These Covid times can’t help but bring mortality to the fore and with that the realization that ‘somebody’ will have the task of dealing with that which remains, including ‘belongings’. I’ve done that for a number of people over the years and gladly too but I wanted items to go to places and people who could use, would like them. I knew from experience others might not have time to do that in the kind of detail I, while alive, could do. So that’s what I did, I started in on a Swedish Death Cleaning and it has brought me much happiness, and much satisfaction too.
This poem piece along with the writing it appeared with spoke to me. I hope it speaks to you. In future posts I will visit some of the discoveries I made in January, how I ‘resolved’ many items that had been with me for at least two decades which I’d not made decisions about. Left to languish.
learning to save myself, learning to live
alone through the long winter nights
means so much unknotting, unknitting
unraveling, untying the mother-cord
— so much undoing
From: Michèle Roberts’s poetry collection ‘All the selves I was‘
The following is from: a blog Rousette The title of the post is, Re-visiting poetry. Over the intervening years, I’ve done a lot of metaphorical unknotting and unraveling, and plenty of literal unknitting and unpicking too. I’ve come to see those processes not as a failure but as an integral part of the making process. Making and unmaking are part of the same thing, and if you want to learn, to grow, to experiment, to be bold, you often have to unmake. Yes, it can be frustrating or even painful, but it’s a good thing. Unmaking and making anew almost always results in something better and stronger, and in the process, you learn. You just have to be brave, take a deep breath, and get out your seam ripper.
Finally, this has not been a process of ‘decluttering’, or preparation for death. Better described as an undoing a cutting of the mother-cord, a spiritual endeavor. Thanks to Julius for the link which inspired me to write about the process that started in January and continues on.
For some, it is the sky and the stars, the mountains and the sea, the land and flowing rivers that are the ground of faith. For others it is different.
Below is an account of a man who demonstrated his deep faith under severe circumstances. Of course, the question comes to mind, ‘would I be able to do as he did’? Chances are, and I sincerely hope this is the case, none of us will face such a test. All the same, it seems good to reflect on what ‘faith’ means personally. One need not be under extreme duress to exercise faith though. And since ‘renewal’ is the theme of the moment, I would say faith/trust is at the heart of meditation, on and off the cushion, yet there is not an ‘object’ of faith to grasp. It does however have to be exercised, moment to moment. Oh, and we have a religious tradition rich with symbolism to draw on if that is helpful in keeping ones ‘ground of faith’, ever-present.
A Buddha image
a candle flickering
the night sky?
The story of Judah Wallis
While he was in Dachau, a Jew who was being taken to his death suddenly flung a small bag at my father, Judah Wallis. He caught it, thinking it might contain a piece of bread. Upon opening it, however, he was disturbed to discover a pair of tefillin. Judah was very frightened because he knew that were he to be caught carrying tefillin, he would be put to death instantly. So he hid the tefillin under his shirt and headed for his bunkhouse.
In the morning, just before the appel [roll call], while still in his bunkhouse, he put on the tefillin. Unexpectedly, a German officer appeared. He ordered him to remove the tefillin, noted the number on Judah’s arm. At the appel, in front of thousands of silent Jews, the officer called out Judah’s number and he had no choice but to step forward. The German officer waved the tefillin in the air and said, “Dog! I sentence you to death by public hanging for wearing these.”
Judah was placed on a stool and a noose was placed around his neck. Before he was hanged, the officer said in a mocking tone, “Dog, what is your last wish?”
“To wear my tefillin one last time,” Judah replied.
“The officer was dumbfounded. He handed Judah the tefillin. As Judah put them on, he recited the verse that is said while the tefillin are being wound around the fingers: “Ve’eirastich li le’olam, ve’eirastich li b’tzedek uvemishpat, ub’chessed, uv’rachamim, ve’eirastich li b’emunah, v’yodaat es Hashem – I will betroth you to me forever and I will betroth you to me with righteousness and with justice and with kindness and with mercy and I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know G-d.”
It is hard for us to picture this Jew with a noose around his neck, wearing tefillin on his head and arm – but that was the scene that the entire camp was forced to watch, as they awaited the impending hanging of the Jew who had dared to break the rule against wearing tefillin.
Even women from the adjoining camp were lined up at the barbed wire fence that separated them from the men’s camp, forced to watch this horrible sight.
As Judah turned to watch the silent crowd, he saw tears in many people’s eyes. Even at that moment, as he was about to be hanged, he was shocked. Jews were crying! How was it possible that they still had tears left to shed? And for a stranger? Where were those tears coming from? Impulsively, in Yiddish, he called out, “Yidden, I am the victor. Don’t you understand, I am the winner!”
The German officer understood Yiddish and was infuriated. He said to Judah, “You dog, you think you are the winner? Hanging is too good for you. You are going to get another kind of death.”
“Judah, my father, was taken from the stool and the noose was removed from his neck. He was forced into a squatting position and two huge rocks were placed under his arms. Then he was told that he would be receiving 25 lashes to his head – the head on which he had dared to position his tefillin. The officer told him that if he dropped even one of the rocks, he would be shot immediately. In fact, because this was such an extremely painful form of death, the officer advised him, “Drop the rocks now. You will never survive the 25 lashes to the head. Nobody ever does.”
Judah’s response was, “No, I won’t give you the pleasure.”
At the 25th lash, Judah lost consciousness and was left for dead. He was about to be dragged to a pile of corpses, after which he would have been burned in a ditch, when another Jew saw him, shoved him to the side, and covered his head with a rag so people didn’t realize he was alive. Eventually, after he recovered consciousness fully, he crawled to the nearest bunkhouse that was on raised piles and hid under it until he was strong enough to come out under his own power. Two months later he was liberated.
During the hanging and beating episode, a 17-year-old girl had been watching the events from the women’s side of the fence. After liberation, she made her way to Judah. She walked over to him and said, “I’ve lost everyone. I don’t want to be alone any more. I saw what you did that day when the officer wanted to hang you. Will you marry me?”
My parents walked over to the Klausenberger Rebbe and requested that he perform the marriage ceremony. The Klausenberger Rebbe, whose Kiddush Hashem is legendary, wrote out a kesubah [marriage contract] by hand from memory and married the couple. I have that handwritten kesubahin in my possession to this day.
~~ Rabbi Yosef Wallis
Copied from Max Edelkopf (via Mordechai Makor).
Hat tip to Sophia, dear woman, who first published this and who kindly sent the text to me this evening to republish.
I have been re-reading a journal article, titled Renewal which I wrote in the mid-1980s. I was young monastically speaking, training at Shasta Abbey working in The Journal Department; typing it (on an actual typewriter), doing the ‘layout’, taking photographs, collating, and mailing. On revisiting this fairly lengthy article it’s clear that change has happened between then and now! The style? I blush! The theistic language? Clearly ‘a monk’ teaching ‘lay people’ with a slightly preachy feel…! Tripple blush!
That was largely the style then, the look and feel of the Journal then is not the same as now. How we pass on teaching and practice has changed, the fundamental heart, however, remains very much the same. The Journal was and is the ‘voice’ of the teaching, originally a Shasta Abbey Journal and a Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey Journal and latterly since the 1990’s they were combined to be The Journal of the OBC. Goodness! Now it is published online with only limited paper copies. A big change, driven largely by economics. And bless desktop publishing.
Jademountains has broken the mould in terms of what and how teaching and insights are conveyed into the world. As you know posts are not necessarily aimed at people who practice within our tradition either or any kind of religious tradition. In addition, I am free to develop content without formal oversight which is a huge responsibility, although what I write is very much ‘within’ the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives tradition. You all, readers both lay and monastic function as informal checks and balances sitting in the background as I contemplate content. I’m shockingly free to exercise choice and to develop a ‘voice’ and to broadcast into the big wide world.
And now to my motivation behind writing about renewal. The historic article, ‘Renewal’ has become a bit of a classic apparently and now the Journal wants it to be edited to bring it up to date for the Journal to publish. The following series of posts might form the basis of a new article or I may ask for somebody to knock the original into the 21st century!
Renewal? Spiritual renewal, a time set aside from the daily/weekly round to ‘be with’ that which, what might be described as ones deepest most profound aspiration, which can frequently be lost sight of in the face of the imperative to get on with life. It is the time set aside which can be a trial – it means making a deliberate decision to set spiritual renewal as enough of a priority to follow through in practice. That’s to let drop some plans, hopes and dreams and to basically exercise the NO (sorry) faculty we all have but infrequently invoke.
Religious traditions have the Sabbath, defined as: A day of rest and worship: Sunday for most Christians; Saturday for Jews and a few Christians; Friday for Muslims. Apparently there are Uposatha days in Buddhist countries practiced for “the cleansing of the defiled mind,” resulting in inner calm and joy. The closest to that we get is the Renewal of The Precepts twice a month, generally on the fist and third Wednesday. So spiritual renewal is on the organized religions map and in societies calendar. However, they are scheduled for the faithful as against the faithful scheduling holy days for themselves. The latter being more realistic given the over-committed lives most face. Our freedoms to choose how and when we take time to focus in on our overtly religious lives is there. But do we choose, can we choose, what to choose to do or not do?
In the Zen tradition, that we hale from, days with a 4 or a 9 in the date are renewal days, that’s how it was when I was a youngster. We switch to Thursday afternoons and Mondays for renewal to accommodate scheduled weekend retreats for lay guests. On festival days Sunday afternoon is a renewal time too. In principle at least these are times when the monastery has a ‘change of pace’, individuals can exercise choice, deciding how best to spend time to fulfil the spirit of such days. What this looks like in practice changes with seniority, responsibilities, age etc. And it isn’t so much what one does than the attitude adopted.
More tomorrow, or the next day. I cook on Saturdays.
This poem by Emily Dickinson heads the home page of Rita Brady Kiefer’s website, more on her another time. I have bumped into it in a number of places and each time I’m left in a thoughtful mood.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d banish us – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog —
To tell your name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!” – Emily Dickinson
Being a shy sensitive youngster I longed to have an identity and at the time that was connected to what I did. ‘What do you do’? was the question I would dread as I struggled to be invisible in the public space! Then it was a common make-conversation opener when sitting on a train or bus, now most people are looking at a screen rather than at each other. Teenagers struggle to be something or somebody, to have an answer as much for themselves as curious others. I wanted my answer to be a casual, ‘Oh, I’m a photographer!’ In time, a long time, I could honestly use that as an answer but by then I didn’t need it. I knew I was a multiple me and nobody wants chapter and verse, at a bus stop!
Fast forward through the decades, now when asked I can say ‘a monastic’, (surrounded by Northumbrian bog)! Identity, apart from ‘function’, is so tied up with appearance, how our face is. Photography is in the hands of everybody, everywhere, anytime. Screens, especially at the moment when less in outdoor public space or indoors for that matter, has become how we know people. How we make contact. For those who have used Zoom, or group Skype or other means of joining online using a webcam, there you are face and shoulders with a ‘sneak peek’ into the life behind the image. On big Webinars, there are multiple screens to scroll through to see ‘who is there’. No questions asked or needing to be answered. At the moment for so many people having contact is to see, and speak to a moving image. Which is both close-up and at a distance on a glass screen. To go deeper than surface appearance is all guesswork, more or less.
The other day I had a photograph of myself ‘taken’ for the booklet of printed photographs we have available for visiting guests although, needless to say, we are not open to live guests, for the moment. This book of faces means visitors can learn the monk’s names which is all part of connecting with the community, and the practice and teaching here at Throssel. Little did I realize uploading this photograph here and in other online places I frequent (Facebook as hounmugo for example) I’d get the multiple responses that I have.
How public – like a Frog —
To tell your name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
With thanks to all those 67, and still counting, people who have responded to that image. It doesn’t cause me to think I am ‘somebody’ going ‘somewhere’. Nor on the other hand, am I, or anybody reading this, a nobody with no direction to life. That would be a sad, sad thing.