I just finished reading Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider by Suzanne Clores. I don’t mean this blog as a book review (although in some ways it may read as one), but as a commentary. I offer some criticism from the place of a much older woman trying to share a bit of experience. Through a lifetime of spiritual investigation, I have walked various spiritual paths for more than 40 years. In my lifetime, I posed many of the same questions she did. In addition, I have first-hand familiarity with several of the religions she visited. Some of those she investigated I too walked away from; others I embraced. Often I traveled a great distance to learn. Through all of the predictable routines of a contemporary woman, I did my best to live a spiritual life. I handled my responsibilities and duties. I raised children, held down jobs (sometimes two or three at a time), cooked, cleaned, shopped, and did all of the daily tasks that Ms. Clores has claimed prevent people of her age group from spending time on spirituality.
Due to the brevity of her experiences, it would be a huge kindness to rank this book as “101 spirituality.” Before she set aside a certain path, she read a few books and dabbled in each spiritual system, perhaps for a few hours or maybe six weeks, and then she moved on to another. She claimed that this journey took about three to five years (215) and yet she did not learn the most important concepts about religion and spirituality. Unfortunately, she did not truly learn anything about any of the religions that could not be found in a book or on the internet, and we know how confusing those sources can be. In fact, she sampled them as if each were a dish at a smorgasbord.
Truly, I was frustrated by the author’s lack of involvement in her own journey. For instance, she went to a Vodoun priestess in New Orleans for a reading. However, instead of talking to the woman about her spiritual quest, she played the old game of not-telling. That is, she expected the reader to be good enough to offer the right answers without talking about why she was there. When the priestess asked if she was raised Roman Catholic, Ms Clores did not mention that she had turned away from that religion and was actually taking a spiritual journey to look for something different, nor did she mention that she wanted to learn about Voodoo. Based on what she did say, the priestess gave her an assignment based on her ancestral religion of Catholicism. And so, Ms. Clores walked away believing that she could not enter that religion because of her race (she is white) — a belief that is decidedly false. When the priestess prescribed remedies, Ms. Clores did not ask why or what they would do, and I doubt she followed them. She went all the way to New Orleans but never spoke up. And she walked away with her assumptions intact.
How many of us would do the same?
In addition, Ms. Clores wanted something to be handed to her whole and complete, when she had the time for it, perhaps on vacation or during a weekend trip or maybe in the evening if she had nothing better to do. She didn’t want to work at a spiritual practice and she refused to commit to any path.
Even when she enjoyed an event, she found a reason against participating in a second one. In spite of positive experiences, she left each system, judging it as not the right one. However, she was never truly present at any of them. In other words, her participation was incomplete because her mind remained closed. With one excuse or another, she held herself apart. She intellectually analyzed what she might be feeling instead of focusing on what she truly did feel. Therefore, she always remained outside the experience (a fact that she mentioned in the title).
Throughout the book she wrote that there were many things wrong in her life. She dared the right answer to come, but she never dared to ask the questions. And so, she learned next to nothing.
There was so much she could have learned, but her assumptions blocked the way. She claimed to desire a relationship with the divine in some form, and yet none of her actions were geared towards starting that relationship. She admitted, “GenXers have a natural mistrust of authority” (223), and she seemed to focus on proving that each belief system was not for her.
Although Ms. Clores mentioned how much she admired the women she met, she never asked for intimate details — or any individual particulars of their spiritual work — and she did not offer any information to them. For example, she assumed the nun from a Vodoun family had reconciled the two spiritual paths, but she did not question how that happened. Even when the nun loaned her a book and offered to meet again with her, Ms. Clores did not return for the discussion.
I do not judge those who choose different paths from those I chose; each of us goes our own way, making decisions as best we can. Individually we must determine the value a particular religion has to us. In fact, I believe that a person must judge each experience with a religion, weighing the information received, viewing the behavior of participants against the litmus test of our society, and checking the religious philosophy against our individual beliefs. I do not want people to fall victim to cult behavior and totalizing groups. But what Ms. Clores did was nothing more than voyeurism. Unfortunately, she wrote a book, and that means her biases, and the incorrect information based on them, are now spreading.
No relationship is instantaneous. Certainly a spiritual practice is about building a relationship to the divine. Along the way to developing that connection, each person must actually engage with the Divine Ones.
Through decades of spiritual practices, I developed a real bond established not only through my genuine heartfelt need but also through my work, devotion and traditions. I stood in the appropriate places and said, “I am looking for You, will You come?” When times were hard, I asked the Divine Ones for help. When life was good, I thanked them. Through actions and thoughts, I formed a spiritual relationship with the Divine Beings. And they answered me. For me, it has been a two-way street: I’ve learned about Them as I shared myself with Them, and They have helped me in countless ways.
Sadly, Ms. Clores has a hard road in front of her. Throughout the book, she seemed to desire an instantaneous moment of oneness with the Divine, an overwhelming spiritual knowing that she could not questioned; she wanted a religious experience that would prove to her without a doubt what she should believe. However, that type of religious experience is a rare one. And truly, a religious experience, that lightening strike, what Otto called the numinous experience, does not appear on demand. Beyond doubt, the only dependable way to establish a connection with the divine is by doing the work, and that requires sticking around long enough to find out what work is needed.
At the end of the book, Ms. Clores wrote: “But my personal quest and the women I met on it have given me reason to believe we will all tire of the despair we feel at not seeing a direct connection to something greater than ourselves…” (228). Based on her attitude in this book, her beliefs (or lack of them) have left her with two possible paths. She can embrace the despair of her disconnection and wait until she is ready to move forward or she can pray for lightening to strike.
Quotes from: Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider by Suzanne Clores (Berkley: Conari Press, 2000).