Sunday, September 26, 2010

Many Bridges to God

This is a chapter called "Many Paths" in Dream Weaving : Using Dream Guidance to Create Life's Tapestry
by Emily VanLaeys, copyright 2001

When I was a child, my best friend, Nancy, went to Hebrew school. She showed me how to write some Hebrew words and vainly tried to teach me the correct pronunciation of “challah,” the braided bread with a shiny crust and fluffy center that she shared with me on Jewish holidays. When Nancy turned thirteen, I attended her bat mitzvah at the temple.
Another friend, Louisa, took me to several events at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I learned the story of Joseph Smith and how the angel Moroni led him to the golden tablets, which he transcribed and published as The Book of Mormon. I told Louisa that I couldn’t accept her church’s idea that God the Father is a physical person. (By age twelve, I had given up the fantasy that I would one day sit on God’s lap while He showed me illustrations of the dinosaurs the way they really looked.) But I respected her right to believe it if she could picture God eating spaghetti and eliminating waste like any other person.
One summer, I went to vacation Bible school with my Baptist friend, Yvonne, where I made known my belief that God the Father and Jesus, His Son, could not be one and the same person. And I visited the Catholic Church with Patty, who lent me a little lace doily to put on my head before we entered the sanctuary. I was bewildered by the plethora of statues and candles, the aroma of incense, and the strange Latin words.
On my fourteenth Christmas, my father gave me a little book of quotes called The Understanding Heart. My favorite quote came from Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.

Having so many friends of different faith backgrounds, I found a lot of comfort in this bit of wisdom. Each of my friends was certain that her path was the straightest way to God, and since I cared for all of them, I believed that a loving God had a place in His heart for each and every one.
This childhood belief is one I have taken with me from the Congregational Church I was baptized in, to the Methodist Church I was married in, to the Unitarian Church, the first church that Mark and I joined together, to the Southern Baptist Missionary Union, where I worked in Birmingham, and to every interfaith dialogue I’ve had with friends and acquaintances throughout my life. The God I believe in is not exclusive.
About the same time that I joined the Oneonta Interfaith Committee, I had a dream in which I sat in the audience at a lecture hall, listening to a presentation being given by a group of people. After they had been speaking for a while, some of the presenters stated that they were Mormons and that they wished to speak to us about their faith. The audience groaned. I sympathized with the speakers and felt embarrassed for them. Why couldn’t the audience listen politely to what they had to say? I did not speak, but one of the Mormons, a woman, apparently sensed my thought. She led me up to the platform and arranged my hair in a lovely French braid that started at the nape of my neck. She made me feel beautiful!
I have tried to make a French braid, but my hair is so fine, the result looks like a skinny sausage on the back of my head. I had no idea that a French braid can start at the nape of the neck, but sometime after that dream, I found a picture of one in a hairdresser’s book. To have this exquisite hairstyle created for me was such a beautiful gift; I interpreted the dream to be a message that my acceptance of different religions is one of my spiritual gifts.
I have never chosen to follow one particular faith or denomination to the exclusion of all others, and I don’t think I ever will, because I see facets of truth in most of the religions I encounter. Each church or spiritual path meets the needs of the people who find their way to that specific strand of God’s message, but we all have such diverse experiences, ideas, and attitudes about God that we have to take different approaches in seeking Him (or Her!). I have accepted Jesus Christ as my Way Shower, but I know that others have come to know God better than I have by following the path of Buddha, Krishna, or another aspect of God. This does not mean that Buddha’s way is better than the way of Christ, but that others are better disciples of their teacher than I am of mine.
The same week as the “braid” dream, I had a whole series of interfaith dreams in one night. In the first, I was talking on the phone to a friend who belongs to a fundamentalist church. I heard her husband’s voice in the background. This friend is not actually married, but I identified the speaker as Bob, a very vocal fundamentalist I had known in college. He was talking about Native American spirituality, and I was pleased to hear him say that Native Americans are children of God.
Next, I found myself in a large building where I was going to attend a banquet. I was at the top of a staircase and noticed Nancy’s mother descending. I called after her, “Can you tell me what it’s like to be Jewish in New York?” She didn’t answer because she was too far off by then, down in the basement. The basement reminds me that Judaism is the foundation of Christianity, the faith that I follow most closely.
In another room, I met Louisa’s ex-husband Hand, with his new wife. Before their divorce, Louisa had abandoned Mormonism for the Roman Catholic Church, and her husband had converted from the Dutch Reformed Church to Catholicism. In the dream, Hank told me that he was becoming disillusioned with the Catholic Church because he didn’t understand the symbolism of the Eucharist and some of the other rites observed in that church.
Then Mark and I were cleaning up at the end of the banquet. We were servants rather than guests. A deeply religious man we know was there with his wife. This man is very concerned about Satan’s activities in the world. He believes that the devil uses new age devotees, Mormons, followers of Eastern religions, and others outside the mainstream of Christianity to execute his diabolic deeds. He and his wife had fallen asleep as the banquet was ending. They had a long drive ahead of them, and I was worried that they might not be able to drive home safely.

Most of the other guests had left by then, but a man who was still there told me that he liked one of the dishes I had cooked. He told this story: He had a cup of water that refilled itself as he extended goodwill toward others. The miracle repeated itself many times. It made him feel so good that he started approaching people just to witness this phenomenon. He shook hands with three more people, and the water dried up a little bit each time until the cup was empty.
This night of multifaith dreams summons up the imagery of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s words: “So many paths that wind and wind . . .” The man with the miracle cup discovered the essence of her message: “While just the art of being kind is all the sad world needs.” When the man’s genuine love for others culminated in kind deeds, his cup was full. When his motive changed from one of selfless love to a desire to see particular results, the cup dried up. Each faith and denomination offers its own ideas about the kind of salvation (or miracle) that followers can expect to receive when they express certain beliefs or live a holy life. But love is the bond that connects all faiths and all peoples, weaving us into a single, braided path to God.
There are many among my acquaintances who would tell me that I am mistaken, for after all Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) This declaration makes for a pretty straight and narrow path for those who believe that one must call on the person of Jesus in order to enter the kingdom of God. But the Christ Consciousness with which Jesus is identified has many other names! We may call Him the “Truth,” the “Way,” the “Life” or the “Light.” Or we may just call Him “Love.” What we choose to call Him doesn’t change what He is: the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; the One who invites each of us to eternal life when we follow the way of Love. Love is the basic requirement for pilgrims who want to trod the Christ highway.
Some of my friends, like the man who fell asleep at the dram banquet, prefer to confine themselves to one narrow strip of the highway. He refuses to acknowledge those of other spiritual persuasions as children of God, so he is “asleep,” incapable of grasping the full meaning of Jesus’ commandment: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”(Matt. 7:1) He and his wife had a long road ahead of them, and if these two are dream aspects of myself, I must learn not to judge fundamentalists or my road home will be very long, too!
Sometimes I am like Hank, the dream personage who was losing interest in Catholicism because he didn’t understand it. We tend to judge people and institutions we know little about, and I grew up with scant understanding of Roman Catholic beliefs. My Protestant upbringing had taught me that Roman Catholics worshipped Mary and prayed to her and the saints, too, a blasphemous practice which broke the First Commandment. When one of my Catholic friends told me, “Mary is the mother of God,” I replied, “That’s impossible. God created everything and everybody, including Mary, so she can’t be his mother.”
I think I was eleven years old when I made that pronouncement. But it wasn’t too long afterward that I learned that the pragmatic nature of Protestantism did not suit one who had always lived partially in the realm of the imagination. As a young child, I had suspected that some kind of magic existed in the real universe. As a young adult, I dipped into books such as Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel and The Blessed Virgin Mary by Corinne Heline, and discovered that real people called mystics knew the secret of penetrating the veil between this tangible, yet temporal work, and the ethereal, yet eternal. If I told my Protestant peers about Bernadette’s visions of “The Lady” or the assumption of Mary into the heavenly Jerusalem, where living mystics go to join with saints and angels in the work of transferring divine energy from heaven to earth, most of them would say, “Impossible!” But having accepted the imagination as a divine gift that allows us to see beyond the limits of ordinary sight to the possibilities of life on other planes, my response to the testimonies of mystics is, “Why not?”
My discovery of mysticism led to my acceptance of Mary as Queen of Heaven and divine mother to all who need her. I learned in my Unity studies to pray to Father-Mother God, because God the Creator emanates masculine and feminine love, an unconditional love greater than anything we can attribute to father or mother. When Mark and I were having trouble conceiving a child, however, I felt the need to talk to a real divine mother—one I could visualize and connect with on a personal level. So I began to pray to Mary. I learned the words to the “Hail Mary,” realizing that Jesus’ mother was, in a sense, “mother of God” because her Son embodied the Christ Spirit, which is one with God. My need for a divine mother and my belief in mystic saints made up the Roman Catholic strand I braided into my personal path to God.
Among those who recognize the divine mother’s part in the scheme of Creation are the Native Americans who connect with Mother Earth as if she were a live, spiritual being. While I don’t personally know any Native Americans, I have met them through books and workshops and mutual friends. I’m glad that the fundamentalist in my dream included them as children of God! Some Christians don’t think Native Americans belong in God’s family because of their belief in “multiple gods.” But then, some monotheists think that Christians worship multiple gods in the Trinity. It all comes down to different ways of understanding the multiple aspects of a Creator too complex to be confined to a single personality or gender.
Native Americans recognize divine creativity in all of nature. They look upon plants and animals, wind and rain, as brothers and sisters to be treated with care and respect. This is different from the traditional attitude that Christians have taken toward God’s instructions to Adam and Eve: “. . . fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing . . .” (Gen. 1:28) We have taken the first dictionary definition for subdue:  “To conquer and subjugate; put down; vanquish,” instead of the last definition: “To bring (land) under cultivation.” We have vanquished the land to such an alarming extent that soon there may be none left to cultivate, unless we learn the ways of native peoples who treat every living thing like family.
Jesus said that God is aware of every sparrow that falls (Matt. 10:29), so it feels natural to weave a love and respect for nature into the Christian faith. St. Francis sang the praises of Brother Sun and Sister Moon in his Canticle of the Creatures several hundred years before Europeans and Native Americans met and began to learn from one another’s cultures. He knew that, when Christ requested that we love our neighbors as ourselves, he was including all of Creation in the neighborhood!
I think that the banquet in my dream represented the “neighborhood” of multiple faiths coming together for fellowship. Soon after these dreams inspired me, I introduced the idea of the Building Bridges Forums to the Oneonta Interfaith Committee. The following year we hosted several such interfaith dialogues, where representatives of the various faith communities shared some of their practices and beliefs in order to increase understanding among them. As planning coordinator and hostess, I did not represent the Presbyterian Church to which I belong, but rather I served the whole concept of building bridges among people of differing views. There were some who attended only when their own church was being represented. Their absence from the other forums reminds me of the dream couple who slept through the end of the banquet. But there was a core group of people who sincerely enjoyed listening to the various faith lessons and gleaned some bits of truth from each of them. These were the people who realize that Jesus never said the kingdom of heaven can be found in one particular church. He did say, “The kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) Deep within the core of each soul, a place sometimes represented by a basement in dreams, no specific creeds or doctrines are necessary. Only love.

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