Essayist, Reviewer, Novelist
Spiritual Journeys :
Start at home first
By Carole McDonnell
Ever since Cain ventured from Eden into the land of Wandering, humans have been fascinated by what lies far from home.
While some people are satisfied homebodies, wanderlust often prompts others to buy travel books, sign on with language tutors, and pay the price for a ticket to some place the heart considers its true home. Like geographical journeys, spiritual travels have their share of dangers and emotional satisfaction. There are dissatisfactions also. Let me map out the terrain for you.
Travel Preparations and the Decision to Explore
The typical traveler usually buys a few travel and language books. And many of us, once we begin to think for ourselves, dutifully study the spiritual books of other cultures. Yet we hardly know the varied landscapes of our own homeland. The last time many of us studied our own spiritual culture was when we were kids with limited knowledge, wisdom, and patience. Recently a poll showed that the average American is pretty fuzzy about geography. Hey, how many Manhattanites have actually gone to the top of the Empire State Building? The same can be said about our knowledge of our own religion. We zipped through Confirmation class and Social Studies because the powers said it was time we did so. We weren’t particularly self-aware or world-aware and we saw no use in studies in studying when zits, entertainment, homework, chores, and hormones seemed more significant. In addition, the guide who taught us only passed on what our little minds needed to pass the test. And his own knowledge was idiosyncratic, limited, or biased. (Not that we knew.) Yet we believe we know our world quite well, and we study the subtleties of French culture, language, and literature when we haven’t even tried to understand English Subjunctives. We then declare French to be a lovely language and we hardly understand how beautiful, subtle, sophisticated, useful, and complex English.
While we’re on the subject of tour books -- they always begin with a paragraph which says something like: "Humans are alike all over the world." The spiritual version of this statement is: "All religions are the same." This is somewhat true. A Tao of Spirituality exists, and most religions adhere to similar ethical standards. A Muslim man in Nigeria who steals his neighbor’s wife is just as wrong as a Christian man in New York who steals his neighbor’s wife. But tour --spiritual and otherwise-- books are also marketing tools, and the traveler should remember that there’s a great deal of Misrepresentation, and Marketing involved in exploration. The adulteress in Nigeria will likely be stoned while the New York adulteress will probably end up reunited with her husband or battling over on alimony.
Travelers will also encounter tour guides or teachers. The typical guide, unlike the ignorant explorer, knows the glories of his tradition, and the virtues of his landscape. He has been indoctrinated in the persuasive art of teaching his culture. He knows what will offend the traveler, and what will excite her. On a trip to Israel, my friend was told by a tour guide, "People expect to see a gate called ‘The Eye of a Needle’ and so instead of telling them that no such gate exists we show it to them." Racial, economic, and sexist aspects of a culture or religion will go unmentioned, will be downplayed, or will be thoroughly defended. The Hindu guide will probably not tell a western woman that in nearly all branches of Hinduism a woman’s salvation depends upon her husband. And he will certainly downplay the spiritual connection between the caste system --and the oppression of the Dalits (Untouchables)-- with the theory of reincarnation. Likewise, an Islamic teacher will probably not tell a western searcher that her husband is allowed two wives and that in the afterlife her husband will be rewarded with seventy-two virgins. Guides also study the traveler’s world. Sometimes their opinions of our religion, landscape, and our culture are true, sometimes not. Not that, as the aforementioned poll showed, we Americans are much better. The trouble occurs, though, when the spiritual explorer assumes the opinions of the foreigner about her culture are true. A friend recently told me that her spiritual teacher said that Jesus’s "lost" years were spent in India where Jesus learned great truths and declares that Jesus was speaking of reincarnation when he said, "You must be born again."
Language and Communication Difficulties.
Ever been told a hotel is a four-star hotel only to arrive there --when you’ve already paid your non-refundable money-- only to find out that in that country ‘four-star’ means ‘one-star’ in your own country? In much the same way, spiritual words such as destiny, fate, free will, the flesh, attainment, God-with-us, God-in-us, transfiguration, sacramental, spiritual, and submission might mean one thing in the traveler’s mind and another to someone of another culture. In Hinduism Krishna "incarnated" several times. But, incidentals aside, Yahweh "incarnated" in order to seek sinners to show them His love. Krishna incarnated to wreak vengeance and pursue the sinful.
Like geographical countries, spiritual realms also have differing governments and laws. The Gods and rulers have varying degrees of accessibility. The Christian kingdom, has an omnipotent omniscient king whom the lowliest, poorest, and most evil can approach expecting love. But anarchy rules in other realms, with inaccessible or uncaring kings or weak central governments hoisted on the shoulders of petty rulers. Citizens of those lands pay homage to those limited or cruel spirits because the Supreme Ruler is deemed distant. So, Gods are not interchangeable. A female friend --who considers herself highly enlightened-- recently said that Allah was the same as the Jewish-Christian Yahweh. But she accidentally insulted my Moroccan friend seated beside us with her patronizing comment. Truth to tell, many Muslims consider Yahweh a bit of a wuss. The Christian God is a bit of a self-sacrificing Caretakers. And one of His unique personality traits is his love for sinners. In the Koran, also, Allah has 100 names but none of them is love. Yahweh states clearly, "God is Love." Allah generally has no love for the persistently unrepentant sinner.
Many people decide to leave their native lands, but even so they retain some of their native beliefs. In the same way, Christians who convert to other religions often have a Christianized version of their new religion whether they are aware of it. Hinduism, for instance, is very nihilistic without the optimistic Christian worldview. In popular American Hinduism, the Karmic Wheel of Hinduism becomes a karmic ladder. This shows a western progressivism (which arguable was Created by Christianity’s tendency to sacramentalized the world.) American Hindus speak of their next reincarnation as a goal. But for Hindus in India, reincarnation is not the ultimate goal. Freedom from reincarnation is. Snakes and Ladders, the modern version of the ancient game created by Hindu teachers, shows the grim relentlessness of justice as it pulls the human soul back from the brink of freedom.
Many travelers often trust tour groups, books, and guides and an inner leading to guide them through foreign lands. Yet, it’s always a good idea to take a reminder of home with you as you travel. Perhaps a good guide book. Home is a varied landscape with different terrains. The Roman Catholic terrain is unlike the Episcopal or Baptist or Charismatic. All foreign roads do not lead to Rome. Sometimes they lead to the empty sea. And sometimes they lead back home.