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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Bar Room Mysticism

I’m sitting still.  I am a freshly fallen maple leaf resting at the edge of a deep blue lake.  No one is talking.  No one!  It’s day three of a five day silent retreat in the Bay Area and I am growing desperate.  My mind has begun to fold in on itself.  It’s like there is this uncharted region in my brain that got signed up for this retreat and now I’m falling headlong into the emptiness.  What I thought would be a retreat to hone my meditation skills has turned out to be my own personal black hole! 

I opted for the vegetarian meals because I thought I might be able to drop a couple of pounds on this retreat, but now my blood sugar is dangerously low. The floors, the walls, and even the air in this old monastery drip with a palpable mystic energy.   I am open to the energy of the universe even as my mind folds in on itself.  I look with a bit of desperation at the faces in the room, hoping that some smiling soul will throw me a life line.   

A woman just got back from walking the labyrinth; she is glowing, her feet barely touch the ground. 
A small group is gathered around a giant singing bowl that moans as its handler caresses its rim with a wooden mallet.  The catholic nuns here dress like the rest of us so they are a bit tough to spot when you really need one.  

Daylight begins to recede.  I feel myself starting to snap.  As the mystics begin to make their way to their private cells for the night, I start looking for a way out.  I slip down the back stairs like some thief in the night, hit the panic doors at the basement level and find my way to the parking lot.  I jump into my old VW and drive as fast as I can down to a local bar. 

I’m sitting on a bar stool.  I am a fallen maple leaf at the edge a deep blue lake.  Everyone is talking.  
Everyone!  The bar is pounding with the energy of complex lives that seek some solace in the mixed drinks and the company.  Martini in hand, my anxiety begins to find its place back on the shelf where it belongs.  The talking is like music.  She struggles with a relationship.  They argue over some work drama.  They catch up.  He talks about himself, and goes on and on and on.  The noise; it is mystical!  

The bar room chatter opens up like some eternal landscape that stretches over the unchartered territory of the collective soul.  Is this meditation?  Could this be what I was seeking when I signed up for this week long silent retreat?  All the noise the bursts free from life itself?

In his book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell talks about the way in which Jesus gathers up people who clearly don’t have the aptitude for being very religious.  They are fisher folk.  They are people of the streets.  They are people down at the local bar.  Then, within their normal everyday lives, he folds back that thin veil and reveals the very mystery of the holy.  They are taken aback.  A widow sees that her struggle is a holy one.  A disenfranchised day worker sees he is valued.  A hooker finds some respect.  They become the ones who follow this wisdom teacher down the dusty path of life.  A band of bar room mystics.  Everyone is talking.   A band of folks beginning to awaken to the very heart of the universe pulsing in what the social elite could only classify as “their miserable little lives”.  Yep, down at the local bar they are abuzz with the very heart of the mystery of life.

I am sitting still.  I am a fallen leaf at the edge of a great and ancient sea.

Why do I work my soul to the bone constructing a contrived mysticism that feels especially holy?  Why do I spend so much energy immersing myself in an abstract reality that requires a registration fee?  Why do I think the axis of the holy encounter is centered in places set apart?  Where along this religious journey did I lose the ability to hear holiness in the everyday pulse of a bar? 

As a self-professed progressive christian I think I might have torn down an old dogmatic monastery only to erect another more sexy one.  Oh to push myself out of the special places and back into the mystical mundane.  Oh to look into the eyes of my daughter as she cries about another disappointment and see all that is holy in that moment.  Oh to hand my book back to the librarian and embrace the experience in a way that stops time.  Oh to hear in the blues as the lament of the soul.   Oh to break bread around a table for four in the heart of downtown and know that this is the holiest of meals.   Oh to stare at the food in my CSA box and see the very pulse of the universe.  Oh to sit on my bar stool and know I am in the monastery.  I don’t need to pay for a mystical experience, I am a mystical experience! 

Christianity , the religion I have learned to love may have let us all down by turning fishing village wisdom into an abstract theological construct put to liturgical music.  I want bar stool mysticism!  The challenge is how to get there.  If I just spend time on a bar stool will I really see the wonder that surrounds me?  If I just spend my time in the monastery, will I miss the mystery held within the mundane?  Maybe I need both?   Maybe I need the eyes and ears I can develop in silent meditation to be the awareness I bring to the mundane. 

I am a fallen maple leaf resting ever so gently within a vast sea of noise down at the local bar.  I can feel the vibration of it all and my soul is rested.  Restored,  I make my way back to the monastery.  The ominous gates are locked shut for the night.  Not wanting to sleep in my VW bus, I push the little stained button on the gate but hear nothing.  Fifteen very long minutes later, an old security guard unlocks the gates of paradise and lets me in.  I think he smells the alcohol on my breath.  He locks the gate behind us and I can feel him watching me wander up the hill, back into the beloved community.  I am a mystic.  I am a mystic who needs the panic door in order to find myself in this world of ours.  How about you?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Soul beneath the soil – A Celebration of Earth Day

My daughter runs a small farm in Vermont.  In early spring, even while the snow is still on the ground, her rickety old front porch turns into a plant nursery as big wooden planks are attached to the walls so flats of vegetable starts can find their place in the sun.  Tenderly she presses seeds into the soil of each small container.  With time and patience, each cup cradles a longing for bountiful harvest.  Each seed, a gift of life that will, within the dance of sun and soil, take root and offer its fruit to nourish her world.  If you pay attention, it is a moment filled with the essence of life. 

There is however, a lot of pressure to get things going.  A good quick start will stock the roadside farm stand, fill CSA boxes for delivery, and create the bounty needed to survive as last year’s canned goods run thin.  There is a mountain of pressure to hurry.  And yet, before she places the vegetable starts, she pauses and takes a deep breath of time to write some words of longing, words of hope, words of trust, onto each wooden plank that will hold each start.  Words that are a thanksgiving for the relationship that is about to unfold. Poetic words that will linger beneath each small plant start soon to rest on a wooden plank.  

Those words…  They are the soul beneath the soil. These are simple words that entrust one life to another.  I believe this is a way to construct meaning for our time.   It is the speaking of language that binds us to the very gift of life wherever we find it.  

When I was growing up, I would stand in some big church and speak words that were crafted to construct a metaphysical world that seemed so distant from the one in which I lived.  Words to connect me to some heavenly homeland. Today, my daughter scratches language beneath the very soil that nourishes her family.  This is the soul beneath the soil.

My guess is, that Jesus was probably doing something similar until organized religion got in the way.  He spoke a poetic language written beneath the lives of the famer, the beggar, the widow, the fisherfolk, the wedding.   And yet, to this day, church people continue to use a strange and distant theological code language that provides some assurance that we have mastered a world beyond our own.  Was Jesus really describing a metaphysical world, or helping us understand the one in which we live? With the growing realization of our deep and abiding interconnectedness to the natural world, religion might do well to construct a poetry of the soul that can help us find ourselves within the wonder, the pain, the grace and the mystery of the life that we live; To find our soul beneath the soil.

When the seedlings grow strong enough to enter the furrowed rows of rich soil on my daughter’s farm, those heavy planks get thrown behind the garage until next year.  Over the next long cold winter, the words will slowly dissolve beneath the falling snow.  Come spring, a new poem will find its way onto a wooden plank.  The circle of life will fulfill its promise and my daughter will pause to mark her family’s place within the dance.  It is the language of the soul that each of us writes beneath the gift of life.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why the project at AltSpirit gives me hope

Let’s face it.  Like so many, I have been struggling with the way religion works in my life.  I have slipped beyond taking anything in my own religious heritage as some absolute to which I must pay homage.  I have come to grips with historical criticism and am happy living with a Jesus whose legacy was inflated by an enthusiastic early church.  I chuckle at the antiquated creedal language and dogmatic formulas that have so much continued cache.  I buy into the whole social construct idea and am happy thinking about the way humanity seeks to create meaning within their contextual setting.  But, what to do with all this religious energy that still courses through my veins?

AltSpirit feels like a place for me.  It feels like religion is still an important part of my life, but it’s more like a kind of conversation than a destination.  I love being in a relationship with others that seek some greater meaning in their life and are fine integrating the wisdom of their religious tradition with the actual experience of life they are having.   Here, there is room to just be open and honest and inquisitive without the fear that you are going to piss off the person sitting next to you in the pew. 

If you are just exploring AltSpirit.  I hope you find some comfort in a place where you can ponder all the wonder and mystery that seems to swirl in every life and that the conversation and resources here might be a helpful partner along the way.