The Presence of the Incarnation with Alexander John Shaia

This week on the podcast, Dr. Dan Allender is joined by author, speaker, and clinical psychologist Dr. Alexander John Shaia to engage the incarnation, the Christmas story, and a glimpse of John’s upbringing and the beautiful spiritual tradition of his family and culture.

About Our Guest:

Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Alexander John Shaia was part of a large extended family that had emigrated from Lebanon a generation previously. He grew up immersed in the ancient traditions of Middle Eastern Christianity (Maronite Catholicism) and was expected to become a priest, a family tradition since the year 1300. He was led otherwise.

Alexander John attended the University of Notre Dame and received a degree in Cultural Anthropology. Next came a brief time in seminary followed by a Master’s in Counseling Education, a Master’s in Religious Education, a graduate certificate in Pastoral Psychotherapy, and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.

His extensive psychological training across many modalities finally led him to Switzerland where he studied with the Jungian Analyst and founder of Sandplay Psychotherapy, Dora Maria Kalff. Alexander John became the first US man admitted to the International Society for Sandplay Therapy and continues to serve as a senior Certified Teaching Member of the organization.

Returning to the United States, he undertook years of private practice, teaching, parish and retreat ministry, and further study. Integrating his lifelong practice of prayer with many cross-disciplines—anthropology, psychology, spirituality, and ritual work—has shaped him into a unique thought leader and a widely sought consultant, trainer, and inspiring keynote speaker.

Then in 2000, Alexander John’s professional life expanded from being primarily a speaker to also that of an author, now with some eight books and more in the works.

He lives in the high Rocky Mountains in Northern New Mexico and the wild Atlantic coast of Northwest Spain. A perfect day finds him in the presence of ancient trees, massive stones, his dog and a book of poetry.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: Well, it is awfully near Christmas, and I don’t think there is a sweeter, more compelling holiday, a more, shall we say, significant period that is both honored and in some ways ignored. And, today we got a sweet gift, to be able to introduce you all to someone whom, I’ve just come to know and also deeply already appreciate. And that is Alexander John Shaia. And, to begin this conversation, Alexander John, your history is such that alone, as I said to you, we could spend the entire time talking about the journey and evolution of your own presence, thought and invitation to the gospel. But as a clinical psychologist, as a spiritual director, as both a author speaker, but as a man whose, engagement with the incarnation, engagement with Christmas has, just such a compelling and life giving presence. Just love for you to introduce yourself better than what I’ve just done, as to who you are and how you have come to be here. And particularly as you wind us into the conversation about the incarnation, how that has been central to your understanding of life itself. So, again, welcome.

Alexander: Thank you, Dan. And hello to everyone who’s listening. I’ll sort of start in the middle of the story because I spent my years in Seattle in the mid seventies to the, through the early eighties. I did a grad program at Seattle U, and then stayed. But I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s. And my family had immigrated from Lebanon. My grandparents came to the States bringing my parents as children, and they settled in Birmingham because Birmingham in the early 19 hundreds was a boom town. And many, many, many immigrants came into Birmingham. And then after World War I, what was a boom town? Became a bust town. And what happened was that the industrial barons of Birmingham sort of gave the golden handshake to the KKK, who literally, ran the city for about 50 years. And, my childhood was a time where the KKK was, certainly we know the oppression of American Blacks. What we don’t often recognize is that they also were oppressing, Catholics, and they were oppressing Jews, and they were oppressing anyone who came from the Mediterranean. Which, because my family was Catholic and Lebanese, we were essentially put into a ghetto in the south side of Birmingham. And so it was very interesting for me to grow up in this Lebanese village, which was the gift of the KKK, even though I was in the industrial US South. But it gave me a chance to see the Middle East as it had been for a thousand years, maybe 2000 years. And the Christianity that I grew up with was a, it’s an eastern right of the Roman Catholic Church called Maronite. But it is a far more mystical tradition than what, much of western Christendom in their beauty knows. So, the, my experiencing growing up in Christianity was, we went to church literally with our lives on the line. There were church bombings. My grandmother’s house was fire bombed in 1957. Priests were killed. My father describes that Catholics in Alabama went to church before World War II at four o’clock in the morning and had to be home before sunrise because, people would, drive by Catholic churches and take down license plate numbers. So it was a, Christianity in my family was, was devout, but it was also, you knew that this wasn’t a social club, that the choice of gathering with the community on Sunday meant something deep and and treasured. And, and the other part of my life is, is that when I was born, my parents were not expecting a boy. But when I was born, my father looked at me and suddenly said, he’s Alexander. And the significance of the name is, is that in my family line in Lebanon, I come from a line of the family in the village that produces the next priest. So I have a series of 11 relatives going back to about the year 1300 that are all maronite priests, and they all bear the name Alexander. So the next son, that it was decided at birth that this was going to be your heritage. And in some sense, your destiny was given the name. And so, in the, in the midst of all of this, I was really raised, with the, with my father’s rightful sense that I had this desire, to bring together spirit and psychology. Those have always been my two passions, and it really fit me. And, so I negotiated going to college as opposed to going to seminary immediately after high school, I went to the University of Notre Dame. And then after that, I went to seminary for a short while, came out of seminary, and then began to work full-time in the Roman Catholic Church, which brought me to, which was what brought me eventually to Seattle. So that just gives a small sense. I think I probably would add that my professors at Notre Dame were just incredible. And one of those professors at Notre Dame teaching in the theology department as a visiting professor was, the US mythologist by the name of Joseph Campbell, who had a tremendous impact on my understanding of my tradition and my understanding of scripture.

Dan: Well, the heritage, is so rich, that in some sense, in the context of the severity of oppression of indeed the danger of, as you put it, well, that this was not a social club. This was a heritage of both faith, but also profound family and Lebanese, history and heritage. How, how did, I don’t know how to put it better then. How did you become a priest without becoming a priest?

Alexander: It’s a really good question. And nobody’s ever quite asked it that way, Dan. I’ve had this deep love of my tradition, and it has meant everything to my life and my heart. It was the greatest sadness of my life that when I went to seminary, I found the seminary couldn’t hold the depth of my questioning and my search. So when I left seminary, it was only a realization at that moment that this wasn’t the right seminary for me. I still had this idea that I was going to find a better seminary, and I, I kept searching. But in the midst of that, I discovered that my priesthood was really going to be outside of the official ordained role, but that my work was gonna be helping people reconnect with the depth of this incredibly beautiful, holy tradition.

Dan: Yeah. Well, and again, we’ll underscore access points, to your labor and work. But as you have engaged, for example, the four paths through the realm of the four gospels is both intriguing and also, in some sense new without being new. That’s one of the experiences I’ve had in both reading and encountering your work. There is something so vitally fresh about the gospel you invite us to, and yet it bears, shall we say, centuries and centuries, if not millennia, of that hard rock foundation. So it, given that this is our Christmas conversation, there are so many other things that I want to knock on the door of, but how did the incarnation come to be as central for you as it appears to be?

Alexander: Because of my Lebanese grandparents, my, in Arabic, my jido, grandfather in jida, grandmother, neither of them could read or write, Arabic or English. And yet, to me, they are the wisest people of my life. And their faith was in the earth and in their heart, and in what they did. And, it wasn’t, it didn’t have the beauty of book learning. It didn’t have all that incredible, articulate, intellectual construct. But I remember, a few days after my grandmother’s house was fire bombed, that we were all together with her on a Sunday dinner, as we always were. And even in those days, there were some 70 of us crammed in this basement. And she always led us in grace, and none of us ever picked up our fork until she picked up her fork. And on that Sunday, after she ended grace, she looked around the room and she looked at each one of us, and I was like six years old at this point. And she would just catch our eye and move on to the next person and the next person and the next person. And then finally, quietly and insistently, she said, “no hate, no hate, no hate.” Then she picked up her fork. And there was something in that moment for me, where as a six year old boy, I was like, I want to know how to do that. I want to know how a woman whose husband had just died of a heart attack and, and now had lost her home with everything that she had brought from Lebanon. All the pictures of her family, all the mementos of her parents that she never saw again. Once she left, all of that was gone. And yet in that moment, her concern was about the family and how to move us forward. So I grew up on her lap. She didn’t know English folk tales. She didn’t know literature. She couldn’t read Grimes to me, nor could she read the Bible to me. But what she did was she did what I assume is the way it had been in Lebanon for 2000 years. She chanted the gospels to me in a mixture of Arabic in Aramaic and she chanted them by memory, because that’s how the people of Lebanon would learn the gospel text in the poor villages. You memorize the chant on a Sunday. And though I couldn’t fully understand the words, I learned from her that when you chant the text, there’s a space in between the letters. There’s a music or a feeling that’s conveyed that’s more than just what the letters say. And that’s what I experienced on that Sunday, after the, after the bombing of her house, where all of that chanting that she had done, I knew was true. It wasn’t a story, it was the fabric of her heart. And from that moment, I wanted to know how to find that very fabric in my heart.

Dan: She lived the incarnation, she is the presence of the incarnation. And in some sense, she was filling, you know, the right hemisphere of your being, with a sound and a poetic presence. That feels like part of my early reading and listening to you is, I mean, one of the words I use prior to her conversation is that there is a poetic power that, uh, now makes a little more sense. That you have followed the rhythm of truth, in one sense before the letter of truth. And in that, the combination, is one that I would say, with great heartache, most of us do not have the lyric presence of the incarnation, a sense of the rhythm and the power of the presence of the incarnation. It’s a fact which transforms indeed, but without, in some sense the, chanting power. So that is just, sweet. But also I think for many of us, creates already a kind of nostalgia of absence that is, most of us have never had something quite comparable.

Alexander: I was just gonna say, it’s odd for me because I think my journey with Christianity has been the opposite of what most people’s journey is. And that is, I lived in this mystical fiber of your heart Christianity until I got to college. And when I got to Notre Dame, I was befuddled, bewildered, confused. I couldn’t find the Christianity there that I knew. I found these incredibly beautiful, brilliant intellectual concepts, but it didn’t have the heart. And I had to go on my journey to find a way to bring those intellectual, that intellectual brilliance with the heart that I had been given in childhood. I think that that’s largely my work. One of my books is called “Heart and Mind” and it’s like I want for myself a Christianity which has the rigor of the intelligence, but also has the heartbeat, the fiber of one’s heartbeat. So, yeah.

Dan: Well, again, because most of us know what chanting may sound like, the idea again of the presence of a powerful matriarch, an embodied presence of Jesus being the lap, but also being the sound, of the gospel, it has to open up a level of, again, connection into the unseen world that we long for. And indeed, I have that sense of the path that you have been, given and that you have honored and taken, is one that holds a complexity. And yet as well, just an immense simplicity. So as we begin to talk about Christmas, I’d love for you to talk about how you talk about Christmas to young ones, including someone like me. How do you talk about Christmas to children?

Alexander: Oh, it’s a really good question ’cause I’ve got a great niece and a great nephew that are in that, that young generation. I wanna talk to them about the type of radiance that we see in the night and the type of radiance that we see in the day. And, I love to sit with them, in the nighttime and look at the stars and look at the moon. And I wanna help them recover the earliest tradition of Christianity, which was the nighttime is the place where God rebirths us, re-knits us. I hope that I would, in no way, I don’t wanna, confuse people or, offend people by talking about the night is, in some ways a feminine face of God. It’s, it’s a womb like face of our God so that we can understand why Christianity continue the tradition from Judaism, from our mother tradition that saw every day starting at sunset and understanding that when night comes into our life, that that a nighttime and a dark experience is not how we end, but it’s how we begin again. And more than anything else that’s probably a thought that I keep trying to weave for my great niece and great nephew because I want them to know that when we have a difficult time, that when we have challenges that these are to be expected, they’re part of the journey, and that they’re places for us to begin again, not to despair and to end the journey. And so Christmas, for our earliest ancestors was a time where they brought the cycle of night and day together with the incredible story of Jesus, the Christ’s birth. And they married these two because they wanted it to be a story of incarnation that we actually felt in our bodies and there are two cycles that come together at Christmas. The Northern Hemisphere has both cycles. The southern hemisphere only has one cycle, but in the northern hemisphere, Christmas is today three days past the winter solstice. And that has tremendous significance. One of the things that we have lost is yes, in fact, Christianity initially set Christmas day as the day of the winter solstice because in the Julian Calendar, which began in the year 45 BC that was, that the winter solstice was December the 25th. But in the 16th century, because that old calendar had only 362 days a year. And we know that it’s roughly 365 days in a small fraction to make one round of the sun. The calendar was all outta whack. And actually winter now had become June. And so when the new calendar was created, they had to add three days to it. And the Roman church was the one that created this new calendar. It’s called the Gregorian calendar. Gregorian roughly started in about 1560. But now it created this enormous discussion because many of the Christian feasts had been chosen off of the Sun calendar and what was happening on that day in the old 362 day a year calendar. But with the new calendar, the sun calendar in the Christian feast calendar would be three days off. Right. And how were we gonna resolve this? How, what were we gonna do? Were we going to change the Christian feasts and put them three days earlier? Or were we going to keep them on the traditional date? But it would be three days off from the Sun calendar under. And here’s the answer, which I think is so beautiful, and it, it starts with the winter solstice, if you know what the word solstice means, “sol” is sun, “stis” is still so at the winter solstice and at the summer solstice, it’s three days before the naked eye can perceive that the sun is either increasing or decreasing. Well, with the new Gregorian calendar, you have the night of the winter solstice on December 21st, or December 22nd, and three mornings later will be the day when for us in the Northern Hemisphere, we can actually perceive with the naked eye that light and radiance is now increasing. And so for that physical effect in the northern hemisphere, and also the beautiful story of Jesus being in the tomb three days, we kept the connection with the Sun calendar. We, in no way were embarrassed by marking or noting the winner solstice, but we used nature itself to also tell an interior in a deeper truth. Nature tells us every year, when we come to the winter solstice, that at the deepest dark there’s a turnaround.

Dan: Yes.

Alexander: And our spiritual tradition tells us that when our lives, interior lives are in the deepest dark, look for wait and prepare for the fresh radiance.

Dan: It’s the holding, even in the incarnation of the presence of death and resurrection and that darkest of the dark, but also the glimmer. But there’s something even stronger than the word glimmer. It’s that, indeed the invitation that darkness will not prevail. And that, that feels like that alone, ought I’ll say that strongly ought to bring us to a point again, of marveling about in so many ways, the wisdom of those who have come before us to hold that together.

Alexander: So I know that for us, and you know, I will go, I hope this year to see my great niece and great nephew and a Christmas pageant and to see the beauty of the story told in that way. But I also wanna tell us another way that early Christians, and for centuries, we told the story of Christmas in a slightly different way. And that is remembering that Christmas begins at sunset on December the 24th, that as soon as nightfall happened, we would read the genealogy of Matthew. And that genealogy has within it the story of people who lived in difficult days. Who lived in days that we might call a dark time or a dark season. And yet they stayed faithful and something happened in that dark time that was very unexpected. And that God remains with us. So that, that is the Christmas gospel, just the genealogy, right after sunset. And then we was early Christians would go later in the night, maybe 10 o’clock, maybe midnight, and we would tell the next story deep in the night. And that would be from the Gospel of Luke, and it would be the angel announcing to the shepherd that there has been a birth, and this is the gospel for so many of us right now in our life, who feel that we may be living through a dark season. And I love that the angel comes to the shepherd. And as we know from our research on first century shepherd, the shepherd of the first century is not the great hero of a thousand years earlier. The shepherds are difficult. They are much like the places in us that are wounded, hurt, despairing, maybe some manner of addiction, trauma, this is where the angel comes because the shepherd are an image of the nighttime experience. And they receive this announcement of a birth, a holy birth of fresh radiance. Okay. Then we go on early Christians. Now we come to dawn at Christmas morning, now we tell, we pick up the story from Luke again. And, but now we tell the story of the shepherds come to the manger, and they see, and this is matched by the fact that we too standing on Christmas morning, are now perhaps standing in the fresh increased radiance of the sun, which is helping us know and experience the fresh and increased radiance of the inner S-O-N. And then we have a fourth gospel, which is what we would read or tell later in the full light of Christmas day. And that fourth and final gospel of Christmas is the incredible poetry of John’s prologue. That reminds us that the Christ has always been and will always be,

Dan: The richness again of what I asked you to engage. In some ways the notion that the shepherds, if we can start there again. The shepherds are not, as they appear, at least in our church’s pageant, they are the fresh faced young 8 to 12 year olds, the boys and the girls with bathrobes essentially. And they are just darling. And to be able to say, oh no, come on. What we know is that these would not have been your, most valued citizens, in that day. And again, to try and compare them to any particular group, would not be terribly helpful. But I’ve often thought of them as essentially, bar denizens, maybe, those who are bouncers. You know, you’re basically in the context of the least desirable other than being a prostitute of woman, least desirable, occupation. So that alone, and then to make the connection of these are not just people, they are a reflection of who we are. That is really, really important, connection. And in that, the invitation is to say, no wonder they were stunned, not just by the brightness and the audacity of the unseen world making itself known, but to them in particular. And how do you, how do you engage that part of you as you come into the Christmas season?

Alexander: Well, and let me just step a step back, Dan, because, I live in an area with many shepherds. I’ve also lived and worked in New Zealand. And, the shepherd is an incredibly gifted and skilled person who knows how to care, for these actual incredible beings. And I also know that in the gospel of John, the text has to tell us the good shepherd. And the reason it is to say the good shepherd is because we are looking at a time in the first century, a very tragic time. Where the Roman Empire had forced people into the cities and had thought of those in agrarian life as less than. And that anyone who had offended the culture and or had done anything which was considered, that they would be shamed. They were made to go and work in the fields, with the sheep, because people who worked with the sheep will smell of the sheep. And smelling of the sheep was more effective than having a bell around your neck wherever you went. Everyone knew you have broken a taboo, you have broken a rule. You’re not allowed in polite society. So when it comes to Christmas, I always want to think of, how in the beautiful scene, how I touch the holy angelic, but how that holy angelic has also come to touch that place in me that’s raw, unformed, needy, all of those things that I probably would prefer not to think about being. And yet so much of my vitality is locked there until I know that it’s there. And I know how to walk with it, and I know how to offer it transformation.

Dan: Yeah. Again, you’re speaking of a kind of kindness to those very broken parts of us, and back to the word oppressed, parts of us. So oppression has been a pretty central theme to your life experience, it would seem, and having that sense of what it means to bear shame, but not bear shame, to be able to bear it, without, in one sense, condescending to the parts that are ashamed, but actually being able to see within it, something life-giving and present. Is that a, a fair reading?

Alexander: I hope that that’s a fair reading, and that’s my greatest desire is to take the difficulty that I’ve experienced. I’m not alone. We all have that place of difficulty in us somewhere. And to know that it’s the fertile soil of something far more radiant.

Dan: That there is something about the incarnation, no matter how we frame it, that there is a transition from glory to humanity. And not to say that humanity doesn’t bear its own glory because we’re made in the image of God, yet there is a dissent, there is a taking on. And in that already, it feels like the incarnation is a disruption of shame. A bearing of our oppression, a bearing of the reality of flesh. And in that glory becoming flesh, there is a beginning to a disruption of the shame complex. And that is in and of itself, that intersection between the dark night, yet there is the beginning of visible light, that is just sweet. And before we end, there’s so much more to be covered. I just can’t have hard time without you talking about the Christmas tree, because I’ve always, you know, Tree of Jesse never made that much sense to me. Yeah. Whatever. But as you’ve talked about the tree in other settings that I’ve heard, it’s like for the first time I went, oh my gosh, I cannot wait to get a tree.

Alexander: Yeah. So here’s the deeper story. And it is when the Christian world meets the Celtic world, and the Celtic world in those days went from what is today Ireland to at least Russia. And now archeologically, we know we find evidence of the Celtic in China. But this whole swath of northern Europe, is largely bound in the great symbol of the sacred tree. But in those early days, the sacred tree was the oak tree. And it’s not until the, the great oak forests of Europe are decimated, that the pine tree or the fir tree becomes, or the evergreen becomes the great tree. So on the day before the winter solstice again, the winner solstice in that time was December the 25th. On December the 24th, the Celts are decorating the bare limbs of the sacred oak tree, usually in the center of the village or in some sacred grove near the village. And what they are doing is they are hanging dried fruits in this sacred oak, and they are preparing the oak to be an image of rebirth that will be celebrated on the next day, on the winter solstice. Well, when our Christian ancestors see this, uh, and hear the story, they go, oh, well, we know this story. We know the story of the tree and the garden, and we know the story of the fruit on that tree. And we know that in the birth of Jesus the Christ, the garden is open again, and the tree is there for our nurturance and our sustenance. And so we make… and the ancient Christian calendar, December the 24th, was the feast of Adam and Eve. And on this day, we gathered a tree that would help us remember the garden. And we adorned, we initially adorned it with fruits to help us recall the story of that garden in Genesis. And the fact that in Christmas, the gates are open.

Dan: Again, the sweetness of the, the decimated tree being in one sense, given a life again, and then a life again into, a restoration of what was lost in Eden. And yet the holding again of the tree of life and the trees that will one day populate the boulevard, with 12 trees, that are comparable to the one in Eden. In some sense, every time we put the tree up, what were proclaiming is that, as perfect as Eden was, the new heavens and earth, which we get to participate in Jesus now is actually even better. So that, that’s enough to be able to say, oh my goodness, may, may this be, for you. And I hope for our audience, just even having these categories, an even more sweet and rich Christmas than what it might have been. So, Alexander John, thank you so much. And I trust that, there will be many opportunities in the future for us to be able to play in the realm of redemption together.

Alexander: I trust that Dan, and I just, I wanna remind all of us that if on Christmas day you don’t feel the outer Christmas, know it’s on the way.

Dan: It’s on the way indeed. By itself, it is the promise. It’s on the way.