My Mother’s Faith
Presented in the Temple By Damian Rollison, October 21, 2012
On April 15th of this year my mother passed away. Most years, April 15th is Tax Day, although this year it fell on a Sunday. In the odd way meaning gathers around certain dates in our lives, now Tax Day has a new and strange meaning for me, and I expect it will come around every year and remind me of my mother. If I had to choose a day to remember her it wouldn’t be Tax Day. But that is far from the only absurd thing about my mother’s passing. In fact, looked at in a broader context, Tax Day is almost fitting.
That’s because death feels arbitrary. It doesn’t make rational sense. When you experience a death that is very close to you and have your world upturned by it, you realize this much more deeply than before. When I was in college, I signed up for a course called Metaphysics, not knowing that Metaphysics in college philosophy departments means studying the logic behind the science of physics. I was expecting something a little more spiritual I guess. Anyhow, the most memorable thing I read in Metaphysics class was an observation by the British philosopher David Hume. In a game of billiards, he wrote, one ball strikes another and the second ball goes flying in a direction predetermined by the first ball. We may see this happen a hundred times or a thousand, and yet we cannot perceive the transfer of force from one ball to another. We merely know from experience that a certain cause produces a certain effect. Hume said there is really nothing about the phenomenon that should lead us to believe it will always happen this way, except that it always does. We can’t capture or understand the link between cause and effect. We merely experience it.
So too the sun rising. It rises every day because it rises every day. We don’t often stop to consider that this is just a temporary phenomenon exhibited by an ephemeral star in the midst of its lifespan. If the sun didn’t come up one day our world would be thrown into turmoil, and yet one day it won’t. In the daily cycles of our own lives, we grow used to seeing the same people every day or being able to call them up on the phone whenever we want to. The existence of the people in our lives is like a fact of nature, like the sun rising — always true and consistent, seldom thought about. Then one day one of them is gone. A loss like this is not abstract. Thousands of people may die in a distant hurricane and it will not strike you as deeply as the loss of one person to whom you are close. Such a loss affects our very sense of how the world is supposed to work. It’s as though you walked outside one day and the sky was green and the grass was blue. I can only speak from a few months’ experience, but I do wonder if they ever fully return to their previous hues.
I have always found myself in a quandary when it comes to matters faith and belief. My parents, looking for a place to get married, found the Temple in 1970, and my mother’s lifelong and devoted membership from before I was born until the day she died has been one of the constants in my life. It led to my forming my own bond with the Temple that has been steadfast and unquestioned in my mind. I rely on my sense of belonging to the Temple community and my devotion to its values. My mother always said, when in doubt, remember the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. No matter what might be the ultimate secrets to life and death, this rule is hard to deny, and my love for the people here and the way they practice that rule is one of the foundation stones of my life.
But if you ask me whether I believe in certain specific tenets of this or any other faith, I am likely to respond that I don’t even really “believe” in electrons or Alpha Centauri. I accept that reasonable people and deep thinkers have convictions about these things, and I respect the feelings of the devout. I’ve often thought that if I could merely turn off my skeptical reflex long enough I might be able to accept more of what I cannot directly experience. The specificity of belief is what has always caught me up short. A general notion of a beneficent creative force driving the universe seems reasonable enough, but as soon as I get into the specifics of doctrine I cannot help but think, why this way and not another? I say this not because I think I have it all figured out and those who believe are wrong. On the contrary, I think I would rather have faith if I could.
In place of faith I have often turned to poetry. So here’s a poem by Emily Dickinson.
I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of Eye—
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—
Of Visitors—the fairest—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—
“I dwell in Possibility,” Dickinson writes, “a fairer House than Prose.” Here “prose” relates to the word “prosaic” meaning commonplace, unromantic, lacking in beauty. But of course prose is more literally the opposite of poetry: writing that focuses on stating the facts. Dickinson does not say that the open possibility of poetry is better in every way than the hard facts of prose, only that possibility is fairer, more beautiful, and that she herself has chosen it over prose, or else it has chosen her. Possibility is more beautiful than fact because it has more windows and more doors, and as many rooms as there are trees in the forest, so many you can’t ever see them all. Its roof is the sky. And your occupation when you dwell in possibility is to spread wide your narrow hands and “gather Paradise.” This thought resonates with me, the thought that the openness of possibility is more powerful and broad than the closed circle of certainty. If there is comfort in not knowing what you believe, it is the comfort of always being open to possibility. I tend to find that openness in art and poetry and in other people, even in belief systems that may not seem as though they reconcile with each other. Somewhere above the contradictory specifics in life is a harmonious resolution of opposites beyond our understanding. That’s not a statement of faith so much as an embrace of possibility, an opening of one’s hands to gather up Paradise in its endless variety of manifestations.
And then I think of my mother and my mother’s faith. She was smart and as skeptical as anyone when it came to political and cultural life. One of the things I miss most is being able to talk with her about any subject under the sun and feel we were having a real exchange of ideas unburdened by the limitations of already made-up minds. I learned so much from her about how two people can help each other to grow by accepting that the other person always has something to teach you. In that sense she was certainly a person who dwelt in possibility. She never once told me that I had to believe what she believed or even that I should. On the other hand, she had a deep and certain faith, and her faith was a central part of who she was. Her faith stood strong against every test, and helped her immensely when she faced the greatest of tests in her final years. I find myself wondering if there is a way for me to understand faith through her.
In many other ways, my mother has become a part of my inner life since her passing. I went to visit her in the cemetery yesterday and as I was getting out of the car I thought to myself, “Mom, I don’t know how to write this talk. I’ve had this title in my head, ‘My Mother’s Faith,’ for weeks now but I don’t know how to say what I want to say.” Almost before those words formed in my mind I knew what she would tell me: “Just write.” In fact I have some idea how she would answer just about any question I can think to ask her. As I was visiting her yesterday I thought that as good as our conversations always were when she was here, there was the veil of language separating us as it separates all people. I say what I think I mean and you hear what you think I said. The slippage between those meanings is often the cause of great misunderstanding. What I say I learned from her was how to overcome that gap between two people somewhat. It requires patience and the ability to really listen, and it requires an understanding of what language can and can’t do. But now when I feel I’m communicating with her or my memory of her or whatever it is, there is no need for mediation. It’s a direct line. She’s right there in my head or my heart or that inner place without a name. We don’t have to go through the struggle of trying to put thoughts into words. The words are just there.
But it isn’t as though I can ask her how she came to her faith. The sense of her that I carry with me doesn’t answer questions like that. If I do ask, the kind of answer I get is both indirect and very direct indeed. Her voice in my head says: Write. Make music. Do something nice for someone. Read a book. Cook dinner. Be with your children. Get outside and take a walk, don’t stay cooped up in front of the computer all the time. And that’s it. That’s all I get. I know for a fact she would have given me a long, convoluted answer when she was alive. She liked to talk and would have had a lot to say. But somehow in my head it all boils down to this. Don’t think about me, think about you. And focus on what matters.
Focus on what matters and be open to possibility. After all, the things I hear her telling me to do are all about making a real connection to the world and to one’s inner self, through art, interaction with people, getting close to nature. Those are the activities that mattered to her the most and all of them ask one to look at life with an open heart and an open mind.
I frankly often feel that far too much of my time is taken up with things that don’t matter much at all. I suppose many of us feel this way. In order to make a living we give up our precious time and gradually whatever we do to make a living takes over and becomes who we are, or a great part of it. Here’s William Wordsworth to say it better than I can.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
It should be said that despite the line about the “Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” Wordsworth had a lot of affection for ancient Greece. He’s saying he would rather be a person of faith than a person who spends all his time “getting and spending” and worrying what time it is. How unfortunate that some of us feel we are faced with the choice to be one way or the other. And yet I wonder if there is a clue in the way the speaker in the poem talks about faith. He would rather be a Pagan, he says, and be able to see Proteus rising from the sea or hear Triton blowing his horn. In other words, the kind of faith he wants is the kind that comes with concrete evidence. He does not seem conscious of this paradox. Has his focus on “getting and spending” trained his psyche to see things only in material terms? Is that the key to his predicament? He cannot throw off the weight of the world unless he finds a replacement he can weigh on the same scale. But if you weigh the immaterial on the scale of the material, you’re bound to say it lacks substance. It’s like saying to someone who only speaks English that I’ll happily accept your position if you say it to me in Chinese.
I’ll let my mother have the last word. This is from her Temple talk entitled “Forgiveness.”
If we begin to look at the collective actions of humanity in the [light of] comparing ordinary acceptable behavior to Natural Law, even as we are able to understand it, we may soon begin to feel overwhelmed by the realization of the enormity of our sins, personally and collectively. It may seem as though we must be living on borrowed time — as though the executioner’s axe of divine retribution must very soon fall on us all. Yet it is at this very point of realization of the dimensions of our crime against nature that the most hope lies. For here we may begin to understand the power of forgiveness to transform. Anyone who can admit to themselves that they have ever broken one of God’s Laws has the power to practice forgiveness.
We can begin by forgiving ourselves. Let us remember that if “to err is human,” and we are human, we are prone to error. Our progress along the Path to enlightenment is marked by the errors we commit, and the lessons they help us learn. Breaking God’s Law and paying the price meted out by the Lords of Karma is the only way we evolve on our way to self-conscious reunion with God. But let us remember also that “to forgive is divine.” A human being is much more than a poor collection of lower impulses to self-gratification. Each member of the human race is a spiritual being as well, and it is the transmutation of the lower self into the perfected Higher Self that is the process we call evolution.
The only thing that limits any human being from participating in the higher life of the spirit is the inability of his or her consciousness to perceive the reality of the spiritual realms. Once the student of occultism, the earnest seeker of enlightenment and truth, accepts the idea that the most cherished ideals of human development and behavior are in fact beacon lights held high by each spiritual soul to light the journey out of the selfish darkness into the eternal incandescence off selfless Unity with all Life, he or she can begin to practice the virtues represented by those ideals, gradually making them their own.
We can learn to recognize and accept responsibility for our own sins, for all the breaking of God’s Law we have ever committed, and, hand in hand with our own Higher Selves — our own aspiration toward perfection — we can forgive our erring lower selves. In so doing, like Jesus with the blind man, we blot out, dissolve, the blind errors of our former ways, and begin anew, armed with the knowledge of self-examination and experience, to apply these ideals to our own daily lives. The sins we have truly forgiven and duly forgotten, need never be repeated, because we have made an alliance of our own consciousness with our Guardian Angels, our spiritual selves, and have raised the vibration of our own beings closer to the ideals we hold so dear. If it takes the near despair of realizing the enormity of our sins, all the more reason for gratitude for the pain they have caused, since that helps each of us create ourselves anew, though pressuring us to seek surcease, and showing us the way to forgiveness.