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…

Monday, February 19, 2018

Love Memories in the Imaginal World

photo taken at Chincoteague, October 2016
Memories of loves who have passed on
whether within or beyond this world—
This matters little if God moves us…

It’s told as if God has two hands
ever molding Adam’s clay,
imparting breath…

The clay is our body,
the breath spirit. Each overlaps
tides of the soul

where happens the imaginal world.
Those memories trespass time
still refining love…

These notions come floating by 
1) as my sister remembers her son’s birthday who has passed on as has mine…
2) also while reflecting on Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al'Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity by William Chittick, particularly Chapter 7, “Death and the Afterlife,” with specific elaboration on the two hands, and with attention throughout to the situation of the soul, for example, "mercy will eventually prevail" (p. 115) . . .

3) and with echoes from Elizabeth Gray’s The Green Sea of Heaven on Hafiz’ ghazals, e.g.: “Adam was made from clay kneaded and formed with love by God’s own hand, and then given life by God’s breath. The angels were commanded by God to bow down to Adam, because unlike the angelic host, part of man’s nature is divine (that is, love). (Sura 15:29).” [p. 158 note 1 on Ghazal 29]

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Tracking on the Path of Attraction

In the account of his forest mandala for early February, David George Haskell focuses on the tracks of deer and their browsing on the emerging tips of winter vegetation. 

This week, the tracks in our woodlands have been quite visible due to the snowfall that has been covering the ground. In addition to the cloven marks of deer, padded footprints run alongside. In recent days, I sighted a coyote and possibly a bobcat. A grey house cat has also been prowling by, maybe from the barn or from neighbors, and bird prints abound. 
        My reading this week gains meaning when viewed in terms of tracking. In first passage through the books, some spot on almost every page or three attracted a marker. After reading, those fluorescent sticky notes made the tracks by which I returned to copy passages and to classify them into categories. Here’s the working set from James Winston Morris’ The Reflective Heart:

  • Bewilderment
  • Discernment
  • Face as symbol  Face of God    veil  cleaning   suffering
  • Friend of God
  • Heart   Tajalli
  • Imagination
  • Journey Voyage -ing
  • Meaning-Making  Self-Recognition   Spiritual Ascension of the Word
  • Secret
  • Spiritual Intelligence  Mahdi
  • Steward    Stewardship
  • Taste   Tasting
  • Tales   Story   Storytellling   Hagiography     Imagination
  • Teaching
  How is it that certain passages and terms emerge from the sea of words, like the young growth that attracts the browsing of deer? Haskell explains in length how a deer takes in the crucial parts that the body, the rumen, is especially receptive to and capable of absorbing. The deer discerns within the environment that which has life-giving power. Perhaps, again, it’s discernment, a term for the title of a key chapter in Morris’ book, that forges or finds a person’s unique pathway.
   As I wondered around this metaphor of tracks and tracking, the term himma came to mind. In attempting to follow the “path of attraction,” some markers or tracks would certainly be helpful because the world has many wolves, gingerbread houses, and givers of toxic apples. So many attractions distract or veil a person from the True Way; these tests range from ascetic to sensational. A tracker has to discern the fit for his or her particular fingerprint marking the Way, the track provided by the Source. In The Reflective Heart, Morris indexes only three pages specifically for himma, but one of them may be sufficient at this point. Translating Ibn ‘Arabi:
We empty our hearts of reflective thinking, and we sit together with the Real (al-Haqq) on the carpet of adab [appropriate courtesy] and spiritual attentiveness (muraqaba) and presence and readiness to receive whatever comes to us from Him—so that it is God who takes care of teaching us by means of unveiling and spiritual realization. So when they have focused their hearts and their spiritual aspirations (himam) on God and have truly taken refuge with Him—giving up any reliance on the claims of reflection and investigation and intellectual results—then their hearts are purified and open. Once they have this inner receptivity, God manifests Himself to them, teaching them and informing them through the direct vision of the inner meanings of those (obscure scriptural) words and reports, in a single instant…They limit (the meanings of these scriptural or prophetic expressions) to what (God) actually intended by them—even if that very same expression occurs in another report (with an entirely different intended meaning). (p. 61)
In her book on Hafiz, Elizabeth Green clarifies the meaning of himma: “‘high spiritual energy or ambition,’ spiritual power that enables an adept to attain higher planes of experience and understanding, and that enables the pir [spiritual guide] to protect his disciples” (p. 148, The Green Sea of Heaven). I’ve sometimes connected himma with an increased heartbeat or a sense of close attunement with purpose, the raison d’être. In Music of the Soul, Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id al-Jamal connects himma with a personal favorite:
“… you could say himma is like a horse and when the ‘arif (the knower of the truth) puts himself on this himma, he flies, travelling. Without himma, no one can walk. . . The knowing is himma.” (p. 285, note 11).
This tracking, this connection with himma, or with whatever mark one calls the trace of the True Way, cannot be underestimated. Rumi reminds us:
The Master said: There is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten. If you were to forget everything else, but did not forget that, then there would be no cause to worry; whereas if you performed and remembered and did not forget every single thing, but forgot that one thing, then you would have done nothing whatsoever. (p. 26, Discourses of Rumi, Trans. A.J. Arberry; See also, Coleman Barks for Feb 9, “The One Thing You Must Do” in A Year With Rumi and p. 21 in Say I Am You).

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Winter’s Invisibility Cloak

Our woods on January 30, 2018
For January 30, David George Haskell in The Forest Unseen, writes, “plant resurrection after a full surrender is so far removed from human experience…” (p. 22). And yet the Path of Attraction* calls to us humans, urging the full surrender of the ego-self. Instead of a contrast, I find that Haskell’s elaboration of the winter woods offers a helpful model for our development through wintry conditions.
   Haskell describes how most plants survive through freezing winter by moving the essential to the center: “Plants start their preparations several weeks ahead of the first freezes. They move DNA and other delicate structures to the centers of their cells” (p. 22). In similar fashion, in order to survive the freezing times that worldly life brings toward the soul, humans need to follow the example of the plants’ preparation. 
   Importantly, the testing times of winter demand the development of discernment. Purification of the human heart means discerning the individual’s spiritual DNA. Coleman Barks places a Rumi poem here in the midst of winter where it teaches us about the ability to discern true ecstacy: “There are thousands of wines/ that can take over our minds.// Don’t think all ecstasies are the same./ Jesus was lost in his love for God./ His donkey was drunk with barley.”** Yes, humans need the “fire” from wine in order to make our way through winters, but we have to choose the wine of spiritual ecstacy over the intoxications of pride, ambition, domination, as well as alcoholic drunkeness.
   If a human surrenders the ego, surviving the winter of life might be possible. Haskell’s elaboration of his woods in Shakerag Hollow offers helpful models for us. In addition to the way taken by perennials, he notes “a different path”: 
Leafcup herbs completed their short eighteen-month lives last fall and now stand dead, surrendered entirely to winter. They have sublimated into a new physical form, like snow passing into vapor. Like vapor, these new forms are invisible, but they surround me…seeds, waiting out winter…When spring sparks the mandela, the energy released will carry the whole forest, birds included, through another year. [p. 24]
   Haskell’s account stirs several themes worthy of meditation. For one, consider the value of going invisible. Of course we saw the power of the Invisibility Cloak for Harry Potter. Perhaps less apparent is the value of the quiet life somewhat protected from the storms of status, wealth, and winning. When we realize this, we have gratitude for not being seen, for not receiving the “merit” bonus, even for losing the world’s prestige. The authentic life of the individual soul has to be known in secret. 
        Or perhaps there are sightings or scents but only accessible to those prepared to receive them. The pathway toward God moves into the invisible, the inarticulate, the ineffable. I believe that human capacity for such movement develops, for example, when engaging Good Stories through increasing discernment of “resonance,” by discriminating the authentic, the holy. Although I’ve just discovered the book, I’m excited to open John Renard’s Friends of God where his Preface notes “when an author appears to have slipped off the straight path of ‘fact’ onto the mucky byways and quick sands of credulity” and going forward as “travelers in the realms of the religious imagination” guided as “smaller stories communicate the ineffable” (xiii-xiv). God’s light breaks through every instant but catching the rainbow spectrum takes special vision. These new forms wait out winter preparing to spark into spring.
* Path of Attraction is “code” for following God’s light, for the “Religion of Love,” perhaps even signaled by the code-word  resonance” that I use in Good Stories [clink on the resonance “label” at bottom of blog], and for continuing purification needed to track or to be drawn by the Source, the Truth… 

** From p. 40 for January 28 in A Year with Rumi, taken from Mathnawi IV, 2683ff. In the passage, Rumi warns us that these two “wines” (infidelity vs. true religion, line 2716; carnal soul vs. reason, line 2718) are “at war: take heed, take heed, and strive that the spiritual realities may prevail over the (sensual) forms” (line 2719, Nicholson’s translation).
In her notes for Hafiz’s ghazal 5, Elizabeth Gray comments on the symbol: “Wine has a rich array of meanings and resonances in Persian poetry, and is associated with light, illumination, and truth… The surface of the wine in the wine cup reveals the face of the Beloved, the reflection of one’s own face (which is a mirror of God as His creation, and therefore is Him)” (p. 147, The Green Sea of Heaven.)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Human-Divine Harmony

Part 3 in the year-long series of looking at our woods through the lens of David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen. 
   Haskell’s entry for January 21 focuses on comparing chickadees’ survival in extremely cold conditions with humans’ coping through fire, clothing, and food storage. In contrast with species that evolve to accommodate nature, I wonder about humans’ role in shaping the environment. When Haskell strips his clothes to simulate the bird’s experience, within seconds his body starts to shut down and soon he would have become unconscious and dead. Instead he covers up with warm insulating clothes and returns to his toasty kitchen, fueled by burning wood, powered by petroleum, sun, wind, or nuclear energy. When is this thing we call “civilization” in harmony with all-our-relations and when not?
   In our woods from January 20-23 in 2018, snow was melting, then temperatures peaked at 60 degrees, about 20 above normal, followed by rain and overnight freezing. On the warm days, I was working up a good sweat removing invasive plants from our woodland. This thing called “civilization” is crazy-making, and then perhaps it also allows a place to find/receive God.
   Perhaps humans just have to fall; in other words, to learn harmony, we first mess things up. Most of the mess in our woods came in by humans who thought they knew better. For example, "bush honeysuckle”:
…first introduced into the United States in the mid to late 1800s from Europe and Asia for use as ornamentals, wildlife food and cover, and erosion control. . . [But] Honeysuckle out competes and shades out desirable native woodland species, and can form pure, dense thickets totally void of other vegetation. . . While honeysuckle fruit is abundant and rich in carbohydrates it lacks the high-fat and nutrient-rich content that most of our native plants provide migrating birds. Wherever invasive honeysuckle shrubs displace our native forest species there is a huge potential impact on these migrating bird populations due to the reduction in availability of native food sources. 
   Soon after we were adopted by these woods, the missing native trees along with our birds asked me to take care of a thicket. While doing this has produced buckets of sweat, effects of poison ivy, ticks, etc., it’s also brought the joy of stewardship and thus the presence of the Divine. Tending these woods and being tended by them: that’s a divine harmony. In my view, it’s allowed one of the “very special human doorways to true religious understanding…and finally as God’s true earthly ‘stand-ins’ or ‘Stewards...’” The passage comes from James Winston Morris’ forthcoming book, Openings:
"First, and most importantly, it is human Hearts (the Qur’anic qalb al-insān) that are the locus of true spiritual ‘Knowing’ (‘ilm) and of our awareness of God and Truth: that is, it is not simply our mind or intellect or passion. Hence the decisive practical importance, throughout the Nahj al-Balāgha, of Ali’s constant stress on the purification of our hearts, through inner surrender to the divine Will (taslīm), as the underlying spiritual purpose of the many divine commandments. Divine, inspired ‘Knowing,’ however it is outwardly acquired, can only be perceived as such by the Heart that has been ‘polished,’ emptied of this world’s distractions and attachments, and thereby opened up to the full significance and reality of the divine Word—and to the further rights and obligations (another dimension of the Arabic al-Haqq) flowing from that opening. 
     Second, the practically indispensable key to this human potential for religious Knowing is the real existence and efforts of a limited number of divinely guided individuals—again, not of particular books, rituals, doctrines or worldly institutions, none of which are even mentioned in this intimate, highly personal lesson. Ali refers here to those very special human doorways to true religious understanding by several profoundly significant Qur’anic expressions: the ‘divine Knowers’; the ‘Friends of God’ (awliyā’ Allāh); God’s ‘Proofs’ or ‘Clear Signs’ on Earth (hujja, bayyina); God’s ‘True Servants’ (‘ibād Allāh); and finally as God’s true earthly ‘stand-ins’ or ‘Stewards’ (khalīfat Allāh).” [reference to Qur’an 6:165]
   While Morris is not explicitly talking about tending woodlands, I find very helpful his elaboration of stewardship in the context of searching for the heart-space that connects the human with the divine. What a blessing it is to feel the peace, beauty, and harmony in mature woodlands.
Pileated Woodpecker…a keystone species in mature and old forest”

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Divine Intoxication

Our Tavern of Woods, Jan 17, 2018
In comic-strip pith, “Word” signals “That’s it!” as in “Truth!” But in real life, words only approximate and often miss the mark, frequently crafted with intention to deceive, witnessed poignantly in the discipline of rhetoric. Her cousin, Religion, focuses on guiding discernment into truth, plumbing the eternal word becoming flesh, tuning the human voice toward resonance with its Source. Both rhetoric and religion testify that not all, not even most, scratching on surfaces  approaches the sanctity of “Word.” And yet this writing and reading, this employment of words sometimes corrects a false step, sometimes allows a a scent or taste of the water of life, the "mystical intoxication."
   Concerning taste, this preoccupation with “word” came about, perhaps, due to the trouble stirred up by Hafiz choosing to feature “tavern” when “temple” is meant—isn’t it? Franklin Lewis, in his chapter in Hafiz and the Religion of Love (Ed. Leonard Lewisohn), comments:
“Thus the wine tavern becomes the locus—the ruins on the outskirts of town, where the non-Muslims drink clandestinely so as not to offend public morality, the liminal space outside society—while the dawn becomes the poetic moment when divine intervention arrives, allowing wine and relief, or mystical intoxication. [Lewis illustrates with the first line of Ghazal 479] ‘At dawn a call from the wine tavern, wishing good fortune/ It said come back, for you are an old haunter of this court.’” (pp. 274-5)
The next line from the ghazal extends the purpose of Hafiz playing the word “tavern.” In Peter Avery’s translation:
“A draught from us drink like Jamshid, so that of both worlds’ mystery/ The beam of light from the world-seeing cup might inform you.” (p. 580, Collected Lyrics of Hafiz of Shiraz)
Of course, in the spirit of good mythopoesis, Hafiz wants to shake us, to wake us, in order that we might search out hypocrisy, alert for hidden idols, finding the ones that continue to separate us from the Love of God; that we might come back to the source of inspiration, walking in the mystery of both worlds. 
God invites us every moment to do this, to purify in order to live more cleanly. To help me enter the invitations, as explained earlier, I’m intending a year-long project that connects (A) David George Haskell’s study (The Forest Unseen) of his forest mandela with 
~14 cardinals
(B) the woods that illumine our windows. We’re now on his second entry, the one for January 17. On this date, his woods like ours are filled with snow. We wonder how the snowflake reaches its essential uniqueness, turning through the spirit wind, glistening in the illuminating light.
Haskell’s meditation (pp. 8-11) flows back to Johannes Kepler (1611) who “wrote that snowflakes are showing us the spirit of the earth and God, the ‘formative soul’ that inhabits all being.” Yet Kepler was frustrated in not showing “a material explanation” and still his “musings on the snowflake…contributed to the development of our modern understanding of atoms.” Haskell brings our contemporary X-ray analysis to the design of matter: our woods, water, and us.
“The basic hexagonal shape of snowflakes is elaborated in varied ways as the ice crystal grows, with the temperature and humidity of the air determining the final shape… Other combinations of temperature and humidity cause the growth of hollow prisms, needles, or furrowed plates. As snowflakes fall, the wind tosses them through the air’s innumerable slight variations of temperature and humidity. No two flakes experience exactly the same sequence, and the particularities of these divergent histories are reflected in the uniqueness of the ice crystals that make up each snowflake.” pp. 9-10
As a side note, Kepler has also received recent attention in relation to his role in enlightening dark consciousness evident in witch hunts, including the one involving his own mother.* 
The human defines the authenticity of word as the individual resonates uniquely back into the original promise, the timeless covenant between God and human, the affirmation of sovereignty. Humans also revolve through cultural drafts and shadows that challenge each of us to sound the authentic word that is true to the Source. Thus, again, the purpose of religion. 
        Sufis talk of this walking as the Path of Attraction. But life abounds with attractions, and so many are bewitchments from the impurities picked up in the currents of culture. The true calling is to discern, to follow, and to voice the Word. God is Everywhere. The purification back to the Source leads to and follows from entering more deeply into Beauty, Truth, Love, and the array of qualities endowed uniquely in each individual.
* Ulinka Rublack, The Astronomer and the Witch, Oxford, 2015.

James A. Conner, Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother. Harper, 2005.

Sunday, January 14, 2018


The gospel for busy people: Love God.
How? Keep the commandments.*
In a world that lives by quick concrete answers, I fear that religion too often gets reduced (semi-consciously, at best) to this simplistic formula: loving God equals following rules, mostly the “Do Nots.” When this reduction happens, the Devil must be gleeful because the spiritual heart turns to stone. The experience of the Divine then remains surface-level, too superficial to overcome the materialistic, “carnal,” self.
     Let’s not be fooled by another simplistic move that flips to “Anything Goes.” No, that’s not the answer either because sacred scriptures does emphasize keeping commandments “for your good”*; and still the call of Love demands so much more. Yes, giving and following orders often provides safety in situations where a wiser one commands the more naive to stay clear of potential dangers such as the street, drug use, and fake-news; but to stay in that controlled zone limits Love’s dimension. Mature love expands freedom, enters paradox, and manifests God-given individualities.
     So, how do we learn to love God in ways that include and extend beyond the follow-rules-religion? I think that an initial step involves recognizing when dogma has dried up. For example, persons who call themselves Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or …) when doing racist, sexist, and other self-centered acts might wake up. Fake religion is not the path to God.
     Keeping to the Path to God demands hard honesty. True love is truth-telling; it’s not Hollywood, not SuperBowl, not status, drugs or money. At the birth of our first child, I knew without doubt that a powerful gift entered my heart. Why would I expect less in my relationship with God? Cold ritual, going to church/temple/mosque does not make the Religion of Love.
     Our spiritual guides try to tell us this over and over. Antonio Machado capsulized Jesus’ teaching: “I love Jesus, who said to us: Heaven and earth will pass away. When heaven and earth have passed away, my word will remain. What was your word, Jesus? Love? Forgiveness? Affection? All your words were one word: Wakeup.” Perhaps to love God, then, is to wake up, to feel gratitude both for the contraction as well as the expansion (but that’s a topic for another time).
     If we wake up and realize that the Love for God is missing, we might notice the dirty house, the veils, the extent of hypocrisy, within and around. Hafiz “considered hypocrisy in the form of the ostentatious display of religious piety to be the worst moral evil” (Lewisohn, p. 174), “the supreme sin” (p. 175).*** Lewisohn also quotes Ansari who “characterizes hypocrisy as shirk or ‘polytheism’” (p. 175) and Khurramshahi who says that Hafiz extended hypocrisy to include “self righteousness, smugness, conceited self-satisfaction, putting on airs, ostentatious displays of ascetic piety, vaunting one’s learning, considering oneself to be holy and sacrosanct, bragging of and setting stock in one’s own acts of pious devotion, superciliousness, mendacity, imposture, deceit, duplicity in one’s relation to God and man, cruel lack of feeling, being without love and wisdom, and so on” (pp. 174-5). Waking up leads to light coming in, feeling the hard realization of distortions, and bowing.
     When something terrible has become commonplace, what is a sacred poet or prophet to do? With Hafiz, I’m reminded of Hosea and his marriage to Gomer, considered “an adulteress, a common harlot, or a temple prostitute.” Gale A. Yee says the text and interpretation possibly call “into question the authority of traditional interpretations, which are embedded in the sexism and misogyny of Western culture, and calls for new ways of thinking about the body, woman, and the sacred.” ****
     To love God cares about that.
* Deut 10:12-13 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good.” (New JPS version). See also, Jn 14:21 “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (English Standard Version)
Qur’an 3:31 “Say, ‘If you love God, follow me, and God will love you and forgive you your sins; for God is Forgiving, Merciful.’" (3:31) See The Study Quran, p. 140, for elaboration of this passage.
** Antonio Machado. Translated by Robert Bly, Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, Wesleyan University Press, 1983, p.109.
*** Lewisohn, Leonard. Hafiz and the Religion of Love. 

**** Gale A. Yee. “Gomer: Bible.”