Thursday, June 11, 2009

Writing Your Spiritual Biography

This morning I recommend a process by which you might begin to explore your "spiritual biography."

I have two goals in mind. 1) I want to urge you to "examine your life," in keeping with the aphorism that "the examined life is the one life worth living." 2) And I also want you to become aware of your "spiritual trajectory"—not just the flow of your life, but also the direction your life is taking relative to values and meaning. The latter, I hope will apprise and surprise you—that you have a spiritual trajectory and your life has more than an unfolding, it has a destination that can be conceived in religious terms (In theology/philosophy this is known as teleology.)

A child's development is amazing, isn't it: from the pure, potential of the zygote at conception; to the birthed personality nine months later; to the walking, talking, reasoning individual, say of two years; to the morally sophisticated youth often or twelve years old? [In fact, our church school program is grounded in a clear vision of the child and youth's psychological development. Our Unitarian tradition was the first to fit developmental psychology into religious education and moral nurture as early as the 1940s. And so our children's religious education is guided through an unfolding, age appropriate scheme.]

As I age, coming to better self-understanding and also gathering information from others I encounter, I am more and more appreciative—sometimes in awe—of the significance of the earliest yearshow we are formed; how the first quarter of our life is more than a frame of reference, it is an inescapable presence casting long shadows through all our years; how our innate personality plays its part.

Early Elements and Influences

So, in writing a spiritual biography, special consideration must be given to the earliest years. You know, "as the twig is bent, so the tree grows." This is what I want to reflect on today.

The obvious starting place is Family. Parenting figures are monumental influences on a child. They represent a convergence: two distinct genetic and cultural heritages, perhaps quite different from one another. (Our church is haven for what used to be called "mixed marriages"mixed in the sense of being of quite different faiths; for example Jewish and Gentile.)

Each parent brings something unique to the tender child. It might be something as fundamental as a basic understanding of love: unconditional love associated with Mother, and conditional love associated with Father. Or what a parent brings might be exceedingly complex or conflicted. In my counseling experiences the influence of a parent, which might include absence, as in a death or divorce, because it is foundational, has an ongoing effect.

In my own Family I can clearly identify how my parents shaped me. My mother by action and word articulated a very real and enduring experience of love. One of my great life lesson's occurred when I saw her introduce my infant daughter to her first spring, carrying Katie in the crook of her arm, and moving from plant to plant in her garden, repeating a refrain: "Look! What's that? It's beautiful!" Perhaps I became a freethinker at our Sunday dinner table, where and when, from my father I learned how to be constructively critical of the priest's homily and the scriptural illustration that went in it. Each of my parents had a strong work ethic; and their way of spending leisure time was to tend their fruit vegetable and flower gardens and finish the house that my father literally built himself—a long work in progress. Though my work ethic is somewhat different, it is similarly strong.

It's worth considering what beliefs and values your parents instilled in you with their words and especially their deeds.

Home is a subset of Family. You might try drawing a house from your childhood, something as basic floor plan perhaps. Fill it up with things and people from then. When you have it complete, write a narrative to accompany what you've drawn, being particularly sensitive to the feelings and strong memories evoked. One of our enduring children's curriculua here at UCH is Haunting House, with its conviction that the places we inhabit fill us up, even as we fill them up.

Closely related to Home is Place. A decade ago, the poet Kathleen Norris wrote a fine book called Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, in which she explored the spirituality of a remote town, Lemmon, South Dakota, where she had family roots and where she retreated as an adult from New York City. I recommend it as a guide to exploring Place.

Place gets into us on a deep levels—that middle brain place where sensations and memories reside. Ellie, my wife, grew up in Upstate New York where Lake Champlain runs between the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks Mountains of New York. Her spirit, I ascertain, was shaped by contrasts—the melancholy of isolation, deep winters, and long nights and crisp, invigorating summer days of scintillating sunshine; white/gray winter snow and vibrant autumn leaves; the moan and cracking of the lake making ice and the harmonious stitching of crickets in deep summer. Place is more than the ministrations of Nature. It is also people and habitations. Ellie's experiences of growing up in a village of 800 or so inhabitants were markedly different from those of you who grew up in a city neighborhood—Chicago perhaps.

Whenever I read memoirs of childhood, such as Jean Shephard's stories of growing up in Hammond/Gary, Indiana—I'm impressed by the poignant influences of Place—how they relate to the alchemy of becoming, that the world, no matter how contained or vast, shabby or magnificent is an influential milieu.

An indispensable to Family, Home, and Place is Time—the age in which one is young. Each era and even decade is different, in some ways, startlingly so. It matters whether one came of age in the Depression Era, the War Years, the Conformist 1950s, the Psychedelic '60s, the Excessive 70s, the Greed Is Good 80s, or the Clinton-dominated 90s. The influence of Time includes generational influences. Generational cohorts share general outlooks and dispositions, seemingly in reaction to their parent's general ways.

Begin a spiritual biography by exploring the basics of Family, Home, Time, and Place.

Next take into account your Basic Personality, the consequence of that heterogeneous genetic mix that you are—your uniqueness. This is a good opportunity to search out old friends, as well as family, all those who knew you best. Peer into old photograph, seeking recognition. Remember as best as your able your youthful ways— patterns and passions. What you see may be so poignant as to give you astonishing.insight into who you became. This is the center of a spiritual biography—an exploration of the Inherent Self.

Another helpful area to explore from your childhood and youth are your significant Teachers, Mentors, and Role Models. Consider the quality they possessed that allowed you to learn from them, in addition to what you actually learned. What was their stake in the teaching-learning relationship? Were they even intentional? My earliest Hero was the great baseball player Willie Mays who was not only an athlete virtually without peer, he played the game with style and joie de vivre. (He is also African American, but I never much thought about that one way or the other.)

Don't forget your Friends. Who were they? What were their qualities that met your qualities in the almost mystical bonds of friendship? In what ways did they give you the freedom to be your true self, or at least explore the possibility of true self? Are they friends still?

What about other Influences', books, music, movies, and other aspects from popular culture that stirred you, which perhaps when you think about them now are exceedingly vivid. (I amaze myself with lyrics from old 1950/60 rock-n- roll songs that pop up like aphorisms to suit a specific situation in 2003. I realize they're in my unconscious, I've retained those lyrics, because they affirmed a truth I realized.) The first book that made an impact on me was Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Twain, I recognized knew me or at least we were kindred spirits. And that relationship matured so that Mark Twain continued to be a spirit guide regarding human nature in almost everything he wrote, especially his darker later works.

Also consider the highly charged or curiously memorable Moments of your childhood and youth—those occasions that seemed like they happened only yesterday, because you can recall them in vivid detail. They are special windows into not only the influences that shaped you but who you would become. (Here consider significance of the conclusion to Orson Wells, Citizen Cane—a remembrance of the dying Kane of a moment from his childhood: a snowy day and a sled with the enigmatic name "Rosebud.")

When you have considered such things and perhaps more, try to imagine how you gathered up all this and more into your emerging Self; and as the process carried you toward adulthood, you began to feel the increasing urges of independence, to literally break away and assume more and more self-responsibility. That curious creature was you—an almost mature human being perched on the brink of adulthood—a marked beginning for a differently maturing Self, facing all the predictable crises and passages through the next forty years that I described in my pervious sermon. Sometime in your late teens or so you were a formed adult—formed by the influences of the first quarter of your life, influences that you exerted your will upon in your becoming.

Threads of Continuity

I maintain that if you want to know the spiritual qualities of your life, you must begin with your early years, and in those years, look for what I call threads of continuity. Threads of continuity are those attributes, outlooks, patterns that trace—often circuitously—to childhood and youth. Those threads will likely reveal a trajectory—the arc of your years reaching toward a goal.

For example, I can look back forty some years, remembering how I entered into the Sunday dinner conversation about the homily—from my father's common sense perspective trying to make sense of it. As a breakaway young adult, when I became a Unitarian that dinner table model easily translated into the basic Unitarian prescription: "prove all things, hold fast to that which is good." I shall never stop from proving and holding, as I seek truth."

A Season of Reflection

We've entered a season, with longer nights and a hunkering in, that lends itself, quite naturally, to the sort of "spiritual biography^ I'm recommending. My approach to such a "spiritual biography" suits the counsel of the T.S. Eliot, who poeticized in the Four Quartets: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at the place we started, and know it for the first time."

I would hope that your exploration of your formative years might take you to a loving appreciation of the child/youth you were: precious and malleable then and with the bud of a destiny that would take you through your years.

[November, 2008]

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