Monday, May 23, 2011

Moby Dick

I finished reading Moby Dick recently, and among other things it got me musing about faith in God, revelations of the Divine, and the natural world.

In the novel, the obsessed Ahab sees the white whale who took off his leg (the titular Moby Dick) as a living representation of something diabolical:

"All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines."

I have religious friends to whom every little event --- a traffic light turning green at just the right time, or a sunny day for their vacation, or their cold getting better after a prayer --- every little event is a Sign or Work of God. God is the "unknown but still reasoning thing" that "puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the [pasteboard] mask."

It's awfully tempting. I do have faith (most of the time!) in a personal God who cares about my doings and has power in the world we see around us. Like Ahab, I feel as if I am straining to see "the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask" of this world. Sometimes I think I've found those features, too --- perhaps not in the traffic lights, but maybe in other events: a chance meeting, a shooting star, an unexpected phone call. And this is not particularly unorthodox.

But Ahab, as his mate Starbuck points out, is mad:

"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."

Starbuck is right --- it is crazy to impute all of this "inscrutable malice" to a whale, a part of nature, and the book is fairly clear that Ahab sees this malice only because of his peculiar monomania about it. A whale is a whale and pursues his own whale nature. We might as well strike the sun for shining. So why is seeing malice in the world so crazy when seeing God in the world is so orthodox?

But in Melville's world past (and present) where many people thought (and still think!) about God as I have outlined above, it was (and still is) a narrow leap to make. Honestly, the fact that I (and many others) find that leap so illogical- and immediately start arguing against it- "Ahab, stop- there is naught behind the wall"- is the argument that most compels me towards atheism. Because if I refuse to see malice- devils- demons- behind the wall, why should I see the Divine?

Nevertheless, I do see it- the Divine grace. Every day I see it. And while I believe in evil in the human heart, I don't believe in a reasoning evil, a demonic evil, striking through the mask and thrusting through the wall. This might be either because of my theological naivete or again because of my ultimate optimism about the goodness of the universe.

I'll have to mull it over and take my pick- and wonder, what's the orthodox Quaker take on this?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Spiritual Journeys

I shan't open this post with promises to post more. Unfortunately for my fond desire to become an internet blogging sensation, I am only occasionally moved to post- occasionally, apparently, being once a year. But here I am again!

I have been asked by my Meeting to present at a new institution for us: the Spiritual Breakfast. A member is to come and speak about their spiritual path, over breakfast and coffee provided by Ministry and Counsel. Mine is the second of these events, and I did not make it to the first, so I have no idea what is expected of me. I have, however, been given a list of questions to respond to. At first I thought they were frustratingly vague, but after putting them away for a while and then returning, I have found them more fruitful.

I have an hour and fifteen minutes, including questions. In order to fill it in, I have been working through the questions provided. My first thought was to create merely a rough outline of what I might say. I seem, however, to think in conversational essays. Which are the stuff blogs are made of.

Here are the questions:

When did you first identify that your life was/is a spiritual journey?


What are the important elements of your spiritual process now?


At this point in your spiritual journey can you identify some patterns/ways in which the Spirit is leading you?


Do you have a favorite(s) passage, reading, poem, hymn or image that is meaningful to you to share with the group?


Who has been a spiritual role model or mentor? How and in what ways?

This is a rather formidable list, especially as I took the first question as an opportunity to describe my journey thus far. I also found that my answer to it encompassed my answer to the fifth question. Here is what I have written thus far, edited for a blog audience.

Conversational Essay #1: When did you first identify that your life was/is a spiritual journey? and Who has been a spiritual role model or mentor? How and in what ways?

I've always believed that life was a spiritual experience. I was born Catholic.  However, I didn't see it so much as a journey. It seemed like a home, the final destination. I don't remember a moment when doubt first began, but I do remember a moment on the school bus when I said, 'All right, God, I think you don't exist, but if you do, you should give me some big sign, like a bolt of lightning, so I'll know.' And He didn't. Faith then seemed very black and white to me: God was or He wasn't, and there was no room for doubt. So that was that.

Years went by.  I never lost my sense that there was Something Bigger, be that the Goddess or Ethics or humanity's accomplishments, and by turns I tried neo-paganism and atheism and Unitarian Universalism. I believe I even attended a Quaker Meeting once or twice.  Nothing stuck.

I feel as if I talk about my conversion experience all the time, so I apologize if you've heard this before. However, this story remains central to the narrative of my faith today so I'm going to tell it anyway. A version of this story was published in the on-line edition of Friends Journal this summer: Christ Stopped Me on the Highway.

In college I dated an abusive man, whose main technique for keeping me in the relationship was convincing me that if I left him I would be a horrible person, that my only personal value was in dating him, and nothing that I wanted to accomplish independently in life amounted to much, etc. Understandably, I was miserable.

A little bit of advice for those who may know folk in similar situations- be very careful about slamming the abuser in front of the abused, because unless the victim is quite ready to admit that she is a victim- and most aren't, right away- you will shut out her confidences. This is what happened to me. I felt that I could not confide in my friends because they would only say bad things about my boyfriend, and I was not ready to face those truths. Since my boyfriend was simultaneously trying to keep me from spending time with my friends, whom he called 'a bad influence,' I felt increasingly isolated.

During all of this, and almost out of the blue (or at least that's how it seems in retrospect), I came to rely on one friend in particular. He was one of approximately three conservative Christians on my very liberal college campus. He didn't approve of sex before marriage, and I was sleeping with my boyfriend. I was studying evolutionary biology, and he didn't really believe in evolution. I hadn't known him very well prior to my crisis.

Nevertheless, the first time I turned to him in a moment of lonely desperation, he was there for me. He would stay up until dawn listening to me if I needed an ear, once drove two or three miles through a blizzard to come hold my hand in the middle of the night, and eventually, when my boyfriend grew physically aggressive, stepped between the two of us to protect me.

I would ask him all sorts of question about his religion. For instance, I was concerned that he might think less of me for having sex before marriage, although I never felt judged in his company. I can't remember this conversation exactly, but I seem to recall that he looked at me like I had two heads and said something along the lines of, 'Just because what you do wrong is public doesn't make you a worse person than I am, when I make mistakes all the time in private,' or words to that effect.

I also asked him how and why he had done all of that for someone he barely knew at the time. He told me, “I don't have the strength to do this. It's not I who is doing this for you, but Christ through me.”

This was the single most important moment in my conversion, although it didn't end there- in fact it barely began there.

 I had thought religion was a matter of intellectual belief. You either thought that Jesus was raised from the dead or you didn't, much the same way you thought that a^2 + b^2 = c^2, or you didn't. And if you couldn't believe in a set of religious propositions the way you believed in a set of mathematic or historical or scientific propositions, then there was nothing traditional religion could do for you.

This one moment changed everything for me, because it was my first glimpse of transformative religion, a religion not about accepting propositions but about letting oneself be utterly changed and made new by the love and grace of God. I think, also, this was my first taste of what I would later come to call redemption.  Although I felt worthless in my terrible relationship, the love of Christ redeemed me, gave me worth again.  In His eyes, as I could see them through the eyes of my friend, I knew I was worthy of love.

Sister Helen Prejean said to the men she was ministering to on Death Row, “No one should die without seeing a loving face. I will be the face of Christ to you.”

I decided that whether or not I could accept propositions (deciding I could accept them would come later), I wanted to be that face of Christ for someone in need, and therefore I wanted to be a Christian.

The question was, what sort of Christian would I be?

That summer I had an internship in a biology lab in South Carolina. All of us interns shared housing in nearby apartments. My room-mate, and indeed most of the other participants in the program, were conservative Christians. Several of them attended the same church and Bible study, and I was invited to attend as well, but I felt too uncomfortable to accept.  My friend from home had (and still has) a remarkable capacity for showing the same love to a person no matter how deeply he disagrees with their actions or beliefs.  The people here, while pleasant, did not have that gift, and I felt like an outsider.

So I was lonely twice a week when my room-mate left for Bible study and church.  I called my mother to complain, who wisely suggested, “Try looking up the Quakers.”

I grew up about 20 minutes from Old Chatham Monthly Meeting of New York Yearly Meeting. You might know it- it's held at Powell House, which is also NYYM's retreat center. Anyway, I had been there a time or two (as mentioned way back in paragraph two), it was lovely, and my mother's suggestion fell on fertile ground.

There is a strong unprogrammed Quaker presence in South Carolina, including a meeting in Columbia, where I was living. Although all the attenders knew I was only there for the summer, I was taken in warmly. I went to Meeting, Worship-sharing, a lunch or two out at an Indian restaurant, and a long march against nuclear weapons with a pair of Buddhist monks and attenders of this meeting.

The silence of that Meeting held me.  Not only were the attenders gracious, but the worship was deep, some of the deepest I've known.  That summer, I felt as if every Meeting for Worship was the pulse of my heart, propelling me through the days to return, each week, back to Meeting.

One couple in particular stood out. They had been called to prison ministry, and exchanged letters with a mentally ill and imprisoned man.  I gathered that he had been imprisoned for crimes related, more or less, to being mentally ill and homeless. When he was released, they took him in, arranged for his housing, and drove him to and fro, including to Meeting where he seemed to be welcomed by all. As my friend had, they seemed to take their good works for granted- an integral part of their faith and life, not something extra that they deserved praise for.

And that, I believe, is when I decided that of all kinds of Christian, I would be a Quaker.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why I Don't Care for Wearing Name Tags in Meeting

Strange, I know. Wearing name tags in Meeting is one of those Quaker traditions hard to shake- even though it's not particularly traditional as all, as far as my extensive investigations reveal.

It is also a custom so petty that it's questionable why I'm bothered by it at all. But I am. Granted I'm not routinely concerned about it. On a scale of 1-10 of Great Quaker Issues, this rates probably a 2-3, barely beating out the eternal Rug Debate (bare hardwood floors or tasteful area rugs in the meeting house?) and ranking far, far under things like NEYM's relationship to FUM (I am SO not going there today). But occasionally the Name Tag Affair gets to me- like today.

The point of a name tag, of course, is to be friendly towards outsiders, to help everyone get to know each other, and to promote a sense of community. I'm afraid that for me, it doesn't really do any of the above.

I want people to have to ask me my name. I want that initial interaction. If I've forgotten a name that I should know, I want to be humble enough to ask! Conversely, if someone has forgotten my name, I want them to come up to me and ask (or at least ask the person on the bench next to them). More community is formed from these simple social niceties than is ever created by wearing tags.

I don't want the artificial familiarity that name tags create. I don't want someone to come up and call me by name when we have not met- I find this very uncomfortable. I want to be approached and asked for my name. Names, I believe, are a gift, always to be politely asked for and graciously given (or not given, depending on the circumstance!) . Name tags, I feel, make it too easy for us to pretend to know each other.

A practice intended to make visitors feel welcome does, I feel, just the opposite. If I walk into a room and everyone is wearing name tags but me, I feel like I am intruding upon a strange fraternity. It's almost more awkward when I, the visitor to this group, am asked to make one myself. More than once, in fact, I have been approached by a friendly greeter who skips right over introducing herself and asking my name- in favor of asking me to make a name tag! How backwards is that?

In a true community, everyone knows everyone else (more or less) by name. This much is true. But it doesn't make our Quaker meetings any better of a community by faking it! I've noticed that more traditional denominations- the Baptists, the Catholics, the Seventh Day Adventists- would never dream of asking all their congregates to wear name tags. And yet, their sense of community does not seem in suffer. And visitors certainly don't hesitate to come- aren't the Baptists one of the fastest-growing denominations in America?

Perhaps, instead of wearing name tags, we could make a greater effort to reach out to one another. Perhaps, instead of huddling with our particular friends after Meeting (and I'm guilty of this one, too!) we could approach someone we don't know as well. I'd like to see more fellowship in my Meeting, absolutely. In fact, I think that a lack of fellowship a 10/10 on the scale of Great Quaker Issues. I'm just not sure if we're going about it in the right ways (and something tells me that NEYM cutting itself off from FUM isn't the right way to go about it, either . . . but, wait! Not going there!).

Monday, November 09, 2009

A Ministry of Food

I love to cook. I feel like feeding everyone who comes into my life is a ministry, one I often feel called to. Sometimes it is not only a pleasure and a ministry, but a delightful adventure, the latest of which I will now share.

The Meeting I currently attend has 'hospitality' every week- a light spread of snacks for everyone to nibble. Love of cooking or not, I had avoided volunteering for a week, because I am often overwhelmed with other responsibilities. This past First Day, however, was a business meeting, when a heavier lunch is provided. And I volunteered.

Now, I cooked for 75 at my wedding (with generous help with many friends) and I love to take on projects, as mentioned above. So, 7th day evening, I set out to make a half-dozen spinach feta pies- a delicious cross between quiche and spanakopita.

Shopping for this endeavor was an endeavor in itself. I got hilarious looks from the deli manager when I asked for four pounds of feta cheese- just for instance. But I got it all home (including six pre-made pie crusts), mixed it all up in a 2 1/2 gallon stockpot, poured it into the pie shells, and cooked off six 9-inch quiches over the course of two hours (they had to go into my oven in shifts). Rob and I ate half of one for dinner 7th day night, and gave the other half to our landlord and lady. Four pies went to Meeting the next day. Two were utterly consumed, and the other two were wrapped and popped into the Meeting freezer, to be saved for a needy member. The last pie we split yesterday evening with two friends, a big salad, and a bottle of fine wine. It all came out beautifully. Next time I'll make my own pie crust, as well.

I love cooking on the grand scale even more than I love cooking for me and my husband alone. I love buying ingredients by the pound. I love improvising the tools of an industrial kitchen in my tiny apartment kitchen. But mostly I love how many people I can reach. I love being able to feed everyone in my Meeting, all at once. I give to charities and all of that, but I'm afraid I'm a rather literal-minded Quaker, and I like the immediacy of this sort of feeding the hungry.

I've volunteered to cook dinner at Quarterly Meeting, hosted by my Meeting this 12th month, and I am already excitedly planning the meal. Updates to follow, I hope.

Recipe for Spinach-Feta Spanakopita-Quiches, adapted from Moosewood.

6 nine-inch pie crusts (bought or made)
Two heads hard-neck garlic (or 10-12 large cloves softneck).
2 1/2 pounds yellow onions.
2 pounds frozen spinach (or somewhat more fresh).
2 dozen eggs, plus one.
2 1/2 pounds Ricotta cheese (you could substitute grated Swiss for part of this measure- I will next time I make the recipe).
4 pounds Feta cheese, crumbled.
2-4 ounces fresh dill, depending how dilly you like things (I used 4 and it was a bit much).
Salt and Pepper to taste.
Olive oil for sauteing.

Preheat the oven to 350. Thaw the spinach, or cook it if needed. Drain well.

Saute the onions and garlic together with the olive oil in the bottom of a large stock pot, until the onions are translucent but not browned. Remove from heat. Beat in the eggs, followed by the remaining ingredients. If using Swiss, reserve 3 cups at this point for sprinkling on top of the pies.

The batter should be quite thick, more scoopable than pourable. Divide among the six pie dishes, right up to the brim. Top with 1/2 cup of Swiss per pie, if desired. Bake for one hour at 350. Remove, and let set for one hour before serving. Serves 36-48, depending on slice size and what else people are eating!

Enjoy! Feed the world!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Well, so much for posting every week . . .

. . . round two! I have been inspired to write again by my dear friend Amanda (of the best stuff, but plain and/or cracked).

This post has nothing to do with you, m'dear, but I wouldn't have posted at all if we hadn't talked last night.

So a few weeks ago (well, weeks ago when I wrote up this post in my word doc; a few months now) I went to an interfaith panel discussion at my college. There were a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew all answering questions about faith and secularism in the modern world. The Muslim's first name was Fez. Even among a panel of academics, he was remarkably articulate, and something he said very much stuck with me. He said that in Islam there is a theological division made between those who follow God for their own reasons (wanting to go to heaven, for example), and those who follow God with no thought of reward, but only for love. He then said that he personally does not like to make this distinction, because it results in too much judging.

I, on the other hand, was thinking how much I wished Christianity made this distinction. I remember a number of months at all, in my ecumenical Bible study which I have mentioned in numerous other essays, I mentioned that my reasons for being a Christian had nothing to do with my salvation at all. I received looks as if I had three heads. It seemed to be the feel of the room that if I was not focused on my salvation, I was missing what Christianity was about.

I don't want to pretend to be more spiritually advanced than anyone else. I wish that we made this distinction in Christianity because I want more ways of looking at faith to be more widely accepted. Maybe the right way IS to be totally focused on one's own salvation (I doubt it, but it's possible), but I wish that, especially among more conservative strains of my religion, other possibilities were acknowledged. I can't quite express how liberating it felt to have someone else, even someone of a different faith, express these different ways of approaching religion. Mmm.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Graduate school and convicting verses

Before I start in on religion, a bit of personal news: I have been accepted to graduate school! I was initially wait-listed, and very disappointed, but on Tuesday I received word that a place has opened up, and I am in! School starts in the fall. I call it grad school, but really it is an odd chimera of grad school, nursing school, and med school. I've been accepted into a program which takes folks like me, who have a bachelor's degree and no nursing background, and in a few years (four or five, I think) turns them into Nurse Practitioners. For the unenlightened, a Nurse Practitioner is rather like a doctor: she can prescribe medication, practice independently (depending on the state), and function as the primary health care practitioner for any individual. From what I understand after talking to a number of health care practitioners, the biggest different between an NP and an MD is the nature of the training; an NP's training is more patient-focused and an MD's training is more disease-focused. If one is interested in pursuing a specialty, an MD is the way to go, but for someone like me, whose goal in life is to work as a general practitioner with the rural poor, being an NP is just the thing. Needless to say, I am amazingly, overwhelmingly excited and pleased, and will probably be rambling on about this at regular intervals, especially after school starts up (school! yes!).



The greatest impediment to my writing regularly about faith (or anything, really) is that I have so very many ideas that I can never choose which one to write about. Each one looks better than the next, and so like the old man in one of my favorite children's books (Hundreds of cats! Thousands of cats! Millions and billions and trillions of cats!), I never can leave one behind, and therefore become absolutely overwhelmed with the effort.

For now, though, I'd like to offer up a Bible verse that's been kicking around in my head.

Matthew 5:21-22: You have heard that our forefathers were told, “Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to justice.” But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to justice. Whoever calls his brother “good for nothing” deserves the sentence of the court; whoever calls him “fool” deserves hellfire.

There was a bit of a discussion about these verses in my ecumenical (and sometimes acrimonious) Bible study a few weeks back. Some of us have been eternally puzzled by these verses, especially those of us with siblings. Jesus never seemed to be above some righteous name-calling; he certainly called the scribes and Pharisees a lot worse things than 'fool,' especially around the times when he was hurling tables and laying about with a whip. And surely, calling someone a fool in a moment of anger is not nearly as bad as murder.

So why these verses? Is it a case of 'do what I say, not what I do, because I'm the Son of God?'

I wasn't able to articulate it at the time, but eventually I came up with this, and I'd really like to hear from the Biblical scholars out there whether you think I'm on the right track.

I think these verses aren't referring toangrily calling your little sister a fool when she drives your car into a ditch, but rather about the utter dismissal of another human being that we can all be prone to when we disagree with someone very deeply. This verse convicted me because it is something I catch myself doing, and that I see uncomfortably often in my happy liberal community. I'll use George Bush as an example, as he's very convenient. I'll be the first to admit that I disagree with George Bush on almost any point of politics that you care to name. Yet it can't be very charitable of me when I sneer at his voice on the radio, or roll my eyes and mutter 'that idiot' every time I read a quote, without giving him even the chance to make himself heard.

There's a certain awful dismissal that one can give to another person, the message: you are entirely worthless, a fool, and nothing you say has any importance at all. In a very real way, I think this dismissal is comparable to murder. I might not be harming our president by my dismissal of him, but if I dismiss someone more intimately connected to me, the harm is very real indeed. Oh dear.


Monday, April 02, 2007

I have returned from Hiatus

Back from long and semi-intentional hiatus.

Over the past year, I have:

Graduated from college.

Moved to a small cabin in the woods without electricity or running water partially as en exercise in simplicity (soon to be over; in two weeks I am moving to a small cabin in the woods with electricity and running water).

Found a full-time job working at a worker owned wool mill.

Applied and been rejected to graduate school in nursing.

Joined Volunteer Fire and Rescue in my small town.

Spent a year teaching First-Day-School to teenagers- to be repeated next year!


When I first started this blog, I tried never to post unless I felt truly moved. I am now, instead, going to undertake an experiment. I would like to post at least briefly every weekend, moved or not. The exercise in writing is important to me, as I miss the intellectual pressure of academia.

If anyone is still reading, please stay tuned! More to follow.