Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life. (Buddha)
Like the flicker of flames on Plato’s cave, any attempt to elucidate a “spiritual life” will be incomplete, somewhat incoherent, mystical and never-ending. This is merely another mortal’s attempt at the impossible offered in both humility and deep reverence for the potential of the human spirit “not merely to survive, but to endure” (as Faulkner put it in his Acceptance Speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature).
There are so many distractions and diversions, excuses and denials in the face of any discussion of a spiritual life. One of the principle clouds hanging over the notion is ‘what does one mean by a spiritual life?” Does it mean and require some version of a conversion away from the natural ‘evil’ of human existence, toward some kind of personal relationship with a deity? Does it mean some kind of communion with the forces of nature, the winds, the natural elements and the awe that each individually and collectively inspire and evoke? Does it mean a deep and profound connection with another person, an activity that one considers the “passion” of one’s life? Does it mean the experience that one has in the face of a dramatic piece of art, music, theatre, dance or inspiring rhetoric?
Perhaps none of these “depictions” can be dismissed, and perhaps all, and more, comprise the notion of a spiritual life.
The experience of child-birth, for the father, is beyond being captured in words. It falls into the “ecstacy” of being in the place where a miracle is happening right before your eyes. No gynecological treatise about the specifics of the process can or will ever capture the ‘rapture’ of that moment. And yet, such a confluence of intimate details can only enhance one’s appreciation of its epic proportions. A new life, any new life, is at the heart of any spiritual “awakening”. And that ‘new life’ can and will take one or more of many specific forms, depending on the situation. Also, paradoxically, every new birth cannot be disconnected or removed or detached from the notion of death….beginning and ending are of a piece, a kind of connecting unity of the bookends of all existence.
Religion, all religions, attempt to portray some iteration of ‘birth’ into a life of a new kind of awareness, a different consciousness, a deeper appreciation of both who one is and how utterly inexplicable, given the limits of our comprehension, apprehension, imagination and aspiration, is this thing called “life”. And at the heart of any discussion of a spiritual life is a deep and growing, self-sustaining interest in and appreciation of the complexities and the beauty and the infinitudes of our beings and of the world around us. Space explorers take pictures and reverently express their overwhelming awe and breath-taking speechlessness at the majesty of the universe seen from their cockpit window. Scientists in their labs often express a similar kind of awe at the intricate and surprising evidence that creeps out of the lens of their microscopes. Pathologists in the course of their conducting autopsies, too, have to be deeply impacted by the complex and balanced and inter-connected systems of the human anatomy, most of which remains beyond our total comprehension and appreciation.
Whenever we are in the experience of being somehow overwhelmed, emotionally moved, deeply connected to and deeply impressed by another’s person, words, painting, musical composition, when in the presence of what we perceive to be an authentic, integrous, universal, timeless and uplifting moment, we have some realization of and appreciation for how our humanity is not confined to our anatomy, our intellect, our skills or even our highest ethic.
Immediately, the critics will erupt with some version of the dismissive: “Emotions are so fickle and cheap and demeaning as to denounce and demean our inner ‘light’ and our deeper spiritual life”. A brief personal anecdote: An elderly man, upon hearing the words of a poet whose words were read to him by his long-deceased father, breaks into silent tears. He has re-united with a deep and memorable, even unforgettable and perhaps long buried emotional and literary connection to the words and to his father. His spouse, upon hearing of the tears retorts, “Well we all knew he was always a crybaby!” And that is the kind of reductionism that pervades much of our discomfort with any discussion of a spiritual life.
Because it is so impactful and so personal, so memorable and perhaps even frightening, or at least difficult if not impossible to describe and to explain, we are hesitant, maybe even loath to mention our “truth” lest we fall into the trap of being ridiculed as was this elderly man. So potentially transformative are such moments, they are often deeply imprinted on our memories, and on our “heart” (both the anatomical and the poetical one) leaving us vulnerable to their imprint. And these imprints can be deeply uplifting or profoundly saddening. Our spiritual life, far beyond or at least somewhat extra-territorial to our cognition, to our consciousness and to our physical comprehension comprises and expresses our deep and undeniable connection to the universe, to eternity, to our best angels, and perhaps even to God.
While we are as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach, we “hold” that each grain is unique and special to that beach. The poets have reminded us of “eternity in a grain of sand” and the philosophers have maintained that our “grain” (sometimes poppy seed, sometimes sand) is inextricably entwined with all other “grains” in the replicating processes of life including the human sphere of those processes.
And although we will never “dominate” the forces of nature, (no matter how hard we may try and try to convince ourselves otherwise) we are intimately individually and collectively part of the universal concerto. The existentialists set out the notion that, as life is meaningless, it is our’s to inject, design, create, fall into, accept or invent our own personal meaning. And while that “meaning” is highly significant, it alone does not comprise our spiritual life. “Inalienable human rights” themselves, also do not comprise our spiritual life, although, without a place of safety and security from the many threats to our person, our spiritual life, like those places of the prisoners before their train-treck to Auschwitz, focuses on the blessing and bounty and the inviolable and utterly inextinguishable gratitude for our own life and all the promise it brings to us and to those in our circle.
Th symphonic synergy of our talents, ours energies, our imaginations, our bodies our traditions and culture are some of the “notes” that comprise the concerto that is our life….and for many there is an inescapable partner in this composition, and that partner is God, however the deity is conceived. Less those notes remain a cacophony, in part resulting from our hesitation to put “pen” to paper, or to pick the flowers of opportunity that are seemingly randomly scattered along our path, we have a plethora of models of creative expression that reach both the ethereal edges of the sky of human hope and imagination while at the same time touching some place in our being that, previously, we hardly knew was there.
And just to add lovingly and complicatingly to the spiritual pilgrimage, “God” has injected the truth of love in all of its many forms and expressions including eros, agape, storgos and the incalculable reverence for the planet we all share. This mystery both magnetizes much of our time and energy, and flattens us with its power, sometimes for joy and ecstacy, sometimes for deep and profound grief and loss.
Just today, the Supreme Court of Canada denied a British Columbia aboriginal tribe’s petition to forestall a ski-hill development on land they claimed, if it went ahead, would destroy the spirit of the Grizzly Bear, a spirit central to this tribe’s spirituality.
Basing their decision on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the court declared that Canadians are entitled to worship as they see fit, but the Charter does not “protect” the object of that worship. The unfortunate intersection of law and spirit makes for disparate bedfellows. The “spirit of the Grizzly Bear” is not an object of the spiritual worship of the tribe (as, for example an icon, an altar or a “god”, but a much more important and pervasive energy in which the tribe finds comfort, courage and connection with the “Great Spirit” and the continuity of their fore-fathers. The framers of the Charter were not thinking in those terms. They were more likely thinking in terms of traditional “Judeo-Christian” concepts of the deity, and the symbols associated with the worship of that deity.
Similarly, with the historic accreditation of the Decalogue, as the foundation of the Judeo-Christian faith and legal system, there is an indelible and copious trail of the writings of church fathers linking “faith” and “spirituality” to compliance with specific moral and ethical behaviour. Somehow, in the west, we have been indoctrinated into a way of conceiving of our spirituality as a path of obedience to the will of God. As many church parishoners have expressed it so succinctly, “I am here to try to reserve my place in heaven in the afterlife!” Life as a bargaining chip, as if the “good life” were a mock-up of the proverbial casino, over which God presides, seems to elude the finer and more life-giving potential of a “free spirit” whose emotional, creative, intellectual, social and altruistic motivations and synergies of one whose “spiritual” life is plugged into the Great Spirit, as that aboriginal tribe aspire to be.
Iterations of the churches’ many legitimate initiatives to provide leadership and insight for those seeking “spiritual direction” include lives of silence, chastity, poverty, social good Samaritanism, rigorous and disciplined academic study and reflection. Lives lived in celibacy, and in community, have generated many of the religious “orders” of both men and women. Many of the women’s sisterhoods have honoured a “platonic” marriage to God, as an integral component of their life of discipline. Of course, each of these disciplines requires a system of organization, management and discipline by others, themselves equally committed to the spiritual path of the respective order.
However, for the rest of us to sacralise, or to elevate the “religious” to a status of moral and spiritual “purity” of which the remainder of the human community is incapable of reaching is to fall into the trap of “externalizing” and judging the relationship of one (anyone, including the self) with or to God. Similarly, to reverence an iconic symbol, or a writer of the most lavish cheques to the church coffers, or a cathedral, or a musical composition, by itself, as “sacred” and at its core essentially sacred, is to place the significance on the “person” or the “thing”. A spiritual approach, at least from this perspective, seeks, waits for, expects and rejoices in the transformative experience as the trail to the godhead we are all struggling to find and to follow.
It is those moments in which we “see” or “feel” or “touch” or “hear” or “sense” or “imagine” God-with-us no matter when or where. And those moments are in their first encounter, and as the memories and the cornerstones of our existence in the flowing now, continue to shine light into the darkness of our Shadows, and to flash light the eternal flame on President John F. Kennedy’s grave in Arlington Cemetery, or the Peggys Point Lighthouse in Peggy’s Cove, on the coast of Nova Scotia. We are all, after all, like tiny ships groping for our way on turbulent and tempestuous seas. And we cannot fail to notice and to record and to honour these moments of “spiritual” enlightenment as integral benchmarks of identity as we envisage the deployment of our unique light as the “flame” of our spirit, and the ‘soul-food’ of those we encounter.