Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

LOOKING FOR THE ORIGINS OF A MEDITATIVE PRACTICE

One of my ongoing questions about Quaker practice is just how early Friends came to discover – or rediscover – a form of meditative practice while so far removed from Asian spiritual traditions.

Early Quaker worship, let’s be certain, was often quite different from the silence-based hour many contemporary Friends claim. Women and children, especially, often released emotional torrents in the gathered assembly – and a decade or two later, in response and en route to something more respectable, many hours of worship were filled by a rec0gnized minister filling most of the time with his own message. (Or, possibly, her.) As Douglas Gwyn remarks in Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience: “These ministers then proceeded to speak almost the length of the meeting …” Even the controversial Elias Hicks, in the early 1800s, could be counted on to deliver vocal ministry lasting 20 to 30 minutes, a detail that would shock many today who insist, as many of the Hicksites would, that a vocal message be brief and pithy.

And so I was startled to hear Douglas Gwyn note another possibility for our traditional silence or open worship:

On another level, it is also intriguing to speculate whether the Quaker movement represented a resurgence of the old Celtic Christian tradition in the North. Celtic Christian emphases upon the indwelling of Christ, the inclusion of all creation in God’s redemptive work, the spiritual authority of women, and the cross as real personal triumph through suffering – all these themes found conspicuous expression in the Quaker movement. Although they were filtered through the thought-forms of Reformation, they still constituted a strong counterpoint to the dominant Puritan message. … in the backwater of the English Reformation, this very old, isolated stream of Western Christianity would have continued as an undercurrent in the faith of country folk. … As he [George Fox] moved westward into Westmorland, Cumberland, and northern Lancashire, where the movement exploded in 1652, he entered the largest area of vestigial Celtic tradition in England.

Hints of the dimensions of the earlier Celtic Christianity can be found in Thomas Cahill’s epic 1995 How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, where he follows a strand of Christianity that was suppressed after the historic confrontations with Roman authorities in the late 600s on the English holy island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. Quite simply, Roman Catholicism might have taken a much different direction than it has.

Did Celtic Christianity include meditative practices like those we find in yoga or Zen Buddhism? We can only speculate.

Still, as Gwyn remarks of the early Quaker movement nearly a millennium after the Lindisfarne controversies, it was while traveling through Cumberland that John

Burnyeat observes that they still did not know “true striving,” which is “out of self,” “standing still out of our own thoughts, willings, and runnings.” But other Quaker ministers came through the area and guided them “in what to wait, and how to stand still.” Evidently, there was some degree of technique to early Quaker spirituality, or at least some kind of guidance that helped refocus spiritual energies from ego-centered striving to true surrender. Slowly, “a hope began to appear in us, and we met together often, and waited to see the Salvation of God.”

That degree of technique may still be needed for many who come to Friends meetings, not knowing how to center into the silence, especially in today’s media-saturated overload.

Were these Quaker ministers thus reviving something that was already in the peoples’ bones? It makes for some interesting speculation.  The fact is that in today’s society, many of us need some help learning to sit still and enter a holy silence.

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down. Feel free to take a look.

PSALM OF PSALMS

1

the tension
of the harp
and bow-string

in the poet-king’s hand

taking flight
in the air

*   *   *

how many Psalms
expressed the same anguish
and trial

in the glorious regime

*   *   *

how brief the interludes
between exile

2

the Psalms are poems
or the Psalms are prayers

as if I could define either

*   *   *

prayer is not what I speak
but what my Deeper Self would utter
despite me

*   *   *

raise my shield, O Lord,
regardless of the outcome, and lift me

there’s nothing easy about love

3

New Zion

originally, Bible stories were chanted
rather than read and dissected in the rabbinical twist

hardened into bronze

even in daily devotion

in this quest of salvation
facing Jerusalem
tiring of the routine exile

where’s my power in this place?
my heart, ever so uneasy

*   *   *

patriots say Peace but mean Victory:
which is hardly the same outcome
or means

festering and darkening
drumbeats summoned
into crowds cheering
uniforms
or invoking the Holy One
the Prince of Peace
to their cause

*   *   *

even communion tokens
from Colonial-era steeplehouses
witness the contrast to our free-Gospel ministry

with their families, subscribing to box seats
squirming in this theater of pipes

so who exchanged coins
for their purity?

truly, how do you pay
with the psalter?

holy, holy, holy

in a constant delving for treasures
where others see nothing of value

from whom all blessings flow
over each stretch of turmoil

*   *   *

how many strands of history
and sojourn
converge on me
as I’m walking in prayer
and softly humming
a funeral hymn for comfort

some October night
shivery petals shall upend
a row of headstones, too

called to the cause of justice

4

counterpoint originates
in the descant over the cantus firmus

or maybe drumming
or the sound of feet dancing

or even droning under the chant

in the conflicted lines
of desire and pain

in the hideous bleeding wrists
and ankles

*   *   *

O Holy One
contrary to the ancient discipline
I country dance
and sing harmony

to once again crack the thick shell
I build around me

“in the gift of life is also the gift of time”

time, as a signature
for music
for the dance

O Holy One
bless the Singers’ Table
with its poets and musicians

free in the present
free in unity with the Holy Spirit
free in the disciplines we embrace

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set, click here.

TWAS EVER THUS

Just a taste of what’s popping up. In case you were looking for a prompt.

~*~

  1. The anticipation mounts when we espy our first asparagus shoots. At this point they express their kindred alignment with ferns, but we know how incredible the spears will be cut minutes before cooking. Forget what you buy in the stores or restaurants.
  2. “Twas ever thus,” as my Mr. Natural tee-shirt still proclaims.
  3. With a sticker covering part of the box, what I read was “Rock Pot, the Original Slow Cooker.” You know, like back in the Stone Age.
  4. It wasn’t in the plan when we decided to dine in Manchester, but I wound up leading a tour through the city’s West Side, plus the millyard and overlook of the Amoskeag falls and dam. “That was as satisfying as having a destination,” she proclaimed.
  5. Pondering the Holy Spirit as Shekinah. Why not a female as holy lover? The Kabbalist perceiving sparks (holy Light) everywhere! Consort of God as feminine action. As for Lillith? Ah, yes, what of her?
  6. Trying to translate from one era or culture to another presents a host of challenges. The term “kingdom of God,” for instance, can convey both patriarchy and monarchy at odds with contemporary American outlooks. I like the “commonwealth of God” instead, though there’s nothing common about it.
  7. How I’ve come to enjoy any stay-in-my-sweats day, one where I drive nowhere. Soon it may turn into slip into shorts and sandals, but the effect’s the same.
  8. How does that big city newspaper get the partygoers to look so good in its weekly charity events page?
  9. I hate “small talk” – or at least struggle with it in many social settings. Any suggestions?
  10. What do I crave? Lust for? (As for you?)

~*~

Virtually all of the rail traffic to and from Maine and the rest of the nation passes along these tracks in downtown Dover, along with the four Amrak runs to Boston and back each day.

Virtually all of the rail traffic to and from Maine and the rest of the nation passes along these tracks in downtown Dover, along with the four Amrak runs to Boston and back each day.

For my slideshow of Amtrak’s Downeaster in town, click here.

LINKING HEAVEN AND DIRT

Now, he wonders. Are there any squirrels in literature
as mythic powers? Not science? And then,
in Old Norse! There’s RATATOSKR. (Rat-tat Oscar!)

“carrying hateful words”

the messenger between the eagle and the top of the tree
and the dragon at the base
all this running up and down

Yggdrasil, the sacred tree

Just like Jack and the beanstalk
or Jacob’s angels on the ladder.

*   *   *

to see a squirrel as cute misses the point
as in teeth

there are advantages in developing
a taste for garbage

bounding, bounding, break

Poem copyright 2015 by Jnana Hodson
To read the full set of squirrelly poems,
click here.

 

POWERING MANUFACTURING

At the Slater Mill ...

At the Slater Mill …

The modest Blackstone River flows through Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where it powered the birth of America’s industrial revolution.

The stream reaches to Worcester, Massachusetts, the second-largest city in New England, and once ran many factories along its way.

My fondness for old mills, by the way, did prompt a novel, Big Inca.

Just upstream ...

Just upstream …

 

Viewed from inside the Slater Mill ...

Viewed from inside the Slater Mill …

 

RIDING OUT GRIME AND REJECTION

When one editor dismissed an earlier version of Subway Hitchhikers as “a coming of age” novel, I abandoned chronological development and turned instead to the eventual alternation of past and present tenses. When a New York agent’s brief notes placed Daffodil in Iowa, rather than Indiana, I had to wonder how closely he and his staff read a text, period. And a small press editor responded that this work was too outstanding and deserved better production and distribution than his operation could provide, while others urged self-publication.

At one point, I feared that the subject was becoming too dated – that the period, style, and places were fading from public interest. Since then, however, news developments convinced me otherwise. Who, for instance, would have envisioned a year when Yuppie hoboes would ride the rails for their summer vacation? Or that Subway Surfing would take hold! No matter how much I’ve tried to abstract the events that underpin the presentation in Subway Hitchhikers, there were time I felt overrun by developing news events. Reports, for instance, of finding a Tibetan lama reincarnated as a Spanish boy – a decade and a half after my first draft of the novel. Or a plan considered by Paris officials to build thirty-one miles of subterranean double-decked highway 100 to 165 feet underground.

Subway systems are receiving fresh interest. As public policy makers recognize their importance in the functioning of a major metropolis, the older systems are the focus of major upgrading. (New York’s MTA, for instance, was subsequently cited “as the most improved system on the continent and the man in charge received the manager of the year award. And despite the way the subway is pictured on TV, filmmakers are having a hard time finding the once-familiar graffiti sprayed on subway cars.”) Elsewhere, newer systems flourish, modeled on San Francisco’s BART and Washington, D.C.’s clean, quiet, efficient operations. As new systems, such as Los Angeles, open and expand, we can ask each city: “Where are your Subway Hitchhikers?”

~*~

For more from my more recent THIRD RAIL collection, click here.

THE MOODIEST FEATURE

Initially, I regard the mountain as another slumber-induced fantasy. Its climax appears pristine, boundless, haughty, mesmerizing, even eerie. Over time I behold its hideousness and terror as well. Such beauty may suddenly turn fatal. Timberlands netted with trails and campsites, plus unfettered wildlife, extend from its ivory helix. These opportunities are my primary rationale for migrating to this corner of the nation. But these woodlands border desert, and none of my maps alert me to the consequences. Not even Georgia O’Keeffe’s brilliant renderings of New Mexico, artwork I long admired, hint at its harsh thirst. Rather, the paintings emerge as another kind of dream to be savored, confined to a gallery or oversized pages. Besides, my definition of desert would have required camels, or at least organ barrel cactus, neither of them found in the cheat grass and sagebrush foothills surrounding my new home and workplace.

A glacier-glad mountain resembles a foaming waterfall. It is, after all, an endlessly frozen cataract. Below it, in late spring or early summer, breastworks are laced with plummeting streams racing toward September irrigation in desert to the east. On the clearest days, Rainier’s ice sparkles; its beacon flashes sixty miles to the orchard where we dwelled. At sunset the inactive volcano’s shadow is a finger reaching toward the rising full moon. It points as well to places we’ve abandoned.

The predominant mountain is also the moodiest feature of the vista. Everything’s arrayed in reference to this pillar. To observe it over time is akin to regarding one’s beloved. Neither the zenith nor one’s honey is as immovable as one presumes. They are not the divinity. They’re more accurately repeated dreams, where some episodes fade out over the years while others intensify. Sleep visions of the soul, having one foot in the dreamer’s past and the other in the present, dance on water. Sometimes they drown. Even a mountain.

You should see the way Kokopelli makes it dance before sunrise.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

READING THE BIBLE AS COMEDY 

There are so many seminal stories that always leave room for fresh discovery and interpretation, if we escape the constraints of conventional explanations. I examine three timelessly provocative Biblical tales in my volume Eden Embraced, where my focus is on the Garden of Eden, followed by short reflections on Noah and the Great Flood and the enigmatic suffering of Job. Put simply, many of the Bible stories taught to children are much grittier and more troubling than we’d like to admit, and the radical dimensions we usually gloss over can challenge our usual assumptions about anything of a religious or spiritual or even political or economic nature. Nothing status quo remains sacred, much less safe.

While scanning a bookshelf the other day, one title jumped out at me – JOB: A Comedy of Justice – and I did a double take. Of course the Biblical drama could be taken as a comedy, especially in a contemporary context where almost nothing is considered sacred. Imagine flipping the usual definitions by blaming God for the bad things that happen, rather than holding him up to an impossibly spotless standard. (I’ll keep the male pronoun for now – the woman gets blamed enough.) Not just God, either, but throw in his golfing partner, Satan, for good measure.

Look at the text, and you can see it’s almost already in scripted format. Or screenplay, if you wish. It’s mostly dialogue, how convenient!

So how would you cast God and Satan, how would you block their opening scene?

For many, since the mere thought of putting the Holy One in a visual image can be sacrilegious, would you consider adapting some amazing stagecraft instead? A play of lights or talking smoke vapors or puppets or masked Tibetan or Tlingit dancers? Even a Greek chorus at the back of the auditorium while dancers move on the stage? As I was thinking, this script demands theatrical treatment. Something 3-D or better.

The concept of comedy – rather than our usual all-too-serious emphases – strikes me as brilliant. Why not try it with the Garden of Eden or the Great Flood as well or any of a range of other Biblical tales. Admittedly, not all will work, but as for others? Well, our local temple did adapt Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific to the Book of Esther for their Purim observance one year. I hear it was a hoot.

By the way, when I reached for the book, I discovered it was a novel by Robert A. Heinlen, and any use of Job and his self-righteous friends seems to be absent or deeply buried. And, yes, I do recall that Archibald MacLeish’s 1958 play J.B. is reputed to have been inspired by Job, but the piece deflects the direct link by casting the leads as Zuss/Zeus and Nichols. Its plot, I would note, glibly veers away from the deeper soulful dimensions of the original.

In the meantime, take a look at my Job essay in Eden Embraced and weigh in with your perspectives. Do you think comedy would enhance its understanding?

REHASH

the return of the Princess Wen-Chi

 400 years later I understand it wasn’t
my fault we never connected
but the hardness she’d become

with the curtain already up
when the lights took hold

unicorn and gazelle in repose

too weird, too impractical, too brash, too arrogant

hypodermic syringe on a porcelain teacup

favorite hardware
goof balls, golf balls

perhaps annoy or anger, delight
and so on and on. It never ends, does it?

above the treetops
astrologers, even witches

but mostly the aroma of freshly cut grass

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set of
Partitas, click here.

WITH AND WITHOUT OUR MASKS

Behind the masks of public life – our occupations, religious affiliations, social status, economic positions, family connections, educational accomplishments, and so on – each of us engages in another struggle, an attempt to find inner balance and direction for our own life. As we do so, we soon face a plethora of interior and exterior forces that must be reconciled. We get glimmers into this struggle – both within ourselves and within others – in statements that begin “I am” and “I am not,” as well as “I have been,” which recognizes the history and habits we accumulate and carry with us. There are also the voices – “he remembers” or “she insists” – that also recur in our lives, defining and redefining ourselves both within, as conscience or the angel or devil on our shoulders, and without, as any of a host of authority figures and friends or family members.

~*~

Village of Gargoyles

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.