A Look at Non-Stop Prayer—and a Very Doable Alternative.

prayer-150x150I’ve always been fascinated by the simple edict found at in the New Testament to “Pray without ceasing”. Perhaps because, I have several times come across people and religious groups that take this proclamation quite literally.

A few years ago, I read about a group of young Christian men, who began praying in their local church, morning, noon and night. They stopped only for food and bathroom breaks. As I recall, they had troubled pasts and were hoping their non-stop petitioning would make Jesus a constant presence in their lives, a companion in their every activity. I can find no trace of the story now but I imagine that after a few weeks, one-by-one, they grew weary of their endeavor and returned to the secular world with varying degrees of success.

Taking a slightly easier route to fulfilling Thessalonians 5:17 is the Salvation Army. At this moment, in locations around the globe, “Salvationists” are engaging in a year of “Boundless Prayer” that extends through July, 2015. The site informs us that it is a “24/7/365” effort that basically moves “from one territory to another” with the goal of getting “the whole world praying”1.

Looking at the Army’s calendar it appears each territory commits about a week to the cause. For instance, there is currently a non-stop prayer-athon happening in Iceland. It appears to be more of a tag-team approach, whereby prayer happens in small groups working in shifts, with replacements coming in as needed to keep the invocations going without pause.

So is it really possible to engage in non-stop prayer? I know from vast experience that it can be tough to focus on meditating, or engage in centering prayer, for a solid 20-minute stretch. But praying hour after hour, day after day?

Well, according to one Christian site, it’s not that difficult. There is an online group called “Got Questions Ministries” that talks to ceaseless praying and makes it sound relatively easy. It does this by linking prayer to each breath we take. According to their Web site:

For Christians, prayer should be like breathing. You do not have to think to breathe because the atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs and essentially forces you to breathe. The fact is that every believer must be continually in the presence of God, constantly breathing in His truths.

For those of us who believe this is a little too much prayer, it may be easier to follow the lead of the yogini Sara Courter. On her blog Body Karma, Courter makes the notion of on-going prayer sound a lot more doable by advising us to find triggers throughout the day that remind us to give a quick blessing.

For instance, Courter mentions passing through a doorway or stopping at a traffic light as possible prayer cues. I would also suggest passing along a silent blessing with each new human encounter you have, or, if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, saying a prayer at the start of each new cup.

The cues make it easier to remember to quickly pray or give a blessing and can be worked into our everyday lives, as opposed to ceaseless praying where prayer is our life.

The good thing about this approach is there’s no planning needed, unlike a life where ceaseless prayer becomes your raison d’être. And it’s a task that, with a little practice, can easily be mastered. In Courter’s (lightly edited) words:

If you wake up one day and decide to start blessing every doorway you pass through, or deciding to say a prayer of gratitude at every red light you hit during your commute…it will take an adjustment period. But, in time, the act will become an art. The new habit awkwardness will steady into skillful execution. There will be a grace and fluidity about it, because you will have become it. No longer will you have to think before blessing each doorway, no longer will there be an “oh yeah,” before giving thanks at a stoplight.

And, best of all, you can start engaging in this practice today.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, February 2, 2015.

A Wake Up Call from Bill Murray (and Life).

800px-Bill_Murray_by_David_Shankbone-150x150

Bill Murray by David Shankbone

There’s an article in a recent issue of Rolling Stone called “Being Bill Murray”. It tells the story of how the now 64-year old actor has a habit of engaging in sometimes mischievous, often beguiling public acts.

For instance, there’s the time he stopped to read poetry to a group of construction workers in New York City. Or the tale of how, while in a cab in San Francisco, he engaged the driver in conversation and found out he was a fledgling saxophonist who never got the chance to play. So Murray took over the wheel, driving himself to his destination so the cabbie could blow his horn in the back seat, stopping at a BBQ joint along the way.

Why does he do it? Murray believes that “no one has an easy life”, so he goes out of his way to surprise and delight those around him, helping to lessen their load. These small acts have an effect on those he encounters making their worlds “a little weirder, the mundane routines of everyday life a little more exciting”. Murray explains his actions this way:

If I see someone who’s out cold on their feet, I’m going to try to wake that person up. It’s what I’d want someone to do for me. Wake me the hell up and come back to the planet.

It’s a wake-up call and Murray makes them everywhere he goes. He has been known to stroll around Charleston, South Carolina, where he owns part of a minor-league baseball team, and make impromptu, spontaneous appearances at public and private events. He “photobombed” a couple taking wedding pictures in a local park, stopped by a birthday party in a bar to give an off-the-cuff speech and toast.

But perhaps what is most interesting is the fact Bill Murray performs these acts not just for the pleasure of others, but also for himself. In his words:

My hope, always, is that it’s going to wake me up. I’m only connected for seconds, minutes a day, sometimes. And suddenly, you go, ‘Holy cow, I’ve been asleep for two days. I’ve been doing things, but I’m just out.

Now you might say, he is Bill Murray and can get away with this kind of off-kilter behavior. But the fact is, we all have the ability to break away from our preconceived ideas of how we should act and behave in public. We all can engage in activities that add a little more light and joy to the world and ease the burden of others.

The renowned businessman and life philosopher John Templeton tells the story of a friend who was sitting in a park one day when she noticed a man “in his latter years” stroll by wearing a bright red cardigan, red cap and checkered pants. He smiled and said hello, then proceeded to walk to a playground where he got on swing and began vigorously and joyfully swinging back and forth.

The elderly gentleman later stopped by to explain that while on his daily walk he swung on that swing exactly 50 times each day. She noticed that the man “glowed with the fullness of life” and that his eyes “sparkled with the joy of living”. His age was clearly of no concern to him, nor did he worry what others might think about his behavior.

Templeton points out that we often curtail our childlike wonder and joy due to concerns about “our self-imposed limitations of age, appropriateness of behavior, the images we hold of ourselves”. This robs us of our ability to fully engage in life. He calls out the example of Jesus who asked us to “become as little children that we might enter into the fullness of life, which he called the kingdom of heaven”.

John Templeton was known by some as a staid businessman, but he also had a contrarian streak, zigging while others zagged. He showed that he is a kindred spirit with Bill Murray when he made the following challenge, one we should all take to heart:

When did you last swing on a swing? When did you last do something “outrageous” that pushed you beyond your present boundaries and radiated to the world that you are fully alive? When did the childlike spirit within you run free in joy and excitement? Age is no excuse; other people’s opinion of you is no excuse; and your own limiting opinion of yourself is no excuse for not embracing the gift of life and living it to its fullest expression.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, January 25, 2015.

Does God have a plan for your life? Ralph Waldo Emerson has a compelling answer.

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

God’s plan for your life isn’t a map you see all at once, but a scroll unrolled a little at a time, requiring faith. ~Rick Warren, pastor and author

In Christian circles, it’s common to believe that God has a plan for your life. It’s an idea called predestination (aka religious determinism) and, as hinted at by the quote above, it basically means that all the events in your life have been predetermined by God. To back up this claim, the following Biblical passage is frequently cited:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declared the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

Now this may be comforting to some, but for a lot us this idea has a couple of issues. Problem one: What about free will? Don’t I get a say in what happens in my life? Problem two: How do I know what my plan is? Do I need to live my life on autopilot waiting for my plan to reveal itself?

Well, there are answers to these questions and they come from the person who I believe is our all-time greatest American spiritual philosopher: Ralph Waldo Emerson. It should be noted here that Emerson is a former Unitarian minister who left his post at age 29, as he could no longer live abide by the church’s rigid dogma. So his ideas are not solely Biblically-based. (See more on Emerson’s spiritual philosophy here.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was convinced we all had a preordained path in life, but also thought that you and I play a vital role in calling the shots. According to noted Emerson scholar Richard Gelhard, RWE believed in a “subtle order of divinity which lay beneath and behind the manifest world.” This meant that “human beings don’t have power…the universe does; it is full of power; flowing, waiting and accessible.

Yet Emerson also believed that “an individual who understands the laws of power can move into its flowing and allow it to wield its instruments.” In other words, by engaging with the flow of life, we can tap into this power source and use it to help guide us down the proper path.

In an essay titled Spiritual Laws, Emerson wrote that there was “guidance for each of us” that could help us “hear the right word”. He believed this higher power was self-evident if we stayed alert to our surroundings:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher power than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine.

In another passage from the same essay, Emerson more passionately states his belief in a higher power that can comfort and guide us:

A believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…it has so infused its strong attachment into nature that we prosper when we accept its advice.

Like Emerson, another noted American spiritual philosopher, Ram Dass, also has a belief in the power of intuition to guide us. In this passage from his book Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass instructs us to use this inner sense of direction to our advantage:

Begin paying more attention to the inner voice of our intuition, because that’s the clue to what we should be doing. We start to listen to the tiny, intuitive whisper that the Quakers call “the still small voice within”.

My take is that Emerson’s ideas ring true: there is a personal plan for each of us to follow. If we listen to our intuition and the divine guidance we can find within, we can steer ourselves in the right direction. To help us, signposts, clues and coincidences appear along the way to verify we are on the correct life path or to help point us to a new one.

Of course, there is still free will, so you can always choose to make decisions that are strictly based on your own brain power and whims. But for me, it’s a little more comforting to know that assistance is available when and if you want it.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, January 14, 2015.

Musings on God and Life from an 85-Year Old Expat Living in France.

ManBenchHis name is Johnny and in his daydreams we meet regularly in Washington Square Park, not far from where I work in New York City. He spent a few months in the city in 1968 and has fond memories of his visit. But, this being 2014, we actually meet online. Johnny commented on one of my Wake Up Call columns several months ago and we took the conversation offline. Since then, we have been communicating almost daily via e-mail.

Johnny is an ex-Angeleno; he lived there for the first three decades of his life. He served in the Army during the Korean War, guarding high-profile prisoners of war. But when the 1960’s came, like many Americans, he became disillusioned with our country and headed for Europe. He got married, had a child, and settled in the French countryside, an expat living in a small village in Isère.

At 85 years old, Johnny is full of piss and vinegar and I mean that in the best possible sense. He is passionate about God and religion and life. He cares deeply about the state of mankind and where we are headed, as evidenced by this passage from a recent e-mail:

God has been taken out of our world of today. The feelings of humility, kindness and brotherhood of the past have also disappeared. Our individual world has collapsed where we no longer know or even care for our neighbor. They have been thrust out and the unknowns have become our obsession.

Johnny has a good heart and much wisdom to share. I’ve been collecting his thoughts via the e-mails he sends me, letting him know I would one day share his ideas with his fellow Patheos readers. And since he is beginning to think he may not have much more time in this life, I thought it an appropriate time to write this post.

I have written in the past how everyone has their own personal spiritual story. This is your story Johnny, my soul brother in France. I have lightly edited and organized your thoughts and hope I have done them justice. May we one day meet on that park bench in Washington Square Park, if not in this lifetime, in the next.

Life Wisdom from Johnny of Isère.

  • I am a peaceful man and love mankind as well as all other creatures that inhabit this planet of ours (except for crocodiles, hyenas, flies and mosquitoes).
  • Being a peaceful man I do not like violence, meanness, arrogance, jingoism, pretentious fools, know-it-alls and all the other ugly traits of our species. I greatly respect those who are humble and caring, people with love and respect for our fellowman.
  • I believe in something beyond us, something metaphysical, something that you and I and those like us believe. I believe in the goodness of Man and that he can be good and can be beautiful.
  • If God does exist, he has nothing to do with organized religions whose sole purpose is for their self-interests. They do not speak for him!
  • This true feeling of God that you search for and commune with is yours alone. You feel it personally. You believe in him and commune alone with him like the Buddhist and all the many others who have this feeling for an omnipotent power.
  • You pin your hopes on the existence of the God of Abraham whereas I place mine elsewhere—perhaps, in the unknown, or as Rod Serling said, in The Twilight Zone. But we both believe in a mystical force.
  • This higher power is like the sun, it feeds us, helping us to grow, making us feel good, causing us to want joy for all. It is this undying hope that feeds our eternal belief in God.
  • The beauty inside you is what will lead you. If God is there, He will smile down on you and your family. It will be your own belief in Him that is of importance. Your beauty is because of Him and your belief in Him.
  • It is a respect for something or someone outside of our little personhood that is important, something above and beyond our egoistical selves. It is a humbling force that keeps us respectful of earth, of nature and of all life living on this planet.
  • Concentrate on your own life and your own family and friends—that is your only world of importance—the rest, we are at the mercy of the fools that lead us, God have mercy on us!
  • We are part of those who believe in a better world without searching for metaphysical reasons to support our natural instinct. God gave us the power to do this on our very own. Let us stop blaming Him, asking Him, crying to Him! Let us, you and I and other sane persons plant our own trees.
  • The song from John Lennon says it beautifully; “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.”

This post originally appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, December 15, 2014.

Napoleon Hill on Work/Life Balance: a Message for 2015.

Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hill

You may know the author Napoleon Hill because of his book Think and Grow Rich. It’s one of my favorite inspirational/ motivational reads and is one of the best-selling books of all time. Even though it was first published in 1937, the book’s primary message—that you can get what you want through visualization, honest effort and a positive attitude—still rings true today.

But if you ask me to name my favorite Hill book, it would not be this classic. I actual prefer a far lesser known sequel to Think and Grow Rich published 40 years after the original. You see, in 1967, an 84-year old Hill had come to a slightly different conclusion about what success really meant and wrote a book titled Grow Rich—with Peace of Mind.

After a lifetime of hard work, fame and riches, the elderly Hill began to whistle a slightly different tune about the role of work in our lives and explains it in this book. Sure, he said, strive to be successful—but have a life, too. Hill’s not pitching a Tim Ferris-style 4-hour workweek here, but suggests that one of the best ways to achieve real happiness is to “make a time budget”.

Spread out over a 24-hour day, Hill’s time budget looks like this:

  • 8 hours a day for sleep and rest
  • 8 hours a day for work at your profession
  • 8 “particularly precious” hours “devoted to things you wish to do, not have to do.”

Now, it is duly noted here that Hill does not account for the time-consuming chores and errands that are a part of our lives. But even with that caveat, it’s easy to agree with his assertion that we need to find time for “play, social life, reading, writing, playing a musical instrument, tending a garden, or just sitting and watching the clouds or the stars”. My personal list includes meditation, downtime with the family, prayer, writing and running. Your list can include any activity or non-activity that makes you happy.

Hill is very serious about putting our “precious hours” to good use and I feel confident that, had he known about them, scanning your Facebook page, texting ad nauseam or playing video games would not have made the list. Yet, he does believe it is up to you to decide what these activities might be, amplifying his message with this passage:

Do not let a day go by without taking some time for yourself — some time you spend in pure pleasure, as you see it.

Hill also points out, that should you have the ability to do so, you should aim to work less than 8 hours a day as you become successful. Success shouldn’t mean spending more hours at the job, but less. In Hills words, once you meet a modicum of prosperity: “You should increase your hours of pure enjoyment. Do not allow these hours to be eaten away by business or anything else.”

The bottom line is that, yes, we all (or at least most of us) need to work and make money. But in the year ahead, let’s remind ourselves—and those close to us who need reminding—that success is measured by more than our status at the office or the money in our bank accounts. Success is measured by the richness of our lives.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, December 31, 2014.

Finding Meaning in the Silence of God.

James P. Carse

James P. Carse

Some books and authors try to define the nature of God and Lord knows I have tried this futile exercise myself. But in reality I believe God is undefinable, beyond our ability to be adequately explained. Albert Einstein may have described this best when he was asked to provide “the ultimate explanation of the world”. His response to this unanswerable question:

“I can not tell you in words, but I can play it on the violin.”

The words that resonate with me most on the nature of God come from writers who know they cannot define this great mystery. So they don’t give us the answers as much as they get us to ask the right questions, helping us shape our own personal concept of God, a vision of the Divine that is uniquely our own.

One writer of this ilk is James P. Carse, the former Director of Religious Studies at New York University, where he taught for over 30 years. Now retired, he wrote several books on God and religion that have fascinated me as much as they have baffled me. His arguments are often deeply intellectual, just beyond my reach, but he often makes points that get me scrambling for a pencil so I can underline them for future reference.

Toward the beginning of his book The Silence of God, Meditations on Prayer, Carse asks several questions that most people who consider themselves spiritual would love to know the answers to: Are prayers really answered? How is it possible that we could persuade God to give us what we want? Does God not already know what we want anyway?

Carse then proceeds to not really answer these questions, for the answers are truly unknowable. (As the title of his book suggests, God is silent.) But he does point us in the direction of the answers, allowing us to reach our own conclusions. It should be noted here that the silence of God does not sit well with Carse, who for years looked for proof of God, a sign from above that never materialized. In his words:

What I have experienced, and experienced repeatedly, is the silence of God. For many years, this was a distressing matter for me. I did not consider it an experience, but the absence of an experience.

Yet, in time, Carse comes to see the positive spiritual value of God’s silence. He writes that “in an encounter with divine reality we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice, and the voice we acquire is our own”. My personal take on this is that God enters our being and speaks through our own heart, so that our own voice echoes the voice of God.

There are many passages in The Silence of God that resonate with me and below I share a few of these nuggets of wisdom from Carse. I have lightly edited his words and strung them together in a loose narrative:

  • The silence of God is everywhere.
  • It is not a silence into which God has disappeared, but a silence in which God is most remarkably present.
  • God comes to us first as a listener, not a speaker. There is not a conceivable human setting in which God is not present, listening.
  • God does not come when we call. God is there, then we call.
  • We must move toward God from the heart, then God will respond. God will first wait until we do what it is possible for us to do within ourselves even if that action is exceedingly modest in scope.
  • The simplest point is that if you do speak from the heart, God listens.
  • God does not respond to us; we respond to God. God is already silent, and does not become silent when we speak.
  • To speak from the heart is to ask and to receive at the same time. Whomever you speak to from your heart you receive in your heart. You will have God in your heart—in the very act of asking.
  • It is not theology or philosophy, but only your heart that will lead you to God.

In another of his books, a series of true-life stories titled Breakfast at the Viceroy, The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience, Carse tells the story of a seeker of God from the Sufi tradition. It may well sum up his experience, as well as the experience of all of us who seek the presence of the Divine:

After a lifetime of seeking God he looked carefully and saw that he was not the seeker but the sought. In reality he was not a seeker at all; he was in flight from God. Only when he acknowledged this could he see that God was pursuing him.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, December 1, 2014.

Can you be spiritual and still have a wild streak?

Man-drinking-pint-of-beer-011-150x150I consider myself a spiritual guy. Though I’m a lapsed Catholic, I believe in God. I meditate and pray daily. I like nothing better than to spend an hour or two reading a good spirituality book. Oh, and I write the Wake Up Call column at Patheos.

Yet, there is a side to me that craves more than just a fulfilling spiritual life. While the party-all-the-time days of my youth are long gone, I still like to engage in activities that keep me in touch with the wilder side of my soul.

I enjoy going out with my wife for a good meal, accompanied by a bottle of wine and often followed by a nightcap. I still go to clubs in the city to hear live bands. I enjoy quaffing pints of craft beer with friends, whether it’s at a local pub or while watching a sporting event, in person or on TV.

But do these hedonistic pursuits mix with the spiritual life?

At the spiritually-charged Web site Rebelle Society, there’s a story by Victoria Erickson titled “8 Wonderous Ways to Restore Your Wild Spirit” that talks to this issue. It offers several suggestions on escaping life’s often draining rules and routines, by feeding “our naturally wild spirit”. Here are three of my favorites, pulled directly from Victoria’s article:

Find live music. Find the kind of music that makes your soul soar from the sound. Music’s rhythmic beats exist to tell universal truths that awaken us from everyday hibernation.

Make love. Like it’s your last night on earth, gasping for air and sanity, frantic under clouds and stars and sheets. The kind that’s made of heartbeats, intertwined flesh, and fiery, blazing, all consuming passion.

Get wet. These are cures that open you in places you forgot could even open, for salt and water are a miraculous mix. Release disappointment through tears, sweat from awesome, bodily pumping movement, and swim in the soft caress of water.

I say bravo to all of these ideas, and have added three of my own:

Go for a drink. Invite a friend to a local bar, preferably one without the distraction of a blaring TV, and engage in the art of conversation. A bar may be a good place to drink—but more importantly, it is a place to laugh and share stories and enjoy the companionship of a good friend.

Do new stuff. Don’t have time to take up a new hobby or go on an exotic vacation? Tweak your current routine. Drive a different route to work, even if it takes a little longer. Go out for dinner on a weekday. Stop by that coffee shop, you’ve always meant to visit. Mix it up!

Sit in a church. Not on Sunday and not when any type of mass or service is going on. Sit in a church when it is empty or nearly empty of people. Clear your head of all thoughts and do not pray. Do nothing but immerse yourself in the great silence of a sacred space.

Set your life on fire—seek those who fan your flames. ~Rumi

Like Rumi, the spiritual author Thomas Moore believes that we must find and light the “spark” within, and pursue the intangibles that give us our passion for life. Moore writes that we must fight against “mediocrity in life”. He believes that “it is the failure to let the inner brilliance shine” and “doing only what is necessary and sufficient,” that leads to a life of mediocrity—and ultimately, to boredom and even despair.

It is in our own best interests to “fan our flames” (Rumi), to “light our spark” (Moore) and to “feed our wild spirit” (Erickson). The alternative is to live a less than full life, a life that’s less than satisfying. And who want’s that?

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, November 12, 2014.

It’s time to take Mark Twain back from the Atheists.

Mark Twain, famed humorist and writer of the classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is perhaps the most celebrated American author of all time. He is also a favorite of atheists and atheist Web sites, who claim Twain as one of their own. But is their faith in Twain misguided?

I stumbled upon the Mark Twain-atheist connection recently, when I went online to verify that a quote came from the author. I found Twain’s name and writings on one atheist Web site after another (Celebrity Atheist, anyone?) and it’s easy to see why non-believers are attracted to him. The author had a knack for writing sharp one-liners like this:

If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian.

While Twain was raised a Presbyterian, and his funeral was held in the local Presbyterian church, he spent much of his life highly critical of organized religion, especially the Christian religion he grew up in. For instance, Twain wrote:

There is one notable thing about our Christianity…ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

Twain was often equally hostile to the mixed messages he found in the Bible. He saw the books not as the word of God, but as works of pure fiction:

I believe that the Old and New Testaments were imagined and written by man, and that no line in them was authorized by God, much less inspired by Him.

And while Twain claimed to believe in “God the Almighty”, he also went so far as to say, “If there is a God, he is a malign thug”. Yet, what this and the other cherry-picked quotes you’ll find on the atheist Web sites don’t reveal are Twain’s more nuanced statements on the subject. Take this passage:

I am plenty safe enough in his hands; I am not in any danger from that kind of a Deity. The one that I want to keep out of the reach of, is the caricature of him which one finds in the Bible.

Read the first part of that statement and it’s clear that Twain had developed his own concept of the Almighty, one that was at odds with the God of the Old Testament. He appears to have believed in a just and loving God, which is further evidenced by the quote below:

I think the goodness, the justice, and the mercy of God are manifested in His works: I perceive that they are manifested toward me in this life; the logical conclusion is that they will be manifested toward me in the life to come, if there should be one.

So Twain even leaves open the idea of an after-life. In other instances, his tone softens to the point that he actually seems to see the value of organized religion, even if its benefits don’t relate directly to him:

I am not able to believe one’s religion can affect his hereafter one way or the other, no matter what that religion may be. But it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life–hence it is a valuable possession to him.

There’s another interesting fact about Twain, that you also won’t read about on the atheist Web sites. Late in life he spent over a dozen years researching and writing a book about a Catholic saint—the legendary Frenchwoman Joan of Arc. The book is titled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and it was his last major work, completed just a few years before his death. He claimed this book was his personal favorite and his best work, writing:

I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.

What did Twain see in this farm girl turned legendary leader, who claimed to be personally directed by the voice of God and who regularly spoke with angels? Certainly, the core religious beliefs of Joan of Arc were very different from his own, but after reading excerpts from the book, it becomes quickly apparent that Twain holds his subject in high esteem:

She was deeply religious, and believed that she had daily speech with angels; that she saw them face to face, and that they counseled her, comforted and heartened her, and brought commands to her direct from God. She had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not any threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart. She was a beautiful and simple and lovable character.

And therein lies the enigma of Mark Twain. He hated organized religion, saw the Bible as a book of dubious value and while he appeared to believe in God, wrote little positive on the subject. Yet he spent over a decade of his life writing about a women who claimed to be in regular contact with the Divine, and he did not write a single disparaging word about her saying:

She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.

Perhaps Mark Twain is not the man the atheists think he is.

Earlier this month, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, had an exhibit on “Spiritualism, Séances and Sam”. It seems that Twain’s wife was a fan of séances and Twain himself occasionally sat in on the proceedings. Asked to explain Twain’s take on the spirit world, a curator at the museum, Mallory Howard, said: “He was always trying to figure out an answer without ever coming to a conclusion.”

And that possibly explains Twain’s motives best—he was just trying to figure things out. He was a man of contradictions who while quick to deliver a humorous and acerbic barb about religion and God, spent the twilight years of his life studying and writing about Joan of Arc, a woman for whom God was the primary reason and motivation for her existence.

Twain may have been like many of us spiritually-minded individuals, who shun organized religion and find little of value in the Bible—yet believe there is a greater life force, what some people call God, out there. We seek it ourselves and while we may come up short, we admire those who seem to have tapped into this force in such a meaningful and powerful way.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, October 22, 2014.

Life Lessons from the Reverend who was visited by ETs.

Reverend Michael J. S. Carter

Reverend Michael J. S. Carter

What do you do if you’re a man of the cloth and have a UFO-related experience? I’m not talking about a run-of-the-mill flying saucer sighting, but a middle-of-the-night visitation by a gray alien—an incident that’s repeated over and over again, with a changing cast of extraterrestrial visitors.

If you’re the Reverend Michael J.S. Carter of Baltimore, who currently serves as the minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in North Carolina, you try to make sense of the experience. And since you’re religiously-inclined, you don’t go to Google for answers, you turn to various spiritual texts, especially the Bible.

That’s the story behind a slim but oddly fascinating book that Carter wrote titled Alien Scriptures, Extraterrestrials in the Holy Bible, where the author first touches on his strange encounters, and then goes looking for a Biblically-based explanation.

The Alien Encounters: Unwelcome Visitors in the Night.

Carter makes it clear in the book and radio interviews that at one point he didn’t believe in UFOS or extraterrestrials. All that changed one night while he was home sleeping in bed, not in some rural setting but the middle of New York City. He writes of his initial experience:

My room was lit-up with a bluish white light—lit up as if it was daytime. Standing at the end of the bed staring at me was a being with an egg-shaped head and wrap-around eyes. It truly freaked me out. I don’t believe I have ever been that frightened in my life!

Carter’s response to seeing an alien? Like the 5-year old in all of us, he pulls the covers over his head. He then hears a whooshing sound and feels like the temperature has dropped drastically in the room. He pulls down the covers and looks again, but the being is gone.

The visitations continue for several months. The beings who drop in on him have different appearances and while most are the classic “grays”, they include a “green and scale-y, Spiderman-looking” entity. He watches as this ET “simply walks through my window and outside the building. I lived on the 15th floor at the time!”

Searching for Meaning: in the Bible.

It’s unclear what messages the visitors had to pass onto him, though for the most part they leave him with a positive, loving vibe—and he finds himself voraciously reading all the spiritual texts he can get his hands on. He gets special meaning from several passages of the Bible, which seems to reinforce his newfound belief that UFOs and aliens have been around since the beginning of man and may even be messengers sent by God. (Kind of like angels from another dimension.)

For example, Carter calls out the visions of the prophet Ezekiel as illustrated in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 1-28). In this biblical passage, Ezekiel claims to have seen “the likeness of the glory of the Lord”. But a quick read reveals that what Ezekiel actually saw was something odd indeed. Check out Ezekiel 4-6:

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings.

Carter also cites 2 Kings 2:1 where Elijas and his companion Elisha are walking together and “behold a chariot of fire and horses of fires”. To Carter’s way of thinking this is how someone unfamiliar with a UFO, and living in biblical times, might describe one. He also sees the strangely mobile star of Bethlehem as a potential UFO, as described in Matthew 2:9-11:

The star which they saw in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the young child was.

So is the Reverend a kook?

I admit his personal accounts are tip-toeing on the edge of credibility. Yet I came away convinced that something happened to the Reverend. I have written here before how our myths can sometimes come to life in weird and unexplainable ways. The Reverend may simply be one of many who has come up against something he can’t quite explain and attached his own personal meaning to it. Some see angels, he sees ETs.

It’s also interesting to note that Carter believes his encounters with the visitors have been “very positive” and have accelerated his spiritual growth. (They have also brought him some national attention, as he has become a frequent guest on the History Channel program Ancient Aliens.) It has also sharpened his religious and spiritual beliefs.

There is an afterword in the book titled “Lessons from my Contact Experiences on Life and Spirituality”, where Carter offers several compelling insights. I have pulled out my favorite bits and put them in the list you see below.

10 Life Lessons from Reverend Michael J.S. Carter.

  1. I have come to know that what we call “god” is really an Energy…a Spirit…a Source of all Consciousness…and that we are a part of this consciousness.
  2. We can tap into this consciousness, if we are willing to, by just sitting still, through meditation and prayer.
  3. This Energy/Consciousness/Intelligence moves through us, in us, and as us. It is all there is. There is no where we can go where this Source is not present.
  4. Recognizing the connectedness of our planet and the universe is the first step in becoming mature spiritually, or in cultivating an inner life.
  5. We all have a mission that we come to this planet to fulfill. Our younger years may be used in just trying to figure out what that mission is.
  6. Of course, we can choose not to fulfill that mission. But if we choose to accept it, a good part of that mission is to learn to love and to forgive, oneself as well as others.
  7. Thoughts are things. If you think that life is #$@&%*! and then you die, that is just what life will mirror back to you. We attract to ourselves what we are.
  8. All the answers you need are inside of you. Because all that is Consciousness is inside of us.
  9. There are as many paths to God as there are people who walk those paths.
  10. We might see God not as a person, distinct and separate from the material world, but rather as a spiritual reality in which all life participates.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 31, 2014.

Reshad Feild and the “7-1-7″ breathing exercise that can help change your life.

reshad-feild

Reshad Feild

I once read a story about a singer who was asked what the best advice she ever received was. Her response: “Breathe”. She had been given this life tip from her father who had correctly pointed out that when we’re stressed or feeling a little tense, we tend to shorten our breath. And at those moments there’s nothing better we can do to steady ourselves than take a big gulp of air.

I was reminded of this advice the other day when reading The Last Barrier, the autobiography of the English mystic and spiritual teacher Reshad Feild. In the book, Feild is told by his spiritual mentor that learning to breathe properly is “the study of a lifetime” and the rhythm and quality of your breathing can “help change the course of your life”.

Today, almost 40 years later, Feild is still stressing the importance of breathing. He is the founder of the spiritually-based Chalice School and if you go to the school’s Web site, in large 90-point type, you will be greeted by these words:

‘All is contained in the Divine Breath, like the day in the morning’s dawn’

There is a page at the Chalice School site that is dedicated to the importance of breathing titled “Breath is Life”, where Feild echoes the lessons he was taught so many years ago. He tells us that:

The secret of life is in the breath. We come into this world on the breath and we go out on the breath; but if we are not awake to breath, we will surely die asleep to the reality of life itself. Breath is life.

He recommends that we engage in a practice he calls the “7-1-7 Breathing Exercise” which is also known as the Mother’s Breath. This simple exercise originates from ancient Egypt and is designed to get you totally focused on your breathing. I have edited Feild’s words on the subject and put them into 9 steps:

Practicing the 7-1-7 Breath

  1. Sit in a hard-backed chair. Keep your back straight, without forcing it. Feel the flow of energy move through you. (I imagine it moving up and down my spine.)
  2. Place your feet flat on the floor, with heels together and toes apart forming a triangle. Legs should be uncrossed. Your arms should be relaxed and your hands should rest on your knees.
  3. Before you start the conscious breathing practice, visualize the most beautiful object in nature you can imagine. It could be a plant, a tree, a waterfall, the sea, or whatever has special meaning to you.
  4. Your eyes can be open or closed. Either way, focus on a point approximately eight feet in front of you. If your eyes are closed, imagine the picture of what you’ve chosen. If you’re focusing on an object, put it as close to eight feet away from you as you can.
  5. Next comes the sacred rhythm, the 7-1-7-1-7 rhythm of the Mother’s Breath. The method is simple, though initially it may seem difficult, since we are used to breathing without any form of attention or consciousness.
  6. Breathe into the solar plexus (the pit of your stomach) for the count of seven, pause for one count, and then for another seven counts radiate out breath from the “heart center”, the point in the center of your chest. IMPORTANT NOTE: When counting to 7, you do not have to count in precise measured seconds. It’s not the speed that matters, it’s the actual number of counts. Choose the speed, fast or slow, that suits you.
  7. Having breathed in for the count of seven, pause for one count and at the same time, bring your attention to the center of the chest. Then breathe out for the count of seven. As you breathe out, radiate love and goodwill from the center of your chest.
  8. To complete the practice, return to the senses. Feel your body and take responsibility for it once more. Be awake to the room or your surroundings.
  9. As you continue your practice, you’ll become better at it and find there’s no need to force the breath. At this stage, you are not breathing. Rather, you are being breathed.

The whole exercise should take you about 10 minutes and Feild recommends trying it a few times a day. I find it’s a great companion to and substitute for meditation, with many of the same calming and revitalizing effects. As Field says, it will leave you with a “tremendous sense of wonder and gratitude”.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 7, 2014.