Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Body, the Shekhinah, and Father Bill: A 2009 Retrospective

This time last year I was incredibly isolated and just beginning to fully recognize the effects of my black sludge moods on those I love. I had lived in Taos for only a few months, was working at Subway (!) and struggling to survive, was getting my arse kicked by winter, and generally not having a good time of it.

But then I decided to get proactive about my life. I visited with a couple of alternative health practitioners and got some recommendations about how to change my diet and my attitude. I began to embrace my physical being in a way I never had before. I read voraciously anything related to eating, from the health-oriented to the political.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  Harvest For Hope by Jane Goodall.  The Art of the Inner Meal:  Eating As A Spiritual Path by Don Altman.  Eat Right 4 Your Type by Peter D'Adamo.  Information about pH balance in the body, about veganism, about Ayurveda, about fasting and cleansing, about the global food crisis, the importance of eating locally produced food.

As I researched and experimented with different ways of eating, I finally found the way that's right for me, and it changed my life profoundly. I learned to listen to my body more deeply and to trust its knowing.  I began to see life as a body adventure, and was amazed to realize how much simply changing my diet changed the way I felt emotionally and spiritually.  It was humbling to realize that all my so-called spiritual methods of dealing with my mood/anger problem paled in its effects compared to just eating differently.

At the same time, I became acquainted with the Shekinah, and true to my peculiar path, she started popping up simply everywhere. The Shekinah, representative of the immanence of the divine in the physical world, was an  absolutely fitting guide as I went about learning to live in harmony with my body. My big epiphany was that mind and body are one - not in the sense of two things united, but of ONE thing manifested as different aspects. Just as the Shekhinah is an aspect of the divine and not a separate thing or person.

This exploration led me deeper into mystical Judaism, something I had already been dabbling in for years. In the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Shekhinah is associated with the tenth sephirah, Malkuth, or Kingdom. "She" is the manifestation of Spirit in the physical world.  Suddenly, in the middle of a bleak January, I found myself deeply inspired and energized.

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life

One of the first things that led me into this exploration was a showing of the art of Father William Hart McNichols, an iconographer. The first or second week I lived in Taos, there was an article about him in the Taos News because his show was about to open. He's a Catholic priest who is known worldwide for the icons he paints. The odd thing about this is that the iconography tradition is Orthodox, not Catholic. The other odd thing is that many of his icons are not of traditionally recognized saints. One is of a Buddhist woman, one is of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, another is of an Islamic mystic. There's even one of Princess Diana.  If you click on the above links, you can also read his commentary about each icon.

My magic mirror.
The two icons on the left side are by Father Bill 

Father Bill, as he is called, is a wonderful, wise, poetic man. And openly gay. In fact, there is an article in Time magazine in which he discusses this. He's celibate, as a priest vows to be, but admits that his orientation is homosexual.

I rarely visit art shows, but I was determined to see his, and I'm glad I did.

The poster announcing Father Bill's show.
I snagged it from a coffee shop (with the owner's permission.)

Standing before the original icons was so much more powerful than looking at reproductions of them, particularly because of the real gold mixed in with the paint used for the halos.  There was a sheet provided with background information on each of them. One of the icons was called, "The Name of God, Shekhinah" and was simply the Hebrew letters that spell that name. But his commentary on it was what I was really taken with and what set me off on the Shekhinah pilgrimage. He talked about seeing the Shekhinah in the mist that often rests on Taos Mountain, and in the glow of a candle. He talked about the Shekhinah being the feminine Spirit of God.  In Jewish theology, she is the Bride of God, the Sabbath Bride, and women light candles on the Sabbath eve to welcome her in.

I was and am utterly smitten with Father Bill.  (Leave it to me to develop a crush on a gay priest.) I felt a connection to him right from that first article I read, but then kind of forgot about him. Then, one morning during Advent, I just happened to turn on the radio, which I rarely do when I'm home, and he was talking to Nancy Stapp, a wonderful local radio personality.  He was discussing the meaning of Advent, and while I no longer remember exactly what he said, I remember being absolutely calmed and inspired by it, and consistently nodding and saying Yes, exactly, to the radio. And I remember he ended with an ancient Persian prayer to the sun.

A few months later during Lent, I had the same uncanny experience of turning on the radio, and lo, there he was talking to Nancy again, this time about the meaning of Lent.  And he talked about the Shekinah.

Then, in June, I moved into the neighborhood of the St. Francis church and discovered that he is the assistant Priest for that parish.

Other than Christmas Midnight Mass, I've only been to mass there once, and he just happened to be preaching that day. And what he preached about was Sophia, the feminine personification of wisdom, often associated with the Shekhinah. He also talked about the tendency of religious people to be judgmental and stingy with their acceptance and forgiveness of others, to segregate and create an us versus them mentality.  He told the congregation to go home and look up the word "catholic." Which, of course, I eagerly did. Here's what I found:
1. broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded, liberal
2. universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.
3. pertaining to the whole Christian body or church.
Father Bill is a shining example of this kind of catholicity.  And while we've never met, he was a profound influence on my growth over the past year, a journey which continues to bloom in unexpected and strangely harmonic ways, as you'll see in my next post.

But in the meantime, I'm curious - where were you a year ago?  How has your life changed over the past year?


  1. There was a great deal of information in that post! Wow.

    I'm so glad you've discovered how to eat. I know exactly what you mean.

    I try most of the time, not to eat processed foods. I have found I can not eat like "other people do" and be sane, AT ALL.

    I eat whole foods and a lot of fish and vegetables and fruit. Rare is the occasion that I eat red meat. Bleh.

    Tony is like living with an overgrown ten year old- chips, candy, cookies, cake, icecream; man! How do you eat that stuff?!

    Wisdom is personified in the book of Proverbs as being a woman.

    "Doth not wisdom cry?" Proverbs 8:1
    ("Sapientiam" is Latin for wisdom.)

    Here's something I've found awfully interesting.
    What's the root word of "sapeintiam"?

    Sapien, right? As in "homo sapiens"!
    Therefore, we can conclude that "sapeintiam" was meant for "sapeins"- man!

    Wisdom is meant for man! A man should have wisdom.

    : sa·pi·ens
    Pronunciation: \ˈsa-pē-ənz, ˈsā-, -ˌenz\
    Function: adjective
    Etymology: New Latin (specific epithet of Homo sapiens), from Latin, present participle of sapere
    Date: 1939
    : of, relating to, or being recent humans (Homo sapiens) as distinguished from various fossil hominids

    Where I was last January?

    I think of it all the time. This is the BEST January in six years due to the fact that, while historically it's been our lowest producing quarter, the new business has blown the socks off the existing one as we have constant cash flow Sunday through Thursday. That's five days a week and growing of regular, predictable cabbage.

    Heck yeah, I'm shallow like that. Sure.

    I admire greatly how you just picked up and moved to a new place and also how you ponder your life and you aren't one to just mindlessly skate by gorging on junk food and mainstream entertainment.

    (Ooops. I just created an "us" versus "them".)

  2. Wonderful post that meanders to several topics but all so interestingly related. Mind + body + spirit + heart. I agree that food makes such a big difference in how one feels and even thinks. I honor my body in a better way these days by feeding it better foods. Not that I don't enjoy little treats, but in general, I'm much more conscience of what my body needs. I certainly have grown in this way over the past year.

    I'm interested in your discussion of Shekhinah. While I don't subscribe to one belief system, I do find that many religions and cultures and beliefs have a lot to offer us, to help us navigate our ways through life and find the meaning in them. So thank you for introducing this to me!

  3. EC - I love what your Latin-learning is bringing to this blog!

    You are NOT shallow. You need to stop saying that about yourself. I just won't have it.

    Dreamfarm Girl - Treats are important, I think. Eating should be joyous. I came to realize that it's more important how mindful and grateful I am when eating than what I'm actually putting in my mouth.

    While I do have one committed path, I too find a lot in other traditions. I'm glad you enjoyed this. More to come...

  4. Well, I'll be danged! "Catholic" has a secular meaning as well? And somebody's actually exploiting it? That's incredible - a gay Catholic priest who paints icons of Buddhists and Islamic art. Speaking of getting people interested in stuff they never were interested in before (like iconography)'re rather good at that. I never knew about any of this before, never even dreamt it. "Fascinating" would be an unjust understatement for this post.

    I HAVE to look into some of this; thanks for the springboard. I delight in looking into other philosophies, schools of thought, avenues of spirituality. It's spellbinding what the human mind (and body; well, those are the same, aren't they?) come up with to explain the universe.

  5. This was a superlative piece of education for me. Sending me on a tour of Jewish 101, Father Bill's website - Saint Dorothy Day and Saint Bakhita...swirling and moving around in learning that left me with imaginative thought and inspiration. There is so much I cannot possibly discuss here & now. All I can say is THANK YOU.

    I am interested in your Blood Type Diet. Will you be posting about this?

    I like the ABOUT ME blurb too, is this new?

  6. Postie - I didn't know about the secular meaning of "catholic" either. It always struck me oddly though that in any Protestant church, when reciting one of the traditional creeds, the word "catholic" (with a small c) is used. Now I know why.

    The Kabbalah is probably the best schematics for understanding the universe that I've found.

    I'm glad you find this fascinating. Obviously, I do too. Someone once remarked that I have a very eclectic body of knowledge. It's growing all the time.

    Jennifer - Your welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm certainly no expert on Judaism, but it does fascinate me. And the Kabbalah is something that keeps finding me.

    I might post about the blood type diet at some point. It depends on if it ties in to something that's a larger topic - you know me.

    The About Me is new because I accidentally deleted my old one when I was setting up the Illuminated Manuscripts site. I think I like this one better. More succinct.

  7. You won't have it.

    You're so darling... :) Love ya.

  8. Was it in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that a clergyman kept describing his benfactress as so "wonderfully catholic," the "most catholic," "catholic beyond catholic," and such?
    I don't know if they played that up in the movies, but I remember cracking up as I read it, whichever book of hers (or her sisters'?) it was.

  9. So much here to think about! I know nothing about Judaism at all, in fact I know nothing about any religion, though I was brought up Catholic. One day I hope to have time to sit down in a quiet place and read all about them all. And thanks to this post I'll have some idea of where to start: Shekinah sounds really interesting.

    As for the mind/body thing: I wonder why we westerners so seized upon the notion of dualism in the first place, it seems to have done us nothing but harm?

  10. Kat - I've only seen the Emma Thompson/Hugh Grant version of the movie, and yeah, I think they left that out. I really should read some Jane Austen, I suppose.

    Eryl - Other cultures/relgions have worked with duality in different, more harmonious ways. The yin/yang concept comes to mind. But westerners seem to like to divide things up and take sides.

    I think there's a few different reasons for that, starting with Plato, perhaps, and then into certain interpretations of the writings of Paul. Augustine was a culprit here. And then it became more solidified in the Age of Reason, I believe.


    I hope you might not mind a little link sharing. this was a fantastic resource for me.

  12. That is indeed a cool link - thanks!



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