A few months ago, I spoke with a group of students at a local college about religion and culture. During the question time, one of the students asked how someone who is not attached to any particular church or religion or belief system, could learn about the spiritual life. In her own diplomatic way, she was asking me to provide her with a set of guidelines to discover the truth (or falsity) of my statements apart from the presuppositions of my Christian faith.
It was a tall order, and I don’t think I did it justice in the time that I had. In the weeks since, however, I have had the opportunity to consider this important question further and to assemble a more coherent answer. I still cannot claim perfect objectivity, but then again, who can? What follows is one priest’s effort to offer guidance to spiritual seekers beyond the borders of Christianity.
Before taking the first step in the journey to discover spiritual reality, we must take what might be called, Step “Zero,” and commit to an attitude of rigorous honesty. If there is a real spiritual dimension beyond ourselves, it must also exist beyond our power to create, control or manipulate. In other words, we can’t make up spiritual reality as we go along, according to our whims and imaginations; if it exists, it must exist objectively, that is, whether we like it or not.
If we are going to embark on the journey into the realm of the spirit, then, we must first accept that we may discover some difficult truths, demands, challenges, and even refutations, all of which we may have to both face and accept. If our exploration is going to be truly fruitful, (as opposed to a mere fabrication of our intellect and imagination), we must resolve from the beginning to be ruthlessly honest. If the spiritual life exists, we will embrace it wholeheartedly in whatever form it takes, without seeking to deny or avoid its rigors and sufferings.
This alone is not an easy step to take, but without taking it, we cannot hope to discover anything resembling a reality outside of ourselves. Having made this first commitment, though, we can take the actual first step on the spiritual journey and begin a conversation with the divine.
Is there a God? Does this God love or care for us personally, or is “It” just an impersonal, indifferent or malignant force? Unfortunately, scientific reasoning cannot help us here, because the very definition of God’s identity precludes our ability to encompass “It” with our intellects. As soon as I am able to define God within parameters that I myself have determined, then God is no longer God—a transcendent power beyond me. Rather, I am holding the strings, which makes me God.
In other words, we can’t get “behind” God in order to prove God’s existence. The only way to discover the reality or truth of some universal Higher Power (or whatever you choose to call it) is for us simply to initiate a conversation. Say something like this: “If you exist, I am ready and willing to accept you, whoever or whatever you are. If you exist, reveal yourself to me as you really are.” Repeat these words every day for three months, and (in the spirit of Step “Zero”) be ready to accept whatever may result from the effort, whether you like the answer or not. If indeed that something or someone exists and wants to talk to you (i.e. loves or cares about you), that someone or something will respond in some fashion. If there is no answer, you can stop right then, because the journey is over...
Given that some kind of response is forthcoming, however, the next step in the process is to find a communal root for your spiritual life. As human beings, we do not live well in abstraction and isolation. For whatever reason, we need to ground our lives in other people. As I have heard it said, “There is no me without you.” And Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, has said that our need to belong is more fundamental than our need to be loved! For mysterious reasons, individuals need to live in community. Anything less seems to be a recipe for self-destruction…
What is true of the four-dimensional life is also true of a life that integrates within it the spiritual dimension. “God” is an abstract concept, and one that lives mostly in our intellects unless we root it in a concrete expression outside of ourselves: a community to which we are accountable. If we really believe in a power greater than ourselves, a reality that governs our existence, then that power and reality must take this tangible, communal form outside of “me, myself and I.”
I would therefore suggest that as you begin the spiritual journey, you find a community with which you can “travel.” Look for a group of healthy-minded individuals who care for one another and those around them. Look for sound leaders who care more for their people than themselves. Look for freedom, joy, peace, lack of judgment, but also honesty and steadfastness of belief.
In addition, be sure that your community is willing to call you to account, to challenge you and even if necessary to rebuke you if you wander off the path to which you have committed. Again, this goes back to Step “Zero”; the community guarantees that we will not avoid those aspects of the spiritual reality that are personally unpleasant or inconvenient.
The third and final step is to put your house in order. There are many “spiritual” people who in fact use their spirituality as a prop to shore up their personal dependencies, addictions, and neuroses. Religion can easily become a “substitute addiction” for a person who struggles with these compulsive behaviors. The problem lies at the heart of the individual, who (usually due to childhood abuse) feels utterly powerless of his or her life and therefore will use anything—drugs, alcohol, food, relationships, money, work, and religion—to maintain the illusion of control.
As you embark on the spiritual life, therefore, it is essential that you also discover if traces of addiction or compulsion lie within you, waiting to poison your best spiritual intentions. The best way to root out potential problems is to seek a course of counseling with a professional who respects the spiritual dimension of human existence and who has a reputation for honesty and tough love. You needn’t commit to a lifetime of counseling, but a three month course can go a long way to exposing the emotional and psychological “hand of cards” that life has dealt you.
If, during in this period of time, you discover that you have specific addiction and/or dependency, begin to address it through a program of recovery that respects the life of the spirit. In my opinion, 12-Step programs are the most helpful in this regard. And in case you may be thinking that “12-Step” refers only to alcoholism, you should know that there is a 12-Step program for every major addiction, from food (Overeaters Anonymous) and drugs (Narcotics Anonymous), to gambling (Gambler’s Anonymous) and sexual addictions (Sexaholics Anonymous).
Where these three spiritual steps will lead, I will not say. One thing is certain, however: if you follow them, something will happen, something profound and life-changing, painful and joyful. Reality will open up, and once it does, there’s no going back. Before you proceed, therefore, take heed to the warnings of ancient cartographers: beyond here there be dragons. More than that, though, there be new worlds and unimaginably wide horizons. May God speed you on the voyage.
Note: This series of articles owes much to Fr. Thomas Hopko's article "How Can I Know?"—my thanks to him.