Life has its own design, inscrutable to our common intentions. I had
just finished a year of traveling research for my book, Sacred America,
and was on my way to a retreat center in Michigan to settle down to
the writing. Just before I left San Francisco, the center had phoned
to say that they were overbooked for the first ten days, but that they
had arranged for me to stay at a Christian Mennonite Retreat Center
that was adjacent to their land. After those ten days, I could simply
walk over the fields and stay with them.
Six months earlier in San Francisco, I had been awoken in the night
by a single dream image: the radiant face of a smiling woman ensconced
in a scallop shell. The image filled me with joy for days; I felt it
to be a confirmation that the deep feminine was supporting me, with
me; at the very same time that my life with a woman I loved to the core
was dissolving into something else.
So it was that I found myself opening the door of a converted barn
in Michigan one evening in the fall. Two elderly Mennonites ran the
center, and they had given me the apartment on the top floor. It was
late, and they had left a note; I saw no one. I went down to lunch the
next day -- all meals were in silence -- to find a long refectory table
with the two Mennonites at one end and someone at the other end, with
my place laid opposite them. I sat down, looked up, and my gaze was
met by the most open smile I have ever known. The woman's eyes remained
on me, showering me with warmth, as if she were welcoming a long lost
friend. I tried not to laugh; the Mennonites were eating their dessert,
oblivious. I was filled with inexpressible joy. Yet just the night before
I had written in my journal that, with my long relationship and also
the book research finally over, my life was an open book. I could do
anything; I could, perhaps, sit in a Buddhist monastery for a year.
Maria had arrived the day before me and was there for ten days. We
were the only guests. Two days after our meeting, I was looking at her
out of the corner of my eye thinking, Who ARE you? Instantly she turned
and said, laughing, "Haven't you recognized me yet?" After three days
the old couple said they had to go away for a week. Would it be all
right if we were on our own for that time? They would have someone come
and cook meals for us.
At the end of her stay, just as she was leaving, Maria gave me a card.
It was Botticelli's Venus. Later that afternoon, I suddenly remembered:
the scallop shell! The face in the scallop shell that had woken me in
San Francisco, it was Maria's face. My life was on the edge of a whole
new direction -- I knew it, though I couldn't acknowledge it then.
I tell this story as one more indication of the intelligence of the
life that lives in us all. To keep faith with this larger picture we
need, not to abrogate responsibility to some higher power, but to recognize
our unique part in the wholeness of things. Such faith, coming as it
does from the wellspring of authentic, individual being, is a far cry
from belief. Belief is a conceptualization of the truth as one would
"lief" or wish it to be. There is a place for belief, yet belief is
not faith. Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to truth; to the
dynamic force of Reality, however it may turn out to be.
It is a readiness to hear and live by that intelligence that I have
found emerging all over this country. It is there in Michael Beckwith's
words, when he said in Agape Church that our purpose is to be present
for something greater than ourselves, while recognizing that we are
the ones who can embody that greatness. Jim Wallis, in DC, avoids burnout
on his punishing schedule by knowing that there is a grander design
at work than his own; that, while doing all he can for what he believes
in, he is not in control of how life turns out.
From salaam, the peace passing understanding at the heart of us all,
declared Sayed Nasr in Georgetown, ensues a trust in the emerging process
of life, at the same time as action for the greater good. Salaam is
the source of action because compassion naturally arises from wisdom,
and wisdom is the nature of that peace. That peace is at the heart of
so many lives I have witnessed here: in Susan the mail lady's work in
San Anselmo; in Evelia's job in the mud baths of Calistoga; in Kristen
Ragusen's work as a financial consultant in Boston, and countless others
This larger life doesn't need dreams, visions, or spectacular events
to make itself known. It happens anyway, anywhere, all the time; some
of us just need a knock over the head to wake up to its voice. Life
happens anyway, and it is inherently wise, however painful or joyful
it happens to be.
Not only our personal lives, but the life of a culture, of the planet,
happens with an intelligence inscrutable to our logical, even moral,
minds. We all have a story -- we can't not have a story and be in a
physical body -- and the story will have its way; our smaller, individual
ones, and the bigger one we all share in. We are like the sandpipers
on the beach, moving this way and that as a single wave, said David
Abram on Whidbey Island; we are immersed in the depths of a conscious,
living world. Our peace of mind is commensurate with our faith in the
inherent purpose and wisdom of life as it emerges. Yet that wisdom is
not located anywhere outside of us; no one is doing something to us;
we are embedded in it, and serve to shape it in the degree that we are
conscious of it.
In some paradoxical way, it seems to me -- both from my own experience
and those of the people I have encountered -- the more we live in that
faith, the more we are free to be who we can be. And the more we exercise
that freedom -- so different to the imagined freedom of the ego -- the
more we are living the essence of democracy; and the more our culture
can fulfill its promise. Sacred America, I would suggest, is that increasing
communion of souls who are living their lives, not by some external
dictate of creed or culture, but by the promptings of the knowing heart.
This, rather than yet more experts and priests, is the fertile ground
for a leaderless spiritual emergence; for a truly democratic postmodernism
of belonging and wonder.
Finally, I am reminded that the first true democrat was none other
than a man called Jesus. Jesus lived that faith and freedom; he upheld
the equality of women, but also of the poor and the criminal in the
sight of God; he taught not from the book but from the universal wisdom
of the broken heart; and his life and death were exemplars of the mystery
of the Spirit. The Western spiritual tradition may yet find its full
flowering beyond the confines of church and creed, in the hearts and
minds of Americans living their faith in action. Which is just what
you might expect from the most practical, innovative, and also, I have
come to realize, one of the most spiritual cultures on earth.
Roger Housden's new book Sacred America will be published
this fall. He is teaching a workshop "Who Is The Beloved? -- The Way
of the Lover as Spiritual Tradition" at Oregon House, May 21-23. Call
54- 54 7-3329 or visit www.oregonhouse.com