Mick and I recently heard Russell Brand being interviewed about his new book, Recovery, at St James’s church, Piccadilly. While it’s not exactly hot news that Russell has been on something of a spiritual journey, the impact of his journey still smacked us between the eyes.
Russell was still totally Russell… eloquent, animated, a natural scream. Although in the more intimate setting of St James’s Church, his personality was maybe dialed down just a tad. His responses came over as naturally honest, self-deprecating, funny, authentic, spiritual, wise, warm, and empathetic… low-key, yet somehow still packing a punch. Ironically, he even dropped a hint of regret that St James’s had allowed itself to be secularised by holding evenings with speakers such as himself, instead of focusing more on its traditional spiritual role.
Russell’s recovery was based on the 12 Steps programme, and the need to connect with a Higher Power in order to break the power of addiction. As these steps helped him to freedom, Russell sensed that while we are not all technically ‘addicts’, we probably all need liberating from our various addictive strategies for coping with the human condition.
Russell insisted several times that ‘I’m not here because I’m more qualified than you – I’m here because I’m worse…’ reversing the usual ranking of those speaking from the front. Essentially his message was, ‘Some of you guys may believe you’ve failed, but I’ve failed spectacularly. I’m still figuring things out, but I have gleaned some helpful stuff along the way. And if I, with all my baggage, can make this journey, then it’s definitely doable. So how about we go for it, and channel our energies into changing the world instead of into messing ourselves up?’
Russell was candid about the fact that his journey is still a bit chequered. Again, his openness made room for general optimism: If Russell, with his mix of spirituality and earthiness could own his flaws along the way without losing his sense of spiritual connection, then, the logic ran, so can we all. Whether I was really picking up on the audience’s response or just imagining it I can’t be sure, but the levels of hope did seem to rise palpably throughout the evening.
The interesting thing is, even in telling stories against ourselves, our wily egos are apt to get in on the act – chalking up extra Brownie points for Vulnerability to boot. But Russell’s razor-sharp self-awareness meant that he always danced one step ahead, both pointing up the irony yet completely unsparing of himself and his instinctive love of attention. Later, speaking about our attemtps to relieve our existential angst with material ‘stuff’, he gazed down at his cool new biker jacket and stroked it lovingly, sighing that nevertheless he realised he was still very drawn to beautiful things…
The surprises continued all the way through as the new priestly Russell eventually brought the evening in to land by quietly asking the packed audience if it would be ok to join hands as he led them in the Serenity Prayer. It turned out it was more than ok, and during those poignant few moments St James’s appeared to quietly reclaim its spiritual identity, slipping back into it like a pair of comfortable old slippers. The gentle but profound dynamic of the whole evening left Mick and me so moved that by the end we found ourselves staring at one another, trying to process what had just happened.
Later on in a nearby late-night coffee house, as we began fitting words to our experience, we compared the approach of our charismatic evangelical background to the engaging positivity of the evening at St James’s. While Russell’s audience left with a strong sense of affirmation and connection (although to be honest, we didn’t notice much inclination to leave at all… just people trying to prolong the warm afterglow of an upbeat evening with hugs and chat with each other and with Russell), church talks were often followed by invitations for prayer, for those who had been left with a sense of just how far they fell short. And their need of the prayers and counselling of those at The Front, to help them back into a sense of connection with God.
Russell made no claims of having everything sewn up, spiritually-speaking. Basically, his experience of spiritual connection had empowered him to transcend addictions and behaviours that had diminshed him, and motivated him to help others experience that same connection and freedom. And perhaps even to try and be part of the solution in other areas of life as well. And that was pretty much it. His book reveals that his new outlook on life is sustained by his practice of breaking in prayerfully on his negative thoughts immediately on waking:
‘God, I humbly ask that you direct my thinking today, show me how I can be useful to the addicts who still suffer. Show me how I can be of service, how I can be patient tolerant and kind.’
If Russell’s personal theology goes further than this, he wasn’t worried about dotting Is and crossing Ts for everyone else to follow. At the end of the day, his take on true spirituality doesn’t rely on holding correct beliefs but on the importance of drawing from spiritual connection to live in freedom, showing love and respect towards others.
Russell’s take on spirituality seems to be on the rise, and is evident in the impassioned works of a number of young artists. It parallels a huge drift away from churches, with many moving on from closed belief systems with their very precise dogma into the wider place of mystery, paradox, openness to the views of others, and an authentic care for our world and its inhabitants. Almost as though those moving out of fundamentalism and these unorthodox new seers are being impacted by the very same Spirit…