Millions are still in darkness, as we begin to absorb the vastness of Hurricane Sandy. The sharing of video and digital images, now that we are constantly connected, have made us all witnesses in real time. First comes exhalation. Before we can even speak of recovery, the world must come into focus again. This was a huge, frightening storm.
A cosmic event like Sandy stirs memories we have mostly put aside. Here in Louisiana, the images of this new disaster, on a different coastline, resonate in a vivid and personal way. Boat rescues of exhausted humans clutching their pets, dark cities without traffic signals, and flooded houses twisted off their foundations all seem eerily familiar. We feel connected to distant strangers at this moment, knowing they are just beginning to understand what their hurricane has done. We have an idea what lurks beneath the dark water.
Our inner landscape has been transformed by internalized images of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, and we still organize our life stories in terms of before and after the storm. We want to reach out to those touched by Sandy, not to tell them anything especially wise or helpful, but just to be connected.
Sacred. That is what we call moments when the world changes for us, and when humans feel connected in an unexpectedly intimate way, as their shared, familiar story unfolds. We need many ways to acknowledge connection. The Nation’s insightful article “We are All from New Orleans Now, ” appearing this week, is not about shared inner experience, but a sober analysis of environmental policy, and our fragile, shared American coastline. We are all connected that way.
This week, we are all from New Orleans in a deeper, more personal way too, sharing the same hypnotic images of Atlantic City as Hurricane Sandy made landfall. We have a shared sense of vulnerability. There’s something spiritual about this. Our lives seem intensified.
Uneasy with that thought? Perhaps it’s because the language of spirituality shows up most often in relation to mountaintop experiences, reverent chanting, images of cherubs and stained glass windows. The earth after a hurricane feels chaotic, with vast raw energy and no comforting refrain. The great forces have drawn outside the lines, and we must find peace. Right after we clean up this mess.
Spirituality seems to show up in the midst of unease. All humans, religious and not, are made speechless by the force of a huge violent storm; all of us are jolted off our own comfortable foundations. Outcomes are unknown. This is not Sunday school.
Spirituality is the yearning for durable connection, and for our place in the universe. People find spiritual nurture in places where they are not at home: in the deep wilderness, the resonances of a pipe organ, the sharing of an unexpected moment with strangers in a darkened city, who come to know some part of our heart. Why would a hurricane not be spiritually significant?
In recent times, it has become more common for people to discover that they have spiritual lives, without a clear religious affiliation. Some people have complex spiritual lives with roots in multiple cultures, and no place to call home. Not surprisingly, the claim of being “spiritual but not religious,” stirs unease within the religious community. CNN’s Belief blog explored this unease in a post appearing on September 29. Its author, Alan Miller, sees spirituality apart from religious doctrine as self-indulgent, a search for warm fuzzy feelings, ungrounded. He seems genuinely puzzled that “spiritual but not religious” people see their lives in moral terms, in the absence of a doctrine telling them to do so, and that they seem to yearn for connection to forces larger than themselves, even if they do not claim familiarity with God.
I think he has it wrong. Our connection to the hurricane images — the twisted remains of a freight train, or the urban grid seen from above, reclaimed by the raging Atlantic Ocean – is not self-indulgent or narcissistic. Something deep and poignant is evoked within us that is not happy at all, but senses that it is awakening from a childlike dream, that our home is cozy and secure.
Hurricane Sandy stirs the deepest part of our night thoughts, and invites us to look again, in daylight, at the life we have made, or found, and think about what endures. Peace and safety to all who have been touched by this storm. We are in it together.