Monday, November 20, 2006

Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Oh my.

I've found the poet that fuses physics and spirituality in an intricate dance. I'm so infused with spirit, I think this is what people call conversion. Terrifying and so unbelievably beautiful.

Rilke denounces a personified god and instead talks to the universe. He sees human beings as the great witnesses to beauty -- celebrating and loving all that exists. In that sense, we are creators -- touching things with life so they can be seen. Heisenberg would agree; we touch all that exists when we witness it, and both are changed. Rilke says it better.

The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my sense ring with it.
I feel it now: there's a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.
If you accept that the entire universe is connected in the way that particles witness each other when they interact, then the totality of that universe becomes whole in a way that some would call God. This feeling of connection and being bound inextricably to all that exists is what others would call love.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Naming God

Having come full circle on "going to church," I find myself trying again to name the thing that I'm once again admitting to myself as spiritual belief.

I used to love going to church as a kid. My family was Episcopalian, and I enjoyed the somber ceremony and formal beauty of our services. For a while. Then I just really liked being somewhere as a family where we couldn't fight. And Mom always had Breathsavers wintergreen when we just couldn't sit still. For the most part, we kids were ushered off to Sunday School -- they weren't kidding when they called it that. We had lessons to do and worksheets to fill out, and after completing each one, you put a star on this little chart showing your progress. As a compulsive overachiever -- I learned a lot in a short amount of time. I had to! We were incredibly intermittent church goers, and more often than not, I had to dig up my folder from a separate box, where they put all the little-used folders of all the kids whose families didn't come all that often. Very embarrassing. I don't remember interacting with anyone, but I still loved learning all the stories of the bible.

Then when my parents got divorced, neither one would go back to the church. Too embarrassing, I guess. My father stayed episcopalian until his new church decided they wanted to be bigoted and separated from that denomination in order to keep out gays. My mother turned to New Ageism. She's now a curandera and a white witch -- subtle distinction to be sure, but it's there. When she planned to miss the birth of her first grandchild, she instructed my sister to squeeze a crystal that she'd infused with her good energy whenever my sister needed her. (Needless to say, that crystal never made it in the room.)

I begged to go to church with friends and neighbors. For quite a while I attended a Presbyterian church. I liked the optimism and good cheer, but I was always a little suspicious -- where were people with dark sides? Certainly I couldn't fit in here, coming as I did from a broken home with secrets. And the emphasis on Jesus was a bit much. I never really thought he was a personal friend. Still, there was a tape of songs about God that I loved, and I remember singing one at night and crying because it was all so beautiful -- this whole world and our being here to love it.

Then an adult friend of the family told me once that I didn't believe in God because I only believed in the universe and energy. I accepted that I was an athiest for years, especially because as a teenager, I wanted as much distance from those happy fanatics as I could get, going so far as to announce on tv at my high school graduation that I didn't believe in God. I didn't think it was a big deal, but I found out quickly how theistic my non-church-going family really was.

Now, I go to the UU church, and I find myself tearing up almost every Sunday at the power of people coming together in a spirt of support and hope. UUs are realists; we talk dark side. We talk politics; we talk war. And so I search for books and sources of inspiration and sustenance to grow this little spiritual side of mine. I haven't found much that moves me. The affirmations and sermons provide the most steady stream of soul food. Being a scholar, though, I want the printed word.

Christine challenged us to create our own book of revelations, a compendium of readings that speak to us -- nurture, calm, inspire, console, and sustain. That seems daunting, so instead I'm going to compile the names for this "god" of mine that can sum up or shed light on what it is I do believe, if it's not a personified being.
  • impulse toward love and growth
  • powers of healing
  • spirit of peace
  • place of sustenance
  • community of the wakeful
In this space of indirection, I'm thankful for the time to hear my breath and listen for a soul.

Song of Hope and Despair -- Norbert Capek

Now a popular hymn, this poem, "Mother Spirit, Father Spirit" was written by a Czech minister after he was taken by the Gestapo to a death camp in World War II. He died in Dachau in 1942.

You can hear the melody here. It's haunting. Quite literally. The same minister invented a yearly celebration of life and renewal used in many UU churches -- the Flower Communion.

Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, where are you?
In the sky song, in the forest, sounds your cry.
What to give you, what to call you, what am I?

Many drops are in the ocean, deep and wide.
Sunlight bounces off the ripples to the sky.
What to give you, what to call you, who am I?

I am empty, time flies from me; what is time?
Dreams eternal, fears infernal haunt my heart.
What to give you, what to call you, what am I?

Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, take our hearts.
Take our breath and let our voices sing our parts.
Take our hands and let us work to shape our art.

This is my song -- Lloyd Stone (1934)

This is my song, o God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh hear my song, o God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

Hear a beautiful a cappella version here.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Letters to a Young Poet -- Rilke

I forget how much wisdom is out there to remember. From his amazing Letters to a Young Poet, the ever-wise Rilke:

[H]ave patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

A Religious Iconoclast's Melancholy Recollections of Childhood -- Michael Meyerhofer

Courtesy Lisa (thank you!):

How would it have been for us
had they who taught the universe
every bleary Sunday morning
included with Hebrews and Acts
the lost Gospel of Thomas,
the death poetry of Zen monks,
Einstein's theory of relativity?

How would it have been to see
women in the same robes as men,
preaching philosophy alongside
those same fearful cliches of hell-
to know Jesus as olive-skinned
with hair like thick black thread,
a boy who suckled and liked it?

How would it have been to touch
the common chalice of our bodies
and feel without reproach the blood
roaring inside us like boiled wine,
to know God as wind and the atom,
to accept a universe that swells
and contracts like a beating heart?

How easy it would be to believe
that all our terrible doubts are born
from hearing only half the story,
that they in an inexcusable madness
rob or ignore what they cannot
understand-- that if we had it all,

we'd actually be closer to home.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Teeth: Exposed, Decaying Bone

Several trips to the dentist to replace a crown, and I'm left spinning thinking about teeth.

Bones protruding from our fleshy gums. Washed with bacteria. Crevices hiding all manner of gunk.

Devices for tearing at other animals' flesh. And chomping plants.

And smiling.

The opening quote from the Secret Lives of Dentists sums this up perfectly:

Teeth outlast everything.
Death is nothing to a tooth.
Hundreds of years in acidic soil just keep teeth clean.
A fire that burns away everything else, hair and skin...
even bones, leaves your teeth dazzling.
Life is what destroys teeth.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

When do transitions end?

I'm underwater in another life-transition stage.

But suddenly I feel like I'm always saying that. It's a perpetual state, and I'm starting to understand ... it's life. And it's a fatal condition.

I cannot believe the pace with which the weeks and months fly by, even as I curse the slow-ticking clock some days at work. Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning, describes the same phenomenon for camp victims. The days lasted eternities, but the months flew by.

Not that my life is in any way comparable to that ultimate horror, but the human perception does have similarities across time.