78.  Crucifix with Antlers
Oil on Panel 5.5′ x 3′ 1977-1987
…Shamanistic themes involving earth powers and metaphysical energies in relationship with the Passion of Christ expressed here with ancient symbols for the divine hunt- antlers, and the crucifix- display an underlying unity in a variety of spiritual traditions and experience. In this work, the practical influence of shamanistic elements is beginning to be apparent. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Tantra, etc., live off their inheritance from the Animist/Shamanistic intuition.
-The “Grand Affair” of spiritual vocation kicks in.
-The savage, but handsome, young man.
-Pilgrimage to test the effects of pilgrimage.
-Shamanism, Buddhism, Panikkar and the Black Widow are introduced.
-A cocktail party.
-Preparation for India.
-The first Dragon.
However, I continued to work on pilgrimage. One such journey, the summer just before entering the seminary, was an event of frightening interest. I had been out for a couple of weeks of, up to that moment, beautiful experiences. I was in the back of a pick-up with several other hitchhikers, one remarkably crazy. At dusk, we were all left at Pescadero Beach south of San Francisco. We all split up. I walked up the beach to find a place to spend the night. Unlike the coast north of San Francisco, this place seemed angry. The waves moody and violent. As I lay on the beach, the water seemed higher than the beach. Threatening. I slept. I dreamed. In the dream, I am on the same beach. It is lit by a sourceless light. Very, very, clear. Crystalline. I am standing at the water’s edge with my back to the sea. On the beach, a friend of mine is being attacked by some kind of supernatural beast. I go to his defense. I hit the beast with a yew-wood club (which I did actually have in my pack). I wasn’t able to hit it with enough force, except to draw its attention to me. As it turned on me, I could see that it had the form of a savagely handsome young man. It came for me. I escaped by waking up. As I opened my eyes to the same but now foggy beach scene, suspended before me was a huge mask of the beast. I said, “you cannot hurt me because I am in Jesus Christ.” I made an offensive, if immature, gesture towards the monster, turned over and went to sleep. What was this figure? Some frustrated aspect of my psyche, a wrathful deity a la Tibetan Buddhism? (Which I did not know anything about at the time.) Or something else? I woke the next morning. Continued my way south. However, I never saw the Yew-wood club again that I had been carving and carrying in my pack. A couple of years later, while on a vacation with a friend, I drove past that beach. There were a lot of surfers parked along the highway there. As we passed, two were dressing next to their car the way surfers do. Because of the traffic we were going slowly. As we passed these two, both looked at me, then dropped their towels and leered, completely naked. It seemed that they both looked just like the savage young man in the dream. I’ve returned to that place since at night and have done rituals of placation and liberation. That would not be the end of this character in my life.
My first year at the seminary went well enough. Four years of monastic ‘studies’ had prepared me well for seminary. But by the following summer, I was once again ready for pilgrimage. The Seminary is an academic, affluent environment. It is a remarkable combination of university and monastery. There is much potential there… But I’m just not an academic and I was still very serious about asceticism. So I sought the purification of the road. This pilgrimage was specifically an experiment. I was carefully testing the effect of certain ascetical practices. I will not tell the whole of this adventure now since all its details are included in the “fiction” section later in Part II of this letter. Suffice it to say now in the process of testing these practices and because of an encounter with a beautiful young woman and her baby, I came to an expanded understanding of Eucharist. I came to an understanding of such spiritual largess that it reduced me to tears.
That same evening I walked through a town and out into the countryside. No rides were offered. No food. Nowhere to rest since this part of the country was very wet. Around midnight, I’d had it. “Asceticism is fine, but I feel like shit.” At that point of giving up, something in me opened, a curtain was pulled back, another world or dimension was revealed. This was for the briefest moment but it was enough. It was enough to continue walking through the night refreshed and re-energized! [One might say that this was the beginning of what would become the “Yemen Experiment.”]
That same summer I also made two backpacking trips into the High Sierras in California. 100 miles altogether. It was on this trip that I read for the first time, the infamous Carlos Casteneda. From Casteneda’s perspective (Don Juan’s apparently), Being is likened to a rapacious black eagle, but there is a way, a path, to escape its otherwise inexorable appetite. [Is God such merciless non-being then? Or, is Nature merciless, though also beautiful?] To follow that “impeccable” path is the warrior’s task and most beneficial to all concerned.1 [I’ve included Casteneda’s’ explanation in this note.] His shamanistic topic tolled in me with such deep resonance that huge inner doors slowly swung open with the invitation to more exploration- activation of sacred mysteries. Bishop, this opens the whole topic of Shamanism hinted at earlier.
You might ask what need a Christian has of such things; spirit animals, sacred plants, rocks, and places; rituals and other practices that communicate with the “other-world” through such media. I would like to suggest that God speaks through exactly such agents as these since they represent how the Creator Spirit has fashioned the world. They are part of the whole religious complex that connects us intimately to the natural structures of the world. That is their significance to me. Our humanistic religion, our culture is often indifferent, even hostile to this intimacy and therefore the spiritual dimension of the non-human world. It is a cruel and ignorant vilification to blithely dismiss this profoundly mystical insight of our ancestors about the structure and function of our psyche in relationship with that of the world, as solely the territory of the black arts where a Christian dare not trespass. I would dare to say that such communication is not only valid but completely appropriate. Why would the creator not use creation and creatures to communicate the mysteries of the world? Such an understanding is neither against revealed religion, nor science for that matter if both are really interested in true things.
How we use this knowledge seems to me to be the question that should interest us. And that is what I am describing. The spirit animal that takes on the greatest power in this story is soon to be introduced, though it will be a while before it reveals its real potency and danger. You, I suspect, will be quite surprised, perhaps horrified, as I was at first, by the significance of this animal in my story. At the end of an intensive meditation retreat under Shinzen’s direction, I was introduced to a famous Zen Master, Sasaki Roshi. During our interview, he asked me a very interesting question. “Who is it that climbs up on the Cross?” I meditated on that for three years. Then I felt the power of this koan and was inspired to ask: Who are we in Christ? Who is Christ in us? What do the Gospels evoke and conjure in the human heart: What spell is cast to fulfill the human capacity? And who casts it?
I meditated on that for three years. Then I felt the power of this koan and was inspired to ask: Who are we in Christ? Who is Christ in us? What do the Gospels evoke and conjure in the human heart: What spell is cast to fulfill the human capacity? And who casts it?
80  El Salvador, Central America 1980
Oil on Paper 42″ x 22″ 1983 The Passion of Christ resonates through history, still… ____________________________________________________________________
It was during another such intensive meditation retreat at the Zendo that a terrible, yet excellent process was begun in me. It happened, I believe, around 10:00 p.m. on the second night of the retreat. I was meditating in the traditional Zen style. Into my mind’s eye came the image of a black claw sticking itself into my back. An hour later, I started to become very ill. So ill, that I went home. I was sick the next day. On Monday I went to the doctor. He discovered that I had been bitten by a black widow spider. There were five wounds in my back. I still have the scars. Necrotized, mortified flesh? One the size of a half dollar coin. Most of my convalescence was a time of heightened clarity. Then I developed blood poisoning, a thin red line creeping around my side from the wound toward my heart. I had to be rushed to the hospital. I recovered and found out later that the Aztec priests used to use Black Widow venom to alter consciousness since there is a hallucinogenic agent in it. For a couple of years, this just seemed to be an another odd episode in my life. But much will come of it as you will see. Venom must be changed to vision.
It was around the time of the black widow encounter that I met Panikkar. He is a Catholic priest who is also a world famous scholar, author, activist and contemplative. He was a professor of religious studies at the local University of California, with doctorates in Chemistry, Philosophy, and Theology. He became my spiritual director, and guide for the project that developed into my Master’s study of Shamanism, Tantra and the Hesychasm. (See Introduction for definitions.) This Master’s thesis and later the Ph.D. became an umbrella to allow for a formal, organized study of these topics that I had been exploring on my own for years; for the whole “Nepsis” project. (I had not planned to do a Master’s thesis or the Ph.D., but perhaps the academic discipline is a good counterpoint to these other more amorphic practices.) The general topic of my thesis was spiritual “awakening” in the various religious traditions already noted; Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, Christian Hesychasm, and Shamanism. Buddhist Tantra because it is a sophisticated mystical integration developing out of the Yogic traditions of India, themselves the systematic and highly developed practice of what has been discovered from the universal phenomena of primordial Shamanism. The Hesychasm because it accomplishes something similar in the Abrahamic traditions. To pursue this I first decided to go to India, at Panikkar’s suggestion, to study with Tibetan Buddhists. But what really happened is this-
When I first announced to my friends at home that I was going to India, one young lady present announced that she had to go as well. Whatever resistance might have been mounted against that idea, she prevailed. Her name is Catherine. I was to hitchhike across the country from L.A. to New York. We were to meet in New York at the airport and continue together from there. Which we did. That developed into a great friendship– still is I believe.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I left for the east, this traumatic event occurred. On a Tuesday of a certain week in the Spring, I went to the doctor to get shots in preparation for India. On Wednesday, I had a bad sinus headache, so I took a lot of sinus medicine. A migraine developed. On Thursday, I woke up with another blazing migraine. I took a large dosage of prescription migraine medicine. I did not know that this prescription had any barbiturate in it. I was able to function at all only because of this drug in spite of the migraine. I was by then a walking pharmacy. Late that afternoon, after some off-campus shopping, I returned to the seminary in time for the big social event of the seminary year that happened to be scheduled for that evening. This was the only time when alcohol is allowed for the seminarians on campus.
There is a cocktail hour and wine with dinner. I seldom drink. Don’t like it normally. But, I had one beer at the cocktail hour that happily mixed with the medication and ‘I was gone.’ With dinner, our waiter thought it amusing to watch me get drunker and drunker as he kept filling my glass. No one, including myself, was aware of the building level of combined drug, alcohol impact. After dinner, my class was on clean-up, so some friends and I volunteered to clean up the cocktail area. I, with some help, cleaned up the beer keg. Soon there was a secret party going. At certain points, I was the center of entertainment, because, in this “altered” state, my normally rather pious reputation was expressing itself in a searingly humorous (I’m told.) critique of seminary personalities- including faculty. Soon, after moving the party to a location safer from faculty detection, I passed out. I was semi-conscious as friends took me back to my room, which involved some slap-stick avoidance of seminary faculty. Having safely made it to my room, they put me to bed. But I got up to vomit in the sink. I did not vomit, but instead, I hit the center of my forehead hard on the tap. Then I went into what seemed like convulsions. I remember waking up strapped to a bed in the local hospital emergency room. I was told that it took six men to hold me down when they got me to the hospital; they said that I broke the restraints on my wrists that held me to the bed. Those were replaced with heavy leather restraints lined with fleece. The doctor was professionally rude to me when I woke up. Something about the possibility of suicide. I looked over at my friends and said, “Who is this asshole?” Very uncharacteristic.
I was not kicked out of the seminary because the label on the bottle of the migraine prescription had such a “mild” warning about the possibility of drowsiness if taken with alcohol. This event secured my direction toward “unconventional” spiritual explorations since it destroyed my reputation as a mild, mystical, pious son of the Church in favor of something that I came to view as more vigorous, but just as true. All quite by “accident.” It also seemed to release some force–physical strength in me that surprised all of us. The archetype of the hero/warrior is beginning to have a surprising influence in my life. This includes a puerile egotism as well, but that is an issue of transitory immaturity, not a life commitment to vanity. Perhaps, this is a necessary aspect of the overall task to be accomplished: Formless energies of youth called up to effect a specific if yet to be named, intention.
Believe me, Bishop, I do not aspire to be a “New Age Dragon and Crystal” dilettante! But, this experiential identification of the vital life-force in nature would continue to repeat itself with increasing power and effect as we continued to make pilgrimage to such “sacred” locations around the world.
One such was on our way to India. We had a layover in Rome, so we went to Assisi to pay our respects to the great saint. To do so we found a meadow in a canyon above the ancient town. There, my companion and I made a vigil overnight- a night of sitting and walking meditations. We’d been fasting but had water and some cherries we bought at a roadside stand as we explored for the place to make our vigil. It was a moonlit night and some time after midnight, a voice in my mind said,
“If you turn around you will see them.”
I turned and only saw the moonlit meadow. Then, to the left on the bank of a stream, in a sycamore tree, on a specific branch, one could see a kind of alteration is space, like heat waves rising from a summer pavement on a sunny afternoon. Unquestionably, it was a ‘presence’ we both witnessed. We offered it some cherries.
When morning came, we hiked out. Spent some time in the famous old town and noticed an inordinate number of cast iron dragons around town. Playfully at first, we identified this icon with the psyche of nature as we identified our experience the night before. But I am also a Catholic priest. And for us, it is the Holy Spirit that animates the world. None-the-less, we always talk about the Dragon of Assisi in a completely positive way.
On the morning that Catherine and I left Assisi, we walked down to the train station on the plain below that hill-top town. Once down, we turned to see the town encircled by a dragon-like cloud of roiling dark reds, golds and umber coils. Though the full account of this important realization/experience of an all-night vigil above Assisi and the sacred encounter had there is told elsewhere, it was the first conscious encounter with what I would come to identify as the Dragon Lord- –
The Holy Spirit of Creation.
81 [27.] Crucifix Oil on Panal 3′ x 5′ 1977?
Homage to Beamish Alice Beamish was my first college drawing and painting teacher. She also introduced me to Saint Andrew’s Priory and thus began my monastic education and life as a Catholic. These Crucifix paintings are formally derivative from Beamish’s paintings at first- The topic: KENOSIS.