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Faith: it’s not what you think.
The contemporary American poet, Mary Oliver, says, “There is only one question: how to love this world?”
I agree with her.
Of course, there are many other questions that are interesting to entertain, such as, “Why are we here?” or “What happens to us after we die?” But the question, “How to love this world?” is a supremely useful question, one that I use as both sail and ballast on my journey across whatever uncharted waters I find myself on.
When I’m not sure what to do, it provides me with a clear intention of how to live my life, if not always an exact direction.
While this question of Oliver’s has had an impact on me since I first heard it, I’ve discovered that ever since the 2016 elections and our country’s growing divisiveness, its impact on my life has deepened.
The question allows for a vast array of possible responses while still quietly insisting on a considered response. It asks us to consider our ability to heal our world, ensuring it stays vibrantly alive for the benefit of all beings—as long as we just ask this question of ourselves more often.
So how would I answer Oliver’s question? How do I choose to love the world? I could answer it a dozen different ways, but if I had to choose just one answer, I would say, “By deepening and expressing my faith.”
Now, being raised an agnostic who went to church all of four or five times before leaving for college, my response sounds a little odd to my ears, given the complex and seemingly hopeless problems in the world. I look around me and can see that religion and belief systems have divided our world and caused a tremendous amount of suffering.
But faith and belief are two different things.
I choose to go with the original meaning of faith. In Pali, the ancient language of the Buddha, as well as in Latin and Hebrew, the word faith is a verb. It is something we do, not something we have or believe in. The Pali word for faith, saddha, means “to place the heart upon.” So “faith” means to give yourself wholeheartedly to something or someone even when the outcome is uncertain.
Hallelujah! I find it exhilarating that “faith” was originally a verb. In contrast to belief, faith is not a definition of reality, nor is it a received answer. It is a dynamic, open process. One that encourages us to participate in and be transformed by the great mystery. As Alan Watts said, “Belief clings. Faith lets go.”
Having studied and experienced a variety of faith traditions as an interfaith minister, I know that, at their core, all the great wisdom traditions embody this active meaning of faith. Beyond the credos, doctrines, and dogma, every wisdom tradition teaches a set of practices for its adherents to do to experience spirituality directly.
Following these practices, we become intimate with source, developing greater insight, compassion, and ease in the world. So that, in the end, it is our experience of letting go to the vast, boundless sky and our interconnectedness that we have faith in.
So it is in the practices of all the great wisdom traditions in which I place my faith, not the beliefs. It is in the practices. It doesn’t matter which one we do. Whether it’s chanting the names of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, or drumming to call in the animal spirit guides; performing ecstatic whirling dances or engaging in contemplative prayer; meditating on koans or singing hymns. It just matters that we pick one, place our heart upon it, and do it—faithfully.
For they all lead to the same place, to the luminous ground of our being, where we can come together and offer each other the simple yet daring contribution of our genuine presence and love.
Our world desperately needs this awareness and healing. We don’t need to be of one mind or one faith tradition, but this holiday season (and beyond) why not practice being of one heart?
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