A Least Expected Heaven
Homelessness and the Spirituality of Meeting
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Below is an excerpt from my book, A Least Expected Heaven: Homelessness and the Spirituality of Meeting, which is now available at www.amazon.com for paperback, Kindle, and iPad, and at www.BarnesAndNoble.com for Nook. The book describes what I have called a Spirituality of Meeting: an understanding of heaven drawn from the experience of my own homelessness and the stories of others I have known over five decades. It describes the tension that arises from the struggles of persons living at the margins of society, resulting in an understanding of life and God which religion too often neglects.
Introduction: Stories of the Sacred, Outside Religion
How long shall we sit in our porticoes practicing idle and musty virtues, which any work would make impertinent?
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“What’s on the other side?” I asked my uncle on a brilliant summer’s day as we sat together on the beach. I was a boy of six; the year was 1953 and Wildwood was at that time a virtual Italian seaside colony in South Jersey on the road to renown as a rock-and-roll incubator and the doo wop capital of the western world. As children do, I was drawn away in thought as I dug handfuls of sand, gazing at the thin line where earth and sky meet. My first-generation Italian-American uncle was a short man with an enormous belly that to my young eyes looked like he swallowed a watermelon; everybody, including his wife, called him Doc. He was a dentist, but my mother said he was never to work on our teeth. I always knew he was doing well because he drove a Cadillac with all the bells and whistles like automatic windows, a big deal in the mid-1950’s. Anyway, Uncle Doc was slumped in his sagging beach chair in his canvas hat, legs apart, engrossed in his newspaper while he chomped distractedly on the stub of a cigar. “Paris,” he grunted without looking up and surely expressed with the hope that would end my questions, “Paris is what’s on the other side.” But I had expected him to say, heaven.
I thought it odd that my old uncle did not make that connection, which seemed so evident to me, and now I also wonder why he looked at the horizon and didn’t think of his own roots, the distant shore of his ancestors. But he was an American now who came of age in the postwar years of the 1920’s: of course he might not think first of Italy. His parents, my grandparents, had boarded ship, watching as the last of their eternal homeland sank from view, even as they turned to embrace the unseen, irresistible coast of America. The risk they took was based on more than escape from an old life of static poverty. It was also a desire to travel to the distant shore, to discover another world, a better home.
I look back now, over a half-century, at the boy standing with his feet in the sand, hands cupped beside his eyes shielding them from the bright sun, gazing to the farthest reach of the sea, and I wonder if there is any child who has not done the same, and maybe also even dreamed that heaven might be there, somewhere on the far side of what the eye can see? I’ve long since been dispelled of the illusion that it’s a place in France, but I’ve also come to realize that finding the place called heaven has been the defining dynamic of my life. Surprisingly what I have found has not been in the church, but outside institutional religion.
At our last day, when every one of us is at that place where earth and sky convene, all that will matter will be how we grew in our lifetime, through all the relationships of our days, into the understanding of who we truly are. Spiritual discovery begins with the search to know ourselves and to recognize and meet ourselves in others. Anything less than this is surrender, a capitulation of our understanding of the divine to a ghost: a God who exists only on paper. At the outset, I’ll say that I’ve lost faith in much of conventional religion, even as religion has played a huge role in my life. I don’t think I’m alone in this. We humans are innately spiritual beings, and we won’t settle forever for a standardized faith that maximizes the minimum, minimizes the maximum, and tolerates dishonesty and irrelevance. Even faithful religious people recognize this; I’m not saying anything new here. But I am saying that heaven must be found through the inspiration and insight of our loving relationships, and if this is not the heart of our religion, we need to look elsewhere.
I’m not out to debunk longstanding and well-worn organizational paths. Everyone needs some consolation in life, and if standardized religion is enough for you, nothing I say may be of any use. However, my own link to the eternal has been in my relationships with people, particularly persons who have experienced homelessness, and these sacred connections I’ve found in the unfolding of life itself. Our years don’t have to be perceived as a chronology of events over time, like a world history exam. Rather, our lifetimes are like a voyage on which we discover each other. When we remember our lives, we remember people, not so much a sequence of events as those dazzling moments when we truly encounter: when we know we are deeply and inseparably connected to another person, however briefly. Through that divine link we know, we absolutely know, that we are connected to all life, every living thing, and this assurance of belonging extends even to the universe itself. It all begins with our relationships: to ourselves and all persons we meet. We are the revelation of the infinite to one another, mentors of the personality of God.
In the United States, so much of what passes today as Christian religion is vapid. And this is true for mainstream denominations as well as the glut of storefront, or should I say mall-front, churches, mega-churches, and televangelists that are popping up like rain-bogged mushrooms. While declining mainline churches are busy endlessly tweaking their organizational procedures, thriving churches du jour are fine-tuning the prosperity gospel, and what we know instinctively to be lacking in all, and urgently needed, is the creation of basic context for human meeting and a moral compass based on the knowledge of who we are—the true ground of our being: that all people are part of each other. Somehow, when we allow ourselves the time and space to move beyond our jumpy egos, the mask of our social life, we recognize that we are not isolated and self-contained beings. We simply know that we belong to one another.
Within and outside religion there is growing desire for a spirituality that works—having the capacity to transform our individual lives and renew society. While institutional houses of faith are everywhere, so is the growing uneasiness that all is not well: that we are drifting apart rather than together, and that we see more reason to fear the stranger than to embrace others as we would ourselves.
We need to know ourselves and each other before anything else, and this requires meeting. Our culture, whether for economic or political angst, is actively destroying these contexts of real encounter, isolating us as people, and creating haves and have-nots across the board. If the religious community does not see the spiritual famine in all this, it exists in a vacuum deeper than outer space. Religious institutions must be challenged continually or they run the risk of serving their structures and rules before a castaway humanity they profess to love. There is only one rule that really matters: meet yourself, meet your neighbor, love both sincerely and you will be one with God. Organized religion, particularly the mainline Church, is faced with the challenge to become a schoolhouse, not for instruction in reaching for a netherworld beyond the rainbow, but for human beings, in the multiplicity of their differences, who earnestly want to know themselves and meet each other now, here on earth. It’s a potentially costly process, though. If any Church, any religious institution, dares become a catalyst for dynamic human neighborhood it will be countering a culture that will oppose it in blood. It may lose its life; it will be forever transformed—but in the end it will save its soul.
The homelessness which enveloped my childhood has never left me. To this day I carry with me always its tangible fears, defenses and anxieties. Among the thousands of persons I have known who have been homeless, I have encountered a spirituality of meeting which I have rarely found in the Church. This book is my attempt to convey what I have been taught. And for those who have instructed me so well, my hope is that the stories of this book will confirm the consolation that even in the chaos of homelessness a person is never truly alone. We owe this confidence to one another because we all have, in like way, been encouraged through life by the kind and simple honesty of others.
Perhaps, also, those who consider themselves outsiders, especially who find themselves increasingly outside religion, will take some heart in what I write. I know that when I use the term outsiders I am somehow violating the heart of my own thesis—that of our ultimate oneness as people. A better term might be something like seekers, but that word doesn’t quite do it. I am addressing persons who, like me, feel they are on a life quest to find home: a place of true belonging. So, it might be more accurate for me to say: persons who feel like outsiders. These are persons who resolve truth more in the stream of action than by deliberation. They decide by doing, and form new principles and realities based on their relationships with others. Perhaps they are, by life experience or membership, connected to a religion, but their real sanctuary is the spirituality of the deed. They act on the conviction that true words and righteous actions are inseparable, that beliefs not acted upon are hollow. Theirs is the service of a deep intuition of life and the oneness of all living; that one’s life is important to all others and in keeping covenant with generations yet unborn to plant, by our actions in the present, the seed corn of our future.
I think of this book as a journey. At Meeting Ground we once gave hospitality to a man from India who was in the middle of a peace-walk around the world. He had some distant relation to Gandhi, although I can’t recall how exactly. What I do clearly remember was his Gandhi-like aura, especially impressive to peace-movement Americans—so we tended to pay special attention to what he said, like Presbyterians perking to a Scottish brogue. When I asked him why he had undertaken such an ambitious three-year project he explained, “My walk isn’t from place to place, it’s from person to person: that’s how I’m meeting you.” He might have said the same about the journey of life itself; life is the spirituality of meeting, ourselves and others, and we write the sacred book, page by page, from person to person.
This book is my walk, or, more appropriately, my voyage to you; at least it is my high hope I will be able to make that connection. The stories are about people I have known who, like me, have experienced the grief of homelessness. I chose them out of many others I could tell, because, taken together, they best describe what I mean by the spirituality of meeting, each one relaying a part of it, and each one pointing to a least expected heaven. All have instructed me through their living, giving me a window into the anatomy of the spirit side of life and, dare I say, even the arc of the cosmos itself. In the pages that follow, I would be glad to know that, in some small way, they have reached you also.