Thomas Moore Interview

Thomas Moore is the widely acclaimed author of the New York Times bestsellers Care of the Soul; Soul Mates; and The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. He has practiced psychotherapy for over 17 years and has published many articles in the fields of archetypal and Jungian psychology, mythology, and the arts. He has also written The Planets Within; Rituals of the Imagination; and Dark Eros. Moore lived as a monk in the Catholic Servite order for 12 years. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Syracuse University, an M.A. in theology from the University of Windsor, an M.A. in musicology from the University of Michigan, and a B.A. in music and philosophy from DePaul University.


Wayne Walder (WW):  We often try to fix things as Ministers. We might see, a broken world, broken people or difficult circumstances, and we try to facilitate, support, create and improve the situation.

Yet the world always requires fixing. So many of us try harder, we might even work longer hours. We get sick or burnt-out as we continue to help. We don’t take time for real self care. Our families suffer.


Thomas Moore (TM):   The first thought that occurred to me when you said that was that I usually work (when I work in Ministry) in the model of the spiritual teacher. In many different traditions and in most traditions, what I see is that the spiritual leader is not really called to fix the world. That’s not what he or she does. Rather, that person is called to be a holy person – a person who has a special degree of contemplation or reflection and ability to see the world in a certain way and to have shaped their life and a personality out of that. And people come to that person then to be in the presence of what he/she has achieved and who he/she has become.

So the idea is not to bring your problems to this person. I mean you wouldn’t do that to that to so many of the spiritual leaders of the world in the traditional form. You don’t bring your problems to them. What you do is you come to them seeking a depth and a vision and a personality that has been really transformed by preparation.

This is the model for me. I’m not saying that a Unitarian Minister ought to suddenly become a guru in the mountain – I don’t mean it that way – but I think that there is something in that model that could be taken and there would be less burnout. Less burnout because the point is not to keep giving out and doing the impossible but to constantly “be” somebody and just being yourself and pursuing those things that are of great interest to you. That in itself is great use to people around. So it’s not so much a rational way of trying to solve problems as it is a “way of being” that is useful to people.


(WW):   Many of us see both a broken world needing attention and a need to model a different way of being human. But we are not always clear about how to do both.


(TM):   Yes. Of course the solution there, I think, is one that I’m very interested in. I don’t know if this applies to your situation there or not. I think there’s been a big mistake in separating the spiritual from the worldly and the earthly and the ordinary. And we think somehow, people think if we could only retreat from this horrible materialistic world and find some spiritual bliss that everything would be fine.

I don’t think it works that way. I think the way it works is that the world itself is the source of spiritual nourishment and everyday life and the things of the world and everyday pleasures are really what we are looking for. You know, it’s the goal ultimately. And when you don’t separate those things, I think there’s then a better chance of not having this ideal of a world that doesn’t exist that you’re trying to create and make happen. And that’s impossible because that’s Utopian and will never happen.


(WW):   Thank you. People in the West seek entertainment when they first come to religious community because they experience it everywhere. I call it spiritual entertainment.

And many of us know that to be a deeper community we have to work with sexuality, anger, race, love, insight, greed, conflict and other dark knights of the soul. How do we make the switch between people’s expectations of religious community and the real thing without scaring them away?

The result is we try to be nice and accepting of everyone’s situation as we flirt with depth. Some of our members end up going to other faith traditions for their depth.


(TM):   That’s really an interesting question. I mean the first point is that I don’t think it works [spiritual entertainment, WW]. And I’m saying this from a great deal of experience as a writer – especially writing about things of spirit. And so, it’s a mistake to try to think that your first job is to respond to people’s expectations. Thinking that is going to get you where you want to go, that people will like you and come to you if you find out where they are and what they want and give it to them – I don’t think that’s the right approach. I don’t think that’s what most successful people bring to their work in almost any sphere. People do that all the time, but I don’t think that’s the most effective way.

I see it – I don’t know if you’ll see the parallel – but I see it in my work as a writer. I write books that are on subjects I’m very interested in, and I write them they way I want to write them. I don’t try to get an audience; I think I know what I have to do to get the audience. I think I know what it means to entertain a reader, in that sense. But I don’t do it. And I find the publishers I work with both in books and in magazines and in other places, too – I’m working right now with public television – it’s the same kind of thing. They think they know what people want and they want to pander to people. They want to give them almost more than they want. They are almost out of their minds wanting to succeed and therefore want to find out exactly – almost to poll people to find out what they want and give it to them, and incidentally maybe give them something of value. But that’s not really it, that idea is very low on the list of priorities. So, I’m in conflict with my publishers all the time. I think it’s parallel to what you’re describing.

I don’t think the thing to do is to go and try to respond to what people need because first of all, you’re never going to get it right. Publishers don’t get it right; media people can’t get it right. And if they can’t do it with all of their ability, the Ministers are not going to get it right. There’s no way to really do that because there’s no way that people are really going to get turned on by that. People usually get turned on by things that keep them in place – that really don’t challenge them.

And as I see it – at least, my view – is that people today will be attracted by sentimentality – by sentimental ideas especially in the spiritual realm. I think it’s a big mistake to go that route. You can get large numbers that way. In my field there are writers who, are as far as I can see, have nothing at all to say but they know how to touch people by sentimentality. I don’t think that really satisfies the person. I think it would be better to trust that if you develop a good product people will come. People will come for it. I think that’s a better way than to try to guess what they want and then give it to them.

I agree with you about entertainment. It is a really big thing, it’s another way of saying sentimentality. People don’t want the substance; they want to be entertained. I see that. There’s a certain success you can get that way, it does not really satisfy the person giving it either. So, I would recommend that the Ministers give up that project of trying to find out what people want, and trying to keep people entertained and rather go back to what I said in the first question.

Rather, be somebody! Be somebody who is worth being around and have some vision and some thoughts that are substantial. Thoughts you have worked at for a long time and that you have incorporated into who you are. And people will be drawn to that; they will go a long distance to find somebody who is like that. They are not drawn to the entertainment aspect of it; I think they are drawn to a person who is actually a reflection of what they speak about. It’s a rare thing. I think if you move in that direction you’re better off.


(WW):   There is a lot of talk in our movement about “Minister excellence” and “Minister maturation”. All of us want to grow up, and most of us want to be better Ministers.

The tension is, we often don’t know how to do it. There are not many people who can do graduate level teaching in Ministerial maturation.

The result is, we are often seduced by the next new thing, the pop ideas or the new sexy technique.


(TM):   The question then maybe is how to prepare yourself. How to teach and how to be the kind of Minister that you aspire to, that you admire and hold up for yourself as an ideal. And, the problem is that people are very susceptible to the latest idea and superficial notions of what that might be … certainly that’s the case.

Therefore, the only solution is to deepen the place from which your people think and live. That’s the only solution I can think of – to go deeper, to give a more solid foundation. Now, I try to do that – if I use myself as an example. When I write my books, almost everything refers back to the history of ideas – almost all of it, especially the history of theological, spiritual and psychological ideas. So I go back into the history of religions and I read these old writers who I think have been totally neglected and have wonderful things to say. Just going into the past doesn’t necessarily deepen. But the cream has risen to the top throughout history and so there are some very substantial resources back there. And that’s the way I try to give grounding and depth to my work. I don’t try to work off the top of my head, I don’t read the current writers. Everywhere I go, people say “Have you read this person?” or that person and I say no. I feel ignorant because I don’t even know who they are. But I’m not interested in that because I do see the ephemeral nature of this recent work.

One way that Ministers could get a deeper foundation and not be susceptible to pop religion and psychology is by being exposed to really solid thinkers and writers in their own history. Secondly, by being exposed to basic texts in the world religions. I don’t mean a book report. Really get into them, to really grasp what the essentials are. And thirdly, to go into other areas like depth psychology or literary studies or art history or some other area where they could get a deeper, a better foundation for what they’re doing. I think the problem is, if you go at the spiritual realm and if you don’t have much of a foundation, either breadth or depth, you’re going to be susceptible to these passing fads.

I know this is a huge task, but I think it could be broken down to something that’s manageable. I think if people could just be given a little bit of guidance as to how to deepen the place from which they think and the way they do their work, my guess is that they wouldn’t be going after these passing fads.


(WW):   If they had that kind of foundation of depth?


(TM):   Yes. I think so. I bet you have wonderful thinkers in your own tradition. Reading great ideas is very pleasurable and it’s amazing how it will transform the way you think. It’s so easy, too; you can read whole ideas in a half hour. That means you could read a text two or three times in a week just to get into it. Now there you go, there you have some start. Have you ever read some depth psychology? Some of the Freudians? Or Jungians? And if you haven’t, then maybe that will give you some psychological foundation so that you have a little more self awareness and are not so drawn to things.

Now, I’ve been teaching my daughter (using her as an example). She’s 17 years old. In the past three months, she’s read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and she’s read Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections. And with that, she’s not reading huge amounts – she’s not a big reader – just the pieces I give her. And she has become incredibly sharp at being able to distinguish what’s solid from what is crap – what is really superficial. And it amazes me how quickly she got these ideas.

So, what I’m trying to say is Ministers can continue to educate themselves so they can get more of an edge in their thinking which will make them less susceptible to the passing fads. The only way you’re going to be doing that is to have a mind that has been given some substance and has some sharpness so that you can make those decisions and make those judgments.


(WW):   Thank you. There’s one last question I have. I wonder about your thoughts on competition, jealousy and fear among Ministers?


(TM):   I’m not quite clear. So, you’re hesitant to celebrate your own membership. Is that it? The people who are alive and doing your work?


(WW):   Yes. We are not always good at celebrating each other. We have a shyness or a fear of being criticized by our colleagues. There is of course, a wonderful support system among our colleagues – AND a significant amount of jealousy, competition and mistrust. People are shy about bringing their insights into the light.


(TM):   For what reason? Jealousy?


(WW):   Jealousy, competition and  fear there’s going to be a class of Ministers that are considered ‘good’ and a class of Ministers that are going to be considered ‘not so good’.


(TM):   I would think that those emotions like jealousy and envy and fear would come out when people themselves are not certain about their own work. I mean if they were confident in their own work they would not feel these things so much.

It may mean the opposite as these things usually do – but it could that when people are judged and not honored for their contributions, I wonder if your people have a way of honoring yourselves?

Those kind of problems are very concrete and they can’t be resolved in an hour of therapy by yourself. So, I wonder if there’s enough honour and recognition given to the Ministers – do they get enough? People doing this work need recognition and it can’t just be theoretical and intellectual, it’s got to be real and concrete.

This might be something to think about; I don’t know how that works in the organization, but I think it could be a signal that people are not recognized enough, that there’s not enough honour given generally to people, so that if they had everyone’s confidence, they’d feel more free and more easily be able to see and enjoy another’s success.

It’s a problem with any organization. When you spoke, I was thinking of a group I was with when I was in my 30s and 40s – a group in Texas that was a group of psychologists trying to create an outgrowth of Jung’s psychology. One thing I really noticed, we were not a formal group but it was identifiable who we were. There was a great appreciation for each other and a great wish for success on each other’s part, we all wanted the others to succeed, I think. That was one thing that was really strong.

This was unusual for me because I had been teaching at a University where the opposite was the case. At the University there was all this envy and jealousy and whenever you succeed, your job was threatened. It was a very strange situation. I was in that position myself, I saw some need, I responded to it, I had very large enthusiastic classes. And it shocked me that my colleagues hated that – they wanted me to fail. And I thought what kind of an organization is this where the people in it want me to fail? It’s a very strange situation. And that’s where the envy and jealousies came through. It’s so different from this other group – just the opposite.

What was the difference? It’s really hard to say. One difference in the Jungian group was that we were all engaged in creating something.

So whatever it would take to create that kind of an organization would be the solution to the problem you are presenting. I think the University professors were working very hard. They knew the challenges, they had to publish to survive and all of that. And they weren’t getting any recognition – there was no recognition, really, whatsoever. There was no visible appreciation for what they did. I think that was maybe part of the problem. Whereas this other group, we were supporting each other. It’s hard to know where it all starts, how you can get that to happen. But I think that change of climate really has to take place.


(WW):   Well, we come from the University tradition.


(TM):   So, some way of honouring – I know what we did. One of the things I appreciated a lot, when I just stuck my neck out where the world thought I was crazy. I would get a letter from one of my friends in this group telling me how great they thought it was, and what they appreciated about it. Those letters and that support meant everything to me. I didn’t have to have it from others in the world, but if I got it from my peers, I really respected it, it meant everything. And it kept me going.

What I’m saying, I think you might consider putting together some habits of appreciation. If people could understand how important it is to express them in a very real way, not just standing up and giving someone a gold watch, that kind of thing. But in a very real personal way, saying “I’m behind you”, “People may not understand what you’re doing, but I’m really behind you on this”. I think that kind of thing within a community would help tremendously.


(WW):   Thank you. I could have a much longer conversation, but our time is up.


(TM):   There is something I wanted to ask you.

We have a very prominent Unitarian church just down the street from us. And I have spoken around the country to many Unitarian churches, communities and I feel very much at home. I just get up there and I give my usual talk, and people come up to me and say, we didn’t know you were so Unitarian. I’m just being myself, it’s not like I’m trying to adjust in any way, I realize that I fit so well into the thinking of the Unitarian community generally.

I really appreciate their presence. My daughter goes to the youth group faithfully every week; it’s doing wonderful things and I go whenever she asks me to offer some support.

The side that I don’t understand, and there’s kind of a negative twist to this, it’s at least questioning. There is this kind of a joking about Unitarians. That these communities, the Ministers want to be everything to everybody and that there’s not much definition to what they’re doing. Or that people say, “I really like the ideas especially in the politics and in the cultural battles, this is where I want to be. But, I don’t feel solid spiritual guidance, solid ritual, I don’t find any real prayer”. These are the things that I hear. I wonder, is this true everywhere?


(WW):   You are asking if we are dilatants, a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a lot of nothing. This is the criticism that you started the question with.


(TM):   That’s right.


(WW):   The breadth of information and resources within our tradition is, I believe,  a wonderful part of our heritage. Maybe our challenge is to now help focus and embody that information. Then we can really speak about it, not from the point of view of the academic or the entertaining, but really from the point of view of how it fits in our lives.


(TM):   Well, I think it might fit if it is embodied in the person who is teaching it. That’s what I was saying about the Minister as the model of the holy person rather than the one who has techniques or skills. Rather, they have incorporated it into themselves and they have been transformed by it.

I don’t think personally – and this is based on my own experience – I don’t think it’s necessary to have vast knowledge of all these different resources. What I have to be able to do is be able to see how what I’m learning here immediately melds with what I know, it comes together as a new dimension of what I know.  When I do that, I’m not doing it trying to find just one more thing to use as an example. It’s something I had discovered gives more colour and depth to what I already know about spiritual life.

And, that is a huge difference. Now, I am going to accuse myself of being a dilatant sometimes. Some of these people doing research in Christian Mysticism hate when I’m writing these books because they think what I’m doing is too superficial. The mistake they’re making is that you don’t have to flaunt this intellectual understanding of the whole thing to make it your own!

I think the criticism I get is parallel to what Ministers get. It could be based on a jealousy that you’re talking about. Because people who do this academically are not very secure. I’ve seen this in the academic world, they have to demonstrate that they know so much all the time. Knowing something is not incorporating it.


(WW):   Thomas, thank you very much.


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