William J. O'Malley
From April 29, 1989
Image

Occasionally, people ask me questions as if I’d become the Carl Sagan of the adolescent universe. I grant that 22 years of reading 40 reflection papers from each of what now amounts to about 3,500 high-school and college students has given me perhaps a better insight into what teen-agers think than, say, a first-time parent--and surely better than the teenager, but I still have more than a few reminders of my finitude and fallibility. One of them arrived in the mail last Friday, from a group of high-school principals, asking me to give a workshop on teen-age spirituality next winter in Thcson, Ariz.

My first reaction was, of course, selfish: Who wouldn't trade slush for sunshine in March? My second reaction was cynical, the result of trying to teach distributive justice so long to kids whose orthodontia payments alone would gobble up a yearful of welfare checks. That voice from the unredeemed part of me snorted, "Teen-age spirituality! An oxymoron, like dehydrated water." For teenagers, the content of the word "spirit" is the same as in "a spirited pony" or "school spirit"; it has far more to do with surface "personality" than depth of "character."

But then the wee voice of the redeemed part of me whispered, "Psst! You don't know what the hell 'spirituality' even means, do you? As usual, that voice was spang on. I'd heard the word all my life, though—oddly--I rarely found myself using it. I'd written four books about praying. But I didn't, honestly, know what "spirituality" meant. I wonder if many people who use it often do. So I figured: better sit down and teach myself a lesson, to lessen my ignorance and perhaps help someone else.

Spirituality.
Spirituality is my spirit-life, and my spirit is my soul--my self, my character, my who-I-am. My intellect is intrigued, but my soul is stirred. It's that potential within me that responds to the numinous and the sacred in nature, in art, in people, in God, that is humbled when it senses how the world is charged with God's grandeur. It's where all the nebulous, unquantifiable aspects of my self reside: honor, awe, genuine sentiment, loyalty, remorse, patriotism, faith, hope, love (when it's purged of self). Just as my hunger for food is in my belly, and my hunger for reasons is in my mind, my hunger to survive death lives in my soul. But the state of my soul-life--my spirituality--is something I can comprehend only vaguely, in a glass darkly, as elusive as the moments that quicken it.

All the scholastic philosophers to the contrary notwithstanding, human beings are definitely not just "rational animals." If that were the limit of our being, we would be merely apes with computers implanted--which is merely a variant of scientism. It is precisely that simplicism that C. S. Lewis lambastes in his masterful The Abolition of Man: the unquestioned rationalist and materialist supposition that underlies most of our educational decisions, even in Christian schools, no matter what our brochures claim. Mens sana in corpore sano. Nope. If that's all we train, we will get what Lewis calls "men without chests"--that is, alternately cerebral and visceral, but not human because we've left out what makes us human: not the visceral, surely, nor even the cerebral, but the spiritual. It is the heart, not the brain (which we share with beasts), that makes us human--and not "heart" in the sense of the sentimentalist, but heart in the sense Gerard Manley Hopkins used for Margaret's sudden understanding of death:

Nor mouth had. no nor mind. expressed What heart heard of, ghost guessed.
Neither belly nor brain can account for unselfish love.

Lewis's contemporary, Dorothy Sayers, explains the human soul as well as anyone I've read. In The Mind of the Maker, she says that in the triadic union of the Godhead, the Father expresses himself--his Word--and, in that very self-expression, a power of loving is generated, who is their Spirit. Just so, in the fusion of mind and body, a third power is--or can be--generated: the human spirit. But most of us don't want to--or are unable to—express--or even apprehend--our self. And therefore there is no self; no character, just a "personality."

The reductionists, among whom are most of our students (I don't know why), constantly assert that humans are no more than higher-level animals. Beasts sense dangers even humans can't; dolphins and whales communicate at enormous distances; animal mothers show great "love" for their young, even to the point of self-sacrifice. But the reductionists fail to account for the difference between knowledge and understanding, and between affection and love, which is not a mere feeling but an act of the will. Perhaps the reason is that they have been educated only to know and not to understand, and that they have felt only loyalty and affection but never genuine, self-sacrificial love. An animal might sacrifice for her own, but we can sacrifice even for our enemies. The reductionists fail to realize that no sow, snoozing in maternal bliss in a ringlet of piglets, has her dreams disturbed by the certainty that she will one day die.

The human spirit is distanced from the animal not by a smeary, gradual change but by a stunning quantum leap: the fact that animal nature is a command and human nature is an invitation. No lion refuses to be leonine, but the daily papers are glutted with evidence that human beings refuse to be human. We are free to act precisely like merely higher-level animals--only with the added advantage of the human brain, which raises animal shrewdness to a capacity for saturation bombings and extermination camps. What allows us to call such wretches "inhuman" is not their lack of a body, not their lack of a mind, but their lack of a soul.

The genetic instructions in the human body are what Albert Rosenfeld calls "a framework of opportunities." The lion follows its inner programming automatically, but the human male with big shoulders and strong legs is free to work on them to become a Big Ten fullback-or to take up the violin. Just so with the human spirit. A ghetto kid can turn his squalor into a Horatio Alger story, and an advantaged kid can turn his opportunity into a Jay McInerney story. We are free, and freedom resides in the soul. And we are free to actualize our human potential. Or not.

Just as the hungers of the human belly can be palliated with junk food and the hungers of the human mind sated by the National Enquirer and Sporting News, the hunger of the human spirit can get an ersatz jag from pep rallies and Boy Scout oaths and pop music. Most students I teach quote U2 and Springsteen as if they were T. S. Eliot and Holy Writ. But the result is the same with the soul as with the belly and brain flab. It is why so many of our young, and not-so-young, seem dis-spirited.

The spirit that is the result of conscious marriage of cerebral and visceral is what Romans called anima. Feminine. That view fits the metaphors of the soul and church as the Bride of Christ. Lewis believes, then, that the proper posture of the soul before God, whether in a male or female, is "feminine": not in any way passive, but receptive, fertile, vulnerable, creative. In that sense, God comes to each of our souls, in a daily Annunciation, and asks, "Conceive my Son in you today."

In that sense, then, the process of civilization--of humanization--has been a process of feminizing the macho-savage side of what are only potential human beings. The Viking or knight is merely an Olympic-class butcher without the minstrel to give his slaughter a meaning, a context, to make his story not merely titillate the mind but stir the soul. And Christianity took one quantum leap further: Its hero not only eschewed battle; he conquered by his sheer impotence.
 
As I struggled this far, the unredeemed voice became positively smug: "See?" The possibility of accessing the teen-age soul seemed a task to daunt Hercules. "Teenage spirituality? In the 1990's? Not an oxymoron; flat-out contradiction."

And yet I sense a soul-life in our young, like the yearning for freedom in the fifth-generation slave. It's in the grain. Except perhaps for the sociopath, it can't be excised from any human being. It's born in us: the itch for Eden.
 
The Obstacles in the Audience. The new age--since the assassinations and Vietnam and Watergate--has witnessed the death of "Wow!" None of us will be caught again with our hearts on our sleeves. In a class of 30, only one or two will admit having been moved to tears by a film. Patriotism has shriveled to paying taxes and perhaps voting. What leaves the young open-mouthed today? A Trans Am, a beautiful body, a spectacular goal, an explosive rock concert. All external, all soul-substitutes. In order to feel awe, one has, by definition, to feel small in contrast to the stimulus: a mountain at dawn, a star-strewn sky, the beloved, God. But the permanent posture of most youngsters now is not vulnerability but constant defensiveness; not on their knees but with their dukes up.

One reflection paper asks the student for his or her heroes; more and more in recent years, half the students answer, "I don't think I have heroes." It makes sense. A pervasive skepticism began to infect the American spirit after the downfall of the Camelot-Flower Child crusade. No hero or heroine can last long with an army of investigative reporters dogging their Achilles' heels. The media smother us with emotional programming we all know is phony but nonetheless fall for. "Value" is strictly a left-brain commodity, a solid return for your investment.

Another class, about values, pictures a little girl with a $50 bill in one hand and a stuffed rabbit in the other: "If, by some impossible turn of events, you were forced to throw one of those three into a furnace, which would you throw?" In the l00-or-so times I've done it, some wag inevitably says the little girl. Once that's behind us, the majority say the rabbit. Why? You take the 50 bucks and buy another--ignoring, of course, the fact that the money is the girl's. Then, gradually, it begins to dawn on some that the child has very little sense of the value of money, but that the worn-out rabbit is her most precious possession. There are two kinds of value, one easily quantifiable by the left brain, the other not so easily boxed in but resonating in the sensitized soul. Nor is the exercise based on "some impossible turn of events." Forty years ago, people faced just that choice: to process millions of little girls in incinerators, like garbage. Those who agreed to do that still had human minds and human bodies, but they had lost hold of their human souls.

Another reflection is also enlightening: "Given a choice between a job you detested that paid an obscenely high salary, or a job you truly loved but made you, your spouse and family really have to struggle to make ends meet, which would you take?” I've kept a running log, and 85 percent would choose to be miserable with the high salary. Their reasons sound noble: They would rather be unhappy if it gave their families "a good life." Rarely do they consider that their family's happiness might be affected by their week-long misery. Despite the fact that we've previously gone through Erikson's stages of disequilibrium necessary for human growth, no student ever wrote that he or she would be willing to let the children struggle in order to develop spine; they would rather give their children comfort than character. No student ever wrote that he or she would choose a spouse who'd rather have them fulfilled than have a pool in the backyard. There is only one meaning to "the good life," and it has nothing whatever to do with Plato and Aristotle, much less Jesus Christ.

Many adults fail to realize how much "image" dominates the lives of the young. Since the caves, youngsters at puberty have suddenly awakened to an awareness of their faces and physiques: "Mom, am I pretty? ... Is my body wimpy?" But today exploiting that concern is a multibillion-dollar industry. The self-doubtful voices within the child are now amplified and multiplied until their lives are totally surrounded by judgmental mirrors. There are a variety of responses to that pervasive incitement to self-doubt: "cool," conformity, projection, alienation, one-upmanship--among many others. But all of them are reactions based on a judgment about surfaces, about personality rather than character. What you seem to be is far more important than who you are; nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.

But if the discovery of one's soul depends on vulnerability, how can we convince youngsters of the crucial importance of laying hold of a self-much less the painful effort of going in quest of it, when they spend most of their time on the defensive?
 
Not only do the ads and media subvert the search for the soul, but our children's education-both in school and at home-is almost exclusively surface and pragmatic. Teachers and parents fall back on the only motivation for learning they can think of: not to discover a self, a character, a philosophy of life, but to get a good job. Since Sputnik, "everybody knows" math and science are the important subjects, even for an aspiring lawyer or artist. Even the so-called "soft" disciplines like English and history are primarily analytical, left-brain. The object of education is to "master" the data, not to be vulnerable to it and follow wherever the subject chooses to lead. When parents ask, "How ya doin' in school'?" they don't often mean, "Is it exciting?" but "How are your grades?"

The possibility of teen-age spirituality is looking less and less likely. And yet, like any missionary, one becomes hypersensitive to any flicker of interest, any hint there might be hope. The Iroquois let me tag along on their treks; the Mandarins cock a reluctantly quizzical eye at my sextant and my clocks. If parents and teachers can establish credibility with this skeptical audience in nonreligious spiritual areas, there's a chance we might see that squinted face that's saying, "Hey, wait a minute. I may be missing something. You listen to ... God?"

Sensitizing the Soul. The first step is to acknowledge that our primary obligation as Christian parents and educators is not the S.A.T.'s. One would be an idealistic fool to ignore them, but they are not the reason we charge tuition and hang crucifixes in our classrooms. We have a duty to our students' minds, but we have a more profound duty to their souls, to sensitize them, feminize them so that no youngster-especially no boy-needs to apologize for having one. Our task as apostles to the young is to lead them, like God, to understand and express the self-not merely the "sometime spirit" that emerges by chance during a dutiful Mass or during one of the astonishing, numinous, Oh-my-God! moments, but the spirit that is the child's true self. But that will require a major conversion, in teachers and administrators, from our pervasively pragmatic and efficient mind-set.

There is a natural potential in every human person, even nonreligious persons, that responds to the numinous and sacred in nature and art, and, if grace builds on nature, we can begin our movement toward the spirituality that deals with God by sensitizing children early to that more accessible and less intimidating union with the powerful and invisible forces all around them (that are, in fact, the aliveness of God).

In grade school, rather than instruct children about sin (of which they are not yet capable) or about the Virgin Birth and Trinity (which baffled even Aquinas), let us teach them, once a week at least, ways of relaxing and centering themselves, opening themselves to God. Very young children are far better candidates for meditative, receptive, "feminine" prayer than adults. They are less uptight, less defensive, more imaginative. According to Jesus, they are always in the Kingdom. Teach them to feel it, enjoy it, revel in it, perhaps even remain in it.

Sometime in or after first grade, learning gradually ceases being an adventure and becomes a boring chore. My hunch is that we feel we've finally lured them into our lair, and it's time to get down to the serious and efficient business of those S.A. T. 's  Of course children have to wrestle for basic skills, but even though learning might not always be fun, it ought always to be intriguing. As "Sesame Street" consistently proves, children learn far faster when their curiosity is piqued, when they are given not answers but problems and sent off in quest of their own answers. It is not as efficient as ingest-and-regurge, but the God we are trying to sensitize them to is quite obviously not as efficient as we'd like, either.

Every year, I'm amazed how many bright seniors have never read Aesop's fables or Grimm's fairy tales. They've never lived with dragons and unicorns. They don't know the stories that, from time immemorial, have allowed children to understand life and their own selves. Thank God for Luke Skywalker, but they have never heard of Odysseus or Theseus or Psyche, tales that would keep alive the itch for Eden in them. By the time they reach me, they are all too ready for the smart-ass Weltschmerz of Holden Caulfield and the winsome pessimism of Kurt Vonnegut.

Take them to the woods and to the beach, away from buildings and billboards, Playboy and Saturday cartoons, Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly. Ask if they can feel a presence there, something beyond the sigh of the wind and the harrumph of the waves. It will not improve their grades; it is more a test of what we teachers and parents truly hold important for our children.

Let children's liturgies be fun. For God's sake, don't preach to them. Let each one tell what God looks like; let each one tell "What I like about Sarah is .... " Don't do it for them. Let the hymns be rousers, what we used to call "Negro spirituals," effusions that rouse both the natural and the supernatural sides of the soul. And at least by junior high, they should be ready for a weekend retreat--perhaps not yet a purely supernatural one, but one where they can break down their ego-defenses in safety, reach out, be vulnerable and unafraid for a while.

In high school, we ought to give at least some time to the same kinds of activities. Granted, a few years ago, we belted the pendulum all the way from the perceptive catechism to the huggy-kissy-touchy-feely-group-grope, and since then have had to give religious ed a kind of academic respectability again. But we have over-compensated. One such exercise is "trust," where one student falls backward and another catches him or her. I've seen boys, who on Saturday skated 90 miles-an-hour, unfazed by being slammed into the boards, turn around maybe five times: "Now, you're there, right? If you try anything .... " Paranoia even among pals. The difference between the hockey game and the exercise was that, on skates, the boy himself was in charge. How do we make such a boy vulnerable to God? Not overnight.

In senior year, I spend. two quarters studying pop-psychology with boys in religious ed. Except for an occasional comment, it's rarely overtly religious, and yet if I can't make them understand how to evolve an adult self, how can I ever stimulate their "teen-age spirituality"? The moral self (ethos, character) is not separable from the spiritual self. Thus, we study how purely analytical, left-brain ideas are often half-witted, that we are all victims of the animal id and the superego taped from our socialization as children, unless we-at no small effort-wrestle for an ego: a self, a character, a personally validated ethic. We study Erikson's stages of development and the natural shocks we encounter as we grow, without which we remain children for life. We study not only the differences in sexuality but the androgynous (masculine/feminine) nature of souls, male or female. And we finish with the nine personality types of the enneagram. (I have never seen any group of classes more sure-fire with seniors than the enneagram. Even in the class after lunch, the somnambulists are bright-eyed and alert!)

Ironically enough, science teachers are especially able to break down the left-brain bias of students and open them to a sense of the numinous--provided they go beyond the confines of the cookbook syllabus. Physics was always the hardest of the "hard" sciences to most people, and still is: the extreme specialization of the analytical mind. From Democritus to Newton and beyond, it had a mechanistic concept of the world, a model in which matter was broken into basic building blocks, passive, leaden. It triumphed in the Cartesian dichotomy between the world (the rea extensa) and the mind (the res cogitans). It was all very neat and predictable.

But since Heisenberg and Einstein and Planck, we know that mass--the hard-edged objects we heft and skin our shins against, the whizzing pellets in the atom--are not really res extensae at all! Mass is nothing but a form of energy. Atomic particles do not consist of any basic "stuff," but are bundles of "tendencies to exist." Electrons are both particles and waves at the same time, and there is only a strong probability of finding a particular particle in a particular place at a particular time. As elusive as God. In the four-dimensional continuum of space-time, you can't really ask how fast anything is going; the answer is valid only relative to where you happen to be standing at the moment. The physicist begins to sound like an Eastern mystic.
 
As Fritjof Capra wrote in The Saturday Review (12/10/77), both modern physics and Eastern mysticism "emphasize that the universe has to be grasped dynamically as it moves, vibrates, and dances; that nature is not a static equilibrium but that it is a dynamic one." God and God's universe are not nouns but verbs. Both the physicist and the mystic must be "able to attain nonordinary states of consciousness in which they transcend the three-dimensional world of everyday life to experience a higher, multidimensional reality .... The survival of our society will depend, ultimately, on our ability to adopt some of the yin [feminine] attitudes of Eastern mysti¬cism, to experience the wholeness of nature and the art of living with it in harmony."

Most parents want their children to have "the good life," and they believe that a good college is the road to such a life, and that the S.A. T.'s are the narrow gate onto that road. Some spend large amounts of cash for special courses. If Capra is right, they might spend their money more wisely, in the long run, by teaching their children to meditate.

To achieve a teen-age spirituality, we must first prove to our young the undeniable existence of their souls. Then perhaps we can show them the One for whom those souls were made.

William J. O'Malley, S.J., teaches theology and English at Fordham Preparatory School, Bronx, N.Y.