Archive for July, 2021

What does it mean to live a spiritual life?

Our culture values progress and achievement.  Given this, we seek ‘markers’ that help us know how well we are doing.  Thus, when we seek to respond to the question we are holding – What does it mean to live a spiritual life? – we can quite easily become seduced by the following questions: ‘How far have I advanced?’  ‘In what ways have I matured since I started along this spiritual path?’  ‘What step of the spiritual ladder am I on and what will it take for me to get to the next step?’  In certain contexts, questions such as these can be helpful; yet I invite you, Gentle Reader, to consider that it might be important for us to leave these questions aside as we think about and engage the initial question.  One of my past reflections might help serve as an example.

[From a 2013 Journal Entry] ‘When I think about where I am when it comes to my spiritual life I come up with as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism.  For more than 40 years now I still have many of the same searching struggles: I am still searching for inner peace, for creative relationships with others, for the ability to ‘let go’ the image of relationships that are dramatically changing, and I am still searching for God especially during the times I am wandering in the deep woods, the deserts, the wilderness and the wasteland.  Am I really living more of a ‘spiritual life’ than I was living five or ten years ago?’ 

What I have learned about myself is that I frequently find myself living within three polarities (are they paradoxes?); there is a tension that comes with living here.  I don’t think I am alone when it comes to these polarities, nor to the accompanying tensions; it seems to me that many of us who seek to engage the question – What does it mean to live a spiritual life? – hold these, or similar, polarities.

The first polarity is a personal one; it focuses on the first relationship I have – the relationship I have with myself.  For me, it is the polarity between ‘loneliness’ and ‘solitude.’  The second polarity focuses on the relationship I have with the other(s).  For me, it is the polarity between ‘hostility’ and ‘hospitality.’  The third polarity focuses on the relationship I have, or seek to have, with God.  For me it is the polarity between despair and hope [despair is rooted in illusion and disillusion and hope is rooted in prayer and service].

For me, my spiritual life is a constant movement between these polarities.  The more I embrace both as part of who I am [this is where the idea of ‘paradox’ comes in – this is not an ‘either/or’ proposition; it is a ‘both/and’ proposition] the more I am able to live a life that is not divided (again, ‘either/or’) but that is truly a life of wholeness (again, ‘both/and’).  Living a spiritual life is living a life of wholeness.  It means accepting that I am, at my healthiest, a living paradox – I am good and evil, I am light and darkness, I am virtue and vice, I am despair and hope, I am, in other words, fully human.

I am remembering the monk who was approached by the student.  The student asked what it was like to live a spiritual life.  The monk replied that ‘before I lived a spiritual life I was depressed.’  Now that I am able to more fully live a spiritual life I am depressed.’  I hold onto this little story for it provides me hope, makes me laugh and allows me to affirm that I am, indeed, fully human.

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What does it mean to live a spiritual life?  I have held this question since mid-September, 1962.  It is a question that I periodically engage and it is also one that I continue to hold.  Like the great German poet, Rilke, at times I believe and at times I hope that someday, in some way I will live into the answer.  Mostly, I continue to believe that my quest to live an authentic spiritual life is worth the doubt, despair, anxiety and pain – to spend time in the deep dark woods or in the wilderness or in the desert.  Amidst these feelings and these locations I experience little glimpses of light, I experience hope, and I experience faith.

In 1962 I began to learn that my parents, my teachers, my spiritual guides, or my counselors could not do much more than offer me their support, care, love and guidance as I strode along my way – a way that I had/have to take alone.  At times I have expended a great amount of energy seeking to avoid the pain that comes with accepting the responsibility and response-ability for my own life.  I had to learn to move from ‘some say’ this is what I should do or this is who I should be and say, in response to the great question Mark offers us in his gospel [Mark 8:27-30]: ‘But what do you say?’

The question about my spiritual life is a daunting one.  It reaches down into my core.  It challenges me to take nothing for granted – neither good nor evil, virtue or vice, life or death, neither other humans nor God.  This is my question AND yet I need much guidance as I step along my way.  Like all significant, personal questions I hold, this question requires that I seek support as I step along.  Even after 59 years of stepping along I still hold Dante’s words in my head and heart: In the middle of the way of our life I find myself in a dark wood.  I also hold Wendell Berry’s quote – it provides me a little piece of light: Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of  curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread.  It is ancient fear of the unknown and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.  What you are doing is exploring.

For me, my spiritual life entails reaching in to my deepest self; it entails reaching out to others I meet along the way and it entails searching for and perhaps reaching for God [or is it more like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says: God searches for us.]  I am called to ‘go inside’ and seek with courage (‘courage’ comes from the French word for ‘heart’); I am called to reach out and care for others, especially for those I meet along the way; I am called to seek and to be open to God through meditation and prayer.  In order to do this I must also accept my own inner doubts and fears and anxieties – these are the tap roots that can nurture my faith; I must also accept the wide variety of feelings and judgments that I offer to others I meet along the way; I must also be able to continue to hold my doubts about God – God’s presence and God’s absence.

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To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the meaning of life. –Robert Louis Stevenson

For too many old age is an age of anguish and boredom.  I have begun to learn – and experience – that one response to both is a sense of significant being. 

I have come to embrace the idea that there is a level of existence where the challenge that cannot be – should not be – silenced is: Who needs me?  Who needs us – the aging, the elderly?  Then there is a more challenging question: How do I/We discern and relate to a source of ultimate meaning? 

What I live by is not only a sense of belonging but also a sense of indebtedness.  My need to be needed corresponds to a reality: something is asked of me; something is asked of all of us human beings.  My/Our aging must not be taken to mean a process of suspending the requirements and commitments which continue to invite and challenge me/us to embrace.  As I age I will ‘do’ less AND I am still called to ‘be’ more. 

Too often ‘we’ conceive of old age as a stage of stagnation into which a person enters with his habits, follies, and prejudices.  Too often ‘we’ believe that to be good to the old is to cater to their eccentricities (or to ignore them). 

I believe that our potential for change and growth is much greater than ‘we’ are willing to admit and that old age be regarded not as the age of stagnation but as the age of opportunities for inner growth.  The elderly must not be treated as a patient but as full of possibilities and potential. 

Old age provides us the opportunity to identify and attain the values and virtues that we failed to sense – or that we ignored.  Old ages provides us the opportunity to transform our experiences into wisdom.  The aging-years are truly formative-years, rich in opportunities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime, to see through our self-deceptions, to deepen our acceptance and understanding and compassion and to become more honest with ourselves without doing violence to ourselves. 

We might enter into old age as we entered into other ‘ways opening’ during our lifetime.  We entered with a little dread and a great deal of expectancy.  We are now provided the opportunity to shed our prejudices and let go of our stereotypes and ‘fears of the other’ (think: the stranger, the one who is not like us). 

I am also thinking that in every home for the aging that there ought to be a ‘Director of Learning’ – a ‘Dean’ in charge of intellectual and spiritual development.  We insist on minimum standards for physical well-being, what about minimum standards for intellectual, emotional and spiritual well-being? 

What our nation needs are senior universities; universities for the advanced in years where wise folk teach the potentially wise, where the purpose of learning is not a career, but where the purpose of learning is learning itself. 

There is much more I might offer but I will conclude with this today: the goal is not to keep the old busy.  The goal is to remind the elderly that every moment is an opportunity for growth, for development and for emotional and spiritual healing.  Inner purification is just as important as hobbies and recreation and field trips.  The elimination of resentments, of residues of bitterness, of jealousies provide opportunities for growth and healing. 

…at the end of the day, what’s more important? Knowing that a few meaningless figures balanced—or knowing that you were the person you were called to be? –Sophie Kinsella

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To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words. –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

We human beings equate appearance with reality, we equate concepts with things and we equate the expressible with the ineffable and the sublime.  Seeking to become aware of the ineffable and the sublime is the first step in our journey.  Seeking a sense of the ineffable and the sublime is crucial for without this sense there are no metaphysical challenges, there is no awareness of being as being, there is no awareness of value as value and there is no possibility for art to become art. 

Reason and being rational ends at the shore of the known.  The ineffable and the sublime exist on the ocean beyond the shore.  The route to the ineffable and the sublime is often remote from experience and understanding.  Experience, reason and understanding are not able to travel beyond the shore.  The ineffable and the sublime lie beyond the land where we measure, evaluate and weigh. 

We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or because reason fails to provide us the answers.  We sail in order to be open to the experience itself for hidden within the experience the ineffable and the sublime lie waiting for us.  The paradox, of course, is that if we sail in order to find them we will, indeed, miss them. 

We human beings are citizens of two worlds, we are invited to embrace a dual allegiance: we are open to the ineffable and the sublime in one world and we name and engage reality in the other world.  Between the two is a gap that will never be closed.  These worlds are distant and close – another paradox.  The gap is as wide as the Pacific Ocean and as close as what lies beyond our last breath.

The tangible we evaluate with our reason; the sacred we touch via the ineffable and the sublime.  The ineffable and the sublime open pathways to the sacred – and the sacred cannot be captured by any words we might utter.  Words hinder us from experiencing the sacred and from experiencing the ineffable and the sublime.   

Beyond the beauty of external forms, there is more here: something that cannot be named, something ineffable. –Eckhart Tolle

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She saw that there were ranges of life beyond our present life, ranges of mind beyond our present mind and above these she saw the splendors of the spirit. – Sri Aurobindo

The ineffable and sublime inhabit the magnificent and the ordinary, the macro and the micro realities.  Some of us sense these qualities in extraordinary events – Halley’s Comet, for example; others sense the ineffable and sublime in the ordinary events – savoring a single flower, for example.  To both persons things are bereft of triteness.  These folks actually hear the stillness that crowds the world in spite of the rampant external and internal noise, in spite of our addiction to distraction, in spite of our busyness and in spite of our many dis-eases. 

I have been re-reading and re-savoring Tolsoty’s ‘Twenty-Three Tales’.  Tolstoy is able to help me capture the ineffable and the sublime as he describes a piece of paper, a morsel of food, a single, simple word, even a sigh.  His descriptions help provide me with a glimpse of God, a sense of the Spirit of Being, a taste of the ineffable and the sublime.

Tolstoy invites me to part-company with my preconceived notions; he invites me to suppress my need to know in advance of my seeing; he invites me to try and see the world for the first time with eyes that are not clouded with the illusion of reality or eyes that are blinded with memories.  He invites me to seek to see two parallel lines that come close but never meet.  He reminds me that my view of the world is, indeed, short-sighted.  He reminds me that in ‘seeing’ I miss ‘seeing’ the ineffable and the sublime. 

Too often I seek to understand rather than to experience; I seek to know rather than perceive and savor.  I seek surety rather than be opened to being influenced by the possible, the potential and the sacred. 

When we come ‘face-to-face’ with reality, without the aid of words or concepts or measurements we begin to realize – if we are open to discernment – that what is intelligible to our mind is no more than a thin surface that covers the profoundly hidden; it is truly like looking through a glass darkly – only we are not fully aware of doing so. 

We can, for example, analyze, measure and evaluate a flower as we please; we can observe and describe its form and function, its genesis and the laws to which it is subject AND yet a tiny acquaintance with its ineffable and sublime nature is never realized or experienced. 

As I conclude this morning’s post I offer us a photo by George’s wife, Pat.  Gentle Reader, I invite you to be open to the ineffable and the sublime it offers us. 

The touch of an infinite mystery passes over the trivial and the familiar, making it break out into ineffable music… The trees, the stars, and the blue hills ache with a meaning which can never be uttered in words. –Rabindranath Tagore

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