Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On Revelation Distorted as Ideology (part 2)

The other day I mentioned a book called The Muslim Next Door.  I actually started writing my rant about distorted revelation before I started the book.  As I revised it, I'm sure some of the things Mrs. Ali-Karamali write must have bled in.  I want to get that out of the way. I was not intentionally plagiarising her work if I inadvertently quoted her.  

In a way it's more a case of picking up her book now because these things were on my mind already.  The book simply gave me a different perspective on things I was already pondering.  I think it more or less affirmed everything I've been writing about lately.  Religion is not bad in and of itself.  I believe Revelation happens.  It is when Revelation is misunderstood or twisted and used to push an agenda that it becomes so very dangerous.

People have done extreme evil in the name of every religion ever conceived by humankind, including but by no means limited to Islam.  The Crusades for example.  We need to get over the notion that Islam is totally evil and Christianity is totally good. We need to get over that now.

We also need to get over the idea that there is anything qualitatively different between what Bin Laden's people did on 9/11 and what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma.  Bin Laden killed more people but  McVeigh did exactly the same thing, for exactly the same reason, and based on the same ridiculous notion that killing a bunch of innocent people to make some kind of point is something God wants people to do.  There is NO DIFFERENCE between Christianist extremism that kills and terrorizes in the name of Jesus or Islamist extremism that kills and terrorizes in the name of Allah or Jewish extremism that kills and terrorizes for the sake of its God-given Homeland.  

The overwhelming impression I have from reading this book is that Islam (in its "ideal" form) actually sounds like Judaism or Buddhism or Christianity in their ideal forms: a way of attempting to grapple with words to try to understand the Holy.  As described by this author, who clearly loves her religion and is deeply nurtured by it, Islam shines forth as a vibrant and healthy and wonderful religion.  The fact that it has been interpreted, twisted and used by its adherents to push every manner of agenda does not change the fact that its core message is not that different from most other religions, at least the Religions of the Book. 

Islam has also been demonized for millennia by Christians and Jews, to the point that I think we in the West have such a distorted and skewed view of Islam we might be hard pressed to ever be able to relate to Muslims as equals. 

Part of that is due to Christian arrogance that holds itself up as the One True Religion.   Hell, I was an active, involved and committed member of the Episcopal Church for years before I stopped thinking of it as a bogus form of Christianity, thanks to my indoctrination by the Roman Catholic church.  I eventually was able to reach the point where I truly believed it was just as authentic as the RC church.  That giant leap for me allowed me to accept other Christian denominations as "real"  (whether I like them or not).  It also allowed me to accept the authenticity of other religions, Judaism and Islam, included. 

The other reason for our rampant ignorance on the subject is, I think, cultural "disinformation".  Mrs. Ali-Karamali is critical of the media but she is careful not to blast American culture too much. She has good reason for being cautious: the safety of her family, for one.  I'm white and (sort of) Christian, so I'll say this. The hatred of Islam runs so deep in the West it has infected the very heart of Christian teaching. The Crusades were religious wars to purge the world of the "Infidel".  Five hundred years later our media pundits feel free to opine on the subject of Islam, when they know nothing about it and their general attitude is still that Islam and its adherents are inferior.  The infinitesimal information that does seep into the schools about Islam appears to be virtually all incorrect, if not out and out disinformation.  [The main thing I learned from reading this book is that virtually everything I thought I knew about Islam beyond the fact that it is a monotheistic religion very closely related to Judaism and Christianity is totally wrong.]

I am sorry for the fact that I keep quoting show tunes in these ramblings, but I think the best description I know of for how the infection of racism (religionism  or any other bigotry) is given in a song from the play South Pacific. It is so good, I'm quoting the whole thing.:

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught! 

It is precisely that cultural indoctrination of bigotry from toddler-hood that keeps us from building bridges, or that causes terrified extremists to blow up the cultural and religious bridges built by people of good will. 

I ended my article on Sunday, worrying about how on earth we can turn things around and stop the madness.  This book makes me both more certain that we need to do that, and less optimistic that we will. 

I guess the good news is we live in a country where a person can publish a book like that for others to read.  The problem is that the people who really need to read it won't. 

Monday, March 30, 2009

On Interior Silence

How is it that I have such a deep well of interior silence and peace that sustains and blesses me, but I so often become frazzled and stressed out in my daily life?

Usually I don't write about issues until I've grappled with them long enough to have arrived at some (at least tentative) conclusions.  I'm making an exception in this case because this is important and I want to chew on it intentionally for a while.   

I often have direct experience of what I think of as the Deep Silence that underlies all the noise in Creation.  There is no way to describe it and I'm not going to even try. The impression I have when I encounter it is that it is a dark and still and enormously powerful.  It is what I think some other writers refer to when they write about the Void or The Abyss.  It may even be God.  I don't know. I can't know.  It really doesn't matter.  What matters is that it's really awesome and even brief encounters with it leave me feeling blessed, peaceful, joyful and, somehow, "rested".  I guess that's as close as I can come to describing the experience, too, so I'll leave it at that.
 Keep in mind, that description totally pales in comparison with the real thing.  In any case, I come away from those encounters feeling centered and serene. I love that!

Interestingly, sometimes the Deep Silence reveals itself to me at the oddest times and places.  For example, I used to meditate a lot, and I found to my amazement I could do some of my best mediation on the bus on my way to work.  I eventually quit meditating when I realized that the experiences I had in meditation often came unbidden at random times during the day or, sometimes, in the middle of the night.  All I had to do was to be open to the awareness that the reality I can experience with my senses isn't all there is to Reality. There's a whole lot more going on than we typically see! Meditation practice may help to focus on inner reality, but I have neither the time, patience or desire for that. I'm very fascinated by the "other Reality" out in the world.  I learned that I could just kind of go through my days expecting to have encounters with the Holy and they just kind of happen.

I often find Silence in very crowded and noisy environments: sports venues, airports,  airplanes.  I remember once at a football game, where the noise was deafening (literally because we were sitting directly below a loud speaker and it was cranked up to full volume), the Silence welled up as though it was coming out of the ground and rose like a flood tide.  For a few seconds, the Silence engulfed me. While I could still see the crowd yelling and going crazy, I could hear absolutely nothing. I knew all that craziness was still going on, I also knew  there was silent stillness happening at the same time.  Best of all, that silent stillness was happening in me!  That was a moment of blessing and peace in the middle of an experience that typically freaks me out. (I have great difficulty coping with crowds and loud noise; the two together can be almost unbearable).

On the other hand, I often have difficulty noticing the Silence when I am alone and it is very quiet.  That may be largely due to the fact that when I am alone and it is very quiet, I am almost always either writing or reading, and, therefore, concentrating. Even when I am not concentrating on something, in a quiet setting the monkey-chatter in my mind goes crazy.  I may not be able to achieve the level of serenity I would like at those times, but I always know the Deep Silence is there. I can somehow "feel" its presence even if it chooses not to come too close.  

That is an important point. I know the Deep Silence is there, always.  How close it is or how deeply I experience it is not my choice.  The Silence chooses when to reveal itself and how much.  The experience of Deep Silence is not something I can control in any way.
If I can experience Silence in crowded, noisy places and if I can at least be aware of it in quiet solitude, why can't I be aware of it in the midst of my daily life, especially at work?  Why can't I operate from Silence when others are freaking out and stressing out, instead of joining them and making things worse?  Why can't I be a source of calm and reason for the high-strung, stressed-out people in my life, who really need a steadying presence?   Hell, I am often the one stressing out and melting down over what, in the big scheme of things, amounts to trivial BS.  The awareness that I do not have to behave like that makes me even crazier!

The Deep Silence that underlies the world's noise is sometimes so clear to me it is almost palpable, but I can't seem to access it at the times I need it the most. Why is that?

 Um ... consider the part about "looking for" and "being open to."

Oh, yeah. That. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

On Revelation Distorted as Ideology

This may seem off-topic at first, but stay with me.  In a recent post I wrote about revelation as private and applicable only to the person receiving it, and then I described canon law and secular statutory law as kind of institutionalized revelation.

I want to shift my perspective for a second. I recently read a small article in the newspaper regarding a proposal to shift U. S. foreign policy from a posture of preaching to other countries to a posture of co-existence and/or collegiality.  It said the U. S. should not try to tell other countries how to run their internal affairs provided the government is not engaged in genocide or other rampant human rights violations. In other words, the U. S. should respect the rights of other countries to govern themselves in accordance with the requirements of local culture and the will of the people in those countries.   

Everybody say: DUH!!

For generations, United States foreign policy has operated on the theory that our way of doing things is "right" and other countries should do things our way.  This is exactly what I was referring to when I said that prophets err seriously when they believe that revelation given to an individual should be applied to other people.  Revelation may be shared with others, and, if it resonates with them, they may make use of it.  When revelation speaks to a lot of people, there can be religious and political consensus which may result in local rules or even national (or international) legislation.  That kind of consensus arises out of sharing information that resonates with many people over a long period of time. It does not arise from bullying. 

For too long, the U. S. has seen itself in some kind of Messianic role in the world. America saw itself as the "City on the Hill" or "The New Jerusalem."  We behaved like the self-righteous preacher yelling at people on the street corner.  We incessantly bragged to all the world about how great we were, and contrasted our way of life with the "Evil Empire" of __(Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Godless Russia, Islamist Iran - fill in the blank)___.  That was bad enough, but after the fall of the USSR, which left America as the world's only superpower, America was the biggest, baddest kid on the playground, and it turned into a mean bully.  No wonder the nations of the world view us with such disdain.

That's what happens when prophets are convinced the private revelation should  apply to everyone.  Look at Ayatollah Khomeini or Pat Robertson.

I don't think religion is a bad thing per se . I know for a fact that religious communities can be wonderfully supportive places, and they do enormous good for their members and for their communities.  Where religious (and political) ideologues run into trouble is when they try to impose their personal revelation on others, who may have a totally different instructions from the Holy.

When religious revelation or even some kind of secular zealotry is translated into the political sphere, terrible things tend to happen.

Afghanistan.  Iran.  Uganda.  Cambodia.  China during the Cultural Revolution.  Nazi Germany.   Bolshevik Russia.  France during the Terror.  Russian pogroms against Jews.  The Inquisition.   The Crusades.  The persecutions of the Christians in pre-Constantinian Rome.  The  persecution of the Jews by Rome. 

Oh, that's enough.... I've made my point.  I guess I didn't realize when I started this how ubiquitous this kind of thing is, and how deeply engrained in the human psyche.  I'm afraid it will be very, very hard for us to stop.  

But, stop we must.  

Saturday, March 28, 2009

More on Sabbath Time

I can't remember in what context I wrote the following sentence, but it was one of those statements that jumped off the page, took me by the front of the shirt and yelled, "This is freaking important! Listen up!" 

I wrote: Sometimes we need to take Sabbath time to revel in the creativity of others.

Typically I like to ignore messages that grab me in that manner, because they often require me to do something difficult that I don't want to do.   This one, however, is kind of gentle and innocuous.  It tells me that, while I may spend practically all of my waking hours most of the time working like crazy, either for money to support my family or for the purpose of my own need to create, it is important to stop once in a while to appreciate the efforts of others.

Once in a great while, I slow down long enough to read a good book or listen to wonderful music.  I stop and marvel at people doing amazing things.  I watch very little TV, but the shows I like the most are Modern Marvels  and cooking shows because both are about people creating amazing things, through a combination of passion and commitment.

Growing up in the Church, Sabbath time meant time on my knees in church, praying the prayers and singing the songs.  But, "Sabbath Time" has a broader meaning for me now. It is recreation, not just recreation as a "pass-time" as in sports and games (although it can be that).  It is totally  about Re-Creation: spiritual, emotional and even physical renewal.

Part of that process includes taking an occasional breather on my own Journey to tank up for the next burst of creativity.  That provides me with an opportunity to look around me and really appreciate the amazing and awesome things that others are doing in my world.

"Others" includes the amazing handiwork of the Author of Life. 

Sabbath time in church is about adoration, praise and thanksgiving.  Um, come to think of it, so is Sabbath time the way I practice it in my life today. I have been taking some forced time off from my own creative work for a few weeks. It has given me a greater appreciation for the work I do, and I have also tried to stop and appreciate the incredible work others are doing in my world.

That is a Lenten observance I can get into.

Friday, March 27, 2009

On Revelation and the Problem with "Ministry"

This is not so much a Burning Bush as it is a kind of "aha" moment. I understand something I've been mentally chewing on for a very long time.

Note: In this piece I am going to use the word "prophet" to refer to people who have received direct revelation in some manner, whether or not they are actually Biblical prophets.

Recently I have been writing about my newfound ways of expressing my spirituality outside the bounds of institutional Christianity. [I have given up the expression "organized religion". There's nothing organized about Christianity as I know it.]  The benefit of this way of living is that there are no middle-men with an agenda.  I have direct access to the Holy with every breath I draw, and the Holy has direct access to me.  "Wonderland" is my short-cut term for living spiritually naked in the Holiness of Creation, which appears to me to be a kind of alternate Reality from the day-to-day world as I usually experience it. My purpose in writing about this is to figure out how to reconcile the two Realities in my life.  I find the experience of living in Wonderland to be exhilarating and empowering.  The kind of interior solitude and stillness that goes with it is cool for me, too. 

I acknowledge and I understand that not everyone responds to the invitation to live in Wonderland with the same joy and eagerness that I do. (Come to think of it, I was sort of driven to the Wilderness originally kicking, screaming and swearing at God.) The Christian churches that grew the most rapidly in the last quarter of the 20th Century were the churches that had the most rules and the clearest teaching on what God was up to in the world and what God expects of people.  In the uncertain and frightening world we live in, people want certainty. They want answers.  They want someone to tell them what to do in order to have their ticket to Heaven punched.

We are not the first generation of folks who want a short, easy way to "do" spirituality. The Israelites, standing at the foot of Sinai, with the Lord's invitation to a direct  relationship still ringing in their ears, responded by asking Moses and Aaron to handle all that spiritual stuff for them. The Israelites wanted priests to deal with the Lord God. That way the people did not have to undertake the scary business of looking directly into the face of God. Thus was born the Yahweh cult, and Western religion.  God have mercy on us all.

People are hardwired to be spiritually schizophrenic, I think.  On the one hand, there is something in humans (that Gnostic god-spark, perhaps?) that yearns for the Holy; some people spend their lives eagerly exploring the Spirit world.  On the other hand, we also tend to be fearful and risk-averse and we too often want other people to do the really heavy lifting for us (spiritual or otherwise).  Religions are virtually all founded by people of the former type who wanted to help the latter type understand what they found on their Journey through Wonderland.  The problem is that too often the prophets who received Revelation misunderstood its nature. Revelation is intended to be personal and private.  What is revealed to me is true for me alone.  It does not apply to anyone else. Too often prophets try to make their revelation applicable to other people.

That does not mean there are not some things that might be broadly applicable.  "Thou shalt not kill" is a pretty good rule of thumb regardless of who received the initial revelation.  Actually, the Ten Commandments are pretty good rules across the board.  I personally like "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your god."  There are a lot of excellent revealed truths.  It is important to understand that the initial revelation was personal and private between the prophet and The Holy.  The fact that others may find something that rings true for them in the revelation is totally and completely incidental.

If it turns out that a lot of people agree that a revealed truth is widely applicable, that revelation may become encapsulated in some kind of code of law, religious or civil.  "Thou shalt not kill" is incorporated into laws against murder in probably every country on earth.  In the U.S. and some other western nations we have tried to codify laws encouraging justice and fairness, equality under the law, and all those other good things that started out as revelations to individual prophets. That's not a bad thing. It's a good thing... provided we understand that we are doing it because there is broad consensus it is the right thing, not because God revealed it in a vision to Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammad.

Prophets (especially prophets who are already ministers in an institutional church) too often mistake personal revelation for Divine Directive.  Some revelation is so personal and so private it cannot be shared. Other revelation is so beautiful we cannot keep it to ourselves.  The key is that I share what is revealed to me not to instruct or encourage others to live the way I do or to understand the Holy the way I do.  I share it because it is too lovely and sweet not to share. I toss it out there for the enjoyment of those who might appreciate it and/or to encourage others to seek their own revelation.

I share what I learn because I have been encouraged and empowered by others who have passed this way before me, and I want to let others know what is available to anyone who chooses to look.  Maybe it's something akin to marking a trail for others to follow.  They may or may not have the same experiences, but I can at least break branches and drop bread crumbs to let them know that they are not alone in traveling the road.

My message is simple: Burning Bushes are everywhere.  They speak to me with words I need to hear at this point in my life.  Next month or next year they will probably say something quite different.  It is not important what they say to me. What is important is to let others know the Burning Bushes are there.  It should not matter to you what they say to me.  My message is : Go, see for yourself. Listen to what the Burning Bushes have to say to you. 

For me sharing revelation is kind of like the natural tendency people have when we see something wonderful. We turn to those around us, saying, "Look at that!" What "it" appears to be and what "it" means will be different for each person who bothers to look.

That brings me to the subject of ministry.  Based in part on the passage from Exodus and even more on my personal experience with an incredible array of incompetent, arrogant and abusive ordained ministers, I have long been very anti-clerical.  My focus and principal "ministry" during my church-lady years was the empowerment of the laity.  I was devoted to the notion that lay ministry would counteract the dreadful clerical bullshit that was, as I saw it, destroying the Church.  

Responses to the lay ministry movement varied.  Certain priests were so threatened  by it, they simply blocked all overtures from the laity; I found myself in a church like that once --  briefly.  Certain priests welcomed lay ministry, so long as we remained within the bonds of the church, and were willing to submit to the authority of the ordained priest-in-charge; I willingly played that game ...  for a while.  Some laity responded well, because they saw it as a way to increase their influence in the congregation. Some responded well because they truly saw ministry as a way to serve the people.  A lot of laity resented the hell out of it because it (a) put demands on them they did not welcome and (b) gave certain laity power over other laity.  

I sort of missed the nuances of that last point for a long time.  Years ago, a visiting speaker at our church tried to explain the dangers of lay ministry to me.  She said that, while the lay ministry movement may have originated from the worthy idea that we are a "priestly people" and therefore all called to serve God as we are called, the practical effect of the movement in most churches was to create another layer of ministers between God and the people in the pews.  Moreover it made the lay ministers second class priests instead of priestly people of God.  She said it was her opinion that lay ministry simply added a new layer to the church's caste system. She viewed that as a very bad thing.  Her comments pissed me off and hurt my feelings at the time, because I was devoting so much energy to the empowerment of lay ministry.  That entire conversation festered in my heart and never really healed.  

I think I now understand now what she was trying to tell me.  The Priestly People exists already.  We already have everything we need to understand and respond to the Holy in Creation. We don't need spiritual training or formation or classes or consecration ceremonies. We sure as hell do not need ordination ceremonies! Instead of creating layers of ordained, vowed, and consecrated ministers at various levels, we need to understand that none of that is necessary.  In fact all of it could be very damaging to the spiritual development of the people, because it robs us of the opportunity to develop our own spiritual muscles. 

What is worse, it makes the People of God dependent on professional or para-professional "experts" to take care of that which we should be doing for ourselves and, at the same time, puts the Ministers in a position where they are in danger of feeling superior to the people to whom they minister.  

In other words, ministry is a slippery slope for all concerned. 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shifting Gears (Literally)

My Lenten reflections have ranged widely.  My most intense navel-gazing has been reserved for my private journal and not posted here [Everybody say: Thank you!].   I've been examining my life, including but not limited to my spiritual situation, my creativity, and my relationships. My relationship to my body is always an issue for me, and I've been working through that as well. In a way my Lenten observance this year amounts to a six-week Personal Checkup. That may not be what the Church has in mind for Lent, but I'm doing Lent My Way and it seems to be bearing some good fruit.

Despite Christianity's long history of dualism that often manifests itself in asceticism and other practices that denigrate the sanctity of the human body, somewhere along the line, I picked up on the fact that when I am physically healthy, I am better able to attend to my other responsibilities, including my spiritual well being.  Addressing the issue of my physical health has been one of the topics I've reflected on this Lent.

I have written previously about my "issues" with weight.  My relationship with my body has been a kind of love/hate deal for most of my life.  When I was fat, it was simple: I hated my body. When I was in my 20's and thin for the first time in my life, after losing 100+ pounds, I was a little freaked out by my body because was so different from the image I had of "me".  In my 30's and 40's, I got used to my new body and liked it, a lot.  I may be one of the few women on the planet who totally welcomed menopause.  The freedom and personal power it brought with it were amazing. I felt great. I looked pretty good for an old broad. (My opinion.)  Life was good.

However, lately things started to change,  and not for the better! The physical changes that have been happening freaked me out because it kind of felt like I was suddenly going to pot. 

Walking has been my sole form of exercise for most of the last 20+ years.  It is the only kind of exercise I actually enjoy; in fact, I love it!  Walking outside in the fresh air makes my body feel great, and it does just as much (or more) for my Soul.  For years I was able to maintain my weight  and at least a modicum of sanity (given the stresses of my job and life) by walking.  Age, with its slowing metabolism and loss of muscle mass, combined with wintertime's early darkness caused me to gain a few inches in recent months.  My clothes don't fit right. My walks don't seem to give me the metabolic boost they used to, although they still make me feel fabulous emotionally. My legs are okay and I still have more energy than a lot of people I know (including some who are younger than me), I could tell that my energy level was decreasing and my upper body had gone to total flab. 

Something needed to be done, pronto!  I knew perfectly well what I needed to do: I needed weight training.  At one point in the past I joined the Y and did circuit training every other day. I did very well with that, and I was toning up my upper body nicely. Then I hurt my neck and had to quit for a while. More accurately, I used that as an excuse to quit. I mortally hated the gym, so I never went back.  My upper body started getting flabby at that point; it reached a crisis point in recent weeks.  A month or so ago, I bought a resistance band, but could not force myself to use it, largely because I couldn't figure out the pictures on the instruction sheet.  

I worked too hard to lose a hundred pounds and keep most of it off for 30 years to allow myself go to pot now, at a time in my life when my health and longevity really depend on staying in shape!  I am not a gym rat, and I have no desire to be one.  I do not like to exercise with other people.  Frankly, I'm not much of a people-person at all [understatement of the day]. Exercise is something I like to do alone in the fresh air, preferably at the beach when I have hours and hours of solitude.  Unfortunately, I have reached the point of diminishing returns with that walking regime and, besides, I'm too busy to devote the kind of time I would need in order to continue using walking as my sole form of exercise.

My only recourse was a gym.  I hated the very thought, but I knew it to be true. For some reason, I decided to check out Curves for Women. I had seen the ads. A friend of mine had success with the program. I like the idea of an all women's gym, with no weight room full of guys dripping sweat and oozing testosterone and no hard bodied home wreckers shaking their booties in front of the guys.  I like the idea of going to the gym and not being the "old, fat lady" ... or at least not being the only old, fat lady. On the other hand, I hated the thought of exercising in a circle, facing other people -- and possibly being expected to actually interact with strangers. I was afraid the environment would be cheerful and "perky". [I'm like Lou 
Grant: I hate perky.]

I decided the potential challenges were outweighed by the potential benefits, so I bit the bullet, gritted my teeth and visited my neighborhood Curves on Monday for a consultation.  I was appalled to discover how high my percentage of body fat is.  Correction: I was completely aghast and totally freaked out at my body fat percentage. The fact that I weigh fifteen pounds more than I thought I did paled in comparison. Hate it though I might, drastic measures were called for, so I committed to a year's membership on the spot.

Tuesay I went for my first workout.  The orientation process caused the workout to take a lot longer than it will once I get into the groove (I hope!).  Instead of the 30 minutes they advertise, it was more like an hour and a half.  Still, I came out feeling as though I had the best workout I had ever had.  I felt downright fantastic.  I worked muscles I haven't worked in ages, and I'm not the least bit sore. Today, I felt more energetic and less stressed than I have in ages. Tonight I went for an hour and a half walk which was faster and more energetic than I've done in a long while.

I totally hate the idea of having to add another commitment to my busy days, but, it needed to be done.  If I only continue to feel as good as I do today, I'll be thrilled.... but, in addition to feeling better, I'm very motivated to do something about that fat percentage.

In any case, I'm committed to paying for a year, so I intend to make the most of it. [Being the skinflint that I am, I'm not going to spend the money and not take advantage of the program.]  I am sure I will hate the actual process of doing the exercises in a public setting with other people around. Tough!  I'm going to do it anyway.  

....to be continued ....

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Spirituality and Creativity - Part 2

Creativity is a sort of perpetual motion machine. Creativity begets Creation which inspires more creativity.  Creativity is also contagious (at least to those who allow themselves to be susceptible to it).  It's fun to be around creative people.  It inspires me and encourages me to be creative, too.  Everything I create intentionally for the purpose of participating in the act of creation inspires me and empowers me to create something else.

I hope that occasionally I inspire others to be creative as well!

It will come as absolutely no surprise to anybody (but me, of course -- because I'm so utterly clueless) that writing fiction has been for me, at this stage in my life, the principal vehicle through which I participate in Creation. I know now that I hid in the Church and kept myself busy with all kinds of worthy activities that allowed me to avoid my true Calling because I was afraid. I was afraid of the demands a life of writing would require. I was afraid to put myself "out" there and make myself vulnerable before others.  

When the "safety" of the Church became intolerable, I ventured out into a new way of living.  When I quit bleeding off the steam of my creative engine, it revved up and went into overdrive, trying to make up for nearly fifty years of lost time.   

My reason for exploring the subject of spirituality in a secular world was that I was beginning to think that in all my creativity and busy-ness, I had somehow lost touch with my spirituality.  I wanted to revisit my Soul-Self.  To my amazement, I discovered that I never lost touch with my Soul at all. It had escaped from the sack on my back where I carried it around, hidden, reserved for use only at "appropriate" times and places, i.e. in Church.  Once I finally obeyed the Spirit Voice and sat down to do the work I was Called to do, my Soul-Self jumped out ahead of me, dancing naked, like David before the Ark, leading me down interesting paths where stories called out to me, begging to be told.  I learned that there is nothing to fear in freedom, provided I was willing take the first step, alone.  

The first joke I encountered when I took that step was: there is no such thing as alone.  I am part of Creation. All Creation is my home and my refuge and my companion. 

Today's joke is this: there is no such thing as secular.  Everything I am and do and know and make is a part of sacred Creation. All of it is a gift from and all of it ultimately returns to the Holy. [I have to give St. Ignatius credit for this paragraph even if I have fractured his prose.]  I just crossed a line beyond which words will not pass, so I have to back up now ....

Anyway, the idea of  "secular spirituality" is a crock.  There is no "secular spirituality" any more than there is a "religious spirituality."  There is simply spirituality.  Like intelligence, wisdom, wit, sexuality and other human attributes, spirituality is a Gift entrusted to us by the Life-Giver.  Some of us have more or less of certain talents and the exact blend differs for each of us. It doesn't matter how much of any of those qualities we have or how they are blended. What matters is what I do with those Gifts that have been entrusted to me.  

I express my spirituality in three distinct ways.  Just walking around in Wonderland, I acknowledge, appreciate and enjoy Creation; that's equivalent to what I used to do in prayer and worship.   I have been groping towards explaining that in my reflections on living liturgy in my daily life.  

When I write, I am participating in the very act of Creation itself; that's the equivalent of deep meditation, beholding -- and participating in -- the Glory of the Lord at Work.  Writing, not the religious life, is my Calling.  I hereby do now and forevermore cast out the idea that I was ever called to be a nun; that wasn't the voice of God calling me. That was me wanting to go someplace to hide from God's voice.  God wasn't having it, and God threw obstacles at my feet every time I got to close to becoming a Church "insider".  The Voice has always told me to write, not to pray. The joke in that is that for me writing IS prayer! 

My writing need not be overtly on the subject of religion or theology.  In fact, non-preachy writing that is not overtly on the subject of religion may sometimes be the most uplifting.  In any case, starting today I am putting aside the notion that there is any difference between secular spirituality and religious spirituality.   Creation is.  Life is.  Spirituality is.   None of them require an adjective. 

Writing is my principal means of participating in the act of creation. It is a life-enhancing and joyful process. For me it is like heart-felt prayer or any work that requires total concentration and commitment:  is spiritual per se.  The subject doesn't matter. What matters is to obey the call to "write it down."

Others are called to do different things.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Spirituality and Creativity - Part 1

This is the Burning Bush revelation referred to in humorous "Preface" I posted on Saturday. 

The whole purpose for my Lenten project was to write about what I tentatively called "secular spirituality."  I did not know how to define that exactly, which is the reason I wanted to write about it. I wanted to explore in words something I had been experiencing for some time.  In preparation for that exercise, it was necessary to explore various other aspects of my life (most of those detailed reflections have gone into my personal Journal and will not be shared here). My Lenten project is rather like putting together a puzzle.  The first phase involves turning all the pieces face up and grouping the colors together before I can even begin piecing the puzzle together.  At this point, I feel as though I'm still turning over pieces, but I'm starting to see some color patterns emerging.  Therefore, I decided to make a tentative start on my "secular spirituality" reflection this weekend, which is approximately the midpoint of Lent.  It seemed like a good time to try at least to start herding the idea cats in the general direction of a point.

Whenever I wander down new paths here in Wonderland, I tend to have amazing experiences.  This one was a kind of Cheshire Cat encounter.  It was there and then it was gone, but the laughter is still echoing.  For once in my life I got the joke almost immediately and joined in the godly laughter right away.  [This is one of those times when it is sort of fun to imagine an actual pantheon of gods on Mt. Olympus sitting around swilling mead and slapping their knees at the hilarity of my bumbling efforts.  If nothing else it would be nice to think that I might provide a source of amusement to whatever gods there may be.]

Here's the "revelation" (don't everybody go DUH all at once): I realized that my mid-life burst of creativity  that empowered me to write eight full draft novels (plus three in progress and a whole bunch of ideas in my writing folder) not only followed but was actually triggered by my exodus from the Church. As soon as that realization broke the surface of my consciousness, I came to a full stop in writing the sentence, and the word "Why?" bubbled up in my brain.  Immediately thereafter, the bubble exploded into a Revelation that was so amazingly obvious I sat here and laughed out loud. It has probably been obvious to anybody who has read my blog exactly what has been going on, but I guess I was too busy writing to read the damned thing.  

For one thing, setting aside church work freed up several hours a week I didn't have before.  Suddenly I had a few extra hours a week to do with as I pleased. That's always good, but for once in my life I seem to have actually used at least some of  that free time creatively instead of just pissing it away. 

Secondly, cutting myself off from the Church shut off my principal outlet for expressing my spirituality. I had always struggled with the fact that my inner experience of Reality was significantly different from the Church's teachings.  Nevertheless, most of the time the Church was a reasonable and safe [That is a key word!] outlet for my religious leanings -- at least, so long as I kept my mouth shut about all the "other" aspects of my spirituality that often contradicted the Church's teachings.  In other words, as long as I behaved in accordance with the expectations of the church people, I had the opportunity to participate in common worship and community life, thereby, releasing some of my spiritual energy.  

The problem with that was that my Church involvement served as a kind of escape valve that let off enough just enough steam to keep my creative engine from firing up and getting in gear.  The other problem (and a bigger one) was that the Church does not exactly encourage renegades who have all kinds of odd religious ideas, so I intentionally held back from poking around and opening too many doors in my interior castle because I knew I would find a lot of stuff that wouldn't fit in the Church's permissible framework. I knew that  would get me into trouble, so I refrained from exploring those areas.

The result of that was that, as long as I remained holed up in the "safety" of the Church, I held myself back from fully exploring, much less expressing, my own true spiritual self.  I had long since reached the point of spiritual formation beyond which I could go and still remain in the Church. Hell, I think I arrived at spiritual consciousness too far gone for Christianity, but I spent forty years or so trying like the dickens to fit in. Finally, I just couldn't take the disconnect between what I saw with my Inner Eye and what I experienced in the Church. Finally, after years of ignoring it, running from it, and arguing with it, I followed the Spirit Voice into the Wilderness.

I did not realize until today that, after the shackles of the Church were off, I actually started looking at things with new eyes, and an open mind, heart and soul.  Tentatively at first, I entered Wonderland where Reality is totally different than anything I ever knew before.  I did not take up meditation and fasting or Eastern practices (I did that in my 20's).  I stopped praying in the way I had done since childhood (at least most of the time) and tried to think of myself as a post-Christian (which is still difficult). For the most part I even stopped reading books on religion and spirituality, except for rare treats when a particularly wonderful book might happen my way.  Today, I think of institutional religion as a sort of "been there, done that, do no want to go there again" kind of experience. [That does not stop me from cherishing my memories and occasionally waxing nostalgic over the whole experience. Sometimes I wish I were more like Esau than like Jacob. Actually, I wish that fairly often!]  

In any case, I started living what I thought of as a totally "secular" life.  My earlier infatuation with Brother Lawrence and St. Theresa of Avila proved very helpful in my new life.  I learned to see the sanctity in daily routine, to the point that my ordinary daily activities were transformed into Liturgy.  I learned to see ordinary objects as holy vessels, manifesting the creativity and talent of the people who invented and manufactured them; the most mundane things became "fruit of the vine and work of human hands" consecrated by daily use into sacred objects. The world still shimmered and glimpses of the Holy peeked out from every tree and bird and bush. Voices still murmured in my heart, but I heeded St. Theresa's advice to ignore them, and they eventually went away. To my amazement, I learned that the so-called "secular" world is at every bit as sacred as the "religious" world, without that middle layer of ministers and magesterium telling me what to believe and how to think.

I understand now why the nuns who taught my catechism classes railed so virulently against secular humanists. Good little Catholic kids were a whole lot more likely to be tempted by secularism in the modern world than by overt sin and wickedness.  The Church says "outside the Church there is no salvation" and tries to keep the faithful inside. Religion is too often  like the movie The Truman Show. In order to protect the faithful, the Church would keep them confined and ignorant of the outside world, where they are "safe"  --  and can be controlled. 

In Wonderland, there is no need for salvation.  Creation itself is sacred and we who are in Creation and of Creation exist for the purpose of participating in the holy act of creating.  I am not sure that it matters what we create.  We may invent material things.  We may create beautiful art.  We may create loving homes. We may create meals that nurture and please our loved ones or that feed the poor and hungry. We may be creative and productive employees, regardless of our occupation.  It doesn't matter! What matters is that we stretch ourselves to participate in the holy act of creation at every possible opportunity. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Book Recommendation: The Muslim Next Door

I don't have time to read very much these days, but I'm carving out time to read The Muslim Next Door: The Qur'an, the Media and that Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali (White Cloud Press: 2008).  

This is a very readable (if somewhat repetitive and ever so slightly defensive) overview of Islam written for Western people, especially Americans, whose principal source of (mis-)information is the media. Ms. Ali-Karamali, a Californian of Indian Muslim descent, attempts to explain the basic tenets of Islam to her fellow countrymen who are woefully ignorant of the subject. She includes personal anecdotes which reveal glimpses of what it is like to be "Other" in post-9/11 America.  

The overview of Islam is very, very basic (which is good because I knew absolutely ZERO about the subject).  This book does a huge service to Americans who believe in a pluralistic society. Sadly, the people  who need it the most won't read it. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

This is Too Good Not to Share

I am not going to share (yet) the actual content of today's epiphany, but this opening paragraph of my journal entry is just to good to keep to myself:  

Today's Burning Bush is brought to you by Stoooopid.  I'm sitting here laughing my ass off and feeling like a dork, which is usually how I feel when an epiphany knocks me off my high horse, and then I realize it was so amazingly obvious, the fact that I didn't see before it only proves that I'm an idiot. 

On Why I Really Need a Literary Agent

Rita Arens has been blogging about getting rejected by literary agents. I can totally relate.

I still operate on the antiquated notion that the only "legitimate" way to publish a book is through traditional publishing houses. Apparently the only way to publish fiction is to first find a literary agent to pitch the manuscript to publishers. Publishers evidently no longer accept queries from unpublished authors. NOBODY accepts unsolicited manuscripts, even electronic versions which could be quickly browsed and deleted if they don't suit the agent.

"Hiring" an agent is a total misnomer. What it actually amounts to is pleading with agents to consider permitting the writer to send him/her a writing sample. This is done by means of a query letter. A query is supposed to be only a few paragraphs that summarize the story, ascribe it to a given genre and tell about the author's qualifications in a way that might capture the attention of a busy person who's seen it all before. The skills required to write such a potent marketing blurb strike me as almost exactly the opposite of the skill set required to weave a complex story of up to 100,000 words.

In the past several years I have queried dozens of agents, pitching several different stories. Some of them do not respond at all. Some send automatic email responses, mostly stating they are inundated with queries at the moment and suggesting authors try back at a later date. Occasionally an agent will take the time to say something useful. Several have commented that I have a strong writer's voice. I take that as a good thing, especially since I've actively tried to develop my voice.  

Several have commented that the premise for my story is interesting or creative, although, it is never what they are looking for, of course. Nevertheless, I put those comments in the column of "positive feedback", and cherish them because it constitutes at least some encouragement. That has kept me from giving up.

Several things seem glaringly obvious about this process, besides the fact that it is indescribably time consuming and demoralizing for the writer (who has a job and prefers to spend every spare moment actually writing stories as opposed to querying agents). Quite simply, the current system is not working. Now that nearly everybody has access to a computer and I believe everybody has a story to tell, more people than ever are actually writing down the novels they have in their heads. It is probably true that agents and publishers are deluged with more stories than they could read in a lifetime. It seems to me some kind of winnowing process is necessary.  The querying process is not it.

For one thing, the current process does not necessarily weed out bad writing or reward good writing. There are a lot of terrible books on the shelves of bookstores. Plenty of them are published by the standard houses. I'm guessing there are a lot of really great stories that are not getting through the process. I'd like to think that one or two of mine are among them.

From reading articles on how to get published, I have learned that in addition to being a writer, any would-be-published author has to also be a marketing maven as well. There are some people who are comfortable in both of those roles. I will go out on a limb, however, and say that I think probably most novelists are by temperament not likely to be good marketers. The very part of us that makes us willing (and even eager) to sit alone for hours upon hours and weave stories out of the air is unlikely to make us want to go out and market our work, especially not in person ... to strangers. (Yikes!!) Nevertheless, that seems to be what is expected: recently I seem to encounter two articles on marketing for every one article on how to write well. That's depressing. I want to be a writer not a sales person!

The newest thing in literary marketing appears to be evaluating the author's "platform" for marketing purposes. To me that seems as though it could be important for certain non-fiction writers. For a non-fiction book about cancer research, the fact that the author is a prize-winning biologist with a degree from MIT might be pertinent information. That kind of thing doesn't seem nearly as important in the world of fiction. Fiction writers, by definition, use their imagination and build worlds out of thin air. Unless one is writing some kind of special "niche" story (i.e. John Grisham writing about lawyers or a Andrew Greeley writing about the Church, etc.), it seems to me that the "platform" of a general fiction writer is just not very relevant to the merit of the work. What is more, I mortally hate fiction that preaches at me, so, for me, a fiction author with too strong a "platform" might actually be a turn off. But that could just be me.

I used to think that people who self publish were bad writers who couldn't get published any other way. I'm beginning to rethink that prejudice. Perhaps some people who self publish are actually good writers who can't break through the barriers and/or who are unwilling to spend valuable time querying agents when they could be using their time writing stories.

The issue of time is important. Most unpublished authors have jobs and/or families and/or some semblance of a "life". We can steal only so many hours a week for writing. It could be just my own twisted priorities, but I'd rather spend those stolen hours working on my stories instead of trolling the internet looking for literary agents who might be interested in the genre I'm working in and then spending more hours (upon hours, upon hours) trying to craft zippy queries to try to get their attention.

Perhaps the new world of publishing could combine self-publishing with standard houses. Authors could write their stories, and self publish them. Agents and/or publishers could troll CreateSpace or the other self-publishers for likely looking prospects in the same way real people browse for books: by paging through the text and reading parts of the actual manuscript. Stories with literary merit could be selected for editing and print publication.


All that said, I'm still not quite willing to let go of the dream of having one of my stories published in the regular way by a standard publishing house.

But I'm getting close.