January 20, 2006

The Spiritual Path as Craft.

For a long time it never occurred to me that not everyone feels drawn, let alone driven, along a spiritual path that is ultimately fulfilling only when realized and practiced as a "craft." For me, my engagement with the Divine and my religious experiences have always been aligned closely with my self-identity as a poet and artist. It was in a spiritual dream at a very young age where I first met M., a personal angel-figure who both instructed and inspired me to take up writing in a serious way (my first clumsy attempts at a novel in middle school were based on this extremely powerful vision). Over the years, as I worked at honing my writing as a craft, I began to realize that the very insights that helped me to improve my poetry--lessons in the nature and potential of the human imagination; in the physical, bodily changes effected by concrete imagery and the use of music, sound and silence; and in the power of symbolism to fuel leaps in creative and abstract thinking--all these were also insights of a spiritual nature. I often found these miniature revelations echoed in the words of saints when they spoke of paradox, silence, attention and prayer. My association of spiritual development with the loving-creative development I sought as an artist led me to assume for a number of years that all religious and spiritual paths had this in common: that they were, essentially, crafts to be perfected. I had somehow learned, in other words, to think of spirituality as a skill, much like, say, writing, wood-working, experimental chemistry or basketball. As a skill or "craft," I believed the spiritual life required, like other crafts, not only an emotional or devotional investment in the work, but also an ever-growing knowledge and understanding of the processes it involved, and a commitment to carry out the practices necessary to aid and act in concert with these processes.

Of course, not everyone sees the spiritual life in this way. Many people approach religion from an emotional and/or psychological level, seeking the life lessons and personal and social experiences needed to mature as an individual and as a functioning member of a community. My father, although encouraging me in my spiritual-artistic pursuits of creative-loving-work, tended towards this view of religion when sharing stories of his childhood growing up in the Catholic church. Living with a half dozen siblings in a row house, supported by an alcoholic, diabetic father and a mother with often severe manic-depressive episodes, my father sought the moral, emotional and sometimes even financial support he and his family needed in the church community. It was during the weekly homilies that he heard messages of love and hope, blessings bestowed and help ultimately given even to those whom society seemed to have forgotten or on whom it had simply given up. Even as an adult, when one of his sisters went through a painful divorce, he emphasized to me how she had been able to turn to her church community in her vulnerability and need, even though it was a community which could not officially condone the separation except through annulment (which struck me at the time as an unhealthy form of denial--denial of a twenty-year marriage and of the union which had resulted in two children). My father and his siblings have always understood their religious engagement in this way, as the common moral and devotional core of a loving community. Perhaps it was because he sensed that I did not feel so able to turn to the Church, or to any given religious community, that he told me these stories, tried to give me these examples to follow.

That I did not, and in some sense could not, follow such examples did not mean, however, that I could not accept the Catholic faith or found some ultimate flaw in its Mysteries or spiritual teachings. Indeed, many of its foundational doctrines remain to this day powerful spiritual truths that guide my work: the Law of Love, the paradox of the Trinity, the ideals of surrender to and union with the Divine, even the Communion of Saints as an ideal around which to organize a living socio-spiritual community. Had such a community been available to me growing up, maybe I could have followed my father's hopeful example and established myself as a happy, productive member. Unfortunately--or rather fortunately!--my life was full and relatively stable, at least on the emotional and social levels. I had no real need to turn to my local church community for the kind of support they had to offer, and no deeper spiritual connection to a community that could offer what I needed. My struggles, for as long as I can remember, were almost always of the philosophical and theological nature, when they weren't entirely concerned with my personal, direct relationship with the Divine. In times when these everyday struggles turned to crises, I intuitively turned to the beauty and vital energies of nature, to the knowledge and guidance of books, and to the self-expression and satisfying, simple practice of journaling.

These three aspects of my religious faith seemed to correspond closely to the emotional investment, intellectual analysis and everyday practical exercises I found necessary to hone my poetry craft. And, just as with my writing, though each aspect of my spiritual life was in itself a solitary process, when combined they gave me a sense of greater communication and an enhanced capacity for real connection with others. Of course, this parallel between my writing and my spiritual life was not always so obvious. There were many dark valleys and dry deserts through which I passed, times when this delicate balance tipped too far in favor of one of its three aspects. There were summers full of days at the local park that left me full of energy, and yet feeling intellectually frustrated and blocked from expressing this overflow of life. There were semesters at college where, shut in my room for hours bent over a desk studying, I wondered if I'd ever feel the sun on my face, the wind in my hair, or the touch of Divine love again.

It was during one of these times of intellectual rigor accompanied by emotional drain and paralysis on the level of practical activity that I was again visited by M. in a dream-vision, as recounted in my introduction. And it was then that I finally realized that my spiritual path was the path of the craftswoman and the poet, and that these three activities of the heart, mind and body (i.e. of devotion, intellect, and practice) were all vital to my evolution and fulfillment upon that path. I could find so very little advice, however, when it came to "crafting" my spirituality. For a time, I studied religious ritual and rites intensely on a theoretical and sociological level, until one day I decided to see what I could find on "creating personal ritual." This was my first formal interest in the study of sacred magic as a spiritual practice, in what is called by many "witchcraft," or simply the Craft for short.


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