In all traditions, the path to encounter with the Sacred, the Holy has been described as the hard path, the path that demands much of the seeker, the narrow path that few dare to walk. The symbols of that path have therefore always included animals, which represent the primal energy of Life, animals that are strong, often solitary, lordly like the lion, the jaguar, the bull or the stag.
The ancient Celts revered the stag as Lord of the Forest, the lone one who watches, protects, and cuts paths that others follow. It represented purification and Divine authority.
Buddha was often represented as a deer, and in Medieval times, Jesus was symbolised by the regal, watchful stag, divine protector, sometimes by the unicorn, a powerful, solitary animal with the power to cleanse and purify that which it touched.
The ancients, you see, understood that the Spiritual, the Divine, the Holy is not soft, cuddly and tame like a puppy. It is sturdy, it is firm, robust, unwavering, it is authentic and dependable, a source of comfort, support and strength to those who walk that path. And the individual who walks that path, who chooses to live a Spiritual life, what the Buddha called the Noble or Holy life, that person develops the inner strength of a stag or a lion.
True spirituality requires the self-discipline, mindfulness and resolve of a consciously awakening human being. To choose and follow a spiritual path, whether it be in a spiritual tradition or not, takes an earnest desire to understand, the will and courage to follow that desire. And walking that path builds in a person self-mastery, inner power and strength to hold to that path even in the darkest, roughest of times, or return to it after losing one's way.
It is that strength that enables a person to do what is right, good and decent no matter the cost, to stand alone for truth and justice when no one else will, to act with integrity and compassion in a society that harms and lies ... in other words, to live a Spiritual, a Holy life.
Spirituality is at heart an attitude of active goodwill towards all living beings (including oneself and the living planet), and the desire, will and courage to act for their wellbeing.
It can be a tough and lonely path, though the rewards are many and great.
- Nelson Mandela, whose courage saved a nation and set an example for the all.
- Father Lazarus, whose rocky search for meaning brought him to a cave in the Egyptian desert, where he and other monks pray daily for all humankind and nature.
- Peter Edwards, who lost everything trying to teach Australia how to heal the land and farm sustainably.
For some, spirituality is found or cultivated within religion or spiritual tradition that offers a deeply empowering and light-filled spiritual path. Though immersion in a spiritual tradition can be extremely nurturing, supportive and edifying for the committed seeker, those traditions can also be, and often have been so corrupted and misunderstood that they become more harmful to spirit than helpful.
The genuine seeker, therefore, must learn to be discerning, to test the waters of a tradition, so to speak, and if entered into a tradition, to take from it only that which the heart feels is good.
L'eglise Paroissal Saint Pierre
One can, however, live a deeply spiritual life without formal religion. I know environmental activists whose lives, values and beliefs are profoundly spiritual without any reference at all to God, Great Spirit or worship. Theirs is the spirituality of Nature, of which we human beings, as blind and ignorant as we can be, are nevertheless a part; their goodwill is powerfully expressed in their loving goodwill to all living things and their commitment their wellbeing.
To me, American linguist and social critic, Noam Chomsky, who hardly if ever mentions God, is as spiritual in his constant probing and questioning of American values and actions, and calls for honest, ethical, responsible government and actions as was the hugely inspiring spiritual leader, Martin Luther King. I find the richly informed writings of environmentalist Stephan Buhner to be as spiritual as the biblical psalms, sometimes more so, and his deep understanding of the consciousness of plants, trees and Mother Earth are as spiritually wise and uplifting as the writings of Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean, co founders of the spiritual-eco centre Findhorn in Scotland.
Eileen Caddy & Dorothy Maclean, two of the founders of Findorn.
Recently, I came across a ‘Christian’ website that asked whether Christians should support computer whiz Edward Snowden who is forced to hide in Moscow for making known the surveillance abuses of the U.S. government, and other whistleblowers. I laughed. Wouldn’t the Christ, breaker of rules who died a wretched death rather than stay silent about the truth - find that amusing? Based on what I have learned about Snowden, his humility, gentleness and unselfish commitment to truth, I consider him far more Noble, Spiritual than many ‘christians’ who have no idea what the Christ actually taught and demonstrated in his life.
What each of these awakening or awakened human beings reveals to us is that an ethical, compassionate life committed to the Good does not come easily. It takes commitment, persistence, the willingness to face setbacks and take risks. It takes effort. That is what a lot of New Age spirituality teachers fail to teach, that this seminar, this course, participating in this group, being a devotee of this teacher is not enough. It is only one step on a long and winding road.
While the rapid rise of New Age spiritualism over the past decades is, on one hand, a blessing to those who are truly seeking a genuine spiritual path, one that enriches, expands and deepens their awareness of self and the world, it also presents many dangers, for spirituality has become a billion dollar business.
"It is only too easy to take a slice of truth, package it with style and marketing skill, and release it to a particular audience and its particular interests," writes spiritual teacher and author, Theodore Nottingham, in The Wisdom of the Fourth Way. But when deep esoteric truths are watered down, made simple for those who want their spirituality ready-made, they lose much of their transformative power. For spiritual growth, personal evolution require time and effort and intense personal experience.
What is too often left out or overlooked in much marketing of spirituality is that, as Nottingham says, "There are no easy short cuts and the commitment to inner development involves a lifetime of effort."
And also that a truly spiritual or ethical path is not about what we know or what powers we have acquired, it is about what kind of person we are. The test of any path of conscious human evolution is whether it encourages and guides you to become a better human being: kinder, more patient with others, more self-aware, authentic, with a stronger sense of connectedness to the Sacred, the Holy. The proof is in the pudding.
“So from their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20).
Spirituality is not exclusive or divisive, it is all embracing and compassionate. It does not create false hierarchies of worthiness, because it recognises the integrity and sacredness of all of life, all of creation.
And it is never just an internal matter, something between you and God or you and your principles alone, for spirituality is active, overflowing, expressive, and its inner impulse is providential - to give, to provide for, to care for.
The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are. ~ Carl Jung