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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Tuesday Evening Melody: “Jailer” by Asa

by Chelsea Roff, guest contributor

The story of how I discovered this song really isn’t all that interesting. I was just riding in a car with a friend listening to his iPod on shuffle when the lyrics caught my attention. I remember asking him to play it several times, and each time I heard it I gathered a different meaning from Asa’s words.

For me, the song speaks to being liberated from both personal and collective oppression. Some days when I close my eyes and listen to it, I see the images of Egyptian men and women standing together in the streets in peaceful protest; other days I think of a little girl shedding off her insecurities and telling the voice in her head that says, “You can’t. Yes I can!

When I hear this song, I hear the words of Mother Teresa and Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Jesus and the Buddha all rolled into one.

"I’m in chains, you’re in chains too. … Let he who is without sin be the first to cast the stone."

The message is a call for compassion. It’s a call for the oppressor and the oppressed to join one another on level ground, to stand together rather than exist in a power-over, power-under dynamic. At least that’s how I hear it. Whether you’re a greedy dictator, a violent abuser, or the bully at the playground, you are no different than me. Get off your pedestal; I won’t be slave to you anymore.

I hope you decide to share the song with listeners. Definitely one of my favorites. :)

Chelsea RoffChelsea Roff is managing editor at YogaModern.com, where she is active community-builder and a contributing writer. She recently helped found a yoga service organization called Studio to Streets that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Want to recommend a song for our Tuesday evening melody, submit your suggestion and a little bit about the tune. We’ll take a listen for possible publication on the Being Blog.

"Last Visit"
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The photo above was taken and submitted by John Pusey with only the words you see above: “last visit.” The two men seen so relaxed and familiar with one another and I wanted to know more. In reply, John wrote:

"This is a photo of my father and my son shortly before my father passed away. Even with Alzheimer’s, he retained his love of music until his death at 83. He was the first in the family to realize that my son is a truly talented musician."

Once an academic and youth development advisor, John is now retired and lives in Bonny Doon, California. In honor of his father’s love of music, he currently does volunteer work for a non-profit organization that provides era-appropriate music to seniors living in convalescent hospitals.
"Last Visit"
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The photo above was taken and submitted by John Pusey with only the words you see above: “last visit.” The two men seen so relaxed and familiar with one another and I wanted to know more. In reply, John wrote:

"This is a photo of my father and my son shortly before my father passed away. Even with Alzheimer’s, he retained his love of music until his death at 83. He was the first in the family to realize that my son is a truly talented musician."

Once an academic and youth development advisor, John is now retired and lives in Bonny Doon, California. In honor of his father’s love of music, he currently does volunteer work for a non-profit organization that provides era-appropriate music to seniors living in convalescent hospitals.

"Last Visit"

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The photo above was taken and submitted by John Pusey with only the words you see above: “last visit.” The two men seen so relaxed and familiar with one another and I wanted to know more. In reply, John wrote:

"This is a photo of my father and my son shortly before my father passed away. Even with Alzheimer’s, he retained his love of music until his death at 83. He was the first in the family to realize that my son is a truly talented musician."

John PuseyOnce an academic and youth development advisor, John is now retired and lives in Bonny Doon, California. In honor of his father’s love of music, he currently does volunteer work for a non-profit organization that provides era-appropriate music to seniors living in convalescent hospitals.


Hate Crime: A Poem of Grace and Gratefulness

by Luke Hankinsguest contributor

Grocery store parking lot(photo: The Consumerist/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

I was verbally and physically assaulted in a parking lot at a local grocery store by four people because they thought that my shorts were too short and that I looked like a “faggot.” They didn’t try to take any money. They didn’t try to steal the beer I had just bought. They only wanted to hurt someone. And so they left me with a swollen face and jaw and a black eye, with a confused mind and troubled heart. I was up all night with tears and nausea and roiling emotions, then went to the ER. Three fractures in my face.

Below is a poem I wrote about the incident. I don’t feel anger against the perpetrators, only confusion and pity and sadness. I also don’t take credit for not feeling anger. It’s simply the natural course my mind and heart have taken. But I will say that it has allowed me to recover psychologically from the incident in a way that I don’t believe would have been possible if I were plagued by anger and desire for vengeance. I’m grateful for this grace.

The Way They Loved Each Other

What to be more astonished at:
my calm as the fist made contact
and I saw a flash of white
and the world went silent
as if I had stepped out of it
momentarily, only to be brought back
with a rush of sound and visible objects—
the way I asked them to help me
find my glasses, expecting them
(even as they taunted me,
even though they had just assaulted me)
to feel underneath the violent tribal urge
the obligations of empathy—
the way even as one of them found my glasses
and smashed them again on the ground
I refused to believe that was really
what he wanted to do—the way
they loved each other
in the most primitive manner
but loved each other nonetheless
despite feeling the need to punish a “faggot”
who did not dress like them, because
he did not dress like them—
the way tears and nausea overwhelmed me
nightlong much more than had the blow itself—
the way such small suffering can feel
unbearable—the way no strength is found
for what seems to have no explanation,
a troubled mind more harmful
to the body than fractured bones.

Luke HankinsLuke Hankins is an associate editor of Asheville Poetry Review and lives in Asheville, North Carolina. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in Connotation PressContemporary Poetry ReviewNew England ReviewPoetry East, and The Writer’s Chronicle, as well as on the Being Blog. He is currently editing an anthology of poems due out next year from Wipf & Stock Publishers entitled Poems of Devotion. He regularly posts to his blog, A Way of Happening.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


Do You Know the Way to Sacromonte?

by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor, with photos by Tamar Salibian

Path in Andalusia

The road may be — and almost always is — made of our footsteps, as Antonio Machado said, but there are places in the world, sacred sites, where arrival is at least equal to the effort of getting there, where our beginnings and our ends do actually know each other. The Camino du Sacromonte, which we recently climbed all the way to the Abbaye du Sacromonte at the very top of the trail is such a place.

We had begun rather unambitiously, meandering up and down through the alleyways of Albaicin, until we suddenly found ourselves on the Sacromonte trail. On one side was the lush landscape atop which sat the Alhambra; on the other side, and at a sharp elevation, we could make out the Abbey. It was a grey afternoon. We walked slowly and quietly, for there was not much sound around us save for a few tourists and locals, and the dogs of which there are an unusually large number in Albaicin. We stopped here and there, the landscape taking our breath away — literally. And then on a little bit more, and then another stop.

Vista Alegre

To Sacromonte

View of the Alhambra from the Road to SacromonteView of the Alhambra from the road to the Abbey of Sacromonte.

Then, it began to rain — first softly for a while, the droplets of whispers. The rain stayed with us all the way to the top, sometimes a mere hint, at other times a downpour. We continued walking for a long, long time, and then the rain became more ferocious as we made our way up the arch of the abbey. The path became more treacherous, but we persisted, stopping to catch our breath and then start again. For more than ten minutes, we ascended, our feet muddied, our hearts beating fast, our ears alert to the tiniest movement. But most of all, we were sustained by the smell of the absorbent landscape — the earth saturated with that moist fragrance, the vegetation holding the water in its roots but also on its surface.

Abadia del SacromonteEntrance to the Abbey of Sacromonte

It was not fear that seized me for that instant, though I may have expressed it in those terms. We’re alone, there’s no one around, just these two little women from Boston, speaking a foreign language, huddling against each other. It was awe, and awe is always mixed with an undercurrent of terror as though at any moment invisible figures — the ghosts of the gypsies for whose “education” the abbey was originally constructed in the seventeenth century — would suddenly jump out in an ambush. But it passed, that terror, leaving in its trail an unfamiliar but sweet sense of being gathered together, of being held, by the invisible hands and secret thread of the gods and their shadows, propelled by something transcendent.

We made it to the top and into the abbey, which was completely devoid of sound and sight. We sat in the foyer, looking out at the landscape ahead of us through the small iron gate. In the distance the Alhambra of the Muslims extended across the entire top of the mountains, and here, in this spot, the Christian abbey built on the grottos of the gypsies: a quintessential moment of faiths in violent embrace.

The Foyer of the Abbey of Sacromonte

We sat for quite a while, looking ahead and inward, waiting for the rain to subside, which it did not. No sense of triumph, no sense of victory, but something else, pure and of this place, at this moment. Perhaps this is what faith feels like, we said. This sense of being on top of the world, held — contained is a better description — by something invisible, something beyond this religious edifice. But ask the question and you’ve subverted the sentiment, you’ve sullied the faith. But if not faith, then what?

Sacromonte in the rain

There are places in the world where you can go down on your knees — even if you are a card-carrying secularist — and rail and curse and bless and thank your gods. Such places are removed from the push and pull of everyday life, from the noise and verbiage of human chatter. You can go down on your knees and when you come up again, you are less vulnerable, more resilient, at least for a little while — and a bit less wet. Camino du Sacromonte is such a place.


After some time, we decided to go down to the main road and find a way to get home. We did not have the foggiest idea, except that we had heard that bus #35 passed from the main trail.

Leaving the Abbey of Sacromonte

We made it back to the main trail, and within five minutes, bus #35 came speeding through the narrow street. It was going in the opposite direction, up to the Abbey, but the driver motioned to us to jump in. Inside the bus was a rowdy, laughing bunch of passengers whose noise turned wilder with each jolt and turn of the bus. They all seemed to know each other, or acted that way, which is more likely. Before we made it to the top, the self-appointed “leader” of the gang asked if anyone was going to the abbey. No one was, and so with a rather wild turn of the steering wheel our driver took a right downhill turn, which I thought would land the little bus at the base of the ravine on its side and throw us into an accident from which we would be delivered to the community of ghosts that inhabit these mountains. But nothing of the sort happened though the swerve was pretty precipitous.

We made it back to the main trail and to the Albaicin. No doubt the gods and the ghosts were on our side, all of them that roam these lands — Christians, Muslims, Jews, the gypsies, the heathens, the believers, the kings, the commoners. Those who were burned at the stake, those who were occupied, those who were expelled, and those who built their monuments on top of the destruction, the mayhem.

The ashes. All in the name of faith. But if not faith, then what?

Taline VoskeritchianTaline Voskeritchian is a translator and teaches writing at Boston University. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, BookForum, London Review of Books, Agni Review, and in Alik (Iran), Warwick Review(UK), Daily Star/International Herald Tribune (Beirut). She also blogs at Passages Home.

Tamar SalibianTamar Salibian holds degrees in film and photography from Cal Arts and Mass Art. She is pursuing a doctorate in media studies at Claremont Graduate School in California.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


Wishing for Less Time

by Leah Elliott, guest contributor

Autumn is here(photo: Leandro Pérez/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

I never used to go anywhere without my cell phone. It was not only a means of communication, but my sole timepiece, and not knowing the time made me crazy.

That all changed one afternoon when my oldest son was two years old. After four years of living in the Southwest and its two seasons of hot and hotter, we moved to the upper Midwest. I couldn’t wait to experience the change in seasons, so one crisp October day I packed up my son and a picnic lunch and headed to a nearby state park to see some fall colors.

When we arrived, I unfastened the buckles of his car seat, retrieved our lunch, and instinctively reached for my cell phone. Then I paused.

It was one of those rare days when I had no other obligations or deadlines. My husband was on a business trip, so there was no one waiting for us to come home. I asked myself, 'What if I just don’t worry about time today?'

I returned my cell phone to its resting place among the loose coins in front of the gear shift and turned my full attention to enjoying the afternoon with my son.

After our picnic lunch, we wandered over to a pile of fallen leaves. My son splashed through them up to his thighs, tossed them in the air, and giggled as I buried him over and over. “Wow!” he gushed appreciatively as gusts of wind rearranged the pile and made little leaf cyclones.

While he was enthralled, I felt myself growing bored and impatient. I wanted to pull out my “five more minutes” ultimatum and move on to something I deemed more interesting; but, without my phone, I would have had no way of knowing when five minutes had passed. Then I reminded myself, 'There is nothing you have to do today except be with your little boy.'

I gave myself over to the freedom of not worrying about what would come next. Right now, nothing mattered except sharing in my son’s joy of as he raced through those leaves.

We went for a walk and came to a bridge spanning a river. I let him run back and forth across it as many times as he wanted, a carefree “Whee!” accompanying each crossing. We wandered farther up the path. He peered at the insects hopping through the tall grass, and I was right there with him. The ability to share in his wonder and curiosity came naturally once I quit clinging to a preconceived schedule.

When he tired of walking, we headed back to the car. I welcomed the delay when some flowers caught his attention. We stooped and examined them to his satisfaction before moving on.

I can’t tell you whether that afternoon lasted one hour or four, but I do know that we both had the time of our lives. Eckhart Tolle points out that humans existed for millennia without clocks. Our modern obsession with time perplexes me when I remember this. I wish for less attachment to time. I wish for more afternoons when time doesn’t matter. I wish for my son’s ability to be fully in the present moment.

I have to live by the clock day-to-day to keep appointments, interact with the adults in my life, and meet my children’s all-important bedtime deadline each night. Whenever I can, though, I put all my clocks out of sight and out of mind. I let my children take the lead and slip into their world, where nothing matters but the present moment and time is reckoned in hugs and laughs instead of hours and minutes.

Leah ElliottLeah Elliott lives with her two sons in Fargo, North Dakota, where she is working on a master’s degree in vocal performance. She blogs about carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism at The Whole of All the Earth.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Get published by forwarding your original work on our submissions page.


Plugged In to the Outer Cape

by Jill Schneiderman, guest contributor

WellfleetSand dunes at Wellfleet. (photo: Joshua Bousel/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

“If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.”
Sherry Turkle, from “Alive Enough? Reflections on Our Technology”

The founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self made this remark in the context of describing the awe she feels when she walks among the magnificent dunes near Provincetown, Massachusetts. I know well those sand dunes and the extensive tidal mudflats that mark the tip of the Cape.

Dr. Turkle thinks of these places as sacred spaces, and I agree. I take my earth science students there to witness the work of wind, water, and sand. And, for a week or two each summer, I go with my children so we can experience the flow of the tides. These are indeed remarkable places in the landscape ripe with possibilities for self-realization.

I take my geology students to the dunes and mudflats of the Outer Cape so that they can experience the vast time scales and spaces of earth system processes.

Settling on the CoastA satellite view of Cape Cod. (photo courtesy of NASA)

The Cape itself, as some readers may know, owes its existence to the great ice sheets that extended as far south as Long Island during the late Pleistocene more than 10,000 years ago. The mud of the tidal flats and the sand of the dunes are the glacial debris, reworked and sorted by the wind and water long after the ice sheet retreated north.

Other reminders of the presence of the massive ice cover in the region are cliffs above the dune fields — the edge of the glacial moraine (a pile of boulders pushed along as the ice pushed south) — and freshwater ponds of neighboring Truro and Wellfleet (“kettle holes” formed when stadium-sized chunks of ice broke off the glacier, became engulfed by glacial sediment, and then melted). All of these features stretch for miles and remind me and all my geologically time-traveling companions that 18,000 years ago — a seemingly long time — this portion of the Earth was covered by a one mile-thick sheet of ice.

Eyes of the EarthWellfleet Bay Audubon Sanctuary. (photo: Susan Cole Kelly/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

Encountering this landscape cultivates in me, and I hope in my students, what Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” For me, this is a soothing feeling of awe and connection. Walking in the dunes or across these mudflats puts me in touch with deep time — for the particles that compose them may themselves be millions of years old, silt and sand moved there merely thousands of years before.

Although we walk among them today, the particles have been through many cycles of existence. Formerly they were part of a mountainous land mass; subsequently they were eroded, transported, and deposited at least once. Each grain has an individual history. Collectively they tell a story that encompasses swaths of time that hold all of humanity. I find this reality comforting.

Provincetown MA 068The sands of Provincetown’s dunes. (photo: Leonarda DaSilva/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

Dr. Turkle worries helpfully about the inner effects of digital objects. Though she acknowledges the benefits of digital connection, Dr. Turkle laments what people lose as they take to the dunes and mudflats with their earphones in and handheld electronic devices on and open. To her mind, people lose the ability to feel at peace in their own company. I agree, but also would like to suggest that by unplugging from the electronic world in such sacred spaces we increase our capacity to encounter entities larger than ourselves — vast time scales, and past and ongoing earth processes. Thus we enhance our ability to connect with the earth system of which we are a powerful part, and this experience lessens loneliness.

Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. She’s also the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet. She blogs at Shambhala SunSpace and Earth Dharma.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


Iran’s Spiritual Leader Isn’t a Hardline Islamist, But a Mystic Poet

by Melody Moezzi, guest contributor

Dancing ShadowA boy dances and leaps around in the Old City of Yazd, Iran. (photo: Mohamed Somji/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

Iran’s officially recognized “spiritual leader” today may be Ayatollah Khamenei, but for hundreds of years before the current establishment of mullahs and ayatollahs, Iranians of all creeds have looked to another spiritual leader: Jalal ad-Din Rumi. While this 13th century Persian Sufi poet is known in much of the West as “Rumi,” he is referred to more affectionately in Iran as “Mowlaana,” or the master.

Among Iranians, he is a spiritual guide and guru whose words hold unmatched moral authority. Over 700 years after his death, it is nearly impossible to spend a day walking around any Iranian city, suburb, or village and not hear his echo. His words live on in everyday parlance: No matter one’s station, religion, or occupation, everyone in Iran knows at least a handful of Rumi’s poems by heart. They are taught in classrooms as an essential part of the basic curriculum, but more than that, they are learned in homes, cafes, bazaars, parks, and houses of worship. No place is beyond this poet’s influence.

And there is no better way to understand that influence than through Rumi’s own verse, although it often defies easy translation. Still, English speakers have a wonderful resource in understanding Rumi — and Iran — through the translations of Coleman Barks, including the following:

“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Understand this poem, and you will understand the soul of Iran — not just the role of religion or dogma, but the spiritual role of faith, love, and beauty.

Read More


Reinvesting in a Renewed American Dream of Family and Home

by Caitlin Shetterly, guest contributor

Cait with Matty at Home in MaineCaitlin with her son at home in Maine. (photo: Dan Davis)

What is the American dream, anyway? Do any of us know anymore? Is it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vision of a “green light” and an “orgiastic future” that forever eludes us? Is it our founding fathers’ notion that all men are created equal to pursue happiness? Is it a house with a perfect lawn, an SUV, and all the material things we could want? What I do know is that many of us in the working middle class grew up believing in the promise of “fruited plains,” ours to harvest if we worked hard enough. America was “made for you and me.”

Three years ago this month, my new husband, Dan, and I packed up our small car and, with most of our worldly belongings and our cat and 90-pound dog, started driving west from Portland, Maine to Los Angeles, California. It was early 2008, and the recession had only just begun. But maybe I speak for many Americans when I say that my husband and I didn’t have any idea that the downturn would become as devastating as it did.

I’d always wanted to go west, ever since my mother sang me to sleep with "Red River Valley" and my dad read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books out loud to me before bed. Dan, too, was beckoned by the sunny skies and seemingly endless horizons of Los Angeles. I hasten to add that we weren’t completely naïve. Friends of ours were making good money in photography and film, as TV writers, and also NPR, for whom I worked as a freelancer, said they could use me covering stories from L.A. So we hit the road full of hope, the American dream unfolding in front of our windshield, ours if we just reached for it.

For a few months, our lives in California seemed to be slowly building toward the dream: I was pregnant with our first child, Dan was working. We had landed a small but comfortable apartment near the Venice Canals, a neighborhood we liked. Then, shortly after President Obama’s election in 2008, California was hit hard by the recession. But Dan had jobs lined up into the summer.

The week our son was born, the first week of 2009, every job Dan had through May was canceled. We had a new baby and were in a terrifying economic free-fall.

Over the next two months, we blew through the tiny bit of savings we had while Dan applied to hundreds of jobs and went door-to-door handing out resumes all over the city. Two weeks after our son was born, I went back to work filing freelance pieces for NPR. The little I made covered a few groceries and some gas.

Finally, the jig was up. I called my mom and said I didn’t know what to do. She said, “Come home, Cait.” So we packed up our two-month-old son and drove back across America, staying with friends who reached out to us on the long journey home.

Now, for some people, moving home and in with one’s mother (or, in Dan’s case, mother-in-law) would be a fate worse than hell. But what we found there in the six months we lived with her was something deeper and stronger than the American dream we had chased with such gusto just a year earlier. At home with Mom, as we planted the garden and baked bread, as we helped her as she helped us — the recession was hard on her, too — we were a family coming together to survive.

Dan and I had subscribed to a fundamentally dangerous notion that young families like mine think we should be toughing it out alone as if we were pioneers with nary a neighbor in sight; instead we should be asking for help and reaching out to help others.

Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” I know from personal experience that’s not true. There, at home with Mom, we reconfigured our dreams so they were no longer about material things or images of a house with a perfect lawn and two cars out front. We got lucky, eventually. When I sold my memoir about our experience with the recession, we had $16 in the bank.

When I tell people my story they say, “Only in America!” or “That’s the American dream!” Perhaps. But I’d add this: by investing in our families and communities — as Dan and I have learned to do — we will be sustained through tough times. And with some communal baking of bread and a few extra hands we can get through anything, even if the American dream is on life support.

Caitlin ShetterlyCaitlin Shetterly is the author of Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home. She is a contributor to National Public Radio and artistic director of the Winter Harbor Theatre Company. You can read more of her writing at Passage West

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


When Doctrine Isn’t Enough: A Former Nun Awakens to the Responsibility of Her Own Spirituality

by Jan Phillips, guest contributor

The Feast Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Young girls dressed in white symbolizing purity shower flowers and rose petals before the passing of the Holy Host carried in solemnity by the parish priest. (photo: Peter Grima/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

At an early age, I learned that God was a being who dwelled in a place far from where I ever stood. I learned to commune with the transcendent God of the above, not the immanent divine within. But over the years, as I let go of childish thinking and took responsibility for my spiritual life, my perception of God changed dramatically. I am guided now not so much by teachings that were handed down to me, but by ideas that have risen up from within — a shift that began 30 years ago when I was a young postulant nun in a religious order taking my first theology class.

The Jesuit priest stood in front of the room and asked us what we believed about God. One postulant raised her hand, stood up, and said, “God made me to show His goodness and to share His everlasting life with me in heaven.” I nodded my head in agreement, having memorized this years ago just like everyone else in the room.

The priest looked dismayed. “That’s it?” he asked.

“Yes, Father.”

“Sit down,” he barked, looking around for the next hand.

Up it went, and the next brave soul stood up saying, “In God there are three divine persons, really distinct, and equal in all things — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

I nodded again, and the priest frowned. “Is that the best you can do?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Next,” he yelled, as she took her seat, looking around in wonder.

By now, we’re all confused, but one more raised her hand.

“God can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him.”

“Sit down,” he said.

He rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and surveyed the whole group of us with a kind of silent disdain. By now, I’m feeling anxious and blood is rushing up my neck. I feel hot and sweaty. My first anxiety attack.

“How could he do this?” It seemed so mean. He asked for our ideas about God and yet, when we said them, it felt like he took a sledge hammer and smashed our beliefs into a thousand pieces. A tear rolled down my cheek.

It was a moment of devastating loss, incomprehensible sadness. I felt as if everything I believed in, everything on which I had based my life, was now being challenged. We sat there, 30 of us, for what seemed an eternity, reckoning with the obliteration of God as we had known Him. What if everything we believed wasn’t true? Did Father Grabys know something we didn’t know?

Finally the priest spoke. “You should be ashamed for having nothing more than catechism answers to this question. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve been taught? Hasn’t anyone here gone beyond the Baltimore Catechism in your thinking?”

The air was thick with silence. Hands were folded, eyes cast down. Tears cascaded down my face. I prayed he wouldn’t call on me.

“You must come to know what is true about God from your own experience,” said the priest. “If you are to be a nun worth your salt, you have to arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concerns and rises up from the nature of who you are.”

I looked up at him, wondering how in the world to build a faith from my human nature. Wasn’t faith something I was born into — something I inherited from the outside?

I was a Catholic by default. They told me everything I was supposed to believe. That was the point, wasn’t it? I was just lucky to be born into the one true faith. I certainly didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s what infallible popes were for.

I raised my hand and asked him how someone could create a faith from the inside out, and why we even needed to since we knew what we needed to know from the catechism.

“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for — that is faith. And that is what we are here to explore, to create, and to declare — our faith and spirituality. You can let go of your beliefs for awhile as you learn how to create a faith that will see you through everything.”

I didn’t want to let go of any beliefs. They were all I had. And they were enough. I didn’t need anything more, or so I thought. As we continued on in the class, the biblical paradox that says we must lose our lives in order to find them suddenly began to make sense. Taking responsibility for our own spirituality was a painstaking process that lasted the entire semester as we worked to find and define our own commitments and ultimate concerns — a task that was supremely challenging for young women who had been taught all their lives what to think, but not how to think.

We never looked at another catechism, never recited another memorized belief, but step by step we built a new spirituality for ourselves that was deeply personal and rooted in our ultimate concerns. And every day during meditation there was something new and profoundly elegant to contemplate: myself as the creator of my own spiritual path.

Jan PhillipsJan Phillips is a public speaker and author of several books, including the The Art of Original Thinking. She currently lives in San Diego, California.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


I Am

by Leland R. Beaumont, guest contributor

I Am

Perhaps your readers will enjoy this graphic meditation on being that was inspired by the book I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Majaraj.

Leland R. BeaumontLeland R. Beaumont is an electrical engineer and computer scientist who is constantly curious about how the world works.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


Spirituality in the Congregation: From the Teachings of Martin Buber

by Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, guest contributor

Martin Buber Postage Stamp

There’s spirituality thriving in our houses of worship, often unnoticed and unappreciated. It flourishes in the ordinary give-and-take of congregational life, in person-to-person exchanges that Jewish thinker Martin Buber called I-Thou. And we would do well to better recognize this very common and accessible spiritual opportunity.

Martin Buber’s 1923 classic book, I and Thou, describes three fundamentals: I-Thou, I-It and Eternal Thou. The I-Thou relationship happens, for instance, at reception following a worship service. You feel a tap on the shoulder and turn around to find someone you haven’t seen in a long time. A conversation erupts and the two of you get so caught up in your words, you lose track of the time, where you are, why you came and where you are going after. And if Martin Buber was observing this exchange, he would likely point to it as an example of I-Thou.

By contrast, many of our interactions are marked by the mechanical, automatic behaviors of another kind of relationship that Buber knew as I-It. Doctors and nurses, bank tellers and accountants, many professionals and business people do the same thing over and over, typically repeating their duties regardless of the specific person before them. In each of these situations, the worker or professional treats the client or customer in a circumscribed and repetitive way, each almost the same, as if a supermarket bar code is stamped on a patron’s forehead. These nearly identical exchanges are typical of Buber’s I-It relationship, I-It is dealing with one another as things that are scanned or tallied, unappreciated for their individuality.

I-It is not inherently evil. We need I-It to get things done at work. Athletes find I-It in competition. And where would we be without the I-It of the doctor’s care? What would happen at the supermarket checkout without I-It when deciding between cash, check or charge? I-It is essential for life. However, I-It can become very evil, as during war, or through discrimination or genocide, or in any extreme treatment of human beings as things.

I-Thou, on the other hand, is personalized. It means stepping out of routine to recognize a specific person. I-Thou is in the extended conversation with a lifelong friend over dinner, as well as in so many of our passing encounters. I-Thou is spontaneous; no one can force it on another. It is unexpected; there is no way to predict the arrival, whether or not it will come, and if it does, when, how it progresses, or how it — inevitably — must end. Each I-Thou is unique, specific to the persons and the situation. Go ahead and set the stage for I-Thou — make a dinner reservation, table for two. Meet at the appointed time, take seats, but beyond that, I-Thou happens on its own, no guarantees. What is more, I-Thou can be warm and embracing, or marked by disagreement. Ultimately, the partners appreciate each other, simultaneously, in I-Thou. And both parties come away changed, having learned something about the world, themselves and the other.

Critically, I-Thou is between people, not in them, visible in their back-and-forth, in the interaction itself. I-Thou lives, not like the blood within, but in the air between. Surely, I-Thou stirs emotions — and it is even more than an interpersonal relationship. I-Thou engages an invisible spiritual dimension that Buber called Eternal Thou. Each I-Thou enters Eternal Thou, abiding with God in perpetuity. When we meet as I and Thou, we also meet God in the Eternal Thou; I have no proof; I take this on faith, as did Buber.

Buber’s thoughts are founded on the Bible. In the biblical book of Genesis, we learn that human beings are created in the Divine image. And as the Bible progresses, many of its conversations — among people or with God — demonstrate the spiritual side of our encounters.

Martin Buber was born in Vienna, was raised by his grandparents, and lived in Europe until 1938, when he fled the Nazis for Israel. He and his family settled Jerusalem, where he worked until his death in 1965. Buber was known as a thinker, teacher, author and social activist. When alone, he studied and wrote. Otherwise he was with people, in community, where I-Thou thrives. Though not a pacifist, he affirmed the goal of achieving security, peace and cooperation across the religious and cultural lines. He dreamed that I-Thou would radiate beyond two people in conversation to include community and nation, and beyond that, bridging divisions among nations of the world. I cherish Buber’s vision, and I invite you to join me in working toward it. But this all begins very much at home and in the house of worship.

I-Thou is common in daily congregational life. It is evident in our study, when we pray, and at social events. During our generation, when conversations about spirituality often turn to the inner life, we look around ourselves and find a spiritual dimension in communion with others, as Martin Buber taught, in the relationship known as I-Thou.

Dennis RossRabbi Ross is author of "God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber" and serves at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, New York.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


The Happy Paradox of Photography and Meditation

by Monica Biswas, guest contributor

Arlington, Massachusetts

I raced to get to the pond in Arlington, hoping there would still be some light left when I got there. Luckily, there was about five minutes of great sunlight left, and it left lovely colors on the edge of the clouds, and glowing through to the still surface of the water.

Creating a photograph is like meditation, full of paradoxes that coexist happily. The perfect shot cannot be captured by chasing it into a corner, and yet you must have the persistent drive to do it. You must be open to seeing something unique and special in the current moment, but having a vision for what the perfect shot is will help you to record it.

It is dazzling to me how there is such a dance and flow between these various things. Perhaps the most important thing is to know when to run after a shot and when to back off and let your eyes and camera focus elsewhere, when to envision the end product and when to let the subject tell you what it wants to show, when to be in the moment but stay committed to letting your eye and your equipment be used to portray that thing of beauty.

Monica BiswasMonica Biswas is a photographer and mother living in Belmont, Massachusetts. You can view more of her images that help her connect her “own thoughts, reflections and intentions” on her website.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


The Gift of Matthew Sanford

by Maria Clara Paulino, guest contributor

When I first heard the interview with Matthew Sanford on the radio, I was moved beyond words. I wanted to hear it again. The second time I heard it, online, I was more moved still.

I wanted to understand what had touched me so deeply beyond his extraordinary story of loss and victory, and the candid and engaging quality of his telling. There was something else I could hear in the silences between his words that mesmerized me. What was it, exactly? I still do not know, but I keep asking the question.

On the surface, Sanford’s life and mine have little in common. Very different stories indeed. Why, then, do I feel so strongly that I know what he is talking about? It cannot be the accident, the hospital, the paralysis — all of it so tragic that to say I understand would be worse than arrogance; so tragic, indeed, that it almost drowns out a subtler resonance. And yet, is it not this resonance that Sanford points to when he mentions silence, darkness, and quietness as portals to a deeper awareness?

It could be an illusion, this feeling that there is something in common, something that I understand. But it could also be that the commonality resides not in what human beings experience but in the way we experience it; that it is not in the action but in the gap, in the silence that follows and precedes action, that we meet as equals and see the other in ourselves.

A similar question comes to mind when I think of what Sanford calls “the gulf” — the isolation of personal experience from other personal experiences, the “existentialist” separation between self and even those the self most loves. I do not share with him the exact same reason for this gulf, his particular experience of pain and loss; what I share is the awareness of the separation and the anguish that results from that awareness.

Mouth of the Douro, PortoSunset at the mouth of the Douro in Porto, Portugal. (photo: Simon Blackley/Flickr)

As Sanford acknowledges, we all share it. We know we cannot be sure that the emotion we feel is perceived in the same intensity and depth by anyone else, however much intimacy there may be between those concerned. And, when two lovers watch the sun bleeding into the ocean, do they see the same shades of orange and red? Yet, if we share the desperate awareness of this gulf, is that not a most powerful commonality?

Mystics and theologians, Buddha and Christ have claimed for such a long, long time that separation is the illusion, yet we hang on to this illusion with all our might. It is clearly more soothing to us than that which we have in common. After all, “to have in common” means to have one’s boundaries less clearly marked, to feel with another — pretty scary stuff that may explain why we lend so much weight to our differences and place so much value on them, from individuals to societies, from East to West and North to South. Even when we hate the differences (those seen as negative always embodied in “the other”) and in direct proportion, it seems, to how much we hate them, we pour our attention on them; we bring them out under the glaring sun so everyone can stare at them until they seem insurmountable in their three-dimensional “reality.”

But, Sanford claims, if we find ourselves in darkness, or in a very quiet place, we become more attuned to a different, subtler reality; and if we are strong enough to become vulnerable, to stay with the fear — in short, if we “surrender” — we may glimpse the contours of authentic feeling (how scary is that?) and hear the song of our oh-so-common human experience of striving and losing, loving and letting go, living and dying at every moment of existence.

And this may be the most healing story we can tell ourselves.

Clara PaulinoMs. Paulino lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina and teaches Art History and Criticism at the University of Winthrop and the University of Porto. In her "Writing in the Margins" she muses on a home in-between: languages, places, ways of seeing.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


Podcasts Make Learning Better
Tess Perese, visiting student

Teachers tend to stick to traditional formats of education such as textbooks, lectures, and so on. I can honestly say that the SOF podcasts have been the most rewarding and beneficial to my learning experience thus far. They offer an engaging way to learn through the ongoing back-and-forth of intriguing questions and perplexing answers.

"Children of Abraham" is one podcast that captured my attention. Krista’s conversation with Bruce Feiler about the role of Abraham in the differing faiths caused my Comparative Religions class to enter into a discussion about the origins of each religion and how, in actuality, they are quite similar.

Several of our class periods were taken up by this show. Many students discussed how absurd it was for such conflict to exist between the religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam when they all share a common belief: Abraham. The podcast opened up several avenues of discussion that otherwise may not have been addressed. For high school students, religion is one of the hardest topics to talk about and understand. With the aid of the SOF podcasts, my class was made to be an incredibly enriching experience that I will never forget.

Here’s a transcript of the audio clip above that resonated with me:

Ms. Tippett: So this has been a roundabout way of answering a question that I had, which is, you know, why — I think the figure of Abraham is incredibly important, practically important, but it was a question in my mind why lots of Americans should see that or, you know, why this should be on the cover of Time magazine, or if it can really have an effect, but what you’re — now I’m sort of seeing that this figure can have a different relevance because of the sort of new religious sensibility of the time we’re living in.

Mr. Feiler: Well, first of all, I think there are some basic things that we ought not to forget because we are having this conversation at a high level, which is, it is a family feud, and for a lot of people, that’s a headline, that Jews and Christians and Muslims all came from the same land, from the same family; that Abraham is a figure that is central to Jews, Christians, and actually more central to Muslims than arguably to the other two. That’s a really important realization, that we do all come — and that also leads to the next assumption, which is that we all share the same God. And the reason that all three religions have gone back to Abraham — this is the thing: God chooses Abraham in Genesis 12, and Abraham chooses God. And then each of the religions over time has chosen to link itself back to Abraham because he’s so closely associated with God. In a sense, you can’t get to God without understanding Abraham. They could have chosen anybody. They could have chosen David, they could have chosen Moses, they could have chosen, Isaac, they chose — they could have chosen Adam. They chose Abraham. That choice is powerful. And to me, that suggests that we can choose Abraham as well. We can choose an Abraham for this moment. Abraham Number 241 is what I say in my book, but that’s just sort of a whimsical way of saying we can make him relevant to our time.

And the moment that we live in now is the religions about to descend into war. They’ve been at war for a long time, but the weapons are a lot bigger now. Planes are weapons. Nuclear bombs are weapons. And we need to remember at least that we do have this family feud, that at the center of it is one man, and I think he contains the seeds of hope because I really, I really feel that the story of Abraham is not Pollyannaish, and that’s what’s so great about it. There’s violence in it, as well as peace in it. He’s a flawed vessel, but he is the best vessel we’ve got, and so I think that’s why people are grabbing for him.

Ms. Tippett: He’s fully human.

Mr. Feiler: He’s fully human. He’s fully us.

Tess PereseTess Perese is a recent graduate of The Blake School in Minneapolis and will be attending Colby College in Maine. She observed our production process for three weeks as part of a high school class project.

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Spiritual Nomad Finds Sacred Space

Chelsea Roff, guest contributor

The sanctity of a location is often said to be derived from its history. For some, the sacred space may be the site at which a loved one transitioned from one plane of existence to another; for others, the locale might have been the silent witness to an exceptional, life-changing event. However, for many of us, our hallowed home radiates a certain indescribable aura, a force that seems to draw in its disciples, offering refuge from the turmoil of everyday life.

The space may not even exist in a tangible respect. It may reveal itself only within the mind of the individual seeking shelter from the raging pandemonium that keeps the “real world” in constant disarray. Wherever it manifests, the discovery of such a sanctuary can be critical to the sustenance of one’s sanity in the midst of pain or suffering. As humans collectively are forced to grapple with increasingly chaotic and tumultuous circumstances, cultivating a tranquil sanctuary within is the first step to creating peace throughout the world.

For a significant period of my life, I considered myself a sort of spiritual nomad. I maintained a calm and composed exterior, but inside I was secretly a wandering traveler searching for a place to rest my tired heart. As I speak with others, I’m finding that I am not alone in this circumstance.

Dizzy with the zealous declarations of partisan faiths, we spiritual nomads are the wanderers — we long to find fulfillment and meaning in something “greater,” yet we acquire only temporary, artificial morsels of nourishment in the empty promises of dogmatic traditions. For some of us, hiding behind false idols in the house of science can pacify the intensity of our longing momentarily, but the beast always reemerges and demands more to fill the void.

For years I played this agonizing game, bouncing from elation to despair, caught in a cycle perpetuated by a need for solid ground beneath my feet. I wanted no less than the ability to turn my emotions on and off — to delegate my tears, laughter, and moments of sublimation. When I found that no denomination, spiritual guru, or uncompromising atheistic declaration could guarantee such a capacity, I decided to instead hide from sentiment altogether. I was willing to sacrifice joy, intimacy, and the very soul of life as long as I didn’t have to risk being vulnerable in a cruel and uncertain world.

At some point, the wanderer must realize that pursuing immunity from suffering ultimately leads right back to the despondency with which (s)he was confronted to begin with. In my own experience, it was only when I was finally able to admit and accept my own powerlessness that tranquility materialized. I finally broke open, split at the seams by my despair. In that moment, surrendering to my own powerlessness revealed a truth that had been previously obscured by the lens of my desire.

I looked up into the night sky — no longer searching, but just absorbing — and the brilliant beam of a single star peering through dense fog imbibed hope into my bitter darkness. A voice resonated deep within me, and I heard — not with my ears, but rather with some thought-to-be vestigial organ within my soul — exactly the message I was supposed to hear at that moment.

“It is only on the darkest nights that you begin to see the stars.”

The night acquired new meaning for me that evening. I can no longer venture out after the sun has set without taking several moments to gaze up at the stars and just marvel at them. Those effervescent beacons of light have become my idols, the night my sacred space. This experience — of acquiring a sacred place of my own — has helped me to better understand the reverence the Benedictine monk feels within the walls of a cathedral and why the Israeli and Palestinian peoples fight so bitterly over what they each deem to be their holy lands.

What I think is often forgotten, unfortunately, is that our sacred places are only concrete representations of our experience of love, God, divinity (or what ever word you use to name it). They are the grounds upon which we project the light that emanates from within, and when we forget that all-important truth we are once again forced into nomadic wandering. When we shed blood in a war over futile possession or limit our experience of divinity to a single location, we render it hollow and effectively desecrate its holiness. The sacred place exists not to introduce us to some higher power outside of our own experience; rather, it serves as a reminder of the splendor we kindle within.

True sacred spaces are not entrenched and immovable in the physical locations they occupy. Holy sites manifest themselves in manifold forms, consistently available in our moments of greatest need. As I mature, I’m learning to cultivate these sacred places within my own mind — to leave the logical, practical, relentlessly anxious intellect and find peace in the silence of quiet meditation and the gentle flow of my yoga practice. This spiritual nomad has finally found her sacred abode.

Chelsea RoffMs. Roff is studying Psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.