The Rosary Mantra and the Saint Bodhisattvas

In Buddhism, mantras are words or groups of words believed capable of creating transformation. They are repeated many times with the assistance of prayer beads, which serve to keep track of the repetitions so that the person saying the mantras can meditate upon them more easily, rather than allocate mental space to counting. Prayer beads are used for similar purposes in many of the world’s religions.

In the Catholic faith, the rosary is not unlike a mantra, and praying the rosary also involves prayer beads to assist the person praying. The rosary begins with the Apostles’ Creed, which is followed by one Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), three Hail Marys, one Glory Be, and one Lord’s Prayer. After this initial part of the rosary comes the main portion, known as the “five decades” of the rosary. This consists of ten Hail Marys, followed by a Glory Be and a Lord’s Prayer. That set is prayed five times, which completes the rosary. When praying the rosary, a person may meditate upon what are known as the Mysteries; in addition, the person may meditate upon a special intention for which he or she is praying.

The rosary, in addition to being a prayer and meditation aid, can also be a sacrifice or an offering, made on behalf of a loved one or in the service of a certain goal. A rosary can be dedicated, for example, to a loved one in particular need of help, or said on behalf of world peace. This is not unlike the concept of the Mass as a sacrifice or an offering to God, in addition to its role as the community’s worship service. In the same spiritual vein is the Catholic practice of lighting a candle for a special prayer or in memory of someone; the candle burns as an ongoing representation of the prayer before God, long after the person who lit it has left the church or indoor/outdoor shrine and returned home. If the candle is lit at home, it burns as an ongoing symbol of the prayer until blown out. Candles are also lit for this purpose in Buddhism, Shintoism, and many other religions.

I recently visited a place called St. Anne’s Shrine in Sturbridge, central Massachusetts. St. Anne’s Shrine is a 35-acre plot of land that is largely woodland, but also hosts a full church, as well as a small St. Anne chapel — in which one can light candles — attached to the church. There is also a separate votive chapel called the Hall of Saints, and a small icon museum attached to a gift shop. The 35-acre grounds are consecrated to St. Anne, mother of Mary, and 10 of these acres hold walking trails. In various places are outdoor shrines and grottoes to Mary and to Anne (as well as a few other saints), and one can walk through outdoor Stations of the Cross. In one place, at the top of a giant stone staircase, stands a life-size white cross with a bronze Christ, overlooking all. The entire area is sacred ground.
Mary of Fatima

St. Anne, as I mentioned, is remembered in tradition as the mother of Mary, and is also my spiritual namesake; at Confirmation, I chose her as a personal saint and assumed the spiritual name Anne. Her daughter Mary, Jesus’ mother, is venerated in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as the Blessed Mother, the spiritual mother of us all, in accordance with Jesus’ words on the Cross to the apostle John, who stood beside Mary: “Behold, your mother.” When I visited the grounds of St. Anne’s Shrine, I felt a kind of sacred communion as I walked a very small portion of the grounds. The experience set me thinking more about saints, and who they are, and what made them who they are.

St. Anne with Mary

In another interesting confluence between the two religions, Catholic saints are not entirely unlike Buddhist bodhisattvas. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is actively on the path to enlightenment, to buddhahood, and who has the enlightenment of all sentient beings as his or her goal. A bodhisattva is not content with only reaching buddhahood by him or herself; a bodhisattva chooses to devote his life to helping others reach it too. Likewise, a saint is not content with private spiritual exercises alone, but is always involved in the betterment of the condition of their fellow human beings, through constant prayer and work with the poor, the ill, the spiritually needy, the average person, or all of the above. In fact, there are three states prior to sainthood: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and finally Saint. Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II, for example, are both currently Blessed, and on the way to sainthood. In terms of the way a saint-to-be lives his or her life, it is telling that so many poor people around Calcutta, India became Catholic, not because Mother Theresa ever tried to convert them (that was never the focus of her work), but because she and her sisters devoted their lives to helping them — in what was one of India’s most desperate population centers — when even their own countrymen would not.

I can’t be completely sure, in a purely intellectual sense, whether the saints (or the bodhisattvas) can hear what we ask or act upon it; whether they can hear the offerings-up of our rosaries or our mantras; whether they know when we are standing before an outdoor shrine in a woodland of God’s creation, thinking a prayer and trying just to do the best that we can. I cannot be completely sure; but the breeze that passes over my face as I stand there, on its way to places I cannot know, and the giant Crucifix that stands at the top of the staircase and embodies the God who made that breeze possible, make me want to think so.

Crucifix Staircase

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

Advent, Thor’s Hammer, and Cosmic Mystery

So instead of walking into our church to participate in Advent Lessons and Carols this past Sunday, I found myself standing at that very time in a Scandinavian gift shop buying the Hammer of Thor. All right, not an actual hammer, but a necklace and earrings shaped like the Hammer of Thor. Thor is the pre-Christian Norse storm god, the blow from whose mighty hammer was said to create thunder. Thor was also respected for his strength and for his ability to endure pain without complaint. I purchased the representations of Thor’s Hammer primarily because of my interest in ancient religions, and particularly ones that involve such fantastic mythology. But I also gravitate toward a broad personal theology that I indulge from time to time, although I identify as Christian.

We didn’t skip Lessons and Carols on purpose; it was just one of those things that sneak up on you. But the incongruity of the situation — getting waylaid on one’s way to Advent service by a Scandinavian shop selling the Hammer of Thor — prompted me to think, as I often do, about the confluence of certain religious tenets and how my own “personal theology” fits into both Christianity and the broader world of spirituality. I’m not the sort who will say that all religions are essentially the same — because, really, they are not. It is not even the case that all religions believe in a Creator (Buddhism, for example, does not, but instead holds that the universe has been eternally existing). Different religions emphasize different things, and they cannot be easily mashed together without overlooking and even disrespecting these things. However, it does seem clear that each religion is pointing toward something “else,” something more, something greater than what we can see with our immediate eyes in our immediate physical surroundings. It is for that reason that I tend to augment my Christian practice with contributions from other philosophies, which often are not contradictory in any case.

Each Advent, I am compelled to think about the mystery, and the apparent lunacy, of the idea that the Creator God decided at some point in history to enter human flesh and become one of us, in a profound and world-altering act to demonstrate God’s love for his creation and his identification with us. It must be a ridiculous idea that a being whose breadth and depth are so far beyond our own that we are hopeless ever to comprehend it decided to become one of us for a time. It must be ludicrous that in that “becoming,” this cosmic being intended to free his creatures from the shackles of their ongoing misdeeds, to offer redemption from those misdeeds, and in so doing to effect a cosmic demonstration both of love and the inherent sanctity of our created bodies. Inherently sanctified because, so Christians believe, God saw fit to “become” into one of those bodies, and our flesh can receive no higher recognition, no higher gift.

All these things sound preposterous. But they also possess (to borrow the now famous phrase) the “audacity of hope.” The truly bold, outrageous, no-holds-barred kind of hope that might just have a chance at success, by sheer virtue of its audacity. Such is the mystery that Christianity proclaims, and to which it joyously holds on with both hands. This, despite the fact that the biggest mistake Christian churches often make is to forget that what lies at their heart is not a carefully sorted-out array of systematic rules and provisions, but is essentially cosmic mystery.

One can believe in the truth of Christianity as itself; but of course, that is necessarily different from the system that developed around it, since finite humans need finite and inadequate ways to assimilate the infinite divine. Thus, “Christianity” as it is practiced, systematized, and understood by finite creatures is necessarily different from the cosmic truth upon which Christians believe their religion is based, and which it tries to express, and which only God can fully understand.

So that brings me back to Thor’s Hammer. I wear it as a symbol of strength, confidence, and endurance, which are traits that I value and try to emulate (not always successfully, but that is the nature of our imperfect being). Mystery is that wearing it can help me foster those traits within myself and express them outside myself. Mystery is that, according to our best astrophysicists, our entire universe — all the energy and matter that it now contains — existed as a superdense spot much smaller than an ordinary pearl about 14 billion years ago, and in response to some action that we do not understand, instantaneously exploded in an event we call the Big Bang, and has been expanding ever since. Mystery is that all the elements on the Periodic Table are, without exception, forged within stars like our Sun, and that our bodies are therefore quite literally made from stars. Mystery is that for its first billion years, Earth was a nightmarish, volatile place, home only to constantly erupting volcanoes, lava oceans, a constant barrage of meteors, and an atmosphere toxic to life as we know it. Mystery is that, by means we still do not understand, the amino acids and proteins of life found their quickening, and a bunch of cyanobacteria over millions of years became responsible for an atmospheric oxygen content that would allow larger life forms to come to exist. Mystery is that we know of over 100 billion galaxies, and each galaxy has about 100 billion stars.

Mystery is that we as a species feel an ongoing pull toward and connection with some greater world not entirely visible to our physical eyes, but known so ineffably to our hearts. Mystery is that we could be loved by a cosmic being who could have set all of the above into motion; that we can love other people as wholly, as beautifully, and as inexplicably as we often do; and even that we have come to know what love is.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

The Tangibility of the Intangible

This week I plan on crafting a miniature, indoor Japanese rock garden (karesansui) in a low wooden or bamboo box, to be placed on our bow window. A Japanese rock garden is sometimes also called a Zen dry garden due to its deep connection with Zen Buddhism. A rock garden, or karesansui, is a “dry landscape” garden; it employs no actual water, but the rocks, moss, and small shrubs that can constitute the garden are often arranged in a way that evokes thoughts of streams, mountains, hills, and even forests. Despite the fact that the arrangement of stones and small plants can create the illusion of water, a primary characteristic of these gardens is their sense of stillness.

My husband is an aficionado of Japanese culture; I am glad for this, because if he were not, I would never have been introduced to the robust appreciation of clean-lined tranquility that is Japanese aesthetics. Walk into any classically Japanese structure, such as a traditionally-appointed Japanese restaurant, and your mind will feel almost instantly at ease. The aesthetic usually involves light neutral color tones, tastefully limited and unobtrusive decor, and stunningly clean lines for everything. The absence of clutter, of haphazardness, of “too much” is felt immediately in the calming effect such an aesthetic has on the mind. With one’s space so calm, smooth and free-flowing, so uncluttered, how can one feel tense? It is as if when the body enters such an open space physically, the mind also enters an open space — one that does not impose upon it but rather invites it to relax in freedom.

This clean and simple aesthetic is also very conducive to thinking and to meditating, for obvious reasons. The same holds true for the rock garden. Its smoothness and stillness, punctuated by just the right amount of components, put our minds at ease and elevate them somehow. Something in the nature of these tangible things, of that tangible space, allows us to make contact with something intangible in which our minds delight. This is true not just of structures and spaces, of course. Jewelry has been around for thousands of years, as we know quite well not only from things like ancient Egyptian murals, but also from ancient jewelry itself, lifted from the ground by archaeologists or treasure hunters.

Many of us feel emotional connections to some of our jewelry; many of us wear certain articles because the design or the material makes us think of something, or is a symbol of something important to us. This is especially true of religious or spiritually-oriented jewelry. How many of us wear Stars of David, mezuzah pendants, crosses, crucifixes, Buddha pendants, yin/yang circles, Qur’an pendants, or even mineral rocks from the earth, because their tangibility links us to the intangible things they represent?

The same is true for other physical art — the David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, St. Peter’s basilica (all right, I’m betraying a Michelangelo bias here), Buddhist temples, Monet’s paintings, the intricate aniconic designs of Muslim art, the bimah of Jewish synagogues. The rich statuary of most Catholic churches reflects the Catholic theology that it is not to the statue that a worshiper prays, and it is not the statue that has any power: the statue is a tangible symbol of the spiritual figure it represents.

The ancient world too, as I mentioned in another post, was rich with statues and figurines of the gods and various other religious artifacts. In ancient Mesopotamia, the statues of the gods were their physical vectors on Earth; when a statue was created and commissioned, its inauguration consisted of the ceremonies mish pi and pit pi — “washing of the mouth” and “opening of the mouth.” When these ceremonies were complete, the deity’s physical representation became formal and suitable for that deity.

All of these things, I think, are examples of the inextricable link between the tangible and the intangible. The tangibility of the Zen rock garden or the Japanese room, or some element within nature, directs our minds to something intangible and produces a feeling or a state of being. The tangibility of personal jewelry — which we often touch or hold in a moment of worry or gratitude or even just contemplation — connects us to the intangibility of what it represents. The tangibility of physical art — whether painted, drawn, sculpted, constructed, or written — touches us on a deep level, and can even transport us to some other world or some larger awareness. The tangibility of a religious statue serves as a vector for the reality beyond. For those of us who believe in an intangible soul that survives the body, the body is the tangible home of that soul in this world.

The tangible and the intangible of this cosmos, while so often thought of as separate and fundamentally different, in fact seem linked in deep and inextricable ways. I will think of this as I look at my Zen rock garden this week, and allow its tangible nature to point my mind to the intangible peace it represents.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010