All Souls Zoom Gathering

Those of us who have lost loved ones since the pandemic have mostly been denied rituals of grieving and the comfort of visits with friends and family.

It has been excruciatingly painful to mourn alone, or mostly alone, and to try to move forward without important rites of passage such as memorial services, sitting shiva, opening the house to visitors, and gathering for commitals where we could freely embrace each other.

Please leave a comment below if you would like to attend a Zoom Gathering on All Souls Sunday just for us, for those who are part of this sad collective of those who understand. This will be a spiritual offering not in any particular tradition, affirming of our shared humanity and need for compassion.

I will email you with the Zoom invite. Please leave the name of the beloved person you would like to remember so I can include them in the Litany of Remembrance.

For the ritual, please prepare a candle that you can light and a glass of your favorite libation.

Peace.



High-Speed Train

I rode the Eurostar from London to Paris, which I have never done before.  I dragged my suitcases from the Airbnb flat in Kensington to the Gloucester Road Tube station, got on the Piccadily line and thought vicous things about the cows who were sitting right near the door when they could have moved over three seats to the empty ones and let me sit with my big suitcases.

I use “cow” as an insult for all humans who lumber along in life without any awareness of those around them. I am hyper-aware of those around me and apologize profusely when I am selfish or inconsiderate when I should have realized that a simple action could have provided some relief to someone else. It’s not a sacrifice to scoot down a few seats. I hadn’t had any tea or coffee or food and I was cranky. Still, I judge. I most definitely do.  A bit of attentiveness costs nothing.

I got to St. Pancras and stood in line for security and passport control and I found my seat and stowed my luggage and got all settled on the train (window seat) and sat happily contemplating the next leg of my journey. I had a tremendously delicious latte at a stall called Source at St. Pancras, where I also asked for “some bread and cheese” and was sent on my way with an enormous container full of huge slabs of delicious cheddar and something soft and runny and a third kind of slightly tangy frommage and some toasts. A feast! I brought it to my hosts in Paris and we will be eating it all week.

As I sat in comfortable tranquility and watched the landscape whiz by I remembered traveling as a very young woman and becoming aware that my interior monologue was relentlessly frightened and self-critical. These were my first adventures in solitude and I became attuned to myself for the first time in a way that I suppose some adults never actually do. Solitude eventually emerged as my lifestyle, perhaps vocation? — and my internal monologue at this age is mostly concerned with things on the ministerial to-do list, thoughts about life, death and God, a bit of worrying and thinking about friends and loved ones (still a category of more insecurity than most others in my life), dog details and housekeeping. I am not rattled by insecure or self-critical thoughts although I have very little skill in dismantling them, whereas I have developed a fairly high level of skill in interrogating and untangling insecure and other-critical thoughts; particularly in catching myself catastrophizing or projecting.

I am grateful for that. Now, perhaps, I can learn some effective ways to disarm the monster who lives in my head who takes up arms against myself. That monster is so deeply hidden, I only hear rumblings when she is active. She tends not to speak in complete sentences, she just shrieks and throws things and is as irrational as my parents were when they were in their fits of rage or addiction.

But today on the train there was no monster and no anxiety or fear. I am an experienced enough traveler to think a few steps ahead and get where I am going — and by the way, I am not going to Venice as I had planned, because I trust my instincts by now — and I like myself as a traveling companion.

I recognize now that the extreme anxiety I experienced when traveling in my youth actually caused me to dissociate, as happened on the beach in Antigua when I was 18 years old and on a senior trip with three of my girlfriends. The three of them went horseback riding one afternoon and I decided to go to the beach by myself. When I settled myself in the sand, I experienced a jolting sensation of the world rocking and went blind for a few seconds, after which I saw shooting stars everywhere and felt that I no longer existed. It was one of the earliest memories I have of literally losing my mind and it scared me badly. I decided to patiently wait where I was until my senses returned, so there I sat on a beautiful tropical beach, a young, pretty teenager trying to stay sane.

I was probably dehydrated and God knows if we had been eating enough food. We were drinking like fishes, far away from home and on our own. I remember the trip very fondly in general but I have not forgotten the tilting earth and my momentary blindness. Stress, anxiety, a fragile psyche, I was a kid whose father had recently died and who was living alone at home with an actively alcoholic living parent and a kid brother, sitting thousands of miles away under a too-hot sun with only three peers to rely on if my brain didn’t start functioning right again. We got through it. I am still close friends with two of those three peers and I feel protected by their good cheer, their confidence in and love for me now as I did then.

This morning: navigate the Tube. Use the Oyster Card. Find the platform. Get the coffee, bread and cheese. Load the luggage. Take the journey.  Disembark, find the toilet. Learn the toilet cost .70 Euros. Locate the bank machine, obtain the euros. Return to the toilet with the help of a friendly nun. Protect the bags, the passport, the phone from pickpockets. Call an Uber.  Find the Uber, who is parked a block away. Find the apartment code. Load the self and the luggage into the tiny lift. Be received in warm, welcoming arms of friends. Eat dinner, have some wine, load the laundry. Plan tomorrow.

Write. Remember. Thank God for the sound mind and body, for the accumulation of experiences, of years, of journeys.

 

 

Second Naivete: The Mystical Way Of Faith

 Preached to the First Parish Church of Norwell, MA Dec 6, 2009

 It’s that magical, mythical time of year again. Virgin births and super novas shining directly over a little barn, angels crashing through walls to make shocking pronouncements, roly-poly men with white beards in red suits flying through the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

 

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
“Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the the sea,
With a voice as big as the the sea.”

 

Do you hear what I hear?

 

Well, sometimes the answer is just “no.”  The word from researchers lately is that some of us are genetically programmed to have a rational view of life, and others are born with a gene that makes them more prone to a mystical experiences of the transcendent. I hope this will come as good news to all of us, who join in a free religious tradition that is not invested in our believing the same things, but in seeking and creating together inner peace, higher consciousness, intellectual challenge, compassionate community and spiritual depth wherever we may find it, by whatever name we may give it.

In our religious tradition, we teach that the key to healthy community is not to get everyone theologically on the same page but to get on our own page in a healthy and mature way.  So if someone identifies as an atheist and someone calls himself a Christian and someone else says he is on a Buddhist spiritual path, we consider that a private matter, an expression of individual calling lived out in community. With this new research on the so-called God gene, it may prove true that not only is it emotionally  hurtful and even abusive to expect an entire population of people to all arrive at the same conclusion regarding the nature of the ultimate, but a violation of their actual biological composition!

The Dalai Lama has said that his religion is kindness. For those of us who dwell together in covenanted community in the bonds of fellowship and love holding a wide and delightful variety of beliefs and experiences, that definition of religion holds a lot of promise.  Our religion is kindness, we may choose to say. Our religion – and our aspiration — is service. Our religion is a push, a pull, a prophetic challenge, and an invitation to look at the world as it is and to love it anyway.

But here we are at a time of year that plops us plumb in the middle of all of that supernatural, unbelievable stuff that I just mentioned: those ancient stories and those song lyrics that we hear and we sing and that remind many of us of the kind of religion that we are not interested in practicing and that, in fact, many of us fled from.  That’s not true for everyone, of course – for some folks, all those stars and all that magic, the flying reindeer, the baby in the stable, the Wise Men trekking across the desert is a delight, a source of treasured memories, cherished tradition and spiritual nourishment.  For others, it’s dear and quaint and fine… just so long as we don’t have too much of it.  And there are those who endure this season of songs and stories with irritation and gritted teeth until it’s over.

 

There was a time in my own life that I was a teeth-gritter and endure-er of sacred stories, especially Christmas stories. I could not understand how otherwise intelligent people in a scientific age could so earnestly give over their rational minds to the ancient mythos of the holiday.  Every year, practically my entire town gathered near Christmas at a place called “God’s Acre,” which was much like our village green in Norwell, only if you put three more churches around it.  There was a Congregationalist church, a Methodist Church, and I think a Baptist church – all white, all with New England steeples – and in the center of God’s Acre there was always an enormous Christmas tree lit up by a thousand lights.  Beautiful. We would stand in the cold and sing all the old classics – “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “O Little Town of Bethelehem” and “Joy To the World.” I had very mixed feelings about the lyrics. In fact, some of them sent my blood to boiling – mostly the ones about “savior” and “King.”

It took a long time — a lot of thinking and studying and praying — and a lot of paying attention to the way that sacred stories operate in people’s lives for me to embrace those songs.  I now cherish them even as I smile affectionately at some of their theological excess.

In my spiritual journey from fundamentalist rationalist to the skeptical, reverent mystic that I am today, I was helped very much from by philosopher Paul Ricouer’s notion of “second naïveté.”  Before I explain what that is, let me introduce it with a story that will help lead us there.

 

When I was in Romania last spring, I traveled to a small city near the village where my grandfather was born. I had one day to find his village, and because I had been robbed in Bucharest and was having bureaucratic trouble with Western Union , I had only a tiny bit of money.  The hotel staff in Fagaras helped me write out a little script in Romanian that would help me explain to a taxi driver where I wanted to go and how much money I had.  They then hailed me a taxi.  As luck would have it, I wound up getting picked up by the only English-speaking taxi driver in the entire city. His name was Gabriel Gulu, and he was very excited to have the opportunity to practice his language skills.  I wondered right away about the coincidence of finding an English-speaking taxi driver who happened to share a name with the most famous angel in the gospels.  I learned that Gabriel was born on Christmas Day.

Part of the story is that Gabriel found my grandfather’s village and spent the day chauffeuring me around the region, took me to his home for lunch, introduced me to his mother, his daughter and his wife, picked me up for dinner that night, and insisted on driving me almost four hours the next day to Sighisoara, where I would be rendezvousing with Rosalie Vida, our minister in Kadacs.

He was an angel.  As we drove to Sighisoara, Gabriel told me the story of his daughter Amalia’s birth.

In 1992, Gabriel and Donna married on Christmas Day, which is also Gabriel’s birthday.  The priest was unhappy with them because in the orthodox calendar, December 25 is a fast day, and it is inappropriate to have a feast or celebration on that day.  Gabriel and Donna, being modern people but with no desire to insult the church, decided not to have a church wedding and were married at City Hall instead.  They thought it a good compromise: they would have the Christmas anniversary they wanted and the priest would be appeased.

Several years after they married, Donna and Gabriel wanted to start a family but they had fertility problems. They saw every doctor in their town and then traveled to Bucharest to see expensive specialists (“More expensive than expensive,” Gabriel told me).  When Donna finally got pregnant, they were elated, and then cast into complete despair when she miscarried four months into the pregnancy. They visited the Bucharest doctor again who told them, “I have done everything I can do, and so have you. We have reached the limits of medicine. It is time to seek God’s help.”

Given that Romania has been under Communist rule for so long, this amazes me, but that is a direct quote.  Their doctor told them to seek God’s help.

Gabriel went to visit with a priest who is also a good friend.  His friend told Gabriel that he should search his soul for any offenses he may have committed against God.  Gabriel, a good and hard-working and honest man, could not think of anything at first. And then he began to consider his Christmas marriage in City Hall. He is not a superstitious man, he told me, but a faithful man. He and Donna re-considered what they had done. They didn’t feel that their marriage was anything but a blessing, but they decided no harm could come of being married again in the church, and so they were, thirteen years after their original union – this time in October.

Within the year, Donna was pregnant.  Amalia was born the following March.  She is a beautiful little girl and their pride and joy.

And so what does one say to this, or think about it? Coincidence? Good luck? Psychosomatic infertility?  Thanks for the nice story?

We certainly could think all of those things. One of the stages of faith development, whatever our genetic predisposition to the mystical or rationalist stance, is to critically reject all the articles of doctrine we learned and naively believed as children.  This is an important stage of faith, which leads us from mindless acceptance of harmful beliefs and doctrine to a more mature and considered evaluation of what the truth is for ourselves; according to the dictates of conscience and the knowledge earned through study, reflection and experience. From this place of maturity, I could have said to Gabriel, “Listen, I am so glad that you have Amalia, but I really don’t think God had anything to do with it (because God doesn’t punish people by withholding pregnancy from them).” Or I could have said, “Well Gabriel, you and Donna obviously had some sort of unconscious stress about your original Christmas Day wedding that prevented your conceiving a child, and it’s a good thing you engaged in a superstitious ritual so that you could release that stress and have your beautiful daughter. I’m so happy for you.”

 

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
“Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite,
With a tail as big as a kite.”

 

We need not think alike to love alike, said the 16th century Unitarian, Ferenc David.  And we need not see alike to love alike.  When kindness is our religion and our aspiration, what is required of us is not so much critical engagement but sympathetic engagement, curiosity, a willingness to share the wonder of another’s experience even when it is not our own, and even when we might not interpret its meaning in the same way.  Remember what Hamlet said to his friend? “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dream’t of in your philosophy.” In Paul Ricouer’s philosophy of second naïveté, we enter into the mystery of sacred stories not with the naïveté of one who can’t think for themselves, but by choosing to engage the poetic sensibility rather than leading with our critical, intellectual faculties.  More simply put, when we have reached the maturity of second naïveté – a kind of chosen innocence — we make a decision to abide together in wonder rather than to dismantle sacred narratives in an insistent search for rational facts.

In that taxi, from a place of second naïveté with my new friend, I could hear the story of Gabriel and his miracle child and simply be glad for his and Donna’s happiness. There are many more things in heaven and earth that I could possibly comprehend.  Why not a miracle?

There is a time, a place, and a way to analyze religious narratives for their literal truths, and a time not to.  The time to take a scalpel to religious claims is when they are made with the intention or the result of excluding, harming, dominating, or humiliating people, or any part of creation. The time not to is when a person or persons is cheered, uplifted, inspired to do good and brought to a place of deep gratitude and love by a story that may not be based in fact at all, but is nevertheless quite true.  We call those myths. We call them stories sacred stories. And as we grow older and wiser, we learn to hear them through the ears of the child; the child who is curious, the child who wants to be a good friend, the child who wonders. We do so in the name of the kindness we want to practice as our religion.