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  • David Carlson

781: when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; its message becomes meaningless.

Day 781: Friday, May 6, 2022

when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; its message becomes meaningless.


Compassion is the heartbeat of any spiritual heritage, as well as for each of us and for our culture. I fear this is something we often forget.

In Asia the legend of the Bodhisattva Kwan Yin was a constant reminder of the obligation of compassion. Kwan Yin was known as “she who hears the cries of the world." She was beloved by Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, and just ordinary people trying to live life as best they could. Kwan Yin had a special interest in protecting women, children, the sick, the disabled, the poor and disadvantaged, anyone in trouble.

Legend has it that there were so many people crying to Kwan Yin for help that the Buddha somehow arranged for her to have several heads. Well, that was nice, but that just meant that she heard more cries for help! So, then the Buddha arranged for her to have 1000 arms.

Recently I saw pictures of a huge number of women marching to demand the health care of all people in our country, not just the privileged or insured. The protestors were waving their arms, and I couldn't help but think, there were the thousand arms of Kwan Yin! We live in the richest country in the world and yet many people who have made this country what it is, end up dying, unable to receive adequate healthcare.

I feel that finding the voice for compassion has been a little slower over on our side of the planet. We just went through Holy Week. Do you remember hearing many feminine voices? I didn’t. Four guys wrote the Gospels in a culture where the voice of a woman didn't count for much. Yet we know that there were many women who followed Jesus around the countryside.

They were growing spiritually, and at the same time they were taking care of the practical matters that made his journey possible.

Then came that fateful day when Jesus was murdered by the Romans. Where were all the men? Hiding, afraid that they would be next. But women were with Jesus as he died. At the cross, there were many Marys —Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany, Mary the mother of James, etc.

On the following Sunday, some of the Marys went to make sure Jesus was buried with dignity and discovered that the tomb was empty! So, they went to where the men were hiding to tell them. The masculine response was generally that the women were deranged. But a couple of men did go to check it out for themselves.

Jump ahead a few decades and the men are still arguing about doctrine, dogma, creeds, orthodoxy.

But a lot of people wanted something else. They wanted to feel again that compassion that came when they or their forebears were walking with Jesus.

And so gradually the people made Mary, the mother of Jesus, a source of compassion in the Western world. This was troubling to some theologians in the Reformation who felt Mary was being worshiped as God. But nonetheless calling upon Mary flourished. Why? Because of a problem that still exists with us today.

As the great Jewish spiritual teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote in an unpublished manuscript,

When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.

In my original faith heritage, one of the first things a child learned was that Mary was our mother as well as the mother of Jesus. And you went to her with your hurts. Children of Buddhist parents probably learn the same thing about Kwan Yin.

For some of us, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Kwan Yin have sometimes fused into one universal source of compassion. Are they real? Or are they deeper than real? Are they metaphors for something that cannot be trapped in a box of words?

Many years ago, some kind and friendly Cistercian (Trappist) monks had a beautiful olive wood statue of Mary modeled after the famous one in the ancient Swiss Abbey of Einsiedeln. When our friends decided they wanted a darker and larger statue for their Church, they gave us the olive wood one for our little Chapel. We love it.

In our Chapel you will also notice that down at the base of the statue of Mary is a little statue of Kwan Yin. When it comes to compassion, size doesn't matter!

Buddhists have a meditative practice about increasing the awareness of the need for compassion. They call it Tonglen. It is simple.

When you breathe in, you become mindful of the pain of another person and when you breathe out, you offer what Judeo-Christians would call “a blessing” — whatever will benefit people in need. Here at Starcross we often use the Quaker expression of “Holding in the Light.”

That might not sound like anything very helpful, but it increases our awareness. As we practice this simple little meditation, we extend that awareness out to all on this planet who are in the same situation as the particular people we have in mind. With that increased mindfulness, we often find that there are practical ways of being one of the hands of Mary and/or Kwan Yin. In fact, from time to time, we can merge with them.

Anyway, try it. It can't hurt. Breathe in trying to find that quiet place in the center of your soul. Think of a particular person who needs help, who needs compassion. As you breathe out, let that feeling of compassion extend to the whole world.

We live in a troubling time in this country. We live in a world where many people have good hearts, and yet when it comes to compassion things get pretty thin. For one thing, we are angry about COVID and in various ways we take that hostility out on each other. We need to change. Okay, Mary and Kwan Yin — we could use a little help here!

Brother Toby

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