Pulse Like Water
Contemplations and Practice of a Christian on the Druid Path
April 26, 2007
April 13, 2006
Difference, Sameness, Process and Goals.
It is my experience that people of an open-minded and intellectually curious persuasion go through various stages when approaching the question of world religions and whether or not "all religions lead to God"... As I have written in the past (for example, in my post about my personal process of accepting Christ), I have come to terms with my own relationship with the Divine through the holy person of Christ and, from a broader perspective, the Trinity of Godhead, Christ, and Immanent Presence. I have come to terms with the truth that I can be both essentially Christian and accepting of the inherent value and holiness of all religious paths, even those I do not walk. Coming to this understanding was, like all things, a process. I went through many phases and stages which I often see reflected in those around me who, for their own reasons, on our journeys of their own... I thought, just for the fun of it (and to give Jeff Downs something to ponder), I would talk a little about my own journey and the stages along the way. (Be forewarned, this goes on far too long and gets a bit melodramatic by the end.)
Having been raised Catholic by a man who had grown up the oldest son in a large, poor Catholic family, for a long while, I knew only Catholicism. What I knew of Catholicism was what I had been taught in Sunday school, during Mass, and during gentle talks with my ever-patient and soft-spoken father. This was a stage of innocence, where I was not aware of alternatives and the struggles of difference and sameness that I would confront later on. What I knew was that God was Love, that He was all-loving and all-forgiving, and that He was always present in the same way that "nowhere" was also somehow mysteriously "now-here." I knew that I could feel Him in warm sunlight and taste Him in the wind; that I could hear Him in the disembodied voice of the old man who stood, dressed in funny clothes, at the front of the church while I was still too short to see him through the forest of adults standing in front of me. No one ever warned me not to lose faith, not to stray away from the Church, not to trust those shifty-eyed non-Christians... It was understood that, if God was Love, no reasonable or good person would ever willingly leave that Love behind, and that Love would never abandon them, even when all the rest of the world had. My father told me stories of growing up lower-class and ignored by most of society, finding comfort in the arms of his local Catholic community among people who never plagued him with shame or guilt at growing up poor and imperfect. This was the truth of the Christian faith as I knew it as a little girl--a community of loving friends held together not by fear of what was bad "out there," but by love and kindness towards one another and devotion to a God of Mercy.
It was during this stage that I began to read poetry, and much of the poetry I read came from poets of other religious traditions, some Buddhist, some Muslim, some Hindu... Though the names of different deities struck me as odd sometimes, I took them in stride the way I took references to Zeus and Diana and the legends of Greek heroes in English Romantic poetry--as poetic motifs, not dangerous religious doctrines to be feared or ignored. At the heart of every great poem, I found the awe, beauty and power of the God I had been raised with, the God I had always known wasn't just some old white man watching from the clouds, but was deeply present in the world and in other human beings, just as He had been in Christ. Only slowly did I begin to realize that there were other Christians who believed no value or truth about love and praise could be found in such non-Christian works. I began to understand that, according to these people, even great men and women who had loved deeply, served humbly and praised joyfully were "condemned" because of the names by which they had done so. But did the sunlight and wind have names? Did the moments of God's presence all demand to be called "Jesus"? Weren't there times when, in grief or gratitude, I had called out wordlessly to the nameless Divine Love that pulsed through me like living water? Would I end up in hell for such moments of pure worship, when I forgot to label myself strictly "Christian" and instead opened my soul to the truth that transcended me? Ridiculous! I did not even have to ask. I was young, and I knew they were wrong, these other Christians who thought everyone with a different name or skin color was already damned. I laughed them off, and with it, the Christian label. And so, for many years, I longer to be an angel, to be genderless, ageless and religion-less, to serve my Lovely God purely and without distracting words.
Some time later, I came across the writings of Gandhi (here, I give much thanks to my older cousin, who lent me his college text books while I was still putzing around in grade school). For the first time, I was introduced to the idea that "all religions are one" and "all religions lead to God." Enthusiastic for a system of beliefs as all-loving and all-embracing as the Divine itself was, I leapt at this idea, taking it to mean that I was utterly free to be any religion at all, to be simply "religious" without the need to be Christian and (so I still thought) automatically intolerant. In short, I thought this idea meant that all religions were basically the same, and any differences were minor and unimportant. This attitude buoyed me through high school, as I came to terms with the landscape of conservative suburbia and found companionship in the geeks and artists who were often more concerned with their work than what people thought of them. To care about the work I did, as a student and a growing writer myself, as well as a musician, would-be photographer, and hopefully-hopeless-teenage-girl romantic crafting herself into an ideal of her grown-up self--to focus on this work instead of on the realm of beliefs and ideas was to feel free to live and grow naturally. Still I laughed at the idea of a hell where I would burn forever for being the girl God had created and that I, with His guidance, would continue to create.
Upon entering college, I decided to study Comparative Religions formally. Blessed with a brilliant professor who, having just graduated with his Ph.D. from Harvard, was young enough to be approachable and honest enough to admit his own continuing questions and unending learning and pondering, I confronted for the first time the question, "What is religion, anyway?" I still do not have an answer. Academically, I began to discover how the concept of a "religion" as a thing unto itself had grown out of the Reformation when, for the first time, Western culture faced the notion of having real choices (until then, as with some religious groups still today, the world was divided simply into "believers" and "atheists," in which wise-women, scientists, alchemists, philosophers and superstitious farmers were as likely to be "believers" as not). I confronted the fact that all religions were not fundamentally the same, but often involved vastly different core beliefs which stemmed from and interacted with the anthropological, historical and cultural roots of the tradition. This was true, I learned, even of Christianity--flipping through a textbook of collected works by various Christian theologians, saints and theorists throughout history, I found on one page the denunciation of Reason as the misleading work of the devil, and on the next the familiar love-swoonings of a saint's poetry, and on the next the step-by-step logical proof of God's existence demonstrating reason as the defining gift from God to man. All of these things were, technically, "Christian," and yet they bit and fought amongst themselves across the centuries and throughout the world of changing politics and culture. Not only was my pleasant notion that all religions had a core structure based in Divine reality shattered beneath me, but I even when I turned back to Christianity as my home and root, I discovered that accepting the term "Christian" was really the acceptance of a non-term, a name with no meaning, a word that has meant almost everything in the past and that today has no clear, agreed-upon doctrine amongst its many splintered denominations... For the first time, I found myself afraid of hell. In all this academic rigor, theological nitpicking and fiery condemnation--where was God, and where was the way to Him (or Her)?
Then one night, I came back to myself in a dream. In the dream, I wandered a strange party full of strangers, alone and frightened, sobbing that I had lost the Love of my life. And there he was, sitting on the floor near a coffee table in a crowded living room, sipping soda out of a plastic cup and watching television--Christ. And he was young, and everyone ignored him, and he was very lonely, and he loved them all. I sat down beside him and told him my confusion, and he told me the story of realizing he was bisexual (yes, I said it--Jesus told me he was bisexual), and the pain and confusion it caused, the self-doubt that ensued. Surely, the thought of being able to love everyone must somehow be an illusion. How could you love everyone when everyone was so different, sometimes so much that they seemed to lose all common ground? To claim an abstract love for humanity-as-a-whole was just another way of not loving anyone in particular at all, he explained... And so it had been for me, as well--loving an abstract, untouchable God through all-religions left me defenseless and unprepared for the onslaught of difference and separation and ultimately isolation that came with true complexity.
The truth, of course, was just this: I had forgotten the childhood faith of which I had been so sure, when I had known that God was in the rain and the wind and the sunlight as well as in other human beings and in the church. I had known then, but not understood, that God is in the entire world, and yet the entire world is everywhere distinct, different and unique. To know and love God, then, was to know and love the mystery of unity within the mystery of difference. Christ sipped from his soda and nodded. To love your neighbor as yourself did not mean to love only the part of your neighbor which is the same as yourself--it is to love you neighbor in the same way as you love yourself, which is to say as a whole and unique and valuable being, utterly different and yet united in love. And likewise with God--for God is not only the Ideal, but also the Reality, and both the Ideal and the Reality must be loved and valued not for their sameness, but for their complexity, difference and on-going evolution. This was the Mystery of the Trinity, which denies that God is everywhere and always the same and simple while declaring in the same breath that exact truth.
And if every religion is different, and even every believer within each religion traveling different paths in pursuit of different goals, these goals are different and conflicting only insofar as the Divine Itself embraces all contradiction, paradox and mystery. God is Love, and Love is a process, not an end-product. The lesson of Christ is that to be fully human is to be fully divine, and to be fully divine is to be fully human; to be utterly united is to be infinitely unique, to come together in love is to follow a new and wholly different path, for every person loves every other person in a wholly new and unique way, just as each person loves God differently and God, as Love, manifests to and through each moment, each breath and each ray of light in a way utterly unique. Each religion is true to the extent that each is true to itself; each leads to God to the extent that it leads a person both into her own heart and out into the Heart of creation, however those hearts are conceived. Each person finds God to the extent that he finds himself. As a vine supported by but not confined to the structure of the fence... in winter, I may loose a few of my leaves, settle down into quiet contemplation and discover the crosshatches of that fence spell out the structure of Christianity, or perhaps that of Druidry, or perhaps only the ancient and forgotten language written by rain and moss into the barks of old trees. But regardless, the leaves and veins and stems and roots are my own, and as I am true to them, so I am true to Christ, which lives not in the names and doctrines of difference and alienation, but in the thriving diversity and change of uniqueness and love.
April 06, 2006
The Nature Challenge.
Rarely do I post anything in here that is wholly another's work; even with poems, I try at least to give some context or commentary. As of late, though, time is short, and though I don't have a great deal of it right now, I wanted to post something I found recently that immediately struck me as valuable and worth sharing.
"The widely respected Canadian ecologist Dr. David Suzuki has worked out a list of ten simple ways people in the developed world can sharply reduce their impact on the Earth, and he challenges people to adopt at least three of the ten steps. Over eleven-thousand people have taken up the Nature Challenge so far. Below is his list of suggested actions:
1. Reduce home energy use by 10 percent."
2. Choose an energy-efficient home and appliances.
3. Replace dangerous pesticides with alternatives.
4. Eat meat-free meals one day a week.
5. Buy locally grown and produced food.
6. Choose a fuel-efficient vehicle.
7. Walk, bike, carpool, or take transit instead of driving.
8. Choose a home close to work or school.
9. Support car-free alternatives.
10. Learn more and share with others.
- John Michael Greer, The Druidry Handbook
This is an excerpt from a book on Druidry, which is a path I have been seriously considering for the past few months. I will probably write more about this transformation from witch to druid in a later post... I think, in many ways, it is the natural progression that my journey must take--from poet, to witch, to druid; from bard, to seer, to priestess.... Does this mean I will give up on witchcraft in my pursuit of the Druid priesthood? Of course not, just as I did not give up poetry when I began practicing the Craft. Th Craft, like poetry, serves me well as a skill and a framework for my spiritual evolution... However, I have begun to feel restricted in the notion of "witch" lately, and Druidry calls to me as if I were born to it, in a way that witchcraft, although a reasonable approach to spiritual praxis, never did.
Like I said, I'll write more about this in my next post. For now, consider trying out one or two things from the above list, and see just how much you are really willing to change for the sake of the Earth we all adore.
March 29, 2006
Personal Reflections for the New Moon.
Though I have been meaning to update this blog with a new post for the past week, it seems that I have no one topic of any substantial length to discuss, but rather several smaller personal reflections that I decided I might share. I realize sometimes this on-going journal gets bogged down with heady intellectual and theological discussions, while at other times it is given to sudden flights into the realms of inexplicable and unexplained poetry. For once, then, I would like to share bits and pieces from my practical, daily life, to give you, dear reader, some perspective and insight into how my own journey is going. Hope you enjoy.
Dew & Ash: A Book of Pages
Having received a gorgeous green, weathered, faux-leather traveler's journal for Christmas, I decided a few months ago to dedicate it to poetry, inspiring quotations and excerpts, and short observations and lists from my Craft and path. Something similar to a Book of Shadows, from which I might pull appropriate words for ritual or contemplation, but distinct from my personal journal, which is usually verbose, unorganized and uninspiring. Before I'd made this decision, however, I'd written in this journal, on the very first page, a short verse by Hemingway:
The age demanded that we sing
And cut away our tongue.
The age demanded that we flow
And hammered in the bung.
The age demanded that we dance
And jammed us into iron pants.
And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.
Mostly because I thought the poem was witty, but also because I was feeling bitter and sarcastic (albeit in an amused way) at the time. I realized afterwards that this was probably not the best dedication for a new book. On the other hand, perhaps it would serve. In a sense, I needed to express and in some ways banish these feelings of repression, misdirection and pressure (things that, in the end, were keeping me from even beginning to use this beautiful journal, demanding of myself inspiring words and then chastising myself for poor handwriting and banal poems, among other things). And so, today, on the new moon, I put a definitive box around this poem on this first page, acknowledging but containing those feelings, vowing not to allow them to overwhelm me but to serve me well by reminding me to laugh and maintain perspective. I then carefully scribed my formal dedication, an excerpt from a poem by Neruda:
You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists:
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
Amazingly, this simple act (while burning some sorely missed Frankincense and Myrrh incense for purification and grounding) shook me free of my somewhat sad and frustrated mood, which had been clinging to me all morning. I have taken the first step towards that romantic vision of my ideal magical self, sitting peacefully among the trees, rocks and streams, worn book of verse in hand, singing with the soul songs of the world.
Dew & Ash: More on the Role of Texts
I call this new journal my "Book of Dew and Ash," rather than my "Book of Shadows" (or "Book of Light," as many Christian witches have preferred). Perhaps it is because I am just not moved by cliches and the term BoS has become an all too familiar description that does not stir me to the fear or fascination that must have captured the attention and imagination of witches and non-witches earlier in the birth of Wicca. Instead, I recall dew--"gem of the earth and sky begotten" as George Eliot described--that mysterious and sweet substance that lingers in the field during the threshold hours of dusk and dawn, made of the same stuffs of which our own bodies are made, water condensed around bits of dust and reflecting both the heights of heaven and the depths of seas in its form. I recall ash--to which Leonard Cohen compares poetry, the ash of living well--as that earthy interconnection to which we each return, the heart of each fire and the ink with which we might write on the white rocks of coals grown cold. For me, a book of poetry and song is not mere shadow, nor is it light itself, but the strange footsteps which point elsewhere, the sweet and dirty remnants that speak softly, "This is true, this happens, this is real, and this is what remains when it has passed..." From the dew, new seeds may drink and grow. From the ash, new birds of fire and inspiration rise. But in the end, such texts are merely texts, only words strung on an otherwise empty page, until given life again by our reading and contemplation, our songs and dancing.
Wild with Sun
I have found recently that the passion sparked in me several months ago for studying complex ritual and high magic is slowly conceding its place to a longing to be outdoors and wildly informal with praise and the new spring. I find it interesting to witness, note and later reflect on our own patterns and cycles of learning and development. During the winter months when the world seemed unfriendly towards my body, ready to bite off my nose or ears with each breath of wind, I found myself drawn more towards indoor ritual, learning to carve out a warm, bright sanctuary in the corner of a dark bedroom. While my body and the world seemed stilled by winter, I found it easy to reinvigorate my ritual and worship with challenging formulas and complex visualizations of pulsing light and heat.
Now, perhaps it is only my still relatively undisciplined mind, but I am tired of study and concentration. I am infected with a feverish desire to go wild, to forget everything I know and open myself up to the instructions of the sunlight, the warm breeze, the heavy-scented rains... The crocuses, which are blooming now in earnest in the front garden, need no elaborate ritual to know their own opening; the robins have no complicated instructions but easily choreograph their field-wide seeking in the still hard ground for seeds and worms. I want to be so intuitive and free. And perhaps this will change again, as we reach the heights of summer and my body calms back down, more happy to be held within more formal circles of magic and praise. For now, my pulse and breath declare the world and the season to be my sacred circles, already cast perfectly by the rising and setting of the sun, moon and winds, both too big for me to bother inscribing and wide enough that the freedom they give is more than enough.
On Purity and Freedom
On a final and more personal note, I find myself in an interesting situation concerning romance. Spring is, of course, a wonderful time for new love, as well as the renewing of well-worn ties. Earlier I committed myself to singlehood for an undetermined length of time, in order to prepare myself to better receive the love that I eventually hope to receive. This on-going work of crafting myself into my ideal self in order to better welcome my ideal mate is more complicated than I expected and is bringing to the surfaces issues I never expected to face. One of these issues is that of freedom. Although I have always believed deeply that loving another person was a taste of freedom itself, I realize that most of my past relationships have been wrought with pressure and constraints. I thrill at the thought that, at the moment, I am unattached and so utterly free to love anyone and everyone, to enjoy another's company without any hint of guilt or any lingering worry after we are parted. I also begin to see that it is possible to conceive of a relationship in which this feeling of ultimate freedom is a pillar of shared love, rather than a side-effect of unrequited affection. Such a realization gives me strength and shows me that I am, in some ways, making progress in the realm of loving myself as uniquely free, instead of always imagining myself as part of a package which is always at risk of being broken apart.
On the other hand, last night I had a disturbing dream which brought to my attention an issue I hadn't expected--my fear of my own impurity. In this dream, I was sexually assaulted (though not fully raped) by a man who had initially been my friend and whom I had invited into my home in trust. After the assault, I was confronted by a person who has been in my thoughts and affection a good deal recently and with whom I treasure that happy freedom and innocence of unattachedness. I suddenly found that not only did I care deeply what he thought of me, but I was devastated to learn that he thought of me as dirty and damaged, as foolish and impure. The openness and strength that I had always thought were qualities which had allowed me to overcome a very similar situation of sexual assault in my past--which had allowed me to love even those who have rejected me and to always be ready and willing to open myself to love again, even if it meant being hurt--now appeared to me as flaws and sins, the very source of my impurity rather than its remedy. This dream shook me deeply, and I woke up feeling violated and not myself. It was as if that wonderful freedom I had slowly been discovering had revealed a dark shadow-self of grime and infection. Instead of rejoicing in my ability to love others without condition or romance, I felt burdened by the weight of shedding those ties for the sake of a future ideal relationship. After all, why should someone value my love if it is given out so freely? Was I as dirty and sterile spiritually as a porn star might be diseased and worn out physically by too many lovers? Would I have anything left to give to my mate, and would he accept it?
It's strange that I never felt these worries or regrets before. I have grown so much from each of my relationships. And already, the fears lurking in this dream have subsided as I have written of them. In no small part, they were also banished when I re-read and contained that verse by Hemingway. For the cynicism that one cannot be both innocently free and spiritually clean is the same cynicism that mocks the very constraints it cannot shake. The age demands that we love freely and yet insists that to do so lessens the value of each relationship. Of course, intellectually I know better. I know that we are damaged by the regrets and pain that we hold onto, not those traumas of the past which we overcome and see through into love. I realize that it is not the free-flowing stream which gives rise to decay and stagnation, but the creek clogged with weeds and mud. And I know that even these weeds and mud harbor life which is both beautiful and messy, and that this kind of life, too, can be free and clean in its own way.
March 22, 2006
Asking Questions: In Growing Light.
Well, it is only just past the Vernal Equinox, first day of spring, on which I would have loved to post, if Blogger.com hadn't been on the fritz. In any case, now is the time of year when the days finally grow longer than the nights, the sun climbs higher above the horizon each day, and the earth drinks warmth deep into its winter-wrapped bones and belly.
Light is often associated with illumination, wisdom and divine truth. In light of such associations (pun most definitely intended ;), I thought I would revive a long-lost series I originally titled "Asking Questions," in which I invite contemplation and commentary on a given theme for which I have, as usual, no easy answers. This post's theme is knowledge and information, as well as how we seek and utilize information in our lives, and how others might respond to our actions. I admit, while writing this bit, it dissolved somewhat into rhetorical puzzling, but I hope that we each ask these questions of ourselves honestly and regularly, while finding the hope and strength to live up to our answers.
Why do we share information with others? Why do we correct those who believe things which we think are inaccurate or untrue? Is it because we want to help them live happy, healthy lives? Is it because we believe their personal fulfillment as human beings and members of the human community might benefit from new information? Is it because we are thoughtful, intelligent beings who try to guide our own lives the best way we know how and need not hesitate to divulge the reasons for our choices when we are asked (or, more often the case, challenged by antagonists)? Is it because we believe there is an inherent importance to truth and its contemplation, to the complexities of reality, to the spiritual work of the philosopher who forces himself to approach every issue with intellectual and emotional honesty, even if what he learns is uncomfortable or self-incriminating?
Or is it because we hoard facts like jewels and resent those who are unimpressed by attempts to limit beauty to only such riches? Or because we need to feel right, powerful and ultimately secure by disproving others who disagree or challenge us? Do we secretly believe "knowledge is power" and so forget the value of wisdom, love and purpose?
And why do people respond with anger and resentment towards us when we disagree? Is it because they are mean-spirited and shallow, self-righteous, proud? Or is it because they are good people, trying their best to live good lives, within a world they have been trained so well to see as hostile and insecure? Because if we provide them with a counterexample of living that does not need to consume and hoard but instead seeks with every move to take as little as possible and to give back as much as can be given, they are afraid that it is either trickery or that they may indeed have been misled all this time into a way of living which is more selfish and less loving than it could have been? And that, because they are good people, they know this and do not want to believe it of themselves, and so instead they must believe so poorly of others? Why are our best efforts to love and give back to our fellow human beings often met with derision and even hatred by the very people to whom we are trying to give? And would it be better to allow them their illusions of isolation, insecurity and their system of hoarding--whether it be a storehouse of food which does not satisfy or of facts which do not illuminate--or to challenge it, if only by our own attempts to live in the best way we can? Should we allow resentment to deter us? Should we return to the old belief in the inherent antagonism of all people and the world itself?
Or should we wish them peace and continue to give of ourselves, whether we are rejected utterly or sucked dry by those still fearing shortage and want, wishing only that someday it will not be so hard for them to give, nor so difficult for us to be received?
March 14, 2006
Modern Myths about Christianity, Pt. 3
I Can't Even Save Myself : So Save Yourself
This post, the final in my three-part series on myths about the Christian faith and where they may be off-base, will be different in format from the previous two. For the simple reason that, as we have progressed through these topics, we have tread increasingly closer to the detailed and in-depth theological debates taking place within Christianity itself. It has become increasingly difficult to cite obvious and conclusive examples of where certain myths falter and fail; indeed, the final topic regarding hell, salvation and the role of Jesus Christ is a subject on which almost every Christian has a different opinion, even within a given denomination. This diversity itself, I hope, is enough to debunk common claims that "ALL Christians believe this" or "If you do not believe this, you simply are not be a Christian." What follows, then, is my personal view on these topics, which I share with other Catholics and Christians, and which fall within the reasonable bounds of theological doctrine as understood by most people within the Christian tradition. It is important to note that I came to this particular understanding long before I came to the Craft, and that it developed out of a great deal of study and reading of scripture itself as well as other Christian texts (the writings of saints, modern theologians, etc.). Therefore, it is legitimate to state that it is essentially Christian in nature, even if it is not identical to all other Christian beliefs. To kick-start this discussion, let's better define the myth that, though true for some Christians, are not prerequisites of the Catholic faith.
Myth # 5: Christianity insists that only Christians can be saved and all other non-Christians are condemned to hell; this means that Christianity is fundamentally an intolerant religion eager to claim the privileges given to them by their Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the one and only legitimate savior of humankind (all others being false gods and demons).
In order to address this very broad myth (which is only a myth when the universal "ALL Christians" is used, as many Christians do indeed believe the above statement in all its literalness), we must first ask several clarifying questions: What is the nature of salvation (i.e. from what are we being "saved" and why)? What is the nature of hell? What is the role of Jesus as Christ and Savior? Indeed, these are the very questions that Christians themselves often disagree about, and thus where we may find the theological explanations more or less intolerant, just, loving or ridiculous, depending on the given answers. Below, I will take each of these questions in turn and talk a little about how I answer them as a practitioner of the Catholic faith. Other Christians may respond differently, while other Neopagans and Wiccans may find that, beneath the superficial difficulty presented by different language and terminology, they share a great deal in common. The important thing to keep in mind is that this is a rich debate, not a dead and deadly dogma already written in stone.
The Nature of Hell
Is "hell" an objective "place" of punishment, imposed by an external and all-powerful Being?
It is quite easy to take broad statements about hell and interpret them according to one's personal predisposition. Often when I think of the various statements regarding hell and destruction that Jesus is reported to have made (as well as those of other religious leaders/saints), I tend to think of these as referring to a kind of present condition in which we struggle as human beings. This is due to my own predisposition to believe that an all-loving and just God would not punish someone eternally for a finite life. Warnings about hell could be thought of as warnings about a future punishment imposed from the outside by an all-powerful Being--but for me, this contradicts both what my reason tells me about the nature of justice, and what my heart tells me about the immanence of the Divine. Instead, I see these warnings as statements about our own inherent flaws and struggles, living as human beings ("amphibious"--half-spirit, half-physical, as C.S. Lewis has said) and facing our own doubts and feelings of isolation and alienation. In this sense, it is a "wide gate to destruction," in that so many people deal with doubt and hardship in unhealthy ways: either repressing them and focusing instead on temporary material pleasures, or dwelling on them so fully that they succumb to fear and despair ("despair" being a kind of blasphemy in assuming one knows decisively what the future holds and that the future is hopeless). I think we all know that it is hard to strike a balance of happiness and loving peace in life, as difficult as walking a razor-thin edge or entering a narrow way. One does not have to believe in hell, or even an afterlife, to acknowledge this truth about the human condition.
Though Jesus spoke of hell, he also emphasized a kind of freeing love for and acceptance of one another, as well as a deep commitment to the Divine. Indeed, this could be considered the core of the resurrection itself--the overcoming of the seemingly inevitable "death" of (self-)destruction, even in the face of all impossibility, to rise to a joyous communion with God (which is nothing other than heaven, the Kingdom of God, whether realized after death, or in this present life). None of this suggests to me that "hell" is a punishment--rather, hell is the unwanted alternative (the Hebrew translation used in scripture is "sheol"," which is a dwelling place of the dead which, much like the underworld of many pagan mythologies, is morally neutral). In the end, it is an alternative that we all overcome, with the help of the Divine. "Hell," as a perceived isolation and separation from God, may exist during life or after death. It may seem deeply, soul-crushingly painful--perhaps even infinitely so--but it is fundamentally a finite state. Even in terms of the feudal conception of Christ's death as "payment" for sins in terms of honor/obligation, this must be so--for Christ must have fully experienced the suffering of hell in all its depths in order for the "price" for humanity's sins to be paid--and yet, clearly Christ's suffering was not infinite and eternal (or rather, it was infinite without being eternal, whereas his restoration to love and joy was both eternal and infinite). In that sense, "hell" may feel infinite to a person, but it is not eternal, and its infinite "feel" is subjective rather than objective. No matter how isolated one may feel from the Divine, one's being is rooted in Divine Being and cannot be separated from it without merely ceasing to exist. Fundamentalist Christians who warn that hell is a state of tormented memory unwittingly acknowledge this fact, for the sweetness of remembered union in love is not possible in a state of complete annihilation, yet turns to pain and regret when it is believed to have been lost. However, in acknowledging that hell is subjective and one is never cut-off from the Divine for even a moment, let alone eternally--we find that this is a far cry from the infinitely objective and eternal "hell" that most fundamentalists evoke (and most of the rest of us think of thanks to popularized versions of it in books, television, movies, etc.).
The Nature of Salvation
If hell is subjective and no one is condemned to it for eternity, then what does it mean to be "saved"?
If hell is not a punishment but a kind of self-destruction or self-deception of perceived alienation from the Divine, then salvation is not an unnatural pick-me-up by some external force, but the realization of the already inherent and natural state in which creation exists in relationship with its Creator. This is why salvation and revelation are so closely connected, especially in the Christian tradition. This kind of realization of unity and Divine Being/Becoming is understood in some religions (such as Buddhism) as a personal attainment to enlightenment, something which is worked for individually and cannot simply be given by a deity figure. The absence of a God-the-Father in such systems of belief is not necessarily indicative that such systems are inherently flawed. As even hard-nosed atheists may still seek love, truth and evolution (and just as one does not need to believe in an afterlife in order to understand the concept of hell), everyone may attain to this realization, each by a different path.
In Christianity, the focus is not on personal enlightenment, but on the role of a self-revealing Divine Presence which works in harmony with human will to restore the full realization of loving unity. This self-revelation occurs (according the Catholic doctrine) through many various manifestations: through the natural world ("consider the lilies"), through human intellect and reason (the Logos/Sophia), through social and emotional interactions with other human beings ("what you do to the least of these"), through the sacred scripture and evolving tradition of the Church, and finally through Jesus as Christ, the third person of the Trinity. Most of these forms of a revealing Divinity are self-explanatory, and many are heartily embraced by Wiccans and Neopagans, as well, who look to nature, reason and the human experience as full-to-bursting with the Divine (not to mention personal revelations of particular deities). Just as a self-revealing Divine is a unique aspect of salvation for deity-focused spiritual paths, the belief that scripture and church tradition are revelatory are unique to the Christian faith. Their inclusion does not mean that anyone who does not include them is excluded from true revelation. Really, very few Christians find all forms of revelation speaking to them equally. Each person has unique and distinct tastes and finds the realization of love and truth in sometimes vastly different ways; while one person may find scripture as inspiring as the greatest love poetry, someone else may find his greatest sense of God in elaborate Easter ceremony in an old cathedral, while yet another person may see God in the faces of the homeless while working in a soup kitchen.
The two stumbling blocks that most non-Christians find about the Christian affinity for revelation are the important given to scripture and, moreso, to the person of Jesus Christ as savior.
Jesus Christ as Savior & Reconciler
If "hell" is a kind of self-destruction that follows causally from how a person lives her life, and "salvation" is the realization of our natural and on-going state of loving unity with the Divine, then what does it mean to "accept Jesus as your Savior"?
To claim that Jesus Christ is a savior to mankind, and to furthermore say that he is the savior of mankind, is to say in other words that he is the full revelation of God--a revelation that combines and transcends all of the previously discussed forms of manifestation (but does not necessarily replace or invalidate them). It is important to note, at this point, that Jesus the Christ and Jesus the historical person are both the same, and yet not to be mistaken for one another (more on this later). Thus, if Jesus the Christ is the ultimate and full revelation of the Divine, then "accepting Jesus as Savior" means accepting one's personal constitution that allows her access to the Divine most directly through Jesus as Christ. As already discussed, this is not the case for every individual. For someone else, Islam may be the most natural and direct root, and for another person Buddhism or Judaism or some other religion. If the idea of Jesus Christ serves only to confuse, rather than reveal, than it is not acting as a revelation, and other methods of revelation are equally valid and fruitful. Thus, each religion remains distinct, unique and integral while still all retaining validity (and, just as we can learn from each other without having to give up our own uniqueness and individuality, we can learn from other faiths without it destroying the integrity of our own). If I had a friend who was suffering and struggling in life and I thought that the Christian faith might provide him with what he so desperately sought on the spiritual plane, I would probably try to talk with him about it and encourage him to explore it more on his own. On the other hand, I have also known people whose relationship to the Christian faith created a great deal more suffering and self-destruction (usually due to constant fear and bullying within the religious community), and in those cases I have not hesitated to gently point this out, even though I myself have found (and still do find) Christianity personally fulfilling and a path to my own "salvation."
When Jesus says (in the most mystical/esoteric of the four gospels) that he is the Way, the Truth and the Light, I understand this as meaning that his example and his path is a legitimate path to union with the Divine and that, perhaps especially in his time and within that given cultural, it was the most natural and direct for those to whom he spoke. Notice that he rarely tried to convert others overtly, but merely warned them about their own lurking self-destruction (as if to say, "You don't have to believe [in] me, but it would do you good to get your act together in any case") and the blessings and peace that were the fruits of a good life (he obviously wasn't preaching Christianity as the one and only religion--he was Jewish!). This is where it becomes important to distinguish Jesus as a historical person from Jesus as Christ, while remembering that they are one and the same. The term "Christ" is not a personal name, but a title-of-sorts, such that the historical person of Jesus may be The Christ and thus the savior to humanity, while not denying that other historical persons may also have been (or will be) The Christ. This is also not to say that these other people are merely reincarnations; each may be uniquely distinct, but all embody the full revelation of the Divine as both transcendent and immanent. [Side note: personally, it strikes me as interesting that very few other religious traditions claim to have such Christ figures; for example, the Buddha, and similar prophets, may attain to enlightenment rather than embodying it in their essential natures from the beginning (though this is a poorly stated idea, you know what I mean), while many deities in polytheistic traditions manifest in human form but are not fully human--this is why the concept of the Christ as both fully human and fully divine, as a rather uniquely Christian concept, leads me to continue to call myself Christian even when I disagree with other doctrines).]
To understand this concept better, we can discuss the idea of the Mystery of the Trinity. Indeed, my personal spiritual life has focused largely on this Mystery. Within the "three persons" of the single Divine we find God-the-Father, the Son-of-God (or the Christ), and the Holy-Spirit. We may conceive of God-the-Father as the wholly Transcendent and Unknown Godhead; the Holy Spirit as intimately personal, immanent and manifest in nature and in humanity (the "Divine Spark" and sustaining lifeforce); and Jesus the Christ as the Son-of-God as a reconciler and bridge between these two other paradoxical, contradictory faces of the Divine. Jesus, to me, is the Reconciler of the contradictory aspects of a Divinity that is both wholly Other (i.e. transcendent) and intimately Personal (i.e. immanent/manifest); he is the living historical example of "Christ-consciousness," which is the perfection of humanity. Unlike enlightened beings and prophets in other religious traditions, Jesus did not attain to Christ-consciousness, but was "born into it," so to speak, and is in a sense synonymous with it as the Word/Logos from the dawn of Creation. I think I agree with Dion Fortune (a devoted Christian who also happened to be an occultist) that most souls cease to reincarnate in material bodies before reaching this level of evolution (continuing their growth on other planes), so Jesus is unique in being both physically present in the world and yet fully evolved as a human soul, and thus also fully united with God-the-Father (i.e. transcendent Divinity).
These are my personal beliefs regarding the nature of Jesus Christ and his role within my faith. I have a feeling that, for most people, they seem both uncomfortably Christian and yet oddly unlike what most Christians think of when they think of Jesus. Again, I hope that by now it is obvious that not all Christians agree and that, as with any complex theological system, these ideas can be debated, explored and poked at for thousands of pages over centuries of thinkers and believers. To make simple claims about the nature of Christian belief is to continue a myth of mindless simplicity which, at heart, is simply not true.
Modern Myths about Christianity Series
March 08, 2006
Vernal Embertide Contemplation.
'The seasons intimate individually the bliss of Heaven, where there is "the beauty of spring, the brightness of summer, the plenty of autumn, the rest of winter."'
Today I'm treating myself. I'm going to get all dressed up, go down to the park, then go out to eat by myself for dinner. I'm going to treat myself to good company, even if it's unrequited. Clouds and trees do not love back, the sun and moon do not love back, beautiful strangers do not love back. But I can dwell in love and wait for spring. I will hold intimately the coals of my love for a world who holds me intimately but does not know me well, and I will be warm. I will be warm and wait for spring. I will remember the ember days.
The Vernal or Lenten Embertide remind us of the coming beauty of spring, and our relationship to beauty in the world. It is the tragedy and the blessing of beauty to be complete in itself, to be whole and self-fulfilled. To see beauty, we must often be separate from it, and the beauty that we are intimately a part of may be too large for us to see. Our sense of awe in the presence of beauty is heightened and sharpened by our awareness of distance, by our longing for something with which we are not fully merged. Our longing makes beauty both sweet and ephemeral. Beauty stirs us out of ourselves.
We remember, and on these ember days of the coming spring, we seek solitude and distance. We remember that beauty surrounds us, and we withdraw from busy-ness in order to remind ourselves, to perceive it better. We remember beauty and seek its company--we seek the company of the wind and the trees, of the distant and still-cold sun, of the kind and lovely strangers whom we do not know but who are still connected to us through beauty, love and the Divine within each of us. We remember that we, too, are infinitely beautiful, that within us burns the dark potential of the rose of the soul to bloom suddenly open at the first warm breath of the season. We withdraw from the noisy world and become beautiful, content in our uniqueness, awe-filled in our longing. We remember beauty and, in it, we find the relief of freedom, the song of the breathless skylark in its strong and far-away flight. We hear the beauty of distant music sung not for us but for itself alone, and on these ember days, together we remember.