It has been a month of discoveries, realisations and epiphanies. Who knew spirituality could be so enticing?
There was an eloquent element of symmetry to the way the month played out, commencing in a session with Rob Bell at the Athenaeum Theater and concluding with Bell’s online course ‘A Practical Guide to Finding Joy and Meaning in Everyday Life‘.
Not that Bell alone holds the key to unlocking the mystery of spirituality, indeed, the breadcrumbs of my searching took me far and wide- from an agnostic feminist practicing radical empathy through her advice columns in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things‘, to the semi-Buddhist ‘philosophical entertainer’ Alan Watts, to the confessions of alcoholic Priest Brennan Manning in ‘All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir‘, to Hillsong’s glamorous representation of faith as explored in GQ’s compelling piece ‘What Would Cool Jesus Do?‘. I found it in Broadchurch, in the fascinating exploration of ordinary people pushed to extremes when they allow their desires to carry them away and in the Humans of New York Inmates series.
So what is this elusive force we call ‘spirituality’?
The conundrum, I find, is that one cannot reduce the concept into mere words. It is as if attempting to catch a projected image of a butterfly with a net made of string.
But (to echo Alan Watts) when I acknowledge the incredible reality of our existence, in this tiny planet set in the midst of a vast solar system and galaxy and reflect on my ability to reflect on this fact, I “cannot formulate the question that is my wonder… The moment my mouth opens to utter it I suddenly find I am talking nonsense”.
I believe it starts with a sense of perspective. Of the magnitude of the universe and the incredible gift of life… but conversely, of a sense of our own depravity if our desires are left unchecked.
“Accepting the reality of our broken, flawed lives is the beginning of spirituality not because the spiritual life will remove our flaws but because we let go of seeking perfection and, instead, seek God, the one who is present in the tangledness of our lives’.
This quote from Mike Yaconelli’s ‘Messy Spirituality‘ expresses so beautifully the completely counter-intuitive way in which spirituality finds its power. In our brokenness, our suffering, our pain.
Rob Bell recounted the story of the time he was advised to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting by one of the members of his congregation. At first, given his lack of addiction to alcohol, he failed to grasp the apparent need, but upon attending session upon session and passing when it came to his turn, he made an incredible discovery.
“What is this amazing force, that makes the air thick with emotion?” He pondered until eventually it dawned on him.
“Ahhh….This is a bull-shit free zone.”
The power, that incredible alchemy, was comprised simply of people ceasing to pretend, dropping their masks and admitting that the worst version of themselves renders them helpless to do life alone.
There was a moment in the midst of our session, when a mother shared about her recent discovery that her son is gay. Her voice cracked with emotion as she spoke of the difficulty in reconciling this reality with her strict Catholic upbringing, yet her immense love for her son in wanting to understand him and journey with him burned through her words. The air in the theater swelled with empathy and the collective reactions of people feeling her struggle as their own, applauding her decision to choose love over estrangement and hollow adherence to religion.
‘Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next’.
-Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
It is rare to meet a person who doesn’t fear death. And I would hazard a guess that it isn’t the potential for pain that incites such anxiety. Women willingly choose to go through childbirth all the time, knowing that the relatively brief agony that they will endure will be more than repaid in the reward of bringing forth new life into the world. We fear death, but for what reason? Is our life really being lived in a manner so compelling that to die would result in irretrievable loss? If there is no significant ‘meaning’ to our presence on the planet, why are we so compelled to protect our position?
Donald Miller’s ‘A Million Miles in a Thousand Years’ was the final piece in the puzzle for me. The book expounds on the importance of story in our existence, and what makes a good story/life. When Miller chose to look at his life as a story, he woke up to the realisation that he would need to take risks, invest in relationships, follow compelling ideas, embrace whimsy and recognise the power of location in inspiring and solidifying memories.
A turning point for Miller was the chance meeting of Bob Goff and his family when he was part of a group kayaking trip in San Diego. They happened upon the Goff’s family home (a stunning lodge set into the cliff and unable to be reached except by boat or plane) and spent the better part of eight hours with the family, who lavished them with food and conversation upon their arrival. Stories flowed, and they discovered the inspirational way of life that the family adhered to, whether it be inviting world leaders to sleep over when Goff was appointed as Uganda’s Consul, concocting impromptu New Year’s Day street parades in their neighbourhood (a tradition that now continues with participants numbering in the hundreds), or jumping fully clothed into the water as a tradition to farewell their guests.
Dave and I have become enchanted with this entire concept of viewing life as story. Of embracing the opportunities for relationship, connection, taking risks and looking for a greater meaning in the every day.
When the creator of the galaxies descended to experience life as a human, he didn’t waste time setting out doctrines of theology and double-checking to make sure that all of his followers were toeing the line. He spun tales of wonder, woe and mystery, inviting all who were willing to listen into a hope for a better existence. He spoke in shrouded tales, provoking reactions in the crowd as each imagined themselves as characters in the drama. And then, he sat down with friends and crowds to feast and drink wine, savouring the moments that we so often rush through, prioritising connection and relationship above the impartation of information.
I don’t know about you, but I want my life to have meaning.
I want to reach the end of my days (whenever that may be) and be satisfied that the story my life told was one worth telling. For me, that means embracing my faults and failures, admitting my depravity, following the path that my tears forge to the saving of my soul. Sharing meals with friends, holding people tight when life doesn’t go ‘to plan’ and allowing myself to be carried through suffering. I want to gasp at the wonder of existence and savour each breath as a gift. Marvel at the sun glinting off the spun gold and chestnut hair of my children and gaze deeply into their eyes when they share a story with me. I want for each day to tell a story of an existence worth dying for, but most of all, one worth living for.
That is spirituality to me.