"But what is it to realize that you are unbearably beautiful in the intimacy of the broken places, and you breathe that in and walk with it. You join God in being one with the endlessly precious nature of yourself. You can be one with the world in that way."
- James Finley
For the Sanctuary album, which explores the healing path, James Finley and I used the well-known form from the mystical lineage of Christianity: Purgation, Illumination and Union.
In each of these sections, the inner child shows up to give voice to the inner workings of hurt and of trauma, but also to give voice to how "precious as children" each of us are.
I don't always speak anecdotally in my writing, but for today, I would like to tell you a story. Hopefully it can be told in a universal way, connected to your story, and to all story.
Back in the early winter of 2010, I found myself in the throes of a pretty significant descent. A darkness had clouded every aspect of my personal and professional life and what would unfold over that time, would be a great letting go. The mythic flames that burned away most of what I thought was me, burned very hot, and there was much suffering. But through that journey, which was a journey all mixed up, of healing, of further trauma, of confusion, and discovery of imperishable clarity, the flame began to do something altogether different. One evening, after months of this great Unravelling, there was a fleeting moment in which the flame no longer burned me, because the flame was me.
During those initial gruelling months, I spent a week in silence at St Joseph Monastery, a silent, cloistered community of Passionist Nuns, in Kentucky. While there, I would go for walks outside and would find myself drawn toward the Stations of the Cross, but unable to bring myself to actually enter in to walk them. It wasn't because I was fighting some battle of unwillingness to follow the footsteps of Jesus. And it wasn't some "stubborn sinner's" resistance to surrender at the foot of the cross, but it was more because I was bruised, and tired of carrying the heavy burden that the death of Jesus was my fault. That I had killed him. I simply didn't want to walk the Stations because the whole reason I was at the monastery was to work through mountains of shame, and to release it, and open to transformation. I was not there to load shame back into the tender places by walking some half-sincere guilt trip, where I went through the motions of offering up quasi-confessional platitudes, in an attempt to flog the deadened sincerity I could barely feel about the whole business.
Then, nearing the last day of my stay at St. Joseph Monastery, I was standing at the entrance to the Stations, after ten considerations and ten turnabouts on my heal, walking away, utterly pissed off at just about everything, I saw one of the sisters on the lawn in the cloistered area, jumping with a jump rope. Two others were playing catch with gloves and a baseball. I heard laughter although all was still silent. Something about the maturity of these women (who no doubt have seen more than we might assume), engaged in childlike play, enabled the child in me, to take a few steps forward to gingerly attempt to walk the Stations.
I walked all 14 Stations that day and, what was shed, ironically, was the internal message that it was my fault that Jesus died. This led quite naturally into the extraordinary mystical epiphany that I had lived my whole life believing I needed to be protected from God. And by the time I reached the foot of the cross, I heard a palpable voice, which was a whisper, that I believe was the voice of God (but may very well have been my own adult voice):
"I love you as much as I love __________ and ________."
This Voice was speaking the names of my niece and nephew, who at the time, were 2 years old and newborn.
This encounter with the voice of the Mystery, was a small but integral baby step toward growing up enough, to come alongside my inner child and speak narratives of wholeness into her burdened heart, and begin a long spiritual journey, that I am still on.
Today my little girl says "I believe you."
Some days she still gets too close, and I turn into her. Lord, have mercy.
It is a work in progress.
But it is all precious in its fragility. The whole nine yards. The full measure. The works.
In Encountering the Inner Child, (the first track on the album where the children's choir enters), James Finley says:
"I see something precious in you, that you are not yet able to see. Where we are right now, is you discovering with God's grace, the adult in you, that can join me in seeing that preciousness in you. Because the child inside right now, is waiting for you to see her. This is always risky, because she still holds power, and when she gets too close, you turn into her. And this is where you head back to shallow water again, to get your bearings, so that you can come back and be there for her."
Tender is this topic and much gentle care to you.
In the great Peace,
In 1934, due to the rise of the German Christian movement, the church in Germany had officially become the Reich Church.
A group of theologians who opposed the movement, gathered during a synod, in Barmen, Germany, to sign the Barmen Declaration, which was a document that withdrew the church's participation in towing the Nazi party line.
Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth drafted much of the declaration, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the signors, (although he critiqued it for not speaking out more clearly against exclusion of the Jewish people), and all those who signed, saw it as an act of "divine obedience".
It is very important to be sensitive to the ways in which contemporary details are different from the details of that time, but it is also important for us to examine elemental similarities that should give us pause.
Here are just a few.
- The Barmen Declaration was drafted at a time when much in the day to day was still "normal" in comparison to the scope of horror that would eventually occur in Germany and around the world (we are still trauma carriers from that time... especially the descendants of holocaust survivors).
- The German Christian movement that became the Evangelische Reichskirche, was extremely anti-socialist and conservative in nature.
- Without the church aligning with the politics of Nazi Germany, the impetus for unspeakably unfettered power, would have been significantly lessened.
- Those who saw themselves as true Germans began to resent the "alien" Jews, who they saw as taking up space in their damaged economy.
- Those who sounded the warning in the early years, were seen as making a big deal out of nothing.
I was recently invited to compose and produce a song inspired by the Barmen Today: a Contemporary and Contemplative Declaration, which is a very well-crafted, ecumenical document written in the spirit of the original Barmen Declaration. It has been drafted and signed by leaders from varying faith traditions (and that is possibly what is most heartening to me... that today's declaration is "one deep calling to another", is a real beacon of hope.)
Why I believe the Barmen Today Declaration and the original declaration were drafted and signed in a similar spirit, is because when Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the "secularization of the church" he was not worried about the church choosing to include those who had previously been excluded, he was worried about who the church was excluding, and who was exercising the authority to do so.
So this Sunday Song and Rumination is a call.
To listen to the song.
To read the Barmen Today Declaration.
To search your own heart.
And to consider signing. No matter where you are in the world.
I hope this song will serve the declaration and instill courage... as time moves forward, I can see this declaration is more deeply needed, than I can say I wish.
Also, here is a link to read the letter Fr Richard Rohr has written, in support of Barmen Today.
Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
- Oscar Romero
I follow a number of teachers that I respect very much. Some have already died, some are elders, some are younger, and some are blown out of proportion rock stars like Bono (say what we will, but he has done incredible humanitarian work and the subversion of Macphisto certainly has its place at the theological buffet.)
When I'm working out what it looks like to be non-dual, but present in the problems of the world, I certainly open to what Christ looks like in me, but I also keenly watch my teachers... because as they make very hard decisions about how to speak into the times, I know that the standard by which their careful, wise words and actions are voiced, is a standard that exists beyond tired, partisan arguments and remains anchored to the heart of God's dream (as Bishop Tutu calls it). They don't do it perfectly, and why they don't and never could, is because they have a welcoming practice for the fact that God's dream is unmoored in the oceanic universe of things and the world is messy - and often what gets demonized, if the "wrong-doer" is not in a position of power, is far more complex, once we are willing to humanize the situation. In other words... I trust the teacher who doesn't put a lot of stock in a facade of morals, and who warmly and patiently owns their own shortcomings, and simply isn't perfect. Or as James Finley says, "it isn't that the master is no longer confused, its just that they're no longer confused by their confusion."
Now more than ever, something to watch for, very keenly, is how quickly victims are twisted into being the culprit, rendering the victim's voice to be asphyxiated... and how quickly the culprit is made the victim, and rewarded with more power. This is gaslighting 101, and that is what it should be called, because it fuels the fires of violence; but it cannot be detected if all we're looking for is a veneer of individual morality dressed up in trustworthy skin and rational gender.
Today is the canonization of Oscar Romero. After 38 years, the Catholic church is officially canonizing the El Salvadorian bishop who to many, is an example of what the church set out to be: Christ's conscious presence in the world. When the El Salvadorian government was shifting toward an oligarchy (which eventually killed over 75,000 people, and displaced millions), Romero spoke out and was very openly present with the people whose government had very forcefully turned against them, so that the few had so much and the many had so little.
Romero was mortally wounded minutes after delivering a homily during Mass, in a small chapel in Divine Providence Hospital. The scripture reading for that homily was John 12:23-26 in which Jesus famously references the grain of wheat falling, to bear much fruit.
For those of us who are not officially Roman Catholic (and maybe for some official Catholics who need to brush up on their terminology!), Romero was beatified in 2015, allowing people near the places he worked and lived to venerate him publicly as a candidate for sainthood. Canonization is when the pope formally decrees that someone is a Saint. Today is the day when Pope Francis decrees Oscar Romero an official Saint in the church across the globe. For many around the world, especially Central and South Americans, San Romero has been San Romero long before this day, but the timing for this is still poignant, and very possibly, fruitful.
This standard I speak of, that I observe in my teachers, (and I count Saint Oscar among them)... is the standard that makes no sense in a culture that teaches us to win and overtake at any cost.
Here is what I've observed about these folks I respect, who live by a standard that is very different than mere partisan mud slinging:
1. they have a daily contemplative practice, usually comprised of the practice of letting go... of thoughts and hang-ups, that would otherwise wield subtle acts of violence on themselves and others, throughout the day
2. they know that in the desert, the presence of corporate evil (Macphisto?!) offered Jesus all of the power in the world, but Jesus passed the test, and chose instead to risk his life by eating with, befriending and giving voice, to the people who were not welcome at the tables of power (and had no say in how those tables were built) - including people of other faith traditions
3. they are willing to probe their own hearts, for the place that would say yes to all the power in the world, that would believe the trappings of their renown, which is the same place that would stone the prophets
4. they know that energy is powerful and how we spend it determines what fire gets fed
5. they don't allow individual sin to become a cheap decoy, and they hold themselves open to Holy Wisdom, so they might be shown the sin of oppression, and the lust for power-over others, wherever it shows up, but especially in their own group... which in this case, is the Western Christian church (* watch for this as we move forward... Bonhoeffer spoke of the "secularization' of the church. Many today read that word "secularization" in terms of what they see as individual sin... but a very, very key point to Bonhoeffer's use of that word, was to suggest that the German church was being used as a key vehicle for very powerful, corporate sin).
6. they have a sense of humour
7. they show up in their gifts and remember they are instruments of the breath of God
8. when in doubt, they remember that God is with the last and the least and wants them to rise and to shine
9. also when in doubt, they remember that God has set a Universal Mythic Realm at play, which topples towers that would enslave, (no matter whether those still in the tower are claiming persecution). God wants this tower toppled, certainly to free the captives, but also, because God desires for even the oppressor to become fully human, and knows they never will, so long as they have their false sense of security (or as Oscar Romero put it: "there are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried").
I chose the song Strange Islands (from Point Vierge: Thomas Merton's Journey in Song) for today's Sunday Song and Rumination, because the veneer of the perfectly lived, pearly-white teethed life in the tower, is beginning to show its bloody fangs out in the open. That we would be so foolishly swift to victimize and "saint" a powerful, elite, tantrum thrower (you fill in the blanks as to whom I am speaking of- because it would seem, there is more than one), but so painfully slow to canonize the courage of Oscar Romero, means that we are still falling, in order for the God-created Mythic Realm to bring a voice to the voiceless, and full humanity to the near-inhuman facade of morals, who refuses to look power in the eye, name it as a lie, lose that which is not there, and awaken to what alone always is.
In the song, you will hear the spoken word of James Finley saying:
what feels like negation,
is actually a liberation,
a liberation from a falsified consciousness
in which nothing is lost
except that which is not there
and nothing is gained except an awakening to what alone always is
You will hear the voice of Thomas Merton, warning his novices:
"this is one of the things our Lord came to reveal, is that human beings, especially when they are right, especially when they are holy, and especially when they are good, they can be terrible".
And finally you'll hear me sing these lyrics, from Thomas Merton's poem Strange Islands:
When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone
he has not even a house
Stars as well as friends
Are angry with the noble ruin
In several directions
There is no longer any need of comment
It was a lucky wind
that blew away his halo with his cares
It was a lucky sea
that drowned his reputation
Palace of Nowhere
I was in my friend Steve Bell's studio yesterday producing a new song called Divine Obedience, which I will be sharing in the coming weeks. I was asked to write the song by the folks who drafted the Barmen Today Declaration, inspired by the Barmen Declaration drafted by Karl Barth and others (and signed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer) in 1934. More on this later.
It is a 2 1/2 hour drive back home from Steve's studio in Winnipeg, and I found myself singing "come with me to the palace of nowhere, where all the many things are one", and thought, the Sunday Song and Rumination for this week will be Palace of Nowhere.
This week is about cosmic hope.
The reason I have been so drawn to making music and incorporating spoken word with James Finley, is because he walks in a lineage of mystics who discovered that mysterious place that belongs entirely to God; and then spent their lives trying to poetically describe this place, of dignity, of magnitude, of small simplicity, of love... the core of who and Whose we are.
Thomas Merton called it the True Self.
Another way it can be described is that we are "breathers of the breath of God".
Or the Psalmist said, "Where can I go from your Spirit O God?"
James Finley quotes Bonaventure in this song too when he says (about God)... "whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere.* The entire quote in the song by James Finley is a passage from his classic book Merton's Palace of Nowhere.
It is remarkable! That we get to walk in moments of conscious incarnation (which is not the same as self reflective) is an immense gift!
As I keep my eyes open to the times, I get sad sometimes because as I see the Christian religion being defended a lot, I don't see an awareness of the incarnation we claim to believe in, very much. We still have to look the part of some overreaching and empty purity claim, and often spend our whole lives not being aware of the miracle of getting to be a unique iteration of Divine Reality.
The Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (370-287 BC) said, "come with me to the palace of nowhere, where all the many things are one." He was one of Thomas Merton's most beloved Eastern philosophers, to the point where, after years of study, Merton wrote a modern version of Chuang Tzu's sayings and published a book called The Way of Chuang Tzu. Of course, in some circles this sparked threat, that a Christian monk would be reading something other than Christian writings, but as James Finley says in our album on Merton, "Merton recognized depth, wherever he found it".
I love the palace of nowhere phrase, because it doesn't confuse the many things as not many things, but it speaks to the Mystery at the heart of all of this, that makes each "scandal of the particular", one.
So in this track, you'll hear me singing the words of Chuang Tzu, you'll hear the spoken word of James Finley and then you'll hear audio of Thomas Merton speaking on the "kind of monasticism that cannot be extinguished" from the last talk he ever gave. At the end of that talk, he did a lunch, and then went up to his room, to have a bath, and he died of electrocution from a short in a fan. That these words were recorded, is a gift, and I am in gratitude to the Merton Legacy Trust and Now You Know Media for the use of the audio. Precious!
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on a regenerative farm on the Canadian prairies.