UU Salon Big Question: What Do You Believe about God?

Finding the cave of the heart takes no more than yourself, but a singing bowl, candle, and chimes can inspire one a bit.

I’ve not posted a response to a UU Salon Big Question for some time, but this month’s poser caught my attention:  What do you believe about God?  Note the wording.  Not, “Do you believe in God?” but rather “What do you believe about God?”  Here’s my response.  Take it to be my view today, and while informed by my yesterdays it’s not a predictor of what I’d say on any given tomorrow.

I was born when my parents attended a Baptist church, grew up attending a Methodist church for Sunday school followed by a Catholic Mass at the University of Detroit’s very liberal, very atypical, and very Jesuit  chapel (yes, that’s two church sessions on Sundays).  At 12, I decided to be baptised Catholic, a choice I made while attending Catholic school and dutifully working on the task of fitting in.  Call it an informed choice or not, but I was then (and remain) satisfied with the decision I made.  Fast forward to marriage to a non-Catholic at age 25, our search for a Catholic church that resonated with us, the birth and Catholic baptism of two boys in two different churches, my ex-husband’s joining of the Catholic church, and our subsequent leaving of Catholicism, some 6 years ago.  We found temporary shelter in a liberal Episcopal congregation, but soon left.  The question of the nature of God was part of that choice to leave.

I’d always believed in God.  As a child, I believed in the Guy in the Sky who knew all and loved me.  I believed in Jesus, his son, who came to earth to tell us more about God.  For a number of years in my late teens and early 20s, I believed in a literal resurrection and was deeply attached to the idea of a personal God, always accessible , a comfort during some otherwise rocky and lonely years.

And then I wondered.

I wondered the usual wonderings.  If there is a God, how could God allow suffering?  How could there be a God who answered prayers if so many good, believing people’s prayers seemingly went unanswered?  How could God be three beings in one?  Beyond the God questions, I struggled with the basic tenets of Christianity.  It was time to stop church-shopping and start letting my mind work at the questions.  Three years later, I found my current church, a mid-sized Unitarian Universalist church with a minister with an active spiritual search which he willingly shares with the congregation.  The word God was used sparingly my first months there, and references to Christianity were even less frequent.  All the better, I felt.  I wasn’t ready to approach the God question.

Over the next year, my understanding of world religions grew.  My boys and I had explored  origins and major teaching of many world religions through our history studies, and we’d all learned quite a bit.  Their religious education classes at the time focused on the same, and the messages from the pulpit were often designed to broaden the congregation’s appreciation and understanding of the many spiritual paths of the world.
Gradually, the God question returned to my conscious mind.  But more than that, I learned how to quiet my mind a reach a place both inside and outside of me through meditation.  As I’ve posted before, this practice has been a struggle, and I’ve yet to practice on a daily basis.  But it has opened a part of my self that approached the issue of God on a different level Over the past three years, I’ve come to the following understanding about God.

God is not the Guy in the Sky pulling the strings.  God is not the property of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or any other religion.  God is not there to do our bidding, rescue us from our human condition, smite our enemy, protect our country, or help our sports team win.

To me, now, God is the energy of the universe, a palpable presence if we still our minds and feel the connection we have to others.  God is what is in each of us, regardless of creed or lack of creed.  God is ever-present but more easily sensed in those quiet moments or when we connect with others.  God is within is, around us, between us, over us, under us, to our right and left, in front of us and behind us, to borrow a Navaho prayer.

But I rarely call this presence God.  I’ll refer to the divine, a larger presence, my ground of being (gob, for short), the energy of the universe, and other longer, more convoluted expressions, but almost never as God.   Why not?   I’m not sure.  While I don’t feel, as some UUs and  other former Christians do, wronged by Christianity and angry at religion in general, my reaction to the word God is muddled.  That Guy in the Sky comes to mind, and moving from that to a broader definition takes mental effort and distracts from my understanding of what this divine being or presence is. The word God engages my mind and my feelings, but this isn’t where the divine resides.  Hindus refer to “the cave of the heart,” which refers to that in us that is not body, senses, feelings, or thoughts.  It’s what is left when we leave all those behind.  When I reach that spot, I am in contact with the divine, within myself and beyond myself.  And I can’t reach it when my mind is contemplating the meaning of the word God and my feelings whirl around those meanings.

While searching for a link to a better explanation to the cave of the heart,  I found this poem, written by Quiong practitioner, Satya, and her words are the clearest explanation I can find:

In the Cave of My Heart

by Satya Kathleen Dubay

In the cave of my heart

I am silent

 

In the cave of my heart

I am still

 

In the cave of my heart

I am the breath

of the One

that is breathless

Spiritual practice, meditation, prayer, or other, can take the willing to this cave of the heart, where the divine by any name resides in each of us.  At least that’s what I believe.

Addendum:  Thanks to Rev. Alex Riegel for today’s sermon on the heart .  I’d written most of this post prior to hearing this message this morning, and, upon finishing this reply to UU Salon, found the cave in the heart applied to this topic.  This sermon and others from the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington can be found at uusermons.com.   The divine can be found in the cave of your heart first.  Once you find it there, you’ll see it everywhere.

Namaste

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Salvation: Yeah, We’ve Got That

This is a response to The UU Salon July question of the month:  Salvation.  Who gets it, what is it, how do you get it?

I haven’t thought about salvation for perhaps 20 years.  During that time, I’d joked about it, rolled my eyes over it, sighed deeply at the thought of needing it, but I hadn’t thought about it.  I went through a brief charismatic Catholic stage in my late teens, which is a story in itself, but it was only during those years that salvation was a word that passed my lips with traditional religious (in this case, Catholic)  meaning: 

Salvation has in Scriptural language the general meaning of liberation from straitened circumstances or from other evils, and of a translation into a state of freedom and security (1 Samuel 11:13; 14:45; 2 Samuel 23:10; 2 Kings 13:17). At times it expresses God’s help against Israel’s enemies, at other times, the Divine blessing bestowed on the produce of the soil (Isaiah 45:8). As sin is the greatest evil, being the root and source of all evil, Sacred Scripture uses the word “salvation” mainly in the sense of liberation of the human race or of individual man from sin and its consequences. (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Okay, so that’s not how I would have put it then.  I think I saw salvation as my ticket out of hell, a process paid for by Jesus’ death.  Not that I had a firm vision of hell, since I never bought the fire and brimstone version.  “Separation from God,” lurks in the recesses of my mind.  I was told to be grateful to Jesus for this transaction, to repent for my sins, and to try to avoid sin.  Thinking salvation seemed better than dying decades later with all this sin on my soul, I tried to walk a moral road.  At that age, the big sins (at least in my Catholic school and charismatic youth group) seemed to be all sexual in nature.  Convinced that pregnancy would ruin my future, abstinence from sex wasn’t a hard sell to me, but avoiding all the build up to sex (no french kissing and the like, for example.  It could lead to, well, sex.) was a bit more challenging.  I’ll not bore you with the ups and downs of that path (and, ah, the falls from grace were like those body-jolting drops from the first hill on a roller coaster), but suffice it to say, I saw salvation linked to saving sex for marriage, and perhaps to abstaining from murder and theft.

But what now?  I’ve long left the Catholic church and Christianity and found the cornucopia of paths that Unitarian Universalism offers.  My understanding of sin, evil, liberation, and God have all changed in the last 20 years, and my thoughts on salvation have done the same.  I’ve explored Buddhist and Hindu thought, and done plenty of soul searching.  Those studies and my present understanding of sin, evil, liberation, and God inform my response to the salvation question, so I’ll address those words first.

Sin:  Through my Catholic education, I was taught that sin was anything that separated one from God.  Even while in my most Catholic period (those late teens), I couldn’t see how eating meat on Fridays in lent or seriously good kissing accomplished this, thus my laxity on both fronts (along with very human appetites).  Separation from God via harming another made sense, although at that point, the daily ways we do that eluded me.  Sin is no longer in my lexicon.  Separation from the divine is.  When I disregard someone’s humanity and the divinity inside of them, I separate myself.  When I judge another, thus pushing them away from a shared humanity, I separate us from one another and ignore the divinity in them.  Compassion, loving kindness, unconditional love, and radical inclusivity bring us to union with the divine and, therefore, with each other.

Evil:  During my charismatic period, evil was real, although it was often called  the world.  Satan was real, tempting us to sin and partake of the world (I guess he was behind that desire for all that kissing, etc.)  I never developed a comfort with this personification of evil and temptation, and I remain uncertain about evil.  Certainly evil acts occur in this world.  They generally occur when we as individuals or as groups forget the divinity in each person.  Simply put, when we forget all those others out there are humans (and therefore not really “other”), evil occurs.  Evil occurs on individual and global scales, and we’ve all been perpetrators and victims of it.

Liberation:  Freedom.  Half my lifetime ago, liberation meant freedom from bondage, although my understanding of what bound people was limited.  I understood, to some degree, how governments, hate groups, poverty, hunger, and the like imprisoned people.   Mostly, I saw liberation as something needed by others.  I understood the advantages I had as a member of the racial majority, who was well-educated, well-fed, and generally safe in a first-world country.  Today, some of my definition of liberation would be the same, yet broader in scope.  But now I see liberation also on a more personal level.    Ego, as I see it and as many Eastern spiritual paths see it, is the illusion of self we create and protect.  It’s full of our thoughts, reactions, experiences, and sense of separateness from what we see as other.  When we shed this ego, we’re vulnerable.  We’re also available to connect with the divine in others and ready for giving unconditional love (blog post on that topic coming soon).    Liberation from ego leads to greater connection and compassion.

God:  God needs a blog post of its own as well.  My image of God moved from the old man in the sky, calling the shots, to a fatherly figure in the sky, intimately involved in human life, knowing every proverbial hair on my head.  Come my 20s, God as an active mover in my personal life seemed improbable, and, frankly, undesirable.  Free will seemed a primary gift to humans, and I spent many years wrestling with what that left God to do when not deciding what should happen to us humans.  Five years back, I shelved God, or at least thoughts about the divine and what that means to my life and to the world.  But the divine knocked.  As I’ve mentioned in each of the above discussions, I believe deeply in the divine and its importance in our lives.  Today, I see the divine as within each one of us, often buried under ego constructs and defenses, but in each of us.  Just that belief instructs my view of how to respond to others and to treat myself.  I also see the divine in the universe itself:  from the nature around me to the furthest stars.  We’re all bound up together in the divine, and opening ourselves to the divine is a step toward peace and love.One of many versions of the Unitarian Universalist chalice

So back to salvation, which The Free Dictionary defines as “a. Preservation or deliverance from destruction, difficulty, or evil. b. A source, means, or cause of such preservation or deliverance.”   This more secular definition does little for me:  I prefer the Catholic Encyclopedia’s sentiments, although with my understanding of the terms in contains.  To me, salvation is liberation from the ego and the reactions that arise when our ego fights to defend itself.  Our separation from the divine in ourself, others, and the universe is what we need to save ourselves against.  When we fail to love without condition, when we limit others, we fail to connect with the divine and limit the divine itself, as the divine manifests itself through our connections. 

As individuals, we experience salvation as individuals when we connect with others, seeing the divine in them, no matter how deeply it is buried under ego constructs.  As a human race, we find salvation when we bind humans together, looking past gender, race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, and political beliefs.  When we act in recognition of our shared divinity — shared among all humans and with the universe — we are truly saved.  Saved from what?  From a lack of love and compassion, from the pain of separation.  Saved from suffering now, however, and now is all any of us have. 

Who is salvation for?  Everyone.  How is attained?  Compassion, love, and respect of others.  Can we all have it, regardless of our religious affiliation?  I believe so.  When do we have it?  Now.  It’s available when we open our hearts and drop our egos.

The Soul

This post is my response to UU Salon’s May 2010 question:  What is a soul?

What is a soul?  I smiled when I read the question, the first for the UU Salon blog’s open invitation for UU bloggers to address a Big Question each month.  I’d been poking away at a  post on our essence of being, and this question helped me frame my thoughts. 

I’ve never given much thought to the soul until the last few years, despite a childhood steeped in church.  My Methodist and Catholic upbringing and six years of Catholic school followed by seven years at a Jesuit university didn’t lead me to consider the soul.  So why, now that I’m a Unitarian Universalist, does the idea of soul become so central?  It’s certainly not part of the seven principles or six sources, although I’d argue the soul is at the heart of all those UU lists.  We’re a religion without creed, so of course there’s no guidance using the word soul.  But it’s the underpinnings to our shared philosophies, I’m sure.

As I see it, the soul is the essence of our being.  It’s the “me” under me, what’s left when I strip off my ego defenses, upbringing, wants, desires, and all that I’ve always identified as me.  My soul’s been with me since my start and will continue to accompany me on this journey of life.  It’s not the part of me that’s UU, white, middle-class, homeschooling mom, divorced, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, or introverted-yet-sociable.  It is what remains when all that dissolves.  It’s the part of me capable of great compassion and love for those my ego-self finds hard to find worthy of compassion and love and the part that yearns for a community of peace for all, not because I want it to be so but because it’s what humans should have.  It’s unselfish, kind, patient, undemanding, unassuming, endlessly loving, and deeply in touch with my divine nature and therefore in touch with the divinity of the universe.  It’s me with all the “me” left behind.

It’s in every one of us, a gift of the universe.  I don’t know (and, at least now, don’t care) where it goes when my physical body returns to the earth.  I believe it is with our soul that we connect to one another, to all that came before us and all that carry on after us.  Can we bury our soul?  Definitely.   Can we work to remove the shades covering our soul, thus increasing the time we work from this divine being within us?  Certainly.  But it’s not an easy road.  The more I work to let my soul lead, the more tender I become:  the more I risk in this world. It’s a vulnerable way to live, soul exposed, and I know I’m only living there a small fraction of my life, although I’m working on increasing that time.  It’s living with the soul that leaves me most fulfilled as human, most compassionate and loving of life around me.  And that’s worth some pain.

Are you searching for your soul?
Then come out of your own prison
Leave the little stream and join the river that flows to the ocean.
Like an Ox, don’t pull the wheel of this world on your back
Take off the burden, whirl and circle
Rise above the wheel of the world
There is another view

Rumi