Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: Spirituality

FROM QUAINT TO THE FRAY

When the Quaker movement emerged amid the turmoil of the English Civil Wars, its followers relied on three powerful, interlocking concepts – the Light, the Truth, and the Seed. While the blasphemy laws of the time precluded an open examination of the full implications of their experience, the early Quakers left enough evidence to allow contemporary spiritual seekers to recover the revolutionary scope of their vision, in thought and daily life. There’s nothing quaint in this view of Quaker life and action. What unfolds is likely to startle not only their spiritual heirs but also Christians and non-Christians of many different belief systems alike. Along the way come confrontations and stimulation to deepen individual and community faith and practice.

To draw from Zen teaching – Right Thought (or teaching) leads to Right Practice (or action) leads to Right Wisdom – I see the insights of my book Religion Turned Upside Down as vital to addressing the vast challenges facing humanity. Period.

~*~

Religion Turned Upside Down

Religion Turned Upside Down

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

PSALM VI

1

what blows
to kindle sunset and sunrise
sprouts wings on the field

is faith planting
for a harvest at the end

all these tough nuts to open
amid rest

*   *   *

each day
always more
bands of light

turn within
fields and currents

tempted by more as well as less, but first
those cries being born

*   *   *

crossing water
invites rest

answering the call to dinner

2

 when we are vanilla
           chocolate the strawberry
rhubarb and asparagus
a cake topped in cherries
sweet corn and trout
with apricots and peaches
the scallions, leeks, garlic
carrots, potatoes, yams
spiced pumpkin
whipped cream, fresh butter
applesauce with pancakes
a bowl of black walnuts
yogurt and sharp cheddar
            or baby Swiss
when we are sap returning to maple
when we are …

when we are snow peas or sugar snaps
            a pear or …
fordhooks or limas

3

I’ve had a taste of these things
Hindu Yogi
Zen Buddhist
Sufi
Amerindian
Mennonite, Dunker, Amish
Old-Style Quaker

all of them, with holy visions

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

SEASONS OF SPIRITUAL COMPANIONSHIP

OF COURSE WE’RE PUZZLED to observe how many conversations begin with comments about the weather. Everybody can see it’s snowing or raining or feel the heat and humidity. What’s actually happening, of course, is the establishing of a commonality – putting ourselves in a shared space. You make a joke in reply, or a factual statement, and edge into conversation, however superficial or deep, gossipy or plaintive.

No matter how introverted or reclusive an individual is, being human requires social interaction. From birth, we require more nurture and protection than other animals do before we are able to move about on our own, much less survive. We learn from each other, and we are highly vulnerable, despite all our acquired knowledge. We are creatures of culture, not inherited instinct. We make bargains and trade. We court and seduce with words as much as our dance steps or glances.

While experiential religion demands individual practice and awareness, few of us undergo its labors and trials all alone. We find mentors and companions along the way, people who have also encountered and value these matters. Even a secluded monk has an abbot or guru; a nun, her mother superior. Confession is part of the practice. What we find of value we feel compelled to pass along.

Our affinity with these spiritual companions has its own intimacy. These friends hold a mirror to ourselves, to point to our shortcomings and prod us to reach for ever greater fidelity to our purpose. They provide harmony and, when we fail, counter self-loathing and blame with compassion and comfort. Ideally, this exists between husband and wife. Sometimes it is found between prayer partners – two people who agree to hold each other in prayer through the week. Much of the life in the monastic confines of the ashram endeavored on this plain, though the bonds broke down quickly outside of it. Whether one-on-one or within the circle of a community of faith, this companionship has the added dimension of spiritual presence and encounter. Sometimes it spans denominations, when the “invisible church” opens in conversation with another or in venturing into a small group along the way, as I have with Mennonites and Brethren. Sometimes it appears in the context of romantic relationship, in the quest for mutual aspirations.

As much as I’d like to say spiritual companionship is forever, the reality often proves otherwise. I’ve seen those who have maintained this through a lifetime, including couples who’ve become connected through the marriages of their children. More often, I’ve found intense periods where paths cross for a year or two and then part.

Typically, the interactions are words spoken together. Sometimes, as in the excerpts that follow, they arise in lengthy correspondence. Who knows what trail will be left from the emails of the Internet.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

MAYBE IT STILL COMES DOWN TO MEANS VERSUS ENDS

In the aftermath of the recent national elections, trying to make sense of the American scene today is, well, downright scary. The fact we have one party so willing to risk constitutional crisis rather than work cooperatively on solutions to common problems strikes at the very heart of democracy. And that’s before we get to the divisions revealed geographically, demographically, and economically.

Several of the phrases floating around the campaigns continue to ring in my ears. Describing one party, we have an “echo chamber” of “misfits,” which begins to look far larger than would be healthy for any society. And for the other party, the race came down to a “technocrat” versus “activist,” in itself suggesting a division between an appeal to the brain versus the heart.

Much of this situation, I’ll contend, springs from a lingering state of denial involving the encounters of those of us who came of age during the 1960s and ’70s. Coming across a summary of William Clark Roof’s 1993 A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, I had to sit up and take notice when he noted that a low level of community involvement accompanied our search for personal meaning. It’s something that’s certainly happened across American society over recent decades, although I’d say increasing demands on our careers and suburban family lifestyles have taken their toll, too.

As Douglas Gwyn comments in Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience:

Roof’s study confirms many impressions of baby boomers in the ’60s, but adds a new perspective. Many tried drugs, were sexually active, and went to rock concerts and political protests. But many did not. Half of those surveyed say they did not try drugs; a third never attended a rock concert; and 80% were not politically active in that period. On the whole, Roof finds boomers to be nearly evenly divided between traditionalist and countercultural affinities.

A conventional view might look at this split along the lines of the Vietnam war issue, with the traditionalists joining the military and the hippie side in full opposition. But Roof’s criteria turn the angle: more than a few servicemen experimented with pot and other drugs in ‘Nam, along with free love, and moved easily into hippie circles on their return. Meanwhile, I sense more than a few hippies never did drugs, out-of-wedlock sex, or political protests. For them, maybe it was all about the music?

As Gwyn continues his reflections on Roof’s study, he prophetically notes:

But in subsequent decades, with a tightening of the American economy, the assumption of abundance often turned from utopian to belligerent, as Americans vented their frustration over lowered or failed expectations. Given their expanded subjective and expressive registers, boomers are already more likely to consider themselves wounded by defects in their religious upbringing. When religious institutions or leaders fail their expectations today, boomers are all the more likely to feel cheated, wounded, or even victimized.

It’s not just religion, let’s be honest. This cuts across the entire society.

Gwyn makes one other argument that lingers, one that involves the kind of association each seeker is drawn to. One is process driven, and the ways we can become captive to the mechanics of a particular system. (He names capitalist democracy as an example.) Here, the procedures outweigh results. I love his observation, “If civility is too strongly identified with democratic processes, then true seeking and conversation to one’s neighbor will tend to be subverted. Caucus politics or the contest of interests may usurp the conversation.”

The alternative, goal driven identity, can override the process altogether, in which the ends justify any means of getting there.

The vital tension Gwyn encourages “requires a disciplined and sustained dialogue between seriously considered and passionately held positions,” a “drama of faith, which is played out upon a level civic stage of public concern.”

Quite simply, where is that dialogue today? And where is the open exchange in questioning and refining the factual essence of the positions? An “echo chamber,” on either side, simply cannot do the job.

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.

THE INWARD HUNGER AND A SOURCE

For whatever reasons, I acknowledge a peculiar inward hunger, one that cannot be satisfied by societal conformity or physical comfort. To ease this hunger means appeasing its source: that the very exercise of repeated preparation, of a consecration to an appropriate discipline, and of a self-denial in deferred gratification that leads also to abrupt spans of maximal awareness and rightly balanced action. This state provides the only ambrosia that quenches such hunger. Anything else, by contrast, feels muddled or sickly. Activities and thoughts that interfere with its practice become annoyances or pitfalls. Although many varied systems exist to teach this truth, its realization requires the participation of a person’s body, emotions, and soul, as well as one’s mind; ultimately, this knowledge is not of the intellect alone. Sometimes it is found through athletics or a fine art; sometimes in the pursuit of science or religion; sometimes within craft labor or the steps of an ancient tradition. Even so, many who receive the teaching remain unaware of its underlying hunger, of the spider’s web linking this particular activity or setting with humanity’s timeless potential of wisdom in the universe.

I could speak of the importance of finding a teacher who is qualified to guide the aspirant into this practice. I could have addressed this teacher as Swami, Roshi, or Murshid, a reflection of the roots of the particular practices I was traversing. Critics may argue whether the teaching retains its purity only within its own lineage and language, on one hand, or gains its authenticity in terms of vitality and application, on the other. Some Teachers replied that in bringing this teaching to America, certain adaptations have been essential. I’ve referred to this discipline simply — or perhaps elusively — as the Dedicated Laborious Quest.

In relocating to the Pacific Northwest, I was also unintentionally fleeing my own Teacher, who, in fact, had instigated the break, sensing that the time had come for me to apply the lessons fully, no longer the student but now the journeyman.

The Far West, like many of these teachings, remains simultaneously fossilized and virgin. I needed to discern the strands. For instance, I encountered petroglyphs in ethnology books before finding them on a riverside cliff here. Returning to my journals, I find a notation: “According to Newcombe, 1907: ‘It seems impossible to decipher these inscriptions satisfactorily as it is not likely anyone except the makers and those living at the time the work was done could tell what was meant by them.’ Oh really? Has he seen a fancy menu?”

From book to the field back to the book again.

As I contemplate the prevalence of “you” in contemporary American writing, I jot: “It seems to be ‘other-than-myself’ reaching out to the almighty ‘I-thou,’ to another intimate self-aware being.”

I look up and wonder: could these paintings and carvings be attempting the same?

“Oh, waiter! Garcon! Where are we?”

In desert, the wind’s invisible presence is like the divine spirit itself. Gusts give sound to unseen natural power. Whatever Voice ripples Tibetan prayer flags — the ones a friend gave me — now make this energy visible, too. “Those banners,” I record, “remind us how cut off from wind and often from Spirit, as well, we are.” The friend jokingly refers to me as a “cunning office rat with a job that includes the self-serving hazards of political survival.” Pay attention! Open a window! The flags remind me of the divine, the wind, and my friend all at once. As for the prayers themselves, I refer to the translation, voicing a the desire for universal peace.

I might speak of a personal need to renew divine energies. My Teacher would remind me the divine has been present all along — my awareness, however, is another matter.

Sometimes my Teacher would speak of dancing with an unnamed lover. “My Dance Partner” may be the best name for the unseen divinity when dancing. For one’s beloved human companion, as well — when the union of melody, rhythm, motion, and affection overpowers all else. So what is this dance, this lifetime of recovering the angels’ music? In the end, the only way of learning to dance is by dancing. Preferably, with a skilled partner. At first, staying at the edge of the room. There will be mistakes, naturally.

My Teacher taught that even when dancing solo, you’re not alone. There’s also taught the joy of dancing arm-in-arm in a circling chain. The dance, then, moves along the horizon between spirit and flesh. Having danced solo, I would now also dance with others, teaching them steps I’ve mastered (or at least seen mastered; some of the best teachers, you’ll find, are those who have come to the brink and gained insight through failure, seeing a promise they cannot enter). Expressing common inward experience builds a kind of family, one that speaks to friends, associates, and a kind of tribe with words of both gratitude and recognition. I long yearned for a magic circle of an especially aware community, itself existing within a tenderly defined locale and time, which I’d found, however fleetingly, in the cloister. Now it’s my turn, as if only I could bring it together somehow. The desert, with familiar landmarks stripped away, is where I come to find direction.

It’s appropriate to refer to those who’ve accepted a Dedicated Laborious Quest as monks, even if they have — like me — married. As my Teacher counseled, approached wisely, marriage and parenting rise to full disciplines in this order.

When monks (whatever their particular exercises or traditions) discuss the living practitioners they most admire, they pass a point where they typically cease mentioning celebrities. Beyond that, they say nothing of classic masters or even living talents already in the curriculum and news reports. Rather, these monks are likely to be most impressed by unknowns who turn unfamiliar ground or who send back fascinating postcards from frontiers much like their own. Yes, I appreciate most those who work in similar ways or places to my own. That, too, is natural. Yet those who are most like yourself are also the ones you’ll criticize most intensely. It’s the flip side of the same coin. In some ways, every monk seeks a Dedicated Laborious Quest free of words, even while constructing your own set of personal Assays and Histories or the accompanying maps.

I fondle a strand of Rudrakshi beads, “Shiva’s eyes,” presented by another friend Back East. Think of the Bhagavad Gita, where the name of a central character, Arjuna, literally represents “white” or “bright”; why does that strike me afresh as I gaze up at parched grass the irrigation canals don’t reach? Those inclines are too steep for orchard ladders or tractors to work safely. Below the water trench, fruit ranches quiver with fat fruit ripening. Caucasian orchard owners are surrounded by darker-skinned Hispanics, Indians, and Asians. The character Krishna, it seems, depicts “black.” So who’s the Guide through all these centuries? The sun simultaneously devours and sustains all. Much that’s been hidden comes to light.

I once expected old people to hold out a future for humanity rather than debunk everything as rotten. A lifetime of wounds, however, can fester.

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

RENEWED FAITH IN THE FUTURE

Unlike my usual Quaker Practice postings here on the Red Barn, my newest book probes into the underlying theology that made the Society of Friends an alternative Christianity – one without priests or clergy, creeds and dogma, ritual or liturgy but shaped lives based in faithful simplicity, equality, peace, and pursuit of justice.

In Religion Turned Upside Down, metaphor, not law, is the foundation of spiritual expression and religious practice. As metaphors, when the central images of the Light, Seed, and Truth – in both the New Testament and early Quaker writings – are embraced as verbs rather than static nouns, a radical realignment occurs.

While conventional religion finds itself more and more relegated to the sidelines of Western society, what appears within the reconstructed Quaker paradigm – one that could not be voiced fully under the prohibitions of the blasphemy acts – now aligns with new insights from the frontier of intellectual discovery. Crucially, it provides support for alternatives to the great threats to human existence as well – environmental, nuclear, military, economic, political, social, racial.

It’s a basis for hope and action rather than despair.

~*~

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

WELCOME THE MARGINALIA, TOO

In her inimitable, understated, and right-on-target way, she jotted in the corner of the Meeting minutes: “I hope thee feels the Spirit of our Lord with thee in thy life, Jnana – a full covering for all thee does. Seek his care. In Christ’s love, Susan.”

Naturally, she hit me in a period in which I wasn’t feeling His presence in everything – and had come to that realization myself. What her quick notation did was kick me into getting back on my knees regularly and into Scripture, too. Now that’s divine oversight! As a result, Meeting First-day was wonderful, and turned into the entire day – wound up spending much of it with another Friend who would turn forty the week before I did, a guy who had expressed to me back in Eleventh month the difficulty he had with my messages in Meeting (an ex-Catholic, he was growing in the Spirit – and in our day, he was able to come to unity with me on crucial points). We visited a couple in Maine, and then hit My Life as a Dog, his first and my third viewing – the movie gets better every time.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

MOUNTAINS AS A RELATIVE MEASURE

As I listen, I realize the locals don’t consider the surrounding ridges to be mountains. Although these “foothills” or just plain “hills” are as tall as Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies, shorn of trees, to speak of “mountains” signifies that one must drive away into forest. The time comes to hike in unfamiliar high country.

I drive west, into a mountain pass, and park at the trail head.

Climbing through clouds on Sheep Lake Trail, I identify snow lilies, phlox, two whistling marmots I mistake for groundhogs, and a ptarmigan. In these topless mountains, snow and rocks glimmer atop jagged white threads that twist, plunge, and roar over miles. In this clarity I recount a friend’s determination to perceive the important task to perform each day — a focus she achieved in the sunset of her young death. Go on.

The next outing, I follow another friend’s favorite trail. My valley of orchards and meadows stretches behind in a twilight of small-city lights and barren blue ridges. In golden splay dusk, I learn to fear glaciers atop volcanic spines and in their grooved depths, too. So much depends on which way you turn. Clouds, one moment pink, shift into slate-blue. Think of a great-uncle’s farm in Ohio flatlands when green-wood ringed the fields and autos were novelties; and how, when the United Brethren in Christ build their new sanctuary, one tree furnishes enough lumber for all the pews. Such timber is long gone from most of the Midwest, and nearly gone here, as well.

Strangely, adjusting to such disorientation can allow one to see more than the landscape with fresh eyes. I begin reckoning my birthplace afresh, too. I perceive a native poetry now vanished: in flat terrain they coined Sweet Potato Ridge Road when they became sensitive to what had been called Nigger Pike, after work crews that came out from the workhouse jail in the city; Diamond Mill Road was made of limestone gravel flecked with quartz or mica, but named for the distillery beside the rails. What could be in those rural lanes I had sped along on the way to the farm to cause their ghosts to arise out here? I think, too, of the hayloft I had delighted climbing in, even though the old folks feared I’d fall through and be trampled by cattle; more ominously, some shed rafters I walked like a high-wire artist had hogs rummaging below, with razor snouts and teeth and a latent taste for blood. That farm acreage is scarcely like these Western orchards or open ranges, yet something echoes. It’s earth and air. Sunshine and clouds. My days in the mountains are airy conifers. I could be a pioneer, in spirit, at least. My ancestors settled those Ohio tracts. Another line, a bit earlier, settled North Carolina Piedmont. Here, I find unspoiled corners.

Perhaps bears do drink beer. Rocks, leap from mountaintops into oceans. Naked breasts, swell from snowmelt pool to sky.

Against this wall, between his desert and the frigid sea current, I declare my vast ignorance: left to myself, I’d likely starve, soon sicken of berries, and have never caught fish properly or gutted a rabbit. Somehow, I wait to be fed. Thus, one point of my Dedicated Laborious Quest involves learning to be wholly myself — embracing flaws as well as talents, as I search out my own boundaries.

Away from the office and encircled by an ever-renewing earth — even an apparently lifeless desert that restores his sanity and a brand of insanity, too — you may find that every trail you follow brings you closer to your own attainment, your emerging sense of place and mission within the universe. As for looniness — ah, loco! — you soon appreciate how all are in some way at least un poco, indeed.

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

IN THE SHADOW OF THE BLACK SPREAD EAGLE ON LUDGATE HILL

Sometimes in exploring a niche of history, you come across an unexpected incidental detail that significantly alters your previous perception. For example, many of the earliest Quaker tracts and books bear the imprint of Giles Calvert, a publisher and bookseller at the Black Spread Eagle on Ludgate Hill near St. Paul Cathedral in London.

So extensive is his Quaker role that I’d assumed Calvert (1612-1663) was a member of the Society of Friends. For one thing, he was the elder brother of Martha Simmonds, an early Quaker convert and a central character in the notorious Bristol Controversy of 1656 that led to the blasphemy trial and conviction in Parliament of a leading Friends’ minister, James Nayler. The connection intensifies when you discover that two years earlier she had joined with Friends and the next year married Thomas Simmonds, who (according to one account) took over the shop from Calvert, by then the leading publisher of Quaker literature. And Martha Simmonds (1624-1665) was hardly shy about public protest and witness on behalf of her faith. She’s a controversial figure in her own right as she challenged much of the male leadership of the emerging Quaker movement.

One earlier connection I’d come across was Calvert’s role as publisher of Gerrard Winstanley’s True Leveller (or Digger) writings from 1648 to 1652, the year the Quaker works begin appearing. Winstanley was a radical religious and political thinker and leader, one who later had an influential role among Friends even if he drifted away for a while – his life leaves many questions and holes for the curious.

Still, it’s enough to strengthen Calvert’s position as a Quaker vanguard.

In my recent reading of Douglas Gwyn’s Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience (Pendle Hill Books, 2000), a broader portrait emerges.

Gwyn makes a critical connection that begins with Parliament’s attempt to impose Presbyterianism on the Church of England. “One factor that doomed the project to failure was the suspension of censorship of the press,” itself a parallel to the suspension of mandatory church attendance amid the waves of civil war. “Religious ideas that before 1642 had circulated only below the surface, if at all, now reeled off presses in exponentially expanding numbers. Propaganda pieces, ranging from one-sheet ‘broadsides’ to tomes hundreds of pages long were printed and sold at low cost.”

This had my mind leaping backward to the sense that many underground religious and spiritual streams had somehow survived in Britain for centuries, in part because of valiant efforts that kept the Roman Catholic Inquisition at bay. Queen Mother Joan of Kent’s influence at the trial of John Wycliffe and the Lollards in 1378 remains a pivotal moment in the history of freedom of religion. We were a long way from tolerance, but it was far superior to the terrors of the papal machine.

Gwyn, though, introduces Calvert at this later point beginning in 1642, “One of the most notorious publishers of dissenting literature … among the first publishers in England who was not also a printer.” (That, in itself, is a fascinating detail. I had assumed he handset the type himself, placed the paper and ink of the flat press, and collated and bound the pages. Instead, he served as a go-between.) “Over the course of his career,” which began in 1643, “he published more than 600 of the most radical tracts and books written in England during that period. … Calvert was questioned, fined, and imprisoned briefly on various occasions for his publishing activities, but he was never really silenced. Once the door was opened for a free press, it was never to be effectively closed again.”

It was enough to send me back to Christopher Hill’s classic The World Turned Upside Down (Penguin, 1975), where Calvert gets two mentions, the first for his Quaker service. In the other, a longer overview, Hill observes, “The printer Giles Calvert’s shop perhaps came the closest to uniting the radicals in spite of themselves – ‘that forge of the devil from whence so many blasphemous, lying scandalous pamphlets for many years past have spread over the land,'” as one critic put it. Hill then notes that A.L. Morton, the leading scholar on the Ranter movement, “stresses the importance of Calvert as a unifying force.” Hill has Calvert working as late as 1662 “still inciting the publication of seditious literature, and after his death in 1663 his widow continued his policy.” Unclear is whether Calvert was still with the Black Spread Eagle or working more independently; either way, he was a force who’s largely unknown today.

It’s heady stuff, of course. Here we have a champion in the history of freedom of the press and the circulation of revolutionary ideas itself. At the moment, Giles Calvert gets a single sentence as his Wikipedia entry – and that notes his publication of John Saltmarsh, another important influence on Quaker thought, as Gwyn delineates.

As a writer and editor, I am as fascinated by the idea of a bookstore that also showcases its own line of books and pamphlets as I am by the existence of a bold publisher of revolution, political, spiritual, or even literary. Think of City Lights Books in San Francisco in our own time, with its line of poetry from the Beat and Hippie years. No doubt there are many others over the centuries.

I wonder, too, about the bookstore itself. Was it more like a newsstand, with the latest blast hot-off-the-press as must-have material? (That has me thinking of record stores back in the Beatles era!) Think, too, of the audience hungry for the most recent release – in contrast to our surfeit of information today. What were the discussions like, too, in deciding whether to publish a piece or edit it or, perhaps, in gathering customers around a table to debate the merits of the most current issues? Who frequented the shop, for that matter?

Imagine, if you will, the movie version. I want the key characters to be ink-stained, for starters, and maybe tobacco smokers.

Actually, I’m beginning to wonder. Would this be more like a porn shop? At least before the Internet took over? Customers entering surreptitiously, hoping not to be seen? And then slip away again?

Well, Quaker was a term of derision. As well as one of scandal. Bear it as we may.

SHAKEN AND STIRRED

Read closely, the Bible itself critiques conventional religion, including Christianity. The arguments in my new release, Religion Turned Upside Down, build on these, especially as they shape the early Quaker movement as it arises in a period in English history known as “the world turned upside down.” What emerges is a continuing outline for a revolutionary alternative Christianity that springs from the interlocking spiritual metaphors of Light, Seed, and Truth, which frequently appear in both the New Testament and early Quaker writings.

~*~

Religion Turned Upside Down

Religion Turned Upside Down

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