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Monday, May 11, 2015

Ordinary Objects, Sacred Space

[An earlier version of the following was first posted in a course called Spirituality and Sensuality: Sacred Objects in Religious Life, which I took from Hamilton College through Edx.  The professor was S. Brent Plate, author of A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses]

Have you ever thought about the kinds of items we use when we worship? It seems that going to church or wherever we go to worship our concept of the Divine, we just arrive at a place, do some things, feel something nice, and go home, hopefully to bring the inspiration of that experience into the world. I've found, however, that there are many different things that together make the worship experience so much more than the place and the activity in that place.

I have been given the opportunity to experience many different ways in which objects are used in religious settings. From the tactile pleasure of holding a book in my hands while singing (though I don't read music and can't carry a tune in a bucket) to the lovely sounds of crystal bowls, drums, acoustic or even electric guitars, the way objects are used in worship or meditations can increase the level of spiritual movement in a religious experience. In particular, the way sound is created and used can enhance an experience to amazing heights for me.

While I am not a huge fan of the organ, I appreciate certain ways that a good organist can speak to my spirit. When I think about my not being a fan of the organ I realize that it is hilarious that I AM a huge fan of the bagpipe. A well played bagpipe at a memorial service is extremely moving to me. There is something thick and nourishing about the pipe and drums. Musical objects can create a religious experience out of an experience others might see as mundane. An afternoon at the Renaissance Festival, spent watching belly dancers move to doumbek and tambourine, can be almost religious to me. It is no doubt a spiritual experience for me. The sounds, the sights, the smells that go along with the experience create an atmosphere that moves me beyond time and space. I am moved to become one with the music; my mind expands into the ether.

Statues, iconography, small bits and pieces of the world around us placed on altars or around the periphery can make a place sacred. Incense or candles, flowers or green boughs can bring such olfactory delights that one can imagine oneself outside the bounds of time.

Think about the space where you gather with others to connect with the Divine. Notice how the smallest things placed around a table become metaphors for the connection between us and that which is transcendent.  Notice how the simplest of objects can transform an ordinary table, an ordinary room, an ordinary building or back yard, or even just a tiny shelf in an entertainment center into a sacred space.

My tiny prayer altar - on a shelf.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Contemplation on Crosses

[An earlier version of the following was first posted in a course called Spirituality and Sensuality: Sacred Objects in Religious Life, which I took from Hamilton College through Edx.  The professor was S. Brent Plate, author of A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses]

When I was assigned the task of seeking out crosses for a class project, I chose to avoid taking a photo of a cross with obvious religious connotations.  So, I took a walk around my yard where I found a number of examples.  The one I like best was the fence post pictured below. The fence is built of a mixture of old lumber and tree branches to give it a sort of rustic look. The post is a tree branch, juxtaposed against the weathered two by fours of the fence itself. Along the fence grows a grape vine that we planted a couple of years ago.

In South America, there are a number of "pecked" cross petroglyphs situated in an apparently deliberate pattern. These are called "pecked" because they have been hand-pecked or carved into stone. The crosses themselves are of equal length lines that cross in the middle. The axis of each cross points toward important centers of the pre-conquest Mesoamerican culture of the area. The crosses represent the quadripartite (quartered) division of the universe of the Mayan people. According to Anthony F. Aveni and Horst Hartung in their paper "The Cross Petroglyph: An Ancient Mesoamerican Astronomical and Calendrical Symbol,"  these crosses served both religious and scientific purposes. Most of these crosses are carved into rock outside, with very few inside buildings or on floors. Many of the crosses are sort of superimposed over circles, thought to represent the cosmos, with the lines possibly being directional. More information on these artifacts can be found in the M. Nicholas Caretta and Achim Lelgemann paper entitled "Cross Circles: A Case of Northern Mexico."

My fence and the Mayan pecked crosses could not be more different. Mine is temporary in the scheme of things, while the pecked crosses have been around for a very long time. My fence will be decomposed and the grape vines long gone before the Mayan crosses disappear.

The pecked crosses served the high purpose of understanding the universe, through both science and religious ceremony. The Mayan people, like most tribal peoples, did not have a separate idea of these things; rather, all of existence was inextricably woven together. We built our fence to keep our Pomeranians in the yard, though it has since become the grape trellis.

When we decided to use the combination of old wood and tree branches, we were thinking about aesthetics. We like the old "farmhouse" look on our little quarter acre of desert oasis. So, I think of the fence and the grape vine as something lovely that makes me happy. Yet, here it is: a cross upon which grapes will grow. I find an interesting symbolism in this. Jesus described himself as the vine. Wine represents communion with him and with others who follow him. The new green leaves of the grape vine and the tiny flowers that adorn it (though they can't be seen on the picture) represent new life, as does the story of his resurrection after dying upon a cross.

Why the cross as a sacred symbol? Not because Jesus died on one - so did many thousands of others.  In Christianity, it is not the cross itself that give believers hope; rather it is the emptiness of that cross that gives hope. The sacredness of the cross is not unique to Christianity. Crosses have been sacred to religions across the ages including ancient Egyptian, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Norse traditions.

I have a theory about the universal archetype of the cross. It's pretty simple and possibly crazy, but here goes:

A cross is a horizontal line crossed by a perpendicular line. The horizontal line represents our lives here on earth - let us say, our path. The perpendicular line is the axis mundi that Mircea Eliade wrote about in his classic text The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion - the center of the sacred and the path to higher consciousness/heaven/God/Goddess/whatever. We go along our path until something happens to us that awakens us to the possibility of a higher state of being. It calls us to sacrifice something. It could be painful, devastating loss, even death, or it could simply be something challenging; whatever it is, we must give something up in order to grow. That's the point at which sacrifice occurs, if we so choose.

If we choose the way of sacrifice, we may go on in our lives, walking the horizontal path, but our lives will never be the same. We will be compelled to continue to seek the sacred, the high path, the center of our world. This cannot be taken literally. This cannot be grasped and held on to. It is a deep, usually subconscious awareness. We seek directions to the divine (or higher consciousness, higher knowledge - it can be called many things). The cross is, perhaps, the simplest map to finding it.

(c) April 2015

Friday, April 24, 2015

Soul to Soul

Have you ever thought about what it means to have soul? About what a soul is?

Soul. This is an interesting concept, really, especially considering the many ways that we use the word; at least in English. My son says that a soul is something that is "given" to anything that is loved. He thinks that all living things can have a soul and love, not just humans or even just sentient beings. Perhaps he's right.

I think of "soul" as something personal. Something that resides inside us. I consider the concept of "soul" versus the concept of "spirit." I think of "spirit" as something outside of us, something greater. I think of it as what Christianity calls "Holy Spirit," and others refer to simply as "Spirit." Some call it "Ki," or "Chi," or "Energy."  It is something that connects us, one to the other and to something greater, to God. Perhaps it's that which science says connects us at the quantum level. Perhaps "soul" is our own little piece of that greater Spirit, living within us, yearning to be One once again with the Source - Spirit.

Maybe when we feel that "thing" that makes us say that someone "has soul," we're feeling their inner Soul reaching out to ours - we connect in some way that gives us a strong sense of that connection. The music, the spoken word, the talents that touch us the strongest; they have soul. Soul reaches across race, culture, religion...even time. Soul touching soul makes us want to be better people. For instance, when I hear Billie Holiday sing anything, my soul reaches out, I feel a sense of yearning. When I hear her sing Strange Fruit, the sadness I feel is so deep and so dark, I can't explain it in any way other than a soul to soul connection. I feel sadness, and yet I also feel love for those of whom she sings.

Like my son says, soul is something that is given to anything that is loved. And, I add, anything or anyone who loves.

Perhaps "soul" is what makes us real.

“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.' - Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
Photo Public Domain

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ancient Memories - The Agency of Stone

For thousands of years, stones have been used to mark specials places and experiences. In the Hebrew Bible, Abraham sets a stone at the place where he first hears Yahweh's Voice. Stone altars have been set wherever humans have had interactions with the divine. Stones have been carved into gods and goddesses. Stones are placed to commemorate loved ones who have died. Stones are set up recognize sites of historic import. In the online class I just completed through EDx, one of the first assignments was to answer the question, "Do stones have agency?" This is how I answered:

This is my special crystal. I chose this crystal from a table filled with other pieces broken off some larger quartz. I have had it since the summer 1987, a summer I call my "summer of love," 20 years after the original. I stood with my friend as we looked over the table hosted by the Rainbow People, a group of hippies who came to Venice Beach to sell their crafts. I held my hand over the stones, "listening" for a call, a sense, a feeling that would tell me which stone was mine. I felt a warmth, and I knew that this stone, the one with a heart-shaped crack and a little bit of rainbow inside belonged to me.
I believe that all creation is connected, that the Divine is that which connects us, that calls us to our greater good, whatever that might be. This view of All That Is cannot see anything, any part of creation, as being absolutely static. Are they sentient, these stones? Perhaps not, at least not in the same way animals are sentient. Do they have "agency?" I think so, though how this can be is a Mystery. Who is to say that I did not place the meaning of the "warmth" I felt upon the stone; yet, who is to say that the stone didn't actually "call" to me? 

I think the "agency" is in the energy of the stone, and perhaps at quantum level, our energies reached out to one another. Meaning, now, is imbued by a person's - or a people's - understanding of the world around them. It might change as the culture changes, and the worldview of the people changes. That there is a meaning might continue to be understood long after the original meaning is lost. Stonehenge and other stone circles have meaning, though the original purpose of such megalithic collections has been lost. Yet today, these stones are held as sacred by modern Druids and other Neo-Pagans, given meaning by the very mystery that surrounds them.

I have a rustic stone labyrinth in my backyard. When I walk into the center of the spiral, I can easily imagine that I am transcending space and time. If I walk a labyrinth made of brick, this imaginary time-travel is more difficult. Why is this? Is it a failing of my imagination, or do the ancient natural stones that line my path lend me their memories?

Once I stood silently in the Petrified Forest in Arizona. The winds blew constant, and upon the winds I could hear the whispers of the trees in the once lush forests so long turned to stone. Perhaps it was only my imagination. Perhaps it was the memories of the ancient trees.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


In the United Methodist tradition of Christianity, the Communion Table (known as Eucharist in many traditions) is open. The Open Table means that everyone, no matter who they are or where they have been, is welcome to partake of the sacrament. This includes children.  There are theological reasons for this beyond the simplest "Jesus would have included everyone." However, this is not the place to go into the theology behind it.  As I pondered this question, I was taken back to a Sunday service many years ago when my now 22 year old daughter was about three. At the time, I was a single mother, and was not a regular church-goer. In fact, I spent more time at Wiccan circles than in the Christian church. Even then I was seeking something common in both paths.

As I was not a regular congregant, I was a bit shy and easily embarrassed. That Sunday, I got up to take Communion, and my daughters went with me. My seven year old took her bread, dipped it in the grape juice, and placed it in her mouth. The three year old followed her sister's lead. Reverently, she accepted "The body of Christ, given for you," and dipped it into "The blood of Christ, shed for you"(many churches practice intinction rather than drinking from the common cup).  Next, it was my turn. The girls were walking back to their seats.  As I dipped my bread, torn from the loaf, and placed it in my mouth, I heard my little one say (quite loudly), "I'm still hungry!" It was all I could do not to spit the host from my mouth!  I covered my face and hurried to her. I took her hand and we sat back in our seats next to my other daughter, who was laughing so hard she could hardly stop.

The rest of the congregation were still giggling as Communion ended and the pastor stepped back up to the pulpit. After the service, people came to us and talked with my girls. Those who didn't talk to us smiled at my little one, eyes dancing with the laughter from earlier. In the moment of my daughter's "faux pas" the people gathered in that room were united in the delight they felt at her cuteness. I had been embarrassed, but in the jocularity, I forgot my embarrassment and just loved my daughter for who she was. Her big sister thought that the moment was the funniest thing she'd seen in awhile. So, the bread was the center of the experience, yet it was the laughter that brought everyone together for a moment.

While this happened in what was meant to be a solemn ritual of Communion, the lightheartedness of it made it into a different kind of Communion - or Community - for a moment. It wasn't until much later that I realized the import of what my daughter had said. For unwittingly she had made a great theological statement.

You see, the bread and wine (juice in the United Methodist Church) are meant to represent the sustenance of life, both physically and spiritually. It is more than the words "The body of Christ, the blood of Christ." It is the very food that sustains us, for which we pray "give us this day our daily bread." It is the blood of life that connects us all in that we all need blood to carry the nutrients to the cells of our individual bodies to keep us alive.  It is the meal around which we recognize the holiness in one another. The bread and wine together are meant to represent our spiritual lives and our connection to God through Christ. In most Christian denominations, the ritual is understood to connect all those who claim to "follow Jesus."  In my Inter-Spiritual denomination, it is understood to be a universal connection - all sentient beings are sustained and elevated through Communion and community, even those who do not physically partake. In the Wiccan/Pagan tradition, the feast of bread and wine or mead represents these same things. We are hungry physically when we are deprived of bread (food), we are thirsty physically when we are deprived of liquid (wine, mead, water). We share that we might sustain one another. Yet on the metaphysical level, the bread and wine represent the spiritual sustenance that we need to grow closer to God/dess and closer to one another and all living beings. "May you never hunger, may you never thirst," we say.

When my daughter said, "I'm still hungry," she spoke aloud the need of all spiritual people. When our stomachs are full, we are satisfied, but it is only temporary. When we find ourselves spiritually fed, we realize the possibilities for greater things, and seek to find fulfillment. As long as we are living on this earth, humans will seek spiritual fulfillment in some way. I believe that even those who do not think spiritually seek deeper fulfillment than material success can provide. As long as we live, we will still be hungry. As we go along our paths there will be way stations where for a moment we can taste our ultimate connection with all that is. Communion, Feast, breakfasts, lunches, teas, or dinners with friends or sharing a bottle of water with a homeless person - these are the way stations where we can know for a moment what complete unity and fulfillment taste like.

In the meantime, we're still hungry.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Story of a Stone

I have been taking an online course through Edx called Spirituality and Sensuality: Sacred Objects in Religious Settings.  The course is an undergraduate Religious Studies class from a professor at Hamilton College a liberal arts college in Clinton, New York.  There are 4500 students from all over the world enrolled in this free course, which makes it even more interesting than it might be otherwise.  Last week, we were asked to write about a stone (or stones) in our environment and the significance that stone has had on people, including ourselves.  Now that the grading for the week is complete, I thought I would share what I wrote here.  Enjoy!

The Freya-Stone
This stone stands next to a picnic area on Piestewa Peak in Phoenix, Arizona. Taller than a person, it somewhat resembles a veiled woman with her arms held close in front of her. This is her home, on the mountainside below the trails. The park is part of the Phoenix Mountains, with rock formations that rangers say are relatively young -- 14 million years. This particular rock stands near a picnic ramada that for many years was used by the local Pagan community for gatherings and community meals. Memorial Sumbles were held for those who died, with much "huzzah!" and a toss-back of mead, first into the throat and then at the rock along with a memory of the loved one who passed. Though not a gravestone placed over the dead like those in the cemetery, this stone still stands over the spirit of those who crossed over; holding the bits of memories spoken in reverence and love. When children were present, they found this rock to be a welcome climbing-spot while they awaited the end of a ritual and the call to the table for the sharing of food.

A number of years ago, a small group of Pagan women gathered near this stone, sometimes together and sometimes individually. They took to calling this rock the Freya-Stone after the Nordic goddess of love, beauty, and death. They spoke to her, and in some way not unlike Annie Dillard's neighbor, hoped to teach her to talk, to answer them when they brought their prayers to her, taking small pebbles into their hands and holding them, praying their questions. Releasing their tears of loneliness, abuse, and self-degradation, they laid the stones on the small shelf of rock where it seems like her hands come together. After their prayers they would share a nibble of bread, a bit of cheese, a few grapes, and a mug of mead, completing their prayers with the "amen" of the splash: thick, dark honey-wine against the Freya-Stone.

One of those women found true love and had her wedding beside the Freya-Stone. Another found self-respect and freedom. The third? Well, she who had also been in abuse and then emptiness found that she had been truly loved for many years. Soon she, too, was wed to a friend she had not known had loved her for so long. In that, she also found her own power, to forge a life beside him.

It is often said by archaeologists and anthropologists that one cannot walk across the desert southwest even a little bit without encountering the remains of Native American life. The lost Anasazi left behind sherds of pottery, broken stones, ancient baked agave, an ingenious canal system, and perhaps the spirits of the Pueblo ancestors. There is no indication that this stone has ever been more than a beautiful, large stone on the side of a beautiful mountain. Yet, gatherings of people of many descents found themselves worshiping near her, sometimes in the company of cougars. Decidedly, three Euro-American women felt a great power in this stone, and to this day the ones who are still living feel the call to visit her once in awhile, and remember.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Deeper Things

Since we began meeting weekly, we’ve been a small handful; well, usually less than a handful, if I’m to be fully honest.  We are a sincere handful, though!  In fact, it is a joy to be able to speak so intimately with those who attend, and I find that including some discussion within my weekly message gives it unexpected life.  It’s no wonder Jesus preferred to have his little band of friends and family sit with him to learn about the deeper things.  And that is what I believe he taught.  Deeper things.  Metaphysical truths.  How to become a more spiritual person.  How to discover, through that spirituality, ways to bring God’s Love into the world.  How to be Love in the midst of oppression, anger, fear, and hate.  Indeed, how to be a Spiritual Warrior.  For, I do think that Jesus was a Spiritual Warrior.

For the past few weeks, we have been discussing ways to become Spiritual Warriors using Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded in chapter 5 of the New Testament book of Matthew.  Specifically, we have been centering on the list of blessing we call the “Beatitudes.”  I call them the “Be Attitudes.”  You see, one way that I find to interpret this list is as a list of attributes of a Spiritual Warrior.  So far we’ve dealt with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.,”  ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted..” and“ ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  If you’re interested in what we had to say, just click on the links.

This coming Sunday, February 15, we will be talking about “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  We’ll consider:  what is righteousness?  Who are those who hunger, who thirst for this?

Feel free to join us at Red Mountain Park in East Mesa.  We meet at or near the Owl Ramada at 4:00 p.m.  If you can’t make it Sunday, our discussion group meets on the first Monday of the month at the Macayo’s on Baseline and Dobson in Mesa at 6:30 p.m.  Our next meeting will be on March 2.  We’ll be discussing ideas and thoughts about belief in things greater than ourselves.  How do you perceive the universe and the place of humans in that universe?

Blessings to all!