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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.)