Noticing the Divine

Noticing the Divine

by John R. Mabry


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Noticing the Divine by John R. Mabry

An essential textbook for beginning spiritual directors, Noticing the Divine uses wisdom from the religions of the world to teach the basic skills needed to offer spiritual direction to people of all traditions. It introduces the foundational concepts and techniques needed to responsibly and professionally practice the art of spiritual guidance.

Among the religious traditions covered are Judaism, Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819222381
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/28/2006
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 639,313
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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Noticing the Divine

An Introduction to Interfaith Spiritual Guidance


Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2006 John R. Mabry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2238-1


Native Traditions and storytelling

According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred memory of the Native American Mayans, the world began in suspense. All was calm, all was silent; the sky was empty, the sea was still; and time was pregnant, waiting for something to happen.

Floating in the water were the grandfathers: the makers, Tepeu and Gucumatz, who covered themselves in blue feathers and were surrounded by light. In the darkness of the night, Tepeu and Gucumatz began to talk to one another. They talked for a long time, and with their conversation they summoned the gods, which they called the Heart of Heaven.

The gods of lightening and thunder emerged from their words, and other gods also. Then the grandfathers spoke some more, and the world took form. Waters receded, dry ground appeared, and a great light appeared in the sky. Yet they were not satisfied, for the grandfathers desired human beings to care for the new world and to converse with them.

Their conversation brought forth the animals, but they could only squawk and howl. They could not invoke the Heart of Heaven and could not praise the grandfathers. "They cannot even say our names," they said to one another, "this will not do."

So the grandfathers fashioned human beings out of mud, but their creations washed away in the rains. So they tried again, but this time they consulted the grandmothers, who were great soothsayers. "Try making them out of plants," they said. So the grandfathers made human beings out of wood and corn, but the people they made had short memories and did not commune with the Heart of Heaven. So they smashed the wooden people and tried again.

The grandfathers spoke all night, and finally they formed human beings out of the food they would eat: cornmeal and dough and various tasty drinks. But they were not made, they were not born—they emerged from the talking of the grandfathers.

When the new people stood up, they praised the grandfathers, and they spoke about all the things they saw. But the grandfathers were dismayed, saying, "The new people see everything, they are just like us. Let's take them down a notch or two so that they do not become too powerful and become gods themselves." So the grandfathers blew mist into their eyes so that they could only see things that were near to them.

Since they were now shortsighted and could only see what was directly in front of them, the people depended on the grandfathers. They sacrificed to them, prayed to them, and through their words, they, too, sought to summon the Heart of Heaven.

Things are not so different now. For us, as for the ancient Mayans, it is still through the conversation of two friends that the Divine is summoned. It is through the sharing of desires and dreams, ambitions and fears that the gods come near, and new worlds come into being.

We may not float in water or cover ourselves with blue feathers, yet the ministry of spiritual guidance takes many forms, some of them strange. But in every method employed, there is something in common. People of sincere spirit meet and speak to one another about their relationships to the Divine. If we are faithful and fortunate, some of the mist clears from our eyes, and we see a bit more of the path than we did before.

Yet long before there were professional spiritual guides, before there were clients, before there were discernment groups or Ignatian retreats, before there were training programs or students or certificates, our ancestors gathered around the fire, telling their sacred stories about themselves and their gods. In the flicker of the flames, the Heart of Heaven came near to them, and together they discovered who they were, what was required of them, how to treat one another, and how they were related to the wild world around them.

All Creatures Are Kindred

The stories our ancestors told around their campfires revealed many amazing truths, but one of the most poignant for us today is the inherent relatedness of all beings. Our ancestors saw the world as being of one piece: the plants, the animals, the people, the land, the gods, and the seasons. All were part of one world, all were neighbors and relations. Humans belonged to the land as much as the yak or the beaver did. No one knows exactly when we humans were bitten by the arrogance bug, which made us believe that we were somehow distinct from, or superior to nature; but native religions contain no such hubris. Native traditions see human beings as simply a part of nature, and experience the trees, rocks, rivers, and animals as kindred rather than subjects or, heaven forbid, natural resources.

The ceremonies of native peoples are profoundly rooted in the earth. Many of them begin with an invocation of the four directions, establishing their rites within a sacred circle of goodness, health, and belonging. The seasons are likewise sacred, as the wheel of the year grounds daily life in a pattern that is not linear but cyclic. Everything in nature is holy, everything is in its place to promote life and balance, and humans are only truly healthy when they, too, walk with awe and respect for the whole.

Huston Smith, in his amazing book, The World's Religions, tells of a Native American Onondaga prayer he witnessed that lasted nearly a full hour. During that time, none of the people present closed their eyes, and everyone listened to the prayer in their native tongue. Smith understood nothing, but when he asked what had been said, was told the entire prayer was devoted to naming everything in sight, animate and inanimate, including spirits of the place, inviting all to join in the proceedings and to bless them.

The Onondaga were not conducting their service as dominators of nature, but as part of it, respectfully inviting all aspects to participate. The Navajo bring the entire world into their homes, as each dwelling is seen as participating in and representing the whole of the cosmos. For native peoples, all things in nature, including humans, have their rightful place, which must be honored; all things are kindred, brothers and sisters, and worthy of respect. They invite us to think not of humans embedded in nature, but of nature seeking to extend itself, growing into new forms and more complex patterns; to behold itself, developing humans as organs of self-awareness.

Later traditions, both Eastern and Western, saw nature as something that needed to be beaten back with a stick, and viewed salvation as a way to escape it. This has resulted in attitudes that have had disastrous effects on our environment, because we do not honor the earth as a sacred presence, but as a thing to be plundered and used at will.

But native traditions know better. They know that we humans are inseparable from the natural world, and in these traditions salvation is seen as the encouragement of natural cycles. Since the disruption of natural cycles threatens the tribe, these cycles of fertility, of growth and harvest, must be participated in and encouraged for the survival of all things.

This is a powerful form of mysticism, where no distinction is made between natural and supernatural, and where there is no divorce of human society from the ecosystem that supports it. There is only the body of the earth, often portrayed as the great goddess, of whom we are all a part, from whose womb we are born, and to whom we will return, to live again in some other form, as the cycle of life succeeds from one season to another, one generation to another, one era to another.

To know oneself as part of this larger self is to truly know oneself. One can participate in this mystery by encouraging and cooperating with the cycles of nature—by bearing children and making art, by giving due attention to the cycles and seasons of the earth, acknowledging and honoring the personified forces of nature—the gods—by performing the sacred rituals and telling the sacred stories.

Nature Religion Today

As Judaism, Christianity, and Islam spread throughout the Western world, the gods of the common people were subdued even as their people were conquered. The word "pagan" comes from the Latin paganus, which means, very simply, country folk, or common people. And indeed, as we know from the history of Europe, the church had quite a time ferreting out those who held to the "old ways" and continued to worship the old gods.

Indeed, it was never completely successful in this—although it tried. Christian society carried on an amazingly successful "smear" campaign against pagan believers. They called them witches, and by some counts, the church burned nearly nine million women in the Middle Ages for the terrible crime of honoring one's family traditions, for the knowledge of what herb can cure a specific ailment, or for believing that certain amulets or incantations might attract love or repel the evil eye. In fact, most of those burned were not witches at all, yet it is a terrible crime nonetheless, even if they all had been believers in the old gods. It is religious genocide, a holocaust largely ignored today, one of the most profoundly shameful events in the history of the Christian church.

Indeed, many people today are fed up with the ideological tyranny of the Abrahamic religions, the violence against other peoples propagated in the name of the one God—and with the environmental violence that has resulted from the specious distinction between ourselves and the natural world, which the religions of the one God have inspired. Many are returning to the native religion of their own ethnic peoples. Those from the British islands are beginning to practice once again the old ways of the Celts, while many of African descent are rediscovering Yoruba and other native African religions.

And though many of those who practice the old ways refer to themselves as witches, more often people will refer to themselves as "Wiccans," from which the word "witch" derives. "Wicca" actually comes from the Old English word wicce, which means to shape or bend. Wiccans call on the power latent in the natural world; and through their prayers and rituals, they seek to "bend" that power for healing or for the common good. Wiccans cherish their mythology, and in retelling the stories of the old gods they find new interpretations that speak to their contemporary experience and provide guidance for their spiritual and moral lives.

Many in Western society still buy the medieval propaganda that witches are in league with the devil, but in fact, nothing is further from the truth. Satan is a spiritual being that belongs to the Christian hierarchy, and has no place in any pagan system. Witches do not worship Satan, because they do not believe in Satan. Satan is a Christian belief. It is difficult to accuse someone of worshipping a being that she or he does not believe in.

Modern-day neo-pagans are not out casting spells trying to cause trouble for people, either. There is a strong belief in the pagan community that any energy that you put out there by means of a spell will come back to you threefold. That is certainly a powerful reason to put out good energy and not bad!

Wicca has had a very important impact on our culture in recent years. It is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States and Europe, and it is not hard to see why. It has been extremely healing and empowering for women, who, perhaps for the first time, are being encouraged to take responsibility for their own spiritual lives instead of handing their spiritual power over to an all-male clergy. Even more healing, the Goddess allows women to see themselves reflected in divinity, something that the all-male single-parent family of the Trinity never did.

But it has been empowering for men also. Everyone in Wicca is a priest or priestess, and everyone is empowered to take their spirituality into his or her own hands and to fashion a thing of beauty out of it.

The Power Of Story

Not only are the native traditions different from other world religions, they are about as different from one another as they can be. The tribal rites of Uganda look very little like the Celtic rituals, and both are very different indeed from modern, urban neo-pagan circles. What they have in common, however—besides the belief in many gods—is a religious intuition that myth is more important than doctrine. Native traditions do not have systematic theologies, as we have come to think of them. Instead, they have stories—stories of gods, demons, humans, and half-breed beings in between; stories of treasure and loss, of failure and redemption, of the underworld and the abode of the gods. A college professor of mine once said, "Myths are stories that make sense of our lives," and the myths of every culture have served exactly that purpose.

The ancient Greeks explained the changing of the seasons by telling the story of Persephone, who was dragged by Hades to the underworld, where she was made to stay for four months out of the year. Her mother, Demeter, furious at Hades for stealing her daughter, swore that while she was there, nothing would grow upon the earth, creating winter.

The Yoruba people in Africa explained that some people are prettier than others—and even sometimes deformed—because the god who shaped human beings from clay was drunk when he did so.

These are not scientific explanations, of course, but people would not begin to think "scientifically" and call into question their myths until the Greek philosophers began the trend over 2,000 years ago. Before that, humankind had been content with the explanations their sacred stories provided for millions of years.

Though we want scientific explanations these days for genetics, for why the sun rises and sets, and other mysteries of nature, there are mysteries of the human soul that science cannot begin to explain. For these mysteries, stories are still the best tools we have to help us understand ourselves.

Though our modern economy is based on scarcity, and society is stratified into the haves and the have-nots, matters of the soul are not sufficiently valued for people to hoard spiritual resources. This is both sad and fortunate. Sad because a single soul is infinitely more valuable than a Ferrari, and fortunate because there is no scarcity of stories, the very food of the soul.

We are fed on stories from birth. Our parents read stories to us on their knees, we watched stories unfold during Saturday morning cartoons, we heard them every week in Temple or Sunday school, or in our other places of worship. We thrilled to them as children, we gravitated to other sorts of stories as teenagers, and if we were wise, we returned to the simple tales of our faith traditions as adults, with new ears.

We also make our own stories. The stuff of these stories is our lives, and we tell them to one another constantly. We relate our dreams to one another over breakfast, we gossip about co-workers at lunch, and we tell stories of our workday over dinner. At night we watch the stories of other people's ordinary—or not-so-ordinary—lives on television or at the cinema.

We tell these stories to each other for the very same reason our ancestors told stories of the gods and heroes around the campfire—we seek meaning in our lives. We relate our dreams to our spouse because we hope that together we might be able to tease out some meaning from the bizarre imagery. We gossip about the ditzy clerk three cubicles away at lunch—and don't look so high and mighty, you've done it, too—because it makes us feel better about ourselves to see someone else more inept than we. We talk about our workdays over dinner because we discern that somewhere in the mix of struggle, frustration, and achievement, our lives are valuable and worth the living. And then we collapse on the couch and observe the stories of others, not only because we want to expand our knowledge beyond our direct experience, but because on some real and mystical level, their stories are our stories.

In watching others live out their dramas at the movies or on television, or in listening to a friend relate a recent adventure, we extrapolate and learn things about ourselves. The ancient Gnostic Christians taught that humans are not born with a soul, we have to make it during our lives if we are to have anything left once the body falls away. We must nurture our soul and feed it. We feed it with stories, both in the telling, and in the hearing.

Spiritual guidance sessions provide safe space for sharing these sacred stories—stories of our own lives, the lives of our loved ones, as well as a place to ruminate on the myths we have inherited, the myriad stories about the gods we hold dear. Talking with a spiritual guide helps us to reflect on these stories and to discern their meaning for us with intention. In the presence of a compassionate and supportive friend—or friends—the guidance room becomes sacred space. This is now the circle where the exploits of gods and humans are told, where meaning is found, where our souls can be nourished to grow, and where the Heart of Heaven becomes manifest to us.

Many Stories, Many Methods

Myths in native traditions are anything but monolithic. Stories shape-shift and replicate in the telling, and most cultures have multiple creation myths, many of them contradictory. Even the Bible contains two conflicting creation accounts in the opening chapters of Genesis. No matter. Each myth has something of value to relate, or it would not have survived. People do not tell stories that do not serve a purpose. And just as there is no one right myth to explain any one phenomenon, just as there is no one right story that provides meaning for all of us, just so there is no one right forum for the telling of these stories.

Mentoring. As spiritual guidance has evolved over the centuries, many forums for storytelling emerged. Probably the oldest is the mentoring relationship. Mentorship happens informally all the time, and has probably happened this same way since we began walking upright and carrying sticks. We are just naturally attracted to people whom we perceive as wise, who possess some knowledge that we lack. And mentors, from time immemorial, have often viewed the transmission of their knowledge as a sacred duty.

Excerpted from Noticing the Divine by JOHN R. MABRY. Copyright © 2006 John R. Mabry. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Chapter One: Native Traditions and Storytelling          

Chapter Two: Taoism and Nondirection          

Chapter Three: Hinduism and the Many Faces of Divinity          

Chapter Four: Buddhism and the Compassionate Witness          

Chapter Five: Judaism, Ethics, and Covenants          

Chapter Six: Zoroastrianism and Discernment          

Chapter Seven: Christianity and the Wounded Healer          

Chapter Eight: Islam and Spiritual Discipline          

Chapter Nine: Sikhism and the Interfaith Path          

Chapter Ten: Humanism and the Sacredness of the Mundane          

Appendix A: Spiritual Directors International Guidelines for Ethical

Appendix B: Spiritual Guidance Statement of Policy          

Appendix C: Authorization of Release of Information          


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