We usually think of a "spiritual path" as one that will lead us to peace and harmony, to serenity and contentment. Dealing with the pressures of daily life, from the emotional to the financial, as well as the demands and challenges of the world in the hyped up, super-techno 21st century, we look to religion and spirituality for comfort and guidance. Whether we belong to a church or synagogue, or follow any formal religious belief, many of us practice disciplines like yoga and meditation, or take workshops and go on retreats seeking enlightenment as well as greater balance in life, a deeper well-being.
Any serious practitioner knows that such hopes are often met, to a greater or lesser degree; yet we sometimes fall into a kind of spiritual complacency, an illusion that religion or spirituality is by nature a source of solace. We forget that sometimes, in the wise words of an old Yiddish proverb, "God is an earthquake, not an uncle."
What provoked these thoughts was the observation of a psychiatrist on dealing with patients who have extraordinary religious experiences, such as seeing "visions" or hearing "voices." Monica Grygiel, a psychiatrist described in a New York Times article as "a person of faith," said that "...I experience my great poverty before the Mystery perceived in the religious experience. My hope is that I will not destroy the patient's extraordinary experience, but help him or her integrate it into the rest of life as harmoniously as possible."
I admire as well as respect Dr. Grygiel's humility in the face of "mystery." It is a welcome relief from the former dismissive attitude of orthodox psychiatry to anything religious, an attitude established by Freud when he wrote about the subject in "The Future of an Illusion." In 1994, The American Psychiatric Association officially declared that religious or spiritual experience was a normal part of life, and more therapists are dealing with it from such a perspective.
Despite the benevolence and good intention of Dr. Grygiel's attitude, I wonder if spiritual experience can always be "integrated" into one's life, especially in a way that's "harmonious." How would the Maid of Orleans have integrated into the rest of her life in a harmonious way the voices she heard that told her to put on armor and lead her country into battle? Her father had wanted her to stay home, which surely would have been a more "harmonious" course to take. But Joan listened to the voices and led France to its very identity as a nation.
What advice would the therapist have given Joan of Arc when she was brought before church officials who feared her power and influence and demanded she deny her voices or be burned at the stake as a heretic? Surely denial would have been the most prudent course, the chance to return to her own village as she wished to do and live the rest of her days "harmoniously." Yet she could not deny the voices, the very source of her greatness, her identity not only to herself but also, as it turned out, to European history.
What would the good psychiatrist have said to the young man named Francis in the town of Assisi who also began to hear voices? In "Francis: The Journey and The Dream," Father Murray Bodo writes of "the patterns of highs and lows" in the life of the future saint. Perhaps he was bipolar. Wouldn't he today be prescribed some mood-altering drug after reporting he had kissed a leper? A voice told him to leave the papal armies he had joined and return home, where he was scorned and branded a coward. He heard the voice of Christ and begged in the streets, stripping off his clothes, wanting to give all to the poor. Surely any good psychiatrist would have pointed out that he could be a good Christian and even serve the poor in a more conventional way, a way that could be integrated more harmoniously into his life. Yet the safer course would not have led to the work that made him one of the most beloved and inspiring of all the saints.
People hear voices in our town time, too--and not just schizophrenics and the mentally disturbed. After four children were murdered in the bombing of a Black church in Alabama by racists trying to stop the burgeoning civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King wondered if he should carry on the fight, if the death of innocent children was worth it. He got on his knees in his kitchen and prayed for answers, and he heard the voice of Jesus, telling him to go on, to continue his work. Surely he could have soft-pedaled his work, pulled back a bit, as so many wanted him to do. But he obeyed the voice and took the path that led to his own assassination, yet altered the course of history.
Inner voices may be confusing or self-destructive or even satanic, as in the case of the Son of Sam who said he was "told" to carry out his murderous acts by a neighbor's dog. Not many of us are destined to become saints or change the course of history, yet we all face decisions, and sometimes even hear voices, or inner promptings, that indicate a particular course of action. We are wise to listen to psychiatrists as well as religious advisers, yet in the end we must make our own decisions. As Father Bodo says in writing of St. Francis, "To listen to one's own heart when others are saying something different is the hardest test of one's spirit."
Sometimes the most harmonious course may not be the right one; sometimes we may not be able to integrate the message of inner voices into our life but, rather, must follow its direction to discover a new life that may be more uncomfortable, and even more dangerous, yet is most true to our deepest self, our true destiny.