Introduction by Jack Miles to Best American Spiritual Writing 2004

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4)

By now, the word spirituality ought not embarrass me, but like the word mommy it still does. Mommy has its place and, especially, its time; but we cringe a bit, don’t we, when we hear an adult say unselfconsciously “Mommy phoned this morning.” The word is out of place, or past its time. Adults don’t talk that way. Or shouldn’t.

Or so we think. Perhaps adults sufficiently serene in their adulthood do not blush at mommy. But because spirituality is a word that I first heard in a little world that shaped me as powerfully as a second family, a world that I left behind only after a struggle, this word carries for me some of the same baggage as mommy. The contributions to this year’s Best Spiritual Writing are varied, authentic, engaging, and repeatedly surprising, yet for me, I confess, they summon up the memory of a time when spirituality and adulthood seemed antithetical.

I was introduced to spirituality at the age of fourteen as a brother in the devotional fraternity called the sodality (from the Latin sodalis, companion) that was a part of life at all Jesuit secondary schools. Starting in freshman year, we sodalists were introduced to the school of spirituality called Ignatian—techniques of prayer and meditation developed by Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Back in 1956, our initiation into mental prayer, as the beginner’s exercise in Ignatian spirituality was then called, began in much the same way as an introduction to Pilates training might now begin—that is, in a group and under the direction of a trainer.

The first step, once we had gathered in the chapel at the appointed hour, was the recitation of one of the Roman Catholic prayers that we all knew by heart. This in itself created a mild sense of fraternity, relocated us, and brought us to a kind of preliminary focus. The second step was a minute or two of silence. The third step was the instruction “Place yourself in the presence of God,” about which more below. The fourth step was another interlude of silence—still brief but a little longer than the first one. The fifth step was the leader’s presentation in a five-minute talk of a subject suitable for meditation. A typical subject would be Christ’s prayer during his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, but not my will but thine be done.” The priest—the leader was always a priest on the faculty of the school—might evoke darkness, the chill of the night, the danger, and so forth, and direct our attention to Christ’s honesty and his courage. Then would begin the sixth step in the exercise, the central period of silence or mental prayer proper. Rather than asking God for something, mental prayer was simply thinking about something in the presence of God and awaiting what might ensue within the mind. After the lapse of nearly fifty years, I cannot recall the exit formula—there was one—that was spoken after perhaps fifteen minutes to signal the end of the central exercise. Coming out of mental prayer felt a bit like awakening from hypnosis. Returned to ourselves, we recited a concluding prayer in unison and tramped out of the chapel for the rest of the school day.

What transpires in the minds of fourteen-year-old boys instructed to place themselves in the presence of God? Twenty years later, a friend’s son told us of a study allegedly proving that sixteen-year-olds experience a sex-related thought every thirty seconds. She was surprised. I was not. And to me, the chapel at St. Ignatius High School was, in memory, the place where I seemed most aware of the intervals. Yet I testify that the command “Place yourself in the presence of God” produced a shift of consciousness that the succession of tumescence and detumescence did not undermine.

Did we even believe in God? At one point in John Updike’s first novel, The Centaur, an inspired high school teacher is preaching—no other verb will quite do—the grand sweep of evolution from the Big Bang to the rise of human consciousness. The novelist directs our attention to a boy in a back seat whose gross sex-preoccupation seems to undercut the nobility of the lecture. But behind the character in the novel, there broods the novelist himself. Updike is a Christian inspired in spite of himself by this godless vision. Were he an atheist, he would be inspired in spite of himself by the Christian vision. The text of belief and unbelief seems so often to read like a giant palindrome.

Rather than by the Christian vision per se, I myself was entranced by the esprit de corps of the Jesuit order. Over a ten-year period beginning with my eighteenth year, the Jesuits turned me into an intellectual of sorts, but they first turned me me into a fellow Jesuit through two full years of an intense initiation into Ignatian spirituality. This was an experience that, as I would later conclude, reversed my normal movement from adolescence to adulthood and turned me, powerfully though temporarily, from an adolescent back into a child. But though I was to say the least confused and embarrassed by the reversal, I return to it in memory with a kind of longing.

A month after entering the order, I was led through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius—a month of silence interrupted by only a few hours of conversation every six or seven days. For the remainder of that two-year novitiate, I rose at 5:00 a.m. every morning and meditated in silence for an hour at a desk provided with a kneeler before walking silently to the chapel for Mass and then from the chapel to the refectory for a silent breakfast. My life included no television, no radio, no newspapers or magazines, and no reading material other than books on, what else, spirituality. All my needs—food, shelter, clothing, health care, recreation, and companionship—were provided for. In all those regards, I had, as never since early childhood, literally nothing to worry about; and for long minutes—in the chapel, for example, after the morning’s meditation had ended but before daily Mass began—nothing to think about either. And I began to like it that way. Against the predictions of some, I began to like having nothing on my mind.

Besides practicing Ignatian meditation every morning, a novice attended more general lectures on Christian spirituality. One learned about the history of monasticism and about the various schools of spirituality. One read classics in the related literature. One learned of the via purgativa, the via contemplativa, and for the sainted few the via unitiva. As beginners, we were on the via purgativa. Purgative asceticism—fasting, mild (and closely controlled) self-flagellation, and the use of the “discipline,” a kind of barbed bracelet worn for an hour or two around the thigh—would help us get started.

Did it take? It is easy to answer that it did not. By divers paths, most of those who started out with me to become Jesuits are now ex-Jesuits. But, yes, something did take, though not in the way I once thought it did. Novitiate life, often silent and solemn, was not always so; and this matters more in retrospect than it did at the time. A Jesuit of the generation before mine entitled his memoir of Jesuit training I’ll Die Laughing. I have never, before or since, laughed with the abandon that I laughed during those two years. Nor have I ever lived so physical a life, a life of sports played to such joyous exhaustion. Never before or since have I lived a life in which so many hours were spent exuberantly out of doors or in which I seemed to feel the passing of the seasons in every pore of my skin.

As for sex, though I know now that others have other tales to tell, my experience during those first two years, consisted in its entirety of nocturnal emissions: Never a dalliance with another boy, never an act of masturbation. We were given three rules to follow: tactus (Latin for “touch”), the rule forbidding us to touch one another (tagging in tag football or collisions in basketball or handball were exceptions to the rule); “particular friendship,” a rule that, in effect, meant that we were to strive to treat all the brethren with equal affection; and “custody of the eyes”—that is, no “meaningful” gazing. These three rules, which at my novitiate seemed to be strictly observed, preserved chastity pretty effectively. But in effect they made us act as if we had yet to enter puberty; and in saying this, I return to the troubling question with which I began. Must one become a child to enter the kingdom of heaven?

At Harvard in the turmoil of the late 1960s, still a Jesuit but now a Harvard graduate student as well, I awoke one morning to an oddly frightening thought: I could not recall when I had last had a wet dream. Why should this matter? I asked myself. After all, I had taken a vow of celibacy. The answer that came—not instantaneously but quickly enough—was that I had not authentically renounced sex but only, somehow, indefinitely postponed it. When vowing celibacy, I had unconsciously made (to use a phrase from Jesuit casuistry) a mental reservation. But I had pronounced my vows all of eight years earlier. Time was fleeting! Though I was only twenty-seven, the physical change I had noticed was enough to send a simple but chilling message: I would not be forever young. And from that morning on, something began to unravel.

Ignatius Loyola built his spiritual exercises around the transformation that he had brought about in himself while recovering from a crippling war injury. But at the time of this transformation, the charismatic Basque had behind him years of life as a courtier and a soldier. He had fathered a child. A novice in the spiritual life, he was anything but a sexual novice. But could the regimen that turned this sexually experienced if not, in fact, somewhat debauched courtier into a monk be imposed to the same transformative effect on virginal Irish-American boys? What was yet there to transform?

In the 1960s, younger American Jesuits had already begun to object that traditional Jesuit training infantilized them. But for the sexual sharpening of that point and its linkage to Ignatius himself, I am indebted not to them but to a Jewish classmate at Harvard. Jeremy (as I will call him) was one of surprisingly few Jews who brought no rabbinical training and no Jewish religious commitment with them into Harvard’s Hebrew Bible program. His path to the Tanakh had led not from any yeshiva but rather from an undergraduate love affair with Israeli Hebrew as a rapidly evolving literary language. Jeremy read the dense Hebrew prose of S. Y. Agnon for pleasure and, to universal amazement, without a dictionary. His prickly manner with the religious Jews in our classes presaged a battle that he would join only later, but it is always easier to see another’s humpback. When it came to Catholicism, Jeremy had an unforced, intuitive, sympathetic, and in the end quite correct understanding of what was eating at his Jesuit classmates.

Jeremy was a good friend, and I remember him fondly. All the same, I blushed hot when he made his historical/sociological observation. He was gentle, he was wry, but I was mortified anyway. One way to state the human condition, I submit, is to assert that for our species meaningless sex is impossible. However mere we would like mere sex to be, some sort of meaning always crowds in on it. Sex can represent strength, youth, beauty, health, love, safety, consolation, wealth, power, transcendence, oblivion, escape—a list that any reader of this sentence can lengthen. For me, at that time in my life, it represented adulthood. I could not begin to be an adult, I thought, until I ceased to be a virgin. It was sexual experience that separated the men from the boys, and I was still, in a painfully unbecoming sense of the phrase, just one of the boys.

As this transitus got under way, the Society of Jesus and everything I had learned about spirituality in my specifically Jesuit training came to seem part of an embarrassingly prolonged boyhood. It mattered not a little that in the 1960s the word spirituality, ubiquitous in Roman Catholic piety, was still rare in Protestant, Jewish, and secular discourse. The difference of dialect mattered because at just this time, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and of the election of John F. Kennedy, American Catholics as a population were emerging self-consciously and awkwardly from their socioreligious ghetto and looking to take their natural place in the larger American society. To use the word spirituality was, for me, to ring the leper’s bell: Catholic! Catholic! Worse, it was to hint at an appalling defect of masculinity: Spirituality as the chaste seminarian’s substitute for physicality. I felt like Hester Prynne wearing a V for Virgin instead of an A for Adulteress.

When I wrote my Jesuit superior in Chicago (though studying at Harvard, I belonged to the Chicago “province” of the order), he wrote back asking if I had discussed requesting dismissal from the Society with my spiritual director. (A Jesuit who wanted to depart on good terms did not just quit or walk out; he requested dismissal.) The man’s question was perfectly honorable and reasonable within the assumptions of the order, and I recognized it as such. Yet spiritual director prompted the same sort of wince that spirituality prompted. What would people think—the people I wanted to meet, the people I wanted to think me one of them—if they knew I had something called a spiritual director? At some emotional level, it was as if a young man, planning to go abroad, were to notify his father tersely of his intentions and hear back solicitously, “But have you talked this over with Mommy?”

Yet consultation with a spiritual director was a step that I felt conscience-bound to take. If this was to be a divorce, and that seemed pretty likely, I wanted it to be an amicable divorce. Giving spiritual direction a chance constituted good faith in the secular sense of the phrase. To my good fortune, I found my way to a brilliant and rather worldly Jesuit philosopher, then a scholar in residence at a posh psychiatric clinic in the Berkshires. An afternoon with him, as the snow deepened outside, became, effectively, my exit-interview from the order. In memory, the soundtrack for the long drive back to Boston is James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” a song mysteriously about adulthood and rock-a-bye infancy, not to speak of the Berkshires, Boston, snowy December, and a unfinished journey to an unknown destination.

Adulthood is a meaning that sexual experience can bear at most only briefly and once. As a transition to adulthood, losing one’s virginity is rather like disembarking from a ship. Once one is ashore, even if one is the last to disembark, one is ashore for good. The thing is done. But in my case, as it happens, other meanings followed on apace.

Not long after leaving the order and the church as well, I began to read a good deal about Buddhist meditation. I attended a number of lectures and began to meditate regularly. I found appealing, even consoling, the doctrine of anatta, according to which the self is an illusion, a transitory event “co-dependently originated” from multiple starting points. I found plausible the claim that the illusion of self is preserved only in normal consciousness, wherein arises normal desire, the origin of all pain, and that liberation is accomplished by “the slaying of the mind,” vividly pictured as a hyperactive monkey hopping from branch to branch. Unlike Jesuit meditation, Buddhist meditation is not an attempt to think seriously and at length about something such as Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane but rather an attempt to kill the monkey—to halt ordinary thinking altogether and subside into a protracted pre-cognitional or extra-cognitional state. The Buddhist-inspired exercises that I undertook at this time produced an effect that seemed different from but experientially just as real as the more familiar Jesuit effect of placing myself in the presence of God. But what I found most arresting was the fact that the brief periods (only some minutes in duration) during which I seemed to achieve what was referred to as mindfulness resembled nothing so much as the sense of mental emptiness that I had by then experienced during peak moments in sexual intercourse.

It was only years later that I learned of vajrayana Buddhism and the cosmology behind ego-obliterating tantric sex. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is home to the Heeramoneck collection of Tibetan art, including a stunning array of esoteric mandalas portraying ecstatic divine copulation in a way that is intended to erase not just the distinction between gods and men but also that between self and world and, ultimately, between order and chaos. Had I had happened into such an experience of ego-erasure at the time when I surrendered within the same brief period my virginity and the Jesuit cosmos that had engulfed me from puberty on? I wondered: Perhaps so. But by the time the idea occurred to me, I had turned the page in a dozen ways. I can only say that during my earlier “Buddhist period,” though I was willing to take it on faith that true enlightenment is only arduously achieved, I could not deny a certain sense of déja vu when taking instruction. If, to quote a well-known Buddhist saying, the Buddha at the moment of enlightenment was like a deer in the deer park, if that state of mind—a state of animal rather than human consciousness—is the goal of Buddhist meditation, then Buddhism may be respectfully and uninvidiously characterized as an attempt to exit the normal adult spiritual condition. But this seemed an exit that I had by then experienced, however fleetingly, in two quite different settings.

Or so I thought. We give human children little stuffed animals to play with because, in a way, children are little animals. Their consciousness has not yet matured to the adult human state. Their little minds are not yet jumping from branch to branch with adult human agility. Buddhism has always seemed to me an attempt not merely to return to a childlike state of consciousness—call it the stuffed-animal state—but boldly to progress or descend past that state to something even more devoid of human ideation. I honor that effort, and yet I would add that descending only as far as the stuffed-animal state takes some doing; and this is the experience that I seem to recall in the luminosity of my first Jesuit years.

I begin with the observation that, though we were not mistaken, as Jesuits in our late twenties, to object that our training had juvenilized us, juvenilization has more than one meaning. Yes, we had been excused from adult responsibility in a way that left us superficially and temporarily ill equipped to assume such responsibility later. But that same deprivation—joined during a period of two full years to strict sexual abstinence and to a deprivation from all else that might have given our incipiently adult minds whereon to think—ushered us back through the gates of puberty into a kind of induced second latency. And that second latency, however artificial, remains in memory a distinct, vivid, and deeply attractive spiritual state. We were not like deer in the deer park, no, but we were, after all, in a surprisingly close approximation to the spiritual condition of pre-pubescent children.

Everyone saw this about us. Everyone, even elderly retired Jesuits who had been through the experience themselves years earlier, shook their heads and laughed when they saw it in us. But there it was. Think of it, if you will, as standing on your head. Headstanding may be crazy, but it is certainly possible, and its effect upon the brain, whether you call the effect beneficial or not, is unlike that of any other exercise you can perform. At the time, I liked it rather well.

All this was, you will understand, a long time ago. I now have a daughter at Berkeley. Next year, my wife and I will celebrate the silver anniversary of our wedding. But when I am asked to address myself to “spiritual writing,” much of this tangled process crowds its way back in. There was a time not too long ago when I would have tried to talk about it without using the word spirituality. But by a roundabout path, I have come to a point where I can speak some of the old words without the old fear of being somehow tainted, disqualified from competing in the larger world, or, worse, dragged all the way back in.

The memory of spiritual intensity in childhood has been for one writer after another the touchstone for all spiritual experience worthy of the name. Jesus was far from the only one. I spoke above of sports played to joyous exhaustion and of the seasons of the year felt in every pore of the skin. Whom does that bring to your mind? It brings the poet Dylan Thomas to mine. Who has spoken better of that state of heightened but joyfully unreckoning sensitivity? “In the sun born over and over,” he wrote, “I ran my heedless ways.”

The novitiate stood on a bluff overlooking a river. Leaving the park-like grounds, we would hike through woods cut by cold creeks to a farmhouse the novitiate owned on a remote hilltop. Remembering these hikes and the larky feeling of boys on a holiday, I think of Wordsworth in a dozen passages like:

The sounding cataract

Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,

The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,

Their colors and their forms, were then to me

An appetite; a feeling and a love,

That had no need of a remoter charm,

By thoughts supplied, nor any interest

Unborrowed from the eye.

Many from all backgrounds cherish some such memory from childhood. But granting that the intensity of childhood experience is a recognizable state, even a familiar one, one must still ask: Is it also a state to which the adult can return after the natural moment for it has come and gone? Is it possible to create a spiritual discipline to turn the man, even the sexually ardent young man, back into a boy? That is the question—the question of whether an intense but transitory personal experience can ever be replicated and then built into an ongoing adult life.

Never completely, I would answer, but perhaps partially. As Jesuit novices, it seems to me that we tried our best. And we had a warrant for our attempt in the Gospel passage that I have placed as an epigraph to this essay. Many of those who are revered as spiritual leaders radiate a youthfulness that age cannot touch, a maturity beyond mere adulthood. As Jeremy suggested, it may be a mistake to attempt this step beyond adulthood before reaching adulthood in the simpler sense. Hinduism with its rich and rooted acknowledgment of the stages of life may be wiser here than Catholic Christianity. But if one does try to be, so to speak, young before one’s time, well, you may count on it: Something will happen. Racing ahead that way is, perhaps, a bit like reading a great classic before you are old enough to appreciate it. I read King Lear for the first time when I was fifteen. It means incomparably more to me now than it did then, but it meant something to me even then. This is what I meant when I said above that “something took” in the Jesuit novitiate.

The fact that I grew accustomed to hear “formed” Jesuits, caught up in the swirl of their later lives as teachers, administrators, lab supervisors, drama coaches, and what-have-you, speak of the novitiate as a lost world suggests to me that the spiritual effect of which I speak was a secondary, largely unconscious effect. Primarily and consciously, we were learning and practicing the rationalized Ignatian spirituality of mental prayer. Perhaps at the peak moments in that spirituality, such as the nature meditation that comes at the conclusion of the Spiritual Exercises, the two did seem briefly to work in tandem. But more often, they did not; and the more powerful experience was the one less attended to, the one that lingers as an indelible memory, however transitory it may have been as a spiritual condition.

As I said above, it was the esprit de corps of the Society of Jesus that made me, at the age of seventeen, want to enlist. How powerfully, as adolescents leave their families behind, they yearn to belong to something else! And how painful it can be not to make the team, not to be admitted to the fraternity, not to be chosen for the cast. At such a moment, a boy or girl feels not so much rejected as orphaned. The hoped-for replacement family has turned one out. Adults, too, often have a desire to belong to something larger than themselves, but theirs is a tamed and domesticated version of the awful adolescent craving. The developed adult appetite (capacity might be a better word) for group identity doesn’t eat at the achieved adult but feeds him. The earlier, more rampant appetite—for those who are lucky enough to make the team or the fraternity or the cast—can easily go beyond nurture to intoxication. It certainly did for me.

Years after leaving the Jesuits, I learned with a faint jolt of recognition that the motto of the French Foreign Legion is Legio patria mea: “The legion is my fatherland.” The legion and not, as one might expect, France. This brought a shock of recognition because my own earlier motto could so easily have been Societas ecclesia mea: “The Society is my church.” “The Society” is what Jesuits call the order among themselves. That it is “of Jesus” goes without saying. But as with young legionnaires, so with young Jesuits: In the end, first things must come first. If you have your doubts about France, you don’t belong in the Legion, however exciting you may have found it. And if you have your doubts about the Church of Rome, you don’t belong in the Society of Jesus either.

Ten years after leaving the Jesuits, I ratified a process already well under way by marrying in the Episcopal Church. I had concluded by then both that I could not avail myself of the spiritual resources of Buddhism as well as I could those of Christianity and, more basically, that agnostic disaffiliation, the default option for my generation, was an intellectually unwarranted impoverishment of life. Spiritual life in the Episcopal Church has been, for me, like life lived in a ramshackle but still surprisingly functional old manse. As an Episcopalian, I am accommodated as the adult I must ever be yet provided repeated, fleeting but pungent occasions to be, without shame, a spiritual child again.

About ten years after that, I began work on what became a pair of books on the Jewish and the Christian versions of the epic of God, the Bible. Both begin with God in solitude, quite literally talking to himself. The Jewish version ends, in effect, with his retirement, the Christian version with his marriage. But in the wilder Christian version, he ends his career transformed into a sacrificial lamb, and his bride is a personified Jerusalem embracing the entire human race. You might say, though this did not occur to me until well after both books were written, that I read the Bible as the story of God’s escape from celibacy. You might. I am less than sure, even now, that I would.

As for the Episcopal Church, I know that it is not for everyone, but then what is? This seems a flippant question, but I mean to ask it seriously with reference to this anthology of spiritual writing. Of its contributors, one may know, guess, or suspect that several, at least, are committed to developed traditions or disciplines that, for their adherents or practitioners, have historically been answers rather than questions, intended for the many rather than for the few. But in the main, what the contributors choose to write of here is, as I might put it, the vestibule rather than the sanctuary. One detects a pluralistically chastened awareness that comparable experiences, as they come to be preserved and implemented, may lead to incomparable, incompatible rationalizations. These, too, can be shared but never quickly, never easily, and often at some risk of offense.

The most powerful statement collectively made by this anthology is thus less an assertion of some such tradition or discipline than it is a negation of the mentioned default position in American spiritual life. Again and again in these pages, we find an American man or woman experientially interrupted in and then dislocated from the stultifying routine of normal American materialism. Taken together, the collection thus bespeaks a poignant readiness to take leave from the consumer society whose cosmology may be Big Bang-awesome but whose ideology rarely gets much past “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Just after World War II, Americans believed that science had won the war and saved the world from tyranny and that the material plenty bestowed by science (“Better Living Through Chemistry” was an advertising slogan of the day), was an innocent blessing, especially for folks who had known such tough times so recently. That belief is the spiritual home, the default Weltanschauung, for most Americans over forty. But in the first decade of the twenty-first century, science seems increasingly the unwitting destroyer of the world, while the innocence of American plenty has morphed into obese glut for the few and dire want for the many. It may be time, then, to leave the default position, to leave home.

American spiritual writing at its best is, in sum, a pluriform, multifarious acknowledgment of discomfiture and an opening of exits into a wider world. These acknowledgments and openings, some of which involve a doubling back to childhood, are not the consummation of spirituality, but in their candor and unguarded openness they are the beginning. The reader is led to this volume, I imagine, by the question: There must be something more. Where can I find it? The contributors to this volume answer, in effect: You will find it when it finds you. Refuse to deny what you know but consent to how little that will always be, and, when the moment comes, the sky will open and the liberating intrusion will descend upon you.

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