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Category: Spiritual Reflection

Transcending Trump: August 28

Transcending Trump: August 28

This was the week of the three Trumps: the Fort Meyer Commander-in-Chief Trump, the axe-wielding Phoenix rally Trump, and the Reno call for unity Trump. It’s enough to make my head swim. Some suggest that’s the whole purpose, a carefully choreographed ploy to keep us all insanely off balance. This mandala is a reminder of the perfect balance that lies at the real center of it all. The two triangles represent the divine feminine and masculine forces in perfect balance despite the chaos of the world in which they rest.

May it be so for you as well.

Transforming Health Care

Transforming Health Care

 

This week’s Transforming Trump mandala makes use of the star of life, the paramedics’ symbol for emergency medicine. Our medical system is so clearly on life support and in desperate need of a transplant.  I hope and I pray that those in power can find some way to bridge their differences and work together in the interest of our hurting nation- the same hope and prayer that people everywhere have echoed for millennia. The Flower of Life (and the promise of my faith) is that this reconciliation has already happened, if only we can open ourselves to it.

Black and White

Black and White

Elmina de Beaupuys lived in the polarized world of the 13th century, a time when the medieval Church and the gnostic Cathars offered contrasting belief systems and vied for the minds and hearts of the people who lived in the Languedoc region of southern France. It was a time not so unlike ours today. No compromise seemed possible and Elmina’s heart craved the certainty preached by the traveling priest Dominic.

There are times when I know just how she feels, when I am almost rent in two by the arguments and vitriol of our times. I understand how any of us could be drawn to a savior who presents a black and white world and tells us exactly what path leads to our salvation, as an individual or a nation.

But I don’t believe choosing one side of a duality ever leads us to peace or to the fullness of God. In this country we are still fighting the Civil War and demonizing religious beliefs that contradict ours. In my own life, I’m still struggling against outdated theologies I could simply release. I’m not sure I know how to do it, but I’m clear that healing the schism is my life’s work

In just three weeks my novel Elmina’s Fire will be available from Amazon or for order at your local bookstore. I hope you will want to read it and will have compassion for a young woman trying to find her way in the most trying of times.

 

 

 

 

 

The Path to Perfection

The Path to Perfection

Almost all physical evidence of the medieval Cathars has been erased, systematically destroyed by the Roman Church.  What remains are a carving here, a button or an old coin there to suggest that the Cathars knew full well the healing power of mandalas.

Arthur Guirdham was a British psychiatrist who treated several clients who believed themselves to be the reincarnated souls of Cathar perfects. In his book The Great Heresy, he wrote that “Seven centuries ago the Cathars used [completing mandalas] to give insight into the nature and potentialities of those wished to be Parfaits,” both to weed out those with healing potential and to discern there particular aptitudes.

In Elmina’s Fire, the Signora Bonata introduces Elmina and her sisters to the Flower of Life as part of their journey on the path to perfection”. This is how I imagine it taking place:

“Can you teach us to drawn a Flor de la Vida like the one carved on Magdalena’s loom?” asked Amelha.

“Of course I can. It’s very easy,” the signora replied. She picked up a piece of charcoal and tied a length of twine to it. She instructed Amelha, “Just put your finger on the twine and hold it fast. Now move the charcoal around it.”

Amelha drew a perfect circle on the table and my heart tightened in envy.

“Next place the end of your twine on any part of the circle. Hold it fast and then draw another circle.” Amelha did as she was told.

“Do you see where the circles intersect? Place the twine at one of those intersections ad draw another circle, and then another until you have made a flower,” continued Na Bonata.

“This is the seed in which all things find their being,” she said.

I wondered what she meant, but she went on. “God’s kingdom is like an everlasting circle. Right here in its center is the divine heart. Each circle is the love of God, sent out in all directions. Look at the petals formed when the circles meet. They make a rose of purest perfection, the rose each one of you can be.

“Now watch,” Bonata said. She took the charcoal from Amelha and added more circles to the the drawing.

As I looked down upon the Flor, I thought that I could feel its energy moving within me. “The roses could go on forever,” I commented.

“Indeed they do,” replied the signora. “They are your souls, all roses and all held within the fullness of God’s love. Do not forget this Flor. Thinking upon it can give you great healing in the most trying of times.”

Trinity

Trinity

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.

Dona la Pace

Dona la Pace

imagesI’m one of that generation who came of age crawling under desks to prepare for nuclear holocaust and reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. The threat of immanent destruction has always circled just below the surface of my consciousness, periodically nibbling on my fingers and toes. So it caught my attention this week when my son posted an article from the New York Times on Facebook with a headline from Hillary Clinton, “I’m the Last Thing Standing Between You and the Apocolypse.”

It’s scary times we’re living in. The post 9/11 world is unraveling at the seams. We are arming rebel vigilantes in Iraq and have launched missiles against Yemen. Donald Trump seems prone to pull the trigger of our nuclear arsenal in response to virtually any provocation. The nightly news from Aleppo is evidence that there are no lengths to which humanity will not go in its self-righteous quest for power. And Russia has just recalled any citizens who are travelling abroad as a preparation for the possibility of world war.

Right now the space under my desk seems pretty darn inviting. I find myself fantasizing about where I might go to escape from Armageddon. Move back to the quiet isolation of Chebeague Island? emigrate to Canada? journey to the North Pole perhaps? I know, of course, that there is no escaping this one. In the next world war, there will be no corner of the planet left unaffected by its horrors.

Last night at Taize we sang over and over the haunting chant Dona la Pace, Signore. I want to pray for peace, for this country and all those caught in the path of war. I want to beg God to allow the cup of this crisis to pass. Indeed, my heart now makes these prayers with every breath I take. And yet as much as I wish we might avert warfare- and will do whatever is in my power to prevent our country from electing a candidate who feasts on retribution and combat- I don’t really believe in a God who chooses to answer or ignore such prayers, one who averts this war and wages that one.

We may dream of the Peaceable Kingdom, but the peace of which we sang last night is a different kind of peace. It’s the peace Jesus arrived at in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s a peace like that of which Martin Luther King spoke the night before he died. It’s a peace that recognizes whatever chaos is reigning in our world, the love that is God remains the Ground of our Being. And with this realization comes a further understanding: my call at this challenging time is to avoid the temptation to crawl under that desk and instead to offer whatever peace I have to offer to those who cross my path. May it be the same for you.

 

 

 

 

 

No X-it

No X-it

 

fullsizerender On Saturday my Mandala Journaling workshop focused on Stage 10: Endings. Stage 10 mandalas are often marked with X’s, crosses or downward facing triangles. We are all many-facetted so some aspect of lives is always at stage ten. There is something drawing to a close, something we are needing to let go of, or a shifting in our consciousness.

In this mandala I did an experiment. There is something big that is drawing to an end and I’m not ready for it. I know the end has to come, but I’m hoping there will be a lot more time before that happens. So a I used markers to draw a big “X.” Then with oil pastels in the healing colors of green and turquoise I attempted to draw over it. The X did not go away, but life swirls around it and is somehow enriched by its presence.

I think there’s a message in there.

Not Every Circle. . .

Not Every Circle. . .

Unknown-1Did you know that every year a wonderful event happens in Grand Rapids? It’s called Art Prize and for three weeks every nook and cranny of the city turns into a museum. Last fall, the mandala painter in me wandered the streets and marveled at all of the mystical ways that artists and sculptors interact with the circle. I must have swooned one time too many, because my rationalist architect son let out a long sigh of complaint.

“Mom,” he moaned. “You can’t call everything that’s round a mandala.”

Well yes, he’s probably right. The hubcaps on my Subaru aren’t really mandalas, nor are the Regulator clock that ticks off the minutes since Peter’s last infusion and the drain that the plumber is installing in our soon-to-be downstairs bathroom. I’ve just returned from a week with my daughter and grandchildren, reentry is hard, and the mystical presence of mandala seems far away.

But then I catch a glimpse of the sun reflecting off Peter’s feathery hair, Abbie turns her round cocker spaniel eyes my way, and I sense a stirring within my heart. The fact is, I’ve never adhered to a sharp delineation between what is a mandala and what is not. In classes I define a mandala as any drawing done in reference to a sacred circle. I realize that all of life is filled with sacred circles. Those kaleidoscopic hubcaps have the power to take Abbie and me for a walk in the park; the unrelenting tick of that Regulator clock is a reminder to be grateful for each minute Peter and I have together; and even the drain the plumber is so carefully spackling will soon take away the dirt of each day’s endeavors so that we can start afresh.

It occurs to me that mandala is in the eyes of the beholder. And maybe yes, you can call everything that’s round a mandala.

 

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

 

Do you remember reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in high school? The tragic effects of colonialism on an African village and the seeming inevitability of Okonkwo’s self-destruction have stayed with me for half a century. Back then I thought of it all as a “third-world” problem, unjust and unbearably sad but not really related to me.

After all, back then I lived a privileged life in a well-to-do Virginia suburb and didn’t even know I attended a segregated school. One afternoon I was riding my horse past a new housing development with a big sign that said, “White, gentiles only.” When I asked my mother, “What’s a gentile?” her only response was, “You don’t have to concern yourself with that; you’re one.” In my world of pillared brick houses, freshly-painted white fences, and neatly kept stables, I didn’t think I’d ever need to worry about things falling apart.

Fortunately, life happened. When I took a History of Science class at Wellesley, it hit me that the force of entropy threatens everyone, and it isn’t just about physics. The Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam were in full tilt. As I grappled with their implications and my own inner demons, the world I thought I’d grown up in slowly gave way to something larger, more chaotic and far more abundant than anything I could have imagined as a girl.

I’ve just finished reading Paul Kalanithi’s exquisite memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. The author’s quest for the meaning of life and death leads him to a residence in neurosurgery only to be derailed by a diagnosis of stage-four lung cancer. “(B)rains,” he writes, “give rise to our ability to form relationships and make life meaningful. Sometimes, they break.” And yet it is in the breaking that Kalanithi finds many of the answers he had sought.

Jesus said, I’ve come that they might have life, and have it abundantly. This passage has been used to justify colonialism, a gospel of wealth and all manner of excess, but that of course is not how Jesus meant it. He meant  for us to know the richness of life lived within the breaking. He lived and died that we might come to trust in the abundance of life in the heart of God, particularly in those times when things fall apart.

On this sunny August day, nothing in my life seems to be hanging together quite the way I want, but somehow this morning I dare to believe him.

 

 

Half Way There

Half Way There

 

Back in the days before car seats and seat belts, my would parents would pile all four of us kids in the 1946 Ford convertible they’d miraculously received as a wedding present only a year after end of the War. Every summer, after the predictable fight over who got to sit in the front seat (won inevitably by sister who was the one most likely to puke), we’d set off for the ten-hour trip up US Route 1 that led to my grandparents’ house at Yelping Hill. The first few hours weren’t too bad. We’d sing Boola Boola and Aura Lee. We’d play license plate bingo and the billboard alphabet game. We’d divide up into teams and see which side could spot the most cows or tractors or red barns. But it was just a matter of time before these games would break down. There’d be poky fingers and accusations of cheating. One of us would scream, “I’ve got to go!” and then refuse to squat behind the bushes when my father pulled over. By lunchtime, my parents must have been counting the seconds until they could order drinks at our half-way stop, the Glasgow Arms.

The Glasgow Arms was the only restaurant my family ever went to, and it was a fantastical place. There were swords and muskets on the walls, and cannon balls in the corner. There were pictures of castles, and there in the dining room stood a full set of armor. I still remember both the relief and the disappointment when my father told me there was no mummified knight inside.

It’s funny. What I don’t remember is getting back into the car after lunch at the Glasgow Arms and driving the rest of the way to Yelping Hill. There must have been more songs and more games and more fights, but it could be that just the promise of being half way there lulled us into an altered state. Maybe we all just fell asleep, our bellies filled with hamburgers and the cherries from my parents’ double manhattans.

I know why I’m thinking about half-way points. Yesterday Peter went in for his fourth round of chemo. That means that we are now midway through this leg of his cancer journey- too far in to turn back, but not far enough for the end to be in sight. He’s weathered the dropping white blood cells, the trip to the ER, the hair loss and growing fatigue. He’s let go of all the activities and many of the interests by which he once defined himself. Some days his eyes are vacant; others they are filled with curiosity about what lies ahead.

And me? I watch Peter as he naps on the couch with our cocker spaniel, Abbie, at his feet. His face is soft in the sunlight with no trace of the tension that used to furrow his brow. Since this journey began, Peter has become more relaxed and free. I’m the one who has taken on the job of worrying, and I know that it is an unproductive task. It strips me of my soul’s equanimity and separates me from Peter. It’s a job I need to let go of. No doubt there will a more ups and downs before we reach the end of this journey, but for today, I’m going to try to take my lead from Peter. Perhaps on this second half of our journey I can join him in the sunlight, simply resting in the heart of God.