Friday, December 31, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 1, 2022 - The Physics of Ritual and Ceremony

The rules have all changed now. We are no longer bound by societal expectations about our religious devotions. Only decades ago, any American who didn’t belong to a church got a side-eye from the rest of society. A hundred years ago, there were actually men who wandered the streets on Sunday mornings to collect your tithe if you weren’t in church. And you’d better have a good reason for not being there. Truancy from worship was even punishable in some places.

It brings to mind the resistance that has built up over these last decades to spiritual and religious rituals and ceremonies. And with good reason (see above). But not only from the obvious challenges people have with organized religion. We are going through a systematic appraisal of every single element within our human society right now. Nothing is off limits from inspection. Every symbolic carton of milk, loaf of bread, and jar of honey is being checked for an expiration date.

Is this a good thing? Of course. Is it painful? Usually very. And often, the baby is temporarily thrown out with the bathwater in the process. It will all be okay in the end, I promise. There is much to be admired in the fact that we, as humans, are always on the lookout for how to improve things. That instinct will ultimately be the source of our greatest achievements as a society of people.

In the meantime, however, we—specifically this current set of generations—are subjecting ourselves to the excruciating task of assessment in a way that future generations will never have to. Thankfully.

The irony is that, in the action of it, we are often discounting an aspect of our humanity that we need very much in order to best cope with this very process we have undertaken. That of ritual and ceremony.

Of course there are many rituals and ceremonies in which we easily participate every day from brushing our teeth to graduating from college. But, while these are essential aspects of our human experience, they are not the entire food pyramid of human thriving.

Spiritual, religious, and metaphysical rituals and ceremonies have come under fire by the more pragmatic skeptical world. And while that is a necessary part of the sorting process, it must be acknowledged that science backs up the need for them, even if it doesn’t confirm the cosmic claims each tradition makes of their purpose or function. Long story short, there’s good stuff here and you probably could use some of it.

Science has repeatedly shown that rituals and ceremonies enhance confidence and emotional stability, soften the effects of grief, and even make food taste better when done mindfully and with intent. 

Some rituals, ancient in origin, have proven themselves to have surprisingly beneficial aspects which science is only now recognizing. Purification ceremonies, for which water is the ubiquitous ingredient across all cultures, have often included with them the burning of various plants, such as sage and sweetgrass here in the Americas. These plants have now been found to have the power to not just spiritually, but physically cleanse an environment of bacteria and other contaminants. And of course, water cleansing rituals also have the added benefit of not just cleaning one’s soul, but their germy hands as well.

Yet these findings are somewhat beside the point. Because science, specifically quantum physics, has also shown that matter is affected by our expectations. It has proven that what we think has an impact on our physical reality. Of course, this is on the quantum level and difficult to observe, but the quantum level is the basis of our physical reality after all. How can the foundation not affect the house?

Yesterday, my husband decided to sweep out our apartment. Not just sweep out the dirt, but more as well. He began to conceptualize the dirt as being an inhibitor to good communication, old heavy feelings, resentments, grief. He went through the rooms and, one by one, he collected it all in his mind, entangled with the debris, and swept it right out the back door. We scooped it into a pile and ritually threw it over the embankment behind our house.

To anyone looking at us, it would have appeared as simply dirt being thrown down an embankment following a house cleaning. But we could have even more easily thrown it into the trash. Vaulting it down an embankment, however, was better symbolism and therefore made for a better ceremony.

Where can you add ceremony to your life? Where can you take everyday events, like house cleaning, and transform them into something more powerful? (It’s called mindfulness, by the way.) Also, where can you create new opportunities for authoring ceremonies and rituals of your own? For there are no rules to it anymore. You can look up the symbolisms of various traditions and use them in spiritual experiences that resonate with you. That’s what will give them the most beneficial impact after all: your belief.

Consider adding deliberate metaphysical ritual to your experience, regardless of your belief in the claims of any religion or spiritual tradition. Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive to metaphysics. There’s enough science to support its existence in your life. 

As any worthwhile spiritual practice should.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 25, 2021 - The Gilded Frame

The sun moves one degree north today following three days of “death” near the Southern Cross constellation where it sat virtually immobile, waiting to begin the slow movement toward summer again. This cycle is thought of as the death and resurrection of the sun. 

Interestingly, around midnight last night on December 24, the North Star sat in direct alignment with the three stars of Orion’s Belt, also known as “the three kings.” These three stars point directly to where the sun rose this morning on the 25th. 

There are other parallels as well with the gospel stories including the constellation of Virgo the virgin also known as the “house of bread,” which happens to be the exact translation of the name Bethlehem. 

What might there be to consider in all this? Does it beckon as proof that the story as it’s told in the Bible of Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection didn’t happen? Perhaps. But not necessarily.

Whether or not the story happened literally is somewhat beside the point. I know that’s not true for everyone, and I respect the religious views of those who take the story in its literal form. But it creates an interesting thought around the way we traditionally frame our hero tales. 

Jesus was not the first individual in history to be reportedly born of a virgin, perform miracles of healing, to die and be resurrected three days later. He was one in a long line of ancient hero stories that includes individuals such as the Zoroastrian/Roman god Mithras and the Egyptian god Horus. As well, Osiris, Heracles, Dionysus, Tammuz, Adonis, and others as well are given December 25 as the date on which their births were honored. Several of them were reportedly born of virgins and had other coinciding points with the story of Jesus as we know it. 

One thing that’s also interesting to note, many of these heroes were born to women, virgins or otherwise, whose names are derived from the root “ma” meaning mother. Maia in Greek mythology, Maya in the Hindu tradition, Myrrha in the Syrian myth, and Maryam (Mary) in Hebrew.

Recognitions of this sort are usually used to refute the biblical tales, and perhaps they do in their way. But what if they simply point to a different kind of truth told in a way that we no longer recognize?

I know that traditional Christianity believes in the exceptionalism of its central figure, and Jesus was an exceptional person, of course. But what’s interesting to me is that during the fourth century, when these decisions about the placement of Jesus’s birth festival were being made, Mithraism, for example, was in direct competition with Christianity in Rome. In fact there were nearly 700 temples dedicated to Mithra in the city at that exact time.

It makes me consider where the truth lies, and in what form it exists.

It is likely true that a human figure named Jesus was born around the third or fourth year of the Common Era, probably in the spring. Whether he was actually born of a virgin, I could not say. Whether a star in the sky heralded his birth and lead people to the place of it, I don't know. I was not there. 

But that this person existed, possibly performed miracles (miracles do happen, after all), and taught an insightful life practice through which we might slowly change the trajectory of the violence in the world toward peace, seems true enough to me. It is even plausible to me that this individual had an advanced connection with the divine, enhancing his insight toward ways in which humans could learn to better live with one another and bring about peace on earth in its time. 

Since these similar stories about special birth and death exist throughout the human timeline, I am forced to consider whether or not these are ancient and traditional literary tools used to present a real individual as being more than merely human, but semi-divine or even divinity itself. 

Are the stories of virgin birth and resurrection, etc. a reusable framework around which a real person sits? When we perceive specialness in historic figures, have we packaged them in a literary gilded frame so that future generations would understand their specialness?

Again, these considerations are not an attempt to diminish the personhood or divinity of Jesus. They are merely important points to consider when wondering about how our ancestors chose to propel a story of an exceptional person into the future for the benefit of all. I believe a truth is being revealed here, even though I would not consider myself qualified enough to assert it with scholarly authority. 

I can reasonably believe that our religious forebears wanted to ensure that we did not take the story lightly, nor relegate its tales to a footnote of ancient spiritual anecdotes. They wanted us to know something here. They wanted us to take a close look and see where, if anywhere, there is sacredness to be found. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 18, 2021 - A Personal View of Christmas


We are entering one of the more sacred times of the year. Across so many cultures these next two weeks are adorned with dozens of occasions, festivals, and religious observances representing a myriad of belief systems.

There’s a pattern to be seen in this. And it points to things which are intrinsically human among us. But also, exploration of these various traditions can lead to valuable insights about where we each fit within the pantheon of world spiritual belief. 

Christmas, to me, is the recognition of the birth of a spiritual master whose teachings I happen to follow most closely. There are several others I look to for inspiration as well, but his I tend to perceive as a particularly clearly defined example of the active practice of raising the vibration of this planet through our actions.

I am less focused on the birth of a savior in the traditionally observed sense, so much as I am focused upon someone who taught us a practice through which we might save ourselves. That he might be the savior of humanity for reasons celestial in nature, I can’t argue with, for, or against. 

There’s obviously more to the story and theology of Jesus Christ than a simple life practice. Narrowing a focus to the teacher and his teachings does leave out considerations of the miraculous as well as the mundane, admittedly. Which it is not my intention to negate. But upon the teachings themselves, nearly everyone can agree they are wise and useful. These ancient lessons on forgiveness, compassion, hospitality, non-resistance, empowerment, and gratitude are meant to build bridges and strengthen communities rather than act as excuses to tear them apart by over-focusing on theological differences. 

Since the teachings themselves prescribe a way of life intended to help us be in good relationship with one another, out of mutual respect and religious diplomacy, it’s preferable to focus on the teachings. Everything else can be respected as articles of personal faith which need not be proven to one another in order for the teachings to function. I personally believe in many of them, or at least hold open the possibility, but it’s not my place to insist that anyone else does. If it challenges you, stick a pin in it and save it for later, as a close pastor friend of mine advises. 

Since I am glad Jesus was born and lived, I honor Christmas. Since the vast majority of the Christmas culture around me celebrates it in a particular fashion, I take pleasure in those traditions just like many people. I love holiday decorations and the traditional music and, of course, the intention toward charity and hospitality during the season. I just choose also to be sure not to forget that there is an honoring of wisdom to be observed as well. 

And though I center myself in this faith tradition, I love learning about other traditions from other faiths whose ideas overlap in ways that help me better understand my own and better remember that my neighbor truly is me.

Have you ever looked into how other faiths celebrate at this time of the year? Have you ever wondered how much we all have in common? Have you ever looked at these span of dates throughout human history and taken note of the hundreds of different occasions and festivals that have occurred at this time?

It’s the exact reason why the birth of Jesus is celebrated this week. It’s not because he was born at this time. (For the record, the Buddha wasn’t born on his birthday celebration either.) But Jesus’ birth was deemed appropriate to be celebrated at the time of the returning light. Well, that, and to compete in the religious marketplace. #Reality.

I accept Christmas for what it has become, but still honor it for the purpose of its presence on the liturgical calendar. And because at this time of the year I do need to be reminded of the birth of light in the world. It’s kind of dark around here right now.

By honoring the teacher, I am remembering the teachings. I am remembering that Jesus did not invent Christianity, he left a legacy of spiritual wisdom and a pathway toward inner peace and outer service that in the generational practice of it leaves its own steady legacy behind. 

I’m also remembering that Jesus did not convert people from their original faiths, but added a layer to them. It revealed a newness within them. He did not tell people not to be Jewish, nor did he expect the Gentiles to be anything but Gentiles. He taught them how to find new life within who they already were. That’s pretty welcoming. And this week that thought is meaningful as I ponder what the return of the light means, culture to culture.

So, Merry Christmas from me, and Happy Holidays to you all.