Bob Schwartz

Category: Spirituality

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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

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

Ex Nihilo

Ex Nihilo

When once was nothing
Was something?
Where once was nothing
Was nowhere?
Know everything
Believe in what you know
And nothing else?
Believe everything
And know nothing?
Aleph to tav
Alpha to omega
Awwal to akkir.
Is this the emet
The truth?

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Pantry (Morning Explorer)

Pantry (Morning Explorer)

In the beginning is
The same breakfast
Or so it starts.
But the pantry shelves
Are so full of wholesome ingredients
It seems impossible to ignore.
It isn’t the prospect of a new tasty dish
It is the possibility the morning sun offers
Who am I
Creative cook and diner
To ignore it?

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Note: Yes, it is the last morning of Passover, and yes, it has been a week since breakfast was pancakes, and yes, this should be a picture of matzo brei. But this poem containing a breakfast metaphor arose spontaneously today, and Passover or not, pancakes are a beautiful breakfast sight. Tomorrow.

Heschel for Passover (or Any Time)

A reader reminds me that a year ago, I posted about including readings from Abraham Joshua Heschel in the Passover seder (A Heschel Haggadah).

You will find the readings I included in last year’s seder below. As regular readers know, I’ve mentioned Heschel a few times in this blog, and more frequently in my conversations and discussions. He may be the greatest of modern masters of Judaism or of any spiritual traditions. He is not always easy, but he is accessible, inspirational, mind-and-soul-stirring at a depth that lasts. His is not fast food; it is a long, rich, delicious meal that nourishes you for a lifetime and that you never forget—kind of like a seder. In addition to Elijah, who we expect at every seder, Heschel would be so welcome any time.

Along with the readings below, I urge you to take a look at some of the collections of readings available and then, if you like what you find, check out some of the many books (I am particularly fond of The Sabbath, but there are so many worthy ones).

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

The Wisdom of Heschel

I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology  (“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”)


THE MEANING OF EXISTENCE is experienced in moments of exaltation. Man must strive for the summit in order to survive on the ground. His norms must be higher than his behavior, his ends must surpass his needs. The security of existence lies in the exaltation of existence.

This is one of the rewards of being human: quiet exaltation, capability for celebration. It is expressed in a phrase which Rabbi Akiba offered to his disciples:

A song every day,
A song every day

 

THE TABLETS ARE BROKEN whenever the Golden Calf is called into being. We believe that every hour is endowed with the power to lend meaning to or withhold meaning from all other hours. No moment is as a moment able to bestow ultimate meaning upon all other moments. No moment is the absolute center of history. Time is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere.

 

THE WORLD COULD NOT EXIST at all except as one; deprived of unity, it would not be a cosmos but chaos, an agglomeration of countless possibilities … Life is tangled, fierce, fickle. We cannot remain in agreement with all goals. We are constantly compelled to make a choice, and the choice of one goal means the forsaking of another.

 

THE PROPHETS PROCLAIMED that justice is omnipotent, that right and wrong are dimensions of world history, not merely modes of conduct. The existence of the world is contingent upon right and wrong … The validity of justice and the motivation for its exercise lie in the blessings it brings to man … Justice exists in relation to a person … An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt.

 

THE HEART IS OFTEN A LONELY VOICE in the marketplace of living. Man may entertain lofty ideals and behave like the ass that, as the saying goes, “carries gold and eats thistles.” The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment; how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul.

 

HUMAN LIFE IS HOLY, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah … Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.

 

TO PRAY is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.

To escape from the mean and penurious, from calculating and scheming, is at times the parching desire of man … Prayer clarifies our hope and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification … It teaches us what to aspire to, implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish.

 

THE MOST MAGNIFICENT EDIFICES, most beautiful temples and monuments of worldly glory, are repulsive to the man of piety when they are built by the sweat and tears of suffering slaves, or erected through injustice and fraud. Hypocrisy and pretense of devoutness are more distasteful to him than open iniquity. But in the roughened, soiled hands of devoted parents, or in the maimed bodies and bruised faces of those who have been persecuted but have kept faith with God, he may detect the last great light on earth.

 

WHAT WOULD ART HAVE BEEN without the religious sense of mystery and sovereignty, and how dreary would religion have been without the incessant venture of the artist to embody the invisible in visible forms, to bring his vision out of the darkness of the heart, and to fill the immense absence of the Deity with the light of human genius? The right hand of the artist withers when he forgets the sovereignty of God, and the heart of the religious man has often become dreary without the daring skill of the artist. Art seemed to be the only revelation in the face of the Deity’s vast silence.