The mystery of life

By Amy Reiswig, March 2012

John Shields’ journey from priest to union leader to spiritual seeker.

How do you approach mystery? Do you suspend disbelief and assert with Hamlet that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”?  Or is your instinct to look behind the curtain—seek out the facts, test and prove? The seeming divide between faith and science has been the subject of debate for centuries, and their dynamic tension has led to rich exploration in many disciplines. In The Priest Who Left his Religion: In Pursuit of Cosmic Spirituality (Influence Publishing, Sept. 2011), Victoria’s John Shields—a former Catholic priest turned social worker and union activist—shares his own exploration and conclusions around “the potential of reuniting science and spirit into a unified way of knowing.”

More than a memoir, Shields’ book is a spiritual autobiography, a memoir of the soul that goes beyond “Here’s what I’ve done in my life, why and with whom.” We move through his narrative of life in the church, his dizzying array of secular work experience (Victoria Family and Children’s Service, Victoria Day Care Information Services, Vancouver Island University, Leadership Victoria, the BC Government Employees Union, The Haven, the Centre for Earth and Spirit, among others) to, finally, his spiritual reawakening. What becomes apparent is that the book unfolds two stories: Shields’ and the readers’ own as they react to his ideas, some of which offer bold challenges to mainstream thinking.

The first part of the 230-page book chronicles Shields’ experience of institutional religion: his childhood as the only son of Irish Catholic parents in New York, Brooklyn Prep education, seminary studies and eventual ordination in 1965. Backdropping Shields’ theological studies and work was the civil rights movement, Kennedy’s brief presidency, the Vietnam War and, most importantly for his spiritual development, Vatican II. It was a time of profound national and global questioning, and the potential for grand change was everywhere. Shields was particularly excited by advances in areas like archaeology and textual criticism that reoriented Biblical interpretation and, therefore, the role of the church itself. This, alongside a growing involvement in social justice, meant Shields’ life was brimming with a sense of sacred purpose.

 However, Shields writes that when Pope Paul VI “rejected every insight that emerged at the Council,” he felt profound disillusionment, abandonment and betrayal. The silencing of theologians—including Shields’ own removal from his teaching and preaching duties—and the general suppression of new scholarship and ideas “shattered my sense of spirituality,” Shields writes.  He left the priesthood. “I was leaving a failed relationship with the church…but I believed that my church had left me.” 

This sense of betrayal was shared by those who longed for meaningful church reform, and Shields identifies them as a main audience. “It’s that group in the middle who have left religion but haven’t yet found anything else,” the bespectacled, avuncular and enthusiastic Shields tells me over morning coffee in Cook Street Village. “I’ve crossed that threshold and I want to report back. I’m like a pioneer who has gone over the mountains into a beautiful valley and want to tell people: ‘Hey, there’s something really magnificent! Let’s go there.’”

But what is over the mountain of disbelief? Shields reveals years of grief and confusion, of learning how to live, love and work in the secular world, and it becomes clear that even defining the term “spirituality” is a tricky task that can turn people away. For instance, over his 25 years in union work and, eventually, as president of the BCGEU (the John T. Shields building stands named in his honour), he came to see working on behalf of others and integrating one’s inner values with outer action as a spiritual endeavour. He explains “spirituality” to me as “a level of quality, of value, of relationship—being in harmony with the deeper nature of the universe.” 

 Which leads to another question: what is the nature of the universe? Which is where the second story begins—that of what the reader believes.

Shields became fascinated with “secular science,” and in it found the basis for a new cosmology and spirituality. Citing various thinkers and research initiatives, like NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), Shields discusses evidence for the Big Bang, the expansion/evolution of the universe and the idea that all things are essentially made of the same stuff. He writes: “What shines out from all the work done on the new story is that everything in the universe is interconnected.”

Influenced by Joseph Campbell, Shields sees story as key to how we perceive our world and, therefore, how we act within it. And his version of the story is science pointing to a universe that is “not dead matter, but a living consciousness.” 

Seeing the universe as conscious and “spirit-filled,” where everything is interconnected, purposeful energy, means how we act matters profoundly because we are co-creating the universe every day, which leads to Shields’ fervent call for an Earth-based spirituality recognizing our connection to nature. It also means that boundaries between life and death, body and spirit become fluid, and Shields mentions using copper dowsing rods to communicate with his first wife after she died from cancer. 

“I know these ideas are controversial and that people will be twittering me,” Shields laughs. “But being in the conversation of challenge is why I wrote the book. I didn’t see anyone else saying these things.” The Priest Who Left His Religion therefore opens a space for readers to do some self-questioning on the nature of mystery, which Einstein says is “the source of all true art and all science”: What do I think of these ideas? Why do I have the reactions I do? What are my beliefs, fears, assumptions, and in what are they rooted? 

While Shields is clearly seeking converts to his new cosmology and nature-focused world view, he also invites us simply to look through his lens and enter the dialogue. As Einstein also says, and Shields quotes him: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”  

Writer and editor (and lapsed Catholic) Amy Reiswig thinks believing in what can’t be seen or proven makes life much more interesting.