Finding A Place

Waymark on the Camino de Santiago

How do I live? This is the question which urgently presents itself to me. I’m not able to splash about on the surface of life, consoling myself with toys and happy experiences, and closing my eyes to the dark, but perhaps life-giving, depths down beneath my little rowing boat. I need a satisfying spirituality to help me to steer my course through the endless succession of random events and non-sequiturs of my life.

For me, a truly satisfying spirituality should be as deep and particular, as it is wide and universal. It would need to have times of quietness and reflection, as well as times of noisy community and craic. It would need to handle not only my joy, my desire to embrace the world, but also my grief and darkness. It would need to be as stringently ethical as the harshest puritan, but as full of forgiveness and grace as the prodigal father. And, finally, it has to make sense: there is a lot of bullshit in the world already, and I don’t want to add to it.

The depth would come from deep reflection on the glory and tragedy of our lives. Why are we here at all? Why don’t people love each other as they ought? What is this sense, deep within my deepest self, that I should be living as though other people’s interests were my own? And why do I so consistently fail in it? What happens after we die? Does the universe have a meaning, or is it just time and chance and the iron rules of logic endlessly ramifying? The universe seems astonishingly carefully tuned to create creatures like us – what does that mean about that which is really real, the reality which underlies the clouds of subatomic particles and the laws of physics? Why do bad things happen to good people – and why don’t more bad things happen to bad people?

These aren’t new questions, I’m sure. I can’t be the first person to ask them, and I am deeply aware of my limitations, intellectually, morally, spiritually. I want to be part of a community where these are the animating questions, and which I can dig myself deep into its life and history, accessing wisdom that I would never be able to reach on my own.

I could hold on, indefinitely waiting for certainty that never comes. But even to fail to choose how to live is itself a choice – the choice to float with the current, embracing whatever today’s fashionable orthodoxy tells me. And because I have to choose, my choice will rule some things in, and other things out. This way, this way of living, this way of approaching the world, it has to be a particular set of beliefs, a particular tradition, which actually exists – with all the history of success and failure, of good and terrible evil which comes with it, because there are no living traditions which don’t have their failures as well as their successes. Innocence is only available to children and the naïve. To live within a tradition, naming it and owning it, is to need to accept ultimately imperfect nature of all human endeavours. I can’t stand outside the mess of being human, because I am no better than the human race. The failure of any tradition to be perfect is not a sufficient excuse for my own failure to commit, to choose my ground.

It is not enough to worship the deeply local gods of blood and soil, of pop music ephemera, of localised sporting excellence. These things have their place in life, along with good food, good wine, well designed furniture, and the rest. But, important as the local is, I need something which speaks to the human condition as a whole. It has to be as good an answer to an African slum dweller as it is to a slightly effete post-modern tertiary educated person like me.

This way would have to be aesthetic, mythical, moving. It would need to be approachable through ritual, legend, music and art. But it would also need to make sense. Reason is a small god, and hence a false god if it tries to claim too much for itself. But reason has its place here – clearing the ground where spirituality can flourish. It can’t answer all the questions that there are – often things so profound that they can’t even be expressed as a question at all, or at least not adequately: such as ‘Does life have a meaning? or ‘Why is there suffering?’ These have a rational part, but at a deeper level they represent cris de coeur, the soul crying out in the intensity of its torment, the calling out from my own bespoke version of hell.

I do not want to live my life based on an illusion. The world will not give you what you want just because you want it. There is no ‘Secret’, no good universal vibrations. God is not a slot machine, caring more about the size of your house and your car than the state of your soul. Culture, though important, is not the whole of the answer. A love of Goethe didn’t prevent the concentration camp commandant from following his orders. The answer is not even more education: I know, from looking at my own life, that my problem is not knowing what I need to do. It is in actually doing it.

There needs to be prayer – a deep tradition of connecting my soul to the ultimate, the unconditioned, the increate, the meaning-behind-the-meaning, which we glibly call ‘God.’ I want to pray: I do not know how to. Tradition tells me that it takes work, and offers me hints about how to do it. If there is a God, then, truly he is a God who hides himself, sometimes so much that I lose hope that I can ever touch him, and I really need to get in contact with him. A sustainable spirituality has to know all about this. For thousands of years people have been having essentially the same experiences as me, even if they were unfortunate enough to not be able to chronicle it in blog posts, tweets, or Facebook status updates. If people have walked where I walk, and have come through the valley, then I want to know how they did it; even the knowledge that people have walked here before me and come out the other side gives me hope.

A worthwhile Spirituality needs to be for the whole of life. It can’t just be about quiet, prayer, reflection, meditating on distant mountain tops, far removed from the concerns of the everyday. I need friends about me, a little bunch of merry suffering pilgrims, sharing resources, telling stories, eating and drinking and being community together. And to be community, it has to happen often. Maybe we can’t literally live together, but we need to be part of each others’ lives. It can be a hard cold world out there, and we need each other. I can’t be truly human by myself, and the given nature of my fellow people, in their vigorous, energetic refusal to allow me to be the centre of my own private universe, must be at least part of the deal. When I lived alone, I thought I was pretty good, said the newly minted nun. But when I lived in community – that’s when I really found out what I was like.

Community is the testing ground for ethics. Every revolutionary from the claims to love ‘humanity’, from the Jacobin slogan of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” onwards, and claims to be motivated by a grand passion for the human race. Much, much harder to love the person right here in my face who insists on telling me how they are feeling when I would much rather be telling them how I am feeling.

Life can be full of joy and good things. But it can also be a place of darkness and the strong temptation to despair, the final refusal to hope. I need a place where that is honoured, taken seriously, but is not the ultimate reality. Our culture is deeply uncomfortable with suffering – it is the nagging reminder that, for all our technical wizardry, all our heroic medical endeavours, all our precision engineering progress through technology, we are all going to die, every last one of us. Our society, built on the illusion of perfectibility has lost sight of what it means to suffer, of the wisdom and tempering which can come out of it, if you let it, if you don’t hurry it away off-stage distracting yourself with, well, anything really. There has to be a better, wholer, fuller response to my angst, my devastating awareness of my pathetic finitude, than drowning in the industrial strength banality of Dancing with the Stars on my nice new widescreen plasma TV, anaesthetising myself with red wine on my sofa.

Not that I want to reject our society entirely. I’ve travelled, I’ve studied history – I know how precious and fragile our little oasis of peace and freedom is, and how easy it is to take for granted the knowledge that I do not have to fear the Secret Police pounding on the door in the middle of the night. And so I need to be engaged in the ongoing conversation which defines our civilisation, on the side of freedom and peace, and against easy shortcuts and scapegoats. I need to resist the temptation to join in the sloganeering, shouting ‘It’s the capitalists’ fault!’ Or, possibly, ‘It’s the socialist’s fault!’

Politics is the art of what is possible, and that it is inherently not perfectible, because it involves those inherently un-perfectible things, people. The way I follow needs to influence my politics, but not be its slave. Not for me the dreams of a realised new heaven and new earth. Means must not replace ends, individual people, having the privilege and dread of actually existing, must always outweigh abstract classes. To break a window in the cause of liberty may be the sweetest of pleasures, but it is a dangerous intoxicant.

I need to know what to do with my suffering, rather than what to do about it. Can it be meaningful? Or is it always and inevitably absurd? Is there hope beyond the darkness? Or are we, as it so often seems, just hairless apes scratching ourselves and howling at the moon?

I need to tap into deep wisdom. All around me, people posture with their little pellets of easily digestible pseudo-insights. Hardly anyone seems to have really engaged with the questions which obsess me, which won’t leave me alone, which keep me from settling for anything other than what is as real as I can find, beyond propaganda, beyond advertising, beyond the seductions of the easy life and the yacht.

At the end, underlying all this, it has to be about hope. In the end, we all die, everything we have worked for crumbles into dust, even the universe itself is said to be winding down. Even the best life is limited by the angst of meaninglessness; even the longest life ends; even the fullest life can lead you to lie awake late at night wondering if there is anything to hope for. Is the wisest course of action to scale down my desires, not to get too attached to anything in the world? Or is there some way, beyond all our imaginings, that everything could somehow be made right? That God will wipe away every tear from our eyes? Because make no mistake, this is the choice which presents itself to me.

Alister Pate - 2011 - From The Cliff and the Sea

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