As I watched the replays of the steeple of Notre Dame Cathedral falling I felt a “Can this really be happening?” shudder move through me. My first reflections on that fire were about impermanence—how, as Robert Frost put it, “nothing gold can stay.” Not our best cathedrals, not our parents, not ourselves, not our children, not our homes, not even our planet (which will have its own conflagration in about seven billion years). “All things must pass,” is how George Harrison put it. (It’s hard to believe he passed almost twenty years ago!)
Though the Notre Dame fire has faded from the front pages, it has continued to smolder in my mind. When life gets really tough, when something really difficult shows up, much of how we understand God, prayer, or faith can burn down. Our spirituality, if not updated since our early years, may be like the Notre Dame roof—old tinder just waiting for a spark. When the way we have long thought of God, faith, or life’s purpose has gone up in smoke it’s easy to miss that much of the original structure may still be standing. A “faith fire” need not be a disaster. It is how spiritual growth happens. Old ways of believing and living need to burn down before newer, truer ways can be built up. This is what the brilliant Dominican monk Meister Eckhart meant in the fourteenth century when he said: “I pray to God to rid me of God.” In this rather blunt line he is saying that our old, too-certain ideas of God stand in the way of our living with the compassionate and nonjudging energies of God. In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr says that people don’t grow much when everything is bumping along normally. It’s when something goes wrong that we need to choose between spiraling downward or upward.
A research methods professor during my doctoral training told me that he didn’t give a damn about whether I believed watching televised violence would produce more violent children. “When you talk about what you believe to be the case, Anderson,” he said “you’ve got your scientific fly open. I don’t care what you believe. I want to know what the data says!” Five years of training like that—important as it was for my understanding of science—deeply affected my spirituality. My Catholic upbringing took on a strong flavor of agnosticism. Because there’s never a way to get all the empirical data one needs for faith, I kept myself in the “more research is needed” mode. It wasn’t until my father’s death and a crisis in my own health that the cathedral of my hybrid Catholic-Agnostic-ism burned down. I came to realize that living without a truly compelling, energizing sense of what life is about was giving my life a persistent depressive tinge, what psychologists used to call “dysthymia.”
At that time a friend and mentor, Rev. James Bacik, told me about an essay by American psychologist and philosopher William James that freed me to take what remained after my spiritual fire and rebuild a more compelling spirituality. In “The Will to Believe” James argued that people of good will and intellect will differ in their answers to life’s greatest questions. There is no way to prove the rightness of one’s position, though that has not stopped human beings from going to war over religious ideas for centuries. James argued that each person has the right, even the responsibility, to choose a way of thinking about the great questions that leads to his or her best life. I decided that living as if God is saturated through the universe and is present in me and all life would be a more invigorating and compelling way to live than agnosticism. I can’t prove that God exists or pervades everything, but this way of perceiving has been far more energizing than the agnosticism that began with my professor’s snide remark. Allowing for the possibility of something bigger, way bigger, than my limited human mind can fathom has led me to a more energized life.
I suspect when Notre Dame Cathedral is rebuilt, they will try to make it as close to the original as possible. With my faith fire, though, I didn’t want to restore the same structure. I wanted a new structure that not only created a sacred space within the familiar walls of my childhood faith, but allowed me to see the sacred everywhere. I still believe in holy water, grace, and real presence. I just see them everywhere now.
Kevin Anderson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, and speaker who lives in the Toledo, Ohio area. His latest book Now is Where God Lives: Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul is available at Amazon or thewingedlife.com