Voluptuous Thinkers


The Chicago North Shore home where I attended a reception recently was magnificent: beautifully manicured, filled with elegant furniture and lovely art, overflowing with gracious, effervescent people. I had a warm and wonderful time.

But I knew that my way of seeing things had changed when I came home–to my condo neighborhood, where the sidewalks sprout litter, broken blinds sag at some windows, people talk to each other in Spanish, Korean, and Bosnian–and thought, “I like it better here.”

It has not always been that way. Once, I would have found the expanses of pruned shrubs and spotless windows more attractive. Now, I found them lovely but uninteresting.

The next day I waited in line at the post office with a baseball-capped thirty-year-old, a southern European with dark hair, two African-Americans, a tattooed Caucasian in flowered shorts, another in a tight tank top, and people with hair styles of all sorts: braided, twisted in a pony tail, done up in dreadlocks, piled on top, shaved. Again I thought: I love it! These are my people.

What has happened to me?

On one level, I’ve become a city man, in love with the diversity of America’s third largest urban area: the restaurants, the languages (half a dozen, I suppose, on my own street), the religions, the ethnic festivals, the theater.

But something else is going on. Over the last several years, I have begun embracing in new ways the reality that all of us–all of us!–are one: that, as Bob Thompson said in a recent article, “Spiritual love is the intuitive knowledge that One Life lives in all. . . . We are all sharing One Holy Life.” And that has given me a new appreciation of the world’s variety.

For years, I have worried about the hate-inducing triumphalism that proclaims one faith (or nation) right and others wrong (or inferior). I even told myself I would give my retirement to fighting that idea, symbolized so chillingly by the children’s chorus with which I grew up: “One door and only one, and yet the sides are two. I’m on the inside; on which side are you?”

But I often make connections slowly. Only in the last couple of years have I begun to grasp the fundamental truth that the only way to transcend pride and triumphalism is to understand that the core of the divine resides in our oneness. That God really does reside in every being: the holiness preacher, the beer guzzling golfer, the waiter whose English I can’t understand, the librarian whose eloquence I admire.

As that truth has begun to saturate my consciousness, I have come even to read the Bible in new ways. Everywhere, I see the proclamation of oneness.

“Where can I flee from thy presence? If I climb up to heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in Hell, again I find thee.” (Psalms 139:7-8)

God, “the universal giver of life and breath and all else, . . . created every race of one stock.” (Acts 17:25-26)

“There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Then there is that radical assortment of scriptures about love. “Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44) “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) “God is love; the one who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in that one.” (I John 4:16)

Yes, I know that there is another strand of scriptures, setting sibling against sibling and promising a sword. I learned those passages well in my youth. But the longer I live, the more I am convinced that they stand on the biblical edges. Look at the core of Judaeo-Christian teaching and you find the God of connectedness, the God who is love and nothing else.

This the God of West Ridge’s crumbling brick facades and the North Shore’s stately mansions, the God of dreadlocks and stylish cuts, the God of tattoos and hajibs, the God of thunderstorms and sunrises, of drought and plenty, of followers and rebels.

And when I think that all of those are a part of me–and I a part of them–I stand in dread, in awe, and in joy. I also feel embraced. And I laugh.

On the threshold of Holy Week, many Christians understand the importance of what Marcus Borg called Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time. Have you met Jesus again for the first time?

Many people worship Jesus. For the vast majority of Christians, there is only one way to embrace Jesus. But many of us aren’t satisfied by the conventional answers.

Many Christians believe there is only one true way to see Jesus, only one true way to be a Christian. I don’t. But I do understand from whence this desire for dogmatic certainty comes.

At the age of ten, I climbed aboard a church bus on my way to a Billy Graham Crusade in San Francisco. Our group of about thirty adults and a handful of children was filled with holy excitement and sanctified anticipation and we pumped ourselves up by singing gospel songs with great gusto all the way.

Inside, I saw a vast, elliptical auditorium filled to capacity. The place was buzzing with expectant energy. The Crusade Choir had assembled on the platform in front of the big, bright blue banner proclaiming, “I am the way, the truth, the life.” Crusade choir director Cliff Barrows raised his arms and several hundred voices sang out. Billy Graham delivered his sermon with his typically winsome presence and compelling words.

Then, at the dramatic climax of the service, the choir and audience sang together and I knew it was my time to take the walk. In the presence of 15,000 witnesses, I publicly declared that I believed in Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.

Following the service, I met with one of the Crusade counselors. He told me that because I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior, everything in my life would be taken care of. I would know real peace because I now knew Jesus. And most importantly, when I died I would claim heaven as my prize.

It was heady stuff.

But after only a few days, the glow of that night faded. The newness wore off, and I realized my life was proceeding pretty much as it always had. I still had problems, fears, and doubts. Worse yet, I was still overweight. Over the next few years, as life went on without much change, the light of my evangelical exuberance waned.

But something from that evening has remained a part of me. In recent years, I have realized that the one thing about the Christian tradition that is inextricably woven into my spiritual DNA is Jesus. But now I know a different Jesus than the one I met at the Billy Graham Crusade.

I know what it means to believe in Jesus as personal lord and savior. But in real life, in the here and now, I have experienced Jesus not as one who saves me but one who challenges me to see everyone as Christ.

In this way, believing with Jesus is more spiritually challenging than believing in Jesus.

There is the story about Thomas Merton, who had taken up residence in the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery not far from Louisville, Kentucky. One day he went into Louisville for some monastic errands.

As he stood on a street corner in downtown Louisville he had an epiphany. Looking at all the people walking around he said: “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

The deeper message of Jesus and the gist of Merton’s vision is that one and all, we are Christs in the making.

This is the vision Thomas Merton had on that Louisville street corner. This inexplicable vision didn’t come as a result of religious dogma or church teaching. It’s one thing to have a religious identity but quite another to see the Divine in every face.

When I was a child I thought the most important thing was to believe in Jesus. It’s not hard for a Christian to believe in Jesus.

But just as Jesus challenged the religious orthodoxy of his day, he challenges ours. Time and time again he said what really matters is not the purity of doctrine but the purity of heart. What matters is how we see life and live with each other. All else is sound and fury.

To believe with Jesus is to see that we are all Christs in the making. Our biggest problem is that we don’t know who we are—Jesus calls us to wake up.

Christ without religion.

A knock came at my bedroom door at four o’clock yesterday morning, while I was sleeping deeply; I barely heard it. Then it came again. “We can’t sleep; we’re leaving,” said one of my guests.

The night before had been difficult for them. We had sat at a Devon Avenue restaurant, eating mild Indian food. We tried to talk. We did talk, but not easily. They clearly were distracted.

Earlier in the day, they had learned about a leaking pipeline in one of their rental properties back home in Indiana. It really did not matter much that they were here in Chicago as they sought a solution. What they needed was an expert who could be located as easily here, by phone, as there. But still they worried. And worried.

Until they located the right person, the water would keep leaking. The water bill would keep rising. Their profits would keep pouring away, into saturated earth between the city water line and the renter’s house.

Thus, the 4 a.m. knock, to tell me they were going home two days early–home, where they might find some peace of mind, knowing that they were doing all they could to get the leak fixed.

I understood. I’d have done the same thing.

Twenty minutes after they drove away, I got out of bed, unable to sleep myself now. I made coffee, and went to my waiting e-mail–sorry for them, irritated by the disruption of it all, and grumpy about the fact that the morning paper would not come for another 90 minutes.

There, awaiting me on the computer screen, was a message from my son in Tokyo, containing the axiom: “Every man serves a useful purpose: A miser, for example, makes a wonderful ancestor.” (Laurence J. Peter)

My guests, misers? Surely not. Attached to their profits? Definitely. Able to roll with things as they came? Not this time.

I wanted to laugh. But I just chuckled. We’d lost most of an evening’s conviviality. We’d lost two days of enjoying each other’s company. We’d gained a good deal of anxiety, and fear, and distraction. And I’d become grumpy. All because of leaking water and vanishing money.

Bob Thompson reminded us on this blog last May 28: “Among life’s greatest challenges is getting over our attachments.” He was in good company in thinking that.

Jesus said it too: “Take no thought for tomorrow.” “You cannot serve God and Money.”

Buddha taught that attachment–to anything–causes most of life’s pain. In the worlds of The Dhammapada, “One is the way to gain, the other is the way to nirvana.”

Yoshida Kenkō, an ancient Japanese essayist, observed, “Since olden times there has rarely been a sage who was wealthy.” (As a teacher, I loved putting that one at the bottom of student review sheets, to shake them up a bit as they studied.)

And my favorite Japanese writer, Kamo Chōmei wrote, after living for years in a ten-foot-square mountain hut, “Quiet is my only wish,” though he admitted that, in the end, he never could stop loving his hut–itself an attachment.

Then there was the Dao De Jing: “Lessen selfishness, diminish desires; abolish learning, and you will be without worries.”

I do wish I had remembered all these; I might have been able to sleep when I went back to bed yesterday morning.

While serving as the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I had the good fortune to meet the Catholic theologian, Ewert Cousins. At the time he was a professor at Fordham University.

At the turn of the century he wrote a book called Christ of the 21st Century. In the introduction he writes, “For the first time since the appearance of human life on our planet, all of the tribes, all of the nations, all of the religions are beginning to share a common history. We can no longer think in terms of Christian history, or even Western history. When Christians raise questions about Christ, they must now ask: How is Christ related to Hindu history, to Buddhist history—to the common global history that religions are beginning to share?”

When I read Cousin’s book I realized I was reading a different kind of theology. In the enterprise of Christian theology the meaning of Christ is usually limited to a conventional Christian framework. To ask how Christ is related to other religious and spiritual traditions is a relatively new development.

Indeed for most Christians, the question of Christ is historically the question of identity. Implicitly, the question has to do with the uniqueness of Jesus as the one and only Christ.

In the synoptic Gospels Jesus gathers his disciples about him and asks them two questions. The first is an academic question, the second, a personal question.

First, the academic question: “Who do others say I am?” The academic question asks, what does the research show? What do the polls say? To this question the disciples answer, “Some say you are the reincarnation of Elijah, others say you are the reincarnation of John the Baptist.” By it’s very nature the academic question asks what other people think.

In the synoptic Gospels Jesus asks the academic question, then he turns to Peter and asks a personal question. “Who do you say I am?”

Whereas the academic question asks what other people think, the personal question begins with personal experience. Based on his personal experience, Peter answers, “You are the Christ.”

Imagine yourself in this scene. If Jesus turned to you and asked who you say he is, what would you say?

I would answer, “You are the Christ. I see Christ in you, but I also see Christ in everyone.”
In my experience, Christ is not limited to a first century Jewish male named Jesus—but Christ—the divine pattern of connection is everywhere.

Even in the New Testament, the idea of Christ is the idea that there was something in Jesus that connects everyone. The Epistle to the Colossians begins with a bold proclamation, “In Christ all things hold together.”

This is why I say that properly understood, Christ is the Christian word for the divine pattern of connection. Christ is not a person but a power. Christ is not the object of faith but the divine power that makes faith possible.

Here is where Ewert Cousins becomes our teacher. Cousins says that we experience Christ whenever we have the experience of a Power that includes and at the same time transcends our personal identity. We experience the Divine pattern of connection, Cousins says, when we see the world as others see it.

Out of personal experience, Cousins writes about what it is like to pass over into the culture, the experience, the consciousness of especially those who are different. For some time Cousins lived among Lakota Indians in South Dakota. He writes of his experience of passing over into the consciousness of the Lakota Indians: “I remember the day, while I was talking to a group of Sioux, that I felt my consciousness, as it were, extend itself out of my body and passed over into their consciousness. From that moment I felt I could see things from their perspective and experience their values from within their world. Also I could look back at my own world and see its values in a clearer light–and its limitations! I became increasingly aware of human values that the Indians preserved and that we had lost: their love of the land, their organic harmony with nature, their sense of time as a flowing process…I perceived their awareness of Wakan tanka, or God, in nature and in their lives.”

For a brief moment, Ewert Cousins looked at the world through Lakota eyes. He saw the world not as a Roman Catholic white man but as the Lakota saw it. The experience changed Ewert Cousins perspective of himself. But more importantly he saw the world with new eyes.

Known by many names, the Christ of the 21st century is the divine pattern of connection, the power to wake us up from our fragmented lives to the wholeness that is already within and among us.

Cousins’ awakening makes intuitive sense. The Christ power is the power to cross over into the consciousness of another. It is the power to understand without criticism, to perceive without passing judgment, to comprehend without analyzing. And the challenge meets us in every encounter, every relationship, in every human being.

In whatever form, Christ always manifests in the same way, Humility, simplicity, trust, kindness, non-violence, a forgiving and open heart. I do believe that the Christ appeared in the first century in Jesus of Nazareth. But I also believe that if Christ is to appear in the 21st century, it will be through each and everyone of us.

So I ask. When has Christ become manifest in and through you?

Last weekend, Bob Thompson visited Santa Fe, New Mexico, close enough to our hometown of Taos that my husband Jeff and I gleefully cancelled all previous plans and drove south to meet Bob for breakfast and then to Unity Church where I wept my way through most of Bob’s sermon.

It’s not easy to say why Bob, who is so warm and funny, who speaks of God in the vividly sensual language of the medieval mystics I love, who is wickedly irreverent at the same time that he effortlessly weaves a web of holiness every time he opens his mouth, makes me cry.

I think it’s the Judas thing.

Whenever Bob speaks or writes about Jesus’ forgiveness of his ultimate betrayer, my heart fills with love and I think, this is what is so beautiful about Christianity, this unconditional love and acceptance. No other religion does it quite like Christianity. Christ makes a safe place for all hearts to take refuge and find healing.

I have a confession to make: I’m not a Christian. I love Christ, but I’m a cultural Jew with a longtime connection to the spiritual traditions of the East. Yet I make my living as a translator of the Spanish mystics, who happen to be Christians, whose wisdom teachings transcend all dogma and speak straight o the heart of the essential human longing for union with the source of all love – a yearning that has burned in me all my life. It is this work that initially brought Bob into my life and compelled him to invite me to speak at Lake Street Church four years ago, launching what has turned out to be one of the most precious friendships I have ever had.

For the most part, I do not experience it to be a problem that I have become a spokesperson for Christian mysticism when I have not accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. Rather, it feels like a wonderful, private joke God and I share.

Recently, however, the proposal for a new book on Teresa of Avila that I was very excited about writing was turned down by a publisher I was certain was going to buy it. At first, I was devastated. But once the initial sting passed, I began to muse on the possibility that it’s time to expand beyond the cozy cave of my Spanish mystics and incorporate the wisdom teachings of all spiritual traditions in my work. After all, I teach world religions at the university and have made it my mission to share what is most beautiful – and universal – at the heart of all faiths.

We’ll see. My reputation as a scholar of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross may have painted me into a professional corner from which I cannot escape. Maybe no one wants to hear Mirabai Starr’s reflections on cultivating a contemplative life, independent of famous long-dead monks. But I am beginning to suspect that this latest rejection is the blessing I’ve needed to launch me into the uncharted regions of my own voice, a voice that is passionate about conveying the perennial wisdom found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the indigenous religions of the earth. I think I may be willing to leap off that cliff, now.

Which brings me back to my voluptuous friend, Bob Thomson. Bob is a Christian who throws open the doors of the heart and invites everyone in. I can see that he learned this wild behavior from his friend, Jesus Christ. In Bob’s hands, the Word of God is juicy and delicious, tender and consoling, vastly mysterious and utterly accessible. It is Bob who has encouraged me to let go of the hands of the Christian saints and step into my own truth, a truth that embraces all the ways there are to love the One God.

I may not speak on this blog for a while. I will be busy free-falling.

These are the final words of the chapter entitled Do You Believe in Divine Intervention? in Robert Thompson’s concisely wise book for which this blog is named

Once we know.  It’s just that part that gets in the way.  Or: We’re not alone.  That part, too.  Or: ever…yeah, that gets me going.  And then the kicker: There is nothing left to fear.  Actually, that last bit is barely imaginable.

The obituary section of the New York Times has been for me for many years a source of edification and aquisitive learning.  There are tremendous people dying every day!  And the Times smartly assigns some of the best of their stable of writers to pen these paeans to minute greatness.  I learned of the mystic Ralph Harper in those pages whose book Presence has had a profound influence on my life these fifteen or so years since his death.  I had never before heard his name. Similarly, recently, Chad Varah died. I never heard of Chad.  But he knew of what Robert was speaking in the aforementioned quote.  Chad was an Anglican priest who in 1935, as a 23 year old deacon, brooded bitterly over the first burial service he conducted, for a (thirteen year old) girl.  She had killed herself because she wrongly feared that the onset of menstruation meant she had a venereal disease.” 

Alas.  The obit goes on to say: “As he moved from parish to parish, Father Varah found that many people he helped with sexual problems, his emerging interest, were suicidal.”

And so he slowly began to devote himself to “the parish of despair.”  He in turn founded what would become the world’s first suicide hotline.  Its name: Samaritans.  The writer concludes he started the hotline after concluding that loneliness is the most heart-rending anguish.

When I got to the final words of that fifth chapter of Bob’s book, I circled those words several times, a cyclone of ink highlighting their importance.  I was reading as the psychotherapist I am and the minister I work to be, but mainly, I was reading just as me, a human being working through the complexity of living a human life, studded with all the moral and psychological ambiguity and persistent memory and complicated feeling a human life holds. 

I hear similar cries everyday to those Chad Varah heard, articulated in contemporary American cultural slang but telegraphing the same despair that nameless thirteen year old in London, circa 1935, felt.  And they often start with sexual binding, someone placing unreal and constricted tethers on another, always with the highest of moral purposes, don’t you know, but nonetheless, so constricting.  And those thin straps, if placed early enough in life, can lead to further constrictions, not of a sexual nature, but something even more primal, constrictions of the soul, in which finally the body and the soul and the psyche are so bound up that despair in the only rational response, and hence, a retreat to some crampedly spacious place in the dark interior where the binding voices are somewhat muffled, where the scarred wretch that one has become is left alone.  Perhaps a wretch like me.     

We see evidence of this everyday, don’t we?  We see it everywhere in the culture, somewhere in our families, sometimes at work, in every newspaper everyday.  On some days, we see it in the mirror, and on some days in those we love the most.  We are all adept at hiding: smart, articulate, with ample means, psychologically astute, wittingly defended.  And if we were actually alone, we would be sunk.  Chad Varagh knew that, way before family systems therapy explained it all.  What Chad knew, what Bob Thompson knows, what actually you and I bank on is this simple truth: We need each other.

When I was a Jesuit several eons ago, I often was reminded of the maxim that my face was the only Bible some folks would ever read.  Wow!  That felt powerful.  Now it feels humbling, and because that is likewise true of your face, I am appreciating those reading this blog are now members of some virtual Gideon society of desirous, loneliness-confronting folks for whom Chad Varagh is yet another saint sent to us to teach us how to become one, too.  But we can only become one together, the I necessarily becomes the We in order to be a true I.  As with most truths, paradoxical.

So whether reading the New York Times or my already-tattered copy of A Voluptuous God or the faces of those placed in front of me each day, I am given the profound reminder of the often-given reminder that once we know we’re not alone, ever, there is nothing left to fear.  Presence slowly changes our unknowing to a knowing beyond knowing,  one stirred in some final way by the sight of the Grand Canyon or by the bitter experience of burying a thirteen year old girl, or by glancing in the mirror and noticing the face of God present there, too.  We are given these experiences today, and as we forget, more will come tomorrow. For the Divine, unlike us, never forgets, and unlike us, sees in our face that Divine image.

There is a another thirteen year old girl, or a forty nine year old man or someone of indeterminate age but still breathing who needs to read your visaged Scripture before this day ends.

Of course, it will redound to you.  And have a happy Thanksgiving.