Spirituality for the Self-Centered

Posted on August 1, 2019



By J. A. Gray | April 1998
J. A. Gray is Deputy Editor of the NOR.

It happens every time I wait in the supermarket checkout line: A gorgeous female gets my attention and flashes a dazzling smile. Another does the same, and then another, and another, until I am confronted by a row of beauties beaming at me, beckoning. I come closer to see what they want. Apparently, they want me to buy the magazines on whose covers they appear. Ladies, you are lovely, but we go through this every week. You promise too much: Can you really bestow upon your reader great hair and firm abdominals, success at work and fashion for pennies, powerful orgasms and quick gourmet meals, stress-free dating and The Truth About What Men Want? Even if you could, your magic would be wasted on me. Most of those things are out of my area. As for what men want — that I already know.

It happens every shopping day. But today, as I’m about to turn away, something tugs me back. A freckled girl with red lips and wind-tossed hair is gazing at me, radiating peacefulness and health. Above her head I read: SELF. Special Inspirational Issue. Your Spiritual Life. Below her chin is a stack of titles: The Guide to Peace of Mind. Spirituality for Beginners. What Fasting Does for Your Mind & Body. Workouts to Soothe the Soul. Why Is Buddhism So Hip? The 10 Commandments: What They Mean Today. Her lips seem to say: I know what men like you want.

I reach for her. I must have her — magazine. My, it’s hefty. And only $2.50 As thick as four or five NORs, for the price of one.

Back home, as I begin paging through SELF (Dec. 1997 issue), a seductive smell rises from a perfume swatch that promises to show me a new “sensory world.” That would be nice. But I’ve come looking for the new spiritual world promised on the cover and I don’t yet sense it. Spread across the first two pages, a woman in black lace lounges on a pillowy sofa while a golden bottle of parfum gleams on the hardwood floor. Her unlined face, her placid mien, and her brilliant eyes may be the results of contemplative prayer and deep meditation (I have heard sages and saints thus described). But — they may be makeup and lighting and airbrush. How can I tell?

On the next page a couple sits on a bench before a city skyline as night falls and buildings come alight. Their foreheads touch; her hair is a shimmering curve, his jaw a resolute line. Are they a pair of Third Order Franciscans resting after a long day in a Lower East Side soup kitchen and awaiting the call to Vespers? Are they rich kids on a date? I don’t know, I only know that they exhibit a peace that passeth understanding. These are handsome people, but handsomer still are the man’s trousers. They scrunch photogenically as he turns to the woman but because they are by Haggar they will remain, so it says, wrinkle-free.

I turn more pages, past torsos and lips and legs that are, in a certain sense, inspirational, but — excuse me — isn’t this ordinary women’s magazine fare?

And then it comes, a moment of insight, as in those Zen riddles. What is the sound of one hand clapping? It is the sound of me smacking my forehead. Of course — the practice of the sage is to show the seeker something that seems to the seeker ordinary, even contemptible. The seeker’s disdain reveals the distance that still separates him from enlightenment. For the seeker, if he but knew it, is gazing in a mirror, and the vices of which he accuses the World are his own. SELF has held a mirror up to me and made me face my lust and my envy. Yes, I want the wrinkle-free woman and I want the wrinkle-free pants. SELF has shown me myself. This is subtle spiritual direction, indeed.

Impressed, I settle down to read carefully and to reap a spiritual harvest, but I am a clumsy novice and the going is slow. I confess that much of the time I cannot tell the editorial copy from the advertising copy. On one page is a woman in her underwear, with the caption “Breathe comfortably and let your muscles relax while quieting the mind.” On another page is a woman in her underwear, with the caption “Imagine having baby-smooth legs, without having to shave, wax, or bother with depilatories ever again.” I think the first is an article on meditation and the second is an ad for electrolysis, but it would take someone more advanced than I to be sure. Now here is a treatment of the theological virtue of Hope — wait, I guess it’s an ad: “Giving new hope to those in search of a buff, hair-free bod.” They’re right, of course; one can’t ignore the bod. In Nazareth, as we know, even God became bod. And here we have a mail-order catalogue of “sensual products for passionate people.” I think I get it: It’s an affirmation of the essential role in the spiritual life of the feelings and the flesh. I suppose one can order votive candles and incense and such?

If there is one clear message proclaimed by SELF it is that we are “a society caught in consumerism’s clutches” (p. 10), that we must examine “our appetite for more cars and TV sets, clothes and shopping opportunities” (p. 169), and be wary of “consumerism, the might of which can appear to have subjected the Earth” (p. 169). I couldn’t agree more, but again my mind reveals its unregenerate crudeness because, as I search for the articles that will strengthen my spirit against consumerism, I find I am counting the endless pages of ads. Of the magazine’s 180 pages, I count 125 that are certainly ads, and more that might be. I begin to think that’s a heck of a lot of ads.

But then another breakthrough in discernment comes. Isn’t the magazine an accurate portrait of the world through which our spiritual path must run? Strait is the way and narrow the gate that lead to salvation, and the World and the Flesh are full of temptations. Such is the existential situation that SELF boldly reflects. The magazine’s insistence that I confront my appetites — page after page of appetites — is powerful testimony to the depth of its commitment to freeing me from consumerism’s clutches. And think of the revenue from selling 125 pages of ads every month — that kind of money could be a mighty weapon in the fight to save the soul from consumerism. Perhaps we conventional Christians could apply this lesson in our own, more limited, spiritual arena. At our Masses, for instance, we Catholics spend 45 or 50 minutes doing things that even the uninitiated would recognize as “spiritual,” and only five minutes collecting money. What if we, like SELF, were to reverse those proportions? How much more powerful our contribution to the life of the spirit might become!

I think I’m catching on. This is stuff more subtle than I am used to, so I read the mag with utmost attention, from “You Look Divine” (“Whimsical fashion pays homage to spiritual leaders”) and “Workouts to Soothe the Soul” (“Four moving meditations to tap into your chi, bringing spiritual revival”) to “Goods for the Sole” (a neat pun introducing some foot massagers that make one “tingle with gratitude”).

Now here’s something right up my alley: a man’s conversion story. In large type it says PRODIGAL SON. The subhead confesses: I HAD LET SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS GET IN THE WAY OF SPIRITUAL PROGRESS. The man telling his story is identified as a Catholic, and he says he has been inspired to change his life by reading the Bible and modern writers on spirituality. This once-lost soul tells us about his — his diet? Yes. He says he has been converted, after 20 years of dogmatic vegetarianism, to a cuisine in which the flesh of animals is included, gratefully and reverently.

This is good news for America’s butchers, though not supremely good: “It’s not like we’re a meat-and-potatoes family now,” he says. “I don’t do roasts.” Unconnected as I am with the meat industry, I have to admit to a certain disappointment. Considered purely as a conversion tale, this is not quite of the highest rank. I think of the great ones: Augustine’s Cornfessions, Newman’s Apologia pro Victual Sua, Lewis’s Surprised by Soy.…

Okay, I know, sarcasm is the mark of the spiritually uptight. But I don’t claim to be relaxed about spirituality. In fact, I’m dogged about it, so I continue to read my Spirituality Issue. But I feel a growing unease, for I’m beginning to think that I am reading it more closely than it is meant to be read. I keep going back and forth between two statements that seem fundamental to the magazine’s project — fundamental, but, when taken separately, dubious, and when taken together, contradictory. On one page I read, “Buddhism deals a knockout punch to some of our most cherished notions, such as the belief that each one of us is a separate, autonomous self.” So self is a kind of illusion. But on another page I read, “Pastoral therapists often fight against harsh theologies that see the self as ‘not good’ and people who attend to the self as ‘selfish.’ On the contrary, the self is where we all start.…” So self is the basis of everything.

Which is right? Are these the only two choices about the “self”: Is it either our most fundamental illusion or our most fundamental possession? It can’t be both, and perhaps it’s neither. I had thought that the self was something else entirely: neither our illusion nor our possession but our vocation. Isn’t the self what we are working on creating, the thing we hope to become? To be a self — to transcend the realm of becoming and enter the realm of being — has seemed to many great souls an unusual achievement (Dante wrote 100 cantos of immortal verse imagining it). Contra SELF’s self-contradiction, I would propose that selves are neither mundane nor illusory, but authentic and rare. What did Lewis in The Great Divorce call those happy Heaven-dwellers who came down to greet the busloads of self-regarding wraiths arriving from Purgatory? The Solid People. They were gaining their solidity, their carefree self-ness, from their ever-deeper submission to the one Being whose Selfhood (“I Am Who Am”) is never approximate.


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