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What is the Holy?

What is the Holy?

Van Gogh. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset, 1890

The holy is not the gods. Humans have been told about thousands of different gods, for thousands of years, primarily to steer us into obedience of earthly powers, and to make us give up our searching.

The holy is not religion. Religions were designed to organize this obedience, to add layers and layers of fictional supports, to add so many layers our heads spin, so we give up our searching.

The holy is not empire, or nation, or nation-state. These things are formed to protect earthly power, with layers and layers of fictional supports, to make our heads spin, while they and their religions use the old gods and the new to make us obedient, so we give up our searching.

The holy is not money, or capitalism, or corporation. These things are used to power empire, or usurp it, to defend, expand or subsume it, so we remain in obedience to the old gods and the new, and stop our searching.

 

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The holy is art, music, literature and philosophy, and whatever pushes us beyond all boundaries, so we stop obeying and go on searching.

The holy is song and the space between, the moment above the sunrise, the first step after, that we may cast out our sad, defeatist, settling natures and soar above them, and go on searching.

The holy is what makes children run from here to there, breathless with excitement, too excited to walk, much less stand still, because they seek freedom from obedience, and must go on searching.

The holy is the ground of love, because it gives us strength of heart, to go on and on, and moments of rest to prepare for journey, and new ways to look at horizons. It is both elixir and nourishment, sustenance and accelerant, and what searchers sometimes need to prevent walking blindly. For blindly searching is just a different kind of obedience, to another false god, and another. It is not freedom from. It is not the holy.

 

 

Flailing Parochial Vision

Flailing Parochial Vision

Athena and Heracles, by Douris. 480-470 BC.
Athena and Heracles, by Douris. 480-470 BC.

 

 

Peering into the mountain
The universality of spirits
Spirits
For tens of thousands of years

Peering into the cave

It’s all there
All there is
It has been that way
Again and again

For thousands of decades
With new incarnations
Every now and then
Here and there

What makes us so sure
Ours in the only one?

What makes us so sure
Ours isn’t just one more mask?

Why would we think that our
Small corner of the world
Of time
Even the universe

Is the first the last
The only point in time
Aligned with the Great Spirit?

Why would we imagine
Nothing was on target
Before us?

 

— by Douglas Pinson

 

 

The above is a work in progress. A jotting. Musing in search of. I’ve been thinking a lot about our collective narcissism. Our collective parochial views. Our insistence upon believing ours is some unique time and place, in so many ways. But, especially, the idea that even though human beings have been on this earth for hundreds of thousands of years . . . with evolutionary ancestors going back billions . . . . that suddenly, just two thousand years ago, we finally got it right and found the one true god. And where was this god found? In a tiny desert land under Roman occupation. Palestine. One very, very small part of the world.

So much time before that era. So much time after it. So much space on the globe surrounding it. Thousands of different cultures, billions of different human beings, billions of years going back to our foundational DNA. And, suddenly, we got it right just two thousand years ago?

Each wave of religious belief, in every culture, in every part of the globe, throughout time . . . they thought they touched the divine. Adepts in each of those cultures . . . they thought they locked into the Great Spirit. They all can’t be right. Or can they?

Again, the words are necessary: Diversity and Multiplicity. The mere fact of the multiplicity of views and witnesses to the divine tell me that no one religion has it right. They all do. As pieces of the cosmic puzzle. And yet, there is still so much to learn, to discover. So much remaining. Even with all of that time and multiplicity, we still haven’t uncovered the All. Humans never will. We can only seek it and make approximations . . . .

A truism but true: the journey is everything.

 

Tony Jones: Deep Will Call Unto Deep

Tony Jones: Deep Will Call Unto Deep

Emily Dickinson. 1846. Photo by William C. North
Emily Dickinson. 1846. Photo by William C. North

 

[Guest blogger Tony Jones]

Religiophobia

 

Blindered by heat-flashes
of banality; the sacred barnyard
tells us nothing except it has
no room for us without our becoming
at once greater and smaller.

This is what it means to have
the mind of Christ; to become as a child
with the heart-space of a 1000 goslings,
arrow-tipped with lightning.

 

One of the reasons it’s hard to write good religious or spiritual verse — and I am well aware that the terms spiritual and religious are not synonyms — is that the “truths” of religion/spirituality are so public — known by millions and millions — of people that to even utter them in their publicly known form is to start from the realm of cliché and banality. This doesn’t mean those truths really are banal, it just means that they have been pounded deep into the wagon-ruts of collective consciousness, where they often lie lifeless, or at least embalmed.

Art demands two things: “Make it new,” (Ezra Pound), and “tell the truth but tell it slant,” (Emily Dickinson.) So there’s immediately a tension between the fabrication of any art and the public truths of religion. In fact, note that I have just used the word fabrication, which can also have the meaning of “deception.” Thus art/artifice already lies in a semi-antagonists relation to the public truths of tradition. Generally, the truths of religion are old, very old, because they’re traditional. And as such they fall within the black-box structure of a society, i.e. tend to be among the constellations of meanings within a culture that are not only unexamined but that there is a sense of threat at the possibility of being reflected on.

So the poet, say — could be another artist but for argument’s sake let’s say poet because that’s what I am, as well as a very poor bowler — in trying to make it new, because this is unalienable to the craft of poetry, is already paddling against the stream, and will both be likely misunderstood by the majority of the public and also, because of the nature of the truths s/he appears to call into question by the very nature of his/her rhetoric, that public is likely to be hostile as well as unsympathetic. Well, an elucidation of the role of a poet or artist in society is yet another subject for yet another time, but we should recognize that even apart from some of us writers and artists consciously taking an adversarial position toward societal norms, the meta-cultures we dwell in are likely to think that we’re being adversarial anyway, and that will flavor our relations, especially when we write about subjects that touch on religion.

The “tell it slant” part is also problematic as well, because generally public truths demand straightforwardness, so when you are involved in writing any sort of abstruseness, you get back into the 1) not being understood area and 2) suspicion of your motives territory. I know this is a stretch, but I see a similarity between public perceptions of the slant-telling poet and, say, military perceptions of a general like Stonewall Jackson in the American Civil War, who tended to keep his movements secret, not just from his enemies, but from his own officers and troops. It drove them absolutely nuts. And often made his superiors very suspicious of him, even though he won battles. Why? Because the public demands straightforwardness. And always will. So the slant-teller, the jester, the troubadour, the outflanker who holds her/his cards close at all times, will never be quite accepted, even if at times they are seen to be performing a useful service for society.

So where does this leave us in the writing of religious/spiritual verse? Firstly, if we are inspired, inflamed by vision as well as the passion that first produced the art in and through us, then we are going to be telling things anew. That is going to make some people suspicious. Or at the very least (and possibly better) they just won’t understand, won’t see anything in it for them, and they will ignore us. But for a critical mass of people, that vision will speak to them — deep will call unto deep — and, intrigued at first, they will look into the passionate vision and become entranced. They may or may not actually be inspired, but at least the form you have shaped with your art will be replicated in their minds and souls, without which nothing else would be communicated. And maybe, just maybe, you will have illuminated a heretofore hidden corner of some religious (or other) truth that they had never considered before.

 

 

Tony Jones: Pizza Space

Tony Jones: Pizza Space

[Guest blogger du jour Tony Jones]

Master Po and Kwai Chang Caine
Master Po and Kwai Chang Caine

What’s the mystique about mysticism? (Or is the question itself just a misleading fork in the road, excluded middle term, dun leaves dead on a worm-ridden tree, as in “not seeing the forest for the … ”, regarding spirituality).

When I watched Kung Fu as a young child, then as now I was entranced by the mixture of action and the ambiance of a kind of deep inner peace that drove it. I think I missed the master-pupil “grasshopper” dynamic, but I was only two or three years old. But then again, I have never really been content with the notion of master and pupil, either in being a student, or in being a teacher. Of course, then I had absolutely no idea what the show was about on an intellectual level and would not have begun to be able to articulate it until late in high school, possibly. There was a kind of scary and alluring negative space about it for me.

Bizarre side note on “Pizza Space.” One of the kid shows I watched had a recurring film segment about a man making pizza crust from scratch. As he tossed it into the air in slow motion, and the crust sort of percolated and flapped around in space, it seemed to me that it actually left the room and hung in the void for a while, and then returned. This was only an optical illusion created by the camera angle, and probably not one intended by the film-makers. But “Pizza Space” — which I did not name until a couple years ago — then existed for me as an archetype of the creative void, the emptiness in which artistic craft occurs, possibly ex nihilo. (In fact, I think now, never ex nihilo, because there is always some antecedent, but that has not always been my thinking on the subject…)

I find myself also thinking about religion in general in parallel to mysticism. They are not identical, but they always inform one another. Even those who pursue mystical experience from a secularist perspective — or materialistic, empiricist angle — are to some degree relying on the insights of those operating from within a religious tradition. (Even to use the term “mysticism” is to repeat a meme that originates within religions.)

Where does art fit in? For many of us, artistic experience is our primary engagement and appropriation of the numinous. And perhaps, in many instances, where the numinous grabs us. (To be “raptured” after all, does not always imply literal translation of the body into heaven … to be “caught up” is maybe not the province of just one spiritual tradition.)

Why did I in two instances above reach back into childhood to lay hold of some dimension of mystical experience? Is it because the impact of the numen in my life then was more intense because of my developmental stage, and because less crowded out by other concerns in life? Is this related to what Jesus meant when he said, “Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God”?

Just ramblings late at night as my stomach rumbles unquiet at the thought of a long work week, and my cat paws my leg for attention. Not unlike the numinous, either in the cat’s paw, or the work week, or the indigestion.

 

 

The Choice

The Choice

I watched Doctor Zhivago tonight. Keira Knightley as Lara. Hans Matheson as Yuri Zhivago. It’s a well done TV miniseries from 2002. Moving, especially at the end. It’s not David Lean. But it works in its own way. Expanded, because of the extra time. And updated to allow for more modern depictions of the love affair.

Many things jumped out at me. But especially this: brief, ecstatic joy in the middle of a sea of sorrow. The embrace of that joy. Being consumed by it, perhaps because it is so brief. As is life. Especially life in the middle of revolution and civil war.

Some might respond: all life is brief. Yes. True. But in relative terms, which is all we really know, it is shorter and has fewer moments of joy in the midst of violence–violence surrounding you, taking away your loved ones, your friends, your freedom. And those brief moments are all the sweeter because of that contrast. As if the word “contrast” really could convey the extremes between dancing with your lover in a snow-covered house, away from the war and the murderers and the tyrants. Away from the slaughter and the irrational hatred between human beings. Compared with, say, watching a DVD and enjoying it, in the midst of a peaceful night, in a peaceful town, and state, and nation. Relatively speaking.

Which brings me back to another form of high contrast. Another field of extremes, and choices, and decisions. As mentioned in my last post, mystics were and are the Olympian athletes of spirituality. They do things we mere mortals don’t generally attempt. Ever. And they do these things daily. On their Way, through their gateway of choice, to find, embrace and hold on to their vision of God, Nature, the Universe.

Most mystics, simply by way of the process, because of its dynamic, go beyond names and histories and scripture. They have passed through all the gateways most of us stop in front of. They pass through. They don’t accept the name on that gateway or the gateway itself as the end, the definition, the only way. They know “everything” exists beyond that human-made definition of the divine and their goal is to move beyond all goals and become one with everything.

 

Casper David Friedrich's The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. 1818
Casper David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. 1818

Nietzsche said that one rewards a teacher poorly by forever remaining a pupil. To me, when it comes to mysticism, the teacher is not just the man with the bamboo stick. It is the sum total of all culture, all sacred and profane writings, art and music, and all worldly matters. Nietzsche’s aphorism is a call to surpass the teacher. It could also mean to transcend everything worldly, though I doubt he meant it in that way.

It is possible that some mystics wanted union with a god, or a goddess, or some other hand-me-down definition of divinity. It is possible that in the past and present and future this did occur and will occur. But, I think, it is impossible for a true spiritual athlete to accept his or her resting place on this side of the gateway, instead of going beyond every name or symbol or sacred book.

If someone seeks union with a god or goddess who is more or less a tyrant, more or less like human tyrants, with the same hideous behavior and history of destruction and imperialism, then that goal is not a higher thing, or a noble thing, or something to bless or admire. Seeking to be at one with a tyrant is the opposite of the sacred. It is the embrace of ugliness and the profane.

So we have choices. If we must choose to be at one with . . . . at one with someone . . . we automatically remain on this side of the gateway . . . We can claim for ourselves a level of spiritual athleticism that few can attain . . . but we can not claim to have gone beyond earthly, even pedestrian definitions of the sacred. Which means they aren’t really sacred at all. To achieve that, we must embrace the full kit and caboodle. The center without locale. The circumference without beginning. The radius without a center or circumference to tie it down to anything. We must embrace the paradox of nothing and everything being one and the same.

Choosing to bond with that, making the decision to leap into everything and nothing simultaneously, gives us the moment when the lovers dance in the middle of a war zone, in their snow-covered house, away . . . for just a moment . . . from the partisans and the Whites and the Reds. But, unlike our vision of Lara and Yuri from afar, that dance lasts throughout eternity. Nothing but that dance. In a sense, in the mind of Pasternak, he must have thought, at least for a flash of time, that Yuri and Lara saw the dance as eternal too.

 

The Helplessness of a Child

The Helplessness of a Child

The Third of May, by Francisco de Goya. 1814
The Third of May, by Francisco de Goya. 1814

I had several eureka moments when I was a kid, regarding organized religion. These led to various breakaways and new directions, which I developed as I aged. No straight lines to some predetermined goal, to be sure. No easy paths to easy answers. There were always surprises and readjustments, new realizations of past errors, and new understandings of previous ignorance regarding this or that view held by others. And I tried to remain humble in the face of the mystery of why religions developed as they did and why they are so important to so many.

 

I was reminded of one of those moments recently when I heard a song about the helplessness of a child, his call for help, his plea. It made me think about how natural it is for humans to look outside themselves for answers, for protection, for sustenance, for guidance. Natural. We are born in an extremely vulnerable state and stay in that state for our entire lives. Even though we generally develop means for coping better with dangerous surroundings as we age, we never entirely free ourselves of our vulnerability to outside forces. Sickness, violent weather, financial disasters, the loss of loved ones, crime, war, even the occasional encounter with the wild, all push us back closer to our days in swaddling clothes, crying for mothers and fathers. And, unlike all other animals—as far as we know—we actually know we will die. We never really leave our state of vulnerability.

 

We are conditioned from a young age to voice our wants, to tell parents and other adults our desires, oftentimes to plead with them for things we feel we must have. Of course, we may quickly learn that other adults just don’t respond the way our parents did, when we were in the crib, in the playpen, or bouncing around the house like it was our own personal kingdom. But that early conditioning is so deeply ingrained, we never really lose the connection between wishes and pleading or cajoling others to attain them. I think most of us retain that connection for life, at least on a subconscious level. Not attaining our wishes is never enough to stop us from asking. We seem not to worry about that, or take the time to make statistical charts regarding the success rates of our pleadings. We continue to ask for what we want in a thousand different ways.

 

It is not really a very big step to go from pleading with parents and other adults to pleading with gods and goddesses. That is also a natural progression. It is, however, a considerable leap to go from asking for divine intervention for yourself, to asking for divine help for others. It is yet another leap to go from asking for intervention for your closest loved ones and friends, to a broad inclusion based upon general need. “Selflessness” is a sign of human maturity and a big step away from the playpen.

 

The Prayer, by William Bouguereau. 1865
The Prayer, by William Bouguereau. 1865

 

 

But it is still tied to the originating idea. The original equation. Wants and desires + propitiation = attainment.

Of course, religions are complex, and they deal with much more than the above. The reasons for joining them are complex as well. For tens of thousands of years, people have been drawn to them for a multitude of reasons that I don’t cover here. That said, I do think the above equation is central to part of the endeavor.

 

Which leads me to this: mysticism. In general, mystics are the Olympic athletes of spirituality. They take religion to a whole new level. Their practice is daily, their intensity something most members of most religions never experience. Their main goal is oneness. Becoming One with God, or Nature, or The All. Most mystics have broken entirely free of the equation. Most do not want something outside themselves to give them something. They want to create it themselves, build it from within, journey to it, grab hold of it, and never let go. Rather than asking a divine being to come down here and hand deliver a requested boon of some sort, they have decided to travel to that divine being, or thing, or everything, and merge with it. They have decided to stop asking for things and merge with everything, thus rendering all such requests superfluous.

 

Were and are there gradations involved? Certainly. Were and are there complexities too difficult to sort through? Yes. One such complexity might be the object of the merger. With whom or what does the mystic seek merger? And are there objects that seem morally or ethically or spiritually above other choices?

 

I’ll address some of those questions in my next post.