Imbolc Imbolc Moon
Whimsy. Dreams. Finally, a flying car.
First, a before the launch video, then, live streaming of Starman.
And, then. Buck Rogers!
Imbolc Imbolc Moon
Whimsy. Dreams. Finally, a flying car.
First, a before the launch video, then, live streaming of Starman.
And, then. Buck Rogers!
Winter Moon of the Long Nights
Last night, third night in a row at Beth Evergreen, was the MVP, the mussar vaad practice group. Tuesday was the unveiling of the third stained glass window. Wednesday was the first class of the third in the first year kabbalah curriculum, the Mystical Hebrew Letters. On a personal, physical level this many evening sessions, which extend well beyond my usual 8 p.m. bedtime and then require a half hour ride home afterward, exhaust me. But on a psycho-spiritual level the nourishment I receive more than compensates.
As I wrote this last sentence, I looked up at Black Mountain and noticed a pink glow, a penumbra at its peak. A good symbol for the new understanding that is beginning to dawn on me.
In the mid-day mussar class, where we are near the end of the Messilat Yesharim, the path of the upright, by the 18th century kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Luzzato, Jamie commented, “Remember, these are kabbalists. They include proof texts as an invitation to rethink them as metaphor, not to accept their literal meaning.” Jamie has said this before, in the kabbalist classes especially. “The Torah is a metaphor, not history.”
A bit later, he asked, “What is Torah study?” This was a topic we covered over a year ago when beginning Luzzato’s work. Torah study is not about content. It is not, in other words, limited to scholarship about Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Torah study is a method and it involves paying close attention to the person next to you, to the sunrise over Black Mountain, to the cry of a sparrow, to the way a lodgepole pine sloughs off snow, to the needs of the dog sleeping beside your chair. to the nature of fire crackling in the fireplace. Torah study is about loving attentiveness. It is a way of engaging the sacred world which we can know first from within our own person and which permeates that which we encounter throughout our lives.
And, again, aha! The sun, the sacred sun with its life-giving light, just lit up Black Mountain and showed me a sign, a way of illustrating a literally dawning awareness. The wind, the finger of the sacred blows as the ruach, the breath of spirit, the breath of life and moves the lodgepole pines in our front yard. The pines themselves erupt out of the stony Shadow Mountain ground, able to express life in a soil mostly barren of the rich nutrients available in the farmlands of the American Midwest.
I find this means I can read the word God in a new way. Shortly after Jamie commented on Torah study, we read a sentence in Messilat Yesharim that included the English word omnipresence, as in God’s omnipresence. I asked Jamie what Hebrew lay behind this translation. He looked it up, “Hmm. Something like, permeated knowledge.”
God lit up for me. Ah, if I do Torah study, if I engage in loving attentiveness to my Self, my own Soul, and those of others and of the broader natural world, then I can find the knowledge which permeates all things, that very same shards of the sacred that shattered just after the tzimtzum to create our universe. That is God being available everywhere. This is far different from the Latinate imponderable of omnipresence, sort of an elf on the shelf deity lurking in every spot, finding you everywhere. And judging.
No. God is another word for the intimate linkage between and among all things, from the smallest gluon to the largest star. God is neither a superparent nor a cosmic Santa Claus writing down your behaviors in the book of deeds; God is a metaphor for the sacred knowledge which permeates the perceivable, and the unperceivable, world.
Our deeds are, of course, written in the very real book of our life, so they have consequences, not only on our life as whole, but as they impact others and that same world which we all inhabit. You could also see God’s judgment as the manifestation of those consequences, in their positive and negative natures, not as a divine finger shaking or outright punishing, but as ripples from one instance of the sacred to the another.
Winter Moon of the Long Nights
The solstices mark swings to and from extremes, from the longest day to the longest night, there, and as with Bilbo, back again. Darkness and light are never steady in their presence. The earth always shifts in relation to the sun, gradually lengthening the days, then the nights.
Most folks celebrate the Winter Solstice for its moment of change toward increasing light. Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, added a martial spirit. The ancients feared that the nights would continue to grow in length, and act as a shroud thrown over the earth marking an end to growing seasons, to warmth, to life. It’s no wonder that relief at the return of the sun, revealed by small increases in the length of the day, caused holidays to be born around this subtle astronomical change.
There are also bonfires and songs and drinking and sex on the Summer Solstice. The sun manifests itself as light giver, light bringer, with the longest days. The growing season is well underway then, the miracle of life that the sun’s increasing light creates is the very relief anticipated on the Winter Solstice. Fear and the vanquishing of fear. Sol Invictus, the conquering sun.
Yet even in ancient times there had to be a few outliers like myself. We don’t begrudge the return of the sun, nor deny all the miracles that its return makes possible, that would be silly; but, for some psychic reason, perhaps not clear even to us, we reverse the common sensibility and find succor in the gradual lengthening of the nights that begins at the Summer Solstice and reaches its maximum on the night of the Winter Solstice.
We know that the cold and the darkness, the fallow time whose genesis each year happens on the longest day, is also necessary, also worthy of honor. It is earth’s sabbath, a time for all the generative powers to rest, to regather themselves, to ready themselves for the next florescence. I suspect somehow in our psyches we honor slight dips into depression or melancholy, knowing that in those times we regroup, rest the eager forward creative parts of our souls and the gradual lengthening of the darkness outside mirrors that.
In these long nights the cold often brings clear, cloudless skies. The wonderful Van Gogh quote that I posted a few days ago underscores a virtue of darkness, one we can experience waking or asleep. Dreaming takes us out of the rigors of day to day life and puts us in the realm where ideas and hopes gather. So, the lengthening of the nights increases our opportunity to experience dream time. Whether you believe in Jung’s collective unconscious or not-I do, the rich resources of dreaming are available to us with greater ease when the nights are long and the cold makes sleeping a joy.
It was, too, many years ago when I pushed the notion of transcendence out of my spirituality in favor of immanence, incarnation over a god in the sky. My focus moved to down and in, not up and out. Our inner world is a mystery, a place of fecundity, but also a place often occulted by the demands of the day. When we shift our focus to the night, to the half of the year when darkness grows, we can use that external change as a trigger to lean inside, to find the divine within. If we can make this discovery, the god that we are, we can stiff arm the notion that revelation stopped thousands of years ago.
Every moment of our existence is a revelation, the path of a god, the most fundamental ancientrail of all. No, we are not omnipotent, that’s an illusion created by the idea of transcendence, the need to find validation outside of our own soul. This is the true polytheism, the one that folds its hands, says namaste, bows to that of god in everyone, in every animal, in every plant and stone and star.
When you reach out in love to another person, to a dog, to a crocus blooming in the snow, you bring the finger held out by the white haired floating god in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. That moment of creation is always, ongoing, a joint effort between and among us all, human and inhuman, animate and inanimate, the cosmic dance of Shiva brought into this mundane world. He or She is not out there, waiting to be called by prayer, but in here, waiting to be called by the quiet, by the joy, by the persistence held in the soul container that is you.
Winter Moon of the Long Nights
The Winter Solstice. Today and tonight. 23.4 degrees of tilt. Explanation for the tilt is not settled science though at least part of the answer seems to lie in the accretion of matter and the occasional outright collisions that occurred during our planets formation early in the history of the solar system. Another interesting theory, perhaps part of the answer too, is that any large imbalance, say a supervolcano with a huge mass, could have caused the earth to tilt so that mass ended up near the equator.
Whatever the exact reason, the current tilt, which remains constant as the earth revolves around the sun, creates our seasons. As the earth orbits, the tilt causes a reduction and increase of the energy of the sun’s light by either concentrating it during the summer solstice (leaning toward the sun) or by spreading the light over a wider area (leaning away from the sun) during the winter solstice. Today at 9:28 MST the northern hemisphere will be at its maximum tilt away from the sun while, of course, the southern hemisphere is thrust toward the sun and celebrating its summer solstice.
All of this is a continuing evolution caused by forces set in motion by the big bang over 13 billion years ago. The fact that I’m sitting at 8,800 feet on a chunk of rock thrust up by the Laramide orogeny, watching snow drift down as the air up here cools toward below zero temperatures, waiting for the longest night of the year, 14 hours and 39 minutes here in Conifer, showcases the violent origins and their ongoing impacts on earth and her sister planets. When we settle into the chair tonight, or hike outside with a headlamp, or listen to some quiet jazz or Holst’s The Planets, the darkness enveloping us is an in the moment result.
As the earth leans away from the sun, we can lean into the darkness, the long night when the woods are lovely, dark and deep. As we do, we have the opportunity to sink into the fecund darkness within us, a soul link with the darkness all around us and our tiny solar system. In it we can recall sleeping animals in their dens, beneath chilled lake waters, in their lodges made of sticks and branches. In the darkness we can rest a moment beneath the surface of the snow and cold covered soil where roots and microbes work feverishly transmitting nutrients and available water into plants slowed, but not killed by the seasonal temperatures.
In the darkness we can attend to the dark things within us, the places in our souls where our own origins and their ongoing impacts create a climate for our growth, down below the conscious considerations of our day-to-day lives. We can embrace this darkness, not as a thing to fear, but as a part of life, a necessary and fruitful part of life.
I’ll sit in my chair this evening as the night unfolds (I love that imagery.) and consider death, my death, my return to the woods, lovely dark and deep. And, I’ll hug close to my heart the life I’ve been given and this opportunity, granted by the stars, to meditate on it.
Samain Bare Aspen Moon
Think I’ve figured out my kabbalah presentation. Still a bit rough around the edges but that’s going to be part of it. It’ll be a how to think with the tree of the life as a touchstone example, using the Great Wheel as an instance.
It’s been a difficult couple of weeks trying to figure out whether or not I’m trying to put the cliched square peg in a round hole. That is, can the Great Wheel be interpreted from within the tree of life’s basic framework? Or, vice versa.
My tentative conclusion right now? Yes, they both speak to the same essence, to a fundamental truth about the nature of reality as we humans experience it. Both abstractions focus us on the dynamic of life arising from the inanimate and returning the borrowed elements to the inanimate at the end of a cycle. We could call it entropy, but entropy does not have the revivifying element of both the tree of life and the Great Wheel.
This a crucial difference between a secular, scientific world view and a mystical one. Entropy posits, as I mentioned in a post not long ago, that all things die, including death, I suppose. The Great Wheel and the tree of life challenge that grim metaphysics with an alternative.
In the tree of life emanations from the keter, or crown, flow down through the ten sephirot, emerging after a journey through possibilities and limitations, into malchut, the realm of the Shekinah or the feminine aspect of the divine. This is the daily reality you and I experience. Rabbi Jamie uses the illustration of a fountain with metal leaves (the sephirot) that catch the emanations, then direct the flow downward toward malchut. This could be entropic. Divine emanations could flow down to malchut, exist there for awhile, then simply disintegrate, disappear. Or, they could all flow down to malchut until it was filled, then the flow would stop. The heat death of the universe could be seen as such a result for the big bang.
But this fountain flows both ways. Malchut, as Rabbi Jamie explains it, is also a pump and the fountain sends water (divine energy) back up the tree of the life, returning it to the ein sof, the infinite oneness. Repeat until God is repaired.
God became fractionated during the tzimtzum, the contraction of divine energy that made the finite possible. This idea is still difficult for me, but I’m just accepting it for the purposes of this presentation. During the tzimtzum the infinite light, ohr, tried to manifest in the finite, filling the space created by the contraction, but the vessel, things, (ein sof = no-things, infinity) could not hold it and shattered. That shattering created all the elements that now make up our universe. (and other universes, too) Trapped inside all of these elements is the ohr. The ascent and descent of divine energy, from the keter to malchut and backup through the sephirot to the keter from malchut, is the way the ohr will once again join with the infinite. How? No clue.
OK. So how does this correlate, if at all, with the Great Wheel? The Great Wheel divides into two halves, a fallow half beginning at Samain and ending at Beltane when the growing season begins. That’s roughly from October 31st to May 1st on the Gregorian calendar, but of course the reality varies by latitude and altitude. The key thing to consider here is a growing time, a time of vitality and, not only vitality, but vitality created from the inanimate materials of soil, air and sun followed by a fallow time when plants die back, when the animate returns to the inanimate.
This is a malchutian manifestation, I think, of the ascent and descent and ascent again of divine energy represented by the tree of life. Why? Well, until the divine energy passes through yesod and becomes real in malchut, it is hidden, invisible, just like the vivifying function of the soil and the air and the sun is hidden during the fallow time. Both represent the cyclical nature of things coming into existence from apparent no-thing, then returning themselves to the invisible, the hidden.
Whereas the summer solstice could be seen as a major holiday for malchut, so the winter solstice could be seen as a major holiday for the keter and the ein sof. The summer solstice is a celebration of growth and fertility, the winter solstice a celebration of darkness and hiddenness, the depth (or height) of the nine sephirot and their crown.
Now it could be said, and I have said, that the Great Wheel represents cyclical time and that the notion of time itself is a matter of mental organization for the human mind. It could also be said that the very nature of the Great Wheel limits it to malchut since it expresses the seasonal changes of our particular planet. I believe, at least right now, though, that the Great Wheel instead reveals the universal nature of life on our planet, in malchut, as a simulacrum of the energy paths of the tree of life.
The slinkys I will hand out, tiny one-inch ones, illustrate what I mean. The Great Wheel turns through one year, one orbit around the sun, then repeats and is, in that, cyclical and not chronological. But, if you link this orbit to that one we get a spiral as our rapidly moving planet follows our solar system around the galaxy at unimaginable rates of speed. The Great Wheel then extends in space, in a spiral, this year’s revolution becoming another while the whole planet and its sun captive neighbors push further and further around the Milky Way. And, just to add complexity, as the whole galaxy moves, too.
Samain Joe and SeoAh Moon
The moon is a waning crescent. Orion has moved from a position due south of us, when he first rose this year, to a position to the westsouthwest, just beyond Black Mountain toward Evergreen.
This reminds me that planet means wanderer in the original Greek. “Greek astronomers employed the term asteres planetai (ἀστέρες πλανῆται), “wandering stars”, to describe those starlike lights in the heavens that moved over the course of the year, in contrast to the asteres aplaneis (ἀστέρες ἀπλανεῖς), the “fixed stars“, which stayed motionless relative to one another.” wiki We know now that even the fixed stars are not fixed, but are in motion relative to each other. Each galaxy moves in relation to the others, our whole solar system is in motion, too.
There is no fixed point. Continents drift, the earth itself wobbles, the moon’s orbit is decaying. In fact, there is no evidence that any of the things contained in the vastness of the universe are permanent. Black holes swallow stars. The eventual-in this case eventual covers a really, really long period-fate of all things, according to the Big Bang theory and its correlate, the expanding universe, is a big cooling, followed by many black holes which suck in and destroy everything. The black holes themselves dissolve due to Hawking radiation. And no thing is left. At least in our universe. Probably. Today’s best understanding suggests something like this as the ultimate end. Of the other, potential universes, the multiverses of string theory, I don’t know.
So what? Death, or at least extinction, is characteristic not only of life, but of the thing in itself, the ding an sich that Kant named the reality beyond our sensory mediation. I suppose this means Ragnarok is the true theological observation about even deity. Nirvana and moksha both promise release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Hmmm. Metaphysically not possible in this universe since the time frames assumed here are infinite. Even heaven. Obliterated. Wings, halos, heavenly choirs. Chilled out in the end.
This leaves us with the compression of time that our human lifespan grants us or forces upon us, depending on your viewpoint. And, it means that all religious speculation is, finally, not about life after death, for we know how that story finishes up, but about living this one life, or these serial lives. Reincarnation is not ruled out by the big bang. Just that it will not, cannot, go on forever.
It also takes me to Heidegger’s notion of thrownness, that at birth we are deposited into a specific place, with particular parents, in a community in a nation on a continent, in a unique time period, of which we can experience at most 100 years or so, 100 revolutions around the sun. This we know is ours, barring a Trumpian/Kimian nuclear catastrophe or the eruption of one of the world’s super volcanoes or the sudden emergence of a life ending meteor. This life. This brief flash of brilliance that is you.
How shall we live in this, the moment of our existence? This is the question. Many religious and ethical and political and economic systems have arisen as answers. None of them have proved universal, none of them have proved lasting, even in the relatively short historical period. When we peek up over the rim of our fundamental assumptions, we see an anarchic reality, shifting, transforming, its shape guided in part by chance, in part by consciousness.
The world’s religions, in any time, including now, have often suggested that they can peek over that same rim and see order. That they have texts, revelations (the peek), which offer guidance about life as it should conform to that order. Except they conflict. Except we know the physical evidence they see is not ordered at all, at least not in the moral/ethical way they claim, but is, instead, in motion toward dissolution.
Taoism makes the most sense to me in terms of how to live with this understanding. We flow with it, we live on the journey that presents itself to us. Grabbing any tool, political or economic or religious or ethical, and reasoning deductively about what must be is going to result in error, often huge error, at enormous cost in lives.
This is not an argument against religion, or economics, or politics though it may sound like that. It is an argument for humility, for acceptance of our limits, against the hubris of metaphysical certainty. In this view then the teachings of any faith, the hopes of any style of government, the transactional world of any economics, should (and I use this word advisedly) be weighed against their results in the daily life of people and the world that supports them. Bad results equal bad faith, bad governance, bad economy. Good results equal good faith, good governance, good economy. But nothing more than this because even good faith and good governance and good economy has limits. There is no end of history. There is only an ultimate end to everything.
Samain Joe and SeoAh Moon
Drove to Wheat Ridge yesterday to Edward’s Meats. Hunting for capon. Capons are surprisingly difficult to find here; even more surprisingly, the first two butchers we asked for one gave us a blank look. Huh? What’s that? Butchers. Geez. Tony’s Market in Littleton, a very upscale butcher and speciality grocery store, did not have any but had an order coming in for Thanksgiving. I ordered one.
But I wanted to experiment with a cooking method before we put that one in the oven for Thanksgiving. That’s why I went to Edward’s. And, yes, they had a capon. $63.00. Sticker shock on my part. In spite of my desire to experiment with the pancetta and fig dressing and a way to create a golden, moist bird for the table, I left with a package of Edward’s all beef wieners and some cheese curds.
Guess we’ll experiment on a big chicken, non-caponized.
When Kate bought four caramel apples just in case we had trick or treaters (we didn’t, as has been the case all the years we’ve been here), she kicked off holiseason. Hunting for recipes for thanksgiving, and capons, puts deeper into the season. We had Jon clear his stuff out of the guest room and kid’s room by November 1st so we could get the guest room ready by Thanksgiving for Annie, Kate’s sister, and for Joe and SeoAh, who plan to be here over Christmas. More prep.
We’ve also spent some time putting up lights. Kate strung rope lights on the loft deck and the stairway leading up. I strung some outdoor retro bulbs on the front of the house and another string arrives tomorrow. Needed a few more for the right effect. Though holiday decorating tailed off for us a while ago, these areligious lights are our contribution for the festivals of light.
This is my favorite time of year. The weather grows cold, snow comes. The land and its plant life rests. The many holidays that punctuate this very difficult time for temperate latitudes in times past bring families and friends, whole communities, together. Gifts are given, songs sung, wassailing is common. No matter the commercial spin of these months. That’s just humanity trying to conceal the struggle for depth, for powerful connection with the unseen.
Finding our way in the hiddenness, in the dark wood of Dante’s Divine Comedy, consumes our lives right up until our death. Most of the time we use the day-to-day as cover, pretending that going to work, cooking, paying the bills, watching television, going to the movies is all there is. But we know it’s not. Death serves as the big revealer, the sacred text this earth has given to all life. Life is temporary, a place, as the Mexica say, between a sleep and a sleep. The holidays give us a chance to glimpse the hidden, to see behind the veil that separates the ordinary from the wonder which suffuses it. Yes, that chance exists every day, in all parts of our ordinary lives, but our capitulation to the mundane, seemingly necessary for our sanity, makes it very hard.
That’s why on Samain we celebrate the thinning of the veil between the worlds. That’s why on Thanksgiving we give ourselves over to gratitude and to family. That’s why Diwali, Hanukkah, and Christmas have us lighting up our homes, our streets, our businesses. That’s why we sing brave songs, remember the birth of a god in human form, the wonder of a light that wouldn’t go out, light the small earthen diyas filled with oil that represent enlightenment driving out ignorance, the wick, the human soul, burning up the oil, hate and ignorance. We could us a few diya’s lit here in the U.S. right now. More than a few.
Holiseason gives us a chance to pull open the curtain on the Holy of Holies and see inside. I hope you find an opportunity to witness, even if for only a moment, the true majesty of this cosmos in which we are embedded.
Last Day of Fall Joe and SeoAh Moon
(Ooops. Sorry. A day early. The sentiment still applies however.)
Today we ease out of the harvest seasons. Lughnasa and Fall will be in the past, or in the future, depending on which way you turn your head. Samain, Summer’s End, will begin tomorrow, the veil between the worlds will thin and our ability, our need to communicate with those whose lives have ended, will be enhanced for a short while.
October 31st is also the start of dias de los muertos, the days of the dead. It ends on All Soul’s Day, November 2nd. On this day Latinos of many nations, including ours, will build ofrendas, offerings, for their dead. On these altars will be favorite foods, liquors, items representing favorite past times, photographs, flowers, small statuary and skulls decorated in the distinctive days of the dead style.
The fallow time, the months following the harvest and including the first weeks of the new growing season, thus begin with remembrance. Those of our family and friends, our acquaintances, who have been harvested by the grim reaper come to mind, occupy our thoughts. This as the sun moves six weeks closer to its longest absence, the Winter Solstice. So as darkness closes in, we consider those who are now dark to us. A profound few days.
Fall Joe and SeoAh Moon
Kabbalah. Spinning, spiraling, dancing. A curiously long lived wrecking crew barely known even to the tribe that gave it birth. Long lived because its roots may well be in an oral tradition forbidden to be written down, an oral tradition that extends centuries before the destruction of the second temple in 70 c.e. There is no way to know if that’s true. It surfaces in written literature during the middle ages, around the 1200’s in Spain. Like the mishnah before it, the impetus for writing kabbalistic thought down was a fear that the knowledge would be lost due to persecution, the dispersal and/or death of the rabbis who carried the knowledge.
As a wrecking crew this line of thought systematically dismantles whatever it is you think you know, about life, about the cosmos, and scripture. Let me give you an example of this last. When Abraham takes his son Isaac to altar as a sacrifice, the story is not about Abraham and Isaac, but about two key energy channels coursing through all the worlds that are: Yes and No, Faith and Will. So. Faith takes Will as a sacrifice, at what it thinks is the command of the ein sof, the infinite one behind and within all. This is yes saying yes without regard for consequences. The angel, the messenger, says No, Faith, no affirmation is worth the sacrifice of choice. There are limits in the world. Take this ram as a substitute and preserve your ability to choose wisely. At least this is my version using what I know now.
Rabbi Jamie says that when a kabbalist reads the Torah, and I imagine the megillah and the Psalms and the prophets and other sacred books, they do not see stories about individuals but stories about the key metaphors for understanding existence. This is a truly radical inversion of the religious story that seems to be told in the Tanakh.
In fact, here’s one more step beyond even this radical notion that we discussed last night. Anshel asked Rabbi Jamie if God cannot sit or stand, how can God say? Talk. A question gleaned from his reading of the Psalms. The kabbalists, the Rabbi said, would invert the metaphor. Humans, he said, are the metaphor, not God. In other words we have used our own body as a way of understanding the ein sof, the infinite in and behind all.
So, I asked, can we say God is made in the image of man? Yes. We can say exactly that. This makes wonderful sense to me. As limited creatures, bound to a body, grounded, living a life that will end in death, we struggle to see, to peel back the layers of the world we know and find what makes it so. As we do, we utilize what is available to us, our bodies, our knowledge of life and death, our consciousness, our relationships with others, with animals, with the animate and inanimate.
As a pagan, I try to do this, try to work backwards from the world I see to the world I cannot. This is what I call revelation. The Great Wheel is the sephirot writ in the language of plants. It is, of course, a metaphor, too, one offering the book of nature as a Way. This correlation between paganism and kabbalah is rich for me right now. More as it develops.
Fall Harvest Moon
The tree of life, the tree of immortality guarded by the angel with the flaming sword; the tree itself still growing in paradise, concealed by language, by our senses, by the everydayness of our lives; the path back to the garden often forgotten, the exile from paradise a separation so profound that we no longer know the location of the trail head and even harder, we no longer have a desire to search for it.
Metaphor? Of course. But in these three words lie a trap for the unwary, a trap in which I allowed myself to get caught and held, a mindhold trap. My life seems like a sine wave of grasping, then losing the significance of metaphors.
When young, I felt the mystery behind the communion wafers and the grape juice at Alexandria First Methodist. At the tenebrae service, when we extinguished the little candles with their paper drip guards and the sanctuary went dark, I thrilled to the change from ordinary experience, sensed the power rolling over us as the memory of crucifixion and death came hurtling through the centuries to land in our small Indiana town, in the very spot where I sat.
The sunrise services held on Easter morning lit up my whole inside. The power of the tenebrae had been defeated and life did go on forever, death only a mistake, an illusion, misunderstood as a cruelty when in fact it was a gateway. I suppose on those days, repeated over many years, I had a glimpse of the path back to the garden.
My mother’s death, I think, shattered this instinctive faith. Those feelings occasioned by grape juice soaked squares of bread, darkness and the rising of the sun, were a true path and one I lost when the brutal reality of grief smeared the way.
But the memory of that way remained. So I moved up from the instinctive triad of netzach-hod-yesod, forced by fear and loss to skip the next triad chesed-gevurah-tiferet and go to the one easiest for me to access, hochmah-binah-daat. I know these hebrew words may mean nothing at all to you, I’m still at the base of a steep learning curve with them myself, but they do appear on the illustration above so you can see where they are on the tree of life.
In simple, but not simplistic terms, the triads are netzach-hod-yesod, the realm of instinctual behavior, chesed-gevurah-tiferet, the realm of emotions and hochmah-binah-daat, the realm of the intellect. Movement in the tree of life goes from the keter to malchut and back from malchut up to keter, so there is no real top or bottom, only different spots in an ongoing process of creation.
But here’s the trap. Metaphor, of course! I studied philosophy, religion, anthropology in college. Then, after a few years stuck in unenlightened instinctual behavior-the storied sex, drugs and rock and roll of the sixties and seventies-I moved to seminary. The trap tightened. I learned about the church, scripture old and new, ethics, church history. It was exhilarating, all this knowledge. I soaked it up. I remained though stuck in the intellectual triad, pushing back and forth between the polarity of intuitive wisdom, hochmah, and analytical thought, binah, often not going on to daat, or understanding. I learned, but did not integrate into my soul.
There was a time, after seminary, after ordination, as I groped my way around in the work of ministry, that I found the path again. It was in mystical traditions like the Jesus Prayer, or the use of lectio divina, contemplative prayer. I had spiritual directors who guided my prayer life and I meditated often, daily for years, went on private retreats for days at a time. In those years I found my way back to the netzach-hod-yesod triad, traveling again on the instinctual path formed so long ago.
The trap sprung another time, though, as I got better at my ministry, more able to apply organizational development paradigms to congregational life, more able to pull the levers of political power for the good of various purposes: affordable housing, unemployment policy, economic development for poor neighborhoods, fighting off corporate takeovers of those same poor neighborhoods, more able to navigate the internal politics of Presbytery life. I became stuck in malchut, the material world which we experience everyday. So stuck that eventually I could see nothing else and the path disappeared again.
My heart knew I had gotten lost, in exile once again. In Dante’s words in Canto 1 of the Divine Comedy:
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.
It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death…
I cannot rightly say how I entered it. I was so full of sleep, at that point where I abandoned the true way.”
This time I knew I had to extricate myself from the subtle trap, get out of the thought world that had me lost in the dark wood, the direct way lost. It was a wild, harsh, seemingly impenetrable forest.
It was clear that for me the Christian faith had gotten muddled up with ambition, immersion in the world of power. And, most problematic of all, it had become part of the metaphor trap. The metaphor had gone stale, had become a barrier instead of a koan. Not the fault of the faith itself, but of my journey within it.
At the time of its crumbling another path had begun to open for me. Fiction writing emerged when, ironically, I began writing my Doctor of Ministry thesis. Instead of working on it I ended up with 30,000 plus words of what would become my first novel, Even The Gods Must Die. Irony in the title, too, I suppose.
In the train of that shift came a decision to look into my Celtic heritage as a source for my fiction. While researching Celtic religion for the fantasy novels I wanted to write, I discovered the Great Wheel.
It grounded me. So to speak. My spiritual life became tactile, bound up in soil amendments, bulbs, corms, seeds, spades and hoes, fruit trees, raspberries and bees. And, of course, dogs. Always dogs.
Meeting Kate enabled me to move gracefully out of the ministry and into a pagan worldview. I was back in the netzach-hod-yesod triad, but now firmly attached to malchut, the queendom of this world.
Writing fiction found me exploring the chesed-gevurah-tiferet triad, having to reach into my heart for believable characters, story lines. Over the course of those years, the years since leaving the Christian ministry and now, I began to gradually integrate the triads, at least the three: intellectual, emotional and instinctual. The combination of family life, the Andover years, writing, and working as a docent at the MIA began to slowly weave them into my soul.
Even so, I sat behind the barrier, the flaming sword, the metaphor trap. Beth Evergreen and Rabbi Jamie Arnold have started me on a journey back to where I began, immersed in the dark. Seeking for the light, yes, but happy now in the darkness, too. The Winter Solstice long ago became my favorite holiday of the year.
When I left Christianity and took up my earth-bound spirit, I shut off access to the fourth triad, the one subsumed under keter: faith-joy/pleasure-will, and its source of energy, the ein sof, the infinite One, perhaps god in small letters. Today, as I write this, I’m more pagan than I’ve ever been, more embracing of the body, the mountains, the stars, the elk and the mountain lion, than any words from any source.
But. At Beth Evergreen I have begun to feel my way back into the fourth triad, the mystery I first encountered on the hard wooden pews in Alexandria, the one pulsing behind the metaphors of tenebrae, of crucifixion, of resurrection, and now of Torah, of language, of a “religious” life. I knew it once, in the depth of my naive young boy’s soul. Now, I may find it again, rooted in the old man he’s become.