Is My Journey Spiritual?

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

The Journey by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—

though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.

It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Each of us has a journey to travel.   

From birth to death, we are on a journey through this life. Each of us travels a unique journey; sometimes it feels like many journeys strung together. What is it that makes any journey that anyone takes a spiritual one? 

Does our travel need to be one that answers the deep call to “save” the only life you can save, as Mary Oliver suggests?

You may be inclined to say that if it is a human journey, it is spiritual, as we are spiritual beings. Or you may be of the opinion that one’s journey isn’t “spiritual” unless you intend for it to be; that you intend to go deep, to be transformed.

Mary Oliver is clear that intention is paramount, yet she never uses the word “spiritual” in her poem.

What does it mean for one’s journey to be spiritual? Does it mean you are traveling with some imaginary companion? Is there some “higher being” that pulls or pushes you along the road, calling out to you, responding to your calls, your prayers?

Are you on a spiritual journey if everything that has given you meaning and purpose falls away and you are only held by the tiniest sliver of hope? Left with only a faint light in the distance?

When I was in midlife (as you can see, I am old now!), I went to the west coast to be interviewed by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The MFC is the committee of the UUA that is peopled by a small number of soon-to-be colleagues (if you measure up) and lay leaders all who sit ready to judge whether you are qualified to be a UU minister. They have already received and read all the preparatory stuff you are required to send to them; all the proof that you have done all your schoolwork, your internship, and field education; and have been certified by a psychiatrist as mentally fit. You are in their presence for only an hour, the first eight minutes for a sermon to them, and then a 50-minute grilling. They rotate asking rapid-fire questions meant to challenge your readiness. It can be quite unnerving.

I was aware at the time of my visit to the MFC a couple of decades ago that being “spiritual” in any traditional sense was not a necessity for UUs, even for those seeking to be in the ministry. Nevertheless, I was very worried that the MFC would ask me about my prayer life or my preferred spiritual practice. I would have had a hard time explaining that I had either. I saw myself has having left all that behind years before.

Yet now it seems that spiritual language (what some have called a language of reverence), spiritual practices, and the pursuit of an intentional spiritual journey have all come back into vogue. Perhaps that is good thing, as we certainly seem to be in a time ripe for whatever soul-deepening practices can orient us, point us in the right direction.

Last week a colleague of mine, the Rev. Diane Dowgiert, posted on Facebook her thoughts about where we are now and what we are in need of. Hers was a reaction to some of our ministerial colleagues saying their ministerial preparation didn’t help them know what to do during an environmental crisis, accompanied by a worldwide pandemic and a renewed push for racial justice. 

She said:

The future they warned us about is here. The military/industrial society. Environmental and ecological collapse. Climate change. Mass extinction of species. Climate driven and violence driven mass migration … Rampant and unchecked income inequality. Overpopulation. Demographic shifts resulting in a non-white majority. The rise of authoritarianism. Culture wars. Civil unrest. Some even say civil war. Mass incarceration. A militarized policed turned against its own citizenry, especially, black, brown, indigenous, and trans citizens. The rule of law being eroded. Corrupt politicians installing themselves as rulers and dictators. Oh, and a global pandemic. And economic depression.

It’s all happening right now, all those things they warned us about …

It’s like the classic REM song – “it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” Except I don’t feel fine.

Many say they don’t feel prepared to be living in the end times, yet Rev. Diane continues:

…This is the future they warned us about … political scientists, social scientists, physical, medical, and biological scientists — all those prophets of our time. [And] …like the prophets of old, their words have fallen on ears unwilling to hear. Willful and stubborn people prefer the comfort of denial to the cold, hard truth. How many more plagues will it take until our hardened hearts soften and break open with compassion for the plight of our human family?

Let me be clear … I am talking about the end of the world as we have known it … a world radically changed.

The world as it was before wasn’t all that great for the vast majority of humankind or for the planet. So this is [actually] good news.

… one purpose of religious community is to develop the skills the future will need. Specifically, creating community based in values of human dignity and interdependence based in compassion, equity, justice, and love — the beloved community that exceeds our grasp and compels us to move ever closer to its ideals.

The future they warned us about has arrived. It is not just on our doorstep, it is in our homes, our workplaces, and our congregations. The events of the world today make it painfully clear that we have fallen short of some cherished ideals. By we, I mean straight, white … folx … Old ways of being must fall away. This is never easy. It makes us uncomfortable. And yet, we have the tools to do better.

The tools are right there in the call to welcome the stranger and the great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. They are right there in the beatitudes that bless the poor, the bereaved, and the persecuted. The tools are in religions of the world, each of which espouses a version of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or the platinum rule: do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

… The end times can usher in a new spirit, one that moves us away from idolatry and points us toward reverence for the Earth and the life it supports as our ground of being and wellness for all … our ultimate concern.

Yes, we need a NEW spirit… not the kind that comes from the spiritual journeys that some of us have pursued: an open-ended, directionless journey, down numerous paths, exotic paths; jaunting through the salad bar of world religions.

What we need now is an embodied, fierce spirituality; a spiritual journey that is fundamentally about connection. Connection to the reality that is right here, right now; that is larger than ourselves, a reality that demands our attention. 

Spiritual journeys are often predicated by some ordeal or challenge, such as losing a job, the breakup of a marriage, the death of a loved one, the end of the world as we know it. Or the deep understanding that our reality is not the only reality.

A spiritual journey must begin with a deep sense of dis-ease. I am not prepared, but I will step out anyway into the wild night. 

Perhaps, at the end of our journey, we will realize we were and now are better able to give and receive love; perhaps we were and are now more compassionate in our treatment of others; perhaps we will have discovered our gifts and will finally be using them in the service of others; perhaps we will have come to terms with the loss of who we used to be, and will become what is needed to birth the world to come.

Saving the lives that are to be saved.

If you appreciated this reflection, please text to give or visit our Give Now page to support the UUCSH Share the Plate efforts to assist those in need.