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Utah filmmaker explores paths to spirituality

Published February 20, 2014 7:33 pm

Film • Utahn explores the many ways humans experience spirituality.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Paul Larsen has seen his share of aimless young people — the ones with no inner sense of purpose, no feeling for their place in the universe, or rituals to guide them to the divine.

Larsen has seen them at a youth correctional facility, where he has volunteered for a decade, and in his film classes at the University of Utah. He has observed scores of youths who have no tools to cope with crises in their lives. They are depressed, angry, anxious, isolated.

They have rejected their parents' spirituality, he says, and have replaced it with — nothing. They feel disconnected, lost, lonely.

Larsen understands all too well their perspective. Forty years ago, he was one of them.

"Sometimes we give too much away," Larsen intones in the opening narration of his new film, "Spirituality for the Uninsured," "then emptiness follows, which begs to be filled, and oftentimes by the worst of things."

Those are echoes from Larsen's own experience.

After he graduated from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in the mid-1970s, Larsen recalls in an interview, he went back east with his now-wife, Ann Fluckiger Larsen, and became an agnostic.

He "threw too much away" of his Mormonness, he says, and, some years later, when he faced a personal crisis, "had nothing to grab hold of."

"I started sifting through all the stuff I had thrown off," the filmmaker says, to discover what he believed about God and the world.

Eventually, Larsen returned to his earlier faith, he says, but with a more expansive view of holiness.

This movie, to be shown at the U.'s Museum of Fine Arts on Friday, is Larsen's exploration of various spiritual paths, with a focus on personal stories of life-changing moments and long-standing rituals.

It's a kind of visual companion to William James' famous 1902 volume, "Varieties of Religious Experience."

"There is so much talk about reaching the divine," says Sterling Van Wagenen, a co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, who also teaches film at the U. "I'm tired of the talk. What I yearn for is a connection to the divine and to each other."

And that, Van Wagenen says, is what Larsen's film captures so well.

Two planes of reality • Cracks of thunder. Red rocks of Zion. Native American sweat lodges. An artist's paintbrush. A cathedral pew. Tibetan Buddhist mandalas. Christian rock.

Each of these can be a doorway to another reality, says Larsen, transforming travelers on their way.

For 20 years, Craig Keyes fought his drug addiction without success, he says in the film.

Then one day, during a Native American spiritual session, the group heard a thunderclap overhead and it started to rain. Someone in the circle began to sing his gratitude to the creator for the moisture.

"I held my hands out to the rain," Keyes says. "It washed over me."

From that moment on, the addict never went back to drugs.

"An energy settled on Craig and a profound change happened to Craig," Larsen, the film's narrator, says. "I have felt the same emptiness that pushed Craig to the edge and needed to know what can bring a person back from there. I journeyed to find the answer."

Larsen begins his search with panoramic images of southern Utah's canyons.

"In the early 1860s, my family settled in this canyon. They had walked and ridden in wagons for nearly 3,000 miles," he says. "They felt themselves called here by their God as a vanguard of like-minded believers willing to go through any tribulation to establish their spiritual homeland."

Despite their physical hardships, Larsen says, "they never cursed [the land], but honored it instead, naming this canyon Zion, which means dwelling place of God."

Modern Americans, though, focus more on their intellectual gifts, producing technological wonders and contemporary conveniences that are impressive and lifesaving.

But those advances cause many to feel distracted, disconnected from others, and divorced from their surroundings — and any higher power.

That's where various forms of spirituality come in.

Artists, Larsen posits, can often provide a bridge between the rational and experiential aspects of consciousness.

"I paint right out of my heart," says Spring City artist Kathleen Peterson. "I am not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future, not thinking about anything. My mind just goes somewhere else."

To Peterson, and the other artists Larsen features, "the whole thing is ritual."

Next he explores Buddhist rituals, Tibetan and Zen.

About 10 Tibetan monks traveled to St. George in 2008 to create a "mandala," or sand painting.

These works invoke "higher deities to come here," one of the monks explains in the film, "and help us achieve our purpose of helping other beings."

Once the colorful and intricate painting — which provides visual cues for living — is complete, the monks then destroy it, symbolic of life's transitory nature.

Larsen also showcases Christianity, as seen in Salt Lake City's Risen Life Church, including its rock hymns that speak of God's embrace.

"Belief in God is far less important than developing a relationship with God," says Pastor Kevin Lund. "The experience of music helps one get beyond the limits of everyday reality in order to open up a spiritual reality."

And then there's the youth correctional sweat lodge.

Young people who have been in "trouble with the law" crowd into a small, dark tent, which is superheated with rocks and steam.

"They will feel as though death were close by," the narrator says. "To survive, they will have to learn to pray."

Science has "explained much about physical reality," Larsen says. "But there are aspects of our consciousness that lie outside the realm of science."

Even some avowed agnostics have sensed this.

Surprised by a moment • Larsen's student May Bartlett had never been religious, attending a Christian church only on a couple of Christmases.

Then she participated in an exercise in which she practiced being "blind" for a week and had an otherworldly experience in Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine that seemed to confirm the existence of a realm outside of this one.

"In that moment, I felt more connected with humanity than I ever had," she says. "Visually, I saw this vast plane of nothing with just this focused energy going up out into God-knows-where. It was nuts, unlike anything I've ever experienced before."

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg mentions that years ago he had a "series of mystical experiences that couldn't be integrated into the lens that was then operating in my mind."

Borg had to generate a new lens.

He and others in the film have few words that can capture what they saw and felt, because, Larsen argues, human language falls short.

Direct encounters like these — whether viewed as God or truth or energy — leave participants with an "overwhelming impression that our rational vision of the world is incomplete," the narrator says. "Existence feels like a miracle."

Spiritual and religious practices are meant to "incrementally bring a person to the same place," Larsen concludes."For thousands of years and through numerous generations, practitioners have moved inward to find what is revealed deep inside the heart of being."

The best way to find out which ones are suited to you, he says, "is to try them and see what enriches a life or enlarges a soul."

For Larsen, the film's title, "Spirituality for the Uninsured," implies looking for transcendent solace in an uncertain world.

When he told it to his brother-in-law, a Mormon stake president, the relative laughed for two minutes, then settled down and commented, "We are all uninsured."

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal —

See the film

What • "Spirituality for the Uninsured" screening.

When • Friday, Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m.

Where • University of Utah Fine Arts Museum

Cost • The screening is free, though a $10 donation is suggested