Our Order leads at least one meeting every week, offering lessons and instructions on contemplative spirituality. If your parish would like us to offer a lesson series or contemplative classes, please contact us for availability.
Thursday night meetings in Atlanta, GA which are predominantly attended by members of the Order in accordance with our vow of community and stability, are held at our residence (3559 Cherokee Rd.) with meetings beginning at 7:30 PM.
Thursday night meetings in Houston, TX are led by Br. Edward Aidan in the Heights area of Houston
All meetings are open to the public. Check here to see the weekly subjects and assignments that each class is pursuing.
Current lesson series: Early Church Heresies and Theology
Our Atlanta and Houston chapters connect live each week via video conferencing. This also allows other dispersed members and guests to either join in remotely as well or watch the lessons after thy are recorded. For more information, please email Br. Kenneth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Order also teaches the various practices of contemplative prayer and discusses the aspects of practicing a contemplative life. Though these lessons are best learned in person, we offer them here as a reference for those interested in what the contemplative life has to offer. If you would be interested in the Order providing this series of introductory classes to your own parish, please email us at email@example.com.
Once you have followed the link, pause your cursor over the image and an icon will appear at the bottom right corner which will allow you to enlarge it to a readable size.
A popular series that Br. Kenneth is often asked to teach is "The Om to the Omega," a cross cultural study of contemplative prayer. Here you can find the handouts that accompany the lecture series.
"Questions of Faith"
To assist those who are in the questing stages of their spiritual journies, we offer a dialog that has been running between our Abbot and a close friend of his. The correspondence began at her request to be able to bounce questions regarding religion off someone who would not become deffensive as others she had encountered. So for those who are inquiring as well, we offer this series of Questions of Faith.
Questions of Faith 1
Here is where she began:
Ok here we go:
This is the biggest question:
Have you ever, personally, had God talk to you. Where you *knew,* unequivocally, that it was God. If yes, could you tell me about it? Does this happen often or was it a one time thing. And I'm not talking about you talking *to* God we can all do that. What I'm interested in is a personally experienced two way dialog. Not what you've read in the bible, that was somebody else's dialog. One that you have had personally. In your life time. Where you would bet your life on the fact that you were speaking with, conversing with, God herself.
Now, for a long over due reply to your question. I can say, without a doubt, that I have had God talk to me. Of course, describing a conversation with God is difficult, for when God has talked to me, heard me and responded, it is the total sum of the experience that is the "conversation." Yes, there have been times when I know I am with the Divine presence. It is an experience of total humility, love, fear, joy, abandonment, sorrow, and comfort. To come before the presence of God is to stand totally naked before God. That was one instance, and an instance I have repeated most often in my centering prayer. Approaching that experience is the daily practice of the spiritual contemplative. But beyond my intended space of centering prayer, there have been times when God has come to me and I have experienced that presence.
There was one instance when I was driving down I-75 coming back from summer camp just this past year. I was weighed down by a great many things, an emotionally abusive relationship that I was in, the up coming week when I was to come out at camp were two of the biggest burdens. I was driving back and listening to a particular song on the radio (which song it was, I don't remember now) and as I listened, I felt the distinct voice of God in that song. This is what we call lectio devina, where God speaks to us through what we are reading or hearing at any given moment. As I listened I was totally surrounded by the presence. Mind you, I do not advocate experiencing God while driving as I very well almost ran off the road, but when it comes to God, we don't always get to choose when God decides it's time to make Her presence known. But through the song, I felt the most calming touch on my soul, not taking the pain away but sharing it and easing the burden of the solitary struggle. Following the song, I turned off the radio and stayed in that presence. I voiced to God how lonely I was. That was when, though I could still see the road, I saw before me the face of God in the form of Jesus. I knew his face before me, and he smiled, leaned in, and kissed me on the side of my neck. Every time I think back to it, I can still feel exactly where his lips pressed against my skin. The vision of his face disappeared then, and I was left with that feeling of true and total love. That is God, Love. And that is the presence I feel when God surrounds me, is with me, in me and through me.
We can all experience this. It's just that we are so good at learning to avoid it and distract ourselves from it. That is why I am a spiritual contemplative. We live a life of prayer that is essentially daily practice of learning to remove the layers of distraction around us so we are more readily suited to recognize and accept that Presence when it comes. God is always here and always talking to us. We just have to learn to listen. Too often we are busy telling God what we want, what we think He should hear, when the truth of the matter is, God already knows everything about us, what we think and feel, fear and hope for. Its not God that we need to make listen, but us that need to listen to God. When we stop our chattering minds and hearts, that is when we can listen. That is why the motto of our Order is Silentio Coram Deo: Silence Before God. When we take our vows for the Order, the closing prayer from the priest to be said over each brother is, "May you come to stand before God in silence."
I can think of many other instances where God has "spoken" directly to me. But of course I am sure you understand the limit of using our language to describe that experience. "Spoken" is not always the word I would choose, but I know God communicates to me and makes Her presence and will known to me.
I hope that answers your question.
Questions of Faith 2
Her next question:
So . . . .god is love. I like that, i can get behind that. So, um, how, if you believe that, and you seem to whole heartedly, how on earth do you reconcile that with the bible. And the Christian tenant that says unless you believe in Jesus, unless you believe that he died on the cross for you that you are going to hell? How can that be reconciled. How can a god who is love have a hell? And don't give me the "he's doing it for our own good" line, b/c if that were the case, he wouldn't put you in ETERNAL torment. He'd send you there for a while (what you're supposed to learn from a period of torment beats the hell out of me but anyway) and then he'd let you out b/c you would have "learned your lesson" nothing "good" can come of hell. It is a construct that is completely apposed to a god that is love.
So, if you say that you don't believe in hell, great. But that raises problems of it's own. Or do you subscribe to the belief of some version of hell that is being without god. That, however, won't work b/c if god is everywhere then there is nowhere that god is not that means that god would have to be in hell and thus god could not send you to a place where god was not b/c god is everywhere. So in other words a vision of hell as a place without god doesn't work with the idea of an omnipresent god. So we come back to the hell fire version which remains diametrically opposed to the idea of a god of love. If you say that you don't believe in hell then you are disregarding a Christian belief. Again if you say that you don't believe that people who follow their own path are NOT damned then you are disregarding a MAJOR christian tenant. So how do you reconcile the two? Do you believe in hell and that non Christians are damned and if yes how do you believe that god is love. If you don't believe in hell and that non Christians are damned then how do you reconcile yourself with Christianity?
This is one of the things that bothers me the most about Christians. So many people i know claim that they are christian. believe in a god that is love but then they say that they also hold a belief in hell. The two are irreconsiable.
Now, as to your newest queries. First, I need to point out that your definition of Christianity is somewhat faulty. Now mind you, mind own definition of Christianity is itself off the normal track from the main body of the Church, but Ill address that later. You definition of what it means to be Christian seems to be following the Bible to the letter and holding it up as the end all of answers and defining tenets of Christianity. Essentially, you are saying that to be Christian is to hold the Bible as inerrant scripture. Let me take this first to task, as this very frame of reference will later outline where my other answers come from.
This very definition is exactly what has divided Christianity from the start. To what degree does Holy Scripture define what it means to be Christian. Well, as I am sure you well know, the very Bible we have today was only formalized by a majority vote at one of the ecumenical councils as called by Emperor Constantine. He needed a single text to which they could refer and say, Thats who we are. Same reason for the Creed of Nicea, they needed an agreed upon formula of what it meant to be Christian. This meant that there were a number of other Gospels and Epistles floating around in use by other parishes and Christian communities that were not accepted as definitive or authorized text. Essentially, in the beginning of Christianity, to be Christian was a loose definition. Jesus himself never laid down the definitive rules, he simply pointed out the big points that he thought people needed to follow; the whole love God and love thy neighbor thing. But as with any religion, the founder is hardly the all encompassing definer of their faith. Jesus started the trek, those who came after continued until today. But I digress.
Scripture, thats what we were talking about. Even once the Bible was defined (though even to this day that subject is open and another book could be added if ever an ecumenical council convened), the Church authorities did not whole the Bible up as the end all of answers. Even at that point, the Bible was not considered infallible. Leaders of the Church still referred to the teachings of the Church Fathers, other Bishops and well studied theologians. The word of the Bible was by no means the pinnacle of faith. Anyone who has read the Holy Scriptures knows that there are contradictions throughout. It is a combination of literary texts and should be taken in context just like looking for a book at Barnes & Noble. Ah, poetry, I like that. Heres some historical prose. Hmm, science fiction, I think Ill keep looking, and so on, as Fr. Grey Temple would put it. The authority of the Church resided in a combination of its living Bishops and leaders, its past Church leaders in their writing, and the Bible.
It was not until a little German friar who had been reading his own Hebrew and Greek text, so a few problems when compared to the Latin text his Church had given him and when compared to the actions of the Church at large. So, this little friar wrote down a small list of his objections and stuck this Post-it note to the outside of the Church door. With that single call to question, Martin Luther rocked what had become a very corrupt Church. Keep in mind, however, that even Martin Luther believed that the question of the official books of the Bible was still open. Martin Luthers own version of the Bible didnt include the book of Revelation. He hated it so he through it out!
The problem that arose from this stand against the Church was the protestant reformation that swept through after him. The Protestants wanted to cleanse Christianity of the corruption that had taken it over. One of their main solutions to this was to remove the hierarchy of clergy, specifically the Pope as the supreme authority. To that point, His Holiness, the Bishop of Rome and Papal ruler of all of Western Christianity was the final authority in all Church matters. For the institution of the Church to exist, it needed an authority to run it. Since the man was removed, God was put in his place. But heres the rub, instead of the Pope being Gods authoritative voice in earth, the Protestants now elevated the Bible to be Gods inerrant voice on earth. A position, mind you, that was never intended for it when it was canonized at the ecumenical councils. Regardless, the Protestants elevated the Bible, a fallible text to an infallible position, and also throughout the other writings of the Church Fathers like those of Augustine, Aquinas, etc. So now, not only was the Bible held as the supreme authority, it was held as the only authority. This is where the definition of what it means to be Christian clearly splits. Protestants now preached solo scriptorium: by scripture alone and the Catholic side is still preaching the authority of the Church under its clergy in conjunction with the Church Fathers and the Holy Scriptures. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Christians are doing their own thing under the rule of Islam. The Orthodox were very much the antithesis to Roman Catholicism. Where Rome defined everything, the Orthodox resided more in the mystery or questions of God. This concept we will return to later.
So, your definition of what it is to be Christian is in fact the definition that arose with the Protestant Reformation, that is a fairly new definition considering the full history of Christianity. That definition, I must throughout at this point, or at least point out that it is not the definition I used or from which I will be working. So where am I coming from in this? Lets go back a ways to when the ecumenical councils were just starting to define Christianity in 325 CE. It was around this time when external persecution was evaporating while Christianity was being protected and institutionalized, that a number of Christians felt devoid of spiritual trial and growth. As the external struggle was removed, they began to look inward for their transformation. These individuals, men and women, fled the cities to live as hermits in the dessert. Though they lived on their own, they still interacted in community, with some hermits taking on pupils or groups coming together for communal worship. Nonetheless, they wanted to have nothing to do with society and the Church that is was creating. Thus was born the contemplatives of Christianity. The contemplative lives in the question of God, not the answer. We live in the personal experience of God that each of us can find and discover, not the single expression that the Church hands out to it members. Now, there were some dessert fathers that took part in the councils. Arius for instance was a hermit whose followers were growing and so Augustine had to battle him before one of the ecumenical councils. Even St. Anthony came to the councils to argue and debate. But for the most part, the hermits kept to themselves and lived their lives of Christian faith as their discovered if day by day. Because of this, they started having a great number of followers.
This terrified the authority of the newly institutionalized Church because these hermits were outside of their control and were teaching all kinds of things! For instance, one abba said to a priest, Why should I need to come to your Church every Sunday to receive the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ if I have God right there with me back in my cell (monastic living quarter)? Well, obviously, a newly institutionalize Church that is trying to show a single face to the world didnt need these loose canons running around. It was a pope, which one I dont immediately remembered, which then decreed that all the hermits were to be rounded up and forced to live in common. They could continue to live their spiritually contemplative lives but only in the cloistered confines of a monastery. The contemplatives have always been a threat to the main authority of the Church. Does it surprise you at then, that I started my own Order here so I could develop my life as a contemplative? You will also find that the birth of contemplative spirituality follows the same form in every major religion. The Sufis of Islam, the Cabbalists of Judaism, the Buddhist of Hinduism, the monastics of Mahayana Buddhism the Zens of Theravada Buddhism and the monastics of Christianity.
It is therefore, from the contemplatives spiritual point of view that I can mostly answer your questions. I will try to point out what the main Church would believe and preach, and identify that as such, but only when I think its necessary to point out a vast difference of opinion. Throughout Church history, the contemplatives, the monks, nuns, hermits and mystics of the Church are usually the first to labeled as heretics only to be seen later as visionaries. When the contemplative is always striving to live in the moment and rediscover the experience of God only in the moment, it takes a while for a Church grounded in tradition and bureaucracy to catch up. One contemplative in particular who was labeled a heretic at one point but is now being rediscovered and revered, was Meister Eckhart who gave a sermon a one point specifically addressing the confusion you have brought up about the authority of the Bible. His view in this, is quintessential contemplative thought.
In one of his sermons, he stood before the alter and addressed his congregation, asking, What is the biggest obstacle that prevents us from experiencing God? He turned to the altar, took hold of the Bible there and then threw it to the stone floor. That! he shouted, pointing down at the discarded book.
As contemplatives, we strive to find God in any number of ways, rather than just a few. Holding to an idea or single image of God is putting a limit on the limitless. God cannot be described he must be experienced and any description of that experience is a lie as it can never fully convey all that the experience was. So now back to your questions.
Now that Ive just said that there is no one definition of God, I will still say that God is Love, but understand that even that has its limits as to how you conceive of love. I reconcile the concept of God/Love with the Bible, by taking the above into context. Now, this whole business of Heaven and Hell and where a Loving God would come in with damnation. First, let us take the concept of Heaven. For me, Heaven can easily be defined as being in the total presence of God. Therefore, if Hell is the opposite of Heaven, then Hell is the total absence of God, as you alluded to in the later half of your letter. You were quite right about the problems with the whole fire and brimstone image of Hell. But keep in mind, how would one who has experienced the loving presence of God describe to someone else what an existence without the that presence would be like. We are always limited by our language. Language conveys thought and observation, God is beyond. God is about being, not thinking or analyzing. Anyway, I digress. So hell is being completely without the presence of God. As you mention, this doesnt entirely make sense. How could someone be somewhere where God is not if God is in fact everywhere? Here, I must point out your fault of dual definitions (what ever that fallacy is called exactly). You are placing the rules of a physical locale on a metaphysical existence. When I say that hell is being without the presence of God, that does not mean that Gods presence is not there.
Before I can explain that further, let me venture into the concept of sin. What is sin? Sin is anything that cuts us off, turns us away from the presence of God. The concept of sin is not meant to be legalistic. Its not la list of rules or a list of people that are abominations. Sin is simply anything that separates us from God. God is always holding out her arms to welcome us. In fact, we could say that Her arms are always around us, comforting us. But we also have along with the gift of that love, the gift (curse?) of free will. We therefore have the ability to decided whether or not to accept that love. Just as a child can in fact turn away from the outstretched arms of their mother. Or, even if being held by that mother, a stubborn child holding a grudge may not feel or even acknowledge that love surrounding them.
When we do things that objectify those around us, or hate others, or wish to place others beneath us, we are ignoring the God within them. We are turning our backs on the presence of God. For me, the Hell of the after life is not my greatest concern when it comes to Hell. The hell that should worry us most is the hell we experience here in life. Everyday we have the choice of looking for either heaven or hell in all that we do; that is finding God or ignoring God, that ultimate divine in all that we do. Hell very much can be an existence here and now. We are very good at distracting ourselves from the presence of God, because that presence is so humbling.
But to address the Hell of the afterlife which would be your actual question. Do I believe in eternal damnation? Nope. Do I believe that even in death God will be there to show Himself to the soul with open arms and allow them to join and enjoy that presence? You bettcha! But how far can the soul turn away from God? How much does a life running from or ignoring the presence of God affect the soul when released from the world? I couldnt say. Here we see the focus of the contemplative. God happens in the moment, not the future that we are trying to plan. For those religious types not wanting to face God in the moment, but wanting to appear so concerned God, they tend to harp on what will come when we die. For them, their view of God is one that see us only at the end and tallies up all the good and bad weve done As a contemplative, God will happen for me at the moment of my death, but thats then, and if Im so concerned about that, I will miss God that is here for me now.
Unfortunately, it is now past time for me to leave, so I will leave you with this to chew over and you can send me back your response for me to tackle tomorrow. Hope to hear from you soon. Gods Peace.
Questions of Faith 3
Her next responce:
wow. That was beautiful. Thank you. I suddenly very much want to hear you preach.
Yes, well you beat me to my question on sin. So i can skip that one. As i said, i really enjoyed your last e-mail, and i have to say that that makes a great deal more sense to me but then i've studied the Kabalaha for the better part of my life and that's pretty much how we look at things.
I wonder, however, how this squares with other Christians beliefs? B/c, as you said, there are many different types and few seem to see things in the same light, i guess my error was in assigning, or attempting to assign, one definition as to what a Christian is. We, as a species, seem to need to do so, I'm no exception. But how do you present your views to the other Christan's in your church who believe in hell, who believe in the bible as the infallible word of god? How do you bridge that gap? Do you just ignore them as the ascetics did? If so, then doesn't that breed separation and further dissension? And while your picture of Christianity is beautiful, i don't believe that it is the dominate view. So how do you reconcile your association with Christianity as they attempt to demean and demoralize so many other people who happen to be "different" from their view of the world. Doesn't it make you angry to be a part of such a group?
Secondly, and much more importantly, how do you cultivate the spiritual contemplation you've been talking about. I, personally, have felt the presence of god perhaps once or twice and i tended to ignore it afterward. I understand what you mean about ignoring god in your daily life. i know i do. But i've never really known how NOT to. i've studied the Kabalaha independently out of books and there is only so much that they can teach you. As we both know the limitation of words, i realize that you can't just grant me the key to it through e-mail but i would be interested in learning about your practices. it sounds intriguing.
Well, I do have two sermons that I gave that were recorded. One of them in particular I think you would like. Ill be sure to bring it in the car Saturday and you can listen.
Now, to your questions: There are many many different Christian beliefs, this is true. It is a fact that there are as many forms of Christianity as there are Christians. This could be said for any faith. But whereas a contemplative acknowledges this and even revels in its diversity, Christians belonging to organized denominations that define themselves by their beliefs are terrified of any variance. God is infinite, then it would seem impossible for God to repeat Himself. So it should be no surprise that each of us believes something different even if we are part of the same faith group. The issue really arises when someone is locked into their faith and has defined themselves according to the strict tenants of that faith that if a question ever does come about then their world, their very identity is threatened.
This is why fundamentalists and the Christian right and even ultra left are so adamant and violent when it comes to what they believe vs. differing opinions. When they feel their identities being threatened, they are scared. Of course, as humans, we have a great defense against fear: anger. Anger is always a secondary emotion covering something else that we dont want to feel or just arent capable of facing yet. So when I am faced with a fundamentalist trying to bark me down or tell me so angrily why I am wrong, I have to remember that their anger is only covering their fear. Now, does that give them an excuse to do what they do to others that may not necessarily be their kind of Christian? Absolutely not.
But when I talk with Christians like that, I have to take into account where they are coming from in their own faith journey. Being at summer camp, I had more than ample opportunity to discuss my views with other Christians of different beliefs; mainly Mormons and Southern Baptists. Each of these are very set in their ways. When discussing the Bible with them, especially the Baptists who believe in literal interpretations of the Scripture, I often ask first their opinions on the contradictions in the Bible. At this point I ask the simplest of questions, Have you actually read all of the Bible? When they answer no, the conversation usually stops there. If they still pursue even if they havent read it all, then I happily point out a few of the contradictions for them. If on other matters, however, I am debating specific passages that they are using for one argument of condemnation or another, I ask which translation they are using. When it comes to the arguments against homosexuality, for example, no matter which translation they give me, if they are using it against homosexuals, I can point out that the original Greek doesnt say that at all. That usually ends those conversations right there.
But you ask, how can I bridge the gap between my views and those of other mainline Christians? The truth be told, there are many for whom I cannot do that. There are many they have to ignore, yes. No amount of talking to a die hard Mormon about my faith and theirs will ever push either of us to conversation for the other side. Does that breed separation and dissension? Oh yeah! Why else would we have so many protestant denominations bickering amongst themselves about who is right and who is going to hell? But the fact of the matter is, each and every single one of them that spends their time and passion pointing out why others are going to hell is simply doing so in order to hide from where they should be looking. And this is where the contemplative takes the different road. Rather than looking out at everyone and trying to find whats wrong with them, we spend are time looking inward and allowing God to shine the spotlight on our own issues so we can face them, recognize them, and either fix or accept them. But looking inward at our own brokenness is a terribly painful process at times, especially is someone does not truly and fully believe that God is all loving.
Its absurd, really, when you look at it from the sidelines, that these self-righteous Christians spend so much time pointing out other peoples problems, acting as though by doing so, they can somehow divert Gods attention away from themselves. Fact is, Gods sees all out crap whether we want to see it ourselves or not. But for many, they believe that by looking inward and seeing how nasty they may really be God will somehow see it too for the first time and no longer love them. How could He, after all, if theyve been raised knowing how much God hates everybody else for their sins. But that isnt God. No matter what we may find in ourselves, the truth is God already loves us in spite of and even because of all the brokenness. But taking that step for some means overturning a view of God that they have held their entire lifetimes. So it doesnt really surprise me that people cling to their old views so viciously and try to use others (including me) as scapegoats so that they dont have to look at themselves. No, it doesnt surprise me, but it does make me very sad.
God that I have experienced is amazing. The Love I have learned to be there always for me has gotten me through hell and back. But thats my journey, not theirs. And there is nothing more I can do beyond simply living my life as one example of this path to convince the fundamentalist and stuck Christians out there that there is another way. You ask how I reconcile it? How can I be associated with Christianity as they attempt to demean and demoralize so many other people who happen to be different from their view of the world? Christianity is just a label that each Christian will define differently. I am not a Christian the way a Baptist is Christian, and I am not guilty of their acts against other simply because they call themselves by the same label. All the same, I know that I am Christian just as they are. There is the paradox. Does it make me angry to part of such a group? No. I am sad when they do some of what they do in the name of Christianity, but still I realize my faith is not dependent on their actions, beliefs, or definitions pertaining to out common label, Christianity.
I believe what I believe. God knows what I believe. And I believe in God. What more could there be for me? In no way do their actions or protests affect those three pillars. That is where I am most a contemplative, because my faith is solely rooted in my experience of God. That is why contemplatives have always been a threat to the organized or institutional Church. We do our own damn thing and dont need someone elses approval for it. Thats why the locked the contemplatives up in the first place. But if you follow history, when the Church gets too bogged down in rules and structure, the contemplatives communitys naturally arise and help individuals experience God where the institutional Church cant. The Sufi Orders of Islam are great examples. They simply come and go as they are needed. The reason Christianity is slow in this regard is because on the Catholic side, the contemplatives are under strict reins from the top down and an Order cant start by grass roots and on the Protestant side they are terrified by the image of the contemplative or monk because it looks so Catholic.
But still, I see hope for Christianity as a whole that it will find again its contemplative traditions. There are ecumenical groups forming here and there and even inner faith groups reaching outside of Christianity to help people learn the basic of contemplative spirituality. Contemplative spirituality is universal so that any person if any faith can learn and experience it.
Which leads to your final question for this round, How do you cultivate the spiritual contemplation youve been talking about? There are infinite forms of contemplative practices and I see each like a tool in a tool box and each person like a different job that needs to be fixed around the house. Some of this tools work best for certain problems and not others; some of these practices work best for certain people and not others. But no matter the job, there is a tool for it, you just have to find it. That is the purpose of our Order, to teach people as many practices as we can find in hopes that the person who comes to us can find a practice that works for them. Contemplative spirituality cannot be learned just from a book, as you have discovered. It must be taught by one who is an adept and teacher. It is best learned in a group or community. This is why communal living of monasteries is good for contemplative life because you are surrounded by other doing exactly what you are doing all the time: trying to experience God in every moment.
Of course, for most of us, running off to a monastery to achieve spiritual enlightenment is somewhat impractical. So our Order is focused on finding the contemplative life in the urban setting by what ever means we must. Though it is best taught in person, I can give you practices and critiques through email to teach you how to find and experience the contemplative life each day. But understand, it takes an active effort. The fact that you have experienced God should be enough to drive you on to want to experience Her more. If would like, I can start from the basics of what our Order teaches and we can go from there. Just let me know where you would like to start. Or if you have more questions regarding faith, ask away. Ill be happy to answer what I can.
Questions of Faith 4
Her next questions:
This is fun! :)
What time does your order meet? How is the job going?
As far as questions go you've pretty much answered most of mine for the moment. (i'm sure that i'll come up with more I always do) The questions that i've got are pretty much just pointing out the problems with the bible and the tenants found there in and demanding that the fundamentalist answer to them. I have to confess that Christianity invokes within me a knee jerk reaction of anger. I've seen so much pain caused by those who call themselves Christians, i've been told so many times that i'm going to hell and that those that i love are going to hell and that we are all broken and sinner and evil. It makes me so very, very angry and i, like everyone in my anger try to lash out. And thus i have unfairly lumped all Christians together as those deserving my scorn. That, i see now, really isn't fair. But you're type of Christian gets very little press i'm afraid, and i've had little experience with such. I better understand now, and i thank you for that.
Oh, wait i've thought of some more questions, (see told you i would)
Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross to *save* us? And if he was saving us, what, exactly, would he be saving us *from*?
I have my own ideas about Jesus but i'd be interested to hear yours.
You know its funny, i never really realize how much the Baptists had influenced my understanding and experience of the bible. B/c even now i have a tendency to take it at face value even though i know the its history and that it is merely a work of man trying to make sense of god and the world around him. Strange.
I've been looking for a community for forever. I've pretty much given up. I'm not christian. I'm not anything really. I like to describe myself as a spiritual anarchist b/c i so distrust organized religion yet at the same time i want to belong to a community. It is a contradiction that has plagued me for some time. But still part of me wants, desperately at times, to be a a part of a community. I find it ironic that you make the statement that contemplatives need community. B/c if we were going to define me as something it would be kabalist and that speaks to the contemplative ideas that you've been putting forth. So yes i'd like to hear more about the order. It may be exactly what i've been looking for (which would be truly ironic b/c i've known about it for a while.) I'm not adverse to making the trip down there (where ever down there is) Is one required to be a Christan to participate? Because i very much doubt that i could ever call myself one. But i would like to visit.
Hmmm, the big J.C. question. To be honest, the whole why Jesus died for us question is not one that I've spent a great deal of time on simply because there is no way on earth that I could get my head around it. But, I've have pondered it some, and approached that question in my prayers, so Ill try to give something of a response. Please keep in mind, though, that this is not the theologically studied answer one would expect to be taught or regurgitated in seminary. This is just how I see it in and what Ive experienced in the presence of that part of the Triune.
To start with, let me give you my background when it comes to the trinity. Though I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and though Jesus was mentioned plenty of times, my own spirituality has been far more communicant with God the Father, not God the Son. God for me has always been a single figure to whom I spoke. Later I gained an appreciation for the third part of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, and now have far more of an appreciation for the most undefined of the three as a contemplative. But when it comes to Jesus, I have always had a knee jerk reaction to snicker ever time I heard the name. Why? I would like to thank the Christian comedy networks out there with the televangelists shouting about Juh-hu-hee-hus-usssa! (I think I put enough syllables in there). Honestly, that was the predominant view of the Son of God that I had growing up. And like you, I had heard the name of Jesus used far more as a weapon than a savior, so I always felt uncomfortable about approaching that figure that I was told in Church to be one of the three parts of God.
Imagine that. A Christian that didnt want to think about, let alone talk about, Jesus. That remained the case for me well into college. I was fine praying to Christ in Church, and saying in Jesus name we pray, but that was all by rote, not by thought. So when I started going through discernment and I wanted to be a priest, I figured it was time for me to finally face this whole Jesus thing. Sowhat is this Jesus thing? Well, technically, as taught by the Church, it is the incarnation of God on earth. God made human. Fully human and fully divine, whatever that means. In my prayers, I feel the human understanding of my pains when God surrounds me. It makes since that God would come to earth then and share in our humanity. It is important to realize that God did not become incarnate for Gods sake, so as to understand us better. God of course already understood us. If God did become incarnate, it was for our sakes; for us to understand God not the other way around as some churches would teach it.
So that much, I could accept on faith. The life of preaching and miracles, I can believe too. But then comes the climax to the story: the crucifixion. Why would God make His only Son incarnate simply to kill him. If you listen to some of these Christians, the only purpose of Jesuss life was to die. That, in no way whatsoever, made sense to me. Didnt then, doesnt now. But, by the life he lived, in the end he had to die the way he did. Such is. That much I can accept. But then comes the question, why did he die? For what purpose? We are taught that he died on the cross to save us. What in Gods name does that even mean!?!?!
That phrase is thrown around to much and so freely, I honestly wonder how many Christians have taken the time to sit down and ponder or pray over that one. Why was the death of Gods Son necessary for God, that was all loving to start with, to forgive us our sins. That makes absolutely no sense to me. And yet, on Good Friday when kneel before the cross in veneration and places my sins at the foot of the cross I recognize the impact of that one event. Where I bear my soul before God, God has already accepted that offering with open and loving arms. Understanding our worst nature, but showing that he will allow it and still forgive us for it. What does it mean to be saved from my sins? It means, to me, that they no longer control me, or haunt me, or bear me down, or stop me from living up to my full human potential because I know God is there with me in that same pain. When I have been crucified in my own life, I know God is there with me in his own. Really, I know that these words fall short, because they do not come close to the feeling I have of release from my sins, that which I have done to separate myself from God. That is how I am saved from sins by the form of the crucifixion. Its not that my sins are suddenly washed away like stains from a shirt. But in that action of complete humility, I find the chance to come to God in my own brokenness. Its what I as a human need. There is a larger, universal reason for his death upon the cross, that I know too. A reason that does not involve just me. But that we can keep for another essay.
But now, its time for me to clock out. I'll continue with this in the morning. Tootles.
Questions of Faith 5
Her next question:
Now back to the show.
Ok the JC question, still not happy w/ that one. I mean isn't JC the whole reason for Christianity? Um, i mean isn't he IT as far as the religion goes, other wise you could just be a Buddhist or a spiritual anarchist like me? I kinda thought that the whole dying on the cross to save us all from ourselves was kinda the point of Christianity, and if not *the* point then one of the most major ones. So what do you mean that that it hasn't been one of the big focuses for you? M'confused. B/c i don't understand, as you said, what exactly JC would have been saving us all from, God? B/c i though God was a good guy why would we need JC to save us from his dad? You also mentioned that there was a larger reason for JC, that i can some what understand, my personal view of JC was that he was something of a wake up call for everyone in the time. If you believe in the sapient JC rather than the Apocalyptic JC that works out nicely. But the whole dying thing has always bugged me, no just from a theological perspective but from a historical one as well, b/c there really wasn't any *reason* to kill him. I read this really fascinating book on the reasoning (or lack thereof) for the killing of JC. I never did finish it, i should go do that. But anyway i digress. So yeah, the JC questions is kinda big one doncha think?
So i'll leave you with that one to ponder.
Alright, now that work has calmed down a bit, I can get back to your questions.
Yes, I would be happy to look over your paper to proof it for you. Btw, how did you do on the analytical writing portion of the GRE?
Alright, the big JC question. Let me first clarify a previous comment of mine. When I say that Jesus hasnt been a big focus of mine, that doesnt mean I discredit that third of the Triune. Just because it isnt a major focus, doesnt mean it isnt a part of my faith. My personal experience and conversation with the divine has always been more directed towards God the father, yes, but that does not mean that the Christ is not part of my beliefs, nor does it have to be for me to be Christian. This massive emphasis on Jesus as the sole divine figure in our faith has not always been the case. Admittedly, the Christ figure serves a good purpose in allowing Christians a more human reference to commune with God, but the problem has been that the emphasis on Jesus as God has come at the expense of losing sight of God the Father and Holy Spirit. Fundamentalists are too concerned with the hematological attributes of Christs saving graces and not the example he set in life or the ever presence of God in whole in all that they do. Christians are human, and its easy to hyper focus on one aspect in order to make believing easier. Christianity, in fact any truly fulfilling spirituality, is broad and wide in all that it encompasses in our lives. It takes a lot of work. In my honest opinion, fundamentalists or any other narrow minded Christian for that matter has taken the easy way out by opting not to think. In their minds, faith alone saves and because they say they have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, without actually considering what that really means in full, that little box in their lives has been checked off the list and theres nothing left to consider about being the token Christian.
This honestly makes me sick. Its when people do that, say its all up to Jesus to do the saving, that they wash their hands completely of any effort or responsibility on their part. What real Christian who is constantly endeavoring to find God in every moment of their life and live the life of Love that Jesus taught would be able to spout the hate, brutality and condemnation that some of these denominations do? It is that Jesus that I dont recognize now. It is that Jesus that I had to overcome in my own personal faith, to examine and set aside, so I could finally come to terms with the real Jesus that sparked this faith called Christianity. It is for that reason, that even after experiencing the divinity of the real Jesus in God that it is not a major focus of my faith, because I still have so much baggage with me from growing up on the blinding dinner plate sized buckle of the Bible Belt here in the south.
So what/who exactly is Jesus as I see him in regards to Christianity? Well, first he was a man that lived and died like all of us. That much we know to be true. He was born a Jew, was raised as a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died as a Jew. His closest friends were Jews. He was a Jew living under Roman conquest in the midst of a religious milieu that was the Roman Empire. A mix of Gnostic, Jewish, Roman and Greek, mystery, tribal and eastern religions were everywhere. Just within the Jewish circles, Jesus was born in a time of religious turmoil. The Jews of the earlier diasporas were changing the focus of Jewish faith towards the Laws and the scriptures as the pillars of faith, where as the Judean Jews still held the temple, ritual and sacrifice as their foundation to God. Meanwhile, the Qumran community was more ascetical and apocalyptic. There were even Gnostic Jews sprouting up, being influenced by the Platonist views of Greco-Roman culture. Wherever you turned, one group or another thought they knew what it was to be religious. And with the disagreements came prejudice, oppression and violence. These were the times in which Jesus was born.
As to the nature of his birth since that is a tenant of the Christian faith across the board: Was he born of a virgin? Could have been. Ive heard of the miraculous before. If God had wanted it that way, then he could have had it that way. Would my faith fall apart if I found out that he wasnt? Nope. Again, I have experienced God through me own prayer life, and that is the foundation of my faith. Personally, I adore his mother, and venerate her just as her son and friends did. I have no doubt that God smiled upon her and blessed her humble life. She lived a life of prayer; an example that I wish to follow. Jesus to me in my faith was the Son of God. He was God incarnate in this world; not for Gods sake but for ours, and not just for ours or me alone but for the whole of humanity. But before we get to the over arching and metaphysical significance of Jesus in the world, lets address the historical Jesus that lived and died in Judea.
As it relates to my own faith and beliefs, Jesus was a remarkable teacher who obviously had great charisma. He had a powerful effect on people and his message was straight to the point and simple: The way to be religious, to be faithful to God is to accept God as loving and to love others the same way. For those that were in power, his message was dangerous. For those set in their ways, his message was terrifying. For those who had been thrown out and rejected, his message was salvation. He taught what every single other contemplative before him had taught: that God is love and it is your personal faith in and experience of Him that matters and should matter to no one else but you. End of story. He was returning God back to the people and the people loved him for it. He showed them miracles to help them believe. If God is Love and wants his people to come back to Him, to experience Him, then it makes perfect sense that He would take these steps necessary in order to make it happen if thats what it would take. Jesus was Gods influence in this world. Human and thus religious history is cyclical. Religions form, power grows, politics flourish and then a restorative voice shouts from the far corner that things have gone astray.
Jesus rattled some cages. No doubt about that. Did the Jewish authority have a leg to stand on as far as persecuting him? Probably not. But as any display of politics show, you dont really need one in order to get rid of an opponent. The death of Jesus was a gruesome display of politics. And it wasnt necessarily the Jews that killed Jesus. Rome killed Jesus, as Rome was the only one with the authority to do so. Power is displayed and the pacifists die. How often has that been the case in history? But dont let me misconstrue the nature of Jesus ministry. He was no simple pacifist. He was a rabble-rouser to be sure. He wanted to shake the foundations of the established faith and set it back on track. He purposefully pissed people off. But he didnt resort to violence. Nonetheless, he pissed off enough people that violence came for him.
For that, he was crucified. Do I believe it to be historical fact? Yep. And it was after that fact that the shape of Christianity began to take shape. For a time, those that followed his teachings were Jews of the Jesus movement, not a separate group. In fact, it was not the followers of Jesus that broke away, but the main line of Jewish faith that threw them out. The religion that followed, that which we call Christianity sprang from the life and death of that one man who was for a time God/Gods direct influence on earth. So of course, he is no minor part in the full scope of Christianity. Yes, he is the reason it began. But to say that he is the point is off track. The point is to experience the Love of God and love others around us for the God in them just as Jesus taught. The whole theology of Christ dying for our sins came after his death when Christians needed to understand the reason why their God on earth died before them.
Now, into the realm of metaphysics and cosmic reason. First off, I am not God. Dont claim to be, dont really ever want to be. When it comes to the workings of the Divine in our world and in the whole of creation, God, quite literally, only knows why God does what God does. There you have it. Man trying to look up at God and interpret Gods actions and purpose is like the grain of sand explaining the course of the sea. This is why I am a contemplative. I am happy in the question of God, the mystery, not the answer. Because I know there can be no single answer, I wish not to find a single image of God. God has his plan for all of creation, and in some small part I fit into that, but if I spend my time trying to figure that out I tend to miss finding God on the personal level of here and now. Im sure God has the universe in good order. I dont really need to fret over it myself when I still need to work on things with myself. I feel in my heart certain truths and experiences of the divine. I can explain what some of those have been, but it can only pale in comparison to what each individual should experience on their own in this regard.
Still, this is how I see the purpose of his death. There was/is a battle that is outside of you or I, though we are still a part of it. I have experienced the Divine, the Love, the ultimate goodness of God. But I also know that there is evil. I have experienced that evil as well. True terrible evil, pain, suffering, that is as almost as universal as the good. To face that in life and prayer is terrifying. That depth of evil is what sucks in humanity and preys upon us. The crucifixion was God dying as Christ to stand before that evil, that is what saves us from that sin, that separation. Admittedly, that is a feeble image of what I feel in my soul, but thats the best I can offer.
So there's my spin on the whole JC question. I look forward to your response.
Questions of Faith 6
Her latest questions:
Do you see the religion as oppressively masculine? I see very few female figures to which one can point (yes i know that there are a great many female saints but i can't name any) I feel that women have been pushed to the out side, that god is viewed as male even as people claim that he has no sex. I realize that the masculine bias is a hold over from the origin of the religion and that steps have been taken to change that but do you honestly be live that it can ever be escaped? Anyone who reads the the bible is confronted w/ a world where women are unquestionable inferior to the men. Jesus did do something to challenge that, and i love him for it, but it seems to have been lost in the translation. (thanks Augustus of Hippo) Sexuality, physicality, and equality of the sexes are so skewed in America and most of the damage has been done by religion, i wonder if it can ever make up for the damage that it has done?
That's the next question, what do you see a religion's place in society? You're a contemplative, you believe (in some form ) in withdrawing form the main stream or so i understand it. So do you think that applied religion has a place in society? Our current president is a prime example of the dangers of mixing religion and politics yet, what purpose is religion supposed to serve? it is not for the betterment of life for our fellow man (and woman) and isn't the best way to enact that belief, to make those changes, through the public and thus at some point political sector? Should you separate your religion and your politics? *Can* you separate you're religion and you]re politics and still be true to your religion? Besides communion w/ god (and yes that a big deal) what is the purpose of religion? How do we integrate it into our lives? How do we keep it from becoming something that we do on Sundays b/c that's what our parents did, and their parents, and their parents.
I realize that was a lot of questions, when they start they just keep coming. :)
Now, after great length, heres addressing your last deluge of questions. Good thing its a slow day here at work. :-)
Is religion oppressively masculine? Yes, to a great extent most religions are oppressively masculine. Whether mainstream Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or even Confucian, the male form is how the divine is most identified. Most religious human examples in these faiths are masculine. But, from my own background, let me speak to the Christian branch in this. Beyond a doubt, the Christian faith has been rooted in the masculine form since its institutionalizing in 325 CE. In fact, even before that it was still dominated by men. After all, 325 was the ecumenical council of Bishops that would define the Church as an institution, but leading up to it, all the Bishops that attended were men. As you know, though, in that time period, both from a Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural perspective, women were seen as far less than equal. So in this regard, the Church was following the accepted form of culture, not the other way around.
There are, though, a number of female figures to which we can look for examples within Christianity. To name only a few, Biblically, we have Sarah and Ruth in the OT and in the NT we find Mary the Blessed Mother, Mary Magdalene, and Mary and her sister Martha among others. Now granted, in comparison to the men that are documented throughout these scriptures, the show of women is rather scant. But taking into consideration the androcentric (male centered) nature of that culture, the fact that these women are mentioned at all shows their significance to the fledgling faith when these stories were finally written down.
Jesus preached equality. He strove to remove class, religious and sexual barriers in his time. He let women wash him in the company of his friends. He refused to let them be used as scapegoats. He let them come in contact with him when they were, by others standards, unclean. Every step of the way, he showed a love of the person before him, not a prejudice to their label. So if this was his message, where in the hell did it get lost? Truth be told, from the very start there has been a battle between those of the faith that follow Christs teachings of Love and those who follow the power given to Christs Church. The institutionalization of Christianity saved it and killed it all in the same.
Once the Church had power, it made moves to keep it, build it and use it. Those who led the Church were men, coming out of an androcentric society. Except for the blip on the screen that was Jesus, there were no other great voices out there pushing for equality. These men structured the theology of the Church and Christianity. The early Church Doctors, such as Bishop Augustus of Hippo, projected their own issues onto the doctrines of the Church, ensuring centuries of persecution and inequality to follow. Augustine, for instance, was a neo-Platonist who despised the physical form and the material world, thus we have his teaching of the physical world being fallen. And then of course, needing an excuse for his own natural sexual desires he essentially blamed women for being attractive. He was one of many within the formation of the Church.
Thankfully, though, that millennia old standing is now teetering. As society has become enlightened, equality is gaining ground. Here again, we see the Church following after cultural advance. Within the Episcopal Church, we now have women priests, there is a push for inclusive language within the prayers and Liturgy and gays and lesbians are fighting for station within the hierarchy. Of course, every single move towards a more open acceptance within the church is met with bullheaded opposition from the conservatives. The biggest question is, how does a church who draws on tradition move forward? Honestly, I have no idea how that question will be answered. I am left solely with the hope that God is guiding the Church in Spirit. But everywhere we look at the androcentric denominations, we can see the damage that male centeredness is doing. As a contemplative, I cringe when I hear people tell me that God is male. God is without gender, yet when you have these fundamentalists preaching that man is Gods image and therefore God is male, we find entire communities growing up with this very narrow view of God. Ugh, it makes me sick. Most people, if spiritually immature, project their own image of what they are taught is superior onto God. So in our society, I would say that the image of God that comes to mind for most Christians is a mid 50s white, straight man that makes over $100,000 a year. Brilliant! Nice to know that we have God so well defined. Now with that taken care of, we can move on to more pressing issues like world hunger, poverty and peaceoh wait. If we narrow God, then we think we can use that to hold over others. You mean theres a correlation between having a narrow view of God and every act of prejudice that has been allowed and even sanctioned in society? And theres the rub.
It is hard to tell whether culture has shaped religion or if religion has shaped culture. Honestly, I think its safe to say its a bit of both, if the two arent in fact just the same thing. But what is the place of religion in society if it does nothing more than perpetuate oppression and resist any forward change? Well, here we need to define our terms a little better or at least clarify. There are two question really that can be drawn from that, and each is very significant and worthy of examination. 1) What is the place of Organized Religion (in this case, Christianity) in society today? 2) What is the place of religion (i.e. being religious on a person to person basis, the individual yearning for spiritual growth) in society today? There has always been a strange truce between Organized Religion and those seeking to be religious. Now, as you pointed out and were quite correct, as a contemplative I believe in stepping away from the mainstream and institutionalized Church. Personally, I dislike the organized Church with a raw undying passion considering how often it gets shanghaied by insecure, self-righteous power hungry individuals that are more concerned with their position over others and securing their place in their idea of heaven than helping people, let alone themselves, come to a more honest and loving experience of God and the God in others. With organized religion comes power, with which we find politics, which leads to a nasty situation in which somebody is going to get hurt.
I have total sympathy for those whom I have met that say they left Christianity because they are against any form of organized religion. But, in light of all the evil that the institutionalized church as done, is there any good, any point really to organized religion? In one word: yes. The organization of individuals who share a common spiritual direction can be a resource for those seeking religious fulfillment. Any group effort of religiously inclined people is by its own nature, organized. My own Order, any contemplative Order for that matter is organized to some extent or other. If someone were yearning for a more spiritual connection, wanting to fill that void within and didnt know where to look, they could walk right into a church on Sunday and get an idea. The problem arises when the organized religion becomes the religion that the individual was looking for. When a church exists and works for the continuance of its own existence alone, then we have a perversion of the purpose of organized religion. Organized religion can be a very good thing when it works to direct an individual towards God and teach them to be able to eventually follow God on their own. It can even be good as it offers community for people seeking in the same way. But it is a monster when it seeks to control the individual completely, posing as the authority that will no longer let the individual think for themselves and most horribly when it tries to overpower or undermine another faith for the sake of its own power in numbers of followers and money.
As much as main stream Christianity spouts against wiccan practitioners, their openness to diversity not just within in their own beliefs but with other faiths would be a good lesson for Christians to learn. Ironically, though, most wiccans I know spout against the evils of organized religion when in fact the very book they picked up at Barnes and Noble or the teachings that were handed down by word of mouth and example show a degree of the same organization within their religion. Fact is, if people get together to be religious together in same fashion, they become organized in that of itself.
There is a point to Organized Religion in that it helps the individual find their religion. But the other side of your question, what is the place of religion in society today? is a much deeper and far more difficult question to answer. Why should people be religious? Why should people seek God/the Divine in their lives? That is provided they even believe there is a God/the Divine. In my own opinion, and drawing from my own experience, we are naturally inclined to experience God and therefore cannot help but be religious or at least yearn for religious experience in our lives. By the very nature of our spirituality being part of who we are, we cannot help but operate out of that religious experience. This means that any interaction between two people in society is an interaction of religions. Problems can arise when two religions dont mix and thus we find conflicts in society.
I understand where your question can we separate religion and politics comes from. In some instances it seems as though religion is in conflict with politics, that the two can be separated. For instance, the whole ten commandments being displayed in courts issue. There it seems obvious. The commandments are Jewish..Christian in nature, so obviously they should be taken out. This of course all goes back to the greatly misinterpreted separation of church and state. That, itself is more of a political argument meant for poli-sci majors and lawyers. I wont venture into that realm if I can help it. But I will try to approach this from the individual standpoint.
If we cannot help but operate out of our religious experience and politics are our interactions on a government/inter and intra societal level, then no we cannot separate our religion from our politics. People who say they can are flat out lying and only looking at half truths. The danger arises when individuals who come from less than tolerant faith backgrounds are in charge of other peoples lives. The same can be said for within organized religions themselves. People in power will operate out of their belief system in regards to morality and ethics and enforcing them on others. Its a sad fact, but fact nonetheless. Now, should one Organized religion or another be allowed to control a government or be supported by one? I would say no. I do not support theocracies in any form simply because I know how individuals can so easily divert a country for their own agendas. I do not support the idea of a religious based state. The middle east is a beautiful example of that point! Religion and politics will always go hand in hand whether we like it or not, no matter how we may change the language we use in order to try to hide it. But no single religious institution should be allowed to have political sway over another. Our own presidents religious beliefs being forced on others right now is a fair example of that danger. We are moral and ethical product of our faiths. We cannot help but operate out of that frame of reference.
As to your last big question, What purpose is religion supposed to serve? Im going to have to address that in another email. Alas, I need to get back to work. Let me know if you have any other questions in the meantime. Tootles.
Questions of Faith 6.5
Here's the continuation of my response to your last batch of questions:
Towards the end of my last email, I pointed out how we cannot separate who we are religiously from who we are socially. We are, inescapably, a product of our faith systems. Whether we are a response for or against the religions that raise us or are shaped by faiths systems we take on later in life, our religious beliefs are part of who we are. So, seeing that religion is so integral to who we are, let us now approach your question, What purpose is religion supposed to serve? By this, I assume you are asking what purpose is 1) organized religion or 2) simply having a religion (i.e. religious practice) suppose to serve. Each of these is similar but still deserving of different responses, so Ill approach each individually. The purpose of organized religion I touched on in the last letter, so let me start there.
Quite simply, organized religion is supposed to help people be religious; or in other words, help people experience God. It is not meant to oppress or perpetuate prejudice. It is not meant to raise up a single elite and support them on the backs of others. It is not meant to overpower other faiths that may differ from their own. It is solely intended to help the individual, whether through solitary or communal practice, experience God; this being a communion with God. Now, you narrowly asked, Besides communion with God (and yes that [is] a big deal) what is the purpose of religion? Im afraid that your idea of communion with God, may be a bit to limiting if you think that cant be the only purpose. True, there are other reasons for being religious, which brings us to the second part of our earlier question, but it is all rooted in a communion with God.
So lets address what the purpose of having a religion / religious practice is supposed to serve. Having a religion, practicing religion, allows us to connect and commune with God/the Divine. Plain and simple. We as human beings are naturally drawn to and desire that connection. We are hardwired for it. As Fr. Gray Temple puts it: Did God design your skull and brain? Yes. Does God want us to be aware of His presence? The scriptures and testaments of the saints would lead us to an unequivocal, yes! Do you think the God who made your thick skull and brain would have been able to design outlet ports and other access that would allow us to experience Him and vice versa? Of course the answer to that would be yes? Through my own practice I have settled in the presence of the Divine and loved every moment of it. But explaining a religious experience, let alone its purpose is difficult, especially in this day and age.
In such a scientific world as we live in, of empirical data, tests and observations, it is hard to discuss the feeling one has on a spiritual level without coming across as a coo coo. Well, heres to being seen as a coo coo. Honestly, I would say the majority of people out there, if not all, have experienced the Divine in their lives in one way or another. They may not have recognized it, but it was there nonetheless. Whether you are a Catholic receiving the Holy Sacrament or a Sufi Muslim deep in meditative prayer or a Jew meditating on the Law or a wiccan deep in ritual, they would admit to experiencing the Divine. Each in their own way has found a practice that allows that. Now, to the extent that they allow themselves that connection will vary. And this is where I can only respond as a contemplative.
Our goal as human beings should be to experience God as much and as deeply and as fully as possible. There can be no higher calling than finding God in our lives. Why? Because we are incomplete without It. And here is where I see the true purpose of being religious and why a communion with God means so much. When we quiet ourselves and learn to listen, when we can finally stand before God in silence (Silentio Coram Deo) then we can be filled by the presence of God. God is Love, and that Love is accepting, and that acceptance is tremendously healing and enlightening. Hmmm, how can one explain color to one who is blind or even only sees in black and white? This experience is terribly difficult to explain. When we experience God in that presence, it is a very humbling experience. It is as though we stand naked before one who can see all that we are for good and bad, has always seen us that way even when we have fought so hard not to see ourselves and yet that one loves us and always has. It is an unmistakable feeling. And yet, in that moment, when we finally see ourselves through Gods eyes, it can be terrifying as well as uplifting.
We are very good at ignoring who we really are; the pains we cause others, the pains we cause to ourselves, and the pains that we have received from those around us. We are very good at staying busy, keeping up the noise level so we dont have to listen to the cry of pain in our hearts. We are good at distractions. Whether work, friends, hobbies, drugs, love, sex or even church when not taken sincerely are all great distractions from what we are really feeling inside. The greatest salve for those pains is the Loving Divine presence. Yet, to get to the point where we can accept that Love, we have to be able to look at those pains, those wounds, our brokenness. This for so many people is the most terrifying aspect of their lives. For me, to see who I really am and see the brokenness I have carried with me through my life, is the most difficult step I have ever taken and will have to take again and again as I live my life. But having done it once, its easier each time I come back to see myself, because I know now that God is there. That Loving presence is there waiting for me. But the first time is often the hardest. So is it any wonder why people are so bent on discrediting such an experience or finding reasons why they cant do it? If the price is having to see yourself as God has always seen you, then there are many who are too afraid to pay.
But religion is meant to lead us to God, to that communion. If done with an adept teacher, then the process does not have to be quite so difficult or painful. Organized religion should be nothing more than a place for a teacher to be able to help an individual. But why is that communion with God so important? On a personal level, the individual is far healthier when they learn to accept and love themselves the way God has always loved them. As I said, it is a humbling experience, not a humiliating one. On a grander more interpersonal scale, when someone has truly learned to love and accept themselves and learn that God loves them even for all their faults then it is far harder to hate someone for theirs. When we are running from our problems, we tend to project that onto others, plain and simple. When we are angry with someone, our first step should be to ask ourselves, what is it about this person that is aggravating me that reminds me of myself? When we have stood before God and felt that Love, we cannot help but feel that Love in others. There is that Love of God in all of us. That is true communion when we can connect with God not only in ourselves but with the God in others. Not only that, but if we are spending time looking inward at our own issues and confronting them with Gods presence, then it is very hard to spend time looking outwards and condemning others for their issues. I promise you, if all Christians were more contemplative and spent time facing themselves before God then we would not have the back stabbing, infighting, mud slinging and openly antagonistic condemnation that we see today.
Jesus said leave the other guy alone and deal with your own crap. The golden rule, which you will find in every major religion, says treat others as you would have them treat you. Being religious brings us to that state naturally and whole heartedly. What more of a purpose for religion and religious practice could we ask for?
Questions of Faith 7
Her next musings:
Meditation . . .I understand, intellectually, that mediation is intended to help us recognize God within us. I get it. I've read the books etc. Meditation is to take us to a place where we are loved unconditionally. But, and this is going to sound strange, how do you tell once it has happened? And yes, I understand that I should be able to tell, but my brain is rather good at talking me out of feeling that I've felt. Because I've got this idea in my head that when you talk to god it should be huge! Like fireworks and earthquakes huge! Like thirty foot high sky writing huge. And I haven't gotten any of that. And you say to me these are preconceived notions that you have to get rid of b/c they are causing you to miss god in other forms, and I say, why if god knows the kind of forms that I'm looking for why can't she just show up in those forms? Wouldn't that make it easier for everyone all the way around?
So I sit in mediation.
Well first of all I find myself not wanting to sit in mediation, b/c, to be honest I find it boring. My mind wanderers incessantly (even with the repetition of my word) to the point that I feel like I'm just wasting time (a HUGE sin in my book). I have, at times, felt that almost joyous feeling, it's rather like a commingling of excitement and extreme joy. It is a wonderful feeling, I don't deny that, but I was looking for something a bit more constructive, something of which I could ask questions, or advise and actually receive answers. I've yet to really feel that that has happened. In journaling I ask questions and at times I feel that an answer drops into my mind. But I remain unconvinced that this is not just the over activity of my own mind trying to appease the part of me that is furious that I never seem to get a response. Of course it could very well be that anger which is stopping me from getting the response and thus generating the anger about not getting the response. Or the answer that I do get could actually be from my connection with god but I'm just so jaded and cynical that I have difficulty believing that I might actually be capable of anything like a two way conversation with god. I've been waiting for so long, I think I've almost convince myself that I'll be waiting forever.
I like switching up the types of mediation, it helps to keep me from getting bored, which means that I'm more willing to do it. But gah, it's ridiculous, you know? I feel like it should be ridiculously simple to communicate with God. I mean I want to, he wants to. What, exactly, is the problem here? Why is it so difficult? I know that we build up walls and all that, but I mean, when is comes right down to it, can't God just bust through those walls? I mean she's god for pity sake. I'm here, I'm wiling, I'm just not doing it right apparently so why can't God just pick up the slack and go, "hey girl what's up?" I'm all about the burning bush. A burning bush shows up and tells me hey look what I can do and oh by the way I'm god. I'm down with that. That's a kick ass way to get to god. But it doesn't happen! And I want to know why. I want to know why it was so frickin' easy for a bunch of guys hopped up on sun stroke running around in the middle of the desert to see and experience god but here I am shouting at the top of my lungs and I get nothing. Well what I think is nothing. Which it might not be, I get that, but what I'm saying is why can't god come to me in a form that I can recognize, rather than in some ambiguous form that could just as easily be my overactive imagination? It makes me wonder, in my darker moments, if there even is a god. Because if I want to very much to talk with god, i shouldn't think it would be that hard. She's GOD. Talking should be cake. So there are my questions. I've got a bunch more. They've been stock piling.
Wow, quite the dam of frustration there. But if it's any comfort, it's the same frustration that practically every contemplative goes through when learning to approach God in silence. God knows I went through it. In fact, God knows I still feel that frustration time and again. So let me try to address your questions and concerns as you gave them, and hopefully I can put them into perspective.
First off, meditation/centering prayer. The practice of centering is the foundation of any contemplative life. Centering oneself, finding that place inside where God alone resides, the experiencing of that Divine Presence within us, from all of that the contemplative life grows. But as you've discovered, it's not just a hard place to get to, it's a difficult place to accept. You've already given the answer I would give when you ask, how do you know it's real. The fact is, you've felt. You know you have. You admit as much. Experiencing God inside of us is something every single person can do.
But after all this time, all these years of longing, all this expectation, when you do feel it, that little spark inside, it doesn't quite live up to the magnificent experience you imagined it would be. Yes, to experience the God Almighty, the maker of Heaven and earth, one would expect it to be huge, fireworks and earthquakes huge. And you know what? For some people it is (and part of me wants to turn towards those people and say, "Well you lucky little bastards."). But not all of us get it that easy, I'm afraid.
You've had so much time longing for this experience, that yes, you have created these preconceived notions of what it's supposed to be like. Most of us have read or heard enough of the Bible to have had the impression of trumpeting angels and descending doves branded into our minds. If you want to really experience God, then you have to get rid of those notions. But to this, you ask a very good question: Why, if God knows how I expect Him to show up, doesn't He do so that way?
You know what? I honestly don't know for certain why God doesn't. Believe me, I very much felt that frustration when going two years of discernment within the Church. During that time, I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a priest and that I would be a good one at that. I felt God's calling! So why on earth couldn't those over seeing my discernment see the same damn thing? It would have been so much easier if God had just shown up in one of those meeting, set down and told my discernment leader, "Yeah, I want the kid to be a priest." That obviously never happened.
The fact is, though, we don't get to make up the rules for God. God wouldn't exactly be God Almighty if he was the kind of being that would be make to jump through hoops of our choosing. You want a burning bush? Well, take that very story as an example of the way God works. Moses wasn't looking for God to show up when he came across this particular flambéed foliage. In fact when He did, Moses wasn't too keen on it once God laid out his plan for him. Moses already knew God was there in his life. He already felt God's presence. The dramatic show that God put on was not intended to prove to Moses that He existed, but instead to make sure Moses knew that the plan being laid out before him was indeed God's plan.
Expecting God to show up as we expect Him to puts us above God. This is where being humble comes in. Now, humble/humility is a terrible word to use if we're not clear about it. There are a slew of definitions for humble that don't even all coincide. Look up the word humble, then we'll go from there. Remember, though we are each a part of God, we are not God and certainly not above God.
God shows up in a way that He knows you need, not what you want. You have felt the budding of that experience inside you, and through practice, patience and your own work and determination, that experience will bloom into something greater. But God isn't going to do the work of clearing away your layers and layers of doubt and preconceived notions for you. In the end, you see, it's not supposed to be about God bending towards our will, it's about us working and moving towards God. What growth would there be in us if God gave in to our weaknesses and our frustrations?
You want God to burst through that wall for you. Trust me in this. If you work on busting through that wall on your own, when you finally do get through, you'll find God there on the other side, sledgehammer in hand, just as dusty, sweaty and worn out as you. God is working on tearing down that wall with you, and He's working at it from both sides. But it's hard to see God right there beside you, if you're expecting Him to be something else.
And where do you do most of that work? In meditation/centering. You're finding it hard, though, to sit there and do nothing? Hehe, welcome to the club. It is the nature of our culture in which we've been raised, to insist that we keep as busy as possible. It is impressed upon us that our value is somehow determine by how overloaded our plate is. Because of this, when we sit in meditation and spend time doing what appears to be nothing, we automatically feel guilty. This is one of the biggest hurdles we have to over come. It is the greatest of shackles keeping us from approaching God.
I always found it ironic that when we were kids in kindergarten, we would have scheduled nap times, which I for one couldn't stand. I had so much playing to do, that I the last thing I wanted to do was lay there and do nothing. But now that I'm adult and I'm worn out at work, I'd give anything to just have a little slice of the day set aside for a quick nap. So why is it that we somehow know our kids should have time set aside for rest, but as adults we don't get that? Why is it we know how to take care of our kids, but we don't know how to take care of ourselves?
The fact that you think "doing nothing" is a "huge sin" in your book, shows just how ingrained this is in us. We are very intellectual people in the west, where our brains are our proof of merit and worth. But as westerners, we are not a very spiritual people, where the health of one's soul, the connection one has to God is a valued state of being. If we are to approach God and experience that Presence within us, we have to unlearn what we have been conditioned to all our lives. This can only be done through practice and patience. You must have patience, because has you discovered, frustration and anger is a very circular trap. But whenever you get frustrated, simply remember the times you have felt that presence, that experience "like a commingling of excitement and extreme joy." That is God, my dear. You'll need to learn to trust in that.
I wonder. Why would God need to show up with trumpeting angles, fireworks and earthquakes for you to prove that to you that God is there when its apparent She's already shown up in a way that you have instinctively recognized? I wonder if God showed up in a great blaze if you would just analyze and reason that away too.
Remember, if in practicing one form of contemplative prayer you feel stuck, then try something else. As you discovered, switching them up can be a great help. In a way we are doing battle with our minds. And like any good tactician knows, if you keep changing strategy, then it's harder for your opponent to predict. That is why at our meetings for the Order we teach so many different kinds of contemplative prayer. Each of us is unique and what works for one person may not work for another. In the end, there are as many forms of contemplative prayer as there are contemplatives out there who are finding their way to God.
Eventually, it just comes down to trusting in yourself, that what you are experiencing is God. The answers that come to you in journaling may be you just seeing what has always been there, but God is in that too. Eventually you will reach a point when you spend more time enjoying the experience instead of questioning it. Why analyze the joy you feel in your heart when you see a sunrise? You know the sunrise is beautiful. You know the sunrise is real. It's about trusting what you feel. Trusting, having faith.
Questions of Faith 8
Our dialogue over "humble":
She provided these definitions -
1. not proud or arrogant; modest: to be humble although successful.
2. having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.: In the presence of so many world-famous writers I felt very humble.
3. low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc.; lowly: of humble origin; a humble home.
4. courteously respectful: In my humble opinion you are wrong.
5. low in height, level, etc.; small in size: a humble member of the galaxy.
–verb (used with object) 6. to lower in condition, importance, or dignity; abase.
7. to destroy the independence, power, or will of.
8. to make meek: to humble one's heart.
And this is why i hate the world Humble.
My response -
Which of those definitions do you like most and which least?..:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Her response –
having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.: In the presence of so many world-famous writers I felt very humble.
This would have to be my least favorite.
The quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance rank. etc.
This would be the one that I could most easily work with.
My response -
I would agree. As you can see, the definitions of humble and humility are very ambiguous and even contradictory in some ways, so it is important to focus on the definition that is truest to our intents of experiencing the divine. Of the first definition, I when I am in the presence of God, I do feel inferior to that presence, but by no means so I feel insignificant. Quite the contrary actually. When in the presence of God that Love, I feel completely adored, loved and celebrated. It is the feeling that God is celebrating in who I am with Him. It is true: God takes great delight in us. And when we are being delighted in there is no way really that we can feel insignificant.
The second definition is much better, but be careful how you interpret it. Be sure you do not see being "modest" as down playing your importance. Modesty is about not over inflating our value, which can often be over done which is where people tend to veer in seeing true modesty as degrading one's value. Not inflating and undermining are not the same at all. God wants us to be just who we are. If the value of our importance were a scale, were inflating that is the positive side and undermining is the negative, we should be right in the center – not venturing into either of the other sides that are untrue and dishonest. It is a delicate balancing act, to be sure. To think, that if this is our scale: - - - - - - l + + + + + +, then the place we need to be, the place where God is waiting for us is no bigger than this: l . A paradox to play with in your meditation – that the place where we can truly be with the Divine which is everywhere is no bigger than this: l . Yet when we reach that point, that single place of: l , then we realize that there is more than enough space there for us to reside and be with God.
Her response –
Ok, so we get to pick the definition that we like best? Convenient.
" Modesty is about not over inflating our value, which can often be over done which is where people tend to veer in seeing true modesty as degrading one's value. Not inflating and undermining are not the same at all. God wants us to be just who we are we are."
But what if who I am is someone who tends to run on about her accomplishments? They're all true, I just like to talk about what I'm doing and whatnot. Boasting I guess would be the closest thing to it. But as Beowulf said there is no one else who is going to tell your story for you, so it's up to you. Life doesn't come with a narrator, and there aren't conveniently placed side characters to help talk me up when I'm not around. I work hard and I'm proud of what I do, being able to let people know what I'm doing and how hard I'm working thus enabling them to go "Hey, wow, good for you" which subsequently gives me a warm fuzzy is nice.
My response –
Well, for starters, the person you are as defined by your actions, the very act of your accomplishments, is not the same as the person defined by your boasting. Sure, we all enjoy being patted on the back for things we've done, and though that respect may be uplifting, it isn't who we are. What's important is how YOU see your actions and accomplishments. We should never be slaves to others' opinions of us.
That isn't to say you're not allowed to talk to other people about what you've done if it comes up in conversation. We just shouldn't be telling people every chance we get what a great person we are so people agree so we can feel even better about ourselves. If you are busy boasting and expecting people to glorify you that means you're not looking across the gulf that's separating you from the other person and looking to see what makes them special. If you are too busy convincing others how great you are, you will be ignoring the God in the person right in front of you.
Modesty is about being content in yourself with what you've done. It's not dependent on others to validate it.
Questions of Faith 9
Her next question –
Next question. It's about faith, which I see as the meanest (in all senses of the word) catch-22 on the damn planet! Basically to get faith, to develop faith, you have to *have* faith. How can I have faith if I don't have faith that I have faith? How do you develop faith? I don't know how to get this faith that you speak of. Can you get it on amazon.com? Ooo or Barns and noble? Cause I've got a gift certificate to B&N.
My response –
Yes, this does come across as the biggest and meanest catch-22 of them all. Essentially you have to have faith in faith. You have to have faith to build up faith. You know as well as I do that circular arguments are pointless, which means there must be something else going on here.
What exactly is "faith?" Some people would say that the act of faith is believing when you have no reason to. That would be blind faith. Another way to see faith is that it is the sure conviction that you are absolutely right about your acceptance of a certain matter or fact; the simple act of believing (in this use, one could have grounds or not for their belief). According to Merriam-Webster we get these definitions:
1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : LOYALTY b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs (the Protestant faith)
And once again, just like humility, we can see where the meaning of faith can be misconstrued depending on who's using it. If I were to presume, I think the question of "faith" that you are going for is how can one have faith in God, i.e. believe in God? When you're beating you head against the wall over the equation, "you have to have faith in order to gain faith" you are interpreting that as though it reads "you have to have complete trust in God in order to believe in God." That of course would drive any logical thinker, let alone spiritual seeker, completely insane.
But what if we look at it another way; turn it around. You have to believe in God in order to have complete trust in God. This is not so difficult to follow now. Through your own contemplative practice, you have already experienced God. You have felt that Divine presence inside of which there is no doubt. It is something each and every one of us can experience.
From that belief, we can develop a complete trust in God. It is important to point out here that trust is something that is built, not automatically given. Trust can be especially difficult to build towards God for those that have had horrible experiences with religion in the past. But keep in mind that a religion, no matter how much it touts itself as the true "faith," is not in fact God. Just because a religion has disenfranchised you, that doesn't mean that God has.
No organized religion on earth, nada, zip, zilch, not a single one has the right to say that they are the "true faith." In that statement they are claiming to have the true, one and only, legitimate and accurate belief in God. Honestly, I dislike it when religions try to spin the use of the term "faith" that way, because a religion shouldn't be about teaching a set of beliefs, it should be about teaching how one can experience God. When I think of "true faith" I don't think of it as true belief, but rather true experience. And when it comes to a true experience of God, each of us can experience God in our own way that is true and real, which is to say that every single person is an example of "true faith." No religion has the right to lord that over you and doll it out as though they were God's exclusive guardians of God's Love. A religion is not a board of trustees that gets to decide to whom they hand out God's Love like a grant. We are all entitled to that experience of Love, that faith. Religion should be there to help guide us to that experience, not dictate how it should be.
So by continuing your contemplative practices, where the experience is just between you and God, you will in time develop a trust that is held between you and God alone. It is a trust that will grow and allow you to recognize God's presence more and more in your life. In that way it will eventually build upon itself: faith will develop faith.
Hope that helps.
Questions of Faith 10
Her next set of questions:
We should never be slaves to others' opinions of us.
Well, yes, everyone knows that, its just very difficult to get around it in reality. They don't teach that kinda stuff in school. How do you not care what people think of you? Honestly? We all care what people think of us, and anyone who says they don't is generally lying. I'm willing to hold out that it is possible, but I know that I’ve said before that I don't and I really do, I just know that I’m not supposed to care. So that's what i say, but in reality, I care. I care a lot and it pissed me the hell off, but I’ve yet to come up with a way around it short of just staying in my apartment and never leaving.
Now my next question was triggered by what we've been doing in the Order, we might actually broach it latter, but it's been bugging me and i wanted to hash it out a bit. You asked us to write down our and discuss our picture of god the mother. I don't have one. At all. The end. I can only picture god as male. And let me tell you as ardent feminist that one hurts. But really, my whole life I’ve been told both overtly and covertly that men are better. They are stronger, faster, smarter, more athletic, more aggressive. I have striven to over come these in myself, meaning that I have tired to prove that anything a man can do I can do better . . .but I never challenged the idea behind it. I never said no, women are just as good as men, I’ve said I’m just as good as men. It should be the same thing, but it's not. Not really. I've come to identify with the male rather than the female. I've turned my back on my own sex b/c I’ve come to believe the hype. It was just so much easier to join them than to beat them, b/c while it was hard to argue that, no women can do it, it was easy to say look I've done it and then agree when them when they said that I was the exception. Looking at this I’m ashamed. I should not have done this, I’ve let myself come to hate my own sex. But when I start trying to change the way that I think, when I start trying to challenge the idea that men aren't superior I can say the words as much as I want but the thought behind the thought stays the same. It is impossible for me to see God as female because even if I don't want to I see women as, if not inferior to, then not as good as, always struggle to keep up with men. That's not something that I assign to god. God help me some times I hate this world. <Sigh> So any suggestions? Comments?
To your first point, yes it is possible to let go of outside validation. Yes, we can stop caring whether or not people accept us. It is possible to no longer be a slave to other people’s opinions. Is it easy? Hell no! God knows I struggle with it, especially within my romantic relationships. It’s how I’ve managed to get so torn up by emotionally manipulative boyfriends in the past. But the lesson I am trying to learn and I know God is trying Her hardest to teach me is that I don’t need someone else to complete me. That longing I feel to be happy, to be fulfilled comes from within; specifically when I can manage to connect to that Divine within me. When I let myself touch and rest in that Divine, that place of God inside me, then I find that I am a whole lot happier. I am more settled. I am at peace. The trick is to making that continuous and that just comes from practice; practicing being in contact with that Divine.
During my Easter Vigil this past weekend, God pointed something out to me. While sitting in the chapel and meditating on the Vigil Light, I looked up to the Rose window above the altar. What is normally a stunning work of stained glass was nothing but black shapes held together in a web of dull lead. The point that I heard God resonate in my mind was this: Black is the stained glass window when there’s no light to shine through. This put the whole issue into perspective for me. The beauty of that stained glass could never be realized without the sun shining through it. There were candles and dim lights lit in the chapel, but these did nothing for it. Just the same, we have to find that Light of the Divine within ourselves and let that shine outwards through us to truly show our own beauty. We cannot look to others to be the light that will make our colors glow. We cannot look to them to bring us to our full potential. Likewise, we cannot make ourselves shine anymore than the window could make its own light. We must find that Divine inside, grasp it and let it shine outwards into the world through us. Then we will see who we really are and we can then appreciate our own unique beauty as God had intended us. We are all stained glass windows through which the Light of God can shine into the world. But until we find that Light and let it shine, we remain black and dull, unfulfilled.
Alright, now it’s time to tackle the big one. I’ve mulled this one over enough that I think I’m ready to attempt answering it. As I’ve said before, this point of gender that you bring up is a HUGE issue that has run through organized religion for thousands of years. Only now, having started in the early to mid 20th century and gaining acceptance into the 21st century do we see a challenge to this culturally mandated stereotype of male dominance. It’s taken this long for women just to gain a voice in some industrially advanced countries, while so many other countries out there are still blatantly oppressive of women. And even in “advanced” countries like our own, women have only gained a voice, marginal power at most, but by no means would I call it equality. It really does sicken me to think of the emotional and psychological abuse that men have heaped onto women for this long. And it still boggles my mind when I hear men today say that it isn’t true. I’ve had men tell me that there’s no problem, no imbalance. Your own story alone proves that wrong. But the fact remains. There are many men that will always hide from the truth, even if subconsciously, because facing the truth of the abuse will be terribly painful.
Women too have been subjected to this abuse for so long that they have accepted the abusive inequality as justified. I know many women too who will never admit the injustice is there because to do so would require seeing thenumerous years of their own lives that have been shaped by that abuse. It is a very frightening thing to admit how hurt and damaged we really are. I’m very impressed and very proud of you for being able to see it and vocalize it in your own life. That alone is a step that many cannot yet take.
In order to tackle this, we have to fully grasp just how deeply this problem is rooted. We must see just how pervasive this abuse has really been. We must recognize how far we still have to go before we can say the abuse is over and the wounds are actually healing. Our society is very good at trying to think that problems are fixed. I know so many people that just roll their eyes when the topic of feminism comes up and you can read their thoughts so clearly on their face, “Why are they still going on about that! They’re just bitching for the sake bitching now.” And then we can see how the abuse is allowed to continue.
It is difficult to say what started this male superiority, whether it was religion or society. When it comes down to it, really, religion and society are inseparable, which means both on their own and together have been the cause of this problem. As we are discussing the face of God, let’s look at religion’s role in this. It should go without saying in this day and age that organized religion has done its fair share of subjugating women. Institutionalized Christianity has done a great job of enforcing the inequality of women, which flies in the face of the example that Jesus gave in his own life. Jesus was an amazing egalitarian. Paul backs that up when we says that “in Christ there is no longer male or female.” Yet from that start, we wind up with a Catholic Church that still refuses to consider the ordination of women, fundamentalist denominations that think women can’t hold power over a man and many other off shoots like the Mormon Church that think the only position a woman can hold in church is missionary. And to hear women from these churches explain to me why their inequality is justified breaks my heart.
I know a very sweet, very devout and very spiritual Roman Catholic woman who asked me one day why I wasn’t Roman Catholic myself. When I explained that I didn’t want to be apart of a church that refused to ordain women, she offered me the male contrived excuse that had been handed down to her from the Holy Father himself. She explained that women are equal in the Catholic Church and that the Pope explained to them that they have their own ministry to serve the Church as mothers, etc. where men can’t. This is how blind people are to the abuse. I thought it fairly obvious that if you have one group of people that are allowed to run the church and another group that are forbidden to do so then that is by definition not equal. But she would not or could not see that.
This problem of the male centered religion and male centered society is still alive and well today and it is very deeply rooted in our psyches. So to face this issue that you’ve brought up, we have to go to the very foundation of this learned philosophy. Within your own childhood, you grew up under a very dominating father. We could blame this on his military background, but I think it’s safe to say that only augmented what was already there. You mother was never equal to him in their relationship. This image of woman’s relationship to man was the example you grew up with. Contrary to that image, however, you intrinsically knew that such couldn’t be the case for you. So you strove to be the best you could, to prove the stereotype wrong. But as children there is only so much we can do to protect ourselves. It would be absurd to expect a child to fight for any more than their own. A child isn’t going to think, “this inequality is unjust for all women.” They’re going to think, “I know that I’m not as lowly as they say I am.” You had enough to fend off as a kid, so don’t beat yourself up now just because you didn’t try to stick up for the rest of the world.
But you do recognize that the male centered social structure was impressed upon you. Getting over that will take time and conscious effort, but you’re already doing that, so I’m not too worried there. So let’s address this “God as a man” thing. Ultimately, we must realize that God is without gender. Ein Sof, the Divine, is beyond our limits of description. Every time we try to describe God, we are putting a limit on the limitless. Still, in order to get to that understanding of a Divine without boundaries, it helps to break the limits we have already placed on God by trying to get our heads around the opposite of it. So if we think of God as a man, then it’s about time we tried to think of God as woman. If you are having difficulty placing a full image of a woman on God, then let’s start small and work from there.
The idea is to expand horizons when we think of God. If we think of God strictly as man, then all those male gender types go with it, like being aggressive, controlling and judgmental. So what female gender types are we loosing out on if we don’t see God as woman as well? For one, we don’t see the nurturing mother in the God that is Love if we only see God as enforcer and punisher. So think back to when you were a kid. Remember one time when you were sick and your mom had to take care of you. Remember what it felt like to be completely helpless and dependent on her loving care. Now, imagine that compassion, that love, that tender touch coming from God. Imagine God wanting to care for you the same way.
I’m sure you’ve seen a mother holding her infant child before. Imagine the feelings that mother feels towards her baby. Imagine the comfort that baby feels. Now, for just a moment, imagine God holding you in Her arms the same way, sheltering you, loving you. Bit by bit, think of other positive female gender roles that we have and place God the Almighty in that role.
Now, I know the feminist in you will balk at “female gender roles.” Indeed, if we are equal then gender roles need to be tossed out the window in the end. But for this exercise it’s about compensating for past impressions we’ve formed of God. Whether we like it or not, we do have female gender roles. And if we are used to God as strictly male, then we need to imagine God with the alternative roles as well.
My favorite image of God, the one I imagine in my mind meeting me at the pearly gates, is an old black Creole woman from Louisiana, who looks at me after taking a drag on her cigarette and says in a gravely voice, “You sure had a good time, honey child. Now come on in!”
Even if the image of a woman doesn’t want to fit, imagine it anyways and just sit with it. Imagine a woman in your mind in a place where you would expect to find God and tell yourself that woman is God. It will take time to erode the prejudices that have been built up ever since we were children. But erode they will if we keep at it. The first step is to recognize where the issue starts. This step is the hardest as it requires us to see the brokenness of our childhoods and even our lives as adults. The next step is to practice countering it. Eventually practice becomes habit. Then in the end we can move on to see God comfortably in all forms.
Hope that helps. God’s Peace.