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Posts Tagged ‘theology’

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Students’ morning prayer, in Jalgaon.

At the end of many prayers in which I participate here, I hear and sing, or chant, “shanti, shanti, shanti.” “Peace, peace, peace.” May there be peace in this place, peace for those who hear the bells, peace for our community, peace for the world.

I am always reminded of the prayer of St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

How do I pray such a thing, in the midst of poverty, inequalities in education, and stories of female feticide, rapes, and murders of women?

How do I pray that, on a smaller scale, when I am still hurt, jaded, and cynical from my classroom teaching experiences? When I cannot say for certain that the schools in which I taught could ever be truly a “safe space”?

And yet, what kind of teacher—or human, or Christian—am I if I give up hope? Sr. Carla Mae once told me that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is despair.

For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about what happens when teachers “burn out.” I wrote a paper for my multi-religious contemplative capacities course entitled, “Ahimsa Practices for Tramautized/Tramautizing Teachers: How to Restore Peace-full Teaching.” In these three weeks, I’ve been listening carefully to the stories of teachers, and attending to what the schools here feel like. Do the teachers have warmth and regard for their students, or contempt and disdain? Are students energized and joyful, or reciting rote and fearful?

What meditative or restorative practices can heal teachers who work in circumstances where systematic injustices and dehumanizing bureaucracies discourage voice (read: vocation)?

We live in a world where peace feels frequently elusive, impossible, a nice quote to pin on an inspiration board before returning to sarcasm, individual competitiveness, black-and-white thinking, and practices that leave us feeling increasingly dead inside. Gandhi and the Reverend King are heroes, far removed from the kind of daily injustices we face. Unless our voices touch millions, we fear, it’s unlikely for us to see peace—or justice—in our lifetimes.

***

I had a long conversation with Prof. P. last week. Last year, I attended part of the funeral of his father. Twenty days before his father died unexpectedly, his teenaged nephew drowned. It was a hard summer for his family.

We sat together on a porch in Jalgaon, overlooking green hills and orchards. I told him that I had held his family in my prayers all year, and asked how they were.

Prof. P. mentioned how devout his sister-in-law is, how ordinary and good the lives of his families are, how the thousands drowned in sudden floods were at worship. And yet, he pointed out, thieves and looters live and thrive. We were talking about the problem of theodicy. Both of us used the phrase, “…in this life.” As in, “We just can’t understand the purpose of such loss, in this life.” Or, “…there are different kinds of karma, that we can’t understand, and it doesn’t make sense, the way things happen, in this life.”

I recited again a quote that is dear to me, from the Reverend King: “…the arc of justice is long, but it bends toward mercy.”

Jain cosmology, with its radically different sense of time, reminds me again and again that my mind is finite. The universe, and God, are infinite. Maybe I will be blessed with a few golden glimmers of Truth, of Possibility, where I understand, for one goosebumpy and numinous moment—the bending.

***

Remember how in A Wrinkle in Time, Charles Wallace thinks he faces evil alone—a quick path to despair.

Mrs. Whatsit shares with him a glimpse of our planet Earth, seen from afar. A dark, pulsing cloud covers most of it. It is like a tumor, a living, present thing. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who reminds Charles Wallace and his friends that we are one of millions of those who work against the dark, who work knowing their tiny acts of light will not be overcome.

Charles Wallace is surprised; he didn’t realize this battle has been fought long before his particular pain. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who offer reminders; L’Engle writes:

‘And we’re not alone, you know, children.’ came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter.

‘All through the universe it’s been fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, but there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.’

‘Who have our fighters been?’ Calvin asked.

‘Oh, you must know them, dear,’ Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly. “And a light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

‘Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. ‘Why of course, Jesus!’

‘Of course!’ Mrs. Whatsit said. ‘Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.’

‘Leonardo da Vinci?’ Calvin suggested tentatively. ‘And Michelangelo?’

‘And Shakespeare,’ Charles Wallace called out, ‘and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!’

Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. ‘And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!’ (65-66).

The mundane, daily, and systematic examples of injustice work to make us think that our impulses toward community, toward collaboration, and toward life-affirming action are silly, wrong-headed, and bound to fail.

As children of God, we are made to be light-carriers. If we tend to our spiritual selves and work in communities that can help us identify and remember our calling, we are better equipped to work against despair.

***

Practicing mindfulness may seem a selfish, tiny act—how is cultivating gratitude going to help my students in their poverty and hunger? And yet, we find that over time, the cultivation of a new kind of flexibility in the mind prepares us to be prepared and willing.

From childhood—ourselves threatened and made afraid from nursery school—we have been raised up in a posture of fear and despair. We forget so quickly our true potential. Even understanding that the history upon which we build assumptions may be faulty can change the position of our posture.

In Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink writes, “Learning the history of nonviolence is another way of rehearsing it. Furthermore, our ability to act may depend every bit on our knowledge of nonviolent methods and spirituality as on our fortitude” (300).

If I had to teach again, in such a situation, and I pray I will, I will do the following to begin with. I would teach the history of nonviolence, including the history and voices of those in the American Civil Rights Struggle and for every nation represented by my students. For my own good, as for theirs. I would commit to never using sarcasm, ridicule, or threats with my students—and would be forthright with them why I make this choice, and why it is difficult. I would share this challenge with my teaching peers.

I know from experience that when I have been honest with my students—in joy and humor, and in tricky times, admitting when things are hard and “right answers” far and few between, the energy in the room is one of deep community and connection. I didn’t know that when I engage with young people from my centeredness as a child of God, I am tugging a bit at the veil of despair that conceals our true natures that will help, one day, to upend it forever.

***

I pray that I will always have hope, and a healthy, noisy, thriving hope that fills my blood with oxygen and keeps me sharp and eager to work. I pray that I can grow in practices that help me see light, help me recognize peace when I see it, and keep me mindful of that arc of justice, ever ending toward the light.

All will be well. We are made for more than competition, poverty, sarcasm, and hopelessness. We are made to be in relationship, to heal one another, broken shard to broken shard, small light to small light.

It’s a good thing to recite “Peace, peace, peace,” many times a day. To take time to sharpen my eyes in looking for it, to reminding myself to not abandon it. I do believe that all will be well, and all shall be well.

I’m not sure how peace will come about, and in what forms it will take, but I trust that arc of justice, bending long to justice. I can see it and feel it, and I will not despair.

***

Portions of this reflection got their start in a paper I wrote for class in 2011, called, “Lights for Us to See By: A Critical Review of Engaging the Powers.”

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Mary in splendor, in Hagia Sophia.

Mother Mary was all over this trip. Surprising that after having lived in places like the Bronx, where she is also frequently found—from shrine to garment to tattoo—that I would feel so close to her at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

When I was little, going to a missionary Baptist church out in the country, Mary didn’t come up very frequently, although I often got to play her in Christmas pageants. (Having blonde hair and blue eyes that matched her robes seemed prerequisite.) Even with nativity sets, I was always interested in the tiny baby, and in rearranging the stable crowd in various scenes. Mary wasn’t doing much in those little ceramic sets—kneeling, eyes cast down.

At one point in upper elementary school, I undertook to read the entire Bible, cover to cover. There’s not much Mary in there, either, actually. I loved the book of Esther, which read like a novel, and liked the idea of Eunice and Lois, early members of the church important enough to have names. Besides her magnificat, Mary doesn’t say anything. And Jesus himself is kind of rude to her in the wedding story, acting annoyed that she pressed him into service. And, to be honest, growing up trying to be a good girl, Mary just seemed meek and mild, the opposite kind of woman that a subscriber to Sassy magazine would aspire to be.

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Tradition says that after Jesus, as he was dying, charged his dear friend John with caring for Mary, John took her to Ephesus, where she lived out her days. This shrine is on the site of where her house is supposed to have been.

When I did my master’s in Byzantine hagiography, I finally started thinking about Mary in earnest. I saw images of her as God-bearer, as a near-warrior lady, holding the safety of humanity underneath her skirt, looking with intensity at Christ as she begs forgiveness on our behalf. My professor said, of her downcast eyes, “In these [Byzantine] images, she’s not looking down because she’s meek. She’s looking down because she is nobility, and they don’t look commoners in the eye.”

One of the things that’s so exhilarating about Istanbul is that beautiful images are grander than you can imagine, and jaw-dropping beauty is around every corner. I frequently found my eyes filling with tears. I would turn a corner, look up, and see an image of the theotokos, completely not expecting it, and stunned into staring.

Or I’d see something out of the corner of my eye, look up, and see Christ as king, splendid and solemn, staring at me from centuries ago—gold still shining in the dim cave light.

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Outside the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus, where pilgrims tie prayers on scraps of paper.

I couldn’t help by pray, and be awed (which is also a kind of prayer, I think), along the way.

CS Lewis defined the word “numinous” like this:

“Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room,’ and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind.

It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous.

Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.”

(When I looked up this story to get the details right for this post, I also found the following quote from Shakespeare that gets at “numinous,” “Under it my genius is rebuked.”)

So I would be walking around Istanbul, thinking about pistachios and how I used to always misspell “Constantinople,” (despite that master’s degree) and would suddenly find the hairs on my neck rising as I see another fresco, another mosaic, another image that stops my voice.

It’s hard to write about the numinous. When you have an experience—in a stand of sugar maple trees, at a child’s baptism, at the bed of a dying grandparent, in a chapel in Prague—that brings goosebumps, tears, a whoosh of energy in the gut and heart, and it feels like all of creation meaning…

It’s like the old writing class edict “show, don’t tell” falls apart. How can I show you? I can only tell you that I was greedy for images of holy and gold, and was blessed with more than I could handle.

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Votives lit by pilgrims at Mary’s house.

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After Delhi, we took a rented “Tourist” bus to Hastinapur. Because three tirtankaras were conceived, renounced this world, and died there, it is a most holy city for Jains.

The first place we visited, and where we overnighted, was the famed Jambudweep. Part temple complex, part holy site, part dilapidated theme park…and we met and sat with a holy woman ascetic, who blessed us and gave us gifts.

A building manifesting the shape of the Loka, or the cosmos. The Loka has three levels–the hellish or bottom levels, the middle level, where we are in this world, and the upper or heavenly levels.

Inside the Loka-shaped building was a building-high series of glass cases with representations of the devils, mortals, animals, and gods and goddesses within the levels. Here are some devils.

Here is the Holy Mother Mataji, with one of the other nuns. In the ceremonies, we sang, “Mother, give us knowledge,” repeatedly. She gave a sermon on Jain astronomy. We received, in addition to being anointed with red on our heads, necklaces with a medal of her face, and she gave us each a ring, to remind us of the virtues we were learning here in India. I was asked to say a few words, and talked about how much we appreciated their hospitality, and were moved by the energy and holiness of the place.

 

In both ceremonies at Jambudweep, elaborately costumed girls danced.

Me, laughing.

Me, being interviewed by Zee TV. They asked me why I came to India, what I was studying, what I had learned from Mother Mataji’s lecture, and what I would take home with me regarding my new learnings about Jainism.

Jambudweep isn’t the only temple complex in Hastinapur; we visited at least three other temples, with many, many smaller rooms of idols and places of devotion within.

 

The stairs up to another temple.

 

Another giant, marble idol.

 

This photo is for my father-in-law. Notice that the workers have built for themselves scaffolding out of bamboo and rope…and are high off the ground working on this tower. Bamboo and rope!

 

Gates at another temple.

 

Food offerings to an idol.

 

One of the temples was shaped like a giant, eight-story wedding cake. After you entered at the bottom, you walk up eight floors of ramps, spiraling up to the top– another physical manifestation of our process in this reality, ascending. At the top, you reach the temple, with stunning views of the countryside and town.

 

For the closing ceremony, they asked us to dance, and quizzed us on Jain facts (I won a prize, a gold and diamonte Om figure), and then we met members of the congregation. I was photographed, and met so many families, especially with children. One perk of this is that many families want to photograph me holding their babies. Of course I don’t mind!

 

Details within one of the temples.

 

Two idols well-dressed and embellished with tiaras and flowers.

 

 

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Digambara means “sky clad,” that is, digambara monks wear the air. They go naked.  They have no possessions at all—their very bodies are expressions of non-attachment to this material world. We made pilgrimage to two digambara monks at a place called KundrakundraBhakti.

In one discussion of “self” in a lecture, we were challenged to consider the following, “Describe yourself without using your name, references to your appearance, age, profession, education, family background, material possessions, geography or ethnic heritage…”

What would be left? What words or phrases would still indicate my “selfness” (in this thought exercise I can’t even say “Stephanie-ness”)?

One lesson from this consideration is that I am a soul. We are souls, embodied souls, yes (and what fascination we have with these bodies), but the soul is our essential nature. As C.S. Lewis said, “I do not have a soul. I am a soul; I have a body.”

I think it would be an interesting and fruitful Advent or Lenten practice to be mindful of all the time and thought I spend on the material world—I love magazines like Real Simple, Cooking Light, Oprah Magazine, and catalogues, and window displays…but all of these things, recipes, home décor ideas, crafting inspiration, clothing and jewelry and food…they are all related to my material body in this life, not at all related to my soul. It would be fruitful to take time to notice and cultivate the things that actually feed, nourish, and cultivate my soul. Music? Meditation and prayer?Acts of generosity and altruism? Taking care with my food and water use?

How can we help one another attend to our souls?

The older, bald man in the photograph is Kundakundacharya, a well knownDigambara monk. We were allowed to hear him speak, and ask him questions. I asked him, “Do you look forward to death, or are you afraid of death, or do you not think of death at all?” He answered, emphatically, “No, no—I do not think of death until the moment it comes. I am like a wick in an oil lamp; the wick does not know, and does not care, how much oil is left until the last moment, and the light is extinguished.”

Me, trying to stand like the Jain goddess of knowledge. She is always shown with a book in her hand, and her legs make a triangle. The triangle is related to logic within the Jain cosmology, with the points helping illustrate how we make inferences about our observations.

Dr. Jain in front of a huge statue of Mahavira, the last (most recent) thirtankara. This open air temple is called Ahimsa Stahl. Mahavira is on a hill overlooking Delhi.

Me and Nelda, a classmate from CST/CLU.

 

A little girl at Ahimsa Stahl.

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Flowers and freedom

My run in a dramatic adaptation of The Great Divorce ended last night. An amazing book, an amazing play. It’s a really quick read, and I recommend it for anyone with Lent coming up… a really rich opportunity to reflect on free will, God’s mercy and compassion for us, the nature of human choice, and heaven.

Here are some snaps of little bouquets I made out of the flowers I received:

Gorgeous arrangement Matt chose for the color of the roses, in a teapot.

Tiny vases on the shelf above our kitchen sink.

Giant lily overtaking a creamer on our dining table.

One for my vanity top, with unmade bed in the background.

Mini arrangement on Matt’s dresser.

Milk glass and matryushkas in the bathroom.

Finally, here is a chunk of my dialogue– at the end of the play, as the Teacher, I’m telling the Traveler (who has experienced many vignettes about the nature of human love, choice, anger, and free will) about the difficulty of understanding things from our limited perspective in time… and yet, the necessity of seeing it that way, for now, in this life. The Traveler wants to know if it is possible to ask about the end of all things.

“…all answers deceive. If you put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain.

The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

But if you are trying to leap on into eternity, if you are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so you must speak) then you are asking what cannot be answered to mortal ears.

Time is the very lens through which you see–small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope–something that would otherwise be too big for you to see at all.

That thing is Freedom. Yes, Freedom–the gift whereby you most resemble your Maker and are yourselves part of eternal reality.

But for now you can see it only through the lens of Time. A little picture of one moment, following another, following another…and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise.

The picture is but a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of time destroys your knowledge of Freedom.”

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image from vvonstruen on flickr

From my recent compassion/social engagement class notes:

Iris Murdoch’s definition of love: “the non-violent apprehension of difference”

a definition of compassion: “being moved in one’s depths by the suffering or bliss of another, and responding in ways that intend to either ease their suffering or promote their flourishing”

a definition of forgiveness (which can happen without reconciliation): “to heal from wounds, to have a safe place to grow strong enough to let go of the harm, to be free internally”

a definition of reconciliation (which cannot happen without forgiveness): “a right relationship restored between two people”

on brushes with the sacred: These moments are self-authenticating, complete–we feel as though we could do anything…and yet, we can’t hold onto that feeling. This is the tension of living a spiritual life.

on “bad feelings”: “Every single internal reaction we have is there for a reason.” These “bad feelings” aren’t the sin; they are the starting place.

 

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Good-bye, New York City.  It was hard, the entire last semester, to really understand that we were leaving. I was too busy, carrying too many last minute responsibilities, and the last semester at school was really, really hard.  I think only in the past few weeks have I understood that I am really gone– I won’t be back at my church, I won’t see “my kids” again, I won’t see as regularly my dear friends who are still there.

We spent July in Red Bay, Ontario.  Matt’s grandmother’s cottage: Matt’s mother has gone nearly every summer since she was a baby, so has Matt. Hammocks, water, sunsets. Stacks of library books, trying new recipes and cooking together, sleeping in.

We moved to California.  Flying West, as we crossed three time zones, and found ourselves over mountains, and then mountains and palm trees… so strange.  Is this real?  Do I really live here?  Are those _avocados_ growing on that tree?

Cessation of anxiety.  I was really mostly anxiety-free in Red Bay, which is unusual. Usually, when I am on vacation, or away from my home or routine, I feel guilty about leaving my jobs and responsibilities, and the unfamiliar landscape manifests in random anxieties at night.  This year, happily, I had a few days where I was (appropriately because of work responsibilities) stressed, but slept every night.

When I moved to NYC, I was deeply homesick, and horribly panicked. I suffered from panic attacks daily and nightly, couldn’t sleep, and became really brittle and sick.  I’ve been trying to be patient with myself with this move, to listen to my body and allow lots of time for “processing.”  So far, so good.  We are settled into our beautifully painted apartment, I’ve been sleeping through every night, and feeling occasional spurts of (natural, I think) nervousness tied to genuine excitement.

For all of this, I have been immensely grateful. I half-joked to someone in a letter yesterday that I hope God doesn’t get tired of us saying “thank you.” I’m like some kind of gratitude wind-up toy— walking about looking at hot pink trees and grapefruit, through the lovely village, around campus, finding lizards and bookstores, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” a dozen times a day.

In the Bible, there’s a whole entire book of lamentations. If one has grievances or pains to bring to God, there are myriad models for crying out.  Think about Job!  Think about all the saints, in their times of pain– even Jesus Christ gives us a model for “talking back” to God.  There are praise Psalms, but it feels like when I am happy and grateful, there’s no artful way to keep repeating myself.  I’m just happy and grateful. Luckily for me, I think I don’t have to be artful for God.

I should ask my friends if there are certain songs they play, or videos they watch, when they are feeling all is well with the world.  I need a gratitude/excitement/eagerness mix tape!

Orientation.  This is actually the first orientation to a new school program I’ve done properly. For my first experience as an undergrad, I came too late for orientation, straight from hospital, and missed all of that information. (Didn’t turn out well, either– I lacked a lot of resources that I never did find for myself.)  For my second go-round in undergrad, I started mid-year.  For my first time in grad school, I was sick with anxiety and tears, and sometimes couldn’t leave my room– so I missed some of the offerings.  This time, I went to every single thing.  Finally!  Even though I know a lot, I found it remarkable the things I didn’t know. I marvelat the resources availed to me.

Peace.  So, on the first day of orientation, I was noticing that I was feeling both excited and a little trepidation. I was listening, being patient with myself. And a package arrived for me from my Dominican spiritual mentor. One item in the package: a little terra-cotta heart with the word “peace” hand-stamped into the surface. Also included: the liturgy for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, which included a litany of women witnesses, and a celebration of “voices that challenge.”  Also: a litany of peace “as we journey,” including this prayer:

“God of peace, you are the center of our lives, a strong refuge in the whirlwind of living. When our hearts are anxious, worried, or fearful, bring your calm and serenity to us. Remind us often that we can come, resting in the dwelling place of your love, and be at peace.”

I like the idea that I am taking place (and adding to!) a “whirlwind” of living… but that I don’t have to remain there when it becomes too much.

This image, a photograph of a statue, appears on the front page of the liturgy. The Dominicans describe it, “Mary has been bent, huddled, distraught at the disappearance of Jesus’ body. Then she hears her name spoken, and turns, looking upward to Jesus standing behind her.”

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