Sunday, October 23, 2005

Unpacking the Labels

Here's a bit about why I chose the title and description of this site;

I've been a priest for 17 years. I was trained in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. That's the brief explanation for using such an archaic term. There is another one, however...

I know that God called me to be a priest because God didn't trust me as a layperson. God pulls me from the pit of destruction by the collar of my priestly vows every day. I use the term as a reminder that I am always a "person under authority."

Not my real name. Chosen because since I first read the story as a child, I have identified with Jacob. He's a bit of a rascal, wrestles with the angels yet still blessed in spite of himself.

Personally, I'd rather not use a pen name, but a family member has requested that I do so for personal reasons. It's not much of a secret, however. Most folks that visit Jake's Place also know me by my real name; Terry Martin.

My thoughts here at Jake's place do not represent the opinions of my diocese or the congregation in which I serve. As a priest, I understand my role as being one called to stand in the center, calling all those entrusted to my care to grow into the full stature of Christ. There are no outcasts. Jake represents my own thoughts, which are not always appropriately expressed within the environments in which I have been called to serve.

...Stops the World
This is a reference to some rather unusual experiences throughout my life. Let's just call them "mystical." Maybe some day I'll say more about that. Then again, maybe I won't.

The musings...
Little attempt to be polished or professional. Just the whisperings of the muse, or maybe the ramblings of a madman if I have chosen not to listen to her on that particular day. You'll be able to tell the difference, I think. Madness is not the same as inspiration, although one may well be a component of the other.

...of an eccentric...
Although I am not of the school that thinks we are the sum total of our experiences, I do believe that they may very well awaken things that were previously dormant within us. Here are a few experiences that have led me to claim that particular label.

...and sometimes heretical...
I am given that label so often, I might as well claim it. I see nothing that terrible about sometimes being a heretic. At its root, it means "to choose." Sometimes I choose to think outside the box. I am an unapologetic panentheist who dabbles in some esoteric stuff while remaining a liturgical conservative and a social liberal. I don't think "right thought" has much to do with my relationship with the living God. But, of course, that's another reason why I prefer to be a person under authority.

Even though I have given up on the Church, and my vocation, more than once, I keep being drawn back. Why? I suppose it is because I understand Jesus Christ to be the sacrament of God, and the Church to be the sacrament of Jesus Christ, and I am a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. That still makes me a Christian, doesn't it?

...Anglican priest
I serve within the Episcopal Church. So why the label Anglican? I prefer Anglican because I understand the Kingdom of God to be something that breaks the bonds of time and space. I dislike parochialism and nationalism. My salvation is yoked with the salvation of all of creation, not only those who are of my tribe, or those who are with me now, but also those we refer to as "the great cloud of witnesses." The term Anglican is a reminder that I am involved in a global mission. Maybe more about this another time.

UPDATE: 6/4/04 - With all the threats from the conservative camp within the Anglican Communion of kicking the Episcopal Church out unless we "repent," I have decided to not play their game by identifying myself as an Anglican. So, my label of choice is now "Episcopalian." I don't respond well to threats.


Saturday, October 15, 2005

Lessons of Love

While packing for our move, I came across the above picture. It is of my youngest daughter and me from about 25 years ago. I was around 28 and working on a loading dock during the day while going to school at night. She was 4 and had not yet entered school. The occasion was a concert at the music store in which her mom gave guitar lessons. You can see a row of banjos on the wall behind us.

My daughter was a delightful little girl, with occasional displays of stubborness and independence that went beyond that shown by her siblings. This was not a problem until the day one of her 7th grade teachers wrongly accused her of stealing a pair of scissors. The teacher made this accusation, and then turned to walk away. My daughter climbed onto her desk and screamed, "I did not take your ******* scissors!"

That was the beginning of some difficult years. Being a bit stubborn myself, my daughter and I had numerous heated confrontations. By the time she turned 18 and moved into her own apartment, we rarely spoke to one another. Years of resentments had made any type of normal relationship a distant hope.

About a year after she set out on her own, she ended up in a very difficult situation. I knew that I was in a position to help her. I also knew that she would not ask for my help. Part of me thought that maybe it was about time she learned some tough life lessons. But another part of me remembered the little girl you see in this picture, and just wanted to love her.

Love won out. I drove over to her apartment, and we had a long talk. After some shouting, and even more tears, she accepted my offer of help, which included moving back in with us for awhile.

The next few months were difficult, but we tried to set our differences aside and just love each other. And it worked. We got through the crisis together. And our relationship was healed. It has been over eight years since we have exchanged any heated words.

My daughter is now married and has two lovely children of her own. She has never needed me to bail her out of another tough spot since that one time. She called me the other day to share her excitement about the new house they are moving into near Seattle. She wanted me to share her joy. And she wanted me to know that I was loved.

I hope my daughter learned a few positive things from me as she was growing up. And I hope she realizes the important life lesson that she taught me:

Sometimes, in relationships, being right or wrong isn't terribly important. Neither is our level of anger or stubborness. In the end, if the relationship is one we value, we have to let love trump all.


Monday, October 03, 2005

The Boys of Hall

On my forty-five minute drive to the Church this morning, I found myself reliving the day that Mike Drew died. Now it is late at night, and I find the story still haunting me. What follows is an attempt to discover some peace, by trying to put this tale into words.

I left my parents' home at age eleven. After living with various relatives, I struck out on my own at fourteen. The state of Oregon sent me to MacLaren School for Boys at age fifteen. MacLaren was the state reformatory. The decision that I needed to be "reformed" was based on my record of running away from various foster homes, and for usually having a pocket full of drugs when I was finally arrested. I had also stolen a car during one of my escapades.

MacLaren was located in a rural setting outside of Portland. There were no fences. Instead, there were numerous security guards in cars. To run, one would have to cross miles of open fields. The cars almost always caught up to you before you got too far.

The living quarters were broken up into about a dozen self-contained cottages. Each one included a dorm, kitchen, shower area and common room. I was originally assigned to Thayer cottage. A number of the residents of Thayer were older and had obviously been there for awhile. Having already spent some time on the street, at first I wasn't too intimidated. Then we had our first locker search. A staff member started to reach into the locker of the young man standing next to me. "Don't touch that watch!" the boy screamed. "That's my watch!" The staff member continued to reach into the locker. "I said get your hands off my watch. I took that off my dad after I shot him! It's mine now!" I was now officially intimidated.

Within a week, a new policy was adopted at MacLaren. The residents from each county were grouped together by cottage. That meant that I was moved to Hall cottage. It also meant that I now lived with some of my friends from the street.

There were about forty of us in Hall cottage. There were a few rough characters. There was Mike Cooley, who was known to suddenly punch you, usually before you had any idea what you had said or done to tick him off. And Terry Maggort, one of the scariest psychotics I've ever known. But, for the most part, we were the throw-away kids. Most had little or no family connections. Few of us ever had visitors. Some had been at MacLaren for many years, and when they got out, returned after a few months for doing some stupid thing. For those few, MacLaren had become home; the safe place.

Life at Hall wasn't really that bad. It wasn't difficult to understand why a boy from a home where he wasn't wanted, and maybe regularly beaten, might find it his preference. We had our bad moments. Of course there were fights, but they were usually broken up by staff before anyone got seriously hurt. Our staff were more of the model of house parents instead of guards. We respected them, and rarely acted out towards them.

One of the reasons our staff were given so much respect was a little understanding that we had. Tobacco was contraband, as we were all under age. I think all forty of us smoked. All of our tobacco, and our matches, had to be smuggled in. Among the residents, tobacco was our currency; our gold. The shower area; a large, tiled room that also contained the toilets and sinks, was called the flats. The flats had exhaust fans. The "understanding" we had with our staff was that during certain times of the day; early morning, after returning from school or work (I worked in the bakery), and shortly before lights out, they did not enter the flats. That's when we would have our smoke. Since only three boys at a time were allowed in the flats, we were formed into "toking groups". Usually this consisted of at least one boy who had a connection for tobacco, and one large boy who kept us from getting robbed by the other groups.

Every once in awhile, someone would smuggle in some pot. This was rare, as it was very risky. If you were caught with drugs, you got sent to Benson. Benson was segregation. I was sent there twice; once for a fight, and another time for cussing out a staff member that had ticked me off. Both times I was put in the holding cell; a small room with a padded door that you could throw your body against until you exhausted yourself. After a few hours, I was allowed to return to my cottage. There were some boys who spent weeks or even months in Benson. One of the infractions that could lead to a long stay there was drug possession. Consequently, most of us lived a drug-free life, out of fear of Benson.

One of our residents who worked in the commissary discovered an interesting amusement. It was a form of drug use for which there was little danger of being busted. It involved inhaling the contents of an aerosol can. I'll not mention what the inhalant was, as this is dangerous stuff. Let it suffice to say that it was a common product that would not raise the suspicions of the staff. The effect was immediate and very powerful. It was very similar to the effect of poppers (amyl nitrate), and had some similarity to lysergic acid dythalamide. The effect wore off within five or ten minutes, which made it ideal for a situation in which you are under close observation. We could go into the flats for ten minutes, and the staff would just think we were having a smoke.

Although I'd never been a huffer, others had, and so taught us the "safe" way to do it. Since the aerosol was so cold, it would be sprayed into a bread bag first, allowed to warm, and then inhaled. Seemed like harmless fun.

Mike Drew was the one with the job at the commissary. He would inhale this substance throughout the day at work, and then bring some back to the cottage to share with us. This surprised me, as Mike had always seemed to be one of the more clean-cut kids at MacLaren (if you can be considered "clean-cut" in reform school). Mike had been raised by a Christian family. Since I had also spent many years in a Christian family, we had that in common. Sometimes we would talk about God, church, and even the bible, as long as we knew no one else would overhear us. "God" was not cool in MacLaren.

Mike also worked the laundry room, which was located in the flats. So, one night, the two boys working the laundry room and the three boys in my toking group are all in the flats getting loaded. Suddenly Mike fell over. We shook him, tried to pick him up, but he was unconscious. He began to turn blue. We ran for staff.

Most of the residents had gathered around the door of the flats as the emergency crew worked on Mike. After about half an hour, a member of our staff slowly walked out and told us that Mike was dead. He never regained consciousness. The aerosol had frozen his lungs.

After a few seconds of stunned silence, Maggort shouts out, "Can I have his commissary job?" Cooley punched Maggort. The staff broke those two up, and sent the rest of us to our bunks.

Over the next few days, the state of Oregon turned our cottage upside down looking for contraband. A staff member now accompanied us into the flats. There was no memorial service that we were allowed to attend. We didn't talk about it much. Actually, we didn't talk much about anything.

After a couple of days, Alan, my toking partner, broke the silence. He said that he knew that I sometimes read the bible. I was known as the cottage bookworm. The bible was one volume in my small library. He asked if I could read something, and maybe say a prayer for Mike. A couple of the boys overheard this, and asked if they could come too.

We got permission from the staff to go into the kitchen. The word had spread, and so now there were about a dozen of us. I didn't feel that it was right for me to do this. I certainly didn't consider myself a Christian anymore. But there they were, twelve sets of eyes staring at me, silently waiting. So I read to them from the third chapter of John. I told them about my talks with Mike. I said that I believed he was with God now. And then I said a prayer. I don't remember what was in the prayer. I'm not sure that it mattered.

One thing I will never forget; there were no tears. Ever. The boys of Hall would never let anyone see themselves that vulnerable. We left the kitchen in silence, each returning to our own bunk. I stared at the ceiling and prayed some more. I like to imagine the other boys did the same.

Those were the first heart-felt prayers I'd offered to God in a long time. I'd like to say that was the beginning of a rebirth for me. But that's the stuff of fairy tales. The next years were full of more self-destructive behaviors, and included one more term in MacLaren.

So, this morning, thirty-seven year later, I gave myself permission to grieve the loss of Mike. I cried. And then cried some more for the boys of Hall.

When I arrived at the church, it was time for the Wednesday morning Eucharist. As I kissed the stole before placing it on my shoulders, I suddenly knew the answer to a question that I've been asked many times over the years, but to which I have never been able to find an honest response. When did I first know that I was called to be a priest? When I looked into the eyes of those twelve boys gathered in the Hall kitchen and saw their hunger for hope.

Father of all, we pray to you for Michael, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Longing for Home

Previously, I have emphasized the importance of remaining in the here and now. I still think that needs to be our primary orientation. I don't think this means we should disregard the impact that our memories have on us in this present moment, however.
In Passion for Pilgrimage, Alan Jones offers these words;

Holy Week is a time when I am given the opportunity to reflect on how my past infects and affects my present. There are memories that refuse to come to the surface. I catch a glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye. I know that they are there, but I don't always know what they are about, except that the pain issuing from them pushes me more and more into editing my life so that only the "good bits" show. I fool myself into thinking that I live only in the present and that the past has no effect on my life right now.
We shove down the pain, the fear, the doubts, and put on a happy face. Dwelling in the dark recesses of our hearts, these images from our past are allowed to ferment and slowly find other ways to manifest themselves, unless they are brought into the light, examined, and then either embraced or released.
William Auden once said;

We would rather be ruined than changed.

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And see our illusions die.

Self-examination can be difficult, and even frightening. It seems safer to just continue to respond to life; choosing this over that without a thought as to what drives our choices; what memories and images are stamped on our souls. But then, in the wee hours of the morning, we awaken to the feeling that something is missing, that something is not quite right. We feel that longing for the illusive "something more." We want to go home, but we have forgotten the way.

I want to tell you a story about a homecoming. About twelve years ago, I became friends with a man who worked for the Social Security Administration. One day, I mentioned that I had never met my mother. My parents were divorced just before my 2nd birthday, and my mother had disappeared. My friend told me about a letter forwarding service offered by Social Security. If I knew her name and date and place of birth, their computers might be able to forward a letter to her for me. I wrote the letter, and sent it off to some government office in Baltimore.

A few months later, I received a letter back from Social Security. It basically said, "We do not know if we can forward your letter, and we will not have further communication with you regarding this letter." It was much longer than that, but told me nothing, except that it was a long shot. About what I expected from the government. I thanked my friend for his efforts, and forgot about the whole thing.

A few more months went by. One day, as I was vesting for a weekday Eucharist, the secretary of the Cathedral where I was serving came bursting into the sacristy. This was rather unusual in and of itself. What was even more unusual, however, was that the reason for this peculiar behavior was to hand-deliver a letter. We had previously discussed my attempts to involve the government in searching for my mother. Upon seeing a personal letter arrive for me in a hand-written envelope, the secretary was compelled to deliver it immediately.

I tore open the envelope and removed a few pages of yellow legal pad paper. I read the first line; "My dearest son..." I sank into a chair and allowed a flood of emotion to wash over me. Tucking the unread letter into my prayer book, I dried my eyes, blew my nose, washed my hands, and processed in for the noon Eucharist. I don't recall the homily, or who was there that day. I do remember letting loose with such a loud "Alleluia!" following the fraction that I startled the small group of faithful gathered that day. I credit good liturgical training for refraining from further exuberant expressions of my internal state. I was floating a few feet off the ground.

The letter led to some phone calls. My mother had remarried, raised two children, and was now living in Chula Vista, California. A reunion was arranged. I was to fly out to Palo Alto, meet my maternal grandmother, and my mother would join us the following day.

My mind was filled with so many wonderful images of this reunion. Finally, that longing for the missing piece of my life, that gnawing desire for "something more" was going to be satisfied. I was going home.

As I boarded the plane, I took with me the image of my mother I had so carefully preserved since my childhood. My minimal memories of her had become fashioned into a vision of a beautiful, serene, dark haired woman with a radiant smile, kind eyes, and a gentle touch. She had come to represent all that was good and true and pure to me. For some reason, she always wore blue in my vision. And was barefoot. Kind of like the Blessed Virgin, I suppose.

My grandmother and I hit it off famously. It was as if we had known each other for years. Then the time came to meet my mother at the airport. We couldn't find her. Then finally, my grandmother exclaimed, "There she is!"

I turned, and found myself facing a woman dressed in a tight black dress, with a jaunty wide-brimmed hat tipped to one side. The heavy make-up did not hide well the fact that this was obviously a woman in her sixties attempting to pass for someone much younger. My heart sank.
We returned to the car, and she began to talk to my grandmother in a loud, raspy voice. "Great," I thought. "Not only is she overdressed and wearing way too much make-up, but she's loud and obnoxious."

I tried to listen to the conversation. My heart sank even further. "...And, she's an idiot." We arrived at my grandmother's house. As we stepped out of the car, my mother lit a cigarette. And, she smokes. She went looking for something to drink, and returned with a wine cooler. And she drinks. This was not going well.

I decided this whole idea was one big mistake. I slipped away and called the airline to find out when the next plane was leaving for Wisconsin. The earliest flight was the next afternoon. I went to bed early, pleading jet-lag.

The next morning, I took my grandmother's car to the store to shop for breakfast. When I parked it, I noticed a puddle of water forming on the ground. It only took a brief investigation to diagnose the problem. The water pump was shot.

I insisted on repairing it immediately. Before going on with the story, let me make a few tangential comments about auto mechanics and water pumps.

I learned to fix cars primarily out of necessity. Before going to seminary, while working toward my undergraduate degree at night school, I supported the family as a mechanic and a forklift driver. Never having the money for a newer car, I bought old beaters, and learned how to keep them running.

Along the way, I discovered that I enjoyed being under the hood of a car. Turning wrenches became a time when I did some of my best thinking, and my most contemplative praying. The mind was busy with problem solving. The emotions were reined in. If I got frustrated or impatient, I would inevitably round off the corners of the bolt, or snap it off. If I got angry, I might decide the best solution was to get a bigger hammer; almost always a big mistake. With the mind preoccupied, and the emotions on a short leash, the Spirit would slowly begin to whisper in my ear. Each thought and every image churning somewhere below was brought to the surface, and examined in a gentle, yet detached light.

As I began removing the old water pump, I slowly became calm. Changing a water pump is one of the more pleasant tasks in the realm of auto repair. It is a simple procedure, that can be done by almost anyone. There are a few details, however, that have to be carefully addressed. The water pump is near the radiator. Care must be taken to not bump the radiator with the tools, as this can damage the copper elements, and cause a new problem; a leaking radiator.

When we try to repair our lives, sometimes we do have to take parts of them apart, and sometimes even remove and replace those things that have ceased to work, or have even become toxic. This is well and good. But care must be taken that as we are doing this work, we don't do damage to those around us as we struggle to confront our own personal demons. All the parts are interconnected. We have to pay attention to our environment.

The first couple of water pumps I replaced took a long time, because I failed to pay attention to another detail. Between the pump and the engine block is a thin gasket. Because of the heat, this gasket sometimes becomes fused to either the pump or the block. Every little piece of gasket has to be carefully removed from the block before the new pump is installed, or it will leak, and you'll have to do the job all over again. This requires time consuming and meticulously careful scraping and smoothing. The temptation to say that it is good enough before all the old gasket is removed is strong. Experience has taught me to be patient and pay careful attention to this part of the job.
In the work of self-examination, we are often tempted to not look too deeply, and believe we have done a "good enough" job of cleaning up the rough edges of our life when the reality is we may have just scratched the surface. And then we wonder why things remain such a mess; why peace somehow continues to leak away from us. We have to be patient, and pay attention to the whispers of the Spirit. Unless careful purification is done, illumination will not occur.

As I worked on my grandmother's car, and became detached from the drama of my situation, it became clear that I had a simple choice to make. I could either return home to Wisconsin, with my image of "mother' damaged but still somewhat intact (I had made no effort to really get to know this person beyond those first impressions), or, I could let go of my image, and go into the house, and meet my real mother. I could have a relationship with an image, or a real person.
After I finished repairing the water pump (which didn't leak, btw), I returned to the house, cleaned the dirt and grease from my hands, and sat down and listened to a real person. We stayed up until 5 in the morning, telling our stories, crying and laughing, pacing and hugging. That night, I lost my vision, and regained my mother.

That is basically the end of my story, but I would be remiss if I didn't add just a bit of an epilogue. I'd like to say that my mother and I lived happily ever after from that moment on. But that's the stuff of fairy tales. The reality was that we did develop a relationship, and even grew to love one another, but we never became terribly close. Too many years had passed, and we had traveled in different circles for too long. She passed away January 1, 2000. My two sons were with me as we scattered her ashes over the Pacific Ocean. The journey continues.

One last note of caution. Self-examination can be like opening Pandora's box. When I lost my image of my mother, I lost more than a false memory. I lost a part of my self identity. Longing for the love of my mother had become the driving force behind everything I had done up to that point. This image had even become wrapped up in my image of God. The God I sought was a loving, nurturing Mother.

The last twelve years have been the most difficult years of my life, even more difficult than the homeless years.. With the illusion shattered, my life fragmented, and I stumbled around seeking some grounding, some meaning and purpose to it all. The longing for "something more" remained. I still couldn't find my way home. I went through a deep depression, a difficult divorce, and a leave of absence from the active priesthood.

With the help of some good spiritual direction, therapy, various support groups, a wonderful life companion, and the grace of God, I slowly began the process of reintegrating the shattered pieces of my life. From the ashes of my broken dreams, something new is emerging.
I want to end with a few more words from Alan Jones;
The memory that holy Week seeks to revive is one that lies deep within everyone. It is the memory of our beginnings. It is the memory that enables us to remember the painful things of our past without despair. The Great Memory is simply this; God has fallen in love with you and wants you to come home! Our first memory is God's love for us, and it is this memory that has been buried and repressed. Your first memory (if only you could get back to it) is that of being God's joy and delight. Why is it difficult to remember the joy of our beginnings in the heart of God? I wonder if it has something to do with our unwillingness to face the fact of our limited future? Memory and hope are intimately related. Perhaps we cannot recall the love that brought us into being in the first place, because we cannot imagine a love strong enough to pull us through the gates of death. I refuse to remember, because I dare not hope. I refuse to remember and I dare not hope, because I am frightened and angry because I will have to change.
As Auden said, "We would rather be ruined than changed." And, that is certainly an option. We have a choice. We can hold on to our static illusions, or we can let them quietly die, and place our hope in the new thing that God might be doing in our midst; the same God who is in love with us, and is constantly calling us home.


Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Ghost From the Past

It was too wet to be outside. I had to find shelter. I headed toward the University.

I couldn't return "home," which is an almost absurd description for the place I had left; a garage converted into a bunkhouse for eight teenage boys with nowhere else to go. It was licensed by the state as a foster home, meaning the owner got a fat check each month. The more boys in the garage, the fatter the check. The preferred form of discipline was to pull the offender out of bed in the middle of the night and bounce him against the wall a few times. I stayed through the worst part of the winter. As soon as it seemed warm enough, I stole a good coat and new pair of boots, and walked away.

When I reached the campus, I first searched the dorms, and finally found what I sought; food trays in the abandoned dining room that had not been taken to the kitchen. Potato skins, rejected green beans, and cut-away fat took the edge off my hunger. I moved quickly and quietly, as it was too early in the evening to be prowling the dorms. Any minute one of the college boys might wander in and sound the alarm.

As I slipped out the door, I was startled by a strange sound coming from the large evergreen in front of the building. A lone blackbird was singing a sad song from deep within the branches. For a moment I considered joining my feathered brother under the protection of the pine needles, but the brightly lit dorm entrance caused me to choose the safety of the shadows instead.

The rain had changed from a light mist to a steady drizzle. I increased my pace. Next stop was the Newman Center. The Church was usually left open, and the confessional was a warm and dry place to hole up for the night. For some unknown reason, this night there were people there, doing some kind of strange ritual up by the altar. Students in pressed slacks and cashmere sweaters. They looked at my soggy state, and dripping long hair, and ordered me out of "their" Church.

I tried to swallow my rage as I once again stepped into the wet night. At the end of the street was a cyclone fence barring the way to the campus athletic field. I kicked it, and then kicked it again and again and again, until my foot was throbbing and my fury was exhausted. The noise had brought the occupants of the church out into the street where they stood making low guttural sounds in response to my display. As one of them move towards me, I moved the blade I had slipped into my hand so that it would gleam as it caught the rays of the streetlight. "Call the cops," someone muttered. Time to move on.

I kept to the alleys to avoid the cruiser's spotlight. I stopped and listened every few steps to make sure I was not being pursued. Miles later, I was moving towards the distant sound of music and laughter. A beautiful smiling face in an upper window of the YMCA invited me up.

The dance had been going on for some time now. After a visit to the facilities in an attempt to dry myself with paper towels, I joined the beautiful smile at the window. We talked and kissed and held each other for one glorious hour. The lights came on, and the adult presence announced it was time to go home.

The beautiful smile got me a seat in her ride. Soon, the man behind the wheel had delivered all the teens back to their waiting families, except me. I asked him to drop me off back at the Y. Being a responsible adult type, he refused. I decided to take the risk. I told him I was on the run.

He drove in silence, eventually turning into the driveway of a small ranch house with a well manicured yard. He invited me in. As I sat in the kitchen, I could hear a muffled conversation going on in the next room. The man reappeared with a towel, and showed me the way to the shower. When I stepped out, my clothes were gone, and a terrycloth robe was in their place. When I emerged, the man led me to a bedroom containing a single bed and numerous boxes piled against two of the walls. On the bed were the contents of the pockets of my jeans, including my blade and the gum wrapper on which was scrawled the phone number of the beautiful smile.

I awoke to the smell of bacon. My clothes had reappeared, freshly laundered and folded. A place had been set for me at the kitchen table. The man served me bacon and eggs, and then sat and drank his coffee while he watched me eat. As I put on my coat, he said "I have to insist you call your parents." Should I tell him I had not seen my parents for five years? Should I tell him about the garage? Better not. I walked to the phone, placing myself in the way of his line of sight, and dialed the number for time. Pressing the receiver hard against my ear so he could not hear the recording, I muttered a few words to the automated voice about being alright, and that I would call again soon. The man frowned when I hung up, but seemed satisfied there was nothing more he could do.

He dropped me off at the Y, pressing a five dollar bill into my hand before putting the car in gear and vanishing into the morning traffic. The sun was shining. I was rested and fed. My clothes were clean, and I had a new phone number stuffed in my jeans. The day was full of promise. As I sauntered along with a fresh spring in each step, I hummed Joni Mitchell's new song that I had heard for the first time the night before. I think it was Joni. Maybe it was the Beatles? Or maybe it was the blackbird?


Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Blackbird fly...Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.
Blackbird fly...Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life... you were only waiting for this moment to arise...

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Stopping the World

Stopping the World: The First Definition

I recently spoke with someone who just started reading Jake. One of her questions was, "What is the 'stopping the world' bit all about?" I suppose maybe it is time to unpack that phrase. I'm going to have to do it in parts, as the definition involves a few different glimpses of my internal world.

The first definition is drawn from childhood. Books became my only friends when I was in grade school. I'll attempt to paint the scene that led to this with an economy of words, but I'm making no promises!

My father remarried when I was 5. Prior to this, I had lived with my grandparents, and had experienced a fairly "normal" life. With those years as a frame of reference, it did not take me long, even at that young age, to realize that my new mother was not "normal."

She had some rather extreme fears, which today I recognize as probably various phobias. One of these fears involved germs. When I was in the first grade, I developed a bad cough. I was sent to my room, and to bed, for the next six months. The diagnosis was a "bronchial/respiratory condition."

After the cough was gone, and I was given a clean bill of health by the doctor, I still did not leave my room. I remained in that room for the next four years, except to walk back and forth to school. When I left my room for the short walk to the door to leave for school, I was required to wear a doctor's mask.
I awoke each morning to find a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk on my desk, with various pills lined up alongside the spoon. Some were vitamins. One was a Dristan tablet. I have no idea what the others were. When it was time for dinner, I was called from my room. My plate was placed on the counter across the room from the dining table, where the rest of the family was gathered. The routine was that I dropped my mask, ate as quickly as possible, and then replaced my mask and returned to my room. This routine limited the numbers of germs that might escape from my diseased person, I guess.

As the years went by, a few other bizarre daily routines were added. I was assigned my own bathroom, which was to be scoured with Comet each morning before I left for school. I lost my name, which was replaced with "that dumb kid," and other less pleasant descriptive phrases which I have conveniently misplaced. The daily lectures started becoming more full of anger. Eventually physical attacks were added to the verbal lashings.

So, that's the scene. It ended when I was eleven, when they sent me off to live with various relatives. One of the first things my relatives did was to take me to a doctor. He declared me fit, although he was concerned about my low white blood cell count. He attributed it to a daily dose of Dristan for four years. So, at eleven, I was allowed to go outside and play for the first time since the first grade.

Ok, on with the "stopping the world" lessons learned during this time. As I mentioned, I realized early on that there was something wrong with this woman. This was a critical awareness. She was not evil; she was sick. Trust me, if I had not realized this, I would most likely be in prison for premeditated murder right now.

It was as if this person was living life according to a script to which she owned the only copy. For some reason, possibly because I was a constant reminder of my father's first marriage, I was cast in the role of the villain. Once I realized that she was not living in reality, the absurd happenings were not as traumatic. This led to the next important realization; I could choose to accept or reject her reality. It may be true, or it may be some fantasy in her head. But, I was not powerless. I had a choice. This is such an important lesson in "stopping the world." So often, accepting the role of victim is a choice, often a choice in response to allowing ourselves to get sucked into playing a role in someone else's personal drama. If we don't like the script, we can stop the drama, and change the script. Of course, this entire script was demented, so it took me until eleven to figure out a way to dump the whole thing, and start fresh.

Figuring out how to change the script emerged from those years in that room. For the first few years, I was allowed to read. I learned to escape into imaginary worlds where she could not go. The shrinks get quite enthusiastic when this part of the story comes out. Here's something they understand...escape into fantasy. Whatever. I'm not convinced that this is such a terrible coping mechanism. If the external world is the living out of someone else's fantasies, it doesn't take long to realize that fantasy is the ticket to creating your own world.

Eventually, the books were taken away. Some walnut shells were found in my room. I had taken to sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of he night to help myself to a little snack. Since I could no longer be trusted, I was required to sit in a chair in the doorway of my room, masked and bookless. This meant that in order to escape the bad movie going on around me, I had to depend even more heavily on my own imagination. Tales of heartless pirates, cool cowboys, chivalrous knights and heroic soldiers played across my own private screen.

Letting these internal dramas continue to run even while having someone scream in your face or strike you repeatedly with a belt was quite the trick. It required awareness of another tool in stopping the world; recognizing the presence of the "objective observer." There was some remote part of me that would stand back, and without emotion, quietly comment on what was going on. Sometimes this part would make the most unusual observations and suggestions. The problem was, the observer was not only lacking in emotion, but also in any semblance of morality. For instance, one of his suggestions, "Kill the bitch," was simply not an option. Not because she didn't deserve to die, or that I was incapable of doing the deed, but because it would deeply hurt my father, who, for reasons I will never understand, deeply loves this woman, even today. And I continue to love him.

I don't recall if that option was ever seriously considered. As I have said, I realized that she was sick, not evil. But, even entertaining the notion reveals a critical piece to stopping the world. We are never trapped. We can always change the script. But this requires creative thinking; thinking outside the box. And sometimes, to do this, we have to step outside the world of emotions and morality, just to make sure there aren't some options we have overlooked. One way of stopping this script was to remove the director. But, the cost was too high. Eventually, I discovered a better way; remove myself from the stage.

In summation; we are not helpless players in this drama of sad and happy dreams. We can "stop the world", stop the play; drop the curtain; rewrite the next act, and then raise the curtain, cue the lights and let the show go on. Then, if we write ourselves into the role of victim, we only have ourselves to blame.

Stopping the World: The Second Definition

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

-William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned
I now knew that my step-mother was not the Director, but I mistakenly suspected that perhaps I was. After a short time with my grandparents, I went to live with an aunt and uncle who had a son my age. It was a wonderful home. But, a year later, I was told that I was being shipped to a cousin in Oregon. This was not supposed to happen. This was not in the script.

The family in Oregon were good people. They were also quite wealthy. They were also devout Christians, of the Pentecostal variety.

I was familiar with God, and had read the bible a few times during those years in the room. Smooth Jacob and King David were more familiar to me than Lassie and Superman; the heroes of my peers. I had talked to God since I could remember, although I wasn't so sure He was listening. At first, the spirituality of my new family was attractive. Maybe this was the way to discover who the real Director was?

The experience of worship was powerful. Clearly God, as revealed through Jesus Christ, was a clue to the real drama going on underneath the perceived one of daily life. That's what I wanted to get to now; the reality beyond.

Eventually, I began to wonder about the Pentecostal experience. It required such a expenditure of emotion. It was like a play that consisted of a series of song and dance numbers, without any story to connect them. I was suspicious of a euphoria based on a manipulation of my emotions. You can only respond to so many altar calls before the script becomes so familiar that it loses its ability to have the required effect.

This family also introduced me to another new aspect of life; hunting and fishing. After the initial fascination with having the power to kill things wore off, I found myself strongly attracted to the woods. Soon, I was setting off by myself each Saturday before the sun rose with a lunch in a pack on my back. I would hike in the mountains and return home as the sun set. Removed from the human dramas played out on stages of asphalt and concrete, it seemed easier to draw closer to another drama, one that was not controlled by any human, including me.

At first, I went into the woods with my peers; other twelve year olds armed with pellet rifles and .22s. The thrill of shooting anything that moved, and crashing through the brush like the herd of wild apes that we were, soon wore thin. Eventually, I chose to go alone. I found that after a couple of hours, the animals accepted my presence. Rather than an intruder, I slowly found my place in this world, as an observer. I learned to walk quietly, and sit still for long periods. In this world, the scripts being played out were not driven by any human neuroses. The squirrels chased each other from tree to tree because it amused them to do so. The robin sang because life was good.

One day, as I began climbing a small hill that opened onto a meadow at its summit, I remembered to be especially quiet. I knew that there might be wildlife in the meadow at that time of day. As I slowly raised my head over the top of the hill, I found myself looking into the eyes of a spike, a young buck, not more than six feet away from me. He had two nubs for horns, suggesting that in deer-years, he and I were peers. We both froze. It seemed that everything froze. I heard no birds, nor saw any trees swaying in the gentle breeze that had caressed my face moments before. My senses were strangely intensified. The colors of the wildflowers were blazing brightly. The dew on the grass sparkled like tiny gems. I could make out every detail in the face of the young buck, and my nostrils were full of his musty scent. For just a moment, time stood still. The division between my perception of this pastoral scene and the drama unfolding in the meadow wavered and shimmered for just a moment. And then I took a step, the buck bounded away, and the moment was over.

I tracked him for most of the day. I never saw him again. But that moment, that glimpse of a reality beyond my perception, a reality in which the buck, the flowers, the breeze, and the young boy were not separate, but all part of one grand canvas, was etched on my heart forever.

In summation; another way of understanding "stopping the world" is to find a means to "stop" our limited human perception of things, and to quit insisting that human perception is the only "true" way to make sense out of his world. Take a walk in the woods, for, as Wordsworth said, "Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; Our meddling intellect--Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect."

Stopping the World: The Third Definition

I continued to explore the boundaries between the imaginary and real dramas of life. The woods had taught me that there were natural dramas that were difficult to rewrite. I had also discovered limited success in manipulating adult dramas. I began to accept the boundaries set by adults less and less, as they had proven themselves to me to be a species that was not to be trusted. But the natural boundaries were yet to be explored.

A secret life emerged; consisting of crawling out of my window at night and roaming the city; sometimes with companions, sometimes alone. The opportunity presented itself to test a particular boundary that had fascinated me for some time. Through an unexpected turn of events, I found myself in the possession of the set of keys to a new Cadillac.

The speedometer read 110, and I still had some pedal left. Before I could fully explore the limits of this machine, I failed to navigate a corner. It slid out of control, smashed into one pole, and then shot ahead, wrapping its nose around another. A costly lesson in physics was learned that night.

My cousin and her family were in shock when they arrived at juvenile hall to pick me up. They decided they had no choice but to send me back to my father and stepmother. Before the date for my departure arrived, I slipped away. At fourteen years young, I found myself living on the street.

There were many children on the road in 1968. It was easy to blend in. The first order of business was to make the obligatory pilgrimage to Haight-Ashbury. I headed for the interstate, stuck out my thumb, and five hours later was wandering the streets of San Francisco.

The next few years were to be a wild adventure, consisting of hitching up and down the California coast, eventually getting picked up by the police and placed in a foster home, and finally being sent to the state boy's school.

Part of this adventure involved drugs. Lots of drugs. We were human guinea pigs; ingesting, injecting, snorting, huffing, toking guinea pigs. Some of us didn't survive the experiment. Others melted their minds. Others lost their soul. Others were put in a cage like the wild animal they had become.

There were magical moments; I could tell you of nights filled with beautiful visions and communing with fellow travelers. But then I would also have to tell you about the ugly times; hiding under a bush shaking with a club in my hand, or having to pull over because I was unable to stop screaming.

I speak of this because it is a part of the journey. The story would be incomplete without it. Before going any further, let me say this clearly. The use of any drug, including organics, is a shortcut, a back door, which offers short term rewards, but the final cost may not be realized until it is too late. In my experience, the cost is always too high.

A certain drug offered glimpses of a realm that I deeply desired; one that molded both the real and the imaginary dramas into one experience. The way it accomplished this amazing result is difficult to explain. A simple description might begin with a consideration of how the mind works. We are bombarded with millions of stimuli every minute. We cannot possibly process so much information. So, we develop filters, removing everything but the essential data. This drug took away all the filters. Every external stimulus was fully experienced.

At the same time, this drug caused the brain cells to fire in new and unusual patterns. Not only was the brain overloaded with external data, it also had to process a constant flow of new internal information, coming from parts of the brain previously hidden to the conscious mind.

During one of my weekend passes from the boy's school, where I had been incarcerated for the dangerous crimes of "consistent runaway and drug abuse," I was given a particularly pure dose of this drug. As I felt it beginning to open the filters, I climbed the stairs to a friend's apartment, and knocked on the door. A woman I had never seen before opened it. As we stood talking, I noticed that there was something wrong with her stereo. The song was slowing down, and the voices were getting deeper and deeper. Before I could comment on this, I noticed that the woman's hand motions seemed to flow, as in a choreographed dance. Her voice was also getting deeper. And slower. Then, the music stopped, as did her hands, and her mouth. She stood before me frozen with her lips still trying to form a vowel.

A sudden wave of fear gripped me. My fright seemed to kick the stereo, as the turntable slowly began its circular journey once again, the deep bass tones gradually becoming recognizable as the voice of Eric Burdon. The woman continued her explanation of why my friend was not there, as if nothing had happened.

I stumbled down the stairs and back into the sunlight. As I began to walk with my friends down the sidewalk, I had to stop every few steps as the implications of what had just happened began to sink in: "...but that means...and that means...and that means..." It was as if a deck of cards had been fanned before my eyes so quickly that I only had a glimpse of each unique design. But that glimpse was enough to turn my world upside down.

Was it just a drug-induced illusion? Most certainly. Yet, illusion or not, the possibility that another more universal illusion had been exposed was a suspicion that was born within my mind that day. Just possibly, our division of time into segments of past, present, and future are artificial dissections.

Three years later, just a couple of weeks after my eighteenth birthday, a patrol car tried to pull me over. I floored my Chevy, and smiled as I saw the flashing lights receding in my rear view mirror. That smile quickly disappeared when I returned my gaze to the road in front of me. Two more sets of flashing lights were waiting up ahead. You may be able to outrun the cars, but you cannot outrun the radios.

I spent enough time in jail for my head to begin to rise above the fog formed by all the chemicals I had ingested. As I did an inventory of my network of friends, I came to the realization that every one of them, without exception, was either in a mental hospital (or belonged in one), in prison (or headed there), or dead. This was the drama unfolding on the stage of my life.

It was high time to rewrite the script again. I knew a fellow traveler who was leaving for New Mexico. He had invited me to go along. It sounded like a plan. Ride out into the desert, allow it to dry me out, and start putting together a new script.

In summary; "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And there are many ways to uncover these things beyond this physical realm and the world of dreams. We may learn to stop the world, but taking a shortcut along the path always comes with a price. If you enter through the back door, be prepared to have insanity, incarceration, or death be your escorts as you make your final exit. Beware.

Stopping the World: The Fourth Definition

'One must assume responsibility for being in a weird world,' he said. 'We are in a weird world, you know.'

I nodded my head affirmatively.

'We're not talking about the same thing,' he said. 'For you the world is weird because if you're not bored with it you're at odds with it. For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, in this marvelous time. I wanted to convince you that you must learn to make every act count, since you are going to be here for only a short while, in fact, too short for witnessing all the marvels of it.'

I insisted that to be bored with the world or to be at odds with it is the human condition.

'So, change it,' he replied dryly. 'If you do not respond to that challenge you are as good as dead.'

- Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan; the Lessons of Don Juan, pp. 107-108.
During my time in jail, I happened across some of Castaneda's books. I know there remains some controversy as to if his works are fact or fiction. I tend to think that they may be more fiction than fact, or at least that Don Juan is a composite of various teachers Castaneda met. The stories are about Carlos, an Anthropology student and later professor at UCLA, who meets up with a brujo; a "man of knowledge," who takes him under his wing as an apprentice. Through the use of various techniques, including psychotropic drugs, Carlos enters into "a separate reality." One of these techniques is called "stopping the world;"

Don Juan stated that in order to arrive at 'seeing' one first had to 'stop the world.' 'Stopping the world' was indeed an appropriate rendition of certain states of awareness in which the reality of everyday life is altered because the flow of interpretation, which ordinarily runs uninterruptedly, has been stopped by a set of circumstances alien to that flow...Don Juan's precondition for 'stopping the world' was that one had to be convinced; in other words, one had to learn a new description in a total sense, for the purpose of pitting it against the old one, and that in that way break the dogmatic certainty, which we all share, that the validity of our perceptions, or our reality of the world, is not to be questioned.

- Journey,
p. 14.
Castaneda convinced me that maybe I wasn't quite as crazy as some people thought I was. If his bizarre journey could become a cultural favorite, I might just be on the right path. Encouraged by this, I headed for the desert of New Mexico.

Was any great epiphany waiting for me there? Certainly not what I was expecting. I saw one possible brujo. After a night of drinking, we convinced a neighbor to take us onto the reservation. We drove for hours in the desert, until we came to a house with nothing else near it for miles in any direction. We stopped about half a mile from the house. The neighbor told us to stay in the car while he approached the house on foot. After a few minutes, an elderly man came out, walked to the front of the car, stared at us, and then turned around and retraced his steps. The neighbor came running to the car, shouting, "Go! Go!" as he piled into the backseat, both pockets of his coat brimming with peyote buttons. I've always imagined this old man was much like Castaneda's Don Juan. I suppose I'll never know.

We spent a lot of time in the desert. We simply drove off the road into the sand. If we got stuck, we jacked up the car and pushed it off the jack until eventually the rear wheels found firm sand. We hunted jackrabbits, drank beer, and eventually got jobs at a local auto dealer detailing cars.

During one night of intense tequila consumption, we caught up with another car that had passed us and almost forced us off the road. We screamed at the lone occupant as we kicked dents into his fenders, broke off his antennae and smashed his side mirrors. He finally drove away, taking off the driver's door of our car in his haste. We threw the door into the backseat and took chase. I loaded up one of the rifles that was still lying on the seat in the back from our earlier jackrabbit hunt. I got off a couple of shots before the car in front of us careened around a corner and was gone.

Relocating to another state had not changed much, it seemed, except now I was looking at a New Mexico prison instead of one in Oregon. Time for desperate measures. My life was out of control. I couldn't even follow my own script anymore. I was tired of being hungry and broke. I needed discipline. I needed to be forced to play out a role in a drama that I could not manipulate. I needed to rediscover what it meant to be "normal."

The year was 1973. Vietnam was drawing to a close. The local recruiter was desperate for volunteers. By creatively filling out the forms in order to keep my colorful past hidden in obscurity, I was able to enlist in the US Navy. I served for four years as a jet engine mechanic, and received a good conduct medal and an honorable discharge. Imagine that.

Just a couple of comments regarding Castaneda; to my young mind, his stories seemed quite innovative and exciting. Later in life I found other renditions of these same ideas that were much more coherent and healthy. I am not recommending Castaneda's work.

My primary reservation regarding Castaneda is the appearance of entities he refers to as "allies," of which Mescalito is probably the most well-known. I find them troubling. They were often depicted as dark and malevolent figures, who had to be forced to form an alliance through various rituals and connections made through complex allegiances.

During this wild adventure, I had encountered principalities, or powers, that fit Castaneda's descriptions well. My experience (and Castaneda consistently insists that knowledge rises from experience), was that these were destructive forces, playing in a drama which I did not understand, and in which I could never be more than a pawn. I was helpless against them.

I am not suggesting a dualistic understanding, of forces of good waging war with forces of evil. That kind of thinking makes little sense of my experience. Yet, the reality of "twisted good" being a very real power in this world is denied at our own peril.

Perhaps a few words from Walter Wink will make this clearer;

I do not believe that evil angels seize human institutions and pervert them. Rather, I see the demonic as arising within the institution itself, as it abandons its divine vocation for a selfish, lesser goal. Therefore I would not attempt to cast out the spirit of a city, for example, but rather, to call on God to transform it, to recall it to its divine vocation. My spiritual conversation is with God, not the demonic.

- Walter Wink, The Powers That Be; Theology for a New Millennium, p. 197.
Wink's work I will recommend, without any reservations.

I had discovered that the script which I thought I had written was not always originating from me. I seemed headed for self destruction, even though that had never been my intention. I was broken, and could not fix myself. I needed a guide, a Director, who would place me in a drama in which I survived the last scene.

When things got out of control, and I was confronted with frightening realities, I had taken to repeating the name of Jesus Christ over and over. I used it as a type of talisman. It did not "make it all better," but seemed to lessen the feelings of panic and despair. A little thing, I suppose.

When the man stamping my dog tags asked what religion he should put on them, I said, without hesitation, "Christian."

He rolled his eyes and asked, "What kind of Christian?"

"I don't know," I replied. He muttered as he scrawled the generic label on a form and called for the next recruit.

Another little thing. Yet, this is how so many journeys begin; small steps that lead to a new path, and a new life.

Stopping the World: The Fifth Definition

While in the Navy, I continued to read voraciously. A new friend introduced me to Jack Kerouac, Herman Hesse, Alan Watts and Ram Das, among others.

I became involved in a small group who were attempting to synthesize Christianity, Eastern thought, and the Beats. It was led by a dynamic woman. We shared a house, and spent our time together studying and discussing various sacred texts. On the day the leader insisted on baptizing each of us in the Atlantic, I walked away. Another young woman walked away as well.

Six months later, this young woman and I were married. Within the next year, our first daughter was born. She was perfect in every way. In my eyes, she still is.

The depth of love I felt for this new creation was transformational. Making sure that she was safe and had everything she would ever need became the driving force of my life.

Another daughter was born, just as beautiful and perfect as the first. A son soon followed. My wife and I asked our priest when we might have him baptized. Getting the daughters "done" had been a rather simple affair, involving showing up at the church on a Saturday morning for the 30 minute ritual, and then having brunch with the family. This time, the priest said no. He told us that he saw no indication we intended to raise the child as a Christian, so he could not in good conscience perform the baptism.

I was livid. Who did this guy think he was? So we didn't go to church. We also refused to have a bank account. I did not trust any institution, and wanted nothing to do with them. But, for some reason that I didn't fully comprehend, having my children baptized was important. I was astounded by the arrogance of this man, especially in light of the fact that he was my father-in law; my son's grandfather.

My wife dug out a Book of Common Prayer, which I didn't even know she owned. We began discussing the Nicene Creed, to identify the specific difficulties we had with Christianity. Other than a few minor quibbles about a couple of words, we had no serious problems with this historic document. We agreed to get involved with the local Episcopal Church, for the sake of the children.

My parents were Episcopalian, of the C and E variety (Christmas and Easter). My father grew up as a Baptist, and my step-mother was Greek Orthodox. The compromise was the Episcopal Church. In my six years with them, I probably saw the inside of a church half a dozen times.

Having spent a few years active in a Pentecostal church, I had a pretty good idea what was supposed to happen on Sunday mornings. Consequently, I felt comfortable with the first half of the "service" at our local Episcopal church; songs, bible readings, a sermon and prayers. But the second half was a bit much. All that weird stuff up at the altar. But, I wanted my son baptized, so I went along with it and kept my mouth shut.

After a few months, I noticed a curious thing. The brief time of prayer in the pew after receiving communion became an intensely focused, yet peaceful moment. I noticed that others around me were having the same reaction. Eventually I had to accept that whatever they were doing up there at the altar, it seemed to be of God, as it was having a positive effect on me and all the participants. That is still the root of my understanding of Eucharist.

My wife wanted to go to a church-sponsored weekend that was popular at the time. In order to go, I had to agree to attend a similar weekend for men. A weekend with a bunch of men who drove Volvos and talked exclusively of football and irrigation systems? I knew that this was a vision of hell that even Dante had been spared. Besides, I didn't have time for such foolishness. I was working full time on the loading dock, and taking classes at the University full time at night. And now I was supposed to drop everything to sit around and sing "Kum Baya" with a bunch of yuppies?

At the same time, this interest in the spiritual life on the part of my wife was a new and positive development. We had been careful to avoid that aspect of our lives since we walked away from that synthesizing group. I went to the weekend, etching the marks of clawing fingernails the length of our driveway. Of course, I went for my wife. I knew I had no need for such drivel.

The event was actually worse than I expected. A series of long, boring talks interspersed with guitar music, clapping, laughter, and the periodic embrace of some weeping man declaring, "I love ya, man!"

Two nights later, a meditation was offered in the darkened church. The only light was a small spot shining on the altar cross. At its conclusion, the men wandered out into the hall, where ice cream was being served. I could hear the laughter and the back slapping. I decided that the only way I was going to avoid these happy huggers was to just stay in the church.

Soon, I was alone. I knew they would let me stay there for as long as I wanted, if it appeared I was having some kind of "spiritual experience." So, I got on my knees, gazed on the cross, and assumed an "attitude of prayer." After a few minutes, I decided that it would be a shame to waste this opportunity, so I might as well go ahead and actually pray. I started out with praise and adoration, as I had been taught to do during my Pentecostal days, telling God how wonderful he was, and how much I loved him.

Then suddenly I stopped. What was I saying? Why should I declare my love for God? God could care less if I lived or died. The ugliness of my life was evidence of that. It was time to be honest. I now knew something about love, through being a husband and a father. That experience made it clear to me that I did not love God, and saw no indication that God loved me.

I got off my knees and sat in the pew. I still had to stay in the church, of course. I could hear a sing-along starting up in the next room. So, I just sat there, letting my mind wander, enjoying the quiet peacefulness of the place. Suddenly, in my mind's eye, I saw a neighbor who had lived next door to us when I was quite young. I saw her holding me as I cried. There was a vague memory of falling off my tricycle, or something similar. I had not thought of this woman for 25 years. Yet, here she was, in a vivid memory, floating across the screen before my mind's eye. What a strange thing.

The image shifted. I now saw my grandparents. Then a teacher from grade school who used to talk to me after class. Various aunts and uncles paraded by. Then the man who took me in and fed me when I was homeless. Next, a counselor from reform school. A professor from the University. Finally, I saw my wife, my daughters, and my newborn son.

I was crying. I wasn't sure why. I was on my knees again, although I didn't remember moving. What were all these images about? I wasn't sure. They all drew from me a similar feeling, however. The feeling of being loved; of being loved unconditionally.

It felt as if I were being held and slowly rocked, as a voice whispered, "Shh, it's okay now. I've always been here, and I've always loved you. I know you've been hurt. And I tried to show you that I cried with you, that I so deeply loved you. I tried to show you through those you are remembering tonight."

I dared to believe this was real. This was a moment of transformation, equal to the encounters with the young buck and the frozen woman so many years before. I was loved. Even more importantly, I was worthy to be loved.

That was over twenty-five years ago, yet rarely does a day pass when I don't remember that night; the night I stopped fighting to survive, and began to live.

In summary; striving to stop the world is motivated by a seeking for that elusive "something more." The sign that points the way is not found in the external journey. It is discovered by looking within; by honestly answering the question, what is it you seek? Identifying your heart's deepest desire may just lead to a surprising discovery; that the thing for which you search has been right before you, traveling with you, from the beginning.

What is the heart's desire? To love, and to be loved. Nothing more, and nothing less, will satisfy.

Stopping the World: The Sixth Definition
After a few years of being active in the Church, the rector of our parish encouraged me to speak to the bishop about going to seminary. I was more than a bit hesitant. My impression of Episcopal clergy was that of Ivy League types; a rather exclusive club.

Eventually, I did visit the bishop, and was ushered through the ordination process. He insisted I attend Nashotah House, the Anglo-Catholic seminary of the Episcopal Church. His explanation was that I knew how to be an Evangelical, and it was time I learned how to be a Catholic.

The House was wonderful and awful. It offered an excellent theological education and a deep grounding in the discipline of daily corporate prayer. The awful part was the politics. Nashotah remains the only seminary of the Episcopal Church that does not allow women to perform sacerdotal functions on the grounds. They will accept women students, but not women priests.

I was oblivious to the issue of women's ordination prior to arriving at the House. The degree of outrage and mean-spiritedness surrounding the issue was shocking.

During my senior year, I was elected president of the Jackson Kemper Missionary Society, which is as close as the House gets to having a student body president. In this capacity, I was able to travel to other seminaries as a representative of the House. Through discussions with others in the larger Church, I felt prepared to lobby the Board, alumni and the student body of Nashotah to rescind the restrictions on women. The board chose to affirm their previous policy. I resigned my office, as I could no longer represent the House in good conscience.

When graduation came around, I found it ironic that only three of my class graduated with honors; the only two women in the class, and me. I was the "token male." Imagine that.

I've served the Church for fourteen years now. It continues to be a love/hate relationship. I've resigned from a couple of positions, and worked as the director of a homeless shelter, and as a counselor for adolescents in a chemical dependency center. But for some reason, I find myself continuously drawn back to the Church.

Today, I understand that I will probably always be a priest, because God doesn't trust me as a layman! Daily, I am pulled from the pit of destruction by the collar of my priestly vows.

I serve as a part-time interim priest now (which is why I have so much time for my latest addiction...blogs!). It is a specialized role, involving going into a parish and accomplishing specific tasks as you prepare them for the calling of a new spiritual leader. When the work is done, you quietly fade away. Usually, the agreement is for about a year. I am about halfway through my current assignment. The parish that I am working with right now is the best community in which I have ever served. Walking away from this one is going to be tough. At the same time, having no idea where I will be serving this time next year is also quite exciting.

That more or less brings the story up to date. I do want to touch on my current understanding of "stopping the world" before I end this series.

The final definition I want to give this concept is that a form of stopping the world would be what is traditionally called "contemplative prayer." Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, among others, have written extensively on this topic.

I am hesitant to say too much about specific techniques for contemplative prayer. I think a person finds their own methods. I see most children as natural contemplatives. I think that learning how to do it is more a matter of remembering than learning something new.

At its root is the desire to "be still and know that I am God." It is a recognition of the places inbetween; a recognition that "God" is often discovered in places behind, beyond, or hidden within all sensory data or intellectual conceptualizations. It is similar to the way a musician recognizes the importance of rests inbetween notes. The places of no-sound are essential to the composition.

Christian spirituality, and theology, can be seen as flowing from two paths; the apophatic way, the negative way (less is best), and the kataphatic way, the positive way (the more the better). Usually, a healthy spirituality is a combination of the two. I love a well done solemn high mass, with smells and bells and chant. But I also enjoy times of quiet contemplation. Neither way is "right" or "wrong." But recognizing our own personal inclinations can help us to allow our spirituality to flow naturally from our relationship with God, instead of being something for which we strive, and often fail.

Regarding the setting, this ends up being much like Carlos Castaneda finding his place on the porch; you keep trying different things until eventually you find your "spot." Some people like complete silence, with no distractions. Others like candles, crosses, incense, and even music. Some like to incorporate a bit of yoga; others prefer to walk, maybe using a labyrinth. There is no "wrong" way; but there is a way that will suit you best where you are right now in your spiritual journey. So, explore.

What is the purpose of contemplative prayer? My purpose is to be still. To get that dang committee in my head to shut up. And then to begin to be aware that I am in the presence of God. To spend some time in that place, just being, just loving and being loved.

Usually, I have to begin by relaxing my body. This begins as I focus on my breathing. This technique is taught in Lamaze classes, btw. It is an excellent way to calm the mind and relax the body. Usually, I have to tune into each part of the body, and coax the muscles into letting go of their tension and relax.

The breathing and body relaxation exercises help the mind to become quiet. They act as a distraction. Usually, I then begin focusing on a phrase or a word, maybe a verse of scripture, allowing it to fall into the rhythm of my breathing. There is an old prayer, called the Jesus prayer, that I particularly find helpful; "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Over the years, this has become like a song that is always being played in the back of my mind. In times of crises, or before stepping into a hospital room, it suddenly is there, offering a focal point.

Thoughts will come floating through, of course. I find that the more I strive to chase them away, the more rigidly they remain. For me, the most effective way to deal with distractive thoughts has been to note them, and then let them float away. Sometimes, these thoughts can be of a person, or a situation, that are worth noting, but are best not allowed to become the primary focus of the quiet time.

Usually, there will be a point when there is no-thing, no separation, no time. Just be-ing, with God. Sometimes it is for just a moment; sometimes for a few minutes.

I try to balance daily contemplative prayer with study and action. The ideal cycle is that a time of silence before God offers the assurance of grace, which will then allow the study of the scriptures or other spiritual writings to be more focused, and less biased by underlying fears or emotional baggage. The study then leads naturally to a plan of action, an expression of our vocation, our calling, our form of service to the world. We, the Church, exist for the sake of the world. Each action will initiate a new cycle of prayer, study, and evolve into a new action.

In summation; Letting go of regrets of the past and frets of the future, using the tools of a disciplined spiritual life, can "stop the world" by helping us stay in the eternal now. In this present moment, if we expect to see manifestations of God "rolling through" all things, we will remain open to the new thing God may be doing, and can choose to actively participate in God's ongoing act of creation. Eternity is found in the now. It is only in this present moment that we encounter the living God.