Monday, April 18, 2011

Embracing the Transition

As this class in Spirituality for the Contemporary World comes to a close, I feel gratitude for the liberating and invigorating experience I've had through our discussions, sharing glimpses of our lives and spirits through prayer, ritual, and center "altars," as they turned out to be for many of us.  It has been a wonderful time to be together.  

I'd also like to hold up the readings as an incredible source of inspiration, in so many different areas.  I'm a firm believer that "spirituality" is the art of living our lives well, and working to build the beloved community with ourselves, each other, and the whole world.  The readings and discussions in this class have involved so many facets of life, and shown me even more how everything we think, feel, do, say, makes a difference.  It is up to us to learn about ourselves; we must learn how and when to fill and empty our cups (depending on the metaphor) in order to be the best we can be in the world, to hear the spirit calling us.  

I'm very interested in leading small spiritual discussion/exploration groups in the future, and this class has given me many helpful tools for this purpose.  I'm excited not only to have so many resources to draw from, but also to seek them out and explore them in the future as a spiritual practice in itself, as a way of life to cultivate.  Pui Lan's leadership has inspired me to do this, as she leads by wonderful example in finding and writing insightful and relevant articles-- relevant not just to this class but to contemporary life as a whole, whether overtly spiritual or not.  I feel that I have been learning to fish throughout this class.  

I've been thinking about sacraments lately.  Not necessarily sacraments as defined by a specific church, but rather those defined by each of us in response to our own needs.  I feel that spirituality is about fulfilling genuine needs, and my spiritual life has been enriched this semester as I notice specific needs I have, in terms of what I can do to keep myself on the path to wholeness, and giving myself time to stop and breathe when I need to.  I believe everyone's spiritual practice will be different, and that finding what is right requires deep looking and listening, experimentation, and a willingness to be lost.  

Thank you, everyone, for helping me learn how to feel the sanctity that exists in our world, and in my self.    


Friday, March 4, 2011

The Journey vs. The Moment in Music

Yep, just click to--just kidding!
(click the link to the left to check it out)
In his book Te Deum: The Church and Music, Paul Westermeyer reminds us that during the baroque period in music (from roughly 1600 with Giulio Caccini's collection called Le Nuove Musiche (1602) to the death of J.S. Bach in 1750), "tonality developed from the modal system into the major and minor keys we now take for granted."  He goes on to point out that "tonality increased the possibilities for both drama and length of musical pieces.  After a key was established, another (related) key could be introduced to set up a longing for the home key."  Back in music school I remember studying sonatas and concertos from the classical era and thinking, in a quite monotone inner-monologue: "wow, you've established a key and moved to the dominant and back, how very exciting."

But now I think about WHY it was so prevalent at that time to set up a key and switch to another-- so prevalent that it became ubiquitous and, to my ego-infused early college self, "old hat"--at the time it was the latest exciting innovation in composition!

I love those moments studying history when you truly get a glimpse into the way people might have actually thought and felt at the time.  This is when history ceases to be an endless and seemingly incoherent stream of events, and it becomes LIFE.  It's like the moment in math when what has been a crazy jumble suddenly clicks into place and you see how everything relates to everything else.  This feeling is wonderfully and entertainingly depicted in this video I saw recently:

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus:
The classic example of the classical ideal:
balance, harmony, and of course, seashells.
But what I really wanted to blog about was this feeling in music (and in life) of The Journey-- in Sonata Form, for example, you start out in one key, with one set of themes and feelings (the "exposition"), and no sooner do you get comfortable with it that you're carried off to a fantastic land that may or may not at all resemble home (the "development"...the dark night of the sonata, if you will), and later you return home (the "recapitulation") to find things even better than you left them (albeit probably with a few extra V chords).  This motif is often reflected in theological perspectives of the time.  One idea is that you start in one spiritual place, and at some point in the future something fantastical and maybe wonderful and maybe scary happens (you find church, you have a spiritual awakening), and then you return home rejuvenated.  Or the ultimate adventure carries you away-- death-- and you end up in an even better home: heaven.

An incredible composer, and a
bronze adonis to boot:
This classical focus on the Journey as a balanced, delineated story contrasts interestingly with the contemporary practice of composition in both the jazz and "classical" realms.  These days we often seem more fascinated with sonorous chords that are beautiful unto themselves; jazz artists and composers like Eric Whitacre like to stack notes upon notes, thirds upon thirds, playing with different colors, different textures of sound.  In the Baroque and Classical periods people were fascinated with the journey from chord to chord and key to key, and (decreasingly over time into the Romantic period) back to the original.  This reflects a focus on balance and structure characteristic of these periods, a paradigm that, like all norms, began to be questioned and break down almost as soon as it was established.  In contrast, in the world of jazz and composition of the twentieth century and today, we have been and are very taken with just sitting in the beautiful moment of a lovely, unique and complex chord.

We can easily carry this idea into our personal and spiritual lives.  Yes, we are on a journey.  Yes, we are looking forward to future "developments."  But every moment along the journey is the beginning.  It is so incredibly important for us to sit with ourselves, to sit with each other, to deeply listen to the vibrant, resonating chords of our being, and to know that this moment, now, is complex, unique, balanced, and

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Meditations on Monkhood

 Lately, I've been taken with some of the archetypes associated with religion and spirituality, particularly the monk and the priest.  As I journey through medieval Christian history, I'm struck by the counterpoint between the two--withdrawal from the world into a cloister of quiet contemplation, or diving into the world, working and teaching and preaching what one believes is right, living by example and exhorting others to do the same.

Of course, there is tremendous overlap between the two.  But right now I feel like more of a monk than a priest; not that I plan to sell all I own and live in poverty (although living in the woods like Francis would be quite nice.)  Not literally, anyway.  Monkhood speaks to me right now as the willingness and commitment to let go, to surrender to whatever guidance I might be able to perceive if I truly listen...and, naturally, sharing what I've learned along the way.    

Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of charity as the filling one's own cup, then filling others' with the overflow.  In other words, we must take care of ourselves if we are to take care of others.  He's not suggesting that we put off doing anything for others until we have completely taken care of ourselves, but that we recognize and honor those times in our lives when we need to recharge before we can give our all to our partner, spouse, friends, job or anything that we know in our heart is worth loving and working at.  "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."  

Bernard says, "charity...does not seek what is its own.  And do you know why?  It does not seek what is its own precisely because it has it...Charity never lacks what is her own, all that she needs for her own security...She wants this abundance for herself that she may share it with all; and she reserves enough for herself so that she disappoints nobody.  For charity is perfect only when full." (Sermon 18: 2-4)

I must run, but I wish this for you, with Poor Clare of Assisi:

“What you hold, may you hold, 

What you do, may you do and not stop.
But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, 
so that even your steps stir up no dust, 
may you go forward
securely, joyfully, and swiftly, 
on the path of prudent happiness,
believing nothing, 
agreeing with nothing
that would dissuade you from this commitment."

Peace and Love

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thinking what cannot be thought

"Hello?  Anyone up there?"
Last night, as I read Anselm's medieval proof for the existence of God for my history class, I was struck by the sheer quirkiness of some of the headings.  My favorite:

"How the fool managed to say in his heart that which cannot be thought."

These words served to remind me, quite out of context (because, as I learned with the help of Marjorie Thompson's Soul Feast, I like to read most things spiritually as well as intellectually), that foolishness has its place.  Or more precisely, that which at first appears to be foolish (random, eccentric, strange, creative) often turns out to be quite ingenious.  I thought of this also as I read Edward Hallowell's article entitled "Why Smart People Underperform."  Hallowell cites David Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue airlines, as an executive who has used his ADD to advantage, "going with the symptoms" as Thomas Moore would say, harnessing his own creative power and seemingly crazy ideas (such as electronic airline tickets), and honoring the same in his colleagues and friends and employees.  It's good to get shaken up and crazy sometimes.

Speaking of which, here's another incredibly wonderful fool.

It's also good to just sit and stir sometimes.  This week for Spirituality in the Contemporary World we've been asked to take a sort of inventory of our own spiritual practices, and I thought I'd use this little blog as a  forum for the list.  It's actually quite fortuitous that we've been asked to do this now, because I've lately been shifting into a new pattern, partly in an attempt to be a bit more healthy in body and soul.  It's all about heeding that inkling that something might be good for you, and then following through with it.  That second part's tricky, at least for me.

(By the way, I recently discovered that a group of colleagues at Oxford that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis was called "The Inklings."  I just think that would be a fantastic band name, don't you?)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my partner Tarra and I have taken to the gym five or six days a week since 2011 began.  This has been a remarkably centering and engaging activity for both of us, and it gives us time to simply be together.  Whatever is going on in other regions of our lives, we can be sure to have this time, and that is a great comfort.  There is also nothing I love more than good music in the earbuds and a good rhythm on the treadmill, or elliptical, or bike, or shoulder press...

Beautiful surroundings seem to inevitably invoke
beautiful feelings.
I've been taking ten or fifteen minutes each day to sit in silence.  This is time to just be.  To let my mind and my heart do what they need to, with no judgement, no pressure, no tasks or appointments or classes or rehearsals.  I find it helpful to set an alarm, and I've found that the "bell tower" ring tone on my iPhone is a particularly pleasing  accompaniment as I return to the world.  This practice was partially sparked by Soul Feast- which you've probably gathered I enjoyed- which gave me much appreciated insight into different forms of prayer, and is helping me to reconfigure how I think about meditation.  I've always had a feeling it would be good for me, but didn't know quite how to go about it.

The time I spend in meditation and prayer lately has taken on a number of different forms, including a simple non-judgmental clearing of the mind, a meditation on something I've read or listened to, a mantra-like repetition of affirmations and supplications...and after a certain time, the mist seems to clear, and I remember those moments of clarity I've had in the past, when I've become aware of a fear I didn't even know I had surrendered to, or I'm suddenly able to vividly inhabit a lovely memory that had not had a chance to surface for quite some time.

I believe this experience helps me to practice the "relaxation response," and I've noticed that these affirmations of beauty and releases of fear come easier to me elsewhere in my life as a result, because I remember that silent space in which I was able to simply be.  I love it when I'm able to carry a little bit of that being life into my doing life.  It is a tiny step toward the balance I, and I think many of us, seek in all things.  

"We pray as well as we live and we live as well as we pray."
-Lawrence S. Cunningham

Monday, January 31, 2011

daily beauty

I forgot to mention in my last (that is, my first) post that I also feel that my time at the gym-- a practice that my partner and I have recently re-taken up for the new year-- is certainly a spiritual practice.  I find it's easier to let my mind wander and clear itself if my body is occupied, and getting my heart rate up for a while just feels good.  It makes me feel alive, connected to existence, and (eventually!) makes me feel more energized.  It's also a celebration of the power of choice, an example of a positive trajectory for life, that I feel strong and grateful to be able to do, both in terms of will power, schedule, and finances.  

But what I really wanted to get out there tonight was the idea of the Daily Office.  I've been fascinated with monastic life for years, and this morning I learned in a class I'm taking at BU that in this context the word "Office" apparently means "Beauty."  I think this is just lovely.  

It is something I think anyone would welcome.  Imagine taking time every day, in a disciplined way that works for you, to remind yourself and others of the beauty of existence.  This is naturally what the purpose of these monastic offices are, to remind the monks that God is there, and we are here to commune with God.  However, bringing the idea out of the monastery and into our contemporary lives, and interpreting God as anything beautiful, lovely, or (when it comes down to it) anything and everything that exists, seen and unseen, felt and thought-- it makes sense to consider making a spiritual practice out of noticing the beauty all around us on a regular basis-- daily beauties.  

I feel spiritual practice is necessary, and I believe it comes in as many forms as there are people.  The trick is to figure out what form yours needs to (or already does) take and, as Joseph Campbell advised, follow your bliss.   

Thursday, January 27, 2011

beginning the journey

Hi.  My name's Nick MacDonald, and I'm a student of theology, a musician, and a teacher.  This blog serves as the journal I am expected to keep as a part of the course entitled "Spirituality in the Contemporary World" (since I was so very inspired by Professor Pui Lan's artful introduction of the art of blogging!).  What a wonderful way to share our inspirations and musings with one another.

I was struck as the first class unfolded, as I'm sure many were, with how incredibly relevant the material we will cover is to our lives as seekers of something greater, a purpose, a meaning that goes beyond words.  I have recently finished Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith, which gives voice to this pervasive need for an injection of spirituality into religion.  I see spirituality as a way of life, an orientation toward ourselves and each other that focuses on wellness, love, compassion, and a cultivation of a sense of the sacredness and interconnectedness in every moment.

Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist fellowship, I must admit that I have been surprised that this does not seem to already be the primary focus of many religions today.  This is not to say that UU's have it figured out (by any stretch of the imagination!), but like many people in search of religion I grew up with the feeling that our faith and philosophy show most clearly and most importantly in how we act toward others and ourselves.  In many of us there is an urge inward rather than upward, a need to build community from the inside out, rather than from the top down, and the desire to take responsibility, expand consciousness, and work toward an implementation of our values and principles in our thoughts, actions, and relationships.

In this class I look forward to expanding my understanding of what spiritual practice is, what it can be, and how to facilitate others in building their own.  As for me right now, I have no specific spiritual "regimen," in part because I believe every thought and every action, in its essence, when divested of its pretense to mundanity, is a meditation, a prayer, a powerful opportunity to tap into the sacred.  All of life is sacred; the kingdom of God is spread among us, only we do not always see it.

Of course, this paradigm of Gospel eyes (which I sometimes like to call Creative Consciousness) is still something for which I strive, and this striving involves primarily the immersion of myself in certain practices--the most pervasive and powerful of which is music.  Singing, playing, teaching, creating and otherwise experiencing the aural arts is deeply tied not only to my vocation but also to the sheer pleasure of living.  It provides joy in times of celebration, solace in times of despair, and peace in times of contemplation.

I believe a good soundtrack is all you need to reveal the beauty inherent in any moment.

In spiritual practice I seek an opening of myself to new possibilities, an engagement with the creative impulse that animates all things.  Sometimes church will do this; more often it can be found with the people I love, the art I pursue, the spontaneity of travel (staring out the window of a bus or train is remarkably centering to me), or the comfort of a coffeeshop and a notebook.

I so look forward to exploring the endless ideas of what spirituality entails.  I know we will all learn so much from each other, and I hope we will be surprised and enriched by both our similarities and our differences.  In this course I do expect to encounter the spirit-- in each of us and all around.