It has been a while since I posted a blog because I didn't have anything to say worth recording. I awoke this morning with a dream that suggested I should.
Growing up, I developed an interest in why are some people are close to God, and others aren't? Striving to answer this question has shaped my life, most of the time unconsciously.
I went to seminary and became a priest seeking an answer. What I've learned over the years is a person's theological beliefs don't matter. It's faith or trust that makes the difference. Closeness to God comes from grace, not correct thoughts.
As a young priest, I explored the role values play in spiritual development. I found values emerge from spirituality; they don't lead to it.
My study of C.G. Jung showed me psychology's contribution to spiritual growth. Dr. Jung emphasized the role of the unconscious in the process of maturation, how we can access the unconscious and learn from it. This was a huge help but didn't tell me why some people are closer to God than others. One of Jung's students, the brilliant Jewish thinker, Erich Neumann, wrote Depth Psychology and a New Ethic.In it, I found a vision of how spiritual development unfolds. Neumann came as close to answering my question as anyone has.
Utilizing Neumann's thinking, I came up with a six-step process of spiritual growth and presented it at a conference. My paper was dry, and there was too much material for the time allotted. Not surprisingly, the response was boredom and indifference. This experience taught me describing the steps formally was not the best way to do it. I turned to storytelling.
Zach Johnson's spiritual evolution in my Hangtowntrilogy illustrates my discernment. Zach goes from being a young man interested in sex and money in book one to an advanced level of enlightenment at the conclusion of the trilogy. It was not his knowledge of Christianity that propelled Zach's growth but his openness to God's grace.
Since few people are as captivated by spiritual development as I am, I've found most readers overlook or don't understand this element of the trilogy. Before giving a synopsis of the process, there are three things to mention.
First, Zach reaches stage five. This is quite an accomplishment, even though he didn't get to the highest level. Only a few inspired souls reach stage six. Fortunately, God loves us wherever we are on our journeys.
Second, being saved or not saved has nothing to do with where we are in our spiritual development. As has long been observed, bidden or not bidden, God is present.
Third, the movement from one stage to another is not smooth. We taste a higher level before attaining it. We typically spend years, if not decades, in each level. I delineated the stages sharply (I hope), but they aren't so distinct in life. The Hangtowntrilogy shows the fuzziness of the process.
In my description of the six stages, I refer to God as He. I do not intend to suggest God is masculine. God is beyond gender identification.
Stage One: Blissful Ignorance
In stage one, we are consumed with the allure of success and security. Being good at something is regarded as the key to finding happiness. Instant gratification is preferred, and the reality of an inner world is typically denied. We seek authorities to tell us how to live. We attach ourselves to what they espouse because it is too frightening to do otherwise. Fear and inertia inhibit our growth. Stage one doesn't provide us with what we want because we're estranged from our souls and the fullness of reality. Eventually, this narrow way of living leads to a great deal of pain.
Stage Two: The Call
In stage two, we are no longer able to fix our problems in the old ways. Honesty enables us to stop being duplicitous or emotionally evasive. Until we are honest with ourselves, we cannot grow. Change becomes possible when we admit our powerlessness and surrender to God. The call by God requires abandoning our previous lifestyle to undertake a new direction. There is the sense of being initiated into a new way of life. This is commonly called a conversion. We are full of vigor as we transition from the old into the unknown. In stage two, pain and honesty lead to growth.
Stage Three: Responding to the Call
New attitudes and behaviors emerge as we respond to our call. We move away from the past's familiarity toward the new's unknown. We feel reborn. Religious texts, ceremonies, and life in general offer glimpses of God's radiance. Something inside of us demands we undertake a new activity, career, or way of life. We think and behave differently. Our values shift.
The dark side of stage three is hubris. We can become full of ourselves, zealots. We feel we are the chosen ones and are motivated to bring others to the realization we've attained. "Believe what I do or die!" becomes our crusade's slogan.
Stage Four: Encountering the Void
In stage four, spiritual growth is difficult. There is a conflict between two insistent parts of our psyches. One part wants to cling to the light of the familiar while the other is ready to move further into the darkness of the unknown. Stage four requires letting go of the convictions about God that we've cultivated in stages two and three. We can't see beyond them until we do.
This is never easy and leads to more suffering. Stage four is a time when growing spiritually seems unattainable and pointless. This is the Holy Saturday experience. We are no longer connected to what once was while not yet participating in the new either. Saint John of the Cross referred to this experience as the dark night of the soul. The hardships of living in the void beat the fragility and spiritual complacency out of us. Keen spiritual insight gradually comes as we perceive more of reality as it truly is. Stage four brings us to an expanded appreciation for the sovereignty of God.
Stage Five: Purposefulness
During the struggles of stage four, the ego begins to be aware that though limited, it has a task and responsibility to fulfill. The connection between inner and outer events becomes conscious. We recognize all the internal and external influences in our lives are parts of a whole. They reflect and influence each other, and as they do, we discover an intrinsic purposefulness in creation.
In Stage Five, we no longer dictate to life what it should be like. Instead, we seek to be in service to it. When our souls encounter God, the Holy Other, we feel in the presence of a Reality that is accepting, caring, merciful, compassionate, and greater than ourselves. Meeting God is an experience of love.
Once we taste the deep joy and serenity of feeling close to God, that we are intended and loved, injuring this relationship (sin) is dreadful. The greater our closeness to God, the harsher its loss is.
Stage Six: Union/Oneness
The final stage is characterized by a oneness with God, a living in harmony with the Creator's unfolding dimensions. We see God's radiance in all things: all of life is holy. God uses our lives to reveal the sacredness that is life. Only a few spiritual giants reach this level. Those that do, don't2 believe in God. They know Him.
In the summer of 1966, I volunteered to work in an Episcopal Church in Compton, California. It was a modest stone building that had a detached parish hall. Maybe three hundred people could be squeezed inside.
I was twenty and had just completed my junior year of college. The summer before, the Watts Riots had taken place. Saint Timothy's was located just a few blocks south of where the violence occurred. Along with another white man I didn't know, I lived in a small apartment on the second floor behind the parish hall. The room contained a couple of basic beds, dressers, and stiff chairs. There was also a small bathroom with a shower. Our assignment was to lead an educational program, conduct worship, offer a little religious training, and intermingle with the church community, which was entirely black.
Doug Woodridge and I walked the neighborhood when we first arrived, passing out flyers announcing the summer program. Teenagers were employed to work with elementary school children. The teens helped the younger students with their reading and math skills. It was a well-conceived program we were being brought in to run.
Doug and I were the only white faces anywhere to be seen, except for the police officers that cruised by looking out of their heavily armed cars like caged animals. I was emotionally young and had a hard time living in these conditions. I went home most weekends to take a deep breath and prepare for the next week. I knew this was frown upon, but I was ill-equipped to lead the program, and the tension drained me. It was I who was being educated, and I could absorb only so much before needing to retreat.
My biggest take-away from that summer experience was that the teens and my aspirations were the same. The primary difference between us was the color of our skin. That was an enormous revelation for me.
I remember one of the teenage girls saying how upsetting the nearby billboards were. I didn't understand. "They taunt us with items and a lifestyle we cannot afford," she said. "We're shown what we don't have, and the reminder is in our faces every day."
Growing up in Beverly Hills, this was new to me. While my parents didn't give me much money to carry around, I didn't do without. If there was something I wanted, I usually got it. Being told through advertising, 'this is what you should have,' and not having the means to acquire it was foreign to me. When I saw her point, I understood the frustration and anger that led to the looting and burning the year before.
The teens spoke of those who made it out of the ghetto and never returned. They both envied and despised these people.
I was treated well that summer, though on my first day while I was interviewing for the position, someone stole the cassette player out of my car. "They wanted it more than you did," I was told. That rationalization never sat well with me. Other than that, I felt protected and safe, though Doug and I were careful not the leave the church grounds after dark.
I didn't do my job well. I was ignorant about the Bible, church history, and many of the things I was expected to speak about during the morning chapel services. I'm sure Saint Timothy's leaders were disappointed in me, I would have been if I had been in their shoes. Nevertheless, I received a world-class education of my own that summer, one I am incredibly grateful for.
The Mystery became flesh and dwelt among us. In him appeared life and this life was the light of mankind. The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In my Hangtown trilogy, one of the characters, Claire, has a series of mind-boggling dreams. She wanted to know what the dreams meant, so she asked others, including her Roma friend, Adi. That was 1852. Today Adi can't help us, but there are several useful resources that can. One of these is called the dream ego.
The dream ego is the image of you in the dream. The actions, attitudes, and feelings of the dream ego are revealing. They tell us things about ourselves we either haven't noticed; or, if we have seen them, we aren't taking these parts of ourselves seriously enough.
There are three steps for working with the dream ego. They'll provide a perspective that is different from our initial understanding of the dream, which is what we want.
I am in college in England. It's a fancy private school. I have been away for a while but am returning with good intentions to take advantage of what is here.
Here are three steps.
Step One: Follow the action of the dream ego.
This step looks at what the dream ego is doing, and not doing, to highlight the decisions that the dream ego is making.
A) Rewrite the dream describing what the dream ego is doing.
Example: I have gone to England for schooling. I am in a fancy private college, one I attended during an earlier time of my life. I intend to take advantage of what the school has to offer.
Decisions: To go to school
Not any school, but a fancy, private one
This time to take advantage of what is offered
B) Rewrite the dream describing what the dream ego is not doing.
Example: I'm not staying home, continuing what I'm currently doing.
I don't ignore or decline the invitation to attend the school.
I am not going to England to seek a job, to vacation, to visit a friend, to teach others, or to have fun.
I am not in a public school, not surrounded by everyday folks, not going to a school everyone can access.
I am not here to repeat my previous experience.
These are the thoughts that come to me quickly. More thoughts might occur later. This part of the exercise illuminates behaviors or decisions I am not making. It tells me what in the dream might be unusual or missing.
Step One Conclusion: My unconscious (source of the dream) wants me to open up to something new. I will do this by returning to an old, familiar way of learning. This time I will do a better job.
Step Two: Describe the feelings and attitudes of the dream ego.
A) List the dream ego's feelings and attitudes.
Example: A transition is at hand. I am leaving my comfort zone to go to a place I haven't been to in a long time.
I feel adventurous about going to England for school.
I am happy for a second chance.
I am familiar with fancy schools.
I am not concerned about the school's exclusivity.
I feel special to be attending this school.
I am determined to take advantage of the opportunity.
B) Describe the attitudes or feelings your ego experiences that are missing from the dream.
Example: I'm not interested in returning to school.
Traveling to Europe for school would be intimidating.
I'd be uncomfortable attending an exclusive school.
I'd be insecure about being able to learn what was taught.
The thrill of adventure is a minor influence in my life.
C) Go through the list of feelings and attitudes, and ask each one:
Is this a new feeling or attitude for me?
What is unusual about this feeling or attitude?
Example: The adventurous feeling is unusual.
Going to England for school is new and not a typical thing I'd do.
Step Two Conclusion: In this dream, none of the feelings or attitudes of the dream ego are unexpected or unusual. The absence of playfulness is noteworthy though. Whatever it is I'm to learn, my unconscious views as a serious matter, and the unconscious is determined I take advantage of it.
Step Three: Ask the dream ego questions.
In this step, we seek to correlate the dream ego's actions/decisions and feeling/attitudes with what's currently going on in our waking lives.
Example: Describe what the dream ego did or felt that I'm not doing in my waking life.
What is my old, familiar approach to learning? What do I need to do differently that'll improve its effectiveness? What is going on in my life now that's like this? What opportunity beckons me?
Since this dream indicates a transition is at hand, I want to know what past change or transition needs revisiting—and doing better? What transition am I being called to make?
Am I resisting making the change the unconscious wants me to make? If so, why?
Step Three Conclusion: In this dream, the dream ego has the opportunity to redo something it didn't take full advantage of when it first experienced it. What might that be? How would my life be different if I did what the dream ego is doing? What is preventing me from doing this? Also, why isn't there room for playfulness?
My reflections: I've never attended school in England, much less a fancy one, so the dream isn't about a second chance to do that. This dream is about something else.
I had this dream at the beginning of my retirement. At the time of the dream, I was looking for what I was going to do. A return to writing, an interest in school I never took seriously, was an opportunity that attracted me, though this time, my writing would be fiction, not non-fiction, with a new determination. Writing a novel would be an exciting adventure that would take me to new places. Since I'd never written a novel, I have much to learn.
Give this exercise a try with one of your dreams. Let me know if you find the steps helpful. Since I used a short dream to demonstrate how the process works, not every section of the exercise proved to be revealing. That's not uncommon. Give each step a try, but don't fret if a section isn't useful. Another will be.
Send your questions or comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
California today is an open, welcoming community. It hasn't always been this way. The State has had its share of white supremacists in leadership positions and has honored some of them by naming precious resources after them. We should never forget our history. Here is one example.
John Bigler, a Democrat, in 1851 was running to become the third Governor of California. It's reported on a campaign stop in Hangtown, he visited a floriculturist. While in her shop, he admired a plant with a profusion of white blossoms. The woman smiled and told him the admired flower came from a bulb. She promised to send him some for his inauguration. On the day Bigler was sworn in, the woman sent him a peck of potatoes.
Bigler was popular during his early years in office. His stern policies and harsh verbal attacks on the Chinese were well received. When he first came to power, the capital was in Vallejo, but it lacked the facilities, supplies, and furniture to fulfill the function. Bigler argued the capital should be moved to his adopted home of Sacramento. It was granted, but flooding problems prevented Sacramento from retaining the seat of government. It moved again, this time to Benicia. To encourage the move, Benicia's leaders built a building for the legislature's exclusive use. Nevertheless, Benicia didn't work out either. Government returned to Sacramento and in February 1854 Governor Bigler signed a bill making Sacramento the official Capital of California.
The Governor's popularity peaked in 1854 at the start of his second term. Democrats were the majority in the legislature and pushed through a bill to rename Lake Bonpland, "Lake Bigler". It was John C. Fremont who'd named the high Sierra lake, "Bonpland". Fremont's name never caught on. People preferred to call it "Mountain Lake" or "Fremont's Lake." Maps began identifying it as Lake Bigler in 1853 and the legislature made it official the following year.
Bigler's popularity faded when it became evident he didn't handle State funds wisely and that he supported the South in the Civil War. When he lost favor, so did naming the lake after him. Maps returned to identifying it as "Mountain Lake". In 1862 it was suggested by Union supporters that the lake be given the name "Tahoe," the name used by a local tribe.
"Tahoe" didn't receive universal acceptance either. Mark Twain mocked the name, urging a return to Bigler. The Placerville Mountain Democrat started an unfounded rumor that "Tahoe" was the name of an Indian who preyed on whites. In response to the criticisms, in 1870 the legislature changed the official name back to "Lake Bigler." It remained this way for approximately thirty years, when the Bigler name again fell out of favor. By the turn of the twentieth century most people were referring to the lake as "Tahoe", though the Legislature didn't officially change the lake's name until 1945.
John Bigler was a man of his times. It's good he is no longer honored for it.
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