Sunday, January 29, 2012

"Manna for the Temple": Of Prayers and Saints

Last night after Mass I showed Father J. a "Lady of All Nations" prayer card I had sent to me from an online group. The prayer is based on a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a woman in Amsterdam. It reads,
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, send now your Spirit over the earth. Let the Holy Spirit live in the hearts of all Nations, that they may be preserved from degeneration, disaster, and war. May the Lady of All Nations, the Blessed Virgin Mary, be our Advocate! Amen."

There was a book sale after Mass, and I purchased a Rosary for my daughter. As I was talking to Father J. about teaching it to her, and showing him the prayer card, he explained that the purpose of any devotions is to bring us closer to Christ, so they should be Christological in nature. This particular prayer, for me, ties into the theme of living a holy life and how that relates to caring for our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, and by extension, caring for Mother Earth. The ways in which we take care of ourselves, our environment, and our children, and how we relate to God and other peoples of the world socially, politically, and economically are completely intertwined. Our inner lives manifest outwardly and vice versa.

So for this "Manna for the Temple" series, let me focus now on prayer. One big difference between the Catholic and Protestant approach to prayer is that Protestants pray, while Catholics say prayers. That isn't to say that Catholics only recite memorized prayers. But the only memorized prayer I ever learned as a Protestant was the "Our Father", which of course Catholics also use. What I am finding is that we are sometimes limited in how to pray and what to pray for, so a memorized prayer helps me to focus myself on God without distraction. This includes the Rosary and those repetitious, memorized prayers. There are also prayers to the saints, of which Mary is the highest.

Why pray to a saint? Because the saints are the "great cloud of witnesses" spoken of in the Bible who are praying for us! In The Secrets of Mary, author Janice T. Connell explains that Mary "asks us to rely upon God at all times. She reminds us that God sends His angels and saints to comfort and guide us while we dwell in our bodies on earth. If we speak fewer words and listen with our hearts, we can become aware of God's heavenly Kingdom all around us." The purpose of devotions to Mary and the saints is to lead us to a closer relationship with Jesus. Through learning of the lives of the saints and how God worked in their lives, we receive various glimpses of God's grace as delivered through those individuals, and so a particular saint's story may resonate with us and help to magnify God's love for us.

St. Monica, who was the mother of St. Augustine, is the patron saint of married women and mothers. By her  prayers, faith, and holy example, and through appearances of the Virgin Mary to her, Monica lead her wayward husband and son to God. Once a womanizing drunk who lead a life of sinful pleasure, Augustine became a holy man of God and is one of the most prolific Christian writers of all time. Here is the Prayer to Saint Monica:  "Exemplary Mother of great Saint Augustine, you perseveringly pursued your wayward son not with wild threats but with prayerful cries to heaven. Intercede for all mothers in our day so that they may learn to draw their children to God. Teach them how to remain close to their children, even prodigal sons and daughters who have sadly gone astray. Amen."

Protestant Christians for the most part have no problem with listening to Christian music in order to draw closer to God, but they usually balk at visual images, statues, candles, incense, holy water, rosaries, etc... Why should this be? One does not worship these things, any more than one worships music. If I light a candle in front of a plaque of Jesus and Mary and say the prayer on the back of a holy card, I add tangible elements of the spiritual realm to my day. If I am struggling with inspiration to do my housework, it helps to burn incense and play some devotional music. When a Catholic enters the church sanctuary, dipping one's fingers into holy water and making the sign of the cross reminds a person that he or she is entering the presence of the Lord. The Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ shared by the congregation, is the center of Catholic worship ever single week, rather than a church service centered on the sermon of the minister, with Communion taken only a few times a year. The physical and the eternal are not separate. Never have I attended a church as Christ-centered as the Catholic Church, and perhaps this connection between things you can see and touch and the invisible realm of the holy is the reason.

As a homeschooling mother, St. Monica and the Virgin Mary give me excellent examples to follow. I will leave you with the "Parents Prayer" found on the back of a holy card picturing Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus. May you have a blessed day!


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Belly Dance and Religion: A Conversion Story

Many loose ends have come together for me since last May, which in Catholic tradition is Mary's month, but I didn't know that at the time. Since then I have undergone two conversions, one in the world of belly dance, and the other in the realm of religion. Only today have I realized the connection, and that is what I wish to share in this article.

Every year in May I attend the Island of Isis Dance Retreat in Loveland, Ohio, near Cincinnati, organized by my beautiful sisters in the dance, Conchi and Nataj. The town is historic and picturesque, and the Grailville Center where the event is held is holy ground. Last May our teacher was Hadia of Canada, who in addition to possessing over 30 years of belly dance experience is also a master of Flamenco and Turkish Rom (Gypsy) and is a massage and manual therapist. Up till this point in my dance career, I had mostly focused on an American concoction of belly dance know as Tribal, a "fusion" of Middle Eastern, Gypsy, Spanish flamenco, and North African dance styles. I put the word "fusion" in quotes, because as I learned from Hadia, that is not an accurate term in the way it is often applied to Tribal belly dance. To be a true fusion form, the dancer must be a master in all the forms being fused. This was not the case with the origins of American Tribal Style belly dance in the San Francisco Bay area, and it is generally not the case today.

I had begun belly dancing in a style that my teacher described as "Egyptian Cabaret." However, through the phenomenal instruction I have received over the years at Island of Isis, I have come to understand that much of what I learned was actually Lebanese, so for years I was confused. Also, at the particular studio where I began my training, I learned to dance through choreography and as part of a troupe. There were many gaps in my learning of the most basic steps, and I did not learn to dance on my own. The very nature of Middle Eastern dance is that this art form is traditionally performed as a solo dance, albeit often in a social setting. I was, quite frankly, impoverished in the area of solo technique. And once I had discovered it, I clung to my Tribal style, which is a group improvisational dance.

That is, until Hadia. Over the weekend of the retreat, I was slowly persuaded to authentic Egyptian dance. I struggled back and forth in my mind regarding the authenticity of Tribal belly dance. I had to admit that while it is inspired by those cultures mentioned above, and it contains a movement vocabulary and aesthetic qualities akin to those forms, it is ultimately its own thing. Tribal is Tribal, as Egyptian dancers had repeatedly tried to explain to me.

The moment of my conversion happened Friday evening, after Hadia's explanation of "Body Logistics," in which she taught us how to dance safely from the perspective of her in depth knowledge of anatomy. We learned to get out of the "squatting" position that most of us are taught from day one of belly dance classes, and she broke us out of "arm prison." This completely natural orientation of posture and movement is truly Egyptian. Both sides of the Cabaret vs. Tribal debate had missed the point. It's not about costuming or dancing flat-footed vs. dancing on the ball of the foot. My friends, it's about the Baladi. It all comes back to the Baladi. If you don't believe me, read Hossam Ramzy's and Hadia's online articles.

It was Friday after the class, alone in my room, when I had my moment of epiphany. I was listening to a Golden Era of Egyptian Belly Dance CD that I had just purchased, and all I can tell you is that the music seeped into the pores of my skin and transformed me at the cellular level. I got it. I finally understood. And I'm sorry, but I can't explain it to you. It was nothing less than a religious experience. I knew I had found the real thing. I listened to that music with my entire being every chance I got that weekend, and for most of my 4 hour drive home.

Back home, I became obsessed with watching Golden Era dancers on youtube--Naima Akef, Samia Gamal, Taheya Carioka, Fifi Abdo, Soheir Zaki, and the list goes on. Full orchestral, classical Egyptian music. Raqs Sharki dance based on the Baladi, which is the urban dance brought to Egyptian cities from the rural areas during the Industrial Revolution. This is the dance of the people, the Mother of Belly Dance. I shocked my students with my sudden change of direction. Luckily, I had not taught them Tribal exclusively. We had focused on that style, and I had taught them solid technique, but I had always incorporated what I knew as Cabaret into my choreographies and instruction in solo technique. In fact, after learning the Baladi Taksim from Bahaia at Island of Isis in 2010, I passed that training on to my students. Combined with what I learned from Hadia, and in light of my conversion experience, the Baladi Taksim is where I began a new direction with my students last May, and we went deeply into it. We are about ready to order sparkly, heavily beaded bras and belts--the standard Cabaret costume--so the transformation is almost complete!

So what I am professing to you here is that the Baladi is the real deal. The Baladi is home base. If you want to call yourself a belly dancer, in my opinion you must endeavor, at some point on your path, to understand the Baladi. In some mystical way that I can't quite explain, my belly dance conversion prepared the way for my recent conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. I have been watching youtube interviews with people who have made this conversion, particularly those who were once Protestant church ministers. I have heard more than once from these men that their former church gave them a good foundation in Christianity, that there was much good and truth in what they had learned, but that in Catholicism they found the fullness of the faith, the missing pieces. That is true to my own experience as well. It is a feeling of coming home.

In a similar way, I think of Tribal belly dance as the foundation I have given to many of my students. Learning that style filled some of the gaps and corrected the awkward posturing and imbalance that I experienced in my first "Egyptian Cabaret" classes. Tribal belly dance contains its own, unique beauty, and many people are drawn to its sense of community. But for me, for the time being at least, the Egyptian Baladi is like coming home. It is most closely connected to the ancient source of this deeply feminine, empowering, spiritual dance, which has been preserved by the people from generation to generation. Thank you, dearest Hadia, and all of my lovely teachers, for this most amazing gift!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Body, Temple of the Spirit

"Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." (Acts 2:1-4)

"Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's." (1 Cor. 6:19,20)

Last night as I was meditating on my Rosary on the mystery of the Coming of the Holy Spirit, I pondered the meaning of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. And it occurred to me that there is nothing of environmental concern and responsibility that is not directly related to the human body. The connection between the care of our earth, which God explicitly entrusted to Adam and Eve and their descendants, and the care of our bodies is permanently linked and unbreakable. I would go so far as to say that this bond is a holy covenant between God and man. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit after his ascension to heaven so that we shall be witnesses to him, to the end of the earth. Our power to be witnesses is given to us by the Holy Spirit dwelling within (Acts 1:8). How can the Spirit fulfill this mission in a dirty temple? What movies and television programs you watch, what books and magazines you read, and what music you listen to does matter. But it doesn't stop there.

Our bodies do not belong to us; they belong to God. Everything we do or neglect to do in regard to farming practices and what we eat, the chemicals we use, our personal care and cleaning products, the cars we drive, the efficiency of our household appliances--literally anything you can imagine--directly relates to the use of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. This goes beyond sexual behaviors or impure thoughts that defile this temple. We are to glorify God in our bodies. It does matter to God what food you put in your mouth, what deodorant and toothpaste you use, what is in your laundry detergent, whether or not you smoke cigarettes or drink too much alcohol, whether or not your corn is genetically modified, your choices to recycle and compost, or not, whether you breastfeed your baby or use cloth diapers. God does care whether or not you are physically fit. Spirituality and a holy life simply cannot be separated, in any way, shape, or form, from the care of your body, which cannot be separated from the care of Mother Earth. Period. Exclamation point! No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

So what I would like to do in honor of my self-declared Year of Mother Earth is to provide my readers with ideas for better ways of holy, sustainable living, which will help me keep my focus on doing the same. I will call this series, "Manna for the Temple." Stay tuned for product recommendations, organic growing methods, cosmetic and food ingredient warnings, and anything that the Holy Spirit inspires to keep us connected--body, mind, soul, and planet.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Day

I really feel, in an intuitive, soulful way, that 2012 will be a pivotal year. Not just for me, but for the direction of humanity and all of creation. We are teetering on the edge of spiritual transformation, and I imagine it is going to be a very bumpy ride. I don't think we've seen anything yet! To prepare, we need to shore up spiritual strength and emotional energy, as well as care for our bodies, and by extension, for all sentient beings. Let's declare this the Year of Mother Earth!

"We are all walking a path of initiation, and we all have a choice. We can either keep going on a treadmill of failing our tests--perhaps getting irritated or angry at the circumstances of life--or we can determine to pass these tests and move on with our spiritual development. We can get off the treadmill and begin hiking up a mountain." - Elizabeth Clare Prophet

I think what Prophet is saying here is that it's time to wake up, grow up, and step up. She speaks of the things we need to let go of, those conditions in our psychological being that prevent us from being whole. She suggests that we need to "raise the Mother flame" and "walk the path in beauty." How do we restore the soul back to balance and wholeness? What is needed is a radical reorientation. Recently when something someone said set me off, making me angry, frustrated, and hurt, destroying my serenity, I did not blame the other person, but wondered what, exactly, happened inside of me. Rather than kick myself for getting thrown out of balance, I centered myself with meditative breathing, read an inspiring article in Yoga Journal magazine, talked to my husband, and lit a candle on my fireplace alter, gazing at images of Mary and Jesus.

There is every connection between war, poverty, misogyny, ecological devastation, natural disasters, divorce, rape, child abuse, and all manner of violence and sorrow. The sacred feminine has been rejected and subverted for thousands of years, but consciousness has been rising and people are growing in Wisdom, understanding that for mass change to occur, each must "let it begin with me." We all have so much more than we need. Too many cars, clothes, toys, too much food that doesn't nourish us, many superficial relationships and too few sustaining ones. "Oh the noise, noise, noise, noise, noise!!" (the Grinch).

Clean the house, clear the clutter. I am talking literally and metaphorically. Really think about what you eat, what you say, what you think, what you do. In Kundalini yoga terms, we need to raise the light of the Divine Mother from the base of the spine to connect with the light of the Father in the crown. Prophet says, "When these two unite in the heart chakra, we give birth to the Christ consciousness."

The problem I see is that some of the major world religions are functioning without that Divine Mother, with no image of the sacred feminine. For me, this is Mary, mother of Jesus and all children of God. Neither women nor men--and subsequently our children--will be whole until we restore our reverence for the sacred feminine, honoring the Wisdom and Beauty of women, and beholding God in the Earth herself. She is in the wind, the trees, the moon, and the pull of the tides. "Behold your Mother." --the words of Jesus from the cross.