Friday, March 30, 2012

Life in the Fire

This temporal life in the body is in some ways 
a burning at the stake.
We pull up our pitiful feet 
protecting them
from the climbing flames 
of anger, delusion and desire.
Because of Christ, we know
that we shall not be burned
not our souls.
Our essential selves are saved from the fire.
But the waiting is long.
The pain is difficult to endure.
The Buddha is a trainer and an anesthesiologist.
When we are suffering in our minds and in our bodies,
 as the flames graze the skin,
following Buddha's way,
the heat does not scorch us.
The fire makes no penetration. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On Christianity

As I continue learning and writing about the faiths of the world, I have mixed feelings when it comes to a month-long focus on Christianity, which has been my personal faith from childhood.  At times this study program seems absurd to me in the broad brush strokes we are forced to make in our sweeping overview of the multi-faith universe.  However, I have incorporated feelings and perspectives here which are intensely personal for me, so as to temper the superficial coolness of objectivity with some of the heart's fire. 

         Read “The Historical Jesus.” Smith states that “Jesus stood in the tradition of spirit-filled mediators.”  Summarize the meaning of this in one sentence.

To be a “spirit-filled mediator” is to build a bridge between two domains, working concretely within the physical realm, while bringing forth gifts of teaching and healing inspired directly by the eternal, spiritual source of all power.

2.     How would you describe the way Jesus’ beliefs and his “vision of the human community” diverged from those of the Pharisees?

Unlike the Pharisees, who remained anchored in the existing social structure while relying on religious observance of Jewish laws to preserve the holy mission of the Jews, Jesus challenged both the prevailing social structure and the Jewish holiness code.  Jesus sought to remove barriers between people, while the Pharisees’ holiness code reinforced these same barriers; Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner, clean and unclean, rich and poor, male and female.  Jesus’ “vision of the human community” was the unification of all humanity under the banner of God’s love and compassion, and the Pharisaical vision could not tolerate this radical, unifying approach; the idea of an inherent separation between humanity and God required a special preservation of separateness that Jesus sought to eliminate. 

3.     Read “The Christ of Faith.”  What has been a subject of controversy regarding Jesus’ teaching?

Jesus’ approach to evil is upside down by the world’s standards.  Today, as much as 2,000 years ago, fighting and resistance are the normal course, while acceptance and compassion inspire controversy.  Jesus did not teach that we should fight or resist evil in the traditional sense.  Instead, he taught that we should turn the other cheek when faced with violence, that we should love not only our friends but our enemies, that we should pray not only for our loved ones but for those who curse us and that those who would be first shall be last; furthermore, and most importantly, he taught that society’s outcasts could and would outshine “respectable people” in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus exemplified meeting the challenge of evil with compassion, the antidote he brought to all of the world’s poison.  An ironic yet indisputable truth is that resistance is easier for human beings than acceptance.  By accepting everyone (lepers, outcasts, tax collectors, sinners) Jesus was inescapably controversial. 

4.     Read “We have seen His Glory.”  Considering the unit as a whole, what is most striking to you about the figure of Jesus and his teachings? Why?

Jesus was the complete embodiment of love, yet he was hated, scorned and killed by humans.  By all accounts, he lived his life in accordance with the primary spiritual values of every tradition: compassion, love, mercy, kindness, peace; yet he and the religion named after him draw controversy and anger from all sides, to this day.  It is so clear to me from this that his teachings are eternally relevant; were they not so important, we wouldn’t still be stumbling over them.  Perhaps this is what he meant when he said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).  Until humanity is able to come to terms with the revolutionary message of love that Jesus delivered, that message will continue to be a source of conflict. 

5.     Read “The Good News.”  If the Good News was not the teaching of Jesus, what was it?

A distinction is made in this section between Jesus’ ethical teachings and the transformative quality of Jesus’ love:  “The Good News” is the latter. Smith describes two outstanding qualities shared by early Christians, mutual regard and joy, attributing these qualities to the early Christians direct experience of Jesus’ loving message.  He also outlines three human burdens which are removed in the process of rebirth as a Christian: fear, guilt and ego.  This does sound like good news, and the simple answer is that love is the only headline we need: “If we too felt loved, not abstractly or in principle but vividly and personally, by one who unites all power and perfection, the experience could melt our fear, guilt, and self-concern permanently.  As Kierkegaard said, if at every moment both present and future I were certain that nothing has happened or can ever happen that would separate us from the infinite love of the Infinite, that would be the reason for joy” (Smith, 335). 

6.     Read “The Mystical Body of Christ.”  Summarize two vivid images, or metaphors, which were used by Christians to depict their collective life together in the church. 

In the book of John, chapter 15 verse 5, Jesus is reported to have said this: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. In this metaphor, Christ’s followers are the branches, carrying his message and power into the whole world; the fruit of the vine represents the gifts and good works of Christians, brought to bear through Christ’s love.  The nutriment flowing through the branches of the church and its members is the Holy Spirit. 
Saint Paul used the metaphor of the human body to represent the whole of the Church.  Jesus had departed from the earth in human form, but his mission continued through a new “mystical body,” of which he was the head.  The different aspects of the Church and even the individual members were described as distinct parts of one unified body: “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members of one another” (Romans 12:5).  I am fond of Smith’s extension of this metaphor to the cellular level: “If Christ was the head of this body and the Holy Spirit its soul, individual Christians were its cells, few at first but increasing as the body came of age.  The cells of an organism are not isolates; they draw their life from the enveloping vitality of their hosts, while at the same time contributing to that vitality” (337).  

7.     Read “The Mind of the Church.”  Describe the concept of the Trinity.  Which of Smith’s analogies is most meaningful to you? Why?

The Christian view of God is fully one, yet also three: Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the “reification” of the disciples’ Pentecost experience, the third visitation in line with that of Yahweh and Jesus.  "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever - the Spirit of truth.  The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you...But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:16,17,26).  John was the final of the four Gospels to be written.  Although these verses are often disputed by scholars, they capture the widely accepted conception of the Holy Spirit. 

The seemingly curious Three-in-One vision of the Christian God is well illustrated in Smith’s H2O analogy: water “assumes states that are liquid, solid, and gaseous while retaining its chemical identity” (344).  In this same way, God remains One while manifesting through three different emanations within the same Divine whole. 

8.     Read “Roman Catholicism.”  Consider carefully the discussion of the Church as Teaching Authority.  What is the “premise” on which this is based?  

The teaching authority of the Roman Catholic church is based on the premise of the Bible as the source of Jesus Christ’s teachings paving the way to salvation for the world, and the assertion that the Bible cannot be left to private interpretation, lest the faith disintegrate into chaos; Saint Peter was proclaimed by Jesus to be the rock on which the Church would be built, and “the earthly head of the Church is the pope, successor to St. Peter in the bishopric of Rome” (348).  Hence the divine authority for interpretation of the Bible is said to proceed directly from Christ who first established his Church on earth.  

A.    Recognizing that the Pope’s infallibility lies in two spheres, how would you describe this?

The two limited spheres of the Pope’s infallible authority are faith and morals, and the authority is only infallible when he is officially communicating in his role as “supreme teacher and lawgiver of the Church,” not as an individual human being, subject to the same limitations as the rest of humanity.  It is only when the Pope defines doctrine that his authority is considered infallible. 

B.     What are the 7 sacraments? Describe each briefly.  What is the central sacrament?

List of sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, Sacrament of the Sick, Reconciliation (confession) and Mass (communion).  In baptism, the infant is first touched by God’s grace and is welcomed into “the supernatural order of existence” and the family of the Church.  In confirmation, when the child has come of age she is confirmed to be “strengthened for mature reflection and responsible action.”  In holy matrimony, an adult is joined to another adult to form a holy union of one flesh; or, in holy orders, a person dedicates his or her life completely to God by entering the priesthood or the monastic life.  In the sacrament of the sick, the soul is prepared for its final journey as the body dies.  In the sacrament of reconciliation, confession of sin is made before a delegate of God (a priest) and sincere repentance for sin is made.  In the sacrament of mass, which is also called the Eucharist, the Christian partakes of the consecrated bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ; this is the central sacrament. 

C.     How is Mass different from the six other sacraments?

The Mass is said to contain within its elements the “personal presence of God,” making it distinct from the other six sacraments, yet in all of them, God infuses supernatural power into the souls of Christians through the mystical body of Christ. 

9.     Read “Eastern Orthodoxy.”  Consider carefully how Eastern Orthodoxy differs from Roman Catholicism on “the Church as Teaching Authority.” Briefly specify and clarify these differences.

A.    Extent of Authority

The Eastern Orthodox Church takes a less expansive view than the Roman Catholic Church in the interpretation of doctrine.  According to the Eastern view, very few issues require authoritative interpretation; those that do must originate in scripture.  The Roman Catholic Church initiates doctrine and pronounces dogma on various issues, while the Eastern Orthodox Church stresses the continuity rather than the development of church doctrine. 

B.     Means of Authority

The Eastern Orthodox Church has no Pope, therefore the final analysis rests with the consensus of all believers and the ecclesiastical councils.  As compared to the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Church has an “exceptionally corporate view of the Church” (353). 

10.  Read “Protestantism.”  Summarize Justification by Faith in one carefully worded sentence. 
Human beings can be restored to their right relationships with God and one another not through any good works that they do or by any kind of religious observance, but rather through experiencing the phenomenon of faith, which encompasses the whole human being: mind, body, soul, emotion and will. 

A.    Consider the discussion of the Protestant Principle and then summarize in one carefully worded sentence.
The word “protestant” means “one who testifies for” something, and the Protestant Principle protests against idolatry by testifying for the Infinite rather than the finite, so that nothing other than God is absolutized, so that God is not put into a box and so that Christians are not led astray by “limited truth masquerading as finality” (359).  

B.     How would you describe the role of the Bible in Protestantism? 
In Protestantism, the Bible is seen as the “living word of God,” the one tangible source of God’s truth.  However, like everything else, believers are to take care lest they idolize even the Bible, as if it were above criticism or dictated directly by God.  

11. Describe one feature of the Christian tradition or teachings that is most meaningful to you personally, and how it relates to your own experience and self-understanding.

For me, Grace is without a doubt the most meaningful feature of Christianity.  Grace is a supernatural gift flowing into my life, allowing me to relate directly to the Divine without having to be perfect, or even try to be perfect.  I first learned about the gift of Grace in church as a child, when I was taught that we are “saved by Grace through Faith,” and never by our own efforts.  I have experienced many moments in life when goodness and bounty came to me without any effort on my own part, and even in spite of my own inaction or negative actions.  

I see Grace as something that is above all other spiritual laws, even the law of Karma which has been so popularized in Western culture lately.  Karma is often misstated in the West as identical to the teaching in the New Testament, Galatians 6:7, “Don’t be deceived.  God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”  That is a good statement of Western Karma, saying basically that doing good or bad things gets you good or bad stuff, respectively.  Eastern Karma is a little different, focusing less on good and bad and more on a scientific sort of action and reaction dynamic.  I believe that Grace trumps both these concepts of Karma.  In miraculous little jewels of moments, we sometimes get really good results when our own efforts are pitiful, or when our actions are evil.  In addition, we can perform an action that by any rational expectation would produce some reaction; and then nothing happens.  Or we can do absolutely nothing and then something good happens to us.  In this way, the Divine shows us that it is not limited by anything, not even the very spiritual laws it set into motion.  Nothing is ever final, because finality stops the flow of Grace.  

This idea of Grace coinciding with flow is something I learned from practicing Yoga.  I have loved merging my Christian beliefs with my Yoga practice and am attracted to both because of the enormous appeal of Grace. 
Grace is evidence of love, it brings peace, it is intrinsic to beauty and it informs mercy and compassion.  For me, Grace holds everything together.  

12.  Identify the following names:

Thomas Aquinas: He was a Dominican friar and Doctor of the Church (Angelicus Doctor) in the 13th century.  He was a theologian and scholastic philosopher who was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and his commentary had a significant impact on Neoplatonism.  His best known works are the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles.  He is one of the major foundational figures of Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran church doctrine as well as one of the fathers of modern philosophy.  According to Thomas Aquinas, truth is derived from both reason and faith, and sound Christian doctrine proceeds from revelations of a natural (logical) as well as a supernatural character. 

St. Augustine: Saint Augustine of Hippo was a Latin philosopher and theologian, and in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches he is a Saint and Doctor of the Church.  Originating from Roman Africa, he lived from 354 to 430 A.D. He is the patron of the Augustinian religious order.  His best known works are The Confessions and The City of God. He is considered the greatest of the Latin Fathers of the Church.  Second only to the authors of the books of the New Testament, he is considered the most influential author in the Christian tradition.  His approach to theology emphasized Christ’s grace as the key to freedom and salvation, and for this reason he is considered one of the theological fathers of the Reformation. 

John Calvin: John Calvin the Reformer was a French theologian, ecclesiastical statesmen and reformed minister from the 16th century.  He led the Protestant Reformation in Geneva, and was the most important figure in the second generation of Protestant Reformers.  His most well-known work was the pivotal Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in 1534.  His most well-known doctrinal stance is his interpretation of the doctrine of predestination.  The largest branch of Calvinist churches today fall under the denomination of Presbyterianism. 

Saint Francis of Assisi: He is arguably the most popular of all the saints.  Born in 1182 in Assisi, Italy, he was the son of a wealthy merchant, who dreamed of becoming a knight.  He contracted malaria in a dungeon as a prisoner of war, and in his early twenties, he had an experience of hearing directly from God, “Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?”  He determined then to follow God, the Master.  He renounced his wealth, took a vow of poverty and dedicated his life to God, serving the sick and the poor, begging for his food, living for a time as a hermit, seeking enlightenment in solitude, and then commenced itinerant preaching.  He attracted a group of followers and in 1209, with the papal blessing he founded the Franciscan Order. 

In 1212, Saint Clare of Assisi was received into religious life by Saint Francis.  Saint Francis and Saint Clare founded the Order of Poor Ladies, closely following the Franciscan tradition.  Francis and Clare valued poverty, humility, simplicity and service.  Saint Clare and the women in her order ate no meat, went barefoot and were silent most of the time.  Saint Francis also founded The Third Order of Penance, an order for lay people.  In 1224, Saint Francis was the first recorded person to receive the stigmata (the five wounds of Christ).  He refused the priesthood out of humility.  He had a great love for animals, and so on his feast day Catholics , Anglicans and some Lutherans honor him by blessing the animals of the parish. 

Saint Francis imitated the life and work of Christ possibly more closely than any other saint, and he is honored in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. 

Saint Ignatius of Loyola: He was a Spanish knight, priest and theologian who was very influential during the Counter-Reformation.  After he was seriously wounded in a battle in 1521, he underwent a conversion and then followed the example of Francis of Assisi; he became a hermit, praying for seven hours per day and composing the Spiritual Exercises.  He founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit Order).  He is the foremost patron saint of soldiers. 

Saint John of the Cross: San Juan de la Cruz is his Spanish name, and this Spanish mystic, Doctor of the Church and saint, lived in the sixteenth century and one was of the major figures of the Counter Reformation.  He is also one of the foremost poets of the Spanish language, and the most important writer in the Spanish mystical tradition.  His best known works are Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle and Ascent of Mount Carmel.  He founded the order of the Discalced Carmelites with Saint Teresa of Avila. 

John the Baptist: According to the New Testament of the Bible, John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets and the precursor to the Messiah.  He was a prophet in the style of the prophetic tradition of Judaism, and he can be interpreted as having shared the same office as Elizabeth, a kinswoman of Mary who visited her.  He lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until approximately A.D. 27, and at the age of 30 he began preaching on the banks of the Jordan River.  He preached against the evils of the times and called people to repentance and baptism.  John recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and said, “It is I who need baptism from You.”  He inspired many of his own followers to follow Christ, and designated him “the Lamb of God.” 

Martin Luther: He was a German monk and priest from the sixteenth century who became the initiator of the Protestant Reformation and one of the most notable theologians in all of Christian history.  He influenced Protestant Christianity more than any other figure, and the Lutheran church takes its name from him.  He believed that the Bible, rather than the Roman Catholic Church, was the final authority for interpreting the Word of Christ.  He translated the Bible into German to make it accessible.  He initially earned a Master of Arts degree and then studied law, but after a spiritual experience in which he narrowly escaped death, he entered an Augustinian monastery.  He overcame great fear and paranoia in making the discovery that he was truly “saved by grace through faith” alone (Ephesians 2:8).  He earned his doctorate of theology at Wittenberg and served as a priest for Wittenberg’s Castle Church.  On October 31, 1517, he nailed his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church.  The 95 Theses was inspired by practices within the Roman Catholic Church concerning baptism and absolution, and specifically rejecting the validity of indulgences.  In 1521 Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.  Following his excommunication, he preached and taught in the areas surrounding Wittenberg and in the University.  He organized schools and wrote his most famous works, the Augsburg Confession and the Larger and Smaller Catechism(s).  He was married in 1525 to Katherine Von Bora, and they enjoyed a very happy marriage with six children. 

Mary the mother: She is called Mother Mary, the Virgin Mary, Saint Mary, the Blessed Mother Mary and Mary, Mother of God.  According to the Christian faiths, and also according to Islam, she gave birth to Jesus Christ.  The gospels of Matthew and Luke describe Mary as a virgin when Christ was conceived in her womb.  In the New Testament, Christians read about the Annunciation, when Mary was visited by the Archangel Gabriel who told her she had been selected by God to give birth to the Son of God, whom she was to name “Jesus,” meaning “Savior.”  In Eastern Christianity Mary is referred to as “Theotokos,” meaning “God-bearer.”  The beliefs surrounding Mary within Christianity are referred to as the “Marian beliefs,” and these vary widely according to which tradition is practiced.  In Catholicism, she is referred to as Our Lady, and is venerated as the Mother of the Church and the Queen of Heaven, but most Protestants do not share these beliefs; less emphasis is placed on Mary in Protestant traditions, since actual biblical references to her are relatively few and brief. 

Mary Magdalene: She was one of Jesus’ most celebrated followers, and the most well-known female disciple.  Jesus was reported to have cleansed her of seven demons.  According to the gospels of Mark, Matthew and John, she is the first person to have seen Jesus following his Resurrection.  Although she is believed by many Christians to have been a prostitute before she followed Jesus, this is not specifically stated in the Bible.  In the gospel of Luke, it is written that she was a “woman of the city” and “a sinner,” but it was not until the year 591 that it was officially suggested by a Pope that she was a prostitute, when Pope Gregory gave a homily on Luke’s gospel describing her in that way.  

Saul of Tarsus/Paul: Paul of Tarsus was born a Roman citizen, even though he was ethically Jewish, hence the likely origin of the two names, Paul (Roman) and Saul (Jewish).  Before his conversion to Christianity, he was known as Saul.  He was born circa A.D.  5, and executed in Rome, under Nero, in A.D. 67.  He was a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin.  He had been traveling to Damascus to continue his mission of stamping out Jewish converts to Christianity when he experienced a vision of Jesus; he then converted to Christianity and became a missionary.  He authored a large portion of the New Testament, the Pauline letters (epistles).  His writing cast an enduring, authoritative tone for Christianity; the emphasis on celibacy, elimination of the requirement of circumcision, and the theory of divine grace and salvation can all be traced to Paul’s influence.  He revolutionized religious belief and philosophy around the Mediterranean Basin. The Pauline Epistles are written mostly to churches Paul visited in that geographical area. 

Saint Theresa of Avila: She was a Carmelite nun, mystic and author in the sixteenth century.  After suffering severe illness, she experienced a vision of “the sorely wounded Christ” that abruptly changed the character and focus of her life.  She moved into a period of intense spiritual seeking through contemplation and meditation, focusing on ecstatic experiences centered on Christ’s passion.  She was motivated by these experiences to commence reforming her order.  Self-mastery was her first task in these reformation efforts, and she gradually drew a large number of supporters, establishing and broadening the movement of the Discalced Carmelites.  She met Saint John of the Cross and enlisted him to reform the male side of the order.  Her writings were foundational for the tradition of Christian mysticism.  The most well-known of these are the Interior Castle and the Way of Perfection

John Wesley: He was an Eighteenth Century Anglican evangelist, theologian and founder of the Wesleyan tradition and Methodism (the Methodist Church), with his brother, Charles Wesley.  Methodism encouraged Christians to experience Jesus Christ personally.  His approach to spiritual growth is often referred to as “practical piety.”  He was a lifelong opponent of slavery. 

13.  What is Gnosticism?  How does it differ from mainstream Christianity and why is it considered controversial?  What are some of the Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi?  

The term Gnosticism has a Greek origin, gnostikos, meaning “knowledge.”  Gnosticism’s basic doctrine holds that salvation is achieved through knowledge of the mysteries of the universe, and this knowledge is attained through an esoteric set of spiritual practices.  Gnosticism has most usually been defined within the context of Christianity, but it is currently believed that it pre-dated the Christian era and its first followers were most likely pagan (Egyptian and Babylonian) and Hebrew. 
The formal Gnostic doctrines were probably initially written down in Greek, yet the most respected Gnostic treatises discovered to date were found in the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of twelve leather-bound papyrus codices written in the Coptic language in the second century A.D., and also containing three works from the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation of Plato’s Republic.  

The ancient Greek language, unlike English, distinguished several different types of gnosis or knowing, and the type central to Gnosticism is a sort of mystical experience of direct participation with the divine, that once achieved, is the end of all spiritual seeking.  

Gnosticism differs markedly from mainstream Christianity, but holds one crucial belief in common, that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world.  Christian scholars from Christianity’s origins until the present time have vehemently criticized Gnostic beliefs.  One of the more controversial beliefs of Gnosticism is that all matter and physical form is corrupt and depraved, including the human body.  The spirit realm is held to be the pure, higher realm which is the source of all, and matter is believed to have been created through a “demiurge,” a creator God who is a lesser emanation of the supreme God, Pleroma (fullness, totality).  The world is thus seen as an inferior simulacrum of a higher-level reality or consciousness.  The belief that matter and the body are corrupt is in conflict with the Christian belief that God exists in the flesh through Christ, who is perfect; since they believed the body to be flawed, this would have to mean that Christ’s body was also flawed, and since Gnostics believed nonetheless that Christ was the Savior, this made them into heretics (docetic heretics, to be exact—believing that Christ’s body was merely an appearance).  

Historically, some Christians believed that the Gnostics taught the central lie of Satan, which was that humans could become like God through attaining knowledge. 
Here is a typical Christian/Catholic criticism of Gnostic beliefs, taken from an online Catholic Encyclopedia ( This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death, and a mad hope that if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence—this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought.  Gnosticism is pseudo-intellectual, and trusts exclusively to magical knowledge.  

A less emotional critique would be this: Gnosticism is a more mystical and less concrete set of beliefs and practices than mainstream Christianity; it is more intuitive and less rational, more philosophical and less practical, more indefinite and less certain in its aims and in its claims. 

14.  Write a response to a selection of your choice from the sacred text of The New Testament.

The following passage is from the twelfth chapter of the book of John:

3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

I chose this passage, not only because of my own personal attachment to it, but especially because it underscores two striking yet often forgotten attributes of the Christian faith: its passion and its physicality.  

I am personally drawn to this account of Mary of Bethany anointing the feet of Jesus because of how well it illustrates the intense emotional bond between Christ and his followers; washing another person’s feet with one’s own hair is nothing if not an indication of passionate love.  Having such an intimate connection with a Divine being is an awesome thing, and difficult to conceive or imagine.  

The Christian faith is unique in the emphasis it places on the passionate love that unites Jesus and his followers.  In Protestantism, we are taught that we can have a personal relationship with Christ—He is not an acquaintance, a distant authority figure or even just a friend, but a close and personal Savior.  Christian monastics and clergy who take vows of celibacy forego a human spousal relationship in exchange for a marriage to Christ.  The Christian’s relationship with Jesus is closer than a parental or spousal bond.  We are told that this love exceeds any other love we have known or will ever know.  Hearing this as a child in Sunday School, I was perplexed and asked my mother how I could ever love God as much as I loved her, even though I understood that He loved me more than my parents ever could.  She explained to me that there are many different kinds of love we experience as humans, and as I continue to grow in my faith as an adult, I am beginning to understand the intensity of spiritual love.  It can be frighteningly powerful and it can feel like getting the wind knocked out of you.  A direct experience of spiritual love can make you forget everything about yourself, so complete becomes your fusion with another being.  This is the experience we are invited to have with Jesus.  

Mary of Bethany shared this passionate, ego-destroying love with Christ, and not only in the spiritual sense.  Mary was in his physical presence, which she unreservedly celebrated.  This is a reminder of how concretely physical Christian practice truly is.  Christians believe that Jesus’ bloodshed achieved their salvation from death, both spiritual and physical.  They partake of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of communion.  Christians believe that they are transformed in the act of Baptism, when the baptismal water touches their skin.  They believe that just as Christ was resurrected, their physical bodies will be resurrected upon his return to the Earth.  They lay their hands upon one another to extend blessing and physical healing.  These are only some of the most obvious examples of how physical we get in Christianity.  

John 12:3-8 is a passage that reminds us to come to our faith as fully present physical and emotional beings.  Mary was fully present with Jesus emotionally, displaying her passionate devotion by washing his feet with her precious ointment and her very own hair, a powerfully physical act.  This is an example of the way Christians are called to love not only Jesus, but also each other.  Certain common cultural aspects of Christianity (politeness, formality and restraint) may prevent us from this powerful realization; we should not let them.  

15.                          Write a description/impression of your site visit:

Since Christianity is the faith that I practice, I have a lifetime of site visits to choose from, but we are asked to focus on recent visits.  I have recently attended both Catholic and Lutheran services, so I will describe and contrast them here. 

We are currently in the season of Lent, and I kicked it off this year by attending Ash Wednesday services in a Catholic church with my children, my friend, her children and her mother.  The service itself was somewhat difficult with small children, and the tone was subdued and reverent (in contrast to the children).  In general, I love Catholic churches of all sorts because the Catholic aesthetic has always been designed to entice.  Without going into excessive detail, I will say that our local catholic church, Holy Name of Mary, is beautiful.  What I love the most about it, and about any Catholic church, are the depictions of Christian imagery in the stained glass windows, the various statues of Mary, Christ and the Saints and the beautifully compelling crucifix on the altar.  An actual crucifix, as opposed to a simple cross, includes a representation of Christ’s crucified body, wearing the crown of thorns.  Historically, the Roman Catholic Church incorporated exquisite artistic depictions of the elements of Christian faith into their places of worship, not only to maintain an aesthetic that draws people nearer to God and the realm of Spirit, but more practically to teach the illiterate masses about Christ.  My favorite aspect of visiting any cathedral or even Catholic chapel is the practice of lighting a candle and making an offering for a prayer request.  When I lived and traveled in France, this is something I did very frequently, and it is also something I like to do once in a while at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. 

My family’s place of worship is Our Saviour Evangelical Lutheran Church.  It is interesting to note that the first time I worshipped there was on Ash Wednesday in 2011.  From that time until now, I continue to be comforted by the simplicity and serenity of the building and sanctuary.  In line with the Lutheran aesthetic specifically and the Protestant aesthetic in general, the church is attractive yet inornate.  There is a cross, rather than a crucifix on the altar.  The windows are stained glass, yet they are quite small in comparison with the vitrines of a Catholic church.  There is next to no Christian imagery on display in the sanctuary.  This subdued, almost empty aesthetic is perfectly in line with the Protestant Principle, as described above.  There is nothing to take the focus off of the Word as the source of God’s revelation and our interior and personal faith in Christ as our only source of salvation.  The Lutheran service does not dazzle, entice or entertain so as not to disturb the believer’s focus on the Word of God.  Eamon Duffy, a history of Christianity professor at Cambridge, describes the origins of the Protestant and Lutheran aesthetic quite well: “There seems to be something paradoxical, even self-contradictory, in the very notion of a Reformation image. The movement of religious protest inaugurated by Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1517 quickly targeted the veneration of images as a damnable superstition, the idolatrous confusion of gross matter with an invisible God who was pure and eternal spirit.” While I personally love art and am very visual in my learning style, my own home is very simply decorated and sparsely furnished.  This may have something to do with the influence of Lutheranism from my childhood, and it also ties in with my predilection for Asian philosophy and spiritual practice—I often equate emptiness with peace.  On the whole, the sanctuary of Our Saviour is a very fitting place for me to connect with the Divine within the context of my Christian faith. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In Defense of Facebook

I live 1,275 miles from the town where I grew up.  Some of the closest friends I have live a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 7,970 miles away from me.  I am an extrovert.  I don't interact with colleagues or clients throughout the day like I did a few years back.  It is for these reasons that I continue to use and love Facebook, in spite of my recent 40 day break from it, and in defiance of solid, scientifically based criticism of its misuse. 

An author and Facebook "friend" posted this fun little piece about Facebook yesterday:

Sometimes using Facebook makes me feel like an asshole, and people who would rather be receiving regular phone calls from me (i.e. my mother) have pointed out that my time would be better spent in face to face or voice to voice contact.  I truthfully wish that I could spend time in person with all of my family members every day, and that I could call each friend that I have, no matter where they live, weekly.  With my schedule and my two preschoolers, I am simply not finding that level of personal contact possible or pleasurable.  Phone calls are particularly frustrating for me, because during the time I have away from my children, I generally have a to-do list to accomplish and I don't like to limit personal conversations or break them off too early.  When my kids are around me, I am too distracted to have a quality conversation.  However, I really like knowing what is going on with everyone, and I want people to know what I am up to so that we can continue in relationship together.  I feel like the way I interact on Facebook with the people I care about (long list) is a good-enough way to maintain a connection until I have time for more in-depth communication. 

I hear my boys and other young kids talk about wanting to live in a huge mansion with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and all of their friends, so that no play-dates or road trips are ever necessary, and everyone can eat their Rice Krispies in community.   I remember wanting the same thing as a child, and I was able to experience something similar for a short time during my early twenties. 

During a brief stint back home in Joplin, Missouri, I got to experience something close to communal living.  My father had invited a branch of a spiritual commune to live in his house and on his land.  Some of them are still there, but they are now renting.  His wife at the time used to talk about how much communal living appealed to her.  She had to do a lot of work outside, mowing grass, chopping wood and clearing brush.  She and my Dad ran a restaurant together and had to do a lot of cooking and cleaning, there and in the home.  She felt like it would be nice to do all of that in community... so eventually they did just that.  I am happy that I was able to be there during that time, experiencing first-hand what it is like to work, eat and play in a big group of like-minded people.  All of us were Christians and we shared in praying, singing, bonfires, heated discussions, watching Saturday Night Live as a group...we had a lot of fun.  It did make me think about how amazing it would be to invite more and more people to join us, and my imagination ran away with utopian visions of all of the members of our extended families coming together.  In general, it was an unrealistic way to live in our current society and the fun didn't last all that long. 

Even though I can't run away from my life and join a utopian spiritual community, there is still a part of me that wants that kind of constant group contact.  I feel like Facebook fills that need for me.  I can log on and see what a whole bunch of people are doing all over the country and the world, and get instantaneous responses to my mundane queries.  I can partake in some heated religious and political discussions with people I trust will not defriend me, on Facebook or otherwise.  I really wish I could sing in front of a fire with every Facebook friend, but for many, many reasons, I cannot.  So instead I broadcast little pieces of my life on an ongoing basis and I am happy to see others doing the same.  Is this grandiose exhibitionism and selfish manipulation?  Perhaps at times it is.  Is it shameless oversharing?  Maybe so.  Back in the Missouri "commune," we all knew a lot of details about the lives of the others.  Sometimes we even shared sleeping quarters, clothing and communicable diseases with people we had known for only a few weeks.  That felt kind of thrilling for some of us.  I think this is a natural human tendency, one that has actually helped our species to thrive over the millenia.

I am over my love-hate relationship with Facebook.  I love it. 
P.S. I live in a house with next to no window treatments, because I like to let all of the light in, all of the time.  I don't care if that makes us look like grandiose exhibitionists.  I'm not a fan of hiding out.