Sunday, 31 January 2010

Why reinterpret biblical stories?

I attended an excellent sermon today on the meaning of the Garden of Eden myth. The minister, Peter Godfrey, talked about how the serpent is actually a symbol of wisdom, and the act of eating the fruit was an expansion of consciousness.

I was discussing this with someone on the phone just now, and they asked, since the story isn't literally true, why not just jettison it completely? Why bother reinterpreting it?

I think the answer to this is because we are taught these stories as children and they have a way of lodging in the psyche / being embedded in the subconscious (nasty infectious memes!) and if we reinterpret them, it helps the psyche to recover from the unpleasant results of them. Just telling yourself they are not true isn't enough - it works for the rational mind but not the irrational subconscious. The subconscious works in terms of stories and myths (that's why they're important) so if you want to re-educate the subconscious, you have to tell it new stories, or new interpretations of the old stories.

If you have been brought up with the idea that "Jesus died for your sins", or some other nasty, pernicious, insidious piece of mythology, and in the past you accepted it as a truth, your rational mind may have quite properly rejected it; you may have had an emotional reaction against it; but on some level, it may still be buried in your psyche, waiting to burst upon your consciousness when you least expect it.

Therefore, you need to tell your subconscious a new version of the story, with greater mythic power and resonance than the first version, and you need to show how and why the story was constructed in the first place, to get it to understand that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Also, these stories are very powerful and speak directly to the subconscious, and they can actually be used as liberating and empowering myths.

Update: Oddly enough, after I had written this, I noticed that Andrew Brown has written on a similar theme.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Tikkun Olam

Tikkun olam encompasses both the outer and the inner, both service to society by helping those in need and service to the Divine by liberating the spark within. As we are, the Divine spark lies hidden beneath our layers of egoistic self-centeredness. That spark is our conscience, through which the promptings of the Divine Will flow toward us. By pursuing spiritual inner work to strengthen our soul and purify our heart, we grow more able to bear that spark without shattering, more willing to act on what we know to be right, less willing to act in harmful or grasping ways, and more able to notice the quiet presence of conscience beneath the din of our chattering minds and reactive emotions. The work of transformation, of building a soul creates a proper vessel for the Divine spark, for our unique share of the Divine Will, returning that spark to the service of the One Who made it. By working to perfect ourselves, perfect our soul, and serve society, we each contribute in our own unique way to the perfecting of the world. This is our duty and our calling as human beings.
from Tikkun Olam: The Spiritual Purpose of Life

The phrase "tikkun olam" was first used to refer to social action work in the 1950s. In subsequent decades, many other organizations and thinkers have used the term to refer to social action programs; tzedakah (charitable giving) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness); and progressive Jewish approaches to social issues. It eventually became re-associated with kabbalah, and thus for some with deeper theological meaning.

Thus, over time tikkun olam went from being part of the religious technology of medieval mystics to a standard part of the vocabulary of contemporary North American Jews. Its goal shifted from dissolving history to advancing it.But the phrase “tikkun olam” remains connected with human responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the world. It also appears to respond to a profound sense of deep rupture in the universe, which speaks as much to the post-Holocaust era as it did in the wake of the expulsion from Spain and other medieval Jewish disasters.
from Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World (My Jewish Learning)

The most modern and broadly understood notion of tikkun olam is that of "repairing the world" through human actions. Humanity's responsibility to change, improve, and fix its earthly surroundings is powerful. It implies that each person has a hand in working towards the betterment of his or her own existence as well as the lives of future generations. Tikkun olam forces people to take ownership of their world. It is them, not G-d, who will bring the world back to its original state of holiness.

More simply, it is important for Jews to participate in repairing the world by participating in tzedakah (justice and righteousness) and g'milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). Without their stake in the improvement of their environment, injustice and evil will continue to exist.
from Tikkun Olam by Jennifer Noparstak

Monday, 18 January 2010

Responses to tragedy

It's always difficult to know how to think about tragedies like the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami, particularly if you believe in some omnipotent being that could have prevented it, or worse, caused it (I don't).

Andrew Brown points out that the only valid response is to do something to help the survivors — not to theologise about it.
Looking at the world with loving-regard we do not find an answer to a riddle but, if Edwards is right - and I'm inclined to agree with him - we are, instead, brought face to face with sheer acknowledgment. But such an acknowledgment is not merely an act of final and hopeless surrender to some brute, static, natural fact for remember in what Edwards thinks this acknowledgment consists: namely that the world so regarded offers us a kind of 'disclosure' that it and its constituent beings are a miracle, never to be comprehended, with depths never to be exhausted.
I agree — if you attempt some sort of theological explanation, you get either bad science, bad theology or bad ethics (or all three).

Similarly, Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle compares the horror of the Haiti earthquake with the massacre in Mexico and struggles to comprehend it:
I struggle all the time with how to acknowledge and respect and even analyze the devastation and the horror that streams across the media wires every day without letting it turn my bones ashen gray.

I think we can only try to realize, as best we can, just how deeply tied into the tangled web of humanity we really are; all the wars and suffering, drugs and gangs, pain and loss, even as we try -- sometimes very weakly indeed, sometimes in the face of devastating counterevidence -- to remind ourselves that there really is an equal amount of beauty and joy, hope and positivism to be had in the world. Isn't there?
Now, on to the bad theology: Many Pagans' response to natural disasters is saying that it's Gaia shrugging off Her fleas:
I do believe that if something happens, that it will be the Earth shrugging off a lot of what is hurting it. I think all the disasters (earthquakes, floods, tsunamis), are the Earth's way of trying to heal the damage humankind has dealt to her. I just have this lingering belief that eventually it will be too much, and the world is just going to (for lack of a better term), purge much of its problems out the way it knows how.

I don't think everyone and everything will be destroyed or anything, but I do think that there will be much more natural disasters hitting many more places.
Oh yeah? Well if that's the case, how come a lot of these disasters hit the Third World, which isn't using more than its fair share of the Earth's resources? Bad theology, bad politics, and a failure of compassion of almost the same magnitude as that of saying that Haiti was somehow cursed.

Many Christians respond by saying that natural disasters are caused by the Fall; that the world, including Nature, became flawed as a consequence of the Fall, and that death was introduced as a result of the Fall. This is just bad science - though it can sometimes produce good theology, as in this article by David Bentley Hart:
Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things. ...

I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun. ... In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing. To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.

She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen. ... But that, I would say, is the nature of God’s presence in the fallen world: his image, his bride, the deep joy and longing of creation, called from nothingness to be joined to him. That child’s dance is nothing less than the eternal dance of divine Wisdom before God’s throne, the dance of David and the angels and saints before his glory; it is the true face of creation, which God came to restore and which he will not suffer to see corruption.
I do not see the world as fallen, but I like the way that Hart and other Chtristians emphasise compassion for others, and the way that Hart sees the Divine reflected in the world (and has got the gender and mythology right, too).

Some people refer to natural disasters as "natural evil" — I disagree with this, because evil requires intentionality, in my opinion.

Some atheists have stated that natural disasters show that the universe is a hostile place; but this is inconsistent with not believing in a deity; how can the universe be "hostile" if it has no mind, no intentionality? Hostility requires awareness.

And back to the good theology...

Andrew Brown points out that, in the face of disasters, we need to be ready to help the survivors to pick up the pieces — a loving response is the only one possible:
The horror remains before us all, and unimaginably so for all those in Haiti. My heart goes out to them and my love is sent - as will some of my money - and it goes, not because their plight presents me with an unanswerable riddle (the consequences of which I must assuage) but because I trust implicitly in those people who, by their commitment to loving-regard, will incarnate a Divine yet wholly natural love in the heart of our world.
Amen to that!

Some groups you could donate via:


(address given to Trowbridge Unitarians, 17 January 2010)

My favourite times of year are the transitional seasons of spring and autumn, when everything is changing rapidly. In spring there are new blossoms and new leaves emerging, and the days lengthen rapidly. In autumn, the leaves turn red and yellow and orange and are blown away in the wind. The smell of bonfires is in the air, symbolising the transformation of decay into the bright energy of fire.

Everything is always changing, transforming into something else; nothing is ever lost. The gathering of life experience is like the laying down of compost. The leaves of individual events fall onto the heap, fade and decay, and are transformed into memories, which feed our sense of identity, which gives rise to new experiences.

Change is constant in life; it is the one thing we can rely on. Some people find it difficult to embrace change; others enjoy it. Without change, there would be no growth, no seasons, no new life. There would also be no death, but just try to imagine what immortality would be like - a barren state of existence with no excitement.

The Buddhists like to point out that there is nothing constant about our bodies. Our cells are replaced so rapidly that every cell in our bodies is replaced by the end of seven years, so you are literally not physically the same person you were seven years ago. This is possibly the origin of the phrase, “the seven year itch”. Each day you acquire new experiences, new dreams, and lose old memories, so you are not the same person you were yesterday.

We constantly shape each other socially, giving approval or disapproval to certain characteristics, and each of us is a slightly different person in different social situations. We change our opinions as we hear new evidence, and this is a sign of flexibility and openness. A lack of willingness to change one’s opinion gives rise to the rigidity of fundamentalism. There’s a lovely quote by Alan Watts (an Episcopalian priest who became a Zen Buddhist in the 1960s) that explains the difference between the openness and trust of faith and the rigidity of belief:
"Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be."
This openness and trust is an essential pre-requisite for the building of spiritual community. It is why many communities (such as Quakers and Pagans, and many Unitarians) like to do their rituals in a circle, which involves making eye contact with others, and emphasises the equality of participants.

The sociologist of religion, Emile Durkheim, said that the function of ritual is to manage changes in life, such as the transition from one state to another. Rites of passage (coming-of-age, coming out, initiation, marriage, divorce, birth, and death) are obvious examples; but in a sense all rituals are about managing change. When you come to chapel, you partake of the ritual of hymn-singing and prayer and listening to the address, and the structure of the ritual is a way of managing and enabling the change in consciousness that you experience as you make contact with the Divine by gradually relaxing into the service and entering into the altered state of prayerful awareness.

The major change enabled by participating in a service or a ritual is the building of community with others. As we share the celebration of ultimate worth, singing, praying, meditating, speaking and listening, we are focused on something other than our individual ego. We cease to worry about how we look, or whether we sing off-key, and focus on the experience of being together. The constant presence of the inner commentator is switched off. David Smail, a therapist who regards therapy with suspicion, writes in his book, Taking Care, that more therapeutic benefit is derived from participating in a communal activity than from hours of individual therapy. This is true even if it’s something apparently trivial like your local bridge club.

Being in a community of people sharing their spiritual journeys enables us to rub the corners off each other; to be aware of our own foibles and to tolerate those of others. That’s presumably why the prayer of Jesus emphasises that we are forgiven as we forgive those who trespass against us (or in the original Aramaic, “detach us from the fetters of the faults that bind us, as we let go the guilt of others”).

So change is both embracing and letting go, expansion and contraction. It is a dance of inner and outer, dark and light. It is a cycle of growth, death and rebirth. Everything is in constant flux. The plants grow, blossom, bear fruit and die. Stars and galaxies are born, expand, and then die as their energy is spent.

Sometimes change can be painful. The loss of loved ones, or the ending of relationships, are usually immensely painful, but they may also enable growth and renewal, and expand your capacity to feel. There’s a beautiful poem by Kahlil Gibran about joy and sorrow:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
The more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov, a nineteenth century Jewish mystic, equated brokenness with openness to divine mystery:
Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram's-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and laid the slip of paper in his bosom. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram's-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.

Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: "Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, whith which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram's-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the King above all Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He." — Or Yesharim
When I reflect on the changes in my own life - the beginnings and endings of relationships, moving house, moving to a new city, meeting new friends, learning new ideas - these are always the times of greatest spiritual growth for me. Suddenly I experience a flood of creativity; poetry and prose pours onto the page in an unstoppable flood. Then there may be years of stagnation, until something comes along to shake me out of my rut and force me to move and grow. I should really try to find a way to make change constant in my life...

There could be no stories without change, because stories tell about the transition from one way of being to another - the discovery of spiritual treasure, a struggle for justice, falling in love, journeying from one place to another. The scientist Jack Cohen has suggested that we be renamed Pan narrans, the storytelling ape, because storytelling is a major aspect of our human nature. So let’s celebrate change as being the basis of all good stories, including the unique and special story you are each currently living.

Friday, 15 January 2010

What is the good news?

Stephen Lingwood has a book review of a new book about evangelism by Bryan Stone.

Stephen writes:
I love the concentration on the community and not just the individual. I love the idea that evangelism is about people looking at my church and saying "can I see a distinctive way of life within this community that seems transforming and powerful?" I love the concentration on an entire way of life, not just intellectual doctrines. I love the insistence that evangelism has to come from a place of weakness, and never from a place of power and coercion.

What I still find difficult is that too little space is given for dialogue. This is hardly suprising as my theology of evangelism has always been about dialogue. Yes, it's true that evangelism should come from a deep connection to one's own tradition and it's life-transforming power, but it should also be about an openness to the other. It's true that Bryan Stone does say that evangelism should be about listening as well as speaking, and he does say that kingdom of God is bigger than the church. But for me he still does not acknowledge enough the possibility of the holy spirit working beyond the confines of the church, and that other communities may be building the kingdom of God too. Evangelism for me has to be open to the possibility of receiving something of the divine in the encounter with the other. We are not the sole possesors of God.
I'm reminded of several stories I heard about the Greek & Russian Orthodox style of evangelism, for instance the story of the first Orthodox missionary in Japan, who went and waited patiently, praying and studying Japanese culture, and after about twenty years a samurai came to kill him, but he just stood there praying and waiting for the sword to fall. The samurai was deeply impressed that this man was not afraid to die, so he didn't kill him, but asked why he was not afraid to die. He eventually became the missionary's first convert.

Whilst I disagree with trying to convert people of other religions to Christianity, I can't help but be impressed by this story.

The other story is how the Russians were looking for a new religion, and they went to various places to try out their religions, and then went to Byzantium and went into an Orthodox church there, and chose Orthodoxy as their religion because they felt that heaven had come down to earth in the Orthodox liturgy.

Again, not sure why they would want to make everyone follow the same religion, but still it's a good story.

Also, the Orthodox see salvation as being in the church and community, not an individual thing. There's a bit in the liturgy where they pray for everyone else to get to heaven first.

And I think Unitarians could do worse than look into the theology of theosis; a mystical doctrine that is very interesting and helpful.

Anyway, the Bryan Stone book sounds interesting. I'm a fan of dialogue too, but it sounds as if he is well on the way towards that view of evangelism.

I guess we could also try to articulate what the Unitarian "gospel" (good news) is: the Universe loves you as you are; you're already home; all you have to do is relax into the loving embrace of the Divine (no sacrifice necessary); faith and mysticism are not incompatible with reason; the Divine is everywhere, in us and in Nature, and revealed in all religions; practising our spirituality in community; we need not think alike to love alike.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Buddha Mind

The Master said to me: All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists
This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible.
It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance.
It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old.
It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces, and comparisons.
It is that which you see before you — begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error.
It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured.
The One Mind alone is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and the sentient things, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood.
By their very seeking they lose it, for that is using the Buddha to seek for the Buddha and using mind to grasp Mind.
Even though they do their utmost for a full eon, they will not be able to attain to it.
They do not know that, if they put a stop to conceptual thought and forget their anxiety, the Buddha will appear before them, for this Mind is the Buddha and the Buddha is all living beings.
It is not the less for being manifested in ordinary beings, nor is it greater for being manifested in the Buddhas.

— from The Zen Teachings of Huang Po

a theory

I first wrote this blogpost on 12 October 2007, but I wanted to repost it here (with very few amendments) because I still think it's a pretty good theory of what's going on. I borrowed some of the ideas from the SF novels of Julian May (Saga of the Exiles), and she borrowed them from Teilhard de Chardin.

There was no Fall, because there was never a Golden Age or a Garden of Eden to fall from. But there is an Arising. There was no Creator God or Divine Source, rather the universe and its inhabitants are becoming more conscious, more compassionate, more empathic, with the arising of the universal Mind (which proceeds from the unfolding of the Tao, the mysterious Way or emergent pattern). As we interact socially with the Universe, we increase its consciousness, just as we do for each other. First we awakened spirits of place, then gradually began to perceive the All and wonder at the glories of Nature and the Universe. We are part of the Arising of the universal Mind, as we become more conscious and more empathic. We are all Future Buddhas. As we become more empathically connected to the All, when we die we contribute part of our consciousness to the All (part is probably reincarnated), and it is in this process of connection that universal Mind arises. Those who mystically identify the All as a Thou and not an It contribute to the process of expanding awareness and continuing the process of making everything more conscious. The process of individuation and self-development is part of the process of becoming aware of the uniqueness and preciousness of all life in its glorious diversity. The golden age is in the future, not in the past. The genius of Buddhism and Unitarianism is that they are focussed on a future golden age, not a mythical one in the past from which we supposedly fell (and for which there is no evidence whatever). Bodhisattvas (such as Yeshua and Kwan Yin) so identified with the All that their compassion / karuna / empathy accelerated the arising of the universal Mind, and they are still there in some sense (possibly only in the collective memory), guiding humanity towards awakening. But the awakening will not be from the "illusion" of matter, but rather matter itself is becoming ever more conscious or ensouled - it is awakening. Only when the Mind of the Universe is fully conscious - when the kundalini of the Universe has arisen from the depths - only then will the Divine fully exist.

See also: God as Manifestation of Mind

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


An address given at Frenchay Chapel on 22nd November 2009.

There are many different types of prayer. Many people think of prayer as “asking God to give us things”. Most people rightly dismiss this sort of prayer as irrational and unspiritual. It’s well known that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. As one of our congregation once pointed out, many people in the First World War prayed for their loved ones to come back unharmed, but many young men were killed, and I am sure their families prayed just as hard for them to come back as the families of those who returned safely. The First World War (and subsequent genocides such as the Holocaust) ended many people’s faith in a personal God. This lack of a personal God obviously affects what we mean by prayer. When there is no person that we are talking to, prayer becomes a communing with the All.

At Summer School in Great Hucklow, I attended a workshop about prayer with Vernon Marshall, a Unitarian minister. He identified many different types of prayer: adoration, devotion, prayer of approach, invocation (asking the Divine to be present), bidding prayer, confession and penitence, words of reassurance, thanksgiving, intercession (asking for help for someone else), petition (asking for help for yourself), healing prayer, expressing aspiration, and reflection. There are also specific types of prayer for different bits of the service – blessing the elements of communion, for instance, or giving the closing blessing.

Prayer can also be simple and traditional. When his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus gave them a simplified version of the traditional Hebrew Kaddish prayer, which today we know as the Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of Jesus. This prayer contains hidden depths: it expresses many deep desires of the human heart – to be forgiven, to be loved, to be understood and to be nourished; and it expresses something about the nature of the Divine.

Informal and personal prayer is also valid; we tend to use written prayers in chapel, rather than extemporizing, but that is the nature of liturgical worship. There’s nothing wrong with informal prayer in private.

There are also different modes and techniques of prayer: centering prayer, contemplative prayer, and body prayer (using dance or other special movements in prayer). These are the ones I am developing in my personal spiritual practice, because I want to live in my whole body and not just in my head.

But what is prayer for? I don’t think it is really for God’s benefit (though She probably likes to be taken notice of). I think it is for our benefit. The practice of mindfulness, of cultivating awareness of the greater life of the universe, and of examining our own conscience, and being aware of the suffering and joy of others – these are beneficial for the soul. St Paul said, “In him we live, move and have our being” and “we are all members of each other”: we are part of the greater life of the universe.

In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente wrote,

“Arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of Nature, who gives life to the Universe. From me, all things proceed and unto me all things must return; and before my face, beloved of Gods and men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.”

To “be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite” expresses very well for me what prayer should be like.

Charles Williams, a Christian mystic who was also a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, believed that God is in everything and everything is in God, and that we are all part of each other. If this is true, then it has profound consequences for prayer, because when you pray, you are connecting with the entire cosmos and all beings within it, and so the healing of your own soul is also the healing of all other souls.

Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life, and she said that she didn’t talk to God, she just listened. The interviewer asked her what God did, and she replied “He just listens too.” Silent prayer and contemplation is probably the most powerful form of communication with the Divine, because we spend so much time focused on words that we lose touch with the more instinctual side of our nature.

Contemplative prayer is an age-old tradition of mystics. It is quite similar to centering prayer, but doesn’t involve a specific concept; it’s more of a wordless communion with the Divine. It is usually preceded by more verbal forms of prayer, which lead into contemplation or meditation.

In Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of Judaism, there are four worlds or stages of creation, and when we pray, we ascend through these worlds to come closer to God; they also correspond to psychological states. The closest world to the Divine Source is Emanation (Proximity in Hebrew); the next is Creation, then Formation, then Action. The soul in prayer ascends through the worlds of action (the body), formation (the ego), creation (the soul) and emanation (the Divine presence).

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, there is a tradition called Hesychasm. Hagia Hesychia or Holy Silence is an aspect of Christ, and Hesychasm is the practice of silent prayer. In some ways it is similar to Quaker practice (which is interesting when you consider that there is no historical connection between them). Holy Silence is traditionally represented as female, and there is a lovely icon of her by William Hart McNicholls.

Staretz Silouan, a monk of Mt Athos, recommended praying for everyone you know and just holding them in your awareness and love. Similarly, a Buddhist meditation of Metta Bhavana (loving kindness) invites you to love yourself, then your partner, then your community, then someone you dislike, then the whole world.

Centering prayer was developed by an interfaith dialogue group of Christians and Buddhists. These Christians admired the technique of Buddhist meditation but didn’t want to cultivate the awareness of the Void recommended by Buddhist tradition; so instead they decided to choose a single concept and focus on it during the meditation, which they called “centering prayer”. So for instance you might choose the word “Love”, or “Peace” or “Joy” to focus on during the prayer. The technique is similar to that of meditation, in that you relax your breathing and focus on the body, but you hold the concept you wish to focus on in your heart for the duration of the prayer, perhaps repeating the chosen word. We tried this earlier.

Body prayer is where you involve your whole body in the act of prayer. This might be gardening and praying, or dancing and praying, or walking and praying. Walking a labyrinth can be a prayerful act, as you deliberately focus on the spiritual journey. Another example of body prayer is the Dances of Universal Peace, a dance tradition in their own right, designed to engender peace and love in the participants; another example is the Salute to the Sun found in Yoga (which is a sacred Hindu practice designed to stimulate spiritual growth); yet another example is the Muslim style of prayer, which was also used by many Christians in the Middle East (indeed in some places, Christians and Muslims used to pray side by side). Similarly, Taizé prayer is an ecstatic form of prayer involving the whole body.

So prayer can begin with words, and end with silent contemplation. There are many different kinds of prayer, using words, gestures, dance, and silence. All are beneficial to the spiritual practitioner, and to those around them, as they cultivate peace.

The other day a Catholic friend posted on his blog that Christian mysticism is more interested in the practice of compassion than in achieving rarefied spiritual states. This is probably true of all the world’s great mystical traditions; but I commented that the two approaches go hand in hand – you cannot practice compassion unless you are also at peace with yourself; and you cannot be at peace with yourself unless you practice compassion. You cannot separate the inner work from the outer work, because your inner state and the outer world are intimately connected. As D T Suzuki once said, “Our ego is just a swinging door between our outer and inner world.” And, I would add, it is prayer that opens the door between the two worlds.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Bridge of Light

Bridge of Light is a new holiday honouring GLBT culture. You can celebrate Bridge of Light by lighting six candles, one for each colour of the rainbow flag, on New Year’s Eve — or one candle per day from 26 December to 1 January.

Each candle stands for a universal principle and its expression in the lives and history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people:

1. Red - The Root of Spirit (Community)
2. Orange - The Fire of Spirit (Eros)
3. Yellow - The Core of Spirit (Self-Esteem)
4. Green - The Heart of Spirit (Love)
5. Blue - The Voice of Spirit (Self-Expression and Justice)
6. Purple - The Eye of Spirit (Wisdom)
7. All Candles - The Crown of Spirit (Spirituality)

They are also based on the chakras, and the idea was developed by Kittredge Cherry and Joe Perez. It is intended as an interfaith festival.

Joe Perez said:
Bridge of Light is an interfaith and omni-denominational cultural and spiritual tradition... The annual winter ritual (now in its fifth year) has helped to draw attention to the positive contributions made by members of the LGBT community in the areas of spiritual growth, inner transformation, and religious leadership.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

What is a miracle?

Steve Hayes over at the Khanya blog has asked the question "What is a miracle?" and answered it in terms of his own Orthodox Christian faith.

I tend not to use the word miracle very often, but when I do, I tend to mean something like “signs and wonders” rather than a supernatural thing (as I don't believe in the supernatural).

I find Jung’s concept of synchronicity more useful – “the acausal connecting principle” – where two events that have no connection nevertheless occur at the same time, thereby creating an apparent connection.

One example of synchronicity that I have experienced was the day I gave an address on the subject of gay rights, and a gay couple came to the chapel for their first time at a Unitarian service. The reason this was synchronicity, to my mind, was that I had been asked to do the service (Palm Sunday) at the last minute, and was sitting and racking my brains, thinking, argh, what do I know about Palm Sunday? So I went to read the Gospel accounts of it, and it reminded me of the downfall of celebrities, and then of the arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel. So I did the service about LGBT rights, but it wasn't premeditated, nor was the topic advertised in advance.

And then there’s the question of the difference between miracles and magic. (I know that the difference is clear in the Christian paradigm, where miracles come from God and magic comes from human or possibly even diabolic agency; but others use the words differently.) I was interested to note that various Orthodox saints are called Wonderworker, Thaumaturgos in Greek, and thaumaturgy was a branch of magic in the 16th century. Miracles are considered to be performed through these saints by God; not by the agency of the saint (though presumably their holiness makes them a fit channel for the miraculous energy of God).

To my mind, magic is a little-understood natural power or a property of nature that can be deliberately wielded by humans (like telepathy, healing, etc.), whereas miracles are events not caused by humans that are still inexplicable and full of wonder. I don’t believe in the supernatural (being a pantheist), so if miracles and magic exist, their source must be inside nature and not beyond it.

Aleister Crowley's definition of magic was "changing consciousness in accordance with Will" (he was quite scientifically-minded really) and various Pagan and occult writers have since defined it similarly. So, in Pagan and occult thinking, magic is a deliberate procedure such as meditation, prayer, healing, visualisation, invocation, evocation and so on, which will result in a change in consciousness. Miracles don't really come into Pagan thought much at all.

Unitarians tend to think of miracles as pretty unlikely - we celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah with emphasis on the renewal of freedom of religion that it entailed, and we celebrate the miracle of Christmas with emphasis on the miraculousness of every birth and the divinity within everyone.

Unitarians do practice meditation, prayer and sometimes visualisation, but it's not referred to as magic. Perhaps just as well, since (for everyone except Pagans) the word is so loaded with connotations of wielding supernatural powers.

There is also a problem with the magical mindset, in that everything comes to be seen as a sign or a portent, even when it isn't. People have forgotten the need for discernment - trying to work out if the apparent omen is actually an omen, or whether it's just a passing phenomenon. This is why we need reason, and to balance open-mindedness and scepticism. I always try to find a natural explanation for something first, and only if one cannot readily be found would I accept it as something magical or miraculous.

Arthur C Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And Larry Niven and others have turned this around and said "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." Either way, if science was less materialistic, it would undoubtedly be able to investigate and explain so-called magical phenomena. It has already been demonstrated that meditation works and is beneficial; why not other spiritual practices? There's nothing supernatural about these practices; they have demonstrable psychological and physical effects.