Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New at No Unsacred Place

Cat has a new post, over at the Pagan Newswire Collective's nature blog, No Unsacred Place, "Not Greener-Than-Thou" on the hazards of trying to build up a repertoire of of environmentally friendly living skills.

(It turns out to be possible to make very expensive organic compost.  Details here.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Peter's Spiritual Journey, Part II: Leaving Home

The Spiritual Journey so far:
Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones

As a child, my mother and grandmother took me along with them to St. Andrew’s Methodist Church. The people there were all very nice, very sincere Christians, but it was a little bland. I think back on it and my most vivid memories are of the annual church picnic which was always in my grandmother’s back yard, overlooking Long Island Sound.

The closest thing to religious fervor in our household was my father’s agnosticism. You hear the word agnosticism and you probably think of something wishy-washy, a sort of intellectual shrugging of the shoulders. But that was not my father. He was finishing his doctoral dissertation in astrophysics and beginning a career as an academic, and he had a fierce integrity around intellectual honesty, including honesty with oneself. He was adamant in his assertion that we DO NOT KNOW if there’s a God. He didn’t strongly object to the practice of religion, though. I remember him once saying to my mother that he didn’t mind her going to church any more than he minded her eating yogurt, as long as she didn’t ask him to. He also didn’t object to her bringing me with her. The one thing he felt strongly about regarding my religious upbringing was that I not be baptized until I was old enough to make that decision myself.

I liked Christianity when I was growing up. I think what I liked most was that it brought people together to help them live good lives. But it lacked…something. I couldn’t put my finger on what, but it was a bit like a steady diet of oatmeal. You could eat until you were bursting at the seams and still be unsatisfied.

When I went away to Yale University, I began to explore. I took courses in world religions. I learned about Hinduism and Buddhism and I read the Tao Te Ching. I also dropped in on all the campus ministries—the Lutherans and the Baptists and even the Quakers (where I found I could not sit still through an hour of silent worship without literally twitching by the end of it). I spent most of my freshman year worshiping with the Congregationalists. They had a Wednesday night communion service and discussion group that I found nourishing, but at times I got kind of frustrated with them. It seemed like whenever things started to get really interesting or spiritually deep, they’d shy away.

I remember one night, one of the regulars told how his professor had said Hinduism and Christianity were really very similar in many ways. He was baffled by this, because Hinduism is so baroque, with all those gods and yogic practices. The Chaplain explained to him that it made sense because the professor was Catholic. “Protestant spirituality is very dry, by comparison,” she said. It was around that time that I came to wonder if there were mother loads within Christianity that I had not yet tapped.

The Catholics were the one campus ministry I’d steered clear of. The whole papal infallibility thing made it a non-starter for me. Plus, both my parents were astronomers; I’d grown up hearing about the Church's treatment of Galileo and their violent opposition to the heliocentric model of the solar system.

But it turns out there is a place outside the Roman Catholic Church where you can still find that juicy, baroque spirituality that Protestantism so lacked. Towards the end of my sophomore year, I signed up for a weekend retreat at an Episcopalian Benedictine monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It was like a child’s first taste of ice cream.

This wasn’t any Protestant oatmeal. Here, they had frankincense. They had Gregorian chant instead of those stolid Wesleyan hymns. And this wasn’t a little commemorative bread and wine; this was a freakin’ Eucharist!

Ice cream? No, it was more like some vital nutrient that my body had always lacked, and suddenly I’d found a food that gave me a rich source of it. That Easter I was baptized into the Episcopal Church at Yale, and I spent the following summer at another Anglican monastery, St. Gregory’s Abbey, wearing a cassock and testing my vocation to be a Benedictine monk.

For six weeks, I woke each morning for Matins at 4:00. Often I’d catch another hour’s sleep afterwards, but some mornings I’d walk the grounds with a wool blanket safety-pinned over my cassock like a cloak, and watch as the black night sky turned grey and then pale blue, before heading back indoors for Lauds at 6:00. Every day had a rhythm of prayer and meals, of work and rest. I learned how to use a pitchfork, how to weed a flowerbed, how to feed pigs, and even how young bulls were castrated. In the afternoons, we paddled out to the raft in the middle of the pond and skinny dipped—a terrifying experience, at first, to a young man prone to spontaneous erections, but after a couple of days I found I could relax and trust my body—at least that much. I swept and vacuumed, washed vegetables and dishes, and in its own way, everything I did there was deeply sensual. The Ordo slowed our lives to a pace that allowed us be fully attentive in each moment.

The monastic schedule looks rigid on paper, but I found it liberating. It freed me from distractions and offered me—offered everyone there—the freedom to go deep. Deep into prayer and thought, deep into reading and writing, and deep into the physical pleasure from ordinary things like strawberry jam on homemade bread or the smell of books in the library. I felt like a kid in a candy shop in that library. I’d brought a dozen or so books of my own to read, but left them aside when I discovered on their shelves writers like Carlo Carretto and Thomas Merton, and also Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. (A little odd, perhaps, that I spent so much of my time among Benedictines reading about Judaism.)

St. Gregory’s fed a deep hunger that I felt for a life that was orderly, focused, and centered, but more than that, the monastery fed my hunger for meaning. Life made sense at St. Gregory’s. It’s where I learned that there were such a things as spiritual communities, and people who lived their whole lives centered on the deepest levels of meaning. It was another of those major turning points in my life, and I think I might have signed up for the novitiate on the spot if it weren’t for one or two little things. I should finish my college education first, of course. And there was also the small matter of…


At age 20, the thought of taking a vow of celibacy would have been about as easy as… I don’t know… scaling a 50-foot wall with my bare hands. I mean, people have done it. But standing at the foot of that wall, I couldn’t really see how.

So I didn’t stay. But I left feeling nourished and awakened in a way I’d never been before. I held onto the idea of maybe coming back when I was older, when I’d experienced more of the world, maybe slaked a few of my appetites and allowed the hormones of adolescence to subside a little. It wasn’t a definite plan, just a back-burner idea, but one that I kept gently simmering for quite some time. Decades later, no longer Christian, I still feel a connection there—enough to correspond occasionally with the guestmaster (now the abbot) and to read the Abbey Letter cover to cover.

But the inability to commit to a life of celibacy really bugged me at the time. It’s not that the choice was wrong; it’s that I didn’t really feel it was a choice. I felt I was simply too weak, that it had been a failure of courage, a lack of integrity.

Fear—facing it, owning it, and beating it—turned out to be a major theme of my spiritual journey.

To be continued…

Photo: Self-portrait at St. Gregory's Abbey, summer 1979

Monday, June 20, 2011

Peter's Spiritual Journey, Part I: A Refugee Looks Back

The Spiritual Journey so far:
Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones

My spiritual journey has not been a straight line. It has looped and twisted, sometimes out into non-Euclidean n-dimensional hyperspace and sometimes down into Hell and out the other side. But it has had two or three big turning points that were defining moments. You know, like when that Mesopotamian storm god first appeared in the whirlwind and said to Abraham, Go now, leave your family and your home and wander in the desert. Don’t worry about where you’re going; I’ll let you know when you get there.

So I’m going to tell my journey in medias res, beginning with a turning point at a Southern Baptist commune in rural Georgia when I was 22 years old and discovered I could no longer be Christian.

First came the Fundamentalists

The thing is, they were actually very nice fundamentalists. They were good, kind, compassionate people doing humanitarian work in the world, with a particular calling to refugee resettlement work. They were actively working to become the best, most righteous and loving people they could be.

I suppose their only failing was that they’d lost the ability to think critically about that process or about their religion.

They were fervently committed to surrendering all their pride and greed and willfulness to God, replacing their own will with God’s will, their own truth with God’s truth, and they turned primarily to the Bible for guidance in finding that truth. And this put them, at the deepest core of their being, in close company not primarily with other good, kind humanitarians, but with other Bible-believing Christians. I mean, sure, there was some overlap between the two groups. A lot of overlap. A great many Christians are inspiring examples of humanitarian compassion.

But where they didn’t overlap—where Christians occasionally came down on the side of bigotry and hate, and the humanitarians had the misfortune to have come from other faiths—their loyalty was clear: God’s truth, not our truth; God’s love, not our love.

This should not have thrown me as much as it did. I came to this Southern Baptist intentional community as a liberal high-church Episcopalian and as a vegetarian organic gardener at Oberlin College, one of the most persistent remaining strongholds of the countercultural values of the sixties.

I should have just gone back.

Instead, I listened to what the fundamentalists said. I don’t mean I took it all in unquestioningly or uncritically, but I listened very deeply. I looked at their arguments. I re-read the Bible through their eyes. I was shocked and horrified at a lot of what I found there, but I could not deny seeing it once it was pointed out to me.

Next came the brainwashing

And it wasn’t even meant to be brainwashing. Like I said, these were very nice fundamentalists. There wasn’t any autocratic leader living high on the hog by exploiting his followers; they genuinely functioned as a community, giving according to ability and taking only according to need and making decisions (at least among the permanent members) through a process that probably wasn’t very far off from Quaker corporate discernment.

They never set out to brainwash anybody.


There are places in the human psyche that few of us ever explore. I’ve never been to outer space, but I’ve read about weightlessness enough to know that there are predictable experiences that the human body and mind will undergo in that condition.

At age 22, I had never lived in a commune, but I’d read about them enough to know there are some predictable experiences there, too. I remember a line from a textbook in a course in Christian Utopias and Communitarian Movements that I took at Oberlin, where a hippie in a 60’s commune said something like, “Man, you’re all inside my head and it’s freaking me out!” Reading it, the year before my own experience with intentional community, my reaction was, Wow, that sounds really interesting. I wonder what that would be like?

That summer, in the thick of it, the sensation was almost physical. My interpretation of Christianity was being remade through the intensity of the communal experience in a fundamentalist setting, and it almost felt like fingers inside my skull, probing down into the sulci of my brain.

I should have just gone home. The problem was I didn’t really have a spiritual home.

Photo: Jubilee Partners Summer Volunteers, 1981
I am third from the left in the back row.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Peter Meets a Liberal Christian with Balls

Metaphorically, at least.

Yesterday, Cat and I drove to Boston to hear the annual Weed Memorial Lecture at Beacon Hill Friends Meeting. The speaker was Peggy Senger Parsons, the pastor of Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon, and for the second time this spring I've met someone and think, If I'd known someone like that when I was 22, It's possible I'd still be Christian.

I picked up a copy of FFC's Faith and Practice while I was there. (For the non-Quakers in the audience, F&P is sort of equivalent to a catechism or a Book of Common Prayer.) There's a passage that she read aloud in response to a question from someone in the audience. I'm just going to quote it here for now. I'll get much more in depth about what it means to me over the course of the summer as I write my spiritual journey.
We renounce the intolerance of religious fundamentalism in all its forms. Free Christians need only to live according to Gospel Order and hold up Christ, in order to fulfill The Great Commission. We believe that God calls human souls in more ways than we can imagine, and that God abides with anyone who seeks God in spirit and in truth, regardless of how they name God. We can and will make clear the truth and power that has been given to us, our Gospel path, but in no way do we think that we possess the whole, or only, truth. We prefer to live in relationship to the Truth. We believe it to be blasphemous for a human, or human group, to claim to hold the whole truth.

In our experience, Fundamentalism, which we define as asserting the absolute truth and completeness of one's own beliefs and practices to the deliberate exclusion of possible truth in other beliefs and practices, often leads to pride, judgmentalism, strife, rancor, and in the extreme, to hatred and violence. We believe that religious fundamentalism is incompatible with holy living and grace, and we renounce it as sin.
It comes a bit late for me. I've found other paths to God, first as a Wiccan and Pagan, and more recently as a liberal, non-Christian Quaker. But it's surprising how powerful I still find that renunciation. And how angry it makes me, even today, that no one anywhere in the Christian Church had the balls to say that in 1981.

Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Peter Goes to Kenya, Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken

Part I: Culture Shock
Part II: A Society in Upheaval
Part III: Fairy Gold
Part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed
Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style
Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken
Peter's Spiritual Journey Begins...

As a missionary in Africa today, Eden Grace doesn’t see herself as “bringing God to Kenya,” the way early missionaries would have, but rather as coming to Kenya to find the ways that God is already at work there. She accepts, with open eyes, all of the failings and all of the harm done by missionaries before her, and sees that still, on the ground, there is work to be done.

Eden gets both halves of the contradiction: the Bible is her source of strength and inspiration and guidance and inspiration and connection with God, and the Bible is full of fables and fallacies and failings and corrosive, destructive teachings. Eden has grasped both polar opposites and holds them both, where, when I was younger, they tore me apart. One thing I realized while I was in Kenya was that if I’d had a mentor like her when I was 22 or 23, I might still be Christian.

At the time of my religious crisis, there were only two kinds of Christians around me: There were fierce, Bible-believing evangelicals who worshiped The Book as if The Book were God, as if every word of it were a verbatim transcript of God’s personal instructions for each of us. And there were the nice, reasonable Christians—intelligent liberals who were largely oblivious to the Evangelicals and who didn’t understand why I couldn’t bring myself to recite the Apostles’ Creed or take communion any more.

It’s not relevant to me now, the way it would have been thirty years ago. Today I am not Christian simply because I am something else. I sit at the table with Christians and the fact that I was once one of them rarely comes up any more.

Christianity is deeply flawed. (A Christian might use the word “fallen.”) Christianity helped create a lot of the problems in Africa that Christian missionaries are now struggling to solve. But Christianity remains, providing health care and hope, when so much else of Africa is just gone.

Americans want to take the braid of God’s Word and God’s work and separate out the strands, holding onto the threads that seem untainted and discarding those that embarrass us by reminding us of our history. That’s not the answer. In Africa, there are no separate threads. The answer that I saw in Kenya is simply to be on the ground, doing the work.

When I began writing this series, I had imagined that this last installment would answer a lot of the questions that commenters raised about my feelings around Christianity. I realize now that instead, it serves as a jumping off point.

It is time to write my spiritual journey.

Stay tuned…

Maternal Health Outreach Clinic by Peter Bishop
Mr. Bishop with Mission Statement by Vika K.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Join Our Celebration!

Today marks the one year anniversary of following a leading to dramatically cut our plastic waste.  We're celebrating over at the PNC nature blog, No Unsacred Place--come read about a year of living with less plastic, more local food, and more fun.

One Morning

I love living where we do.

This morning, in the early gray, just after the alarm clock went off, I found myself stretching lazily to the sound of geese flying overhead--non-migrating Canada geese.  I see them gleaning in fresh-turned fields or in the stubble of newly-mown hayfields at nearby farms, together with the local wild turkeys.

Such a sweet, wild music, the song of wild geese.

Moments later, Peter urged me out of bed.  "Oh!  Come see!  There's a bear--two bears, a mama and a cub in the back yard!"

And so there were.  Ambling along quite unhurriedly at the edge of the woods, down to our partially-rehabilitated perennial bed.  We crowded the bedroom window, watching them out of sight.  (Judging by the size of mama, the bear I saw last fall must have been an adult male.)

We decided to let the dogs out late, today.  We trust the fence we built for their yard, but there's no point in tempting fate.

Such a persistent miracle, a glimpse of wild thing, living their lives in parallel with our own.  As I think I may have mentioned, I love our home.
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