Excerpt from "Working on God" by Winifred Gallagher
Spirituality: Just Do It
At four-fifteen on a cold, starry morning in California wine country, I slip out of my sleeping bag and into leggings, two layers of fleece, and sandals. Forgoing toothbrush for flashlight, I head up one of the steep, dew-soaked wooded paths that lead to the heart of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. Once an old redwood barn, the warm, oil-lamplit zendo has the soothing feel and smell of a sauna. A bell rings, and some thirty black-robed people, ranging in age from nineteen to the mid-seventies, commence the rapid execution of 108 full prostrations to Buddha. This is a workout, and by the halfway point, a few simply bow. Outside, the wind howls. At a neighboring farm, fighting cocks crow.
When the grueling ceremony is completed, we file out in barefoot, silent pairs for a short break before getting down to the morning's real business: zazen, or seated meditation, and related rituals that will last until eight-thirty. Down in the farmhouse that's the social center for this community, or sangha, I clutch a mug of herbal tea and consider my mute companions' sleepy faces. The thick gray dawn presses against the windows. As my quadriceps turn to wood and my stomach rumbles futilely, I recall the reservations politely voiced by Jakusho Kwong-roshi, the abbot, about a raw beginner's joining them for three days of a rigorous silent Zen retreat called sesshin, meaning "to touch the mind."
In the fading starlight, a great gong sounds. We troop back to the zendo for two forty-minute rounds of zazen, the practice that's at the heart of this form of Buddhism. When I arrived yesterday, I had a brief tutorial with Kwong-roshi, one of America's handful of Zen masters, whose special authority has been transmitted from teacher to teacher through centuries. With his Chinese features, shaved head, robes, and aura of calm cheer, he could be a Hollywood lama. First he showed me how to sit cross-legged toward the edge of the hard round black cushion, resting my folded knees on a thick cotton underpad. After trying several postures, he decided that the Burma pose, which resembles yoga's half-lotus, suited me best. The thumbs of my nested hands pointed upward too much, he noted, which conveyed tension; I quickly corrected at least the digital component of the problem. Next, Kwong-roshi took a yardstick and measured the right place-about twenty-four inches from the floor-for my half-lidded gaze to fall when meditating. "We don't close our eyes," he said. "That may create other problems." Although this posture was comfortable enough, I knew that it wouldn't remain so.
Next, Kwong-roshi demonstrated the long, slow Zen breathing, which gives more energy to the exhale, "like you do when having a baby or using the rest room." He explained that a fetus breathes only once or twice a minute, and a Zen adept a mere five times or even fewer; with the slower, emptier unborn mind that results, conditioning drops away, "and we are able to see our basic goodness." One night, he said, he was driving with his four sons, now grown, when they came upon a terrible automobile accident. He rushed from his car, only to find one man already dead and another gravely injured, "lying in a pool of blood, staring up. I could hear his breathing, and it was unshu-Zen breathing. The man said to me, 'The stars are so bright tonight.' His eyes, too, were brilliant. Then an ambulance came and took him away."
My body taken care of, Kwong-roshi turned to my mind. I must simply concentrate on counting my breaths, he said, going back to "one" each time I'm distracted. "We usually let our thoughts just go," he said, "and our breath follows them, all over the place. Here, we make our thoughts follow the sound of our breath, so they naturally slow down and drop away. Breath sweeps mind." Before dismissing me, Kwong-roshi said that after doing Zen practice for a while, "you begin to live differently." Comparing sesshin to an express train, he advised, "Just get on and go." I nodded but didn't really understand either of these two comments as well as I would even a day later.
Now, finding my assigned place in the zendo, I perch carefully atop my cushion for forty minutes of zazen. Trying to remember all the roshi's instructions, I inhale and, especially, exhale-the optimum starting point for all activities. The redwood building, too, seems to breathe, creaking and groaning in response to the wind. After rushing around on planes and California's freeways for the past few days, I am relieved at first just to be still in the soft dawn darkness. Sitting tall, I earnestly try to do nothing.
A gong rings, and we rise stiffly for ten minutes of kinhin, or silent walking meditation. As if choreographing Waiting for Godot, we baby-step in single file around the zendo, going no place slowly. Gradually, the circulation returns to my right leg. Outside, songbirds announce daylight.
The gong sounds again, summoning us back to our cushions for the next round of zazen. All novelty evaporates, exposing deep holes in my concentration. As a writer, I'm accustomed to recording what's going on, even if it's only in my own head. Giving up thoughts, which are not only my business but my pleasure and existential defense, seems not only hard, but wrong. Some of this difficulty is cultural. The style of meditation I'm familiar with, as a Westerner, involves thinking about something, whether a bit of Scripture or world peace. Could this Asian thinking about nothing but counting my breaths be "better" than focusing on some worthy concept or image? Kwong-roshi said that his own master had taught that before one uses a calculator, one must clear it. Although empty mind eludes me, just gunning for it slows down and reduces the number of my thoughts.
Suddenly, the electrical outlet slightly to the left of my official gazing locus starts to get on my nerves. What is the point of sitting here in this uncomfortable position at a hellish hour of the morning, staring at a wall plug? I devise a koan, or Zen paradox: Why does Zen seem so smart and simple when you read about it and so dumb and hard when you do it? When the bell rings for morning "work practice," the prospect of chores seems Dionysian.
Time flies until ten-thirty, and the particularly grueling triple zazen. With kinhin, chanting, and a ritual meal, we'll be in this room, mostly locked into one position, for nearly four hours. I feel twinges of panic as I lower myself gingerly onto the now dreaded pillow. Familiar with this reaction from starting a long run, I give myself the same moronic, effective pep talk: If they can do it, I can do it. Because counting breaths doesn't feel right to me, I decide to repeat silently a simple phrase instead: "Here. Now." This is probably cheating, I think, despite trying not to.
By the light of the enigmatic, sound-of-one-hand-clapping Zen literature, I'm not sure that what I sense during zazen is "right." I can best describe it as an experiential version of a perception that helped to create modern painting. The elements of life's background-from breathing to consciousness, the sound of the wind to the zendo's barny redwood smell-come to the surface, revealing themselves to be as vital as the more "important" things that usually occupy the foreground, and our attention. There's an awareness of natura naturans-nature naturing. Then, too, I can't help but notice that my thoughts and sensations come and go, but something else doesn't. Although my zazen state has no religious content in the usual sense, I'm reminded of theologian Paul Tillich's definition of God as the "ground of being."
During the afternoon work period, I invoke journalistic license to break the sesshin silence and talk with Helen, an energetic seventy-three-year-old. The retired director of a school for disturbed and disabled children, she does volunteer work with "people who need . . . things," she says. "When I die, I want to be like an old slipper." Living spaces here are shared, but her years and notorious snoring have entitled Helen to an old trailer in the parking lot. In this cozy home, I ask her why she practices Zen.
After some thought, Helen says, "I do it because I like it.
I don't like to shop or go on cruises. My husband talked me into going on one of those, once. Zen is what I enjoy." She has studied here for ten years, "which is nothing in Zen, but an eternity for an American," she says. "Everything we do seems to last about ten years!" She esteems Kwong-roshi because she's "wary of charismatic teachers who push big causes and Asian teachers who don't understand Americans. Roshi's personal, one-man-in-the universe-right-now-here approach has a lot to offer Western Buddhism. In dokusan [a formal, private student-teacher interview], I don't go to him for answers, but I leave beaming with a sense of peace and comfort."
Although she was long a church member, Helen prefers Buddhism's worldview, which she first encountered as a child in Japan, where her family lived for a time. In the Judeo-Christian West, she says, "there's a hierarchy of God, then man, then nature. In Asia, there's not. We don't like to acknowledge what being a human is-just part of nature, an animal. We could all be killers in an instant!" She laughs merrily. "Every time you take a step, you kill." Within Buddhism, Helen prefers the Soto Zen tradition to the Rinzai school, which puts more stress on intellectual practices such as koans. "Here, it's what you do, not what you think, that counts," she says. "Marin County Buddhism is too intellectual for me! Here, people aren't always quoting at you. They're busy working and doing."
Asked what Zen practice has done for her, Helen stops to think again. "Rounded my rough edges," she says finally. "Sanded me. I'm not quite as righteous or irritable. I see now that harmony doesn't have to depend on two people thinking alike. With my husband, for example. After I had been practicing for a while, I said to myself, Helen, he's not perfect, but neither are you. We get along better now. I live now in more harmony with . . . whatever." She pauses again, then says, "Zen changes your view of the world from inside. First it turns it on its head, so that you think you're going insane." I laugh in a way I wouldn't have yesterday. "Then," says Helen, "it's just different. You realize that all you can concentrate on is what's in front of you, by being alert every second. There's still fire and flood, but all's right with the world anyway, and you're at peace."
On the second day of sesshin, no rays of light or seraphic voices have poured from my brown plastic wall outlet. Zazen remains extremely difficult. Aching legs and backs have driven a few people from the floor to chairs set against the wall. For me, the toughest part remains emptying my mind. The shifting light outside subtly alters the zendo's atmosphere, just as thoughts and sensations alter my head's. Like the shadows, my internal states-boredom, contentment, frustration-come and go, while I just sit there, trying to pay them no mind. After the second sitting of the midday marathon, it's hard to believe there's a third. Wake up! scream the fighting cocks. Distinctions blur between them and me, there and here, consciousness and reality. Wake up! Wake up! (Later, Kwong-roshi says that the name Buddha derives from buddh, which means "awakened.")
A few months before sesshin, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Picasso portraiture exhibition. Shrinelike, the small, final room held a triptych of three very late self-portraits. One painting, done about a year before the artist died at the age of ninety-two, portrayed that confrontation with mortality that not even the most protean creator is spared. A modern version of an ascetic saint contemplating a skull, it showed the artist with brain raddled and nerves exposed, tongue protruding and sparse hair standing on end. The features of the fragmented face are wildly sprung, as if from the coils of an old mattress. The right eye is upended, flat, as sightless as a dead fish's. Within this desolation, the only vital sign is the left eye: alert, unaccountably blue, and earnestly focused upward. The question is unavoidable: At what? One of art's greatest thieves, perhaps Picasso had appropriated a motif from religious carvings, Asian and Celtic alike, in which contemplation is signified by a face that has one eye open and one closed. A neuroscientist who studies consciousness once told me that our ideal state is this "quiet alertness," which is the goal of a lot of drug use, prescription and otherwise. Amidst his own disintegration, the blue eye in Picasso's death's head remains quietly alert.
The Zen art of paying attention is epitomized by oryoki ("just enough"), a special dining ritual from which the famous tea ceremony derives. During sesshin, meals are eaten ceremonially in the zendo after the final round of zazen, in silence and seated for meditation. Beside each person's cushion is a pretty nest of three bowls and wooden spoon and chopsticks, wrapped up in pale linen. Three times a day, we untie this bundle and sequentially arrange the cloths and implements just so. Heralded by dramatic drumming, designated servers bring food in large pots from the kitchen, bow before each person, ladle, bow again, and move on until everyone has been helped. Then, as one body, one mind, we tuck into the mysterious but very good vegetarian fare, a kind of spiritual comfort food. Sadly, custom calls for it to be eaten at a furious pace. Then, like members of some strange clean-plate club, we discreetly scrape our bowls and lick our utensils, rinse them with tea, drink our "dishwater," wipe our bowls dry, and tie up the whole business for the next meal. As I soon learn, the second one stops focusing, a bowl gets put in the wrong place, a chopstick falls with a clatter, a cloth is folded in half instead of thirds.
One night, just as I congratulate myself on finally getting the hang of this alien business, I pour tea all over my place mat. A server silently hands me a napkin that's folded into her belt for just such emergencies. As a server myself one morning, I forget to help the person sitting behind the big gong, until the emphatically rolling eyes of several otherwise immobile Buddhas signal my mistake as surely as fire alarms. I find oryoki maddening, but it poses a question: How much of my life do I waste on thinking of one thing while doing another, badly?
As my hours in the zendo accumulate, too much pointless thinking and feeling begin to seem like the cranial equivalent of overeating. During breaks, I sit on the stoop of the rustic wooden hut that I share with a mysterious silent, black-robed roommate (she turns out to be a very nice lawyer, soon to be married). I mostly just watch the California spring unfold: Red spiderweb / Moss-covered dime / Pale quarter-moon / Outside my door.
Sesshin simplifies my definition of religious experience to "the heightening of reality." (Kwong-roshi would say "the revealing of reality" instead.) The volume of what is is suddenly amplified, so that the usual faint tinkling becomes a symphony. Literature is full of illustrations of this intensification, from Huck's fusion with the Mississippi he drifts on to haughty Prince Andrei's deathbed realization that in the end, he is "a particle of love." Like Huck, Americans are inclined to have religious experiences in nature. In "Of Being," the poet Denise Levertov wrote:
I know this happines is provisional:
the looming presences-
great suffering, great fear-
into peripheral vision:
but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:
this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:
this need to dance,
this need to kneel:
My sense of the numinous is generally keenest upstate, in the fields and forest that surround my old schoolhouse. In winter, there's no plumbing and only a stove for warmth, but I'm willing to chop wood and carry water for a few days of crackling silence. One freezing morning, crouched in a snowbank by the creek brushing my teeth, I understood why monastic life has traditionally been rural and short on comforts. In a warm bathroom I would have missed this sere elegance of black crows and fir trees piled white. After a winter of such ablutions, what would spring mean?
One day last summer I was walking down a dirt road when suddenly, in an overgrown meadow, a bear rose up on its hind legs. So unexpected was this sight a mere two and a half hours from Times Square that at first I saw only a huge dog, standing with its front paws on a hidden rock. But the creature was as erect as a man, and as tall, too. The bear saw or perhaps smelled me, dropped to all fours, and disappeared into the tall grass, away from my neighbor's beehives and toward the forest. For years I've read about bears, but seeing one a few hundred yards from my house was something else again. Jolted out of automatic pilot, my perception sharpened and focused on the unexpected truth. There are real bears in the woods! Things aren't necessarily what they seem. There's more to reality than meets the eye. A so-called transformative experience, this ursine epiphany not only filled me with a need to dance, to kneel, but changed my perception of the world and my place in it.
Once in a while, too, it seems that something else is suddenly present. My five senses can't discern it, yet it seems quite different from a thought or other product of my brain. It calls for awe. I think, What great holiness! I think, too, that I'm getting only a fraction, a glimpse, a flicker, of this thing, because, as if it were electricity, I couldn't withstand more. Then, as mysteriously as it came, it goes.
Because of my science background, I'm intrigued by fleshy components of religious experience. While researching a story about the neurophysiology of orgasm, I learned that because it's a reflex, the nerve impulses that generate orgasm don't reach the cognitive areas of the brain; thus, the event can be neither exactly remembered nor simply produced by will. This universal yet evanescent, novel, giftlike quality is also characteristic of profound spiritual experiences. Perhaps they, too, are rooted in the instinctual, emotional midbrain-which in turn may help explain why intellectuals are so often uneasy about spiritual matters.
For most people, an experience of heightened reality is exceptional. For some of the great souls of Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity, it's just the way it is. A research psychiatrist once told me that a baby wouldn't notice the effects of LSD, called "God in a pill" for its reliability in producing short-lived mystical states; the drug blocks a particular serotonin receptor, which seems to inhibit the adult's habitual perceptual filters, which an infant has yet to acquire. Perhaps what's true of a baby is true of a saint.
At sesshin, I inquire about kensho, or "see nature," which is Zen's term for the sudden, transformative perception of reality, including one's true essence. My questions elicit primness: "We all have special experiences, but we don't talk much about them. We don't focus on them, but on authentic practice." Talk is sparing in zendos but often cheap in other sanctuaries. Many people who go to a church or temple seeking kensho get moralizing sermons instead. The fresh, deep consciousness they desire, which is true religious experience, may not even be mentioned, creating the impression that it's either a chimera or too "holy" to speak of or be enjoyed by the likes of them.
Known as a poet-philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), the father of American spirituality, began his career as an ordained minister. While pastor of a Boston church, he had doubts about the nature of the sacraments, resigned his position, and took off for Europe, where he visited Wordsworth and Coleridge. After returning home, he developed his transcendental philosophy, which posits the divine as
humanity's guiding principle and thus complements American ethics of idealism, egalitarianism, and common sense. "I like the silent church before the service begins," he wrote, "better than any preaching." Many of his fellow citizens have given Zen a warm reception in the thirty or so years since it arrived from Asia largely because this silent, individualistic religion is felt rather than believed. Indeed, there's some argument about whether Buddhism and Zen are, in the usual sense, religions at all. Buddha himself was an atheist. Some prefer to describe the tradition he left behind as nontheistic, implicitly leaving room for something else. Most certainly, however, Zen is less a set of beliefs than a practice for the here and now.
Like all great geniuses of religion, Buddha was a master psychologist who focused on the human thirst for meaning and on relief from life's inevitable pain. After intense analysis of society and self, he concluded that all our misery results from the illusion of a separate "me" and the failure to apprehend reality's transitory nature. According to his "four noble truths," life is full of suffering, most of which can be traced to desire, which in turn can be overcome, yielding peace. To pursue these truths, one must walk the "eightfold path," living with right views, resolve, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Anticipating cognitive and behavioral therapy by some twenty-five hundred years, Buddha observed, "All we are is the result of what we have thought" and "all things can be mastered with mindfulness." His own grueling spiritual struggle had proved to him that enlightenment cannot be produced by intellect alone, but through something close to what we call a "gut feeling" that must be rooted in experience. To achieve this state, Buddha advocated the direct physical and mental practice of meditation that became Zen's core.
Many Americans think of Zen when they hear "Buddhism," but in fact Zen is an offshoot of the larger Buddhist tradition that began in India in the sixth century b.c.e. Zen's roots also extend to Japan and China, where the third-century sage Lao-tse taught simplicity, nonattachment, and attunement with the tao, or spontaneous, creative power of the universe-concepts that complemented Buddha's "way." Advocating a caveat emptor approach to religion, Buddha urged interested parties not to buy on faith, but to road-test the merit of his teachings themselves: "Come and see." Zen regards even its own sacred literature as illusory, compared to direct experience. When I asked Kwong-roshi how he described his religion to the uninitiated, he said, "I don't usually talk about Zen unless someone asks me a question. Then I may say something. Sometimes you don't speak about religion, but the other person gets a sense of who you are. That's a Buddhist attitude-thinking in terms of what someone else can experience with you."
Despite its Asian trappings, in important respects Zen is as American as apple pie. Like the nation's secular religion of sports, it teaches that peak performance looks simple but requires, as Buddha said, pushing forward like an "ox that marches through the deep mire." If I had to describe zazen in one word, it would be "exercise." On my hard cushion, I appreciate for the first time a systematic how-to approach to spiritual development that one does. Rather than ignoring the body or regarding it as a source of trouble, as in many forms of Western spirituality, Zen uses it. Like sports, this religion has clear rules, coaches, and equipment-a whole technology that helps people to become "addicted" to the activity and benefit from its unexpected side effects. Like working out, this spiritual practice unites body and mind, brings order to life, whispers that this too shall pass, and makes one feel good when it's over.
Zen suits America in other ways, too. It shares her anarchic, playful sensibility, articulated by artists from Walt Whitman to Kurt Vonnegut: "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different." Like Jeffersonian democracy, it values independence and inter-dependence. Like Emersonian spirituality, it sees "big mind" embodied in each person, and life's beauty and joy contained in everyday moments.
As the millennium approaches, the experiential, individualistic thread remarked so long ago by Emerson runs brightly through America's religious fabric. Among nations, only India is demonstrably more spiritual. Ninety-five percent of Americans say they believe in God. (In what might be a head count of neoagnostics, sociologist Wade Clark Roof estimates that upwards of a third of baby boomers "affirm in one way or another a divine power or presence, even if they admit to uncertainty in their belief," and even though they also entertain "individualistic meaning systems," and remain "highly secularized in their conceptions of the forces governing life.") Forty percent of Americans attend services weekly-an astounding rate when contrasted with the United Kingdom's 2 percent, say, or Italy's 5 percent. Interestingly, 90 percent of Americans engage in private religious experience. Of the 70 percent who pray daily, almost half feel that in some way or other God has spoken to them personally. Most Americans also believe in miracles, including more than 70 percent of those who have postgraduate degrees. This do-it-yourself, "privatized" faith is rooted not only in Emerson's "God within" and John Muir's idea of nature as cathedral but also in the political principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Even traditional believers are apt to feel that individuals should decide for themselves what to think, and that being a good Christian, say, or a good Jew doesn't depend on institutional standards, such as attending services.
Of all forms of religious experience, Americans have traditionally been strong on the "community spirit" that's so often missing from postmodern life. On Sonoma Mountain, it's based not on superficial social similarities or weekly attendance at brief services but on the sharing of "big mind" and long-term practice. One of the paradoxes of sesshin is that silence creates solidarity, even intimacy. Soon, imposing chit-chat on others seems almost violent. In the quiet atmosphere, too, one appreciates the few things that do get said. Washing dishes one morning, I'm annoyed by one of my workmates, who rubs at invisible spots on pots I've already cleaned and generally acts the fussbudget. Then I notice the funereal calla lilies framed by the kitchen window, which, because I've been reading the Gospels, make me think of Easter and resurrection. A little chatting is a perk of kitchen duty, so I free-associate aloud, mentioning a thought-provoking biblical detail: Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus joined the mourners and wept for his dear friend. Towel suspended, my fellow dishwasher nods happily and says, yes, yes, that is interesting. Standing stiffly over a steaming sink on a chilly morning after three hours of meditation, two unwashed, uncombed, barefooted people with not terribly compatible temperaments nonetheless beam at each other in peculiar understanding. Accustomed to "knowing" what someone else is like, or is thinking or feeling, I'm taken aback on the following morning by a brief exchange with a stern-looking, black-robed senior monk. Sure that he considers me a bumbling dilettante, I'm mortified to be caught before zazen, furtively trying to limber up with a runner's stretch against the zendo's outer wall. "It's not moving," he whispers. Much silent Zen hilarity!
On the final night during zazen, I'm summoned for dokusan with Kwong-roshi. On the first night, I had walked into the small chamber beside the zendo, plopped down, and said hi. Now, tutored in the protocol, I enter, walk to the left, bow to the shrine, bow to Kwong-roshi, do a full prostration, make another bow, and then sit as if for meditation. On the wall is a picture of his own teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, the late author of the splendid Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, now in its twelfth printing. A Japanese roshi, he came to America on a visit in 1958 and stayed to found the first Zen training monastery in the West. Even in a photograph, Suzuki-roshi exerts magnetism. Earlier, during a talk to the community, Kwong-roshi recalled that before his teacher died of cancer, their customary calligraphy sessions had become an ordeal for Suzuki-roshi, who was "so sick the brush fell from his hand. But we kept making the character for 'same.' He would point to it and tell me, 'We are the same.' I didn't grasp the meaning then, but as the years go by, I'm beginning to discover that it's true. Finally, because he was so frail, I stopped showing up for calligraphy. But that was a mistake. The Zen way is to keep going."
A minute of dokusan makes plain that the medium is the message, and Kwong-roshi is it. The feeling that there's nothing that I couldn't say to him (a sense I'll repeatedly have in the presence of the spiritually advanced) paradoxically makes the discussion of earth-shattering issues unnecessary. On another, surely lower, level, however, I'm a reporter, and I want to get to the bottom of this Zen business. I ask our species' most practical spiritual question: What happens when we die? Wonderfully, Kwong-roshi says, "That's being taken care of." Zen adepts don't fear death, he adds, because they've "practiced for it. Sitting kills the self. You see what that's like, so you're not afraid of it." When I say that I've noticed that the zendo isn't an environment for egomaniacs, he smiles.
The historian Arnold Toynbee predicted that one of the great developments of the twentieth century would be the coming of Buddhism to the West. Kwong-roshi agrees: "The transmission of mindfulness-not just the thinking mind, but the unconditioned one that you might call God and we call big mind or Buddha nature-is a whole new concept here." Rather than seeing mindfulness as a kind of talent, like artistic flair or musicality, he believes that everyone willing to make the requisite effort can attain it. "You wash your face every day, and then it gets dirty again," he says. "The conditioned mind keeps getting tainted, and you have to wash it-that's all. Meditation and physical practice just restore mindfulness." Buddhists don't believe in a god outside themselves-"you and I are Buddha," Kwong-roshi says. Yet he "doesn't have a problem" with theistic religions or their practitioners who increasingly borrow from Zen, "as long as we know we're talking about something that goes back beyond Jesus, Buddha, God-they're all just names."
Before taking leave of Kwong-roshi (I had been correctly instructed that I'd "just know when it's time"), I tell him about my mantra. Somewhat to my surprise, he says it's okay to use words rather than counting breaths, because "it's important that the practice works for you." I shouldn't get discouraged about empty mind: "Just release your thoughts by not entertaining them, and shift your attention to your breath or mantra." Reminding me that in two days it will be Buddha's birthday, "which means it's your birthday, too," he sends me off to sleep.
Late on the next afternoon after the final zazen, we form a farewell circle and offer comments on sesshin. The seemingly severe spiritual warriors smile and laugh; some cry. Kwong-roshi tells us, "Now you know what is available in yourself." Someone offers me the Zen compliment: "I admire your practice." I know that this means, "Even though clueless, you showed up for all the sittings and sat till the bell rang." But I'm pleased anyway.
After the electric atmosphere of sesshin, normal life is bittersweet. On Saturday night, like circus clowns, five retreatants jam into a compact car and head to Sonoma for dinner. The opportunity to bathe hasn't presented itself in three days, but courtesy of oryoki, my jeans are pleasantly loose and my good Italian jacket, pulled from a duffel bag, once again covers a multitude of sins. We eat fine food with forks, drink a lot of local chardonnay, and, unhindered by social posturing, talk about real things. We laugh a great deal, and at one point, the waitress gently chides us, in Californese, "for having such a good time."
On Sunday morning, just before the big celebration for Buddha to which the public is invited, I take a walk in the mountain meadows. My brain is like a room that's just been cleared out, scrubbed, and left with its windows open. Not much is there, but the space is clean, cool, and sunlit. All the things that worried me when I arrived-a sick parent, deadlines, a gripe with a friend-could worry me still. I'm just less inclined to engage with them. When the bustling for the celebration begins in earnest, I take a quick peek at the birthday boy's gorgeously beflowered shrine, and slip away. As I leave, Helen smiles and says, "Have a good . . . whatever!"
One evening after returning from California, I visit B'nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue about a ten-minute walk from my house, for the celebration of Simchas Torah. On this holy day, the "people of the book" give joyous thanksgiving for their sacred Scripture. Although it's Saturday night in New York, there's standing room only, even in the balcony, where I end up among mostly young and middle-aged men and women dressed in casual weekend clothes. Downstairs on the bimah, the congregation's two rabbis, Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein, chant in sonorous Hebrew before the half dozen Torahs draped in red velvet. Then they invite the oldest congregants to carry the scrolls up and down the cheering aisles. Next, the more robust are invited to take the Torah to the street, followed by twelve hundred congregants. Musicians on a raised bandstand play klezmer tunes against the backdrop of the starry sky and the building's Romanesque faade.
It's a Methodist church. In 1991, the collapse of the original synagogue's ceiling became a blessing in disguise when B'nai Jeshurun's charismatic rabbi, Marshall Meyer, accepted the offer of the congregation of St. Paul and St. Andrew to share its roof. As I look at the crowd, it's hard to believe that just a few years ago, B'nai Jeshurun, like St. Paul and St. Andrew and many other older urban congregations, was moribund. Led by Meyer, and after his death in 1993 by his former Argentinian students Rabbi Matalon and Rabbi Bronstein, B'nai Jeshurun has developed into a booming postmodern congregation.
Of the many ways in which B'nai Jeshurun could illustrate a textbook on millennial religion, the most obvious is its embrace of America's increasing religious pluralism. Without blurring or watering down their own traditions, Jews and Christians share the same sacred space and social ministry in their neighborhood. The synagogue's rich community life includes singles' Shabbat dinners and an employment bureau. A homeless shelter, soup kitchen, and tutoring project attest to its engagement with modern realities, as do adult education courses such as "I Can't Read Hebrew, I Never Went to Yeshiva, and I Want to Study Talmud." Although this is a Conservative, or more traditional, synagogue, Rabbi Yael Ridberg has recently joined the staff, and women not only wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls and read the Torah-practices previously reserved for men-but also serve on the board of directors. But most millennial of all is B'nai Jeshurun's emotional, experiential liturgy.
In America, where most Jews belong to the Reform and Conservative movements, most synagogues are sedate places that, with their pews, stained glass, and mostly English prayer, are not unlike mainline churches. Tonight, B'nai Jeshurun is closer to a Hasidic shul. With the strongest members holding the heavy Torahs aloft, we dance, clapping and singing, in circles and snaking lines, celebrating God's gift of words and wisdom. Over the festive din, Rabbi Matalon shouts instructions, which are not always immediately followed. Even the tough New York cops manning the roadblocks that divert traffic around the scene smile to see the city night throbbing with holy joy.
When I ask him later about why B'nai Jeshurun is so special, Rabbi Matalon, who is universally known as Roly, could be describing the classic millennial congregation. "We're an inclusive community where people can know each other, increasingly through small groups. We don't check at the door to see if you're rich or poor, gay or straight, have a religious background or not. Second, because religion can't stay within the sanctuary, we're dedicated to action and justice. God doesn't need our prayers, but our partnership in changing the world. Most importantly, we're spiritual. We look beyond the material life of paychecks and security to some echo of the truth that lasts and is meaningful when everything we take for granted crumbles around us. We believe in liturgy done with passion. Whether painful or joyful, life must be lived intensely, especially when standing before God."
Later, I attend one of B'nai Jeshurun's long Saturday-morning Shabbat services. Covering the Christian mosaics in the front of the sanctuary is a huge banner that reads, "How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony." On Sundays, a big wooden cross is brought to the altar where a portable ark containing Torah scrolls now rests. To help congregants find Judaism's spiritual core, the synagogue offers several levels of Hebrew instruction each week. (Although some American Jews can follow the Hebrew liturgy as if it were in English, many more have learned only how to recite the language, much as Catholics once did with Latin.) In a way that English can't, the ancient language helps open "the gates of prayer," Roly explained to me, because it's "tailor-made for the ideas and values of this people." To illustrate, he offered the word kadosh. Its English translation is "holy," which calls up in the Christian grand images of angels and haloes. But kadosh, which derives from the everyday term for "to set aside," simply means that something has been made special, such as food or time, as in Shabbat. "Holy" and "kadosh," said Roly, "open very different doors in the mind. In Hebrew, sanctity is anything that God wants me to set aside for a special purpose. God is the most kadosh of all. In English, we'd lose all these associations. For us, Hebrew isn't just words, but value concepts."
As at the zendo, the service's experiential quality is striking. Music plays a big part in the B'nai Jeshurun experience. As the congregation filters in on this Saturday morning, Ari Priven, the cantor and music director, plays soft keyboard melodies that have a meditative, settling-down quality. After welcoming the congregation, Roly draws our attention to Israel, where the spirit of the Oslo accords has been
rapidly fraying. Perhaps, he says, peace is the "lost property" that today's Scriptures insist must be restored to its rightful owners. Then, the prayers of praise that begin the service are accompanied by a rippling improvisational mix of mystical songs and Israeli folk melodies played on guitar, keyboard, and organ. The combination of music and fervent Hebrew soon impels me to daven-rock back and forth in prayer.
Up at the bimah, within a few minutes' time, several engaged couples dance under an improvised chuppah (canopy), mourners stand to commemorate their loved ones, and the sick come forward to pray for healing near the ark. With dispatch, the whole human condition is lifted up and sanctified, gracefully creating what psychotherapists call a corrective emotional experience. Without any preaching, each of us is gently put back in our proper place in the great scheme of things. Like the people who dance, mourn, and ask for healing, we too have been and will be happy, sad, and ill. Like them, we're in good hands. Faces relax, smiles are shared. At one point, the members of the congregation, mostly seated as couples, friends, or families, put their arms around one another's shoulders and sway to the music. When a tall stranger next to me, who has his whole family in tow, slings his arm across my back, I blink away tears.
Already, my reporting has confirmed an insight gleaned long ago from two very different interviews. The first was with an astute psychiatric researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health. While discussing neurotransmitters, he suddenly looked at me and sighed. "The great problem in life," he said, "is how to balance your need for privacy and independence with your need for others and for love. The wrong ratio in either direction can drive you crazy." A complementary and more personal observation came from a cheerful Italian Franciscan. "You have that Irish energy," he told me. "It's wonderful when it's going outward, but when it goes inward . . ." He shook his head.
If I had to give one reason why religion is worthwhile, it would be that it's guaranteed, as the friar would put it, to direct one's attention outward, or as the psychiatrist would say, to balance the me:them ratio. A major distinction between a religious experience and other internal events of beauty or import, whether aesthetic, intellectual, or emotional, is that religion points a person, like Scrooge on Christmas morning, away from narcissism and toward compassion. All the great faiths promote loving-kindness and charity. Research shows that America's religious institutions are the major source of community volunteers, and that their members are far likelier than others to donate to charities. When all is said and done, they're arguably society's greatest influence for good behavior.
Toward the end of the three-hour service, the day's bar mitzvah boy reads his Hebrew text and is then gently questioned by his teacher, Marcelo. Asked what the Torah is for, the boy says "it's about creating a just society." How does one know that one has done enough to bring that about? the rabbi wants to know. "It's hard to tell," the boy says-a fine answer, in my opinion. "We in the United States have more than enough, yet we don't do enough," says Marcelo. "It's immoral. In Judaism, it's not enough just to feel compassion without acting on it. For us, it's always love and action together." Finally Marcelo prays that God will give the young man "the courage to believe that he can make a difference and change the world. If the caring unite, they can make a new world."
Before we leave, we hear a few words from a special guest. Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, the director of Metivta, a center of Jewish spirituality in Los Angeles, is a highly respected teacher who studied with some of the greatest masters of kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. His long white hair and embroidered cap set off a droll, sophisticated face that soon makes one forget about the crutches made necessary by polio long ago. In a flutey British-inflected voice, the rabbi addresses the day's Torah portion; in Judaism, rather than speaking off-the-cuff, it's customary to comment on a set text.
Today's reading from the First Book of the Kings concerns the in-your-face activist prophet Elijah and his run-in with Jezebel. Rabbi Omer-Man refreshes our memory of the details: The "urbane" wife of King Ahab decided to "put some spice in her life" by adding a coterie of pagan priests to her court. When Elijah, "one of the most uncomfortable people one could have around," killed fifty of them, Jezebel "put out a contract on him." Fleeing alone into the Sinai desert, Elijah went through an ancient version of Outward Bound. The first stage of his experience was self-pity: He had made a mess of things, and "wished he had never been born." Next came self-evaluation: What had he done with his life? As soon as Elijah softened up, nature kicked in. A great wind blew, says the text, but God was not in it. Next came fire and earthquake, but still no God; despite their power, these events didn't bring understanding. Finally, there came a quietness, says the rabbi, "implying that whatever would happen to Elijah would happen in silence."
To us, says Rabbi Omer-Man, the wind, fire, and quake seem to signify God. To the Jewish mystics, however, they stood for speech, imagination, and emotion. For them, God was in the silence, he says, "because that's the thing that allows you to reevaluate your life and make the necessary changes. Elijah had to be quiet before he could figure out that he needed to stop being so aggressive." As it was for the prophet, so it is for us. "Only in silence can we find forgiveness," says the rabbi. "We can't change our past deeds, but in quiet we can reflect on them, and then change our future course."
When I leave the Shabbat service, conducted mostly in a language I don't understand, I've smiled and wept, thought and felt. In my busy house of five children, Saturday afternoon is usually a hectic time of getting various athletes to various playing fields and doing all the errands that couldn't be crammed into the week. Today, however, I stroll home in the sunshine, humming Hebrew melodies. In broad daylight, I go to bed with my husband and stay put for a two-hour nap. For the rest of the day, I sing and smile. If the zendo provided one sense of experiential religion, B'nai Jeshurun has offered another.
On the following day, I meet with Rabbi Omer-Man to discuss millennial religion. Thinking of Shabbat, I wonder aloud why I'm so moved by ritual, even unfamiliar ones. "Spiritual community," he says immediately. "It gives a sense of meaning and direction, and of life that's bigger than one's own. It's healing without therapy." One of his most interesting classes, in fact, consists of psychotherapists "who realize that they've reached a place where they have no more answers," he says. "I think Western individualism has gone mad in its quest for individual fulfillment. That has had incredible benefits, but it has gone off track, until people now really think the individual exists separately from society and family."
Of those who "rebel against the cult of the self," says Rabbi Omer-Man, some look to the past, drawn to the tribal feeling and respect for tradition emphasized in fundamentalism. This style of religion leaves many unmoved, however, particularly neoagnostics. Describing Judaism as "the dream of the Jewish people," he says, "What happens is that rabbis or priests, in Christianity-come along and say, 'This is the order in which you dream.' You say, 'But an angel was there on the hill and waked me.' And they say, 'No, he was in the valley.' Religion must have structure, accumulated wisdom, and even authority, but it can't be based on power. Imposing compulsory beliefs is like trying to make one part of the brain control the other."
With roots in Europe and Israel, Rabbi Omer-Man has a clear-eyed perspective on the difficulties thoughtful Americans face when trying to find a spiritual home. Although very religious from its early days, he says, the country is also pragmatic, results-oriented, and materialistic-tendencies antithetical to spirituality. To complicate matters, particularly for neoagnostics, a strong anti-intellectual streak runs through the country's religious history. Fortunately, he says, "when you go into the synagogue, it doesn't matter whether you believe in God that morning." We pause for a laugh. "You're worshiping the divine, whether you believe in it or not."
If some spiritually inclined Jews react against fundamentalism and its putative ownership of the faith's mysticism, others have been turned off by twentieth-century hyperrational Reform Judaism. When I ask Rabbi Omer-Man about the new trendiness of kabbalah-a spirituality du jour in the entertainment and fashion worlds-he rolls his eyes. This emotional form of Jewish mysticism began in eleventh-century France and flourished in medieval Europe, until it was gradually buried, outside of Hasidism, by Judaism's stress on rationalism and the law. The basic premise of kabbalah is that the words, letters, and numbers of the Scriptures hold mysteries that can be decoded with the help of esoteric texts. Once they gain knowledge of the ten "emanations," or forms of divine presence in the world, the initiated can sanctify every aspect of life and "repair the world." As throughout history, says Rabbi Omer-Man, "people want the cream without the milk." Some are drawn to kabbalah by its mysticism, while others hope for a kind of Jewish astrology, he says, "a head game of doing the different intellectual combinations of the emanations and levels of reality. The problem isn't that people are studying kabbalah, but that they're studying mostly bad kabbalah. It's meant to be a Jewish mystical tradition that leads you on the long, long path to enlightenment. Not the once-a-week seminar, but the long path."
When trying to distinguish between good and bad religion, Rabbi Omer-Man uses a simple gauge: "If it makes you work," he says, "there's a chance it might be a good one. If not, it's just another commodity for consumers. People want gimmicks. In the seventies, the Reverend Moon had some powerful tricks that gave people an instant spiritual experience. He'd get them exhausted, then march them up a mountain for sunrise, and they'd say, 'Without dope, I saw God!' That's a gimmick, not a practice. Spirituality is not a simple technique."
After sesshin, this muddy-boots approach to mysticism doesn't surprise me. "My number-one lesson in Jewish meditation is boredom," says Rabbi Omer-Man. "I don't know if this will attract millions, but it's like marriage. You have to woo people with some sort of experience; then things get less exciting. Some congregations have a problem in that they're afraid of boring people, so they entertain them instead. That's one good thing about the fundamentalists-they don't entertain."
When I ask just how one does Jewish meditation, Rabbi Omer-Man says obliquely, "There are four or five ways. Sometimes using an image or a concept. More frequently a sound. There's watching the mind . . ." Remembering my hard cushion at sesshin, I complain about how grueling it is just to sit down and shut up. "Those were the first words my first teacher said to me," he says, beaming. "I had been asking him all these questions-and we weren't in California, but in Jerusalem, where people are much ruder!" When I despair of keeping an empty mind, he sympathetically says that no one can: "The mind is like a vacuum. All you can do is control what comes in." Simply limiting the sheer number of thoughts seems to help, I allow. "Exactly," he says, harking back to Elijah. "Silence is a practice. It isn't just going out into the desert or turning off the phone. It's maintaining a practice, learned over years, of creating little islands of silence within life."
When I ask Rabbi Omer-Man how much of a person's spiritual life is up to God, his trace of irritation reminds me that I should know better. Jews consider it unseemly for the likes of us to speculate about the divine nature or what God should or shouldn't be up to. "I'm just one person doing my job," he says, "and I don't know. Clearly, that's very important." Fools rush in, so I say that it seems unfair to me that, as with artistic or intellectual ability, some people seem to have a great capacity for spirituality and others little. "I don't think we can apply the word 'fair' to grace, which by definition is random," says the rabbi. "For years I've noticed that some of the most undeserving young people can have the most incredible spiritual experiences, often with chemical intervention, while older ones who work and work get little glimmers every three years. That's okay."
As I leave, Rabbi Omer-Man offers some advice. "Find a teacher or group," he says. "Be discriminating. Find a teacher who had a teacher. It's like buying a used car. Who drove it before you?" His last words on spiritual matters, however, are "Lighten up."
Of things that are hard for me to lighten up about, Christianity and its founder are near the top of the list. Nevertheless, since the 1970s, from the new evangelical megachurches to the Internet, they are prospering. At the millennium, one of three people on the planet and nine out of ten Americans identify themselves as Christians. The world's fastest-growing religious movement is a supremely experiential
form of evangelical-"born-again," fervent, Gospel-based-Christianity known as Pentecostalism. (Its name derives from Pentecost, or the day when the Spirit's fire descended on the first frightened Christians, inspiring them to spread the Good News.) Although few readers of this book would be inclined to embrace it, in important respects, Pentecostalism is a bellwether of millennial religion.
Rather than creedal dogma, Pentecostalism emphasizes experience, particularly the here-and-now-on-Earth activity of the Holy Spirit, manifested during its liturgy in high emotionality and special "gifts and signs" such as speaking in tongues. Particularly popular in the Latin American, Asian, and American megacities, Pentecostalism claims one in four Christians, or 450 million people. In Fire from Heaven, his study of the movement, Harvey Cox argues that in failing to supply people with answers and meaning as anticipated, secular culture paradoxically triggered a global religious renaissance. To him, Pentecostalism is the most dramatic expression of "God's revenge on 'God is dead.' " In its "primal spirituality," he also sees a "mystical-experiential protest against an existing religious language that has turned stagnant or been corrupted."
When I first moved to New York City, my goal of securing the biggest apartment for the least money led me to a lively, run-down neighborhood that might have been airlifted from San Juan. The first night in my new home explained its attractive rent. By seven in the evening the walls were vibrating to the electric guitars, keyboard, and booming "alleluias" from a barely noticeable storefront church next door. Many years later, I remember two things about my Pentecostal neighbors. They literally lived the Gospel mandates of charity and inclusiveness. Their church doubled as a crisis center, which harbored addicts trying to kick their habits, wives of violent spouses, and others down on their luck. Just as I had never seen essential, give-all-you-have-to-the-poor Christian charity of this sort before, I had never seen such spiritual fervor.
My new neighbors' services usually began with loud music and praising the Lord, accompanied by clapping and swaying and testifying. Next came ardent prayer "in the Spirit," a sermon, more singing, and some simple refreshments. On special occasions, the whole operation moved outside, where the guitars throbbed and the reverend hollered the Good News through a microphone. I would peek from my window as certain congregants "got the Spirit," doing a kind of nervous dance and even falling to the pavement as if having a seizure. Americans of northern European descent may be squeamish about such overt manifestations of spiritual experience, regarding them as hysteria, neurosis, or fakery, but in many cultures, they are religion's sine qua non, and are understood as expressions of what is beyond words.
Pentecostalism's exact origins are disputed, but Cox traces it to Los Angeles in 1906. Turning from empty rituals and artificial barriers of race and class, William Seymour, a black preacher, and his congregation of the black and white working poor gathered to seek direct experience of the divine. These first Pentecostals were criticized for de-emphasizing the usual church hierarchy and doctrine; some of their modern successors are fundamentalists in their beliefs, but many aren't. "Pentecostals don't have a creed, or even a single denomination," says Cox. "Rather than being written down in a single volume, their theology is diffused among songs, prayers, sermons, and testimonies that challenge the secular worldview. You take your orders from the Spirit-your own experience of Pentecost."
Reservations about Pentecostalism resemble those voiced about experiential millennial religion in general, and not surprisingly, often come from institutional religion. Does a culture prone to search for God in a pill, prescription or otherwise, expect the same instant gratification from "designer" religion? Is the new "spirituality" motivated by a quest for authenticity or by narcissism? By feeling good or doing good? Rather than being shallow or trendy, however, Pentecostalism is just the latest illustration of how Christianity periodically leans more heavily on one of its "four pillars": Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. The early church's focus on experience gave way to an emphasis on ecclesiastical tradition, which was fought by Luther and Calvin, who focused on Scripture. The Reformation was in turn challenged by the Enlightenment's stress on reason, which set off highly emotional forms of revivalism such as John Wesley's Methodism. In the twentieth century, American Protestantism, like Judaism, became increasingly "desacralized," or rationalis-
tic and concerned with social issues. Voting with their feet, many people left mainstream religion for neoagnosticism or the fervent spirituality still often cherished in more orthodox traditions as well as in Pentecostalism.
Nearly seventeen hundred years ago, Gregory of Nyssa, an ascetic father of the early church, wrote, "For truly barren is profane education, which is always in labor but never gives birth." Many centuries later, even students at the nation's most elite-and traditionally secular-universities are less rationalistically and scientifically minded than their parents and grandparents. They're not fundamentalists or even conventionally observant, but they are interested in the spirituality of the great traditions. As an example of this "very big change," Cox says that Harvard's Jewish students "generally are far more serious about their religion today, although it doesn't necessarily pay off in weekly synagogue attendance. The young are vulnerable and have a touching need for something for which they're searching, and they go back to see what their ancestors did. The students can be very fond of their parents, but their construction of the world, goals, and values aren't exactly what the young want. They're drawn to the original vision-the core experience-of the different traditions, including the one they might have been brought up in."
Like Harvard students, most neoagnostics will never go to a Pentecostal church, yet they often have important things in common with those who do. Great numbers of Americans now question both secular materialism and religious dogma, prefer the intuitive to the canned, and opt for problem solving over rules and regulations. If he were to rewrite The Secular City, Cox says, he would explain that the sixties did in fact see a real erosion of religion as measured by attendance at church, say, or checklists of creedal beliefs. However, time has proved such standards to be "a very narrow way of looking at religion. What's happening is neither a secularization of, nor a return to, traditional religion, but a change in religion, of which the Pentecostals are one expression."
Despite the booming Pentecostal movement and Jesus' ubiquity on magazine covers and in bookstore windows, mentioning his name remains a highly effective way to cast a pall over a conversation among neoagnostics. Some of this aversion derives from the fact that he has been nearly kidnapped by the religious right, so that Jesus is identified with ranting televangelists, and "Christian" is often used as a synonym for "fundamentalist" or "reactionary." Then, too, a certain intellectual and cultural snobbery mandates that virtually any religion, from shamanism to Zoroastrianism, is better than the homegrown kind available down the street. Despite my ambivalence about Christianity, there's something appealing about its political incorrectness.
Christianity's main problem, however, at least in my world, is that Jesus symbolizes belief in the unbelievable. The unattractive figure many of us encountered in childhood went around saying things like "Blessed are the mournful," demanding that people accept him as God, and separating them into sheep and goats or wheat and chaff. I always knew which group I'd be in, and secretly thought that in real life only a creep would talk that way. On the other hand, Jesus' dour outlook was understandable, considering that he had been born so that he could be tortured and killed to appease his own father's rage at the rest of us, sinful from conception. Protection from this gloomy deity and his ferocious parent depended on belief in his divinity, which in turn depended on believing that Jesus had walked on water and performed other miracles. Within weeks of arriving in the brave new world of college and just in time for the sexual revolution, I left Christianity and its censorious founder behind.
At a loss about how to reapproach Christianity but determined to go someplace and do something, I join six thousand other people and several hundred remarkably composed dogs in New York City's huge Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine for a celebration of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa's ecologically correct cousin. In an astoundingly beautiful liturgy that could rival any Lincoln Center performance, more than a dozen choirs, two dance companies, African drummers, the voices of humpback whales and timber wolves, and most of the passengers from Noah's ark join the Paul Winter Consort in celebrating Winter's festive Missa Gaia, or Earth Mass. When a black musician rises from clouds of incense to blow into a great white conch shell, the flower-strewn altar swarms with masked bird-dancers preening in brilliant spandex and feathers. Preceding the bearers of the ceremonial bread and wine, the drummers march down the two-block-long nave behind leaping dancers in golden sarongs. "Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est" (Where abideth charity and love, God is ever there), sings the choir, mixing Gregorian, Yoruba, and Khemitic chants. Finally, in a breathless quiet, an elephant, looking as intricate and elegant as a jewel in the vast space, leads a procession of animals-camel, monkey, owl, llama, boa constrictor, hawk, even a hive of bees-down the aisle, radiating a magical civility and the wonder of creation that intoxicated St. Francis.
Under this glorious sensory bombardment, it's simply impossible to remain disengaged. The crowd reflects the cathedral's position, literally straddling impoverished Harlem and privileged Columbia University and figuratively, a staid WASP institution and the new urbanized, pluralistic America. If some here profess a devout Christianity, surely many have, like me, drifted away from it after childhood. Others, like my "half-Jewish" husband and our children, have never had a religion to reject. No matter what our backgrounds, we sway, weep, clap, hug, smile, exclaim, cheer. Thousands of strangers clasp hands and raise our voices in harmony. Better than the most eloquent preaching, we create an eschatological tableau that evokes Christianity's Great Commandment, drawn from the Torah: to love the Creator and the created as oneself.
Sitting in the church for three hours, I have plenty of time to take in the iconography of millennial religion. Along with the usual statues and holy pictures, the small shrines flanking the great nave hold AIDS and Holocaust memorials, fossils, a giant crystal, a bronze bison, a sculpture of the Wolf of Gubbio once tamed by St. Francis, and the living flora and fauna of the Hudson River aquarium. The Poets' Corner includes the names of Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers not known for their conventional piety. The church bulletin lists not only traditional liturgical and community services, but also a healing ministry, an environmental studies center, and a pastoral psychotherapy program. The Sh'ma Israel, which is perhaps Judaism's quintessential prayer, is sung at the Scripture readings, and the ranks of religious dignitaries include not only black and female priests and ministers, but Zen monks and Native American spiritual leaders. From the great sunflower-decked pulpit, Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu sage, offers a prayer: "Om. God, there's nothing but you. Help us see all the unity in diversity."
The cathedral's millennial tone is largely the doing of the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, its dean. (He has since left that position to run an interfaith center in New York.) Over the past twenty-five years, the dean, a large, glamourous, open-natured Harvard man by way of Texas, re-created the cathedral variously as the church of peace, urban activism, the arts, the environment, and religious tolerance. Throughout his swashbuckling ministry, many doubters of high and low degree, from East Side grandes dames to street people, were lured into church by the dean's way of showing God's "kingdom" rather than talking about it. Exuberantly going about his business-championing low-income housing, vamping at a society wedding, exhibiting an image of a crucified woman, weeping unashamedly at prayer-the dean became a poster boy for a certain brand of Christianity-indeed, millennial religion. Where many saw broad-mindedness, warmth, and innovative spirit, however, others found imprudence and a religious promiscuity, if not heresy. Even his supporters allow that the dean occasionally drove them crazy. Nonetheless, as one priest later tells me, "On their deathbed, everyone wants Jim. I sure would."
Later, trying to explain how the St. Francis liturgy somehow re-created the Garden of Eden before the Fall, I come up with two elements: an unfamiliar sense of self and others, and a hint of something else. Most intriguingly, the magic had nothing to do with believing the unbelievable, but came from trusting one's own experience of mystery. Perhaps the final blessing, given by Dean Morton, says it best: What we experienced was "the peace and joy that passeth all understanding."
Impressed, but still not ready for traditional Sunday services, I return several times to the cathedral for vespers. The church's early-evening office, or prayer rite, is traditionally conducted in candlelight. The flames are meant to represent God's power over chaos, and perhaps our proper place in a universe in which we are but flickers. Vespers is particularly soothing when one enters the church in daylight and leaves in darkness. Throughout the ritual, the setting sun progressively dims the great nave and brightens the candles, wordlessly replacing us into nature's diurnal rhythms, which the city's glitter and round-the-clock light often overwhelm. By gently recognizing realities, from the sunset to our day's-end fatigue to the many others in need of prayers, vespers restores my sense of place in the world and stirs a longing for something larger that contains us all. In the old stone church, listening to the ethereal medieval and Renaissance music, I recall C. S. Lewis's observation that we can't give up on the idea of heaven because our own experience suggests it.
One evening, the short homily is given by Canon John Luce, who artfully distinguishes between religion and spirituality. The problem with institutional religion, he says, is that it "often keeps Jesus locked up in the church and out of the world, which doesn't jibe with his teaching at all." But the church has a good side: community. To Canon Luce, "spirituality" means "I don't need the church because I can go to God directly," yet Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, came from organized religion, not spirituality. He tells about walking down Chrystie Street in New York's tough Lower East Side one day with Dorothy Day, "who had nothing-a chair, some cookies." They encountered a hideous, stinking, sore-covered beggar. Day embraced him tenderly and chatted with him for a few minutes. When they proceeded on their way, Luce asked, "Who is that?" She said, "Why, John, it's Jesus." Imagining myself in Day's shoes, my heart sinks. Throwing up his arms, the priest says, "It's because we're Christians that we can embrace all others regardless of differences. We do it because that's what Jesus does."
The cathedral, says Canon Luce, is "inclusive, not exclusive. We Anglicans are Incarnation Christians, who celebrate God in the flesh. Jesus talked about a brand-new tribe or society-the people of God. The cathedral's premise is 'Let's behave like the Kingdom is already here! Don't just preach it, but do it! Let's show each other how it can be!' " Surely, I think, the Kingdom must be something like what was summoned up on St. Francis day. Heart on fire, the holy old man who has spent his life ministering to the poor tells us, "Religion demands a leap of faith. Its only question is 'On what are you willing to bet your life?' Then, you must live your answer. Just try it!" He laughs. "Do it! Love everyone! Fight injustice! See what happens!" In this invitation, as in the little story that preceded it, I recognize the heart of the Christian message, feel its push-pull, and stay away from church for a while. I would much rather study or meditate than fight injustice or love everyone.
After a few weeks, I brave one of the cathedral's low-key weekday Eucharist services. Part of the huge church's genius loci is that, like a vast forest, it contains many microenvironments that give a sense of shelter and intimacy. Held at noon in the small St. Martin's Chapel, one of several in the semicircular apse just behind the great altar, the Eucharist attracts an eclectic little group of about fifteen or twenty Columbia folk, clergy, office workers, and the occasional shopping-bag lady. The rough gray stone walls glow softly with light filtered through the old stained glass. The only sound is the abundant birdsong from the close. There's little in the way of decoration, other than a small cross and a serene Joan of Arc, eyes modestly cast down; she reminds me of Kwan Yin, a female Chinese bodhisattva.
The Eucharist is celebrated by Canon Jeffrey Golliher, a compact, bearded Southerner with a quiet but intense manner. Listening to the Bible readings, I cautiously allow to myself that being here feels okay. In his brief sermon, in which he seems to be just talking about how life is, the priest addresses this very thing: Why should we feel okay? Even good? First, he repeats a line from Psalm 139: "For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." Some people like to talk about salvation, he says, but he prefers to think in terms of awakening or remembering-and of course, sleeping or forgetting. Salvation, he says, is when we remember that God knew us before we were formed in the womb, and always will know us. Being lost is when we forget. Salvation is waking up to a world pervaded by the sacred, and being lost is being asleep to that fact. Salvation means putting our faith in this different reality, he says, "so that we aren't yanked all over the place by random events we can't control or by our own emotions. It's a disciplined, wide-awake calm that comes from remembering what's really true, and from prayer. Jesus said that prayer is an exploration. 'Open your hearts.' 'Don't judge, so that you won't be judged.' Those are magnificent ways to say 'Be open to the world'-to new possibilities, including who you think you are, and transcending a lot of what you were taught."
The roomy way in which Canon Golliher talks about such things is about the only kind of Christianity I can handle. One day, we have coffee in the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a hallowed sanctuary of West Side artists and academics that's just across the street from the cathedral. Jeff explains that he was an anthropologist and a professor in the college-degree program at Attica prison before his midlife ordination and now directs the cathedral's healing and environmental ministries, along with serving as an Anglican observer at the United Nations. It already seems to me that he's also a laid-back, low-key missionary to neoagnostics.
Most of the time, Jeff says, he doesn't talk much about ecology or healing, which he sees as the same thing, or even about religion, but about "meaning in life. I try to have really honest conversations that create sacred space, in the sense of making a place where you can tell the truth to yourself. That's it. That's a religious experience in itself. A lot of us don't have it often, as we didn't in our childhood churches and temples. Once that sacred space is available, people will have questions about how to live respectfully. Simplicity becomes available, at least as a thought, a possibility?" The more important the subject, the more Southern he sounds, ending his sentences, even declarative ones, on an upswing, as if they were questions. In this engaging way he can quite emphatically tell you something while seeming to be just wondering. "Then," he says, "people might want to make some changes in how they live?"
From Jeff's perspective as both professor and priest, working on God is a good thing. "I don't have an intellectual model of God," he says. "For the time being, and maybe forever, I don't want people to have preconceptions about what God's supposed to be. I want them to get rid of a lot of images so they can see God as a mystery that's real in everyday life." If pressed to define the divine, he says, "I'd say that there's this thing called spirit-I'd leave it at that-which, when encountered, makes you feel like you've woken up after being asleep?" As a Christian clergyman who has also learned from Central American shamans, he says, "the distinction between theology and culture is not a particularly real one to me. Whatever we call it, I'm interested in meaning and how we organize our worlds. Religion should give a sense of 'This is what the universe is like' that's more real than the standard version. To me, there's a sense of well-being, compassion, and a strange kind of neutrality about how the universe works, not in the sense of 'uncaring,' but in there being a peace beyond thinking about or testing-shalom 'that passeth all understanding.' God's a name for all that mystery?"
Gained in a zendo, synagogue, and cathedral, my recent experiences have given me a new sense of religion as relying on intuition more than belief. Yet for neoagnostics, trusting our own experience in such a matter is a challenge; it means going with our deep, personal perceptions of what is, which our education urges us to doubt. Since the Enlightenment, religion has lain at one end of a philosophical spectrum and science's version of reality at the other. To interest neoagnostics, however, just as religion must be "real" in the experiential sense, it must also harmonize with what we intellectually know to be true. Next, I decide to investigate the improbable rumors that after more than three hundred years of warfare, there are signs of a truce, if not peace, between science and religion.
Excerpted from Working on God by Winifred Gallagher. Copyright © 1999 by Winifred Gallagher. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.