Tag Archive: Religion and Spirituality

What did Mary feel during the events celebrated with Christmas?  When my girls were younger, I would sing Gabriel’s Message to them as we drove to school in the mornings during November and December, and invite them to think about the Nativity from the mother’s perspective.  What did she feel during the series of miracles that unfolded?  How did her experience with angels affect her motheringMohammad said the path to Paradise lies at the feet of the mother; I wonder how the life of Jesus could have unfolded other than as it did without the nurturing support of his mother.

Some more of Mary’s perspective:

And I love this version, as well:

Sometimes when we look back on a miracle, it dawns on us with swelling realization that – whether or not we could see it at the time, or how uncomfortable we were at the moment it happened – those things which made the miracle could not have happened any other way.

I also wonder how many times we, in doing what we feel compelled and directed to do, are actually doing what is necessary to answer a stranger’s prayer.

In religious architecture many times the grounded portion of a structure will be based on a cube form, representing the temporal and limited realm of our physical plane.  Above the form of the base will rise a dome, representing the limitless expanse of the heavens.  The Name “Constrictor” causes me to reflect on the possibility that perhaps the constriction comes from our own limited, temporal perspective.  As mortals we view reality and time as a sequence of limited events, and by contrast the Creator possesses a viewpoint which is infinite and all-encompassing.  Praying for a closer family, we may find ourselves thrust into a situation at once inescapable and challenging; leading us to find new reserves of strength and a deeper family bonding necessary as we draw closer through the trial – from our limited perspective we feel constricted, but the situation seen from a broader perspective is a miraculous period of deep and meaningful bonding.

The concentric cubes symbolize the restrictions and boundaries we can feel are thrust upon us, with one decorated in strong geometric lines and the other in flowing organic forms.  The overlaying and overlapping designs feel at times confusing and chaotic, just as we can feel when in the midst of a constricting time.  With a bit of adjusted focus, thought, and a shift in perspective, the designs on the cubes come into relief and understanding.  In the center of the form is a number of woven finger traps; these are impossible to get out of as long as we pull and fight with the constriction, but when we “lean” into it and accept the situation, they no longer form a trap.

This Name, Constrictor (Al-Qabid), is always closely associated in my mind with Opener (Al-Fattah), perhaps because of the implication of hope.  The apparent restriction of Constrictor gives rise, with an enlightened viewpoint, to the expansion of Opener, and restriction opens up to new horizons.

Buddha Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

In every movement there are small elements that shriek and cry out that they alone represent the entire movement, while the rest of the larger group finds it difficult to recognize much similarity.  Outside of every movement it seems that a vocal few usurp the position to define and articulate the movement, forcing members to defend their belief, stance, or thought rather than define it themselves.

Of course, these are wild and overblown generalities, but there is something to support them.  All around the world groups claim the attention of the media and are given a platform.  Because it draws in viewers, these shrill voices have airtime to share their opinions, and a sad byproduct is that the voices of the rest go unheard.  Radicals, fundamentalists, and others with little grip on a shared reality are presented as speaking for the majority.  The vastly larger portion of Christians, for example, would never recognize as a Christian act the stalking of funerals for deceased service men and women and the screaming of pejoratives through the gates at surviving family members.  It seems that the louder and more shrill a person’s voice is, screaming at the top of their longs asserting their faith, perhaps the desperate volume is to silence their own doubts.  I don’t remember Mother Theresa ever shouting, “No, really, I believe!”  Or Mohandis Gandhi shrilling crying to his fellows, “Follow me!  I know the way!”  These paragons of spirit lived their faith, and never had to scream it.

World faiths have at their core the drive to find perfection, and the faithful desire to become perfect.  This is the drive to perfect the inner being, not force others into line.  When war and ignorance are perpetuated in the name of religion, it is because the root tenets of the faith are lost or misunderstood.  A while ago I heard a commentary by an outspoken atheist, who made the statement that ignorance is the province of faith, and that only the faithful believe the earth is flat.  I immediately thought of the religious astronomers of the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Celts, the faith of scientists like Hypatia of Alexandria, Ibn Khaldun, Viktor Frankl, and Warner von Braun.  The earth is flat and ignorance reigns when politics, not faith, takes over the religion.

It is easy to let our differences and disagreements grow until they become the only things we see – but it is also just as easy to see those things we hold in common as fellow humans and creatures of hope.  As a non-Episcopal I was invited to speak at St. Mark’s Episcopal and teach Sunday School for a month.  They could have focused on our differences in doctrine, but instead focused on our similarities and shared ChristianityIt was a beautiful experience, and the Dean Waldon even reflected on it in his Christmas message.

When we choose to honestly follow faith, respect the faith of our neighbors, and determine to find those things which unite us, it may not dramatically change the rest of the world – but it will certainly make our little corner a much better place, and we can catch a glimpse of that for which we hope.

Flammarion Woodcut

All blessings flow from the same ultimate Source, and sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that somehow we are the ones triggering the blessings.  When pride rather than rejoicing gratitude is our state of mind, I believe that can turn the heart of the Giver away.  At any moment, the wonderful things we have and experience can be withdrawn and our world can shift dramatically, so this mindset of gratefulness for the blessings we receive is vital to our constant welfare.

Job and Jesus were both examples of the best mindset to receive.  Job, through a twist of fate, had everything stripped from him, but he retained his dignity and faithfulness – and was ultimately rewarded with blessings far exceeding what had been taken away.  Jesus gave up the blessings of his family’s position and wealth to live the life of an itinerant preacher, always mindful of the many blessings surrounding him without the trappings of wealth.  In Sufi tradition when Jesus was asked how he felt being poor, he responded by confidently declaring he had all he needed, “My shoes are my chariot, the moon is my lantern, and the morning sun is my winter’s fire.”

To become the creatures we are created to be, we must open ourselves to the Divine will, and being caught up in our blessings or thinking that somehow God “owes” us these things is a dangerous, prideful attitude and closes our hearts.  “Pride goeth before a fall (from Proverbs 16:18)” is a principle consistent with our growth cycle – to “reopen” our hearts to His presence, sometimes we have to be reminded of the proper attitude and our blessings are stripped away.  Jesus, First Among Saints, gave up his material blessings in voluntary abasement as an example to those around him; Job was abased because, I believe, he was a trusted servant and God required an example for Job’s contemporaries.  Both proved that material blessings are to be accepted with grace and humility, and that true blessings are beyond this material world.

In my personal reflection, I believe this Name has to do with keeping a hedge about our proclivity to pride.  Our Creator has built the entire universe just for our well-being, and His desire for our welfare means we deserve rich blessings, but the moment we act like attention-starved selfish children and whine to the heavens that somehow God “owes us” something, we begin to weaken our channel with the Source and sour our relationship.  By remaining aware that, at any moment and quicker than an eye-blink, our fortunes could be reversed and our haughtiness brought to abasement, we can be motivated to remain in a grateful state of mind.  And, if abasement comes although we maintain the right attitude, I believe it is because our Creator trusts that we’ll have the strength to deal with it and be a good example to those around us.

The shape is a truncated dodecahedron, modeled after a popular lamp imported from the Middle East during the 60’s and 70’s, inspired by a lamp made by my friend David n. Sterling of The Mall of America Religious Council.  Each pentagonal face has a representation of the numbers 1 through 12; in the bottom are ashes (reminding us of the example of Job) and hanging from the top is a polished moonstone (symbolizing the story related about Jesus).  The ashes are from prairie oak, Russian olive, and cottonwood branches (naturally fallen from their respective trees, growing around the areas I’ve lived in – and with some alchemical significance).  The indigo and blue paint are to remind us of the expanse of heaven.

All of us have our stories of abasement, and I pray that we have the strength to remember to offer gratitude for the blessings we receive; I’m also confident our Creator hears and is greatly pleased when we thank those wonderful people who surround us, who give us His blessings through their own hands.

The folks at Alpha Omega Arts and Sakina Design have both posted articles about the new book, 99 Names:  1 to 25 (A Christian’s Exploration of the Names of God from the Qur’an).

The article at Alpha Omega Arts is here.

The article at Sakina Design (a Muslim design firm) is here.

Please visit their websites and check out the articles.  And please be sure to check out the book!

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Images from the exhibit

Photography by Hawkinson Photography

In 2008 I was finishing my Master of Fine Arts degree in sculptural stained glass.  I had experienced a vision (a dream, a hope – “vision” is a good word for it) which greatly impacted my Thesis work, and impelled me to produce a series of sculptures and exhibit titled The Windows of Dzyan:  Relics from a Theosophical Scrapbook.  Although there are few direct references in the sculptures themselves, the motivation and direction of focus were largely influenced by the writings of both Mme. Blavatsky and my hero Dr. Seyyed Hossein NasrLambert Academic Publishing came across the work and asked if they could publish it, and now you can have your very own copy of The Windows of Dzyan:  A Theosophical Scrapbook.

This from the back cover:

In 2008 I built a series of 12 sculptural stained glass works examining the visual symbols of 5 different cultures.  The exhibit displayed at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah was titled The Windows of Dzyan:  A Theosophical Scrapbook; in addition to the sculptural work displayed it was also a comparison of the teachings of Theosophist Mme. Helena Petrovna Blavatski with the teachings of the Prophet and Founder of the LDS Christian Movement, Joseph Smith, Jr. – 19th Century Americans of distinctly unique vision.  Using symbol as a vehicle to cultural understanding, the process of building the sculptures led to an appreciation of the shared concerns, desires, and hopes of these diverse and disparate views.  Through their vast differences, I learned to see the desire, intent, and hope for constructive growth we all possess in our shared humanity.  Includes technical data on techniques and materials used.

Were it not for thee I would not have created the heavens.

Hadith Qudsi

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Images from Wikimedia Commons

I am astounded at the rich diversity of sacred architecture around the world.  In his work Islamic Art and Spirituality, Dr. Nasr discusses that the primary purpose of sacred architecture is to allow us to reconnect with the original sacred nature of the God‘s creation – His handiwork is holy, and the earth and heaven as He made them are the most sacred.  The role of the holy site, then, is less to call heaven to earth and more to remind us to look beyond the veneer of impermanence and fleeting banality which we have placed over primordial nature.  The first and most holy of temples is the universe, and our structures of worship are built – when they are built by those pleading for heavenly guidance and direction, and consecrated by the faithful – to give us respite from the overwhelming wash of temporal mortality, and to return us to our transcendent and primordial connection with the Divine.

All ground is sacred, we just need help to remember this.

A while ago my friend Jason Lanegan and I were exploring the shops in Flagstaff, AZ.  He currently operates/runs/curates/coordinates (he wears a lot of hats) the galleries of the Visual Arts Department at BYU, and years ago held a similar post at NAU.  Periodically I volunteer to drive down and back with him as he carries artwork for NAU or the Marshall-LeKae Gallery in Scottsdale – it’s a long drive, but totally worth it (there’s a limited number of people with whom the trip is bearable, and I’m sure they feel the same way – perhaps not with the exact same group of people).  The landscape constantly varies, running between stark and devastating to rich and vigorous.  On this particular trip, in one particular shop, I was sharing with Jason some of the traditional beliefs regarding different stones (some was real, some I made up), crystals, and oddities in a particular store (my dad would have described it as for bark and tree loving granola eaters), when I found a bowl of worry stones.  I had been thinking about Al-Mu’min for a while; unable to proceed I had set it in the back of my brain under the “Waiting for the Next Step” folder, and kept my eyes open for the trigger of inspiration which would coalesce the ideas churning around.

The worry stones were beautifully polished flat ovals of jasper and agate with a dip for the holder’s thumb to rub.  The sign described a tradition I had heard in Alabama years before:  the stones alleviate worrying as they sooth the worrier, you rub your thumb in the groove until you wear a hole through the stone, at which time your worries disappear.  A way, perhaps, of creating harmless ‘make-work’ so you can feel like you’re doing something, and maintain an illusion of purpose while you’re feeling powerless against the drowning onslaught of worries.  Jason and I figured by the time you wore through the stone, you would be old and wise enough to realize worries amount to nothing, so in effect the promise of the stone was fulfilled.  As soon as I picked up the stone, something clicked and the folder in my mind opened.

Faith is a process and quality of awareness, verifiable but only through experience.  We have faith when we ‘hope’ or ‘believe’ in things which are true, but not seen.  Sometimes this word is applied to the unfounded desire we have for something which simply isn’t real and can never be – forcing someone else to change through our thoughts alone, for example, or desiring something else for ourselves when we make no effort to change (New Year’s resolutions remind me of this sometimes).  The words ‘hope’ and ‘believe’ are in quotes because I don’t think those are quite the right words – they imply a weakness of doubt, and the process of faith is one of strength.  Doubt can be a strength, too, but that’s for another discussion.

In Islam there is a concept which echoes in the lives of spiritual people everywhere, a three-point sequence of actions which builds, nurtures, and inspires faith.  The Creator does something which impacts our life, we react to the something, and we take the lessons learned or the consequences of our reaction to inform our relationship with the Creator.  The ‘something’ could be absolutely anything and, in reality, is everything within our realm of experience.  Blessings of food and the basic necessities of life, blessings of abundance, a chance spot of sickness or illness brought about through our own exhaustion and overwork, a narrow miss while riding a bike or lungs filled with the clear air of a spring morning, all experience is given for our individual benefit.  Each of us are created to become something wonderful, and the experiences we have are to help us recognize our potential, see our weaknesses, appreciate our blessings, and grow.

But, most of us take the good for granted and complain about the bad.  We turn to faith not so much to show gratitude for a life filled with blessings (Sufis teach ALL experiences are blessings), but because we feel desperate and ache for a better tomorrow.  Although everything witnesses of the Creator and gives cause for faith, faith comes into our lives through our fears, concerns, and worries.  Ideally, we can get to the point the Sufis teach, to see all things as blessings, but I believe the Creator is happy enough when we start on the path of faith even through our worries – He knows when we start, we’ll get there eventually.

The shape is a truncated cube or cuboctahedron, combining the cube of earth with a triangle to symbolize our earth-bound, limited perspective and the three-point faith ‘cycle’.  Blue and green remind us of the flowing rivers and vibrant growth in Paradise, and the richness of Divinely given bounty here on earth as our eyes are open to see it.  In the center is suspended the worry stone Jason and I found, and the structure is tied together to remind us of the Divinely inspired knowledge and wisdom we can find in books of scripture and the accounts of the wise who have gone before us, given us as guides in our path of faith.

Muslima Smile Image from Wikimedia Commons

Muslima Smile
Image from Wikimedia Commons

My friend Ernest at Alpha Omega Arts shared this online exhibit with me – with four daughters, I enjoy learning about women’s empowerment, especially through art.  From Voice of America:

The Arabic word ‘Muslima‘ means a woman who believes in God.

The online Muslima exhibition, by the International Museum of Women, highlights the individuality of Muslim women and the rich diversity of their thoughts and contributions…  (Read the full article here, and visit the exhibition)

Very cool.


Seder PlateImage from Wikimedia Commons

Seder Plate
Image from Wikimedia Commons

“As long as we’re going to start being neighbors and working together on PTA committees, why not understand each other a little before we even meet?”

–Dr. Victor Ludlow, quoted from The Jewish Daily Forward

With each generation the world shrinks and habitual boundaries disappear.  My grandparents lived in very homogenous neighborhoods, and today we can talk everyday with friends we’ve never met on the other side of the world.  One reality of this is an expanding awareness that people all over are different, and somehow underneath we are also the same.  Learning and appreciating our differences help make our friendships deeper and more meaningful, and our own lives richer as well.

One thing our family likes to do is learn about the holidays of other faiths – learn about it from those who celebrate it – and sometimes celebrate it ourselves.  I read one person’s writing that they felt this was offensive, that it showed disrespect for both faiths; I think my friend David Sterling would disagree – his Holy Days/Holidays festival at Mall of America every year is always a big favorite of the many faiths participating and attending.  When done with honest curiosity, respect, and reverence, shared observance is uplifting and helps us remember we are part of a much bigger family.

My wife’s parents have gone to Jerusalem a number of times, and brought back a beautiful Seder plate from one trip.  My kids wanted to know what it meant so we did some research about Passover.  I found some cool sites on how to conduct a Seder, and how to prepare the Sedar Plate.  I asked a few Jewish friends if it would be okay for Christians to observe Passover, and they all thought it would be a good idea (one friend said, “But it will make us lose our mystery!” and laughed).  “When your heart is reverent and you are trying to learn, it will only be a blessing to you,” another friend added.

Arun Gandhi related that many times his grandfather Mohandas was asked his religion.  The answer (Arun said) was always the same.  “I may be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, or Buddhist, but I can be none of these without first and foremost being human.”

A wonderful reflection to have on any holiday.

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