Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for the ‘Quakerism’ Category

A light Thanksgiving meal

with one comment

My childhood memories of American Thanksgiving still give me stomach cramps. It was a day of serious overeating, usually in the company of relatives, who gathered around the table in the early afternoon and stayed there for hours, talking and laughing and eating. Rarely did I have the sense to stop eating when I had had enough. There were too many flavors to sample, almost all of them far too rich. Sometimes the menfolk would excuse themselves from the table and go watch a football game on the television while the womenfolk retired to the kitchen and washed dishes for several hours. The men, forgetting that they had already eaten as much in one meal as a healthy person comsumes in a few days, would devour snacks washed down with beverages (brought to them by the women, of course). Thanksgiving in my home was a secular feast. Secular feasts, unlike most religious feasts, are rarely preceded by a period of fasting, and rarely accompanied by a spirit of giving thanks (even for the women who did all the work while the men did the important service of complaining about the decisions of quarterbacks). Rather, they are celebrations of overindulgence.

It was not until I moved to Canada as an adult and began celebrating Thanksgiving with Canadians in early October of every year that I realized what an atmosphere of patriotism was present in American Thanksgiving. I noticed its presence in American Thanksgiving because of its absence in Canadian Thanksgiving. Canadian Thanksgiving was not simply a scaled-down version of American Thanksgiving in which the menfolk watched hockey instead of football; it had an entirely different feeling about it. For one thing, I had the impression that Canadian children did not prepare for their Thanksgiving Day by studying the prehistory of their country for several weeks and retelling all the myths upon which patriotism is based. When I was a child in school, it was routine to draw pictures of Pilgrims wearing tall hats and buckled shoes and shooting turkeys with blunderbusses and sitting around with Indians and learning all about how important it is to plant fish in the soil to fertilize the newly planted kernels of maize, in exchange for which useful information the Pilgrims shared the useful information that it was only through the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ that human beings (even savages) could be saved. The religio-patriotic dimension was altogether missing in the Canadian Thanksgiving environment—something for which I was deeply grateful. Never having been one for patriotic sentimentality, I find it very easy to spontaneously give thanks for its absence.

When I was young and secular, patriotism seemed merely silly to me. I had not yet learned of any country on the earth that was worth feeling grateful for. (Ironically, that changed when I discovered Canada and found myself loving a country that was completely indifferent to my, or anyone else’s, affections. I loved Canada precisely because I was not constantly being reminded that I ought to do so.) As I became older and less secular, I began to see patriotism as diametrically opposed to spirituality. Love of country came to feel like a terrible distraction from the truly important things in life. It came to feel like a kind of collective ego-mania, a way to fool oneself into thinking that one had concerns for something bigger than oneself through celebrating a country for no better reason than that the country was one’s own. As a critic of all forms of war conducted for whatever reasons, I found I could not feel anything but shame for the country in which I had been born and nurtured, for that country was constantly involving itself unnecessarily and without provocation or justification in war after war. The incessant preparedness for war that my native land was engaged in, the building of nuclear stockpiles, the use of napalm against innocent non-combatants, the use of cluster bombs, the stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons, the history of slavery and of genocidal wars against native Americans—all this managed to kill any feelings of gratitutde I might have had to be associated with such a dark and confused land.

I am more mellow now than I was when I was half as old as I am now. I am no less a pacifist. I am no less convinced that patriotism is a terrible distraction from things of real importance. It still strikes me as obscene to practice gluttony when a fifth of the world’s population is underfed. But I have learned to lighten up, to eat more lightly, and to be more grateful for being nourished by the inner light than angry at the outer darkness. While I still feel profoundly saddened by the thought of all the turkeys who are sacrificed every year to feed American thanksgivers, I am no longer angered by it.

Celebrating Thanksgiving by myself in the Netherlands today (a country that takes credit for having taught the English pilgrims to give thanks every year while they lived in Leiden for a decade before heading for Massachusetts), I heated up some bok choi and ate it with some aged Gouda cheese on an Italian ciabattina and a glass of Belgian beer. And now I shall curl up with a good article on Buddhism written by an Arab. And I shall give thanks for the rich diversity of humanity, a richness that knows no national boundaries.

Eet smakelijk.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 14:46

Posted in Faith and practice

The dog’s curly tail

with 7 comments

It is said that Swami Vivekananda used to tell his disciples that devoting time to healing the world is like trying to straighten a dog’s curly tail. No matter how much one may try to straighten a dog’s tail, it will always revert back to being curly.

There are times when Vivekananda’s words sound to me like an invitation just to let the world go on its own course and not to wear myself out striving to do the impossible. I hear the words as advice to take care of my own spiritual well-being, let others take care of theirs, and hope for the best. At other times it sounds more like an invitation to keep tirelessly at the task of trying to make things a little better and never to wipe the dust off my hands and congratulate myself for having completed the task. After all, the fewer people there are who make an effort to make a positive difference in the world, the less the chances the world will spontaneously straighten up and follow a course of wisdom and justice. On the other hand, a great deal of what has gone wrong in the world has come about precisely because of some people zealously applying their solutions and trying to save a world whether the world wanted to be saved or not. The pendulum of my attitudes toward activism sways slowly back and forth, showing no signs of finding a stable resting point.

There are profoundly discouraging signs that the dog’s curly tail will yield to no efforts at all to straighten it. Senator Dodd proposed a bill in the US Senate that would put limits on how high the interest rates on credit cards can be until such time as new regulations take effect. The bill died before it could even be debated, reportedly blocked by Republicans. No spiritual tradition in the world recommends usury; most prophets and philosophers throughout history have condemned it in no uncertain terms. And yet Senators, probably fearing a loss of campaign funds from banks and other financial giants, side with the wealthy and powerful rather than with those who are suffering from the usurious rates the giants are charging.

Cardinals, bishops, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, swamis and lamas should be making it abundantly clear that the inaction of the senators is a shameful betrayal of every religious tradition in the world, and the followers of those religious leaders should be informing their representatives in no uncertain terms that politicians will not be getting the vote of sincere Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists until they liberate themselves from their addiction to the backing of major corporations and return to the business of providing legislation designed to promote the welfare of the people.

That the politicians are not being denounced by religious leaders for betraying their promise to serve the people is a sign that religious leaders themselves are betraying their promises to care for their flocks of believers. A silent pulpit in a time of injustice becomes part of what makes that injustice possible. There are, to be sure, people making themselves heard. But there is nothing like the quantum mass of outraged voters filling the streets that it takes to bring about change in a country the size of the United States. There are nothing like numbers it took some decades ago to bring an end to racial segregation and the unconscionable war in Vietnam. The hounds of heaven, those who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, are sleeping on the porch. Perhaps they have themselves become dogs with curly tails.

In times like the ones we are going through now, it is mighty tempting to become a quietist, to retreat into the comfort of isolation and solitary prayer and meditation. It is tempting to focus on another world, a better world to come along when one has been released from active duty in this one. It is tempting to visualize heavenly realms and pure lands and distant paradises while the world outside rots and stinks. It is even tempting to retreat to a peaceful valley somewhere and to wait until the times have changed, thinking, “When the parade comes along, I will join it.”

If no one marches now, then when and where will there be a parade to join?

Those who would continue robbing little people by tempting them into debt, and then by charging exorbitant rates to enslave them, and then by forcing them into bankruptcy—those robbers are counting on you and me to give up the struggle for achieving a fair and just world. They are counting on us to shrug and say, “Oh well, I guess some dogs just have curly tails, and I should just learn to love curly-tailed dogs.”

Can they count on your support?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 15:03

Posted in Faith and practice

Sint Pieterskerk

with one comment

On October 3, the people of Leiden celebrate the end of the Spanish seige of their town in 1574. It is a day of tremendous celebration, for the ousting of the Spanish was eventually followed by the liberation of the entire Netherlands from Spanish rule. It is a day for celebrating freedom.

This year’s Leidens ontzet (Leiden’s relief), as the festivities of October 3 are called, was a time for celebrating America. It was four hundred years ago, in 1609, that a group of English dissidents moved to Leiden, after spending some time in Amsterdam. Most of these people worked in the cloth industry in Leiden, which was at that time a major center for manufacturing textiles and for shipping them out to other places throughout Europe. The English textile workers lived in Leiden until 1620, when they embarked for Delfshaven. There they purchased a ship called Speedwell to sail for the new world. The ship proved not to be seaworthy, so it was traded in England for another ship called Mayflower and that ship made it to America on November 21, 1640. The pilgrims, as they came to be called, celebrated their freedom in the new world with a feast. The Dutch point out that the feast was modelled on Leidens ontzet and that what Americans came to call Thanksgiving is a Dutch holiday imported to America by the English pilgrims.

The decision to make the journey to America was made at a church in Leiden called Sint Pieterskerk. That church, built sometime around 1100, was already five hundred years old when the pilgrims worshiped there. Buried under the floor of that church was John Robinson, who played a key role in helping the pilgrims make the decision to leave the Netherlands for America but was unable to make the journey himself. Also buried there are relatives of some of the pilgrims who did make the journey. The gravestones are still on the floor of the church, but the bodies were removed and placed in a cemetary some time ago.

On October 3, 2009 my wife and I attended a thanksgiving church service at Sint Pieterskerk. It was a moving experience for me, because at least three of my ancestors worshiped there during their years in Leiden. Two of my ancestors, Francis Cooke and William Bradford, were Englishmen who lived in Leiden and took The Mayflower to America. Another ancestor was Moses Symonson, a native of Leiden who eventually went to America, but not on the Mayflower.

As I listened to the church service, all in Dutch, and struggled to understand what was being said and sung, I could not help wondering how my ancestors had felt as they worshiped in that same place. What went through their minds? What did they believe? (A clue is what is written in the Mayflower compact.) What would they think of all the people in America who are their descendants? If they had been able to see into their future and see our present, what would they think of what America has become? Perhaps if I could understand Dutch better, my mind would have been more on the sermon and less on my own wandering fantasies and imaginings.

Leiden was also visited in the 17th century by George Fox and William Penn, two of the early Quakers. I am not descended from either of them, but I am a Quaker and therefore regard myself as a spiritual descendant. Not a day goes by when I do not think about the fact that I am probably walking along streets well known to the pilgrims and the Quakers who were here. In the greater scheme of things, of course, it is meaningless, but in the small world of my own mind these things take on a significance that I don’t expect anyone else to share.

With the exception of special services on holidays such as Leidens ontzet, Sint Pieterskerk is no longer used as a church. It is a secular building now, a venue for concerts and other cultural events. Like so many of the grand cathedrals and basillicas and churches in Europe, it is a relic of another age, a time that modernity has buried, both for better and for worse.

Just a few meters from Sint Pieterskerk is the building that served as Leiden’s jail. In the courtyard outside the jail public executions used to take place, often to the delight of onlookers. Capital punishment is a phenomenon that modernity has left behind for the better. People are no longer executed in the Netherlands; perhaps someday they will no longer be executed in the United States. What modernity has left behind for the worse are windmills, sailing ships, and machines that were driven by human muscles instead of coal and petroleum and uranium. In Leiden, more than anyplace I have lived before, most people get around on foot and on bicycles rather than in automobiles. Perhaps someday people in the United States will rediscover the power of their own muscles to do whatever work is really necessary to do.

Frankly, I have never been much giving to praying for things. But in Sint Pierteskerk on October 3, 2009, I prayed that America will someday become the place the pilgrims dreamed of when they set out for Leiden on their way to Plymouth rock.

To learn more about the pilgrims visit the Pilgrim Archives website. To learn more about the Mayflower and its passengers, look at the Pilgrim Hall Museum website.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 14:09

Posted in Faith and practice

Will the real God please stand?

with 2 comments

When Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, or perhaps someone else, played a role in planting a bomb on Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, he apparently felt that he was justified in killing people, since they were deserving for some reason to be punished. When members of al-Qa’eda carried out attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, they were convinced that no innocent people had died. The vary fact that the people who died were either at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center was seen as evidence that the victims were acting against the ways of God and therefore deserved to be punished. The duty of a lover of God, the reasoning seems to go, is to punish those whom God hates and God hates evil-doers. Using exactly that reasoning, the Bush administration initiated the invasion of two sovereign nations, Afghanistan and Iraq, on the grounds that they were harboring evil-doers who were working against American interests, and therefore against God.

The depiction of God as a wrathful deity who punishes all those who displease him is well represented in the sacred literature of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was allegedly because God so despised the people of the land of Canaan that he authorized the Hebrews to invade the land of Canaan with an aggressive brutality that today would be called genocidal. Later, some of the Hebrew prophets were convinced that the brutal assault on Zion by the Babylonians was a natural expression of God’s anger with the Hebrews for their allowing pagan elements to become mixed with the religious observances demanded by God of his chosen people. The Book of Revelations in the Christian scriptures outlines the suffering that will be inflicted on the enemies of God. The Qur’ān warrants the punishment of apostates and the rough treatment of infidels. The claim is made, at least in Islam, that the god of the Hebrews and the Christians and the Muslims is one and the same. This one God is unambiguously punitive. Those who do evil cannot expect to be treated gently.

The punitive God, however, is by no means the only one described in Jewish, Christian and Islamic scripture. God is also constantly described by the Hebrews as “slow to anger” and “merciful” and “compassionate.” In all three traditions God commands the descendants of Adam to care for orphans, widows, the poor and the powerless. Through (or, for a Trinitarian Christian, as) Jesus, God warns people about to stone an adulteress that the first stone should be thrown by one who is free of sin; no one throws a stone. And Jesus admonishes his disciples not to pass judgment, lest judgment be passed on them. John the Evangelist identifies with God as love. The Qur’ān frequently uses the epithets “The Merciful” and “The Compassionate” for God.

It may be less difficult to believe that The Torah, the Gospels and the Qur’ān are all outlining the same characteristics than it is to believe that all those characteristics belong to a single deity. It is difficult to see how the angry, jealous and punitive nature that we read about is some scriptural passages are to be reconciled with the loving, merciful and forgiving nature encountered in other passages. Of course, no one is perfectly consistent, so there is no reason why God could not be as complex and full of contradictions as any human being. The practical problem for human beings arises when they have to decide which of the natures of God they are going to emulate. Should a human being strive to be demanding of perfection and punitive of all who stray into error, or would it be better to strive to be loving and forgiving?

There is no way to answer this question for everyone. Rather, everyone must arrive at his or her own answer. Having arrived at a provisional answer, the next question to ask is whether the answer one has arrived it is divinely guided in some way or whether it comes from other promptings.

If one’s inclination is to be an instrument of divine vengeance and to wield “the terrible swift sword” of God’s wrath, it is worth asking whether one has been chosen to carry out this punitive role or whether one is acting out of one’s own conditioned fear and prejudice. It also worth asking what the consequences might be of being mistaken. What if, for example, one is mistaken in the belief that God wants one to assassinate an abortionist or go to a crowded bazaar and detonate explosives strapped to one’s body? How will one rectify the error? Can one rectify such an error?

If one’s inclination is to be merciful and compassionate and to be an instrument of divine love, it is equally worth asking whether one’s intended actions are truly spirit-led or whether one is acting out of cowardice or moral laziness or a desire to be liked by one’s fellows. And, as in the other case, it is worth reflecting on what the consequences might be of being mistaken. If one were mistaken, would this be an unrecoverable error, one that would lead to certain damnation?

If one cannot be certain of the source of one’s promptings, on which side is it better to err? It is better to err on the side of being too forgiving or on the side of being too harshly punitive? Which sort of error, if an error there be, is least likely to violate the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself and treat others as one would like to be treated?

What seems most likely to me is that most people, if they are acting in an inappropriate way, would rather be remonstrated with and shown a better example to follow than to be stoned to death, shot or bombed. It is difficult for me to see in what way those punishments could be construed as any kind of love. They are certainly hard to see as expressions of love of one’s neighbor. For me, they are equally difficult to see as expressions of love of God. If such actions were to be delightful, or even acceptable to God, then I would have to wonder whether I would be willing to continue my relationship with such a God. I think not.

And because I think I would not be willing to approve of a deity who would require that those who love him mutilate or kill those who are perceived to be enemies of the Good, I am also inclined to think that all passages of scripture in which God commands, for example, that disobedient sons be taken to the edge of town and stoned to death or that citizens of a neighboring country should be put to the sword for their idolatry, are not the words of God at all; rather, they are the words of frightened, greedy or deluded human beings seeking to justify destructive actions by pretending that those actions have the stamp of God’s approval.

I may, of course, be mistaken. But if I am, it is a mistake with the consequences of which I am willing to live. And if the mistake is one that forfeits reconciliation with God, I am willing to live and die with that condition.

Where do you stand?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 17:00

Posted in Faith and practice

Ministry in a first-person culture

leave a comment »

Years ago—decades ago—when people rose to give vocal ministry in a Quaker meeting for worship, it was common for the speaker to quote a passage from the Bible, or from the essays of Emerson, or from Leaves of Grass, and follow it with some reflections that brought out the meaning of the quoted text and its relevance to some situation at hand. That type of vocal ministry has become less common these days. A more common message these days is a first-person account of something the speaker has recently experienced or has been thinking about. Speaking in the first person was at one time less customary than it has become now.

The change in the style of vocal ministry in Quaker meetings seems to be a reflection of a change in American society in general. People seem to speak much more about themselves these days than used to be the case. They want to tell their story—not just any old story that could have happened to anyone. People are very much at the center of their own universes these days; everything revolves around them. One sometimes gets the impression that not much else really matters except that person who is at the center of his or her universe, making comments on all the things rotating around the center. These are egocentric times.

Quakers are encouraged to speak what the spirit urges them to say, and it is not uncommon for the spirit to relate things to the speaker’s own experiences. Quakers are encouraged to speak from their own experience and understanding rather than merely offering reports of what others have said and thought. The locus of authority is one’s own inward light, the particular refraction of light that has worked its way through the prism of one’s own life history. So there is nothing at all blameworthy in first-person narrative in vocal ministry in a meeting for worship. For something to be a truly spirit-led ministry, as opposed to a simple report of something interesting that happened on the way to the meetinghouse or an account of something amusing that the cat did yesterday, it should have some sort of universal dimension. It may be about oneself, but it should also be about others as well. It should be something that, in Quaker idiom, speaks to their condition as well as to one’s own.

Needless to say, not every message can or should speak to everyone’s condition. There is reportedly a belief among some Muslims that there are so many religions in the world because there are so many kinds of people with so many different needs and perspectives that God must constantly provide new ways of reaching all of them in their diversity. Even God cannot find messages that speak to the condition of everyone. How much less can a Quaker minister impart such a message. That said, even if a message cannot be expected to speak to everyone, it can be expected to speak to others in the room than the speaker.

When someone else rises to speak in a meeting for worship, one sometimes has the initial feeling that what is being said is irrelevant to one’s own conditioning. Rarely is it the case, however, that a spoken word, however falteringly delivered or apparently pointless, cannot become the basis for fruitful reflection by nearly everyone who hears it. In the final analysis, the old saying is perhaps true that the spirit makes no mistakes.

These are first-person times in America. These are times of self-centeredness and self-absorption. That is just how things have become for now. But why?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 05:01

Posted in Faith and practice