Learning to Hear the Music: Toward a Mormon Mystical Tradition

Raised as a devout Mormon, my religious life began taking new direction in about 2011, when I started teaching a World Religions class at Salt Lake Community College. The seeds of that new direction came while attending the Easter Vigil in Salt Lake’s beautiful Cathedral of the Madeleine, one of the few Cathedrals under the patronage of Mary Magdalen, the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. As I entered the dark Cathedral with hundreds of other candle lit faces, I realized that we were at a funeral; that we were not just talking about Christ’s death, we were mourning it in preparation to celebrate his resurrection; a gift freely given. Something clicked, I felt sincere sorrow and then joy. I began to finally understand that word so many other Christians were using: Grace. Since then, I have taken slow and cautious steps toward the Catholic faith, and during this year’s Easter Vigil, I was baptized, confirmed and received first communion.

Liturgy, participating in cycle of Christ life and death, helped me to realize that God’s love was always already there. And it was through this Grace, this freely given gift of the world, I was loved, unconditionally. But not loved as an object of a distant Father’s affection, actually loved into being. Creation is and continues to be an act of grace.

I am not completely checked out of Mormonism. Most of my family still practices, and I am plugged in to the Bloggernacle. So during my Easter retreat this year, I decided to tune into to a bit of General Conference. During Wilford W. Anderson recent General Conference address, he began with a story about a Native American man who asked a doctor if he could dance (dancing being a way of healing for this man). The Doctor said no, and asked if the man could teach him. The Native American said that he could teach him to dance, but that the doctor must first learn to hear the music. Applying this to contemporary Mormonism Anderson stated:

“Sometimes in our homes, we successfully teach the dance steps but are not as successful in helping our family members to hear the music. We learn the dance steps with our minds, but we hear the music with our hearts. The dance steps of the gospel are the things we do; the music of the gospel is the joyful spiritual feeling that comes from the Holy Ghost. It brings a change of heart and is the source of all righteous desires.”

This peeked my attention. My major problem with Mormon spiritual practice was that in my experience, morality and church participation were means of earning God’s love, of earning the presence of the Holy Spirit, who, I was taught, would flee at the slightest offence. In this mode of spirituality, guilt became the primary motivator for avoiding certain behaviors, believing certain doctrines, and even attending church. Christ’s atonement made my sins forgivable, but somehow, caught up in right action, I missed the whole point of Christ in the first place. Thus, learning to hear the music before we learn to dance seemed like a perfect metaphor for understanding Christ’s love: Hearing the music is primary, and learning the dance steps comes with practice, over a lifetime. Mystical encounter, the act of being present to God loving us into being, is at the core of Christian spirituality, and from which flow our desires to do good. But then Elder Anderson continued:

“The challenge for all of us who seek to teach the gospel is to expand the curriculum beyond just the dance steps. Our children’s happiness depends on their ability to hear and love the beautiful music of the gospel. How do we do it? First…”

Elder Anderson then attempts to teach us the steps to hearing the music. In order to hear the music you must learn the steps!? At this my heart sunk and I turned off Conference and began to pace my room. I began to wonder why a religion founded on a profound mystical encounter with the Father and the Son in a grove of trees, could have become so anti-mystical. I looked in the LDS Topical Guide to see what it had to say: “Mysticism: See False Doctrine Sorcery Superstitions Traditions of Men.”

The guide refuses even an attempt at defining the tradition which gave rise to its own religion! So I went to the always reliable (sometimes controversial) Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar: “All I mean by mysticism is experience-based religion whereby you come to really know something for yourself. It’s not just believing something; it’s knowing something.” It seemed so curious to me that Mormonism embraces this definition of mysticism as the means to understanding doctrine reject it as a spiritual practice for knowing God’s love. Somehow, instead of seeking personal experience of the truth and reality of God’s unearned, ever-present love, Mormonism uses ‘mystical’ encounter as a tool to confirm propositions of faith, identity and personal morality. Again, there is nothing wrong with morality, identity, or beliefs. But when we start with them as a means of getting to God, we will ALWAYS come up short. The person of Jesus came to reveal to us that this is backwards. We start with God’s love, and then live into beliefs, identity, and morals. As a Mormon I was living this process completely backwards, and as a fledgling Catholic, I still struggle with it.

Then, an article, like a cyber-revelation, came across my Facebook feed. It was Adam Miller’s General Theory of Grace. Miller agrees that Mormons have a “tendency to read the gospel as a kind of secular manual for can-do humanism and self-improvement.” For Miller “righteous works only become righteous when they are motivated by the pure love of Christ, when they are the product of God’s grace as that grace works its way out into the world through our hearts, minds, and hands.” And here’s the clincher: “Grace is this massive, ongoing act of divinely organized creation that involves an uncountable host of agents (human and nonhuman) embedded in irreducible webs of stewardship, consecration, sacrifice, and interdependence.” [i] Beautiful words, felt deeply. Mysticism, in this light, is learning to be quiet and experience the grace of God creating us from moment to moment in what has been called by Jean-Pierre De Caussade the sacrament of the present moment. I encourage my dear Mormon friends and family to pick up Adam Miller’s books. His prophetic writing could help us put the horse back in front of the cart so to speak and as Elder Anderson hopes, to hear the beautiful music of the gospel, to which our lives become a dance.

[i] http://bycommonconsent.com/2015/04/07/a-general-theory-of-grace-ldsconf/

What it Means to be a Spiritual Ecologist

This group is dedicated to Spiritual Ecology. But it is also about the Spiritual Ecology of a particular place: The Salish Sea. What is Spiritual Ecology? And what relationship do spirituality and ecology have with place?

Vancouver, BC is only the latest layer in a deep cultural geology that emerged after the glaciers melted from what is now being called the Salish Sea—the watersheds that drain into the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Georgia Strait. Coast Salish peoples number over 60,000 souls today making up over 50 tribes, bands and kin groups. By many of their own accounts, they have dwelt in this place from the beginning of time. I cannot speak for them, but I know that for many, place is not an inert geometric space that has over the years produced fond feelings of attachment; it is not an object outside themselves that they have learned to appreciate through meaning-making. Place is the ground of their being; it is an oikos—a dwelling-place, a habitation. The sea, mountains, forests, salmon, deer, plants, air and sky are woven into their be-ing. The stories, myths, rituals, ceremonies and dangers spoken of by First Peoples are not metaphors projected onto otherwise meaningless physical terrain; they are the grammar of dwelling; they do not make up a worldview, they make up the world (See Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think).

For my people, the new-comers, the settlers, the children of colonials seeking a better life under the watchful eye of God and Progress; the Salish Sea too nourished our bodies, but also our love of money. Only later did it nourish our souls. Having laid our hands to ax and plow, we were proud of our work and our sweat, we dedicated it to God, built places of worship in His name. We brought ‘savage’ peoples a saving ‘religion’. We too were immersed in not only a worldview, but a world; one that we believed would bring peace to earth and eternal life to souls. Only within the last few years have we begun to wake up to the savagery of our world; to the violence of what we thought was love, to the folly of what we thought was progress. We the learned, have much to learn, much to undo, and much to apologize for.

One way we sought to right our wrongs was by offering up large swaths of the land to healing, contemplation, beauty and solitude. Today, the Salish Sea has become our Spiritual Ecology too. In the 1800s we fell in love with Nature and sought to protect it from our advancing cult of Progress. But our Spiritual Ecology had a flaw, a difference to that of the First Peoples: it was dualistic. By dualistic I mean that the West dwells in a schizophrenic world of distinct domains: culture and nature, subject and object, traditional and modern, spirit and matter. This orientation to the world separates our dwelling places from our soul places: work and worship, city and country. Nature became a place that we went to after a long day; a refuge from civilization, a recreation. Non-humans became objects for our perception and manipulation (whether that be for food, money or beauty). Being ejected from the Garden, we tried to bring the Garden back to us through protected areas, National Parks and National Forests. Ecology meant Nature, and Spirit meant the non-material aspect of our all too materialistic world.

This ontology is killing the world. It is killing our Religion. It is killing our Souls. But things are changing.

For many of the rising generation, spirit is not so much a shimmery version of ourselves that lives inside us like the driver of a car. Spirit is anima, breath. Spirit is Life. Being spiritual is nothing more or less than being fully alive; being present to life and it’s flourishing. The religions most of us grew up with felt like rules and beliefs, and in-group out-group posturing. But within all religions there is always a spirituality of life.  Religion, religare—to bind together—can be about our connection to God and each other, but also about our connection to Life. Religion properly practiced is a response to life. It is not an answer to the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’, for as Philosopher John Caputo would say, life is the meaning of life.

Ecology is not Nature as a separate domain of reality. Ecology is the scientific study of organisms in their environment; but it is so much more than this, for there is no such thing as an environment. There is only a great web be-ing, an intricate web of life, life-ing. All life, even the life that is not yet life in the air, rocks food and water; even the life no longer living. Being present to life is being present to both the beauty and the pain of life. Yes there is tremendous suffering in the web of life and death, but even in the predator, disease and parasite there is life and the continuation of life, the evolution of life, the creativity of life.

Spiritual Ecology then is a celebration of life in all aspects, both beauty and pain. A Spiritual Ecologist mindfully witnesses to this beauty and pain and acts accordingly.

Spiritual Ecology is one part perception, one part practice and one part ethic.

Perception: For a long time in the West, Spiritual Ecology was about appreciating the beauty of Nature, or protecting Nature from Culture. In light of Climate Change, we are realizing there is no such thing as Nature. This is not to say that the world does not exist, or even that it is a social construction; but that if we are looking for hard facts about the world, a place, a thing called Nature outside and apart from Culture it is just not there. Nature is a disembodied spirit, a ghost that has haunted us for 200 years. But our perception is changing, through both the wisdom of religion and the propositions of science we are waking up to a different world. Theologian John Caputo gives us a glance of that world:

“The cosmos opened up by Copernicus collapse the distinction between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’…The earth is itself a heavenly body, one more heavenly body made up of stardust, as are our own bodies. We are already heavenly bodies, which means that ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ must report back at once to headquarters for reassignment, where they turn out to be ways of describing our terrestrial lives here ‘below’. Every body—everybody, everything—is a heavenly body. Heaven is overtaken by the heavens. Dust to dust, indeed, but it is all stellar dust. Our bodily flesh is woven of the flesh of the earth, even as the earth itself is the debris of stars, the outcome of innumerable cyclings and recyclings of stellar stuff, all so many rolls of the cosmic dice. We are not ‘subjects’ over and against ‘objects’, but bits and pieces of the universe itself, ways the world is wound up into little intensities producing special effects of a particular sort in our bodies in our little corner of the universe” (Caputo, 2011, The Insistence of God, 175).

Caputo expresses a deep call calling from beyond our Western world. Science and Religion, who have been temporarily separated due to irreconcilable differences, are starting to warm up to one another again. We need them both, but not as complementary institutions concerned with facts on one hand and values on the other; not as two coins that add up to 1.00, but two sides of the same coin. There is no objective knowledge outside of human experience, and human experience is not the unreliable black box subjectivity. Our bodies, minds, souls and science emerged from this planet. As Caputo again states, “our power of vision, as well as the particular structure of the color spectrum available to sight, is a direct and precise effect of the astronomical composition of our sun, which has set the parameters of vision which we and other animals forms have evolved. To ask whether what we see, as if it were inside our head, ‘corresponds’ to what is out there, ‘outside our head’, is to ask a question not only without an answer but without meaning” (Caputo 2006, The Insistence of God, 176).

Spiritual Ecology then does not involve going to Nature to find spiritual meaning or connection. This keeps nature separate from culture, spirit separate from nature. Spiritual Ecology is cherishing life, and witnessing to the beauty and pain of the world wherever we are. Yes it is about interconnection, but also the connections that hurt, that threaten us with harm; and the connections that threaten others. The virtue of Christian hospitality is not only welcoming the known, the familiar; but the wholly (Holy) other. Being open to life is to see it, really see it, in all its complexity and to let our lifeways emerge accordingly. This can happen in the ocean, the forest, the savannah, a farm, a city, or a slum. Spiritual Ecology is our communities, our places of worship, our prisons, our hospitals, our schools, the blackberry patches on the side of the roads. It is wherever we are present to the unfolding of life.

This presence is not the appreciation of an aesthetic object. Anthropologist David Abrams helps us shift our gaze in this respect: “To touch the course skin of a tree is thus, at the same time to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen” (Abrams 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous, 68). This is not a relationship between knowing subject and known object, it is the relationship between two waves in an ocean.

Practice: Once we realize with Theologian Thomas Berry that “The natural world is the maternal source of our being…the larger sacred community to which we belong.” (Berry 2006, Dream of the Earth, 81), our spiritual practices will reflect that fact. I was raised in the Mormon Church. I greatly admire the Mormon faith and its people; however, my own religious path has called me to a more Contemplative Christianity. For me, the Mass, the Eucharist, prayer, churches and the saints all enhance and give particular form to my celebration of life. Yes there is much to criticize in the Christianity, but through liturgy that centers on the person of Jesus, my appreciation for life, my love for others has only increased. To say that Christ is in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, is to ritualize the presence of Christ in the cosmos from the moment it flared forth at the Big Bang. To shout Christ is Risen, Alleluia! at Easter is to ritualize the emergence of tiny beautiful buds from the limbs of every tree. To bring the body of Christ into my body prepares me to see God in everything I eat, in everyone I come into contact with. This celebration will be different for each person, each tradition.

Ethic: Once we realize in body and mind that we are the world we seek to experience, our actions should not take the form of a rigid dogma, a Puritanical obsession with recycling or turning off the lights. I do not mean that these are wrong, I only mean that they are not ethics, they are dogmas. Green purchasing is just another marketing scheme to Western individuals that want to consume an identity. We do it all the time. I do it all the time. An ethic is a practice that carries moral weight, it is more complicated than rule. Anthropologist Richard Nelson, writing of his connection to an island off the coast of British Columbia, captures the spirit of how an ethic might emerge for a Spiritual Ecologist:

“There is nothing in me that is not of earth, no split instant of separateness, no particle that disunites me from the surroundings. I am no less than the earth itself. The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. Where the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself…I am the island and the island is me” (My emphasis, Nelson 1989, The Island Within, 249, 250).

All of our decisions have consequences that eventually return to us. How and whether we are able to turn this culture around is an ongoing debate, but it will require more than carbon markets, stricter regulations, expanded protected areas, or planting more trees. It will require a deep shift in our perception and practice of the world from which emerges an ethic that refuses to see one more species go extinct, one more child starve, one more woman abused, one more First Nations’ sacred site destroyed, one more mine tailings pond burst, or, most recently, one more fuel leak in the ocean. How we get there is part of a long difficult conversation. Spiritual Ecology is only one aspect of that conversation, but it needs to be part of it.

Eulogy for my Grandmother Nancy Lee Holmsen

Nancy a few weeks before her death on Jan. 7, 2015.

Nancy a few weeks before her death on Jan. 7, 2015.

When I came to know Grandma Nancy, she had already been deeply wounded by life. My earliest memories of her are filled with explanations for why she could not walk as fast, see as well, or drive. Why part of her forehead was missing. Nancy had faced death several times in her life: Polio, cancer, a brutal car accident, meningitis; and she wanted none of it. She wanted to live!

In a Christian view of the afterlife, we might try to imagine Nancy as a perfect young woman dressed in white. But this would not be the Nancy that I knew. For me perfection is the wholeness brought about by our wounds. More than anyone I know, Nancy bore her woundedness with love, grace and humor. Her love and laughter have been present throughout my life and I will miss her.

Grandma Nancy was a towering figure of my childhood. Grandma’s house was always a place I loved to go. Sometimes, I would stay overnight at grandma’s small apartment and she would cook lamb chops (and after reading some of her journals, it appears that my siblings got a lot more dessert than I did). She would tell me stories about the Salt Lake of the 1940s and 50s. We have a few of her journals, from 1947, 1951, 1953 and 1954. Reading through them was a treat. She was a precocious young woman, taking note of the weather each day and starting each entry with: “Dear Diary.” She had an early crush on a boy named Dick and many, many friends. She called cigarettes “doogies”, saw movies, ate a lot of French fries, did chores, and played canasta. A few excerpts:

  • January 4, 1951: Had oodles of cars following us all night! Ma smelled smoke on me!
  • January 4, 1953: Don and I went to show. Saw ‘Lure of the Wilderness’ at Richey. Baby really was kicking in show. Don’s ma called earlier and we were scared she’d come and catch Don still here.
  • Friday July 30, 1954: Started throwing up terrible. All morning. Guess I’m pregnant again.
  • Tuesday September 28 1954: Went to the hospital with Polio.

She rarely writes about religion or church (except when she writes about not going), but writes passionately about lovers, friends, family and her home on 2nd North. She was a kind friend, a good sister, and a young mother.

Other times spent with Nancy we would just watch TV, or she would teach me how to haggle with Tijuana merchants if the chance ever arrived, (not sure why, but this is a very vivid memory of her). All of us grandkids remember her long natural finger nails which she would turn into eggs that needed cracking on our ticklish scalps. She never missed a birthday or Christmas and her gifts were generous despite her humble income. She loved to celebrate with us and her later journals are a litany of grandchildren milestones, birthdays and time spent with family. She was there for every major milestone in my life, like many of you.

To hear her stories was one thing, but to tell her our own was quite another. Whenever I told her a story, or showed her something I had made, or gave her an update from college, she lent almost comical attention to every detail. “Grandma look what I made!” YOU MADE THIS! NO!?

I love her and she will be sorely missed. However, I want to admit that I could have spent more time with her, cared about her suffering more, listened to her stories again. Nancy’s death has recommitted me to valuing our elders. With their death comes the reminder that we too will one day die. This is scary and sad, but let us also remember that death is part of the precious gift of life. Like leaves on a tree, our bodies flourish for a time and then return to the soil. This is one of our oldest metaphors; earth-lings, shaped from dust, we must all return to our Mother the Earth. We return to the soil, but the Tree of Life lives on. The air we breathe was breathed by Nancy, and now returning to the earth from which she came, the air we breathe is Nancy. It is hard to fully grasp. We want our loved ones to stay forever, we want to live forever ourselves. Why should the living pass back into the non-living?

These are questions humans have asked for thousands of years. And many of our spiritual traditions provide confident answers about what comes next. I am not here promote or to discourage any one of these beautiful beliefs that give us hope of seeing each other again. But I want to say that for me, a mature spirituality is less concerned with explanations for death and suffering, than with how we respond in the face of death and suffering. What will we do with the losses and the wounds that life metes out without respect of race, class or creed? This is for us to work through together, as family and as friends.

For me, though she was not religious, Nancy embodied fully a religious response to suffering and death; one that I hope to emulate to some small degree. She responded with awe, grace, love, hope, joy, humor and peace to life and in death she teaches us to do the same. Despite our wounds, let us follow the example of Nancy’s holy wonder for life, as we do the work of a thousand generations before us of burying our cherished dead. Thank you.

I would now invite us to celebrate Nancy with our stories and memories…

Winter Solstice Articles

Solstice at Stonehenge

Solstice at Stonehenge

A few excellent Winter Solstice articles I have enjoyed today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent!

http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-invitation-of-december/7114

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/20/opinion/why-we-need-the-winter-solstice.html?_r=0

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/20/winter-solstice-2014_n_6336518.html

http://www.vox.com/2014/12/21/7424371/winter-solstice

http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/12/21/winter-solstice-welcoming-return-light-across-turtle-island-158395