Bob Schwartz

Category: Religion

Houses of Worship as Reminders on the Street

We often see houses of worship on our streets, from modest buildings to grand cathedrals. Some people have mixed feelings when they do.

A growing number think that organized religion is a negative or even destructive force. Some people are happy to see their own brand of churches, synagogues and mosques on display, but are not so sure about other kinds. Some are irked by the costly beauty and splendor, no matter how pleasant the view, when other needs are so great.

These are all legitimate concerns. Yet walking past houses of worship is also a reminder, no matter how sectarian those buildings, of something greater and deeper—a reminder that may be missing from everyday lives. You don’t have to believe or participate in a particular tradition, or in any tradition, to know that things are out of balance. You may think that some expressions of faith actually contribute to that imbalance, and some assuredly do. But seeing the best of spirit embodied in our streetscape can also be a good reminder of who we can be.

From Thomas Merton, The Street Is for Celebration in Love and Living:

A city is something you do with space.

A street is a space. A building is an enclosed space. A room is a small enclosed space.

A city is made up of rooms, buildings, streets. It is a crowd of occupied spaces. Occupied or inhabited? Filled or lived in?

The quality of a city depends on whether these spaces are “inhabited” or just “occupied.” The character of the city is set by the way the rooms are lived in. The way the buildings are lived in. And what goes on in the streets.

Pictured above: Benedictine Monastery, Tucson, Arizona.

St. Anthony of Padua

You don’t have to be religious, Christian or Catholic to appreciate saints. Every tradition recognizes those whose lives, thoughts, or actions are worthy of attention. The particulars may not suit your sense or sensibilities, but these people represent the possibilities of being human—possibilities to which we may not personally aspire, but possibilities that still may inspire.

Today is the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua. The reasons for his sainthood involve his devotion and his preaching of the faith (he is often pictured with the baby Jesus and a book). His preaching was reportedly not limited to people:

Once, when St. Anthony of Padua attempted to preach the true Gospel of the Catholic Church to heretics who would not listen to him, he went out and preached his message to the fish. This was not, as liberals and naturalists have tried to say, for the instruction of the fish, but rather for the glory of God, the delight of the angels, and the easing of his own heart. When critics saw the fish begin to gather, they realized they should also listen to what Anthony had to say. (Catholic Online: Saints & Angels)

St. Anthony is the patron saint of the poor and of travelers, but is best known in popular Catholic culture as the patron saint of lost things. Though some have invoked him—successfully and unsuccessfully—with a simple childlike verse (“Dear St. Anthony look around/Something’s lost that can’t be found”), the story and meaning is explained more fully by others:

Since the seventeenth century Anthony has been frequently invoked as the finder of lost articles. When a novice took his Psalter without permission, Anthony prayed for its return. After a frightening apparition, the novice rushed to restore the book to its rightful owner. (Lives of the Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa)

In 1224, Francis entrusted his friars’ pursuits of studies to Anthony. Anthony had a book of psalms that contained notes and comments to help when teaching students and, in a time when a printing press was not yet invented, he greatly valued it. When a novice decided to leave the hermitage, he stole Anthony’s valuable book. When Anthony discovered it was missing, he prayed it would be found or returned to him. The thief did return the book and in an extra step returned to the Order as well. (Catholic Online: Saints & Angels)

Anthony should be the patron of those who find their lives completely uprooted and set in a new and unexpected direction….God did with Anthony as God pleased—and what God pleased was a life of spiritual power and brilliance that still attracts admiration today. He whom popular devotion has nominated as finder of lost objects found himself by losing himself totally to the providence of God. (Franciscan Media)

From the National Shrine of St. Anthony:

Prayer to Find What Is Lost

St. Anthony, when you prayed, your stolen book of prayers was given back to you. Pray now for all of us who have lost things precious and dear. Pray for all who have lost faith, hope or the friendship of God. Pray for us who have lost friends or relatives by death. Pray for all who have lost peace of mind or spirit. Pray that we may be given new hope, new faith, new love. Pray that lost things, needful and helpful to us, may be returned to our keeping.

Feeding the poor. Preaching to fishes. Finding lost things. Sounds like a full feast day.

Between the rational and irrational and between the religious and the irreligious

Between the rational and the irrational is the place that so many traditions point us to, though not all who follow want to go. It is not in the middle, in the sense of being halfway in between, or to applying each one half the time. It is the entire space, with the wholly rational and irrational merely on the outside borders, a thin outline.

This does not sit well with many, who want to have it one way or another. Extreme rationalists frequently work hard to make ordered sense from evidence, rejecting the rest, and particularly vexed by those apparently too lazy or heedless to see how essential the rational way is. Extreme irrationalists may be driven by visions that may be delusions, or by personal preferences, and may indeed avoid the rational because it is hard work or because it may not suit their needs.

This plays out on a bigger social scale. With increasing frequency, the irreligious base their perspective on a loosely rationalist view, not only because there is no evidence of and for the religious, but because the religious seem to discard or ignore the rational in a disordered and possibly self serving way.

No one is right or wrong here, in the sense of winning an ultimately unwinnable argument. Instead consider the field where all things grow, neither rational nor irrational. The place, if we listen to the best of the traditions, where we are born and where we die.

Wisdom House

Wisdom House

I see those
Who visited the house
Some knocked
Stopped for a chat or meal
Stayed for a weekend or season
Or never left.
There is no guest book
But some signed it anyway.
One left a note:
You know
This isn’t your house.

 

The Book of Ruth: Ivanka and Jared, Donald and Charles

It was reported that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shavuot this week, though without much other detail given. It would be interesting to know more, given the connection between the holiday and their own current situation.

Shavuot began as an agricultural festival, celebrating the “first fruits” of the harvest season. It evolved into the holiday marking the giving of the Torah. Among the traditions associated with Shavuot is reading the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth is considered one of the literary treasures of the Bible. It is often referred to and analyzed as a short story or novella. What a story it is. A woman and her daughter-in-law are separated by culture and religion but bound together—forever—by family. When their men die, what connects them is stronger than any force that might tear them apart. It is about loyalty, love and faith above all else, through the hardest times. These strong women are not an ancillary sideshow; they are the main event. They alone assure continuity and the future. No wonder it is thought possible that among the biblical books, this one might have been written by a woman.

We expect that Ivanka and Jared, as faithful Jews, read the Book of Ruth this week, but we can’t know what they make of it. Do they also feel that unbreakable obligation that overcomes the greatest adversity and testing? Before the current events, each of them probably faced some difficulties with their respective fathers. Now the stories of Donald Trump and Charles Kushner are entangled through their children. Those children, Ivanka and Jared, might well believe and say to those fathers, as Ruth said to Naomi, “wherever you go, I go.”

For more about Shavuot and the Book of Ruth, see this earlier post.

Fire

The same story about the Desert Fathers, told two ways. Why not fire?

Lot went to Joseph and said, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?’ Then the hermit stood up and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten flames of fire, and he said, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks by Benedicta Ward 

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?
The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

Naked Religion

All religious traditions dress you up so that you can go naked.

Take Zen, which contains the most stripped down of all practices. No concentration on a word or phrase or image or thought. Just sitting and breathing, and not even concentrating on that breathing. But even Zen has developed other aspects, including work on koans—stories to be considered and answered or not answered—along with other approaches. Not to mention other Buddhist traditions, which have plenty of added colorful elements, practical and textual, aimed at cultivating the individual.

The same goes for other traditions: Judaism, Christianity, etc., in various forms and versions. Lots of things to do, read, think and look at, some it very complex or spectacular. There can be confusion engendered by the complexity and spectacle, as if those are the point and the object.

The point and the object is none of that, as a careful listen and glimpse will tell you. Naked you come and naked you go is more than an apt description of your life on earth. It is the mission of the religions, though even the traditions themselves can get lost. Whatever your tradition, whatever you behold and hold dear and essential, that is not it. You were never meant to be dressed in the particular costume, though it may seem fitting and attractive. You were meant for the humble simplicity of spiritual nakedness. Just the way you came.

Merton on the desert: We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated.

From Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude:

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself—that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.

This is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out into the “wilderness of upper Egypt” to “wander in dry places.” Thirst drives man mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.

So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage….

The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.

 

 

Barely Audible

Barely Audible

קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה

A still small voice
1 Kings 19:12

Hurricanes earthquakes
Fires in the brain
Awed but unable
To follow a thought
Or lose one.
Hear O hear
Minute stillness
Soft murmuring
Gentle whisper
Still small.

Note: “God will reveal himself not in storm or fire or the shaking of the mountain but in a small, barely audible sound. On Mount Carmel, God spoke through fire; here at Horeb, he speaks [to Elijah] in a more subtle language, for the deity is by no means limited to seismic manifestations.”
Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, translation with commentary by Robert Alter

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Yaqui: The last piece in a spiritual puzzle?

Saying that something is “the last piece in a spiritual puzzle” is misleading in so many ways.

It is not a spiritual puzzle, there are no pieces, and they do not appear and are not apprehended in sequence. It is a mystery of mysteries, at best they are clues, which fly in and out of the seen and unseen sky like birds, some of which you recognize, but many of which you will not identify until much later, if ever at all.

I am not a fan of spiritual syncretism and I am not not a fan of spiritual syncretism. Those who go from birth to death in a single tradition have much. Those who like bees or hummingbirds go from flower to flower have much. So it goes.

As for me, continuing a metaphorical mix, I’ve looked at plans and kept to some, picked up building materials along the way, and constructed what I could from what I found or what was delivered. It doesn’t look quite like anything else, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the structure even if I could, but I might suggest it is not a terrible process. Or place to work and rest in.

Here is something about the Yaqui of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico and something from the most extraordinary of Buddhist scriptures.


Sea Aniya: The Flower World

In the spiritual heart of the “enchanted” natural world is the dream-like presence of this “blossoming” world. This realm is difficult to define in words. It is part of a ritualized symbolic language of spirit that is understood by not solely by the mind, but also by the heart. What can be said is that the Sea Aniya is the integral part of a very ancient belief that is also a part of most Mexican Indian peoples’ mythology: the idea of flowers “expressing” a spiritual message, flowers symbolizing growth (germination, budding, flowering) of spiritual awareness. Flowers are the harmony, fertility, and beauty of this world. Yaquis believe in a manifested reality so that we know this is a very real world that is located east of the sun and in a place below the dawn. It is an ideally perfected world that mirrors the grace and beauty of the desert territory.

Deer Dancer: Yaqui Legends & Myths by Stan Padilla

The Flower Ornament Scripture

The Flower Ornament Scripture, called Avatamsaka in Sanskrit and Huayan in Chinese, is one of the major texts of Buddhism. Also referred to as the major Scripture of Inconceivable Liberation, it is perhaps the richest and most grandiose of all Buddhist scriptures, held in high esteem by all schools of Buddhism that are concerned with universal liberation. Its incredible wealth of sensual imagery staggers the imagination and exercises an almost mesmeric effect on the mind as it conveys a wide range of teachings through its complex structure, its colorful symbolism, and its mnemonic concentration formulae….

[Book One] “THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Buddha was in the land of Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just realized true awareness. The ground was solid and firm, made of diamond, adorned with exquisite jewel discs and myriad precious flowers, with pure clear crystals. The ocean of characteristics of the various colors appeared over an infinite extent. There were banners of precious stones, constantly emitting shining light and producing beautiful sounds. Nets of myriad gems and garlands of exquisitely scented flowers hung all around. The finest jewels appeared spontaneously, raining inexhaustible quantities of gems and beautiful flowers all over the earth.”

The Flower Ornament Scripture, translated by Thomas Cleary