Friday, September 7, 2012

The biological basis of spirituality

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

We have stated before in these pages that the spirit represents the profound human dimension. Spirituality, which derives from it, is a way of being, a fundamental attitude, lived out in everyday life -- in the arrangement of the house, in the work at the factory, driving, talking with friends. Suddenly, it bursts like lightning from something deeper and inexplicable. It's the spirit announcing itself. People can consciously open themselves to what is deep and spiritual. Then they become more centered, calmer and radiate peace. They spread an unusual vitality and enthusiasm because they have God within. This inner God is love which, in the words of Dante at the end of each book of The Divine Comedy, "moves heaven and the stars" -- and our own hearts, we would add.

Scientific research says that this spiritual depth has a biological basis. Studies conducted at the end of the 20th century and directed by neurobiologists Michael Persinger and Vilayanur Ramachandran, by neurologist Wolf Singer and by neurolinguist Terrence Deacon, as well as by technicians using modern scanners for brain imaging, have found what they have called "the God point in the brain" ("God spot" or "God module"). People who have given significant space in their lives to the profound, to the spiritual, show a detectably above normal excitation in the frontal lobes of the brain. These lobes are linked to the limbic system, the center of emotions and values. There's a concentration there on what such scientists call the "mystical mind." Such stimulation of the "God spot" isn't linked to an idea or some objective thought. It's activated whenever the person feels emotionally involved in the global contexts that give meaning to life or, implicitly, when one refers to the Sacred, to religious matters or to God directly. It's about emotion not ideation, factors linked to very meaningful experiences that involve a sense of the Whole and something that is unconditional.

More recent studies indicate there may be in fact not just one but many regions of the brain stimulated by the experience of wholeness and holiness. This indicates that the "God spot" may, in fact, be a "God network" comprising zones normally associated with deep emotions that are full of meaning. Other researchers such as Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg have called this phenomenon, as we mentioned before, the "mystical mind."

This mystical mind is part of the more general anthropogenic-cosmogenic process. It represents an evolutionary improvement in the homo species. Just as we are externally endowed with senses by which we apprehend reality through hearing, sight, touch and smell, so we would be enriched internally with an organ through which we grasp the Mystery of the World, making us sensitive to the powerful and loving Energy that runs from point to point throughout the universe and underlies our existence. Religious traditions called it God.

If it is in us, and we are part of the universe, that means this spiritual intelligence is a property of the universe itself. Just because it's in the universe, it might be within us. This is why philosopher and quantum physicist Danah Zohar and psychiatrist Ian Marshall say that man is not only endowed with intellectual and emotional intelligence, but also with spiritual intelligence. This is a fact of life with the same right to belong as libido, self assurance, intelligence and love (SQ: Connecting With Our Spiritual Intelligence, Bloomsbury USA, 2001).

Today, more than ever, it is urgent to give prominence to spiritual intelligence because we live in a culture dulled by materialism and induced consumerism. The effect of this mode of being is well told in contemporary literature: feelings of nausea (Sartre), of being surplus (Marcel), of alienation (Marx), of "helplessness-abandonment" (Heidegger), of being a stranger in one's own land (Camus). In a word, we suffer serious existential illnesses as psychoanalysts Rollo May and Victor Frankl have reported. All this because we blunt spiritual intelligence.

Spirituality helps us get out of this sick and dying culture. The integration of spiritual intelligence with other forms of intelligence -- intellectual and emotional -- opens us to a loving communion with all things and an attitude of respect and reverence for all beings, much more ancient than us. Only then can we reintegrate into the Whole, feel part of the community of life and welcomed as partners in the great cosmic and planetary adventure.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Healing Deafness

by José Antonio Pagola (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Buenas Noticias: Blog de Jose Antonio Pagola
September 3, 2012

Mark 7: 31-37

The healing of a deaf-mute in the pagan region of Sidon is narrated by Mark with clearly pedagogical intent. He is a very special sick man. He doesn't hear or speak. He lives enclosed in himself, without communicating with anybody. He doesn't realize Jesus is passing near him. Others take him to the Prophet.

Jesus' action is also special. He doesn't lay hands on him as they asked him to, but takes him aside to a place away from the people. There, he works intensely, first on his ears and then on his tongue. He wants the sick man to feel his healing contact. Only a deep encounter with Jesus could cure him of such tenacious deafness.

Apparently all that effort isn't enough. The deafness is resistant. So Jesus goes to the Father, the source of all salvation. Looking up to heaven, he sighs and cries out one word to the sick man, "
Ephphatha", that is, "Be opened." It's the only word Jesus utters in the whole tale. It isn't directed at the ears of the deaf man but at his heart.

Undoubtedly, Mark wants Jesus' word to resound forcefully in the Christian communities that read his tale. He knows more than one person who's deaf to the Word of God. Christians who aren't open to the Good News of Jesus, nor talk to anyone about their faith. Deaf-mute communities that don't listen much to the Gospel and communicate it badly.

Perhaps one of the greatest sins of Christians is this deafness. We don't take time to listen to the Gospel of Jesus. We don't live with hearts open to receiving his words. Therefore, we don't know how to listen patiently and compassionately to the many who suffer without receiving just someone's caring or attention.

Sometimes it's said that the Church, born of Jesus to proclaim Jesus' Good News, goes along its own path, far from the real life of worries, fears, travails and hopes of the people. If we don't listen well to Jesus' call, we won't be able to offer words of hope in the lives of the suffering.

There's something paradoxical in the some of the Church's discourse. Great truths are spoken and very positive messages proclaimed, but they don't touch people's hearts.

Some of this is happening in these times of crisis. Society isn't expecting "social doctrine" from specialists, but it's listening attentively for a thoughtful word, inspired in the Gospel and spoken by a Church that's sensistive to the suffering of the victims, that comes instinctively to their defense, inviting all to be near to those who need more help to live with dignity.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini: The Final Interview

Before Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini passed away from Parkinson's disease on August 31st at 85 years of age, the liberal prelate, who was known for being open to the possibility of a married priesthood, ordaining women as deacons, and allowing Communion for some divorced Catholics in second marriages, gave a final interview in which he had some last words for -- and about -- the Church he served for so many years. The interview was conducted by a Jesuit confrere, Fr. Georg Sporschill, who also interviewed the cardinal for his book, Nighttime Conversations in Jerusalem, and freelance writer Federica Radice, and published in Corriere della Sera. The interviewers describe this as "a sort of spiritual testament" and assert that Cardinal Martini read and approved the text prior to his death. We have translated it into English. -- RG

How do you view the situation of the Church?

The Church is tired, from the good life in Europe and in America. Our culture has aged, our churches are big, our religious houses are empty, and the Church bureaucracy is increasing, and our rites and habits are pompous. But do those things express what we are today? (...) Comfort is burdensome. We find ourselves here like the rich young man who went away sadly when Jesus called him to make him his disciple. I know we can't leave it all easily. But at least we can seek out men who are freer and closer to their neighbor. As were Bishop Romero and the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador. Where are our heroes to inspire us? We shouldn't limit them within the constraints of the institution for any reason."

Who can help the Church today?

Father Karl Rahner readily used the image of embers hidden under ashes. I see in the Church today so many ashes over the coals that a sense of hopelessness often overcomes me. How can we free the coals from the ashes so as to reinvigorate the flame of love? First, we have to look for those embers. Where are the individuals full of generosity like the Good Samaritan? The ones who have faith like the Roman centurion? Who are enthusiastic like John the Baptist? Who dare to do new things like Paul? Who are faithful like Mary Magdalene? I advise the Pope and the bishops to seek out twelve people who are out of line for leadership positions. Men who are close to the poor and surrounded by young people and experiment with new things. We need to be confronted with men who are burning so that the spirit can spread everywhere.

What tools do you recommend against the fatigue of the Church?

I recommend three very powerful ones. The first is conversion. The Church must acknowledge its own mistakes and follow a path of radical change, starting with the Pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals push us to embark on a journey of conversion. The questions about sexuality and all issues involving the body are one example. These are important for everyone and sometimes they're even too important. We must ask ourselves if people still listen to the Church's advice on sexual matters. Is the Church still a relevant authority in this field, or just a caricature in the media? Second, the Word of God. The Second Vatican Council returned the Bible to Catholics. (...) Only those who feel that Word in their hearts can be among those who help the renewal of the Church and are able to answer personal questions with a right choice. The Word of God is simple and looks for a listening heart as a companion (...). Neither the clergy nor the Church leadership can replace the interior life of man. All external rules, laws, dogmas, are given to clarify the inner voice and the discernment of spirits. Who are the sacraments for? These are the third instrument of healing. The sacraments aren't an instrument for discipline, but a help for men at moments along the way and in the weaknesses of life. Are we bringing the sacraments to the people who need new strength? I'm thinking of all the divorced and remarried couples, the extended families. The latter need special protection. The Church upholds the indissolubility of marriage. It's a grace when a married couple and a family are able (...). The attitude we have towards the extended family will determine the children's generation's approach to the Church. A woman has been abandoned by her husband and finds a new companion who takes care of her and her three children. The second love succeeds. If that family is discriminated against, not only the mother but also her children are cut off. If the parents feel they're outside the Church or don't feel supported, the Church will lose the next generation. Before Communion we pray, "Lord, I am not worthy..." We know we aren't worthy (...). Love is a gift. The question of whether the divorced can take Communion should be reversed. How can the Church come to help those who have complex family situations with the power of the sacraments?

What do you do personally?

The Church is lagging 200 years behind. Why doesn't it shake itself up? Are we afraid? Fear instead of courage? However, faith is the foundation of the Church. Faith, confidence, courage. I'm old and sick and dependent on the help of others. The good people around me make me feel love. That love is stronger than the distrust I sometimes feel towards the Church in Europe. Only love conquers fatigue. God is Love. I have one more question for you: What can you do for the Church?