The Cross and the Kiss of Choice

JPNewellbyAnnFowlerby John Philip Newell

Last year I gave some talks at a church in Minneapolis. Before the opening session, I was seated in a side chapel close to the main auditorium preparing myself in silence. The talks were going to touch on themes of sacrifice, of making whole again. And I was going to raise specific questions in relation to wholeness. Do we want to be part of transformation? And what are the costs of change, both individually and collectively? As I sat pondering these themes, I noticed on the front wall of the chapel a traditional Ethiopian cross with its large diamond shape at the top and narrow shaft connecting to a smaller square shape at the bottom. And I realized it was like a big key hanging on the wall in front of me.

In the Christian tradition, our key is the cross, or what Jung calls “the Christian totality symbol.” It opens for us the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love.

In the Christian tradition, our key is the cross, or what Jung calls “the Christian totality symbol.” It opens for us the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love. It connects for us what has been considered opposite—heaven and earth, the divine and the human, the one and the many, God and all things. It is the key of love. It is the key to transformation.

2002-21-1lgThis may begin to make it all sound simple. And I suppose it is simple. But it is not easy. The difficulty comes in using the key. The challenge ensues in taking it off the wall of our religious symbolism and making use of it in the relationships of our lives and the wider world. The test is in whether we choose to use it again and again and again, resisting the delusion that we will be well by looking after ourselves in isolation, by tending our own nation, our own species, our own tradition, to the neglect of the whole. It is what Teilhard de Chardin calls “the primacy of humility,” the greatness of bowing in love to what is deepest in one another.

The way of sacrifice cannot be imposed, for it is the way of love.

The way of sacrifice cannot be imposed, for it is the way of love. By its very nature it must be chosen. Hildegard says that we are “to act through the kiss of choice.” This is what ANC students did in loving their nation and paying the price of exile. This is what Jon Sobrino and his fellow Jesuits did in speaking out against the political abuses of El Salvador. They kissed the key to love. This is what our Mark did in the Glasgow terrorist attack in his willingness to sacrifice.

What is it that we will choose, and how can we strengthen one another to make this “kiss of choice”?

A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 165-168.

The Antithesis of Terrorism

DSCF3960by John Philip Newell

In 2007 there was a terrorist attack at Glasgow International Airport in Scotland. Ali and our younger son, Cameron, were traveling that day.They arrived at the airport just minutes before the Jeep that had been packed with explosives drove through the front window of the terminal and burst into flames. If they had arrived a few minutes later, they would have been checking in at exactly that spot in the airport. As it was, they were inside the terminal getting close to the ticket counter. Then suddenly in front of them hundreds of people were running in the opposite direction. Ahead of them they glimpsed the Jeep and one of the terrorists on fire.

 “I was listening for the moment of explosion. I was trying to decide when to throw myself over Cameron.”

People were desperately running to get away. Our son- in-law Mark was with Ali and Cameron. He had taken them to the airport and was helping with their luggage. He said, “Drop your bags. Run.” As the three of them ran, Mark, in later recounting what was going on in his mind, said, “I was listening for the moment of explosion. I was trying to decide when to throw myself over Cameron.”

This was not Mark boasting. This was a candid, straightforward expression of his heart. He would not put it this way because he does not claim to be religious. But for me this was an expression of the heart of God. It was an expression of the true depths of the human soul. Deep within us is the desire to love.

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In the end, the explosives did not detonate. Scotland was spared the sort of carnage that many places in our world are subjected to on a regular basis. How can we be part of transformation in our world so that such acts of terror do not pull us further apart? For us as a family, we will always remember Mark’s willingness to risk himself for Cameron. It was the antithesis of the fear and hatred that motivated the bomb plot. How can we nurture the willingness to sacrifice? In other words, how can we nourish the desire to love, a desire that is within us all, although often confined to the smallest circles of relationship and family, yet a desire that can be equally although more challengingly applied to broader spheres of relationship in our world? There are many stages to transformation, including the detailed deci- sions of how to reenvision and restructure the relationships of life, whether between nations and species or between individuals and communities. But unless there is a willingness to be compassionate and to bear the cost of love, we will move nowhere except into further separation and division.

 A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 164-165. 

Can God Be Reborn?

By Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer

The key was in the title and I was looking in the smaller print.

Why was the Downeast Spiritual Life Conference, in Castine, Maine, in mid-July, important and what was it about John Philip’s message that was crucial?

“Spirit,” ”Earth,” and “Human Soul” were all in the subtitle of the conference brochure. These are words that flag our present state of awareness: Spirit we know is somehow the answer to what’s the matter with us; Earth has moved to the top of our list of ultimate concerns, and to address our Human Soul does feel like the way back to life in the Spirit and for the Earth.

The key that John Philip brought was: the divine that is being reborn is in us; the God that is delivering us anew is the Mother God.

But the conference title’s main three words were: “Rebirthing the Divine.”  I was wondering if God could be reborn. So much for a churchman’s theological question.

The key that John Philip brought was: the divine that is being reborn is in us; the God that is delivering us anew is the Mother God.

On the last page of the brochure were prayer words of Jesus from his “Celtic Earth Mass” “Ground of all being,/ Mother of life,/ Your name is sacred.”

Labyrinth photoThe final lecture was centered on the testimony to hope and action of Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman leader in Burma. It is to “Lady Wisdom” John Philip said we need to turn. A key visual image in his talk was the sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz, first called “Our Lady of Delight” and renamed more conventionally, “The Descent of the Spirit.” (See John Phillip’s YouTube Holy Week talk on the piece.)

Where can we see this statue? At the Roofless Church in New Harmony, Indiana, a church conceived of and built fifty years ago by a lady of wisdom and wealth, Jane Owen, who also commissioned the sculpture. Where else can we see it? At Iona. And what did John Philip say was his favorite place to pray at Iona now? The Nunnery, the open air, half-destroyed singularly feminine presence on the island.

Many of the lectures quotes and stories came from the life of Teilhard de Chardin, who while exiled to China learned that it is the “fragrance of The Feminine “that invites us to union with God.

A crucial story John Philip told was of the radical ego-ending epiphany of Bede Griffiths, the British-born Benedictine, at his Ashram in India, where he both had a stroke and came to experience the feminine side of God simultaneously. It was more than his system could take, yet it took him to freedom and peace on the other side of ego. (See Bede Griffiths’s YouTube talk on his encounter with the Feminine Divine.)

Believe, as Martin Buber did, not in Jesus but with Jesus. Have the courage to see with a drafting compass that roots you in the other as in yourself; feel with clarity of heart; and act in order to have full life.

But none of this was some new creed or some correct vocabulary. We were called by prayer supplication words such as “Send out your light. Let it bring me to your dwelling.” “Wait and be of good courage”. Believe, as Martin Buber did, not in Jesus but with Jesus. Have the courage to see with a drafting compass that roots you in the other as in yourself; feel with clarity of heart; and act in order to have full life. Oh, and expect to find Light in the other, chant and breathe, for we are at the time when we can no longer hold on to our religious inheritance but must also open to the religions of the world, for the sake of our Spirit and Mother Earth.

Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer, recently moved from New Harmony, Indiana, to Belfast, Maine. He is the author of ”Desperately Seeking Mary” and offers workshops, labyrinth experiences, and Spiritual Formation in coastal Maine. 

*photo above by Collen Meyers during Chris Farrow-Noble’s Class at the Downeast Spiritual Life Conference.

Our Oldest Unity | John Philip Newell | Isle of Iona | New Harmony

02a-Mby John Philip Newell

Last year I had a dream in which an alchemist-like woman whom I did not know was summoning pieces of fish into a chrysalis-type structure, a place of transformation. The individual segments of fish seemed entirely unrelated to each other until they passed through the large cocoon- shaped chrysalis. But on the other side of the chrysalis, they emerged complete as a bright shining salmon, all of the pieces reconnected into a living whole. In the dream, I thought it was like the reverse of a meat grinder. The separate parts were now reunited and living. Toward the end of the dream, a word appeared visually in front of me, which upon waking I could not remember. But later in the morning it came back to me. The word was quintus.

There are many strands to this dream. One is the unknown woman who draws the parts back into a whole. She represents a feminine dimension within me, within us, which the dream suggests I am not yet fully conscious of. Her gift is to bring back into relationship what has been torn apart. Her charism is relational. And her wisdom is to know that the segments are part of a whole. In the dream, the pieces seem so fragmented, so separate, that it is easy to believe there is no connection. What is this grace of feminine, relational wisdom within us waiting to be reborn in our families and nations and among us as an earth com- munity? And do we know that this gift is within us?

The chrysalis-type structure is another significant part of the dream. The word chrysalis comes from the Greek khrusos, which means “gold.” It is used to refer to the transition state in the metamorphosis of an insect, especially from larva into butterfly. This is a hidden moment, the golden alchemical moment of transformation. And in the develop- ment of an insect, it is a quiescent time. Nothing appears to be happening in the stillness of the chrysalis. How do we enable one another to pay attention to the hidden gold of stillness within us where despite outward observation, the beginnings of transformation can be born? And how in our lives and relationships are we to recover faithful and trusting practices of stillness in order that deep change may emerge from the heart of our being?

The word that appears visually toward the end of the dream, when the bright, beautiful salmon appears, is quintus. It is Latin for “fifth.” The salmon represents something that is quintessential to life, something more than the four elements of which its body is constituted. Known for giving its life in order to spawn new beginnings, the salmon discloses something of life’s quinta essentia. It is like a window into the mystery of relationship at the heart of the universe. Life is not composed simply of its material elements. Its quintessence is the longing for relationship and for new beginnings.

Our oldest unity is our relationship with the earth.

Interestingly it was not a butterfly that emerged from the chrysalis in my dream.The butterfly also is a symbol of resurrection, which in the Christian tradition occurs when grace and nature combine, when grace awakens within our nature something that has been assumed dead and beyond hope. Instead what emerged from the chrysalis was a salmon. In the ancient Celtic world, the salmon was a symbol of wisdom, which in later Christian Celtic symbol- ism became associated with Christ, or more specifically with the wisdom of Christ’s way, which is the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love. This is the quinta essentia that holds all things together. Without love, the elements of our lives disperse. It is the quintus, the essential fifth, that brings all things into the wholeness of relationship. Love is the gold at the heart of life’s chrysalis. And it is not simply gold at the heart of the human chrysalis. It is the desire for relationship at the heart of the universe.

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Meister Eckhart says that “all creatures . . . seek the One.” This longing is deep within the stuff of our nature. It is deep within the body of the cosmos. We seek the One by seeking oneness with each other, by seeking to be in relationship with the rest of life, by living in relation to everything that has being. The tragedy of our reality is that we have fallen out of touch with this holy natural longing. Divisions that have multiplied divisions, and fears that have fed upon fears drive us further and further apart. Grace, says Teilhard de Chardin, is the “seed of resurrection” sown in our nature. And the greatest of graces, love, is what reawakens the deep longings of our being, the hunger for oneness, the desire for unity. How do we bring this greatest of graces to the relationships of our lives—our relationship with the earth, our relationship as nations, our relationship as wisdom traditions?

Our oldest unity is our relationship with the earth. And yet this is the relationship that we have so deeply neglected. For many of earth’s species, we are now too late to redeem the relationship. They are becoming extinct at an alarming and accelerating pace. We are in danger of a deep impoverishment of life as we have known it. But there is also hope for the community of earth. We are living in the midst of what Berry calls a “moment of grace.” As never before in the history of humanity, we are becoming aware of our interrelatedness. We are beginning to comprehend that what we do to other species is what we do to ourselves. We are beginning to perceive that what we do to other nations and peoples is what we do to our own soul. The question is whether we will choose to translate this emerging con- sciousness into transformative action. And the further question is where we will find strength and vision for this work.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 141-144.

Signs of New Birthing

DSCF3960

By John Philip Newell

As I sit in the nunnery praying for new beginnings in my life and in the life of the world, I am aware that voices from many nations surround me—Japanese, German, American, French. I remember someone once asking me if I did not feel terribly cut off from the world on this remote Hebridean island. And I realized it is quite the opposite: rarely do I feel more in touch with the world than during my visits to this island—because the world comes to Iona, and often it comes with a wide-open soul, showing its pain and its longings.

Here in the nunnery, I hear in my own heart the stirrings of the human soul. This may be a place of ancient ruin, but it is a place also that shows the signs of a new birthing. It is a birthing that is happening in the hearts and lives of men and women throughout the world. This may be a place of crumbling stone, but it is a place also in which the inner foundations of a new spirituality are being laid. It is a spirituality that is emerging in the hopes and consciousness of communities everywhere. This may be a place in which it is impossible to define exactly what the relationship is between the many who pray here, but it is a place in which we are remembering that what we have lost affects us all. We may not know what the answers are, but we know that expressing our deepest longings for Presence and for connection is a key to the way forward.

In the nunnery, I hear that we are longing to live and pray in a closer relationship to the earth. In the nunnery, I hear that we are

Nunnery Ruins, Isle of Iona

Nunnery Ruins, Isle of Iona

longing to find ways of doing this in relationship. And in the nunnery, I hear that we are longing for a greater consciousness of the One from whom we have come and who addresses us each by name. These are the longings I hear in my own heart. And I do not believe they belong simply to me. I believe they issue up from a place deep in the human soul.

How are we to respond to them?

Christ of the Celts: the Healing of Creation, 2008 (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 129-130.