As writers we take many diverse paths through areas of faith and ethics, but whatever the individual routes, writers are always concerned wth making meaning and with the ‘spiritual’ whether this is conceived within our without a particular religion or belief system.
The sources of spirituality
Recently, working with a group of prose writers, one described themself as a spiritual atheist. It’s a position others have taken—Emerson was famously banned form the campus of Harvard Divinity School when he gave a speech opining that true religion can only be found in nature. And despite Harvard’s reaction, there is a long tradition of seeing the hand of divinity in creation within particular faith traditions. Think of St Francis of Assisi or the recent works of Matthew Fox, for instance.
Wherever we locate ourselves on this path or not, works like John Burroughs, ‘The Faith of a Naturalist’ (from his collection Accepting the Universe: Essays in Naturalism, continue to speak to us and perhaps particularly to those for whom divinity is not an external referent
Communing with God is communing with our own hearts, our own best selves, not with something foreign and accidental. Saints and devotees have gone into the wilderness to find God; of course they took God with them, and the silence and detachment enabled them to hear the still, small voice of their own souls, as one hears the ticking of his own watch in the stillness of the night. We are not cut off, we are not isolated points; the great currents flow through us and over us and around us, and unite us to the whole of nature… The language of devotion and religious conviction is only the language of soberness and truth written large and aflame with emotion.
Seeing ‘religion’ as spirituality of all kinds, Burroughs goes on:
Men of science do well enough with no other religion than the love of truth, for this is indirectly a love of God. The astronomer, the geologist, the biologist, tracing the footsteps of the Creative Energy throughout the universe — what need has he of any formal, patent-right religion? Were not Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and Lyell, and all other seekers and verifiers of natural truth among the most truly religious of men? Any of these men would have gone to hell for the truth — not the truth of creeds and rituals, but the truth as it exists in the councils of the Eternal, and as it is written in the laws of matter and of life.
And bringing this spiritual sensibility back to the natural world, he continues:
Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance… There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants. The beauty of natural religion is that you have it all the time; you do not have to seek it afar off in myths […] It is of today; it is now and here; it is everywhere. The crickets chirp it, the birds sing it, the breezes chant it, the thunder proclaims it, the streams murmur it, the unaffected man lives it. Its incense rises from the plowed fields, it is on the morning breeze, it is in the forest breath and in the spray of the wave. The frosts write it in exquisite characters, the dews impearl it, and the rainbow paints it on the cloud.
The spirituality of belonging to all life
But whether our notion of the spiritual rests on God or gods or the sacred earth, whether it is populated with angels or is centred in the matter that sourrounds us, there are elements that we can agree on, one being Burrough’s defence of the impartiality of creation, which does not play favourites.
There is no special Providence. Nature sends the rain upon the just and the unjust, upon the sea as upon the land. We are here and find life good because Providence is general and not special. […] Life is here because it fits itself into the scheme of things… We find the world good to be in because we are adapted to it, and not it to us.
His spirituality is one that does not allow for human exceptionalism. Rather, in this impartial universe:
he sees that there can be no life without pain and death; … that the sun and blue sky are still there behind the clouds, unmindful of them; … that the ways of Nature are the ways of God if we do not make God in our own image, and make our comfort and well-being the prime object of Nature…
It is a spirituality that finds many echoes in different voices and always entails what Iris Murdoch called ‘unselfing’. Those experiences where we get out of our own way and allow ourselves to dissolve into the moment. Those moments when reality bursts the bubble of our over-anxious self-consciousness.
The desire to reach beyond
And whether we agree wholly with Burroughs or follow a faith tradition, at root spirituality always turns on our desire for transcendence, the longing to see reality and touch eternity. Humans always want to reach beyond themselves, if only we can get out of our own way, which is often difficult and a subject that the physicist and poet Alan Lightman tackles in The Transcendent Brain; Spirituality in the Age of Science. Attempting to reconcile his own materialism, in the sense that everything is made of atoms and molecules, with his experiences of mystery and transcendence, he writes:
I communed with two ospreys that summer in Maine. I have feelings of being part of things larger than myself. I have a sense of connection to other people and to the world of living things, even to the stars I have a sense of beauty. I have experiences of awe. And I’ve had transporting creative moments.
He also comes back to matter, to the stuff of life, but without reductionism:
I believe that the spiritual experiences we have can arise from atoms and molecules. At the same time, some of these experiences, and certainly their very personal and subjective nature, cannot be fully understood in terms of atoms and molecules. I believe in the laws of chemistry and biology and physics — in fact, as a scientist I much admire those laws — but I don’t think they capture, or can capture, the first-person experience of making eye contact with wild animals and similar transcendent moments. Some human experiences are simply not reducible to zeros and ones.
Which leaves us with the question of how matter, chemistry and electrical impulses can can give rise to this spirituality without calling on divinity.
The sacredness of matter
For Lightman the answer lies in what he calls ‘spiritual materialism’, something similar to my writer friend’s ‘spiritual atheism’
Although as a child I developed a scientific view of the world, I also understood that not all things were subject to quantitative analysis… I was about nine years old. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was alone in a bedroom of my home in Memphis, Tennessee, gazing out the window at the empty street, listening to the faint sound of a train passing a great distance away. Suddenly I felt that I was looking at myself from outside my body. For a brief few moments, I had the sensation of seeing my entire life, and indeed the life of the entire planet, as a brief flicker in a great chasm of time, with an infinite span of time before my existence and an infinite span of time afterward. My fleeting sensation included infinite space. Without body or mind, I was somehow floating in the gargantuan stretch of space, far beyond the solar system and even the galaxy, space that stretched on and on and on. I felt myself to be a tiny speck, insignificant. A speck in a huge universe that cared nothing about me or any living beings and their little dots of existence — a universe that simply was. And I felt that everything I had experienced in my young life, the joy and the sadness, and everything that I would later experience meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was a realization both liberating and terrifying at once… Despite the dismal feeling that the universe didn’t care a whit about me, I did feel connected to something far larger than myself.
It’s the kind of experience we can’t manufacture, but most of us will know those moments of unselfing when we seem to step outside of time, dropping into a deeper level of consciousness that evades the watching, judging ‘self’. I feel it most often in yoga nidrā practices when my body sleeps but my mind travels, or in deep flow when I’m writing. It’s always a feeling that begins in slowing down, listening to the body and attending to our connectedness. It always involves Iris Murdoch’s ‘unselfing’. As Lightman continues:
A common feature of all aspects of spirituality is a loss of self, a letting go, a willingness to embrace something outside of ourselves, a willingness to listen rather than talk, a recognition that we are small and the cosmos is large.
Dissolving the ego
This letting go of ego, when time changes, nonetheless comes from our bodies, from our creatureliness, from a body whose over-thinking mind is finally getting out of the way, and a body that is mortal. For Lightman this relationship to death is crucial to both our spiritual sensibility and our connection to all of life:
For me, the notion that our atoms were once part of other people and will again become part of other people after we die provides a meaningful connectedness between us and the rest of humanity, future and past. […] Our inescapable death may be the single most powerful fact of our brief existence in this strange cosmos where we find ourselves. Indeed, one could argue that much of our thinking, our view of the world, our artistic expression, and our religious beliefs involve coming to terms with this fundamental fact.
It’s something I wrestled with a poem in I wrote in my first collection, Particles of Life, and which a friend recently used for a funeral service of a close relative. Like Lightman I believe in the sacredness and extraordinariness of matter, yet find myself often inside deeply numinous experiences.
How to rise again
Find dandelion clocks,
and count to twelve;
of fresh sweet lavender
beside your gate
and by south facing doors.
Grow tulip bulbs
on every window sill
and walk a moonlit beach
At Easter, bury chocolate;
like secret seeds
in every scented room,
and cook a feast and laugh
with those you love
and open windows,
even in the rain.
You will not live forever,
but for now;
not wasting life
on how to rise again.
Death and transcendence
Death and life are not opposites, but of a piece, one cycling into the other and our ancestors always with us in the material that persists, as well as in the conversations of our hearts. Lightman puts it like this:
If you could tag each of the atoms in your body and follow them backward in time, through the air that you breathed during your life, through the food that you ate, back through the geological history of the Earth, through the ancient seas and soil, back to the formation of the Earth out of the solar nebular cloud, and then out into interstellar space, you could trace each of your atoms, those exact atoms, to particular massive stars in the past of our galaxy. At the end of their lifetimes, those stars exploded and spewed out their newly forged atoms into space, later to condense into planets and oceans and plants and your body at this moment.
The atoms in my body will remain, only they will be scattered about. Those atoms will not know where they came from, but they will have been mine. Some of them will once have been part of the memory of my mother dancing the bossa nova. Some will once have been part of the memory of the vinegary smell of my first apartment … And some will undoubtedly become parts of other people, particular people.
Of course, Lightman’s version of reality is not everyone’s. Perhaps your own model is utterly different, but what is true is that you will have a spirituality, even if it’s not a word you often use. And what is also true is that whether our conception of matter and the universe is grounded in the material or uses the language of soul, all of us reach for transcendence. All of us reach beyond ourselves and perhaps writers and artists particularly so as we attempt to make meaning in the universe.
Whatever your model, your faith or otherwise, here’s to finding the transcendence of our stories.