Archive for the ‘spiritual but not religious’ Tag

Looking for a Title   3 comments

Now that I’ve chased away, as I usually manage to do every few weeks, a few incautious new readers who thought they’d follow my blog — until I said something indigestible to them — you and I remain to take stock. It’s part of my job description, in fact: blogger must intermittently provoke, offend or banish a portion of readership, if only to establish and maintain some semblance of integrity. That’s one route, anyway, to blogger bona fides.

Otherwise I’m just a spiritual politician, telling people mostly what they want to hear, scrambling for votes or likes. Please don’t merely “like” me. We’re not in primary school, right? Life isn’t, despite what the weak magic of  social media enchants us to believe, a popularity contest. We’re not even in secondary school any longer. Read and ponder what I’ve said, and test it — not just with your opinions, but with your life. As I try to do, in spite of that annoying and near-universal tug toward hypocrisy.

So there really aren’t any rules? my inner teenager asks. The previous post was a feel-good piece. Love is all you need. All paths lead to the same destination. We’re all in this together.

And we are. Except.

Anyone who practices an art or craft knows that rules, especially rules-of-thumb gained over long experience, can be really useful. Gardening? Plant marigolds with tomatoes. Tuning your guitar? Start with your sixth string, the Youtube video instructs, held down on the fifth fret. Guidelines for what to do, how to tackle challenges and complexities. Received wisdom. Even, if I can use the word, a tradition. We rarely need to start from scratch.

When we’re young, we’re told to color inside the lines. What happens if you color outside the lines? Nothing. You’ve colored outside the lines. What you do is what you get. Maybe a well-meaning adult scolds you, or not. A little later, perhaps a reward or penalty. We know how early such patterns and personality traits get set. Some kids without prompting will color up to the lines so neatly an adult couldn’t better it. And they’ll get praise for neatness and attention and whatever other labels get put on noticing boundaries and respecting what they have to teach.  Because they do have much to teach. Just not everything.

All right, teenaged self. What do you want rules for, anway? To push against, so you can declare yourself an original? To piss off a special adult, or adults in general? To run roughshod over, ’cause you’re such a rebel? Win the attention of possible partners, producers or profit-sharers? Welcome to inverse conformity: you’ve still let the rules define you. Can you make your own liveable set?

Robert Frost said writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. He meant it disparagingly, but it’s actually just another game. Handball. Without a single thing labeled “net”, nearly every surface becomes playable. Players don’t stand opposite each other, but — often — side by side. The rules: changed, but still present. Because that’s what a game is. It’s hard to make “whatever” into a game very many folks want to play.

Yesterday John Beckett posted “Get Over Your Fear of Religion!” tackling the frequent superficiality of much contemporary spirituality. On at least one online forum I visit, his post predictably sent some into a tailspin. Beckett notes, “Some of this [the “spiritual but not religious” movement]  is an understandable reaction against negative religion, but much is an avoidance of the work required to build any real spiritual or religious depth”.  Some scolding is good for me.

Of course, our reaction against stifling religiosity also has ancient roots in human experience. It will never go away as long as we face complacency and laziness in our cultural institutions and practices. As a certain rabbi once observed a score of centuries ago, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life”.

But beyond the pleasurable intoxication of a numinous moon or molten sunset or gold-drenched sunny afternoon, there’s more. “If you want a deep spiritual practice”, John continues, “that will help you handle life’s challenges, build deep and meaningful relationships, and change yourself and the world, you’re going to need religion”.

The first part sounds like what many people say they want. The last clause, though, tosses a dead mouse into the punch bowl.

Whatever else needs to happen as a consequence of mouse or punchbowl or tossing, reactions to the incident will reveal something to me in my own thinking and practice that I need to work on. Maybe you or I will take the bowl to the kitchen and bring out a fresh one. Maybe we’ll just cringe a little, and wait for somebody else to fix things. Maybe we’ll fish out the mouse, or shame the tosser, or ask for better punch-bowl covers, or mouse-traps. Or we’ll take to raising larger mice. Whatever our roles, the incident jolts us. Your outrage is yours. I do mine just fine, without help. But I don’t want to stop there, but start.

Over the decades, I’ve noticed life becomes custom-fitted to teach each of us what we need to learn. It gets to know us, scouts us right up to our weaknesses. I’m not always talking “fair” or “easy” or “blessed”, either. What I hold on to most tightly I’ll probably be compelled to relinquish. Rigid things tend to break. The gods prodding humans to grow. Or evolution fine-tuning a whole complex of eco-systems, sharpening the ability of each species to thrive by choosing the most adaptable individuals and going forward with them because — quite simply — they can change. A hundred thousand lemmings die, but one, slightly different, flourishes and becomes the progenitor of a new species. Ancestral lemming, I salute you.

If we’re changing, how could all the old rules possibly serve? Because rules can change, too, and most of the ones that trouble us and dog our heels are ones we’ve made for ourselves that haven’t changed with us. A few other parameters we encounter, like this pesky aging-and-mortality thing, and finite planetary resources, and cause and effect, we’re still learning to work with. It’s just that from time to time we confuse human rules with spiritual law. Confuse them so successfully we think they’re the same thing, until we find they’re not.

Imagine your ideal set of rules for how you’d play the game. Or laws, if you’re going for large-scale. Work to get down in writing at least three or four of them — you may uncover more — then try them out on your life, checking for fit, and then try them on the lives of a few other beings. Revise as needed.

Next post I’ll post mine.

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Devotionals   Leave a comment

On a Druidry Facebook group I’m a member of, the question arises a few times each year: what makes Druidry distinctive? In other words, if you’re looking over your options, “Why this and not that?”

Sustained contact with the green world is first practice, never abandoned, never out of date.

In a comment on the last post here, bpott said she was told in meditation to “practice devotionals to the gods outdoors. Lighting a candle to Brighid and sitting with her, or pouring water in a bowl for the moon to infuse its energy and listening to Manannan are such devotionals. There is indeed much to be gained through these spiritual practices”.

But this isn’t something for you to take anyone’s word for. It’s not that kind of observation. Words are meant guide us to own experience and back out again, to reflect so we can experience deeper.

Or as J M Greer puts it,

Druidry means following a spiritual path rooted in the green Earth.  It means embracing an experiential approach to religious questions, one that abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit.

We regularly need reminders like these, because Talking Self sidetracks us.

“Talking Self” — you know, that chatty, sometimes neurotic self we use to read and post on Facebook, grumble at headlines we don’t like, and cheer for ones we do. It can often persuade us that it is all of who we are, because its medium is language and the thoughts and feelings language kindles in us. Name it, says Talking Self, trying to keep everything in its domain of names and words. (The Dao De Jing quietly reminds us “the nameless is the origin of heaven and earth”.)

Druidry says take yourself out of talking self and into Self — the being linked in its sinew and blood, bone and spirit, to all that is — rivers and streams, woods and meadows, valleys and hills, tundra and deserts, bird and beech, beast and bass and bug.

When you come back, you can turn Talking Self toward song or ritual, if you like — give it something to do that it does well — but in the service of something higher than reactive gossip and self-importance and anxiety.

And “going outdoors” doesn’t have to entail a frigid January plunge through a hole in the ice at the local lake. It may be as simple as smelling an evergreen twig you picked up yesterday on a walk, and now you hold it as you meditate, on the change of seasons, the incense of a living thing on your fingers and in your nose. Crafting a banner or a poem for the next time your Grove meets — at Imbolc in February. Baking and taking a gift to an elderly neighbor or the local soup kitchen. Grooming your dog or cat.

All these things re-engage the body and give Talking Self a break. Poor thing, it needs one. These practices help restore our connections. They gift us with balance. For these reasons they are, in a curious word more often associated with another tradition, incarnational. They literally put us into our bodies, even as they give Spirit shapes and forms we can experience.

Many forms of Spirit, many bodies to experience them: earth body and dream body and thought body and memory body. And others we haven’t begun to explore.

I lay the makings of a fire in our woodstove, crumpled newspaper and punky dry strips of willow from a fallen branch two years ago, and thin strips of a log split and split and split again. Wood’s our primary heat-source — we’re far too stingy to waste money on our electric backup, except in direst emergencies, and then the power may have gone out anyway. I can pause a moment before setting the match to the kindling and honor Brighid. The makings of a devotional. Not “believe in Her”, not “profess my faith She exists”, but honor Her. Often something quite different.

As someone once quipped, more important than me believing in Brighid is Brighid believing in me. What god would care to waste attention on a human who isn’t ever here? But if I’m here and as I honor Her I sense She’s here, what’s left to believe? It’s the honoring that’s important. The connection.

The Druid experience continually “abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit”. Continually, because my rigidity will creep back in, and fire and touch can warm and soften and free me from inflexible habits and open me to change and love.

I met Brighid most intimately through the task of firing up the woodstove when we settled in Vermont in 2008.  Fire became a daily reality each winter (and much of spring and autumn, too). The wonder of fire and the opportunity of honor to Brighid needn’t be separate from the gathering of kindling and the match. Our winter-fires may not be the reverential fire of Kildare — though they can be. Every morning.

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Today I’ll take out the ash to the compost pile, the midden, lovely old word. I let the freshly-removed ash sit out in the hod for a week, so I’m not dumping a pile of embers outdoors on a windy day. Old ash out, new ash to the hod, new fire to the stove ,whose walls are still warm to the touch. I set the kindling, whisper a sometimes wordless prayer to the goddess, and watch as flames grow and spread.

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taking out the ash

 

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new fire

My devotional has to take a particular, concrete form if it’s to exist at all for the body and senses to engage. Spiritual-but-not-religious knows this, instinctively keeps seeking but then abandoning forms, because it distrusts forms even as it senses their value. But it’s the dead form and the opinions-and-then-dogmas of Talking Self that are the obstacle to spiritual connection, not form itself.

Oh, Lord [goes one prayer] forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.
Thou art Everywhere, but I worship thee here:
Thou art without form, but I worship thee in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer thee these prayers and salutations.
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.

Except they’re not limitations at all: the way to do them in time and space is with temporal and spatial forms. I find little limitation in building a fire and honoring Brighid too. My devotional is a matter of intention, of choice. When I’m on another plane, I adopt its forms. (In dreams I fly, with dream-power my earth body doesn’t have.) But now, here (no need to apologize for limitations*), these forms.

Without a form, no transformation, whisper the Wise.

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*The words “limit” and “limitations” are dirty words, far more obscene these days than any other. Obsessed with freedom, we miss what limits are and signify for us.

A shape is a limitation. Personally, I like shapes and forms. If I had no particular shape or form, I wouldn’t be “free” — I’d be monstrous, “de-formed”.

J M Greer notes in his Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. 2012, pgs. 42-53:

A field mouse, for example, has teeth and a digestive system that are fine-tuned to get nutrients from seeds and other concentrated plant foods, and so that is what field mice eat. They do not eat crickets, even though crickets are very nourishing; they leave crickets to the garter snakes. They do not eat herbs, even though herbs are very abundant; they leave herbs to the rabbits. They limit themselves to one kind of food, and as a result their bodies and their behavior are exquisitely shaped to get and use that kind of food. Rather than jacks-of-all-trades, they are masters of one.

… the elegant lines of the blade [of grass] have evolved to make the most economical use of limited energy and resources, for example, and the curve at which it bends measures the limit of the blade’s strength in the presence of the wind. Remove the limits from the grass, and its beauty goes away. The same thing is true of all beauty, in nature as a whole and in the subset of nature we call human life: beauty is born when a flow of nature encounters firm limits, and the more perfect its acceptance of those limits, the greater the beauty will be.

… The same thing is true of all power, in nature as a whole and in that subset of nature we call human life: power is born when a flow of energy encounters firm limits, and the more narrow the outlet left open by those limits, the greater the power will be.

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Gods, Porn, Methods   Leave a comment

End of year thoughts.

The caption of the photo below has a mini-spoiler — skip as needed.

tradition-books

Yoda has good counsel about books in “Last of the Jedi”

“I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet”, writes author, Buddhist and atheist Stephen Batchelor, “but this does not mean that either God or Hamlet has nothing of value to say” (Batchelor, Stephen. Living with the Devil. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2004). I gotta ask you: Doesn’t that deserve its own t-shirt?!

What are some of the things that God (or Hamlet) says to us? For the sake of foolishness or efficiency, let’s lump them together, prince and deity.

As late incarnations of the Fisher King, Hamlet, his father and his uncle all share a corruption also infecting their land itself: “something rotten in the state of Denmark”, indeed. Any sources of healing? A grail? There must be something.

Hmm. Fratricide, regicide, suicide — really no good options there. Hamlet at over 400 years old isn’t quite yet as immortal as a god, but it’s on its way, and even a god might well draw the line at three such wretched choices. There may be “special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, the prince reflects, recalling Scriptural assurances of a Divine Plan behind things, but you can tell when such lines have their own threads in our online fora, with people asking “What does it mean?” that the current beta version of the Divine Plan has sent all birds south for the winter of our play. No birds to save us here, no dove for any Ark, wren for inspiration, Eagle of the West to airlift us out of Mordor.

In a word, things suck. It’s gotten to the point where the Prince selfishly denies even his best friend Horatio the “felicity” or happiness of suicide: “Absent thee from felicity awhile/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story”. But, I ask Hamlet and God, are any of our stories worth that? Have things always sucked this much? Do we have any overarching story that can make sense of this world for us? (Three questions, Existential Triad #26.) In all its delicious suffering and gloom and razor wit, we could fairly call Hamlet (the play) a piece of Renaissance theater porn.

Is a spiritual search pornographic? Do we play out spiritual scripts to arouse ourselves in ways others (or we ourselves) deem destructive? (Is that a rhetorical question?!)

Horatio says, speaking of Hamlet — and speaking of all of us, too, because that’s what great cultural achievements do, after all — “he was likely, had he been put on/To have proved most royal”. Yes, along with the dead prince, we’re all “put on”, and all “likely”: life as a matter of the odds.

The “royal” part, though — we just can’t accept that yet, even in the face of stories trying their level best to show us, and teach us how. That identity — it implies too much, the gap yawning between what we are and what we could be, an open wound. So we reject it whenever possible, saving such inward knowing for our most unguarded moments with our favorite music, books, films, crafts, people, waking dreams. (Yes, these things rank nearly equal in my life.) Or “children’s movies” we watch with the kids, that may get it half-right, half of the time.

A 27 Dec. ’17 article (film spoiler alert!) in The Atlantic gets in on the Game.  (We’re all playing.) Writing in “Why The Last Jedi Is More ‘Spiritual’ Than ‘Religious'”, Chaim Saiman begins:

For at least two generations, the Star Wars saga has served as a kind of secularized American religion. Throughout the series, the Force is a stand-in for a divine power that draws on a number of mystical traditions, representing the balance of good and evil, the promise of an ultimate unity, and the notion that those learned in its ways can tap into the infinite.

As Saiman scrutinizes the distinctly contemporary sensibility pervading “Last of the Jedi’s” attitude towards tradition, he concludes “… even a fictional secular religion will likely reflect the spiritual economy of its time”. Our tendency to value experiences over learning, or feeling over wisdom (not that these pairs equate) means we often hold traditions suspect without ever having immersed ourselves in them to learn them from the inside. So we often run from one workshop or neo-tradition or guru to another, collecting them like trophies or merit badges. Unlike Rey, we don’t come with a Force chip apparently pre-installed and active as a standard factory setting. (“Oh yes we do!”, say the stories.) Sci-fi porn?

If there’s a shift in the philosophical and religious tone in “Jedi” from the 1977 original Episode IV “A New Hope”, Saiman asserts, it’s that traditions have failed, and we’re thrown back on ourselves. Self-help porn?

So what, in turn, does that mean for our “spiritual economy”?

The great critic and author Harold Bloom told his students, referring to literary criticism, that interpretation is another form of more or less “creative misreading”.

Let’s extend Bloom’s insight where he never intended it, a popular form of magic in itself. How often we misread our lives and each other, the influences they bear on us, and our own motives and desires! Particularly well-done misreadings fill our theaters and earphones, climb our playlists and Top Tens, shaping the zeitgeist ever since zeits became geisty.

Bloom was famous for telling his students “There is no method except yourself” as far as criticism is concerned, and that too feels more widely applicable to our lives.

Or at least to mine. So here goes. Traditions exist, wisdom exists, we encounter them and decide out of all that we are what we will choose and value. In a pinch, we even creatively assign responsibility for our choices to any and everyone else, out of all sorts of motives, honing and refining our method.

Truth is never OSFA, “one size fits all”, though we recognize reflections everywhere, shards of what often feels like an original Mirror. Human traditions often grab hold of a single shard and — terrified they’ll lose even that one — erect it as the sole truth. Maybe this is our original and only idolatry.

So Hamlet instructs the actors for the play-within-the-play, stand-ins for all of us: “Hold the mirror up to nature (or, we might say, existence), to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. If there’s one thing true wisdom does, it’s to show us such forms and pressures. Not only the holes of a culture and civilization at any given moment, especially our own, but also the rebalancing factors and energies we can apply to survive and thrive in that civilization, and when it starts to falter, after.

In the end, the problem isn’t tradition or ritual, but dead tradition and rotting ritual. The soup of spirituality needs the pot of form, or we go about a life or five with vague intentions that ultimately give us little and fail us at need. “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s”, wrote William Blake.

Almost right.

St Augustine caravaggioFor once I’ll trust old Auggie, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), with the last words this time, with a few annotations. Words suitable to conclude this blog for 2017, and open the way for a new cycle in the new year.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not [only] in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy [unless you need to!], but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going.

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Images: tradition; Caravaggio’s St. Augustine.

 

SBNR — Spiritual But Not Religious   Leave a comment

We’ve read it, heard it, thought it, and many self-identify with it.  It leaps faith boundaries; there are respectable atheists who lay claim to it. Meme, cop-out, canary in the mine, badge of honor, ticket to bad-ass-dom or philosopher status, tired PC label.  High-mileage, time-to-change-the-tires, still-up-for-that-road-trip hippy van of the post-post-modern zeitgeist-fest that is for today what “finding yourself” was for a whole other lost generation not so long ago.  You ask, and … there it comes, wait for it … “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

Don’t misunderstand:  I’m not mocking the impulse, just the frequent obliviousness of people who think it’s original with them. According to a Gallup poll from over a decade ago, 33% of Americans apply the SBNR label to themselves.  I doubt that that percentage has dropped at all in the interim.  If anything, it’s probably risen.

ldanielThe phrase annoyed United Church of Christ pastor and author Lillian Daniel enough that she wrote a 2011 guest blog entry for The Huffington Post: “Spiritual But Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  Responses to the post helped supply enough material that the original page grew into a book-length collection of essays —When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough.  [As a side note, only the first half of her book directly engages the topic of the title.]

The “enoughness” of Daniel’s title refers to the importance of community, without which she feels a private spirituality can slide too easily into laziness and self-indulgence.  Of course that can happen.  Who holds people accountable for slipping into bad habits, if they seek to find their own truth, in their own way?  [Turns out there ARE some “forces at large” who can keep us in line; for that, keep reading.] How do we avoid a kind of heedless religion of gratitude, if you live in the West and are comfortably middle- or upper-class?  After all, that life can be pretty good much of the time: no starvation, war, oppression, plague and so on.  How do we escape a superficial enjoyment of nature as the whole of our easy religion? (In particular, Daniel inveighs against the “Aren’t sunsets glorious?” crowd who think that their love of beauty is both original and that it “covers all sins.”)

Yes, there’s a Puritanical streak present in Daniel’s irritation (Puritanism defined by H. L. Mencken as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time”).  A fair portion of the SBNR’s may well come across as hedonist agnostics without a care (though I’ve yet to actually meet one), while the good people in congregations like Daniel’s engage each other in all their human imperfection, and are called to be better for it.  But given the litany of ills the world faces, which any reflective person can see are attributable at least in part to the ongoing gluttony of first-world nations in their consumption of the planet’s resources, irritation is a perfectly reasonable response.  Given the imperial overreach of those same nations in their attempt to bully and harangue the world so that their gullets remain as stuffed as possible, irritation might even be a good starting point for making an actual change — though Daniel goes nowhere near so far.

But there’s more of substance going on here, which Daniel is understandably reluctant to examine, since it cuts to the heart of her religion.  Part of an “actual change” has already been going on for decades.

jspongWe can grasp one corner of the change in the words of now retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong.  Spong notes in his Q & A for 11-7-2013 that those he terms the “non-religious” often are still spiritual:

Lots of people who do go to church are “non-religious.” Lots of people who say they don’t believe in God are profoundly spiritual and searching people.

What I seek to describe with the phrase “the non-religious” are those for whom the traditional religious images have lost their meaning. There is no God above the sky, keeping record books, ready to answer your prayers and come to your aid. There is no tribal deity lurking over your nation or any other nation as a protective presence. There is no God who will free the Jews from Egyptian slavery; put an end to the Inquisition or stop the Holocaust. If these goals are to be accomplished, human beings with expanded consciousness will have to be the ones to accomplish them. This means that the category we call “religious” is too narrow and limited to work for us in the 21st century.

The question I seek to answer is that when we move beyond the religious symbols of the past, as I believe our whole culture has already done, do we move beyond the meaning those outdated symbols once captured for us, or is the meaning still there looking for a way to be newly understood and newly symbolized? The word “God” is a human symbol. I believe though that the word God stands for a reality that the word itself cannot fully embrace and that no human being can define. To worship God in our generation means not that we must move beyond God, but it does mean that we will have to move beyond all previous human definitions of God. So to be “non-religious” is just a way of saying that the religious symbols of the past have lost their meaning. That does not mean the search for God is over; it means the quest for new and different symbols has been engaged.

Some of what’s unintentionally ironic in Spong’s words here, intended to push against “Churchianity” and provoke mainstream Christians in its Pagan-like tolerance, is that many Christians would agree with him, and many Pagans and Druids in particular wouldn’t.  For the polytheists among the latter, gods and goddesses are indeed real.  Where Pagans and Druids do share common ground with Spong is in their conviction that there is a spiritual “reality that the word itself cannot fully embrace and that no human being can define.”  But while it may be that some specifically Christian “religious symbols of the past have lost their meaning,” Pagan symbols feel new again.  Paganism is growing because “the quest for new and different symbols has been engaged”; that’s what makes Neo-Paganism: so much is new.  Talk to a Druid who’s encountered Cernunnos or Morrigan, who serves either as priestess or priest.  Talk to a Wiccan who draws down the Moon.

Finally, if the posts on blogs like those on my sidebar of links are any indication, Pagans and Druids who may be solitaries and practice alone (as often out of necessity as out of choice) face their fair share of profound challenges in their spiritual practice that foster growth and unfolding, deeper awareness, and an enriched capacity to love. After all, Christian saints over nearly two millennia who retreated to hermitages and isolation from human others in order to deepen their spirituality also frequently found what they sought. It betrays a misunderstanding of spirituality to think we can’t practice alone.  Fools and sages are pretty evenly distributed across the planet and throughout spiritual traditions.  The sage I seek may live, not on the other side of the planet, but next door in the trailer, the one with the Chevy up on cement blocks in the front yard.  The fool is often standing in front of me when I look in the mirror.

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Daniel, Lillian.  When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough. New York: Jericho Books, 2013.

Images: Lillian Daniel; John Shelby Spong.

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