A Morning Mind Essay
From the New York Times, January 27, 2016:
“The documentary, “Salafistes,” will also be accompanied by a warning about its contents. It shows one leader of the Salafists, who practice a fundamentalist form of Islam, supporting the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and another leader justifying the amputation of hands as a punishment under Shariah, the legal code of Islam. They also speak freely about their opinions on the inferiority of women.”
My wife is the smartest person I’ve ever met. Back in 1990, before we were married and while we were still getting to know each other, she applied to Divinity School at a number of places around the country, and asked me to read the essay that she attached with her application. I thought the writing was okay—she hadn’t done much writing at that point—but felt certain she’d get in: she’d graduated from the University of North Carolina, worked as a photographer at a local weekly newspaper, done social justice work in various capacities, mostly for an organization named Witness for Peace, leading delegations to El Salvador and Nicaragua.
She worked tirelessly for those causes, often under dangerous conditions, and had acted as Interim Director of Witness for Peace for a year. All of her social justice work had its origin in her spiritual convictions, and she’d been heavily influenced by nuns and priests in Central America. She was a wonderful candidate for Divinity School, and got into every place she applied. She decided to attend a Jesuit seminary, Weston School of Theology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
She had spent her life believing, not just that priests were people with a deep understanding, but that the Jesuit Order represented the height of intellectual achievement. Her church told her, in fact, that only men were capable of being priests, and though she didn’t believe such a thing, and had encountered nuns who were every bit the spiritual equals of priests, she had that implicit teaching as a background to her faith.
She’d grown up in the mountains of North Carolina, gone to mediocre schools, and attending UNC had been a big deal for her. So enrolling at Weston School of Theology was a stretch; she believed she’d be pitting herself against the finest minds she’d ever encountered, and turned down a full ride at Harvard Divinity School to go there. She was also moving to Cambridge with not much money, into a small apartment owned by the school (my son was still in high school, and I wouldn’t be joining her until the second year). I was humbled and stunned by her courage, in that late summer when I helped move her up. Courage, I would say, is her most striking characteristic.
So I was astonished, perhaps three weeks into her first semester, when I paid my first visit, and she asked if I wanted to read a paper she’d written for her course about the brilliant Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. She handed it to me in an offhanded, embarrassed way: this is something I wrote; read it if you feel like it. It was rigorously and beautifully written, with a sophisticated grasp of Rahner’s thought. She had somehow, within a few weeks, absorbed a whole way of looking at things and a vocabulary for speaking about them. I hadn’t read Rahner, but I’d read a fair amount of theology. I couldn’t believe the Jesuit novitiates could write better than that. I was sure they couldn’t.
She has the quickest mind I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve encountered a number, having taught at every level from seventh grade to graduate school. She reads something and makes it her own. She did that with Rahner, with Theravada Buddhism, with the work of Thomas Merton. This girl from the mountains and the crummy schools was every bit the equal of the Jesuits who taught her and with whom she studied, and of the students at Harvard too, where she soon transferred. She had a 4.0 average all through Divinity School.
But her mind isn’t the source of her spiritual superiority. I bring it up because I don’t want to say, She has a strong intuitive sense, a woman’s kind of spirituality; she may not be able to express things rationally but has a deep intuitive understanding nevertheless. That isn’t the case with my wife. She has a deep intuitive spirituality, but she can also express things rationally. She speaks rationally as well as any man who ever lived. She’s smart in the one way and smart in the other. It’s a little unfair.
But the source of her spiritual power is something else, and is more typical of women. It’s the reason women have been suppressed by all of the patriarchal religions, and a major reason they’ve been suppressed in general. It’s the thing women have and men don’t, a place where they’re strong and men are weak. Men fear that place—I’ve felt that fear myself—and it makes them furious. It’s the element that has been left out of the patriarchal religions, to their detriment, the thing that they don’t have, but that they need. It’s the thing that fundamentalist religions need desperately to kill off, or they can’t survive. That’s why they have to keep women in their place.
It’s also hard to talk about. You can talk around it, but it’s hard to name.
When I first met my wife I was a religious man without a religion. I was convinced there was something essentially true about religion, something I needed, but I couldn’t find it. Sometimes I thought the problem was with me, sometimes with religion, but there was a problem somewhere. I had read widely in theology—I’d actually read the next most prominent Catholic theologian after Rahner, Hans Kung—and I wanted to believe it, I really did. I just couldn’t get there.
When I met my wife I was reading Krishnamurti, the last gasp of the religiously desperate. I read those pages and was overwhelmingly moved, to the point of tears—this is it, I would think, this is the truth of things, this is what I believe—but five minutes later I couldn’t tell you what I’d read. Around the time when my wife decided to go to Divinity School, we scheduled a talk about religion—we had to take a long walk together, it was so emotional—and she spoke to me about her Catholicism, while I tried, hopelessly, to tell her what I was getting from Krishnamurti. The two things were actually closer than we imagined, but a gap separated them that we couldn’t bridge. We got nowhere.
She seemed so sure of her convictions, while I was bewildered. Her apparent certainty made me furious. Where did it come from?
If I could have expressed my feelings rationally, I would have said, I don’t understand the reason for prayer, or for religious ceremony in general. God knows our minds, he knows what we want before we want it, he knows what we need before we ask, he knows better than we. So why should we ask? If we get it we would have gotten it anyway. If we don’t it’s because God knows what we really need. So why are we doing this? Why are we praising God? Is God so insecure that he needs human beings to praise him?
My wife had the brilliant idea that we needed some neutral ground, a spiritual practice in common. She signed us up—once I had moved to Cambridge, by which time she had transferred to Harvard—to take a class at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. I felt no need to have a spiritual practice in common, or to have one at all, but didn’t think it was worth fighting over. I’d pick my battles.
On the first night of class, in the basement of an old Cambridge house, if some guy in long white robes with a long white beard and a red dot on his forehead had come down to the class and referred to me as “My child,” I’d have been out of there like a shot.
But the man who came down was perfectly ordinary looking. He didn’t, as far as I could tell, say anything spiritual at all. All he talked about was how to sit. We did a little sitting. My back ached. My legs ached. My mind raced like crazy. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
“Wasn’t that wonderful?” my wife said when we got outside.
Took the words right out of my mouth.
But I began to sit. I was taking a class, and the homework was to sit every morning, and I did the homework. I sat for a period of time before I wrote. After a while I sat when I first got up, before breakfast. I made sitting a separate activity.
We took the beginner’s class, an intermediate class, then my wife got too busy so I took the intermediate class on my own. Intermediate was as high as it went.
I began to realize I’d found something I’d been looking for all my life.
Meditation addressed all my problems about prayer. I wasn’t asking for anything, I wasn’t praising anything. I wasn’t saying anything at all. I wasn’t hoping. I wasn’t doing anything.
Something was happening nevertheless. I couldn’t say what it was. But I could feel it.
This was the way my wife had connected with God from the time she was eight years old and came under the influence of her Catholic grandmother. She connected through prayer in the Catholic church, through the prayers which she wrote every morning as she sat down to work (I didn’t understand what that was, writing prayers?), through throwing the I Ching ever since she’d discovered it as a college student in the early seventies. It was all religion, it was all spirituality, it was all part of the same thing. The doctrine of the particular religion didn’t matter. What mattered was the emotional and spiritual content that underlay the doctrine, and that took place in the body.
I’d thought doctrine was important. I’d blown a gasket trying to figure out doctrine, to make sense of it, to believe it. Now that I’d stopped working my mind, begun the long descent into my body, I could feel the emotional and spiritual content. I was a novice at feeling, and the content was subtle, but it was there. It was unmistakable.
Fundamentalist religion—any religion can be fundamentalist—is based on doctrine. Men argue about it, have elaborate disputes; they fight wars about it. Many aspects of doctrine are utterly unbelievable, but they believe them anyway, by God. Women, in the meantime, know that the emotional and spiritual content is what’s important. They let men have their theories, have their disputes. They let them fight wars, if they have to. Men are physically stronger, and they’re so bullheaded, and so earnest. (They’re so fucking stupid.) But they’re trying hard. And there’s no changing their minds. Try to do that and they’ll call you a heretic. They’ll call you a witch. They’ll call you a bitch. They’ll start beating you.
In order to maintain a fundamentalist religion, men have to maintain the importance of doctrine and suppress the emotional and spiritual content, which is shadowy, and intuitive, and subtle. It isn’t bold, and bright, and etched in stone. Fundamentalists are looking for certainty. Their faith is based on it.
That intuitive inner knowing will upset the applecart. Men can’t let it out.
 Some years ago I read Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God. The book seemed made for me. I love Armstrong as a writer, and I’m fascinated by the history of religion. But about halfway in I wanted to throw it across the room, and I never finished it. The book, of course, was about men’s ideas about God, and I couldn’t believe how stupid they were, and what they led men to do.
 By women, of course, I’m referring more to a sensibility than to a group of people; some people with a vagina are not like this at all, while some people with a penis are. It was that big soft white haired and white bearded woman named Walt Whitman who once said, as one of his primary tenets of life, Argue not concerning God. He understood the essence of religion.