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John Shields: Spiritual Innovator and Good Friend

Volume 31, Issue 4,5 & 6, May 30, 2017

Bill Israel, Victoria

     When John Shields died last month, I felt as though I had lost not only a good friend but also a trusted and creative mentor. I had known John for just three years but our connection was heartfelt and significant. We met at a Sunday gathering of the Progressive Spirituality Circle in 2014. It is one of the spiritual exploration groups with which John was engaged for much of his life.
     From our first private meeting over coffee, the friendship between us developed quickly. In that hour of conversation, we discovered that our lives, through the last half of the 20th century, were as spiritually congruent as could be imagined. It was as though we had forged a close kinship in a parallel universe during our youthful days.
     Born and raised as Americans, we both grew up in traditional mid-western Christian religious surroundings. John completed his novitiate education and was ordained a Paulist priest in the Roman Catholic Church in Texas. I was a graduate seminarian and ordained an Elder (Minister) in the Methodist Church in Kansas. Later, at about the same time, John and I both abandoned our callings as ordained clergymen in our respective traditions. 
     Our spiritual roots were different but our personal disenchantment with Church polity and doctrine was almost identical. John felt strongly that the religious leadership of the Roman Catholic Church had squandered the unique opportunity created by the Vatican II Council. Turning his back on the spiritual and material needs of a modern world, John felt that Pope Paul VI reverted to the “old order” and reaffirmed the Roman Catholic doctrine of infallibility. 
     Clinging to old doctrines, he declared that the Church could never err. With a sadness that lasted his entire life, John saw this as a betrayal of his beloved Church and he turned away from it to become a voice for social justice in the world.
     My disillusionment was triggered by the silence of the Methodist Church in the face of racism, bigotry, an illegal, unethical war in Viet Nam and an untenable theological dogma.  Like John, I abandoned my clerical office in search of an agency for social justice in a modern world. That synchronicity was the beginning of our discovery that we seemed to have been conjoined twins, coupled at the “spiritual hip”. In the heat of the racial strife of the 1960s in the U.S., John was a civil rights activist supporting Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He participated in the March on Washington and was profoundly moved by Dr. King’s leadership. I joined the SCLC and was jailed in Huntsville, Texas during a local civil rights demonstration. Following the devastating events of the 1960s in the US, John immigrated to Canada and I followed suit in 1979.
     The clincher for our relationship, as if we needed anything more, was our shared passion for Dr. Ira Progoff's INTENSIVE JOURNAL® process. Each of us undertook private, meditative, lifelong journal methods that steered us toward lives of ongoing spiritual renewal and community engagement. John maintained his journal dialogue work to the very end of his life. This personal chronicling process provided a source of spiritual connectivity for both of us. In our separate lives, we were working toward recognition of a new symbolic “narrative” for expressing the nature of divine presence in the universe. 
     Throughout his personal life and professional work, John faithfully demonstrated the real-life applications of his beliefs. From the centre of his heart, his lifelong commitment to social justice never faltered. His leadership work at the BCGEU was exemplified by his unwavering commitment to women’s rights and by his courage in speaking up for the disenfranchised. His inspirational leadership in the Earth and Spirit Society resulted in the creation and delivery of a series of popular workshops, including: Living Well-Dying Well; Coming Back to Story; Calling All Elders; Conscious Aging; and Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. As a man of impeccable integrity, he earned great respect among his contemporaries, friends and foes alike.
      Nine months after I met John, he and his wife Robin were involved in a serious car accident. They both suffered grave injuries in the crash and it was through the medical follow-up to this accident that John was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition. During John’s brave and creative end-of-life journey, he continued to act on his generous spiritual beliefs and maintain his community commitments – to the very last day of his life. His engagement with the Living Well Dying Well (LWDW) program, which has been created through the Earth and Spirit Society, was an act of trust and love for his principles, his family and his community. During some of the LWDW workshops in the winter of 2017, John openly shared his decision to engage in the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) program. This humble and articulate testimony was a moving public witness to his deeply held belief in a new “narrative” of divine presence in the cosmos. 
     John’s legacy of spiritual innovation and community service is ensured through the ongoing work of the Earth and Spirit Society which he co-founded some ten years ago.
     To my surprise and utter delight, I opened the Spring 2017 issue of the Malahat Review last week and found this beautiful poem “Cats Eye” by Julie Roorda. In my biased view, it seems a fitting tribute to the significant heritage of the cosmological writings of my friend John Shields 
     The Cosmic Spirituality that John Shields faithfully and creatively explored has a rich heritage and deep roots of insurgence in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Following Vatican II, John abandoned his priestly ordination and embarked on a path blazed by many others dating back to the cosmology of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). 
     A Renaissance philosopher, Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition and burned at the stake for his denial of the church’s tenets of the divinity of Christ, transubstantiation and eternal damnation. He was much honored later in the 19th Century as an early martyr to modern science. In his cosmological writings he spoke of the universe as infinite with no celestial body at its centre.
     At about the same time, a lowly shoemaker named Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) was writing and preaching about his “vision” of a similar cosmology as Bruno’s.  Though he was not burned at the stake, he was condemned and vilified by the Roman Catholic Church, causing much suffering for his life and family.
     Previous to both of these notable “cosmologists”, Meister Eckhardt  (c.1260-c.1338) found himself in profound disfavor with the Avignon Papacy of Pope John XXII. Though he died prior to his sentence of excommunication, many of his writings have been preserved.  He is known now as a pioneer of Creation Spirituality, popularized by the American theologian Matthew Fox (ca.1941), a former Roman Catholic (Dominican) priest. The movement draws inspiration from the wisdom traditions of Christian scriptures, and the philosophies of such medieval Catholic visionaries as Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Dante Alighieri, Nicholas of Cusa, and others.
     John Shield’s connection to this earliest “slipstream” of cosmic spirituality came via the writings of the modern proponents of Emergent and Cosmic Spirituality, Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry and Joanna  Rogers Macy.
by Julie Roorda
The same year that Bruno burned,
German shoemaker Jakob Boehme perceived
in a glint of sunlight reflected
from a pewter water jug, the answer
to the problem of evil:
God, like Jung, would rather
be whole than good.
I've seen that same glint
in the eyes of my cat, whose gaze
interrogates the world with two
contradictory urges:
                                       can i kill it?
                                       can i sleep on it?
There you have it, the wholeness of cat,
coincidence of comfort and wrath.
No wonder zealous witch-burners
used cats for kindling to spark
the thousands of bonfires that only confirmed
how goodness blazed brightest
in the grip of darkest night.
Though he was censored and condemned
from the pulpit, though his children
were bullied and his livelihood threatened,
Boehme, at least, had no fiery death.
Instead, he met glory at the feet
of his neighbors, offering a simple
glass of water, as he bent
to stitch their torn soles.