We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

Working

Lughnasa                                                                         Kate’s Moon

hell2Moving forward, slowly, with Jennie’s Dead. Exploring the religion of the ancient Egyptians, trying to avoid hackneyed themes, not easy with all the mummy movies, Scorpion King, Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of cinema. Jennie’s Dead is not about Egypt, ancient or otherwise, but it plays an important role in the plot. Getting started is difficult, trying to sort out where the story wants to go, whether the main conflict is clear, to me and to the eventual reader.

Also moving forward, also slowly, with Reimagining. The pile of printed out posts has shrunk considerably, now filed. As I’ve gone through them, I read them a bit, for filing purposes. One notion that jumped out at me was my turn away from text-based religions, from the sort of quasi-scholastic reasoning that occurs.

image of godAs Emerson said, “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

I guess Emerson and I had the same quandary. We love the ancient texts, their poetry and philosophy, yet do not want to be bound by them. We want our poetry and revelation straight from the source, nature and the human experience of our own time. Yet, it seems to me, we’re both informed in our search for the poetry of existence by the way those seekers of the past found revelation in their time. Surely the logic of wanting our own revelation grounds itself in the stories of Genesis, the work of Moses, the resurrection story of Jesus, even the night flight of Muhammad and the whirling cosmic dance of Shiva.

20-the-map-is-not-the-territoryThis means I’m in a curious position relevant to my own education in the Christian tradition and my new education, underway now, in the older faith tradition of Judaism. Both are normative, in their way, but not as holy writ. Rather, they are normative in a more fundamental sense, they reveal the way we humans can discover the sacred as it wends and winds its way not only through the universe, but through history.

We may not, in other words, be bound by their philosophy and insight, the history of their revelation, yet how the ancients made themselves open to the whispers and shouts of the sacred, how they received its insights and what use they made of it in their lives, those shape us because we are the same vessel, only thrown into a different time.

Arthur_Szyk_(1894-1951)._The_Holiday_Series,_Rosh_Hashanah_(1948),_New_Canaan,_CTThis is a similar idea to that of the reconstructionists, but not the same. Reconstructionists want to work with a constantly evolving Jewish civilization, grounding themselves in Torah, mussar, kabbalah, shabbat, the old holidays, but emphasizing the work of building a Jewish culture in the current day, reconstructing it as Jews change and the world around them changes, too. I’m learning so much from this radical idea.

2695406589_2517d8b0f2What I want to do though, and it’s a similar challenge, is to reimagine, for our time and as a dynamic, the way we reach for the sacred, the way we write about our experience, the way we celebrate the insights and the poetry it inspires. In this Reconstructionist Judaism is a better home for me than Unitarian Universalism. UU’s may have the same goal, but their net is cast into the vague sea of the past, trying to catch a bit from here and a bit from there. It is untethered, floating with no anchor. Beth Evergreen affirms the past, the texts of their ancestors, their thousands of years of interpretation, the holidays and the personal, daily life of a person shaped by this tradition, but also recognizes the need to live those insights in an evolving world.

 

Hello, darkness

Lughnasa                                                        Kate’s Moon

monolith (1)Dark ecology. I’ll post more about this both here and on AncientrailsGreatwheel.com, but it interests me a lot right now. It’s a contrarian view of the climate crisis, but not in a denier vein. These are folks who accept climate science, but take a pessimists look at the likelihood of change, at least change sufficient to stave off disaster. They don’t see it happening. This could be equated to the final stage of the grief process, acceptance.

monolithI’m not familiar enough now with the movement to comment in depth, but the tone of it strikes a chord in me. Admittedly, it’s a melancholy chord though the more you know about both climate science and the current political will to tackle change, the more that chord may come to dominate the melody of your life. It’s either brave, facing reality in spite of its horror, or defeatist. Maybe it’s both.

Whichever it is, it feels like an important approach to climate change at an emotional level and one I want to better understand. If you want a sense of dark ecology’s direction, take a look at this manifesto on the Dark Mountain website.

A New Frame

Midsommar                                                                      Most Heat Moon

ein sofNext week we all give 5-8 minute presentations in our kabbalah class. The ostensible purpose is for us to have the chance to “learn as teachers.” It will be more than that for me. At first I thought I would work up something about tikkun olam, repairing the world, or, as the early kabbalists preferred, repairing God. The notion fits nicely within my political activism (now shelved)/reimagining faith work. But that would have been the more traditional student as presenter, a small talk focused on the content of what I’ve begun to learn.

Instead I’ve decided to go for it, to use the post below, Earthquake, as a starting point. I want to discuss my changing inner world, the push kabbalah has given me, adding its long standing contrarian position to my own.

Here’s how I imagine it might go right now.

Religion itself and sacred texts in particular as metaphors.

transcendence_ver5Kabbalah has reinforced and challenged a move I made many years ago away from the metaphysics of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as I understood it. I can summarize that move as a reaction against transcendence and its role in buttressing patriarchy. Transcendence moved me up and out of my body, up and out of my Self into a different a place, a place other than where I was, a better place, a place dominated by God. It didn’t really matter what image of God, what understanding of God you put in that sentence because it was the denial of the here and now, the embodiedness of us, that bothered me. The notion that transcendence puts us in a better place, a place only accessible outside of our bodies made us lesser creatures, doomed to spend most of our time in a less spiritual state. In the long tradition of a male imaged God it made that gender dominate because it was God that occupied the better place, the more spiritual place, the place, if we were lucky or faithful enough, that we might achieve permanently after death.

Going in and down became my primary metaphor for the spiritual life; spirituality became an inner journey, not a transcendent one. The body was not like a temple; it was a quite literal temple, a place, the place, where a journey toward understanding and meaning found its locus. It was natural, therefore, to leave Christianity and especially the Christian ministry, as this focus took hold of my pilgrimage.

images (6)This inner turn is what pagan means for me. It put spirituality more in the mode the Judaeo-Christian tradition terms incarnation, put a thumb on the scale for the notion of imago dei, rather than the three-story universe. Gardening and bee-keeping became ultimate spiritual practices. They made real, as real as can be, the whole immersion of this body in the web of life. Tomatoes, beets, leeks, garlic, raspberries, plums, apples, currants, beans, comb honey and liquid honey grew on our land, nurtured by our hands, then entered our bodies to actually, really become us. The true transubstantiation.

The Great Wheel, the Celtic sacred calendar that follows the web of life as earth’s orbit changes our seasons, became my liturgical calendar. Observing the wheeling of the stars above our turning earth was the closest I got to transcendence.

Kabbalah has reinforced this move. By suggesting the radical, very radical, notion that even such sacred texts as the Torah are metaphorical, a garment for the soul of souls, for example, it makes each metaphor used more important. The metaphysical becomes metaphorical. Or, perhaps it always was. So, metaphors matter.

You have come to the shore. There are no instructions. —Denise Levertov

You have come to the shore. There are no instructions. —Denise Levertov

Kabbalah challenges this move. By acknowledging transcendence as a metaphor, it allows us to soften its patriarchal implications, to seek, if you will allow this phrase, a deeper meaning. I can imagine an understanding of transcendence that poses a horizontal rather than a vertical metaphor. Transcendence, understood this way, could embed us in community, place us in the web of life. A hug could become a transcendent moment, the touching of another, one outside our inner world. So could this class be a time when our inner worlds intersect, when our body language and our spoken language give us brief entre to the world of another. Even the example I used of the garden and bee-keeping can also be seen as transcendent, a way the outer becomes inner.

Transcendence was not the only theological problem I had with the Judaeo-Christian tradition, I’m using it here as an example, a key example, but only that. I won’t go further into those today with one exception.

P1030762When I moved away from transcendence, I moved toward this world. This world of sensation and my inner world became the whole, I sheared off the metaphysical almost as cleanly as my logical positivist philosophy had done, though for quite different reasons. No metaphysics, no God. No metaphysics, no transcendence. I switched to an ontology informed only by my senses or by the extended reach of our limited human senses occasioned by science. That meant this world, at both the micro and macro levels was the only world.

Kabbalah has forced me to reconsider this drastic pulling back. It suggests a link between the hidden codes revealed by science and mathematics and the metaphorical nature of language. What language reveals, it also hides.  The language of the Torah unveils; but, it also conceals. Not done with this, not even by a long shot of Zeno’s arrow.

An Earthquake

Midsommar                                                                 Most Heat Moon

Kabbalistic_creatorKabbalah. It’s trying to pry off the empiricist covering I’ve put on my world. I say trying because I’m a skeptic at heart, a doubter, a critic, an analyst yet also, and just as deeply, a poet, a lover of myth and fantasy, a dreamer.

Last night’s conversation at Beth Evergreen was on miracles. As is my wont, I looked up miracle in the OED. The first definition, considered most important and most normative,  says a miracle is an event that defies nature and is therefore the act of God or another supernatural being. Its root though is the Latin miraculum which simply defines miracle as something amazing, wondrous. The Hebrew word for miracle, nes, means banner, flag, trial, test, as well as miracle.

Rabbi Jamie, and kabbalah, pushes us to broaden our definition of miracle, or perhaps, deepen it. What is a miracle? Several budding kabbalists offered answers. The human body, animal bodies. Anshel, who has an identical twin, says their relationship is a miracle, “I can feel her pain. And she lives in Florida. We pick out identical birthday cards.” I said life, the ineffable animation of the inanimate.

plate_tectonicsRabbi Akiva says that nothing in nature is less miraculous than the rarest exception. This means, for example, that the water in the Red Sea (or, Reed Sea) is as miraculous as its parting. Or, for that matter, the Hebrew slaves pouring across it are, too.

It’s hard for me to articulate how this changes me. There’s a stubborn I will not be moved part of my psyche (I know. You know this already.) that keeps me from changing my perspective without a lot of thought. Good and bad. Makes me resolute in the face of adversity, but also mulish in terms of new ways of thinking. Reason can take me up to the wall, but will not push me past it. So I entertain a lot of new ideas happily, but absorb few of them There has to be an emotional component, a combination of reason and feeling.

The emotional/psychological element involved here is big.  And, it’s not only about an attitude toward miracles, nor even toward kabbalah itself, but about an inner tectonic plate, one that needs subducting but that I have not been able to move for decades. This core substrata of my Self supports a continent and that continent is my productivity, purposefulness, agency. Messing around with it scares me.

caveIt is anxiety. I believe it infested my life in two early stages. The first was polio, a young boy’s physical experience of our human finitude. It happened once; it could happen again. The second was the death of my mother when I was 17. It happened once, to Mom. It will happen to me and could happen quickly.

Now, I believe anxiety has its purpose. It makes us attend to matters that might harm us in some way and it encourages us to resolve them by poking us psychically until we do. A good thing, in my opinion. Yet, when everything or many things seem harmful-like life itself-then anxiety becomes crippling, closing down joy, play, eagerness, and yes, the miraculous, too.

I can feel that plate beginning to grind its way under more positive parts of my inner world, kabbalah is one of the forces impelling it. So is, oddly, Kate’s health issues and my own, coupled with increasing age.

Seems contradictory, right, at least these last two? Yes, but here’s how that works. Both polio and my mother’s death have left me with a sense of impending catastrophe, not immediate, not right now, but…soon. And, of course, that’s both wrong and right. The sense of finitude that both put into bold face type on my inner sign board is real. I will die, there will be some final illness even more destructive to me than polio. That’s the right part.

timeThe wrong part is that it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to worry about it, fear it, be anxious about it. It is. Or, rather, will be. Maybe in the next ten minutes, maybe in the next ten years, maybe longer. I know this by reason, have known it for a long, long time, but I have not been able to displace the irrational fear in spite of that knowledge. That’s why I say reason can take me up to the wall, but not past it.

The shuddering that’s affecting my innerworld, a sort of psychic earthquake, is accepting the finitude, leaning into mortality, even embracing it. The wall that keeps this from happening is built of tangled vines. Will I work? Will I care about my projects? Will I just relax, sink into the hammock and never roll out of it? Cutting a gate through this wall to whatever lies on the other side feels like indulging myself, separating myself from the motivator/motivation that keeps me moving forward. That’s the resistance that anxiety has constructed in my soul.

the-secret-garden-kewYet, increasingly I find myself wanting a way through this. I can sense, and here kabbalah is playing a critical alchemical role, a different world, a better world now hidden from me. I can peek through the vines at times, can see the secret garden beyond. It’s this wall that holds up the substrata, keeps it from being ground other parts of my Self. This wall has its roots sunk deep into this tectonic plate, is a barrier to its movement. But I can feel the vines withering, their complicity in the substrata’s effect on my psyche weakening.

What lies on the other side? I really don’t know. That’s sort of the point, but it feels like a healthier, happier place. Perhaps soon I’ll find out.

 

 

Incandescence. Not transcendence?

Midsommar                                                                    Most Heat Moon

2011 03 06_3396After leaving the ministry, a gradual process of demythologization and disenchantment took over. In retrospect it’s not hard to see why. A primary motivator of the shift away from Christianity and toward a more pagan worldview came because transcendence bothered me. Transcendence takes us up and out of our bodies, or least out and away from our bodies.

A more important idea, at least for these times, seemed to be incarnation, a going in and down, rather than out and up. Incarnation takes us toward mother earth, toward our blood and bones. It does not pretend there’s an escape hatch from this earthly realm. This is our home, where we live, how we are.

Over time a godless world emerged. This was a world without a scrim, a world in which what you saw was what was. And that seemed enough. The Great Wheel provided a sacred lens through which to see seasonal change and the dramatic results those seasonal changes had on daily and yearly life. This focus on the here and now also informed, in a positive and self-reinforcing way, the Great Work. Building a sustainable presence for humankind on this earth requires, first of all, a sensibility attuned to the earth herself.

grounded_circleThen, at some point-the reimagining faith project signals that point-the flat-earth humanism of this pagan orientation no longer felt like enough. Could the warmth and the depth available to those in the ancient religious traditions somehow be suffused into this empiricist, anti-metaphysical worldview? Could, in other words, a feeling of religious awe and wonder emerge out of our relationship with the web of life and the cosmic experiment we know as the universe?

Must be possible since, with the trappings of culturally specific myths and legends, all religions are an attempt to explain why we’re here, where we’re going and what we need to do on the journey. The journey takes place within in the web of life and the grand experiment of cosmological evolution.

BlakeTranscendence still seems suspect. Reimagining though has to take account of it in some way. Here’s one idea. The mystical experience, a well documented and not at all rare phenomenon, often carries the descriptor transcendent. I had one and I want to challenge that idea. In mine, which occurred in 1967 on the quad at Ball State University, I did feel a sudden and inexplicable connection to the universe, all of it. Threads of light and power emanated in a pulsing glory carrying with them a physical sensation of oneness.

You might focus on the threads moving out from the center and psychically travel with them in some sort of astral projection, maybe that would be transcendence, but I don’t think so. The critical point for me is that all this connecting and interconnecting occurred within me. Yes, the sensation was of cosmic linkage, and, yes, I believe it was cosmic connection, but it didn’t feel as if I left my body at any point. I entered fully into my inner world, a world that already had these interconnections, always had them, and in that moment I could see them, at least for a sudden, blazing instance. This is maybe incandescence, perhaps the feeling often referred to as transcendence.

Still working on this one.

 

A God in Exile, Needing Repair

Midsommar                                                              Most Heat Moon

ein sofKabbalah was a trip through contractions, shattering, shards and healing. In the cosmology of Isaac Luria the ohr, the divine energy that was once all there was, wanted an other, yet it was all that there was. The ohr contracted, leaving room for something else. It created a vessel for the other, then poured divine energy into it, but the vessel proved too weak and shattered, scattering shards with ohr, divine light, trapped within them. Those shards, each filled with ohr, are the elemental stuff of the universe, forming the stuff which we experience as reality.

The purpose of humanity is to serve as a bridge between matter and God. (I don’t quite understand this yet.) We find the divine light in the shards of the universe we encounter and help them (again, I don’t know how.) emerge from their hiddenness. This is known as tikkun olam, now often translated as repairing the world, but in Luria’s time it meant repairing God, that is, finding the pieces left over from cosmic beginnings and rejoining them with the ohr. I like this idea of repairing God. Hmm. Re-pairing the hidden ohr with its maker.

Camus one-cannot-be-happy-in-exile-or-in-oblivion-one-cannot-always-be-a-stranger-i-want-to-albert-camus-123-46-22Yet again, I didn’t follow this one completely, but the Lurianic God is a God in exile, separated from the shards. So when the Jews go into exile, they do so as one with their estranged God. The purpose of the Jews is to remind humanity of this estrangement and that we all have a role to play in overcoming it.

Kabbalah finds us wading into deep waters, shifting perceptions, changing minds. A worthwhile enterprise, especially at 70. Glad to be part of it.

 

Ohr

Midsommar                                                                      Moon of the Summer Solstice

ein sofKabbalah. Reread Genesis 1-2:3. Now, ask yourself a question that occurred to a long ago kabbalist. What is the light created on the first day of creation? We know it’s not the sun or the moon or the stars because they don’t blink on until the 4th day, 1:14-19. So what is the ohr (light) of verse 3. “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”?

Kabbalists pay close attention to details like this. They poke and tease at them, using reason-it can’t be the sun-and playing with gematria. In this instance an equivalence is discovered between the 207 of ohr’s three Hebrew letters and raz, also 207. Raz means hidden. Aha! Rabbi Jamie would say. This ohr could be a hidden light. I’m not going to follow this thread much further because the argument quickly becomes nuanced and frankly still not altogether clear to me, but it moves quickly toward the many-worlds hypothesis of string theory and an early intuition of quantum mechanics. All this from some early medievalists.

Remaining open to new ideas can be frustrating, confusing, but as a quote I discovered a while back says, confusion is the sweat of the intellect. Right now I’m sweating a lot as we review the very basics of kabbalistic thought. I did buy a copy of the first volume of Daniel Matt’s translation of the Zohar, kabbalah’s bible. This is a brand new translation from the original Aramaic and one done by a preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism. It’s both clear and very difficult.

Here’s an example. In his translation Matt quotes an early kabbalist who retranslates the first verse of Genesis to this: With beginning the ein sof (the infinite ohr-light or energy) created God. Now that’s unexpected.

bonfireIt’s a very bright group around the table: a historian, a Berkeley trained lawyer, an organizational consultant, a Hebrew scholar, a rabbi in training, a second lawyer, a teenager with a good grasp of theoretical physics, two retired hospital administrators. This makes the conversation sparky, inspirational.

Rabbi Jamie’s pedagogy is excellent. He asks questions, probes answers, supports new directions, invites us to retrace the pattern of thinking used by these early rabbinic radicals. It’s fun. Too, the kabbalistic project was exactly reimagining faith. It’s giving me a prod for how to go about the task in my own work.

 

 

 

Gematria

Beltane                                                              Moon of the Summer Solstice

gematria chart

Wandered into strange territory last night at Beth Evergreen. Gematria. Each Hebrew letter has a corresponding number. The chart shows the correspondences. Kabbalists, especially, use these numbers to determine the numerical value of words. After calculating a word’s value, it can be used to compare that word to another with the same value.  This comparison is another method of peeking under the garment of the torah.

An example comes from the story in the garden of Eden. The snake is the usual suspect in an ancient story of how humanity lost its way. But. In Hebrew the numerical value for the word snake and the word messiah are identical. Early Kabbalists used this correspondence to suggest that the meaning of eating from the tree of knowledge was very different from the usual interpretation, that in fact it was the first step in humanity’s liberation.

Rabbi Jamie had asked us to do some reading on gematria, discover some things on our own. When he asked us what we’d learned, I said, “This whole idea seems strained, strange.” Not being one to mince words, as some of you know. A history professor in the class agreed with me that her reading had produced the same thought. Others were intrigued.zodiac

Staying open, of course, is the only way new learning can occur, so I attended to the ideas in spite of my skepticism. As the evening progressed, I began to find the idea a bit less odd. The kabbalists use gematria as a tool, a tool similar to the Zen koan. At first its results may not make sense,; but, that’s the point, the frisson between the snake and the messiah which opens a new mode of thought about the story. It also undermines any tendency to take the torah literally, an essential first step toward searching for the primordial torah.

Garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach the Elder

So although I find the method strained and strange, I still do, I believe I understand at least part of its purpose. That’s enough for now. I’ll learn more as we go forward.

Enchanting, My Dear

Beltane                                                                       Moon of the Summer Solstice

first draftWith the first draft of Superior Wolf finished I’m taking this week to do various tasks up in the loft that I’ve deferred. Gonna hang some art, rearrange some (by categories like Latin American, contemporary, Asian) and bring order to some of my disorganized book shelves. I want to get some outside work in, too, maybe get back to limbing and do some stump cutting, check out nurseries for lilac bushes.

After taking advantage of the weekend to do the hike at Staunton, some slower treadmill work in the afternoon, then two sessions on Sunday, both on the treadmill, one faster, one slower, I got to 11,000 plus steps on Saturday as I said and 9,745 on Sunday. I believe once I go back to my personal trainer, in six weeks or so, I’ll be able to hit the 10,000 target regularly and get my resistance work done, too. Feels like I’m moving past the knee surgery, not fully past it yet, but well on the road.

forest and soulEven so, reimagining is beginning to exert a centripetal force on my thinking, book purchasing, day to day. For example, last night as I went to sleep a cool breeze blew in from the north across my bare arms and shoulder. It was the night itself caressing me. I went from there to the sun’s warm caresses on a late spring day. The embrace of the ocean or a lake or a stream. The support given to our daily walking by the surface of mother earth. The uplift we experience on Shadow Mountain, 8,800 feet above sea level. These are tactile realities, often felt (0r their equivalent).

Now, imagine that we stop, take a moment and feel them, as I now feel the attraction gravity affords me while sitting here, writing this. It keeps me grounded, able to stay in place.

febheadNext, eliminate the metaphorical. If we do that, we can immediately jump into a holy moment, a moment when the bonds that tie us to grandmother earth are not figurative, but real. The breeze on my bare arms and shoulders is her embrace. The sun on my face, penetrating my body, is him in direct relationship with me, reaching across 93 million miles, warming me. The ocean or the lake or the pond or the stream cools me, refreshes me, hydrates me, acts of chesed, loving-kindness, from the universe in which we live and move and have our being.

This kind of reframing, reenchanting, helps us reimagine faith, a faith that does not require texts or institutions, just the opening of ourselves to the mystery and magic that are our literal birthright.

 

 

As the World Burns

Beltane                                                                  Moon of the Summer Solstice

images (2)While the world burns, at least the Trump world, kabbalah suggests a bigger world, more worlds, right next to this one. There is, as Rabbi Jamie said, a bigger picture. I learned a similar lesson from Deer Creek Canyon during my cancer season two years ago. These Rocky Mountains, still toddlers as mountains go, were and will be present when we are not. In their lifetime humanity will likely have come and gone.

It’s tempting to use this perspective-and I believe it’s real, I want to emphasize that-to diminish the swirl of issues like climate change, decent health insurance, jobs that no longer pay a living wage. In time they will be finished, one way or another. We were neither present during the Rockies orogeny, nor will we be present when they become as smooth as the Appalachians. Just so, you may say.

38d9f3b4e2e64361ce68ca237f270a42Yet. We do not live either in the deep geological past nor in the distant geological future, we live now. Our lives, our mayfly lives from the vantage point of geological time, come into existence and blink out, so we necessarily look at the moment, the brief seventy to one hundred year moment into which, as Heidegger said, we are thrown.

This is all we know of life, this moment. In it our whole awareness comes into existence, matures, then winks out. From that mayfly perspective then climate change, decent health insurance and a living wage are not insignificant. Albert Camus spoke of the great river which carries us toward the ocean of all souls. Ram Dass reminds us we’re all just walking each other home. And Lord Keynes famously said in the long run we’ll all be dead.

Time_Clock-620x587Somehow we have to realize that though our lives are small compared to the immensity of the universe and the imponderable nature of time, they are everything while we have them. As for me, I find all this comforting. Putting my efforts in the larger perspective gives me peace, putting them in the immediacy of my life gives me energy. We will not complete the task, no, we will not. But we are not free to give it up either.

 

 

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