Over the years, my own spiritual practice has undergone many changes. In the essays and notes of my Seasons of the Spirit collection, I touch on struggles that led me to reject the mainstream Protestant teachings of my childhood as well as my leap into the monastic life on a yoga farm before I chanced into the Society of Friends, or Quakers, where I’ve remained for more than four decades.
I arrived as an ABC Quaker – “anything but Christ” – but many sections in this collection arise in a subsequent, evolving evangelical encounter and language, especially as my community of faith moved into the more historically active strands of Quakers in Ohio Yearly Meeting and then into Mennonite and Brethren extensions.
That tone and scope of thought moderate as I grow older, living and working an hour north of Boston.
A crucial influence through much of this volume reflects seasons of relationship – intimate companionship, family, and friends, as well as the workplace. Cycles, too, like those of progressing from childhood and parenthood into retirement or release.
Even in a tradition like the one I’ve embraced, seemingly free from an annual liturgical calendar or its outward emblems, cyclical changes mirroring those of the seasons do appear. Since much of this time has been spent within the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I’ll give one example from Salem Quarterly Meeting in Ohio, where the session each Fifth Month (that is, May) meant rhubarb in the applesauce. See it as sacrificial and special, a kind of unwritten liturgical calendar waiting to be observed through repetition.
In speaking of this awareness and growth as Seasons of the Spirit, we may also consider their interplay with the Seasons of the Flesh – and ultimately, their unity, contrary to Descartes and conventional teaching. From my perspective, perhaps with a Buddhist twist, we can proclaim an alternative:
I breathe, therefore, I am.
Spirit, after all, is the very core of the word inspiration —and at its heart of meaning. I’ll also focus on Spirit as the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of Christ — in contrast to other spirits, such as jealousy, anger, envy, and so on. Translate this as you wish.
Whatever the pathway, there are times of struggle, doubt, and distrust. Times of whirlwind passion and excitement. Times of discovery. Times of drought or deep winter, relying on what’s brought out of storage. Times of renewal and recharge.
This has manifested as periods where I’ve been able to dedicate significant time to meditation, solitude, travel in ministry, prayer, Bible study, research into history and theology, organizational service, teaching, correspondence, or writing, as well as to regular disciplines such as fasting or physical spiritual exercise (the hatha yoga sessions or even wilderness hiking). Emphatically, however, one would predominate while others would likely be absent or greatly diminished. In addition, they would be strongly impacted by the events of my daily life itself – whether I was single, married, divorced, or “in relationship,” my hours and nature of employment, my friendships and faith community, my driving patterns through the week.
The result of all of this would be a crazy-quilt tapestry or a ricochet trajectory if it weren’t for a spiraling within it. That is, over the years, various periods and interests begin to overlap one another, creating a kind of harmony or accumulated depth. My asparagus bed in New Hampshire has roots in my experience of asparagus along irrigation canal banks in Far West desert three decades earlier. A dog sitting through Quaker meeting here is a reminder of dogs sitting through predawn meditation sessions in the Pocono Mountains, or of the cats aligned on the scaffolding outside the windows, as if they, too, were deep in concentrated worship. I read a particular Psalm and see the passage taking twists I hadn’t perceived earlier.
In my own life, my childhood was filled with natural science, hiking, and camping, each with its mystical visions and moments. Adolescence led into politics, classical music, opera, and writing complicated by unrequited sexual yearning. Without romantic companionship, a Lone Ranger journey. Rejection of existing creed while ensconced in youth church office was followed by flight into atheism and hippie excess landing, inexplicably, in a yoga ashram with its hatha exercises and sustained meditation. From there, into liberal Quaker practice, where the ashram lessons were applied in circles of deepening prayer life. By steps, I moved toward Christocentric and Plain speech, and an especially faith fervent language. Among the traditional Wilburite Friends as well as Mennonites, especially, I came to wrestle within Scripture while simultaneously undergoing repeated Dark Night journeys and questioning. Turning to emotional therapy, I wondered if anyone could come along with me through all of this – my career moves, spiritual shifts, and geographic relocations. By now, too, I was no longer meditating to get high, or transcend, but rather to center down to what the early Quakers emphasized as the Seed. Here, too, with all of the Quaker committee work, I was engaged in a religion that combines mystical experience with social witness and activism. In a nutshell, then.
Each swirl also stirs up something from before. What failed in earlier marriage or relationships reappears. What has been left unfinished is not left entirely behind. What has been shredded remains to be woven. I’ve heard this opera in its entirety a hundred times. Have I ever heard this note before?
I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast and back before heading on to the Pacific Northwest in what seemed an epiphany but instead shattered amid volcanic eruption and devastation. I left the wilderness for another kind of wilderness, back across the Rust Belt of the Midwest and then on to the East Coast. The pendulum, as they say. Here, I now see life as both linear and circular – that is, spiraling. The spirit requires flesh, or is it that the flesh requires spirit? Seasons include times that are full or overflowing, and times that are barren or dry. I now welcome the questioning that is not hostile is both essential and healthy.
My first spring in the orchard, I expected all of the trees to blossom simultaneously. They don’t. The apricots and cherry petals give way to plums, pears, and peaches. The apple blooms arrive last, when others are already gone.
Experiencing a new place through a full year or repeated years provides a much different understanding than a tourist gets – even one who spends several months there. Relocating requires a year-and-a-half to gain familiarity with the new surroundings – to get beyond the obvious, to establish friendships, to be oriented with the elements one finds essential or special. A favorite restaurant, a woodland pathway or place to swim, a boutique or gallery.
There are seasons for a person of faith, from winter to spring elation and then into fullness, dryness, struggle, or disillusionment. To harvest, perchance. Marriage? Family? Children? Extended into joy, compassion, humility, appreciation – one begins observing and naming.
The turning point in my own journey came when I accepted a new name – Jnana – while living in the ashram. The rest of the developments followed.
For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.