Faith Means Making Choices

This article appears in the July issue of The Be Zine. To see the whole blogazine, click HERE.

Faith.

“Firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Merriam-Webster

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We all act on faith. Each of us, every day. We make decisions based on ideas and concepts for which we have no proof. We take action based on insufficient evidence about the cause and the effect. This is unavoidable. When are we ever going to have all the information about anything? The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. The more we experience and the more we learn of others’ experiences, the more we realize that possible experiences and conclusions are infinite. None of us is ever in possession of “all the facts”. We are all guessing.

Similarly, we all have delusions. We all look through various lenses, have particular blind spots, and wear custom-made blinders for one reason or another. Sometimes these serve as coping mechanisms to protect us from overwhelming stimuli. Sometimes these simply magnify our ignorance.

Let’s try on an example.

I have to make a decision about how to commute to work in the morning. I have been told that taking the freeway is the fastest route. After all, the speed limit on that road is 55 mph. However, it’s always under construction in the summer. But is speed the best value to consider? Maybe I should not burn fossil fuels and ride my bicycle instead. I will then arrive at work sweaty and tired. There is a bus, but buses are full of germs. But my friend takes the bus, and I could ride with him and chat…And so on.

street scene

The point is, there are a number of ways to get to work and a number of reasons to justify each one. Those reasons may be weighted by experience, by social influence, by practice, by value and by preference. We each make our choices, our decisions, based on incomplete data and bias, but the point is WE MAKE CHOICES. And that is our great freedom, a right of autonomy.

We have the opportunity to make new choices at any time, although they will also be based on incomplete data and bias even when they are made in an attempt to incorporate new information. The dynamic of deciding and re-deciding is perhaps the greatest activity of life for our species. It’s what our big brains are for. But it is a process that does not have a product. We will never get it all figured out. Dogma is unsupportable in the long run, even if it seems beneficial in the short term. We will never, ever arrive at what is absolutely “right”. Perhaps a better pursuit is simply what is “better”.

Where faith turns into action or behavior, we make moral judgments. Based on your beliefs in the moment, you chose what to do. Was that action beneficial? Did it cause harm? If you decide the action was harmful or that acting in that way did not help you to be the person you want to be, you can choose a different action…AND you can choose to change the beliefs that justified your action. A flexible framework allows a lot more options.

Back to our commute example. What if…

Believing that getting to work quickly was the most professional, responsible thing to do, I set off on the freeway. Soon afterward, I ran into road construction. Flag operators stopped my car. The minutes ticked by. I got frustrated, angry, eventually enraged, and I expressed this state of mind by shouting a curse at the flag man and punching the accelerator as I was allowed to move forward. In the process, I rear-ended a car in front of me. Now I have caused insult to the construction worker on the scene, injury to the car and possibly the person ahead of me, and acted like a person I do not wish to become. I can decide to be more careful not to act in anger in the future, and I can decide that getting to work quickly is not an important value so that I’m less likely to feel frustrated when I can’t fulfill that value. I can examine my beliefs and thoughts as well as my actions and make changes in both in order to practice non-harmful behavior more effectively.

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This is a simple example. My real life is much more complex. At one point, it involved decisions I made about raising teens to adulthood while my husband was dying of a chronic illness. I realized that acting on my faith sometimes caused me to harm them and to become someone I didn’t want to be. So, not only did I stop the behaviors, I stopped believing the underlying principles that motivated them. I kept wondering if I was “losing my faith”, a phrase that sounded so negative and irresponsible. What I was actually doing was evolving my faith and my self. That, I think, is a very positive and responsible practice. I intend to practice striving for “better” and doing less harm. That’s my new choice, my new faith. 

victory

Text and photographs © Priscilla Galasso, 2016. All rights reserved.

Writer’s 4th Wednesday: Allegory

A piece I wrote in the last century…

The King’s Dream (John 4:13-14)

   There once was a wise and noble king who had a magnificent kingdom.  The king loved his kingdom immensely.  He could name every tree and flower, river, rock and creature in it.  He knew every thing about his kingdom, down to the number of the grains of sand on its shores.  He would take long walks through the hills and valleys, and sometimes he would come across a traveler, and they would walk together for a while.  Usually, the traveler did not recognize him immediately.  This may seen odd to you or me, since we are used to seeing pictures of our leaders in the newspaper or on our money, but this king had never had his likeness made in print or statue.  However, after some time in conversation, most people who encountered him could identify his authority by his regal bearing and knowledge.  For some reason that the king could not entirely understand, the travelers would begin to feel uncomfortable with him and refuse to keep his company after discovering his identity.  The king was puzzled and a bit hurt by this phenomenon. 

   In time, the people of the kingdom convened among themselves and decided to build the king a palace and a throne room where they assumed he would reside happily without the need to walk about the countryside bumping into them unexpectedly.  Certain subjects vowed to devote their lives to the business of making sure the king was reasonably content to stay in the throne room.  They brought lavish gifts of food and music to him and decorated his chamber with fine art and furnishings.  The king was very kind and wanted to honor these subjects’ devotion, for it seemed to him that they were trying their best to serve him in their own way.

   It wasn’t long, however, before the king began to miss his time among the rocks and trees and flowers that so delighted him.  It had also come to his attention that not all of his people had visited him, or were even allowed to visit him, in his fancy estate.  He wondered what the ones who hadn’t met him might think of him, and he still wondered why the ones who did meet him became uneasy in his presence.  Would they want to meet him here, gathered around this throne of gold, or would they stand just as uncomfortably, shifting their weight from foot to foot and shifting their eyes from floor to exit, just as they had done on the road?  He wondered what kind of a throne it could be around which they might gather comfortably.

   The king began to daydream about what it would be like if he could be king of the palace and king of every inch of his kingdom all at the same time.  He wondered how he might set up a throne wherever people were: in their homes, on the road, where they played, worked and visited, maybe as close as under their very skin, so that wherever people were, there was a place for him right in their midst.  He thought of the things that were common to every person in his kingdom, things that were linked to the richness of the land on which they all lived.  He thought of them walking home for supper at the end of the day, lighting fires in their hearths, gathering their children about them, and sharing a loaf of bread and a jug of cool water.  He thought of the water that flowed down from the mountain glaciers, cutting a fertile river valley in the plains and coming to rest in a large and bountiful lake.

    “To be truly king of this kingdom,” he thought, “I would have to be like water.  Then my throne would be on the highest mountain, in the smallest dewdrop dangling from a flower, in every kiss between two people, and at the feet of the children dancing on the beach.  Oh!” he thought, “to be amongst my people like water would be the best way to reign!”

   Giggling softly at his own pun, he drifted off into a contented sleep.  He dreamed that he was in a meadow.  He felt the warmth of the sun on his face and the tickle of the grass against his skin.  Suddenly, he heard laughter coming from the woods, and a host of joyful people burst onto the meadow.  Children skipped among the tall wildflowers playing games.  Women gathered bouquets and spread out colorful cloths on the grass.  Met set out large loaves of bread and wheels of cheese, cutting slices with knives that flashed sunlight back to the heavens.  In the middle of this happy scene, a young man carrying a wooden buck and and young woman with a crystal vase approached.  Steadily they advanced, and the king realized they were probably going to fetch water.

   “Let me help you,” he tried to call out, but he found he had no voice.

   Still they came nearer with clear purpose in their step.  The king was puzzled as they held out their vessels in his direction.  Then, with a smack! they plunged them through his heart and drew back their brimming containers dripping with the cool, clear liquid. 

   Breathless, the king realized that he was the source of the water they were now pouring and passing among themselves, and more than that, he could feel everything he flowed into all at the same time.  He was still the meadow spring that felt the impact of the bucket, but he was also surrounding the bouquet at the bottom of the vase.  He was ladled from the bucket to the lips of a child whose throat was dry and greedy and whose sleeve ran quickly over him.  He was passed in a wooden bowl to a lady, old and withered.  She parched in skin and bone and tongue, and he longed to fill her completely, to cool the burning heat that age had baked into her body.  He was mingled with the mud and dirt on the feet of men who had walked for miles to come to this gathering.  He heard them sighing in relief as he cleansed their weary soles.  A woman slicing cheese had slipped and blood ran from her finger.  He was pressed into her would to guard her from disease. 

   He found himself poured out, divided, spilled, then multiplied in a thousand new encounters with his people, while a part of him lay quietly in the meadow, ever-filled from deep below the earth.  His dreamed adventure set him about the kingdom enthroned in living water, and never did a traveler turn from him uncomfortably again.  He was able to be present in every corner of the land at once, and they say in that kingdom that the king has never fully awakened from his dream.

Summer's almost here!

© 2014, story and photograph, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Advent Day #24 – Love

This is the last entry from my series of posts two years ago.  Not much has changed in my love for my family, except that those “significant otters” have become more formally (and legally) incorporated into the clan and that the arena of family celebration has moved from my duplex to my daughter’s house (and will take place on Saturday).  The snow is deep and sparkly here in Milwaukee.  Steve was out the door before 6 a.m. to deliver mail and packages for the US Postal Service.  Last night, he didn’t come home until 8:30 p.m.  The temperature is -2 degrees Fahrenheit (without the wind chill factor) this morning.  If you get a mail delivery today, give your carrier a warm smile and your gratitude and appreciation.  Remember the free gifts that come to you each day, regardless of season, with no carbon footprint.  Live life in gratitude and happiness and peace.  The world will benefit.

How About Love?

My December countdown was completed yesterday.  I did not have a chance to post about the gift of love because I was living it.  My four children plus two “significant otters” came over for feasting and gifting and sleeping over.  All six of them ended up on the living room floor under mountains of sleeping bags and pillows and blankets, just like they used to when they were kids in a cousins pile.  Except now, they’re all adults — beautiful, interesting, caring, amazing adults who actually like each other.  And me.  How did I get to be so blessed?  This morning, I repaid them all for years of running in and jumping on my king-sized bed full of eager energy at an early hour on Christmas.  I dived onto their sleeping bags one at a time and gave them a great big hug and kiss.

We have lived through a lot together.  And we have lived through a lot separately.  Their lives matter to me in a way that I can barely describe.  Steve keeps challenging me to come up with ways to articulate what this is.  He has no children, and philosophically wonders why family is esteemed so highly.  “Oxytocin,” my daughter replied one day.  That explains one level of it, I suppose.  My biology has loaded me with hormones that make me love my kids.  My religion loaded me with beliefs that urged me to love my kids.  My experience of life has loaded me with the joys of loving my kids.  And my kids are just plain lovable.  I can agree with the reasoning behind his argument that all people are equally valuable, but I just can’t help feeling that my kids are more valuable…to me.  Yes, I’m playing favorites shamelessly without really understanding why.  Is it possible that evolution favors fiercely loving families?  Do they tend to be larger and survive better?   This might have negative effects on the planet in terms of population.  Would it be better for the world if we were less filial and more agape in our love?  Less sentimental and more altruistic?

 

Table fellowship

I don’t think that I am going to do justice to the topic of love in a scholarly way when I am full of mince pie, chocolate, and happy memories of the hours I just spent.  I am starting to sink into that melancholy that bubbles up when all of the guests have gone home and you ask yourself if you can be truly happy without that rush of energy and affection.  Of course, I am happy and even more peaceful living without all my children still under my roof.   I am in love with the world, in love with my partner, and in love with my children every day.  And it is marvelous.

Advent Day #23 – Peace

Peace On Earth

It is Day #23 in the December countdown.  Today’s gift is Peace.  Ahh, peace.  Take a deep breath.  Relax the muscles around your skull; feel  your ears and eyebrows pull backward; close your eyes and roll your head. Do you feel a sense of well-being?  Julian of Norwich claims that God himself spoke these often quoted words to her, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Do you believe that’s true?  Do you believe that’s possible?  I do, although I don’t always act as though I do. I forget.

Wikipedia uses these phrases to define peace:  “safety, welfare, prosperity, security, fortune,  friendliness… a relationship between any people characterized by respect, justice and goodwill… calm, serenity, a meditative approach”.  Where does peace come from?  Buddha, the Dalai Lama and many others will tell you that peace comes from within, not without.

“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” – Black Elk

But perhaps, there are things outside of you that will remind you of the peace which dwells within you.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” – John Muir

Do you feel peace in your mind and body and soul all at once?  Do you descend into peace from your head down?

“I do not want the peace which passeth understanding, I want the understanding which bringeth peace.” – Helen Keller

I suppose each of us must find his/her own journey into peace.  Anxieties and conflicts are particular and personal.  Facing each one head on is not a passive task.  Making peace is not for the weak of heart.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  Is God about making peace?  Is making peace the work of the Universe?  Is it perhaps that joyful effort that gives life meaning?

“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”  – Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we can make peace between ourselves and God, ourselves and Nature, can we then make peace between ourselves and others?

“If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” – Mother Theresa

Steve constantly reminds me that in every situation, especially in those that cause anxiety and conflict to arise, I have 3 choices.  I can hide/run away.  I can try to change the situation.  I can change myself.  The first option doesn’t exactly make peace; it simply avoids confrontation.  You can hide away all day long and still feel the fear of whatever it is that scared you.  So, why do I often employ that choice?  Because I lack courage and I’m lazy.  I sometimes pick that choice first to give me time to screw up my will and motivation.  I don’t want to get stuck there, though.

Trying to change the situation requires engagement.  Making peace with hunger, poverty, sickness, and distress this way requires an understanding of  causes and effects on all different levels.  It requires negotiation, and it requires cooperation.  You don’t always get all that is required to change a situation.  Not all situations can be changed.  Death is the big one that comes to mind here.  You can’t hide or run away from it, and you can’t change the situation so that you don’t have to experience it.  Now what?

Change yourself.  Sometimes the only way to make peace with something is to change your thinking, your belief, your approach, your attachment, your aversion, your ignorance or some other aspect of yourself.  “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” is the simplistic way to say it.  If you’d “rather fight than switch” (old cigarette commercial – pop philosophy at its finest), then you have chosen to fight, not to make peace.  Our egos make it really tough to change ourselves.  Sometimes we’d rather fight, sometimes we’d rather die, sometimes we’d rather do anything than change ourselves.  You have to ask yourself very seriously what your ultimate goal is to get past this one.  Is your goal to keep your ego intact or is your goal to make peace?   I’ve come across a lot of phrases that address this ego dilemma: “take up your cross”, “turn the other cheek”, “deny yourself”, “die to self”.  I think that dogma is probably more an ego thing than a peace thing.   If you can’t let go of your religious beliefs in the interest of peace, then your religion is more about yourself than it is about God, in my humble opinion.   I love the part of the movie “Gandhi” where he counsels a Hindu man who is distraught at having murdered a Muslim child.  “Raise a Muslim child and make sure you raise him as a Muslim, not as a Hindu. This is the only way you can purge your sins.”  This is true wisdom about peace.

Give peace a chance. It requires your will, it requires your strength, and it requires you to lay aside will & strength.  I am looking forward to enjoying the peace that my family and I have created.  We are still creating it, and will be our whole lives long.

Advent Day #19 – Divinity

Have Some Divinity

The premise is this: for each day in December, instead of counting down on an Advent calendar, I’m counting the free gifts we all get every day.  Today’s gift is divinity, but I don’t mean the candy.  I mean The Divine, The Sacred, The Holy and experiences of them.  Don’t we all have the opportunity to receive that every day?  If you look for it, will you find it?  I think so.

So, what is sacred?  How do you recognize the divine and holy?  In art, there’s always a halo or a sunbeam to give you a clue.  What about here on earth?

‘Namaste’ is the Sanskrit greeting recognizing the existence of another person and the divine spark in that person, with the hands pressed together in front of the heart chakra.  I think the divine spark exists in every living thing as the breath of life.  Every encounter with a living thing is an experience of the divine.  We hardly ever act like that is true, however.  But we could.  Native Americans and many African tribes have hunting rituals that celebrate the sacred exchange of life.  The hunted animal is divine, sacrificing itself for the life of the hunter, and the hunter shows a holy appreciation.  Often, when I look at macro photography of living things, flower stamens, insects, mosses, I am compelled to worship the divine in the detail.  Life is sacred and beautiful.  Looking closely and deeply is a way to practice recognizing that.

 

Seeing macro, but lacking the lens

In a dualistic world view, the mundane and the divine are polar opposites.  One is worldly, one is sacred.  If this world were imbued with holiness, if God became incarnate and entered flesh in this world, those opposites would run together like watercolors.  Many cultures believe this is the truth about life.  The waters under the firmament and the waters above the firmament are separated in one telling of the creation story, but the Spirit of God was moving over all of the waters from the very beginning, even in that story.  The understanding that divinity is everywhere has inspired people all over the globe for centuries.  This place we inhabit is special; it’s valuable.  It’s all holy.  This is the beginning of respect for the Universe and everything in it.  Somewhere in Western history, that idea lost its power.  Earth and everything in it became base and fallen.  Good turned to bad and life turned to death.  I’m not sure if that new idea has been very helpful.  I rather think it hasn’t.  And I don’t think it has to be that way.  It’s an idea, after all.  So if it’s not a helpful idea, why support it?  How would you rather live?  In a fallen world or in a world where the sacred and divine can be found everywhere?  Just wondering out loud.  I’m not saying that one idea is right and the other wrong.  The glass is neither half full nor half empty.  It’s a glass, and there’s water in it.  The rest is conceptual.  Why argue?  Choose how to live with the glass and the water.   As for me and my house, “I choose happy.”  (One of Jim’s conclusive statements.)

I hope this gives you something to ponder for today.  If you like, you can add a scene of Edmund Pevensie in Narnia being asked by the White Witch what he craves.  “It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating.  What would you like best to eat?”  “Turkish Delight, please your Majesty!” he responds.  What if he had said, “Divinity”?  Same story, nuanced.  I would like to taste the sacred in this world, and I believe it’s here.

The Village People

Today was my first day as one of “The Village People” at Old World Wisconsin.  I interpret St. Peter’s Church, built in 1839 as Milwaukee’s very first Roman Catholic chapel and cathedral.  Only 7 years after the cornerstone was laid, the parish had grown from 20 members to 100 families and they began to construct a new cathedral to accommodate the growing population of Catholic immigrants.  St. Peter’s was preserved and used for Sunday school, meetings, and a boys’ school (in the basement).  It was also moved around (3 times), added to, and then restored to its original design.  We acquired it in 1975 and restored it to its 1889 appearance.  The wood stove is no longer used for heat; since we store some of our collections artifacts in the basement, we’ve updated to central heating.  Still, it was chilly and damp today.  Here’s the interior and a close up of the altar.  The framed pieces are the Missal (service prayers) in Latin.

 

I hang out at the back of the church, stitching my pin cushion for the Christmas Bazaar or playing the pump organ.  I am getting used to pumping with my feet, adding volume and overtones with my knees, and keeping all ten fingers busy on the keyboard.  The organ is placed underneath one of fourteen Stations of the Cross displaying the German woodwork of that time.

Of course, I sit on that little chair and play while in costume, complete with corset and bustle.

Tomorrow is the 5K Bustle Hustle, a run/walk event for all ages (children can do a 1K route).  I will be cheering the participants on before taking my place in the church.  So tonight, I am turning in early!  Before I close, though, I have to share a photo of the most handsome man of The Village People standing outside The Wagon Shop. 

I said, “Young man! There’s a place you can go…”

I’m Not Cheating; I’m Choosing

Before Steve and I head into training for Old World Wisconsin and a work schedule that would prevent us from putting two days off together, we’re going to hit the road and go camping.  So, I’m not going to do a blog post for a few days, and I’m going to fall behind in the National Poetry Writing Month challenge.  But, I forgive myself.  I’m sure you forgive me, too.   Today’s prompt is to write a persona poem from the point of view of someone you’re not and write in his/her voice, rather like a dramatic monologue.  Here is an excellent example by Rita Dove.  To tell you the truth, my energy is elsewhere, so I’m choosing not to write poetry today.  Instead, I will include a persona poem I wrote some 15 years ago. 

Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52)

 

Darkness, like a raging blight, poisons hope and shrouds my sight.

In the dusty, dusky road I lie beside my begging bowl,

Ambushed by the thundering tread of hoof and sole, despair and dread.

Battered, splattered, nothing matters. In this flesh, I’m all but dead.

 

From a distance comes a cry: “Make way! Jesus is passing by!”

 

Drowning in my grievous dark, I catch hold of this floating spark

In desperate effort to be freed from hellish want and brutal need.

Hoarse and urgent comes my plea: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

With a roar, embarrassed scorn swallows the voice of poverty.

 

Indignation urges me in frantic hope, “Lord, pity me!”

As the torrent cracks the clouds and floods the land with rain,

My sorrow swells and pelts the air in uncontrolled refrain:

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy! Jesus, Lord, have mercy, please!”

 

A strong, brusque arm lays hold of me and pulls me to my feet.

Bring that man to me,” I hear. I tremble and I weep.

Then, suddenly, the air is still. A wide, warm presence calms me.

A voice so close it sounds within and penetrates the dark and din addresses me:

What do you want? What may I do for you?”

 

I strain toward him; would I behold salvation prophets have foretold

Were he not obscured by evil night? “I want to see!” “Receive your sight.”

His breath surrounds my clouded eyes.

The damning dark is pierced by light. I fall to kiss his feet, then rise.

Your faith has healed you. Follow me.”

My Lord, I will, for now I see.”