- It’s a well-known and fairly common observation to note that you cannot see yourself. When you look in a mirror, what you see is an image of yourself. This is of course a very useful spiritual pedagogy and a rich metaphor for a number of topics in spirituality. I will just touch on one item here: “the one thing necessary.” I am borrowing Gospel words, but I will use them in a slightly different sense.
When we begin the spiritual life, when we want to delve into the mystic depths of the religious journey, when we get stuck on some “plateau” and seem to make no “progress,” we look around to see what might be holding us back. In the beginning it is relatively easy to spot that one has to re-prioritize one’s life, what’s important and what’s not important will need some reshuffling. It is also relatively easy to spot the things that we need to “discard,” leave behind, make do without. And here I don’t just mean material things–these may be habits, likes, “staying within our comfort zone,” etc. So far so good. This is traditionally called renunciation and detachment.
But there is a deeper level yet, and here our metaphor comes into play. I don’t think many spiritual people realize that after we have done practically everything we can do we are always left with just “one thing” that holds us back from the Great Realization. There is always THAT “one thing.” And the kicker is that we can never see that “one thing.” We will never see it in the image that we have of ourselves. It is too close to us; practically woven into the very fabric of our being. No exercise, no program, no agenda, no training, no anything that we take up can free us. But along comes a person, an incident, a circumstance, someone or something that will apply the merciful scalpel to what we cannot grasp and so we will be liberated to take the Ultimate Step. But be assured we will never know the “when,” the hour or day when this will take place, so be watchful, be aware in prayer for that ultimate surrender. Have I conflated Gospel eschatology and enlightenment? Why yes of course!
- On August 6th we remembered Hiroshima and those of us in the liturgical Christian communions celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration. No need to remark on this mysterious convergence—a multitude of homilies I am sure have done that quite well. (And the nightmarish name for the first atom bomb: Trinity—well, that is just too much to tolerate…..) And I am not going to go over that very familiar ground of debate: was that bombing justified? One side says that we saved over a million lives because if we had to invade Japan it would have been bloody awful. The other side says, wait a minute, we dropped the bomb on a civilian population, we killed civilians deliberately, that’s a war crime. This is one of those arguments that is a no-win argument when put in those terms.
Let’s shift scenes to a movie from the late 1990s, The Big Lebowski, a dumb but hilarious movie. Scene: 2 guys who are buddies from their days in Vietnam are in a bowling alley. One of them sees a guy stepping over the line as he delivers the ball down the lane. He yells out: Hey, you can’t do that. This isn’t ‘Nam; THERE ARE RULES IN BOWLING. Indeed. Some soldiers realized that underneath it all there were NO rules in ‘Nam or in any other war. Whether in Vietnam or Iraq or anywhere else we will do whatever killing we deem necessary to win. And cover it up with whatever ideology and slogans it takes to make it look acceptable. To invoke “war crimes” is to deeply miss the point. It is the height of delusion to think that one can fight a war with rules, whatever they be. As Michael Moore wrapped that yellow crime scene tape around the stock exchange, so it should be about every war—it is simply a crime scene.
Does that make me a pacifist? Not exactly but I am much closer to that camp than to the other. I would follow Gandhi, but that means a “full Gandhi”–with all his spirituality–not some watered down political Gandhi who never existed.
Consider this: We fought WWII to “save the world for democracy.” But wait a minute, WWI was fought to “end all wars.” And we could examine every war and there is some reasonable justification always given for that war. Nobody goes to war for no reason. So you have to demystify the reasons given for the war. Example: WWI actually set the stage for WWII, practically made it inevitable. And the Franco-Prussian War was a prelude for WWI. And so it goes through history. Amazing how many wars are so clearly merely a preparation for the next war–and how much money is made that way. So I am not going to waste time by blaming Truman for the Bomb, though he was reprehensible for doing that. No we have to push this back and back and back and we see Cain killing Abel and then we come to Mr. & Mrs. Adam & Eve. It was Aristotle who said that if you want to truly understand something you need to look at its origins.
Another movie: Gandhi. Recall that scene toward the end of the movie, Gandhi has been fasting, almost dead, to stop Moslems and Hindus from killing each other in India. A Hindu man comes in to see the fading Gandhi and begs him to stop fasting. He also tells Gandhi that he had killed a Moslem child out of revenge for Moslems killing his children. He said he doesn’t count anymore; he is going to hell. Gandhi tells him I know a way out of hell. You will adopt a poor Moslem boy, the kind you killed, one who had his parents killed, and you will raise him as your own son AND as a true Moslem. So…..this is our situation. What we did in Hiroshima is only one picture of the hell we are in; the Feast of the Transfiguration offers us a hint of a way out. I leave it to you to connect the dots.
- In writing this blog one of the constant themes I come back to is the Mystery of God. I see it as extremely essential to a deep and true spiritual/mystical life. Unfortunately I encounter too many good and decent people who have a very poor sense of this Ultimate Mystery–and this includes religious people especially! This problem is connected to a problematic sense of self, where the ego-self has become one’s own ultimate reality. Thus the Ultimate Reality either becomes this Grand Sugar-Daddy that is there to meet the needs of this ego-self; or else, due to some miserable parenting, the Ultimate Reality is one nasty parental figure who is there to enforce all the rules and will whack you the moment you step out of line. You might think I am exaggerating but too many people are on that spectrum, very few completely at either end but very many somewhere in between. Thus we will keep coming back to this theme.
- The other day I got a chance to get out into the wilderness for just 48 hours. So I went way up and camped. About 10,000 ft up in the Sierras. Cold, silent, clear, almost above tree line. Had no tent, I slept only with a pad and a sleeping bag under the stars. Heard Mr. Coyote about a 100 feet away. Flashed my headlamp to let him know I am here, don’t bother me. Looking up at the stars of the dark clear sky….what a wonder. I was looking at light that had traveled for thousands of years, in some cases for millions of years, at a speed of 189,000miles a second. You are literally looking into the past when you look at the heavens. The light you see has been travelling for thousands or millions or even billions of years. The Andromeda Galaxy is a fuzzy patch in the sky, but it is over 3 million light years away. So when I look at it I am seeing light that has been travelling longer than human beings have been on this planet.
When I was a little boy my mother bought me a small telescope, and that really nurtured my contemplative side. Imagine pondering the beauty and mystery of the universe in its awesome size when you are only 10 years old! I will never forget those days, and when I look up at those stars again I still marvel at the home in which we live–how impossible it is to “think small” once you get a sense of that! That’s why I find it hard to understand why some hikers carry headsets listening to their favorite music and others actually play with their smartphones. I guess I am getting to be a grumpy old man!
- Recently there were two stories from China that were worth noting. The first one was truly sad; the second one truly uplifting and encouraging. The first one is about the great and ancient Chinese monastery of Shaolin, the one noted for its kung fu mastery. It appears its abbot is somewhat of a scoundrel and a conniver. Here is the link to that story:
And from a Buddhist source:
It just shows you that these kinds of problems can arise anywhere in any tradition and no one is immune from them. People sometimes wonder how something like this can develop in a supposed spiritual setting. The thing is that it actually is very, very hard to discern what is fraud and fake from the real thing in the beginnings of the spiritual journey. So a person is very vulnerable in being fooled by superficial “window-dressing” that passes for spirituality.
A more uplifting story is this one, also from China:
You have to read the whole thing, it is so good. It is a joy to see the Chinese rediscovering their great hermit tradition. Bill Porter(Red Pine), the man who made us aware of Han-shan and even did a movie about him, also was instrumental in making the Chinese aware of their own tradition being fully alive even after all those years of a completely hostile environment. The people who came to this mountain to become hermits simply came here with no fanfare. There was no “drum-beat” for the contemplative life, no advertising, no promoting it. They were not trying to start something new; yet in true Taoist fashion by “not doing” that, that is precisely what they were doing. I think there’s a lesson in all this for all our “new monasticism” folk right here. Sometimes there is too much concern for labels, titles, all kinds of identity markers, publicity, putting themselves on the religious map, etc. No, just go out and “do it”–never mind anything else….just like the early Desert Fathers and like these Chinese hermits.
My favorite among those mentioned in this article is the woman hermit who said this: “I have made a vow not to come down from the mountain until I find out who I am.” That’s a person who knows exactly what it’s all about. Amen.