Paulist Fr.Thomas Ryan is the director of the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York City. Ordained in 1975, he served in campus ministry at Ohio State University (Columbus) and McGill University. He was director of the Montreal-based Canadian Centre for Ecumenism for 14 years.
Fr. Ryan is also a retreat leader and author of nine books, including: Four Steps to Spiritual Freedom, Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice and The Sacred Heart of Fasting.
I reached him in New York City to speak about his book Reclaiming The Body in Christian Spirituality --which was published recently by Paulist Press.
Gerry McCarthy: In Reclaiming The Body in Christian Spirituality you write: "The gifts of tears and laughter are among the signs of empowered release. Tears do not necessarily mean sadness or depression. Tears can be a cleansing act of opening, an expression of gratitude and love pouring forth from the deep springs of inner life. Even when tears do come from grief, grieving openly and freely is a bodily sign of trust and release." I was struck by this passage --because it seems we're ashamed or mistrustful of tears in our culture. What are your thoughts?
Thomas Ryan: Yes --that would be fair to say. Women's tears have always been more acceptable than men's tears. Women's tears are more acceptable than they were in the past. Men's tears are also more acceptable than they were formerly, but still way below the curve of acceptability than women's tears.
What's interesting is to look at this within the context of the spiritual tradition, where biblical texts witness to tears as an expression of natural human emotions and deep sentiments such as gratitude and love --as it affects a whole person concretely. Tears are often times described in the spiritual tradition as a gift having their source in the action of the Holy Spirit. We think of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, because Jerusalem was resistant to grace. We think of mourning and tears being the subject of the beatitude "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted."
But tears in and of themselves are undifferentiated in their physical manifestation. They need to be subjected to the same kind of discernment of spirit one applies to all our experiences. It could be grace, weakness, or melancholy. But there is a rich and unbroken tradition in both the Christian East and Christian West up to the recent past that sees tears as a normal feature of the spiritual life. They're seen as purifying and often times witnessing to the presence of God and compassion for the neighbour.
But tears are increasingly an acknowledgement of psychological experiences related to (for example) addiction or childhood abuse or the breakthrough in a therapeutic process that is experienced and recognized as the gift given in the very owning of weakness and loss. That gift is frequently marked by profound weeping that marks an opening to the healing process, and gradually becomes an expression of gratitude and inner freedom. Such tears are a gift and are a deeply personal expression of the transforming action of God within the individual. And if it's something the whole community is living, then within the community as well.
GM: In the book you write that: "As we become genuinely more holistic in our spirituality, affirming all the dimensions of our being, sexual feelings often intensify." You add that many people think that sexuality will go away or at least become quieter as we grow spiritually --but this is not the case. Could you talk to me a bit more about this?
TR: It's a huge subject. But the place to begin is to observe that God is love and the energy that emanates from God has to be so intense, fiery, and erotic that the closer we come to God the more erotic life is going to seem to us. Simply because God is alluring and such a powerful magnetic attraction. Remember Augustine's words: "Our hearts are restless O God until they rest in thee." Any kind of unveiled experience of this energy is love coming at us in incarnate form. Whether it's through the beauty of the created world or human bodiliness, it's going to have an erotic dimension to it. We'll begin to experience sexual energy in a new way: as a sacred and generative force.
As I noted in the book, often times people seem to be praying to have the sexuality removed so they won't have to struggle with it anymore. That's a denial of a powerful creative energy that connects us to one another. We should be struggling with it. It's like Jacob wrestling with the angel.
One of the things that make the Song of Songs in the Bible such a special book is that it's so full of the sap of life and the moisture of sexual energy. Those things are celebrated in the poem. Its depth is achieved because the spiritual and physical are not torn apart --as is so often the case-- but are inseparably interwoven. When we regard our body (or the body of another) simply as flesh, we cheapen the sexuality of our being and lose sight of the spiritual depth that is within us.
GM: This is part of being fully alive?
TR: Absolutely. We can say simply that our sexuality is our way of being human. It is the human way of being present to the world and to each other. We always exist, function, and relate as sexed persons. At no time are we able to act independently
of our sexuality.
GM: Our dominant culture appears to be more knowledgeable about sex --but ignorant of the meaning of sexuality. What are your thoughts? What attitudes toward sexuality in our culture worry you?
TR: Historically the Church's emphasis has been on the biological function of sex for procreation. That has been balanced since the Second Vatican Council with the recognition of the relational gift that is sexuality. But it still carries a heavy weight in the Church's teaching. One concern is to limit human sexuality to its biological function. That overlooks the fact that in humans the most significant ends for human sexuality must be of a spiritual nature --not just to produce children. What do I mean by spiritual nature? Look at the language. Language doesn't arrive without any reason. What were the original framers of language trying to tell us when they coined the phrase "to make love" when speaking of human sexual intercourse? Anyone can "have sex." But for human sexual intercourse to be lovemaking it must be the work of the spirit. That's precisely what God intended it to be.
Another concern I have in our culture is with casual sex. Consider how much energy two people have to invest when they have sex and try to keep it casual. Because it's the nature of human sex to make love. Namely: to bond one to his or her partner. Everybody knows that. That's why the pleasure seekers who are into promiscuity have to hit-and-run. Because if they care the least bit, they could be caught up in the mystery and gift of human sexuality --and its power to bond us one to the other.
That spiritual bonding of persons is something that no one engaging in casual sex wants anything to do with. But it's so powerful that it takes a concerted effort to resist it. I'm told that we humans are the only species that copulate face-to-face. Think about how significant and symbolic that is. Because with the human face we say: when we look into the eyes of another we see another's soul. What a mystery and precious part of the body the face is to "making love." Because it's precisely in the human face that one encounters the mystery of the incarnation and the wonder of spirit --through the smile, look and glance. To literally be face-to-face up close is revelatory and works toward a bonding of two spirits. Those who are engaging in casual sex almost have to look away lest their eyes betray them. Or lest they inadvertently make love --succumbing to that bonding power of spirit in lovemaking.
In the end what is spirituality? It's simply the life of the spirit open, gracious, giving, caring, loving, and sharing. As embodied spirits we can only do that through the mediation of our bodies. At its best --human sexuality is spirituality.
GM: In Reclaiming The Body in Christian Spirituality Jim Dickerson has an essay entitled "The Political and Social Dimensions of Embodied Christian Contemplative Prayer." He explains that: "When we begin to speak and think of the social and political as equally important as the personal dimension, we experience an enhanced richness, unity, and power in our spirituality." What are your thoughts?
TR: Precisely in that passage we see the direction of an expanded notion of reclaiming the body in Christian spirituality. Our first instinct is to simply locate the reflection in terms of my personal physical body. But Jim Dickerson's reflection beautifully carries it where it has to go. This body is part of a larger body. For example: the Church body which is re-membered every Sunday as the people come together to support and inspire one another in order to go back to re-engage with life in the civic body (where they live and work). And where the kingdom of God must be concretely built.
That life in the civic body is lived on yet another body: the earth body. It also needs our love and care through our work to protect the environment and to safeguard it from abusive use.
All of this is a much more rich and multi-layered understanding of the spirituality of the body than we've been accustomed to receive. It is at once both rich and challenging, because as we say in yoga: it's not so much about learning to stand on your head on the mat as it is about learning to stand on your feet in your living.
We say something similar but with different language to those who meditate: you'll know whether the spirit is working during this time of quiet sitting by looking at your life between meditations. Are you responsibly engaged bringing the concrete experience of God's reign for justice, peace, and right relationships into the family, apartment building, and office complex where you work and spend your time? If you can say yes to that --you'll know the spirit is truly at work in your life and heart during those times of simply quiet sitting in meditation or prayer.
But the real index for authenticity of our prayer is: Does it send us out into mission? One of the great characteristics that distinguish the Christian mystics is their instinctive and ready move from the infinite to the definite. From our experience of the infinite in prayer to the definite, that is, to concrete involvement in serving God's people, and making the reign of God more concretely realized and manifested in the lives of real people. The door of the prayer room flies open and somebody emerges with sleeves rolled up --who hits the ground running and loses no time in getting involved in the messiness of life.
GM: In the book you write that: "Christianity finds itself in the awkward position of trying to develop a positive theology of creation without ever having rejoiced in the human body. In theory, we have the highest theology of the body among all world religions. In practice, we are still dualistic and suspicious of anything too earthy and sensual; we live largely in our heads." Do you see any signs this is changing? Are Christian church leaders adequately addressing this problem?
TR: One Church leader who certainly did address it was Pope John Paul II. He made a wonderful contribution to our reflection on the spirituality of the body through a whole series of Wednesday audiences that were eventually gathered together and published under the title "The Theology of the Body." It has been popularized, and workshops are now led on this.
So the answer to your question is: To a certain extent yes. But much more is needed simply because our culture is so oversexed. Yet it doesn't get it about the different level of meaning in our sexuality. We are pulling a long history of negative baggage behind us in the form of the teachings that basically made it difficult for people to relate to their embodied beings in a positive, celebratory way.
Some efforts are being made and they're having good effect. But it's by no means adequate yet to countermand the materialistically consumer-oriented approach to the body as product and commodity that we're so accustomed to having thrown in our faces. We need to consciously bring a new evangelizing spirit to the culture's heavy colorization of sexuality having to do just with genital sexuality and pleasuring one another. We need to see the different layers of meaning and to respond to the other as a whole person.
GM: In the book you write that: "By making sought-after idols of riches and glowing health, it's easy to lose sight of how illness and economic hardship can be circumstances of life-giving grace by making us more aware of our radical dependency upon God for everything." You offer many stories in that chapter about people who've struggled with illness --and deepened their spirituality. But this isn't an easy thing for many people is it? For example: trying to accept our aging bodies is counter-cultural today. Can you speak to me a bit more about this?
TR: The subject you've opened is a very rich one. If you want more powerful stories on how God uses our aging, limitations, and experience of sickness --see my book that preceded Reclaiming The Body in Christian Spirituality entitled Four Steps To Spiritual Freedom (which came out in 2004). When I arrived toward the end of working on that manuscript --for which I interviewed a lot of people whose stories had drawn me-- I looked at those stories and said: Almost all of these are stories of hardship and suffering. It was never my intention to gather a collection of such stories together, but rather to gather stories of how people demonstrated in their living spiritual freedom.
When I looked at what it was in their stories that had been so liberating for these people --I saw a pattern. The pattern was that wisdom, new life, and insight flowed into their lives precisely from their experience of letting go, that is, from the little spiritual deaths that are involved in accepting our limitations, sickness, handicaps, break up with a lover, seeing one's child leave home for the first time, the loss of a job, retirement, disability, or maybe just moving house. All of these little dyings or letting go's --represented in their various stories and embraced in faith and hope-- were the doorway for a deep and liberating wisdom for them.
I came to take that as confirmation of the real truth of what Christian faith calls the Paschal Mystery. The Paschal Mystery refers to Jesus passing through death to new life --through the death of the cross through new life in the resurrection. The affirmation of Christian faith (subsequent to that) is that every experience of new life comes to us only through an experience of letting go. And every letting go is a little dying --a kind of dress rehearsal for the ultimate letting go which is our death.
But there is a wisdom that comes from suffering, sickness, vulnerability, and the experience of our limits and finitude when it is responded to in hope and faith as a reflection of the mystery of the cross and resurrection at work in real ways in our lives. It's as though each time that happens (and we think we're in front of a dead end) and we embrace it in confidence and trust, the experience that people witnessed to was that it opened outward again in new and surprising ways to a richer and even deeper experience of life. It's as if God said: See I told you so. I've written it into the very nature of things. When will you learn to trust it? Dying gives way to new life.
One of the retreats that I've begun giving once or twice a year is called "Savouring Life by Facing our Mortality." I've found this to be a rich retreat theme to unpack with people, because there is so little in our culture that supports us in facing our mortality. There is so much that supports us in thinking that if we get enough sun, take the right vitamins, exercise regularly --that we'll live forever. But facing our mortality can be such a liberating and integrative experience, sending us back to the life we have to live here and now with much greater sharpness of appetite and appreciation for the gift of each day that is given.
And as we face the little dyings and letting go's that accompany aging, we can do so with less fear in approaching the big letting go, because it's not the end-game, simply yet another doorway into a richer and fuller experience of life.
GM: You've offered Meditation and Yoga classes for Christians at a parish in New York City for the past five years. Why did you start the class?
TR: The reason I began teaching yoga and meditation in a Christian context was because I saw how many people in North America were being drawn to Eastern spiritual disciplines, and finding real meaning and value there. But many were seeking assistance integrating these new practices and disciplines in an harmonious way into their devotional lives as Christians.
A practice like this should make good sense to Christians given our belief in God becoming flesh, in the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus, in God's own life poured out in baptism into the temples of these bodies. So, to assist people in making these connections, I began teaching a weekly class called "Prayer of Heart and Body" in 1993 at an ecumenical centre for spirituality and meditation called Unitas (Latin for unity) that I helped found in Montreal. Yoga is a good example of a practice that helps us live the implications of our own faith convictions. As Christians we have the highest theology of the body among world religions, but one of the lowest levels of actually giving the body any significant role in our spiritual lives.
And then there's meditation. What most people don't know about yoga is that it was originally designed to help people meditate better. That inherent linkage between mediation and yoga has (by and large) been lost in the practice of yoga in yoga studios, health clubs, and YMCA's. When it was introduced by Easterners in the 1950s and 1960s within the North American context, somebody made a marketing decision to separate the body part of yoga from the spirituality part of it --lest the spirituality part of it limit market share.
By and large what we've experienced is the Americanization of yoga. In other words: the approach to yoga as another power workout or fitness fad subsequent to using step classes and dance aerobics.
What I wanted to do was re-link meditation and yoga, because in the practice of many people they've been separated. My weekly "Prayer of Heart and Body" class became a weekend retreat. The weekend retreat became a weeklong retreat. The weeklong retreat became a book by the same title, and the book became a DVD entitled "Yoga Prayer" (produced by Paulist Productions and distributed by Sounds True). There is a growing network of Christians around North America who are now engaging in these practices precisely as Christians, and finding in them fresh and powerful ways of prayer that engage them as whole persons.
GM: In the book you explain that: "We can do almost anything with material space: fill it, change it, paint it, cover it, reinforce it, tear it down. But put us in front of an hour of uncharted, unprogrammed time, and we go catatonic or become spastic. Creative nondoing, genuine Sabbath time, is the greatest challenge of all. But it too is part of the body language of faith." Why is this creative nondoing such a challenge for us today?
TR: One major reason is our work ethic. Americans are famous throughout the world for how intensely they work. Here in New York City where I live and work, people routinely work 60, 80, and 100 hour weeks. They are in the office by eight o'clock in the morning and they leave at seven or eight o'clock in the evening. Even when they go on holidays they feel tied to their work, and compelled to check e-mail and voice messages. They just take it as par for the course.
There is so much emphasis in our culture upon efficiency and productivity. We find ourselves constantly judged according to those two criteria. Simply taking a day of creative non-doing to re-generate our inner spirit is something that is hard for North Americans to do --and something for which we receive little support in the culture. Witness the fact that all the stores are open on traditional days of Sabbath inviting us to come and shop, buy, and get more things done on our little checklist of tasks for the week. Again turning everything into functionality. This makes it extremely difficult for us to conjugate not the verb of wanting (which relates to our consumerism) or the verb of having (which relates to our materialism) or the verb of doing (which relates to our activism) --but to conjugate the verb of being. It makes it so difficult for us to live with a Sabbath rhythm by taking a day each week to simply delight in all that is given: life, health, family, friendship, the arts, and nature. And to know that it's not only okay, but doing so comes as a commandment of God at Sinai. The culminating climax of God's work in the Genesis story of creation was the seventh day --the act of stopping to rest and to appreciate and find meaning in all that had been done. And we, who are created in God's image, are commanded to imitate God by doing the same thing.
Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge.