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Visions of the Divine Essence
Friends Meeting: the B sides
#10 After a forum in Winter 2009
“Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”
Summa Theologica, First part of the second part, Question 3 What is happiness, article 8.
Good morning friends.
I ain’t real happy and chipper right now. In fact, I’m upset by a few things I recently heard. I feel a bit left out and I’m not sure what to do with this, but I shall try to be careful with my words.
The first tradition in the 12 step fellowship I attend tells me to concentrate on what we have in common, to share about what we can agree upon, rather than say things which can divide us into separate camps. At the same time, I am encouraged to share about anything which affects my recovery. I need to identify my feelings and explore my experiences which raise those feelings.
I’ve heard that I can communicate anything to anyone, it’s simply a matter of How I say it. When strong negative reactions arise, I feel very uncomfortable expressing them out loud spontaneously for fear of blowing up and saying something which I’ll only regret later. I feel both seductively drawn to and yet deeply afraid of conflict. One route to defuse my feelings is to write about them, so - voici!
For a few months now I have been warmed by the loving and gracious presence of Linda, so I looked forward to her forum this morning. In fact, I must confess that this is the first Sunday morning I’ve gotten out of bed by 9:00 am in about 3 months. (I have a short Sunday morning commute you might say). I really enjoyed hearing her share her spiritual path, but I was also challenged by it.
Linda was brave and open enough to share her unique experience of a vision of God, specifically Jesus, with whom she could communicate.
In spite of the usual barriers and baggage I drag around I must admit that I was moved by Linda’s story. Clearly this was a transformative experience for her, and a life of faith and service since then is evidence of it. (as opposed to a life of personal gain and blind, numbing consumerism, which is the heavily advertised and induced norm in most of society).
Three words describing a profound truth keep returning to me in all my navigation of religion – organized or personal, philosophy, observation of society… just all this stuff I see in front of me, and those three words are: Direct Personal Experience.
If I recall correctly, Direct Personal Experience with God, the Light Within, the Seed, is exactly what Quakers have sought from the beginning. Without direct personal experience of the Light Within, all religious opinions are empty “notions”, all good works may become misguided, and …
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have Love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 1Cor 13:1
Spirit over Letter
At the latest spiritual fellowship small group meeting I shared that the Quaker conviction to recognize the Spirit in which the scriptures were revealed Above the scriptures themselves is a key without which I could never enter this community, and a practice without which I feel I could not stay.
Please allow me to reiterate and paraphrase this Quaker Practice regarding the Bible: listening with favorable disposition, looking optimistically at all human communication, we are supposed to look for the Spirit of Love which – in theory – or as a matter of faith – inspired the better parts of those epistles and books now known as Protestant Canon. When in doubt on any particular apparent conflict arising from these scriptures, it is the Spirit of Love to whom our allegiance belongs, not the words! Whether those words of scripture be fragments of parchment, such as the Essene Scrolls from the Dead Sea, the translations of ancient language experts, or the interpretations of diverse competing schools of theology, or the peculiar applications chosen wisely or capriciously by multitudinous warring – and I do mean literally Warring – factions of the double edged blessing and plague upon the earth known as Christianity.
Specifically I shared at spiritual fellowship some grave doubts I have about those practically unknowable 3rd and 4th century bishops who collected, and in some cases counterfeited, what eventually became Canon and burned what they considered heresy. I read in the introduction to the Nag Hamadi Library that Shenouda the Archimandrite, a saint of the Coptic church, wrote to some Gnostic monks that they would be destroyed by the sword and those who escaped the Roman soldiers of the newly “Christian” theocratic state would live in exile.
In other words, the Bible as we know it was certainly Not chosen by a diverse group of longsuffering Quakers bearing patiently with one another, earnestly seeking a sense of the meeting, enjoying freedom of religion, assembly and expression in a pluralistic society as we have today!
Searching for a modern parallel to the likes of Shenouda, I latched onto the Ayatollahs of Iran, which the American corporate press paints as intolerant, radical, fundamentalist, oppressive and violent Muslim theocrats. Indeed, American Christians, such as George W Bush and Sarah Palin repeat the epithet of “Islamo-fascist” without challenge in the US press. Well, are there not strong parallels between soldiers of the so-called Christian Roman state executing monks who espoused different ideas about Jesus and Christianity, burning the library of Alexandria, and the oppression of fundamentalist Muslim Iran we keep hearing demonized today?
If you would not be inspired to follow the rules and holy books chosen by Ayatollah Khomeni, why have warm fuzzy feelings about Emperor Constantine, who may have been just another shrewd politician and ruthless, greedy, power-lusting conqueror? At best, all of these historical actors are long since dead, and the true nature of their character is simply inaccessible – they are strangers.
And one reasonably safe and sane teaching passed from all parents to their children is this:
Who chose the Bible? Strangers.
Who wrote the Bible? More strangers.
So why should we read the Bible? And not just read it, but supposedly guide our very lives by it?
Apologists, at least those in our meeting, would point out that the individual believers among us who read, interpret for themselves, and practice what they hear in the Bible are not strangers - at least not if we choose to spend enough time together! This leads me back to the Quaker’s “primacy of Spirit over text”, and how else would any of us know what that Inspiring Spirit is without hearing, seeing and feeling it as a loving human presence right here and now?
Which leads me back to my introduction of Linda as warming, loving and gracious. Don’t tell me, show me. And I thank her, and many like her, for doing so!
My personal visions
In some ways I feel a little jealous in that I can not readily recall any such wondrous transformative visions like Linda’s. Whatever vivid dreams or compelling memories I have seem either distracting, confusing, or discouraging.
Occasionally I recall dreams which offer some simple insight into my feelings, and I can even laugh with myself, at myself. In early recovery I had a dream where I was walking around with a crown on my head, the classic European style crown of gold, jewels, complete with purple velvet lining and a white furry trim with black spots, and no one noticed! During my morning coffee and contemplation I realized what an ego problem this dream probably indicated – interpretation: “Don’t you all know who I am?!” More than a few recovering addicts have called themselves ego-maniacs with inferiority complexes. I feel as if I am less than others, and I tried to make up for that low self-esteem by acting as if I’m better than others. Fortunately, we Do recover!
Beyond these self-revealing dreams with simple morals akin to the punch-lines of a joke, I can recall only a few more dramatic dreams or memories. Unfortunately I can’t see any positive inspiring messages in them.
Linda said that she did not tell anyone about her vision of Jesus for 7 years. I will tell you of a memory which I have shared with only 1 other person, my sponsor.
When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I remember my mother talking about demonic possession. For a quick background sketch, my mother’s father was a Methodist minister, my father was a US Navy Presbyterian chaplain; I was surrounded in born again evangelical Christianity bordering on fundamentalism. So she was probably discussing some book from Church, and this was about current and not-unheard-of events for our family’s social circles.
She said something to the effect that all of the people who had suffered demon possession had somehow invited the demon into them. (Is this some fundamentalist version of blame the victim?). Furthermore, the demon possessed had somehow suffered as children, neglected or lonely in some way, and invited the demon in as a friend, deceived as to the fiend’s true nature. Apparently this truth all comes out only years later if the victim finds relief through exorcism.
To the best of my recollection, 35 years later, that’s what I heard. Furthermore, such claims are fairly consistent with the latest beliefs I’ve heard from those evangelical branches of Christianity.
Back to my childhood, I recall pondering this alone at home one day and the thought occurred to me that demon possession might be interesting, that inviting some dark and mysterious thing along as an imaginary friend might be… fun.
Now here’s where I have some difficulty relating my memory. I can not discern between the following:
1) what I actually saw, heard, touched, tasted and felt physically that day (circa 1975)
a) what I actually felt emotionally that day
2) what I imagined I saw, or heard that day (imagined in 1975)
3) what I later projected back onto that day, from various points in my life as I reconsidered this memory (i.e. projected in 1980, 1989, 1996, and since then, this projection arises as “memory”)
4) what I have inferred about my experience that day. (i.e. inferring today).
So, under the dubious verb labeled “recall” I shall include all 4 possible meanings or sources of “memory” listed above.
I “recall” a dark blurry cloud in my peripheral vision, feeling that I should not talk to it, but I chose to communicate with this darkness in spite of misgivings.
I do not recall any related sequelae, meaning, nothing remarkable happened that day or the next. I infer that I just went on to play like any other day without a second thought.
Trying to understand my visions
This childhood memory, of dubious quality (not nefarious, just questionable), combined with other experiences with born again evangelical Christianity has contributed to some transformation of my character, I suppose, but not in a good way. My best guess is that superstitious fear, various incidents of ostracism by religious relatives (directed at myself and others), combined with a number of psychological factors added to my chronic low self-esteem and paralyzing self-doubt.
There have been a few times over the years when I have wondered if I am in fact possessed by Satan. Would this explain why I sometimes harm others or seek my own self-destruction even when I don’t want to?
While writing out my fourth step in recovery, sharing it in a fifth step (which I’ve done twice now), and in discussions with a therapist I have made a lot of progress in identifying mistakes for which I am actually responsible, and separating my choices from other problems for which I am not responsible.
I did not invent evangelical Christianity. And sometimes I feel that I would not wish it upon my worst enemy. (actually, I’ve discovered that I can be my worst enemy, so I guess I truly would not wish evangelical Christianity – as I have experienced it - upon my worst enemy!).
What seems reasonable to me about this childhood memory is that I was just a kid with a vivid imagination who was a little bored that day. My imagination worked with the material that was available to it in the forms of stories, myths, artwork, whatever theater or movies I was exposed to at the time. I happened to hear about demon possession from my parents and church, so that’s where my imagination went, that’s one of the characters I borrowed.
This brings me to a critical point about Linda’s beautific vision of Jesus, and my imagination of demon possession: the greatest predictor of religious affiliation is culture of origin. If you grow up in a Muslim country, the religion you are most likely to subscribe to is Islam.
One facet or application of mythology (and I categorize all religious stories as mythology) which I find useful is in understanding psychology (not that I actually know that much of it). I would suppose that when some people feel an overwhelming need for a new direction in their life, when they are searching for inspiration and are ready to make some profound changes, that many people might have some vision of “God”, and their vision will take the form of the mythology in which they were immersed.
In other words, for every Linda who’s inspired by a talk with Jesus, there’s probably a Shahzar who’s seen Mohammed, a Rahul who met Indra, and a Hiroto transformed by the wonder-working power of Buddha. Amen!
And if they all tell the truth more often, share with their neighbor, forgive their enemies enough to stop fighting, and dump less toxic waste in the rivers as a result of their personal religious experience – I won’t argue with those results!
However, I can also identify with the non-theists who would like to see more logic and reason prevail in public policy and other communal ventures! If by some miracle you’re unaware of the Republican War on Science… well, you’re not reading this anyway – but basically conservative religion gets in bed with corporate greed and public relations campaigns for coal, petroleum, the auto industry (collectively known as “the highway lobby”) and resists any and all efforts at curbing greenhouse gases; then there’s wishful thinking about birth control and population, etc. etc. (oh, and FYI, the Democrats are the other pro-business party, so poor and middle class Americans have no where else to turn. These two parties are in effect a totalitarian state. But that’s another story. See Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism,).
I can also understand how atheists view religious education as a form of psychological abuse. Suffice it to say that a couple more of my vivid dreams include being forced to worship an idol by a demon and drowning in the flames of hell. You can see how I might be jealous of people who have religious visions of the happy and uplifting variety.
The film The Mission has some wonderful dialogue revealing tensions between religion, capitalism, and the state. In a court scene Father Gabriel tries to convince the visiting Archbishop Altamirano that the Jesuit missions should be protected from the Portuguese and Spanish colonies which thrive on slavery, of which Cabeza is a senior officer:
Father Gabriel: This is another difference. (showing wounds on a boy)
A runaway slave. Bought by a Spanish settler from a slave trader.
Archbishop Altamirano: I see. Is that lawful?
Father Gabriel: Supply and demand is the law of trade.
Cabeza: (interrupting) And the law of souls?
- What's a few cuts on the back...
...compared with what you offer them?
Torments of hell? Imprisoned souls?
Think of that, Your Eminence.
In addition to being afraid of going to hell, I have had another fear that someday I will give in to the superstitious beliefs of my parents’ religion. In illness or old age the relentless, cheerful proselytizers will succeed in manipulating my fear of death into a “conversion”, praise the Lord! Like the character in George Orwell’s 1984, Winston eventually succumbs, and deep in his heart, He Loves Big Brother. I wonder if I will lose my true self and give in to fear.
I said that the closest thing to visions which I have experienced were distracting, confusing or discouraging. After analyzing the discouraging ones, here I can dispense with the distracting and confusing ones.
The only other vivid dreams or hallucinations I’ve ever experienced were a result of smoking marijuana, and I have ambivalent feelings about them. There were two episodes, a few weeks apart, which seem related, where I saw some awe-inspiring things. I may even have sensed a resolution between the imagery of the religion of my childhood and a broader, universalistic perspective.
However, because these hallucinations were apparently induced by a mind-altering drug, I am quite suspicious of them. After a lot of hard work to stay clean and sober for over 10 years I can not recommend pursuing anything remotely meaningful or helpful through chemistry. Perhaps your doctor can, but I still believe in a Primum Non Nocere approach (First, do no harm).
The positive transformation which has taken place in my life has occurred as a direct result of practicing spiritual principles with the help of a 12 step fellowship, whose first step tells me to never use any drugs again, period. The best description of spirituality I can give in writing comes from discussing examples of principles such as honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, patience, tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness, service, humility (not meaning a lowly state, but rather a balanced sense of self-worth), courage, persistence, perseverance, hope, love, compassion, sharing, etc.
The serenity prayer (the short 3 line version) is about the only prayer I ever say out loud with other people. The clarity of sorting out the things I can change – me, from the things I can not change – everyone and everything else, is quite a relief.
By exploring myself, my attitudes, expectations, resentments, choices, behaviors and habits, and changing some of these one step at a time, one day at a time, my life has improved dramatically. My whole outlook, my view of the world has changed. We call this a “spiritual awakening” and only poetic language can sufficiently describe it.
Like the song says: “What a long strange trip it’s been”!
Recently I was surprised to read that opening quote from Aquinas again:
“Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”
( in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism - Tawney)
and found that after all these years (about 20) I agree with Aquinas, but probably not in the way he meant it.
I believe that a vision of the Divine Essence will be found within YourSelf!
You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this,
but what canst thou say?
Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light,
and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?
In my 12 step program our literature says that each of us has complete freedom to communicate with any Higher Power we choose. While I feel very strongly that our literature is nearly flawless, this is one rare example where I would change a word: from “choose” to “discover”. I can pray or meditate in any way I choose, but I would like to think that there really is some objective Truth out there - or in here - that I’m getting in touch with – that I Discover. Because if God is just a choice on my part, it’s likely to be Santa Claus: some senile old rich guy who’ll just give me lotsa toys!
And in order to at least get along civilly with others, one must to listen to others.
Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.
Aiming a little higher than mere civility, through cooperation, we can help each other learn more about that Divine Essence within each of us, and it starts by listening to each other. Which is apparently part of what we do every Sunday morning. Listening on the outside and listening on the inside.
I heard a wonderful speaker in our 12 step fellowship talk about our second tradition: “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority, a loving God as he may express himself in our group conscience” (group conscience = sense of the meeting) and he said:
“ It is not God as I understand him,
but God as We understand him
and each of us has our own capacity to understand”
In other words, I can not have an adequate vision of the Divine Essence all by myself. (Exhibit A of my inadequate vision: I thought drugs were the best thing ever and that almost got me killed). I need the help of others, I need to hear about your vision of the Divine to better understand my own.
Yeah, what a drag, I’m stuck with the likes of you!
But this is the inter-connectedness, the unfolding organic nature of Truth, the Universe.
Is this a life boat?
I said I was upset by some things I heard lately. Linda handled an awkward question rather well, so she’s not the one I have a beef with.
I can’t even remember the question, but I can not forget a statement included in it: a man said matter-of-factly that he does not trust non-Christ-centered Quakers.
It has taken, only about 7 pages for me to arrive at some forgiving attitude towards that man. However, I recall being taught that to forgive someone does not mean ignoring what they did, saying “oh, it was nothing”. Rather, forgiveness means acknowledging that a harm was in fact done, but that continuing the friendship is more important than keeping exact records of wrongs. Out of a greater desire for a growing love and acceptance one forgives, and the price is deemed worth it.
Of course, the same people who taught me that about forgiveness also scared me to no end with hell, and they also believe they’re killing Islamo-fascists for God and Country, so what the hell do they know?!
I’ve been carried away by my imagination a few times this morning, thinking of a clever and potent response to this person who lumps all non-Christ-centered Quakers together in a category. I imagined myself channeling a very sarcastic and bitter Jack Nicholson and saying something which does not bear repeating.
( I wasn’t kidding when I said I was both highly attracted to conflict and yet very afraid of it because I just don’t know if I can handle it.)
Recovery literature on the fourth step inventory challenges me to explore my side of the street in my resentments: “what in us was so threatened that it caused such deep emotional torment?”
I felt unwanted.
The man in forum said in effect “un-trusted”.
Which stirs up in my mind “untrustworthy”.
Remember the part of my preceding story where I wander around thinking that I must always be doing something wrong, because maybe, just maybe I’m possessed by a demon?
I have had some very challenging times trying to share my newfound Quaker experiences with my family. Sometimes I have craved some pat on the back for participating in a religious community. After what I’ve been through, isn’t it kind of amazing that I attend a Quaker meeting at all?!
Do you have any clue what it cost me to get here?!
I read Your book, the Bible, through, cover to cover just this past year as part of my homework pondering whether or not I might join your church. Do you have any idea what horrors the Bible contains?!
Can you explain how God accepted the human sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, or at least said not one word to stop it?! I won’t even get started on the genocides.
And as for Jesus, he’s a man of peace. Except for when he said that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword!
Face it, Jesus is the biggest Rohrshach test in history: you can project on to him whatever you want. I’ve read enough history of the early church and the formation of the Canon to know that the Bible is not a telescope to the past showing you Jesus, but a broken telescope, a kaleidoscope, with some pieces of lenses stained in the blood of the “heretics”. Shake the kaleidoscope this way and maybe you see some face, or maybe it’s a butterfly. Sure, there are some wonderful peaceful and healing teachings, but which ones had not already been written by Greek philosophers or Hindus generations before Jesus?
I read through Faith and Practice of NEYM twice, looking for a reason why I don’t belong here, and I could not find one. I do value the sense of the meeting above the opinion and occasional carelessness of the individual.
What I was hoping for, and for the most part what I have found is a welcoming community.
My 12 step fellowship is a powerful example of what a welcoming community can be. We imagine ourselves to be a lifeboat. The alternatives to recovery from drug addiction are jails, mental institutions and death. When any addict walks into a recovery meeting it’s a miracle* that they didn’t die of an overdose, DUI, suicide, or violent crime. *(I’m more comfortable with definition 2 of miracle: “a remarkable event, marvel”)
The only requirement for membership in a 12 step meeting is a desire to stop using, just the desire. Like a hospital, we’re not open for just those who are already well, we’re open for those who feel like they don’t belong anywhere else and just want to stop hurting.
It’s easy to alienate an addict. It’s real easy for me to compare my insides to other people’s outsides and seeing the affluence and success of people who didn’t ruin their lives like I did, or start in my socio-economic class, it’s a challenge to fit in at FMC.
In my 12 step meetings I try to welcome each person who shows up as a gift from God, remembering that this might be their last chance to recover from a deadly disease. (actually our literature reflects the humility of our fellowship in that it clearly states that our program is Not the only way that an addict can remain clean). The only proof that I need demonstrating their desire to stop using is the simple fact that they came back to another meeting.
We give hugs in our 12 step fellowship.
Are Quaker meetings like that?
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