Paradox & The Language of Spirituality

Lao Tzu:

Thus it is said:

The path into the light seems dark,

the path forward seems to go back,

the direct path seems long,

true power seems weak,

true purity seems tarnished,

true steadfastness seems changeable,

true clarity seems obscure,

the greatest art seems unsophisticated,

the greatest love seems indifferent,

the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.

Yet it nourishes and completes all things.”





T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets:

(summing up the whole program of St. John of the Cross)

“In order to arrive at what you do not know,

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

In order to possess what you do not possess,

You must go by the way of dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not,

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know.

And what you own is what you do not own.

And where you are is where you are not.”



Abu Said, “Sufism is glory in wretchedness and riches in poverty and lordship in servitude and satiety in hunger and clothedness in nakedness and freedom in slavery and life in death and sweetness in bitterness…”



No matter what tradition you are following, if you are on the monk’s way, you will be familiar with the language above–it is the language of paradox and contradiction, and it is the only way that one can really speak of the deeper realities.  Now there are at least two critical mistakes to avoid when encountering such statements.  One mistake might be called “fundamentalist”; that is, one takes such statements in a kind of simplistic, literalist sense; one uses them as formulas or recipes in a spiritual cookbook.  The other mistake might be called a “liberal fallacy”–one takes such language as mere wordplay, or logical nonsense, or as a kind of manipulation of language which amounts to saying nothing.  But what is striking is that no matter what tradition you are following some form of this paradoxical language will be there.  No matter how that tradition uses that paradoxical language, it inevitably points to the “ungraspable” nature of the ultimate reality that the tradition is trying to open up for you–that is, it is ungraspable by the rational mind and the ego self.  Because the Ultimate Reality is not another thing in a world of things, the ego self experiences it as nothingness–there is “no thing” there to grasp, to possess, to manipulate, etc.  Yet this Ultimate Reality fills all, sustains all, is manifest by all, and finally it pertains to your deepest identity.



In Christianity we find many of its mystics and spiritual writers resorting to such paradoxical language as sampled above in the T.S. Eliot quote.  St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing are just a few of the more illustrious examples.  But what is important is that we find paradox right at the heart and origins of Christianity–in the Gospels and the New Testament.  There we learn that to be “first” one must seek out the last place; that to be “first” one must be the servant of all; that to save your life means you will lose it, and to lose one’s life means to save it; that to be the “greatest” one should be the “least”; that wealth is real impoverishment; that real blessedness can look and feel “real bad”; etc. The average Christian seems numb to the provocative nature of this language–in a sense it has been “dumb downed” to a general “feel good” message. Such language now takes its place among the other cliches and platitudes of pop culture–like Be Yourself…etc….


Now perhaps the most powerful of all paradoxes in all the world religions is not in the realm of language but in the realm of symbol: the cross, or in the Catholic tradition, the crucifix.  Here we may note in passing that there are different theological interpretations given to the cross vs. the crucifix.  Suffice it to say that the crucifix is more dramatic and concrete–the image of a man nailed to slabs of wood, dying a horrible death.  The cross can seem a bit more abstract and open to more abstract “readings.”  Before we go any further, it needs to be acknowledged that this symbol has been coopted for absolutely terrible uses.  Afterall the Crusaders carried the cross while committing slaughter of Moslems, Jews and even other Christians.  The Grand Inquisitor carried out his duty of leading people to torture and execution under this sign.  The Conquistadors did their dirty deeds while accompanied by priests carrying this sign.  Right in our own time in Serbia, right in the shadow of churches bearing this sign, Christians(so-called) massacred their Moslem neighbors.  Nevertheless these horrific distortions and betrayals, the cross, or the crucifix, carries the unconcealment of a Mystery that only the language of paradox can approach.


When one enters a Catholic church anywhere in the world, what strikes one is the centrality of the crucifix.  It is unmistakeable and unambiguous that whatever this reality speaks of is at the center of that community of worship.  And whatever be the different theological interpretations given to this symbol, it does point to the importance of this one man’s concrete, historical death by execution.  And Christian theology, whatever its various interpretations of this symbol, would always agree that the historical moment this symbol encapsulates is a most profound manifestation of the nature of the Ultimate Reality, which we call God.



Right from the beginning in the New Testament there are different theological readings of the significance of this man’s horrible death by execution.  But perhaps the most fundamental one and most important one brings us to the heart of the paradox that this moment signifies: God is totally present in the “most ungodly” place and situation.  Everything else flows from this fact–including the Christian Mystery of the Resurrection.  God is within this “nightmare and hell”–not outside as some external agent.  In the place and situation that seems most abandoned by God, in the darkness in which there seems not a trace of divine light or any kind of light, in the moment in which there is not a speck of happiness or hope, right there is the fullness of God present.



Louis Dupres has reflected most deeply and eloquently on this fact.  He has reminded us of that old American slave hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my lord?”  The slave sang this with his/her lips and knew in his/her heart that truly they WERE there because they ARE there–HE is truly being crucified in them, in their misery and wretchedness.  He is THERE where they are.  But Dupres does not stop with this observation–he brings it home to all of us.  Let us listen to him:


“Christian piety has always sought an intimate presence to Jesus’ Passion rather than a mere commemoration of the past….  To be with Him in the present of His agony and rejection when no triumph was in sight, that is to be where he really was.  But to be present to His hour means more than to be present there in feeling.  It means entering into the dark reality of my own suffering, lonelines and failure.  Only in the brokenness and pain of life am I with Him where he continues to live His agony….  Does it ever go beyond the pain of thin-skinned selfishness, the disappointment of vulgar ambitions, the frustration of unpurified desires, and the loneliness of self-inflicted isolation?  How dare I call what possesses so little dignity “suffering”?  Whenever I lift my eyes to the crucified Savior it is mostly to move away from my private misery, certainly not to move into it.

“Nevertheless, Christian piety teaches that very suffering of mine, however despicable and even sinful in its origins, is Jesus’s agony in me.  Comparing my pain with Jesus’s Passion may seem blasphemous.  But all suffering began with a curse.  His as well as mine.  Whether pain has its roots in private weakness and failure, or whether it is inflicted by an entire universe of weakness and failure, the effect remains the same.  To him who suffers, suffering means always failure.  Jesus’s words on the cross–My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?–do not express the attitude of one who is performing a clearly understood, effective sacrifice….

“Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?”  Was I there in my suffering?  For that is where He is being crucified–in me, not in Jerusalem….  In this world there can be no grace but through redemptive suffering.  To encounter God’s agonizing grace I must walk into the bleak desert of my private pain and humiliation.  Perhaps I shall be able to accomplish no more than silently to accept my inability to accept.  But not more is expected: to confront my bitterness, rebellion, greed, jealousy, rage, impatience is to encounter Jesus’ agony in my own.  I must find Jesus’ agony also in those private worlds of suffering around me, which I am so reluctant to explore and so unable to comprehend.  Here also I am invited to accept, without understanding, Jesus’ agony in the uncouth, the uncivilized, the unlovable.  On Good Friday failure itself has become redemptive.  That Jesus fails in me is the joyous mystery of the union between God and me.”




Here paradox has seemingly reached its limits within the Christian tradition.  But Meister Eckhart will take us further–another time.













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