Spiritual amnesia is contagious in our culture. The culprit in the spread of this widespread condition is not a virus or bacteria, or even the advance of age-related dementia. Rather, we are scarcely aware of a spiritual forgetfulness that has become normative in our fast-paced and frenetic society, and we ourselves are the agent of its transmission.
Spiritual amnesia is the opposite of spiritual attentiveness. We are spiritually attentive when we notice the spiritual value and uniqueness of the world around us, including what would otherwise be just “ordinary” events -- the smile of a stranger as we walk along the street, the laughter of a child, the multi-coloured hues of a sunset. Such attentiveness transforms how we experience the event, perhaps moving us to see ourselves or others in a new and life-giving way.
Children innately have an ability to be spiritually attentive. Years ago I lived beside a church and from my kitchen window, I could see children coming and going from the church playschool. A large cluster of luminous red tulips with black centres swayed in the church flowerbed. On this particular afternoon, a Japanese mum arrived a bit early and the teacher had not yet arrived to open the playschool. Her three-year old daughter ran to the tulips, stretched out her arms and gently embraced the cluster. Then she stroked the waxy red petals and savoured the feel. With an expression of awe and utter delight, she beckoned excitedly to her parent. Mum looked at her watch and no doubt wished she could be on her way to work. Then she took a second look at her daughter and her expression melted. She walked over to the tulips and joined in celebrating their form, their redness, their exquisite beauty. The little girl had an experience of being spiritually attentive and it changed that moment for both her and her mother.
The opposite to spiritual attentiveness happens when we find ourselves too busy with obligations or social activities, to be open to those ah-ha moments that bring us to a deeper awareness of self or others. We have surely had such memories but we no longer nurture those memories, or consider them valuable. Spiritual amnesia often results in anxiety and malaise. We are distracted by a busy lifestyle, our digital toys, the compulsion to have more in order to be happy.
One observance that runs counter to our spiritual amnesia is Remembrance Day. There is no spiritual amnesia for those who have directly experienced war, either themselves or in the loss of a loved one. The spiritual dimension of such memories can be painful because what is spiritual is not always pleasant or comforting. Most Canadians have no personal experience of war; it is spiritually challenging to remember something that we have not directly experienced ourselves. The amnesia is societal, in that we weren’t “there”. And we tend to be sceptical of the validity of anything outside our own lived reality. This is the mantra of generations born after WWII and Korea.
What we do have is the experience of gathering at the Cenotaph and sharing the collective memory of those who have been “there” -- the haunting notes of the Last Post, the laying of wreaths, the symbolism of deep red poppies. Perhaps a little girl who could live in peacetime and celebrate the wonder of vibrant red tulips, has the kind of awe that counters the spiritual amnesia of those of us who would struggle to keep alive the power of red poppies to make us spiritually remember.
Larry Scott, is a retired United Church minister living in Victoria, BC.
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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, November 9th 2019