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THE FRAGRANCE OF A ROSE
Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who have been there.
Member of Alcoholics Anonymous
The disciples were absorbed in a discussion of Lao-tzu’s dictum:
Those who know do not say;
those who say do not know.
When the Master entered, they asked him what the words meant.
Said the Master, “Which of you knows the fragrance of a rose?”
All of them knew.
Then he said, “Put it into words.”
All of them were silent.
What is spirituality? To have the answer is to have misunderstood the question. Truth, wisdom, goodness, beauty, the fragrance of a rose—all resemble spirituality in that they are intangible, ineffable realities. We may know them, but we can never grasp them with our hands or with our words. These entities have neither color nor texture; they cannot be gauged in inches or ounces or degrees; they do not make a noise to be measured in decibels; they have no distinct feel as do silk, wood, or cement; they give no odor, they have no taste, they occupy no space.
And yet they exist; they are. Love exists, evil exists, beauty exists, spirituality exists. These are the realities that have always been recognized as defining human existence. We do not define them, they define us. When we attempt to “define” spirituality, we discover not its limits, but our own. Similarly, we cannot prove such realities—it is truer to say that they “prove” us, in the sense that it is against them that we measure our human be-ing: the act and the process by which we exist. Life is not what we “have,” or even what we do, connected as these may be: we are what and how and who we are, and be-ing is a real activity. Like “love,” spirituality is a way that we “be.”
This way of be-ing defies definition and delineation; we cannot tie it up, in any way package it or enclose it. Elusive in the sense that it cannot be “pinned down,” spirituality slips under and soars over efforts to capture it, to fence it in with words. Centuries of thought confirm that mere words can never induce the experience of spirituality.
When the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov asked him how to know whether a celebrated scholar whom they proposed to visit was a true zaddik,* he answered:
“Ask him to advise you what to do to keep unholy thoughts from disturbing you in your prayers and studies. If he gives you advice, then you will know that he belongs to those who are of no account.”
“Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality,” wrote Joseph Conrad. But when words fail, where can we turn? In order to understand spirituality, in order to live a spiritual life, we must first be able to imagine (“image-in”) such a life, to form a mental picture (a “re-presentation”) of what it might look and feel like. But to do that, to see and feel spirituality, we need a deeper level of language to help us fathom our experience. And so, as people have done throughout the ages, we turn to metaphors, images, and stories.
Metaphors govern understanding by suggesting that an unknown and ineffable entity, life, can best be understood as an activity one knows something about—pilgrimage, for example.” While pilgrimage is, perhaps, the most frequently used metaphor for the spiritual life, a modern spiritual writer uses another ancient example, that of health:
Spirituality is a lot like health. We all have health; we may have good health or poor health, but it’s something we can’t avoid having. The same is true of spirituality: every human being is a spiritual being. The question is not whether we “have spirituality” but whether the spirituality we have is a negative one that leads to isolation and self-destruction or one that is more positive and life-giving.
Images—detailed portraits or panoramic pictures stored in the mind’s memory drawers—also have their role in moving our understanding toward the “standing-under” that is experience, a term that conveys a kind of “seeing” that both “thinks” and “feels.” If we try to call forth spirituality in our imagination, do we envision a picture of some saint—Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, or Mother Teresa of Calcutta? Or perhaps a religious ceremony comes to mind—the echoes of ancient ritual in the Catholic Mass, the free-spirited enthusiasm of a revival meeting, the quiet serenity of a Quaker gathering. But still, something is missing. For while such images may help bring the concept of spirituality into finer focus, they fall far short of capturing the harmony of seeing, thinking, feeling that is spirituality.
But stories! Stories are the vehicle that moves metaphor and image into experience. Like metaphors and images, stories communicate what is generally invisible and ultimately inexpressible. In seeking to understand these realities through time, stories provide a perspective that touches on the divine, allowing us to see reality in full context, as part of its larger whole. Stories invite a kind of vision that gives shape and form even to the invisible, making the images move, clothing the metaphors, throwing color into the shadows. Of all the devices available to us, stories are the surest way of touching the human spirit.
In the third and fourth centuries, there lived in the wastelands of Egypt a group of individuals later named “the Desert Fathers,” a rather ornery, unorthodox group of ascetics who committed themselves to a life of renunciation in an attempt to discover what it means to be human. Such curious practices as tying themselves to rocks for days on end, eating grass, or fasting for weeks at a time, were intended to extract information about the meaning—the experience—of life.
One of these individuals, the abba Poemen, was visited one day by a dignitary, who was most anxious to discuss his troubled soul and receive the monk’s advice. But as soon as the visitor started talking, the abba averted his gaze and refused to speak to him.
Confused and distraught, the visitor left the room and asked one of the holy man’s followers what was going on—why did the abba ignore him? The disciple spoke to abba Poemen, who explained, “He is from above and speaks of heavenly things, but I am of the earth and speak about earthly things. If he had spoken to me about the passions of his soul, then I should have answered him. But if he speaks about spiritual things, I know nothing of them.”
Fortified with this knowledge, the dignitary tried again, beginning with the question, “What shall I do, abba, I am dominated by the passions of my soul?” And abba Poemen replied, “Now you are speaking rightly.”
In order to speak—and hear—“rightly,” false assumptions about spirituality must be shattered. As the Poemen story suggests, the first supposition that requires revision is the belief that spirituality involves perfection. Spirituality has to do with the reality of the here and now, with living humanly as one is, with the very real, very agonizing, “passions of the soul.” Spirituality involves learning how to live with imperfection.
“If you see someone going up to heaven by his own will,” counseled John Kolobos, another of the Desert Fathers, “grab his leg and pull him down again.” The search for spirituality brings down to earth, plants the feet firmly on the ground, and allows a vision of self as it is, as we are—imperfect and ambiguous. “Earthly spirituality” may sound like a contradiction, but it is instead paradox, and paradox is the nature of spirituality, for paradox is the nature of human beings. Paradox has been defined as “an apparent contradiction”: it combines two realities that don’t seem to belong together, thus calling into question our assumptions about “seeming.” In terms that would appeal to the boundary-stretching practices of the desert monks, the English essayist Gilbert Keith Chesterton described paradox as “Truth standing on her head to attract attention.”