Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A trip to the East

I've been a stress puppy, as you all know. A friend who is a devotee of Amma suggested that I take the meditation class they offer (no worship of Amma required). A class was coming up at the ashram in San Ramon, and at $15 it was a deal, so up I signed, and at an early hour Saturday morning, I was in my car zooming east into the suburbs.

The class was in the temple, and I smiled to see the decorated dais, with flowers, other decorations, and candles adorning (or near) the ceremonial pictures of Amma. My eyebrows raised a little bit when we started the class out with a puja or worship service, but I was being Ms. Mellow and maintained a respectful silence. (I do regard Amma as a holy woman.) It probably helped that a lot of the ceremonial chanting was in Sanskrit, which I don't understand; I could think how similar it was to certain parts of my own tradition. I imagine someone walking in off the street and hearing us sing/chant in pretty good unison at St. Spike's might think it was bizarre, and more so if English were not their first language (or were we doing it in Latin, which we don't as a congregation). The 108 names of Amma were chanted by a leader, with responses, which made me think of the Litany of the Saints (or even something like the names of Mary ... although that is out of my own tradition).

We burned incense (which smelled sweet, and reminded me of Evensong at my own church), and the rose petals and chocolate kisses that had been present at the worship were consecrated by it and must needs be disposed of properly - the chocolate down the hatch, the rose petals buried. Not only did that sound very, very familiar to Ms. Altar Guild here, I thought that the idea of Holy Chocolate in a modern religion quite a brilliant one. It's not my tradition, and I would be shocked to the core if someone tried it at St. Spike's, but I can respect it.

We kept our shoes off in the temple, and many of the faithful prostrated themselves before the picture of Amma.

There was a bit of a commercial (only to be understood) about the ashram's regular activities - the teacher was quite enthusiastic about "bhajans", which are Hindi hymn sings. It was described as being like black gospel singing, but in a lot of languages singing about God. Now this both amused and annoyed me; amused because "hey, if it's *Eastern* religion, it's ok" and annoyed because, well, I think a lot of white-bread Christianity has dropped the ball on things like meditation and ritual and chanting and incense and singing for a joyful noise that are legitimately part of our own freakin' tradition and got dropped in the name of "modernity" only to send seekers who respond to that sort of thing elsewhere. And I certainly think that Amma, with her constant urging of her followers towards love, service, and compassion, is a much better role model than a lot of very public Christians. (Which distresses me, not because little ol' universalist me thinks Amma and her followers are going to Hell, but because the Christians are bad enough examples that a lot of people think we're all like that.)

National crises like the one we're going through do, in my opinion, show what people are really made of, and it's really shown the ugly side of a lot of people.

I was very happy to be back at St. Spike's for Evensong; we had incense, and flowers, and candles, lots of posture changes, and lots and lots of singing and chanting. And afterwards we had food - not consecrated but a gift of God nonetheless. It was especially meaningful to be there on the anniversary of 9/11 - our celebrant and our guest organist had both Been There in lower Manhattan - and in mourning (in a lot of ways) for events more recent as well. I felt a part of the communion of saints. And, like Warren Zevon said, I enjoyed every sandwich.

It has been interesting, and indeed, enlightening to see another tradition's "take". Some times I would like to prostrate myself at St. Spike's, but that is one of the things that might Cause Comment, so I leave it for my private prayer. (I guess I could nip into the chapel, which does have the advantage of carpet.) I'm also thinking of doing my altar guild set up shoeless to see if it works as a mind-experiment in recreating sacred space as I bustle about the chancel. (I think the church is beautiful when it's empty, mind, and I really enjoy the peace. It can be quite meditative.)

The grounds of the ashram were beautiful. I really want to go to the next retreat at the Bishop's Ranch to see if they're similar. Orchards, flowers, vegetables, a pond, and all sorts of wonderful wildlife tucked in those lion-colored hills. Gorgeous.


Blogger LutheranChik said...

Holy Chocolate...that would definitely be a delightful ritual innovation...

Seriously -- you're absolutely right about Christians dropping the ball on the importance of spiritual disciplines, of creating sacred space, etc. Back in my Angry Womyn days when I was hanging out with a lot of neopagans, many of them described having been more or less bored out of Christianity...there was no ritual, no mystery, no attempt to create sacred space, in the churches of their childhood/young adulthood; so they were drawn to a spirituality that took all these things very seriously.

September 15, 2005 7:17 PM  

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