Why Is a Spiritual Advisor Like a Lay's Potato Chip?

Answer: Betcha can’t have just one!

By Mary Beth Crain

In the last few weeks, the term “spiritual advisor” has cropped up in the news with increasing frequency, specifically in regard to two famous figures: Michael Jackson and Senator Mark Sanford. While on the surface the high-pitched crooner of pop extremis and the rumbling voice of Sound Christian Values couldn’t be more different, these notorious celebrities actually have several fundamental things in common: an ego the size of Argentina and Neverland combined, a massive case of self-delusion, and the notion that God is just one more person you can buy.

To the latter end, both men employed not one but lots of spiritual advisors. Jackson hopped from one to another, changing them like underwear, and Sanford has actual “teams” of spiritual advisors on call like EMT’s in his two home cities, Columbia, S.C. and the District of Columbia. Which brings up the obvious question: what the hell good is a spiritual advisor when his or her disciple wears the mask of a moral Christian while indulging in an adulterous double life, or lives and dies in a drug-overdosed hell?

Just Googling “Michael Jackson’s spiritual advisor” is an exercise in unintentional hilarity. Here’s a sample:

“Michael Jackson’s spiritual advisor of many years, Rev. June Gatlin…”

“Michael Jackson's spiritual adviser for 20 years, Dr. Deepak Chopra…”

“Michael Jackson’s former spiritual advisor, Rabbi Schmuley Boteach…”

“Michael Jackson’s spiritual advisor, Jehovah’s Witness Firpo Carr…”

“Michael Jackson’s spiritual advisor, Andrae Crouch…”

As for Sanford, Emergency Spiritual Team 1, based in Columbia, S. C., wheels and deals in men’s bible study and includes businessman/evangelist Warren “Cubby” Culbertson; former South Carolina State Supreme Court justice E.C. Burnett, III; Southeastern Freight Lines president W.T. Cassels, III; attorney William Metzger, Jr.; Morgan Stanley Smith Barney financial advisor Gary A. Schraibman; Dr. William Jones, president of Columbia International University, aka Columbia Bible College; and DeTreville Bowers, pastor of Christ Church of the Carolinas.

At the executive mansion in Columbia, Sanford and his wife, Jenny, held regular Sunday afternoon “spiritual boot camps,” where five couples met to reflect upon forgiveness, marital fidelity, Christ’s love, and other lofty topics under the sanctimonious mentoring of Group Leader Culbertson, who all the while harbored secret knowledge of Sanford’s Argentinian affair.

Culbertson, whom Sanford reveres as a “spiritual giant,” is known for “Cubby’s Talks,” platitudinous proselytizing that includes words of wisdom like “Do not love anything that will not last forever. This world and all it offers is dying. Never mistake earth for heaven because the glories of the world to come are far nobler than the treasures of this world.” Oh well. Ya win a few, ya lose a few.

EST 2, alternately known as “The Fellowship,” “The Family,” or “C Street,” referring to the organization’s Capitol Hill residence at 133 C Street SE, provides, according to several news sources, “bargain-rate housing for fundamentalist senators and congressmen but is registered in the name of a tax-exempt religious organization.” Of course, “bargain-rate” is a relative term; the nearly $2 million townhouse has been home to the rich and powerful for quite some time, and it’s been reported that wealthy Sen. Sanford received spiritual counseling there from Fellowship leader Doug Coe in the matter of his wayward ways.

Sanford’s transgression was, of course, a big “ouch” to his messengers of God. But by now, these guys are all too used to spiritual hypocrisy, a disease so widespread among right-wing religious zealots that if you’re going to counsel them, you’d better have a self-disclaimer on hand. “Cubby” Culbertson—who, by the way, graduated Mark Sanford with flying colors from spiritual boot camp—had his all ready when confronted by the press. Sanford, he intoned, was “gripped by the powers of darkness,” and it was Satan himself who’d led the Senator straight into his Buenos Aires den of iniquity. Sorry, guys, not my fault. Of course, the fact that the Evil One is stronger than the Armies of Christ is a whole other issue that Cubby didn’t elaborate on, but we’ll save that for another time.

While, like Sanford, Michael Jackson labored under the delusion that the spiritual life is something that comes from without, not within, unlike the sleazy senator, the tragic pop icon was not a hypocrite. He was obviously searching, desperately in need of inner peace, but because of his distorted, larger-than-life life, he had no idea how to go about achieving it. Jackson essentially had too many emotional strikes against him. He was an addictive personality, a compulsive spender, a vulnerable child in an adult’s body who became the victim of both his own disorders and the self-serving enablers who insinuated themselves into his skewed world. It’s alleged that a number of his many doctors belonged to this ignoble entourage, but less certain is the culpability of his numerous spiritual advisors.

What, after all, is the duty of a spiritual advisor? In a nutshell, it’s to provide guidance. Unlike a doctor, whose job is to prescribe and, hopefully, cure the problem, a spiritual advisor is like a therapist, whose goal is to help a person discover the tools to make him or herself happier, healthier and more productive. No therapist claims to have all the answers; if he does, he’s either a liar and a charlatan or more in need of counseling than his patients. A spiritual advisor can lead his “patient” to water, but he can’t make him drink. Ultimately, how far one gets on the spiritual journey is up to the seeker, not the teacher—a fact Deepak Chopra and “Rabbi Schmuley” Boteach apparently knew all too well.

Boteach, who insists upon the title of “former” spiritual advisor to Jackson, affirms that as hard as he tried to help Jackson acknowledge his self-destructive tendencies, he was doomed to failure. Addicts, after all, don’t want to hear the truth; they only want a panacea. When you force them to face themselves, they’ll invariably turn on you and turn to someone else for their feel good fix. “I haven’t spoken to [Michael] in years,” said Rabbi Schmuley in an interview. “You can’t stand around and watch someone you care about destroy himself…Toward the end of our friendship, Michael began treating me like a nuisance.”

Chopra, who’s both an MD and the king of the pop guru world, was well aware of Jackson’s drug abuse, but maintained that the singer turned a deaf ear to his warnings. Chopra refused Jackson’s request for painkillers back in 2005, and tried to counsel him. But Jackson avoided his phone calls and turned instead to doctors who were willing to enable him. Eventually, in typical addict fashion, Jackson isolated himself from his family, Chopra, and everyone else who tried to hold a mirror up to him.

Less commendable are the spiritual advisors like Rev. June Gatlin, a supposed psychic whose powers impressed Jackson. “I was born with exceptional extra-sensory paranormal abilities,” she modestly maintains. “I read people just like you sit and read magazines or newspapers. I refer to it as your chapter from the book of life." Jackson, said Gatlin, would call her every two months or so for advice. When she last saw him in April, she recalled him as being “exceptionally healthy, very strong, tall and lean."

Oh yeah? Exceptionally healthy? A man who’s popping 80 Xanax a night and a reported 1000 plus pills a month; who’s getting the life-threatening anesthetic Diprivan administered to him privately by physicians armed with oxygen tanks in case he stops breathing; who’s so emaciated and frail he’s put, at one point, in a wheelchair—in short, how did this human train wreck manage to get past Rev. June’s discerning psychic eye?

That’s a question you’d probably need a real psychic to answer. But the long and the short of it is, if you’re not willing to do the tough inner work—to face yourself fairly and squarely, to genuinely desire redemption, and to commit to changing your life, no spiritual advisor is going to help you. In the dark night of the soul—which, to St. John of the Cross, meant the purification first of the senses and then of the spirit—the only light is faith, in yourself and in God. No one else holds the lantern. The path is illuminated from within, not without.

Comment on this essay here.

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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Christmas Gifts of Long Ago.

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