Sunday, June 17, 2018

Beauty of Great Questions

Sunday here flows in subtle tones, like love on the edge off remembering.
“…troubled by the ultimate questions. No-one else’s answer can satisfy the hunger in your heart.” John O’Donohue concludes the meditations with the “beauty of the great questions”: 
[it’s] “how they dwell differently in each mind. How they root deeper than all the surface chatter and image, how they continually disturb. Your deep questions grow quickly restless in the artificial clay of received opinion or stagnant thought. . . The presence of the contemplative and the artist in a culture is ultimately an invitation to awaken and engage one’s neglected gifts, to enter more fully into the dream of the eternal that has brought us here to earth.” p. 247
         The passage referencing the Big Questions takes me back to the final years of teaching, especially in the I-Series program and the capstone course of my career, “Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace and Justice.” If I had absorbed and articulated more of the understanding of Beauty that O’Donohue lays out, the title might have included “for Beauty” or perhaps “Stories on Beauty.” We did explore the frontiers of beauty as well as goodness and truth. The terrain of narrative offers spaces to mine into personal identity and the connection with the divine.
   When the youngest sister leaves home and enters the darkest center of the forest, she meets with the threshold question each of is invited to open, to circle around, to listen into: "Who are you?" And, of course, the companion questions: "Where do you come from and where are you going?" "What are you doing here?" Her answer allows us to reflect on our divine heritage: “I am the child of the ruler and I’m searching for my brothers as long as the sun may rise…”
          William Stafford asked it this way: “Who are you really, wanderer?” And the response as I remember it, allowing myself to reconstruct, as each of us might do, instead of looking up “the artificial clay”: “And the answer you have to give/ no matter how dark and lonely,/ I am the child of the king.”

Friday, June 15, 2018

"God is Beauty"

Looking north, Friday, June 15, ~5:30A
“God is Beauty” titles the final chapter of O’Donohue’s Beauty. It’s only one of the infinite ninety-nine names but perhaps among the most under-attended while most available. Sometimes the face of beauty just requires getting up at 5:30A and looking out the window. Other times the display depends on devotion to tending the gardens, both in the ground around us and in the inner reaches of the soul. Perhaps like all the names of God, beauty reveals the mystery as one travels deeper and deeper into the layers, by grace and by dedication. The gifts include interpenetration with other names of God and this opens vistas that have been veiled until their connection is realized.
“Thomas Aquinas and the medieval thinkers wisely recognized that beauty was at the heart of reality; it was where truth, unity, goodness and presence came together. Without beauty they would be separated and inclined towards destructive conflict with each other. Accompanied by beauty, truth gains graciousness and compassion. Beauty holds harmony at the heart of unity and prevents its collapse into the most haunted chaos. In the presence of beauty, goodness attracts desire and beauty makes presence luminous and evokes its mystery. There is a profound equality at the heart of beauty; a graciousness which recognizes and encourages the call of individuality but invites it to serve the dream and creative vision of community. Without beauty the Eros of growth and creativity would dry up. As Simone Weil says: “Desire contains something of the absolute and if it fails…the absolute is transferred to the obstacle.’” John O’Donohue, Beauty, pp. 222-3.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

"Mysterious Vengeance" of Beauty Denied

Strange it is that a person should be surprised that the celebration, the realm of his being, perhaps even the home of his soul, is devalued by his mind. As I read the opening pages of John O’Donohue’s Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, it’s as if a huge sigh envelopes me, one that echoes, “Yes,” as if in a revelation given. Perhaps that’s the “invisible embrace” affirming a truth that has been held prisoner in the subconscious by the darkness around, the one William Stafford named.
         For many years, perhaps forever, I’ve loved finding the beauties around me, often with camera in hand and frequently in lines of poets and mystics. But the tyranny of the mind has dictated that beauty deserves less than truth. Keats’ lines (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty’) while memorized long ago were subordinated to Descartes’ dictum: cogito ergo sumAs if knowing by logic trumps being by beauty.
         The equivalence of beauty with truth thus remained unproven; the value of beauty unconvincingly integrated into belief and action. Finally, perhaps more accessible now, having retired from the academy with its scientific-method mentality, my being feels vindicated in reading:
“Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.” [In Beauty, p. 4 where O’Donohue quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar from The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics: 1:Seeing the Form, Edinburgh, 1982.]
         I remember sitting with William Stafford who in his words, his actions, and his being urged us not to tolerate “many a small betrayal in the mind,” and not “to follow the wrong god home.” Know our truth and, for me at least, all this includes claiming the place of Beauty, an equal partner, alongside Truth and Goodness. 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Unveiling Secrets

  You know, of course, the way it pays to look again; especially when a point of attraction draws our focus, we may glimpse a visitation only by opening softened eyes, gently checking the periphery or the depths for “the unveiling of secrets.” 
“The Unveiling of Secrets is one of the most powerful documents in the history of mysticism. Unlike most Sufi writings, it is written in the first person, as Ruzbihan records his visionary encounters with God, the angels, the prophets, and the Sufi saints.” [translated by Carl W. Ernst, p. x; Ruzbihan Baqli, d. 1209.]
           Ernst elaborates in his introduction on the nature of the unveiling of secrets: “What is unveiled? It is the inner conscience, the secret (sirr) within the heart that is close to God” (p. xii). One such unveiling comes in the experience of Beauty. John O’Donohue’s book by that title invites us to consider:
Somewhere in every heart there is a discerning voice. This voice distrusts the status quo. It sounds out the falsity in things and encourages dissent from the images things tend to assume. It underlines the secret crevices where the surface has become strained. It advises distance and opens up a new perspective through which the concealed meaning of a situation might emerge. The inner voice makes any complicity uneasy. Its intention is to keep the heart clean and clear. This voice is an inner whisper not obvious or known to others outside. It receives little attention and is not usually highlighted among a person's qualities. Yet so much depends on that small voice. The truth of its whisper marks the line between honor and egoism, kindness and chaos. In extreme situations, which have been emptied of all shelter and tenderness, that small voice whispers from somewhere beyond and encourages the heart to hold out for dignity, respect, beauty and love. [p. 75. Thanks to the John O’Donohue page in Facebook for posting this quotation, May 25, 2018]
     Like many of the gifts from the divine, this one often seems to depend on a person showing up, perhaps having made preparation and/or purification. A garden-variety example of this came today with the photo op shown above. It appeared on a second visit to the garden. While it might be chance or pure grace, it’s also possible that the visitation, the appearance of beauty, depended on such things as: a) a practice of walking in the gardens in the early morning, b) returning to tend the garden, c) taking the camera along, just in case, and d) learning the value of looking again, including the shift to “soft eyes.”
     In our first walk-through, we noted the new blooms, mostly still shadowed due to clouds and the still-rising sun. The grace of beauty was already evident.

We also noted a few weeds that were on the verge of dropping a multitude of seeds amid the flowers. This prompted a return visit after gloving up and equipping with the sharp-shooter shovel. Also noting that the morning light had shifted, the camera came along as well. Looking for a spotlight, this image was sighted.

          While still crouched, uncomfortably, I shifted perspective to see if anything else wanted to be seen. That place of inner apprehension said “ahh” when the simple iris (shown at top), passed over earlier as not so special, was now glistening in the light and the even more commonplace maple leaves added the touch, more than a frame, to remind us of the Beauty that resides all around us, ready to light up our lives at any instant.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

True Signs

        By March of 2018, I’d just about enjoyed enough of my first year of retirement doing nothing. Also we'd had about enough of winter. So we put together a plan, and on the 14th of that month we set out on the adventure to see our good friends who had moved away some three months earlier. In addition to spending time with them in Abiquiu, New Mexico, we’d arranged to see the Grand Canyon (where I took over 100 photos), Monument Valley (400+ photos!), and on the return trip planned to visit with family in Texas and South Carolina. As noted in the video,

we followed the advice of Robert Burns to change plans along the way: “The best laid schemes o' mice and men/ Gang aft agley” (from “To A Mouse”).
         Returning home, remembering the experiences, reviewing photos taken on the trip, and reading more about O’Keeffe, my reflections seemed to spiral around the Beloved, the soul, and b/Beauty. The capacity to enter the imaginal world happens as our soul takes form in the canyon beauties: the stone and earth formations, the trees and plants, as well as the creatures like the Evening Grosbeak that appeared in Bandelier National Monument Park. 
     Beauty in a dry, seemingly hostile environment, offers insight; perhaps more than thought, the experience and presence there feed more feeling for the fusion of jamal/jalal, the gentle inseparable from the hard, lovely interwoven with severe, both familiar and mystical, the One. It’s the rose, the lily, the cactus blooming that glows because it celebrates the union with the thorn, the skull, the dark mystery. Love draws the human into the divine. 
     Some changes we made to the planned itinerary can be attributed to the influence of an emerging fascination with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. We found ourselves following the O’Keeffe track around Abiquiu, into Ghost Ranch, the White Place, Santa Fe, and Palo Duro Canyon. Back home, her art continued flowing from books such as: 
* Georgia O’Keeffe by Charles C. Eldredge  
“O’Keeffe’s work had, from her earliest days as a professional artist, elicited comments like ‘revelation.’ When Alfred Stieglitz first encountered her abstract drawings in 1916, he responded immediately to their power. As recalled by one witness to the moment, ‘They were a revelation to him.’ . . . William Fisher, for example, praised the ‘mystic and musical drawings,’ which he likened to religious ‘revelations’ in their ‘cosmic grandeur.’” (p. 13)
* Lovingly Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe & Anita Pollitzer edited by Clive Giboire. 
“Not only is [O’Keeffe’s painting] a piece of consummate craftsmanship, but it likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul which distinguishes important communications from the casual reports of the eye.” (quoting Lewis Mumford, p. 295)
* Georgia O’Keeffe by Georgia O’Keeffe
“It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint” (p. 88).
     I wonder how those of us who do not paint or dance or play music deal with clarifying “the intangible thing.” The feeling for that marks a true sign, doesn’t it? I believe it’s the guiding inspiration that draws each person to participate in his and her life as an artist.
     Perhaps for me it’s doing photography especially when further expressed in digital media to play out a theme. “True Signs” swirls together art, photography, music, and words to explore the way I reach for and into relationship with the divine.  In producing the digital media project, I found myself wondering if the purpose of an artist, at least for me in this moment, points toward revelation; an artist aims at developing consciousness that is increasingly sensitive to and responsive to signs of God. How might our knowing, our evolving consciousness, attune more poignantly into the inner and outer presence of the divine? 
     Tracking signs of God is scarcely a new thing. About a thousand years ago, Hamid al-Ghazali opens The Alchemy of Happiness: 
“Knowledge of self is the key to the knowledge of God, according to the saying: ‘He who knows himself knows God,’ and, as it is Written in the Koran [41:53], ‘We will show them Our signs in the world and in themselves, that the truth may be manifest to them’” (Trans. Claud Field, p. 17). 
The Study Quran links this passage with Q 51:20-21 “And upon the earth are signs for those possessing certainty, and within your souls…”
As happens often with the Qur’an, we hear echoes of other religious texts: 
* Psalm 19 on the handiwork of God: “day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge…”
* Isaiah 7:11, “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
* John 2:11, “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.”
* Matthew 16:3, “And in the morning, 'There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?’”
The mystic Rabia expressed her relationship with the divine presence:
 “O Lord, I have never listened to the sound of animals, or the movement of trees, or the murmur of water, or the song of birds, or the sitting in the shadows, or the sound of the wind, or the echo of thunder, but I have seen them as a sign of Your Oneness showing me that there is nothing like You.”   The Knower of Allah,  Rabia al-Adawiyya
Contemporary historian of religion, Diana Butler Bass, elaborates the importance of persons today shifting consciousness in order to realize the presence of the divine. 
“Roiling around the planet is a shifting conception of God…unmediated and local, animating the natural world and human activity in profoundly intimate ways…the personal, mystical, immediate, and intimate is emerging as the dominant way of engaging the divine. What was once reserved for a few saints has now become the quest of millions around the planet—to be able to touch, feel, and know God for one’s self.” (Grounded, p. 9)
“Where is God? . . . The grounded God is a God in relationship with space and time as the love that connects and creates all things, known in and with the world. . . . God is not above or beyond, but integral to the whole of creation, entwined with the sacred ecology of the universe.” (Grounded, pp. 10, 25)
     In reading Grounded, in reflecting on O’Keeffe’s art, through meditating on sacred text, and while remembering the experiences of our journey, I’m wondering about the application of soil quality (ranging from fertile to depleted to rebuilt) in relation to the stuff a human has that is comparable to the soil, the earth. Is it helpful to consider our “ground” for consciousness in this sense? In addition to the purification process, there is also the rebuilding. Consciousness, like earth, has been decimated by erosion and poor management; but it’s reassuring to experience rebuilding it. Purified and rebuilt consciousness provides the ground for discerning the signs of God. Upon this fertile ground, God-consciousness can be built.

Blog entries referenced in the video include:
Divine Intoxication   (Jan 18, 2018)
The Cipher of a Mystery  (Sept 18, 2017)

The Infinite in One Step  (Feb 2, 2015)
The Sense You Were Born With  (July 7, 2012)

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Blessed Re-Emergent Spring

One week ago, the full blush of spring radiated from the azalea festival in Tyler, TX, highlighted by dogwoods, redbuds, wisteria, and even the smiling new-green deciduous trees. This we forfeited in driving northeast, returning home, still adorned in winter earth tones. And yet the loss finds redemption in allowing the feel of manifestation, the pre-budding, the reassurance of imagination, of intuitive knowing, of faith which is the evidence of the unseen. This tantalizingly slow emergence of spring feeds the soul.
“… opening of a window in the heart towards the unseen also takes place in conditions approaching those of prophetic inspiration, when intuitions spring up in the mind unconveyed through any sense-channel” (The Alchemy of Happiness, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, Trans. Claud Field, pp. 19-20).

        Yesterday shuffling through the dusty leaves fallen last autumn, I almost stumble over the pale blooms of bloodroot. This modest forerunner of spring holds the miraculous powers of rejuvenation. Its long history of medicinal uses includes promises such as these:
“to prevent certain types of cancer, protect against infections, boost heart health, improve the appearance of the skin (including elimination of conditions like eczema), speed healing and recovery, increase circulation, and soothe the pain of migraines . . . a very powerful plant and can be dangerous (even toxic) if used incorrectly.”
         Returning from our trip to the Southwest, we also stopped in Athens, GA, hoping to find the coffee-house where Coleman Barks tapped the life-spring of Jalalu’ddin Rumi. In the one we found, they told us Coleman recently did a reading there but that his coffee shop was probably no longer around. Like spring flowers so soon gone from sight. But not gone, just waiting. Ghazali again:
“The first step to self-knowledge is to know that thou art composed of an outward shape, called the body, and an inward entity called the heart, or soul. . . In truth [the heart/soul] does not belong to the visible world, but to the invisible, and has come into this world as a traveller visits a foreign country for the sake of merchandise, and will presently return to its native land” (p. 18).
        Back home, I’m catching up on reading from Coleman’s Year with Rumi , one window into that invisible space and treasure. For April 6, he gives “Blessing”: “I want to be where/ your bare foot walks,// because maybe before you step,/ you will look at the ground./ I want that blessing.”

Friday, March 2, 2018

Using the Sacred Imagination

     As Facebook friends know, we get flashbacks: “x years ago…” For today, March 2, Facebook reminds me that I posted two years ago “The Treasure in Good Stories.” So in looking back, I’m reminded of the gift of culminating a career with a sense of purpose, of feeling a fit that comes with accepting limitations, letting go of external expectations, and living into closer harmony with destiny. The treasure in Good Stories, at least one focusing, comes in the first sentence of that post: “Good Stories entertain and engage Big Questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?”
     Big questions like these don’t accept final answers. Instead, they offer direction and vitality for going farther, going further on. Good stories provide a schoolroom with always open doors for recess so that humans have room to continue growing up, even into retirement. They’re not so much for dispensing information as they are for opening imagination. Our imaginal capacities need developing as much, if not more, as do our ability to reason and to learn the scientific method.
     Having left the university, those years spent in Good Stories have opened now into more intense journey with imagination and further travels with the big questions. Just yesterday, I completed reading William Chittick’s Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-‘Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity. The one before was James Morris’ Orientations and before that Morris’ The Reflective Heart: Discovering Spiritual Intelligence in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Meccan Illuminations. In it, Morris offers a connection with the bigger purpose of Good Stories:
one might say that his [Ibn ‘Arabi’s] method is one of using the sacred Imagination—in the sense of the archetypal images and stories provided by his own religious tradition—to awaken each reader’s individual spiritual imagination, to illuminate and reveal the recurrent ‘reflections’ of those scriptural likenesses in the ‘ever-renewed creation’ of his readers’ own unique spiritual experiences. (p. 161)
     I scarcely presume to select one passage from Chittick’s Imaginal Worlds to illustrate the illumination about imagination because the entire text wants to be included. The chapter “Death and the Afterlife” still draws my gratitude for better understanding God’s mercy, and the final section on the nature of belief adds hope for peace, both inner and in the USA.
     The world around us looks a mess. Our education system hasn’t proven to develop citizens who are capable of democratic governance. Of special concern are the failure to discern truth, bad judgment about character, and little evidence of love for self, others and the environment. In my view, part of the problem with our schooling comes from too much faith in reason and too much denial of imagination. Chittick explains how Ibn ‘Arabi asserts the importance and place of both reason and imagination:
imagination erases differences and unites, while reason discerns and separates. When people are left to their rational faculties, they tend to separate the Real from the cosmos and themselves. This leads to a loss of the vision of the divine presence in all things…[capacity with] imagination allows them to establish links and overcome difference. (p. 168)
There—I did finally select one passage, but doing so leaves a need to go back and re-read the many other pages with markers.  Let’s keep moving further into the imaginal worlds…