Poets, Christians, and Not Wanting to Be a Poser

OSH crossLately, I’ve been pretty deep into words. Having been writing for years – essays, academic writing, and technical writing – I’ve always longed to write words of beauty and powerful metaphor, rather than direct explanations and carefully constructed arguments. In high school, some of the more brilliant kids I hung out with wrote poetry, and I always read their words with a sense of wonder. If only I could write the things on my heart, I thought, it would be so healing, so transformative. I was a musician and dancer, so I’ve always had the mind and soul of an artist, but longed to put to the page the images of beauty, pain, and awe that regularly danced across my understanding.

I read poetry – loved reading poetry – but when I would pick up a pen and start to write, it all came out wrong… Too corny. Cheesy. Trite. I’d get two lines in, scribble out what I’d started, crumple the page, and give up. So, I kept dancing, played flute, and channeled my artistic pursuits into performance, while continuing to write the kinds of academic papers that dazzled teachers and floated my GPA. I was not a poet, not a creative writer.

Over the past few years, though, the urge to find words that convey the nebulous and numinous has grown louder and more persistent, and I’ve longed for coaching and teaching to help me break through the structures of academic writing and tap into a more fluid, imagery-laden, and heartfelt style of writing that more closely matches the insights and experiences of my heart. Through a series of near-magical coincidences, I ended up attending the Into the Fire writer’s retreat in late-May, sponsored by The Sun Magazine, an event intended to serve as instruction and inspiration for those seeking to improve their skill at creative personal writing. From Joe Wilkins, I learned about writing evocative prose, and from Frances Lefkowitz I learned how to allow my distinct, personal voice to flow into my writing style.

My favorite workshop of the weekend was on “hovering,” in which the amazing poet Chris Bursk led activities to teach us to linger over moments, allowing our words to circle round, ambulate, and drink deep from each feeling, each experience, before moving on to the next scene. While I didn’t write any poetry in his workshop, I wrote phrases, sentences, and brief pieces that used words to paint in ways I’d never done before. I came back from the workshop to discover that when something would be bearing on my heart, I immediately wanted to write, and to my surprise, what landed on the page in those moments of urgency were lines of poetry rather than prose.

And yet still I have a hard time calling myself a poet. I’m not sure if what I’m writing is any good. I don’t know what makes good poetry or bad. I know what I like to read, and I know what comes off my fingertips when I sit to put my heart into words, but feel a bit of a fraud to say I’m a poet, or that what I write is poetry. I’m finally comfortable calling myself a writer, but a poet? Isn’t there some external validation you must pass before adopting that word for yourself? Some confirmation that what you’ve written passes muster, meets the standards?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my spiritual journey. Over the years, there have been a handful of key traditions that have played a bigger part in my journey than others. While my current practice is greatly informed by an adoration of nature and penchant for digging deep into the scientific workings of the universe to find metaphorical, spiritual meaning, one of the greatest influences on who I have become and how I worship rests in the years spent deep in the mystical, liturgical, compassionate, and progressive Christianity I experienced through the Convent of Saint Helena and a handful of small, Episcopal churches. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church has found itself subject to great tension and difference of opinion about what constitutes the Episcopal tradition and what practices and beliefs can rightly be called Christian.

With those voices added to many conservative, rigid, and intolerant voices organizing in their efforts to dominate discussions about “true” Christians and Christianity, there simply came a point where I didn’t feel like I could lay claim to the label any more. No matter how compassionate, gentle, and progressive my Christ is, if all the other voices seem to be saying I’m not a Christian, that I’m wrong, there simply came a point where I was okay with that. I don’t need a label to practice my connection; I’m not attached to being called, considered, or seen as a Christian, particularly when some of the more vehement and bigoted Christian voices today rest firmly on the centuries of violence and oppression that have stained the institution of the Church for much of its history.

Do I still find power in the chant, liturgy, and community of the organic, progressive, feminist Christian church? Definitely. Attending Eucharist or any one of the daily prayers – even listening to them online – opens up channels in my spirit that aren’t tapped into by any of my other practices. Do I still yearn for deeper knowledge and understanding of the socially progressive radical Jesus – the one who dined with the marginalized and loved without bigotry? Yes, definitely. These questions are easy. The harder ones, more complex and unresolved, are these: Could I be in community with Christians, even progressive ones doing the work as I understand it, when “Christian” is a word that in my mind has become so powerfully associated with bigotry, patriarchy, and rigid, unforgiving morality? If I decided that I’d like to pursue participation in that community, can I stand firm in the face of rejection by the more conservative elements of Christianity, authentically claiming the interfaith nature of my practice and its deep, ecological roots as well as progressive Christian practice as I know and understand it? At what point do you accept someone else’s interpretation of the tradition as normative, and to what extent can we (feminists, progressives, radicals, and social justice activists) redefine, reinterpret, and represent a new, more open Church? When we do, who is listening?

I don’t really need to think of myself as a Christian, any more than I need to call myself a poet. They’re labels, useful only to the extent that they describe the goings-on of my heart, my practice, and my expression. For now, I’ll keep doing me. I’ll write prose when it flows and lines of (maybe?) poetry when that’s what pours forth. I’ll dig in the dirt, burn incense, swim in rivers, dig my toes into the sand of the oceans, write love poems for mountains, and pour out offerings onto the sacred earth of the forests. And I’ll read scripture, chant Psalter, pray, read writings of medieval mystics, and be bold to say the things that I might not be able to say in a community of like-minded people – not anymore, not yet. And I’ll try – really try – not to get hung up on the labels that I hesitate to adopt, and focus instead on living, learning, and growing in my own connection to Spirit.

For now, I welcome reading recommendations. Who are the feminist theologians within the Christian tradition you feel are doing powerful work? Who is tying in ecological awareness in a meaningful, powerful way? Who is doing interesting work reconciling their other interfaith practices with their Christian backgrounds?

On the need for interfaith worship

dukebelltowerRecently, I was catching up on past episodes of Interfaith Voices and heard their discussion about the Muslim call to prayer that was planned, and then canceled, by Duke University. Many of the speakers shared thoughtful dialogue about the value of interfaith acceptance, ways in which we interpret calls to prayer from various faith traditions, and why the situation at Duke University unfolded as it did. Speakers clarified that the call to prayer was initiated by the Duke Chapel staff, who (in the wake of anti-Muslim sentiment following a high-profile terrorist act) wanted to make sure that Duke’s Muslim student population felt welcomed and safe. They clarified that the “amplification” would be minimal, enough so that you likely wouldn’t even hear it if you were walking right by while wearing headphones. They clarified that the decision wasn’t requested or demanded by Muslim students, that the vast majority of the student body supported it, and that the primary pressures to reverse the decision came from outsiders, not from the current Duke community.

Amidst the voices that seemed comfortable with a pluralist society, there was one voice advocating against having the call to prayer at Duke’s bell tower. Repeatedly, she affirmed that Christians do not share worship space with non-Christians, that Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, and that the call to prayer should not be done from the bell tower of Duke Chapel due to its Christian nature, even though it was the staff of Duke Chapel who initiated the public call to prayer in the first place.

There are many good points to be made that either add complexity to or refute some of the claims against a public Muslim call to prayer in a large campus with a pluralist community, and I won’t repeat them here, because many of them were addressed in this episode of Interfaith Voices (link). I will simply say that many Christians do share worship space with those of other religions (one local example being a time when the Chapel Hill-based Episcopal Church of the Advocate leased worship space from Kehillah Synagogue while searching for a permanent home).  “Allah” is simply the Arabic name for God, therefore “There is not God but Allah” simply means that believers in God give their worship to God. If it is offensive or contradictory to other traditions, it might be so to polytheistic or atheist philosophies, but does not contradict any monotheist stances. As for the adhan being performed from the bell tower, it is good to remember that Duke Chapel is there to minister and serve as a welcoming presence for the students of Duke University. If Duke wants to serve a student body that includes non-Christians, then it is wise for the university to be truly pluralist in its structure.

These discussions make me reflect on the need for interfaith worship, the purpose of interfaith worship, and the factors underlying resistance to interfaith worship. I don’t at all claim to have the answers, but I hope to explore these issues in more detail over the coming months. Given that three of our community’s brightest young people were murdered in an apparent act of anti-Muslim rage just weeks after Duke caved to public pressure to cancel the call to prayer, this is a discussion that bears having.

For now, I found a peripherally relevant quote from Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy that I wanted to share. I believe it has profound significance for understanding both resistance to pluralism as well as a desire to create structures to publicly legitimize pluralism.

“The problem [of legitimizing human-created structures] would best be solved by applying the following recipe: Let the institutional order be so interpreted as to hide, as much as possible, its constructed character. Let that which has been stamped out of the ground ex nihilo appear as the manifestation of something that has been existent from the beginning of time, or at least from the beginning of this group. Let the people forget that this order was established by [people] and continues to be dependent upon the consent of [people]. Let them believe that, in acting out the institutional programs that have been imposed upon them, they are but realizing the deepest aspirations of their own being and putting themselves in harmony with the fundamental order of the universe.”

Let them believe that they cannot share worship space with each other, ever, not even under specified parameters, and that to do so – to engage in interfaith worship or allow interfaith use of worship spaces – would sully the souls of those who participate, or profane the holy nature of the space for one group in its use by another. These rules are not set in stone; they are cultural, and culture is ever-growing, ever-shifting, and ever in the hands of those who are members of a particular community. I hope the Duke community maintains safe space for its own, all of them. I also hope that over time, awareness will grow about interfaith worship, what it means, and how it can benefit those who enter into it with an open mind. There is too much that could be gained by those who are willing.

Five benefits to working with established forms

Early in 1999, I was arguably at the peak of my conversion energy, a few months into my formal involvement in New Thought churches. I was so enamored of the mind-power philosophies — all I had to do is focus my mind, and I could manifest changes to improve my life. Medicine, ritual, prayer, and such were outer rituals, and while they were practiced by some of the people in my spiritual circles they were frequently presented (derided?) as crutches that you could use while you honed your mental powers. They were sort of the processed food of energy work — good enough if that’s what it took to keep you and your family from starving, but not as ideal as farm-to-table goodness.

During that time period, I lived next door to a wonderful New Age woman and her teenage Pagan daughter. They were great neighbors and good friends, and I enjoyed having people close by with whom I could talk alternative spirituality. One day, I was on the front porch chatting with my neighbor’s daughter and her boyfriend — a teenage boy solidly glowing with the enthusiasm of his own Pagan conversion energy. We noticed a big, beautiful spider web splashed across the walkway and stopped talking to admire it. The boyfriend spoke up.

“Hey, did you know I know a spell to make a dreamcatcher out of a spiderweb?”

Gently teasing, I replied. “Oh yeah? Well, I could make a dreamcatcher out of my underwear.”

At the time, I was focused almost entirely on the power of the mind and the lack of need for established forms in spiritual and religious expression. And in many ways, I was right. We don’t need to use an established form or ritual to focus the power of our minds. We don’t need a specific material object to invoke its energy, any more than we need the physical presence of a loving grandma to feel the warmth we hold in our hearts for her. We don’t need the established forms to practice a meaningful spirituality any more than we need electricity, cars, or indoor plumbing. That doesn’t make them any less nice to have when you want them, though, and nobody should ever apologize or feel badly about their mental practice if it incorporates physical forms, established and spontaneous, as focal points.

Following are five ways that using established forms can sometimes be beneficial. As always, take what works, and leave the rest.

1) Established forms build on collective energy. One of the things I love about attending services at an Episcopal church is how little the liturgy has changed over many hundreds of years. There have been tweaks to the service and wording to reflect a modern understanding of Church, and for these I am thankful. But overall, there is a direct connection between what I do in service and what millions of people have been doing since the earliest days of the church. In my nature-based practice, when I perform a simple ritual to honor the turning of the seasons, a small bluestone from a site near an ancient cairn (dated somewhere between the 17th and 14th centuries BCE) sits on my altar, calling up in me a connection to my distant ancestors who celebrated the seasonal transitions with song, dance, and offerings. When I draw upon the imagery of spiderwebs and spiders I do so with the certainty that I’m working with imagery that has been used in spiritual and storytelling imagery for a good, long time, whether it’s the imagery of a dreamcatcher, or simply a reminder to be “Some Pig.”

2) Established forms frequently transcend religious divisions. Speaking of religious experiences, Carl Jung said, “The fact is that certain ideas exist almost everywhere and at all times and they can even spontaneously create themselves quite apart from migration and tradition. They are not made by the individual, but they rather happen — they even force themselves upon the individual’s consciousness.” (Psychology and Religion) When I light a candle to acknowledge that I’m entering into sacred space, the fire that burns before me triggers an ancestral connection with the power of fire. Long-standing traditions from the monotheistic religions, Eastern religions, and ancient Pagan practices use fire as a marker of sacred space, as do several modern, even secular, practices. While some established forms are clearly the work of one specific tradition, as someone whose path is interfaith my practice is enhanced when I draw upon those that span traditions.

3) Established forms can help you venture into new territory. Sometimes, I read up on an archetype, philosophy, or tradition that I’d like to explore in more detail. As I’m unfamiliar with the new element, it can be helpful for me to have an established form to facilitate the introduction. For example, if I’m wanting to learn to use guided imagery to heal past trauma, I might benefit from using pre-written (and possibly pre-recorded) visualizations designed for that purpose. While I might eventually be comfortable with a go-with-the-flow approach, allowing spontaneous imagery to flow with and through me, prepared visualizations could provide a safe place to begin and test out the experience.

4) Established forms (at the elemental level) can provide ingredients you can mix to customize your practice. With as much diversity as there is in the expression of humanity (personality, background, race, nationality, gender, age, etc.), it is only natural that different people will experience similar rituals and traditions differently. What is meaningful to one may be less so to another; what is perfect as is for one might create a stronger impact on another with a few slight variations. In exploring established forms, I can learn how I react to different stimuli, approaches, and types of connection. As I learn more about myself and what works best for me, I can begin to craft a custom practice that is meaningful and beneficial for me, that inspires my greatest connection to The Divine, and that allows me the greatest number of opportunities to grow, learn, and manifest my potential. While my practice is always evolving and uniquely my own, it incorporates elements I’ve learned and modified to make my own as I’ve experimented with established forms.

5) Sometimes established forms are simply a more efficient way of going about your spiritual work. Let’s be honest here. Sometimes there is great value and personal fulfillment in the DIY approach. Sometimes it is simply more fun to wear the scarf you knitted yourself, or to eat the veggies you grew yourself in your own garden. Other times you want a scarf that looks or feels different, or you want pizza, or you have other things going on in your life that make it hard to maintain as full of a garden. There are times when I’m serious about an intention, so much so that I spend weeks (or more) planning out the words of the ritual, focusing on a goal, or exploring the concept. There are other times when life gets the better of me and I find myself searching the web the night before a full moon to find a prayer for a certain kind of celebration. Sometimes my long-planned rituals turn out to be far less fulfilling than I had hoped, and other times my copied and adapted prayers turn out to be powerful and insightful in a way I never expected. The universe works that way sometimes. Things happen, and as they do, they teach us and we grow. If using the established form feels right, or gets you to honor a transition that you might not have the time or motivation to honor otherwise, go ahead and use it, and without shame.

There will be times when the work takes on no elaborate form at all — you sit, you focus or open your mind. There will be times when the work takes on a form you have designed and created for yourself. And there will be times when you use an established form that has been developed and honed by others. I choose not to put any one above the other, but to keep an open mind to the possibilities along my path.