In a former life, or at least an earlier part of my current life, I was what the Germans refer to as a literary scientist. We would dissect literature, and find all sorts of things inside that made the stories take on deeper and deeper meaning that the majority of humans look at and simply think that we’re crazy. While there were a lot of different theories we used to find these deeper and at times unintended meanings in the texts from formalism to marxianism to reader response theory, my favorites were cultural historicism, and intertexuality.
Cultural historicism and intertextuality both purport that the interaction between reader, author and text is more complicated than just those three. It holds that the culture in which the text was written has influenced not only the author, but his word choice, his symbolism, his tone and everything that goes into his text. On the other end, this same level of influence is at work on the reader as he weaves the text into the textile of his life, and its interaction with the culture (including his contact with the humans in his life) and that meaning is created by those interactions.
I think in part these theories resonated so strongly with me because I was longing for deeper connection with the world around me, and they allowed me to find a connection with not only a single entity (person, book, poem, etc) but with a whole civilization. Somehow, in all my connection, I missed one. I missed the connection between connection (pronounced relationships) and spirituality.
A few days ago, I was talking with my therapist, and he asked me how I was doing spiritually. I told him that I didn’t really know, and we started talking about what spirituality really is. He mentioned that often when one was asked about spirituality, they would often start ticking off boxes on the list of tasks to be performed. (I’ve read the scriptures 28.5 minutes per day, giving me 95% spirituality in the scripture department. I’ve prayed 19 times this week, meaning my prayers are at 90.4% of goal, and I attended all three meetings at church, as well as FHE and institute, though I was only half paying attention, meaning my meeting spirituality was 84.32%)
In a world in which everything is supposed to be measured, (the university system, especially in the non-technical areas are so desperate to prove themselves valid by scientific means that we have concocted means by which to measure ethereal, qualitative properties, and declared that if it can’t be measured, it does not exist.) we have placed spirituality in a precarious position. We have made an if-then scenario for spirituality, and we’re confused when the formula isn’t working. (I’ve been doing all the right rituals. I’ve read the scriptures, I’ve prayed, I’ve said all the words that are traditionally associated with recovery. Why don’t I feel spiritual?)
It turns out the things that can be measured are often not the things that are important, or at least are not the core of the matter. Ceteris paribus, the performances I’ve listed are beneficial, but thinking that the correlates of spirituality are spirituality can lead to some pretty depressing, exhausting and frustrating years of trying in vain to solve a problem by the wrong means. (It turns out replacing your brakes will not improve the handling of your car if your suspension is shot.)
So, what then is spirituality? Nephi, a prophet in the Book of Mormon seemed to think that “to be spiritually-minded is life eternal.” While this may not seem like it’s that big of a help on its own, there are some other clues. If we look at the idea of “life eternal” it shows up elsewhere that may help us out. Christ mentioned it when he said that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God.” Phew, one step closer. To be spiritual, then, is to know God. Now, certain creeds (Nicene, Athanasian, etc.) have “declared the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be abstract, absolute, transcendent, imminent, consubstantial, coeternal, and unknowable, without body, parts, or passions and dwelling outside space and time.” Not exactly an easy task, to know God, if that is an accurate description of him. Fortunately, I do not ascribe to those descriptions, at least not consciously. God has often seemed ethereal, abstract and indeed unknowable. I intellectually understood that he was not those things, but since I neither knew him, nor knew how to know him, I was at a loss. I performed the duties listed above (to varying degrees of faithfulness) but felt no significant difference between those times during which I was faithful and those in which I was more lax. I certainly could see the aggregate effect on my life, but I did not understand the mechanism by which those effects were brought into being.
In English, we often will use prepositions to clarify our verbs. In some languages, the verbs themselves contain more information. It is then sometimes useful to look to the translations used in those languages to figure out which preposition best conveys the intended meaning. We are supposed to know God. Indeed, Joseph Smith told us that the “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another.” Unfortunately, we have the verb “know” in this sentence with two disparate meanings. The second is the simpler, meaning simply to be aware of a fact. The former is the more complex.
To know God is to be familiar with him, but here again we run into the ambiguities of language. I am familiar with Graham Elliot. I’ve watched him on Master Chef. I’ve looked at his restaurant’s web page, I know that he was the youngest chef to become a four-star chef at age 27. I know him. Well, I know of him. I’m familiar with Robert Hesse. I watched him on Hell’s Kitchen for two seasons. (He was the only reason I kept watching, actually. The others on there were simply boring.) I’ve looked at the web page for his restaurant, I’ve watched his YouTube videos. But with Robert, I am friends with him on Facebook. (I know, not much of a relationship, but more than with Graham.) Robert is aware of my existence, though I doubt I would come up in unaided recall. He and I have chatted, albeit briefly, on Facebook.
I know those men, but not in a meaningful way. I know my friends much better than I know those chefs. I know what my friend like, I have a good idea of how they will react in a given situation. I know their history and their character. But even those things fall short of describing the difference in how I know my friends. I am connected to them. Psychology would call it attachment. I trust that my friends will be available to me if I need them, and I am available for them if they need me. We enjoy each other’s company. We interact with one another, and are rejuvenated as a result of that interaction. I think that this is the type of interaction that is meant when it is said that we are to know God. That’s not the first thing that came to my mind as recently as last week, but after talking with my therapist, it is.
We had recently talked about how those who struggle with addiction often don’t have friends, but rather take hostages. The relationship is conducted on the terms of one party, and there is not a healthy ebb and flow, with the relationship growing organically. It is forced, and even on occasion, contrived. Rather than a gentle give and take, it is a violent (metaphorically) struggle to secure the attachment needed, but in doing so, the very attachment desired is strangled. Last week, it occurred to me that this same ebb and flow of relationship needed to be there with God.
Rather than praying until I felt like praying, praying until I felt the spirit, praying until my demands were met, I’ve changed how I approach God. I’ve set aside the rigid belief of “if I do this, that will happen” and replaced it with a more uncertain, but more comforting way of approaching God. Rather than seeing my relationship with God as binary, I’m either enveloped in the spirit or I’ve been abandoned and left to my own devices, I’ve started practicing letting it be ok to not have an active connection with Him.
Now, I’m not saying that I’ve decided I don’t need to pray. In fact, I’ve been praying a fair bit more in the last couple days than I have in a while. The thing that seems to be different is the manner in which I’ve been praying. Prayer, as described in the lessons taught by the LDS missionaries, consists of four parts. First we address God, then we thank him for the things for which we are thankful. We then ask for those things we feel we need, and we end by closing in the name of his Son. This, I’ve realized in the last few days, seems way too formulaic to me. It seems like it’s missing the part where I get to say to God, “Hope ya know, [I’ve] had a hard time.” If all I am allowed to do is be thankful, and put in my next order, where is the part that I develop a relationship with Him?
In the last few days, I’ve stopped using the formula for prayer. I’ve started simply telling the Lord about things that have been happening in my life. It kind of reminded me of how my journal writing would go when I was rather young. Most entries consisted of, “we had dinner.” (I’m sure there was a part of that entry that had to do with recall based on recency of the event…) It’s felt wholly different telling God about what I’ve been up to, how it’s affected me, what I’ve felt about different things. It’s made me feel more like He is listening to me, like I’m talking to a real person instead of an automated receptionist. It felt like talking to a friend, instead of reporting to the headmaster, and hoping that the cover sheet was properly attached to my TPS, waiting to be measured, and fearing that I would hear as Tekel did, “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” It’s felt more connected than when I’ve been consciously trying to establish connection.
Interestingly, I’ve also felt more connected to others, even without having any contact with them since I’ve changed how I pray. I can’t say that I’ve experienced an overwhelming love for all of humanity and that I’m ready to singlehandedly usher in world peace. There are still plenty of people who bug me, I’m still human and imperfect, as is the rest of humanity, but that’s not the important thing. The significance is that I’ve discovered the intertexuality of spirituality. While my relationship with God may be becoming more personal, it is also encompassing everyone I know.
When I read a book I look for connections to other books. I find threads of stories woven into tales that the author did not intend. I see economic theories in play that were mentioned in a different tome, and I get excited. I’ve found the hidden treasure that the author didn’t mean to hide. Somehow, I’ve missed a network of connection though, that seems pretty important.
When I was young, and I was attending the temple, I would feel the spirit, but I would mis-allocate the feelings that I experienced. Instead of attributing the sensation of connection with God, I would transfer that connection to the people with whom I was. I would feel a deeper sense of connection to the friends next to whom I was sitting. Often, that feeling of increased connection led to me expecting a reciprocal increase in connection from them. When it did not occur, I was disappointed. I didn’t understand why the connection had disappeared.
It turns out, that I didn’t understand the interconnectivity of God and man. I didn’t realize that the connection I felt was to both God and the people with whom I was sitting. I didn’t understand that each was a part of the other. By missing that the two were connected, I ignored the correlation and assumed disparate yet simultaneous occurrences. I missed the core meaning of a phrase that is heard more often in protestant churches than in the LDS Church. I forgot, and didn’t understand what was really meant by “God is love.”
Starting to make connections again, I remembered the line from Les Misérables, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” This is the part that made spirituality open up to me in a way that I had never really experienced before. When I realized that my connections with my friends, family, therapist, librarian, everyone, were a part of my connection with God, suddenly, spirituality became real. It was still not measurable in a scientific way, but it became more real. I understood that it was the relationships I had that made me understand God. I had not understood him as well as I would have liked because I did not understand how relationships work. By finding the connection between my relationships with humans and my relationship with God, I was able to see that I am much more spiritual than I had previously thought. By including my dealings with my fellow-man, I found I was able to recognize their impact on me, as well as the genuine feeling of connectivity, even in the physical absence of any other human. Even writing this, I feel like I am more connected than I have when I’ve been surrounded by people.
While I’m by no means an expert on the intertexuality of human relationships and their impact on spirituality, it’s been interesting to explore the idea. I’m guessing I’ve really only scratched the surface. I’d love to hear from you, to get your thoughts on all of this.