Living in the Empire


Tomato season is upon us.  Those speckled romans in the upper right hand corner appear to have done a little hybridizing with the Amish pastes–so many of them are chunky and round.

I had a conversation with a wise man yesterday (my father).  My book on the desert mothers and fathers caught his eye, and he told me about what he had read about the movement of these communities into the deserts of what is now Syria and Palestine and Egypt–that they appear to have been reacting to the Christianization of empire in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Watching how their spiritual path had been taken and used to unify people under military and nationalistic banners, they chose instead to retreat into the deserts.

We got to talking about how our own direct spiritual ancestors, Mennonite Anabaptists in Switzerland in the 1500s, were also confronting the ways in which faith and spirituality had become a tool of empire and state-building. They refused to baptize their babies into the state church, choosing to untangle their spiritual story from the story of the religious city-states.  Many of them paid with their lives.  Many of them fled that empire for the new world.

Today, I think we also live in a time of empire-building, when the engines of state appropriate and exploit spiritual dogmas in order to consolidate power.  We have no desert to flee to, no new world that holds the promise of a life lived according to principle outside the boundaries of empire.  And perhaps flight is not what is called for in these days.  Perhaps the work of today demands that our desert monastic cells and our new world communities be villages of spirit, grounded inside ourselves.  Perhaps our work is to build and strengthen what St. Teresa of Avila, in the 1500s called the Interior Castle, the spaces inside ourselves that experience the life of the spirit in deep communion with the Great Mystery, a place where political and empirical powers hold no sway.

And then, how does the tending of our own inner gardens inform our daily living in the empire?  How will I explore my anxieties and concerns about things like elections and drone warfare and poverty and refugees in light of my inner journey?  How will I act in the outer world, if I am informed by my own inner amma in her quiet desert cell?  What will our communities of spirit look like here, within the belly of the empire, if we do not set ourselves apart in desert communities or sail away to a new land?  How do we keep our circles wide and inviting, our conversations holy and uplifting, our actions principled and full of resolve?

The movement of spirit that I see today is not defined by a singular religious group or sect.  It crosses religious boundaries.  The Muslim seeker and the Christian seeker, the Sikh, the witch, the Buddhist, the agnostic, and the universalist–it is one spirit community, working together to live with intention and purpose, with compassion and wisdom, calling forth that longing to experience the life of the spirit within each other and with everyone they meet.

Gratitude List:
1. I found the hummingbird nest yesterday.  It’s been a couple years since I found one.  I just happened to be looking at the right place at the right moment when she flew in and settled on her nest.  What a miracle of existence is the hummingbird.
2. This seems petty, but it’s a biggish deal to me: the warning lights in the Prius went off.  I decided to drive her for small errands yesterday because we couldn’t get a car appointment until this morning.  After two or three stops, she stopped giving me panicky lights.  My mechanic says to just keep watching for the lights and hope she was just resetting something.  I was afraid of a huge repair bill.
3. The inner work.  Knowing you’re out there, and so many others are with us, tending our inner gardens, building and connecting communities of spirit.
4. How sleep refreshes.  I felt really run down yesterday.  Jon said maybe I didn’t eat enough.  I thought maybe it was the humidity.  My bones ached.  I thought I might never feel rested again.  A good sleep has done the trick this time.
5. Inter-species friendship.  Here’s Fred, talking to me about breakfast.  I had to give him my attention and respond to his questions and snuggle and feed him.  Now he has settled quietly into the chair right beside me, companionably.  What a great guy.

May we walk in Beauty!

Wake-Up Words


My Anabaptist ancestors spoke about being in the world, but not of it.  My love of the writings of the mystics and of Sufi thought has caused me to tend to tend to reject that notion.  I am in this world, this body, to experience the world, to know matter intimartely.  The idea has so often been interpreted as a call to a matter-denying asceticism.  Yet, while at least some of those early Anabaptists seem to have been interested in living ascetically, they were also living in a time when the city-states and political structures of their day demanded their spiritual as well as their political allegiance.  Their choice to focus on not being of this world was a rejection of the force of empire.

Today, we are also living within structures that, while they claim to offer freedom of spirit and idea, have a tendency to demand allegiance, an empire of consumerism and militarism.  We may not always see the victims of this empire, but they’re there.  This empire in which I live is responsible for so much that goes against Good News: forced labor and child labor making cheap things for us to buy; rampant exploitation of the planet’s resources; demand for precious metals and minerals that cause conflict and wars in other parts of the world; sales of arms to and support of militaries that harm their own people; bombing of innocent civilians in an attempt to kill our “enemies”; bowing to the god of Might and Force.

How can we live in this empire and not experience some of the numbing effects of its daily fare?  And how can we live in this empire, and yet not be of it?

Gratitude List:
1. Jim’s wake-up words: You are what you eat.  If you eat the food of the empire, you take on the characteristics of the empire.  I am not grateful for this truth, living within the belly of the empire as I do, but I am grateful for the reminder to live with that awareness.
2. The cycle of life.  The young ones keep rising to take their place.
3. Water.  I take it for granted all too often.  I flick the dial on the dishwasher, turn on the tap, adjust the knobs on the shower, fill my coffee pot.  Not everyone has access to clean water.  For some, the filling of the water-need is arduous and treacherous.  May the waters run free and clear for all.
4. All the things that DO get done.  I get to feeling a little ragged about all the things that don’t get done, but in the meantime so many things do get accomplished.
5. Snow geese.  They haven’t stopped in the Wrightsville/Columbia fields this year (at least not that I have seen).  It was a joy to see them in the fields near Campbelltown yesterday afternoon.

May we walk in Beauty!