A Respectful Rebel in an Orthodox Land

Meteora Monastery

Sitting in a cave in Meteora Greece, a few days after Fierce Light has screened at the Thessaloniki Film Festival.  A soft rain has driven me off the purple, yellow white flower speckled mountain trail.   Like Mount Athos, Meteora is a land of towering ancient greek orthodox monasteries. Unlike Athos, women are allowed here, and there is even a convent,  named St. Stefanos.  

Although I am not a Christian (I was raised a Baha’i, used to call myself a sufi buddhist baha’i punk rocker, but now I simply say I’m a divine human, being),  I have a deep sense of respect for all things holy, and the impetus behind the religious calling.  I make a point of trying to cut through the dogma, to the deep devotion that often resonates profoundly in places of worship. I seek the true mystics, the ones who’s hearts are on fire, who have transcended the rigidity of structures to that place beyond concepts where the source of all that is sizzles. 

Mary

 But always, irony abounds-for example, the orthodox religion were the ones who invented the word dogma (not to mention the word Orthodox).  And of course, for them,  the word  has a positive connotation: it means to be faithful, and to follow the precise pathway to God -just so.  Dogma is seen as a divine security blanket that keeps us from falling astray.

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It is ten years since my previous visit to Athos.  At that time I was wide eyed and innocent, in many ways, a naïve pilgrim embarking on a new journey of discovery.  It was far from the beginning of my spiritual search, but the beginning of my  first hand investigation of the worlds holy places, seeking a path, a system, a doorway into divinity, as I circled the planet, visiting everywhere from the Avebury Stone Circle, Lourdes, Athos, Konya, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya, holy native sites in North America-a wide journey into the heartland of many of the worlds beliefs systems.   In each of these places, I took time to really steep myself in their wisdom, spending time in spiritual retreats inspired by each of the faiths I encountered.

I left that journey with a clear understanding, articulated in Fierce Light:  it is the essence of the worlds religions that matters to me, not the particular form.  Spirituality is beyond form. Way beyond.

A few days later, I find myself wandering through Meteora, where the monasteries perch high atop pinnacles of rock, safe from invaders.  In the past, the only way to enter the monastery was to be hoisted up by rope.   Perhaps too, the devotees feel closer to God, up in the clouds.  

After hours of winding through the awe inspiring moss covered pinnacles, alongside sparkling glades, I climbed the spiralling staircase to one of the monasteries that clings to the rock steeple, impossible stone acrobatics.

Velcrow Meteora

I entered the church, it’s byzantine dome painted with ornate frescos, glittering gold halos and angel wings.  I was greeted by an Orthodox monk dressed from head to toe in black.  I told him I had been to mount athos, an excellent icebreaker in these parts, and asked him to remind me of the greeting: evlogites, which means “bless me!” To which one replies, akirosos (no doubt spelt wrong): I cannot bless but God does, through me.

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He showed me around the church, explaining the significance of the many ikons.   I asked why so many figures are dressed in red, and he explained that red is the god colour, and blue is the colour of the earth, except in the case of Mary – then red is the colour for earth and blue is the colour of God.  Interesting for me, as I am shooting a film called Redvolution: Dare to Disturb the Universe.  It is about the path of  what co-director  Sera Beak calls “red” spirituality – becoming your own spiritual authority, being a spiritual outlaw, truly knowing yourself, your authentic Self.  It is about  embodied spirituality-a passionate, sexy, spirituality that isn’t afraid of ecstasty, that celebrates life, being human, that sees God in all things. 

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Panagea

Meanwhile back in the church…

Transfiguration…metamorphisis….extasis…theosopis…greek words were flying about.  My new monk friend explained that to him extasis -ecstasy-was the stuff of other religions, like the eastern religions, and it was an escape.  Much like our induglence in the “sweets” of life, like women.  Yikes. Clearly the orthodoxy was created by men.  

The orthodox path is about transfiguration, he explained, and metamorphosis-through the correct rituals, prayers, divine love and grace, one clears away ones heart and allows God in.  It is about theosopis, not extasis.  Joining with God not escaping into ecstasy.  

I didn’t argue-I never argue with the faithful – but between you and me, I have to beg to differ.  For me, God is also human, God is also creation, God made all of this amazingness, and I have a hunch She wants nothing more than that we celebrate this magnificence. Her magnificence.  With depth, and divinity, for sure, but celebration nonetheless.  And that  celebration can be joyful, it can be ecstatic, and it can be quiet, it can be sober.  It can be both/and.  God doesn’t fit well into boxes of this not that.  God has a bigger palette than that.  God wants us to go for it, to burn bright, to be fully embodied and fully ecstatic, all at the same time, in waves and particles, particles and waves – both/and.   That’s my two cents, just the tip of my tongues worth.  But I kept it there, on the tip.  It’s not for me to argue with a monk, but to listen respectfully, and take what he has to offer, and leave what doesn’t fit behind, in that holy place.  With respect for his calling, his commitment and his sincere love.

As we were leaving, I told him perhaps one day I would return to Mount Athos-it is a beautiful, holy place.
“Yes”, he said, “but the real holy place is right here”. He tapped my heart, “wherever we are.”

I couldn’t agree more.

“Pray for me” he said, as I stepped outside the monastery gate, into the sunshine. 

Now, as I walk through the stone trails, lined with purple flowers, sun glistening, flocks of birds swooping and gliding, I can feel the presence of divinity everywhere.  It is in the very air. As I walk in the midst of the sublime beauty of creation, it is clear that this is my communion.  And that for me, as a spiritual rebel, I will always be a little, and sometimes a lot, unorthodox.

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BYObama

BE YOUR OWN OBAMA!

arlyn

As we move closer to the date when Barack Obama steps into power, there is an enormous sense of anticipation.  There are those who are floating on cloud nine, and there are those who are down in the basement of cyncism.   Somewhere in the middle lies a place of hope, possibility, and realism.   Right in the midst, in that liminal zone between rose coloured glasses and dung coloured glasses is a pair of clear lenses that can help us stay the course.

Yes we can!  And yes we will.  It’s up to us, not anyone else, not Obama, not your mama, not Santa Claus.  Change begins first and foremost in your own heart.   This is one of the central principles of Spiritual Activism – one by one, drop by drop, we fill the bucket of change, with our sense of personal responsibility, of heart felt compassion, the kind that comes from a deep authentic impulse.   This means we don’t change because we feel we ought to, because our mother told us so, because it will impress someone (even ourselves), etc.  That kind of transformation is short lived and brittle.

The kind of change that I call “Fierce Light”  comes from getting in touch with who you really are.  This takes some work, cause a lot of what we think we are,  is coming from the outside, from culture, from our history, from our fears and desires.   When you strip all that away, who are you really?

At last weekends Zen retreat with Roshi Enkyo , we did an amazing excercise, which she borrowed from Joanna Macy (who is featured in Fierce Light).   You can try it for yourself if you like.

With a partner, sit facing each other, in a comfortable, sacred space.  One partner begins by asking the question, and the other answers, then you switch.

Take a moment to get centered and calm.   Look into each others eyes.  Sometimes the hardest part!!!  If it’s easier, you can wear a pirate patch and just look into one eye.  Just kidding.  Try to keep your gaze soft and unintrusive, and try to maintain eye contact throughout the excercise.

Become aware of your breathing.  

Partner one asks: “Who are you?”

Partner two answers with whatever pops up.  Try to be spontaneous, loose, not premeditated, clever or right.  Simply speak whatever comes out.

Partner one responds, “Thank you.  Who are you?”

This continues for five minutes.  Then take a few moments to reflect on all the possible answers that emerged, before switching roles.

It’s a powerful, simple practice, that flipped my lid.  I was everything from a slug to the planet to the person in front of me, to a brother, son, soul, cell, spiral nebulae and so many other things.  Amazing all of who I am. Some of them not so pretty. Some of them incredibly beautiful.  Some of them just plain silly.

I asked another Zen master I met in Boulder recently, Junpo Roshi, what he thinks spirituality is.  He said, “Embodied Compassion.”    To him, that is the core of it all.   What are we here on this planet to do?  Embody compassion.  Who are we?  Compassion on two legs.

There’s a different answer to what that might look like for everyone. But if we all were to step up to the plate, and start moving through the world from a heart centered place, grounded in real compassionate action, we would begin to see the fruits of this massive spirit of possibility which the world is feeling right now.  Right in the midst of this spirit of crisis, enormous flowers of change are blooming.   And that’s an exciting place to be – in the midst.

So who are you?  And how do you embody compassion?

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HOPE ON A TIGHTROPE

* Cornel West on the Election of Barack Obama: “I Hope He Is a Progressive Lincoln, I Aspire to Be the Frederick Douglass to Put Pressure on Him” *

Princeton University professor of religion and African American studies, Cornel West, speaks about the election of Barack Obama, his selection of Eric Holder to be Attorney General, the possible selection of Lawrence Summers to be Treasury Secretary and the role of the progressive left to push Obama. West is the author of the new book Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom.

Listen/Watch/Read
http://www.democracynow.org/2008/11/19/cornel_west_on_the_election_of

 

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 OBAMA’S UNYIELDING HOPE

“Unyielding hope” – Obama is a meliorist (even if he, knowledgeable as he is, may have to look that word up).  The meliorist is the one who holds dear the conviction that we can, through our own efforts, make better lives for our selves.  The meliorist is neither the pessimist who sees gloom nor the optimist who sees brightness as automatically given.  Betterment is our doing, our energy, our achievement: so says the meliorist.  That Obama is a meliorist makes him a pragmatist and an American of the best variety our history has to offer.” – REQIEUM FOR CERTAINTY BLOG 

The Urge to Manifest

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It goes something like this…

First, I just was.  A void of pure potential.  Shunyata. Emptiness – but pregnant with possibility.  I had this deep, unspoken urge to manifest…you know the feeling. One thing lead to another, which lead to another and before you know it, I was over the edge: it was the Big Bang, the Big “Ohhhh” , the Divine Orgasm…and I let out a moan that was long and low and deeeeeeep – way below the range of human ears – this Kosmik boooooooming sound wave that slowed and thickened and transformed slowly – oh you don’t know nothin’ bout how slow I can go – slowly into matter. Slow – like a few billion years slow – a time  of birthing galaxies, exploding stars, spiral nebulae, black holes, fiery intensity, and burgeoning solar systems.  Me became We, a multiple orgasm of complexification and diversification that keeps on coming and coming with no end in sight. 

Recently, this little blue planet called earth popped out of the Kosmik womb. This I of the great Me was a quiet baby, for a long long time.  But finally, I caught my breath, found some air molecules, then  some of My H’s found an 0 and voila – I had my blood.  The first oceans were a sexy soup.  Slowly rock turned to flesh.

Way late in the game, those early twinkling splashes of stardust turned into human beings. I began to awaken into consciousness.   I disovered spirit. I discovered matter.  The two went hand in hand like lovers, and I revelled in this manifest realm, I worshipped Her as a Goddess, as a Lover.  Good times!!!

Then a new kid on the block arrived, a part of Me named Christ, and at first everything He said jived with what I knew.      But a short blink of an eye later I lost Him to dogma and digression, and I was severely dissapointed.   Huh, we’re original sinners? What, pleasure is bad? Wait – you’re saying I can’t talk to God by Myself any more? And you’ll kill me if I beg to differ?  Weird.   Scary. Disturbing.

Tired of the churchy hyporcrisy,  my ancestors became Mennonites, a pacifistic utopianistic tightly knit religious community that was trying to live by the true core tenets of Christ’s teachings, rejecting the excesses of what they saw as a corrupted Christian faith and a violent culture at large, refusing to take part in war and bloodshed.  

When the Dutch government asked them to go to war they refused, and to avoid forced service they moved to the shores of the Caspian Sea. They lived in peace for several hundred years, maintaining their isolation and their ideals, until again they were told that they would have to kill. This time they moved, en masse, to the New World: Canada.

My grandmother was raised in Alberta in the strict Mennonite fashion. And as usual with my peeps, she was a trouble maker.  She didn’t like the patriachal structure of the religion. She especially resented the fact that as a girl she was not allowed to ice skate. She left as soon as she could, on the arms of a ne’er do well from down south named Missouri Jack.   She raised her eight children without any religion.

In the late fifties the religious void was filled when, one by one, my family became Bahai’s. Baha’u’ll’ah, the founder of the faith, taught that humanity is undergoing a process of spiritual evolution, similar to the growth of an individual. We are in a state of adolescence, albeit a stormy one, but Bahai’s possess an unshakable belief that we will make it through to global maturity, to a time of global peace. They believe we are on the verge of a great leap in consciousness that will bring humanity to a future where, ‘world peace is not only possible, but inevitable.’

As a child I was deeply committed and pious, a little holy roller, which culminated in a pilgrimage to the Baha’i holy city of Haifa, Israel, when I was nine. But as a teenager I found that I was unable to embrace a single wholesale program. One tenet of the faith is ‘the independent investigation of truth.’ You need to come to your own understanding of truth, instead of just following the path of least resistance, succumbing to the pressures of family or culture. So I left, to ‘independently investigate truth.’

Today, I realize that I will never belong to a single belief system. What I look for are the universal truths,the mystic heart, and I do my very best to live by these truths. I believe the true heart of the sacred is accessible to us all,not just for the experts.  We can all be “mystics without monasteries” if we so desire.

Alongside my spiritual investigation, from a very young age I had a strong sense of social responsibility, and all my life have been an active agent of change, on the front lines of the planet, working as a media activist.

But like many people, my two sides – political and spiritual – have been deeply divided. In progressive circles, there has long been a deep distrust of religion, that opiate of the masses, which has been used and abused in the name of power and domination. It takes tremendous courage to ‘come out of the closet as a spiritual person’ in the activist world.

On the spiritual side, there has long been a distrust of politics, with it’s biting cynicism and tendency to focus on the negative. In the extreme, there is a belief that this world is an illusion, a place of sin and temptation, and the best we can do is get the hell out, as fast as we can, to that pie in the sky when we die, however you might envision it. I have to wonder: 14 billion years of evolution, so we can simply transcend it all? Hmmm….

Today, I feel that the need to merge the power of action with the depth of spirit is urgent, crucial, in fact, the direction we need to go if we want to have any hope of coming through the “Great Turning” with our precious small blue planet intact. But I dream of much more than survival – I dream of utter transformation.

I try my best to live my truth, to build true power from within, so that all my actions come from a place of deep, deep authenticity. The means are the ends. Transformation begins this very moment, not in some distant future. It is personal, it is political, it is spiritual, it is global. The journey begins with this very breath.

– Velcrow Ripper
Toronto Island, Canada
www.fiercelight.org

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