Twilight on a Winter's Day
I wrote to a friend Thanksgiving afternoon -
Quiet here. Find the traffic outside consoling. Never dreamed traffic could feel so much like sharing a world with others.
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An acquaintance spoke to me recently about how kneeling was helpful for her at times. I agreed. Kneeling is a form; it is a ritual. When someone kneels in prayer, the person may experience something the kneeling opens up for her. All form is like this - a potential opening to something we would not know at that moment without engaging with the form. Even the sounds of vehicles passing can alert us to our oneness with everyone.
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One cannot well experience the Sacred without forms any more than live without a body. The Unseen enters our world through the seen, even as the Sun shines on Earth by its rays. Treeness expresses itself through a shape we call a tree. In that word "tree," we include many subforms - different kinds of trees. All Nature is like the Sun and trees.
Devotion is formless, for love is formless. Yet, one does not realize and grow in devotion apart from shapes that encourage and express it. Spirit is formless, while there is no such thing as a formless spirituality.
Nonduality does not exclude form; it includes form in a balance of form and formless, matter and spirit, you and the Beloved. The transcendence is not exclusive of what was but inclusive of it. Such wisdom is the inclusion of more, not less, while the less is still present.
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I have come to hesitate using the word "transcendence," as it can be misleading. In transcendence spiritually, this is marked more by integration and intimacy of what is present, not turning from it in some idea of being beyond it, so not needing it. For example, one does not gain by rejecting religious rituals, as though the forms of rites are themselves hindrances to more pure devotion. Spirituality sacralizes form; it does not turn from it. Form is not a hindrance, for it is a help, even as the food we eat - form - is a means of nourishing our body.
For example, we do not see the nourishment in a salad. We see the salad. Yet, only seeing the salad does not lead us to throw it out. We eat it. We take the form into ourselves. So, what is in the salad is in us. This process is like our engaging means of faith.
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A Sufi tale -
A man bought a cow. He did not know the nature of cows. So, he was trying to drag the cow to his home by its horns. This was not working. She wanted to go to her past home, to her previous owner.
A Sufi was watching. The Sufi said to the man, "It seems you're very new to cows, for you don't know how to deal with them. This is not the right way."
The man said, "What should I do? I'm not very strong. The cow is stronger. She is dragging me with her."
The Sufi gave him some green grass, telling him, "Take this grass and slowly walk ahead of her. Keep the grass close, not letting her eat any. She will move toward the grass, following your movement toward her new home."
The man did as the Sufi said, and the cow followed him without any resistance. She forgot all about her past home and owner. She entered her new dwelling, and her new owner closed the door.
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Much of what religion teaches is enticing. We need allurements. This is how we are seduced to walk from the past and into the new. Religion is like falling in love. We meet someone, and we attend to details, like how we look. We do not say, "Oh, I will dress in any way!" When I was young and dating, I would make sure my vehicle was clean and shiny, for example. I had not dated in many years, and a few years ago started dating someone. One of the first things I realized is needing some better shirts. I went shopping. To draw the other to ourselves, we engage in varied forms we can refer to as rituals. Wisdom paths are like that. They are designed, based on times and space, eras and culture, with shapes to lure us to devotion. Our creating these forms arises from that within us desiring to be seduced. Hence, the forms reflect our desire, even if that desire has been silenced within us.
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What do we do when we see the past spiritual seducements are not satisfying us? We see we want more than grass - we always did? One way is rejecting the past. We have an immature, reactive posture, though possibly necessary as a transition if we do this. Here, we can get caught in new allurements, changing one array for another. This change is to a different grass style while criticizing the past grass. Often the new appears right or exotic compared with the past. Here, we are in a critical attitude to the previous and likely not seeing fully what we now adore. We have changed partners - the past one appears so defective, the new one so fantastic.
A second way of responding to the awakening that our present spirituality has not fulfilled our needs is to grow into a new, authentic experience. The new experience may retain elements of the past, but one will understand them or engage them differently. Some of the past may be unchanged, existing alongside these new understandings and practices.
The above transformation has happened in my life. Initially, I rebelled against my mother religion. It took years of healing and gaining insight to appreciate what was timeless within it. I had to befriend that past in gratitude for how it had loved me. Many of the limited ways of that past I came to see have underlying meanings beyond how they were taught to me. I grew to recall and be thankful for the persons who nurtured me spiritually in that faith, where before I had just tried to leave it and them all behind. Now, I hold that past in sacred memory, bringing it into the present with gratitude. I remember the faces of those dear ones who worshipped alongside me in the little, rural Baptist church of my upbringing. They are the same ones who lined my Uncle Edward's pond to celebrate my baptism into those waters.
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The grass is the grass, and in some sense, we are all like that cow who ambled toward the ever-receding grass. The paths we follow are all symbolic - as Buddhists often say, the moon in the water. The grass can be reasonable means to seduce us and give shape to facilitate the experience of our innermost longings and our awareness of sacredness.
In this sense, we can engage form with religious sensitivity. Our heart seeks wonder, the experience and knowledge of the Sacred as it shows itself to us in the world about us. If we lose this sensitivity, our lives shrivel, starving for the feeling of reverence and awe. In true religiousness, the world becomes a wonderland, not for our giving it wonder, but for wonder has always been the atmosphere in which all things exist. This sense of wonder is the root of the urge to give praise to Something that is not ourselves and encountered as Totally Other.
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Spiritual traditions guide us to a devotion that later we might transcend as to the forms, for those forms unveil subtler meanings. We can enjoy the forms of faith still. In realizing oneness with form, we realize oneness with Spirit.
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*©Brian K. Wilcox, 2021.
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse.