Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wounded yet whole

Those of you who are fans of The New Yorker may remember a time when the Talk of the Town section's entries often began with the words, "A friend writes..."

Well, today, that's pretty much how this blog began. A dear old friend, whom I met in a wonderful Episcopal community back in 1981 (and rediscovered in the world of Facebook), is now a devout and much-knighted Catholic, and this morning I found this question from him in my email:

"I resonate with your desire for a more compassionate, mindful, gentle life, one that brings healing, peace, and hope to others. I resonate with what you see in the Tibetan practices. The piece I don't get is the claim that there is nothing wrong with us, fundamentally, which seems to point in the direction that acceptance of this truth becomes the bedrock upon which all else is built. Yet I come back to the wound of original sin: we are fundamentally good, because created by God, yet each of us flawed in a way that renders it impossible to heal ourselves, save by the acceptance of grace and the conversion of life that such acceptance entails. How does one compaginate these two religious truth claims?"

Since I spent what would normally be my blog time composing my response, I've decided to share it here. It's a bit long-winded, so I hope you'll bear with me...

Thank you, David, for posing the question; it is a variant on a question I pose for myself all the time. How on earth do we — do I -- reconcile a belief in basic goodness with (and I don’t even have to step into Christianity to say this) the understanding that, as the Dalai Lama says, “Human emotions have no limits, and the strength of negative emotions is infinite.”

Let me begin by saying that no matter how many times I wander down the Buddhist path I always come back to Christ. Just so you know, that is where I stand; I cannot imagine a life without Christ at its center. Whether or not Christ is a myth, it is a myth that works for me and for my particular world view; it is a myth I believe. And I think the reason I keep coming back to Christianity is that Buddhism is not a theism; they have no God, no one to save or watch over or rescue or prod — all those things I confess I think God does. You could make a case for their having a view of the universe — that Basic Goodness they speak of — that performs the same function; I think their understanding is that that goodness calls all things back to itself just as God does. And perhaps that’s how I can stay in that space as easily and as long as I do, by performing a sort of translation between Basic Goodness and God.

That said, I think a lot of the myths that have grown up AROUND the core myth of Christianity over the years are flawed, and it is those accretions which keep turning my footsteps back into the mountains of Tibetan thinking. I really struggled with all of this apparently irreconcilable stuff until I encountered Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault, her concept of The Wisdom Jesus, Brother Laurence Freeman’s Jesus the Teacher Within, and, most importantly, the Gospel of Thomas.

I cannot pretend to have fully synthesized all I’ve learned from those sources, nor would I presume to summarize their teachings here. But what I can say is that I believe that rather simplistic statement that “Sin is separation from God.” I believe we are meant to be one with God, that we come from God, go to God, and carry God (you could call it “Basic Godness”) within us. And that all the bad that we do and are capable of doing — and I agree with the Dalai Lama, especially after that gang rape in California, that our capacity for bad behavior does indeed seem to be infinite — emerges out of that separation; that if we were able to be fully conscious at all times of God’s presence in our selves and in our lives, those bad behaviors would diminish considerably, if not into nothingness.

And I guess I should say that a subset of that belief is my conviction that, as it says in Romans 8: 28, “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him;” by which I mean the difficult things that happen in our lives, whether or not they were specifically created by God to challenge us, are always opportunities for us to move back toward God, to reduce that critical separation between us and God.

Okay. Having said that, how do I translate it into your language? Perhaps what you call the wound of original sin is the result of having been embodied, incarnated, created as beings separate from God. The fundamental goodness is in our having been part of God. The inability to heal ourselves is because we will always, for the duration of our physical lifetime, remain separate and therefore vulnerable to that illusion, that there is some good to be had apart from God.

Which is not to say flesh is bad — that’s one of those accretions I abhor — only to say that in becoming flesh we are automatically prey to that illusion. Our en-fleshed-ness is God-given, too, and it, too, can be "worked through for good." Perhaps what you call grace, in my world view, is those moments when I come back into awareness of God/Godness within/Goodness and am able to act out of that understanding. And for me, conversion — and please do remember I consider myself to be a born-again Christian, with a specific (if long-ago) moment of conversion, tied absolutely and irrevocably to my understanding in that moment of the magnitude of Jesus’ death on the cross — is a constant, ongoing process of determining to return to God, of daily, even moment-by-moment, determination to do my best to restore my awareness of connection to the Holy.

Note that I say restore my AWARENESS of connection. As you say, I cannot restore the connection: that’s because I believe it already exists. And I think the grace in my life expresses itself in my longing for that connection, since that longing fuels the determination to work hard on my end to restore it. I also believe that it's grace that — for whatever reason — I continue to make this effort to honor what I know of the connection, to even seek to honor it. And my all-too-human flaws, which result from my having been created separate and human, also serve as motivators (and that is grace, as well) to bring me repeatedly back to the place where I try to ascertain God’s will, “do the right thing,” the peaceful, mindful, gentle, just, healing, hopeful, compassionate thing.

Sorry -- I just have to say this: "Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home." It's grace that keeps me out of trouble, that helps me keep striving for God; and it is grace that will ultimately guide me back into that (now temporarily hidden) wholeness with God from which each of us first emerged.

I’m sure there are all sorts of flaws to be found in the logic of this, and probably there is some heresy as well. But on a gray Tuesday morning in November, this is the answer I seem to be writing.


Maureen said...

It means a lot to me to be able to read this. Thank you for opening via your words a way into better understanding of my own struggle, both for connection and toward wholeness.

Kimberly Mason said...

Just wanted to let you know I'm still reading. My head seems too full sometimes to be able to find a comment among the muddle that's floating around inside my head lately, but I'm still here. And my dang internet connection has been so SLOW lately! Just today I got to see the "rule of three" photo -- frustrated me to no end cuz I just KNEW I'd like it and I did!

Joyce Wycoff said...

Wow, Diane ... what a beautiful and wonderful response. It resonates deeply within me.