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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