There are many spiritual paths. In the end, if we are one of the many who desire something more out of life, I believe we have to ask ourselves two questions: which tradition can we thoroughly get inside of, and which end result do we want most?
When I was younger, I loved the stories of the American Indian wise men (shamans), and in particular was enthralled by the adventures of Carlos Castaneda in his apprenticeship to a Yaqui brujo (witch or sorcerer). What wonder! They became crows and flew, brushed shoulders with beings in alien dimensions, and experienced extraordinary extrasensory powers. Here, Carlos learned to appreciate the wonders of this world, far beyond the monotony of ordinary living. Here he also discovered never-ending fear in the enchanted universe, so much so that he had to become impeccable in his will to conquer this fear. To do so, it was necessary to learn techniques of concentration that took years to develop. I, however, did not have access to the techniques, and I was afraid to be afraid all the time. My apprenticeship took place in my mind only.
That form of spiritual power was beyond, and frankly alien, to me. It was on Eastern religions, then, with their emphasis on personal mystical transformation, that I placed my next bet. However, although the training was within my grasp, it was simply too difficult for me. The apprenticeship, as most of us now know, requires years of quiet meditation, best begun in childhood. It also requires years of study, to, as I put it, get “inside the story,” for just sitting alone by oneself might get results, but probably will not bring one to the portals of that ever-elusive “nirvana.”
My first book, Dream Weaver, was begun as a travelogue adventure, but almost immediately became the story of a crazy young man (me) in search of the spiritual, which it turned out was the honest truth. In it, I hitchhiked into Shamanic and New Age lifestyles, as well as into Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian traditions. None, I found, could hold me long enough to become “my story,” and so the book ended with me going home, incomplete but grateful for the ride (the adventure).
Decades later, thanks to events that were not consciously dictated by myself, I have found myself back in the Catholic Church, a religion that I had grown to ridicule and dismiss as useless. It did not have the wild danger of shamanic religion, nor the “sparkle of your China, the smile of your Japan” (apologies to Steely Dan) exotic allure of the Eastern religions. Catholicism was uncool, to say the least, and still is. It also became enmeshed with the child abuse scandal, which has further driven people away from its spiritual possibilities. And yet here I am, a practicing Catholic, for two good reasons (there are more, but these are the biggies).
One: entering the story. I was entered into the story of Christianity and Catholicism almost at birth, and continued as such until the end of high school. Its basic story of sin, redemption and resurrection were not only stamped into my soul, but also, in a more general way, into the soul of Euro-American culture (including Protestantism). In the 20th century, we all breathed the air of Euro-Christian culture, whether we wanted to or not. The great literature we read, the classic art we saw and the classical music we heard, all had unmistakable roots in the Christian tradition. These were the best our shared heritage had to offer – our deepest, most poetic selves – and they remain so. Diving into the Christian story, then, would require the least amount of effort – if I could even have gotten into those other stories so late in life. And being fully immersed in the story is essential for it to work. There are no two ways about it – the most fundamental technology of religion is faith, or belief; for without belief, the effects of any spiritual system are usually unimpressive at best (although not always; read about Saul, or Paul, on the road to Damascus). For deep faith, knowing the story down to the roots is a high priority.
Two: what Christianity promises: not only a better, more spiritual life (which all good religions offer), but a sure path to eternal life with God, which is our ultimate reason for being.
In this, Christianity exhibits the most remarkable spiritual genius that I am aware of. Shamanic religions give us some aids on our journey after death, but in the end, all depends on maintaining absolute courage as we pass through a dangerous hinterland to a poorly defined afterlife. The Eastern religions give us much more specific techniques to escape this “dream”, but the discipline is drastic, so much so that almost all of us are condemned to repeat a material existence for hundreds of thousands of years, if not for eternity. Christianity solves these problems. Here, heaven is clearly defined for the masses as an eternal good, and, more importantly, heaven is made accessible in this life for everyone. This is made possible by the most wonderful of stories depicting the most elegant of techniques. Boiled down to its most concise essentials, the Christian Way centers on the Resurrection and the Eucharist.
Entire books have been written about this story, but the most important book of all is, of course, the Bible.
When one studies the Bible from the Christian perspective, it becomes astonishingly clear that the entire Old Testament is all about the Messiah and the Way to Heaven. From this perspective, Jesus fulfills everything that was promised in its two thousand year history. The connections of the Old to the New are so broad and endlessly deep that it is hard to imagine that the claims of the New Testament are anything but true. Essentially (again, from the Christian perspective) the Old Testament cannot be fully understood without the New Testament. Here we find that all the smaller stories of the Old Testament were and always have been about one great story: the saving of humankind through the sacrifice on the cross and the Resurrection.
There is the story, and there is the technique. The story: humans have strayed from the direct will of God, landing all in the world of sickness, treachery and death. In the Old Testament, God accepts animal sacrifice to smooth over this “sin,” but the compensation is never complete. In the New, we find that there is and always has been only one way to compensate entirely – that is, for God to sacrifice Himself for Man. This is done through the personage of Jesus. As God cannot suffer and die as God, He has to become fully human, while still remaining God. Only God can redeem the totality of existence, but only a human can take on the fundamental sin of the human world: suffering and death. This is the Way, the inscrutable inside, or plot, of the story.
Tremendous stuff, requiring thousands of years of rabbinical thought to uncover. But that is not all – there is technique as well. To enter into heaven, not only must our sins be taken from us (in the death of Jesus), but we also must become perfect like Jesus, the man-god. The eastern religions know this, and so demand the perfection of will that is so difficult to achieve. Christianity, instead, gives us the Eucharist, the sharing of sacred bread and wine, which for Catholics is not just symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice, but also involves the real changing of bread and wine into the (usually mystical) body and blood of Christ through priestly technique. As it is Christ himself who is eaten, one is then made into the spiritual stuff of Christ, and so able to stand before God – something that can be done by all, even imperfect sinners. What is required, then, is not twenty years spent in a cave in the Himalayas, but rather simply getting inside the story (with belief) and then carrying out this most essential of rituals.
In the end, each story and its techniques (I believe) spring from a certain consciousness, through which each follower of a religious tradition can truly enter the story. Again from a Christian perspective, that is another way of saying what the Old Testament is all about – an inspired work created to change the level of consciousness so that we might comprehend the new (spiritual) kingdom of the Messiah, as well as the technique for achieving it. It is through this altered consciousness that the “magic” of the crucifixion and the Eucharist becomes capable of conquering death; death, the big kahuna - the enormous elephant in the room - of all religions. Which, to say the least, is quite an achievement – the achievement of the ages.
And yet…the spiritual dimension is never as clear-cut as we would like. How it that the "magic" produced through religious techniques sometimes spills over onto non-believers? How is it that an Indian shaman can sometimes cure an outsider of disease? Or that communion wafers are sometimes proven to contain actual human skin tissue and blood (one in Italy has remained perfectly preserved for 1200 years, blood cells and all)? More on the miracles of spirit in a few weeks, after a return from the distant hills of Medjugorje.