Monday, January 30, 2017

Art of Repetition with Variation



Repetition has a trickster quality, at first take seeming almost inartistic; and then, if we can shake off a bit of presumption, of presumed superiority, if we recognize our kinship with the noodlehead, we just might be positioned for awakening to a deeper level of feeling or understanding. Godly qualities like peace, justice, and love contain layer after layer with access available only by patient walking, step by step, through experiences and reflections that develop ability to see the hand of God and hear further into the Voice. Robert Alter’s chapter on repetition in The Art of Biblical Narrative reminds us of the power of the word that anticipates the phenomena of creation. He quotes Martin Buber on the biblical convention off “Leitwort”:
"a word or root-word that recurs significantly in a text, in a continuum of texts or in a configuration of texts: by following these repetitions, one is able to decipher or grasp a meaning of the text, or at any rate, the meaning will be revealed more strikingly" (p. 93).
Alter illustrates with the transition from Saul to David as King involving variations on the words “listen,” “voice,” and “word.” Saul, perhaps as a model for most of us, was rather slow to hear the word that said “to listen is better than sacrifice” (I Sam. 15:22).
My experience in teaching Good Stories continually proves the gift of re-telling. For example, we circle around a theme or character type and call this “amplification.” The Lazy Jack story was added to Good Stories to amplify Epaminondas with the way each fails to adapt. And then the so-called Lazy Man in “Buried Treasure” (also called “Tatema”) came in more recently to amplify Lazy Jack. The Tatema character allows us to move deeper into the strange way humans devalue persons and miss the gift they hold because the so-called lazy person is the one who stops the runaway horse and gets the silver coins that the Working Man only sees as stinky mud. 
But it took this sixth or eighth repetition for me to feel a particular value, an affection, for the Working Man whom on earlier takes I’d dismissively seen simply as a rather crass materialist. This time, when applying the strategy of taking the whole story inside as well as making external applications, I appreciated the connection between the two characters. The working man delivers the treasure to the horse-stopping man’s house. Like Lazy Jack’s ethic of showing up at work day after day even when he’s devalued each time, the working man does the grunt work. The two figures in Tatema are called compadres (Wilson Hudson, Healer of Los Olmos, p. 128-) suggesting a connection even stronger than friendship. 

I’ve been so fascinated with the one who dramatically stops the horse, that I’ve missed listening to the message from the worker. This time I began to realize that I might want to feel more appreciation for the part of me that just shows up. To be on-time for over a hundred beginnings of a semester and almost every class session in those forty years—while not the breath-stopping moment—still has merit. If we’re going to advance peace and justice, both on the inner and the outer spaces, complementary roles need to be valued, even when they fuss and just “don’t get” each other.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Going in Circles

Circular Labyrinth, near chapel, University of Maryland campus


Sometimes going in circles is a good thing. Maybe it just feels deja vu, really makes a spiral, or trues like Rilke’s path around a magnetic center:
I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song.”

Translation by Robert Bly, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, pp. 12-13
Take this week’s Good Stories class for example. We moved about the “Buried Treasure.” Wilson Hudson prefaces his account of the tale by saying he heard it told by a blind shepherd in western Jalisco, Mexico. Imagine a blind shepherd on the hillsides along the Pacific! Tending lambs beyond the edges of sight, trusting hidden knowledge. Maybe a deeper knowing is the only guide to the center.
Perhaps shaping, perfecting, takes many circles around a centering image, like a potter’s wheel. “Do you love me?” was asked Peter three times, moving the meaning deeper: “Shepherd my sheep” (Berean Study Bible, Jn 21: 15-17). The often memorized Psalm reminds us over and over, The Lord is my shepherd.
The “Buried Treasure” itself isn’t explicitly about herding sheep, but it is about hidden knowledge. One of the central characters is seen as a lazy man, and yet he’s the one able to stop the runaway horse that’s mounted by a spirit figure. We should realize presuming labels, like “lazy,” sometimes mirrors a different blindness. If our career circles God, the world’s labels have to be let go because status, possession, being liked, and all other desires of material existence mar the inner vision.
When the protagonist manifests true character in catching the horse, the spirit figure names a gift. It’s a double naming: 1) The person’s unique identity has been enacted and witnessed; in this case, destiny manifests by going in search of the spring (a “water of life” motif), next being met by the runaway horse (meeting with spirit), and then taking the risk of grabbing the horse’s bit to restore peace. 2) The spirit figure tells that this act, this manifestation of destiny, allows the gift to be revealed. In the story, the gift is called the “tatema” and that’s explained as a treasure than “can be found only by supernatural aid and that can be taken out of hiding only by the person to whom it is revealed” (p. 129, Wilson Hudson, Healer of Los Olmos). 
The rest of the story then illustrates the tatema as the person who lives by faith (“to whom God wishes to give, God gives, even if God has to push it in through the window”) receives the bounty, and the one who lives by the material vision sees only smelly mud, until gaining a final insight.
Of course, I'd rather identify only with the hero catching the runaway horse, but more frequently it's the small insight that waits daily at the edge of vision. That final spark of apprehension might be all we get. But let’s not dismiss the bit of insight. If it’s enough to turn our attention toward that magnetic center, then an imprisoning hypnotic spell might be broken. What a gift! 
Perhaps every spiritual tradition already offers the blessing, and it awaits a person’s capacity to gain sight of it. The psalmist promised it: still waters, restoration of soul, presence, home. Jesus says we’re given talents, to use or to bury. From the Islamic tradition, we’re connected with “a hidden treasure.” (For example, see commentary on Ibn Arabi and the hadith qudsî: http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/addas1.html .) In the Kuan Yin story that we tell in Good Stories, the bodhisattva brings the gift of embodied compassion.

The mystifying circular phenomenon comes from such promises. A person manifests his or her unique gift, the talent, the indwelling spirit; and that actualization transforms, in a way, to God, the center of life, the hidden treasure. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Love of God

This Morning's Window Opens onto Snow & Sun

   To add texture and splendor to Love, open windows of anger, commands, and wonder. In the quotations leading into Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden, he includes one from Thoreau’s Journal: 
“I do not know where to find in any literature, whether ancient or modern, any adequate account of that nature with which I am acquainted. Mythology comes nearest to it of any.” 
In a somewhat similar puzzlement, I do not know where to find the meaning of “the love of God” (but teaching-stories whisper invitations). Of course, like Thoreau’s acquaintance with nature, it’s hardly a stranger; instead, when a treasure is long held close, sometimes new windows open.
     My previous post noted several spiritual verses giving this the highest priority: “love God more than all else.” The commentary on Rumi’s Mathnawi even pushes us to consider that the essence of any love is found in love of God: “When I say ‘love,’ I mean love of God” (Listen, p. 252). 
     Perhaps one window that’s opening has to do with anger. Love is more than not-angry; yet as appparent opposites often inform each other, perhaps a path to the love of God passes through anger. When someone we love gets taken from us, if we believe in an all-powerful deity, how can we avoid feeling hurt, betrayed, even angry. Of course, the book of Job offers guidance. C.S. Lewis rewrote it in dealing with the loss of Joy, the love of his life. Perhaps to love God requires going through the shadow of death. Harold Kushner’s ending to his second book on Job includes the embodied knowing of anger in the pathway to the love of God: 
“I like Job, respond…I repudiate my past accusations, my doubts, even my anger. I have experienced the reality of God. I know that I am not alone, and, vulnerable mortal that I am, I am comforted” (p. 202). 
Stephen Mitchell, recommended by Kushner for expressing the verses as a poet, translates Job 42:6: “Therefore I will be quiet/ comforted that I am dust” (p. 88, The Book of Job).
     As conveyed in Job’s struggle, the Love of God seems not to be encompassed by human understanding. So I’m not surprised that Job’s condition as “quiet/comforted” leaves me unsatisfied, still yearning for more. Love, it seems, is multi-textured, a “many-splendored thing.” The texturing built through the suffering side of passion cannot be denied, as developed so magnificently in Job; and granting that, other textures may also be admitted, even when they seem incompatible, even paradoxical to the human mind. To recognize the limitation in our thinking is not to diminish the exercise and development of it; instead, a deepened knowing of the love of God depends on reaching as far into a human’s cognition and consciousness as one can stretch.
     Perhaps another window, adding texture and splendor, to the Love of God searches the relationship with commandment. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he transmitted that God is impassioned, “showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex 20:6 JPS translation; “mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments” KJ version; “showing loyalty to the thousandth/ of those that love me,/ of those that keep my commandments” Everett Fox translation).  
     As I’m looking through this window today, I’m wondering about the word “because.” When is the love relationship affirmed because a person obeys the command? Dad to child: “You do it because I tell you to!” While this tone may be necessary at certain times and force some levels of development, there must be more.
     My searching into this is not to question the necessity of submitting to God’s authority; instead, it’s to wonder about getting a sharpened perspective on the way it fits with living in a path of attraction. One of the many gifts of Rumi’s Mathnawi comes in the compelling push to clear the window/mirror. In order to clean away the rust that mars the surface of human perception, what could be better than the direction given by an Authority that has infinite knowledge and far superior love!
     Of other windows that open to this many-splendored thing, one already named but easily skipped past must be wonder. When a person wishes to trace the “trailing clouds of glory,” a portal might be along the singular lines of one’s unique fingerprint. Perhaps the love of God shows up in the enactment of the personal gift, the talent, and that’s key to living in the path of attraction. To track the fingerprint sometimes comes in clues as small and sweet as “I wonder…”
     While the wonder may be as huge as Job’s, it also plays in delicate, almost invisible lines, like the one I followed from a “nonsense tale” into a long journey leading to “spiritual verses,” "teaching-stories," and biblical narrative.  I feel Wordsworth's trailing clouds easily get lost in distraction, illusion, and deception. Guidance from God’s commands may have to clear the lens over one’s eyes in order to gain the heart’s vision. And for that I find stories invaluable, wonder tales. Robert Alter says that the Art of Biblical Narrative is for “a momentous revolution in consciousness” (p. 155).
“The biblical tale might usefully be regarded as a narrative experiment in the possibilities of moral, spiritual, and historical knowledge, undertaken through a process of studied contrasts between the variously limited knowledge of the human characters and the divine omniscience quietly but firmly represented by the narrator. From time to time, a human figure is granted special knowledge or foreknowledge, but only through God’s discretionary help. . . by the course through which some are made to pass from dangerous ignorance to necessary knowledge of self and other, and of God’s way.” (pp. 157-9)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Path of Attraction

“Such a spirit thinks of the body it has as a camel and goes down the roads of life on that camel. 
And the roads it travels are graced with the light of its self-disclosure.”  
Listen: Commentary on the Spiritual Couplets of Mevlana Rumi 
by Kenan Rifai and translated by Victoria Holbrook, p. 250.

        While building up the fire in our wood stove in the meditative time closer to midnight than dawn, the reflective time perhaps more open to be “graced with the light,” I noted the time/space calling for a comparable branch, midway between twig and log. Without that progression, the passionate first blaze fizzles, for densely-textured maturity waits upon the mid-range. A culture addicted to fiery youth—intoxications, excitements, flashy power—disdains the moderate climb, the development of moral sense; and without the enduring warmth of mature wisdom, the short-sighted body, or nation, seldom endures the night.
The phrase “path of attraction” notably commanded my attention about a decade ago. Fortunately, I was already past midlife, and so the seductive allure of “attraction” had already progressed from blonde to silver. Attraction’s range of meanings, like fire, spans from the quick blaze to enduring coal. By midlife, the gold of detachment-from-applause glimmered on the horizon, hinting that path-of-attraction gains value only according to the purity of the enacting vision. False gold coats the surface of snakeskin; it takes mature insight to penetrate to the depths of the mine that’s close to the source of gold, the home of goodness, the love of God.
Attraction can be like the twigs; love, lies so elusive, so easily mistaken for complete when but a taste of the sublime. Falling in love can be so easy, even addictive enough that when seared and burnt out, one still seeks the rush again, sometimes slanted into substitute romance, as in books or bottles, instead of suffering the midrange of passion. The path of attraction that leads toward the divine demands the desert, for without it, no oasis. 
So Rumi tells of camels. In one passage, the camel represents the human body possessed by lust and greed, so deluded to believe the thorn is the rose or the sweet date:
“The thorn-eating body is like a camel…/ O camel, you carry a bale of roses / A hundred rose gardens grow from its fragrance / Your preference is for sand and great big thorns… / How long will you cry, ‘Where is that rose garden?’” 
(Mathnawi, Book I, couplets 1995-1998, p. 246 in Listen)

The world around is grazing on thorns as if in a bed of roses, as if thorns taste sweet as dates, as if greed/lust/hate compose love. Prophets across time have called, “Wake up!” But perhaps to advance the stream of consciousness a mid-range is required, a camel-journey. Immediate apprehension of the tragic thorn diet, like a flood of fire, hurts too much. 

Rifai in his commentary on Rumi’s camel talks of this:
“But you who have lost the ability to tell the difference between good and evil due to varied kinds of greed you cannot see the matchless purity. . . In reality it is when you have begun to see the dates of worldly lust and greed as thorns that your spirit, unconquered by the soul, will taste the felicity more delicious than the most delightful dates.. . . Such a spirit thinks of the body it has as a camel and goes down the roads of life on that camel. And the roads it travels are graced with the light of its self-disclosure.   Although that is the case, the camel is usually unaware of the rose garden it carries on its back. The camel is unaware that because of the rose scent it carries, many a rose garden sprouts up on the roads it travels, and many a rose of gnosis blooms in these gardens. Because its eye is always on the thorns and sandpits of the world. Every soul looks out for the food and worldly goods it desires. But let us see how long he will believe that a rose will bloom from a giant thorn, how long will he live with the goal of picking roses from desert thorn bushes.   If the thorns of soul-mouthfuls stick in the eye of one’s spirit, one is probably deprived of the capacity to see . . . How will such people see God’s rosebeds of gnosis; how can they stroll these gardens? This is such a strange self-disclosure that sometimes a person cannot fit in all the world. Then you see that he is wandering around on the head of a thorn (pp. 249-250).

To tend a fire through the long night, like a camel crossing the desert, needs a scent of the water of life, like the path of attraction. Love, of course, is the answer. It’s an act of faith, and in all faiths, the ultimate answer is the love of God. Yet the answer holds a great mystery. In this camel section, Rumi tells the problem: “Love and spirit are, both of them, veiled and hid” (couplet 2021, p. 247 in Listen).  
And yet, for the lifetime journey on the path of attraction, we have good stories and spiritual verses to light the way. An oasis comes in Rumi’s Mathnawi and, of course, the spiritual verses of all faiths.

from Rifai’s commentary on the Mathnawi, page 252:
“Consider that in my tongue words like love, spirit and beloved are in reality metaphorical ways of speaking.    When I say “love,” I mean love of God; if I say “spirit,” I mean the light separated off from God, and if I say “bride” or “beloved” I mean only that greatest Beloved.”
from Deuteronomy 10:12-13 
“And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the LORD’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good.” [Tanakh; new JPS translation]
from Micah 6:8
“It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, And what the LORD doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” [Tanakh; new JPS translation]
from I John 5:3; I Cor 13:13
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” "the greatest of these is love" 
from Qur’an 2:165 
“those who have attained to faith love God more than all else”

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Good Stories, Moral Sense, & Wonder


   The following has two parts: one is more abstract/conceptual and the other is more concrete/personal. The place to engage or begin or skip depends on the individual. I recommend going where it feels right. To journey by the path of attraction takes refining and grace. Good stories are guides.

Truth and Integrity of Story: A Rationale for Investing in a “Nonsense Tale”
   Some of us believe that stories carry and nurture us close to the essential nature of humans, closer than usually happens through factual data, scientific investigation, and academic theory. For example, if we are made in the image of God, the reach toward the deity pulls us beyond the known and into mystery. In order to lean into the Unknown of our divine inheritance, the movement is by likeness instead of by description. Narrative provides the body around likeness through image and metaphor by enfleshing the fable, parable, myth, and all the relational forms of story. Stories thereby shape our moral sense. 
   While I was probably attracted to teaching-stories in early days, the real jolt into increased awareness and articulation came in midlife when Gioia Timpanelli modeled the way a story comes uniquely true in each telling. She explained and moreso demonstrated the paradoxical double: telling true to the source and simultaneously true to the self. On a smaller scale than Rumi’s seven forms of discourse interwoven in the Mathnawi [See Alan Williams’ Introduction to Rumi: Spiritual Verses, pages xx-xxix.], Timpanelli’s stories incorporated explanatory moments into the narrative as she sensed it helpful to navigate this double in a particular telling. For example, when telling “Hans My Hedgehog,” she perceived that some of us were not getting the potential from the archetypal image of the hedge; so she shifted into a brief commentary on the hedge as the boundary between the civilized and the wild. 
   While some persons object to an interruption to the flow of a narrative, Gioia’s commentary on the hedge opened a whole world of meaning for me that greatly enriched the Grimms’ tale. In this model, storytelling mediates the universal origin and the personal/social truth of the moment. The study and experience of varied versions of a story provide illustration of this mediation as will be shown in the following section.
   In holding the two poles, universal and personal, stories move in search of the authentic; that is, teaching-stories guide the discovery and development of character that has integrity to the individual and thus provide authority and command toward the person’s destiny. Trying to find authentic source material may lead toward specific texts, but more importantly the searching informs about the genius of mind, soul, spirit, and body. The search takes one forward and back to the garden. In other words, the making and remaking of a story happens under the branches of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Good stories, as stated above, are about moral sense.

An Exploration of Variations of a “Nonsense” Tale
   I’ve been looking again (and again many times) at a series of versions of a very special story.  I don’t remember when Mom began telling me the story about the story. It might not have been until I’d become a dad myself and was thus drawn to storytelling as it edges into the numinous threshold where the two worlds touch. Becoming a parent blew me away with the wonder of life, way past textbooks and scholarly journals. Also, in more simple logistical terms, storytelling increased the chances of getting an active child to sleep sooner; in deeper levels, story intertwined the spiritual with the material, the divine into the human. 
   In her later years, Mom told me several times that I was the only one of her five children who remembered the story of Epaminondas, but I don’t remember remembering it.  She said she’d first told it to me three decades before I became Dad, when at age six I’d been unconscious in the hospital for three days after falling out of the family car. She said the doctors told her there was nothing else they could do and so she told me the story of Epaminondas. And soon enough I woke up. 
   Perhaps the compelling return to this story wonders about her choice. It just didn’t make sense that she’d come up with “Epaminondas.” The story often gets labeled “a nonsense tale,” including in its earliest print publication in 1907 by Sara Cone Bryant (Stories to Tell to Children, p. 63). But no one in the family admits to seeing that book or any other of the print publications available in 1953. How strange that she’d pick a nonsense tale! But as I try to explain to my college students when I tell “Epaminondas,” sometimes nonsense leans toward not-yet-sense, and thus we’re provoked to wonder in our drive to make meaning. Stories are the playground of wonder, well told making the invitation for children of all ages.
   My wondering about the story might easily have been put to rest immediately if Mom had chosen a Bible story. Jonah from the great fish, Joseph from the well, and Jesus with Lazarus would all fit with the unconscious/hospital situation; abundant Bible stories were within the repertoire in her memory. Yes, her little sermons were to be expected; but where in the world did she come up with Epaminondas? Why would she come up with a story about a boy going to and from grandmother’s house, repeatedly failing to adapt, and ending up stepping in pies? 
   The puzzle has taken me not toward historical truth but into the wonder of story, into shadows of the unconscious, and the mists of gnosis. The early print version of Epaminondas featured a phrase each time Epaminondas messed up: “You don’t have the sense you were born with!” His mother announces this in dialect and with some variation six times. 
   When the story was picked up in primers for second and third graders, explicit statement of not having sense was removed, but the main character’s failure to adapt stayed as the primary feature. Depending on the speaker’s telling and the listener’s imagination, consequences for messing up ranged from silly (butter melting on his head) to tragic. In the 1907 first edition (the earliest print version I’ve found), “the puppy-dog was dead” (p. 65); but when the story came out as a separate booklet in 1935, the result of Epaminondas’ failure to adapt was a puppy “almost dead.” The primers left the fate undetermined as the puppy was cooled in the water three times and brought home. When the condition of the puppy is left open, I believe the listener is not so focused on the puppy and his/her moral sense might be nurtured, even if it's inarticulate and semi-conscious. The moral sense has opportunity to grasp the importance of adapting to situational changes rather than following directions in an overly literal manner.
   Nobody’s been able to figure out where Mom picked up that tale, but almost 30 years after she’d told it to me in the hospital, Mom was telling it to my three-year-old daughter on October 9, 1982 when I audio recorded it. My daughter’s participation in the telling showed that she’d already heard the story enough times that she anticipated events. Then about ten months after recording Mom telling it, I taped my daughter telling it. Of course, I’ve been telling versions of the story for a long time also. By looking at the variations across three generations and by making comparisons with print versions across a hundred years, we are offered insight about the nature and transmission of oral narrative.
   As already noted above, the stuff of “wonder” wants elaboration. Where has it come from and where has it gone? Have smart phones swallowed it? Are we still, as parents, grandparents, and teachers, able to nurture the space that crosses the two worlds? 
   What about the nature of “moral sense,” especially as it relates to a sense-born-with? In Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom discusses contemporary research on the moral sense that researchers detect already shown by children in their earliest years. Sara Cone Bryant’s introduction in the 1907 book shows her commitment to supporting children’s moral sense and the way she features “Epaminondas” in doing so:

“It is safe to assume that the child [who applies Epaminondas] will make fewer needless mistakes for a long time because of the wholesome reminder of his likeness with one who [lacks] “the sense he was born with.” And what occurred so visibly in his case goes on quietly in the hidden recesses of the mind in many cases. One “Epaminondas” is worth three lectures” (xxii-xxiii).

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Good Stories: A Treatment for Addiction to False Certainty


Layers of meaning circle and deepen into the heart, the essence, of the divine.


   The finest model of and manual on teaching-story that I’ve found has to be Mevlana Rumi’s Mathnawi. As perhaps befitting a gateway and excursion into the Unseen, the structure of the work sometimes seems mystifying. Seyyed Nasr in the Foreword to Rumi’s Mystical Design says:
“Over the centuries Persian speakers, as well as those reading the Mathnawi in other languages from Turkish to English, have benefited immensely from the content of the work on these levels. But for nearly all of them the work as a whole has appeared as a rambling collection of narratives like a vast ocean into which one must dive deeply in order to discover the precious pearls contained therein” (p. viii).
One of the greatest blessings bestowed through Rumi’s work (which includes the poets, translators, and interpreters of it) comes in the courageous engagement with the shape-shifting force we often give the name “Meaning.” How can a person make sense of a life that at any moment may thrill with unspeakable love and at the next drive home paralyzing tragedy?

   At times, to lay oneself bare before the experience of life becomes too much. Why do innocent children suffer? How can there be an all-powerful God given this as well as the torture of animals and earth? In the next to last page of The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, Harold Kushner, says:
“I find God in the miracle of human resilience in the face of the world’s imperfections, even the world’s cruelty. How are people able to survive tragedy (and that is what you do with tragedy: you don’t understand or explain it, you survive it)?” 
Although he says “you don’t understand or explain it,” as demonstrated in his two books on the problem of suffering, Kushner doesn’t mean that humans throw away the search for meaning. Forging our way amid the treacherous making of good versus evil defines us, even in the image of God, as Kushner asserts, “God is moral” (p. 197). The human journey distills in developing and living our moral sense.

   I’ve come to believe that the gift of story, especially teaching-story, allows me to approach the nature of meaning, including moral sense, in this world that stretches between love and loss. For several months, at about five pages a day, I’ve been absorbing as much of Rumi’s Mathnawi as can soak in from the wonderful book, Listen: Commentary on the Spiritual Couplets of Mevlana Rumi by Kenan Rifai and translated by Victoria Holbrook. A few days ago, my reading was shocked still with a three-word passage: “Meaning is God.”
“The Meaning is God…/ The sea of meanings of the Lord of all realms/ All of the tiers of the earth and of the sky/ Are chaff on that sea of spirit flowing by/ The jumping dance of chaff upon the water/ Comes of the agitation of the water…” (p. 429, ~couplet 3378-)
It’s a line from Book 1 of Rumi’s Mathnawi that I’d read several times in different translations, but they’d translated the Persian word as “Reality” instead of “Meaning.” 

   My breath stopped at “Meaning is God,” perhaps because it offered relief, if I stopped to take it. The pursuit of meaning, especially in an educational context that believes in right answers and a world defined by scientific certainty, pushes for a certain kind of knowing as if 100% is possible. But if God is the answer and accepting God as greater than human comprehension, then when meaning is God it’s okay, even necessary, to pursue truth and meaning with grace in not getting it.  Of course, we all know this; and still, the reassurance feels good. 

   And more importantly, humans need an ever-present reminder of the danger of satanic pride that veils our knowing that we don't know and that cloaks us in an aggressive arrogance of acting as if we carry the whole truth.  Rumi compares our knowing to a child riding a stick-horse:
"Your thoughts and fancy, feelings and perception   are like the hobby-horse of children's play."      Translation by Alan Williams, Rumi: Spiritual Verses, p. 316.
   Holbrook’s translation “Meaning is God” offered a special gift to me because it gave a clean, sharp thrust into the quick edge where the desire to know risks running into the presumption of knowing. The search for meaning can be devouring. Rumi’s layered development in this section on Reality included a story about a lion who deserved all that was found, not just the biggest portion. Another layer was about Balaam and Satan who were/are worshipped by people and who had “pride in perfection.” Rumi says there are “hundreds of thousands” like those two in arrogance, “coming to believe in their own lies.” Rumi advises us “You are God’s favorite, but within your bounds” (pp. 425-6 in Rifai). 

Meaning is God.

   Imagine the permeating reduction in hatred and war, the easing of self-inflicted personal damage, and no telling how much more if only we understood and accepted that Truth. The presumptions of dogmatic religious, political, and scientific agendas could be tempered with humility and thus reduce the probability of future crusades, witch hunts, and terrorist attacks. Since the danger of hubris has been long acknowledged as has the blessing for the meek, what keeps us from advancing into compassion?

   Rifai’s commentary on this includes:
   “The obstacles set up on the paths of such people [who cannot see the divine oneness and beauty, the light of God] are as wide as deserts. They think this broadness is wealth, plenty and ease.   They cannot tell that such deserts of position, fortune, wealth and lust are actually insurmountable walls of steel, and that all these obstacles have been set up according to the requirements of the measuring-out and destiny.   The human bodily eye cannot see these obstacles and imperfections pertaining to the soul, each of which is a trap…    As long as you fall in love with the beauty that is beloved of your [animal] soul and stay in love, you cannot see the light of the spiritual beloved.” 

   A significant value of accepting God, the great mystery, as Meaning as well as Truth and Reality, is reassurance. The human condition, when met with searching honesty, carries the born-with-sense of wonder, not certainty, and wander in search of the true original home or source. When our recognition that even given our best effort we come up short of complete meaning, we can feel reassured that, yes, that’s true. Our essence is to journey. Rumi puts it so piercingly, “I’m a slave to him who does not think he’s arrived” (p. 417). Each oasis in a layer of meaning is meant but for a short stay.
Each flower offers an oasis of wonder but for a short stay.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Truth in the New Year

Sunrise, Jan 1, 2017

“… truth comes relentlessly packaged in ambiguity, inscrutability, polyvalence. The revealed truth is always continually hidden, and we are left to be amazed and chagrined.”     Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary; David’s Truth: In Israel’s Imagination and Memory, 2nd ed. Augsburg Fortress, 2000, p. 4.  
Of course, most all of us seldom meet truth on those grounds. As educated children of the 20th Century, we’ve been schooled for facts, indoctrinated with behaviorism and the scientific method. And so we’re programmed to see half-truth as whole in a semi-drugged dullness where knowledge is (fake) news headlines, the scores, the entertainment buzz. It’s much easier to sleepwalk as if we’re not missing and much less in search for the truth that sets us free. How much of our lives remain as if chained “before the law” of Kafka’s parable, as if unaware of the admission by quantum physicists about a hundred years ago that even the best of science yields uncertainty and indeterminacy. To live in that spectrum of light demands growing into a different knowing, one that extends to a further dimension of love.

The year 2016 delivered a wake-up call, and yet already the dawn of the new year shows how easy to remain half-asleep. For living wide-awake in polyvalent truth is just too damn hard. We hear our voices pledging “one nation… justice for all”; and it hurts, if we are honest and awake, with a sharpened feeling of our failure to make this true.
But let’s not start off yet more cynical and disillusioned, let’s not seek yet more distraction from truth, and especially let’s not take out our anger, fear, and sadness on ourselves and others. Although the potential is much underdeveloped, we are wired for truth, for truth that contains “ambiguity, inscrutability, polyvalence.” We just have to accept our own incompleteness, tell true stories, live passionately and compassionately, love and walk on. 

My favorite story has a refrain about “the sense you are born with.” The narrative enacts meaning for this sense along the lines of evolutionary adaptation but more with the difficulties produced by prescriptive directions because such substitute-truth cannot adequately guide in a world that's constantly changing both at the inner and outer levels. Instead of asking for and giving information that presumes predictability of recipes, we need models of goodness that also release each individual toward his and her unique authenticity. I’m increasingly convinced that our “born-with” comes in moral sense and that this kind of knowing is cultivated through good stories.

Higher on the same page as the earlier quotation from Brueggemann, he develops the meaning and purpose of a good story:
“Currently we say the truth is polyvalent. That is, it moves in a variety of directions and cannot be reduced to a single formulation. That rich, varied discernment is obvious as we consider the various pieces of literature that come from different hands in different contexts for different purposes. Each of them touches a dimension of this ‘larger-than-life’ person who is surely not larger than truth. But this same polyvalent tendency is also evident in each particular narrative, because the person of David is inscrutable. And therefore the narrative must always be a bit unsure. But that is what makes a good story.”
In other words, we are just hard wired for faith, not for facts. But being wired or wireless doesn’t guarantee 24/7 access. High-level functioning on faith takes hard work. We forget. We can easily recite “one nation… justice for all” and forget that the forefathers framed the nation in a context troubled by terrible presumptions of unequal rights and oppression (e.g., “The Founding Fathers and Slavery”; “The Women’s Crusade").

Truth pulls us ahead. Our cognitive, ethical, emotional, and even physical development comes through a continuous pursuit of truth, not the possession of it, and definitely not the presumption of having it, not using it to dominate other humans and not desecrating our non-human relations. We won’t advance toward truth by testing for facts. The unknown is approached not by exact knowledge alone but needs the extra help that comes in the courage of “as if.”

Good stories nurture the realm of likeness. Perhaps this dimension is entered and experienced best through parable, the narratives of all types that carry an along-side. Recall or find a favorite parable-type story, like the “Good Samaritan,” or King David’s confrontation by Nathan (II Samuel 12), or a compelling selection from Coleman Barks’ on Rumi’s teaching stories. Notice the way this kind of discourse prompts a second track, an “along-side” that promises to release a person from literal, exact-reproduction expectation or recipe-matching of the external authority. Polyvalence of the multiple tracks of truth holds the possibility of finding one’s own camel, the means of transport across the desert toward the water of life. 

The multivalent, even revolutionary (see especially Crossan’s work, e.g., On Parable) and certainly ethical, dimensionality of parable supports our way into the truth of the unknown. God the Truth extends into the unseen, not limited to that known by human senses of normal eyesight, hearing, taste and touch. In order to believe beyond the material world, good stories reach into metaphysical knowing where by faith we imagine the taste of the divine water of life, we feel the cool everflowing rivers of justice, and we experience union with the beloved.