Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Are We and Our Creations Natural, Spiritual or Beautiful?

1950 Mercury Sedan Main Street Reunion Napa CA
     College Cove near Trinidad CA

Being a lover of nature and the arts, I am accustomed to seeing beauty in natural scenes or in self-conscious art installed in art museums or art galleries. Like many, I dissociate the spiritual from secular human constructions. But, if we are embedded in nature, cannot prosaic everyday events like visiting the antique car show in Napa CA, bring us a lived communal religious experience. How does seeing a car show differ from attending a church, synagogue, or a masjid?

The Napa auto show, in many ways, brought so many people together in a way that churches do not. Religious assemblages are most often ethnically rather homogeneous: there are Black churches and White churches, Jewish temples and South Asian mosques. Yet, the car show was amazingly diverse: young and old, Black and White and Latino, the wealthy and the not so rich, all made the pilgrimage to Napa to see the vivid and glittery metal objects. The diversity of California burgeoned onto the streets of Napa. Few congregations can boast of such cosmopolitanism in their pews.

Do we do religion a disservice by calling festivals like these spiritual? Walking and viewing supplant the word; no sermon is spoken. Each participant interprets the show without a manual of theological tenets, without a sacred text, without a god as an organizer of experience.

Perhaps, going to an auto show is more akin to sitting on a misty bluff by the sea or ambulating through a museum. Perhaps the artistic--coming from the book of nature or from the wheels of technology--can offer us a more universal spiritual experience, one in which the viewer, solitary or in communion, responds to the beauty inherent in creation.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Sea and the Shore: Water and Earth Made One

Trinidad Beach, Trinidad CA

The ocean and its shore are rich, symbolic and deep images that help us to anchor our perceptions and to develop our rituals in spiritually satisfying ways. Unity is blissful, but all creation starts with difference and we often struggle to reattain the treasure of harmony that unification brings to our souls. Like female and male, yin and yang, yoni and lingam, difference kindles action, which, in turn, yields to peace.
The boundary between the sea and its shore is permeable--just dip your feet into the ocean with its coolness, stirring up our feet into action or notice the  long-term geological carving of seastacks (like the ones pictured above): pure earth yielding to water.
Just, maybe, Love is like the sea, molding our bodies to its caresses and our minds to its diligent and undulating rhythms. Perhaps we can learn a bit from the sea, attaining spiritual patience and persistence. Perhaps, like the sea, we can offer the world love over rage and peace over belligerence. Perhaps even earth and the sea can lie down together in peace, lifting up the blessing of difference that is made one along the shores of human experience.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love: Rumi and Shams

Layla and Majnun at School, Persian Painting, 15th Century, Courtesy of the British Museum

         Elif Shafak is a captivating novelist and one of the foremost cosmopolitan Turkish writers. Her recent book, The Forty Rules of Love, uses a middle-aged American housewife yearning for existential meaning in her life, to frame an underlying narrative about the relationship between Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sufi from Afghanistan, fleeing from the Mongols to Konya, Turkey and Shams, the itinerant Sufi cynic from Tabriz in Persia. Her magical realistic prose stirs up the reader's faculties of imagination and empathy. Shafak's writing is alluring and deep and points us to an alternative interpretation of their relationship that is far beyond prurient sexual speculation and dutiful mentor/mentee hierarchical respect.
        For Shafak's Rumi, Love is the underlying presence of God in creation. And, like an artist's uniquely envisioned painting, Rumi's love for Shams, is way beyond the sensual and points us a symbolic realm, full of emotion and tenderness, that elevates both us and Rumi to compassion for all humanity.
       In some ways, Shafak's Shams' relationship to Rumi is analogous to Universalists'  relationship to Unitarians. Rumi is a bit intellectual, a skilled professor and preacher, but quite a bit emotionally constrained, while Shams consorts with thieves and prostitutes, seeing God's image in everyone, all the while encouraging Rumi to discover the common grace inherent in all of God's creation.
       But, The Forty Rules of Love, is not just a theological thriller, but reflects a long tradition in Persian Sufi poetry of elevating Love to being that glue that binds the universe together.
       The painting, above, from the British Museum, is a rendering of the love saga between Majnun and Layla. Majnun, whose name means madness, and Layla, night, fall instantly in love. They spend the remainder of their lives seeking each other, fracturing all social restraints and constrictions. For Sufis, the love between Majnun and Layla, is a symbolic representation of Love for God. Layla is God's name for Majnun and that is sufficient--maybe love devotion, itself, is the spiritual discipline that draws us closest to the Divine.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kali in the Forests of Symbols

Hiking along Patrick's Point State Park
Kali Yantra-Painting on Cotton Courtesy of the British Museum
Is the Divine abstract or personal? The beauty of many spiritual traditions is that it is both. I am fascinated by images of the Goddess. While walking along the Northern California coast, the image of the inverted triangle, the yoni, in the religious symbolism of Tantric Yoga and in the devotional practices of worship of the Hindu goddesses, suddenly struck me, riveted me. The soft breezes wafting through me, the vivid sea foam green, the startling triangular frame, all raised in me the roaring presence of the goddess, Kali.

Like the yantra from the British Museum, the scene was both formal in its geometric boundary lines and personal: in one case the fragrance, the trees and the stream gurgling below, in the other, the image of Kali mounted over a demon underneath which lies an inert Shiva. 

The multiple correspondences between nature, the abstract and the personal is not just limited to the religions of South Asia, but, from time to time, can also be discovered in the Western tradition. The 13th century Theologian Saint Bonaventure wrote in his "The Soul's Journey into God":

“Concerning the mirror of things perceived through sensation, we can see God not only through them as through his vestiges, but also in them as he is in them by his essence, power and presence.” (Ewert Cousins, St. Bonaventure, Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ, (1978), pg 69).
Bonaventure, in his Neoplatonic style, viewed all of Nature, as vestiges or footprints of God. We can through contemplation of Nature, trace back these footprints to the Divine. Even more recently, the irreverent, bad boy poet, Baudelaire, wrote in his poem, Correspondences:

Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

So Nature, the Goddess, and form intermingle. Each encircles the other, spinning threads of  corresponding hints, bringing us to the awareness of our world of symbols.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Sublime and the Beautiful in Spiritual Life

Patrick Point State Park and the Mad River Mouth, North of Arcata CA

I have often contrasted the sublime and the beautiful after the fashion of the 18th century philosophers like Burke and Kant: the sublime being an aesthetic experience of dizzying heights of awe or infinitude leading to, maybe, "anxiety attacks" in contemporary psychological parlance, while the beautiful being an experience of calmness and color and harmony of form that can soothe or nurture us.

Like these aesthetic philosophers, I also have categorized people's character or attitudes; some prefer the beautiful, others the sublime. They went so far as to categorize nations with Northern Europe aligned with sublimity and the Mediterranean with beauty. I have even suggested that Unitarianism, in its unifying theology is akin to the sublime, while Universalist love is kindred to the beautiful. But I oversimplified and reduced the complexity of spiritual lived experience to two overly constrained boxes.

As I have reflected more deeply on my own experiences in nature, I've grown to realize that the experience of journeying in nature embraces both poles of awe and love and that the structure of outdoor experience alternates between the beautiful and the sublime, like the sonata form in music. In fact, walking in the woods is like the exposition of a plot--from moments of peaceful steadiness immersed in the splashes of the colorful to those heart pounding times standing near a precipice overlooking the vast Pacific. You literally feel almost swallowed up by the sea.

So living out the beautiful and the sublime, is a little like breathing or similar to the dance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system: the former gearing us up for fight or flight; the latter, slowing our breath and restoring calm.

Let us dance in beauty and let us dance in awe.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Flowers Drifting in a Riverine Field

Spring Flowers in Edgewood Park

"Wisdom is the oneness of mind that guides and permeated all things."
Heraclitus fragment 41 (translated by Brooks Haxton) 
The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, grew up in the city of Ephesus, near the coast of present-day western Turkey. He is famously remembered for the quotable, "All things flow and nothing remains the same"--a different model of the universe from the more standard Platonic vision of reality of stable ideas behind appearances. Well, spring in Northern California, (probably quite like spring in Ephesus), shouts out Heraclitean. Spring is a process here; a rapid shift in blooming verdant grasses, embedded poppies and yellow florets of rock parsnip. If we liken ourselves to spring wildflowers, momentarily floating in grassy field, then the oneness of mind ferries us across the season. 
The Ohlone people lived near Edgewood Park and must have witnessed the many colored wisps of spring. An archaeological site at the nearby garish Filoli Mansion was home to an Ohlone group; did local and permanent opulence of Filoli supplant the seasonal and processual life of the Ohlone? Did we try to substitute Being for Becoming in California?
But our parks remain an ironic and enduring witness to natural process. Let us live in awareness of unifying wisdom, a wisdom through which we drift and are sustained and guided. An every changing field.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Love and Wisdom: A Unitarian Universalist Tagline

An Early Christian Sarcophagus from the Arles Archaeological Museum

Love and Wisdom, or the searching for Love and the cultivating of Wisdom, intertwine so finely that they appear as one thread in our lived spiritual experience. In the image above, Christ as the good shepherd and a devotee with her arms upraised in the orans prayer posture, together visually condense the best of loving devotion and wise guidance. But Love and Wisdom as aspirations and activities extend far before Christianity in the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East. Sumerian and Egyptian religious literature are chock full of scribal advice on how to swim through the uncertainties of life, including being slow to anger and peacefulness. Love and devotion to goddesses, such as Inanna, Cybele and Isis formed the cornerstone of religious practice in Sumeria, Anatolia, and Egypt.

While Unitarian Universalism often seems to lack a spiritual grounding, turning its attention to the profound need for social justice and activism, our history, arguably, could reclaim Love and Wisdom as rightful heirs to the Universalism and Unitarianism of the 19th century. The Universalism whose basic tenet identifies God as loving creation so much that no one would be sent to Hell and Unitarianism which sought to strip Christianity of multiplicity in the aim of a logical unity of the Divine, in tandem express a Love and Wisdom theology. 

Let us love, wisely and never forget our hearts in wisdom.