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DOORS – Chapter Eight

December 1, 2017

Learning To Let Go

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Three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. Order, where we all begin, is a necessary first “containment.” But this structure is dangerous if we stay there too long. It is too small and self-serving, and it must be deconstructed by the trials and vagaries of life … Only in the final “reorder” stage can darkness and light coexist, can paradox be okay… Here death is a part of life, failure is a part of victory, and imperfection is included in perfection. (Richard Rohr)

So, which box had I come out of and which was I in now or, to use my previous metaphors, which new door had I finally crossed and which old veil had I finally shed?

In a way, it all felt like the right conclusion to everything that preceded it, and yet there wasn’t anything final about it. I had gained a new perspective, but it felt a lot more like a beginning than an ending.

Was I then entering a reordering phase after a deconstructing one, beginning to relearn after the unlearning? As H. D. Thoreau said When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before.

It did, in fact, feel like a return to what I always knew, but now from a different angle, and realizing that I was just beginning to understand it. It’s hard to describe, as words seem so reductive and I am no poet, but I will try.

All through my life, it seemed as if each new step forward was both, a call to leave the past behind, as well as a return to an initial starting point. It was like being driven by a homing device, a hidden memory that drove me to seek what I already knew, inwardly, but couldn’t really see about me.

That’s what drove me to build models of what I sought for, and what also prevented me from ever settling there too long. It is what kept me moving, forsaking previous homes in pursuit of an original one, of which I had no clear idea but only an intuition.

Obviously, I am not merely speaking of physical places here, but of that paradigm which we all create within and around ourselves, one that changes as we age and that often places the fulfillment of our hopes and desires in some ideal future. More on this later.

In any case, there was this link between symbols, beliefs and experiences, this movement that first led me to them, then through them, and finally past them. Not that I was always so willing to let things come and go, but this invisible thread was stronger than I and it kept me moving.

It kept unfolding things for me, like the endless blooming of the mythical Rose of Sharon, or the Alfa and Omega, symbols of that which has always been and never ages, a starting point as well as the destination.

It is that ancient and yet endlessly unfolding mystery, which is as old as the universe and yet as new as each new breath that we breathe. It’s that constant component of our lives, even life itself, but which we never fully comprehend. All we do is breathe it, live it, allow it and let it be.

Ideas, symbols, beliefs, all took on new meaning and I was learning to let go of what I used to think about them. I was even getting used to it; at least it wasn’t as hard as when younger, when I so much wanted to be right, to know, to have certainty.

It was easier now to admit that I didn’t know, to accept mystery and the unlearning of what I thought I knew. I longed to learn better; to even learn to live without needing to know and it almost became liberating when I could spot some fallacy in my thinking, incongruence in my views or gaps in my understanding.

I now understood how the growing process worked and how it had more to do with unlearning than learning. I knew that doubt was not the enemy of faith, but a necessary condition to it; that unless some faith did die, no better faith would rise.

I knew it had to be so, that there was no standing still, that like steps on a ladder, nothing was ever meant to stay on it for too long, only enough to move on to the next step. I did not expect, however, that living with this awareness would be somewhat disorienting to those around me.

Most of us, it appears, are used to think and express views in a either/or format, as something that others can either agree or disagree with. Generally speaking, we aren’t really prepared to deal with it any other way. Whether it is liberal or conservative, right or left, for or against, we always divide the field before us.

The fact that I no longer felt that way, kind of disoriented those who were used to my former categorical opinions, on which they could either agree or disagree. Some fellow believers, for example, were unsettled by my lack of certainty on some issues and thought I had lost my faith. Non believing friends, instead, felt disappointed that I had come to agree with them on so much, but still believed.

When discussing any topic and confronted by strong, dogmatic opinions, I would almost automatically try to bring balance, some missing elements to the equation, but the party stating the position would often assume that I was taking a contrary stance.

I realized how little room there was for words, thoughts and ideas that didn’t fall into that usual oppositional, dualistic way of seeing. Everyone, believers and unbelievers, conservative and progressives, divided the world according to their chosen ideas, which I had also done for most of my life.

I now realized that I had entered a minority position, but was comforted to learn that it had been around for a very long time, to even discover that it was what all my symbols and beliefs had been pointing to all along.

Sorting things out

Letting go of past certainties, however, required lots of reordering and rearranging, of sorting through experiences and beliefs to identify their true connection; a process that also helped me to recognize where things didn’t add up, where things that I usually associated with God didn’t actually match my experience of Him.

To exemplify the process, one may associate a place with a particularly mystical experience he had while there. Assuming that there is something mystical with the place, he may later return to it and be sorely disappointed. This then results in disenchantment with the place, which appears thereafter as ordinary.

Such a disappointment with something previously thought to be mystical, will in fact result in a more mature understanding of the actual mystical experience. When a person realizes that geography had nothing to do with it, she may also realize that God is not somewhere “out there”, in a specific place or time, but that he’s actually right here and now, at the root of our very being and intimately connected to each of us.

That alone will advance the person in the inner journey. Separating wrongly associated items from an actual core of mystical union, will in fact make the last clearer and more approachable; certainly less subject to human or geographical conditions.

This has happened to me quite regularly, yet not with places, but with ideas, mindsets, methods and doctrines. I’ve also seen it happen to many others, especially those coming to their first religious experiences. It seems to be a natural sequence of events, a progression of sorts in our understanding of the inner journey.

Of course, a lot depends also on the container, meaning the religious environment in which these experiences occur. Apart from the great variety of beliefs, doctrines and traditions, the lines of distinction between contents and containers are never that clear, not at first, at least.

As a place can be easily confused with the actual essence of an experience, so can an idea, a doctrine, an image, an emotion or a religious practice. It is only with time that the lines become clearer, to the point in which the religious container will be clearly distinguishable from its contents.

At that point, the container will have practically exhausted and fulfilled its purpose, at least for those who have grown beyond it. Like the child that outgrows its clothes, shoes and bed; these things will still fit someone else, but for him they are the past.

In my case, after that first mystical experience, I grasped for interpretations within the culture that I was familiar with, but which had no symbols or metaphors for it. Then I converted to Christianity and there I found plenty of them. Working through these, I came to new mystical experiences, spiritual highs, moments of deep connection and intimacy with the divine.

All of these I interpreted within a Christian framework, yet my understanding of Christianity matured as I moved through its various stages, to the point that what spoke to me or gave me a sense of connection earlier on, did not do so later on.

The Christian expressions, music, images and art that used to move me at the beginning, which seemed to reflect a deeper connection, did not work anymore. They not only became normal and routine, but even felt sort of empty and artificial.

I understood why the ancient Israelites were forbidden from creating any image or even pronounce the name of God. Any human depiction or definition of God would inevitably reduce Him to something less than He is. It would be the making of an idol.

God is indeed much more than what can be put in a religious box, a theology, a painting, a movie, a book or a song. These things may positively stir our imagination, but always become reductive, a lie of sorts and a taking of His name in vain.

I could now see the reasons for that old commandment, as well as for later revolutions that called for a return to it, such as the iconoclasm of the 8th century or the reformation of the 16th. But no, I don’t think that we should now go around and smash religious images, because the real dangerous ones aren’t physical anyway.

The real idols of today are those that make a god after our own image, a god who dislike all the same people we don’t like, a petty, capricious deity who has his favorite people, country and party. A nationalist, racist and tribal god of the few, usually the rich. Or even the god of supposed science, reason and enlightenment, a god that doesn’t exist but to which many humbly prostrate.

But idol making, after all, is just part of our natural growing process. Just like children with toys, that whenever they outgrow one, they desire a more advanced one, bearing a closer resemblance to the real thing.

So we went from wood and stone, to metal and paint, to temples and rituals, to complex theological and philosophical concepts, to physics, metaphysics, quantum theories and the god particle, but until we finally taste reality, and not just imagination or computation, we are still playing with childish models, images and ideas.

And I was learning this, that in this temporary life, no understanding, image or concept is ever permanent. Any attempt to make it so, amounts to making an idol of it. Even the truth, as true as it may be, it is never the whole truth and to pretend that it is, is making an idol of it.

Yes, God is knowable, at some level and to some degree, but He remains always beyond human definition. He’s a mystery that unfolds gradually and infinitely, and who calls us to be pilgrims in our discovery of him, to be always on the go and ready to abandon former ideas and images, to stand in awe and wonder before him, like children awaiting to be shown more.

Not the one in charge

I spoke of finally “tasting” reality in reference to this ongoing discovering experience. I said tasting because, as Frank Herbert put it, “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience”. There is then this possibility, which isn’t limited to our senses, reason or feelings, which is beyond them but can also include them, because reality is both physical and spiritual.

The problem comes when one excludes the other, and speaking from a Christian perspective, that’s exactly what the doctrine of the incarnation was meant to teach us, that God is not somewhere else, but right here as “Emmanuel”, God with us and God in us.

There is never a time when God is not here, as he is life itself, but we are not always conscious of it. In our natural understanding, we live in a perception of separation, of individual I-ness, but that’s not really real. In effect we are always connected to God and one another.

It is possible to become aware of it, but whenever I experienced it, whether before or after my Christian conversion, it was never something that I worked up to. It was somehow done unto me, while I merely stood there in a state of wonder, in what some call spontaneous contemplation.

It was like being pulled into a flow and then guided through it. I was never the one in charge, in fact the experience invariably dissipated when I tried to maintain it on my own, as if I could. The only requirement was my surrender to it, not my control.

Though it was never frightful, sometimes I got scared by the sheer novelty of it and pulled back, for fear of where it might lead. Other times, it was simply so beautiful that I tried so hard to stay with it, but my own trying became the distraction that pulled me away.

My self-centered mistake, was thinking that I had something to do with it, that I had somehow deserved it and must therefore play it right to keep it. The truth, instead, is that these experiences were pure gifts, something that was done unto me in spite of myself.

I had always wondered, trying to figure out how things worked up to or contributed to such moments; how love, suffering, beauty or tragedy created the condition of surrender to the moment, to the passing through that door.

Contrary to natural instinct, I was learning that the key was not in trying to figure it out, not in seeking to understand it so that one could make it happen. No, the key was simply in letting go, surrendering to it, allowing it and letting it be.

If I was to find some scriptural illustration of it, then the most likely one would be Mary’s answer to the angel’s proposal “Let everything you’ve said happen to me” (Luke 1:38) or Jesus’ final surrender in the garden “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22;42), but perhaps the best is given by Paul, when he writes of Jesus that “he did not consider equality with God something to cling to, but emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6,7).

Saying yes, not clinging and letting go, emptying ourselves, is the prerequisite, and not some effort of our own. The gesture, however, does not come natural to any of us, especially in our youth. Our tendency is to work and earn things, so we can feel entitled to them, but that’s not how it works with God.

Yet, because religious exercises, such as reading scripture, prayer, praise, meditation, singing, or art in many forms, can act as a catalyst, as a priming of the pump that leads to the experience of divine union, it is natural to think that by working on these one can somehow control it and bring it on again and again. Not so.

To the contrary, any of these things can actually become a barrier instead of a bridge. They are not God in themselves, and though they may point to Him at certain times, they can also distract and separate from Him at others. Like a veil, which had its time and purpose, but which can later obstruct and hinder like a net.

Religion can be both, a bridge, a metaphor that carries us across to ultimate realities or it can be a veil that separates, distracts and obscures. It is up to us to know which is which and when.

their minds were hardened, for to this day the same veil is still there when they read… Only in union with the Messiah is that veil removed (2 Corinthians 3:14).

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