I’m watching Of Gods and Men. It’s about a group of French Trappist monks who chose to stay in their community rather than flee to safety during the Algerian civil war. They were kidnapped in 1995 by terrorists, but their death was never explained. Some have argued that Algerian soldiers killed them during a botched rescue attempt. The first part of the movie shows the monks selling their own honey and vegetables in the market, offering medical care and advice to the locals, who are mostly Islamic. When fundamentalists come to their town, the town leaders come to consult with the monks. When the terrorists come closer and begin to kill all foreigners, the monks refuse military protection. The Algerian army, in fact, is just as brutal and violent as the terrorists. This beautiful movie highlights the monks’ incredible forbearance and dedication to peace. It is a portrait of truly peaceful Christian practice, so unlike the practice of our mostly Christian, elected representatives, who wage war around the world and who never cease to find reasons to kill and main and destroy in the name of freedom. But the film also highlights the peace and love that are central to Islam, as well, showing the daily lives of the people, their friendliness, their vulnerability, and their civility. The terrorists are presented as men at odds with Islam, men who hardly know the Koran and who have a simplistic and militaristic interpretation of scripture. They are not unlike those among us who vote for bombs and landmines and hatred for people who don’t worship the same god.
Since I have returned from Nepal I have reclaimed my sense that we are all united in a great web of being, of aliveness and no longer identify myself as an atheist. Love is our greatest resource, the power most essential to our nature as well as the link between us all. We are not singular and cut off from one another. We only exist with one another, in relation to one another, and the relationship that we have with one another when we are being true to ourselves is loving. We are true to ourselves when we treat each other with love and compassion. Everything else about us—guns, violence, hatred, oppression, war—is against our truest nature.
Since I have embraced this essentially spiritual way of understanding the world, which was always very basic, if buried, in me, my attitude towards other believers, especially Christians, has changed. I’m no longer angry. I still disapprove of the many heinous crimes that Christians have committed and continue to perpetrate against other people. I still dislike the masculinism underlying the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the ancient and arbitrary division between Self and Other that recognizes men as subjects and women as objects, but I have given up the burden of burning indignation. My fury and resentment hurt me more than objects of my fury. As Donna Farhi relates, “harboring resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
The Dalai Lama was asked how he could feel loving kindness for the Chinese, who invaded his country, destroyed most of the monasteries, murdered thousands of Tibetans, and were continuing to repress and eradicate his people and culture. He was silent for a long time, and finally answered that he distinguished between the act and the agent. He could repudiate the actions of the Chinese but still feel compassion for the Chinese agents who brutalized his people. They are suffering greatly, after all, because they have strayed so far from their true nature.
I am learning to separate terrible acts from their agents, who deserves my compassion. Patriarchalism and masculinism injures all of us. What difference does it make whether we acknowledge a creator or not, if we all honor the essential divinity of the cosmos and dedicate ourselves to loving kindness?
I have felt a great deal of regret for my often disrespectful attitude towards other people’s faiths. I was not always kind to my former partner Tim, who probably would have been a priest or monk in an earlier era. He is well named. Timotheus means lover of God. His spirituality was one of the things that drew me to him most, so it is ironic that I should have dismissed his belief in Christ as his savior so rudely and thoughtlessly as I did at times. I do not share his faith, but I respect it and identify with him as a person of spirit, a person who actively searches for deeper meaning. He understands that we are not here simply to indulge our selfishness, but that we have souls and that our lives have greater significance. Our different ways of understanding the divine should not divide us. We are all looking for the same sense of refuge, belonging, and love. That Tim and I were unable to find it with one another is sad, but not tragic. Nothing lasts forever, and what we had was very important and beautiful. Our love has not disappeared, it has only changed, shifted in focus. It is not always easy for me to hold onto this truth, and it takes real work, prayer, and discipline to get through the tough moments. I feel sadness, grief, and pain. But I also feel lighter and freer as I let go of my attachment to him and discover the deep roots of my love for him, my sincere desire for him to be happy and well. It’s going to be hard to pay my heating bill this winter. I keep catching myself searching for quick fixes, as though a new romance or compelling passion will soothe the discomfort I feel facing the future alone. The answer, the solution to my longing and unease in this world is not going to be found outside myself, not in another person, not in a new relationship, not in a new accomplishment, not in a more sculpted body, not in the publication of books, not in the acquisition of a well-paying and glamorous job, but rather only through a slow and steady practice that brings me in tune with my true self.
My true self is not the crazy tangle of thoughts and emotions that continuously run through my mind, nor my ever-changing body, but rather the silent, neutral witness of my experiences in the world. It is this quiet aliveness, this prana, the shimmering vitality that I share with all other sentient beings, the life-force that courses through the forests, the oceans, the mountains, the rocks, the sun, the fiery core of our planet, the rivers, the plains, all plants, all organisms, even the stars themselves, that is my truest ground of being. This is what Rainer Maria Rilke calls “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration.” As he wrote,
Be in front of all parting as though it were already behind you,
Like the winter just gone by.
Because among winters is one so endlessly winter.
Only by over-wintering does your heart survive.
Be and know at that time the state of non-being,
The infinite ground of our deepest vibration
So that you may wholly complete it this one time.
Sonnets to Orpheus, 11.13.