Stephanie Dowrick - Seeking the Sacred
On Thursday night I shuffled down to the gorgeous crypt of St. Patrick's church to hear Stephanie Dowrick in conversation with the NSW Premier Kristina Keneally and Fr. Michael Whelan.
They were discussing some of the themes that emerge in Stephanie's new book Seeking the Sacred.
Of course, it was a fascinating night, and I came away filled with more ideas and questions than what I'd arrived with - always a good sign that I've spent my time valuably.
Stephanie is in the midst of her publicity for the new book, and is on quite a punishing schedule.
She still managed to be not only fresh and playful, but sharp as well, challenging us all (including the people sharing the stage with her) with insights and questions about what it means to self-identify as a "spiritual" person in the 21st century.
I was fascinated by Stephanie's description of her growth as an author - how she shifted from being a novelist primarily dealing with psychological elements to a writer of non-fiction dealing unashamedly with the spiritual. She says she recognised that the moment had come for this kind of shift, just as she recognises that now the cultural forces are more focused on the new atheism and the rejection of notions of eternity, transcendence and metaphysics.
One of the things about Stephanie's philosophy, one of the themes that has emerged over the years in her books, is the importance of the process of seeking - as opposed to the older imperative to find the truth and stick with it. Especially since she has become an Interfaith minister, Stephanie has given a voice to many of us in the contemporary world for who the spiritual path is marked more by questioning than by the discovery of infallible answers sent down from above. She sacralises this search, and refuses to stigmatise those who are engaged in it - even if it's for their entire lives. Her description of spirituality is, I would suggest, distinctly of our time, and her books are fascinating accounts of how we feel right at this moment, replete with anxieties, misgivings and wonderings.
On page 100 of Seeking the Sacred Stephanie writes:
"...how we think about life and how we regard all other life forms on our planet is driven by what we believe and the stories or narratives we tell ourselves...this inevitably determines the quality of our existence."
The whole panel took up this idea of story, and how its presence or absence is affecting our experience of life. It is a vexed issue. Sitting on Catholic Church property in the presence of Catholic clergy, many of us there were conscious of the good and bad effects of story and the communal narratives that once shaped us but that, increasingly, we shun. Stephanie suggests that the cure for this great lapse in narrative flow might be taken up again by re-imagining our lives as sacred. Not just special moments or actions, but during the course of life in its humble and everyday entirety. This is part of Dowrick's great charm, as a writer and as a thinker - she is unashamed to make a stand for wonder. This night she urged us to remember the wonder and beauty of the universe, and the incredible gift of living. Each moment lived must by necessity be sacred. If not, then all meaning is lost.
Stephanie's view of human nature and potential is unashamedly optimistic, though in no way shallow or wilfully ignorant of life's shadow side. But, like so many thinkers before her, she recognises that until we respect ourselves and begin to reflect this respect in our behaviour towards others, we are diminished as individuals and as a society. In Stephanie's words on the night:
"When we begin in an authentic way to recognise the sacred in ourselves it will inevitably change our conduct."
A beautiful evening spent in the company of a beautiful woman, I am now absorbed in the book. I can't recommend it highly enough.