Blog 68: “Religious” Growth

  The word ‘religion” comes from the Latin and means-essentially-“reconnecting.” The idea is that , on one level, we are already fully connected to God. How can we not be? However, our consciousness of that connection is inevitably obscured, to one degree or the other.
  Our spiritual journey is all about reestablishing our conscious contact with God. This journey happens in the following order, if it happens at all. The one caveat is that each of these seven steps is like being on the rung of a ladder (Wilber). Clearly, not everyone climbs to the top of the ladder. Frustratingly, we humans can only see reality from the rung of the ladder upon which we are standing. We are convinced that only we see the ultimate truth of things. With that realization in mind, let us today take a brief look at each of these steps.
  1. Gross– The word “gross” does not imply anything evil. Some folks are, however, caught, trapped, in the world of money, sex and power. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” That is the first rung of the ladder.
 
  2. Literal, Archetypal– Since we are clearly wired for something more than our  “gross” level, (again, the “gross” is not evil), we are “easy pickings” for the stories that form the basis of our religions of origin. This is so because all of the stories of the great religions of the world are ultimately true, but not necessarily literally true. On this second rung of the ladder, however, we embrace it all on a literal basis, lock, stock and barrel.
 
  3. Rational– As we become educated and as we learn to question things, many people “write off” all that they have been taught. Angels? Virgin births? A parting of the seas? Miracles? Walking on water? Being raised from the dead? Please. Such beliefs, we here  conclude, only make sense to children.
 
  4. Allegorical– Having rejected the above “nonsense”, we are still feeling “off-center.” Then, perhaps an awakening! We re-visit the stories from our youth and discover that all that we have been taught is true, just not literally true. This is akin to discovering the wisdom of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, even though we never for a moment think that the tales are meant to be taken literally. Rather, they are metaphors that speak to our own inner growth.
 
  5. Universal-  Freed up from the prison of the literal, we can now see universal truth all around us. We appreciate each religion as carrying a piece of the puzzle. We are at home in the rituals of our own and all religions.
 
  6. Integral- Here we may find ourselves going beyond any and all religions. We ask ourselves, what are the universal principles, psychological truths and metaphysical realities behind each religion? We begin to intuit and to integrate what each religion is trying to say. Surprisingly to ourselves, we may feel that, having rediscovered the purpose and value and truth of religion (often at great personal cost to ourselves), we no longer feel the need to practice or even belong to any religion anymore. Once we have crossed the river in a boat, why put the boat upon our shoulders as we continue our journey?
 
  7. Unitive– Like Saint Thomas Aquinas, who wrote volumes of theology, and then, having had a first hand experience of God, and thereafter put down his pen and never wrote another word, we feel that we have been “saved” and “delivered” from blindness.
We, like Saint Thomas, are humbly aware of God as “Beauty, Truth and Goodness.” We have become reconnected with God.
 
Next posting: The Tin Man
 
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Blog # 67: Broken but Blessed

  There is an old Italian expression that translates, roughly, as “When you have got your health, you have all you need.” We all solemnly nod our heads in agreement at this statement, because there is so much truth in it. However, even the worthwhile goal of good health can become a false idol for us. Because when we are feeling like a “million bucks”, we can start thinking that we have everything under control, forgetting that life is fragile and that we are dependent upon God for every breath that we take and for every beat of our hearts. 
  The same temptation can also be there if we happen to be physically attractive, or very intelligent, or very wealthy. We can start thinking that we have outgrown our need for God in our lives.
  One of the ways that life takes care of this hubris is a phenomenon called aging. As we get up in years (I am now 72), we begin to encounter a series of personal losses. Not only do we inevitably have to deal with the death of our parents and many friends and loved ones, but we also are forced to deal with the waning of our own bodies and talents. We look in the mirror and we are forced to face that wrinkled visage staring back at us. We may try to exercise as we always did, but now feel aches and pains and strains that are new to us. Perhaps our sexual vigor is not what it used to be. Our mental faculties begin to slip, especially our memories.
  If we can handle this aging process gracefully, it is not seen as a tragedy but as a part of the life cycle. Whether or not we age well, we certainly are brought face to face with our earthly mortality. The reality is staring us straight in the face: we ask, “If I am not my body, and not my mind, and not my relationships, and not my bank account, then who am I?”
  People who have not been blessed with great health or wealth or talent often have a “leg up” on us when it comes to these realizations. They have never been deluded into thinking that they have it “all together.” In this sense, they have had their own “blessing.” It is precisely because the broken people of the world, the “poor” of the world, that our teacher Jesus spent so much time with them. Frequently, we see Jesus reaching out to the deaf, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the prostitutes and the other rejects of his society. The common explanation for this is that these individuals were hurting so much and needed God so much. Is it possible that Jesus loved to spend his time with them, rather,  because they were so open to being taught and healed?
  You see, all of us are equally in need of healing. However, when we are working for a Rolls Royce or a multi-million dollar home, or when we are sitting on top of the world, it is easier to delude ourselves that happiness will soon be ours. The poor in spirit, the broken of the world, are, on the other hand, blessed because they have no one and no thing to turn to except God.
  All of this is not to imply that there is something good about destitution, disease, or abject poverty. In themselves, these are conditions that any enlightened individual would seek to eliminate from the world. It is just that God has a way of allowing the phoenix to arise from any pile of ashes and of making something good come out of our tragedies.
  The soldier in the foxhole, the 40 year old person on his or her back in the hospital after suffering a heart attack, the paraplegic, the disabled, the down and out, the old folks, all know deep in their hearts how fragile life is. They know, they really know, that we are all creatures totally dependent at all times on a power greater than ourselves.
 
Next posting: “Religious” Growth
 
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Blog # 66: Medium and Message

  In order to communicate with people, we must speak their language. Think for a moment about a speaker in a foreign land who does not speak the language of the people in the audience. The first consideration would always be, “How can I get my message translated?” The message is always more important than the medium. Good teachers instinctively know this. Bad teachers prattle on with whether people can understand them or not.
  Good religious leaders, likewise, are always ready to try to change the wording or the approach in order to make people understand. Bad religious teachers are married to words and formulations and dogmas, even if no one has a clue what is being said.
  People have been led to fall in love with the packaging, the container. This is called idolatry. Religion is the container, the chalice, the path, the road map to spiritual growth. As such, it can be valuable to people’s spiritual growth. But when we make religion God, we have got things backward. Religion cannot define or fully explain God. Only God is God. To think otherwise is to commit idolatry.
  People fall into this trap all the time. They will literally die, sometimes, in order to defend a particular form. In the Middle East, for example, we have had Christians, Jews and Muslims at war with one another for centuries. All of these three religions claim to be monotheistic. They all say that there is only one God. And, on the mystical level, there is a sense by the deepest spiritual beings among them that their experience of God is very similar. But, those who are still stuck on words and externals are literally killing one another.
  A number of years ago, there was a movement within Roman Catholicism to foster a dialogue with Episcopalians and Lutherans with the hope of eventually overcoming their differences. If any three religions ought to find common ground, it is these three Christian religions. For example, all three believe in some form of Divine Presence in the Eucharist.
  What began with great hopes, however, eventually fizzled out. These well intentioned theologians simply could not get beyond some version of “My formula is better than yours.”
  At times like these, when religion is struggling to make sense to, especially a younger generation, people need to be aware that no religion is God. To God be the glory! All religions need to be clear that they are there to help lead people to God. And all individuals need to be willing to stretch and to grow in ways that are not always a part of the official packaging, even if, for the good of their souls, they need to move in a different direction that speaks more authentically to them.
  Let us respect and honor and be grateful to these various human constructs these great religious traditions. They have done a lot of good for a long time. But religious leaders and followers alike need to keep in mind that the chalice is not the same thing as the holy contents that it carries. Only God is God!
 
Next posting: Broken but Blessed
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Blog # 65: A Healthy Ego

  The ego gets a lot of bad press in spiritual circles. But having a healthy ego is not an obstacle on the spiritual path; rather, it is a necessity.
  Granted, it is possible for a person to be ego centered. That is where we get words from like “egotistical” and “egomaniac.” These are the types of individuals who look in the mirror and sing, “How Great Thou Art.”
  I cannot think of a person who had a healthier ego than Jesus of Nazareth. Here was a person who knew what he was about. He had strong convictions and was not afraid to voice and act upon those convictions. Jesus was not going to be manipulated by fear or by worrying about what others thought about him. He was a very, very strong person.
  Many of the saints were like this as well, from Teresa of Avila to Mother Teresa, strong, realized individuals who could speak the truth to authority. What people like this tell us is that a good, solid ego goes hand in hand with spiritual growth.
  How, then, can this truth be reconciled with the need to “die to self”? The very essence of the spiritual path is self-donation, giving oneself away to God. But, before we can give ourselves away, we have to have a self to give away!
  It is on this point that a lot of spiritual paths trip up. For example, in some spiritual communities (be they Christian or yogic or whatever), there is considerable emphasis placed upon giving up one’s ego. If the aspirant comes to this fork in the road with a healthy, or even over developed ego, then this challenge is wise, helpful, and essential. But what happens if the spiritual journeyor comes from a dysfunctional family and has been emotionally scarred and wounded? Before that person deals with ego transcendence, it is more appropriate that they work on ego enhancement.
  Ego enhancement is the proper role of psychotherapy. The first job in psychotherapy is to help the person develop a healthy sense of ego. Later on, there will be plenty of time to talk about self transcendence. But, first, the person must work on the Little Self, the ego.
  What we often have, instead, are men and women who have been launched into spiritual transcendence before they have developed a “home base”. The end result is often individuals who have become “inflated” with an exaggerated sense of self importance. Their ego and “Higher Self” have become conflated. Such individuals are truly dangerous to themselves and others. It is a wonderful thing to let go and surrender into the mystery of God; however, it is just as important to remember ones zip code.
Next posting: Medium and Message
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Blog # 64: Our Inner Teacher

One of the greatest teachers of all time, Socrates, never taught his students a thing. Instead, he asked them questions.

This form of teaching has come to be known as the Socratic method. It is based on the assumption that, on one level, all of us already know all of the answers. We just need a skilled teacher to ask us the right questions.

The spiritual tradition looks upon the growth of our souls in a similar way. On one level, we already know what is true. What we long for, what we hunger and thirst for, is someone who will remind us of the truth that has long been asleep within our souls.

For me, this is where Jesus of Nazareth comes in. Everything that he says and does has the ring of authenticity about it. Even his challenging and demanding teachings make sense deep within me.

Over the years, I have met spiritual leaders from many world religions. They may disagree on some theological points concerning Jesus, of course, but I have never met one of them who questioned the essential teachings of Jesus.

Jesus, however, spoke mainly about universal truths. There was no way that his teachings could ever have encompassed specific responses to today’s problems or even worldview. Issues like test tube babies, nuclear fission, and acid rain were simply unimaginable in the world view of Jesus. He never saw a car, a train, an airplane. He never saw the picture of planet earth taken by our astronauts.

It is the job of churches and teachers to try to apply the universal message of Jesus to everyday realities. This, it seems to me, is where things often get mixed up. Two approaches, at least, seem to be way off base. One is to try to apply the teachings to every reality that exists today on a literal basis. The other is to try to communicate a message that has nothing to say to us moderns. Because these two approaches are so widely employed, we have the situation that we have today: churches that have largely become irrelevant.

The best solution, is always to let the individual apply the teachings according to their consciences. Our consciences represent the voice of the Divine within us. Christians call this Holy Spirit. This voice is to be taken very seriously, challenging us to accept personal responsibility for our thoughts, beliefs and actions. At the end of our days, each one of us must be accountable for our own lives. It will do us no good to foist responsibility for our lives onto any other person or group, however noble and well intentioned that group may be.

We come into this world alone and we will go out alone. While we are here, Higher Power sends us brothers and sisters along the way, companions on life’s journey. But, when all is said and done, we are ultimately alone. Yet we are not. If we listen to the guiding voice, our Inner Teacher, that still small voice within us, we will always be led in the right direction.

Next posting: A Healthy Ego

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Blog # 63: Transition Traumas

At one time or the other, each one of us will have to go through a major transition in life. It could be the death of a loved one, a divorce, retirement, being laid off at work, the physical separation from us of our loved ones, or a hundred other things that can throw us for a loop.

How can we handle such challenges, on a practical level? In their book, “Life Changes: Growing Through Personal Transitions”, authors Sabina A. Spencer and John D. Adams give us a compact breakdown of what we can expect along the way.

Here, in my words, are the essential aspects of each of these stages.

1) Losing Focus– Here we feel like we have been hit over the head by a cosmic baseball bat. We feel dazed, overwhelmed, unable to even believe that such a thing has happened to us.

2) Minimizing the Impact– The name of the game here is “denial.” As a natural defense mechanism, we try to pretend that are fine, OK, and that everything is under control.

3 The Pit— The denial is no longer working. We feel the fullness of our pain which may drive us either to our knees or to the bottle or to the jail or to the cemetery.. We cannot talk ourselves out of the pain, either.

4) Letting Go of the Past– By the grace of God, we are challenged and sometimes succeed in forgiving everyone in our lives who have ever hurt us. More challenging yet is to forgive one self. That is what our authors say. I would add that I think it would be wise to put this step on hold until we have surrendered to a Higher Power.

5) Testing the Limits– As we let go and let God, amazingly we begin to see and feel the light at the end of the tunnel. We feel hope. We feel increasingly confident “that all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

6) Searching for Meaning– Now and only now can we step back and reflect on what has happened to us and what its meaning might be. We begin to see the big picture and we realize that some hidden hand was present all along. We realize that a Higher Power seems to be driving things and that something positive can arise even out of pain.

7) Integration– After realizing that there was meaning in our lives all along and that life always holds the upper hand, we humbly alter our attitude towards life. We have learned some lessons, paid our dues, and we are somehow the wiser and maybe even a better person as a result of our ordeal.

Many ordeals can produce either a cynic or a saint, depending on our perspective.

Next Posting: Our Inner Teacher

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Blog # 62: Spiritual Inflation

Flirting with the living God is dangerous business. If we allow ourselves to be seduced, there is no telling how we may eventually end up.

Perhaps, deep down, we know this instinctively. That is why we cling so desperately to the externals of religion. When we do so, we delude ourselves into thinking that we are still in control. We think that we are still able to, as it were, “manage” God.

If, however, we do, by the grace of God, ever get a taste of that living reality that is at the heart of religion, we know that we are now at a new and deeper level of reality.

This new reality has its own set of rules. And its own set of problems. One of the largest of those problems with a spiritual awakening is the possibilty of becoming spiritually “inflated.” Spiritual inflation is caused by the inability to properly assimilate our newfound light and energy. We are so overwhelmed by our encounter with the divine energies within that we start thinking that we are on a par with the Creator.

In a sense, of course, this is true. All the great religions of the world allude to this participation in divine nature. In Christianity, for example, one has participation in the life of the Trinity. Saint Augustine daringly asks, “When the soul loves something it becomes like unto it; if it should love terrestrial things it becomes terrestrial, but if it should love God does it not become God?”

Good theology, however, insists on maintaining a distinction between Creator and created. Our union is by way of participation, not identity. In other words, just as two lovers never lose their individuality, so we and the Creator are not the same thing. Jesus sort of summed it up by saying, “He who has seen the Son has seen the Father.” But then He also says,”The Father is not the Son.” This is a paradox. A little bit like water is not ice is not steam, but all three are H2o!!

All those who have had an overwhelming spiritual experience will eventually have things sorted out for them by life. It will not take long for the person to discover that their surrender is not complete, that Adam is alive and well, and that their own thorn in the flesh, whatever that might be, has not evaporated into thin air.

Just because there are dangers on the path, including spiritual inflation, does not mean that we should settle for “second hand religion” (experiences of somebody else’s experience). No, by all means take the plunge. Believe that you are a child of God and that God really speaks to you in your prayers and dreams and in a million other ways. Take the plunge because it is your spiritual birthright and you will reap an incredible harvest. You will experience the reality that you are free and that you are loved unconditionally and that life has meaning and that you are precious in God’s sight. By all means do it.

Just be aware that the spiritual journey has its share of pitfalls along the way, and that one of the most common of these pitfalls is failing to realize that we are not the Savior but the “savee.”

Next posting: Transition Traumas

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