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At the Beginning of the Day

One bright sunny Sunday morning as a senior in high school,‭ ‬I came downstairs and announced to my stunned parents that I wouldn’t be going to Mass that day or ever again.‭ ‬A few months later,‭ ‬there was an explosion of insight within that changed my life as dramatically inwardly as my declaration of independence from Catholic ritual had outwardly.

catholic massAfter that so-called mystical experience,‭ ‬it wasn’t just Catholic ritual and ceremony that became anathema to me,‭ ‬but all organized religion.‭ ‬Even at that naïve age,‭ ‬religions seemed to have little or nothing to do with spiritual truth.

With the ingenuousness of youth,‭ ‬I wondered why most people didn’t see this simple fact,‭ ‬but as I grew older,‭ ‬I came to understand that however misplaced the religious impulse may be,‭ ‬the human need for security and community is a powerful motivation.

The turning point in a more compassionate,‭ ‬if no less uncompromising understanding of religion came at the end of a business trip to the Soviet Union in January of‭ ‬1990.‭ ‬Though I was having daily business meetings with my perestroika partner in his spacious apartment‭ (‬indeed,‭ ‬I was staying in his room,‭ ‬which he and his wife had generously insisted I take‭)‬,‭ ‬I was continually asked in those dying days of atheism in the USSR if I was religious.

Religioznyh bez religii‭ ‬in Latin script‭ ‬is what I said through my translator—‭ ‬religious without a religion.‭ ‬They said it even sounded good in Russian.‭ ‬Sounded good yes,‭ ‬but Russians still returned en masse to the Russian Orthodox Church,‭ ‬which is even more ornate and anachronistic than its Roman Catholic cousin.‭ ‬That is the short and unfortunate history behind Putin and Pussy Riot.

Somewhat against my wishes,‭ ‬my Russian hosts took me to every church we had a few spare minutes to visit.‭ ‬They varied from the cavernous splendor of the pew-less museum of St.‭ ‬Isaac‭’‬s Cathedral in Leningrad,‭ ‬to a church in Moscow whose name has been erased from memory though the scene has been seared into my heart.

It was the only church I visited that had conducted services through the decades of communism,‭ ‬even through the horrors of Stalin.‭ ‬Piety and religious fervor had therefore been distilled down to their essence,‭ ‬bottled up in that one space waiting to spill out after the collapse of the Soviet Union.‭ ‬Why can the religious impulse find no expression in Russia,‭ ‬or America and the Middle East in recent years for that matter,‭ ‬except in moribund traditions and a return to the past‭?‬

The church was filled with candles,‭ ‬incense and Gregorian chanting.‭ ‬Every sense was instantly saturated.‭ st-isaacs-cathedral-in-st-petersburg‬Women were literally weeping in the aisles,‭ ‬and the whole place literally throbbed with devotion.‭ ‬I stood transfixed,‭ ‬not out of a rekindling of my boyhood piousness,‭ ‬but out of amazement and sorrow.

After I left quit Catholicism,‭ ‬I started to go to church several times a week.‭ ‬Not the church of a building made by the mind of man,‭ ‬but the church of the natural world,‭ ‬where anyone can hear,‭ ‬if one listens,‭ ‬an order and infinite sublimity beyond the human mind.

I didn‭’‬t call it meditation,‭ ‬and even years after the explosion of insight that ended the illusion of separation within me,‭ ‬I didn‭’‬t use that word for it.‭ ‬But for lack of a better word,‭ ‬that’s what it is.

It has become fashionable,‭ ‬and therefore quite meaningless,‭ ‬for people to say they are‭ ‬‘spiritual but not religious.‭’‬ That translates into:‭ ‬‘On my own spiritual path‭’‬—with the emphasis on me,‭ ‬and‭ ‬‘my truth.‭’

It should be obvious that that the truth isn‭’‬t‭ ‬‘mine,‭’‬ and that if there is‭ ‬‘my truth‭’‬ and‭ ‬‘your truth,‭’‬ there is no truth at all.‭ ‬But the religion of individualism will not hear such blasphemies.

In just two or three generations,‭ ‬the soil of thousands of years of tradition has been eroded worldwide,‭ ‬and nothing is replacing it.‭ ‬Returning to the traditions and the moral systems of the past is worse than an exercise in futility‭; ‬it hastens the inner erosion,‭ ‬while providing fertile ground for cynical political reactionaries such as Vladimir Putin.

Lest you think this is a Russian story,‭ ‬listen carefully to the tone rather than the content of many of Barack Obama‭’‬s speeches.‭ ‬Unless his competitive juices are flowing,‭ ‬his deadpan readings,‭ ‬so opposite from the soaring addresses that made him president,‭ ‬betray not just the hollowness of the man,‭ ‬but of a nation.

In the Islamic world,‭ ‬the rump of religious passion incites the slaughter of consumers in a materialistic mall of America transplanted to the evolutionary birthplace of humankind.‭ ‬Just as Bush-Cheney worked for the devil and called him Jesus in Iraq,‭ ‬heartless swine invoke Mohammed as they fly airliners into skyscrapers or gun down children shopping with their mothers.

catholic mass 1What can the person do‭ ‬that still feels and cares,‭ ‬despite such soul-searing events‭?‬ Is there something beyond the mind‭ ‬and mayhem‭ ‬of man‭?

Many are searching,‭ ‬but most still look outward,‭ ‬even if they perform the rituals of Buddhism and sit in stony silence in oxymoronic group meditation.‭ ‬One has to truly know how to look within.‭ ‬And when a person does,‭ ‬they need‭ ‬not‭ ‬wander through the darkness of consciousness completely alone.‭ ‬

Often,‭ ‬at the end of the day‭ (‬to use the political cliché‭)‬,‭ ‬I’m not sure of much.‭ ‬The big question,‭ ‬whether man is plunging irretrievably into self-made darkness,‭ ‬haunts me.‭ ‬But I am sure of one thing—there is something beyond thought,‭ ‬and that when‭ ‬the mind‭ ‬is deeply quiet,‭ ‬one feels at least an intimation of the sacred.

Call the‭ ‬methodless‭ ‬process by which one quiets the mind and opens the heart meditation,‭ ‬or whatever you wish.‭ ‬But take the time and set aside activity,‭ ‬as well as thinking,‭ ‬ruminating and imagining,‭ ‬and simply passively observe each thought and feeling as they arise.‭ ‬I’ve found it helps to jot things down that one wants to think about or do,‭ ‬which‭ ‬creates inner space by setting aside past associations and present problems,‭ ‬and puts things in order naturally,‭ ‬without effort.

Sit outside if possible,‭ ‬and open your senses. You’ll find,‭ ‬if you listen‭ ‬openly and‭ ‬attentively,‭ ‬that you’re soon able to hear things at a distance,‭ ‬without naming. Let your awareness quicken and become faster than your thoughts.‭ ‬You’ll see that there is a perpetual habit of separation—a‭ ‘‬me‭’ ‬that always stands apart,‭ ‬an observer‭ ‬what is happening within‭ ‬one.

Observe that,‭ ‬allowing awareness to catch the mind in the act of dividing itself from itself,‭ ‬and separation ends.‭ ‬Then‭ ‬a‭ ‬cleansing,‭ ‬renewing and sanctifying movement of negation begins.‭ ‬

Martin LeFevre

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