Saturday, January 3, 2015


Dali: Meditative Rose

For whatever reason, 2014 was the year when I perceived more fully than before a striking difference between “Jesus” and “Christ.” These are two different terms, with different connotations. No one speaks of “Jesus Consciousness.” But it’s possible to refine “Christ” into “Christ Consciousness.”

“Christ Consciousness” has nothing to do with the historical Jesus as the end-of-the-world preacher. We are not even sure he came from Galilee. “Nazareth” is possibly the result of a linguistic confusion with “Nazarene.” Christ Consciousness has nothing to do with virgin birth, walking on water, or resurrection. But it has a lot to do with Jesus’ acts of compassion. It actually doesn’t matter if those acts really took place. What matters is that we know about them.

I find Bart Ehrman very convincing in his presentation of the historical Jesus as one of the many apocalyptic preachers of his era. But Christ Consciousness of non-judgment and non-vengefulness remains an inspiring ideal.

I felt this when I heard a Benedictine monk say, “Your deepest self is the Christ.” Something in me instantly said yes to that. If he’d said, “Your deepest self is Jesus,” I would have automatically recoiled. But this monk has studied in India, and what he said was opposite of the usual Christian talk of being a sinner, so hopelessly fallen that an innocent had to die under torture to effect a collective atonement, or pay “the bloody ransom” to his own [alleged] father.

The Christian doctrine of salvation turns my stomach. That’s why “Yours in the light of Christ” or simply “Yours in Christ” somehow sounds right, while “Yours in Jesus” is off-key. The constant use of the name “Jesus” evokes the fundamentalist churches of hate that keep talking about being “rinsed in the blood of the Lamb” and how “without blood, there is no forgiveness.” 

(Note that you can say, “Yours in the light of the Buddha,” but “Yours in the light of Moses,” or “Yours in the light of Muhammad” sounds off-key — probably because both are associated with violence.)


Note also that the name of the religion is Christianity, and not “Jesuity” or “Jesuitism.” This we owe to St. Paul, whose faith, according to Harold Bloom, could be summarized as “Not Jesus, but Christ.”

Jesus is a Jewish man of the first century. He bears the cross of ancient beliefs that become more and more bizarre as modernity advances. Christ is international; he transcends time and ethnicity.

It was toward the end of the year (December is my month of the “meditative rose”) that I began wondering if some salvaging of Jesus was possible — “Jesus without lies.” But so much text would have to removed that it's easier to leave behind the doctrine and stories, and think in terms of "Christ consciousness." It could be defined as non-judgment, compassion, kindness, and “the kingdom is within.” An ideal, not a person — but the initial connection with a person gives it more power for those of us who could be called “cultural Christians.”

Buddha consciousness is pretty much the same ideal, with freedom from desire as part of it. When a friend said, “You are suffering because you want something from this person,” I experienced at least partial enlightenment. And it worked: I decided there was nothing I wanted from that particular woman, and the suffering dissolved. As an unexpected bonus, I also suddenly began “getting respect” from that woman.

In an attempt to get away from the anthropomorphic concept of the divine, some have posited “Cosmic Consciousness.” But that term is just too abstract for me, and I suspect it’s too abstract and uncuddly for most people. And “Cosmic Consciousness” does not imply kindness.

If I could reform Christianity, I’d totally remove the crucifix and of course any notion of the “bloody ransom.” Christ Consciousness is the opposite of a vengeful deity who requires anyone’s death under torture “because someone has to pay the price.” Says who? That’s the old mentality built around the justification of vengeance. Christ Consciousness is the opposite of that.

On the other hand, I can imagine a supportive “Elohim Consciousness” that breaks away from Yahweh’s wrath, jealousy, vengefulness, and narcissism. Given that we can’t endure people who demand constant praise, how did early humanity ever create a god who wants to be praised 24/7? I suspect that the answer lies in the cruelty of the early gods and the need to appease them as a way to try to control reality (storms, floods, famines, and the like “acts of god”).

My first inkling of the difference between “Jesus” and “Christ” goes back a long time. Already in childhood I noticed that the two words were used differently, and the more educated seemed to favor “Christ.” Jesus was a person, Yoshua, a name like Tom or Bill. Christ was not a first name, but a signifier of consecration. The word implied something more abstract and mysterious. Only now I feel I've clarified it for myself: Christ is a concept, an ideal. And that ideal is meaningful to me.

My deepest self is a lover, so Christ consciousness feels very natural to me. I say this as an atheist since the age of 14, whose journey into atheism has only deepened with age. I used to enjoy shocking people by saying “No, I'm not a spiritual seeker.” In California that’s the supreme heresy. I have very strong values, but they are built on the rock of this life and this magnificent world. I know I’ve been spoiled by California’s la dolce vita. But I find that sweetness of life to be completely compatible with Christ consciousness, which praises joy and wishes joy to all.

  Dali: Galathea of the Spheres 

Why not “Mary Consciousness”?

The cult of Mary existed already in early Christianity. Nevertheless, it did not begin to flourish until the 12th century, when the great cathedrals were dedicated to “Our Lady.” Kenneth Clark makes an interesting suggestion: perhaps, in parallel with courtly love, the times were just too harsh for the devotion to the Sacred Feminine before then. Only when life became just a bit more gentle and secure was there room for the tender image of unconditional love.

Isn’t Jesus of the Gospels an image of unconditional love? Not exactly. Even Jesus talks about hell. He is tainted with the doctrine of the Last Judgment where sinners and nonbelievers (too bad about having been born in Turkey or Japan) will be tossed into hellfire. Not so Mary; she is the one who never judges, never condemns.

Still, “Mary consciousness” doesn’t work. The use of a common first name makes it vaguely ludicrous. “Virgin consciousness” would be even worse. Alas, there is no title of Mary that can serve the purpose. The best I can come up with is “mercy consciousness” — but only to Catholics is Mary the Mother of Mercy. 

Another problem is that Mary’s life and personality are too vague. Here I have to agree that mythology has power. There aren’t enough stories about Mary to indicate anything but submissive passivity. 

Dali: Madonna and Child


Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.  ~ John Steinbeck

It’s no secret that the relationship between The United States and America has always been difficult. True, the words are used interchangeably, with some preference for “America” because it’s shorter. But on a certain level there are different connotations to each term. The United States is reality; America is an ideal.

I don’t intend to analyze all the nuances of that difference. The issue arose for me because of the frequent use of the term “the American dream.” Some years ago I realized that I didn’t really know what the phrase meant, so I asked friend. “Getting rich” was one reply. “A house in the suburbs with a white-picket fence,” someone else said. “A good job, a two-car garage, and being able to support your family,” was yet another definition. It could be summarized as prosperity and a comfortable standard of living.

“I thought the American dream was about more than that,” I said morosely. Not that I dismiss the “good life.” The average American standard of living is higher than in Europe, and it is a blessing. But I wasn’t quite satisfied with reducing the American dream to prosperity — even though that’s probably an accurate “translation.”

Mental time travel brought me the answer I wanted: “The dream IS America.” I had to go back to  when I was 15 or 16 and wondering where I wanted to live. “In the West,” I decided. And “the West” meant above all America. That was the true Promised Land. America itself was the dream.

It meant to me a place of abundance including financial prosperity, but beyond it. I was fascinated by the statement, “America is a country of immigrants.” That’s what I wanted: a place of kindness to the stranger, with freedom to pursue one’s path in life without being unavoidably caught up in politics and petty nationalism. The freedom to pursue what to me was more important — knowledge, for instance.

Actually my first reaction to the phrase “pursuit of happiness” was negative. It seemed shallow. I would have preferred the “pursuit of excellence.” I couldn’t quite understand how someone as brilliant as Jefferson could put forth such a non-inspiring ideal. Remember, I was still in my teens and hardly knew anything about life.

But my struggles with the concept of happiness are a separate topic. To make it worse, in spite of not appreciating happiness on the conscious level, for many years I felt unhappy, and came to realize I’d probably be much happier if I’d stayed in my homeland. Once the thought, “If I studied at the University of Warsaw, I would have had a ball,” crossed my mind, it opened the door to all kinds of other “if only I’d stayed” fantasies. And tears came again, as they so often did during the first two years after arrival.

Becoming an immigrant is a rather desperate move. To all prospective immigrants, I’d say only one word: “Don’t” — unless life where you are is unbearable. Bitterness among immigrants is as endemic as homesickness — but that’s another huge topic. I’ll let one poem speak for some of that sadness:


Because at bedtime I read, Music is the memory
of what never happened, and heard
the slow movement of the Brahms sextet
in B-flat, remembering how in my youth

I would have said, “B-soft” — the melody,
like a summer that far north, brought back
a memory of what never happened,
long ago, in my room in Warsaw.

It was a dream of heaven: I was in my bed,
and the green-eyed motorcycle rider I met
in the Mazurian Lakes, and waited for
that whole year, walking the leafy

length of Warsaw, found me at last —
this bridegroom of the wind
above my river-avenue of poplars —
his weight the sweet burden

of everything unknown.
That night at last I heard
the music of what never happened,
though it did: he’d come to me

in my other life, the one unlived
in the country I left. In that life like thin mist
blown against All Hallows’ graves,
I had no plans: I only wanted to feel

his body on my body.
In the music that would never stop,
we lay dreamless in the quiet dark,
far from time, not needing anything.

~ Oriana © 2014


I had that dream on the morning of Valentine’s Day — I forget the year, but definitely before 2009, when I closed the door to depression. I woke up with tears in my eyes.

I’ve removed a few lines from the earlier version:

Only now, too late, I know
America will not make you happy,
nor publications, nor awards.

When I wrote the first draft of the poem, I was beginning to understand that I had traded personal happiness — although there can be no certainty about that, just an intuition — for the kind of hardship that would make me seek a desperate escape, and re-imagine myself as a poet. Publications and awards did happen, but I never crossed the threshold into true recognition. After a long crisis, I re-imagined myself again, as a writer of the personal essay. It’s a fairly common midlife story: diminished expectations, micro-ambitions.

I called it being posthumous. The life of achievement had already happened. Now I didn’t have to do anything, prove anything.

And gradually I became happy.

And, surprisingly, much of this happiness IS due to America. Most likely, had I stayed, I’d never have the luxury of the kind of deep solitude that’s needed for unhurried creativity. I’d be busy with my professional work and my family. I’d probably be quite content, but as a completely different person.

Nietzsche and Heidegger were right: we are thrown into our time and circumstances, we belong to our time, and no life can be compared with any other life. As I like to say, we are of the moment and belong to that moment.

And to that place we learn to call home, even if in dreams we travel somewhere else.

And thus I entered my dream of America, this time with gratitude. 

Oskar Kokoschka: Bride of the Wind


As President Hollande said in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks: “We are a free country. We carry an ideal that is greater than us.” This is even more true of America: America carries an ideal greater than itself.

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