“To have faith does not mean to dwell in the shadow of old ideas conceived by prophets and sages, to live off an inherited estate of doctrines and dogmas. In the realm of the spirit only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir. The wages of spiritual plagiarism is the loss of integrity . . . Authentic faith is more than an echo of a tradition. It is a creative situation, an event.” ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel
What does it mean to be “a pioneer of the spirit?” Is there, perhaps, some new spiritual territory that is yet to be discovered? Surely all true spiritual ground has been covered many times over throughout the course of human history. In the quote above, Heschel, a devout Rabbi and theologian, warns against what he calls “spiritual plagiarism.” Is he advising us to cast off our beliefs and invent new ideas? New religious forms? I don’t think he is. I believe he is encouraging us to approach familiar spiritual ground as if it were an undiscovered land, as if we were encountering it for the first time. C.G. Jung makes an almost identical statement when he says, “In my view, the spirit is alive only when it is an adventure eternally renewed.”
The point seems to be that we can become rigid and complacent in our spiritual ideas and religious beliefs. Words and ideas without some primary experience to inform them are like facts and figures that we have memorized, things to be possessed, not truths to be lived. If we believe we possess a Truth, then we have made that truth subordinate to ourselves. If we allow ourselves to encounter the spirit as a living reality, we are enlivened by its activity and power. By adopting this attitude, it is not that the eternal truths are renewed by us, so much as we are renewed by them.
Spiritual masters have always employed different techniques to attempt to help their followers see things with a fresh mind. St. Paul taught his disciples to test everything (1 Thess. ). So did the Buddha. Zen teachers employ the koan, a kind of riddle designed to break through the set habits of the rational mind and thus make way for an original experience unmediated by well-worn concepts. Jesus taught in parables, stories and sayings used as both allegories and metaphors, revealing, or sometimes concealing spiritual truths. The Sufi poet, Hafiz, observed that sometimes we have to leave Religion behind in order to be with God:
The Great Religions are the ships,
Poets the lifeboats.
Every sane person I know has jumped
The point of all of this is not to deny the truth of received belief and tradition. On the contrary, it is to keep those truths vital and relevant. Familiarity breeds contempt, so to speak. The research done in group psychology has shown that criticism and dissent can improve the functioning and creativity of groups. The criticism doesn’t even have to be right, but the challenge to the majority opinion can improve and strengthen it. Perhaps something similar can work for us in regard to our spiritual lives, as well.
For my own part, I tend to think of myself as an open-minded person. But in my more honest moments, I know that is not always the case. I know that, when reading some sacred text, if I come across a passage that is too difficult or challenging to my preferred worldview, I can too easily dismiss, disparage, or ignore it. One of the practices I try to engage in is to stop at these disturbing passages and sit with them, letting them work on my consciousness. I try to break past my biases and prejudices, try to let myself be surprised by new thoughts and new possibilities.
Another practice might be to read the sacred writings of traditions other than one’s own and let them inform, even challenge one’s cherished and familiar beliefs.
What other ways could be used to keep “the adventure of the spirit” alive? Do you have ways you challenge your spiritual and religious beliefs? What makes you feel spiritually alive?
Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors which it passes to a row of ancient trees. You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you, one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth,
leaving you, not really belonging to either, not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent, not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing that turns to a star each night and climbs—
leaving you (it impossible to untangle the threads) your own life, timid and standing high and growing, so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out, one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star. (translated by Robert Bly)
When I read the lines, “one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth, / leaving you, not really belonging to either,” I experience a deep loneliness. But it is a loneliness in which I feel I am most at home in myself. A sadness full of longing that makes me happy. My wife likes to tease me about being an archetypally lonely man given to roaming the deserted beach in winter at night lost in my melancholy. There is some truth to this. But I want to say a word in defense of loneliness.
Loneliness is not alienation. In loneliness the Other exists. In alienation, it does not. In loneliness there is longing, in alienation, isolation. In depression or alienation the missing factor is meaning, or a sense of purpose, or contact with the invisible realms of existence. Rilke’s “not belonging” to either heaven or earth is really an affirmation of both. For it seems to me that it is the feeling of separateness that awakens consciousness of the other, that establishes, I believe, the reality of the other. And it is in separateness, in distinctness from one another that love becomes possible. And so, in some sense, loneliness is the soil in which love grows.
The great teachers of the value of loneliness are the Sufis. Rumi says, “the grief you cry out from / draws you toward union.” Hafiz, in his poem, My Eyes So Soft, is even more emphatic:
Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut more deep. Let it ferment and season you As few human or even divine ingredients can. Something missing in my heart tonight Has made my eyes so soft My voice so tender, My need of God Absolutely clear.
One of my other teachers in this is Frank Sinatra, when he sings, “the songs I know, only the lonely know.” Loneliness teaches a secret knowledge – the value of love. The whole torch song tradition speaks to the truth that, sometimes, love is intensified through the experience of separation. It is more present in its absence. All of a sudden we become aware of the depth of our love when it’s object is gone. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
In Rilke’s poem, the awareness of the two worlds we inhabit, heaven and earth, begins with the recognition of our separateness from both. I think he is saying that we don’t really know either until we know both. But knowing both means belonging to neither. Earth without heaven, says Rilke, is “hopelessly dark.” And without the activity, the variety, the transience of time-bound existence, heaven is “unswerving,” changeless, eternal monotony.
Suspended between these two great powers, says Rilke, all we can do is turn to ourselves, our own little lives, “timid and standing high and growing.” And it is there, perhaps, that we might discover we are not separate after all. “One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.” The two worlds exist in our own hearts. “The Kingdom of Heaven is inside you.”
I think of all the ways I avoid or distract myself from my feelings of loneliness – of longing, of loving, of “my need of God.” – watching TV, surfing the web, shopping for little electronic gadgets, even reading. I need to spend more time at the beach.
"None can come to the sublime heights of the divinity," said the Eternal Wisdom, "or taste its ineffable sweetness, if first they have not experienced the bitterness and lowliness of my humanity. The higher they climb without passing by my humanity, the lower afterward shall be their fall. My humanity is the road which all must tread who would come to that which you seek: my sufferings are the door by which all must come in." ~Heinrich Suso (Teachings of the Christian Mystics, edited by A. Harvey)
What to do about the problem of suffering?
I don't presume to think that I can come to any conclusion regarding this difficult question, but it's an unavoidable one and, what the hell, I might as well jump into the deep end with this journal.
Buddhism teaches that life is suffering and that release from suffering is possible. It prescribes its Eightfold Path as the means for achieving that release. The cause of suffering is said to be attachment. Now, there is much that I admire and am drawn to in Buddhism, but I have always had some trouble with the idea of detachment. Don't get me wrong, there are many things for which I find detachment a wise and healthy and helpful teaching. I try (though I do not succeed) not to cling to material things, or self-aggrandizing states of the ego, or even to my hopes and plans for future, both near and far. However, there are attachments from which I have no desire to be released, no matter what suffering they may cause.
My wife, my two children, my sister, my family and friends -- these are people that I love, for whom I have experienced both joy and grief. Because to love is to suffer. Loving someone means becoming vulnerable, getting hurt, being afraid they'll get hurt, fearing you'll lose them, almost losing them, and inevitably losing them.
The quote above from the Christian mystic, Heinrich Suso, does not teach the avoidance of suffering, but states instead that suffering is the door to sharing in the divinity of the Eternal Wisdom, of Christ. It is through our humanity -- not avoiding or escaping it, but through it -- that we reach to the divine. Our humanity, says the Eternal Wisdom, is composed of bitterness and lowliness, as if it were part our task as human beings to learn something about suffering, in particular, the suffering of love ("For God so loved the world . . .").
The night my wife was taken in for emergency surgery, I spent a terrified few hours thinking she would die, desperate at the thought that I would never speak with her, caress her, or kiss her again. I tried to avoid the scene in my head in which I had to tell my kids they would never see their mommy again. I have never experienced such profound desperation. She came through it, thank God, and if there were any way I could go back to avoid that night for both my wife and I, I would do it. And yet, there is something else that is left to me from that night that is harder to describe.
To be able to suffer that way for the love of another human being means something. It's painful, but it's good at the same time. To know that I have the kind of love that could cause me that depth of suffering gives my life a meaning, I believe, that it would not have in any other way. And as I think about it, as I write this, I want more of that kind of dangerous love in my life, not less. It makes me wonder if the Buddhist formula about attachment isn't backwards, at least in respect to the kind of attachment called human love. That is, I do not think, as I said above, that to love is to suffer. Rather, it is suffering that lets us know that we have truly loved.
“[God] is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or for worse.” (C.G. Jung, Letters, Vol. 2, p. 525).
Jung’s definition of God is startling. Some have understood this statement to indicate that Jung thought of God primarily as a trauma, an encounter with an impersonal and, mostly, hostile force. To be sure, this is an aspect of what Jung is talking about, but it is not the complete picture.
Jung’s psychology is essentially about the personal ego’s relationship with the larger, unconscious, and transpersonal psyche. This larger psyche he often designated as the Self, which he also referred to as the “God-image” in the psyche. Jung is not trying to understand any particular dogma. His concern is to address the actual living experience of God in a human life. When Jung says that “God is what crosses my path,” he is saying that God is the experience of an Otherness, a Will that cannot be identified with the ego’s will. This is clear when he says that God is “all things which cross my willful path . . . all things which upset my subjective views, plans, and intentions.”
Too often it is tempting to think of God as being in agreement with what we already believe. I think this is the shortcoming of much of what is called spirituality and much of what is considered religious—a tendency to accept ideas and beliefs that we like and to reject those that we find challenging or troubling in some way. I know that I struggle with this on a daily basis. For example, I want to believe in a God of peace and love, but am often confronted with situations in which anger is the only appropriate response. Can I make room for a sometimes angry God? For if God is only that which already agrees with me, then what need do I have of anything beyond my own being?
For some, there is no need of anything beyond the individual self. But, as Jung teaches, not needing or wanting anything beyond myself doesn’t alter the fact that I am constantly encountering something Other. He writes, “I do know that I am obviously confronted with a factor unknown in itself, which I call ‘God’…”(C.G. Jung, Letters, Vol. 2, p. 525).
Jung’s definition of God is challenging. It is a God who often has different ideas for us than we have for ourselves, who is relentlessly pushing us and goading us to grow, to become more than we are at present, and who is continually forcing us to deal with his reality, his presence. The challenge presented by this view of God is aptly portrayed in this poem by Rumi, called “Who Makes These Changes?”
Who makes these changes? I shoot an arrow right. It lands left. I ride after a deer and find myself Chased by a hog. I plot to get what I want And end up in prison. I dig pits to trap others And fall in.
I should be suspicious Of what I want.
In what ways have you find your intentions and goals upset? What has crossed your path in a challenging way? Were you changed by it?
I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of this world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last, but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don't know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.
~Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. R. Bly)
This is where I begin. This is where I am going.
I don't intend to make this too personal. I am not interested in confession or memoir or exhibition. Making the personal meaningful is hard and one needs considerably more talent -- and far less ego -- than I possess to make it work.
What I love is the way the Soul speaks, the images with which it cloaks itself, and the magnetic force with which it draws us to that mysterious center which is both our self and the world. I love the infinite ways that God manifests in the world and the many forms of worship and praise that humans have devised that attest to God's presence and power. Mostly, I love those God-drunk lovers who, like Rilke, keep circling around God until they break into song.
This journal is about listening to that song. It is not about anything that I have to say, which would not be very interesting, anyway, given the relatively few years of experience I have acquired as against the Soul's thousands of years. No, I would rather hear from that great Other -- call it God, the Soul, Love, what have you -- and try to simply and humbly respond.
I don't believe that it is the essential thing that we finally come to know whether we are "a falcon, or a storm, or a great song." It's not as important what we are transformed into, but that we become transformable, that our fixed notions of ourselves dissolve, become more fluid, more flowing. It is not important on this journey -- if it is even possible -- that we ever arrive. It's the circling that counts, spiraling wider and wider out "over the things of this world." And that is my hope and intention for this journal, to keep circling until I can more clearly hear that great song that the mystics call the Beloved and peoples everywhere have always called God.