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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Wading in at the beach of male spirituality

There are so many deep and perplexing, unanswered and unanswerable questions about “masculine spirituality” that one fears even sticking a proverbial toe in that water. And yet, perhaps that is what lingers as a far-off, yet occasionally brilliant and illumining star to seek to find in a far-off galaxy of other complex and   seemingly infinite stars.

There are male creative geniuses who have flown the flags and blown the coronets of their deepest thoughts, feelings, fears, dreams and utopias and dystopias. And there are theologians who have prayed, suffered, agonized and celebrated their deep and profound and permanent connection to the ultimate power in the universe. There are legions of us ordinary mortals who have caught glimpses of what we thought, perceived, believed and even acted upon were impulses nudging us in the direction of inner-seeking, withdrawal from the frenzy of career ambition, fiscal management, family duties and our failures in some or all of those areas.

Whether or not we “know” in the deepest, fullest and most intimate ways that we have “value,” are worthy, are loved, are honourable, are trusting and trusted, are aware of the “kingdom of God within”….seems an impelling, persistent, modulating, moderating and penetrating question needing some hints of both positive and negative answers….and even some that are ambiguous. And from the weight of evidence offered to our senses in our youth, and later to our minds, we conflate a tremulous and misty and mystifying and evolving picture. And then, we come to a place where the empirical evidence of our place in the universe is either or both incomplete or potentially flawed both in its content and in the motivations of those offering their critique.

Measuring our “identities” against others, as we all do, seems destabilizing and potentially “soul destroying” given the relative degree of our “hollowness” as the starting point in our biography. And, by inference, to measure ourselves against the “infinite, the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent is impossible and irrelevant.

And so, once we begin to appreciate something about the infinite in/of the universe, in birth and death, and in the galaxies, the trees, the lakes and oceans, the fauna and flora and we begin to glimpse the unbelievable complexities, intricacies, intimacies, dualities and tensions that pulsate in and through all of its magnificence, we cannot but get a sense of its open invitation to be a part of its symphonies.

And then, whether or not we have already made some social, community or searching connection to something known as church, or a faith community, we begin, almost inevitable and inexorably, and certainly tentatively and tremulously, to explore, investigate, ruminate upon and even dream about our potential  connection and relationship to and with the infinite. Funerals, and babies, both beyond our imaginations and intellects to define and contain, sunrises and sunsets, too, likewise often leave us in awe, as do Beethoven’s symphonies and sonatas, Bach’s Clavier, Monet’s gardens, and Einstein’s equations. Visiting cathedrals like Canterbury and Westminster, and although outside my experience the Vatican, can only reinforce a feeling and a consciousness that others have devoted their lives to “stretching” to aspire to reach something they envisaged as “heaven”…at the zenith of the universe.
Our “grain of sand” existence on this vast and beautiful beach/planet* seems to take on some meaning when people we read, explore, reflect upon and interact with as we realize that our meaninglessness is both unacceptable and unworthy of our being here. This time between birth and death, a monstrous gift, blessing and opportunity, like a new canvas or blank manuscript, beckons us to pick up a paint-brush or pen and begin to sketch whatever it is that seems to be a glimpse of meaning or purpose, some kind of light, perhaps (or inevitably) even linked to the previous darknesses of our biographies. And we “pray” for the courage to go into the dark night of chaos, confusion and wandering…under an energy and a muscle we most likely did not know we even had without really comprehending the fullness of what prayer can or might be.

Whether these stirrings and walks erupt from a trauma, or just evolve over a long time, there is a common modality to the journey to self-discovery, self-awareness and self-acceptance, that resist cognitive explications, reasonable and congruent timings, and even nicely bow-wrapped boxes of immediate answers…often there are even more and different and more difficult and penetrating questions, for which we unknowingly, and unconsciously have been “prepared”. (We might even venture to claim the word preparing!)

And, whether or not our little journey takes us into a formal faith community or not, and whether we have to engage in formal studies about our/human spiritual growth and development, and whether or not our little pilgrimage meets another whose search complements ours, and whether the universe throws speed-bumps, detours, diversions, regressions or depressions into our way, this new maples voyage into the unknown dimensions of our psyche, our spirit…and therefore compelling our minds and bodies to come along in willing or semi-willing support…we are on a new and different path….like nothing before in our empirical lives.

It is as if we have crossed a threshold from a life dedicated to the pursuit and achievement of extrinsic goals, rewards, titles, offices, stipends, pension plans, houses, children, marriage and social and cultural relatedness. And we begin to pass through a different canal from the original birth canal, although equally fraught with danger, threats, risks and even the potential of the end of life itself. Not to turn our backs on the previous decades of accomplishment, in secular terms, but rather to embrace the greater long-term, lasting and life-giving expectations of a life lived embracing spiritual, ethereal, non-corporeal, and frankly other-worldly matters.

While we each frame the new paradigm and its emerging questions differently, nevertheless the essential thrust of the questions is largely the same:

  • ·        If there is a life-force in the universe, (and I have to begin with a positive answer) then what is a life that is in harmony with that life force to look like?
  • ·        Where are some of the spiritual life-forces who have confronted such questions as the meaning and purpose of existence, and what do they have to say in and through their own lives?
  • ·        Is there a spiritual group to which I feel drawn, as a starting place to this new uncharted “nature-walk”?
  • ·        If beauty, truth and love are really at the core of the spiritual pilgrimage, how are they to be pursued, incarnated, re-evaluated, and re-incarnated in this one life?
  • ·        How have the previous decades shaped and formed such questions, and the launch-pad into a new perceptual dimension? What baggage needs to be left behind, and what new approaches, compass points and relationships apply here and now?
  • ·        What are the mysterious relationships between the world’s prevailing myths and the Christian narrative and how do/have/will both vectors impact me?
  • ·        Is there an implicit yet clear and qualitative difference between the “how and why” of existence prior to this shift, and the “how and why” of a new and different path?
  • ·        Does this path require a period of solitude, isolation, Gethsemane-type wandering, or is it just as accessible amid the frenzy of a career?

For many, it is more likely the case that this “shift” in consciousness is more like a glacier in its gradual, persistent, yet almost imperceptible movement and such questions as those listed above emerge perhaps many times, in varying tones, colours, rhythms and events, all of them probing the same mystery.
At least for this scribe, there have been a few moments that some would call epiphanies.

One, very early came out of a homily when I was sixteen, (the content has been referred to in more than one place in this space previously). So shocking, revolting and clarifying in its exclusion of Roman Catholics and any who drank wine, danced, frequented movie theatres or wore make-up…all of them “damned to hell” by this Ian Paisley clone….that I left the Canadian iteration of the Presbyterian church forever (only to return grudgingly seven years later, for a short afternoon ceremony for my first marriage). Having spent some time, at sixteen, casting my innocent eyes/mind/heart over the New Testament, I had concluded that these threats bore no relation to the spirit or the letter of the words I had been reading. And while my parents continued their attendance in those pews, they never prevailed upon me to return, except briefly after the marriage. Both my then partner and I declined their invitation.

Wherever one lives, one breathes in the attitudes, including both the sneers and the winks, the topics to be avoided, like religion and those that are “safe,” like the weather. It was not only the clergy from homily noted above who disdained Roman Catholics; that was a prevailing ‘meme’ in the little town. Protestants and Catholics simply did not mix. Of course, they conducted business with each other; often that was necessary as, for example, the only shoe-maker and repair shop was owned by an Italian family. Having had the attitude and words served at nearly every meal, “If the whole town goes down to the town dock and jumps in and drowns, are you going to join them?” I had unconsciously been nudged and shoved, persuaded and “commandeered” into a kind of “swim against the stream” salmon-like perspective. So, near the same time as the above homily was delivered, I invited a couple of friends, both protestants, to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church.
Sitting in the balcony of that previously “forbidden” and “evil” church, and observing the prayers, hymns, incense, and Eucharist seemed to me then to be eminently reasonable, and unworthy of the contempt and disdain that crept like a noxious gas along the alleys, between the houses, and into the  sanctuaries of all the other churches. Only much later, in a very different place, time and insight did I discern a kind of infantilism in the power of both hierarchy and dogma to which I could not submit.

There is something to this notion of “not submitting” that is at the core of both my personality and whatever thoughts I have of God, spirituality, faith, salvation, religion and a full and healthy life. Sister Mary Jo Leddy’s spiritual biography, entitled “Say to the Darkness, we beg to differ,” expresses the attitude both precisely and sensitively, much more delicately that I have often expressed a similar view. Deep thoughts and feelings often bubble up out of some cavern when we least expect them, and when we have not given an extended time of reflection to their existence. Blurting out “that’s just not right!” when injustice lands its bully punch on its latest playground victim in the sandy schoolyard lying between Central and Gibson Schools. A more silent protest, fearing public scorn and humiliation, whispers, “I hate it when they ridicule Jim!” the tall angly guy in grade eight whose body seemed out of sync with his beautiful and insightful mind. Gentle, compassionate and isolated, he was compelled to remain mostly alone, and did so without recourse to revenge or visible bitterness against his peers.

Arguing against a mother’s cynicism directed to sports generally, and hockey specifically, I often protested her decision to exclude participation in that sport, following a minor dental accident in which the puck broke two front teeth, arguing “dentist costs” as preclusive of my continuing. Her decision forced more practice time for the piano lessons, recitals and examinations…and exhibited an attitude of what I then considered imbalance, and continue to this day to believe was unnecessary. “Both-and” (piano and hockey) seemed then and still does, far more “life-giving.” “Either-or” has become a premise to be faced with scepticism, adjacent to the “beg-to-differ” attitude that confronts most situations, especially those decisions taken by persons in positions of power.

Scepticism of the abuse of power by itself is central to my notion of the universe and my place in it. So radioactive is my radar on this score that only the exemplary role models of teachers, principals, clergy, lawyers, doctors, bishops and bosses, and of course political actors and athletic and novel and movie characters….This sceptical lens is also a critical instrument in helping to discern authenticity, credibility, trust and allegiance both to others and to ideas, promises, threats and judgements, especially of those behind lecterns, pulpits, policy uniforms, and religious garb of all sorts. Spiritual growth and development, then, proceeds through a maze of decisions that draw me out into service, and pull me back from continuing to throw energy in support of people or projects put personal advancement ahead of the stated aim and purpose of the “service” to others.

Just yesterday, I listened as a businesswoman with detailed knowledge of the workings of a health facility expressed disappointment that the medical doctor attached to the small rural clinic was furthering “self-interest” not meeting the needs of the client group of the clinic. “Self-interest,” while relevant, infects the professional approach of many in the “faith” business of the institutional church. And this consciousness was first awakened through a decade and a half of freelance reporting on the politics of city hall. Frequent interactions with and among the various actors, civil servants, elected officials, other reporters, and citizens including both victims of civic decisions and the big actors like developers and business owner-operators offered a unique, in-the-flesh real-time narrative of people worthy of trust and those of a different hue. Different from, and yet highly evocative of the characters from novels, and movies, these names and faces generated immediate and concrete reactions, demanding evolving evaluation and criticism (both positive and negative) that the reading of literature preserves in the more abstract, and the more “heady,” intellectual and thereby detached.

It is the tension between the immediate, concrete, and real-time experiences in life and the more abstract, theoretical and even philosophical and theological that generates the vibrations, sometimes like symphonic harmonies, and other times like raging hurricanes inside the mind, psyche and heart and comprises the biographical and the spiritual narratives of a life. And this has certainly been the case in my life. As an active thinker-feeler-observer-‘intuitor’-actor….fully aware of the limits of my skills and energies (only much later in years) I have been the instigator of many unwelcome and divisive encounters, having sought and been offered opportunities to question the basic norms and premises of many of the people and institutions with whom and with which I have worked.

Preferring stereotypes as more easily managed, controlled and financed (in business especially) our culture finds eminently cantankerous and irascible those less willing to comply with both rules and expectations. “Colouring outside the box” was not something I even thought about for the first third of my life….I was just doing “what I needed to do”. Whether that entailed waking up some somnambulant pre-teens in a classroom, or restraining a young male adolescent from demanding centre-stage on our football or basketball team, or resisting the lure of inbreeding in an Ontario private school through hiring primarily “old boys” from previous graduating classes, or jumping on a learning curve to “sell” meat, and other food products like margarine, and lard for Canada Packers, or asking for a social life as a requisite component in any family….and certainly not always successfully or with concurrence from others…I nevertheless proceeded in an almost head-strong determination “to be heard” (and to be recognized and “valued”).

Adler would say that I was merely compensating for a deficit in my own perception of my own value….given the chant “you are no good and never will be any good” that echoed down the basement stairs, and across the piano keyboard and into the raspberry patch and across the front porch and sidewalk…from my mother’s deep and profound self-loathing, projected onto her offspring. Unfortunately, I was totally unaware of the source of this infamy as a youth, and blamed myself for being “nothing”.

Any intimation that there is a separation between one’s biography and one’s spiritual life and development is absurd. And any intimation that there is a division between one’s wellness or personal health and one’s spiritual growth and development is also untenable. And it is the intersection of the wholeness of one’s experience with the totality of one’s inner life, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and values, including one’s dynamic awareness of one’s relation to the infinite power of the universe that commands one full attention and energy….

And while this can be exhausting, it can and does also give new life, if and when one is open and receptive…

Enough for this episode….more later!

*This perspective does not forget or deny or avoid other less salutary and much less pastoral and often gut-wrenching planetary/natural phenomena that include a persistent striving for survival, competition between and among species, random acts of both kindness and brutality and the overriding mystery that pervades all of nature and life. In fact, it is with a balanced vision of the magnificent fragility of existence that one is enabled to set parameters and expectations around one’s emotional, intellectual, psychic and spiritual perspectives. Similar to the savage beasts, and at the same time, different in significant ways, we humans live in the tensions that pervade and vibrate inside the canyon between the raw and the gentle, the compassionate and the empathic. It is in this echo chamber, literally and metaphorically, that much of the “music” and the “dance” and the artistic renderings of all facets and phases of life are created.

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