Feeds:
Posts
Comments

A Glimpse of Heaven

Last Sunday I went to the 11:00 a.m. Mass at St. Paul’s Basilica near Queen and Parliament Streets in Toronto. (Full disclosure: I did the music for that Mass around thirty years ago, before its status was elevated from Church to Basilica, and I have a soft spot for it.)

St. Paul’s is the oldest Catholic parish in Toronto, and the church was built long before the advent of what am most charitably be described as modern architecture – thank God! And that’s part of the reason that it is, in my estimation, the most beautiful church I have ever seen in Toronto.

Here are some pictures that I took with my iPhone. The first is taken from the back of the church looking towards the chancel:

Image

This is a closer look at the chancel:

Image

On the wall behind the marble altar is a life-sized painting of the Last Supper, and on the inside of the dome above that is the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. On the high vaulted ceiling running the full length of the church are frescoes of scenes from the life of St. Paul.

Here is the pipe organ in the organ loft at the back of the church:

Image

It’s an old tracker organ (for those of you are aware of such distinctions) and it sounds gorgeous. It made me feel like being an organist again.

This is one of the four confessionals:

Image

I suppose that means that the builders anticipated occasions when four priests would hear confession simultaneously – something I have not seen, but that was a different age, and there is something about St. Paul’s that inspires all forms of reverence, including confession. I felt the urge to go in even though I knew there was no priest.

But it is the statue in this picture, near one of the entrances, that hit me the most:

Image

If you look closely, you will see the wound on the figure’s outstretched hand – the beggar is Christ. For me, it is the focal point of the church.

St. Paul’s is located in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Toronto. There are lots of beggars and homeless people near Queen and Parliament, and there is much scriptural support for seeing, in them, the face of Christ, including the often quoted passage in Matthew where Jesus says of them, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” And while the words of Mother Teresa are not scripture, they certainly echo its sentiment when she says of her work with the poor and the dying, “Every day I see Jesus Christ in all his distressing disguises.”

Along with the wonderful work that St. Paul’s (and the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, across the street) are doing for the poorest of the poor in Toronto, there is a wonderful, almost scriptural irony at work in that beautiful church:

St. Paul’s was built when the demographics of the reighbourhood were different: incomes have fallen (to understate the fact to the point of euphemism), and there has been little in the way of gentrification since then (as there has been in, say, Parkdale). So now, people of the most limited means are worshiping in a church that is one of the most beautiful in the city. If we were talking about housing, it would be like a families on welfare living in palaces.

And so, through changing demographics, at St. Paul’s, the last really have become first; the meek have inherited the earth, at least in terms of their place of worship.

While it is a dangerous enterprise to presume to know the mind of God (which should, but does not, stop some people), I picture Jesus approving of the arrangement, given his love for the poor and for people without pretensions, whom He called “the salt of the Earth”.

I have no idea what the demographics of Heaven will look like, but after a Mass at St. Paul’s, I do have some inkling as to the architecture, and even more importantly, the spirit that will fill it.

I am, as I have indicated in other posts, a Christian, specifically a Catholic, but embrace a number of beliefs from other traditions – a mutt, I guess. I also believe in following my heart – or should I say, my spirit? – in these matters. When I “hear” the “voice” of God, I give it at least as much credence as I do any scripture. There is much in my Catholic faith (along with the others) that I take metaphorically. I feel on pretty safe ground there when I consider how much Jesus (and many other spiritual teachers) loved a good metaphor.

Premier among those metaphors is the doctrine of Hell. I cannot take it literally for even a second. The idea that our Creator would consign us to an eternity of agony because we broke some of the rules or did not subscribe to the precisely correct set of beliefs is not worth even being taken seriously let alone literally.

Maybe it is my background as an English teacher, but when I read Jesus speaking of Gehenna (where the trash was burned outside old Jerusalem) and think of the fundamentalists who take it literally, I feel like screaming at them, “It’s a metaphor, stupid!” albeit a powerful one.

Parents, through whom children arrive in this world, love and nurture them. Sometimes, there must be discipline, but unless those parents are emotionally or mentally ill, there are sensible limits to that discipline. Assuming God is not ill – Woody Allen says that He’s an underachiever – why would He (who not only arranged for our appearance, but actually created us, a much more intimate bond, surely) consign us to Hell for . . . any reason whatsoever? The notion, if taken literally, is a paranoid fantasy.

The Lord’s Prayer (minus the doxology) ends, “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” or, in an alternate translation, “And put us not to the test,” which sounds more reasonable to me somehow. I can imagine that the Guy is not always all smiles and chuckles, but a Monster?

I have too much faith in Him to believe that.

What Do I Feel?

We are emotional (as opposed to logical) creatures, but we are, in many ways, divorced from our emotions.

We are trained from an early age to keep our feelings hidden, and sometimes we get so good at it that we keep them hidden even from ourselves.

But feelings unacknowledged do not disappear; they fester. They eat at us. They breed anxiety and give rise to physical conditions.

Researchers have established that there certain cancers are more likely to arise in people with certain personalities: the person who feels unheard getting with thyroid cancer, the strong, silent type with colon cancer – it is not the red-faced yeller who gets high blood pressure, it is the quiet, nervous one who swallows it.

The best thing that some people can do for their emotional and physical health is not affirmations or mantras or upping their nutrition and exercise regimens but simply taking the trouble to sit quietly several times a day and asking themselves, “What do I feel?”

And yes, I do know this from experience.

It is not the feelings we have that cause us long term problems, even the profoundly uncomfortable ones, so much as it is the feelings that we do not acknowledge.

And when we do call up our feelings, sit in them for a while, and release them, they lose their negative power over us.

It is wonderful to be an emotional creature, allowing those emotions, even the difficult ones, to arise, flow freely and wash all over us, accepted and released.

But blocking them, avoiding them, walling them off because they make us feel too vulnerable only increases their power, depleting our energies and leaving us open to various forms of emotional and physical distress worse, sometimes, by far than that which we original sought to avoid.

The antidote is, of course, to let them out, to laugh and cry, feel sadness and joy, in the middle of the emotionally chaotic and uncertain, as we were intended to, healthy and resilient.

We don’t need to sit under the Bhodi tree or follow any arcane practice to accomplish, just regularly take a moment to step back from all the distractions and ask ourselves, “What am I feeling?”

I am beginning to believe that it is that simple.

Balance

Dr. Wayne Dyer is a man I admire greatly and have learned much from. I have read maybe ten of his books, watched an equal number of Youtube programs from, and will definitely go to see him speak the next time he hits Toronto. I recommend his wisdom to anyone without – make that “almost without” – reservation.

The one thing that makes me uncomfortable about his approach is his take on the ego. In the last book of his I read, he mused that the ego is concerned with this world but was not of this world or you could have surgery to “reconstruct it or, better yet, get an egoectomy.”

If you’ve been reading the blog, I think you know how I feel about that. 

By the way, I thought that I had coined that word a while back, but it would appear he beat me to it: he has it in print back in 2003. Is it egotistical of me to concern myself with such things? I suppose, but so be it. I will live.

Surely, as we are divine creations, we should not bemoan one of the parts of our creation. Getting an egoectomy because you get full of yourself from time to time is like cutting off your genitals because you had some lustful thoughts – a bit of an overreaction, if you ask me.

But the thing that really catches my attention is that, elsewhere, Dr. Dyer, who advocates surrendering the ego to the higher self, living, if you will, an egoless life, lets his own ego show when he refers to himself (as I have heard him do on several occasions) as an ascended master in training. To me, that sounds a tad, well, egotistical, kind of like getting “puffed up” (Shakespeare-speak for conceited) about one’s humility. 

I think that happens because what we sometimes think is “transcending the ego” is really “suppressing the ego”, and the ego, predictably enough, doesn’t like that, so it reasserts itself when he’s not looking. The ego is an integral part of our psyches, and as such deserves to be valued. Surely, the spiritually sensible approach is not to excise the ego (which, in some ways, only makes things worse) but to ensure that it inhabits its rightful place, allowing the other parts of the psyche to inhabit theirs, everything in perspective, so to speak. You have to know how to take off your shoes when you are about to tread on holy ground, not throw them away.

Suppress the ego, and it reasserts itself in another form. As an old French Canadian friend of mine once told me, “In Quebec, we have a saying: When you push down nature, she comes back running.”

Dr. Dyer is published by Hay House, which is owned by Louise Hay, author of You Can Heal Your Life, another person I admire greatly and recommend highly, but I think she makes a similar error to his and has also left us evidence to that effect.

Ms. Hay’s mantra is, “I love myself just the way I am,” and I’ve commented positively on that in other posts. Most of us are in need of a little more self-love, and would benefit tremendously from following her advice. But negative feelings are as valid as positive, if you ask me, in that they need to be acknowledged, not just affirmed out of existence. If, for instance, we feel really badly about something – a deed we regret, a valued relationship lost – those feelings need to be honoured: they don’t just go away because we keep repeating positive thoughts. You have to declutter a room before you clean it.

And that thing that gives me pause about Ms. Hay is the massive amount of plastic surgery she has had done on her face. 

I don’t mean that as a low blow. My mother had a facelift in her seventies, I think it was, and it made her happy, so why not? But what does having so much of it that in your mid 80s prevents so much as a wrinkle showing on your face. How exactly does that square with loving yourself just the way you are?

The Buddha advocated the “middle way” towards enlightenment. He used a metaphor that, as a musician, really gets my attention: If the string is too tight, it will break; if it is too loose, it will not make a sound: the correct amount of tension produces a fine musical tone – something like that.

So it is with ego and negative thoughts.

Exalting the ego produces a puffed up buffoon or worse; debasing it makes it show up in other forms: giving it a reasonable place produces a balanced personality, emotionally and spiritually. The same can be said of negative thoughts. Wallowing in them mires a person; trying to banish them entirely produces the opposite distortion: what truly serves a person is too acknowledge his feeling, positive and negative, process them, move through them, and finally release them.

In these matters as in all others, there is a balance to be sought.

One extreme is as unhelpful as the other.

 

 

Self Love

If you have a child and you are like most people, you love that child unconditionally, no matter what they do. Their behaviour may influence how much you like them at any particular point, but no matter how much they frustrate or annoy you, you will still love them. That’s a good thing because they need your unconditional love, and to the extent that you give it too them, they develop the confidence to learn and grow and try new things and generally feel good about themselves. And they deserve it. After all, they’re children, and children are obviously still trying to figure it all out – missteps are understandable.

Probably, you can extend that same understanding to other children: nieces and nephews, children of friends and neighbours, students (if you are an educator), and so on. If you do, everybody wins. That, too, is a good thing . . . for the reasons given above.

Perhaps, you extend that same understanding to your fellow adults – another good thing if you can manage it. Adults, too, are still trying to figure it all out. The degree to which we have advanced beyond the understanding of a child is just that: a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind, so we still merit a little understanding and a lot of love.

It is obvious that a child needs love and understanding despite his or her inevitable mistakes. It may be less obvious but it is nonetheless equally true of adults, and if we care enough about certain individuals (spouses and friends), we extend it to them as well. We are all in need of love and understanding because we are all human, imperfect and striving, and may even be able to give it.

The hardest person to give that to is the person who needs it from us the most: ourselves.

Self love is not narcissism or false pride, nor is it an excuse for not doing our best. It is the simple realization that we are human, that we are imperfect, but we are also, like that little child (who still lives within us), deeply in need of love and understanding.

It is one of our greatest needs and, fortunately, one that we are uniquely suited to giving ourselves.

Why We Are Here

These are the ultimate questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What happens when we die? What does it all mean? There are others, but those four are enough for one day, I think.

Who am I? A little piece of God/Source incarnated for a time in this DNA house, exploring and experiencing. The second half of that statement is pure science; the first is both faith and, to me, more than faith. I feel it in my emotional and spiritual bones. It is (again, for me) a certainty which the sum total of that exploration and experience confirms. And if I cannot “prove” it logically, that represents (yet again, for me) a limitation of logic rather than a deficiency in my belief.

A momentary digression: logic is an exercise of the mind, and that mind is only one aspect of who we are. We have other faculties, those of the heart and the spirit, which are at least as valid and valuable, and in some areas, more so. To distrust them is to distrust ourselves, to look with suspicion on our basic nature (something that I am not prepared to do), and what good – what truth – can come of that?

The second ultimate question in my list above, for which this post is titled, is: Why are we here? Curiously enough, I think that logic can be useful for answering this one. We can get a pretty fair idea why we are here by looking at what we do while we are here.

We spend a fair amount of time taking care of our physical requirements. We expend a lot of energy looking for and maintaining loving relationships. And we spend an inordinate amount of time asking those ultimate questions that I listed in the first paragraph.

Taking that evidence as valid, I would say that the reason we are here is to engage in life, to learn from and support each other, and to try to answer those ultimate questions. In other words, we are here to learn and to grow, especially emotionally and spiritually.

I realize that some people don’t put a lot of stock in that last area – which is a shame – because they are so caught up in the physical and emotional aspects of this life, but the spiritual component is arguably the most important, ultimately, because it harbours the only faculty with which we can answer our ultimate questions.

And, dare I say it, there is some truth to the thought that we are here, at least in part, to figure out why we are here.

Yes?

What happens when we die? Again, curiously, science is helpful to us in that regard. Certainy, our hearts and our spirits have something to add to that conversation, but recent scientific investigation of near death experiences (NDEs) has given us evidence that is seemingly – and I think truly – irrefutable.

This is not the place for an exhaustive analysis of the evidence – that would take a book, and there are plenty of those already in print. Taken altogether, it points clearly to the survival of the soul after the death of the body, and no-one has come up with a convincing alternative explanation. The most common attempt advanced by skeptics is that it is the hallucination of a dying brain, but hallucinations require brain waves, and there are many cases of NDEs occurring when the EEG is flatlining. Clearly, the onus is on the naysayers, and they have consistently come up short.

That brings us to the last question on the list: What does it all mean?

It sees to me that we eternal creatures born of God/Source and dressed up in DNA suits are playing in the sandbox of biological life to create meaning. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps, wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that it was our greatest need, more than food, sex and shelter because without it, we cannot survive – he witnessed hundreds of people die around him because they could not fulfill it, even when their other basic needs were being met, albeit barely.

Where and how do we find or create that meaning? Out of the things that we most busy ourselves with: love, awareness and achievement.

And it’s important or we wouldn’t bother.

 

A postscript, if you will, to those who doubt the importance of the spiritual dimension of life evidenced, they feel, by declining church attendance. While the indicator is undeniable, it does not mean that people are losing their faith; it means that they are in greater need that ever before for answers that they find satisfying. If they don’t find it in a traditional place of worship, perhaps the one that they inherited, they look for another – or they try to work it out for themselves.

Our age is as spiritual as any other because we are the same spiritual creatures, in search of and creating meaning. Polls show that reliance on organised religion is falling, but faith in God is rock solid.

To paraphrase Wayne Dyer, we are not human beings who have spiritual experiences so much as we are spiritual being having human experiences.

Affirmations Work!

For decades now, I have tried everything to cure myself of slovenliness. My house is a mess and it needs a cleaning.

I’ve always had this problem. I can remember my parents, in desperation, paying me five cents every day that my room was tidy and the bed made. Five cents went further then than it does now. You could buy a bag of popcorn from the guy who sold it out of his truck after school back when I was in grade five.

Nothing has ever worked, not even therapy. I can’t even say for sure what causes my slovenliness let alone what will cure it. Until, perhaps now . . . 

I help a friend of mine with her baby five days a week. It’s about a forty-five minute walk each way, and I fill up the time with meditation and prayer. Yesterday, out of desperation, I ran an affirmation through my head all the way there and all the way back – an hour and a half. I matched it with the rhythm of my steps:

To tidy up and clean my house/ Purifies my heart and mind:/ I love to take care of my house.

If falls really nicely into waltz time.

Yesterday afternoon and all of today, I have been able to do nothing but tidy and clean. I find that I really want to. And my mind is clear and calm.

Most importantly, the natural disaster area that was my basement is starting to look really, really nice.

:-)

What will I tackle next?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.