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Is Spirituality Inherent to Human Nature?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-03-30 08:42:06
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Sacred Desire is an unexpected and extraordinary text. It is unexpected in that it travels far beyond an exploration of the fundamental theological and psychological issues of suffering and redemption—what poet Anne Bronte described so eloquently as ‘that secret labor to sustain with humble patience every blow; to gather fortitude from pain and hope and holiness from woe.’ Sacred Desire examines how our very biology creates the possibility of experiencing the Divine, carefully bringing a more coherent understanding of seemingly incompatible truths derived from theological reflection and scientific inquiry. It is thus extraordinary in that it does nothing less than harmonize the human condition with human nature.”    
 —Laura Weiss Roberts, M.D., M.A., Charles E. Kubly  Professor   and Chairman,  Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, Professor of Bioethics, Medical College of Wisconsin

A 200-page book has just appeared titled Sacred Desire: Growing in Compassionate Living, which at first sight one may be tempted to place under the category of religion, or spirituality or perhaps theology. However, as the above endorsement by Professor Laura Weiss Roberts, M.D. suggests, this is a different kind of book because it can quite legitimately be placed in the category of science. That is what makes it extraordinary. It is written by two women doctors and psychiatrists, Nancy K. Morrison, MD, and Sally K. Severino, MD, who, not as believers but as doctors and eminent academic psychiatrists ask this crucial question about human nature: Is the call to spirituality embedded in human biology?  

The two psychiatrists draw on cutting edge research including the recent discovery of brain "mirror neurons" and the elucidation of the physiology of social affiliation and attachment to make their case. And that case is nothing short of this: we are biologically wired to seek oneness with the divine. They have termed this innate urge "Sacred Desire."

This discovery is actually nothing new. Carl Jung had already written about it in his Modern Man in Search of a Soul. There Jung points out that if one throws religion out the window, as modern man has done in the very name of modernity, it promptly comes back the back door in rather distorted ways, as a fanatical cult or ideology, or even pure and simple idolatry. Man needs to worship something, he is wired for it, and if it is not the living God, it will be the economy, or power, or sex, or his Ferrari car, or his technological gadgets, or even his own intelligence. Indeed, the god of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

 What is novel in this book is that Morrison and Severino draw on neurophysiology, relationship studies, research on spiritual development, and psychotherapy to show how spirituality is intimately connected with our physical being. The authors offer several clinical examples of how “recognizing sacred desire” can advance a person's healing, providing an action plan for using desire to move from fear to love of self, others, and all creation. That used to be apparent to a St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century, but it is no longer the case nowadays. Today, we conceive modernity as ipso facto unfriendly to religion thus ignoring the real cutting edge notion, reluctantly but slowly making headway even in Europe as we speak, that there are indeed multiple modernities and the European one is not necessarily the prototype of modernity as the Enlightened deluded itself of being. But that is another issue to which I intend to return with a later article.  

Here are some salient features of this engaging book: it illustrates how spirituality is intimately connected with our physical being, provides seven concrete steps for healing our compartmentalized lives and moving from fear to love of self and others, shows how embracing desire globally might allow us to live and love in a world where individually and collectively we can survive and thrive. In short this book can be imagined as a life-saver for a Western civilization floundering in the waters of nihilism and hedonism.  Indeed Sacred Desire is sure to appeal not only to academics and scientists but also to those spiritual seekers looking for intellectually and scientifically credible ways to understand spirituality in today's world, which is to say, to any modern man in search of his soul.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-03-30 16:08:33
A footnote: point proven: the book was in fact placed under the category of theology, spirituality and religion; which is ok. When science is also placed alongside, then the book's novelty will have been grasped. Something similar happened to Theilard De Chardin's books when they first came out: many critics in reveiewing them failed to grasp their vision and thus failed to realize that they were much more than mere theology and spirituality; they were also science. Indeed, bad habits die hard.

Emanuel Paparella2009-03-30 16:11:10
Errata: reviewing them.

Leah Sellers2009-04-03 02:33:10
Hello Emanuel,
I normally don't comment on other people's stories, but I feel as though I know a part of you. So, I don't feel as reticent.
The physiological link to spirituality (to me) is a very real connection. When I was fighting cervical and uteran cancer, I used those energies daily, through meditation and prayer. At night, I would concentrate soully upon moving those energies throughout my body (particularly the damaged areas) until my body would actually break out into a healthy sweat. My Will moved my pschophysiospiritual (I made this word up - ha!) energies, and I believed helped me to conquer that disease.
If I could only find a way to effectively use those same energies to move the Leviathon (Workman's Compensation) !
Thanks for sharing this information with everyone, Emanuel.

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