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A Wednesday Story: On Holy Remembering
A pilgrim explores Israel and Palestine for the first, returns home to Eastertide in a grieving Nashville, and recalls "God with us" while hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains, contemplating holy lands.
One of the greatest blessings of community is being able to share the load.
So, this week, as your regular correspondent ( :: weak wave, cough :: Hi ever’buddy. :: wheeze, inhaler puff :: ) continues to recover from the respiratory gnar I picked up in Montana, one of my dearest spiritual companions, the Rev. Eric Murray, generously agreed to pinch hit and share a story with This Numinous World’s kindly readers.
For nearly three years now, Eric and his spouse, Pauline Farrington, who are both Lutheran clergypersons, have been part of my “Circle Group” of nine fellow students from the Living School with whom I met regularly via Zoom throughout our two years of contemplative/mystic studies via The Center for Action and Contemplation.
Complete strangers when we “met” online for the first time in the summer of 2020, Eric and Pauline have become Anam Cara — soul friends — with whom, in a very real and authentic way, I share perhaps the most intimate part of my life: the spiritual journey.
Last July, when our 2022 Cohort (i.e., “class”) from the Living School met in person in Albuquerque for the first time — previously scheduled in-person meetings all had been moved online because of COVID — at our “sending” (i.e., graduation), I got to meet Eric and Pauline face-to-face for the first time. I got to hug them, sit with them, look into their eyes, have meals and drinks with them, pray and laugh and sing and dance with them, joke and weep and literally walk with them, sharing the same space and breathing the same air as them (unmasked, after everyone had been tested for and cleared of the virus) for a few precious, magical, miraculous days.
Eric is a humble, wry, sensitive, open-hearted, open-minded, open-handed, empathetic, and slightly mischievous enthusiast whose journeys, spiritual and physical, these last few years have and continue to inspire me daily.
In late March, he and Pauline, who live in suburban Nashville, headed to Israel and Palestine for the first time. It was a pilgrimage, and while they were on it, unimaginable tragedy visited their community at home when a heavily armed person stormed into the Covenant School and murdered three children and three adults during the week most Christians call “holy.”
When they returned to Tennessee, nursing their heartbreak and attending to that of friends and neighbors, Eric and Pauline headed to the state capitol where they joined protests against gun violence and the fascistic machinations by Republican members of the Tennessee General Assembly who ousted two Democratic members — Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who are both Black — for speaking out in favor of gun control on the House floor after the Covenant shootings. Tennessee House Republicans attempted to expel a third Democratic member, Gloria Johnson, who is white and protested alongside the Justins, but failed (by one vote.) Both Jones and Pearson quickly were returned to the General Assembly after their sending bodies (the Nashville Metropolitan Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, respectively) unanimously voted to reappoint them.
It’s been a difficult fortnight for Beloved Community in Nashville. I am, as so many of us are, moved and motivated by their loving and vigilant response to the horrors wrought by the plague that is gun violence in this country.
Last Sunday night, when our Circle Group assembled on Zoom as we continue to do every few weeks even though our time as Living School students officially has ended, Eric shared some thoughts from his recent pilgrimages through various holy and troubled spaces, both geographic and internal. I asked if he would permit me to share them with you.
Luckily for us, Eric said yes.
Re-membering in Holy Lands
By guest author, the Rev. Eric Murray
Before embarking on my first trip to Israel and Palestine late last month, I shared with some good friends how I was holding on to doubt and skepticism about the whole “Holy Land” experience.
Namely, I wondered whether the various tourist sites were truly the historic, biblical sites they claimed to be or just part of the Jesusland show, even as I also recoiled at the thought of all the gilded and bedazzled churches I heard were built on those sites.
Then, one of our Circle Group friends did what friends are meant to do: Kelley Weber commissioned (i.e., “challenged”) me to try to “embody” the experience.
Don’t just approach it intellectually or spiritually, she implied. Rather, she encouraged me, let go and embrace it with my whole being, putting all of my senses into the experience.
So, I did.
I jumped into the freezing cold of the Sea of Galilee.
I danced with a bunch of strangers on a boat floating on that same sea.
I bounced along the highways and byways of Israel in a bus with little or no shock absorption.
I played basketball with the young children of the Palestinian Christian owner of the tour company.
I ate way too much food, especially humus, falafel, and meat kabobs.
I joined our tour group in singing songs as our harmonies echoed off the walls and ceilings of ancient churches.
I felt my heart warm and tears come to my eyes as I watched and listened to our guide, Sufian, sing the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic.
I floated on the Dead Sea.
I knelt and touched a cobblestone floor upon which Jesus actually is likely to have walked.
I touched a star that supposedly marks Jesus’ birthplace, a star hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have touched.
I jostled in the streets and in shrines with just as many pilgrims.
I felt the sun on my face and the wind over my skin and breathed deep the desert air as I stood atop Mt. Carmel reading the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
And I received a 600-year-old Coptic Christian symbol for love and family tattooed on my arm. (As did my spouse, Pauline.)
As we moved through Israel and Palestine, I continued to follow Kelley’s wise counsel, and what dawned on me, standing fully in my flesh in that “holy” place, sensing it in my body, were the words from Eugene Peterson’s The Message para-translation of the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel:
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.
Of course, I already knew this. In fact, some 30 years ago, while on a silent retreat at the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, I was alone in my room, lying on the bed, when I heard a voice — not aurally and not my own voice in my mind. The voice said, “When it gets difficult, I will be with you.”
Life moves on and difficulties come and when they have, you might think I might have remembered such a message. But, in this last year, dealing with Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer and with a very difficult conflict in the congregation my spouse and I served, somehow I misplaced that message.
Then I had a new experience in the land of Jesus’ birth that sparked spiritual muscle memory, even if it took a minute for my mind (and conscious memory) to catch up.
Oh, right! What I was sensing, in those precious, epiphanic, and visceral moments in the lands so many faithful call “holy,” God, too, has sensed.
In my spiritual tradition, we believe God became incarnate — embodied, literally enfleshed God’s self, in what it means to be human. Not just spiritually or emotionally or metaphorically. No, God put all of God’s self into experiencing human life sensually as one of us.
As a sensual being, God can truly be Emmanuel — God with us. And as Emmanuel, there is nothing we experience that God cannot understand.
Or as Henri Nouwen suggested in his Seeds of Hope:
God is a faithful God, a God who did not want us to ever be alone but who wanted to understand — to stand under — all that is human.
God — Emmanuel — understands in the flesh, sinews, and bones, in the blood, sweat, and tears of Godself — and in us.
Of course, I knew this already, intellectually. But something about being in the “Holy Land” in the flesh — my flesh — helped me to re-member the truth of it.
When we returned to (the holy land of) our home in Nashville, Tennessee, to the un-holy shooting at the Covenant School and its aftermath; to the anti-democratic, even fascist antics of Tennessee’s Republican state legislators, and we headed to the state capitol to protest, I re-membered, again, Emmanuel — God with us in the flesh.
And when I hiked a week later in another holy land, the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, during a four-day hiking retreat with good friends and new friends, I re-membered Emmanuel — God with us in the flesh — walking with us and dwelling in the creation that surrounded us and included us.
Spending time in the peaceable mountains outside Montreat during the Discovering Renewal gathering led by Brian McLaren deepened my re-membering, so much so that when my fellow hikers and I received the meditative prompt to reflect on and craft our own version of Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”, I wrote the following:
When despair for the world grows in me,
I experience grief
in one or more of its stages
such grief leads me to the end of my ego’s efforts
I come into the presence of still water
or rushing streams
or babbling brooks
or breaking waves
or trees whose limbs stretch forth in prayer
or mountains pointing to the heavens
or friends willing to listen and commune
I come into the remembrance of Emmanuel
And in such communions as these
my despair is uprooted,
seeds of peace are planted,
and hope blooms.
Thank you, Kelley, for the challenge and wisdom, for helping me to re-member what it is that we — that I — by grace, may trust in mind, spirit and body: Emmanuel.
BITS AND BOBS
Last week, Wild and Precious, the audio documentary about poet Mary Oliver to which I contributed my thoughts and voice, made its way into the world from the absolutely lovely folks at Pushkin Audio.
My bit, which involves the spiritual import of her work and a healthy dose of our shared love for owls, appears in Section II: Wild Attention, beginning at the 32:00-minute mark (just before wonderful Rainn Wilson hops in to talk about the importance of Oliver’s work to his spiritual journey as a Baha’i.)
My take (perhaps unsurprisingly to any of you): “I think she was a mystic.”
You can buy the audio documentary on Pushkin’s site HERE or anywhere you find audiobooks and podcasts.
On Monday, the “Transitions”-themed spring 2023 issue of Oneing: An Alternative Orthodoxy, a literary journal published by The Center for Action and Contemplation, dropped, to which I delightedly contributed the commissioned essay “Standing in a Threshold.”
It tells the story, in large part, of my decision to apply to and become a student at The Living School, all of which unfolded as my mother was dying and the world was on fire. I’m really happy with it and hope you might seek it out. It is not available online, but you can buy a copy of the issue — which includes pieces by Father Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Sophronia Scott, Sheryl Fullerton, Cameron Trimble, Episcopal Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, and the poet David Whyte (I audibly gasped and fangrrl squealed when I saw his name in the table of contents not far from my own), among others — as a hard copy that will be posted to you or as a digital download.
May we remember (and re-member) to try to be as brave and as kind as possible.
And beloveds, please do not forget, that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love, and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,