On seeking

Sky #2, date uncertain (film) © Gabriela De Golia

My best friend and soul sibling, Sarah, often brings Harry Potter up in conversation with me. Despite the transphobic nonsense JK Rowling has spat out, we still appreciate what the Harry Potter series offered us: characters who embodied the understanding that magic is real; young camaraderie; adventure; wonder; and more.

One thing Sarah talked about once was the role of the Seeker in Quidditch games. (For those who have no clue what that means: Quidditch is a sports game in the Harry Potter world played on broomsticks. The match ends when the Seeker of a team catches an incredibly fast flying golden orb called a Snitch. The huge amount of points awarded for this feat usually means the victorious Seeker’s team wins.) She pointed out the Seeker’s relationship to “doing nothing.” Most of the game the Seeker is, as the name implies, seeking. They’re avoiding other players and distractions so they can get their eye on the prize — the Snitch — and upon seeing it, begin chasing it and hopefully catch it. For much of the game, it looks like the Seeker is doing nothing. They’re just sitting on their broom looking around.

And yet, theirs is the most important task of all. If they capture the Snitch, they bring their team to victory.

When Sarah pointed this out to me, I sighed with relief. What a beautiful, fairy-tale-esque description of how I understand the spiritual process to be. Maybe, even more broadly, life’s entire process.

Capitalism demands that we constantly produce. That we show the fruits of our labor so we can be deemed worthy of belonging. That we make “discoveries” so we can then make claims over certain places, things, even people. That we always be “doing something” because time is money and money is King. Being patient, doing nothing, resting, meandering, getting lost, and seeking without a clear sense of what we’ll find or when we’ll find it are not virtues in a capitalist paradigm. They’re considered wasteful, stupid, and pointless.

Yet in Quidditch, if the Seeker busies themself with trying to do anything other than observe their surroundings patiently, they’ll never locate the Snitch and definitely lose the game. The less they do outside the bounds of waiting and observing, the more likely they’ll strike gold.

The Seeker’s process mirrors many spiritual processes to me. The more I slow down, lighten my load, and observe patiently, the more I take in, feel, and see. In other words, the more I act like the Seeker, the closer I feel to Source/Mystery/God. And the closer I feel to God, the more alive I feel, because I am more aligned with my life’s yearning for me.

What if we considered our own lives as though we were in the role of the Seeker, even just a little more? What if we spent far more time patiently observing ourselves and our surroundings so that, when we do act, we are more sure-footed in our movements? How can we create systems that allow for more rest and patience and meandering and considering, rather than penalize us for it? (I’d like to see universal healthcare, basic income, and unlimited vacation from employers, to name just a few things — all of this would allow us to live lives of ease and abundance, rather than scarcity and urgency, so we could regularly “be” rather than always “do.”)

I pray for a world in which our wins reflect how discerning we were with our actions, rather than how much we tried to cram in a day. I pray for a world where patience and slow, intentional observation are valued. I pray for a world in which our seeking is always revered.

May our seeking and the questions that come with it always be seen as precious. May the answers they unveil to us be healing to our beings.

On levity

Levity, 2021 (digital) © Gabriela De Golia

A few weeks ago I was walking through the woods near my house with the specific intention to receive divinatory messages from nature. What came up was a visitation from a butterfly that landed right in front of me on my walking path. It nestled itself onto the ground and opened up its beautiful wings for me to marvel at.

Almost right upon seeing this creature, I heard a voice within me say, “Levity is sacred.”

Levity isn’t something I often think of as a personal quality of mine. I’m able to have fun, yes. But I often tell myself it’s best to “think deeply,” to take everything I’m doing seriously, to consider the weight inherent with being alive in these times. An intensely intellectual upbringing mixed with navigating traumatic experiences made me a bit of a stranger to levity for many years.

I also consider myself a mystic. Many people will define that differently than I do, but for me, it means I can have direct and embodied experiences of the divine. I don’t need middlemen to mediate my connection with Source / God / Mystery. It was mystical poetry that most helped me fall in love with God because it was through those words that I first encountered depictions of the divine as playful, joyful, even ecstatic. I resonate with a God like that, I think in part because I want to better embody those qualities in myself. While I think God experiences the full spectrum of emotions humans have been gifted, for so long I had only ever seen portrayals of God as imposing, demanding, and stern. Mystical poetry was a balm for my disillusioned spirit.

Mystics across traditions have been known to levitate. I often found it funny to think of mystics as floating through their towns and abodes while living their lives in flight, but I didn’t think much of it until I met that butterfly in the woods. The legends made a lot more sense to me thanks to that encounter.

What if mystics, who embody unmediated connection with the divine, didn’t so much levitate à-la-flying-through-the-air, but rather levitated in the sense that their spirits were floating with a sense of levity? What if a key to touching God is to loosen our grip, let go of our seriousness just a bit, and make ourselves light enough through self-emptying that the divine can take up residence within us? What if playfulness is a doorway to encountering God’s Self? Not at the expense of grief or anger or any of the other “heavier” / “more serious” emotions we have, but as an acknowledgment that play and pleasure and levity are part of God’s Being, too? In a world that is so rife with suffering and all things “serious,” might a little levity go a long way? Like an alchemical compound that helps transform all the ingredients into something entirely new when they’re all brought together, I’ve been finding that infusing my pains with some levity helps me experience my pain, grief, even despair in new ways. Levity is a necessary sibling to the seriousness of our times, I’m finding.

Since that encounter with the butterfly, I’ve been stumbling upon many feathers and wings on walks. Turkey feathers, vulture feathers, an intact butterfly wing, a dragonfly wing, … I thank all these messengers for the repeated reminders that levity can help me take flight through a lightening of my soul, serving as a portal to God and a balm for my wounds.

On bees, fear, and healing

Honey Bee, 2021 (paper collage) © Gabriela De Golia

I used to be terrified of bees. Even harmless bumblebees would send me running in fear.

At some point in early childhood, I was told I was deathly allergic to bee and wasp stings, even though I’d never been stung. Then one day I was walking on a beach in Tahiti and stepped on a wasp and got stung. I went into a complete panic, thinking I was about to die because it would’ve taken at least an hour to get medical attention. A teacher I was on the trip with came running up to me after hearing my panic and said, “if you were allergic you’d already be showing signs of that, but you’re not — I think you’re going to be ok.” Indeed, I ended up being ok, and I admittedly felt embarrassed by how paranoid I must have appeared. I’ve been stung more times since then and have been ok every time. I’m not allergic to bees or wasps, it turns out. Yet my fear of them was planted deep in my psyche.

Bees are just one thing I learned to fear. Despite living a very comfortable life, I picked up on the explicit and implicit messaging that there was always something to be afraid of in this world. A Zen Buddhist nun I used to live with once reflected, “you were taught to fear a lot, Gabriela.”

I have come to understand that those who encouraged me to fear so much were doing their best to help me survive in a world where there truly is a lot to fear. I also accept my own role in solidifying those fears in an attempt to survive in this world. But surviving is not thriving, and I eventually started to realize one doesn’t thrive on fear.

This year, I began taking classes with women who practice shamanism in a tradition that views bees as important totems. One of them is also a beekeeper, and both teachers simply adore bees. I wasn’t sure the classes would resonate with me given my fear of these beings (even though the topics didn’t require me to physically interact with bees). But I trusted my instinct and signed up for the courses.

The decision to learn from the bees (and some of their human friends) has been a truly sacred gift, one I never expected to offer myself but am so glad I did.

In seeing other people treat bees as friends and messengers, even healers and medicine-givers by virtue of their capacity to sting, I was witnessing a new way of relating to bees I’d never considered possible. Rather than view them as pests that could kill me, I started seeing bees through my teachers’ eyes. I developed a sense of awe for their resilience in an ecologically devastated world. I began to appreciate the magic of honey so much more. And I started to trust that stings might not be as worrisome as my mind always told me they were.

In seeing others live without fear when relating to bees, I have become more trusting and friendly towards these beings. In an even broader sense, I have begun to ease my hyper-vigilance towards the earth and its holy creatures. Even wasps have become less scary, and many other things I used to panic at the sight of no longer phase me as much (this includes spiders, snakes, and more).

Part of my journey towards learning to live with and heal from various traumas has been the practice of regaining a sense of enchantment, trust, and pleasure in a world that previously felt (and was at times) truly threatening to me. Not everything one perceives as threatening has to (or should) be befriended. But in the instance of bees, learning to relate more lovingly to that which I previously feared has opened up a whole new spectrum of joy for me. I can walk outside and feel excited instead of scared at the sight of a bee now. While the impulse to run appears sometimes, it is much less potent than it used to be. And I can trust, in an integrated and embodied way (not just in an intellectual manner), that even if I get stung by a bee or a wasp I’ll be ok, just as I have been ok before.

The bees are inviting me to trust them more, and in doing so, they are inviting me to trust myself more. I feel my entire nervous system, body-mind, and spirit recalibrating themselves in magical and healing ways thanks to these invitations.

Many thanks to Ariella Daly of Honey Bee Wild, Gabriela Gutierrez of the Virtual Temple, and the bees for helping me shed fear-based narratives to make room for more awe and joy.

On water, ancestors, and memory

Gabriela Smiling, date unclear (film)

It’s almost the end of Cancer season, and I’ve been thinking about water a lot lately. This is also partially because of a class I’m taking with Weaving Earth, which has been focused on water for many weeks. It’s been a beautiful exploration, even when putting me face to face with the ways water has been used and abused for many centuries.

Mostly, I’ve been contemplating the intelligence of water. The ways it shapeshifts, adapts, moves, and molds itself. The ways it embodies intentions that are infused into it, like how tears shed while feeling different emotions all have distinct molecular structures when viewed under a microscope. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that water takes on the energetic imprint of what is infused in it (through sound or other means), for better and for worse. The notion that a few drops of water infused with a particular intention, emotion, or goal can alter the makeup of an entire cup, bottle, or jug of water is the foundation of making flower essences. For a long time, I thought this was nonsense, yet the more I look into water’s intelligence and learn about the magical creativity of this element, the more true it all seems.

Waters I have sung to before drinking them taste sweeter. Waters I have thanked before diving into them feel fresher. Waters I have blessed before anointing myself or another transport the anointed to a mythic time, where the here and now melt into a more spacious reality. I believe magic carries memory and that in infusing water with intentionality, the water changes not only itself but those with which it comes into contact. In the words of Octavia Butler, “all that you change, changes you….”

My thoughts about water’s intelligence have coincided with some thinking I have been doing surrounding ancestral connection. As a white person with multiple European lineages (and some Ojibwe heritage) in my family tree, I have found that learning more about who my ancestors were before they were labeled as “white” by capitalist systems has been an important part of dismantling white supremacy within me. The melting pot mentality of the United States forced many of my ancestors to hide, forget, or be embarassed by their cultural practices. I view it as part of my life’s purpose to (imperfectly) begin a process of reconnecting with some of these old ways of knowing. Not to fetishize the past, but to embody ways of knowing that reflect a healthier relationship with self, others, and the earth.

All of this is to say, I think about how the waters of my body — blood, sweat, tears, and more — might be vehicles of memory and intelligence. How they might be repositories of intelligence that can guide me on a path towards healing from the ways white supremacy, capitalism, and more have disconnected me from ancestral knowledge. What if my body and its waters could be seen as holders of knowledge that span beyond my lifetime? What if the liquids I am made of are pre-programmed with the wisdom of my ancestors? Instead of thinking I need a DNA kit to prove who my ancestors are or relying on historical records to “connect” me to them, what if I could trust that connecting to my lineages was possible through my own body and its waters (along with the dreams and intuitions that arise from them)?

I’ve been amazed at how certain things sound and feel so familiar to me, even though I’ve never heard or seen them before. An example of this is Scottish folk songs, even though I have never even set foot in Scotland, nor was I raised with any education surrounding my Scottish heritage. Yet the more I learn about water, the more I wonder if centuries of ancestors singing those tunes (or similar ones) altered the make-up of the waters in their bodies (and the bodies of their descendants as a result). Perhaps my sense of familiarity with Scottish folk songs (and Scottish Gaelic in general) is a manifestation of the waters in my being resonating with something they were intentionally encouraged to recognize over centuries of ancestral waters reverberating with those same sounds.

While a DNA kit can be helpful for those to whom it is accessible or appealing, I don’t think I need one to prove to myself that I am of Scottish or Irish or French or Spanish or Ojibwe heritage. When I hear those languages, sing those songs, and walk across those lands, the waters in me tell me so. My ancestral molecules light up at the sounds and sights.

Water is a vessel for memory, and the body is a vessel made of water. My very being is a vessel of ancestral knowing. Even when recorded histories cannot tell me who exactly my ancestors were or confirm ancient truths I know to be real, I can still feel my people in my bones and know that my ancestors (and their wisdom) are within me. I can trust that my body and its waters know what they know. Water’s knowing is enough.

On divination as relational praxis

Constellation Map, 2021 (digital) © Gabriela De Golia

This summer, I am taking a class with the organization Weaving Earth that blends ecology, astrology, earth stewardship, and more. One of the facets of this course is the practice of divination with and through nature, including but not limited to bird watching.

Divination is something I’ve long thought about and practiced. As a tarot reader, I am easily identifiable as a practitioner of at least one form of divination. But divination, for me, is not what many think of it. Namely, I do not use divination practices to foretell the future. At least, not directly.

I view divinatory practices as akin to mirrors. They reflect back that which is already present, but in a new way that “reveals” new insights and opens doorways we hadn’t previously noticed were there. It’s less about finding out what’s going to happen in order to prepare yourself for an outcome we can’t control, and more about discerning what is within our sphere of influence right now. That way, we can make better choices in this moment that will help us build a better future. I believe the seeds of the future are planted in the now, so to the extent divination is about predicting (and possibly influencing) the future, one must understand divination as a method for entering into a deeper relationship with this moment. We must get to know, understand, and relate to where we are now if we are to have any chance of co-creating a worthwhile tomorrow.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately, mostly as a result of something my summer course teacher brontë velez said, has to do with divination as a relational praxis. In a recorded conversation with water protectors, brontë brought up an alternative understanding of the Biblical story of Moses miraculously parting the seas, which they’d read in Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean by Jonathan White. In short: rather than engaging in impossible magic, Moses might have succeeded in bringing his people to safety by being so attuned to the tides that he would have known when the low tides could give him and his people safe passage (and when the high tides would return and swallow his pursuers whole). “When you give your attention to the land enough, Creator will work with you for your freedom,” brontë emphasized.

I’ve been turning these points over and over in my body, mind, and spirit, letting them work their magic on me. The idea that offering greater attention to something can be a doorway towards freedom hits home for me.

(A small side-note: obviously, the capitalist systems around us constantly grab at our attention, encouraging us to be fixated on things that often run counter to a liberated existence, such as social media algorithms. I believe such forms of attention is different from becoming attuned to something we can be in an active, co-generative relationship with, such as the land we reside on, the bodies we occupy, the divine, etc. I hope it’s clear that I am talking about the latter in this piece.)

As a result of this conversation, I’ve been thinking about various forms of divinatory practices and how they might, quite simply, be forms of relationship. Relationship that guides us on a path towards freedom. Whether the divinatory tool be nature, tarot or oracle cards, our body, the stars, or anything else that fills us with awe and helps us feel more enlivened, what strikes me is that the key ingredient to any form of divination is relationship. Before touching the freedom we seek (through divination or other means), we are first and foremost in relationship. Relationship is the precursor to freedom.

When I think about my tarot practice, it is very apt to understand the way I offer divinatory readings as relational. Namely, I am in a relationship with the cards I use and with the person I’m engaging with. I am also in relationship with the moment and space we are in, the circumstances that brought the encounter to bear, and much more. Even when I already know the person well, my tarot readings last ninety minutes for a reason: it takes time for the reasons someone sought out a reading to unfurl comfortably; it takes time for me to explain my methodology and help the person feel safe in the process; it takes time for the seeker and me to court each other and settle into a resonance that feels conducive to vulnerability; and it takes time to discern what the cards are communicating. I take my time with readings because relationships are built with time.

My relationships to the cards and my own intuition have been built with time. I believe I am a talented tarot reader not because I’ve memorized card meanings, but because I have become friends with the cards (which are vessels of meaning) and with my inner landscapes (which are the ground from which I offer meaning) over long stretches of time. My cards are my friends, and I am theirs.

To practice meaningful divination is first and foremost to be in a healthy relationship with ourselves, our tools, and the present moment. Rather than view the cards (or whatever our medium of choice is) as something to merely extract information from, what if we could relate to them as companions who are capable of — and interested in — being in relationship with us? Rather than view the future as something immovable and imposing, what if we approached it like a being we could relate to through the present moment with love and care? And how can we better understand that, whenever we offer readings to another person, we are forever changing them and ourselves through the act of relating with each other? How might all of these questions and the insights they illicit make our practices more magical, pleasurable, grounded, and healing? And might such attentive relationality be, as brontë suggests, a miraculous doorway to freedom?

Lunar Tarot Reading | Dec. 2020 Full Moon

The December Full Moon Tarot Spread, which includes at its center the Ace of Pentacles, Temperance to the left, and The Emperor to the right

My Lunar Tarot Readings are meant to nourish the collective. When shuffling the deck, I ask the Tarot cards to show me what the community of readers would benefit most from hearing at this moment to help us further collective liberation. As such, this reading is meant to be read by a wide array of people with varying experiences and needs. Some elements of this offering may speak to you and others less so. May you allow whatever resonates to shape how you move through the world; whatever doesn’t resonate, I invite you to leave it be. I am always open to feedback, though, so please feel free to share your thoughts with me. Thank you for reading this offering, and may you be well.

This December full moon (also known as the Cold Moon) comes to us at 10:28 PM ET on Tuesday, December 29. It meets us right before the close of an intense year in which innumerable losses were suffered, especially in communities that were already socially disenfranchised to begin with. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, a vitriolic American election cycle, a surge in white supremacist violence, and more, 2020 witnessed the killings of countless people at the hands of violent systems that fail to protect and honor life. In the midst of so much tragedy, suffering, and death, many of us are wondering how we pick up the pieces and figure out where to go from here.

This spread includes both Minor and Major Arcana cards, which means it is calling us to look at both the bigger themes of our circumstances along with the smaller details that make them up. In particular, this spread invites us to get in touch with our relationship to the material realm, including how we cultivate abundance for the collective (Ace of Pentacles). We are being encouraged to find ways to transmute blockages to said abundance (Temperance) and create structures that encourage its continued presence (Emperor). 

At the center of the reading lies the Ace of Pentacles. Like all Aces, it signals a new beginning, a promise, and an offering, which is fitting for the upcoming new year. Given that it falls within the suit of Pentacles, it relates to all things material, including but not limited to our possessions, our finances, our career or job, nature, and our bodies and physical health. As we approach the close of 2020, this Ace tells us we are on the cusp of a new leg in our collective journey that promises newfound abundance if we approach it in the right ways. Are we going to take up its invitation, start on a new course, and help build a world in which material abundance is accessible to all and collectively shared (rather than hoarded by a select few)? Or will we continue down the same paths that have brought about such destruction to date? While the choice might be clear for many of us, to chart a new course does not mean the going will be easy. Notice how the hand holding the pentacle is leading us out of the garden towards distant mountains that promise challenging terrain. Building a new world takes work, but this Ace suggests we are up for the challenge. It’s time to shed our innocence/ignorance and walk out into the wilderness so we can collaboratively build the world anew.

But how do we go about this journey of cultivating communal abundance? What resources and skills might we bring with us? The majors surrounding the Ace offer some guidance here. Temperance, to the left of the Ace, is an alchemical card, meaning it signals a process of transformation and creation that incorporates seemingly disparate elements into an entirely new and unified whole. The angel itself, who is conventionally viewed as androgynous or gender-non-conforming, embodies this process. Rather than keep dissonant elements separate, how can they be brought together and symbiotically transformed? What parts of your self, your life, your community, your country, are at odds with each other? How can they be brought into conversation with one another to come up with unexpected ideas about how to build the abundant community hinted at in the Ace of Pentacles? What role is appropriate for you to play in this task based on your identities and levels of privilege? (Hint: those of us who are white, cisgender, straight, financially stable, and/or citizens have a greater responsibility for doing this bridge-building work because of the protections our privileges offer us.) With one foot on solid ground (which represents conscious thought) and the other in water (which represents our subconscious world), the angel reminds us that we must be in touch with our internal and external realms. To the best of our abilities, we must seek to ensure that our internal values reflect our external actions. If you claim to support Black Lives Matter, how can you behaviorally show this through your financial choices, your parenting style, your day-to-day actions, even more than you already have? As we enter into 2021, think about how you can more boldly act on your internal values and what sort of bridge-building work you’re suited to take on.

Last, but not least, we have the Emperor. Number IV (4) in the Majors, it was the card of 2020 (2+0+2+0=4), so it is only fitting that it makes an appearance here. Sometimes associated with fatherhood and masculinity, it is more suitable to understand this card as the card of structure, order, and foundation-building. When taken to unhealthy extremes, it can be stifling and/or point to the ways social structures oppress us by valuing order over care. Indeed, 2020 made clear that our current social systems are not working and showed us the extent to which American capitalism is a death-dealing enterprise. When manifested in a balanced manner, though, the Emperor can point to structures and foundations that support our flourishing. Similarly to how a body cannot stand upright without a solid skeleton around which the muscles can take shape, a community without any structure to support itself with is prone to flail and fall. Physical motion is about finding the right balance between flexibility and solidity, between muscular movement and skeletal stability; social motion towards a new reality is no different. While we work to dismantle harmful structures, we must also create new foundations and structures that can support us in sustainable ways and are built on the ideals of love (over fear), care (over profit), and interdependence (over independence). For those of us in the activist realm (and anyone else who is actively invested in creating a new social paradigm), how can we maintain a vision of what we’re building whenever we work to dismantle the systems we know must go? How can we be visionary creators who not only break systems down but also build new, beautiful, loving ones in their place simultaneously? And how can we listen more closely to the prophets of our time, those who have thoughtful ideas about where we are going and how to get there (I am thinking here of the numerous BIPOC, trans, immigrant, and other resilient change-agents in our midst)? How can we support their work and follow their leads?

In short: to create the abundance that is promised in the Ace of Pentacles, we must transmute old systems and habits (Temperance) into new, more holistic ones that offer both care and stability (Emperor). How we do this individually will depend on a number of factors, but the more we work together with others, the greater and more sustainable our impact will be.

“Let us” (a poem)

Tahitian Ocean, Tahiti, 2007 (film) © Gabriela De Golia

I’d like to offer a poem I wrote shortly after the 2016 election cycle came to a close. It’s a poem that helped me imagine ways of alchemizing suffering during a time of deep despair. It feels right to share it now when the need for individual and collective healing is even more necessary than it was back in 2016. I mostly wrote it for myself back then, but I thought it might resonate with others, too.

As a white US citizen who benefits from many privileges, I know the sense of despair I keep bumping up against these days is little compared to the despair many others are experiencing. I don’t wish to suggest I know the way forward out of this time of uncertainty and atrocities because I honestly don’t. This poem was simply meant to reignite within me (and, hopefully, others) a more hopeful vision for the world.

I trust we will find a way out of this apocalyptic time under the guidance of those most affected by the oppressive systems we currently live within. I believe another, better world is possible if we listen to the prophets of our times, namely BIPOC activists.

With that, I offer you this poem…

“Let us” by Gabriela De Golia

My dear,

Let me share with you some thoughts
About how we can heal one another.
I don’t know all the ways to do this,
But I’ve thought of some.

Let us do away with concrete
So we may feel the earth
Beneath our feet
And let her breathe easy.

Let us darken our city lights
So the stars may once again be
Revealed to us
And perform their ancient dance,
Naked and glowing.

Let us reconnect
With all the sacred spaces within us
That we have been severed from
So we may rediscover
Our forgotten sanctuaries.

Let us bow down at the altars
To our broken dreams
So we may pay homage
To the resilience
We each have shown.

Let us make symphonies
Out of our laughter
And play them in the public squares
So we may bear witness
To each other’s radiance.

Let us gather up each other’s tears
And bathe in them
Like holy water
So we may truly know
Each other’s sorrow
And gaze awestruck
At the depth of our courage.

Let us find
All of our broken pieces
And mend them back together
With glue made of gold
So we may be stronger
And more brilliant
Than we were at the beginning.

On change

 

IMG_0243
Artechouse, New York City, New York, 2019 (digital) © Gabriela De Golia

 

The following text is a sermon I preached at my church, the First Church of Middletown, Connecticut, on Sunday, July 12th, 2020, while our Senior Pastor, the Rev. Julia Burkey was away. In this piece, I share my perspective on the subversive rational Jesus employed when deciding to use parables as a method of teaching and the ways in which current movements for justice reflect this type of subversion. Among other things, I also talk about how God and moments of change are reflective of one another (rather than buying into the notion of God as an immovable constant).

(Additional context: Rev. Julia’s time with our church is ending, which is referenced at the end of the piece and inspired some of my musings. This piece was also written during a time of heightened social unrest in the United States, namely with regard to racism and police brutality, which also inspired much of the writing).

The scripture passage that inspired this sermon is the Parable of the Sower, including the parable from chapter 13 in the Gospel of Matthew and the science fiction story by Octavia Butler.

Sermon: “God is Change”

May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of all of our hearts
Be aligned with you,
Our Beloved God,
You who are our rock and our redeemer.
Amen.

Before I delve into musings about the Parable of the Sower, I’d like to contextualize it a bit within the larger Gospel of Matthew. This Gospel is the first in the New Testament, and its writer seeks to portray Jesus as a Jewish King and the Son of God who serves as a contemporary Moses figure offering a reinterpretation of Jewish Law in contrast to what spiritual authorities were espousing at that time. Jesus is working within a Jewish framework, and the use of parables which is so common in the Gospels is actually an element of Jewish tradition. In parables, Jesus uses classic imagery pulled from Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, to convey his message. Unfortunately, Jesus is portrayed in this Gospel as a largely misunderstood and rejected spiritual teacher. Rejection and misunderstanding are what largely lead him to begin using parables as a teaching and communication style.

Leading up to the Parable of the Sower in Chapter 13, the Gospel of Matthew is devoid of parables. Before Chapter 13, Jesus delivers his teachings in mostly prose-like language. While those initial teachings were received well by many, they were rejected by the spiritual authorities and many others. In the chapter right before that of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus has intense conflicts with spiritual authorities over Sabbath and other matters, leading said authorities to decide they must eventually kill Jesus. It is at this point that Jesus switches from using more prosaic language to engaging in the more poetic language of parables.

The word “parable” derives from the Greek words meaning “to throw” and “alongside” which, by extension, has been used to convey analogy, comparison, and illustration. Parables are didactic stories that illustrate instructive lessons. They use imagery that is meant to make us draw comparisons between things. In Jesus’s case, his parables are used as tools to help listeners draw comparisons between the world as it is and what the Kindom of God might look like.

People often portray parables as a more accessible manner of getting information across because they employ imagery that would be familiar to many folks, such as farming metaphors. But that’s not entirely accurate. When Jesus starts using parables in his speeches, even the disciples ask him, “why are you teaching in these unclear ways?” So clearly, even those closest to him were confused by his communication strategy, and we can only assume Jesus’s parables went over many people’s heads. I would argue that this lack of clarity was actually intentional on Jesus’s part, and the timing of when he starts using parables speaks to this, for it is only after a knockdown fight with authorities that he switches to this mode of communication.

Emily Dickenson, the famous poet, once said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” In other words, reveal the truth, but not in a straightforward manner. Indeed, throughout the Bible, for example, we witness God revealing Godself in very slanted ways: through burning bushes, smoke towers, God’s backside, and all sorts of other ways that don’t allow witnesses to see God clearly. Jesus, in using parables, is following in God’s footsteps, using “slanted” imagery to get at the teachings of God. I think there’s a psychological tactic to this.

It’s very obvious that most people most of the time don’t respond much to straightforward facts and information. If that were the case, we would have solved the climate crisis long ago, but instead, many are still debating whether or not climate change is a thing despite the obvious facts that it is. Oftentimes, what leads us to process and integrate information is not facts, but stories. Jesus’s use of parables is a tactic in bypassing the rationalizations and overly logical gateways in our minds and spirits that often prevent us from accessing deeper truths that go beyond the mere intellect. That doesn’t mean that everyone will understand or be receptive to the stories and their teachings — in fact, many won’t open themselves up to them — but such a tactic helps to lower people’s defenses and reach those who have not only a desire to intellectually understand of the Word but a willingness to be moved to their core by the Word. And parables also left those who were hostile to Jesus with less to accuse him of, because, after all, he was just “telling stories.” Jesus’s parables were thus a way of subverting oppressive power while still reaching those who would be most willing to join him in the task of building the Kindom of God, turning mere admirers into faithful followers.

So, what exactly does Jesus talk about in the Parable of the Sower? In this parable, Jesus portrays himself as a sower who is scattering seeds across various types of soil. This imagery relates to a well-known Jewish prophesy, that of Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. These seeds are the budding Kindom of God, namely the message of Christ that is seeking to take root in the hearts of people so the Kindom can spread far and wide. The four types of soil upon which the seeds are scattered are often interpreted as representing different categories of people. The first soil is conventionally seen as representing those who have no interest in furthering the Kindom or are actively hostile towards it. The second and third soils are usually depicted as representing those who show interest but then fail to truly believe and help build the Kindom. The fourth soil is regularly described as “good” and often interpreted as representing people who truly see, hear, and believe the Word, and who will help bear the fruit of the Kindom of God.

While helpful in some contexts, I usually take issue with this interpretation that categorizes individuals as belonging to one type of soil or the other. I think that makes it too easy to fall into the thinking that “only this type of person [namely, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian] is truly faithful.” This can result in us projecting our own lack of receptivity and spiritual insecurities onto others. While it’s easy to think of ourselves as the “good soil” because many of us are believe we are dedicated to the message of Christ and God, I think it’s more helpful to understand each soil as a state of being we each find ourselves in at various times. Sometimes we’re receptive to the message, and other times (like, 75% of the time, according to scripture) we’re not as open to the Word and helping to build the Kindom of God. I, for one, can attest to the fact that I am often disconnected from Christ and God due to anxieties, distractions, intellectualization, and lack of vulnerability, among other things. So a question that I have been holding within myself is how can I cultivate my inner landscape in such a way that the soil in my spirit can become more and more receptive to Christ’s message and the budding Kindom of God?

I think an understanding of land and farming can help to answer that question. When preparing the soil for sowing and planting, one must till it, meaning the land must be broken up and turned over. One also usually puts some form of manure or fertilizer on the soil before tiling to make it more amenable to growth. This means that “good” soil is actually broken, messy, and even stinky. Preparing our hearts and spirits to receive the Word is much like that, in that we have to allow ourselves to be broken, turned over, and covered in unappealing circumstances a lot of the time if we are to allow God to flow through our lives. We are instructed to allow ourselves to be moved, even broken, by change and circumstance, which can include feeling grief and other unpleasant emotions that we often try to avoid. This isn’t to say we should lend ourselves to harmful situations, but rather that we must allow ourselves to experience the unknowns, discomforts, and growth pains associated with change if we are to let God move us towards where God wants us to be. If we focus instead on remaining pristine and perfect and untouched by life’s circumstances, we’re actually closed off from God’s transformative grace. Just like sowing seeds, letting ourselves be transformed by God requires a letting go, not just letting go of the seeds, but letting go of the process and trusting in powers far beyond us (such as the rain, the sun, and God) to do their thing. Great transformations rarely happen through our own efforts alone; they usually happen because forces beyond us are also playing a role in the changes we are undergoing.

Notions of change and transformation are ones that we don’t often associate with Godself. We often think change is either entirely bad or that it is a positive result of God’s actions, but rarely do we think of change as God’s very self. We often think of God as immutable, unchanging, constant. While those portrayals can be reassuring at times, they can also contribute to us avoiding change when it’s necessary. Lately, though, I have been inspired by teachers who offer a different view of God, one that actually depicts change and transformation as inherent to the very nature of God. This idea is actually a core teaching from a modern-day rendering of the Biblical Parable of the Sower, that is, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, who was a Black female science fiction writer. Science fiction and other forms of speculative literature are often similar to Biblical parables in that they draw a comparison between our current reality and another reality that is meant to inform us as to how we can move from where we are to where we want and ought to be. I have been particularly interested in the ways Black and Indigenous thinkers are envisioning possible, beautiful futures as a way to help me envision and work towards building the Kindom of God. In listening to the dreams Black and Indigenous folks have of the future, I think we become better poised to further Christ’s work and message because Jesus always centered those who were unjustly targeted by worldly authorities. In Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the core spiritual tenant put forth by the main character is as follows:

“All that you touch,
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.”

I find this teaching particularly poignant during a moment in history such as this, when so many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are demanding that we change the way things are so we can live in a more just society (one that I would argue is reflective of the Kindom of God). I think it’s an incredibly potent time to view God as change, as thinkers like Octavia Butler might argue.

Bringing these ideas even closer to home: a question I’m holding is how can I practice trusting that our congregation’s transition with the upcoming departure of Rev. Julia is itself a manifestation of God as change. Further reflecting on the aforementioned quote from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, how can I remind myself of and affirm the ways that Rev. Julia has shaped and changed me and our entire church. Furthermore, how can I reflect on the ways First Church has shaped and changed Rev. Julia, and how all of this interdependent shaping and change might be reflective of godly relationships of mutuality and connection? Even though we are undergoing a physical separation with Rev. Julia, thinking of God as change reminds me that even this change is a chance to further deepen a connection with God by relying on God’s guidance and grace throughout the transition.

With all of the change happening in our lives, our church, and the world, I pray that we allow our souls and the soul of the church to be tilled through these changes and become prepared for sowing so the seeds of the Word can take root within us and blossom into wholesome fruit. May we remember that God moves through change, that God is change, and that by trusting in that change, we are allowing God to flow through our lives.

Thank you for listening, and peace be with you. Amen.

On apocalypses

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Mammoth Hotsprings, Yellowstone, Wyoming, 2011 (film) © Gabriela De Golia

Apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning “to reveal.” An apocalypse is an uncovering more than it is an undoing, helping us see things as they are and as they have been for a while: fractured and disconnected, centered on profit instead of community, individualistic, unsustainable, harmful, etc. The systems we have been living under are collapsing under their oppressive weight.

The COVID-19/coronavirus crisis is an era of death, not just of physical bodies but of the myths we’ve absorbed about our existence (namely, the myth that we are independent individuals as opposed to interdependent collectives). We are experiencing the death of our world as we’ve known it because the social structures and stories we’ve known can no longer hold themselves together.

Yet this time can also be a moment of birthing. We can bring a new world into being if we let ourselves process what is happening and tend to the seedlings of transformation that are seeking to take root and sprout. There isn’t only death in our midst; life is stirring under the soil, desperate to burst forth. Like compost, we can create new growth from the debris of our past.

We must help this burgeoning life to emerge by taking big and small steps towards a new world. We must nourish resilience if we are to bring a new, more sustainable, and equitable world into being. We must harness the tension that’s accumulating during this crisis to propel us forward into a new era of social, political, personal, economic, spiritual, etc. transformation. The tools for a revolution of love are here and the stage is set. Let’s do this.

In addition to basic hygiene guidelines like washing hands and self-quarantining, here are some ways you can practice helping new life emerge in this time of death and dying:

  1. Stay connected emotionally despite physical isolation. Reach out to your people in whatever ways you can through digital means, letter writing, social media, etc. Connection is crucial during crises and times of imposed isolation.
  2. Prioritize your wellbeing. Don’t give up your responsibilities to others, but make clear to yourself and your community what you can and cannot offer at this time. You are a human being with limits on your capacity. Your burnout will harm the people you care for, so be clear and real about your boundaries. Be very diligent when it comes to caring for your physical, emotional, and mental health.
  3. Permit yourself to be where you are. Whether you feel panicked or calm, how you are feeling is a reflection of the ways your body and psyche are processing this experience based on past traumas/experiences. There is no universally appropriate way to be feeling in light of all this. Grieve the losses this situation has thrust upon you and celebrate the silver linings. Give yourself wide berths as you navigate these waters.
  4. At the same time, try to make decisions from a place of love, rather than fear. If you’re feeling unsettled, engage in healthy self-soothing until you can make decisions from the perspective of, “what’s the most loving and life-giving thing I can do for myself and others right now?”
  5. Do less, not more. Our nervous systems are more sensitive than we realize, and they need lots of love right now. Our brains are overwhelmed, and we need to give ourselves space to literally clear neural pathways. What’s the least you can do right now to get by? What tasks can wait or be removed from your list of to-dos? Sleep as much as you need (though if you struggle with depression, don’t stay in bed more than you need to avoid the onset of an episode).
  6. Create some structure amidst the chaos. Our brains need at least a small amount of order to feel safe. Try making a daily schedule for yourself that’s not overtaxing but helps you stay focused on the things you really need to do.
  7. Model healthy crisis response. Children learn how to handle crises by watching how the adults around them do so. If you manage this time by moving from a place of love over fear, you will be teaching another generation how to better care for themselves and the world.
  8. If you’re healthy, offer assistance to vulnerable folks, including the elderly and immunocompromised. Create local community networks where resources and tasks can be shared (like getting groceries for your vulnerable neighbors). We must engage in physical distancing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other out responsibly.
  9. Let this moment radicalize you. To be radical means to address something “at its root.” This crisis wouldn’t be so drastic if we had universal healthcare, paid sick leave, and many other social systems that valued people’s lives over monetary profit. This situation is a political crisis as much as it is a health crisis, and we must address the root causes (namely, social policies) that created it. Donate to a political campaign that is pushing for radical social reform, even if it’s $5/month. Call your representatives demanding that evictions be banned for the duration of the pandemic, that utility companies not be allowed to shut off power/water/gas, and to prioritize the most vulnerable. If your local politicians are enacting progressive crisis response strategies, demand that those stay in place after the pandemic has passed. Organize. Vote accordingly.
  10. Cultivate joy and allow yourself to feel pleasure. Yes, there’s a crisis happening, but it won’t get any better by being depressed or angry or anxious all the time. The idea that we aren’t allowed to experience happiness while others are suffering is codependent nonsense. Make love, sing in the shower, watch your favorite movie, eat your favorite comfort food, do at least one thing a day that can boost your mood and remind you that there is beauty worth living for in this world. Moving from a place of joy will sustain you for the growing revolution.

We are witnessing an apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean everything is over. It means a new promise is revealing itself. We are on the precipice of a revolution of love that is teaching us how to live interconnectedly. It’s on us to accept its invitation to change our world into a better version of itself.

On queerness & mindfulness

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Pride Parade, San Francisco, 2010 (film) © Gabriela De Golia

This piece was originally posted on the Awaken Everyday Blog of Copper Beech Institute in celebration of Pride Month 2019.

I identify as queer. I am also a mindfulness practitioner. While these two things may seem unrelated to one another, they are inherently connected for me. Without mindfulness, I likely wouldn’t have been able to awaken to my queerness; without queerness, my mindfulness practice would not be as rich as it is.

While I sensed I was attracted to other women at a young age, I spent many years denying this deeper knowing and couldn’t bring myself to embrace it or make it known to the world until relatively recently. It was only when I became a resident at Blue Cliff Monastery, a mindfulness center in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, that I began to recognize my attraction to women as more than just fleeting thoughts or feelings. When I was invited to find stillness and come into greater connection with myself through my meditation practice, I could no longer deny the part of me that had been whispering for years, “I am queer.” I realized I yearn for meaningful, romantic, and sexual connections with women (in addition to men and people of other genders). My practice has helped me dismantle and shed the negative programming I’d adopted surrounding my attraction to multiple genders and granted me the spaciousness to fall in love with myself anew as I leaned into my queer nature. My practice gracefully then guided me into my first and current, wondrous partnership with another woman. In very real ways, I am openly and happily queer thanks to my practice of mindfulness.

In a complementary way, my awakening into queerness has led to a more profound practice of mindfulness. To practice mindfulness as a queer woman who experiences social marginalization with respect to gender and sexuality reminds me that contemplative practices are ultimately centered on achieving liberation from suffering. This includes liberation from the suffering imposed on marginalized beings by oppressive social structures such as homophobia, sexism, and patriarchy.

Lest we forget: mindfulness practices were not developed by spiritual masters thousands of years ago to feel less stressed or become more productive, even though it certainly helps with that. At their core, contemplative practices were established to awaken from false notions and touch the deeper, sacred reality of radical interconnectedness. Recognizing that oppressive social structures try to keep us from accessing this truth, we are invited to practice in such a way that our mindfulness can be a vehicle for furthering love and justice in the world by dismantling systems that deny the inherent dignity of all beings, including those in the LGBTQIA+ communities.

My practice of mindfulness is centered on learning to love myself, others, and the world in a way that is counter to the oppressive norms that currently structure our societies. Similarly, to be queer is to love and exist in a way that is counter to current social norms. In these respects, my practice of mindfulness and my queerness are cut from similar cloth; each helps me to love and to exist from a place of greater liberation.

 

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