Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interfaith Double Whammy

Last Tuesday I attended MIC's quarterly retreat. Teachers Mary Grace Orr from Vipassana Santa Cruz and the Rev. Rob Geiselmann from Christ Episcopal Church, Sausalito, spoke on the theme was "Holding Change" at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre. As always, we spent a lot of time in silent meditation.

Among Rob's opening remarks were that the sabbath is going into a space between time. To me, this is a sacred circle, beyond time and space, a place between the worlds. He quoted Wendell Berry, saying that "everything is ending and everything is beginning," and said that spiritual change is becoming more of the real you. He said if you're not wrestling, you're not growing. He stated definitively that "you can't control change." Later in the day I disagreed with this, saying that you cannot avoid change, but you can attempt to shape it. You may even be able to accelerate change or decelerate change. In my experience, magic is about shaping reality and shaping change.

The first morning meditation was what Rob called a "centering" meditation, using a word to bring one's wandering consciousness back to meditation. I love words, consider names have power, yet tend towards visualization when meditating. I considered using the name of a deity, then decided I wanted to be less definitive than that. I also considered spiral as an image. I ended up with "will-o'-the-wisp," a word which brings me an image of a spiraling smoky light emerging from earth and dissolving into air. Not that I've ever seen one, mind you.

Mary Grace said that change and impermanence "is that which wakes us up." I've done some vipassana in the past. She defined vipassana as "to see clearly." She claimed such a thing as "normal" suffering and suffering while you hold on. My favorite quote of those she offered is, "Theologians get together and argue. Mystics get together and laugh." In my experience, Pagans do a lot of laughing when they get together.

After a silent lunch, we moved outdoors for a walking meditation. Mary Grace advised us to go only about 25 feet, then turn, walking in a line back and forth while paying attention to our steps, our feet, ankles, legs. I wanted to be on the grass, found it full of gopher holes or something that made it uneven. I didn't like going in a straight line so I traced a lemniscape in the grass.

In between sittings, one or another teacher spoke or read. There was also some time for discussion, but never enough for me.

* * * * *

After the retreat, two of my interfaith colleagues, Corby and I went to St. Mary's College to hear Eboo Patel speak. My MIC friends are Judith Fleenor of the Golden Gate Center for Spiritual Living and Molly Arthur from St. Stephen's Episcopal Church * in Belvedere. Molly also serves as director of Sage Femme midwifery services.

All four of us had attended Barbara McGraw's talk entitled "The Founding Fathers' Religious Reasons for Separation of Church and State," about the religious foundations of the U.S. Constitution at MIC's Annual Meeting in June** (about which I had planned to blog but did not). This event was the first sponsored by the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism, a project founded by Barbara. Directed towards building an interfaith movement among the young, judging by the turnout and rapt listeners, I'd say the event succeeded. The Soda Center auditorium filled to the point where two adjoining side sections had to be opened up and every chair in the building put out to accommodate the enthusiastic crowd. (There were 30 LDS teens seated in front of us, plus many more from other religious groups.)

Dr. Patel, a charismatic and informative speaker, received a Roosevelt Freedom of Religion Medal and serves as one of the religious advisors to the Obama White House, among his many other accomplishments. His address was based on his book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. He implied that he spent a period of drawing away from the religion of his family, but that working in the field of interfaith restored him and deepened his faith.

He spoke of finding principles in common among different religions. In order to be an interfaith leader, one must define how one sees the world. He defines reality as concerns religion as being between pluralism and extremism. Extremists consider that only they, the holders of whatever extremist beliefs, live and thrive. Others must perish, or convert. Eboo believes, as do I, that all are entitled to "equal dignity and mutual loyalty."

Secondly, one must challenge religious bigotry. And third, one must act. Dr. Patel takes inspiration from the actions of Ghandi, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela and others. He spoke of their respect for one another, their cooperation with others in striving to make their actions effective, and their adoption of each other's methods of protest and measures of success.

Following his talk, the floor opened for Q&A, which proved lively, provocative, and heartening. I didn't get a chance to ask my question, so posed it when he autographed the copy of his book I purchased. I asked him what older people in interfaith could do to promote the work of the younger. His response was vaguely on the order of "keep on truckin'."

We oldsters left the event feeling encouraged and glad we'd gone.

* This is the church where Jerry Garcia's funeral was conducted by Father Matthew Fox, who was removed from his position in the Catholic Church by then-Cardinal Ratzinger for having such folks as Starhawk and Luisa Teish teach in his creation spirituality courses at Holy Names College in Oakland.

** BeliefNet Pagan blogger Gus diZerega was there.


Selene Kumin Vega, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for this, Macha. Feels like your encouraged feeling has rippled out - I feel encouraged by reading this! It's too easy to get discouraged by the mainstream news reports that portray this country as completely divided. Nice to be reminded that there are those who are seeking to connect and unite!

Morgan said...

What Selene said. :)

"In order to be an interfaith leader, one must define how one sees the world. One of the things I have such a hard time doing in an interfaith context (which, come to think of it, is just about every context for me!) is articulating my religious/spiritual worldview. I don't know if that's b/c it leaves me feeling too vulnerable, or if it's b/c when others do that, I see it as them imposing their worldview on me, or some combination... Must work on that. :)

Selene Kumin Vega, Ph.D. said...

Stasa, sometimes I find it hard to articulate my religious/spiritual worldview because it is not something I experience in words, and is not so easy to translate into words. Poetry does it better - I'm always pleased when poetry speaks in that non-cognitive way to express my spiritual reality.