April 2015

A reasonable question?

If the physical universe is governed by forces, then it might seem reasonable to ask if the non-physical – the spiritual reality – is also governed by forces, writes Garry Everett.

BY Garry Everett

What is the last great frontier of human knowledge? Some say outer space; some the deep oceans; some say ourselves.

Recently, a British astronomer, Mark Thompson, made the seemingly simple claim that the universe can now be better understood because we know that it is governed by four fundamental forces (or laws or principles). He nominated the first force as that of electro-magnetism, and the others as: strong nuclear (which keeps things together); weak nuclear (which causes things to decay or fall apart); and finally, the mysterious force of gravity (which keeps all things in their place in the universe).

If the whole physical universe is governed by these four forces, then it might seem a reasonable question to ask if the non-physical – the spiritual reality – is also governed by any forces which help us understand its nature and workings. I do not wish to foster a dualistic approach by separating physical and spiritual, but instead, to ask an integrating question which may help us to see ‘the whole’ better.

The spiritual life, at least in the Christian tradition, is usually conceived as being a relationship. Initially this was the relationship between the individual and God, or more precisely, between the individual and the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Over the centuries we came to understand that this relationship was more than bilateral: the individual’s relationship with God had to be played out in relationships with other human beings and with the whole created universe. Nourishing these relationships became the focus of the spiritual life. This nourishing is supported by many practices that are advocated by exponents of, and commentators on, the spiritual life as we have come to know it.

The reasonable question however, is not about practices we adopt (such as lectio divina, prayer, fasting, good works), but rather, about forces, laws, or principles that might govern the spiritual life. Here it is necessary to say that the term “force” or “law” is meant to convey something akin to a “set of explanations for”, much in the same way as St Benedict’s Rule is not meant to be a set of rules or commands, but rather a collection of wisdoms for living an authentic life.

It is also important to note that we interact with the forces of the physical universe. We can escape the pull of earth’s gravity and we can use the gravitational pull of other heavenly bodies to accelerate the speed of a spaceship passing nearby. In a similar way, we can interact with forces of the spiritual universe. We are not passive objects which are just acted upon by forces beyond us.

If we return to the notion that the spiritual life is about relationships, we might find our first clue to identifying a possible force within the spiritual life. Perhaps the best known relationship is intimacy between, for example, lovers, spouses, friends, parent and child. This is not to deny that, for some people, such relationships are not experienced as loving intimacy. However, intimate human relationships are generally governed by the law or force of love. This may seem a trite observation, but it is nevertheless fundamental.

We would all like to think of ourselves as great lovers, but if the truth be known, the law or force of love is quite mysterious. Ask any two people who “fell in love” and they will find it difficult to explain how or why it happened. Ask any parent who performed an heroic action for their child and they cannot explain how they were able to do something so incredible, except for “the power of love”. Recall also that the poet Dante once exclaimed that it was the power of love that moved the stars in the sky! We have come to know love as a force of attraction, but also as a force that makes us empty ourselves on behalf of others. It seems safe to say then, that unless we experience and reflect upon love, our spiritual life will be impoverished no matter how many practices we might repeat.

A second force or law governing human relationships is that of adaptation. Put simply, all relationships change: they either grow and deepen; they perish or diminish. Our practices can accelerate the speed and direction of these changes.

When Darwin posited his theory or law of evolution, he had been hypothesising about “the survival of the fittest” in all the species of nature he had observed. We often equate “fittest” with “strongest”. However, for Darwin, “fittest” meant the “best able to adapt”. Thus, fragile butterflies camouflage themselves so as to become unnoticed in their environment, and snails develop hard shells into which they withdraw at the hint of a predator approaching. This adaptive process is a natural, organic process at work in all living things. It is also at work in human relationships.

Might we not, therefore, benefit by sometimes focussing our spiritual practices on how we can work with the force of adaptation, by examining how it is at work in all our relationships; how it is helping to nourish our spiritual life?

We each have a unique spiritual life, just as the relationship between any two individuals is unique. Paradoxically though, within each ‘uniqueness’ there are some common elements. I am speculating that these elements may well be described as ‘forces’ which govern how the spiritual life develops and is assisted to develop by our practices. I may well be wide of the mark!

How would you understand the reality of your spiritual life? How would you describe its unfolding to others?

Garry Everett

Garry Everett has spent all his professional life, as well as much of retirement, as an educator, and mostly of adults. Garry’s enduring interests lie in family, Scripture, theology and Church renewal. At a local level he is involved in social justice and ecumenism. He is also a member of his parish St Vincent de Paul Conference.

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