EDITOR’S NOTE 9/27/17:
Some of you have heard me tell, in person or in an auditorium somewhere, the story of my friendship with Hugh Hefner, who went on to his eternal reward today.
My experiences with Hef back in 2004 were among the most memorable and aperture-expanding of my professional life. He is the reason I try my damnedest to leave preconceptions at the door whenever I meet someone I think I know something about, or whenever I meet anyone. Full stop.
I learned so much more about faith and God and even myself from my conversations with Hef than I did about him. He was incredibly warm and kind and generous of spirit. And he was vulnerable, wounded, and there was a certain sadness that dwelt around the edges of his enormous smile and sparkly eyes.
Ninety-one is a respectable number of years. He didn’t out-do his mother, but he got close. And I’d like to think that wherever he is right now, he knows. Now he knows. All the answers to all the questions from a mind that was endlessly curious about the world, love, and yes, God.
Now you know, Hef. Bless your huge tender heart.
What follows below is the chapter about Hef, based on those conversations back in 2004, from my first book, The God Factor.
May we all have our expectations exceeded and our preconceived notions dismantled more often than not.
When I decided to make my living as a religion writer, I never expected the job to entail giving my name and credentials to a “talking rock” outside the imposing gates of California’s Playboy Mansion on my way to have a conversation with Hugh Hefner about God.
What am I getting myself into? I thought, maneuvering my rental car past the rock, which kindly opened the gates for me, and up the winding wooded driveway where cutesy painted “Playmates at Play” signs mark the way toward the infamous mock-Tudor mansion. I crane my neck, looking both ways, fully expecting to see flocks of naked, pneumatic blondes skipping across the manicured lawns.
But there are no naked girls in sight—only a handful of fully clothed male gardeners and a small flock of flamingos—and what I find inside the Playboy Mansion during the visit with the man everyone calls Hef thoroughly surprises me. Almost as much, he will tell me eventually, as I surprise him.
“I have strong feelings about the way organized religion—with the codification of all the rules related to sexuality—became law and played havoc with people’s lives. And I think that—dare I say it?—is very un-Christian,” Hef says at the beginning of our conversation. We are sitting next to each other on a comfy couch in the mansion’s library, not far from where an original Matisse, with a burn mark where a tipsy John Lennon once left a lit cigarette, hangs. Behind the couch is a life-size bust of a topless woman. (Someone later tells me it is Hef’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton—the bust, not the Matisse.) “I think that there are great unanswered questions that I don’t have the answers for, and I think it is presumptuous for some people not only to suggest that they do have the answers but to codify them and establish them as a set of rules, some of which are wonderful and some of which are hurtful, in the name of the Almighty.”
That Hef would chafe at the confines of organized religion is hardly a shock. Much of what he says initially about religion and religious people appears to be well-rehearsed material, thoughtful sound bites that he’s delivered during innumerable interviews throughout his fifty-plus-year career as publisher of Playboy magazine. “Religion was a very important part of my upbringing. I saw in it a quality, in terms of ideals and morality, that I embraced. I also saw part of it, the part related to human sexuality and other things, that I thought was hypocritical and hurtful. And I think that is the origin of who I am. The heart of who I am is a result of trying to make some sense of all of that.
“Sex is there for procreation and a good deal more,” Hef continues. “I was raised in a setting in which it was for procreation only and the rest was sin, and that included not only a whole lot of behavior but also a whole lot of people. That’s abominable.”
Hef, who is dressed in his usual uniform—red-and-black satin smoking jacket, pajamas, and slippers—is charming, disarmingly so for a man in his late seventies. He is also incredibly literate, introspective, and kind in a grandfatherly way. But there is a certain tension at the beginning of our conversation, as if he’s worried that I’m going to judge him or, worse, try to convert him, as another interviewer apparently had a few weeks before me.
“I was saved a long time ago,” Hef says, not quite sarcastically. “I think I am a spiritual person, but I don’t mean that I believe in the supernatural. I believe in the creation, and therefore I believe there has to be a creator of some kind, and that is my God. I do not believe in the biblical God, not in the sense that he doesn’t exist, just in the sense that I know rationally that man created the Bible and that we invented our perception of what we do not know.
“I would believe in a god who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better, and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah, I would vote in favor of that,” he says, chuckling. “But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and to do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you, and that leaves this world a little better place than when you found it.”
Is that how he defines morality, then? Living in a way that makes life better for those around you and trying to make the world a better place? He looks a little concerned about the question, like I’m going to stand up, point my finger at him, and yell “shame on you!” or something.
“Yes,” he says tensely.
Don’t hurt anyone. Try to do the right thing. Make the world a better place. The Hefner moral code.
Hef believes he has lived up to the code, although he’s keenly aware there are people—many of them deeply religious—who would insist he has done exactly the opposite by building an empire based on unfettered sexuality and, some say, the objectification of women. To them, the image of the man is simple: Hugh Hefner, sinner extraordinaire.
“Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term,” Hef says, adding that his definition of sin is “things that are hurtful to people.”
Has he sinned?
“Oh, sure,” Hef says, “but I haven’t pursued very much immoral behavior. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it. Morality is what is perceived as good for people. I try to do what’s right, to do what I believe to be truly humanistic and rational and loving.”
So, how did he learn his definition of morality?
“First and foremost from my parents and secondly, in a very real way, from the movies. I think the movies were my mentors, my other parents. It’s where I escaped into dreams and fantasies, and it also provided me with a set of values that were immigrant dreams—what we call the American dream, dreams of democracy. I was a big fan of Frank Capra before I knew who Frank Capra was. I was born in 1926, so I grew up with the films of the 1930s. Very romantic, during the Great Depression. And those dreams came from Jewish immigrants, by and large, and that is what we think of as the American dream. It has become a universal dream, a dream of democracy, of personal and political freedom for everybody, a right to live your life on your own terms as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
What films have you learned the most from spiritually? I ask, and appear to have stumped him.
“One of the difficulties in the context of what you’re asking is that spirituality has different meanings for different people and suggests for most people a supernatural phenomenon,” he says, tentatively. “And you know … most of the movies that have had the most impact on me in terms of what I would call spiritual were romantic films, but they are … you know … I don’t know if I can use the word spiritual in its proper sense—”
“Let me tell you mine,” I interrupt. “It’s Harold and Maude.”
“Oh,” Hef says, his face folding into a big grin and the tension seeming to evaporate between us. “Oh, I love Harold and Maude. Well, now you’re broadening the definition of spiritual in a really wonderful way. Harold and Maude is one of my favorite films, and Bud Cort [Harold] is a friend and [is] here for parties all the time. And of course, Ruth Gordon [Maude] is wonderful. We show classic films here every Friday night,” he says, motioning toward the screening room (complete with a full-size pipe organ) adjacent to his library. “It’s called Casablanca Night. Last Friday we ran a film written by Ruth Gordon’s husband. Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday’s first film. And that’s a very spiritual film, too.
“It’s about a woman who is a kept mistress of a corrupt guy, played by Broderick Crawford, who is trying to make a deal in Washington. And in her rather Pygmalion relationship with the teacher, William Holden, she sees the world in a whole new way and she is reborn in the real sense. It’s a very spiritual film,” he says.
Another movie he finds spiritually inspiring is the 1942 film The Male Animal, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Fonda plays the mildmannered midwestern university professor Tommy Turner, whose job is threatened after he reads a controversial essay to his class that is perceived to be pro-communist. “It has to do with conviction of belief beyond what is popular, and it had a tremendously moving impact on me,” Hef says. “When I talk about spiritual, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Me, too, I tell him.
“How nice to have someone like you dealing with the subject of religion,” he says, looking relieved. “How did you ever get this gig? I didn’t expect you.”
Despite what he calls a “typical midwestern Puritan” upbringing—and Hefner, a tenth-generation direct descendant of the Mayflower passenger William Bradford, uses the term Puritan quite specifically—the Playboy baron’s own spirituality is decidedly unconventional.
Call it The Playboy Theology. Hef doesn’t believe in a “biblical God,” but he is fairly adamant about the existence of a “Creator.” He hasn’t been to a church service that wasn’t a wedding, funeral, or baptism since he was a student at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s, but he says he worships on a regular basis while walking the grounds of his own backyard. And he follows a system of morals, but not those gleaned from the Methodism of his childhood—at least not the ones that pertain to sexuality.
Hef grew up in Chicago, the elder of two sons born to Grace and Glenn Hefner. As a child he spent little time with his father, an accountant. “It was the Depression, and he was away before I got up and often not back before I went to sleep, so we only saw him on weekends,” he says. “Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced—all the good stuff. Never hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family.
“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way I’d been raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn’t have done it any better. And because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.’
“When I talk about the hurt and the hypocrisy in some of our values—our sexual values—it comes from the fact that I didn’t get hugged a lot as a kid, and I understand that.” While his mother was steadfastly Puritanical, Hefner says she wasn’t particularly dogmatic. “We had to go to church every Sunday, but she let us try other churches. We went to a Congregational church for a while, which is similar to Methodist. I went a couple of times to a Christian Science church because I had a crush on a girl in high school who was a Christian Scientist. I went to Catholic church on a number of occasions with my first wife because she was Catholic.”
He married his first wife, Millie Williams, in 1949 at a parish on Chicago’s blue-collar Northwest Side. He can’t recall the name of the parish, but he does remember—vividly—his brush with Catholicism. “Millie got very upset when she went to the doctor for birth control information and the doctor turned out to be Catholic and started singing ‘Rhythm is my business.’ She was so affronted,” Hefner says. That was the end of Hef’s connection, tenuous as it was, to the Catholic Church—or to any organized religion.
The couple, who divorced after ten years of marriage, raised their children, David and Christie (who is now CEO of Playboy Enterprises), without any formal religious tradition. His younger children, teenage sons Marston and Cooper, who live with their mother, Hefner’s second wife, Kimberly Conrad, on an estate adjacent to the Playboy Mansion, are also being reared religion free, he says. (Hefner and Conrad, Playboy’s 1989 Playmate of the Year, married in 1989 and have been separated amicably since 1998.)
Back in the 1960s, when Hefner and Playboy Enterprises were involved with the civil rights movement and Playboy was in its heyday, Hef spent time with various clergymen, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with whom he could knock around his ideas about theology and morality. In fact, Hef says, for a time Playboy magazine offered a special discount subscription rate for ministers. During this era, the Playboy founder also met the Episcopal priest and author Malcolm Boyd. The two men have remained close friends for more than forty years.
“Hef is a seeker,” says Boyd, an openly gay octogenarian who lived briefly at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago in the mid-1960s and is artist in residence at Los Angeles’s Cathedral Center of St. Paul. “He’s on an adventure in life, and it’s at a very deep level a spiritual adventure. He’s looking for meaning, for context, for answers. He tries to size people up in a kind of spiritual way.
“Hef is almost a fierce individualist, and I think a great many people have never really understood him,” Boyd says. “He doesn’t have a conformist image that people are invited to buy into. He’s himself.”
When Hef prays, which he admits is not with any regularity, he says his conversation with the Creator usually goes something like this: “Thank you, Lord.”
“I’m blessed. If life is a card game, I got the winning hand, and most people have only a small idea of how really good it is,” he says, grinning. “Usually, you know, our religious values suggest you have to pay the fiddler, that if you get a lot of good breaks, there has to be something wrong with it, and usually there is. Not to suggest that my life hasn’t been full of trials and tribulations. Of course, it has. It wouldn’t be a life without it. But I know how lucky I am.”
As we’re talking, a peacock rests on the low branch of a tree in the backyard of the Playboy Mansion, which he shares with his girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. All three women are in their twenties. Located in Los Angeles’s Holmby Hills, the 5.7-acre grounds of the mansion are elaborately landscaped. There are fifty coastal redwoods, a meandering pool with waterfalls, and, of course, the notorious “grotto,” a cavelike alcove off the main swimming pool that houses a series of hot tubs, all of different depths and temperatures. (Of the myriad intimate encounters that have reportedly occurred in the grotto over the years, the saying goes, “What happens in the grotto, stays in the grotto.”)
There’s also a zoo. Squirrel monkeys, parrots, toucans, and other exotic creatures live only a few dozen yards from Hef’s back door. “The animals we have here are a direct connection to my childhood and my love of animals and my belief that we should be somehow living in harmony with nature, as the animals do. The Tarzan myths fascinated me as a kid. It was man and his mate in harmony with nature, and the enemy was the white hunter—civilization.
“Some of my most spiritual moments, if I can call them that, come from walking through the forest, come from walking the backyard; feeling connected to the wonder of what this is all about,” he says, his eyes wandering out a picture window to the mansion’s rolling, bucolic grounds.
“I think it brings your emotions to the surface, to a level where you are just totally overwhelmed. Sometimes you know why and sometimes you don’t. It touches you in places that are hidden, that are from very early childhood, that are hurts, yearnings, and those are wonderful, magical, spiritual moments. And they can come sometimes from left field.” One of the regular stops on his backyard strolls is a Tabebuia, or trumpet tree, he planted near the tennis courts in honor of his mother, who died in 1997 at the age of 101. “A good walk in the woods is very revitalizing,” he says. “If you think you’ve got problems or something hurtful has happened, take a walk in the woods and think about how lucky you are just to be alive.”
So, why are we here? What’s the meaning of life, the highest moral value?
“Love,” he says, without hesitation. “Love. Why do we keep fucking it up? Love. It is the Golden Rule.”
Love is all we need?
“Well, John Lennon thought so, but we need a little reason to go along with it,” Hef says as he sees me out of the library before disappearing upstairs to his bedroom. “This has been a truly spiritual afternoon for me. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this.”
Me neither, Hef. Me neither.
From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People by Cathleen Falsani (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)
While he waits for the Brazilian faith healer to arrive, Paul Simon is supposed be meditating quietly with his eyes closed.
Instead, he’s peeking.
“I want to see what’s going on,” Simon said, recalling his visit to the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola in Abadiânia, Brazil, where, in the summer of 2014, he underwent a “spiritual operation” performed by João Teixeira de Faria — a medium and psychic healer known as João de Deus (or “John of God“).
Eventually, John of God enters the room where Simon and about a dozen other pilgrims, a few lying on gurneys, await with varying degrees of patience, anxiety, and faith.
“He speaks in Portuguese — I assume a prayer — and he leaves,” Simon said. “And then everyone gets up and leaves the room. And I say to my guide, ‘Well, when is the operation?’ And she says, ‘No, that was it. You had it.’ … I felt nothing.”
While in Brazil — a 10-day trip he took at the urging of his wife, the musician Edie Brickell, who had traveled to Abadiânia for her own “spiritual surgery” several months earlier — Simon began writing the song “Proof of Love,” a six-minute epic that is, arguably, the centerpiece of his masterful new album.
I trade my tears
To ask the Lord
For proof of love
If only for the explanation
That tells me what my dreams are made of…
Stranger to Stranger, his 12th solo album, is rich with the singularly vivid storytelling that long ago earned Simon his place in the American music pantheon. He invites listeners on a sonic journey with more than a whiff of spiritual exploration — a familiar theme for careful listeners to his half-century of music-making.
A Half-Century-Long Musical Conversation
Expressed in his music, Simon’s spirituality is experiential, what the German theologian Rudolf Otto might have called “numinous” — it expresses a connection to the “wholly Other” that is deeply personal and awesome (in the literal meaning of that word). In his The Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosopher William James might have described it as “mystical,” as in “mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge … illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain.”
It also is in a sense ineffable, a conversation about transcendent experiences that unfolds as much in the sound as it does in actual words that Simon sings.
Since the 1960s, Simon’s musical dialogue with his audience has been an adventure: through the mean streets of pre-Bloomberg New York City, on a bus across America, with a runaway bride, into the townships of South Africa, Chernobyl, the Amazon, fatherhood, the deep South, the ups-and-downs of enduring love, questions about mortality, and dreams of the afterlife.
That conversation (and adventure) continues with Stranger to Stranger at the velvet rope of a nightclub, with a homeless “street angel,” in a hospital emergency room, at the riverbank, an insomniac’s bedside, and a village in central Brazil that some might describe as a “thin place” — where the veil between this world and whatever lies beyond it is like gossamer.
Simon, who turns 75 this year, hadn’t made the journey to see João de Deus because he was physically ill. In fact, he’s in pretty great shape. But he has suffered from violent nightmares for most of his life and in the months leading up to his unlikely pilgrimage, the bad dreams had become more frequent — sometimes once or twice a week.
“I was kicking and punching in my sleep,” Simon said, “and Edie was saying, ‘You better go down there.'”
Original post published in March 2011. Updated on May 26, 2016:
In the spring of 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, which was a collection of 32 “spiritual profiles” of well-known people (I won’t say “celebrities” as that label applies awkwardly to many folks in the book) who I had spent time with face-to-face talking about their spiritual lives. I then set out, as you do, promoting the book at various literary festivals and other public appearances. As part of that tour, we decided I should conduct a few of these “God Factor” interviews live before an audience. We invited Bruce Cockburn, long a favorite of mine and one of the first “celebrity” interviews I ever conducted way back when I was writing for my college newspaper. Bruce agreed to join me onstage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in May 2006. I figured he’d fly in with his manager, do my little dog-and-pony show and fly back to Ontario. Instead, incredibly gracious and generous soul that he is, Bruce drove his van down from his home in Kingston, Ontario alone and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in the rain in Ann Arbor. Our conversation onstage was only a small part of the amazing conversations we had those few days in Michigan, but the only one for which I have an audio recording. (Our dinner at this fabulous Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor — I’ve never before or since had curried okra quite as good — not far from the theater where I’d interviewed him backstage 15 years earlier, will remain one of my favorite experiences of all time.)
As for our public “interview,” it too remains one of my favorite of all time. For years I’ve meant to take a couple of hours to transcribe it and post it so all of you could read (and hear) Bruce’s thoughtful responses to my questions about his faith. I’ve sat down many times to do so, never finishing until tonite. So with my apologies for taking many years to share it with you in its fullness, I give you the Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview in its entirety.
Transcript of my Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, May 13, 2006
C: Can everybody hear us ok?
I’ve done many of these interviews before but never with an audience before, and usually we’re sitting on a couch or talking across a dinner table, but I think we’re both game. And I’m gonna grill him.
B: Here I sit, ready for the skewer.
C: Ready? Ok. Here comes the first one.
How would you describe yourself spiritually?
B: As a seeker, I think. I think that’s the simplest way to put it.
I think I suppose in some way we’re all that, or those of who think we should be are. Not everybody cares enough, I guess, about spiritual matters to identify themselves that way. But I do. And that seeking has led me through a bunch of different stuff.
I started being interested in spirituality when I was in high school. I can remember – whether it was the influence of the Beat writers I was reading, it might have been that – or some other set of circumstances that conspired to kind of get me thinking that there’s more to life than just the physical and that whatever that ‘more’ was it was something we should be paying attention to.
And that was the beginning.
I flirted with Buddhism because of the influence of the Beat writers. I moved on when the 60s came along – I sort of moved on into the occult, studied the Tarot, read a lot of old musty books about the occult take on spirituality. Eventually became a Christian and tried for a minute or two to be a fundamentalist Christian because I thought they seemed to offer the clearest definition of what being a Christian was.
And then I realized that it was, that their definition left out a lot of things because really what fundamentalism seemed to be about was drawing lines around things that were uncomfortable when they didn’t have lines. And I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of comfort.
So it kind of went on from there. Since then I’ve fallen under the influence of Sufi writers of Hindu teachings through Yoga studies and various other things. And the search continues.
C: Were you raised with any kind of traditional religious upbringing?
B: I was raised going to Sunday school, with the obligation to wear grey flannels on Sunday mornings, which was horrible.
C: What flavor?
B: It was what is called the United Church in Canada, which is different from the one in the United States. Its’ an amalgam of Methodist and Presbyterian. Socially the United Church in Canada has a history of kind of a liberal, of social engagement. It’s one of the least attended churches in existence, although when I was a kid that wasn’t true. All of the churches had bigger attendance than they do now.
My parents are agnostics and the only reason we went to Sunday school was that, well, my great aunt would be unhappy and the neighbors would talk. This was the 50s. You don’t buck the system in the 50s. We did what we were supposed to do. And that basically was kind of clear from the beginning that that was what we were doing. Because my parents would go to church from time to time but we didn’t hear any talk of religion in the home at all.
We got a little bit in school. We had to say the Lord’s Prayer. I remember the first time I encountered that. For some reason, we moved half way through kindergarten, and in the first half of kindergarten they weren’t saying the Lord’s Prayer — I don’t really know what that was about because it was pretty normal, as I later learned. But the next kindergarten I went to, you said this prayer in the morning and I’d never heard it before.
So I’m mumbling away, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, HELL would by thy name,’ which I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Whoah. Weird. Psychedelic, if I had known that word back then. But anyway…
C: Do you recall what your first idea of God was?
B: Oh I think, I’m not sure how much this has been colored with hindsight, but I think it was probably sort of the charismatic old man with a big beard hanging out up in the sky. I think that’s probably the image I had of God as a kid.
But I also learned to love books really young and I learned that from my father who at that time, especially – he’s not that much of a reader as he was then – but he was a big reader and introduced me to Greek mythology, for instance, really early and it captivated me completely. Which I mixed up with Greek history – ancient history – as well so that my sense of the past was tied up with gods and heroes as much as it was with battles and modes of dress and stuff like that – buildings whose traces can still be found around. But there was a period when I was really young that I wanted to be an archeologist until I found out how much kind of boring work that involved.
So, my sense of God had to have also been affected by pictures in my mind of Zeus and Thor and the other ancient gods.
C: What do you think God is now?
B: Um…I like the Kabalistic view of God as ‘the boundless,’ which is basically a way of saying, I think, that there’s no image that applies at all and there’s no limits and every image that you could possibly think of is going to have limitations. Dealing with the boundless – I can kind of relate to that.
But I don’t know. It all remains to be seen.
If you think of psychology, if you think of Jung or Freud and the Jungian archetypes that exist in our beings in that worldview, those have a divine aspect or offer a connection to the divine. And those are clearly images – the animus, the anima, the principles that we, in my dreams anyway, they show up as people – sometimes really screwball people.
I remember – and this< I’m sure it was God – but a dream I had a few years ago: I opened the door of my house, which was in the country looking over nice fields – and there’s this old man in a suit, a yellow three-piece suit with a straw fedora and a cane and walking up my driveway. And he walks right up to my front door and I open the screen door and I’m excited to see him – he’s an old black man – and I said, ‘Hi! Welcome!’ and he looked and me and went, ‘Putain!’ which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, it’s the French word for ‘whore.’
Oh, OK. Clearly this man is telling me something.
I think he was kind of telling me stop fooling around with vague concepts and an intellectual kind of involvement and get down to trying to feel that kind of visceral contact.
So that’s what I currently work on.
C: Now, you said you became a Christian at some point. Can you talk about how that happened?
B: Yeah, I married a Christian. At the time we talked about spirituality but we really didn’t get down to religion too much. But over the first couple of years we were together, we talked a lot about that stuff.
She had grown up in a very freethinking household. Her father was a scientist. They were spiritually aware people but very disinclined to kind of attach any kind of imagery to things. And by way of adolescent rebellion, she had sort of run off and become a Baptist.
Kids have to separate themselves from their parents in some way and that was hers.
So we got into discussions about Christianity – she had abandoned that course after realizing that the people she had been with were very narrow-minded. They were glad to sign her up but they weren’t so good at dealing with being human.
We’re not married any more and we haven’t been for a very long time, but she remains a friend and she is a very psychic person with a lot of insight and she would have experiences that she couldn’t talk about with these people because it sounded demonic to them. So she left that.
But what she persuaded in getting me to do was to look at the Bible as something other than the chronicle of horrors that I had previously seen it as. We used to look in the Bible for the juicy bits, ya know? The guy stabbing his dagger into the king’s belly until the fat closed over his fist – that was a good one. And bits of the woman who was killed because she saved her husband’s life by grabbing his antagonist’s genitals. But because she’d touched a guy’s genitals, she had to be killed.
Ya know you find this – this is what I knew about the Bible as a teenager.
But, Kitty showed me St. Paul’s – whichever one of Paul’s letters that talks about loves – and one of the great things about the letters of St. Paul is that the guy – there is such a clear sense of him as a person in those letters. I don’t think I would have liked him very much.
C: I know I wouldn’t have…
B: But I really liked what he had to say about love. About the tongues of men and angels and that whole passage is a beautiful invitation to think more about that stuff. And that’s what Kitty offered me in terms of the Bible. So between that and reading CS Lewis and Tolkein and Charles Williams – who was another one of their cronies who wrote another amazing series of novels – almost impenetrable from a writing point of view – he was a terrible writer, but he was dealing with concepts that he seemed to have a really clear picture of – the bigger cosmos that we all inhabit and the way in which we interface with that cosmos, that are described in this series of seven novels dealing with kind of with the occult. Some of the people who are coming into these novels from the occult side are evil or represent evil and some do not. And his background seemed to, in some ways, parallel my own, some of the stuff that I’d studied before I got interested in Christianity came through in these novels clearly, and that attracted me to him.
So I came under the influence of these people and eventually I realized that I was in fact a Christian in every way except getting down on my knees and saying, identifying myself with Jesus as a person. And I did that. And then I was a Christian.
C: And here you are.
B: And here I am.
C: When we talked about spirituality once before, I don’t recall whether I asked you if you’d still call yourself a Christian, and I can’t recall what you might have answered. But would you?
B: Um, I guess I’m reluctant to not call myself a Christian because it’s been such a big part of my life. But I know that there are Christians out there who would not consider me a Christian and would probably be offended at me using that word about myself.
C: You’re in good company, Bruce.
B: I think so, actually.
But, um, so… In a certain way I do think of myself as a Christian, but I’ve learned so much from so many other sources that … and now we’re reading this very interesting book by a Canadian theologian called ‘The Pagan Christ,’ in which he deals with his own shock and dismay when he realizes that basically all of the elements of the story of Jesus as handed down to us in the Bible are present 2,000 years earlier than that in the Egyptian story of Horus, who is born of a virgin, has 12 followers, is murdered by the state in a horrible fashion and rises from the dead.
You think well…does that mean Jesus was there then as Horus? Or does that mean that it’s all metaphoric? Or something between the two? I don’t know the answer. For this particular guy, Tim Harper I think his name is, he comes to the conclusion that it is metaphoric and that’s how we should approach it and as that, for him, the stories are a source of inspiration and a model for us to approach God through. But it’s not that easy for me to make that leap if I believe his take on things.
I don’t know the answer.
I went to Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about this last night – Jerusalem seemed to me to be sort of a maelstrom of human spiritual hunger. It’s just this vortex. It seemed to me that there will never be peace in the vicinity of Jerusalem, partly for that reason. And it seemed, when you saw the distinctions that people went to such lengths to make between themselves as Franciscans or Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic or different sects of Judaism or of Islam – they’re all there and they’re all representing themselves in their various uniforms and with their various rituals and they are terribly suspicious of each other. And you think, ‘This is as good as we get? This is a close as we get?’ Everyone has their sense of it. The thing, in a way and this is off the top of my head, but the thing that that illustrates is more than anything else the subjective nature of our relationship with the Divine.
And how important it is to remember how subjective it is and not to require other people to approach the divine in the same way. And humanity being the sort of tribal creatures that we are, we want to make these divisions. There is something instinctive in us that requires us to create tribes and to have somebody to oppose us in order to make us valid, or something. And when you see that so clearly illustrated in the confined setting of the old city of Jerusalem, it’s just – I don’t know. It was interesting. I’m still thinking. I don’t know where that’s going to take me yet.
C: There’s a debate going on in the States, and I don’t know what the conversation is like in Canada, but and I think what it boils down to is in a political construct here mostly. But what I think it really boils down to is people debating over what it really means to be a Christian. And if you are a Christian what that should mean for your politics – and I mean that in a social-justice kind of way. What do you think that means? How has that played a role in your activism?
B: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s pretty simple – until you try to practice it.
B: But it remains simple as a concept even if the neighbor is kind of smelly or whatever. It remains possible. And of course it also, in order to love your neighbor as yourself you have to start out first loving yourself, which is a big difficulty for a lot of people. We do the opposite. We project our self-hatred onto the neighbor and pretend that that, because it’s outside of us, we don’t have the problem. But it’s our problem.
So how do we translate that into the political arena? Well, it gets complicated when you’re dealing with issues like immigration, which is obviously a big one right now here, and a lesser issue in Canada but we kind of argue about all the same things that you guys do a year later.
B: …And with much less at stake, normally. But um, hah hah, ya know if you look at it – there are people somewhere in the world who are starving or who are victims of war and they’re victims of a situation that they didn’t create themselves – you go, well, that’s simple. I need to help those people. How can I help those people? Well, there are all kinds of nonprofit organizations and all kinds of avenues for helping people when it’s that obvious and it’s important to take advantage of those things because there are people who are our more immediate neighbors at those nonprofits who devote their lives to making the lives of other people in the world a little better. And they deserve our support. Ok? So that’s a simple take on it.
But when it comes down to whom you vote for, it gets very dicey. I didn’t vote in the last federal election in Canada because I couldn’t stomach any of the candidates. They all looked like cheap liars to me and they still do. After the elections, we have a government that wants to be Bush-like but doesn’t have America to work with.
So we’re saved from the worst excesses by virtue of being a country that doesn’t have any real power in the world. But the tendencies are there all the same.
C: What are you doing when you feel the most centered, or spiritually alive or something like that? Or the most authentically you?
C: It’s a pop quiz.
B: Hahahah. I don’t know if I trust feeling authentically me. Hahahah. I’m not sure what that means. There probably is a good answer to that but…
C: I can phrase it a different way: What are you doing when you feel closest to God?
B: It’s an accident and I can be doing anything.
But most often it’s in the presence of some – it can be a dream when I wake up and feel like there was something important about God in the dream, or it can be standing under a starry sky and feeling – that’s probably the most dramatic moment – or standing on a seashore at night hearing the waves, feeling the rhythm of it, feeling a part of this enormous fluid clockwork mechanism (I’m mixing metaphors horribly) but that’s how it strikes me. There’s this jigsaw thing that’s going on that’s always in motion, that’s always sparkling and once in a while I get the feeling that I’m a part of that in a conscious way. I think we’re all part of it, obviously, but most of the time I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about something that I think I’m supposed to think.
But when I forget what I’m supposed to be thinking, and it’s usually as I said in the presence of some kind of natural grandeur, I kind of whoah! Forget little me. This is the voice of the Real talking.
C: What about your music? If I don’t ask you about your music they’re going to …
B: In your book, Melissa Etheridge says she finds God in her music, which I really suspect. Nothing against Melissa – she’s very good – but if I were to say I find God in my music I would think, ‘You arrogant prick!’ right after.
But, um, I don’t know. Music for me is a way of sharing experience among people. I wrote one song for God, on purpose, and that was ‘Lord of the Starfields.’ I attempted to write a biblical psalm, and it’s kind of written in the style of the psalms and it’s addressed to God, in a way, and it’s … ya know, I mean, I don’t know if God’s impressed by things like that. I suspect not really.
What impresses God, if that word can even be applied, is the raw emotion, the raw feeling behind the creation of a song like that, which was there in that case. It’s not always there in the songwriting process. The songs come out better when there is something raw and visceral going on, but sometimes that’s a little harder to access. And sometimes you feel the feelings and there are no words to frame it in, so there is no song.
C: Unless it’s in “Speechless”…
D: Well, instrumental pieces offer a different kind of thing. I hadn’t even really thought of about this – I had with other people’s music. This harks back to the previous question about where God turns up and God can turn up in the incredible harmonies, the mathematical symmetry of Bach or the more kind of strenuous outside harmonies of Bartok. I mean, there is something sublime that comes through that music sometimes. And it comes through in a non-verbal way. You can listen to Bach chorales where there are lyrics, but the lyrics are not very important to me, and as a songwriter that’s a kind of sacrilegious thing to say. But when I listen to a Bach chorale I’m listening to the music and the sublimity – if that’s a word – that comes through the music, not through my understanding of the music. That’s something I should remember with my own songs.
I had never applied that notion to my own work, but we put together a compilation of instrumental pieces that came out last fall (2005) and with a few new pieces on it, and hearing a whole album of instrumental stuff put it in a very different light for me. I realized that these pieces have something to say that’s going to be very subjective. I don’t know what another person will take from hearing those pieces. Hopefully they’ll think that some of it is beautiful and be touched in some way. But I found that whatever was happening there is something very different from what those same instrumental pieces have done on the albums that they originally came out on where they function more like counter point to a bunch of words, or relief from a bunch of words, as they case may be. Cuz I do tend to be a little word-heavy in the songs.
I’m accused of that.
C: They’re always great stories.
Do you worship? And if so, how?
B: I don’t go to church. I did. In the ‘70s I did go to church pretty regularly, for the second half of the ‘70s, I guess. But then I moved from Ottawa to Toronto and I never found a church that I really felt as comfortable with and I started touring more, farther afield in the world, and ya know, I’d wind up at a Catholic church service in Italy, which is the only kind you can find there – or the only kind I could find there – and couldn’t take Communion because I’m not a Catholic and I didn’t want to compromise the priest.
I could follow the service because it was close enough to what I was familiar with – I went to an Anglican church. But anyway, I drifted away from it and I haven’t ever gone back.
But I pray from time to time. I meditate a little bit, from time to time. Which I think of as a kind of prayer, because it involves opening myself to whatever might come in. And I feel like I don’t’ think I really am able to execute this very well, but I feel like my whole life is supposed to be a prayer, that everything I do is in some way supposed to be in tune with the will of God – if the Boundless can be said to have ‘will.’
But I think it does.
C: How do you figure it out, though?
B: Well, I don’t think you figure it out. I think that trying to figure it out is what gets us into trouble all the time. But feeling it in some genuine way – and that I realize is a very loaded notion – but feeling it in some genuine way is a truer way to deal with it.
I find – something will tell me, ‘Don’t go in that store; go in that other store.’ And I’ll go in the other store and there will be someone in there that I’ll end up having an encounter with that was meaningful, whereas if I had gone in the other story it wouldn’t have been. Tiny little things like this happen all the time, if you listen. If I listen to that little voice that says, ‘Go here and not there,’ which I’m not very good at doing. But once in a while I do and it produces surprising results, frequently.
C: I have one last question I’d like to ask, and I’m sure folks here would probably like to ask you a few things themselves … I’m thinking back to something you said at the beginning when I asked you how you would describe yourself spiritually and then later you saying that you wouldn’t not call yourself a Christian but that you continue – you are a seeker and you find truth other places, at least that’s how I’m interpreting what you said. At the beginning of my book [The God Factor], it starts with a quote from my philosophy professor at Wheaton College – the only thing I remember from his 8 o’clock Introduction to Philosophy class, when he said, ‘All truth is God’s truth,’ which to me means, if it’s true – it doesn’t matter who it’s coming from – it’s really coming from God. And I was wondering if you could share with these folks a story you told me last night about Nepal and the fellow you met coming down the mountain.
B: Oh, man, yeah.
C: It’s a great story.
B: Well, I don’t know…
C: I think it’s a great story.
B: Well, I went to Nepal in 1987 on behalf of a Canadian nonprofit that does work there among other places in the Third World. I was there for five weeks traveling around and traveling almost entirely on foot, because that’s how you do it in Nepal. The last week or so we were there, on the pretext of going to the Everest region to look at Sir Edmund Hillary’s projects with the sherpa people, we went trekking, basically, in the general direction of Mt. Everest. We didn’t get there because of time considerations. But we’re going up and up and up and up these incredible mountains in this incredibly scenery in this landscape where every time you turn a corner there’s what’s called a chorten – a pile of rocks, basically, with ‘Hail to the Jewel and the lotus’ written on every rock that people have put there for centuries. They’re always at a little crossroads and the little roads or pathways are not, of course, what we think of as roads.
So we came over a mountain into a village at one point and the villagers were all away at the local market, but we could hear this bizarre music – Tibetan style music – and it was a funeral. And we kind of crashed the funeral and hung around for a while. The funeral was going on for days. This wasn’t part of the story but I’m telling it anyway: the people whose relative was being honored at the funeral had spent a year scraping up enough money to hire all of these monks and nuns to come and conduct the funeral, which was lasting three or four days of constant music and constant chanting and prayer and whatever. So this is the kind of landscape that we’re in.
We’re walking up this beautiful trail, and a party of people that became very quickly were Americans were coming down the other way. There was this old gentleman, a guy in his – older than me (I was a little younger in ’87 of course), this guy I would guess was in his maybe late 70s and he had spent his entire life in Nepal, or at least he had spent 25 or there abouts years in Nepal after he had left his job as a teacher at a seminary here, some kind of evangelical college here in the States. He boasted to me that he had taught Robert Schuller, the guy who has the Crystal Cathedral. But he was bitter. He was about to leave Nepal. He had gone on this trek up to see the Everest base camp as kind of the last thing he was doing in Nepal before leaving for good.
And he said he was so disappointed because he had spent all of this time trying to bring God to the people of Nepal. He said, ‘These people don’t want to know God.’ Well, they didn’t want to know his God. They didn’t get his God. And he didn’t get them, at all. I felt so bad for this guy. I felt sort of judgmental, I have to say, but I also felt like what a tragedy this was. This guy had been there all of these years and he hadn’t got that this whole place is steeped in Spirit and to me it was just so obvious. I don’t know what that means in the day-to-day and of course when you live in a place you become sucked in in a way that a casual observer might not be, so ya know, it’s not fair for me to judge him. But it just seemed like such a waste of that energy. Ya know?
C: Maybe it’s just not seeing God in other people?
B: Well, I think it’s the tribalism thing. I think it’s the conviction that your version of God is the only real one and – I mean, this is what we’re taught in church – everybody that doesn’t believe the way we do is condemned to a hereafter of torment. And he’s out there trying to save these people from that hereafter of torment and they’re going, ‘Well, I don’t think so. We’ve got our way of looking at these things and maybe you should take a look at it.’
The thing, too, and it’s part of the picture when you talk about Nepal and I’m sure it’s probably true in other places, proselytizing is illegal in Nepal for anyone on behalf of any faith. But it works fine for the Buddhists and the Hindus because they’re not into proselytizing anyway. And the Christians and the Muslims have a harder time in Nepal. A Catholic priest was jailed while I was there because he was caught proselytizing. That was part of the landscape that this guy had to face, too, which, of course, I didn’t have to deal with because I wasn’t there for that.
But I think it was a clear illustration, as clear as any that I’ve come across, of the problem when we try to identify God, when God becomes some kind of extension of a human construct, which the God that we grow up with – the same God with the long hair and the beard – is probably the same God that guy believed in, that God is not trustworthy. Ya know?
C: Thank you for answering my questions, Bruce, I appreciate it. If anyone has a few questions for Bruce Cockburn or for myself, I’m sure we’d be happy to answer.
AUDIENCE 1: I do. You mentioned some classical writers who are all dead – Lewis and Tolkien – are there any contemporary writers, Christian writers in particular, that you have found useful or influential for you?
B: There’s a guy named Bob Ekblad who’s a Presbyterian minister who put out his first book recently, which is called Reading the Bible with the Damned. Which is about his experience as a kind of aid worker in Central America and in his current practice of a prison ministry in Washington State, where he’s dealing with a lot of people from Central America, too. And it’s a pretty interesting take. I think he would probably consider himself an evangelical, but he’s one of the good ones.
This book, The Pagan Christ, I found very interesting. It’s a disturbing book and not a terribly great piece of literature, but definitely worth reading, I think, too.
AUDIENCE 2: I wonder how you balance being, apparently, the sincere, seeking Bruce Cockburn that everybody thinks is so cool and the public Bruce Cockburn that has to schlep his way to Ann Arbor to do a gig like this.
B: I came because I wanted to. The answer to the question is I try to keep there from being too much of a gap between those two things. I actually don’t do very much that doesn’t fit with who I think I am. Over the years I’ve learned to accommodate the music business to a greater degree than I did in the beginning. But I see that in human terms. I mean, I go to a radio station and the radio guys have their jobs that they’re doing and if I relate to them as human beings, we’re not really – it stops being the business game. As long as I’m able to do that, I don’t feel like I have to do too much of the other stuff.
It gets weird – my first taste of high-level politics, when I actually started meeting heads of state in connection with issue-related stuff of one type or another, there was kind of a heady intoxication that went with that. I thought, ‘Oh, I have power!’ The lure of power was out there. I didn’t feel like I really had it but I could get it if I played my cards right. But thank God I got over that. I realized, well, what liars these guys were and that I’d never be as good a liar as they were. So not to hold myself up as any paragon of virtue, but there are people who have skills and talents and mine isn’t that one.
AUDIENCE 3: I wonder how you relate to reincarnation and whether that has any resonance for you.
B: ‘In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.’ Uh, it was suggested to me years and years ago that that was a reference by Jesus to reincarnation. I don’t know one way or the other, but I feel like one lifetime isn’t enough and I kind of … I guess my … I’m not sure that I hold onto this assumption the way that I would hold onto a Teddy Bear when I was a kid or something, but I kind of assume that we have more than one life. At this point in my life, I feel like death is some kind of graduation ceremony and we’re on to the next level of education after that, whatever it is. I’m not sure if we can come back in human form or whether the bundle of energy that is in us goes somewhere else, but I do feel like I have a sense that I’ve been here before and that I might be here again.
AUDIENCE 4: Cathleen I have a question for you. Would you consider yourself a seeker of the truth? You hear that term a lot. And if so, what is the truth that people are seeking?
C: Wow. I wish you’d asked Bruce that. It’s a tough one.
Am I a seeker of truth? I certainly hope so. I’m a Christian. I use that term begrudgingly only because I suck at it.
I’m trying to be a Christian, in the true sense of what that word means. And I guess… what is truth? Dang, with three minutes left in the hour. God, I guess? I think when people are seeking truth, I think the ultimate truth is God and so what they’re really looking for is God. And I suppose that leads to the question, ‘Well, what is God?’ And I don’t think I’m going to try to box that in. I don’t think you can box that in.
So, am I a seeker after truth? Am I a seeker after God? Yes. And that’s why I wrote the book [The God Factor]. And that’s why I do what I do for a living, which I enjoy a great deal. And that’s the way I try to live my life, and in my best moments, I think I’m kind of heading in that direction.
B: C.S. Lewis said that all it takes to be a Christian is a belief in the reality of Christ. So you can’t really suck at it.
C: Are you sure?
B: Well, he was sure, and I’m taking his word for it.
Had a ball last night in a far-ranging conversation with radio host Billy Fried talking about pretty much my whole life story, and my most recent visit to Nepal. It’s a long one (81 minutes long, to be precise).
Have a listen HERE.
With 36 hours left in our too-short sojourn in Nepal earlier this month, I yearned to escape the “strange, bewilderin’ time” of Kathmandu and its cacophony of humans, motorbikes, sequined lorries, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, giant hens and cockerels, wandering bands of ill-tempered goats, dozy cows, and incessant beeping that together comprise the intoxicating, maddening heartbeat of the capital city.
My 16-year-old son and I had hoped to make it far out of the city to Pokhara and the foothills of the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas, but time was not on our side. So we opted instead for an overnight in Nagarkot—a village in the Bakhtapur region of the Kathmandu Valley with what is generally agreed to be one of the best views of the Himalayas (including Everest) in country. If the weather allows it, that is.
Whether my boy and I were able to glimpse Chomolungma (as the Tibetans call the sacred, tallest mountain on Earth) didn’t really matter to me and he was more excited about the hotel pool and hot tub than anything else. I just wanted some quiet, alone time to reflect on our week in magical, mystical Nepal—my second visit to the country I first visited days after the devastating earthquake in April 2015.
Eight of us piled into our friend Gautham’s Mitsubishi I-guess-it’s-a-small-SUV for the two-hour journey (because of the aforementioned cacophony and thick traffic jams that produce much of it) to Nagarkot. Only three of us would be staying the night. The other five just came along for the ride and the chance to gulp some fresh(er) air in the mountains outside Kathmandu and stop twice (TWICE) for the delicacy known as King Curd (a cross between yogurt and custard that is best enjoyed in the Bhaktapur region; it’s delicious).
Of the nine of us, save for the driver I was the only passenger not to feel the effects of motion sickness as Gautham deftly navigated the switchback dirt mountain roads with potholes the size of small caves. (I’m generally a world-class nervous back-seat driver. But not in Nepal. Even amidst the craziness and hair-raising maneuvers, I don’t wear a seat belt. Nobody does. And the more nerve-wracking the driving gets, the more I laugh. It’s an unfettered, I’m-not-in-control-here kind of belly laugh.)
After Gautham, his lovely wife Reykah, their son John, soon-to-be-daughter in law, and chosen nephew Arjun grabbed some lunch on the hotel’s expansive deck facing the mountains, they headed back to Kathmandu, while my son and Gautham’s eldest child, David, adjourned to their room and the indoor pool.
Alone. Finally. I love my friends in Nepal and my traveling-companion child, but my inner introvert—which has taken to exerting itself with greater frequency in my 40s—really needed some solitude.
I placed my overnight bag in my room, grabbed my smartphone and my Canon (opting to bring only the short lens), and returned to the panoramic deck which, much to my chagrin, was occupied by a group of yuppie types from China, all smoking actual cigarettes and talking loudly into their cell phones.
I ducked back inside to find a more peaceful perch from which to (perhaps) glimpse the mountains and, alternately, watch the sunset over the valleys to the west. Three flights up and a few minutes later, I found myself on the rooftop deck of the hotel, completely solo.
I stood on the edge of a parapet and stared east, to where the Himalayas and Everest were supposed to be. I saw nothing but for the terraced farms of the verdant valley and wondered if I was facing the wrong direction. A quick check of a nearby map with arrows pointing in the direction I’d been facing told me that, yes, that was where the mountains were. But they were completely obscured by haze, clouds, smog and/or a combination of all three.
It’s not that I was disappointed or surprised. I knew before we alighted Kathmandu for Nagarkot that this time of the year, spotting the mountains was a dodgy bet. “If it rains tonight, even for ten minutes,” Gautham assured me before he left, “you will see mountains at sunrise.” So there was another chance and even if the Himalayas still were obscured at daybreak, Nagarkot is a beautiful spot no matter the weather.
The thing is, knowing the mountains were in front of me without being able to see them was, somehow, disorienting. They were there, right there, right in front of me—the most majestic range on the planet. But I was seeing through a glass dimly, if you will.
The sensation was strange, as if I were one of the Hobbits standing in front of Mordor just blinking into an abyss of wan sunlight filtered through a thick layer of khaki-colored smog.
A little lightheaded (Nagarkot sits at an altitude of 7,000 feet and I spend most of my time at literal sea level), I sat down at one of the many empty, metal cafe tables and pulled out my notebook, perhaps to write or doodle. After a few moments, I realized I’d been humming a musical phrase from Cat Stevens’ “Katmandu” song all day, so I took out my smartphone and (thanks to the 3G network in Nepal, even at such great heights) found a live performance of the song Cat gave in 1970. Played it twice. Sang along. Then I let YouTube take me, as it does, to the next song in the play list: Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You” from another live performance recorded the same year, a few weeks after my birth.
I found myself in tears. At first I wasn’t sure why, but as I reflected on the lyrics to Stevens’ ballad, I began to see what it was, or at least what I think it might have been.
Whoever I’m with
I’m always, always talking to you
I’m always talking to you
And I’m sad that you can’t hear
Sad that you can’t hear
Now in midlife, things aren’t quite how I expected they might be. My life and my physical person have changed in ways that sometimes bring more than a whiff of despair to my breath, which is, as someone taught me long ago, the truest form of unceasing prayer. There is much in my life that brings me unfathomable joy and I see grace all around me, all the time. And yet, there’s a sadness that lingers in the corners of my room.
Many people I love dearly have passed out of my life and this world in the last several years and I know that mourning is anything but linear. Surely that’s part of it. Disappointment as well. At things professional and otherwise that went pear-shaped and haven’t yet found their original form and maybe never will. That I’d peaked a decade ago and have since begun a slow descent into the never-ending adulthood of blighted hope.
All of that. The tears were for all of that. And still, I saw neither mountain nor setting sun.
So I decided to take a walk—something more than a stroll and less than a trek, even if I was wearing the hiking boots I’d bought before the earthquake last year and had worn (in Nepal) precisely once—that very day in Nagarkot. I thought I should at least try to get them dusty.
The grounds of the hotel where we stayed are expansive and had the feel more of sanctuary than resort. Being Nepal, there were Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the wind from trees and in courtyards; shrines and tiny temples to various Hindu deities, and brass prayer wheels affixed to the wall every few feet along the warren of corridors. I ducked out through one of those courtyards and kept walking downward until I found a trail that led along the edge of a bamboo forest (at least that’s how I’d describe it) along the eastern side of the property, in the direction of Everest and the clouds.
Lost in thought I walked and looked at flora until the path ended at the back side of the hotel amidst rudimentary construction equipment. I probably shouldn’t be here, I thought. Not exactly what the hotel management would want guests to see. But it was Nepal and the pervasive easy-breeziness of the culture assured me no one would come out yelling.
I walked on, as the path darkened and the pine trees on one side made a canopy with the bamboo on the other. Ten minutes later, after wandering without paying attention to direction or the setting sun, I stopped in my tracks, realizing I might be lost.
It was at that moment I heard Harold Ramis’ voice in my head. Ten years ago, I’d interviewed the late actor-director for my first book and he’d told me a story. Harold was born Jewish and embraced Buddhism as an adult. He described himself as “Buddh-ish.” I loved that guy. Anyway the story went like this:
“Watching other people on their journeys forced me to think reactively about it: Well, what do I believe? You don’t believe in past lives, so if you don’t believe in the continuity of the soul, what do you believe in? I never was able to give myself over to another human being as a spiritual trainer or leader. I could never affiliate with an organization, any doctrinal organization. I could never have a guru or a spiritual teacher because I always believed it was so personal. It seemed to me logically impossible that there could be a concrete answer to a spiritual quest—by definition—and so anyone who said they had an answer was immediately suspect. I’m right now convinced that no matter how much I seek, there wouldn’t be an answer. It’s like when you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”
It was that last part that echoed in my mind: “When you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”
So I did. On a ramshackle wall on the pine side of the ersatz trail. And another sacred word came to mind, this time from Stephen Hawking who said, “Remember to look up and not down at your feet.” A favorite college professor used to remind us of the same. Look up. You’ll be surprised what you find if you change your perspective.
I looked up. And there, perhaps 100 yards above me in a clearing in the woods, I saw a man praying.
And then I heard faint music. I started to walk toward the man and the music, clambering through a rocky path in the woods until I came upon a house.
Once again, I stopped, worried I might be trespassing, an unwelcome guest and interloper. But this is Nepal, I told myself, and slowly walked toward the building when, surprising both of us, a young man appeared carrying a cup of tea.
“Namaste,” I said.
He bowed slightly, one hand in front of his chest in half of the prayerful posture with which most Nepalis greet each other. (His other hand still held the cup of tea.)
“I think I’m lost,” I continued.
“Where are you trying to go?” he answered with a the kind of genuine empathy and tenderness that is uncommon in most places.
Where am I trying to go? I thought, spotting someone in my peripheral vision. The praying man.
It wasn’t a man, per se, but a statue of Sri Chinmoy, a well-known Indian guru and meditation instructor who passed away in 2007. One of the mountain peaks in the invisible range in front of me is named for him.
“Is this an ashram?” I said.
The man bobbled his head in affirmation as Nepalis do.
“You’re lost?” he said.
“Maybe not so lost,” I said, as my voice cracked and tears filled my eyes. “May I sit down for a minute?”
“Of course,” he said.
I put my head in my hands and had a big boo-hoo cry like I haven’t in a long, long, clearly too-long time. And the kind man didn’t stare or shift uncomfortably. He just sipped his tea and stayed with me, looking up at the sky. I composed myself and said I was trying to get back to the hotel.
“Ah,” he said. “It’s just there.”
Sri Chinmoy’s statue, I quickly realized, sits a few dozen yards away from the hotel’s helipad. I wasn’t lost. I just couldn’t see where I was going.
The sun was almost down and I thanked him for his kindness, and began walking toward the hotel entrance. If it’s possible for one’s ears to come into focus, mine did just then, and I heard the music that was playing inside what turned out to be a kind of ashram gift-shop where the man worked.
A woman’s voice sang the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Oh Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born into eternal life.
The singer was Snatam Kaur, an American-born Sikh musician and peace activist. I opened iTunes on my phone and bought it immediately.
Later that night, after dinner with my son and our friend, we all retired for the evening, hopeful that sunrise would bring a view of the mountains. I fell asleep listening to Kaur sing St. Francis’ prayer on repeat.
I awoke before sunrise and sat on my balcony alone in the dark, hoping to see the mountains at first light. When it came, I could see nothing but clouds and haze.
Still, the light was beautiful. And I had faith that the mountains indeed were there, even if I couldn’t see them, and that they would wait for me to return to find them another day.
Rainer Maria Rilke would have turned 115 today.
Not sure what ol’ wise Rainer would have made of the world today and its recent horrific events, but I will leave you with his 8th Duino Elegy and urge you to take a few minutes to read it and find somewhere peaceful to reflect, quietly, and look for the light. It’s always there. #advent
With their whole gaze the creatures behold what is. Only our eyes
are as though reversed, and set like traps around themselves,
keeping us inside. That there is something out there
we know only from the animals’ countenance,
for we turn even the young child, forcing her
to look backwards at the shapes we make,
not outwards into the open, which is reflected
in the animals’ eyes.
Free from death. We alone see that.
For the animals, their death is, as it were, completed.
What’s ahead is God. And when they move,
they move in timelessness, as fountains do.
Never, not for a single day, do we let
the space before us be so unbounded
that the blooming of one flower is forever.
We are always making it into a world
and never letting it be nothing: the pure,
the unconstructed, which we breathe
and endlessly know, and need not crave.
Sometimes a child loses herself in this stillness
and gets shaken out of it. Or a person dies
and becomes it. For when death draws near, we look beyond it
with an animal’s wide gaze. Lovers come close
to the open, filled with wonder,
when the beloved doesn’t block the view.
It surges up behind the other, unbidden. But it’s hard
to grasp, so it becomes again the world.
Ever turned toward what we create,
we see only reflections of the open, overshadowed by us.
Except when an animal mutely looks us through and through.
This is our fate: to stand
in our own way. Forever
in the way.
If the confident animal, coming toward us,
had a mind like ours,
the change in him would stun us.
But his own being is endless to him, undefined, and without regard
for his condition: clear,
like his eyes. Where we see future,
he sees all, and himself
in all, made whole for always.
And yet in the warm, watchful animal
there is the weight of a great sadness.
For what at times assaults us
clings to him as well: the sense
that what we strive to reach
was once closer and more real
and infinitely tender.
Here all is distance —
there it was breath.
After that first home
the second feels invaded, and windy.
And we: always and everywhere spectators,
turned toward the stuff of our lives, and never outward.
It all spills over us. We put it to order.
It falls apart. We order it again
and fall apart ourselves.
Who has turned us around like this?
Whatever we do, we are in the posture
of one who is about to depart.
Like a person pausing and lingering
for a moment on the last hill
where he can still see his whole valley —
this is how we live, forever
taking our leave.
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Compassion can be tricky business. It’s a lot like empathy—the human ability to imagine what it might be like to experience what someone else experiences and feel what she or he feels—that’s hardwired into most of our hearts and minds.
But compassion transcends empathy. It’s more than that, and it asks us to be and do more, too. Compassion has a conscience and heartbeat, legs that will march, arms that embrace, and hands that beckon, rise in solidarity, and defend when necessary.
As the Innocence + Experience tour heads into its final stretch, compassion (and its inextricable partner, action) have emerged as a theme that unified fans from North America and Europe.
From the racially motivated tragedies and traumas in Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere in the United States and the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the epic strides made this year toward true equality for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters via the Irish referendum and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and how very close we are to seeing the first AIDS-free generation become a reality, each night’s concert stoked compassion and sent it home into the streets.
If compassion isn’t tied to action, it’s little more than an interesting notion. But when it causes us to move beyond ourselves and our comfort zones, when it inspires us literally to reach out—to the margins, to our neighbors, to those seeking refuge, justice, comfort, or grace—it becomes the special sauce (and a tangible sign that the Spirit is in the room and not down to street having a pint.)
Standing in London’s O2 and Glasgow’s Hydro SSE last week, waves of regret and joy washed over the audience as the lads took them by the hand and asked that we recall the “stolen voices,” those whose lives ended too soon or too violently, taken by preventable illnesses, war, ignorance, greed, or the most pernicious of all killers: indifference.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” Bono told the audience in London, recalling the words of the late Nelson Mandela.
Bono changed the lyrics of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” to include alongside Dr. King and Jesus Christ, precious Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey and broke our collective hearts.
Images of bombed out buildings that could have been from Syria last week or Sarajevo two decades past, flashed across The Cage while the band sang “October.”
A few verses from “Zooropa” introduced an extraordinary rendition of “Where the Streets Have No Name” that had the entire Hydro crowd on its feet, dancing, arms (and consciences) raised.
We’re gonna dream of the world
We want to live in
We’re gonna dream out loud
“What do you want?” Bono asked the Scottish audience the second night at the Hydro, an extraordinary show where compassion flowed like lager, filling the cup of mercy to overflowing. “What do you want? A Europe with it’s heart open or a Europe with its borders closed to mercy? I know what I want. A place called home. A placed called home, somewhere, anywhere. Here! HERE! Open. Open people. OPEN!”
As the band heads to Paris and then on to Belfast (for its first concerts in nearly 20 years), before their homecoming in Dublin at the end of the month, the calls to compassion and action feel as if they’re continuing to reverberate long after the U2 crew has left the building.
As Bono said one evening in Scotland, there’s something in the air, isn’t there?
Yes. Yes there is.
Intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes…
Click on the photo below to view the first of several photo essays from Nepal on my photo website, Flaneur.Guru
KATHMANDU, Nepal—The Boeing 737 loaded with relief supplies and caregivers touched down at Tribhuvan International Airport six days (nearly to the minute) after the first of two cataclysmic earthquakes wrecked havoc on the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal.
Joining me aboard the flight from Singapore were a few other journalists from the United States and Europe, a team from the China Lingshan International Rescue in their distinctive fire engine red uniforms, and several dozen surgeons from South Africa who had come to Nepal with Gift of the Giver organization, an NGO founded in 1992 by a Sufi sheik from Istanbul.
Among us were Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains—people of good will of many religious traditions and none at all. What we had in common was a desire to help the gentle people of Nepal (one of the poorest nations in the world) who had suffered through the devastation of an earthquake on April 24 so massive that it actually moved the global satellite positioning of its capital city by nearly 10 feet.
For some of us, that assistance took the form of pulling corpses and a few miraculous survivors from the concrete and brick ruins of homes, businesses, and even houses of worship leveled by the first earthquake. (A second earthquake of nearly the same size—7.3 on the Richter scale—struck Nepal on May 11, the day after I returned to California from Nepal.)
Others—the healers from Africa and elsewhere—would offer relief to the traumatized during grueling shifts in Nepal’s overwhelmed hospitals, in surgical theaters, setting broken bones, stitching wounds, and compassionate bedside care.
Interspersed among us, undoubtedly, were those hoping to offer some kind of spiritual aid, solace, or direction to the Nepalese. In generations past, we might simply have labeled this cohort “missionaries,” visitors hoping to share their version of the gospel truth with the broken and brokenhearted.
Continue reading the entire report at Religion Dispatches HERE.
Originally appeared via Religion Dispatches
There are many things that Netflix’s House of Cards can do — and do well — because it is not a network television series, not the least of which is handle faith, spirituality, and religion with nuance, courage, and a certain alacrity that is virtually absent from traditional, commercial programming.
Throughout Season 3 of House of Cards, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his existential striptease unabated, revealing the depths of his moral declension and staggering spiritual torpor.
House of Cards gets away with showing and telling things about the harrowing intersection of faith and politics that it never would have had the award-winning series fallen into the hands of ABC, NBC, CBS, or even HBO. (Thanks be to God.)
Minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the episode “Chapter 30″ (aka season 3, episode 4) or beyond of House of Cards.
To wit: a scene in the fourth episode of the new season that contained one of the greatest spiritual moments in “television” history followed immediately by one of the most disturbing.
In the episode, disquieted by a presidential decision he made that cost several Navy SEALs their lives, Frank seeks counsel from a military chaplain — the motorcycle-riding “Bishop Charles Eddis” played by John Doman — under cover of darkness, standing under a huge crucifix in the sanctuary of a church.
Continue reading at Religion Dispatches by clicking HERE.
And read the bonus 12 Quotes from the Underwood Bible HERE.
When Cathleen asked me to contribute to Disquiet Time, the new a collection of essays by “the Skeptical, the Faithful and a few Scoundrels,” I didn’t think twice about saying “yes,” nor did I worry much about which category might best fit me.
Cathleen and I have been friends since our roommate days in college, which was pre-email, pre-cell phone, and pre-Kim Kardashian.
Yes, we are approximately ancient.
Anyhoo… The assignment was to write about a passage of Scripture that troubles me. I kept coming back to Proverbs 31—or, as it’s fondly called within Christian circles, “The Proverbs 31 woman.”
Proverbs 31 is an ode to the “virtuous wife,” and often is used as a prescriptive for what a “godly woman” looks, acts, and cooks like. The Proverbs 31 woman is to some circles what Barbie is to elementary school girls — the ideal woman. Never mind that the dimensions don’t add up.
I won’t rehash the essay here, but the nutshell is that I don’t have a problem with the passage itself as much as I have a problem with how it’s typically taught, which is as a primer on domestic divahood. That the Proverbs 31 woman is clearly a working woman is conveniently overlooked by those who choose to use it as a prescription for “traditional” gender roles. (Traditional unless you have to work because you are poor or from another culture or maybe had to get divorced. In which case, carry on.)
I feel like I’m in the Hot Tub Time Machine just writing that sentence. I spent a lot of time thinking about gender roles when I was in college, back in the late ’80s, and it’s kind of funny to me (not funny ha-ha but more funny odd) that I ended up writing about this in Disquiet Time. At this stage of my life, I am too busy being a mother, wife, and professional to analyze it much.
When I read about the Duggar girls (from the TV series 19 Kids and Counting) working so very hard to embody the qualities of the Proverbs 31 woman, I cringe but in the same way I cringe when I watch The Real Housewives series. It’s like being at a zoo and observing exotic animals that are one step removed.
I’m not so removed that it doesn’t cause some disquiet. Which is what this collection of essays is about. Those things in the Bible that you wish would go away, but won’t. Because they have to do with the most profound expressions of what it means to be human.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to wrestle publicly with things that make me uneasy and even irritable.
And I’m grateful I’m not alone in that endeavor.
Linda Midgett is the founder of Midgett Productions, a boutique production company that recently created the hit motorcycle adventure series Neale Bayly Rides: Peru.The series aired on the SPEED Channel in June 2013. She is an Emmy award-winning writer, producer, and showrunner with a proven track record of developing hit and critically acclaimed series. She has supervised more than 600 hours of programming for networks such as NBC-Universal, The History Channel, PBS, The Weather Channel and Investigation Discovery. Her credits as Co-Executive Producer include Starting Over, the Emmy-winning syndicated daytime reality series produced by powerhouse Bunim-Murray Productions; The History Channel’s groundbreaking series, Gangland; and Investigation Discovery’s FBI: Criminal Pursuit.
Though Linda enjoys producing pure entertainment, she isn’t afraid of tackling difficult topics such as poverty and mental health. In 2012, she produced The Line, a riveting documentary commissioned by Sojourners that told the first-person stories of Americans in poverty. The film is available at http://www.thelinemovie.com. Her other independent documentary work includes Through My Eyes, which tells the stories of teens struggling with suicide, depression and eating disorders. Through My Eyes won the national Voice Award for excellence in mental health programming. Linda is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Religion is an agreement between a group of people about what G-d is.
Spirituality is a one-on-one relationship.”
~ Conscious Way Magazine
It was the 1960’s and I went to the right rather than to the left.
Someone gave me a copy of Atlas Shrugged and I swallowed it whole. Especially the part about altruism and religion being irrational and atheism being the only intellectual alternative.
As a follower of Ayn Rand and Objectivism and a Republican-for-Goldwater, I rejected my Jewish heritage and announced that I had become an atheist at a family dinner.
My mother cringed and asked, “What about the children?” (I had sons ages four and six at the time.)
My father looked at my mother and said, “She’ll get over it.”
He was right.
But the reason I returned to Judaism was not a deep-seated belief in G-d. It was Judaism’s conviction that being Jewish could not be denied. No matter what, I could not be excommunicated. I could question whatever I wanted and still be “kosher.” Denying G-d in front of the altar in the synagogue, blaspheming the Torah, refusing to have my boys circumcised, would not release me.
I was Jewish, and once a Jew, always a Jew.
Why? Because now and forever Jews have had to adapt to change. As we moved from society to society, the community integrated some customs in their new home and rejected others. Certainly the Spanish Inquisition is the prefect example. Jews had to choose between being burned at the stake or converting to Catholicism, so they became secret Jews, lighting the Sabbath candles in wine cellars and basements and praying secretly on the holidays. Called Maranos or Crypto Jews, they developed their own hidden culture. Like their ancestors, they re-adapted to Spanish society where acceptance was conditional at best.
Yet Judaism grew in each new circumstance. The most sacred music was created during the Inquisition. Once a year on Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre – All Vows – sings the musical withdrawal of the covenant that forced them to become Christian. Their individual survival demanded that the vow be made, but the survival of Judaism accommodated this necessity with a heroic statement that is now sung in every synagogue in the world to reaffirm commitment to Judaism—no matter what.
Once a Jew, always a Jew.
So what became of my vow to become an atheist? I found that, where Judaism obligated me to ask questions and discover my own brand of spirituality, Objectivism did not. It was rigid, dictatorial, defined on only one level of human experience. It failed to support curious minds, human kindness, and intellectual growth.
In Judaism I found ways to explore everything from orthodoxy to Humanistic Judaism in which G-d plays no part.
Where did I land? I’m still in process. But my connection with G-d is clear. I feel it every time I meditate, every time I pray, in every walk in the woods and in the eyes of each person I meet. G-d’s energy is with me and with all creation. I feel it, experience it and have no doubt that it exists.
The new book Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, to which I contributed a chapter, offered us authors the opportunity to explore our beliefs out loud. And to listen louder to each other. It explores the essence of religious freedom that allows us to express our spirituality as a one-on-one relationship without boundaries or restrictions.
Disquiet Time has created a sacred space between all of its contributors and you, our readers.
Thanks for listening,
Ina Albert is co-author of Write Your Self Well…Journal Your Self to Health, finds that listening is her most valuable quality as she grows older. Her new children’s book, Granny Greeny Says…Listen Louder, tells us how it’s done.
A life transitions coach, certified Age-ing to Sage-ing® seminar leader, and adjunct instructor at Flathead Valley Community College, Ina has logged 40 years as a healthcare communications professional. She shares 78 years of life experience with clients and readers of her monthly column in Montana Woman Magazine. She is published in Second Journey, Beliefnet.com, Jewish Magazine, Elder Woman Newsletter and various other publications, including a chapter in The Art of Grief edited by J. Earl Rogers for Routledge Press. Ina’s “A Letter On Behalf of Myself,” was selected by University of Portsmouth (United Kingdom) for their anthology, Borderlines.
Ina and her husband, Rabbi Allen Secher, are God Girl’s adopted spiritual parents. They live in western Montana with their Kugel the Wonder Schnauzer.
I’m very excited to announce that next week (on Tuesday 10/21), my latest book, DISQUIET TIME: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels hits bookstores everywhere.
Let me tell you a bit about the book, which is quite different from anything I’ve done in the past. First of all, I didn’t write the whole thing. Along with one of my best friends, Jennifer Grant, I acted as co-editor of the book and contributed two chapters to it as well. Jen and I asked several dozen of our cleverest, funniest, most honest and deep-thinking friends (many of whom are writers whose names you’ll recognize) to contribute an essay to the book. The assignment seemed simple but turned out to be anything but for most of us who chose to accept it:
We’ve asked people to write about verses/passages/ideas in the Bible that:
~ most confounds them,
~ they wish weren’t in there,
~ are their guilty pleasure,
~ are a solace in hard times,
~ for those who once embraced the Bible in their journey but no longer do – what is the verse or passage or idea that they still return to, that still has meaning for them when the rest of it doesn’t,
~ for those who once embraced the Bible but no longer do, what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? was there a verse/passage/concept that sent you packing? if so, why?
~they love most or hold most dear,
~ makes them laugh or cringe or invariably brings a tear to their eye.
The tone is conversational, humor is welcome, language needn’t be pious or PG-rated. Have no fear of being censored. … In other words, just go for it. Just be as honest and as fearless as you can be.
DISQUIET TIME contains more than 40 essays by our brave, marvelous friends who took off their kid gloves and took on the Bible to honestly (and often with great humor) talk about what bothers/elates/annoys/amuses or leaves them in awe about the “Good Book.” They are men and women; young, middle-aged, and sage-aged; Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and none-of-the-above; evangelical, post-evangelical, Episcopal, Catholic, mainline, orthodox, nondenominational, spiritual-but-not-religious, and “nones”; emergent, emerging, and fully emerged. They are black, white, Hispanic, Asian-American, and none-of-the above; conservative, liberal, libertarian, Democrat, Republican, middle-of-the-road, and with occasional anarchistic tendencies; married, single, divorced, gay, straight, bisexual, parents, and singletons. They are faithful, skeptical, and the odd scoundrel (or dozen).
The result is a chorus unlike any I’ve heard (or read) before. You won’t agree with everything you read in DISQUIET TIME, but you will find something — a gem or two or dozen — that click with, challenge, or inspire you.
Beginning tomorrow and running through November, we’re launching the DISQUIET TIME DISQUIETING BLOG TOUR, where you’ll hear from many of the authors included in the book and a few of our friends who aren’t. Check back here for updates and links to each day’s blog or visit www.DisquietTime.com where each of them will be cross-posted.
We’ve also created a few fun bells and whistles to help share the DISQUIET TIME love.
- Take the DISQUIETING BIBLE QUIZ: Are you Skeptical, Faithful, or A Scoundrel
- If you have an Android phone, download the DISQUIET TIME APP for FREE!
- Interested in reviewing or writing about DISQUIET TIME? Request a digital copy via NetGalley.
I wanted to give you a little taste of what DISQUIET TIME is all about by sharing the book’s introduction. Please take it as an invitation to you personally.
As ever, thank you for all of your support and enthusiasm for my continuing work. It means the world to me.
Hugs and kisses,
WELCOME TO THE LAND OF MISFIT TOYS
An ethicist who can’t make the right choices.
A yogi who’s tempted to pray the Jesus prayer over her children.
A poet at the helm of a global corporation.
A buttoned-up suburban parent with a penchant for Eminem.
A Hollywood producer who dons a superhero costume and proclaims, “Sola Scriptura!”
A female professor at one of the nation’s most religiously conservative schools who has a passion for tattoos and scatological literature.
These are but a few of the souls you will hear from in the pages that follow.
The voices collected in this book are those of nonconformists and oddballs—not-too-distant cousins, perhaps, to the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys from the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Not unlike the tiny cowboy who rides an ostrich instead of a horse, the toy train with square wheels on its caboose, and Hermey the Elf―who would rather pursue a career in dentistry than make toys in Santa’s workshop―most of us are well acquainted with the itchy, out-of-place feelings wrought by the spiritual subcultures in which we have sometimes found ourselves.
Some of us self-identify as orthodox (with a small o) Christians, while others feel a flush of pride when called liberal, mainstream, or conservative. Some of us used to identify as Christians or Jews, but now answer “none of the above” (or “all of the above,” as the case may be) when asked to choose a religious label. Whatever our spiritual predilections, each of us seeks an end to the divisiveness and name-calling that too often surround discussions of the Bible.
As diverse as our voices are, they harmonize; and we hear echoes of our own stories in those of the “other.” We learn something new when we hear how a particular biblical passage sustains some people, while other folks continually stumble over (or are repulsed by) the same passage.
We see God’s spirit shining through each other’s eyes as we grant ourselves permission and a safe space to, as Edgar says in King Lear, “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”―even (and especially) when it’s messy.
All the contributors to this book are personally connected to one or both of us. You’ll meet our pastors, professors, mentors, chosen families, and some of our dearest friends, as well as thinkers and artists who have long inspired us.
While we like to say that Disquiet Time is “not your mama’s Our Daily Bread,” we do hope it nourishes, sustains, and even invigorates you as you encounter the full array of these diverse writers’ authentic experiences with holy writ.
Please consider this book an invitation to join a conversation that has been going on for millennia―one that asks only for you to listen and respond with an open heart. We pray that, through reading it, you will grant yourself permission to express your own faith and doubts about the Good Book, honestly and without caveat.
Remember: even if you end up feeling like a cowboy riding an ostrich into the sunset, you are not alone in this. And when it comes to the greatest concerns, biggest questions, and gravest doubts about the Bible, you have the right and freedom to voice them.
God can take it.
Last week in a piece that ran in The Atlantic, I interviewed Noah director Darren Aronofsky about the spiritual message, import, and inspiration behind his epic reimagining of the ancient biblical story. You can read that interview in full HERE.
During our conversation, Aronofsky talked about a prose-poem he’d written as a 13-year-old seventh grader in Brooklyn that was inspired by the Noah story and launched him on his career path as a writer. He recently discovered the actual poem in a box of childhood mementos while searching for baseball cards for his seven-year-old son.
Today, Darren’s representatives shared a PDF of his ‘The Dove’ poem, which you can see below, followed by its transcription.
January 13, 1982
Evil was in the world. The laughing crowd left the foolish man and his ark filled with animals when the rain began to fall. It was hopeless. The man could not take the evil crowd with him but he was allowed to bring his good family. The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air. The ark was afloat. Until the dove returned with the leaf, evil still existed. When the rainbows reached throughout the sky the humble man and his family knew what it meant.
The animals ran and flew freely with their new born. The fog rose and the sun shone. Peace was in the air and it soon appeared all of man’s heart.
He knew evil could not be kept away for evil and war could not be destroyed but neither was it possible to destroy peace.
Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin but the rainbow and the dove will always live within every mans’ heart.
My friend Joshua DuBois writes a column for The Daily Beast. While I haven’t talked publicly about Justin in a long while (as I mentioned earlier I felt I had nothing helpful to say) I trust Joshua as a good man with the heart of a true pastor so I agreed. I’m pleased with the result, which you can read in its entirety HERE. But thought I’d also share the answers I sent him as a few were edited for length, etc.
It’s Sunday. Let’s remember our little brother Justin and his family in prayer.
Q1. Cathleen, is Justin Bieber’s arrest and recent troubles evidence of a deeper spiritual struggle, or simply the normal behavior of a 19-year-old seeking to find his way?
A1: Joshua, I think the most honest answer I can give to this two-part question is: Yes.
Yes, Justin’s arrest and (mis)behavior of late (and I’m talking about the last 18 months or so, at least from what little we know publicly about his life and activities, much of which he’s provided himself via Twitter/Instagram and the like, as well as through video and photographs from the paparazzi, which hounds him) seems to me to be the outward manifestation of some of what’s going on with Justin spiritually.
And yes, I do think that some of this is “normal” behavior for a 19-year-old boy/man seeking to find his place, stance, and stride in the world. I have a 19-year-old nephew who is just a week younger than Justin. He’s a freshman in college and experimenting with new freedoms — most often making good, sound decisions, but sometimes not. That’s normal. When I was 19, I spent a lot of time depressed, wearing black, sleeping 14 hours a day, while listening to The Smiths and The Cure and mooning over the 19-year-old man/boy who’d broken my heart. That, too, is normal.
But what we have to remember is that Justin, while a “normal” kid in many ways, is living a life that is anything but normal. At 19, I had a $100 stipend (it may have been a lot less than that, it fact) from which I lived. Justin has more money than most small nations in the developing world. So what and how he is able to “act out” and the magnitude of his less-than-stellar decisions is a whole different ballpark. And so, then, too is the worldwide amplification of his worst public moments, the world’s access to and judgment of them, and (I would imagine) the level of his embarrassment, shame, and humiliation.
Q2. From the time you wrote “Belieber” – which quotes Justin as saying, “The success I’ve achieved…comes from God,” to today, clearly something has changed. To what do you attribute the apparent radical shifts in Justin’s character and life?
A2: I don’t necessarily agree that “clearly something has changed.” I am far from an apologist for Justin (whom I don’t know personally, just to be clear), but I think you can know and love God, be cognizant of where the blessings in your life come from, believe in the God of grace, mercy, redemption, and salvation; and still make incredibly stupid mistakes. Just because Justin is famous doesn’t make him inure to the pitfalls of being human, young, and at least occasionally idiotic.
What has changed, in my opinion, is how much we see of his misbehavior in public, and the extent to which, again publicly, we see him thumb his nose at authority and, at least in some sense, his legions of very young, very impressionable fans.
I have a 13-year-old niece who is a Belieber (aka big fan of Justin). When news of his arrest broke earlier this week, she texted her mother from school, saying, “Mommy, Justin Bieber is in jail!!!!” She clearly was heartbroken, worried about Justin, and trying to make sense of why he’d do what he apparently/allegedly did. Her mother reponded by saying, in part, “You know God loves him and this might be just how he comes back to living in a way that pleases God and tha tis much happier and healthier for him.”
I’ll add my amen to that.
I also have the sense that Justin’s parents — biological and chosen — let go of their parental responsibilities for Justin far too soon. Again, I don’t know Jeremy Bieber or Pattie Mallette (his biological parents), nor do I know Scooter Braun (his manager who has played the role of a surrogate parent for much of Justin’s career), but when a child turns 18, yes he or she is of the age of majority, but that doesn’t mean one’s job as a parent stops. In fact, the transition from boy-to-man or girl-to-woman is the time in many children’s lives when they most need a parent’s guidance and involvement, even if it’s precisely the time they want it least.
If it’s true that Jeremy Bieber was present for Justin’s Big Mistake in Miami Beach, whether he was “partying” with his son or not, the elder Bieber entered the land of Bad Parents the moment he let his child get behind the wheel of a car whilst impaired. Justin may not have been drunk, but (if police reports and the glassiness of his eyes in his mug shot are any indication) it sure looked like he was higher than Jerry Garcia at Woodstock. Jeremy Bieber is still physically larger than his eldest child. I have a teenage son who soon will be bigger than both his father and me. If we were standing there while our drunk/stoned/rolling-on-Molly/otherwise-impaired son attempted to get behind the wheel of a car and drive it (whether it was a rented Ferrari or our 22-year-old Miata) we would physically stop him, even if that mean tackling him to the ground or dragging him out of the driver’s seat, or jumping on the hood of a moving automobile. Jeremy Bieber apparently did none of those things and that’s a world-class PARENT FAIL.
I wonder whether there are any people in Justin’s inner circle today who are there simply and only because they love him for who he is and not what he is. That seems to me to be the most significant shift I’ve watched from a distance in the last few years.
Q3. Some folks watch Bieber’s challenges with bemused interest, others with disgust, and others with genuine concern. What are the responsibilities of a society – and of people of faith – towards a mega-star facing this type of trouble? Do his fans enable his behavior?
A3: We have the responsibility to be kind to one another, and that responsibility extends to celebrities, too. We’re the ones who placed them on their teetering pedestals. Justin didn’t ascend his without our help. So when they tumble off, the fact that we cheer and sneer is awful, hypocritical, and deeply, sometimes savagely unkind.
As for people of faith, we should be rushing to his aid in whatever way we can, which for the vast majority of us is prayer. Pray for Justin. Pray for his family, blood and chosen. Pray for Justin’s friends. Pray for God to send Justin his Anam Cara – soul friends, the rarest and most valuable and necessary kind for any of us to have as we navigate our lives on this side of the veil.
Don’t shame Justin. Instead, let’s remind him of who he is: A beloved child of the Most High God whose love for Justin is the same as it was last week and last year and every moment since he took shape and form in his mother’s womb. There is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any less and there is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any more.
Grace isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it covers not just a multitude of sins – it covers them all. Even if you’re a celebrity. Even if you act like an entitled, spoiled brat. Even if you get drunk and pee in mop buckets, or swear like a sailor at the cop who’s arresting you for drag racing. Even if you get behind the wheel of a car drunk or stoned and you drive it and you hit someone and you kill them. God loves you. And God’s grace is still available to you. Grace is the final word and we should remind Justin of that.
Q4. How can Justin turn it around – practically, emotionally and spiritually? If you could speak with him today…what advice would you give?
A4: As a mother and a person of faith who has made myriad mistakes (some of them fairly epic) in my lifetime as a believer, I don’t think Justin can turn this around. I KNOW HE CAN TURN THIS AROUND. But in order to do that, he needs a sabbath. A long one. Out of the public eye and surrounded by or at least accompanied by someone who loves him, will be honest with him, kick his arse when he needs it, hold him while he bawls his heart out, and make him matzo ball soup. He needs time to heal (and no, I don’t think he should go to rehab – I don’t believe he’s an addict) with the help of people who can help him get healthy, whether they are therapists or clergy or friends (famous or not).
I know for a fact that several older celebrities — goodhearted people of faith who share Justin’s Christian faith and upbringing and have been in the business since they, too, were teens — have reached out to him as mentors and friends in the past, but were rebuffed. Now is the time, Justin, to let them help you. Let them accompany you through this difficult time.
Find a spiritual director or pastor or rabbi or clergy person (and please not the kind who is interested in having his or her picture taken with a pop star or asking you to endorse his or her latest book) and lean into their wisdom and care. Let them remind you of God’s promises to all of us. Also read Eugene Peterson’s “Run with the Horses.” You are a Jeremiah.
And then go away. For as long as you need to go away to get well and remember who you are and why you are here. Don’t worry about your career or the Bieber Industrial Complex. Those people got on fine before you arrived and started lining their pockets with Benjamins and they’ll be fine if (and hopefully when) you take a break for a few months or years or however long you need to be whole.
AS an artist, you break yourself open and pour yourself out. It’s like Eucharist. But you can’t share that amazing gift of Eucharist with the world if your internal well is dry.
Go fill it up. Let people help you find a way to do that. Be gentle with yourself – shame is not helpful – but neither is arrogance.
SAY YOU’RE SORRY TO YOUR FANS. Fans like my 13-year-old niece. Don’t just tell them how much they mean to you and thank them for putting you in the spotlight and giving you this life. APOLOGIZE FOR NOT BEHAVING THE WAY YOU KNOW YOU SHOULD; FOR NOT BEING YOUR HIGHEST AND BEST SELF.
And then go take care of you. Not for the sake of your career, but for the sake of your heart, mind, body, and soul.
Justin, I’m sorry for being party to the atmosphere of media pressure around you that at the very least contributed to where you are right now. Please forgive me. I don’t want to sell another copy of the book I wrote about you. I just want you to be well. And if there’s anything I can ever do to help you privately to get whole, please call on me.
Praying for you, dear brother in the One who loves both of us more than we ever could fathom.
Thank God no one was hurt in the alleged drag-racing incident in Miami overnight that led to the pop star’s arrest.
“Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.” ~ Richard Rohr
My media colleagues:To request an interview, please contact my agent: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’d imagine the man is not used to being embraced like that — not by strangers, maybe not even by family and friends.
But the Pope is a lover and, as I’ve mentioned before, a hugger.
A photo of the embrace went viral (as it should have):
According to CNN:
The man the Pope comforted suffers from neurofibromatosis, according to the Catholic News Agency. The genetic disorder causes pain and thousands of tumors throughout the body. It leads to hearing and vision loss, heart and blood vessel complications, and severe disability from nerve compression by tumors.
Earlier today, Papa Frank tweeted the following: 11h
Saints are people who belong fully to God. They are not afraid of being mocked, misunderstood or marginalized.
I can’t help but wonder whether Papa Frank was thinking of that man when he tweeted that.
Also Wednesday at the general audience, @Pontifex congratulated a newlywed couple who are members of L’Associazione Arcobaleno Marco Iagulli-Onlus (an organization that uses clowns and humor to cheer sick children). They’re known by their red plastic noses — the international symbol for healing humor (think Patch Adams). They couple were wearing their wedding garb and their noses.
So Papa Frank put a nose on, too. (Have I said today how much I love this guy?)
Pray for a baby named Noemi.
Apparently the child, who he had met before the public audience and may even have been among those in the crowd, is gravely ill.
Papa Frank said, in part (translated from the Italian but watch the video below where you can see how expressive and funny and warm he is):
“And now, I will ask all of you for an act of charity. Don’t worry, it’s not about money,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “Even though we might not know her, she is Baptized. She is one of us, she’s a Christian. Let’s express an act of love for her. First, in silence, let’s ask the Lord to help her at this very moment. May He give her health. Let’s take a moment of silence, then let’s pray a Hail Mary.”
To wit, in a worldwide survey launched by the Vatican today, questions about how to care for (pastorally) LGBTQ folks and their families were among those posed in a lengthy questionnaire sent round the globe.
According to a report from Agence France Presse:
The Vatican on Tuesday launched an unprecedented worldwide consultation on the new realities of family life including gay marriage as part of Pope Francis’s efforts to reform the Catholic Church.
A questionnaire has been sent to bishops around the world asking them for detailed information about the “many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care”.
“Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations, from the widespread practice of cohabitation… to same-sex unions,” it said.
The 39 questions are unusual because of their non-judgemental, practical nature in what could be a signal of greater openness and increased pastoral care regardless of a believer’s background.
Referring to gay couples, one questions asks: “What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?”
“In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?”
I’m so grateful Papa Frank is being, well, frank about issues related to LGBTQ and families in general (which are complex, no matter how they are created.) It’s much better than sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting “LALALALALALALA” with the hope that it might go away if he wills it to be so.
I like him. A lot.