What is Creation Spirituality: Journey
The spiritual journey can be understood as a dance moving in and out of four mystical paths:
Via Positiva — Awe, delight, gratitude, joy.
Via Negativa — Uncertainty, darkness, suffering, letting go.
Via Creativa — Birthing, creativity, passion.
Via Transformativa — Justice, healing, celebration, rebirth, resurrection.
I. Via Positiva. Creation-centered mystics always begin with awe and wonder, the Via Positiva. Rooted in the theology of original blessing and the experience of creation’s “very goodness,” the first path is more about noticing than doing. We are each created in the image of the Creator and contain the imprint of the cosmos in our DNA. Recognizing this in ourselves, our neighbor, our enemy, and in every aspect of the universe means that everything in the heavens and on earth is sacred and is not to be perceived as objects. This radical way of perceiving pushes past our narrow cultural perceptions into a journey seeing the face of divinity everywhere.
A few years ago while wondering around the Lake Michigan shoreline near the time of sunset, I noticed something quite extraordinary, though it was as ordinary as anything could be, yet beautiful nonetheless. Two young lovers walked hand-in-hand on the dock, an older couple sat on a nearby bench, a group of teenagers jumped in and out of the water doing cannonballs, and some little kids worked hard to find flat stones to skip across the water. Everyone was in their own world. Then, at the moment the sun reached the edge of the water, everyone stopped—including the raucous teenagers and the little ones skipping stones. As if on an orchestrated que, each person turned and peered at the sunset. How many times had the older couple sitting on the bench seen a sunset? What was it that made them look again? What makes us stop to witness the sun sink into the water? The Celts believed that the sunset—the gloaming—is the thinnest time of day, that moment between life and death, light and darkness, this world and the world beyond the veil. Is that why the children stopped skipping stones? I doubt if it was as complicated as that. Do we look because the need for beholding beauty is woven in our DNA? I think so. There is something deep within each us that knows that without awe and wonder, we are lost. Creation Spirituality recognizes that we are all mystics, regardless of belief or unbelief, culture, or tradition. Creation Spirituality begins Path One with Awe and delight.
II. Via Negativa. Path two is the Via Negativa. This path is about letting go and letting be, emptying, or sometimes sitting a spell with the shadow. Mechtild of Magdeburg described the spiritual path as “sinking.” This is why creation mystics and prophets tend to be apophatic (the knowledge of God obtained through negation and “unsaying”) rather than kataphatic (the knowledge of God obtained through words, images, symbols, ideas). Noticing the shadow, naming the violence, living in the uncertainty are not easy parts of the journey, but they are real and universal. Avoiding these does not remove them; often avoidance makes things even more difficult later on. Reflecting on the Holocaust, Thomas Merton wrote that there is something about denying insanity that is truly the most insane thing we can do. To recognize our insanity is the sanest thing we can do. Without that recognition, our insanity is projected onto the least, the broken, and the vulnerable. This, of course, applies to people as well as the Earth.
Path two provides the opportunity on our life journey to have a name for wilderness, those wild places where life throws us down when it’s least expected. It is that place of confusion and discombobulation that happens when we experience loss, endings, and death. Path two is also the wrestling that happens in the dark night of the soul when unresolved pain bubbles up from the deep pool of our past. We are in the path of letting go and letting be when we are willing to see and feel the pain around us in the world. And, path two is fertile, rich soil in our own ground of being, providing the occasion for getting in touch with our deepest longings and values. The awe and wonder of path one inevitably carries us through to the letting go and emptying in path two. We don’t get to have one without the other.
III. Via Creativa. Path three, the Via Creativa, is the place of breakthrough and new birth. Matthew Fox, in his introduction to the sayings of Meister Eckhart, states, “Following on the emptying of path two comes union, realization of union, and birth.” For Eckhart all experience of union is meant to bear fruit—'by their fruit you will know them’—and so creativity is as much a test of true spirituality as it is a result of it.
Path three can be talked about in many ways. Different traditions and mystics use their own terms and metaphors. Some of these are breakthrough, union, new birth, creativity, the artist’s way, conversion, and transformation.
William James, in his seminal writing entitled “The Varieties of Religious Experience” outlines four common characteristics that transcend tradition or language. These are:
Ineffability — inability to capture the experience in ordinary language. Something “ineffable” is beyond the descriptive power of words.
Noetic Quality — the notion that mystical experiences reveal an otherwise hidden or inaccessible knowledge.
Transiency — experiences of union last for relatively brief periods.
Passivity — the sense that experiences of the divine are beyond human volition and control. We can prepare through various disciplines, but most people describe the experience as something “happened, unsolicited.”
F. C. Happold expanded on James’ characteristics by three of his own. They are:
Unity of opposites — a sense of Oneness, Wholeness or Completeness. In the experience of mystical union, the dilemma of duality is resolved.
Timelessness — a sense that experiences of union transcend time.
A feeling of encountering “the true self” — a sense that mystical experiences reveal the nature of our true, cosmic self: one beyond life and death, beyond difference and duality, and beyond ego and selfishness.
On any given day, I will use different examples to talk about the experience of path three, so vast is the sum of them. I have experienced it in witnessing the dance of the Northern Lights, in receiving communion, in being arrested for LGBTQ rights, in holding the hand on the death bed of a loved one, and in joy of watching my grandchild light up in joy when I walked into the room.
We each have our own litany. One of my favorite images is from Hildegard of Bingen, who relates spiritual union to the greening of the Earth. She writes,
Most royal greening verdancy,
rooted in the sun
you shine with radiant light.
In this circle of earthly existence
it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you.
You are encircled
by the arms
of the mystery of God.
How absolutely beautiful! In her description of union, Hildegard gives no hint of shaming, guilt, modification, or a fallen state of humanity. Instead, we see what she and other creation-centered mystics have believed through the ages: humanity, as a part of the Cosmos, is an original blessing--God’s original blessing, along with all of creation!
One thing that should be pointed out is that Creation theologians are not soft on sin. They believe sin exists, but missing the mark is not an “original” state. In fact, sin is understood in creation-centered spirituality as those times we diminish our own original blessing, as well as the blessing in others and Creation. This is apparent in another statement by Hildegard:
Now in the people
that were meant to green,
there is no more life of any kind.
There is only shriveled barrenness.
IV. Via Transformativa. Path four in the four-fold way is justice-making and compassion, what Eckhart called the Via Transformativa. Reflecting on the theology of Meister Eckhart, Matthew Fox writes —
“Our spiritual life is not ended with creativity but rather we are to employ creativity for the sake of personal and social transformation. Justice and compassion are the tests of this authentic deployment.”
One of the primary characteristics of creation-centered mystics is their commitment to engage in transforming heartache into joy, oppression into liberation, and despair into hope. This work is on behalf of the Earth as well as all sentient beings. Unlike the ascetic mystics who disengage from the world to prove devotion to God, creation mystics seek to embody--to incarnate--their union with the divine into transformational acts. Creation Spirituality’s aim is not union with the divine, but embodying that experience of union into universal claims of compassion and justice for humanity and the Earth.
One of the most moving and encouraging stories of path four in the modern era involves Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the throws of American cultural upheaval about civil rights, Heschel, in a speech in 1963 on religion and race in Chicago, said, “The Exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” Two years later, after Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and other brave protesters were brutally beaten on “Bloody Sunday” while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Montgomery, Heschel organized 800 demonstrators, mostly Jewish, to occupy the FBI Headquarters in New York City. Knowing he had a stalwart ally in Heschel, King invited the rabbi to join him on the 1965 March for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. Later, in reflecting on this transformative experience, Rabbi Heschel wrote: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Path four is mysticism in action, working for justice, sharing compassion, repairing the world, and incarnating Original Blessing in all places.
Fox sums this up when he writes, “Creation is what the mystic is awakened to and what the prophet fights to sustain.” When it comes to human rights and saving the planet, we need to pray with our legs!
Furthermore, unlike the linear and hierarchical structure of classical spirituality, the four paths of Creation Spirituality compose an ever-expanding spiral. Our work of justice-making opens us up to greater awe and wonder, deeper capacity for letting go, and more transformative experiences of creativity and birthing.