Sunday, December 22, 2019

Pre-Christmas Musings: Encouragement in Unlikely Places

So here we are, a few days before Christmas, and I'm in the midst of a flare-up of my mysterious health episodes that always leave me wondering which parts of my body will feel out of sorts tomorrow. The GI problems and general fatigue and malaise are more or less always with me, but now I'm getting, in addition to that, throbbing pains in my lower back, tingling fingers, a recurring sharp pain in my left heel, blurry vision, neck pains, dizziness, and insomnia.

For years I've struggled to find out what's causing all this. Sometimes the symptoms will stick around for days, sometimes for weeks or months, and then they'll mostly go away. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it, and no amount of blood work, abdominal CT scans, back MRIs, brain scans, pharmaceuticals, and visits to one specialist after another has made any difference. One doctor pushes me off to the next, and inevitably someone will tell me to make sure I eat enough fiber. Thanks. Hadn't thought of that.

The common denominator seems to be a malfunctioning autonomic nervous system, at least from what I've been able to piece together on my own. But the medical community has been unable to give me any kind of answer, or relief.

So with not a lot of energy and with things to do before the big day, this will probably be my last post before Christmas. I had every intention of journaling all through Advent, until that one scripture reading a while back tripped me up. I was struggling to think of something profound to say for each day's readings anyway, but I suddenly had to sit with the problem of reconciling an omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity with human suffering -- something I've wrestled with for a long time, as, I know, have many.

I haven't come any closer to a satisfactory answer. At first I entertained the idea that maybe the Gnostics had it right all along, that maybe the God of this universe was something of a mistake -- a deity that was either malevolent or stupid, or both, while the higher God, the true God, was unknowable, locked away from us so long as we remain trapped in this material world. Christ, according to the Gnostics, was sent from the higher God to show us how to break free from this material prison and reunite our spirits with the God who does not take a form and does not create but is a pure emanation of love, incorruption, perfection, a pure, unchanging, eternal light -- a First Cause or Unmoved Mover, not terribly different from the Tao, or the Kabbalistic concept of Ein Sof.

The Gnostic view is a tempting one to adopt, but at the same time it seems to overcomplicate things in search of a satisfactory answer. Buddhism gets at the same answer of suffering in this life and breaking free from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and it does so with a lot more level-headedness. Maybe the gods exist, the Buddha said, and maybe they don't, but they're irrelevant to your personal journey toward enlightenment. You suffer, he taught, because of desire -- you want things you don't have, and you have things you don't want. Fair enough, but that still doesn't crack the nut of why innocent people must endure suffering in the first place. Why do children get cancer? It's not because they desired something. They just got it. Some Buddhists would say the child is living out his karmic debt from a past existence, which, frankly, is just a lame excuse to blame innocent people for their own illness. In the end, Buddhism has no satisfactory answer either.

The most obvious and logical answer, of course, is that nature just does what nature does. Trees fall, floods happen, kids get cancer. No punishment involved; no lesson to learn. Stuff happens. Of course, that removes the idea of a loving creator from the picture entirely, or at the best it leaves us with the indifferent God of the Deists who set the universe in motion and then went off on a permanent holiday.

So if that's the case, and if my logical brain tells me that's the most reasonable answer, why the heck do I still feel drawn to the religious stories I was brought up with? I can only assume it's because I still find deep wisdom in the ethical teachings of Jesus and I feel the unconditional maternal love of his Blessed Mother. I feel safe in her care.

Is my childhood conditioning just telling me all this? I have no idea. But I know I never felt quite settled when I was journeying through the religious traditions of the East -- save for Taoism, whose teachings I found deep, illuminating, and beautiful. But nothing else satisfied. When I was trying to be Buddhist, I was long perplexed at why so many of its teachers actually encouraged its Western followers to return to the faith traditions they were raised in. Do you not want us here? I often wondered.

But I don't think that was it at all. In hindsight, I think those teachers understood that we all seek a single metaphysical truth and that we all take different paths to make that quest. If you were raised on one path, it becomes difficult, once you've worn a deep and familiar trail into the ground and gotten accustomed to the terrain, to then switch to another path that may seem wholly unfamiliar. In the words of author Richard Smoley, who also never felt at home in Buddhism: "Christianity is not software. You can't clear it out of your head as you clear a program from your computer. It sinks in deep, and it stays. And it is hard to install another system on top of that."

I always felt like a foreigner of sorts on the Buddhist path, as if I was treading someplace that belonged not to me but to others. This was their native territory, and I could never hope to assimilate myself into it the way someone raised in that spiritual environment could. Likewise, Smoley said that when he was trying to assimilate himself into Tibetan Buddhism, it was as if he needed to "install another, equally elaborate but completely alien, theological contraption in my head besides the one I had gotten from Christianity." And in the end, he said, "There was no point in that: One contraption was quite enough."

So, like Smoley, I went home, albeit with a new appreciation for the teachings that I once found confusing, judgmental, and archaic, thanks to a shallow surface reading that was the only thing I was ever told I could believe in. I had to take everything at face value growing up. I couldn't question the literal interpretations of scripture or look for deeper meanings. I couldn't ask why. Now I felt comfortable doing so. And with the confusing and fear-based religion of my youth behind me, I was now free to find hope, truth, beauty, wisdom, love, and goodness in the teachings.

And yet the core problem of suffering in a universe with a loving and all-powerful God remains. What the heck am I supposed to do with that? And if it continues to be a problem for me, then why can't I just put the whole of the Christian story behind me and get on with life?

Well, I guess it's because of the deeply embedded nature of religion that Smoley talked about. Moreover, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, "There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of each man" -- something that innately makes us seek out meaning in the universe and find our place within it. Just look at the fanatical stridency of woke leftist politics -- people might be abandoning traditional religion, but they just can't shake that primal religious impulse.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that the Christian story scratches that "God-shaped" itch for me, at least more satisfactorily than any other religious contraption I've come across -- though Taoism comes awfully close.

Also, I've had too many inexplicable experiences in my life to let myself become a pure materialist. I do think there's more to this universe than meets the eye, and I think it would be arrogant to simply assume that what we can perceive with our senses and calculate with our rational minds is all there is.

And I guess that, like a lot of people, I just need that spiritual grounding to check myself once in a while. I need the reminder, in a world that tells you to get what you can with little regard for anyone else, that we're all in this together, and that love and humility go a lot further than hatred and pride do. Other people can be in it for whatever reason they choose, whether it's to fulfill some kind of legal transaction between themselves and God, or to stay out of hell, or to use the Bible to condemn others, or whatever. I just want to focus to the best of my ability on the love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness that Jesus taught. I want to follow his example the best I can. I need the reminder to love my neighbor, pray for my enemy, turn the other cheek, help the less fortunate, and do to others what we want done to us.

I also feel the need to cultivate the kind of faith and humility his Mother Mary exemplified. And I desire a God who looks like the reconciling, forgiving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I don't know if he's out there, but I sure hope he is. Otherwise, this universe would be a pretty sad joke indeed.

And so I keep on going to church every week, and I continue to find comfort in the rituals and the beauty of the Mass and the comforting words. I feel a peaceful buzz after leaving a good service. It's hard to explain, but I feel calmed and renewed and reassured.

It helps that my wife is willing to go to Mass with me now. She said today that she finds it meditative. She's never going to become a believing Catholic, and I'm OK with that. I'm just thrilled to have someone supporting me on my ongoing journey -- as I've always tried my best to do for her. I find her pagan interests pretty darn cool and inspiring, especially as they illuminate for me a sense of the divine in the natural world and help me connect more deeply to the Sacred Feminine -- that, and the Tao Te Ching is seriously the most amazing book I've ever read. We still complement each other spiritually, and I hope we always do. Mary and Jesus are my spiritual yin and yang.

And I heartily believe that people often come into your life just when you need an answer to something. Case in point: The church we've been attending is home to a priest in his late 50s who was just ordained earlier this year. And I love his homilies. He has a very personable touch, and he makes the stories of the scriptures come to life, in a dynamic way that makes them very relevant to modern life. I think a large part of what makes him so personable is that he led the life of an everyday person before he joined the priesthood. He was married, for one thing. Taking marriage advice from a celibate man who was never married has always been a hard pill to swallow when it comes to Catholic priests, yet here's a guy who actually lived the married life in the real world, just like so many of us sitting out in the pews. Turns out he wanted to be a priest when he was young, but his life took another turn, and he ended up marrying. Then his wife died from cancer, and before her time came she encouraged him to follow the dreams of his younger days.

That part of his story has stuck with me as I've tried to work through the problem of suffering in a universe with a loving God. Our priest could have grown bitter when he lost his wife, wondering the same things about where God's love and mercy went. But instead of abandoning his religion, he threw himself headlong into it and became a priest! Now if he can do that, then surely I can work through my own doubts and questions.

And wouldn't you know it -- in today's homily, Father made the point that we gather together at church so we can have a place to work out our faith together. He's not the kind of fire-and-brimstone priest who rages about what's wrong with the world and will remind you of why you're going to hell if you don't do this or that. Not at all. To the contrary, today he made the point that no one expects any of us to have all the answers. And that's why we come to church -- so we can lean on each other and explore our beliefs and press deeper into the questions we have even as we wrestle with them, all in a supportive environment that will lift us up when we need it.

I nearly broke into tears when he was saying all this, because it seemed that once again the universe was giving me just what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it. I don't need to have all the answers, and in fact it's OK not to. The point, Father said, is to have faith anyway, trusting that things will work out the way they're supposed to.

It's funny, too, that I consider myself a pacifist, and here I am admiring the spiritual leadership of a priest who was also a Marine before he became a priest. I bristle at the very thought of militarism, and yet here I am. If God is out there, he sure does have a good sense of humor -- and quite a knack for cultivating humility in the parts of our lives that need it the most.

I don't have a clever Christmas analogy to work into any of this. I guess I could say that it's nice to be able to hold on to some much-needed spiritual illumination at a time when the Christ child is soon to bring light into a world filled with darkness. That would be a sort of cheesy thing to say, wouldn't it?

And yet there it is.

A blessed Christmas to one and all.

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