Tyger, Tyger burning BrightIn the Forests of the NightWhat Immortal Hand or EyeCould Frame thy Fearful Symmetry?
"I can’t believe there is a God. How could a God let floods happen. Shootings, child abuse, genocide?" my brother Rob had asked.
Looking down at the newborn son in his arms, Rob now says, "Right there is the best argument that God exists." For him it's an ongoing debate.
I think you can only really know what you yourself have experienced.
I don't debate within myself anymore whether God is there or not. Because -- not always when I pray; I content myself too often with half-awareness -- but because, at times when I pray, something inside the top of my head opens up, something issues out from the area of my heart and my lungs. And something – I sense it as Someone, as my Heavenly Father – comes to meet my opening up and issuing out. Someone who feels Not me, Beyond me answers my call. Like suddenly linking up to the fully-functioning website whose expert webmaster is a genius of design - approachable, intelligent and direct.
At times I have been suffused with joy, bliss -- those impossible words that mean nothing except to the one saying them. It's as if I'm hearing the silent beat after an immense and embracing laugh. It's like being given access to - a momentary glimpse from - some better being's organs of perception - sights and sounds and smells suddenly clearer, sharpened thought, deeper and more compassionate understanding.
When I'm in that place I can pour out my questions and make my pleas and clarity enters my mind: ideas, calmness, the shapes of a next step. My angry heart is softened. My hurts assuaged. A new direction gently sprouts out. Sudden insights into another’s motives that help me to be more gentle towards them. A full current of love toward someone I need to work with. Courage. Energy. Direction.
I still misstep, misjudge, and missay, but when I pray and follow that leading, I find myself on the kinder path more often, succeed in unplanned ways, do more good in ways I wouldn't have known to do.
If I'm doing it to myself, it's a mysteriously efficacious doing.
I don’t think I am doing it alone.
But I don’t expect my experience in prayer to convince my brother – only ever to suggest, O taste and see!
And I know it would be irritating if I were to parrot on about it.
We’ve both heard of people who make bad decisions, do awful things, claiming God told them to do it. We know that some people lie – even to themselves. Some people are ill - in their minds and their hearts and their bodies. We know it is possible to be confused by fear and greed, to misunderstand even with the best intentions in the world. But neither of us would argue that only the religious are liable to claim a wisdom their actions belie. And neither of us is so simpleminded as to believe that God and religion cause wars – though often used as excuses – any more than the object of desire causes crime and violence.
We both know people always justify themselves with whatever weighs most in them.
A friend of mine, a science teacher, told me once that organized religion has little appeal to her because she "was raised to be more interested in the questions than the answers.”
I told Rob about this, how I'd said, “But the answers are just theology – the study of someone else’s experience of God. Real religion begins when you take your questions to God – the questions are where you begin to engage with God.” My friend and my brother both shook their heads affectionately at me.
Rob said to me this past weekend, between Christmas and New Year’s, as we sat together watching the fire – our teenagers off enjoying themselves at a movie (his wife Jackie brought not only her dear self but also contemporary cousins to our family circle when she married my brother) – we sat there, talking, and my brother said at one point, Religions are always claiming they’re true because of the good they do. Just because some group does good things - it doesn’t make anything they believe true. All kinds of groups do good. Hindus do good things, Baptists, Mormons. They can’t all be true.
I think maybe where they do good is exactly where they each partake of Truth? Jesus said, By their fruits ye shall know them – giving us this key for recognizing one another.
But I don’t say that either. I laugh, because earlier that morning I had been writing in my journal: “I worry that too often religion separates people who want the same things, whose hearts are after the same truth – splitting hairs and setting up false dichotomies.” I’d been thinking all day about religion in terms of that poem about poetry by Marianne Moore:
I, too, dislike it:
there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Reading it,
however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful . . .
Useful. Though it is always dangerous to set out to do good. Too much like setting yourself up to be ridiculous - like Miss Clack (in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins) who, when not hiding religious tracts in people’s furniture, is very busy with her meetings of the Select Committee of the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society – the aim
Later in the week, my brother calls to wish me happy on my birthday. I’m tired, having stayed out late the night before, chaperoning a New Years’ Eve Party for our young people – (riotous living with a vengeance!) – the party: a dinner mystery, games, an inflatable air castle play structure. Then: information about homeless teens in our own town and the young people are set to knitting hats, putting together hygiene kits, making a coat collection box and tying fleece blankets.of this excellent Charity is - as all serious people know – to rescue unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent, by abridging them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son.
A good way to start the new year.
“So what are you doing for the rest of your day?” my brother asks.
In a little while, my friend with the world’s happiest laugh is coming over for dinner. Upstairs, my oldest is cooking for me West African Chicken Peanut Soup. My middlest is baking for me Blueberry Lemon Pound Cake. Both girls came with me earlier to tidy house, fold laundry for a young woman who has just been diagnosed with cancer. She has three small daughters. She is beautiful and brave. We three have just come home and I am happy. Tired but happy, indulging myself at the computer, reading the blog of a poet I admire – her blog, in its brevity, immediacy, playfulness, everything that mine is not.
My brother, because he loves me, makes a small parade of the good deed: “Think about it! How many people would do that on their birthday? How many wouldn’t just focus on themselves?”
More than any of us realize, I think. All I know for sure is that as I age, the chance to escape myself even for an afternoon is increasingly sweet.
After my brother hangs up I go back to the blog I was reading before – which links to this – a commencement address where the speaker argues for the real usefulness of an education. I quibble with some of the speaker’s points but he’s got me thinking – also a good way to start the new year. I read:
If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.The speaker isn’t sure “that mystical stuff is necessarily true,” but insists thathere's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.
It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.
Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.Useful in that sense of the word.