Joan Chittester describes spirituality as "unlike theology and all its explanations, what shows when no one is asking academic questions. Spirituality is the very fabric and texture of the soul. It does not explain religion, it demonstrates the presence of the sacred in life. In spirituality, we see awareness, reverence for life, globalism in miniature and the shadow of the magnetized heart. Spirituality is a holy search and in the searching, the way to conscience, to commitment and to nothing but the pursuit of truth is travelled." David Howard writes about his bittersweet last pilgrimage to an unlikely location:
“Down the highway through the cradle of the civil war; I'm going to Graceland, Graceland in Memphis Tennessee.” Paul Simon croons his tune of pilgrimage to the iconic former digs of Elvis. Not a likely destination for this pilgrim – but I do find myself in Lawrence Kansas; and for me the spiritual equivalent of Graceland. A longtime annual visitor to this storied town in eastern Kansas, I find myself here for potentially the last time. Home to a man I can easily call my principal mentor, I attend a bimonthly group he has facilitated for over twenty years (although for reasons of distance, I’m rarely here more than once a year). Without fear of exaggeration, it is this man’s guidance and gentle suggestion, teachings and wisdom, provision of opportunity to explore the truly difficult, conflicted and challenging issues that plague us all, insights, encouragement to cultivate a contemplative and meditative practice, that has sculpted the spiritual framework that has occupied for me mid-life to ‘young’ old age. And this is his last group.
To make the connection with Paul’s tune a little clearer, having visited Lawrence for some thirteen years and happening upon Ride with the Devil, TVO’s Saturday night film a few weeks back, I was a little taken aback by Nicola’s question (in response to the mention of the Lawrence Massacre – an 1863 retaliatory attack by Confederate sympathizers on the pro-Union Lawrence population by Quantrill’s Raiders among many others): “Is that your Lawrence?” and my lame reply: “I don’t know!” Indeed it is my Lawrence! A little research revealed that, in many ways this town was a cradle of the civil war – underscored in my morning run, bloody butt of Quantrill’s assault. And this is my pilgrimage.
Like many spiritual opportunities, while they can be experienced and appreciated anywhere, they are facilitated by certain venues, ‘sacred spaces’ if you will, and a community of like-minded folk. It always takes me a day or two to enter into a sufficiently receptive frame of mind; to distance from the routine that preoccupies and consumes the day-to-day in less conducive environments – nothing at all wrong with these spots, just a little difficult to extricate for less material concerns. The metaphor that floated up through my runner’s consciousness this morning was that of a flower’s gradual opening. (Well, I suppose technically that’s a simile – but only Marcus B and a few English profs would quibble over that one.) I arrive a tightly closed little pod, insulated from but also largely unaware of my surround. With opportunity to reflect in the presence of others similarly engaged, the petals start to unfold, first to the external beauties around me, then to dreams (like many I tend to see myself as ‘not dreaming’; when it’s more likely that I simply don’t take the time to attend), and finally to deeper connections, awarenesses, understandings. I suppose I could do this at Yonge and Bloor – but I not likely would. And so you might begin to see why the annual trek to this pretty little university town (in case one forgets, there are ample reminders that the Jayhawks took the NCAA basketball championship this year) on the banks of the Kaw River to sit with a group of now quite old, but ever so vital cronies – who have never shied away from making themselves and their truths available for all to consider, as they patiently and supportively listen to your’s.
This year’s trip is tinged with the sadness and uncertainty that must always accompany a transition, indeed a closing – especially one that will be hard pressed to find equal; and certainly never be replaced. The ten of us in attendance for this final act are some of the old guard, drawn from all corners of the US, from Florida to Texas to Virginia; with Rick and I the ‘Canadian reps’ – although our numbers could easily have been tripled if all who’d wished to come could have been accommodated. We sit around the group circle, ‘old style’ – pillows on the floor (no mean trick for a group with an average age of somewhere in the low 60’s). All bound by a few simple rules: tell one’s truth (or as much of it as feels safe); remain present; and above all, ‘trust the process’. This last bit, cryptic and succinct as it may seem, to my mind is the essence of personal and ultimately spiritual growth. It presumes a community that may be relied upon to place each other’s respective interests in a non-judgmental, supportive, receptive, and respectful light. It presumes a set of expectations that does not include ‘getting answers’ – only being granted a full opportunity to ask one’s questions, a forum to be fully heard (not judged, corrected, or advised). And it presumes that speaking aloud one’s dilemmas and enthusiasms, regrets and successes, witnessed in such a community, will advance and clarify, will provide direction, and, most importantly, be listened to – a rare occurrence in today’s world where many speak and few hear. I have found these elements to be in such short supply and indeed are so poorly understood by most conventional ‘communities’ that a 1600 km. ‘field trip’ once a year has been a small price to pay.
Neither is talk the only medium. Equally important is the silence. If I may appropriate: ‘Be still and know . . ; be still; be’ is something of a maxim easily adopted by this group. Morning sessions open with ten minutes of meditation – an opportunity to ‘stretch time’, slow down, in many ways honoring the Sabbath. And reflection is not limited to the group floor; morning runs along a stunningly beautiful levy, constructed against a not always so placid Kaw, offer the opportunity to the individual to open, to raise awareness, to see things more clearly, to find some gem that sets up the day, enriched – and not always solemn, without a twinkle. Yesterday, two foxes running along the path ahead of me; today a sign proclaiming the annual fund-raiser for breast cancer: “Bras Across the Kaw” – and stretching out before me, linked ‘hand in hand’ as it were and spanning the significant width of the river bridge were 408 bras. (Now I wouldn’t want one to presume that I was ‘running’ so slowly as to allow for such a careful count. I merely tallied the cups – and divided by 2!) Consciousness may be raised in any number of ways – and I daresay this display does get peoples’ attention.
As expected, the sub-text, the ‘elephant in the room’ of this final group is a sense of loss, dislocation, anxiety around ‘where to from here’ – as we say our goodbyes to a group of friends, to a community that has, without exaggeration, been the touchstone, the anchor, the home that this incredibly diverse group of sometime strangers has come to rely upon for all of the above gifts. Equally evident, and somewhat less expectedly is a profound sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to live in community, separated by thousands of kilometers and time – but bound nonetheless.
Spirituality is indeed where you find it. But you have to look.