Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling
By Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham
Reviewed by John M.
For many readers at AA Agnostica, there is much in this newly released book that will offend your secular sensibilities. At the same time, there are a number of stories and quotations cited by the authors, Ernie Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, which will make you feel like they are personally speaking to you. Both responses should be expected in any book that draws its account of experiencing spirituality from such a wide array of stories along what we can call the belief spectrum.
You will find, much to your discomfort, lots of stories from “God-traditions”: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish — and particularly from the Jewish Hasidic tradition — to Eastern and native spiritualities. You might initially find the two chapters on Sin and Prayer especially off-putting.
At the other end of the belief spectrum, you will also find stories and citations that will sit better with you from noted atheists and agnostics like Albert Camus, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence, or even by the eminent British literary critic, and unapologetic Marxist, Terry Eagleton.
As well, there is a large selection of material from storytellers, poets and thinkers who defy any labelling and who are simply known as narrators of the human condition like Kafka, Eugene O’Neill, and William James to mention only a very few.
How, then, to read Experiencing Spirituality?
Perhaps I can offer a suggestion from my own experience when I first attended one of my now regular renewal retreats at Hazelden in Center City, Minnesota. I had not done my treatment for alcoholism there, but rather at the exceptional Renascent Treatment Center here in Toronto. Each time I return to the Dan Anderson renewal center at Hazelden, however, I always feel like I am “coming home”; and the sense of coming home is, by the way, a feeling the authors explore and articulate very well in this book, as they had done in the earlier Spirituality of Imperfection.
In the mornings at Hazelden, those of us attending as renewal guests, along with those in the continuing care program, would gather and share with one another how we would like the day to go, and this would often be expressed in the form of the “Set Aside” prayer.
Heathen, heretic, and humanist that I am, however, I simply call it “The Set Aside,” and it goes like this: Let me set aside everything I think I know about [people, places or things] so that I may have a new experience. For the purposes of reading Kurtz’s and Ketcham’s new book one would say: let me set aside everything I think I know about spirituality so that I may have a new experience.
We have all probably argued at one time or another that the term “spiritual” is so wide open that it has become meaningless. Ernie Kurtz warned us a few decades ago that: “Indeed, ‘spirituality’ bodes to become the next fad in an already over-fadded field. That outcome will be sad, for it will steal from all of us yet another important word.”
However, for those who dislike the term spirituality, Kurtz has spoken elsewhere about getting at the spiritual by simply, yet attentively, “experiencing experience,” or as finding the ability to “experience yourself experiencing the experience.” (See Bill White’s delightful interview with Ernie Kurtz: Reflections – Chapter Three.)
The authors know how difficult spirituality is to define (in their words, “impossible to define”) and they know what kinds of intellectual problems the concept of spirituality presents to some of us. Early in the text, they assist us in relating to spirituality by simply speaking about a “certain something” that unites us, rather than being constantly exposed to that which separates and diminishes us.
Speaking in and through stories, they argue, is the most appropriate, and perhaps, the only way therefore to adequately convey the experience of spirituality. Spirituality might only be grasped in terms of what is not definable by formal definitions and concepts, or by any standard empirical methods of measurement and verification. Hence, storytelling.
Kurtz knows that it cannot be otherwise and, in a previous essay, he had reminded us of this by quoting Nietzsche’s observation from the Genealogy of Morals: “only that which has no history is definable,” and we know, some of us more painfully than others, that we all have histories! (See Ernie Kurtz’s astute essay on this theme, as well as on the philosophical and religious underpinnings of Alcoholics Anonymous in A Phenomenon in American Religious History.)
Definition and propositional logic are certainly important for they give us clarity and rigour in our thinking but reality is always much larger than what our language is able to capture. There is always an excess of reality which motivates us to strive for ever new expressions to convey meaning in words and to communicate sufficiently enough through them.
Yet ironically, does Kurtz’s and Ketcham’s use of so many stories from religious traditions in their book shut down communication with their more secular readers?
One of the themes of the book, though, is very much about getting out of our comfort zone and “welcoming the voices that take us beyond ourselves,” as the Irish poet, John O’Donohue, has written. Consistent with the authors’message that spirituality takes some work (and definitely practice), “welcoming” otherness is not often something we are naturally inclined to do but is rather an act of imagination and good will on our part to open ourselves up to something new or strange.
And, it is perhaps especially hard to set aside what we often think, in our daily lives, is something solidly known by us and what we believe cannot be known in any other way. In the case of spirituality the authors tell us, “Spirituality is Stuck: not the reality, but its name.”
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare had Juliet say. It is doubtful that this could have been said any more simply to communicate the fact that things we name are often what separate us from one another and it is the name (or the label) that shuts down communication — not the particular reality itself.
Many of the religious stories used in this book which might offend and anger some here at AA Agnostica come from the Jewish Hasidic tradition (about 15 % the authors tell us). Though drawn from a religious context, there is a certain everydayness to these stories that may account for why the authors were attracted to so many of them.
In general, when you come across one of the God-stories in this book — and there are many of them — think about these in terms of their existential meaning i.e., their ordinariness, what they say about how we relate to our loved ones, our families, our neighbours, strangers, and even our enemies.
I doubt, for instance, if any of us here believes that in an Aesop fable the sun and the wind have personalities, and that they actually get together to make a wager on which one is able to get a man to take his coat off first. Yet the message of the the fable can be pretty familiar to us: that a luminous, warm, and gentle message will be better received by everyone than a boisterous, aggressive encounter with “blowhards,” who try to force us to come around to their way of thinking, to do what they say, and, for us here, to have us accept their spirituality.
Spirituality, Kurtz and Ketcham tell us, cannot be seen directly but that does not make it any less real. They remind us that the wind, for example, “is obviously real, but you cannot see it, only its effects.” Although the authors do not make use of the English poet, Christina Rossetti, as one of the poets cited in their book, they could have easily quoted her here:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
To see spirituality directly, they tell us, is to lose the very spirituality we seek to embrace. It is to turn it into un-spirituality which the authors also do not hesitate to talk about throughout the book. Spirituality, like love, is to be known indirectly and by its effects i.e., by the fruits of its labour; and to force love, like spirituality, directly on others is love’s labour lost, as Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest of all storytellers, reminds us.
Kurtz and Ketcham argue consistently throughout the book that spirituality is not to be confused with a strictly personal, solitary, self-directed, and ego-driven pursuit (no matter how well disguised) but is always other-directed, and is the very real practice of seeing outside and beyond ourselves.
Whereas their previous book, The Spirituality of Imperfection, might be said to prepare us for experiencing spirituality with others by showing us how to accept our imperfections and limits — and not be ashamed of them — the message of Experiencing Spirituality is clearly to demonstrate by way of stories how, in the authors’ words, “we live that spirituality” among others.
Perhaps when all is said and done, spirituality is simply about the experience of turning strangers into neighbours. At any rate, that’s how I read Experiencing Spirituality.
Finally, for those of you who, having purchased the book, still find that it is too far out of your comfort zone, and you remain offended by the religiosity of many of the stories and perhaps angry that you bought the book, let me respond with… a story. And I leave you with one of the stories from Experiencing Spirituality.
A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk. “Monk,” he said, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience, “teach me about heaven and hell!”
The monk looked up at this mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain. “Teach you about heaven and hell! I couldn’t teach you about anything. You’re dirty. You smell. Your blade is rusty. You’re a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight. I can’t stand you.”
The samurai was furious. He shook, got all red in the face, was speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword and raised it above him, preparing to slay the monk.
“That’s hell,” said the monk softly.
The samurai was overwhelmed. The compassion and surrender of this little man who had offered his life to give this teaching to show him hell! He slowly put down his sword, filled with gratitude, and suddenly peaceful.
“And that’s heaven,” said the monk softly.
Postscript: I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you the late John O’Donohue’s, extraordinary poem from his book of poetry, To Bless the Space Between Us, entitled “For an Addict.” And I mean “extra-ordinary” as in beyond ordinary (and beyond in the sense that Kurtz and Ketcham use it) which at the same time conveys the very ordinary experience of addiction/alcoholism that we all know so much about.