Making Our Way Home: Spiritual Journey as Pilgrimage

It’s the Fourth of July, 2002. I’m in lower Manhattan, walking south. It is hot, even though it is still morning. The air around me is tight, the light a brilliant white bleaching out the colour from buildings, trees, sidewalks. The streets are deserted, most shops shuttered against the heat. The financial district of this city built on commerce pauses to mark Independence Day, and the empty streets—usually so filled with bustling hurrying crowds—seem strange and haunted.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m here. I had been visiting with family and, with some time on my hands before my train, I knew, somehow, there was something I needed to do.

I pass a closed off subway station exit and the acrid smell of burned metal, sharp and insistent, emerges from within its barricaded tunnels.

Ground Zero. Like thousands around the world, I had seen live video of the events of that terrible day some ten months earlier, stared in mesmerized horror at the destruction wrought on hundreds and hundreds of innocent people.

Why have I come here?

Even as I approach the site, I am asking myself this. There isn’t much to do except look through a chain link fence at where rubble has been cleared, at a cross made from steel beams pulled from the wreckage, to walk along a sidewalk memorial outside a church remarkably untouched by the destruction visited upon its neighbour, and marvel in silence at the photographs, T-shirts, flowers, drawings, candles lining the iron fence, to read silently the names of the dead.

The sign by the place where pedestrians can look out onto Ground Zero reads: NO VENDORS. But on every other street, here they are: hawking calendars of firefighters and police officers, NY Police Department memorabilia, framed photographs of the twin towers at night, US flags—lots of American flags.

More vendors are arriving as I continue to walk, setting up their stands in the growing July heat, selling lemonade and hot dogs, and T-shirts, post cards, bumper stickers emblazoned with UNITED WE STAND, emblazoned with GOD BLESS AMERICA, emblazoned with stars and stripes and bald eagles, a display of kitsch memorabilia, the tourist trinkets you can take home with you to say to the world: I was there. I went there.

Because the tacky tourists who—like me—come to this place will need something to remember it by. And there will be somebody here to sell it to you—there will always be someone to sell here in this very place of world trade.

I find myself tangled momentarily in a gawking gaggle of tourists, snapping photographs, talking loudly, pointing. Annoyed, I try to untie myself from them, walk out ahead of them, get around them, away from them. Then I realize I am one of them.

Come to gawk, to take pictures, to collect trinkets, to say a prayer, to feel something real, to listen for the echoes—death, pain, grief, disaster—reverberating in widening circles out from this very place, this very site, into an increasingly complex twenty-first century world.

Come for first hand experience, to see first hand the devastation, and not the record of the devastation. Come to see for myself, to experience for myself what depraved injury had been visited upon this place. Come to see it with my own eyes, the place and not the record of the place, the place and not its sign.

Come to mourn, to feel deeply, to untie the terrible knots my soul had been twisted into since the events of September 11, 2001. I’m here to be a witness. And take back whatever I experience here into my daily life and be illuminated by its insights. I’ve come here to be changed.


There are places in our world that seem to contain the powers of renewal, places to which people flock seeking healing, enlightenment, inspiration. There are places in the world toward which we are drawn, places of power that seem to offer transformation and wholeness. The spirit longs for what might make us whole again, bends toward powers of regeneration.

People throughout time and across many cultures have travelled to such places, made pilgrimages to such holy sites. Perhaps, filled with hopes and wounds, something within them is drawn to certain mountains and springs, temples and cathedrals, rocks and rivers, just that way that I, with my hopes and wounds, was drawn toward Ground Zero.

I had felt a need to go there, in my own pilgrimage of struggling to understand. I had felt drawn there, a gravitational pull I can only describe in terms of a journey toward insight, witness, transformation. Essentially, spiritual terms. Even as I questioned my travelling to that site, I felt compelled.

Pilgrimage is an ancient spiritual practice of leaving what is comfortable and familiar to journey across the terrain of the unknown to a significant place, the vision of which drives us on, the arrival at which powers us forward. To be present where it all happened, physically present. To experience, if only by proxy and approximation, what took place there, what was revealed there.

Pilgrimage is a practice that gives us our most enduring metaphors for spirituality, for the inner life. We speak often of being on a journey, of our spiritual journey, being on a path, of walking together.

In his book The Orthodox Way, Kallistos Ware tells the story of Sarapion the Sidionite, one of the desert fathers, that group of fourth century women and men who fled to wild and abandoned places to live ascetic, monastic lives. Sarapion was a great traveller before becoming a monk and once made a pilgrimage to Rome. There, he was told of a famous recluse, a woman who prayed and meditated all day, never leaving her room. Sarapion visited her and sceptically asked, “Why are you just sitting there?” To which she replied, “I am not sitting. I am on a journey.”

I’m not sitting, I’m on a journey. This summarizes nicely my own experience of my daily meditation practice. Outwardly, of course, I am just sitting but in truth I have been on a journey. I’m not the same man I was when I began years ago, and the discipline of contemplative prayer and meditation are what I attribute much of my own spiritual and personal growth to. Transformation, in my experience, is rarely dramatic and overnight but is rather a cumulative process of trials and errors, of intentional cultivation and slow, patient growth.

For me, being a person of faith is only partly about beliefs, religious philosophies, and theological ideas. Being a person of faith, for me, is a way of life. It’s a way of conducting myself in the world, toward others, and with communities of accountability.

Ideas, scriptures, creeds, philosophies, and theology are important, the way a map is an important tool for finding your way. They can be the map – the description of the territory – but they are not the territory.

They can be means by which we discern the path, but they are not the path.

Living one’s faith is a matter of daily actions that embody one’s aspirations – daily acts of compassion and care, of study and celebration, solidarity and service. It’s a matter of walking the talk. It’s a way of experience, of seeing for ourselves. The map is necessary for the journey but is no substitute for practice, for actually hitting the road.

Such maps orient our religious lives, providing a sense of direction toward where our hearts yearn to go. They provide a true north toward which bends the individual needle of our personal compass.

The pilgrimage to Mecca, for a Muslim, is a central tenet in the practice of Islam; pilgrimage (the hajj) is one of the five pillars of Islam. And just as pilgrims walk around the holy places in Mecca, rotating or circumambulating around the Kaaba, like planets orbiting a sun, so Muslims around the world are oriented toward Mecca in prayer. When praying, Muslims face toward the holy city.

What direction are you pointed in? What orients your spiritual and ethical life?

Such a cartography keeps us from being bandied about by spiritual fads, spiritual-but-not-religious fads. There’s always room for course corrections, to be sure. Yet remaining constant to essentials, to the very values and virtues that command our loyalty, is the surest compass we can have as we make our way.

As we make our way slowly, deliberately, trusting in the outcome that may yet be beyond the horizon.

Ours is a culture that assumes anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. If something is to be done, we assume it can be done quickly and efficiently. Why walk hundreds of miles through the mountains of France and Spain when you can fly to Santiago de Compostela?

Our attention spans are shortened, truncated by television’s and the Internet’s immediacy. We get abridged versions of the story. An authentic religious life is difficult to cultivate in this context because it implies a discipline and staying power that goes against the grain of a culture marked by the immediate and the casual.

In our religious lives, contemporary people expect the abridged version of the story, the record of the place and not the place itself. We are all too willing to collect the tourist trinkets of a holy place and move on to the next spiritual trend.

“The essential thing is that there should be long obedience in the same direction. There thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” Friedrich Nietzsche

A long obedience in the same direction results in something which makes life worth living. The fruits of a spiritual practice – and I include involvement in a faith community among those spiritual practices – don’t come instantly. Any more than running a marathon comes instantly after one’s first run. We live in a culture that instils in us a desire for instant results and impatience when these aren’t delivered immediately.

Staying on the path, even when the way gets difficult or the weather rough, is the mark of an authentic spiritual seeker. The one bound to find something, to touch the powers of regeneration and healing, is the one dedicated to walking the walk, to a long obedience in the same direction, to staying true to one’s intention. It’s the difference between being a seeker and a dilettante, between experiencing the holy and merely collecting the kitschy trinkets.

It’s the difference between being a pilgrim and being a tourist.

Being on the journey, walking the path of liberal religion, walking the way of compassion and peace and solidarity, deserves our attention and commitment. Being sufficiently committed to our congregations, to our meditation practice, to our prayer life, to whatever our daily spiritual disciplines include, is important and necessary. Having moments of clarity and insight, moments of transcendence and joy, are important milestones, meaningful experiences along the way.

Are those moments the point of spirituality? Do we wander aimlessly, accumulating them willy-nilly? What is the point of spiritual practice? If the spiritual life, the cultivation of our inner life, is a journey, then what’s the destination?

So here’s the thing. Here’s the difficulty I have with the metaphor of spiritual journey. We have a tendency to think that the destination of the journey is the holy city, the sacred site, the mountaintop experience. But then what? What happens when we get there?

Staying there is not the point of making a pilgrimage. That’s not pilgrimage—that’s exile.

The point of the sacred journey is to go home.

The true destination of any pilgrimage isn’t the holy place; the destination of every pilgrimage is home.

After the journey there must come the journey back.

Which is why, rather than simply journey, I prefer the metaphor of pilgrimage for the spiritual life. Because going to the mountaintop, and being with the teacher, and drawing near to the places containing the seeds of our own healing, is merely act one. Act two is coming down from the mountain, putting the teaching into practice, cultivating the seeds of our wellbeing. Act two is taking off the white clothing of the hajj upon returning from Mecca to begin again the daily round of one’s life. The second act of the pilgrim’s drama is coming home, retracing the steps that brought us to that place and arriving again at the place we began, our point of departure.

I prefer the metaphor of pilgrimage because the real test of whatever truth we learn, or insights we have, on our spiritual quest is what we do with it at home. The true test of any spiritual practice is whether it makes us better people, more loving and understanding and patient and curious.

Does your religion make you more compassionate? Does your religion compel you to live justly, creating and sustaining moral and truthful relationships? Or have you simply come back from the holy places with a handful of trinkets?

The true test of any religious experience is what difference it makes in our home, in our workplace, with our families and friends, with strangers and enemies. The true test of the mountaintop experience isn’t its intensity or brilliance but what light it casts on our daily life. Mountaintop experiences are not tested by their sanctity or how good they make us feel, but rather how they inform how we live our life down here in the ordinary world.

The pilgrim, the hajji, comes back to the village in Indonesia or Morocco or Pakistan, dressed in white. And a kind of aura surrounds them, an honour is paid to them as they recount stories of their journey there and back. And then they get back into their ordinary clothes to re-enter daily life. As the title of one popular book on spiritual practice puts it: After the ecstasy, the laundry. 

Communities of faith, spiritual practice, religious experience – these can be ways of opening to new life-changing truth and insight, to the divine, to others in more authentic ways. These can also be ways of making ourselves feel good or self-satisfied and have no bearing whatsoever on our relationships and commitments.

It is completely possible to bliss out on chanting or singing or doing yoga and still be mean to people! You can go to workshops at the Omega Institute or Kripalu or go on retreat to a monastery, you can read every spiritual book that Oprah recommends and still be petty, lack generosity and compassion, and not become a better person if you are unable or unwilling to put any of the wisdom you have encountered into practice every day.

Have you ever felt a deep call within to experience a place or person or practice? How might you answer such a call? What is it that sustains you as you strive to live a good life, to be a better person? What can you do to maintain what sustains you?

We are all longing to come home to our best and most authentic selves. Finding our way as pilgrims we are gifted with inspiration and longing and adventurousness, direction and orientation, pathways and routes to walk to which we are committed. We are gifted with travel companions, who lift you up when you fall, who egg you on when you falter, and to whom you can be a companion, offering your guidance and help along the way. Our faith communities, at their best, provide us with a context in which we are challenged, edified, encouraged and in which we challenge, edify, and encourage others.


If you go to lower Manhattan today, you can visit the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in the space once occupied by the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The memorial features two reflecting pools, each perfectly square, in what are described as footprints of the two towers. Waterfalls line the parameter of each square, living water feeding each reflecting pool, describing in their open shape an absence. Inscribed in bronze parapets bordering each pool are the names of those killed.

Mediating the space between these pools of water and the hustle and bustle of the busy city is a grove of oak trees. One tree that survived the destruction of the towers remains rooted in place there, surrounded now by a small forest of living trees offering up their sweet green leaves each spring, fading into amber colours each fall. You can walk among the trees, reminded of the powers of regeneration and growth, of cycles of life, death, and new life.

I’ve never been. I haven’t yet visited the memorial or the museum, put perhaps the next time I’m in New York City and have the time to go, I’ll visit.







From Tolerance to Hospitality

At a congregational board retreat at the beginning of a church year one year, we began to ask questions about mission.

To spark answers to the question of what our purpose is, we considered the question, “What is this congregation’s saving message?”

A number of themes emerged consistently, one of them being the notion that we model a way of holding together in unity a diversity of theological and philosophical perspectives. Our historic testimony – part of our saving message to the world – has been religious toleration, creating understanding and respect in civil society for a variety of religious beliefs and for none. The language that many Unitarians grew up with, including some on this board, was of religious tolerance.

But before I could write down, “Tolerance” with my marker onto the page in front of the group, a participant spoke up.

“You know, I don’t want to be tolerated.”

Tolerance, indeed, implies that there is something distasteful about another and we are holding our noses and allowing them to remain in our presence. Like tolerating loud noise or a foul smell because it can’t be avoided.

The historian Earl Morse Wilbur identified the three foundational principles of Unitarianism as being freedom, reason and tolerance. This describes our history, but not our present moment and in these opening decades of the twenty-first century, these basic principles of religious liberalism are, without really being superseded, transforming.

Tolerance, for example, is no longer adequate for our increasingly multicultural and interfaith context. It is not helping our divided body politic. What is needed today is not simply tolerance for difference, but rather authentic engagement across our differences.

No longer holding our nose and allowing you to stay here, but rather, curiosity and conversation with those who are different from us. Who are you and how do you see the world? Asking and discovering, in an attitude of openness, does not mean acceptance necessarily of another’s views. But it builds a bridge, and makes connection and communication possible.

There have been times when I, and other LGBT people I know, have “come out” to others in our faith communities and were told, “It doesn’t matter that you’re gay” (or lesbian or bi or trans).

Well… it matters to me!

I’ve also been told by well meaning people that it makes no difference that I’m Arab. “You can hardly tell,” they say, thinking they’ve complimented me.

Well…it makes a difference to me!

It is a well-meaning, liberal response that actually closes down dialogue. By saying, You’re no different from me, the real and actual difference is not acknowledged, the fullness of that person’s rich experience and humanity remains shut off.

The same happens across differences of ability and disability, language, culture, race, theology, class, nationality, gender.

Pretending those differences aren’t there isn’t helpful. To actually engage one another, we’d need to give up the well-intended but pernicious fictions of “colour blindness” and “aren’t we all the same.”

A video going round on my social media recently exhorts viewers to give up “labels” saying that our “true” identities are some kind of interior quintessence and not our outward appearances, including our bodies. This laudable plea to see the humanity in one another, rather than the material conditions that separate us, falls into this same sort of thinking.

Those material conditions are real and have real consequences in our real lives. And those identities are real and meaningful, even if socially constructed. It’s delusional to pretend otherwise. Erasing people’s identities is, to say the least, problematic.

I suggest that hospitality is what is needed today, the willingness to engage with one different from or strange to us, the practice of active engagement across the divisions and barriers that separate us. Hospitality involves acknowledging and affirming differences in another as we commit to understanding and accepting them fully as they are.

Hospitality is the practice of curiosity and openness, a spirit of inquiry into another’s life and experience. Hospitality is the practice of taking a risk—of asking a question, for example, even if it might be insensitive.

We need more than ever to open our door and welcome in the one who we consider one of “them.” Because in the transformational guest-host conversation that is the heart of hospitality, there is mutual exchange of distrust and trust, sincerity and reticence, giving and receiving out of which is born new understanding, new insight and new relationship.

I don’t want to be tolerated. I refuse to be erased. I want to be listened to, understood, taken seriously, affirmed and maybe even accepted – for who I actually am. These are the fruits of hospitality, a virtue that I daresay needs to become more central to who we are and what we do.


Keeping the Joy: A Christmas Practice

An unadorned Christmas tree, its branches having relaxed in the warm living room, stood in the corner.

A string of Christmas lights lay out in a row along the wall. Checking for burned out bulbs, my mom replaced any that no longer glowed with festive light.

The cardboard box, removed from its eleven-month slumber in storage, sat in the middle of the living room, crumpled newspaper strewn about the carpet. My siblings and I unwrapped ornaments and decorations as we took them out of the box.

One of these decorations was a dime store Santa Claus that had been my mother’s since she was three years old. It held a candle that we never lit. One of the ornaments was a bell that had come from my grandparents on my father’s side. The bell, however, was shattered. As we kids took out the usable ornaments, Mom opened the bell’s box carefully, gently peeling back its wrapping to reveal the sparkling shards.

Annually, I wondered to myself: why do we hold on to these? The cracked and peeling Santa candle stand with its never burned candle, the broken bits of an ornament that would never go on a tree—why keep these?

Their value was in what they represented: my parents’ past and childhood and Christmases of yore. Their utility was their ability to convey continuity, history, and tradition.

The story of these objects (a war time holiday, a Christmas tree that fell over) was told ritually as we decorated the Christmas tree. Function, or usefulness, is only one measure of something’s worth.

At what point does a person or a family decide to throw such things away?

I moved recently, and as I began to unpack and sort out my new home, I read—…you know what, I had to go check just now on the title. It’s called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but I have been referring to it as The Magical Art of Throwing Everything Away mostly because its author, Marie Kondo, advocates not holding on to anything.

Well, not exactly. She insists that you keep only those things which bring you joy. Presumably, when I am done this process, I will be surrounded only by things which bring me joy. Which sounds wonderful! And as a touchstone for whether or not to keep a thing, Does this bring me joy? diminishes the power of all other reasons to keep it: I might reread it again or I might fit into this if I lose ten pounds or But a special person gave this to me or I think I will need this for my doctoral research.

It also means being in touch with what joy feels like.

The December holiday season is a time of nostalgia, a time for holding precious shards of our past gently in hand. It can be a time of mourning what is irreparably damaged, for grieving loss, for handling those broken places of our past or present lightly, carefully. We can ask if now is the time to let go.

There’s a delicious old word which I’ve only ever heard Quakers use: cumber. To cumber is to weigh down, to inhibit, to clutter up. Too many things, and too many things that bring us no joy, are cumbersome. We can become so encumbered, we can’t move.

I think of cumber as all of that clutter that I hang on to that is not useful or beautiful and no longer brings me joy. Getting rid of it is true liberation.

But I hesitate to give away or recycle or send to the landfill so many things that I am not tied to anything—a tradition, a past, a family, a faith. So much of the rootlessness of modern life, it seems to me, comes from being enamoured with the shifting, never ending cycles of the new, the latest, the up-to-date.

History, tradition, and memory inform who we are, give us context and meaning. Yet the past ought not limit us. How many of us have spent this season with endless, joyless tasks (baking cookies, writing cards, buying gifts) because that’s just what we do every year and it can never be different?

Christmas is one of those seasons when this all comes together for me. It can be a time of imagination, of creating new practices while keeping and cherishing past traditions. Of doing things that bring joy—for one’s self, one’s household, and family—and laying down what is no longer useful, beautiful, or joyful.

I have a handful of Christmas items that, while they bring me great joy, don’t seem as historic as the relics of my family’s Christmas ornament box. But come to think of it, they represent my own collection of memories, stories, and traditions. I would hate to lose any of it. I have—even as I release what weighs me down—been creating and curating my own cherished reliquary of hallowed things.

I guess that’s how it happens.



Voices United: Remembering Pete Seeger

I’m finding that I am affected by the death of Pete Seeger early this morning. In a way that seems surprising.

I listened to his music mostly when I was in high school, at a time when I was reading voraciously about the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi and learning about the civil rights movement in the United States.

I was myself involved in the student peace and disarmament movement, and immersing myself in theories and histories of social justice movements. It seems that what I was learning about peace, civil rights and labour movements, was the black-and-white outlines that Pete Seeger’s music filled in.

There was something about his recordings, both the songs and the context he gave the songs by speaking about them, that seemed to give what I was learning its third dimension. Also, by following some of the musicians he was influenced by, and the musicians and musicologists who he influenced, that I became better grounded in the life and spirit of activism.

Hearing Pete Seeger in concert at Place des Arts was an experience in the power of raising one’s voice together with others. He told stories, sang, and most of all encouraged us to sing along.

One believed, in the presence of this musician and his audience, in the power of people united. With hundreds others, in the context of moving together for peace and social justice, it was a felt sense of solidarity and community.

I met him backstage, where he signed my programme and punctured a hole in my nostalgia, deflating any sense I had had that the “good old days” of activism were over. It seemed to me, in the Reagan-Mulroney-Thatcher eighties, that my cohorts and I were a voice crying in the wilderness.

I don’t remember his exact words, but he somehow imparted to me and my other teenaged friends that we were right in the midst of changing the world, in our own time, in our own battles, in our own way. These were the good old days.

Still, I sometimes bemoaned the fact that we didn’t seem to have any music—the LGBT and AIDS activist movements, the peace and global justice movements. Dance anthems and hip-hop came close—but were not songs to be sung together.

The only place I ever experienced anything comparable was at church.

As a youth, I began attending my local Unitarian congregation’s weekly worship. Like many who find Unitarian Universalism, when I first arrived it felt like a homecoming. So many others who think the way I do about faith and religion and the world! What made my experience more awesome was I made friends with, and was befriended by, people who were much older than I was.

There was no other place where I raised my voice in song. And no other place where I sang with others, non-professional singers all. The power of this practice—to run sound through your own body that runs through the bodies of those around you—is community-forming, an embodied way of being in solidarity–and claiming the space surrounding you.

Many others, no doubt, are giving Pete Seeger the better-articulated tribute that he so rightly deserves.  For me, his was the voice that activated something in my soul, something that longed to connect with others in solidarity and community in the struggles for freedom. That called me deeper into a life of activism. And that helped me find my voice.

May his memory be eternal.

Transforming The Heart of Our Violence

On Friday morning, a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, shooting and killing six adults and twenty children before killing himself.

This incomprehensible act has caused enormous mourning and outrage. So many of us have been feeling grief and also numbness, bewilderment and anger. Our thoughts turn toward those killed and their loved ones. How does a parent survive something like this? How do any of those who lost a loved one that day endure? And because our own humanity connects us, we ask how we ourselves are to go on, and what can we do on behalf of healing and integrity and justice.

In an early briefing, the White House press secretary said it was too soon after the tragedy to start talking about policy issues related to this tragedy, such as gun control. Other politicians have repeated this.

I disagree. It’s not too soon. It’s too late.

It’s too late for those children and their teachers, too late for the gunman and his mother, who he also shot. This horrific crime needs to spur a policy discussion about the proliferation of firearms in this country. If not now, when?

There have been 19 mass shootings in this country since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Friday’s tragedy was the sixth such shooting in the United States this year alone. After the killing in an Amish school, after the killing in a movie theatre, after the killing in a Sikh temple, after each one of these incidents people have grieved and asked why and pointed fingers.

But according to opinion polls, a growing majority of Americans oppose restrictions on access to guns. Politically, the issue is a nonstarter. In his long campaign for reelection, President Obama mentioned gun control policy a total of three times. If not now, when? If not after this tragedy, when?

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30,000 people a year lose their lives in this country because of gun violence. For every person killed with guns, two others are wounded. These include homicides, suicides, and police interventions. Most of these deaths and injuries take place without much notice in the press.

We know from the experience of other countries that banning certain weapons or making them difficult to obtain has led to fewer deaths by homicide, fewer deaths from gun violence. We also know from the experience of other countries—countries that have similar ratios of guns to population—that the rate of gun violence in the US is even then comparatively high. In other words, even when access to guns is comparable in other countries, the number of gun deaths and injuries in the US is still higher.  Other countries with proportional numbers of guns do not have as high rates of homicide as the United States. What is the unique relationship of US society and culture to guns and to violence?

What we know about strength and safety, about resolving conflict and encountering difference, arises from our context, a national culture which from its beginnings in colonialism and slavery has favored armed defense and military might. Power and security, dominating others and our natural environment, this is our shadow as a nation. We’re armed to the teeth because we’re afraid.  We are afraid that those we have subjugated for our benefit will overwhelm us.

And the seemingly plausible answer given by a majority of Americans is that we’ll be safer if more of us have guns, we’ll be less afraid if we’re armed.

Gun control may indeed see the statistics of mass shootings and other gun violence go down, but gun control alone will not address the moral and spiritual crisis of our culture’s worldview which is the basis for so much violence in this country. It’s a worldview based on fear—fear of the unknown, fear of difference, fear of the other. It’s a worldview based on the dictum that might makes right, and if we don’t understand something—the unknown, the different, the other—we must conquer or destroy it, rather than engage it.

In addition to social policies that must change, we need to also ask, what within ourselves needs to change as well. What are the seeds of fear within myself? What sources of distrust, suspicion, and anxiety are there within me? How do I handle difference, how do I relate with those who differ from me? What is my encounter with the unfamiliar marked by—is it openness, curiosity? In my dealings with others, do I seek points of connection or only points of contention?

How do we, individually and as families and households, a town and a neighborhood, a community of faith, how do we contribute to the culture of fear? How do we resist it? What forms of desensitization and dehumanization do we participate in?

We need to make space to ask these questions, these queries of self-examination. We need to make space for an internal change, an inner conversion from fear to trust, from fear to love.

These transformations have repercussions for the social order. Gustav Landauer, a nineteenth century German anarchist, says:

“The state is not something which can be destroyed by revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.”

Our social order is a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior. Changes in how we order our thinking and our relationships—shaping them around mutuality and cooperation and justice—revolutionizes the social order, the political order.  As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “We must be the change that we want to see.”

And it begins in our own dark hearts. It begins in a long vigil through the longest night until dawn breaks, until vision comes. It begins in our own places of expectant waiting, of contemplative vigilance.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, says,

“Your mind is like a piece of land planted with many different kinds of seeds: seeds of joy, peace, mindfulness, understanding, and love; seeds of craving, anger, fear, hate, and forgetfulness. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds are always there, sleeping in the soil of your mind.”

He goes on to say that what grows in the soil of your mind is what you cultivate. The seeds you awaken and water and encourage will be what you sow in your life and relationships—let it be the seeds of peace, understanding, love. Let it be the seeds of joy, mindfulness and understanding.

Contemplation, mindfulness meditation and prayer are forms of cultivating the seeds of peace. Reshaping and transforming our whole lives are next steps, including all of how we relate to others, remaking and transfiguring the social relationships which are the fabric of our civic society.

We need to enter the simple, dark void, the sheltered silence out of which comes power and change, dreams and visions made possible only in that mysterious empty space. We need to look long and hard through windows of our darkness, into the self, into the everything and the nothing within to touch the sources of our personal and political and planetary transformation.

JESUS, SANTA & CAESAR: Christian vs. Capitalist Christmas

Religion is popularly thought of in terms of faith—personal faith. One’s beliefs, values and practices may be nurtured in houses of worship, but are largely personally held and seen to be private.

Yet religion is also a cultural phenomenon, a discourse of stories and signs that are represented in art, re-presented and acted out in performance (including worship), and expressed in many other forms of culture.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously defined religion as

… a system of symbols which establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [individuals] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

Myths, legends, and rituals help form personal and community identities, embody communal life, and frame a worldview. They help give life meaning.

It may surprise some to hear consumer capitalism defined as a religion. And stranger still to think of Christmas as a holiday of this religion.

The capitalist festival of Christmas is “religious” in the sense that consumer capitalism creates and maintains a system of symbols that motivates people to shop for consumer goods and creates an all-encompassing atmosphere during “the holidays” of cheer, generosity, and togetherness.

Symbols of this religion—including Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, candy canes, snow men—are ubiquitous. Its symbols (unlike a nativity scene or crèche) are not considered controversial or inappropriate for public display.

Indeed, the culture at large compels participation in this civic religion. Tree-lighting ceremonies are observed at city hall, public spaces are festooned with lights, and the media are full of “holiday” stories—Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and more–and “holiday” music–songs about bells and snow.

Civic, secular and cultural spaces are used for this ever-present festival precisely because it is a “religious” festival promoted by the dominant “religious culture,” that is to say the capitalist economic order. This commercial carnival called Christmas is not Christian, nor is it at all the same festival as the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

In European and Euro-American cultures, the winter solstice was a time of feasting and carousing. For these agrarian cultures, it was a slow time of year and the darkness needed to be fended off in some way. Festivals involving drinking ale and mead that had had time to age, feasting on foods that would spoil by midwinter, and assuaging anxieties about the darkness evolved.

Here in New England, Christmas was banned or not celebrated not because the Puritans were anti-Pagan, but rather because it was a time of drinking wassail, carousing, and (most importantly) of working people demanding favors of the well-to-do. Revelers going door to door and asking for treats (“bring us a figgy pudding! we won’t go until we get some!”) and threatening mischief if not satisfied was a common practice.

Stephen Nissenbaum, in his fascinating book The Battle for Christmas, details how this celebration was transformed by the US ruling class into a domestic holiday in which children asked for or received favors from adults. The action went indoors and the holiday was literally domesticated.

Traditions involving Saint Nicholas were expanded in the late nineteenth century with the popularity of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy promoter of the domestication of Christmas. The story that Santa Claus descended the chimney to give good little children toys and presents became a central element in the Christmas mythos.

The contemporary Santa, with his red suit trimmed with white fur, was popularized tremendously by the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s.

Santa Claus comes to town on Thanksgiving Day, purportedly, in a nationally televised parade of other commercial icons (the Smurfs, Kermit the Frog, Sponge Bob, Scooby Doo) sponsored by a department store.

Santa Claus may be visited this time of year—where else?—in the local shopping mall or department store. Children queue for hours to commune with him—and to ask for things.

Stating the obvious—that commercial culture and forces of consumer capitalism created and sustain a quasi-religious festival—is not to condemn it. It is, rather, to clarify what is and what is not happening in North American culture from US Thanksgiving to Superbowl Sunday.

The birth of Jesus Christ is not being celebrated.

That is another festival practiced by another religion. It, too, is called “Christmas” and that has caused an unfortunate confusion.

From its agrarian beginnings in material culture, through its domestication and reinvention in the late nineteenth century, through its growing prominence in twentieth century capitalism, this Christmas has only incidentally ever been about Jesus. It’s been about money, material goods, and commercial trade all along.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Jesus was never really the reason for the season.

The Roman Empire had a festival celebrating the birth of a savior, a man worshipped as a god who brought salvation to the people. Weeks long reveling took place in his honor, celebrating not only the new year, but a new era that began with his birth, an era of peace and prosperity. Civic sponsored parades, philanthropic giving, and lavish feasts celebrated the birth of this prince of peace.

It was Caesar that was being celebrated as savior and lord.

The Christian Church in the third century began to associate the birth of Jesus with this time of year.

From the very beginning–indeed from the very story of Christ’s birth found in the gospel of Luke–followers of Jesus have been subverting political culture by speaking of Jesus in Roman and Jewish political terms (messiah, savior, lord, kingdom, gospel, church [“assembly”]—these are all from the Hebrew and Greco-Roman political and civic lexicon).

By saying that Jesus was the only ruler, they were saying that Caesar had no power over them. The affirmation “Jesus is Lord” is subversive. If Jesus is lord, then the emperor is not.

By pledging allegiance to the kingdom of God, they were stating their opposition to and noncompliance with the kingdom of Caesar.

A different kingdom and indeed a different kind of kingdom altogether was lurking in the shadow of the world’s kingdoms, small and unnoticed and yet, like a mustard seed, growing. A different social order was being lived out in the margins–a society based in forgiveness, jubilee, compassion, nonviolent resistance, sharing and love.

When the church came to power, the festival was baptized as Christian. Christianizing the winter solstice, the church hoped to transform culture. The worship of Jesus was to replace the worship of the emperor. With the shift in power, what had been acts and rhetoric of subversion began to more closely resemble the discourse and apparatus of imperial rule.

In the era of Christendom that followed Constantine, the church was in the position to create culture.  Its feasts and fasts, heroes and heroines, liturgies and ceremonies, became continuous with civic culture, political governance, and—let’s face it—empire.

Now that that era is gone… What? Oh. Yes. Sorry. That era is over. It has ended. So sorry. Bummer, eh? Welcome to post-Christendom.

Now that that era is gone, it seems to me that followers of Jesus have a choice to make.

Jesus or Caesar?

Jesus or Santa?

Will we pattern our days after the current empire with its gods and mythos and festivals? Will we participate in the feasts and holidays of the dominant religion—capitalism—or will we not comply?

Which kingdom has our allegiance?

The Kingdom of God as described in the gospels is in opposition to the kingdom of Caesar. The imperial savior brought peace through domination, military might, and the fear of violence. The peasant savior from the margins of the empire brought peace through cooperation, soul force, and trust.

How is it that US Christians still believe that claiming the corporate-sponsored frenzy is or ought to be a Christian holiday? That Christmas is a different holiday. Let those who find meaning in it celebrate it. And, you know, really. Quit bugging them that they are not celebrating what you celebrate.

What you celebrate is different.

And maybe it’s time to differentiate the Christian Christmas from the capitalist Christmas.

A Tale of Two Christmases

There are two holidays that are celebrated on December 25.

One is the twelve-day Christian feast of the Nativity, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It begins with a vigil on the evening of December 24 and runs through until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. It is a time of feasting and merry-making, singing carols and visiting family and friends. As a sign of God’s generously giving himself to the world in Jesus, gifts are exchanged, and the poor are served by the more fortunate. This twelve-day holiday is preceded by four weeks of introspection in anticipation of the arrival of Christ known as Advent.

The other celebration on December 25 is a consumer-capitalist holiday which, although it is dipped in the flavor of the religious holiday, has only its aroma. This secular “holy” day makes some reference to generosity, but mostly in the guise of buying and giving consumer goods. It, too, has habits of feasting and merry-making. It generally begins after Halloween and ends abruptly on December 25.

Many people find it confusing that both holidays are called “Christmas.”

I respect those celebrating the capitalist holiday, though I understand it to be completely different from the Christian one. Not worse, just different.

The capitalist celebration of Christmas has something to recommend it. Secular people with no connection to religious tradition or community have the opportunity to spend time reflecting on the season’s themes: light in the darkness, generosity, new life, birth, the blessings of children and family, magic. Many donate time and money to charitable organizations.

More often than not, individuals unconsciously act out family traditions (decorating the home, bringing an evergreen tree into the house, putting presents underneath the tree, making certain recipes) without thinking too much about it. Is this a religious observance? Tradition? Why are we doing this?

A hero of this consumerist holiday is Santa Claus, the jolly white-bearded man who lives hidden in an enchanted workshop at the north pole and magically distributes gifts to children by coming down the chimney while they sleep. He is a symbol of the capitalist Christmas, embodying the generous, gift-giving spirit of the holiday.

The symbol of the Christian holiday is a little newborn baby.

The two different stories of Jesus Christ’s birth found in the New Testament each act as an overture to the gospel that follows. One represents Jesus as the new Moses, fulfilling prophecies of a new divinely appointed leader (Matthew), and the other that a leader has come for the lowest, most outcast of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish (Luke).

These birth stories are theological reflections, meant to convey who and what Jesus is and was to the communities out of which these gospels were formed. Reading and reflecting on these two narratives—the sheep herders, the animal stall, the star, the magi and the wicked ruler—and understanding what is being conveyed can be a meaningful exercise once a year.

The Christian church adopted a pagan holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ as it developed its liturgical year. The winter solstice (broadly, Saturnalia in southern Europe, Yule in northern Europe) celebrates the return or rebirth of the sun in the darkest time of the year. This fit the Christian understanding of the person of Jesus Christ – his birth and life were like divine light dawning on a darkened world.

Christians who get upset by the “commercialization” of Christmas may be helped to know that the capitalist Christmas is a different celebration from their own and is entirely commercial—commercialism is, in fact, its raison d’être.

Christians who want to “put the Christ back into Christmas” have my sympathy. But rather than judging others (wait, didn’t somebody wise say something about judging others?) for not celebrating the Christian holiday, it may be more helpful to practice one’s own holiday with integrity and spirit. Before you remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye, maybe it’s time to pluck out the Yule log stuck in your own!

Those who celebrate the birth of Christ in December may want to ask ourselves what is the best way to do so.

  • Is it by trampling people to death at the shopping mall?
  • Stressing out about buying (or making) presents for loved ones?
  • Becoming apoplectic about travelling, decorating, baking, entertaining, shopping?
  • Getting snotty about other people celebrating holidays at this time of year? (and yes, “happy holidays,” because there are a number of festivals being celebrated this time of year—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, winter solstice, Yule, New Year’s, among others, as well as both Christmases).

In what ways is the Christian observance of Christmas exactly similar to the capitalist observance? In what ways is the Christian celebration different from the commercial one? In what ways are practicing Christians smooshing the two together?

I don’t celebrate the capitalist holiday. I haven’t for years. For a while, my only celebration at this time of year was New Year’s. But now I see the wisdom of observing a threefold religious occasion—Advent, Nativity, Epiphany.

I try not to use “Christmas” language, because I like to distinguish what I’m doing from the capitalist holiday. Rather than reclaim “Christmas,” I call what I do by other names, even as the capitalists begin to relinquish “Christmas” in favor of “holiday” or “winter.”

I invite practicing Christians to consider withdrawing their support for the capitalist version of Christmas and finding ways of celebrating the birth of Christ with integrity and spirit.

  • Remember that Advent is a time for reflection, not crazy making. What about taking up a spiritual discipline of meditation or vigil keeping or prayer or journaling? What are some of your most significant hopes? What calls forth your forbearance and patience?
  • Remember that Christmas (the Feast of the Nativity) is a twelve-day celebration. Merry-making, visits, singing, gift-giving, baking… why not spread it out over the twelve days? Why not choose an activity to do with the members of your household, friends, and family for each of the twelve days? What about serving the poor and disenfranchised in some way?
  • Remember that Epiphany is also a holiday. Sometimes called Twelfth Night, some traditions include “king’s cake,” a cake with a coin baked into it, and progressive dinners.

Rather than grumbling that the cashier at the store didn’t say “Merry Christmas” while you handed over fistfuls of money, why not get out of the stores altogether?

Put the Christ back into Christmas by putting your cash and your credit card back in your wallet.

Spend less time at the mall and more time at church, with your loved ones, and with the poor and oppressed people in your community.

There are lots of resources for having a more simple, meaningful and joy-filled Christmas. Visit  Buy Nothing Christmas and the Advent Conspiracy for inspiration and resources. There is so much out there!

(And by the way, you don’t have to be Christian to want to change the way you experience the December holiday season. Many of us unconsciously go through the motions, perpetuating family customs and traditions we haven’t really paid much attention to and may even find joyless or meaningless. You, too, may want to withdraw your support from the capitalist Christmas and find some more authentic ways of celebrating the themes of the season).

Many Christians are having a hard time adjusting to living in a post-Christendom world. Christianity is no longer the established religion, seamlessly woven together with civic society and political governance. That sucks for some Christians and they get all crankypants about not being the definitive, dominant culture. That’s how I experience the resentful complaining of a so-called “war on Christmas.”

As much as it is a loss, the fall of Christendom is also an opportunity for followers of Jesus to bear authentic witness to his life and teachings. Cultural accretions that have nothing to do with—or are antithetical to—his gospel message can be stripped away.

It’s hard when in-groups get pushed to the margin. It requires humility and grace. But the margin is a good place to do religion, especially if your religion actually teaches humility and grace.

In fact, that reminds me of a story. A young unwed woman, under the rule of an empire that taxed and oppressed ordinary people, gives birth to a baby in a squalid barn, heralded only by homeless ruffians… and angels…

Pauses, Grace Notes and Gratitude

Growing up, my family only said grace at special occasions, meals that the whole family was there for. We might have said grace at other holidays, but it was consistently said every Thanksgiving. Because of the nature of the holiday, a meal eaten with thanks, it would have all seemed rather hollow had we not paused before the turkey was carved, the feast of vegetables and sweet potato and stuffing and cranberry sauce spread before us, and actually given thanks. This was usually a perfunctory, rote prayer uttered by one of us children.

In the years that followed, I’ve noticed a space at the front end of every meal, every social occasion that included sitting down together to eat. There would come a moment, as everybody was assembled and seated, before the food was served. Everybody settles in and a quiet, a hush, comes to rest upon the assembly, an expectant pause, a breath, a glance around the table. Often, somebody would cheerfully say, Bon appétit! Or lift their glass and say, Cheers! Something needed to be said in that silent, ceremonial moment. It was only as my social network began to include more churchgoers that somebody might suggest, Shall we give thanks before beginning?

Give thanks. Those are the words of the wordless pause, the voice of the silent moment before the meal. As you regard those gathered around the table with you, as you look at the food and drink, the bounty of labor and love, delight and delicacy, even if you don’t have the words, or are not in the habit of saying grace, there is that space that is filled with gratitude, a breath of satisfaction and contentment. I’m so grateful we could all be here. I am grateful for friends and family and food, that I have enough, that I have what I need. I am grateful for these necessities of life, for life itself.

I think of those moments as grace notes in the unending musical score that is life. In music, a grace note is ornamentation, an unneeded or unnecessary embellishment. It’s not essential to the melody or harmony. It’s a little addition that enhances the beauty of the unfolding sequence of events. The grace note sounds as glasses clink in a toast to life, as the host thanks you for being present, in the hushed recognition of the holy moment before you dig in. There are other decorative moments that come unbidden, times of wonder and a sense of peace, times of clarity, when the mind unwraps the vivid sense that all of life is a gift.

Pausing to give thanks in the face of our blessings is an essential religious act, an essential human act. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. If only that recognition could be more frequent, more regular, how our lives would be filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace!

The word grace comes from the Latin gratia, which means favor or charm as well as thanks. In the Romance languages, the words for thank you echo this origin: gracias, in Spanish, gratzie in Italian. To say grace before a meal, then is to say thanks, affirming that our daily bread is a gift. Yet the word grace is resonant with meaning. The reverberations of its roots—gratia—are found throughout our lexicon. We are grateful for what we have, we are gratified by good news, congratulated when we have achieved something, a grace note, as we’ve already observed, is gratuitous, we leave a gratuity when a person’s service has pleased us. Something given with no expectation of repayment is gratis. We’re sometimes given a grace period on paying bills. A generous, accepting sort of person is gracious, an unthankful person an ingrate.

Echoing through this vocabulary of grace, those parts of our speech that ring with “gratia,” is an essential religious affirmation. Theologically, grace is the unmerited, freely given mercy and kindness of God, a gift of divine favor and love. It is universal and unconditional, given to all who are aware it is available. That love is so persistent, so generous, so overflowing that it offers forgiveness to all who ask. Wholeness, integrity, and peace are the gifts of being in right relation with God and one another and all we have to do is open ourselves up to it, acknowledge our shortcomings and brokenness and give ourselves over completely to the justice-making, relation-repairing power.

Have you ever experienced a kindness from somebody that came out of the blue? An act of generosity that you did not expect? When somebody did something for you that they did not have to do? Remember how that made you feel. Imagine how that might make you feel. Gosh—thanks! What a wonderful, wonder filled occasion! I feel blessed or fortunate or special.

Such acts may also stimulate an aspiration to go and do likewise. Such generosity gives us permission to do something similar for somebody else. We can add a gratuity to everyday acts—being friendly to strangers, sincerely thanking a cashier at the grocery store, a gratuitous kind word to a co-worker, making small talk to one who everybody passes by. Sending a handwritten note to somebody just because you were thinking of them with fondness. Listening patiently to one you find dull and usually interrupt. It doesn’t take much to produce this sort of grace among people. It doesn’t take much to add such ornamentation, such grace notes to our daily lives.

The thing about grace is that the more it is offered to us, the more we offer it to others. The more space we make in our lives for grace, the more gracious we become to others. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have been offered and blessed with, then we become more generous. When we realize how far we fall short of our potential, and humbly understand how much we are loved and forgiven despite our shortcomings, when we comprehend how much we have been forgiven, then we become more forgiving, more charitable. The one who has been forgiven little loves little, Jesus says.

When we have experienced loving acceptance just as we are, when others are gracious with us, we are more likely to look kindly on our failures, less likely to beat ourselves up over them. When we can be at peace with our own inadequacies and limitations, holding them lightly, we can be more generous with the inadequacies and limitations of others. Recognizing that no one is perfect, of course, one wants to work at perfecting what we can. But we do so with a sense of ease, of compassion with ourselves, and we extend that compassion generously with others. It is in knowing how much we have been forgiven for our failures that we can forgive others.

It is possible to reflect on all that constitutes one’s life and think of what we have as unexpected gifts, and not necessarily from a divine source. No one is an island entire of itself, to paraphrase John Donne just a little. We are all connected. Much of what we have we received with somebody’s help. Recognizing how dependent upon others we are and how others depend on us, how our lives are sustained in a network of mutual relation, how our very lives are interrelated in a common life larger than our own individual, we receive and give such gifts thankfully.

Of course, it is entirely possible not to accept a gift. It is possible to choose to turn a blind eye to the blessings that surround us. We are endowed with freedom, including the freedom to reject what is so generously offered. It is possible to be ungrateful, to look around at all that we have and see only what is missing, to look at all that we have been given, and be unappreciative. It is possible to focus only on the wants, the unmet desires, and blot out everything else. Indeed, there are things in our lives that we’d just as soon not have. There are needs that go along with this gift of life. We may look to tomorrow and wonder how they all will be met. We may worry. We may be afraid. Gratitude for what we do have dispels fear. When we cultivate an awareness of what we are thankful for, we see what a treasure trove our lives actually are. Listing what we are grateful for is taking inventory of the treasure we do possess.

And in gratitude, we share that wealth with others. There are others who can benefit from your gifts, even if you would never think of yourself as “gifted.” When we can finally see that we possess something valuable—a specific skill, particular knowledge, money or time—we are free to offer it to others for whom it is useful. As we learn to share what we have, we begin to have enough. As we give, so we receive. The greater generosity of spirit we cultivate, the more we are fulfilled and gratified.

Awakening to the movement of grace in our lives might need some practice. Awakening to our daily life as a precious gift can take practice. Listing what one is grateful for is such a practice. Time can be taken at the end of each day to sit quietly and reflect and review the day. What good thing happened that day that you could not have accomplished on your own? What elements of your day can be savored—the fresh air, the beauty? Did somebody—anybody—show you compassion or hospitality or kindness? Did you to do so for others, maybe being patient and friendly with a slow cashier, even though you were in a rush, or a giving money or time to a charitable and just cause, or not raising your voice or getting angry with a family member. Were there times of serenity or joy or laughter or peace? Be thankful for those moments. Be thankful for the good things that happened that you did not create.

If you’re too busy to make lists or sit quietly, there’s always saying grace. It’s a spiritual practice that connects us with our families, sitting together for a meal once every day. If saying grace before that meal is awkward, simply holding hands around the table for a moment of thankful silence might work. Pausing before a meal whether one is alone or with others, whether silently or aloud, and being mindful of what we have to be thankful for is a form of grace. Remembering that the meal itself involves the work of many hands both within our household and beyond it, and that the Earth itself sustains us. We need to eat in order to live, so hopefully the thankful pause will happen daily.

Awakening to the holy in our daily lives, listening for those grace notes, produces in us the fruits of a gratified life. We become artists of grace, giving freely of ourselves to others and creatively standing in the way of anything that detracts from the blossoming of love and mutuality in the world. We become change agents for others, for the social order, helping to shape a more gracious world grounded in the values and practices of kindness and generosity. Hospitality toward those in need, reaching out to the hungry and lonely and marginalized—these are precisely the ways that grace is felt in our world. We do it not out of duty, but because we are participating in an endeavor to humanize our world.

We would be aware of our dependence on the Earth and on the sustaining presence of other human beings. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. As we intentionally take time to recognize this, as we develop practices that bring us to recognize this, our lives are filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace. We are showered with sacred blessings that cause us to blossom and grow in thankful, expansive ways. We are bathed in grace and we in turn become gracious.

There are moments when we survey the banquet of our lives and are thankful. We have what we need. There are times in our lives when we are given exactly what we need. We cannot command them or produce them, but there are moments of pleasure and delight that grace our days unexpectedly. A sense of serenity, that all is well; the comforting silence between companions. The special quality of such moments is that we don’t bring them about by overachieving or being perfect. We don’t bring them about at all. They are given freely, gratuitously. In such moments of clarity, we understand that all of life is a gift.

It comes as simply as the quiet, sacred moment before a meal.

Why Lent?

When I was growing up, Great Lent was a period of time that seemed to be primarily about eating. We “fasted” during Lent, which meant abstaining from meat, dairy and oil. Children were not expected to fast the entire forty days, but did so on Wednesdays and Fridays. This meant pouring orange juice on my breakfast cereal instead of milk, and eating various meatless, dairy-free Middle Eastern dishes.

My memories of Lent are not particularly unhappy, which is perhaps why, as an adult religious liberal I found it unproblematic to take up a forty-day spiritual discipline in the spring.

Indeed, I discovered Unitarian Universalism as a youth and signed the membership book as soon as I turned eighteen, as required by my congregation’s bylaws. And as the years went by, it seemed that seasons changed, the wheel of the year turned, and yet went unremarked in our worship life. There was Christmas and Easter. My home congregation celebrated communion twice a year, on the Sunday closest to All Souls Day and on Easter Sunday.

Aside from these occasions, and the eventual introduction of ingathering in September and a flower ceremony in June, there were no feasts, no seasons—not liturgically. It was the constant, unrelenting bright light of the rational, no shadows, no waxing or waning. We focused on ideas, principles and moral arguments, history and theology and ethics.

As exciting and as stimulating as this all was, a part of me left the table hungry. Something was missing. There was no enchantment, little poetry liturgically. What ritual gestures there were (this was, by the way, a very long time ago) were done awkwardly. I somehow needed to know that we were in sync with the rhythms of creation, that seasonal celebrations gave us insight into our place in the interrelated web of life.

For us rational Unitarian Universalists, as CS Lewis describes the Hundred Year Winter of the White Witch, it was always winter and never Christmas.

After several years as a UU, instinctively grasping toward something more Earth-centered and spiritual, I decided one year to observe Lent. There was something about this practice that spoke to my condition, wanting a spiritual discipline that connected me to a season.

It is interesting to me now, many years later, that this should be the case. Why Lent?

To be honest, I don’t know what I did that first year. I could have poured orange juice on my cereal for a month for all I know. But the point was that this season should have a different texture from other seasons, that time had different textures, that the movement of the Earth could be observed as meaningful.

The connection with healthful food was also a draw, of giving up something unwholesome. The memory of vegetarian and vegan eating drew me to my best intentions to eat in ways that were healthy for me and good for the planet.

There was something about my childhood experience that told me that this was a time of spiritual intensity, when one focused on what really mattered, on what was really real. What mattered during Lent was not the food that went into our mouths, we were told, but what came out of our mouths.

Fasting wasn’t the point. When Jesus was in the desert for forty days, fasting and being tested, the accuser tempted him to turn stones into bread to feed his hunger. To which he responded: It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

So we were to be attentive, awake, listening for every word coming from God. Which meant stripping away the distractions, the noise. The simplicity of our meals, the mindfulness with which we were to bring to all that we did and said, created an atmosphere of attention, wakefulness and presence.

It is toward this that I move in my Lenten practice. (Which, by the way, has historically been practiced by Unitarians and Universalists as well as contemporary UUs).

I carry my religious past lightly—both my upbringing in a sacramental tradition and my young adulthood in the church of “intellectual stimulation.” As I’ve learned to do so, practices like observing a forty-day “fast” have enriched the journey.

40 Days of Vegan: Giving it Up for Lent

Most world religions, it seems to me, have spiritual practices centered on food.

Often it is refraining from eating certain foods, or eating only foods raised, prepared or blessed a certain way—vegetarianism, hallal, and kashrut come quickly to mind. There are also ritualized meals, such as the Passover seder and its transmogrified stepchild, the Eucharist. Food and drink frequently follow worship in many traditions.

And, of course, there are fasts—abstaining from all food or certain foods for a set period of time—the Day of Atonement, the month of Ramadan, or the season of Lent.

Religious liberals are not without food practices. Many of us seek out locally grown or organic produce, refrain from eating food produced by corporations or food that is highly processed.

Religious liberals, of course, are free to keep a fast or not. Often, our food practices (like much of what we do) are what we choose for ourselves.

The discipline of fasting has a bad reputation among religious liberals, as overlayed as it is for many with uncomfortable memories of headaches and stomach gurglings during endless Yom Kippur services or the guilt and temptation of restrictive Lenten practices or dying for a sip of water during Ramadan. We were supposed to feel bad about ourselves somehow, something that goes against the grain of liberalism’s spirit.

There are some things that religious liberals don’t do well, and penance is one of them. Discipline is another. While preparing for a Sunday morning service on forgiveness, my congregation’s music director and I reflected on the dearth of materials about being sorry and confessing one’s wrongs in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. There were readings and songs about forgiveness, of course, but none that explicitly ask for forgiveness for missteps. The music director said: “It’s as if UUs are always forgiven, but never sorry.”

Because fasting is associated with penance and forgiveness of sin in the Abrahamic faith traditions, many religious liberals reject it. We’re not big on including in our religious life admitting we made a mistake, got something wrong or did harm to others—and saying sorry. We’re not big on guilt, often because we confuse guilt with shame. Guilt is the sign that one’s moral conscience is alive and well, and is triggered when we realize we have caused harm; shame is the pervasive sense that one is worthless or unworthy.

Liberal Christians have reinterpreted Lent as a season of introspection and spiritual discipline. “You don’t have to give anything up,” they cheerfully say, “take something on instead, like daily prayer or meditation or Bible-reading.”

As a religious liberal myself, I also object to the mortification of the flesh implied in many forms of fasting. It is the body that must be disciplined, in this view, because it is the source of sin and wrongdoing. One must rise above the flesh to be more spiritual, more like God—dispassionate and bodiless. I disbelieve in this willed opposition of body and soul, earth and spirit.

So with all of this in mind, I have decided to give up meat and dairy for Lent. (Or, for the cheery positive thinker, I have decided to take up veganism). Well, vegan until dinner, as Mark Bittman advises. For personal reasons, I choose not to deem entire food groups forbidden and off limits, so I may eat limited amounts of meat and dairy at my evening meal.

Abstaining from meat and dairy has been the traditional practice during Lent, of course. Interesting that what we now call veganism has been embedded in the practice of many North Americans by another name for so long. I’ve been eating less and less animal products over the past several years, and have become more conscientious about eating locally produced and whole foods. Often, I have been enjoined to try going completely vegan for a limited time—forty days or a month is often suggested—and I kind of put two and two together: vegan for forty days during Lent.

Because food is so daily, cooking and eating so regular in my day, I like having a spiritual practice associated with it. It creates an atmosphere of mindfulness. The routine and mundane take on significance. There is a sense in which I am somehow participating more consciously in the rhythms of the earth. My daily choices have an effect on animals and farmers and climate change and natural resources. It reminds me that I am connected to something larger than myself, that I am a strand in a vast interconnected living web. Care of the body and care of the larger earthbody are simultaneous.

For those of you who observe Lent, however you mark it, may it indeed be a time of introspection and prayer, mindfulness and preparation for the coming banquet to which all are invited and nobody turned away hungry.