No Meat, Conversation Or Liquor — Will I Survive?

Padmasambhava, a picture I, John Hill, took in...
Padmasambhava...Image via Wikipedia

Well, my dears. Off today on a 10-day silent, vegetarian, Buddhist retreat about a 30-minute drive north of my home.

The idea was the sweetie’s, this year’s birthday present.

He’s been a devout Buddhist practicing Dzogchen since he spent six terrifying weeks in 1995 in Bosnia at Christmas, shooting photos for The New York Times.

His mini-altar in the hallway has a small Buddha wrapped in a prayer scarf. A laminated card tucked on the driver side of our ancient Subaru is that of Padmasambhava.

When we started dating, in March 2000, the difference in our faiths — I attend an Episcopal church, albeit not every week — seemed like a potential stumbling block as he is so much  more devout. But it’s not a competition.

And he’s always been really supportive of me, attending my church for more than a decade.

I’ve met and enjoy his lama, Surya Das, author of several books, with a new one out, “Buddha Standard Time.”

He and I even went to see “Mamma Mia” together a few years ago. Namaste on Broadway!

The retreat offers three teachings a day, the only time we’ll be allowed to speak. The food will be vegetarian. There will be no cocktail hour, or wine at dinner, both something we usually enjoy daily at home.

Steak? TV? Three daily newspapers? No, no, no. Ah, the things I cling to.

We’re taking my softball glove and ball, and my bike. I’m taking my camera and watercolors, and plan to write a speech due August 10 in Minneapolis.

I’ll sit in the teachings and meditations and chanting as much as feels comfortable. He and I will share a room, and plan to write notes back and forth. It will be very odd — and difficult — not to talk to him. We typically talk several hours a day and I really enjoy it.

So it’s already a powerful meditation on the loss of that comfort. We may whisper to one another in our room. We’ll see.

I’ve been the butt of jokes for weeks now. “Buddhist,vegetarian, silent — I can’t think of three words less likely to describe you,” said one friend.

If I can get access to the Internet, as yet unknown, I’ll blog during that week. If I can’t, hang tight! I’ll be back here on my regular schedule, posting every other day, starting again on July 31.

Wish me luck!

Why Don't We Ever Talk About (Our) Faith?

:Image:Religious syms.png bitmap traced (and h...
Image via Wikipedia

We went to church this morning. I don’t go every week, usually once a month or so. And I was fried from watching Alien 3 on AMC until 1:30 a.m.; the last thing I felt like doing was dragging my tired bum to church.

One of the most striking and consistent absences on TrueSlant — one which continues to puzzle me — is our lack of conversation about faith, religion or spirituality beyond its predictable political ramifications. What’s up with that? Are we afraid to talk about it? Is there nothing to say? Will it inevitably get too ugly and embattled? I think people are scared of offending someone, of coming out as preachy and judgmental if their interlocutor is atheist or agnostic. There are as many ways to be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc. as there are shades of the color blue, because each of us brings our own fears, doubts and certainties to it, as well as our strengths, hopes and faith.

I think it’s a real shame we don’t talk about it more, certainly in a country that is arguably pluralistic. Call me hopelessly idealistic, but I feel strongly there’s still a lot we can learn from one another’s faiths and traditions, no matter how weird some of them may seem.  If you’re a Christian, have you ever attended a synagogue service? I did, once, but only while reporting on it. I’ve never been inside a Hindu temple or mosque. I have been to several meetings of Buddhist tsangas in their temples because my partner is a devout Tibetan Buddhist — raised as a Hispanic Baptist minister’s son.

Faith and an attempt to behave ethically is an essential part of our shared life. We talk about it, think about it, try our best to live it. I know his Lama, Surya Das, who is a best-selling author and a dear friend. My partner has also known, and deeply loved listening to and becoming friends with, several of our church’s Episcopal ministers. This morning, as the choir processed up the aisle, he wrapped his wooden mala beads around his wrist as he always does. When our minister Nora proceeds up the aisle after the service, he bows deeply to her in namaste, a traditional gesture to a spiritual leader.

Here’s why I think we need to talk about faith, belief and religion publicly. It matters. It matters enormously and deeply. I am, frankly, saddened and embarrassed that a stupid, lame-ass post about Marge Simpson making the cover of Playboy is now my 5th most popular post, of more than 250. Please! It makes me shrivel with shame that a joke-y bit of filler is that appealing. But it is. Maybe because jokey stuff is so banal, so familiar and therefore so unthreateningly safe.

Here are some of the reasons I go to church, and here’s a magazine piece I wrote about it a while ago:

Community: I live in a wealthy suburb, dominated by big mansions filled with Type-A achievers. Not us. It’s easy to forget that there are many other people out there, each with spiritual needs and lives. Sometimes only in this sacred space where we hear the prayer list — Hilde has cancer, Becky is recovering, Bill needs a job — do we peel back, ideally in a safe and accepting way, the polished, gleaming shells we wear much of the time. Here, it’s OK to show the cracks. We’re all cracked. We all need healing.

Diversity: There are few places, if a spiritual community is thriving, you share physical space, let alone conversation, with people ages six to 80. Let alone white, black, Asian, Hispanic, investment bankers to artists. Today my sweetie chatted up a 10-year-old redheaded boy whose voice rang out this morning from the children’s choir. We don’t know this kid or his parents. But he’s a member and members feel free to talk to one another. You don’t have to be married/parents/employed/whatever to find solace and welcome in the right spiritual community. Your soul is the member, not your exterior labels.

Tradition: I admit it. I’m a sucker for liturgy, the Nicene Creed, the Doxology, the Peace. I get weepy belting out my favorite hymns, knowing that generations of others have belted them out, in my church, before me. I like being part of a long line of Christians going back to 1854 in this space. I just love “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

Lessons: Not just the sermon. Sitting still for an hour. Caring for your soul in the same thoughtful and deliberate way we pay obsessive, tedious, relentless attention to the size of our hips, bank accounts or achievements.

Humility: Every one of us is eventually humbled, whether by divorce, betrayal, job loss, illness. Knowing others have survived this, are surviving this all around you, reminds us we’re human. We still retain tremendous value, to ourselves and to others, no matter what condition we find ourselves in.

Do you attend services? Does it matter to you? Do you share this with others, or is it a well-kept secret? Why?

No Novenas, Thanks — I'm Staying Anglican

St James's Anglican Church
Image by jofo2005 via Flickr

The Catholic church has sent shock waves throughout the Anglican communion by creating a way to ease Anglican conversion to Catholicism. Those horrified by homosexual priests and bishops, same-sex blessings and women priests are hungry for a spiritual home that ratifies their prejudices.

Not me.

The Anglican faith is premised on what’s called the three stools; faith, tradition and reason. Reason. I can’t attend any church or listen to any preacher who doesn’t explicitly, as this church does, welcome my questions, my intelligence, my doubts and challenges. It’s because we bring our own ideas that debate and change and growth can even happen, no matter how terrifying it is for some people. We also govern our own church through bishops — the Anglican church is also called Episcopal, which means ruled by bishops. We do not bow to one leader in a far-off land handing out encyclicals.

I loathe dogma. Yet I also deeply value tradition and symbols, incense and liturgy, “smells and bells, capes and drapes” as my minister — Nora, a woman — said yesterday at lunch. My Dad, who joined us visiting from Canada, later said he was surprised that Nora didn’t seem to mind my salty tongue. A refuge from corporate life, like many mid-career women coming into ministry, Nora feels like someone I can relate to, even while respecting her authority.

I have never been a Catholic and have spent very little time in or near Catholic traditions. But women are not allowed to become Catholic priests — which the Anglican church began in 1975. That alone is one reason I cannot imagine ever leaving a denomination that so obviously and clearly manifests its commitment to spiritual needs of all its members, not just bowing to the traditional primacy of men.

Nora was recently installed as the rector of our 150-year-old church. I wept with pride and pleasure. I was thrilled and surprised to see so many other women ministers show up for this important ceremony, offering her their moral, emotional and spiritual support. It felt like having a crowd of unicorns in our pews to see so many women at once wearing clerical robes and collars.

Power is something women everywhere fight for daily, in ways small and large, whether political, economic, intellectual, sexual, spiritual. No church that refuses women the pulpit can woo or win me.

A Woman Celebrates Her New Job — Rector!


There are events at which people expect to cry: weddings, christenings, funerals.

I cry at ordinations, (having watched several), and, last night, wept with pleasure and pride watching my first installation of a new rector, our first new rector in 35 years, Lenore Katherine Smith — aka Norah. She’s a brunette my age, also a woman with no kids, a former senior executive for — all of things — Kate Spade shoes.

I joked with her later that I was crying about as hard as she was as she knelt at the front of our red-carpeted aisle and took a vow, that began: “O Lord my God, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, yet you have called your servant to stand in your house and serve at your altar.” It’s hard to put into useful words how moving it is for me, as a feminist, to have women in the Episcopal and Anglican church as our ministers. A woman in a clerical collar is a deeply inspiring sight for me.

I’ve been a member of our church, St. Barnabas, for 10 years; my sweetie, as he has now done many times, photographed the 90-minute ceremony. For a Buddhist, he takes great pictures of Episcopal rites. Bishop Mark Sisk, bishop for the diocese of New York, conducted the service, resplendent in cream silk vestments and a bishop’s mitre that — cunningly, like a bit of origami — folded completely flat when he took it off and laid it on the altar.

The air was fragrant with the scent of lilies, we applauded her long and loud, and the evening was triumphant. This year also marks the 150th year of our church, and I’m honored to play a part its history.

Recession Hits Religious Life

Rose window
Image by battle-axe studio | sharp creative via Flickr

I’ve been attending an Episcopal church for 10 years and chose my church, St. Barnabas, because of the extraordinary woman, Susan Richmond, then the assistant minister when I was in crisis. She offered compassion, wisdom — and a strong, smart woman’s perspective. Had she not been there, would I have returned and stayed? We now have a woman rector, Norah Smith — but for the first time in many years we have no assistant minister and no plans to hire one.

Our wealthy suburban New York church, with about 300 members, can’t afford it. Recession is hitting religious life across the country, reports the Associated Press.

With our depressed or vanishing incomes, churches, synagogues and other religiously-affiliated institutions are suffering. People are putting less money in the collection plate or tithing or pledging less (committing a set amount of money each year.) In the Episcopal church, each parish elects a vestry from among its members, a sort of board of directors who work closely with the minister, focusing on, among many other issues, the budget. I had a long chat recently with a vestry member who told me money is now a  real challenge, that the wealthy stalwarts who wrote very large checks for years are no longer doing so. And no one else is stepping up.

Does it matter to lose an assistant minister? I think so. For years, it gave me, and fellow parishioners, the luxury of a second point of view, personality and set of skills. As anyone who has ever been part of a faith community for a while knows, religious leaders bring varied skills. One can be a terrific preacher but not a great listener. One might offer fantastic pastoral skills but not pay enough attention to the physical needs of the space; our church is 150 years old this month and almost every single piece of it, from glorious stained-glass windows to mosaic floors to crumbling plaster to the bell tower, needs ongoing repair and maintenance — all of which cost real money.

Our last assistant was a lively, funny 30-year-old, Joel, a passionate preacher (now back at graduate school) and I miss him. I still miss Ken, who was our assistant before him (now in Idaho with his own parish) and Susan. I loved Charlie, our minister who retired, but having an assistant offers a helpful balance.

A religious community is as much a community as a place to pray and learn about and practice the tenets of your faith. It’s a place you marry, baptize your children or plan their bas/bat mitzvahs, watch them marry, attend funerals. At its best, it offers a safe, sacred, timeless refuge from the world’s insanity, a place you shed your daily protective skin and open yourself to something much deeper.  It’s a sad fact that, even there, money changes everything.