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Tag: Quaker

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.

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?

SEASONS OF THE ASHRAM

MY RESIDENCY IN a yoga ashram introduced its own sequence of seasons. I address these in my novel, Ashram, where different individuals embody different stages in the progression from soul-cleansing to community awareness and service to spiritual illumination. While I limit the plot to the activities of a single day, there’s no way to escape the histories that led each participate to this place or to the conflicts and achievements they’ve already shared in their adventures on the yoga farm.

The ashram allowed a kind of spiritual season I no longer see on American landscape – a place for youths, especially, to undergo intense reorientation and ego-stripping. More traditional monastic settings often point the practitioner in a different direction, something more resembling a career path.

In retrospect, the institution itself was evolving through its own series of seasons. Originating as a kind of laissez-faire hostel and spa before moving into a more rigorous retreat center and monastery and then into a Hindu temple and children’s camp, each season manifested itself quite differently from the others, held together by Swami’s autocratic vision, strengths, and weaknesses.

In season, too, many of my doubts and concerns also bore fruit. When I was ordered to return to the community and refused, only to be ostracized, I was being faithful to a larger Spirit. A different set of seasons was unfolding.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

WITHIN AN ONGOING DYNAMIC OF FAITH

Over the years, my own spiritual practice has undergone many changes. In the essays and notes of my Seasons of the Spirit collection, I touch on struggles that led me to reject the mainstream Protestant teachings of my childhood as well as my leap into the monastic life on a yoga farm before I chanced into the Society of Friends, or Quakers, where I’ve remained for more than four decades.

I arrived as an ABC Quaker – “anything but Christ” – but many sections in this collection arise in a subsequent, evolving evangelical encounter and language, especially as my community of faith moved into the more historically active strands of Quakers in Ohio Yearly Meeting and then into Mennonite and Brethren extensions.

That tone and scope of thought moderate as I grow older, living and working an hour north of Boston.

A crucial influence through much of this volume reflects seasons of relationship – intimate companionship, family, and friends, as well as the workplace. Cycles, too, like those of progressing from childhood and parenthood into retirement or release.

Even in a tradition like the one I’ve embraced, seemingly free from an annual liturgical calendar or its outward emblems, cyclical changes mirroring those of the seasons do appear. Since much of this time has been spent within the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I’ll give one example from Salem Quarterly Meeting in Ohio, where the session each Fifth Month (that is, May) meant rhubarb in the applesauce. See it as sacrificial and special, a kind of unwritten liturgical calendar waiting to be observed through repetition.

In speaking of this awareness and growth as Seasons of the Spirit, we may also consider their interplay with the Seasons of the Flesh – and ultimately, their unity, contrary to Descartes and conventional teaching. From my perspective, perhaps with a Buddhist twist, we can proclaim an alternative:

I breathe, therefore, I am.

Spirit, after all, is the very core of the word inspiration —and at its heart of meaning. I’ll also focus on Spirit as the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of Christ — in contrast to other spirits, such as jealousy, anger, envy, and so on. Translate this as you wish.

Seasons of the Spirit

Seasons of the Spirit

Whatever the pathway, there are times of struggle, doubt, and distrust. Times of whirlwind passion and excitement. Times of discovery. Times of drought or deep winter, relying on what’s brought out of storage. Times of renewal and recharge.

This has manifested as periods where I’ve been able to dedicate significant time to meditation, solitude, travel in ministry, prayer, Bible study, research into history and theology, organizational service, teaching, correspondence, or writing, as well as to regular disciplines such as fasting or physical spiritual exercise (the hatha yoga sessions or even wilderness hiking). Emphatically, however, one would predominate while others would likely be absent or greatly diminished. In addition, they would be strongly impacted by the events of my daily life itself – whether I was single, married, divorced, or “in relationship,” my hours and nature of employment, my friendships and faith community, my driving patterns through the week.

The result of all of this would be a crazy-quilt tapestry or a ricochet trajectory if it weren’t for a spiraling within it. That is, over the years, various periods and interests begin to overlap one another, creating a kind of harmony or accumulated depth. My asparagus bed in New Hampshire has roots in my experience of asparagus along irrigation canal banks in Far West desert three decades earlier. A dog sitting through Quaker meeting here is a reminder of dogs sitting through predawn meditation sessions in the Pocono Mountains, or of the cats aligned on the scaffolding outside the windows, as if they, too, were deep in concentrated worship. I read a particular Psalm and see the passage taking twists I hadn’t perceived earlier.

In my own life, my childhood was filled with natural science, hiking, and camping, each with its mystical visions and moments. Adolescence led into politics, classical music, opera, and writing complicated by unrequited sexual yearning. Without romantic companionship, a Lone Ranger journey. Rejection of existing creed while ensconced in youth church office was followed by flight into atheism and hippie excess landing, inexplicably, in a yoga ashram with its hatha exercises and sustained meditation. From there, into liberal Quaker practice, where the ashram lessons were applied in circles of deepening prayer life. By steps, I moved toward Christocentric and Plain speech, and an especially faith fervent language. Among the traditional Wilburite Friends as well as Mennonites, especially, I came to wrestle within Scripture while simultaneously undergoing repeated Dark Night journeys and questioning. Turning to emotional therapy, I wondered if anyone could come along with me through all of this – my career moves, spiritual shifts, and geographic relocations. By now, too, I was no longer meditating to get high, or transcend, but rather to center down to what the early Quakers emphasized as the Seed. Here, too, with all of the Quaker committee work, I was engaged in a religion that combines mystical experience with social witness and activism. In a nutshell, then.

Each swirl also stirs up something from before. What failed in earlier marriage or relationships reappears. What has been left unfinished is not left entirely behind. What has been shredded remains to be woven. I’ve heard this opera in its entirety a hundred times. Have I ever heard this note before?

I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast and back before heading on to the Pacific Northwest in what seemed an epiphany but instead shattered amid volcanic eruption and devastation. I left the wilderness for another kind of wilderness, back across the Rust Belt of the Midwest and then on to the East Coast. The pendulum, as they say. Here, I now see life as both linear and circular – that is, spiraling. The spirit requires flesh, or is it that the flesh requires spirit? Seasons include times that are full or overflowing, and times that are barren or dry. I now welcome the questioning that is not hostile is both essential and healthy.

My first spring in the orchard, I expected all of the trees to blossom simultaneously. They don’t. The apricots and cherry petals give way to plums, pears, and peaches. The apple blooms arrive last, when others are already gone.

Experiencing a new place through a full year or repeated years provides a much different understanding than a tourist gets – even one who spends several months there. Relocating requires a year-and-a-half to gain familiarity with the new surroundings – to get beyond the obvious, to establish friendships, to be oriented with the elements one finds essential or special. A favorite restaurant, a woodland pathway or place to swim, a boutique or gallery.

There are seasons for a person of faith, from winter to spring elation and then into fullness, dryness, struggle, or disillusionment. To harvest, perchance. Marriage? Family? Children? Extended into joy, compassion, humility, appreciation – one begins observing and naming.

The turning point in my own journey came when I accepted a new name – Jnana – while living in the ashram. The rest of the developments followed.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

LOOKING IN THE MIRROR OF BIAS

Those of us on the liberal side of the social and political spectrum like to think of ourselves as open-minded, which means the times we exhibit flashes of bigotry can be especially painful.

First off, we’re blind to it. Not us, right? But we do.

And sometimes we do it to each other.

An example comes in the gold cross a young woman decided to wear. She’s nothing along the lines of a Fundamentalist or even a committed believer, but she liked her grandmother’s jewelry and this particular piece. Difficult, though, was her experience of the reactions from her fellow college students and faculty, starting with their physical motion a step backward. Literally.

There were words that would not dare be said to Jews or Muslims or ethnic groups of any stripe – and assumptions that simply did not fit. In fact, there’s a presumption of right-wing positions accompanying an ignorance of the social-justice dimensions of other Christian communities and their actions. And there’s nothing of the nuanced theology that moves beyond the cartoonish criticisms we often hear.

For the record, Quaker tradition long frowned on any jewelry whatsoever as superfluous and vain. But I’m not wearing the distinctive Plain clothing of Quaker history, either. Now how would they react to that?

LACKING

outwardly, my ways were simple
even austere or ascetic

my modest apparel
considered drab or seedy

still I was becoming

wary of self-negation
that denies the sweet
Bread of Life

*   *   *

when John from Tri-State Megabucks phoned the office
to report the latest week’s winning number, he asked
in an attempt to be friendly, if I had my ticket in hand

so I replied, “no, it’s against my religion” and then
sensed a stupefaction on his end of the line
there might be another position on this business

O Holy One
keep me tender in reaching across differences
where a holier-than-thou attitude accomplishes
nothing more than standing in faith

*   *   *

if there weren’t so much insufficiency all around

the homeless, unemployed, imprisoned,
impoverished, illiterate

quickly overwhelm
apart from family and spiritual community

within my neighborhood
how little I alone can do
against needs deeper
than those seen

where any sense of great inadequacy provokes
a hardening wall

while judging myself harshly
reminded
to my own consternation
of how I’m lacking

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

 

STREAMS OF SEEKING IN FAITH

In the historical overview that forms the core of Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience, Douglas Gwyn casts his net wider than the circles in northern England of the mid-1600s who formed what we’ve come to know as the Seekers. What he traces is a broad undercurrent of radical faith from the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, an alternative Christianity in which an Indwelling Christ or Inward Light is to some degree acknowledged and which, in turn, leads to rejection of many or all outward sacraments or ritual in worship. It turns out to be far more widespread before the Quaker movement emerged and gave it distinctive voice than I’d previously seen.

Frankly, as he focuses on seminal figures who advanced this thinking, I’m amazed that his brain didn’t simply explode. Remember, he’s following not just one person but many, all with flashes of nuance and insight that begin to overlap and also to diverge. Nothing is static.

Of course, we face similar problems looking at the counterculture movements of our own time. Just who, for starters, would we look to as voices of hippie thought and lifestyle?

When Gwyn remarks that “many of the Seekers-turning-Quakers … started out as hyper-Puritans whose idealistic moral absolutism made them unbearable to themselves and to those around them,” I feel an echo in my own hippie passage. Many of us seemed to be doing something similar. My, could we be intense! (That, along with the emphasis on “mellow.” Go figure.)

It also has me wondering about the spiritual starting point for many of the teens and young adults in our wider society today. Just where would deep conversation and inner growth begin? What are the driving forces in their lives?

Historically, the focus on events in England also leaves me sensing a gap in awareness of the radical advances in New England from the 1630s, exemplified in Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and Samuel Gorton, as they prefigured those in England in the 1640s. I’m not faulting Gwyn here, since his thesis is on the forerunners and emergence of the Quaker movement, but it is a topic ripe for exploration. Let me suggest John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (Penguin, 2012) as a starting point. The New Englanders, quite simply, seem to be ahead of their Old World compatriots. Maybe the British court records present a fuller picture, but until the end of censorship in 1642, we seem to have little else to go on.

It’s all a potent mix. When the first Quakers came to New England, they found fertile ground.

What Quakers added, according to Gwyn, was a means of putting that seeking into action within daily lives. It was a matter he views as apocalypse. Somehow, our hippie adventures never got that far, which leads to a whole new set of considerations.

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down. You’re welcome to take a look.

JUST LIKE MEETING BUDDHA ON THE ROAD

When it comes to the image generated by my newest book’s title, Religion Turned Upside Down, I’d like to think that a lot of the arguments against that religion are also tossed over.

Considering many of my earlier postings on spiritual practice, you might be surprised how many of those objections I agree with. I do, however, think there are more viable alternatives for deep religious grounding, ones more attuned to intellectual advances of our times, ones that leap ahead to the future.

Gives everyone a chance to start afresh, considering what might matter most in life, doesn’t it?

Or, as others have noted, every atheist has a god he doesn’t believe in. And then there are matters of action.

Sometimes it helps to get all that out of the way to get clear, as in Light.

~*~

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

AMONG THE SCATTERED SEASONS

WATCHING THE FLITTING flashes of my mind, I jot down notes. Many of them later prompt poems or a scene in fiction or a line of thought that later bears fruit.

Some fall by the wayside. Others find development decades later. Consider:

  • Seasons of flight.
  • Seasons of nesting.
  • Seasons of doubt.
  • Seasons of turbulence.
  • Anger, jealousy, hurt, fear.
  • Encountering the demons: the Dark Night journey, melancholy, depression, loss, etc.
  • Seasons of awareness: times when we’re more open to revelation that others. Our usual defenses are stripped away, and we leap into change or retreat into solitude. In the immediate aftermath of divorce, for instance, or a close death.
  • Times of dreaming deeper or in new ways.
  • Seasons of praise and assurance.
  • Seasons out of the spirit: war / greed / oppression and oppressing.

Add to these and amplify them as you wish.

~*~

Few are prepared or willing for total immersion in the Spirit. Especially when we’re feeling our lives are already full.

There is reason to fear falling into the hands of a Living God.

This is acknowledged, “Thank God for the good old Church of England. It’s our last line of defense between God and ourselves.” Substitute your own institution or practice, as needed.

Giving, with nothing in return. (So it so often seems … route for burnout.)

~*~

Moses and Aaron, confronting graven images:

  • Aha! They’re fleeing sleek Egypt, so visual – they instead use words, an entirely different focus for worship from the image-driven supplication in Egypt.
  • They leave civilization for wilderness, where certain words are carefully repeated.
  • On the lips, from the heart: What we know could become singing.

~*~

Or else simply rootless:

  • How do we reach out while being so fragmented?
  • A lack of continuity instills clinging.
  • How will our paths cross more frequently?
  • People come and go, and we make no effort to find out why.
  • Diversity is no strength unless drawn into the circle.
  • A phantom church, with no telephone listing.

Here we go, warbling.

~*~

Make sense, as you can:

  • A handcuffed person.
  • Movie night in the meetinghouse: double features, free popcorn: invite the homeschool crowd.
  • Opera orgies … Met broadcasts.

Yes, we want the cost-free pleasures.

The Hebrew lack of first-person personal pronouns – it’s not my house, but the house God has blessed me with or gifted unto me for safe-care.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.