Languages of Faith

sweden

photo by V Budayr

When I was twelve I remember very clearly the minister of my childhood church telling the congregation that “This is the one true church.” I remember asking my mother how he could possibly know this. It was many more years before I could form better questions but looking back on that moment, it was the beginning of my quest. I couldn’t figure out why God could make 6 billion people wrong and just a handful right; it didn’t seem fair.

Through the years I have explored all the world’s major religions. I figure I could just cover all the bases in case one has the true answer to eternal life and I wanted to make sure I was good. I’ve always had Christianity as my base for that is the religion of my ancestors, my culture and my language and I am baptized as a Christian. But, over time, I have branched out and found that learning about other religions has helped me be more comfortable with Christianity despite my shaky beginnings.

My fundamentalist Christian friends would take great offense at my version of Christianity but I keep that to myself, I know the greatness of the Christ and know he doesn’t care about how some governing body defines him. What I know of the Christ is that he is our story of the enlightenment journey, he is the example of divine love and compassion.

I’ve been drawn to Buddhism for many years and have read a lot of the wisdom of modern Buddhist leaders. I find the words of the Buddha comforting and add a dimension to my experience of life. A few years ago a Rinpoche, the abbot of the monastery, established a small monastery in my county and on one of his visits I took the Vows of Refuge, something I had always wanted to do. I take refuge and comfort in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sanga.

As a child, I kept the Sabbath like the Jews and didn’t eat any unclean meat. The tradition of the Sabbath as a day to keep holy is something that our modern world could use a little more of. A day of quiet and family and to take a respite from our technology has made a come back in some circles. As a child I didn’t like the rules but as an adult I remember the Sabbath with nostalgia as a cozy loving time. I’m also told by my Jewish friends that I make very good Latkes.

One of the defining moments of my spiritual quest was Darshan, a meeting with the Hindu saint Mother Meera. In total silence Mother Meera blesses each individual that comes forward to kneel at her feet. She touched my head and looked into my eyes and my world changed. She put me in a place I had never been before but can get back to when needed. Some of my favorite music is an obscure opera about Gandhi using the words of the Bhagava Gita sung in Sanskrit. It is magnificent. Oh and I want a harmonium, the little organ used in chanting. I need one if I ever want to moonlight as an ashram. Got it on my Christmas list.

When I was in Egypt I visited the Citadel, the magnificent Mosque made of alabaster, that overlooks all of Cairo. My fellow travelers and I sat in a circle and listened to the teachings of Islam. Everyday I was there I heard the 5 prayers a day sung from the Minarets, calling the people to prayer. Those haunting melodies in a very mysterious language were healing, reminding me of the power of prayer.

The beating of the shaman’s drum, the gentle melodies on the wooden flute, the prayers to Mother Earth, bring the healing power of our Earth into my body. As I pray to the four directions for wisdom and guidance, I connect with the natural world, the sacred energy of the Earth where I live.

My daughter is a scientist and mathematician where the quest for the divine takes yet another language. Scientists see the world through the beauty of the stars overhead, the quantum particles too small to see and the elegant and universal language of math.

I’m no expert in the world’s religions but I’m an expert of my own heart and I know that honoring the world’s religions has brought great beauty to my life. Because in reality it is all semantics. We use different words and stories but at the core of our human experience is the same desire to know the Divine, the part of us and the Universe that us unknowable to our finite minds.

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Laundry

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Ice Storm Octavia

I can’t say I live for housework but I like the results so I make sure my house stays tidy. Since the girls are on their own now my housework has gone way down – they never helped much anyway. One particular place my work load has lessened is the laundry. Alexandra loved changing clothes and her weekly wash equaled all the rest of ours combined.

The last few years I have found laundry to be my favorite chore. When life gets chaotic and there is a lot of stress, doing laundry becomes a mediation. I can only fold or hang one thing at a time and those warm clean piles of sorted clothes makes me feel that there is some order in my life.

Everyday this winter I have watched my father’s health decline and each day I’m not sure what I’m facing. So sometimes I take refuge in bringing order to one corner of my life that I can control. Those neatly hung shirts and pants are something that makes me feel ready for whatever life throws at me that day.

When I’ve been on a big pilgrimage, the first few days of reentry can be tough. I miss the excitement of the adventure and jet lag has set in. I usual find myself wandering the aisles of the grocery store in a stupor wondering how I could be on a different continent the day before and pushing a cart in such a familiar place the next. After each trip I come back to the laundry, the mundane activity that brings order back from chaos and makes everyday life grounded again.

This last week winter storm Octavia took me back in time a hundred and fifty years to when my home was young. For two days I kept warm by the fire and read by a kerosene lamp. Those few days without modern conveniences reminded me how grateful that I don’t have to wash clothes in a big pot over a fire in the yard or hang out each garment by hand. A few days later my washer and dryer were humming away making quick work of a formally arduous task.

Over the last few years I come back to one of the my favorite books, After the Ecstasy, Then the Laundry by Jack Kornfield. Each time I read this book I get a deeper understanding of what it means to lead a spiritual life. We love those times on the mountain top but we can’t stay there, we have to come down to the valley and take care of the laundry. We have to take our experiences and use them enhance our daily lives. We have to take the highs of the mystical, the sorrows of the world and mix them with ordinary life and make them all equal, all part of being human.

After the Ecstasy, The Laundry  by Jack Kornfield

Hand Wash Cold:  Care instructions for an Ordinary Life   by Karen Maezen Miller

The Queen of Cups

queen of cups

I think we can all relate to our beautiful Queen of Cups. She is holding an elaborate lidded cup in her hands but she is afraid of opening it. She doesn’t know if she wants to deal with what is inside. Since cups are feelings and emotions, she’s not sure she is ready to face the emotions that are released when she opens the lid

Maybe it is a problem that seems just too difficult. Maybe this is a project you need to start but are procrastinating. We all have a long list of things we are avoiding. My list looks like this; bank statements, bathroom scales, messy basements, annoying relatives. You could also add things like books you want to write, wills that need updating, relationships that need mending etc. Eventually you have to face everything if you plan on being a fully functioning adult.

Our sweet Queen needs to open the lid and do something. The issue won’t go away by worry or ignoring it. The worry and procrastination usually makes things more difficult than they need to be. So do something! Face and embrace life head on, it won’t go away by ignoring it.

The Cherubs signal the guardianship of the Divine. If the problem or task is overwhelming ask for guidance from our ever-present unseen helpers. Use the Queen’s introspection to see what is the true underlying block or fear. Often when the block is identified the situation can be released.

The Buddha says we always have 83 problems. When one goes away a new one comes to replace it. He says the 84th problem is that we think we should have no problems.

Hail Columbia

reflectin pool

I think I will call 2013 the year of Moving.    I’ve moved houses, I’ve moved children, and I’ve traveled for six weeks.  I need to just sit for a little while. The latest children moving included a two week odyssey trip in the old green van to move Alexandra into a dorm in NYC for a semester.   Seems like an extreme amount of time for an 11 hour drive but my daughters and I decided while we are headed north we should see everything on the way.

After some beach time with cousins in New Jersey we back tracked to Washington DC.  Although we had stopped there briefly in the past we had a bigger agenda and so took my cousin up on her offer to stay in her townhouse within sight of the Capital Dome.

I always thought that Washington was a truly beautiful city and the good weather and deep blue skies made the white buildings and monuments even more stunning.   Together or separately we visited nine museums and several monuments in three days.

Always in search of the sacred I was on the lookout for things that give me extra joy.  I love Julia Child’s kitchen and the locomotive my Uncle once drove now on exhibit in the American History Museum.   The National Gallery of Art has a special exhibit of costumes and film clips of Ballet Russe.    The Library of Congress has Thomas Jefferson’s library and a stunning mosaic of Minerva (Athena) goddess of Wisdom.

The last day we split up so that everyone could spend time with their favorites.   Caroline went to the new NPR headquarters, Alexandra biked around the monuments and I went to the Freer museum to see the Asia art.   I wanted to spend time with the Buddha.   This little gem of a museum is tucked away from the larger crowds and was the perfect place of some peace.   I quietly wandered by myself taking in the exquisite beauty of a culture whose art is devoted to higher consciousness.  I spent a long time in a room full of Bodhisattvas, beings who come back to Earth after Enlightenment just to help others.   With no one else in the room I could take in their tranquility and love.

The last place I visited was the new Native American museum; I didn’t have much time so I spent it learning about the Universe through the eyes of different native cultures; the stories, the art, the ceremonies that helped make sense of human origins.    In the giant lobby is a prism that casts rainbows on the floor.   The children took great delight in standing on magical light.

I easily ignored the current politics of Washington DC and only focused on the Smithsonians which documents the truly amazing things humans have accomplished in art, music, architecture, innovations, ideas and experiences.   I also honored the sacrifices of so many at the monuments.   It is a city full of great temples, wisdom and beauty.  Now if our leaders could put aside their egos and remember.

train

lincoln

Bodhisattva

Quan Yin

Quan Yin

Quan Yin in my garden

 

During the early 1960’s my husband’s family spent several years in Bangkok Thailand as medical missionaries.   Out of that experience came many exotic stories from a land far from Tennessee.   One story is particularly legendary, the family was visiting a different exotic location and in the hotel lobby was a sign that said “Fresh Girls from Bangkok”.   To use those words to describe the world’s oldest profession was definitely a new experience and so the story was told many times.

Many years later as a birthday joke my friend Jane gave my father-in-law a cement lawn ornament of a “Fresh Girl from Bangkok”.   So the girl from Bangkok took up residence in the side yard and has been there for the last 25 years.

A couple of months ago my friend Mary was visiting and saw “Fresh Girl” and said “I love your Quan Yin”.   What?  Quan Yin the goddess of compassion?   I had long studied and loved Quan Yin and she had been on my personal altar for years but I was so indoctrinated in the family story that I never saw that the Goddess had been with me for so long.    My very conservative Christian family had actually been protected by the Goddess all of those years and we only saw her as a prostitute.

I now love Quan Yin more than ever for being there even when I couldn’t recognize her.   Much like the false story of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, the truth was hiding in plain sight.   The Goddess was waiting patiently for me  until I was finally ready to see her.  She didn’t mind the heat and the cold or the name calling.   Her job was to be there holding love and compassion on this special place.

I look back on the events of the last three decades and see how slowly, slowly things were being set in place for this new phase of my life.   I bless Quan Yin for her protection and guidance all those many years.   The Goddess has been with me all along and I didn’t even realize it.   Her reputation has been restored and she has an honored place in my garden and my heart.

Mountain Music

himalayas-stupa-nepalStupa in Nepal

When the Bowen sisters practiced the violin around the house they played Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi. Since we live in Appalachia, they were always asked to perform fiddle tunes.  The ‘fiddlin’ Bowen sisters played many local gigs for charity events, flag pole raisings, nursing homes and anywhere else they were asked.   They put on a nice show playing music that is now universally recognized like Amazing Grace, Ashoken Farewell and Orange Blossom Special.

On Christmas Day I watched a documentary called “Mountain Music Project”.   These same fiddle tunes my daughters played seemed to be even more universal than I realized.   A fiddler from Virginia visited Nepal and noticed that uncanny similarities between his tunes and those of the local mountain people.   He went back to Nepal with a translator and started investigating the musicians high in the Himalayan Mountains.   These musicians played a type of four string instrument with a bow they make from a log, goat skin and tennis racquet string; about the size of a violin, but held like a cello.   The tunes and singing along with the stories of these mountain people and their struggles for survival mirror those of Appalachia.  Maybe these mountain ranges on opposite sides of the world are connected.

I haven’t been to Tibet and Nepal, but last May Tibet and Nepal came to me when I went to a lecture at my local library by  Ven. Lama Norhla Rinpoche.   More than 200 hundred people came to hear about  Lama Norhla’s escape from the Chinese invasion of  Tibet when he was a young monk.   His journey to safety was long and dangerous, and was nearly caught by the Chinese before finding refuge in Nepal and then India.   He said the first time he saw the Great Smoky Mountains a few years ago he was instantly reminded of his first glimpse of the Himalayas during that escape over 50 years before.      Because of this connection, Lama Norhla has established a small retreat center on border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is building a Stupa (a sacred shrine) on this border to help stabilize the weather patterns and heal the land from the Civil War and Indian Removal.

There is a connection between these two great mountain ranges, and I love it when I can make these connections between opposite sides of the world letting us see that the human experience is universal. We all have so much to learn from each other.

www.mocd.org   Retreat Center and Stupa in East Tennessee

www.kagyu.com  Lama Norhla’s Monestary in New York

The Mountain Music Project:   A Musical Odyssey from Appalachia to Himalaya