Ever want to escape — to go to a monastery or nunnery, to live in a log cabin in the woods, to find an island in the Caribbean, etc.? You know what I mean — to check out. I don’t think I’m alone when I used to think that to get in touch with my spiritual self I needed to get away from all worldly demands.
So I was surprised when I read that Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemane, once gave a lecture to would-be monks on living a spiritual life. He said, “Men, before you can have a spiritual life, you’ve go to have a life.” In other words, you have already got a life, your spiritual path is found in that mess you’ve already made.
Parker Palmer, author of On the Brink of Everything, says “the spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is, stripping away our illusions about ourselves, our world, and the relationship of the two, moving closer to reality as we do.” Spirituality doesn’t put us above the fray, instead it places us in the quicksand of life and tells us to figure it out.
I gave Merton and Palmer’s words a lot of thought this weekend. Over my many years my most spiritual moments came not at a retreat or standing on my head, but when reality forced me to come to grips with self-deception or unobtainable worldly desires. Palmer says, “Life is full of challenges that can turn us into contemplatives.” As I thought about how my challenges schooled me over the years, I thought of a rainbow. A thing of beauty follows the nastiest of storms, and at the end is the pot of gold. As we emerge from the storms in our life, we find the rainbows and pots of gold — an act of kindness from a stranger, unconditional love from family, and the smell of honeysuckle.
I realize that no matter how old I get to be, challenges and catastrophes are likely to continue to occur, but with the right attitude I will recognize them as opportunities to learn and grow. As Palmer suggests: regret can be turned into a blessing and criticism can refocus and strengthen our resolve.
To live a spiritual life requires that I confront my own demons at the same time I work to cast out demons from others. But more importantly, it requires that I continue to work in the real world, not escape from it.