Other Heretics

For many years, I compiled an annual list of books of matters soulful or spiritual for those who might want to explore new writers or re-visit old ones in the ongoing work of tending a spiritual life. Some of you have asked me to do that again, after a several year hiatus. I found the task challenging and in some ways forbidding, therefore liberating. I have come to understand, if that is even the right word, that one’s individual spiritual life, call, development and resonance is as unique as one’s DNA, and in some ways perhaps formed in part by the same. I cannot escape my Irishicity (new word!), the replete foundation in all things spiritual and religious that is my heritage as a born-Roma Catholic, nor can I alter, nor do I want to, the profoundly formative work of Jesuits on and with me, eight years as their student and nine years as their brother. The facticity of my sexuality in its interface with the world, too, is beyond dispute a most significant factor in my development, as is nearly thirty years of settled domestic life (and eighteen months of marriage…). I listen keenly to individuals every day, twenty women and men a week, and have for the past quarter century. They have shaped me deeply. Thirty years of sobriety has given me a wide angle lens to view life and matters external to me and interior to me. So I am the sum of those, and really countless other, parts. Education, family birth order, parent’s histories, born in America, a male, raised in the exact circumstances that I have been, given a superior education and having taken even more. All contribute to the ongoing development of this spiritual and soulful person. As do your exigencies shape and influence, create really, you.

I am continually influenced by Christians of every stripe and none, by Roman Catholics and Protestants, by cosmologists and naturalists, by Buddhists and the Hebrew prophets, by my daily companions, the Muslim Sufi poet Rumi and the luminous face of Jesus, present through every transmutation of my spiritual path, both in its vibrancy and its nadir states.

I have recently come through a Gobi of a two years. During this time, I continued to read in these vast fields, though sometimes with distaste, sometimes with a faint awareness of that which is beyond any state we inhabit. The following are reflections on what I encountered between the bindings of books that made their way to my lap.

Laurence Freeman’s Jesus: The Teacher Within is the best book of its kind I have read. But what is its kind? It is part testament, part Christology, part manual on obtaining maturity, part exegesis, part autobiography, in great part a book on meditation and its necessity and efficaciousness in the world today. It is beautifully written, engaging, intellectually rich, immensely rewarding. Freeman, an English Benedictine, is the director of the World Community of Christian Meditation, yoked to the East and the riches of Buddhism, in the tradition of the great Benedictine meditator John Main, with a forward by the Dalai Lama (no slouch to achieve that endorsement, one need not be reminded). I read this book at the enlightened cusp of my recent descent, though I had no idea that was ahead, so danger may lurk within its lofty pages. If you have a shard of faith in Jesus, whatever that might mean to you, this book will be a gift you might give yourself. Actually, no shards required. Richard Dawkins might just find this moving and erudite enough to read. And ponder. Maybe.


The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham is the book I have recommended to others the most in the past three years and the book that has had a singular impact on me, a perfectionist in the grand tradition of being so very proud of my perfectionism even as it took me down and reduced me to tears. Alas. Kurtz and Ketcham utilize the accreted wisdom of the Twelve Step programs (which many Jesuits have recognized over the years as having a foundational structure in Ignatian wisdom) to walk the reader through the ravages of a life lived perfectly, or rather, in the embrace of a perfectionism which is both a psychological trap and the great sin of hubris, both of which lead to despair. This is a peculiarly American and Christian encumbrance, one which literalizes and fetishizes the Word and disavows the deep humanity of the listener. From the pits of perfectionism, the authors invite the reader, if one is still reading at this point, to consider these lovely graces, outcomes of leaving perfection in its dust: release, gratitude, humility, tolerance, forgiveness, being-at-home. Wow. Just the way these words fall on the eye is pleasing, and a relief. If you are an Enneagram One (or a Two, or a Six…), a Virgo (or whatever), have impeccably ordered closets and cabinets, hold quite a little bit of judgment inside, find it remarkably easy to spot the faults of others, can’t quite figure out why nature, human and otherwise, doesn’t quite align itself with your vision, find a little narcotic of some harmless kind a good antidote to the highly imperfect world in which you and I are required to live, read this book.

Many years ago, I discovered Terry Tempest Williams. Or perhaps more correctly, she discovered me. I have no idea who introduced me to her, but ever since, she has been my companion. And what an unusual companion for me: a Mormon! Keep reading. Williams lives in southern Utah, though she writes from many places. She is the latest in a long line of strong independent Utah Mormon women, no oxymoron there, and she writes evocatively about her grandmother, her mother, Utah’s spiritual landscape and topography, deserts, faith, the oceanic bottoms of the Great Salt Lake, Jesus, her husband, life, light, the intrinsic value of humor, need I go on? Her first book, Refuge, is a refreshment, and her latest book Finding Beauty in a Broken World is a meditation of the juncture of art, ecology, human violence and redemption set in Ravenna, Italy (the home of the worlds’ most magnificent mosaics), a forsaken Rwandan town, and the vast prairie dog villages of the southwest Utah desert. She weaves together these seemingly disparate places into a beautifully poignant testament of hope and possibility. If you are an Annie Dillard fan, you will find her becoming. If you are not, read them both.

During the past eighteen months, I searched broadly for a way to understand the phenomena I was experiencing. I found Tim Farrington’s slight volume, A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul. In a scant one hundred pages, Farrington speaks of his own complex spiritual journey within the constructs of contemporary American psychiatry, which views, if I can cut to the chase, psychopharmacology as the solution to every form of human suffering. Much to our ultimate detriment, I believe, and Farrington’s eloquent book gives such testimony. While the appropriate response to organic depression is rightly medical, I observe that much of what we call depression in this culture is an appropriate feeling response to the conditions of life, the feelings about which being the great gift that lets us find our way through often dark thicket to re-create and re-imagine and re-enliven worn out patterns, boundary-less relationships, and inhuman expectations (see Imperfection above). Farrington says near the end of the book that the dark night is God’s solution to our solutions, not a bad summary of a spiritual journey which if medicated away bears no fruit.

While in the sands, I returned to Thomas Moore’s immensely popular book of nearly twenty years ago, Care of the Soul. I had found it engaging back in the early ‘90’s, and found the title again alluring. I did not expect it to affect me, but affect me it did, more than my first reading when I was a young whippersnapper in my early forties, knowing quite a lot as I did then. Moore is trained in classical Christian spiritual tradition and has become very familiar with the work of Carl Jung, whose contribution to spirituality is not yet fully realized. Moore is a most accessible writer, and invites one to deeply, and this is the word, live one’s life, all of it, with particular attention to the dark side, the shadow, the winters in which much of our most vital work is undertaken and brought to fruition. If you read Care of the Soul way back then, it is worth a re-reading. If you have come of age since, this book is a fine introduction to the complexities of the soulful spiritual, read: human, path, with its necessary vicissitudes, wanderings, stumbles, detours, failings, grandeurs, soarings, and mostly dailinesses, and how fidelity to the work and the disciplines inherent in it are both the work itself and its reward.

A companion to Moore is Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience by James P. Carse. Carse is a professor at NYU, and brings to the conversation about mysticism the experiences of a very lay man, one steeped in both the classics and religious tradition and committed to the ordinary path we are all called to, one that requires observation, attention, physicality, silence, intuition, self-awareness and a great slowing down. Anecdotal, humorous, self-effacing, filled with the wisdom of sages (the Sufis, Nicholas of Cusa, Meister Eckhart, Socrates, the Buddha, the Hindu Vedas, Pascal, et al.), Carse writes an unpretentious book about what it means to be human, in the presence of the divine. Towards the end of the book, Carse says that the revelation I sought for was of God; the revelation I got was of a self I did not want to be…but seeing how far we are from God, the mystics thought, is the way God begins to seek us. The book is filled with such nuggets as these.

Dave Eggers, the celebrated San Francisco author who manages a school in the City’s Mission district teaching immigrant kids how to write creatively, has written another gem himself. But this one is no novel, though it read like one, or rather, an extended and engrossing journalistic account of reality, tragedy, hope, humor, humanity. Zeitoun is maybe the most truly soulfully spiritual book I read this year. It is an account of the travails of the Syrian-American Muslim Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his formerly Southern Baptist Louisiana wife, Kathy, in pre-, during- and post-Katrina New Orleans. If this man were a character in fiction, he would be read as is Huckleberry Finn today, for ages to come. Hopefully the fact he is a real human will not deter future readers. Part intensely recorded history of the advance and fall of the storm on the city of New Orleans, part account of the fantastically peaceful days immediately after the storm, part account of the beyond inept and cruel and unconstitutional story of the government’s response to this one of her citizens, part family log, and mostly a portrait of a magnificent and highly admirable human being, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and how he faced circumstances that would have broken many of us. His humanity, his humor, his faith in his God, his love for his wife and daughters and family in Spain and in Syria, his devotion to the city of New Orleans, his care for abandoned pets and abandoned people while forging for food for himself and his companions, his ultimate trust in God and in humanity, all shine through on every page. If you begin this book, plan on not going to work tomorrow, so committed to Zeitoun and his story you will become.

Many years ago I read and was charmed by Chet Raymo’s Honey from Stone. Raymo teaches the sciences at Stonehill College and writes beautifully about the natural world. When young, Raymo was a ferverino, a term we used decades ago for one obviously committed to the spiritual life, if excessively. He outgrew the excesses and eventually, the dogmas and many of the disciplines, too. His most recent book When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy is a brief, extended meditation on reverencing the natural world, the cosmos, creation, as a source of wisdom, experience, and ultimately spirit. He observes that much of God language has kept human beings from having a profound experience of nature, and thinks that if we would recover some of our innate regard for our place in the natural world, that we might see and experience the world as holy, and in doing so, our perspective would shift from an other-worldy focus to knowing and committing to a focus on this world, the only one we can currently inhabit. Such immense challenges as climate change and global warming would be more succinctly addressed by our absolute participation in the world as it is, not as it might be dogmatically constructed.

In my work in clinical psychology, I remain a pupil of Carl Jung. Though I am not a graduate of a Jung Institute, of which there are several in the United States, I am always reading some of his adherents to deepen my understanding of his insights. A book I reviewed many years ago The Scapegoat Complex by Sylvia Brinton Perrera has been most instrumental in my professional and person life, and I recently reread it for the fifth time, as best I could ascertain by the various marginal notes I have taken over the years. This year a friend sent to me Living in the Borderlands: the Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma by Santa Fe Jungian analyst Jerome Bernstein. Bernstein combines an understanding of Native American mythology and ritual, an appreciation of the separation we in the West have experienced from nature, the hidden paradoxes of human intuition, and the openness of some humans to ways of knowing that are both contra-indicated in our rational world and are often regarded as akin to some kind of pathology. Living in this borderland is a fraught and ultimately graced experience, and is not dissimilar to the path of Christian mysticism that some other books in this list are engaged with. The complexity of modern life calls from us new ways of seeing, knowing and acting to recover what is most deeply human and natural, as opposed to mechanical, the reign of which seems daily to be ascendant. This is a difficult and spotty book but speaks to an experience some readers of this blog will both identify with and appreciate.

Trickster Makes This World is the most engaging book I have read in many years. Its author, Lewis Hyde, is a genius, and had such status confirmed when he won the MacArthur Award. He taught creative writing at Harvard, perhaps by passing out his own wonderful texts, and writes with vast knowledge of the mythological traditions and their intricacies of African, Asian, Australian, and North American native tribes and peoples, contemporary art (Duchamp, Ginsburg Cage), with expositions on Frederick Douglass, Greek mythology, the Christ, and with enough Shakespeare, Jung, Freud, and contemporary writers of fiction to delight and amaze and provoke you. He is wise, witty, counterintuitive, disruptive, smart, connecting, demanding,. This is a delicious book. It took me many months of a few paragraphs at a time to digest, and well worth the effort. It utterly humanizes us, and respects that which is steeped in Mystery with uncanny regard, and often surprising accuracy. Like Perrera, I will re-read this, hopefully many times. It cannot be gotten the first time, though the first time is joyous.

I conclude with the most recent book by a man who was among the first writers to whom I was drawn as I began my adult life forty years ago. It was 1970, and we were both so young. Then a Catholic priest at Boston University, and an anti-war activist, James Carroll wrote elegantly about a life of faith, and offered prayers in an idiom I hungered for. Elegantly he still writes. Now primarily known as a novelist (Mortal Friends, Prince of Peace, et al), he recently penned Constantine’s Sword, an indictment of historical Christianity’s treatment of and active participation in the persecution of the Jews, up to and including the Holocaust. It is a troubling and very beneficial text. He most recent book is Practicing Catholic, which I was shy to pick up but my fealty to Carroll invited me to the same. I was amply rewarded. While Carroll writes in a vein not dissimilar to Chet Raymo, he is a man who has stayed within the walls of the institution, though on his terms. Having gone beyond the ancient and inadequate dogmatic and political constructions of a conciliar church, and here we are talking about Nicaea and Chalcedon in the fourth and fifth centuries, not Vatican II, in the late and not missed twentieth, Carroll dissects the political, sexual, inter-religious, hierarchical, theological accretions of Catholicism, and yet makes a case for maintaining ties to a group of pilgrims on this journey, and for him how the act of reformation, as radical as he deems it to be, one worthy of an educated and fully invested in the twenty-first century human being, knowing that paths to the divine are sacred even when they have been mutilated by injustice, abuse, arrogance, denial, intellectual rigidity, and obtuseness. For readers who are practicing Catholics, for those reading these who grew up in the Roman Church (I recently read that there are upwards of ten million former Catholics in the United States…), for those interested in how massive religious institutions operate and perhaps change, Carroll is a good and faithful guide. And a very decent human being.

Happy reading and a happy New Year to you.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama tells a story on himself.  A number of years ago he was slated to give a talk in Tokyo.  He sat on the platform awaiting his turn. The host gave a beautiful and extravagant speech about the gorgeous arrangement of flowers on the table that were to be given to the guest of honor. When the speech concluded, The Dalai Lama, assuming that he was the guest of honor, got out of his chair and walked across the platform in the direction of the flowers  When he heard the speaker say the flowers were intended for somebody else, he returned to his chair, embarrassed and blushing.

Few would deny that His Holiness the Dalai Lama  is someone who’s pretty good at being a spiritual being on a human journey. Many people believe he is a fully enlightened being, a Buddha. But when asked who he really is, he always answers the same way: “I am just a simple monk.”  And he says this so authentically and with such sincerity that there’s little doubt he really means it.

We are spiritual beings on a human journey and to understand this means that we don’t know always know when to get up, when to sit down, how to get to where we want to go or what we will find along the way.

Many people believe an enlightened spiritual being can walk on water, has a bag supernatural tricks, doesn’t have difficulties or pain and especially doesn’t have worries. A truly enlightened spiritual being always knows how to do the right thing at the right time in the right way.

It’s true that the human journey takes us from place to place and person to person and sometimes we go with the flow, sometimes we resist.

Life causes us to change our location—we move from here to there but the deeper question is what happens in us when circumstances change.

There is the story of the Zen Master who stood before his students. As he was about to deliver his sermon he opened his mouth—but before a word came out, a bird just outside the window began to sing.

The Zen master stood silently until the bird stopped singing. “Ah,” the Zen Master said, “the sermon has just been delivered.”

The song of transformation begins as the heart opens.

The spiritual frontier awaits us in the inner space of the heart.

Wherever my heart closes is my spiritual frontier. Wherever your heart closes is your spiritual frontier. We happen upon our spiritual frontier at the darndest times and with the most surprising people. We never know when the heart will close. But we all know what it feels like when the heart closes—walls itself off—armors itself against an experience or some other person. Keeping our distance, we push back inside—but when we do this we back away from the borders of our own spiritual frontier.

Nobody ever really changes unless there is a change of heart. Brother David Stendl-Rast writes, “When we reach our innermost heart, we reach a realm where we are not only intimately at home with ourselves, but intimately united with others, all others. The heart is never a lonely place. It is the realm where solitude and togetherness coincide. Our own experience proves this, does it not? Can one ever say, “Now I am truly together with myself, yet I remain alienated from others”?   Or could one say, “I am truly together with others, or even just with one other person I love, yet I remain alienated from myself”?  Unthinkable!  The moment we are one with ourselves, we are one with all others.  We have overcome alienation.

The spiritual frontier is within us. When we choose to enter this spiritual frontier we become more than we are by waking up to who we are already.

Lately, I’ve become infatuated with Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century German nun. It was not love at first sight, believe me. I didn’t think she was my type. She was a visionary, and I am not interested in the supernatural. She was obsessed with cosmology and the architecture of the universe. I yearn for union with the Divine. She was brilliant: a scientist who analyzed and then harnessed the healing properties of plants. I dropped out of high school, and can’t decipher a simple plumbing diagram, nor am I motivated to learn how. Hildegard composed symphonies; I don’t even know how to read music.

And yet, don’t some of the most successful marriages happen between unlikely partners? Passion can sneak up behind us and suddenly our hearts are captured and all we can think about is the unlikely object of our affection. This is what happened to me with Teresa of Avila, by the way, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic. (I know: I have this thing for dead Catholic saints. Which is even more bewildering when you consider my secular Jewish heritage and long-term background in Eastern spiritual practices.)

Teresa first crept in through the door I opened for John of the Cross, her spiritual protégé. I had fallen in love with John the minute I first read Dark Night of the Soul in its original Early Renaissance Spanish. She, I could live without. He was quiet and serious, like me. She was gregarious, cunning, needy. If she hadn’t had such a profound influence on my hero, I would have gladly ignored her forever. But wherever he went, there she was. The next thing I knew we were having tea together. And then planting a garden. And then… publishing books.

Which brings me back to Hildegard. I would probably never have given her more than a passing glance – the way you notice an exotic guest at a cocktail party maybe, one with whom you instantly assume you have nothing in common – if I hadn’t been hired to write a little book about her.

I could have turned down the job, of course. And I briefly considered this. I don’t know German, for one thing. At least with Teresa, I spoke a version of the same vernacular, and knew I could make her accessible to the modern literary and spiritual sensibilities. But the Aryan nun from the Rhineland was alien to me, and a little scary. Teresa was merely madly in love with God and would get to him by any means necessary (the more dramatic, the better). Hildegard was simply strange. Maybe even psychotic.

For instance, Hildegard of Bingen was regularly overcome by a blinding light, out of which issued a voice. This voice, which she fondly referred to as “the shadow of the Living Light,” gave her very specific messages, often in the form of prophesies. When Hildegard was young, the prophetic information leaned toward the prosaic (such as the exact markings of a calf still inside its mother’s womb), but, as her gift developed, the transmissions became detailed explanations of the genesis of the Cosmos and advice about the ultimate purpose of human life (“Do not denigrate anything God has created. All creation is simple, plain, and good. And God is present throughout his creation. Why would you even consider things beneath your notice …”)

Still, as pertinent as these visions and voices may have been, that’s not the part that attracts me to Hildegard. Where she finally broke down the walls of my heart was when I read about how she had resisted her visions and voices for the first forty years of her life. And how suppressing them almost killed her. Literally. She finally became gravely ill from the sheer exertion of ignoring the divine imperative and holding in the truth.

But the Living Light was insistent. “Speak!” the Voice thundered from the nun’s deathbed. “Write what you see and hear.” Finally, Hildegard of Bingen reached for a quill and began to record everything the Voice told her. Her sickness melted away, and Hildegard proceeded to revolutionize a decadent Church with her theological insight and humanitarian devotion. From that moment on, whenever a vision overwhelmed her, Hildegard emerged feeling purified and revitalized, “like a simple young girl again.”

Teresa of Avila has a similar story. Culturally conditioned to be a submissive female who would never dare to question the authority of the patriarchy, she repressed her innate brilliance for as long as she could, but soon grew so sick she nearly died. Once she surrendered to the inner imperative to cultivate a direct relationship with the Divine, in apparent opposition to the mandates of the Church, she flourished and became the brilliant beacon she has been for five centuries.

But it is not only spiritual food these two saints offer us. It is practical inspiration. They give us courage to speak truth to power, at risk to our own comfort and even safety. When everything around us is trying to lull us into complacency (don’t worry about those disembodied starving children in Afghanistan. Go shopping; you’ll feel better), mystics and visionaries like Teresa and Hildegard model the revolutionary act of speaking (and writing, and singing) what we know in our innermost core. Because they made the radical choice to live authentically, we see the possibilities for actualizing an authentic life. In the face of the to-do list that will never be done, these great beings teach us how to be still. And from that place of deep quiet, we begin to truly hear – really listen, and hear – the divine demand, and then do what it tells us, no matter how crazy.

I carry my new friend Hildegard of Bingen with me wherever I go these days, like an amulet, like a homeopathic remedy. She is not always a copasetic companion, but she’s filling my head with some intriguing notions. It remains to be seen whether or not this affair turns into an enduring bond, as it has with Saint Teresa of Avila…

If you came back as an animal, which one would you most like to be, and which would be your last choice? That question was posed to me once, and there were lots of possibilities I flirted with for the first, but one that stood out hands-down for the second—a chicken. I mean they don’t seem to have much in the brains department, are fearful and fretful, and seem to be helpless prey, right? Think of how it’s used in our vocabulary—a taunt that school kids hurl at each other “Chicken!!” Or a description for hysteria, “She was running around like a chicken with its head cut off”. The theory is that the animal you least would like to be may be the one you have the greatest lesson to learn from. One might even say it is your “shadow”. I would imagine that most of us think of the Jungian concept of “shadow” as something big and dark and scary—the foul slavering beast kept repressed in the cellar. But mine seems to be fowl, rather than foul.

Chicken synchronicities began pecking at me a few weeks ago, telling me it was time to look a bit more closely at what I might need to learn from this creature. It began when I wrote a piece on my website about fear, as I thought of making some big changes in my life. A friend in my favorite online community told me that I didn’t have to worry about my friends there ribbing me about the fear—no one would call me a chicken. He then proceeded to post a hen picture the next day as the community’s icon.

My next chicken encounter that week was not so humorous. Driving, I came up on a truck transporting chickens to slaughter. The sight/energy of it slammed into me, a wave of horror. I thought they were dead until I got close enough to see they weren’t– and wished they were. Jammed in so tight they were on top of each other, wings crushed against metal bars, crippled, in obvious pain. I was crying and babbling incoherent phrases…”No, no can’t be true… not right….no, no….” The swirl of emotions included shame—that I have contributed to this nightmare, by eating chicken, knowing they live in awful conditions, but not really wanting to focus on it.

I was still reeling the next morning, as I sat to read and to write in my journal. I opened A Voluptuous God, and on the page in front of me saw the word “chicken”. Huh? Yes, a story about a chicken. In which a guru tells his students to take a chicken somewhere they can’t be seen and kill it. And the student who comes back to tell the guru it’s not possible because no matter where he went, the chicken could see him, is the student who gets the lesson right. The Divine spark is in us all. The next time I picked the book up, I’d just gotten off the phone with a friend, telling her about my chicken synchronicities, and again on the page I opened to was the word “chicken”. An Annie Dillard quote…”There is no one here but us chickens.” My curiosity piqued, I decided to scratch and peck a little deeper.

Animals bring so much to my life—as friends, teachers, bringers of joy and color. I often research what their “medicine” is to enrich my understanding. As I read about chicken’s medicine, my resistance to them began to dissolve. Descended from wild red jungle fowl of India, they have an exploratory, inquisitive nature, loving to scratch in vegetation and uncover “treasures”. They have patience and determination—will peck away at an obstacle until it is gone. Personal space is important to them—they can become aggressive if confined. They symbolize nourishment. (Source for this information—www.sayahda.com/cycle.htm).

I asked my online community what they knew about chickens. One friend from the Netherlands told me of his chicken, Mrs. Rapture, who would call to the other hens when she found a worm, so they could come and share. He also wrote:

Three ladies in the garden will make a lovely coven, very spiritual. Nice feathers to collect and make dreamcatchers of. They have a lovely language and chat all day long.

Another friend said,

Chickens are smart enough not to cross the road, usually… Their voices are such sweetness to hear. There’s nothing like a flock of sweeties happy and beautiful and clucking quietly and getting the chance to use their native wits outside.

And another told me about her rooster, who if you gave him a cracker, would go share it with each hen, until they’d all eaten, before he’d have any himself.

The more I learned, the more my heart softened towards these creatures I’d excluded from my inner menagerie. I began to open to their energy in me– imagining not having to be “important” or “successful”, to be happy with no more agenda than to peck in the dirt, part of a flock, sharing the occasional worm with my sisters, clucking in pleasure. To give of myself completely to nourish others. We don’t value those sorts of qualities much in our society. We don’t see them as sparks of divinity.

I’ve been determined most of my life to make sure it is known I have claws and an intelligence that you’d better not take for granted, that I am unique. For me nourishing another has too often been confused with being devoured by them. And all I have to do for these fears to be confirmed is to look at the world around me—countless images of people consumed by consuming—no balance in giving back or respect for the generosity of our earth. Everyone may talk about chicken soup for the soul, but there is no soul in how we most often make that soup.

However, experience has taught me that pushing a part of yourself away, no matter how much it scares you, never leads to wholeness. Since chicken has come pecking on my door, I feel it is time for me to acknowledge that even if it doesn’t seem safe in this world, I’m tired of shoving my inner hen back in its cage. I want to let out that simple soft nourishing part of me, and see where she roosts…or flies.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

[William Carlos Williams]

As a post script to this entry, the day I was readying it to send I opened a new book (this one by Arnold Mindell, The Shaman’s Body) to find a story about a ritual in which an African shaman rubbed a live chicken all over the body of the person he was healing. I hear the gods laughing…or maybe clucking.

Nearly fifteen years ago I preached a sermon called, “On Being a Buddhist Baptist”. I got the idea from Tina Turner who was the first person I ever heard say she was a Buddhist Baptist.

Tina Turner’s Baptist upbringing was important to her, but it was Buddhist teaching that saved her life. It’s a well known fact that she was battered by her husband. Things had gotten so bad that when she went on stage she covered the bruises on her body with makeup.

In 1974 she hired a secretary for the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. It turned out the secretary was Buddhist. She taught Tina the Buddhist chant, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. As Tina practiced this chant, her anger gradually morphed into strength. Living in the mud and muck of her life, she developed the clarity, strength and determination to change her life. Buddhist compassion coupled with Baptist soul liberty makes a formidable team.

But Tina Turner’s not the only well known Buddhist Baptist. How about Martin Luther King?

Did you know that in 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. nominated the unknown Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, for the Nobel Prize for Peace? If Martin Luther King were with us today, and you were to say, “Dr. King, it seems to me you are sort of a Baptist Buddhist,” I suspect he would smile and say thank you for the compliment.

A basic Buddhist teaching is “dependent origination.” Dependent origination is the idea that everything that is in the universe is dependent on everything else. Each part of life is dependent upon the other parts of life. Your well being and my well being are intimately connected with everyone else’s. Every action, word, deed and thought, no matter how slight or inconsequential it may seem, has an implication not only for ourselves for others and even the whole planet.

Without ever using the words “dependent origination” Martin Luther King talked about dependent origination as being the ground of life. “All life is interrelated”, he said. “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Looking around the world we see unimaginable suffering on a large scale. We see acts of cruelty and oppression –we see children orphaned and starving—war and injustice—seen from a certain perspective most people in this world are suffering terribly. And they are.

Human beings are hard wired to want to make a difference for other human beings.

But get real.

It’s good and wonderful for us to do everything we can but it’s not good or wonderful for us to be motivated by a savior complex. Nobody can fix everything.

But everyone can bring some healing to the world.

We’re all familiar with phrase: “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

This phrase evidently originated with a woman named Anne Herbert, who had been turning it around in her mind for a while, and one day wrote it down on a paper place-mat in a restaurant. A man sitting nearby said, “that’s wonderful”, and copied it down on his own place-mat. The phrase has since spread to bumper stickers, bill boards and is so well known that it has become cliché, a little cheesy and even the brunt of some pretty funny jokes.

What’s astonishing is that what began as a simple sentence on a paper place-mat in a restaurant has become internationally known. Is this an example of interdependence?


But maybe it’s also a reminder that we all need and want kindness. Kindness is primal. Kindness is powerful.

Maybe making a difference in the world is as simply as practicing random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. Could it be this simple? As we change ourselves, as we soften, as we practice within ourselves, could it be the world becomes a kinder place?

What if the way to make a difference is not about signing a petition, joining in a march or insisting on a particular piece of legislation. What if the most important thing is the willingness to practice kindness in our thoughts, words and deeds? What if kindness not only changes us, but the world in which we live?

Do you want to want to be a part of changing global consciousness? Practice regular and random acts of kindness and senseless beauty. This sounds simple. But it’s not easy.

With every thought, ask yourself “Is this a kind thought”. With every word, ask yourself, “Is this a kind word?” And with every deed, “Is this a kind action I am about to take”?

It is a good thing to work on issues, but every problem, every issue is really a symptom and not the cause. The only thing powerful enough to create a new world is a new Spirit. We solve one problem and here comes another—Underneath all our humanly created problems is a lack of kindness.

Most of the suffering in our world is caused by a lack of kindness. So, do you want to make a difference in the world? Try a little kindness, every day and in every way. And when you try a little kindness remember dependent origination—remember we are all interdependent and interrelated—remember whatever you do right here has an impact over there.

A little kindness goes a long way.

Although we will officially celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr on January 21st, his actual birthday was January 15th. Those of us who remember those days will recall the conversation that took place among many white people in this culture. Threatened by King’s activism and his charisma there were many who argued that ML King was trying to change too much too  fast, that refusing to comprimise, he endangered American security and prosperity. Some openly charged  that he was a communist, or at least an extremist.

Dr. King said he wasn’t a communist.

But after considerable reflection he admitted he was in fact an extremist.

This was an astonishing admission. Extremist was a dirty word. It has always been so—at least to those in power who are in a position to hurl the charge. To tag someone an extremist is to shun, ostracize and scapegoat.  Stay away from the extremists. An extremist is someone who holds a radically irrational point of view. Extremists are demagogues who employ faulty logic. Extremists show disdain for the rights and liberties of others. Extremists will step all over you to get what they want.  Extremists are not nice people.

If you listen to our leaders, extremists are the people who wish to do us harm. They are the people who justify the destruction of human life for political purposes and send suicide bombers as their messengers. To our leaders extremists are the bad guys and we (all of us who hate their indiscriminate violence) are the good guys.

It is no surprise that our leaders seek to simplify the difference between bad guys and good guys. And in this instance, SIMPLIFY is the operative word.

Extremists hate the status quo. But Martin Luther King Jr. argued that there is more than one way to be an extremist—there is more than one kind of extremism and there is more than way to change the status quo.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote: “Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’…was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand I can do no other, so help me God.’….And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’….So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

Those in our government (regardless their party) are invested in protecting the status quo—that’s not only how they got there but how they stay there. Even if current candidates argue that they are the candidates of change—just give them a few years in office and they’ll become the proponents of their own status quo.

Perhaps the deeper and more important question is not about whether someone is an extremist but what kind of extremist. Generically speaking, extremists that divide the world into Us verses Them and Good verses Evil.

But perhaps a deeper extremism refuses to divide the world into Us and Them or Good and Evil. Perhaps a deeper extremism sees the world as never divided, but despite all appearance, always One.

Herein lies an extremism that can heal the world.

In her mystical masterpiece, THE INTERIOR CASTLE, the sixteenth century holy woman, Teresa of Avila, reminds us that… “On the spiritual path, the Beloved asks only two things of us: that we love him and that we love each other. This is all we have to strive for.”

She goes on to say, “In my opinion, the most reliable sign that we are following both these teachings is that we are loving each other… Be assured that the more progress you make in loving your neighbor, the greater will be your love for God. His Majesty loves us so much that he repays us for loving our neighbor by increasing our love for him in a thousand ways. I cannot doubt this.”

With classic Teresian fervor, she concludes this passage by appealing directly to our hearts: “Oh, friends! I can clearly see how important love of your neighbor is to some of you, and how others of you just don’t seem to care. If only you could understand how vital this virtue is to all of us, you wouldn’t engage in any other study.”

Five hundred years ago, this cloistered Spanish nun offered a teaching as relevant today as ever: not only must we ground our activism in contemplative stillness, we need to engage the fruits of contemplation in active service to the world. Our personal relationship with the Divine is meaningless unless we take it to the streets and see the face of our Beloved in the face of everyone we encounter.

We are not all meant to organize rallies, pour our drawn blood on Pentagon documents, travel to underdeveloped countries and volunteer to inoculate children. In her manual on contemplative prayer, called THE WAY OF PERFECTION, Teresa makes a distinction between “active and contemplative personalities,” and advocates that we be true to our own nature. Holding the suffering of humanity in our hearts in prayer every day can be as powerful a service as finding shelter for the homeless. Cultivating and abiding in inner peace makes a significant contribution to peace on earth. Working on our personal spiritual path raises the level of consciousness of the whole.

Yet, not everyone is a natural contemplative, either. For some, sitting in silent meditation feels artificial, even wasteful. When they close their eyes, they do not sense the presence of the Divine; rather, they experience an overpowering urge to get up and go do something. They may be right about this impulse.

Teresa invokes us the Gospel story of Mary and Martha to highlight this distinction. Mary – probably the Magdalene – was an ecstatic. She was all about devotion and rapture. She would fling herself at the feet of Jesus whenever he came by for a meal and she would remain there until he left. Meanwhile, Martha was stuck in the kitchen, grumbling about being left with all the work, elevating herself to a state of false martyrdom.

“Remember,” says the ever-practical Teresa, in an effort to console those who are naturally more active. “Someone must cook the food! …Think of yourselves as favored by being allowed to serve with Martha.”

The important thing, Teresa reminds us, is that by serving one another, we are serving the Holy One, who is continuously dropping in for a visit. “If contemplation, silent and vocal prayer, nursing the sick, cleaning the house, and the most menial labor, all serve the Guest who comes to eat and drink and converse with us,” Teresa asks, “why would we choose to tend him in one way rather than another?”

Last summer, I had the good fortune of spending a few days at Jonah House, the historic peace and justice community in Baltimore, made famous by the Berrigan family. Two of the residents, known in the media as the “Colorado nuns,” had recently been released from prison where they had been locked up for yet another “plowshares action,” invoking the Prophet Isaiah by symbolically banging on missile silos with household hammers, “beating our swords into plowshares.”

After lunch one afternoon, we sat around the community living room and the nuns pulled out their knitting. It was difficult to imagine these two grandmotherly women as enemies of the State. As they began praising my new translation of Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, I couldn’t resist confiding in them. “I feel like a fraud,” I said. “Here I am, reflecting on the esoteric teachings of the Early Renaissance, while people like you are willing to go to jail for your convictions about nuclear disarmament.”

The nuns put down their knitting needles and took it upon themselves to convince me that by speaking and writing about the teachings of the mystics, I am making as valuable a contribution to peace on earth as any act of civil disobedience. That, through my words, I open hearts and minds, and allow people to look with clear eyes on the suffering of the world, thereby moving them to act with love and compassion.

It was hard to believe them, but I tried. Their words alleviated a secret burden of guilt I had been carrying ever since my first book came out, which happened to coincide with launching the war on Iraq.

I am beginning to rest in the fact that we each have our own way of loving God by loving each other. Mine happens to require long hours of solitude and silence. For others, it’s about engaging in prison reform, making calls to the House and the Senate to vocalize their opposition to American Imperialism, raising funds to keep our rivers clean.

If every act is an act of love, we are all activists. If the root of all our action is contemplation, then our whole lives become a prayer.