Friday, December 17, 2010

It was a dark and stormy morning

Mm, tea, Earl Grey
infusing me with warmth,
mirth. Thick TH sounds
rich and dark, bold as
thunder and as love.
Thickets of thistles,
brambly on a norTHern moor.
Burnt umber lumbering,
luscious loam. Thatches
and snatches of parchment,
thimblefuls of ashes,
wastepaper urns.

Crumbs of scones,
tucking in less tidily
with gustatory moans.
Toast with jam, jars
tinkling against a
thrumming spoon.
Galoshes in squelches,
anticipating puddle jumping.
Giggling porridge play
ere embracing the day.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fragments, Take <#>

It's a slipstream
and your fingers
are writing lyrics
casting shadows
rubbing circles.

Like cold water or hot tea
you cleanse my mind.
I take a breath -
out rushes the day and
in comes focus on the center.

Nimbus cloud, producing precipitation, you
make my days hazy while
the nights rain.

Each moment is its own focus
out of time,
reminding me of an instance
in my mysticism class
where I drew a broken circle.
Inside was Us;
   outside was god;
      the permeable membrane betwixt was Time.

Time is a construct which measures change.
Change only happens in the breaths,
the spaces between my heartbeats.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

L'amour de langue

Let me reflect
on the circonflex
that steeple signifying
lost sibilance

crowning carat
coveted arch
an eyebrow raised
to show what's missing

S is gone
seed scattered
to the four winds

The hospital loses
its squawking siren
and gains hope
in hรดpital

Vowels clear
song without the rush
clean like water
just a hatted hook
for shelter

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Biting off more than we can sustainably chew

"The larger question is, If we continue with business as usual—
with overpumping, overgrazing, overplowing, overfishing, and
overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide—how long will
it be before the Ponzi economy unravels and collapses? No one
knows. Our industrial civilization has not been here before.
Unlike Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which was set up
with the knowledge that it would eventually fall apart, our
global Ponzi economy was not intended to collapse. It is on a
collision path because of market forces, perverse incentives, and
poorly chosen measures of progress. We rely heavily on the market
because it is in so many ways such an incredible institution.
It allocates resources with an efficiency that no central planning
body can match, and it easily balances supply and demand.

"The market does, however, have some fundamental, potentially
fatal, weaknesses. It does not respect the sustainable yield
thresholds of natural systems. It also favors the near term over
the long term, showing little concern for future generations. It
does not incorporate into the prices of goods the indirect costs
of producing them. As a result, it cannot provide the signals
telling us that we are caught up in a Ponzi scheme.
In addition to consuming our asset base, we have also
devised some clever techniques for leaving costs off the books—
much like the disgraced and bankrupt Texas-based energy company
Enron did some years ago. For example, when we use
electricity from a coal-fired power plant we get a monthly bill
from the local utility. It includes the cost of mining coal, transporting
it to the power plant, burning it, generating the electricity,
and delivering electricity to our homes. It does not,
however, include any costs of the climate change caused by
burning coal. That bill will come later—and it will likely be
delivered to our children. Unfortunately for them, their bill for
our coal use will be even larger than ours" (Brown 15-16).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Finalish Thoughts on Patel's "The Value of Nothing"

"Taking what we can from the sociology of the commons, a genuine democracy appears to involve changing the way we relate to the world around us, and moving beyond ownership to stewardship to commoning. This isn't a call to abandon all property--personal property is important, and no one should be denied it within reason. Nor is this a call to abandon markets--markets are good ways to decentralize decision making, and it's hard to imagine a functioning democracy where people are free without also having markets. British economist Diane Elson points out that even utopian community groups create some sort of market and tools of exchange--pure systems of barter are harder to manage, and democratically controlled markets make exchange easier, while leaving open the space to craft and adjust prices within those markets. What needs to be plucked out of markets is the perpetual and overriding hunger for expansion and profit that has brought us to the brink of ecological catastrophe; what needs to be plucked out of us is the belief that markets are the only way to value our world" (Patel 188).

I also love a huge section on pages 176-177 about how to make this new democracy work. It's motivating and delicious. It's not as specific as I'd like it to be, but then again, it wouldn't be democratic if it were.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Reading from the book of Nothing

"If 'savage' was the magic word for colonialists, 'political will' is the fairy dust of today's democracy. When change fails to happen, it is for want of 'political will,' a sort of magic powder that stirs the powerful to action (even if that action ends up being merely 'rinse and repeat'). What contemporary ideas of 'political will' betray, more than anything, is our own ambivalence about government. The public at large have more than enough political will for health care, for education, for reduced spending on weapons, or for the environment. It's just that, all too often, the abundant will of government representatives is shaped by a corporate agenda, rather than a popular one. In Italy, one of the best-selling books of recent years is La Casta (The Caste), a political expose' by senior journalists Sergio Rizzo and gain Antonio Stella that portrays the political establishment as a club of more or less well-meaning kleptocrats. When government really is a caste apart, it seems there's little that can be done to bring them back to earth except, as history suggests, through widespread civil engagement. Curiously, in one of the more cited studies of what makes bureaucracies work for the people, Robert Pugnam's Making Democracy Work, a key factor in Italy has been the presence of the Communist Party.

"While the Italian Communist Party may seem a rather unlikely and remote source of hope, its 1970s foot soldiers knew something that has largely been forgotten in Western democracies--that the passivity of the majority is what allows the powerful to rule. It is in this insight that we can find the rocket fuel for Polanyi's double movement. The second part of the double movement, where society reclaims power from the market, happens through demand, not gift. In a sense, this was the promise of the Obama election campaign. The slogans of 'No more politics as usual' resonated, as well it should, with disenfranchised people around the world, not just in the United States.

"There is, however, a difference between rousing campaign rallies and widespread democracy. The Obama administration is, for instance, firing up the campaign machinery that first got him elected, to push his agenda on education, health care and climate change. One of the characteristics of the new campaign meetings is the lack of time for questioning the substance of these policies--there's just one enemy: 'politics as usual'--and just one solution: the president's new politics. The proper name for this is populism. The cult pact between leader and led isn't, however, a sign for reinvigorated democracy--it's the last desperate substitute for it. For democracy to flourish, we need our own moment of admission that our economic organising system has failed us. Just as Greenspan lost his faith in an economic organizing principle, we also need to take a long hard look not only at the free market but at the political system that supports it. It's in reclaiming the idea that we're able to think for ourselves and that we're ready for politics, rather than outsourcing it like so much else, that we will be able to reclaim both democracy and our economy" (Patel 118-119).

I think Patel's characterization of Obama's tenure so far is both too harsh and too nice. The same is true for his opinion of our "economy," something he's trying to tear down without scaring people too much.

It's time for people to get educated, get angry, and get active. We need to as a culture become more aware of the externalities, the "hidden costs," of the way we live. We need to care about those costs and change our behaviors accordingly. Individual behaviors are a good start, but they're not enough.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Different Kind of Substance

- a pound of dried split peas
- an onion, chopped and sauteed in butter and olive oil
- three-ish red potatoes, chunked
- three-ish carrots, washed and chopped
- some celery, diced
- a bunch of fresh basil, chopped to your liking (I got lazy, as you can see)
- many shakes of dried thyme
- a few shakes of dried marjoram
- a good amount of filtered water
- salt and pepper - lots (or to taste, which should be lots)

Simmer ingredients until it smells divine and the peas and root veggies are soft enough for you.

Reheats incredibly well.

Friday, July 09, 2010


I'd love it if you'd weigh in on yesterday's blogpost.

In the meantime, I have a song in my head. It's one of the Buddhist things we're singing at church on Sunday.

"When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love."
Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is, in a way. But it takes practice. As for the music, it's a beautiful three-part round. And it still feels good to be an alto.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

I'm still reading "The Value of Nothing." Good stuff!

"The history of slavery shows not only that the set of things allowed into markets can change but also that decrees establishing what belongs in markets can be revoked. Once, slavery was allowed. Now it isn't. [It still happens, but the author deals with that elsewhere.] In other words, there is nothing natural about buying and selling things for profit, and allowing markets to determine their value. Before commodities can be bought and sold, they have to become objects that people think can be bought or sold. Most of the things that we buy and sell weren't always commodities in the way we understand them today--land, music, labor, care, people and food once had a much more ambiguous status. These things became commodities through complicated and layered processes, to be exchanged in markets with very specific attributes" (Patel 17-18).

My philosophical and religious interest here is in the word "objects." Objects are things which are external to ourselves. They are not things we respect in our communities. When people and land become objects, we've got a problem.

Patel then mentions Karl Polanyi's book The Great Transformation, in which that author talks about the shift of thinking about land and food as commodities. "It may sound odd to think about land or labor as fictitious when the heart of contemporary working life beats to the rhythm of paychecks and rent, but that's a measure of how 'great' the transformation was. It transformed social arrangements so dramatically that it is impossible to think of them in any other way. In other words, the transformation not only changed society, it also changed us, by changing the way we see the world and our place in it" (18).

So, if not turning people into commodities, what alternative do we have? Do we have to go immediately to Communism, that supremely damn-ed way of thinking? What are our options? Ooh! Patel continues:

"The great transformation demanded a great deal of social upheaval. In order to buy and sell land, the people who were previously using it had to be evicted. This happened through the sometimes violent process of enclosure, where peasants were evicted from common land and consigned to cities where they might find income through selling their labor, and provide demand by becoming consumers. In other words, the great transformation required that the social rules governing land and work be entirely rewritten--and through this transformation, entirely new things became eligible for ownership, and for pricing. This process hasn't stopped. The engineers of new financial products work at the bleeding edge of this transformation in the twenty-first century. So do the makers of the cap-and-trade policies designed to solve climate change, in which the right to pollute becomes a commodity" (18-19). *Emphasis mine, thanks to Tracy.

This book is so good! It does a lot of things succinctly so far. For myriad, varied, and creatively brutal examples of "eviction," "enclosure," and turning the world into commodities, read Zinn, Jensen, and many others.

But still I come back. What is the alternative? Today capitalists argue that this system is the only system, because systems in which people get what they need without working for them allow those people to be lazy. People won't work unless they have to. The fun movie "Office Space" is just the first example that popped into my head that speaks to this idea.

What would you do if you didn't have to work? "I'd do nothing," says the main character. Would you do nothing? Would *I* do nothing? I'd like to think not. But I could be wrong.

Friday, July 02, 2010

New Book!

Allow me to quote this awesome little book I found at random in the library the other day. It's going to be a great companion to my novel for airplane reading this weekend:

"The great unwinding of the financial sector showed that the smartest methematical minds on the planet, backed by some of the deepest pockets, had not built a sleek engine of permanent prosperity but a clown car of trades, swaps and double dares that, inevitably, fell to bits. The recession has not come from a deficit of economic knowledge, but from too much of a particular kind, a surfeit of the spirit of capitalism. The dazzle of free markets has blinded us to other ways of seeing the world. As Oscar Wilde wrote over a century ago: 'Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.' Prices have revealed themselves as fickle guides: The 2008 financial collapse came in the same year as crises in food and oil, and yet we seem unable to see or value our world except through the faulty prism of markets" (Patel 3-4).

Raj Patel goes on to talk about Greenspan's rise and fall and how he admitted he was short-sighted and wrong. It is all quote-worthy, and I only got to page 5 before the phone rang and I had to attend a committee meeting at my church.

Life is good. Life is very, very good.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Moderation in all things except love

The relationships between and among opposites have always interested me. I've been interested in I and Thou, subject and object, body and spirit, good and evil, light and darkness, the apophatic way and the cataphatic way. I've also always had a problem with the oppositional nature of these dualities. I've never come up with a good way to describe my problem with this binary, 1 versus 0, on and off, etc. They don't [always] have to be charged + and -. Instead they can [sometimes] coexist.

Many systems like to add a third component to keep things in balance. Christianity venerates the Trinity and its mysteries; Robert Pirsig adds something he calls "Quality" to the mix. Sometimes this is helpful and sometimes it is not. There are things that are good and some that are evil. In such cases a value judgment is useful and good.

A couple of days ago I was reading Jensen and he gave me another lens through which to see this issue. I'll quote him at length. In my notes about this passage I wrote "dichotomies as disconnectons, differences as versus."

"It's all about disconnection. This culture is based on disconnection. Man (strong) versus woman (weak), man (good) versus nature (flawed), thought (honest) versus emotion (misleading), spirit (pure) versus flesh (polluted), love (good) versus hate (bad), serenity (good) versus anger (bad), nonattachment (good) versus attachment (bad), nonviolence (righteous) versus violence (evil) and so on ad nauseum. So often I've heard pacifists and others say we need to get rid of all dualism, that by speaking of those who are killing the planet as my enemy I am perpetuating the same dualisms that got us here. But striving to eradicate dualism is perpetuating the same dualsim! This time it's nondualism (good) versus dualism (bad). It's all nonsense. The problem isn't that there are pairs of opposites. Opposites exist. Nor is the problem that there are values assigned to these opposites. We can--and I certainly woud--argue against the values chosen by this culture for each of these poles, but the truth is that the different poles do have different values. And that leads to the real problem, which is the word versus. Yes, men and women are different. But they are not in opposition; instead they work together" (533). He goes on to say explicitly that almost all of the opposites are different but that they work together.

Spirit is good, but (I believe) we have flesh for a reason. As I've said before, Gnosticism used to appeal to me, almost, but implies that our bodies are prisons instead of being gifts and tools we use together with our spirits. Many of us know the picture of Jesus as serene and pure and good, but what about when Jesus got angry and even violent and overturned the tables in the Temple? Anger can be good when it is anger at the right things, when it can be directed toward something that needs to be done.

"What happens if you reconnect?" Jensen asks. "What happens if you make choises as to when you should think, and when you should feel? What happens if your thoughts and feelings mere and diverge and flow in and out of each other, with each one taking the fore when appropriate (and sometimes when inappropriate, since perfection does not exist in the real world, and emotions and thoughts each sometimes make mistakes: That's life) and with them working sometimes together and sometimes in opposition?" (533-534). He continues for the next page.

I'm not so sure I buy into the premise that hate is ever good. I think I'm more sold on Jensen's idea that Love does not always equal Pacifism (though I'm still pretty pacifistic myself). Sometimes when we love we have to get our hands dirty. I'm not about going and hurting people, but I am about making sure that when you (or me, really) are faced with tough choices that you do what is Right and not what is best for you and your moral purity - for its own sake. I still don't want to force anybody to do anything. I don't want to infringe on someone's free will. But reactionary force is just. Mamas lash out when their babies are being threatened. By extension, we can and should lash out when that which sustain us is being threatened? It's not as simple as black and white. That's why we've been given sacred texts, consciencess, minds of our own, and a community of very different individuals with their own perspectives. More preaching: let's build communities. Of necessity. Of respect. Of love.

[Note: I came up with the title for this blog post after I wrote the whole thing. I wasn't sure how I got from Dualism to Communities of Love, so I had to go back and think. And I was reminded of the phrase that has been one of my mantras for about ten years now. There you have it. Just make sure you pay attention to what love really means.]

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Manifest Destiny

"Whereas it was previously considered uncouth for anyone to even suggest that economic hegemony might motivate U.S. military action, our leaders are now boldly selling wars as commendable instruments of such profit-focused imperialism."

- from an article about the recent "news" that Afghanistan has cool minerals we want to steal

Conversation continues in many salons about why we're at war and what constitutes a just war. U.S. politicians seem to agree (or at least a majority of them do) that it is right for us to go to war when other nations or peoples have control of resources we want or that we think we "need" to sustain (ha!) our quality of life. Because it's what the American people want. Because we deserve it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Thanks and A Shift

I've failed. ECM (Exploring Christian Mysticism) is on hold for a while. I've been caught up in other projects ...

and my religious reading has gone by the wayside... for now.

Yes, Jensen's book has been at the heart of a lot of what I'm doing lately. I have a tendency to throw myself into things without always thinking them through. That's why I'm talking with friends who agree with me and with friends who think I'm crazy and taking things a bit too far.

It's easy to take the radical viewpoint and ignore moderation in the middle. And it's easy if you take the radical viewpoint to pull people towards the middle. If you're not going to follow Jensen's advice (sort of) and blow up dams to take down the evil civilization which steals and kills, at least use less. Or be aware of what you're using.

I am a very lucky person. I have a job that pays me well, and I can afford to eat mostly local, organic, and/or vegetarian fare. I am lucky to be increasingly involved in a church and in friendships that mean something to me. I am lucky enough to have the leisure time to pursue things about which I am passionate. These things are important to me. These connections matter.

I am also lucky that I think it is interesting to explore matters of sustainability further. It is both important and fun to think about such problems, as heartbreaking as it may also be.

I am lucky to have friends who are willing to read my posts and show me gently where I've failed to proofread (or edit or think things through or censor myself or structure things logically, etc.). I am lucky that people find my openness charming rather than ascerbic and offensive (okay, some of the time).

I am lucky when I know when to stop (some of the time). Time to get to work :-)

Friday, June 11, 2010

During the past few days I've been frustrated at some issues I've had including accent marks over and around letters for my next post here, which may eventually be about ascetisism. :-) Maybe it's a sign that I should avoid blogging as an excercise in ascetic contemplation myself.

While I figure that out, let me share with you some lyrics from a song by one of my favorite dead musicians (there are so many), the singer-songwriter Harry Chapin:

I can see myself it's a golden sunrise
Young boy open up your eyes
It's supposed to be your day.
Now off you go horizon bound
And you won't stop until you've found
Your own kind of way.
And the wind will whip your tousled hair,
The sun, the rain, the sweet despair,
Great tales of love and strife.
And somewhere on your path to glory
You will write your story of a life.

And all the towns that you walk through
And all the people that you talk to
Sing you their songs.
And there are times you change your stride,
There are times you can't decide
Still you go on.
And then the young girls dance their gypsy tunes
And share the secrets of the moon
So soon you find a wife.
And though she sees your dreams go poorly
Still she joins your story of a life.

So you settle down and the children come
And you find a place that you come from.
Your wandering is done.
And all your dreams of open spaces
You find in your children's faces
One by one.
And all the trips you know you missed
And all the lips you never kissed
Cut through you like a knife.
And now you see stretched out before thee
Just another story of a life.

So what do you do now?
When she looks at you now?
You know those same old jokes all the jesters tell
You tell them to her now.
And all the same old songs all the minstrels sang
You sing 'em to her now.
But it don't matter anyhow
'Cause she knows by now.

So every chance you take don't mean a thing.
What variations can you bring
To this shopworn melody.
And every year goes by like a tollin' bell.
It's battered merchandise you sell.
Not well, she can see.
And though she's heard it all a thousand times
Couched in your attempted rhymes
She'll march to your drum and fife.
But the question echoes up before me
Where's the magic story of a life?

Now sometimes words can serve me well
Sometimes words can go to hell
For all that they do.
And for every dream that took me high
There's been a dream that's passed me by.
I know it's so true
And I can see it clear out to the end
And I'll whisper to her now again
Because she shared my life.
For more than all the ghosts of glory
She makes up the story,
She's the only story
Of my life.

Friday, June 04, 2010

ECM, Day 12: Madame Guyon, mostly in her own words

Madame Guyon lived from 1648 to 1717. She was a Quietist, which means that she believed in complete passivity with respect to God, "even to the point of not wishing to be saved" (41). Pretty extreme stuff, right?

Biblical exegesis was not something women were trained, encouraged, or allowed to do, but she was pretty dedicated and endeavored to write about the entire Bible. She wrote with vigor and clarity, and I think I will just let some of her words speak for themselves.

I picked this excerpt, which groks on the verse from Song that reads "Let him kiss me with the kiss of the mouth," because it relates to the Trinity, a mystery and a metaphor that has been on my mind a lot lately.

"The kiss which the soul desires of its God is essential union, or a real, permanent and lasting possession of its divine object. It is the spiritual marriage. That this may be understood, it is necessary to explain the difference between a union of the powers and essential union. Either of them may be transitory, and for a few moments only, or permanent and lasting.

"The union of the powers is that by which God unites the soul to himself, but very superficially; it is more properly a touch than a union. It is nevertheless united to the Trinity of persons according to the different effects proper to the individual persons.... This union is accomplished in order, in all the powers of the soul, and is sometimes perceived in one or two of them according to the designs of God, and at other times in all three together. This constitutes the application of the soul to the Holy Trinity according to the distinct persons. When the union is in the understanding alone, it is a union of pure intellect and is attributed to the Word as a distinct person. When the union is in the memory, which is effected by an absorption of the soul into God and a profound forgetfulness of the creature, it is attributed to the Father as a distinct person. And when it takes place in the will alone by a loving joy without sight or knowledge of anything distinct, it is a union of love and is attributed to the Holy Spirit as a distinct person. This last is the most perfect of all, because it approaches nearer than any other to essential union, and is generally the road by which the soul arrives at it. All these unions are divine embraces--but they are not the kiss of the mouth" (42).

The kiss of the mouth is something deeper still, something she goes on to describe as a "spiritual marriage [...] where God takes the soul and unites himself to it, no longer by way of the persons of the Trinity, nor by any act or means, but immediately by reducing all into unity and by possessing it in his own unity. Then it is the kiss of his mouth, and real and perfect possession. It is an enjoyment which is neither barren nor unfruitful, since it extends to nothing less than the communication of the Word of God to the soul" (42).

It seems to me that Madame Guyon explores the massive ineffability of God and how she desires to join with Him not for her sake but because it is Right.

Next, we jump into a new chapter of Christian mysticism with asceticism, the practice of denying oneself bodily pleasures, and sometimes even necessities, for some higher good. For the mystics McGinn looks at, asceticism was a way to prepare oneself for union with God. Remember that asceticism should be (according to McGinn's interpretation of mystical thought, belief, and tradition) a means to an end and not an end itself. Purge so that God may fill.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

ECM, Day 11: First Taste of Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart is crazy and almost heretical in a lot of ways. These are among the many reasons I like him. Today's excerpt is one of his difficult ones, at least at first, because he starts with a very bizarre translation of the Gospel of Luke and doesn't really explain (in the passage in McGinn's anthology, anyway) why he chooses this reading. What Eckhart manages to explore and convey on the basis of that shaky premise, however, is super cool, and I hope you'll enjoy reading about it.

"Our Lord Jesus Christ went up into a citadel and was received/conceived by a virgin who was a wife." This is the translation of Eckhart's translation of the Latin of the Greek of Luke 10:38 by the Buddhist-affiliated Maurice Walshe, a translator McGinn seems to favor for Eckhart's work. Talk about derivatives! Needless to say, this is not the present day Catholic translation of 'our' own introduction to the famous Mary and Martha in the Gospel, but it proves effective perhaps in the old German and in the metaphor that Eckhart builds up afterwards.

To Eckhart, a virgin is someone who is open and empty, "offering no hindrance to the highest Truth" (McGinn 36). To be a wife, on the other hand, is to bear fruit. "For a man to receive God within him is good, and in receiving he is virgin. But for God to be fruitful in him is better, for only the fruitfulness of the gift is the thanks rendered for that gift, and herein the spirit is a wife, whose gratitude is fecundity, bearing Jesus again in God's paternal Heart" (37). Deep (and sometimes convolutedly-written) stuff! I rewrote it in my notes in these ways:


Indeed, both of these are necessary, in Eckhart's mind and, in part, in mine, to do good work. I offer these as pairs of concepts, and thinking about them this way makes me appreciate the idea of the Trinity even more. Faith and Works must be Inspired (by the spirit). Serenity and Courage have to come with Wisdom. Father, Son, and Spirit. Openness, Action, and... well, you fill in the blank :-)

All of this is well and good. Then Eckhart goes even further and gives me a reason to introduce you to his apophatic type of mysticism, the type that groks on the idea of being the open virgin and takes it even further. I'll quote Eckhart himself here:

People wedded to things of this world bear little fruit, including "all those who are bound with attachment to prayer, fasting, vigils and all kinds of outward discipline and mortification. All attachment to any work that involves the loss of freedom to wait on God in the here and now, and to follow him alone in the light wherein he would show you what to do and what not to do, every moment freely and anew, as if you had nothing else and neither would nor could do otherwise--any such attachment or set practice wich repeatedly denies you freedom, I call a year; for your soul will bear no fruit till it has done this work to which you are possessively attached, and you too will have no trust in God or in yourself before you have done the work you embraced with attachment, for otherwise you will have no peace. Thus you will bring forth no fruit till your work is done. This is what I call 'a year,' and the fruit of it is paltry because it springs from attachment to the task and not from freedom" (37).
Attachment = Bad

There is a beautiful passage by Eckhart on the next page in which he describes the joy of God and the exquisiteness of existing in the moment devoid of all else with and of God. Perhaps I will transcribe it later or otherwise relay it to anybody who is interested.

Beyond those passages, the rest of the sermon was rather difficult without a lot of context and I did not want to share it. Eckhart talks about how God in the citadel is beyond form, explanation, how he is "indivisible, without mode or properties," transcending the trinity and becoming what I can only approximate as Tao (40). I'm personally fond of this interpretation, but I wonder how much of it comes from Walshe's Eastern biases as translator. O, if only I wanted to go back and learn medieval German and translate it myself. But that's a highly esoteric Ph.D. for much for focused and selfish Emily.

Next: a 17th century woman's take on Song of Songs.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

ECM, Day 10: Bernard of Clairvaux and more Song of Songs

There's been so much life to live, so many conversations to have, and so many other books to read lately! Today at lunch I finally made time to read Bernard of Clairvaux's rather impressive musings on Song of Songs. I was not thrilled at the first couple of pages of his exegesis, in which he does some basic language play and literary analysis. At one point, though, things get interesting and he starts to compare the storerooms in the bridal chamber from Song of Songs to
1. discipline,
2. nature, and
3. grace.

As I wrote in my notes, I find such metaphors fun and interesting but not always useful. And then I read further...

"In the first [room, discipline], guided by moral principles, you discover how you are inferior to others, in the second you find the basis for equality, in the third what makes you greater; that is: the grounds for submission, for co-operation, for authority; or if you will: to be subject, to co-exist, to preside. In the first you bear the status of learner, in the second that of companion, in the third that of master. For nature has made men equal. But since this natural moral gift was corrupted by pride, men became impatient of equal status. Driven by the urge to surpass their fellows, they spared no efforts to achieve this superiority; with an itch for vainglory and promoted by envy, they lived in mutual rivalry (Gal 5:26). Our primary task is to tame this wilfulness of character by submission to discipline in the first room, where the stubborn will, worn down by the hard and prolonged schooling of experienced mentors, is humbled and healed. The natural goodness lost by pride is recovered by obedience, and they learn, as far as in them lies, to live peacefully and sociably with all who share their nature, with all men, no longer through fear of discipline but by the impulse of love" (McGinn 29-30). Bernard goes on to talk about how wonderful it is to live in harmony.

Later on that page he talks about how leaders should not lead by domineering but by influencing out of love. He pulls out key passages to this effect: "Love is the fullness of the law" (Romans 13:10) and "If you love your brother you have fulfilled the law" (Romans 13:8). It's tough to argue with that, and as hard as it is to obey sometimes, it is a joyful law that makes sense to my soul.

Bernard does not stop here. He pushes the idea of the bridegroom as God and the bride as any soul who comes in union with him. Bernard speaks a little about the awesome ineffability of God, even if his metaphor is a little antiquated and angrifying: "the king has not one bedroom only, but several. For he has more than one queen; his concubines are many" (31). He explains it a bit better: "All do not experience the delight of the Bridegroom's private visit in the same room, the Father has different arrangements for each (Mt 20:23). For we did not choose him but he chose us and appointed places for us (Jn 15:16); and in the place of each one's appointment there he is too." Indeed, "[t]here are many rooms [...] and each [...] finds there the place and destination suited to her merits until the grace of contemplation allows her to advance further and share the happiness of her Lord" (32).

In other words, we each have our own gifts, our own roles, our own talents, and our own unique experiences of the Divine.

This last bit is not as directly related, but it groks with my thoughts recently on the acquisition and creation of knowledge and of what life has to offer:
"Instruction makes us learned, experience makes us wise" (33).
Aside from the translator's love of comma splices, I can hardly disagree :-)

Go in peace. Next time: more Eckhart! [It's like more cowbell, only better!]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ECM, Day 9: (St.) Augustine of Hippo

Augustine has never been one of my favorites, and I almost feel bad about it. While he lived, though, from 354 - 430 A.D., he was really prolific and hugely influential on the development of Christianity.

In this part of the book, McGinn relays and writes about Augustine's meditation on the Psalms. In essence, Augustine writes about a deep and beautiful longing for God.

"Seeking my God in visible and corporeal things, I did not find him. Seeking his substance in myself, as if he were something like me, I also did not find him. I am aware that my God is something above my soul, and therefore, so that I may touch him, 'I thought on these things and poured out my soul above myself' (Ps 41.5)" (22-23). Here Augustine writes and preaches beautifully about his devotion to the divine. His language makes it clear that God is far above Augustine. Later in the same passage Augustine writes that if his soul stayed within himself, he would look around himself and only be aware of himself. Reaching beyond the self and being open to God's majesty is the only way to grow. After this, Augustine uses very personal, loving, and rhetorically moving language to talk about the ways in which God cares for Augustine as an individual and the ways in which God affects his life.

In part 9 of Augustine's excerpt found in this book, Augustine moves beyond his personal relationship with God to talk about the importance of the church, citing verses from the Psalms on the "tabernacle." The church seemed to bring Augustine great joy and peace. [To those of you who know his work better than I do, this is perhaps a huge understatement.] To my mind, it is the community that makes a church beautiful and powerful and transformational. The traditions of the Catholic Church have their own beauty, but there are many other churches out there. "Where two are three are gathered in my name," says Scripture. Even if I don't embrace every aspect of some of the more traditional faiths, I can embrace community. I personally try to take steps every day to keep myself open to new encounters and relationships with people, to respect and really love other people, and to constantly view the world around me and the people in it as a big ol' community that needs some unifying.

Augustine would make a great preacher today, and I'm sure he'd back this message as well. Sure, some of his other writings talk about his hang-ups with his body and sin. Without being a scholar on the man, I might even argue that he was sort of Gnostic about body as evil and soul as good.

It's been too long since I've posted, or at least it feels that way. I haven't read ahead for the next post, either. That post will be another exploration of Song of Songs, this time from the perspective of mystic Bernard of Clairvaux. I'm intrigued and excited to read Bernard, because McGinn says that Bernard is not a theorist and that his 86 sermons on the Songs span almost 20 years. McGinn says he approached these sermons with "contemplative leisure" (27). I'm excited to see what that means. I'd like to make "contemplative leisure" an integral part of my life as well, but right now I'm fervent about so many things. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

ECM, Day 8: Gregory of Nyssa on God's AWESOMEness

Gregory of Nyssa, 335-294

"For Gregory the God-man [Jesus the Christ being both man and God] is the source of all real knowledge of God" (13).

He doesn't use the word "prototype," but he does seem to draw some parallels between Moses and Jesus. At the very least, Gregory clearly talks about three theophanies, or "divine manifestations," that we maybe realize from the story of Moses in Exodus. These are lessons we can learn from the Old Testament and apply to a deeper understanding of the Gospel. The theophanies:
  1. God is infinite, as we see through the burning bush, and God is inexhaustible to us.
  2. There is a "negative aspect" of God shown at Sinai when God is talked about in terms of clouds and darkness.
  3. We are encouraged to engage in epektasis, "the constant pursuit of God that is also paradoxically the enjoyment of his presence (see Phil 3:13)" (14).
The first theophany (like a theological epiphany?) as Gregory describes it requires that individuals first prepare themselves for the infinite by removing their shoes and, analogously, all of their/our worldly desires. The translation of Gregory that McGinn offers then reads, "In my opinion the definition of truth is 'being free from error about the nature of reality'" (14). I'm not sure how I feel about the binary aspect of this. Or maybe it's just the negative spin on it that I'm not so keen on. Truth is instead realizing the nature of reality? After this point Gregory takes an interesting, and very mystical, turn. He writes that "neither those things grasped by sense, nor those that the mind can understand, have a real existence" (15). Here I believe he is speaking to the ineffability of God - God's infinite inexhaustibility, for starters. This way of thinking is very freeing in some ways, and it reminds me very much of Buddhism and especially Taoism. It's not wrong to try to understand God and the truth. On the contrary, one should always pursue the truth using one's heart and mind. But to grasp too tightly to any thing or perception is to miss the wonder and mystery of the bigger picture. Thoughts?

The second theophany is also interesting. The closer an individual gets to contemplation, "so much the more [...] aware of the unavailability of the divine nature to human knowledge" the individual gets (16). It's sort of along the lines of the adage, "You don't know what you don't know." Except semi-actualized people (I made that up) realize that they are a lot less aware of things than they would perhaps like to be. Gregory gets even deeper: "What the divine word above all inhibits is human assimilation of the divine to anything that we know. Every thought and every defining conception which aims to encompass and grasp the divine nature is only forming an idol of God, without declaring him as he truly is" (17). So, uh, know your limits and don't buy completely into any religious system that claims to know exactly what God is. This theophany is really very closely tied to the first one, as I understand them. The "negative aspect" is, basically, the unknown, or hidden aspect of God. It's not hidden from us becasue God doesn't love us; it is hidden because we're not even capable of understanding God completely in our present form.

The third theophany is super cool as well. There's so much to quote here!
  • "When the soul is moved towards what is naturally lovely, it seems to me that this is the sort of passionate desire with which it is moved." This is what I believe Einstein was talking about when he said he didn't buy into a theory unless it was beautiful. Maybe my definition of 'beautiful' is different than others' definitions, but I think that the aesthetic and the holy can (but are not always) related. That's a sticky subject. "Beginning with the loveliness it [the soul] sees, it is drawn upwards to what is transcendent. The soul is forever inflaming its desire for what is hidden, by means of what it has already grasped. For this reason, the ardent lover of beauty understands what is seen as an image of what he desires, and yearns to be filled with the actual substance of the archetype. This is what underlies the bold and excessive desire of him who desires to see no longer 'through mirrors and reflections, but instead to enjoy beauty face to face' (1 Cor 13:12)" (17). 
  • Also "We ought always to look through the things that we can see and still be on fire with the desire to see more" (18). This is all very anti-Buddhist, as I very limitedly understand it. God is the object (though God is never an object as such. Rather, God is Infinite Subject) of our unquenchable desire. We will never be satisfied but will always be delighted. This is what I believe C.S. Lewis meant when he defined "joy" in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy - that wonderful, not fully attainable, holy thing. 
  • There was something else at the end of this passage that encouraged me to write down "'On Eagles Wings,' deconsctruction (literary criticism)" in my personal notes, but I don't think it's important anymore for the purposes of this "essay" (which comes from the French for "to try," so I don't feel quite so affectedly erudite to use the term).

To sum up what I've delighted in so far in this exploration of McGinn's edition of this collection:
  1. McGinn always has interesting ways of looking at things and teaching me things;
  2. Origen is important but not the mystic I'd recommend to people like myself; and
  3. Gregory of Nyssa is cool. He's new to me as of this reading. This was my first pass at him, and I hope it won't be my last.
  4. I hope you'll read Gregory yourself ;-)
Thank you again if you've stuck with me so far! I haven't started reading for my next post yet, but next in the book is Augustine of Hippo!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ECM, Day 7: Biblical Interpretation and Origen's thoughts on Song of Songs

'Biblical Interpretation' has to do with finding the hidden truths the mystical religious believe are in the Bible. McGinn stresses in his preamble to this section that "interpretation was not arbitrary, but was governed by" two criteria:
  1. "the usefulness of the reading for encouraging deeper contact with God"
  2. "the reading's coherence with the faith of the community" (4)
Of the six pieces McGinn selected for this section, three are about the deliciously mystical Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), one is about Moses's Exodus, one is on the Psalms, and one, by Eckhart, is an exposition on a single sentence from Luke's Gospel.

We'll start with Origen's 'Commentary on the Song of Songs.' Origen (180-254 AD/CE) was one of the first mystics. He's certainly not one of my favorites, but it's important to look at his work and see how it affected both mystical Christianity and mainstream Christianity.

To Origen, the Song was not just about
groom :: bride ::: Christ :: the Church but also
Christ :: each loving soul

In other words, he took the ideas that eventually became one of the major analogies for the Catholic Church and pushed it a step further. According to McGinn, the selection he picked from Origen did four things (through its four parts):
  1. it characterized the Song as a "dramatic account of the process of salvation" (7)
  2. it showed how Origen's dual understanding of human nature (inner verses outer person) allowed him to translate the sensual language of the Song into a message about the spiritual senses: "the powers of inner perception lost in sin but gradually restored to the soul through the action of grace"
  3. there is no difference between eros and agape (at least insofar as the language of the Song goes... I personally have some issue with this)
  4. the three books of Solomon (who was a sort of prototype for Christ) form the basis for a biblical paideia, or 'total education,' by which we are brought back to God
My thoughts on the matter follow:
  1. I can see how the passage from Origen says that you have to be of the right mindset to absorb something 'properly.' I'm personally conflicted by the idea of people trying to achieve 'arcane' hidden knowledge. I do believe that one has to be open in a certain way to receive such revelation, but I don't necessarily believe that this is something humans can always work toward. There are certain behaviors and paths which are virtuous, but there's a certain measure of grace involved as well.
  2. Here I expound on Origen's message that there are two men in each of us. The book of Genesis offers two stories of man's creation. In the first, humanity was created in the image and likeness of God.  This would be our inner, holy self. The second creation story talks about us being created from slime or dust - very earthly things. I don't know about the connotation of slime, but I can see where somebody might wonder the hidden meaning in Torah behind two separate creation stories. I struggle again with the dual nature Origen suggests here. I don't, for example, believe that the body is 'evil.' Instead, it is a beautiful tool, something we should respect and delight in (without worshiping it). 
  3. Eros is passionate love and Agape is a more detached, universal love. Within myself I am wrestling with the different kinds of love that exist. I want to love everybody, and part of me really dislikes the passion, either in friendship or romantic love, that sets my love for individuals apart from my love for humanity. Does that make sense? What are your thoughts on that?
  4. The three books of Solomon Origen talks about are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song. He sees these as books on moral precepts, the natural law, and a more inspective or philosophical way of thinking. I simplified these to mean dogma, science, and philosophy. I *think* Origen implies that these books are put in the proper order. You have to behave properly before you understand why. For example, we teach children how to act before we expect them to understand cause and effect. Then we move on to a more scientific understanding of the way the world works. We learn more about cause and effect, the laws of physics and the other -ologies. Then and only then, if we follow the logic of this implication, can we begin to think about the meaning behind it all and the purpose for our moral behaviors.
This last part reminds me a little bit of a conversation I had with my boss a couple of days ago. He was talking about the way that managers relate with different levels of people. Visually, he showed me this hierarchy:

/l\ delegate
 l  collaborate
 l  selling
 l  telling

At the bottom, you have to tell people what to do procedurally. You train new workers on what tasks they should perform (as you tell children what's appropriate and what's not). In the next phase of development, you try to sell your workers on why they're doing what they're doing it, explaining your reasoning and appealing to higher order thinking to make them understand the process. Once they understand that better, you can collaborate with them. (This breaks down a little bit in the teenage years of development as adolescents think they know it all and want to change the rules too fast.) Employees start challenging the status quo, asking good questions, and sometimes they're right. Finally, there's delegating. My boss and I didn't discuss exactly what this means, but I interpret it to mean that at this point in development, your workers are ready to teach other people. It's sort of pyramid scheme-ish, but it's the way any teacher-student relationship works. In the realm of education, one of the best ways to assess that a student has learned something is to see if they can teach it to somebody else. On a personal note, I have been talking with a friend of mine lately about sustainability (and it's starting to seep into my blog posts). At first he confronts people with facts. Then he shows them why they should care about those facts. Eventually he seeks feedback (or his friends start to offer it on their own, which is delightful). Finally, he encourages people to start their own conversations, to spread the word. It really is an interesting way to look at the process.

I am thankful for the synchronicity of seeing this lesson in Origen, whom I thought I didn't like much, in the teachings of my very philosophical (and obviously MBA-trained) boss, and in productive conversations with good friends.

Tomorrow (or next time) I have a lot to share concerning Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote very interestingly about Moses's experiences with God and how they can be read on multiple levels for greater personal insight.

Many thanks to you if you're still reading :-)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ECM, Day 6: The End of the Beginning

Mystical experiences should be transformational. Hell, worship should be transformational, according to a sermon I heard nine days ago. God does not change, but God can change you, you can change yourself, and you can help change one another.

McGinn on Transformation, p. xvii:
"One thing that stands out in the accounts of all the Christian mystics is that their encounter with God transforms their minds and their lives. God changes the muystics and invites, even compels, them to encourage others by their teaching to open themselves to a similar process of transformation."

Okay, we're finally to a point where we can outline the content of McGinn's book. The introduction was interesting enough, but it's time to get into specifics.

Overview of ze book:
Part One: Foundations of Mystical Practice
- 5 key themes concerning the preparation for the encounter with God
Part Two: Aspects of Mystical Consciousness
- 8 essential ways mystics have spoken about their meetings with God
Part Three: Implications of Mystical Life
- "two important effects of mystical consciousness"

McGinn adds the caveat that this list is not exhaustive and the texts in his book do not represent the complete gamut of Christian mystical experience.

Personally, I am interested in the aspects of mystical consciousness and curious about what the implications might be. We'll get there.

To close his Introduction, McGinn quotes part of a poem, "The Dry Salvages," by T.S. Eliot, and I really like it, so I thought I'd transcribe it here. Please feel free to comment on it. It would be interesting to discuss more deeply, but I don't even know where to start, and at least for now I don't want to influence your reading of the poem snippet.

                                    But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for a saint -
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.

Tomorrow we'll dig into Biblical Interpretation as a theme of preparation, and I'll actually lay out a piece by Origen. He's not one of my favorite mystics, but he's sort of necessary from a foundational standpoint, and it's really interesting to see how much of what we take for granted in even the most standard sects of Christianity is influenced by him.

Monday, May 17, 2010

ECM, Day 5: Preaching from Experience

So I took the weekend off :-). It was a great time for rejuvination. Friday night I talked with three good friends of mine, and Saturday I drove through some of the beauty that is Texas and met with some other friends of mine, with whom I hope to share some more time in the future.

The weekend did help to put some things into perspective. I started understanding our connections more. As I wrote on my other blog today, I heard this in church:
"Spirituality is awareness of our infinite interrelatedness." ~ Felix Adler
People, land, experiences - all connected. Which brings me (mostly logically) to today's topic: experience.  McGinn writes:

"Experience, at least in the minds of many, may suggest a view of mysticism that takes it to be a particular form of feeling or sensible perception easily separable from the higher mental activities of understanding, judging, willing, and loving that form the full range of the conscious life of subjects as subjects, that is, creatures defined by their ability to know and love. [...] [P]erceiving outer and inner data, attempting to understand and make a judgment about reality, and then loving and living on the basis of this decision are all part of an integrated series of conscious acts. Hence, the word consciousness as employed here is meant to stress that mysticism (as the mystics have insisted) is more than a matter of unusual sensations, but essentially comprises new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts, not as an object to be grasped, but as the direct and transforming center of life."

God is another Subject, another self, the Supreme Self, really - that/Who from which/Whom all things and creatures flow. (Yes, I realize I'm preaching a theology here.) It is important on the one hand to recognize the power that God can have in our lives as individuals, to listen and to experience as we can through grace.

But it is equally important to see other people, and all other entities in creation - from dwindling oil reserves to trees to whales - as selves. Sure, a tree may not be conscious in the same way we are conscious, but it is part of this creation (or evolution - I don't see the difference, except that evolution allows for a much bigger scope) and it deserves our respect. Hell, a tree isn't really conscious at all... which leads me to talk about how because we as humans are conscious, we have a responsibility to care for the rest of creation. As it says in Genesis, we are to be stewards of the earth. I don't know about the translation of the term "dominion over the animals," but something inside me tells me that we are not supposed to consume, consume, consume all the resources without paying attention to the way the rest of the world will be affected by our actions. What is the counter-argument? I guess some Christians focus on the End Times and how we don't need to worry about climate change and depleted resources now because we won't be here much longer.

I guess I'll bring it back to the beginning now. We should truly experience our creation. We shouldn't just judge it or use it as we would any old object (do non-sacred tools even exist?). We *should* (and again I realize I'm preaching) be mindful, receptive, and loving in the way we deal with everything. It's not an easy thing to do, and I'm certainly guilty of thinking selfishly, but despite the impossibility of achieving this goal all the time, I still think it's a worthy one.
Love God (or, to step back, some power or entity bigger than you are).
Love one another. 
Respect our resources.

Friday, May 14, 2010

ECM, Day 4: How do we experience the Divine?

"God does not become present to human consciousness in the way that an object in the concrete world is said to be present. Encountering God is much more like meeting a friend or loved one, and many Christian mystics have used intensely personal language in their writings, especially in their descriptions of their relation to Jesus."

This is one of the big differences I personally see between Catholicism and Protestantism. The structure of Catholicism seems to lend itself to hierarchy. People can pray through the saints and through Mary (who is, of course, a saint herself). People get absolution from God but through a priest. Instead of a direct relationship with Jesus (or maybe in addition to that relationship), Catholics have an apostolic line. Personally, I can see this issue from two sides. On the one hand, it's hugely comforting for individuals to know their place within the structure. It's nice to know that if you go to Mass anywhere in the world, you're gonna get the same liturgy and the same Eucharist. You 'do the same moves' and know how it's going to go, more or less. On the other hand, I can see where some people find the whole thing very ... derivative. Yes, Jesus is supposed to be present in the Eucharist, but if everything else is the same, what makes this so transformational? Let's take it one step further. Even from a psychological point of view, I can see it both ways. On the one hand, things that are novel tend to attract our attention. They're more real and visceral for us, in a sense. On the other hand, studies have shown that repeated behaviors can affect the ways in which individuals thing. Practice acting holy (sixty or more Masses a year) and maybe the Divine Way will sink in? What are your thoughts on this? Back to McGinn...


"But God is not just another person - 'person' as a limited category of the created world cannot contain or define the God who is both the source of the cosmos and infinitely beyond it. This is why speaking of God's presence is at bottom another strategy for saying the unsayable - and why many mystics have wrestled the paradox that God is found in absence and negation more than in presence, at least as we conceive and experience it."

Two things here:
  1. God is ineffable. I love this word - ineffable - incapable of being described in words. It carries a connotation of something huge and complex, overwhelming. Some dictionaries even define it as taboo. I don't like this particular sense of the definition, but I can see where it comes from. God is bigger than us, and any time we try to limit him in words, we have to acknowledge that we're not complete in our understanding.
  2. There are differences in mysticism between 'presence' and 'negation.' I'm sure we'll get more into these as we delve into the mystics themselves. Many of us look to St. Francis as an example of an extraordinary man. But many of us - myself, at least - kind of romanticize his devotion to Christ. We see how much he loved animals, how he wore scratchy clothing, how he lived in poverty and physically built a church, how he received, quite visibly, the stigmata. These are all external, "cataphatic" signs of his experience. They are things we can see. The "negative," or "apophatic," way is a bit different. It's hidden and mysterious. It has to do with emptying the self of all things self-ish. St. John of the Cross describes the Dark Night of the Soul as something like a Void, an Emptiness, even a Loneliness. In this vein of mysticism, one must be empty before the Divine can fill you up again.
Today's short quotations come from page xv. Slowly, surely, there will be more to come. Comments welcome!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

ECM, Day 3: Varieties of Religious Experience

Warning: Today's post gets really random and rambly. I will not edit it (yet). Ideas are welcome. So are your stories of your own mystical experiences (whatever you take that to mean).

Ways, according to McGinn, in which mystics have spoken about "their special connection with God":
  • contemplation
  • vision
  • ecstasy
  • deification
  • birthing
  • endless desire
  • pursuit (xv)
I wish I could tell you at this point which mystics like what. I'll tell you a little bit about what I do know before we dig into individual mystics, I guess. Thomas Merton wrote about "Contemplative Prayer" specifically. The way I think about the Tao (no pun intended), even though to talk about Tao is like talking about Fight Club - it's sort of off limits - is that it's very contemplative. [For Tao it's off limits because talking about Tao limits it; it's sort of ineffable. I digress.] Except it's also not, because it's more about being, emptying the self.  Taoism is not part of Christianity, though, so I'm not sure it applies.

Many mystics have seen visions or felt ecstasies, and it is these sensory types of experiences which I think most easily come to mind when people try to think about mysticism. Pentecostals' speaking in tongues can be thought of as a sort of ecstasy. Rhythmic dancing, either solo or as part of a communal worship service, also falls in the same category in my mind. I've had at least two mystical experiences to speak of, and the first one of these, when I was in high school, falls under the "ecstasy" sort of experience. I had been writing in a journal, I think, and all of a sudden I felt a clarity and then a frenzy of excitement to put it all down in some kind of creative medium (poetry). I put too much of my Self into the moment then, though, and I lost it. I haven't been able to contextualize that experience for myself very well. What I draw from it now is that it was a real experience and I believe that it was rooted in the Divine.  And that's what matters to me at this point. [See William James on the validity of different people's experiences.]

Moving on.  Deification and Birthing are both, to me, clearly Meister Eckhart categories. Eckhart has been accused of what some more contemporary thinkers have called "panentheism." We all have a spark of God inside us; thus we are all part of God. This borders on the heretical, though. When we get to Eckhart's writings and sermons, we can explore the nuances of what he actually said and maybe explore different options about what he meant.  His thoughts about birthing are similarly enlightening, refreshing, and potentially heretical. If I were to guess which Gospel was Eckhart's favorite, I'd say it was John, hands down. In that Gospel, Christ the divine is emphasized more than Jesus the man. In Eckhart's lovely metaphor, the Word [Logos, Christ] is born in each of us all the time if we are prepared to accept his/His grace. It's a pretty cool concept.

Endless desire you'll find in mystics like Teresa of Avila and other women (and men, I'm sure) who use sexual language to describe their mystical experiences with the divine. It's weird, but in my experience it's not terribly creepy somehow. From what I know (but, again, we'll discuss it further when we get to the specifics), after all, the Church is described as the bride of Christ. The gorgeous, sensual poetry of Song of Songs/Song of Solomon follows the same trope, too.

Finally, pursuit.... I'm not sure which mystics do the pursuit thing, although St. John of the Cross sort of comes to mind maybe. Instead, I think of C.S. Lewis's "Surprised by Joy," part of his autobiography in which he describes his conversion from atheism to not only theism but full-fledged Christianity.  I'll be the first to admit that the leap from atheism to Christianity is not well-explained or explored in this book.  But the way he describes his longing for some higher power makes the jump from atheism to belieiving in *some* sort of God or divine spark makes perfect sense to me.  For Lewis, "Joy" is synonymous with that delicious longing for something bigger, that expectant feeling some of us sometimes get.  It's certainly something I can identify with.  It's a romantic notion to some, but it's what I used to call a sort of backward nostalgic, a longing for something past or future that is a little bit beyond my comprehension. New Age types might think of this concept as tapping into the Universal Mind or attempting to grok. Indeed, people employ all sorts of different language to describe the way some of us pursue presence.


Okay, so in the next post or two, I'll get back to Mcginn's own language and try to reground us (me) in study. Here I was throwing things out there, making random connections (inside and entirely outside of Christianity). We'll focus soon. Thanks for sticking around.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

ECM, Day 2: What IS Mysticism and Why do we care?

The following comes straight from McGinn's book.  I do *not* intend to transcribe everything in the book, but this Introduction is a beautiful blend of passionate, detailed, and concise.

"Attraction to mysticism, both in Christianity and in other world religions, has been on the rise in recent decades. But what is mysticism? For many the word brings to mind something strange and uncanny, even bizarre. Others see mysticism as the hidden core at the heart of all religions. Both these understandings reflect aspects of the different ways in which the word has been used, but mysticism, at least in Christianity, presents a long tradition with a more precise meaning than these vague negative and positive senses suggest.

"The roots of the current mysticism defy easy characterization. Such a widespread revival across many religious traditions is a complex phenomenon. At least one factor in this upsurge is the way in which the mystics invite us to imagine and even to explore an inner transformation of the self based on a new understanding of the human relation to God. For some mystics this understanding is rooted in extraordinary forms of consciousness, such as visions and ecstasies, which most of their readers will not have shared. Other mystics, however, insist that such special experiences are only preparatory and peripheral, and perhaps even harmful if one confuses them with the core of mysticism understood as inner transformation. For believers the writings of the mystics present ideals and models for thir own deepest aspirations; but even for nonbelieivers, as is evident from recent concern of post-modern philosophers and cultural critics with mysticism, mystical texts have a fascination that resides in their ability to manifest important aspects of the human condition. Like great poets and great artists, the great mystics are examples of extraordinary human achievement who challenge and inspire even those who many not share their commitments. Reading the mystics puts us in touch with some of the most profound mysteries of the human spirit" (xiii-xiv).

I could easily continue to transcribe McGinn's own words, but I will try now to summarize some of his thoughts and ideas.

a McGinn definition of mysticism: "an element of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of [...] a direct and transformational presence of God"

Implications (according to McGinn - sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don't):
  1. At least until recently (~ 150 years ago), mysticism has always been part of concrete historical religions and not a religion unto itself. 
  2. Mysticism is not the common denominator of all religions [as much as Emily would sometimes like it to be].
  3. Thus it is important to understand mysticism in the context of "the whole religious complex in which it comes to expression."
  4. Mysticism is "essentially a process, an itinerary or journey to God, not just a moment or brief state of what is often called mystical union, important as such moments may be."
  5. As such, it's important to look at how "mystics have prepared for God's intervention in their lives and the effect that divine action has had upon the mystic and those to whom [mystics have] communicated the message."
  6. Today mysticism is sort of seen as being concerned with "union" with God. As much as Emily loves this aspect of mysticism, it's limiting, as far as McGinn is concerned.  St. Augustine, for example, avoided unitive language. McGinn prefers "presence" to "union" (xiv-xv).
Maybe this is a good place to stop for today. I want to talk more tomorrow about what is meant by "presence" and explore (or at least list) some of the other ways that mystics have in the past or possibly can presently feel union with or in the presence of the Divine. No, I'm not writing a tutorial, a how-to for gettin' your mystical experience on. I'm no priest or guru. But accounts of individuals' "real" experiences fascinate me, and I hope to share some of those with you in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Exploring Christian Mysticism, Day 1

Warning: My next several posts will be about religion, spirituality, mysticism. I'm going to try not to preach, but I'm not going to hold back how excited I get about this topic. If religion offends you, come back later :-)

I must also warn the few of you who are still here that my ideas on this subject are not yet formed. You're not likely to get any eloquence out of me for a few days. In fact, for the next couple of days after today, I'll be stealing directly from and quoting my favorite mystical scholar. (Yes, I totally have a favorite scholar of mysticism.)


As an undergraduate student, I had the good fortune to take an elective on Mysticism. I was an English and psychology major, but religion, philosophy, and certain aspects of history have always fascinated me. In the class, we discussed Christian, Jewish, and Hindu mysticism from a few different perspectives. I fell in love with the varieties of religious experience (and with William James [brother of the less interesting Henry James, but that's another blotpost altogether], who wrote a book by that title) and wanted to know more. Bernard McGinn, a great scholar on the subject of mysticism, has written several books about mysticism in general and Christian mysticism in particular. Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Dominican monk and mystic of whom I am so fond, is a particular favorite of McGinn's. I was so taken with Eckhart in general and with McGinn's explorations of him that I took an ecumenical class through my church in Cleveland after I graduated. I was the youngest person by far in the small, not-for-credit seminar, but it helped challenge and enrich my understanding of my relationship with the divine. My first research paper in graduate school was about Eckhart as well. Unfortunately, I haven't read his work or written much about him since. Life changes have given me time to change my habits, though, and at least for now I'm devoting more time to such study. It's horribly trite, but I'm doing the whole personal renaissance thing.

I went to the library for one book this past Sunday and came home with four. Browsing the stacks is always a treat, and I think part of me knew what I was looking for. One of those four books is one I found while scanning the Dewey Decimals. It is the subject, or at least the resource, of the study I'm undertaking, and it's McGinn's 2006 Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. As of yet, I have only read his Introduction, but already I am eager to share with you some of his thoughts and words. I will probably be breaking his copyright to transcribe so much of what he has written, but I hope that if you're interested, many of you will go out and buy this book or at least pick it up from your library.

In his Introduction, McGinn talks about his definition of mysticism and how Christian mysticism has developed over the years. What does it mean? What is its relation to the Church (many churches)? How many different kinds of mysticism are there, and what do they have in common? Well, let's start.

First, here's what McGinn hopes for readers of this book: "that the collection will both provide a resource for those who have already tasted something of the spiritual wealth of Christian mysticism, as well as invite new readers to ponder the teachings of some of the most remarkable men and women of the Christian tradition" (xii). To that end, he arranges the book so that the first part gives the reader the foundations of mysticism, the second part lets us delve into some individual and very unique (but still rooted in something fundamental) flavors of mysticism, and the third part explores some implications of mysticism both for the mystics themselves and for contemporary readers and followers of these great people.

I'm totally biased. I don't consider myself a Christian anymore, but I've been steeped in Christianity, specifically Catholicism. I know amazing Catholics and respect a lot of their beliefs. And aside from some of the dogma that some of the mysticism comes out of, I identify with a lot of these mystical texts (especially Eckhart). I've gleaned a lot from them. I've been fed a lot of food for thought, for meditation, for dancing. It all sounds very romantic, but it's not limited to that. It's more than that. The 'high' of 'experience' that some people associate with mysticism is to some just a first step and to others a misleading precursor to the awesome void that comes with what some would call a more 'real' experience of the divine.

My hope for today was to transcribe the first part of McGinn's Introduction, but I realized I needed to write an introduction of my own to ease you into the subject. Tomorrow I - hopefully we - will explore McGinn's own beautiful, knowledgeable, and fervent introduction to mysticism. He can tell you better than I can what it is, why it's become so popular (relatively speaking) lately, and why it's important in the context of more orthodox faith traditions.

I hope my scattered introduction today is strong enough or at least excited enough to encourage you to come back tomorrow (or the next time I post) to begin the journey. Feel free to ask questions or even to argue (nicely) with me. It should be an exhilarating ride.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On Energy

A friend of mine writes passionately and knowledgeably about energy use, our addiction to consumption, and dwindling resources. (Please check it out.) One of my favorite quotations from his post is:

"We worship growth, easy abundance, and the free market. This sin weighs heavily on me, and as I look around, it appears to weigh heavily on the world."

This is obviously written with a religious flair. The religious part is not really the core of his argument (though his faith is core to his essence as a person), but the moral implications are interesting to me. Somehow, I don't feel I need to make this argument to the more liberal readers among you. But even from a relatively conservative Christian standpoint, we are charged with being stewards of the earth. Dominion over the animals - sure - but we're also to care for them, to be measured and reserved in our use. Excess in so many other things is wrong - gluttony, drunkenness, lust - and our passion for consuming so much material without reason is just another symptom of these sins.

But it's not just a moral message - it's a pragmatic one. Sure, our generation may survive our abundant quality of life, but what about the next generation? Some claim, "Oh, we'll just find more oil." Really? Do you have the science to refute decades of consistent facts to the contrary?

Another point:

"I think the eventual solution will involve localizing our civilization, but to affect the transition we will need the power that the government brings to bear."

Many of us already reduce, reuse, and recycle. Some of us compost and garden, use the library, walk or bike instead or drive, etc. I'm moving to Texas, for Pete's sake, so I'm all about being personally responsible; don't tread on me; laissez-faire. But the fact is that the United States is a massive country, and we do have a government. It has its problems, but it remains among the finest in the world. There are a lot of things we employ government to do for us - pave roads, protect us from floods, fires, and enemies foreign and domestic, provide us with clean drinking water and access to books, other media, and knowledge. I'm a bottom-up kind of girl, but I can also support an earnest top-down approach that can affect a greater base and help businesses and individuals do what is right, maybe even by incentivizing it.

Again, all of this is expounded upon further and in more detail at John's post here. He and I discussed where our success comes from, and for me it was a combination of the Divine and the Sun, basically. John walked me through a refresher course on simple arithmetic, presented me with other important facts, and by that point he didn't need to preach for me to become urgent about this issue. I'm certainly not blameless - I waste and I'm lazy like the rest of us - but I urge us all to do a little bit more.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I could walk a thousand miles and sing a thousand songs and each would mean something secret to someone else. The wind blows and change is upon me, something heavy but pressing me like a hug, not a vice. My dreams and desires tugged by a holy trinity profane, except it's not because the three created are of this world, made in the image of the Divine. The words like wine spill and drip, but from the mouths of spinning wives with wiles they spatter e'erwhere.

I am looking forward to my new space and my new responsibilities in Texas less than a month from now. I am becoming free and independent, but I already long to love. "Attention is love," a UU minister said Sunday at a really wonderful service I went to with good friends of mine out of town. Equally wonderful was the attention I gave and got from other friends nearby, the attention the sun gave me in the form of freckles, the branches I snipped and sawed in a sacrament of aid and nurturing and decluttering.

I feel there is a lot to say, but writing it down doesn't feel like the right way to get it out, somehow. These are the things I hint at in intimate conversation, but I'm not conversing with the people I most want to know my mind.

This summer will involve me doing a lot of work - at work, in my home, on myself. And I'll be listening to a LOT of music. I think that's part of what's felt off recently. Right now I'm craving The Allman Brothers and other southern outdoorsy summer nights sorts of bands.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


Cast me aside
Throw me away
You are still
the one attached
to all the music
that I love, and
you evoke from me
deep stirrings -
physical, spiritual
We met our peak -
at least you did -
weeks ago - in a
place where I fell
in love. You made
me love you, with
your green eyes
worshiping me. You
told me I was the
best thing that had
happened to you
You weren't the only
one to say so, but
you're the one that,
later, I most wanted
to believe. I treated
you bad, and you
treated me like shit,
but we've been honest
And now you've moved
on and I have freedom
and options. We'll
pass each other not
even like ships in
the night. No friendly
hellos across the bows
Instead, you have forgotten
me, and I remember
you fervently in the music

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Music affects me deeply. It always has. When I was a baby, Willie Nelson, Mozart, and Vivaldi would calm me down. In my elementary school days, my siblings and I listened to the Rolling Stones, Harry Chapin, and the Godspell soundtrack on weekends when we cleaned the house. Middle school introduced me to Madonna and early 90s pop and alternative. In 8th grade, I fell in love with The Beatles. After that, it took a long time to become aware of Bush, Nirvana, The Cranberries. My senior year a boyfriend introduced me to Jethro Tull and Wyclef Jean, expanded my understanding of Led Zeppelin. My husband introduced me to Tool. Between those two boys, I fell in love with Metallica. In college, I got more J-Tull, I learned the eroticism of Pink Floyd, and I was exposed to some more emo/punk/college music. Now I'm being swept away by the R&B inspired pop and worship (almost but not quite begrudgingly) at the altar of Lady Gaga.

The Eagles' "Desperado" came on my pandora radio station a little bit earlier, and I thought the lyrics were prudent to my situation with my upcoming visit to Texas. I have the opportunity, maybe, to see a guy I used to date, a guy who is definitely emotionally tied to a good portion of the songs that I would die without. And seriously, that's the extent of our bond. That's wasn't enough to base a relationship on then and it's probably not enough to even base a simple friendship on now. But boy would I love to have coffee with him or use him for his Rock Band :-). We saw each other several years ago and managed to talk intelligibly about comparative religion (another similarity, though carrying less gravity).

"Everlong" by Foo Fighters came on a bit later. That's a song I learned with my husband. That and the music of Incubus and certain really crappy dirty pop songs from around 2000 will forever be linked with him. But Everlong had me thinking about marriage and how long one has to suffer before giving up. "The only thing I'll ever ask of you - You've got to promise not to stop when I say when." Well, he said When. And I said When. And I don't really question that decision much. There are brighter days ahead.

And then a song comes on and reminds me of the links to which it's connected, the people I've loved and hated, nostalgic memories of times I can't get back - and probably shouldn't try to.

Now it's Rihanna with some sage advice - "Shut Up and Drive."

Campus closes in less than two hours. Time to get a move on and prepare.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Prince Caspian

I watched Disney's live-action version of Prince Caspian last night. Well, I watched the last hour yesterday from the comfort of my treadmill. The first bit of the movie seemed to follow the book as I remember it, but it wasn't my favorite Narnia book, so I'm not sure how the rest of the movie matched up.

I do know that I was almost proud of how they handled "The Problem of Susan" (an excellent Neil Gaiman short story/essay on how much it sucked that Susan Pevensie was damned to hell for hitting puberty and becoming a girlie-girl). Anyway, at the beginning of the movie the viewers see that Susan is not interested in boys. Point in her favor, according to the misogynistic Lewis. However, we also see that she's a bit world-weary and doesn't quite believe in Narnia anymore. To keep it fair, though, we see some of that same doubt in High King Peter as well.

Throughout the movie, we see Susan's strength with a bow-and-arrow, but I think this has less to do with her strength as a female character and more to do with the fact that she's really pretty and has boobs. Throughout the movie, we see her very slowly start flirting with Prince Caspian. At the end of the movie, she kisses him before going back through the portal to 1940s England, but we can almost forgive this. Because just before she goes, Susan and Peter are told by Aslan that they won't be coming back. Nope, neither one of them. They've "learned all they can" from Narnia and it's time to live their own lives.

Now I can't remember if Voyage of the Dawn Treader had just the two young ones or if Peter got a bye as well. Either way, Disney seems to be the good guy in the war against sexism this time. It's not lipstick and hairpins that make Susan unsuitable to return to Narnia. She and Peter have both hit puberty and they're both (very kindly) not invited back. By itself, this is a much milder reproach than Lewis's own words would have us believe.

In the context of Pullman's His Dark Materials series, the importance of puberty as a soul-altering (or fixing) transition can be seen as a little ominous. But I prefer to temper it with some of William Blake's ideas about innocence and experience. Innocence is childhood, Experience is post-childhood, but maybe both Peter and Susan have been well-equipped enough in their adventures as high king and high queen to achieve a kind of experienced innocence.

Instead of Susan being killed in the apocalypse at the beginning of The Last Battle.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Whiskey River Take My Mind

This one just ain't making it to my public blog. It was a true sentiment at the time, but it doesn't feel true anymore. In fact, the last few times the "she" in this poem drank, it seemed to be in moderation. I was happy... but, no, I won't mention it to her yet.


She drinks a bottle of wine every third night.
If there’s no pinot grigio or chardonnay,
she hides Jim Beam or Bacardi
in her tea or Coke.

He doesn’t like it when she guzzles
the Maker’s Mark, but
it’s not like he’s gonna drink it.
He just knows that shit’s expensive.

I flinch and avert my eyes, listening only
to every third word when she gets like this.
For days I’ll avoid the house, fuming, sad,
wary about even sipping a beer in per presence.

Mama starts to slur; smoke clings to her clothes and hair.
She gets chatty: ebullient in her Gnosticism, vitriolic at the fundies
and their bullshit, or maudlin about how she’s slowly
turning into her father, hoarding books, boozing, misanthripoic.

Daddy turns up the television. Who knew he was such an enabler?
He’s not blind to it, he says. It’s just she’s always been like this.
Her babies’ childhoods were just a pause in the action,
and he finds himself complacent, resigned to her choices.

I watch the cycles.
My liberal education has equipped me
with pointing fingers. I am a mirror,
showing the world its problems
but offering no solutions.
Still I try to redeem myself,
redeem us all.

I hear her spirit underneath the ecstasies and sad ravings;
I share her books, take her out, share my friends.
Daddy joins us for politics or a game of rummy.
We cook and clean and laugh together. And I avoid the sherry.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Silly Lists

10 things you wish you could say to 10 different people right now.

1. Grandpa, I miss you.
2. Stop drinking so much.
3. Dr. M, that A- was bullshit.
4. Your hair looks lovely.
5. I've already named our children.
6. I'm doing okay.
7. You do the same things you bitch about your mother doing.
8. I would like to grow in your garden.
9. You're only annoying when you say you're being annoying.
10. Fuck you.

9 things about yourself.

1. I can wiggle my eyes.
2. I really like the color green.
3. I'm obsessed about walking on the treadmill every day, at least for now.
4. I'm excited about traveling.
5. "The people I love best are geeky and passionate and have a perpetual curiosity for the world." - from the person I stole this from
6. I am hungry.
7. "A partial list of superficial things that make me happy:" bubble tea, elephants, Fraggles, really good coffee, being praised in a meeting (happened yesterday!), pretty churches, long walks, fog, garden smells, cozy cardigans.
8. My hair used to be three feet long.
9. The job hunt seems to be going well.

8 ways to win your heart.

1. Be honest.
2. Be passionate about something that you find worthy.
3. Be interested in what I say...
4. and challenge me when you disagree.
"5. Flattery doesn’t hurt. Heh. Neither does musical or poetic ability."
6. Look at me with honest eyes that melt me.
7. Trust me.
8. Be confident.

7 things that cross your mind a lot.

1. job hunt
2. selling the house
3. my financial situation
4. my friends
5. books
6. food
7. romance

6 things you wish you never did.

1. acted out of fear
2. failed to act out of fear
3. led people on
4. lied
5. cheated
6. let myself go

5 turn offs.

1. Dishonesty
2. Dispassion
3. Disinterest
4. Cowardice
5. Smoking

4 turn ons.

1. deep eyes
2. a good massage
3. confiding in me
4. passion (for something other than as well as sex)

3 smileys that describe your life.

1. :-/ the I'm not so sure about that smile
2. ;-) the mischievous wink
3. :-D the I'm beaming at you smile

2 things you want to do before you die.

1. more travel
2. publish

1 confession.

I'm ready to move on.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

If you like it then you should...

I've been wanting to put something together lately about my rings. Specifically my engagement and wedding rings. Which I've now not worn for two or three weeks. Something about how I'd worn them so long that there's still a mark on that digit, extension of my love line. A scar, an indentation, a muscle memory knitting of the skin cells. Lotion will not heal it - only time. When my body forgets how to be married. Or at least devoted. Is this a scar that new people I meet will notice? Should I wrap a band-aid around it to draw more attention to it? Or help it heal?

Will it last as long as my self-imposed "time out" period, a resolution I still keep mostly because of the inconvenience of time-space? Another month? Another year? Somewhere in between - a miraculous healing at the moment of my sister's wedding vows this summer? She looks better in my dress than I did. Not to say I wasn't gorgeous, of course - I was just the same color as the dress. :-)

I don't feel I'm pitying myself or trying to extrude sympathy from my readers. I'm doing better than I feel I should be (if there were an objective book to explain all this). I do have books to read, on marriage and divorce, waiting in my car and on my bedside table (a chair, actually). And I have books of literature, of love, of fantasy and science fiction as well. I have my friends, my family, my health. I recently earned a new degree. It doesn't qualify me for much else, but the experience and the relationships I've built have given me fuel to find a job I will love anywhere I want. I'm already designing meal plans, exercise routines, and locating potential new public libraries.

This is my potential for a Renaissance. Forgive but never forget. We'll see if the skin on my hands will be reborn too.