Life 101 Class


The East Mountain Retreat Center had set up shop in a corner of my brain and stuck it out throughout two national tours, several weddings, and my honeymoon.  I finally made a reservation last April, when all I knew was that I needed to get away.  Several  Mondays ago, after jamming two auditions into two hours, I rented a car from New Jersey and drove to Barrington, Massachusetts, where, incidentally, I had met my husband six years earlier.  The retreat center was on the outskirts of town.

The drive should’ve taken three hours.  It took five.  (Thank you, New Jersey.)  Finally I turned off the main highway and onto a dirt road riddled with potholes.  After driving about a mile and a half through a canopy of trees, I pulled up beside a cluster of wooden buildings overlooking the rolling hills of the Berkshires.  The Reverend Lois greeted me at my car, gave me a quick tour of the property, and, after warning me to watch out for ticks, left me to my own (silent) devices.

The view from the meditation hall. Buddha is represented alongside Christ, Ganesh, something Jewish, and various items from nature. They make a commitment to being non-denominational.

I made my way to my dormitory-style room.  Located off the meditation hall, it had enough room for a single bed, a nightstand, a shelf, and a two-seater couch. and opened onto a shared deck.  It would be considered a decent-sized bedroom in New York City, but a closet anywhere else.  I had all sorts of plans for the evening:  books to crack open, letters to write, journaling to do, etc, but instead I plopped onto the couch and listened to the silence.  It was the most mesmerizing, calming and unexpectedly delightful sound that I had heard in a long time.  It was as if I had slipped into a meditative state without needing to actually meditate.

Meditation is fairly new to me, and I don’t try to set a goal or an intention while meditating.  (As some guru said, “There is tension in intention.”  Which my husband pointed out is technically inaccurate, but you get the drift.)  The goal of meditation, if there is one, is to relax, let go, and let be.  To turn off the thinking mind.  It’s the awareness that a separate, loving entity is watching us, and cultivating that throughout the day.  (Since meditation is new to me, I’m not very good at finding words to describe why I do it or to what end.)  However,  meditating made perfect sense to me as I sat there on that cozy sofa, listening to the wind in the trees, the birds singing, and the occasional snap of a twig breaking.  I was to learn that silent retreats are anything but silent.  I sat there, transfixed, awed by the ease and depth of my own spiritual connectedness.

The wizened, cynical part of me wishes I would write, “And then I tried the food, and it all went to hell,” but it just got deeper and better through the course of my stay.  I was never bored.  I spent my time taking walks through the woods, reading spiritual books, reading not spiritual books, writing letters, meditating, doing yoga.  Time slowed down, and I noticed things I hadn’t for years.  The particular satisfaction of gravel crunching underfoot, for example.  Blowing the blossoms off dandelions.  Starting at a frog pond until their camouflage wears off and millions of little frogs appear.  Reading outdoors in a screened-in gazebo as rain poured down and I snuggled under blankets.

It was heavenly.  My only regret was that I couldn’t stay longer.  Over the course of my stay the silence was relaxing, companionable.  In a short while I’m sure it would have become intrusive, possibly demanding.  I ran this theory by Rev. Lois right before I left.  She nodded.

“And then there’s another layer after that, where you accept the silence and go even deeper,” she explained.

I could only imagine what she meant.  I guess I’ll have to wait until next time– and I hope to go once yearly– to experience it for myself.

These posts are a combination of journal entries and notes I made after class in order to turn them into a (belated) blog entry.

Day 4:  Gentle Hatha Yoga at home

After two days of antibiotics and one steroid shot, my voice is still noticeably absent.  My husband begs me to stop going to yoga.  “It’s wearing you out,” he tells me.  I admit he could have a point, plus I’m tired of being sick.  So I take his advice and skip power vinyasa in favor of hatha, courtesy of www.yogadownload.com.   I leave my mat inspired to sit down and write about this 30-day experiment.  Finally I am inspired to write about something…

Day 5:  Lunchtime Yoga @ Yoga People

It’s May 3rd, and I have been dreading this date because it marked a year to the date that I started the Mary Poppins tour.  I had been anticipating the “woe-is-me, a-year-ago-I-had-it-together” doldrums, but actually I feel sort of fine.  I even wrote that in my journal:  “I feel fine.”

Yoga was unremarkable except that the Bikram funk has finally, mercifully worked its way out of my mat.  No amount of scrubbing can work the wonders of time.

Day 6:  Power Vinyasa Flow (Podcast done at home)

As sweat dripped from my face onto my mat I realized that while I’ve been waiting for answers to prayers, most of which revolve around getting a job, maybe God actually wants me to move to Los Angeles.  Maybe that’s what Andre and I are Supposed To Do.  The jury is still out for me on things being Meant To Be.  “Our truest dream for ourselves is always God’s will for us,” reads one of my New Age-y mantras that I scribble in my journal (most) mornings.  But how many stories in the Bible are about conforming to God’s will, even if it isn’t what they had in mind?  Moses sure didn’t want to spend 40 days in the desert, but it beat slavery, and it worked out for the Jews in the end.  Lot’s wife didn’t want to leave Sodom or wherever.  At least I can be pretty sure I won’t turn to salt if I look back at New York City.

As I maneuvered into half-moon, I thought about how sometimes having needs met is different from having prayers answered.  But for most of us, except for Lot’s wife, it usually works out in the end.

Sunday morning marked my second attempt to go to church in Canada.  With the birth of Jesus looming, I need to find someplace to go Christmas Eve, or else come Saturday I know I will be overwhelmed with feelings of not just homesickness, but seasonal impropriety.

The first church I stumbled upon in Toronto was St. Thomas, an old parish adjacent to the University of Toronto.  I discovered it when I googled “Best Church Choirs Toronto.”  I figured if the preaching sucked, at least the choir would be good.  I was right on both counts.

I am not in any position to tell someone how to give a good sermon. But I can pontificate, if you will, on how not to give a sermon.   One should not summarize the Gospel and the readings, paraphrasing the main points and coming to an obvious moral conclusion while utilizing banal phrases such as “clothed in righteousness” and “in anticipation of God’s grace.”  (Which doesn’t even make sense.  The very concept of grace is that we’re blessed– or graced– with it every day.  But never mind.)  The choir was decent, but the congregation was old and unwelcoming.  They chanted most of the responses, so I couldn’t participate and felt lost.  I didn’t fit in there.  I left between the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist, which happened to be right before the collection plate was passed.  Oops.  Octogenarians glared at me as I snuck guiltily out the side door.  But I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The following week the Cathedral of St. James proved to be just as bad.  Not only did the preacher, to so-called Primate of Canada– whatever that is– preach an uninspiring sermon, but he did so in a voice that could only be intended to put us to sleep.  As if in divinity school he’d been told, “What the congregation really wants is a nap right now, so could you drone with a little less enthusiasm, please?  They’ll be sure to promote you to Primate.”

To make matters worse, his subject matter this fourth week of Advent was Gabriel’s announcement to Mary.  Prior to the sermon the service had been better than St. Thomas.  The fully professional choir reminded me of home.  There were people in the pews, and at least ten of them were under the age of 92.  I even counted six black people among the congregation– a rarity in any Anglican church, let alone one in the heart of Canada.   But then the Primate ascended the pulpit and ruined everything.

He had such rich material!  The virgin birth has always bugged me.  I think it bugs any honest modern person.  We’ve all read The Davinci Code and know that the virgin birth issue was either completely invented or at least revitalized in the Middle Ages to enforce a patriarchal system of rule.  I personally believe that the Virgin Mother thing got blown out of proportion by some gossip-y disciples.  I think it went like this:

Disciple 1:  Isn’t Jesus smart?

Disciple 2: Mmm-hmm.  And his mama a virgin, too.

Disciple 1:  (eyes widening) Really?!

Disciple 2:  Mmm-hmmm.  Her Baby Daddy is God.

And thus a religion is born.  In none of the Gospels does Jesus say “The meek shall inherit the earth.  And by the way, Mom was a virgin.”  It just isn’t important, the same way it’s not important if a priest is a woman or if a child has two daddies.

However, I don’t think that a Bible story has to be factual to be true.  The truth of the Anunciation is that Mary bent to the will of God, through whose power nothing is impossible, a concept that is even harder to grasp than a virgin birth, although I’m working hard on it.  Which is why I go to church in the first place, I guess.  I don’t go to hear the Gospel paraphrased and regurgitated.  Why would anyone go for that?  If there’s no insight to be gained spiritually or intellectually, why make time every Sunday to go?  And if there’s no nourishment offered, what future does the church– any church– actually have?

Once again I left out the side door before the service ended.  I asked myself why I care so much.  Most people show up someplace on Christmas, snooze through the service, and leave.  But I don’t want to be like that.  I don’t want to be someone who goes through the motions, especially when it comes to God.  I feel like there is a yearning among people of my generation to glean some sort of spiritual meaning from life.  I happen to believe that Jesus had some insight into this and am happy to call myself a Christian in that regard.  But the people who are seeking God, who are seeking meaning, aren’t finding it in mundane services intended for the elderly.

I don’t know where I’m going to go on Christmas.  My husband and I will have to improvise.  Maybe we’ll have to suffer through a lousy service in an unfamiliar space.  Or maybe we’ll just stay home and create our own little tradition or ritual, something meaningful to us.  Something that will most likely involve a celebratory glass of  wine.

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Full confession:  I’ve never really loved the Baby Jesus.  Oh, I love Christmas all right.  Who wouldn’t?  But otherwise I never really think about Jesus, like in my day to day life.  I pray to God, certainly.  I might even give a shout out to Mary if I’m suffering from really bad cramps or something.  But Jesus always seemed to me like… well, like a person.  I have always been intrigued by his life and teachings, but I have a hard time thinking of him as, like, the Risen Lord.  Which kind of a major tenet of Christianity, which is part of what we discussed in last week’s Life 101 class.

We talked about the difference between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus.   Marcus Borg, the Jesus scholar who wrote Heart of Christianity, the book our class is loosely based on, makes this point really well, differentiating between the Jesus who lived on earth and the figure he became after his death.

As a child growing up in the church, nobody ever really pointed this out.  So what happened for me is what happened for a lot of people, I think:  Jesus ceased to be a credible human being.  Sure you can walk on water and change water into wine if you’re a demi-god.  No big deal.

The pre-Easter Jesus, we learned in class, was a healer, a mystic, a teacher of wisdom, a social prophet and a movement initiator.  The last two are particularly important because he wouldn’t have been crucified if it weren’t for those last two things.  But this is where it gets complicated because once the cross comes into the picture, you get into what Borg calls “atonement theology.” This way of thinking can be condensed into the one all-important, over-repeated phrase, “Jesus died for your sins.”

And this is where Jesus loses me.  Because while I can appreciate that Jesus died holding true to what he believed, I felt that God and I had our own understanding regardless of what happened over 2,000 years ago.  Jesus’ sacrifice, while kind, doesn’t bring me any closer to God, really.  And I don’t just plain don’t agree that believing in it gets me closer to God, either (John 3:16).  Not only does that theory exclude a whole bunch of people who never would have heard of Jesus Christ, but it stymies access to God.  And furthermore, even if I am a sinner and we’re all sinners, blah, blah, blah, isn’t God’s grace infinite?  How could it be that He could only forgive human sin if a sacrifice was made?

Borg places the issue of sacrifice in historical perspective.  (His entire book gives Christianity some much-needed historical perspective.)  And in the 1st century sacrifice was a big deal.  Certain types of sins could only be dealt with through sacrifice in the Temple.  The early Christians knew this.  So part of early Christianity’s deal was to tell people, “You don’t have to do that anymore.  If you believe in what Jesus was saying, you don’t have to make a gazillion sacrifices.  Jesus has done that for you.’  It’s actually very anti-Temple, anti-Establishment.  Rather anti-religious, in fact.  That– and the Last Supper– were a break from the old way and into a new way.  Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross isn’t meant to create a monopoly on grace and access to God.  It is, as Borg writes, ” a metaphor of radical grace, of amazing grace.”  (Sing it.)

But people focus so much on Christ on the Cross that it’s like they forget about Christianity.  Borg references Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, in which she goes to a tent revival meeting in Portland, Maine.  The preacher’s theme was “Jesus on the cross” and the importance of believing in him to get into heaven.  As Ehrenreich looks at the (mostly impoverished) crowd, she reflects:

It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage.  But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say.  Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.

Borg concludes his chapter on Jesus with an anecdote about a lecture he gave during which someone asked him, “Don’t you think faith in the cross is pretty important?”

And he said to clarify, “Do you mean, do I believe that Jesus died for our sins?”  And the woman said yes.

I then explained that historically, no, I don’t think that Jesus literally died for our sins.  I don’t think he thought of his life and purpose that way; I don’t think he thought of that as his divinely given vocation.

And then I continued.  But I do have faith in the cross as a trustworthy disclosure of the evil of domination systems, as the exposure of the defeat of the powers, as the revelation of the path of transformation, as the revelation of the depth of God’s love for us, and as the proclamation of radical grace.”

And I thought, ‘For once, that makes total sense.”