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I am happy to say that our list of required readings for postulants inquiring into our Order and spiritual formation has been handed over to the Cathedral Book Store at St. Philip’s. They have agreed to have copies of the books on hand for those wishing to purchase them for our convenience. For our members and guests that will be choosing which book we discuss in the coming weeks, here again is our required reading list for postulants and early formation:
1) The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen – Henri Nouwen was one of the greatest contemplative writers of the 20th century, standing along side others like Thomas Merton and Joan Chittister. This very small book is his basic introduction into the purpose and practice of silence. Being Roman Catholic, his theology flavors a lot of his descriptions, but it is still a wonderful bite size morsel. Best when read, allowed to sit, and then reread slowly.
2) What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills – In a short and straight forward format, Wills shows how radical the really outward teachings of Jesus really were and what he was trying to accomplish within religious identity. He also shows where the Church has been trying to cover up, overshadow, and outright ignore a lot of his radically inclusive message while claiming to be the “embodiment of Christ on earth.” A good “back to the basics” book for any Christian contemplative.
3) Wisdom Jesus by Mother Cynthia Bourgeault – This is best read as a companion to What Jesus Meant. Where Wills shows the radical outward ministry of Jesus, Mother Cynthia shows the radical inward spiritual teachings of Jesus. Her grasp and explanation of ancient texts, including the Gospel of Thomas, is excellent and provides a far more internal view of Christian spirituality than is often found in traditional church teachings.
4) Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong – For anyone interested in intentional religious community, these two books are a must. In the 1960s as a woman in her early 20s, Karen entered a convent to become a nun. She entered at a time when Religious life was being redefined by Vatican II and systems of tradition were giving way to much need innovation and restructuring…but the change was hardly easy for those that had lived under the old system for most of their lives. Karen is caught between two worlds as she enters into her novitiate, and struggles in her own religious identity as her own Religious Order struggles with theirs. The Spiral Staircase is the second half of her autobiography, picking up from where she left her convent and tried assimilate into the secular world while eventually coming to terms with her own faith and experience of God. Her transformation speaks to many who are searching, and her observations of Religious life can offer us numerous lessons as we move into community as modern contemplatives in our Church.
5) Meditation without Myth by Daniel Helminiak – Dr. Helminiak, a former Roman Catholic priest, is now a professor of psychology at West Georgia College. By initially “taking God out of the equation” for teaching centering/meditation, he offers a good introduction to the very basic practice while showing the benefits both physical and psychological. At the end of the book, he brings God back in, showing the greater depth one can achieve through the basic practice of being still. His simple instruction and medical explanation shows how all of us are wired for centering, and what to expect when we being doing it on a regular basis.
6) God is a Verb by Rabbi David A. Cooper – For anyone interested in the mystical aspects of Judaism (which figured into early Christian practice) this is a great and easy to read guide to the basics of Kabalah, the contemplative branch of Judaism. The concept of Ein Sof will resonate with anyone who has practice contemplative spirituality, regardless of tradition.
7) The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings of the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century by Thomas Merton—A concise collection and excellent introduction into the sayings of the early Christian hermits as compiled by one of the 20th century’s best known contemplatives. Each small reading offers a wealth of material for prayer and contemplation.
“There’s no mystery about a human life. It’s not a mystery to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” — Leto II (Children of Dune Frank Herbert)
I have recently been reading Bishop John Shelby Spong’s latest book titled “The Sins of Scripture.” Though I am not quite finished with it (only a few pages left now), what he brings up towards the end of the book has sparked an interesting insight for meditation. I’d like to share that here.
Bishop Spong does an excellent job placing the creation of the Hebrew scriptures into its historical context. Ultimately, he shows the evolution of these historical and politcal works as they were written to reflect and shape the cultural bliefs of the Hebrew people. Chronologically, there is a very distinct progression and transformation of identity, especially in regards to interaction with other non-Jewish peoples. To crudely summarize, the Hebraic texts begin with a very self-centered and isolating mentality, grow further in self-definition during the reign of the kings and tension between the northern and southern Jewish kingdons, grow further into self-imposed isolation within other cultures during the exile periods for the purpose of survival, but finally grow into a strong personal identity that not only allows but even calls for integration and acceptance of other peoples. As Bishop Spong describes it, they went from a strict self-preserving tribal mentality to an inclusive social justice mentality.
Ultimately, the lesson prescribed is that God is Love, and as such humans have no right to draw boundaries where God has drawn none. The Jewish people were (and still are) a commmunity whose identity was religious and they were defined by their religous beliefs and practices. Out of fear of losing that identity, boudnaries were made to cast away others that differed. It was a fear that the Jewish identity would be lost in assimilation during the Diasporas. This same fear of loosing a communal religous identity is found througout Christianity and is deeply invested in its history.
I find it saddening that Jewish religious identity had progressed to the point of acceptance and tolerance if not even a full embrace of other peoples at the time of Jesus, only to see that progression completely erased by those who would later shape the religion that would claim to be based on the example of Jesus as Christ. The problem in Christianity is not even necessarily Christians vs. everyone else. Even worse than that for so many, it has come to “my” version of Christianity vs. everyone else. There are demoninations that won’t even sit at the same table as other denominations because they are not “true Christians” in their eyes. How utterly absurd this is!
Rather than look at the history of the religion that claims to be based on the Christ and has been defined by one drawing of boundaries after another, let us take a brief moment to look at the example of Jesus in his life time.
Jesus taught, feasted, partied with and even celebrated people of differing religious backgrounds from his own. He lauded the outcast samaritans. He did not go to them and tell them to be his kind of Jew. He ate with the “unclean” non jews. He did not tell them to change to his kind of Jew before he could sit with them. He healed non-Jews. He did not say they had to be Jewish before he would help them or even after helping them tell them to go be Jewish. In fact, what he was most often reported to have said was “Go and sin no more,” not go and convert! He taught Jews and non-Jews alike. He did not say in any of the lessons that are passed down in the Gospels that they have to be Jewish let alone a certain kind of Jew. Jesus was secure enough in his own religious identity that he was not afraid of someone of differing beliefs being around him. Even among his apostles, his closests students, confidants and friends he had quite the diversity.
Maybe I’m going out on a limb, but I would say that Jesus understood the value of diversity. We are called to grow in love. Growth is change. There can be no change when we are all the same. In uniformity there is no alternative view that allows us the greatest gift we could imagine – the opportunity to question ourselves in a new light.
And here we see the distinction. Jesus prays that we all will be one in God. That is an act of unity. Jesus does not pray that we all will be the same in God. He does not call for an act of uniformity. God celebrates in diversity. His creation proves that. But people, it seems, have a great deal of difficulty doing the same. Instead, people tend to react out of personal fears of insecurity and strike out (usually violently; either physically, economically, or emotionaly) at others that are differnt. These fears are deeply rooted and very VERY sensative to the touch.
But these fears must be addressed and overcome. That is what the progression of the Hebraic texts calls for and the example of Jesus offers. Keep in mind that at no point did these lessons teach that allowing differences would have to mean giving up one’s own beliefs. Respecting and even celebrating differences does not automatically preclude that one’s own beliefs will be shattered. They may be challenged. They may even be changed in same way. But brothers and sisters, this is what God calls us to do. We can find greater depth in our own faiths by drawing from the experience of others, even if they aren’t the same as ours.
I did not become less of a Christian when I took classed from a Sufi Muslim. I did not loose my belief in God when I was taught by a Buddhist. I did not loose my Christian identity when I sat a table of very dear Jewish friends and celebrated Passover with them. Quite the contrary. I found a far greater and deeper connection with God when I took part in that diversity.
I did loose something though. I lost a stuck up, elitest and yes even prejudiced attitude. I lost previous views that were not grounded in Love. I give thanks to God every day for having had the opportunity to loose that baggage. I also pray to God everday that I will find myself in more opportunities like that.
My brothers and sisters, let us find unity in mutual respect and Love for each other while working to set aside those terrible fears that cause us to fight for uniformity at the cost of others. Let us ask ourselves this question and meditate in response: Does God call us into union with one another or uniformity? Amen.