Learning to Touch Again After the Pandemic

2020 has quite a year—a year marked by incredible surprises. I remember first reading about a virus that was spreading in the wet markets of Wuhan, China. It sounded horrible, but it was still distant. By late February, we had not yet been  advised to wear masks, but we were to cover our mouths when we coughed; don’t touch our face; don’t touch surfaces; wash our hands often, and do not touch each other. No handshakes, no hugs, and certainly no kisses. I remember one day I was rehearsing with my band. We often shook hands or hugged each other at the end of rehearsals. The movement was so automatic—reaching out to make physical contact as embodied beings. But suddenly we remembered to stop ourselves. “Whoops, the coronavirus!” we said. We had no idea what was coming; we could not imagine the magnitude of the tidal wave  that would soon crash down upon us. The virus had seemed so far away; at first a small article in the newspaper; then the front page. But still distant. Then the deaths began to mount. 

In my church—the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral—a very moving part of the service was the passing of the Peace. Standing in a large circle around the baptismal font, we milled around, hugging each other, sometimes kissing. It was a marvelously inclusive ritual in which people from all walks of life, from all classes, races, and life situations, were able to extend a sign of peace and fellowship through the body. The gamut of humanity could connect through the common bond of skin: CEOs, bankers, professors, the homeless, the addicted, students, the young and old; the healthy and infirm. But now we could not touch; we had to nod, wave, or extend “air hugs”. Hand sanitizer was everywhere.Then came the drastic exile: we could no longer meet in person anymore. We had to meet on Zoom, looking at each other in small boxes like the Hollywood Squares television show some of us remembered from earlier days. 

As the pandemic has worn on, the fear of contagion has grown, as has our physical isolation  We have to stand six feet apart. When we wear masks, we lose full sight of each others’ faces. We have to guess each others’ expressions. We live in the world of “social distance”— an oxymoron we navigate through the “virtual” world, which sometimes proves surprisingly effective, yet often taxing and unsatisfying.

What happens when human touch becomes toxic? When the bodies which connected us now force us to stay apart? When proximity brings danger instead of closeness? When singing which brought us pleasure now can transmit the droplets of possible illness and death? We have learned that when we speak and sing we are actually physically touching each other though the air at distances we could never have imagined.Touch, which is so important when we are sick or dying, is often no longer permitted. People cannot touch and hold their sick and dying. They must talk to them through glass partitions or windows. Love, once  so close and tactile, is now distant and disembodied. 

We are not, of course, the first in human history to experience the body as the bearer of death. Our ancestors suffered plagues, some more horrifying than ours. The Black Death of the Middle Ages killed sixty percent of Europe’s population. People stepped over each others’ bloated, retching bodies in the streets. But human suffering cannot be quantified. All plagues, no matter how different, leave an indelible scar on a generation.

Physical touch is but one of many losses this pandemic has brought, but it is a particularly powerful one. If reminds us how deeply connected we are in our material being. The virus has linked us all together in our common bodily vulnerability. It is the impersonal power of Nature over which we are struggling to gain control. When this pandemic is over, there is another force of Nature we must continue to face: the devastation we are wreaking on our planet and the resulting climate catastrophes. The planet is our collective Body. To say we are all connected is not some platitude. It is an inescapable physical reality.

In the face of the powerful forces of Nature that can destroy us—pandemics, the fires, floods, droughts and hurricanes arising from climate change—I choose to be hopeful that this time of contagion can wake us up to the reality that we are always embodied beings, inescapably connected. 

How grateful we will be when we can touch each other again! Not to fear that our bodies will spread contagion. The virus has shown us how intimately connected we are. Every touch and breath links us to each other. It also shows us how global our connection is. We have known this abstractly, but now that the virus has spread from one country to another with great rapidity, it is clearer than ever there are no borders that can keep others out. The  virus has linked us together, for better or worse. Right now Nature connects us in a malevolent way. But how much Nature also connects us in a positive way. We touch, we sing, we stand close together in groups of friends, families, parties, concerts, houses of worship, restaurants, bars, sporting events, and with new people we may date or develop a friendship with.

None of us is an island, as the poet John Donne reminds us. We are all part of the ocean of physical life. We will sink or swim together. We cannot quarantine ourselves from this reality. When this time of forced separation is passed, may we remember how much we missed human touch and presence. This pandemic—as horrible as it—may teach us how precious our physical connection is. With faces unmasked, and bodies again free to touch, we will enter a new chapter of our human history, forever changed, and—hopefully—more grateful and present to each other, both those we know and those we don’t know. We all share one skin, one body, one breath. May we remember this as we move out of this traumatic time into whatever the future may hold.

 What will it be like when—hopefully—this pandemic is over? Will we feel comfortable touching each other, standing close together, gathering in crowded places, singing together? Whenever a  vaccine finally allows us to move more freely in the world, will we experience a collective PTSD in which our muscle memory and psychic caution make our touching and gathering still feel risky and unsafe? Once it is safe I, for one, will be ready to reach out, to push past that barrier of distance and caution we have had to maintain for so many long months. How good it will be to touch again! I will appreciate it with new gratitude. May I give you a hug?

Phillip Bennett is a psychologist, Episcopal priest, and musician. He reside in Philadelphia.

Woodstock 50 Years On

I knew nothing about the “Aquarian Exposition” but by the time I landed in New York City at LaGuardia, I had already heard from several people my age about (as one person said) “A quiet little arts and music festival in the Catskills”. My closest friend hitched into town and we bummed a ride from some young strangers across the street from my uncle’s apartment where I was staying. A curious 17 old kid from the Chicago suburbs, I was plunged into three incredible days of amazing music, but as importantly, incredible cooperation and care among people, even when the food ran out, the rainstorms hit, and quick and cooperative work was needed to avoid possible electrocution. The PBS special on Woodstock, part of their “American Experience” (highly recommended), does a wonderful job showing all the challenges of the weekend and how creative and caring leadership helped the event go so smoothly.

As I watched the PBS special, I was struck by the sheer logistics of the event. How to feed the crowds that had swelled far beyond expectations? How to keep order in this sudden city? How to deal with medical care? Lost children? Bad trips? Women giving birth? Strangely there were only two known deaths. Maybe people were having too much fun to die. And fun there was. The music was the centerpiece–an incredible range of groups, many making their rock concert debuts. Woodstock can be romanticized–or trivialized. On the one hand, Woodstock is seen as a kind of heaven-on-earth utopia. Everything is free and loving–there is no shadow or “bad energy”. On the other hand, Woodstock can be trivialized as nothing but a huge, self-indulgent party which had no lasting roots in social action. There may be some partial truth in both stereotypes, but they don’t capture the fuller picture.

Thinking about that gathering 50 years ago, a few key themes come to me:

We were all in this together

This is an obvious truth, but one we often forget when we are absorbed in our own private worlds. When you are living right next to each other in sleeping bags, you get to know each other, you help each other find the food and toilets. You share conversation, drink and other ministrations. As you look out on the furling blanket of humanity that is spreading over the green farmland, you know you are part of this larger organism. We don’t think this way naturally. We only see our part of the story. We fail to see the bigger picture. Now we our challenged with the climate crisis. We can’t “get ourselves back to the garden” nor should we try too. We have to tend and protect the garden–not by heading back–but looking into the future and moving to action.

There is more than enough for all of us

This may sound like a corny cliche–it can be–but there are enough resources on the earth that, if we use them collectively and cooperatively, can bring nourishment and better quality of life to most of the earth’s inhabitants. We get captivated by the illusion of scarcity. We buy the false picture of “zero sum”–if I win you lose and vice versus. The truth of abundance was very tangible at Woodstock in the “feeding of the multitude” when townspeople made sandwiches to pass into the teeming crowds. A local farmer woman said, “Well, it’s like the Bible said, “I was hungry and you fed me”. The commune calling themselves The Hog Farm also did a remarkable job feeding people–and for free.

But there is always also a shadow

We could enjoy a blissful weekend because we were living in a protected bubble. The reality of hunger had nipped briefly at our heels. There was the rainstorm, but that had mostly brought us together in flexibility and frivolity. Monday morning when things were winding up, I stood at the rim of the hill, transfixed by Jimi Hendrix’s searing rendition of the National Anthem, while the chemical toilets had reached their capacity. All the food trucks were empty; things were slipping and sliding in a vast, viscous ocean of mud. Surely our patience would begin to fray if we stayed much longer. The unpleasant realities would assert themselves. A year later a free concert at the Altamont Speedway turned into violent chaos. The Hell’s Angels had stupidly been contracted to provide “security”. The Garden of Eden had become a hellish nightmare.

What made the difference between Woodstock and Altamont?

Good leadership links the individual and the group

The music at Woodstock went on almost non-stop. They tried to make the turn around between acts as quick and smooth as possible. But there were the inevitable spaces between performances and that is where the leadership kept in constant communication with us. Announcements were made to help people find each other; we got ongoing news from the outside world as to how the press was responding; we were guided through the storm; and happiest of all, proposals of marriage and the announcement of children born echoed from the loud speakers. Without the continual voice of leadership, we could become simply a crowd and not a community.

So, 50 years on, the legacy of Woodstock is still strong in the culture, regardless of the generation. It represents the best of the tumultuous sixties–a time of great change which forms the fault line of today’s culture wars. It was a time of opening up, of liberation. Many of us had been involved in the Civil Rights movement and the Viet Nam War protests. Women’s liberation and gay liberation were to change the culture profoundly. Freedom of self-expression in dress was launched in a big way. I see the “kids” who work at Whole Foods and Starbucks and they look a lot like we did back then–except few of us had tattoos, at least yet.

Plans for a 50th anniversary concert fell through because of financial and logistical difficulties. I had considered going but, frankly was relieved when it was no longer a decision I had to make. You can’t go back to the garden. You can’t stay in Eden. At the end of the festival I didn’t have a ride but that was no problem. I simple climbed on a flat-bed truck with a group of people I didn’t know. But we didn’t feel like strangers. We were filled with a kind of religious zeal. We had seen a vision of a kingdom of goodwill, generosity and delight. It’s not nostalgia for me. It is an important reminder of what we can be at our best. Like thousands, I left my mud-soaked sleeping bag imbedded in the slippery hillside. Kind and tireless crews picked up much of the flotsam and jetsam, but an archeological dig could still unearth many remnants of our huge yet brief civilization. After everything had been cleared away and we all went home, the challenge was to take the spirit of that weekend back into the everyday. We can’t go back to the Garden, but, as Joni reminds us, we are “stardust, we are golden” and we will need all the peace and love—and music–we can get to face the future that awaits us.

The Liberating Power of Pentecost

The Book of Acts depicts Pentecost as a very violent experience. The disciples are gathered in one place and suddenly there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it fills the entire house where the disciples are all sitting in one place. Can you imagine; if right now such a thing happened to us; out of nowhere a powerful wind came with a roaring sound—we would be frightened. Surely we would feel there was danger. Then, immediately after our first shock, comes the second–tongues of flame appear on each of our heads. We first see them on others, of course, because we cannot look right on top of our heads. We see the fire and of course we feel frightened. Will the fire injure? Will it set the building on fire? In the midst of this chaotic and frightening experience comes a third, even stranger one: we feel our mouths opening and we begin to speak a language we do not even understand. There are some people around us we know speak different languages and, as we speak, they are nodding; they understand what we are saying even though we do not. Such is the violent, topsy- turvy experience of Pentecost. It is scary, surprising, and hard to believe. It catches us unaware, it upends our usual sense of reality. It breaks through the normal divisions of language, space, and time.

Of the three persons of the Trinity, it is undoubtedly the Holy Spirit who is the hardest to relate to. We can understand a father and a son, a parent and a child. Even if God the Father isn’t human in the way that Jesus is, we still think of the Father as personal as today’s gospel reading from John describes. Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” But what of the Spirit? Jesus says when he is gone he will send another to be with the disciples. This one will be the Advocate—the Greek is paraclete—meaning “to come along side”. Even though Jesus has ascended and is no longer with them in physical form, this Advocate will remain with them at all times, will be close at their side, will envelop them with the power and presence of Jesus’ love. This Paraclete is also sometimes called the Comforter—meaning “to make strong”—or the Counselor—the one who gives wise direction. But the principal word used in Scripture is simply “spirit”—a word which both in Hebrew and Greek means “breath, wind”. The Hebrew ruach means, literally, “moving air”. This is the Sprit who moves over the vast and unformed deep at Creation. This is the breath of God which calls all things into being. As the psalmist says ,“You send forth your Spirit and they are created and so you renew the face of the earth”. Although we sometimes speak of Pentecost as the sending of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit had never been absent. The Holy Spirit was present at creation; this Spirit inspired the prophets to speak truth and judgement. In Jesus’ life and ministry the Spirit is always present and active. It is by the Spirit that Mary Conceives; the Spirit is present at Jesus’ baptism; it is the very Spirit who drives him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan; it is by the power of the Spirit that Jesus heals and works other acts of power, and it is the Spirit who raises Jesus from the dead. Shortly after his resurrection, he breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

Although the Spirit may seem illusive to us and hard to relate to, I suggest that it may, in fact, be an image for the Divine that is very helpful and important for us in our own day. The Sprit is above all, energy—the energy of life; the energy that calls things in to being, that builds up increasing complexity, that brings a unity which multiplies instead of contracts. Certainly this view of God fits well with what science tells us of the Big Bang and evolution. The creative power at the heart of all things is always unfolding, always moving, always bringing the new out of the old. We all share one breath, one air—we share it with all the other animals, even with plants. It is the breath of life that breathes through all things—the breath, the wind, the spirit of God.

 If the Spirit has always been present, then why the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost? I think this can be summed up in one word: “globalization”. No longer is the gospel just for the small band that had formed around Jesus; now it was for everyone, everywhere. This is echoed in today’s collect: “Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promise of your Holy Spirit”. The Good News of the liberating love of God in Christ is no one group’s possession; it is international and cosmic. Pentecost pushes the disciples beyond their previous boundaries; it challenges them to open themselves to the new, to the foreign. We are so used to hearing this Pentecost story that we have a hard time feeling how disruptive it was. The early Christian community was Jewish and to accept Gentiles was a huge thing—a bridge too far for many. Yet, the church opened up, sometimes with great resistance and anxiety, to other races and other cultures, so that there was a new mix, bound not by clan but by the Christ experience. Socioeconomic distinctions were also upended, with the very poor and the very rich living and worshipping together. Of course there were conflicts in communities then as there are now, but it is important to understand how revolutionary and disruptive the early church was in terms of breaking down and breaking through old dividing lines of race, region and class.

The hallmark of the Holy Spirit is dynamism—it is air that is always moving; the Spirit is never fixed. Some early Christians found it impossible to believe that Gentiles could be brought into the fold. It struck at the very core of their identity, of their sense of what is true and false; of who is in and who is out; of who God is and who God isn’t. But the Spirit is prophetic; the Spirit speaks through prophets in every age who announce the terrible but life-giving judgements that speak the truth we sometimes do not want to hear. The Paraclete—the one who is alongside of us, leads us into new places—new places that, at first, may seem disorienting, sometimes even frightening—like a mighty wind that seems to be destroying things, like a fire than may burn things down.  Pentecost happens again and again—and it is happening now.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, I have been thinking a lot about the changes I have seen in my lifetime. I was 17 when the riots occurred. I do not remember hearing them mentioned—if they were it didn’t reach my ears as a teenager in the Midwest. I have a very vivid memory from around age 12 of sitting in the public library in Barrington Illinois, furtively thumbing through a medical encyclopedia. I was terrified that the librarian would know what I was doing—that she had that x-ray-eyed, special telepathy with which we invested all librarians. I was afraid she knew the topic I was headed for—the dreaded topic as I thumbed through “Elephantiasis” then on to “F”, “G”, and finally “H”. My hands were shaking as I turned the pages. I came to the dreaded entry I was seeking, the shameful disease I so feared, “Homosexuality”. I prayed this was not my fate. I prayed I didn’t have it and, if I did, that it could be cured. And now here I am more than 50 years later, married to an amazing man, able to be myself without shame or fear. Indeed the Spirit is doing a new thing. Of course gay liberation has been only one part of a greater movement of liberation that has brought great changes in or society—changes that some embrace and others abhor. Some see these changes as the work of the Spirit, others see them as diabolic and destructive. What is important in discerning whether the new is ultimately good, and holy is what I call the “Gamaliel Test”. The Book of Acts depicts the apostles being arrested and brought before the Jewish counsel authorities to be judged for heresy. One Rabbi on the council, Gamaliel, urged his fellows not to move too quickly to suppress the Apostles and their preaching. He says these words, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men …because if this plan or this undertaking is of human orientation, it will fail, but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrown them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”    

The Spirit is always bringing forth new things. She broods over the unknown. She hatches new life where we would not expect it. The Spirit brings surprises—rushing winds, tongues of fire, new languages that we often do not understand.  The Spirit brings freedom—liberation to people oppressed by slavery and the color of their skin; to women oppressed by a male society; to gay and queer people defined as pathological. It is easy to be discouraged by the bigotry and fascism we see rising in our country and all over the world. It is disheartening, sickening. But is important not to forget how far we have come. We need to open our eyes to see the work of the Spirit. If, as Gamaliel says, it is of God, it will thrive and prove to be good. In my small Midwestern town there were just a few “colored” people. They knew their place, and when they didn’t, bad things could happen.  Now we have an African -American Presiding Bishop. In my childhood, a woman could not be on the parish vestry. Now we have had a female Presiding Bishop. The Spirit brings forth the new; the Spirit bring forth freedom.  Paul say in todays’ reading from Romans, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba, Father, Amma, Mother” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”.

May Pentecost ever fall upon us. The presence of the Spirit which blows–sometimes like a gentle breath and sometimes like a gale. The Spirit who, like a flame, can sometimes gently warm, and sometimes burn down in order to bring freedom. The Spirit of God fills the whole earth, the whole cosmos, bringing new and deep unity beyond our divisions. The Spirit blows us out into the world to touch others in need. All these are actions of the Spirit who, although called different things by different tribes and creeds, can best be described most simply by one word: love. The Spirit is love—which burns, comforts, prods, cajoles and woos. This love conquers all things and calls us into the life of freedom.

“All the Saints and the Worldwide Web” —A Sermon by Phillip Bennett, Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, November 4, 2018

All Saints cloth for my blog

Today’s collect—our opening prayer–sets the tone for our celebration of All Saints: “Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Jesus Christ”. We are all knit together, woven together in love. The bonds of love are stitched upon our hearts, woven into the fabric of our being. We are wrapped up with all those who have gone before, are still alive, and are yet to be born. Here at the cathedral, we symbolize this in a wonderfully physical way: we stand together in a circle around the font and envelop ourselves in a prayer cloth on which are stitched the names and the symbols of those we have loved and lost. As we hold the cloth together, we are reminded that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses”—that we and all those who have come before us and will come after us, form the living fabric of the Body of Christ—that Mystical Body which stretches across all time and space. We cannot understand this Mystical Body with our intellects, but we can use our imaginations; we can use what scientists are telling us of our mysterious and ever-expanding cosmos: that there are connections across time and space which defy our ordinary understanding. We don’t know for sure how we are all connected over time and space, but the symbols of our faith give us clues about the enduring bond of love across seemingly separate dimensions.

If love is what knits together the Mystical Body, it is evil which tears it apart. Evil rips up the fabric of interconnections; it shreds the ties of civility and respect that bind us together in our common life. As I watched the awful footage of bodies being taken out of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I felt an eerie resonance with my recent visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. Walking through the dim, cramped rooms where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis, the reality of such evil was hard to take in. Pictures of Anne and her siblings—hopeful young faces, peered out through family photos. Most gut-wrenching to me were the pictures of movie stars that Anne had cut out of magazines and pasted to her bedroom wall; a heartbreaking reminder of the typical fantasies of a young teenage girl who was soon to be captured, wrenched from her family, and thrown into the unspeakable horror of the death camps. The diabolic delusion of Hitler and his followers was that you could cut out a whole piece of the fabric of humanity and destroy it forever. It was a preposterous, delusional fantasy, but one that lives on in every attempt to pull the stitches out of the rich, complex and often challenging tapestry of human civilization.

God is a mystery beyond all images, symbols, and metaphors. God is always “more than”. And yet, we need words and images to convey something of our experience of the Sacred, both individually and collectively. Although all images are partial and even sometimes misleading, let me make a try at yet another image; one I think may speak to our time: it is the image of the Net or Web. We use these words constantly: we “surf the internet”; we “look on the web”. We are all wrapped up in the worldwide web, whether we like it or not. This net is the growing fabric of technology that binds us together, but also sometimes tangles and strangles the goodness of our common humanity. We can create great good through our technological interconnectedness, but also great evil. There is the web that helps us reach out, to create, to work together; and there is the “Dark Web” of hatred and fragmentation that aids terrorism, espionage, and human trafficking.

We are living in a deeply disturbing time; it is a frightening and perilous time in which hatred and fear of the Other are emboldening neo-fascist leaders throughout the world to whip up their followers into hatred, fear, and frenzy. It is frightening. Innocent people are being scape-goated. Fear-mongering and lies abound. Perhaps we have been naive in thinking “it couldn’t happen here”. It may be that these alarming development are an inevitable backlash against the challenging reality of globalization. The world has changed radically. Cultures are interpenetrating at a rapidly increasing rate. Old boundaries are breaking down; familiar moorings are giving way to a new fluidity that can be both exciting and destabilizing. In such a time of momentous and rapid change, political and religious intolerance are ways of trying to revert to a previous, often idealized time. Current attempts to retreat into imagined national and ethnic purity—the very platform on which Hitler came to power—will ultimately prove futile, but in the meantime, much damage is being done to our common national and international life. It seems sometimes that the very fabric of our common life is being ripped apart and shredded. But the clock cannot be turned back. We can’t get rid of each other, for we are all knit together. This is most inescapably evident in the reality of climate change. We can’t erect walls to keep out harmful greenhouse gases. The earth’s ecosystem, once robust and self-replenishing, is now being frayed, and torn, perhaps irreparably.

I think the Web and Net images may help us access some of the power of the image of the Body of Christ. Jesus himself used the image of the net to describe the kingdom in which all is gathered up– the good and the bad. He commanded the disciples to cast their nets into the deep and, to their great astonishment, they caught an overflowing abundance of fish. The Net and Web, like all god-images have their limitations. They may not be as personal as many images, but they are a way of using analogy—a tool used by many theologians over many centuries. They are ways of using contemporary experience to envision the pervasive connection in which we are all embedded. The net and web as well as “link” describe relationship as communication and communion–words which come from the same root. In our age of instant communication, the threads of our lives, our cultures, our religions, are woven so closely together that we cannot unweave them except through violence, and even that will not undo or reverse the reality of global pluralism. We can try to tear the fabric, cut out parts of it, try to unweave and reweave it, but the fabric remains. It is the fabric of our shared humanity, and the fabric of our planet.

In such a turbulent time, is easy to feel helpless and despairing. But every act of justice, courage, and love is a way of stitching together our  common web. In the face of the fascism of World War II there many heroic people who helped make connections that saved many lives. There are dark forces at work in the world but there are also many people of good will. This does make a tremendous difference, although it may sometimes be hard to see in the face of the attention-getting, preoccupying discord that surrounds us.  History continue to reveal human evil but also great human goodness. As the Letter to the Galatians says, “ Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up”.

When we stand in a circle with the cloth of all the departed enfolding us, we are enveloped in the presence of those who have gone before. We remind ourselves that we are all knit together in a Mystical Body, a Holy Web, a Sacred Net. Today’s collect ends with this petition: “Give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you”. It is not only love but joy–unspeakable joy—which binds all the saints together. It is a joy that comes out of the depths of sorrow and loss. The joy and sorrow are woven together; the loss and love are woven together; the past, present, and future are woven together. May we take our place in the circle, where the threads of our lives are interwoven with all the saints—both the famous and the ordinary; those past, present, and yet to come. Let us celebrate our place in the ever-expanding web of life; the widening net of the kingdom where there is room for all and where there is unending love and ineffable joy.



   Sometime ago, a friend said to me, “There is no recompense in not being yourself”. I forget the context of his comment but it struck me and remains with me. There is no recompense, no reward in being other than we are. We may try to trim ourselves, mold ourselves into being another sort of person—one we or others think is more desirable—but not only is this effort futile, it is a tragic failure to appreciate and nurture who we really are. In the end, we can only be ourselves. It is true that each of us has many “selves”—ways of being in different situations, relationships, and times of our lives. Yet, I think there is some felt-sense when we are in tune with ourselves—“comfortable in our own skin” as we say—and when we are misaligned with our natural identity. In common speech we say, “I am not feeing like myself”. The challenge of feeling disconnected from self may not be something everybody experiences, but it has been a struggle for me and some other people I know – – either in my personal relationships or my clinical work, and so I offer these reflections.  
When I was 29 I had the following dream:

I am in a large Victorian house with a central winding staircase that goes up many flights. A skylight at the top of the stairs sheds a dim, filtered light down the many circling steps. In this shadowy light all I can see are room after room lining the stairs. The door of every roomed is closed. As I stand at the base of the stairs, I hear a muted cacophony coming from the many closed doors. I begin to ascend the darkened stairs. Under the first door I hear exuberant Dixieland; at the next, sedate Baroque. This musical variety continues as I climb higher. Seemingly infinite styles of music are leaking out for under the closed doors: blues, folk, Romantic, Medieval, a panoply of “world” music from different continents and era. Each room produced a distinct music unlike the rest. At each door, I stopped and listened and wondered, “Is this my kind of music?” Although I found each musical style compelling in its own way, I had an increasing sense that none of these musical styles was the music for me. I ascended floor after floor, room after room, music after music, until I reached the top floor where the skylight shed its light on a single room which was padlocked. On the door was scratched, in crude, uneven letters, “Here lives someone who makes his own music”.

As I finished recounting the dream, my psychoanalyst—a wise, older woman—looked out over her thick, owl-like glasses. She let a long silence settle, then she said slowly, “It is going to take you a long time to realize the full meaning of this dream.

I had entered therapy like many of us do—because of pain and suffering. As I embarked on my vocation, I felt the long shadow my father’s depressed and thwarted life begin to fall over my own life. I thought I had escaped his inner demons; that I had run as far away as I could from a family legacy of neurotic conflict and psychic suffering, that

I would escape unscathed. I decided to become the sun to his shadow. But as I entered my thirties I began to wonder whose life I was living. Confusion over my identity and fear of a family curse of self-thwarting defeat, I began seeing June Singer, a senior Jungian analyst, who listening patiently, discerningly to an anxious and confused young man. The dream of the winding stairs and the many kinds of music, has been for me what Jung calls a “Big Dream”. It stays with you all your life. It gets your attention.This Big Dream spoke of identity—of finding out who I was to become as an individual. The locked door at the top of the stairs was yet to be opened. It has taken me many years to unlock it and claim my own originality. Some of this has involved literal music. I am a singer-songwriter who began writing music in my teens. I was steeped in folk music movement of the 1960’s: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter Seeger, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary—and many more. I got my first guitar—it was old and battered—at a rummage sale when I was 12. I spent hours and hours learning chords, singing lyrics from records. In time, I began to compose some songs of my own. My voice was untutored and natural—I wish I still had some tapes I made then so I could listen to my younger voice. When I got to college, I took voice lessons which helped me learn to project, to open up my voice, to make it richer and more nuanced. In some ways this was a good thing; I have never regretted my vocal studies. But in another way it separated me from my natural voice. Although I enjoyed some of the classical music I sang and liked the new power and resonance of my voice, I felt disconnected from earlier untutored but spontaneous singing. This was not helped by my voice teacher’s dogmatic proclamation that “popular” singing was incompatible with my vocal studies and could, in fact, “damage my voice”. Years later, I would find a voice teacher who understood my different vocal styles and how they each had their own integrity and palette. He supported what is now called “cross-over” in musical styles. It was a liberating experience—being heard and coached by someone who could hear my different voices as each having their own integrity and vitality. Out of this experience I wrote the following poem:

Singing Lessons

Before I studied singing

I really sang—




 A boy of five

Out in a summer field,

Arms raised to the heavens,

Bellowing, skyward,

Lungs full and flying.

The song inside me

Simply sang itself—

The song sang me.

Then came school

And learning

And shutting down the passion,

Turning the spigot

Tighter and tighter,

Until the flood of song in me

Was just a cautious trickle.

 My singing teacher

Poked my diaphragm

And scolded:

“Use more support!

Tighten your stomach,

Loosen your jaw!

Relax, relax!”

In trying to make a voice

I lost my true voice,

Now, so many years later,

I find my voice again

The gateway of my throats

Has relaxed its sentinel grip

And the old, young

Music pours forth.

To learn to sing,

Studying singing,

The throw throw away the book.

Surrender to the

Song inside you,

Longing, bursting

To flow free.

My most recent voice teacher—the most helpful one—does master classes around the world and gives out this poem to the attendees . He says he often gets intensely positive responses. I have gotten emails from around the globe from attendees from other singers who say the poem resonates strongly. I think it’s example of how there is nothing as universal as the personal. Our individual struggles are often not ours alone. When we share them we may get a “Me too!” which can be liberating.

Although, I’ve been talking about singing, I think this extends to all of us in terms of how much we can trust being our true selves and find our unique voice.

 We get a lot of messages about how we should be and do, but unless we can trust our own unique way of being, we don’t ring true; our resonance is muffled. Sondheim: “Everything you do—let it come from you”.

This was made clear to me in another dream while I was with the same analyst:

I am with June, my analyst and another woman analyst. We are sitting in a circle around a large brass bowl—like those used in Tibetan meditation. I ask the two women, “What should I do with my life?” They don’t say anything. Instead, they strike the bowl and it rings with a rich tone that takes a long time to fade into silence.

On telling June the dream, she said, “You will know what to do because it will ring true”. Of course! Sometimes the unconscious is not so subtle!

Personal authenticity has nothing to do with narcissistic self-absorption. It is the opposite. When we can trust being ourselves, we don’t have to pretend by covering our insecurity with a false self. Narcissism arises from an insecure sense of self, no matter how strong the posturing. In fact, the shakier the sense of self, the more the obsession with strength and specialness. We are getting a ringside seat for this sad and dangerous show in our present political arena.

May Sarton has a poem that speaks beautifully to all this:

Now I become myself. It’s taken

Time, many years and places;

I have been dissolved and shaken,

Worn other people’s faces,

Run madly, as if Time were there,

Terribly old, crying a warning,

“Hurry, you will be dead before–”

(What? Before you reach the morning?

Or the end of the poem is clear?

Or love safe in the walled city?)

Now to stand still, to be here,

Feel my own weight and density!

The black shadow on the paper

Is my hand; the shadow of a word

As thought shapes the shaper

Falls heavy on the page, is heard.

All fuses now, falls into place

From wish to action, word to silence,

My work, my love, my time, my face

Gathered into one intense

Gesture of growing like a plant.

As slowly as the ripening fruit

Fertile, detached, and always spent,

Falls but does not exhaust the root,

So all the poem is, can give,

Grows in me to become the song,

Made so and rooted by love.

Now there is time and Time is young.

O, in this single hour I live

All of myself and do not move.

I, the pursued, who madly ran,

Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

The problem comes when we don’t like the self we are. We may have some ideal self that we would hope to become. Sometimes when people enter psychotherapy or some spiritual practice, there is an unconscious fantasy that they will leave parts of themselves behind – – the parts they don’t like – – and become the ideal image of what they hope to be. Of course there are ways in which we can and need to grow – – ways in which we can be healed and become stronger. But that’s different from trying to remake the essential person we are.

The phrase “becoming ourselves” may seem strange. Aren’t ourselves are ready? We are, and yet there is more to be lived into. There is always more life to be seized – – more vitality to be claimed. This vitality is always unfolding. We are not just a human being; we are a human becoming.

 A friend of mine, a pianist, had this waking dream when his wife was dying of cancer. He had been in a despairing state and was even considering suicide. In his waking vision he saw the universe as a huge musical score stretching out beyond Andromeda. On this cosmic score every living thing that ever was or will be was orchestrated. Animals, rocks, plants, meteors, stars – – they all had their part to play with their starts, rests, and endings. He looked down and saw, on the bottom left of this cosmic score, his own small part. He saw how he had his own part to play and that if he took his own life he would diminish the whole cosmic symphony. My friend’s vision was symbolic – – we may not in fact have that much influence on the cosmos, but it speaks to the importance of being fully alive and contributing as much as we can. We have a small part to play in the cosmic endeavor, but it is important to contribute all that we can. Becoming ourselves is part of the becoming of the universe. It is our opportunity to contribute, each in our own small but very important way, to the unfolding of the mystery of life.

“Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton, 1993.

Facing Into Holy Mystery: A God Beyond God


I have a confession to make. I’m coming out of the closet in saying this publicly: I no longer believe in God. There, I said it. It may seem like a strange and unlikely thing for someone who has been associated with religion all my life —perhaps even an incriminating self-disclosure; a revelation that could make me seem hypocritical and disingenuous. 

In saying I no longer believe in God, it is important to clarify which God I no longer believe in. It is the God which many atheists  also reject: a distinct and separate Supernatural Being beyond the bounds of ordinary space and time, who causes certain things to happen or not happen, sometimes according to how we have obeyed or disobeyed Him (the masculine pronoun has been the most traditional one used and rightly so, since it reflects the hierarchical patriarchy from which such God-images have often developed). This God is a “deus ex machina”—an external driving force beyond the machinery and fabric of nature. This God is the missing jigsaw piece without whom the puzzle of the universe and our personal lives cannot be fully whole and meaningful. I remember defending this kind of God in college bull-sessions, arguing with fierce and untroubled certainty that a world without such a God would be meaningless and without whom the human race would have no ethical moorings. I could not see then what history makes glaringly clear: people can be very ethical without a belief in a God, and, conversely, some of the worst atrocities in history have been perpetrated in the name of religion.

This traditional theistic image of God is a Person who, in many ways, is like a human person–only larger and more powerful. It is this Supernatural Being who can be prayed to and pleased or displeased, who lies at the heart of the three great monotheistic religions. This God determines who lies within or outside the circle of revelation and salvation; who separates the sheep from the goats. Most problematically for our current geopolitical situation, this God has given particular pieces of real estate to God’s “chosen” people, thus setting up centuries-old competition for land-rights which fuel fierce and seemingly unresolvable wars. The sacred sites of the three “children of Abraham” are piled on top of each other; the land-grabbing and acrimony sadly seem endless. All this in the name of a God which each religion believes it represents the most comprehensively, and sometimes exclusively.

I am not saying that the term “God” is meaningless for me or that the Sacred doesn’t resonate in my experience–both personally and communally, but it seems that we sometimes use the word “God” so freely that we lose a sense of mystery. God-talk can become overly-familiar and so second-nature  that we really begin to think we know what we are talking about. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner saw this problem and suggested using the term “Holy Mystery” when speaking of God. I like that. I am also fond of Paul Tillich’s term “The Ground of Being”. Both these images convey that whatever we mean when we say “God” is much bigger and more mysterious than our overly-familiar language often indicates.

I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my questions about God. In fact, I join a long and venerable spiritual tradition which has been called by the fancy Greek name “apophatic”. In a nutshell, it means that we can never fully know or describe God because “God” is a mystery greater than our comprehension. Mystics have called this the “via negativa”—which means we can describe the Divine more by what we cannot know (“negative”) than but by what we can (“positive”). The German mystic Meister Eckhart has some arresting ways of addressing the God-question. He speaks of a “God beyond God”—a sacred reality that our religious language tries to describe but which is greater than our theological concepts. He exclaims, “God deliver me from God!” Judaism and Islam also affirm that the ultimate nature of God cannot be fully fathomed by our human intellects and language. The mystical traditions in all the world religions often share more in common with each other than they do with their own respective religion, because mysticism is grounded in the experience of the sacred, not simply an intellectual proposition. It is a willingness to be open to the Great Mystery of life without seeking to reduce it to easy answers and fixed categories. Many of the mystics of our day lie beyond the parameters of traditional religious creeds and institutional structures. They are poets and scientists. Poets seek to look more deeply into the experience of human existence, sometimes through direct self-reflection, sometimes through reflecting on nature, and sometimes through both. Scientists–especially those exploring Quantum Physics—are delving into the deep mystery of the cosmos—the Big Bang, expanding multiverses, the shifting warp and woof of time and space. Poetry and contemporary science provide us with a wealth of wonder and mystery which I call The Sacred. It is a sacredness rooted not in creedal formulations but in lived experience.

To say that we live in Holy Mystery doesn’t mean we cannot know or believe anything. Although there are many things I am less and less sure of as I grow older, there are  things I that I do know and believe in a way that grows more and more  bone-deep.  I experience both the power of Love and Evil in this world on a daily, tangible  basis. We have only to turn on the news; to see what happens in our local and global communities; to look into the conflicting movements of our own hearts. I also experience the reality of Grace–the surprising and enlivening  encounters that bring wonder, gratitude, healing, and reconciliation. These are the precious miracles that enlighten our often dark world. Above all, I think Holy Mystery is manifest in relationships. We are never isolated individuals, even when we feel so. We are all embedded in a great fabric of community, locally and globally. It is in relationship that we find meaning and the challenging soul-stretching that takes beyond our own egos. Maybe the limitation in our language is that God is not so much personal as transpersonal.

Does all this seem too abstract and ethereal—a personal navel-gazing unrelated to the hard realities and needs of the world? I think not. The way we think and talk about God or other underlying beliefs, has major ramifications for how we act personally and collectively. Fundamentalist understandings of God are at the root of terrorism as well as other expressions of hatred and prejudice. Reflecting on our language for the Sacred is, I think, a question of “evangelism”, which means “to share good news”. How do we articulate our communal beliefs and images of The Sacred so that we honor our traditions while also presenting them in such a way that others may understand them as good new and, perhaps, be drawn to them?

Back to  personal images for God. Perhaps we don’t need to abandon them altogether if we can remember and communicate that they are all partial metaphors that point to a Greater Mystery that is bigger than any one image can hold. If we say God is Father or Mother,  we are saying that the qualities of parents who conceive, nurture and champion their children is part of Holy Mystery. Likewise, images of a God as  Lover, consuming fire, a probing judge, speak to the richness of millennia of human ways of conceiving of The Holy. An image that currently fascinates me is The Web. We are all knit together in the Great Web of Being. The sacred is The Web, the Internet. This is an image we can all identify with in our daily lives. Could it help us imagine a Bigger God?

I offer a few questions for reflection:

–For those of us who use God language, of whatever tradition, are we willing to reflect on how our use of this language may be meaningful or alienating both to others and ourselves?

–Are we willing to struggle with how our lived experience of mystery and meaning does or doesn’t harmonize with the way we proclaim our religious/spiritual identity in our liturgy and conversation?

–When we identify with our particular religious tradition, are we willing to honestly grapple with whether we do or do not believe our own tradition to be superior to others? If we do, it is an act of integrity to defend that unapologetically. But if we do not, then we must repudiate the exclusionary language of our traditions. We can’t have it both ways.

I welcome your thoughts!

The Need For an Enemy–Further Thoughts



I am adding to a previous post  that I wrote before the presidential election. Since March 2016 when I originally posted this, much has happenend on our political landscape. Since our recent presidential election I have been repeatedly struck by the powerful need some have for an enemy. I admit that in the face of nefarious, bigoted, arrogant leadership….(one can go on and on) I have found myself sucked into my own reactive negativity. There is something about evil that can bring out the worst in us if we are not very careful : self-righteousness, false innoncence and a preoccupation with the obvious flaws of others while our failure to see our less obvious flaws can seduce us into a smug sense of superiority. 

Carl Jung said that the most dangerous thing confronting the modern world is not the splitting of the atom but the splitting of the human psyche. Our human psyches have primitive layers. We are, at our most basic level,  animals with a natural fight-flight response. But unlike other animals, we have imagination with which we can create both inner and outer worlds of meaning. One way we make sense of things is through splitting: we divide things into all good or all bad; into “us” and “not us”. In the rapidly increasing complexity of our world, splitting gives us a certain clarity and simplicity–we know just who the enemy is, and we know ourselves to be on the side of absolute truth. This is the appeal of religious and political fundamentalism: if we divide things up into all good and all bad,  we don’t have to wrestle with the complexity in the world and in our own psyches

Of course, we do have real enemies. At this time in history we suffer from the insanity of terrorists whose twisted thinking leaves us vulnerable at any moment to unspeakable acts of cold-blooded violence. There is no reasoning with such deranged opponents. But in the face of such vindictive splitting by our enemies, it can be tempting to resort to self-righteous splitting of our own in which we are blind to our own shadow. Then we need an enemy on whom we can project all our disowned and unwanted aspects. I think that the great task at this point in our individual and collective history is not to get sucked into retaliatory splitting. 

Recently I was wronged by someone. Their behavior was clearly unfair. I found myself hanging on to my sense of righteous indignation like a dog grabs onto a bone. I nursed my anger. But after much internal wrestling,  I came to realize that my anger was poisoning me. This is the challenge we face today: we are confronted with such evil in the world that it is tempting to cast ourselves as completely innocent victims who are justified in doing whatever it takes to keep our real or perceived enemies at bay. I think the great task ahead of us both individual and collectively is to not get sucked into reactivity while also fights no in a clear–eyed and sustained way for major change.

It is the Enemy Within that is the most dangerous to our individual and national psyche.  The old Pogo cartoon speaks as wisely as ever: ” We have met the enemy and the enemy is us”. Let us move forward together with a discerning understanding of how splitting can divide us. We need to find common cause while also being appropriately shrewd in working our way through the system of politics and power. We have a great flight ahead. The more we can move beyond splitting and reactivitym, the more we will be able to sustain the long and possibly difficult struggle to reclaim a less reactive level of national discourse. Some of the tipping point may come from realizing they are being hurt instead of helped by health care reform and “jobs, jobs, jobs”. We must not underestimate the power of  Trump’s w nIt does not lie and logic but in the sense of being read to. He is a master at inflaming culture wars.


Image: Caravagio, “The Taking of Christ”










The Wounded Crow: Reflections on My Father


My father had found him flapping wildly in our front yard. Sleek and black, the crow jabbed at my father’s gloved hand as he was taken into the garage. Here my father would nurse him until his wing healed and he was ready to take to the sky again. I named him “Blackie” and would watch him with my five year old eyes of wonder as he perched on the clothes drying rack my father has set up for him as a perch. My father had a love of nature and, as I look back, a particular affinity for wounded creatures. I think that might have been because he himself was a very wounded creature. The son of a mother who had had her wings clipped by a domineering father, and a father who was the least successful of seven brother and had never gotten his life off  the ground, he had grown up in house of angry people who all felt that they couldn’t soar as high as they might have because someone or something was always holding them down. Even apparent success couldn’t sustain flight–everything always came crashing back to earth. My father described a unspoken, unconscious message in his family as “You can excel but you can’t succeed”. Continue reading