What’s Western about Western Spirituality? The key figure, in my judgment, is today’s saint, Aelred of Rievaulx.
Eastern Spirituality, for all its wisdom, troubles me with its tendency to flatten reality, to say things are “just thoughts,” that our preferences are bogus. It tends to dismiss experience and life.
Western Spirituality sets everything in the context of agape, which roughly corresponds to the Sanskrit karuna, an unconditional compassion and appreciation for all reality just for being real. But beyond that “unconditional positive regard,” Western spirituality – at least the best of it – affirms life in its particularity. It says, to quote Fr. Rick Milsap, “things matter, people matter, life matters.”
St. Aelred was a 12th Century Cistercian monk. In the monasteries, there was a ban on “special friendships.” Monks were to appreciate each other all equally and all the same. Very Eastern. Flat. Aelred, when he became abbot, rejected that rule and encouraged “spiritual friendships.” All were to hold each other in agape. But there was also room for particular bonds to particular persons – soul mates so to speak.
Hundreds of years later, in his classic little book, The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis wrote about the spiritual value as well as the perils of romantic love, family love, and friendship all of which needed to be rooted in unconditional love of reality, agape. The point is he valued and affirmed particular exclusive loves as authentic human spirituality. And of course, those are just some broad categories of love. There are as many loves as there are lovers and beloveds.
Western Spirituality does not extinguish desire, but teaches us to have desire without being consumed or controlled by it. Western Spirituality invites us to appreciate things in their own unique being. First Nations peoples call it “honoring.” Native poet Joy Harjo writes:
“We matter to somebody . . . .
I’d rather understand how to sing from a crow
who was never good at singing or much of anything
but finding gold in the trash of humans.”
The trick is to find the gold in each other. The gold we find in another person is always their own unique gold. The joy lies in being the one to find it. A world where things shine is better. Living in such a world is a matter of paying attention to the good – a discipline of honoring.