Monthly Archives: April 2024

Exploring Some Backroads of Spirituality

The other day  I was thinking of Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”  Here is the text:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

A quiet, supremely understated poem.  Not flashy, not teasing you with hidden meanings, no cryptic allusions, no brilliant maneuvers of language….. you could easily breeze by this poem thinking you “got the message,” not realizing the depths it is addressing in your own being.  I am not going to engage in a literary exercise explicating this or that aspect of the poem, but we will use it to explore some “backroads of spirituality.”

Two roads diverge in a wood…..a special moment in one’s life…a critical decision…..this yes, all of that, but these “two roads” are also present in every moment, in every thought, in every emotion.  And note:  the poem is remembering such a moment or a series of moments, a  kind of retrospective, because often it is only in looking back that we can properly discern such a moment or such a time. And it’s not the case of one road looking “bad” and the other one “good.” That would make it easy in a sense.  But both are attractive, and both are equally opaque about what the journey will be like.  But one road seems well-traveled and the other “less traveled,” implying more uncertainty taking that path, more questioning perhaps.  It’s obvious that Frost is first of all talking about his own vocation as a poet.  And choosing that road “has made all the difference.” This has to do not with anything external to him, not with any kind of rewards/successes/gains, etc.,  but with his very personhood.  In traditional religious language one might say “he is doing God’s work,” or “God made him to be a poet,” or something like that.  The trouble with that language is that the “road” then seems so external to one when in fact it is your very personhood, your real vocation so to say, who you really are.  The reason it is “less traveled” is that ONLY you can be on that road that IS you!  And the road that shows signs of much travel is the realm of roles.  Instead of being who we are meant to be we can try on all kinds of roles….like various fashions of clothes.  Instead of participating in the Divine Creativity that unfolds as  our life with all its mysterious twists and turns, all its mistakes and pain and celebrations, all its messy joys and sadness, instead of entering into the Divine Vision of it all….”and God saw that it was good,”…rather we are seduced into a chimera of various roles and looking into a mirror to see how we look…..  And the sad thing is that religion is as equally prone to this distortion as secular culture.  Religiosity is too often a role that someone takes on, one fits in a nice niche,  one is socially approved….etc.  And the ultimate problem, then, is that one never knows who  one is in a profound way; one only knows the role one has taken on and which is what others see and approve in one way or another.

Now we turn to another artist, and a very different milieu:  Billie Eilish.  You might wonder what a pop star has to contribute to a reflection on spirituality, but I am on one of those “backroads” here.  Billie is one mixed up young lady, but I like her very much.  Her songs mainly appeal to young people, especially young women; but at times she hits some striking universal notes (no pun intended!). 

 Recently she won a Grammy and an Oscar for a song which she co-wrote with her brother for the movie Barbie:  “What was I made for?” The producers of the movie came to Eilish and asked her to write what they called the “heart song” for Barbie.  This very popular movie, a kind of fantasy that has all the character of an allegory/parable pertaining to our basic humanity, but especially so for young women.  Barbie is of course the pop classic doll which millions of young girls grew up with.  She of course is made as a doll to sell and make money for her maker.  The movie has her coming to life, becoming human; and on one level it deals with the social and psychological problems young women encounter in our society, the kind of roles they are expected to play, etc.,(Barbie the doll seemed to be a kind of indoctrination of young girls into “girl roles”),  but on quite another level, almost unwittingly, it questions us all about our lives, what we see as the point of it all, the “why” of it all, asking us to shed the roles that we have taken on as a pseudo answer to that question, and to enter that road less traveled, our own humanity….  Here is a link to Billie’s performance of the song on TV on Saturday Night Live:

A more lovely rendition was given by her at the Oscar awards, but the lyrics got truncated for time purposes I suppose:

The title of the song made me think of my old Baltimore Catechism, the pre-Vatican II tool of religious instruction.  The whole thing flowed in question and answer format.  I still remember in 6th grade, in 1956, Sister Evangelista assigning questions and answers to be memorized.  Questions like: what is faith? what is hope?  And of course one of the early questions was something very much like “what am I made for?” though I forget (sorry, Sister) the exact words.  Now there is nothing wrong with this format as such or with the answers, but the problem is that both question and answer become merely a formula of words.  You don’t really grasp the meaning of this kind of question until that question “grasps” you, becomes your “heart song,”  and you kind of wrestle with it, and it is only then that you discover the “two roads” before you, and your answer will no longer be simply a formula of words…..and it will make all the difference.  The beauty and magic of Billie’s song is that practically inadvertently she picks up that question for Barbie and pushes it to a level where one senses the  question’s unfolding urgency and anguish when one is no  longer satisfied with just a “role” in life,  a set of clothes so to speak.  But the “road less traveled” takes one from the psychological games of identity and plunges one  into the mystery of one’s own being….which is pure gift.

In a completely different mode, coming from a totally different angle, there is then,  this interesting example:  just the other day Scottie Scheffler won the most prestigious golf tournament in the world, the Masters.  Scheffler is a devout evangelical Christian, and you might quite reasonably think the two facts are totally unconnected and really have nothing to do with our reflections above.  But look at this write-up  of Scheffler’s victory on CBS Sports:

“It struck me Sunday as the second nine unfurled and patrons hustled toward Amen Corner that Scheffler is different than his peers. He was walking upstream toward the 11th tee as the crowd rushed like water toward the green to see what he would do….  This is emblematic of how he lives. Scheffler, unlike most other golfers, is Very Not Online…..  Scheffler is guided by his Christian faith, about which he has become increasingly vocal…… About how he is not defined by his golf score or his success but rather his faith.

“While Scheffler is not devoted to his faith for the purpose of winning golf tournaments — quite the opposite, in fact — in listening to him speak about it, one would find it difficult for a golfer to have a better mindspace. He holds the line between ‘cares a lot’ and ‘identity not tethered to outcome’ perfectly.

This is not a state of mind he works hard on adopting like other golfers; it’s simply his belief system. It’s who he is.

“’I was sitting around with my buddies this morning, I was a bit overwhelmed,’ Scheffler said Sunday evening. ‘I told them, ‘I wish I didn’t want to win as badly  as I do.’ I think it would make the mornings easier.’

“’I love winning. I hate losing. I really do. And when you’re here in the biggest moments, when I’m sitting there with the lead on Sunday, I really, really want to win badly.  And my buddies told me this morning my victory was secure on the cross. And that’s a pretty special feeling to know that I’m secure for forever and it doesn’t matter if I win this tournament or lose this tournament. My identity is secure for forever.’

“The freedom Scheffler’s faith provides — allowing him to be secure in himself knowing all that’s required is doing the best he can any given week — is a trait professional golfers strive to achieve through myriad psychological tricks, coaches and techniques

“’I wish I could soak this in a little bit more. Maybe I will tonight when I get home. But at the end of the day, I think that’s what the human heart does. You always want more, and I think you have to fight those things and focus on what’s good.  Because, like I said, winning this golf tournament does not change my identity. My identity is secure, and I cannot emphasize that enough.’”

Now there’s a lot here.  Scheffler speaks of his “identity,” who he really is, what his life is about….  In good Evangelical fashion he sees it in connection with the reality of Christ, more specifically the Cross.  This can be taken superficially…just more words….just another costume one puts on…..or maybe a kind of emotional vitamin that props one up with energy for a while.  But here I  get the feeling that Scheffler is more than scratching the surface of this reality, though one should also acknowledge that there is a lot more depth here than what he experiences. 

 Scheffler’s expressed sentiments do have a kind of “Pauline flavor”!  St. Paul, in his Letters, so often tackles the problem of identity or on what basis does one actually live his life….and in a very personal way using himself as an example.  Being a Jew and a zealot, he has a breakthrough into an identity that transcends all such boundaries.  So he teaches and preaches that being Jewish or being Gentile is no longer “who you are.”  Nor does what you do ground your identity….this is one of the meanings of his polemic against “salvation through works.” That does not mean a denial of his historical situation; he readily admits his Jewish lineage; he does not deny his Roman citizenship; he does not ignore his leadership position within the communities; but what is most truly important for him is his new-found  identity “in Christ.”  And this is not something that anyone or anything can take away/change/destroy.  So, returning to Scheffler, you can see how those who, unlike Scheffler, build their identity in winning/achieving/accomplishing, in what they do, in “works,” well, that is a “house built on sand,” and so the anxiety, fear, insecurity, and all the psychological games they undertake to deal with this.  And if you think this is found only in secular life and not monastic life, for example, well, you would be mistaken.  A monk can mouth all the right words and sincerely believe in his own monastic identity, but it just might be another costume, albeit a  more “acceptable” one.  But something can come along and completely knock the stuffings out of that monastic identity….or at the very least seem like a real threat to what once appeared so “solid.” The nature of what one is about is then no longer “out there” as a “sure thing.” Maybe the monk arrives where the two roads diverge, or maybe even the monk might sing, “What am I made for?”  And the institutional setting is not always conducive to supporting such a moment or such a period  in one’s life.

One last thought:  There is an interesting parallel to Scheffler’s stuff in Zen, especially Japanese Zen.  The Zen archer  hits the bullseye, and the Zen craftsman creates a beautiful result in his work…..not because they “tried” very diligently, not because they “wanted it” more, but precisely   because there was no more “I” achieving something in order to validate itself.  There is no anxiety or expectation that what they do grounds their “I”.

But really the people who have gone the deepest in this kind of dynamic and who seem to understand it best are our friends, the Sufis.  More about this another time.