reality; the prophetic, its presence in human history, and the mystical, its spiritual element. Most all religions incorporate these elements. Some do so explicitly, as in the Christian Trinity or the Hindu triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Others do not, but followers seem to reincorporate all three elements in their expressions of their faith. Buddhism rejects any notion of transcendent divinity, and yet reverent offerings and intercessory prayers are made at temples around the world. Islam is adamant in its monotheistic focus on Allah as One, and yet Sufis have emerged as a profoundly mystical expression and Muslims’ allegiance to Muhammed can provide a fierce prophetic expression. It seems to me that when the sacramental, prophetic and mystical elements of religion are balanced, they are all held within the Light of the rule of three.

But of course, the world’s religions do not always maintain a balance between their sacramental, prophetic and mystical expressions. This vision also provided a stark reminder of what happens when religious expression unravels outside its trinitarian bounds. Outside the circle, the transcendent strand becomes a warrior god, symbolized by the crossing swords of a bellicose god. The prophetic strand becomes worship of a human leader or institution as occurred in Nazi Germany. And the mystical strand devolves in one of two directions: into a dark and sometimes bloody passion or into the empty void of disconnected “bliss.” In any of these scenarios, religion becomes a force for evil.

After painting my vision, I had an answer to the question, “What kind of Christian are you?” was clear. I am a trinitarian universalist. I hold that God transcends the dualism of human thought through the interplay of three forces. It doesn’t matter whether we call them Mind/Body/Spirit or Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer or Father/Son/Holy Ghost or, as Anselm did in the 12th century, “Lover/Beloved/Love Itself. The mandala of the trinity holds all in the Oneness of Light.



There is a troubling problem, one that no one has been able to answer in a fully satisfying way. It’s connected to the First Cause, the question of How did something come out of nothing? How did the perfect Oneness hypothesized by most religions give rise to multiplicity, in all its complexity and chaos? The problem gets more personal when we confront it on a daily level. Why do things fall apart? Why is that that bad things happen to good people?

The medieval Cathars developed their own response to the vexing problem of evil. Unable to reconcile the idea of a benevolent God with disaster, disease and depravity, they posited a cosmic dualism much like the Manichaens and early gnostics. In my upcoming novel Elmina’s Fire, this is how the Cathar bishop Guilhabert describes it to Elmina:

“The world is overrun with evil,” Guilhabert told us. “Most men look no further that the selfish cravings of their own bodies, and there is no end to their cruelty. . . . Look at the violence that pervades the Languedoc, the horrid diseases that ravish our towns, and the wickedness of the Roman Church. A loving God would never have created a world so given to lust and devastation. Nor would He allow so much misery to still surround us.’”

“Guilhabert went on to explain that there must be two gods, a Good One and a Bad One. The Good One is the God of the New Testament, the God of Light and Love who shimmers as the backdrop underneath the world of matter. It is the Good God who
created our souls and to whom our souls will finally return. This God abides in heaven and sends the Holy Spirit to accompany and strengthen us, but He cannot enter into the morass.

“The other God is a Bad God, a kind of demiurge whom some people call Satan or the Devil. This God was the Jehovah of the Old Testament, the God who created our world as his own playground. He is a jealous God, one who requires unwavering loyalty and obedience to his laws. When his people disobey, Jehovah extracts cruel retribution.

“Our problem,” Guilhabert went on, “is that this Jehovah has entrapped our souls in a prison of flesh. He has created all manner of temptations. He’s made the warmth of spring, the petals of the rose, even the tender beauty of a maiden to keep us tethered to this world. It is the illusion of pleasure and beauty that keep us mired in his own sinful playground. When we look for the hand of God in the physical world, we fall prey to Satan’s clever scheme.”

The Cathars believed that there was a way out of the human predicament. God had sent Jesus Christ to show them the path back to spiritual perfection by fasting and cleansing the body of all sin, receiving the sacrament of the the Consolamentum, and becoming a perfect. The receipt of the Spirit prepared the perfecti to live free of carnal desire and to offer healing ministrations. And by liberating the spirit from the confines of flesh, it promised an end to the cycle of rebirth and a return to God.

This mandala shows a monument to the Cathars at Minerve depicting the descent of the Spirit superimposed against the flower of life.

On the Verge

On the Verge


Do you remember that song from West Side Story?

Could it be? Yes it could,

Something’s coming, something good,

If I can wait!

Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,

But it is

Gonna be great!

We are all on the verge of something new, and the lengthening days remind us of the coming of spring despite the snow an ice. In the Mandala Great Round, that’s Stage 3, the build-up of energy that precedes any new endeavor. There’s a sense of antsy anticipation, of being propelled toward the unknown. We may want to rush into it. We may want to put on the brakes for a while. We may want to turn tail and run. But life generally doesn’t give us those options. And so we rest for a while in this place of expectancy.

In this mandala each knot in the string represents a moment in my life when I was on the verge of something new. It was fun to look back on those moments. I remember going to coffee with Peter after a meeting we’d both attended with no clue it would lead to a life together. I remember seeing an add in the Portland Herald for Bangor Theological Seminary and wishing I were the kind of person who could just leave teaching and go study theology. I remember hosting the Masicic family sponsored by my church; it led to sharing our home with more families and finally to starting Melita Welcome House. I remember stepping outside my office to find five cocker spaniel puppies playing in grass taller than they were; one was Abbie! The list keeps going. And those last two knots that approach the center? Those are for whatever is next.

Le Jeu d’Adam

Le Jeu d’Adam

Sometime around the end of the 12th century a morality play emerged in the Occitan region of southern France called “Le Jeu d’Adam.” On the surface it recounts the stories of Genesis about humanity’s fall: the temptation in the Garden of Eden and Cain’s jealous fratricide. It also offers a dire warning to the growing number of Cathars and Waldensians who were considered “enemies of the Church.” In my upcoming novel “Elmina’s Fire,” I’ve told the story from the point of view of a pious Catholic girl who is tormented by fiery demons and jealousy towards her younger sister. She laments:

The next day was Good Friday and I spent the day in church with Papa and Amelha. As I confessed my sinful heart, I prayed for its release. My soul, like Cain’s, had been branded with the sin of envy, and I begged you, God, to show me a different path. That Easter, I once more stood transfixed before the sacred host and gratefully took Christ’s body into my own. How I wanted to believe that my soul had been wiped clean; but, Dearest God, the flames of envy and desire still burned within me, and I knew it wasn’t so.

As I try to digest each new atrocity that comes out of Washington, I must accept that human nature hasn’t much changed. The jealousy and rivalries that rule our land threaten to destroy our once great nation. I shudder at what might be in store for those our president now deems to be “enemies of the people.” And I pray that I will have the courage and the strength to stand up for them in a way Elmina could not do.


Mandala of Possibilities

Mandala of Possibilities

Suzanne Fincher describes Stage 2 as the “hot tub of the mandala Great Round.”  It is a stage of respite and renewal from which the potential for new life emerges.

Here’s a mandala exercise to try, combining a technique learned from Julie Gibbons’ Mandala Magic course and round stickers. Cut a circle from water color paper and place random stickers on it. Create a marbled mandala by floating ink on a bed of shaving foam and using a chopstick to swirl it around. Press your mandala into the paint and then wipe off all the excess foam. (Beware: this can be pretty messy!)

When your mandala is dry you can remove the stickers. Now you’re ready to make a Mandala of Possibilities. Close your eyes and recognize that your next breath ushers in a whole realm of possibilities- everything from “I could eat a piece of dark chocolate” to “I could write the first line of my next novel.” Breathe into the possibilities present in your life at this moment. In each circle write down one thing that comes to your mind. Don’t censor yourself! Write anything that occurs to you.

Voila! A Mandala of Possibilities.



I’m taking a Julie Gibbons’ on-line Mandala Magic class and an assignment this month was to explore the symbols that re-appear in your journeying, dreams and/or artwork.

Try this! It’s really interesting what emerges. Ask the question and then breathe into a meditative space. When I did it the first images I got were my animals, the ones that in stuffed form live on the mantel over the old fireplace in my bedroom. There’s Horse who I sleep with when I’m feeling upset or scared. (Horse has been getting a lot of bed time this past month!) There’s Zebra who takes me into the dreamworld. And there’s bedraggled Fox who opens his mouth when my ego is feeling especially vocal.

After the animals came the symbols that appear most often in my mandalas. The flower of life forms the grid for much of my mandala work in the same way it forms the energetic grid in which we live. My work often incorporates the spiral that shapes our life cycle. The Tao grounds me in the assurance that even when things seem hopelessly polarized, the yang cannot sustain itself without its yin counterpart. The knot of infinity somehow grounds me. And I discovered a long time ago that even though my spirituality takes me to a wide range of places, it always brings me back to the cross.

After journaling with these symbols, I thought I’d see if I could incorporate all of them into one mandala.

Not Alone

Not Alone


In mandala journaling you can go deeper by identifying a place in your mandala that has strong energy for you and doing a second mandala based on that place.

In yesterday’s mandala the nascent pink-orange shape at the center had that energy. It seemed like a vulnerable new life taking form in a swirling sea. In today’s mandala it has grown larger and more defined. More importantly, it’s not alone. It is joined by a collective of others whose strength is quickening. They are all still surrounded by a sea of grief and darkness, but they’re getting BIGGER!!

Can’t wait to see what the next mandala brings!

What’s Next?

What’s Next?

It’s been a challenging time, these past few months of bracing for the onslaught.

In mandala work, black can denote death and deep depression, while purple often signifies grief and mourning. That sure fits this one.

I’ve been walking around like a zombie, unwilling to face the reality that almost half of my country voted for Donald J. Trump, voted to support a populist nationalism as powerful in its hate-filled rhetoric as that which came out of Nazi Germany in the the 1930’s. Like the jagged lines of this mandala, it seems like an assault on everything that is decent and good about my country.

But now inauguration day has come and gone. The great dismantling is underway. The pipelines are going in, the wall is going up and the world’s refugees are no longer welcome on our shores. And it’s only been four days – we are not even close to hitting bottom.

And yet, since participating in the Women’s March on Saturday, I’m filled with a new sense of purpose. In the past few days, I’ve signed petitions, called and written my Congressional Representatives, joined the Episcopal Action Network, and signed on to an Immigration Advocacy Group. An shut-in friend and I are starting a weekly letter-writing circle. There is something being hatched here. I don’t know the answer to my question, “What’s Next?” but I do know that my old mantra of “I’m not really very political” is no longer a tenable option. A new Linda is waiting to be born.

Bright Morning Star

Bright Morning Star

The swirling void echoes the darkness and chaos I feel as we move toward the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. So much grief and confusion.

When I was little, I had such a pure, simple patriotism. I still remember tears sliding down my twelve-year old cheeks as I stood with my father, hand cupped over my heart,  listening to the US Army Band on the Fourth of July. In high school I took the required “Evils of Communism” class and was grateful to be living in a free country.

Of course, things got more complicated. My first year at Wellesley an old friend from high school visited and we got talking about the War in Vietnam. I still remember telling him that the United States of America would never support an unjust war. By my senior year, I was campaigning for McCarthy in New Hampshire. I was furious that my country was falling so far short of its proclaimed ideals.

I still am. Equality, freedom, concern for the common good – they seem to have become antiquated ideals, replaced by what? The birther movement? the the Alt-Right? The hate-filled rhetoric spewed in the  guise of patriotism? My head swirls and my gut tightens. I cannot accept that this country which I once loved has chosen a man with no moral compass to be its president.

I knew before I began this mandala that I would be swallowed up in its darkness and chaos unless I added a guiding star to anchor me. And I’m reminded that I cannot look to this world and its institutions to be that star. As a Christian I must stand under a different sky if I want to focus on the bright morning star.


I Ain’t Afraid of Your Yahweh

I Ain’t Afraid of Your Yahweh


“I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh.

I ain’t afraid of your Allah

I ain’t afraid of your Jesus

I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your God.”

I’m part of a newly minted street choir in Portland, Maine that meets each month to sing out our frustration and make plans to lend our voices to social justice events. In this confusing time, it’s good to connect with others, young and old, who will not be silenced by the malignant force that’s overtaking our world.  It’s good to be a small part of the resistance and making plans to participate in the Woman’s March in Augusta on January 21.

But as we get into the catchy rhythm of Holly Near’s song, I grow increasingly sick at heart. For one thing, despite all my misgivings about religion, I am a church person- a former UCC minister turned Episcopalian. All the good that I try to do in the world is offered in the name of my God. And I’m not alone. Since the founding of our nation, faith communities have been at the base of our nation’s most powerful protest movements for abolition, temperance, peace and civil rights. Progressive church leaders march each year in the Portland Gay Pride parade, they advocate for the homeless, they urge all of us to look to our faith in our efforts to shape the world. Many of us will be marching on January 21 in the name of what we choose to call God.

I keep on singing.

“I ain’t afraid of your Bible.

I ain’t afraid of your Torah.

I ain’t afraid of your Qur’an….”

And I have a realization. My deep malaise is not so much about losing an election. It’s not even about the prospect of watching almost a century of progressive policy unravel and seeing such hard-won programs as Medicare, Medicaid, the EPA, minimum wages, and Union protections evaporate into thin air.  It’s deeper than that.

I think I’d be OK- well, better anyway- if an obnoxious tea party conservative had won the election. At least he or she would be standing on some kind of deeply felt principles: Biblical, libertarian, pro-life. I’d disagree with the politics and policies, but at least my faith in the American political system would not be shaken to its core. For twenty-seven years I taught high school history and helped a generation of young people grapple with six core (and at times conflicting) American ideals: freedom, equality, individualism, concern for the common good, pragmatism, and optimism. We’ve disagreed mightily over how to balance and achieve these ideals, but we’ve had a basic platform from which to argue. I recognize now how much I’ve taken for granted a political system in which we have a common ideology. I WANT the sense that I’m working together with those I may disagree with to act in the name of our respective gods.

But that’s not what is emerging. The conservative right has jettisoned its moral high ground to  embrace Donald Trump, a man whose life and rhetoric have been entirely devoid of principle. And the Republican Party, drunk with its own power, seems hell-bent on leading us into some twenty-first century version of The Lord of the Flies. They have embraced Trump’s blatant intermeshing of business and political power is the new normal. They’re not going to get bent out of shape by allegations from seventeen security agencies that our election process was hacked by Russia for the purpose of controlling its outcome. They seem OK with Nazis in the White House. They’re noncommittal about a president who refuses security briefings and taunts the public with a game of “I know something I won’t tell.” Their first move as a new Congress was to dismantle the House Ethics Committee. . . .

Right now I am afraid.

I’m afraid to turn on the news and see what’s happening next.

I’m afraid of a government that no longer has even a pretext of idealism to it.

When in comes right down to it, I’m less afraid right now of what you do in the name of your god than in what we as a nation are going to do in the name of NO god.