I Don’t Know What to Say or Where to Begin, so Ask Me Anything
I’m at a bit of a loss, professionally, personally, spiritually, humorously.
But maybe if you ask me things and I can respond as honestly as possible, this annus horribilis will make more sense. To me. To you. To any of us.
To wit: In the comments, ask me anything, and I will respond by adding the question and answer to this post. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a question or questions and I’ll do the same.
At least we’ve got each other. So, let’s go.
Cathleen (aka “God Girl”)
Jack Palmer-White asks: How Are Baby Unicorns Made?
Well, Jackie boy, I’m glad you asked as there is quite a bit of misinformation (derived largely from “fake news” stories promulgated by the Russian government and Sarah Palin’s second-cousin Beryl living in exile these last six months in Marfa, Texas.)
Not unlike our Lord Jesus Christ, baby unicorns are begotten, not made. Rather than being the banal result of two adult unicorns knocking horns, as it were, and subsequently, after a gestational period of 30 months has passed, emerging from the birth canal covered in iridescent vernix caseosa, instead, after an annual viewing of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” on or around the fourth Thursday in November, the foetal unikid just appears (*mystery*)in the imagination of the Almighty where it gestates for about three weeks (during the period of time known in the Christian calendar as Advent).
At approximately 2:15 p.m. GMT on Gaudete Sunday (again, according to the Christian liturgical calendar), after a brunch of bellinis (made with fresh peach puree, thank you St. Dorothy of Caesarea for doing the honors), eggs Benedict Cumberbatch (wherein the allegedly English muffin is replaced by a halved hot-crossed bun), and fingerling potato mash, the Ophanim and Hasmalim dog-pile the Almighty (who is super ticklish) for an epic tickle fight. And when the Almighty passes wind (as the Almighty always does when relentlessly tickled after a heavy meal), a baby unicorn (aka unikid) is launched gently earthward in a cloud of rainbow fog (that smells like Skittles and birthday cake batter), until it lands on the sidewalk outside Alan Cummings’ dressing room or stage door where it waits patiently until the actor and little-known expert-handler-of-magical-creatures takes it home.
Upon the baby unicorn’s arrival on Earth, Mr. Cummings confers via Facetime with Sia, David Walliams, Dame Shirley Bassey, Yim Yames, Diane Keaton, Eddie Izzard, Joe Biden, Zoe Deschanel and the rest of the International Board of Unicorn Placement until permanent home with a good progressive family in the West of Ireland, the Cotswalds, a blue state in the U.S., or any Canadian outcropping south of Nunavut is identified, due diligence is performed, and the unicorn at last is delivered to its forever family by Oliver Platt (wearing a Hagrid costume).
I hope that answers your question and thank you for asking.
What Can I Do With This Can Of Unicorn Meat? asks Susan St. Laurent
Ah, yes. A perennial quandary, especially during the holidays. My answer (assuming you’re not avoiding gluten)?
Nigella Lawson’s Star-topped Mince Pies.
Just replace half of the 350 grams of mincemeat Nigella calls for in her recipe with the tinned unicorn meat. But first give it a couple of pulses in ye olde food processor to get the texture right. The sparkles, of which unicorn meat is an “excellent source” according to the Radiant Farms label, will give an additional festive touch when it shimmers from the gaps under the pastry stars atop the pies.
Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche, a dusting of freshly ground nutmeg, and a swirl of brandy butter hard sauce a la Downton Abbey.
Well now, that’s a little tougher than what to do with tinned unicorn…especially if we’re talking religious as opposed to spiritual. What’s the difference, you say? I like to answer that this way:
The difference between religion and spirituality is akin to the difference between bourbon and whisky. All bourbon is whisky but not all whisky is bourbon. Similarly, all religion is spirituality but not all spirituality is religion. Same goes for “religious” and “spiritual.”
So, when I return to your question as stated—meaning a literal “religious” voice (meaning one working from within a religious institution) as opposed to a voice that is “spiritual” (defined more broadly), the obvious (at least to me) answer is: Papa Frank (@Pontifex) aka Pope Francis.
Richard Rohr, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (who just left us in 2014), Pema Chodron, Thích Nhất Hạnh (who is 90), Billy Graham (who is 98 and from whom we haven’t heard much for the last decade), Franklin Graham (who holds a lot of influence over a lot of people and who has been, in my estimation, busy dismantling and disgracing his father’s legacy for the last decade), Gene Robinson (whose 2003 ascension to the bishopric and therefore apostolic succession certainly was an important turning point in the life of the Anglican church and many others), Pope Benedict (who, by retiring in 2013, was a massively influential force within Catholicism), and popular/influential authors whose work has been a game-changer for many people spiritually and religiously such as Rob Bell, Christopher Hitchens, Rick Warren, Phyllis Tickle, and Eugene Peterson would also be on that list of “most important” or “most influential.” But none of them The Most.
Now, if we interpret your question to mean who is the most important spiritual voice of the 21st century thus far, my gut answer is:
We haven’t heard it yet.
Tim Neufeld asks, “Why have people worked so hard to save institutions at the expense of humans?”
Tim posted this on my public Facebook Page a few hours ago and I’ve been noodling answer ever since. Since I’m not sure precisely which institutions Tim had in mind (religious? business? governmental? cultural? relational?) I’m going to answer it as if he were asking about protecting things (including ideas, corporations, perceptions, the status quo, or national/international borders) over and above protecting or saving people.
By way of answering, to begin with, in a word, it’s FEAR.
Fear of the unknown.
Fear of the stranger.
Fear of losing control or perceptions of control or whatever modicum of control we think we have over our lives, space, possessions, communities, neighbors, theologies, and God.
Fear of scarcity—but usually this occurs among people who have too much already, not too little.
Fear of injury, pain, loss.
Fear of powerlessness, of being alone, of being shunned.
Fear of having to share.
Fear of being displaced, redundant, inconsequential.
Fear of being wrong—about what you believe, about the answers on the test, about your perception of someone else, about your plan, about the way you thought they felt about you, about having it all together, about being one of the good guys.
Fear of admitting you’re wrong about any of the above because if you are it might be like removing the Jenga piece that makes the whole tower come crashing down.
Fear of opening the door in case it’s the threshold of Pandora’s box.
Fear that a few wet footprints means a tsunami is on its way.
Fear that if someone gives someone else a leg up, you’ll fall off the ledge and no one will catch you and that there’s no net.
Also, Tim, I think it’s because of ARROGANCE.
Arrogance that says we have the power to keep invisible borders impermeable.
Arrogance that has us believe corporations have our best interests at heart when corporations aren’t people and don’t have feelings, so they can’t care about us one way or another.
Arrogance that makes us treat some people better than others because we think they’re as good as us, or worse than us, or better than us.
Arrogance that says admitting we’ve made a mistake is a sign of weakness.
Arrogance that says leaders who are incapable of admitting they’re infallible are ideal rather than a recipe for despotism and disaster.
Arrogance that says we know best, that our tribe knows best, that our president or our political party or our church or the manager of our favorite baseball team or our favorite television talk show host knows best; or that the voice in our head that says it’s OK to park in the handicap-accessible spot because we’re in a hurry or the voice in his head that says he can fix everything on his own and doesn’t need security briefings because he’s, like, smart and that we believe him because we want change and don’t particularly care what kind of change it is so long as it’s change and who cares what that means for anyone else.
Arrogance that says we are America (and they aren’t) and that we know God (and they don’t.)
Arrogance that worships a god who looks and believes and acts just like we do.
Arrogance that believes anything we’ve made is “too big to fail.”
Arrogance that celebrates ignorance and inertia while it ridicules intelligence and innovation.
Arrogance that deems it acceptable to refer to other human beings with parents and children and friends and husbands and wives and lovers and enemies and admirers and pets and dependents and Facebook pages and Instagram accounts and dreams and fears and arrogances of their own as “collateral damage.”
Arrogance that belittles what it doesn’t understand and celebrates that which makes us feel good or safe or better or better than.
Arrogance that says “it’s the principal of it,” while dismissing the living, breathing reality of the person who’s speaking, or who talks about the “greater good” while crossing the street to avoid the person sleeping rough on the sidewalk.
Arrogance that is so married to their ideals, principals, and values that there’s no room left to let the light come through.
Arrogance that won’t stop shouting long enough to listen.
Fear and Arrogance.
With more than a soupçon of blind ambition and pathological selfishness added for good measure.
That’s the best I can do for an answer right now. And I may be wrong.
Because, to paraphrase the immortal words of the Dude: It’s just, like, my opinion, man.
Diana Prichard asks, “Where Is The Most Spiritual Place on Earth?”
I am a card-carrying booster of the “Everything Is Spiritual” school of thought and belief. So I don’t think there’s *one* most spiritual place on Mother Earth.
Wherever you are, whenever you are there, has potential to be the most spiritual place on the planet for you at that moment.
That said, I also am a believer in what my predecessors, the ancient Celts, described as “Thin Places”—locales that have or are vortex for or draw or innately possess or however-it-works such a spiritual energy that the veil between this place and the Next Place is so thin, it’s as gossamer.
For me, a few of those thin places are in actual houses of worship, but not inherently because they are houses of worship. Rather, the memories and/or experiences I have attached to those spaces in houses of worship make them sacred or holy or whatever-you-want-to-call-it for me.
For instance, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City is one that has held that special power or whatever it is since I was a child. So is La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre in Paris, the church of Santa Maria del Popol in Rome (home to the Caravaggio “The Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus”) and St. Peregrine’s Chapel at the old Mission in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
There are other places that perpetually are thin places for me that aren’t anywhere near a church or house of worship. There’s a large rock on the east side of the Fox River in a park near downtown Geneva, Ill., that was (and is) a place I go to sit and figure shit out. Big shit. Existential shit, even. There’s a bench in the garden the house where my rabbi and his wife (who are akin to adopted parents to me and officially my son’s “Jewish grandparents”) in the woods of Whitefish Montana that holds a similar power. The stool at the end of my friend Jen’s kitchen counter, next to the winter and the houseplant-that-cannot-be-killed. A bend in the hiking trail beneath the Club Himalaya hotel in Nagarkot, Nepal. And the Edith & Robert Graham Otter Pond at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center in Stamford, Conn.
And there are others. All over the place.
But if you asked me what the most spiritually powerful place in the world is for me I do have a singular answer: Malin Head in Co. Donegal, Ireland.
Malin Head is the most northerly spot in the Republic of Ireland. I’ve gone there on each of my dozen or so trips to my ancestral motherland. There’s no shrine. No incense. No woo-woo music or overwhelming feeling of something mystical (in the kind of Druid-esque way Eddie describes above.) But it’s my favorite spot on the planet. And, for me, the most sacred/spiritual. I wrote about Malin Head in a book I wrote about a decade ago—Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. Here’s a bit of what I said in the chapter titled “Knotted Celt,” by way of explaining the whole why-this-place portion of the event. Maybe it’ll go farther to answering your question than I have in these scribblings up to this point:
Howling wind whipped my long, unruly hair in penitent lashes across my face as I stood in the rain, staring at the churning sea at the northernmost point of Ireland. This place, Malin Head in County Donegal, for some mysterious or mystical reason — perhaps because it is such a broody, dramatic place, or maybe it’s got something to do with ancestry, or both — is the spot I love most in the world.
It is a wild land, the kind of place where myths are born, where giants and saints might come bounding over the next hillock followed by a troupe of little people or a herd of magical sheep. Whatever the reason, I feel at home here and have returned time and again over the last fifteen years, drawn to stand on its rocky cliffs like water to the shore.
At the very tip of Malin Head is Banbha’s Crown, named for one of the legendary goddess-queens of Ireland. Here stands a tower that from a distance looks as if it might be the ruins of a castle fort but is actually a signal tower built in 1802 by the British and used during World War II — along with several small huts and the word EIRE (one of Ireland’s ancient names) spelled out in a meadow along the cliff in letters formed by thousands of white rocks piled together — as a navigational and lookout point to protect Ireland’s neutrality. (Ireland was a neutral nation during the war.) A bit farther down, tucked into the cliffs where the Atlantic roars against the rocky land, is the Wee House of Malin, a cave that is said to have been the hermitage of St. Muirdealach. According to lore, no matter how many people entered St. Muirdealach’s cave, there was always room for more.
I first came to Malin Head when I was twenty-three years old, just prior to beginning my first year of graduate work at seminary. It was my first trip to Ireland, the island my grandmother Nell left in the early 1920s when she was about the same age on a ship bound for Ellis Island and a new life in America. In fact, I was the first member of the family to return to Ireland since she had left. I never knew Nell. She died giving birth to her fourth child when my mother, Helen (named after her mother), was three years old. Still, Nell had been a palpable presence in my world, precisely, I think, because of her absence from my life and, more important, from my mother’s. …
What is it about this place that tugs at my soul, pulling at it like a spiritual magnet? It can’t be ancestral ties, as my grandmother surely never set foot here. Nell was from a village in the middle of Ireland, a border town in County Cavan’s lake district called Ballyjamesduff (where a couple dozen of my cousins still live) about 100 miles from Malin Head. Still, there is a mystifying connection here for me. Even on that first visit I felt like I’d been here before, as if part of my spirit resides in this wild land. Of such places, in his poem “In Transit,” W. H. Auden described that kind of bond between person and place far more eloquently than I could. He wrote:
Somewhere are places where we have really been, dear spaces
Of our deeds and faces, scenes we remember
As unchanging because there we changed
…It is said that Malin Head is the sunniest spot in all of Ireland — nothing to cast a shadow, I suppose. On this overcast day, there is no sun. But there is clarity.
I wonder what has this Celt knotted, what I am afraid of this time. As always, it is a certain fear of the unknown, of change and evolution. Of what I have become in the fifteen years since I first stood in this spot. Of what I will be thinking about fifteen years from now. If I will be standing still, taking stock of the past, gracespotting — and what I might find if I do.
I took my most recent trip to Malin Head to try to figure out in my head what my heart already knew — what ties me to this mystical place. I am alone now in Banbha’s Crown. The only other visitors — a couple of Irish pensioners eating lunch and reading the tabloid papers in their car — have left. I can hear the wind before I feel it. And the roar of the ocean. And the call of the corncrakes and gannets. Bathed not in sunshine or rain, but in a shower of grace.
Alone at the edge.
A soundtrack playing in my mind.
For whatever comes next.