We’re changing all the time—you and me and millions of our neighbors.
Our spiritual journeys are as complex as navigating a Target store—from the yoga togs in the women’s section and Christmas decorations around the corner—to the ayurveda aromas among the candles and Celtic melodies playing near the greeting cards. It’s not just that America is more diverse than ever—we are aware of diverse spiritual impulses everywhere we turn.
If you want to hear that from a famous scholar, click here to jump back and read our interview with Harvard’s Harvey Cox on “The Future of Faith.”
OR, read our interview this week with Samir Selmanovic, author of “It’s Really All About God.” Samir is emerging as in important new voice nationally on the need to appreciate religious diversity.
To illustrate this ongoing spiritual transformation in daily life, we’ve invited writer Margaret Dulaney into the pages of ReadTheSpirit today. She wrote the following piece last year and, the moment I saw this personal story, I loved it as an honest reflection of so many lives today.
Plus—psst!—a forlorn kitten searches for a home in the middle of the story. I mean, who can resist creative spiritual speculation—and a warm kitten, too?
Margaret calls this …
The Wisdom of Communication
By Margaret Dulaney
My brother called the other day and asked, “Are you still a Stoic?”
“No, I’m a Taoist” I replied.
“But last week . . . ?” he countered.
“Last week I was a transcendentalist. I haven’t been a Stoic for at least three weeks. You’re thinking of the time I was a Sufi.”
The fact is, I am wholeheartedly whatever I happen to be reading at the moment.
“Are you a Christian?” I’ve been asked.
“I am when I’m reading George MacDonald,” I might respond. “But, wait a minute. If I say yes, does that mean that I can’t be a Buddhist? Hindu? Muslim? Was it Muhammad who said there are as many paths to God as there are souls, or something to that effect?”
I don’t believe that any two souls have the same view of God. This depends too much on who you are and where you are standing at the moment, even if you are standing next to one another in an orthodox synagogue, church, mosque, sweat lodge.
I have stood very near some like-minded souls over the years, most of them writers. Take Emerson, for instance. I have sidled up pretty snugly to old Ralph Waldo and continue to do so on an irregular basis. I like the view from his mind. We stand side by side, as if on his front porch, and he points stuff out to me. I spot it and smile. But I can’t possibly remain there forever; I’m too old to sit in his lap, and too nosy not to want to see the view from someone else’s porch.
I have several porches from which I like to view the teachings of Christ. I have mentioned George MacDonald, and then there’s C.S. Lewis, and most recently Thomas, from the Gnostic Gospels. After some time spent with these guys, I get restless and go looking for one of the mystics, like Swedenborg, whose view is a little more flamboyant. When I get tired of looking West, I’ll go and stand on Lao Tzu’s or Hafiz’s porch, someone with an Eastern exposure. I don’t get too turned around. I have a pretty good sense of direction, and sometimes I welcome the confusion. It keeps me questioning.
I grow suspicious of anyone who claims that the view from his porch is the only view worth seeing: “You haven’t really seen a view until you’ve seen the view from my porch.”
One might say, “I have a telescope on my porch and you can see every crater of the moon.”
Does that make you love the moon more? I wonder, as I clamber up to have a look. It’s when the instruction manual for the telescope comes out that I’m off again, snooping around someone else’s front lawn.
“The great religions are the ships, poets the life boats,” writes the Sufi poet Hafiz. “Every sane person I know has jumped overboard.”
I don’t wish to imply that I haven’t managed to draw any conclusions, I simply cannot presume that these are universal. One such conclusion is that no matter which spiritual philosophy I happen to be embracing at the moment, no matter whose porch I am attending, prayer is an essential, a mystifying but absolute essential. Perhaps the reason I bounce around from porch to porch is to clarify, through resonance, this single facet of spiritual practice.
As long as I can remember, I have been praying.
Yes, my mother encouraged us to say our prayers before we tucked into bed every night, a ritual that was performed on our knees and consisted of The Lord’s Prayer, topped off with a handful of “God Blesses” for immediate family members and pets. This activity was executed at breakneck speed without the slightest reflection. No, I don’t believe this is why I pray today.
It was at other times during my day, alone in the back yard, in my room, at school, where I would find myself in communication with what I considered the divine. And, if there is no God and all this time I have been conversing with some twisted Freudian Id, then they’d better line up a room for me in the loony-bin because the communication has only increased as I age. I hope it’s a room with a view, because if I didn’t believe there was a spiritual behind all of this physical, I wouldn’t bother getting out of bed. Or, as someone I know once said, “If there isn’t a God, then I’m just not interested.”
I have a friend who tells me that she can’t pray, implying that there is some sort of skill involved.
“Try throwing your head back and hollering: ‘Help!’” I suggest.
There are days when I pray for everything: to find a stray sock, to catch my horse, to remember to floss. There are other days where I just pray to be present. There are days when I gently suggest that the Heavens might want to lend me a tiny hand, and other days when I nag unceasingly. I have tried to limit my prayers to expressions of gladness, or as Emerson puts it, “the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul.”
I manage this infrequently. Perhaps this is what C. S. Lewis calls “thinking we can do always what we can do sometimes.”
Whenever I start to worry about whether or not I’m praying properly, I try to imagine the Heavens tossing out a prayer because it wasn’t filled out correctly: “We regret to inform you that your prayer has been rejected due to improper filing procedures. Please refer to the guidelines and apply again.” I don’t see God as a bureaucrat.
As children, we are told if you don’t have something pleasant to say, then don’t say anything at all. But, even with nothing pleasant to say, I feel obliged to hold up my end of the conversation. I trust in the wisdom of communication. No relationship, it appears, remains healthy without it. When I witness an injustice, for instance, I simply cannot remain silent, even if simply to ask, “Do you see what I’m seeing? Are you planning on doing something about it? Do, please.”
I operate under the assumption that, like caring parents, The Heavens just want to hear from us.
Several years ago I felt that I was very distinctly answered.
One day three kittens landed in an outbuilding on my property. The story was that their owner would have destroyed them had a friend of mine not intervened and offered the alternative of placing them on my farm. I immediately set about trying to find homes for them. I couldn’t offer my own, as my dogs would have welcomed them with open jaws. Two of them were spoken for quite easily by a friend who wanted two siblings, but the third I was at a loss to place. I live in a sparsely populated area and don’t have a huge circle of friends and so came to the end of my list of possibilities in an afternoon. I was growing very fond of this little creature and fantasized knitting him a tiny shark suit and keeping him, but thought better of it.
On the morning before my friend was planning on coming to pick up his kittens and therefore leave my new little friend all alone, I awoke, walked my dogs as usual, and said my morning prayers. I was deep in the woods when I stood still, planted my feet, and in a voice that I use when I mean business—one that’s almost presidential—I proclaimed, “I need a miracle for this kitten.” I was not moved to elaborate.
Somehow I felt that the next step required of me was to trust that the prayer would find its way through the right channels and to the proper source of aid and that it was up to me to go about my day as planned. The only real plan was an Italian lesson with three people who had already professed their disinterest in the kitten. Before I left for class, I took a Polaroid photo of the kitten without knowing quite why. The photo revealed a perfectly round balloon of a head tethered to four tiny, delinquent paws.
On my way to class, the image of a small coffee shop in the town where my Italian teacher lives popped into my head. I presumed it came to me as a place where I might pin up the picture of the little balloon with the accompanying “Free to a good home” scribbled underneath. I resolved to at least try this form of advertisement.
After a thwarted attempt at inflicting kitten guilt on my fellow students in broken Italian, I did go to the coffee shop, but upon entering, discovered it was completely empty of customers and I had left the picture in the car. Hell, I thought, as I ordered a cappuccino, and stood mulling over Italian verb conjugations. Cercare, to look for, cerco, I look for, Cerca, she looks for. . . . I mulled.
When the young woman handed me my coffee, as if flipping the switch from inner mull to outer, I sighed, “I’m looking for someone who’s looking for a kitten.” This was an odd way of putting this, but then I had just been speaking another language, poorly.
The young woman looked at me as if I had just managed to open one of her ears, as one would a can, and grab something vital from inside. She stared at me and said, “I am looking for a kitten. I decided two weeks ago to get a kitten but thought I would let it come to me.”
I replied, in a voice not unlike the presidential one used in my morning prayers, “Your kitten has arrived.” And ran off to the car to produce the little balloon photo.
To say that it was love at first sight would imply that the two had never met, whereas this seemed more a recognition of an old friend.
“When can I have him?” was like, “When is he coming home?” The reunion seemed wholly predestined, predating the birth of the kitten, the birth of the girl, the birth of the world. I exaggerate, but I cannot look at that day without feeling entirely pleased with the workings of heaven. My miracle had taken exactly four hours to arrive.
But where did this prayer originate? Was I an answer to the young woman’s prayer, or was she an answer to mine? Or, was the whole scenario orchestrated by the joyful idea of an angel somewhere around the time of the Big Bang? How far back do we trace a prayer, how far forward its answer? Is the answer the union of the young woman and the kitten? Or will it be at their parting, or their reunion in the next world? And what of my own need for miracle?
Why was this prayer answered with such immediacy and others don’t appear to elicit the slightest response? I can think of one of mine in particular that has been prayed for fifteen years without a whisper of an answer. Maybe prayers are like firecrackers, some are just duds. Or is it our perception of time and assumed delivery dates that turns a productive prayer into a frustrated one? Like the stereotype of the difficult client, we want it done yesterday
. Who’s to say that your prayers for peace, for example, haven’t already begun the process, even if that peace will take one thousand years to fully incarnate?
In telling the story of the kitten to a Buddhist friend, I asked, “Who do you think it was that answered that prayer? Was it an angel? My grandfather? Some old Bodhisattva? Saint Francis? Christ himself? Or my deceased cat, Tinker?”
My friend replied, “It’s all the divine.”
Oh, heck, I thought, there I go dividing up God again. I’m sure I’ve been told not to do that from hundreds of porches. God’s God, for goodness sakes, the source of all answers.
I begin to suspect that, just as the division of God confuses, so, too, does the division of one prayer from the great river of prayer, the atmosphere of divine communion that surrounds our earth. Or, to offer another metaphor, perhaps what we view as a separate prayer, or personal petition, is really just a single piece of a great puzzle, and by praying these single-facet prayers, we fill in the pieces of the greater picture.
I’m sure I’ve tried to fool the Heavens by offering a prayer in the guise of being completely altruistic, believing that it would somehow rise to higher altitudes if it didn’t carry the weight of self-service. As if I could hoodwink the Heavens! But how could an answered prayer for a loved one, for instance, not benefit the one who loves? At the same time, would peace in the Middle East, prosperity in Africa, long-overdue help for Haiti really benefit me? You bet it would! I would be living in a better world, part of a more beautiful picture. Surely this is reason enough to pray, at least until we’ve gotten this world right.
“Pray freely for thyself,” writes Chaucer in the “Ballade of Good Counsel,” “and pray for all who long for larger life and heavenly cheer; and truth shall set thee free. There is no fear.”
So, I will continue to pray and hope that my prayers are filling the empty spaces of the puzzle necessary to complete the picture. And, no matter how awkwardly shaped these pieces appear to be, perhaps they fit the very spaces I was sent here to fill.
Who can tell?
Without my small, oddly shaped prayers, the world at this point might be spinning hopelessly out of control.
MARGARET DULANEY describes her work as “attempting to break the barriers of strict religious thinking.”
She finds herself often searching “for current memoirs informed by the shared wisdom of all faiths. My suspicion is that I am a member of a silent majority that longs for such writing. Given the incendiary nature of religious literature in these times, I believe there is a great need for non-dogmatic faith-based writing, stories that explore the possibility of the great presence of spirit in our daily lives, without expounding a specific creed.”
Her beginnings as a writer focused on theater. Her play, “The View From Here,” is published by Samuel French, and was produced at the Lambs Theater in New York City. She began writing nonfiction several years ago and has compiled a collection of essays on faith and ethics. She can be reached via email at: [email protected]
Her own Web site is
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)