Monday, June 30, 2008

Spirituality in New York City's Central Park

I was in New York City (NYC) on Jun3rd-4th, 2008. Apart from the crowd of concrete jungle, NYC has a huge Central Park in the center of Manhattan Island. It was there that I had a chance to re-connect back to God, our Creator. While I was walking from the Columbia Center sub-way to the Central Park, I notice a subtle transition from the world of concrete jungle to the world of wildlife nature. Each environment represents a setting, which I will elaborate more with the pictures below.

The city life is filled with tremendous amount of human interaction. It is a social world differentiated by ranks, class, social status, academic qualifications, commenced salary; where one's standing in the company is measured by his portfolios, work performance and other subtleties that distinguish one from the others. It is a social world conditioned by sets of values that are reinforced in the web of social interaction. These values are consciously or unconsciously being reinforced by daily interactions, reward system, and just being part of the system. In this social setting, to be successful is to have graduated with a college degree, preferably from one of the Ivy League colleges; to have attained a recognizable social status; to be managing a group of people or to be on top of the commanding hierarchy; to own a luxurious car; and perhaps to be a member of a prestigious club. All these values are amplified through media; continuously endorsed by the educational system, and by the participants in the system (including myself).

Once I stepped into the Central Park, there is a transition from heavily constructed social setting into a world made up of natural plants, animals, free of human conditioned interaction. There is once a feeling of being freed from a socially constructed world, and there is an absence of living in a socially constrained space.

As I walked deeper into the park, I came upon trees and grasses with squirrels playing with each other. As I stared intently at the sight in front of me, I felt that there were just me, the squirrels and the tree and grass. Everything else had vanished from my horizon. The sight in front of me cannot possibly be conditioned by me, nor within my sphere of influence or control. I am standing in a free relationship with the environment.

At that split second, one of the squirrels looked intently at me. He/She might be wondering who was this stranger intruding into his/her privacy. Somehow, that squirrel and I shared that space together without any of us feeling obliged to return a favor or manipulating each others' movement. At that moment, I felt as if God had intruded into my private sphere by tearing me away from my social construction of reality.

I have been living in a social reality that I construct, and which is continuously being reinforced by my interaction with the external world. I have been conditioned to expect things to be done in a certain way, expecting results to return from one's effort, and to believe in the societal values that sustain the whole system. But at this moment, the reality confronting me has been re-defined. No longer could I relate this reality in the same way that I used to relate the previous reality. The instantaneous realization that I live in a socially conditioned reality jerked me to a new level consciousness. I suddenly felt being connected back to our Creator. At that rare moment, it is as if the Creator was speaking to me through His creation, and I sensed the different level of spirituality that came alive in the Central Park. This spirituality challenged my socially constructed reality. It reminded me of the ultimate reality that lies beyond what I can see, and of the defining moment in human history when God died for humankind. This ultimate reality is continually intruding into my socially constructed reality. I have to make a choice on which reality I must confer my allegiance. This re-connection back to the Creator forces me to examine myself.

As much as the spiritual moment I had at that time, I realized that this park could have served as a space for the New Yorkers to re-connect back to Mother Nature, this park could also be a sacred space for people to be re-connected back to our Creator, through the Mother Nature. It then dawned upon me that each and everyone of us could reserve or setup a sacred space in our life, when we could actually break away from the normal routine of life, and to be re-wired back to our Creator. Some people called this quiet time. I recalled the twelve stones which Yahweh asked the Israelites to select when crossing the river Jordan.

Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” (NRSV, Josh 4:20-24)

The Israelites set up sacred places so that they could remind themselves of Yahweh's mighty deed in their history. Similarly, I think it is important for each and everyone of us to set up a sacred place or time or sphere whereby we allow God to interact with us, and be reminded that this world is God's creation, and we are the created and He is the Creator.

I believe we live in a world of our social construct, where our values are heavily conditioned by what our society informs us, and we in turn reinforce our social construct everyday. Our re-connection back to God gives us the opportunity to be challenged once again the assumptions we have made of what we believed to be a good life. Isn't it counter-intuitive to be meek? (Matt 5:5) We speak so much about our own rights, and our own freedom, isn't it against our constructed nature to turn our right cheek so that it could be struck as well? (Matt 5:39) We think it is only right for the Talibans to be destroyed, the Afghanistan to be torn apart, Saddam Hussein to be executed and Iraq to be uprooted. How shocking it is to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 5:44).

Either Jesus Christ is insane or we are insane. Either Jesus Christ's reality is the ultimate reality or our constructed reality the ultimate reality. Setting up a sacred place/time/sphere allows us to be challenged of the many assumptions we have made, of the systems that we have set up, and the assurance that our constructed reality has to be ultimately real.

As I continued to look around me, I saw a pair of elderly couples holding hands and walking together. I am not sure how long they have been married but it was a sweet moment to behold. This moment stood out as a stark contrast against the short lifespan of love embraced by many modern societies, particularly epitomized by NYC, which is supposed to be the model of many modern cities. Here is a testimony of how we could age gracefully, and continue to hold on to the age-old notion where old companions should continue to treasure each other's company.

I also saw a horse carriage directed by a driver, ferrying two passengers. It is amazing to witness a horse in harmonious relationship with humans. This brings me back to the time when humans were created and

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (NRSV, Gen 1:26)

We are given the mandate to take good care of God's creation. But look at the awful mess we have created. We caused the extinction of animals, the excessive deforestation, the CO2 emission, global warming, etc. I believe we have been exploiting the nature excessively ever since the Industrial Revlolution. When one's country's GDP and economic growth are measured by how much it produces and consumes, the race to industrial production and consumption engulfed the notion of a living in a mutual relationship in a sustainable environment.

It is only in the last two decades that we are acknowledging the problems caused by ourselves. I pray and hope that more and more countries will sign on the Kyoto Protocol, and more consumers or economy developers can be raised to the consciousness whereby we must take the mandate of taking care of the environment seriously. It is a steep uphill slope, but no doubt a difficult challenge that each one of us must undertake.

A short walk in NYC's Central Park led me to some serious reflection. I hope you have enjoyed reading it, and being spurred to some reflection as well.

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