Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: Religion

TRAPPED IN THE SCHEDULING

Thinking, too, of Bill Taber’s observation that Quakerism is filled with “strong women and tender men.” Think that describes us?

Which reminds me of a story Sondra Cronk was telling at Tract Association; she was back stateside between semesters at Woodbrooke (the English Pendle Hill center). Friends Meetings there (so she said) are in a very decrepit and lowly state, although as thee may imagine, some of the most powerful worship occurs in the very small Meetings that appear physically most ghostly. In any case, at one of the Quarterly or Yearly Meeting sessions, someone raised the question of whether we were letting the scheduling get in the way of Divine Leading – that is, whether our sessions are too busy to allow the Lord to do His work. Without seeing the irony that followed, the clerk replied: “I don’t see how we can possibly discuss that before 1988!” To which he was challenged: “We can’t wait that long!” “Well, then, maybe we can work it in later in 1986.” No wonder I’m so frustrated with committees! What I’m realizing is that in responding to the call not to serve on committees, I’ve been liberated to perform much needed intervisitation, as the Lord leads me. If I were to do this as part of a committee – and I may still have notes from the gatherings Ohio Yearly Meeting extended when the Lake Erie Association of Friends was not yet a YM – there would be so much effort involved in simply getting everyone together, establishing schedules, packing lunches, carpooling, and writing and duplicating reports, that the visitation would never get off the ground. Well, a committee of two, perhaps: thee and me, or Charles and me. Or even three or four in close combinations such as thee, Charles, Paula, and me. Which seems to be how early Friends did it! How enlightening!

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Three sections from MOTET I

1

pick a language . a religion . a star, somewhere

of what I’ve distrusted
and yet seek

in the night of spring greening
where birds begin arguing (the males, as usual

but listen

good questions
guide better
than many answers

let me relate notations
of elk found on mountains
behind mountains – beside mountains, too
where streams run fast and clear
in everlasting rapture

before they appeared to me in their flesh
before I had children
before you appeared
but now

we’ll argue theology over lunch or dinner
or the menu

but first, grace

2

all this is not the same
as sitting by yourself

not the same as watching
anything

or listening to anything
or tasting anything

you can touch

since you asked, I’ll tell
you everything I know

if you tell me
where you’d like to start

3

to be completely honest
is so simple
you would think

until facing others
until facing yourself

all the temptations
all the screw-ups

all the aspirations
all the ruins to your back

all the idealized masks and labels
you wear
the childhood you’ve never left
all the flattery and self-delusions
all the false accusations you can’t quite shake

all the flaking paint on the siding of your house
all the cracking plaster within

as you age, all the lost years
you deny
all the shortcuts

so much of what your mirror
never reveals

no matter what you say
no matter what they say

the sins of omission
as well as commission

all the skills of a Philadelphia lawyer
all the skills of public office
all the skills of executive decision

any or all

the impossibility of saying exactly who you are
or why

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

WITHIN A SHIFTING FOCUS

Envisioning a grouping of my poems under the umbrella of Exposure, I initially drew on the photographic sense of admitting light to a sensitized film or plate, and then watching the image take form and density in stages on white paper in the developing bath in the darkroom – admittedly, now, obsolete practices, supplanted by the much less technically demanding use of digital cameras. (With all of its own advance technical dimensions.)

The title survived even though the contents kept shifting until settling on what now appears in the middle section of my collected Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag.

At first, this was to be a set of micropoems – brief, flickering revelations akin to snapshots – especially of the kind my Uncle John Orr calls “mockery photography.” Or, better yet, multiple exposures, with their overlapping actions. But those works scuttled elsewhere, where they’ve seemed to fit better.

In their place came Treated for Exposure, a grouping of pieces originating in wilderness encounters. In the backcountry, individuals who are caught unprepared in sharp downturns of the weather may require rescue and even hospitalization, where they are reported being “treated for exposure” – dehydration, hypothermia, frostbite, and the like. Again, those works drifted elsewhere, where they seemed to fit better.

What remained was a sequence of tenacious afterimages leading to a third route, though still not the final round.

Like most Americans today, my exposure to the outdoors, much less wilderness, has come in flashes – an hour or two, a day or even a week, typically chosen for fair conditions or else domestic tasks, such as weeding, mowing the grass, or shoveling snow. (As for “unfair” conditions, the lessons can be harsh and unforgettable, yet opening lessons of essential understanding – life is fragile, after all, and above all else, keep dry or get dry, quickly. I must wonder how many who have faced death in these situations return to the trail with a deepened sense of awe and respect, as well as caution.) Once again, in the end, the exposure is fleeting, caught in a flash of time and incomplete observation – something transformed or vanished in the flick of an eyelid. Even so, it is possible to approach these experiences as a pilgrim, acknowledging there is much to absorb here, as well as profound renewal and revival. A sense of humility helps, as well, for even skilled outdoorsmen find a wrong turn can become life-threatening. We come back to what is essential and timeless. In the rush of modern society, I require grounding and rooting, which these ageless places give back to me.

In a leap, this led to an exploration of something I thought I’d avoided – poems about poetry and poets. Generally, I’ve long had an aversion to art about art: movies about musicians or writers (or, worse yet, university English departments), and the closer they get to their own field, the more incestuous the practice commonly feels. Yet there are marvelous exceptions, leading me to question my original premise. Perhaps it arises in the newsroom dictum of getting as far out into the field as possible to get the best story: out on the street, where a council vote has impact, rather than in City Hall or the Mayor’s office, for instance, or out into the battlefront rather than safely ensconced in the Pentagon. (Admittedly, yes, after decades as a journalist, I have written that newsroom novel, my Hometown News.) Perhaps it is also a recognition and desire that writers speak to and with a larger audience or readership than other writers only. And it is definitely with an awareness that artists are not a special class of Genius, one needing apology or explanation or reverence as some type of Holy Order, at that. Ultimately, art is what we do, like prayer, regardless of the outcome or our reasons.

Like prayer, our practice embodies a host of assumptions and approaches: pages from a Book of Common Prayer, at one end, to the wordless Pentecostal outpouring of glossolalia, often called (erroneously) “praying in tongues,” at the other. It can give voice as communion, adoration, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, or intercession – and more, to say nothing of the range of our individual vocabulary, concepts, and situations. Such as sex.

In a leap, too, a dual awareness arises. The act of allowing the Other to expose its secrets to us – whether as a backcountry trail to a mountaintop, a lover, or the Divine – also demands that we also become vulnerable. We, too, are exposed, often unintentionally, in our strengths and weaknesses, our virtues and sins, our pride and shame. In this state of exposure, we are permitted to observe as long as we ourselves are being observed. The photographer enters the picture; the poet, no matter how carefully concealed, still enters the poem. The musician becomes the music. Truth demands honesty that can be painful and healing.

I think of my poems that arise from experiences while spending a week in a cabin in the Maine woods to twists in particular trails in Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, or Pennsylvania; the Florida Everglades; the Cascade Range of Washington state and northern California; or the Appalachian foothills of upstate New York or southern New Hampshire. Others, from family or lovers or friends and coworkers.

In the end, then, we, too, may be treated for exposure. Treated, but not tricked.

For the moment, let’s toy with the scarab – the beautiful jewel or the moving beetle. One, to my mind, will point to the other.

~*~

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

FROM HIPPIE TO HOLY

Reading Douglas Gwyn’s 2000 book, Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience, in light of America’s recent political campaigns has him looking downright prophetic. Even though he focuses most of his pages on the emerging Quaker movement in the turbulence of 17th century Britain, his opening chapter looks closely at the 1960s, when “crises of conscience rocked American institutions and authorities.” While the counterculture revolution spanned the political and economic scene, “Religious institutions and authorities were no exception. The postwar religious consensus, one of the strongest in American history, began to flounder.”

As regular readers of the Red Barn will recognize, he’s leading straight into some of my central concerns, especially as he attempts to make sense of the era’s impact over the subsequent years. I like his introduction of sociologist Steven Tipton, who “has argued that, in different ways, Americans continue trying to get ‘saved from the ’60s.’ For some, it is the search for final deliverance from the religious conformism of the early ’60s, which they found personally stifling and morally bankrupt. Meanwhile, others seek deliverance from the legacies of the ‘counterculture,’ from the moral chaos and personal confusion they found so disturbing in the late ’60s.”

Of course, it wasn’t just religion. “Tipton characterizes the countercultural revolt of the ’60s as a crisis of meaning and morality in the face of accelerating technological innovation and bureaucratic organization in American society.” Gwyn then goes on to examine a whole range of currents unleashed at the end of World War II and then transformed in the baby boom generation – way too much to encapsulate here.

Quite simply, these are matters that remain largely unresolved, especially for those of us who came of age during the upheaval and for our children and now, for many, our grandchildren. It remains a mixed bag of continuing portent.

As someone whose hippie openings led to living in a yoga ashram, or monastic community, which then pointed me on a journey to affiliating with the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I can see religion as both “saving” me from the ’60s and simultaneously enhancing its vision. And I am deeply concerned about the marginalization of religious discourse from general society – especially when it comes to the left.

Gwyn picks up on this track in his final chapter, especially as he looks at a touchy topic labeled truth. It was one I had been forced to face in examining the basic early Quaker metaphors of the Light and the Seed and, as it turned out, the Truth. My own efforts soon had me exploring ways to engage truth as a verb, but trying to find an appropriate visual image remained elusive, no matter how intriguing the options. Gwyn solves this quite eloquently:

By recognizing truth as a living, moving being, we may better remember that truth is a someone we must serve, not a static entity we can master. Hence, the four-part framework we have defined is not a “cage” designed to capture truth. Rather, it offers a guide to the dynamics of a faithful conversation of truth. By being accountable to one another in that conversation, we form communities accountable to truth.

That is, Gwyn turns to the life of Jesus. In doing so, he could have saved me a lot of effort! (We’ll likely get to his four-part framework in a future post.) He then turns to O.A. Piper, who

contrasts the truth witnessed in John’s gospel and letters with the static Platonic ideal. For Plato, truth always lies beyond words; its concrete expression will always be flawed. For John, truth is an active, creative, temporal reality; it moves from provisional to final expression. Therefore, Christ is not the essence of all truths. Rather, he reveals the goal for which the world is destined. The provisional expressions of truth given final expression in the incarnate Word include not only the revelation of Moses (e.g., John 6:3) but also the Greek philosophical traditions more implicitly evoked along the way. For John, truth has an eschatological character, since it unfolds in history, moving toward final expression. Through the life of Jesus, the Gospel of John portrays the struggle of truth against falsehood. 

This approach to truth, as Gwyn observes, is hardly confined to religion. It is an ongoing conversation. Without it

we live in one another’s unexamined “shadow” of projected fears and secret desires. Too often, we “seek” mainly to avoid those we fear and loath.

And then, Gwyn’s words leap far ahead to events far in the future of when he wrote them:

Not only does our seeking become self-referential and esoteric, but our continued indulgence in stereotypical versions of the “others” fuels alienated, paranoid politics of mutual aversion that will only breed more trouble in the future.

Oh, my, have they! Even in 2000, he saw the two sides

are strongly polarized today. Orthodox traditionalists continue in a reflexive mode we might call fundamentalist universalism, an insistence that the traditionalist truths they have reclaimed (or never abandoned) have absolute, non-negotiable validity for people everywhere. Those who do not respond to those truths are written off as “lost.” … Meanwhile, liberal progressivists continue in an inversely reflexive mode we will term universalist fundamentalism, a Platonic insistence that truth remains beyond the language and spiritual devotion of any group. … Groups … claiming to know and impart truth in any definitive sense are by definition wrong. … Moreover, as we continue to discredit and neutralize one another, the ruling interests of the age will further consolidate their power over all of us. [398]

Both assume that the truth is some static entity. …

Sound familiar?

Turning to “your truth” as distinct from “my truth” won’t get us anywhere, by the way. We require some common ground where we can exchange what we value and envision, along with ways to pursue them.

As the presidential race headed toward the finish line, we heard many accusations and fears about Muslims thrown into the fray – in effect, a challenge from the fundamentalist universalism side regarding its defense of truth as it understood it. The universalist fundamentalist side still hasn’t heard the underlying challenge, at least not in any way I’ve yet heard.

There were all too many lies tossed about in the campaign season. We need to get back to speaking in truth. And that, for me, means the practice of religion, one way or another.

PREPARING THE BODY FOR ETERNITY

Paradoxically, to meditate on death and dying, as I do in the poems of Shroud, the final section of my collected Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag, is to consider life itself in its manifold opportunities. The blessings of teachers and mentors, guides and ancestors, family and friends all spring forth.

Hearing that the Amish, who dress in plain dark colors in the humility of their lives, are clothed in a bright white shroud upon death startled me. A shroud? It’s something I’ve come to appreciate over time, especially as an alternative to a coffin or casket or any of the usual funeral industry practices. A shroud fits into the simplicity of green burial endorsed by my Quaker meeting’s burial ground policies.

A shroud, too, has a shape like the ancient Egyptian scarab, celebrated for its ability to venture into the underworld and return to the air. I’m fond of the leap that suggests.

~*~

Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag

Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag

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

LET’S CAST THE SPOTLIGHT AWAY FROM POOR JOB

Could it be that the Book of Job isn’t so much about the suffering of Job, a man of faith, as it is a critique of conventional religion and religiosity itself?

In my volume Eden Embraced, I approach Job’s plight as if the text were a Hebrew Upanishad, one paralleling a type of classic Hindu writings. Yes, the thread holding the plot together follows one innocent man’s spiritual journey through unspeakable suffering. Blameless as he is – and uncomforting as God’s role is here – Job would have every right to turn in other directions, though he chooses to remain faithful.

The story is endlessly troubling, especially for those who read it from a legalistic perspective. From the outset, God is arrogant, even vain and cruel, rather than compassionate or even all-knowing. And Satan, a member of the sacred council, could be a favored golfing buddy arranging another wager.

The setup can easily lead to contortions as a believer attempts to reconcile other, more conventional, definitions of the Holy One with the action at hand, especially when Job’s buddies begin to weigh in with their platitudes. In many interpretations, Job’s faithfulness is held up as an example to emulate, no matter what. Fat lot of encouragement, right?

As a writer, though, I can see the axiom of trying to address a situation by taking an opposing, uncommon position, which is where I see the story of Job originating. After all, we are faced with the question of just where does evil originate, along with human suffering. Why not blame the Creator?

Is there even a large measure of humor in this? Take the events over the top, asking just what more can happen to poor Job? And that’s where his so-called friends step in, adding misery to his plight and their condemnation rather than comfort.

Would it be nearly as compelling if they did the right thing? If Mother Teresa had showed up instead?

By the way, I delight in the happy ending, which many purists object to as a later revision that doesn’t fit with the general thrust of the plot. Feel free to weigh in as you will.

AIR, AND THEREFORE

imagine
some flying heaven

with sparks
and the fantasized constellations

wind . inspiration . beclouds and clears

memory . learning
philosophy. theology. mathematics
within logic a song or cunning ethics

the conception . over land, over waters
even fire

all the legged and winged creatures
the very words God said

goodness as well as
food for the mind

dreams
wishes
visions

nothingness
and everything that moves in some fashion

positioning sun, moon, stars
the multitudes of birds
yes, singing

the WAY

I breathe, therefore, and am

ANY

light entering a shadow

light chasing a shadow

headlight of a passing car
swirling around the room

*   *   *

come to me anyway

come to me any way

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

THIS MATTER OF FLASHES IN A POET

Chancing upon an old comment in my files, “Our practice also reflects other practices and practitioners we’ve been exposed to,” now has me uncertain which our I was referencing. I’ll assume it was the Society of Friends (Quakers), although other religious circles or fellow poets would be equally valid. Now I’m appreciating how these differing practices, from one field to the next, converge in my own development over the years.

The key word in the remark is expose, and I vaguely recall trying to determine whether I wanted a collection of my poems under the banner of Exposures to be a mirror what happens with a camera and, in those days, film, or perhaps arise in candid, perhaps embarrassing, intimate revelations, or inflict some peril of being caught unprepared in the wilderness. Any or all might fit.

Another kind of exposure, however, involves personal encounters with the Holy Presence, however one wants to define that. Epiphanies may be rare, even once in a lifetime, yet smaller, refreshing opportunities may happen almost daily. Just ask those who believe in miracles or angels.

Meditation – first within yoga and later, among Quakers – has been crucial in my growth as a poet; Japanese and Chinese poetry, even in translation, rings with sustained silence, as do many of the pieces in English I cherish. Sitting motionless lets the restless mind settle into calm, opening a space for intuitive flashes to appear and connect in unexpected relationships. Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred anthology opened an awareness of the directions that firsthand spiritual experience could take in describing the physical world throughout history.

Dreams do something similar, if you pay attention.

Being at Indiana University when Mary Ellen Solt was pressing her field of Concrete Poetry also had an influence in my thinking about the potential voice of typography itself, even though I never studied with her; the Russian filmmaker S.M. Eisenstein’s collision of thesis and antithesis to create an unanticipated synthesis has also played its role. I could even attempt to articulate my aesthetic, with its preference for lines long enough for each to have a snap or twist, as well as a collision between lines or stanzas to erupt as synthesis, a desire for discovery and exploration (moving along The Edge, wherever that is), a demand for solid reporting, and so on.

My drive for strong visual images may be rooted in the discipline imposed by a demanding high school art teacher, a sensibility applied throughout my journalism career as I designed newspaper pages and cropped photographs. I should add I’ve worked with some of the best photojournalists in the newspaper business.

It should be no surprise, then, that I’m especially fond of poems that evoke a play of light – even flickering lighting or stars – in the forest, on a pond, in the high country of mountains, in a child’s eyes. Light, as it turns out, is the foundation of photography, too. Lightness, and a light touch. More profoundly, in Quaker usage, the Light is a metaphor for Christ, as the opening of the gospel of John proclaims.

And, yes, like my exposure to the outdoors, much of my writing arises in flashes of time rather than interrupted long blocks of solitude: a few words, noted when I was driving on my daily commute or after drying off from a morning shower, or a sentence or two that emerged in my journal (itself, an irregular practice of sessions days or weeks apart).

These elements are central to the middle section of my poetry collection, Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag. The part that remains titled Exposures.

~*~

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

STILLING THE SEASONS, IF FOR A MOMENT

For all of their range across time, seasons of the Spirit, as well as seasons of the flesh, are grounded in the here and now. It’s the paradox that unites the two, and intensifies their wisdom. Eternity, in effect, as found in a flash.

Keep racing, and you’ll see nothing but a blur en route to some goal. You can be fully alive in the rush of adrenaline, your attention concentrated on what is essential in split-second increments. The pace is unsustainable for long, naturally, and an emotional crash will follow. The alternative is to stop yourself, to achieve calm before the storm or calm within the storm, before continuing. Stopping, to regain strength as well as collect scattered thoughts and actions. To restore focus and wholeness.

When I think of these seasons, I don’t know whether the yin-yang emblem of Buddhism, with its “S” rippling through a circle, and light on one side and darkness on the other (alternating day and night or sun and moon), or the Christian cross is more appropriate. The cross, after all, leaves us with four quadrants, like the seasons themselves, while the yin-yang expresses alternating rhythms encountered daily.

The daily rhythms converge on sunrise and sunset – in many traditions, times of meditation, prayer, or chanting. Moments to acknowledge the presence of Spirit with us, in our flesh.

Walt Whitman, describing his first Quaker meeting, tells of entering a room where people were “sitting still as death.” The phrase initially appears morbid and troubling. Even so, it reflects an early Quaker understanding of a necessity of “dying to the world” and its desires and distractions in order to become open to the Spirit. Deep silent meditation becomes a kind of winter, to be followed by spring. The flesh, too, is given symbolic rest and freed from unessential movement. The moment becomes timeless. The stream clears. Fears and worries fall away.

This, too, is a season I invite you to discover.

The hour will end, and we’ll return to our usual labors, before drawing back together in stillness.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

PUTTING HIPPIES IN A FRESH PERSPECTIVE

Regular readers here at the Red Barn know my endeavors to better elucidate the hippie outbreak and its legacy on both the American experience and global culture. As I’ve said, many of us who were caught up in the groundswell have long lived in a kind of psychological denial – something that’s had disastrous impact on public policy and, for some of us, our personal development as well.

The closest parallel I’ve seen in history comes in mid-1600s Britain through the heady years of its civil war and Interregnum before the Restoration. This was a time of radical awakening, apocalyptic faith, youthful yearning, vast social change, and crushed opportunity. Trying to make sense of it all in following its course is mindboggling, at best, as wave after wave of varied political, economic, and religious parties swelled, shattered, scattered, and resurfaced in new form. Even placing an individual within the action can be difficult, especially when the identities overlapped, as they often did, frequently without formal membership, and important voices commonly leave us little biographical substance to draw on today. Christopher Hill’s ambitious overview is aptly titled, The World Turned Upside Down.

This is also the time that the Quaker movement, or what coalesced as the Society of Friends, emerged from the ruins as one after another of the factions were crushed. As someone who became a Friend as a consequence of my hippie encounters, the English history has had a personal fascination, even before learning of my Quaker ancestry within it.

Now I’m delighted – and a tad embarrassed, actually – to discover another Friend who shares that dual investigation. It wasn’t that he was unknown to me; I’d read many of his other books, but had somehow overlooked Douglas Gwyn’s Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience (Pendle Hill Books, 2000). OK, the title gives no clue of the hippie angle, and the Seekers are commonly cast as yet one more radical group – a turning point once its members rallied around George Fox when he carried his mission into northern England in 1652. My focus had been more on the Mennonite-infused General Baptists and their previous influence on Fox, especially through Elizabeth Hooten. Oh, my, we can get technical. Besides, many hippie-influenced Quakers simply love that word “seeker” used in a religious context, and that had somehow made me wary. Still, in conversations last summer, Doug left me realizing I needed to find out what else he was up to in this angle.

Wow, am I glad! His opening chapter rips straight through the hippie explosion, with a special focus on the streams it’s stimulated in religious identity and the consequences. It’s not that he’s unsympathetic. We were both at Indiana University in the freewheeling time of protest, and he went on to Berkeley, California, as pastor of its Friends Church. What he presents is a profound, nuanced examination that needs to be pondered in its fullness, along with its applications today. But I’ll offer this excerpt as a starting point:

… much of the resentment, conflict, and occasional violence generated by our current culture wars emerges from our own unexamined internal shadows. If we would seek a fuller vision of the truth, we must also seek one another. Religious and moral reconstruction in America will necessarily involve some kind of atonement across present battle lines. Toward that reconciliation and restoration of covenantal wholeness, it is important to remember that the dialectic of seeking and finding, of standing still and wandering, is greater than any of us.

If anything, this has become all the truer in the years since this was published.