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SACRED AMERICA: THE EMERGING SPIRIT OF A PEOPLE
by Roger Housden

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 besides.

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 for information.

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