In his slim volume entitled Hundred Dollar Holiday, Bill McKibben points out that the holidays of December no longer work for most of us. When Walmart extends Black Friday to five days, and we view it with dread rather than joy, something is wrong. McKibben urges us to back away from the mall, scale back radically on spending and recover joy in simple traditions.
During the High Holiday season we pray, “Remember us unto life.” It has been pointed out that in the center of the word “life” is the word “if.” If suggests the unpredictable, tumultuous, precarious, dangerous world in which we live. For the young people among us it represents the hills and mountains of challenges ahead in relationship, in marriage, in family, in work. The British poet Rudyard Kipling, in a poem entitled If addressed to young people has this memorable line about challenges: “If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can know yourself when all men doubt you, yet make allowance for their doubting too.”
For those in their middle or later years among us the word “if” suggests looking back at our lives as in Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken and asking the question: What if I had taken the other road?
In the center of the Hebrew word for life hayyim are two Hebrew letters each called “yud” representing the name of God, one yud representing God’s presence in our physical, material world and one yud representing God’s presence in the world of spirit and spirituality. The two yuds in the center of the Hebrew word hayyim meaning life point to God’s eternal guidance and love for us in every challenge and at every stage of life. It is this faith that enabled Kipling to conclude his poem with the optimistic line that despite challenges,”Yours is the world and everything that’s in it.” It is this faith underlying Robert Frost’s confident conclusion to his poem: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
Finally there are the buoyant, encouraging, faith-laden words of Isaiah:
“Let every valley be raised
Every hill and mountain made low
Let the rugged ground become level
And the ridges become a plain
The Presence of the Lord shall appear
And all flesh, as one, behold,
For the Lord has spoken.
With these words in mind let us pray on these holy days: “Remember us unto life.”
To expand on a previous blog entitled “Welcome to Cellar Religion”: the mission of religion is to serve as an elevator lifting people from the cellar of untamed, emotional religious enthusiasm and zeal, which needs to be disciplined and purified, to a higher level. It is at the mezzanine level of discipline, reason, ethics and morality that primal religious emotion and zeal are purified. At the penthouse level of spirituality and mysticism, the religious impulse purified by reason, ethics, morality and the discipline of a daily religious practice is elevated still further. Here there develops a profound awareness that all humans, no matter their race religion or gender are all God’s children and as our brothers and sisters are entitled to consideration, compassion and love. Here there emerges a respect and an appreciation for animals, birds and nature in all its forms, even beyond our universe, as aspects of God’s creation. Here there awakens an awe and a love of God and the heavenly dimensions.
As reported by James Carroll in a Boston Globe editorial, a new Islamic Sunni extremist group in Iraq has as its motto, “God shall torture them by your hands.” This is cellar religion– devoid of reason, devoid of ethics, devoid of morality, devoid of spirituality. Throughout the Near East, in Africa and in Asia, most recently in Myanmar (formerly Burma), where rampaging Buddhists attacked minority Muslims, cellar religion predominates. The mission of religion is to serve as an elevator, lifting people from the cellar of emotional religious enthusiasm and zeal, which needs to be purified, to a higher level. It is at the mezzanine level of reason, ethics and morality and at the top floor of spirituality and mysticism that primal religious emotion and zeal are purified. Each level is necessary for the evolved religious personality. But in a secular age, the top floor of spirituality and mysticism is often ridiculed as only for kooks. Then, the genuine search for authentic religious emotion has no place to go but back to the cellar. Much of our world is victimized by these stuck elevators.
A Boston College philosophy professor; who teaches a class that examines spirituality, relationships and personal development, gives extra credit to any student who will go on a date. Contemporary students gravitate to group activities that give them a feeling of security and minimize rejection. Personal relationships take place through texting and a hookup culture that consists of anything on the spectrum of sexual activity with strangers or acquaintances rather than with committed partners.
While social media, particularly texting, gives the illusion of connection to another person, the digital bursts of 140-250 characters from a “virtual self” builds habits of ADD connections. They cannot possibly have the depth of face to face conversations and relationships.
Windows of Opportunity
We all know what chaos is. It carries the popular meaning of a massive and dangerous breakdown of order or consensus. We see it all around us in the world: dysfunctional individuals, dysfunctional families, dysfunctional businesses and economies, dysfunctional governments, dysfunctional societies and failed states. The causes range from wars to natural disasters to the unpredictable behavior of human beings and the unpredictable behavior of nature. The initial emotional reaction of people is one of fear, denial and aggressive assault against the disorder.
One of the fathers of modern Zionism, the Hebrew essayist and thinker, Asher Ginsberg (1856-1927), who wrote under the pen name Ahad Ha-Am, has an essay called “Slavery in Freedom.” In it he described assimilated West European Jews who gave up their inner Jewish values and identity to conform to the non-Jewish secular values of the countries in which they lived. Though living in external freedom, in comparison to their persecuted East European co-religionists, they were internally enslaved.
R. Buckminster Fuller, father of the geodesic dome and one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, was walking along the ocean toward sundown. He met a student and asked him: “What is happening when the sun turns from yellow to orange to red and then slips below the horizon as darkness ensues?” “Why it’s a sunset,” replied the student. Fuller sighed and said, “That is the trouble with this society. No, the sun is not setting, the earth is revolving.” Fuller was decrying conventional wisdom as did Socrates and Plato among the philosophers, Galileo, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein among the scientists and Isaiah, the Buddha and LaoTse among the prophets and mystics.
. Kabbalists speak of a passageway, a channel, that connects the mind to the heart. This channel enables the heart to feel what the mind is thinking. Through this passageway our thoughts travel on the way to becoming emotions. Thus a cold, distant, objective observation becomes a warm feeling on passing through the connecting bridge. As Dov Ber Pinson, in his book Meditation and Judaism, points out, the structure of the human body resembles in some ways the spiritual form of the soul. Spiritually, the neck represents the passageway through which our thoughts are channeled into emotions. But sometimes the grossness of our thoughts, our false values, our smugness and arrogance clog the passageway. On a physical level, when food gets stuck in the esophagus and we begin to choke, it takes the pressure and shock of the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the morsel of food. In the realm of the spirit, a personal crisis, marital, familial, financial, health or simply the search for meaning in life is the spiritual Heimlich maneuver. It jolts our misguided thoughts out of us and opens up the passageway from head to heart.
A young woman I know, at my suggestion, enrolled in a mind-body course organized by a leading expert in mind-body medicine. The people in the course suffered from a wide spectrum of ailments, physical, psychological and spiritual. Some were in pain. Some were depressed and anxious. Others suffered from hypertension, and still others could not sleep at night. There were people who had destructive marriages and family entanglements.