Destruction of the Sacred

When the British first came to North America, it was a continent of thriving civilizations. The nations here had politics, art, music, poetry, family life traditions. So different was this culture from England’s however, that it was invisible to them. The colonists saw a vast, open space, a wilderness for them to shape into their own future.

Perhaps most invisible were the “churches,” places where people gathered to encounter the sacred, worship, sing praise, enact rituals.

None of these places looked anything like Notre Dame Cathedral. Older than Notre Dame, these gifts from the Creator were sought out by American Indians* for communication with the Divine.

Far way in Paris, I, and a few million other people, entered a space that took the breath right out of our bodies. Notre Dame’s building with buttresses and ceilings, arches, artworks, most especially the Rose windows, is a glorious manifestation of how people honor the sacred. The history of the construction of the Cathedral contains beauty, exploitation, politics, sacrifice, dedication, and artistry. One iconic story about the building is the stone mason who spent months carving a small part of the exterior that could not be seen. It was his gift to God. It is impossible to summarize all the elements that the Cathedral embodies. Standing inside, there was no need to know any of that. Words have little use in places like that. Music perhaps, but no words. When words fail, God is there. Now, watching the flaming spire topple is a heartbreaking lesson in our own fragility.

, The annihilation of American Indian people’s cathedrals has been a slow, piece by piece destruction. Under the surface of these places are gold, oil, commercial minerals, uranium, the fuels of our economy. This “wilderness” is the perfect place to dump nuclear waste. After all this time, American Indian civilizations are still invisible.

Church buildings seek to create sacred spaces. Actors and musicians who have performed at the First Congregational Church talk about the special feeling inside our building. The history and souls of the congregants reverberate within its walls.

Other sacred places are simply found. The Celts refer to these as “thin places,” places where heaven and earth open to each other. Once a place is recognized as sacred, even after the people move on, the sacredness of the land remains imbedded in that place. Abandoned churches may be converted (sic) to stores or apartments, but sacred places like Bears Ears in Utah, cannot be. 

Some sacred places are targeted for destruction because they are visible. Black churches, synagogues, mosques represent people who gather there to worship. They are centers of love, and targets of hate. And so they suffer graffiti, broken windows, burning. Native sacred sites are targeted for destruction because they do not exist to us. They are targeted because we want the elements they hold within themselves. To extract what our economy wants, we must level monuments, open mine pits, scrape off layers of earth, build roads and machinery, send exhaust and toxins into the air and water. What is most valued are the elements torn from the arms of the Earth.

The land itself is sacred. The only way to destroy these cathedrals is to destroy the Earth itself.

  • Some American Indians prefer “Indigenous People,” or “Native Americans.” I use “Indian” to honor my late friend, Carole LaFave, Ojibway. She, family and friends preferred it. 
  • Russel Means: “The one thing I’ve always maintained is that I’m an American Indian. I am not politically correct.”

Prayer is Music

“We are a community of believers, questioners, and questioning believers. We strive to be open and affirming to all. We sometimes disagree, yet love one another as we wade through the joy and pain of spiritual growth. We endeavor to worship God together, follow the example of Jesus, embody the Holy Spirit, support each other, and serve our neighbors, near and far.”   Official Statement of 1st Congregational Church, Ashfield, MA, UCC

 

What does prayer mean to a congregation of “believers, questioners, and questioning believers”? Does God hear our petitions and decide whether to answer yes or no? Does prayer focus our energy on someone who is suffering and that energy aids the person? Does prayer do anything?

Each Sunday, joining in prayer is singing with each other. Regardless of the words in a song, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” or “Ubi Caritas,” the music shifts our spirits and we join with each other. Prayer is music, it brings us to a place of sacred attention when we are alone or all together. However each of us envisions God, we yearn to align ourselves with Wisdom, Compassion, Justice, and Love. Wherever we seek God, in nature, in our neighbor, in church, in silence, we yearn to find the Source of All and trust that it is good. Prayer is an expression of that yearning, of our deepest concerns and desires.

While praying we release ourselves from the necessary questions such as “Who or What is God?” We enter the space that we want to understand more about and explore. Afterwards we read books and discuss and give our brains a good work out.

If nothing else, prayer allows us to open to each other. It gives us, as Buddhists would say, an opportunity to glimpse the Interbeing of all. Prayer is a map we both follow and draw as we go.

Those old prayers and hymns we sometimes recite and sing are the memories of those seekers before us. Something in those prayers opened their hearts, gave them courage, and urged them to follow their path.

Prayers are not recipes or formulae, they are love poems. They need not be factual, but they must be true.   

– Kate Braestrup, “Beginning Grace”

 

Touching the Water: A Poem

Rev. Kate Stevens led a prayer circle in solidarity with Standing Rock Water Protectors. A bottle filled with water from the Missouri River at Standing Rock and local sacred waters sat in the middle. Kate put her hands on the bottle and everyone touched someone who was touching someone who was touching the water.

Touching the Water

For our ancestors, wise and unwise

..

Their blood flows like water through time

and settles for a while in our veins,

warm and nourishing and

with a long blood memory.

..

There is no “my blood” to sacrifice or

“my water” to drink,

no “this blood”

“this water,”

only blood

only water.

..

The Jew said,

Hath not a Jew eyes,

organs, dimensions, senses,

affections, passions,

healed by the same means,

harmed by the same weapons,

warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer

as a Christian?

If you prick us do we not bleed?

..

Only one blood to spill

One water to sail upon

One blood remembering all as it flows through us,

as we struggle to forget.

One water aware of all as it flows around us,

as we flounder in forgetfulness.

..

One sacred duty for our very brief time here:

Remember.

 

A Donald Trump of the Mind

A blogger [The Buddhist Christian] described his temporary inability to write by saying he had laryngitis of the hands. Here it is, the day before the Ashfield News article is due. My fingers rest uselessly on the keys. I’ve tried: over the past few weeks I’ve started writing about mercy – “Mercy me!” “Merciful heaven!” “Heavens to mercy!” etc. The article floated to a merciful end. The next subject I tried was about how Trump videos have replaced cute cat videos on Facebook – why IS that? That one bumped to a unsatisfactory close.

Writing this article monthly is a spiritual practice. But what happens when a person’s spiritual practice gets laryngitis?

Someone said that we try to live our lives with our hearts and try to keep our minds from screwing things up. I disagree. Only our minds can illuminate our hearts. Yes, okay, being cut off from our emotions, is bad and very 1950’s. But if we can’t learn from our hearts, our emotions (hearts), what’s the point? My own emotions hit a logjam this month. I haven’t been able to make sense of all my own heart has gone through over the past few years, and now feel a little dumbfounded and dull. I can tell because my sense of humor is a bit dim.

Our minds are great lassos. They lasso emotions to give them shape, to see them clearly, to pull them in, to illuminate them. Unilluminated emotions can be poisonous, or at least irritating. Unilluminated emotions can lead to….well, Trump for example. I am suffering from a Donald Trump of the mind.  A little 1950’s distance is needed to clear up the logjam. Not only in my own psyche, but I daresay, the country’s.

The path to our well house gets clogged with water streaming from further up the mountain. Not a big lake, just enough to make your socks wet and cold. How satisfying it is to take a stick and scoop aside enough leaves to free the stagnant water! Watching it suddenly burst out and rush down the hill is just about orgasmic. My March spiritual practice is to take a stick, gently stir things up, to not stand still in dumbfoundedness.

And to vote for……………

Using the Wound to See

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

May 14 is the 2nd anniversary of my accident. On that date in 2012,  a car hit me as I was crossing the street. Against the odds, I did not die. A surgeon who was skilled in repairing “filleted” ribs was at BayState Hospital. Medical staff and an amazing array of tubes, blinking lights, beeping machines, and knock-out drugs kept me alive through septicemia. I’ve written before about the community of comfort, prayer and song that accompanied me. And needless to say, the gift of my vigilant, loving wife Jeannine.

What about now?

You’d think it was time to let go of the past and resume my Alice-ness. However my old Alice-ness is altered. And I’m still discovering the nature of my altered Alice-ness.

This winter I shoveled snow. Afterwards I was on the floor and couldn’t get up, the pain was so bad.  Yesterday I lifted a tray over a coffee table and the same thing happened. The pain is located just below where my body had six surgeries. So I’m writing this on ibuprofen and an ice pack. My body has changed, but what about the other essential parts?

When I meditate, scary memories arise. When I pray, the space is empty. But I meditate and pray anyway, in some form or another. Is that what people call “faith”?

Something still feels amiss. Sarah Pirtle helped me describe the feeling: part of Alice is still on Maple Street, getting hit by a car. Another part is struggling against wrist bindings. Another is having the horrifying hallucination that I was paralyzed for life. Other bits and pieces of Alice lay strewn between Holyoke, Linda Manor, and home. My body sometimes forgets it’s not in a wheelchair.

I am trying to coax all the pieces back, to get reunited with myself. Some people refer to the process as “Soul Retrieval.” The people in the Prayer Medicine group at church have helped so very much. Praying for Kate O’Shea in the group pulled me up and out, allowing me to send energy, with others, to her healing. Praying, sending energy to another person helps me become whole. Perhaps praying for someone sends out a call to all our parts, “Come home, parts, Kate needs you.”

Someone asked her minister, Kate Braestrup I think, to pray for her. Braestrup was dubious about the effectiveness of prayer. After praying, she realized that, no matter the effect on the person’s health, she herself was changed and blessed by the act of prayer. Having been on the receiving end, I know that prayers have an effect on the pray-er and the prayed-for.

Unexpectedly, Emily Dickinson has taught me many lessons. She confronted pain and grief head-on, no walls. She was not given to comforting thoughts, but to examination of these feelings under a scope. She changed my definition of “healing.” Is the work of healing actually keeping the psychic wound open? Not in masochistic pain, but to transform the wound into a opening. Or, as David Brooks said, “…turning it [suffering] into something sacred.” Perhaps a wound of any kind can become another sense with which to experience the world. Emily used that sense.

My Alice-parts are trudging home in fits and starts, what Emily calls “That precarious Gait.” I am trying to coax all the pieces back, to get reunited with myself.  As my physical gait and snow shoveling improves, I also cherish the parallel journey: continuing to walk with that precarious gait, recognizing how many of us walk with that gait, and using the wound to see.

-Braestrup: Here If You Need MeBeginner’s Blessing

-Brooks, “What Suffering Does” New York Tmes Op-Ed April 7, 2014

 

 

Pretending as a Spiritual Practice

During the U.S. War in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hahn asked people in the peace movement to write a love letter to President Nixon. Gasps from the audience. Were we supposed to pretend that any of us had the slightest respect, never mind love, for Nixon? Apparently we were. I wrote the letter. My reluctance and resistance and half-heartedness clearly showed me how far I, a “peace-nick,” was from peace.

Pretending is a little more involved than imagining. It requires involvement, some level of commitment to acting as if….and watching the results.

For a while, it was fashionable among some Westerners to believe in reincarnation. I read and thought about it, but could not come to a conclusion. Finally I just sat for a while and pretended that I believed in reincarnation. Wow! I felt so much lighter. I did not have to get everything done in one lifetime! I had been unaware of a deep-seeded anxiety about all I needed to get done before I died. I wasn’t aware of it until it suddenly vanished. I still don’t believe in reincarnation, but my psyche is much more relaxed.

A neighbor was a devotee of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and she invited me to go to the ashram for a day. Previously, when my brother-in-law was dying of AIDS, he urged me to visit the same ashram. He told me that when he was in despair, Gurumayi had appeared at the foot of his bed and comforted him. When he had visited the ashram years before, he had been put off by it, but apparently she came anyway. I decided to go. I had such a good time that I went back.

It is a lavish, beautiful space with gardens, many statues of gods and goddesses, and gourmet vegetarian food. Chanting with a few hundred people in the great hall was mesmerizing and beautiful. The Guru’s talks could be summarized as: love God, love each other. Although there are many Hindu gods and goddesses, Brahman is the ultimate Presence very close to the One God of Jews and Christians. All of God’s attributes cannot be contained in one image or name, hence all the images.

One cold evening I was relieved to see that someone had put a scarf around the neck of a statue of Durga. Not even Catholics put warm clothes on saints’ statues. Why was I happy someone had put a scarf on a statue? A Jewish friend of mine dryly commented, “It sounds like idolatry to me.”

Many faces of God molded into stone surrounded me in the halls and gardens. How concrete the sacred becomes when it is embodied in…well, concrete.

My visits were the opposite of silent, austere Zen retreats, but being there and throwing myself into the practices stretched my perceptions of the sacred.

Some things you can’t just think about; you’ve got to jump in and swim strange waters. Look before you leap is always good advice, as is keeping your head. However, pondering from the shore does not always work in matters of God.