Of spring, trees, grass and wounds

As a poet, I should probably be thinking of the spring, particularly since few springs lie ahead. Maybe re-read Leaves of Grass.  Maybe think about trees–like the one I saw today. A tree-cutter hung from the side of an oak eighty feet from the ground as the branch snapped free, swung behind him to the notch where the rope was anchored, and calmly settled to the ground like a conclusion reached with finality.


Not loose yet

The arborist shins down and writes,

“Dead from the top, but you could wait a year.”

Wait for knots to loosen,

roots to lose their pulse;

witness to the latest light

braying for her brand

to wrap her spot and bum a light;

the flame past names out or in

fallible and ever malleable,

its light that salves all wounds

rising at high meridian

salvation, untiringly entire

in deep integrity a palliative fire

unfaceable, unborn, untraceable

to warm the bundled branches of our hearts

in ways surprisingly quotidien.

Wait. Wait. Wait.


**  ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

Given that you and I have little time—only a few springs left, perhaps—what about salving some wounds as we wait at the exit? Let spring guide us.  As a step on my daily divine path, I walk through the neighborhood and discover that spring means it’s time for lawn treatment. This is a hard wound to heal, but let’s have a tussle on the turf.




Commercial  lawn treatments typically contain herbicides like Pre-emergents like Halts Pro (prodiamine) against grasses like crabgrass, and broadleaf weed herbicides like Defendor (Florasulam) &  general weed killers like Ortho Weed-B-Gone (2,4-D MCPP Dicamba) against plants like plantain, milkweed, clover and dandelions, and treatment with fertilizers (Nitrogen 17: Phosphate 0: Potash 5) enhanced with additives like Water Smart (a Scotts formulation) to increase absorption.  Quantities used for a 3000 square foot lawn would typically be in 6 gallon batches (3 gallons for Weed-B-Gone), combined and brought up to 3000 gallons of solution with water, and sprayed over the entire lawn. As the growing goes on, it is also customary for homeowners to hire yet other contractors to spray Roundup (Glyphosphate) on every pavement crack.


And what about the persistent organic pollutants?  For example 2,4-D and organophosphates  pass  from lawn to storm drain to Jordan’s Branch to the James River and on to the Bay, continental shelf and and on to the ocean—entering thousands of lives on their way. The 2,4-D is also a persistent air pollutant in and around your home (and the homes of neighbors who don’t have commercial lawn care.) There is ample information available about the issues , as well as many good suggestions. (See, for example: http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/dark-side-lawns ).  We are connected to all life by what we do and fail to do. PLEASE GIVE IT A THOUGHT.


Note, written June 30, 2018: The link to Rodale’s Organic Life no longer connects to Rodale. Instead, you’ll find yourself in the Good Housekeeping magazine.  Not sure why.


Two new books

Just an update on two books. First, I’ve posted my book of poems Coming Around to the Works section of this blog. Second, I’m reading Rajan Jaisinghani’s “Homo Sapiens: An Appraisal of Modern Humans,” a personal but thorough assessment of the many aspects of the Great Predicament of our generation. Chapters: H. sapiens and the environment, Collective behavior, risk analysis and long-term problems, Population, Politics, government, and economic systems, Prerequisites for solutions. The last chapter is a description of life in 2050. I told Mr. Jaisinghani that he is a Dispeller of Trances. I’ll say more about the book in a future blog. See http://www.amazon.com/Homo-Sapiens-Appraisal-Modern-Humans/dp/0992997925/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1450120607&sr=1-1&keywords=homo+sapiens+an+appraisal


Richmond Scenes–past and present


RICHMOND SCENES:  Poetry by Richard L. Rose

Perhaps you haven’t made it yet to the exhibition at the Library of Museum. Neither have I, in fact.  But I was surprised to see the title:  “TO BE SOLD” because it corresponds to my current research for the opera Monte & Pinky, which we hope to perform next year. This research, plus a prompt from the Poetry Society of Virginia and some time to work while traveling on a train have resulted in a small book of poems, RICHMOND SCENES.   Below are the first lines of some of the poems. For the complete poems and other notes, see Richmond Scenes. (Note: this book was later incorporated into Coming Around. See blog for December 14, 2015.)

Sophie’s Alley

The peloton passed into Sophie’s Alley

racing crumbling stables, whoosh of flame

from tipped pail of kerosene igniting . . . .

Walker’s Negro Organization Society

To tell you plain, I never will be done

with praising you. Not pain, my giant size,

nor “hinge of midnight” ere the moon arise–

my blackness . . . .

Lumpkin’s Wife

 He had a tall stump for the block

and had to help me up.

That’s when I caught his eye.

He said, Step down. Wait in the back.

Later he helped himself.

And so I came to stay.

Mined Out

We grew tobacco in a flower pot

below the sill from seeds like sanding grit.

Above the sill, it flowered over cosmos.

A horned caterpillar gnawed it down. . . .

The Catcher

Not far below us moves a spring

feeding abandoned fields

and toppled trees, departed going

concerns and lost yields. . . .

Two Veterans

Ginter’s novelties began with toys,

wind-up china dolls, gimcracks and slides

for stereopticons. His switching sides

came when the men he later led were boys. . . .

The Painter, 1960

Picked up for walking west of Boulevard,

a painter on his way back home had proof–

the check that he’d received instead of cash.

King Prosser, Nat, and insurrectionists, . . .

Thoughts on Collaboration


Thoughts on Collaboration

                Yesterday the performance of “In Sweet Surrender” was produced successfully at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Richmond. Biopics of the performers in the photo are currently on the “In Sweet Surrender” site on Facebook.

Completion of any artistic endeavor is both satisfying and discouraging. Typically, one has sustained attention and is creatively engaged in the work over an extended period. Coming to the end brings mixed feelings of exhilaration, exhaustion, and surprise that it’s all suddenly over. One has rehearsed for weeks and now there’s no need to rehearse. In a way, the role that you have learned is like the ghost limb sensed by an amputee. You know it so well that it must be there.

Of course, when you began to learn the role or instrumental part, it was external–someone else’s bright idea. But over many rehearsals, it became your own. Perhaps you even defended your role or part  against the composer’s limitations. Some call this transformation “interpretation.” My teacher, Martin Berkofsky, gently scoffed at that notion. When he played one of Liszt’s etudes, he was not simply reading it off. He was the embodiment, maker, and creator of it. This is the performer’s secret. Without it, the composer’s work and the poet’s words stay on the page. It’s also the secret of a good audience, because they are also performers. Their performance is a matter of habit, attention, and inner recitation. Without them, the work dies.

So, whenever I complete a production like “In Sweet Surrender,” I think about all of the kinds of collaboration involved in making it happen: performers and composer,  professionals and amateurs, funders and givers, technicians and intuitives, church and community, music and words, art and service, creation and creation care. A good collaboration is a little perfect community of clear communication, commitment, and communion with a common vision. I  wrote about it in the closing words of “The People’s Voice,” an opera about ethnic cleansing, which was produced in 2001:

“When voices blend, each bending to the other, freedom comes . . .”

Three months after these words were sung in an Alexandria church, a plane flew over the same building and burst  the walls of the Pentagon. The little bubble of collaboration vanishes so quickly after a production ends. The world comes back. We return to our fragmented lives, habits, and habitats–our separate selves.

We exist in relationship but conduct our lives autonomously. The results can be humorous and distressing. A distracted driver doesn’t know how the old man got onto his hood. A coastal community is amazed when the sea reclaims the beach.

Albert Einstein once said that humans’ great delusion is the belief that they are separate from each other. Perhaps it is a necessary delusion. We need distance from the refugees, wastelands, endangered species and misbegotten organizations of our fragmented inner and outer environments. The island of the ego is attractive compared to the daily news.

Nonetheless, there are bits of all of us in each of us. Our work and daily existence compel us to work together, and we are often disturbed by the misbegotten organizations we have created. Gifted as we are as builders, makers, and organizers, the result of our work is often an unjust, disrespectful, and inflexible structure which brings neither peace nor reconciliation,.

Respect for ourselves, other species, and our shared world is the beginning of understanding our existence in a more artful relationship. We exist in our relationships. As performers generously take on and embody a composer’s way of thinking and feeling, they model the community’s deference to individuals; as composers and other makers accept criticism and change to present their work to best advantage, they model the individual’s respect for collaborators.

Rabbi David Wolpe, wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

“We all know, deep down, that most of what we have is a product of good fortune. No matter how hard we work, we did not earn our functioning brain or the families into which we were born. We live in cities others created for us, organized by a government and protected by a military shaped by our predecessors. Yet we still point to our accomplishments and proudly proclaim, ‘I did this!’ The well-off salve their consciences by assuring themselves that it is hard work and merit that brought them success, which also leads them to conclude that it is a lack of merit that keeps others from succeeding.”

As performers in the daily rehearsals of life we can choose to see ourselves as collaborators and look for ways to extend the sustained attention and creative engagement of artistic effort into the care we give to each other and our planet.

Shantih. La Paix. Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

Musical conversations

See the poster:  La Rinuncia_Fin

” IN SWEET SURRENDER” is under way. Join us on September 20!


Cut & paste to see on FB:  Facebook.com/events/496312383868624/

A worship service followed yesterday’s rehearsal for In Sweet Surrender at the Church of the Holy Comforter.  As I sat on the step waiting for a ride, the church music director, Martha Burford, joined me. We talked about how music brings people together. Sometimes  music only comforts the tribe, but left on its own, music  even brings tribes together. My musical education consists of such conversations. When I was nine, Lois Bell told me that music was the universal language. About the same time, George Sakalas took our accordion band to play for the inmates of an asylum in Dayton. They actually wanted to hear us try to speak this language. I even played my own composition, a 12 measure polka. Without encouraging listeners like my mother and Aunt Monte, I never would have learned the language of music. Miss Bradflute introduced me to opera and put me on a stage. Mr. Smeltzer encouraged me to sing. Years later, in the Warrenton Chorale, Barbara Stinson showed how to bring a whole community together in song. The Missa brevis, part of Sweet Surrender, was first performed by the Warrenton Chorale, accompanied by organist Isabelle Jones. Isabelle once told me that for her a performance was simply another rehearsal. As you may have learned from my previous blogs, this insight began a life-long meditation for me on rehearsal as a life-practice.  And many late night conversations over tea with Martin Berkofsky convinced me, if I needed any more persuasion, that music is not only a language but a culture.  Martin repeatedly recovered from life-threatening injuries and disease with undiminished resolve to continue giving concerts to help those in need–whether they were cancer victims or a “disappeared” Central-European musician . He grasped the gift at the heart of music. Like prayer, it is not a twist inwards but a push outwards. Even with a busy concert schedule he encouraged my composition of Amber and The People’s Voice  and attended the concerts. Following his example, all of my concerts are charity benefits. The great river of musical culture, diverted into streams and runnels, monetized and branded as a commodity sold in digital packages, is too powerful a flood to be contained.

As Martha, Lois, George, Barbara, Isabelle, and Martin taught me, the wordless conversations of music can make peace, build community, and evoke life-fostering engagement. They can open hearts. As philosopher Alain put it,

“There is a way of singing which shows that one is not afraid and which reassures the world of men.”

More information:

About Martha Burford  http://www.churchmusicforward.com/March%20Final%20Newsletter.pdf

Have a look at what Martha has to say about our tribal comfort zones.

About Barbara Stinson http://www.fauquiernow.com/index.php/fauquier_news/obituary/barbara-ellen-rogers-stinson

About Martin Berkofsky  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Berkofsky

About my recent YouTube promotion for FRAMESHIFTS:

Works cited in this promotion: Frameshifts, Stephen Dinan’s Shift Network and Radical Spirit, Roger Butterfield’s comments (1983) on folk art, Aldo Leopold’s comments on not losing the pieces as we tinker with nature, Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village about the early effects of industrialism, Aeschylus on wisdom, Rousseau on kindness,  Einstein on compassion. And this, from Adam Miciewicz, if you need a rationale for sharing, giving, and service: “The nectar of life is sweet only when shared.”

About Alain: See Le propos sur le bonheur by Emile Chartier (aka Alain), in which he suggests that humans must avoid two kinds of madness–believing that they can do everything and believing that they can do nothing.

Unsociable poems and other rehearsals

Brian Smith Mural RVa

Welcome to newcomers! We are all artful beings and websites provide a means to give or sell our work to others as well as to announce live performances. On FRAMESHIFTS, I share my work and invite you to converse  about your work. We work on ourselves first. Poetry, stories, pictures, music and other arts ensue. The work on ourselves is the continuing center of the conversation.  To SIGN UP for occasional notices from this site, click on http://eepurl.com/blVuIH.

Brian Smith’s Murals, Unsociable Poems, and In Sweet Surrender.

In today’s blog, find some more observations on “rehearsals,” including the art of Brian Smith, an essay on Unsociable Poems, and the upcoming production of In Sweet Surrender at the Church of the Holy Comforter.

Mural artist Brian Smith has been transforming a building along Broad Avenue in Richmond. Many muralists are at work on the face of Richmond. The monuments they leave behind are questions and challenges rather than testimonials. As a mural weathers and peels over time, it’s easy to believe it was a try-out, rehearsal, or sketch only for showing what mattered to the artist when it was made. Stone monuments, however, seem to solidify truths rather than to represent a rehearsal of the artist’s ideas. Even the word “rehearsal” doesn’t seem to apply to edifices of such apparent finality. And yet all ideas are in continual rehearsal and revision. All definitive works are subject to reflection, reassessment, and, yes, redefinition.

Brian Smith's Mural RVA

Speaking of the sun & other luminaries,

Faint star, to catch you I must look away.

Such indirection you would have me learn,

perhaps, because to near you is to burn

and yet I want to know what you convey.

Would staring breach some stellar etiquette?

Do indiscretions make you fade away?

May you not speak to one you’ve never met?

You sidle off from every look you get.

Sweet Earth, you beckon yet you bind and prod.

In hissing sleet on bogs that shine and sour

your ferns raise fiddleheads and sundews flower

but bones like mine will sink where lilies nod

and eyes be steeped like thatching reeds to ret

and float like lily seeds within their pod.

What sees and thinks and sinks you’ve never met.

My thoughts are stars too low to rise or set.

My Soul, like Sol, if I avert my gaze

because you blaze with incandescent glare

and if I interpose this weft of air

that moves contrarily by jumps, and plays

bulging between us like a parsing net

determined to enclose you in a phrase

and bring you up that I may not forget:

Will you with stings not blind me closer yet?

Faint star, to see you I must look away

and yet look back again, accommodate

to your frail light by swinging on the gate

between us –to and fro, move and stay,

part and whole, unfettered dream and fret—

and hold you by release –by must and may

by stand and sway, contentment and regret:

Still far and dim, you gain upon my debt.

From collected poems, Work On Yourself

Rehearsals have begun for the concert, “In Sweet Surrender.” As I mentioned in the blog on “Healing Breaths,” (May 1, 2014):

P1020744 P1020745

As raking prepares soil by scraping tracks and grids for seed and lifting out twigs and other obstacles to growth, so rehearsal lays tracks and grids for smooth performance unimpeded by self-consciousness. So it is with performance both on stage and page.  Rehearsal links bodily memory to intention. Whether the result is a convincing performance in a stage role or the shifting away from self by what Brother Lawrence called the “practice of the presence of God,” I have found that both are matters of rehearsal.

P1020746 P1020747


Unsociable Poems

            Social media demand disclosures, but I won’t routinely send you my poem of the moment. If you look through the “Works” section of this website, you’ll find what I have written and composed, not late-breaking news. Unlike Wikileaks, my poems convey experiences but do not reveal secrets.  They seek to offer, in the words of Immanuel Kant, “the place of the other.” This is unlike confessions and other self-exposures, which seem to me to supply both the experience and its explanation.

            Say that I had a traffic accident. I could provide details from the incident report. I could tell a story about it or explain it. Any of these renderings could be artfully done. But to put you in “the place of the other,” I would find the details, story, and explanation to be secondary materials. Instead, I would have you imagine the experience so that you feel slightly displaced. This displacement is more important than whether the event happened or was explained by reference or self-reference. It is an unsocial effect.

            Unlike gossip and other attempts to discover what others approve, such poetry is an unsocial medium. In The Way Things Are (1959), Percy Bridgman wrote that:

Most people apparently take the objective, impersonal, unitary nature of the world so much as a matter of course that they cannot see that there is even a problem in getting the private and the public onto a common basis . .                                                                                                    (p. 214)

and then spoke of:

one of the essential visions, namely, that the world of introspection is a different sort of world than the noonday public world of common experience .                                                                                      (p. 218)

Ogden Nash put it differently in his poem “Listen” (in The Face is Familiar ):

There is a knocking in the skull,

An endless silent shout

Of something beating on a wall,

And crying, Let me out.


That solitary prisoner

Will never hear reply,

No comrade in eternity

Can hear the frantic cry . . .


     Both Bridgman and Nash referred to the facts that we cannot get away from ourselves, from seeing others with respect to ourselves, and from the clumsiness of using a public language to express private experience. Nash expresses desperation, but in a later passage, Bridgman goes further:

The individual has remained the forgotten man, in spite of the pious slogans of democracy or our repeated assertions that society exists for the individual. On the contrary, up to the present society has in fact almost completely dominated the scene, particularly the intellectual scene, at the expense of the individual. As the individual stands today he is a creature of society. This is coming to be increasingly recognized and talked about—not only is it recognized as a fact, but there seems to be a growing sentiment that this is the way it ought to be, and many profess that they are glad to accept it . . .

                                                                                                     (p. 315)

     Or, in our time, fifty-six years later,  to “like” it on FB because others like it. In our era of social media and crowd-sourcing, the individual sometimes seems to be simply another app—a fancy if unreliable tool.

     The unsocial poem is not a tool; it is a trapdoor dropping you out of your social designations. The little displacements or frame-shifts which I look for in reading and writing poetry or in studying other arts are unsocial effects–not antisocial effects—because they suggest or, in Bridgman’s terms, “project” a private experience that I can tentatively imagine to be my own. The values of the poetic medium—diction, connotation, association, form, voice—not only convey details but entangle me in the experience. However briefly, they put me in “the place of the other.” With the support of the poem, I embody the experience.

            Leon Wieseltier began Kaddish (1998), his meditation in memory of his father, with the following reflection:

Many years ago, in an essay by Coomaraswamy on the aesthetics of Buddhism, I read about the Pali word samvaga, which was ‘often used to denote the shock or wonder that may be felt when the perception of a work of art becomes a serious experience.’ The aim of Coomaraswamy’s essay was to establish the legitimacy of a form of contemplation that is not disinterested. In the Buddhist sources that he cited, the artistic object is described as a ‘support for contemplation.’

                                                                                                            (p. viii)

     A poem that gives me a small displacement or frame-shift is a “support for contemplation.” What I look for both in reading and writing poetry is support for contemplation on the singular, individual experience of being. Many poems have other work to do, of course, such as bearing greetings, comfort, assurance of affiliation, confessional explanation, commercial promotion and self-promotion. In them we seek agreements, approval, consensus on what we should think, and so on. Knowing what others agree on or agree to is needed to guide marketing, commerce, political action and cultural trends. A poem can even sample and sum up such a consensus more deftly than operations research, e.g. “Sugar pops are tops.” (A million dollar poem).  But such poems do not support contemplation on being. They do not shift you briefly out of your own way. For that you need an unsocial poem.

            I won’t guarantee that the five poems below, selected from Work On Yourself (in “Works”) will perform for you as described above. All I can say is that, like most of my work, they are rehearsals. Perhaps you would like to share some unsociable poems you have discovered or written.

   A singularity,

 than which there is no whicher,

from nothing special,

performing exactly

as never imagined,

in a burst of revealing


reminds us

of the individual.

Morning Find

Going to nowhere

faster than usual—

only a day since

grackle departed

feathers (as usual,

left on the doorstep),

gone to the where none

fares any well from—

still among breathers,

sweeping the carnage,

I wake in plumage.


No speed that I could go would be enough.

Anticipation overtakes the chase.

The prize precedes the game; the goal, the race;

the mystery, the search; the smooth, the rough;

the thought, the slow peripatetic pace.

The struggling steps between are left behind,

the hardships undertaken for a cause

and yes, also the last sweet clinging pause

delaying grief or parting.

This does not find,

as lawyers say. For those who wait on laws

within themselves and make a thorough search

before capturing the obvious:

In their defense (and mine) I say, “For us

the obvious is mystery enough.

No race will make it more mysterious.”

Cruise Control

Cruise control is a state of mind.

Lock the speed in.  Insert a pause.

Find within any urgent drive

cause to hesitate.  After using

live explosives–each charged with shock–

taking pressures till power exhausts–

detonating precious plans to costs

day by day; after watching  what

jam why to gassy nought:  Why then,

shut down, drift in a cloudy thought;

cruise and troll in a lake of mind;

drift past deadlines and then notice Death

slam his brake in the other lane.

Cruise control is a state to mind

borders of–a long dotted line

showing history where to cut.

Monument Avenue

I turn left where the massive oak

lifts walk and roadbed. I’m alone.

From every bush and branch come quick

sharp warnings: Not here! Go on!

I reach the crossing with its choice.

Crepe myrtles shade the median.

Where I come to comes from this,

this pause to turn right or go on.

The windshield twisted left, a hiss

escapes. My ribs rebound. I tilt

to left, watch the silver fumes,

recall the myrtles’ dive, the halt.

Turned left and halted, made to see

where my going comes, I stop.

The steering wheel no longer moves.

Nor do I move, content to be.

Ferguson, Workplace, and Making Soup

The choice between engagement and supervision

I prefer to work with words, count syllables, crack phrases, set lines to tunes, find etymologies, and hide rhymes. Without making a poem, it’s difficult to opine on recent events in Ferguson or to draw the relationship I see to the use of the Workplace software by their data-driven employers :


Of our first disobedience now the fruit
has ripened in a thing against our nature,
a growth that rules us we have bred from rules,
a coded being, supreme appliance, image
and appendage overgrown: a cyst
like an ovarian anomaly
with true eyes, hair, eleven misplaced teeth,
and six or twenty fingers on a hand—or more—
made to assist.
With or without poetry, however, writer Robert Solomon would perhaps not have bought the poem’s implication of a cultural aberration. As he put it:

Our so-called depravity is nothing but the deficit side of our chosen form of life, and I for one would want no other . . . But ‘narcissism’ is a nasty and unnecessary word. Ever since the early days when the diagnosis was damnation instead of disease, our desire to promote a decent society has been undermined by those bitter voices demanding nothing less than total change, and thereby making change impossible. The most tiresome depravity of our age is all this talk about the depravity of our age.

And even W.H. Auden put in a good word for our depraved age, however anxious it might seem:

“. . . I may escape notice
                                   but never
on roads I dream of
                     what Eden is there for the lapsed
but hot water
                     snug in its caul
                  exiles may feel as self-important
as an only child
               and a sage
                           be silly without shame . . .”
(From “Encomium Balnei”)

Indeed, whatever our gripes against the hurry, technology, commodifications, and depravity of our age, we like our plumbing and hot baths! So I’ll try to deliver an opinion rather than a poem.
But maybe there’s no need. Maybe body cameras have already solved public relations problems for law enforcement and maybe the erratic schedules generated by Workplace software will be simply fixed by coding more sensitively?

Well, in a first stab at being an opinion-leader, I’d say no. Here’s where the soup comes in.

You see, I often watch Kathleen make soup. She talks with the farmer about the cuts and bones, decides whether it’s to be lamb, turkey or beef, brings them home with assorted vegetables and greens, and sets up her pot. First, the bones are soaked in a little vinegar to begin the demineralization and softening of collagen. A long warm soak of the bones “snug in their caul” is interrupted by the addition of celery, onions, and garlic–the holy trinity. Six hours later, the starchy vegetables arrive–maybe sweet potatoes or butternut squash cut in large chunks. The stock cooks down for six or seven more hours, the lid happily bobbling atop. Salt and a few herbs enter an hour or so before serving. Then, as the bowls are taken down twelve to fifteen hours after the ingredients began their path of transformation, minced collard greens or arugula is stirred in and steamed just enough to soften them but not enough to destroy enzymes. The nutrient-rich, gelatinous, arthritis-healing, anti-inflammatory, savory broth is poured into large shallow bowls so that we won’t have to wait too long after inhaling the aroma before it’s cool enough to eat. The extra is set aside and frozen for later in the week for soup, stock, and warm drinks on winter mornings.

Please notice that the cook did not add the preserved contents of a soup can to water and microwave it for 3.5 minutes. Here’s the distinction: the long slow method required personal, creative engagement; the quick, automated method requires what I call “supervision.” The supervisor of distant, outsourced preparations passively removes the unknown product from the microwave and quickly feeds.
After about 20 years of teaching, I became a supervisor. When this happened, I couldn’t help thinking about the word. It literally means “looking over.” The stately definition implies a lofty perspective on the workplace. Diagrams and management theories emblazon the standards fluttering over the towers of Higher Management. For the workers, however, it means that the Suits are always looking over their shoulders. Or that a manager “overlooks” certain deficiencies out of what? Largesse? Noblesse oblige? Certainly, Management prefers the idea of a stately “supervisor” to that of the ruffian “overseer.” Whatever the merits of middle management, I always knew that “supervising instruction” was an abstraction while “teaching” was a personal and creative engagement. Abstractions omit more light than they emit.
So, what about the body camera and the improved program code to eliminate employees’ downtime? Abstractions. Exercises in supervision. Nothing new about them. When humans began to write, the headmen of the tribe knew that personal engagement in accurately memorizing the genealogy and Story of the People was on its way out. Once all the different Homers had their creative improvs recorded, there was no going back. Anyone who could look over the text could recite the story. Automatically. Granted, the appliance was not a cell phone, body camera, telegraph key, or software package to optimize workers’ labor. It was only a book. One could even overlook all the dull parts by skipping ahead. But an appliance had replaced a kind of personal and creative engagement. The community was no longer embodied and unified in the poet’s performance. A book was a disappointment to the jobless shaman but good news to the litigant who wanted to see where it was written that he owed a fifth of all his grain and chickens to the chief.
The choice is ours. Some things are so important that only personal and creative engagement will do. Other matters are better supervised. Here’s where we may disagree, so I invite your responses.
My opinion is that we are animals with limited understanding and scale who are rooted in our natural world. Care for each other and the natural world–what my teacher, Elwyn Tilden, called “life-fostering concern“–are precisely the matters requiring sustained attention and personal and creative engagement. These matters include education, the arts and sciences, the production and preparation of food, and the inclusion of all members of the community in significant creative work that embodies what is best about the culture—whether it is well crafted plumbing or a compassionate social code. Two counter-examples conclude my argument, such as it is:
• Underpaid part-time employment that does not allow the worker to know her schedule from one week to the next fails to be personal, engaging, or creative for either worker or employer.
• Trying to solve a problem of social dynamics with a device merely creates another problem of social dynamics. David Campbell’s “law” from 1976 says that “the more any quantitative factor is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (The Week 5/11/2015, p6) Turn the issue between police and community into a supervision technology and the monitors will be gamed.

As we are increasingly tracked, monitored, and profiled, we are encouraged to believe that all of this supervision is needed. But in fact, on a personal level, we need more experiences like making soup for ourselves. Productivity is not socially meaningful work. Low crime incidence is not a blessed community in which employers, workers, owners, renters, enforcers, and citizens live together equitably, treat each other fairly, and know each other by name. No, measurable indicators like productivity and crime incidence are abstractions. Useful in limited ways, as books, microwaves and cans of preserved soup are useful, our abstractions do not replace the social nutrient-system of relationships.

Obviously, it is desirable that all members of society should shine in their own ways and be meaningfully engaged in the works of society. Social indicators, apps, clever inferences from big data and even heavy-handed corporate solutions in the forms of brand-name packages are certainly useful from time to time, but massive societal disengagement and inattention are unlikely to keep us all in hot baths.
Even a blog like this is useful in dissemination of ideas and opinions. All artful work begins in sustained attention and personal creative engagement and ends in products like blogs, microwaves, poems, and telegraph keys. These products may be immediately useful or may even evoke responses from others. They do not, however, replace the mutually attentive relationships which nourish our existence and evoke our energy and desire for personal and societal transformation. This energy and desire, called ganas in Spanish, comes from personally tending to the soup of relationships with each other and the natural world. In Margaret Mead’s memorable words,

Never doubt that a small group
of committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

    This is truly as much opinion as I care to deliver. Your comments appreciated. For other perspectives, see Robert Solomon’s Living With Nietzsche and The Passions, Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, James Gleick’s The Information, Plato’s Phaedrus (Socrates’ comments on writing), and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft and The World Beyond Your Head.

Down Time

In the down time since the Healing Breaths workshops ended, I have worked with the local chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, continued to write and submit poems, and reviewed Emma Hooper’s new book, to be published in 2015. See below. Note what she says about breathing.        

 Down Time

Untended gardens all began with plans.

Circles were peonies and lines, paths.

Pears were to be espaliered on crossed laths.

First came camellias, jonquils; japonica.

In turns, nandina, rose, and coxcomb fans.

Wasp-heavy vines threaded arching trellis.

Oh, I would like for you to stay a while.

Oxeyes watch for you and a bench waits.

But gates are down, the paths mole-heaved, and this—

this tipped, blackberry-overtaken sundial

leaning on a standpipe, remnant of hours

no flowers will toll, this tells the time too well.


Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper (Simon and Schuster 2015)

Neither the novelist nor her people fear open space, the pages often as windswept as the dusty fields of Gopherlands. Emma Hooper has a gift for apt phrases: how words of ridicule are “worse than bruises on gravel;” the “fuzz and stutter” of a home-made radio; how in the house of Russell’s aunt “everything was quiet and breakable,” and how Etta was the kind of cook who could “feel through the spoon.” Like the sturdy plants they have cultivated for eighty years on the rocky farms of Saskatchewan, Etta and the others anchor themselves in the heart-ache, war trauma, and loneliness which have driven neighbors away. They absorb the pain, grow, and regenerate. As Etta says, “It’s so terrible to give up. It makes me want to do things and do things and do things and never stop doing.”

So, in her eighty-third year, Etta packs one evening and leaves next day at dawn. Her Long Walk from Holdfast to Halifax, like other walks of enlightenment, sparkles with humor and peril. The men she leaves behind had been her students in a one-room school-house: Otto, her husband, and Russell, whom she should have married.  They follow her in their own ways by “getting rid of the old and letting in the new,” as she taught them. “And therefore, moving forward. Making progress. That’s all you have to do to move forward sometimes . . . just breathe.”

She walks East to close the “long loop” of her life and to put distance between the three of them. Etta does not even fear the space opening within herself, her own identity sometimes completely folded away like freshly ironed clothes. She becomes Otto screaming when his eardrum burst in the crump and clamor of battle as he dragged his dead schoolmate from the water and ran back from the front. She also loses herself in long discussions with Coyote, who introduces himself by licking her blistered feet. He explains that killing is only about always being hungry. In the end, it is no surprise that Coyote, the meddling trickster who in some legends brought  fire to Earth, delivers Etta and sets her back on the path to the sea. In this pilgrim’s progress, here a Jack London story and there a Pawnee myth, three quiet lives rooted in inconvenience grow through resilience, invention, and curiosity. A worthy corrective for a self-promoting, self-indulgent age in which conveniences are necessities.

Healing Breaths

And The Mechanisms of Enlightenment
An essay interrupted by a list of references

There are no mechanisms of enlightenment.

So let’s consider what’s given–the way things are.

Note that this blog for May 1, 2014 is background material for a workshop series described in the Performance Schedule folder.

Every generation arrives into a made world. As Kurt Vonnegut said, we just got here. But even the made world is a small fraction of the way things are. Breath comes unbidden. We do not decide to metabolize food. Language and culture are received without evaluation. Our bodies and their transience are not consequences of rational analysis. Our lives are not composed, written, engineered or programmed. They flow, given and unbidden, complex and undirected. Each life flows in its own path of relationships. Each of us is a path but none manages the its flow. All flow and breathe together. And the breath is troposphere, the fuel of cells, the fluid of flight. John Muir wrote, “The rivers run not past but through us.”

We experience moments of enlightenment when an event, practice, or story heightens our attention to the way things are. In Frameshifts and other works, I wrote about such experiences, which often come as little annunciations. These works form the basis of a series of workshops, called Healing Breaths, to be presented in June as a ministry of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Richmond. (See ad in the Performance Schedule folder.) For me, the making of words and music for the last fifty years has been a centering practice. Results have varied–piano improvisations, stories, poems, songs, and operas. I called it all folk art because it served a local interest (mine) and operated, in Roger Butterfield’s phrase, “below the level of historical scrutiny.”‘ The work focused the mind, synthesized experiences, and reinterpreted some religious stories, but rehearsal was the foundation. In writing, I continually rehearsed what to say until I was satisfied with its sound and sense. The same was true of composition and performance. A “hearse” was originally a kind of rake, so “rehearsal” literally means “raking over.”

As raking prepares soil by scraping tracks and grids for seed and lifting out twigs and other obstacles to growth, so rehearsal lays tracks and grids for smooth performance unimpeded by self-consciousness. So it is with performance both on stage and page.  Rehearsal links bodily memory to intention. Whether the result is a convincing performance in a stage role or the shifting away from self by what Brother Lawrence called the “practice of the presence of God,” I have found that both are matters of rehearsal. I suspect that in the gridded fabric of my cortical neurons the tracks which embody a created role are no different than those which embody my self. I cannot claim to be expert or adept at meditative practice. I can only share my own arts of breath–arts of words and music which were admittedly personal, local, and folk arts. For me, this practice has been a divine walk, a daily invitation to the annunciations from the beloved reality of the worlds inside and around us. For an explanation of the previous sentence, however, I offer the works themselves.

In the Healing Breaths workshops, participants will use my rehearsal-based centering practice. My practice and works are offered for communication and communion, not commerce. Some participants will want to practice Healing Breaths after the series ends or to continue meeting and sharing their works. That will be their decision.

In the workshops I try to give as I received. Both breath and imagination are given and unbidden. One can take what is given as if it were a right or one can rake it to get under it, remove obstacles, understand it, plant in it, grow in it, and embody it in some way. This practice is not a mechanism for enlightenment, however, but a guide. Guides may help, but the ultimacy of enlightenment must be personally discovered.

Of course, enlightenment is not simply about a personal quest. This quest has serious social consequences and in traditional societies is therefore guided by the group through stories and practices of divine paths. These practices ensure trust, cooperation, compassion, wise judgment, and social cohesion, protecting groups both directly from individual excesses and indirectly from group excesses such as persecution. Although enlightenment is individually experienced, it can reform the group. From individual discoveries come the more tolerant rules, helpful inventions, articulate expressions, and leadership to awaken a group to its connections with others. Enlightenment takes different forms. For groups blinded by faith, enlightenment may be critical reason. For societies dazzled by information, enlightenment may be the Buddha’s advice to be satisfied with what is given. For cultures swollen with greed and opportunism, enlightenment may be Jesus’ story of the farmer so satisfied with excessive preparations and investments for the future that he missed an appointment with eternity.

Enlightenment is evoked and strengthened through participation in the divine stories of the groups in which we are rooted. This is why I wanted to offer Healing
Breaths as a ministry of the church to imagination. As an artist, I want to communicate and commune with others. Entertainment is part of this, but no more than the props, the rhyme scheme, or voicing of the instruments. To entertain is simply to hold something between the performer and the audience. Production values matter less to me than the
content of this “between-ness” or relationship of imaginations. For audiences deeply rooted in the same traditions, the communion is deep. Humor is understood. New ideas are evoked. Barriers are broken. New interpretations are considered. Obstacles to actions of justice and mercy are raked away. For other audiences, not rooted in the traditions, the work, written or performed, bridges differences.

If the workshop series has participants, I’ll have more to say about it. For now, I have described Healing Breaths as a personal practice offered freely to others, but not as a method for manufacturing enlightenment.

Humans exaggerate their importance. As transient animals rooted in particular societies they nonetheless produce innumerable ways to seem permanent, godlike, and independent rulers free to automate inconvenient tasks and ignore limitations. Some, like Gilgamesh, intent on securing immortality, or Orpheus, checking up on how well he’s done so far and thereby losing everything, seem to lose track of themselves and live in a trance. Of course, the stories of Gilgamesh and Orpheus were told to remind us of the dangers of such exaggerations. Surrendering to how things are rather than how we want them to be is a part of all such myths.

It is natural to live in harmony with the beloved reality of how things are; yet humans are so committed to their ways of knowing–the meanings and significances they find in everything–that they live in a trance of all-knowing independence and control from which they can be only occasionally awakened. These brief encounters with the vast interdependence of their transient existence are holy moments because they are separated from the usual trance of power and self-knowledge. Every person’s experience of the holy is unique. The words, images, and practices of others can only serve as guides. As Karen Armstrong said (in The Spiral Staircase), we live through such moments linearly in time but return to them repeatedly in spiraling, transforming awareness given to us unbidden as we surrender to the way things are. The transformation comes not from fastening rationally onto a doctrine but from opening to the gift that was always present. Every path is different, she says, and “The great myths show that when you follow someone else’s path, you go astray. . . The hero must fight his own monsters.” Jesus said that each person must bear his or her own cross. As one is guided into a holy story or practice, like the Way of the Cross, one embodies the hero and awakens–even if only briefly and gradually. In Healing Breaths, I offer my own practice as a guide. It is a folk art using myths in words and music. It is also a meditative practice of continual rehearsal. I don’t distinguish between rehearsal, performance, composition, prayer, writing, and improvisation. For me, they share the same space. Although serious about the art, I don’t see it as a serious contest but rather as communication and communion in which self slides away in surrender as hearts are shared. At the end of my opera, The People’s
Voice, the antagonists sing:

When freedom comes,
silent as snowfall,
none will hear it.
Like the fresh air,
all will breathe it,
yet none see.

Like the wind
giving sail:
yet none see.

In this way,
when voices blend,
each bending
to the other,
freedom comes.

This is the experience of the Holy Spirit, the Pentecost experience celebrated in the Church of the Holy Comforter and all other communities of worship. It is an unbidden gift. It is the sustained attention and creative engagement of prayer.

In Healing Breaths I let the art speak for itself and encourage others to present their own works. Other works about enlightenment are listed below with a few final comments. I have omitted meditative methods aiming at happiness, wealth, and well being. Viktor Frankl, criticizing an American document, once said that happiness is not pursued. It must ensue from living a meaningful life. So enlightenment, like happiness, is not pursued by technique, but ensues practice. It is not mechanized but realized. Rehearsal with a beloved community is what keeps us on a divine path, even though–or especially because–we don’t know what will come next.

There are no mechanisms of enlightenment.
Only paths.
As many paths as humans.
As many paths as there are trees
opening to the given,
rooted in their source–
trees whose roots and branches bend and turn to what is given.
There are no mechanisms of enlightenment.
Only interpretations.
As many interpretations as humans–
humans awakened to how things are and to what is given;
humans like trees who flower,
and open their branches to the light,
and whose ancient roots anacampserote
bend hearts always back to love.


A personal list of selected references
with final comments about “enlightenment”

Adams, Scott God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment, The Religious War The cartoonist and free thinker imagines that the Big Bang was the explosion of God to all parts of creation. The task of humanity is to reassemble the debris. God’s self-limitation is the basis of humanity’s creative endeavors. Humanity needs a metaphor that allows God and science to coexist in our minds. Our minds however are untrustworthy deception generators; therefore the best we can do is to choose the ideas that seem least delusional. Religions may be compared to different maps which all lead to the collective good of society. Adams presents these ideas in the form of a story about a delivery man who turns out to be an avatar entrusted with the truth about humanity.

Aquinas, Thomas What I have read by Aquinas has come second-hand (See Anton Pegis’s book on Aquinas’ works), so this will be brief. The essences of things are the enduring intellectual objects of thought. These essences are fundamental realities. All concrete and material aspects of the world are transient. In some way, the real world derived from the ideal (Platonic) world. Unlike Plato, Aquinas was more concerned with how this derivation occurred. He imagined that humans were composites of soul and matter. The material world was part of creation. In Mass, the hypostatic union represents the importance of both spirit and matter, so knowledge must have both spiritual  and material referents. Aquinas differed with Plato’s attempt to understand by reason alone, He argued that human intellect is powerless to reason without drawing on many experiences and existence itself. For Thomas, the soul requires the incarnation of the body to do the work of the spirit and to know the truth. Unlike Plato, he does not see the material world as an unwelcome intruder on the work of reason.

Armstrong, Karen The Spiral Staircase is a memoir of her own divine path. Her writings on religion are lucid and numerous. See The Great Transformation, A Short History of Myth, Buddha, Muhammad, and other works. She writes of several ages of religious development, the first four of which are:

An oral tradition of dream times in the Paleolithic period (20,000 to 8,000 BCE),

A period of traditions of hunting myths, Sky-God myths, and quests by shamans for the tribe–often by ascending a tree and returning re-born after an ecstatic experience with a message for the community (Neolithic time 8000 to 4000 BCE).

A period of life with wild and domestic animals, including logical and practical skills for hunting and killing, myths about taking the lives of animals for food, and transcendental experiences when making comparisons with animals (Early Civilizations, 4000-800 BCE)

The Axial age (800-200BCE) The term “axial” comes from Karl Jaspers. In this period of Neolithic agriculture, just as the hunter had to make the heroic descent and ascent like Hercules, so the farmer’s seed had to die to be reborn as crop–an epiphany. Hunting and agriculture were sacramental. Rituals sacrificing the first fruits replenished the soil’s power and gave proper reverence to the sacred Earth whose produce was shared by both gods and humans.

As she threads through the anthropology and historical record, Armstrong elucidates the function of myths and liturgies: “A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behavior. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice–ritually or ethically.” (p. 22)

Berkofsky, Martin My teacher, who died in 2013, championed the meditative music of Alan Hohvaness, Charles Ives, Liszt, Beethoven, Brahms, and others, always finding the spiritual nature of the music and the quiet center within himself to perform it. Our lessons always began with tea. He set me to learning Schubert and encouraged my compositional efforts. He set an example of selfless dedication to others and to his art.

Bach, J.S. The Well Tempered Clavier. I have spent many hours with these
musical meditations. Schweitzer’s comments in his biography of JSB illuminate their interpretation.

Bhagavad-Gita This story from the Mahabarata consists of Krishna’s teachings to the young ruler Arjuna, who refuses to fight his relatives, the Kauravas. It becomes clear that the hero is really refusing to engage with the most intimate matters of his life, represented by his relatives and teachers. The soul must do battle with its friendly relations or it will be enthralled and forever separated from its true center, the Atman, or one reality. None are truly born or die. What must be defeated is the desire for fruit, the expectation of returns for one’s actions. As Christians say, “give expecting nothing in return” and “freely ye have received; freely give,” and “For what we have received may we be truly thankful.”

The BIBLE. A journey portrayed in a library of  many books of  many
stories of many people on many divine paths, it began in 500 B.C, was translated into the Septuagint in 250 BCE, increased by the additions of the New Testament from 50 to 150 A.D., translated by Jerome into Latin in 200 AD, put into the Vulgate in 383-405, illuminated at Lindisrarne in 700, adopted by Charlemagne in the Alcuin version in 800, the Lindisfarne version used for an interlinear English translation in 960 AD, the Paris version published in 1200, followed by the Wyclif version in 1382, the printed Gutenberg Latin version in 1455, Erasmus’ version in 1516 and Luther’s in 1522-34, Tyndale’s version in 1526 (for which he was burned in 1536), the Coverdale version in 1535, the Geneva version of 1560 (favored by Scots and Puritans), the Great Bible in 1539, the Bishop’s Bible in 1582, the Douai-Rheims English Bible of 1582 and the King James Bible of 1611, based on Tyndale’s version. The Bible is the main source for most of my work, such as The Books of Daniel (Daniel and Darius), Frameshifts (Noah and the Flood), Annunciations (the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary, the Good Samaritan, and other references), The People’s Voice (the Pilgrim interpretation of the City on a Hill), The Sower, The Blind Beggar, Strike the Rock (linking the stories of Moses and the rock and the Woman at the Well), Amber (The Lord’s Prayer and other references), and others.

Bridgman, Percy The Way Things Are. While he may not answer the question of what and how we know things, Bridgman disposes of many false, confused and delusional answers. As Godel shows, he says, in order to understand a system, one must get outside it. But we cannot exit ourselves, much as we may deny it. What we know and how we know it are always with respect to us. “The best that we can attain is relative rigor in a limited universe of discourse and operations.” He then proceeds to specify this limited universe, applying Occam’s razor, which says, as he puts it, that “entities are not to be created beyond necessity.” (Given the number of words I’ve written in this blog on the topic of “enlightenment” I have already failed this criterion.) He continues that this criterion “seems to satisfy a deep-seated instinct for good workmanship.”
That is, from the start, getting understanding is a studio project, as artists have always known. In Frameshifts, Professor Hank Randall writes, “Nature evokes our best efforts when we take it as a studio. In fact, nature brings these studios into being. We say that studios are ‘evoked’ by nature because only by building studios to meet exacting specifications can we prepare to understand what nature has to teach.” (p. 15, vol. 2) In his withering analysis of society, Thorstein Veblen paused to make a comment about workmanship: A human being “is an agent seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end. By force of his being such an agent, he is possessed of a taste for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort. He has a sense of the merit of serviceability or efficiency and of the demerit of futility, waste, or incapacity. This aptitude or propensity may be called the instinct of workmanship.” (The Theory of the Leisure Class, p.29). Knowing, making, testing, and creating are all means for attaining the “relative rigor in a limited universe of discourse and operations” –such as a philosophy, theory, painting, composition, or meditative practice. All such work we do “by force of (our) being.”

Bruhac, Joseph Roots of Survival. A treatise on Native American story-telling and the Sacred. From Bruhac and other Native American writers, and from the Journals of Lewis and Clark, I wrote Finding A Purchase, the last section of Frameshifts (vol. 2).

Buber, Martin I and Thou, Good and Evil, The Knowledge of Man Buber meditates (Good and Evil) on some of the Psalms, like Psa. 73 (which I set to music in The Books of Daniel). It asks why the wicked prosper and answers that wickedness is a slipping into isolation and nothingness while righteousness is a continuing relationship with God. Buber’s focus on interrelationship is summarized in the famous concept of between-ness (Enterzwischen). We are created and defined by our relationships. We are not self-made, independent beings. We are gifts, like the cosmos itself. We are part of what is given. As self-aware and reasoning creatures, we exaggerate our power and ability to control, even sometimes imagining God as a powerful tyrant. The relationship to others and the natural world as manipulable things has great force, but like any unbalanced force, it moves the Controllers and Controlled in unexpected directions, such as greed, lust, and exploitation. The I-It relationship must be balanced with I-Thou relationships. In a balanced system of relationships, we are awakened to our place in the beloved reality of how things are. In Frameshifts, I wrote of this between-ness:

The between
that beckons from another’s eyes,
not doing or being
but relationship,
a domain whose variables
rise from interactions
and fall when we slip
in betrayals.               (p.367, vol. 2)

Campbell, Joseph The Power of Myth, The Masks of God, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces are all valuable sources.

Carr, Monsignor (St. Bridget’s Richmond Colloquium on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, 9/10/2011) Carr discussed the traditional teaching concerning the four ways that worshipers experience Christ in the Eucharist. The four gifts are temptation, resistance, mind and spirit; that is, the Eucharist offers power to resist temptation, to resist Evil, to put on the mind of Christ, and to receive the Holy Spirit. It the liturgy, “Earth unites with heaven,” and, as Augustine said, “we become what we eat.” Because of the Real Presence of Christ, it matters how we treat each others. Hospitality is part of the celebration. Worshipers come to each other as prophet, priest, and king, as Christ came to them in the chrism of baptism. The Real Presence is the substance of the church, the “underlying reality” in which all participate. And the liturgy or work of the people, according to Monsignor Kevin Irwin (11/20/2011) is “mediated immediacy” of this reality. The truths of the faith that were once the immediate experience of the first disciples become the present experience of worshipers through sacraments and scriptures. The name “Jesus” is never used without the modifiers “Christ,” “King,” or “Lord” because we do not have immediate experience with the historical Jesus. Our experience is with the risen Christ, the Logos, the underlying beloved reality. The essence of liturgy is the personal and immediate participation in the wordless fellowship with water, earth, fire, air–all the creation–in shared bread and wine.

Drda, Darrin The Four Global Truths. Drda applies the truths of Buddhism to problems of global suffering as if describing the treatment of a disease. The four noble truths are: to recognize the reality and symptoms of suffering, to diagnose the causes of suffering, to explain the prognosis for overcoming suffering, and to prescribe the path to end suffering. In discussing the diseased biosphere, he marshals evidence from ecology, economics, and other areas of research and then offers a Buddhist framework for finding wise relationships.

Edwards, CliffVan Gogh and God. Vincent’s rough strokes made paintings work like Zen koans. They are no longer needed after they have served Vincent’s purpose by directing the viewer to pay attention to all that he loved in what was portrayed. Edwards provides a brilliant explanation of the religious intentions that guided Vincent’s work.

Grimm, der Brǘder Märchenhaftes. The fairy tales of the Grimm brothers contained many mythical elements. My work, The Fisher of the James, is based on The Fisher and his Wife, a story about wanting too much.

Haidt, Jonathan The Righteous Mind. The moral psychologist demonstrates that conservatives and liberals have certain common interests at stake, specifically what he calls the “taste buds of the righteous mind,” viz. receptors for six fundamental values: caring, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Conservatives and liberals define and emphasize these values differently.

Halifax, Joan in Westward Dharma and other books, writes about caring for the dying. She is a Buddhist and medical anthropologist, who says “When I tasted the stillness I knew it was medicine.” The more awareness grows, the more responsibility grows. As a child, she became aware of the inequity suffered by her Black nanny and to understand the other world which supported her privileges. She went on to live with people of the Negev desert. In one community (the Dogon) a ritual is performed every 53 years, in seven year alternations among clans. In this ritual, the community is re-born. In Western cultures, traditional rituals are weakened–such rituals as those for the returning warrior, the entry into adulthood, the passage from life to death or for regular prayer and worship. Talking with Krista Tippett in her program On Being (12/26/2013), Halifax said that the absence of strong rituals has led to hypervigilance, anxiety, pathological altruism, and other issues as media-consumers are overcome by their empathetic but impotent response to the continual flow of horrific “news.” Group rituals and personal observances evolved specifically to address the many threshold experiences of human life.

As Temple Grandin, the animal psychologist, has written, humans and other animals have emotional neural pathways for panic, rage, fear, seeking, lust, care, and play. Each is a discrete system of nerves and hormones with its own receptive, or dendritic, pathways. These pathways can be nurtured and made to branch and flourish in a positive way through life-fostering concern and compassionate interactions with others. Or dendritic growth can be impaired by abnormal repetitive behaviors, like those arising from sensory deprivation, or obsessive-compulsive disorders, neuroses, sleep dysfunctions, addictions, anxieties, frustrations, acting out, self mutilation, self aggrandizement, self deception, stereotypy, racism, ostracism, hatred, genocide, fixations, sadomasochism, bullying, gossiping, phobias, self-disgust and so on. Imbalanced emotional pathways lead to finding comfort and success in imbalanced behaviors and to trance-like patterns from which escape is difficult. Religious comfort and ritual shared with a group have the power to recruit positive emotions which can guide us across difficult thresholds onto our own divine paths. Unfortunately, religions often squander this power, letting tribalism take over.

Hamer, Dean The God Gene. A molecular biologist at NCI, Hamer identified the indicators of religiosity as: propensity for mystical experience; transpersonal identification, self-forgetfulness, concern with or feeling for all the things around one. He then searched for a genetic basis for such traits. He found it in genetic material from Buddhist monks, Wiccan priestesses, and others and called it the gene for “self transcendence” or VMAT2, which makes a protein that packages monoamines like dopamine and serotonin, mood-altering neurotransmitters. With William James, Hamer believes that religion is what one does in solitude. On this view, some people are genetically more spiritual than others.

Of course, this claim disregards the communal and interdependent nature of religions. It is an example of how science can turn a vague idea like “religiosity” into operational concepts for empirical study. After the study, however, one must always return to the original abstraction and ask whether the operational concepts validly represent the object under study. It is not enough to say that because one has defined religiosity as self-forgetfulness and propensity for mystical experience, that a gene producing a protein causing these effects is the gene for religion–or the “God gene.” The initial abstraction of a vague concept is narrow. The subsequent testing is narrower. The statistically significant claims of the results yet narrower, and the interpretations and speculations regarding the results, narrower still. The religious believe that God is present in all things, so these results are perhaps not surprising at all.

Hirschfield, Jane Nine Gates. Like Hart Crane, who wrote that poetry is “self discipline for the purpose of a formal integration of experience,” and Gary Snyder, another Buddhist poet, Jane Hirschfield’s work is deeply controlled by her meditative life. But she is popularly known for her definition of Zen: “Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.”

Lama, The Dalai Ethics for the New Millenium The Dalai Lama writes that “someone else’s action should not determine your response.” Our identities–indeed all identities and ideas–have a provisional nature. They are provided by convention so that we may communicate with each other, but “when we begin to see that everything that we perceive and experience arises as part of an indefinite series of causes and conditions, our whole perspective changes.” Perhaps what one sees is like the jewel net of Indra–a net of infinite size and covered in sparkling jewels reflecting each other. This is a classic Buddhist image for universal interdependence. Such a view is violated by the concept of individualism; yet production, possession, consumption, and economic activity come from individual actions. So a balance must be struck. As he says, “There is no denying that our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others. There is no denying that if society suffers, we ourselves suffer. Nor is there any denying that the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill will, the more miserable we become. Thus we can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion.” An African word for the inextricable connections of our well being with the well being of others is “ubuntu.” (See the poem “Ubuntu” p. 370, Frameshifts, vol. 2.)

Lawrence, Brother The Practice of the Presence of God.(quoted elsewhere)

Lewis, Samuel L. Spiritual Dance and Walk. Lewis was a widely-traveled botanist who founded the Dances of Universal Peace. (Local chapters are in Charlottesville and Richmond.) One of the dances goes to the Kabbalistic words, “I’m opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love light of the world.”

Lucretius On the Nature of things. (especially in the translation by Frank O. Copley) This exposition of Epicurean philosophy and Democritus’ atomism is an early materialistic explanation of the cosmos. It also aimed to console those who feared death, simply stating that where death is, we are not and where we are, death is not. In that much, it was like the later poem by Mary Frye in Baltimore in 1938 for her Jewish neighbor worried about her family in Europe: “Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep, I am a thousand winds that blow; I am the diamond glint in snow. / I am the sunlight on ripened grain . . .” Such a consolation is also offered by Buddhism and by an awakening to our transience, scale, and inter-dependence within a vast and beloved reality.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership

Okakura, Kakuzo The Book of Tea. Okahura explores the connections of Teaism, Taoism, and Zen.

Parini, Jay Jesus, the Human Face of God. See my review in the earlier blog.

Pope, Alexander Essay on Man. A human being, he says, exists in an “isthmus of a middling state/ A Being darkly wise and rudely great/ With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side/ With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,/ He hangs between, in doubt to act, or rest, / In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast,/ In doubt his mind or body to prefer,/ Born but to die and reasoning but to err. . .” Written as rationalist treatise in 1743, Pope’s essay has always seemed a concise statement of exactly where humanity stands.

Rogers, Fred Television performer. Rogers’ performances were centered in meditative practice and compassion. He frequently cited the writings of Henri Nouwen. I have thought that Rogers’ puppet plays about King Friday unconsciously spoofed a false notion about God as a self-absorbed paternal ruler to whom everyone is always saying, “Correct as usual, King Friday.” Rogers may have done this deliberately, but his interest was in using puppetry to go into the imagination and find stories about human development during a very short period of human life. He did so in a secular television program, but his intentions were religious. He begins with the same question that the
lawyer (or rich young ruler–not a bad name for a three or four year-old) asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” Rogers answer was a Neighborhood–the whole Kingdom of Make Believe he created, which was his expression of the kingdom of God.

Schneider, Stephen H. The Primordial Bond. Religion, arts and sciences recognize the natural cycles of the Earth. Humans participate in these cycles and in traditional societies have attempted to live in balance with the natural world. Schneider and his co-author present art, literature, and quantitative science in support of a balanced and sustainable way of life.

Schweitzer, Albert The Philosophy of Civilization, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Reverence for Life, J.S.Bach. Schweitzer wrote, “wherever a man turns he can find someone who needs him. Even if it is a little thing, do something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it. For remember, you do not live in a world all your own. Your brothers are here too.” I cannot write too much about Schweitzer and therefore stop here.

Seneca On the shortness of life (part of a longer essay. See also: On Tranquility) writes that “the greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.” He mentions Democritus’s treatise on balance or euthymia and cites Lucretius, speaking of human restlessness: “Thus every man flees himself.” And again, he says, “You act like mortals in all that you fear and like immortals in all that you desire . . . You are living as if destined to live forever; your own frailty never occurs to you.” He lists all the ways people waste their lives and then complain of not having enough time.
“Everyone hustles his life along and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present.”

Shepherd, Phil New Self, New World Shepherd speaks of divisions due to the nature of abstraction and individualism, ignoring the Law of Inter-relationship. A sense of the Whole requires passive acceptance because we are confronted with the fact that all of reality will forever be greater than humans. We cannot get that perspective. Instead, we get approximations and what he calls unintegrated perspectives. The natural cycles of nature give us a sense of the compensations of parts to the whole, in which some humans of the past partook and saw their own roles as stewards. Imbalances set in as nature was transformed from provider to resource, shifting the center from the worldmind to the controlling mind.

Sobel, Eliezer Why I am not enlightened. This author, a Richmond resident, seems to have explored every meditative method known. His accounts of numerous encounters with gurus, guides, shamans, priests ,and New Age psychologists are filled with sage humor. An earnest seeker pleads with a Zen priest to show him enlightenment. The priest holds his head under water until he chokes; then he says, “When you want to be enlightened as much as you wanted to breathe just now, come back and see me.”

Thurston, Mark The Inner Power of Silence. Currently the director of a unique program on Contemplation at George Mason University, Thurston wrote this book in 1986. It is an excellent summary of meditative practices such as anapanasati, the surrender to the rhythm of the “universe which breathes through us.”

Tillich, Paul Dynamics of Faith. The object of devotion or “ground of all being”
is an ultimate concern, Tillich said, with an emphasis on “ultimate.” For Rudolph Otto (The Idea of the Holy), the numinous experience of the Holy was the object of devotion. Jesus’ parable of the prisoners, needy, and sick being Christ in the world could be interpreted in relational terms, following Buber, or in Tillich’s terms of ultimacy. All descriptions of the object of devotion have supported ethical prescriptions from Mesopotamian times to Decalogue times to New Testament times. Perhaps questions about suffering, origins, dreams, the dead, and the proper object of devotion are reflections on communal life. The liturgies and scriptures and ethical codes are antedated by communal practices, stories, and folk arts. The later traditions evolve to recognize and strengthen communal relationships which already existed. Like literature and the historical disciplines, religion concerns stories partially verified and intended as templates by which a community becomes obligated. The community of faith is defined by a “system of thought and action,” (Winston King, An Introduction to Religion) as given by the myth in which it is rooted. Usually such communities were ethnically homogeneous, but in great worldwide religions, the community had more and more to accommodate the vast reality not addressed by its formulations. Coming out of Protestantism and the postwar period, Tillich sought to find the fundamental features of what it meant to live by faith. He discovered that all human beings search for ultimate concerns, even though clumsily or unknowingly.

Tilden, Elwyn Toward Understanding Jesus. Tilden, who was my teacher, spoke of Jesus’ “life-fostering concern,” a concept like Schweitzer’s “reverence for life,” which extends to all of creation. Tilden wrote that the “turn from collecting of facts to interpreting the whole of life–this evaluating and self-dedicating operation–is faith rather than science at work. Men align themselves with the truth they accept . . . This act of selfdirection or self-dedication is more clearly included in the meaning of ‘faith’ than of philosophy.”

Final Comments. I weaken/! It’s time to cut off the list. Other writings and stories about the divine path are too numerous to add– Faust, Henry IV (See W.H. Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare and everything else by Shakespeare, Auden and Philip Larkin), the stories about Moses, Orpheus, Demeter, Gilgamesh, and James Joyce’s stories about Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom. Also, the works of poets like Hopkins, Dickinson, Basho, Eliot, Rilke, Crane and others too numerous to mention.

Harold Bloom argued that religions are worships of literary figures–and often the wrong figures. He finds more wisdom in Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Homer than in the philosophers, like the Platonists who influenced Kabbalah, Christianity, and literature. He sees the rift in Western thinking between Platonic and Hebraic thought as a defining dynamic in our culture which stimulates our imaginations. He points out that to do creative work in a culture with a well defined tradition, the artists purposely misreads the tradition to create space for the imagination to work. Thus Plato censored poets but created the poetic fiction of Socrates, and thus, Bloom says, Christianity misreads Judaism. The more Jewish version of Jesus’ life is to be found in sources like The Book of Thomas, where Jesus is shown as an itinerant rabbi teaching the wisdom to be found in the immediate, present, and commonplace. He tells his followers to disregard their historical predecessors and traditions. They must learn to open their eyes and understand the wisdom around them.

Certainly an immediate, kinesthetic awareness and empathy are evoked by poets, dramatists, artists, and composers. The world-mind is to be made immediately accessible and as natural as if there were no mediator. When an opera like La Traviata, or Mathis der Maler, or Kurt Weill’s The Covenant begins, one suddenly is in another world.

Of course, some in the audience always resist–turning away, laughing, despising, ignoring. They are not prepared to connect with the work. A sower must first rake the ground and prepare it to receive the seeds or the soil will not receive the seeds. My parents, a young officer on leave during World War II and his new bride from Texas, went to a ballet in New York and couldn’t stop laughing. They had to leave before being told to leave. Such a high-fallutin’ performance was so unfamiliar to them that they
couldn’t take it seriously, but for a Russian bureaucrat, stealthily passing along a samizdat to her co-workers, a visit to the Bolshoi was a religious experience of the artistic freedom so alien to the rest of her life. She received the ballet experience with a sense of elevated gratitude. Most of us, most of the time are more like seeds falling on unraked, unprepared soil.

We’re not so enlightened

Sometimes we seem not dumb but numb. Think of a foot asleep. Or think of the people we read about running into trees or being robbed at the ATM at 3:00 a.m. Both the perpetrators and the victims who make it above the fold of the morning newspaper often seem to have been sleepwalking through their lives. We too, in our personal lives, may continue to hurt ourselves and others as if caught in the repeating loops of dream. In our public lives, our trances become great, unbalanced, calamitous movements. The
numbness is what religions call darkness. The correction is enlightenment–waking up. But if it’s a personal path, how can anyone else tell you how to find it?

It doesn’t help that the many sources all seem to have different ideas about enlightenment. Do we remain unenlightened because we are ignorant of a Secret Idea or because we are insensitive to an Obvious Idea? Is this matter of waking up even concerned with getting an idea right?

Let’s back up. I am not multilingual. I also am not multi-enlightened. Joseph Campbell was capable of writing about the “hero with a thousand faces,” but, much as I admire his work, I can only make out a few faces. Like a tree, I am rooted in the Christian divine walk. It’s where I grew. Seeing Christ in others is the practice Christians follow by continually rehearsing Christ-consciousness with each other. In non-Christian systems, I can only converse in a creole or pidgin, but it seems to me that all traditions say that humans remain unenlightened when they live in a trance and forget three realities:

their animal nature, and tree-rootedness in what is given

their limited understanding and scale, and

the inter-relationships affected by their self-dazzling control of everything

Waking up to these realities is spiritual enlightenment, but this is not an intellectual exercise. Transformation is not mechanized. I do not argue for an idea but rather make a plea. Like Phil Shepherd, I feel that our culture is losing its way and profoundly unbalanced. As when Lord Krishna or other avatars were sent to restore
balance to a distorted world-mind or as when Orpheus traveled to Hades to fetch Eurydice, we have a trip ahead of us. Why? Gross injustice, inequity, violence, and global devastation–the usual situation for myth, religion, and apocalyptic hucksterism. The usual solution is a personal Quest followed by social Transformation. The world is then restored and pulled back from the powers of darkness. All good plots.

But neither academic nor mythic analysis is within my grasp, so I will simply expand on the three realities and let you take it from there.

Our animal nature and rootedness. On the religious view, escaping the trance we are in is less about getting more information than it is about fully appreciating what we are, or as Percy Bridgman called it, “the way things are.” And first we are animals: relational, rooted in place and group, transient, sentient, self-stabilizing centers of energetic and informational exchange. Our less cognitive relations, particularly the mammals, are exquisitely sensitive to the immediate conditions of their habitats, readily accommodating to and assimilating changes at many levels of metabolism, behavior, and genetics. Whether through reflex reactions, fixed action patterns, learning, dominance hierarchies, biochemical change, or epigenetics, they respond impeccably to their worlds without ideas, abstractions, analysis, dissertations, or market research.

Our limited understanding and scale. We, however, begin to lose speech almost as soon as we learn what to do with it. We convert experiences into meanings and forget that we created the meanings. Our trademarks are statistics, poems, iconic images, computer-assisted designs, translations of dead languages and countless other ways of putting living things to death through names and explanations. Statistics hide the costs of our comforting systems, but Frederico Lorca reminds us that “beneath all the statistics is a drop of duck’s blood” and that a “river of blood flows past the suburbs” of our comforts. But we go on, confidently bundling all of our forms of knowledge into traditions, curricula, resource allocations, societal structures, academic disciplines, industries, markets, and what Phil Phenix called “realms of meaning.”

Of course, in wretched circumstances, meanings give us our lives back. Consider the Mozart played by and for the dying in Theresienstadt, the Quartet for the End of Time, composed by Messiaen while in Stalag #7, or the log drums played by Africans enslaved in Virginia. These expressions led the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl to observe:

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life–daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems to to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets before each individual . . . . . No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. . . (Man’s Search for Meaning, 122-123)

Given such trying circumstances and our feelings of insignificance as we contemplate our lives and express ourselves, it is not surprising that we are often dazed. We defensively exaggerate our importance and knowledge. Perhaps our bodies being mostly empty space is a frighteningly good reason to remain in a daze.

Our inter-relationships. Nevertheless, these limitations lead us to exaggerate the importance of meaning, to forget how to perceive and live as animals, and how to have a world-mind. So we fail to be circumspect about our understandings. As a Christian , I should try to allow for a deep integrity in the way things are–not because I know this, but because I also allow for my animal and cognitive limitations. Lucretius saw atoms and the void where others later saw electromagnetic fields or informatics. All such understandings are defined by levels of measurement and limited by characteristics abstracted, however useful the ideas may become. To say that one allows for a deep integrity in the way things are is to accept limitations on one’s understanding and to realize that “knowing” and “meaning” are concerned with acceptably verifiable claims.

Enlightenment, however, is about re-discovering the personal experience of the animal’s receptivity and readiness to accommodate to relationships at many levels, to assimilate the accommodations, and to respond in an impeccably adept way. To say that one allows for a deep integrity in the way things are is also to accept that the built-in limitations on knowledge also apply to self-knowledge. Again, as native Americans remind us, our animal spirit-guides show the way–like Mashkinonge, the spirit-fish portrayed in my Fisher of the James. The animal way is to accept the given world. Frankl reminds us that when invited to an unavoidable situation, it is often better to be prepared with acceptance than with meanings.

And Fred Rogers reminds us of the acceptance of others as they are, saying “the greatest gift you can give someone is an honest receiving of what the person has to offer.” That is, enlightenment is not about getting an idea right, it is about surrender to how things are. I prefer to say it is about accepting the beloved reality:

Bless the wisdom of the Holy One above us.
Bless the truth of the Holy One beneath us.
Bless the love of the Holy One within us.
                                                   –from the Chinook Psalter, 2008

So, this acceptance of our relationships to how things are is not about explanation and control, but surrender, expression and responsibility. This is a matter of whole-body responsiveness, not simply words. Shaky ground–without the proofs, persuasion, and explanations of language. The language of poetry, however, can take shortcuts:

Yang argues against any idea of poetry that is unchangeable, unchallengeable, or fixed. In his use of meaning to urge us to pass beyond meaning, in his use of words to pass beyond words, he points to the mode of knowledge described in the Heart Sutra, the central text of Zen: “no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no consciousness.” The description does not mean than an awakened person is blind, struck deaf, numb to the world, and dumb. Rather, such a person is one who knows the world directly, without mediation, and knows the self in the widest existence, reflected in all things. The poet, too, is free to see with no eyes, to speak with no tongue. Poetry will continue on its own path, untroubled. (from Jane Hirschfield’s Nine Gates, p.57)

Archibald MacLeish may have had this in mind when he wrote that

A poem should be palpable and mute
as a globed fruit,
as old medallions to the thumb,
as silent as the sleeve-worn stone
of casement ledges where the moss has grown.
A poem should be wordless
as the flight of birds.
                                          (Ars poetica)

Shepherd puts it this way:

As Buddha said, “Your work is to discover your work and then, with all your heart, to give yourself to it.” Creativity itself is precisely about receiving the energies of the world, processing them, and releasing them. But the same could be said of presence: to be present is to be here, now, fully sensitized and awake to the world–assimilating it and giving over to what it calls from you without resistance or hesitation. The same can be said of the third leg of our metaphoric stool: freedom. The caged tiger cannot live in an open exchange of energies with the world; the tiger treading the bamboo grove is fully participant in it. In fact, the currents of energy that make yup your exchange with the world are what you feel as your life. You are most fully in reality, then, and most freely in reality, when your exchange of Energy with the world is most free: when the inner corridor is most uncluttered . . .
New Self, New World, (p.266)

These helpful formulations provide indicators of enlightenment, but they cannot be used to certify that one is enlightened. Presumably those not sufficiently mindless or wordless would not entirely qualify! Thus one seems always to slip into trying to get the idea of enlightenment just right. We continually get in our own way.

Like Jesus, Brother Lawrence wrote nothing on the subject of enlightenment. All that is known about him comes from an interview. He seems to have adopted a habit of acceptance that recalls Buddha’s final words to his disciples, “Learn to take satisfaction with what is given.” He said:

That our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own. That it was lamentable to see how many people mistook the means for the end, addicting themselves to certain works, which they performed very imperfectly . . . (and) That it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times; that we are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in the season of prayer. That his prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but divine love . . .

While allowing for both the ways of action (like Karma Yoga) and meditation (like Dhyana Yoga), Brother Lawrence speaks of his own acceptance of how things are as a “holy inactivity.” As Eliezer Sobel comments, referring to Zen master Bernie Glassman, escaping from the “addiction to being me” is unlikely for any of us–even if we are “spiritual superstars.”

Spiritual realization is more like a rock that you sit on than a path you walk on. “You find your seat,” the Buddhists say, and you sit in that center of Presence and Being, gazing at Reality as it is, including the unfolding of your own and everyone’s ongoing participation, contributions, and dramas of daily life. (Why I am not enlightened)

Of what use are guides if the wake-up call from the universe is not an idea but a personally discovered divine path? It would seem that all that is needed is to become more spiritual–but who is this self independently finding his way through the universe? A relational being. A limited being. A being rooted in the forest of its animal and social nature. A being of the “isthmus of a middling state,” as Pope called it, whose very uniqueness is created by interdependent relationships.

Whatever guidance is available must be used.

So you now have a list of references and a suggestion that you can best learn a spiritual practice when rooted in a beloved community and its tradition. But
enlightenment is not guaranteed. Rooted as he was in his religious community, Nicodemus could not understand what it meant to be “born again.” The disciples of Jesus were equally clueless both at understanding and even at recognizing Christ after his resurrection. If spiritual enlightenment were as commonplace and accessible to us as religious guides tell us, it should be possible to tell how things are in a way that is concise, non-narrative, and not overly abstract or doctrinal. So I’ll try one last time.

Realities Escape Us

As we master the world, we repeatedly lose contact with three aspects of
being human: that we are animals, that our ways of reference are limited, and that we occupy a narrow band within scales of time, mass, and range of influence.

When we attend to these realities we discover other realities:

That to be animal is to be a transient, semi-stable system interdependently exchanging energy and information with other systems.

That our cognition has led to many systems of reference, such as abstractions, speech, maths, inquiry, arts, and cultures. Proper selective attention to relationships within a system of reference forces one to neglect relationships external to the system, but because all events are inter-related, this neglect ultimately must be corrected.

And that attention to our own scale, situation, and relationships, whether individual or societal, makes other scales of reference inaccessible. The physicist, Neils Bohr, was surprised to realize that he “could not think of my son at the same moment both in the light of love and in the light of justice.” This led him to think that certain states of mind were like the two aspects of “figure-ground” pictures–what psychologists call metastability. We know that both a vase and two profiles are in a figure, but we can’t make ourselves see both simultaneously. If we have trouble with only two pictures, consider our limitations in dealing with metastable images of higher order.

What’s given simply is too vast
For us to take more than we make
The universe has us outclassed.
(Frameshifts, p. 376, vol. 2)

So many classes, sets, conditions, properties, and concepts can metastably exist than we can comprehend! In reference to particles, physicists’ call it complementarity.

In reference to our efforts to attend to the ground of our being, we find that the very neglect necessary to knowing in one way disables us from knowing in another way. We shift from one provisional frame of reference to another with little leaps, only occasionally glimpsing as a whole our animal natures, transience, and deep roots in the reality to which we belong.

So we are inclined to forget the provisional nature of our reference systems. Our very accomplishments put us at greater and greater distance from our feelings and responsibilities as beings of the universe. In fact, as we master our understanding of the world, we may even begin to believe that it is the world.

As we grasp at reality we believe reality to be what we have grasped. It’s an honest error, particularly given all the benefits, conveniences, and benevolences made possible by our understandings, inventions, and undertakings.

This error is the source of grievous separation of human beings from nature, their own nature, and each other–a separation with painful consequences, and a separation from reality recognized from ancient times and addressed in the many ways peoples have described the divine path.

Rehearsing the stories of the divine path returns us to the transient and relational nature of existence, the social and provisional nature of understanding, and the ineffable relationship of beings to the deep integrity of the way things are. The divine path always concerns transformations and restoration to the way things are. This reality escapes us because human grasp exceeds its reach.

But the great gift is that the beloved reality always reaches for us and draws us back in, as Jesus described the shepherd looking for one sheep.

Of course, Nicodemus and the disciples in the upper room, the women at the tomb, and the disciples in Emmaus only recognized Jesus a little at a time. Perhaps, then, the most we can say to guide each other toward personal transformation is:

Stop, Look, and Listen.

O Thou whose love is broader than the measure of man’s mind and who doth make even the wrath of men to praise Thee, we give thanks for the opportunity to worship through our works. Let us have thankful hearts, for we have all drunk from wells we did not dig and warmed ourselves at fires we did not build. All is given, even we ourselves, and this gift is the answer to our petitions. Let faith guide us, love preserve us, and hope engage us in a mission of reconciliation and healing.


Jay Parini's book on AmazonNames always hurt more than sticks and stones. Such terms as nullification, trinity, capitalism, salvation, liberal and evolution are only words in the same way that live charges are only devices.  Jay Parini quietly explains that the Greek word for an experience of transforming awareness was mistranslated “repentance” by St. Jerome, causing painful consequences for centuries afterward. A gifted biographer, Parini has written books on Faulkner, Tolstoi, Melville, and Frost. A gifted linguist, teacher and poet, he has also published many volumes of poetry while teaching at Middlebury College. With a biographer’s grasp of sources and a poet’s appreciation of words, he has written a biography of Jesus. In this work, for him to get both the story and the words right is more than scholarship; it is a work of faith. He explains that he seeks to re-mythologize the story of Jesus. In The Art of Subtraction (2005),

Parini wrote:

                    I’m back this afternoon, in autumn,
                    sitting where I used to,
                    trying, once again, to clear my head,
                    subtract the last things I don’t need,
                    get down to only
                    what cannot be shaken loose or said.  (p. 76)

Clearly, the story of Jesus is one of the things which cannot be shaken loose. The subtitle, The Human Face of God, suggests that this is the face of God within human apprehension. We can speculate on a polyhedral model of deity with infinite facets and names. We can construct doctrines, christologies, credos, and theologies. We can turn Jesus’s teaching into a checklist for salvation. This is not what Parini means by re-mythologizing Jesus. On his view, both the abstractions of liberal theology and the certainties of literalists can distort Jesus’s vision of  a life-transforming, mind-enlarging awareness—what Jesus called the kingdom of God. This kingdom is gradually realized through what Elwyn Tilden, author of Toward Understanding Jesus (1956) called a life-time practice of “life-fostering concern.” Parini admits to have been on a lifelong “project of trying to understand Jesus and to take his example purposefully in my own life.” (p. xvii) His search, however, does not narrow down to factual truths. It widens to greater awareness:

The work of reading here . . . is one of remythologizing the story, finding its symbolic contours while not discounting the genuine heft of the literal tale.   (p.126)

As Karen Armstrong showed the transformative influence of ideas current in the earlier “axis time” when the world religions originated, so Parini shows the confluence of traditional and Essene Jewish thought, Hellenistic ideas and Near-Eastern influences in Jesus’s understanding. Concerning Jesus’s insight into his own role, he quotes Ralph W. Emerson:

. . . He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me.”  (p. xx)

In retelling the story of Jesus’s self-revelation and subsequent ministry, Parini does not attempt to harmonize the ancient stories. He re-tunes them. Rationalizations of discrepancies between the gospel accounts are as unnecessary as a rationalization of the differences between the Magnificats of Vivaldi and Bach. The evangelists wrote at different times for different audiences, but as also with most of the noncanonical writers, their aim was to express the nature of the new life which Jesus revealed.  Parini’s story is both scholarly and unimpeded by scholarship, a well-grounded academic work and a personal meditation, and a philosophical inquiry and an ethical challenge. In sharp images he deftly re-creates the first century Palestinian  countryside where Jews, Greeks, Indians, Ethiopians, Persians, and Romans  traded languages, goods, and ideas along the Silk Road to Samarkand. Encounters between conquerors and conquered, traders and customers, craftsmen and technicians, thinkers and believers of different faiths led inevitably to cultural reassessments. Northern Indians sculpted Buddha in Greek dress. Syncretism and egalitarianism appeared in traditional religions. Egypt, Rome, and Greece all had stories of a virgin conceiving a child of God, a divine boy precociously teaching his elders, a hero enduring desert ordeals and thereafter doing miracles and being sacrificed for the people, as the sun is sacrificed to darkness every sunset. But while the legendary virgin birth of a ruler like Augustus was told to validate power, the story of Jesus’s birth was told to show that Jesus came first to the poor and lowly in spirit. Those who experienced suffering, oppression, and poverty would more readily understand the Kingdom of God than religious and political elites.

Parini’s story of Jesus merges historical, religious, artistic and personal commentaries on the divine path. Along the way, he invites us to consider the reflections and expressions of others like Tolstoi, Henri Nouwen, Pierre Abelard, Wallace Stevens, Elaine Pagels, Paul Tillich, J.S. Bach, T.S. Eliot, Rembrandt, and R.S. Thomas. It is a pleasure to follow this sure-footed guide on the journey to Jerusalem. Alert to the many and disparate interpretations of the story, he skillfully selects just the information needed to find one’s way without missing the spectacle of the pilgrims coming with caravans to the city or the crunch of gravel on the path in Gethsemane. The gospel writers were not news reporters, he reminds us, but had access to first hand accounts and writings, popular legends, and the theology of St. Paul. Early practices and controversies also inform their varied literary approaches and contents. Most of the fragmented story in the gospel text is seen in a blur, as if through windows of a speeding train.  His sources throughout are scrupulously cited. Even the end-notes make fascinating reading. A Christian reader may value most his pithy resolutions of puzzles such as how Jesus could say that a rich person was as likely to avoid hell as a camel to go through the eye of a needle (p. 141), why Jesus was buried in haste, why Judas received thirty pieces of silver, how Pentecost was linked to a story in Numbers, why Daniel might be considered the first book of the New Testament, and why Jesus was unrecognizable after the resurrection. On the last case, he comments:

Recognition takes time, becoming in fact a process of uncovering, what I often refer to in this book as the gradually realizing kingdom: an awareness that grows deeper and more complex, more thrilling, as it evolves.  (p. 123)

Indeed, although at pains to provide readers with the best plausible explanations for interpretations of the events in Jesus’s life, Parini continually emphasizes that getting the explanations right is not the same as taking the mythos of Jesus to heart:

. . . the gospels give us very different details of this event, creating a more complex picture when taken as a whole than when read as individual accounts.  (p. 113)

Parini welcomes this complexity. Every perspective and discrepancy in the text is an opportunity for meditation. The kingdom is gradually realized, in his image, like a photograph in a developing bath. The soul seated in the ground of being, like the pivot in Confucianism, or the enlightened one in Buddhism, can be at peace in flux and complexity because Jesus:

. . has come to bring “peace” to his followers . . and to create “eternal life,” which is a deep experience of God—what the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, called the “God beyond God” that forms our “ground of being”—an idea of God that has, over many decades, struck me as useful, as it shifts away from a physical image of God as “somebody” who is somehow “up” there in heaven, employing a metaphor of depth and amplitude. In truth, God cannot be reduced to any spatial metaphor. (p. 96)

Every metaphor is a path; the choice of metaphors is therefore a serious—even dangerous—matter for a religion, business, nation, or an individual, as Parini reminds us, speaking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who:

          .  .  . understood Christianity as not simply a set of doctrines, a list of “beliefs” that one must check off in order to be “saved.” That wasn’t Christianity at all. As Bonhoeffer writes, Jesus made it clear from the start “that his word is not an abstract doctrine . . . but the re-creation of man. (p. 152)

 This book, in the final analysis, is a work of scholarship and sincere and great devotion, ably making readers participants in the story and its message of the mythos of Jesus:

The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment. Nowhere more so than here does it matter that we find a proper balance between the literal and the figurative, giving full weight to the concrete meaning while relishing the mythic contours of the story.