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What’s Love Got to Do With It?

The quintessential coming-of-age story involves the tug-of-war between belief and experience. That’s true not only in fiction but also in real life. Belief bumps into experience, and we discover that they’re not in sync. Sometimes it takes us a while to figure that out, especially with love. Love is famously blind.

When we were children, we thought in pure polar opposites about every issue, including love. The young girl picks petals off a daisy, chanting, “He loves me; he loves me not.” Either this or that. One or the other. With experience, we discover that love gets mixed with all kinds of other emotions. Sometimes it’s only in hindsight that we realize that, in spite of all our good intentions, we misused love, turning it into something self-serving instead of self-giving.

Our first experience with self-serving love probably came in the form of conditional love: “I’ll love you if . . .” We were all born craving love, acceptance, and belonging. Even though as children, we couldn’t logically point out the difference between conditional and unconditional love, we could sense it. Even if our family loved us unconditionally, it’s a good bet that the rest of the world didn’t. We learned that love and acceptance often comes with strings attached. “I’ll be your friend if –.” Or “We’ll accept you if –.” Or “If you love me, you’ll –.” Of course, we’re not totally innocent in this. We learn to do it as well.

Another type of self-serving love is totally of our own making, and we fall into it head over heels: pure physical attraction. In our culture, we’re surrounded by stories in books, movies, ads, games, and websites that formulize love: beautiful girl + handsome guy = love. Ah, insta-love. I’m not saying that’s completely bogus. Physical attraction can bloom into self-giving love. But calling simple physical attraction love is stretching it. I’m reminded of singer Tina Turner’s line, “What’s love got to do with it?” Often the answer is, “Nothing.” Lust is fairly easy to come by. True love not so much.

Pity is another offshoot of love. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with open-eyed, open-hearted altruism and compassion. Our world needs more of it. But when it slides into blind pity, we can easily place ourselves in the role of someone’s savior and call it love. Yes, we should feel concern for people in need. It’s right to want to help them address their problems and alleviate their distress. The desire to right wrongs is noble and good, and acting on that desire is honorable. It uplifts us as well as the people we help. When we take part in righting the world’s wrongs, we feel good and useful and significant. But when we crave that good and useful feeling so much that we take over and play savior, our impulse to help can turn into self-serving love. In that case, we risk being unhelpful, causing damage not only to those we want to help but to ourselves as well.

This savior twist on love can also happen when we try to rescue people who don’t really want to be rescued. Some people would never say they enjoy victimhood, but they thrive on being perceived as victims. So as long as they can draw on our “love” (aka pity), they don’t have to change. In other words, our “love” enables them to continue being the victims. We may claim we are emptying ourselves out of love, but they are using our fuel for their journey and leaving us depleted.

It’s easy for parents or family members to take on the savior role, even for those who don’t see themselves as victims. We truly want the people we love to thrive. We don’t want to see them struggle or get hurt. After all, we’ve been there, done that, and we know the road. We can see what needs to be done, and they can’t. (Or so we think.) So with all good intentions, we guide someone’s life like a director taking charge of a movie. Meaning well, we step in and call the shots. While this may look and feel self-giving, it’s actually self-serving; it serves our need to control. True self-giving honors the rights of others to make their own decisions and live their own lives.

In helping situations, it can be extremely hard to know when to step in and when to pull back. We often don’t realize that our love has stepped out of bounds. I find educator and writer Parker Palmer‘s advice helpful: Don’t evade, but don’t invade. When we realize we’ve overstepped and invaded, it’s easy to turn on ourselves in anger and regret. The way out of that is . . . love. Real, open-eyed, self-giving love is always home base – extending respect, encouragement, honesty, and kindness toward others and to ourselves.

Next week: Is it Love? Questions to Ask if You Wonder

Meanwhile, have a love-ly week!

 

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

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The Tricky Truth About Love

What’s the difference between life and love? Two letters.

If you were one of the first readers of last week’s post, you know that I misquoted Forrest Gump’s mother. Instead of “Life is like a box of chocolates,” I wrote, “Love is like a box of chocolates.” Thanks to Heather and Lynn and others who pointed out the mistake. As I corrected it, I began to consider life and love and the two-letter tweak that morphed one into the other. Life and love are so closely related – or should be – that the misquote rings as true as the original: “Love is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna’ get.” (Apologies to author Winston Groom.)

The tricky truth about love is that:

Love is very simple

and amazingly complicated.

Love is easy,

and it’s the hardest thing we’ll ever do.

Love is an uplifting joy

and a crushing sorrow.

Love makes us strong

but extremely vulnerable.

Love threads through our highest aspirations

and our deepest regrets.

On my first day as a student in high school French class, the teacher told us that she was drawn to the language, because everything spoken in French sounds like, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Ah, oui, I love French too – there’s that slippery word love, this time used in a light, almost throwaway sense. I love French. I love the color blue. I love homemade bread. I love irises. It’s not quite the same thing as “I love you.”

The feeling of love is so rich and powerful that it’s our go-to description for several emotional states. In a recent Tumblr post, a young woman commented on a movie gif, “He just met her a moment ago and he’s already so in love!” Really? Is that even possible? One writer/critic called this “insta-love.” The love of French or blue or chocolate, and the swoon-type “insta-love” are forms of love-lite. This type of love seems to mean, “I feel so good I want more of this thing or that person.” Love-lite is actually a simple form of appreciation for something that brings us pleasure.

Of course, we also use love to describe some of our deepest commitments. Why do we paint love with such a broad brush? Maybe because love expresses our hearts, our longings, our delights, and our hopes, which are sometimes shallow and sometimes deep. So every heart-warming emotion that falls between shallow and deep gets labeled love. Still, applying love to so many different feelings can make the word seem flippant. We toss it out, and there it lies like a dropped penny in spite of the fact that love is one of the great wonders of the world.

Maybe the Greeks were wise to clarify exactly what type of love they were writing and talking about. I don’t know what they would have called love-lite, but for family love, they used the word storge. Friendship was philia, erotic/romantic love was eros, and selfless community-love was agape. All of which, in English, we lump into the one term love.

But each of those four types of love – family, friendship, romantic, and community – can show up as love thought, or love felt, or love acted, or various combinations of those three, which makes the concept of love even more slippery. We can think loving thoughts and do loving acts but not feel loving. Or we can think and feel love but not put it into action. And we can perform loving acts without thinking or feeling loving. One of the difficulties with trying to decide whether or not to label an act or feeling as love is the fact that it’s possible to perform purposeful, intentional acts of love without feeling the emotion of love. In fact, it’s possible to feel the exact opposite.

I grew up believing that to please God and go to Heaven, I had to love everyone in thought, word, and deed. It’s a wonderful and lofty goal. I never entertained the possibility that I couldn’t or wouldn’t love everyone. So I loved – in the sense of draping a warm, fuzzy blanket of love-thought over the whole world and everyone in it. Love, kindness, and compassion for all represent the ideal, and I hope for that even now. It describes the person I wish to be. But it’s also way too general, turning love into a drifting, amorphous, vague sense of goodwill and best wishes.

It’s easy to sit in a pew and claim to love everyone in the world. It’s easy to kneel at my bedside and feel warm-hearted toward all people everywhere. It’s an entirely different matter to love a friend who claims authorship of something I wrote. Or to love the guy who flips me the finger as he cuts me off in traffic. Or to love the renters next door who wake me with raucous laughter at two in the morning and leave their front lawn trashed with beer cans. Somehow I can’t blanket those events with love unless I’m intentionally blind to my own feelings.

Still, I can choose to respond in a loving way. So will the act of loving lead to the feeling? That’s one common piece of advice: act your way into the feeling. In other words, fake it ’til you make it; treat people as if you love them, and you’ll end up actually feeling the love. It’s a good idea, but in my experience, it doesn’t work. At least not with love. I have to admit that I’ve heard people say it worked for them. Maybe so – but in every case? All the time? Maybe it’s just me, but if I’m honest, I have to admit that there are some people I simply do not love. Unless I stretch that blanket definition really thin.

Yes, I’m all for treating people as I would have them treat me – with respect, kindness, and encouragement – but even when I do, it doesn’t mean I respect or trust them. Some people are not respectable or trustworthy. That’s simply the way it is. I don’t hate them or wish them harm, but pearls before swine, you know? (Matthew 7:6)

But then, that’s not the last word on love. More in next week’s post: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

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Lover’s Leap

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

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Lover’s Leap

“Love in its essence is spiritual fire.”

– Seneca –

 

As I-24 meanders east through the Mid-South in the U.S., it pokes its elbow a few miles out of Tennessee, nudges the northwest corner of Georgia, and then crooks back into Tennessee and heads toward the Appalachian Mountains. East of that elbow is Lookout Mountain, Georgia. The mountain’s claim to fame is Rock City, which is located on its peak. Along the highways of southeast, it’s common to see barns with “See Rock City” painted in huge letters on the roof or across the side.

So I’ve come to see Rock City. A short walk takes me through woodland and along a stone path between boulders, including a tight squeeze though the Needle’s Eye. I end up on a wide ledge above a waterfall, shading my eyes and scanning the mountains on the horizon. On a clear day, you can see seven states from here. Arrows on a helpful sign point to each one: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. The Smokies are hazy in the distance. So is Mt. Pinnacle, the location point for Kentucky and Virginia. But this is about as clear as it gets, and I pick out all seven states. I think.

I happen to be standing on Lover’s Leap. There’s enough of a rail along the ledge to keep sightseers from accidentally stepping off while they’re taking selfies, although not enough to keep a spurned lover from making the big leap. According to a Cherokee Romeo-Juliet type legend, Nacoochee, a young maiden from one tribe, fell in love with Sautee, a young man from another tribe. The two tribes were feuding at the time. Sautee was captured and thrown to his death from this lookout over the waterfall. When Nacoochee heard what had happened, she jumped to her death at the same spot, so the promontory was named Lover’s Leap.

Lover’s Leaps exist in at least half the states in the U.S. as well as in other countries around the world, and they’re all based on similar stories. Sometimes both lovers leap in order to be together in death, and sometimes the maiden leaps to avoid marrying someone she doesn’t love. I like the legend from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, that says the young man hurtling off the cliff was blown by the wind back into his lover’s arms.

Fortunately, most of us will not end our life’s journey by hurling ourselves off a Lover’s Leap. But at some point, most of us will make the leap into love, forever changing the path ahead of us. Of course, Lover’s Leap tales are about romantic love, while the love we experience in real life may or may not include the romantic.

Love is a slippery concept. Since ancient times writers have tried to describe it:

“Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

“Love can climb higher than reason can reach.” – Edmund Spenser

“Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone.” – Leo Tolstoy

“Such ever was love’s way; to rise, it stoops.” – Robert Browning

“Love is a great beautifier.” – Louisa May Alcott

“Love betters what is best.” – Michelangelo, translated by William Wordsworth

“If you love someone, you do not ask them to destroy the best in themselves.” – Anne Perry

“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” – Wendell Berry

“Love always creates, it never destroys.” – Leo Buscaglia

“Where there is great love there are always miracles.” – Willa Cather

“The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” – G.K. Chesterton

“Love does not just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” – Ursula LeGuin

“Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience.” – M. Scott Peck

 

Next week’s post: The Tricky Truth about Love. Meanwhile, feel free to share your favorite quote about love.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Rock City photos, Creative Commons, Billy Hathorn

All other photos © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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In Matters of the Spirit, Does One Size Fit All?

Next week, in honor of February’s Valentine’s Day, I’ll begin a month of posts about love. Until then, I leave you with one last thought about sacred spaces.

I’ve never believed that we have to go through anyone (like a saint) or use a particular path or ritual (like incense or chanting or altars) in order to gain access to God. Not that there’s anything wrong with those practices – on the contrary, they can be a valuable ways to focus our wandering spirits and jittery minds. I use a few rituals myself, some more successfully than others. But that’s the point. Our personal connection with the divine is . . . well, personal. You can nurture this connection in a variety of ways, but only in ways that work for you. One size does not fit all.

But no matter what rituals or methods we find helpful, they are one-way paths. They open us to receiving God, but they don’t work the other way around. They don’t open God to receiving us. That path was never closed to begin with. We don’t have to cross a gap to reach God, because there is no gap. God is all around us, all the time. We are enveloped in a larger whole. As the ancients said, “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

God is the constant; we are the variable. What nourished the sacred space within me ten years ago may not inspire me today. And who’s to say that what nourishes me today will nourish me ten years down the road? That’s the way a thriving faith works. It lives. It breathes. It grows. According to Henry Nelson Wieman, a theologian in the early 1900’s, faith is an act of giving ourselves to what will creatively transform us. Transformation is not a one-and-done event. It’s the whole journey.

Sacred spaces remind us that God is our home. They remind us that we ourselves are a sacred space, so wherever we are on the journey, we’re at home. We can shelter in place. We can settle into the calm that faith offers us. That doesn’t mean that fear, worry, anger and dozens of other negatives won’t intrude and gain the upper hand at times. Nor does it mean we won’t occasionally shut out the peace available to us. What it does mean is that if we nurture the sacred space within us, we can carry the calm wherever we go. We can rely on our inner peace, our link to God, to see us through uncharted territory.

But why calm myself when I should be fighting the wrongs in the world? Aren’t injustice and poverty and war and abuse supposed to upset me? Yes, of course. But operating from a base of calm does not mean we don’t grieve or get frustrated or angry. It does not mean that we don’t see injustice or work to right wrongs. It does not mean we’ll never struggle with whatever issues we face personally. Nurturing a sacred space does not mean an absence of deep feelings; it does not require drowning the fire of passion. This is not about a lethargic calm but an energetic calm.

A fire in my living room fireplace can stir in me a strong sense of peace, but that same fire out of control can be a disaster. Inner peace and calm ensures that the fire in our souls is powerful and productive, not destructive. To say it another way: when we operate from a home base of calm, we go to bat, run the bases, and always return to home plate, where we reset to peace, to a settled spirit. Calm becomes our norm, our default position.

In sacred spaces we experience a sense of calm, an at-homeness with God that, to me, is a form of prayer. Silence and stillness, common hallmarks of prayer, are often also entryways to sacred spaces. Mother Teresa once said, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence . . . we need silence to be able to touch souls.”

Silence and stillness, of course, are time-honored ways to settle our own souls as well. I find God in silence. But also in certain types of music. Candles. Windows. Pillows. A soft rain. Birdsong. These all call my spirit to bow in reverence. But one size doesn’t fit all. That’s because each of us is a sacred space, so each of us reaches out and receives in ways that are meaningful to us. What opens your spirit to the Mystery of God?

Next week, in honor of February as Valentine’s month, I’ll begin a month of posts about love. I hope you’ll join me.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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Where Does the Belief Pinch?

“The wearer knows best where the shoe pinches.”

– Spanish proverb –

 

When I was growing up, shoe shopping officially happened twice a year: in Spring for Easter shoes and in Fall for school shoes. Mother would take my sisters and me downtown to Thornton’s Department Store, where the salesman measured our feet and then retreated to the back room to see if the styles we had chosen from the display were in stock in our sizes. When he brought out the available selection and we tried them on, Mother would press her thumb on the top of the shoe between my big toe and the shoe tip to make sure there was room to grow. Then I would walk around to see if the heel slipped up and down or if the shoe rubbed uncomfortably anywhere. Mother made her pronouncements about the fit and the look, and the salesman added his opinion, but then they always looked at me and asked, “How do they feel?” After all, I was the one wearing the shoes. I was the one who knew whether they felt too tight or too loose.

Just as we’re the only ones who know where our shoes pinch, we’re the only ones who know where our beliefs pinch. We often feel the pinch for the first time when we’re teens, coming of age for the first time, trying to establish our own identity. We’ve bought into someone else’s beliefs and opinions – usually our parents’– which is a handy place to start our faith journey. In fact, it’s the usual place to start. But we’re not usually encouraged to question those beliefs. In fact, we’re usually given incentives not to. But if we don’t question beliefs at some point, then they’re not truly our own. Wearing someone else’s beliefs is like wearing hand-me-down shoes. If they don’t fit, after a while we get blisters and aching arches.

Of course, it’s possible to adopt another person’s likes and dislikes in anything from fashion choices to political views. In fact, it’s possible to live our whole lives with adopted views and beliefs. We may even argue vehemently for those beliefs, because they’re held by the community or “tribe” we belong to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the belief(s) reflect the true heart of who we are. Someone else’s views are just that: someone else’s. If I don’t believe them, if I don’t own them, they’re not mine at all. I’ve not personalized my beliefs.

That wouldn’t matter if God were an impersonal force. In that case, assenting to a belief system and living with an impersonal faith would make sense. It’s true that many people consider the Divine Mystery to be simply a force. That’s definitely a belief option, but it’s one that leaves me cold – like a child reaching for the comfort and love of a mother’s arms but finding a teddy bear instead. A teddy bear is some comfort, yes, but it’s not personal. In other words, no person is responding. The teddy bear has no warmth of its own to give; its only warmth comes from absorbing the child’s body heat. No object is able to return a child’s reach or empathize or care about the child.

Objects and forces can’t love, and they don’t care. A pillow cannot love me. A cathedral cannot love me. Nature, as inspiring as it is, does not love me. Music may move me to tears or motivate me to dance, but music does not care whether I – or anyone else – cries or laughs or dances. All these, as comforting or sacred as they may feel, are impersonal. They’re not persons.

Love and caring are personal; they are shared between persons. So the Universe, or the Divine, or the Ultimate, or the Presence, or God, or whatever we call the Mystery that connects with our deepest spirit and brings us personal peace is, I believe, personal – a person or persons. A Being. And no matter what we think of the Presence or Universe or Divine or Ultimate or God, by definition this entity is greater than all of us combined. Since the best that humans can aspire to is self-giving love, then surely that describes God at the least. And since love is shared only between living beings, then the Mystery I call God must be a living Being. Person-al. That’s why I believe that no matter how old we are, we need to continue to come of age in our spiritual lives, questioning blind beliefs, and personalizing our faith, making it our own.

Just to be clear: Questioning blind beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean dropping them. It’s possible to question, examine, and choose to keep them. At that point, they’re not blind beliefs any longer. We’ve chosen them as our own, at least for the time being – even if our only reason is, “Because it rings true to me, and I choose to believe it.” At least that’s an honest answer, and hopefully it makes us more gracious toward those who have chosen to hold different beliefs.

Occasionally when I was shoe shopping, I’d have my heart set on a certain pair of shoes. But when I tried them on, they were too small, and the next larger size was out of stock. I was tempted to overlook the fact that the shoes pinched. When a belief pinches, we may not want to admit it. Examining it can be uncomfortable. Questioning it can be unsettling. Considering a change can be frightening. But honest wondering is a natural part of a living, growing faith. Honor the questions. It’s okay to be uncertain. There’s no rush to have every answer. The fact is no one has all the answers. Welcome the mystery. Your life and your faith will be richer for it.

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The Best of All Cathedrals

Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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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!

 

(If you want me to send these posts and any updates to your email, simply sign up on the right.)

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.

 

Some of Us Light Candles

 

 

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