Meditation given on the 14th of June, 2015, at East Barnard Church in Vermont. Texts:
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
Untitled poem, by Rumi
Today, like every day
we wake up hollow and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Reach for a musical instrument.
Let the beauty you love be what you do—
there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
I’ve always liked the idea that God speaks to us through the basic facts of our physical, biological lives. When we hear a geneticist say that the search for God is rooted in our DNA, I think, sure, why not? When neurologists say that brain chemistry has a lot to do with our perception of the divine, I think, pardon the pun, that that’s only natural. Tim once asked me, frustrated by that species of scientist—the reductionistic scientists—that believes they’ve disproved the existence of God, “How do they think God operates, if not through the natural world, and all its processes?”
Certainly, the Bible often gives the impression that God works through miracles only, through events that are anything but natural. But there’s a whole other strand of biblical literature that wrestles with God in very ordinary ways, a strand that teaches that prayer and meditation and developing godly habits are the ways to God’s heart, and to building the Kingdom of God among us. Why would the Psalms, Proverbs, Prophets, and Gospels recommend these practices to us if they do not have some value in our lives as people of God?
A few years ago, after Tim’s oldest brother had a stroke, I read Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight. Dr. Bolte Taylor is neuroanatomist, which means she knows a lot of what there is to know about the structure of the brain and how it works. And a few years ago, she was unfortunate enough to suffer a stroke that shut down most of the language-processing parts of her brain. But the stroke had the unexpected side-effect of shutting down all the mental chatter that our logical, language-focused brains make so much of, and it liberated the parts of her brain that recognized the interconnectedness of all matter and all life. She describes herself having an experience, mid-stroke, that sounds a lot like religious mystics’ experiences of union with God. This is how she puts it:
“I felt enormous and expansive, and my spirit soared. I remember thinking: ‘There is no way that I can squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside my tiny body.’
“Instead of a continuous flow of experience that could be divided into past, present, and future, every moment seemed to exist in perfect isolation . . . On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply ‘being.’
“ ‘The absence of experience is bliss. It was peaceful and beautiful there. I was with God.’ ”
Dr. Jill, as she refers to herself on her website, doesn’t downplay the seriousness of what happened. It took her eight years to recover from her stroke, and an enormous amount of hard and draining work. And at times she wondered if it was even worth it. In that blissful place, beyond speech and beyond time, she felt fully whole and fully happy for the first time in her life. The parts of her brain that distracted her from beauty and from a sense of connectedness with God were shut down, and the aspects of her brain that she’d repressed or never developed came to the fore and taught her a new way of being. Who would want to give this up?
Yet even as she was recovering, she made a new discovery: she could gain access to this beautiful state of being whenever she wanted, by practicing certain habits: meditating, sending healing, positive thoughts to people, spending time in the beauty of nature. She prays every day, she says, “just to stay hooked to God. When I go to sleep, I wrap one hand around the other to feel like I’m holding God’s [hand], and say thank you for all the blessings of my life.”
It’s funny, because although Dr. Jill’s recommendations sound radical, people of discipline and faith have been talking for millennia about the importance of prayer, of quiet meditation, of solitude and restfulness and cultivating closeness with God. I prefer to think of her experience as a new kind of witness to the power these ancient traditions can have in our lives. Her life has demonstrated afresh the value of self-quieting, mindfulness, and retreat.
I’m hoping to talk this summer about the hidden treasures of the Bible and of the Jewish and Christian traditions. I’m hoping we can talk about the erotic spirituality of our forebears and the Song of Songs. I’m hoping we can discuss the ancient tradition of theodicy—what is the point of life, and what difference does God make? Why do bad things happen to good people? These are some of the questions that are faced head-on in the book of Ecclesiastes. I’m hoping we can talk about biblical imagery that sees God as feminine, and the medieval monks who imagined Jesus as a breastfeeding mother. Maybe we can explore the divine comedy of the book of Jonah, and the way it pulls us into a conversation with God about anger and forgiveness. But as I was planning this series, Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience came to mind, and this passage from Deuteronomy: the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart.
Taylor discovered—though really I should say, rediscovered—methods to cultivate peace and unity within ourselves, ways to reconnect with what gives us joy. It is only when we become peaceful that we can transform the world into a place for peace. It is only through knowing joy that we can bring joy to others. It is only when we love ourselves and accept our own difficult feelings that we can love and accept the most difficult of people in our lives. The word is very near you: it is right there in the biochemistry of your brain, waiting for us all to call it out and get to know it and its divine creator better, through meditation, prayer, imagery, solitude, music, nature, beauty.
The Sufi mystic and poet Rumi reminds us how easy it is to slip into our hyper-rational minds: we wake up hollow and frightened, desperate to fill our minds with the chatter that will distract us from—what, exactly? Our search for love? The hugeness of the world? Our unanswered questions? The hugeness of God? Don’t distract yourself, he says: take down your instrument or lift up your voice. Join the huge universe, take pleasure in beauty, spend time with yourself and with God. Reconnect with the holy of holies that is your own soul. Every moment is an opportunity: to choose the power of life, rather than the power of death, to choose good rather than bad or even mediocre, to choose God and the things that are of God.
So I want to give us all—even me—some homework this week. Do something that creates beauty. Quiet your mind to receive God’s love, and make a conscious effort to send that love out into the world. Do something that gives you joy, no matter how full of chatter your mind may be, or how many chores there are to do. Let the beauty you love be what you do. And then watch how you are transformed.