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Friday, November 28, 2014

Contemporary Mystics

 Shortly before I began to discern my sexual orientation, I had a dream.

I don't know what the dream was. I don't remember a thing about it. I just woke up remembering that I had had an amazing dream.

As I pushed myself through the thick fog between the Land of Sleep and the Land of Awake,  the first words that came to me were these: "Every man I've ever truly loved has been married, gay or dead."

When I reported that dream to my therapist, she was pensive for a few, long uncomfortably silent moments and said, "Well, at least these men are safe, right?"

I'm not so sure. 

There are two such men who are, for me, contemporary mystics: Howard Thurman and Jack Spong.  I love them both. Indeed, I have been taking them to my bed every night.

Howard Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981) was an influential African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades, wrote 21 books, and in 1944 helped found a multicultural church. Thurman was married twice. He had two children.

I first fell in love with him when I read that he had made this statement:
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
In explaining Jim Crow laws to his daughters, he said:
"The measure of a man's estimate of your strength is the kind of weapons he feels that he must use in order to hold you fast in a prescribed place."
And, of course, his poem about Christmas happily finds its way onto at least one Christmas card that comes into my mailbox each year:
"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart."

The Search For Common Ground; An Inquiry into The Basis of Man's Experience of Community.
John ("Jack") Shelby Spong (born June 16, 1931), is now 83 years young, is alive and well and living in New Jersey and is, perhaps, one of the leading liberal Christian leaders alive today. He has been married twice. Together with his beloved wife, Christine, they have five grown children.

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with Jack Spong. It was at a clergy day in 1989 in the Diocese of Maryland where I was working on the front lines in the early days of the AIDS pandemic.

I can not tell you what it was like to hear a bishop in the church say these words:
"We've got to deal with the fact that the church has been violently prejudiced against gay people. We've murdered them; we've burned them at the stake; we've run them out of town for something over which they have no control. And, that's immoral."
Remember: This was 1989. America was in absolute turmoil over the AIDS crisis. Not only was this bishop not equating AIDS with being gay, he was affirming that particular sexual orientation. Not only that, he was calling the church "violently prejudiced" as well as "immoral" for what it had done to LGBT people. All in the name of God and Jesus, of course.

If I hadn't been there myself to hear the words come out of his mouth and someone had reported it to me, I would have gasped right out loud and called them a liar right to their face.

Jack has said a number of equally amazing things, most of which have to do with scriptures, which he still reads and studies voraciously. And, for his troubles, he has been called the Anti-Christ.

For saying things like this:
I think that the best way to view the Gospels is to view them as a magnificent portrait being painted by Jewish artists to try and capture the essence of a God of experience that they believed they had with Jesus of Nazareth.

And, this:
I believe that is what the God experience does for us. It calls us beyond the limits into the fullness of life - into a capacity to love people we are not taught to love - and into an ability to be who we are.
And, this:
Christianity is not about the divine becoming human so much as it is about the human becoming divine. That is a paradigm shift of the first order. 
And, for all this and so many other reason, he has been called "The Anglican Nightmare" - a moniker he wears proudly.  Because he's earned it. 

These two men have kept company with me of late, as I lay in my bed in some of those long midnight hours when morning seems but a dream vaguely remembered. 
I have found myself reading over some of their books, especially the passages I long ago underlined in pencil or pen or highlighted in rude neon yellow.  
Perhaps it was the hour and my exhaustion, but I think I've detected a scent of profound similarity in their words. It's just a puff of a whiff of a hint which carries the same suggestion of deep calling out to deep, of study called into further, closer examination, of of thought and emotion called into action.

Which is odd, actually. One man could not be more different from the other in terms that go beyond the superficial obvious of their racial differences.

Both men have been described as being prophetic. However, Thurman's method is much more akin to the work of the prophet Nathan than to the public performative prophecy of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Both Nathan and Thurman offer an alternative; a prophetic word that is aimed at inspiring and convicting individuals who will then go on to live lives of influence for justice.

Spong has been said to be more like Elijah and Daniel, who know how the story ends and call on the whole of society for a more just society. His early work of preaching and teaching was far more confrontational, with deep roots in the social gospel. 

And yet, that which they share is so profound as to obviate their dissimilarities.

It is their love of God as they know God in Christ Jesus which prompts them to move beyond cultural and racial and religiously imposed boundaries of thought and definition and propriety that, paradoxically binds them together. Well, at least in my mind and in my heart.

I have called these men "Contemporary Mystics" by which I mean to describe a person who "seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect".

Can it be that mysticism  moves a person to a place beyond mere spirituality and into a place where we might actually find and then love mercy and, in doing so, find and then do justice?

Does the prophetic call of Micah to "love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with God" have the order reversed?  In order to be faithful to that prophet's call which Jesus embraced, must we first walk humbly (I prefer the translation 'attentively') with God before we can, in fact, arrive at a place where we are able to be both compassionate and just?

I think I've always known this.

I know it more deeply now.

As I begin to understand that I am, in so many ways, in the spiritual infancy of my soul's development, I am coming to believe that religious institutions, at their best, help people develop, nourish and sustain their spirituality - the process of personal transformation in accordance with religious ideals.

Are we to stop there? Being shaped and formed only in accordance with religious ideals? Is there a deeper, more profound call in the formation and reformation and transformation of our souls and minds and bodies so that we might be reconciled with our selves, our neighbor and our God?

No wonder there is very little place in the institutional church for mysticism.

Mysticism is a dangerous path to follow, leading those courageous pilgrims to places which lead not down a lovely primrose path for a closer walk with sweet baby Jesus meek and mild; rather the journey of mysticism often leads to a cage where one is locked into a fierce struggle with a wild, unknown creature, only to emerge with a new sense of self and a heart ablaze with a need to teach others what we have experienced and learned.

And, perhaps with a limp, but at least a new way of walking and carrying oneself in the world.

No wonder religious leaders throughout the centuries have despised the prophets who call people into the personal transformation of mysticism.

Mostly, we just like to talk about prophets and quote them and tell their stories - not (God forbid!) actually live into the prophetic call. Or, admit that they make us uncomfortable.

However, when we discover mystics in our midst - contemporary mystics - we often mock and ridicule them,  or wrinkle our noses and describe them as bitter and angry and call them "Anglican Nightmares" like Spong or attempted to diminish the importance of the work of Thurman because he was not on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

Which is why I love these two men. Neither one gay. Both married. Twice. One dead. One alive.

Neither one could be described as "safe". 

Both affirm for me the new path on which my soul has been traveling of late, more deeply into that "mystical sweet communion" that our faith sings about and points to but rarely dares to venture and explore and more fully discover.

It's a strange and dangerous and new but vaguely familiar terrain.

Thurman describes it for me in a short reflection he called "22. Indebted to a Vast Host" in his book "Meditations of the Heart".

He describes a chance observation of a "very ordinary-looking man" who was walking near the close of the day on a nearby sidewalk. Not three feet from the curb, a group of birds was pecking away at a small opening in the side of the paper bag. They were quarreling as they pecked as they tried to figure out the best way to get into the crumbs that were held inside.

The man walked over to the bag which set the birds flying off into a respectful distance to watch what he would do.  Turning it first with his foot, he then picked up the bag and dumped its entire contents onto the pavement. Then, without so much as a sigh or a shrug, he continued his journey.

No sooner did he leave than the birds returned, overjoyed to discover that a miracle had taken place. "Instead of a bag full of hidden crumbs, only a glimpse of which they had seen, there was before them now a full abundance for satisfying their need."

And the man? He just kept walking, oblivious to what he had done. He did not stop to look back over his shoulder. Neither did he stop a safe distance away to observe the fruits of his effort. He had no idea that his seemingly random gesture had been an enormous kindness to those birds, nor did it seem to matter. He took no opportunity to congratulate himself on his generosity or sensitivity to the plight of these little ones.

No, he just kept walking.

Thurman writes:
Any careful scrutiny of one's own life will reveal the fact that we have been in the predicament of the birds again and again. The thing one needed was somewhat in evidence but out of reach. With all of one's resources, one worked away at the opening, trying first one attack and then another; then some stranger, some unknown writer, some passing comment from another, did the needful thing.

We all of us are indebted to a vast host of anonymous persons without whom some necessity would not have been available, some good which came to us, we would have missed.

It is not too farfetched to say that living is itself an act of interdependence. 

However strong we may think we are, we are constantly leaning on others. However self-sufficient we are, our strength is always being supplied by others unknown to us whose paths led them down our street or by our house at the moment we need the light they could give.

We are all of us the birds and we are all of us the man. It is the way of life; it is one of the means by which God activates Himself (sic) in the texture of human life and human experience. 
In his last book, "The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic," Jack writes:
"I resonate significantly with the retired bishop who once said to me, 'The older I get the more deeply I believe, but the less beliefs I have."
I do believe more and more in the mutual interdependence at the heart of the human enterprise as well as our utter dependency on The Divine which calls us beyond our limits and into the fullness of life, making us, paradoxically, more liberated to love and care and serve and to become more and more who we are and were created to be from the beginning.

Which is why I choose, less and less, to put my faith or belief in the human-made structures that attempt to hold faith and belief in place. 

It's a dangerous thing to be in love with contemporary mystics.

The risk is that you just might place yourself on a path that leads to becoming one yourself.


rbarenblat said...

Beautiful. Thank you for this.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Comparing Spong with biblical prophets? What a sick joke! He is more like Pontius "What is truth?* Pilate. Both thought they were doing the world a favor by making sure that Jesus was dead in the tomb...


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Michael, Michael, Michael,

There are all kinds of prophets, not just the ones you want to hear.

And there are mystics - ancient and new.

I'm not one and neither are you.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing you cite in his writings or that I have ever seen that makes me think that Spong "seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute." It's difficult to think that this man prays at all: to Whom and why? Rather his public persona is more of a showboat who mouths some of his pithy summaries of the work of historical-criticism, getting media PR only because of his miter and his disdainful WASPish attitude toward his critics. If he wasn't an Episcopalian bishop, he wouldn't stand out any more than any other Harvard or Yale Divinity School prof holding the same heretical ideas.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Why, Michael! I finally figured it out! You're JEALOUS. Yes! You are jealous of Jack Spong. And, I mean, it's so unfair, really! You are so much more faithful to the church's teaching and discipline and tradition, and here's this guy whose prayer life is not anything that YOU would embrace and he's hogging the spotlight that rightly belongs to you.

And, he's got a mitre and a purple shirt - something I bet you dream about nightly. I mean, if only you had those things, Harvard and Yale might hire you, too.

Oh, and, Michael? It's "Episcopal bishop". Not "Episcopalian bishop". I mean, as long as you've got one little teeny tiny piece of a public forum, might as well not embarrass yourself.

Your transparency and predictability are really getting wearisome. Why DO you continue to come here and leave these .... comments?

I feel like I'm in the sixth grade, sitting in front of you in class, and you just love pulling my pony tail. Sheesh!

Anonymous said...

Jealous? No. I wouldn't want to be a RCC bishop, much less a TEC one.

Infuriated that a "bishop," who is charged to defend the Faith once delivered to the saints, instead takes a bulldozer to it? Very.

His dismissive attitude toward his critics is simply insult to injury.

I happened to interject on this thread because as a spiritual director, I happen to have a real mystic among my directees. She has nothing in common with the public persona of Spong. Since you seem to know him personally, perhaps he has a private side at odds with his public face. I wouldn't know. But the damage he has done to Christianity has been significant. And he certainly gives no public evidence of a mystical side as far as I can see.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, Michael, methinks thou dost protest too much!

I worked for Bishop Spong for five years as his Cannon Missioner. He is a most pastoral man, gentle and kind and gracious. Christianity seems to have done just fine befor andd during his lifetime and, I suspect, it will do just fine after he takes his leave of this earth and meets God face to face, even though people will be reading his books long after you meet Jack Spong in heaven where he will greet you warmly and with generosity of spirit.

I know stuff "happens" and I believe in coincidence but, really, Michael, you come here way too often and leave messages that are the verbal equivalent of a 6th grade boy who doesn't know how to behave around the girl in the class he really does like but thinks he isn't supposed to so he torments her by snapping elastic bands or pulling her pig tails.

Honestly, MichaelYou're not fooling anyone but yourself, you know.

David said...

Mother Elizabeth
Respectfully, I'd suggest that Michael's "issue" is even deeper than jealousy: he's mistaking an 'institution' for the Sacramental nature of Life itself. An institution is implicitly an object- something which one holds/takes/uses, where as Life.... as noisy/confusing/multi-faceted/messy/breath-taking/painful/affirming/joyous/silly/profound/senseless as it is; it is sacramentally sacred, and beyond objectification. my sense has always been that Bishop Spong is one of those rare beings, who has owned the God-given grace he's received to actually engage with all those adjectives I've cited: to step on to the dancefloor of our sacred lives, rather than just critique the ambiance; write a critique on the ensemble or analize his fellow dancers. he's listened to the music; opened himself to it overtaking him and showing him the moves... and speaking of dancing, you're pretty danged deft on your feet, yourself, dearest Elizabeth

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, David. You're right, of course. Sometimes, I just get weary of Michael metaphorically pulling my pony tales.