Clarity is not often mentioned as a spiritual quality; certainly it is not listed as one of the “classic virtues.” I would suggest, however, that clarity is not just a commendable characteristic of a person, but that it represents a critical and essential element of authentic spiritual depth. I don’t mean to say that wherever we find clarity we find authentic spirituality in any explicit way; far from it. Some people who exhibit intense clarity are not popularly recognized as “spiritual” or “religious.” But the presence of clarity does indicate a dimension of holiness that may be unnamed (or named). In any case we are all a bit of a mixture of elements, some of them not so good, some of them amazingly true and deep. Clarity, wherever you find it, is to be valued. Lets reflect a bit on this and look at some examples of some sharp clarity.
But first, what is “clarity”? What do we mean by this term? It has to do with seeing something in its reality, not overlaying it with our projections, not distorting it because of our disordered desires, fears, expectations, etc. But even this is not enough. After seeing something in its reality, there is the moment when we call it by its right name. Clarity necessitates this naming because clarity is not a private inner vision but a function of our nature as communal beings; and language, the correct use of language, is a foundation of authentic community and an unconcealing of our fundamental communion. (Think of that account in Genesis of Adam in Paradise naming all the animals created by God. It is a key function of our humanity and shows our connection and responsibility to all other creatures.) That’s one of the reasons, by the way, that a hermit who has lived in his solitude and silence, when it Is authentic, arrives at a prophetic kind of clarity and people may start coming to him for that clearness. His gift is for the community. Paradoxically, the solitary one becomes the sacrament of communion.
Recently I reflected on the phenomenon of greed in our society. I wrote about 8 or 9 pages, but my dear old friend, Lao Tzu, whom I first read 60 years ago in my teens, nails it sharply and succinctly in a few lines:
“With Tao under heaven
Stray horses fertilize the fields.
Without Tao under heaven
Warhorses are bred at the frontier.
There is no greater calamity
Than not knowing what is enough.
There is no greater fault
Than desire for success.
Knowing that enough is enough,
(Addiss and Lombardo translation)
Simple words that conceal a depth beyond “clarity.” Don’t think that clarity means easy to grasp!
Another wise figure from ancient China was Confucius. Mostly we have stereotypes and caricatures of this figure, and we have little sense of what he actually taught. Even later Chinese thought distorted his vision. He placed a high value on clarity. In fact he saw it as the necessary foundation of a sane, orderly, peaceful society. Two quotes:
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name ~
In the Analects, a disciple asked Confucius the right principle of government, and in reply Confucius said:
“The one thing needed first is the rectification of names.”
In our world of fake news, propaganda, advertising, so much selling of products, ideas, feelings, images, so much manipulation and obfuscation, this “calling things by their right name” sounds rather revolutionary!
Speaking of which, lack of clarity does not just lead to “difficult times.” More often than not it leads to situations of life and death. Consider the misleading and false language that was used to justify both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. Consider the obfuscations around our critical issue of gun violence. Or even the poverty of people; the ability to make a living wage. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the modern financial system there were very few who saw clearly and spoke clearly what was happening to common people. Certainly not from the leaders of the times, neither political leaders nor financial leaders. You have to go to an outsider, a revolutionary figure like Friedrich Engels, one of the founding fathers of communist theory.
He observed the conditions of working people in England and named it “social murder.” Engels wrote in one of the most important works of social history, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, that this “social murder” was built into the economic system. The ruling elites, Engels wrote, those that hold “social and political control,” were aware that the harsh working and living conditions during the industrial revolution doomed workers to “an early and unnatural death. Here is an excerpt:
“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live — forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence — knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.”
Interesting to note that at this same time in the U.S., slavery was flourishing and here too neither religious, nor political, nor business leaders named the monstrosity of this practice. It was the few outsiders, the revolutionaries, the abolitionists, who spoke clearly and eventually pierced the conscience of the majority of the population.
As a bit of a diversion but along the same line consider this: recently there was a story in the NY Times and elsewhere about the Jesuits in the U.S. They made the news because they pledged millions to certain Black people as reparations. It turns out that in the pre-Civil War era the Jesuits were slave owners. Yes, that is right! And when they founded Georgetown University in Washington, at a certain point needing money for expansion, sold over 200 slaves in the general slave market….kind of hard to believe that, isn’t it? Whatever Black families existed there were torn apart. Many ended up in especially brutal plantation labor. So, today’s Jesuits look like they are trying to make up for that travesty and sham of religious life by tracking down as many contemporary people whose forebears were these slaves and “returning” that money a thousand fold. Sounds like a step in the right direction, right? However, even this is mired in obfuscation. The Jesuits are not digging into their own pockets to pay these reparations; they are going to “raise” this money and pass it on to the forebears. Something similar went on when they had to pay millions to the many victims of sexual abuse by Jesuits. For someone who was educated by the Jesuits like myself, this is a sad, sad story. And of course in none of my history classes in the ‘60s did I ever hear of the Church’s and religious orders’ involvement in slavery. Lack of clarity was always endemic to these institutions! But here I just want to emphasize a bigger, much bigger point. What kind of blindness and deafness are you afflicted with, how thick a fog, how dark is the darkness in which you find yourself when you hold the Gospel of Jesus Christ in one hand and the lives of slaves in the other. “Lack of clarity” is way too mild to describe this situation.
Thomas Merton often hit on the theme of clarity. Both in essay and in poetry (the late stuff), he lamented the falseness and manipulation of our language environment and how it facilitated our self-deception. But here I want to quote something more important…his emphasis on clarity in his own spiritual experience, how clarity was a key characteristic of a deep spiritual experience that he had in Asia. I refer to that famous scene at Polonnaruwa depicted in the Asian Journal:
“I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument…. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape…. Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied, vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. “
You would think that religion would be a welcome space for clarity. Unfortunately that is far from true in most cases. Whether it be in the case of the personal spiritual journey, or, whether it be in the case of a religious institution, lack of clarity can have devastating effects. In Christianity, we can almost have a whole catalog of ills that arise from lack of clarity: religious orders devolve, monasteries become decadent, individuals turn the spiritual life into trivial pursuits, ritual begins to encourage superstition and magic, preaching becomes massaging people for funds, power and wealth get dressed in religious garb, etc., etc. But also fortunately we do have a number of examples of clarity in all the major traditions, which can help us keep our focus even when our institutional religious life gets lost in a fog of unreality.
If you go to some of my friends among the Desert Fathers, you will get razor-sharp clarity. Someone from a different time and different tradition is Milarepa, the profound hermit of Tibetan Buddhism. For someone who is not from this tradition, Milarepa is hard to appreciate, especially since he is such a radical hermit, so focused on that. But he is a most interesting and striking figure also for his clarity about the spiritual life (and just think he was not even formally a monk or ever lived in a monastery!).
“Deep in the wild mountains, is a strange marketplace, where you can trade the hassle and noise of everyday life, for eternal Light.”
“I have no desire for wealth or possessions, and so I have nothing. I do not experience the initial suffering of having to accumulate possessions, the intermediate suffering of having to guard and keep up possessions, nor the final suffering of losing the possessions.”
“My religion is not deceiving myself.” “I realize that even though I should possess the whole world, at my death I should have to give up everything; and so it will confer happiness in this and the next life if I give up everything now. I am thus pursuing a life which is quite opposite to that followed by the people.”
“Maintain the state of undistractedness, and distractions will fly away. Dwell alone, and you shall find the Friend. Take the lowest place, and you shall reach the highest. Hasten slowly, and you shall soon arrive. Renounce all worldly goals, and you shall reach the highest Goal. If you follow this unfrequented path, you will find the shortest way. If you realize Sunyata (the absolute Emptiness), compassion will arise within your hearts; and when you lose all differentiation between yourself and others, then you will be fit to serve others.”
Then there’s another old friend from recent times: Abhishiktananda. A prophetic voice that now seems “out of fashion”—his writings seem to be vanishing. I heard from someone that even in a theological library in India his books are covered by dust, very little touched. But how often you get jewels of clarity from him…in deceptively simple words yet leading into profound depths:
“There is no part of our life in which we can escape the mystery of God which fills our whole being….”
“Piety is perhaps the most subtle and also the surest way for the ego to escape pursuit and re-establish its status and dignity.”
Yes, all of the above is simple language, seemingly simple ideas, but their clarity conveys unspeakable depths. In the spiritual life clarity and Mystery are the two sides of the same coin. You don’t need an advanced degree to grasp this; you need something else…..please read Lao Tzu and the Sermon on the Mount for some direction!
Here’s another example from the Sufi tradition:
Shaikh Ahmad Al-Ahawi
“It is not a question of knowing God when the veil be lifted but of knowing Him in the veil itself.”
A saying like this is like the proverbial sword that cuts “false religion” from “true religion.”
And here’s a most subtle example of spiritual clarity…I refer to another old friend whom I started reading in my teens through the translations of Ezra Pound, the ancient Chinese poet Li Bai (sometimes known as Li Po), one of China’s greatest poets. A mystic of sorts with a poetic sensibility practically unmatched by anyone in the West, but also a failure in almost everything else he did. His clarity of vision is so subtle you can mistake it for banal simplicity, especially in translation. Here’s an example:
Why I stay
On Green Mountain?
And do not answer,
My heart is at ease.
On flowing water
Into the distance—
This is another world
Which is not of men.
(translated by Greg Whincup)
But let me turn now to the “social world” once more, the world that we all inhabit. The role of clarity or lack of clarity therein is quite an important topic and was touched on by Merton quite a few times in the ‘60s. You might assume that spiritual clarity is more important and should have priority of place in our concerns; but really it’s not that simple. One might think that spiritual clarity leads to social clarity and lack of clarity in the former infects the latter with the same corruption of vision. But the situation might be more like the proverbial “chicken and egg” dilemma…which comes first? I think it can be shown that the lack of clarity, that the downright obfuscation and corruption of our communal communication about our everyday lives really does have a serious detrimental effect on our ability to clearly express what is important to our spiritual vision. In any case, here is a remarkable example of remarkable clarity from a young lady who goes by the name of Walking Womad. She has been a global hiker and a blogger writing about her hikes on some of the greatest trails in the world, including the ones in my beloved Sierras. She also lives a radically simple lifestyle. I haven’t seen anything recent from her so I hope she is ok, but I found this sharp quote from her from a few years ago:
“Yesterday I bought a women’s magazine. I hadn’t bought one in years. While standing in line to pay my stuff I pictured myself on the couch, sipping on a glass of white wine and reading something without brains. It sounded like a good plan to me. However that thought only lasted till I opened the magazine and noticed the word “more” being used a lot. An awful lot. “Be more human” (Reebok ad), “Want it more” (Asics); over all “more” seemed to be the way to go.
And I heard myself thinking “What the fuck?” Wearing tight sexy clothes while doing a crazy impossible yoga pose is making me more human??? And what would happen if I wanted it more? What is “it” anyway? Being fit? Having a six-pack? Being better than the rest? Or being someone else?
Cause what “more” is really saying, is that right now “I am not enough”. Not good enough the way I am. Not hot enough. Not cool enough. Not beautiful enough. Not happy enough. Not tough enough. Not chilled enough! Not! enough! I need to be more! Apparently I am lacking something. Maybe there’s a hole somewhere in my body, a space full of emptiness that makes me “not enough”, waiting and begging to be filled with “more”?
So then I went on to check my body, and I had a little talk with my heart and of course my soul had its say too, and even though we looked under the nail of both of my small toes and in that hidden lower left corner of my heart, o and also behind a strange curl in my brain, we just couldn’t find the hole.
My body was like “I never heard of that hole anyway!”; and my heart said “Girl relax, that magazine is fooling you!” and then my soul shouted into my ear real loud (damn it almost hurt): “Fuck them!!!” Ya my soul has always been a bit of a rebel, but I like it that way.
Even when you have a look at the other side of the scale, at the world of “less and mindfulness and simplify your life” you will bump into the popular “Less is more”, mostly written in a curly font on a what seems to be recycled paper.
So now less is more too? What???
And then they want you to go buy a stone that will clean your karma.
“Fuck them!”… Ah here goes my soul again. Sorry.
Fact is: Less or more or more or less are words that wanna make me believe I need to change something, that I have a hole that needs to be filled and that the writer of those words has the ultimate solution for the emptiness, for the “not enough”. Sexy yoga clothes that make my muscles (or rather not-muscles) shine through will make me more human. “Hell I better go and buy those clothes then cause I feel a little like not enough human today!” Eh!? Yeah right!
The thing is: I am no more or less. I AM ME. I am enough. More than enough… No wait… “Just Enough” will do!
See… that “more” is everywhere, creeping up on you inbetween sentences and blinks of an eye and just when you think you’ve had enough of the shit.
I don’t need to have more of this, or be less of that. I’m fine with being me. Just me. Human. Cause there’s no such thing as “more human”. Yoga won’t save my soul, nor will anything that money can buy. It doesn’t need to be saved. Even if it says “fuck” a lot.
So while I was sipping white wine and I was looking through that magazine and I searched for holes in the lower left corner of my heart ánd I almost had to put in earplugs because of my soul screaming so loud, I decided that the only things that mattered were being happy with who I am, being grateful for what I have, and loving my wild cursing soul.”
Merton could not have said it better OR clearer!