This past Monday evening, I participated in a moderated discussion sponsored by Concordia University’s University of the Streets Cafe popular learning series. Earlier in the year, together with my friend and sacred activism collaborator David Summerhays, I helped to create and plan this moderated discussion entitled Hiding my Convictions: what makes talking about spirituality so uncomfortable? I offered some introductory remarks together with my friend Charlotte, a former Evangelical Christian turned spiritual Atheist, to kick off the lively discussion that ensued amidst the gathering of nearly 60 people, ranging widely in spiritual convictions and faith commitments. I invite you to read my remarks, imagine what may have been the response, and, if so inclined, offer your own!
Let me first introduce my view on some key themes that appear in the title of this evening’s event: spirit, to hide, to talk about or to reveal, and discomfort.
What I call spirit is my most intimate, personal, and least objectifiable feature. Beyond a neuroscientific or psychological narrative, my spirit is what I feel makes ‘me’ me, motivating me to express myself in the world. Upon it my ego gets constructed. I cannot ‘prove’ it; I can only experience it, live it, and trust it.
To dismiss what I have just described to be my core being would make me want to hide it–even though, more accurately, what I fundamentally want to do is to safeguard it. Therefore the act of ‘hiding’ gets conflated with ‘safeguarding’, even though these are two very different things. I’ve survived several phases of repressing my spirit’s full outward expression, abruptly shoving it in the closet and closing the door. Another hide and seek trick I learned is to unravel its strands, set a good portion of it aside while weaving certain choice bits into an overcoat of conformity designed to pass unobserved.
Still, why should I reveal my spirit, in other words ‘talk about it’ and risk exposing it to danger or discomfort?
I live in community, in relationship to others. Every relationship requires some degree of trust. I’ve decided my life purpose compels me to cultivate relationships of generous trust, and that means entrusting others with my spiritual-(real)ity, because I think this can enable us as a community to live and give life to an inspiring, compassionate, and daringly beautiful collective existence. Embracing the totality of this relational trust and communion is what I call faith–and yes, for me I name this as ‘faith in God’. This faith is my deepest, fullest life conviction. And to be honest, repressing my deepest convictions makes me feel disconnected, isolated, depressed, even paranoid. In other words, uncomfortable.
But how can I (or we) find out how to adequately exchange spiritual experiences in a respectful and life-giving way? I have spent many years, most intensely the past three, experimenting with different approaches, some of which I would like to share with you:
The project Spirit of Montreal which I started with my friend David (here tonight) is a survey of Montrealers and their spiritual practices, experiences, and interests, or lack thereof. We accost strangers and ask their consent for an interview posing basic questions such as: do you have a spiritual practice? What is it? Or: why not? What do you consider sacred? What are you most passionate about in life? The outcomes of these conversations, including a photo of each interviewee, get posted online. This is not only for the unknown public to view, but provides survey participants with an opportunity to situate their answers in conversation with a variety of others. What has been most gratifying about this work for me is how people express genuine appreciation that we care to bear witness to their core convictions and give voice to them.
Art making is also an important piece in my cultivation of spirituality because it taps into the fundamental creative attributes of my spirit. La Ruche d’Art community studio became very important to me when I started to participate here a few months after my father died in spring 2011. Quietly sharing that experience in community, learning alongside others how to create and recreate wholeness out of my own brokeness was healing. Moreover, its community-centred ethos makes it accessible healing; it’s a safe space to witness other people’s life-giving creative processes.
St. Michael’s Mission in Montreal has offered me some other wonderful opportunities: I’ve started to stop in regularly to sit and make myself present to any kind of conversation the clientele may want to have about spirituality, life purpose, and core convictions because they (the vast majority homeless men) are not merely passive recipients of material goods such as the food and clothing served up by other volunteers, but also clearly convey their search to be recognized, engaged, and challenged in their spiritual dimensions. Through this process I have learned that many who have very little materially may even as a direct result be very spiritually aware, tuned in, and learned, which makes it both a privilege and a challenge for me to have those conversations.
The proposed Charter here in the province of Quebec has generated a need to look at the role of personal spirituality as connected to religion, particularly so-called ‘ostentatious religious symbols’. For many people, spirituality is so tightly-knit with the culture, language, and customs of their faith community, it’s actually necessary to engage religious identity to undertand the spiritual underpinnings that inform a relationship. I have been doing grassroots interfaith work for a few years and it has taught me a lot about the importance of boundaries in a healthy conversation about intimate, core beliefs. We may not know how these boundaries will look right from the outset and they are likely to change in the process of dialogue; however it strikes me as important to acknowledge that no matter how open we make ourselves to challenging questions about our truths, there should always be a space to which we can safely retreat when under pressure or confused, to reflect and process experiences. I would even call that a ‘sacred space’, which is as much a space for the spirit and mind as it is for the body. Active listening is a great (if not primary) way to find out where that sacred space exists for each of us to ensure respect for our safety just as much as the call to explore and reveal.
A good way to acknowledge another’s boundaries or limitations is to be transparent about our own. My investment in a complex faith tradition and identity has helped me to do this. While in some cases it is better to turn off the symbolism of my faith identity if it threatens to hinder the sincerity of a relationship; still in many other instances it can function helpfully as a preliminary map by which interlocutors can perceive me and navigate the exchange. Often the first version of the map turns up many false projections or assumptions rather than realities: but this in itself can offer valuable opportunities to clarify and grow.
A little over 10 years ago, when I started to realize that Christianity was far more complex to characterize than the easy anti-institutional prejudices I inherited growing up in post Quiet Revolution Quebec–and therefore far more appealing than I had assumed–I started to see beyond its rigid and at times perverse establishment facade to its living and breathing existence of faithful expressions, practices, and dialogue. It was a bit like discovering for the first time photos of my grandparents when they were young. Hey! Look how much I look like my grandmother when she was my age! Could she have asked the same kinds of questions I’m asking? How did she find her answers? To whom did she turn for wisdom? Do my elders have wisdom to share with me?
So I shall turn from these last questions and leave you with another set of questions regarding the topic of sharing expressions of spirituality and faith:
Do I have the humility to ask the other and the patience to listen? The courage to confront a challenging history and the compassion to help a body of collective wisdom transition from one social reality to the next and renew itself for future generations? Do I have the audacity to publicly reclaim space for expressions of spirituality, both traditional and fresh-flavoured; to walk into an established place of worship to ask uncomfortable yet life-motivating questions and demand that I be taken seriously? Do I have the grace to stay long enough to listen to the answers and respond in kind, thereby entering into a relationship with that community, growing the conversation and growing inside the conversation?