There is a longing for spiritual closeness just as there is a longing for an emotional bonding to another human being. But it is a form of longing, of human need, that I spent years ignoring. I’ve written here about longings arising from depression and inner devastation, emptiness and loss. Those longings tend to break up relationships, work life, family, but I’ve experienced spiritual longing as a draw toward a sense of closeness to a different dimension of life, a spirituality that is transforming when I can handle it and so remote from credibility when I’m shutting down.
Growing up Catholic, I always had a reverential attitude toward whatever was meant by the holy, the divine. But part of it was too abstract, plunging me into the catechism to learn about what was and what was not true or sinful or permitted. At the other extreme it was too concrete, too wrapped up in the details of ritual, of saints days, of rules, and the comfortable decorativeness of the statuary, stained glass, baroque buildings and beautifully colored vestments. I felt a strange combination of awe at the beauty and intensity of it and annoyance at the authoritarian side that demanded I accept everything without worrying for a moment what it was all about. God was mediated through so many layers that I came to associate the great Being with only two things: the tiny but intense red light in the lantern hanging in the church that symbolized God’s presence and the ever present universal eye that saw all my faults, sins, inadequacies, guilt and shame. That, of course, gave me a rich storehouse of goodies to feed my earliest depression.
After a time, though, my orientation toward things spiritual shifted radically. That happened because of a series of experiences over many years that gave me a greater sense of closeness to the spiritual world than I had imagined possible. There are times when a completely unexpected opening occurs and part of another world slips through, as if we existed side by side with it, ignoring hints of closeness until it reaches out and forces us to see something, really see. Almost always that experience was overwhelming, inexplicable, frightening, thrilling, peaceful – depending on how well prepared I was to deal with it. When I grasped what was going on, set aside fears of going crazy, I was filled with a sense of peace and purpose arising from an awareness that I was part of a vast spiritual reality. Depression, loss, grief – all that disappeared completely. However, as the immediacy of those experiences dimmed in time, I came to experience something new, that longing to be there again, to be reminded that there was a level of life beyond the frustrations and illness I was experiencing. That’s how I came to understand what spiritual longing was all about.
Every religious tradition I’ve tried to understand has defined a life-long discipline about how to approach communion with its spiritual source. Each has also generated amazing descriptions of the ups and downs, the dangers and distortions of attempts to dedicate one’s life to the sacred or enlightenment or vision – however the ultimate experience might be described. These are full of warnings about the potential misuse of seeking a mystical bond for the wrong reasons – to gratify ego, to solve a personal problem, to achieve a kind of “high,” to cultivate magical powers or to fulfill some mundane or even harmful purpose. I know I can’t seek spiritual experience specifically to free myself of depression – it just doesn’t work that way. The practice requires a setting aside of personal issues and a real devotion to seeking God on God’s terms. I have not devoted my life to the disciplined practices that the religious traditions describe.
But everyone prays in one form or another and at some point in life is open to spiritual experience. And that’s what has happened to me. Things happen, as I recently tried to describe, and I find myself in a different world that restores me completely. There is no such thing as depression there, and all the negativity, the mental and physical symptoms disappear for a time after those episodes. But spiritual experience is not so simple as that. Taken seriously, it demands paying close attention to everything that feels intolerable and destructive within, not simply wishing it away or having it taken away in a flash.
One of the remarkable interpreters of spiritual practice from a Catholic perspective is Thomas Merton. I’ve been letting his words about the contemplative life, as he calls it, sink in, become part of who I am. Here is one of his passages getting at the essence of living with a spiritual center to one’s life.
There is a subtle but inescapable connection between the “sacred” attitude and the acceptance of one’s inmost self. The movement of recognition which accepts our own obscure and unknown self produces the sensation of a “numinous” presence within us. This sacred awe is no mere magic illusion, but the real expression of a release of spiritual energy, testifying to our own interior reunion and reconciliation with that which is deepest in us and, through the inner self, with the transcendent and invisible power of God. … The basic and most fundamental problem of the spiritual life is this acceptance of our hidden and dark self, with which we tend to identify all the evil that is within us. We must learn by discernment to separate the evil growth of our actions from the good ground of the soul. And we must prepare that ground so that a new life can grow up from it within us, beyond our knowledge and beyond our conscious control. The sacred attitude is, then, one of reverence, awe, and silence before the mystery that begins to take place within us when we become aware of the inmost self. In silence, hope, expectation and unknowing, the man of faith abandons himself to the divine will: not as to an arbitrary and magic power … but as to the stream of reality and of life itself. (The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, pp. 54-55)
Seeking a spiritual path, then, requires acceptance of that “dark self” while sorting out the “good ground of the soul.” That’s not so different from what I feel I’ve been through. In my case, though, I seem to have gotten this backwards. Instead of starting with the goal of seeking God and learning how to deal with inner darkness, I have followed my rigorously secular path of depression until it forced me to confront the larger need for spiritual fulfillment.
Has that happened to you?
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I had a great feeling of spirituality about 5 years ago. The problem is now, and I don’t even understand this, is that I TRY – I really, really try to get back that closeness to God that I had then – but I can’t.
At some point I may – but I feel like everytime I pray or read the bible that God is looking at me and knows the fraud I am at this point in time. Very odd.
I have 2 blogs that I am using for “self therapy” (I’ll also be getting counseling, hopefully soon).
Addicted & Controlled – this is a blog that I try to be completely honest in my feelings – something that for now I wouldn’t show my family.
and Fresh Picked Craziness – this is my “functioning” at some level blog…….I don’t know what level, perhaps it is a veil. Only a select few of my family know about it.
Thanks for posting that – you write very well & I appreciate your honesty.
John D says
Thank you! for these kind words and for linking me to your blog discovery post. Resilience is a find for me – your writing has such bright energy to it. I look forward to lots of good reading. And you’ve gotten me interested in SL, which I haven’t taken a good look at.
Hi John, You write like you are very confident. Your writing makes you sound like you are doing well – more than I think you give yourself credit for. Not sure what it all means, but you are coming across well my friend. Maybe it’s just that your writing is an outlet for you?
Anyway, I enjoy your blog, I enjoy the good stuff that you are sending through and I’ll be reading.
We’ll talk again soon!
Thank you for finding me through BlogCatalog – what a tremendous find on my part! Your images and words are incredibly uplifting, thoughtful and introspective. At first glace, I know I will spend hours pouring over what you have here and can’t wait to see what future posts will arrive.
John D says
Thank you, Scott –
I’m glad to hear you’re going in a good direction. But I’m not sure what you mean by “secure.” If you mean I seem to be confident or sure of moving toward recovery – I only wish! There are so many ups and downs for all of us with this condition I can’t ever see feeling secure about changing for the better or about steadily moving toward spiritual insight. Believe me, the transforming experiences flash through a great darkness, and that’s why I talk about longing for them to return. I wish it got easier over time, but it remains a day by day struggle. Stay with it!
My best to you,
John, you sound like you have achieved a really good spot. Had to go through all the BS to get there though didn’t you? I’m not to far behind you and am certainly going in the same direction – THANKFULLY.
My biggest fear is that I just want to keep going in the same direction. I’m not secure and that’s one of the big differences in you and me. Sounds like you have really seen it to be able to write like that – I guess that’s the growth that they all tell us about.
Take care my friend and thanks!
PS. I have been enjoying your photographs.
John D says
Thanks, Amy – I look forward to reading your blogs. On the problem of getting back to that spiritual feeling or presence, I know the frustration of not being able to find it again. That’s why I talk about a longing – it’s something you want so much, but you are powerless to make it happen. Trying, in fact, may be the problem. When I’m trying hard to get something, I’m usually tensed up, aware of my faults, miserable that I’m failing. I think there has to be a kind of inner acceptance, a settling down, a stepping aside from focusing on me. Even then, though, a spiritual experience won’t come from willing it to happen – it’s like a great gift, a grace that comes when the usual storm in the mind stops and everything is quiet enough that you can hear the rest of life – or just listen to the quiet for a while. I don’t know – there’s no answer to that. The feeling will come back when you least expect it.
My best to you,
John D says
Evan – I too have found a spiritual connection with others, though it is so hard for me to clear away all the minor tensions, fears, anxieties that can cloud a relationship. When it happens that a certain flow develops, and I feel that deeper connection, I know what’s going on but the other person may not be at that same point. It really is extraordinary if both can achieve that awareness of spirituality in one another’s presence without confusing the feeling with something else.
Thank you for the link. The program is giving me several ideas.
This is a link to a podcast of a radio program from Radio National (Australia’s equivalent to NPR) on Faith (mostly christian) and Depression.
Might be of interest.
My path was different. My issue was (in some ways still is) competence. I grew up feeling socially inept (with good reason) and wanted to get better at dealing with people.
This led to me having to deal with my emotions – and this is what lead me to my darker self/shadow.
My spiritual practice is connecting with others as best I can. When can both do this deeply then it is a spiritual. The prayer I was brought up on in my evangelical christianity didn’t really work for me. And still doesn’t. A more contemplative style of thing works better but the really spiritual moments have been when I’ve connected deeply with others.