By Jon Berry
WHAT DO YOU CALL A LAPSED PRESBYTERIAN WHO makes an offering to a Buddha in her Manhattan apartment before she leaves for a business trip? Or the man who puts his Jewish identity aside for a moment when he passes St. Patrick's Cathedral to go inside and light a candle? Or the practicing Catholic who feels most spiritually connected not inside a church but sitting at Jones Beach watching the waves come in?
My answer is: Friends. People I learn from and lean on, and whom I try to reciprocate in their times of need. Fellow travelers in spiritual New York.
Over the years, they – and the many more like them in what has come to be an ever-widening circle – have come to embody a saying I love: “Your problems are only as big as your God is small.”
I tend to use the word “God” carefully. I don’t have a good, day-in-day-out, working definition of what the word means. Frankly, I hope I never do. Sure, it’d be nice if God had Louis Armstrong’s voice – and, while we’re at it, preceded every pronouncement with the 1-minute, 35-second trumpet solo that opens Louis’ version of La Vie en Rose.
And yes, in my mind’s eye, Satch is sometimes accompanied by a fleet of angels who look just like Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire, coifed in long, ponytailed hair, wearing long, dark overcoats, and quoting Rilke. Better than a burning bush.
But, in the end, some things should be beyond our creaturely grasp. Otherwise, where’s the adventure?
That said, there is a feeling that I get when I’m part of a group that is gathered in what the Buddhists call lovingkindness, Christians call “the beloved community,” and, in 12-step, is described as the healing and recovery found in the group. In these times, I feel part of something good, loving, and right that is larger than myself.
Likewise, there is a sense I get when one of those fellow pilgrims says something – be it the trembling words of worship, or a mischievous gleam over coffee – that is a wisdom I’ve known, but never heard; that is truer than I had imagined; or seems to have been plucked right from my soul. As the old Quakers said, “that Friend speaks my mind.”
At such times, I see how a more spacious spirituality can make the hardest problems seem smaller. It may not be La Vie en Rose. But it works.
This was such a week. The more I put myself out there, the more that spaciousness got played back to me. It came through in new experiences – leading a group to the East Village to join 40 New Yorkers singing (actually, often, roaring) the ever-expanding, thrumming harmonies of the rural American tradition of Sacred Harp.
There were new lessons – a lecture in lovingkindness meditation at Tibet House. (Tip: Choose 2-3 wishes. Direct them first to yourself, then extend them to others. “May I be happy. May ____ be happy.” “May I live with ease. May ____ live with ease.” “May I find peace.” “May ___ find peace.” “May I be healthy and whole. May ____ be healthy and whole.” Try it at home. Then try it in the subway, a supermarket, or walking down the street – remembering to not walk too slow. This is New York, after all.) And there were trips to familiar havens – silent wors hip among Friends on Sunday; three12-step meetings.
But what I’ll most remember is many conversations with friends, asking them about their practices, how they handle situations, what they lean on.
There’s a perception in the wider world that New York is a spiritually bereft city. Being the center of the financial empire (Wall Street), media empires (The Times, The Journal, the news networks), and, yes, may as well, baseball’s evil empire (the city’s beloved Yankees), the thinking goes, rules out having a spiritual center.
It’s like the conventional wisdom that I read in the press, and sometimes hear in seminary, that the loosening of Americans’ religious affiliations, and the rise of new practices like yoga and meditation, have somehow made this a less spiritually serious country. Some see us as a nation of confused, feckless spiritual grazers in need of being corrected and brought back into the fold. I don’t agree.
Rather, in the personal stories I’ve seen play out in New York, I see something close to the non-polemical, open-minded, trial-and-error building of spiritual “toolkits” that Quaker blogger Diane Reynolds, quoting recent readings of hers, wrote about last week. In the stories is a spiritual experimentation like the essay’s description of “the creative and improvisational nature of jazz,” more about “invention than perfection.”
My friend goes into the church and lights a candle because, “it can’t hurt” and, in fact, feels right. With an adult child in recovery from heroin addiction, he’s earned the right, I’m persuaded, to try whatever he thinks can help. My other friend goes to the beach because every pore in her body tells her that’s where she will find serenity; invariably, she does.
And there’s the friend who, with her mom, was attracted to the century-old Buddha they saw in the store in upstate New York. As her mother grew ill, they bought the Buddha. When her mom passed, the statue came to my friend’s apartment, where it now has a special place of honor (photo below). When she leaves the offering of coins to the Buddha before heading off to the airport, she is, in essence, redrawing her connection to her mother.
Along the way she’s acquired more Buddha’s, as well as a few Shiva’s and Ganesh’s. She carries a tiny, smiling Buddha in her purse. “It sounds silly. But it makes me feel good to know he’s there,” she laughs. “I’ll stumble across him, and feel relieved.”
In their own, idiosyncratic (the root of which literally means “mix it oneself”) ways, I’ve come to see these friends as like the early Quakers who said they knew spiritual truth “experimentally.” They’re following the Buddha’s advice to his followers to take nothing on his word, but to test everything and find truth themselves.
Their personal striving after new images seems to me not so different from the absorption, in a different age, of the ancient pre-Colombian Nahuatl metaphor flor y canto, flower and song, into Christianity – the notion that beauty is a blessing, a reflection of the divine – and that we are to respond to it with flower and song of our own.
In breathing new life into their beliefs, I think, they are enacting a conception of God that I read a year ago in seminary, and that could grow into my definition: that “God is the communion of all things fully alive.”
The journey to connection is not easy. Many of my friends these days have been to the place Dante describes when he writes, “In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.” They’re proof of what the poet David Whyte, who often quotes the Dante image, says: “Every courageous life is lived in the grit and difficulty of existence.”
They have lived on the other side of the equation “there but for the grace of God go I” – the place others dread going – and have found that grace is evident – in fact, can be more abundant – on the other side. The least I can do is listen.
Steady, wise, and touched with joy and wistfulness: That's how I hear Louis Armstrong's La Vie en Rose. Have a listen by clicking here. Who knows, you, too, may hear angels sing from above. Let me know what you think -- and whether another voice or instrument better captures the Eternal to you.
I’ve written often enough about 12-step, it’s probably time for a link. Here’s one for those who interested in learning more about Al-Anon, the amazing, six-decade-old fellowship for those impacted by others’ alcoholism and addiction. Here’s a link Al-Anon/Alateen World Service Organization. It includes questions to consider if you think you or someone you know could benefit from Al-Anon, and lists for finding meetings around the country.
Given how often I write so about the silent worship of Friends, it’s also time for a link for those interested in learning more about Quakerism, my other spiritual base camp. Here are links to Friends General Conference (where you can find newcomer info and directions to meetings) and Friends Journal, the magazine of "Quaker thought and life today."
The Quaker Blog I referred to is Emerging Quaker, by Diane Reynolds, a journalist by trade, now a student at Earlham School of Religion (where I've studied). The essay I cite is “Utopia.”
The idea that "God is the communion of all things fully alive" is from Elizabeth Johnson, in her book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. Click here to learn more.