“This is simply the voice of a self-questioning human person who, like all his brothers and sister, struggles to cope with turbulent, mysterious, demanding, frustrating confused existence in which almost nothing is really predictable, in which most definitions explanations and justifications become incredible even before they are uttered, in which people suffer together and are sometimes incredibly beautiful, at other times impossibly pathetic, In which there is so much that is frightening, in which almost everything public is patently phony, and in which there is a the same time an immense ground of personal authenticity that is right there and so obvious that co one can talk about it and most cannot even believe it is there.
“I am, in other words, a man in the modern world In fact I am in the world just as you are. Where am I going to look for the world first of all if not in myself?”
Just before I dropped out of the seventh grade my parents enrolled me in a series of ballroom dancing lessons at the Crocker Dance Academy on 38th and Jay Street in Sacramento, where there were diagrams of something called a box step painted on the floor of the main studio. My understanding is the box step was invented and even patented by a man named Arthur Murray, who, with his wife Katherine, founded a worldwide chain of Dance Studios, all with versions of the box step painted on the floor. Looking back I realise we may have had an unauthorised version.
Doing the box step required six consecutive moves (one, two, three, one, two, three), first the left foot forward, with the right foot moving alongside, but not too closely to join the left foot, (listen to the beat), then the left food joining together with right foot, the right foot moving backwards, the left foot moving alongside, but at a distance, and finally both feet together. Counting, rhythm, memory and the diagram of the box step on the floor all helped for a while, but it also – to force a pun – tended to box you in, perhaps encouraged you to think there was only one way to do this, which is not the whole truth about dancing, but is what you have to get beyond in order to really move.
But I didn’t know that then. And I had a strong desire to know how things fit together, what things mattered most, where to put my allegiance, and how to get through all of this alive. So I prepared by making lists and putting things into boxes: including myself. There was a place for everything; what was better or worse, good or bad, to be spurned or to be followed, what I should walk to and where I should walk away. So, in all this, it was very important for me to have the facts. Can you be surprised that I was going to join a church?
I had a strong desire to know what things mattered most, where to put my allegiance, and how to get through all of this alive. I lusted after firm opinions so that I could make sound decisions. And when I first got into the church I found room for a whole new raft of them: expectations picked up from new friends and old books, ideas from sermons, choir room conversations, opinions on things like high church and low church, Anglo-Catholic and evangelical, liberal and conservative. Ask me something, anything, in those days, and I’d share my, somebodies, opinion. It felt just like life, but not quite!
Over time it started to get more real. The new acquaintances, people I met around the parish church, became friends, close as family, people I not only knew, but loved, and that turned out to be a crucial difference, made me realise the truth that St. Katherine of Hepburn mouthed in The Philadelphia Story: “The time to make up your mind about people is never!” But it took more than a good movie to dislodge this less than adequate map from holding space in my mind, and it still took more time.
For my history held me fast, and that table of advisors and their cobbled map of meanings was still my true religion. This amalgam of the Book of Common Prayer, various family members, favourite movies and books along with Bugs and Daffy, T. S. Eliot and Joan Didion and my mother and father and the landlord and the goat around a table in the middle of my head maintaining uneasy alliances while generating endless to-do lists pointing in various directions while I was just trying to maintain some internal compass based on a variety of conflicting information just to prevent the ship from capsizing.
But reading Thomas Merton at the age of 23 I met an author who made the journey look romantic. The Seven Story Mountain had early tragedy, romantic losses, hints of scandal, and a pilgrimage that tracked through some of the most glamorous places in the world — Ernest Hemingway’s France, T. S. Eliot’s England, Evelyn Waugh’s London and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Manhattan — mixing holiness, hubris and hangovers in a rich history of cocktail parties, late night conversations and early morning epiphanies happening everywhere from Catalonia to Cuba to Kentucky. And this eloquently romantic memoir was written when the author was not much older than me.
It was also the first time someone at the table was offering a map that could take me on a journey — and that made me look back at the table in a new way, and see a new way it could make sense in my life.
We forget the root word for religion comes from the routine of tying a rope or a line back on itself to make a knot: related to realign and reconnect. For although we have turned religion into pious views and attitudes, the original meaning can as easily point to practical actions: how we line our life up. With this definition basic religious actions are found in list making, budgeting and exercising: practical, ecological, relational, activities, thresholds, steps and images that get you through the business of life and community.
So, following that redefining of religion, a god can be re-defined as anything standing at the apex of religious actions, at the top of the tent of values and visions that motivate us. This widens the scope a bit. We’re so used to seeing basic source material for our religions in a temple or a church, that we overlook the religious plenitude that surrounds us on the web or at the mall. Our world is full of icons asking for realigned priorities and measured sacrifices of time and money, offering ways of thinking, feeling, convictions, connections. Just consider the spiritual and religious power contained in a pay raise, a sexual conquest, a sign of acceptance from a person or institution that has power, a new reckoning of knowledge. What mighty Gods walk among us!
But no blueprint can show how you are changed by the act of making love. That doesn’t mean that the blueprint is wrong, for that kind of knowledge tells us how much and how many, where and when; gives line, outline and location. But there are other ways of knowing that differ from the diagram as recipe and formula differ from bread and wine, as studying a road map to beginning a journey, as looking at a house plan differs from moving into a new dwelling.
This disparity struck me when I saw a schematic drawing of a popular sexual act. As an engineering blueprint it was accurate enough; showing all the equipment, where it was supposed to go and diagramming the sequence of action following — but it said nothing about loneliness and hope and desire, what you went to find and how you were changed, lost and found in the mingling and merging, the sweetness and the sweat of it. It didn’t mention how you felt afterwards.
We need to have deeper stories and reminders for that; to tell us who and why, give us hints on the identities and meanings that are possible, and even to stop us in our tracks and turn us around, gasping for new air and wide-eyed, looking at who and where we are as if we are seeing it for the first time.
Certainly recipe knowledge can help you to learn to cook but it won’t give you a sense of a keen hunger or the solid joy of biting into freshly made food carefully prepared for a company of friends. For truth is less like a diagram or a flowchart, and more like watching the changing colour of the sky at sunrise, examining the facets of a fine gem or simply standing face to face with someone you love — open to whatever happens next.
So, for in approaching certain important themes, I believe that only poetry and metaphor need apply. Plain and scientific speech, business and other dialects may offer declarative and straightforward definitions to keep you safe from confusion, but they will also restrict you from the richer allusions and possibilities of perception found only in the more subtle and ambiguous word-choices of careful prose and poetry. These are far more able to reconcile apparent dichotomies; allowing the expanse of image and breadth of allusion to reconcile spirit and flesh, infinite and finite, sacred and profane, life and death, in a way where all might be found in the immediacy of the present moment
It can be challenging to live with the possibility that a freshly made word might rudely wake us up in the very middle of our daily lives, but it happens. We’ve all known instances when we see a wider horizon, and start to follow a deeper understanding: opening to a world new with resonance, possibility, aliveness —where, quoting Rilke: “…there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”
For to look fully on any facet of truth can be blinding, may leave you speechless, unable to easily articulate what you have seen. And, in our present mythos we are yoked with a post-modern but somewhat scientific vocabulary and world view, a prescription lens that can both focus and limit, restrict and reduce the realms of possibility. But can we transcend the limits of our present vocabulary and find a realm of discourse that discerns deeper and wider viewpoints that might be, perhaps, more colourful than our present black and white solutions?
So we need to speak of words from other models of discourse, enabling new and paradoxical messages bearing larger concepts of the universe using ancient rhythms and mysterious images — surprisingly solid allusions of poetry to see the heavenly realms more perfectly — chancing to be enlightened but not burnt out in the process.
It’s a necessary peril. For to clearly hear this kind of message you have to stretch both subjective experience and objective language past its usual capacities in order to allow for the times when life opens deeper, love shines more brightly, where you turn a corner and the whole world is suddenly new and different and you deeply want to change your life.
The first century Greek word for messenger is Angelos, where we get angels. But the idea of angels doesn’t carry much punch lately, partly due to the artwork. C.S. Lewis writes that angels in the bible often had to preface their messages by saying, “Fear not,” where those pictured in most Victorian and popular art leads you to assume they’re here to softly say something like, “There, there.”
Neither angels nor religions are particularly sexy in the twenty-first century. The sad fact is that being religious in this part of the twenty-first century is like confessing a variant sexuality was fifty or sixty years ago. Obviously sex has become more popular than religion, but is that all? Nowadays it’s easier for me to state that I find more than one gender beautiful and desirous, my own being primary, than to confess that I am a faithful member of an offshoot of the Church of England. It is now common knowledge, for a vast number of people, that the actions formerly and collectively known as sodomy are now preferable, in many intelligent peoples views, to a propensity to recite the Nicene Creed in a public space.
And there are understandable reasons for this; for we are passing through an era where we have publicised sex while privatising religion and it makes for an uneven equation. Our recent first-world focussing on the former, how we stretch our collective intimates, has brought increased clarity and honesty on sexual and gender diversity, on various theories and practices of action and affect; while the personal and political aspects have been discussed endlessly, portrayed in various media from scholarly seminars to one-handed websites — some rarified and esoteric, others commercial and vulgar.
But remember the word vulgar stems from “common people or common practice” and there are good reasons for talking about, showing some strong lights on real life. For we’re finding when we share the actual stories concerning the way we love and the roads we travel, there is a similar commonality of feelings and a shared matrix of participation.
Speaking of my own corner of the puddle I cheerfully confess that the mainstream Christianity I know best is, after sustained reflection, a veritable hotbed of mediocrity: its internal struggles and divisive conversations are remarkably unattractive and its larger cultural irrelevance can almost be taken for granted — but not quite. For even with all the noble ruins of all the great religions in sight I am still convinced that if examined carefully, separating the wheat from chaff and sticking close to what seems to be evident from the radical visions and proposed actions of those early crafters as well as the deep bones of the resulting edifice, there is a simple and astonishingly poetic structure for a common true endeavour, a shared practice of compassion and creativity — even a common conspiracy for a more loving world.
This is not a new idea for me. I have vague memories of a stoned evening in the depths of the seventies when a friend challenged me as to how I could be convinced of the truth-claims of Christianity while being open to smoking grass, making love, and questioning authority — was even proud to enjoy all of them quite frequently. I smiled, passed the joint, and responded that most religions could be defined as dogma or doctrine, but they could also, just as easily, with equal evidence from ancient sources, be described as patterns of behaviour and incidents of charity, neighbourliness, love. And that’s where I was walking. I talked about the way an accomplished practitioner from any tradition would tend a garden, meet a stranger, sit in silence, heal a wound. I admitted that the vocabulary to describe each occurrence could be unique, exclusive, in some cases even restrictive, but the actions would have much in common.
So maybe it’s time for the great religious traditions of the world to be more forthcoming about – not the way we phrase our sets of beliefs, but how we work them out, massage them into the texture of our daily tasks and what it looks when we are successful and when, more commonly, we are not: actions rather than addages; less theorem and more practice.
And maybe the best way to use recipe knowledge might be as a sort of tentative map — accessing various areas of concern, but with no fixed names and identities, no capitol cities or main ports of call, a reference map that allow spaces to configure and constellate various areas of concern to be explored over time, depending on who we are with and where we are going. This does not have to be an ambitious project.
The simple practice of stretching before physical sport can be one model for this. As a young man I never bothered to do any specific exercises before playing tennis, but then in my late thirties I came home from a good game of singles and realised that I had injured my left shoulder to the extent that every time I turned in the night I awoke in a lot of pain. I realised that there was no longer an option not to stretch before tennis. It was a good thing to learn. Now, almost twenty years later, I find that regular stretching is helpful in preparing for the day ahead as well as meeting and mending the injuries that have come in daily life. It has become a semi-regular practice for me and I learn from it. Because now when I stretch I take time to listen to the recent history of my body, mind, soul and general neighbourhood, noting where soreness and stiffness need to be honoured, where limits need to be known and acknowledged before they can be touched, moved, released, enlarged. .
This has similarities with the actions of breathing — not just in meditation but in every moment of time: the give and take of it, the rhythm and pace, depth and demeanour. Years ago somebody advised me, “Look at something you think you know until it tells you something new.” So I’ve been looking at, learning to lean into, breathing with breathing, and I am learning that it gets bigger over time and it’s always hard to tell the simple truth of it.
I can write that breathing is not new for me, is an addictive activity that I started early and never got over, but that just panders to my tendency to play the lounge act of the soul, go for cheap laughs, try to introduce profundity through the family entrance. But the conscious act of breathing is really the most radical thing in the world. Breaking the world all open to a whole new spectrum of interaction, instructions and experience of intimacy that is closer than right next door — like the little girl in the first Poltergeist movie says, “They’re here!”
To begin to allow breathing to breathe us is to turn around the way we live and move and have our being. It is to lean into the possibility of a meeting place in the middle of the body where “who-I-am” meets something that is both bigger and finer than what I usually see as me, something else that challenges the way I separate the world into categories and choices, me and them, right and wrong, good and bad, all those inadequate and facile dichotomies that get lost and found in here and now.
To tell a story. Recently I woke at three in the morning to hear the remote speakers in the living room making sounds like muffled drums that stop when I turn off their power source, but when I go back to bed my mind starts racing like a greyhound chasing any available rabbit. It is still new to become aware of this inflamed vigilance, moving like an agitated animal from memory to projection, past to present to future, trying on ways of dealing with any possible crisis or feeling. So I find myself wondering, “Who let this one in the door?” while fully realising that this one is me!
So I observe the running tangent, feel the under-core of emotion providing the momentum for this marathon of reactivity; spraying conceptual gunfire on any perceived danger, continually scanning the landscape for threats and promises; it was not pretty. But I become aware there is a choice in how much I identify with, consent to, the level of my participation, to what extent I take part, in this paranoid procession.
Again I watch the wild monologue, feel the level of feeling under that, and am aware of another choice on this horizon: that I can go deeper into simply witnessing the process from another viewpoint. I don’t have to feel the fear, run to or from the action, can— let’s say — pet the cat laying next to me on the bed or attend to the rhythm of my breath. I do both of those, slowly withdrawing from the tangent of the man who has not been invited to share his monolog in my head but shows up anyway, and a little while later the cat and I go back to sleep. Maybe meditation is changing me.
So writing about breathing is about as difficult as writing about sex, altered consciousness or good musical theatre — all the stuff that really matters — because it involves everything I think I am and more, it stretches me physically, mentally, spiritually; and yet it is essentially unspeakable, unremarkable, simple and difficult, as easy as breathing and as easy to overlook. So what I try to do is listen, with my breath, to where I meet the boundaries, without too much thinking, and attend to what happens then.
I started exploring meditation in the summer of 1969 when I took our parish youth to a Saturday event on a ranch in the Napa Valley where we met a Benedictine monk named Dom Aelred Graham. He authored a number of books on the dialogue between Christians and Buddhists as well as one called “The Love of God” which Thomas Merton wrote was the best book he’d ever read on that subject. Graham had even visited Merton in his monastery and helped him plan his trip to the far east in 1968.
But that day Dom Aelred set a bunch of us down in a circle on the patio, gave some simple and specific instructions and sat with us in silence for twenty minutes. And something unexpected happened for me — an opening awareness of a kind of welcoming but silent neutrality, free of any directional signals I had to follow, or thoughts I had to respond to, where I could simply be a silent witness to the fact of breathing. It was a spaciousness that did not refute or exclude anything, a kind of clear and holy hospitality where shoulders could lower and the blood course and heart beat calm, and when distractions came (as they did) they could be taken and let go.
I was able to meet with him later that summer as well as occasionally for the next few years, and these conversations changed my life. I remember him quoting a thirteenth century Buddhist monk named Dogen who wrote, “Take no thought of good and evil, only cease to cherish opinion.” and that linked up with a line of St Augustine’s from the early Fourth century, namely, “Love God and do what you will.” Then he looked at me closely, with all the authority of a schoolmaster, and said: “If you are given something good, you don’t have to protect it, because it will stay with you. This means that you don’t need to be vigilant, or preoccupied, or overly concerned with orthodoxy, because God, who ‘has begun a good thing in you,’ will see it through to the finish.”
He told me that a sense of humour was essential for the religious life. For, if “faith” is an assumption that, in the end, “all will be well,” that means there is room to grow, room to breathe, even room to kid around. If the universe keeps faith, we can take the chance to be childlike, because the one thing necessary doesn’t depend on us. Then life is a gift that comes from someone else, somewhere else, and that process is trustworthy, can be relaxed into. So leaning into this world-view allowed room for ebullience and laughter in the tension living between where we find ourselves and where we want to be.
But for Dom Aelred this was not to be a passive consumer or a quietist. Instead we need to actively practice the religion of Jesus rather than a religion about Jesus, and that means sharing the journey with God. Not with the attitude of a supplicant or child, but in the spirit of an adult and a friend, where the one thing that is important is the return to the Father, the creator, the unitive source, “that we all may be one as you are one.” It was a kind of vision, where all is found via this open-hearted participation in that one final integrity.
He gave me an appreciation of the deeper wisdom tradition within the church and its affinity with eastern traditions and texts, showed me how Thomas Merton’s later writing and his contemplative connections might help me weave together the table of my history and hope in a new way, might help integrate the family I came from, the journey I was trying to follow, and the fresh air I increasingly found in the middle of the world — which was somehow growing larger and more intimate at the same time, turning out to be bigger than I thought — and I was finding room to change.