Prayer Links our Smallness to the Larger Kindness

You can only pray what’s in your heart
so if your heart is being ripped from your chest
pray the tearing
if your heart is full of bitterness
pray it to the last dreg…
pray your heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it
like the small bird it is.
                                          Elizabeth Cunningham

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

The spiritual journey brings us into experience of our connection to the larger Mystery of which we are a part. But spirituality is not only about something we experience, something we receive with awe and gratitude. Spirituality is also about the power we hold to shape, to create, to cause change in the larger whole. Sometimes this power has been called prayer. I have also heard it called magic. But we don’t usually think of prayer as a power we hold. We usually think of prayer when we feel powerless, when we feel our need.

Why do we pray when we are in need? During our day to day lives, many of us often feel a sense of control over our lives, a sense that we are making choices, and things can be expected to turn out based on our work and our effort. But when things go wrong—when someone we love is ill, or we lose a job, or we face death, or a child is in trouble—we are confronted with our limits as human beings, we are face to face with our utter vulnerability. Think about the saddest or scariest or most difficult moments of our lives. In those difficult moments, we feel our smallness in this world.

Prayer is an appeal to the kindness in the universe, to the mysterious power of goodness and blessing that some call God. Prayer is a reaching out from that place of smallness to the larger reality in which we find ourselves. When we were very small, when we were children, we needed the help of someone larger than us. We relied on our parents or other caregivers for everything—our food, our shelter, our learning, our basic needs. That may have been a blessed experience or a painful one. And growing up in any situation, we feel a pull to become independent, to be able to do things for our selves.

As adults we are working out a balance: between giving and receiving, between helping others and getting help when we need it. But for many of us asking for help is difficult. Probably because we don’t really like to experience our vulnerability, our smallness. Possibly because we’ve had the experience of asking for help and not receiving it. In some settings in our world, to show our weakness might mean to be taken advantage of.

Prayer has this baggage attached to it. It requires that we face our vulnerability, and be willing to ask for help. Prayer is like letting go into a kind of floating—a hope that if we are in over our heads, the ocean will hold us up, rather than swallow us. Prayer opens a link from our smallness to the larger kindness in the universe.  The Sufi poet Rumi said,

Don’t do daily prayers like a bird pecking,
moving its head up and down.
Prayer is an egg.
Hatch out the total helplessness inside.

How Can a Mystery as Large as the Universe Connect to a Being Like Me?

Hubble Image of Spiral Galaxy

Hubble Image of Spiral Galaxy

Another reason that fractals matter, and why I want to explore them, has to do with a very old spiritual quandary. Human beings have long imagined the possibility of an infinite being, a divine being, who is creator and sustainer of the universe, commonly known in our culture as God. Not all human beings resonate with this idea, and the details vary as to what God might be like, but most peoples have some sort of divine being or beings as a part of the stories and values of their culture. I have spoken of God as the larger Mystery of which we are a part.

Many human beings have also imagined that they can have a personal relationship with this divine Mystery. Most cultures have forms of prayer to entreat help from God, and forms of prayer to thank God for help given. Many people also directly experience the presence of the divine in their hearts, the intimate presence of the Mystery.

I know that I have had moments in my life when I felt held in the arms of divine love, that I felt cared for by a Mystery greater than myself. Those feelings are so tangible, that they help me get through my most difficult days. When I feel afraid, I can trust that all will be well, because of that tangible presence of love. When I feel overwhelmed, I can keep on walking forward, held in the memory of that love. But if God is infinite, or if the Mystery is all that is, how can that be? How can a Mystery as large as the universe connect to a being like me, small as a speck of dust?

Fractals have given me a new way to think about this spiritual dilemma. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself, from an infinitely large scale to an infinitely small scale. What if God is a fractal? What if God is a pattern that repeats itself from the infinitely large to the infinitely small.

Here is how I imagine it. The divine pattern is a pattern of life and love and creativity—it expresses itself in the creative unfolding of the universe. It repeats in the attractions of planets and stars, and in the evolution of life itself. Because fractals continue to repeat in self-similar ways at all scales of size, the same divine pattern emerges at the size of our own human consciousness. We can find that pattern in our hearts, the expression of life and love and creativity. Thus we can find the Mystery in our hearts, as well as in the larger whole.

In this way, fractals offer a solution to the old quandary of an infinite God relating to a tiny human being. By understanding fractals, my intellect can make sense of what my heart experiences of the Mystery. It helps me to make sense of the tender feelings I feel, and to welcome their help for the troubles that life brings. I feel less lonely, when I feel connected to the divine love. It becomes possible to believe that I matter, that I am not just a speck of dust in a vast uncaring universe. I have within me the fractal beauty of the infinite MysteryFerns More DSC03600

Why Fractals Matter-Reading the Book of the Universe

Why should fractal geometry matter to those of us who are not mathematicians? First of all, fractals give human beings a new way to look at the universe. When we can describe something, we can see it better than if we cannot describe it. Because we are better able to see the natural world, fractals enable us to have a deeper relationship to the natural world.

It reminds me of learning to read a book. In order to read, we need to understand the patterns of squiggly lines that form the letters of the alphabet. And then we need to understand how those squiggly lines are combined in multiple ways to form words, and then sentences, and so on. A person who cannot read may look at a book, and it might seem beautiful, or there might be pictures in it to be curious about, but that person cannot understand what it means. When we learn to read the patterns of squiggly lines, the book becomes a doorway into a whole story, and suddenly we have access to a wealth of ideas and thoughts and understandings.

The natural world is like a sacred book; it is the place where we search for truth and beauty and goodness. We might say that the universe itself is our bible. We don’t have to understand the world to appreciate its beauty. Even a baby can laugh with delight at the bright colors of flowers, or try to catch a butterfly. But the more we understand the natural world, the deeper can be our appreciation, and the more its mystery opens up to us. Fractals help us to read the book of the universe.

Fractals give us a way to measure and describe the complex patterns in the natural world. Fractal geometry, in fact, reveals to us the inherent patterning that permeates the universe. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself, from an infinitely small scale to an infinitely large scale. Complex entities are created from simple designs extended out to many dimensions. We see in the patterns and shapes of nature that there is self-similarity at all levels. Ferns DSC05288

Fractal Spirituality-The Infinite Within Our Souls

Every
Child
Has known God,
the God who knows only four words.
And keeps repeating them, saying:
Come Dance with Me.”
Come
Dance.
                                                     Hafiz

How can a Mystery as large as the Universe find expression within the smallness of our souls? How can we tiny beings experience the Infinite? I found a new way to think about this question when I learned about fractal geometry. Fractals are never ending patterns, with self-similarity at all sizes.

Benoit Mandelbrot was the mathematician who first coined the word fractal, and brought to our attention the possibility of exploring the geometry of the natural world. Fractal comes from the word for broken, and Mandelbrot wanted to explore the rough shapes of nature. Traditional Euclidean geometry could not describe these shapes. Mandelbrot wrote: “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in straight lines.” Fractal geometry enables scientists to describe the world through complex mathematical formulas.

Mandelbrot Set by Wolfgang Beyer, Wikimedia Commons

Mandelbrot Set by Wolfgang Beyer, Wikimedia Commons

I am not a mathematician, but I was curious to see if I could make sense of the math. Perhaps you have heard of the most famous image associated with fractal geometry, what is called the Mandelbrot Set. It has a dark area that looks a bit like the shape of a bug, with a large round spot, and a small attached round spot. But the edge is what makes it fascinating. It is filled with beautiful complex curlicues that continue to be complex curlicues no matter how much the set is magnified. In fact, it continues through infinite magnification.  (For more images of magnification, see here.)

Mandelbrot Set Magnification by Wolfgang Beyer, Wikimedia Commons

Mandelbrot Set Magnification by Wolfgang Beyer, Wikimedia Commons

But “What is it?” I wondered.

If you have math anxieties, I promise you, I am only going to give a simple explanation with ten sentences. You are also welcome to skip the next paragraph.

A Mandelbrot Set is a diagram of a mathematical equation. The equation is: Z = Z2 + C. You insert a number into the equation, and the equation computes it to a new number. Then you start the equation all over again with the new number. Now here’s the interesting part—we don’t care about the answer. We care about how many times you can repeat the equation, with the number you started with. If you can repeat it only a limited amount of times, that number is part of the Mandelbrot set—and it becomes a black dot on your diagram, part of the black spot. If you could repeat it an infinite amount of times, that number is outside the Mandelbrot set. Depending on how quickly it gets to be infinite, it can be given a different color. Only computers can actually do all of these calculations, but they do them very well, and so we can see the images formed by the equation.

Okay, I’m done with the math part now. (I didn’t go into complex numbers or imaginary numbers, so my apologies to anyone who really knows about all of this. But for the rest of us, it is probably more than enough anyway.) The thing is, when Mandelbrot computed his formula, it created a picture filled with beautiful complex curlicues. And no matter how many times you magnify the picture, you will continue to see similar complex curlicues.

More tomorrow…

 

 

For those who would like more detail about the Mandelbrot Set, see the website Introduction to the Mandelbrot Set: A guide for people with little math experience by David Dewey.

Facing My Own Attachment to Separation

Porcupine DSC05211

When I take seriously the interconnected web of all existence, when I begin to try to experience it, I also come face to face with my own attachment to separation. There is more to awakening than a mystical appreciation of the beauty of the larger whole. Something within me, and I believe within all of us, is afraid of opening the heart. I am afraid of feeling the pain of other people, I am afraid of feeling the pain of the earth. I am afraid of letting go of my illusion of control, I am afraid of being hurt by other people, or emptied out by other people. It seems easier to distract myself than to pay attention to the fear around my heart.

But this too is a part of the dance. We have to be aware of our separateness in order to come to awareness of our unity. Because here we are. Here I am in this moment, alive and part of the great circle of life. All the feelings I feel, including fear and separation, are part of the universe at this moment. And, what I have learned from many teachers, is that somehow the only task that matters, the only dance I must do, is to pay attention to the task of the present moment. I am asked to take one step forward, to make the one next choice.

There are many teachers of meditation, in many different traditions. I do not have a particular formula to teach you to use to experience the divine. But many of the mystical systems within the world traditions actually do teach practices, the purpose of which is to help us to work with our fear, and our attachment to separation, and to bring us to that experience of higher consciousness. The Buddha encouraged people not to believe what he taught, but rather to try it out and test it for themselves.  If you want such a formal practice, finding a meditation group with which to work can be very helpful.

Even without a formal practice, we can take small steps. If we can notice the thread of connection between ourselves and one other being, that is a step. When I eat a piece of bread, I might call to mind that I am joining this bread together with my own body—it is becoming human in me. Why do people pray before eating, in so many cultures? There is something about the process of eating that reminds us of our threads of connection.

Even as you sit here reading, notice the sounds that send vibrations across anyone nearby.

If you are outside or near a window, feel the sun on your cheek, and realize that you have a thread of connection across thousands of miles of space—its light is reaching you.

Notice the gravity pulling your body to the ground, attaching you to the chair and the floor beneath your feet.

Notice your breathing, the air going in and out of your nose and mouth.

When you go into the kitchen, and drink a glass of water or a cup of coffee, think about how your body is also a form of water—70% water, and imagine that your hand is pouring water into water.

When you talk to a friend or a stranger, imagine the divine spark inside of them and inside of you, and see how that affects the greeting you bring.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if we use the word God, or God-ing, or light, or love. It doesn’t matter what we call it. What we are reaching for is larger than language, larger than thought. But it is already deep within us—closer than breathing, closer than a song, closer than the DNA of each cell of our bodies. The threads of connection already weave their way into the center of our being, and hold us one to the other. There is a blessing in it, when we can feel it and see it. There is a sense of coming home and a feeling of belonging. May it be so. May we awaken like the spring flowers.

 

The Power of the Story

Today I am concluding my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I have been exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

I don’t understand the mechanics of experiencing the divine presence. I wonder if, as for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it has something to do with the commitment to give oneself to a sacred calling, or to do the work of justice. I don’t know why some people call for help, and never seem to hear an answer. There is no formula that I can teach you, except to say that trouble can sometimes be a doorway, too, if we knock.

It makes me think about something my grandfather wrote in a little black notebook that disappeared for many years. April 4th, the anniversary of King’s death, is also the anniversary of the death of my grandfathers, one in 1964, and one in 1967. My grandpa Johnson died when I was not quite 11 years old. He was not a Catholic, which was a big deal in my family. But I am told he had been a spiritual man, and had even considered a call to ministry as a Unitarian or a Lutheran. The story I remembered from the notebook was this: My grandfather said that my young cousin Michael at the age of three had gone into a church building and was looking for God. My grandfather commented, “If you can’t find God outside of the church, you will never find him inside the church.”

But just before Easter a few years ago, while my uncle was dying, another cousin sent me a message on Facebook, about going through papers of her father, and finding a copy of Grandpa’s note. It turned out the actual quote was slightly different than I remembered. He had written, “I hope you keep looking. And when you find him don’t keep him confined in church.” But it speaks to the same impulse—that God is beyond what happens in church.

Grandpa's Notebook

Grandpa’s Notebook

Even without a formula, even without a sure way to find this God who helps the lowly, I believe the stories of such a God can give us hope and courage. I am reminded of an old Jewish legend recounted by Elie Wiesel. Whether it is true or not, I do not know. But that is the thing about stories. The truth to be found in stories is not about whether or not they are factual. Some of the most helpful stories happen only in fiction.

This is a story about a Jewish community who had a very wise and powerful Rabbi. When the people were in trouble, their Rabbi used to go into the woods, to a special place, where he prayed a very special prayer, with ritual and song, and the people would be helped. But eventually the rabbi died, and his successor did not know the full ritual with all its songs. So when the people were in trouble, he went into the woods, and prayed the special prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped.

Eventually, he too died, and the next Rabbi who came to them did not know the place in the woods. But he did know the special prayer, and so when the people were in trouble, he prayed the prayer, and it was enough, and the people were helped. Finally, he too died, and the next Rabbi didn’t know the rituals or the songs, he didn’t know the place in the woods, or even the special prayer. But he knew the story. And it was enough. And the people were helped.

Leslie Marmon Silko writes, in her novel Ceremony:

I will tell you something about stories,…
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
illness and death

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

I found God in myself and I loved Her fiercely

I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

I want to acknowledge that there are many people who do the work of justice, without relating to a God of justice. Their work comes out of a belief in human dignity and connection, and God has nothing to do with it, for them. And that is really fine with me. When we have experienced the connection we share with other human beings, I believe it naturally leads to a concern about justice and equality.

But for some of us, there have been moments when we were in despair about injustice, or afraid of what our truth was revealing to us, or ready to give up, like Dr. King had been in his moment of despair. And in those moments, we also felt a divine presence, a presence of courage and hope and strength, empowering us into transformation. This God may not have intervened to take away a difficult challenge, but rather enabled us to find wholeness and self-worth in the meeting of it.

For me, the divine presence gave me the courage to leave the church of my childhood, and leap into the unknown, to find myself as a woman, as a whole and equal person. When all around me the church was saying that women had their place, and it was not in the priesthood or the leadership, when I was hearing that women were weak and vulnerable and needed men to guide and protect them, something enabled me to reject that characterization, and claim fullness. Something I barely even had a name for—but it was a sacred power nonetheless.

Photo by Rick Kimball

Photo by Rick Kimball

For me, the risk involved imagining that God might be a woman, a Goddess. That I might be created in the image of that Goddess. And even though there was nothing in the Bible that described this Goddess, yet it was still the stories of the God of justice that led me out of those old male-dominant images and into new possibilities. As Ntozake Shange put it, “I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.”

This experience in my own life became a window to understand, at least in part, the kind of transformation the slaves had experienced. How miraculous and lonely it could be, how long the journey, and how frightening the desert. But yet, something unmistakable like a fire to guide the way. It taught me that the divine is a power beyond institutions, beyond containers, yet able to be present in our lives—especially in those moments of transformation, when “the mighty are cast down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up.”

I do not ask that anyone believe in the God of my own transformation. It doesn’t work like that. But I do offer it to you as an option of hope. If you are going through a hard time, if you are discouraged, if you are seeking to follow the truth of your heart, if you are sore oppressed. If you are having trouble believing in your own worth and dignity. I invite you to call on that God, and see whether there might be a presence that can help you through.