Many Modes of Spirituality
The contemporary world is such a confusing place. We have available to us a greater plethora of ideas than perhaps any previous age. The spiritual treasures of the whole world and much of history are spilled out at our feet and we do not know how to choose from amongst them. Actually any single jewel may be sufficient. It is surely not a matter of finding the right one any more than it is a matter of quantity. Sufi, Buddhist, Catholic, or even agnostic-yet-spiritual... there are many modes. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, said Shakespaere, but if one wastes so much energy disputing the name that one never stops to savour the aroma, the point is missed. They are all modes of expression of our deepest longing, our prayer and it is important that that longing find expression one way or another.
Loving the Divine No Matter the Creed
There are a growing number of people whose spirituality transcends the boundaries of traditional religions. They might be those who, like myself, practise one specific creed and benefit hugely, yet still know that it is just one vehicle and that many other vehicles might have done passably well; or they might be people who have never really settled in any one confessional community yet still harbour a strong spiritual sense of life. Such people, and there are many, find themselves at home with others who have fallen in love with the Divine no matter what their creed, but are less at ease with those who claim that one single interpretation of ultimate truth and one single book and church are exclusively right, all others being wrong and blameworthy, even if the church in question is our own – what embarrassment – and even if the creed is called "science" and the book was written by Darwin.
I am not impressed by the idea that membership of any particular ideological club in itself ensures salvation, but nor am I thinking that some kind of watered down generic spirituality will suffice. The rigour of the great traditions is invaluable, but exclusivism and narrowness is out-dated. Surely, the Beloved is calling to all beings and doing so in many languages and through many metaphors and mythologies, and some answer with an emphatic “Yes”. Life, thereafter, is never the same again.
Intimations of Infinity
We all live finite, mortal, vexed lives, blessed or haunted by intuitions of infinity, of unbounded bliss, of the eternal and of love, intuitions that puzzle, lure and sober us and that give a particular twist to human consciousness, whether we call it by the name of a God or a Buddha, or think of it as something abstract. The Beloved can appear in myriad manifestations. Different adepts encounter Him, Her or It in different forms since it speaks to each in the language most suited to the person's heart. Beyond the specific revelations, its ultimate nature remains the great mystery that we associate with the beyond: beyond the edges of our being, beyond death, beyond space, beyond time.
We are beings that call out, in a holy or blasphemous manner, in daily awareness of want, from the depths of our emptiness, or the overflow of our plenitude, we call to something greater. It is in our nature to do so and all men and women have done so in all cultures. The manner in which they have described what they were doing is various, however. The few who believe they do not do so have not arrived at that idea without being extensively educated to think so.
People argue, often fruitlessly, about the nature of such calling, such prayer, and even more about the nature of what is called to, though by definition it remains beyond definition. Totems, guardian angels, deities, spirits, and unknown forces have always accompanied the evolution of humankind. Is the Beloved personal or abstract? Within creation, or beyond it? Its subject or its lord? Good or indifferent? Still active in our midst or only the setter in motion of time? Does one need to know the answers before kneeling? If one thinks so, then perhaps one is worshipping only oneself.
Should I be referring to the Beloved as He, She, It or They? I do not concern myself with such speculations over much, though I do have to use words. The words I choose cannot help having some implications in this regard, but they are not central to what goes on in this thinking about the matter. We are talking about how we relate to our most profound intuition and your way of framing that intuition will not be exactly the same as mine.
We shall progress best not by trying to convince others that the form of our intuition is the right one for everybody, but by listening to it and striving to go beyond what we have already experienced into the depths that are only entered by faith, and also by hearing each other's experiences. It is not faith to coerce others to adopt one's own model; it is faith to have the willingness to have all one's models shattered by experience when the Tao, the Dharma or the Light comes into our life, rather as Julian of Norwich's ideas about sin and virtue were shattered when Jesus appeared and told her “All shall be well.”
Naming the Deathless
We can learn in a spirit of humility. If I sometimes call the Beloved “He”, sometimes “She”, sometimes “They” or “It”, will you be offended? If you are, I wonder if you want the Beloved to be your own creation rather than being willing for Them to determine Their own being and form as They will, and, in doing so, to re-form you. Of all the myriad Names, I rather like the term the Beloved, a name which can be male or female, singular or plural and which is built around the essence, which is love. As a Pureland Buddhist, I also favour the name Amida, which means "unmeasurable" and implies all acceptance. However, there are many other names. I was brought up in Cyprus, the island of Aphrodite, a name which refers to the aphros, or foam, indicating convulsion in the ocean. All these names conjure aspects of the Beyond, of the Unconditioned, Unborn, Deathless, without which, according to Buddha, there is no liberation, no salvation. At the core of this exercise, lies the human project of expanding heart and mind towards its unreachable infinite and ultimate degree while knowing that this can only happen through our being swept up into a cloud of power that we can never fully understand from our own side.
Prayer Transcends Traditions
People from many different religions pray. Even secular people pray at times, not always calling it prayer themselves. Prayer springs from an aspect of being human that is universal and instinctive. In this multi-cultural age we need such universals. In this time of change we need such constants. Whether it is called devotion, contemplation, meditation, divine reflection, spiritual exercise, mindfulness, rapture, or whatever, is not an issue that should trouble us too much. Across the cultural spectrum there are bound to be differences of terminology, but the commonality of the practice of prayer seems something worthy of particular attention.
Clothing the Mystery
So I do not mind much what your beliefs may be. Perhaps you believe in one God, many gods or that God is simply a metaphor. Perhaps your sense of the divine is abstract, symbolic, literal or confused. I don't mind. Who could honestly claim to be expert on such matters anyway? Perhaps you believe in karma or divine judgement or dialectical materialism; I don't mind. Perhaps you think that Amida Buddha will come to receive you when you die and take you to his heavenly realm, or perhaps you think that you will be reborn into another life here on Earth, or that you will become a ghost and haunt or help your descendants, or that you will join your loved ones in paradise, or perhaps you think that when you are dead, you are dead, and that's that. What you believe is up to you, a function of whatever spiritual experience or awakening you may have had, and, of course, you might have another one tomorrow opening the door a little wider. The truth is a mystery. People site their worship within many different metaphysical contexts, but these are only clothing for the mystery. Fine raiment.
One cannot be entirely generic in writing about this matter, but there is value in being fairly universal. What I write is inspired by a deep respect for the human spirit, wandering in the wilderness of this world. Generally when our spiritual practice wells up inside and wants to call out, we have a sense of speaking to somebody or something. That is the divine - translate it as you will. We are here addressing what seems to be a deep and universal intuition, part of what it is to be human, that manifests as acts of a religious nature that can be called prayer, worship or practice. In my own case, it does spring from a deep ineffable faith, but there is no way that I can fully convey that to you. You are you, and you have what you have got. Be true to it and you will have the right basis for your own form of devotion. What does seem important to me is, rather, that people not be shut out from the treasure house simply either because they do not entirely conform to this or that orthodoxy of belief, or because they do actually cling to so narrow an interpretation that they cannot see beyond their dogmatic world, be it materialist, mythic, spiritual or whatever. There is a middle way between narrowness and nihilism that opens onto a broader vista.
Thanks, Mat, Carol.
Thank you this is lovely and it is this spirit that I work with people in the Interfaith world with others from many faiths who share this spirit Namo Amida Bu Modgala