Spirituality Outside the Line

There is a spirituality that lies within well-established and well-recognized boundaries, and this is good and normal and to be heeded–like Jesuit spirituality, like Franciscan spirituality, like monastic spirituality, etc. etc. (but many times I wonder about these neat designations and how really superficial they are). However there is also a spirituality whose elements, at least some of them, lie “outside the lines.” These are not elements you learn about in spiritual books or spiritual daydreams or in imitation of anyone or anything or through any practice or method or discipline or by becoming a member of some group. These elements may be “outside the lines” because they are truly hidden and nameless, lost in a mystery that one is unable to articulate and so hidden from all except those whose hearts have been duly prepared; or they may simply be very “unneat,” like in a messed up life that suddenly finds itself unaccountably in the Presence of Absolute Reality(like the thief crucified next to Jesus). Or it may be something that is completely overlooked but right in front of one’s nose. You could put your finger on it but you will never understand its significance. Like the wilderness. Or it may be something that is distasteful, distressful, painful, or just plain ugly–not at any rate part of any respectable spirituality that allows us to be respectable while plumbing the depths of the Infinite within our hearts. At any rate these are some of the parameters; there are many more. What I hope to do here is just bring to your attention some of the “markers” of this spirituality “outside the lines” because in many ways this spirituality is more important and more critical to us than the straightforward one. And these are “markers” that are in fact “no-markers” because they merely delineate some of the shadows of this spirituality “outside the lines”–its essence is way beyond all formulations. Also, this spirituality “outside the lines” is very ecumenical–it can be found in all the major religious traditions in one form or another; and it may signal a more profound encounter with another religious tradition than any discussion or sharing or conference. All of us at one time or another touch base with this spirituality “outside the lines” simply because that’s where we really plunge into the depths–some, very few actually, live there most of the time, not because of some choosing on their part but because that is their own special gift. That we cannot explain. We won’t even be discussing this spirituality directly–partly because that is beyond our language and partly because it doesn’t seem right to want to “nail it down” as it were even if we could. No, we will simply lay out some “markers” and perhaps some comments and leave you to connect the dots. So let us proceed.

*“Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem. That is why human heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory is as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Comment: So apart from the more obvious significance of this statement, it also points to that poisoned use of spirituality and religion in order to gain self-esteem and a feeling of self-worth. This mechanism is deeply ingrained in us and it takes quite a bit of spiritual maturity to recognize its workings and not to be discouraged at the same time. That self we want to prop up is so ephemeral, just like a little wisp of smoke, so much like a phantasm, that one day we discover that there is nothing there to prop up….perhaps a key insight in every religious tradition. But maybe for that to happen we may need to step “outside the lines.”

 *A donkey with a load of holy books is still a donkey.

                           Sufi saying.

*“On the fourth day of sesshin as we sat with our painful legs, aching backs, hopes and doubts about whether it was worth it, Suzuki Roshi began his talk by slowly saying. ‘The problems you are now experiencing [will go away, right? we were thinking] will….continue….for….the….rest….of….your….life.’

The way he said it, everyone laughed.”

                               Ed Brown in Essential Zen

Comment: True spirituality and religion are not there for solving problems in your life–at least not in any way that we usually think of these things–“stuff” that happens to you. So if you want health and wealth and good relationships and success, etc. you go to Jesus or whatever your path….so goes the pitch of this kind of spirituality. The false promises and gimmicks of ersatz spirituality and religion promote this view that religion has this “usefulness.” Of course the only real problem in the deepest sense of the word is simply the self itself! That cannot be “solved.” It is not a knot that can be untied. Religion can even make that knot tighter! But once you touch base with the spirituality “outside the lines” you may discover how the knot dissolves–so then who is having all these problems….?

 *Rags and again rags,

Wearing rags all my life–

I somehow get food at the side of the road;

My hut is left to overgrown mugwort.

Gazing at the moon all night I chant poems.

Getting lost in the flowers I don’t come home.

Since leaving my nourishing community,

Mistakenly I’ve become this hobbled old horse.

                        Ryokan (as translated in Essential Zen)


*”And if He closes before you all the ways and passes,

   He will show a hidden way which nobody knows.”

                        Sufi saying.

*Dongshan asked a monk, “What is the most painful thing in the world?”

The monk said, “Hell is the most painful.”

Dongshan said, “Not so. If you wear monk’s robes, and underneath, you have not clarified the great matter, that’s the most painful thing.”

                        From Essential Zen

 *The Fool for Christ. Among the various markers of this spirituality “outside the lines, the most obvious, the most direct, the most uncompromising, the most unmistakable is the Fool for Christ. This type, without reference to Christ of course, can be found in practically all the great religious traditions, but here I want to refer only to the most intense and most visible manifestation of this character: within the Russian Orthodox “culture of the heart.” From about the 14th Century to the beginnings of the 20th Century the Russian Fool for Christ, the iurodivyi, was a remarkable presence in the religious consciousness of the Russian people. I don’t know the situation today, but I would be surprised if he/she is not present even today. Not much has been written about this character, partly because he is so unusual and we Westerners especially have little sensitivity to his significance (and so it is with the spirituality outside the lines). We like our well mapped-out institutionally-approved religious paths, so someone who goes “outside the lines” becomes invisible as it were. Anyway, the best short write-up of this phenomenon is by the Orthodox Bishop and monk, Kallistos Ware, although John Saward has also written quite well on this topic and there’s a few others. For our purposes here we will rely on Bishop Ware and his sources.

Ware quotes from a remarkable Russian author, Iulia de Beausobre, who has written about the Fool from a Russian perspective:

“He is nobody’s son, nobody’s brother, nobody’s father, and has no home… From a practical point of view, no useful purpose is served by anything that the iurodivyi does. He achieves nothing.”

Here we might add that this figure sounds strikingly similar to the Indian sannyasi as described by Abhishiktananda (though with obvious differences).

And then Ware quotes a certain Cecil Collins:

“The fool is the symbol of the lost ones of this world who are destined to inherit eternal life. The fool is not a philosophy, but a quality of consciousness of life, an endless regard for human identity…not the product of intellectual achievement, but a creation of the culture of the heart.”

 And then there is Tolstoy with his remembrance of his boyhood days when a Fool by the name of Grisha came into his wealthy family’s house:

“The door opened and there stood a figure totally unknown to me. Into the room walked a man of about fifty with a long pale pock-marked face, long gray hair and a scanty reddish beard… He wore a tattered garment, something between a peasant tunic and a cassock; in his hand he carried a huge staff. As he entered the room he used the staff to strike the floor with all his might and then wrinkling his brow and opening his mouth extremely wide, he burst into a terrible and unnatural laugh. He was blind in one eye, and the white iris of that eye darted about incessantly and imparted to his face, already ill-favored, a still more repellent expression… His voice was rough and hoarse, his movements hasty and jerky, his speech devoid of sense and incoherent… He was the saintly fool and pilgrim Grisha.

“Where had he come from? Who were his parents? What had induced him to adopt the wandering life he led? No one knew. All I know is that from the age of fifteen he had been one of ‘God’s fools,’ who went barefoot in winter and summer, visited monasteries, gave little icons to those he took a fancy to, and uttered enigmatic sayings….”

All over Russia, at various times, there were numerous such figures. Significantly enough these figures did not always elicit a positive response and a real discernment was necessary. Ware:

“Tolstoy speaks of the sharply conflicting opinions that others held about Grisha: ‘Some said he was the unfortunate son of wealthy parents, a pure soul, while others held that he was simply a lazy peasant.’ The fool is equivocal, enigmatic, always a disturbing question mark. When dealing with the vocation of folly for Christ’s sake, it is an exceptionally delicate task to distinguish genuine from counterfeit, the holy innocent from the unholy fraud, the man of God from the drop-out…. How are we to ‘test the spirits’? The frontier between breakdown and breakthrough is not clearly marked.”

 Interestingly enough one of the earliest examples of this “Fool” is found in Palladius’ account of early Christian monasticism, and what makes it even more interesting is that this “Fool for Christ” was a woman. Ware:

“Feigning madness, she worked in the kitchen, with rags wrapped round her head instead of the monastic cowl. She undertook all the most menial tasks and was treated with general contempt, kicked and insulted by the other nuns. One day the renowned ascetic Pitiroum visited the community. To the consternation of everyone he knelt at her feet and asked her for a blessing. ‘She is mad,’ the nuns said. ‘It’s you who are mad,’ retorted Pitiroum. ‘She is our amma {spiritual mother}–mine and yours.’”

Well, the account goes on to say that this holy figure, once “unmasked,” left with no one knowing where to or who she was. Along this same line and back in Russia there were figures like St. Xenia in 18th Century St. Petersburg and Pelagia who was a disciple of St. Seraphim and who rebuked a bishop by slapping him in the face; and then there was Pasha of Sarov who around 1900 prophetically pointed to the demise of Czar Nicholas II. So women have had a place at this table over the centuries, unlike the priesthood!! It is fitting that the marginalized would fit as icons of a marginal spirituality! But whoever they were the point is that these characters were all pointers to this “spirituality outside the lines.” What is striking is that at certain times and in certain places there was so much “room” you might say for this spirituality to unfold; and I should add that it seems also connected in some mysterious way with a healthy and vigorous monasticism, like the hermit life–the two flower together and wilt together–and we have not even touched upon the many other manifestations of this “foolishness.” 

*”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.”

                        From the Tao Te Ching as translated by Stephen Mitchell

*”In a sense all the virtues are contained in spiritual poverty (al-faqr), and the term, al-faqr, is commonly used to designate spirituality as a whole. This poverty is nothing other than a vacare Deo, emptiness for God; it begins with the rejection of passions and its crown is the effacement of the ‘I’ before the Divinity.”

            From Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, by Titus Burckhardt

Comment: While it is absolutely true that the highest realization of all mysticism manifests itself as love, mercy, compassion, it is also important to note that existentially speaking the most important aspect of the path is poverty…especially spiritual poverty. My Jesuit classmates in the seminary used to joke around when they produced their credit cards to pay for something: “a gift from Our Lady of Visa!” Ok, very funny, but I wish more religious people would recognize that simple material poverty is a true gateway (but only a gateway) to the deeper and more essential reality of inner poverty. It is not until this poverty reaches the level of the “effacement of the ‘I’” that we begin to love with the very love of God, with a love that has no trace of self-centered motivations. This has to go pretty deep to get to that point, and perhaps only when one touches the spirituality “outside the lines” does this happen. Here is another Sufi saying that points in the same direction.

 *”My servant draws near to Me…. Then…I am his hearing through which he hears, his sight through which he sees, his hand through which he grasps, and his foot through which he walks.”

                                               Sufi saying.

*”The returners to God are destitute of everything other than God.”

                                             Sufi saying. 


We will let Lao Tzu have the last word. With words like these we can begin to perceive where the spirituality “outside the lines” and perhaps only that spirituality can take us.

*“The tao that can be told

   is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

   is not the eternal name.

   The unnamable is the eternally real.

   Naming is the origin

   of all particular things.

   Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

     Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

     Yet mystery and manifestations

     arise from the same source.

     This source is called darkness.

     Darkness within darkness.

     The gateway to all understanding.

The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu as translated by Stephen Mitchell