Today I am speaking with Alexandra York, fiction and non-fiction author, columnist, television and radio host, and a lifelong champion of romantic arts in all its forms. Her latest book is an empathic look into secular spirituality, Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks. Available through Amazon in print and Kindle editions. [Link in the section Frame of References at the end.]
Michael- Let’s begin with your definition of secular spirituality?
Alexandra- A heightened state of being: a rapturous, exalted, ecstatic, blissful, expansive, or empowering psycho-sensory experience of unity with one’s own fundamental values in response to an “other” physical entity embodying them—specifically nature, art, or a romantically beloved person—which results from a process of mind-body integration.
Michael- Why is secular spirituality important?
Alexandra- Since my subject is secular spirituality, my challenge was to answer how connecting with a finite, here-on-this-earth, material entity—rather than a supernatural or deified “other” as in religion—can achieve a state of exalted emotional-physiological grace we call “spiritual.” This is significant for nonreligious individuals because it affords ultimate ecstatic spiritual experiences most of them assume must be mystical, based in faith, and incompatible with reason.
Michael- Did Ayn Rand’s Objectivism have an influence on your theory?
Alexandra- Not directly, but indirectly via her followers. In the 1990s I gave a speech on “Art as Spiritual Experience” plus a workshop at an Objectivist conference sponsored by what is now named The Atlas Society at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The speech was from an essay I had previously written for my art foundation’s magazine ART Ideas. During the workshop I learned that virtually no one in my class—Objectivists all—had a clue that they could have spiritual experiences because they tied the subject to religion, and being atheists they couldn’t buy that. So the workshop got me thinking about wider applications of secular spiritually stimuli than just art.
In 2016 I joined Facebook Objectivist groups and again observed that members seemed unaware of spirituality as a category and its life-enhancing personal joys. I then delved deep and originated a secular spiritual thesis that would enrich these reason-oriented individuals and add to the Objectivist corpus. I consulted Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and a very clever 16th-century Italian monk, Giles of Viterbo, for guidance and put together a theory of secular spirituality compatible with the Objectivist philosophy. While this theory turned out to be applicable to all individuals, whether their philosophies were based on faith or reason, my driving impetus was to enrich especially the spiritual lives of Objectivists.
Michael- Can you state your theory in a nutshell?
Alexandra- By connecting to, and becoming “one” with, three “other” here-on-earth entities that can stimulate our value center psychosomatically: nature, art, and romantically beloved humans.
Michael- Can you give me some examples of this?
Alexandra- Rain can become a spiritual experience rather than cause for an umbrella. By learning to selectively focus on wonders of the physical universe, we can experience a merging with chosen aspects of nature and come away with a fulfilled sense of having participated in eternity. Museum strolls, novels, and music may become empowering experiences that feed the soul, because art at its best expresses ideas that physically manifest the artists’ internal values. If those values match ours, we may feel elevated to the height of exaltation and experience the art spiritually as well as aesthetically. Romantic love with its sexual component becomes the supreme secular spiritual experience because the most desirable and cherished human being is a living embodiment of our highest values. That makes this mind-body union the most sacred of all.
Michael- I like how you connected secular spirituality with nature, art, and romantic love. What is a “spiritual snack”?
Alexandra- Plato was on the ascendancy when 16th-century Giles of Viterbo looked at Socratic dialogues like Phaedrus and the Symposium for philosophically oriented accounts of otherworldly rapture—such as Plato’s ideal, immaterial “Forms”—to enrich his sermons. But he also spiked his solemn speeches with worldly, sensual allusions drawn from classical myth. By doing so he believed that delectable bits of enlightenment would be tasted and digested emotionally by his flock, adding a little zing to his stern Biblical lessons. Giles called these references “spiritual snacks.” In his poem La Caccia Bellissima (The Beautiful Hunt), for example, he represented the human soul as sexy Greco-Roman goddess Diana whose dedication to tracking down God’s footprints in the forest symbolized the Christian soul searching for signs of heaven in this material world. His concept of using brief and lighter fare to enhance profoundly nourishing soul matters captivated me and became part of my theme addressing modern spirituality.
Michael- You mention using museum strolls to discover spiritual experiences in art. As an artist, this especially interests me.
Alexandra- Every broad-subject museum offers paintings and sculpture approaching the sublime. These gems we must discover alone. There are no maps, rules, or rituals to guide you. Only you can lead yourself. Don’t use headphones or read text or placards. Don’t prejudge, preconceive, or censor your reactions. Do let yourself Go. When entering any room, scan the art and let it speak to you. No rights or wrongs in this adventure. Open your mind. When an artwork draws attention, whether it be subject matter or an arrangement of colors or shapes, stand quietly before the work and think or feel everything that comes to mind … or not. Your quiet attention to something that only whispers to you is fine too. Many levels of intensity exist within the broad spectrum of Soul Celebrations, from breathlessness, a pounding heart, and emotional rapture, to a calm and gentle inner hum. The more fundamental the value identification, the more profound the experience.
Don’t be surprised at negative responses. If you feel moved to joy or anger by an artwork, one (or more) of your values is being confirmed or assaulted. For now, attend only to art that ignites unusually positive connections and pleasures you to the highest degree. If you feel soaring energy, quiet blissful awe, or inspired and empowered, you are experiencing a spiritual connection with your own deepest self. You are witnessing your own values through the art and loving all you see within and without. Welcome to a true Soul Celebration of your one and only unique Self through the visual arts.
Michael- That is wonderful and practical advice on visiting a museum or art exhibition that I agree with 100%. How did Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas influence your thesis and presentation in your book?
Alexandra- I revisited Aristotle—not from an intellectual point of view but from a spiritual one—to see if and how his reality-centered premises might translate into contemporary spiritual experiences for individuals today. His focus on the development of Self via reason—excellence of Self as the highest purpose a human could strive for—offered objective reasons why one should be concerned with one’s Self as the primary concern of individual development, responsibility, and respect.
This Aquinas influence speaks directly to my present value-oriented theme of spirituality: The things that we love tell us what we are.
Taking Aristotle’s Eudaimonia—human flourishing—as my ultimate guide; I was enthused by Aquinas’s conclusion that values create our identity. And modernizing Cardinal Giles’s charismatic idea of spiritual snacks, I conceived this guidebook to honor the individual sovereignty and serene happiness of all people by charting paths to here-on-this-earth-now spiritual bliss.
Michael- Ah, that is a beautiful integration from past insights into a new contemporary work. Lastly: You begin each chapter with one of your poems. Which is your favorite?
THE STILL POINT
There is a place if we earn it and own it
A Center unique if we each will but know it
Where the mind is cold and honest and true
Yet passions burn strong like fires renewed
It’s not the “Still Point” of poets’ renown
Where opposites meet or typhoons becalm
It’s active and full of growing and glowing
Excellence bound with achievements flowing
My center is I, a Self that is mine
For here is where pleasure and pain combine
To create my days and my soul define
Our Center is all, so let each take heed
What we make of ourselves is who we shall be
It’s only in death we meet Still Point of fame
While the world spins on not remembering our name
Time cannot be stopped, nor the cry of the dove
So celebrate life and all that you love
Each moment, each “now,” while you dance here on earth
Is eternity’s gift, every morning’s rebirth
We must decline. Alas! None are divine
Make it fun, make it fine. Make it sweet and sublime
Not to live while alive is the only crime
Michael- Thank you Alexandra for taking the time to do this interview.
Alexandra- It has been a pleasure.
Frame of References:
Aquinas, Thomas. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aquinas/
Kraut, Richard. Aristotle’s Ethics. Excellent scholarship on Aristotle’s ethics with 11 mentions of eudaimonia. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/
Objectivism. A thorough overview of the philosophical system founded by novelist Ayn Rand. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism
Richman-Abdou, Kelly. How the Natural Beauty of Hellenistic Sculpture Has Captivated the World for Centuries. The article discusses some of the stylistic elements of Hellenistic art including “wet drapery.” https://mymodernmet.com/what-is-hellenistic-sculpture-history/
Woodruff, Paul. 2018, Plato’s Shorter Ethical Works. “Socrates appears to be the first to make eudaemonia (happiness, the good life) a goal in ethics.” Excellent overview of Plato’s ethical topics. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-ethics-shorter/
York, Alexandra. List of her cultural and art articles at Newsmax. https://www.newsmax.com/Insiders/AlexandraYork/id-329/
York, Alexandra. Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks. https://www.amazon.com/Soul-Celebrations-Spiritual-Snacks-Alexandra/dp/1951510887/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=alexandra+york&qid=1639693989&sr=8-1
York, Alexandra. Why Humanism is Important in Life and in Art. https://www.newsmax.com/alexandrayork/humanism-discord-division-art/2021/10/27/id/1042169/