This post has been read and approved by the person of whom I write.
Given my vocation as a wordsmith, it is an ironic gift that one of my closest and dearest friends is dyslexic. He has a tough time reading my blog, let alone one of my books. But he believes in God, so he is not the dyslexic agnostic insomniac who lies awake at night wondering about the existence of Dog, as the joke goes. But he finds worship boring, and a wordy liturgy off-putting.
Dyslexia is a learning disability, not a mental disability. Yet what prompts me to write about this now is that I’ve been thinking about the prolific and profound spiritual writer Henri Nouwen’s decision to live the last ten years of his life in community with people with mental disabilities. He took satisfaction that members of the L’Arche community welcomed him for who he was, not for what he had done. What a contrast to Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, where he taught much of his life!
Most of us want to be welcomed for what we have done, yet all of us also want those experiences of grace in which we are simply welcomed for who we are. That’s why a stranger’s friendliness or a baby’s smile means so much, why a therapist’s empathy proves healing, why sharing with a soul friend touches us deeply, why family, whether biological or chosen, is often the model for homecoming.
That is among the reasons I enjoy my friend. Other reasons are that he reminds me there is more to life than words: leisurely time with friends, a fine dining experience, a carefully selected and aged wine, contemporary and classical music, helpful electronic and digital tools, comfortable and aesthetically eclectic environments, art and plants, dancing and laughter, films and television programs. To others he might be viewed as a materialist; to me, for him, matter matters—what creation and incarnation and resurrection imply.
It took some years before I began to realize he might be dyslexic. And then, as is typical of me, I began to broach the subject tentatively. Yet he was ready to talk about it, and subsequently, as we watched a couple of current documentaries about dyslexia, he was almost overjoyed as he confirmed over and over again what was being said. Many children with dyslexia are called “slow,” even “retarded,” yet a disproportionate number of dyslexics become successful entrepreneurs, even academics.
Since the condition became known, I have wondered if I am slightly dyslexic. I read slowly. I remember a teacher pulling my hair as a child because she thought I was intentionally making mistakes as we went through a phonics chart together. While I earned high marks in school, the idea of remaining in academia was unappealing. A neurolinguistic therapist once told me that we often choose our work in the area of accessing information in which we have “issues”—for me, that was writing. In more recent years, I have been able to recognize signs of dyslexia in others, from acquaintances to public figures, finding it more common than I once thought.
So it makes sense to me that many people may also live with a kind of spiritual dyslexia. They might not quite “get” God or spirituality. I’ve met people like that, who have no disdain for the spiritual life and who have had no bad religious experiences, but just don’t understand. My late friend Scott Rogo, who wrote thirty books on paranormal activity, once told me that there is a part of the brain associated with religiosity, discovered when it is damaged and produces an individual who say, for example, compulsively reads the Bible from cover to cover over and over again. I must admit I was a little depressed to learn that spiritual interests might thus be predetermined.
Yet Simon LeVay, the neuroscientist who discovered differences in the brains of gay men, explained to me there’s a kind of “chicken-and-the-egg,” which-came-first question in neuroscience. Does behavior develop a part of the brain, or does the brain’s difference cause certain behaviors?
I believe that’s why the spiritual life needs both intention and attention. We all have something that gets us out of bed in the morning, some belief system that gets us through our day. Discerning this is the foundation of the spiritual life; cultivating this is building our spirituality on that foundation. Yet we don’t have to do this alone. All religions have our foundational figures, myths, and stories on which to build. All religions have traditions and histories and houses of worship on which to draw and in which to participate.
In addition, those with spiritual dyslexia may be our spiritual entrepreneurs who lead us to greener pastures and fresher waters to restore our souls. Maybe that’s the inspiration of Progressive Christianity, the Emerging Church, Creation Spirituality, New Age Spirituality, as well as renewed interest in contemplation, Celtic Christianity, and the interfaith movement, maybe even the passion behind current expressions of atheism and agnosticism. Perhaps spiritual dyslexia offers a different or nonlinear way of conceptualizing God, reality, and the life of the spirit.
Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.
Please join me at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio March 9-10 for a Saturday retreat on Henri Nouwen, “From the Heart,” and on Sunday morning, interviewed in the Dean’s Forum about “Progressive Christianity” and preaching at the 9 am jazz mass and 11:15 am choral Eucharist on “The Holy Place: Mercy and Reconciliation,” on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal.
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