By Lucia Fernandez, Director, LMFT and Natalie Ortega, Attorney and Teacher
My friend, Natalie Ortega, and I have had many conversations on spirituality. She wrote these “Notes” following many discussions we have had on the topic. I thought they were so good, I wanted to share them with my community. We also had a podcast on the topic which will be released next week. You can listen to the conversation on your favorite podcast platform.
Last month I had the pleasure of reading On the Brink of Everything, Grace, Gravity & Getting Old and The Book of Joy. What a pleasant way to start 2021! Together, the books shared lightness and humor on meaningful topics such as death, community, meaning, wholeness, and joy; overall, a recurring theme was our shared oneness. Both books spoke to me in profound ways. Upon completion, I was compelled to examine my stance on a few but very important questions. Namely, (1) how can I achieve greater joy, (2) am I content with how I spend my time, and (3) what do I need to do to move towards accepting death and suffering?
Overall, The Book of Joy was a nice interfaith discussion between two spiritual greats on our holistic well-being. Hearing their laughter and grace even when retelling their own personal hardships provided comfort. Interestingly enough, the book highlighted, on more than one occasion, that it was BECAUSE of the leaders’ hardships, and not IN SPITE of them, that their faith had grown.
For me, there was a striking parallel with Viktor Frankl’s message in Man’s Search for Meaning—that individuals have a choice to embrace suffering and use it as a stepping stone for personal growth, openness, and kindness. This ability to use pain and convert it into LOVE and its variants seem to underscore our human resilience.
However, I am not certain that when facing future loss, suffering, or sadness, I’ll be able to take this personal leap. In fact, it feels like I have a lot of work to do to get there considering that even while I type this, I cannot contemplate future suffering (including death). Avoidance is DEFINITELY my default!
Apart from topics like using pain and suffering for growth, the book also highlighted the human need to connect with others. The Dali Lama’s and Desmond Tutu’s conversation on our shared humanity and the need to appreciate and act upon it, created a loud sound-off in me as I contemplated overall joy. Especially now through the current pandemic where outlets of joy have been altered and finding connections are more of a challenge.
During these last 10 months, I found myself at a stalemate; despite overall health (for both my family and I), my joy had undeniably diminished. I was forced to consider why. This is where the pious leaders’ implications that true joy came from serving the community appeared blaring!
Their message forced me to honestly assess my free time and ask myself 2 things: (1) “what was I currently doing to contribute to society? and (2) how could I be of greater service at the present moment?”. This particular notion—that service equaled joy—highlighted a personal truth that I could no longer ignore. For my own inner (present and future) peace, I needed to better serve the community!
On the Brink emphasized similar points as The Book of Joy but Palmer’s layman self, together with his honesty and humor, resonated further with my reasoning. Not only was the need for service and community emphasized but it was described as the necessity to engage in conversation and action with varying age groups.
With Palmer, I shared topics of interest like education, mentoring, service, political science, spirituality, and death. His inclusion of Thomas Merton’s writings as well as the Benedict monks’ mantra of keeping death daily were not only refreshing but were door opening in terms of spiritual growth. Why was it that eternity’s definition had never focused on the present moment? What a cool and meaningful concept to overcome time by the now! Inevitably, defining eternity this way left me questioning what else have I possibly gotten completely wrong with my own inner philosophy due to self-imposed limiting denotations.
Palmer interestingly commented, quoting Merton, that he has greater peace. . . when he is not trying to be contemplative. I think I can say the same. Jokingly, I also get lost in Type A spiritual striving, which in the end provides nothing but disappointment. Thus, the readings provided me with some comfort on certain circular topics; topics that at times have had my intellect on overdrive.
For example, I was able to dwell on the notion that simply because institutionalized faith has never really felt genuine for me it wasn’t necessarily detrimental to my overall spirituality. In the past, I’ve had a tendency to shield dogmatic beliefs in their entirety if I didn’t agree with some of their values. This particular need for (intellectual) certainty, therefore, hindered any emotional calmness that faith traditions could provide.
For a long time, the fact that I couldn’t say that “I have a strong Catholic Faith,” or any type of faith for that matter, generated angst. In actuality, when people stated that they on the other hand had a strong faith, it was incomprehensible to me. I not only marveled at the fact that they had faith, but I was also really annoyed that I couldn’t achieve it.
Currently, I am not troubled by saying that “my faith is NOT strong”. In fact, at times it can be quite weak and possibly mediocre at best. However, the idea is that spiritual progression doesn’t need to be on an upward trend, it doesn’t have to incorporate dogmatic principles, and it can include valleys instead of peaks. In the end, I see this as being true to me and true to my spiritual growth.
Specifically, reading On the Brink, allowed me to realize that it was natural if Christianity’s Christology didn’t square with my thinking, and similarly that it was okay if I took in tenants from other religious beliefs and philosophies and excluded the ones that didn’t sit well with me. And although for decades I was irked that I couldn’t quite say that my faith was strong, now I see that whether it is strong or weak is not necessarily the point. Even if its ebb looks like overturned mountain peaks and its flow is minimal progression, the idea is that embracing the process itself IS the PRIZE. That is the actual “progression”!
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” – Thomas Merton