Our Place in Creation

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Be Gentle with Yourself

Illuminata — A Return to Prayer, by Marianne Williamson

Illuminata — A Return to Prayer, by Marianne Williamson

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. —Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles

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Dear Sister Alma Rose ~ Some time in my 50s I figured out that we spend the first half of life discovering that we’re not the center of the universe (“Don’t show off,” “Share your toys,” “Be a team player”) and the second half discovering that we ARE. Being a woman, I don’t know if this is QUITE as true for men, but I suspect it’s close.

A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson

A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson

In any case, for some of us this realization comes at the time when we’re no longer responsible for running the family… and it IS, of course, by the way, important for kids, during the “first half” of life, to learn to be attuned to other people’s needs, to make compromises without throwing themselves away or kicking the dog.

These days, all the New Age wisdom, which I study, along with lots of other wisdom, is about “being gentle with yourself” and “not beating yourself up” (I love Susan Piver on this in How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy), and, necessarily, figuring out what you WANT, when your WANTS have been on the back burner, by choice or necessity.

Doing what you WANT is one of the compensations of middle age (unless you’re in an icky marriage or have grown children who are parasites) — THEN the first challenge is to realize that you have choices. I think the sudden freedom is too scary for many people; they like their lives to be structured around other people’s needs and wants… or, at least, that kind of life feels familiar and safe, and they don’t aspire to joy, self-discovery, a pair of wings….

We are conditioned to suppress our gifts… until we see them as GIFTS… and find ways to use them that give us great joy. When that happens, we are benefiting “humanity” in the way that is MEANT, speaking metaphysically; we have found “our place in Creation.”

How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver

How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver

Don’t you agree, Sister Alma Rose? Signed, Free in Fredericksburg

Dear Free—What y’all say is true and wise. But Sister Alma Rose believes that children can be raised to be independent and self-aware. So often, children are admonished to be “unselfish,” but as Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche has said in his marvelous book The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, “Everybody wants to be happy.”  We just can’t help it. The difficulty is figuring out what balance of “selfish” and “selfless” acts and compromises will bring us the greatest satisfaction.

Every choice we make, regardless of our age, is the choice we believe will bring us closest to happiness. Sometimes we’re wrong. Children figure out pretty fast that if they hog all the toys, yes, they have all the toys, but nobody else will want to play with them.Rinpoche_The_Joy_of_Living

Take care of y’all’s self

Sister Alma Rose might not use the phrase “center of the universe,” as y’all did, but she understands what y’all mean. Lovely Cheryl Richardson has written a book called The Art of Extreme Self-Care: Transform Your Life One Month at a Time. Sister Alma Rose has not read this book, but she is inspired merely by the title (just as the brilliant book title Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff hardly makes it necessary to read the book).

Sister Alma Rose supposes — although, as mentioned, she has not read the book — that Cheryl Richardson advises her readers to refrain from guilt and worry, and to be aware of those times when y’all’s stress levels threaten to push y’all over the edge. Sister Alma Rose also supposes that taking a nice, long, relaxing bath with bath salts that smell like a summer flower garden, or, sometimes, cucumbers, is not the only antidote to dangerous stress that Cheryl Richardson recommends, if at all.

Sister Alma Rose believes it’s a damn shame that folks have to be reminded to stop doing the things that make them sick.

The Art of Extreme Self-Care, by Cheryl Richardson

The Art of Extreme Self-Care, by Cheryl Richardson

Find y’all’s balance

Sister Alma Rose has found, in her exceedingly long life, and this is just one of many (of Sister Alma Rose’s lives, that is), that y’all must always endeavor to have a life in balance, in which there is time for y’all to do what y’all love, even if y’all have nineteen children and a herd of pet llamas. And even children should learn to meditate, in order to find their true and genuine selves, which will unfailingly lead them to their dharma, their unique and particular path of joy and righteousness.

May God bless you, and when God shows y’all that path with neon signs and balloons and arrows and horns and whistles, as God is wont to do, may y’all be paying attention and not picking y’all’s nose or watching Gilligan’s Island reruns.

llama

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The_Rules_frontcover

To the Soul

Journal of a Departed Friend, Part 1

journal

An antique journal (Renaissance?)

Sister Alma Rose recently received part of a journal from the year 1985 that was bequeathed to her by an old friend. Here is an excerpt:

natdingbat2

Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain
or freed a human soul.
—Mark Twain

Blackeyed Susan growing wild along a country road

Blackeyed Susan growing wild along a country road

Where is it, then, this human soul 
(if, indeed, there is such a place,
a spring of pure motives and selfless love,
a sanctuary of rest from struggle and anxiety)?

“I can’t explain myself,
I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice,
“because I’m not myself, you see.”

 

I control what I wear and what I eat,
when I rake leaves and how I set my
house in order. The soul is a place of uncontrol (I believe) where yet is not chaos but cosmic arrangement. It is
a place of selflessness from which
emanates the genuine Self, and it is
THIS Self that I fear and that I
hide from, behind activity and blind
allegiances and alcohol and
organization and television… that I
bury and cover with the borrowed
skins of the souls of others,
calling them Identity.

Rainbow (photo source unknown)

Rainbow (photo source unknown)

But this Soul, this Self, will not be
denied; it draws one irresistibly. 
I have found demons and have
unmasked them, and at each turn I
wonder if there are more-fearsome
demons and angrier fiends. I have
seen the sun disarm them and the
rain dissolve them, and I believe a little
less in the strength of demons and
more in the power of the sun and the rain.

Glasswing butterfly

Glasswing butterfly

It doesn’t do any good to run away,
after all. It is like the man whose
suspenders are caught on the doorknob: The faster he runs, the suddener his return. “No matter where you go,” it is truly said, “there you are.” 

 

 

 

O, Power, embolden my encounter with the soul.

natdingbat

The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

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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Nirvana

Krisha with the goddess Radha (18th-century painting)

Krisha with the goddess Radha (18th-century painting)

Sister Alma Rose’s Prescription for a Sore Throat

Sister Alma Rose is advancing my “meditation education.” Yesterday, I had a sore throat, and she had me lie still in her wonderful pink attic bedroom and listen to readings by Dr. Deepak Chopra from the Bhagavad-Gita [Sacred Verses, Healing Sounds, Volumes I and II: The Bhagavad Gita, Hymns of the Rig Veda (Chopra, Deepak)].

Sister Alma Rose said I would find these readings to be “very healing.” What I found them to be was “very confusing.” They were all about a conversation between Krishna, who, I think, represents God, and a guy named Arjuna, who is about to go into a battle, and among his enemies are his cousins, people he cares about. Krishna tells him that the souls of the people who die on the battlefield will live on — I think he means that they will be reincarnated or else they will go into the Supreme Realm.

Arjuna is not buying it, so Krishna goes on to explain about the paths of yoga, which doesn’t mean the postures and exercises that Mrs. McCallister teaches on Tuesdays and Thursdays down at the library, it means harmony, union, integration, and balance. Anyway, these paths are (1) unselfish service devoted to God, (2) action without being concerned about “fruitage,” which means you’re not supposed to be “attached to” the outcomes of your actions, (3) meditation, and (4) knowledge — which comes from “transcending the ego, or ‘false self,’ and discovering the soul, the ‘true self,’” which is called Atman, which sounds like a superhero, and in a way I guess it is.

Krishna with Arjun

Krishna with Arjuna

Okay, so first of all I have to tell you, my sore throat went away, and I don’t know if it had anything to do with the Bhagavad-Gita or not. But then, since my throat didn’t hurt any more, I pestered Sister Alma Rose with a bunch of questions, which mainly amounted to, What’s In It for Me? I thought I was supposed to love myself, not lose myself. Sister Alma Rose has told me before that I can’t truly love others unless I first love myself.

The joy of unity and the pain of separation

So here’s what Sister Alma Rose said yesterday, in summary, and I’m still trying to sort it out, but I think it makes sense:

Arjuna and his fourth wife, Subhadra

Arjuna and his fourth wife, Subhadra

My ego, or false self, is limited by what I and other people believe about it, whereas the true self, the soul, experiences unlimited potential. The soul can’t help but share itself, because it’s where love resides in us mortals — it has a direct connection to God — and we become spontaneously loving when we experience our true selves. Love, and “action” that springs from love, is its own reward.

She reminded me of experiences I have had with the joy of unity and the pain of separation. Once I sang with a large regional chorus in a performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Creation oratorio, and it was such a beautiful thing that I got lost in it and totally forgot about whether I messed up the notes, which I knew I wouldn’t anyway because we had practiced it a thousand-million times. I felt, at the same time, completely and personally joyful and completely one with the chorus and orchestra and audience. That, Sister Alma Rose said, was a fleeting experience of the “perfect peace” of Nirvana — where everyone is totally in unity and totally their “authentic selves.” I am quoting Sister Alma Rose here, who also reminded me of how I felt when my daddy was in a bad car accident and how lost I felt when I thought he was going to die, because I loved him so much. Real love, says Sister Alma Rose, comes from the soul, and in the soul we can never be separated from another.

I thought about a woman who came to see Sister Alma Rose one summer afternoon, and in the warm breeze in the shade of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green porch, on a halcyon day that just makes you want to run and shout for the joy of being in the world, this woman was weeping because her son was a heroin addict, and she said she would gladly die if it would mean her son could have been spared the torment he was going through. I got a little glimpse of “selflessness” then, and I thought of all the promises I had made to God about how good I would be, even mucking out the barn and other stuff I hate, if my daddy could get well after his accident, though I don’t think that actually dying was on the list of sacrifices I was willing to make.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Sister Alma Rose said that our false selves take a lot of beating up before we realize how fragile and undependable they are, and that it can require many lifetimes before a person evolves to the place where she is willing to surrender her ego and embrace God, but that when you’re ready, you’re ready, and then you find indestructible happiness in harmony with the universe.

She said that people who go around “doing good” because it’s, like, a rule, don’t have their hearts in it, but that we all will evolve to where “good” is all we want to do, it flows from us like a river. And I thought about all the stuff I’m attached to, stuff that seems to be necessary to my happiness, and I said, that’s okay, I can wait. And Sister Alma Rose gave me a big suffocating hug and told me I had a beautiful aura that shines like the sun.

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