Sunday, June 01, 2014

Thoughts on the Feast of the Ascension

Today is the Feast of the Ascension, the central event of which is traditionally understood as the ascending of Jesus into heaven, forty days after his resurrection. The New Testament account of this event conveys something of a paradox: Jesus leaves his friends and yet promises to be with them always, even until the end of time. How do we make sense of this?

I've come to understand the Ascension as being more about presence than absence. For me, this story serves to remind us that although Jesus' physical body is no longer with us, the transforming spirit that he embodied didn't disappear at some point in history into the sky but rather continues to dwell mysteriously within and between us. God's spirit has been and always will be with us, and Jesus' life and message calls us to emulate him and manifest this spirit, the Christos, through our actions of body, speech and mind.

Such embodiment requires intentionality and mindfulness; it deepens and expands us as conscious beings. Perhaps due to Christianity's patriarchal roots, this process has primarily been expressed using the hierarchy-focused symbols and metaphors of elevation and ascension. The problem with such symbols and metaphors is that they can give the impression that Christ, God's living presence of compassion and justice, is distant from us when in reality it dwells deep within each one of us, at the level of our "essential Self." As one Sufi saying puts it: "God is closer to me than my jugular vein."

Our task is to remember this and strive, individually and communally, to embody the living presence of the sacred. This takes work. But it is work that is essential if we are to experience the abundant life that Jesus invites us to participate in.

I was reminded of all of this when I recently read a section of Kabir Edmund Helminski's Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self. I conclude this post by sharing an excerpt from this particular section of Helminski's book.

What is most characteristically human is not guaranteed to us by our species or by our culture but given only in potential. A spiritual master once expressed it this way: A person must work in order to become human.

What is most distinctly human in us is something more than the role we play in society and more than the conditioning, whether good or bad, of our culture. It is our essential Self, which is our point of contact with infinite Spirit. This Spirit is not to be understood as a metaphorical assertion or belief, but as something we can experience for ourselves.

You, as a human being, are the end product of a process in which Spirit has evolved better and better reflectors of Itself. If the human being is the most evolved carrier of the Creative Spirit – possessing conscious love, will, and creativity – then our humanity is the degree to which this physical/spiritual vehicle, and particularly our nervous system, can reflect or manifest Spirit. That which is most sacred in us, that which is deeper than our individual personality, is our connection to this Spirit, Cosmic Life, Creative Power, or whatever name we may use.

Whereas conventional religious belief has the tendency to anthropomorphize God/Spirit, this process consists in the "Godization," one might say, of the human being. Our human nature is realized through the understanding and awareness that the essential human Self is a reflection of Spirit. To become truly human is to attain a tangible awareness of Spirit, to realize oneself as a reflection of Spirit, of God.

The Work I describe is a process of awakening, a transcending awareness, a presence that can initiate and sustain the activation of our latent human faculties. . . . The West offers few traditional models for this kind of intentional human development. Neither in our universities nor in our churches has this work gone on in a systematic way. These institutions have yielded little beyond the development of intellectuality and conventional religious behavior. . . . A culture that ignores this work of awakening our latent humanity will be starved of the food of the soul.

. . . Life is not just this bioenergetic vitality, but a spiritual vitality that is eternal, and we are that. This lifespan that we know on earth is said to be one chapter in the story of Life. This Eternal Life reflects through us.

A seed has no energy of its own, but it can come alive in the right environment. Every form of life has a capacity for response but none so much as the human being. In an infertile environment this capacity for response may be dormant. The cultivation we need to provide is through conscious awareness. This makes the difference between nominally being alive and being alive abundantly. With awareness we can develop all our faculties. The body, mind, spirit, and ecology form an interconnected whole. When a harmonious relationship exists among all of these, we have abundant life.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Joined at the Heart: Robert Thompson on Christianity and Sufism
The Ascension
In the Garden of Spirituality – Kabir Helminski
The Sufi Way
A Return to the Spirit
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All

Image 1: Nancy Paris Pruden.
Image 2: Artist unknown.

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