Ash Wednesday in the House of Christianity

The cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ’s victory over death. The words “Remember that thou art dust and that to dust thou shall return” are not to be taken as the quasi-form of a kind of “sacrament of death” (as if such a thing were possible). It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.

Thomas Merton

dsc00665I attended an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service this evening. The program they passed out gave us Merton’s introductory passage to glimpse what Christianity was not. As I stood in a chapel I had last entered when I attended a Rufus Wainright concert (not exactly a journey into the sacred as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John might have it), I came to realize how much I have to learn about what Christianity is.

Sure, I’ve got the basics down and I understand what it was to be raised a Catholic kid in the 80s. But for all my reading, it was not until I watched a sparsely attended ritual held together with a crazy quilt of readings and quotations that I was able to look through the windows of Christianity in a new way and realize, despite its many doors, it is still just one large house.

Though I now have a smudge of ash upon my forehead, I did not remember the significance of this temporary mark when I decided to step in after work. I am sure that I knew once, but it was not the sort of information I ever had to retain. All I knew was that it made sense that I was in that chapel. I needed a place for quiet contemplation to mark the day and the remnants of my own history and the power of ancestral memory set me comfortably enough in the Christian fold.

Perhaps it was because I am not a student, but for all that I had the credentials of a Christian, I still felt like I stood outside and looked in the windows of their ritual.

This is not to say that I felt alienated. In fact, I felt the complete opposite.

I was amazed to realize that the sentiments included in the Litany of Penance so closely echoed untutored words I have whispered into my own soul. The language, that I know a younger, more recalcitrant version of myself would have found debasing, felt necessarily humble and honest. The professed admissions of failings and the hunger for reconciliation at first seemed too heavy a cross to bear, but then I realized that I force myself through such rigorous self examination all the time. And I am much less forgiving of my own sins than God promises to be…

Yes, it all made sense, and the prayers rang true.  Enough of me was at home there.

dsc00383But still, a portion of me observed from outside this house of Christ. That part of me stood rooted into the earth and felt the rain fall upon my face and trusted the sun would come out to dry me in time. I was able to love everything marks this first day of Lent because I know I am welcome in that building, but am comforted to know I can still step away in order to speak the language of a Yoga Sutra or an Arabic mantra.

Other faiths’ houses of worship do not offer the organic comfort that the Catholicism of my heritage does, but their traditions still offer sweet succor for the soul. Sitting in the warm embrace of Christ I was able to understand that every moment is sweeter when I can embrace all spiritual possibilities. Churches, mosques, and temples – they are a collection of neighbors’ homes planted in a circle on God’s beautiful green earth.

A Smooth Landing Back in the “Real World”

When we stepped from the cozy den of our teacher’s home, with its great bellied wood stove and the incense flavoring the air, the coldest winter wind of the season tried to steal the breath from our throats. Naked trees shivered and swayed in the frosty air and the taste of December settled on our lips.

One of my classmates sighed and said, “Back to the real world.”

Buddha in the snow

I swear I spoke from a place of truth deep inside of me, and not from any false optimism when I replied, “But that was the real world.” I meant that though our three day healing artists’ class had been transformational and downright otherworldly, it had actually happened and it was part of the reality our group has been blessed enough to know on this earth.

This feeling carried me through to the moment, a little over twelve hours later, when I walked into my office and managed to still wear a gentle smile. My previous weekend-long classes had spat me into Monday mornings with a sense of dread and discombobulation. Meditation and healing work had nothing to do with balancing budgets and book shifting projects and I had felt lost between the two worlds.

Today, however, I was amazed by the blissful sense of integration that bore me through the day.  I had managed to bring the healer that I know myself to be through the doors of the workplace. At last, I felt a sense of wholeness that was almost always lacking when I sat down at my desk and interacted with colleagues.  I’d had enough of leading a life that was disconnected with itself.

It is time to stop believing that we are more than one person, that we can effectively slice ourselves up into little pieces and give our spirits to God, and our love to our families, and our practicality to our work. We are all complex, multifaceted creatures with our fingers dripping with all different colors of finger paint, but that rainbow is all unified by one hand, one arm, one being who dances in many different worlds.

I have been struggling with a sense of desperation because I felt like a fraud in every part of my life, especially as I tried to reconcile my professional/working self and my healer/writer/seeker self. No piece of me could get my full attention or dedication because I was so busy slicing myself up into discrete portions.

Many months ago, a dear friend counseled me that all of my worlds did have a sense of harmony and did make sense because they all had one essential element in common: ME.

Her wisdom did not take root in my heart until I walked through this workday and realized that my true self really was the fulcrum that balanced my two worlds.

I cannot manage people and projects if I do not come to everyone with an open heart and a belief in the interconnectedness of all beings. I cannot thrive as a writer and a healer if I do not use the organized, disciplined parts of my brain. My different identities have always colored the others in my closet of characters. The diversity of my experiences and abilities have always been a source of power for me, however untapped and unrecognized.

We all carry around an entire universe of possibility. How many of us have trouble finding the compatibility that truly does exists between the different corners of that universe? How much more powerful can we be if we stop drawing lines in the sand of our consciousness and embrace true integration?

What new forms of harmony and understanding might thrive in this world if we can first find a way to create such a sense of balance within?

Carrying Around Your Own Universe

tarantula_brimacombe_big

To spend much time considering the soul and the inner workings of the self is to recognize that we each carry around an entire interior universe.

It is so hard to understand the limitlessness that is inside of us, the expansive intricacies of the psyche and, even more importantly, the infinitude that is the Divine within us all. What can be even more difficult to grasp is that a similarly limitless universe exists within all people, even those we believe to be ignorant or cruel or uninspired.

I know myself to be someone who strives to be aware of every seismic shift in consciousness, of every tremor of new perspective that passes through my life. All too often I find myself baffled by the behavior of people who seem to live unexamined lives, marked by monotony and routine and something I perceive to be a lamentable narrowness.

Of course, the first problem there is that I am allowing myself to be swayed by my own perception of their stories. There are times when I decide that people who are not digging around in their own heads like they’re on some sort of archaeological are somehow getting less out of life than I am. If they do not show me immediate glimmers of their own interior universes, I start to believe that there are people out there whose stories are somehow less complex and vivid than my own.

Working on the development of one’s soul can make a seeker a terrible snob. I know I fall into this trap when I forget that all people are fellow journeyers through the mystery of life. When I allow myself to forget this truth I allow myself the luxury of disrespecting the people around me. My often tarnished version of who they are burns more brightly than the truth that they are fellow humans walking across this earth, doing the best with the tools that have been given to them.

One gets weary of trying to be a saint though, trying to be kind and understanding in the face of people who are set on acting out the darkest parts of their nature. I have tried the sainthood approach, and I find it just makes me nervous and repressed and worried about my own inadequate, non-canonized future prospects.

I am finding, however, that I can deal with those difficult creatures who cross my path if I remember that, just like me, they have an entire universe inside of them and all sorts of possibilities I might not be able to see. A universe goes on, well, forever. And in something the size of forever you can store a whole lot of beauty, as well as a whole lot of ugly. You can keep great vats of potential, as well as vast sink holes of worthlessness. There is light and there is shadow and there is that wide space in between that informs the way that most of us live.

And, like I said, the most important resident of these inner infinities of ours is God. I may find ways to despise the behavior of a lot of people in this world, but I am pretty sure I could never figure out a way to disregard the divinity that they all carry about.

The Bipartisan Body

In a conversation about navigating the election season when one holds vastly different views from the rest her family, a friend told me a story about a bunch of apes (or baboons or some other really intelligent primates). Scientists were studying the animals’ behavior in their natural jungle habitat that bordered a lake that they never approached. This aversion interested the observers, so they began throwing food into the sand to test them. A few brave apes risked the foreign territory of the sand to eat, and a couple especially clever creatures actually entered the water to wash the grit off the snacks even as the rest of the clan screeched in hungry disapproval.

My friend translates this into a need for both liberals and conservatives: someone needs to try something new and potentially end up with a tastier lunch, while others need to hang back and preserve the tribe just in case entering the water really does mean certain death.

This evening I gave myself time for another of Elsie’s Yoga Podcasts; this particular class was all about attuning oneself to the respective qualities of the right and left sides of the body. She spoke of the left as the cooler side, that of the moon, of receptivity; the right is the warm side, that of the sun from which all of our actions originate. In recognizing the difference between the joints and muscles and realizing that each side had its own sensations and means of communicating with the brain it becomes possible to look at the entire body with a holistic perspective. For all that I thought of my left and my right as separate entities for an hour, I can say that I feel a deep sense of integration that I might not have discovered had I not explored all that separates the two halves of my body.

Of course, it was impossible to listen to all of this talk of the right and left without hearing it as an allegory (Elsie actually recorded it over a year ago, so discovering it tonight was sweet synchronicity). I think you could read the Eastern perspective on the left and right sides of the body into our blue and red parties in a way that would serve both camps, but that would do little to describe the political realities of today.

Binary systems are ancient and useful and allow us to draw lines in the sand about the really big stuff like heaven and earth, female and male, spirit and body. At the same time, these dichotomies can lead to laziness rather than discernment and can create uselessly artificial enmities. They are handy rhetorical devices and make textbooks easier to write (understand the mood of an era by studying who were the good guys and who were the bad guys!), but in practical application, those carefully forged divisions must break down.

We live in a world so completely colored with shades of gray that we long for the simplicity of column A or column B. For the next week we can imagine that our decisions really are as easy as picking that one or this one.

I know I am premature in seeking a reconciliation between the sparring factions since we have to think in terms of blue and red, not violet and indigo for the next seven days. Still, I am already more interested in examining both the entire picture – the body, our country – and all of the pixels that constitute that image – each cell, each individual. I hope we will come to realize that both these macroscopic and microscopic perspectives are much more enlightening than trying to hack our whole nation in half.

A Sunday Drive Toward Reconciliation

This weekend my husband and I began the search for our first home. Dreams and make-believe were layered in with the grown up panic of 401K withdrawals and credit scores. We laughed and drank too much coffee and wound our way through the country lanes and modest neighborhoods that occasionally gave way to old orchards that now nurtured Hummers and McMansions. It was a day of escaping from ourselves completely even as we made plans that would structure the next phase of our lives.

In the same way that I lost track of all that I would normally consider essential while planning a wedding (a pedicure chosen over the time to cultivate some inner peace, etc.), I realize now that I am just as likely to lose sight of the ideals that cover these pages in the process of buying a house. In the same way that I am tempted to invest in traditional stocks whose profits are derived from guns (defense industry) and drugs (pill pushing, um, I mean medical innovation) and deforestation (development) rather than the “social choice” plans with low dividends and high feel-good points, I am guessing I will consider trading energy efficiency for a lower down payment.

The fact that life is a process of constantly balancing needs and wants, ideals and deals is well established. For me, I also recognize it as a perpetual act of reconciling my reality with the pictures I can paint of my perfect world in which environmentalism did not come at the cost of foregoing an extra bedroom and sound financial decisions were not based on taking every penny the bank would offer.

But then I remember the Sacrament of Reconciliation and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the act of reconciling invoices and payments. Penance and nation building and accounting all wrapped up in one word. I had to turn to my friends at Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: rec·on·cile
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French reconcilier, from Latin reconciliare, from re- + conciliare to conciliate
1 a : to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions> b : SETTLE, RESOLVE <reconcile differences>
2 : to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>
3 : to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant <was reconciled to hardship>
4 a : to check (a financial account) against another for accuracy b : to account for
synonym see ADAPT

It is beginning to seem that “reconcile” in all of its forms is the constant thread binding my ostensibly disparate planes of existence. I reject the connotation of the term that links it to the need for an Act of Contrition, but if I can step back and realize it is possible to examine all that I am and have been in light of who I wish to be, it seems possible to escape the mantle of guilt (and that painful memory of my first penance at age seven when I was afraid to cross myself because the chocolate I had been clutching in my hand while waiting for the priest had melted through my fingers).

How strange to understand that a single verb can encompass both the restoration of friendship and harmony and the submission to the unpleasant, but is it such a leap to say that the search for harmony in the face of suffering is itself the process of living?