I was feasting on the BBC’s “Foyle’s War” recently, (http://www.foyleswar.com/) and as usual, it held me by the heels of my assumptions and shook me awake. It’s World War II in England, and the neighborhood police office is holding a raffle for tuppence a ticket. The prize- an onion. Sam asks the clerk if she can have a smell of it. I froze the film and myself for a moment while tears made their way from heart to head to eyes. “Can I have a smell of it?” Due to rationing, Sam had not smelled or tasted an onion since Christmas. She didn’t buy a raffle ticket- she probably couldn’t afford tuppence- but her colleague, Paul Milner did, and when he won the raffle, he shared the onion with Sam. Of course, it goes without saying that human nature being what it is, the black market on food thrived all around Sam. A wealthy person bought minced ham in a can for her dog, while most Londoners were lucky to have meat.
The medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, addressed greed and privilege in the marketplace. In the midst of merchants, nobles and bishops he preached against a merchant mentality of greed and said that all people were aristocrats, even the disgruntled peasants, because they are sparks of the divine. This was a very revolutionary message because it threatened the power of financial, state, and religious institutions. For this message he was condemned, because he was said to have corrupted the minds of ignorant lay persons.
I am calling myself back to that place of simplicity where just a smell is enough for a while. Grace can be found in downsizing and simplifying. When we shed the shroud of excess, our spiritual senses come alive again. Can you smell the onion yet?
Like the holy caves of Cappadocia
Spare Souls have open spaces
Where the Spirit’s breath
Unhindered by the excess which
Muffles the voice of God.
Head into the Dark Night
Sustained by the smell of Hope.
Because they have known
The taste of ecstasy,
They remember, and the memory is
© rita h kowats
One year after the unexpected death of my sister I still step gingerly. When we grieve we learn that all we CAN do is step out. If we step in harmony with the pain, we become sure-footed. The pain transforms from foe to friend, and we endure in spite of the loss.
My spiritual practice has been intentionality. I ask for the grace to stay conscious, to recognize each wave of grief and to honor my humanity by feeling it. It has also helped me to be aware of my sister’s continued presence in a new way. I have prayed for her spirit as she transitions into this new and unknown existance. And I have practiced letting her go.
Two gifts have emerged from this experience: reinforcement that the ice holds, and realization that we are not in control. Now I try to live into these truths, and to be in solidarity with others who grieve.
Scripture abounds with crippling images of God as warrior, power-grabbing king, and patronizing parent who would not let anything bad happen to us. The God of Exodus 20.5 says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generations.” These images created by the authors of scripture, rob us of any personal authority we have as human beings and they have had such a hold on us, that we relinquish the freedom given to us by the real God who is beyond all images. No wonder Meister Eckhart pleads, “I pray God that he may quit me of god.”
Eric Fromm, the human potential psychologist, escaped the Holocaust and thereafter recognized the evils of manipulating God as a way to legitimate genocide. He chose atheism as his path. He has left us with a passionate analysis of the self-annihilation that results when we totally immerse ourselves in an image of God as a “magic helper.” Fromm reminds us t hat we lose ourselves in this image-making. Human beings “…project the best [they] have onto God, and thus impoverish themselves.” (Psychoanalysis and Religion pg. 49) Fromm’s atheism is different from Eckhart’s, which is a death to negative images, not to the God beyond the images; however, Fromm’s analysis wakes us up, and invites us to rid ourselves of debilitating images of God.
Fromm’s analysis and Eckhart’s plea came together for me as I watched a 60 Minutes presentation May 18, entitled, “Three Generations of Punishment.” It was about Shin Dong-Hyuk, who escaped from Camp 14 in North Korea, after 23 yrs. He was born in the prison. His parents were imprisoned because their parents had advocated against the government. The guards behave like gods; warlike and vengeful on one hand, and patronizing “magic helpers” on the other hand. Until he befriended a new prisoner, Shin dong-Hyuk had no knowledge of the outside world. He thought that the rules of the camp were right and he was happy to obey, to the point of turning in his parents for disobeying, and feeling no remorse at their execution. His experience was very much like the experiences of those suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. A survivor of the TWA Flight 847 terrorist hijacking said of her captors, “They weren’t bad people; they let me eat, they let me sleep, they gave me my life.”
I believe that many of us today suffer from a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome, constructed with the false god-images we have made and worshipped. We stay safe within these images rather than accept the freedom and responsibility of living as fully human persons. I pray for myself and all of us each day, that we may have the courage to let God be God in and through us. I pray that we may rid ourselves of god.
“…true poverty of spirit consists in keeping oneself so free of God and of all one’s works that if God wants to act in the soul, God himself becomes the place wherein he wants to act- and this God likes to do….Here, in this poverty, people attain the eternal being that they once were, now are, and will eternally remain.” Meister Eckhart Sermon Fifteen
This time Meister Eckhart describes the goal of the spiritual journey as a radical letting go of all ego entrapments so that if God wants to act in the soul, God becomes the place wherein God wants to act. This is the GodPlace where we existed before we were creatured.
The poem I share here emerged after the death of my parents, many years ago. Since then I have experienced enough “ego-deaths” to fuel a massive funeral pyre! Every time we choose Spirit over ego, we die a little and are born a little, becoming more authentically our true selves.
Leaves reign down
Leaving long limbs
Exposed like raw pain.
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord?”
As leaves to earth
We return to the
Genes of our souls
Bare, not barren,
Becoming at last
Who we always were.
Rita Hemmer Kowats