In some strange way, my receptivity to the writings of BYU religion professor emeritus M. Catherine Thomas began at routine physical check-up years back. My internist walked into the exam room holding my mental health evaluation in her hand with an expression at turns exasperated and concerned. I wondered what could be the problem. Hadn’t I aced the questionnaire, measured in degrees from ten being the number of greatest agreement with one being the least? “Does a racing mind keep you from sleeping at night?” Eight. “Do you feel that if you didn’t get up tomorrow morning, the world would have to stop?” Nine. “Do you feel like a motor that can’t stop running?” Ten. Would any mother raising a large family and over-extending herself in other realms feel differently?
The dressing down I got from the doctor that day included heartfelt warnings of impending mental and physical breakdowns she’d seen in people (especially women) like me and stern admonitions to start exercising, sleeping, and re-evaluating my lifestyle. But my re-evaluation following the check-up entailed soul-searching questions beyond lifestyle. When had the healthy desire for laudable elements in my children’s lives and mine taken over and become too much? How had I, along the way, become more machine than human? What void in my soul created this need to drive myself into the ground and possibly take those I loved along with me? And where had that grace-and inner-peace filled returned missionary I became long ago disappeared to, anyway?
It took a sense of desperation to invoke this prayer one night and to mean it: “Please help me extricate myself from the convoluted life I’ve created. Please show me how to change.” Over the following months and years, I gradually learned to let go, and initially thought that pulling back from overscheduling madness resolved my issues. But like the proverbial dentist in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, God had more in mind than making the toothache go away. He wanted to perform oral surgery on the whole mouth and, to throw in another Lewis metaphor, start working on a castle instead of the modest cottage I’d requested.
And so an uncomfortable, scary trajectory began that, now more than a decade later, finds me significantly better off physically, mentally, and spiritually than before—albeit with many more deficits and low points than I’d prefer. Somewhere along the way, the writings of the distinctive, brilliant spiritual seeker M. Catherine Thomas became a key component of this odyssey. Thomas’s work has somehow escaped wide attention from LDS thought circles, but retains a loyal following not only among Church members, but also among those in various meditative, spiritual, and psychological development fields.
I esteem her writing as I do works by mentors from other faith traditions such as Henri Nouwen, Brother Lawrence, and Lewis himself, in offering prototypes for those spiritually stuck and in need of their own Pilgrim’s Progress. Doctrinally based, drawing on LDS scripture and salient authoritative quotes, Thomas also includes insights from spiritual seekers in Christian, Buddhist, and other traditions to get to the heart of the gospel: spiritual growth and redemption through the Divine.
Just as Lewis disregarded Christian infighting and haggling over differences in order to concentrate what mattered most, Thomas does not attempt to resolve various LDS issues, but reminds us of what it’s all deeply about. Her oeuvre could be considered our own Mere Mormonism, dispelling cultural narratives that creep in and keep us living an imitative gospel full of self-critical, anxious, and ego-based spirituality and pointing instead in the direction of the true gospel of transformative spirituality.
Wherever we are on the spectrum, she reassuringly asserts, we are deeply loved and nurtured by a Divine Therapist who not only finds us worth saving, but is intent on our metamorphosis. If we learn to let Him inside, He will cultivate transformation—thus Thomas’s persistent cautions about busied, hurried lifestyles that skim the surface rather than dive deep into the gospel pool.
Reading Thomas’s prose convinces the reader to go beyond merely thinking and studying, because cerebrally based religiosity can lead to narcissism and delusion that blinds us to our need for conversion and genuine repentance. Only experiencing and changing, according to Thomas, bring liberation, not only from outward sins, but also from warped motives and manipulative behavior that often taint the religiously observant. In fact, reading her books feels a lot like delving into BYU philosophy professor Terry Warner’s writing on self-deception. “Ouch!” the soul cries in recognition. But the pain feels emancipating, as if a correct spiritual diagnosis has finally been reached and a hopeful recovery is in sight .
Thomas’s first book, Spiritual Lightening, probably saved my parenting sanity with its admonition not to assume God’s responsibility for running the universe. Anxiety over our children, she points out, is not perceived by them as unconditional love, and “when love tries to control, it is not love, but fear.” She weaves her personal journey through theological concepts, describing the control issues she faced as an alcoholic’s daughter who learned to be patient, after her conversion, with spiritual slowness and discouragement.
“Part of enduring to the end may have to do with just keeping on trying against feelings of overwhelming inadequacy,” she writes. “A person may think that his feelings of hopelessness reflect his true condition, but they do not.” She introduces a larger theme her later books cultivate: developing a focused mind, one able to retract from dark mental pathways and sense a higher power bringing it toward the light. Unfortunately, Thomas observes, we often resist the comfort: “We may cling to our comfortable old hurts and abuses, finding some kind of perverse pleasure in them.”
At one point, toward the end of the book, Thomas describes going back to her childhood home feeling healed with the help of the Lord and of Al-Anon, only to “somehow [get] hooked right back into my family’s old troubles,” including abusive accusations and bitter confrontations. Returning home emotionally spent and feeling abandoned by God, she wades through grief for weeks until one day, reading scriptures, “I realized that something had just neutralized my heart’s pain over that dreadful experience.”
The pain completely disappeared and in its place, Thomas writes, “was compassion for myself and for all the participants in that awful confrontation.” Healing begins, the book makes clear, with the desire to be healed and with awareness—which we tend to ignore—of how the Divine tries to lead us to more productive paradigms. “One might notice,” Thomas concludes, “that healing comes from changing oneself rather than another person.” Through Spiritual Lightening, I realized that finding my own inner peace blessed my children in much deeper ways than in trying to control their respective universes, and that a crucial component of this peace lay in focusing my mind and thoughts.
All abstract and heady stuff, indeed. Thus, several writers and ideas might prove helpful, for understanding Thomas’s later books. Without familiarity with the following authors and concepts, and with reading proclivities inclined toward 19th Century British novels, I may have found her latest tome, The God Seed—filled as it is with an emphasis on stillness, meditation, and developmental psychology—unapproachable. Going from an overwhelmed, overburdened (or “cumbered,” as Jesus called it) mentality to a spiritual perspective based on renewal, hope, and faith requires some baby steps along the way. Here are a few that tutored me.
A friend recommended Martin Seligman when we joked about our tendency toward pessimism as a driving force in our lives. One of the most cited psychologists of the 20th Century, Seligman convincingly argues in Learned Optimism that a hopeful outlook isn’t just the purview of simpletons, but a deeply healthy way to live. Even more important, you can learn to recognize thought patterns that habitually drive you down unrealistically pessimistic highways and, with practice, learn to take better mental roads.
I liked an Ensign article which compared negative thought patterns to well-worn jungle paths our minds frequent even though they lead to danger. Getting to mental and emotional springs of well being requires taking out a sickle and forging new routes. Such awareness can be aided and abetted by “stilling” the mind, a practice Thomas advocates, and recognizing the random thoughts going in and out. Pretty soon, you start recognizing which thoughts lead to tranquility and which to anxiety.
Re-reading Victor Frankl reiterated these psychological concepts in a way I hadn’t noticed in Man’s Search for Meaning before. The book is ultimately about free will, with Frankl living out the concept in Auschwitz, where, even though he couldn’t choose his circumstances, he could choose his reaction to them. But those reactions primarily take place through the heart and mind, through decisions to think and respond differently. When Frankl finds himself perpetually despairing over numberless reasons for misery, he recognizes how his mental state only compounds his physical anguish and begins a habit of meditating on his beloved wife instead.
In one particularly profound experience, Frankl protests against hopelessness, senses his spirit “piercing through the enveloping gloom,” and, amid a guard’s insults and complete physical exhaustion, hears “a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.” Continuing to labor and hack into the icy ground, Frankl sees a light in a distant farmhouse and remembers that “the light shineth in the darkness” as a bird silently perches in front of him and looks into his eyes.
Catholic theologian and writer Henri Nouwen, in his contemplative The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, describes the mental tendency to actively avoid inner peace, an ongoing theme in Thomas’s work as well. Inner demons compel Nouwen, and all of us, to hold on to darkness rather than believe “that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness.”
He admits that hardly a moment passes in which “I am not tempted by sadness, melancholy, cynicism, [and] dark moods.” Yet he learns from both the prodigal younger son, beset by sins of the flesh, and the aloof older brother, plagued with sins of the heart, that, strangely, we all hesitate to come to the banquet and receive the joy the Father generously offers. In fact, the great challenge of spiritual life, according to Nouwen, is to receive God’s forgiveness, love, and joy. The Father offers a fatted calf, robes of honor, rings of inheritance, and a call not only to regain sonship, but also to claim his Fatherhood—but still, we recoil.
Thomas’s books also echo Latter-day Saint leaders calling us to joy and away from shallowness. Dallin H. Oaks’ oft-quoted talk, “The Challenge to Become,” warns about turning the gospel into “a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account” instead of “a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”
Dieter F. Uchtdorf makes the call to spiritual sanity a recurring theme in his talks, describing members who battle joy by basing self-worth on lengthy to-do lists and who overcomplicate their lives by staying up all night making pot-holder handouts or lesson displays. President Monson pleads with members to find “joy in the journey,” describing Borghild Dahl’s experience of regaining eyesight after age 50 and marveling at the bubbles of her dishwater.
Messages like these and others prepared me for the deeper tutelage of Light in the Wilderness, Thomas’s second book, which delves further into the mystery of spiritual progress and draws on diverse sources: scriptures, Buddhist monks, George Eliot, Romantic poets, general conference talks, and more. Its overarching theme of liberation from self-absorption and from our “relentless worry about not knowing what will happen to ‘me’” instructs us to seek the light in the wilderness–genuinely trusting that an infinite intelligence is “always present and always in charge and always striving with me, even though His present activity may lie beneath my awareness.”
Developing spiritual practices that include “some combination of meditation/contemplation/prayer/scripture” takes us “past the natural mind into the realm of spirit,” in which God reveals himself through nature, through fellow beings, and through the decision to live a consciously spiritual life. In an illustrative anecdote, Thomas listens to a friend talk of troubled feelings and relationships on a golden fall day. While Thomas is drawn to “the amber-toned trees against the infinite-blue sky” happily revealing their secrets, her friend’s consciousness, caught up in the quagmire of negative emotions, prevents the benevolent world seeking to comfort her from entering her soul.
“If we live too superficially, too speedily, and too negatively,” Thomas writes, “we will not uncover the treasures.” But if we practice being still inside, she assures, “spiritfulness might become [our] primary awareness, while the noisy activity of [our] current life might fade into a sort of background music.” I feel a difference, now—after years of Thomas-inspired awareness and contemplative practices—when my mind gets enmeshed in the noisy activity of children’s problems, the worlds’ issues, my inadequacies, and residual existential despair from reading too much modernist fiction. The noise inside starts to crescendo, but I notice, now, when I run into a random acquaintance with an aura of compassion, or catch a glimpse of the trouble-making child gently tending to the dog, or gaze up at our bright orange maple tree in fall—the kind Elizabeth Barrett Browning called “afire with God”– the mental noise recedes, becomes background music and becomes less important than accepting what comes “with greater trust, quiet, even gratitude.” (Light in the Wilderness) The book ends with a compelling afterword, Thomas’ spiritual autobiography, which dispels any suspicions that her early life, “full of turmoil and strife and confusion,” made it easy for her to find spiritual sanctuary.
And so we come to the magnum opus, recently published: The God Seed: Probing the Mystery of Spiritual Development. Here I can only hope to convey some impressions of a conceptually rich book that describes deep personal experience. Once again, a diverse contingency adds eloquence to Thomas’s concepts: the Catholics, the Buddhists, the LDS scriptures and prophets, the seekers, the psychologists, and the poets.
Stay open and humble, The God Seed asks at the onset, for “One prerequisite for spiritual growth is that we accept that we do not know everything about anything.” No matter how zealous or skeptical our proclivities, being resistant to new information, spiritual or otherwise, keeps us from the openness of a beginner’s mind. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” according to a quoted Zen master. “In the expert’s mind there are few.” A life largely ego-based, anxious for oneself, stressed, achievement-obsessed, or controlling will find spiritual receptivity difficult. You have to enter humble spaces, according to Elder F. Enzio Busche, as quoted by Thomas, in which “we suddenly see ourselves naked in all soberness….We are now at that sacred place that seemingly only a few have courage to enter.” Only in these spaces does genuine repentance take place, leading to real growth and deeper insights.
Those who enter find, like LDS clinical psychologist Allen Bergin, that spiritual perception sometimes tells us more than the intellect or the senses. In a vision-like experience quoted by Thomas, Dr. Bergin was able to see a patient full of inadequacy and anxiety in a serene, radiant, and celestial state: “It was as though I was seeing her eternal identity unfettered by her mortal deficiencies…qualities that were not perceivable by ordinary senses.” This contrast between “the brilliant eternal personality I had perceived and the conflicted, distressed mortal person I had known” led him to new insights that a core, eternal self can emerge from its “mortal overlay” through self-correction as we allow the divine to emerge more fully.
Subsequent chapters in The God Seed describe stages of Godly development that, Thomas clarifies, don’t reflect a hierarchical model of divine love. God’s love exists intensely for each of us at every stage, but gently leads us into higher and more fulfilling levels if we relinquish our ego, fear, and our compulsion to control along the way. Those at lower levels tend to lack empathy and the ability to relate to those outside their circles. Lower-level development is also marked by anxiety, suffering, and a self-worth that says “I am what I’ve achieved; if I fail, I’m nothing.” As a result, investing energy into trying to meet others’ expectations leads to being untrue to the self and, in my case, as the mental health questionnaire illustrated, exhaustion.
Going through higher stages of development involves becoming aware of the unreliable nature of our thoughts and their effects on our minds, gaining greater empathy that involves a reverence for life and interconnectedness, and being able to receive knowledge through more avenues than the rational mind. We quit doing things out of guilt or obligation, and instead act out of internal desires that lead to deep concern with the entire spectrum of humanity. Ultimately, those in the highest stages find their will increasingly aligned with the greater will of God. The challenges of life, and pain and suffering, remain, but are accompanied by a greater dedication to truth, a lack of selfishness, greater joy and awareness, and abiding humility and peace.
Ah, but there’s the rub. We get so discouraged at our continual failures and play old tapes in our heads full of self-recrimination that drive out inner peace and motivation to keep trying. Thus, relying on “the gentle, understanding love of the Lord,” writes Thomas, “allow[s] us and help[s] us to let go of the things that are not working for us.” Several insightful chapters follow on thoughts and habits that hold us back, including ego-based living and the self-deception. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr perceptively describes, in The God Seed, how spiritual quests can also become just another tool of the ego when they are still “all about me”: “There is a love that sincerely seeks the spiritual good of others, and there is a love that is seeking superiority, admiration and control for itself, even and most especially by doing ‘good’ and heroic things.” Rohr notices some of his fellow Franciscans caught in the trap of manipulative love that “cannot be addressed because it is so dang sacrificial.”
Thus, we return, in subsequent chapters, to our minds and thoughts, in order to remove blinders and arrive at “deeper-than-usual honesty” to reveal ego motives. “By looking deeply and compassionately at how we are affecting ourselves and others with our speech and actions,” writes Thomas, “we can begin to see what motives are really driving us—what pay-off we’re looking for.” Humility and compassion tend to dissolve the ego and liberate us from trying to impress or “make anyone think something about us.” But developing the eyes and heart of compassion requires “entering the sacred silence of your being” with spiritual practices in which “He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in Him.” (1 John 4:16)
The quintessential verse of scripture capturing the essence of The God Seed is “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) Toward the book’s conclusion, Thomas offers various ways, alongside scripture study and prayer, of approaching the divine through meditation, but refrains from prescriptive lists. “Design your own spiritual practice for training your mind in addition, of course, to your prayer and scripture,” she suggests, because “what you repeatedly practice will become your inclination.” Sustained thoughts full of compassion, then, beget the divine attribute of empathy, which we find arising more often and for longer periods of time.
The ascension of what Thomas calls “high energy” thoughts full of love, humility, and peace in our minds mercifully brings on the abdication of fear as ruling tyrant over our lives. “We tie up a great deal of energy trying to manage fear,” Thomas writes, calling it “an habitual way of approaching life” that addicts us to suffering, worry, and anxiety. And sometimes an overly prescriptive approach, as 19th Century Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond observes, in her book, feeds into that anxiety, with its demands for more earnestness, more prayer, more work, more self-denial. Only, writes Dummond, by experiencing “that presence [that] fills you always with awe,” and standing “in the stillness of such a presence” does the germ of the Christ life begin to naturally unfold. We still carry out duties, pray, repent, and work, but like the 17th Century monk Brother Lawrence, who also makes an appearance in The God Seed, we also experience the “practice of the presence of God” that fills us with forgiveness and joy, and becomes a backdrop to all we do.
More and more, I see Latter-day Saints locally, not just in general conference, advocating these practices. A friend recently declined an invitation to Sunday dinner because she needed to go home and do some introspective work. A Relief Society presidency counselor shared a spiritual inventory at a training meeting that encouraged such concepts as empathizing with another’s pain, allowing others to help you, feeling wonder and respect for life, and meditating regularly to feel closer to God.
I sat on a stake council which included a high councilor who cautioned against writing “blank checks” of extra meetings on people’s lives and a stake counselor who indefatigably insisted on cultivating pure motives over compelling people to show up. A leader at a ward I once visited shared his experience of going alone to a family cabin to mourn, pray, receive comfort, and feel whole again. I need to hear these kinds of personal messages, along with those at general conference, and appreciate fellow Saints who not only work hard and contribute, but also show me how to grow and learn. Many in other faith traditions, and some in none at all, have also taught me how to live more fully and generously.
Thomas’s insights call to mind this statement from William James’ indispensable Varieties of Religious Experience: “There lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different” from our rational consciousness. “We may go through life without suspecting their existence,” states James, “but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.” I can’t say that I have discovered, through living more contemplatively, all the potential forms of consciousness, or that I have escaped ego- and fear-based living. But now, I better understand the requisite stimulus that enables me to love those I couldn’t love before, or to receive spiritual comfort and hope. And that stimulus lies not in knowledge, per se, but in what James called the “dynamic currents passing through your being” and what Thomas calls “spiritfullness.” I recently read with great interest “My Journey as a Scholar of Faith” by George Handley, Dean of BYU’s College of Humanities, whose journey to faith involved getting questions resolved and living with unanswered ones—yes. However, his journey is punctuated by, indeed driven by, remarkable spiritual and aesthetic experiences and messages from the Divine, and these ultimately take precedence over what James called the rational consciousness. “What I want to suggest,” writes Handley, “is that aesthetic and spiritual experiences teach that understanding matters and it comes but it doesn’t matter most and it doesn’t’ come first.” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/homewaters/2015/11/my-journey-as-a-scholar-of-faith-part-i.html
In the world of M. Catherine Thomas’s books, aesthetic and spiritual experiences also take precedence, and come deeply and more often through spiritual practices and mental receptivity. Though a novice, I find myself changed by these concepts, and relate to something from one of my beloved writers, this one not mentioned in one of Thomas’s books. “A sense of how extraordinarily happy I have been, and of enormous gratitude to my creator, overwhelms me often,” Malcolm Muggeridge wrote. “I believe with a passionate unshakable conviction that in all circumstances and at all times life is a blessed gift.” More and more, so do I, and can also trust that, even if I mess up or sleep through an entire day, the universe remains in good and benevolent hands.