Reflections on the Desert Fathers 1

Leave a reply

So much of the literature written by or about the Desert Fathers focuses on how to recover from the devastating impact of the Fall or Adam’s original sin.

This should not be too surprising. Early Christian monks and apologists had to come up with some explanation as to why there is so much suffering in the world.

After all, there had to be some explanation to reconcile teachings of a loving and merciful and all powerful God could create a world with so much violent injustice, explanation, suffering, sickness, calamity and death.

The Fall is the explanation as to how evil, sin, suffering and death entered into the human experience.

But in light of current knowledge of humans  developing over 3 million years from lower primate forms, it seems there was no fall. There was no time on earth was peaceful and stable and perfect. The advent of sickness, injustice, cruelty and death did not happen because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden.

It is hard to over-estimate how significant an impact our current knowledge of human origins has on the foundation teachings of Christianity.

Without the teaching of Original Sin and the Fall and Adam and Eve, there is no viable explanation that reconciles the teachings of divine love with the reality of human suffering.

One response is to conclude there is no God or at least there is no God that looks over and protects us.

Another is to conclude God does or at least may exist, but the nature of this divine life is much different from what we have been taught.

How can we reconcile the images of divine love and mercy with the reality of terrible suffering in the world?




Confession for Atheists

Leave a reply

Two weeks ago I offered some general notes about how members of different religious or spiritual traditions practice Confession.

Last week I focused on those who practice Confession in the context of a belief in God.

This week I want to write about Confession for those who do not believe in God.

It may be surprising to think that those who do not believe in God would still benefit from practicing Confession which is ordinarily seen as a religious or spiritual activity.

But the Theravada Buddhist monks, who are avowed atheists, still practice Confession on a very regular basis as do the Mahayana Buddhists. The reason for doing this is explained clearly by Thannisaro Bhikku, a well respected American Buddhist monk and scholar, in his essay: “Introduction to the Pattimokha Rules 1994.”

….monks form a Community, reliant on the support of lay Buddhists, and anyone who has lived for any time in a communal situation knows that communities need rules in order to function peacefully.

It is simple. When people live together clashes, tensions, and inappropriate behaviors arise. There needs to be some agreed upon set of rules, and a well thought out process of reparation and reconciliation for those who break the rules.

In Theravada Buddhism the monks observe one collection of rules, listed in the Vinaya Pitaka, that specifies 227 rules. There are many more, but these 227, apparently, are the ones that form the core of community rules in the Theravada monastic tradition.

For the most serious offenses, a monk is expelled from the community for life. There is no second chance. Killing a human, including having or causing an abortion, stealing, or having voluntary sexual relations are examples of this category. Nor does there seem to be any confession called for. The person is simply expelled for life and that is that. I do not know if the civil authorities are contacted for further trial and punishment or not.

For a second class of less serious offenses a person needs to confess to every person in the community and to any visiting monk everyday for six days.

For a third class of offenses a monk needs to confess only to another monk.

These Acts of Confession are intended to help the monk or nun find the humility to admit what they have done and to realize they have disturbed the harmony of the community.

This example drawn from the atheist Theravada Buddhist tradition can serve as a model for atheist, secular societies or communities.

Rules are needed to maintain stable groups, towns, cities, and nations. Confessing transgressions of these rules is a visible sign that the person is aware they are losing the benefit of being in community. The humility one incurs in the act of Confession, and in the act of taking the steps necessary to be re-accepted into the main stream of the group or community, helps a person realize they do not want to repeat the infraction or error. This humility will help the atheist monk, nun, or lay person remove the self-centered tendencies that impede their progress towards enlightenment.

The sincerity of the acknowledgement (another word for Confession) and the sincere efforts to not repeat the offense is just as helpful to atheists as it is to God-centered believers.

Having a set rules, insisting that offending parties confess transgressions of those rules, having a means to restore to good standing the truly remorseful, and having the means to restrain or expel chronic offenders, these seem to be essential elements of all human cultures. Am I wrong?

Let me put it this way. Would you want to live in relationship, or be a member of a community, where no one ever admits or seeks to apologize for mean-spirited thoughts and acts? Would you want to live in a society where no one ever admits and seeks to atone for mean-spirited thoughts and actions?

Please let me know what you think. All constructive comments will be posted?

Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness: and Host of



Christmas and Nuclear Weapons

Leave a reply

Hundreds of millions of people around the world will celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with their families this week.

Many are practicing Christians who attend church regularly. Many are folks who do not really believe in most of the Christian dogmas but are still committed, at least in a general way, to Christian values and ethics concerning such issues as economic fairness, the pursuit of world peace, and concern for the unfortunate. Many of these folks do not go to church very often other than perhaps Christmas Eve and Easter.

Many others see Christmas as a time for meaningful get-togethers with families and friends, but they have little interest one way or another in anything resembling Christian practice or Christian values.

One thing all of these folks have in common is this.

They don’t tend to think very often about the fact that we all live under the threat that someday nuclear weapons will be used on a limited scale or in a wide scale nuclear war.

America, England, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and probably Israel all have atomic bombs much stronger than the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Someday Iran or some other countries will also decide they cannot live without these weapons.

The great scares of the Cold Wars are behind us. But the nuclear demons continue to invade our repose on an increasingly frequent and increasingly disturbing basis as we think about the deeply unstable North Korean regime rattling their nuclear sword, or the protracted battles to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

What can we do to dismantle all the world’s nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction?

In America many who attend Christian churches most regularly are among the most conservative regarding political views. They would be the least likely to agree to a plan for America to simply dismantle all of our nuclear weapons. Many others who go to church once in a while and who volunteer time and money to good causes might also be very quick to stop short of saying, “Yes, it is Ok to dismantle all our nuclear weapons.”

If Christians in America are not willing to lead the way towards nuclear disarmament, who will?

What would Jesus say?

Would he say, “Yes, nuclear weapons are unfortunate but necessary so sure let’s keep them armed and aimed at our enemies.”

Would he say, “Sure, the needs of the poor and the invalids are not as important as maintaining the largest military and spy budgets in the world, so by all means let’s keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars on defense and spy satellites?”

Probably not.

This Christmas when you behold the manger and the infant, when you behold the children’s Christmas pageant, when you light the candle of the person next to you in the Christmas Eve service, please give some thought to this matter.

Is it time for America and American Christians to lead the way by saying, “Yes, my faith is sufficient that I can live without nuclear weapons? Yes, if we don’t find a way to rid the world of nucelar weapons it is only a matter of time before some terrorist group or some nation uses nuclear weapons somewhere in the world”.

This year let the Candlelight service and the Children’s pageant be a time to meditate upon the reality of nuclear weapons and the need to free the world from the very real threat of nuclear bombs.

Who knows maybe even peace will break out in Jerusalem and Palestine. Anything is possible. Maybe even Jews, Christians, and Muslims can find a way to make peace in the Middle East. After all, all three of them claim to be religions dedicated to peace.

What do you think about Christmas Eve and nuclear weapons and your faith? Please let me know.

All constructive comments will be posted.

Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” and host of    774-232-0884

Christmas and Buddhism

Leave a reply

I was raised in a liberal Protestant household.

In the small Massachusetts town in which I lived there were quite a few Jewish families but those were the only non-Christians that I or anyone else knew of. Even with a noticeable minority of Jews, it seemed to my youthful eyes that generally Christmas was a universal holiday. Certainly in the stores and town squares everywhere you went there were Christmas decorations. Everyone I knew was Christian and everyone I knew celebrated Christmas.

Christmas happened every year and pretty much in the same way every year. Christmas carols, Christmas cards, Christmas trees, and above all Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning with stockings and presents piled under the tree, even for a poor family such as ours.

Throughout childhood, adolescence, and into the years when my own child was young, Christmas continued to be one of the major events, if not the major event, of every year.

On a parallel track, in my late teen years, I became aware of Buddhism and Hinduism as eastern meditation became more widely known in America in the late 60’s and early 70’s. In truth I was strongly influenced by both.

I also began studying Nietzsche during my late teens and early 20’s. Generally, I felt the violent cruelty and injustice of the world along with the suffering caused by disease, natural disasters, and poverty “proved” that many of the traditional Christian teachings were woefully inadequate.

Still Christmas proceeded year and after year and I continued to sing Christmas carols year after year. And, the Christmas tree, stockings, gift wrapping, and presents continued to occur on schedule every year.

Generally in my mid-to late twenties, I began to really listen to Gregorian Chants and JS Bach’s Cantatas, motets, and masses. I realized that despite the trenchant critiques of Nietzsche, Voltaire, Marx and others that Christianity was far from disproved, even if many of the traditional dogmas were blown apart by the advent of modern critical thinking and science.

Christmas took on new meaning for me. I could sense the mystical dimensions and sacred beauty that form the river of truth beneath the dogmas of the churches.

In my mid-thirties I began a serious study of Catholic monastic tradition and practices as well as Theravada Buddhist meditation.

Again and again it was the music and some of the mysteriously profound lines in the liturgies and sacraments of the Catholic Church that drew me into a search for deeper faith. Supporting this search, year after year, was my own personal experiences of the mystery embedded in Christmas carols such as of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “Silent Night” and all the other Christmas carols. The alternative lifestyle offered by Catholic monasteries and the ongoing witness of Catholic Workers and Liberation Theologians were other formative influences that shaped my personal, intuitive assent to Christian ways.

What continued to trouble me though was that I remained deeply conflicted about Christian and Jewish views of God’s love when that love and alleged care was juxtaposed to the suffering of the world. What could possibly resolve the jarring dissonance of the image of  an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God side by side with terrible suffering of many in the human and animal realms?

Through all this period, as a counterpoint, I continued to study Theravada Buddhist practice of meditation at places like Cambridge Insight Meditation Society and Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.

But the atheism of the Theravada Buddhists and the troubling aspects of such a heavy reliance on Reincarnation as a foundation of Buddhist beliefs left me just as nonplussed as certain Catholic dogmas.

Still, many years later in my late 50’s, and now at age 60, I have found the Theravada Buddhist meditation techniques help me to find deeper experiences of peace and healing than any other form of practice. I can generally see the way forward to significantly deeper insights and peace.

For all these reasons Christianity is different for me now. Christmas is different for me now. Theravada Buddhism is different for me now. I feel I have shaken off the confusing dogmas of both traditions. But I feel I am somewhat adrift being neither Christian nor Buddhist enough to really fit into either tradition. Given my heterodox beliefs, I could no more be ordained a Catholic priest than I could be certified to teach as an instructor in the Theravada Buddhist lineage. After all, I am not sure the atheist views of the Theravada Buddhists are true. In fact, if I had to venture and opinion, I am reasonably sure God does exist even if I can’t quite understand what God’s relationship to human suffering may be.

What I have learned is to not tense up at the confusion I feel or the uncertainty I experience about what to believe, or the sense of being isolated without an identifiable affiliation with an established tradition.

Rather I can mindfully be aware of any confusion, or uncertainty, or feelings of isolation I may be feeling and know that these feelings are also suitable subjects for mindfulness practice.

Fortunately I have learned that the practice of offering loving kindness to all who live is a practice that is at the center of both cultures. Fortunately, as prone as I am to anger and resentment along with feelings of aggressive retribution and judgment, I am now able to blow out the small fires of these emotions when they arise and freely and naturally offer love to all who live.

In this early winter, as the days have shortened and the winter nights have grown longer, as the quiet, wistful mystery of Advent leads gently to the winter solstice and to Christmas I can continue to offer love and kindness for my own life and for all others who live.

For the first time in my life, I have done no Christmas shopping. Neither do I bow to statues of the Buddha as do many I know. I no longer need to believe that Mary was a virgin to love her, or that Jesus is the “Cosmic Christ” to love him deeply. I do not need to believe that Buddha recalled all his past lives or floated through the air as the Pali Canon asserts in order to fully appreciate the profound dimensions of his teachings.

Yet the delicate sense of sacred peace and healing I have gained from a careful study of both traditions continues to deepen in my life and practice. I feel I have moved closer to being ready to help change the way priests, monks, nuns, students, and teachers are trained in the future.

And as for the poor man and woman settling in humble quarters for the birth of their first child, my feelings of solidarity and concern are ever more genuine.

In truth the pathos of what really happened is more profound to me now than are the mythological accretions others added later.

There were no wise men. There were no great events. There was no big coffee cake or church services. There was no Christmas tree or presents. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing.

There were only the usual cries and moans of a woman in labor, and the nervous anticipation of the man trying to comfort her as best he could. There was only the birth of another child in a world of both great beauty, peace, cruelty, and injustice.

There was only the story of a simple poor family trying to make their way in a world that generally was not favorable to the poor. There was only the fierce independence of that child as he grew to be a man and that of his mother who witnessed her son’s execution at the hands of state and church.

There was, and continues to be, a simple naked hope that there can be more justice in the world and that despite the cruelty that scars so much of the veil of nature, that within and beneath the veil there is something deeper, better, and grander.

Christians call this “something deeper” – “heaven”.  Buddhists of various stripes call this “something deeper” –  “nirvana”, or the “deathless”, or the “unconditioned”, or “original mind”, or “Buddha Nature”.

Perhaps those who are smarter or wiser than I may have valid ways to explain what these differences may be and why they have any importance to us now. But I can assure you I cannot.

Treasure that which is true of the ancient ways.

Shake off that which is no longer relevant from the ancient ways.

Treasure that which is true of the progressive reforms.

Shake off that which is no longer relevant from the progressive reforms.

Peace to you this holiday season.

Let me know what your story of Christmas and Christmas meditations have been like this year. All constructive comments will be posted.

Will Raymond   Author of The Simple Path of Holiness” Host of   774-232-0884