~ Spirit ~
Traditional God. As I grew during these years, I found myself puzzled, dissatisfied and deeply troubled with the religious "doctrine" which was taking shape from my education. When I thought of god in anthropomorphic terms -- as a sentient, willful being -- much of the "holy writings" made little sense. Viewed that way, God was a very unappealing character judged by human standards. Full of wrath, jealousy and vengeance.
These elements are not hidden in the text; they are explicitly repeated through much of the Old Testament.. Some years ago, a wonderfully insightful book addressed these concerns very directly: Jack Miles' God: A Biography. After I had read the book, it received the Pulitzer for biography!
This notion of a wrathful, jealous, vengeful god seemed antithetical to the idea of praise via "prayer" to "him." I rejected the notion of being obsequiously subservient in any way to such a distasteful character. If prayer was to be a mere requirement of fealty to an unworthy lord, I would just as soon choose the consequences of rebellion against this "wrong" hierarchy.
Because of these disturbing concerns -- generating within me strong disapproval of this "god" character -- and for other more mundane reasons related to organized religion more generally, the structure and resulting motivations of leaders within organized religion, I left Judaism de facto during much of the '70s, no longer attending services and not focusing on a Jewish social circle. I've never wavered in identifying proudly as Jew; my quarrel was with religious doctrine.
On the Banks of the River. In 1980, after a decade almost completely away from Judaism, I experienced something of a spiritual rebirth -- seemingly unconnected with anything Jewish. My ‘spiritual-coadventurer’ in pursuing these ideas is a my dearest friend Craig Welch, son of a Presbyterian minister and devoutly Christian. The most pivotal moments of this ‘rebirth’ unfolded on the banks of the Rio Grande in Arroyo Hondo, just outside Taos, New Mexico. The realizations which came into focus had many components, and required me to descend into the darker sides of my own psyche – “I was lost and now I’m found” -- to search for some unified sense of life’s meaning.
Just before the Taos trip, we had watched a mini-series dramatization of the bizarre story of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, leading to the mass suicide/homicide of 900+ Temple members (and a US congressman) in the jungles of Guyana. The mini-series spanned two nights, the first of which traced the life of Jim Jones from childhood to his early ministry in Indianapolis. There, Jones was given a pulpit in a changing neighborhood from which whites were fleeing. Jones responded to the situation with an admirable outreach to the poor and hopeless, pushers, prostitutes, homeless in the neighborhood. True there was some foreshadowing of an unhealthy ministry, but these were fleeting, and were exceptions to the generally favorable portrait of Jones’ early life. The crazier parts of the story – establishment of the People’s Temple in Ukiah and San Francisco, and eventually in the jungles of Guyana, and the many perversions which unfolded in Guyana – were covered in the 2nd evening of the miniseries.
At the close of the 1st evening, my son Danny, then 11, turned to me in confusion: “Dad, I thought Jim Jones was supposed to be bad!” Danny’s question made sense – the Jim Jones portrayed that 1st night of docudrama showed Jones doing good, in a very troubling world. I had no answer to give Danny which would be true to my own mind. Rather, I was deeply troubled by the seeming contradiction between a man being this good, and a man being as evil as Jones proved to be in Guyana. As I reflected on this over the next day or so, the contradiction generated lots of anxiety for me. My notion of good and evil was undercut by this paradox, in which the central figure eventually emerged as the ultimately evil human.
A few days later, by the banks of the Rio Grande at Arroyo Hondo, just outside of Taos , Craig and I turned to this question of good, evil and Jim Jones. We came to a pair of competing dicta that began to draw some wisdom from the Jim Jones phenomenon : On the one hand, “You can’t be somebody else’s vision” (as Jones had done). But on the other hand, “Sometimes you have ‘the light’ and want to share it”. These perspectives could be squared only by achieving a balance between them.
The Guyana story suggested another insight as well. Jim Jones had seemingly set out to “do good” in the world, which he apparently had done during the early years of his ministry in Indianapolis. What seemed to have happened to that basic instinct for good works was intensified by ever-increasing grandiosity. Something “good” had become “evil” by virtue of having been carried way too far. Could it be that “evil” might usefully be understood as “too much of a good thing”?
Craig added a Christian perspective with emphasis on humility. Biblical phrases I'd heard but rarely honored started coming up: Be ye not proud. Pride goeth before the fall. The meek shall inherent the earth. In this theme, there was a recognition of outer bounds to humanity’s place in the scheme of things, and the importance of staying within that realm – not “playing god.” But Jim Jones had played god, decreeing in detail how members of his flock lived, including intimately, choosing sexual couplings to be carried publicly, in public before him. Ultimately, he dared to exercise the power of life and death. His flock, in turn, carried meekness to an extreme – and paid with their lives. Jones and his flock took their respective, specialized “roles” (spiritual vs. temporal) to such extremes that they became profoundly and mutually dependent -- to the point where a threat to one was equally a threat to the other. Neither could live independently of the other. I had wondered why the seeming charlatan Jones did not escape 'out the back door' of the mass suicide, and selfishly run for his own life. But he was incapable of leading 'his own life,' so interdependent was he with the members of the People’s Temple.
These thoughts came to reinforce the intimations I’d had beginning in childhood that, for me, god could not be a personal, anthropomorphic, sentient, willful being. "He" and "she" no longer apply for me. In the notion of “not playing god” appeared a sense of “god” as something of a negation, an acknowledgement of what humans can not safely do, and less about what a willful god would do – realities which, in the nature of things, mere humans could not truly surmount. Most notably of these limiting realities is mortality, a reality known in advance only by humans, “created in the image of god.” So -- to putting it blandly -- god could mean, for me, "the way things are, and how they work" . This "god" concept would include the laws of nature (e.g., gravity), and likewise the rules of "human nature." Jim Jones presumed to exceed the human realm, to ignore the realities of human powers by wholly taking over his flock’s spiritual dimension. Comment on the Guyana tragedy often casts Jones simply a psychopathic megalomaniac. Yes, ...but I focus more on his enigmatic history of doing a good at the start of his ministry – mercy for the poor and the charisma to inspire – and then grandiosely took that good far, far beyond what , in the nature of things, humans can really do. Failure and tragedy were the inevitable outcomes of the grandiosity.
This is a grandiosity I also came to realize can tempt all charismatic leaders and their flocks, with harmful results in both directions - showing up between clergy and congregants, political leaders and followers, professors and students, initiated and driven by either side of the pairing. So this tragic story became a cautionary tale that deeply influenced my thinking and life...
A more poetic
metaphor was that of Icarus,
When I came upon
this set of thoughts, and this different concept of god, I found myself
also experiencing a spiritual uplifting, which seemed to me perhaps a bit of
the sort of feeling described when they referred to god
"speaking to them." I'd gotten to transcendent
experience by a very different path.
It has likewise seemed no accident to me that the story which immediately prompted this discovery of a god that made sense to me, the Guyana horrors, entailed at least one of the fundamental religious precepts. So fundamental that it appears in the “Top Ten” list of the Bible, the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me.” We people are not god. The distilled wisdom of many generations, embodied in the bible, includes this insight as fundamental. And for that matter some other troubling, issues in my life to that point -- excesses of the counterculture years -- to which I had never thought to apply religious thought. The other commandments seem to hold similarly valuable wisdom about what can and cannot work in a functioning society.
In the wake of the Taos experience, I thought anew about Christian charges to "love your enemy," and "turn the other cheek." These had always seemed to be very extreme, unrealistic, almost silly ideas about love, so different than reactions I'd had when I felt wronged. (The conflict between striking back at one's enemy vs. loving the enemy is played out vividly in debates about how Israel might best to achieve peace and security.) After Taos, the Christian wisdom of "'loving' your enemy" began to make more sense to me.
With no belief in a traditional Jewish god, I likewise have never felt belief in Christ. In fact, the whole concept of "faith" --belief without evidence -- has never resonated for me. But I became less resistant to Christian wisdom, including the emphasis on humility, related to insight I gained on the river bank outside Taos, the manifestation of distilled wisdom of many generations. As Reconstructionist Judaism has put it, in modern life old religious dictates may often merit "a voice, not a veto" in making life decisions.
My realizations 'on the banks of the river' -- in my soul, I analogize to biblical myths of "the burning bush", or "Jacob wrestling with the angel" -- lifted the weight of human hubris and responsibility. It was for me a spiritual acknowledgement of realms over which I had no power.
Acknowledgement of limitations on our power is often said by psychologists to be liberating. Some may associate to the Serenity Prayer, though a full reading of Reinhold Niebuhr's actual words, usually considered as the prayer's source, reveals that, the prayer is in fact primarily focused on faith in a traditional Christian God, more than on the realistic limits of human power and 'jurisdiction' -- my focus in this discussion.
As a result of all this, Taos holds great spiritual meaning for me (as it does in different ways for so many people). And the learnings of that day remain with me. But I return to the more enlightened stance recurrently. It brings me peace, serenity.
1980 brought many other corollary spiritual experiences -- it was the 1st great pinnacle of my life (the 2nd is on its way, I am confident!). It was, for example, a time of encountering wonderful new music. And the week after my Taos revelations, my younger child - a daughter - was magically conceived -- at a time my wife and I were not explicitly trying to become pregnant.
When Talia Will was born, she bore what to me resembled a mark of god -- 2 colors in one eye which are distributed so as to look uncannily like the original logo ('symbol,' to be more poetic!) of gorgeous Telluride Colorado, the other great spiritual location for me over many years before and after. Indeed, Talia's name -- chosen long before she was born -- was partly to commemorate Telluride. "Talia Telluride!". (Her middle name, Will, was partly from the book I've most loved, Rollo May's Love and Will.)
With it all, I am left with a god that is non-sentient, and without intention -- god being closer to simply "the way things are."
As I have made
my way through religious thought familiar to our contemporary culture, a
different train of Spiritual thought has been running alongside.
I've always derived extraordinary inspiration and meaning from Listening and
Harmony. Thinking about this throughout the years described here, I've
realized that I feel Spirit when I listen for the Harmonies all about us.
I mean, abstractly, 'relationships of difference' – as in music,
for example, where Harmony is the relationship between different tones.
Some of these relationships between musical tones resonate more pleasingly than others to our conditioned ears. but the history of Western music suggests we are perhaps only en route to achieving gratifying resonance with ever more Harmonies.
An example is the Harmony created
by the musical interval called a "tri-tone" -- an interval that
spans 3 whole tones: C and F#, for example. Today
we also know this combination as an 'augmented 4th' or 'diminished 5th' chord.
Prohibited as discordantly evil medieval Church, and avoided as "Devil's Music"
even in secular music as early as the 18th century, the tri-tone was
somewhat daringly used by Beethoven and Debussy and now is often pleasingly in modern
classical and popular music -- for example, in the opening
phrase of the love song Maria, from West Side Story.
Similarly, the Harmonic constraints of Bach’s and Mozart’s era - have been liberalized in much music that I love best -- music by the likes of Mahler, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – even Bartok, Hindemith, Hovhaness. And , yes, Gershwin … and thus into Harmonic underpinnings in Jazz!
This idea -- hearing more and more "relations of difference" as harmony -- was driven home in 2015 at Swallow Hill, as David Wilcox in concert responded to a wildly jumping, wailing fellow, normal control lost to a severe autistic or other condition. Winking subtly at the wailer shortly into the concert, David sang his soothing verses to us -- about a baby crying in an airplane; then about a concertgoer wailing out to the music: "Imagine what the baby might be thinking," he sang. "Am I about to fly? " Who knows, but the baby belongs. As does the earnest wailer in the audience: "Harmony is different," David sang! The song's own complex but coherent harmony left me wondering if it had been composed at an earlier time. David's manager later answered my inquiry: "...Sure enough, that was written on the spot. It's evaporated into the ether, which of course is really one of the beautiful things about David's live performances. " Harmony upon harmony; my concept was broadened again!
All my life, I've listened and been deeply moved by expanding the musical terrain that delights me! Listening for more Harmonies! The pursuit of Spirit for me!
The patterns he speaks of are the analog of the Harmonies I'm describing here. Nachmanovitch doesn't focus here on music. He speaks more universally. The patterns he sees the artist bringing forth can be found, actually, in all of reality. In seeking out patterns, -- Harmony -- in relationships between different elements, I think we attempt to experience the Sacred.
I am just now learning these ideas about harmony, especially musically, resonate with ancient ideas .
The relationships of difference where Harmonies are most uplifting are relations
of intimacy between people – people being inherently different from each other.
Ultimately manifest in lovemaking, but of course throughout the relationship!
Reconstructionists. Meanwhile, I continued a less abstract spiritual journey. Following these experiences I returned to a less traditional part of Judaism, a group of Havurot organized as the Colorado Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. (A Havurah is a group of ~5 -15 families) that meets regularly in members' homes for purposes of Jewish study and observance. The spirit of the group is welcoming of diverse and mixed backgrounds. In the early ‘80s, when we joined, these folks still used a liturgy which only occasionally using words of praises for god in anthropomorphic terms. I also found I could substitute my "the way things are" interpretation into the liturgical text every time "God" appeared, and substitute "acknowledgement" for "prayer" and praise, and the prayers began to make sense for me.
T his group eventually hired a rabbi, greatly expanded in size, and became less intimate. It has adopted a more "congregational" name: B'nai Havurah -- moving toward a somewhat more traditional approach to Judaism. It has 'revived' old Jewish rituals -- including full prostration during some prayers -- many which not even my own fairly intense Jewish education had revealed. It's earlier, multicultural liturgy, which avoided the anthropomorphized god concept, became more traditional, glorifying and sometimes declaring subservience to a human-like "God." -- a concept which conflicts with my own spiritual concepts, and that of the earlier Colorado Reconstructionists I'd most admired. As its climate changed, and I eventually departed B'nai Havurah in Summer, 2007. Spirit can be evanescent.
In September, 2008, another spiritual passage was activated by an earlier David Wilcox concert , an avowedly Christian singer-songwriter, who -- decrying faith serving like "a gated community" -- presented a song, Beyond Belief which includes the following words imagined from Jesus:
The idea of 'god' separated
from belief lifted a certain pressure I'd felt from religious traditions I'd
known, in which "faith" in god had been core. In dialogue with a beloved friend, I began to envision a "white light of
truth," in which a state of understanding and Grace lay beyond our conscious
minds and yet to be comprehended. A place of
peaceful harmony, free of the underlying fear that permeates much of my
psyche in this temporal life. Christians might think of their faith in
the Grace of Jesus, Buddhists may achieve Nirvana. I was seeing a glow
in which inner peace was 'beyond belief' in any doctrine.
Rather, I found myself speaking of knowledge, truth, understanding that lay
beyond ordinary consciousness.
I was finishing an earlier revision this essay late in 2008, as I was readying myself to return for a 2nd month in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico -- spoken of by my mom as her "Shangri La," and seeming likewise to me as a mystical valley of light. Listening to my heart, I have been called back this 2nd time by both it's known treasures -- an expat community of unusual artistry, intelligence and warmth in and exquisite, Old World setting-- and also something intangible that feels transcendent, beyond my cognitive grasp.
Prayer with Tricia. In 2010, I met and married the
most spiritual person I've known - Pat Schwaiger (briefly, Tricia Jane
Winokur). Tricia's background brings influences from both Christian
and Native American culture. But her soul is bounded by neither.
Tricia's soul is further enriched by almost 30 years as a midwife,
present and assisting at sacred moments of life's emergence from the
Tricia shared with me her personal relationship with God -- something very foreign to me. Jewish tradition often conceives of relationship between God and man as one with the entire Jewish people. In her loving spirit, though, I prayed to God with Tricia for the first times in my life.
It felt so awkward, and I didn't really know what I was doing the few times we prayed together during our brief time living together. But shortly after she left -- when a good friend told me his wife had just suffered a severe stroke -- I called out to Tricia to pray with me about it. When a beautiful woman I'd loved was savagely murdered by her psychotic son, I reached out again, and Tricia found words and spirit to bless and pray for me in my grief. I don't know why, or what it means,... but I do know I was prompted both times to call without having to think, in search of prayer.
Denver Tree Council Dance - 2010
Since 2009, the Denver Tree Council has been another source of spiritual experience for me -- a circle of about 12 men who share our emotional lives, and also pursue Spirit through rituals that draw from many traditions, Jewish, Native, and shamanic.
It is through one of these men that I first encountered uplifting celebration of Shiva Ratri, with its kirtan chanting:
After the 2012 matricide of beautiful Beverly, noted above, the Tree Council gathered round me for comforting ceremony. They chanted and swayed, holding me close in the tight circle as I cried. As the voices reached crescendo, one of them shouted "Look Up!" Overhead at that instant flew a flock of geese! A visitor to the Council then asked me to read this poem aloud:
You do not have to be good.
Mary Oliver , Wild Geese
Such are the ways of the Tree Council.
"Be Your Note!"
During Yomim Hanoraim 5772/2011, the Jewish
days of awe and reflection
Coincidentally, Michael related the old Jewish story of Rabbi Zushya which I had just heard in the recounting of a local rabbi's Yom Kippur sermon:
Michael's telling of this Zushya story also appears here
Along with the Zushya story, Michael's readings including the following Rumi poem, :
Advice doesn't help lovers!
An intellectual doesn't know what the drunk is feeling!
Don't try to figure what those lost inside love will do next!
Someone in charge would give up all his power,
One of them tries to dig a hole through a mountain.
Life freezes if it doesn't get a taste
God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Remember the lips
Be Your Note.
Go up on the roof at night
Let Everyone climb on their roofs
Jelal al-Din Rumi