A Tale of Two Ferns

We like spending time hiking - in the mountains or prairie coulees, and it doesn't much matter which. Hiking has become a meditative activity for us. We really like the various vegetation; wildflowers, junipers, trees, berries, mosses and lichens - we're kinda amateur geeks with it all. It's not so important how far or how fast we travel but what we notice and what inspires a deeper sense of awe. This seems to remind us afresh how inter-connected we are with the physical world and reminds us that the God who loves is wonderfully and intricately within physical nature.

On a recent outing, we came across patches of bright, green, and delicate ferns. Very lovely - so we looked it up in a field book of regional vegetation. We found one that looked just like it. We were delighted to learn that it had some medicinal properties that help treat symptoms of tonsillitis and even childbirth.  

Pretty darn cool.


We turned the page.

The next page revealed another very similar-looking fern native to the same area. This fern was identified as toxic and shouldn't be ingested.

To the untrained eye (like ours), one could be mistaken for the other. I was struck that they both looked so similar, and yet one was healing, and the other was toxic. 

As I pondered this along the trail, I began to reflect that sometimes spirituality in various forms is like these two ferns. Some that heal and the others that make us sick. Sometimes it is tough to tell them apart until we wake up one day and discover we aren't doing so well. When I think about healthy faith, many things come to mind, but I'll offer just a few for this post.

A Few Signs of a Healthy Spirituality

It makes us more human - In the beginning, God created people, and it was good. Human beings are whole - body, intellect, and spirit. Take any one of these away, and then we no longer have a human being. Any spirituality that seeks to villainize or diminish any of these is spiritualizing disorder. Healthy spirituality makes us whole (body, mind, and spirit), or, if you like, holy.

Rooted in love - I have written volumes on this personally, as have many, many others. Love is at the very core of the cosmos, the centre of every kind of relationship, from Quantum to good friendships. I like to say that divine love is the Logos (organizing principle) of everything. The evolutionary trajectory of the cosmos (especially people) is towards love. For the Christian, we can say because of Jesus that God is Love. We see this because Jesus is the best picture in all of scripture of God's nature, character, and disposition towards creation. As followers of Jesus, everything is being summed up in Christ - the personification of love itself.

Journey of becoming love - good spirituality at its best is about love, and we recognize that as a part of healthy human/spiritual development, we need to learn to love. Becoming (embodying) love implies that we mature in the ways that we love and how we interact with others and the natural world.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 - 1153) is one among many who offers a basic schema for maturing in love. Bernard shares:

1) we love ourselves for our own sake.

2) we love God for our own sake.

3) we love God for God's sake.

4) we learn to love ourselves for God's sake.

As we mature (as we become more conscious), we can love in more consistent and more complex ways. So, from the simplest of basic attraction to self-giving/emptying love.

Is not shamed-based - For many Christians, we were raised under the dark shadow of ideas like original sin. For many, they start the human story in Genesis 3 instead of Genesis 1. The concept of original sin was simply a story to explain the origin of evil. To explain why bad things happen and why people do bad things sometimes.

Unfortunately, this view has some pretty nasty side effects. This led to seeing God through a lens of shame which only perpetuates smudged ideas and formulas about God and God’s disposition towards humanity. This shame only serves to alienate people from God and each other.  Another ugly side effect is self-righteousness.  Interestingly, the Eastern Church views original sin as a grave heresy.

Other origin stories are rooted in Christian scriptures and tradition too. From my faith perspective, as a species and as individuals, we are on an evolutionary journey. For our purposes here, the often slow maturing process towards more complex forms of love, we, bit by bit, leave the violence and abusive power systems perpetuating this violence. People are learning to appreciate one another and are taking more sophisticated approaches for resolving disagreements and reaching for new levels of cooperation.

There is an identifiable transition from tribalism, sacred violence and scapegoating towards love. Healthy spirituality reconciles us to God, to each other and ourselves.

Open and inclusiveHealthy faith looks for ways to be more inclusive and welcoming instead of erecting barriers. Love heals. Love reconciles. As the Eucharist table illustrates, all who hunger and thirst are invited to the banquet. Healthy spirituality works to build bigger tables, not erect walls. For it to be truly Good News, it must be good news for everyone - especially the marginalized and the poor.

Frees us from religious obligationHealthy spirituality frees us from the fickle demands and toil to somehow earn the love of God. I define toil in this context as the endless effort to earn something you already have. Some may have experienced this in the form of church attendance, holding to specific doctrines and practices, giving money, unquestioning obedience to the pastor, etc., in an effort to be acceptable to God - to be loved by God.

The spiritual journey and the grace of God/salvation are not opposed to effort, just the idea that we have to earn God's love. I reflect on the words of Brennan Manning:

"God loves us as we are, not as we should be. Because none of us are as we should be."

Has feet - Healthy spirituality connects us in real ways to the world around us and transcends mere good ideas about God along with good intentions. The love we experience and proclaim must work itself out in practical ways in life. That’s where the rubber meets the road. It manifests in daily life as love-inspired acts of kindness, mercy, and advocacy for the poor and marginalized in big and small ways.

There are many different kinds of faiths, spiritualities, and religions. Like the two ferns, while they may look very similar, some are better than others. Some are genuinely medicinal and whole-making, while others can be pretty toxic. Regardless of the streams of faith, there can be a spectrum of health within them. Being aware of just a couple of health indicators will help reduce tripping into something that may promise freedom from your issues only to find a new kind of bondage.

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