What Is The Essence Of Western Spirituality?

Western Spirituality

September 19, 2016

Allan Stevo

I came across an interview between Michael Toms and Joseph Campbell recently in the book (“An Open Life”) that had such powerful distillations of Campbell’s life philosophy and observations from a life spent studying world culture. In this excerpt, Campbell dismisses the idea of a westerner following a guru and points to a story from the series of legends known as the Quest for the Holy Grail. In one particular story, Campbell sees “the essence of what I’d call the European or Western spirituality.” I’d love to hear what you think of this in the comments section? Or perhaps you have a finding of your own that is more essential to Western spirituality.

Toms: “What about the desire to follow a guru? We see religions and cults based on the teacher-disciple relationship flourishing everywhere.”

Campbell: “I think that is bad news. I really do think you can take clues from teachers – I know you can. But, you see, the traditional Oriental idea is that the student should submit absolutely to the teacher. The guru actually assumes responsibility for the student’s moral life, and this is total giving. I don’t think that’s quite proper for a Western person. One of the big spiritual truths for the West is that each of us is a unique creature, and consequently has a unique path.

There’s one quotation I run into in La Queste del Saint Graal which hit me as being the essence of what I’d call the European or Western spirituality. The knights of King Arthur’s court were seated at table and Arthur would not let the meal be served until an adventure had occurred. And, indeed, an adventure did occur. The Grail itself appeared, carried by angelic miracle, covered, however, by a cloth. Everyone was in rapture and then it withdrew. Arthur’s nephew Gawain stood up and said, “I propose a vow. I propose that we should all go in pursuit of this Grail to behold it unveiled.” And it was determined that that was what they would do. And then occur these lines which seem to me so wonderful: “They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest that he had chosen where there was no path and where it was darkest.” Now, if there’s a way or path, it’s someone else’s way; and the guru has a path for you. He knows where you are on it. He knows where he is on it, namely, way ahead. And all you can do is get to be as great as he is. This is a continuation of the dependency of childhood; maturity consists in outgrowing that and becoming your own authority for your life. And this quest for the unknown seems so romantic to Oriental people. What is unknown is the fulfillment of you own unique life, the likes of which has never existed on the earth. And you are the only one who can do it. People can give you clues how to fall down and how to stand up; but when to fall and when to stand, and when you are falling, and when you are standing, this only you can know. And in the way of your own talents is the only way to do it.

If you go out for athletics, the coach doesn’t tell you exactly how to hold your arms; he watches you run, estimates your form, and tunes you up a little bit. It’s your way and that’s the way of the whole life, it seems to me. This is why I don’t think the guru thing is as great as it’s supposed to be. It’s an Oriental idea where the uniqueness of the individual is utterly disregarded, I think I’m right there. I’ve spent a long time with Oriental studies, and I see nothing that does not say each has the law of his caste or his tradition or his church to follow.

Yeats, in A Vision, speaks of the two masks that life wears. The first is the primary mask that the society has put upon you – the technique of life. But in adolescence the individual has a sense of a potentiality within himself that has to throw off that mask and find what Yeats calls “the antithetical mask” – the mask contrary to that of society. And then comes that struggle so characteristic of youth in our society. In the traditional society, you are not allowed to follow the antithetical; the primary is there like a cookie-mold on you. But here comes this struggle. Now, if the family or society opposes that, it becomes rather fierce. But with a gradual yielding and attention, the young person can learn his own possibilities and what they can do for him. This is the proper way.”

Michael Toms (1941-2013) known by some as “the Socrates of radio, Toms was the longtime host of the radio program “New Dimensions,” which explores issues of faith, science, social change and healing.

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers many aspects of the human experience. His philosophy is often summarized by his phrase: “Follow your bliss.”

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

Photo credit: elephantjournal.com

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