We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

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.

Home Schooling

Beltane                                                                      Moon of the Summer Solstice

2011 03 06_3396The shift to Reimagining has happened faster than I thought it would. My mind is like Kepler, our only dog who likes toys. He has a whole box of toys and he goes into it, noses around, finds the one he likes (why that one? no idea.), takes it out and carries it over to a place he’s decided is his toy stash area. I have several ideas that I’ve been playing with for years, e.g. becoming native to this place, emergence, tactile spirituality. In ways I don’t understand my mind goes over to the box of these ideas, hunts around, selects one and puts it front and center for maybe a second, maybe longer. Sometimes I pick up and play with one for awhile.

Right now just prior to sleep seems like a cue to start digging in the toy box. Last night it was an idea I had long ago, back when I started moving away from Christianity and toward a pagan perspective. I got to wondering about origins, about where certain things came from.

VadnaisIn the shower one day I began to wonder where our water came from. At the time Kate and I lived on Edgcumbe Avenue in St. Paul so the question really was, where did St. Paul get its water? I had no idea. Turns out St. Paul public works pumps water out of the Mississippi and into a chain of lakes including Pleasant Lake and Sucker Lake just across the Anoka County border in Ramsey County north of St. Paul.

At that point I began meditating in the shower (what can I say?), following the water flowing over me back to its source in the Mississippi, then back up river all the way to Itasca State Park and the headwaters there in Lake Itasca. Sometimes I would include the watershed, imagining rivers and streams emptying into the Mississippi on its way south toward the Centerville pumping station. Rainfall, snow and ice melt contribute, too.

LakeIt78Though I haven’t done it, it would be possible to track back much further to the arrival of water on earth. This is a very interesting topic which I raise only to demonstrate the potential in this kind of thinking.

Last night I recalled this early meditation on water and began to consider what it would be like to homeschool ourselves on the other inputs that come into our apartments, condominiums or single family homes, i.e. electricity, gas, broadband, telephone service (yes, some of us still have landlines). In other words what modes of generation produce the electricity in your home? Where are those power stations located? You might even ask yourself, what is electricity anyhow?

Contemporary life, especially since the early 1900’s, has distanced us further and further from the vast variety of things necessary to keep us alive. Do you know, for example, where the power comes into your house? Or the water? Most of us treat electricity, gas, and water as if they just show up in our taps, our outlets, our furnaces. This is understandable, it doesn’t seem important. As long as they show up reliably, we don’t consider them.

vintage-refrigerator-adOpen the refrigerator. Where did the food come from? How about the carpet on your floor? The roofing material. Concrete. Paint. How about the car in your garage? Where was it built? What sort of materials go into making it? Where do they come from?

Each and every article of clothing, toothbrush, plate, door knob, seat covering, bicycle tire is a rearrangement of elements secured from somewhere by mining or forestry or chemical engineering. We twenty-first century Americans, even those living in poverty, rely on a vast web of resources, each of which had to be gathered, transported, processed and delivered to our home. While this allows us to live in comfort unknown to most people on earth, even the very wealthy, throughout history, it also literally blinds us to the complex web of activity and materials that make it possible.

One way of reimagining faith is to open ourselves to the way that web of activity actually functions to help us live. Holy water. Holy gas. Holy wool. Holy garlic. Holy stone. Holy sewage. If we take to time to notice, to attend to the wood beneath our feet, the plaster over our heads, the water in our glass, the food on our plate we can begin to reinsert ourselves in that complex web, to be an active part of it, not a dumb recipient.

ElectricityThe incredible complexity of this web has put a thick wall between our daily lives and the earthiness of all that is around us. We start the car, shift into drive and head out to work or the store or on vacation dulled to the effort expended on the gasoline that fuels it, the rubber in the tires, the precious metals and the not-so precious metals in the body and frame and engine. I’m not talking right now about a car’s implication in climate change, or economic injustice, or urban planning. I’m focusing on getting to know how it came to be, what of our world made it possible.

landWhy? Because focusing on these things, deconstructing our things, begins to break the spell of modernism. Modernism offers us in the developed world a world prepackaged for our needs, organized so that we don’t have to till the field anymore, or hitch up the horse, or drop a bucket down a well. In so doing it waves the wand of mystification over our senses, blinding us to the mines, the aquifers, the oil fields, the vegetable fields, the landfills, the seeds and chemicals required to sustain us. This enchantment is the first barrier to a reimagined faith, to placing ourselves once again in the world.

It must go.

 

 

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.

 

 

Bound

Beltane                                                                     Moon of the Summer Solstice

Second hike at Staunton. Chose the Mason Creek Trail. It goes up, then up and finally it turns into switchbacks, going up. Huff and puff, not at Hogwarts but here in the Front Range. The Mason Creek Trail will provide a consistent challenge, plus it has meadows, waterfalls (see video) and large rock formations.

methodology-sight-size-827x399While hiking and thinking about Reimagining, I realized I’m taking an atelier approach to it. Ateliers train would be artists in the classical mode, using lots of drawing, life models and work with perspective. They’re considered conservative in today’s art world, a sort of throwback to the artist/apprentice studio that dominated art education for so many centuries.

In my case I studied Christianity and the Christian ministry in a seminary, United Theological Seminary, and earned the world’s most outrageous degree, Master of Divinity. In the late 1980’s I took a doctorate at McCormick Seminary in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The Presbyterian ministry occupied me for 15 years and afterward I dabbled in the Unitarian-Universalist ministry. Now I’m in my second year of Jewish immersion, not a convert, but a close student of this ancient tradition.

bound to the earthYet what I really want to do is rethink what faith is, why we go to the places that we go to for spiritual nourishment and whether there might be a real faith, an approach to the religious life, that emerges naturally from the world in which we live and carry on our daily lives. That is, one without a charismatic founder or an ethnic base, a faith which would help us see the holy ordinary, that would expose the ligatures that bind us to this planet, to the plants and animals and minerals and atmosphere, expose them and help us see them as the loving embrace that they are, not only as limits to our lives.

 

That Other Project

Beltane                                                                     Moon of the Summer Solstice

120305_Writer-comparison_small-23497_200x200Back at Superior Wolf. After a month or so of focusing on other things, chiefly that presentation for the mussar class, I’m writing again. The end of the first draft for this novel is near. Once I get it done I’m going to print it out and give it to Kate, then I’m going to move away from it for a while, perhaps three/four months, while I try to push Reimagining Faith further along.

I’d like to get a book length draft of Reimagining done this year or at least get one well started. My sense is that it requires a concentrated effort, not one done with other writing projects. I need to spend time in research and writing on it alone. I do best when I can focus on a single project for hours at a time.

fireShiva_smallYes, mussar and kabbalah require a lot of reading, too, but that’s its own concentrated effort, not competitive with Reimagining. In fact I find the mussar and kabbalah work reinforcing for Reimagining, especially in a Reconstructionist environment. There’s a lot of energy and permission for rethinking fundamentals at Beth Evergreen.

Kabbalah may require a return to my Hebrew studies of over forty years ago. I learned functional Hebrew, enough to look up words and evaluate translations, but never had the goal of understanding grammar or building much of a vocabulary. I certainly never had the intent of using it for worship. A major component of kabbalah is gematria, a sort of numerology that focus on numerical values of Hebrew letters and words. To understand this aspect of kabbalah I’ll need to increase my Hebrew proficiency.

Not sure right now where Latin fits into all this. I’ve fallen away from it, but at the same time I miss it. Need to ponder this one for awhile.

 

 

Life in the Rockies

Beltane                                                                        Moon of the Summer Solstice

zoharpageHeavy rain yesterday afternoon, felt like being back in the humid East. Black Mountain is no longer white; it’s green with its lodgepole and aspen looking healthy. It’s gone from white haired old man to green man. Good to see. Cub Creek, Maxwell Creek, Bear Creek and Blue Creek are all full. The snowpack is well above average. A much better scenario for this summer. Thankful.

I’m relieved at Kate’s news, again. She’s had a rough time since the second week of my surgery and I hope the ENT doc has her on a path to eating with no pain. This is seven months of up and down health. Tough for her.

Second kabbalah class tonight at Beth Evergreen. I’m beyond fascinated. This Jewish mystical tradition seems to synch up with the way my mind and spirit work. I haven’t been this excited since I began to move toward paganism many years ago. The three main threads in my spiritual life have been, for a long time now, existentialism, paganism and Taoism. Looks like I may be adding a fourth.

 

Think Again

Beltane                                                                Moon of the Summer Solstice

images (1)Reimagining Faith has been a project of mine since I slipped out of the Unitarian Universalist world leaving behind both Christianity and liberal religion, the first too narrow in its theology, the second too thin a broth. The stimulation for the project lay first in a decision I made to focus on my Celtic heritage for the writing I wanted to do. This commitment led me to the Great Wheel of the Year and its manifestation literally took root in the work Kate and I did at our Andover home.

When we bought the house there, it sat on a lot with the usual scraped earth look of new home construction. It had no lawn, no trees in front, no soil adequate for growing flowers. We hired a landscape architect and added several thousand dollars to the mortgage for his work which included retaining walls, perennial beds, wild prairie on two sides of our house and tiered perennial beds in the back with a patio at their bottom. Our goal was to enjoy the landscaping throughout the time we owned the house. And we did.

2011 10 13_1265In retrospect our request to him to make it all as low maintenance as possible seems laughable. He did as we wanted, putting in such sturdy plants as Stella D’oro, a species of daylily, shrubs, a bur oak and a Norwegian pine, some amur maples, a hardy brand of shrub rose, juniper, yew, a magnolia that Kate wanted, and a river birch. This work included an in-ground irrigation system and the very strange experience of having no lawn until one morning when the sod people came and rolled it out. Then we had a lawn that evening.

2012 05 01_4112We looked at it, saw that it was good and thought we were done. Ha. It began with a desire for flowers. I wanted to have fresh flowers available throughout the growing season, so I studied perennials. At that time I thought I was still holding to the low maintenance idea. I would plant perennials that would bloom throughout the Minnesota growing season, roughly May 15 to September 15, go out occasionally and cut the blooms, put them in a vase, repeat until frost killed them all back. Then, the next year the perennials would return and the process would recur. Easy, right?

No. Gardens are alive. They are dynamic. Species of flowers have very different horticultural needs. Some, like the spring ephemerals, grow early to avoid the shade of leafed out trees and shrubs. Some, like bleeding hearts and hosta, require shade. Others, like iris, a particular favorite of Kate, need an application of a pesticide to eliminate iris borers. Others, like tulips, wear out in the harsh weather cycles common to Minnesota. Trees planted around the beds grow, too, changing the sun and shade areas from year to year. Soil gets depleted as plants take nutrients from it to fuel their growth. Different flowers require different sorts of soil, too.

06 20 10_Garden_0052Once this world opened up to us, we began to enjoy working with all these variables to create beauty around our home. Gardening for flowers, eh? Well, how about some vegetables. This led to a two-year project of cutting down thorny black locust, chipping the branches, then hiring a stump grinder. After this was done, Jon built us several raised beds. We filled them with good soil and compost. Tomatoes, potatoes, beans, garlic, leeks, onions, carrots, beets flourished. Vegetables, eh? Why not fruit and nuts?

400_late summer 2010_0163Ecological Gardens came in with permaculture principles and added apple trees, plums, cherry trees, pears, currants, gooseberry bushes, blueberry bushes and hawthorns. On the vegetable garden site they added raspberries, a sun trap for tomatoes, and an herb spiral. At that point then we were maintaining multiple perennial flower beds, several vegetable beds, fruit trees and the bees that I had started keeping.

We did later add a firepit and picnic area, but those were the main horticultural efforts. This was a twenty year long immersion in plants and their needs, the way the seasons affected them and our human responsibility for their care.

WheelofYear1GIFWhen I stepped away from the Presbyterian ministry after marrying Kate, the Celtic pagan faith reflected in the Great Wheel began to inform my theological bent more and more. What was to come in the place of the Christian path? Perhaps it was a way of understanding our human journey, our pilgrimage as part of the planet on which we live rather than as separate from it or dominate over it.

Wicca, though, and the various neo-pagan movements seemed thin to me, not without merit as earth-based faiths, but often filled with gimcrackery and geegaws rather than guidance for the next phase of human existence here. I began to wonder about an ur-faith, a way of believing, of being religious, that could exist alongside, even below the other faith traditions, some path that could put us back in the natural world (from which we have never actually removed ourselves) and in so doing undergird the kind of compassion for our planet that might save humanity.

This is the concept behind reimagining faith. Is it possible to create a framework for an earth-based faith that respects science, yet offers ritual and private contemplative practices? What would a book look like that attempts to create a theology, conceptual scaffolding for such a faith? I got this far a while ago. But something has stopped me from moving forward. This post is about poking myself to move forward.

HesseI have finished 7 novels and am nearing completion of an 8th. So I can work on a long term project and see it through to completion. I’ve also been part of creating several organizations still in existence in Minnesota, among them MICAH, Jobs Now, and The Minnesota Council of NonProfits (originally the Philanthropy Project). These, too, are long term efforts that I helped see to completion.

Over time I’ve also worked with several other institutions in various roles that lasted for years: the Sierra Club, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Citizens for a Loring Park Community, the Stevens Square Community Organization, the West Bank PAC and the West Bank Community Development Corporation, not to mention the Presbyterian Church and the Unitarian-Universalists.

2010 01 19_3455I’ve had less persistence in my two non-fiction writing projects: an ecological history of Lake Superior and Reimagining Faith. Not sure why. Getting started on the research and idea end was not a problem, I have file folders, bookshelves, posts here on Ancientrails and various sketches for outlines. But I’ve never sustained the push to finish.

My now year long immersion in Reconstructionist Judaism, studying first mussar (ethics) and now kabbalah, has caused several sparks to go off for the Reimagining Faith work. I’m beginning to feel the urge to commit substantial writing time, thinking time to this project. What I’d like to do is produce a book that would lay out the skeleton and put some flesh on it. At that point I’d like Reimagining to become a collaborative project with whomever feels an attraction to it.

So let be it said, so let it be done. Yul Brynner, the Ten Commandments.

Kabbalah and Son

Beltane                                                                   Moon of the Summer Solstice

maxresdefaultA whirlwind. Left home at 6:15 pm last night for kabbalah at Beth Evergreen. First class in this esoteric Jewish mystical tradition. A lot of it unexpected. More as it comes into focus. It’s sort of blurry right now.

Decided to skip going to Boulder for a long Shavuot evening on holiness. Joseph unexpectedly had a trip to Colorado Springs and there was an opportunity to see him for breakfast this morning.  I drove down there from Evergreen, spent the night and saw him at the Black Bear Diner on Academy Avenue.

Turned around and drove back home, through the mountains this time, passing through Manitou Springs, Woodland Park, Decker and Pine Junction on my way to Hwy. 285, coming out about 7 miles southwest of Conifer. Got home around 11:30 am this morning.

At 2:30 Kate and I leave for Beth Evergreen today for its Shavuot celebration. I have to help set up.

More later, but kabbalah left my heart and my epistemology spinning. In a good way, but it was decentering. Seeing Joseph filled my heart, then left me sad when he had to go for a day learning about future Air Force tech. On my home my inner world kept insisting on its presence, pushing its way into the drive. Feelings tumbled all over the place. Guess you could say I was alive.

Oh. Really?

Beltane                                                                         Moon of the Summer Solstice

20-the-map-is-not-the-territoryI guess it’s time to admit it. I’m a deeply religious guy, whatever that means. It means at least that I find religion and religions fascinating, personally transformative. I have approached religion since high school with a mixture of deep skepticism and a willingness, no, a need to rethink, refeel, reexperience what I’m told.

J. Harry Cotton, professor of philosophy at Wabash College, introduced the radical skepticism to my journey. In my senior year of high school I had grown dissatisfied with the Methodist version of Christianity, so I asked the local Roman Catholic priest to give me instructions in the Catholic faith. He introduced me to the traditional Aquinian arguments for the existence of God. Since I had not, at that time, fully recognized the relentlessly logical bent to my mind, I found these arguments profound and felt like the Methodists had hidden them from me.

Triumph of Thomas Aquinas, Benozzo Gozzoli

Triumph of Thomas Aquinas, Benozzo Gozzoli

Then, that fall, J. Harry systematically dismantled each one of them. It’s not hard to do with the proper philosophical tools. Take God as the Aristotelian prime mover of the universe. God put the whole shebang in motion, otherwise how would things have gotten started? Well, like many similar arguments, this one suffers from the problem of infinite regression. So, if the universe required a prime mover, then who or what moved the prime mover?

When I left J. Harry’s class that afternoon, walking across the great lawn with brick academic buildings on every side, my world had been shaken at a foundational level. Out went the whole Christian project in my life, right then. Later, I would find Camus and his version of existentialism, which still informs me, but then, there was nothing.

downloadSince that day until now my ancientrail has always wound its circuitous path back to the big questions. I’ve explored Christianity, Islam, now Judaism, Taoism, existentialism, various spiritual disciplines like lectio divina, meditation, morning and evening prayers, contemplative prayer, even some modest peaks into Tibetan buddhism occasioned by my friendship with Gyatsho Tshering. Though I am now and have been for a while an idiosyncratic version of Taoist/pagan, I’m finding the Reconstructionist path in Judaism a surprisingly familiar one.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

Reconstructionist thought, begun by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, is radical. Very radical. He asserted that the Torah is not divinely inspired. He went on to say that God as a supernatural intervener makes no sense. He rewrote Jewish rituals and insisted on a reexamination of the whole tradition, reconstructing it where it made sense. I love a key line of his, “The past gets a voice, but not a veto.” Yes. Very Emersonian.

Maybe my reimagining faith project is not so far out as I have sometimes thought. Perhaps it’s the work I’ve been in training for most of my adult life. What if I knuckled down and got at it with a reconstructionist bent in mind? Might be interesting.

 

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