While riding on the subway one day, I overheard a homeless man lecturing to a polite passenger about fat and all the diseases we’re told it promotes. He deplored the daily media reports that warn us about a new harmful food every day. I tuned in, relating to his portrayal of the media. I’d been thinking a lot about that role myself. It is such a presence in my life, and yet I spend a lot of time ignoring it, tuning out. I’ve stopped (almost) reading about the new studies declaring what fat will and will not do for me. Every week a new study will contradict the study before, and in the scientific world, this is the normal course of healthy research. In the world of nitty-gritty living, however, these ever-changing “facts”–presented with such certainty, such finality–corrode something deep inside me. I can feel the corrosion, but I cannot localize it. These messages are all so fleeting, so sensational, so terrifying as they flippantly report what will prolong and shorten life. How is my soul affected by the barrage of images and information masquerading as Truth I encounter every day?
These thoughts were very much on my mind when I tuned in to the man, thinking—hoping—I had perhaps stumbled on a modern-day Shakespearean wise fool. He was convinced doctors were involved in a conspiracy with the media to make us feel sicker than we really are. The talk of doctors brought him around to what he felt was their true function—to be healers. That led him to The Healer (Jesus) and the Bible. At that point I lost interest and decided he wasn’t so wise after all. As an ex-Catholic (some would even say recovering Catholic) Jesus talk makes me nervous. My mind drifted to the swaying of the train, alighting briefly on my day at work, what I’d do when I got home. Suddenly the man’s words, now having wound back to the alleged evils of fat, penetrated my commuter fog. I thought: somewhere between fat and Jesus lays the truth.
Perhaps he was a wise fool. In his soliloquy he concretely described the conflict between science and spirituality. How are we to believe in the miracle of a higher power when most miracles come to us in test tubes, Petri dishes and rainbow-colored pills? How are we to believe in the potency of that higher power when in the city sometimes all I can see is the power of human pollution and waste, by-products of our miracle-givers—test tubes, Petri dishes, and rainbow-colored pills? I think about this contradiction often and as a writer who has tried to understand this through my writing, I appreciate his succinct and circumfluent description of this spiritual dilemma.
It was easy enough for me to reject my Catholic upbringing; adolescence was made for exactly this type of task. The tricky part, I discovered, is what to replace it with? While the replacement list is temptingly available in the philosophy, religion, self-help and new age sections of the local bookstore, some of these resources are no more trustworthy than the patriarchal religion I rejected. I was lucky enough to find my earliest replacement for my Catholic beliefs at home. My father studied Eastern philosophy for many years, and from him I learned to appreciate the idea that there is no spiritual or physical separation between people and their environment. I’ve come to believe that the same molecules and energy make up our bodies, a body of water and the bodies of the planets. My father likes to say there is no difference between the observer and the observed. It is a comment meant to include scientists observing cells and people observing a landscape. I also like the eastern/Jungian idea of a collective consciousness. I find it comforting to be part of a greater whole that does not require me to be good and sinless for entry. Merely being what I am, especially being, grants me access to this club.
I have been occasionally successful in incorporating these somewhat cerebral ideas into my life. Sometimes I walk along the streets of Boston and am struck in a Solomonic way by the grassy weeds growing out of decomposing litter on a concrete shelf; I have walked through the public garden in the spring and experienced the connection to the force of life that creates the budding chains of weeping willow branches after a cold winter. These experiences are my equivalent of church, and for many years they sufficed. But when I was an urban dweller entering her thirties, my spiritual encounters with nature were less frequent than my need for them had become; however, I did not want to give up my urban life to better commune with nature, and I was shy and suspicious of churches, I turned to that place of replacements—a place I can trust more than religion: the bookstore.
I found a book called Dakota: a Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris. It is about living in a small, dying town in the vast and empty prairie of South Dakota, but it is also about finding spirituality in your surroundings. While I think the author still has some soul-searching to do on the subject, one passage from the book lifted the confusion for me:
Conversion means starting with who we are, not who we wish we were. It means knowing where we come from. It means taking to heart the words of Native American writer Andy Smith, who writes, ‘A true medicine woman would…advise a white woman to look into her own culture and find what is liberating in it.’
When I read those words all the different wavelengths of my various beliefs and doubts converged into a clear vibration. To go forward in my spiritual quest, I had to think about my religious past. For me that meant coming to terms with the idea of Jesus as savior. So, with trepidation, I began to think about Jesus. After so many years, I was surprised to realize the power that notion still had on me. I couldn’t just say he didn’t exist and move on. His imprint on me was too strong for that. I had to find a Jesus I could live with. My sister, who converted to Judaism many years ago and is sometimes still haunted by Jesus, puts our dilemma this way: “Jesus: son of God, or just a wise, vagabond teacher?” She says it in a tabloid television news headline voice, but our laughter turns into a deep collective sigh. We both know that when we looked at the gap between Jesus and vagabond teacher, it looked like a crevice. We leapt into the air, but we still haven’t reached the other side. When we look down, we know it is not a crevice, but a crevasse; and, baby it’s a long way down. We are both caught in midair: by our chosen paths, we’re required to think of Jesus as a teacher only, and intellectually we have done that. However, the intellect, we’ve discovered, is no match for the strength of a religious belief that has been cultivated, instilled, followed, swallowed, absorbed and believed since birth.
Besides trusting books for wisdom, I have also come to appreciate music as a source of emotional support and sometimes of wisdom. In my search for a livable Jesus, I have found clarity in the music of the band U2. Although they formed more than 30 years ago,U2 is still one of the most popular bands in the world, but these four musicians are no ordinary rock stars. Three of the four are self-described Christians, and the lead singer Bono is deeply so. When Bono sings about “loving you,” he is often singing about God. Other songs describe the comings and goings of Jesus. And yet, these are not “Christian” songs. If they were, I couldn’t listen to them. Bono’s skill as a songwriter bases these songs in his beliefs, but his words open the songs wide to all human experience. Religion, I know, is meant to do this, but I have never been able to tune into that frequency.
I envy and admire Bono’s ability to nurture spiritual passion in the face of the hedonistic lifestyle of the rock world. His struggle with that balance inspires me to keep trying to find my spiritual place somewhere between fat and Jesus. I was particularly moved by the song “Until the End of the World,” which is sung from the point of view of Judas. There are three stanzas: one about meeting Jesus at a wedding where everyone was having a good time except “you. You were talking about the end of the world.” the second stanza says “I took the money, I spiked your drink/…I kissed your lips and broke your heart/…You, you were acting like it was the end of the world.” in the third stanza, the narrator is drowning in his sorrows, until “In waves of regret, waves of joy/I reached out for the one I tried to destroy/You, you said you’d wait until the end of the world.” This story, told to me many times in church in a manner as dry and dead as a December leaf, now is visceral and immediate. A son-of-God Jesus who is distant and can make miracles does not interest me. A Jesus who can be a wet blanket at parties, who can be hurt by his friends and still love them is a Jesus who can help me reach the other side of the crevasse.
Bono’s devotion has helped me reach this point of understanding, yet, I find equal comfort in the songs that express Bono’s spiritual doubt. In “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” I appreciate his honesty. No matter how devout we are, the moments of profound religious clarity can slip away, and we are left to struggle once again to understand.
While I can sometimes claim a truce with Jesus, I have yet to come to terms with the “fat” in the words of my subway Shakespearean wise fool. Science, technology, and “facts” are just as much a part of my culture as Jesus is, and I have struggled to find what is liberating in them. For me as an urban dweller these forces are stronger, more authoritative, and more urgent than Jesus. Jesus is a ghost from my past, but technology is very much a present and future force, daily coming at me through my phone, the Internet, radio, television, in magazines and newspapers, on billboards, advertisements, and in literature passed out in the street. From medical studies to political polls to psychological studies to graphs and charts we are told the “truth” via technology. I am often overwhelmed, but I can neither dismiss, nor separate myself from this maelstrom of technology and information.
It is easy to wish for the spirituality of the Native Americans who find their strength in the animals, water, wind and fire. It is easy to wish for the days without technology, days of growing our own vegetables and living off the land. For most of us, however, living in that way is no longer possible. I found it easy to recognize the spirituality in the nature around me, but what can I do when there is precious little nature to worship? As a member of Western civilization, I must somehow find the liberating aspects of a culture that has traditionally separated itself from nature and put forth the culture of technology–metal, steel, concrete and plastic. My world is a world of skyscrapers, copiers, iPads, cultivated nature, and an attitude that we can consume and build without consequence. How do I reconcile the destruction of natural habitat trampled by a tall, sleek midnight blue glass building that is natural in a city landscape? How do I find the spirituality in that beautiful structure? How do I mourn the animals and land sacrificed for that beauty? I’d like to think there is a way of linking both the nature of green chlorophyll and the nature of the glass, concrete and steel that makes up the Boston skyline I see every day.
Perhaps finding that link is too difficult, too bizarre a task, like in the movie Slacker when three characters in a bar try to explain the existence of smurfs using Buddhist philosophy. But I must try. I have developed this notion: we cannot divide the materials in this world as “natural,” meaning naturally occurring, and “unnatural,” meaning man-made. If we are all made up of the same basic elements found in this universe, then all materials made up of these elements are natural. The world of science and its products are a part of our nature, and therefore our spirituality. To deny this idea is to say we as a species are not natural. I have heard some theories express the view that humans are merely a virus or infection in the “natural” Earth, but is that seems like a pretty dark and self-defeating view.
I will tell you a strange story. One day at work I used the copier to make double-sided copies. It never worked well. It was a used one that broke down at least once a week. As soon as I pressed the start button, the copies jammed and the red warning light flicked on. I cleared out the copies and then stood over it, exasperated and trying to will it to work. I pressed the start button once again, and this time its hum continued unbroken and the copies came out unmolested. I felt moved in a strange way. For a fleeting moment, I felt the universe synchronize. The machine worked in the way it was meant to, fulfilling in a sense its purpose. Even the walls surrounding me seemed filled with the energy of the molecules that science has told me vibrate invisibly within them, me and the copier. At that moment we were all doing exactly what we were meant to do. It was a very Zen experience.
When the copier finished, I stepped away feeling a little foolish, until I remembered a short story I read in high school by Rudyard Kipling, “The Ship Who Found Herself.” In it a ship embarks on her first voyage and Kipling describes all the complaints and murmurs of the different parts of the ship—deck beams, bulwark plates, rivets. A storm on the Atlantic is pulling and pushing at each one of them, and they don’t like it very much. The foremast is convinced that the storm is an organized conspiracy against the boat. Eventually the different parts learn how to give and take with their neighbors to create the strength needed to weather the storm. Safely in the harbor, the thousands of little voices become one deep unified voice. The ship had found herself.
I decided to reread the story to find out why I had liked it so much. I remember my classmates thought the talking boat was strange, but I grew reading fairy tales about bewitched and magical things, and this boat seemed no different. It is still a delightful story, and for me it underscores this idea about spirituality in the machinery. Of course the story is about working together, but in choosing a ship as the main character, Kipling is also making the point that technology has a voice and a soul. Since it comes from us, and we are living, it too has a life. “If you lay your ear to the side of the cabin the next time you are in a steamer you will hear hundreds of little voices…” It surprised me that this story is nearly 120 years old, written in 1895. Perhaps, when technology was in its infancy and we were innocent of its evils, we were more willing to embrace it as a part of ourselves. Over the last century we have become separated from the land, from technology and therefore from ourselves.
Somewhere between fat and Jesus lies the truth. And the more I think about it, the more I realize there is another truth in the homeless man’s circular speech. I am closest to my spirituality when I am seeking it. I turned away from organized religion because I have never sought pat, linear answers. I seek the journey to those answers. The circle perhaps is the way. Just as the man returned to the alleged evils of fat, I will keep coming back to the same questions about what trees, skyscrapers and Jesus have in common. The best I can do is use what I have learned each time I return—oddments from U2, Kathleen Norris, copiers and Rudyard Kipling.
And having written that pat, linear paragraph, I must confess that in reality such a search is a messy, disorganized catch-as-catch can affair. It is a search I do not recognize until I am at a new destination and can trace my steps back. Once I leave the new destination, I am plunged back into blindness and chaos, with only the memory of order and understanding to keep me going. And I don’t know where the search will lead me. I am attracted to stories about people who take journeys, whether the journey is a walk across America, or a trek through the haunting, magical world of J.R.R. Tolkien. All I can say is that my journey takes me away from the commandments issued by science about fat. It takes me away from the commandments of Jesus. I search for the place beyond commandments. I search for the path to that place. I search.
On the subway, the polite passenger got up at his stop, thanked the homeless man for his conversation, and got off the train. I thought the man might turn to me to begin anew, but he was silent. His message for the day had been imparted, and he, synchronized with the universe for a fleeting moment, had fulfilled his purpose.