Every day the Universe
Asks you who you are—
You answer with what you think,
what you do, what you say.
Let’s find out! I visited Bruges recently and share some of my photos below.
The 12th and 13th centuries were characterized by renewed religious fervor. New spiritual pathways emerged. Some of them were seen as heretical (like the Cathars), while others were tolerated. Franciscans and Dominicans came into existence to reorder the Church from the inside out. The beguines emerged as one of the most original spiritual pathways and they endured for hundreds of years. They can also be viewed as the first feminists.
The beguines appeared at the end of the 12th century. These women initially came from the poorer classes and sought a life of faith without taking formal vows. At first, small groups located themselves in urban settings near hospitals or abbeys. They dedicated themselves to prayer and contemplation, but worked in their communities caring for the sick. The beguines were a conundrum and a challenge to the social order. Free from the male dominance of a husband or spiritual director, the beguine was an independent entity. Her freedom also required she support herself by working. This beguine structure for the first time opened a religious path for poor women who previously had no access to it. Nuns came from wealthy classes and bought their way into the life through large dowries, impossible for poor women.
There is controversy over where the first beguine community was, but we know the movement spread quickly from Flanders through Italy, France, Poland, and Hungry. Over time a communal lifestyle prevailed and took hold. The beguines lived in a beguinage that functioned as a predominantly independent community, with rights and the ability to own property. Women often sought work in the thriving textile industries of their cities. By 1240, most of the beguines in the south of Flanders were living in communities surrounded by walls, where the door was closed at night creating its own version of a monastic center. The beguines had no founder and adopted no universal rule. There was no central authority. Each beguinage was a separately functioning entity, and this was sometimes a strength and sometimes a weakness.
Not surprisingly, beguine communities were the subject of much concern for the Church. The movement ran counter to the power structure and heresy was often a concern, but two papal bulls in the 13th century did support the movement. But it was not enough. Some beguines were burned for heresy while others received protection. By the 14th century, the beguines were suffering. They were subject to inquisitional authorities, and some beguinages closed losing their assets while others were absorbed into traditional monastic orders. Some beguinages persisted through the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, but only a few survived into the 20th century. These were clustered in Belgium including the one at Bruges.
I’ve been to several former beguinages in the Low Countries now. They are always peaceful, contemplative places. From these places, there are still echoes of women wanting spiritual space and a place in the world. Sauve Garde.
The Beguines:Women in Search of Sanctity Within Freedom -Silvana Panciera
The Wisdom of the Beguines- Laura Swan
Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics– Bernard McGinn
Owl Killers– Karen Maitland (fiction), starts and ends at the Bruges beguinage
Sisters Between-Molly Connally (fiction)
I’ve always hated my birthday. December 21 falls too close to Christmas for it ever to have been celebrated like a normal birthday. As a child I can remember (and remember vividly) the one and only birthday party where I had neighbor kids over. The rest of the time, birthdays were small family events squeezed in among the hubbub of Christmas. Not fun and not special. That coupled with the yearly reminder from my mother that I was born on the darkest day of the year did much to cement my feelings of apathy about my solar return. For a few years, I moved the event to January hoping for a better outcome. But there was no escaping it.
2017 turned out to be quite an eye-opening experience living abroad, and in an attempt to take advantage of some once in a life-time opportunities, I thought maybe this year marking my birthday with the rising sun of solstice at Stonehenge would make a memorable birthday. It was!
The tour bus left London in complete darkness at 4:20 AM and we made our way to the plains of Salisbury where we picked up some light rain. We were given the option of walking 50 minutes to the site or waiting for a shuttle bus. Luckily, the English Heritage organization that controls access to Stonehenge has done this for years and there were plenty of shuttle buses, so we boarded the bus and rode. We were dropped off, in the misty blackness at the edge of a parking lot with hundreds of others. All along the way, my husband and I were looking for the famous stones to orient ourselves but even standing with the crowd, we had no idea in which direction we’d eventually be led.
Finally, someone from English Heritage ventured by with a flashlight to tell us that they were waiting for some light before they’d open the field for us to go up to the site. When someone asked her where, she gestured to the left behind a wire fence where again we saw nothing. The crowd was animated. In the distance and to the left, drums beat, and a lone bagpipe played. More shuttle buses came and left, and we waited.
Not long after, the stones were lit on the hill above us and the pasture fence dropped. Stonehenge emerged from the black night on the first morning of winter. Druid drums beat a rhythm as the crowd and I were led through the marshy pasture and up to the historic site. I felt very emotional going up the hill and had to focus on my breathing to circulate the energy. Whether this was a reaction to ley lines, the crowd’s festive spirit, or my own internal work I don’t know, but it was powerful and deep (and Scorpionic?). There was a sense of rightness in this crowd moving up to take back this site.
By the time I reached the stones, several hundred people were already massed in and around the site. Stonehenge is a relatively small area. The center was held by Druids and pagans who had begun their ceremonies. Eager to join in, my husband and I moved in as close as we could. Our initial position was just outside the center ring. Gradually things began to lighten. We honored the four directions and offered prayers of peace being led by, I believe, a Druid priest. We chanted, sang songs, and summoned the ancestors. It was a festive, lively, and inclusive ceremony. The official sunrise came without notice as the clouds never permitted the sun to shine. Once the ritual part of the gathering had concluded, a group of pagan singers dressed in red streamed into the center of the stones and led the crowd in more songs. After a while, it felt like time to leave and my husband and I walked around the circle. I had a chance to touch some of the stones and walk the grounds of the site.
One of the most important reasons to visit Stonehenge at one of the solstices is that people are allowed in among the stones and on the grounds. During the rest of the year, tourists are allowed only to walk a paved path behind a barrier around the site. Those restrictions have been in place for some years now to protect the site. Only on limited rare occasions can visitors access and touch the stones (although technically you’re not supposed to, but everyone does).
Stonehenge is positioned on the top of a gentle hill with a panoramic view of surrounding fields. It’s isolated and unexpected, retaining its mystery. I settled on a fallen stone with some others. Revelers in the distance kept up the party atmosphere as I dropped into a healing mediation with the aid of the beat of a steady drum. It was easy to ground and go deep. I emerged sometime later, cold and stiff. It was time to leave.
The visit had been characterized by three different phases. First, there had been the emotional climb to the site. The stones themselves and the experience of greeting the solstice was joyous and a shared one. The final phase was solitary, deep, and healing. No bolts of lightening but more a gladness that I’d been there. That this birthday was memorable and special.
I was surprised that I had not felt more in the way of energy at the site, but then I had done some shielding ahead of our arrival. An unexpected thing happened the next day in London though. While we were waiting to get the underground, I suddenly started running energy that intensified in my palms. This lasted for some time and I think was connected to the previous day’s work. So, I’m keeping an open mind and we’ll see where this goes. Maybe a blog in the future.
What if your neighbor was a saint? This was the question Rea Nolan Martin asked herself in creating this masterpiece of visionary fiction. Her main character, Vera Wright, qualifies for the senior discount, but is still working as a beautician. She has a grown daughter and a teddy bear of a husband, living a normal life. Then one day, her parish priest asks the congregation to invite God into their lives. Vera does and that’s when everything starts to change.
I was fully caught up in Vera’s reluctant spiritual journey. More than once I wondered how I’d react if some of the things that Vera experienced happened to me. Remember in the stories of saints, the path to enlightenment is not an easy one. Vera is continuously challenged on her road to God. Unexpected twists and turns occur. Vera navigates some of them beautifully and some not. She is after all, human. Vera’s job is to awaken to her inner divinity and that awakening has her question the role of the feminine in Catholicism.
The story of Vera’s transformation might be heavy except that the author has interjected copious amounts of humor into the mix. Vera is the saint next door and we are no longer free to relegate holiness to the past. Might we not come across a saint in our own lives? Who is that waiting on us at the Post Office? Who is that old man feeding the ducks at the pond? The child reaching for the cookie? This book is a mind-opening adventure. Don’t miss it!
It doesn’t take long before a reader seeking spiritual materials encounters what are called channeled texts. Initially I thought there were only a handful of such books, but as I continue to explore, more and more of them come to my attention. Wikipedia lists thirty- nine entities who have produced a modern text through a medium. I thought it might be interesting to look at a handful of them.
Patience Worth- channeled by Pearl Curran: (1883-1937)
Pearl Curran, a mid-west housewife, began channeling while using a Ouija board with a neighbor. By 1913 the entity known as “Patience Worth” emerged beginning with the phrase, “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come.” Patience revealed that she had lived “across the sea” from 1649-1694. No historical evidence has been located confirming her existence. Patience, through Curran, went on to pen several novels and many poems. Although Curran was only an average student at best, Patience’s work garnered literary acclaim. The literary critic, William Marion Reedy called The Sorry Tale, a new classic of world literature. In 1918, Patience Worth was listed as an outstanding author by The Joint Committee of Literary Arts of NY. An index of poetry for the same year credits her with the publication of 88 poems, almost all considered exceptional.
Abraham- channeled by Esther Hicks: (1948- )
Esther Hicks is an inspirational speaker and author. Although somewhat uncomfortable with the channeling label, she and her husband produced thirteen books and she appeared in the original film of The Secret. The books outline spiritual truths obtained through a group of entities not in the physical dimension known as “Abraham.” Much of Hicks’ work borrows from William Walker Atkinson who wrote about the Law of attraction in the early 1900s.
Jesus- channeled by Helen Schucman: (1909-81)
Helen Schucman was a research psychologist and professor of medical psychology at Columbia University. With the help of William Thetford she produced A Course in Miracles (ACIM). Born to non-observant Jewish parents, Helen was exposed to Theosophy, Christian Science, and was baptized in the Baptist faith at age 12. She traveled to Lourdes where she had a spiritual experience but religion didn’t seem to have a great influence on her early adult life. During the period 1965-1972, she heard an inner voice which identified itself as Jesus. Schucman died in 1981 and since her death, ACIM has been translated into many languages selling over 1.25 million sets. It’s estimated that at least five million people have studied ACIM.
Seth- channeled by Jane Roberts: (1929-84)
Jane Roberts was an author and psychic medium who channeled the entity “Seth” from 1963 until her death in 1984. In a trance state, Seth took over Roberts’ body while her husband recorded the messages. Seth described himself as an “energy personality essence no longer focused in physical matter.” The Seth Material was published in 1969 with many books to follow. Some scholars believe the influence of Seth on New Age thinking has been profound. The main focus of the Seth writings according to John P. Newport was that the individual creates his/her own reality. As a guide, Seth led the way to a further exploration of reincarnation, karma, free will, ancient wisdom, and Christ consciousness.
I’m sure readers will be able to add many other cases to the list. Truly, the line between channeling and artistic creation is a blurry one.
THE DEVILS OF LOUDON by Aldous Huxley
I’m not sure how I came across this book, but the blurb on Amazon was enough to have me seek out a non-fiction book written in 1952. Huxley takes on the strange case of possession of eighteen nuns in the small French village of Loudon in 1632. The village priest is a lothario who makes the wrong enemies and is burned at the stake for it. The book combines The Exorcist with the hysteria of the Salem witch trials.
Father Urbain Grandier was undoubtedly a scoundrel who seduced many village women, eventually impregnating a well-respected merchant’s daughter. He quickly makes powerful enemies including the famous Cardinal Richelieu. When all legal attempts to hold Grandier accountable fail, the locals bide their time. Soon on the scene is the young Sister Jeanne who has authority as prioress over seventeen impressionable Ursuline nuns. Jeanne has come to the Church by default rather than any spiritual calling. Hearing stories about the handsome, bad-boy Grandier, she develops elaborate romantic fantasies.
When her attempts to get the Father to act as confessor for the nuns fails, she is more than a little disappointed. With encouragement from some of Grandier’s enemies, it’s not long before the nuns are displaying signs of demonic possession. Grandier thinks he’s safe because he has never been in the convent. Not so! God isn’t the only one who works in mysterious ways. Exorcists are brought in and the nuns perfect their techniques and the hysteria gains momentum. Eventually, all of France learn about the diabolical happenings at Loudon as the nuns are exorcized before public gatherings (which becomes very profitable for the convent). Although many in the Church don’t think Father Grandier is in league with the devil, he is put on trial, found guilty, and publicly burned.
Unfortunately for the nuns (well, maybe not), the devil is not sent packing with Grandier’s death. With traditional exorcism failing, a Jesuit priest arrives with a new idea. Instead of casting out the demons, he will work with the prioress eliminating her sins and making her a model of Christian virtue where the devil cannot hold sway. Unlike Grandier, Father Surin is sincere in his calling. With a strong mystical bent, Surin believes all the phenomena manifesting in the convent is the work of the devil and he fully believes he can take Satan on.
What Surin doesn’t know is that the prioress has been putting on a show all along and that she has no desire to give up the attention she has garnered. Instead, she takes up the quest to be holy by starting to act as if she were the next St. Theresa of Avila (a noted mystic who Jeanne had studied before coming to Loudon). Now instead of contorting her body on the floor and screaming obscenities, Jeanne begins to create miracles. The transition of demoniac to saint happens as Father Surin physically takes on the demons Jeanne sheds. The prioress eventually bears the stigmata of holy names on her arm and produces a chemise bearing holy drops of scent. Poor Father Surin’s health declines and he goes mad. The Prioress takes to the road exhibiting her miracles in front of thousands as she travels through France. She meets Cardinal Richelieu, and the King and Queen of France. The holy chemise is even draped over the Queen’s abdomen during the birth of Louis XIV. After that, Jeanne returns to the convent and lives out her life. Father Surin struggles for years believing that God has condemned him to hell. Late in life, he regains some lucidity and is able to write and preach again.
Written in the 1950s, the book isn’t the easiest of reads. There are long digressions on side topics and discussions of the mystical the average reader would be unfamiliar with. Strangely enough, there are long passages and poetry in French which are not translated. However, quotes in Latin are so you can get a glimpse of the rituals performed. Huxley was convinced that this story is as pertinent today as it was at the time it happened. Those human frailties that made Loudon possible are still with us. Lust, greed, revenge, self-centeredness, and the quest for power remain modern vices.
This week’s moment of synchronicity: a new article connecting Huxley’s work to modern mass hysteria events (especially in girls & young women).
Some years ago while reading about early explorers into Tibet, I came upon a biography about Helena Blavatsky. Madame Blavatsky was involved in early investigations of spiritualism and eventually went on to found the Theosophical Society with others in 1875. The original organization splintered, and Theosophy does not have the following it once enjoyed, but it continues to foster spiritual growth.
The Theosophical Society in America’s website (www.theosophical.org) outlines their vision, mission, and ethic.
The Theosophical Society in America:
“Has a Vision of wholeness that inspires a fellowship united in study, meditation, and service.
Its Mission is to encourage open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transformation.
Its Ethic holds that our every action, feeling, and thought affects all other beings and that each of us is capable of and responsible for contributing to the benefit of the whole.”
March 12, 7:00 p.m. CT
The Buddha and Jesus have been described as enlightened persons who realized their spiritual visions. They gave rise to two of the world’s major religious traditions, and became virtually deified by their followers. But who were they, and what were their spiritual visions? Explore the historical identities of these two spiritual teachers, the nature of their paths to ultimate truth, and consider the similarities and differences of their views of the human condition and subsequent teachings. (George Bond is professor emeritus of Religious Studies and McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University)
March 19, 7:00 p.m. CT
Using the astrological teachings of Dane Rudyar (Rhythm of Wholeness) and Alexander Ruperti (Cycles of Becoming) as resources for understanding psychological spiritual growth, we find they reveal the timing coordination for patterns of growth as we age. Elements of developmental psychology will be explored and sequenced with their astrological triggers. Investigate your own life purpose with regard to these perspectives to find greater clarity of life’s path. (Frank Morales, M.S.Ed. CRADC, MISA II)
March 26, 7:00 p.m. CT
Our thoughts, conceptions, theories, and beliefs often drift into “thickets of views” that can lead to confusion and rigidity. One way to ground ourselves amidst the modern conceptual bombardment is to cultivate mindful inquiry of basic experiential realities: the sense doors, sensory experience, and how they feel. Wisdom can arise when we see these things clearly, and we understand the limitations of all those concepts, theories, and beliefs. (Santikaro is the founder of Liberation Park, a Buddhist retreat center in Wisconsin.)
April 2, 7:00 p.m. CT
Forgiveness is praised more than it’s practiced. Why should we forgive? When? Are there times when it’s not right to forgive? How can you tell forgiving from condoning? Richard Smoley, editor of Quest magazine, offers some insights from his new book The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness. (Richard Smoley is a distinguished authority on the mystical and esoteric teachings of Western civilization. Editor of Quest Books.)
April 9, 7:00 p.m. CT
Fire is one of the most sacred symbols used by sages, alchemists and initiates of ancient times. This primordial element of Life still plays a central role in many religious ceremonies and meditations for seekers of Truth throughout the world. We will probe into some of the esoteric meanings attributed to this universal symbol such as reincarnation, spiritual transmutation and Eternity. (Danelys Valcarcel is a Cuban artist and student of Theosophy.)
April 16, 7:00 p.m. CT
It has been said that worrying is like running around in a circle—getting us nowhere. Why do so many of us spend so much time worrying about so many things? Is it possible to live responsible and caring lives without falling victim to anxiety and worry? That a human being can be free of such negative emotions is central to the Buddha’s teaching. However, it is necessary to understanding the nature of the human condition and come to terms with reality in order to free ourselves. (John Cianciosi, ordained Buddhist monk and spiritual director of monasteries in Thailand and Australia.)
April 23, 7:00 p.m. CT
April 30, 7.00 p.m. CT
May 7, 7:00 p.m. CT
Theosophy in India blog post: http://aviott.org/2014/02/19/banyans-cuckoos-cannonballs-and-theosophy/
I’ve been taking some classes on a particular branch of Gnosticism and went in search of a book to help me see “the forest through the trees.” Certain things that were being taught on the transmutation of energy and enlightenment started to feel restrictive and I wondered how other spiritual traditions approached the subject. Author Barclay Powers has a BS in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and has studied meditation, yoga, and martial arts for over thirty years. His book allowed me to gaze across several Eastern traditions while confirming almost everything Gnosticism outlined.
Once upon a time, the secrets of the East were tightly restricted to advanced followers of personal lineages. That has all changed with new translations of ancient texts and a proliferation of skilled teachers. The internet itself can even act as a guru. Ancient wisdom is available from India, China, Egypt, Tibet, Japan, and eastern and western alchemy. Powers sees a paradigm shift coming. Science is now looking at states of mind through brain imaging and he feels science will eventually look at the phenomena of the “rainbow body”* (the dissolving of the body into pure energy). When that happens, the world has the potential to change and manifest the best of humanity resulting in a global Bodhisattva* civilization.
As we wait for science to catch up, individual practitioners all over the world are taking up techniques like meditation, yoga, tai chi, gi gong, kundalini awakening, and the internal martial arts. All of the methods begin in the body and ultimately unite the body, soul, and spirit. Instead of a psychological transformation, Powers is talking about a physiological process that spans traditions. The ultimate freedom of enlightenment is found when the individual transcends birth and death, as well as time and space. The bulk of the book is devoted to examining Indian (Kundalini), Chinese (Tao), and Tibetan (Tantra) teachings for their similarities of energetic enlightenment. This was a good book for getting an overview of the systems of enlightenment. I enjoyed learning more about Taoist philosophy and the difference between the internal and external martial arts. The book could be expanded to include more about western mysticism and the Kabbalah, but those are not Powers’ areas of expertise. This is probably not a book for someone without burning questions about the nature of reality and enlightenment. For the novice, these practices will, at times, be shocking. They are meant to be having spent a millennia being well guarded by the masters of many traditions.
*Rainbow body- a phenomena well-recorded in the East, especially when a great spiritual teacher dies
*Bodhisattva- someone who postpones full Enlightenment to return to help others: the ultimate expression of compassion
Evelyn Underhill asked this question of herself one hundred years ago on the eve of the outbreak of The Great War. Oddly enough reading her book titled Practical Mysticism, I’m struck with how current it is. Her arguments against materialism and self- interest are as pertinent today as they were in 1914. And how strange it is to be reading her work at a time when the US appears to be on the verge of expanding the war on terror. This is the case especially when you consider how at the end of WW I, the victorious sliced, diced, and built nations in the Middle East which are root causes of today’s issues.
Evelyn Underhill is considered an authority on Christian mysticism having spent a lifetime researching, exploring, experiencing, and writing about it. For her, mysticism is defined as the art of union with reality. Notice the absence of the G- word. In order to justify taking up the call of this difficult journey, both inward and outward, mysticism to Evelyn’s mind must be practical. It’s not just about reaching up, it’s also about bringing down. While the experience of ultimate reality is personally transforming, mystics must create in the material world.
In Practical Mysticism, Evelyn outlines a universal process to be used by those interested in deeply engaging with reality. The first step requires the training of attention. With meditation and recollection, you begin to experience freedom, spaciousness, and peace. Your values change as you let go of your attachments. Later, as you develop in the first contemplation stage, you bring the “eyes of love toward the world”, recognizing the Immanent Being in everyone (and everything). You go in search of connection while dismantling your own personality. During the second contemplation, you’re pulled into deeper levels of reality which are supported now by an inward push. At this stage, knowing is achieved through direct intuitive contact and not through thought or feeling. Here the depth and height of your experience transforms you. The transcendent nature of mystical experience is ineffable, but that has never stopped mystics from trying to describe it.
One line truly stood out from the book for me. Evelyn says (and here Christian mystics seem to depart from Eastern traditions), “Perpetual absorption in the Transcendent is a human impossibility, and the effort to achieve it is both unsocial and silly.” Of course, there are whole traditions that advocate just that.
Returning to Evelyn’s map of mystical progress, the third contemplation is characterized by a ceasing of your active efforts. You let go of striving and rest in the darkness and quietude. The self surrenders, receives, and gains a conviction in the certainty of the Transcendent. What you actually experience depends on the individual. Some may experience ecstasy, but it is always on some level, unity through personal encounter. From here, you return to the material world to take up the mystical life going deeper and wider, permanently changed. Now the work involves becoming “an active and impassioned servant of eternal wisdom.” In Evelyn’s model, contemplation is never an end in itself. The challenge of the spiritual life is to go up and down the ladder getting inspiration and creating in the world. The work to be done today is huge; much like it was back in 1914. The true mystic takes up the call to live a “better, intenser, and more significant life.”