Nuns, Cows and Inspiration

There was a summer when I sang “How do you solve a problem, like Maria?” 52 times.  I was home from college andSOM76 managed to get a miserable summer job in a tourist trap during the day and playing a nun on stage at night.  I suspect I was not good at it, but I don’t really know.  I do know I got in trouble for talking trash within ear-shot of the little “Von Trapp” children off stage.  I seemed to need something to balance wearing a habit every night.  It was hard to view it as serious theater because backstage was a livestock sales barn, usually with cows.  The mooing and the cow dung were equally distracting.  And contrary to the delicious rumor, I did not go bar-hopping in my nun’s costume, though I wish that it had been me.

When the “Sound of Music” movie was in theaters in the early sixties, Karen Armstrong had just joined a severe, conservative convent in England at the age of 17.  The day her family took her to the convent, they went to see the “Sound of Music” after they said good-bye, while she was entering an entirely different world than the movie convent.  Armstrong spent seven long, painful years there and many more recovering, but eventually wrote The History of God, and many other books.  I just finished reading her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, and re-reading her follow-up memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

These two Armstrong books reminded me of The Empty Mirror: Experience in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering, and the book by my friend The Orange Robe (Marsha Low Goluboff).  I admit that not everyone is fascinated by people who go to extremes on their own spiritual quest, but I am.  In Armstrong’s case, she was in pre-Vatican II draconian communities that sounded quite like prison to me.  For van de Wetering, it was in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan with austere conditions that resulted in high-risk weight loss and numerous very serious physical and mental ailments.  My friend Marsha travelled the globe living on next to nothing that she most often had to scrape-up for herself in a guru-centered cult, Ananda Marga, which she calls a “spiritual sect.”

It is easy to be amazed by people making such personal sacrifice of physical and emotional comfort.  Granted, the stories I’m referring to here are written by people who have left the group.  Those who stay are less likely to write books that appeal to others or offer more than proselytizing.  Still, we can learn more about an organization, or a family for that matter, from those who have left.  Take a look at the black sheep of a family and you will learn more, faster.  Well, in my family that’s me, so maybe I’m biased.

What struck me in all three books was the arbitrary and brutal behavior of many in leadership who were viewed by themselves and others as spiritually advanced.  While I can understand the value to challenging and managing our own ego, I have never liked the people in power having to ‘break’ others. Upon arrival at the monastery, van de Wetering said, “In every training the ego is broken, the ‘I’ is crushed,” (p.17.)  Armstrong described that approach by saying: “We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience…” (p.279).  Armstrong offered another way of looking at the ascetic search for God or enlightenment; “…a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy,” (p.279).  Really?  Is it just another buzz?  The Buddha himself, moved on from asceticism and to the middle path (The World’s Religions, Huston Smith, p. 85).

One reason I am so skeptical of extreme lifestyles is a result of growing up around plain Mennonites and Amish.  What I have seen from all three books and while growing up, is that people are people.  By my idea of ethical behavior and compassionate interaction, I don’t see any greater measure of ethics and compassion coming from the Amish, the convent, or the Zen monastery.  For you religious readers I would say: Orthodoxy is not Piety.  For those of you scratching your heads at that one, I will add that rigid religious practice does not guarantee religious enlightenment or even sincerity.  In fact, often the severity of practice is in itself a distraction.

What I have learned from these stories is the value of ordinary life; for example, the struggle of staying employed and sane as an ethical person.  For many people, this is a fierce internal battle.  It’s just not that easy to find a civilized work environment where you don’t have to worry about who is going to throw you in front of the political bus, or how many people will be laid-off to protect the CEO’s inflated salary.  Your ego doesn’t need to be broken when it is beaten down by life every day.  I think more of us need the creativity and strength to keep some balance and perspective in our lives without being demoralized or immobilized.

In this, I have to refer (briefly) to education in our country.  I don’t have the research to present you with a full treatise here.  What I have are stories: stories of laid-off teachers and entire schools systems that are chronically under-funded in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  This week 30 school children went to see the governor of Pennsylvania with 4,000 letters.  He refused to see them.  Most of the state is controlled by white Republicans who see the School District of Philadelphia as poor blacks who have no right to expect the same education as white children of privilege.  Why is this ok?  Why is education considered a luxury?

That’s a long walk around the barn to say: what can I do to make a difference when I’m hanging on to my job by my fingernails and watching those in power abusing those who have even more meager resources than I do?  How do I manage my daily stress, and still find energy to make my voice heard?  And worse, will it make a difference?

What I’m hanging on to is knowing people like my friend Sara.  She took a vacation day to go to the state capitol to try to get callous legislators to care about education.  Every day she works full-time, cares for her mother and family, volunteers on two nonprofit boards, and was the volunteer of the year at her church.  At work she is fierce and vocal about workplace ethics and she has my back.  Always.

I can tell you I find more religious ecstasy in knowing Sara than contemplating my navel or being bullied by religious extremists.  I know there are more like her.  Truthfully, I’m not in her league.  But I aspire to be, and promise to keep trying harder.

If I have distressed you, then I do have a suggestion.  If you get really bummed, just put in the “Sound of Music” soundtrack and sing along really loud.  Nothing works for me better than the goat-herd song.  Just don’t stop listening to your conscience and protecting your soul, whether it is from your own ego or from bullies, in religion or at work.  –J.B.

#

Advertisements
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: