See the Notes from Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons’ Workshop.
On Becoming a Grown Up: Spiritual Maturity With and Without God
Good morning. What a pleasure and an honor it is to be with you today for this amazing program! Many thanks to my colleague and former student James Kubal-Komoto, and to the members of the planning committee for this invitation, and thanks to all those on the coordination team and staff, whose attention to the details has made it all happen. I look forward to our conversation.
Let’s begin our discussion by supposing that Rick Warren has a point. This Christian author explains in his 2002 best seller The Purpose Driven Life, that getting what we think we want doesn’t always make us as happy as we expected it would. In fact, getting what you want is not actually a very good recipe for happiness at all, as any number of celebrities over the years have done us the favor of demonstrating in striking ways. American culture over the past century or so has come to specialize in making sure that people have the opportunity to get what their impulses tell them to desire, and yet ours is not a noticeably happy society. It is possible, even likely, that human beings in general do not intuitively know what does serve to make us happy over the long haul. Now Rick Warren, being an evangelical Christian pastor, has a suggestion about this, which is that human beings have an owners manual available to them, in the form of the Bible, that will explain to them what kinds of choices actually make for lasting happiness, because god has said so. That proposition I find entirely unpersuasive. But as far as the problem goes, I think he is on to something. There is testimony, from the wisest thinkers over the centuries and across many cultures, which also suggests that he has a point. The sovereign gratification of our impulses has never made for happy people, families, or cultures. Neither has the wholesale suppression of human desires made us very happy, and that, too, has been tried. As long ago as the philosophers of ancient Athens, it was noted that the most successful human lives were those characterized neither by endless indulgence, nor by endless constraint, but rather by moderation, and a commitment to values that may not be intuitively rewarding in the moment, but which offer deeper pleasures that unfold over time.
Although not everyone can bring themselves to practice such values, most people recognize their existence, perhaps most easily in the physical and intellectual dimensions of life. The effort to achieve a physical skill, or a level of conditioning, may not always be fun, but the eventual payoff is more rewarding than a state of constant restful comfort. The mental stress of learning can be exhilarating, but it can also be, and often is, the occasion of confusion, frustration, and exasperation as well. Yet many of us tolerate these momentary unhappinesses for the sake of the fulfillments that are to follow. We tell ourselves, and we tell others, not to give up, but to persist in something that is at least temporarily distasteful, because we will be glad we did in the long run. If we didn’t have that perception, or at least the hope that greater future happiness was possible, we might well act on the impulse of momentary ease as the guide to our optimal state of being – and we would be mistaken. We would have an incorrect theory about maximizing our well-being. And so it makes sense to pay attention to Rick Warren’s challenge – how do we know whether we know what will truly make us happy?
As a life long Humanist, I am not impressed with the Biblical answer to this question. But that doesn’t mean that I am off the hook from answering it myself; it just means I’m going to have to do so without Pastor Rick’s assistance. Instead, I am going to turn to a handful of more congenial thinkers, to help me understand what it might mean to build a path toward my greatest possible fulfillment as a human being without supernatural intervention, and I am also going to consult my own experience, as I observe what choices make for apparent happiness in the lives of others, and for felt happiness in my own life. The first helpful thinker is the brilliant developmental theorist and experimentalist, Jean Piaget, who spent much of his career carefully observing and cleverly examining the processes by which young children manifest intellectual and moral growth. It was Piaget who first formulated the concept of developmental stages that apply not only to what a child is able to do physically with his or her body, but also with the concepts that can take root in his or her mind. Two examples, with which many here are probably familiar: One has to do with liquid that is poured from a tall, thin glass into a short, wide cup. Even though the liquid fits comfortably into both containers, pre-schoolers of a certain age are absolutely certain, with the conviction of those who see it plainly with their own eyes, that there is *less* liquid in the shorter container. Pour it back, and they are clear that the amount has increased again. No matter how many times the operation is performed, or explained, the conviction remains. Now, it *is* possible to teach these children to parrot the statement that the amount of liquid has not changed, but if you then do the same operation with a quantity of sand, they are right back where they began; embedded in their perceptions, according to which the amount of sand changes. And then, at some arbitrary moment of maturing in the tot’s head, the right synapses fall into place, and they regard anyone who cannot see that of course it doesn’t matter what shape the container is, the amount of liquid is the same, with derision and scorn. The point here is that until a certain stage of intellectual development is reached, there are concepts that are simply and literally unthinkable in the child’s mind.
The second example has to do with the emergence of moral concepts. A story is told of two children are helping their mothers prepare for tea parties. One youngster, forbidden to touch the fragile teacups, takes one and deliberately throws it on the floor, where it shatters. His opposite number, in an effort to assist his mother, tries to carry a tray of twelve cups, which he accidentally tips, and all the cups are broken. When Piaget inquired of his little interview subjects, “Which of these two children is the more to blame?” there was a clear pattern to their answers. Younger children, on one side of the developmental divide, think it obvious that the child who broke twelve cups is the more reprehensible, because the outcome of his action was so much worse. On the other side of the maturing process, the respondents are equally clear that the deliberately disobedient child is far more blame-worthy than the one who was trying to be helpful; they are able to take motive into account when assessing a moral question. What Piaget made evident was that these were developmental differences; it was not a question of information or education or insincerity, there was simply a process of maturing in the reasoning ability that had to take place before a child could access certain concepts that most adults take for granted.
Children on the early side of these conceptual thresholds have not yet developed the ability to take the appearances of things as an object of reflection, something that might be subject to question. At a certain point in their mental growth, the light switch will go on, and they will spontaneously recognize the conservation of the amount of liquid or anything else, regardless of the shape of the container. The same principle applies to adolescents, who initially lack the capacity to take the judgment of their peer group as an object of reflection. While they remain embedded in that judgment, the desirability of being “cool” is not debatable; it is an objective reality of the universe. Those who study these matters suggest that as we grow, we become increasingly able to take our world, and ourselves within that world, as objects of reflection. As we emerge from our embeddedness in its various forms, we mature.
Humans are developmental creatures; we mature into our greatest abilities physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally. Anything that prevents our moving through these stages in an organic way stunts us, and keeps us from our greatest possible power and flourishing as human beings. I am persuaded that there is also a process of spiritual maturing that works in much the same way. We start out embedded in our wonder and terror, in beauty and gratitude, in our longing for wholeness and love. We start out held in community, functional or dysfunctional, like a fish in water, for if not, we don’t survive at all. We are inescapably related to all other human beings, but so embedded in that kinship that it takes decades to begin to see it as something to think about, to question or acknowledge, to celebrate or despise. Spiritual maturity happens as we begin to be able to take these existential realities and the meanings that we inevitably make of them, as objects of reflection. And so it is, I suppose, even with the idea of a self-conscious, personal god. We come to awareness of that idea embedded either in the acceptance or the rejection of it as a literal truth about the world. Whichever view we hold, people who disagree with us are perceived to be objectively and demonstrably mistaken. As earnest liberals, we can teach our children – and we often do, with a misplaced sense of satisfaction – to parrot the dictum that all religious traditions have wisdom to offer, and that each person’s unique spiritual journey should be treated with respect. But scratch the surface, and they will tell you with eager righteousness how grateful they are to have been raised to believe this, and not to be close-minded like their fundamentalist classmates. There is no hypocrisy here; rather, these young people are doing the developmental work appropriate to their years, in forming the capacity for loyalty to a community, but the light bulb of genuine appreciation for diversity has not yet gone on.
If we are limited to thinking of god as a part of the reality in which we are embedded, we may find ourselves either smiling in the warmth of god’s presence, or scowling at the credulity that perpetuates this lie, and spoiling for a fight. But neither of these stances represents the spiritually mature perspective that I think it is our task over time to embrace. To think of god from a perspective of spiritual maturity is to take as an object of reflection the human imagination’s impulse to capture the mystery and power of ultimacy in these concrete, divinely attributed characters. Every spiritually mature believer rejects the attempt to portray, and thereby to limit, what is holiest in the life we share. In its most practical form, this is why we are forbidden by various traditions to pronounce god’s name, to draw god’s picture, or to carve statues of god – because the wiser ones always know that doing so spells trouble; that somebody will eventually mistake that representation for the thing itself, and we will wind up back in our misplaced concreteness. And don’t be fooled – we humanists, in which category I include myself, are just as subject to this temptation as any other true believers. When we can think of god only as a proposition for debate, an unwarranted hypothesis invented to compensate for human ignorance and enforce human authority, we are still embedded in our spiritual unselfconsciousness; the light bulb of our mature inner life has not yet come on. That maturity has many facets, but none is more central than this capacity to take our human access to the divine through metaphor as an object of reflection in itself. In that light, all the images and songs become translucent windows of the spirit.
Teachers of reverence throughout the ages have pleaded that something wonderful happens when we stop running our familiar mind programs about fear and scarcity and protecting ourselves; this counsel is a kind of spiritual practice that is oblivious to the vocabularies of tradition. We might call it redemption; we might call it Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world; we might call it enlightenment, or as some Native American traditions would, the path of beauty. It doesn’t matter. As author Geneen Roth says, “I don’t know what to call this turn of events, or the freshness that follows it, but I know what it feels like. It feels like relief, infinite goodness, the essence of tenderness, compassion, joy, peace.” This is, I submit, an inherently human experience and longing – the realization of the open secret, that there is no goal, no test to take, no one keeping score; that that which is not broken is always present, whether or not we have a name for it, whether or not we are paying attention; and the final recognition that you are, that each of us is, that unshakable truth, and that you have been here all along, waiting for the exiled self’s return. This is what the mystics of every tradition have been saying for centuries, in whatever language they could summon to their purpose; it is not a function of any scripture or school, but of the human condition’s maturing spiritual awareness.
Who doesn’t want that open secret to come into focus; that sense of tender, compassionate self-awareness and rock-bottom peace; that return to a wholeness that cannot be achieved, but is there all along, no matter what? This, it seems to me, is what makes for our true happiness, not the fluctuations of impulsive desires. How then do we become that kind of people; those who rise intuitively to the demands of the good, who live in the heaven of the present, fed by the beauty of creation? Not, it seems to me, by abandoning skepticism, or by taking someone else’s word for what life means, and what matters, and how we are supposed to live. Rather, we move toward that way of being, which is the source of genuine, lasting happiness, by growing into greater spiritual maturity.
Just as we grow and mature physically, and keep ourselves healthy with regular exercise; just as we grow and mature mentally, and develop our minds through learning; just as we grow and mature emotionally, and deepen our relationships by intentionally sharing ourselves with others; just as we grow and mature ethically, and build moral character from the values to which we are loyal – so I am persuaded that we also grow and mature spiritually, as well. You can go to the gym to work out; you can go to school to improve your mind; you can see a therapist to resolve emotional roadblocks; religious community, whatever its flavor, is here to help us deepen and celebrate and be nourished by our authentic experiences of reverence. Religious community exists to hold out the possibility, and the importance, of that inner ripening; to suggest that our humanity is most fully realized as we become more spiritually mature. This is the quality that the great mystics and sages have easily recognized in one another across all the varieties of religious and cultural traditions. It is what enables us to name Rumi and Gandhi and Schwietzer and Julian and the Dalai Lama all in the same breath. The lack of it turns faith into pogroms and witch hunts and terrorism. It is, I suggest to you, the necessary foundation of our ability to live together as humanists and theists, skeptics and mystics, prophets and seekers, all in this liberal religious covenant community of ours.
Religious community should be the place where we are called upon to grow up as spiritual people, where we learn to reach out of our embeddedness toward a larger perspective and a new self-understanding. It should be where we come to understand the overflowing reverence of metaphor on the one hand, and the austere reverence of silence in naming the divine on the other as mirrors of each other; both manifestations of our shared yearning for the best and truest lives of which human beings are capable. We hunger, both in our congregations and in our culture, for leaders who are spiritually mature, who can take their own process of meaning-making, and ours, as objects of contemplation, and summon us to honor authentic reverence in whatever ways it may be experienced or expressed. Of all the talents and skills required to lead for the common good, and they are many, none matters more than this, to be an example of spiritual adulthood. In this fraught historical moment, I suggest to you that we are scrambling to find, and to be, models of spiritually mature leadership, over against the paradigm counter-example currently occupying our nation’s highest office. The community of love and justice may be built initially by raw enthusiasm, but it can only be sustained over the long term by the aspiration toward spiritual maturity. The greatest souls of all ages have testified that this is a process that never ends; we can always go deeper, learn more, become able to see ourselves and the world more clearly; they have affirmed that our growth in spiritual maturity opens within each of us an ever more profound window on what it means to be most truly and gladly human.
It seems to me that the qualities of spiritual maturity are those which remain a part of our essential being even when physical strength and mental acuity begin to fade. Thirty years in the ministry have given me an ample opportunity to observe the ways in which many different people deal with the inevitabilities and the accidents of life. I have been fortunate to have witnessed a variety of examples of spiritual maturity in operation, and when I think of being genuinely happy, I think of being like those folks; generous, humble, self-aware, merciful, loyal, wise. Our culture is reasonably good at helping us understand what it means to be physically healthy or intellectually cultivated; it is somewhat less certain what constitutes emotional strength or ethical integrity, and it appears to me to have little concept at all of what spiritual maturity would look like. In our remaining time together this morning, I would like to offer you a dozen characteristics that I aspire to cultivate in my own life, that I have seen demonstrated in the graceful actions and choices of other people, that seem to me to describe the kind of mature reflective capacity that our spiritual lives ought to be growing toward. I find these qualities described in a variety of ways throughout the religious heritages of the world, and I have borrowed names from several of those traditions.
The first, and perhaps most central, is from the ancient Greek philosophical tradition of the cardinal virtues. The original term, Sophrosyne, is often badly translated as ‘temperance’, but its actual meaning is far more profound than just the avoidance of excess. A better definition of Sophrosyne is self-awareness in the service of intention. It is about being able to take both our impulses and our deeper enduring desires, as well as the consequences of our actions, as objects of reflection. It encompasses self control to the extent that a person who has Sophrosyne is able to remember what they most truly want, and behave in ways that are likely to bring about that result. The capacity for self-awareness that is Sophrosyne includes having good boundaries; it is the ability to examine and have confidence about where you end and the rest of the universe, or another person, begins, as well as how those things are inextricably connected. The development of Sophrosyne means that you are constantly paying attention to the impact of your actions — on others, on the world, and on the goals to which you have said you are committed. It is the wisdom which underlies the question, “And how is that working out for you?”; it is being able to observe and reflect upon the impact of our presence in the world, rather than just bouncing from one experience to the next. The capacity to emerge from our embeddedness in the events of our lives, and to discern what is our appropriate responsibility for the shape they take, may be the foundation of all the other aspects of spiritual maturity.
The second of these qualities I think of as an orientation toward reverence, wonder, gratitude and generosity. The person who has an orientation of reverence dwells in, and reflects upon, the fundamental surprise that anything at all exists; that there is something in the universe, rather than nothing – why should that be, in the first place? There is a givenness, and an otherness, to the world, that makes it impossible to take life for granted; everything that is could just as well have been otherwise. When we take our existence and consciousness as an object of reflection; when we are able to stop being embedded in it, and actually think about it, which isn’t always easy, the very fact of that existence becomes a source of wonder and surprise. Out of that wonder, about our own consciousness and everything that consciousness encounters, arises a profound gratitude that is the opposite of taking our lives and the world for granted. There is not necessarily a personal or even particular object of that gratitude; we may be thankful for being without any specific place to address those thanks. Yet if we perceive the universe as an act of cosmic generosity, then our gratitude is manifest in our own tendency toward generosity rather than cynicism; to live as sources of more abundant life and goodness in the finite terms of which we are capable. Reverence also expresses itself in the urge to praise the world our consciousness discovers, and to cherish the variety of experiences available to our awareness. It includes the continuing willingness to be wowed by life, and to approach the world with candor, retaining the perspective that it is always larger than the individual ego.
Of course, the universe that our consciousness encounters does not always comply with our preferences or wishes, and so the third dimension of spiritual maturity is the path of surrender. Obviously, this is not, to my way of thinking, submission to the whims of a supernatural deity, although many souls have testified to the sustenance that is found by resting in the will of god. For my own path, it lies rather in obedience to reality, to the facts of our situation as finite beings, and to the laws of nature and science. It is this surrender which takes us away from the perception that as religious liberals “we can believe whatever we want.” In point of fact, there are many things I would like to believe, that are unfortunately disproved by the evidence. I would love to believe that I can fly unaided, but all the evidence so far indicates that this is not the case, and so I surrender to reality by not blithely jumping off the garage roof. This discipline of engaging the world as we find it, rather than indulging our wishful thinking about how we would rather have it, connects to the wisdom of the twelve step programs, with their invitation to acknowledge our powerlessness, and build from there. In truth, there is great peace of mind in the recognition that neither you nor I is running this universe, and once that fact is established, we can take our desire for things to be different as an object of reflection, rather than remaining embedded in our fantasies. Our authentic power is founded upon the ability to surrender to the facts, and create change by figuring out what actually works. As the Enlightenment philosopher and proto-scientist Francis Bacon observed, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” It is that obedience to the truth that lies outside our own will – “the sorry state of things entire” as Omar Kayam has it – that gives us, to a limited extent, some ability, with intelligent effort, to “remould it nearer to the heart’s desire.” The spiritually mature person has resigned from the position of administrator of the universe, and given up sulking because the world does not conform their expectations.
One of the facts of existence that continually demands our surrender is that truth as we are able to know it is often complex and ambiguous, and our response to it may be strongly felt and/or confused. The philosopher Whitehead famously described the direction of evolution as tending toward “increasing complexity and intensity of feeling,” suggesting that as the apparatus of perception becomes more receptive, creatures become capable of formulating more complicated ideas, and responding to their experiences with deeper and more mixed sensations. Spiritually mature people grasp the principle that our capacity to contain joy is also the extent of the sorrow we are able to feel, and vice versa; that to love anything or anyone is to expose ourselves sooner or later to the risk of loss, and the only way to avoid sorrow is to die first, and so leave the loved one to grieve. Yet knowing this, the person who seeks to grow spiritually embraces love with its attendant risks nevertheless, accepting and even cherishing grief as the measure of love. This ambiguity, that love and sorrow go hand in hand, is analogous to many other ambiguities and polarities of human experience; the more we grow and mature, the less black and white the qualities of our journey through life appear. What benefits one creature is costly to another; every choice entails foregone options; the more capable we are of seeing another’s perspective, the less perfect good seems possible. Our discomfort in the face of a complicated problem does not mean we are wrong about it. Spiritual maturity honors these complexities and ambiguities, rather than trying to flatten them into some more easily managed mental structure; it accepts our vulnerability to pain as the unavoidable mirror of our potential for gladness and joy. By taking the confusion and conflicting impulses that arise in response to life’s ambiguous realities as an object of reflection, rather than seeking false clarity or simplistic solutions and sulking about the discomfort of that complexity, we grow in the life of the spirit.
Another of the ways that we grow by taking discomfort and confusion as an object of reflection is in our capacity to be in the presence of pain without panic, which makes compassion possible. The Buddhist practice of Tonglen, the name of which I have borrowed for this fifth dimension of spiritual maturity, consists of intentionally embracing and accepting the pain that is in the world, in order to transform it through one’s consciousness into harmony and peace. It is a common human impulse to avoid or flee from those who are suffering, whether that is physical, emotional, or spiritual distress, and of course the pain of others can be toxic over time, if we do not have the skill to handle it safely. Tonglen suggests that the spiritual grown up is able to stand with others as a comforting presence in their suffering, because that person has the grounding to let pain pass through them into something universal and infinite without doing damage. The alternative common impulse is to resolve suffering by quickly fixing the problem, and there is a certain common-sense mercy in the desire to help. Yet much suffering arises from causes that are not fixable — not least from our mortality itself — and in such circumstances the urge to fix things may actually increase distress, by adding the franticness and frustration of the would-be helper to the mix. When an individual must move through the grief that comes with losing a loved one, or when a community must undergo a difficult change, immediate relief from heart ache is not always a helpful gift, even if it were possible. The spiritually grown up leader offers encouragement and validation, rather than anodynes, so that whatever learning or gift might lie on the other side of suffering may not be wasted.
Well-intentioned liberal activists seeking to improve the lot of those whom they regard as victims have been known to exhibit a certain immaturity in this regard. Sometimes the most caring, and most difficult, act is to stand in witness and solidarity with pain until the sufferers themselves decide how best to move toward change. To be a spiritual adult is to have the wisdom and fortitude to remain in the presence of distress, while controlling our own anxiety and resistance, so as to be of genuine help to those who are hurting. Then we may be able to be skillful rather than premature in alleviating the cause of the discomfort, or, if that is not possible, at least bear witness to its truth through the eyes of compassion. Our task then is to help one another learn to face into the truth of our own and others’ hurt, and not to prefer frozen numbness to the ache and effort of genuine healing. The practice of taking our own impulse to flee from pain, or to fix it, as an object of reflection makes us capable of larger and more effective compassion in the long run.
Spiritual maturity also invites us to outgrow our intuitive urges toward destruction and revenge. The ancient Hebrew prophet claimed that the divine requires of us to do justice, but to love mercy – and that, it seems to me, is a practice of the spirit. As children, we live in a world where caring others moderate the consequences of our actions, and maintain order around us which we are incapable of maintaining ourselves. To grow up is to become responsible for the ordering of our own lives, and to learn to prefer beauty – aesthetic order – as well as justice – moral order – in the world we create. Yet severe justice, without clemency and forgiveness, can become ugly; a graceful moral order balances the demands of fairness with the aesthetic pleasure of mercy, and the maturing spirit is able to take the impulse toward “an eye for an eye” as an object of reflection, recognizing that strictly implemented, it leaves the whole world blind, and does not serve our fullest humanity. The attraction toward beauty, order, justice, mercy and forgiveness that characterizes a spiritual grown up is an aesthetic preference for living in a world where wholeness prevails, and the willingness to entertain the complex demands of right relationship that move us in that direction.
Of course, mercy and forgiveness are not helpful where there is no repentance, and so the seventh dimension of spiritual maturity involves what the Jewish tradition has called T’shuvah; the capacity for authentic regret and change. As soon as we become able to take our own potential to make mistakes as an object of reflection, instead of being anxiously embedded in it, we are freed from the debilitating shame that attaches to being wrong. T’shuvah invites us to know the worst about ourselves – our arrogance, our stubbornness, our condescension to those who might have corrected us – and then to recognize how universal the experience of heading confidently in exactly the wrong direction actually is. To have the humility to acknowledge error and then turn around and retrace our steps – the literal meaning of T’shuvah – is to change, and thus to grow and improve. This capacity for repentance is what allows us to embrace forgiveness when it is offered to us; whenever we remain embedded in the need to be right, it is difficult not to be self-righteous, and deny the necessity of understanding or mercy from anyone else. It takes a spiritually mature person to observe the need for self-correction and openly change course.
That capacity for self-correction is one of the qualities that makes for effective leadership, and another facet of becoming a spiritual grown-up has to do with our willingness to function as both leaders and followers, depending upon the situation. As many great statesmen and women have testified, leadership at its best is a spiritual discipline, not an ego-massage, and we may be asked to lead because of the group or the cause or the movement’s need, not necessarily out of our own aspirations. In such circumstances, spiritual maturity allows us to discern whether there is in fact a unique contribution that we have to make, so that we take our own capacity to exercise leadership, as well as the costs of doing so, as an object of reflection. At the same time, it becomes possible to take the hunger for power and the fear, as well as the ego and vanity, that are also in each of us, into consideration too. Taking our potential for corruption by these forces, and our capacity for fanaticism, as objects of reflection can enable us to offer uncorrupted leadership when that role is called for. It also allows us to give our loyalty as followers, not uncritically, but with appreciation for the work of other leaders who use their power responsibly. Spiritual maturity enables us to humbly do what is needed, whether as critical supporters, loyal opponents, or leaders with integrity, to respond to the necessities of the moment in community.
Both leadership and loyalty are often made legitimate by and expressed in the language of covenant, and the ability to enter into serious, meaningful promises of enduring mutuality is another dimension of spiritual maturity. Our covenant commitments allow us to give shape and order to the future through our present choices, whether in marriage or parenthood, in vocation or professional oaths of office, in membership affirmations, or any other pledge of lasting allegiance. The idea that such promises partake of a sacred quality that cannot be dismissed without harmful consequence is often ignored in modern culture; we have a utilitarian mentality which holds that vows are to be adhered to only so long as keeping them continues to produce positive outcomes. And indeed I would not advocate captivity to an oppressive promise when circumstances have changed, and only suffering can result. Yet I think the capacity to undertake a covenant that is meant to last even through brokenness and redemption over time, requires that we emerge from our embeddedness in the unpredictability of what may happen, and take that unknowable future as an object of reflection. Meaningful covenant promises cannot be abandoned without damage to all concerned, including the fragile, intangible fabric of mutuality that underlies all our human connections and meaning structures. When we acknowledge this, we have the opportunity to create relationships that hold the weight of our deepest promises, and persist beyond the passing impulse of the moment, and which are often reported to be the source of some of our greatest fulfillments.
One covenant that we have no choice about is what the Lakota Sioux tradition calls “Mitakuye Oyasin,” an invocation that translates roughly as ‘all my relatives’. We are born into a universe of natural connections with the interdependent web of all existence; everything we do necessarily has an impact on the world around us, and we are dependent upon that world to provide for our survival. We start out, of course, embedded in that connection and dependence; only as we mature do we become able to take our relationship to the web as an object of reflection, and to consider whether we might be arbitrarily exploiting the community, or damaging the ecosystem. Another dimension of spiritual maturity is that we learn to broaden our intuitive family and tribal loyalties to a larger image of the cosmos as an inclusive system, from which no part is estranged. Such perception is a spiritual practice; by invoking Mitakuye Oyasin, the prayer reminds us that we are in fact related to all creatures, beings, and objects of our experience in a dynamic mutuality. Our actions have consequences that we may only partly predict, and yet we aspire to be accountable for the effects of our presence and our choices in a universe where everything is influenced by everything else.
If there is one factor that connects us most surely to every other human being and living creature, it is the assurance of our shared mortality. The Christian spiritual practice of Memento Mori, the constant awareness of death, is meant to help us emerge from our embeddedness in this uncomfortable truth, and take the reality that our lives, as well as all other lives, are finite, as an object of reflection on the path to spiritual maturity. The person who engages this practice learns to give up the frantic quest for a path to immortality, whether through earthly power or supernatural magic, through fame or wealth or knowledge or any form of achievement, even faith. Philosophers of the Enlightenment era sometimes kept a human skull in their libraries, in order to remember death. This realization applies not only to our own lives, but also to the lives of those we love, indeed to everyone we know, and to all the creatures around us. It is even true of larger realities; the institutions we build, the books we write, the communities we cherish, the cities we raise, the nations and cultures we establish. All these will also perish sooner or later in time. Taking the inevitability of death as an object of reflection makes one tend to be gentle and careful, recognizing that every encounter we have might possibly be the last word, the final moment, with that other, for death may come unexpectedly, and tomorrow is guaranteed to no one.
Finally, the spiritually maturing person develops an increasing comfort and fluency with the expressive power of metaphoric language and ritual. Human beings are embedded in our capacity for language; it is through shared vocabulary and grammar that our brains structure themselves to create sense of the world. Anyone who has made the effort to learn a language other than the one they first spoke as a child has had a bit of experience with taking the meaning-making power of language itself as an object of reflection to some extent. Spiritual maturity invites us to recognize and reflect on the necessarily symbolic character of any language, even that of mathematics; to express and share any knowledge, any experience, with another person, we have no choice but to use words, and words are always approximations of what we are trying to say. When we emerge from our embeddedness in language, we understand that literalism is finally impossible, and that all our communication is symbolic. This allows us to recognize and embrace the importance of poetic imagery, and the symbolic action of ceremony, in the shared process of human beings creating communities of meaning, especially in expressing concepts of infinite, intangible, and transcendent realities, such as justice, love, dignity, or gratitude. Ritual vocabularies consist of images that have multiple overlapping and sometimes conflicting meanings; this is what gives them density and power. To be a spiritual grown up is to appreciate how myths and ceremonies, songs and scriptures, operate both to preserve order and effect change in the collective consciousness of a community, as well as the personal awareness of individuals, including our own. When we become adept in the use of such metaphoric expressions, our capacity to nurture our own and others’ spiritual lives is deepened and enriched.
This is the kind of person I want to become, finally; self-aware, reverent, real, strong, compassionate, graceful, humble, loyal, faithful, interdependent, at peace with my mortality and fluent in the language of the spirit. These are the qualities I expect my church to help me nurture in myself and others — in a context of theological pluralism, because none of them is a function of belief in god, or its absence. It is not a path that promises comfort so much as exhilaration along the way, nor have I made so much progress in any of these dimensions as I could have wished by this point in my life. And these are by no means the only qualities toward which one might aspire to grow into the fullness of spiritual maturity; part of the task for each of us, I think, is to define the vision for ourselves, just as we must choose our own fitness goals, and intellectual pursuits, and relational commitments. Yet it seems to me that whatever authentic and lasting happiness has come to me has been on this journey; not from seeking to get what I want out of life, but from trying to live into the person I hope to be. I believe that religious community is the unique resource that must nurture our individual and collective capacity for spiritual maturity; for in that endeavor of growth, I submit, lies not only our personal happiness, but the purpose of the church, and the well-being of our world.