Thursday, December 19, 2013


"The Light of the World is not the sanctuary lamp in your favorite church."  --  Evelyn Underhill

I recently read a fascinating book called "Hild," by Nicola Griffith.  It's a fictionalized account of the early life of St. Hilda of Whitby, who lived in the later half of the 7th century.  Griffith writes that Hild was called "the light of the world."  She was raised to think that it was her path in life to be a guiding light for her people. When I first read that appellation applied to Hild, I was startled.  To me, Jesus is "the light of the world." To hear someone else called that was surprising.  It was only later that I remembered that Jesus also said to all of his disciples: "You are the light of the world."  Still, I wondered as I read, was Hild really called "the light of the world"?  Midway through the story, the desire to know how much of it was fact and how much was fiction, was compelling.  So I did some research.

All that is known of the life of St. Hilda is written in St. Bede's An Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  In that account, while Hild was in her mother's womb, her mother had a dream in which she finds a beautiful jeweled necklace in the covers of her bed.  In the gemstone in the necklace, her mother sees all of England illuminated by a great light.  Hild's mother connected this dream to the child in her womb.  During Hild's life, the many small kingdoms that made up England continually warred against each other, vying for supremacy.  At the same time various competing faiths were also vying for supremacy.  Yet Hild was able to wade through these many competing agendas.  Kings sought out Hild for advice, she trained many bishops, she recognized the gifts of a humble shepherd named Caedmon (who became England's first poet), she founded two "coed" monasteries, and she led the first ecumenical synod in England.  St. Hilda truly was a remarkable guiding light during a pivotal time in medieval England.    

Griffith beautifully imagines how Hild became such a source of wisdom.  She describes how Hild was raised from early childhood to be very aware of everything in the world around her:  the life of plants, the changing weather, the habits and movements of all kinds of animals, and the words and actions of people.  She was taught to look for patterns, and to rely of the connections she discovered among the deep, almost hidden, forces in the world around her.  And so, by watching and listening, Hild was able to find the truth, a truth that cut through all the ignorance, fear, and the power plays, and be a guiding light to those around her.  Amongst all of the palace intrigues, bloody battles, and love triangles in Griffiths book, I found the character of Hild to be very inspiring.

Does it matter that this part of the story is completely made up?   

I don't think so...because, whether it actually happened that way or not, I found great truth in this story.  In many ways, Hild's experiences resonated with my own life experiences.  I could relate to her awareness of the revealing patterns in the world, though I am only now beginning to understand how much the whole world has to teach me.  I loved how she tried to unite groups that had always viewed themselves as separate.  And I mirrored her deep abiding love for Yorkshire.  Like all great novels, "Hild" transcends the world it describes.

Lately, I've been thinking about the many stories that surround Jesus, especially the stories that surround his birth.  Was Jesus born of a virgin?  Did God become incarnate in the body of Jesus?  Did three wise men from the east pay homage to him?

I don't know for sure, but, really, does it matter if any of these events actually happened as long as they reveal a truth that resonates with my (our) experience?

Karen Armstrong writes in "A Short History of Myth," that mythology (like good fiction) is fundamentally about our experience.  "A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time.  Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence...." (pg. 7)  A myth is a story that people share because it reveals timeless truths.

But, Armstrong notes, "myth is not a story told for its own sake.  It shows us how we should behave....  Correctly understood, mythology puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action, in this world or the next. ... A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information.  If, however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed.  If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.  Mythology will only transform us if we follow its directives.  A myth is essentially a guide; it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly." (pg. 4, 10)  A myth is true if it helps us live wisely.

So, either way, whether they are true accounts or mythologies, these stories we tell year after year about Jesus must reveal essential truths.  Otherwise, why would we tell them?  And so, how will we let them guide us?

Well, the last time I wrote, I was exploring the meaning of Mary's willingness to be a womb for God.  It was a story that provided much appreciated guidance.  Now, I wonder... What does it means to be "the light of the world"? 

Jesus did not say, "I am your own personal light."  He said, "I am the light of the world."  That's significant.  To be "the light of the world," you have to bring light to everyone.  As Jesus did.  He revealed a love that knew no boundaries.  Samaritans, Romans and Jews; prostitutes and Pharisees; women and men; the believer and the unbeliever -- everyone was loved equally by God, everyone could be guided by God's love.  The only important difference between people was whether they knew this or not.  And so Jesus told his disciples to share this message, to be a light in the darkness, so that everyone would know of God's love.

What does this mean for me today?  Do I share God's love with everyone, whether they are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or none of the above?  Do I share God's love with my fellow churchgoers as well as with those who go to the church next door?  Or have I, like Jesus said, hidden my light under a bushel?  Have I, like Evelyn Underhill says, kept the Light of the World in my favorite church?  Or worse yet, have I, as some Christians do, beaten someone over the head with the Light of the World?

Evelyn Underhill's words strike a chord.  I write about God from the comfort of my home.  I talk about God with faithful friends, and other people at my church.  I volunteer my time in various church ministries.  The focus of my light is pretty narrow.  Perhaps it's time to let this image of being "the light of the world" change me more completely.  Perhaps it's time to see how far my light can shine.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you


Thursday, December 5, 2013


"The angel summoned Mary, betrothed to Joseph, from the rather safe place of conventional wisdom to a realm where few of the old rules would make much sense.  She entered that unknown called 'virgin territory.'  She was on her own there.  No one else could judge for her the validity of her experience."  --  by Loretta Ross-Gotta*

Last week I decided it was time to venture beyond the Bible for my daily devotional reading.  I firmly believe that we each hold part of the truth.  Therefore, other scriptures, and other spiritual writings, hold truths that are just as essential to understand as those in the Old and New Testaments.  I want to find out what these truths are in order to more fully understand God's creation and will.  And I believe I'm on the right track.

This new direction ties together many strands of thought over the last few months.  And, coincidentally, on the first day of this new venture we went to a guest ranch for Thanksgiving weekend that, unbeknownst to me, contained around its beautiful grounds a cornucopia of different faith objects.  There was a Buddha water fountain, a Zen garden, a Native American sweat-lodge, a labyrinth, wall-plaques of Hindu gods  and several different sculptures of Mary and Jesus.  It was the perfect place to begin an exploration of different faiths!

But I'm having a difficult time figuring out what to read in place of the Bible.  There was a great measure of security and comfort in "following passages mapped out by the Daily Lectionary." Those readings were pre-selected by a committee of church leaders from many different Christian denominations, and are used by many, many Christian churches around the world.  I followed their suggestions without much thought, and I loved seeing connections between these passages and my musings about life and faith.

Now, the choice of what I read daily is entirely up to me.  And there are so many choices! There are anthologies of world scripture and other religious writings; there are, of course, books of the individual scriptures; and there are even a few inter-faith daily devotionals.  I had some of these on my bookshelves, but I also searched online, and in a couple of local bookstores.  As I write, I've got a pile of about eight books on the sofa beside me and a couple more on my e-reader.  And I'm still not sure which book, or books, to focus on.  Choice seems to be the problem.

I woke up Monday morning remembering my dream, something I rarely do.  I had been swimming in the middle of a big lake, far from shore, and I kept looking around me, tredding water.  I wasn't panicked or anything.  I just didn't know where to go.  It was like my current dilemma with the books.  Surrounded, but not knowing which one to go with.

As I pondered the dilemma, I remembered another book I had picked up a couple of weeks ago:  "The Art of Choosing," by Sheena Iyenga.  At the time I bought it, I had been thinking again about that incident in which I learned how inter-connected are my mind and body (see Reconciliation).  I am still amazed at how my choice to let go of all the turmoil in my mind, and open my heart to whatever happens, allowed all the physical pain and mental stress to simply disappear.  Anyway, I picked up this book now, and started reading.

Iyenga comes from a traditional Sikh background in which pretty much everything in life, from what one wears to whom one marries, is chosen by one's elders.  In addition to this, she is bound by familial duties and forbidden behaviors.  However, as a psychology research student under Martin Seligman, she learned how essential our perception of control over our environment (that is, whether we have choices or not), determines our ability to survive.   And she wondered if her Sikh tradition, and other similarly restrictive faiths, could engender a sense of helplessness.  This led to a study of how religious adherence effects people's health and happiness.

About the results of that study, she writes, "To my surprise, it turned out that members of more fundamentalist faiths experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity, and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts.  Indeed, the people most susceptible to pessimism and depression were the Unitarians, especially those who were atheists.  The presence of so many rules didn't debilitate people; instead, it seemed to empower them.  Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives." (pg.26-28).  I can't see myself becoming a fundamentalist Christian, but there is something that both fundamentalists and I have in common -- something that is actually pertinent to my dilemma -- and that is the belief that it is God who is in control.  We also both believe that only by understanding and following God's will, will we be able to find happiness in our lives.

You see, I want God to guide my choices, especially my choice of daily readings.  I want to know that I am following God's word for me on this journey of faith, and am not being "blown about by every wind of doctrine" or even by my own instincts.  Although I've read of many other spiritual people who believe you can simply search within yourself to find God, I haven't yet reached that stage of enlightenment, and I doubt I ever will.  For me, it's the unexpected synchronicity of something from outside of me -- an external event or something I see or hear -- connecting with something deep inside of me -- my thoughts, concerns or desires -- that makes me believe God is guiding my life. This external event that connects with the thoughts I've already had is something that I have no control over

But I worry...Am I only seeing what I want to see?  Over the last few days, some of the books in this growing collection have contained passages that resonated with my concerns, which was pleasing.  But others have not, which was discouraging.  And I began to wonder... Am I creating my own truth?  It's certainly something we humans have the ability to do.  I have read a lot about this recently, too.  One of the more poignant passages I read was from C.G. Jung (coincidentally the person who defined synchronicity).  He wrote, "We do not create 'God,' we choose him."**  One thing I know, I cannot create the synchronicity, but I can choose to accept it as coming from God or not.

On the day after Thanksgiving, I read the essay by Loretta Ross-Gotta quoted above.  It's from a book of essays from a daily Advent devotional our Tuesday Morning Women's Study is reading.  It might just be the one daily reading I didn't choose myself.  I read it on the same day I walked the labyrinth at the guest ranch.  As I slowly walked along the circuitous path, I wondered about the symbolism of labyrinths.  Like a maze, it was impossible to see clearly how I was going to get to the center.  Unlike a maze, however, this singular path has no wrong turnings.  You just keep walking and eventually you get there.  As I continued walking, my mind drifted to Loretta Ross-Gotta's essay.  It is a powerful essay.  The above passage especially resonated with my current thoughts.

Ross-Gotta begins the essay by noting that Mary offered "space in herself for God to dwell and be born into the world." (pg 96)  Although I am familiar with the doctrine of the Incarnation, her words described it in a way that I had never considered before:  literally opening herself up to God.  It is possible for us all to do that.  Ross-Gotta finishes the essay with the words, "Be a womb.  Be a dwelling place for God.  Be surprised."  (pg. 101).  It dawned on me that the labyrinth I was walking on was shaped like a womb.  It was an interesting coincidence.

Thinking about this now, I realize that there is a great difference between walking along a womb-shaped labyrinth and becoming a womb.  One is doing; the other is being.  One requires concentration, effort; the other requires simple acceptance. 

I wonder...can I be like Mary and just accept what God has created in me and around me even though I don't understand it, nor do I know where it will take me?  

I think I'll have to.  The alternative, trying to figure out what direction I'm supposed to take by my own powers alone is just creating confusion and stress. Maybe what I need to do is just wait, relax, and let whatever comes come.

I think about my dream...  A similar response would be to just float on the water, and let the water push me to the shore.  It's what I do whenever I'm in a swimming pool by myself, anyway:  just float on my back and relax, letting the water lap around me, and enjoying the solitude and quiet.  It's very peaceful.

May the Peace
Which Passes Understanding
Be With You 


* From "To Be Virgin," in "Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas", pg 97
** From "God in All Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Spiritual Writings," edit. by Lucinda Vardey, pg. 11