There is no area of life in which the human race lives in a greater state of confusion and semi-darkness than it does in the area of religion. This is necessarily so, because when it comes to the subject of religion, we are by definition dealing with that which is at the furthest limits of our comprehension – The Eternal Reality, or The Ultimate Matter.
I assert that the common ideas concerning religion are greatly lacking in penetration to the heart of the matter. I believe that it is possible to achieve a much greater clarity regarding mans’ relationship to what is called religion. I also believe that when we do, we will see that real religion is rather simple, and its essence is three things, a Sense of Mystery, a Sense of Beauty, and a Sense of Grace.
I assert that if you have these three things then you are a truly spiritual person, if you lack these, you can pray all day, but you have missed the boat.
In my study of great musicians, I have noticed that the very greatest are also very religious. Bach, Beethoven, Barrios, anyone of whom I have ever read, and believe to be a divinely inspired musician, has a very strong spiritual sense. They possessed these three things in abundance, as has every spiritual person I have ever come across.
I think it is essential for everyone on the artistic path to know about these things, because although you can be a person in this world without these things, you cannot be an artist in this world without them. These three things are waiting inside all of us. If you can locate them, touch them, and hold onto them throughout your life, then what you bring out into the world will be real art, and real religion.
Before I discuss them however, it is necessary to gain a deeper understanding of what “religion” is really about.
The Urge to Ultimacy
Although the history of philosophy and religion is full of disagreement, there is one thing they all agree on: in order to be truly “real” a thing must be eternal. It must have no end, but exist forever. Every major philosopher has held this position, but we don’t need to consult them, we can just look at ourselves.
It is obvious, if we examine human behavior, that we all feel this way. We are always trying to “immortalize” that which is most important to us. People talk about their favorite musician in ultimate terms, such as “the music of Hendrix will live forever”, or “the music of Chopin will live forever”. Or, it might be “the immortal Babe Ruth”-the point is, we ascribe immortality, or what I call “ultimacy” to that which we wish to make real.
This is why we believe in a human soul, because if there is not a part of us that is “forever”, well, then like a dream that comes to an end, are we really here, are we really Real? Many people who dearly love their pets cannot find it in there hearts to deny true existence to their dear cat or dog, and so, perhaps privately, believe in some type of “soul” for their pet. On that which we need to confer Reality, we give Ultimacy.
There is one thing I see very clearly, and I see it in some form with everyone. We all have, and we all express in some way, this deep, inborn, and undeniable urge to ultimacy. It is the nature of a human to reach into the infinite, we can do nothing else in our relationship to reality, to the world we find ourselves in and part of.
In reaching for eternity, the direction we reach, and how far, and what we eventually touch, will be different for us all, although there are many general categories. It may be duty to God we hold sacred, or duty to country, or family; wherever we find our sacredness, there is our ultimacy, and there is our religion. Winston Churchill and George Washington poured their souls into the soul of their countries; duty to country was sacred to them, and they felt it was divinely ordained. They would not have been able to marshal their inner power for the tremendous tasks they achieved if they did not impart this ultimacy to their sense of duty. Both Beethoven and Bach firmly believed that their sacred duty and divine mission was to bring to earth the most powerful and profound music ever created. Beethoven especially, would never have been able to overcome the tragedy of his deafness without this belief and this faith. Indeed, a famous letter of his, found after this death, expressed the desire for suicide, but only his sacred duty to his music kept him alive.
For many it is their membership and participation in one of the world’s major or minor religions that satisfies their urge to ultimacy. For others, it will be their work, their art, their family and friends, their ancestors, or their favorite baseball team…..the list is endless. We all reach, so that we may find that which when touched, gives us and our world meaning ( a significance beyond itself), Eternity and Reality.
In a world where this urge to ultimacy, lying as it does at the root of all human activity, creates everything from Mother Theresa to Osama Bin Laden, it is another certainty that the human race will never quite agree on what is really out there to be touched. And realizing that, I return once again to contemplate the simple fact and simple act of this reaching we do in response to our urge to ultimacy.
What you have made eternal and ultimate in your life, and the arms with which you reach for it, is your religion. We are all reaching, but we are not all touching the same thing.
Why is this so? If we are supposed to be contacting the Ultimate Reality, why is it different for everyone? It is because our reaching is not really a reaching outward, it is a reaching inward. We like to think that we are reaching “out there” because that seems to impart a higher degree of reality to the result. But when we look at mankind, and his history, and how religions and Gods constantly change, but always exactly resemble and reflect the people, places and times in which they are born, it is obvious that the reaching is within, even if what we touch is then brought out into the world.
This is why we all touch something different in reaching for eternity in response to our urge to ultimacy. Although we share a basic common nature, each one of us, like our fingerprint, is different. What is it that determines exactly what we will touch as we reach for the ultimate, in our search for the meaning of our existence?
How far we reach, and what we touch is determined by the depth and the nature of our personal awareness of the fact of our own existence.
Whatever it is that you are capable of feeling and knowing that you are, so will be your conception of what other people are, and what the world is. Your particular awareness of the fact of your own existence will determine your conception of the ultimate reality, as well as the manner of your reaching for it. For any person you may consider, there is no form of religion or religious expression that is not at least understandable, when we realize the truth of these things.
A person who gives their life to charity, helping other people endlessly like a Mother Theresa, does so because she is aware of herself as a part of all humanity, that is the level of her personal awareness of the fact of her own existence. Likewise, a white supremacist has a more limited self awareness. Their awareness of the fact of their existence tells them that they are first and foremost a white person, and different from other people who are not of their race. Their personal awareness of the fact of their existence goes as deep as their race, and no further. Hence, all they hold sacred will reflect this, as will all their actions in the world.
Seeing these things, what are are the most spiritual awarenesses we can have as the foundation of our personal awareness of the fact of our existence?
A Sense of Mystery
The most primary spiritual quality is a sense of mystery. To be able to contemplate the unfathomable vastness of the universe, and feel it enter into your very cells, filling mind and body with excitement and awe, is the mother of true reverence, and true religion. It has been said “ a fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom”. In those days “fear of God” was how the perception of Mystery was described. It simply meant a proper understanding of your place in relation to the vastness of creation.
This sense of mystery is the wellspring of all human creativity, and so it is essential for the artist. Every artist feels that their creative work “emerges” from some mysterious source within, and it is their job simply to connect with that source, and, like a mother, be the vehicle for its birth into the human world. There is nothing worthwhile that has been produced without having begun from that intensely emotional feeling and foundation, so peculiarly human. All great music proceeds from there.
The greatest minds, intrigued by the curiosity that the sense of Mystery inspires, are constantly probing into themselves and into the world, seeking to deepen their understanding. At the end of the day, it is with a childish laugh that they dissolve back into Mystery, resigning themselves, like the great Issac Newton, to the realization that they are merely “children playing on the shore with pebbles, while the great ocean of the Universe rolls on.”
The eminent scientist Sir James Jeans, in his classic exposition of the philosophical implications of 20th century theoretical physics “Physics & Philosophy”, concludes:
”To sum up, physics tries to discover the pattern of events which controls the phenomena we observe. But we can never know what this pattern means or how it originates; and even if some superior intelligence were to tell us, we should find the explanation unintelligible. Our studies can never put us into contact with reality, and its true meaning and nature must be for ever hidden from us.”
I agree. Our immersion in mystery is built into the system, guaranteed!
A Sense of Beauty
After the knee and the head are unbowed from the overpowering experience of contemplation of the mystery of existence, we are left with a feeling of separateness, limitation, and dependence. We realize our seeming insignificance in the universe, we are a separate little dot in infinity. But now we are positioned to discover the most amazing and wonderful birthright of a human being. We can now look out to the world around us, and find ourselves in it.
Beauty is the silent language of the universe, through which it communicates its nature to the beings it creates. The language of Beauty imparts to us the knowledge of our oneness with nature, other people, indeed, all of existence. To feel beauty is to feel a oneness with what is outside you, because on a deep level, you are feeling yourself within that other. Whatever brings you to this state of union, you will find to be beautiful.
There are common altars at which we gather to converse with reality in the silent language of Beauty, such as Music and all of the arts, all the forms of human contact, and especially Nature. From whence comes the power of Nature to inspire us with such transcendent feelings of awe and beauty as we contemplate the mountains, oceans, or stars? It is the very recognition of our own nature in Nature. The rocks of our skeleton, the flora of our intestines, the water of our blood, and our inmost soul, recognizes itself in the world without. Just as the earth has birthed all the rocks, oceans, and trees and animals, so has it birthed us.
In our confrontation with Mystery, we realize the limitation of our nature to ever fully comprehend the ultimate reality. Having accepted that, we simply claim this part of our human birthright and enjoy direct communication of that unfathomable reality, which is the experience of Beauty.
The life of the artist is an immersion at one of the altars of beauty, and working to gain proficiency interpreting and speaking the language of Beauty. The job of the artist is the communication of ultimate Mystery, spoken in the language of Beauty.
A Sense of Grace
Mystery has revealed to us a sense of that which is greater than us. Beauty has responded by bringing that which is a part back to its Source, creating union, and Love, the desire and the fulfillment of that desire, to “be with”. Now, there directly arises, as a consequence of this positioning of the soul, the sense of Grace.
The word “grace” is from the Latin “gratias”, which means “good will”. There naturally arises in us now an overwhelming feeling that the universe, the Source of creation, has good will toward us. “It” is bestowing blessings, all blessings in fact, upon us. This becomes a powerful emotional experience, this ever present feeling of being the recipient of good will, of being loved. It seems to be not just a feeling, but a recognition. All religions contain this concept of Divine Grace. It is essential.
As the sense of Mystery imparts the feeling of awe, and the sense of Beauty imparts a feeling of love, so the sense of Grace imparts a feeling of gratitude. This is the distinguishing difference between someone who professes to be religious, and an atheist. The atheist has no one to thank.
The sense of gratitude is the purest human attribute. A person who is constantly and firmly founded in the sense of grace in response to everything life delivers, can never be corrupted, but will be and remain pure. For an artist, this sense of gratitude becomes the reason, and the fuel, for creative work. The desire to use what one is given by grace is the form our gratitude takes. For each of us, in whatever way we sense the good will of the universe, in that way will we direct our good will outward, and that offering is our creative gift to the world.
All of this shows why it is true that many people who think they are atheists are not, and many who think they are religious are not. If you have within yourself the sense of Mystery, Beauty, and Grace, you are a religious person. It will be evident to anyone who knows how to look. If you do not, it is equally so.
All that I have ever achieved as an artist has come from my sense of Mystery and Beauty, and all I do for guitar players always has, and always will, proceed from my sense of Grace, my gratitude for what has been given to me.