Turning Sixty (The Soul)

5 Oct

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I feel the closest to God when I’m running at Cornell Plantations, not during the first wind, but during the second, third, and fourth wind and when I’m at Bob’s Lake, especially when I’m looking at the cedar trees near our family Mapesville gate. The picture is of the Floriculture War Memorial Trail at the Plantations. I like looking at the path before I follow it into the forest, partly because it could be any path. When I’m running I sense that I’m part of some universal OM like that experienced by those in Transcendental Meditation, following the path of the unexpected that everyone has to follow to establish his or her authenticity. I do have to admit that when I was running/walking today my serenity was disrupted a bit by a group of people on an SPCA walk. Dodging poop and slow walkers does tend to stem one’s feelings of tranquility.

If I look back at my spiritual growth, I have moved from one point to another in a gradual fashion. I didn’t become a liberal Christian overnight. In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott traces the progression of her travels in faith: “My coming to faith did not start with a leap but with a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and held me when I grew”(3). I moved from my childhood understanding of myself in relation to nature to my idea of God as a man with a long white beard to my confirmation at thirteen in the Methodist church, where I was taught to view the books of the Bible as having been written by men inspired by God, a point of view consistent with what my mother had taught me, and then to my perseverance to see God as the “All-Feminine” in my later teenage years. Later, in my undergraduate and graduate student years, I started to integrate what I was learning of thinkers as various as Heidegger and Emerson into my religious views. I came to see that social justice was an important aspect of Christianity, not one that I would probably have mentioned when I was first confirmed.

I was born in Mount Kisco, New York, but came to Ithaca at the age of six weeks. Although we lived in several houses in Cayuga Heights, it is the house on North Sunset Drive that occasions my first memories. I loved being outside–just me and the lawn and forest behind it. Of course, my mother was there, but when I think of being outdoors at that time in my life, she is slightly out of frame. One of the aspects of nature that first captivated me was what I could and couldn’t eat. I couldn’t eat sap from the trees. Although it looked like grape jelly, it didn’t taste like it. However, I discovered a tasty green plant with yellow flowers that I ate all the way through my childhood. Evidently, it wasn’t poisonous, because I am still here. I have no idea what it is named. I did think of the aspects of nature collectively–the trees and lawn and sky went together, but I don’t think I used the word nature. The path that I followed every day if I could was at the beginning of the woods behind our house. A large log with curly fungi on it marked the entrance. If I went all the way back through the woods to the road, I could see Cayuga Lake in the distance.

Christianity can encounter problems when it doesn’t include expressions of feeling concerning the natural world, since so many of us learn to appreciate the sanctity of nature as small children. “The child is father to the man,” as Wordsworth says. I have sympathies with paganism, partly because I think Wiccans sometimes do a better job of celebrating nature than Christians, but also because paganism is integral to the Christianity I profess. When we bring Christmas trees indoors, for instance, we are following a pagan custom from many years ago that celebrates the winter solstice.

When I was about four, I discovered the idea of infinity. I was standing in the laundry room of our apartment on North Sunset, looking at a box of Land of Lakes butter, when I realized that the Native American woman on the box of butter was holding a box with a picture of a Native American woman holding a box, etc. My mother probably doesn’t remember that moment, but I do. I had heard about infinity, but really didn’t know what it meant. If one understands the concept of infinity, then it is possible to understand the concept of everlasting life.

At church I attended Sunday school, the Sunday service, and nursery school. Mr. Budd was the minister; he was a tall, white-haired man with a beatific smile, and much beloved by the congregation. Maybe he’s where I got the idea of God as an older man. We were treated as though we were unique and loved, especially by the Indian woman who headed the nursery, Mrs. Chutumba. This is phonetic, since I have no idea how to spell her name. I know next to nothing about her background, just that I was excited to be in her presence. She was a tall woman but very good-looking, especially in her saris. I know it sounds like I’m making these people up; I simply think I lucked out at this point in my life.

When I reached thirteen, I was confirmed at St. Paul’s by Sheldon Stevenson. This is where we were inculcated with the idea that the books of the Bible were written by men inspired by God. “Good works” were a necessary part of being a good Christian. Both of those ideas made sense to me and still do. Hell was described to us as “hell on earth–wars, etc.” I was confused though because in his sermons Mr. Stevenson sometimes referred to the Devil, and I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. At the same time the Catholic kids were also going though religious ed. Among other things, the priest taught them all the words not to say, words which my Catholic girlfriend Jeanne promptly taught me in the bathroom at the Women’s Community Building. Earlier, in grade school, the Catholic kids had come back from religious ed., telling us that we were going to hell because we weren’t Catholic. I wondered that they weren’t worried about themselves since they were Catholic. There was a fair amount of intolerance on both sides.

While I embraced Christianity with a certain inward fervor, I didn’t jump up and down since liberal Methodists are usually not given to that. I’ve often wondered if that’s why we’re a little suspect in the eyes of those who are more fundamentalist. Now that I had confirmed my faith, I started to experience doubts. It wasn’t until years later when I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity that I read that one cannot have faith without doubt, which was a comforting thought. As an adolescent, however, I was starting to discover that the vase had some cracks and it unnerved me. My conception of God had gone way beyond that earlier picture of a white-haired old man. In addition, I was starting to work feminism into my religious ideas. When I attended church with my parents, I substituted female pronouns for male pronouns. This was my form of quiet rebellion, but it also enabled me to enlarge my spiritual conception of God by adding maternal qualities to my idea of God. I also tried on other people’s ideas like that of my Uncle Chris, who said that he thought God consisted of all the souls of the people in the world rolled into one.

My freshman year at college began almost a twenty-year spread of only attending church when I was home for the holidays. Wittenberg University was a Lutheran school, but that was not why I had chosen it, and I didn’t have a car that I could drive to a different church. I had wanted to attend a small liberal arts school. I didn’t consider the Lutheran church to be close enough to the Methodist church, and, as a result, I stopped attending church while I was at college and fell out of the habit of going, except when I was on vacation.

Initially, I thought I might even have become agnostic. Like many college students, I read Nietzsche and his ideas about nihilism. I saw his ideas about the “will to power” as an exaltation of the individual, and as such, a possible rejection of the kind of moralistic God that I had been introduced to growing up. I saw his argumentation as being consistent with the ideas about free love that I had been introduced to earlier in the sixties. However, as an undergraduate and as a graduate student I was also presented with the argument of the Deists, Jefferson being one of them. It proved the existence of God based on the argument from Design—the argument that if there is a watch, there must be a watchmaker. This argument is pretty hard to refute, although it is distanced, which may have made it a comfortable position for me at the time. I also read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in political science class and realized that her ideas about objectivism, while at first quite stimulating, placed too much emphasis on self-reliance and appeared to champion the notion that many of the poor were undeserving. Her ideas represented an uncaring, unsafe kind of individualism. In conclusion, my struggles were less about Christ and more about the existence of God and whether or not God fit into my ideas concerning individualism. What strikes me most, looking back, was the extent to which I was absorbed in examining philosophical and religious ideas in a way that was much more engaged than in my teenage years.

By the time I reached my thirties, I had arrived at the position that I believed in God, but didn’t think that Christ was divine, merely that he was a good person. In other words, I had trouble with the Christian part of being a Christian. After all, there were many other prophets and most of them were presumably good people and many other people were crucified. However, I held on to the precepts of Corinthians 13, which I thought of as the most important chapter in the Bible, along with the Sermon on the Mount. I guess you’d have to say that it was Easter and the Resurrection that I had trouble with. Several years ago, when Seth Garwood, the minister at Walker Church was still alive, he made the point that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was not only incorrect in terms of current Catholic theology, but that Gibson had placed the emphasis on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection, a critical error since the Resurrection was what had made Christianity possible. Because I didn’t believe in the Resurrection at the time, I paid more attention to the message from the Sermon on the Mount, part of which was that Christ thought “Blessed are the Meek for they shall inherit the earth.” This notion was echoed by Bob Dylan in “The Times They are a Changin”:

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

Read more: http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/times-they-are-changin#ixzz2gry8SnVh

Bob Dylan did take many of his ideas from other people and it’s clear that this last verse of the song is biblical. The Sermon on the Mount was consistent with much of what I was hearing from Martin Luther King and many of the musicians at the time, which is probably why it had so much of an impact on me. Both my religious beliefs and the times were moving me toward the importance of social justice.

I often read of people who were converted like Paul on the road to Damascus, but I think in reality that isn’t usually the way things happen. What happens is that the pieces of the puzzle slowly fall together.

In 1996 I attended a Republican political caucus in Richfield, Minnesota, where I was living. I arrived late, but was able to get my vote for Dole in. Then I proceeded to sit there and listen to recommendations for the party platform at the convention, many of which were prejudiced against people with AIDS, including one that stated that people with AIDS should be kept from working in food service. I freaked out and told them that they couldn’t get AIDS from someone unless they exchanged bodily fluids with them. I later found out that I had attended a Republican caucus in an extremely conservative district. This was to be the last time that I voted for a Republican for President, although it was not certainly not Dole’s fault that the attendees at my caucus had behaved so badly. However, it had got me to thinking about whether or not I was on the wrong side.

Somewhere along the way I shifted back to thinking of Christ as being divine and added the notion of him being a proponent of social justice. This does not mean that I believe in the Virgin Birth; I am still fairly realistic as far as my viewpoint on the conception of Jesus is concerned. However, what happened was that I participated in trying to get a union into Byerly’s Restaurant where I was working, and made yet another move in my ideas about social justice, which I found to be consistent with Christian thinking. I also stopped working at the restaurant and all of a sudden had Sundays free, for the first time in many years.

Ellen Jensen invited me to Bring a Friend Sunday at Walker Methodist Church and I was hooked. Here for the first time I experienced a group of people who were from my generation and younger with very diverse belief systems, who believed on working together for social justice. The minister, Roger Lynn, was necessarily Methodist, as were a number of people in the congregation, including Tom Manley, with whom I became friends. We also had lapsed Catholics, a number of P.K.s (preachers’ kids), some Jewish members, some Buddhists, and other people whom it would be hard to categorize. The church was so liberal that they were able to train a Unitarian minister. Seth Garwood and Walter Lockhart followed Roger. There was a Methodist message every Sunday, with an emphasis on good works, along with a Native American ceremony at the beginning of the service, a reading of Lao Tzu, and a singing of “Amazing Grace” on stage to cap off the service that was preceded by a listing of prayers and concerns. It was the first church service where I had witnessed parishioners querying the minister after his sermon. I had found a way back that was unconventional, yet seemed to fit me.

As far as the “dark side” is concerned, I am still uncertain. When I reread John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in graduate school, I found the Serpent oddly compelling. That section of Milton’s greatest poem is considered to be some of the best writing in British literature and much of that reputation comes from descriptions like the following from Book I:

So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay,
Chained on the burning lake; nor ever thence
Had risen, or heaved his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy, shewn
On Man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured.(209-20)

I’m not sure I know how to describe the dark side. My friend Scott used to make fun of me when I said I didn’t believe in the Devil, but I think he may have misunderstood me. I do think there are forces at work in the world that “serve[ ] but to bring forth / Infinite goodness.” In other words, the dark side makes the light side possible. Again, part of the problem I have with Milton’s text is with his male pronouns, which gets the reader to thinking of evil as a devil or person, rather than as a dark force. However, Milton’s interpretation, taken from the Bible and amended, of Satan as the fallen angel Lucifer, is somehow more eloquent and convincing than the short descriptions of Satan in the Bible. This summer I bought Jimmy Page’s record Lucifer Rising that he originally composed for a film soundtrack and I wondered if he had read Milton. He achieved some very strange sounds with his guitar and studio effects. The chanting on the record brings to mind the calling of the loons at Bob’s Lake, where we have a cottage, although the calling of the loons might be even closer to what Page was going for. I think a recognition of the strangeness of the dark side and how evil functions in the world is important because if we recognize its existence we can learn to control it. If I understand Page correctly from the different interviews and books I have read that mention his viewpoint, he thinks you can harness that negative energy and do good with it. At the very least, you need to have a healthy respect for it.

In the final analysis, I don’t think whether or not one can describe the dark side is the determinant of whether or not one is a Christian. Learning to respect my place in nature has helped me to understand my spirituality. I do think that good works are important, although these can be as various as helping someone get ready to sell her house, sending a card to a friend who’s sick, planting daffodil bulbs, or simply showing up for work. I’ve stuck with Methodism because it strikes me as the most practical on that point of all the Christian denominations, and because I think Christ demonstrates a good example of how to behave. I think one has to be careful in criticizing other people’s points of view. My beliefs have been shaped by my family and friends and what I’ve read and that is true of everyone. The best people I’ve met in life have not all been Christians. Now I am back in Ithaca in my hometown attending St. Paul’s Methodist Church, the church I grew up in. As with all things, it has changed. On the positive side it is a reconciling church like the one I left behind in Minneapolis. It is a forward-moving church and I belong to a small group within it called “Women in the Middle.” In some ways I feel as though I’m at the beginning, but that is a topic for another day.

One Response to “Turning Sixty (The Soul)”

  1. Reblogged this on ithacalansing.

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