Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Good Shepherd

A friend of mine shared with me a story about the Twenty Third Psalm. Having been raised in a traditional church, she was accustomed to hear the psalm read at funerals, a time when "the valley of the shadow of death” is literally present. Then a Jewish friend said that the King James Bible got it all wrong, I mean, WAY all wrong. This was not a poem about death, it was a poem about fun! The shepherd used his rod to play with the sheep. He loved all his little guys to distraction. Inspired, the friend tried to render some of the sheer joy of the original Hebrew, but words failed her as they often do when we talk about God. Usually, when something gets that lost in translation, it’s because a mystical experience is being had somewhere. And Jewish mysticism, at least as I have experienced it, is very earthy.

The shepherd is an earthy fellow, too. He lives under sky and stars. He abides in the fields and feels the dew of heaven like an animal, yet he himself must be watchful and aware. Like a ruler, who must represent both the one and the many, the shepherd is a threshold dweller with one foot in the human world and the other in the animal world. The Israelites were herders and their relationship to their flocks offered them a rich metaphor for God’s relationship to them. The shepherd also became symbolic of the ruler, at once powerful and humble. As the shepherd is wiser than the sheep, watching over them and seeing to their welfare, so should the ruler be far-seeing, because God, who is ruler of all, sees everything. The shepherd preserves the flock. The ruler preserves the nation. God preserves God’s creation. So far so good.

But now the analogy turns difficult. The shepherd is also a predator, as David said so well before his fight with Goliath, naming the bears and the wolves he had killed in defense of his flock. The shepherd who cares for the sheep also kills them: for food, for hospitality, for the life of the tribe. In similar fashion, when the nation is threatened, the ruler asks his subjects to give their lives for its preservation and care. God asks for our lives, too. “You fool!” says Jesus in the parable of the barns. “Do you not know that your life will be asked of you this very night?” And yet, like the bleating lamb, the frightened child, the adolescent snipped in the first flower of her love, “The spirit is willing,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “but the flesh is weak.”

Both sides of the story exist in the twenty-third psalm, no matter in which language you read it. There is both delight and the shadow of death. The feast is held in the presence of enemies. The question then becomes, as it does in all the best mystical texts, an invitation to experience the seamless whole that is life and death, body and soul and to ask: do I live in its now, its care, its delight of God, or am I so bothered by the shadow of death and the potential for enemies that I forget to live?

Choose life, says Moses, who understood God’s saving ways so well. Choose life. Pay no attention to that old death over there manipulating the controls behind the curtain. Choose Life.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Even in the Court of Herod Choose Life

We think of Eastern religion as more otherworldly than our own – thin yogis stretched into pretzel like contemplation, as the poor swirl around in the endless oppression of the karmic wheel. But that may only be because we don't know how to approach it. In a scene from the HBO series, “Rome,” one of its main characters, the centurion Lucius Vorenus, is sent to handle a trader from India who may or may not be behind in his debts. Vorenus’ companion remarks, “It is said that Hindus cannot be killed. Let us test that belief!” With this, Vorenus is ordered to kill the Indian in cold blood. This is ironic, I suppose. I suppose it added shock value to a series which capitalized on being shocking. All that this scene revealed to me was unshakable faith the Romans placed in the power of death and its unwillingneses to consider other kinds of powers. “Suns may rise and set again,” wrote the poet Catullus, “but once our brief light has set, night is a perpetual sleeping.”

The story of Herod, which seems to slip into the Gospel of Matthew, is a profound meditation on this same Roman authority. Earthly violence shadowed both the beginning and the end of Jesus’ bodily life. Kill something and it will go away, says this power, but in both cases, it did not go away. Jesus survived both attempts on his life, even when Rome succeeded in killing him.

Murder is an insidious illusion of victory. The community that raised up Herod had built itself upon a foundation of broken bones: breaking the bones of decency and loyalty to family, faith, kindness and the spirit. Having little interest in the human capacity for goodness, the empire of death wanted its officials sullied. It did not exist to bring out the best in men, but the worst. It is said that Jews were made to prove their loyalty to Rome by eating pork, a petty betrayal that opened the door to far larger ones. Rome did not wish to glory in the diversity and brilliance of its subject peoples. It wanted standardization.

The prophet Isaiah warned that things get really bad when a people makes a covenant with death. It is easy to overlook warnings such as these, because it is hard to know what the prophet even means. Humans are mortal and many of the covenants we make with death look on the surface like strategies to prolong life. Rome had its problems, yes, but it was a system of law and order. It is easy to dismiss the evils that arise from law and order as “necessary,” or “collateral” or “realpolitik,” or “the way things are which would only be worse if the empire were not here to save us from ourselves.” But, the wise ones tell us, we should not dismiss anything. Moses says, simply, “Choose life, so that you and your children might live.”

To choose life, of course, means to choose everything, to live without contradiction and yet embrace paradox. Unfortunately, this is impossible. In our normal state of consciousness, we are completely partial and so we can see only partially. Writing about the Greek philosopher Herakleitos, Thomas Merton reflects: “The heart of Heraklitean epistemology is an implicit contrast between man’s wisdom, which fails to grasp the concrete reality of unity in multiplicity and harmony in conflict, but which instead seizes upon one or the other of the conflicting elements and tries to build on this a static and one-sided truth which cannot help but be an artificial fiction. The wisdom of man cannot follow the divine wisdom. . . yet it aspires to a universal grasp of all reality. In order to “see” our minds seize upon the movement around them and within them, and reduce it to immobility.” (In A Thomas Merton Reader, p. 263)

Immobility is precisely what happens to a body when it dies.

So, not surprisingly, for millennia, humankind has placed more faith in the fact of death than in mysteries of life. Not even the resurrection of Jesus could change our minds. Not even the fact we meet the dead in dreams or that most of us, when children, have had vivid memories of former times. Our society wants to make sure that this is educated out of us as quickly as possible. Power wants to close the door to heaven, bolt down the hatches, make sure our vision is limited so that we can “get on with it,” without any surprising incursions from the Divine, thank you very much.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

What the Body Knows -- Part 3

According to the spiritual laws of the East, heavenly virtue was reflected in royal birth. Aod was expected to incarnate as a prince. That is because in the East, great people don't come out of nowhere. They are reborn numberless times. They learn over millions of years. Thus royal birth is earned. It is not as one Microsoft executive called it, "winning the sperm lottery."

I can imagine then the rejoicing in the East when a star proclaimed that an avatar had come to birth in the West, among the Jews, a people known then, as now, for their wisdom. The West had been too long in the shadow of barbarism. The sages rose from their towers and their temples and they crossed the hazards of desert and range to welcome what had come at last to that benighted land. Naturally, they went to where divine children manifest: the palace at Jerusalem. There, they presented themselves to the king.

We do not know from what lands the wise ones hailed, for the East is very wide. But I would not be surprised if one had come from India. India was the farthest reach of the madness that we call Alexander the Great. India knew the West. India had known her share of wise and holy princes, too. Siddhartha was Indian, and so, as well, was Rama, the incarnation of the god Vishnu, hero of one of the most beloved story cycles told the length and breadth of the subcontinent. Like Siddhartha, whom the Hindus also consider to be an incarnation of Vishnu, the holy Rama was born a prince. Rama’s father was the wisest and most virtuous of all rulers, but he had been granted no heirs. He prayed to the gods and from heaven, they sent miraculous bread for him to feed to his three wives. He fed half of it to his first and favorite wife and gave the smaller portions to the other two. All three became pregnant immediately. All four of the children born (for one of the wives birthed twins) were divine, but Rama the eldest outshone them all. He radiated kindness and everyone loved him.

When he grew to young manhood, Rama married the beautiful Sita. Sita, too, was of miraculous origin. Some said that earth herself had given birth to her. Others knew her as an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu, and goddess of gold and wealth. When it came time for the old king to name his heir, a demon tempted one of the queens to plot against Rama and instead of being crowned, Rama and Sita found themselves banished to the forest for fourteen years. Another brother, Lakshmana, joined them. The old king died in sadness and the new king, not wanting the crown his mother the third wife had plotted for him, sent word, imploring Rama to return. But Rama would not return until the term of his banishment was done, for to do so would upset the balance of the world. And so they lived in the forest and the demon Ravana swooped down and kidnapped Sita, taking her to his dark fortress in Lanka. After many adventures Rama killed Ravana and rescued her with the help of the monkey king Hanuman.

Of course there could be no happily ever after, for there was that delicate question of Sita’s chastity, and like Joseph of Nazareth, faced with the humiliation of a pregnant fiancĂ©e, Rama made arrangements to put his now damaged love away. But Sita would not have it. To prove her innocence, she entered the flames and emerged in radiant glory.

There was no one like Sita at the court of Herod the Great. Indeed, Herod’s women are legendary for the lack of virtue. And despite Herod’s title “King of the Jews,” there was little of the godly about him, either. The wise men might have wondered, in a place such as this, if the incarnation had been banished to the forest even before he could be born.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What the Body Knows -- Part 2

You may ask why a series of reflections on “What the Body Knows” would begin with wise men arriving at the court of Herod in Jerusalem. This is the body politic, of course, and it has a great deal to do with every other body, especially in the West, where power is more important than any other thing, where power is the prize of conflict, wrested from the hands of others. Whether by intrigue, rebellion or election, it is still a contest.

And Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. We rarely dwell on Herod’s terror amid all the glow of Christmas pageants and getting to the manger and dinner with our relatives who may or may not be difficult this year, but it is worth thinking about. The warrior – and Herod presided over a war court – is an important archetypal figure. My inner warrior fends off what threatens my health and wholeness. One of the most common images in visualization therapy is a knight in shining armor impaling cancer cells with his lance. In many cultures, including our own, military service is a way for a poor child to advance in life, to get an education and job training. Recognize the Western archetype of power again; social mobility happens within the context of violence. But note also, for we will take this up later, that spiritual warfare should not be confused with the literal variety.

And Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. Why should a man with the might of Rome behind him be afraid of some scholars from the East looking for a baby? A confident king would have roused his own son, whatever his age, and presented him. But Herod called the chief priests and the scribes and asked about a Messiah. To which they answered, “In Bethlehem of Judea shall arise a shepherd for my people.”

Again, Herod might have looked at this in a variety of ways. He might have dismissed it as nostalgia for King David who had, in fact been a shepherd in Bethlehem. He might have shrugged it off as more nutty religion, the sort of eschatological vision that always draws certain types out of the woodwork. He might have gone along with their imagery and told the wise men to go chat with the sheep people who abided out there in the hills. Or, conversely, he might have spiritualized the whole thing and treated the divine child as someone’s metaphor. But he did none of these things. His sight could extend no farther than the world of physical threat that had made him king.

In the mystical east, by contrast, divine children were a normal manifestation in the landscape. When Prince Siddhartha was born near Nepal, an old prophet turned up and told the king that this prince would either become a formidable leader of nations or a great spiritual teacher. This prompted his father, who, unlike Herod, really wanted a kingly child, since the divine one was clearly his own, to make sure that young Prince Siddhartha would never go religious on him, would never experience suffering of any kind, for, the king knew, suffering is the beginning of any spiritual quest. Still, the question remains: what frightened the father so much about religious leadership?

We do not know from where the wise men from the East hailed, but it is certainly plausible that one of them was a Buddhist. Buddhism was widely practiced on the western reaches of the Silk Road. Our wise Buddhist would have probably hailed from around the Hindu Kush, a place that had seen both Buddhism and Hellenism and therefore had some skill at weaving spiritual teaching with the Greeks’ unparalleled veneration of human genius and material beauty. Buddhists have a long history of stars, signs, rainbows and divine children. Their great teachers and Bodhisattvas are reborn countless times because the task of bringing all our ignorant and far-flung species to Enlightenment is a very long one and requires numberless lifetimes, just as the making of the earth itself took numberless years. Spirit is patient.

His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, is an incarnation of the very ancient Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. Rainbows attended his birth. His mother knew no pangs at her labor for when one bears a tulku or reborn one, the child comes easily. He was born in a humble house where yaks were kept, but rose to be a mighty prince of the Tibetans, and today, a spiritual light to the world.

Is it any surprise that wise men from the East should follow a star looking for one who was born?

Monday, January 7, 2008

What the Body Knows -- Meditations for a Brief Epiphany

Happy New Year! We have come to the Season of Epiphany, the wise ones from the East coming to pay homage to the divine child. The sun, too, has turned and begins its journey from the south, lighting up the Eastern skies. This morning, however, was wet with mists rising from the rain soaked earth. With my car in the body shop, I drove to the ferry at 6:15 a.m. in an ancient vehicle with no heat or defrost. The cold and humidity were so intense and changing, that even with all the windows open and the wipers sweeping away the moisture constantly, the condensation on my windshield was so thick that I could not see my way. As I crept down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard toward Larkspur, I prayed to God. I prayed that the star of Bethlehem would guide me in my blindness, and now that I sit writing amid light and warmth, I reflect that this journey may not have been an accident.

St. Paul reminds me, “We see through a glass, darkly.” The mists of this dark morning put that dark glass right before my eyes. My truths glowed dim, like the few stars visible through the mist, like the streetlamps glowing in their fuzzy halos as I crept down the street of my life.

All this calls up images of saints, our enlightened ones, who are always painted with gold haloes. I call these signs of their sanctity, but they are also gentle reminders of my dimness. If you have ever looked at a face that is backlit, as a haloed face would be, you will also know that the light obscures their features and they cannot be seen clearly. Haloes turn faces dark and remind me that I do not know what the world looks like from within a saint. Like a plant rooted in earth, I instinctively seek the light, but I also recoil from it for it has the capacity to burn me. I feel kind of the same way about saints. I am drawn to them, but they scare me. I know I need to see; I know I need warmth to grow, but the reasons for my life elude me. I am attracted to the holy, because I think I might find those reasons there, but it scares me, too, because I cannot see far into its light.

As I child I was taught to understand mysteries by breaking them into manageable parts. Take the big thing apart and it will then be a manageable size. Its true nature will be revealed. But when true nature is wholeness, if I take something apart, I kill the very thing I seek to know. I fear sometimes that we in the church have tried to dissect God, and in so doing, wonder why it is hard to keep faith, why it is hard to invite others into it, to see, again in the words of St. Paul, "face to face."

Which brings me to the story of Herod and the Wise Ones, the story with which the Season of Epiphany begins. Like me in the car, Herod had a lot of horsepower under him, but his vision was clouded by ignorance and fear. He had won his power, not because he was of the House of David or because he had been anointed by a prophet, either of which would be legitimate criteria for kingship in his culture, but because he had struck a bargain with the Romans. And one day, people from the East showed up at his court, seeking a divine child, whom they assumed they would find in this palace, for in the East, it was common that gods should be born as princes. “Where is the child who has been born the King of the Jews,” they asked. “For we observed his star at his rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

Herod knew at once that it was not a son of Herod they were talking about. Lost in the fog of his mind, “Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”

To be continued…