I Have This Terminal Disease,
It Moves So Slow It Is Killing Me!
One of 25 Best Alzheimer’s Blogs of 2012
Mike Donohue is a brave man. Courageous, direct, and bold, his blog energizes readers with a passion for action. Dementia Endured gives a hint in the title as to the nature of this talented writer: he will endure. And with a personality like Mike’s, it’s easy to believe that he shall overcome, as well!
His life experiences are opened to the reader, and his journey recovering from alcoholism to adjusting to Alzheimer’s holds its own fascination for visitors to his site. Mike’s strength and determination will remind readers that dementias are one area in which it’s best not to hold any punches.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
WAKE OF TEARS
Here I am trailing to death
In a wake of sorrows and sobs of those who watch me go.
To the world around me my conscious dims,
My skill to care escapes my hand,
Weight I’ve become, and burden too.
And here presents my personal parody:
I must grasp and hold so tight
That tendered love provided me.
It commandeers, cares, does for me instead,
Standing in my place, their hand with mine,
Lovingly leading me along life’s final frame.
Mike Donohue 2008
Please read following post for background of poem
I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in 2006. This is the worst possible diagnosis I could get, short of suffering a crippling stroke like my Dad or losing my eyesight. As I pass from conscious connection with Alzheimer's I am told I will not know what is happening. The pain of it is suffered by those loved ones around me.
None of this spares me the pain I will visit on my wife: robbed of a partner in exchange for a ward and charged with the effort and the cost of caring for me. I am saddened for my children. I will not likely experience their progress in life, nor growth of my five grandchildren I now have and any more that may come. I will probably not be around or lucid if I am there for their weddings and births of my grandchildren.
Although initially devastated I quickly arrived at this way of thinking about my diagnosis of Early Alzheimer's. I believe that things happen for a reason and according to a plan. Whose plan? I don’t know.
My plan set in this lifetime it is not! Whether it is mine devised somewhere else, the plan of my higher power, or a plan having its source elsewhere, I have no idea. It is a plan followed by me in spite of me, taking me often into places and directions I would rather not be.
Much of where it has taken me has been painful. As I learned in suffering through Alcoholism years ago, learned before recovery and learned after recovery from it, I am the better person for having experienced where I have been. It all turned out as it ought. All of the events have tied together into a definite pattern.
I can see this now. I have realized it retrospectively. I see it now in the serenity of my senior years. This has been one of the best things about growing old. I no longer have challenges to meet. I have met them and my serenity is the result. The years as they have unfolded since my recovery from alcoholism have been good ones. In most ways good because of the experience in recovery it provided.
I. My life has Unfinished Business
I have also known I was not finished. I hoped I was finished but knew I was not. I wondered what was yet to happen. That has been my view in these recent years as I have been summing things up.
It was not complete. I have not done as much for my family, my fellow man, my world, as I would have. I have been troubled for some time that I was not doing as much as I should. Others were. I felt empty in my self in this regard.
When I thought about it I reasoned, if I really believed I was living a plan, if my attitude was willing, the right thing for me to do would come along. When it did I would act. Although I wondered whether or not I was shirking or just fooling myself thinking this, I was prevented by one circumstance or another from going right out and getting something else started. It was in trusting this plan I at least felt a little peace about what was lacking in performance.
When at peace I would think, I wonder what my next undertaking will be and when it will present itself. I honestly believed that and found serenity relying on it. I believed I would fulfill the rest of my life with something more that would be meaningful for me. I would find something with which I could leave at least a little mark having helped others.
II. Day of Diagnosis
On June 30th, 2006, I learned what my next challenge is. It was in the Doctor’s office when it presented itself! I have Alzheimer’s disease! It was presented to me then and there! What I do about it will be my measure of my last days. I have five to eight good years to find that out they said, maybe ten or twenty years if I am lucky. I pray to my Higher Power that I have the strength, the fortitude, to make the best of this time. I further pray that I may leave a mark because of this.
I predicate my last task on this: “What do I do about my diagnosis?” The measure is simple: “Make the best of it!”
Challenged I am. Ready? I have been waiting. Now I begin. It is here I plot my end game.
My AA experience offers the formula. On September 11, 1974, I joined Alcoholics Anonymous, the program for which has been a focus of my life ever since. When I joined AA they told us “Let go! Turn it over! Live but one day at a time! Accept, accept, accept some more!” In these aphorisms I recovered from Alcoholism. With these aphorisms I learned to place every issue of my life on the table. Turn it over, it works I learned. I couldn’t quit alcohol; I tried and tried some more. I turned it over as they told me in AA. I turned it over to my higher power. It worked. Not only for me but everyone I saw who turned it over and let it work.
It worked time and again in my life after that. And yes, there were times of extreme pain that my only remedy was that: turn it over. I put it on the table; I said “Help!” It worked, every time it worked!
So, I need a map?
I have turned my Alzheimer’s over to my higher power. I can’t handle this. It is the worst possible thing that could have happened. What happened to my blessed senior years? Why?
III. The Peace that Follows Diagnoses of AD
I’m left with more to do. Maybe I will even leave a mark by reason of it. I will be remembered having done something of real value by living. I hope so and I hope I am equal to this challenge.
Positioning it in this way starts giving strength. Better yet, that strength is accompanied with a sense of peace.
I first sensed peace when I finally understood why I couldn’t keep up.
For many years before diagnosis I knew something was messed up, things were awry. It took me longer, always, with everything. I missed so much, more than I ever did; too often this was happening.
I couldn’t keep up in simple conversation. Things would not come up quick enough to hold my place in a group. I had to think over what was told me to understand. I was a lawyer and everything I did was harder. Forty three years, in the Courtroom much of the time and the basics were getting past me.
When I learned why, some sense to this became apparent. I wasn’t keeping up because of illness. There is nothing I can do about it, nor can anyone else. That is the way I am now! It was kind of like, there is nothing wrong, that’s why I can’t keep up; there is everything wrong but it is ok I can’t keep up. I must deal with me as I am not as I would have me be.
With this realization there is both relief and release. I am what I am. Now I must determine what I can do with what I am. I need no longer beat my brains over a lost cause, I will fashion a life within the new definition.
When I joined Alzheimer’s Org I told them although my background as a trial lawyer equipped me I was burned out by it. I did not want to speak publicly or advocate because in the later years pre-diagnosis I found it so nerve wracking. There was a time it was not; it had become that.
After about a year I did a public panel for a Jewish Family Group presentation. It went marvelously, I loved it, was good, and I was not in the least nervous before, during or after. I volunteered for another presentation with our local Alz.Org. This was smashing. Another AD friend and I comprised a panel monitored by a wonderful Alz.Org rep Michelle Barclay at a health providers’ seminar.
After this second experience I knew I had found my voice. I was once again at ease speaking. I was no longer trying to keep up. I could be natural within my new definition and this worked just all right. With this new realization I recognized an action I could take that makes sense.
I can speak out on Alzheimer’s.
As one afflicted in the early stage I have the ability yet to communicate. I have the experience of this disease on which to assess what it is like to have it. I have the ability to talk about it and share it. It will give me the opportunity to make worth of having this disease.
In addition I still have some knowledge of the law and government both with which I was involved in practice. As a first step in this I have prepared, nearly finished, a paper describing what I learned about Estate Planning with Alzheimer’s prognosis as my future. What I learned is not pretty.
This gives me cause to advocate. We have a problem. Not just those of us and our families with the disease but the entire country. We are just the tip of the iceberg. There is more to come. The boomer population is just coming into the age orbit of the increase in incidence of this disease. At it now stands, if you have funded your own retirement there is a good chance that will go for your care before you or your spouse will have much with which to survive on retirement.
If everyone has to go on the public trough we are in bigger trouble. We have to find greater economy with which to care for folks with this disease that are not estate depleting as institutional nursing and assisted living care has become.
IV. Alzheimer's is a Family Disease
Beyond realizing, accepting, appreciating, another charge remains agenda for me.
In addition to action I have homework. In my home and in my family circle I must retain a real presence in my process. I must do the best I can. That means learn to accept that I can’t do it myself. I am now vulnerable. From that I cannot escape. Like never before I need love, help and support. This need is growing, exponentially. I must open myself to those around me and more so those with me: Our caretakers.
This is certainly an equal opportunity giving disease. Our loved ones face our loss more dramatically and more finally than we do. For them it is a moment at a time. They face the continuing degradation of who we are. They see who we are no longer and suffer its loss, bit by bit. They do this courageously, lovingly, kindly. They do not avert their eyes or walk away. They persevere.
They do this on dual tracks. They grieve what was; what is no more. Then they care for what remains and learn to love that, irascible and oblivious as we might be.
Too often as not we do not have a clue. We do not sense the loss as much as cope with what results. About this we become preoccupied. It’s said this disease is self centered; we are more that than we ever were. When we do pull inward they lose contact with us.
We ask: “what has changed? I don’t see a difference!” This can be so utterly painful for our loved ones, those caring for us. About this we are too unaware to recognize the difference, to empathize with them over their very real loss, to value the difficult task they undertake in caring for us. Least of all do we appreciate the alteration to their lives, the pain of which remains all too apparent to them. We don’t, we see so little of it. We are too caught up in what we are becoming.
The sum of it is expressed this way concerning Alzheimer’s:
Here I am trailing to death
In a wake of sorrows and sobs of those who see me go.
To the world around me my conscious dims,
My skill to care escapes my hand,
Weight I’ve become, and burden too.
And here presents my personal parody:
I must grasp and hold so tight
That tendered love provided me.
It commandeers, cares, does for me instead,
Standing in my place, their hand with mine,
Lovingly leading me along life’s final frame.
V. Peace and Positivity are found in Acceptance
The foregoing is not intended to sound despondent. I mean to sound real! Real and honest, that is my intent! Real in this:
1. There is a way of dealing with this disease. It is found in acceptance. That’s not so bad; in fact it gives direction for the final course.
2. In the new paradigm it provides direction to course, direction that is quite positive. Make the best of what we have. In that there is so much we can do and so much we have to do. I find this exhilarating. I have an agenda for this last chapter.
Equally important if not more than the forgoing is my third point:
3. We are not, we cannot and we won’t do it alone. Hey, we actively share our virus with our loved ones. It’s truly a family disease. This strikes me as so important and as easily forgotten as we deal with our plates overflowing beyond full. Help is there. We so badly need it. We must accept it. We must do this with love. We must in turn recognize the great love from which it offers and the tender concern giving it.
Behind that is our need to accommodate the cataclysmic disruption our disease creates with those loved ones, viz. our caregivers. We too easily lose view of that which is tragic. Their lives have been a transformed. Before, they had enough to do. Now they have ours piled on theirs to do.
Their lives become lived for two, with little time for anything else. Sometimes we have the blessing of overlooking it. They do not. We are in their ever so conscious faces, all of the time.
Unfair as this seems, my heart must accept it. The only other option is inappropriate. More than inappropriate it is offensive to the tender made by the Caretaker. Such an insult it would be.
I am not despondent about my fare in this. I am trying to get my heart around the painful proposition this paradox provides. It isn’t pretty what the caretaker faces. Ours is so much easier. We but face the sunset and go to it in diminishing awareness. They must pick up after us.
To me it is my act of love to give this my awareness, to give this respect, to understand, empathize and lovingly grasp that which is offered me. Doing this my feeling is full with awe and silently sacred.
What I do distress is this. I wish I had more to support this concern. Something said or seen to make my grief relieve for the pain my disease wreaks beyond me. I want to have this concern. I know there is love found in accepting it. I just don’t want that part to hurt so much.
I hope therefore this is not despairing but rather trying to cope and make the best of it.
Friday, February 6, 2009
Although I am an unmitigated liberal I see a far deeper possibility with this change. This I believe is more than my natural political bias. I think this is a swing that will change the national conversation, the emphasis in our political approach and a return to real ideals that have been lost in action for some time.
The shift I anticipate is based on the following history:
The Great Depression was a deep and total shift in everything about our culture. It changed our institutions; it changed our fundamental political philosophy, realigned political parties, introduced new economic philosophies and painted our picture in an altogether different style and different color.
We were not the same people coming out than we were going into the depression. WWII then created its own paradigm, one that transformed deeply again.
After WWII we took the opportunity to rebuild in a way different than we did following WWI. We corrected our many errors of the period following WWI such as political and economical isolation and laisez faire attitude about everything.
Our first deep post WWII experience was the Eisenhower Administration. History has not yet clearly defined this, it will. I believe this without overlooking the radical economic and political changes of the Truman Administration.
Under Truman both Europe and Japan were rebuilt. A world economy was again made vital. The Marshal plan was unprecedented. Truman has been lauded by history as having done great and noteworthy things which is certainly true. History has not given Eisenhower that same endorsement. Eisenhower deserves better.
It was Truman who began with the UN, who initiated the cold war policy, and started so many other programs. For this he has recognition.
It was Eisenhower who was the good steward, the subtle innovator. He has not received as much recognition as Truman. It was Truman who prepared the sight, built the construction hole. It was Eisenhower who laid the foundation and started building the building that we know today as our economy and culture.
Wilson, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, at his confirmation hearing said to Congress: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the Country.” Although attitude then and now scoffed at his characterization a certain truism can be seen as a result of his tenure at Defense and of the Eisenhower years.
If you think about it, the ‘50’s, these words and what happened were quite remarkable. The boomer generation likes to believe it had what it was all about. I do not know those of us of the ‘50’s generation were particularly remarkable but our time certainly was.
This was the time the Interstate system was started. Washington said the Interstate Roadway it was building was for defense. Coming out of the Defense Department it certainly seemed that way. We needed a unified system of fast transit roadways throughout the country that could be utilized for the transport of troops and armor. This would provide an enormous interconnected grid covering the entire country, one designed with bridges, curves and grades that large vehicles carrying missiles and large armor could pass quickly and freely. This would hide them from strategic bombing because the interconnected web of roadway would be of a size that a multitude could be moved about to the point of their whereabouts remaining undetectable. It was argued this was not possible with railroads.
This sounded pretty good. We were just out of the last war and into the cold war. Hell, we had to do it, no one squawked; civilian side benefit was too readily obvious. Did we really need this? Who knows? It was a pretty good sounding argument at the time if you were around. And in 1957 it was validated as we were waving at Sputnik passing over! Was it beneficial?
When it came to the Russkie’s who knows if it was beneficial? They rolled into Czechoslovakia, Hungary etc. But when it came to the economy it was transformational. In that way it was more than beneficial. It delivered us from the otherwise slump that always follows a war. That was some pretty good thinking.
It also seems very foresighted when you consider what transpired as a result: Howard Johnson’s. Holiday Inn, McDonalds, other Fast Food concessions for the traveling public, Dairy Queen for dessert, drive-ins that wouldn’t quit. Before you knew it Suburb, Exurb, Shopping Mall, Strip Mall, Ubiquitous Automobile, Airline, Auto Rental, Pay Phone, Quick Stop was all part of our language and business as usual.
The ‘50’s birthed the consumer economy. This it was that brought us the unbelievable wealth and power we were experiencing by the turn of the millennium. At the start it was a plan that could be described and named: Production of Obsolescence for Consumption. It was based on lessons learned in the war and had as its foundation The Great Depression.
It might be argued that the Interstate and all that came with it was a fantastic scheme out of Detroit to enhance the sell of the automobile. Or, it was the plot of the petroleum industry to commit the country to the gas combustion engine. When one looks at how the Railroads were let to run to waste, the street car system sold for scrap metal, trucking and air travel becoming our mode of interstate commerce and transportation wonder can about this. Was this all a massive “Bait and Switch” scheme pulled on our country can be argued. I do not have this answer and as I see the damage fraught by our over dependence on Gas and Oil I do wonder.
Add to that the infrastructure deterioration allowed over the ensuing years. This was illustrated by the collapse of the I-35 Bridge in Minneapolis. The allowance of this is perplexing unless we consider the massive movement to curtail government spending at any cost. This was in the ‘80’sunderscored by Reagan’s comment “The government that governs best is the government that governs least.”
What started with Eisenhower was both significant for us as a nation and as a culture. It transformed so much about us.
In the ‘50’s leading to the ‘80’s the country operated on moderation, first moderate conservatism then swinging with Kennedy and Johnson to moderate liberalism. Johnson was as far as the liberal pendulum was allowed to swing. Barry Goldwater was the metaphor of the less than moderate conservative ideology. Reagan became its progenitor. On Reagan’s election, 1980, we experienced a definitive paradigm shift to conservatism which was then married to fundamentalism. This became our way.
During this period we experienced the generation of fantastic wealth. What was started and grew from the ‘50’s became a financial harvest that continued with periods of up and down to the end of the 20th Century.
The ‘80’s were the high point of Rugged Capitalism. Leveraged Buyout was introduced to our lexicon. The survival of the fittest saw the spoils going along with the survival. The stock market became supreme; Underwriter Bankers named Corporate Raiders gained notice. Money flowed. Everyone had two cars in their garages. The two person working family, mom and dad, both went to work, the jobs were theirs to have.
It was in the mid ‘80’s new words came into common use: Personal Computer, The Age of the PC. This was the foundation for the Internet. By the late ‘90’s many of us were living in the virtual universe of The World Wide Web.
Came 2001 we saw the first evidence of a cultural Achilles heel because that’s when it tore. We had the Dot.Com Crisis and the stock market crashed.
The best metaphor that explains this and the current crisis is an editorial I read some years ago. Referring to his concerns in the generation of wealth the columnist wrote and I paraphrase as follows:
I watch and follow corporate acquisitions in the stock market companies. There are so many and are usually leveraged buy outs. The buying company uses the assets of the company purchased as the equity for borrowing the money with which to purchase it. The value of the equity is measured at the bank by its saleable value, which always seems to be going up.
This is what the big schools are teaching in their Master of Business Administration (MBA) courses. Go in, buy, and use what you’re buying as the security to pay for it; wait until the market goes up and sell it as quickly as it does; then harvest your profit.
No one is concentrating on the manufacture of widgets; Price and Earnings Ratios (P/E) no longer have significance. Quality control and efficient operation are meaningless. Human performance is expendable. Once we traded on the value of earnings, the value of sales, the value of goods, the cost of production, always things of tangible value. The tangible asset today is market escalation. How much will it get in the market should you sell it? Do you have any equity in it at that price? If so, sell it; reap a profit from the equity!
I looked over a list of sale and acquisitions over the past number of years. I saw many companies bought and sold multiple times. What surprised me was to see in many of the transactions the same buyer was buying and re-selling the same company multiple times, each time at a profit. They would buy, sell, buy it again, and re-sell it again, always at an increased price in each transaction.
The value in the market place is the profit of the transaction. This is entirely based on the value of its escalation. There is no tangible good in the market place, no thing of value. The value traded is the activity produced by the trade. No more, no less. Boiled down this is nothing, nothing of value. We are trading on figment. The foundation of our economy is illusory.
In October 1987 the market tanked 400 points in a day. There was panic in the streets. We were counseled to calm, “the economy is strong” they said, it will work its way out of this. It did, confidence soared. “Depressions have really been cured,” the market is resilient we all believed. This carried us to 2001, to panic. The market crashed again! Then it had a better than ever recovery. After this we believed “What was there to fear?” No one paid any attention to the warnings of the past. No one paid heed to the observations of the columnist I just paraphrased
Then it happened again in 2008. The market tanked and it has kept on tanking. Will it recover again? Probably not! Change it may. A return of some value is every one’s hope. But, a realization that things have got to change cannot be denied.
How did this happen? Simple! We suspended the rules. We relied on what turned out to be a giant Ponzi scheme. This was more massive by far than the Bernie Madoff’s 50 billion.
The scheme started with the leveraging in business transactions with no regard to tangible value. Their only measure was profit; their bottom line was what the market would bear. Then the Dot.Coms hit the market place. Their value was based not on their performance but on their possibility. It seemed after this all holds were off, regulation put aside. The national consensus was that a totally free market with no impediment whatsoever would work.
The Ponzi scheme seemed little different than the attitude forged in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s about real estate. This attitude and practice that accompanied it was one in which we decided to trust inflation and finance our purchase of real estate depending that its value would increase with inflation. As it did we could profit by again selling it at an increased price.
The same reasoning was applied then as it now has been. It was ok to leverage the purchase, namely, borrow the purchase price with as little down as possible. You could always sell it at profit and pay off the cost of leveraging. Free money, hey!
The fault of course was entrusting your future profit at the time of resale to relying that values would always rise.
In the 2000’s regulation was thrown to the wind, mergers and consolidations were allowed and the stampede was on. A balloon was floated with almost free money the object of which was sale and resale, finance and refinance. Each time market value went up, do it all over again. Credit was thrust on the masses and the bets were covered by subterfuge. The derivatives, puts and calls, hedge funds, short selling consolidated into funds, none of it was secured by any real value, just the reliance it would all keep going up. The increase in value in the market place was the only security in place to assure repayment when it came due.
No one was keeping an eye on it all.
The internet allowed the practices to synergize beyond ability to see or count the transactions and the support for them. As the escalation continued no one was able to see they were all simply “betting on the come.” It all depended on the belief that price would rise and no one would have “to pay the piper.”
Well prices don’t always do that. They go up, they go down. Although there always seems to be a gradual rise during the long haul, during the rise there are a lot of oscillations up and down. Staying in, weathering the downs and selling high can work. But there always seems to be a period of flushing it all out and starting over. These do seem to happen periodically. They call these depressions. We may be at such a period happening now.
I hope not!
To weather this out and hold some value in the end careful planning and responsible use of the power of government is necessary. We need to change the view that which governs least governs best.
It is this I see as possible with the new administration. Obama seems to be a break from the past way of doing things. We all need an attitude shift. With the change Obama represents, different than the Clinton crew, different than the Reagan/Bush bunch, we might see a shift; we might find ourselves going in a different direction. Perhaps the red state blue state mentality, gotcha politics, liberal and conservative ideology will pass out of our working dictionary. Instead would it not be nice to see issues resolved along the lines of responsible thinking and practical politics? Why not have a system designed and operated to serve peoples needs, no more that that.
What has gone before is no longer working.
The post war build up had its time. Our flirtation with an absolutely free market and total freedom from government does not have value in continuing. Our economy needs management and republicans now agree the government is the only entity around to do it.
Deeper still, with the change to Obama our national conversation will be different. What we do as a country will be measured by the responsibility we have to one another. This will be a truly common cause. It won’t be up the leaders, the trusted few or the maneuverings of economic self determination. The measure will be: Where is a duty owed? What is a proper charge on our mutual good will? People matter and People will matter.
That is my hope; I hope it is not my Pipe Dream!
Thursday, February 5, 2009
My current study of things spiritual has brought me to the following observations:
The following I wrote in an essay initially entitled “What I Learned Along the way”:
I quit searching for a religion that gave answers when I found a religion that made holy the questions. I studied and the more I studied I came to realize there is no answer, just actions that make sense.
A key to understanding my foregoing conclusion had to do with the concept of Faith set out by Abraham Joshua Heschel in the Chapter entitled “Faith” in his book Man is Not Alone Heschel describes faith as action. The action of faith arises out of a disposition within us prompted by our “radical amazement” (Heschel’s words) with the wonder and awe of the Ineffable.
He describes the formation of our wonder and awe as the conjunction between the ineffable of our spirit, our soul, and the Ineffable beyond us and above all things. Experiencing the wonder and awe resulting from this communion we direct ourselves to it. In this way faith is dynamic, it is the object of our will, our formed intention to live our yearning to seek out this wonderment, this relation, this means to transcend ourselves from within.
Another key for understanding was Martin Buber as set out in his book “I and Thou.” In it he describes man evoking life on two levels, one material, one deeper, he describes it man’s encounter with “Thou.” Here he is able to evoke more than life, more than himself in life.
Christianity which was my original platform in the study of spiritual endeavor stressed faith as a gift of grace given by God through which we are bound to God and by it are redeemed. Initially, before Vatican II in the 1960’s I was taught as a Catholic that Faith emanated from good works, but, the source of it remained the great font of grace earned by the crucified Christ and made available to us as faith. We earned it but it was still the gift of God. Luther in the year 1517 started his argument which became principle establishing many of the tenets of Protestantism that man by his act of belief in God is given faith as a gift. This was called Justification by Faith. This was adopted as truth by Vatican II.
In my essay “What I Learned Along the Way!” I was profoundly struck by the proposition that what has worked for me in my life was comprised in what has happened to me. Things happened, not as I would have them, but as they did in spite of me! In observing the results, what occurred in my life in spite of my choices made sense. Furthermore I realized I was the better person for it. Is there a clue in this?
For me It goes like this:
o In matters spiritual I had searched but never found, until:
o I experienced the Power outside of me acting in me producing recovery from Alcoholism. This was found in the AA experience. This had substantial impact on my perception of Transcendence.
Until this experience I was able to conclude in reasoning there was something more, there was transcendence to this life. This was rationally deduced from what I learned and in what I experienced. Otherwise it had absolutely no other reality for me. It was an idea, a concept, no more!
The AA experience produced reality of a Power at work which was not part of me. One with which I could participate and do what I was unable to do myself.
This was a very powerful realization. It was something I never expected but could not deny its occurrence.
o I neither understood the nature of this phenomenon nor was I able to define or codify it. I knew one thing about it. If I turned something over to my Higher Power it would invariably be taken care of. I then experienced the truth of the action by performing it. It worked; it worked; it worked!
The events that followed found me embracing Judaism
o This happened for many reasons. If I were to have looked forward in my life this would have been seen by me as impossibility. I firmly believed as a Catholic I would go to Hell if I left the Church. I nonetheless found my way there by reason of a nagging presence of unfulfilled spiritual sense that goaded me into a continuous search over many years. When I became Jewish it was based on the concept, here was a system that considered the search for truth holy. It placed as secondary the discovery of truth!
o This was an attractive proposition. When I embraced it in Judaism, retrospectively, I recognized that nagging void no longer existed. It has never come back. I don’t propose to have more answers. I am getting all I need out of actuating the questions.
o When I study I experience a sense of well being. Study of things spiritual produces great waves of serenity in me. I also garner a sense of transcendence. Something more is there and I have fleeting sense of it. When I have these the sense is just wonderful. It is like that sense I had as a child when my mind sensed my attachment to the massive oval. I discussed this in the essay “What I learned Along the Way.” That experience was very significant to me. It compares to the same more fleeting, less defined sense of being connected which I experience in study of things spiritual or in the exercise of the AA formula, turning it over and experiencing the result retrospectively.
o None of this is rational nor is it emotional. It is nonetheless real. It radiates as calm and a sense of wonderment within me.
What is this about?
o The best answer I have found thus far is in reading Karen Armstrong. The first of her books that I read many years ago when it was first published was “The History of God”. Since then I have read a number of her books, most recently “The Great Transformation,” “Through a Narrow Gate,” The Spiral Staircase” and “Buddha”. In the last four books noted Armstrong dwells on similarities in the four spiritual transformations that happened with four distinct, separated cultures starting in 8-600 BCE and completing with the establishment of Islam in 600 CE called by religious historians, the Axial Age. In each of the four the similarities were profound.
o It is the action of Faith, in the style of Heschel, that Armstrong describes as the dynamic taken to approach the transcendent. It is Buber who speaks of the formula and explanation for the experience that Armstrong describes as the result of taking the dynamic. Something happens, it is real, if is fulfilling, it is sublime. It seems to me in this we touch whatever it is that is outside and is greater than us
o I have taken excerpts from the end of the “Spiral Staircase” in which Armstrong summarizes her experience of entering the convent, leaving the convent, embracing agnosticism and finding her way back to an appreciation of something more in the course of her study particularly while writing “The History of God.”
o What Armstrong has to say squares with my experience. Events happened through which she came to understand and experience something more. She also finds the experience similar to what each of the four transformations in the Axial Age produced in understanding the path on which we all seem to be.
Heschel counsels action, Buber suggests formula, in Armstrong I start to understand.
Excerpt from: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE
Hyam Maccoby had given me a clue when we sat together, six years earlier, eating egg-and-tomato sandwiches in the little café near Finchley Central tube station. He had told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice. Religion: not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific, or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice. The myths of the hero, for example, are not meant to give us historical information about Prometheus or Achilles or for that matter, about Jesus or the Buddha. Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way that we bring out our own heroic potential.to themselves. The physical discipline was meant to affect their inner posture.
In the course of my studies, I have discovered that the (p.270) quest is not about discovering "the truth" or "the meaning of life but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to "get to heaven" but to discover how to be fully human-hence the images of the perfect or enlightened man, or the deified human being. Archetypal figures such as Muhammad, the Buddha, and Jesus become icons of fulfilled humanity. God or Nirvana is not an optional extra, tacked on to our human nature. Men and women have a potential for the divine, and are not complete unless they realize it within themselves. A passing Brahmin priest once asked the Buddha whether he was a god, a spirit, or an angel. None of these, the Buddha replied; "I am awake!" By activating a capacity that lay dormant in undeveloped men and women, he seemed to belong to a new species. In the past, my own practice of religion had diminished me, whereas true faith, I now believe, should make you more human than before,
Thus, the myth, of the hero shows that it is psychologically damaging to live in the wasteland. If you slavishly follow somebody else's ideas, you will be impoverished and impaired. I had certainly found this to be the case in my own life. Blind obedience and unthinking acceptance of authority figures may make an institution work more smoothly, but the people who live under such a regime will remain in an infantile, dependent state. It is a great pity that religious institutions often insist on this type of conformity, which is far from the spirit of their founders, who all, in one way or another, rebelled against the status quo. The heroes of myth and religion do not preach unbridled individualism, of course. There are, as I would discover, checks and restraints. But unless you act upon this heroic myth and allow it to change your behavior, it will remain opaque and incredible.
But back in 1989, when I started to research A History of God, I didn't know any of this. For me, religion was still essentially about belief. Because I did not accept the orthodox doctrines, I considered (p.271) myself an agnostic-even an atheist. But by unwittingly putting into practice two of the essential principles of religion, I had already without realizing it, embarked on a spiritual quest. First, I had set off by myself on my own path. Second, I had at last been able to acknowledge my own pain and feel it fully. I was gradually, imperceptibly being transformed.
All the world faiths put suffering at the top of their agenda because it is an inescapable fact of human life, and unless you see things as they really are, you cannot live correctly. But even more important, if we deny our own pain, it is all too easy to dismiss the suffering of others. Every single one of the major traditions -- Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well as the monotheisms -- teaches a spirituality of empathy, by means of which you relate your own suffering to that of others. Hyam had quoted Hillel's Golden Rule, which tells you to look into your own heart, find out what distresses you, and then refrain from inflicting similar pain on other people. That, Hillel had insisted, was the Torah, and everything else was commentary. This, I was to discover, was the essence of the religious life… (p.272)
(When I wrote the story of Muhammad [italicized portion added by me]) I had to make a daily, hourly effort to enter into the ghastly conditions of seventh-century Arabia, and that meant that I had to leave my twentieth-century assumptions and predilections behind. I had to penetrate another culture and develop a wholly different way of looking at the world. It required a constant concentration of mind and heart that was in fact a type of meditation, and one that suited me far better than the Ignatian method that I had followed in the convent to so little effect. It now strikes that while I was writing Muhammad, I was learning the discipline of ecstasy. By this, of course, I do not mean that I fell into a trance I saw visions, or heard voices. Had I done so, I would never have gotten the book finished in time. The Greek ekstasis, it will be recalled simply means "standing outside." And "transcendence" means "climbing above or beyond." This does not necessarily imply an exotic state of consciousness. For years I had longed to get to God ascend to a higher plane of being, but I had never considered at sufficient length what it was that you had to climb from. All the traditions tell us, one way or another, that we have to leave behind our inbuilt selfishness, with its greedy fears and cravings. We are, the (p.278) great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience that has been called God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the Tao.
What I now realize, from my study of the different religious traditions, is that a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy. Indeed, it is in
itself ekstasis. Theologians in all the great faiths have devised all kinds of myths to show that this is a type kenosis, or self-emptying is found in the life of God itself. They do not do this because it sounds edifying, but because this is the way that human nature seems to work. We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind. There may even be a biological reason for this. The need to protect ourselves and survive has been so strongly implanted in us by Millennia of evolution that, if we deliberately flout this instinct, we enter another state of consciousness. This is a purely personal speculation of my own. But the history of religion shows that when people develop the kind of lifestyle that restrains greed and selfishness, they experience a transcendence that has been interpreted in different ways. It has sometimes been regarded as a supernatural reality, sometimes as a personality, sometimes as wholly impersonal, and sometimes a dimension that is entirely natural to humanity, but however we see it, this ecstasy had been a fact of human life.
While writing Muhammad, I had to make a constant, imaginative attempt to enter empathic- ally into the experience of another. This was a kind of ecstasy. For six months
I was intent all and every day on trying to understand a man's search for sanctification. Even though I was not a believer, I had to think myself into a religious frame of reference, and enter the mind of a man who believed that he was touched directly by God. Unless I could make that leap of sympathy, I would miss the essence of Muhammad. Writing his life (p.279) was in its own way an act of islam -- a "surrender" of my secular skeptical self, which brought me, if only at second hand and one remove into the ambit of the divine.
During these months, I often recalled my conversations with Hyam. I noticed that the Koran spends very little time imposing official doctrine; it propagates no creed, and is rather dismissive of theological speculation. Like Judaism, Islam is not especially bothered about belief: the word kafir, often translated "unbeliever really means one who is ungrateful to God. Instead of accepting a complex creed, Muslims are required to perform certain ritual actions, such as the hajj pilgrimage and the fast of Ramadan, are designed to change them. One of the first things the Prophet asked his converts to do when he began to preach in Mecca was to prostrate themselves in prayer several times a day, facing the direction of Jerusalem. Arabs did not approve of kingship, and it was hard for them to grovel on the ground like slaves, but the posture of their bodies in the characteristic prostrations of Muslim prayer taught them, at a level deeper than the rational, what was required in the act of islam, the existential surrender of one's entire being to God. For a set time each day, they had to lay aside that egotistic instinct to prance, strut, preen, and draw attention
Second, Muslims were commanded to give alms (zakat: "purification") to the poorer and more vulnerable citizens of Mecca it seems that initially Muhammad called his religion not Islam but tazakkah, an obscure word, related to zakat, which is probably best translated as "refinement." Muslims had to cultivate themselves a caring, generous spirit that made them want to give graciously to all, just as God himself did. By concrete acts of compassion, performed so regularly that they became engrained, Muslims would find that both they and their society would be transformed. As long as people are motivated solely by self-interest they remain at a bestial level. But when they learn to live from (p.280) the heart becoming sensitive to others, the spiritual human being is born. Instead of the chaos violence and grasping barbarism of the pre Islamic period in Arabia there would be spiritual and humane refinement. Repeated actions would lead to cultivation of
a new awareness. The point is this was not a belief system, but a process. The religious life designed by Muhammad made people act in ways that were supposed to change them forever. Without fully understanding what I was doing, I too started to behave in a different way ... (p.282)
At first this silence had seemed a deprivation, a symbol of an unwanted isolation. I had resented the solitude of my life and I fought it. But gradually the enveloping quiet became a positive element, almost a presence, which settled comfortably and caress(p.283) ingly around me like a soft shawl. It seemed to hum, gently but melodiously, and to orchestrate the ideas that I was contending with, until they started to sing too, to vibrate and reveal an unexpected resonance. After a time I found that I could almost listen to the silence, which had a dimension all of its own. I started attend to its strange and beautiful texture, which, of course, was impossible to express in words. I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and walk around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no longer expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually, but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity, I was no longer just grabbing concepts and facts from my books, using them as fodder for the next interview, but learning to listen to the deeper meaning that lay quietly and ineffably beyond them. Silence itself had become my teacher.
This, of course, is how we should approach religious discourse. Theology is -- or should be -- a species of poetry, which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense. You have to open yourself to a poem with a quiet, receptive mind, in the same way as you might listen to a difficult piece of music. It is no good trying to listen to a late Beethoven quartet or read a sonnet by Rilke at a party. You have to give it your full attention, wait patiently upon it, and make an empty space for it in your mind. And finally the work declares itself to you, steals deeply into the interstices of your being, line by line, note by note, phrase by phrase, until it becomes part of you forever. Like the words of poem, a religious idea, myth, or doctrine points beyond itself to truths that are elusive, that resist words and study of literature. As soon I had stopped trying to use it to advance my career I began to speak to me again. Now I was having exactly the same experience with theology.
The religious traditions have all stressed the importance of silence. They have reminded the faithful that these truths are not capable of a simply rational interpretation. Sacred texts cannot be perused like a holy encyclopedia for clear information about the divine. This is not the language of everyday speech or of logical, discursive prose. In some traditions, words are thought to contain the sacred in their very sound. When Hindus chant the syllable aum, its three distinct phases evoke the essence of the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, while the silence that follows when the reverberation of the chant has finally died away expresses the attainment of Brahman, the supreme but unspeakable reality. Other scriptures are chanted or sung in a liturgical setting that separates them from profane speech and endows them with the nonconceptual attributes of music. You have to listen to them with a quietly receptive heart, opening yourself to them either in ritual or through yogic disciplines designed to abolish secular modes of thought. That is why so many of the faiths have developed a form of the monastic life, which builds a disciplined silence into the working day… (p.285)
...This, I am now convinced, is the only way to study religion. I think that I was lucky not to have studied theology or comparative religion at university, where I would have had to write clever papers and sit examinations, get high marks, and aim for a good degree. The rhythm of study would have been wrong-at least for me. In theology, I am entirely self-taught, and if this makes me an amateur, that need not necessarily be all bad. After all, an amateur is, literally, "one who loves," and I was, day by solitary day; hour by silent hour, falling in love with my subject. I discovered that I could scarcely wait to get to my desk each morning, open my books, and pick up my pen. I anticipated this moment as eagerly as a tryst with a lover I would lie in bed at night waiting for sleep, delightedly reviewing what I had learned that day. Occasionally, while sitting at my desk or poring over a dusty tome in the British Library; I would experience miniseconds of transcendence, awe, and wonder that gave me some sense of what had been going on in the mind of the theologian or mystic I was studying. At such a time I would feel stirred deeply within, and taken beyond myself, in much the same way as I was in a concert hall or a theater. I was finding in study the ecstasy that I had hoped to find in those long hours of prayer as a young nun. When I shared this with my students at the Leo Baeck College, Rabbi Lionel Blue, my boss in the comparative religion department, told me with amusement that this was very Jewish. It was what Jews experienced when they studied Torah or Talmud. I also learned that Saint Benedict had instructed his monks to spend part of the day in lectio divina (divine study), during which they would experience moments of oratio, or prayer.
I was, moreover, discovering that many of the great theologians (p.287) and mystics whose work I was studying would have found the idea of a purely academic degree in theology rather odd. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, you could not be a theologian unless you were also a contemplative and participated daily in the liturgy. In Islam after the formative career of the eleventh-century theologian al Ghazzali, philosophy and theology became inseparable from spirituality. In Judaism, the study of Torah and Talmud had never been as goal directed as some modern scholarship. Yeshiva education was not a matter of acquiring information about Judaism; the process of study itself was just as important as the content, and was itself transforming: the heated arguments, the intensive interaction with a teacher, the question-and-answer methodology all propelled students into a heightened awareness of the divine presence.
Indeed, studying English literature at university may have been a fruitful preparation, because increasingly I was coming to set that theology, like religion itself, was really an art form. In every tradition, I was discovering, people turned to art when they tried to express or evoke a religious experience: to painting, music, architecture, dance, or poetry. They rarely attempted to define their apprehension of the divine in logical discourse or in the scientific language of hard fact. Like all art, theology is an attempt to express the inexpressible. As T. S. Eliot said of poetry, it is a "raid on the inarticulate." Until art was made accessible to the museum the printed book, the gramophone record, the compact disc, or the public museum, most people would have experienced the ecstasy of art only in a religious context. Like great art, the best theology tends to be universalistic. Ethnic, tribal, or ideological polemic is as out of place in theology as in Soviet Realist art. If you are bent on proving that your own tradition alone is correct, and pour scorn on all other points of view; you are interjecting self and egotism into your study, and the texts will remain closed. I found this idea beautifully expressed by the influential twelfth century Muslim mystic and philosopher Ibn aI-Arabi: (p. 288)
Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may
disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not confined to anyone creed, for, he says, "Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah." Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance. (*Quoted in R. A. Nicholson, ed., Eastern Poetry and Prose (Cambridge, (922), p. 148.)
This was becoming my own experience. I was writing about three Abrahamic faiths, but could not see anyone of them as superior to any of the others. Indeed, I was constantly struck by their profound similarity. I was equally delighted by the insights of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian thinkers: none of them had a monopoly of truth. Working in isolation from one another, and often in a state of deadly hostility, they had come up with remarkably similar conclusions. This unanimity seemed to suggest that they were onto something real about the human condition.
At quite an early stage in my research, I was fortunate to come across a phrase that sprang out at me from a footnote in Marshall G. S. Hodgson's magisterial work The Venture of Islam. It seemed to sum up my experience during the last year and showed me how a religious historian should proceed. I immediately copied out the passage and pinned it to the notice board beside my desk. I tried to read it every day, especially when I felt weary or jaded with the effort of penetrating minds that sometimes seemed light-years from my own circumstances. Hodgson is discussing the esoteric tradition in Islam, and cautions his readers not to approach it (p.289) patronizingly, from a position of enlightened rationality. He cites that the eminent Islamist Louis Massignon had called the psychosociological “science of compassion”
The scholarly observer must render the mental and practical behavior of a group into terms available in his own mental resources, which should remain personally felt, even while informed with a breadth of reference which will allow other educated persons to make sense of them. But this must not be to substitute his own and his readers' conventions for the original, but to broaden his own perspective so that it can make a place for the other. Concretely, he must never be satisfied to cease asking "but why?" until he has driven his understanding to the point where he has an immediate, human grasp of what a given position meant, such that every nuance in the data is accounted for and withal, given the total of presuppositions and circumstances, he could feel himself doing the same. (*Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 vols. (Chicago and London, 1974), 1:379; my italics.)
Compassion does not, of course, mean to feel pity or to condescend, but to feel with. This was the method I had found to be essential while writing Muhammad. It demanded what Saint Paul had called a kenosis, an emptying of self that would lead to enlargement and an enhanced perspective. And I liked Hodgson's emphasis on the importance of feeling and emotion. It was not enough to understand other people's beliefs, rituals, and ethical practice intellectually. You had to feel them too and make an imaginative, though disciplined, identification.
This became my own method of study. Henceforth I tried not to dismiss an idea that seemed initially alien, but to ask repeatedly. (p.290)
"Why?" until, finally, the doctrine, the idea, or the practice became transparent and I could see the living kernel of truth within-an insight that quickened my own pulse. I would not leave an idea until I could to some extent experience it myself, and understand why a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim felt in this way. I found that one of my new luminaries, the late Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith, himself a Christian minister, had made his students live according to Muslim law when he was teaching Islamic studies at McGill University. They had to pray five times a day, prostrating themselves in the direction of Mecca, observe the fasts and dietary laws, and give alms. Why? Because, Cantwell Smith believed, you could not understand the truth of a religion by simply reading about its beliefs. The tradition became alive only when you lived it and observed those rituals that were designed to open a window on transcendence.
But (I can almost hear an exasperated reader ask) what is this truth? Does this woman believe in God, or not? Is there, or is there not, anything out there? Does she believe that the God of the Bible exists? Does she, or does she not, worship a personal God? These are surely the truth claims of religion, and all this talk about compassionate empathy and religion as an art form is merely a distraction from the real issue. To believe or not to believe: that is surely the religious question, is it not?
Well ... no. To my very great surprise, I was discovering that some of the most eminent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and mystics insisted that God was not an objective fact, was not another being, and was not an unseen reality like the atom, whose existence could be empirically demonstrated. Some went so far as to say that it was better to say that God did not exist, because our notion of existence was too limited to apply to God. Many of them preferred to say that God was Nothing, because this was not the kind of reality that we normally encountered. It was even misleading to call God the Supreme Being, because that simply sug- (p.291) gested a being like us, but bigger and better, with likes and dislikes familiar to our own. For centuries, Jews, Christians, and Muslims had devised audacious new theologies to bring this point home to the faithful. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was crafted in part to show that you could not think about God as a simple personality. The reality that we call God is transcendent, that is, it goes beyond any human orthodoxy-and yet God is also the ground of all being and can be experienced almost as a presence in the depths of the psyche. All traditions went out of their way to emphasize that any idea we had of God bore no absolute relationship to the reality itself, which went beyond it. Our notion of a personal God is one symbolic way of speaking about the divine, but it cannot contain the far more elusive reality. Most would agree with the Greek Orthodox that any statement about God had to have two characteristics. It must be paradoxical, to remind us that God cannot be contained in a neat, coherent system of thought; and it must be apophatic, (of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not (such as 'God is unknowable' [italicized part mine]) that is, it should lead us to a moment of silent awe or wonder, because when we are speaking of the reality of GOD we are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do.
Cantwell Smith was one of the first theologians to make all this clear to me, in such books as Faith and Belief and Belief in History. I remember the extraordinary sense of relief I felt when I read in his somewhat dry, scholarly prose that our ideas of God were man-made; that they could be nothing else; that it was a modern Western fallacy, dating only from the eighteenth century, to equate faith with accepting certain intellectual propositions about God. Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary-an attitude also evoked by great art. The Middle English word beleven originally meant "to love"; and the Latin credo (“I believe") probably derived from the phrase cor do: "I give my heart.” Saint Anselm of Canterbury had written, "Credo ut intellegam, " usually translated "I believe in order that I may understand." I had (p.292) always assumed that this meant that I had to discipline my rebellious mind and force it to bow to the official orthodoxy, and that as a result of this submission, I would learn to understand a higher truth. This had been the foundation of my training in the convent. But no, Cantwell Smith explained, "Credo ut intellegam" should be translated "I commit myself in order that I may understand." You must first live in a certain way, and then you would encounter within a sacred presence that which monotheists call God, but which others have called the Tao, Brahman, or Nirvana.
But did that mean that we could think what we liked about God? No. Here again, the religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads. In killing Muslims and Jews in the name of God, the Crusaders had simply projected their own fear and loathing onto a deity which they had created in their own image and likeness, thereby giving this hatred a seal of absolute approval. A personalized God can easily lead to this type of idolatry, which is why the more thoughtful Jews, Christians, and Muslims insisted that while you could begin by thinking of God as a person, God transcended personality as "he" went beyond all other human categories.
I wrote the book with mounting excitement. It represented a quest and liberation for me. No wonder I had found it impossible to "believe" in God; no wonder my attempts to bludgeon myself (p.293) into orthodox "faith" had led only to sterility; doubt, and exhaustion. No wonder I had never experienced this God in prayer. Some of the best mystics would have told me that instead of waiting for God to condescend to me, I should create my own theophanies, just as I cultivated an aesthetic sense that enabled me to experience the transcendence of art. The personalized God might work for other people, but he had done nothing for me. I was not a chronic failure, but had simply been working with a spirituality and theology that were wrong for me. My approach had been misguided. Because I had assumed that God was an objective fact, thought about God using the same kind of logical, discursive reflection that I employed in my secular life. Rational analysis is indispensable for mathematics, medicine, or science, but useless for God. The nuns were not to blame for teaching me to pray this way, because (I now discovered) the whole of Western theology had been characterized by an inappropriate reliance upon reason alone, ever since the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rationalism had achieved such spectacular results that empirical reason came to be regarded as the sole path to truth, and Western people started to talk about God as an objective, demonstrable fact like any other. The more intuitive disciplines of mythology and mysticism were discredited. This was the cause of many of the religious problems of our day, including my own… (p.294)
My life changed after the publication of A History of God. The book was a success, especially in the United States and the Netherlands, and I began to travel widely. But my work continued to revolve around the same issues, particularly around the centrality of compassion. When I wrote an essay about Genesis in In the Beginning, I found that the struggle to achieve harmonious relations with our fellows brings human beings into God's presence; that when Abraham entertained three strangers, making room for them in his home and giving them all the refreshment he could on their journey, this act of practical compassion led directly to a divine encounter. In my history of Jerusalem, I learned that the practice of compassion and social justice had been central to the cult of the holy city from the earliest times, and was especially evident in Judaism and Islam. I discovered that in all three of the religions of Abraham, fundamentalist movements distort the tradition they are trying to defend by emphasizing the belligerent elements in their tradition and overlooking the insistent and crucial demand for compassion.
The theme of compassion kept surfacing in my work, because it is pivotal to all the great religious traditions-at their best. But it was my short biography of the Buddha that showed me why this was so. I knew that I could never be a yoga practitioner. The classical yoga, which brought the Buddha to enlightenment, is immeasurably more rigorous than most of the yoga practiced in the West (p.295) today. I still quailed at the thought of any formal meditation, let alone this fearsome discipline designed to cancel profane consciousness by a ruthless onslaught on the egotism that pervades our lives. But all was not lost, because the practice of compassion, the Buddha had taught, could also effect ceto-vimutti, the "release of the mind" from the toils of self-seeking that is synonymous in the Buddhist scriptures with the supreme enlightenment of Nirvana. In monotheistic terms, this compassion could bring us directly into the presence of God. It was a startling moment of clarity for me. Compassion has been advocated by all the great faiths because it has been found to be the safest and surest means of attaining enlightenment. It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from an experience of the sacred. And it gives us ecstasy, broadening our perspectives and giving us a larger, enhanced vision. As a very early Buddhist poem puts it: "May our loving thoughts fill the whole world; above, below across-without limit; a boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity." (*Sutta Nipata 118) We are liberated from personal likes and dislikes that limit our vision, and are able to beyond ourselves.
This insight was not confined to Buddhism, however. The late Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that when we put ourselves at the opposite pole of ego, we are in the place where God is. The Golden Rule requires that every time we are tempted to say or do something unpleasant about a rival, an annoying colleague, or a country with which we are at war, we should ask ourselves how we should like this said of or done to ourselves, and refrain. In that moment we would transcend the frightened egotism that often needs to wound or destroy others in order to shore up the sense of ourselves. If we lived in such a way on a daily (p.296) hourly basis, we would not only have no time to worry overmuch about whether there was a personal God "out there"; we would achieve constant ecstasy, because we would be ceaselessly going beyond ourselves, our selfishness and greed. If our political leaders took the Golden Rule seriously into account, the world would be a safer place.
I have noticed, however, that compassion is not always a popular, virtue. In my lectures I have sometimes seen members of the audience glaring at me mutinously: where is the fun of religion, if you can't disapprove of other people! There are some people, I suspect: who would be outraged if, when they finally arrived in heaven, they found everybody else there as well. Heaven would not be heaven unless you could peer over the celestial parapets and watch the unfortunates roasting below.
But I have myself found that compassion is a habit of mind that is transforming. The science of compassion which guides my studies has changed the way I experience the world. This has been a pattern in my life. Once I had started to study seriously at Oxford, I found that I could no longer conform to convent life. The attitudes that you learn at your desk spill over into your everyday existence. The silence in which I live has also opened my ears and eyes: to the suffering of the world. In silence, you begin to hear the note of pain that informs so much of the anger and posturing that pervade social and political life. Solitude is also a teacher. It is lonely; living without intimacy and affection tears holes in you. Saint Augustine of Hippo said somewhere that yearning makes the heart deep. It also makes you vulnerable. Silence and solitude strip away a skin; they break down that protective shell of heartlessness which we cultivate in order to prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by the suffering of the world that presses in upon us on all sides.
This is not always comfortable; in fact, it has become something of a social liability, because I find myself more and more distressed (p.297) by the disdain that so often peppers social conversation. I know how this puts a splinter of ice into the heart of the disdained I tremble for our world, where, in the smallest ways, we find it impossible, as Marshall Hodgson enjoined, to find room for the other in our minds. If we cannot accommodate a viewpoint in a friend without resorting to unkindness, how can we hope to heal the terrible problems of our planet? I no longer think that any principle or opinion is worth anything if it makes you unkind or intolerant. Of course, toleration has its limits. We should cry out against injustice and cruelty wherever we find it, as the prophets did, especially when it occurs in our own society or on "our" side. It may be politically expedient to ignore the beam in our own eye while decrying the splinter in the eye of our enemy, but I do not see how it can be a religious option.
But this pain is a small price to pay for the spirituality of empathy. Paradoxically, what I have gained from this identification with suffering is joy. This was something that I did not expect. And this habit of looking outside myself into the heart of another has put me outside the prism of myself. This ecstasy may not last for long but while it lasts I experience an astonishing freedom. Self, after all, is our basic problem. When I wake up at three in the morning and ask myself, why does this have to happen to me? Why cannot I have what X has? Why am I so unloved and unappreciated? – and I still have plenty of moments like this -- I learn that ego is at the heart of all pain. When I get beyond this for a few moments, I feel enlarged and enhanced --just as the Buddha promised.
It is important for me to do this, because my solitary lifestyle could imprison me forever in selfishness. In a relationship, you constantly have to go beyond yourself. Each day you have to forgive something, each day you have to put yourself to one side to accommodate your partner. Looking after somebody else means that you have to give yourself away. But I never have to do this. (p.298)
Because I travel such a lot, I cannot even have an animal to look after. So my science of compassion does for me what a husband, lover, child, or even a dog might have done in a different life… (p. 299)
For years, however, when traveling around the world and talking about these matters, I often felt rather a fraud. People would ask my advice about spiritual practice, clearly thinking that I was more enlightened than I really was. After all, I wasn’t a truly religious person. I never went near a church and did not belong to an official religious community. I could not really believe that the seconds of oratio that I experienced at my desk amounted to a real contact with the sacred. It was surely just a moment of delight in work that absorbed me. I was not directing prayer to anything or anybody. There as still emptiness where the personalized God used to be.
It was Fred Burnham… who made me rethink this… “You always claim that you have never had a religious experience. But I disagree. I think you are constantly living in the dimension of the sacred. You are absorbed in holiness all the time!"
I waved this aside, thinking that Fred was telling me that I holy a person. But Fred is not given to such exuberant or inaccurate remarks, and that was not what he meant. His words stayed with me, and now I see what he was getting at. Insofar as I spend my life immersed in sacred writings, living with some of the best and wisest insights that human beings have achieved, constantly moved (p.300) and stirred by them, I am indeed in constant contact with holiness. The fact that my "prayer" seems directed toward no person, no end, is something that many of the theologians I have studied had experienced. This, after all, was what I had been writing and talking about for the past seven years. I had constantly explained that the greatest spiritual masters insisted that God was not another being, and that there was Nothing out there. Yet for all this, at some level I had not relinquished the old ideas. I was still seduced by the realistic supernatural theism that I thought I had left behind, still childishly waiting for that clap of thunder, that streak of lightning, and the still, small voice of calm whispering in my ear. I thought that I had renounced "the blessed face" but I was still hankering to drink "where trees flower, and springs flow." I had not truly accepted the hard, irreducible fact that "there is nothing again."
The Greek Fathers of the church had loved the image of Moses going up the mountain and on the summit being wrapped in an impenetrable cloud. He could not see anything, but he was in the place where God was. This cloud of unknowing was precisely that. It offered no knowledge: "I know I shall not know;" as Eliot had put it. I had been expecting the thick mist to part, just a little, and had not really known, with every fiber of my being, that I would never know; would never see clearly I was still hankering for the "one veritable transitory power."
And yet the very absence I felt so acutely was paradoxically a presence in my life. When you miss somebody very intensely, they are, in a sense, with you all the time. They often fill your mind and heart more than they do when they are physically present. That was the sort of contradiction that the Greek Fathers liked, but the ancient Greeks had known this too. The masked god Dionysus is everywhere and nowhere. He is always somewhere else. Yet at the same time he is manifest on earth in a bull, a lion, or a snake. He both reveals and conceals himself in the mask that is his symbol (p.301) the wide, staring eyes of the mask fascinate and attract, but the mask is empty. At the crucial moment of Euripides' Bacchae, the supreme epiphany of Dionysus is not an apparition but a sudden disappearance. The god vanishes abruptly --yet a great silence descends upon the earth in which his presence is felt more strongly than ever before. If we try to hold on to our partial glimpses of the divine, we cut it down to our own size and close our minds. Like it or not, our human experience of anything or anybody is always incomplete: there is usually something that eludes us, some portion of experience that evades our grasp. We used to think that science would answer all our questions and solve all the mysteries, but the more we learn, the more mysterious our world becomes.
Yet we do have glimpses of transcendence, even though no two experiences of the divine are the same. All the traditions insist that the sacred is not merely something "out there" but is also immanent in our world. Again, I had not taken my texts sufficiently seriously. I had often quoted the famous story from the Upanishads which the sage Uddalaka makes his son Svetaketu aware of the omnipresence of the divine by telling him to dissolve a lump of salt in a beaker of water. In the morning, the lump has disappeared, but though the salt is now invisible, it pervades the entire beaker and can be tasted in every sip. "My dear child," Uddalaka concludes, "it is true that you cannot see Brahman here, but it is equally true that it is here. This first essence -- the whole universe has as its Self. That is the Real. That is the Self. That you are, “Svetaketu" (*Cliandogya Upanishad 6:13.) Our task is to learn to see that sacred dimension in everything around us-including our fellow men and women.
That, I think, is the meaning of the story of the apparition of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The two disciples are depressed; Jesus has just died a terrible and disgraceful death, and this has dashed all their hopes. A stranger joins them on the road and (p.302) engages them in conversation. He discusses the scriptures with them, showing that the Messiah had to suffer before his glorification. That evening the three dine together, and the stranger breaks bread. In that instant they recognize that he is Jesus, they realize this he disappears, like Dionysus. The story recalls the oft- repeated rabbinical teaching about the divine becoming present whenever two or three people study Torah together. Even though the disciples were not aware of it, the presence was with them while they were reviewing the scriptures together Henceforth, we will catch only a fleeting glimpse study of sacred writings, in other human beings, in communion with the stranger. But these moments remind us our fellow men and women are themselves sacred; there is something about them that is worthy of absolute reverence, is in the last resort mysterious, and will always elude us.
Perhaps in our broken world, we can only envisage an absent God. Since September 11, I have found myself drawn to the powerful mythology of the Jewish Kabbalah, which imagines God as originally a sacred emptiness; sees creation as a mass world shattered and dense with evil; and offers no easy solution. Everything is a bewildering puzzle. One kabbalistic text tells us that when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, the Holy King departed from the earth and no longer dwelt in our midst. God vanished also -- like Dionysus-after the destruction of the World Trade Center, an atrocity that was committed in God’s name. The events of September 11 were a dark epiphany a terrible revelation of what life is like if we do not recognize the sacredness of all human beings, even our enemies. Maybe the only reverlation we can hope for now is an experience of absence and emptiness. We have seen too much religious certainty recently. Maybe this is a time for honest, searching doubt, repentance, and a yearning for holiness in a world that has lost its bearings.
The best theologians and teachers have never be (p.303) admit that in the last resort, there may be Nothing out there. That is why they spoke of a God who in some sense did not exist. It is why the Buddha refused to comment on the metaphysical status of a Buddha after death, and why Confucius would not speak of the Tao. What is vital to all of the traditions, however, is that we have a duty to make the best of the only thing that remains to us -- ourselves. Our task now is to mend our broken world; if religion cannot do that, it is worthless. And what our world needs now not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies… (p.304)