Capital at Basilique St. Madeleine, Vezelay, France
Photograph by the author
Notes from Hangzhou and Yantai
December 3, 2017
Over the course of the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the question of just how public — or private — our spiritual lives are, or ought to be: what we say to one another, whether in private, at retreats, in groups, or in social media.
I wonder where the center of gravity on our innermost spiritual search ought to lie in relationship to this.
Of course all of this is conducted not without a dash of irony, in light of my own public life as a writer on spiritual matters. What exists in me… believe it or not… is a significant landscape of spiritual practice behind my writing that I don’t talk about much. Occasionally someone asks me something specific about that world of private experience; more often than not, I’m reticent. In some ways I resist the world of reporting one’s marvelous spiritual experiences.
Sitting in front of my icon of Christ this morning, I was reminded quite forcefully, from within sensation itself, that our innermost spiritual work truly ought to remain secret and private. Our relationship with God is not supposed to be worn on our sleeve, and our prayers and supplications ought not be a public matter.
We should not, furthermore, display any outward enthusiasm for our religious practice, whatever it is. As I explained to my wife during our conversation this morning, spiritual practice is a matter of measurement, not enthusiasm. In prayer, one measures from within, quietly and silently, and enthusiasm takes one away from this. It’s perfectly okay to have enthusiasm about outward things; but enthusiasm about our spiritual work or the inward is not so helpful.
The word enthusiasm derives from the Greek root enthous, meaning “possessed by a God.” In the case of outward enthusiasm, however, the God that possesses us is always an outward God; we are taken by it, and we forget who we are.
In mulling this over, I pointed out to my wife that my own spiritual teachers, Henry and Betty Brown, never engaged in this kind of enthusiasm in regard to matters regarding the Gurdjieff work. Extolling the marvelous virtues of the work or its personages, prattling on about special inner experiences, and so on, never went on. When people (including me) started to do so… they invariably remained quite still and silent until one was finished, and thereby set a different example.
The example always involved a certain respectability, a silence in regard to the outward, and a call to come back to an attention to where we were, together, in relationship in that moment. Confessional and testimonial were not meant to be part of that dialogue; and while one has to witness in regard to Grace — there is a certain deep obligation in that regard — one always has to remember that this witnessing is never in regard to one’s own virtue or blessedness, but only in regard to the virtue and blessedness of God.
None of the spiritual work that one engages in is about oneself. It is always about our relationship to others, and to God. The fact that we frequently turn this upside down and on its head is self-evident; it’s so often (and weirdly) about us and our hope for “progress.” As though we were engaged in the five-year plan of a socialist search for God.
Yet with Henry and Betty, it wasn’t about progress — where we were going — it was always about where we are now.
That involves the measurement of the moment, and attention is the measurement of this moment.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.