The past several months, I’ve been trying to cultivate a practice of personal meditation (with halting success). After being introduced through a podcast to centering prayer (as taught by Catholic Thomas Keating, who draws on traditions of the Desert Fathers, St. John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing, and others), and wandering tentatively into westernized Buddhist thought, I felt I’d arrived at a refreshing oasis.
Perhaps part of the reason for my relief at this new practice stemmed from over familiarity with my own religious landscape, which had begun to blur. The prayer, the scripture studying, the lay callings, the ordinances, the Sunday School lessons, the fasting; at some point, those sources of spiritual growth seemed to dry up, leaving me with a dull thirst. The community, with its ever-unfolding kindnesses and vulnerabilities and surprises, gave life to my church activity, but my personal practice seemed to be withering. My spiritual landscape was feeling like “stony ground,” where “the word of the Kingdom” was getting scorched away in the dry, thin air.
The problem, so continues Christ in his thrice-repeated Parable of the Sower, is that people like me “yet hath not root in [ourselves.]”
No root in myself. Yes, that was part of it, too. It wasn’t just the over familiarity– my soul felt untapped; trapped on the “reactive landscape of ordinary awareness,” as Cynthia Bourgeault describes, where my ego clamors for esteem and self-fulfillment, clings to self-preservation and control, struggles to assert itself among a sea of attachments, aversions, threatening “others,” and is perhaps momentarily muted in acts of willed devotion and selflessness, though it is usually there underneath, waiting for spiritual rewards and approbation. Even at more “sophisticated” egoic levels of analysis and critique, my heart seemed to lack the capacity for genuine, vulnerable conviction. There was no room for true spiritual rootedness in that shallow ground.
Through centering prayer — an apophatic, or self-emptying, form of meditation — I am learning a simple but difficult way to still the “natural man,” in Mormon lingo. The refusal to indulge in the typical thought process, or enjoy even the somewhat deeper reflective process, for a period of time each day was a jarring displacement of ego, a quieting of the waters. The idea is for the true Self to connect with or submit to the Divine’s healing, purging, sanctifying touch, when it comes; for now, it’s a gentle discipline that heightens my awareness throughout the day of when my ego is rearing its head, and helps me face it by letting the ego-driven feeling of anger or insecurity or petulant frustration, or whatever form it’s taken, wash over me fully, and then, releasing it. The sensation reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s gentle, tired lines:
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what…
Call off thoughts of that “monkey-mind,” as the Buddhists name it; leave comfort root-room. Not only that, but the simple meditative practice clears the ego in order to see others more clearly, and thus, love them. I love the response by a famous lama when asked by a young student what it meant for him to have achieved awakening: “It means that I have fully realized for myself what you also are.”
The tradition’s emphasis on quieting the ego, cultivating a more deliberate, less reactive, gentler Self, as well as a deeper loving kindness for my fellow man and intentional, peaceful submission and openness to God, filled some large holes left vacant by a modern, Western mentality of doing and achieving. The psychologically rich, disconcertingly honest nature of these Eastern-tinged beliefs seemed to answer the ringing “how?” of my religion’s “where to” and “why.”
This isn’t my first personal encounter with other religious traditions, of course. Visits to my uncle meant long-anticipated attendance at the incense-filled, choir-soaring Gothic chapel of his Anglican church; my scripture study has long been peppered with extracanonical devotionals from other faiths and even just beautiful literature, and so on. And this hybrid spirituality or “spiritual supplementing” isn’t anything new. (This and this discuss a growing propensity among Millennials towards “high church,” for example; a less publicized phenomenon, I think, than the widely-discussed exoduses towards non-institutional spirituality).
But I’m not entirely satisfied with the status of “spiritual supplementing” or “hybrid.” Perhaps because it’s too trendy or too easily accommodating. It evades the deeper question that persists: Is it possible to have a truly comprehensive, inclusive spirituality that recognizes the beauty, holiness, and truth–perhaps even necessity– of different practices, rituals and beliefs while maintaining a belief in the Mormon Restoration narrative?
Or, more briefly: Is it possible, in today’s church, to live out Joseph Smith’s bold claim that “Mormonism is truth”? Not in the inflated and misguided sense that Mormonism was the repository of all truth, but that it was a religion of seeking and recognizing truth. Or, as another co-religionist elegantly put it, Mormonism as truth meant a commitment to “the principle of forever acquiring truth [rather] than to any particular formulation of the truth.”
How do I reconcile this expansive, yet disconcertingly content-minimizing vision of Mormonism with the modern, exclusive rhetoric of the “One True Church”? How do I navigate the claims that the “first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men,” with the clearly circumscribing nature of our insular history and our American morés? How do I acquire that expansiveness without losing the singularity that lends so much cohesiveness to our community? How do I integrate and respect the vitality and sincerity of these differing practices and beliefs without simply appropriating them? Old questions, yes, but this round, they’re deeply personal rather than simply theoretical.
I’m working through the questions, and I know many others are, too. At the same time, I have found I can continue in the place that laid my spiritual foundations with a greater sense of freedom, optimism, and confidence. Certain Mormon beliefs have become especially significant to me:
Mormonism as Zion-building and Truth-seeking. * A God who speaks to all individuals and communities according to their language, unto their understanding. * The mandates to seek out of the best books words of wisdom, to lay hold upon every good thing, and to seek after all things virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy. * The recognition that wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. * The reassurance that the mysteries will ultimately be peaceable things which bringeth joy, life eternal. * The Christ who invites us to live the abundant life. * And above all, the overarching and all-encompassing power of “the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.”
It may appear only a litany: I think of it as my mantra. A mantra, after all, is a phrase that aids meditation and concentration; these are what focus my spiritual concentration. And things are starting to feel clearer.