I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Religion

I Want Stained Glass Windows!

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Awe

Around about now, I wish I belonged to a church. It seems like such a meaningful way to spend the holidays. You know, Christmas and Easter. Holidays that I celebrate. Secularly. But the sweet baskets of chocolate and the spring tulips and the nice family dinner don’t seem like enough. I want Ceremony. Ritual. Music. Candles. Incense. Stained Glass Windows. The Word of God.

Every decade or so, I wonder about joining a church. The obstacles are many. I was brought up by cerebral scientists who were not necessarily atheists (neither would commit to believing nor not believing), but who were damn sure they did not want to go to church. And, probably not surprising, I married a man with a similar attitude: not quite sure about God but convinced that church is not for him and angry, angry, that religion is the root of so much persecution and conflict in the world.

I am not sure about God, but I don’t believe that Jesus is any more divine than you or me. I am not Christian, but that is the religion to which I’ve been most exposed. I definitely don’t believe that you need to follow a religion and its rules and its mythology to be a good person.  In fact, I am suspicious of those who follow a religion’s rules without questioning.  How can you be so sure? And why is one religion more worthy than another?

But in stillness, the stillness of savasana or meditation or a Reiki session, sometimes – just sometimes – warmth spreads throughout my body. My body tingles with energy. I see colors and images. I am both hyper alert and deeply relaxed. Usually, in my daily life, I am too busy busy busy and too determined to achieve something to be still. To feel. To listen. But in stillness, it happens. Sometimes.

I am sure there is a scientific reason for my very physical, very dramatic, very strange, very powerful, very real experiences. I am equally sure that people who are more comfortable than me with the mysterious and the mystical will claim this as an excellent example of the unknowable. And that I should get myself to church or synagogue or temple without another moment’s hesitation.

When my mother died, I was determined that we would honor her in a church. Unlike our disappointing and unsatisfying nods to Christmas (presents!) and Easter (chocolate!), this life passage needed more meaning. We found a Unitarian minister and church who guided us to create a lovely memorial service. It helped. It made a difference.

I like the Unitarians. They tend to be liberal and intellectual without a lot of strictures. Good God, they hardly even mention God in their beliefs and principles! That’s my kind of religion! I must say however, that their churches hardly seem like churches to me. The church where we had my mother’s memorial service was an ugly building from the uninspired 1960’s. I Want Stained Glass Windows. A Breath-Taking Sanctuary. Ceremony. Ritual. Music. Candles. Incense. The Word of God. A church should define the notion of Awe-Some.  Like the cathedrals that inspired me while I was traipsing all over Europe when I was 20.

I suppose the physical space should not matter. Any space can become beautiful, and sacred, as you spend time there, in stillness. It’s not the stained glass windows that are sacred, but the people who make the stained glass windows and sing in the choir.  Or chant in the yoga studio.  Or pray for peace.  Or act to build peace.  What matters is the community of people and the holiness of love and support between the people and a sense of sacred purpose. Faith that life and love matter.

I will spend some of Easter in stillness, being grateful for the hope and optimism that is Spring, and reflecting on love. I believe that what is holy is love. Love is what is Awe-Some.

Photo is the Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral.

Remembering All Souls

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For Elizabeth

I was not brought up in any religious tradition, and don’t “belong” to any religion, but I am most familiar, culturally, with Christianity. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell or an omnipotent God. But I have come to believe there is sacredness in the moments of connection between people and in the rare moments of peace we experience in stillness and in nature.

What happens when we die? Where do our souls go? Why are we here? Without religious tradition and faith, these questions can be troubling, leading to existential angst. These questions can also drive an urgency to live this life with meaning. Because, what if, there is nothing after this life? Better make this one count.

I believe that we are here for those sacred moments of connection and peace. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I know where our souls go. They are part of us who live on.

The daughter of my cousin Elizabeth – Elizabeth, my surrogate sister, the one who was killed by a drunk driver, leaving behind a 10 year old girl – is now grown and got married this weekend. It was a beautiful and joyous and emotional event. With great care, she and her groom planned a ceremony and a party that reflected their open and loving personalities and they included all the people they loved, both alive and dead. The dead ones were there. I felt them.

Elizabeth, Frank, Mary, Melvin, Fran, Earl, Sadie.   Those are the ones from my life that I felt. Present. At the wedding. Imagine if every person brought all their dead loved ones with them. (They did.) It was a big party!

There we all were, living and dead, celebrating the sacred connection of love.

Elizabeth, who I still miss deeply and so acutely at our rare family gatherings, lives on in her daughter and all of us connected to her. I know she is so full of love and pride for her daughter. I can feel it.

If there is no heaven nor hell after life, then surely it is here in this life. And if there is no afterlife, then it is urgent and imperative that we maximize heaven and minimize hell in this life. Love deeply. Those moments of sacred connection are heaven and those moments of sacred connection are the only way to minimize hell. Know that our loved ones’ souls live on in us.

Dear souls, may we find peace.

Believing in OM

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OM is God?

If you knew that the goal of yoga was to quiet the body and quiet the mind so that your soul could experience “God,” would you still do yoga?  Would I?

Brought up with an attitude of condescension towards religion (scientists know better), I pursued an intellect’s path.  Regretfully.  As a child, I was awed by beautiful churches and temples, intrigued by the mysterious rituals, moved by the harmonic vibrations of the chants and hymns, and jealous of the social community that my friends belonged to.  Not belonging to church heightened my sense of being an outsider, alone, different.  My parents allowed me to explore Christianity while making it clear that they would have none of it.  At the age of 12, 13, 14, I threw myself into it (pretty much how I do everything in the new throes of a passionate interest), preparing myself to be confirmed as a member of the church.    I read the Bible, joined the youth group and the choir, went on retreats, attended church school, but ultimately decided I did not believe in God.  Wistfully but decisively, I chose not to be confirmed.  I went forward with my intellect’s life.

I married a man who has an even stronger history of disbelief in religion (though perhaps a more open relationship with God).  His father was damaged (exactly how is unspoken and unknown – I can only imagine the worst) by his Catholic upbringing.  While introducing his children, intellectually, to all the religions of the world, he made it clear that he was vehemently opposed to religion, characterizing it as inhumane, self-serving, even evil – definitely not spiritual.  When we had children, I found myself wondering again.  Is there a way to belong to a church community and provide a spiritual foundation for my children that is beautiful and meaningful and supportive?  I explored the most open and liberal church in our neighborhood, but came to the same conclusion.  If I don’t believe in God, how can I whole-heartedly join this community?

At mid-life, questioning the meaning of my life and frantic that it was going by too fast, I discovered yoga.  It was a delicious form of exercise!  My body loved the poses: the stretching, the challenge, the exhilaration.  I was awed by the beautiful space, intrigued by the mysterious rituals, moved by the harmonic vibrations of the chants.  I belonged.  It was secular spirituality!  And my body got a workout!  I was in Heaven!  I kept the “crazy hokum” at a distance.  Chakras?  Energy?  Devotion?  Samadhi?  I just knew that I loved the feel of going inside, feeling my breath, feeling my body, listening to my gut, listening and communicating with my loved ones with more honesty.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti?   Peace Peace Peace.  Who could argue with that?

I went deeper and got my 200 hour teacher certification.  Yeah, okay, I read the Bhagavad Gita.  Lovely mythology.  Life is a journey, don’t be attached to the outcome.  I read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  Yoga is the stilling of the mind.  Thank God, because my mind is in overdrive and yoga was the only place it quieted down.  My family tolerated my chanting, Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah over and over as I prepared for my certification exam.  Yoga had become profoundly important to me, a sanctuary.  I began to think maybe I was a spiritual being after all.

I started teaching.  Beginners.  Primarily women looking for a form of exercise that didn’t hurt.  When I started teaching, I realized how little I knew.  Two years later, I am now embarking on “continuing education.”  We began with philosophy.  I reread Book 1 of Patanjali’s Sutras.  Hmm, it’s making more sense this time, or perhaps it is simply becoming more familiar.  I warned my beginners that I might be introducing OM next week.  They appeared curious and interested.  As fate would have it, I and a classmate were assigned the task of reading, explaining, and teaching Sutra 1.27.  You know, the one about OM.  The one that says OM is God.  What?  I don’t think I realized that the first time I read it.

Here is what we said:

OM is a deeply expressive, full, and mystical sound.  Like breath, like life, it has a beginning, “AHH,” a middle, “OOO” and an end, “MMM,” the vibration of which resonates through your body.  OM is the yogic word for God.  It is the manifestation of God.  It IS God.  Chanting OM quiets the body and quiets the mind so that your soul may experience God – the goal of yoga.

Do I believe this?  I don’t know.

My son, now 13, is the same age I was when I explored Christianity.  His close friend is a devout Catholic.  My son is curious, searching for what he believes, and trying to reconcile his friend’s faith with our skepticism.  “Mary was definitely not a virgin!”  he exclaims with certainty.  We marked Easter in our quiet and secular way.  Easter baskets filled with chocolate, an Easter Egg hunt demanded by my son, and a dinner worthy of Spring are our traditions.  But at our festive Spring dinner, we found ourselves musing on Jesus and the events of Holy Week and the inexplicable mystery of Jesus’ disappearance and resurrection.  I do not believe that Jesus is any more divine than you or me, but I do believe that Jesus was a wise and compassionate man who preached beautiful teachings of love, the power of love.  I believe in love.  I will do what I can to help my son feel free to appreciate the mystery of life and to guide him toward the healthy ways that religions attempt to deal with the mystery.  I will try to guide him without being too academic and intellectual.  (Truth be told, I bought him a book yesterday.  That is my way.  Sigh.)

Will I introduce OM to my students this week?  Yes.  I have decided to start with just feeling the MMM vibration.  It’s a mysteriously powerful sensation!  Is it God?  I don’t know.  I do know that I will keep practicing yoga.  Yoga is where I feel still and sacred, able to be me, able to love and be loved.  I feel holy in those rare moments when I float in Svasana.  I feel holy when I chant OM with my yoga community and the vibrations make me feel like I am expanding and taking off.  I feel holy when I look in my husband’s eyes, my children’s eyes, and know love.

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