From The Simpsons to Iona: a Bath Quaker explores the life spiritual

Ian Wootton spoke to Bath Quakers about his personal exploration of the life spiritual:

I find that life is a continuous attempt to differentiate between different views of reality and unreality. Of course reality is in the eye of the beholder. It is not a fixed position. Everything changes.

We can represent this division as if we were looking at a gauge or a meter; the needle can travel one way towards “reality” on one side or “possibilities” or “other forms of reality” on the other. The spirit lies at the centre. The spirit can shift our position on reality.

In the fourth century BC Aristotle discussed virtue and morality in terms of extremes. The mid point between – for example – courage and cowardice is located in the centre, at the point of balance. He called this “the golden mean”. That was the point from which we can act.

That needle is the Swingometer of life. I try to keep the meter needle showing oscillations around the middle. It should move freely but not too far. The needle can be moved by the spirit.

When we speak of the spirit, we speak of a notion which has existed far longer than man has had the linguistic ability to describe it. Our human ancestors demonstrated knowledge of something greater than themselves in the numerous ancient sculptures, such as Stonehenge, the sculpted heads on Easter Island, and drawings such as those found in caves.

Now we have language, literature, poetry and all sorts of media and works of art which help us express the spiritual aspects of ourselves.

So what is my own experience of the spirit? It could be that the spirit is some kind of meta reality, or parallel reality. Perhaps it is an additional sense; a sense that is receptive to a certain essential part of being human, a sense of our humanity that is unique in all of us.

I am very fond of the television programme The Simpsons. The cartoons are full of philosophical, psychological and subversive ideas about the nature of reality. I also find the morality tales of the storyline very good at explaining relationships.

In Homer Cubed the cartoon hero is transported first first to a Tron- or Matrix-like virtual world, then to the real non-cartoon world.

Homer is dragged into every sort of situation including, in the episode Homer Cubed, alternate dimensions of reality. The fantasy is an extreme example of “openness to experience”, a term which psychologists use to describe one of the big five personality types

What is the spirit? I think that it is something that can be made real and that can shape our outlook on the world, and the way that we behave in the world. I think it can become apparent in our attitude towards each other and the view that we take of the world and our place in it. It can influence our moral behaviour.

As an alternative to the word spirit (or Holy Spirit) Christians use the words Holy Ghost, which is interchangeable for the Christian notion of the Spirit .

This of course makes sense to me, as the spirit can have a ghost-like qualities. It can be difficult to find and difficult to see. And just when you think you have seen or felt its presence it disappears.

I feel it is something valuable and unique; we experience it in a very personal way. I don’t think that as individuals we all necessarily experience the spirit in the same way. But sometimes we might be able to share in it, as we hope to do in a gathered Meeting, and through our ministry. We can share in it at communal events such as concerts, plays and listening to a moving political speech by a great orator such as Barack Obama.

My spirit is something that plays a part in orientating my actions, particularly those actions which represent the very best of me. But it only does so if I make the effort to pay attention to it, if I consult the Swingometer and place myself in the spirit.

Some opportunities for seeking out spiritual development I have either avoided and missed by contracting them out, or by saying “No” to where the spirit might move me.

I haven’t fully worked this out yet, and I may be confusing the life spiritual with the life competent. But when I contract out tasks that I could do myself, my spiritual self feels weakened in some way.

Imagine reality as a dripping tap, and its opposite – the notion of alternative reality or possibility – as a tap that is not currently dripping. Sometimes the tap might drip and sometimes it might not. Some dripping is inevitable at some point. An example of contracting out experiences that could enlarge my spirit is the fixing of a dripping tap or a similar practical task that is – or should be – within my ability to perform.

If I performed the task the process would – or at least might – contain a spiritual reward. This may not be true if I were a plumber by profession and it did not test or challenge me in some way.

My Swingometer of life takes a big arc and is quite unsettled by issues of competence, and also by stress – such as when I am falling behind in one of my clinics. If I feel like I am not coping well with the patients it also plays havoc with my Swingometer.

If I say “Yes” to tasks, challenges or activities that are potentially stressful and uncomfortable, both my attitude and my spirit are tested. In this type of situation If I ask myself what is the answer in my heart. Is it yes or no? I will try to answer “Yes “.

I find this a useful guide and reminder when tasks and opportunities arise as to how I should proceed (for example giving this talk).

I regard the best of me to be Christian. Christianity is embedded in our culture and in our institutions. It has been part of my childhood and adulthood. To quote Corinthians 3 from the Bible:

God who hath made us able ministers of the new testament not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life …

It’s brilliant. It’s revolutionary. It’s completely empowering.

So we know that access to the Christian God through the holy spirit has been part of the life spiritual for Christians for more than 2000 years

For me living the life spiritual is about the process of entering a certain space and occupying this certain space. The spiritual space offers the possibility of transcendence. Where the limiting nature of my sense of identity and separation or alienation is absent and there is a sense of completeness, a sense of unity and coherence. Order is made from chaos.

About 8 years ago I spent a week on the Scottish island of Iona in the inner Hebrides sharing some time with the Christian community. The time was spent in discussion, prayer , walking , simple work, preparing and sharing food and taking a very simplified form of communion with the sharing of bread and wine – the sacraments.

The abbey on Iona (photo: Iona Community)

The community took communion at the end of each day. Following a period of prayer and Bible readings the bread and wine was shared amongst those present. The sharing took place through the passing of these symbolic sacraments from one to another, not from an Altar but from a seated position on a long bench each person sitting alongside his neighbour and passing the bread, the wine and the blessing.

The experience of taking communion, sharing the blood and body of Christ, made perfect sense and was utterly transcendental. This of course is very much a shared experience. Through the taking of the sacraments the holy spirit was shared. The communicants accept that they are part of the same body and blood.

I was very moved, I would count this experience as one of the most profound and meaningful experiences of my life. The sharing and passing of the sacraments was accompanied by the blessing:

Accept what you are given, become what you receive.

Pure transcendence in nine words.

I find my spirit to be a space full of possibility, a place of potential, a space where there is an absence of a requirement to interpret the world and any requirement towards judgement.

It is a shift of the Swingometer several degrees into the zone of possibilities.

My spiritual life is synonymous with communion – an attempt to be complete and at peace. Communion with myself, and with all that I know or have ever known, all that I have been and all that I can and will be.

It is a space from within which I can orientate myself within the world and adopt a perspective that allows for a transcendent attitude.

A place that it is not bounded by my identity, the person that I think that I am.

I’ve tried to offer these words as if I were giving ministry. My intention here has and will be to occupy the spiritual space. Since this text is prepared in advance my talk was not ministry in its strict Quaker sense; what I said was not given to me as I spoke, as would be the case during a meeting for worship.

A Quaker friend has said that her approach to making use of the spirit is to ask the trees. This friend will visit a local wood close to her home and place her forehead on the trunk of the tree and ask the question “What to do?” The forthcoming answer has been: “Do this.”

So my communion in our Quaker Meetings is in the stillness or quiet. It is in the vocal and non vocal ministry given.

It is in the acknowledgment of our shared enquiry and leadings towards learning about God, about being, about ourselves and about others through meetings. It is in our fellowship. The spirit informs my attitudes and behaviours.

Having found a spiritual space that is open to transcendence, a less judgemental and less fixed perspective becomes a possibility. In the spiritual space what my beliefs happen to be and how I normally position myself in the world in relation to those beliefs become unimportant or even irrelevant.

It is a space of being where my internal dialogue is replaced by a peaceful simplicity and calm. There is no requirement to interpret the world. There are no questions to be asked or answered. There is no quarrelling.

I particularly like this word “quarrelling “ for which I am grateful to Laurence Tindall who used it recently when talking about how death is the end of quarrelling.

This spiritual space is beyond time and not related to location. It is ever present. It is linked to consciousness, but it is not thought.

It is the union between what has created me and what has created everything else, the creator within and the created without. That of God within with that of God without.

It is both an idea and a realised way of being. We can see it in actions of kindness, we can hear it in music and see it in works of art.

It places me in the world. It gives me meaning and it informs my attitude.

Being able to access the spiritual space enables me to extract myself from my personal ledger: the account book of my place in the world, that which I have lost and that which which I have gained, what I have done, what sort of life I have had, my health problems my successes and my failures .

What I have or have not achieved. How much money I have. The quality of my relationships. Where I place myself in the social hierarchy and where the social hierarchy places me. The back catalogue of my life.

These practical aspects of my life, although necessary and important, do not offer transcendence. The ledger of my life is transcended when I occupy my spiritual space and allow the spirit to inform my attitude.

My final personal insight regarding the life spiritual is this:

The more time I spend in my spiritual space the more free and less judgemental I feel. The more I look for entry into the spirit the more available it becomes and the threshold of entry is lower.

Issues of competence, belief, attitude and perspective are all irrelevant; they only become relevant again upon leaving the spiritual space.

Ian Wootton was speaking as part of Bath Quakers’ Spiritual journeys series.

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