Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Paths to God

Therapy clients frequently ask me about faith. It's a reasonable topic to come up in therapy, especially when a client knows that I spent years in hospice as both a therapist and an inter-faith chaplain (and am an ordained inter-faith minister). The assumption is that I must be a religious person in order to have been a chaplain, or at a minimum, I must be a spiritual person. The client is right on both counts, but it wasn't always that way. When I began working in hospice as a volunteer in my 20's, I was spiritual, but not religious. Then, in time, I became more religious, enjoying the practices and culture of my religion, but I did not possess a faith in anything I couldn't see, namely, God. (Or the Higher Power, the Creator, choose a name that suits you.) My path to God was, perhaps, a little unusual.

Hinduism teaches that there are 4 paths to God. The Four Paths are: The Way to God through Knowledge, The Way to God through Love, The Way to God through Work, and the Way to God through Psychophysical Exercises. In a nutshell, the first path, through Knowledge, asserts that thoughts have consequences and our thoughts animate our lives. Thoughts can involve positive thinking, or learning in one fashion or another (e.g., books, classes), and asking questions. The path of Love says that one adores God with every element of his or her being, for no ulterior reasons other than to simply and adoringly love God. Love can involve prayer, service (as in becoming a monk or a minister), meditation, etc. The path of Work says that each task becomes a sacred ritual, lovingly fulfilled as a living sacrifice to God's glory. Again, that could include committing to a life of religious service, or it could be digging ditches, which becomes a holy activity when done for the glory of God. And, finally, the path through Psychophysical Exercises, which asserts that one must drive the psychic energy of the self to its deepest part to activate the true self. This could include a deeper yoga practice, meditation, or my personal favorite, psychotherapy.

Many of my patients arrive with a bushel of excruciating issues and old pains that create walls between them and a satisfying, peaceful life...and between them and God. ("Where was God when I was being beaten/incested/raped/scorned/abandoned by my mother/father/grandparent/stranger?") As therapy progresses, as the issues are worked-through, as the walls come down, they desire more out of life: they want meaning in their work, a purpose for their lives, answers to deeper spiritual questions, and, maybe, a reconciling with the God they believe abandoned them in their tragedies...or, perhaps, they seek their first adult relationship with God. Yes, therapy can lead a person to God. It isn't my intention, I don't proseletize or preach. It just seems that the folks who come to me want something more out of their lives, once they feel more whole. (Is this Divine intervention, perhaps?)

Which was my path? Knowledge. Specifically, questioning. Questioning and more questioning. What's unusual about that? Nothing. The unusual part was the the actual, real, physical path that I walked: the path of hospice. Some of the patients I worked with had tremendous faith in a Higher Power. They had a very real, almost palpable relationship with a living God. A God who inspired them, supported them, encouraged them, and believed in them. I envied their faith and their ability to talk, unselfconsciously, with their God through prayer. How could they believe in something that didn't seem to work, namely, prayer? (May I recommend a great book, Healing Words by Larry Dossey? That book took me to new places of scientific understanding regarding prayer.) How could they believe in a God they couldn't see and who didn't seem to talk to everyone, just to a select few?

Years would go by, decades for that matter, and as I worked with dying people their faith just seemed to rub off on me. That isn't to say that I didn't ask a lot of questions of anyone who would answer me. I certainly did, year after year. But, funny thing about prayer: as a chaplain, I prayed with persons from every faith tradition and in various prayer languages, and as I prayed with them it seems a little bit of something came my way. Maybe it was a little bit of peace, maybe a moment of clarity, or maybe a deeper understanding of a word (e.g., grace), concept or practice.

Then came the day when a questioning patient asked questions of me regarding faith. "How do you get it? How do you get faith?" he wanted to know. I heard myself saying, "Why don't you try faking it until you make it?" "Really?" he asked. "That's not dishonest?" "Seems to me if it is in an honest pursuit of higher knowledge, part of a true search for answers and comfort, then fake it like crazy. Maybe something will come of it." And something did: he found a special relationship with a God he could love....and he died with the peace he'd always envied in others.

My path was to ask questions like crazy. I questioned with the energy of a storm. I have some answers now. I will gladly share one answer that I have received: The Path of Questioning, and a life of service, brought me answers and peace. Okay, I'll share another answer: I have come to believe that my work is the vessel through which God provides blessings in my life. At long last, I have fewer questions than I have answers. Or to put it another way, I have more answers than I have questions. Maybe that is the definition of peace, after all.

The answers I received are not for everyone. They're mine, they work for me. I have peace...the peace I've always envied in others. Now, then, which of the Four Paths works best for you?


Anonymous said...

So here is my take on it: you may have faked it, but your helping others through your work made it real for you...and helped others along the way. :)

Dr. Gwen Finestone said...

Exactly. Just to be clear, I never faked the sincerity of my involvement in caring for others and compassionately accompanying them on their journey.

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