So let's back up.
Spiritual growth. Like all processes, I suppose it's safe to say that in this, too, there is both method and purpose; that is to say, there is a "how" and a "why." When we look to role models of spiritual growth, then, it follows that sometimes we are seeking an example of how to be spiritual, and at other times we hope to find an inspiration for why a deeper life of spirit is a vital or meaningful one.* Jeff is right to point out that "many pagans look to the natural world as a model to follow," but for me, this statement raises several more questions. The one I want to deal with first is: does nature provide a model of method, or a model of purpose, or both? And in each case, what can the model show us? Instead of jumping right into modern Paganism, which is in many ways still just a bedraggled fledgling, I'd like to look at a few examples from other religious traditions.
*To use my last post as a springboard into this new discussion, I might sum up by saying that in my experience Druidry, though it provides many examples of the spiritual life's various hows, leaves the why, the ultimate purpose of such activities, largely unexamined. One reason for this may be that Paganism as a whole tends to emphasize practice over belief as the common element which defines its communities. Another, perhaps, is the sense of "homecoming" many Pagans express, which takes the "why" of a suitable spiritual path as a given and may never be closely examined from within the Pagan tradition. With only skills to perfect rather than some relationship or ideal to pursue, however, I think we're likely to continue to see some seekers falter and even leave Paganism completely as they struggle without clear sense of purpose or direction.
Models from Nature
I was tempted, in my last post, to mention the Taoist role model for spiritual growth, the sage. In the Chuang-Tzu, the sage or "true person" is often compared to an ancient tree, which has survived to such a great age because it is too twisted and useless for anyone to bother cutting it down. This amusing image perfectly reflects the Taoist emphasis on perfect, effortless integrity in the Way which, when achieved, becomes a source of infinite potential and energy. (Another charming example from the Chuang-Tzu: "The child howls the whole day but its throat does not become hoarse--the height of harmony.") It emphasizes the non-utilitarian essence found in nature, in which a being may be "indispensable to all things," but useful to none. A tree that grows fluidly shaped by the Tao, responsive to its influence, lives intimately with the air, rain and soil, despite being "useless" to them as well as to the man who would cut it down for timber. For Taoists, a "model from nature" leads to ultimate union with the Way, a deep harmony with the web of being which expresses itself in endless diversity but springs from a single source, the Tao:
Let me say a few careless words to you and you listen carelessly, all right? The sage can lean against the sun and moon and tuck the universe under his arm because he melds things into a whole. The mass of men are all hustle-bustle; the sage is slow and simple. He combines myriad years into a single purity.This purpose or "why" of the spiritual life is strikingly similar to what Jeff describes as the Pagan's goal, "deeper integration and union with the web of life," yet the process by which one arrives at the goal is uniquely Taoist, with an emphasis on non-utilitarian stillness and simplicity: "through nonaction, no action is left undone."
Let us look at another non-monotheistic example of models for spiritual growth: Hinduism. Within Hinduism are four "yogas," or disciplines, of the spiritual life: (a) jnana yoga, the discipline of knowledge or philosophy, in which the yogi passes through the three stages of learning, thinking and shifting awareness; (b) bhakti yoga, the discipline of love or devotion, in which the yogi strives to adore a chosen ideal or form of Divinity as selflessly and sincerely as possible; (c) karma yoga, the discipline of work or service, which can be approached with either of the two aforementioned emphases, knowledge or love; and (d) raja yoga, the discipline of science or experimentation, though not the physical "science" of the West, rather a kind of "science of the soul," in which the yogi investigates the layers of the self through "psychophysical exercises" (this is the "yoga" of meditation and body movement most familiar to, say, California yuppies looking to stay thin). These four disciplines embrace a wide array of personalities and inclinations: thoughtfulness, curiosity, passion, activity, reason, emotion, skepticism... They also may each incorporate or refer to different "models from nature" most suitable for their respective methods: a yogi on the path of knowledge might contemplate the ocean with its waves as a model for the Infinite Being underlying the experience of self, while familial and social relationships found in nature provide models for the yogi seeking a path of love. Each of the four disciplines provides a particular and valuable method for spiritual growth, some of which are strikingly similar to Pagan practices in meditation, ritual and devotion to deity. Yet in Hinduism, these methods all ultimately lead towards the same purpose, the same "why," which is the revelation of the finite personality as distinct from the deepest Self or Atman, and the world as illusory or unreal in comparison to the Infinite Source, or Godhead, or Brahman. Although there is some debate over the particulars, it would be slightly inaccurate in most cases to characterize the "end goal" of these various yogas as a deeper integration within the world itself; rather, the purpose is to transcend both the self and the world, in one sense or another.
Both of these religious traditions, Taoism and Hinduism, look for models in the natural world to provide images and metaphors for the spiritual life, and yet despite their shared Eastern roots and influences, even they differ in how they use these natural models to shape their understanding of the method and purpose of spiritual growth. While Taoism sees in nature models of effortless harmony and the blossoming of all activity and creativity from the stillness of an essential union, Hinduism holds up discipline, intention and effort as fundamental to all approaches to Ultimate Reality, shedding or overcoming finite particularity. These differences are only natural. Literally. For nature is incredibly diverse, and its models of growth and relationship practically infinite. How different, then, might a Western-rooted newly-resuscitated form of modern Paganism be not only from Western monotheistic traditions, but even from other poly-, pan(en)- and non-theistic traditions around the world.
One problem with saying that the Pagan solution to the question of spiritual growth is "to look to nature," is that in some ways such a statement is so broad that it doesn't really say anything, or at least nothing particularly and uniquely applicable (in the West, such a statement usually assumes, rather, a rejection of certain perceived trends in monotheism and Christianity especially, without much elaboration). Even if we take a deep, harmonious integration with the web of life to be the most obvious and consistent model that the natural world provides for us regarding the purpose of spiritual life, there is still the question of method (how practices such as divination, meditation and magic in the Western Pagan tradition relate to models in nature and move us towards this purpose is an important question as well, for another time). William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, talks about different spiritual phases that most individuals go through along their respective journeys. The first stage for most of us is that of "healthy-mindedness," when we feel naturally connected and at ease in the world. But few people (the "once born," as he calls them) are lucky enough to remain in this stage for very long. Most of us eventually become "sick souls," torn in multiple directions by conflicts with the world as it naturally exists, confronted with problems like the nature of suffering, the existence of "evil," malice or disharmony, one's relative impotence to accomplish intended good, and the reality and mystery of death, loss and grief. When a person finds herself in conflict with the very world itself and its essential nature, metaphors and examples in the natural world may not always be enough. Reminding ourselves that the wolf does not quibble to kill for food, nor the daisy worry itself about its importance to the field, does not always help us adequately deal with the problem of living as self-aware human beings. (I wrote something about this lacuna of spiritual support a while back, thinking about parallels between pantheism and satire.) .
What's Love Got To Do With It?
(I really need to stop referencing old pop songs in my subheadings. Seriously.)
I have come to wonder if, perhaps, part of spiritual growth is coming to the realization that, to a certain extent, the world cannot always tell us how to be, that we must instead choose for ourselves, decide upon our own values and ideals and work towards them. Arguing that humans are unique creatures in the natural world is not exactly a popular idea in Paganism since it smacks of the kind nature-devaluing human exceptionalism found in some Christian traditions, but the truth that we are self-aware creatures capable of free, creative choice must, I think, be an essential aspect of any model for spiritual growth. We have the potential to choose how we relate to and exist in the world, which ideals we strive towards, which bonds we nurture. In the great Song of the World, we have the freedom to create our own melodies, to modulate and improvise, always guided by a gentle, attentive listening to the harmonies around us.
Which brings me back to the beginning. Love. As I mentioned above, in Hinduism, the path of bhakti yoga, of love and devotion, allows each individual to seek out her own ideal, the form of Divinity which best moves her, to which she can most fervently devote herself. Some Hindus have said that Christianity, with its emphasis on love and especially a personal love for Jesus as Christ, exemplifies the bhakti path (sometimes to the point of eclipsing the valuable role of philosophy, service and curiosity). Ian, of Dreaming the Future Closer, imagines the relationship between person and deity in a very similar way when he discusses unconditional love.
Unconditional love requires that the love be unconditioned by both the lover and the beloved. Unconditional love must affirm the beloved without taking on the beloved’s real or imagined conditions. To the extent that the beloved does not return the love, denies the love, the love remains conditioned, by expectation if not outright demand.
In his post, Ian concentrates on the role of the human being as lover seeking the beloved, which in the case of the spiritual life is usually some conception of deity. Yet he rightly points out that when a lover merely replaces her own conditions with those of the beloved, whether human or divine, she has yet to attain to real unconditional (that is, condition-less) love. This is just as true when "the mystic proclaims ‘Better that I suffer [under the conditions imposed by my beloved] than that I place demands, conditions, upon my love for the beloved,’" as when a devotee passes judgment on herself and others according to the conditions laid out by her God in scripture or ritual. A love that utterly unites lover with beloved destroys the former, and even if reciprocated can only establish a kind of self-referential closed circuit.
Yet this is not precisely the model of unconditional love that I learned growing up in a Christian household. As Beatrice Bruteau discusses in her book, Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World, the Catholic model of Divine Unconditional Love is specifically triune. While love between lover and beloved, even when perfectly unconditional and reciprocated, suffers from a stunted self-involvement (lover unites with beloved in loving merely the lover herself, who loves merely the beloved, who loves the lover, who loves...), the inclusion of a third "person" opens up within love an inherent tension in which individuality and unity are both supported, reaffirmed and cultivated. We see this even in human relationships: a couple who find only one another interesting, besides being painfully dull and nauseatingly sweet for the rest of us, are unlikely to help one another grow; on the other hand, a couple comprised of two unique individuals with their own passions and interests, who can unite in appreciating the world not only beyond themselves but beyond each other, will find infinite potential for exploring and developing that love. The Catholic Trinity--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--establish a web of engaged loving relationship as the fundamental nature of our existence grounded in Spirit.
As I replied to Ian's original post, as a child raised to my family's Catholicism, I conceived of God not as the beloved, but as the Lover, not only capable of entering into a relationship of reciprocal, unconditional love, but already and forever doing just that. It was never a question of whether or not "God would love me back" or instead place crippling conditions on my devotion. Every Christian child can sing: "Jesus loves me, this I know (for the Bible tells me so)." This is no small distinction. Indeed, it shifts the very nature of our relationship to the Divine, and to deity more specifically. Jesus as Christ, as deity, not only engages in the perfectly unconditional act of loving us, but also of loving God as Father, that is, as Godhead. In this situation, we are the beloved, and so all that remains is for us to aspire to a less conditioned, more perfectly loving relationship with Jesus, and through Jesus as perfectly loving, with God as the infinite, intimate Source or Spirit of our being.
This was the model of spiritual love I found in those mystics and saints I admired as a child. And it was this model that provided me, for so many years, with both a method and a purpose to guide my spiritual growth. The purpose, the why: intimate, experiential relationship with my spiritual Source which, rather than being an end, would support and encourage (and sometimes provoke or instigate against my own stubborn intentions) my on-going growth. The method, the how: love, aspiring to increasingly unconditional devotion and gratitude to deity, and through deity to Spirit, and through Spirit to the world itself which Spirit creates and sustains, the Dancer dancing the Dance in the infinite present, the here-now. Love led me to act, to act playfully and creatively, and this creativity, imagination and sacred play led me, eventually, to the Druid way.