Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Church of No Dogma

Every day I go to church. Or more accurately, several churches. One is the place where kids push drums around with mallets on the floor, leap over them, balance them on their heads, dance with their drum-face masks and then while putting on their shoes at the end of class exclaim, “That was more fun than throwing up!” Another is a place where ivory, felt and steel type out messages to the gods and occasionally get their call returned. Yet another is sitting on a round cushion walking up and down the hills of the breath until the name of the breather is slowly erased.

This weekend, I went to another church with some 200 people to hear the “Reverend” David Whyte. “Reverend” not by official title (he would never call himself that and nobody else does either), but earned as someone revered by those who like their religion without theology. The admission fee in his Church of Poetic Imagination is neither faith nor belief nor strict adherence to moral codes nor Guru worship and adoration (though many tempted to the latter—the man is both eloquent and handsome!)— it is simply attention to the worlds we inhabit, the ones inside the body-mind and the ones outside and the invitation to inhabit them more fully. The worship service is finding the words that point to possibility, that strive to speak what the heart already knows, that aim to awaken our slumbering promise and bring it out stretching and yawning into the light for all to see. Poetry and some song was the vehicle for this weekend’s retreat, but whether words or images or dance steps or sounds artfully combined, it is a house where each speaks in their own voice and leaves their dogma tied up outside.

My own brief disappointment as a child with the more popular version of church came from observing how easy it is to inherit a ready-made religion and miss the more-difficult work of religion’s origin, our hunger for the sacred. The etymological root of the word combines “Re” from return with “ligare,” from “to bind.” Bind can be interpreted negatively, as in tied up with ropes, or positively, linked with “bonding,” re-making the connection with our source, our spiritual center, our true-nature. (Or re-bound— the ball of our life is thrown up to the basket, misses the hoop and we must jump up and firmly grab it, dribble about and look for the moment to shoot and make the point. Come join my Church of Basketball!)

But what I noticed as a kid was how I and others could sleep through the service, mouth the words to the prayers, sing the songs with our throats only, drop a coin in the plate, put on the photo-fake smile for our neighbor and go out the door of the church exactly the same person as we went in. The rituals so quickly became rote routine, the theology and dogma shields to hide our hurting hearts, the quick confessions and absolutions an easy two-step step around our own accountability, the moral finger-wagging a cheap shot that missed our real shame. It was either too pleasant or too hell-firish. But on a good day in the church of poetry, we should feel, as Emily Dickinson said, “as if the top of our heads were taken off.”

The church that I was looking for was one where the songs are cranked up to Gospel and the silences so deep and holy that I could both hear the song of the blackbird out the window and the whisper of the voice in my ear drowned out by the rush and commotion of the world. The place where I needn’t learn someone else’s 2,000 year-old-story, but listen for my own story in the greater scheme of things. And so I set off to find the churches that fit me and every single one that has felt right is one that puts me face-to-face with both my lifelong dreams and aspirations and my lifelong habits of avoiding them and excusing myself from pursuing them. And that’s what a weekend like this is for—to remind us to get back on track and keep sniffing.

Mr. Whyte has done some remarkable work here, first keeping a constant conversation with his own soul and then finding the words to exclaim it and then finding the way to deliver it so that 200 people listening think, “How can he know that about me? What he just said is exactly my situation!” Reciting some of the several hundred poems he has memorized, his own and others’, reading some of his new work, telling marvelous stories with great humor and insight, giving us time to talk to neighbors about what renewal of vows the poems inspire and giving helpful details about the nuances of a life lived at the frontier between our knowing and our next step into the unknown, he affirmed us, challenged us, uplifted us, called us to task gently but firmly. One man at the end read a lovely poem back to the Mr. Whyte thanking him for being the defense lawyer for his (the man's) neglected promise. I believe most people left that church a different person than when they walked in. 

I know I did. 

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