Spiritual seekers with Christian baggage

I know that many spiritual seekers are not interested in the gospels. But denying our ‘Christian baggage’ means not accepting part of our identity.

Matthew and I

I had listened to the St. Matthew Passion many times before I finally read Matthew’s Gospel. The word gospel was not yet a part of my personal lexicon then. To me, Matthew was simply an author, and what he had documented was a story. A story with a message, as I had been told. A message that was supposedly a blessing.

When I started reading the first gospel of the New Testament, I felt anything but blessed. As a conscientious student of philology at the University of Moscow, I read Matthew’s Gospel with a growing reluctance. I was writing a thesis about a well-known Russian apocryphal, and familiarizing myself the source of the cannon I thought was a must, even though my professor did not insist on it – the country was still Communist and Bible studies were considered taboo.

You simply could not find any religious literature in bookshops. Only specialized scientific libraries had the ‘holy books.’ My first meeting with Matthew was at the manuscript department of the large Lenin library. Next to the dictionaries and encyclopedias, there was a copy of the New Testament on one of the shelves, an edition dating from the time of the Tsars.

Forbidden books have a particular kind of attraction. Unfortunately, the expectation of exclusivity cannot always be fulfilled. Upon reading the first few pages of Matthew’s story, it soon lost its initial appeal. At the time, I longed for color, play and adventure, I wanted to learn, to enjoy life, and the thought of declaring ‘the poor in spirit’ blessed seemed absurd to me. Actually, I wrote the whole story off as quite absurd, not to mention dull and poorly written.

Budding interest

Matthew’s story started to interest me only after my journey of discovery in the wide world of spirituality. My experience with other spiritual traditions had put the qualities of the gospel in a different light.

To pick up a ‘boring book’ for the second time, you need a good reason. I had one. It had struck me that I felt more sympathy for people who valued the great stories of their forefathers than for those who knew nothing of them at all. My favorite writers were well-versed in their own cultures, but could also see beyond cultural boundaries. I saw them as people who had traveled across borders, yet still harbored warm feelings for the ‘parental soil’. At a certain point I asked myself: ‘where do I stand?’

I considered myself a spiritual nomad, and for nomads there is no parental soil. For sedentary people, the motherland is home; for nomads it is simply the well they happened spring from. I don’t know if such wells carry a particular meaning for all nomads, but for me this certainly appeared to be the case.

My ‘well’ is the Russian cultural heritage, where a dialogue with the Christian gospels has played an important role. Despite my disappointment with the of Matthew, I had always felt a wonderful sensation looking at old icons. Although Eastern mysticism fascinated me more than Christian spirituality, I didn’t get that same sensation from the dancing Shiva, Buddha statues or other images from the East. At a certain point, I wanted to better understand my Christian sentiment. It was time to reread Matthew’s Gospel.

Gold dust

My second encounter with the Matthew’s Gospel was at home. I lived in the Netherlands at that time, and had no trouble acquiring a bible. The content was already familiar to me, and the fact that I had zero expectations was beneficial.

This time, my response was different. What I had experienced in the past as a poor piece of writing suddenly came across as simple and concise. Whereas I had initially thought Matthew’s story was ‘boring’, I would now call it ‘modest’. Rather, the story is a description of the essential orientation points in life, without any embellishment. After having heard and read so many stories I started to appreciate all these qualities tremendously.

Gold dust can also look quite plain when you see it for the first time – although that should have been no excuse for a curious philology student. How come I didn’t notice the flecks of gold dust when I first read Matthew’s Gospel? And how come they held such little value for my friends with Christian backgrounds, who had known it from their youth?

A little pouch of home soil

I was simply asking myself rhetorical questions. There are so many factors that influence the perception of a text. That perception is always colored by the personal needs in that moment and the reader’s frame of reference. The second time I read the gospel, I focused mainly on the teachings of Jesus. I was looking for phrases with which universal values were expressed into the Christian language.

The aspect of language is of great importance in this. Native language, in my understanding, is more than the words people learn from their parents. Symbols and images are also part of a child’s psyche. From this point perspective, my sentiment for icons is hardly surprising.

Whichever way you look at religion, you always deal with your forefathers’ perception of religion, which is part of your culture; the subconscious absorption of their expressions of belief through old literature, art and many other channels, cannot be obscured by an ideological or academic filter.

I don’t know what determines the inner connection with one’s own spiritual baggage, but over time I have come to the conclusion that one can enhance this feeling of connection, just like any other feeling. In the old days, travelers would carry a little pouch of home soil with them. Is such a thing imaginable on a spiritual journey?