In kindergarten or maybe it was first grade, when celebrating my first formal birthday party, I was allowed to invite six or seven children over for games and a slice of angelfood cake. One of the children, whom I invited, was a shy and kind child named T.J.
T.J. and I shared a short ride on the bus afterschool. We had wonderful conversations about our amazing snow and the even more amazing and seemingly unending bitter cold. We would breathe on the bus windows and draw pictures to share with one another to fill the time on the ride home.
I did not know T.J.’s dad, but I remember thinking he must be unkind because T.J. had to wear his jet black hair in a crewcut. Crewcuts were not in style. And, then, he had to wear an extra heavy winter cap all through the dead of those harsh winter months. But, those were his dad’s orders.
T.J. and his mother were new to the area, living just outside of city limits near a house where his paternal grandparents lived. His father was back from serving in Japan and had brought a Japanese bride home to the States.
T.J.’s mother was a stay-at-home mom who waited expectantly for him each day afterschool. The window, where she waited, carried a more expansive layer of frost than the other windows of the house. The frost on her window was from her patient and expectant breathing. As we approached T.J.’s stop, I could feel the terrible loneliness within that house. The house not quite in town and not quite in the country.
At the time, I thought that it must have been difficult having to wait for T.J.’ s return like that every day.
As a child, I did not understand anything about Japanese culture. But, I can tell you this. T.J.’s birthday present was the most carefully and exquisitely wrapped box among all of my presents. Inside of the box, there were layers upon layers of carefully folded tissue paper, concealing one satiny pair of little-girl underwear–snow-white and with a single rose or cherry-blossom embroidered along the elastic hem of one one leg. The gift was far too personal, too special and too good ever to be worn.
After opening T.J.’s gift, I was embarassed for my guest, his being the only boy at the party and his mom having selected such a private gift for him to present in a public setting. The notion of cultural context entered my understanding for the first time.
After late spring of that year, T.J. and his family moved away to a metropolitan area, a place where school was cancelled whenever it snowed. T.J. and I corresponded for awhile.
When I asked my father why T.J. had to move away, he said something about T.J.’s mother not having a sufficient amount of community in our city. And, I thought in my first-grade way, we need to make an effort to know one another, so that too much frost never builds up on that one window, where we wait expectantly for the one person to return home who is our connection to community.
Walking into one of my out-of-home, work spaces, I see that a professional acquaintance is on-duty. Upon seeing me, he immediately affects a deep frown and drops his shoulders in defeat.
“What is going on?” I ask, as I unpack my things at a table and pull out a chair.
We have had a couple of informal conversations, where we learned we had both spent time at geographic points far west of here.
“I so don’t want to be here today,” he says, gesturing around the almost empty space. “The basement thing is getting to me.”
“You are going to have to turn that around, if you want to find any joy here,” I respond sympathetically. “Look, you have windows on two out of four sides of this space. And they are full size. The windows face both west and south. I know it is raining today; but, on sunny days, you get the late afternoon sun.
“You are are warm and dry and safe,” I continue. “Plus, you have the privilege of entering your own private kiva everytime you come to work. This is a space of potential grounding and centering. How many people get to do that at work?”
He pauses to consider the perspective I offer him. “Yes, thank you for that–a kiva.”
I watch as his shoulders lift and this new perspective takes root in his consciousness, helping him reframe his perspective.
“A periodical decree of silence is not a torture but a blessing.” Mahatma Gandhi
The conscious and regular observation of silence is a powerful practice, affording its practitioners the opportunity to watch internal thought processes, as well as would-be verbal reactions to various stimuli.
In silence, we have the luxury of observing what “would have come out of our mouths” without saying anything. At some point, for most practitioners, there is the realization that many of our automatic verbal responses are merely part of our social or domestic conditioning and seldom the responses we would choose to make, if were able to live our lives from the inner sancta of our hearts or from the seat of pure Spirit.
When first instituting the practice of silence in our home, I was amazed by the number of my would-be statements and responses that fit three distinct catagories. The first catagory was dedicated to the expression of my wanting to change things to fit my perceived needs or agenda; the second was simple commands, orders or requests for assistance from family members; and the third catagory was filled with unvarnished complaints about some perceived “discomfort” on my part.
The issue of verbal complaint brought to mind the gentle admonition on the part of the late, Sufi teacher, Pir Vilayat, who said, “If only we could all stop complaining, we would all become saints.”
Contemplating Pir Vilayat’s observation, I realized–from an energetic perspective–I was using a great deal of my verbal expression “time” largely in an attempt to orchestrate others and their behavior to accommodate me and my perceived needs, wants and/or desires. I began wondering, what would happen if there were a complete cessation of my least efficient verbal patterns, those used to “adjust” other peoples’ living patterns, and a redirection of that energy toward my attempting to accommodate my personal wants and needs?
Thus far, what I have observed is that, by reforming at least some of my old verbal habits, I have been able to create additional space and energetic autonomy in my days. I have been able to grow closer to that space within my heart that is beyond my social and domestic conditioning; and, there is a growing sense of time spaciousness in any given day, if I choose to disengage verbally. In general, the regular observation of silence has proven to be a boon in the context of a dedicated spiritual practice.
P.S. Later in his life, Mahatma Gandhi practiced silence for a twenty-four hour period each week. Gandhi used his twenty-four hours of silence to attend to his extensive written correspondence, as well as describing it as becoming, ultimately, a “vital spiritual need.”
Several years ago, when I was reading Ram Dass’ book, Be Here Now, I was struck by the story he relates about the gift of a bag of oranges he had brought for his teacher, Maharaji. His teacher does not eat just one or two oranges but begins consuming the entire bag ferociously, almost finishing it in one sitting. Maharaji was not eating the oranges in order to assuage a personal appetite but in order to liberate Ram Dass from his karmic transgressions.
The idea of a senior teacher being able and willing to liberate disciples from karmic transgressions is a concept found in Indian, spiritual literature. A senior teacher may actually, voluntarily become ill to assist a student on the path of liberation and “burn up” her karmic transgressions in the fire of a high fever. The student is then free from the taint or haze of sin, if you will. Thus, in Indian tradition, the body is viewed as a tool of potential action through which one’s own Spirit may be purified or through which one may aid another person in her quest for purification and, ultimately, liberation (moksha).
There is a story about the Austrian artist, Oskar Kokoschka, who was commissioned to paint the portrait of a very prominent Viennese physician in the twentieth century. After the portrait was complete, the family was scandalized and refused to pay the artist’s fees because, instead of depicting the physician as the august sage and professional he was, at the time, Kokoschka painted the man with a vacant look and as a frail, feeble old man. Just six months after the painting was finished, the physician suffered a devasting stroke. It is said that the physician looked just as Kokoschka had portrayed him.
Visual artists are sometimes considered seers of sorts.
Jesus was a seer. This is how he knew what would become of his body and why he was tempted to take poison the night before his death by crucifixion. In classical, artistic representations, Jesus is given a halo, aureola or nimbus, which has stood as a symbol, in visual iconography, for the holy among us–both East and West–and has been a part of relgious portraiture for over two-thousand years. A nimbus is a symbol which sets the person wearing it apart, telling us–as readers of the visual–that this person is something or someone extraordinary, someone unique among us.
How do we become all that we are? How do we unsheath and grow our Light?
In India, visual depictions of the Lord Krishna, in classically painted religious iconography, show Krishna to be a robust man of blue. For most Westerners coming upon such a figure may seem surreal or other-worldly. The reason Sri Krishna is portrayed thus is that he is, in Reality, like the water of the ocean or the air of the sky–everywhere, required for living, omnipresent, visible, yet, invisible.
Scoop up a handful of water from the ocean or catch a jar full of air and what do you see? Nothing. And, in concentration, Everything. Plugging into and lighting up our own Divine spark means connecting to Source, through one of the world’s tried and true traditions. Allow Grace to lead the way.
The concept of transfiguration appears both in Christianity and Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). In modernity, Christian discussions regarding Jesus’ transfiguration generally focus on his garments turning white as snow–whether figurative or literal.
But, it is not Jesus’ garments that became changed; it was the manner in which He wore pure Spirit. His luminosity permeated and encompassed Him in an even more radiantly brilliant and pronounced manner with his transfiguration. The shift in Jesus’ visual presentation allowed the disciples accompanying him to see Jesus’ Divine Spirit more readily and clearly.
As a child, I was introduced to a fairytale, based upon a story most probably from the Brothers Grimm, in which a beautiful young woman—with a true and kind heart—was required to attend to the chores for her entire household.
This girl, like Cinderella, lives in her birth home, but exists under the “tyrannical rule” of her selfish stepmother and two uncharitable and insincere stepsisters, due to her parents’ premature deaths.
As the story goes, our unfortunate heroine is at the well one day fetching water for the household, when an elderly, beggar woman asks her for a drink of water. The girl obliges. And, because of the girl’s kindess, the beggar woman grants her an unusual gift. Each time the girl opens her mouth to speak, she produces diamonds, fresh rose buds and small trinkets of gold.
Now, when the girl’s stepmother finds out what has happened, she commands her own two daughters to take charge of fetching the water, requiring that they serve the beggar woman when she returns, in the hope that they too might receive such a gift.
A week passes, without the beggar woman returning. Then, on the seventh day, a young boy walking with a limp and the aid of a staff approaches the sisters, asking for a drink of water.
One sister, throws the dipper at the lad, telling him that he should fetch the water for himself, while the other sister turns her back on the boy in earnest disgust. Upon returning home, the two sisters begin to speak, learning that they too have been granted a gift in honor of their behavior.
Each stepsister, when she speaks, gasps in horror as small snakes, tiny toads and prickly burrs come from her mouth. It is said that the two sisters go screaming into the woods, never to be seen or heard from again.
Tibetan Buddhism puts forth four out of seven “commandments” concerning speech: No lying; No harsh speech; No divisive speech; No meaningless speech. (The remaining three “commandments” are as follows: No killing; No stealing; No sexual misconduct.) In Christianity, Jesus is said to have counseled his followers to say only, “yes” or “no,” unless guided to speak further on a topic with a clear statement and wording granted by the Holy Spirit.
Yet, despite the many guidelines and helpful recommendations from a variety of traditions, authentic and constructive speech remains one of the most difficult of traits to cultivate and maintain–even as a seeker works diligently to purify the heart. My experiental sense is that we have all spent some time in the woods for our inappropriate use of speech or that maybe–culturally–we should.
When we recall the most profoundly spiritual individuals of our acquaintance, we may be struck by their ability to display compassion and acceptance toward a broader social range of people than we ourselves would be willing to acknowledge publicly.
Spiritual seekers sometimes think that the exoteric or nominal religious affiliation of a profoundly spiritual person is the cause or reason for her being thus inclined or connected–when, in fact, a deep spiritual connection comes about as a result of an individual’s sincere heart, opening in longing for internal authenticity and an unbroken relationship with Grace, which is then coupled with a genuine respect for the religious forms of a given faith, which may be of her own choosing or as a result of circumstances of birth.
“You really believe that stuff?” a close friend of my husband’s, and now mine, asks me, with both incredulity and a solid dose of urbane, worldly disbelief. “About the virgin birth and all?” The second question is delivered almost as a challenge. Then, with a virtually indescribable vocal gesture, “Bphweh,” the speaker, Mark, dismisses me, and the conversation turns away from issues of Christian theology.
I do not remember the details about how the topic of Christian theology came up, except that Mark, my husband and I had been discussing aspects of our unique childhoods.
We, my husband and myself, were on our second or third afternoon as guests in Mark’s home—one of our few stop-overs on our annually repeated cross-country trips. Mark, a good friend and a supremely generous man, had opened his home yet again. He allowed us to visit him whenever we were travelling, creating space in his overly full schedule, as well as granting us a freshly made bed in a private room, with kitchen privileges, in his equally full apartment—first for the two of us and, eventually, for three.
Normally, when I think about theology, I consider myself an “action girl,” someone who is more concerned about “right action”—to quote the Buddhists—than, say, the details of personal belief, a set of professed theological positions or, even, a specific faith tradition. On that particular afternoon in Mark’s home, his emotive response to my having been raised as a Christian took me by surprise.
Yet, I had to acknowledge Mark’s response would probably have been consistent with the internal, gut-level responses of many of our academically-trained, international and more cosmopolitan friends. I also considered the observed responses among the adults in the context of a working, progressive Christian community—the number of mildly raised eyebrows over certain aspects of Jesus’ narrative during New-Testament readings. It was a case of M I R A C L E S, questions mark… “Well, that was then and this is now,” is the attitude that came seeping through at church. This attitude toward the “supernatural,” among adult members of the congregation (many of whom were also academics), seemed to propel church members even further along the road of taking concrete action toward the alleviation of social suffering in the community. At least that is how things appeared to me, from my childhood perspective.
Because my upbringing taught me to focus on behavior and service, rather than the details of theology and personal belief, at the time of the conversational exchange between Mark and myself, I remained silent, choosing to ponder his questions for a few days and then move on. And, in terms of my life focus and outlook, I was more than satisfied with this approach toward living. Besides, why not accept and live in the Mystery? Thus, the doors that Mark’s questions had opened on the details of Christian theology and my personal beliefs gently swung shut.
More than twenty years later, while reading the book, Jews in the Time of Jesus, by Stephen M. Wylen, I happened upon an interesting note on the issue of translating the word “maiden” from Hebrew into Greek. Apparently, in Greek, there is no direct translation for a young woman without giving a report on her perceived sexual status—virginal or not. Thus, Jesus’ mother moves from being the young woman, or maiden, of Hebrew prophesy, who will bear the Messiah, to a certified virgin in Greek texts.
Now, there have been 2,000 years of Church history, councils, factions, arguments, sides, positions and still no paternity test for the Holy Spirit. Yet, arguably, by embracing the Mystery around Jesus’ conception and birth, readers of Jesus’ origin story may be made more free to focus on what some might consider the more critical teachings surrounding his birth. The narratives associated with Jesus’ birth teach us—potentially—how better to respond or behave in relationship to our perceptions regarding Divine will (leadings of the Spirit, in Quaker tradition), toward one another and toward ourselves, as we choose to affirm Life.
According to the New Testament cannon, Mary, a humble young woman, is selected by the Divine to carry, raise, mother and stand by one of the world’s Teachers of The Way—for nominal Christians, The Teacher. She extends her Trust to the Light–see Henry Ossawa Tanner’s depiction of this moment is poetically rendered in his painting, “The Annunciation”–accepting this assignment without knowing all that it will encompass. She is acting on blind faith in a Higher Power. She says, “Yes.”
Joseph also extends his Trust toward God, when he heeds the dream he is granted, counseling him to accept, safeguard and protect a young woman, whom he has never touched, and a child, not of his own “seed.” This aspect of Jesus’ origin story reminds us to be attentive to our dreams of conscience, affirm life and begs us to act as protectors of human life, whether or not those lives are of “our own” creation or whether or not those lives represent members of our bloodline. Joseph is asked to affirm Life. Additional possible messages? We are all children of God. We are all chosen. We are all sacred. Life is to be protected.
Saying, “Yes,” to a genuine leading of the Spirit (without the full support of community) can be one of the most terrifying and fulfilling things any pious person—from any religious tradition—can do. If a leading affirms the sacred nature of All life, it is a directive from Grace, and we might choose to exercise our free-will and extend our personal Light by following either Mary’s or Joseph’s examples, and say, “Yes.”
The Greek-language rendering of Jesus’ origin story, with the inclusion of the concept of virgin birth, stands as a reminder that we are all called to be here, by Grace, and that there is something Pure in each of our hearts—something of the Light. But, it is we who must attend to the gift of life, daily, to honor, nurture, grow and affirm our Light, if we are ever to open to God’s plans.