By Bob Litton
In a certain way, you might view this essay as an extension of my previous blog post, “My Spiritual Journey (to date)”, and in another way you can see it as a small handbook to that post.
Firstly, I need to clarify my religion. I really do not have any in the sense of absolute belief in a dogma associated with a recognized religious organization; that should have been evident in my “testimony”, to alert and sensitive readers. However, the matter is complicated by my heritage, culture and past experience. I was born, raised and still live in a country which from its beginning has been predominately Christian. For many years I attended Methodist Church services. I have read the Bible in its entirety, much of it several times. Yet, I do not accept the Apostles’ Creed, I do not take the Communion “wine” (in the Methodist church, a jigger of grape juice) and wafer, I do not believe in immaculate conceptions or the incarnation, I do not approve of every word Jesus reportedly said or of everything he did, e.g., condemning a tree because it had no fruit. I do like some of the things Jesus said, e.g., “no prophet is without honor except in his hometown” and “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I also like some of the sayings of Paul which are frequently quoted, e.g. Philippians 4:8, where he wrote: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (I had that saying printed, as my motto, on the back of my calling card.)
Like a growing number of people in America, I am largely disaffected with “organized religion”, yet I still am a “spiritual seeker”. I have not delved much into other religions’ texts. I tried reading the Koran many years ago, but it quickly bored me. I have read the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu’s book several times; I like them, but they calm one’s spirit more than arouse it; they are mystically cosmological rather than spiritual. I have not ventured into much Hinduism or Buddhism material, only a few pages in an anthology of religious texts I recently bought; and they did not touch my soul. No, I am a child of the Western world and feel comfortable enough with Christian literature; even if much of it is mythical, it is great literature and there is much wisdom in it, especially in the Book of Jonah. The point about other religions I wanted to emphasize was that they have their mystics, too, and that, if anything is valid in one religion’s mystical writings, a similar concept will very likely be found in the sayings of mystics who adhered to some other religion’s theology.
Many mystics were unconventional, some to the extent of being chastised by their religious leaders (St. Teresa of Avila, Jan of Ruysbroeck), some even imprisoned (St. John of the Cross), because of their individualistic natures. Their explorations into personal soul-development (considered by some to be Quietism), retreat from the world, and emphasis on Nature as one of the mirrors of God (judged to be Pantheism) aroused suspicion among dogmatic authorities.
I have indicated before in this blog that I do not know whether there is a “god” or not in the conventional sense. Even though I have accepted Christian language, imagery and concepts as a framework when writing my spiritual essays, and even though I am certain there is a spiritual realm out there with a specific Being who has “attended to” me, I do not know that my experiences involve the Being other people mean by their word “God” (with a capital “G”). And I acidulously try to avoid using that word in any absolute sense. Some of my experiences have been bizarre and some funny; I find it hard to attach the terms “bizarre” and “funny” to the doings of the Holy Spirit. Also, my spiritual Being appears to have extraordinary powers, examples of which should have been apparent to the readers of my “testimony”. However, I cannot extrapolate from my personal experiences a correlation between them and the creation of the universe; nor dare I claim that they warrant a belief in eternal life (which I do not want anyway).
As for the extension I mentioned above, I gladly claim to have reached the goal of my spiritual quest: a primary source and authentication of the initial term that pushed me into the quest: yearning. Of course, there were other significant terms along the way: “lures”, “fragrance”, “spiritual gifts/talents”, “spiritual consolations/graces”, and “Dark Night of the Soul”. I believe I covered all of those and their sources (Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross) well enough in my “testimony”. The word “yearning” and its synonym, “longing”, were also used by several writers, going all the way back to Jeremiah and Paul.
But the source I came upon that “put the icing on the cake” was Jan of Ruysbroeck (1293 – 1381), a Dutch mystic and monastic. Of his several treatises, the best-known is The Spiritual Espousals. It is divided into three books, treating respectively of the Active Life, the Yearning Life, and the Contemplative Life. In the second book, Ruysbroeck uses the term “yearning” alternatively with, but before, “interior” so much that at least one translator (Eric Colledge) used “Yearning Life” as the chapter title in that book. (Other translators/commentators of Ruysbroeck’s treatises, e.g., Evelyn Underhill in her translation of Adornment of Spiritual Marriage, have preferred to emphasize the term “Interior” instead of “Yearning”; but “Interior” seems to me weak, lacking in the emotional impact Ruysbroeck wanted to convey. And, of course, I have a proprietary interest in “yearning”, since it first lured me into my study of mysticism; what I had initially perceived as a symptom of my spiritual awakening, Ruysbroeck had transformed into a stage in its development!
I gave up my expectation of “graces” or “consolations” long ago because, firstly, I had thought my initiation into the spiritual life had concluded and that the Holy Spirit (the only Person of the Trinity I can relate to) had withdrawn. Moreover, I had learned and accepted their purpose: to awaken me to the reality of the spiritual world and my belonging in the Holy Spirit’s presence; they should no longer be necessary. Also, I had begun to perceive inconsequential “spiritual messages” everywhere, even in the comics pages, and I wanted to dismiss those just as Martin Luther reportedly had, because they might just as easily have been sent by some teasing gremlin as by the Holy Spirit.
NOTE TO NON-BLOGGING READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.