Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Supports the Visible?

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell again; maybe that’s to blame. I tend to go all mystical and inward-looking when I’ve been reading his wonderful works.

If I’m honest, though, what triggered this particular round of contemplation was a question from a friend: How did I go from almost becoming a nun, to Wiccan, to ‘don’t-label-me-but-I-guess-you-can-call-me-pagan’?

Yeah, well, I’ll have to think about that one for a minute. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for days now. It sounds like quite the amusement park ride, doesn’t it? My spiritual life has definitely felt like a roller-coaster ever since I was old enough to contemplate the concept of the Divine and pose embarrassing questions to my elders.

I was raised in a Protestant family; seriously studied Catholicism as a teenager, to the point of considering entering an abbey and taking vows; discovered Wicca as a young adult and worked my way through its three degrees; and finally emerged as a no-name pantheist with mystical and shamanic tendencies. Yes, I know there’s professional help for that kind of thing.

The weird thing is, I’m finally happy, spiritually speaking. I’ve found what I was looking for, even though for years I couldn’t articulate exactly what that was. Obviously it wasn’t a formal religious tradition; I’ve run through enough of them, heaven knows. But it was a definable something, and in order to answer my friend’s question, I had to find that definition.

Joseph Campbell talks about the invisible world that supports the visible one, the numinous eternity that all religions try to describe but inevitably fail, simply because words are inadequate. The human brain, in fact, is inadequate. As soon as we start to think about It, we limit It. But It was what I was searching for: that fateful point at which the invisible world and the visible world touch each other, interpenetrate, and allow us measly humans, caught in the linear time-stream, to experience timelessness. It is that point which we reach in ecstatic states, profound ritual, deep mysticism.

As I thought back over my own journey through spiritual experience, I began to think of the general restlessness of society today, of people’s need for meaning and purpose and their often-disappointing search for it in a wide variety of religious traditions. I remembered the first time I realized, somewhere in middle school, that a typical Protestant religious service didn’t ‘do it’ for me. I tried lots of different flavors - Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, UU, Unity - but none of them provided more than a social experience combined with a touch of teaching.

I shifted to Catholicism; my Protestant relatives had derogated it as ‘practically pagan’ so of course I was intrigued. But by the time I went to my first Mass, the liturgy had been translated out of Latin and the priest had turned around to face the congregation, ‘like Julia Child doing a cooking demonstration’ as Joseph Campbell put it. I could still feel the remnants of power, of the ability to push through the veil, but it just didn’t happen.

So I entered fully into paganism, first Wicca and then, following ancestral cues, into Celtic and Norse history and spirituality. Every now and then something would feel ‘just right’ and I would think I had found The Right Brand of Religion For Me. But then the feeling would fade and I would be left wondering what happened.

Well, it turns out it wasn’t the brand that was the problem. It was that point of Two-Worlds-Touching that I was seeking. I think, underneath it all, it’s what everyone seeks, whether they realize it or not. The experience of the numinous, the eternal, the Bigger-Than-We-Are (or perhaps, Bigger-Than-We-Can-Even-Comprehend). In the process of figuring out what I was seeking, I found it. And stayed in it. For a long time. Wheeee!

What really knocked me for a loop was the realization that I don’t even need a religious tradition to find that point. I have it within me to find it, through contemplation, shamanic journeying, standard traditional mystical practice. Oh, sure, ritual helps, I won’t deny that. But it no longer matters what kind of ritual, what flavor, what ‘brand.’

I think we all have that ability within us. Maybe it’s in our DNA or our souls; I don’t know. I just know it’s there. For some people, a formal religious service will ‘click’ and shift them to that point. For others, being in nature, or meditating, or dancing. As my uncle used to say, whatever blows your skirt up.

As long as you do it. Go there. Risk finding out what it is that underlies everything that we are, everything that is. I dare you. I’ll meet you there.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Instability of It All

As we head into Autumn, with the holidays looming not too far away on the calendar, I’ve started thinking about how much I miss being part of an organized spiritual group. I’ve had several conversations with friends lately about the volatility of informal groups such as covens and collectives, and the inflexibility of formal groups such as churches and temples, and I’ve come to one conclusion: Nothing is as stable as we’d like to think it is.

I grew up going to church (first Methodist, then Episcopal, then Lutheran) and always felt that those organizations, both the local congregations and the over-arching institutions, were somehow permanent. Enduring. Stable. That gave me a sense of security, even if I didn’t really agree with the concepts and beliefs the churches taught, even if I felt more than a little stifled by the rigidity and dogma.

Then I discovered the pagan community, that joyful disorganization and chaotic clamor of people following their hearts. Oh, what bliss! To be myself, to enact my true beliefs in concert with so many others who were delighted to enjoy the same experience. But there was no security, as I discovered when group after group crumbled due to personality conflicts, life overload, yes, even dogmatic disputes.

So I sat back and sighed in sadness, watching the two worlds of faith and belief go by, wondering how - or whether - it would be possible to combine the stability of institutional religion with the liberty of informal worship. I thought, surely there must be a way. But as I examined the details of organized religion more closely, I discovered that nothing is as stable or secure as I thought.

I reflected back to the Primitive Baptist church my great-grandfather founded in north Florida more than a century ago, and to the horrible, heart-rending dogmatic split that broke its congregation in two when I was a child. I recalled the dispute that tore apart a friend’s Methodist congregation a mere decade ago, right here where I live. I turned on the TV and watched as Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims aimed deadly weapons at each other, people whose ancestors had knelt side by side in worship of a God who loved them all.

So I took some time to look back through history at every major religion, not just Christianity. Where I thought I might find security and stability, instead I found case after case of division, discord, rupture. Sure, the edifice of the church or temple or mosque provides the illusion of constancy and permanence. But it’s only a building; the living beings inside it move, change, argue, leave. Once the dispute is over, the building still stands, giving once more the false impression of durability. Giving, also, a focus for the reconstruction of the congregation, but not the same people who were there before, and probably not the same beliefs and practice, either.

Nothing is as stable as it looks, at least not where human beings are involved, and especially not when people’s beliefs come into play.

Well, that’s a fine how-de-do, as my grandpa used to say. Sure, I have my personal faith and my private connection with Deity. That endures, always. It supports me and holds me up through the worst of times.

But being able to express that faith, that connection with Deity, with my fellow human beings, to celebrate it in an atmosphere of love and trust, that’s a good bit harder to come by. The decision between formal rigidity and informal chaos doesn’t look like much of a choice. But then, maybe I’m being too picky.

Yes, we all carry that spark of the Divine within us, that glowing core of perfection that inspires us to incredible heights. But we’re also human, fallible, imperfect. How can I expect an organization designed, administered and peopled by ordinary human beings to be perfect? I can’t. I can agree or disagree, join or depart, inspire change or leave it alone, but I can’t require something that can’t be delivered.

What it comes down to, then, is that I must regard religious organizations the way I deal with my fellow human beings: With compassion. With patience and forbearance. All those things the great religions teach us about, even while they’re fighting each other over footnotes and details.

I can expect more, hope for more, pray for more. But when what I get is less, I have to accept that as well. Because we’re all every bit as human as we are divine. And no, that’s not a contradiction.

Thou art Goddess. Thou art God. Go in peace.