Speaking of Spirituality

4746072579_8b58430d50_bPhyllis Barber is the author of eight books of fiction and creative nonfiction, including How I Got Cultured (voted one of the five best books written about Las Vegas), Raw Edges: A Memoir, and To the Mountain: Memoir of a Mormon Seeker, forthcoming from Quest Books in May 2014. She taught in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program for nineteen years and has developed a special interest in memoir and personal essay.  Mormon Stories Book Club will be featuring To the Mountain in spring 2014.


In Simone Weil’s classic book, Waiting for God, she talks about the legend of the Holy Grail. Coming from the Catholic perspective, she says that the Grail “ belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel (who happens to be a king three-quarters paralyzed by a  most painful wound), ‘What are you going through?  Considering the subject of spirituality, maybe it is the love of our neighbor in all its fullness, being able to say to him or her: ‘What are you going through?’”

When we are able to look at a man or woman and empathize with the affliction they are feeling, we are looking through eyes of light. This deep act of contemplation requires a willingness to look beyond and into and through, a willingness to behold with different eyes. In this act of compassion of truly beholding another, we move beyond mere contemplation into the act of receiving what is before us. As Weil says, “the beauty of the world is almost the only way by which we can allow God to penetrate us . . . [ it is ] Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter.” (102) Are not human beings also the beauty of the world, their essence being Christ’s tender smile, right in front of us?

When I took a leave of absence from Mormonism for twenty years, Sunday mornings were the most lonely times. I missed hearing the oft-repeated phrase in opening prayers, “May thy Spirit be with us this day,” as well as the feeling of Spirit often being in attendance at LDS meetings. Through years of habit, however, on Sunday morning I found myself getting dressed in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and searching to see if I could find Spirit at Catholic mass, Pentecostal gatherings, First/Second/Calvary Baptist meetings, Unity and the Church of Religious Science, with charismatic Christians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and many others. In the Ozarks, I witnessed a young boy in Oxfords being saved and felt deeply moved by his guilelessness. I traveled further to check out the diversity of Spirit’s presence. In Ecuador, I joined with a shaman leading chants and teaching his ways. In the Yucatan, I climbed stone-carved steps built for feet half my size to the top of towering Mayan temples to consider the cosmos from this ancient perspective. In the Indian state of Sikkim, I sat across from a monk from Bhutan for lessons on Tibetan Buddhism 101. Admittedly, I didn’t and still don’t fully understand the heart, the history, or the origins of each of these persuasions, but I did learn a few things along the way:

    (1) The first great “aha” that registered with me was the fact that I was (and still am) a mere beginner taking baby steps into the ancient business of understanding Spirit or the Divine. So many hundreds and thousands have gone before me and found their own sacred answers. These I have learned to respect.

    (2) I met many in non-LDS settings who were tuned into this thing called Spirit, holiness, and reverence, many to a much greater degree than I’d known before. I also became aware that I could never totally understand another spiritual perspective if I wasn’t at its center. Standing on the outside looking in was not sufficient witness to the finely-woven web of the theology or purpose of another group of spiritual seekers or worshipers. I concluded it was glib, naive, and reductive to describe another religion with a few sound bytes. 

    (3) There are many names for the Supreme Being: God, Elloheim, Yahweh, Allah, The Ineffable, The Force, the I Am Self, The Great Spirit, Divine Power, Higher Power, The Great Architect. Many seekers, for thousands of years, have sought a name for this Holy Spirit that infuses our lives if we are receptive. After entertaining other definitions of God and being in touch with my own life experience, I sense an energy field that runs through all and everything—Spirit infusing the air, the All. I have seen past original definitions, hence self-induced boundaries, in my glimpses of Spirit, because, after all, how can human beings fully understand the Infinite in their finite state of being?

    (4) Which returns me to a subject closer to home: I’d been taught that sinners and transgressors are supposed to be cut off from God in their wrongfulness. I was thus surprised that during my long-term hiatus from the Mormon context I nonetheless felt surrounded, even inhabited, by Spirit. I couldn’t escape. I kept catching glimpses of Spirit in those ineffable places where one feels connected to others, to nature, and to the ethereal. God was always there, though I didn’t always return the invitation. This led me to think of spirituality as a matter of circularity:  a giving and a receiving which is an opening to God’s abundance, and thus, a giving back.

Which circle leads back to the original question that Weil raises: “What are you going through?” When I have been filled with the Spirit in whatever setting and with whomever people, I have a most beneficent, loving feeling for everything and everyone. I can see the genuine beauty of an individual soul (including the self-righteous and the unrighteous), where it has been previously hidden from me. All around me is full, complete, even expansive when this light fills my body. I’m given second sight with which to ask that important question: “What are you going through?”