Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Three Quotes for a New Season

"It is a serious mistake on the part of religious and spiritual people to divide the world into believers and unbelievers. We are all believers. The real question has to do with the object of our belief. Is it sufficiently great, infinite, worthy of our absolute endearment? Anything can become a god and idol. The substitutes for divinity are innumerable. They betray the fact that we haven’t yet found deep religion, and they are the raw material to be transformed into the mysteries by which we can live." -Thomas Moore, The Soul’s Religion: Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life, New York: Perennial, 2003, p. 30.

"The Scriptures are in fact full of diverse forms of family and familial relations. Why? What does this say about the majority who do not practice sexuality according to this dictum? Our formulas for sexual ethics are theoretical and do not match the realities of human lives where sex really matters. Instead, our questions ought to be probing and profoundly reflective of sex where it is found and not how we think it is. How do we treat one another when it comes to sexual expression and commitment? How do we treat our primary intimate relationship—with or without a sense of the Sacred and the potential for good?" –Olive Elaine Hinnant, God Comes Out: A Queer Homiletic, Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2007, pp. 4-5.

"The queer Christ comes at a time when Christian rhetoric is used as an anti-gay political weapon. He is a beacon of hope in a world where Christians and gays seem to be at war. He mends the split between body and spirit that has led to violence, poverty, and ecological destruction. Like the Jesus of first-century Palestine, the queer Christ images have come to teach, heal and free anyone who accepts the challenge." —Kittredge Cherry, Jesus in Love, Berkeley: AndroGyne Press, 2006, pp. 13-4.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Finding an Altar That Was There All the Time: A Guest Post by Nirmal Chandraratna

Nirmal, a composer who divides his time between Boston and New York City, is also the New York coordinator of the Body Electric School. Above, Nirmal connecting with a friend.

Until two years ago, I’d never considered building a personal altar at home. Growing up Catholic, I always longed to feel a strong sense of spirit in Mass and the other sacraments, but no one around me in my church seemed to feel true passion in practicing our religion. Over the years I gravitated towards Eastern philosophy and experiences involving ritual like those I encountered in workshops with the Body Electric School. I soon began to understand how an act or object can be imbued with personal significance, and how I can recall the act or the object to renew my spirit in a specific manner.

I finally approached the project of building an altar after my life coach Collin Brown suggested I create one. At first I was reluctant, but as I scanned my apartment, I realized I already had an altar of sorts: I collect drums, and I’d arranged them in a corner and placed on some of them statues of figures important to me--the Buddha, a cellist, and Shiva. A conga at the center of the arrangement added a vertical element. I didn't need to change much to actively use that space for meditation. After some minor rearrangement, I placed a pillow to sit upon and added some candles: I had my altar. The more I meditated in front of it, the more important the objects became to me. I sometimes spend many days without sitting in front of my altar, but it’s always there when I need it and has aided me in times both of appreciation and of need.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In the Wake

(Image Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of the tenth anniversary, it’s driven home for me how imperfectly I’ve been able to wrap my mind around the enormity of 9/11. Often, I’ve felt disquiet at the failure of my compassion. The endless repetition of the footage of the smoking towers and of their collapse places the disaster too far from any human scale. At that remove, I retreat into the contemplation of statistics. I start asking questions of cold calculation and distanced, self-righteous judgment: why don’t we commemorate the same day, September 11, as the anniversary of the CIA-backed coup that in 1973 destroyed the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile and ushered in a reign of state-sponsored terror? What’s happened to the memory of the thousands who died in Bhopal in the wake of a cyanide leakage from a Union Carbide plant?

And then I hear the individual stories: a friend in his apartment in the West Forties, not knowing for ninety minutes whether his partner would ever come home from a downtown office. The terrifying and mysterious contingency of another friend and his one-night-stand heading to breakfast together at Windows on the World, looking up as they approached the building to see the first plane hit. The same friend hours later, walking with a shattered stranger across the Williamsburg Bridge, hoping somehow to make it home; at the top of the bridge, puzzled and alarmed at an indistinct, roiling sea of black where the pavement should have opened out below them at the Brooklyn end; then realizing, as they pressed on, that they were looking down at the afternoon light reflected off the hats and coats of the Hasidim, who milled along the street passing out water to those fleeing Manhattan on foot.

The real enormity of 9/11 isn’t the enormity of hatred that planned and executed the attacks--which pale in comparison to a dozen other atrocities of the last century. The real enormity is not even the deaths of the victims, outnumbered as they are by the victims of those other spasms of demonic cruelty, as by a score of natural disasters within living memory. It’s not the self-imprisoning impulses to revenge, which have taken so many hostage in their souls, and that have led America into two supremely ill-considered and pointless wars over the last nine years.

One of the options for last Sunday’s Scripture readings in many Christian churches was the passage from Genesis 50 in which Joseph speaks grace to the brothers who threw him into a well, then drew him out to sell to merchants passing through the wilderness, then went home to lie to their father that all they could find of him in the desert was a blood-soaked coat—only to find themselves years later owing him their lives and utterly in his power. Gripped by fear at the thought that after their father’s death he’ll finally exact vengeance, they beg for mercy because they project their own vengefulness onto him. And he replies, “Am I God to punish you? You worked evil against me; but God turned it to good. You have nothing to fear from me.”

The real enormity of 9/11 is the enormity of evil and suffering being turned to good: the acts of generosity by which survivors and witnesses comforted and supported one another; the acts of grace and forgiveness that have transformed the memory of trauma into pleas for healing. It’s in these that I find my compassion freed up, and finally I can weep for the lot I share with the living and the dead.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

After the Storm

We braced for something bigger: laid in canned food, taped diagonal strips over the windows, filled containers with water. The hardware store was already running low on batteries; the gas station had only premium left when we went to fill the car.

The surf started rising Thursday, when the hurricane had barely passed Bermuda. Predictions of Irene’s path wobbled. As Friday and Saturday wore on, she seemed endlessly poised off the coast of North Carolina. On Saturday the town of East Hampton blocked public access to the beach roads. From a friend’s second-floor windows, you could see the height and power of the breakers beyond the dunes.

As always before a hurricane, it’s the trees that are simply there, rooted where they are rooted, their limbs raised as they're raised. Roots hold, or they don’t. Limbs sway, or they crack and come crashing down. Of the trees nearest us, one maple shades our living room, declared sound a year ago when we and the neighbors made the decision to take down its contemporary, after a major branch collapsed in a smaller storm, revealing disease deep in the trunk.

The choice, before a storm, is to treat a tree as an object, or else to address it: to wish it well, to bless it for its strength, to ask mercy for its sake and one’s own.

The wind came up Saturday night; the power went out some time before dawn on Sunday. Leaves, whole or shredded, flew horizontally past the windows until mid-afternoon. The maple thrashed through it all. And held. Up and down the block, limbs had snapped; power lines lay looped over hedges.

At dusk, the power still out, in a corner of the world lit only by fire, it seemed only right to thank this tree for what--and who--it is.