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Project Conversion


Have Our Holy Places Become Obsolete?

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Is there a place you go where it feels like the entire cosmos channels through your body? Where the hair on the back of your neck stands just as your feet touch down on its surface? I had not one, but two such places during my journey last year.

And now they’re gone.

The River Temple

This is the River Temple. For those who have been with me for a while, you know that this was “ground zero” for much of the crazy and ecstasy of last year. I had visions here. Nature and mystery came to life on this white, sandy peninsula of a river known for its polluted and deadly waters. It’s also where, in September, I got so creeped out that I ran out of the swamp and refused to return until the next year.

The Warehouse Temple

Here is the Warehouse Temple. It was an abandoned warehouse only walking distance from my home. This dilapidated structure became my surrogate temple once I abandoned the River Temple, however after standing for decades, a demolition crew began tearing it down in October of last year. It was here that I experienced the gravitas of the divine feminine through the Goddess when she asked if I thought I could lock her up at the River Temple. I blamed her for the destruction of the Warehouse Temple, but eventually made my peace with her.

What do these places have in common? First of all, they became sacred spaces for me during my journey through Project Conversion. I felt led and magnetically connected to them even during my conflict with them. Second, both were taken from me and utterly destroyed.

When I returned to the River Temple for my final confrontation with the universe on January 3rd of this year, I expected to sit on the white sands and officially accept my calling. Instead, the Temple was completely flooded and inaccessible. I was devastated, but eventually reached a moment of satori when I realized that the Temple never had the answers…I had carried them all along.

I left the river that cold January day and never returned…until three days ago.

I wanted to visit my old friend and companion–maybe even cross the tree bridge (a massive fallen oak that allowed me to cross the river) and sit in meditation for old time’s sake. Here is an image of the River Temple and the tree bridge in the summer of 2011:

The River Temple and tree bridge.

And here is how I found River Temple three days ago:

The River Temple remains completely flooded, and now, even the tree bridge has been ripped in half by rains, wind, and rot. I literally fell to my knees. And if that wasn’t enough, I discovered this on my way back home:

The Warehouse Temple, wiped out of existence.

My temples, my holy places, both reduced to ruins in one day.

I sat on the remaining half of the tree bridge with my feet dangling over the slow, black water and just…existed. All those times before, all the previous visits had had a purpose. Meditate, prayer, explore, escape from a noise of a householder’s life…every time my motive for being there was preloaded.

But now, I was purposeless.

And suddenly, everything came to life.

I’ve visited the river and its surrounding swamp countless times and have seen all manner of life, but had never run across a snake. All that changed three days ago. I saw not one snake, but five, all of which slithered out from the same spot near the River Temple and slithered across the water within a 10 minute stretch.

 

Snakes carry a great deal of symbolism in the world of religion. In the book of Genesis, it is a serpent which deceived Adam and Eve. Jesus asks his followers to be “wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.” Lord Vishnu of the Hindu god of preservation is said to lay at rest on a massive serpent named Shesha after the dissolution of the world. The god Thor is predicted to battle the Midgard Serpent which rises out of the ocean to destroy the earth. In the legend of Lord Buddha’s awakening, the snake king Mucalinda rose from the earth and covered the Buddha as a hooded cobra from a great storm.

But I could only consider these things for a moment, because as the swamp blossomed with life around me, I realized just how foolish I’d become.

The River Temple, the Warehouse Temple, my constant musings and application of religious knowledge and symbolism to every event around me was an illusion–a facade. I had been wooed by the appearance of a thing. Then, as I came to depend on these structures and events, their transitory nature revealed itself with destruction and random occurrence.

And the river, the life consuming, struggling, and being consumed around me didn’t care. I was just another integral yet insignificant and transient piece of the world. My imaginings made me no better than the snakes in the water beneath my feet, or the ants gnawing into the rotting tree I sat on. My temples were ruins, and they only meant something because I infused them with meaning, with holiness.

As I sat there without motive or purpose, I realized in a flash of insight just how meaningless our temples, our churches, our sacred spaces really are. That is, until we enter them. The world–our existence–is inherently empty until we fill it with something. It’s why we call scribbles on a page, paint on a canvas, or images on a screen “art.”  Our holy places are this way, but what happens when they crumble or are overrun with Nature’s indifference?

But it goes much, much farther for me. If our churches and temples are simply walls subject to the transitory nature of dissolution, then they only bear holiness because we provide it. And yet some say–indeed many–that our bodies too are temples. Like my River Temple, our bodies break down, overtaken by time. But we don’t want to look at our bodies as obsolete temples, do we?

Here’s another dangerous thought. Are our believes and constructs of the divine also subject to this transitory decay and renewal? Are our religions simply structures–holy spaces of our minds?

I’ve never asked you to think as I do, I’m only here to share my journey, yet this experience–these constant reminders that nothing is ever as we make it out to be–are breaking me down more and more. If our holy places–including our bodies–are obsolete, then what does that mean for the idea of the soul or of purpose and reason? Is there any such thing as meaning or are we simply participating in the reflection of purpose we’ve cast upon the world? It appears that the world around us is a perfect mirror for such interpretive play, but I wonder what might happen if one day we turned away from that mirror and saw the world as it simply is…

When I took a step toward the edge of the tree bridge, the flesh of the tree crumbled beneath my feet.

What does it mean?

Perhaps everything.

…Or nothing at all.



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abowen

posted May 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm


B,

Yes sir.



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Editor B

posted May 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm


It’s my feeling that meaning is not inherent in the world. Meaning is something humans actively create. So, yes, I guess we are “participating in the reflection of purpose we’ve cast upon the world.” You also wrote: “The world – our existence – is inherently empty until we fill it with something.” I agree wholeheartedly. Likewise, sacredness or holiness is not inherent, but something we experience.

And finally, I don’t believe body-mind dualism is a correct model of reality. We are our bodies. And like our temples they do crumble. Everything is transitory. Cherish each moment as it passes.



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abowen

posted May 7, 2012 at 7:44 pm


Sam,

Yes, indeed.

Andrew



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abowen

posted May 7, 2012 at 7:43 pm


Ellen,

That is a beautiful story. Amazing how the natural world always has something to teach us. I often imagine that the river and the Temple itself is a reflection of my own transformation. Your account here reminded me of that, so thank you.

Andrew



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abowen

posted May 7, 2012 at 7:40 pm


Julie,

Thank you for that, Julie. The fluidity of the divine–even if only our highest ideal–is something worth remembering.



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abowen

posted May 7, 2012 at 7:38 pm


Iris,

Beautiful and thank you. Snakes indeed may become a new motif and symbol–just as the bird was–for me to explore. Thank you for pointing out its qualities.

Andrew



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abowen

posted May 7, 2012 at 7:36 pm


Dan,

Agreed, however I would say that to see the world “simply as it is” is in fact seeing it without separation. That was the glory of my time there, that the river (and even the bridge to the Temple) moves with or without me. I need to be okay with that (and now am), and we need to be okay with the organic nature of both our sacred places and our sacred ideas.



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Dan Jensen

posted May 7, 2012 at 5:57 pm


Another splendid reflection from the riverside.

I don’t believe that the world can be seen “simply as it is.” I don’t think we can be separated from it. We do not interpret it or act upon it; we *are* it. What is sacred to you is sacred. We can only wonder whether it will be tomorrow.

Your temple is not lost. It is reborn of its own ashes, and that is always the case. A river is an iconic temple of life as change. The more it changes, the better it serves as a temple of life. As the old man said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” This is the way it is, and the way it ought to be. Whatever lives must change.



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LilWabbit

posted May 7, 2012 at 5:06 pm


Hi Andrew,

Good to read your reflections after a hiatus. Been very busy myself too. I was recently at the Library of Congress in D.C. where it reads on one of the walls: “Nature is the art of God”. As true as this may be, I believe imaginary symbolism can also be inserted into natural events and sceneries by our own fancy and wishful thinking. Particularly if we’ve switched on a mystical or monastic “mental mode” of sorts while treking or withdrawn into nature. I sometimes find myself thinking I’m being terribly spiritual while I’m actually just over-reading into ordinary events with a vivid imagination. But there’s a recognizable (though sometimes subtle) difference between a spiritual experience and mental conceptions. In a nature setting, the former is more of an aesthetic experience that faithfully presents itself everytime at the same spot or similar sceneries. The latter is a mental, and intellectual construction. If we see the difference between the two, then I believe we are able to throw away our imaginings and identify genuine spiritual allegory in nature.

But more often than not, it’s just a black pond and rotting trees. Just as it is dangerous to read into singular verses in holy books, it is dangerous to read into singular events in the book of nature.

“Blessed is the spot, and the house,
and the place, and the city,
and the heart, and the mountain,
and the refuge, and the cave,
and the valley, and the land,
and the sea, and the island,
and the meadow where mention
of God hath been made,
and His praise glorified.”

- Bahá’u’lláh

Kind regards,

Sam



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Ellen

posted May 7, 2012 at 4:56 pm


There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.- Wendell Berry

This is one of my favorite quotes. We have a creek – well really two – that run along our property. They merge and flow on to the river, less than a quarter of a mile from our house. There is a weeping willow tree at the corner where they meet.

A couple of years ago, in the spring, we had some fierce storms. There had been a great deal of rain, and the winds pushed the willow out of her soil. Were it not for my husbands shed/workshop we would have lost her. The willow forked, and the heavier and stronger side was splintered off and lying against the shed. He took a saw, and completed the division. The most amazing thing happened.

The tree sprang back, and the root ball settled back into the waiting earth. He then took the amputated limb and planted it along the creek near another corner of our property. Roots took hold, and now we have two willows on the creek.

I believe that we learn best from life when we understand the contrast of the fragility and transitory aspects along side the ability of all living things to adjust and accommodate.

Our little creek has minnows and frogs and turtles and crawdads and snakes. We have squirrels here, all manner of birds and butterflies, and cats. We grow melons and grapes and vegetables and flowers. There is no aspect of this little ecosystem that is independent, they all nourish and devour, thrive and perish. For me, that is what life is. The difference, the fulfillment for humans is the ability to adapt, learn, exalt and contemplate in the midst of what was, is and will be without our input or neglect.

I have duplicated this message on my blog, and there is a picture of the tree there as well.



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Julie Holm

posted May 7, 2012 at 4:20 pm


Andrew, yes, I’ve lost a lot of sacred places, partly by the change of time, but mostly for me by moving away from them. And I am moving again, and the sacred always finds a way to get to me wherever I am, actually. Sometimes my places are ones I can only get to very seldom, like the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York, which I visited several times for retreats, or the labyrinth in Toronto that I can visit only on business trips to that city.

I think , among other things, that it helps remind us that the Divine is fluid, and comes to us in many different forms. Like your year reminds us of this. It’s really important to us to remember and be appropriately humbled by that, especially folks like us who are in traditions that have a strong missionary component. There are many thin places, and many ways to God. We should not think our place, or our way, is the one and only. Because it is a good place for us, does not mean it is a good place or way for someone else.



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Iris

posted May 7, 2012 at 4:18 pm


Hi Andrew;

The loss of the temples is sad but perhaps not bad. The part that struck me was the discovery of snakes in the former River Temple.

Snake medicine, for some beliefs is transmutation, change and immortality. Many times the changes are brought about by fear, seeing as you were ‘creeped out’ at the River Temple it may have been the catalyst for snake medicine to come into your life.

I think your revelation shows how you have changed, that anyplace can be a temple, anyone can be the receptacle of Divine power and the acceptance of the wheel apparent.

Although we have never met, I love you, brother and look forward to seeing the next stage in your journey. You have filled me with hope and courage to look outside myself and my own faith and add a dash of something new but true.

Blessed Be,
Iris



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