Beliefnet

It was during a conference I covered on "Conscious Aging" several years ago that I first became aware of "spiritual correctness." Before that I had learned about--and unwittingly violated--the related code of "politically correctness" in many of its manifestations, from social to literary.

I made my first gaffe while writing a review of a Gloria Naylor novel for The New York Times Book Review back in '92, when I referred to a character the way the author had described him, as the heroine's "crippled lover." An editor huffily told me that "the New York Time does not use that word

(crippled). I was instructed to describe the character by the actual nature of his affliction, so it came out as "her club-footed lover," which the Times editor approved, though it seemed more harsh to my own ear. I made matters worse by asking if this change was part of being "politically correct," not realizing that it is politically incorrect to acknowledge that there is such a thing as political correctness. I have not been asked to review for the Times again.

I first caught the whiff of "correctness" in spirituality at a Florida conference when the subject of diet and exercise was raised. One of the leaders allowed that such practices were acceptable only if done for health reasons, rather than to make yourself look better. Apparently, striving to improve one's appearance was an ego trap (or trip), something to be scorned.

The audience responded warmly to this dictum, consigning those superficial folks who cared about their looks to an outer circle beyond the pale of the spirit, a Dante-esque hell of continuous preening and moaning over mirrors that reflected only emptiness. The speaker poked fun at older men climbing mountains and "sisters doing yoga at 100." The audience dutifully laughed along.

I winced, realizing I was yet again in violation of a code of correctness--for these are the elders I admire and whom I try, in my minor way, to emulate. I admit it: I take yoga and tai chi classes, and I go every year to Rancho la Puerta, a health spa in Tecate, Baja, Mexico, to rise at dawn for the mountain hikes. And I don't just want to be healthy, I want to feel--and yes, even look--better.

But my first real violation of the code of spiritual correctness came a few years ago at age 65, when, annoyed by what I thought of as my "turkey neck" of flabby flesh, I signed up for cosmetic surgery and got a face-lift. I later read in an article in Christianity Today holding that at least in one contemporary Christian view, such looks-doctoring isn't approved. The article, written by a self-described "Christian physician," noted that there are "abuses" in all branches of medicine, and while cosmetic surgery is valid for treating burns--which is OK, because that's "serious" and is part of standard medical treatment--doctors should remember that "it is the same technique used for tummy tucks and face-lifts." The clear implication was that face-lifts and tummy tucks are frivolous, if not un-Christian.

After a "non-elective" surgery a year ago--a triple bypass open heart operation--I brazenly ventured even farther out into the wilds of spiritual incorrectness: I acquired a new convertible. Some view this higly spiritually incorrect auto purchase as a result of my living in a very spiritually incorrect city--Miami Beach, a veritable haven of decadence. In fact, on learning where I lived, a woman I met at a yoga retreat warned me that if I didn't watch out I'd soon be driving a convertible. I admitted I already did, and even more shocking, it was red. She got up to refill her bowl of miso and never returned.

If it is not spiritually correct to try to improve your physical appearance, it is even less acceptable to decorate your body, especially for a man to adorn himself with jewelry. When a Cuban woman friend gave me a gold chain and bracelet, I told her such things were not worn in the WASP Midwest where I grew up or the literary New York or staid Boston where I'd lived until now, and I'd never had anything like them. "Well," she said smiling, "it's about time."

Why not? I thought. They go with the red convertible and the face-lift. They do not interfere with my prayers, meditation, or yoga practice, or the way I try to teach my workshops in spiritual autobiography. They do not get in the way when I teach my graduate writing classes at Florida International University, where I try to practice the "ministry of presence" that I learned from Rabbi Nancy Flam, the founder of the Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, who tries in her work to be "fully present to another human being."

So now, with face lifted, gold chain and bracelet dangling, I drive to the Miami beach with the top down in my red convertible--the very model of spiritual incorrectness in every way. But I don't care. As I drive, I pray my favorite prayer from Ted Loder's Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle,

in which I ask:

". . . to grow new each day

To this wild amazing life

You call me to live

With the passion of Jesus Christ."

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