Mass Grave

[In June, I started working part time at a Funeral Home. One of my tasks was to arrange all the cremated remains that have been left behind over time. It was baffling. Over 500 since the 1950s. I wrote this poem shortly after a long shift working in the Home.]

I’m standing in a mass grave.

Not one dug in the dubious cloak of night by the shovel of a tyrant.

A grave that is tucked away in the fluorescent catacombs of a funeral home.

I have been appointed to order these lonely parcels into chronological and alphabetical order—due diligence to finally put them into the ground en masse.

Shelf after shelf of neatly packaged cremated human remains—boxes just wide enough to grasp with one hand, but too heavy to carry for long.

I pick up one that feels empty and quickly realize that the box contains the remains of a baby.

There are many babies.

Weathered masking tape holds serial numbers that verify an identity, some with instructions—

Nephew will pick up. Brother in Germany. Hold for six months. Will pick up on April 11. Call family.

Most have names: Maude, Clive, Edna, Dorothy, Daisy, Stan, Bertha.

Some do not have names—Unidentified male, Vancouver. Unidentified Male, Burnaby. Unidentified Male, New Westminster.

This cubical congregation spans many decades—1955, 1958, 1972, 1978, 1986, 1998, 2004.

A weathered box from the 1970s leaks gritty ash from a corner,

It piles like an hour glass on an empty pine coffin I am using as a workstation.

Ash like any ash, dust like any dust;

And yet, attach a name and a big bang of images, ideas and personality expand outward like a tiny universe.https://39b423c66ac7a65eda56522bd404a654.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

I tape the box shut and put it in its new niche.

Silver fish swim among the disintegrating brown paper and masking taped cardboard coffins.

I scratch my arm and dead skin cells slough off, a slow cremation.

I breath in the trace dust of 500 lives lived and cough them out again.

I want to take them all home and adopt them as my own ancestors and friends.

Build them cathedrals and mausoleums.

Make biopics about their lives, extraordinary and ordinary alike.

Write biographies that will scandalize, or end up in free bins in the foyers of public libraries.

But my arms give out,

A fuse mysteriously blows,

I leave the boxes where they lay for another night alone together.

Easter Desert

The soft patter of cool drops,

Christen forehead, neck and hands.

The earthy incense of the desert’s thirsty breath

As He opens his sandy mouth to drink.

Processions of Palo Verde and Mesquite still clad in their golden Easter vestments

Shout Alleluia! from the valley’s hillsides

And throw their spent petals into the Pentecostal winds.

Even the cacti are clad in their Sunday best.

Like my own spiny succulent heart—

Prickly and defensive most of the time

With seasons of extravagant

Openness and beauty.

April 29, 2019

A Dying Grebe

At the bottom of a steep flight

Of stairs that lead into the ocean,

Between a sandy cliff and the lapping tide,

I caught a red eye among the logs and silent stones.

Silent until the tide teaches them to speak.

I walked to the end of a small jetty and

Looked back at the amphitheater of the eroding cliffs.

The eye belonged to a small bird we call Grebe

In drab plumage. He struggled out of the rising edge of the sea

He knows so well.

He stopped below a beached and weathered

Log and sat silently, awkwardly and alone

On the cobbled, clacking shore.

That incessant

syncopated

chatter

Between sea and stone.

Two of my kind walked past

Without even noticing

That he was there.

I moved closer,

An arm’s length away.

I looked into that fierce red eye

And watched as his back

Rose and fell

In short resigned breaths.

I noticed broken flesh below his wing

Though I was too timid to touch

Him, worried that my

Touch would only make things worse.

I sit and watch water that is

Endlessly rising and receding,

Chattering with rocks that do not care

If they live or die

Because they will always be

Alive in the tiny flecks of body

That make up plankton

And shell fish

And seals

And herring

And clams

And eagles

And grebes’ red eyes.

This grebe, on the edge

Of the ocean he knows so well,

An ocean that incessantly

Speaks with the rocks

Beneath his wounded wings,

Stares at the coming fog of that dark ocean

Death he may not fully grasp.

And I, I sit stone still at the edge of the world and just listen.

A New Years Blessing

IMG_8388.JPGIn this New Year, may we take the time to both be and become. May we drink of the rich beauty of this life with all the excitement of a fresh sapling. First, acknowledging the Author of all life, that loved us into being. And then, by doing something, even a small something, each day to care for the earth, the poor, the vulnerable and the weak and to stand for justice. May each day be a cup that overflows with goodness, charity and kindness. May we waste less time while remembering to stop and appreciate each moment. There is a difference between time wasted and time that is spent in stillness and quiet. May we acknowledge and learn more of the names and habits of our brothers and sisters in creation: birds, plants, trees and stars. May we pray sincerely every day and not lose heart when we are too tired or feel rushed, letting our praise and petitions eventually melt in the quiet solitude of God’s love. May we read many good books. If we can squeeze it in, may we also work on learning a new language, and so enter into a new world. May we eat fresh food and marvel anew that the bodies of other beings become our own, and to always be humble before this troubling and beautiful mystery. May we thank those who make our clothes and grow our food, and in some small way participate in manual work with them, thus touching the sacred earth with our fingers, and taking some small part in growing the bounty that appears so miraculously at our tables. May we walk and walk and walk and feel our sacred body-souls moving through the world and relish the atmosphere that comes in to us as we dwell in her. May we do all this and more, not as items on a list of resolutions, not as accomplishments for our ego, but as an irresistible way of being in and of this world and becoming the next world, together.

Redemption

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Redemption comes in tiny ripples, not crashing waves.

Redemption arrives quietly like swallows—one or two appear overnight and stay on for a time.

Redemption comes in an instant like the sparkle of grains of sand that catch the sun just right.

Redemption works on a person like the tides.

What begins as the sharp edges of broken glass-hearts, yield their violence to the slow washing over of the ever breathing sea.

Redemption comes like clouds of pollen from sturdy pines that somehow find the nakedness of fertile cones.

And, once acknowledged in the heart, redemption, ever present, becomes a ripened seed that plunges into the fecund darkness of earth with an unwavering hope that she too will become a towering tree.

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Two Walks

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On Sunday I took two walks. One before church and one after. The first took me through the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver’s urban core. I set up the vestments and chalices for the morning Mass. Then, I left the church and headed west along the boundary between Gastown and Chinatown. Gentrification has created a kind of checker board of social housing interspersed with hip up and coming vintage stores, pizza by the slice and dive bars. Buildings tower over head. The streets are still sparse in the early cool of Sunday morning. A man lies sleeping in a doorway. A woman j-walks slowly eyes fixed to the ground. Crows and pigeons forage and peck at the street.

As I round a corner, turning north and then east, the streets are even more sparse. Trinket and tourist shops are still closed. There are a few early risers with cameras. The uneven pavement rests, waiting for the city to wake. I try to make unthreatening eye contact. I try to pray for each person. I forget. My mind wanders and then I start up again.

I return to the church and attend Mass. It is solemn and beautiful. The familiar words, chants and choreography nourish me. I relish in the tiny morsel of bread and sour wine that dissolves into my mouth, dissolving me with it.

The second through a second growth douglas fir forest in North Vancouver. Its tall trees and clean air have become something of a sacred grove for me as I work through a dark period in my life. A period in my life that is rich with the productive pain of spiritual growth.  After coffee and a few greetings I drive to the Northshore and take a familiar trail down toward Lynn Creek. The trees tower over me. The sun peeks through in speckles and flecks from high above. The forest is still cool and still even though it is after noon. I ask the trees and salal to pray for me like they are saints. I pass couples and tourists, dog walkers and families. I try to make unthreatening eye contact. I try to pray for each person. I forget. My mind wanders and then I start up again. Crows and robins forage and peck at the ground. I approach the gurgle of Lynn Creek. I sit on a flat rock caressed on all sides by water. My mind drifts off into the soft sound and continuously flowing water. My two walks were really just one long walk.

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Non-Yogis Like Me Should Not Practice Yoga. There I Said It.

In a popular online Yoga for Complete Beginners video, the instructor begins by inviting participants into a Sanskrit-named pose. We, the viewers, are going to relax, to ‘watch’ the breath, ‘create space’ in the body, and ‘connect’ with ourselves. We are encouraged to remember that there are no right or wrong poses. The movements are about “self-expression” and “awareness” of the body. When I finished my awkward attempts at the poses and lay on my back listening to the soft exit music of the video, I admit, I felt good. But I am soon distracted with self-criticisms. A lifelong curmudgeon and cynic about all things trendy, I am skeptical about the surge in popularity of yoga in North America. But if yoga feels good, and contributes to a general sense of wellbeing and fitness, then what’s the big deal? Why write a post like this?

Well, in this post I will articulate some generally unpopular opinions that will leave most yoga aficionados annoyed. But this post is really a way for me to figure out my own relationship to yoga, helpful to others or not. Let me start by saying that I have nothing against people who dive fully into their spiritual or religious practices, and, I have no problem with authentic conversions. Religions should earn their adherents, and if they are not filling us spiritually we should look elsewhere. What I am concerned with is a twofold problem with the adoption of Eastern spiritual practices in the West: appropriation for profit, and, a buffet spirituality mentality that only serves to reinforce the primary Western religion of consumerism and self-centered ego worship. Offended yet?

Yoga came to the West in the 19th century, but since the 1990s has taken the Western world by storm. A 2016 survey suggests that over 36 million Americans practice some form of yoga, and the United Nations has even declared an International Day of Yoga. There is a growing yoga industry in North America, especially the Pacific Northwest, and practicing yoga classes are promoted as promising immediate physical and emotional benefits to practitioners. Characteristically, we even have North American-adapted versions of yoga that serve specific demographics: Acro, Power, Flow, Hot, Bikram, Yin, Restorative, Gentle, etc. each with a different emphasis, benefit or purpose. As journalist Hanna Rosin points out in her Atlantic article, ‘Striking a Pose’,“Where older religions promised heaven, the church of yoga promises quicker, more practical, earthly gratification, in the form of better heart rates and well-toned arms.”

In Roots of Yoga James Mallinson and Mark Singleton describe the deep historical and ecumenical roots of yoga as a spiritual path. Yoga has a diverse cast of practitioners from the beginning. It can be broadly defined as a psycho-physical technique that was designed to facilitate the achievement of overall well being and in the case of most serious yogis throughout history, spiritual enlightenment. The Vedas, the oldest religious texts in Hinduism, and arguably the world, make mention of visionary meditation, posture, mantra repetition, and breathe control as part of their central practice of venerating and petitioning various Deities.

Key passages from the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, also Hindu scriptures, mention yoga, but there are also sources going back to ancient Tantric, Buddhist and even Jain traditions. This is because in around 500 BCE, Buddhists, Jains, and Ajivikas, began to split off from the Brahmanic sects to form their own ascetical cohorts and lineages motivated by finding an end to suffering and the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). The goal was liberation (moksha, nirvana), which included the annihilation of the individual ego, not its enhancement, into the Divine Source.

According to Mallinson and Singleton, yoga was initially practiced through meditation techniques. The earliest definition of Yoga comes from the Katha Upanishad, wherein the senses are held still, like a chariot driver controlling his horses. However, these Yogins also developed a suit of austerities to win favors from the gods, or to intensify their meditation practice and bring the body into alignment with the soul. Patanjali’s Yogasutras (2CE) is the most prominent text in the history of contemporary Yoga, wherein the author lays out metaphysical and practice concerns with yoga as a path to enlightenment. However, two centuries before this text, the Yogacara school of Buddhism was also teaching a form of Yoga as well, suggesting that yoga does not have a single lineage or origin, though it did emerge from the Indian constellation of spiritual and religious practices that have today solidified into various religious traditions.

In around 1,000 CE what is now called Hatha Yoga developed out of several lineages in India, which were designed to be more accessible to householders, rather than purely for ascetics, hermits or monks. Yoga soon became a practice that anyone could engage in regardless of caste, class or metaphysical persuasion. Hatha drew broadly from Patanjali and Tantra traditions, but began to focus on a more intensive use of postures called Asanas, to lead the body and mind into greater unity. Proper diet, regulated breathing, and a focus on practice apart from caste and metaphysical school, made Hatha a diverse and widely adaptable lineage. Especially within the Hatha lineage, yoga had no centralized Vatican-like interpreter or missionary order, and it diffused through various Hindu-Buddhist lineages as one of many techniques which led one to enlightenment.

On his tour of Europe and North America, particularly his speech at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions, Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga and Hinduism to the West. Hindu philosophy took root with Transcendentalist nature spirituality of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Theosophical mysticism of Helena Blavatsky. During the 1960s, like other eastern traditions, it became a foil to the establishment religions, especially Christianity, with its rigid dogmas and cerebral worship. Yoga became another badge of hippie counter-culture along with LSD, Transcendental Meditation and flower power. And of course, some were absolutely authentically drawn to yoga’s ecumenical appeal, its emphasis on practice, and its myriad benefits for wellbeing.

Today Yoga is big business with millions of Americans and Canadians practicing it at least once or twice a month. In Vancouver, there are just about as many yoga studios as sushi joints and coffee shops, not to mentions tradition churches or temples. Yoga as a form of exercise really took off in the 1990s with Entrepreneurial gurus such as Bikram Choudhury and a thousand others. President Barack Obama endorsed yoga as a “universal language of spiritual exercise,” and even the American College of Sports Medicine recommends integrating yoga into one’s exercise regime.

If yoga is such an adaptable and beneficial practice, what’s the problem? Well, despite its flexibility, in its Western setting, I fear that it has been completely bent out of shape, to use an appropriate analogy, and has taken on a very different set of values and objectives. To be clear I do not deny the transferability and diffusion of religious and spiritual traditions. All religion is hybrid, mixture, conversation. But I can’t help but worry that the yoga boom has gotten out of hand, that it has appropriated the mystique of yoga from its original purpose in the service of the religion of self, promoted by capitalism.

Yoga, like Mindfulness TM has been coopted into the capitalist project of desire and identity fulfillment rather than as extensions of the paths that lead to liberation and transformation. I am not against conversion, or against white yogi’s who are embedded within an identifiable lineage. But hip yoga fitness hubs that cater to Western standards of beauty, body type and a vaguely spiritual identity, do violence to the traditions they have stolen from. Yoga is not a marketing slogan, a clever T-shirt punch line, or a décor. It seems that yoga and mindfulness are increasingly being employed to satiate proximate desires for relaxation, productivity, bodily health and fitness, rather than as tools in the human quest for ultimate desire and fulfillment through union with God. As Hanna Rosin writes, “yoga is no longer a spiritual antidote to the upscale Western lifestyle; it’s just the latest manifestation.”

So, can non-Yogis practice Yoga? The answer I am afraid is simply no. Yogis should practice yoga, wherever they come from, but to appropriate yoga into the Western cult of the Self, is wrong. In addition, practicing yoga casually, or from within another tradition fosters a spiritual buffet mentality which is not only appropriative but religiously lazy. So where should non-Yogis go for practices that promote spiritual and physical wellbeing? Does the west not have a comparable tradition? Yes, in fact we do. As journalist Linda Johnsen points out ancient Greeks and Romans practiced something like Yoga which in Greek was called Henosis or, which cultivated a single-pointed awareness of the unitary consciousness that pervades existence. The 3rd century BCE Greek philosopher Plotinus’s last words were “Try to unite the divinity in yourself, with the divinity in all things.” In the Gymnasium, where Greeks competed naked, fitness and enlightenment were stops along the same path. Only in the modern West has bodily wellness and spiritual wellness been so divided. But not without an effort to keep the two together. For example, in the 1850s there was a movement called the ‘New Gymnastics’ (with a more modest dress code) for the purpose of renewing the body and the soul in the service of ensuring healthy and balanced communities.

We in the West seem to always be looking for a remedy for the busy, sedentary modern life, even while we refuse to abandon it for something more wholesome and spirituality satisfying. So, of course one obvious response is that we need to change the structures of society so that our lives are more balanced, whole and fulfilling in the first place! But that is a whole other article. But my question remains, why didn’t we just revive the gymnastics movements, or create something similar? What is it about eastern spiritualities and practices that is so irresistible to some in the secular West?

There is of course no single answer to this question, which is admittedly reductive from the start, but at least for my own purposes a helpful starting point. By and large, I see a connection between the rise of the spiritual but not religious and the failure of western spiritual traditions to fully engage with practices that unify body and the soul, before engaging with metaphysical or theological questions. It seems that many Christian denominations lead with belief, creed or scriptural interpretation, rather than teaching first and foremost ways of sinking into the deep and sustaining relationship with the Divine. For example, Christian and yoga instructor Karen Hefford in her article “Why are People Going to Yoga Instead of Church?” sheds light on the attraction of yoga for some Christians. She writes:

“I find more comfort in the silence of my yoga practice than I do when I am in church. I feel a deeper connection while practicing yoga because it is about surrendering and finding peace… Prayer is often about asking for something or thanking God. Yoga is more about clearing the mind… and surrendering it all.”

If Christian churches are not teaching the deep tradition of silence, surrender, and peace that is at the heart of Christianity, then they have done the Christian tradition a great disservice. Yoga should not be a spiritual supplement, a revenue generator, or a youth magnet for churches, it is its own path to God and people who practice it should be on that path. Christians should begin with their own tradition, before we dialogue and learn from others.

For example, Centering Prayer, a tradition derived from the anonymous 14th century writer of the Cloud of the Unknowing, but promoted by many contemporary denominations, teaches a kind of meditation that strives to go beyond words and petitions for the mysterious silence of God. It is prayer, but prayer that does not treat God as our own personal vending machine. In addition, as Karen Hefford points out in her article, the 13th century Saint Dominic taught nine different symbolic postures for prayer, each of which engaged the body in a unique way; from a profound bow, to a full prostration, to genuflecting, and standing in the shape of the cross. In another case, for Eastern Orthodox, who typically do not have pews in their churches, and where services are mostly done standing, when a worshiper enters a church, they often cross themselves several times, touch the ground, kneel or even prostrate on the ground. Or as another example, why not simply reciting the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me) while stretching, running or walking? These forms of somatic prayer could be a seed of the return of Christian prostration sessions which are oriented toward an icon, altar, or an easterly aspect, which has deep roots and history in Christian architecture, symbolizing the return of the Sun and the Son. Of course Dominic also practiced a more intense asceticism, including self-flagellation, but this will seem tame compared to the austerities of the early Yogis.

To summarize: I am all for a full-bodied embrace of a spiritual tradition that puts one on the path to self-realization in God through harmonizing body, soul and spirit. What I am opposed to is a capitalistic cult of the spiritual identity that promises to make a few enterprising entrepreneurs millions of dollars all while reinforcing rather than eliminating the ego, the cult of sexy bodies, and the buffet style self-indulgence of some spiritual but not religious seekers. In addition, I believe that Christianity has the resources to fulfill the intuition of yoga’s appeal if it were to more creatively engage its own history, theology and spirituality.

Why we Need the Cursing Psalms

DSC_0925.jpgToday in my morning prayers I read Psalms 58. If you are not familiar, Psalms 58 is one of the more vicious “Cursing” Psalms, wherein the poet-author begs God for vengeance on his enemies. Some exceptionally gruesome lines read:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;

tear out the fangs of these lions, O Lord!

Let them vanish like water that runs away;

Let them wither like grass that is trodden underfoot.

Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,

like a woman’s miscarriage that never sees the sun.

This visceral desire for vengeance reminded me of the other infamous Psalm 137, which reads:

O daughter of Bablylon, destroyer,

blessed whoever repays you

the payment you paid us!

Blessed whoever grasps and shatters

your children on the rock!

Listening to mild mannered monks chant these lines is an interesting experience, but there is of course a theology behind it. The Psalms express and give voice to the entire range of human emotion, good and bad, and to chant the Psalms is to enter into those emotions on behalf of those who might be feeling them.

When I heard that a man known for past political activism killed two men on a train in Portland for confronting him over his harassment of two women, I felt angry. When I heard that Islamists had ambushed and killed over 20 Christians as they travelled to a monastery in Egypt, I was furious. When I heard about Manchester, Paris, Orlando, Charleston, the list goes on, I wanted justice. The cowardly acts of terrorists by these white supremacists and Islamist Extremists are cut from the same cloth.

In Psalm 137, the Psalmist is reeling from the recent leveling of Jerusalem by Babylonian forces. The carnage left the Jews feeling completely abandoned by God. And at times like this, with more and more senseless violence we can feel the same.

As a human being, my initial reaction is a desire for vengeance, justice and annihilation. But as someone who believes in the reality of the Christian story, I am also committed to reading the Psalms through the lens of Christ, who asks me to dash my vice, sin and hatred on the rock of his paschal mystery. The Psalms name the justifiable reaction, but Christ calls us to purify them, and to move toward a place of forgiveness, love and nonviolence.