Since childhood, I have had misgivings about certain implications of Christian faith, and primary among these is the meaning and historicity of salvation. Two thousand years ago the world population was some 300 million people. How could a just and loving God condemn generations of children to eternal damnation who lived, say, before the time of Christ or in the Americas prior to the Age of Discovery?
Even to a child's mind, in the retelling of a story misinterpretations creep in. Like a game of "Telephone" --- the child's game where the first child in a circle whispers something in the ear of the next child, who whispers in the ear of the next, and so on around the circle, until the last child says out loud what he heard --- which is completely different from what the first child said. Somewhere along the line they must have gotten it wrong.
Questions like these have guided me away from formulaic Christianity where the only concern is that you regularly check off a laundry list of beliefs to assure your own safe conduct through the Gates of Heaven. I have instead pursued the mystic's path, seeing that all of Nature, all of the universe, all of existence had a divine nature.
With absolute faith in Divine love I have embarked on a quest into how the Divine has been revealed to other cultures. Not to convert or embrace a different faith, but to open myself up to the broader language of the Divine. I became an Anthropologist and studied the cultures and languages of the world.After earning my doctorate from the University of California, I turned my attention to the mythology and lore of my own heritage.
As a child, my grandmother told me that her people came over from Ireland on the back of a great white horse. So I knew I was of Irish heritage; but ... there was just a little problem with geography.That horse took me for a wild ride until I met ManannanmacLir, the sea god of the TuathaDéDanann and the magical horses of the Sidhe (shee), the ancient fairy folk of Ireland. "When the tempest breaks over the sea in Ireland, the breakers are said to be the white horses of ManannanmacLir." (M. Oldfield Howey 1923: The Horse in Magic and Myth, p.43)
Along that road, I also met the Celtic Druids who were employed in all the pursuits I loved. The Druids were storytellers, poets, historians, jurists, healers, scholars, political advisors and spiritual leaders. They were the learned elite of Celtic society, leaders of a nature-based spirituality when the sacred and secular worlds were not alienated.
For the Druids all of nature was imbued with the the Divine, for example, each tree had a spirit. Their place of worship was among the oak groves in the richly adorned beauty of Divine creation, rather than locked in a man-made edifice cluttered with human-defined wealth. Certainly Christ's focus was not on surrounding himself with wealth --- Luke 12:27: "Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
The Druids understood the nature of immortality, using techniques we call "magic" to bridge the otherworld and create a personal relationship with the Divine. They were mystics, who like the Magi, read the signs and interpreted the language of the Divine in the pursuit of the One Truth, what Christ called the Kingdom of God, the nature of our relationship with the Creative Divine.
While riding my magical white horse back across the misty seas to Ireland from the Land of Youth, Ti r nanOg, I like Oisin before me found three hundred years had elapsed in my absence. My family had emigrated from Ireland in the 1700's and yet preserved in my family culture was Irish myth and legend, and a tradition of storytelling. My grandmother had been born in 1889 and was raised by people who were alive during the Civil War. Her grandfather, who had schooled her in these myths, was born just after 1800. And my grandmother's grandfather had been schooled by his grandfather who had been born in Ireland.
After arriving in the Carolinas in the 1700's, my family moved to what is today Sumter county Alabama. At that time, it was part of the Choctaw nation. They were living there in 1834 when they lost their young daughter, Martha, who is buried there. After the Civil War, they moved to Arkansas where they bought the land my mother, grandmother, and great grandfather were all born on with a Choctaw land scrip. Many Irish families lived among the Choctaw, and with good reason. The Choctaw had myths and legends similar to the Irish. They had stories of "Little People" who lived in the forest known as KowiAnukasha (meaning "Forest Dwellers").
Bohpoli, elf-like forest folk, would capture young children playing in the forest and take them back to a cave. There three items would be offered to the child: a knife, poisonous herbs, and medicinal herbs. If the child chose the medicinal herbs, he would grow up to be a healer and Bohpoli would assist him in learning his art and in producing medicines. Like the Ban Sidhe (ban-shee), the screech of the Ishkitini portended death. Numerous other "Little People" occupied Choctaw myth, ranging from playful sprites, to shape shifters, or odious and malign spirits that could capture a person's spirit.
The Choctaw lived in the Southeast United States, in what is today Mississippi and Alabama, some of the most fertile land along the Mississippi River. Like the Irish, they were spiritual, rather than economic, farmers with a sacred relationship with the land. They were the premier agriculturalists of the Southeast, every year producing a surplus, and supplying their neighbors.
They lived in villages and farmed corn, beans, and squash in the rich Mississippi flood plain, and developed a democratic form of governance with elected leaders called Mingos. The wealth and stability created by their industry led to a richly cultured life engaging in sports --- a stick ball game akin to lacrosse (a game played with two sticks but otherwise resembling Irish game hurling). A complex spiritual life was focused around sacred mounds (like the fairy mounds of Ireland), mythologically connected to their origins and the source of domesticated corn.
Because the Choctaw were the strong and established economic centerpiece of the Native American Southeast, the US government targeted them to be the first of the tribes removed to Oklahoma. Ironically, the Choctaw had fought at the side of Andrew Jackson at what has been touted as the most important battle fought on American soil, the Battle of New Orleans, where British forces were decisively and finally repelled in 1814.
Yet, in 1834 Andrew Jackson authored and executed the plan to dispossess the Choctaw of their land creating a man-made famine, claiming the lives of a third of the Choctaw population. The Choctaw was the initial tribe removed from their land in the Trail of Tears so that their land could be converted into plantations by wealthy slave owners.
Sixteen years later, to foreclose on properties, the British overlords in Ireland seized upon the opportunity created by the potato blight [the phytophthorainfestans fungus] which destroyed the crop sustaining the poor tenant farmers of Ireland. There was enough food in Ireland to feed everyone, yet the British shipped the grain crops and sheep overseas to be sold for profit, while they expanded their land holdings by evictions, using starvation and migration to rid Ireland of "surplus" Irish.
The stories of the Choctaw and the Irish are dramas repeated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, genocide motivated by greed and precipitated by racism. In the period between 1830 and 1850 the Native American and Irish societies were despoiled by man-made famines in a land-grab consolidating the South into a slave-plantation economy and solidifying the English aristocracy's enclosures of Irish land.
In 1848, the Choctaw took up a collection and sent it to the Irish famine victims.
Even though their society had been devastated by the avarice of the new immigrants, they saw the commonality of their struggles. The Choctaw gift, a few hundred dollars painstakingly collected among the destitute, is a legacy - a statement against greed, against racism, against the terrible policies of displacement and extermination haunting our recent history.
What this story tells us about the world we could live in makes it timeless. To be able to see the commonality in these tragedies, instead of being consumed by misery and loss, is the vision of "terrible beauty". The Choctaw gift is a moment of powerful human spirit bringing to mind the words of William Butler Yeats, "All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born." The Choctaw showed us the path --- the simple act of seeing our common humanity and acting upon it in any way we can.
This compassion says to me that Divine was revealed to the Choctaw. The Divine is inclusive and breathes grace into all human hearts, not just Christians. Surely the Choctaw were more "Christian" than the Christians who stole their land and attempted to exterminate them. Jesus did not ask us to wear a badge saying "I am a Christian" to distinguish us from all else. He asked us to simply love thy neighbor as thyself.
My spiritual journey has not led me to any single denomination, or even religion, because to choose one credo over another only creates divisions. Instead I seek a direct relationship with the Divine and experience the Divine by nurturing compassion. The Divine is revealed in all of the spiritual paths. The Divine is Love.
Compassion, as the Dalai Lama teaches, can mean many things, for example, forgiving those who would do us harm --- 'turning the other cheek' --- or giving to the poor, but it means more than that. Rather than an intellectual or emotional ascent to abstracts, compassion has to be actualized. It is not enough to say "I love" and feel warm all over, one must live spiritually. We need to act on love as the Choctaw.
Jesus was born into a society governed by strict "cleanliness" laws. Someone who did not have the wealth to adhere to the strict dietary rules or was disadvantaged, for example, blind, disabled, or diseased was excluded from the temple as unclean. Prostitutes were also unclean and this status was inherited. Jesus' ministry broke down the strangle hold the wealthy had on the temples and once again allow everyone to approach the Divine directly.
Jesus healed the sick and ministered to the poor, but he also worked to right the injustices of the system. First he threw the money-changers out of the temple. Then he threw out the complex religious laws, replacing them with only two commandments: "love God with all thy heart and love thy neighbor as thyself". And finally he moved worship out of the temple, to the mount, where everyone could have access to the "Kingdom of God" and glory in Divine creation rather than men's wealth. For breaking down this system of injustice, the elders of the temple turned him over to the Romans to crucify.
If we know that society has injustices but we are faring adequately, even within those structures of injustice, giving to a charity or volunteering at a soup kitchen costs little and allows the system to remain in place. The greater act of compassion is to work for social justice. Like Jesus, the Dalai Lama and the Druids, we need to take an active role in changing policy, rectifying injustices and guiding society's progress.
"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary." ---Martin Luther King, Jr.
In my search for true compassion, I work, both globally and locally, on human rights, labor and environmental issues, to help save our planet, Divine creation, along with the beings that live here. As Jean-Paul Sartre (1946) states in his essay "Existentialism Is a Humanism.": "But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving ... You are nothing else but what you live.” I hear the echoes of Jesus' ministry when the Dalai Lama implores living compassion for all sentient beings is our own salvation.
The Choctaw Gift A sculpture is being erected in Ireland to thank a Native American tribe for sending what little money they could to the Irish people suffering from starvation at the height of the Great Famine more than 160 years ago. On March 23, 1847 the Choctaw Native American tribe, who had known great hardship during their forced march to Oklahoma, collected whatever spare money they could and sent $170 to Ireland through a charity relief group. To remember their generosity and friendship, a huge stainless steel sculpture of nine eagle feathers will be installed in Midleton, County Cork, on a grassy expanse in the town’s Bailic Park.