Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: spirituality

A year of living christianly with Ruth

I invite Ruth the Christian to join me in my year of living christianly. We sat down to talk about spirituality and how our past informs our present–but then my microphone stopped working and most of our talk was lost.

I present the remnants: Chasing the sun, burying birds, and making sure your daughters get educated.

Christianly Spiritual Disciplines

You will hear from the pulpit that the Gospel is simple–so simple a child can understand. You’ll hear that Jesus wants nothing from you but belief, that all the work has already been accomplish through his life, death, and resurrection.

Just as I am thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve.

It’s theologically accurate (according to those who consider it accurate), but it’s not the full picture of the Christian(ly) life. After regeneration comes growth in grace and knowledge, conformity to the image of Christ, slow transformation into the ideal version of oneself. This happens by the work of the Spirit, through the spiritual disciplines. The disciplines are how Christians abide with Christ.

Some Christianly Spiritual Disciplines: 
Scripture (reading meditating memorizing)
Prayer (habitual liturgic fasting)
Worship (private public artistic)
Agape (love without condition)

From a secular point of view the disciplines exercise certain cognitive mechanisms that seem to help people overcome obstacles and thrive at life. Quite a few studies suggest interesting benefits from habitual mediation, for example. There aren’t a lot of studies on the effects of Christian disciplines. I think “eastern” practises appeal to the secular west because they don’t carry the baggage of being part of the religion of our forefathers.

Also, you don’t need to believe in Buddha to do Anapanasati.
Maybe you don’t need to believe in the Christian stories to partake in their disciplines, either.

I like the idea of sanctification–slowly but surely growing into a wiser and more virtuous version of myself. I often wonder if this transformation is the essence of spirituality. I sometimes hear people disparage those who don’t chose a religion but still call themselves spiritual. I don’t think you need to be religious to be spiritual, but the runner trains for the race, working daily to refine and empower their performance. Surely some discipline is involved in any spiritual path.

With the Sufis in Toronto

Back when I was a religious man, a dear Sufi friend invited me to his prayer and meditation group. Many religious people try to avoid too much exposure from the competition, and I couldn’t blame them. We grow up with stories about unwary sheep stolen by wolves. But I rarely entertained fears that my faith could be destroyed. I believed either my truth was unshakeable and therefore priceless, or else it would prove vulnerable and I could dig deeper to find the unshakeable.

Featured imageWe met in a family apartment, and even though my friend hadn’t told the others I was coming, they didn’t bat an eye at me or my flashy yellow tie. I joined them with a guileless heart, open to whatever wisdom they had for me.

We recited mantras and slipped kidney beans into little bowls. We meditated on the colour blue with our eyes closed. We heard a woman’s simple sermon on love. I stayed in the house of the Sufis for hours, talking about Pakistan, love, and the price of mangoes. But mostly about love.

My faith shook and fell apart some years later and at first glance you’d think it was the foundational things that crumbled. But it wasn’t. The things we call foundational are usually just distinctives–the things we believe that separate us from them: Which books to trust, if any. Which prophets to venerate, if any. Which creators to call on, if any.

It’s hard to touch the fundamental parts of spirituality because of the clutter we surround them with. But the most solid things are deeper than mantras and kidney beans, richer than bread and wine. They are surer than scripture and reach further than prophecy. Those gentle Sufis knew the fundamentals and here’s the proof: If everyone in the world had their same heart, their spirituality, the kingdom of heaven would be here already.

The one that clarifies things

I’ve written quite a few drafts of this over the summer. They were mostly long and had all manner of shiny points and quips. I didn’t really like any of them. Some of them were preachy and others sounded snarky. One of them read like a guy desperate to avoid misunderstanding, and so the text was long and meandering and sure to cause misunderstanding. So the best way, I decided this morning, is to keep things tight and brief.

I am not a Christian.

It’s partially my fault that even this statement needs a bit of clarification. As an evangelical I tried to distance myself from words like Christian and religion because I felt they had been hijacked by systems that did not represent Jesus in the way I saw him. So there needs to be just a little more clarity.

I think Jesus was an amazingly insightful man.
I think the Bible is an important piece of literature.
It’s been a long and complex road from where I was to where I am.

Only the tiniest tip of my walk has been expressed on-line. In the weeks to come I’ll use this blog to unpack some of my thoughts on the journey and how I look at the universe now. But it’s important to be brief when talking about big heavy things, so I won’t say much more right now.



I’m open and approachable and would love to hear from you, either in public comments or private messages. I know a lot of folks don’t like using the Internet for important talks, but I think with care and mindfulness any medium can be awesome for clear, friendly communication, even when dealing with subjects as heavy as this one.

One last thing: I love you. I may be out, but I don’t even have a drop of negative feelings toward where I’ve come from or the people and institutions that have shaped me. I am happier than I have ever been in my life, both in magnitude and consistency, and that would never have been possible without my past.

Looking forward to many wonderful talks,


Buddha on Doctrine

“My teaching is not a dogma or a doctrine, but no doubt some people will take it as such… I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

The Buddha, c. 563 BCE – c. 483 BCE

The Song That No One Has Heard

     I’m kind of a sucker for devotional music from all sorts of religious traditions. I’ll shove John Michael Talbot, Yusuf Islam, and Krishna Das all onto a playlist together. They get along on iTunes, I wonder if they’d get along if they were all in the same room…
     One of Krishna Das’s best songs is Heart as Wide as the World.

I looked away
Your beauty too much to bear
Where could I run?
Your eyes,
I found them everywhere
All I want is to sing to you
The song that no one has heard

     I follow a lot of aspiring writers on Twitter and blogs. Sometimes it’s a tad discouraging because often they talk about ‘essential’ writing subjects like self-promotion, knowing the market and replicating past successes. Many good, talented, creative people just want to write a story that will sell.
     How low.
     I don’t know about other creative people, but I’d do this work even if I knew I’d never make a penny from it. I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve put time and money into it, but I’ve never gotten a cent back. Sure, I’d love to make some money. I’d love to be able to quit my job and spend my life writing. That’d be the cat’s meow. But that’s not ‘all I want.’

All I want…
… is to be a best-seller.
… is to be famous.
… is to get rich.
… is to be the next [insert successful name here].

     Low! Low! Low!
     I look up to the sky and to the infinite space it rests beneath. I look to the Hand that sparked it and all the glories that dwell within it. And all those petty desires fade like a fog when it is faced with the sun’s fury. One desire remains. One thought. One driving force.
     All I want is to sing to you the song that no one has heard.
     And I’m the only one who can sing that song.
     And you’re the only one who can sing yours.


     And just like that, my anti-addiction struck. And it struck hard.

     I’ve been addicted to a few things in my day. Some good. Some bad. I used to be addicted to cigarettes. And anyone who’s been on those will tell you that it’s not a matter of the intellect that gets you to smoke. It’s a deep, passionate and physical need. I knew it was hurting me. But the hurt from smoking was not as bad as the hurt from not smoking.

     I’m still addicted to some things. Food, for example. If I even go half a day without food, I feel a pain in my body and mind and soon it’s all I can think of. There are a few other things like that in my life. Water. Air. Third-wave ska. Stuff like that.

     But my present addictions are nothing compared to my anti-addictions.

     If an addiction is a physical / mental need to do something, then an anti-addiction is a physical / mental need to not do something. Ever had that? Here’s how it works:

     You sit down to do something very good. Maybe to paint a picture or plan a party or spend time praying or meditating or get moving on your ridiculous novel. Suddenly you feel a deep well of hate rise up within you. You look at your computer and you scowl. You can feel your whole spirit rebel against the idea of doing that good thing. It’s all the symptoms of an addiction, except it’s pushing you away. Steven Pressfield calls it Resistance. I call it a serious, life-stopping pain in the ass.

     When you feel the resistance, there are only two ways of success, so far as I can see. First, you can try to plow through and have faith that the road will clear in time and you’ll soon stop hating the thing you love. This is the best way.

     But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the resistance, strengthed by negative distractions and attidutdes, is too strong. The demons pull at your creativity and piss all over it. Some demons can’t be cast out with hard work alone. Some demons need prayer.

     I’m a spiritual person, though not really religious. And I believe in the power of mystic prayer. So when the resistance is hard, I stop. I turn off the screen. I pull my legs up and close my eyes and breathe. I let my thoughts leave as I become mindful of my breaths. In. Out. In. Out. Breathing in I calm my body. Breathing out I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know it is a wonderful moment.

     And my mind and heart calm. The demons stop screaming long enough for me to cup my hands to my face and utter the sacred words with deep mindfulness.

     “Our father which art in heaven,
     Hallowed be thy name.
     Thy kingdom come.
     Thy will be done on earth
     As it is in heaven.”

     And they flee. My spirit soars and touches the source. I float on the goodness of the great compassionate source of the universe.

     And when I’m done my communion I open my eyes. I can hear the story being whispered in my ear now. I say “Thank you, thank you” and take the story and put it done on paper.

     I win.


     Does entropy ever bother you?

     They say that all energy will eventually fizzle and turn useless. They say the universe will turn cold and all life and information and movement will cease. All the songs will be silenced. All the stories will be forgotten. Every trace of human wisdom, love, and hope will fade from the cosmos, leaving not even an echo behind. So it goes.

     The thought makes me shudder.

     It makes you shudder, too, even though you know you won’t be around to experience it. There is something deeply disturbing about end of all things. About the final death. It’s sick. It’s perverted. It’s madness.

     I think we’ve always seen it coming. The ancients knew that all good things come to an end. But they didn’t accept it. They couldn’t. They raged against it.

     The ancient seers flung out their prophecies, calling for the ultimate death of death. They claimed that all these decaying things around us would be reconciled and made well again. They spoke of a pinnacle of existence, better than the one we find ourselves in, where there is no entropy. They claimed that those who sought after glory, honor, and immortality would be a part of it.

     Sounds too good to be true.

     But, you know, it’s the madness of entropy that makes me think those prophets could be right. It’s the utter terror of the thought of nothingness that makes me think there could never be nothing. That makes me dare to hope that our stories will never fully fade away. That makes be wonder if death, indeed, will die.

     Eternity is bound up in the heart of Man. Does that suggest we are meant to dwell in a realm that does not decay?

     I think so.

     I may be wrong. It could be that this universe is all there is. It could be that when the last human fades and dies, all our spirit and love will die with him or her.

     Or perhaps the kingdom of heaven will come. And death will be brought to trial and done away with. And perhaps the stories and songs will never end and the sun will never set. And perhaps the weight of affliction of this dark world will not be worthy to be compared to the glory to be revealed on that day. And we will laugh and dance with those ancient prophets who searched the human and divine spirit to predict that glorious morning.

     Either way, what can we do but rage against the dying of the light?

     So it goes.

Neil Gaiman on Writing

A Writer’s Prayer

Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too much;
who spreads himself too thinly with his words,
diluting all the things he has to say,
like butter spread too thinly over toast,
or watered milk in some worn-out hotel;
but let me write the things I have to say,
and then be silent, ’til I need to speak.

Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too little;
a decade-man between each tale, or more,
where every word accrues significance
and dread replaces joy upon the page.
Perfectionists like chasing the horizon;
You kept perfection, gave the rest to us,
so let me earn the wisdom to move on.

But over and above those two mad spectres of parsimony and profligacy,
Lord, let me be brave, and let me, while I craft my tales, be wise:
let me say true things in a voice that is true,
and, with the truth in mind, let me write lies.

Neil Gaiman