Care of the Soul: This Fractured, Heavenly World
I disappoint many people, and sometimes myself, by not being more obviously spiritual. I don't go to church and rarely meditate in a formal way. I wear ordinary clothes and eat an ordinary diet. I have an aversion to much of the language I hear and read from today's spirtual sources. I don't aim to be whole, I don't feel a need for a special community, I don't want to live in the present, and I would rather figure out how to be comfortable in life's complexity and darkness than find the light.
I got some of this from my father, who was one of the most religious and spiritual people I’ve known. He was a devout Catholic and went to Mass at every opportunity. But he wouldn’t suffer piousness. Once he told me he was going to a church meeting just to stir up discussion and represent contrary views. Someone has to do it, he said.
My father died two months after turning 100 years old, and people often ask me the secret of his longevity. He loved people, enjoyed the simple things, had a constant curiosity about how the world works, and loved being around children and playing with them. He was also a born teacher who took every opportunity to help others learn. He was a plumber and lived a plumber’s spirituality. As for diet, in his nineties he drank strong tea every night with a slice of apple pie and would always order pizza with everything on it. The closest I ever saw him come to meditation was watching a baseball game.
Years ago, an image from the Sufis struck me and has guided me. Looking for God, they say, is like someone standing in a lake of fresh water and being thirsty. It’s foolish to seek the sacred and the divine when we live in a world that is holy and saturated with divinity, if only we had the eyes to see it. Black Elk, the Sioux mystical teacher, said that we need to see in a sacred manner. It’s not that the world is secular and godless; it’s that we don’t look at it in a spiritual way.
I was also struck in my late twenties when I learned that samsara, the rat race of daily activity, and nirvana, the release from that pandemonium, are the same. I connect that insight to the image from Taoism of yin and yang spinning into each other, and the beautiful linking knots and spirals in Celtic spirituality, seen so beautifully at Newgrange.
I try to live this profound, paradoxical insight that the sacred and the mundane share the same space. My goal is to have no distinction between the spiritual and the secular in my life and person. I don’t want anyone to look at me and say, he’s a very spiritual person. And yet, I long for the most mystical and sacred manner of life I can imagine. I stand in the lake of this world and drink in all the divinity that keeps it moist and nourishing.
I don’t want to be “spiritual,” and I don’t want to be “worldly.” I want whatever results when you thoroughly mix the two. I suspect that the fractured state of our world—our wars and domestic violence and business malice and governments’ self-interest—are not due to any inherent evil in these institutions but to the failure of people to see in a sacred manner.
It takes constant study and effort and meditation and conversation to maintain a sacred way of seeing. It challenges and asks for sacrifice and an extraordinary degree of altruism. This isn’t simple piety. A sacred vision is something you win through deep initiations, painful endurance of illness and setbacks, and a willingness to take life on rather than avoid it. You learn it from the great masters like Black Elk and Meister Eckhart and the Sufi poets and the interpreters of kabbalah. You model your life on someone like Saint Francis of Assisi or Julian of Norwich. You devote your life to spiritual learning, but you give your heart to ordinary life and the world of the senses. You watch yourself closely for any pious, well-intentioned escape from this world—which is, after all, the house, if not the very body, of the divine.