Spirituality is about our deep longing and searching for meaning, for peace, and for a sense of our personal call in life. It is also about the various moral, political, or religious activities through which we endeavour to answer our call and to live out our commitments from day to day. For some people the word spirituality suggests activities that are very inward-looking. Their deepest hearts desire is to achieve personal mindfulness and serenity. Others tend more to look outward. Their spirituality and their deepest hearts desire is about ensuring that the human rights of people all over the world are respected, and that social justice and care for the environment take a central place in the way our world is organised.
In this book Donal Dorr brings together these different aspects of spirituality. Starting from a survey of a variety of everyday spiritual experiences, he moves on to offer a Christian interpretation of the mystery of life and of the personal call of each individual. In the second half of the book he links these personal spiritual experiences with the major moral issues of ecology, justice and globalisation. The result is a synthesis which he hopes will find an echo in the readers heart.
Donal Dorr is a theologian and missionary priest who has served as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and as a resource person for the Irish Missionary Union. He is the author of ten books, including the original Option for the Poor and the award-winning Spirituality and Justice.
Donal Dorr has written this book in response to his belief that for many people spirituality is, indeed, their deepest hearts desire.
Have people realised this or is it an unexplored reality? Spirituality refers to our deep longing and searching for meaning, for peace and for a sense of our personal call . . .
It also refers to the various moral, political or religious activities through which we endeavour to answer our call: human rights, ecology, social justice and the market-place - all call us to an understanding of their certain spiritual basis.
We approach the search for lifes deepest meaning through an on-going understanding of our life in the spirit. That is accompanied by deeply thought-out moral understanding of what it is we, individually, are called to in the world of our time. Calls from God to biblical characters from Moses through Mary to Jesus, are examined in that light.
Fr Dorr also helps us to reflect upon seemingly secular and merely human experiences. He suggests that too few of us connect with, adequately and with a sense of real joy, the hope and energy by which we are to be made whole.
Likewise do we inadequately challenge what, by comparison, is gross and unworthy. We tend to allow what is crass in life to remain untested and inadequately questioned.
The author asks us to consider what is worth being committed to in our individual lives as well as in our society as a whole.
He suggests that we refuse to react lazily with the mere comment Why bother? Forgiveness of self and others are shown as potent healing experiences.
Reading the Signs of the Times, is a section which may help even the most cold and pragmatic of us to interpret more accurately what is really going on in the world, behind superficial appearances.
Need I say that such an enlightening book should be widely read. It is essentially a journey which may have a transforming effect on our lives. It serves us well to stay with the authors urgings and think them through.
- Angela Macnamara
- CHAPTER ELEVEN
A SPIRITUALITY OF INTIMACY
As humans we do not live in isolation. Most of our everyday life is lived through relationships with others, either in an interpersonal way with individuals or small groups, or in the more public sphere through our involvement in the life of our own nation and the wider world. It is obvious that our spirituality has an impact on all of these relationships - and that the relationships in turn affect how we live out our spirituality. In this third section of the book I shall look at a wide range of these relationships, covering topics where moral values and moral action are a crucial aspect of an authentic spirituality. I shall begin, however, by looking at interpersonal relationships in the present chapter, leaving over to later chapters our involvement in public affairs.
My intention here is to focus, not on our more casual everyday interactions with others, but specifically on our relationships with those who are closest to us. That is why I decided to call the chapter A Spirituality of Intimacy. In the first section of the chapter I shall look at the topic of deep friendship. Then I shall add something about the particular form of friendship which also involves a fully active sexual relationship between committed partners. Finally, I shall go on to the question of intimacy with God.
I am not aware that friendship is given a prominent place in most of the books and articles about spirituality. This is regrettable, because deep friendships can play such an important part in our spirituality. It is quite significant that two close friends, a man and a woman, stand as the founding figures of at least five of the great traditions of spirituality in the Catholic Church: Benedict and Scholastica; Francis of Assisi and Claire; Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross; Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac; Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal.
The most important thing I want to say about friendship is that at its deepest it goes beyond support and comradeship and camaraderie. It is about intimacy. It is a meeting of souls.
In the Irish Christian tradition the anam chara (soul friend) was an important figure. This was somebody with whom one could share ones very soul. There are two rather different categories of person with whom I can open up in this way, revealing what is most personal and intimate in my life.
The first of these is a spiritual director or guide, or a personal spiritual guru. My relationship with this guide is an unequal one. There is not, normally, a mutual or two-way sharing of deep secrets. The focus is very much on my spiritual journey. The guide or director is fully present to me, with the specific purpose of helping me to articulate what is happening in my life and to have a better sense of where God is leading me.
In this sense, the relationship is a professional one. I go to this director because I see him or her as in some sense a trained expert, a person who has learned how to do this difficult and challenging work. Down through the ages, the value of such a relationship has been recognized, not only within the Christian tradition but also in various other religions and spiritual traditions. Much has been written about it; and training programmes for spiritual directors have been devised and are widely available.
It is more interesting, in some ways, to look at the other kind of person with whom I can reveal my soul. This is a close personal friend. The relationship here is not a professional one - even if the friend happens to have been trained in spiritual direction. In this case there is an equality, a two-way opening up, where the friend reciprocates my sharing - either immediately or perhaps at some later time. The kind of self-revelation that is involved here goes far deeper than that which exists between work colleagues, team-mates, and what we might call social friends. Quite frequently it is both more profound and different in tone from the sharing that occurs within families. In fact one may experience it as a particular gift from God if a member of ones own family becomes a soul-friend. Needless to say, there are various degrees of friendship - and even degrees of soul-friendship. I am focussing here on intense soul-friendships, because of the remarkable way in which they can deepen ones spirituality.
One of the ways in which a meeting between soul-friends of this kind differs from a meeting with a spiritual director is that the clock seems to become irrelevant. These friends are likely to be oblivious of the time. There always seems to be more to share, no matter how long the dialogue goes on. Furthermore, the communication often takes place in ways that go beyond words. As Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet: without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared for in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.
With a spiritual director one looks for clarity and some degree of guidance. But sharing with a friend has no other purpose than the joy of being heard, of hearing the other, and of the new creation that emerges in the sharing. We are rescued from the practical, almost utilitarian, thinking which is the basis for so much of our everyday interpersonal communication.
I recall here the sharing of Mary and Elizabeth which I described in the previous chapter. What happens when two such friends share deep spiritual experiences is more than just a deeper understanding by both of them of their own experiences, and new insight into the spirit-life of the friend. There is also the emergence of something new - a dismantling of barriers so that the two souls seem to have touched each other. On very special occasions it may go even further. Personal boundaries may seem to dissolve to a point where it seems there is almost a merging of souls. What happens could be compared in some respects to a mystical experience.
Trust and acceptance
Soul-friends love each other. But perhaps what defines the relationship between them is not so much their love as their trust of each other. Each time they share deeply, that trust grows. This growth in trust deepens the connection with the other person and opens each of them up to give and receive nourishment for the soul. Furthermore, even apart from its value in this particular relationship, increased trust brings about a change in the way a person approaches other people and other situations. It makes this person more open and transparent.
Inevitably, this leaves the person rather more vulnerable. The one whose defences are down will sometimes be wounded by the insensitive words or behaviour of others. But this may be seen as a relatively small price to pay for not having to approach each new situation in an over-cautious and calculating manner. In any case, the high degree of inner freedom which comes from being open and trusting makes it easier for the person to cope with hurts inflicted by others.
We often hear the phrase love is blind. This is not true in the case of the kind of friendship I am describing. Each of the friends is likely to be fully aware of the limitations and faults of the other. But, far from damaging the friendship, this may actually deepen it. For the inadequacies of the other are seen in a clear-eyed but non-judgemental way. It goes beyond mere tolerance to a loving acceptance, combined with a willingness to help the other in overcoming the fault - but only if the other wishes to do so.
This uncritical acceptance is perhaps the most remarkable and grace-filled aspect of such soul-friendship. It seems to come as pure gift, even to those who are quite critically-minded in other situations. It gives us an inkling of the total acceptance with which God loves each of us, exactly as we are.
It is no wonder, then, that Ben Sira (Sirach), the writer of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, says:
A loyal friend is a powerful defence:
whoever finds one has indeed found a treasure.
A loyal friend is something beyond price
A loyal friend is the elixir of life. (Si 6:14-16)
I move on now to consider the particular kind of soul-friendship in which the two friends are married or are living in a committed sexual partnership. The essential new element in this case is that the sexual element adds love with the body to friendship at the level of soul. This is no minor addition. For we are bodily creatures, so we are spontaneously inclined to express our love and trust through our bodies.
In our everyday interactions with people we have reservations regarding the extent to which we allow ourselves to be touched - and we even react when somebody comes into our air-space. We have much stronger built-in inhibitions about being naked in the presence of others. Our sexuality provides us with inclinations which, in particular circumstances, counterbalance these reservations and inhibitions. It even gives us what we may call a built-in guide on when and how to touch others and let ourselves be touched.
When two soul-friends are involved in an active sexual relationship with each other, each of them is willing to be naked before the other - a nakedness of the body which gives expression to a total openness of soul and spirit, a desire to be utterly transparent to the other. The touch of the other brings healing at a very deep level. And this, ideally, is a mutual experience, where the reciprocity leads both partners to ever greater degrees of trust, acceptance, and intimacy at every level.
Of course our sexuality can get distorted in various ways - mainly as a consequence of faulty up-bringing, or through lack of balance in the way we use it, and more particularly as a result of sexual abuse. I have written elsewhere about the damaging effects of shame and how it relates to sexual abuse (1). So I shall confine myself here to looking at situations where ones sexuality has not become unduly distorted.
A soul-friendship which comes in the form of a full sexual relationship affects ones spirituality at a very deep level. It lifts one out of the preoccupation with self which is the normal state for many of us for much of the time - e.g. how am I feeling? do I like what is happening? what are others thinking of me? For significant periods of time - sometimes for days on end - one is focussed instead almost entirely on the other. One looks on the other with passion - not primarily a passion of wanting to possess the other but rather a passion of tenderness where one is entirely taken up with feeling for, and with, the other.
There may even be special moments when there seems to be a blurring of the distinction between oneself and the other. No wonder, then, that both the Old Testament and the New Testament speak of the two partners becoming one flesh (Gen 2:24; Mt 19:5).
In the early stages of having fallen in love, ones experience of everyday life is changed quite radically. One seems to be lifted out of the humdrum reality of normal living and to exist instead in a world that sparkles with energy and excitement. With the passing of time the excitement dims. But ideally that does not mean that one has returned to a dull and commonplace state of existence. Instead, the exhilaration of early love becomes transformed into a quiet abiding sense of gratitude for being loved and trusted unconditionally. One has the assurance of being held, in a manner where the holding of the body gives expression to a deep acceptance at every level.
I need hardly say that all this is a deeply spiritual experience - one that brings enormous enrichment to a persons spirituality. So much so that one would have to conclude that a full sexual relationship is part of the normal way in which a persons spirituality flourishes. To decide that one will deliberately live a celibate life requires a special call. And this call does not mean that one is renouncing the experience of intimacy - for there is still the need for deep spiritual friendship, perhaps a greater need than ever. Furthermore, Christians who take a vow of celibacy are also committing themselves to giving extra energy and more time and attention to developing their intimacy with God.
Intimacy with God
One might have thought that our relationship with God is such an unequal one that it would be impossible to have an experience of real intimacy with the divine. Nevertheless, the mystics assure that it is possible - and many of us who would make no claim to being mystics have occasional experiences which give us at least some inkling of what it is like to be intimate with God.
It is true, of course, that if our relationship with God is an authentic one, we become deeply aware of our finitude, our helplessness, our sinfulness vis-?á-vis the infinite love and power of God. We may want to cry out as the prophet Isaiah did: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a person of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips (Is 6:5). Nevertheless, we can experience such a high degree of unconditional acceptance and love from God that the gap between creator and creature seems to be bridged. Like Isaiah we may experience ourselves being touched by a burning coal. In his case the fire touched his lips, but in our case, the fire of Gods love touches our heart.
For the mystics the intimacy with God is very intense - so powerful and vivid that they describe it as a sense of being taken out of themselves and of being in some degree merged with the divine. That is an ideal to which all of us may aspire. But the reality is that this is a gift of grace which is not given to very many of us.
For the rest of us, intimacy with God is usually a far less intense experience. When writing in chapter 4 about being present to God, I said that we allow our awareness to extend outward into the mystery that surrounds us. I must now add that for much of the time we may not have any vivid awareness of even this rather attenuated contact with God. Indeed, there may be long periods during which we may hardly experience any contact with the divine. It is more a matter of hanging on in faith than of having a vivid experience of God. In this situation, our faith at best takes the form of deep desire for communion with God. The words of the psalmist express this longing:
O God, you are my God,
for you I long,
For you my soul is thirsting
My body pines for you,
like a dry weary land without water. (Ps 63:1)
However, our relationship with God is not confined to longing. There are moments when we do actually experience Gods presence. They often come unexpectedly, perhaps at times when we would least expect them. Many people find that these moments of being touched by God do not come during their time of formal prayer, or at a time when they are consciously longing for God.
This is a point where intimacy with God differs significantly from the intimacy of soul-friendship - except, perhaps, in the case of those who have mystical experiences. We do undoubtedly have a two-way experiential relationship with God. But for most of us, and for most of the time, it lacks the simultaneity which is characteristic of inter-human intimacy. By this I mean that at one time we are longing for God, reaching out for an experience of intimacy; but that is very often the time when God leaves us waiting in dryness. Then, out of the blue we may become vividly aware of Gods presence. At times it may come in the form of a surge of gratitude to God for the way events have turned out for us. And sometimes this sense of Gods love simply steals into our consciousness without any obvious connection to what has been going on.
Why should it be that in our relationship with God we are so often deprived of the particular sense of fulfilment which is present when two people have come into deep communion with each other at the same time? Could it be that God is stretching us, inviting us to deepen our sense of need for God? Perhaps our awareness of Gods absence is an invitation to extend our longing so that it permeates more of our everyday life, rather than being confined to moments of prayer. The uncertainty and questioning implied in the word perhaps is important here. Perhaps what God wants most of all from us is that we engage in dialogue with God, questioning and exploring as we draw ever closer to this mystery which surrounds us, awaits us, and - almost incredibly - seeks intimate union with us.