Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pilgrimage to New Mexico with my clergy group - Aug. 13, 2014

My clergy group - Jonathan Miller (Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham), Ray Dunmyer (St. Thomas' Catholic Church, Montevallo, AL), Steve Jones (Southside Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL), and Ed Hurley (South Highlands Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, AL) - and I have been together for several years. We received a grant from the Institute for Clergy Excellence to explore the experience of the divine, and we traveled to Bangladesh, India, Israel, and Italy. Our most recent trip is to New Mexico to visit Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, and to spend a few days at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe.

I left very early Monday morning. Sunday had been a long day. In addition to two services, a class, and lunch with some parishioners, I went to the jail to visit a parishioner awaiting a hearing. Bonnie Polley led me up to the place where we were to meet. There was one chair, the parishioner, Bonnie, and me. So the chair became the altar by default. But sharing communion there felt like one of the holiest things I have done in a long time.

I had an 8 am flight to Albuquerque. The guys picked me up in a van they had rented, and we drove to the Center for Action and Contemplation. It's in an economically challenged area of the city. After we looked around for a while, Richard Rohr met us.

I knew very little about Rohr before our meeting. My parishioner Midgene Spatz had given me his book, Falling Upward. I read it (well, skimmed it) on the plane and liked it very much. The basic idea of his book is that the first half of life is largely concerned with building, making a living, establishing yourself as a professional, making a name for one's self. But the second half of life is an inward journey; it is about discovering what really gives life meaning. Usually (but not always), what triggers the second stage is suffering - divorce, job loss, illness, or something like that. Paradoxically, we learn more from our losses, suffering, and failures (usually) than our successes.

Rohr is a prolific writer. I saw that he had written a great deal about men's spirituality, and I bought three of his books about that at the Center. I'm looking forward to reading them.

I was also impressed with Rohr's emphasis on the "perennial philosophy" or the idea that all religions share some core ideas, e.g., that there is an "ultimate reality" and that we can experience and even become one with that reality. I also believe that there is no such thing as "generic religion" or "cafeteria religion." You can't have a little bit of Buddhism and a small serving of Christianity. There may be (as Buddha said) 85,000 paths to the top of the mountain, but you can't get to the top of the mountain by constantly switching from one path to the other. You have to choose one path and follow it.

After meeting with Rohr, we drove to Santa Fe. At the Upaya Zen Center, we met with Joshin Brian Byrnes, one of their priests. Joshin is the name he was given when the Upaya Center's founder ordained him to the priesthood. Upaya is not only a meditation center, it also trains Buddhist chaplains for hospital ministry and other ministries.

I've been interested in Buddhism in a very casual way for a long time, and have benefited from some of the things I've read about it. The emphasis on being fully present in this moment is very powerful. I think there are many points of contact between Buddhism and Christianity, as well as many points of departure (especially Buddhism's "agnosticism" about the existence of a deity). But I believe that wisdom can be found in all the great spiritual and religious systems.

The main practice of Zen Buddhism is silence. The community here gathers for silent meditation at least three times on most days, from 20 mins to 40 mins at a time. We have joined them for two 20 min sessions and one 40 min sessions. I didn't find the 20 min session too difficult. Actually, I enjoyed it. We get so little silence in our lives. The 40 min session was difficult, even more difficult than I thought it would be. I was really surprised at all the different images and thoughts that seemed to vie for my attention during meditation.

Joshin gave us a quick introduction to meditation yesterday. I knew a little about it already. The idea is not to resist distractions, but to let go of them gently. Watch the thoughts as they arise or flit across your consciousness, but don't pursue them.

This afternoon we will meet again with Joshin to talk about some of the core teachings of Buddhism.