Tami Simon: You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Matthew Fox. Matthew Fox is a teacher, writer, and theologian who has helped spark what could be called a spiritual revolution in this country with a succession of provocative books, including Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, and most recently, The Hidden Spirituality of Men and The Pope's War. Expelled by the Dominican Order for his outspoken views, Matthew Fox is now an Episcopalian minister. In his audio release with Sounds True, Radical Prayer: Love in Action, Matthew Fox covers, among other topics, "What is authentic prayer?" recovering the sacred masculine and sacred feminine, and what it means to explore "the dark night of the soul."
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Matthew and I spoke about the four spiritual paths, the via positiva, via negativa, via creativa, and via transformativa, and how they can be applied to everything in life. We also talked about the value of grief rituals, the reinvention of Christianity, and what spirituality might look like in the future. Here's my conversation with pioneering teacher Matthew Fox.
Matthew, you talk about prayer in the context of what you call "adult" or "mature" spirituality. You know, it's not about praying for 15 minutes in the morning and at night, but that prayer is something that can actually be a way of living. I'm wondering if you can say more about that, what prayer is to you.
Matthew Fox: Yes. Years ago—it was actually in my first book at the time, called On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear: Spirituality American Style—I defined prayer as a radical response to life, and I've always stuck by that definition. I remember the psychologist, the fellow who did The People of the Lie...
TS: M. Scott Peck?
MF: Yes. He said that was the best definition of prayer he had ever heard. The idea is that, like Saint Paul says, "Pray always." Prayer is an attitude toward life. I think it's an attitude of gratitude and thanks and awareness and expansiveness, but it's also everything that's deep that goes on in our consciousness and psyche, and it's also then our travel through darkness and suffering and doubt. It's what the mystics call the via positive and the via negativa. I think it's also what we give birth to in the world—not only our children (certainly our children), but our citizenship, and our creativity (however we express it), and our work in the world. It is a struggle for compassion and justice, and that really follows the outline of the four paths of creative spirituality, which are our efforts to name what a deep journey is.
I do think prayer is more of a consciousness. It's about prayerfulness. It's about what the Buddhists called "mindfulness," really. It's about heeding the deepest needs of our souls and spirits and psyches, and responding to them, and not living on a superficial level that is a world of distraction.
TS: You mentioned the four paths of creation spirituality, and I imagine some of our listeners aren't familiar with that. Can you explain that?
MF: Sure. Traditionally, the mystical traditions talked about the via positive and the via negativa, and what I've done is bring them together, if you will. The via positiva is about the experience of divinity as light—what in the Greek theological tradition is called the cataphatic divinity, being drawn to the light. This is the experience of beauty, of grace, and of joy, and of wonder and delight and awe. That's the via positiva.
The via negativa is expressed in the apophatic divinity, the divinity of darkness, the divinity Meister Eckhart, the great mystic, says, "God is without a name and without being given a name," so it's the mystery dimension of divinity, that God had more than the act of God, of creation and salvation and so forth. It's the path of silence, the path of meditation, calming the reptilian brain, but it's also the path of emptying, being emptied. I mean how can you have mindfulness without mind emptiness? There's an emptying that has to go on in order to refill, if you will, the mind and our consciousness. Then there's also the suffering, because suffering is one of the avenues of emptying and being filled up anew.
Now what I've done to the naming of the via positiva and the via negativa, in addition to bringing them in the room together, if you will, is to realize that when you put them together, it's like an electric spark! The positive and the negative create something, so the via creative comes next, the creative path. This is the path of creativity, and I do believe that many people have mystical experiences in the act of creativity—whether it's musicians writing music, or painters painting, or dancers dancing, or lovers making love, or people cooking their food and growing their food. There's creativity everywhere! This is what really distinguishes us as a species, and I think the whole tradition of the Holy Spirit as being present in creativity is an extremely profound and ancient. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century said, "The same spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation hovers over the mind of the artist at work." My proposition is that we are all artists, because we are all, in some way, made in the image and likeness of the creator.
The via transformative is the fourth path, because creativity, in itself, can be morally neutral. I mean, it's creative to make hydrogen bombs, I guess, or even gas ovens in Hitler's time, so creativity, itself, needs a critique. It needs a steering and a direction, and that direction is justice. That direction is compassion. Then that fills out the four-fold path of the creation spirituality: the via positiva, the via negativa, the via creativa, and the via transformativa, and they feed one another. The image I use is a spiral—not a closed circle, and certainly not a ladder, but a spiral—where it's ever-expanding, so that when there's more justice, what follows is more joy and beauty and delight for people. You move right from the via transformativa, then, back into the via positiva.
I have found this naming of the path of spirituality to be extremely practical for people, and it's applicable to so many situations in our lives. I wrote an essay once on food and the four paths. You can apply it to so much! It even becomes a template for understanding our great musicians or our great authors. One of our graduates went on to do his doctorate in English, and did his doctorate on Walt Whitman, and applied these four paths to Walt Whitman. He got a summa cum laude degree for it. His board said, "This is the first time that anyone's really made sense of Walt Whitman, in our opinion." By applying these four paths, something really profound emerges. We taught a course for years on musicians, taking Gustav Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and so forth, and showing the four paths in their music, which helps people to realize how musicians have played the role of spiritual directors for millions of people in the centuries past. There are many applications of these.
TS: I'm curious about that idea of the four paths in relationship to food. That's not intuitively obvious to me, how that would work. Could you help me there?
MF: Sure. Food is a mystical experience. We have that wonderful poem by Rilke on the beauty and succulence of an orange. A lot of mysticism is about not taking for granted, so to be able to write poems, or just pause before we eat to admire a peach or an orange, or M.C. Richards wrote a line where she said, "Now imagine inventing the curve of a cherry"—to give attention to food in all its beauty, as well as, of course, in its utilitarian-ness and its giving us all of that good energy, but also food is cosmic. All food is quite literally sunlight. All food has a 13.7 billion-year history. It is cosmic. It's a gift of the sun incarnated in this very special form of peach or orange or legumes or something else. That's the via positiva of food: that it's not only healthy for us, but it's delicious and beautiful.
The via negativa can come through in so far as we pause to give food some silence, some reverence. I remember a Native American teacher, Buck Ghosthorse, who once taught me, he said, "If you want to know how holy water is, go without it for three days!" The first sip of water [after three days] then becomes a very sacred act. Of course that is the tradition of fasting, which is done worldwide in all of our spiritual traditions. It is about rediscovering, it's cleansing the body and the mind, but it's also rediscovering in the process, not taking it for granted, the sacredness and the specialness of food.
Of course another dimension to the via negativa in food is overindulgence You wake up the next day with a headache or a stomachache. Or, of course, in a poverty situation, under-indulgence. You don't have access to food, so all that awakens experiences of suffering and need, of course, of famine. Bad distribution of food is a very negative thing, and that kind of suffering is also part of the spiritual journey if you were to incorporate it into it.
The via creativa, of course, is about the preparing of food, the growing of food, which is a creative act, and of course it creates beauty—and it creates conversation! So many traditions celebrate, all tribes celebrate marriages, celebrate even funerals, celebrate birth and our days together by eating together, conversing together. The historical Jesus actually used eating as one of his primary political strategies to bring the rich and the poor together, over food, to discuss and to break barriers. In fact, I wonder if that's what's missing in Congress these days, that maybe they need some dining together where they can actually be honest with each other and get something done!
Then the via transformativa: Issues of justice and compassion come up, because what should we be doing about famine? And, of course, there's the whole ecological crisis, how we're depleting the health of food when we deplete the health of our rivers, or our soil, or our trees and plants and the diversity of plants and seeds. What's happening today, for example, in some inner city situations where people are growing food there, and some people are rediscovering the joy of growing food, and the health of eating good food. Of course, the distancing of healthy stores with good food in our inner cities makes it so hard for people in our inner cities to get healthy food these days. That, too, is part of the justice issues of food and so forth.
Again, the four paths, really they open and they shed light, I think, on the depth and the beauty and the reverence that we should have for food, and how wonderfully involved humans are in the creative process of bringing food to the table and turning it into a celebration, a real spiritual act of conversation and communion and conviviality.
TS: Well that's helpful. That helps me understand how you could apply to four paths to anything, as you say.
MF: Does it help you understand why you like food so much?
TS: Yes, yes, although that was self-evident for other reasons!
MF: Good. There's the reason! You see, you could add your own to this, but this show is probably not long enough.
TS: Exactly! The via personalitiva or something.
MF: There you go: your own witness! [Laughs]
TS: But I am curious about an aspect of the via negativa which has to do with suffering, and bringing suffering into the room, brining the via negativa into the room. In some ways—the spiritual path and the spiritual life is talked about—the idea is to get away from suffering. You know, that's something that we're trying to escape from, but here, you're bringing it right in as part of our path. I'm wondering if you can talk about that a little bit.
MF: Sure. Well, the mystics talked about "the dark night of the soul," and Hafiz, the wonderful 14th-century Sufi mystic, says, "Sometimes God wants to do us a great favor: turn us upside-down and shake all of the nonsense out, but most of us, when we hear that God is in such a playful, drunken mood, quickly pack our bags and hightail it out of town." What he's talking about there, I think, is that the warrior energy of the mystic and the spiritual person is about sticking around when times get rough—and times do get rough for all of us! We do have our valleys and our mountains to travel through. To the mystics, the dark night of the soul is a way to say, "Hey, there's something to be learned. There's a school here that we're attending when there's suffering in our lives."
What is it that we learn? Well, one thing is compassion. We learn what it means for others to be suffering, because we are paying attention to our own. As Meister Eckhart says, "Compassion begins with one's self, with one's own body and one's own soul." If we don't pay attention to our own suffering, we're not really going to understand others', but when we do, suffering itself is a common language. It's an absolutely universal experience. Of course, this is what the Buddhists are teaching when they say that all beings suffer in the universe, and it's part of the archetype of the crucified Christ in the Christian tradition. All beings, including good people, like Jesus and the Cosmic Christ, we all suffer, so we want to ask, "What is there to learn from it?"
Another thing we learn from the mystics talking about the dark night of the soul is that for them, this kind of suffering is a purification of our longing. That's really the essence of what we learn at the school called "suffering": to purify our longing. I think that's a very important issue today. I really think our species is in a great dark night of the soul at this time, because we're all unsure about what the future holds, with so many decisions ahead of us and so many institutions not working, from government to politics to economics, and many of our religions are in bad shape, education... It is one of these times when there has to be this breakthrough. This creativity has to come out of the emptying. People in AA learn this, too, that the "bottoming out" that happens there is a profound shift in their entire way of being in the world. The late Father B. Griffith, this wonderful monk who lived in India for many years, he said that, for many people, despair is a yoga—that they do not experience God or transcendence until they go through some very deep experience like alcoholism, for example, where there is a profound emptying that happens.
I think, as I say, that our species is going through a great emptying at this time. Hopefully, we'll learn some of the really important spiritual lessons that we have to learn from that, including this issue of the purification of our longing.
TS: I'm curious, if you're willing to become even more personal with us, if there was a period in your life of great suffering, and how or what sustained you through that, how you made it through?
MF: Well, one thing I've been working on for the last number of years is the whole business of grief rituals. I think that we need grief rituals very strongly at this time, because, frankly, our religions have lost many of their practices of lamentation and of grieving. I lead people in these grieving workshops often, and whenever we do our Cosmic Mass, we have our grieving section. It's very important to people. One woman said afterwards, "I loved the whole mass, but the most important part for me was the grieving ceremony, because I grieve alone in my bedroom. No one has ever asked me to grieve in a group before."
When I was personally going through a grief experience a number of years ago, a shaman gave me a drum, a hand drum, and he said, "Beat this drum daily for 15 minutes, wailing from your third chakra, whatever sound comes out, and it will hasten your grieving process." The teaching is that you can ride the horse into the land of grief. By beating the drum, you're riding the horse. It's a wonderful practice, first of all, because it takes your anger (and the first level of grief is anger), and it puts it into a drum, which is not hurting anybody, but there's no limit to how forceful you can be. In the process, then, you go many places! In one of my meditations, doing this daily for 15 minutes, I ended up in a circle of Native American women who were wailing. I said to them, "You have more to grieve about than I do!" A woman spoke up and said, "If your heart is broken, stay, because you only have one heart."
This really taught me the universality of grief. The question isn't, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's suffering the most of all?" The issue is that to pay attention to your own grief is to enter a circle of humanity itself. We all have grief issues, and we need to pay attention to them. I think, as a culture, we're not doing that well, and that's one reason I think so many young people find themselves expressing themselves with anger, which is the first level of grief, but not having access to moving that anger into something deeper, which is sorrow, and then ultimately into bottoming out.
There are ways we can do this. There are these practices. That drum was one such thing, and the practices that I develop with groups grieving are another. They're very effective, and they're very simple. They're always simple, but they carry you into deep places. It's so much better than—You know, I think a lot of the reasons for obesity in our country, and other addictions, not just food addictions, but alcohol, drugs, TV, sports, sex, and others, is that we're not dealing with grief well, and we have to deal better with grief. There's so much to grieve about in our world today, with so much disappearing. We have to give grief more attention.
TS: And this experience of collective grieving—I mean that's pretty rare, that there's an opportunity like that. What do you think happens with a group grief ritual that's different from grieving on your own?
MF: Very good question. Well, first of all, there is the realization that you're not alone, you see? What we do is we get down on what we call "all fours," but actually, if you count, it's "all sixes," and then a seventh: I had people put their heads down on the floor, as well. That way, you create an echo chamber, and then you let the sound out from your third chakra, from your gut, which is where we carry our grief and our anger. I tell people first to listen to themselves as they make sounds—whatever sounds need to come out—and then to keep making their sounds and start listening to their neighbors.
What happens is that, first of all, you're hearing your own grief, and often you have not heard it! You have not been free enough to pay attention to that third chakra and let the sound out. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, said, "Sometimes there's a bear inside you that needs to roar." That's what I'm talking about. So these sounds come out. They may be the roaring of bears, or the howling of wolves, or tears, or whatever, but you let it out! You hear yourself, and then you hear your neighbor. Part of is that you're aware, then, that this grief is a universal thing, because you're hearing so many versions of it, but also there's a safety about it. You have to create a safe space for this community action, collective grieving. That's important: that you feel sustained by the power of the group, itself.
Then, when it's all over, I have people report or tell what they want to tell about the experience, and many people shift profoundly in that experience. We carry grief inside us, you see, and it we don't let it out, it's like a boulder blocking our heart. It blocks our creativity. The via negativa precedes the via creativa, and if we're not doing the via negativa well, if we're not going into the grieving, then our creativity is definitely blocked up, but when you do it, a new day dawns. Joy returns, and above all, empowerment and creativity return.
I once did it with a group of socially responsible business people, and they didn't know they were getting into a grief ceremony when they invited me. They just thought I was going to lecture to them, but I just had an intuition on the spot. I said to them, "How many of you have done a grief ritual lately?" and they all looked at each other, so we did it. It was amazing! One man said that he had been working on a solar project for 24 years, and he had quit it two years ago, but because of this grief ceremony, he was going to go back to it, and he was confident that he could finish it. That's just one indication. Another person said he'd been carrying this inside of him, this grief thing, for 20 years, and had not dealt with it. It's very liberating for people to do these ceremonies, grieving ceremonies, and it's very important especially at this time in history, I think.
TS: Well, this connection between creativity and grief, releasing our grief and opening our creative channels, is interesting to me because I wanted to talk to you some about the via creativa and your life. Here you are, seven decades of life, and you've written 30 books, plus innumerable essays and all of the lectures that you've given. I'm curious to know what sustains, nourishes, and helps your creativity.
MF: Well, I wrote a book about this a few years ago—not about me, specifically, but about creativity, where the divine and the human meet, because like you, I think this is a really important question. For example, when anthropologists find bones of our ancestors, to guarantee that they're our ancestors, they look for artifacts next to the bones. To me, this proves that the very definition of being human is our powers of creativity: We are a biped who is creative.
I do not understand why our school systems, our education, does not make creativity more prominent. We're too busy giving kids exams [to] "climb to the top." Even the language of that is so, so competitive! No! The key to education for human beings is creativity. I'm convinced of it. I've been working with inner city kids in Oakland, teenagers, high schoolers who are dropping out. Seventy-two percent of black boys are dropping out of high school in America today. Seventy-two percent! Why? Because they're bored! That's why! Because they're bored, primarily, and they're bored because they don't like sitting in a desk and taking exams all day.
My approach is to have them make DVDs, to have them make films about things that they are interested in, things that they're passionate about, and they do the research. What happens is a complete turnaround. The last spring that we did a survey with our students, 100 percent said that they wanted to stay in school now, because they'd had this positive experience of the joy of learning through creativity, through making their own videos with the music and all, learning the skill of making a movie. But above all, they've tapped into their creativity. One day a senior, a black fellow who was a senior, turned to me and said it was the first time in four years of high school that anyone has asked him to express himself creatively. That's what's wrong with American education, not that we need more and more piles of exams. That's ridiculous!
Anyway, regarding myself, I find creativity in meeting young people and seeing a problem like that. What's really wrong with our educational system? I'm very disappointed, frankly, in Obama's education department. I don't think they're doing anything important, to be blunt. I don't think they're reaching the real problem. The real problem has to do with listening to creativity. I spoke at NAPA two years ago about this, and a woman came up, and she said, "I'm a teacher, I'm a great teacher, and I'm quitting. Every good teacher I know is quitting in this district, because we feel like you, that we were not called to be teachers to give an infinite amount of exams to kids. We're there to bring the wisdom and the insight of the kids out, and we don't have time for it! We can't bring creativity alive. We're being burdened so with all of these competitive exams!"
I think this is a really important issue, the issue of creativity. I think, creativity is organic to the human species everywhere. You can't find any tribe in the world that does not sing, or dance, or put on theater, or express themselves, and want to get others to laugh and to cry and to go through the four paths in creative ways, through film and through music and all of it! In our culture at this time, we tend to consider art an accessory, and it's the first thing that's dropped when there's a budget crunch—which there is everywhere, of course, around education. I, myself, am awakened when I meet people—giving a lecture or something, or being given a topic for a lecture—to be creative, to respond with putting ideas together. I think the intellectual life is not about living comfortably with guaranteed tenure. I think the intellectual life is about being on the edge, being on the margin, and trying to wrestle with issues. This is creative!
Every book I have written, to be blunt, I have written for myself. By that, I mean I've had questions that I have wanted to pursue, and I couldn't find answers to them, so I wrote a book. Like that first question you asked me, "What is prayer?" That was my first book. For the book on compassion, A Spirituality Named Compassion, I was looking up "compassion" theologically, and I was very disappointed in what I found, especially in Western writers, so I wrote a book on it. For The Cosmic Christ, I'd heard about, but I hadn't heard much, so I wrote a book on it. I'm creative in order to learn, and for me, that keeps me alive and young and excited. It's a joy that others want to read over my shoulder, if you will, something I've written, but I just find creativity is at the heart of being alive.
TS: Do you have a feeling, whether it's a feeling in your body or some sense, like, "Oh! This is something that I'm going to write about. This is something I'm going to teach about," at that moment of conception?
MF: It often comes to that. Just recently, I came up with my recent book, called The Pope's War, and another one, just before, called Christian Mystics, and a friend came up to me and said, "What's your next book?" My first response was, "I don't even want to think about it. Give me some time off!" but then, the next day, it came to me, what I want to do next. I want to write about young people and spirituality. I think that religion is very much up for grabs today. A lot of this comes from The Pope's War, which is a reflection and a narrative about what's happening in the Catholic Church today, but it ends with a bigger question about really what's happening in religion, and about reinventing Christianity today. I think that's the good news that comes out of all this bad news about pedophilia and all the rest in the Catholic Church: It's an opening. This is an opportunity to reinvent Christianity and to reinvent religion around the world. The more young people I meet, I find that they're really not interested in organized religion—they've had it—but that doesn't mean they're not interested in spirituality and what religious values can come from that.
Just a few weeks ago, I was going to a conference in Detroit, where I was speaking, and a woman contacted me. She wanted to drive me from the airport, and I said, "Well, fine! Great!" She had a 15-month-old baby, her first child—she was 37, she had been Catholic as a child, she had quit the church, and she said, "Now I have this baby, and I want him to have the best values that I derived from my Catholicism, but I don't want to put him in church! I don't want him to be subjected to all that sexism and all the rest of it that's going on in Catholicism today, so what do I do?" That's why she'd wanted to drive me to the conference, so we could talk. She said, "I don't know anyone in my generation who is practicing Catholicism today."
We talked about a lot of things, but my point is that I think that this generation of young people—just the other day, I was at a book reading at East West Bookstore for my pope book, and a young woman spoke up at the end. She was about 22. She said, "I was raised fundamentalist in Georgia. It's so good to hear an elder who understands my generation and is not putting us down. We've been so wounded by bad religion, but we are aching," and that's the word she used, and then she repeated it. "We are aching for spirituality today." I just think that's so important, that elders and young people have to make up and then give birth to new forms of religion.
A friend of mine, a year ago, who I'm sure you know (and whose name just slipped me), the woman who played with Teillard De Chardin as a young adolescent...
TS: Jean Houston?
MF: There you go! Jean Houston! She said that to me a year ago. She said, "Matt, our generation has to leave a healthier religion for the young people," and I couldn't agree more.
As I said to a group recently, "You know, let the cardinals carry the basilicas on their backs. We don't need that! Let us just carry backpacks on our backs with the teachings of Jesus and the mystics and whatever we can save from the burning building." We don't have to go the way of all this structural, institutional religion that a basilica represents. These are museums, and some of them are very beautiful museums, which is great! I love museums! But very few people are looking to the church for spirituality today, but there are so many treasures to take from the burning building. Of course, at this time in history, with humanism, there are so many treasures to learn—for example, modes of meditation—from many other traditions, as well. All of the wisdom traditions today have something to offer. We've got to shake them up, though.
I think that [for] the present generation, the young people, this is one of their most important tasks, and now that so many are unemployed, it seems like a particularly good time in history for the young people to be creating alternative communities and alternative celebrations. Things like Burning Man and so forth are examples of what people are trying to do to rediscover the power of ritual. That's what we've been doing with our Cosmic Masses, borrowing the rave, bringing it into liturgy. It's proven to be extremely powerful and useful. We're training others to do that, too. So there are many ways to reinvent religion, and I think it's one of the primary tasks of our time.
TS: So, in this reinvention of religion, do you think that Christianity has a specific gift to give as we enter what you call "deep ecumenism" or what other people refer to as a sort of "world spirituality"?
MF: I do believe that Jesus and the spirit of Christ bring a lot to the table. After all, it was Gandhi who said, "I learned to say 'no' from the West," meaning from Jesus. He studied the Gospels extremely carefully, and even though he was Hindu, he applied the prophetic message of Jesus and the Jewish ancestors of Jesus to his situation in India. Of course, he also elaborated on "how you do this in a non-violent way," and all that, again, he learned from Jesus. He said he did, though he was a Hindu. Even the Dalai Lama recently gave a speech to a bunch of Buddhist monks, and he said, "We Buddhists are so good at meditating on compassion and talking about compassion, but we should imitate Christians more in acting out of compassion."
There's just no question that the East has much to teach the West and the West has much to teach the East. The indigenous people have a lot to teach all of us, especially at this time of ecological collapse. Of course the goddess traditions bring the divine feminine back, which is so important, but also we need a cleaned-up sacred masculine. There's a book I wrote a couple of years ago, The Hidden Spirituality of Men, where I'm talking about a sacred marriage of the divine feminine and the sacred masculine, but men have to clean up our act.
TS: What do you mean by that, "a cleaned-up version of the masculine"?
MF: We have to redefine what healthy masculinity is. We've been living in an illusion for centuries that a healthy masculine is about being number one, about military prowess, and all of this, and when I do this, I go through a ton of archetypes that are ancient, about what sacred masculinity is. They're archetypes like the Green Man. The Green Man is a warrior on behalf of Mother Earth. The Green Man is in touch with his relationship with the plants and the animals—and creativity! The big thing in the Green Man sculptures of the middle ages, when the Green Man was so important, is that he's giving birth from his fifth chakra, the mouth, giving birth to trees and to plants and so forth, because he's in touch with his creativity, and his sexuality is part of the powers of the regeneration of the planet, itself. So there's the Green Man.
There's the Blue Man, which Swami Muktananda had this amazing meditation for. He said "the most important meditation of my life," what his life was changed by, was that he saw a blue pearl that morphed into a blue man, and from this meditation, he said, he overcame his fear of death, and he got in touch with his own creativity and his powers of compassion. So the Blue Man is a very important archetype.
There's Father Sky, the rediscovery of cosmology, how alive the sky is. I mean, for hundreds of years, we were taught by scientists that the sky was dead, inert, a junkyard for mechanical parts. Now, of course, we're learning through the Hubble telescope and so forth that a star is being born every 15 seconds. The sky is a birthplace! It's fully alive! Men have hunkered down for centuries now because we were told there's no such thing as a Father Sky. Now we're learning that the sky is as fertile as the earth, so there's a new relationship between Father Sky and Mother Earth that we can recover today. All of that is part of the marriage of the divine feminine and the sacred masculine today.
TS: When I hear you talk about the contribution that can be made through Christianity, I'm moved by that and that makes sense. Here we are, we're in a new time, where these new traditions, something like deep ecumenism or world spirituality, it's unformed. We don't really know what it's going to look like. I think of you, Matthew, as someone who's always on this frontier, on the edge. What do you think spirituality is going to look like in the years to come?
MF: Well, let me give one concrete example in our Cosmic Masses. In our Cosmic Masses, we have had Christians, Pagans, Jewish people, Buddhist people, Muslims, Hindus, just such a variety of people, because they're based not on readings from a book, but on images. We'll have a theme, for example, the theme of the return of the divine feminine, and then we'll have images, say 500 images of the goddess, from many traditions, including the Christian tradition, but all the world's traditions. We're all dancing in the context of these images, and we're dancing a universal message, if you will, of the divine feminine, and she comes in so many names! She can be Kali, she can be the Madonna, she can be Guadalupe, she can be Tara, and so forth.
What can I say? It's only when you're stuck in the head that you're busy talking about what's different in our traditions. But when you get into the body, which is how our ancestors all prayed for most of our existence—they prayed through dance, as indigenous people still do—when you get all of the chakras praying, especially the lower ones, then you're not stuck in what's different, but you're celebrating what we all have in common. That is our bodies, and that is our place in the universe, and it is our birthing of children and training of them, and it is our grieving, and it is our creativity.
There's so much to be learned, I think, just from worshipping together, and as I say, worshipping by dancing and through images more than through words, and certainly not through books. I love reading, and I love writing and hoping others read, but I'll tell you, reading can be a very isolating thing. Your eyes on a page are very different from ears picking up common music together and translating it on the spot into dance. That's what happens in our Cosmic Mass. People can go to our website and see the Cosmic Mass. Canadian television did a 15-minute film on it, and it was well done, the film. You can get a feel there of what future worship is going to be. It's not exclusively Christian. It certainly doesn't exclude Jesus or the Christ, but it's so embracing that it can bring in so many things.
After 9/11, for example, 10 years ago, we had a mass of Rumi. We had an Imam come and do the teaching there, but all of us, Muslim and Christian and Jewish alike, we were all celebrating the grace in the Muslim tradition. It was very important at that time, of course, as people were beating up Muslims on the street! We've had masses of the black diaspora, celebrating the black experience. It's very powerful to see people of all colors dancing the story of the African American people and diaspora here, and grieving together, too, as well as celebrating the joy of their accomplishments.
This is how, I think, you get along together: by honoring one another's traditions. We've had a mass of the Celtic story, and that, too, was appreciated by people other than Celts, as well as the Celtic people, who need to learn more, especially in America, about their own stories and about their own traditions.
TS: Before we end our conversation, there's something important to me personally that I'd love to talk with you about, which is, in the very first question that I asked, I mentioned this idea of "adult spirituality" versus an immature spirituality. One of the things, in looking at your life story here from the outside, is that it appears to me that you have been willing, in different points in your life, to really be a pioneer, to really go it alone in a sense, if you had to, to separate from the Catholic Church when that was what was called for. When you were expelled from the Dominican Order, you continued in your own way. It seems to me that great mystics, great religious teachers, spiritual teachers throughout time, were people who were willing to take that step and be a pioneer, be a rebel, to use that word, but to individuate, in a sense. I'm curious what you think of that in terms of "adult spirituality."
MF: Well, I remember Martin Luther King was once asked, "How can you march through Skokie (Illinois, a suburb of Chicago), knowing people want to kill you?" His answer was, "You have to love something more than the fear of death if you're going to live." That line has always meant a lot to me. I think the dimension of spiritual warriorhood—and in the Biblical tradition, what we call "the prophetic dimension" of spirituality—is a big part of being adult, as you say. Religion and spirituality are not just about the joy of life, but also about trying to take on the forces and the powers of injustice that interfere with the joy and the spreading of joy in life. For so many leaders through the centuries—Jesus is one, Dorothy Day is another, and there are so many—courage, building up the heart, is at the heart of being adult.
Frankly, for example, I sometimes get frustrated with Catholics today who are in denial, adults who are just not willing to admit what's really happened in their church. This is where I wrote the book, The Pope's War, this spring. You know, you can't just run from it! You can't hide in the pew and say, "Nope, the pope doesn't see me." You have to stand up and be counted!
The same is true in politics and citizenship. One of the things I learned from visiting South America in the year I was silenced by the Vatican was the extraordinary courage down there of ordinary people. In the Amazon, for example, I spent a week with Bishop Casaldáliga, who is a real saint and mystic (and by the way, was silenced by the Vatican, himself). He stood up to the military dictatorship in Brazil, and his priests and fellow workers were tortured and killed. He stood up to the spoilers of the rainforests. When I was there, he had about 250 church workers in from the diocese, from the rainforest, and they had a mass one night in a gymnasium, a very simple mass. At the end, everyone was asked to go up and light a candle, and name three people who they knew personally who had been tortured and murdered defending the rainforest or the rainforest Indians there. Everyone went up and did that, and one man said to me afterwards, "The hard part was limiting it to three. I knew at least ten people off the top of my head." Here's a normal guy in jeans and a tee shirt! I was reawakened about the courage of humanity. People, when they really believe in something, like justice, can be very generous and very courageous.
There's an American teacher, Buck Ghosthorse, who said to me once, "In our tradition, fear is a door in the heart that lets evil spirits in, so all real prayer is about building your heart up to be strong so that fear does not enter. It stays outside the door and does not bring all of the evil spirits with it." I think that's a really important and profound spiritual teaching: if prayer is not making us more courageous, if it's not making us more prophetic and deepening our warriorhood, then it's not real prayer. It's not adult prayer, as you say. It's something else. It's something that's mollifying our own intrinsic passion for justice, because we're all born with passion for justice, and with compassion. Compassion is a kind of passion, and if you can't get in touch with your passion, you're not praying yet, period! As you say, you're not being an adult.
Part of being an adult is passing on a world that's healthy for the next generations. A lot of elders have to get out of their couch potato [phase] and off the golf course, and start giving back generously to the youngest generation. We need what I call "intergenerational wisdom" today between elders and young. There is where elders will come alive again and find their courage, because when you're working with and on behalf of the younger generation, all kinds of generosity and imagination, creativity flows!
TS: Do you think there's an aspect of adult spirituality that has a dimension of loneliness to it?
MF: Yes, definitely. I'm glad you pointed that out, because the prophetic movement is often very lonely. This is where it helps to really know some of these stories of the people who have gone before. I mentioned King. In other words, what traditions call "the communion of saints" or what others would call "our ancestors"—be in touch with them, the people who have bravely stood up, paid the price for it, but were right. This is another case where the Jesus story carries a lot of weight. Jesus was obviously not very popular with the powers that be in his day. This is one reason why I think his story is so archetypal. You don't have to be a Christian to appreciate Jesus. If you get the story, it's an archetypal story: that is, to stand up for compassion and justice and for the oppressed, "When you do this to the least of these, you do it to me," that consciousness of compassion is (What can I say?) earth-shaking. It's a revolution. This is the appeal of the Jesus story, in spite of the church for 2,000 years. I think one of the great miracles in Christianity is that Jesus can still be found someplace, in spite of some real detours that Christianity, especially in building empires, helping people build empires, these detours that we've been taken on.
Of course, there's a difference between loneliness and aloneness. This is where meditation comes in, I think. It does build the strength of aloneness. You realize that you can be alone without necessarily being lonely. You can be alone and connect to other beings. That's one of the lessons, again, that I learned from Buck Ghosthorse. I did a vision quest, and all of these animal spirits came, and he said that "Your work will make you very lonely at times. Human beings will not always support you, but the spirits of the animals are supporting you. That's what this lesson is about." I've not forgotten that lesson.
I think there are many beings, including angels, invisible beings. I wrote a book with Rupert Sheldrake on angels, and we've talked about this. There are many beings that support us that are not necessarily two-legged beings or institutions to which we can be idolatrously committed.
TS: And then just one more final question: Here you've taught so many different people in workshop settings and through lectures, and had interaction with so many different people who have admired your work and learned from your work. You've set such a beautiful invitation with these four paths of creation spirituality. I'm curious what you've seen as the main obstacles people face to really fully engage in radical prayer as a way of living. What are the main things that keep people stuck and held back?
MF: That's a really good question. Fear, of course, comes to mind. People are afraid of losing their jobs. I've gotten a lot of letters over the years from Catholics, for example, working in Catholic schools or parishes, saying, "I cannot teach everything I want to teach, and I cannot speak everything I want to say, because I don't want to lose my job." At least they're aware of it. Fear is a big thing. Again, this is why courage is such an important spiritual practice. I'm convinced that the number one sign of spirit is courage in today's world.
That takes you to the level of trust, too, which is the real meaning of faith. Can we trust that we will be held up if we die in a certain way—that is if we lose our job or even our reputation, and so forth. That's the real meaning of faith, this trust, and I think trust gets tested when we're up against important decisions where fear would hold us back.
I think another thing that holds people back is addiction, whether it's addiction to institutions or even religion, or any other kind of addiction. I think that addiction is a sign that we're not acting out of our inner self, but out of our outer self, if you will, an external reference rather than an internal reference. Again, this is where I think mysticism is so important and so practical. "Everyone as a mystic" means that everyone is in touch with their inner self, their true self. When we're not, we often cover up our pain or even our joy with addictions. This is where meditation can help, but also psychology can help people, too, to realize the connection between why we overeat or why we over-drink or something else, or depend too much on a cult or a pope or any other religious ideology. We kind of sell our souls because we haven't really taken to heart the teachings of people like Jesus or Buddha, that the Kingdom of God is among us, that the divine is in all things, and the Cosmic Christ is in us and all other beings.
I think that's another obstacle that we can fall into: the idolatry of form, paying too much attention to structure, and the way we did it as kids or something that made us feel good back then. Again, we're going back to your topic of adult spirituality, adult prayer, versus just playing out our catechisms of decades ago.
I think, again, the four paths really help us to break open and break away from these obstacles, because they get us more into our joy … That's why mysticism is really the mirror opposite of fundamentalism, which is really a commitment to an ideology or structure that is external. It's not really about your deepest spirit and joy and grief and creativity, or your passion for justice.
Aquinas says that "Fear is such a powerful emotion with humans that it can drive out all compassion." When fear becomes important, compassion walks out the door. I think that's a really important insight: that idolatrous forms, structures are not what religion is really about. Religion is really not about institutions, and it's not about projecting onto some teacher—a pope or anyone else. It's really our responsibility, which is our wrestling with conscience and consciousness, about why we're here and what gifts we have to give back.
TS: Thank you so much! I've been speaking with Matthew Fox. He is the author of over 30 books, plus a six-session audio learning course that he's created with Sounds True, called Radical Prayer: Love in Action. If you'd like more information on the work of Matthew Fox, you can visit www.matthewfox.org. I have so much respect, admiration, and love in my heart at this moment for you, Matthew. You're such a courageous leader. Thank you so much.
MF: Well thank you, Tami. Thank you for your very profound and provocative questions. I've enjoyed our conversation.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.