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The Angel at the Start and Finish

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. While there, I heard a number of REALLY great lectures. I’ll have more to share about them in the coming weeks, as I sort of process and integrate everything I heard and learned. I wanted to go ahead and share one tidbit with you now because I thought the story was so beautiful AND so instructive.

The speaker who presented this lovely tidbit was the Rabbi Daniel Cohen, whose talk was entitled: “Leading a Life of Legacy: Mission and Meaning in Every Moment.” I’ll have more to say about Rabbi Cohen’s talk later, but this one story was asking to be told.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I am no rabbinical student. My knowledge of Judaism is scant at best, and so what I present here I do with faith that mistakes will be taken with charity. I am happy to be corrected; just know that my intentions are pure, or at least really good.

adorable-affection-baby-826734So, with all of that lead-in complete… the story is about babies in the womb. My understanding is that this is not a biblical story, but one that exists in Jewish scholarly texts. The story says that there is an angel that comes to a baby as it grows in the womb. The angel, Lailah, provides the growing baby with all of the knowledge that it needs, in the form of the texts of the Torah. The angel also tells the growing baby about the history of her soul. Finally, Lailah provides candlelight for the growing baby so she can see from one end of the world to the other. (You can find a very accessible version of this story here.) The rabbi presenting the story referred to this knowledge transfer from angel to child as the light. The angel puts the light inside of the growing child. And then, just as the child is ready to be born the angel touches the baby’s face (slaps in the old texts) just between the lip and the nose, causing the baby to forget all of that knowledge and leaving a little dent on the skin.

What?!

The idea here is that as the child grows and encounters these ideas, these concepts, the light, the child will recognize them, remember them; the light will be more meaningful and held in a more sacred place because of that recognition.

What?!

This idea is so interesting to me because it clicks in with some other things I know and believe.

When I was studying to be a teacher, one of the things we learned is that students need some internal architecture, an intellectual framework, for deep learning to occur. One text referred to this architecture as “hooks,” places to hang new knowledge. One way to develop hooks was to tap into things students already knew or maybe had learned at one time and forgotten. I’ve seen those principles in action and know them to be effective. There is no denying that we learn better in the second, third, fourth exposure to an idea – once we have some hooks, categories, a framework for information.

I add to that my own recent personal growth, which feels a lot like a remembering: remembering who I was before I got completely lost in parenting twins, remembering who I was before a long battle with infertility damaged my sense of hope and wonder, remembering that (despite whatever flaws I might be seeing in myself at any moment) I am pretty freaking miraculous, remembering what it feels like to believe that I am never alone and that who I am matters. Remembering those things feels like finding a light, at first a small flame, maybe like a candle. And as I sit with those ideas, as I allow myself to question some of the thoughts that have kept me “safe,” I feel that light getting bigger, shining into the corners and and onto the cobwebs, bringing a warm glow.

This idea of Lailah imparting the light so you can remember it later feels very real right now, and I touch my philtrum (that’s the super weird name of the dent above your lips under your nose – words are so cool) to honor my own remembering.

The rabbi followed the tale of Lailah with an additional story about an angel, and here’s where I am really off-roading it because the lecture was outside and there were dogs and butterflies to watch. I got a little distracted. I don’t know if this second angel is from Jewish texts or if it is an idea of Rabbi Cohen’s. I did a quick search on the Googles, and didn’t find anything to clarify things, but I’m going to proceed to share anyway because I think the idea is instructive no matter what its origin – just wanted to be honest about my lack of knowledge, and about the fact that my attention span has limits.

This angel (same angel – don’t know – see previous reference to dogs and butterflies) greets us at death.

afterglow-backlit-bokeh-556658And the angel asks us two questions: 1) did you see the light I put into you, and 2) did you share it?

Rabbi Cohen’s focus is on living a life that is meaningful, and these questions really get at the heart of that. Did you figure out who you are and what you believe in? Did you let other people see that? Did you find ways to be seen and heard as your true self? Did you engage with the world in ways that upheld and demonstrated your deepest beliefs?

Did you see your light? Did you share it?

Do you see your light? Will you share it?

Would you like to?

With so much love and nary a slap on the mouth,

julia

Free Floating Feels… Nice

Things have been shifting for me for a while now.

So much has changed.

On the one hand are all of the external changes we’ve made. I’ve gotten a new career. My husband (also referred to as my seminarian) left his IT career to go to… yes, seminary. There have been other external, sort of tangible changes, but the truth is that the biggest shifts have been entirely internal, shifts in world-view, shifts in self-view, and perhaps most unexpectedly, shifts in God-view.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that my relationship with the almighty, God, Spirit, the Universe, the All-One, whatever you want to call it (because they’re all just words for the same thing for me, but we can argue about that later) has been tumultuous in the past and I ended that roller coaster ride with an ugly and protracted break-up that I think became (or so I thought) final in about 2001.

argument-bench-breakup-984953I can say more about all of that, and the factors that went into my divorce from spirit, but that’s not today’s tale. Today’s tale is more about certainty and uncertainty.

During my breakup with God I started putting things into buckets. One of my clients talks about this too: the good people bucket and the bad people bucket. She realizes that there, at the very least, needs to be a more ambiguous bucket, and that further the buckets are problematic to begin with. My labels were different, but I had buckets of my own and the labels for them were no less black and white.

My rejection of faith was so complete that I put people of faith in their own bucket (not my bucket) and I ascribed characteristics to them that were, even on a good day, uncharitable. It was all part of distancing myself from my own faith, but that’s not all it did. And in order to maintain my own clarity about my beliefs, I became adamant. Clarity was important in a way that, at least during that time, huge groups of people were not.

I was adamant that there was no entity outside of what we can touch and experience with our concrete-loving senses. I was certain that all of the theology that went with the belief in such a being was equally deluded. And, just to be extra nice, I figured that in order to buy all of that claptrap, you’d have to not be using that God-given (ha) grey matter very well. I was certain. I was adamant.

And in my certainty I made my world pretty small. There were songs that were uncomfortable to sing. There were thinkers I didn’t want to listen to. There were stories that didn’t interest me. There were specific sets of myths I didn’t want to share with my children. There were ideas I didn’t even want to consider. There were people who would be hard pressed to get further than the front gate of polite conversation. I did a whole lot of filtering and rejecting.

Riding that intense certainty was kind of like being on a raft in the ocean (one of those old rubber blow up jobs), floating above everything. And sure, that’s nice. You can bob along, taking in the sights, dipping your toes and fingers into the water to cool off, if you’re really good you may even manage to ride a wave in a little ways. You’ll stay mostly dry and you’ll have a little fun, but you miss out on SO much, and you still run the risk of getting wiped out by a really big wave.

My certainty kept me from so experiences that could enrich my life, made me uncomfortable rather than curious when presented with songs, stories, or ideas that fell outside of my rules for believing. It kept me safer, up on the raft, but I never got to get all of the way in the water and see what it feels like, the coolness up against my skin, the shells on the ocean floor, the little slaps of the wave against my skin, the rush of the decision to dive under or over or bodysurf a wave in.

In the past several months (year?), my certainty has left me. More recently I have left it. There is no grand declaration of faith coming here. I really don’t know what I believe. THAT’s the declaration. And opening that door, leaving room for uncertainty has let in a flood of possibilities that have enriched me so thoroughly I’m dumbstruck.

beach-blue-feet-37921I’ve encountered people, ideas, music, books, poems that I would have rejected wholesale before with a range of emotions from curiosity to delight.

I’ve played with my own ideas, turning them over, testing them out: “What would it feel like to actually believe in a benevolent God?” and feeling the peace, the comfort, and the support that that very idea has held for countless people for so very long.

I think there are a lot of folks who would probably like me to get more specific, to define the terms of my conversion. But I’m not interested in that.

I’m interested in the uncertainty. I’m interested in the ideas. I’m interested in the experiences, and I’m especially interested in how letting go of my own certainty has changed the contours of my days.

I think there is a God, or something that fits under that general idea, and I think that she must be very, very patient. And for that I am grateful.

A Glimpse of Heaven

When I was in high school, I was invited to a Christian youth group. It was held in the evenings, at participating students’ houses. There were college aged leaders. Songs were sung – with guitar players from our school. The kids who went were nice. We had fun. The theology was pretty accessible and it felt really good to be there.

So I dug in.

I started reading the Bible.

I started listening to Christian music.

I joined a smaller group who did Bible study and met BEFORE school – meeting before school is a big deal for a teenager who is already completely fighting biological rhythms by starting school at 7:30.

I dug in.

And the connection was such a gift.

converse-all-star-fashion-foot-1581In that time of psychic disorientation and social confusion, romantic experimentation and disappointment, total insecurity and budding ego these smaller rooms full of people who seemed to want to do good, be better, and talk about what made that hard felt like a balm for my adolescent soul.

I went on a weekend trip to Ocean City. Honestly I don’t remember much of that – but only because it has faded, not because of either intoxicated highjinx or trauma. It just doesn’t stand out.

The time I spent with that group was good.

For Easter that year my Mom included a gospel tape (pre-CD, I am old) in my Easter basket in an attempt to be supportive. I hadn’t heard of the group and when I said thank you with a full understanding of the symbolism of the gift, my stepfather responded with: “Well, what else do you get a Jesus freak?”

That’s fine.

It was fine, really.

I didn’t particularly love the label, but I didn’t really care about it either.

What it DID say to me was that I was treading into water that was uncomfortable for my family.

Part of that discomfort was around the fact that the faith that I seemed to be dipping into had a real component of feeling. A little religious ecstasy was allowed. The Episcopal Church of my youth was not big on ecstasy – although if ecstasy had been around in the 70s I can’t make any promises about how that would have gone…

The point is that the messages I got – or I should say the messages I received/chose to hear/interpreted to be really fair – reflected a faith of the intellect, a mental pursuit of the holy. This new water I had my feet in said I could FEEL God. And oh lordy did I want to feel God, especially if God would love me unconditionally, accept me exactly as I was, be there in times of sorrow, be the friend I could count on. Oh yes I wanted to feel that God.

And it caused some worry, this change for me.

My sister checked in. She rightly raised theological questions: “Do these people think I’m going to go to hell if I don’t accept Jesus as my personal savior?” I stammered, not really knowing the answer. You see, you don’t get to those kinds of issues for some time in well-orchestrated religious youth groups.

I had found a place that was safe, where I belonged, and it felt good. I felt good. I don’t just mean I felt good, like pleasant, I mean I felt like I WAS good because I was doing “right” things, being with others doing “right” things. It felt, and I felt good.

So good, that when the question of summer camp came up, I asked my parents if I could go. My folks paid for my trip and I anxiously waited for the months to pass until we could go to the Adirondacks as one big feel-good tribe.

And then the wheels kind of came off the bus. Some infighting developed. People began having issues with other people, even in the more devout early morning group – issues. The leaders worked to help us find ways to reach out to one another, to bridge the gaps. I really don’t remember the details, I just remember tension rising.

And then the bottom dropped out. School ended. I waited to hear about our camp trip. As the date approached, I didn’t hear anything. I started to get nervous – maybe something had gone wrong. My Mom asked if I had a packing list or anything – an address, emergency telephone, that sort of thing. Nada.

I waited and trusted. And then I called. I called someone else who was going and discovered that there had been several meetings in preparation for the trip. They had all been meeting without me. As an adult I can look at it and see that there was obviously some logistical snafu, I got left off the list. But that is DEFINITELY not how it felt to teenaged me.

I was sure that this was proof that these people were no different. I took it as evidence that this gathering was just one more place where people would be crappy to each other. And truth to tell, in those things I was right. But what I forgot was the good stuff. I forgot about all of the good stuff that came with it. And I wrongly attributed all of that to the people involved.

You see what I was really benefiting from was connecting to something larger than myself. I was feeling good because I was allowing myself to plug in. And I was willing to believe that the force that I was plugging into loved me, saw good in me, would care for me. THAT was where the good stuff was. THAT was the ecstasy behind the theology that, as an adult with internet who can look it up, I really can’t agree to.

By allowing myself to connect to something bigger and benevolent, I allowed myself a glimpse of heaven here on earth. I allowed myself to believe that I was okay, better than okay, worthy of love, worthy of attention, worthy of any of the things I wanted.

adult-black-and-white-blur-257037Today I know I can get that without agreeing to ideas about people being born evil or what they have to do get right. I can have that experience without even having to read or believe in any book at all. I can make contact, I can connect with all the parts of me. I can accept the parts I’m not as proud of. I can accept myself and love myself unconditionally. I can experience connection with the divine, and not even be sure what that means.

It’s been right there the whole time.

All I had to do was believe I was good enough and allow it.

In ill-defined and amorphous faith,

julia

When Your Belief Falters

This sounds like a title for a totally spiritual post, and in some ways I suppose this is, but the beliefs I want to address aren’t just about whether or not there is a divine force in the universe and what the true nature of humanity is. Don’t get me wrong, we can totally have those conversations. I’m the daughter of one and sister of another Episcopal priest. I am also married to a Unitarian Universalist seminarian. I can totally go there. What I wanted to say up front is that if that’s not your bag, you still have beliefs that this post applies to.

adult-blur-burn-783200I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been having a tough time of it. I suspect a hormonal element, but don’t want to get diverted by a conversation of peri-menopause, because yeah, I don’t have many words about that that anybody wants to hear. Point is, in this tough time, I felt some beliefs shaking a bit. Some of them were new beliefs – things I’ve worked out, chosen, built up in the last several years. Some of them were old beliefs that I’ve been rediscovering. They all, collectively, felt great. And while I was feeling great I kind of forgot that beliefs and faith in just about anything don’t register at the same level on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis. There is a bit of an ebb and flow here. We wrestle with our beliefs and our faith in our minds. When we decide what we think about something, that’s not usually the end of the story. Old ideas re-emerge to challenge our decisions. Circumstances around us prompt us to doubt. The failure of the world to bend to our will and reflect our cherished positive beliefs can shake things up too. Ebb and flow.

I was discussing this shakeup with a trusted mentor and she asked me an important question: “What anchors do you have for when things get tough?” In other words, what can help buoy you? (I am avoiding an urge to talk about the spelling of that word.) Note that the question wasn’t: “What makes everything better? How do we add glitter to that? Where do you keep your rainbow unicorns?” It was “What helps keep you steady when the seas get dark and stormy?”

I thought about it and was able to answer with some daily practices that I usually participate in: prayer, journaling, exercise of some kind, and meditation of one form or another. Yes, it’s a lot. But it’s also not. THAT is probably a separate post.

The point is that these are the things that I’ve found that help to fill my cup when I am empty, that make my body feel good and my mind feel more peaceful, that bring clarity and oftentimes a sense connection that I crave. These are the things that keep me anchored. And so I have entered into a covenant with myself; I have promised to pursue these practices and, more importantly, I have acknowledged the increased importance of performing them when the legs on my table feel a little shaky.

It is the practices, the deeds, the daily devotions (or routines if you’re more comfortable with that, it’s just words) that create the bridge between ecstatic certainty and a return of hope. It is keeping the practical promises we make to ourselves when we are most connected, most certain, most sure that allows us to ride out the storm of uncertainty. It is the practice, because that’s the word we use right – practice, that allows us to refine our understanding of acting in faith even when our faith in ourselves, the divine, or the world falters.

A mentor of mine wisely encourages people to write these things down: to write down the promises you make to yourself about what you’re going to do to keep yourself anchored (even more structured people might even suggest you, gasp, schedule that ish). It’s not just spiritual practices, it’s decisions, ideas, projects, things you think might help/feel good/make your world better – all of that needs to get written down because stress wipes the slate clean. The cortisol hits your bloodstream and you become an idiot. I guess I should say that’s what happens for me – maybe stress makes you smarter, although the scientific literature suggests that’s unlikely.

That brain wipe thing, that’s pretty much what happened over this last dark spell. I had a pretty significant and exciting list of both devotional/mindset/get right with body and soul practices AND plans for business going into that space and then – brain wipe. All of it disappeared. What was I going to do next? What was that great idea? Who was I going to talk to about collaborating and why? What? Why on earth am I spending so much time on all of this meditative hooey? What’s the point? I couldn’t remember any of it. I broke all of my promises to myself. And I say that NOT as a form of self-flagellation. Self-forgiveness has already been applied. It’s just interesting to notice how it all devolved.

I hit a rough patch, my beliefs felt challenged. That scared me. I got stressed. I dropped several of my daily devotions and I completely forgot what I was supposed to be doing in my work. BOOM. I don’t want to say it all could have been avoided, but I do think the bottom, when I finally hit it, could have been higher… and who doesn’t want a higher bottom? (Yes, I amuse myself.)

beach-clouds-colour-674320I’ve been rambling for far too long here, and I’m trying desperately to bring things to a close, but I can assure you that there is no close on this particular topic. The relationship between me and my faith and between me and what I believe about myself and the world around me is an ever-evolving one. The covenants I make and the practices I keep may well need to shift over time as well. I’ll keep working at it. I’ll keep practicing. When it all goes in the tubes, I’ll try to keep my promises. If I forget again, I’ll remember the bottom line. Sometimes the best we can do is to care for the body, be gentle on the soul and wait for the tide to shift.

In love,

julia