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The Best of All Cathedrals

Part of what I appreciate about my heritage is that the building where we gathered to worship was never referred to as “God’s house.” God did not live there, and church was not a building but a people. So wherever we went, the church went. We could talk to God anywhere, any time.

Another thing about my upbringing: Rarely did we use the word sacred, and even when we did, sacred referred to scripture or hymns. But never to a place. So it’s no surprise that the building where our church community gathered three times a week did not feel like a sacred space to me. It wasn’t meant to. Our auditorium (calling it a “sanctuary” was a sure sign you didn’t belong to the right church) held wooden folding seats facing a pulpit that stood in the center of a small raised stage. Only congregational singing was allowed, so there was no organ and no place for a choir.

Since that time, I’ve had the privilege of visiting the A-frame Arctic Cathedral in Tromso, Norway; Notre Dame in Paris with its rose window, flying buttresses, and gargoyles; St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest; the Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon in Rome; a mosque in the City of the Dead in Cairo; a Buddhist temple complex in Guangzhou, China; Kenyan and Ugandan church buildings made of mud brick or stone; and the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt. Some felt like sacred spaces, others didn’t.

Sacred “mountaintop” experiences defy explanation, just as falling in love defies explanation, or “hoping when all looks lost” defies explanation, or “courage in the face of disaster” defies explanation. As for sacred spaces, feeling Poetry and Hum, the sacred mystery of the numinous, also defies explanation.

Places that immerse me in an atmosphere of the sacred tend to be spacious and high ceilinged with lots of windows that invite my soul to expand. “Up and out” seems to beckon to my inner being. In fact, my private human-built sacred space is my sunroom, where walls of windows allow me to look up and out into my backyard: pines, crape myrtle, Japanese maple, and honeysuckle; hydrangea, salvia, and marigolds; cardinals, chickadees, juncos, and goldfinches – an ever-changing earthscape under an ever-changing sky.

Nature is, for me, the best of all cathedrals.

I’ll share more thoughts about sacred spaces in next week’s post. Meanwhile, treat yourself to listening to one inch of nature’s silence in the Hoh Rainforest, truly one of our great outdoor “cathedrals.”

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Text and tree photo © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

All other photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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Scenic Lookouts for the Soul

Sacred spaces “have the ability

to push the mundane from our thoughts

and lift us to a heightened sense of awareness.”

– Rebecca Hand, Sacred Places

If life is a journey, sacred places are scenic lookouts for our souls. More often than not, we simply happen upon them, although once we’ve found them, we know what to look for when we need to pull back from life’s “sound and fury,” as Shakespeare said in Macbeth. (The whole phrase is “sound and fury signifying nothing,” which also may be appropriate.)

Sacred spaces are settings that encourage us to sense the spiritual side of life, to rest, if only for a moment, in the Mystery that transcends the mortal world. When I still myself in a sacred space, my spirit feels larger than my physical body, as if my spirit is pushing to escape its boundaries. I feel that if my physical body were to dissolve, my spirit would expand ever wider to embrace transcendent peace, goodness, and beauty. Maybe that’s the feeling we call awe.

The word numinous also seems to fit. Theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto created the word in the early 1900’s. In a summary of Otto’s works in Masterpieces of Christian Literature, editor Frank Magill describes numinous as:

  • “the experience of the holy that can be evoked but not defined”
  • “a creature-consciousness or creature-feeling, when a person feels himself overwhelmed by and responds to an overpowering might”
  • feeling “submerged and as nothing”
  • knowing yourself to be “a creature in confrontation with that which is above all creatures”
  • “evoked by art and by the sublime; it appears in music . . . and in silence.”

Maybe that’s what A.A. Milne was describing so simply in The House at Pooh Corner when he wrote, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.” One thing religions can do for us is provide places to connect with Poetry and Hum. With the numinous.

Or not. All my life I attended church at least three times a week, but until I sat atop a mountain in Switzerland (see last week’s post), I had never felt a sacred connection, the Poetry and Hum of the Divine. I had always viewed God as a distant, holy accountant entering our good and bad deeds in a ledger; or a teacher with a grade book and red pen in hand, watching and grading us from somewhere high above. It’s a common blind belief of childhood in some faith communities. As the Christmas song says,

You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry,

You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why . . .

He sees you when you’re sleeping,

He knows when you’re awake,

He knows when you’ve been bad or good,

So be good for goodness sake!

But the view from the mountaintop changed my view of God. Not instantly, but it expanded my vision, and little by little, I came to see that God is not a divine accountant or a holy grade-giver. Nor is God is distant. God is Unconditional Love and Grace, as close as my next breath. Closer actually. I believe that God is within and around us always. If we could turn around fast enough, we might actually see the Divine. If our eyes were structured a bit differently, we might catch a glimpse of God. If our hearing were a bit more acute than a dog’s, we might hear God. None of that would make the Mystery any less mysterious.

The range of a dog’s hearing, the speed of light, the interplay of time and space – so much that was once mysterious has been explained, including many phenomena previously attributed to God’s mysterious ways (which only makes them less mysterious, not less God’s). On the other hand, scientists and researchers are still looking into matters they don’t understand. Like string theory. String theory may someday be proved incorrect, but the possibilities are intriguing. Even more intriguing is the fact that there are possibilities – in every branch of science and research. Every discovery raises more questions. Mystery exists. As long as there are mysteries, there’s room for Poetry and Hum. As for the Sacred, mystery doesn’t make room for God. God makes room for mystery.

I’ll share more thoughts about sacred spaces in next week’s post. Meanwhile, spend some time in a sacred space, and have a wonderful week.

 

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Text and photos © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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“The Year That Shaped a Generation”

It’s 1968, and gasoline is 34 cents a gallon. The Mustang is a popular car model, and Twiggy is a popular fashion model. She’s as skinny as her name implies, and we girls follow the fashion, wearing straight shifts in wild fabric patterns and hemlines several inches above the knee. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Simon and Garfunkel rule the radio waves, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is a hit at the movie theaters. But the headlines are often grim: The ongoing war in Vietnam takes some serious turns against the U.S.; Martin Luther King is murdered in Memphis; Robert F. Kennedy, candidate for U.S. president, is assassinated in L.A. Time Magazine later called 1968 “the year that shaped a generation.”

It’s the summer before I turn sixteen, and for the first time, I travel outside the U.S. with a dozen other teens on a hit-the-famous-spots European tour. A few days into the tour finds us waiting to board a gondola cable car that will take us up to the top of Moléson sur Gruyeres in the steep foothills of the Alps, although coming from prairie-flat West Texas, I’d call these foothills mountains.

The drama of the moment swirls around the ride we’re about to take. All we can see from where we stand at the base of the mountain, aka hill, are two steeply angled cables stretching upward and disappearing into a cloud. We’re all about to vanish into that cloud. It’s a shivery thought. Of course, none of us would dare back out of the ride, so we laugh away our shivers, trust ourselves to a gondola, and lift off toward the white fog – which soon swallows us.

For a moment it’s as if we’ve been taken out of time, halfway up and halfway down, neither here nor there, unable to see where we’ve been or where we’re going. But that’s all it is – just a moment – and we emerge on the upper side of the cloud to find the weather on the mountaintop clear and sunny. We’re told that the Matterhorn is usually visible on the horizon, but for now, it’s cloud-covered.

Gradually the morning sun clears away the clouds below, and we’re able to look down at the steep hill we ascended. The view is incredible: sun-greened valleys, gentle rounded summits, forested slopes, high craggy peaks. After an outdoor lunch on the porch of a café, I make my way to a grassy slope, where I simply sit for a while and try to soak it all in.

Time Magazine couldn’t have known and wouldn’t have cared, but because of that trip and that view, 1968 was a year that shaped me. Even I didn’t know it at the time, but half a century later, I can point to that exact moment as pivotal in my life journey. It was the first time I felt the Presence of God on, around, over, beside, and within me. Although I know our group was around somewhere, in my memory I’m alone on that slope, gazing across the majestic expanse of crags and valleys. I remember only me, the mountains, and God. “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament.” Moléson sur Gruyeres was a wayside sacrament for me, a sacred space.

Where did you first become aware of feeling the Presence of God?

I’ll share more thoughts about sacred spaces in next week’s post. Meanwhile, Happy New Year! I hope 2017 is full of peace and joy for you.

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Martin Luther King photo public domain from wikipedia.com.

All other photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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Enriching Tradition

“Stay within your own religious tradition and be enriched by others.”

Pico Iyer

I love the word enriched. I think of stirring butter into cookie dough or Ovaltine into a glass of milk. I think of mixing Miracle-Gro with old potting soil or adding a bit of yellow paint to the red. Or closing a novel and basking in the wisdom of a story well told. Enriched means we end up with more than we started with. It’s a cousin of abundance.

By tradition – and by choice – I’m a Protestant Christian. But some of my dearest friends are Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and atheist. Knowing them enriches me, and while we don’t agree on everything, we do agree on the importance of spreading loving kindness and compassion in the world. I would never disparage them, nor would they disparage me. We respect each other and the spiritual choices we’ve made. We enrich each other.

Still, my own tradition remains precious to me. A heritage of holy love is woven into the fabric of my life and for that, I’m grateful. What I love about Christianity at its best is:

God is Love. That rings true to me. Self-giving love, loving kindness, life-giving love, no-strings-attached love is the best of what humans have to give. Researchers of moral development say self-sacrificial love is the highest stage of morality, and most people never reach it. It makes sense, then, that God, who by definition is greater than humanity, is at least Love and then some. No matter the ins and outs of doctrine and apologetics and philosophy, I choose to cast my lot with Love.

Emmanuel. God with us. This rings true to me as well. Robert Browning wrote, “Such ever was love’s way; to rise, it stoops.” He was writing about human love. Wouldn’t Divine Love go at least that deep? In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote, “What love can do, that dares love attempt.” If this is the reach of human love, how much greater is the reach of Divine Love? What can God’s love do? What does God’s love dare to attempt? Becoming human? Walking the earth as a man? If God loves us, it seems to me that part of the way God would attempt to show that love is to join us in the human experience, to see from our perspective, to feel the feelings, to be able to say, “I know what you’re dealing with. I’m with you. There’s nowhere you can go that I have not been.” God has covered all of human emotional territory.

Redemption. I love believing that we can refresh the browser and begin again. I also love the fact that redemption doesn’t erase our past but resculpts us, past and all. The stubbornness that got us in trouble is sculpted into endurance that will see us through the days to come. Redemption reshapes failures that were once our downfall into sources of empathy, compassion, and wisdom that can encourage all who share our common struggles.

Resurrection. I love believing that death is the gateway to life, at least metaphorically. Will I literally live again after I die? I don’t know, but that’s not the point. Other types of death threaten and take us down daily. The death of hope is a big one. Dashed dreams. Crushed expectations. Betrayed trust. We’re desperate to know that there’s life beyond these deaths. And there is. A wounded heart can heal. Since ancient times, God has shown us this truth in nature. Every sunrise is a resurrection. After a storm, birds return to their songs. After winter, seeds crack open and grow into the scent of gardenias, the shade of poplars, the crisp tang of apples. Walt Whitman said, “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.”

Sunrise and storms, seeds and sprouts, nature in all its variety enriches us, always with a nod to God. Nature is a grand example of God’s open-handed generosity. We get to watch birds for free, run our hands over rough bark and smooth petals for free, smile – or frown – for free, breathe for free, see the sky for free. Every day, God says, “Here. Take the sun and the moon. It’s yours.” I love that about God.

I also love the mystery of God, the curiosity that stirs, the challenge it creates, the wonders it implies. I love the fact that the Divine Mystery is so great that it’s not possible to get my thoughts around God. If anyone says they know without a doubt about soul, spirit, God, the afterlife, what they mean is they believe without doubting. But they don’t know. No one does. Which means we can wonder, ask, think, reach – and enjoy it. The journey through life is an exploration, an adventure full of possibility and discovery. I’m grateful that, like me, other Christians are discovering just how expansive grace and love are.

My controlling belief is three-fold: God exists, God is Love, and in God we live and move and have our being. No matter what happens, my belief tells me that I am never alone, I have hope and help and home, and I am constantly enriched.

I hope this holiday season enriches you (and not just by food). Next week, I’ll share some thoughts about sacred spaces.

 

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Text and photos © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Are You Religious or Spiritual – or Both?

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Are You Religious or Spiritual – or Both?

Two streams run through the landscape of the soul: the spiritual and the religious. Sometimes these streams converge, and sometimes they separate. It’s common to hear people say they’re spiritual but not religious. Others say they’re religious but not spiritual. Most of us are a bit of both.

streamrockTo me, spirituality is water, religion is rock. Spirituality is private devotion; religion is public expression. Spirituality is deep; religion is broad. Spirituality focuses on our spirits; it’s in-reach. Religion focuses on rites and creeds and community; it’s outreach. Religion may pave the road, but what goes on in our spirits – spirituality – is what fuels our trek down that road – and even off-road as we explore the Mystery of God.

Since spirituality involves my spirit touching and being touched by God, it’s intimate and organic. It flexes and flows, changes and grows as my relationship with God flexes and flows, changes and grows. Religion is organized and codified. At its best, it’s rooted in spirituality and draws sustenance from the spirit’s immersion in God. But stripped down, religion doesn’t necessarily have to involve God. We can join the organization, chant the creed, adhere to codes of conduct, and engage in service to others, all without believing in God. In fact, it’s possible to die spiritually while going through the motions religiously.

Every religion at its worst has been a roadblock, self-serving, blind, arrogant, destructive, exclusive, and death-dealing, because religions are in the hands of people who are at times self-serving, blind, and destructive. On the other hand, every religion at its best has been an oasis, selfless, visionary, constructive, humble, freeing, and life giving, because religions are in the hands of people who are at times selfless, visionary, and life giving.

file000238805054Religions are often known for their rites and rituals, the symbolic reminders of our beliefs and/or the beliefs of the religious community we’ve chosen to join. But as the packages that hold the deeper meanings we place in them, rites and rituals can be deeply spiritual as well, our way of saying yes to the mystery of the Divine.

Rites and rituals usually take place in religious gatherings, which can function as a centering point for our souls after a fragmented week and an anchor to hold us steady during the week to come. In the middle of life’s overwhelming busy-ness, religious gatherings can provide time to slow down and settle into a place of calm. In a world where we wade in the shallows of too much information, religious gatherings can provide opportunities to reflect and consider and go deep. They also provide community. A comfort zone. Stability. Sanctuary.

stglasswndwOf course, they can do the opposite if they’re busy-making and add to our information overload. And some gatherings don’t feel like sanctuary at all. As for the comfort zone, if we get too comfortable, we grow numb to both the needs of the world and the gifts the world has to share with us. We probably all know people who got their ‘salvation card,’ their ticket to heaven, and settled in for the train ride. But many religious groups are now shrinking as people discover that God is not sequestered inside the train but freely moves in the world outside the train as well. In fact, outside the train is where many find an accepting community that offers the love, joy, and peace they didn’t find on the train.

One the most important questions to ask about a religious community of any religion or sect or denomination is, “Does being in this community lead to life and gracious love?” I don’t mean do the teachings promise that if you believe such-and-so, you’ll have eternal life; I mean literally, right now, does the community spread life, nurture gracious love, and extend loving kindness both in the individual’s private world and in the world at large?

God is love. Gracious love. Life-giving love. Life-enriching love. In response, a living, growing faith embraces gracious love and life, whether they’re found inside or outside religious walls. Loving kindness and grace are not exclusive property. They can’t be owned. They can’t be walled in. They flow freely. Because they are the signature of God.

I’ll share more thoughts about faith, religion, and God next week. Meanwhile, have a wonderful holiday!

 

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

 

Some of Us Light Candles

 

 

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Some of Us Light Candles

I grew up in a Texas town that had scores of churches and three Christian colleges: a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Church of Christ – all in a town of 100,000 people. But it wasn’t until I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, that I was introduced to streets called “Church Rows.” Driving into the city from certain directions, you crest a hill and see steeple after steeple lining the road ahead. On these “Church Rows” almost every block offers one or more church buildings, each belonging to a different denomination or sect. That doesn’t count temples and mosques.

steepleWhy so many different houses of worship? Why so many divisions, so many different beliefs? God, being God, could surely have spelled out the facts of spiritual reality clearly enough for everyone to understand the exact who and how and where and why of the Divine. God, being God, could have explained with such clarity that we would all agree. But God didn’t. Which leads to another very important why: If God could have made things clear but didn’t, why not?

Obviously, seeing eye to eye is not the point. Agreeing on religious and spiritual belief is not the point. Understanding the who, how, where, and why of the Divine is not the point.

Then what is the point? Love. Specifically, loving kindness. Gracious love.

We’re meant to learn and practice loving kindness, not just toward those who agree with us but toward those who don’t. Is that so we can persuade them to come around to our point of view? No, it’s so our own hearts can open to the giving and receiving of life-giving love, which is not limited to one sect or creed. Life-giving love thrives in abundant variety.

Abundance is Jesus’s word for the life God wants to give us all. Abundance comes to us with open heart, with open eyes andfish hands and arms. God obviously loves variety, because abundance overflows with it. Look around. Hummingbird and hawk, chickadee and blue jay. Catfish and salmon, swordfish and carp. Daisy and dahlia, rose and periwinkle. Blueberries and carrots, oats and coffee. Sunrises, sunsets, rivers, seas, sun, moon, stars, snowflakes . . .

And humans – tall and short, deep-voiced and high-pitched, introvert and extrovert. We come in a variety of earth tones, every shade of dust. Some of us respond to God loudly, some of us quietly. Some of us wave flags and banners, some sing with bands and organs, some chant quietly or simply listen. Some of us bow, eyes closed. Some of us raise our hands, eyes wide, gazing upward. Some of us feast. Some of us fast. Some of us light candles. Some of us sit cross-legged in meditation. Some of us dance. Some of us do all the above.

candleI can’t help but believe that’s the way it’s meant to be. A life of gracious love and abundance extends much further than just “live and let live.” It’s live and enjoy, live and appreciate, live and revel in the wonder of it all.

It’s our loss when we demean each other based on our differences rather than welcoming each other based on what we have in common. The demand that everyone see and live life our way divides us and deprives us of abundance, a life rich in diversity.

We’re meant to respect, honor, and generously live beside people who are not like us. They are meant to respect, honor, and generously live beside us. In other words, we’re meant to love. Love has given us the privilege of enjoying the beauty and variety that each of us brings to life’s journey. Love gives us the opportunity to nurture each other’s reach toward God.

So nurture someone’s reach this week.

I hope you join me again next week for some more thoughts on coming of age in a community of faith. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey of life.

 

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

 

The Great Mystery

 

 

 

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The Great Mystery

“It is very sad, my dear,” said Nina, our elderly Jewish guide. She was talking about the last synagogue remaining open in Alexandria, Egypt. There weren’t even enough Jewish men left to have a service there. One of my Jewish friends and I had just finished a tour of the interior by lighting candles mounted in a box of sand. (See last week’s post for the full account of that visit.) Now we were seated reverently in the front pew. Nina turned to me and asked, “Are you Jewish?” I told her that I’m Christian. “Is all the same,” she said. “Only one God.”

For a long time, I thought God was a name. It’s not. It’s a position. Like Mother – that’s not my mother’s name; it’s her position. Father is not my father’s name but his role in my life. I called my mother’s father Bopop, while one set of cousins called him Pawby and another set called him Poppa. His position: Grandfather. God: the One, the Most High, Creator, the Divine, Higher Power, Source . . . different cultures have different names for this Mystery that we barely comprehend.

cloudsGod, the great Mystery, is grander, wider, deeper, and fuller than anyone can know, and I suspect that our not-knowing is intentional on God’s part. I think God wants to keep us wondering. After all, what do we humans do with phenomena that we understand? We try to harness, control, or overcome whatever it is – weather or disease, or gravity, or the human brain for example. We try to figure out these mysteries – and control them. That’s obviously not the path God wants us to take in the spiritual realm.

Hundreds of times I’ve heard, “Someday (that is, when we get to heaven), we’ll know all about it. Someday we’ll see. Someday we’ll understand. God will explain everything.” Really? I don’t think so. I doubt that we’ll ever know it all. Maybe we’ll know more, but I suspect that whatever the afterlife looks like, full understanding will not be part of it. I think God will always be a mystery.

I grew up being taught facts about God and receiving the distinct impression that anyone who questioned those facts was risking his or her soul. Anyone who went further and disagreed with those “facts” was doomed to hell. We believed that what we believed was literally a matter of spiritual life and death. So those of us who did not want to put our souls in jeopardy embraced those “facts” without question. They became blind beliefs – until we honestly questioned them.

Questioning scares some people, but if a belief is worth holding, it should be strong enough to stand up to questioning. If it can’tquestion stand up to examination, is it really what we want to believe? Besides, a change in beliefs does not necessarily mean a loss of faith. In fact, beliefs can change even as faith steadily grows broader and deeper. I know that’s true, because that’s where I am. I try to hold my beliefs with a loose hand while remaining solidly planted in a deepening faith.

Is it possible to question blind beliefs and decide that they’re exactly what we believe? Sure. Then they’re no longer blind beliefs. We’ve examined them, accepted them, and know why we hold them. What if we can’t figure out why we believe, but we want to believe it anyway? In that case, we admit that the reason we believe is simply because we’ve chosen to. In either case, examining our own beliefs can help us respect the fact that others hold different beliefs. We’re all in process, and we’d all do well to continue to question, because that’s what a healthy faith does. And that’s what Mystery draws us to do: wonder.

thinkingI don’t create spiritual reality. Nor do you. No one understands spiritual reality well enough to explain it. We all have our opinions and experiences, and we all choose labels and explanations for them. But our reasoning will take us only a short way before we’re at the end of our understanding, whether we believe in the Christian trinity or simply call the grand spiritual largesse “my Higher Power” or “the Universe” – or even if we don’t believe in anything spiritual at all. The fact is no matter which way we reason, it doesn’t change the reality of What or Who exists or does not exist as God. In other words, we can believe any way we want, but that does not change the fact of God’s existence.

It’s like belief in parentage. We may have been told we were found under a rock or delivered by a stork, but the truth of the matter is that you and I have a mother and a father. You may not know your mother and/or father; you may love them, hate them, feel indifferent about them, or even deny that they exist, but that does not change the fact that you came into being through a male and a female. Your mother and father existed and had names and gave you a blend ofparents their genetic makeup. That’s a given. It’s also a given that the divine Mystery exists – in whatever way, shape, or form – in spite of what you or I or anyone else may call this Mystery and no matter what we believe about God. Whatever is, is.

But it’s human nature to categorize, define, and clarify, and since ancient times, we’ve done exactly that. It’s just that we don’t always come up with the same answers and definitions, especially in the spiritual realm. We’ve long been divided over what is. Even groups that follow the same holy book have split into sects or denominations that differ in their beliefs and are often adamant about defending the rightness of their views. God knows how often we exalt our positions on spiritual issues while vilifying those who believe differently.

Being a why person, I wonder why we can’t link arms and join each other in awe of the Mystery at the heart of life. Why can’t we agree? I think there’s an answer to that question, but it’s the subject of next week’s post. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey of life.

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If you want to me to send you a calming inspirational thought for the week each Sunday morning, you can sign up at Carry the Calm.

 

Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

 

 

“You Want to Go In?”

 

 

 

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“You Want to Go In?”

I’ve posted part of this story before, but it’s a good one to lead us into what I’ll be posting for the next couple of weeks about religion.

Alexandria, Egypt, late March 2007:

The rumbling, rocking train crosses the Nile Delta, heading north from Cairo to Alexandria. I’m traveling with a writer friendegyptroadsidestand who is doing research for a novel set in early 20th century Egypt. Being a writer myself, I take notes. I never know when I’ll need that exact landscape or flavor or aroma in a story. We pass canals and irrigation ditches and, now and then, towns, each with several unfinished buildings, their top floors framed in posts with rebar sticking out like petrified smoke rising from gray concrete chimneys. (We learn that the buildings are in a perpetual unfinished state, because as soon as they’re finished, the owners must start paying taxes.) Speaking of smoke, smoking is allowed on the train, and it stings my nose.

No music on this train, only a cell phone ringing now and then, some with the same tones we have in the U.S., some with Arabic music. And, of course, there are the voices of people talking, which is musical in its own way. We rumble on past orange groves, a camel, egrets hunting on freshly-plowed fields, foremen on donkeys supervising field workers, bales of cotton in a huge yard behind guarded-gate walls, white ducks waddling down a narrow lane between buildings, field workers sitting on the ground eating lunch around a large galvanized tub that sits over a smoking fire . . . and then we’re in Alexandria.

alexshopsAlexandria looks more European than Cairo does. It’s widest from west to east, stretching along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Each day we walk from our hotel to a tram stop, board the women’s car, and ride west into the center of the city. From there we walk to locations we want to see, places that have been around since the 1920’s and 30’s. One is Eliyahu Hanavi, the only synagogue marked on our tourist map.

Even following the map, we almost miss the synagogue, because it’s behind a high wall. I just happen to look left as we pass a wrought iron gate, and there’s the building beyond a stone courtyard. The gate is closed, and the only people in view are the armed gate guards. We sigh. We’ve walked all this way, and the place is obviously closed to tourists. My friend raises her camera to at least get a picture through the bars of the gate. Immediately the guards protest. No pictures.

As she lowers her camera, I ask, “Is it ever open for tourists?”

“You want to go in?” ask the guards. When we say yes, they point us back the way we’ve come, telling us to speak to the guard atalexnetmender the first cross street. I noticed the guard when we first passed, thinking it strange that he sat behind a hefty wooden podium right in the middle of the crosswalk. We hike back to him and say we want to visit the synagogue. He hitches his thumb toward a man seated in a folding chair on the curb five yards farther down the street. “Tell him,” he says.

So we walk the five yards and tell him. He ushers us across the street to a gatehouse, where we explain ourselves to another guard, who then escorts us into the compound. A middle-aged darker-skinned man emerges from what looks like an administration building and asks for our passports. Now I hate to relinquish my passport to anyone, but no passport, no tour. He says he’ll return our passports at the end, so we hand them over and wait in the courtyard while he goes back into the admin building.

A few minutes later he reappears with a shuffling, bent old woman leaning on his arm. She’s neattly dressed in a gray jacket and dark skirt and wears her gray hair pulled severely back into a bun. Her name is Nina, she’s 83, and she speaks five languages: English, Arabic, French, Italian, and Greek. We choose a tour in the one language we know.

egptsynagogue1.2007Our passport-holder unlocks the front door of the synagogue, and Nina leads us inside. It’s quiet. Cool. A gallery supported by beautiful marble columns looks down over the main floor where rows of dark wood benches with inscribed nameplates flank a center aisle. At the front of the room, dozens of silver lamps of varying shapes and sizes hang from the ceiling, although only one is lit. Nina says it’s the one original to the synagogue. The others came from all the Alexandrian synagogues that closed when the Jews were forced out. There are even more lamps in storage here, along with all the Torahs of those closed synagogues.

We ask Nina why she didn’t leave, and she explains that her husband couldn’t travel because of a heart condition. All those who stayed were old and dying. Only 25 Jews remain in Alexandria today, she says, but not enough men to have a service, even though this one synagogue is still open. “It is very sad, my dear,” she says. Then she asks, “Are you Jewish?” When I say I’m Christian, she says, “Is all the same. Only one God.”

Join me next week as I think about religion. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey called life.

 

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. Photos © 2007 Laura Greene. All rights reserved.

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Getting On With Life

“I think many people love their problems.

Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life.”

Louise Penny, Still Life

Anyone remember “back in the day” when suitcases didn’t have wheels? We used to have to pick up our luggage and muscle it from place to place. Some of us still do that with emotional baggage that we carry from past negative experiences. At the end of my previous post, I suggested that we could rearrange that emotional backpack and lighten the load. How? Here’s what has helped me.

Admitting that I was carrying the weight. I was taught to be quick to forgive. And it’s true that forgiveness is important, but the form of “forgiveness” I learned was, “That’s okay. No harm done.” Meanwhile, I absorbed the harm, even to the point of taking the blame myself, while trying to persuade myself that I hadn’t been hurt. I believed I shouldn’t feel hurt, that I should take the hit and let it go. Instead of forgiving people, I was making excuses for them. I was able to begin to lighten the weight only after admitting that what was done was not all right, and it did hurt.

Revising the situation. Some people call this reframing, setting the event into a frame that distances it from us so that we canframe see it in a new light. I prefer to call it revision. One of the secrets of being a writer is that most of writing is revision. Another handy skill of a good writer is understanding character motivation – which I can use in real life revision. I can revise the way I see my baggage, for example, by seeing that someone lashed out at me because they were hurting. Or that someone betrayed me because they wanted so badly to get ahead.

This may sound like making excuses for people, but it’s not. Excuses try to take what’s wrong and say it was all right in the first place, because (insert excuse here). If we’re the keep-the-peace-at-all-costs type, excuses are a way to avoid confrontation. Instead of grappling with true forgiveness, excuses relieve the wrongdoer of responsibility. Revising, on the other hand, requires us to admit we were wronged. We let the responsibility lie with the one who wronged us, and we revise the scene to try to understand each person’s point of view.

We also revise by looking for the positive outcome of the event(s) that became such a weight for us. If the wrong done to us did not shut us down, then we can take stock of where we are in the journey. Not only was it possible to find a path ahead in spite of what happened but perhaps because of what happened. As painful and embarrassing as it was, misunderstanding and being misunderstood inspired me to try to communicate clearly, to simplify complex concepts. Being raised in a rigid, exclusive belief system led me to explore and discover how people growing up in a community of faith leave taken-for-granted beliefs and come into a faith of their own. Revision is not an effort to deny the negatives of the past; it’s an effort to declaw them.

business-books-3Telling someone. Emotional baggage often gains weight when it’s hidden. So when it’s shared, the load gets lighter. It’s important, though, who we share the weight with. It’s worth finding someone who respects us enough to practice nonjudgmental listening, a person who won’t offer up canned answers, a person who, however well intentioned, won’t use “let’s pray about it” as an evasive maneuver. Yes, prayer is good, but when we’re unburdening ourselves, it’s the listening ear we need, the open hands, the open heart, the presence of someone who simply sits with us in our sadness.

Grieving the stones left behind. We may need to grieve for two reasons. First, if we’ve only just admitted we were wronged and that it did indeed hurt us, we may need to mourn that wound. Second, when we’ve been carrying baggage, setting that weight aside can leave us feeling clean but also empty. We’d grown comfortable with the weight. It was familiar. Maybe we even felt was our cross to bear so that we could either take on the role of martyr or feel sorry for ourselves and perhaps get others to feel sorry for us as well. When we do leave the weight behind, we may feel uncomfortable or even empty in its absence. If we held our hurts especially close, we may need to grieve the loss. And then get on with life.

Grabbing onto the good. We can realize that we’ve survived every wrong done to us – maybe not unscathed, but we survived, and that’s good. We can now intentionally open our senses to all the good and beautiful in the present moment, which often gets overshadowed when negative memories insist on popping up. But the bounty of the present moment can fill the emptiness.

A friend recently gave me a pot of shamrocks. I always thought of shamrocks as Ireland-green, but these are red-violet, and the shamrocks2leaves are triangle-shaped. They’re fascinating, because during the day, the leaves open fully open to the sun, but when the sun goes down, the leaves fold toward each other and end up looking like origami on a stem. We humans, in our natural state, open our very centers to whatever warms and enlightens us emotionally. We close to whatever chills and darkens our deepest selves. It’s only when we trust people, our world, and our selves that we open again.

Our life journeys may be unmapped, but one thing we know: Life is guaranteed to take us through a full range of experiences and feelings – pleasure and pain, love and hatred, joy and grief, excitement and dread. Becoming whole means opening our arms, hearts, and eyes to life’s shifting patterns, the play of light and shadow that’s not only around us but within us as well. Wholeness implies releasing what’s stale, receiving what’s fresh, and being generous to self and others. It means opening our eyes to what has come before and to what exists now.

“I am now the sum of everything I have been before,” said writer Isabel Allende. And when I set aside the weight of what’s come before, I can look toward the possibilities that lie ahead.

Up next – thinking about religion: roadblock or oasis? Until then, I wish you well – and Happy Thanksgiving!

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Text and shamrock photo © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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Where We Were Raised vs. Where We Grew Up

“When you face the past, all you will see is that which has gone before. . . .

Let this be your turning point.

Have done with it, and turn to face the future.”

– Jacqueline Winspear, Pardonable Lies

 

What has gone before has brought us to where we are now in life’s journey. C.S. Lewis once beautifully described himself: “I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.” Of course there was much more, and I’m sure not all of it was pleasant. Still, he chooses this description to define himself. It’s so sensory it creates a feeling of wonder and hints at a deep underlying gratitude. Lewis, at least in this description, made sure that the good and beautiful rose to the top.

girldrink“I am a product of . . . ” struck me as an invitation to complete the thought in my own way. Here’s the positive, the part that leaves me with a grand sense of wonder and gratitude: I’m a product of Kool-Ade tea parties shared with cousins sitting around the rim of an old tractor tire. I’m a product of waiting for my mom to pick me up or for my little sisters to finish with lessons or appointments (which gave me time to think and people-watch and notice my surroundings). I’m a product of the hum of evaporative coolers; the scent of gardenias; the search for snails in the dirt; ever-present Texas wind, hot and dry in the summer, frigid and cutting in the winter. I’m a product of bold, expansive sunsets; a community swimming pool divided by a high wall separating boys from girls; only three channels of television; and new interstate highways (and no seat belts in cars).

We are also products of our parents’ past – and to some extent their parents’ past. My mother and I were talking about how she was raised religiously, and she said that growing up in the 1930’s and ’40’s, you believed what the scholars and authorities said. You did not question what they preached from the pulpit, because they had been trained. They knew Scripture. “Who were we to question?” said Mother. And that filtered down into the way I was raised . . . except sometimes my dad questioned. I could see his logic, and . . . well, here I am today, a questioner.

Families have micro-cultures. Some are emotionally distant, rigidly religious like my family of origin. Some establish ancards environment of “be-the-victim, lay-the-blame.” Some are loud and lay-it-all-out-there. Some are secretive and in denial. Some are open and encouraging. There are as many variations as there are families. (Plus the family culture is malleable and not static.) No matter. Each of us has to play with the hand we’re dealt. (Metaphor courtesy of my card-playing family.)

What I see now is that where we were raised, and even the family we were raised in, isn’t necessarily where we grew up. Sometimes it takes a different locale to grow us up. And to be honest, we never really stop growing up. If we’re going the right direction, life will always be a size too big. And from time to time as we move that direction, we’d be wise to pause to inspect the fragments of our past, leave behind the undue weight we attached to them, and round off their sharp edges.

karyn-jam-2It’s an ongoing process, lightening the load, rounding the sharp edges. For one thing, life goes on, and occasionally we go through muck. For another thing, once we’ve had the experience, it’s a permanent part of us. I’m a product of a restrictive, judgmental church (even Christians in other denominations were going to hell); the early death of my favorite grandmother; and being misunderstood and under-informed. I’m revealing the milder ones. Some of the heavier experiences I’m not ready to reveal.

But at any point in the journey, we can rearrange the backpack of past experiences and lighten the load. We’ll never change those darker parts of our past, but they can’t hold us back unless we give them that power. So what defuses the power? What lightens the load?

We’ll look at that in my next post. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey! (And, yeah, that’s me with the jam face.)

 

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If you want to me to send you a calming inspirational thought for the week each Sunday morning, you can sign up at Carry the Calm.

Text and jam face photo © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy morguefile.com.

 

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