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In the Unity of the Holy Spirit

La ilaha illa Allah

Shema Israel, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai ehad.

"Whimsical tree of life" by Guido Vermeulen-Perdaen

This weekend I had the fortune of serving as cantor for a mass at St. Agnes’ Church in Manhattan, where I used to sing regularly until schedule changes required me to move on. On this occasion, during a break from singing, I sat to listen to Father Francis’s homily. As his preaching often does, it invited a special spirit to my mind, and soon I was drifting in and out of listening and pondering a theme that’s been close to my heart for some years now: the Oneness of God, and its centrality to spiritual life.

As Fr. Francis quoted the “Shema” – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is One…” – I meditated on the ways I have personally experienced this unity, and the ways it has blessed my life.

In my journeying with Muslims, and Sufis in particular, over the past several years, I have become acquainted with the well-known 99 Names of God, famously discussed by the beloved 11th-century Islamic Scholar, ibn Al-Ghazzali. It is common practice to recite and ponder these names, which beautifully describe a whole gamut of supreme divine attributes: the All-Compassionate, the Sustainer, the Creator, the Destroyer, the Ever-living, the Truth, the Answerer of Prayers.

My budding understanding of these attributes, and, perhaps more importantly, of the phenomenon of their divine oneness, has grown, slowly yet surely, alongside my internalization of the paradigm and practice of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. To my surprise, these seemingly disparate systems seem to share a common foundational principle: that of La ilaha illa Allah, as the Muslims say (“There is no God but God”); or, as an IFS therapist understands, the divine “Core Self” (a.k.a. Holy Spirit?) does not consist of “parts,” as we find in our bodies and personalities, but is an indivisible, transcendent spiritual Being, encompassing qualities such as creativity, loving-kindness, strength, clarity, and patience. It is when our parts are disconnected from the "Self," often through trauma, that our system becomes riddled with fear, shame, hatred, and general inner conflict. IFS helps restore that inner divine connection, and helps our parts to adopt more inspired roles and worldviews.

The "Self" can be described according to various attributes, but its indivisible, unified nature quickly becomes apparent to any observant practitioner of IFS therapy. When a client or practitioner is truly self-led, they exhibit all of the "8 C's" of Self-energy, not just one or two of them. While approaching or growing in “Self energy,” one may initially embody one or two of the qualities to a degree. But as they are significantly embodied, the others are soon to follow.

My eminently wise therapist, Sue Richmond, who was also one of my first fabulous IFS trainers, taught me early on a little trick for becoming Self-led in a session. Sometimes, parts of us feel anxious or discombobulated, and unsure how to get from there to that seemingly enlightened serene state needed to practice effective IFS work. Sue recommends identifying one or two of those 8 C’s that are easiest for us to embody. For some, curiosity is a natural go-to – just imagine all the mysteries and things to be learned, and soon your curious mind will be lovingly engaged with your client.

For me, my mind tends to close down when I’m agitated, so it’s easier for me to reach for calmness and compassion – to look at the person I’m with (and myself) with gentle respect, and a generous understanding of their situation. Once I’m there, I will suddenly find myself awfully curious about how they got there, how they’re feeling, and where they’re trying to get to.

Over time, as I practiced Sue’s short-cut to Self, I could not help but see this phenomenon as a testament to the oneness of God, of divine energy. Compassion does not exist in a genuine and present form without curiosity, creativity, and all the other qualities of divine love, or “Self-energy,” right alongside it.

"Mystical..." by Irina Dobrotsvet

That said, one can easily be deceived about this principle. At times, one might seem to perceive someone demonstrating a huge degree of a particular quality of “Self,” yet very little of the others. While such instances of virtue are not to be dismissed, they must be understood and appreciated with nuance. One can easily marvel at the power of God manifest in the intellectual clarity and prowess of a philosopher or a science researcher, whether or not they appear particularly compassionate, for example. One can likewise be humbled by the sweetness and kindness of many parents and caretakers, regardless of how logical or creative their approaches might be.

In many such instances, the people whose virtues we admire do embody the whole gamut of divine attributes to a significant degree (as far as is humanly possible). But when someone appears to exhibit one virtue and lack others, we must recognize that even that single virtue is likely to be present in a significantly compromised form. Think of the classic codependent, overflowing with forgiveness and tenderness toward an addict, who yet continues unchallenged in a cycle of destruction. Think of countless instances of shrewd scientific or literary ability put to sinister use for unethical profit-seeking, selfish exploitation, or even eugenics and genocide.

An apparent attribute of God extricated from other attributes is arguably not a divine attribute at all, and to worship or even pursue such a thing, without openness to and acknowledgment of the rest of the divine whole is, in a sense, idolatry.

When a leader violates basic human rights to enslave people and thereby build a “creative” work of architectural genius, this is not a manifestation of divine creativity to be idolized, but rather an idolatrous attempt at separating one virtue from the true, holistic fount of all virtues. When a parent or teacher feels such tenderness for a child that they fail to implement safe and nurturing boundaries, this is not divine compassion to be emulated, but rather a human attempt at goodness, in need of truer spiritual substance.

One might think of these not as isolated virtues, but actually as not-quite-authentic imitations of divine attributes, or of true qualities of the “Self”. Not only are they extricated from other divine qualities, but even in themselves these “virtues” become distorted.

Oftentimes parts of a person’s inner system will take on a specific role of embodying such distorted virtues, in an attempt to make the person safe, comfortable, or socially accepted. Their “Self-like” qualities mimic genuine aspects of “Self-energy,” or of the Spirit, usually because those parts of the person’s psyche are not well-enough acquainted with the spiritual reality of “Self-energy.” These parts have usually learned early on to imitate the Self-like parts of their caregivers and teachers.

When clients first try to work with exiled, wounded, or heavily burdened aspects of their inner child, they will often report tearfully to the therapist that they feel hugely compassionate towards that vulnerable part of themselves. Yet, as the therapist probes further, the client will describe their feeling of compassion as a desperate desire to change the inner child’s negative self-image; or a forlorn sort of pity at the pathetic form in which they imagine their inner child. It is often only after the client has asked this Self-like, “compassionate” part of themselves to step back that they are able to naturally embody the steadfast, respectful, and genuinely loving sort of compassion that their inner child needs in order to heal.

There is much subtlety and art in this practice, and “Self-leadership,” or embodying the Holy Spirit, is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Mindfulness of the possibility of “Self-like parts,” and of the holistic good nature of true divine energy, simply helps us to recognize when we are off-track, so that we can re-route, or repent, towards embodying ever truer and more powerful forms of divine love.
“Something just feels off…”

It is important to acknowledge the necessary over-simplification and potential confusion of distinguishing "Self-like" parts from "Self" or Spirit. We are human, and we consist of parts. Our fallible human parts are not antithetical to "Self" or Spirit at all. Without getting too much more theological, suffice it to say that it is through our parts that we experience and reflect the divine. When some part of us is demonstrating compassion, I am not suggesting that we judge and reject this part as a "Self-like" impostor. If a part of us is being genuinely compassionate, even partially, it is being, to some degree, "Self-led" or Spirit-led, rather than "Self-like". When our parts exhibit true spiritual qualities, this is something to welcome, and welcome more of! The more compassionate, creative, etc. a part is, the more "Self-led" or Spirit-led we can say it is being.

It is common in IFS language to hear of "Self" distinguished from parts as though it is simply a competing part of our system, to which all other parts should defer. We must each navigate this spiritual nuance as best we can. It can be helpful to think of all our parts submitting to some spiritual core of our being that exists outside of all the parts. Or, as I prefer, we can imagine that each part of us has its own inner spirit, through which it can directly connect to the divine and submit, in any moment. Our parts, in a given moment, can choose to live in either a spiritually connected or disconnected way (the more they become aware of and empowered to exercise this choice). The more acquainted each part of us becomes with God, the more easily it will be able to choose spiritual connection and faith as its mode of existing.

For parts who have not experienced God, or do not remember it, whose faith is tiny and tenuous, it can be easier to invite those parts to take a break, take a rest, and recede temporarily from our conscious mind, while we work to heal our most burdened and estranged parts. The philosophy, language, and practice of this work can be catered to each person and even each part, to help them know, trust, and ultimately be unburdened and exalted by the power of the divine energy in them.

The mystery of this divine energy, and how we can be graced with it, makes for a lifelong pursuit of wisdom and practice. But we are blessed with a number of resources to help us along.

The classic IFS approach, in which the practitioner facilitates a direct healing relationship between “parts” and the “Self” or Spirit, primarily involves asking any parts that are not the target part (to be healed or unburdened) to step aside and make space for -- or to connect internally to -- the inherent spiritual power of the “Self”. Most times, this is a gradual process, because protective parts, at first, don’t trust in divine power to heal and deliver a person from their suffering. So, rather than submit to their inner divine presence, who is meant to guide and inspire them, these protective parts try to manage the situation on human terms, according to the designs of their concrete human understanding. Instead of allowing divine creativity and loving-kindness to live and flow through them, these protective parts of a person often employ child-like strategies of defensiveness, distraction, or self-soothing to try to take care of scared or hurting aspects of the person. True healing and unburdening happens only when these protectors are willing to trust and defer to that divine Spirit of love which is beyond their understanding. And what a relief for your exiled parts when their protectors finally release them to the light!

The “Self,” or presence of the Holy Spirit, is not the “Self-like” part of you that performs “compassion.” So, I might ask you, as my client: could you please ask that caring part of you to step aside, or to lay aside its own agenda and attachments, to make space for the true divine Spirit to flow through? The “Self” is also not that sharp intellectual part of you that can psychoanalyze the nuances of your childhood development – could that part please step aside too, or connect spiritually within itself, to allow the mystery of divine wisdom to enter? In a sense, this is a kind of meditation and releasing of attachments, akin to forms of Buddhism and Hinduism.

Of course, helping our protective parts to understand and consent to this kind of surrender often involves significant negotiation. It also requires them to have significant exposure to that trustworthy Spirit of love, ideally manifest in an effective IFS practitioner, who learns to embody that spiritual presence more and more easily.

Some of our parts will be easily entreated, and ready to submit in faith. Others will cling blindly to whatever good they know, and block out the fullness of divine mystery. This is what I understand idolatry to be.

"Adoration of the Golden Calf" by Andrea di Lione, copy after Nicholas Poussin, 17th cent.

The psychospiritual practice of asking parts to step back, to allow the indwelling of divine power that follows, is reminiscent of the kind of apophatic theology taught the Jewish scholar Maimonides, in which knowledge of God is approached through negation of all the things God is not. Many find this subtractive, apophatic approach the best way to draw closer to the divine, both in philosophy and in practice. Once all the other other parts have stepped aside, the Holy Spirit or Self-energy flows through the person with natural spiritual power, to address and nurture the target part in whatever ways are needed.

For others of us, it's not so easy. I, for one, have wrestled deeply with my parts’ mistrust of the whole concept of “Self,” and their fear of stepping aside or even turning towards "God"; they feared relinquishing their (my) values and identity in order to make space for an unknown entity, or perhaps a void.

Without a significant positive intuition or experience of divine energy in which to place their trust, many people’s parts do not feel safe stepping aside or connecting spiritually. Moreover, for those of us who are more familiar with the distorted virtues of “Self-like parts” than with honest, divine virtues, any attempts to sell the “Self” as compassionate, patient, or “who you really are,” simply provoke us to nausea and cynicism. Even words like “love” and “God,” in the minds of many people, have become bastardized beyond recognition from their true spiritual meaning. Instead of love and God, we think of codependent attachment, heartless legalism, and even religious abuse.

Any encounter with true love and holiness is a grace and a miracle that cannot be manufactured. Yet most of us are lucky enough to have experienced, at one time or another, some kind of transcendent and undeniably believable instance of beauty, goodness, humility, love, or some other divine attribute pure enough to let us glimpse and remember that spiritual reality. It may come through a heroic deed, a truthful poem, delicate sunlight, or an honest sense of humor. For me, it has come powerfully through sacred music, through the imaginations and techniques of composers who I believe were filled with this divine Spirit. It has also come to me through spiritual teachers and through open-hearted, imaginative friends.

Wherever we find these transcendent instances of pure love, beauty, or truth, they form a foundation for faith through which we can grow closer and closer to beholding, and embodying the true Spirit of love and intelligence. And the more we can remember, ponder, and welcome such experiences, the more our faith, and capacity for healing love, can grow.

We are all at different places on this path of faith; and, as I like to believe, we are all climbing the mountain from different sides. Some of us lean towards a subtractive, apophatic approach; some of us towards a cataphatic or affirmative practice of pondering positive attributes and instances of divine love.

"Nature scene" by VVadi4ka

I believe that these apophatic and cataphatic approaches to love and God are ultimately insufficient, individually. I think the same goes for any single spiritual practice, although it may do wonders for us in a particular chapter of life. I believe it is necessary always to acknowledge the vast unknown, the mystery that remains beyond our experience and understanding; as well as to embrace the most genuine forms of goodness we do encounter in life, to let these bring us more and more deeply into spiritual wholeness.

Perhaps today you can spend an extra moment beholding something truly beautiful, or beautifully true, and letting your more cynical protective parts consider it. Maybe you will make plans to spend time in prayer, meditation, or worship, or with someone who transmits a spirit of love and reasonableness that you forgot existed, till they reminded you. Perhaps this is someone you’ve met personally, or someone you spend time with through their writings or talks. Perhaps it is a prophet, a saint, or even Jesus Christ, who you may have encountered through literature, personal accounts, private prayer, or in going about your daily life.

There is so much to say about the oneness of love, the oneness of God and truth, that even in all the nuance and complexity I’ve tried to acknowledge, it’s still, of course, a mere part of the whole! The intellectual and spiritual parts of me hope that in these faithful attempts they will convey to you even a glimmer of this unity of divine mystery, that you may more fully trust in the wholeness of its power, that it may heal, comfort, and inspire you wholly, and that you may enjoy the "fruit of the Spirit," which is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness temperance: against such there is no law." – Galatians 5:22-23

"The Trinity" by Andrei Rublev, 15th cent.


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