Month: September 2014

Odds and Ends

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, so I want to give a brief update on what I’ve been up to. The two week-long trips I’ve taken during this project (first New York, then San Francisco) have left me exhausted physically and mentally upon my return. Exhausted in the best possible sense of the word, of course. As it turns out, seven jam-packed days of visits, interviews, walking (or climbing, in the case of San Francisco) and writing from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I crash at night are something of a marathon. It’s a rush to be so focused from sun up to sun down on this project. And, as incredibly happy as I always am to come back home to my family, I also go through a bit of a grieving period after coming down from the proverbial mountain top.

But, hey, there’s always the next trip! And planning that trip is one of the things I’ve occuppied myself with in these past few weeks. It’s always so exciting to read about the sacred spaces, the diversity of cultures and religions, and the people I will meet at my next week-long immersion. I have the next location programmed and I’ve charted most of the churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and spiritual centers I’ll be visiting. I don’t want to give it away just yet, because I like suspense. But I’ll give you a hint: voodoo!

I’ve also conducted a good number of interviews that I need to commit to writing and post on the blog. There are great stories coming up in the next few days and weeks from people with fascinating backgrounds and experiences with Paganism, agnosticism, esoteric spirituality, Christianity and Islam. And I’ve also been lining up a few weeks worth of interviews here in our local community as well as visits to sacred spaces. In a way, this has been a time of regrouping and administrative work.

As always, I’ve been reading. One of my favorite writers of the moment is religious historian Karen Armstrong. I’m nearly finished with one of her bestsellers, “A History of God.” This is a challenging work that surveys the understanding of God in the three Abrahamic faiths over a period of 4,000 years. One of the questions I often ask of believers is, “How do you experience God?” What I really want to know is how individuals from different theistic traditions define God, but I have come to find that this is an impossible and perhaps even useless question. In an interview, Armstrong was asked to define God, and without skipping a beat she said, “It can’t be done.” She went on to explain that to define means “to put limits on.” You can define a territory, you can define a concept, but God is beyond all that. God is beyond limits, and therefore beyond definition. However, asking people how they experience God has yielded some very insightful answers. In this book, Armstrong does a brilliant job of laying out the theological, practical and philosophical evolution of humankind’s yearning to understand and explain God.

One of the many pearls of wisdom Armstrong gathers in this book is a quote of St. Thomas Aquinas’ that seems as relevant today as groundbreaking as it must’ve been some 900 years ago:

“Hence in the last resort all that man knows of God is to know that he does not know him, since he knows that what God is surpasses all that we can understand of him.”

I will leave you with that for the moment, as I’m sure it should give you quite a bit to think about. But stay tuned, there is more to come. Thank you for following along, and as always, your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated.


San Francisco, Day 7

Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church

This morning’s worship experience was truly something else. I’ve observed and participated in my fair share of religious services, but none quite like the “A Love Supreme Meditation” and “Coltrane Liturgy” at Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Both are held every Sunday morning and early afternoon at the Church, which is located in a store front in the Fillmore area of San Francisco. I decided to attend both the meditation and the service.

With Pastor Stephens and Saint John Coltrane in background.

With Pastor Stephens and Saint John Coltrane in background.

The meditation began at 10:30 with the recitation of John Coltrane’s testimony, as it appears in the liner notes of his 1964 masterpiece, A Love Supreme. We were then guided in a group meditation by Deacon Marlee-I Mystic. For me, this was unlike any meditation I’d ever practiced. When I meditate, it is almost always in silence. This meditation, however, consisted of focusing our attention on the music of A Love Supreme. The Coltrane classic is a suite in four parts: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. In between parts, the meditation leader delivered recitation that focused our attention on certain spiritual themes. The meditation concluded with us singing the words of the poem, Psalm, set to the tune played on saxophone by Coltrane. Following the meditation, we were invited to share any thoughts, feelings or reactions to the meditation. It seemed everyone had something to share, including myself.

I’ve been listening to music much more intentionally for the past few years, but today was a completely different experience. When I think of jazz music, I think of smoke-filled, dimly-lit night clubs. A Love Supreme, however, is a different kind of work. Coltrane wrote it as a spiritual offering and today, along with a number of the Coltrane-devotees, I listened to it as such. It was transformational, not in that I experienced some sort of supernatural thing, but in the way that for thirty some minutes I was so present in the moment and with the music. I shared how greateful I was to have had such a new and special experience.

With Deacon Haqq and Archbishop King.

With Deacon Haqq and Archbishop King.

The Coltrane Liturgy begins at 11:45. By this time, the congregation has doubled, perhaps tripled. By my count there are nine instrumentalists, the Ministers of Sound; four vocalists, the Voices of Compassion; and a tap dancer. The service consists of a series of free-form jazz compositions with occasional sung parts. For approximately an hour and a half, the Church is stirred into a worshipful trance as one piece of music leads into another. Archbishop Franzo King, D.D. on tenor saxophone walks around, functioning as band director, trading solos with a baritone saxophonist. Rev. Wanika King Stephens plays bass and Deacon Max Haqq goes back from alto sax to drums. There is a conga player, a drummer, a djembe player, a keyboardist, and a harmonica player. But this is only today, I learn later that there are times when there are even more musicians. The procession, opening prayer, confession, introit, and Lord’s prayer are all interpreted musically. And then before Psalm 23, there is a tap dance solo, accompanied by bass. This is something I’ve never seen in church, and it is both impressive and moving.

Then comes the collect and the scripture readings, which don’t have musical accompaniment. For the first time all morning, this begins to resemble the kind of mass to which I’m accustomed. After the offering, Pastor Stephens takes the pulpit and preaches an inspirational sermon on the nature of God-given creativity. She quotes Saint John Coltrane throughout, reminding us how he said, “All great artistic expression is truth.” And she also quotes from “Psalm” in a Love Supreme, “God breathes through us so completely…so gently, we hardly feel it. Yet, it is our everything.” It’s approximately 2:30 when the service comes to an end. I have an opportunity to speak with several of the church members. Their warm welcome and genuine interest make me feel at home, as though I’m visiting with old friends. I was nervous and a little uneasy at the beginning of the service, and as I left, I felt so happy. I don’t know how else to explain it. Just happy.

– – –

I found out about this church when someone at St. Mary's Cathedral said I should go for "last chance mass."

I found out about this church when someone at St. Mary’s Cathedral said I should go for “last chance mass.”

It is my last night in San Francisco and I find it fitting to conclude my visit with the 9:00 pm Candlelight Mass at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church. This Church, a beautiful example of neo-gothic architecture, is a sight to behold when lit by candles on a dark Sunday night. I was surprised to see so many people in attendance, there must’ve been a couple hundred. And then, when the service began, I realized this was a very special and beautiful mass. It’s no wonder attendance is so high! I can’t think of a better way to have brought my visit in this wonderful city to a close. I have so enjoyed getting to know this city, its people and its sacred spaces. I go home with a full heart, with unforgettable experiences and with a few new friendships formed. And I hope to come back soon.

This photo was taken about ten minutes before mass began. By the time it had started there were at least a couple hundred parishioners in attendance.

This photo was taken about ten minutes before mass began. By the time it had started there were at least a couple hundred parishioners in attendance.

San Francisco, Day 6

San Francisco Zen Center, Nuova Porziuncola, Saints Peter and Paul

San Francisco Zen Center

San Francisco Zen Center

Another early day began at 8:30 in the morning, arriving at the San Francisco Zen Center. Saturdays are community days at this Sangha, one of the largest ouside of Asia. This center, in the Soto Zen tradition, was established in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and his American students. Some eighty residents live, work and practice in this place. Zazen training for beginners happens every Saturday at 8:40 and it’s taught by one of the priests. I was surprised to see such a large group gathered so early on a Saturday morning to learn the basics of sitting meditation. For over an hour we were taught several sitting postures as well as the principles of meditation. In the end, we got to sit zazen for a short period of ten minutes.

It is also on Saturdays that dharma talks are given. These talks are also available to the community as well as broadcasted via the web. Following zazen instruction, the room was rearranged for the talk. Before long, people started to arrive and the room was soon at capacity. Today’s talk was given by Kiku Christina Lehnherr, a senior dharma teacher and former abbess of the Center. I’m so grateful to have heard this teaching in person and you can watch it here (there were some technical difficulties, skip to minute 4:00 for the beginning of the talk).

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

The Buddha Room, where the dharma talk was given.

My day at the SFZC was only halfway through and it had already been a wonderful time. There was a break of about fifteen minutes following the talk during which people mingled throughout the center with cookies and tea. This is a very vibrant community with everything from first time visitors to seasoned masters. It was lovely being in their midst. It was time for forms training and I was very eager for this particular class. My experience with zen is very limited and this class walked us through the particular forms for entering and sitting in the zendo. The zendo is the meditation hall where zen practitioners sit for extended periods of group meditation. There are specific ways of entering the room, finding your place and sitting. There are clear reasons for these prescribed behaviors in the zendo, as our teacher explained, and they all have to do with an intentional and mindful approach to the practice. There is no penalty for entering the zendo with your right foot instead of your left, as is the form. Rather, one should act accordingly as part of the practice. Every aspect of zen practice is carefully undertaken in an effort to be as present and mindful as one can possibly be.

After forms training, we were all invited to stay for lunch, and I’m so glad I did. It was during communal lunch that I got to visit with new and experience buddhists from all over the country and the world. People come to the SFZC from all over. They live and work here, and they practice together, every day from before sunrise until dark. There is plenty of work to be done, in the kitchen, around the facilities, and at Green Gulch farm which is about an hour away from the center. Some students stay for a week and others have been living there for years. Enguetsu, a practitioner from Brazil, is here for her second stay. I learn about her journey to Zen and her work at the center; and I learn the meaning of her dharma name: En (empty) Guetsu (moon). We visit for a while and then it’s time to move on. This is one of those (many) times when I wish I’d found Buddhism at an earlier age. I would have loved to have been a resident at a place like this.

photo 4

La Nuova Porziuncola

I headed for North Beach in the afternoon, where I visited the Nuova Porziuncola in the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Nuova Porziuncola is a scale replica of the Porziuncola in Assisi. This is the church Saint Francis rebuilt after hearing God’s voice before the crucifix of San Damiano. The Nuova Porziuncola is a work of art and a sacred space. Every day people visit and stay to pray and reflect. I wouldn’t have known to visit had it not been for the kind lady at the St. Mary’s Cathedral bookshop. She insisted I should visit the Porziuncola, and I’m so happy I did. The Nuova Porziuncola was built with exacting standards. The stones are from the same area in Assisi as those of the original, the marble floors are reclaimed from a church in Assisi, and the frescoes are exact replicas, too. I knelt inside the Porziuncola, admiring the simplicity and beauty of its design. I wondered, if it is possible to feel such a sense of peace and wonder in this replica, what must it be like to visit the original in Assisi?

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.

Visitors praying at the Porziuncola.