Monday, July 24, 2006

She who sings twice prays ... how many times?

The 10:15 worshipers at the Episcopal church I’ve been attending lately like to sing—and I mean they really like to sing.

It helps that it’s a very small church so the sound doesn’t have far to go to fill every corner of the room. But this group sings with real gusto; I don’t think they’d have any trouble filling a space two or three times the size.

Yesterday, when we arrived at the final hymn, the organist started playing a different selection from the one that was posted. We did our best through a verse, gallantly struggling to fit the words of one hymn to the melody of the other, but it clearly wasn’t working. Finally someone called out the number of the hymn the organist was playing and we all switched pages and sang the first verse of that one.

Then the organist caught on to the problem and announced he would play the hymn that was listed, so we all flipped back in the hymnbook and sang through six verses of that one. Nobody moved until it was finished, and the last verse was accomplished with just as much enthusiasm as the first.

I’m not sure what it proves, but I don’t think you’d see this happening in a Catholic church.

On the way out, one of the most passionate singers commented that she really liked "being part of a church where oops! doesn’t matter.”

It’s an interesting way to put it, but isn't that exactly what it's all supposed to be about?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Stuck in gear

I seem to be stuck wandering among Episcopal churches attending Inquirers' Classes but never managing to go the next step and join. I keep asking myself if that represents courage or cowardice. An interesting entry I found among some old scribblings: "Dec. 13, 1988: Lately--starting Sunday at Mass, in fact--I've had one of those ideas that's hard to track--is it a thought planted by God, or did it come from somewhere else? Should I act on it or overcome it? The thought was that if I really had courage, I'd find a different church, one that comes closer to being what Jesus established. I'm still not sure what to do with that one."

I guess I still don't know what to do with it, and reading that made me a little sad. If I'd gone over sooner, who knows what might have been?

I went to my latest Inquirer's session last night, a dinner gathering organized by the Episcopal church I've been attending for the past few weeks. The usual suspects were there, people looking for something: hospitality, acceptance, a dignified and satisfying style of worship. Of course each one of them is more complicated than a single phrase can convey, but you get the idea.

And me? I'm trying to find a faith community that is managing to be church in a way that makes sense to me, that is as close as humanly possible to what Jesus intended. I've read and thought and prayed and experienced and I sure do like the Anglican model, but I keep running into this deep part of myself that I don't really understand and don't know how (or whether) to change, where I find that I just am Roman Catholic.

Of the six of us "inquirers," I think five will probably proceed to be received into the Episcopal church when the bishop pays us his next visit. There was a moment last night when I felt the faintest stirring of possibility that I might go, too, but it still feels unlikely.

Of the six of us inquirers, we were all but one raised in the Roman Catholic church, as were the church members who hosted the dinner, another woman who just joined another Episcopal church, the priest who is vicar of this church, and one of two other priests who came to speak with us. Interesting, isn't it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Offering it up

If we complained about any kind of hardship, real or perceived, when I was growing up, we were advised to "offer it up," the idea being that by joining ourselves with the suffering of Jesus, we could turn our adversities into a way of doing something good for the world. It strikes me now as charmingly presumptuous to imagine that a scraped knee or the deprivation of a candy war constituted actual suffering, though I suppose for one raised in comfortable circumstances in a time of peace, it might have represented a child-sized portion.

Offering it up hasn't played much part in my adult spiritual life, in part because I tend to prefer a more thoughtful approach (or, at times, to be as thought-less as I can manage) but also perhaps because I've been fortunate to live a life marked by ordinary disappointments but with very little in the way of real suffering. That privileged kid grew up to be a privileged adult, in other words. These past two weeks, however, have brought an unwelcome opportunity to revisit the practice of redemptive suffering, as I experienced pain at a level of intensity unequaled in my entire previous life and, I most fervently hope, in what's left to come. I'm not looking for sympathy and I won't dwell on the details; suffice it to say my condition was not life-threatening and that I am now well on the mend, sill pondering the experience.

Its effect was to narrow my openness to the world beyond myself to a pinhole. Gone was that expansive feeling of God-present that I have come to rely on; in its place, I retreated into some place deep inside myself and shut out everything and everyone else. It became necessary to focus my entire being on the pain in order to endure it; words were a distraction, conversation impossible. Though at several points I turned over thoughts about consciously embracing the sufferings of Jesus, that was really a very abstract concept that was mostly far beyond my capacity to realize.

Eventually, I found, you reach a point where you feel you have nothing left; you may trust in God's loving presence but have no real sense of it, and only the barest sense of yourself, for that matter. When we get to that place where we have no words for prayer and can find nothing left of ourselves to offer, maybe that is where we pray the truest prayer of all.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Better praying through chemistry?

I couldn't help smiling when I heard about about some research out of Johns Hopkins University that's been in the news this past week, namely that psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogen mushrooms, can induce spiritual experiences. Wait a minute, guys, didn't anybody check the file on the Sixties? I mean, Timothy Leary may be dead and all, but didn't we already know that?

To be serious, this study was supposed to be significant for two reasons, the first being that research in this area had pretty much shut down since the Sixties, thanks largely to the bad rep it got from association with old Tim, and the second being that these current researchers are the first to apply rigorous scientific standards to this work. The results, says Roland Griffiths, the study's lead researcher, show that "under very defined conditions, with careful preparation, you can safely and fairly reliably occasion what's called a primary mystical experience that may lead to positive changes in a person" lasting long after the mushroom trip is over.

According to the Hopkins press release describing the study:

More than 60 percent of subjects described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met criteria for a “full mystical experience” as measured by established psychological scales. One third said the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes; and more than two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant. Griffiths says subjects liken it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.

Two months later, 79 percent of subjects reported moderately or greatly increased well-being or life satisfaction compared with those given a placebo at the same test session. A majority said their mood, attitudes and behaviors had changed for the better. Structured interviews with family members, friends and co-workers generally confirmed the subjects' remarks. Results of a year-long followup are being readied for publication.

Interesting stuff, this, though I must admit that I do find it somewhat troubling. Maybe I'm just jealous; I have a little experience in this area myself (I'm a child of that era, remember) and while we certainly had fun, I can't say I remember anything profoundly mystical coming out of those adventures. Beyond that, I don't like wondering if subsequent experiences when I felt especially close to God were really just a matter of brain chemistry. Again according to the Hopkins press release, "The agent, a plant alkaloid called psilocybin, mimics the effect of serotonin on brain receptors--as do some other hallucinogens--but precisely where in the brain and in what manner are unknown."

Interestingly, those chosen to take part in the study were already spiritually active. "We felt that volunteers who had some engagement with prayer, meditation, churchgoing, or similar activities would be better equipped to understand and consolidate any mystical-type experiences they might have in the study," Griffiths says. In what I've read he doesn't indicate whether he believes in the "Beyond" his subjects experienced, but he does seem to say that just because the research subjects' experience of a "Beyond" was chemically induced, that doesn't have to mean that what they experienced isn't real.

In other news about new academic studies proving what we already knew, researchers at Princeton University have found that the link between wealth and happiness is illusory and mostly exaggerated. Didn't Jesus say something along those lines about two thousand years ago?

Final item, I went to Mass one day last week and noticed eleven women and four men in attendance, a slightly higher representation of men than we sometimes see. I checked out a Christian meditation group at the same church Monday evening, and there were approximately seven women and two men. Will someone please remind me why the men get to run this organization? Can anyone explain why the women let them?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Religion v. spirituality

Even as I am feeling drawn more and more toward my local Catholic parish, this weekend found me playing my old game of parsing signs and signals about which church to attend until almost the last minute, when I got in the car and headed for the Episcopal church I've been appreciating recently. In his homilies, the priest there explores depths of meaning in the scripture readings and other topics that really interest me, and once again this week he touched on a subject I've been pondering lately myself, the differences between religion and spirituality, though I admit I'm not sure if those are exactly the right words for what I've been thinking about.

He mentioned a book called The Spirituality of Imperfection, by Ernest Kurtz; I was intrigued, and went straight to my computer when I got home to look it up on Amazon.

To quote his quotes from the book: "Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who have been there." And: "A spirituality of imperfection suggests that the first prayer is a scream, a cry for help."

What I've been thinking myself on the subject of religion and spirituality is that religion is about taking words and forms and beliefs that come to you from some source outside of yourself and using them to express our common attitudes toward God: praise, thanksgiving, penitence, and so forth. Spirituality, on the other hand, is about looking deep within yourself, to the place where you meet God without putting anybody else's interface in between, and where you may hear God speaking to you, if you listen carefully. In my little construct, religion is about an attitude toward God, while spirituality is about an encounter with God. One of the things that finally led me to leave the Episcopal church I had been attending for over a year was that I couldn't seem to find enough opportunities there to take that further step toward God. I do also know many Catholics who seem more religous than spiritual, but I suppose one good thing about worshiping under the big tent of your typically much larger Catholic congregation is that among all those people you're likely to find a variety of ways of expressing the impulse toward God, and thus more likely to find one that suits.

But I'm not sure about that second quote from the book. For me, this encounter begins with the acknowledgement that I am nothing without God, in whom it has been said that we live and move and have our being; that God's love is the grounding of my reality. Does that equal a cry for help? It may be related, but I'm not sure it's precisely the same.

Whereas I came home thinking that I would certainly try to find a copy this book, after I'd read a little more about it I wasn't so sure. The review Amazon quotes says, "The aim of this book is to explain the underlying spiritual--although not necessarily religious--principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Part 1 presents the emphasis of this spirituality, which is the recognition and especially the acceptance of humans as imperfect beings. Part 2 tells how the founders of AA put spirituality to use. Part 3 discusses the benefits: release, gratitude, humility, tolerance, and forgiveness." I may put it on my list, but not at the top.

I haven't been to an Episcopal church for a while, since a couple of weeks before the trip to Iceland, and this time fell right into one of the booby traps that open up for me in the places where Episcopal and Catholic words and practice diverge. I'm usually pretty careful about those things, and at communion time I managed to get my hands right on top of left in the Episcopal fashion, but at the next stop I blurted out my Amen right after the words The blood of Christ, without waiting for the cup of salvation, clearly startling the minister of the cup. Alas, sometimes it isn't easy to keep all this external stuff straight and still be spiritual (or maybe it just isn't possible to keep the Catholic in me from prevailing).

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The woman at the tank truck

So it wasn't much of a flood by Biblical standards; no ark was required for this one, although I did notice some displaced animals wandering in confusion through our backyard, including a groundhog, a turtle, and a deer. But, in another Biblical allusion, I have become the woman at the well (or, in this case, the woman at the stainless steel tank truck).

The place of Jacob's well has been taken in our town by a silvery behemoth parked in back of the local firehouse, which I more commonly visit to vote or give blood. If you get your water from a private well, one of the aftereffects of major flooding is that you can't drink what flows from the tap until it's been tested and proven safe. That can a week or more if the flood happens right before a long holiday weekend, so every other day or so we drive up to the firehouse to draw water from the twin metal nipples sticking out of the back of a truck that has been provided to us through the generosity of the county Water and Sewer Authority (and in this case I certainly hope the first word is the operative part of that name).

As I stood there last night filling my motley assortment of bottles and pitchers, I couldn't help considering the obvious ironies that an excess of water had brought us a water shortage, that we experience water not only as a source of life but also as a force of destruction. I was thinking, too, about the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, who was really pretty bold but who knew a good thing. I didn't find Jesus waiting for me at the firehouse, though, just the fire chief.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Buddhists with power washers

Buddhists with power washers showed up today. Lots of them.

They went to work cleaning up flood damage at the home of some neighbors who are good people but profess no religious faith. The Buddhists supplemented their power washers with flood cleanup kits delivered to us by the Salvation Army.

What a strange and wonderful world we live in, and how silly all the definitions we use to divide ourselves up seem at times like this.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Learning to receive

I was on the receiving end of a natural disaster this past week. River flooding is different from a hurricane, where there's more suspense about where it will come ashore and how bad it will be. When the river across the street from my home floods, we usually have about two day's notice. We know what's coming, and we have a pretty fair estimate of just how bad it will be. It is humbling to sit in your house (or, more accurately, run around your house trying to figure out what to save) knowing that big-time trouble is heading your way and there's nothing you or any other human being can do to stop it.

I also was on the receiving end of a tremendous river of caring last week, and that, too, is humbling.

We were traveling when the warning came, and there was no way we could get back home in time to do anything. The cell phone rang in our hotel room at 3:30 am with a call from our son, four time zones away, letting us know about the flood warnings and giving us until morning his time to think about what we wanted him to do for us. Making our list and finding Internet and telephone connections to communicate from a foreign city was certainly an adventure, but the real story is what happened back at home. I asked the people I work with for help, and our son asked other friends for help, and still other friends showed up at our house on their own. The group of a dozen or so that came together managed to move everything on the first floor of our house to the second floor--everything, that is, except a massive grand piano which they couldn't move and so raised on cinder blocks as high as they could lift it.

Thankfully, we were spared the worst of it. The water did not rise as high as the worst estimates, and it didn't quite reach the first floor of our house. Still, we can't drink the water from our well, we have to find someone to power wash and bleach the muck from the crawl space under our house, and we lost most of the contents of our refrigerator and freezer after three days without power. (And, of course, we have to bring everything back down put it back where it was.) Still, compared to many of our neighbors, we got off easy, and we experienced tremendous peace of mind knowing that no matter how bad it turned out to be, our family photographs and heirlooms would be safe. Of course they're all just things, and if we lost them life would go on, but they are links to people and times that matter to us, and we're glad we won't have to spend the next weeks carrying their soggy remains out to the street and throwing them into a Dumpster.

Some things I'm still thinking about:
  • Asking for help, asking your friends to do something really big for you, and having them respond by doing even more than you'd asked for.
  • Waking up in the morning not knowing where you will lie down that night; trusting that you will in fact find a place.
  • Knowing that however inconvenienced you've been, others have it much worse.
  • Seeing that people will help you in big ways without your having to ask.
  • Watching your 24-year-old son take total charge of a difficult situation and handle it gracefully and well, taking care of you when you are helpless to do for yourself (but our feelings about this are mixed; if it looks like evidence of our success as parents, it also suggests that the next generation is ready to start taking care of us now--does that mean it's all downhill from here?).

I still feel the glow of being in held in love by so many people, people who worked hard to save what they thought would be most important to us--though oddly, it also felt a little like surviving our own wake, knowing that friends from different areas of our lives were gathered together in our name, without us. And though I describe it as a glow, the truth is that it does not feel entirely comfortable. I'm not used to being so needy. I'm not used to being given so much, and I'm still getting used to it. Even Jesus said it's better to give than to receive. As a giver I may try to empathize with those I am serving, but the truth is that the giver has power, while the receiver has none. The giver is the one who is considered virtuous, who can choose to give or not to give. When you really need help, all you can do is accept whatever assistance is offered to you.

A long time ago I read a book by Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country, called Creative Suffering. Paton made the point that those who suffer give a great gift to those who serve them by providing this opportunity for service. While I've come to realize this may not be a completely original thought, it made an impression on me then and I've thought about it many times since. As it happens, we've done a lot in the past to help one of the friends who came to help us last week. My husband has been worrying about what we can do now to express our gratitude for her help in our time of need, looking for some way to compensate her, and I told him that what we have given her is an opportunity to meet us on equal terms, to do something for us that we really needed and could not do for ourselves. He thought about that for a while and finally accepted the idea, but it was clear that being a receiver rather than a giver is something that doesn't come easily to him, either.

The flood has given us an opportunity to practice receiving, asking for what we need, accepting what's given to us with no expectation of payback, learning to look the giver in the eye and simply say thanks. Today's Gospel is also about asking for what we need. The woman with the hemorrhage and the synagogue official whose daughter had died didn't hesitate to go to Jesus for help, and they got it. We're always on the receiving end when it comes to our relationship with God. We can't escape God's love, but what would happen if we really opened our hearts to it? And no matter what I might try to do in return, there's no way I could ever earn what I am given. How good am I at saying thanks?