There For The Long Haul
A Spirituality for Today
There is story from Nepal. A bandit meets the Buddha in a forest and threatens to kill him. The Buddha says, “May I first ask you to do two things for me before you do so?” The bandit puffs out his chest and roars, “Of course, I am so mighty and powerful that I can do anything you ask.” The Buddha says “Please cut the lower branch of the tree over there,” which the bandit does with one sweep of his huge sword. He is clearly pleased with his strength and power. He asks, “what is your second request?” Quietly and respectfully the Buddha says, “My second request is that you now put the branch back on the tree.” “You must be crazy,” explodes the bandit. “No,” says the Buddha, “you are the one who is crazy, because all you know is how to destroy. But the mighty and the powerful are really those who know how to build, create and heal.”
Like so many teachings from spiritual guides, modern society mostly rejects this message. We seem to have the almost addictive need to have to repeat the errors of generations past while ignoring the wisdom of the ages. We know that violence leads always to more violence. Throughout history, all our great prophets of peace have said so. Yet still we seek violent solutions to social needs. As we speak, the parable of the bandit and the Buddha is being played out yet again in so many places – in Iraq, in Israel and Palestine, in Darfur, in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, in many countries not making the news. And within communities all over the world where slums, crime and poverty aided by guns and fuelled by drugs makes for a life of terror for its citizens. In such cases, power is defined by the ability to destroy, to kill, to maim with pre-emptive strikes, when what is needed is pre-emptive non-violence, compassion and wisdom.
Strangely this is something all the great religions teach. For example, the Prophet Mohammed was once asked “what actions are the most excellent?” He replied, “To gladden the heart of the human being, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow and the sorrowful, and to remove the wrongs of the injured. These things are the most important.” In Judaism, the prophet Micah advises “there is only three things I require – to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God”. Jesus taught, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who persecute you.” What a huge pity the worldwide followers of these three important traditions cannot all bring themselves to practise what their founders taught. What a pity that few now listen to the great spiritual teachers in our history and learn from them!
The story is told of the Rabbi Hershel, a famous teacher in Judaism, who had lived to be very old and was venerated by all who knew him. A young disciple came to him one day and said, “Rabbi, you have preached many fine sermons in your time. You are known for your wisdom and knowledge. Tell me, if you had to preach just one sermon in your entire life, what topic would it be on?” The rabbi thought for a few minutes then quietly replied, “If my life”s work was to preach only one sermon, I would preach on forgiveness.”
The response of the rabbi may surprise many. It certainly would not be the choice of someone formed by our modern consumer society. Forgiveness is not given any space or media time in a culture dominated by the values of acquisition and greed, by status and vengefulness, by violence and abuse. There is in fact no place in the modern consumer culture for the spiritual dimensions of people to be addressed or recognised. It is heartening that within much of Maori and Polynesian cultures, there is still room for the spiritual to be recognised. Regretfully it its harder to see within the dominant Pakeha culture with its emphasis on acquisition, individualism and competition.
Our modern consumer culture is dominated by global business conglomerates, which have acquisition, avarice, control and violence at their spiritual base and status, greed, racism and domination as their principal values. Their flag-flying cousins are the handful of corporate media multi-nationals, which control most world media outlets and whose content reflects the interests of their handful of super-wealthy owners. Their primary aim is to protect their investors” money and promote the values that expand it. For these world movers and shakers, making profit is the bottom line. Indeed, for most, it is the only line. It doesn”t matter how it is made.
The same values apply to the world of industry. With labour needs now directed globally, workers in most countries, especially third world economies, are exploited. They are treated as little less than economic slaves. Thus the division between those in control with power and money and those who have little of either grows by the day. In desperation many turn to violence. This in turn often leads to war and its pernicious effects – massive civilian casualties and deaths, the destruction of crops and livestock, the wrecking of social infrastructure and family life.
It is no coincidence that the corporate media is dominated by advertisements urging us to buy and buy more. This promotes the insidious notion that ownership equals happiness and that if we can”t have something legitimately, then we are entitled to take it by force. “The more stuff you own, the more successful you are,” screams every advertisement. “Buy me and be happy.” What a nonsense! The past 50 years has provided the first generations in the history of the world to actually think like that. No wonder we are in pain. No wonder consumeritis is killing peoples” souls everywhere.
I believe most New Zealanders know that the so-called “war on terror” is as much a war about accessing more resources, especially oil, as it is of conquering Saddam Hussein or capturing Osama Bin Laden. But it is dressed up in consumer advertising and slick “news” presentations, and we go along with it. Thus violence through crime and war become normal dimensions of our lives, even if we would rather they weren”t there. Such propaganda appeals to the “shadow” side of our human nature, the prurient side whose needs are insatiable and whose fruit is death.
I share an example to illustrate. In December 2002, Winona Ryder, a B-grade drug addicted actress, went on trial in San Francisco for shop lifting. On several nights, the story appeared on TV “news” channels here, and each of the daily newspapers carried successive days coverage and pictures of her trial. It was a relatively important story according to them. During that same week, one of the world”s great 20th century prophets, who ranks with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, lay dying – and finally passed away on the Friday morning. I suspect few could name him. Yet Phillip Berrigan was a founder/leader of the Ploughshares resistance movement in the US which has conducted in 25 years more than 100 symbolic disarmament actions against warships, B-52 bombers, missile sites and the like. He lived an alternative lifestyle in a radical Christian community, was a married Catholic priest for 30 years and father of three children. Like Gandhi, he was a practitioner of non-violence and had been arrested more than 100 times and sentenced to prison on numerous occasions for non-violent opposition to the nuclear arms race and the wars in Vietnam, Central America and Iraq. All told he served 11 years in prison. He remains a legend among peace activists, is recognised already by many as a saint, and is the figurative grandfather of the American peace movement and justifiably so. Phil Berrigan is respected in every sphere of the struggle for justice both in the US and around the world. In every sense, he was a modern prophet. Yet upon his death, he did not rate a mention in the corporate media, either here or overseas. That was being dominated by Winona Ryder!
When we have a culture that trivialises important people like Phillip Berrigan and thousands like him, and devalues their actions and lives so readily, there has to be a fall-out somewhere. It comes most directly in the souls of people, which wither and become barren and bare. “Without a vision the people perish” wrote the Jewish psalmist nearly three thousand years ago. He meant an holistic, just, life engendering, peace filled vision, shalom in its fullness. If the vision is based merely on material possessions, the people will quickly perish. Sadly, that is the vision global capitalism presents.
And the world”s people are in crisis. Make no mistake about that. When 30 000 die each day in Africa from preventable disease and malnutrition, we have a crisis. When one in three children in the UK, 30 percent in New Zealand and 40 percent in the US and Russia live beneath the poverty line, we have a crisis. Indeed, we have a crisis of epic proportions. We have a crisis of distribution. We have a crisis of justice. We have a crisis of political will. We have a crisis of meaningful spirituality. Who is my brother? Who are my sisters?
A purely material vision leaves most people with an ache in their hearts for some type of fulfilment that never seems to come. A yearning for a peace of mind and heart. A deep desire to achieve more that is different. What St Augustine called a restlessness of heart that only the divine can fill. Isn”t part of the problem the fact that we don”t quite know what it is we want or need and we know even less about how to get it? Isn”t the rise of many New Age philosophies and fundamentalist religions an indication that something is seriously missing from the mainstream? Isn”t the widespread use of “party” drugs among young and middle aged alike a sign that something deeply significant is missing? Recently on a trip to Ireland, I was shocked to see so many lovely young men and women in Dublin and other Irish cities, weekend after weekend, smashed out of their skulls on drugs and booze – and trying to have a good time.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls it “the hole in the soul.” The quest for a meaningful spirituality today is directly related to the need to fill that “hole in the soul.” Many now sense that real success in life in found not in what one acquires by way of status, power or material possessions, but in how well one fills “the hole in the soul.” Perhaps we need reminding that, in the words of New Zealand author Joy Crowley, “we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but spiritual beings on a human journey.” She likes to think of herself as “a human becoming, rather than a human being.”
Four Commandments for the Long Haul
That makes for an interesting departure point in the quest to “fill the hole in our soul”. How do we live a life that is holistic, positive, respects our neighbour, sustains us, and fulfils us? It is beyond the competence of any one person to answer that question fully. There is also a danger that a person from one tradition may leave the impression that their particular tradition has all the answers. I would hate to do that. There are many more questions than I have answers.
But of one thing I am sure. That the more we work at the coalface of life, the deeper our spirituality has to be. It doesn”t matter whether we are teachers, police, prison chaplains, social workers, clergy, nurses, and ambulance drivers, whatever. We either regularly nourish ourselves spiritually at a commensurate level to our involvement, or we run the risk of becoming cynical, blasé, burnt out. It is that simple.
As resource teachers of learning and behaviour working with students with special needs and their teachers, you have chosen to work in a field with huge potential for good. It is a wonderful place to be. The work you do is invaluable. It can be terribly rewarding. I understand from knowing some of you over many years that the call to this field of work can indeed be a special vocation within the teaching profession. Appreciate it as such. You are attempting to somehow integrate the learning and behavioural needs of each individual child into what is often a difficult background of family and community, mental health and social needs. It is fantastic work.
But I also presume that you are under no illusions about how draining and difficult it can be at the same time. It is a field full of pitfalls for the unwary and the blasé. Recognise that your need for sustenance of your own inner self can often be greater than that required for teachers in the mainstream. It simply goes with the territory.
What I hope to do is simply highlight that your needs, especially your spiritual needs, are integral to performing as best you can for your students and their families. I hope to open up the area of spiritual nourishment and take a peek at it. The nourishment itself will have to come from you and your response to spiritual sources. Spirituality is essentially how each of us nurtures our own inner spirit or soul. I can merely point to a possible framework where this can be seen in relief.
We are blessed in that there are some things we know from learned teachers and from life”s experiences that may help. I am indebted to a Canadian spiritual writer, Ronald Releaser (www.ronreiheiser.com), for providing a framework for a holistic spirituality that has helped sustain many on the long haul. It is not complete and may not suit all. But I strongly suggest to you that we do need to have a framework that covers the bases if we are to be spiritually fulfilled to any degree in this life. The wisdom and teachings are there. We don”t have to re-invent the wheel.
In this framework, he gives us four dimensions to consider, what I call four commandments for the long haul. They are like the legs of a racehorse. The horse is only fit and races well if all four legs are being used together, working in harmony. The horse will limp if only three are used. It will be totally crippled if it has only one or two in working order. Spirituality is like that. It needs to be holistic.
The four commandments then for the long haul are (in no particular order): firstly, personal integrity, private morality and private prayer. The second is social justice. The third is a mellowness of spirit and generosity of heart. The fourth is, membership of a group, which shares similar aims, (or in church terms, an ecclesial community).
Personal integrity, private morality and personal prayer
I would like to start with personal prayer. One essential thing to understand about our own spiritual journey is that we are responsible for it. It is something we can”t rely on others or blame others for if things aren”t right. A spirituality for the long haul understands some sort of transcendent Higher Power, larger than the individual but accessible. Personal prayer in some form is essential as daily food for the soul. It is as important as breakfast. It can take the form of prayer to God, or Yahweh or Allah or our Higher Power or whomever. It can be meditation, contemplation, verbal, silent, prayed standing up, lying horizontal, in bed, out of bed, on our knees, sitting in the garden. It doesn”t matter. We all need to spend sometime each day nurturing the “inner me” – one”s soul or personal spirit, however that is understood.
“Have a care for justice; act with integrity,” says the Jewish prophet Isaiah. Yet woe betide anyone who dares to stand and proclaim personal integrity and private morality in today”s climate of relativism. Is there anyone among us who can say that he or she has lived a life of full integrity? Or consistently kept high standards of personal morality? I wonder. Certainly I know I could write a large volume about my own personal failures in these areas. Some may say, who am I to be even writing about spiritual nourishment and strength? Yet sometimes when someone has been to the brink and peered into the abyss, he or she can be in a stronger position than those who have not been tried by such fire. As I have grown older, I can see that unless we maintain a clear firm commitment to personal integrity and private morality, we run the great risk of undermining everything else we have done or seek to do. How many potentially great people do we know who have been marginalized and sidelined because of a weakness in one or other of these areas?
Personal integrity, private morality and personal prayer are cornerstones of a truly holistic fulfilling spirituality and lifestyle for today.
Whether we like it or not, we are social beings. The great spiritual traditions teach that all things are interconnected. All human beings form an inter-connected family. The joy of one is the joy of all. The pain of one is the pain of all. For those who grow in the Spirit, my neighbour is not just the man robbed on the roadside who was attended by the passing Samaritan in the gospel. It is his whole family, his tribe and these days, his nation. This is what it means to know and love our neighbour. We no longer live in a world where the needs of our neighbour are unknown to us. They appear on our TV news every night. Many of us have visited their communities and their countries. Social justice demands that we come to understand what it is that keeps our neighbour in poverty, in a war zone, starving, dying of thirst. What affects one affects us all. We cannot have an integrated spirituality which fails to recognise this.
My father”s under educated generation saw charity as the way to help the needy neighbour at home. Little was known of overseas needs. That has all changed. My baby-boomer generation have grown up with university education, overseas travel and instant electronic communication. Our neighbourhood is much larger than my dad”s. It is global. We have access to greater resources and knowledge than any previous generation. My generation was conscientised by the television images of wars in the Congo, Angola, Mozambique and Vietnam, by the starvation of famine victims dying like flies in Biafra and Ethiopia while we ate like royalty. We can”t say we don”t know. We cannot have an integrated spirituality which fails to recognise this unfairness, this injustice.
Because many of us cared, we dug beneath the surface and learnt an essential truth: that much of what was happening was preventable. We discovered the causes. That it was unfair exploitative trading practices which were largely responsible for much of this devastation. We found corrupt governments were pouring valuable currency into arms manufacturers” purses while their people starved. We found that racial discrimination was almost universal and created poverty and war. We found that the worldwide prison industry basically locked up poor people, and that indigenous restorative justice practices which could resolve a lot of offending had been marginalized or abandoned completely. We found that the already wealthy would sacrifice everything and anything on the altar of profit. We found that western banks, especially the IMF and the World Bank, were locking poor nations into economic slavery. We found most but not all of these corporate criminals were westerners. We knew that social justice was needed so that if just policies were implemented, policies that looked to the common good of all and did not merely feed the greed of the few, many of these disasters would be resolved. Charity wasn”t enough. Social justice was essential.
We have more recently found that we cannot sustain the depletion of resources currently occurring, nor the lopsided distribution of those resources. We discovered that our planet is a rather fragile entity, capable of being destroyed by pollution and nuclear weapons. We cannot maintain the continuing destruction of Mother Earth and still love God and our neighbour. It”s a matter of social justice for all.
Seeking justice is an integral part of the journey for the mature spiritual seeker. Most major religious traditions teach that it is in our neighbour that we meet the divine. Without an abiding and sustained concern, indeed a passion for social justice, we cannot have a fulfilled spirituality in tune with the divine. It is that simple!
This sounds a rather odd component for an holistic spirituality. But it is an essential one. It is about being inclusive. It rules out fanatics and fundamentalists. It rules out one-issue people. It rules out the purely secular. It simply says that out hearts have to be bigger, more generous, more embracing than such narrowness allows. Anyone who has worked politically knows that narrow ideologically constipated people are a scourge in most political movements. It rules them out. Isn”t it also a truth that because of uncertainty in a mobile, pluralistic society, narrow-minded religious people from all faith persuasions bedevil the world? You only have to look at religious television programmes to see what I mean. Narrow fundamentalism means that only a tiny slice of the truth is allowed to emerge. How can such a person live holistically with their neighbours when such is the case? Such fundamentalism is a recipe for dissension, bigotry, prejudice, and judgmental mistake among people.
Most of us in our better moments would like to think that our values and desires are better expressed by the apostle Paul in his letter to the fledgling Church in Ephesus, where he lists the fruits of the Spirit as being love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, forbearance, gentleness, faith, courage, temperateness and purity. Mellowness of heart, generosity of spirit – what fine values, what wonderful gifts to bring to any relationship or social setting.
Membership of a likeminded group/ecclesial community
This is the one that many will balk at. It teaches that we cannot make this journey alone. If we try we will be like the racehorse limping. We will never win the race. The reason to belong to such a grouping – what the church calls an ecclesial community – is that a group contains so much collective wisdom and knowledge. It also supports and sustains us on the journey. Remember, we are on a journey for the long haul. The long haul means a lifelong journey. Without others, we can easily fall into a trap of thinking we know something and having it wrong. We can easily get discouraged, and who is there to help support us? We can easily miss the wood for the trees and there is no one handy to point this out. We need each other. We cannot exist without one another. The future is in a group setting of some form or other. It always has been.
To illustrate its importance. Where does one take personal suffering if there is no likeminded group of individuals to share with? Most people have a reasonable amount of suffering in daily life. As Thoreau said rather darkly, “the mass of people live lives of quiet desperation.” The worst of it can distort most things we do. It can quickly become the dominating characteristic of our personality and our lives. How do we face such difficulties? Where does one make any sense of such things? The best place is among friends in a group, where one can share the spiritual journey. There is a mystery to much suffering – the “why” of it, the meaning it might have. But carrying a burden alone can make it a very rugged journey. We need each other. Solidarity with others who suffer is part of any spiritual journey.
To belong to such a group is counter cultural in this very individualistic age. But it is very necessary. We cannot sustain a long journey without one another. Knowledge based on love will be the power that is shared within such a group. I know. I belong to one. The love is palatable. It is real. It is respectful, always supportive, sometimes challenging. It is a delight to be enjoyed. It is in the group that the great spiritual virtues like hope, respect, compassion, mercy, justice, wisdom and love can be held, nourished and shared.
I have taken the opportunity to be a somewhat proscriptive. But there is no point in sharing about spirituality – our connection with the Divine and with one another – if one is not practical. As you can see, spirituality is a way of life. It is not something we tack on to everything else we do. It is an outer garment, a cloak, Te Kahu-o-te-ora. It contains a vision, and practical ways to keep that vision before us in everything we do. Nothing exists outside the ambit of our spirituality. It is the cloak that covers all, that nurtures us, gives meaning to our existence.
I would like to finish with two quotations, one from a group of Catholic sisters, the other from a famous Buddhist.
A group of Catholic sisters recently wrote, “Non-violence is a way of living. It”s a call. It”s an action. It”s a voice. It”s about caring for each other. It”s about education. It”s a change in your heart. It”s a change in your world. It”s a change in the system. It”s risky. It”s visionary. It”s about sustainable living. It”s the only way to be just. It”s a choice. It”s peace-filled. It is prayer-filled. It becomes who we are. It”s what we do. It is the only true road to a meaningful spirituality in our time.”
And Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous Myanmar/Burmese liberation leader currently under house arrest, says, “Freedom means choice. It is of the utmost importance to make the right choice. We can choose either to gratify narrow selfish interests or expand our hearts and minds to encompass the needs and aspirations of others. We can strive to build better lives not just for ourselves or our own people but for all humanity.”
Such is the road to a sustainable spirituality in our time, to a meaningful way of life in union with one another and the divine. The choice of which road to follow rests with each of us.