“Name some influential books that changed the way you saw the world or opened you up to hidden part of your self or gave language, images and character to a felt part of yourself now more clearly defined.”
This my question for a recent meeting I hosted and without thinking too hard about it, I named Walden by Henry David Thoreau and the poetry of Walt Whitman. But the bigger question is why.
I had the good fortune of being raised without the burden of religious dogma. My father was a scientist who was not fond of the ritual and theology of his Jewish upbringing and as much for social reasons and hiding his origins in the 1950’s business world, he “converted” to Unitarianism, the most mild of Christian denominations. I remember studying something about morning dew in my Sunday school class and it wasn’t a metaphor for some Bible story, simply a little science class.
This might have meant that I felt the world as purely secular, but one must not confuse organized religion with spiritual impulses. Both Thoreau and Whitman allowed me to separate the two, showed me how the divine could be felt in a shrub oak and leaves of grass, that the self I celebrated could be a larger self that contained multitudes far beyond the small self that lived a life of quiet desperation. Why try to squeeze the world’s miracles into theology and dogma? Why transform mystery into imagined surety? Why capture the free flight of birds into the frozen words of dogma that divides? Henry and Walt— and later Mary Oliver— showed me that you needn’t. They showed me that it's possible to simply accept the song sparrow as a miracle without worrying about who created it. That your time would be well spent to focus on your own quality of attention in hearing its song as an announcement of divine purpose in life.
I was somewhat interested in Jesus as a man with a worthy message, but couldn’t stomach the simplistic exhortation to believe and was aghast at the atrocities committed in his name. It became clear that he could be an opening window or a closing door, a sword to cut through ignorance or a shield to cover the heart, an inspiration to do the hard work of love or an excuse to dismiss and even kill anyone labeled the other (including other Christians not of your sect). I wasn’t interested in whether Jesus Saves or whether he was the true Son of a God. The more important question was whether he opened the hearts of his followers to love or became a place for them to park their hatred and small-mindedeness, their refusal to do the work of recognizing true divinity in the world, in their neighbors and in their selves.
And so all these years later, I continue to remember and forget my place in a holy world, aided by a Buddhist meditation practice, great music and poetry, walks in the woods with mindful attention, unhampered by the need to cage transcendence into mass worship and dogma. Might the healing of the world be helped if we all considered the same? Consider: no wars were ever fought over whether the shrub oak is the true god and the song sparrow the lesser one. No one ever hated another in the name of leaves of grass.