“Angels in Disguise” in Santa Fe

Dear Friends, IMG_3606

I see that I have not been posting here often enough lately! That’s good—it means I’ve been very busy, doing weddings, running my workshops for women with breast and reproductive cancer, working with legacy memoir clients and doing one-on-one spiritual direction! And this weekend I had the honor of giving my third sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe, where I am a member. It’s about some of the most important work I’m doing—volunteering at Pete’s Place, our local interfaith shelter for the homeless.IMG_3702

I hope you’ll watch the video of the service, including a slide show about the shelter and a duet I sang with the choir director (which for me was a big personal risk, I promise!). Here is the YouTube link. Scroll down on the site to the March 8 sermon:




Raising the Sparks

I delivered the following brief sermon at my ordination as an interfaith minister Sept. 25, 2010. I found myself talking to friends recently about the “Divine Sparks,” and decided to share it here with you. The spiral of tiny pots at the top of this page are the pots I refer to in the text. —Hollis

In the beginning—even before God was God—there was only Ayn Sof: Inifinite energy. In order to take form—to begin to Be—Ayn Sof emanated vessels, and into those vessels poured the Divine Light. But alas, some of the vessels couldn’t contain such pure and powerful stuff, and so they shattered. And with them, some sparks of the Divine Light scattered throughout time and space.

This is part of the creation story advanced by the 16th-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria. It’s the foundational legend of kabbalah, and an archetypal myth that has echoes in every faith tradition.

The beauty of this essential world tale is in its solution to sh’virah ha-kelim, the shattering of the vessels: Our job is to search out the lost sparks of Divine Light hidden in people, things and situations. Our mission is no less than tikkun la-shalem, the repair to wholeness, the reconnection of the lost sparks with the greater Divine Light—the sparks out there, but also the sparks in here. We must work as hard at uncovering the divinity within ourselves as we do at raising the sparks in the larger world.

DSC02210Five years ago, before I’d ever heard of Isaac Luria or considered attending seminary, a friend of my partner’s and mine, Kathy Stanwick, began to die. She was only 56 years old. Not long before, I had taken a ceramics class in micaceous clay, a naturally occurring clay that contains shiny, transparent, glass-like bits of mica. I’d learned to make the most basic of handbuilt clay vessels, called a “pinch pot.” In my struggle to accept Kathy’s death, I decided to use that sparkly dark micaceous clay to make a pinch pot every day for a year. I felt it would help me come to value each day of my life more than I previously had, and in the process honor Kathy as well.

My one-year project took five to complete. But by then I had been studying kabbalah for nearly a year, and saw in my little pots a lovely allegory for Luria’s creation story. Finally, last month, I took the 365, three-inch-tall pots to the home of my former ceramics teacher. We fired my vessels in the traditional way, outdoors, above ground, in a conflagration of pine and cottonwood and cow chips.DSCN2491

Once, years before, I’d watched a very old Pueblo Indian woman fire her ceramics in exactly this manner. While we sat talking and tending her wood-and-dung fire, we heard an occasional distinctive pop!— the sound of one of the vessels breaking. She shrugged. “That one wasn’t good enough,” she said, or, “That one wasn’t ripe.” An air bubble, a minuscule stone, any hidden fault in a pot can cause one of those heartbreaking “pops.” I knew that some of my little pots wouldn’t be able to withstand the heat, any more than the expertly made pots of the Indian woman—any more, in fact, than the very first vessels could contain the Divine Light.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the outcome in the ashes of my fire: Of all 365 pots, only one had broken. It seemed like a miracle. It also seemed symbolic, a poignant reminder of my own brokenness, my own imperfection. When my teacher and I gently rubbed the soot from the surfaces of the still-hot pots, they proved to be a beautiful variety of colors: some pinkish, some orange, some blackened with “fire clouds.” But all of them had one thing in common: They sparkled.DSCN2810

Since that day, I have used the pots in an ongoing photographic project. Each time I handle them, I remember Kathy, and all those I loved who have died in the last five years. I think about Luria’s story of creation, and contemplate what my divine vessels can teach me as I forge my future. Along the way I have come to value one pot above all the rest, and I make sure to give it a place of prominence in the arrangements I create: This is my favorite pot. . . .the broken one, of course.DSCN2532

May you, too, discover the Divine Light hiding in the broken parts of yourselves, and in your lives. May you join in the tikkun, the healing of yourself and our world. And may you ever be engaged in raising the sparks.



Empowering Ourselves to Heal

Santa Fe Sunrise

Santa Fe Sunrise




A Talk at The Celebration

Santa Fe, New Mexico

June 22, 2014


Click here to listen to this talk, if you’d prefer:

The title of my talk is “Empowering Ourselves to Heal.’’ For most of my life I wouldn’t have been caught dead at a talk with a title like that. I was a journalist and therefore skeptical of most of the New Age, self-help, pop culture—especially those as-seen-on-Oprah spiritual gurus and the drivel upon which they made their millions.

Ahem. I’ve changed. In 2008, at age 52, I had the realization that all my life I had been leaning to the left, as I like to say, living in a world defined by rational, left-brained, scientific, concrete, “male” values, if you will. I was my military father’s daughter. And those things made me a really good journalist. But it just wasn’t working for me anymore. I wasn’t happy. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, summed up my problem—a problem many of you have no doubt confronted yourselves, especially if you are over 50. Jung said, “Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”

“Leaning left” had become a lie for me. So I consciously began to lean to the right—into the imagination, the spiritual, the abstract, the subjective, the mythopoetic, the dream world—in the hope that I could bring myself into better balance. Better balance within myself, and with the Universe, with Spirit, with Goddess. I decided to suspend disbelief and skepticism, say YES to everything and say NO to nothing. And I asked the Divine to help out. The exact words I wrote in my journal were: “Please crack open my heart.”

We get what we ask for, as they say. I moved with my then-partner to Berkeley, leaving my beloved Santa Fe and my friends here behind. I thought I was going on an adventure, and I was. I just didn’t know it would be a spiritual adventure. And then all hell broke loose. Here is what happened: I left behind my career as an art journalist and critic; I just couldn’t do it anymore. I met a marvelous, 85-year-old woman named Beth who lived next door to us in Berkeley and was sick and alone, and I began taking care of her. I somehow knew I was in that house to see Beth to the threshold of death, and indeed I was holding her hand when Death came for her. Beth’s wasn’t the only death during this time. Seven people I loved, including Beth and my father, died in fairly rapid succession.

I was swimming in a river of grief and loss. And partly because of that I decided to go to seminary and became an interfaith minister. I wanted to be a medical chaplain, to sit with people as I had with Beth, to serve other people who were sick and/or dying. So after I was ordained, I spent a year in a hospital training as a chaplain There I accompanied many people through illness and some to their deaths. In one particularly memorable week, I sat with seven people as they drew their last breaths. I had by then realized I had an uncanny sense of when my patients were actually going to die; I would just get a “call” in my head, to show up in their rooms. Then, toward the end of my chaplaincy training, my long-term relationship ended—as happens to many people who pursue a spiritual vocation—and I started looking for a job as a chaplain.

Some of you have no doubt heard of the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. It assigns values to stressful life events, good and bad, and based on that calculates the likelihood you’ll have a serious illness within a year. Around this time, while I was looking for a job, I took the test—and I scored 605. A score of just 300 puts you at the highest risk for having a serious illness in the near future. I remember idly wondering what illness I might get, if the test proved true. But I put it out of my mind, like a bad horoscope.

No chaplaincy job presented itself in California and ultimately I moved back to Santa Fe in 2012. I figured at least I had good friends here, gas was cheaper and the traffic was so much better than in the Bay Area. I began an independent practice as a minister, and after several months of looking, I got a halftime job as a hospice chaplain. Just when it seemed like things were beginning to really develop, I awoke one morning with a voice in my head that said, “You have a lump in your left breast.’’ Indeed, something was developing. The Holmes-Rahe test had been right.

Intuitively, I knew it was cancer. So here are the CliffsNotes on my illness: My cancer was caught early. I had a lumpectomy and radiation therapy and was under the weather for most of a year. Good friends kept me afloat emotionally and financially during that time. I had to quit my job as a hospice chaplain; I found I couldn’t comfort those who were dying while I was wondering whether I was dying.

During the time I was sick, I wrote a personal blog I sent to friends and family to keep them updated on my condition, and to keep me sane. I called it “The Booby Blog.” I also kept a special cancer journal. I’m working on a book based on those two things and hope soon it will be published. It’s called The Booby Blog. I hope you will sign up on my email list so I can let you know when it’s out.

I want to share with you some of the things I learned on this spiritual adventure called Cancer.

One of the first things that happened when I was diagnosed with cancer was I realized I was going to die. Maybe sooner than I thought. Despite the many deaths I had witnessed, my own had remained an abstraction until I had cancer. Then, and throughout my illness, the sudden thought that I will die someday would hit me like a fist to the gut, and I would find myself hyperventilating and quaking inside. And every time it happened, after the panic attack subsided, I would think, “If I’m going to die, I don’t want to miss anything, this, the right here, right now.” So I would go outside and look up at the beautiful Santa Fe sky, or look into the eyes of the friend across the table from me, and say a little prayer of gratitude for the grace to experience that moment. The Tibetan Buddhist continually contemplates his own death. It isn’t a morbid practice. Contemplating your own death keeps you rooted in the present moment. So the first big lesson I got was: We’re all going to die. Really. Think about it—and keep thinking about it.

One of the other things I realized was that, despite all of my clinical training, and despite the fact that I knew better intellectually, unconsciously I wanted to believe that there was some outside authority, an expert—perhaps one doctor who was a lot like Dr. Oz, or Dr. Weil, or Marcus Welby, M.D.—who was going to have all the right answers for me. It was a curious kind of fundamentalism—cleaving to the idea of absolutes, Truth with a capital T. In fact I found my medical caregivers to be ordinary people with particular backgrounds that prepared them to give me some advice. But no one person could tell me everything I needed to know to heal, or how to make the decisions that faced me. Should I have a lumpectomy or mastectomy? Should I take the long-term regimen of hormone-repressing drugs or were the side effects so bad I should forego them? Should I do the standard protocol of radiation or not, knowing that the radiation would kill my healthy cells as well as any cancerous ones? Lesson Two: There is no outside absolute authority when it comes to our own healing, whether physical, spiritual or mental. I am the expert on me, and you are the expert on you!

A corollary to that lesson was that I had to take responsibility for my own recovery. As a chaplain, I had heard many a patient blame their doctors for their illness, or for its advancement, or for their impending deaths. It was never true. Blame is just another function of denial. And I didn’t want to be in denial, not anymore. So once I quit pretending that anyone else knew what was best for me or even good for me, once I gave up the “outside authority” idea, I listened to what everyone had to offer, including the doctors, and did what felt right for me, in my guts. It was terrifying. One of the things I decided was I was not going to do a drug protocol that had the potential for severe side effects. When I told a nurse about my decision, she said to me, “Well, you’d better think about how you’ll feel if you have a recurrence.” So I thought about it. I decided that if I had a recurrence, there would be no way to tell whether it had anything to do with not taking the drugs. There is no simple cause-and-effect with cancer, or most illnesses or even personal crises. Life is much more complicated than that. I decided I could live with my decision, even if I died. I ignored that nurse and anyone else who wagged their finger at me and insisted I do what they recommended. Science supports this notion of DIY recovery, Do-It-Yourself Recovery. Numerous studies have shown that patients who are described as “feisty” or as having a “fighting spirit” and being “uncooperative” live longer than those who are considered “good” and “compliant” patients. That’s Lesson Three: Take responsibility for your own care—body, mind and spirit. Assert yourself!

Another thing that came up for me was that I suddenly recognized I was doing what I also had seen so many patients try to do: Trying to control things. With a life that seemed out of control, a life being run by some invisible and frightening power called Cancer, I took control of everything I could. What did that look like? I researched cancer on the Internet. I read books on cancer. I went to see every alternative practitioner I could afford: a hypnotherapist, an acupuncturist, an alternative M.D., a nutritionist. I went to yoga, I prayed, I meditated. As soon as possible after my surgery, I started walking, and then running, again. I took dozens of supplements. I quit eating dairy and soy and gluten and any processed food at all. And then I remembered James Fixx, the man who popularized running through his 1970s book, The Complete Runner. James Fixx ran 10 miles a day and did other strenuous exercise daily, and at age 52, he dropped dead of heart disease. There are no guarantees. I had been practicing a form of denial, of superstition, a secret belief that said, “If I just do all the `right’ things, then my cancer will be cured and it won’t come back.” Yet my smarter self kept whispering, “Yeah, but there are no guarantees.” Whether I allow myself one tiny slice of flourless chocolate cake a month or binge on Ding-Dongs every day, my cancer might come back. Lesson Four: We have no control over anything, and certainly not over illness; control is an illusion.

So far, this talk is pretty depressing, right? We’re all going to die, no one is coming to the rescue, and it’s all out of control! But they all led to the next lesson I got.

How many times have we all heard the cliche, “Let go and let God”? I’ve heard it so many times myself I want to smack anyone who utters it. Sometimes it sounds too much like giving up. Yet there is some truth hidden in that phrase. Resistance to what was happening was causing me so much pain that I finally started to consciously practice surrender, every single day, to whatever happened that day. For me, it was more of a Buddhist thing than a theistic notion. Instead of trying to change my life, I just kept surrendering to the moment, to the circumstances of the day. It felt better than resisting. Did I do this perfectly? Of course not. But I tried to consciously make that mental shift, and I integrated it into my regular spiritual practice. That’s Lesson Five: Just surrender, whatever that means to you.

One of the things I found most difficult about being sick was that I had to let other people help me. Sometimes I had to ask for their help. My ego was very attached to being a helper rather than a helpee. Now that the tables were turned, I felt weak and useless in many ways. It was hard enough letting others see my vulnerability, but it was most shocking for me to see myself as vulnerable. Talk about humbling. My ego bubble was burst. Nora Gallagher is the author of a wonderful book about illness and spirituality called Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic. She says that, “It is the [natural] order of things to be vulnerable. The disorder is imagining we are not.” Through having cancer, I saw that we are all in the same leaking boat. We have to take turns bailing. And I have found that being vulnerable, even revelatory, about myself, has the unexpected benefit of fostering intimacy, drawing me closer to my boatmates. That’s Lesson Six: Accept vulnerability; let others help you—and not just when you’re sick or in crisis.

The psychotherapist Lawrence LeShan wrote a book called Cancer as a Turning Point about his research with people who had “terminal” cancer. He discovered that people who have life-threatening cancer often have abandoned important dreams, or never allowed themselves to fully explore their creativity. Likewise, he notes that the poet W. H. Auden called cancer “a foiled creative fire.” LeShan showed that people who had cancer and began to pursue their creativity—either by returning to an abandoned dream or coming up with some new passion—often got better, sometimes were cured, sometimes extended their lives, and at the very least, found joy again, however long they lived.

Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had planned to start and facilitate a women’s support group. It was supposed to begin meeting the week my surgery was scheduled. I considered cancelling the group, since I was uncertain about my condition in the coming months, but that little voice in my head said not to, so I postponed our first meeting for a week after my surgery. I called it Isis Group, Isis being the great healer of ancient Egyptian mythology, of course. As it turned out, the women who joined the group—the women I thought I was going to help—kept me sane and fed my imagination. That group was and is a creative force for me; it is still meeting, a year and a half later. I also sort of miraculously lost my fear about putting some of my most personal writing out there for others to see, hence The Booby Blog. So this is Lesson Seven: Healing of all kinds is attainable through the pursuit of creativity. Find and do something you love.

These are the lessons I learned that I believe empowered me to heal myself, and that can help you do the same. But some of you may be thinking, where is God, where is the spiritual, in all of this? I believe that God or Goddess, the Divine Power, the Infinite, whatever you want to call it, was with me every step of the way. The voice that told me I had a lump in my breast. . . the intuition that sent me to the bedside of my patients when they were dying. . .the synchronicity of moving into a house next door to someone who needed me as much as I needed her. . .the voice that told me not to cancel the Isis Group. The Divine was there, every step of the way. Through cancer and all the other changes that happened during this period of my life, my faith deepened. I became more certain of the existence of God than ever before. And I became less certain of who, and what, God is. It is an uncertainty I can now embrace.

Thank you for letting me share part of my journey with you. As always, take what you can use and leave the rest. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace. And may we all empower ourselves to heal.






The Interfaith Idea: Crafting a Personal Spirituality

Sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe

January 5, 2014


Click on the link here to see the service including this sermon:

“The Interfaith Idea: Crafting A Personal Spirituality”–Rev. Hollis Walker


Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you again today. And Happy New Year to all.

The 14th-century Sufi mystic Hafiz had much to say about religion. Hafiz was nothing if not direct. He said:


The great religions are the ships,

Poets the life boats.

Every sane person I know has jumped overboard.

I know that among you today are probably many who would agree with Hafiz, and I do, too, for the most part. Beyond the narrow confines of individual religions is something called, variably, interfaith or interreligion or interspirituality. For right now, let’s call it “interfaith.’’

What is the interfaith idea?

The idea of interfaith dialogue, talks among people of different beliefs toward a common goal—has been around for millennia. The first major organized meeting of global religious leaders was the Council of the Parliament of World Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. At that meeting Swami Vivekananda introduced Vedanta, that is, Hindu philosophy, to the West. Imagine: it was the first time most Western theologians had ever heard the concepts of an Eastern religion.

The swami discussed the theoretical possibility of a “universal religion,’’ “a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize a divinity in every man or woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its divine nature,’’ he said. It was the first attempt at articulating what might occur if people could see beyond the constraints of their own faith traditions.

One hundred years later, in 1993, the second such Council of the Parliament of World Religions was held, also in Chicago. Some 8,000 world religious leaders attended. That council issued a statement of Global Ethics that reads, “As religious and spiritual persons we base our lives on an Ultimate Reality, and draw spiritual power and hope therefrom, in trust, in prayer or meditation, in word or silence. We have a special responsibility for the welfare of all humanity and care for the planet Earth. We do not consider ourselves better than other women and men, but we trust that the ancient wisdom of our religions can point the way for the future.’’ More progress toward the idea of interfaith.

There have been subsequent meetings of this group, and will be another in 2015 in Belgium.

In our times and our country, the concept of interfaith has blossomed. Since the 1960s Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Bahá’ís, people of all faiths and people of no faith, have marched together for Civil Rights, for women’s rights, for gay rights— and against the Vietnam War, poverty, the death penalty, and later, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the excesses of Wall Street and much more. Today we take for granted that we will see, at any major protest, people of the cloth and their congregations united—regardless of religious differences. We also take for granted that collectively, religious people will support humanitarian and charitable causes. For example, this congregation, like many others in Santa Fe, supports the Interfaith Shelter, through donations and the preparation and service of meals to the homeless and hungry.

But the idea of interfaith has evolved significantly beyond the scope of older definitions. Even the word “interfaith” is used differently today. It is often used synonymously with “interreligious,” “interspiritual,” “multispiritual,’’ etc. For today, I’ll stick to the term “interfaith” for simplicity’s sake, but I want to note that when I am using this term, it includes those who are not religious, the “SBNRs,’’ as we call them, the “Spiritual But Not Religious’’ folk and those who would not define themselves as religious or spiritual at all.

Since the early 1990s “interfaith’’ has taken on meaning as a philosophy more necessary than ever to our survival—especially since the events of September 11. There are those among us, as we know, who would condemn all of Islam because those who perpetrated the events of September 11 were Muslim. Yes–just as those who carried out the Crusades were Christians.

Violence perpetrated by individuals or groups I the name of any religion is just one of the reasons we must look to interfaith for solutions. As Father Thomas Bonacci, founder of the Interfaith Peace Project, says that, “Interfaith spirituality is no longer reserved for a few esoteric types but is rapidly becoming our hope for the future of the world and humanity.’’ [i]

Perhaps the greatest ambassador for interfaith in our time is the His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhism. In his 2010 book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, he notes that, “To accept that other religions are legitimate may seem to compromise the integrity of one’s own faith, since it entails the admission of different but efficacious spiritual paths. . . .Yet without the emergence of a genuine spirit of religious pluralism, there is no hope for the development of harmony based on true interreligious understanding.’’ Toward that end, he says that, “for me Buddhism is the best, but this does not mean that Buddhism is the best for all. . . .It [also]means that I, as a Buddhist, must not feel egocentric attachment to my own faith of Buddhism, for doing so obstructs me from seeing the value of other traditions.’’ [ii]

Clearly, he tells us, we need not leave behind our own faith the embrace the interfaith idea. We simply need to open our minds and hearts to others. Many people who wouldn’t think of leaving their own faiths behind are now committed to working as interfaith ministers, chaplains and lay volunteers. I attended an interfaith seminary, of which there are now about a dozen in the United States. Among my fellow students at The Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, California, were an Eastern Orthodox Christian, a Tibetan Buddhist, several Zen Buddhists, numerous Roman Catholics, a woman who considered the 12 steps her religion, pagans, Wiccans, Native American religious practitioners, an Episcopal or two, a Jewish cantor, a Muslim, various and sundry Protestants, and three Unitarian Universalists. Most of these people planned to go out into the world, practicing their own faiths in their personal lives, but choosing to serve as interfaith ministers in their work. We are not missionaries for our individual faiths, but missionaries for Love.

Today, some of my former seminary classmates serve the homeless, others work in prisons, many in hospices and hospitals; still others serve in congregations. In my own work as a clinical chaplain, I have served Jews, Muslims, Hindus, many nonreligious people, many SBNRs, and Christians ranging from Mormons to Jehovah’s Witnesses to born-again fundamentalists, nondenominational Christians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Native Americans, etc. Interfaith ministers like myself also often serve the religiously unaffiliated through ritual and ceremony, as celebrants for weddings, funerals, baby and home blessings, and at deaths. We also offer spiritual direction and counseling to individuals and groups, as many of us are trained to do.

It should be clear by now that this evolving idea of interfaith that I’m describing is bigger than tolerance of other religions. It is of broader scope than finding commonalities among religions. And it certainly does not suggest that all religions and deities are at their cores the same, nor does it recommend assimilation or merging of religions.

I imagine by now some of you are thinking, “Hey, Hollis, you’re preaching to the choir.’’ I realize that for many of you, the idea of being tolerant and even interested in other religions is old hat. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are host to a variety of religious groups within their own sanctuaries; my former UU home, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, had groups of congregants that met to practice and study as Buddhists, pagans and humanists, with an occasional seder thrown in for good measure. Some people went to all of the groups!

But I would suggest there may be a subtle difference in philosophy between interfaith and UU, one that I can best parse by describing what an interfaith practitioner does. An interfaith practitioner doesn’t just tolerate other religions, isn’t just curious about other religions, but embraces all religions—as well as agnosticism and atheism, humanism and secularism and secular humanism and any other –ism out there. All are valid belief systems that have something from which she can learn. She actively pursues interactions with people of many beliefs in order to expand her understanding and feed her own spirituality. The interfaith practitioner may take training in and adapt the spiritual or mystical practices of other religions for her own use. Interfaith as I know it tends to privilege direct experience over doctrine, to focus on interpersonal connections, and to emphasize spirituality, contemplation and mysticism.

Rev. Jürgen Schwing—one of my mentors in seminary—notes that many interfaith ministers and practitioners like himself are people who have had experiences or glimpses of a mystical reality, “a state of consciousness of total unification of all opposites in a love and light so awe-inspiring, peaceful, and ecstatic, they can’t even find adequate words for it.’’ Such people may “lose patience with the artificial divisions between religions, with each religion’s claim to exclusiveness [or] superiority, and with each religion’s attempts to force cohesion among its believers by demanding adherence to a set of dogmas or principles of faith.’’ [iii] Thus another interfaith practitioner is born, jumps overboard in search of a poet and a lifeboat.

So, is there such a thing as an “interfaith spirituality”? If so, where does one get it?

Naysayers usually assert that the interfaith or interspiritual person only skates across the surface of a faith, by cherry-picking beliefs and practices suited to her (and, the implication is, avoiding anything uncomfortable or difficult). They claim that out of context, the beliefs and practices of any religion are stripped of meaning.

But the people I know who take the idea of interfaith seriously have a deep and abiding interest in finding and developing their own spirituality. And they are anything but superficial in their quests. Personal suffering may indeed play a role in their search for meaning and the divine.

My friend and fellow seminarian Matt Sanders, a hospital chaplain, is a Roman Catholic. When I asked him about the role of interfaith spirituality in his life, he said, “Interfaith spirituality helps me to keep a balance, even while being Cristocentric.’’ Matt says that for him, interfaith spirituality is “about finding the Holy, the Sacred, in many different traditions. Interfaith spirituality has meant to look for the stories, the teachings, lived examples and ideas that promote things that bring humanization, such as: freedom, love, a sense that `all is well’ (or at least a sense that `all shall be well’ [in the words of Julian of Norwich] ).’’ Matt says, “In 12-Step work I often hear, `Take what you like and leave the rest.’ Well, for me,’’ he says, “interfaith spirituality has meant to do something [ . . . ] similar with religion, namely, to be enriched by the stuff that helps, and to set aside the religious teachings that promote negativity such as suspicion, prejudice, etc.’’ [iv]

Another interfaith minister, my friend and spiritual companion Rev. Pandora Canton, grew up in the New Apostolic Christian Church, a fundamental sect. As an adult she became a Religious Science member and certified practitioner. Now she works for several Lutheran congregations as a chaplain at four nursing homes serving the poor and disenfranchised in Oakland and Alameda, California. Rev. Canton writes, “If we move 360 degrees around [Michelangelo’s] David, we see many different perspectives; each is valid and beautiful. Interfaith spirituality is like that to me.’’ Each tradition brings a different perspective, casts a new light on God. Rev. Canton preaches in the four Lutheran churches that support her ministry and considers herself to be a Lutheran—right now. She says what’s most important to her is not the sign on the door of the church, but being a part of a welcoming community and finding within it what it is she needs to learn. She says of her evolving spiritual practice, “[It] could be Buddhism next.’’ Rev. Canton’s personal spiritual activities include prayer, meditation, singing, rituals, reading sacred writings, and the work of spiritual discernment with her friends. [v]

Lindsay Ralphs, another spiritual companion of mine, is a retired hospice nurse and therapist who now volunteers as a hospital chaplain and nurse to the homeless. Lindsay is an interfaith practitioner of the Episcopal-Jewish-Buddhist ilk. Raised Mormon, she attends an Episcopal church because she is attracted to the ritual and the structure. She is also involved in a Jewish Renewal synagogue, where she attends services, chanting meditations and holidays. “I like the heart and soul (and dancing and singing) of it,’’ she says. “I also really like the [Jewish] approach that one is to argue with G-d. Buddhism is tossed in there as a really big overview. I need both the unknowable and the really tangible.’’ Lindsay’s spiritual practices include meditation, bird-watching, prayer and reading. She recently decided she should have a silent retreat at home alone and found that instead of having a meaningful spiritual experience, she was miserable. So, she gave up on what she called later “the deprivation thing.’’ Instead, she said, “I walked around, I drew, I did some meditation but not much, I bird-watched. But mostly, I was doing things that felt connected to me. I was being `present’ to my life. And it felt very sacred. And really very fun. [vi]

It wouldn’t be right to stand up here and talk about interfaith spirituality without talking about my own. I was raised a mostly-Methodist-but-sort-of-generic Protestant of the military family variety, but left my Christianity behind in college when I decided Jesus just couldn’t be the only Son of God.  Many years later, my emphasis in seminary was on Judaism, in particular the mystical Kabbalistic tradition, and I feel more at home theologically in a synagogue than in a sanctuary. I have also studied Buddhism informally for a long time, and I am a devotee of the Swiss psychiatrist and mystic Carl Jung. In my daily practice, I read sacred literature, journal, pray and meditate; I run, I spend time in nature, I drum, I make artwork. I burn incense like a Hindu, sage my house like a Pueblo Indian, chant in Hebrew like a Jew. Like my spiritual companions, Matt, Pandora and Lindsay, I learned the deep truth of the interfaith idea from my work as a hospital and hospice chaplain. No one has Christian cancer. No one has Hindu heart trouble. No one has atheist arthritis. When we are sick, when we are dying, when we are at our most vulnerable, doctrine and dogma fall away; we are all merely human, and in need of sacred listening and acceptance.

I visited the Hopi Reservation recently and my Hopi friend Gary told me some things I had never understood about his people before. He said that the Hopi religion is actually a hybrid, made up of the many religions of the different native peoples who migrated to the same place long ago and now make up the Hopi. Thus every Hopi clan or family group has its own religion, with its own myth, its own kiva rituals, its own requirements, its own prayers, its own dances. Because of these many obligations, the Hopi religious calendar is a busy one year-round. And every clan is expected to participate in every other clan’s ceremonies. So, he said, “It’s as if you spend December being a Muslim, and all December you do everything the Muslim way and according to the Muslim beliefs, building up to a big ceremony or celebration of some kind. Then there might be a break, a few weeks off, and then you become a Catholic, and you do everything the Catholic way for a period of time. Then a few months later you are a Buddhist. . . .’’ And so on.

One life ritual of the Hopi culture, he also explained, is that when you are a young person on the verge of puberty, you are adopted by a godparent and you become a part of their kiva, their religious society. Though you remain a member of your own clan, you learn your godparent’s religion, and practice it your whole life. Also, you cannot marry into your own clan; you must marry outside of your clan, for obvious reasons. If you’ve followed me here, you’ve figured it out by now: Every Hopi is cross-trained, so to speak, into everyone else’s religion.

This seems to me to be an almost ideal interfaith model. Because of the net result: Every single person on Hopi is connected to every other person in some way. Despite their disparate roots in the past, their differences in the present, all Hopi are Hopi, a collective, a tribe. Shouldn’t we all be?

So how does you become an interfaith practitioner, craft an interfaith spiritual practice, if you want to? You can start by visiting another religion’s services. How many people in this room have ever attended Sikh services at their temple outside of Espanola? A good place to start. A beautiful faith tradition. Another idea: Ask a friend of a different religion or denomination than you to take you to their religious meeting. . . .Is there a particular church or faith group that really scares you? Get another curious friend to go with you to services. A fundamentalist Christian church, maybe? The mosque down the street? Look for the beauty in these traditions, find something you can identify with. Meet the people, the religious leader. Take what you like and leave the rest behind.

Likewise, expand your own idea of what constitutes “spirituality.’’ For those of you who do not have a religious belief, just focus on the power of love, the creative power of evolution in the universe, the power that makes transformation possible in our lives, the ultimate mystery within which we all must live. . . .Those last phrases come from the UU pamphlet on God available in the hall outside the sanctuary. Look at your own life as a spiritual path. Ask yourself, what did I do today, what ordinary thing did I do today, that was in fact spiritually powerful for me?

Try some new spiritual practices borrowed from other religions. Take a class, read a book, or just make up your own version of it. Don’t worry about doing it “right.’’ Create your own mantra, a phrase or group of words that are meaningful to you, in the language of a foreign faith. Try fasting–just for a morning? Or a day?. . .Walk a labyrinth. . . Do anything that makes you feel more connected to something important—yourself, other people, God, Love. Do it with sincerity, and you will benefit. Some of us believe that if enough of us do these things, the world will change for the better.

In closing, I would like to leave you with some more words from our Sufi friend Hafiz:

Hafiz says:

I have learned so much from God

That I can no longer call myself

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of itself with me

That I can no longer call myself a man, a woman, an angel,

Or even pure soul.

Love has befriended Hafiz so completely

It has turned to ash and freed me of every concept and image

My mind has ever known.

Amen. Shalom. Salaam Walaikum. May it be so. Thank you.



[i] Bonacci, Thomas, “The Interfaith Complex: A Clarification of Terms,’’ 2009, p. 1

[ii] Gyatso, Tenzin, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, “The Challenge of Other Religions,’’ Shambala Sun, September 2010, pp. 17—18, adapted from Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together (Harmony, 2010)

[iii] Schwing, Jurgen, “Fanning the Mystic Fire: Reflections on Interfaith Spirituality,’’ an “Expanded Version of Reflections Presented at Ordination Service for the Chaplaincy Institute for Arts and Interfaith ministries, Sunday, May 5, 2002, Fairfax Community Church,’’ Fairfax, California, p. 3

[iv] Sanders, Matt, personal email in response to author’s query, Dec. 18, 2013

[v] Canton, Pandora, personal email in response to author’s query, Dec. 18, 2013

[vi] Ralphs, Lindsay, personal email in response to author’s query, Jan. 3, 2014

Reviving Mary

Most of my friends have heard me bemoaning the fact that Protestant Christianity, though more liberal toward women in many respects than Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, is actually more misogynist in some ways than the predecessor churches, since they at least recognize the Virgin Mary and the female saints for their contributions to Christianity.

“Blame Luther,” one of my fellow seminary students said, when I complained that Protestantism fails to properly recognize the Divine Feminine.

Yes, I do blame Luther. In his zeal to bring the “real” Christ to the people, Martin Luther and those who followed him annihilated the vestiges of the Great Mother extant in orthodoxy. Leonard Shlain explains this most cogently in his landmark treatise, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: “Luther was particularly determined to jettison the [Church’s] devotion to Mary. Reasoning that the New Testament never accorded Mary divinity, his new religion expunged any reference to her and banned images of a mother cradling her child.”

But Luther alone isn’t to blame. Calvin was just as bad. Again, Shlain: “Women were tainted, according to Calvin, because of Eve’s precipitation of the Fall. . . .He strictly forbade devotion to Mary.’’

On a personal level, I recall the vestiges of this spiritual exile in my own generic Protestant upbringing, in which Catholics were derided for “worshiping” saints, including the Virgin Mary. The Mother of Christ got her due in the Protestant churches I attended only once a year, during the reading of the tale of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. The rest of the year she was persona non grata.

But to be absolutely fair, the excision of the feminine from the godhead began long before Christianity. The unseating of the Great Mother in Western culture commenced in the fourth millennium B.C., when the Aryan people began their “violent migratory invasions into the Middle East, Europe and India,” according to Layne Redmond in When the Drummers Were Women. “The culture of these invaders was fiercely patriarchal,” Redmond notes. Under the Aryans, divinity shifted from an earth-based, birth-celebrating female culture to a heavenly-centered male culture of domination over humans, animals and nature. The Aryans are on my personal blacklist, too, as you can imagine. (Of course in some other world religions—Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, etc.—the feminine was never abandoned. But that’s another story.)

Yet old habits die hard, and despite the Aryans, people clung stubbornly to their goddesses and imagery of female divinity. Marcus Borg points out in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time that many images of the Divine Feminine are retained in Judaism. Chochma, or wisdom in Hebrew, is a feminine noun, and resides on the “feminine” side of the kabbalists’ Tree of Life. She is the “Wisdom Woman” quoted in Proverbs, better known by her Greek name, Sophia. And each Friday night, Jews throughout the world turn to face the synagogue door to meet the Sabbath Bride, the Divine Consort of God. The indwelling presence of God on earth is this female part of divinity, called Shekhinah.

Yet mainstream Protestantism still ignores the female aspect of God, and downplays the important role of other strong women in Jesus’ life. In her feminist classic The Chalice & The Blade, Riane Eisler points out that Jesus “praises the activist Mary over her domestic sister Martha,” and that “it is to Mary Magdalene that the risen Christ first appears.”

It is not a coincidence that the Protestant churches of America are shrinking, and that the planet and civilization are threatened by patriarchal cultural and religious values. We’ve got to get back to the Goddess! Andrew Harvey says it more eloquently: “The restoration of the full Sacred Feminine. . .to the center of Christian mysticism will effect [the] revolution that Christianity needs to go through if it is to be the authentic vehicle of the transforming passion of the Cosmic Christ,” Harvey tells us in Son of Man. “The re-invocation of God-as-Mother as well as God-as-Father. . .will derange and transfigure all the existing forms of Christianity. It will undo the obscene misogyny, racism, and homophobia that have disgraced nearly all the churches and denominations created in Christ’s name.”

My own rapprochement with the idea of a Higher Power could not have occurred had I not begun to explore and appreciate La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Mexican archetype of Mary so beloved in the Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico, where I live. Having decided for myself long ago that God is genderless, I found I still could not avoid anthropomorphizing the Divine. I eventually came to believe that we humans are in some ways hard-wired to envision God-as-human. I don’t believe we’re “made in His image” but that we have made God in our image because we lack the capacity to truly “see” God, even in our imaginations. Nevertheless, envisioning God as feminine, as a Great Mother figure, helped me allow the idea of a Higher Power to seep back into my consciousness without slamming the door of my heart.

During difficult economic times, religious institutions shift into fundamentalist overdrive, and we are seeing clear symptoms of this in the Catholic Church’s attempts to force religious women back behind the curtain. At the same time, some hopeful signs of feminism in theology are arising in mainstream Protestantism. At the United Church of Christ in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the church’s order of service offers congregants the option of altering the Lord’s Prayer to meet their beliefs: “Please use any version familiar to you (e.g., Our Creator, Our Maker, Mother-Father God. . . .)”

How empowering! Does it not make sense that God is the only real authority on God, that no one can claim to know the true name of the Divine One? Call your Higher Power whatever you’d like! Don’t let semantics get in the way of what could be a fabulous relationship. After all, the Divine One knows itself—and who is calling—don’t you think?

As individuals we can, of course, invoke the feminine aspect of divinity in our minds and hearts as we pray and meditate. Perhaps doing so will ultimately revive Mary and the Great Mother in our institutions as well. Heck, maybe even Protestantism could make a comeback.