Summer Monsoon Moon
St. Croix River, September, 2016
Returning to the auld sod. September of two years ago was my last trip to Minnesota, that one for a day long Woolly Mammoth retreat in Stillwater. This time it’s Groveland UU’s 25th anniversary and their acceptance as a covenanting community of the UUA. Kate and I were part of Groveland from very near its inception, meeting in the round upper room of the Highland Park Library. I had just left the Presbytery and needed a religious community that did not make my mind go into reverse in order to remain.
The UUA proved to be a caravan serai for my longer journey, a spot where I could consider the contradictions of monotheism in friendly company. Groveland gave me a chance, over the years, to write out and present a travelogue of my own soul. This was a rare and welcome opportunity, one where I could say out loud what would have been heresy in my Presbyterian robes.
Mom, Dad, Me
For a while in those years I thought I would return to the full time ministry, perhaps even settle as a clergy in a small congregation. My analyst, John Desteian, later helped me identify this wish as a regression, a return to my back then profession to pick up something I’d left behind. In the retrospectoscope of many years now I think it was a need to say goodbye to that world, the world of the religious professional, to acknowledge that I no longer belonged in it, perhaps never did.
The notion of vocation is powerful. When triggered, as mine was in a complex mix of politics and renewed interest in spirituality, it becomes self-defining. Called, some say. I never felt called to the ministry; though I did come to feel that the peculiar mix of politics and institutional leadership of my short, fifteen year, career was my vocation. Ordained first to my work as manager of Community Involvement Programs apartment living training program for the developmentally disabled, moving from there to the political work of the West Bank Ministry and finally onto Presbytery staff where I had broader responsibilities for mission and congregational development, I was able to pursue a commitment I made to myself during high school.
Industrial ruins of the Johns-Manville plant, 2015
While working as a managerial intern for Johns-Manville corporation, the CEO of the factory where I worked offered me a full ride scholarship. In return I would work for the corporation as a manager for five years after college.
I needed the money because my SAT scores, though good, were not competitive for the best financial aid. I even found the work I’d done as an intern interesting. My summer project was to develop a diagnostic tool for the factory, defining and then developing a method to track what Jim Lewis, the CEO, called key operating indicators, koi’s. It was fun, digging around in the data to find a group of numbers that indicated the ongoing health of the work, then developing a method to track them on a regular basis.
When it came time to reply to Jim’s offer though, I had a very strong gut response. No. I would not, I said to myself then, ever work in a setting that compromised my values. At that point I was a strong labor advocate and attuned to the damaging, psyche cramping, even soul destroying power of corporate America.
Ye young radical, 1968
When I went to United Seminary in 1971, I gave myself a year. I wanted to get out of Appleton, Wisconsin, out of Fox River Paper company’s rag room. I needed to use my mind, not my back. When I got to United, I discovered a campus and, at the time, a profession, pushing back against the war in Vietnam, in solidarity with the civil rights movement, and intellectually rigorous. I liked my classmates and was able to continue the radical political life I’d begun, like so many, in the late sixties college movement against the war.
As I went deeper into the spiritual tradition of Christianity, I found contemplative prayer, long retreats, an inner world of great depth. Intellectual curiosity kept me coming back for more. And, that commitment I made was not challenged, not at that time.
It was only after adopting Joseph in 1981, five years after my ordination, that I began to find cracks in the metaphysics I’d accepted. If Joseph had been raised in his birth home, in Bengal, he would likely have been raised Hindu. And, as a Hindu, he would have been beyond the pale of salvation. No. The same sort of gut response I’d had to the Johns-Manville offer hit me. No. If I could love this boy now, I would love him as a child devoted to Shiva or Vishnu or Kali. And, if I could do that, and the god I served could not. Well.
Was that the real trigger? I’m no longer sure. It was a contributing and significant one, that I know. I believe now that it was the rationale I could explain to others. The true inner shift was a different one, a result of the contemplative and spiritual work that I first found in seminary.
I read the Creation of the Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner when it was first published in 1986. It opened my mind and heart to the power of metaphor, how metaphor could be used as an oppressive tool, one so subtle that what appeared as spiritual might actually be enslaving. In particular Lerner’s work convinced me that transcendence, with its up and out of the body, up and away from the natural order move, reinforced, even helped create patriarchy. The best, the most sublime, part of us was not in our embodied form, but in our ability to leave the body for a higher spiritual plane, to merge with God. This was a move that reinforced that the three story universe where true power, the most real, was above us, literally, in the realm of God, the father. Heaven.
Instead, I came to believe that true power, the most real, was right here, in our bodies, on this earth, in the amazing web of life in which we participated along with the rest of the animate world. Transcendence became, for me, a concept that smuggled in a world ruled by men and kept the world that way through constant repetition and its anointing as the way to true spirituality.
Again, NO. See a pattern here? When I made the turn from up and out of the body to down and in, my religious worldview shifted permanently. My spirituality became an embodied one, one that found the universe in my hands, my feet, my skin, the very fleshy things that are of this world. When gardening and beekeeping and orchard tending occupied a lot of both Kate and mine’s time, it was easy to see the link between the soil and this embodied, non-transcendent spirituality.
This was the core move, the one I could explain theologically, intellectually, even emotionally through the Joseph story; but, which was in fact a metaphysical shift away from spiritual realms other than the one into which we are thrown at birth. I’m still in that place. I’m still anti-transcendent, pro-body, pro-earth. I find God an unnecessary idea, but, oddly, I find religion itself compelling. Still.
Judaism, reconstructionist Judaism, is, unexpectedly, a comfortable home. It requires no dogma, requires no belief, and has an establishing principle of skepticism toward the past, yet an acceptance of the power of tradition. Beth Evergreen in particular is a place that allows, encourages deep exploration of self, of community, of our obligations to each other as fellow creatures, and to the gritty world that supports us. All I ever wanted, really.