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Category Archives: Spirituality

Belief in the Age of Coronavirus: Dread, Science and Mystery — liftthescreen

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We live in mystery. Nothing has brought this home so forcefully to me as the times we are experiencing now. Below is a blog post from my friend Philip Hefner, whom I met at conferences of IRAS, The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. His post articulates for me the beauty and terror of being alive. He is one of my favorite theologians. Phil’s blog can be found at liftthescreen. Check out what he has written and pay him a visit! KJH

Belief in the Age of Coronavirus: Dread, Science and Mystery

There’s the existential angst that comes with self-quarantine and the awareness of why it’s necessary—we call it “plague dread.”  And then there are the various levels of explanation, the micro-meanings, you might say. And then there’s the mystery—the big meaning, macro-meaning.

Each of us will fill in the dread with the facts of our own life. I am approaching age ninety, with at least three of what the media call “underlying conditions”—more than enough empirical ground for me to dread the Coronavirus.

Almost hourly, we hear precise scientific descriptions of the virus. These descriptions are crucial, because they enable competent people—physicians, nurses, and researchers—to treat the disease and even prevent its spread.

The scientific theory of evolution helps me understand our situation. The Coronavirus is an example of an evolutionary process wrapped within larger evolutionary processes. The behavior of the virus follows Darwinian expectations. All of the processes that take place within our bodies—from the nano and molecular levels to the cells—follow the same evoIutionary pattern. 

These evolutionary processes within us are fundamentally ambiguous in that they bring us life and they also bring us death. Leonard Hummel and Gayle Woloschak describe this ambiguity in their fine 2017 book, Chance Necessity, Love: An Evolutionary Theology of Cancer (Cascade Books). 

This presents us with a dilemma—we are grateful for the life-giving work of our internal body processes, and we dread the deadly work of those processes. Like cancer, the presence of Coronavirus is fully “natural.” Nature within us is “naturally” ambiguous. Further, these micro-evolutionary processes take place within a much larger story of evolution with several chapters: the evolution of life, which began millions of years ago, within the larger 4 billion year-long story of planet Earth’s evolution, within the still larger story of cosmic evolution, 12 billion years in the telling.

Our response to COVID-19 is to resist the flow of evolution and redirect it. That’s what our practice of medicine is about, the attempt to redirect evolutionary processes in our favor. The long processes of evolutionary bend because of our efforts. This reminds me how infinitesimally small we are, and yet how amazingly gifted we are. Evolution has brought us life and also the skill to reorder evolution itself.

Nevertheless, despite our efforts, even when they are successful, the struggle with evolution takes its toll—and that means injury and death. In my case evolution in my mother’s womb caused me to be born with spina bifida, which, though moderate in severity, has radically impacted the last ten years of my life.

Even as I write, I am aware of the Mystery (note the capital “M”) that wraps around us. We—and these incomprehensible processes of evolution—float in a sea of Mystery. Why is it that our existence is woven on this vast and complex loom of evolution? Why has God chosen this particular way of bringing us into life and sustaining us?

Many thinkers down the millennia have pondered this “Why?”—and they have given us no satisfying final answers. We can probe Mystery, but we cannot resolve it like a puzzle. The Book of Job speaks to me at this point. When Job raised the question and demanded God’s response, the voice from the whirlwind spoke to him: Your mind is too small and weak to comprehend the height and depths of Mystery—you simply must accept it and trust it.

The Existentialist Albert Camus acknowledged the Mystery, and he believed it is indifferent to human hopes and longings; we cry out for answers for our lives, but in return we hear only silence—he called it ultimate absurdity—Absurdity with a capital “A.” His novel, The Plague is the story of life during a plague. The plague was indifferent to human existence, the epitome of Absurdity.

Others have called the Mystery Enemy, malevolent, intending to destroy us, if it can. 

Christian faith calls the Mystery Friend, Redeemer, Suffering God. Much like the message of Job—death at the hands of the Mystery is real; our attempts to understand it are futile; but the same Mystery is our Redeemer.  We can trust it.

After all, evolution is a process—faith believes the process is going somewhere, and that “somewhere” is in the life of God. The life of God is love, which is why in the midst of plague we find love, caring for others.

Medically, for most people our current plague will not have serious consequences. Psychologically and economically, it will damage most people, at least to some degree. A small percentage of people will die. All of us will be borne along the same evolutionary process into our future. And for all of us, that future will be God’s gift to us.

Think of the image of a train. Some of us will get off the train at this station, everyone will get off sooner or later, at different stops. Every station’s name will be the same, “God’s Destination—Love.”

(c) Phil Hefner 23 March 2020

On Sanctuary

With the upheaval we in the United States have experienced in the past weeks, the word “sanctuary” has taken on a deeper meaning for me. We all need places of sanctuary when times and events are ominous and hurtful. How can this blog address the need for sanctuary in our world today? Certainly churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship have traditionally provided sanctuary to people in distress or danger. And “sanctuary cities” are springing up across the United States. Last night I attended a vigil at a local Islamic Center (Hudson, NY) which was held to affirm solidarity with immigrants. It was a warm, candlelit outdoor gathering on a frigid night. The gathering was sponsored by the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement. Sanctuary as a movement is interesting to me.

Hudson Islamic Center vigil for solidarity

Hudson Islamic Center vigil for solidarity

My interest lies in sanctuaries without walls, and spontaneous gatherings, rather than literal sanctuary in buildings. On the day of the Women’s Marches worldwide,  a friend and I gathered together a group of women who for a variety of reasons were not marching. Around a dining room table we spoke our fears and hopes, and pondered actions we could take.

How, in our everyday lives, do we each provide sanctuary to others? How can we, with others, provide sanctuary in ways  “outside the walls?” What does sanctuary mean to you, and how do you create or experience it in your life?

Place of Resurrection

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“Let your feet follow your heart until you find your place of resurrection.”

This Celtic saying reflects the importance of pilgrimage as a spiritual practice in the Celtic tradition.

At the holy well of St. Brigid in Kildare, Ireland.


Why “place of resurrection?” During  pilgrimage we leave behind our usual ways, our comforts, as we step into the unknown. Resurrection is about the trust we have that our steps will be led by the ever-unfolding presence of guidance in our lives – that which brings us hope, healing, renewal, liberation, transformation, rebirth – whatever we choose to call it: God or Goddess, cosmic serendipity, Tao, flow, Christ consciousness, emergence, the Universe.

Celtic monks sought their places of resurrection in this world, journeying to find the place where they could best fulfill their mission. Many of us are wanderers in this way – spiritually if not physically. We follow our hearts to best discern where we can serve, and how we can bring the spirit of resurrection to others.

Feel free to share your pilgrimage and resurrection stories.


Nature as a mirror

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At this time of year, we take the time to explore inner themes of renewal, liberation, awareness, attention, rebirth – whether via Passover,  Lent, through the mirror of nature, or in other ways. The SWW Elderwoman circle gatherings have ended, but for those of us who participated, it was just a beginning. This is a perfect seasonal time for beginnings.

In the words of Mary Anne Brussat:

Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal, and transformation in our lives.

Finding Sanctuary

• Finding sanctuary.

• Listening to earth-spirit whispers.

• Sharing our stories and experiences.

• Developing the heart-dimensions of who we are.

• Becoming monks in the world, as we take our learning and presence seriously, playfully, compassionately back into the world when we part.

• Living from a deeper place within ourselves in each encounter as we live our daily lives: the passionate, connecting, transforming power that we can bring to the healing of one another and our world.

Earthen Practices

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“Our task is to stamp this provisional, perishing earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately that its being may rise again, ‘invisibly’ in us.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, 1925
………………………

The snow covers the ground here.

The light with its long shadows, the bare branches – it seems that everything is dead.

But this death is another stage of life.  With your hand, brush away the snow, and the signs of life will be there. Seeds are waiting to awaken, the insects are there, animals are burrowed in dens. The days grow longer. Hold them near. The wheel of life is turning.

Dark and Light

Dark and Light

Let us not be too quick to rush toward the light. A blanket of darkness wraps us in its stillness, and we turn in on ourselves. Dark nurtures the deep sunseeds, fosters the gestation of dreams. In old northern European traditions, Dark is valued as necessary in its cyclical and spiraling dance with the Light. We need Light’s kinship with Darkness.

Our ancestors from the northern reaches of the world experienced extended daylight in summer, and very long nights in winter. The primary division in Celtic sacred time is between the Dark and Light halves of the year. The Light half of the year is an outward time, when things happen rapidly, and in plain sight. In the dark half, the experience of change is minimized, the will is muted, and what is called for is contemplation, seeds hidden in the darkness, in the womb of our being, out of which new events and ways of life will grow, as the balance shifts. While these Dark and Light halves signify the seasons of the year, it goes deeper than that, because each event or process in our lives throughout the year has Dark and Light modes operative within them. Both Dark and Light principles of are of equal importance, but they are never static. That’s what introduces the triad, the love of threeness, in Celtic understanding: the fundamental sacred element, the spark from the Otherworld, that keeps everything changing, shifting, flowing and growing.

Let us not be too quick to rush toward the light. All true growth takes place in darkness, below the level of consciousness. Creativity is born in the unconscious,  the womb as its symbol, the cauldron image which is so dear to the Celtic tradition. In the dark bubbling of the cauldron, transformation slowly takes place. In the dark we rest, attentive to the influence of the unconscious, the sacred,  and an openness to the sunseeds hidden in the dark, the growth that is slow and unhurried.

While dark is necessary and complementary with light, we cannot discount the psychological effects upon us as humans. We cannot help but be joyful at the return of the light, the turning point. The Child of Light is born, the Mabon ap Madron in Welsh mythology, the son of the great mother. In these ancient tales, the spirit of Christmas predates Christianity. We are made confident that the seed of light, grown in the womb of dark, will grow and bloom in its proper season.

We gather in the room in darkness, with only the small hearth fire for light. As each of us speaks about what has been gestating for her, she lights a candle. We go round and round the circle, until at last, after many stories have been told, the room is ablaze with candlelight and we are aglow as we let our lights shine.

At another celebration, we turn out all the lights in the large building. Then we sing and drum and call the sun back to us, and surprise! The lights come on! The children love it. Then we form a great human chain to dance in a spiral throughout the building, singing The Lord of the Dance.

In closing I offer a prayer written in the Celtic tradition by J. Phillip Newell , where a sense of the sacredness of nature is blended with a religious concern for the world:

O Sun behind all suns

O Soul within all souls

Grant me the grace of the dawn’s glory

Grant me the strength of the sun’s rays

That I may be well in my own soul

And part of the world’s healing this day . . .


(This post is offered in gratitude to the many teachers of Celtic Spirituality, including M. Freeman, W. Melnyk, and the late A. Kondratiev, whose spirit lives on.)

“Beauty as well as bread…”

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,

places to play in and pray in,

where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

~John Muir

Church in the woods

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“Every time I’m in the woods, I feel like I’m in church.” — Pete Seeger

Photo by Seth Rockmuller

Autumn: The Wheel Turns

Photo by Seth Rockmuller

The colors of autumn are appearing: goldenrod blankets the fields, and clusters of red and gold leaves are glowing in the trees here and there. Mums blossom in large pots on porches, and people are starting to put their gardens to bed.

The life force that burst forth in our spring gardens is beginning to ebb, as we gather in our harvests; such is the flow of the spiraling seasons. After the busyness of the summer season, our lives start turning inward. I will take time to reflect upon and celebrate this turning of the wheel of the year.

GreenSpirit: Path to a New Consciousness

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On Sunday afternoon, 2 PM,  September 12th, Marian Van Eyk McCain will be speaking at the Real Food Network Co-op (upstairs in the Community Room, 15 Church Street, Chatham, NY) about her new book GreenSpirit: Path to a New Consciousness. (Please note: the Co-op is not open for business on Sundays.)

Marian and her husband live simply in Devon, England. She limits her air travel for environmental reasons, so we are fortunate to have her with us. Please join us on September 12th!

Published by O Books and launched in London in July 2010, this book brings together the words and ideas of contemporary writers from a wide range of disciplines and wisdom traditions to create a comprehensive manual for eco-spiritual, green and sustainable 21st century living.
In his Foreword , Resurgence editor Satish Kumar says: “I am confident that the book will act like a guide to many who are seeking a right relationship between the human spirit and the natural world.”
Contributors include Marian, along with environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan, economist David Korten, cosmologist Brian Swimme,  ecologist Stephan Harding, ecopsychologist Sandra White, Episcopalian priest and educator Matthew Fox, wellness expert John  Travis MD,   spokespeople from the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sufi and Pagan traditions and more than a dozen others. The late Thomas Berry gave this book his special blessing when the manuscript was first completed, just six months before he died.

This GreenSpirit event with Marian promises to be very inspiring. There is no fee, but donations will be gratefully accepted. We look forward to seeing you in the Community Room, upstairs at the Real Food Market Co-op on Sunday, September 12, 2 PM.

GreenSpirit Poster – Please help spread the word about this GreenSpirit event.

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Marian is also author of the book Elderwoman: Reap the Wisdom – Feel the Power – Embrace the Joy, which ties in with Growing Older, Growing Wiser: Becoming an Elderwoman, a seven-part series beginning in Chatham on September 14th.

Marian Van Eyk McCain

Autumn Years

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Photo by Seth Rockmuller

In preparing for the upcoming series Growing Older, Growing Wiser: Becoming an Elderwoman, I came across the article below, which was written when I first decided to present the series. It was originally published in The Eddy, the newsletter of the organization Wellspring Haven.

Autumn Reflections,   by Katharine Houk

Lately, a cold wind has been rattling the last, clinging leaves of autumn.  The mellow days have passed; winter is almost upon us. The harvest is in, my herb garden has been put to bed, and the geese are winging south.

At this autumn time, I am very aware that I have entered what is sometimes referred to as the “autumn” of life, even though inside I feel young, vital, and creative. In the past decade, I have given much thought to what it means to be entering the Third Age of my life: reading, talking with older women, revisiting my past, deepening spiritual practices, conducting research. I wish to live these years in a conscious and fruitful way, savoring each moment.

This autumn I attended a conference especially for women who have discovered that age is something to celebrate. There I enjoyed workshops, drumming, dancing, an “Honoring of the Elders,” small group gatherings, storytelling, and a beautiful labyrinth in the woods, where some deer and two owls appeared at twilight to accompany me on my otherwise solitary walk. Over two hundred women were at the conference, with the workshops being led by the women attending, much as Wellspring Haven conducts its Annual Women’s Campout. Women’s circles are thriving everywhere. It was fascinating to attend a conference designed expressly for Elderwomen, and I came away feeling as though I had experienced an initiation into my Third Age…

Delightfully, being in the autumn of life feels enormously liberating, as I find myself more at peace than ever before.  It’s a feeling of lightness, and spaciousness.  In my life I have learned from many experiences, both joyful and painful, and I intend to keep learning and growing as long as I am able.  Each of us has her life story, rich with experience and insight.  Sharing those stories empowers us.

Entering these final decades can be challenging, considering the changes which aging brings and the social attitudes toward older women in our culture. We are “crones,” or “hags” – two words that used to have very different connotations than they do now.  “Crone” comes from the same root as the word “crown,” and “hag” mean “holy one,” which is why the study of saints’ lives is known as hagiography. It’s time to reclaim the honor that those words formerly conveyed.

…Becoming an Elderwoman, a Wisewoman, is an ongoing process.   Growing older in and of itself is no guarantee of growing wiser.  Here is my (and our) “how-to” challenge and adventure:  How To Become an Elderwoman, someone aging with grace, good humor, joy, and wisdom.   There are things we can do to make our autumn journeys conscious ones, as we deepen our awareness of who we truly are and how we want to live our Third Age.  Let’s grow older and wiser together!

 

Special Guest: Marian Van Eyk McCain – 9/12/10

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Marian Van Eyk McCain

Marian Van Eyk McCain, author of Elderwoman: Reap the Wisdom – Feel the Power – Embrace the Joy, will speak on Sunday, September 12th, 2010, at 2 PM, upstairs in the Community Room at Chatham Real Food Market Co-op. (Please note that the Co-op is not open for business on Sundays.)

Marian’s most recent book is GreenSpirit: Path to a New Consciousness, which she edited. This collection of diverse voices reveals deep thinking on the connections between ecology and spirituality. All are welcome to attend this event, which is sponsored by Sanctuary Without Walls.

Please RSVP so that we will have enough seats for everyone. And please share this message with your friends. Marian rarely travels by plane (she lives in England) because of the environmental impact of jet travel, so we’re fortunate to have time with her. Save the date!

Marion also writes fiction (The Bird Menders) as well as her marvelous books on simplifying one’s life (The Lilypad List: 7 Steps to the Simple Life) and women’s health and spirituality (Transformation Through Menopause).

Last year at a conference, I overheard a woman saying that the book Elderwoman was her “bible” on aging and spirituality. Marian’s visit in September will take place just days before the beginning of Sanctuary Without Wall’s seven-part monthly series for women 55 and older: Growing Older, Growing Wiser: Becoming an Elderwoman. Marian’s book is one of the resources used in planning this series for women.

People of all ages / genders are welcome to attend her talk on September 12th. To RSVP or for more information, contact info@sanctuarywithoutwalls.org.

GreenSpirit Poster

Growing Wiser: Elderwomen Meetings Begin in September

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“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” Eleanor Roosevelt

What follows is a description of a SWW event from 2010-2011.

We stand at a time when the world is in need of wisdom, especially the wisdom of the Elders.  Growing Older, Growing Wiser: Becoming an Elderwoman is a seven-part event designed to lead us thoughtfully, consciously, and joyfully into our Third Age. We will look deeply at our lives so far; discover (and re-discover) those things that are life- and energy-giving for us; separate the grain from the chaff; and step forward into our role as Elderwomen, which will be unique to each of us.

Join us for this important and life-affirming journey. For women, age 55 and older, meeting in Columbia County, NY. Second Tuesday of each month, September 14, 2010 through March 8, 2011.