Monday, December 24, 2007

Born in a Stable

Apologies may be in order here, my friends. We have reached Christmas Eve and the conversation I had hoped to be having with you about earth and soul, body and God remains unfinished. But perhaps that is as God wishes. Christmas is not finished. It is a beginning. The body and society, as a good friend said, is a large issue that has different meanings at different times. So does our perception of what it means to be human and fulfilled. Still, one thing remains. Perhaps the most important thing any of us can learn is to live gracefully within our skin, to let go of our attachment to physical states much as Joseph was told to let go of his attachments and marry Mary. Far from being an impediment to the spiritual life, the Body is most crucial to it. Our bodies are the temples within which our spiritual life comes to consciousness. The Buddhists teach that spirits love to be at home in the material world, which is why untrained ones will choose a quick reincarnation as an ant over the more deliberate and difficult process of being reborn a human being.

Someone – I wish I could remember who – said recently that perhaps we erred when we spoke of little Jesus born in a humble stable because no one would make room for him. This person went on to say that God could be born wherever he wanted to be born and that therefore the stable was really the birthplace of choice – the only proper place for God to appear. A stable is one of the most vivid places where mammal meets civilization: a house of fur and hair, a house where the sacred worlds of food and work have their home. To be incarnated is to be both fully divine and fully enfleshed.

Merry Christmas, dear ones.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What Her Body Know

At our Tuesday theology group, one of us asked, “Why were the early Christians so hard on their bodies? It feels somehow off to me. I’m glad we don’t have that problem anymore.”

“I wonder,” I answered, perhaps too quickly. “When I look around me, I see a culture that’s hard on our bodies, too. It’s just different. The modeling industry. The American health care establishment. The international trafficking in children. Drugs. Obesity.”

“But that is only some of us. It is not all of us. I had a massage today. My body said ‘thank you.’”

And so did we. The question remained, but a wise questioner had turned it into a friend.

That our bodies get us into trouble continues to be a deep assumption within the Christian church. In our age of medical miracles, death as “giving up,” physical fitness, dieting, medications and relaxed sex, we don’t want to think that the body sets limits. Modern conservatives ignore the hungry and the ill and dwell upon homosexuality and abortion, the two “safe sins” of the white, straight male. I remember reading of life in a Jesuit seminary that sounded like a 1950’s boys locker room, a cold shower the antidote to the temptations of sex. How different from my friends who are Buddhist monks and nuns who simply say that a life of pure meditation is a better way. The boyish West fights with the body, the more contemplative East shapes it into an instrument of prayer.

When I look at my body, I do not see sin. I see skin and hair. I feel breath and moisture. I touch clothes touched by the wet noses of my two dogs. I know that the body I call “mine,” is in fact a great collaboration of cells and organs, nourished by my blood like earth nourished by “the early and late rains.” It is my consciousness that imposes a narrative upon this flesh and calls this community “Carol.”

In my heart I know that if I loved that community that gives me life, I would care for it better. It is the industrial world’s depredation of our body, the collaboration of cells we call “Earth,” that tells me what my culture’s real attitude is. In the deep night of winter I wonder whether our culture’s horror of asceticism may not also be an unvoiced horror at our own excess.

Monday, December 17, 2007

“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Recently, the papers reported that a patient was allowed to bleed to death in an American inner city emergency room because no one would take responsibility for her care. It made me wonder about things, about a world where health care has become an industry and not a ministry. The woman died of a perforated bowel. She had an Hispanic surname.

We live in a culture that, for all the lip service paid to religion, appears to take great offense at God. God gives freely to all. We expect payment. God is life. Our world remains fascinated by the power of death. If we Christians believe that God really walked the earth in the form of Jesus Christ, then we would do well to pay attention to Jesus. Jesus was a healer. He gave health as a sacrament, not a commercial transaction. Jesus relieved people of leprosy, psychosis, paralysis, blindness, deafness, epilepsy, hemorrhage, death and terror. All that he asked in return was that we keep faith in the processes of life. The only thing he asked of us was to choose life no matter how great appeared the evidence for death.

Jesus lived in an agonistic, imperial world that imposed order by force and turned law from a tool of discernment into an instrument of control. In this world it was taught that illness was the fruit of sin. Too much fat in the diet, not enough exercise, a bad lifestyle all exerted its compensatory pound of flesh. The high cost of health care becomes propitiation for the high cost of sin. But as anyone who knows and loves the law knows, the moment we begin to think this way, law ceases to be our teacher and becomes our dictator. We lose the grace that is present in times of illness and stress. Or as the more modern healer, Carl Jung, wrote, “A man [sic] is ill, but the illness is nature’s attempt to heal him.”

To see illness as the beginning of healing rather than the judgment of a wrathful God may have been the most radical jewel in Christ’s ministry. All the same, very early on in Western “civilization,” even before Christ, a fissure opened up between the mind and the body, between heaven and earth, father and mother, the rational and the mythical, the physical and the psychological, nonfiction and fiction, animal and human, with the result that as a culture we are compelled to deal with a schizoid existence, cut off from one another and from ourselves, unable to fully apprehend either ourselves as individuals or in relationship to one another.

Whatever you may believe about Jesus, the idea that God would love us so much that he would sanctify the very dirt and bone from which we are made is powerful indeed. I wonder if we would all live differently if we really knew that earth and dirt and rocks and yellow jackets were holy?

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is This the One?

“Is this the one, or are we to wait for another?”

A great deal has happened since we encountered John in the wilderness last Sunday. The bulldozers have come in and razed the place and the wild man now lives behind bars, domesticated and vulnerable to the whims of whomever. John’s call to repent went too far. He was too much himself, perceived as too threatening to a society whose "peace" depended upon control and order. Nature offends the factory. A manipulative political order has a way of expressing displeasure at its critics by clapping them in irons, sending them to the far reaches of the empire, subjecting them to extreme discomfort. Torture is the psyche’s most extreme projection; it forces another to bear and suffer for my own creeping dissatisfactions that though I have all the force in the world at my control, I am still only a shadow of a person. In hurting another, I am literally taking it all out on them: casting off the very waste material of my heart which would save me in order to destroy you.

Even in his cage, John wanted to know. He wanted to know whether his words had rung true, as any of us who speak with God want to know: Have I heard right? Did I serve the truth? Have I made straight the way through the wilderness and and helped others to see? So he sent disciples to ask the one he had baptized and watched go into the desert; he sent disciples to the one upon whom the dove had descended. Are you the one?

Jesus knew better than to answer that question. Perhaps he was not ready to answer it. Answers are like the sower's seeds; they need time to ripen. If they are told outright too soon, they are lost, just as an unseasonable frost can kill budding fruit. Jesus did not address the Messiah question. Rather he told John’s disciples to look around them and see what John had helped them to see. John’s disciples may or may not have been able to recite the doctrinal criteria for messiah-ship, but they had been in the river with John and had scales washed from the eyes of head and heart. They saw the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor having good news brought to them. These are important, for they are the very obvious signs that God is near.

It’s about time.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tribulation Force

“Every generation loses the Messiah they did not deserve.”
Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union


Another of the texts we read during Advent (this year in the Daily Office) is the Book of the Revelation of John. Revelation is one of the better dream texts in literature. Like all good dream texts, it’s not an easy read. It tests Jeremy Taylor’s first rule of dreamwork: “All dreams speak a universal language and come in the service of health and wholeness. There is no such thing as a "bad dream" -- only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.” (www.jeremytaylor.com/pages/toolkit.html)

It’s easy, and perhaps even important, to heed the warnings conveyed in nightmares, but if that is all I do, I will read Revelation as did Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, those self proclaimed “doctors” of prophecy and literature, and authors of the Left Behind series. If there was ever a hateful book about the God of love, this one’s it. This is a series about war. War gives men an excuse to use everything up, to kill for the cause of peace. It is the nightmare that warns that our instincts are clouded and sick, that they have come completely detached from our wisdom. The fantasy of the Left Behind series is that the Tribulation Force need not wait to get what it wants: SUV’s, guns, and every high tech and natural resource guzzling gadget – all for the sake of God! It’s an absurd idea in every way, of course. I mean really. If the world is coming to an end, are oil tankers and refineries going to continue to hum as usual? Will batteries remain charged and power plants generate reliable electricity?

As I read Left Behind, the story of “salvation” plunged me into primal terror. I realized that these books said far less about what will or will not happen when civilization crashes than they had to say about civilization right now at this very moment. It is not Rayford, Buck and Bruce who are throwing caution to the wind and burning up the earth, it is I. It is I who am dropping bombs on Baghdad and supporting a world in which a gas glutton Hummer becomes a status symbol and I can feel like a commando right here on the home front.

And so I get to the quote which begins this passage. “Every generation loses the Messiah they did not deserve.” It springs from a belief among certain Jews that the Messiah is in fact born every generation, but because we cannot deal with it, we lose him. He goes mad, or descends into addiction, taking on the very sins and despair he or she has come to heal.

Jews, of course, don’t believe Jesus was the One. For one thing, the Messiah, once come, never leaves. Jesus was crucified and if he came back in the Resurrection, he did not remain with us. We got half the lesson. Jesus ascended into heaven saying, “I’ll be back.” And so, for Christians, the question hangs: is he with us always or not? Are we open to the lives and the faiths of others? Do our daily lives reflect the wonder of God's love? Do we heal? Do we practice (if not always achieve) the peace that passes understanding? I mean, Jesus loved those most quarrelsome Greeks! But I look around me today, and I see a church divided, who does not seem to love much of anybody, and I wonder.

This breaks my heart. I think it may be one of the fundamental reasons we have Advent.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wilderness Revisited

John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness, clad in skins, like an Israelite fresh from the desert, or a being newly arrived out of Eden. He is pre-agricultural. His message is that we took a wrong turn somewhere back around the invention of agriculture, when we built cities, armies and forced slaves to do our work. His message is that God’s power is not about empire and structure and the terror of death, but is about life, collaboration. The truth is different than what our eyes see and our ears hear. In God’s world, lions really do lie down with lambs, and the fact that they don’t at the moment is not a reflection, upon nature, but upon our stewardship of creation.

God made us the caretakers of creation, and that did not change when we were impulsive and ate the fruit of knowledge too soon, but we sure wanted to make it that way. Instead of continuing our work, older and wiser, we lashed out at God, blaming him for cursing us, and formulating a rigid doctrine of original sin. We took that “curse” and imposed purity laws upon women and animals. Original sin gave men a reason to create hierarchies and control others “for their own good,” “to save them from their impetuous nature.” This only proves that original sin can be a most intoxicating idea. When there is nothing that can be done about our bad nature, one might as well just go with it and grasp as much as you can. Original sin makes it possible to settle for less, to punish others, to create hierarchies based, not upon goodness, but upon the control of evil.

John says that’s serpent talk, not human talk. Curses were made to be broken. God set us a task when we left Eden, not a punishment. But instead of building up the world, we wallowed in our own unworthiness. How unhelpful can you get? Get over it, says John. Wash all that bad thinking away. Come and be baptized. Shed the blindness of a society that equates power with cruelty and slavery and poison, that blames others because God maybe blamed me. Be born again. Grow wild. Go slowly. Listen for the voice of God amid the waves. Find the true power, which is life, which is community, which is abundance.

As an eco-theologian, I am always tempted to stop there. I am tempted, as I have done in previous years, to link John the Baptist with my hero John Muir and to proclaim with Henry David Thoreau that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I want to plunge into the waters and swim with the fish, to return to the great well of Creation.

But I cannot. I can’t stay in the waters forever. John is the threshold, not the destination. He is here to prepare me, not to return to nature, but to become one with it again so that I might take the next step. Nature is where I am called to repent, says John, for how I treat it will define how I treat everything else. Is the world a series of resources, including human resources, to exploit, or is it a community to be a part of, to love, to learn, to give, to seek truth and happiness?

As I said, Advent is a hard season. The Church year begins with hard questions. Amid all the noise and the haste, it is asking me: can I recognize the Christ, or have I, in the midst of my fear and self-love lost him? Can I meet the Christ Child when he or she comes again? Can I lay aside my life’s work and embrace a whole new world? Am I ready to give up my answers and take into my arms the greatest mystery in all creation; can I bow before a newborn child?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Come Back!

When something gets this strange at the edges, it’s a good sign that we stand at the threshold of change. Thresholds, like Advent, are strange, standing before one, but not crossed, something that has not happened yet. Thresholds have guardians. The guardian at the threshold always demands something before he or she lets us pass. Gatekeepers are as enigmatic as the gates they guard: the sphinx with her riddle, the ferryman to whom we pay the coin, the final exam that must be passed before the student can move on, the costs of a wedding. On the journey of life, we pass many such thresholds and face a great variety of guardians. John is the threshold to the Christ. We can’t get to Jesus without first understanding him. We can’t get to the Christ without paying John’s price.

Looked at from the perspective of our own age’s great idea, which is evolution, going down into the waters represents biological regression. It represents the waters from which all life on earth emerged. John stands there, contrary to all our notions of progress and the march up the evolutionary scale. “Come back!” he seems to cry. “You’ve taken the wrong shortcuts! Too far, too fast. Come back.”

From the more recent perspective of John’s own history, his standing at the Jordan represented a return to the moment when the desert journey was over and the Promised Land lay in view, but was yet untouched by cruel wars and kings and bad ideas of power. Each, in different ways, invites us to become pristine again. John is the baptizer, the washer away of disordered desires, the one who says, “You can begin again. You can get it right.”

Just about everything that is written and preached about baptism emphasizes this quality of return. In baptism, say the wise ones, we experience a second birth. In baptism, we die to what we were so that we might be changed in a way that we can hardly even imagine. In baptism, says our Prayer Book, we “share in Christ’s death.” I wonder how closely any of us pay attention to this when a sweet baby and her happy family is brought into church.

I want to be comfortable. I want sweet babies and God sends me a wild Baptist. So I build walls around myself and call them “progress.” I cut myself off from nature and call it “civilization.” But none of that deters John. Despite all my best efforts, John appears and says, “Come back.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Who Was He?

Into this strange and often terrible season, on its second Sunday to be precise, walks John the Baptist. John the Baptist is as strange as anything that Advent can throw in our direction. Indeed, he may be one of the most misunderstood characters in our whole sacred story. He’s a man from another age -- and he was from another age when he first appeared 2,000 years ago -- wild and hairy, who makes his home at the edges of civilization. John cries out with ancient words, “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is coming.” What on earth does that mean? What Kingdom? What are we to hope for? A new political order? A theocracy? A peaceful revolution? As many of my seminary professors hinted, is the Kingdom of Heaven some hierarchical idea that we in the modern democracies should be suspicious of? John doesn’t tell us. He simply says, if you want to know, you’ve got to meet me halfway. Come, enter the waters and be baptized. It can’t be explained. It must be experienced. If you want to see what’s coming, you’ve got to start with me.

Although John is an essential character in the Jesus story, in the popular imagination at least, there can hardly be two more different men: John, fulminating and wild, his hair a ragged tangle about his face and Jesus, who is always shown always dressed in white robes, floating beatifically down to the river with luminous grace and sanctity. The one fierce, the other loving. The one representing the prophetic voice of the “Old Testament God,” the other the loving touch of “the New Testament God.” Or so, in my constant search for comfortable categories, or, to be more blunt, in my constant search for comfort, I would like to think. But there are not two gods. There is one God. And John tells me that, yes, all that love is there, but I’m not going to find it, not really, until I repent.

And so comes John to call me to do just that. He stands with a light turned right on my cherished inner darkness. Am I surprised that in the movies, he’s rather unpleasant character, yelling at the Pharisees and the Saduccees like every religious nut who prowls Sproul Plaza or Grand Avenue? Isn't that just what my inner darkness, shielding my eyes, wants me to think? How can this be the path to the beautiful Christ Child, beloved by all, sleeping in the straw as the silent stars go by? Either there is something very odd going on, or I do not get John the Baptist, I do not get him at all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Second Week of Advent: John the Baptist

Note: The postings for Monday - Wednesday are taken from a sermon I preached on December 9, 2007, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Oakland.

Around them boomed the rhetoric of time,
The smells and furniture of the known world
Where conscience worshiped an aesthetic order
While in the center of its vast self-love,
Sat Caesar with his pleasures, dreading death.
-W.H. Auden, “Kairos and Logos”

More than any other moment in the Church year, Advent is the season when the sacred meets the world, when Caesar’s world of pleasure and self-love is touched by the far greater love of God. Advent reminds us that we stand at the brink. It’s very essence is about what has not happened yet. No matter what they want you to believe, no matter what the Advent reflections written by the pool in July to meet publication deadlines have to say, Advent, when we’re really in it, is not a comfortable season. The words “I want! I want!” resound above the horns of cars and the tinkling of prerecorded bells. If haste is the norm in our world, haste doubles during Advent. Between November 1 and December 24, we’ve got to do every good deed that has been left undone; we must fill our nights and weekends with revels and the Nutcracker and all the “magic” of the season. In such a high pitched frenzy, any semblance of polite cover up becomes impossible. Tempers flare; illness strikes; tears flow and the system shows its cracks. The world screams money; it screams taxation in the reign of Caesar Augustus, it lifts up those who have and those who have not, the grinding misery of the third world grinds out product after product for 17 cents a day so that engorged corporations can report profits of billions as they suck the life out of them and us. . . And yet, it also brings us together in a mysterious way as I hold the things that they have made. Advent has a lot of this strange togetherness, woven from traffic jams and crowds.

But a moment comes when it is all too much. A moment comes when I am not waiting for a sweet baby in a manger long ago, I am looking for a savior right now. I am standing in a corner of our poisoned earth; I am standing with the poor who have given their lives so that I might be rich, and I am saying “Dear God, save me from all this. Dear God, save the mess that we have made of your world. And most of all, dear God, save me from myself.”

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Buddhist Perspective

From 2001-2003 I attended Buddhist teachings on Tuesday nights. I liked them very much, but after a long day’s work across the bay, I was often very tired by the time I got there. Usually, the Jasmine tea and cookies that were offered revived me, but one night, I was so gone that even that did not work. We did not have our usual teacher, but a very brilliant nun whose soft spoken teaching revealed great clarity of thought. Still, as much as I wanted to, I could not follow a word she said. I just wanted it to be over so that I could go home and go to bed. And then, I was aware that she had paused. I noticed that I was not the only zoned out one in the room. There was silence. And out of that silence came the question which has haunted me ever since, “Don’t you want to be happy all the rest of your days? Don’t you want to find peace beyond your wildest dreams?”

The reason I remember it so well was because at that moment I didn’t care a fig about being happy or finding peace or any of the above. I just wanted to go home and go to bed. It was then that I began to suspect that there might be something terribly skewed about my view of the universe. When I am too exhausted to even feel the glimmer of happiness, perhaps it is time to question what is making me exhausted.

Advent asks us to explore what is making us all so tired. For all its rich end of the world imagery, Advent isn’t itself the end. The days draw short, but there is still time. Indeed, Advent is the very gift of time that, like the nun's teaching, is so hard to receive.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Be Awake!

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. (Romans 11:13)

It’s an almost disturbing thing, notes my protesting voice, that religious sages spend so much of their time informing me that I’m asleep. In one way or other they all teach that the basic rule of the spiritual life is neither prayer nor worship nor service to others but simply being alert to what is, that all the rest of it, the prayer, the worship, the service springs from cultivating this basic fact. Being awake is the foundational teaching in Buddhism. We read in last Sunday’s Gospel, "For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” The prophets came to show Israel that God’s ways were not always the same as theirs. Since Israel was beloved of God, it suggests that there is no great soporific than thinking that just because God chose us, we have it made.

On the other hand, how many times have religious nuts gotten up and told us to shape up and look sharp, that the end is near, only to have it fizzle? To name but two, in 1844, followers of William Miller were told that the world as we know it was going to conclude on October 22. Many people, believing him, sold all that they had and went out to await the rapture that never happened. Interestingly, however, the Bahais believe that the old world did in fact come to an end that year, but that most of us were too busy looking the other way to even notice. Many of us still remember the rapture hysteria that swept the United States during the Reagan years, that resulted in the odd, badly written and quite terrifying “Left Behind” series of fourteen novels in which religion is turned into war. Meanwhile, we're still going, eating, drinking, getting hitched and unhitched, making money, worrying about our kids, driving our cars and so on.

Or are we? If we're not awake, how can we be sure?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Blue Door

Among the Orthodox, Mary Theotokos the God bearer is the first to understand that the time is now. Hers are the first ears that hear the divine messenger, whispering that the way out of madness is at hand, in her hands, to be precise. Mary is in every way a threshold guardian, a liminal being. She is the gateway between human and divine, heaven and earth. One of her attributes is the Blue Door. Blue is the color of Heaven and the door represents the narrow passage between the two. The Blue Door is indistinguishable from the surrounding sky unless you know exactly where to look. Mary knew where to look. Mary could hear the angel's voice amid the haste and clamor of the world. She herself became the narrow way by which the Divine entered. In every spiritual tradition is this sense that the way out, or the way in, is a tight one.

All faith traditions are suspicious of the broad boulevard with its gleaming headlights and bright displays, its call to lose ourselves in its otherness. But again, do not be hasty in your conclusions. Contrary to the television series "Mad Men," Madison Avenue is not necessarily the road to perdition. Nor are hours of reflection and a good ascetic work out at the gym the way of salvation. God is not so obvious. The narrow way can be a dead end, and the world a cathedral. God loves the world. Since God is everywhere, it is not so much about God as it is about my ability to see. As it happend, the television series "Mad Men" showed me truths I could have never otherwise seen.

As Eugene Peterson writes in 2007’s most beautiful Advent book, God with Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, (Paraclete Press), “Every year Christmas comes around again and forces us to deal with God in the context of demanding and inconvenient children; gatherings of family members, many of whom we spend the rest of the year avoiding; all the crasser forms of greed and commercialized materiality; garish lights and decorations. Or maybe the other way around: Christmas forces us to deal with all the mess of our humanity in the context of God who has already entered that mess in the glorious birth of Jesus.” The important word here is "already." It's here. The Messiah never dies. It's here. It's about time.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Winter Madness

Therefore, Advent is not tragedy. Like Buddhism, Advent does not raise its fist against the abyss, but sees fulfillment in emptiness. The encroaching darkness turns out be a virgin’s womb.

Among the Western Churches, Advent begins the Church Year. Advent is not a natural beginning like a birthday. There is no occasion to mark the coming of Advent. No solstice, equinox, birth, event or death marks it. It just comes, a month before Christmas, rather like the dusk of that most harried day I thought would never end.

Be awake, for you do not know the day or the hour. Be awake. It is hard to stay awake in winter, to rise from our beds while stars still hang in the sky, to emerge from the subway mere blocks from the office just as dawn is breaking in the East. Winter fills us with dreams of sleep, with night visions, with the hope that if I bundle tight enough into the covers that it will all go away and that I will find peace. Winter threatens depression. Children in the far north stand under sunlamps to avoid rickets or seasonal affective disorder.

The first peoples knew about the disorders of winter. Reverie could cost you your life when the world is frozen and dark. Among the Greenlanders was a well known madness that struck in late autumn and to which women and dogs were especially susceptible and which often resulted in death, the end of the world. The Chukchi of northeastern Siberia tell the story of a girl who wintered in a grave house among the dead. She returned in the spring to reassure her family, but things could never be the same again and after not much time, she left forever to return to her home among the dead. In a dream I had as an adolescent, winter arrived as a fleet of black flying reptiles who devoured the white pelicans of summer, turning their falling feathers into snow. Madness is present in Advent, too, the frenzy of shopping and desire, the loss of restraint and boundary that doctors associate with insanity, a disorder of borders.

O come O come Emmanuel. It’s about time.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

It's About Time: Meditations for Advent

Week One: The End of the World

Sunday

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . .Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24)

The season of Advent begins each year with readings about the end of the world. A beginning. An ending. Even as we prepare to welcome the Christ Child into our hearts, Jesus, full grown in today's Gospel, preaches apocalypse. The world is ending. The days are growing short, the nights deep. Summer is just a memory. In many parts of the hemisphere, warmth is giving way to bitter cold. The Church Year cycles with the natural year and as seasons change, so do we. The only permanence is impermanence. The world has been ending for millions of years. "Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left." Change is about endings. Change is about beginnings. The brilliant idea of a generation ago thwarts the thriving of this one. Children become parents and parents become children. The changes in season help us to practice this cycle of loss and renewal, and as we pray through the seasons, we learn to see God’s grace and faithfulness at the very center of the changes and chances of this life. But we don't see it at first. At first all that we see is that one is taken and one will be left. Is it better to be taken? Is it better to be left?

For the correspondences between calendar and Church are not exact. "Suns may rise and set again," writes the Roman poet Catullus, "But once our brief light goes out, night is one perpetual sleeping." "Keep awake," says Jesus. Sacred time is not a recapitulation of calendar time or even of natural time; it is its own time. It distorts time, in the way a prism or a mirror distorts light. Paradox is the great axis of religious teaching. What appears to be solid turns out to have no substance. The Spirit is born in a barn. Things are not as they seem. Assume nothing when you direct your thoughts toward God. The end of the world says, "We're all going to die!" Jesus comes to tell us that we're all going to live.

“There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” Hamlet. A prince. A tragedy. The fall of the mighty. Tragedy reveals one kind of attitude toward change. Tragedy glories in the inevitability of loss, the way the world has deprived you of happiness. Tragedy is the glory of Greece and Rome, the mantle of Caesar Augustus, the melodrama of the gated community, "That mourns in lonely exile here/Until the son of God appear." It's about time.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Miss Fish

It was Amanda, of course, who suggested that I get to know that great patroness of Rococo, Mme de Pompadour. Amanda believed that if anything ever bothered you, the only solution was to go straight to the source and talk to those who started it. While she collected gossip from Reagan’s court in Washington, I infiltrated the court of Louis XV. Dead celebrities are far more approachable than living ones. One may view their escapades with more equanimity. I don’t care who was blamed for starting the Seven Years War. I still fume about the Iran/Contra scandal.

Mme de Pompadour’s patronage secured the place of Francois Boucher in art history. While he painted daydreams, domestic idylls and mythological fantasias, she lived them or at least acted her part so impeccably that she appeared to be living them. I will tell you parts of her story, which, if you become interested, you may continue in any one of a number of good biographies. More have been written since the late 1970’s, when the only good book was still Nancy Mitford’s 1954 biography Madame de Pompadour. It’s still a good one. Mitford’s book, like Madame’s life, had the kind of dreamlike quality that made it easy to read and even easier to imagine oneself in. It solved my problems of what people did in the frivolous 18th century. Indeed, as I got to know her, Mme de Pompadour became rather like the rock I meditate with, a single person who holds within her singularity a great deal of universal, even archetypal depth. I talked about her that way when I did my public lectures. I suppose it was to add human interest, to try and convey the excitement of her life through her eyes, but now I realize that it was something more. Homo sum, wrote the Roman playwright Terence, et humani nihil me alienum puto. I am human and I think that nothing human is foreign to me. It’s a saying I’ve loved since college. I realize that I stand or fall with my species. The more I am able to love others, the more I can finally forgive myself.

The future Mme de Pompadour, was born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson in Paris on December 29, 1721. Her last name means Fish. Born into the society of high finance, her mother a known beauty, her paternity uncertain, she could not have picked a better situation into which to have become the catch of the century. Financiers are always in demand after a century of war. With royal treasuries exhausted, monarchs need what we today call venture capital and will happily step out of their social class to obtain it. Capitalism was to be the great innovation of the Enlightenment. Two years after Jeanne Antoinette, Adam Smith would be born in Scotland. Each in her and his own way would contribute to a heady world of laissez faire and cash values.

According to family lore, when Jeanne Antoinette was about nine years old, a fortune teller predicted that she would become the beloved of the king. This earned her the sobriquet “Reinette,” which, loosely translated, means “Queenie.” If the story came true in her case, you can be sure that many other little girls were receiving the same kind of news from the seers who were the rage at the time. Too much reason, too much heady philosophizing always leads to a resurgence of superstition in the parlor, table rapping, cards and the like. Some have said that the mystic and supposedly ancient Tarot deck was in fact an 18th century French innovation. Be that as it may, in the world of fortune tellers and dream speakers, royalty is the symbol of individuation. In the psychic realm, we are all kings and queens. Religious teaching abounds with kings and queens even when the teachers themselves are ascetics. The kingdom of heaven is a bejeweled realm. At some deep spiritual level, you cannot go wrong as a fortune teller if you inform a little girl that she is the beloved of the King.

After receiving the education that was now the right of girls of good birth, Jean Antoinette was married at nineteen to Charles-Guillaume Le Normant d'Étiolles, also a financier. Charles-Guillaume appeared to have loved her madly. Since her claim to fame was as a lover, this should not surprise us. Nor should we be surprised that he never forgave her leaving him, even if it was for the king. But the truth goes deeper. It was Charles-Guillaume’s own father, always the broker, who introduced his pretty daughter-in-law to court circles and helped to get her into the masked ball held at Versailles in 1745 to celebrate the marriage of Louis XV’s son to a Spanish princess. If d’Etiolles père was making loans to the king, what could be a better guarantee on his investment than the ivory arms of a beautiful woman, a brilliant hostess, a patron of the arts? Had he lived today, Charles Guillaume might have written a vindictive novel about his father’s sexual brokerage, but this was an age of sparkling women, and this was France, and Charles Guillaume only sulked.


It is hard to see what is going on in this engraving of “The Yew Tree Ball” by Charles-Nicolas Cochin (French, 1715–1790). It shows the grand soiree in which all the dreams of our beautiful Reinette at last came true. The king, present at first to greet his guests, then mysteriously disappeared, causing trepidation and alarm. Later, he returned with seven friends, all dressed up as identical clipped yew trees. You can see them over on the left. It must have been dreamlike to have been that night in the Hall of Mirrors, thousands of candles blazing everywhere, layer upon layer of tromp d’oeil and sparking reflection, everybody pretending to be somebody else: dominoes, harlequins, creatures whose heads lay in their chests, Persians, Indians, magicians, anything was possible on that breathless, stifling night, heady with sweat, desire and perfume.

This was, after all, the age of fairy tale, and this many years later, the masked ball at Versailles has the distinct feel of a Cinderella story, the ball, the disguise, the love struck prince, in this case a king hot for a mistress. The story of a hidden girl who becomes a princess is known the world round. She is a heroine with a thousand faces who makes her first appearance in the ancient world. Her Greco-Egyptian name is Rhodopsis, retold by Strabo in the first century B.C. In China, she is Ye Xian, who appears in a collection published around A.D. 860. She turns up in Africa as Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughter, and in North America, as the Algonquin Rough Face Girl. The story we know best, however, is French, Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, published in 1697. Madame is sure to have read it, and it certainly gives us a taste of her tale, for she, too, saw her dreams come true at a ball.

Jeanne Antoinette came to the ball dressed as Diana the huntress. It is incongruous to think of such a sexual conquest being made by a virgin goddess whose dislike of men was legendary, and it may be a subtle warning that this age was not quite as it seemed. At the literal level, of course, to be Diana is to give in to the thrill of the chase, a century of female woodland fantasy, culminating in the shepherd-excess of Marie Antoinette, but the metaphorical implications are far darker. If thousands of sweet, mythological hunting scenes would be painted over the next quarter century: nymphs and Maenads, Diana, Pomona, resting and singing in field and forest and garden, Diana herself was little disposed toward love. In one of her most famous stories, she turns a man who ogled her into a stag who was devoured by his own hounds. This is not exactly a love story. But the Diana who came to Versailles was of a different sort of huntress who gladly yielded to being ogled by her prey. And this, too, may have been prescient. Playing god is always serious, no matter which gods you choose, and even if your intent is nothing more than fun.


Mme de Pompadour played many. After she moved in with the king, she was more appropriately depicted as Venus. Above is Boucher’s famous “Toilette of Venus,” a portrait of Mme de Pompadour that hung in her salle de bain. Mme was also the model for Pomona in at least two versions of Boucher’s paintings of the scene. To your left is a sculpted version by Lemoyne which you may find at the Louvre.


The story of Vertumnus and Pomona may be found tucked away in an obscure corner of Ovid’s monumental poem The Metamorphoses. The Metamorphoses was written during the reign of Caesar Augustus. It is an epic series of transformation stories, beginning with primal chaos and ending with the deification of the emperor Augustus. It moves from gods to godlike men, from mythic time into the time of history. Vertumnus and Pomona not only have the distinction of being the only Italian gods in this tale, they also appear as semi-historical figures, their romance having taken place not during the once upon a time of the age of heroes, but during the completely datable reign of the kings of Alba Longa. Alba Longa would later be overthrown by Rome during Rome’s relentless rise to power. Pomona was the goddess of apples and fruit trees. Like Diana, Pomona cared for trees and did not care for men. Vertumnus, the god of seasons, change and plant growth, and as a result, a crafty shape shifter, was the only one able to enter her closed orchards. Sometimes he came disguised as a rustic reaper bearing gifts of grain, at others an old soldier. Finally, he came as an old woman who plied her with kisses. He wove the metaphor of the elm tree and the grapevine, how, without the vine, the elm would only be admired for its leaves and without the elm, the vine would be forced to creep along the ground. Next he told Pomona a sad tale of a young man who committed suicide because his beloved would not have him, and when she saw his bier pass beneath her window, a vengeful Venus turned her to stone. At this, Vertumnus shed his disguise and taking Pomona into his arms, would have had her by force had she not capitulated in delight.

The courtship of Pomona by Vertumnus became a popular subject in art by the late seventeenth century, and may have been one of the reasons why it evolved into one of the symbols of Mme de Pompadour’s seduction by the king. It was the subject of a ballet performed at Versailles in January 1749. Boucher was probably the designer of the sets, and Madame de Pompadour played the role of Pomona. The painting by Boucher at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was a cartoon for a Gobelins tapestry probably inspired by the production. All of which to say that the story was mythic on many levels: a pagan myth of Imperial Rome, a myth of Enlightenment France, a myth of seduction in the garden.

If the erotic delights of pagan Rome had been crushed by the ascetic weight of Christians, what better way to put the Church in its place than to recreate pagan Rome in Paris? Although renewed persecutions of the Church still lay a half century in the future, the court of Louis XV had already turned away from the counsel of the cardinals who had been so powerful during the reign of his predecessor. And with this, new images came to replace the old ones. Instead of wicked Eve and virtuous Mary, now came Pomona, the goddess, not the eater, of apples.

It is likely that the myth’s sly allusions to the Garden of Eden was one of the things that made it so attractive. The same intellectual awareness that the Bible warned would lead to sin was the Enlightenment’s glory. No serpent was needed. Vertumnus, the man, deceived the woman all by himself. It proved a perfect foil to the dreary Christian legend of the Fall.

It is also a perfect example of a disconnect, a shift, a dislocation. But since this is myth, there is, of course, nothing random about it. Nothing at all.

Mme de Pompadour was neither prim maiden to be given as prize to a hardworking citizen, nor the beneficiary of hereditary duties and privilege. She was a boundary person. France had refused Protestantism and its domesticated church. Paris was full of women whose learning, wit and style were legendary, who were creating a culture of luxury and manners for any who could afford it. Jeanne Antoinette’s infiltration of the court helped make possible the bourgeois aspirations to power that followed. She also, like Eve, aroused a great deal of male rage.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

To Be in the Image of God – Part Two

As I walk the narrow path between fear and love, I remember a Buddhist teaching. All things may be equally true, says the teaching, but not all things are equally helpful. This was probably one of the reasons why Buddha declined to teach about God. Buddha only taught what he knew. What he knew was the nature of mind and what it meant to be a sentient creature. Buddha knew from his experiences of life and enlightenment that wisdom without compassion was like trying to be a bird with a broken wing, and so he would teach nothing that might divide people against one another. As we know from the debates that are fracturing the Anglican Communion, as we know from religious fundamentalism, trying to ascertain the nature and the will of deity can result in a great deal of unkindness.

Jesus, like the Buddha, came to teach us about being human. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted....Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” That which divides us is not helpful. Jesus, who lived in a monotheistic culture, taught that God is Love, that the wisdom of God’s Law, which was his dharma, could only be understood through the lens of Love. Love is not so much an entity, as it is a quality of relationship, and this is where Jesus’ teaching comes very close to the Buddha’s. Both stress that love is prime. Jesus lived in a God created world. Buddha did not, but the dependent co-arising of the Buddhist universe is very like the teaching of co-creation that Jesus learned from Torah. Spiritual truth can only be discerned as a relationship.

And here the paths seemingly diverge. We have many esoteric teachings attributed to the Buddha. We have very few from the Christ. Although scripture plainly tells us that Jesus taught his apostles truths beyond the parables, most of these have been lost. As Christians, we build our understanding of reality primarily from stories. We know that the Kingdom of God is among/within you.” We know that to judge another human being is to judge God. We know that to judge God is sin. Many Christians go ahead and judge anyway. They say that heads have got to roll if we are going to get it right. They invoke the Old Testament God of Law and insult us all with their divisiveness. I am being divisive even to write this. We all exist for a reason.

The divine, whether perceived as God or not-God, (and the spaces between are as true as the things in space) is indivisible. The indivisible cannot by its nature be divided into Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Native American, Buddhist an-atman, or any of the other sets of metaphors that our human limitations compel us to use. Either the spiritual world is true, or Richard Dawkins is correct and we suffer from a collective delusion and are really just machines driven by aggressive genes. That is the choice before us.

Which brings me to my final musing. If I choose not to believe Richard Dawkins and instead assert that the Universe is truly governed by Wisdom and by Love, how can terrible things happen to innocent people? How can we continue to praise the Divine and remain sane in a world that has given us the Holocaust, Hurricane Mitch, the Tsunami, and such massive daily injustice that 1.5 billion people live in poverty so abject that it sits at the edge of the grave?

It is easy to blame, or worse yet, to cower before God over this. But pause for a moment and consider. As I consider my disordered and distracted mind, I cannot help but wonder. If I am in fact a co-creator with God, if I am in fact part of a great co-arising, if I am a creature who weaves cause and effect from my acts of kindness and my acts of vengeance, then perhaps I am not wise to blame God, even for the natural disasters I call “Acts of God.” I know that the natural tragedies of hurricanes and tsunamis are exacerbated by the fact that dense populations are now piled up in unstable locations, that Western market culture has resulted in a misguided view of life. These same Western countries do not suffer so much when a natural disaster sweeps through.

Western industrial nations are not the only survivors, however. The indigenous manage to survive as well. The indigenous have not lost the art of conversing with nature. They can read the signs and seek refuge. The know how to listen to the world rather than always seeking to control it. All this suggests that I have paid a high price for my technological footprint; that machines have drowned out the still small voice. What is prayer, or if you prefer, meditation, but the art of listening?

This is the place to which I always return. It is not so much about what happens out there – one need only consider the workings of a star to realize that fire and explosion are woven into the way of truth – but what happens in here. If I can listen to the voice of truth, I will know what to do. I will even be able to embrace the day of my death in safety.

Violence and fear are what the evil one uses to trap me. I am often afraid because I am human and easily trapped. But I have found over the years of life, that love is stronger than fear and that nothing is ever wasted in this beautiful creation.

God appeared to Moses as fire and to Job in a whirlwind. God called Abram to leave the land of his ancestors and walk into the unknown. No one ever said it would be easy. They only said that wisdom and compassion and trust would finally give us wings.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

To Be in the Image of God - Part One

A reader asks, "If God is a loving God, does he allow terrible things to happen to innocent people (however one defines that term)? Or is the Old Testament right, in that God is a vengeful God to be appeased and who can wreak terrible things just because God can?"

When I ask “Who is God?” what I am really asking?
Am I asking about God whom I may know only in part?
Am I asking about myself whom perhaps I may know in full?
Am I asking because I am afraid?
Am I asking because I am in the image of God and this world is such a mess that my faith is being shaken?

What am I doing here?
What is to be my part in the human story?
What if I’m here for a trivial reason?
What if I don’t like the part I am to play in the human unfolding?
Why am I suffering when that person, who appears no more worthy than I, is enjoying so many good experiences?
Am I going to be kept alive so long that I become a gaunt old person with no money?
Am I going to die before I have figured anything out?
Is God pleased that one third of the world’s 6.5 billion people are going hungry while Americans are either obese or benefiting from a multi billion dollar diet and fitness industry?
Is it worth killing off the fish in the sea so that I don’t have to worry about cholesterol?
If American capitalism is so good, why is China, who is making so much of our economic ease possible, suffocating in its own pollution?
Can ecological filth, however temporary, ever lead to a greater good?

Whom am I really calling when I call upon the name of God?
Since I may know God only in part, can I make any distinction between my God and the God whom Jews and Muslims worship?
What about Buddhists who meditate within the non-god?
Or Hindus, with three million and one God at the same time?
Who is to be saved?
What does it mean to be saved?
What do I wish to be saved from? Or for?

And so I move from God, to self, to world, and back to God.

I wonder whether my questions are reflective of theology or of my own anxiety. Am I seeking truth or reassurance?

I live in a culture that fears suffering and death so deeply that it will do anything, including killing others, to keep itself alive. I know that this culture has rubbed off deeply on me, even when I believe I am critiquing it. Therefore the image of a vengeful God hold terrors for me because I see power and terror so closely woven into the fabric of what I call the real.

But is my image of the real, given to me by men, God’s reality? What if, in holding on prayerfully to the vengeance of God, I begin to see rather the fullness of my own terror? Once it becomes my problem and not God’s, I may begin to claim the truth that terror is not the way I wish to live. I might also affirm that terror is not the way I wish to die. And in doing this, I pass through the wrathful curtain (which is one of the stops along the way to God) and see that God is not vengeful.

Still, what do we do with a passage like this one? The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 1:7) It is often taken to mean that God is fearful, and that my best response is to cower. I can see people hunched over in prayer, their noses to the ground, their knees calloused and scabbed from prostrations. God is best in small doses, this seems to say, like Moses hidden beneath the rocks and seeing only the back end of a departing deity. But thus hunched, and feeling quite safe, I can move with the passage, leaving fear behind and moving toward wisdom. And indeed, that is where the proverb itself goes – we remember that Hebrew poetry always comes in parallel couplets – and the second half of the verse is this: fools despise wisdom and instruction.

In evolutionary terms, fear is less about terror and more about alertness. Fear is instructive. It leads to wisdom. Fear is how I remain awake to this world’s real dangers and lead my clan between the saber toothed tiger and the crashing wave. Today this is gone. Fear has degnerated into stress, a medical problem that produces hypertension and illness and great profits for the health care colossus. My heart becomes mere muscle, subject to "attack." Too easily do I forget that fight, flight and awareness have more traditionally been the conditions of life, not the agents of death. Perhaps in my culturer's controlling myopia, I have become the fool who despises wisdom and instruction.

I know from living in the times that we do that fear has degenerated from a condition of being awake to a powerful agent of social control. Fear can exact a great deal of obedience very quickly. It requires no subtlety or wisdom to make others afraid. If fear is invoked in the name of God, it becomes easy to adduce that God is a fearful being. (And since I'm a Christian, I'll project that fear onto an "Old Testament" God.)

But then I go back and deeply read the Hebrew scriptures. I reread Genesis. Is God in this story a God of vengeance or simply a God who is present at the consequences? How can God require obedience when God makes freedom possible? (And if I'm free to trash my neighbor, I see far less of this from God who is free to do a great deal and yet declines.) Look at how God responded to all the mess ups. God clothed Adam and Eve in the skins they would need to survive. God marked Cain so that others would not destroy him and just maybe, there would not be a chain reaction of murder. God didn't wipe out everything in the flood. God appeared twice to Hagar when others drove her into the desert. This is not a deity that rains down vengeance. Even in those cases where it appears that vengeance is raining down, it is more the deafness and willfulness of the people that bring about destruction than it is the wrath of God. If I choose to defy the laws of nature, I may very well die as a result of my choice. Had the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah been less into violence and more into meditation, they would have felt the earth tremble under their feet. According to the Jews, God is a collaborator, not a dictator; it is the task of humanity to complete the Creation that God has given into our care. Maybe God was speaking to everyone and only Noah heard.

This leads me to suspect that if I am seeing God as fearful, I am dealing with something inside myself so big and so impossible that the only way I can even begin to see it is to project it upon God. If I am in the image of God, so is God the mirror in which I learn to see my true face. To be continued. . .

Friday, October 19, 2007

Time and Again

If ever there was one who lived in the space between rock and not rock, it is the poet T.S. Eliot. Hold a rock in your hand and consider this, from The Four Quartets. The cycle begins:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

* * *
Only in a world of speculation.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden

Rocks are emissaries from the time that might have been and the time that is yet to be. They predate me by millions, even billions, of years and they will continue to exist long after the body that contains me has dissolved back into the earth, perhaps to be incorporated into a rock. The more I am able to let go my own whirring, and most unrocklike thoughts, the more the rock can ground me both in time and the body, in earthiness. It is hard for me to think in geological time, but with a rock in the palm of my hand and my breathing slow, I am empowered to try.

I learn that each rock, like each person, is a miniature version of a much larger story. Were I a geologist, I could tell you things about the era in which this rock was formed, what minerals it contained, where it was likely to have arisen. It helps me to discern the big picture within the small, and this is why rock work is helpful, not only in clearing the mind for prayer, but in approaching a work of art.

Rocks are the inner work of the earth, just as art is the inner work of culture, just as dreams that come to me by night are the inner work of me. And just as earth, mineral, pigment shape the world that I see, so do my dreams shape the stories, the images and the expectations I will bring to my seeing.

Each work of art, like each rock, holds within it a link to all. It has taken me a lifetime to be able to see this. I’m not sure I would even have tried, had “Vertumnus and Pomona” not frustrated my expectations so shockingly when I was young in much the same way that my inability to concentrate upon a rock for ten minutes frustrated the image of my own insightfulness when I grew older. To pay attention to ones random thoughts is to discover how fleeting they really are, how pointless much of the time, like the mayfly that rises above the waters and is nearly swallowed by the trout, like little Pomona, who allowed herself to be seduced by the blandishments of a cross-dresser.

My own confusion made me more than grateful for my friend Amanda. During my years at the museum, Amanda was my rock. The first thing she told me was to relax. High culture, she hinted, might be the last refuge of scoundrels and profundity a smoke screen thrown up by the terminally shallow. Amanda had the kind of confidence that comes naturally to the well born and she was a born popularizer.

Amanda was about ten years older than my mother. She had grown up in Piedmont, an elegant two mile square enclave surrounded entirely by a rather rougher Oakland. Piedmont people were sheltered, rich, beautiful and subject to no standards but their own. High culture, she said, was always about impressing somebody else, which was exactly what the Rococo did to perfection. Just look at those soft thighs and sensuous silks. Amanda knew all about this, of course. She had eloped to Tahoe during her freshman year at Cal, which was quite a wild thing to do, but as she said, “In those days, if you wanted to do it, you had to get married first.” By the time I met her, she and the Beast, as she affectionately called her husband, had raised three children and were settling into a comfortable old age. They inhabited an apartment on the Marina in San Francisco which, like my aunt’s well bred house, found its grace in elegant and careful understatement, but if my aunt’s two acres in the woods of Marin County were like a Russian estate in microcosm, Amanda’s apartment in the Marina was urban and cosmopolitan. It was Amanda who brought back court gossip from Washington and coined that immortal phrase about Boucher and his age, “This was when the gods came down from the heavens and into the boudoir.” In Amanda’s mind, the boudoir was the defining room of the entire eighteenth century, because the eighteenth century was all about love. She had never had to worry about starving peasants, and she did not.

Amanda’s salon gave me a new appreciation of Boucher’s delicious paganism. Not only had the gods come down from the heavens, they had, for the moment at least, vanquished a world which had come to take itself far too seriously. The seventeenth century had nearly been crushed under the weight of its seriousness. Invoking the absolute rightness of their doctrines and seeking to cleanse and purify all dissent in rivers of blood, men thundered and fought in the name of God. Reformation, counter-Reformation, Inquisition, death in the name of our crucified Lord, total war on a scale that would not be seen for centuries. And then it ended. To have awakened in a townhouse in Paris in 1721 was something fresh and beautiful, something that had never before been tried, life not as obedience to God, but in cultivating the very best of what it meant to be human. There were ruins lying around, but the passion and the darkness were over. The killing was done. Europe had lost its taste for cathedrals, for the grand gesture, the sweeping tides of Empire and Inquisition. When the sun rose upon the eighteenth century, it lit up the pastel walls of private town houses, the hôtels of Paris. It was a life infused by Rene Descartes’ simple mantra, “I think, therefore I am,” life wedded to its own ideas and mathematical elegance. This was a world hosted by brilliant women, because brilliant women have always presided over the house cultures at the beginning of things, be they the early caves of the goddess, or the early house churches of the Christian movement, or the salons in which the Age of Enlightenment saw the break of its day.

In the early 18th century, with the power of religion seemingly crushed into submission, human beings were given permission to reinvent the world. Women built beautiful rooms in which to wrench the mysteries of life away from the vengeful and vindictive heavens. Women of genius made it possible for men of science and philosophes to reimagine human life, not as the fallen creation of God, but something positive, rational, understandable on a human scale. It was giddy and fun. Anything was possible.

Nor were these women the sweet and gentle girls that men always imagine come to welcome them home from the wars, these women were like Penelope, made strong during the years alone in Ithaka, educated and very canny. While the men had dismembered one another with swords, smashed one another with canons and used the very unsubtle machinations of the torture chamber to overpower their enemies, the women had stayed home, weaving and unraveling the tapestries of time, the shroud with which they would bury their fathers, the wombs from which they would birth the new. There is much subtlety and truth to be found in this.

I still did not love “Vertumnus and Pomona”, but Amanda made a very sweet case for their very feminine world.

Monday, October 8, 2007

A Brief Thought Exercise

As my acquaintance Anne said, “Academics are like psychedelic drugs. They force you to see patterns where there are none.”

I invite you now to do a short centering exercise. I will assure you before you even start that completing this exercise is all but impossible, so do not be worried when you fail. Failing at the task is part of the wonderful mystery of performing it. We are accustomed to avoid failure at all costs rather than accepting its gifts. Failure is a gift. I will say more about this later.

I encountered this exercise during a healing prayer retreat, not with a seventies guru, but with a kindly retired UCC minister and one time friend of my aunt. I spent a beautiful week amid redwoods, fields and the Navarre River in Sonoma County failing at this exercise and I loved it so much that I have since taught it to hundreds of people.

You need only three simple things to complete it: a rock, a clock and a quiet place to sit. The point is to look at the rock for 10 minutes and think of nothing but the rock as a rock. You may look at it from any angle. You may turn it in your hands and examine it closely. You may even close your eyes and savor its textures. But you cannot turn it into anything but that which it already is: a rock.

To prepare for the exercise, it helps to settle onself in the quiet place and take a few deep breaths. If possible, say some comforting and simple words to banish any thoughts that may be troubling you. Acknowledge them and let them go. The same with any noises that may be drifting through the window: the mockingbird under the eaves, the crows that call out from the tree next door, the swish of cars moving up and down the street, that baby across the street who is always having tantrums. Acknowledge them and let them go.

If your clock has an alarm, set it for ten minutes hence.

Now focus all your concentration upon the rock.

When your ten minutes are up, reflect on what you saw.

That is all.


WHY I FAIL

I cannot look at a rock for ten minutes without telling a story. For me, rocks turn into narrative, the universe in microcosm. I have a piece of charcoal colored granite veined with quartz which always turns into pictograms which in turn takes me into the desert and causes me to ponder lost ceremonies. I have a second piece of granite that when I hold it just so, a wolf’s head emerges from its top and at the bottom I can just barely make out a den of puppies. This rock tells a cautionary tale. Long ago, a wolf mother was out hunting to feed her brood when a pair of cruel little boys came upon her innocent puppies. They began to tease and torment them. Hearing their cries from far away, the mother cried out to her mother earth who took pity upon them and turned them all to stone until humans should become a kinder race. And as it sits in my hand, I ponder whether I have learned the kindness to awaken them.

“It’s a rock, stupid,” I now say. “It is you who are making it into stories. It’s a rock.”

So the next time I do it, I pick up the dullest rock in my bowl. It is a very dull medium gray and smoothed at all its edges. There are no veins of color anywhere. It is an almost perfect ellipse, symmetrical, elegantly balanced in the palm of my hand, no edges or angles. I sit and breathe. Hardly two minutes pass before the rock begins to sparkle as if a night sky were emerging from its depths.

And God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.”

“No, it is not the imprint of the stars upon a stone left too long in the river. It’s a rock, stupid.”

The next day, I find a rock that is so dull that it defines dull. Of no particular shape and yellow brown in color, it is the kind of rock that escapes our notice at the side of the road, a dust crusted rock, a quarry chunk. Within two minutes I am seeing the history of the earth recapitulated in its tiny, even minuscule folds and pondering the mystery of the rejected one.

Human beings have an irresistible need to make patterns. Patterns aid us against the terrors of the unknown. Patterns are what give us all the best stories and theories and equations and fractals. My patterns are a window into my soul. But my patterns may or may not be true. They may be nothing more than habits, or assumptions or desires, or even denial. Patterns are just as good as hiding things as revealing them.

It is in this tension between rock and not rock that the truth is to be found.

Boucher and Me

Three years later, after a false start in graduate school – I was not meant to be an academic — and a happy remarriage, I found the first threads of my tale. It began when Jay and I were house sitting at my aunt’s house. My aunt and uncle lived in a house in the woods, nestled on two acres of California live oaks, black oaks, toyons, and madrones. A scarlet oak planted in the year that it was built shaded the front entrance, while hundreds of species of camellias, carefully grafted by my uncle, bloomed along its meandering paths. The air was bright with hawks, jays, woodpeckers, quail, and turkey vultures, while deer, squirrels, and foxes roamed the underbrush. A golden retriever lounged at the door.

My aunt and uncle were rich. Long before any of the rest of us, they had cable service and a Trinitron® color TV. And that was how, on a small estate in Marin County, Jay and I discovered Tolstoy. During the month my aunt and uncle spent the fall at their olive ranch near Oroville, we watched the BBC production of War and Peace and discovered imperial Russia.

My first husband, who had buzz-sawed almost the whole of the Russian nineteenth century in translation, had actively loathed Tolstoy, preferring the more phantasmagorical and violent world of Dostoevsky. But for me, Natasha Rostova embodied the passions and the sorrows of Russia in ways that Raskolnikov or Prince Myshkin never could. In high school, I had walked the hills with my poet friends and pondered the relationship between Art and Life. Nowhere did the two feel more seamlessly fused than in War and Peace which told the story of a young girl coming of age during a nation’s agony. Tolstoy wrote about great things. In Tolstoy’s world, a young girl’s heart could embody history, at least as long as she belonged only to herself. Once she married, she lost all this, and that, too, would become a part of my story.

By 1975, I needed the strange and spiritual specter of Russia as an antidote to the total lack of imagination that had seemingly gripped all California. Life had grown very confused. Even now, the 1970’s were the decade I wish had never happened. Although I had managed to insulate myself from its worst excesses by marriage to a very proper spouse, this did not mean that I did not hear about them. Excess was being bruited from the rooftops. Before AIDS ended the decade with tragedy, everyone was carrying on as if having promiscuous sex, far from being something we had in common with the lower animals, was a veritable act of genius. This was the decade of Erica Jong’s zipperless fuck, Cyra McFadden’s hot tubs and peacock feathers and the notorious key parties where professionals showed how hip they were by anesthetizing themselves with drugs and swapping wives. This was the me-decade.Therapy was a major growth industry.Psycho-babble was fast taking the place of conversation. Real Estate prices were beginning rise exponentially, and with them, an even more engorged sense of entitlement, the enlargement and projection of the self into a house.

Caught between Tolstoy on the one hand and a singles’ bar culture on the other, I opted for art over life. Two years later, after a stint as a California historian, I walked into the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and signed up to become a docent.

Of course there may have been better places to find the truth of art than a San Francisco museum dedicated to European Art. San Francisco in those days was an opera town, a Catholic town, a gay town, a sailboat town, not an art town. Our art museums were not like the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado, even the Art Institute or the Metropolitan which is to say, the keepers of a great national vision. San Francisco was built on a gold rush. It was a mercantile town, a banking town, a railroad town, a town that, in the words of one of its early social historians, “danced on the brink of the world.” (Which was one of the reasons I briefly considered following in my grandfather’s footsteps and exploring art by going into advertising.) Our art museums were built from more popular stuff than the great museums of Chicago and New York. This was all right. I was prepared to deal with second tier art. I was prepared to work with small tastes of great traditions. But I was not prepared for Francois Boucher.

And yet there it hung, all six feet high of it in a place of distinction at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor. Boucher’s gigantic mythological scene “Vertumnus and Pomona,” represented everything I had been running from. It was frivolous and fanciful, the whipped cream aesthetic of an aristocracy so self-absorbed that it could not even see the Revolution that was brewing before their very noses. I could not exactly ignore something this large. It did not allow me to remain comfortable with my fantasies of Natasha Rostova, either, as it reminded me that Russia, too, had overthrown its gentry. I suppose I could have said what the others said, that it was silly and fun and that it depicted a scene of seduction from Roman mythology and was a cartoon for a tapestry and do admire the virtuosity of the swirling flow of its drapery, except that I did not want to say that. That was too simple, too canned. What I wanted to say was that the painting troubled me deeply. It did not trouble me because I found it silly. I was a Californian and silly I could deal with. Rather, it troubled me because it hung in a museum. That meant that someone found it sufficiently beautiful and meaningful to put in a museum. It troubled me because real people had posed for it. It troubled me because poor people had been deprived of the means to live so that the rich could live this way.

Standing in front of this painting brought me face to face with the shallowness from which I had thought to flee. Thus, it was here that I had my first real experience of the disconnect between what we say about life and what life may really be. The parallels between this little scene of seduction, whatever its origin or intent, and the hot tub culture of California were too obvious to miss. But everyone missed them.

The American cultural narrative was about equality and democracy and opportunity for the underdog, not about aristocratic seduction. Never, never in a million years would Americans ever stoop to this.

Or so, in the art museum, they said.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Docent Tour of the Soul

“Academics are like psychedelic drugs. They force you to see patterns where there are none.”

The above epigram was coined in 1968 by a woman I’ll call Anne Thripus. She and I were briefly in the same class at a small women’s college that had a reputation for producing elegant, erudite and compliant wives. Ann was one of the exceptions. She was a large, angry woman with a barbed wit and a thirst for revolution. I believe she left after a year and went to Berkeley. I’m not sure if she ever became someone’s wife.

Her statements have lingered on. I was a Latin major and in love with patterns. Ancient languages and archetypes, Homer and Euripides, Catullus, Horace, Virgil. Our college’s pride was an integrated humanities curriculum, dedicated to making connections: Homo sum, wrote Terence in what should have been our motto, et humani nihil me alienum puto. (I am human and I think nothing human is foreign to me.) We studied history, art, music, literature and science from antiquity to the present day. We knew Arthur, Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde, Dante. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Montaigne. We watched inner myth, literature and religion morph into global exploration, into expository information: the great systematic philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the scientific revolution and finally, myth reborn as novel: Dickens, Elliott, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and at the end, at last, the beginning again: the cry of the first peoples that would echo through the decades of my later life. Because my childhood had been dominated by the pieties of a smug Christendom, I blamed the Christians for the loss of mythic paradox. I wrote my senior thesis on the moment that the pagan world turned Christian, which, by the way, was for me the moment the world ended for real. Without Rome and the gods there was nothing left. I would therefore not develop an adult interest in Christianity until much, much later, when it found itself threatened by the fire-breathing fundamentalists of the far right.

Christianity was a pretty tired religion at the time I came of age. It was all about good behavior, sex and priests. There was no overarching narrative to guide our spiritual lives, no communion of saints to set our young hearts on fire. Rather, we kept indifferent pieties or nibbled at the buffet of syncretism. We believed we could believe whatever we chose and we believed our choices had consequences only for ourselves, that we could shield ourselves from others. Community was only conformity.

Since I was a classicist, I saw echoes of my own world in the frightening instability that rocked the ancient world when Alexander the Great rumbled east with his armies and broke down the coherence of polis leaving an unruly empire, which destroyed comfortable local narratives and released a host of foreign deities and demons. Beneath the veneer of our gracious afternoon college teas, a great deal was simmering. Potent, mind-altering drugs arrived daily from Mexico and Southeast Asia. The war in Vietnam was raging. African Americans, awakening across the nation, realized that history had screwed them royally and that for them “The Land of the Free” was a big, fat lie. Believing that a professor’s caress would make them wise, young girls were tempting a group of older men in ways that they could scarcely bear. In 1972, the year I graduated, our beautiful quads and courtyards erupted as the first wave of the feminist movement rolled over us. As a married woman, which I was for at least part of the time, I could not apply for a graduate school loan without my husband’s permission, which he refused to give.

I experienced other overwhelming changes. Having grown up in Berkeley, I had never met a Republican. In Southern California, at the edges of Orange County, I was inundated by their group-think, squeaky clean with gleaming teeth, eager to please, their little voices tittering at the “demonstration” they planned to hold in honor of Richard Nixon by releasing 250,000 helium balloons. The Republicans also contributed to my first scandal, when an eighteen year old blond who appeared mysteriously in our midst one summer tried to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of Midol®. She claimed to have been raped by a band of ravening Mexicans. Others said that these “Mexicans” were really a Republican caucus in San Diego who loved having fun with their white man’s hands. Having already seduced Brian with the Adam’s apple away from his girlfriend, she had to be rushed, by this same ex girlfriend of the man she stole, to the hospital.

During my freshman year, a group of us got very involved with reinventing the world. Our first visions were idealistic and nurturing, a social welfare state that provided lifetime subsistence in return for two years of national service, not necessarily in the military. By my junior year, the vision turned nasty. Rollerball was the movie of the day, cynical multi nationals the enemy, keeping an entire world pacified with mass entertainment and stupefying doses of drugs. It was the second vision that won out: high priced sports, reality TV, a nation medicated by drug lords and high priced doctors and anesthetized by “action.” Hedonistic despair is addicting. It was already taking its toll. People forget how hard it was to live and work during the late 1960's and early 1970's when there seemed so little for work for. At least by 1980, Ronald Reagan had produced his gospel according to greed and people could become addicted to getting rich.

My college was located in a semi arid basin of the type that defines the geography of Southern California. Ringed by mountains to the north and east, and filled with tons and tons of particulate matter and automobile pollution borne our way on the prevailing westerlies from the coast, we breathed a stagnant and poisoned air. It inspired no one to drive less. Southern California was car country. Gasoline was 29.9 cents a gallon. Speeding was self expression, an escape from the monotony of strip malls and canned culture. Seven million souls inhabited this semi arid basin (the number is quadruple that now) and they irrigated like crazy, growing lawns, filling swimming pools, running air conditioners day and night. I remember that during the spring of my senior year, the year I finally broke down completely, we had a heat wave where temperatures rose to 114-117 for days on end. I would go out and feel the humidity rising from an inland sea of swimming pools. Temperatures that high accompanied by humidity represent nearly the extreme edge of habitability.

Everything about Southern California was supremely unnatural. From the streets with their garish signs to the stars being reduced to a few pinpricks in a garish, polluted sky, to the ponderosa pines in the mountains above, their needles curled and dying from automobile emissions, this was a life that forced you indoors. It was a life that threatened implosion. But people embraced this life as if it were the only life.

In my junior year, an arsonist set fire to the whole basin. I remember standing in the library and watching a swollen, red sun hanging in the sky like a portent of the red giant at the end of the world. When I walked out, ashes fell from the sky like snow and the ridge glowed with red flames, like a volcano, or someone’s idea of Hell.

I graduated from that school with a Phi Beta Kappa key in one hand and an Interlocutory Divorce Decree in the other. I had no inner coherence whatsoever, but I had been gifted with images that would take the rest of my life to name. It would take a good story to put me back together again.

Monday, September 3, 2007

For Labor Day: The Work of Healing and Wholeness

When most of us think of work these days, we think of dealing with stress at school or in the office, about success, about what we can hope to earn. We think about productive work that gets us ahead, and non-productive work, such as caring for the elderly, that holds us back. Even our leisure is serviced by a vast and very profitable industry.

Needless to say, this is a very recent view of work and play, made possible by industrialism. Indeed, the workers' movement that gives us the Labor Day holiday arises directly from the Industrial Revolution. But if we were to take a longer view and say, return to our origins, we would discover a very different way of laboring. Our work as humans was once, not about exploiting, but but about maintaining the balance of life and treasure on earth. Celebration and rest were as important as work and the elderly were those who had lived long enough to bestow the greatest gift of all: the wisdom that gives life.

Certainly in the mythologies of the West, this harmony was lost, and conflict, not conciliation, became the axis of human struggle. Life became more about what I could get than what I could give.

Today, we are in danger of losing the very earth that once so generously gave us life. On this Labor Day, 2007, I would like to share wise words about work and life from the editors of Orion Magazine, a journal of nature, culture and hope.

"'The way to meet the challenge of energy and global climate change," President Bush said earlier this year, 'is through technology.'. . . [But] our culture is way past the point where technology alone can undo the systems, mentalities, and indeed, the old technologies that created these staggering crises in the first place.

"To have altered the planet's atmosphere, to have compromised the lives of every being on the planet -- this is more than technology gone awry. It signals a breakdown in ethics and morality. It is all well and good -- and accurate -- to discuss global warming in terms of science, politics and economics. It is well and good to describe global warming in terms of energy security, survival, and sustainability. But to frame the conversation about energy and global warming without recognizing, first and foremost, that we have no right to risk destroying the planet and its inhabitants is to miss the point."

On this beautiful September day, let us consider what it means to work for healing and wholeness, and how we might give back some of those gifts with which we have been so richly endowed.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Wisdom of the East

It's been a month since my last post. Like many of us during summer's wandering time, I've been out on the trail, visiting the forest and the sea without and the spiritual lands within. I've also been writing a book, based in my work with dreams, art, mythology and religion. I promise to post chapters from it in upcoming months. Meanwhile, into the midst of all this, I have felt a sea change: the wind is shifting. I'm no longer who and where I once was.

"The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher." I've learned that I must teach and learn as others must breathe. And so, I am grateful that I have been invited to return to St. Paul's Episcopal School in Oakland. During the three years we have been apart, we have both grown and changed: St. Paul's is now nearly twice the size it was, with sparkling new facilities and a renewed mission. I, meanwhile, have had the chance for a rich and deep parish life, infused with prayer, relationship and contemplation. It has led me to a place of believing that the faith of the future will be increasingly what we now think of as interfaith, as a world at risk reaches out for the wisdom of all its spiritual traditions. I long to work with young people as we figure the great task that lies ahead, restoring our broken world. That is what teachers of faith have always done: ventured with love into the world beyond the confines of establishment, whether Abraham leaving Haran, Moses leaving Egypt, Jesus leaving Nazareth, Prince Siddartha leaving his father's kingdom and his own infant son, Muhammad, leaving Mecca, Lao Tse leaving and returning in the ebb and flow of the Tao, Dame Julian leaving home for her room of prayer and almost all of the first peoples whom I love so deeply, who ventured into the solitude of rock and tree to find how the Divine was gifting them. Such is the call of this life: leave attachments behind and seek the courage to follow where the spirit leads.

Long ago, wise men saw a star in the East. I, too, standing on the western edge of America, see my hope in the East. If that East is only Oakland, well, like Thoreau, I travel best close to home. Years of spiritual practice have taught me that our species is connected person to person as completely as the Tree of Life is connected, root, trunk and branch. It is time to return to my roots. I am an Earth Person and earth's children and calling me to get down and love all the beautiful growing things. It was in Tilden Park and at Lake Merritt that the Divine first whispered in my ear. And now, like the geese who graze by the Lake, I go East.

As a result, this Blog will be taking some new directions, becoming more interfaith, more deliberate in its discussions of science and the spirit, evolutionary biology and evolutionary spirituality, the educated imagination, the world of the nonlinear, and, always, and ever, the animals whose wisdom has guided me in my quest to be fully human.

See you next week.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

First Thought on Harry Potter's End

Note: Do not read this if you don't want to know what happened in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The Harry Potter series is finally at an end. I read the final volume practically at one sitting. I used to do this all the time, but now that I'm older, I'm far harder to captivate. Harry Potter captivated me. It’s been quite an adventure, and since to make an end is also to make a beginning, I feel moved to share my first thoughts about its end. My initial and unconsidered response upon closing the seventh book was happiness for its young readers. The series ended in a way entirely appropriate to children’s literature, which is, after all, what Harry Potter is. In children’s stories, people live happily ever after, the wheel turns, and the children of one generation turn into the parents of the next. In “adult” mythology, on the other hand, there is usually a higher price to pay for the kind of trials that Harry endured. Thus, as an "adult" reader, I have to confess an initial frisson of disbelief. But as I thought further, realizing that J.K. Rowling is a serious and good storyteller, and that I should trust her instinct above my own, my view began to chage. I began by doing the math. This revealed that, in “real” time at least, the ending hasn’t happened yet. Nineteen years later lies not only in Harry’s, but also in our, future. As the wise ones are constantly reminding us, in the eyes of Heaven, or the Divine, or, if you prefer, simply the Universe, we are all still children and our ending hasn’t happened yet. Unlike Harry, none of us who have read the books, have yet to meet our end. That happiness is possible, therefore, is a great affirmation of hope.

When I speak of the end of the Harry Potter series, I’m not talking about its denouement. That was handled really rather perfectly by anyone’s standard: the willing sacrifice, the veil of the temple rent as Harry gives up the ghost and meets his own Holy of Holies face to face, even the redemption of Snape. All this was both satisfying and inspiring, for from its very beginning, Harry’s tale was a tale told in the shadow of death, and as such we needed to pass through that shadow. Voldemort’s quest for immortality was less an act of wizardry than the avatar of our industrialized world where death is the ultimate enemy and no price, including total warfare and medical bankruptcy is too high for the elite’s survival. Yes, the denouement was a good one, and much, much more might be said about it, but for now, I want to stay with the end, because this is where Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appears to be most original.

Mythic tales of Harry's magnitude have a tendency toward bittersweet epilogs. The chosen one accomplishes what he came for, but the quest costs him everything. Look at the Trojan War. The Greeks win the war, but lose their civilization. Against all odds, Odysseus makes it home, but he’s a wreck and who knows what is left after twenty years have been robbed from his marriage to Penelope? King Arthur's peaceful kingdom is shattered when he is slain in battle by his twisted half brother Mordred and both he and Excalibur are received back into the arms of the Lady of the Lake. The Holy Grail disappears. In more recent quest stories, Frodo destroys the ring, but at the cost of both himself and Middle Earth. He sails to the west with the elves, leaving behind a world bereft of magic. In C.S. Lewis' series, all the friends of Narnia, save Susan, perish in a train wreck. Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker overthrows the empire, but will remain forever haunted by what happened to him, while Leia and Han find happiness in one another’s arms. In the Philip Pullman series, we are expected to find happiness in being returned to random atoms. By all the rules of these Western myths, Harry should have emerged from his ordeal as something more than human. as Dumbledore, a figure set apart, wise beyond all measure, but not an ordinary friend, husband and father.

But that is precisely what Harry becomes. Harry actually succeeds at conquering death. And the only way to really conquer death is to live. Harry and Ginny settle down to a happy married life. The series ends not far from where it began, at the wall of Platform 9-3/4 with all the joy of wizard children setting off into a life that is not dreary, mechanical and standardized like our own, but magical, infused with wonder. For these children, education will not be literal and mechanical, but transforming, surprising, life giving, powerful and fun.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” read the inscription on the tomb of James and Lily Potter. This is a quote from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Harry comes to this place on Christmas Eve and later that same night is almost killed by the serpent Nagini, disguised as an old woman. That should have cued us if we hadn’t known before, that Harry’s journey was a journey of faith, as old as time, as old as Moses telling the Israelites in the deadly desert, "Choose life."

Dante’s great epic was called Commedia because as a Christian, Dante knew that the story of his faith did not result in fallen cultures and broken heroes, but in happy endings: aliveness beyond all measure in the center of a universe whose greatest power is love. Jesus did not return from the cross a broken man, but one who had conquered death. When Buddha encountered the armies of his own Voldemort Mara under the Bodhi tree, he discovered that violence and death and terror are not real, but only the manifestations of a disturbed mind.

My own personal heroine Rowena Ravenclaw said it so well on the inscription on her diadem, the last of the external horcruxes that Harry discovered: “Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.” In English, we think of wit as mere cleverness, the ability to be droll. The French know better. Their word for “wit” is “l’esprit,” spirit. Spirit is breath, inspiration, intelligence. It is free. It is alive. How could Harry have really defeated death and not found life in abundance on the other side?

Love trumps all things. Amen.