One of the formative experiences in my adult spiritual life was participation in the Spiritual Guidance program of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. I created the mandala included in this post during one of the program’s summer residencies.
When I was actively using mandala-making as a spiritual practice, I often posed a question, and let the mandala help me find an answer. I created this mandala in response to the question, “Can I stay in the church?”
Even before I came out to myself as not-straight, even before I went into the desert as a Presbyterian minister and came out as an unemployed non-theist, even then the constraints of orthodox faith were tight enough that I was asking if I could continue to live and serve in the Christian tradition.
One of the great saints of Shalem, Tilden Edwards, had introduced the terms “exoteric” and “esoteric” to us earlier in the residency, and they half-consciously informed the mandala’s answer to my question. The short form of the answer was, “If the church can balance the exoteric and the esoteric, I can stay.”
The outer rim of the mandala consists of exoteric symbols: the sustaining sacrament of bread and wine, and the Christian story as told in the bible. Within that ring are more esoteric symbols: the water of baptism and the fire of the indwelling Spirit. Sacred Mystery at the center of the mandala holds within itself the seed of Life.
It occurred to me during one of the chalice lightings at General Assembly that my understanding of the flaming chalice is very much tied to what I learned from creating this mandala: water needs a cup, and a cup needs water. What I need in a religious community is a balance between reason and mystery, between structure and creativity, between passion and common sense.
So may it be.