This is the second part of a 2-part post. The prior post, “Towards The Notflat Star”, is useful prelude to this post.
I found Dr. Robert Bitzer, long-time pastor of the Hollywood Church of Religious Science, by chance. When I moved to LA in the mid-90’s, I did not immediately find a spiritual home, as Spirit Rock Meditation Center had been for me earlier in my San Francisco years. A new boyfriend of mine was inspired by Dr. Bitzer, and I was glad to join him at Hollywood Church services as it did offer a sense of spiritual community.
I was aware of Religious Science before Dr. Bitzer. I was acquainted with Louise Hay, who adapted Religious Science teachings to the specific circumstances of the AIDS/HIV affected community, and read a bit of Ernest Holmes. But, it was Dr. Bitzer who took Religious Science to a whole different, much more profound, level for me. Unlike most Religious Science teachers I had met, the positive thinking, “one thought” tools were recast as means to a much higher truth. Bitzer instilled an intuitive awareness in me of how thought is not an end in itself–thought is held in a larger context, beyond concepts, beyond judgement, beyond physical life/death/sensation. A nameless context, but, if one were to still one’s mind, its presence could be apprehended. I was taken by his weekly teachings/talks and glad to study Religious Science practice with his guidance. And, then, there was the amazing effect of his presence. By the 1990’s, he was himself in his mid-90’s. He had been teaching for over 70 years. He was Ernest Holmes first student, founding the Hollywood Church as the second Religious Science church at Holme’s request.
Dr. Bitzer’s 98th year was amazing. By Christmas, he had touched on many of the world wisdom traditions, illuminating universal insights shared by many of these traditions. The insights aligned around the quieting of the everyday mind to accept a deep peace and equanimity that was ever present, yet mysterious. In November, he offered a special 4-part series touching on the universal questions: “Who Am I?”, “Where Am I?”, “What Am I Doing?” and “Where Am I Going?” This series could generate it’s own reflections beyond the time and space we have here. Christmas Eve, which would turn out to be Dr. Bitzer’s last, was spent at Hollywood Church. I was glad for all Dr. Bitzer had offered me, but still carrying the old “hot”/“cool” paradox: is my truth found in my meditative experience or in the “warmer” world of Bitzer.
As the time came for Dr. Bitzer’s Christmas Eve talk, he slowly rose and shuffled toward the podium. All 98 years of life visible in his halting gate. But, as usual, once ready to go, he lit up like a Christmas Tree. His blue eyes blazed as he looked across the small sanctuary, taking each of us in, binding our minds and hearts to his presence before he even began. He told us he did not have any more to teach. Rather, he wished to share his favorite Christmas Carol with us: O, LIttle Town Of Bethlehem. What follows are not his words verbatim–but my best attempt to capture their essence.
Dr. Bitzer started by noting how O Lttle Town is very different from most carols. Simple, quiet, rarely performed by large choirs or big instruments. He reflected on it’s history. Lyrics by Phllilps Brooks, an Episcopal priest, visiting the the Holy Land in 1865. He was entering Bethlehem on horseback Christmas Eve night, alone on a pilgrimage, and the verses came to him as he paused on a hilltop overlooking the village. Dr. Bitzer recited the words quietly, as if he were sitting beside me, sharing his deepest insight.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!
How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Dr. Bitzer’s concluding remarks left traditional folk interpretations in the dust. The lyrics of Little Town of Bethlehem resonate far beyond the specifics of the Christ story. Offering an atmosphere of joyful mystery and wonder that, at even the darkest time of the year, everlasting light is beyond the reach of darkness/error (“sin”), and the Christ/realization enters in. Mindfulness opens the door to this light, choiceless awareness, that is always with us, obscured only when our realization is inactive (but not dead). This universal truth (“the dear Christ”) is not owned by any deity, church or institution and is not dependent on any intercession. It is our true nature — let us welcome the birth of every moment wherein this wisdom unfolds.
There was utter stillness as he concluded. There was at least for me, a palpable vibration in the air, it felt like time had stopped. Words would be/are inadequate when realization without thought appears. “Hotness” and “coolness” were both “met in thee tonight”. From then on, I have found Mindfulness is all about “bigger than”. Bigger than any construct of ordinary mind or institution, bigger than any words or sounds– however grand, bigger than any “hot” or “cool” preconception or preference — personal or imposed, bigger than any anything that is not love itself.
The lovingkindness that Dr. Bitzer left with me that evening is a gift, like peace, that surpasses all understanding. I hold him in my heart and trust his spirit to be glimpsed in my attempt with this post.
May all beings know the truth of their true nature.
May all beings be at peace.
May your holidays be filled with peace, love and joy.