VIEW VIDEO I have a friend I’ve known about 10 years. I only see him once a year when he returns to the area. I met him at a talk I was giving, but then he moved shortly afterwards, and we’ve managed to stay in touch through email and the occasional phone call. Once every summer, he returns to see his family and friends and we meet for lunch. When I first met him, he was a Methodist, dabbling in Quakerism. Then he became enchanted with Buddhism, so poked around in that for a few years, before taking a dip in the waters of Unitarian-Universalism. When I saw him this past summer, he was exploring Hinduism. “After all,” he told me, “1.2 billion Hindus can’t be wrong.” But that was eight months ago, and since then he had sent in a sample of his DNA and discovered he was 10% Native American, so is now smoking peyote and communing with the Great Spirit.
His interest in spirituality expresses itself in a fascination with the most recent thing he’s learned. Sometime in the next year, he’ll read an article about the latest trend in religion and pronounce himself a devotee of that faith. Like many people, he has assumed spiritual depth comes by leaping from one religion to another, so has never stayed in any one faith long enough to reap its benefits. He’s like a man I know who’s married six different women in search of true love. For God’s sake, I once told him, that isn’t long enough to learn their favorite toothpaste. True love takes at least 20 years.
I love that scene in the movie Moonstruck when Olympia Dukakis, who plays the mother, asks her daughter Loretta, played by Cher, if she loves Ronnie Cammareri, and Loretta says, “Ma, I love him awful,” and the mother says, “Oh, God, that’s too bad.” I knew exactly what her mother meant. True love takes at least 20 years.
Spirituality is like true love. It isn’t found by leaping from one fad to another. It is more often deeply rooted in a spiritual tradition someone has engaged for many years, often for a lifetime. This past January 22nd, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, passed away at the age of 95, having practiced Buddhism his entire life. He was exiled from Vietnam in 1966 after voicing his opposition to the war, then moved to southern France where he began the Plum Village Monastery. Known as the “Father of Mindfulness,” he wrote and traveled the world part of the year, spending the remainder of the year in contemplation. Rather than sampling a menu of religious traditions, he immersed himself deeply in one, reminding us that spirituality is not a smorgasbord in which we sample whatever catches our eye. It is a profound commitment to the riches of a single love.
While spirituality is in conversation with other religious expressions, it remains rooted in its single love. The Dalai Lama didn’t become profound and compassionate by his stints as a Baptist or Scientologist. He became the Dalai Lama by wringing all he could from Tibetan Buddhism.
Similarly, Mother Teresa didn’t learn compassion by attending a lecture on reincarnation as a teenager. Her compassion was rooted in an almost 50-year journey with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. Spirituality is a consequence, a product, of our profound commitment to the riches of a single love. This is why it is possible to find deeply spiritual people in almost every religious tradition. They are the ones who have mined deeply the very best a religion has to offer. And that always takes time.
Back when I pastored up in the city, this was in the early ‘90s, a women interested in Quakerism began attending our meeting. Within a month she was arguing with everyone in the Meeting about peace. We weren’t doing enough, we weren’t marching enough, weren’t boycotting enough, weren’t writing the president enough, weren’t teaching our children enough. Then the Bosnian War broke out in the former Yugoslavia, and she announced she was no longer a pacifist, that America needed to bomb the Serbs. I felt this kind of existential whiplash. In the space of a month, she’d gone from Mahatma Gandhi to General MacArthur, because she hadn’t invested the necessary time to plumb the depths of our peace testimony. Spirituality is about depth, not impulsive or volatile passions. It is rooted in our commitment to a set of beliefs we have reflected upon, embraced, and persisted with long enough to shape us. It isn’t predicated on our fickle devotion to the latest religious fad.
Joan and I are coming up on our 39th anniversary. We’ve been with one another nearly 2/3 of our lives and I’m still learning new things about her. Just this past week, I discovered she really doesn’t like fried chicken, but has allowed me to drag her all over the Midwest to various fried chicken establishments, indulging my culinary passion without a word of complaint. You can imagine my shock! But other than questioning my wife’s judgment, my point is this: There is always something to learn when one has made a profound commitment to a single love. We must live with someone or something long enough to reap the wheat of their witness, and not just the chaff.
This pattern of persisting with a single love raises an important question for us. Do we persist in our spiritual commitments and relational commitments long enough to be positively shaped by them? Or are we too easily distracted by something or someone more alluring, more exciting, more exotic?
There is a saying I’m sure all of you have heard, which originated with our Buddhist brothers and sisters. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. So if this were a Quaker query, I would ask, “Are my commitments of long enough duration to learn all I am able to learn?”