My blog has a small readership, but they are as smart, thoughtful and empathetic as any group I know. They proved themselves once again in their responses to my recent posting on Spirituality. To jog your memory, it’s the one in which I bemoaned the fact that I felt like I wore cement boots that were keeping me from elevating, as it were, into another plane. I also mixed my metaphors by adding that I seemed to be missing the cog in my machinery that was needed to kick the spirituality into action.
There were many readers who identified with my dilemma. One said, picking up on my faulty metaphor, that we must both shop at the same boot store. A number of others – thank you all – said that, on the contrary, they thought of me as a very spiritual person. Many of those stuck close to the traditional examples of watching the sun rise, listening to music and marveling at the beauty of nature as examples of spirituality. I said in the original piece that I could delight in those experiences, but that they still felt like an incomplete definition of spirituality to satisfy me.
I want to focus on the responses that reshaped my definition of spirituality, even helped me see myself in a kindlier light. Two friends, both named Tom and both approaching the topic from their strong grounding in Catholic thinking, were especially helpful in liberating me from the flawed definitions that were at the root of my thinkingabout the subject.
Here is Tom D: Reading your latest post on the question of your spirituality caused me to think anew about what it means to be “spiritual,” to have a “spiritual life” or a spiritual experience….
Let me start by saying that I am by no means an expert from knowledge or experience. I have only my study of Thomas Merton and occasional encounters with other guides in different spiritual traditions to draw upon. Let me call upon Merton for a moment. In one of the talks he gave to his monastic community, he says, “There’s only one thing for anybody to become in life–there’s no point in becoming spiritual, a waste of time…you’ve come here [to the monastery] …to become yourself, to discover your complete identity, to be you.” On the face of it, this seems a heretical statement. But I think Merton was trying to help the monks understand that becoming themselves was no less than becoming the person that God loved. And that this becoming–by no means a linear process–meant learning to attend to and respond to the freeing love of God in them.
I know this sounds simpler than it is. The dailyness of life intervenes all the time. Or at least it seems to. Because the dailyness of life affords all kinds of opportunities to live, so to speak, in love. Love in this sense is the ordinary love that we all experience as humans. It is also love in a greater sense, something like the the Greek notion of “agape”–the mystery of love as a force that can give rise to empathy, a sense of connectedness to other humans, if not all being (including the sense of connection to trees that you’ve experienced recently), a sense of relationship across seemingly insurmountable boundaries, a deep valuing of life. In this sense, becoming “spiritual” is a question of learning to attend and respond more fully to love at the center of who we are as individual persons and who we all are. The maturation of who we are across our lifetimes.
Everything I know about you suggests that love is an animating force in your life as much as words and ideas and other feelings. It’s manifested in how you think about and relate to people and the beauty and challenges of life and those with whom you have a strong personal relationship, in what you read and how you respond to it. Maybe thinking of the spiritual life in this way will make it easy to get in touch with your “spiritual self”–i.e., who you already are, as Merton would put it. Help you let go of those cement boots.
Tom’s view that love and connectedness are at the heart of spirituality speaks deeply to me. As I often told the students in the teacher education [program?] where I taught, “It’s all about relationships.” I was now operating in a universe of meaning in which I felt comfortable.
But it was Tom R. who both added to his namesake’s words but also provided a powerful take on what spirituality wasn’t. Stripping those elements from my starting definition was really transformational.
The first thing I might say is that your experience of spirituality–or more specifically, its absence–is normal. You’re not alone, even among the saints. You’re actually in excellent company. You’ve probably heard the term “the dark night of the soul” coined by St. John of the Cross. The idea has evolved from its original meaning. In contemporary understanding, the dark night of the soul is seen as a crisis of faith, not sensing God’s presence, doubting the existence of a loving and powerful God, or feeling abandoned by God. In recent times, Mother Teresa famously experienced a dark night of the soul for decades. God was just gone, absent from her life. I’m about as abstract of a believer (theist) as you can get. Classical notions of omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience crumble with serious thought, particularly in light of suffering and evil. Petitionary prayer bothers me to no end. Is God unaware of whatever concern that requires his intercession, so you must tell him? Or is he just stingy with his blessings, reluctantly granting them if bothered frequently enough or by a sufficient number of petitioners? What kind of God do we really believe in if either were true? Having said that, I do believe in spirituality. My own is tinged with my Catholic upbringing and a good dose of Catholic theology. It’s just who I am. I find it helpful to think about what is not spirituality first, so that we don’t get stuck on the lack of something that isn’t the real deal. You almost certainly have read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. He spends a good portion of that book talking about what is or isn’t love. Importantly, he talks about how love isn’t a feeling. Spirituality also isn’t a feeling. We get stuck on this notion of having a transcendental experience, an emotion or sensation that somehow takes us beyond ourselves. It’s supposed to lead to some enlightenment, an altered consciousness that somehow connects us to a higher plane. Well, I think that notion is mistaken and even harmful. Sensation, emotion, and feeling are rooted in biology. The mind isn’t separate from the body and the brain. The mind IS the body and the brain. If I give you enough psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, or MDMA, I can elicit a “spiritual” experience–an artificial one, even if it feels genuine. Framing being spiritual as experiential pathologizes those who have no such experience, like yourself. You mentioned missing that particular gear or cog. You’re not missing anything.
In addition to affirming Tom D’s views about love being at the heart of spirituality, he rejects the idea that it involves some kind of ecstatic experience, such as one might experience when taking psilocybin or LSD. As I told him, that’s an experience I’ve had, and although others may have seen it as a spiritual experience, I did not. That was a gimmick, a momentary high. Where both Toms were heading, and I’m, belatedly, right behind them is toward the idea that spirituality is a way of life, one that involves the quality and extent of your relationships with others as well as inhabiting your whole self.
Thanks to my readers, I am in a better place on the subject of spirituality than I was at the start of my journey.