Finding My Religion

New Templar bottles designed by O-I win the Syba* “Packaging of the Year 2007” Award

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The vaulted cellars of the Templarske Wine Company are located in the beautifully reconstructed buildings which were a former commandary of the Templar Knights back in the 13th Century. The Czech wine company uses the legendary Templar cross both as company name and emblem since their creation in 1992, although the cellars were never actually used as a winery back in that era. For the second year running, Templarske Wine company has won a prestigious SYBA “Packaging of the Year” Award for its emblematic packaging, developed in collaboration with O-I.

The range of containers combines nostalgic design with the latest trends, and includes traditional Bordeaux models with long neck and tall shoulders (two furthest bottles on right, above), and Bourgogne-inspired “vintage” models (centre and centre-left bottles), which already won the company a SYBA award in 2006. Completing the range, O-I has developed a prestigious tall, Catalan-inspired bottle with a modern flat finish and customized engraving, bearing the Company’s emblem, the “Templar’s Cross” proudly on its shoulders (far left bottle, above).

The new package is aimed at both the Horeca and retail segments. The bottles in this Templar range are available in number of shapes and colours: amber, dead leaf green and flint colours. Whilst the coloured tints are made locally at the Nove Sedlo plant in the Czech Republic, the flint bottles are produced in limited quantities nearby at an O-I facility in Germany.

FINDING MY RELIGION V – Anne Scott, a follower of Sufism, teaches feminine spirituality

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Sufism is typically thought of as a mystical branch of Islam whose practices developed in the Middle East during the eighth century and whose adherents can now be found around the world. But whereas some Sufis continue to identify themselves as part of Islam, others do not. Anne Scott has worked with the Naqshbandi Sufi path, a non-Islamic tradition, for 16 years.

Scott was attracted to the basic Sufi idea that love is the essence of God and that only through love can we humans draw closer to God. Followers also seek to resolve the dualities and apparent contradictions of life, believing that unconditional love helps us understand that everything — the good and even what we might consider the bad and the ugly — is a manifestation of the divine.

Scott, 56, through her DreamWeather Foundation, lectures and leads workshops and retreats for women on spirituality in everyday life. She is the author of “Serving Fire: Food for Thought, Body and Soul” (Celestial Arts, 1994) and “The Laughing Baby” (Celestial Arts, 2001). She spoke with me last week by phone from her home in Sebastopol.

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Earlier you told me that your first spiritual experience involved a Buddhist chef, but you didn’t give me any details. Can you tell me more about that?

I was in China on a two-week trip as a photojournalist for Money magazine. I was doing a story on one of the first tour groups to be allowed into the country, and I had asked for vegetarian food, even though I’m not a vegetarian, because I didn’t want to eat the meat and the large quantities of unappetizing food they were serving to the other tourists. This caused a little problem because every place that we went they didn’t seem to know what to do with me, and each time I received a bowl of rice, a plate of cabbage and a bowl of peanuts. Everywhere! But I was so happy to be in China I didn’t care.

On the last few days of the trip, we stayed in a rural inn. Everyone was fed their usual fare, and I expected the same thing — the cabbage, the peanuts and the rice. But just as everyone else was nearly finished, out came a cook with a tray of over a dozen dishes of the most amazing vegetarian food that you have ever seen. It was absolutely beautiful! And there was silence in the room, because everyone was awestruck by the beauty and the reverence of this man as he carried the food and put it on the table.

Then he bowed before me and thanked me for [enabling] him to cook vegetarian food — because it turns out he used to be the head cook in a monastery, a Buddhist monastery — and of course with the Communists in power that was just not allowed and those monasteries were closed. After he left there was so much love in this food, so much love in his preparation that I could barely eat it.

I would think you’d want to dig right in after eating the same thing for two weeks.

Honestly, it was an experience that I had never had before, particularly all the bowing, and I was very uncomfortable — I didn’t know what to say to him. Anyway, that night I went to bed, and I had a dream about the Buddhist cook. I saw him bowing before me, and his bowing evoked something in my heart, and I felt a pain, like a great sorrow, and then — like a movie being repeated — he bowed, and bowed, and bowed again. Each time I felt that pain.

As I told you before, I had no religious or spiritual background before this. I had a few years of church training when I was young, but I had no belief in anything beyond my own mind, basically. But during this night it felt as if my heart had been broken open, and all the protection, all the defenses and all the barriers were melted by this love of this chef. Every time he bowed in my dream, I would again feel this pain — and I was crying and filled with love. I had never known love in that way.

The experience was so beyond the mind that my mind couldn’t wrap around it. And so I didn’t tell anyone about it, not even my husband, for about 10 years, until I began to realize what the experience really was — that it was a spiritual awakening.

You have followed the Naqshbandi Sufi path for 16 years. Can you tell me a bit about the basic beliefs of this tradition?

Like all Sufi paths, it’s a path of love. In Sufism, there is an understanding that this love is in the heart of every human being, only it’s covered over by our conditioning and by the ego and many other aspects that we accumulate during life that might give us a different impression of who we really are. And so the Sufi path helps you to uncover the truth of your own being and this love that’s in the center of your heart. The practices are very simple: meditation and awareness of the presence of the divine.

It’s also described a mystical path. What makes it mystical?

I would describe “mysticism” as a way of making a direct connection to the divine or to what Sufis call the “beloved.” There is no intermediary between you and God.

Many of us find it difficult to make that connection. The Sufi path helps you find it within yourself, often through a deep inner journey and through tremendous longing. I think longing is the stamp of Sufism — the longing in the heart.

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What led you to Sufism in the first place?

It started with a book I read during one of the darkest times in my life. I had just taken my husband to the emergency room with a severe asthma attack in 1987, and I didn’t know if he was going to live.

The name of the book was “The Last Barrier: A Journey Into the Essence of Sufi Teachings,” by Reshad Field. It was about a man’s journey to find his spiritual path, which turned out to be Sufism. I had never heard of Sufism before, but I finished the book in about three hours. Afterward, I realized that everything that happened in my life, every seeming failure or sorrow, every difficulty, was not really a mistake. It had all been pointing towards this deeper journey, which I didn’t even know I had. And that was the journey to find the truth in myself — the journey to God.

I had been raised to think that if you weren’t really happy in life, then you were a failure. The Sufi path shows you that life is much bigger than that, and I realized that inside, what I thought was just sorrow, was really the longing for God. Suddenly, my whole life was given context. It’s like walking around with only one leg, and then you are given another leg, and you can stand there with full dignity because you understand yourself better. And you understand there is a purpose to your life that is much deeper than you ever knew.

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Finding My Religion IV – Dustin Erwin on how and why he became a member of the Freemasons

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Practically every major city in America has a Masonic temple, often a grand structure featuring an ornate stone facade, towering columns and a sprawling interior. However, exactly what goes on behind closed doors remains a mystery to most outsiders. The Freemasons, an international fraternal organization, are known for keeping their activities secret.

For centuries, that penchant for secrecy has fueled countless conspiracy theories — Masons have been accused of everything from plotting world domination to acting as an agent of the pope. In recent years, the novelist Dan Brown has drawn heavily on Masonic lore and symbolism in his best-selling novels “Angels and Demons” and “The Da Vinci Code.”

Although the organization maintains no particular religious affiliation, its largely aging male membership — there are a few women, too — does espouse certain ideals of a metaphysical nature. Masons live by a moral code that emphasizes charity and community service.

Dustin Erwin, a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of San Francisco, is a member of the Freemasons in San Francisco. I interviewed him by e-mail last week.

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Why did you decide to join the Freemasons?
I joined for a number of reasons. For one, I’ve always been interested in “secretive” societies. Even though Freemasons are adamant that they are not a “secret society” but rather a “society with secrets,” it still had that mysterious attraction. I also have an interest in European/Christian/early American history, and the history of the Freemasons is absolutely fascinating.

Secondly, I was raised in a suburban, Protestant household. So I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to Christianity. But as I got older, went to college, began studying philosophy and other religions, I took issue with the “my way is right, your way is wrong” mentality that many of the Christians I was raised around had. I wouldn’t say I was ever an atheist, but I was a hard-core agnostic.

I wanted a way to get closer to God. I wanted some rational spiritual structure and guidelines. Freemasonry turned out to be exactly this — a system of morality. In fact, one of their mottos is “We make good men better.”

Tell me more about the Freemasons’ idea of morality. What are the main ideas?

It’s a very simple concept: Masons seek to improve themselves and help others not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because we want to do it. All of the major religions share some variation of this same idea, and that is part of the reason why Freemasonry is so welcoming of people from different backgrounds. It really all boils down to this simple theme.

So you don’t have to be part of a particular religion to join?

A Freemason can be of any faith. The only requisite is that he believe in a supreme being (whom they diplomatically refer to as “The Great Architect of the Universe”).

Why did you think that Freemasonry would help you “get closer to God,” as you put it earlier?

I feel like being righteous is about much, much more than simply believing and praying; it’s about your actions. I liked the fact that Freemasonry reinforced the idea that one’s actions are as important as one’s faith or intentions. In this way, I felt it might help put me on the right track in being closer to God.

I want to point out that I’m not on a high horse or preaching or trying to tell you all how good I am. I’m very, very far from perfect, and I’m still very far from where I want to be. But you have to figure out which direction you’re walking before you can take that first step, and I feel like Freemasonry is the compass in this sense.

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Was it difficult to become a member? Did they make you jump through a lot of hoops?

Joining was not that difficult. It’s a rather long story, but I’ll summarize by saying that a Mason friend took me to a lodge dinner where he introduced me to several members. I filled out an application signed by two sponsors, paid my application fee and waited for a couple of months. Then I was contacted by three Masons individually, who asked if they could come to my apartment to interview me.

What did they want to know?

It was less intimidating than you might think. They asked questions like, What did I hope to get out of Masonry? What do I do [for a living]? Had I ever been arrested? And then there was some basic small talk. I think they were just trying to get a sense of what kind of person I am.

The Freemasons are known for their unusual initiation rituals, although exactly what goes on is kept secret. What can you tell me about them?

The initiation is essentially a drama that begins to reveal and explain the symbolism and ritual of Masonry. It was a little strange in that it was very old and completely foreign to me. I’ve never been a joiner — I was never in a college fraternity or anything.

There is no tomfoolery involved, and it’s meant to be a very solemn event. It turned out to be a very intriguing and memorable experience.

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Was the process upsetting or scary?

It definitely wasn’t upsetting. And I wouldn’t quite call it scary either. I was out of my element, for sure, which made it slightly uncomfortable. I really didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be completely benign — there was no hazing involved.

Tell me about your lodge. How often do you meet?

There are lodge events nearly every week. As an entered apprentice, a sort of entry-level Mason, I am not permitted to attend all of the events — so far I’ve only been to dinners. Like I said, I’m very new to this.

What happens at meetings?

Some nights they do “degree work,” where a Mason is promoted to a higher level, and some nights are strictly social functions. There is a large social component to being a Freemason. You have to realize that many members are retired, and this is their primary social outlet. However, I have noticed that many of the new members are younger (in their 20s), and I’ve read that there are more younger people joining.

Is it true that you have a secret handshake?

There are a few handshakes.

I’m sure you’re aware that Freemasonry has been linked to numerous conspiracy theories over the centuries. It’s been described in some circles as an occult and even an evil power. What do you make of these claims?

I really can’t answer this question for fear of my life — just kidding! For the most part, I find these claims to be ridiculous. If you were to walk into the lodge on any given night, you’d find a bunch of good-natured older guys playing billiards and telling unfunny jokes. It’s not like there is a dark-robed master sacrificing goats by candlelight or anything.

I think most conspiracy theories stem from the unknown. For example, we don’t know who killed JFK, and therefore there are countless conspiracy theories about who did it. Most people are uninformed or misinformed about Freemasonry, and I think this is the cause of a lot of it. From what I’ve seen, the Masons are about as harmless as the Girl Scouts.

The group has also been seen by some religious leaders, particularly the Catholic Church, as a threat to their beliefs.

I honestly don’t understand why certain religious leaders condemn Freemasonry. I suspect it’s mostly influenced by power and paranoia.

Like I said, I was raised Christian — Sunday school, Bible camp, the whole nine yards. And everything I know about Freemasonry is completely compatible with Christianity and has really provided me with a way to implement those principles into my life.

What do your friends think about your joining the Freemasons?

It’s quite funny to try to explain it to them. They’re like, “Isn’t that some sort of satanic cult?” It can be tough, especially in San Francisco. I don’t come across a lot of people my age wanting to talk about God, religion or righteousness. When I’ve tried to bring these things up at bars or parties, the conversation tends to die, although I think that is changing.

I think a lot of younger people are getting tired of our increasingly materialistic and shallow culture, and are looking for something more traditional. I know that was part of the appeal for me. You can only hang out in bars and go to shows for so long. I felt like I needed something more relevant and lasting.

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By David Ian Miller

During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.

His “Finding My religion” series of interviews that you can find in SFGate.com look at individual experience of how different people found their religion. It is considered that this is a subject close to all Templars heart, that will surely resonate with some of our own individual experiences, helping us understand how mystical traditions far apart from ours have so many common points. You will also read about people that today follow mystical disciplines that it is said the historical Templar Order was familiar with, including Sufism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Sacred Geometry, Meditation, etc.

 Photos of the Grand Lodge of New York and Temple – Luis de Matos (c) 2007

FINDING MY RELIGION III – Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt takes the mysticism back to the Aramaic

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For centuries, the study of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, was considered off-limits to anyone but the most mature scholars. Some believed you could go crazy if you weren’t ready to take its powerful truths about the nature of God and reality.

That was, of course, before a wave of Hollywood stars became entranced with the teachings of esoteric Judaism. Now, it seems, anyone can study Kabbalah, even Madonna and Britney Spears.

Noted Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt was 19 when he read his first few lines of the Zohar, the ancient text that is the foundation for Kabbalah. He’s been fascinated by it ever since and is now one of the world’s leading Zohar translators.

Matt, 54, spent more than 20 years as a professor, most recently at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and is the author of “Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment,” “The Essential Kabbalah” and other popular guides to Jewish mysticism. He is working full time on the first complete English translation of the Zohar based on the original Aramaic text.

Matt recently finished the third of volume of that translation, “The Zohar: Pritzker Edition” (Stanford University Press). The three volumes are available now.

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I understand there’s some controversy about when the Zohar, the ancient text that you are translating, was actually written. Can you tell me about that?

Traditional Kabbalists believe that it dates back to early rabbinic times, to the second century, because the main figure in the Zohar is a rabbi who lived then, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. But most scholars think it was actually composed 1,100 years later in Spain in the 13th century. And there is strong evidence for that.

What kind of evidence?

Well, the Aramaic itself is very strange. There are invented words, and occasionally there is a Spanish term or references to medieval events or personalities. So if you look at it objectively, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is a medieval creation.

Assuming it was written in the 13th century, why would someone be interested in reading the Zohar today? What is its relevance?

The Zohar is written as a commentary on the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, beginning with Genesis. It challenges that text constantly and overturns many traditional teachings. In that sense, you could say that it reimagines Judaism.

In what ways does it rethink Judaism?

For one thing, it challenges the traditional notion of God. It says that none of our usual names for God are adequate. They all fail to capture God’s true nature. The only name that really is correct is the name Ein Sof, which in Hebrew literally means “there is no end,” or the infinite.

So in the Zohar, God is infinity?

Yes. And any picture we have of God, any theological formulation, is really inaccurate and misleading because it doesn’t do justice to the open-endedness of God.

At the same time, the Zohar also says, “If you are going to describe God, you have to balance the masculine with the feminine.” So I think one of its most important contributions is to insist that God is equally male and female. And it does that very graphically. It actually refers to masculine and feminine halves of God, and the goal of religion — the goal of life — is to unite these two halves of God. And how do you do that? By acting ethically and spiritually in the world.

Besides being a commentary on the Bible, the Zohar is also a sort of mystical novel about a group of wandering rabbis. How does that story unfold?

It is a very loose narrative structure, but these rabbis are wandering through Galilee and sharing their mystical secrets with each other. They also run into strange characters on the road who puzzle them. Often, these people seem to be total idiots — for example, a wandering donkey driver or a little child who stumps the rabbis with questions. But it turns out these figures who seem to be fools end up having the greatest wisdom. So part of its message is, you know, you can’t tell where you’ll find teaching, where you’ll find insights.

Traditionally, studying Kabbalah was something you weren’t supposed to do unless you were an older man — I think the cutoff was 40 years old. What was the reason for such restrictions?

There were several reasons. One had to do with an awareness of the power of these mystical teachings. If you lose a sense of yourself and feel that you are melting into the divine — a common experience among students of mysticism — there is a danger you won’t be able to function in the world. You could lose your sanity or be unable to provide for your family or contribute to society.

There’s also the fear that if people really felt that they could contact God on their own terms, then what need would there be for the rabbinic authorities and for the structures of Jewish law? So there is a social danger as well as a psychological one.

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Today, it seems like everybody’s studying Kabbalah. Thanks to Madonna and Britney Spears, Jewish mysticism has become chic. What do you make of that trend?

I’m intrigued by it. I think it has, you know, positive and negative aspects. The question I’m often asked, and I wonder myself is, “What about Kabbalah appeals to Hollywood types or to modern Americans?” There are a couple of things I’ve been able to identify.

One is that Kabbalah is a kind of spirituality that doesn’t demand that you flee from the material world. Rather, it says that spiritual seekers should try to transform the world by engaging it. So I think many Westerners who are obviously hungry for the spiritual but aren’t willing to give up the material realm might find that appealing.

Another reason for Kabbalah’s appeal may be that it is an interesting combination of something very strange and exotic but at the same time familiar. What I mean is that the Kabbalah is based on the Bible – the foundational text of Western civilization — and yet it reinterprets it in a radical way.

Is the Kabbalah that you are studying the same one that Madonna and others are studying?

Well, one thing we have to make clear is that there is no book called the Kabbalah. So when people say they are studying the Kabbalah, it could be thousands of texts. That said, the Zohar is the major text of the Kabbalah. Every Jewish thinker would agree with that.

So what’s being taught and promoted by the Kabbalah Learning Center — now they are called the Kabbalah Center [where Madonna goes] — is the Zohar. This is the same Zohar that I’m working on, although they have their own translation, which is based on a Hebrew translation of the original Aramaic.

Let’s talk about your own spiritual background. Did you grow up in a religious family?

Yeah. My father was a Conservative rabbi on the East Coast. I would say God and religion were central in the home, and that the Shabbat [the Jewish Sabbath] was a core part of that. There was a lot of studying and singing and guests and taking walks with my father on Shabbat afternoons.

Did you consider becoming a rabbi yourself?

I considered it, but I was keenly aware of my father’s frustration — he was a very genuine spiritual teacher and demanded a lot of his congregation. And I saw him suffer because of that, not to mention that he was often out in the evening at meetings. I remember once telling him, “I can’t be a rabbi.” And he said, “I didn’t expect you to be.”

Eventually, I decided to teach spiritually but outside the congregational framework and without the rabbinical title. So I went the academic route, and I got a doctorate in Jewish studies. For my doctorate I edited the first translation ever done of the Zohar, which was [from Aramaic] into Hebrew in the 14th century. People say that what you work on in your doctorate often determines what you will do later in life. I didn’t realize that it would determine it so much.

I read in a magazine article that you begin each day by meditating on a few lines of the Zohar after taking a walk up the hillside near your home in Berkeley. Do you still do that?

Yeah. Now I have a more strenuous walk in the morning. I find that if I do a good walk, then I can sit for most of the day without taking a break.

How much a part of your spiritual life is the Kabbalah? It seems like it’s more than just an academic interest for you.

I really try to combine an academic and a spiritual approach. I think you lose some of the richness of the Zohar if you look at it only academically — certainly because it is a spiritual text, and it grew out of spiritual experience. The person writing it is really striving to contact the divine through Scripture, through plumbing the depths of Scripture, trying to discover the divine light hidden in the letters or hinted at by the verses of the Bible.

On the other hand, you lose something, too, I think, if you don’t understand when it was written and who composed it. The person writing the Zohar is trying to present it as something ancient, but he knows what he is doing, and when he talks about hidden levels of meaning, part of the hiddenness is his own project of creating the Zohar. His own creativity is part of what’s going on. It really is an experiment in fiction, a medieval experiment in fiction. And that’s part of its wonder, too.

What is it like to be alone with this mystical material day in and day out? How do you keep your perspective?

I don’t really feel alone. I have one research assistant. Right now, that’s an Israeli in Australia. I’m also in touch with colleagues all around the country, and in Jerusalem, who are involved in Kabbalah or in Zohar specifically.

Fortunately, my wife works at home — she’s involved in spiritual counseling. Our daughter is a senior in college now, but our son is still in high school, and it’s precious to me to take him in the morning to his car pool and to pick him up. So I have that feeling of structure for the day, and then in between, you know, from 8 to 3, I try to immerse myself. Often, I continue to work in the evenings.

Actually it’s harder for me not doing it than doing it. Like now I’ve finished volume 3, and I told myself I needed to take a break. So this past week I really tried consciously not to do Zohar and it was very difficult. I just felt unfulfilled, like I was wasting my time.

It sounds like you love what you do. So, my last question: Zohar the movie? What do you think?

I think it definitely has cinematic possibilities. The running into the donkey driver and the spectacular account of creation are pretty compelling. But I’ll leave that for others.

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By David Ian Miller

During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.

His “Finding My religion” series of interviews that you can find in SFGate.com look at individual experience of how different people found their religion. It is considered that this is a subject close to all Templars heart, that will surely resonate with some of our own individual experiences, helping us understand how mystical traditions far apart from ours have so many common points. You will also read about people that today follow mystical disciplines that it is said the historical Templar Order was familiar with, including Sufism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Sacred Geometry, Meditation, etc.

FINDING MY RELIGION II – The Rev. Ken Barnes saw alcohol as a gateway to the divine – then the bottle turned on him

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Alcohol has long been part of spiritual practices, from the Grecian rites of Dionysus, the god of wine, to the observance of the Christian Eucharist. The Talmud, a sacred book of Jewish law, insists that the celebration of Purim is not complete until a person has drunk so much that he “cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.'”

But there can be a dark side to divine intoxication. Ken Barnes, a 67-year-old pastor and Oakland native, has struggled with alcoholism for much of his life, including the 22 years that he served as senior minister at the Arlington Community Church in Kensington.

Initially, Barnes says that drinking brought him closer to God, but eventually his addiction threatened to destroy everything he held sacred. With the help of recovery groups, meditation and other spiritual work, he has been sober for more than 30 years. He is now the interim pastor at Community Congregational Church in Tiburon. I spoke with him recently at his home in Kensington.

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You’ve been clean and sober since the early 1970s. When did you start drinking?

I started drinking in college, a little bit before I turned 21. That was mainly beer, and at parties. But as I look back and piece things together, I realize I had a desire to get high much earlier than that.

I can remember in about the fifth grade someone teaching us that if you take 10 deep breaths, and then if you kneel and put your thumb in your mouth and blow as hard as you can, you’ll keel over. Well, we all did this once to show how macho we were. But I loved it and I’d do it regularly.

Then I got totally immersed in athletics. I was the one who they had to chase off the practice field — I always wanted to go out for one more pass. I’m realizing now exercise put my body into different states — changed my body chemistry. Now we call it “getting in the zone.”

I actually went to school on a football scholarship, at Redlands University. And then I switched to Cal because I played football for two years and didn’t like it. And I got an injury. Looking back on it, I believe my increase in drinking started when I no longer got high athletically. Drinking, from the very beginning, just put me in the zone in a similar way that athletics did.

When you say drinking “put you in the zone,” what do you mean? It made you happy?

It made me happy, made me free. Later on, I had this little mantra I would say to myself: God is in the heavens and everything is right on earth. And that’s what alcohol did for me.

At the early stages of my drinking, before I lost control of it, I’d be amazed when I played basketball with my buddies that most of them wanted to stop drinking after one beer or so. They just wanted to focus on basketball. But I’d want another beer or two. I thought maybe I’d play better. I thought they were so strange! Drinking was my favorite joy — my recreation.

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You told me earlier that drinking was sort of a key to a spiritual doorway for you — until it started killing you. Tell me more about that.

It was for me at that time. I felt a sense of transcendence. Of course, alcohol has always been that for people. In the Middle Ages, it was called aqua vitae, the water of life. Jews and Christians have always used it in sacred ceremonies.

When I went to seminary at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, I would study at night with this Irish friend of mine, and after looking at visions of Isaiah and the Hebrew words behind the verb tenses, we’d close our books up and run down to this pub that we liked. And the person would see us coming and he would pour us a glass of whisky and a pint. And we would sit and talk about what we had been studying. And as we got the buzz on, we felt like we really understood what we had been studying meant at a deep level. I used to love doing that.

At what point did alcohol become a problem for you?

Sometime in my mid-20s drinking went from being a recreational activity — something I tried to bring into most social events — to a daily part of my life. Partly, it was when I had the financial means to procure alcohol, after I got my first [job at a] church.

Most evenings I was either at the pub or at home with the bottle. And most of the time I didn’t get rip-roaring drunk. I tried to maintain that high and the spontaneity that it gave me. But pretty soon I crossed that invisible line where I lost control.

Did anyone try to confront you about it?

I dated a couple of women, and they would at times wonder about it. But then I would back away from them. So no, I was for the most part a very congenial, sensitive, aware drunk. And I’d feel so good that I would just be so interested in whomever I was with.

What about your congregation? Didn’t they notice?

Not right away. I was a good pastor. Most of my folks just loved me, and I loved them. And when there were important events at night, I would work really hard to keep my drinking down. I probably drank addictively for five to seven years before things started getting bad. And then I really got scared.

What happened?

For one thing, I started having partial blackouts where I couldn’t remember or piece together everything that had happened the night before. Sometimes I would go through a radical personality change. I’d be so delighted with my wife, and then suddenly I’d get quarrelsome with her for no good reason. And later it would confuse the heck out of me. It didn’t seem like the real me who was acting this way.

Then I started getting hangovers. For a long time I never got them. That’s how I decided I wasn’t an alcoholic. I’d drink my buddies under the table. They’d be puking in the morning, and I’d be fine. But then I started getting them, too. That was pretty serious. And I started doing some things that I didn’t like, like hiding my drinking and not being truthful in other ways.

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Denial is a big temptation for alcoholics. At what point did you decide you had a problem and needed to stop drinking?

I got pulled over a number of times by the police. Two or three times it was city cops who stopped [me], and since I chaired the fire liaison board for the city, they just took me home and told me where my car was. But one time I was on [Highway] 880 and the highway patrol pulled me over. I ended up in the Santa Rita jail.

My wife bailed me out, and the whole thing really scared me. Plus, we were expecting our first daughter. At that time, I practically kept a furniture repairman in business by falling and breaking things [when I was drunk]. I was terrified that I would fall while I was holding her and hurt her.

So I called a pastor friend of mine who I knew was in recovery, and he took me to my first meeting. And that was the beginning of my recovery process.

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FINDING MY RELIGION I – Tau Malachi, a Sophian Gnostic bishop, talks about Gnosticism and ‘The Da Vinci Code’

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No matter what you think about the book or the movie — love it, hate it or totally sick of hearing about it — “The Da Vinci Code” has sparked a debate about the nature of faith and the foundations of Christianity. It’s also turned a spotlight on some lesser-known religious traditions that have been operating quietly for centuries.

Among the religious groups brought blinking into the “Code”-inspired publicity glare are Gnostic Christians. The word Gnostic, from the Greek word for knowledge, expresses the central tenet of this faith — Gnostics believe Jesus’ mission was to teach people that the divine lives within each of us, and that salvation can be achieved through spiritual knowledge rather than faith and good works. Only through truly knowing God can humans transcend the sins and flaws of this world.

Gnosticism was declared a heresy in the early days of Christianity. But the religion didn’t die, and it’s flourishing in the 21st century. As in the Protestant faith, there are many separate factions within Gnosticism. Gnostics, like most initiatory mystical faiths, refer to these sects as “traditions.”

Tau Malachi is a Gnostic bishop of the Sophian tradition, which teaches that Mary Magdalene was also a savior and spiritual teacher, equal to Jesus and an embodiment of the divine. He is the author of several books, including “St. Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride.” He spoke with me last week by phone from his home in Nevada City.

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Gnostic ideas figure prominently in “The Da Vinci Code.” What is your take on the book’s presentation of Mary Magdalene and Gnostic beliefs? Is it on target?

Well, I think it hints at things. But I’m not sure the spiritual content that Gnosticism teaches is really present in the book. To give you an example, Magdalene is referred to in “The Da Vinci Code” as the grail and mother of the royal blood because she is a close disciple to Jesus — she is his wife and has his children. That’s kind of painting her as being similar to the Virgin Mary, simply because she has had children.

In Sophian Gnosticism, she’s viewed as a spiritual master, a close disciple to whom Jesus pours out the fullness of the light, or the Christos, and she becomes a Christ-bearer (messiah) also. She is the apostle to the first apostles, igniting what we call the Gnostic apostolic succession. And in this end she is mother to the royal blood on a spiritual level. So the issue for us wouldn’t be whether she literally had children or not. Either way, it wouldn’t make a difference.

How did you feel about the book in general?

The book didn’t have quite the same power for me that it did for other people, I think, because I’ve been practicing the tradition that honors Magdalene since I was 8 years old. Really, I felt like I was reading a thriller like any other. But I could also see that if I knew nothing about Magdalene this would be a very powerful book. To many, these are revolutionary thoughts — the idea of Magdalene being innermost disciple, wife and consort [to Jesus].

It seems like there’s no end to the controversy about the book and the movie. Do you think it’s worth all the fuss?

For some mainstream Christian churches, alternative views of Jesus, of Christ, of Christianity are very threatening. So in that sense it’s understandable.

Personally, I think it’s interesting that we are having discussions about traditions and ideas based on a novel. Not to say that there aren’t grains of truth in it, but it wasn’t written to be something other than fiction — it’s entertainment.

Your latest book, “St. Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride,” presents what are described as secret oral traditions concerning the Gnostic view of Mary Magdalene. Why publish those secrets now? Did the popularity of “The Da Vinci Code” have anything to do with it?

No. Actually, all this was underway before the “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon. Sophian Gnosticism has been moving away from a more private or secretive mode for some time. We’ve been progressively sharing teachings more and more openly over the years.

Why was this information kept secret in the first place?

Sophian Gnosticism has a known history that goes back to about the mid-18th century. That was a very dangerous time to hold alternative Christian beliefs — there was a great deal of persecution by mainstream Christians. So that drove a lot of Gnostics underground.

What originally drew you to Gnosticism?

As a very little boy, I guess you could say there was a propensity in me toward a spiritual life, and apparently toward a Gnostic Christian spiritual life. But when I met a Sophian teacher, whose name was Tau Elijah ben Miriam, and I started to get to know him, it just fit. It was so familiar to me. I felt like a duck in water.

Eight years old is pretty young to get started with a spiritual teacher. What was that like for you?

Elijah was a very fascinating spiritual master. When I met him, he was 81 years old but a very active gentleman. He was a brilliant man. I basically became his sidekick when I wasn’t in school. Hanging around him and his circle became much of my childhood life.

And your parents were OK with that?

Yes. My mom actually had been a student of his when she was younger, but due to illness couldn’t continue [working with him]. So she was very happy that one of her children had this interest.

Your story reminds me of the Dalai Lama and how the Buddha of Compassion is believed to reincarnate in an infant who begins his religious training as soon as he is identified as such. What are the Gnostic teachings on the afterlife?

It’s actually very similar to those found in Bhagwan or Tibetan Buddhism. We believe that one continues to go through many lifetimes until one’s soul is fully realized, or awakened.

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