The following reflections originated when a member of my congregation suggested that I include a Swedenborg Thought in our weekly email news letter. After a month or so, these "Swedenborg Thoughts of the Week" settled down on the theme of Emanuel Swedenborg's account of the stages of spiritual growth as he found them in the inner sense of Genesis, Chapter One. Realizing that these "thoughts" were becoming a body of writing, I started to gather them together into a continuous document, editing them for greater clarity and interconnectedness. The result is very much a work in progress. Comments, suggestions, examples, counter-examples, corrections, refutations, etc., etc. are always welcome. Write me at RevJonathan4144@gmail.com.
I offer a few words on what it means to me to be offering the following as "Swedenborg Thoughts":
As a Swedenborgian, I follow a path that is at once Christ-centered and open to learning from all the great religious and spiritual traditions. Jesus was not a Christian and never asked anyone to become one. I know that is a controversial statement. But there you have it. For me being a Christian means following the path that Christ taught to the best of my understanding and ability. To follow Christ is to follow the Way, the Truth and the Life. This does not preclude exploring other paths or learning from other teachers. On the contrary, I am a better follower of the Christ for seeking the Way, the Truth and Life wherever it is to be found.
As a Swedenborgian, I recognize no separations between believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned, the enlightened and the unenlightened, those who will be taken up in the rapture and those who will be left behind. When I look around me I see men and women who, like me, are lost and trying to find their way home the best way they know how. Everyone I meet on the journey home is a fellow wayfarer and has something to teach me.
It is said that you always preach the sermon you need to hear. These reflections are written in that spirit. They are first of all an attempt on my part to understand my own spiritual journey in the light of Swedenborg's teaching on the process of regeneration. Quirky and eccentric though I may be, these reflections are offered on the assumption that nothing I experience is unprecedented. If anything here offers you peace, joy, comfort, clarity or renewed purpose, my prayers shall have been answered.
In recent years I have arrived at the point where, for me, there is one and only one spiritually important question: How can I bring more compassion into the world? From that point of view, it is a waste of my time to ask which of the religious and spiritual traditions comes closest to the Truth. It is even a distraction to ask whether or not all paths reach the same destination. (I am just a beginner on really just two of these paths and I have no way of knowing from my own experience where either of them ultimately leads.) The Christian mystical tradition has tools for bringing compassion into the world. Buddhism has tools for bringing compassion into the world. Islam, Judaism, Yoga, Vedanta, Secular Humanism and Native Traditions from around the planet have tools for bringing compassion into the world. (And that is not intended as the complete list.) Let us, therefore, learn and apply the tools without worrying overmuch where they originated.
We are blessed to live at a time when all the great traditions are available to us. And I, for one, plan to take full advantage of that. That said, none of has had the time to explore them all equally. I personally have Roman Catholic roots, and a nearly life-long fascination with Buddhism. I have been a member of the Swedenborgian Church for nearly thirty years, and an ordained Swedenborgian minister for the last eighteen. Swedenborgian Christianity, and in particular Emanuel Swedenborg's teaching on spiritual growth, is the thread that ties these reflections together, even as I welcome and borrow insights wherever I can find them.
Introduction: Regeneration as Life-long Spiritual Growth
In the words of e.e. cummings:
We are never born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves.
e.e.cummings captures here a central Swedenborgian tenet: that as human beings we are engaged in a process of life-long spiritual growth, a process Swedenborg termed "regeneration." And since life does not end with the death of the body, and since growth need not come to a final form, regeneration is a process of growth to eternity.
It has often seemed to me that we could come to God out sheer joy and gratitude. Meister Eckhart famously said If the only prayer you said was Thank you, that would be enough. Still, it is more typically suffering and loss which sets us off on a conscious spiritual journey. As the contemporary Buddhist teacher, Pema Chōdrōn, puts it, it is "when things fall apart" that we are open to a process of personal reformation.
It can be an intensely shattering experience which sets us on our way. But it need not be. It can also be a growing sense of restlessness, a sense that there has to be something more. It can come as call to be more faithful to ourselves, to be live more richly and fully the lives we were meant to live.
When things fall apart, when we are shattered, when the lives we had been living no longer work for us, we seek not only to grow but to change. As a tree that sheds branches as it grows, we let go of parts of ourselves even as we grow new ones. Or to use a more radical metaphor: we are the caterpillar that holds within the potential to enter the chrysalis and emerge as a butterfly. Our birth then becomes a re-birth, a re-generation. Something new seeks to emerge from within the old.
If, as Swedenborg teaches, it is our destiny to become angels, clear channels for Love and Wisdom to flow into world, we first must be willing to be the caterpillar that enters the chrysalis and gives up its life as a caterpillar, so that the butterfly may be born.
As Swedenborg writes:
Before anything is reduced into a state of order, it is most usual that things should be reduced into a confused mass, or chaos as it were, so that those which do not well cohere together may be separated, and when they are separated, then the Lord disposes them into order. [Secrets of Heaven, n. 842.]
The moments of chaos in our lives, the moments of doubt and confusion, the moments of discontent are therefore sacred moments. This is the place where Swedenborg's account of regeneration begins.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. [Genesis 1:1-2]
By the "Spirit of God" is meant the Lord's mercy, which is said to "move" or "brood" as a hen broods over her eggs. The things over which it moves are such as the Lord has hidden and treasured up in a person which in the Word throughout are called remains or a remnant, consisting of the knowledges of the true and of the good, which never come into light of day, until external things are vastated [emptied out]. These knowledges are here called "the faces of the waters." [Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #19]
For Swedenborg, the story of the six-day creation found Genesis, Chapter 1, is a symbolic representation of the six stages of our spiritual growth, a process he calls "regeneration."
Before the process starts we are in a place of darkness and confusion. Much as we might long to move on in our growth and advance quickly toward spiritual fulfillment, the image of the Spirit moving on the waters—as a hen broods over her eggs, according to Swedenborg's reading—is a reminder to be patient and self-compassionate about where we are right now. It is a sacred act to recognize and acknowledge what is not working in our lives. It is a sacred moment when we allow everything confusing in our current experience to be confusing, and everything troubling to be troubling. For in that moment God's "mercy" is already at work in us, and the light will dawn if we wait for it.
Please trust that God is at work even in the most troubling aspects of your life right now.
And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. [Genesis 1:3]
The first state is when a person begins to know that the good and the true are something higher. People who are altogether external do not even know what good and truth are; for they fancy all things to be good that belong to the love of self and the love of the world; and all things to be true that favor these loves; not being aware that such goods are evils, and such truths falsehoods. But when a person is conceived anew, he then begins for the first time to know that his goods are not goods, and also, as he comes more into the light, that the Lord exists, and that He is good and truth itself. [From Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #20]
As we noted last week, it is a sacred moment when I acknowledge that my way of living my life is not working. If anxiety, frustration, anger, self-doubt—and I could extend this list almost indefinitely—are dogging my every step, something has obviously gone wrong, something beyond my control.
At any given moment my approach to life is grounded upon a number of unspoken beliefs, beliefs that are often partly conscious, partly unconscious. For instance, recently I have had to acknowledge the degree to which I expect to be let down by others, and the degree to which I believe that to be safe I should always keep my true thoughts and feelings to myself. But such a belief system inevitably leads to anxiety, anger, loneliness etc., etc. To use Swedenborg's language, my "goods" are actually evils, my "truths" are actually falsehoods.
That would be a miserable place to get stuck in—a "hell" by Swedenborg's definition of the word. But the good news is that the light can dawn. From within my self-created hell, I can realize that there is better way: I can trust in the Lord's leading. I can risk being more transparent, knowing that the Lord is at my side. In Swedenborg's words, I can "begin to realize that the good and the true are something higher."
Ask: What unspoken beliefs on my part are failing to serve me, God and my neighbor? Is there a higher way?
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. [Genesis 1:7 KJV]
After the spirit of God, or the Lord's mercy, has brought forth into day an understanding of truth and goodness, and has given the first light—namely, that the Lord is, that He is good itself, and truth itself, and that there is no good and truth but from Him—He then makes a distinction between the inner person and the outer, consequently between the understanding that belongs to the inner person, and the knowledge that belongs to the outer person. . . .
A person, before being regenerated, does not even know that the inner person exists, much less is he acquainted with its nature and quality. . . . The next thing that a person observes in the course of regeneration is that he begins to know that there is an inner person, and that the things which are in the inner person are goods and truths, which are of the Lord alone. [From Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #24]
If the first step in regeneration is acknowledging that our lives are not working and that there has to be a better way, the second step is distinguishing between the material and the spiritual aspects of our lives—in Swedenborg's terms, between the outer and the inner person.
The outer person is the one that knows how the world works and helps us to survive in it. Science and technology are the province of the outer person, and have brought us great benefits in the last several centuries. Yet as the information age is making abundantly clear, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. The greater our knowledge of how to do things, the greater our need for the wisdom to choose what to do. It is all too easy to be materially secure and profoundly unhappy.
Research surveys have highlighted the things that bring people the greatest life-satisfaction: in particular, learning new skills, creative self-expression and helping others. All these flow from the wisdom of the inner person, a wisdom received not from the senses but from the Lord alone. Material resources and technological know-how are merely means to an end.
In the week to come, notice the moments of greatest satisfaction. Can you distinguish between inner and outer conditions that gave rise to them? How well are your inner and outer persons in harmony?
The next thing that a person observes in the course of regeneration is that he begins to know that there is an inner person, and that the things which are in the inner person are goods and truths, which are of the Lord alone. [From Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #24]
This week I continue to reflect on Swedenborg's teaching on the inner person.
Swedenborg vehemently disagreed with the traditional doctrine that God created the world out of nothing. Instead, he insisted, God creates from God. This might seem like an abstract philosophical point, but for Swedenborg it is an affirmation of our continuity with the Divine. Ultimately there is only One Life, only One Human Being. I am alive and human only to the degree that the Divine Life flows through me. My life is part of God's life, my experience part of God's experience. I am never truly alone.
The 14th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: God is at home, it is we who have gone for a walk.
There is a part of me, an inner person, that never "fell." There is inside of me a place that always was, is now, and always will be in communion with God. However far I may have wandered away—and how can I deny that I have?—I always have an open invitation to return.
When people come to me with pastoral questions, I always assume that they already have their answers within. It is just a matter of helping them hear their own hearts. It is a matter of awakening the inner person who already knows what God wants for them.
When moments of pain and confusion come your way, please remember to pause, to sink into the perspective of your inner person and receive God's peace and guidance.
Anyone can see perfectly well that no hint of life ever exists without some kind of love and that no trace of joy ever exists unless it results from love. The nature of the love determines the nature of the life and of the joy. [From Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #33]
For Easter week, I invite us all to reflect on the three words Swedenborg highlights here: Love, Life and Joy.
Satisfaction in life, I have found, depends upon my developing a rich intuitive sense of when I am fully alive and when I am experiencing a counterfeit. It depends on my knowing instinctively when I am experiencing true joy and when I am caught up in a substitute.
To be alive is to be energized. But there are different kinds of energy. If I am rushing through the day, desperate to catch up, and fearful of letting myself and others down, if people and events are constantly getting in my way and I can barely contain my impatience, that might seem like being energized and alive, but in fact it is a counterfeit. I am truly alive when I am engaged in creative activity, when my day unfolds moment-by-moment and elicits my joy and gratitude, when those who show up in my day are gifts to me, and we share together the experience of being human, with all that implies.
Similarly, if I sit down with friends to a well-prepared meal, savoring the skill that went into its preparation, and enjoying the conversation, the pleasure is suffused with a genuine joy. Conversely, if I burst into my apartment at the end of stressful day and down a handful of salty potato chips, and then a soda, and then more chips, and then another soda, there is no joy in that pleasure—if indeed, that is a pleasure at all.
I find I have an intuitive sense of what is genuine and what is a counterfeit, whenever I pause and humbly ask for the Lord's guidance. In Swedenborgian language, the Divine Love and Wisdom are available to me whenever I turn to the Risen Lord.
On this Easter, may you be like the flower that grows and buds and blossoms, without stress or rushing, according to its God-given nature. May all your days be days of Love, Life and Joy!
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so [Genesis 1:9]
When it is known that there is both an internal and an external person, and that truths and goods flow in from, or through, the internal person to the external, from the Lord, although it does not so appear, then those truths and goods, or the knowledges of the true and the good in the regenerating person, are stored up in his memory, and are classed among its factual knowledge [scientifica]; for whatsoever is insinuated into the memory of the external person, whether it be natural, or spiritual, or celestial, abides there as factual knowledge [scientificum], and is brought forth thence by the Lord. These knowledges are the "waters gathered together into one place" and are called "seas" but the external person himself is called the "dry [land]" and presently "earth" as in what follows.[Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #27]
In recent weeks I have been following Swedenborg's interpretation of the six days of creation as an outline of the stages of spiritual regeneration. In the first three days, Genesis records three major separations: between light and dark (day and night), between the waters above and the waters below, and between the seas and the dry land. In Swedenborg's reading the three separations correspond respectively to the distinctions between spiritual truth and spiritual falsehood, the distinction between the inner person and the outer person, and the distinction between factual knowledge and spiritual intuition.
Swedenborg distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge, which he calls (in Latin) scientifica and cognitiones. Scientifica are related to our word 'scientific,' and refer to factual knowledge—the kind of information that can be stored up in memory. Cognitiones are related to our word 'cognition' and are harder to define. I take it to mean the conceptual structure—largely unspoken—which shapes my responses to my ongoing experience and guides my choices.
It is particularly important to apply this distinction to spiritual teachings. As Swedenborg notes, spiritual teachings can be treated as facts and stored up in memory. And this is an important first step. But a spiritual teaching doesn't live in me until I start to live it. I may know that Jesus taught me to love my neighbor as myself. It is fact that he taught that. I may intellectually accept love of neighbor as a principle to be followed. But do I respond to everyone I meet with love? Do I know how to do that? Do I even know what it means in any given concrete situation to treat a person as a neighbor and love him as myself? The challenge is to live love of neighbor, not just to grasp the concept but to live it out.
I continue to be fascinated by the world's great religious and spiritual traditions, but I am less and less content with an academic knowledge of their histories, their teachings, and their practices. More and more, I want to try out for myself how the teachings and practices reshape my moment-by-moment experience, and how they help me bring more compassion into this world. In the week to come, I invite us to be on the look-out for ways to more fully live the spiritual principles that we have learned and accepted. Together we can make this a more compassionate world.
Last week I fell in love with a quote from the thirteenth century Japanese Zen master Dogen.
It is like a candle with its illuminating flame. When the candle is lit, there is a flame. As the candle burns there is still the same flame. So there's no difference between the beginning time and the later time of the candle burning. The candle burns straight down, and it never burns backwards. The flame is neither new or old. Neither is it the possession of the candle nor does it exist apart from the candle. [Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Eihei Dogen,, p. 79.]
[Dogen attributes this teaching to one of his teachers, the Chinese Zen Master Rujing]
For me, this image of candle and flame addresses parallel questions in Christianity and Buddhism.
Are we saved by works or by faith? (a Christian question) Do we attain enlightenment by self-power or through other-power? (A Buddhist question) As the fully programmed Swedenborgian I am, I can only answer, "It's not either/or, it's both/and."
I fully acknowledge my powerlessness over my fear, greed and delusion. I am not capable of healing through my own power. But it is equally clear to me that I can't just drift along until the Lord heals me. There must be some way to seek, to accept healing.
Rujing's candle illuminates just this point. Swedenborg always insists that I can never regenerate myself—only the Lord can do that. The process that spiritually transforms me can only be ignited by the Lord. But that process cannot take place without my cooperation—just as there is no flame without the candle. I don't cause my regeneration, and I don't own it. I still have to allow myself to be lit.
The flame is neither new or old, no more than the heat and light of the Divine Love and Wisdom is new or old. As the candle burns down, I am burning off my evil karma from the past (Buddhist language); that is, I am shedding my hereditary evil. (Swedenborgianese).
The candle always burns down, never up. I always get older, never younger. Or do I? My body may age, but consciousness is ageless. Am I consciousness or body? Both/and? Just as the flame can grow brighter as it burns the candle, I can become more fully alive over time. And note: that life is not mine, but a divinely ignited flame within me.
For all of us this week, a prayer that we trust the regenerative process. May your flame burn bright!
And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. [Genesis 1:11-12, KJV]
When the "earth" or a person, has been prepared to receive celestial seeds from the Lord, and to produce something good and true, then the Lord first causes some tender thing to spring forth, which is called the "tender herb;" then something more useful, which again bears seed in itself, and is called the "herb yielding seed;" and at length something good which becomes fruitful, and is called the "tree bearing fruit, whose seed is in itself" each according to its own kind.
A person who is being regenerated at first supposes that the good which he does, and the truth which he speaks, are from himself, when in reality all good and all truth are from the Lord. So whosoever supposes them to be from himself doesn't yet have the life of true faith.He cannot as yet believe that they are from the Lord, while he is only in a state of preparation for the reception of the life of faith. [From Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #29]
As always in Swedenborgian Bible interpretation, we enter into the inner meaning through a reflection on the imagery. For Swedenborg, the progression in the creation of life-forms symbolizes the progressive stages of our becoming more and more fully alive. Three things unfold together in this process: my willingness to be led by the Lord (”faith”), my ability to create something which will take on a life of its own, and my experience of being fully alive. We are all creators, endowed with the ability to produce something that lives beyond ourselves, something of benefit to others. Creative expression takes many forms and it may be either a solitary pursuit, or a contribution to a team effort.
As “creative artists” in a broad sense, we first develop our skills, “putting forth tender herb.” Then we produce that which takes on a life of its own and continues on without us, “herb yielding seed after its own kind.” And finally we produce something which can be plucked up by others and planted elsewhere, “the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself,”
Though Swedenborg doesn't use this word here, this can be taken as a reflection on the joy of leaving a legacy. It takes faith to let go of something I have created and to trust that the Lord will watch over its continued unfolding. It takes faith to trust that others will pick my creation up and carry it forward. Yet nothing is more deeply satisfying.
Ask: What is my legacy? What is the Lord calling me to create?
What is truly my own? I believe this is always a vital question to ask on the spiritual journey.
We live in a culture and civilization that places a heavy emphasis on personal property. But are any of my possessions inherently my own? After all, any of them can be taken from me. My consciously animated body seems to be my own. It belongs to me in a way that it cannot belong to anyone else. The same can be said for my own conscious mind. But much as I dread to contemplate the thought, all of that too can be taken from me, whether by illness or misfortune. What, if anything, inherently belongs to me?
Swedenborg uses the Latin word "proprium" to stand for that which is my own, or at least appears to be my own. In a note to an early translation of Swedenborg by Rev. John Faulkner Potts, we read:
The Latin word proprium is the term used in the original text that in this and other places has been rendered by the expression "Own." The dictionary meaning of propius, as an adjective, is "one's own" "proper" "belonging to one's self alone" "special" "particular" "peculiar." The neuter of this which is the word proprium, when used as a noun means "possession" "property;" also "a peculiarity" "characteristic mark" "distinguishing sign" "characteristic." The English adjective "own" is defined by Webster to mean "belonging to" "belonging exclusively or especially to" "peculiar;" so that our word "own" is a very exact equivalent of proprius, and if we make it a noun by writing it "Own" in order to answer to the Latin proprium, we effect a very close translation.
What is most truly my own, if not forever, then at least at this present moment? I would say it is my incarnate consciousness, my embodied perspective on the surrounding world together with my ability to act in the here and now. This is mine, however fleetingly, and cannot belong to another (finite) human being in the way that it belongs to me.
But is even that a personal possession? I can remember the past. I can build on the past, I can heal the past, but only insofar as this present moment is a product of the past. In this present moment, I may have ambitions for the future, but I can only act in the here and now. Past and future are not truly my own, except as they are present. I have little control over what enters this present moment, I respond to it, and it enters the past. If this present moment is a "possession," if it is "mine," it is not a possession I can hold onto, except in the guise of a memory. It forever slips away.
As a Christian mystic, Swedenborg encourages me to turn my "Own" over to the Lord. And from one point of view the regenerative process consists of handing my life over to the Lord's keeping. But more profoundly, it consists in acknowledging that my life has always belonged to the Lord all along and always will.
And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. [Genesis 1:14-16 KJV]
The progression of faith with those who are being created anew is as follows. At first they have no life, for it is only in the good and the true that there is life, and none in the evil and the false; afterwards they receive life from the Lord by faith, first by faith of the memory, which is a faith of mere knowledge [fides scientifica]; next by faith in the understanding, which is an intellectual faith; lastly by faith in the heart, which is the faith of love, or saving faith. The first two kinds of faith are represented from verse 3 to verse 13, by things inanimate, but faith vivified by love is represented from verse 20 to verse 25, by animate things. For this reason love, and faith thence derived, are now here first treated of, and are called "luminaries;" love being "the greater luminary which rules by day;" faith derived from love "the lesser luminary which rules by night;" and as these two luminaries ought to make a one, it is said of them, in the singular number, "Let there be luminaries" [sit luminaria], and not in the plural [sint luminaria].
The sun, the moon, and the stars!
In our industrial civilization with its built indoor environment and artificial lights, it is easy to lose track of the cyclical drama of the sky. In many urban settings, the stars have all but disappeared due to chemical smog and light pollution. But go to the desert on a moonless night and there they are in all their ancient glory. This was a vivid reality for our ancestors. The risings and settings of the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars, together with their relative motions measured the days, the months, the seasons, the years. It is natural that they have spiritual meanings as well.
It is noteworthy, that the sun, the moon and the stars appear as distinct though related realities at this moment of the spiritual journey. They appear just as we are becoming able to freely plot our own spiritual destinies. The Sun for Swedenborg represents Love, the Moon faith, and the stars guiding principles. Just as the moon generates no light of its own but rather reflects the Sun, so too does faith derive its light from love.
When the moon is out during the day we hardly need its light to guide us. But when the moon is full and the sun is down its light is often enough to help us find our way. When love is pure and strong, it is safe to follow our intuitions. When love dims (or seems to do so), our faith can guide us. We can do the right thing based on our understanding of the teachings we have received. When neither sun nor moon is our, we have the stars, our most basic moral principles to set our course.
Day and night, full moon and new moon, the seasonal constellations still mark the rhythms of the natural world. And as spiritual beings we experience the waxing and waning, the setting and reawakening of love and faith. Perhaps we would rather not have our winters of the spirit or our dark nights of the soul. And yet they are inherent to the human experience.
And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. [Genesis 1:16-18]
Love and faith in the inner person are like heat and light in the physical person. Thus love and faith are represented by heat and light respectively. It is on this account that luminaries are said to be "set in the expanse of heaven" or in the inner person; a great luminary in its will, and a lesser one in its understanding. But they appear in the will and the understanding only as does the light of the sun appears to be in its recipient objects. It is the Lord's mercy alone that affects the will with love, and the understanding with truth or faith. [Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #30]
The motions of the celestial bodies offer a good example of what Swedenborg means by an "appearance of truth." The sun rises in the East, moves across the Southern sky and sets in the West. The moon waxes and wanes over the course of the month. When it is full it rises as the Sun is setting and sets as the Sun is rising. When the moon is a thin sliver its risings and setting are close to the risings and setting of the sun and the most of the night is moonless. The stars revolve around the North Star. Some constellations are visible at night all year round, others rise and set according to the season.
Well, science tells us that actually no. The earth is spinning on its axis as it orbits the sun. The moon is rotating on its axis as it orbits the Earth, one rotation per orbit so that one side is forever visible to us on Earth, the other side always hidden. The Sun is one star among many and orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Is it then false to say that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West? Is it only an illusion?
That the sun rises in the East is certainly a correct description of what I see. And in certain situations information about where and when the sun will rise is more to the point than knowledge of planetary rotations and orbits. Swedenborg would say that the Sun's rising in the East and setting in the West is an "appearance of truth." That is what we see from our finite Earth-bound perspective . Indeed, something would be wrong if we didn't see the sun rise and set. An appearance of truth is not entirely false, but it is not the complete picture. It is not the whole truth.
Many spiritual writers talk about the self as an "illusion." I have come to prefer Swedenborg's concept of "appearance of truth." My "self" is not an ultimate, absolute, self-existent reality. But neither is it an utter non-reality. There is a middle ground between Absolute Truth and Utter Falsehood, between Absolute Reality and Utter Non-existence. It is supposed to seem to me that I have a self. It is supposed to seem to me that I can grasp the truth and choose to do good. (Just as the Sun is supposed to be seen to rise in the East.) Nevertheless, I can acknowledge that any dawning of the truth and any performance of good deeds comes not from me, but from the Lord. Who knows? Some day the truth of the Lord's leading might be more powerfully visible to me and I'll see less of my "self" in any of "my" actions.
In the meanwhile, I invite us all to wear our "selves" lightly. Enjoy the show!
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. [Genesis 1:20 KJV]
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live. [Deuteronomy 30:19, KJV]
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways. [The Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, opening sentence.]
Whatever the problem facing me, I usually assume that I will be able to figure it out and do the right thing. Sometimes I am quite confident that I am right and I act unhesitatingly. On other occasions I vacillate endlessly in self-doubt and fail to act at all. Either way, the underlying assumption is the same: it is all up to me to figure it out. In Swedenborg's language, I take it for granted that I can understand the truth and will the good.
As noted in the previous reflection, Swedenborg understands this to be an "appearance of truth;" in fact, only the Lord understands the truth and wills the good. I am a rivulet of the One Life; any genuine good deed I perform is accomplished not by me but through me.
Swedenborg, in his commentary on Genesis 1:20, takes the opportunity to probe into our apparent autonomy, since this is the point at which life forms capable of moving under their own power are created. For him there is a crucial distinction to be drawn between acting "a Domino," that is, "from the Lord," acting "ex se," that is, out of oneself.
This is also a crucial distinction in Twelve-step Recovery traditions. There we are invited to turn our lives and wills over to the care of a power greater than ourselves. This is contrasted to conducting our lives out of self-will. The latter course leads to disaster. It is the experience of these traditions that we can turn to God in prayer and meditation for guidance in how to handle each specific circumstance and that if we are sincere in our asking the answer will come.
At any moment there are two paths I can follow: I can seek the Lord's guidance—or I can try to figure it out all by myself and do it my way. Swedenborg, following Deuteronomy 30 and the Didache, uses vivid language. The first path is Life, the other Death.
In what has become a well-loved classic of Swedenborgian thought, WIlson Van Dusen writes:
Two men own and operate a clothing store. Outwardly they do the same thing, sell mens's clothes. Look closer. One quickly sizes up the customers wants. Let's see — perhaps this is what he wants? Everyone is different and he enjoys finding and serving these differences. He is pleased to see the clothes he sold appearing here and there around town. The other clothing salesman pushes this or that, touts it as a bargain. The profit-making sale is his end, not the customer's needs. He serves only himself. The first salesman serves himself and the other person. It is mutual benefit. [from Wilson Van Dusen, Uses.]
It strikes me that the crucial word here is "and."
This passage suggests that there is a middle ground between self-sacrificing and self-serving actions. When I serve others' needs at the expense of my own, undermining my health, depleting my energies, stunting my personal growth, I am less able to serve God and neighbor.
Conversely, when I serve myself at the expense of others' legitimate needs, I undermine the network of mutually caring relationships I need to thrive, emotionally and spiritually. I deprive myself of the deeper satisfactions in life.
We can elaborate the needed synergy of care of self with serving others by referring to Swedenborg's teaching on the four principle loves. Here I give my synopsis followed by Swedenborg's terminology.
I seek access to the natural resources I need to be healthy and secure: love of world.
I seek the support, the affection, and the respect of others: love of self.
I seek fullness of life for those around me: love of neighbor.
I seek to be led by the Spirit; to be taken where the Lord wants me to go: love of God.
These loves have their proper order: I seek the physical resources I need in order to be in relation with others. I seek the support, affection and respect of others in order to work for the common good. I seek the well-being of others in order to bring God's love and wisdom into the world.
To be sure these loves can go astray. If striving for material resources becomes an end in itself, love of world can give rise to greed. When the high-regard of others becomes an end in itself, love of self can give rise to self-glorification. But all four principle loves are good, when properly ordered and set in their proper context.
Again, the key word is "and." I take of myself and promote the well-being of others.
May you and I find deep satisfaction as we support each other on the journey into Heaven!
Why was no one there when I came? Why did no one answer when I called?... By my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert; their fish stink for lack of water, and die of thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness, and make sackcloth their covering.[Isaiah 50:2-3]
The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.[Isaiah 43:20-21]
In the three years I've lived in my San Diego neighborhood, I've watched as grass lawns have been replaced, slowly but surely, one dwelling at a time, by a variety of water-efficient gardens. More broadly it seems as though building construction in California is inevitably having to take into greater account the realities of terrain, climate and ecology. Through earthquake, fire, and drought it is as though the natural world were demanding that we acknowledge where we live and enter into right relation with our natural surroundings. This land is not an empty canvas on which we can draw anything we wish. It has a personality and style of its own. We ignore that at our peril. But when we seek to know the land intimately we gain a greater sense of place.
While our 21st century environmental concerns were not on Swedenborg's 18th century horizon—the height of European colonialism, after all—as contemporary Swedenborgians we can find a mandate in our tradition for entering into right relation with the land.
In the first chapter of Secrets of Heaven Swedenborg pulls out from the Prophets a number of quotes which speak to natural balance and imbalance. In reading them it strikes me that even though the prophets wrote more than two-and-a-half millenia ago, pollution, deforestation and desertification were already ancient realities for them. But so too was the possibility of bringing human settlement and wilderness into balance.
While Swedenborg in Secrets of Heaven focuses on the spiritual correspondences of the natural kingdom, we can read the correspondences in the other direction as well. A healthy spirituality seeks healthy relationship to the natural world. All of the created realm flows from the Divine Love and Wisdom. Mountains, plains, rivers, and oceans; fish, birds, reptiles and mammals are not merely symbols of Divine Realities; they embody the Divine Life.
The regenerative process requires that we put our external lives into order. That is a fundamental point in Swedenborg's teachings. In the contemporary world that includes, I believe, coming into just and loving relation with the particular lands we inhabit, and more broadly with the rich and live-giving planet we are blessed to be a part of. We are not visitors, we evolved here. Our spiritual values arose in and for this world.
The sun and moon in the heavens (that is, the Lord) is never darkened, nor does it lose its light, but it shines perpetually. So neither is love to the Lord darkened for the celestial angels, nor does charity toward the neighbor lose its light for the spiritual angels who are in the heavens. Nor on earth for those with whom these angels are, that is, those who are in love and charity. [Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven, #4060.3]
As the planet carries us to the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the word that comes to mind is bask.
The sun shines in interstellar space with remarkable constancy. But those who walk on the surface of this planet experience night and day, seasons and weather.
Similarly, the Divine Love and Wisdom, the heat and light of the spiritual sun, flow with perfect constancy into the moment-by-moment unfolding of the universe, and into the moment-by-moment unfolding of our conscious lives. Yet those who walk around in finite selves experience night and day, seasons and weather. I can be full of sunshine or under a cloud of gloom. In my creative life, I can experience moist fertility or searing drought. Towards others I can experience winter chill or summer warmth. For cyclical beings such as ourselves summer solstice is a moment of peak access to the warmth and the light.
All the more reason to remember to bask in the influx of Divine Love and Wisdom. In every conscious moment, I have an opportunity to be grateful for everything given to me, and to have compassion on every thing that hurts. Sometimes the best way to be with those around us is to be with them. Not with the past, not with preoccupations, not with the to-do list, but with them.
Here's to a solstice of the soul! Let us bask in the sun, earthly and heavenly. Let us bask in each other.
And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, after our likeness. ..."[Genesis 1:26]
To members of the earliest church, whom the Lord addressed face to face, he appeared as a human being. . . . As a consequence, they used the term human for none but him, or for his qualities. They did not even call themselves human, excepting whatever they could tell he gave them, such as all the good embraced by love and all the truth espoused by faith. These traits they described as human, because they were the Lord’s.
[Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #49. New Century Edition]
Our use of the phrase "only human" has long seemed ironic to me. To be sure, to say that I or you or someone else is "only human" is an invitation to compassion and forgiveness, on ourselves and on others. And that acknowledgment of our common frailty can lead to healing.
Yet I am also mindful that in the Buddhist tradition, a human birth is the greatest of blessings. As a human I have the opportunity to wake up spiritually. There is nothing "only" about being human!
For Swedenborg, too, "human" is the name of our highest potential: to bring insight and compassion into the world. Conversely, we use "inhuman" as the name for our worst potential: to cause needless harm to each other. The spiritual journey requires a ongoing turning from the inhuman to the human.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
As long as we are spiritual, we rule the outer self first and from this the inner. . . When we become heavenly, though, and do good because we love to, we rule the inner self first and from it the outer.
All the life forms created before humans are, for Swedenborg, representations of our intellectual and emotional capacities. The task of the "human" is the task of integrating heart and mind. To "have dominion" is best understood as good governance of the inner realm -- in contemporary language, emotional intelligence.
Science has shown that a person is virtually crippled when the emotional centers of the brain are destroyed. We are unable to make decisions without emotionally based preferences to guide us.
Conversely,Cognitive Science has also shown us that we rarely react directly and immediately to events around us. Instead we describe the situation to ourselves and react emotionally to the description. Change the description, change the reaction.
In sum, emotion shapes thought, thought shapes emotion. Neither raw feeling nor arid thought alone leads us anywhere good.
What is called for is a wise and loving heart. It starts with a kind and gentle exploration of our own depths of feeling, and where needed, a healing compassion in ourselves.
Wishing you this week a deeper, healed and healing experience of your one precious life. May we enter our full humanity.
And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. [Genesis 2:2, King James Version]
A further reason a heavenly person is identified as Sabbath rest is the
fact that struggle ends when a person becomes heavenly. . . . Spiritual people are called God’s work after they have developed a heavenly nature, because the Lord has fought for them all on his own. He is the one who has made, formed, and created them. That is why this verse says that God completed his work on the seventh day and, twice, that he rested from all his work. [Secrets of Heaven nn. 87-88, New Century Edition]
I have often thought that if even God takes a day off, maybe we should give ourselves one too.
Swedenborg's teaching here reminds me of Meister Eckhart's statement that "In all things God seeks repose."
What is this Divine Repose? I think of it this way: Often in my life when I've gotten a strong intuitive sense of where the Lord wants me to go, I respond with resistance, foot-dragging or even outright rebellion. The Lord really has to struggle with me at times. Eventually I throw in the towel and say "OK, Lord. You win!" God gets a break from laboring in me. And in that divine repose, I too find rest for my soul. Surrender can be so sweet.
Such a dramatization of my relation with the Lord is no doubt an "appearance of truth" but a lively one. True rest is not stasis but effortlessness, God's Sabbath the effortless unfolding of my walk with the Lord.
In the passage cited above Swedenborg's emphasis is on the Lord's labor in protecting me from the Hells. But it is also implicit in this passage that my vulnerability to the Hells in the first place stems from my not having completely surrendered yet to the Divine Will. Either way, God's labor in and for me ceases once I have completely surrendered my will to the Divine Will.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:. [Matthew 6:19-20]
Confidence in our innate potential to be loving human beings empowers the cultivation of metta [lovingkindness]. Our potential to love is very real and is somehow not destroyed, no matter what we experience: all of the mistakes that we might make, all of the times that we are caught in reaction, all of the times we have caused pain, all of the times we have suffered. Throughout everything, our potential to love remains intact and pure. [Sharon Salzbert, Lovingkindness, p. 22.]
Recently I have been studying Sharon Salzberg's Lovingkindness, a book written from within the Buddhist tradition. In this book, Salzberg outlines the practice of metta or loving kindness. The book has given me a lot to think about in terms of Swedenborg's distinction between the inner and the outer person. "Our potential to love" seems as a good a summary of any I can think of for what Swedenborg's teaching on the "inner person" comes to in the end.
I have come to believe that the relevant distinction between "outer" and "inner" is not primarily about the physical vs. the spiritual, or mind vs. matter, or even selfcenteredness vs. selflessness. Rather, the crucial distinction is between that which can be destroyed and that which cannot. This is echoed in the saying of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount quoted above. Or perhaps more profoundly it is a distinction between our indestructible inner potential and its partial, impermanent, outer manifestations.
In the world of Samsara, everything that arises later dissolves. But the Dharma, the Law of our spiritual enfolding, neither arises nor passes away. Our potential for lovingkindness cannot be taken from us, therefore when we remain grounded in that potential there is no need to be anxious.
Much of the work of the book is to distinguish metta, lovingkindness, from lookalikes and to draw out the distinctions between love, desire and craving. All of that is worth careful reflection. But for this brief entry I will suggest a simple spiritual practice which has been improving my experience of life. Whenever you feel disappointed or let down -- and especially if you feel disappointed and let down by yourself -- say to yourself in the spirit of a gentle reminder: "My potential to love remains intact and pure."
And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone. [Genesis 2:18]
The ancients described people who were led by the Lord (the way people of heavenly character are) as living alone because evil or rather evil spirits no longer bothered them. . . .
The generation that inherited the earliest church did not wish to live alone or, what is the same, to be heavenly or, again, to be led by the Lord as a heavenly individual. . . . Since this was what they wanted, the verse says that it was not good for the human to be alone. [Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven, nn. 138-139.]
Swedenborg's commentary here has got to be one of the most startling instances of interpreting by way of appearances. That it is not good for Humankind to be alone means that it is good for humankind to be alone. Can a statement really mean its opposite? And did we not evolve as a social primates?
But of course Swedenborg is giving solitude a mystical meaning here. To be alone is to be solely in the Lord's company and to be led by him alone. It is because people came to want autonomous selves that they put the contrary statement (that it is not good for humankind to be alone) into scripture.
I have long had the habit of thinking aloud and talking to myself -- sometimes to my embarrassment when I realize someone was in earshot.
I bring this up because it raises the question of how it is even possible to talk to oneself. There are apparently at least two of me, a speaker and a listener. And often I experience myself as a contentious committee that can't come to a decision about anything.
Once I have developed a self-conscious proprium (ego, self), I am never alone. I am always in my own company.
Is such self-company a good thing or a bad thing? Would it be better to be alone? Or is the appropriate question more subtle than that? This much I will say: Peak moments often bring with them a delicious sense of self-forgetting, as if I were walking alone with the Alone.
Could it be that the autonomous self-accompanying self is a necessary but temporary evolutionary stage? One that eventually opens out into a transparent self in which only the Lord's working can be seen?
And as a concluding paradox, is not such "aloneness" the prerequisite for true communion with each other? After all, it is once I stop listening to the inner, self-preoccupied chatter that I can fully listen to you.
The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the human whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [Genesis 2:8-9]
People of heavenly character are this kind of garden [Eden]. They are free to enjoy everything in the garden, but because it is the Lord’s, they are not given personal possession of any of it.[Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven, n. 79. New Century Edition]
That we ourselves can be Gardens of Eden is a delicious thought. You may recall that "Eden" is a Hebrew word meaning "delight." We are rich sources of delight for ourselves and others, delights that can't be owned and don't need to be. And what so often blocks us from experiencing these delights? Many spiritual traditions would agree with Swedenborg that what gets in the way is the mentality of personal ownership.
Our culture and economy is based on the selling and buying of goods and services. The concept of personal property is central to this. To be sure, it is the marketplace that feeds, clothes, houses and keeps healthy our current large human population. So let's give the markets their due and seek to make them work equitably for everyone. At the same time the marketplace, by its very nature, directs our attention to those things which can be bought and sold, to the obscuring of that which can't be.
What then about those delights which can't be bought and sold? Are we able to enter into them? Certain contemporary ads unwittingly highlight this question in a way I have often found amusing. They appeal to a desire to spend good times with friends in the beauty of the natural world. Certainly that by itself doesn't involve selling and buying. Ah, the ads suggest, but to get out into the wild with your friends, you need to purchase their brand-new, shiny SUV. Well of course, that actually gets in the way. The more time and energy you spend on affording and purchasing the right accessories for the life-style you fantasize about, the less likely you will enter the consciousness which notices and embraces life's magic moments.
Time in nature, time in solitude, time to simply be with and enjoy the company of your friends are not commodities, however much contemporary consumerism tries to commodify them. It is precisely those things which inhabit the flow of time which cannot be produced, purchased or consumed. Magic moments don't depend on the right accessories; they wait upon our openness to them. They arise, they bless us, they pass on. Such moments cannot be held on to. If we try, we become sad. Rather, be grateful and open up to what comes next.
Please know that just as you are right now, without the need to acquire anything else, you are a boundless garden of delight, for yourself and those around you. This week may you practice taking delight in being a delight!
These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made complete. [John 14:11]
A few days ago I found myself reading Swedenborg's description of heavenly joy in Secrets of Heaven. [Sections 449-459, 537-553] For this entry I will pull out just one thread that particularly struck me.
One angel calculated only the most general kinds of joy experienced by spirits (in other words, inhabitants of the first heaven) to be around 478.
Almost all who come into the next life from the world think that hell is the same for everyone and heaven is the same for everyone, when in reality there are unlimited differences and variations in either case. Hell is never exactly the same for one person as for another, nor is heaven—just as there is never one person, spirit, or angel who is exactly the same as another.
I also perceived that joy and pleasure seemed to come from my heart,
gently permeating all the inmost fibers of my body and thus all the bundles of fibers. The sensation of this joy at the deepest levels made it seem as though each fiber was composed of nothing but joy and pleasure and all the perceptiveness and sensitivity that come with joy and pleasure. The fibers seemed alive with happiness.
I am quite struck or even bemused by the sheer exuberance of Swedenborg's account. 478 general kinds of joy? And that is only in the first heaven! Actually there is a unique heavenly joy for each angel. And each such joy enlivens every fiber of the body.
A powerful theme running throughout Swedenborg's writing is a celebration of infinite variation. Just as no two snowflakes crystallize in just the same way, though following the same general pattern, or no two trees branch out in just the same way, though every species has a recognizable branching pattern, so no two persons evolve into precisely the same angel. For every angel, a unique deepest love, a unique perspective, a unique form of useful service, a unique experience of joy. Your inheritance from the Lord is a unique spot in heaven, reserved just for you—if you are brave enough to enter it.
Your unique love, your unique highest use, your unique heavenly joy all await you. Claim it!
A spirit who had recently arrived from the world shared a desire for heaven. To give him a sense of heaven’s nature, his inner recesses were opened up so that he could feel something of heavenly joy, but when he felt it, he started to wail and writhe, begging to be released. He was so distressed that survival was impossible, he said. As a result, his inner reaches were closed off to heaven and he then revived. [Secrets of Heaven #537]
It is a startling thought that heavenly joy could be so painful. But actually it fits quite well with Swedenborg's understanding of the nature of heaven and hell. God is not rewarding some with heaven and condemning others to hell. Rather, those who are not already of an angelic nature find heaven painful.
Swedenborg teaches that we experience the deepest anguish when our deepest love is under attack. In his account of heavenly joy Swedenborg lists a number of common misconceptions about heaven. One common thread is the expectation of being better than others, being in charge of others, being waited upon by others, in a word, self-aggrandizement. But self-seeking desire is precisely what true heavenly joy dissolves. Heavenly joy, so to speak, is the ultimate acid for any form of selfishness.
On the contrary, heavenly joy is grounded upon acts of generosity. Swedenborg writes:
Angelic life consists in usefulness and acts of neighborly kindness. Nothing makes angels happier than giving information to spirits newly arrived from the world and teaching them; serving people on earth, making sure that the evil spirits present with them do not go too far, and inspiring them with good; and reviving the dead as they enter eternal life, eventually taking them to heaven, if the condition of their souls allows it.
Angels find more happiness in these activities than could ever be described. [Secrets of Heaven #545]
It strikes me in light of this that preparing ourselves for heavenly joy consists in keeping foremost in mind one simple question: How can I help? May we all be so guided in the week to come.
When I merely entertained the thought that there could be two people precisely the same or identical, it aroused horror among those in the world of spirits and among the angels of heaven. “All unity is formed out of harmony among many,” they said. “The way that the many harmonize determines what kind of unity they have. No monolithic unity lasts, only the unity created by harmony. So every community in the heavens forms a single unit, as do all the communities—or the whole of heaven—taken together. The Lord alone makes this happen, and he does so through love.” [Secrets of Heaven #457]
Since that is what heaven is like, no angel or spirit could ever have any life without being part of some community, without joining in harmony with many others. Community is simply harmony among many. No one’s life is ever isolated from the life of others.[Secrets of Heaven #687]
If Heaven can have more than one definition, I would like to suggest this: Heaven is a place where I can freely harmonize my efforts with the efforts of others to create something beautiful.
In the church where I first became a Swedenborgian, I sang in the choir. I sang bass and the bass part is usually not that interesting taken by itself. Nevertheless I always did enjoy what I was adding to the harmony as a whole.
Musical harmony has long been for me a powerful metaphor for heavenly community. True, solo pieces can be beautiful. But when two are or more are playing together, they create something neither could create alone. When a group of musicians is improvising together the result is indeed a community where all are freely harmonizing their efforts with those of others to produce something beautiful.
For several weeks now, our theme has been heavenly joy. Just to get a foretaste of heavenly joy, why not be on the look-out for places where you can freely harmonize with others? May you walk in beauty.
And Jehovah God caused to sprout from the ground every tree desirable in appearance and good for food, and the tree of lives in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [Genesis 2:9]
A tree symbolizes perception; a tree desirable in appearance, perception of truth, and a tree good for food, perception of goodness...
People today have no idea what perception is. It is an inner feeling for whether a thing is true and good—a feeling that can come only from the Lord—which was very familiar to the people of the earliest church.
The sensation is so clear for angels that it gives them awareness and recognition of truth and goodness, of what comes from the Lord and what from themselves. In addition, it enables them to detect the character of anyone they meet simply from that person’s manner of approach or from a single one of his or her ideas.[Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven nn. 102, 104]
"Perception" is Swedenborg's name for a central component of the angelic experience and way of life. For Swedenborg the planting of Eden and our later exile from the garden portray angelic perception and our loss of it. But what is this "perception"?
It might help to consider for a moment sensory perception. The skilled birder can identify a bird from merely catching a glimpse of it as if flits into a tree, or hearing a fragment of a call. But she may not be able to tell us how she recognized the species of the bird. Most of our physical perception is like that: quick, wholistic and intuitive. It is the exception when we have to self-consciously stop to figure out what we've just seen and heard.
In his scientific and engineering career, Swedenborg often experienced sudden flashes of insight into the functioning of a complex system—a form of perception that he prized and sought out through meditation techniques.
In our moral lives we sometimes work from written protocols and policies. In recent years many institutions have been writing and adopting many such protocols. At other times we self-consciously reflect on moral principles and seek to apply them to situations that have arisen.
As valuable, even necessary, as protocols and moral self-examination are, angelic perception is quite different: It is a quick, wholistic and intuitive insight into what will promote the growth of heaven in the current moment. It is given by the influx of Divine Love and Wisdom and offers a confident grasp of what is good and true.
Our loss of angelic perception is a great impoverishment of our lives. How do we get it back? First, I have to understand that it is my fragile sense of self which is blocking my perception. If in most interactions I am concerned with how I am coming across—Am I making people happy? Am I upsetting them? Do they like me? Admire me? Respect me? Do they even know I exist? Are they going to do what I want? etc, etc., ad nauseum—my perception of heaven and how it can grow in this moment is occluded.
We always do well to look beyond our habitual self-obsession to simply ask: what can I contribute to the growth of heaven, right here, right now? Who knows? You may suddenly see the situation through the eyes of angelic perception and be inspired to act accordingly.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. [Psalm 139:7-8, King James Version]
I have long taken comfort in Swedenborg's teaching that even the highest angels have their good days and their bad days. If even the angles have bad halo days, I don't have to be overly disappointed with myself when I have a bad day too. Swedenborg calls this process "alternation of state." Angels go through periods when they start obsessing about themselves, and when they do, they become restless and discontent. Later their thoughts return to the services they perform for others and then they are restored to heavenly joy.
That is a summary in my own words, with perhaps a touch of creative interpretation, since I haven't been able to pinpoint a place where Swedenborg puts it in precisely that way. But here is a condensation of what he says in Heaven and Hell, 155-158, excerpts.
Angels are not constantly in the same state as to love, and consequently they are not in the same state as to wisdom, for all the wisdom they have is from their love and in proportion to it...Each individual angel undergoes and passes through changes of state like this, and so too does each community collectively....
I have been told from heaven why changes of state like this occur. ...Angels have a sense of self or self-image just as we do, and this involves loving themselves. All the people in heaven are kept free of their sense of self, and to the extent that the Lord does keep them free, they enjoy love and wisdom. To the extent that they are not kept free, however, they are caught up in love for themselves; and since all of them do love that sense of self and carry it with them, these changes of state or successive alternations do occur. ...
They have gone on to say that the Lord does not produce these changes of their states, since the Lord as the sun is always flowing in with warmth and light, that is, with love and wisdom. Rather, they themselves are the cause, since they love their sense of self and this is constantly misleading them.
As is is typical in Swedenborg, what he says of the angelic process is true of us as well. When we become self-obsessed that leads to restlessness and discontent. When we are able to help others in concrete ways, we cheer up.
In my first year living at the seminary and as the holidays were approaching, I sank into a very dark space, emotionally and spiritually. The cloud lifted for a moment, and sun shone through one afternoon, as I was helping other volunteers put together holiday food packets for the hungry.
In the interest of full honesty, I will note that I went right back under the dark cloud, which -- apart from a few other bright moments --didn't lift until the end of January. But even those few moments were great blessings. Alternations of state indeed! But also, I believe, part of what I needed to grow at that moment of my life. And quite noticeable even in the midst of it all that it was a moment of concrete service that cheered me up, if only temporarily.
So let's not, my fellow angels in training, get overly mired in our bad halo days. There are always concrete ways to serve.
Those matters of love and wisdom which are called thoughts, perceptions, and affections are substances and forms. . . .The affections, perceptions, and thoughts there [in the brain] are not exhalations; but are all actually and really subjects, which do not emit anything from themselves, but merely undergo changes according to whatever flows against and affects them.
[Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom #42, cited by David Loy, "The Dharma of Emanuel Swedenborg: A Buddhist Perspective" in Swedenborg: Buddha of the North, Swedenborg Foundation, 1996.]
I continue to use Swedenborg to deepen my understanding of Buddhism and conversely to use Buddhism to deepen my understanding of Swedenborg. So here I will offer, in brief, what I take to be gist of Buddhism.
For me the key concept of Buddhism is Samsara. "Samsara" derives from a Sanskrit word meaning to flow together and refers to the world of continuous change. In our lives we experience an ongoing flow of unfolding appearances, none of which is independent of the context in which it occurs. Every occurring form within Samsara arises when the conditions for its arising come together, continues to appear when the conditions that maintain it continue, and dissolves when those conditions are no longer met.
My own sense of ongoing selfhood is also part of Samsara; it is something that emerges as part of the flow. Nothing about me is permanent, self-caused or independent of the context in which it arose.
Buddhist philosophy always presents itself as the middle way between two extremes. As a twenty-first century American, I understand the extremes and the middle way as follows. One extreme is resistance: to try to grasp and to hold onto that which will inevitably vanish, to try to force the flow of events to take the direction I desire for my own needy, self-protective ends. Buddhism and Swedenborg are alike naming this form of delusional striving with words that can be translated into modern English as "craving". The opposite extreme is escapism: to try escape from the flow to something that is beyond change and the inevitability of loss.
The middle way is love: to accept the flow, to be part of the flow, to welcome all that arises and passes with love and compassion. My spiritual path is to move beyond my fear, greed and delusion toward universal compassion for all that arises and passes.
I find this to be very much in accord with Swedenborg's teaching on appearances of truth, the nature of the proprium (his word for self), and the course of the spiritual journey. Swedenborg differs from Buddhism in placing Samsara in a theistic context, that is to say, for him finite appearances are grounded upon a creator of infinite love and wisdom. Buddhism, in contrast, is usually characterized as a non-theistic philosophy.
Still, at the practical level, Swedenborg's regeneration and the Buddhist middle way are remarkably similar: to let go of our delusions of separateness and control, to drop all forms of self-seeking, to embrace our interdependence, and to take up a life of service.
In this world of constant flow, every moment is precious and poignant in its evanescence. May our thoughts, words and deeds flow together and move us toward a world of universal compassion.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and
your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
[Genesis 12:1-3 NIV]
Another [hidden inner sense in this Bible passage] is that the Lord's Human also was made Divine. In the Lord alone there was a correspondence of all the things of the body with the Divine—a most perfect correspondence, infinitely perfect, giving rise to a union of the bodily things with Divine heavenly things, and of sensuous things with Divine spiritual things; and thus the Lord was the Perfect Human, and the Only Human. [Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #1414]
It might seem odd to use a story about leaving home to talk about finding home. But often in life, losing is the prelude to finding, leaving the necessary precursor to returning.
And where is home? It is at once where you find it and where you make it. As a pair of birds finds just the right spot and then builds its nest, so we too both find and create home.
Our Bible and Swedenborg quotes offer a couple of pointers. From the call of Abram, we hear the call to bless and be blessed. And from Swedenborg, we hear of the alignment of the bodily with the heavenly. Each of us is promised a "land" where our material lives fully align with our spiritual lives, where each of us can live out our unique love.
It strikes me that such a "promised land" provides at once a good definition of heaven and a good definition of home. Where our material lives accord with our spiritual lives, we can relax, we can offer our best, we can let ourselves be fully known, we can give of ourselves without fear of the cost.
It is a blessing to find a spot on the planet that suits us. It is a blessing when we can stay with or stay connected with our families of origin. It is a blessing when we can gather a chosen family around us. But however we find it or create it, home is that community of souls which draws out and supports our most loving qualities, the people with whom the giving and the receiving of blessings meld into one.
In the week to come I pray you find the ways to make yourself more fully at home in this world.
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
—Isaiah 43:18-19, NRSV
While we are living in the world, if we are engaged in a love for the Lord and in thoughtfulness toward our neighbor, we have with and within us an angelic intelligence and wisdom, but it is hidden away in the depths of our inner memory. There is no way this intelligence and wisdom can become visible before we leave our bodies. Then our natural memory is put to sleep and we are awakened into consciousness of our inner memory and eventually of our actual angelic memory. [Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell #467]
Memory can be a mixed blessing, and the same can be said for forgetting. At one extreme, we find the involuntary, compulsive reliving of traumatic events which characterizes Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. At the other extreme, we find the tragic isolation experienced by Alzheimer's patients, who cannot remember who their loved ones—or even they themselves—are.
Swedenborg teaches that nothing we think, say or do is ever lost. It is all recorded in our bodies, though memories can become dormant. The earthly memories of spirits and angels become dormant, according to Swedenborg's account, but are often revived for them in great detail when there is a lesson to be learned. But while the particular incidents of their earthly lives become dormant for angels, the lessons learned live on. From their many earthly experiences they have learned how to respond with love and intuitive wisdom to whatever comes up, a process Swedenborg calls "inner memory."
For those of us still in our natural lives the spiritual question is this: what former things are coming to mind at any particular moment of our lives, and for what purpose? This approach to memory offers a rich field for daily reflection. What "former things" came to mind today? Are they blessings that inspire us to gratitude and affection? Or are they occasions for renewed resentment, guilt and shame? If the latter, to what end do they come to mind? Are we prepared to right our wrongs, forgive those who have hurt us, learn the lessons of our mistakes? Are we prepared to let these memories lie dormant once we have healed the past to the best of our ability? Forgetting, understood as putting the past to rest, can be as great a blessing as remembering.
In the week to come may all your remembering and all your forgetting open up new roads in the wilderness and fresh springs in the desert!
The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves but loving others and being united to them through love. The hallmark of love is also being loved by others because this is how we are united. Truly, the essence of all love is to be found in union, in the life of love that we call joy, delight, pleasure, sweetness, blessedness, contentment, and happiness. The essence of love is that what is ours should belong to someone else. Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves—that is loving. [Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom #47]
Sentient beings are numberless,
I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible,
I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless,
I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable,
I vow to attain it.
[The Bodhisattva vow]
It has long struck me that angels, as Swedenborg describes them, and Bodhisattvas, as understood in Mahayana Buddhism, have a lot in common. True, the context is different. For Swedenborg, a person lives a life in the natural world and goes on to live for eternity in the Spiritual World. In traditional Buddhism, a person journeys through many reincarnations until attaining full enlightenment and becoming a Buddha. Angels and Bodhisattvas are alike, though, in that they are human beings just like you and me, and that they have dedicated their lives to the spiritual well-being of others. You and I can vow to do the same.
Angels and Bodhisattvas may seem self-sacrificing to us, but I suspect that from their own point of view they are not. For one thing, you can't sacrifice something you don't have. Angels and bodhisattvas are alike in understanding that our sense of autonomous existence refers to a relative appearance, not an ultimate reality.
Moreover, once we grasp that our deepest joys and satisfactions are to be found in the spiritual well-being of others, we inevitably reshape how we cultivate our own (apparent) selves. That is particularly true of spiritual attainments. If, as Swedenborg puts it, love is a matter of what I have becoming someone else's, then clearly I cannot offer someone else an inner peace I don't experience. Nor can I offer insights I haven't grasped, spiritual teachings I haven't mastered, or wisdom I haven't acquired.
Even though Swedenborg sometimes talks in terms of loving others more than self, I wonder if that ultimately makes any sense. My relation to myself is radically different from relationships to others: I am the only one who can choose my direction and I cannot choose any one else's direction for them. So the question becomes how best to cultivate myself so as to be of service to others. To take the Bodhisattva vow—or to be an angel in training—entails both self-cultivation and service to others. It makes no sense to emphasize one more than the other.
Where does your joy lie? Where does my joy lie? May we find that in and for each other.
In this post, I want to pick up from last week's post and flesh out in more detail the analogy I drew there between angels and Bodhisattvas. In a article from website of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, What is a Bodhisattva?, offers this definition:
A Bodhisattva ts an ordinary person who takes up a course in his or her life that moves in the direction of buddha. You're a bodhisattva, I'm a bodhisattva; actually, anyone who directs their attention, their life, to practicing the way of life of a buddha is a bodhisattva.
The analogy, or course, is inescapable. And the following quote from the Tricycle article is pure Swedenborgian teaching, once you substitute 'angel' for 'bodhisattva' and 'love' for 'vow'. (Love at its true depth goes beyond emotions, feelings or desires; it entails a commitment, and thus a vow.)
The life that flows through each of us and through everything around us is actually all connected. To say that, of course, means that who I really am cannot be separated from all the things that surround me. Or, to put it another way, all sentient beings have their existence and live within my life. So needless to say, that includes even the fate of all mankind--that, too, lies within me. Therefore, just how mankind might truly live out its life becomes what I aim at as my direction. This aiming or living while moving in a certain direction is what is meant by vow. In other words, it is the motivation for living that is different for a bodhisattva. Ordinary people live thinking only about their own personal, narrow circumstances connected with their desires. In contrast to that, a bodhisattva, though undeniably still an ordinary human being like everyone else, lives by vow. Because of that, the significance of his or her life is not the same. For us as bodhisattvas, all aspects of life, including the fate of humanity itself, live within us. It is with this in mind that we work to discover and manifest the most vital and alive posture that we can take in living out our life.
As someone whose interest in Buddhism predates my encounter with Swedenborg's teachings, I rejoice whenever the two are in accord. Certainly an angel in training and someone who has taken the Bodhisattva vow are in a position to compare notes!
May we all commit to the most vital and alive posture that we can take in living out our life.
Inward worship is a matter of union with the Divine through love and charity. When a person is in love and charity he is continually in inward worship, and outward worship is merely an external effect. The angels are in such worship. With them there is a perpetual Sabbath, a Sabbath which viewed inwardly is the Lord's kingdom. But while in the world, we need to be in external worship too. For by external worship internal things are excited, and external things are kept in holiness, so that internal things can flow in. In that way, a person is imbued with knowledge, and is prepared for receiving heavenly things. He is gifted with states of holiness, although unaware of them.
[Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #1618]
The Buddha was asked Sir, what do you and your monks practice? He replied We sit, we walk, and we eat. The questioner continued, But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats, and the Buddha told him, When we sit, we know we are sitting, when we walk, we know we are walking, when we eat, we know we are eating. In Buddhism, our effort is to practice mindfulness in each moment—to know what is going on within and all around. [Thich Nhat Hahn, Be Still and Know, p. 18.]
If you read it carefully, you see that our passage from Swedenborg describes a crucial synergy or interdependence between the inward and the outward. Yes, true worship is a state of love and charity. But it is though charitable words and deeds, it is by taking care for the neighbor, that the inward states of love and charity are elicited. Conversely, an outward action becomes worshipful, if done out of inward love and charity.
Much the same can be said for formal worship. Ritual and liturgy, when carried out in the right spirit, are opportunities to elicit the inward states they express. And as Swedenborg says, the more our outward acts express inward worship, the more our outward lives become pervaded by the holy.
Our quote from Thich Nhat Hanh carries this thought a step further. Spiritual practice need look no different from ordinary life. It is a matter of the quality of awareness that we bring to it. The more we truly know what is going on within and all around, the more compassion spontaneously arises.
In the week to come, may we sit, walk, and eat from a place of inward love and charity.
Thomas said to Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him." [John 14:5-7]
Jesus said, I am the way. He meant to have a true relationship with God, you have to practice. Early Christians always spoke of their faith as the way. To me, I am the way is a better statement than I know the way. The way is not an asphalt road. [Thich Nhat Hanh, Be Still, p. 65]
We must distinguish between the I spoken by Jesus and the I people usually think of. The I in his statement means life itself. Many who have neither the way nor the life try to impose on others what they believe to be true. [Thich Nhat Hanh, Be Still, p. 66]
The Way is a universal symbol and points to the ultimate reality as an unfolding process, a process which encompasses and supports our own spiritual practice. Daoism, Buddhism, and Christianity are three prominent traditions which speak of the Way.
It makes an enormous difference whether we interpret the I uttered by Jesus in the saying above as a personal I or a prophetic I.
Reading the I as referring to Jesus of Nazareth, the particular historical figure, leads to the most tragically intolerant and exclusionary stream of historical Christianity. It leads to the claim that only those who accept Christ as their personal savior are saved.
Jesus offers a very different message, if he is understood to be saying I not personally, but prophetically. On that reading, it is the way, the truth and the life which is speaking through Jesus and is saying I. That reading leads an to an inclusive and universal Christianity, one which doesn't compete with other religious traditions but travels the Way with them.
The very context of this saying points to a larger reality. When Thomas complains that he doesn't know the way, Jesus in effect says, if have seen me, you have seen the Way. Jesus has become one with the Way, a way that we are to practice and follow ourselves, a way that we can see once we have truly seen him.
To believe in the Way is to believe that whatever challenge I am facing the Way offers me a way forward.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Saying of Jesus, Matthew 11-28-30]
Without suffering you cannot grow. Without suffering you cannot get the peace and joy you deserve. Please don't run away from your suffering. Embrace it and cherish it. Go to the Buddha, sit with him, and show him your pain. He will look at you with loving kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, and show you ways embrace your suffering and look deeply into it. With understanding and compassion, you will be able to heal the wounds in your heart, and the wounds in the world. The Buddha called suffering a Holy Truth, because our suffering has the capacity of showing us the path to liberation. Embrace your suffering, and let it reveal to you the way to peace. [Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p. 5]
There is an inner presence to which we can always turn in times of painful emotion, a place from which healing begins. Jesus offers himself as just such a gentle, humble presence. Thich Nhat Hanh points to the Buddha within.
Prayer and meditation, especially those practices which are grounded in our living, conscious flesh, pitch a tabernacle, an inner sanctum in which to meet the Holy One.
In the throes of any painful emotion it always helps to breath—which you doing anyway of course, but to breath consciously with long, slow, gentle breaths. Anything that rises to consciousness can be breathed into. It doesn't help to deny, to resist, or to suppress a painful emotion, much less to shame yourself for having one, or to try to talk yourself out of feeling what you feel. Indeed, those responses are more likely to add fuel to the flame.
But to breathe consciously—one of the simplest of spiritual practices and always available—is to open the gate to the inner tabernacle, where inner peace and joy are found.
May we all be restored to the peace and joy we deserve. Breathe!
“When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the heavens are red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the heavens are red and threatening.’ Hypocrites, you know how to read the face of heaven, but you cannot read the signs of the times. [Saying of Jesus, Matthew 16:2-3]
It's a good thing the Lord is used to my passive-aggressive ways. While living at the seminary, I would sometimes walk into the sun-room that served as our chapel, lift my eyes heavenward and say, "It's your fault!"
And I would occasionally joke that when I died and went to heaven I wasn't going to ask the Lord why things happened as they did. I wasn't going to ask the Lord, I was going to tell the Lord. I was going to say, the next time you create the universe, keep it simple!
I don't know about you, but I have learned over the years that when I have a strong intuition about what is coming up next in my spiritual life, it comes true. It might take years, mind you, but it comes true. I think it was couple years ago now, when I had the strong intuition that my passive-aggressive attitude toward the Lord was going to go away. That hasn't quite happened yet, but it is coming, I can feel it.
Call that, if you will, a weather report, a forecast of a change of spiritual season. From the hot and oppressive to the cool and the clear—with the occasional shower of life-giving rain. I offer this as just one personal example of Swedenborg's teaching that outer seasons and weather correspond to cycles and changes in our spiritual lives.
If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough. [Meister Eckhart]
As a Shin Buddhist, my primary practice isn’t meditation, sutra study, ritual, or precepts. All of these can be valuable, of course, but in Shin Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude. This sets us apart from many other Buddhists. We don’t practice to achieve anything—not enlightenment, good karma, a favorable rebirth, or material rewards. We practice simply to give thanks for what we have received. It’s a small shift in one’s perspective, but when pursued, it can be transformative. [Jeff Wilson, http://www.lionsroar.com/the-path-of-gratitude/]
Today I give thanks for gratitude.
I've never had, mind you, the on/off switch for deep gratitude. Rather gratitude for me has always been a gift of grace: it comes on its own schedule, not mine. And indeed I have had moments of gratitude so intense that gratitude seemed to fall from the sky and land upon me, gratitude so intense that my surroundings seemed to be a bell ringing gratitude.
The Christian contemplative tradition places great value on gratitude as a spiritual gift. Contemplatives speak of the "gift of tears.' moments when one's love of God is so overwhelming that tears come to one's eyes unbidden. Once again, the gift of tears is a gift. It comes on its own schedule, not mine.
Gratitude is also central to the experience of Shin Buddhism, a branch of the Buddhist tradition I am just beginning to explore. As illustrated in the quote above, gratitude can become one's fundamental spiritual stance.
The experience of gratitude is an incentive to practice gratitude. While gifts of grace come on their own schedule, we can consciously prepare for them, we can invoke them and open themselves to them. We can take up the practice of making gratitude lists, aka "counting your blessings." And we can remember to say "thank you" to those from whom we have received.
Today I am particularly grateful for all the visible and invisible support I have received from you, my fellow spiritual wayfarers.
Spiritual gifts must be given because someone wants to receive them, because someone wants to improve the quality of his or her life for the sake of God.
God loves to give big gifts. The bigger the gift, the more God loves to give it. The biggest gift God has to give is God. [from the sermons of Meister Eckhart]
There is a traditional holiday ritual which occurs at the end of a get-together when we all try to palm the left-overs off on each other. "No, no. keep it." "No, no, take some with you!" But while we can end up giving and receiving edible gifts that weren't wholly wanted by our waistlines or refrigerators, Meister Eckhart insists that a true spiritual gift can only be given because someone wants to receive it.
In a paradoxical way, this leads to a divine modesty towards us. The Holy One, who so longs to be fully ours, must wait patiently until we are ready to receive. For the divine love to be fully given there must be a receiving end, an unguarded willingness on our part. In the teachings of the fourteenth century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart the receiving end of love is given several names. One of them is "gratitude." And the truest way to thank the giver of a gift is also the most child-like: let the giver experience your delight in enjoying the gift. (If that is not gratifying to the giver, if anything beyond that is expected, it wasn't truly a gift) The Beloved is above all else to be enjoyed.
What is holding us back from receiving true gifts? Does wanting to give get in the way of the humbleness to receive? Are we keeping score? Are we too proud to accept a gift we fear we can't match? Are we afraid of a divine lover so wildly beyond our ken? Will be overwhelmed? Will we be torn apart? Will our lives no longer be solely our own? And is that something to be afraid of?
We are not asked to equal the gift, nor to deserve it, but simply to enjoy it. Do something brave and risky this Thanksgiving: enjoy!
We are never born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerousness of doom and find it becoming. Life,for eternal us,is now;and now is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything,catastrophic included. [from e.e. cummings, 22 and 50 poems, Introduction.]
Apparently, at some point in the past I was born into this world. Yet I have no memory of that. My parents remember it, I have a birth certificate, so it must have happened. But all that is only hearsay, I know nothing about it.
At any moment I can wake up from the flood of my busyness and ask, How did I get here? What I am doing in this world? In that wonder I confront a now, which to use e.e. cummings phrase, is "much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything,catastrophic included." Life is strange beyond words. If only I could remain awake to that strangeness, my experience of life would be transformed.
In the face of the now moment, my knowledge and my freedom -- crucial as they are -- become vanishingly small. The world I find myself in yields only partly to my intellectual grasp, it is always "a little bit more than everything." So it would seem, for instance, that nothing can ever be simply or purely "catastrophic."
For Meister Eckhart too, birth is the supreme and most welcome mystery, a birth Eckhart understood variously as my giving birth to Christ, the birth of Christ in my soul, or my birth as Christ. That birth takes place in an eternal now:
This birth does not take place once a year or once a month or once a day but all the time, that is, beyond time in that space where there is neither here and now, nor nature and thought.
Tend only to the birth in you and you will find all goodness and all consolation, all delight, all being and all truth. Reject it and you reject all goodness and all blessing. What comes to you in this birth brings with it being and blessing. [Meister Eckhart, in Breakthrough, Meister Eckhart's creation spirituality, in new translation. translated by Matthew Fox]
Perhaps you have experienced moments, as I have, when awareness of the fleetingness of the present moment becomes so intense it opens up on the timeless. In such moments time continues to flow on, as it always does, but it is as if one stood outside of time.
Another name for the eternal now is the "soul," a hidden reality that runs deeper than the person you know me to be, deeper even than the person I imagine myself to be. For the self, the ego, the proprium, the public persona (call it what you will) birth has the "dangerousness of doom." For the soul, it can only be a "supremely welcome mystery."
Who are you, my friend? What is about to be born in you? Let's just wonder about that . . . and wait.
I am my Beloved's and Beloved is mine. [Song of Songs, 6:3]
If God were not a person, to whom could I express my thankfulness?
The pros and cons of viewing the ultimate reality as a person have long been debated from theological and philosophical points of view. And while I can appreciate the dangers and limitations of conceiving of God in our image -- that irascible Old Man who looks down on us from above doesn't work for me either -- my heart wants my gratitude to be received by someone who can be gladdened by it. It longs to be heard by another loving heart.
People throughout the ages have experienced their relationship to the ground of being as a relationship of person to person. I, too, when I sit down to meditate often have heart-to-heart chat with the Lord. Just to let someone know what I am thinking and feeling. At odd moments throughout the typical day I will pause to ask, "Well, now what, Lord?" It has become such a habitual part of my thinking, I often barely notice it. It is rare these days that I feel alone.
From the Hindu Bhakta tradition, to the Sufi poets, to the Christian mystics who took the Song of Songs as their text, there have been those who have experienced their relationship "with the Beloved" as passionate love affair.
I completely agree with those who say that the ultimate nature of reality is beyond our comprehension. I also trust the experience of God as person-to-person intimacy.
Why did Christ come into the world if not to love and be loved?
As the day comes to an end, the twilight dissolves the surfaces, absorbing their colors, leaving their reflections suspended in space. The luminous transparency in open spaces condenses into beams and phosphorescence. Things lose their separateness. Shadows advance over the colors and the contours that they outlined are lost. Darkness infiltrates the landscape, obliterating its paths and filling up its open planes. Overhead the blue of the atmosphere recedes and the starlights drift over unmeasurable distances.
The darkness which softly wipes away the urgencies and the destinations and the hard edges of reality is felt in an enjoyment that conforms to its depths without resistance and that gives itself over to the rumble of the city and the murmur of nature, to the silken, mossy, and liquid substances that carress our bodies, to the odors and savors adrift in their own space. The visible night gives way to a hight noon of sounds, odors and textures. [Alfonso Lingis, The Imperative, pp. 9-10.]
The contemporary philosopher, Alfonso Lingis, speaks here of a reality that is certainly available to us, and just as certainly lost to us in the age of electric lights and the internet. There are no external forces to separate us from our personal business and habitual busyness.
And yet the night, so powerfully evoked by Lingis, is the necessary prelude to our spiritual birth. While we do not know at what time of year Jesus was born, celebrating Christmas during the long dark nights of winter makes spiritual sense.
Something needs to break through our habitual thoughts and actions if the previously unthought and unknown is to emerge. The Christian mystical tradition has always honored "unknowing" or "learned ignorance." Not to say that our knowledge is unimportant, or that ignorance as such is good, but to remember that all our knowing is but one speck of luminous matter in a universe composed mostly of dark matter and dark energy. There comes a time to forget all that we have been and to rest in quiet darkness. As a seed germinates in the darkness, so the Christ-child gestates in a soul which rests quietly in the night-time of unknowing.
For us, entering night-time, literally and metaphorically, has become a choice. There is nothing but a conscious decision on our part to keep us from being busy every waking moment with what we already know.
I pray that we all let the beauty and power of the night into our lives this Christmas season.
When I was a young child and first learned about Jesus from my mom, it was a story about God and his mother. The story of God the Father and God the Son came later—to start with the Christmas story was the story of God and his mother.
I am not going to be over-concerned in this reflection with the philosophical or theological problematics of God having a human mother, but rather stay close to the child-like innocence of the idea. Everyone needs a mother, even God.
Swedenborg's account of creation implies a Creatrix more than a Creator. He always insists that God does not create out of nothing, but from God. We live and grow and develop always within the Divine Matrix. (And remember: the word matrix comes from the Latin word mater, mother.) While distinct from God and growing in autonomy, we are never separate from God or her loving embrace.
Conversely, we are the matrix within which God becomes incarnate. Swedenborg's basic definition of God is the perfect union of infinite love and infinite wisdom. We Swedenborgians sometimes abbreviate that as DLW, the Divine Love and Wisdom. How is the Divine Love and Wisdom born into the natural world? Three of the requirements of love are these: 1) to seek the well-being of something greater than yourself 2) to seek mutuality 3) to respect freedom. These imply that love never produces a single unit, but always the free and mutual uniting of an ever ramifying creation.
As the universe unfolded from the Big Bang, first light, then particles, atoms, molecules, organic chemistry, ever more complex forms of life and ultimately we ourselves arose. As free and conscious social beings we are gifted with the potential to bring love and wisdom into concrete manifestation. That Love which gave birth to the universe is born into the world through our love for each other and for Love Itself.
The Christ-child is the leading edge of the incarnation of Divine Love and Wisdom. That Love needs our love, if it is to grow up, mature, and heal a broken and hurting world.
It is not just we who are never born enough, but God as well. May God be born among us this Christmas Eve.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Nothing is ours except time. Nature entrusts us
with the ownership of this one single thing,
so fleeting and so slippery that anyone
who wants can deprive us of it.
Is time my one true possession, as Seneca implies? Well, upon reflection, yes and no.
From one point of view, I have been allotted a certain amount of time, and it is mine to do with as I choose. I do one hour's worth of stuff every hour, no more and no less. The only question is what do I do with that hour. So we do well to heed Seneca's reminder to spend our time on what is most important to us.
Yet viewing the time I am granted by nature as "my" possession is an invitation to fear and greed. I, for one, can get very irritable and resentful when I find myself spending "my" precious time on things I would rather not have to deal with. I feel as though something were being stolen from me: the ability to do the things I enjoy.
From another point of view, however, nothing is less my possession than time: I have no power over its passing. Time is that which is always running out. Here, I believe, it is always helpful to remember that the time that Life has granted me belongs to Life, not me. Life brings me one hour's experience of life, every hour. At every emerging moment of conscious life a new gift, a new opportunity.
In Whitman's words, there was never any more inception than there is now. In fact, the now moment is always pure inception. Even when I am continuing a project started years ago, even when following through on a commitment made last month, I am making a beginning. As I write this reflection, started yesterday, every revision, every new sentence is a moment of inception—and not always, but often enough, a moment of gratitude at the new thought, the new phrase, that comes to me from I know not where. As a tree grows, it is always opening a new bud, it is always laying down a new tree-ring. In this, Life is its guide as it is ours.
Let us give thanks today for every new beginning that Life brings.
Day by day / Day by day.
O, dear Lord / Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
To love thee more dearly
To follow thee more nearly
Day by Day
-- From Godspell
What makes any given day a good one? What allows us to retire at night with a sense of satisfaction?
Part of it, I think, is being engaged, every day, with both the broader and shorter rhythms of life. Every so often I look up my age in days. As of today, I am 22,940 days old. Don't ever tell me that life is short! As I said in the reflection last Sunday -- somewhat facetiously -- that makes for nearly 23,000 causes for regret. What did I ever do with all those days? But afterwards a friend redirected my attention towards my accomplishments. I also have nearly 23,000 grounds for gratitude.
Every day is an opportunity to live in the present moment. It is only in this moment that the sun comes out after four days of rain and my neighborhood looks, feels and smells newly washed. It is only in this moment that I enjoy an unexpected call from a friend.
Every day is also an opportunity to make small, cumulative advances on long cherished goals and purposes. I have always had a scholarly bent, so for me part of that means steeping myself for a portion of every day in the languages, literature, and spiritual traditions of the world. (I was only in my mid-twenties when I started to bemoan with a fellow grad student that we would never have time to read it all!)
A good day is one in which I notice and rejoice in the graces of the unfolding moments, while learning something new, deepening a friendship, or building spiritual community.
God alone acts. We only react, and seen more deeply, even this is from God. [Emanuel Swedenborg, Soul-Body Interaction #14.]
We are our best selves when we perceive what the Lord is doing, and give ourselves freely to that work. [George Dole, "who's Doing What Around Here?"]
A potent reality for me for the last eighteen years or so is that Sunday comes around once a week, every week. Got to get ready! Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday... Is the inspiration coming? Thursday, Friday, Saturday. . . Am I going to have something ready in time? Is it ready for prime time? Yet, certainly, inspiration can't be forced. A touch of deadline anxiety can help me stay focused and call me back from other activities, but mounting anxiety only gets in the way.
I am going to guess that I am not alone in this and that readers of these reflections experience their own occasions for deadline anxiety. The philosopher Martin Heidegger notoriously defined human existence as Being Towards Death. And while that might sound gloomy or melodramatic, it is certainly true that we experience time as that which is always running out. We are only going to pack so much into this life.
The New Year is often a time in which we undertake self-improvement projects and as January unfolds renewed realism about what we can expect of ourselves starts to set in. I, for one, will confess to wanting to be a better person enjoying a new and improved experience of life. I would like to be more centered, more confident, more joyful. I want to be deeply engaged in creative projects that bring me a deep sense of satisfaction. I want to have something life-enhancing to offer others.
But tick, tick, tick. . . will I ever be the person of my dreams? I am beginning wonder how much clock-induced anxiety (or even "Being Towards Death") is driving my thirst for self-improvement.
In response to that, I am going to give myself a piece of advice, and maybe you will find this useful too: Relax and just let the clock tick away! Enter the flow of time and rejoice in it! I am going to draw upon the wisdom of the Swedenborgian tradition and remind myself that God alone acts, I respond. In George Dole's pithy summary, I am at my best when I perceive what the Lord is doing and freely give myself to that work. My life is an outflow of the Divine Life, and the Divine Life never runs out.
Let me, then, focus on what the Lord is doing, trusting that if I freely give myself to the work the Lord has for me, I will have the both the inspiration I need and the time need. In that process I might yet become, if not the person I wish I were, the person I am called to be.
. . . I wanted to know,
whoever I was, I was
for a little while.
—Mary Oliver, "Dogfish"
For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.
From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.
Unable to see, I heard my name being called.
Then I walked outside.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the door sill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
Something in the desire that Mary Oliver voices here suggests that knowing that I am alive is primal in a way that even knowing who I am is not. Knowing that I am alive is, well, just that: noticing it.
It was an electric moment a couple years ago when a friend sang an a capella rendition of Rumi's poem, "Don't Go Back to Sleep," singing it directly to me. For that moment I knew I was alive.
What are the two worlds that, according to Rumi, touch at the door sill?
Perhaps the waking world and the sleeping world, or perhaps the material world and the spiritual world, or perhaps again the inner world and the outer world, or indeed the present moment and the life journey...
Perhaps the world of thought and the world of feeling. This one allows of a number of variations. What I think I should feel and what I in fact feel. What I think I have a right to feel and what I in fact feel, what I imagine others would feel in this situation and what I in fact feel, what I imagine others would have me feel and what I in fact feel.
Or yet again, with Mary Oliver, an easier but imaginary world and the world I actually live in.
Rumi's poem could be read as suggesting that we cross over the door sill and, awake, stay on the other side. I prefer to think knowing I am alive means being awake as I cross back and forth between the two worlds.
I don't imagine for a moment that I won't go back to sleep. I'm just grateful for every moment that I know I am alive.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. [1 John 4:16]
What if Love Itself is the Ultimate Reality, as John seems to say when he claims that God is Love? What if, despite all the fear and hatred we see in the world around us, we took Love to be the first and the final word?
These are some of my first thoughts. I would love hear what comes to you.
If Love Itself is the Ultimate Reality, and if love always seeks mutuality, then reality is inherently relational, and manifests as a network of interdependent beings. True humility consists in recognizing that I am no better and no worse than anyone else.
If I have no existence apart from the existence of those with whom I am inter-related, my most authentic response is gratitude. I seek the good of the whole.
If I stop talking about myself and let go of self-obsession, I hear the experiences of others. I rejoice in our common humanity and in viewpoints different from my own. I am enriched by both.
If Love is to be my final word, I am on a spiritual journey. I seek to know what Love promises me, and what Love asks of me. I am willing to let go everything that stands in the way of Love.
If Love Itself is the Ultimate Reality, I can love as I have first been loved.
You know the way to the place where I am going. [Jesus, John 14:4]
In his early days in America, [Shunryu] Suzuki frequently spoke of way-seeking mind. The way-seeking mind is not something that evolves out of our intention. It comes in spite of it. One develops a practice that allows the way seeking mind to seek the way. It is what it seeks. "Wisdom is seeking wisdom," he said. It wakes up to itself. When one drop of awakening falls, it covers everything. [David Chadwick,[Mind Seeking Way Seeking Mind]
I recently gave my ministry the working name, "Way-seeking Ministry of San Diego." I see myself as a spiritual seeker reaching out to other spiritual seekers. I am seeking the way for myself and my ministry.Here I take the opportunity to reflect further on the way-seeking mind.
In his goodbye address to his disciples, Jesus assures his disciples that they know the way. They immediately beg to differ. And Jesus tells them that if they have seen him they have seen the Father. That raises two questions: Have they seen him? Can they see him?
To fully explore those questions would require a long essay. But for now I will say (and leave the qualifications for later) that when Jesus called the disciples he assumed they could hear him. He assumed, to use Buddhist language, the inner presence of the way-seeking mind and his power to awaken it.
Just as our bodies know how to heal themselves, our souls instinctively seek health and wholeness. They recognize the way when they see it. They answer the call when they hear it. Without the way-seeking mind our spiritual journeys would never commence. We can and we must look within and trust our deepest intuitions.
This is not a matter of self-will or figuring things out for ourselves. As David Chadwick says, it doesn't evolve from our intention but in spite of it. It is a responsiveness to something that runs deeper than ego. No one can walk my path for me. At the same time I need to be led.
Let us trust that something deep within knows where the Lord is taking us.
Ahimsa (the principle of nonviolence) shows us what to accept or reject in any religious tradition.
A friend recently lent me a book called Gandhi on Christianity (Orbis Books, 1991). In reading it, I came to realize just how Gandhian my own approach to interfaith work has been. I am sure his influence had come to me through many indirect channels. Above I have listed some of his basic points.
Gandhi labored for independence in an India that had experienced in its history, conversions of Hindus to Islam, missionary efforts to convert Indians to Christianity, and efforts to convert Indians back to Hinduism. Indian independence and partition into India and Pakistan were accompanied by inter-communal bloodshed, which tragically continues on occasion to this day.
In that context, Gandhi discouraged people from converting from their birth religion to another one, and thus he also discouraged attempts to convert others to one's own religion. Instead he urged the sympathetic study of other religions, a study which seeks to understand another religion from the religious life of its own practitioners. He felt, for instance, that studying Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.made him a better Hindu.
While I would affirm every person's right to choose their own religious commitments, I find that Gandhi's principles resonate with my own experience. When I served on the board of the South Coast Interfaith Council in Long Beach, we were not there to debate religious differences; we were not there to convert one another. We were there to learn from each other, to promote mutual understanding, to speak out for justice, and to help heal a broken world. We were motivated by the conviction that there will never be world peace without peace among the religions.
More recently, I have been attending classes and worship at the Buddhist Temple of San Diego. As I gradually absorb the teachings of Shinran and the meaning of Shin Buddhism for its practitioners, I am deepening my own journey on the Christ-path. And I am getting new insights into Swedenborg's concept of Heaven.
To all my fellow way-seekers, whoever and wherever you are, I say peace!