During seminary one of my professors shared a personal story that brought both him and much of the class to tears.
His wife had suffered yet another miscarriage and they were both still reeling. The professor shared times he had questioned his faith. He later ended class with the reminder that life can be messy. Relationships can be messy. Faith can be messy. Spirituality can be messy.
In dealing with my own uncertainty and stuck in relationship issues at the time, his words rang true for me, too.
And sure enough, the categories we use to navigate the world don’t always match up to our experience. But we usually just make a slight revision to the categories. All we can do at the level of the mind is to make these revisions or create more categories, subdividing further and further.
For those of us raised to give a lot of weight to abstract theological categories like who’s saved and who’s not, it’s a relief to hear someone we admire say “it’s ok, faith is messy.” We’re off the hook for trying to be perfect all the time.
But the word messy doesn’t quite capture what life can feel like at times. A child’s room can be messy. A living room that needs to be vacuumed can be messy. In using that word to describe the death of a spouse, the death of a child, or a divorce, we cheapen the experience of those involved. Calling these experiences messy might sound more genteel, but it softens and mutes the extreme pain we can feel at times. Even times of extreme doubt, alienation, and distance from our faith.
And the more I walk along this contemplative path, the less I believe that spirituality is messy. As we engage in regular spiritual practice, new vistas open up, different dimensions of life altogether, beyond our mental categories.
Life can be painful. Our expressions of faith, our questioning them can create conflict with others and with ourselves. It can be confusing. We can lose the thread. Our categories can get blurry. But all this is pushing around the furniture on the level of the mind only. It isn’t yet spirituality.
Our faith, its traditions, and even our thoroughly dissected theology are meant to point us there. Spirituality isn’t messy, it’s what happens when we let go of the mess. That’s when we make ourselves available to divine transformation.
The mystics teach that it’s not the fulfillment of desires and taking away what we think causes pain that frees us. That’s still attachment to thought-form, to social constructs, to illusions. It’s the letting go of the attachments we think will make us happy that opens the door for spirituality. It’s letting go of the lives we think we’re supposed to lead based on our cultural or family programming, or that of our faith tradition.
Spirituality is consent. The alignment, opening, and inflow of the divine presence are all implicit in that act, in that ongoing practice of consent, of being present, of making ourselves available to presence.
But it can take a lot of pain, a lot of burning, a lot of (dare I say it?) mess to get us to wake up to that fact.