The Mysteries

jesus_6th_c_mosaic

A 6th-century mosaic of Jesus

When asked which is the “greatest” of God’s commandments, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”Matthew 22:37-39

Who Is Jesus?

Sister Alma Rose prays to Jesus. I have heard her. “O Jesus, have mercy!” she’ll say when there’s a calamity. But if you ask her if she’s Jewish, she says yes, she is, which is also what she answers when asked if she is a Buddhist, which I know because I was with her at Polly Ellen’s when she quoted from the Gospel of Buddha

Painting of the Buddha at the Deer Park (photo by Kay Ess)

Painting of the Buddha at the Deer Park (photo by Kay Ess)

The deva said,

What is the greatest gain?

What is the greatest loss?

Which armour is invulnerable?

What is the best weapon?

The Blessed One replied,

The greatest gain is to give to others;

the greatest loss is to greedily receive without gratitude;

an invulnerable armor is patience;

the best weapon is wisdom.

…and Polly Ellen said, “Sister Alma Rose, are you a Buddhist?” and Sister Alma Rose said she was.

“But I thought you were a Christian,” Polly Ellen said.

“I am,” said Sister Alma Rose serenely.

Polly Ellen turned to me and said, “Fanny, do you know Jesus?”

I never know quite what to say when people ask me if I “know Jesus” or if I have “been saved.” The short answer is Yes, but I don’t think we’re having the same conversation.  I mean, I don’t think my “yes” means what the other person thinks it means.

I was sure that Polly Ellen and I weren’t having the same conversation when she asked me to give my “testimony.”

“Why don’t you go first,” I suggested, and could have bit my tongue off. Sister Alma Rose just smiled and settled a little farther back in her chair.

Polly Ellen’s testimony

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Don’t worry if there are things you don’t understand about Jesus. I have been learning about who Jesus is all my life, and I still don’t understand. It is one of the mysteries, and that’s okay. Mysteries are exciting. Someday, all the mysteries will be explained. I don’t mind waiting.

Polly Ellen

Polly Ellen

When I was a little girl, I didn’t like Jesus very much. In fact, I was quite afraid of him. Most of what I knew about Jesus I learned in Sunday school. I went to Sunday school every week because I was a very serious little girl and I wanted very seriously to be good.

Even after my family stopped going to church, I kept going to Sunday school to learn how to be good. I asked my brother why we had stopped going to church as a family, and he said it was because Mom and Dad thought the minister at our church was a big poophead. This is not a word I think you should use. I’m just telling you what my brother said.

The Sermon on the Mount, painted by Carl Heinrich Bloch (d.1890)

The Sermon on the Mount, painted by Carl Heinrich Bloch (d.1890)

At Sunday school, the teachers would have us memorize a little piece of the Bible, and it usually was about something Jesus wanted us to do that wasn’t fun. “Give all your stuff to the poor and follow me.” “Love your enemies.” “Do good to those who hate you.” These verses were from the part of the Bible called the Gospel, which means “good news.” But I couldn’t figure out what was so good about it.

The Sunday school teachers said that Jesus didn’t want me to be selfish and that I should care more for other people, ALL the other people in the world, than I cared about myself. This was hard for me to understand, because I knew these Sunday school teachers, and they all lived in big fancy houses and had expensive cars, and also, they wouldn’t let black people come to our church.

Cupola painting depicting Heaven and Hell, Il Duomo (begun in 1296), Florence, Italy

Cupola painting depicting Heaven and Hell, Il Duomo (begun in 1296), Florence, Italy

But still, I grew up feeling more or less guilty most of the time because I was selfish. The only good thing about it was that I was always nice to everybody, even geeks and nerds and people who smelled bad, and so I got to be Homecoming Queen because geeks and nerds vote too.

A starving Biafran child in the late 1960s

A starving Biafran child in the late 1960s

By the time I was a grownup, I was sure that I was a horrible person and that God couldn’t possibly love me enough to want me with him in heaven. Sometimes I would start to feel happy, but then I would catch myself and remember that I wasn’t supposed to be happy, not as long as there was a single person in the world who was poor or sick or suffering in any way.

Now I am almost always happy. And I will tell you why.

Many years ago, I met a very wise woman named Margaret, who read Jesus’ words to me out of the Bible. She read from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verse 39: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus at the Marriage at Cana, fresco by Giotto (Giotta de Bondone), early 1300s
Jesus at the Marriage at Cana, fresco by Giotto (Giotto di Bondone), early 1300s

“Jesus doesn’t want you to love your neighbor instead of yourself,” Margaret said. “He wants you to love yourself too. If you let him, he will fill you full of love — enough for yourself and the whole rest of the world.”

Then she read to me from Matthew, chapter 6, where Jesus says, “Do not worry.”

“Pray, and give your worries to God,” Margaret said.

And so I think that the Good News, which Jesus taught, is that you don’t have to be perfect. In fact, any time you want to, you can give your mistakes and your fears and your worries to God, and God will put love in the place where your fears and worries used to be, and God will guide you in the way that you should go, because God loves you and wants you to be happy. That’s why God made you in the first place.

* * *

By the time Polly Ellen finished her testimony, tears were rolling down my face — tears of pity, thinking of Polly Ellen making herself so unhappy all those years because she thought she needed to carry the weight of the world… tears of joy, because the Polly Ellen I have always known is like a merry sprite, shining and humming and dancing through life.

When Polly Ellen walked with us out onto her porch to say goodbye, I gave her a big hug. “I am so grateful for you, Polly Ellen,” I said, and she held me tight and a little bit extra long, and when Sister Alma Rose and I were walking up the hill toward home, Sister Alma Rose handed me her clean, ancient floral hankie, which had been very neatly mended in several places, and I wondered if Sister Alma Rose is the only person in the world who still mends raggedy old hankies and darns her socks.

* * *

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War and Peace

Sister Alma Rose Q & A

Dear Sister Alma Rose — How do y’all feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? —Signed, Gnawing Her Nails in Nashville

Dear Nashville — Oh, Sister Alma Rose is nuts about them wars. She, herself, can think of nothing she’d rather do than crawl around on rocks, in 130-degree heat, being shot at or looking for somebody to shoot at. She often considers, oh, my, what a thrill it must be, driving a vehicle from here to there and wondering whether somewhere between there and here might be a roadside bomb just primed to blow Sister Alma Rose to smithereens, with pieces of Sister Alma Rose propelled sky-high and floating back to earth in, say, Lapland.

Sister Alma Rose is not troubled by death, because she believes that everyone who dies is reborn as a innocent child. (See “Sister Alma Rose: Beyond the Grave.” ) What saddens Sister Alma Rose is the certain knowledge that every Big War is a clashing-and-clanging manifestation of the Little Conflicts within each and every one of us. We are all like small children afraid of the monster under the bed, and we look for some Power to protect us from that monster, when, the fact is, the monster and the Power are inside of us the whole time. And the Power is very great, and the monster is all bark and no bite. But we don’t know that.

No, Honey, we don’t know that, so we try to destroy the monster under the bed, and every time we do away with a monster, three more pops up in its place, and they have the faces of our husband or wife or child or brother-in-law or people who don’t look like us, and even people who do but who live a few blocks away and that makes them the enemy.

So, it seems, we are always looking for people for us to be more powerful than them, and when we find those people we blast them to bits and then we wonder why we don’t feel any safer.

Even Sister Alma Rose can’t stop all the fighting, but she can find peace within herself, which is One Big Step; and she can pray, and there’s Big Power there; and she can do the metta (lovingkindness) meditation, which is as follows:

Metta (Lovingkindness) Meditation *

May be done individually or in a group

Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, closing y’all’s eyes. Sit with your back straight but not rigid. Take a few deep breaths, relaxing a little more with each exhalation. Feel your energy settle into y’alls body and into the moment.

This practice involves what might be considered a mantra. It includes a series of phrases that begin with y’all and extend to include, ultimately, all beings.

Classical phrases include…

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live in safety.
May I live with ease.

  1. Y’all can gently repeat these phrases over and over again. Allow your mind to rest in the phrases. Y’all’s attention will wander. The mind is always thinking. Acknowledge your thoughts but don’t follow them; let them drift by. When y’all become lost in thought, don’t become frustrated. Whenever y’all realize that your attention has wandered and you’ve lost touch with the moment, simply, gently let go and begin again: May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live in safety. May I live with ease.
  2. Call to mind someone who fills y’all with warmth and makes your heart bloom open — a child, a dear friend, even a pet. Visualize that person (or pet), summon a feeling for his or her presence, and then direct the phrases of lovingkindness to him or her: May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live in safety. May you live with ease.
  3. Repeat the mantra while thinking of someone y’all know who’s having a difficult time right now. Say the phrases to that person, as if he or she were sitting beside y’all: May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live in safety. May you live with ease.
  4. Repeat the practice with a stranger, someone for whom y’all have no particular feeling one way or another: a woman who walks her dog in your neighborhood, someone you’ve just “seen around” at church or at the grocery store: May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live in safety. May you live with ease.
  5. Now repeat the practice with someone y’all dislike or have trouble getting along with — a relative, a boss or colleague — or a public or historical figure: May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live in safety. May you live with ease.
  6. When we connect into these phrases, aiming the heart in this way, we’re opening ourselves to the possibility of including rather than excluding, of connecting rather than overlooking, of caring rather than being indifferent… of recognizing that the soul-candle that burns within one burns within all. And ultimately, we open in this way to all beings everywhere, without distinction, without separation.
    May all beings everywhere be happy, be healthy, live in safety, live with ease… all people, all animals, all creatures, all those in existence, near and far, known to us and unknown to us… all beings on the earth, in the air, in the water… those being born, those dying… those who have entered other planes of existence. Y’all can feel the energy of this aspiration extending infinitely in front of you, to either side, behind y’all, above and below, as the heart extends in a boundless way, excluding no one.
  7. And when y’all feel ready, open your eyes and carry this energy with y’all throughout the day.

* Adapted from Beliefnet, accessed 3/15/08, and the meditation practices of Sharon Salzberg, a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society; and Susan Piver, author of How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life

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