The Prophet and the Widow, Convenience and Technology, Materialism and Spirituality
Updated: May 19, 2020
Here’s an illustration of a spiritual problem inherent in our culture.
Right now, if I am hungry, I can go to my pantry to get something to eat. If I am cold, I can turn up the heat. If I am hot, I can turn on the AC. If I am bored, I can turn on the TV or surf the internet. If I wish to go somewhere, I can get in a car and drive there. If I am thirsty, forget having to find clean water: I can go to a store and get anything I can imagine to quench my thirst. Some of those drinks give me the power to hack my body chemistry to give me more energy than my adrenals would normally give me. Some of them may numb my emotions. Others might enhance them. Some drinks have ingredients that are said to restore electrolytes or send protein to my muscles in order to rebuild them.
Convenience galore, right? More than at any time in recorded history.
Now, let’s assume that we are something akin to “embodied spirits.” Let’s go with the idea that everything is animated by spirit. That’s how most spiritual people think, I suppose. There can be millions of variations on how this idea is applied, it’s true. But some idea along the lines of understanding that a body that is living has different characteristics than a body that is not, is the underlying belief. And the spirit – whatever that may be – makes the difference. This seems to be a common understanding among people who consider themselves “spiritual.”
It’s obvious to people that think this way that there is a physical realm and a spiritual realm. Of the two, one is more permanent than the other. It could be argued that we live in a relatively basic realm while we are in our physical forms. What I mean by that is, here on this earth, things are made of “dense” energy. Things are relatively hard here, relatively solid. In other words, they’re “material” rather than spirit only.
These words, "spiritual: and "material" can mean about a gazillion different things. That's why it's important to define them early on.
For example, a stone cliff may be said to have a “spirit.” Again, if we’re spiritually wired, we probably can imagine that to be the case. It would be said in this instance that the cliff is an “embodied spirit.” But more specifically, in this realm, it’s "material." A spirit - a disembodied human or "ghost" is made of finer energy; it could walk through the stone face of the cliff if it wanted to. A human, which, like the cliff, is made of similarly dense energy, can't (generally speaking… there are ancient stories to the contrary, but that’s another topic).
What. The hell. Is the point? Glad you asked.
I submit that a mostly unintended result of technology is that it removes God from our lives.
Now, that’s a big statement, and possibly ridiculous. After all, isn't a modern fishing pole "advanced technology?" How does that remove God from our lives? What about an axe, or a new set of boots? These are all technologically advanced kinds of things. How do they take God out of our lives?
Alone, they don’t.
That’s why it was a ridiculous statement to make. Yet, there is some truth to it, and I’ll illustrate that in a second. The basic problem was that the statement was too broad. It lumped all tech and all ways of working with it into one category. It could be argued by some that all tech belongs in it, but I can’t make that argument myself because I don’t believe it to be the case. However, I will admit that the way we embrace or use technology is a slippery slope on a spiritual level, and here’s why.
Each of us as embodied spirits have a bane with which we have to deal. An inherent flaw in our situation that makes reasoning eternal things a dicey proposition. It’s this: none of us really remember the truth of our existence. We don’t remember living before we came here. We don’t remember what it was like to die. We may feel strongly that there is something more than this material life, but we can’t tell details about it with the same authority as say, we could tell what happened to us five minutes ago.
So, throwing all that aside (or acknowledging it, as the case may be), we can agree that the spiritual realm often works with us in material ways - maybe the majority of the time. Why is this so? Because this is where our material bodies live: in this realm. In other words, our spirits are eternal but they are inhabiting a body in a material plane that is not.
Therefore, while some spirit-to-spirit transmissions occur, generally those involve getting the body - or at least the mind - out of the way. Dream states, deep meditation, certain ceremonies… all these are examples of that. The body is often secondary in these states. The spirit becomes the primary receptacle for the transmission. It’s easy to mistake mind for spirit, it’s true. People do it all the time. I suspect that the majority of ayahuasca journeys are more mind than spirit, for instance, yet they’re often described as “spiritual experiences.” But that’s another topic.
Now that we’ve established all this the best we can in this setting, the written word rather than the spoken, let me tell you a story.
There once was a prophet in the wilderness. There was a great drought in the land to boot, and no one without stores of food was eating much of anything. The government had the most food. Therefore, the place to be was in the cities, where a person might at least get a ration if they were lucky. But this prophet, persona-non-grata as he was, was not welcome in the city. Therefore, he was left to fend for himself in the desert.
Now, if this prophet could go to his pantry and grab a Cinnabon to quell his pangs, the story I am about to continue would not have happened. He would have said, “I hunger, and lo, there existeth in my yonder pantry a Cinnabon, with cream-cheese frosting heaped high upon it. I shall start on the edge and work inward, thereby satisfying my hunger until the sugar is processed by my body. At which point I can have another.”
Our prophet doesn’t eat clean, it appears. Makes me wonder about him.
But that’s not what happened. He was not exposed to that level of convenience. He was hungry for sure, but there was no pantry. So, he did what spiritual people do: he acknowledged that he was hungry. This is a material condition that his mind admitted. But instead of taking matters into his own hands in a material way, he chose a spiritual solution.
Let’s talk about this in a little more detail.
He admitted he was in a hard situation. That means that his mind relayed a message to his spirit – the portion of himself that lives primarily in a non-material state – that there was a conflict: his body is suffering for lack of food, yet it needs food to survive. If he were to ask his God for help, the question inherent in his request is, “will I be provided a way to sustain my body, or is it just best that I die now?”
It’s clear that our prophet could take matters into his own hands by, say, going to the city in disguise and finding food himself. This would entail using his mind to find a material solution to his material problem.
If he had the means, he could borrow some shekels from his credit card and buy food. Or, he could steal some food from someone by force or by stealth. Or he could come up with whatever other ideas his brain might concoct to solve this problem. But the point is that the mind/brain is going to act in a material way, not necessarily a spiritual way.
Why? Because this is simply where most of the mind and all of the body live.
Now, the mind/brain may well come up with a spiritually viable idea, but their main concern is material survival. So this is how they operate - almost as if the spirit doesn’t exist. Left to their own devices, without training, they prioritize themselves via various egos and forget a larger spiritual reality. They do this quickly, out of habit, especially if there is a convenient fix to the material situation at hand.
Mind and brain act this way unless they're primed over extended periods of time and experience to decrease identification with the body, other than as a sacred housing for the spirit, long enough to allow for a spiritual answer to distill.
To restate: unless they are trained, the Mind/Body will act as if Spirit doesn’t exist.
The problem is it takes time and effort to train the material parts of ourselves to identify with the larger and more eternal spiritual parts of ourselves, first. It often takes hard times. Privation. Suffering. I submit that technology usually gets in the way of these natural processes because they are so easily accessed. But it’s not tech’s fault. It’s the way we use it that’s the issue.
Back to our story about the prophet.
Since a prophet is not primarily identified with the material world, he’s not going to take matters into his own hands and steal food. He’s not even going to borrow it from his credit union. He’s not going to go into the city either, because it would be less than ethical to take food from a system that has been designed to keep him personally out. He’s not welcome and he knows it, so he’s not going to devise a way to appear to be welcome (disguise). That would be an untruth. As he is a man of great integrity, this option is off the table. It doesn’t always work this way with holy people, but it does sometimes. For the sake of our story, this is how he chooses to be at this moment.
That takes some strength, there. To be willing to submit to death rather than try to trick the system? That's the varsity, right there. How did he get the spiritual training to behave in such a manner, assuming there are other options for him?
Note that “spiritual training” in a material world is more than just not having convenient technology at our fingertips. Rather, the main component of a spiritual person looks like this: making peace with death. Our prophet is so identified with his spiritual needs and so unafraid of death that he will not sacrifice the spiritual for material concerns – even to the end of them via the extinction of his mortal body. In other words, this is his prayer:
“God, I need food to survive. I will look for food or do what you tell me to do to get it. But I also recognize that my body may not survive this process. That is ok. I hope it’s not time to go, but if it is, it is. I don’t have Cinnabons. I don’t even have a pantry. I have done all I can to find other food and water. There is none to be had. Do you have any ideas?”
In this story, God says, “Yo, dude. Cinnabons aren’t real food, anyway. But here’s my idea. Head to the brook called Cherith. You know the place; the ravens go there for water. You can, too. Then, Imma tell the ravens to bring you meat twice a day. You can eat that.”
The prophet heads there and finds it so. Now, that’s pretty freaking awesome, isn’t it?
Here's how he processes the experience. “Wow, God sure loves me! I have water to drink and cool birds to bring me food. It’s true that the food is no Cinnabon cinnamon roll with too much frosting in the middle, sure. And yes, the Creator of the Universe has the power to bring me exactly that, if he wants. But I’m good with this rotting Ibis meat if that’s what I get. It’s all good.”
Our man, by the way, is good at Gratitude. (That's a hint for the rest of us.)
But then, the brook dries up.
Did you even have your “brook” dry up after God told you to go there? It happens. It’s happened to me more times than I can count. What do you do when you get a "hit" and you follow it, then it blows up. What does all this mean, and how do you react?
A materialistic person, or a spiritual person who hasn’t quite made the transition to a spiritual life, might now curse God. Or doubt. Or think of his own unworthiness. Or concoct some new ways that he’s unworthy. Or, he may now say, “time for a disguise,” or “time to shoplift.”
But what does a prophet do? One who has been around the spiritual block? He repeats the experience of involving Spirit in his decision, without prejudice around having to do so. He releases disappointment, lives in the present where his body is still alive and well enough, and re-addresses Diety.
“Hey, Creator, my brook dried up and the ravens left for greener pastures. Now what?” It's that easy. No crying. No cursing. Just, "now what?"
Now, it turns out, our prophet gets to involve someone else. It might be said that he has now qualified to help someone else and that without passing the test, he would not be in a position to.
“Yo, prophet,” Creator says, “there’s gonna be a poor widow that’s going to be near the town. Go there, and she’ll feed you.”
If I’m this guy, I’m saying, “Sweet! A home-cooked meal! No more moldy Ibis meat.” Again, had he not passed the first test in his solitude, he would not have been granted the opportunity to serve or be served.
But he did, so this is what happened.
He went to the gate of the city. He saw a widow there. He approached her as she was gathering sticks together to make a fire – probably for her evening dinner of Cinnabons.
“Yo, my fine lady,” the prophet says, “how about before you make a fire, you please give me some water?”
Since she was not offended by such a request, she turned to go fill it. And then the prophet, remembering that the ravens were out of the picture, says, “And hey, how about a Cinnabon?”
The lady says, “Bro, I was gathering sticks to make not only a meal but a final meal. I have a little oil and a little flour. Just enough for me and my kid, Horace. This is pretty much it, for us. We gonna eat it and croak. This famine sucks.”
Stepping aside again for commentary, the prophet is not identified with the material world. If he was, he would complain. It might sound like this.
“The Almighty God can’t get me any better than a starving widow as a source of sustenance? Really? I must suck. Or He does. Someone sucks since this is all I’m getting. I’m a prophet, and I’m barely surviving. What kind of God treats his servants like this?”
But he doesn’t do that, because he's used to not having everything at his fingertips all the time, yet he's kept alive by Creator some way or another.
This time, getting a message from Spirit, he says, “Tell ya what. Make me a goody with the last of your oil, and then put me up for a while in your sweet Air BnB. God won’t let you run out. But you have to make me a goody first.”
The woman who is no stranger to Spirit either agrees to do this. This says a lot about her. But what the prophet says will happen, does.
Can you imagine what an interesting situation this would be? Every day you use the last of the flour and the oil. And every morning, there it is again. A skeptic would post a secret camera in the pantry and watch it fill up. Or doubt that she was really using the last of the oil. But a spiritual person doesn’t question this. They live in gratitude because, after all, they have what they need. They live in faith because they've seen things. And they've seen things because they've allowed some discomfort. Discomfort was available because convenience was not.
Besides, almost anything is better than the meat a raven brings you.
If you have any experience with spirit, you know that there are some aspects of some technology that we all use that get in the way of it. Some is obviously less than helpful. But I submit that in general, our lives are too easy. We never get to a point of occurrence where we are relying on Spirit to survive. Technology has minimized spirit in our lives. It’s taken its place.
Tech is so prevalent and new iterations of it are accepted almost without question because have not made peace with death. We haven’t even made peace with the death of comfort (or what we call, “discomfort”). Rather, our religions teach us that God blesses those whom He loves with comfortable lives.
And don’t tell me that religion doesn’t teach this. It absolutely does.
I can’t even begin, to begin, to begin to delineate the problems with the statement, “God blesses those whom He loves, and he loves those who love him.” Let’s just point out that when it comes to the story of the Widow of Zaraphath and her experience with Elijah the prophet, there are multiple points at which a material person - or one addicted to and dependent upon technology - checks out of the drama and misses the spiritual experience.
Can you see them?
Here are a few ways I can see that a person addicted to comfort checks out before the spiritual experience happens. For the first few, I’ll note the spiritual lesson or missing virtue/understanding in parenthesis. You can come up with the others:
· Before he meets the widow, the prophet gets incensed that bad meat is all he’s getting from the ravens (lack of gratitude);
· The prophet thinks that God’s love = ease. Therefore, he is not loved, nothing he does is good enough, there is no God, I’m no good, etc. (lack of understanding);
· The prophet tires of always hunting for food when the evil people eat like kings - and probably are, in fact, kings (comparison thinking);
· Or maybe the widow says, “Piss off. Horace and me are too hungry to share;”
· Or the widow is too hungry to have faith in anything not easily digestible and/or reminiscent of cinnamon;
· All involved think of a “better way” to feed themselves – maybe by joining the local Beelzebub Commune where all the people eat well and have had all their immunization shots. All you have to do is commit your soul to Beelzebub and you’ll be well-fed and healthy. Problem solved;
· Maybe the widow uses a credit card to buy groceries for all three of them;
· Maybe all involved drive to Cinnabon for what they really want because hey, enough of oil and flour;
· Or maybe all involved get bottled water – and Red Bulls – from the grocery store.
Get the idea?
The point is that most people aren’t willing to voluntarily go to death’s door to have a connection with spirit. The problem is, that’s where many of the most powerful spiritual experiences live.
Why don’t we go there? Well, two reasons.
Again, we haven’t made peace with physical death. Not even the death of comfort. We will go to any lengths to keep our comforts. We’ll rape the planet. We’ll displace Native families. We’ll enslave whole races of people. We’ll pollute massive regions of wildlands. We’ll destroy sacred aquifers (and if you don’t think these are sacred, you’re really soft). We haven’t made peace with these deaths, so we live in perpetual fear of them. We fear death in general, and we fear discomfort. Since this is the case, it’s easy to see that humans are identified primarily with the material world.
Secondly, technology is all around us. To bring this full-circle, I started off thus:
“Right now, if I am hungry, I can go to my pantry to get something to eat. If I am cold, I can turn up the heat. If I am hot, I can turn on the AC. If I am bored, I can turn on the TV or surf the internet. If I wish to go somewhere, I can get in a car and drive there. If I am thirsty, forget having to find clean water: I can go to a store and get anything I can imagine to quench my thirst.”
Can you blame us for being materialistic, and addicted to convenience? I don’t. But identifying the problem and extending self-compassion doesn’t eliminate the effects. They’re still there.
What, then, are we to do? Become hunter-gatherers again? Rely on ravens and rotting meat? Nay, verily. We need to do two things.
First, we need to make peace with death. Only by walking through that gate can we become spiritual beings. Otherwise, the nature of our temporary material experience will trump our spiritual ideals, every time. Well… every time it’s inconvenient for our material selves, that is.
How do we do this?
Hint: don’t walk away from religion to do this. Run. Religion has no interest in promoting an austere lifestyle – or even one that looks even relatively inconvenient. Why? It’s not marketable. It’s not appealing to the fleshy masses, and those are needed to line fleshy coffers. In other words, “Get Over Here and Accept Your Death” is not a motto for any religion. But it is THE motto for spirituality. Where the two are at odds, spirituality and religion, we find people that will do anything to keep their ease because that’s how they’ve been told that God communicates to them – through “blessings.” So, they stay in cozy religion rather than austere death. And they get soft, and they miss the spiritual experiences that live on the edge of life and death. They are not interested in learning the language of the prophet, or the widow, or Horace the kid (who later died and was raised from the dead by the prophet). To them, it’s unnecessary and pass the Cinnabons.
So, running from religion – or at least the idea that religion is anything but a generalized and temporary tool – is key.
Instead, if you want spiritual perspective, run toward ancient indigenous spiritual traditions. Native American spirituality. South American spirituality. The spirituality of the Kahunas on the islands, and of the Tungus peoples of Siberia. Certain Pagan spiritualists have it about right, as do those within West African spirituality. All of these incorporate “small deaths” (and sometimes big ones) into their rituals.
Why? Because we can’t fully live a balanced material / spiritual life until we make peace with it.
Secondly, introspection about how we interact with tech is critical. How do we use it? How much is it shielding us from experience that might give us spiritual depth? Are there appropriate ways to back it off? What might be the conditions for doing so? How dependent are we on it to the exclusion of reliance upon our more spiritual natures?
Obviously, I don’t have the answers to these questions. I think there are subtleties to these questions that are far outside the scope of this essay. But I do think it’s time we asked. We just faced a crisis as a global community. In fact, we’re still in it. Because of it, it’s hard to find consistent supplies of certain paper products (of all things). As well as flour and yeast.
Technology has made us weak; weak enough to fear running out of those things. And this is the biggest reason of all to consider what I am saying here.
In the first days of the pandemic, we saw people buying cartloads of toilet paper. You can’t eat toilet paper. You can’t drink it. It doesn’t save or extend life. But I will admit it’s damned convenient to have around. And what did we see? We saw people at Costco with toilet paper stacked 6’ high on a cart. No flour. No oil. Nothing which with to feed themselves or a visiting prophet at the gates of a city.
Paper. Which is a convenience.
We’ve shown that we will destroy our planet for cheap fuel, which is another convenience. Some say this planet is an oracle (OK, I say that). We’ve shown that we will destroy this oracle - and the people that treat her as such, the indigenous cultures of the world - for convenience by wiping out rainforests in exchange for out-of-season bananas, rubber, and cheap petroleum products. We will destroy our native soils with pollutants for increased production at any cost. We will destroy our water – or someone else's - for natural gas. We will destroy our fisheries for profits. We will destroy our attention spans with “smart” phones. We will give up our health for sweet, calorie-laden, nutrient-deficient food. We will give up our freedom for fear of contracting an illness.
And therein lies the problem, the real problem, with technology as we use it today. The way we use it promotes fear. Fear of not having it. Fear of not having it precisely when and where we desire it. If I can’t shop online due to, say, a server being down, I’m not waiting on miraculous birds with questionable food from God. I’m gonna complain to whoever is in charge of the server, or wait until it comes back up. Until then, I’m popping a Cinnabon in the ‘wave and snagging some TP because Safeway just got a shipment in.
We, each of us in this unprecedented culture, have a responsibility to ask “at what cost” before we do anything, including engaging our abundant technology. Since we are surrounded by it, it’s no easy feat to truthfully and unflinchingly ascertain more sustainable and healthier ways to do so.
Still, only by doing this, and by accepting and making peace with our own mortality, we will find a more sacred way of living that supports all of life. Only by living in a sacred manner will we find ourselves at peace with death and be able to accept life on its terms. Only by releasing our attachments to convenience will we be both the widow and the prophet, able to give as well as to receive the non-material things that make the spiritual existence so electrifying.
(artwork by Nathan McBride)