McEwan Hall at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland
What is the spiritual life all about at its core? Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I knew the answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Believing meant to assent in your mind and heart that Jesus was the Son of God who came to earth out of his deep love for us and died for our sins, so that we could spend eternity with God and others who had been saved, avoiding the fate of the damned. There was nothing I could do to secure my salvation; God had done all the work by his grace. All I had to do was believe.
But what a demand! In the midst of a global scientific zeitgeist focused on material reality and observable phenomena, how could one believe wholeheartedly in something so intangible? “I believe but help my unbelief” was one of my favorite passages growing up. To believe seemed to mean holding firm confidence in a list of propositions that were increasingly doubtful in an age of science: God created the world in 6 days; Jesus walked on water and healed people miraculously; Jesus was the only way to salvation (John 3:16); Gandhi was in hell along with children who had died without being baptized or hearing the gospel. And there were other ancillary beliefs, depending on your church’s particular persuasion.
It was in the midst of a decades-long existential drift that I heard another answer to my question about the spiritual life from Episcopalian priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault. The goal was not to believe in some past event for a future reward, but rather to come alive in the present moment. It was not to believe that God had to obey a great cosmic law of paying back some karmic debt by having His own Son die on the cross, but rather to die and resurrect like Jesus by abiding moment by moment in relationship with Divine Intimacy. This was a radical message, and a departure from the sacred story of my youth!
I learned that the message of the Wisdom Tradition, which includes all of the world’s spiritual traditions, could be summarized simply: bring your body-mind-heart into moment by moment sympathetic resonance with what is. As I began to meditate and practice this in my own life, it inched its way into my teaching. And there I found that this message was so easy to understand that even my 9th grade students with no religious background could grasp it and see its value in a single class period! Paradoxically, it was equally hard for all of us because our default setting is living on autopilot, governed by memories of the past, fears of the future, and a desperate fleeing from the ennui of the present moment. All of us, it soon became apparent, come to this message with Beginner’s Mind; none of us do this naturally. That supreme spiritual value of humility was universal, as my students and I tried to meditate even for a few minutes. Compassion, too, emerged for everyone – as we tried and failed, and tried and failed some more, to experience the present moment. And then the third virtue that came was trust – that in letting go into the present moment our life was held by forces beyond our monkey minds pulling us towards “something” from the other side. Hmmm…humility, compassion, and trust all seemed like deep abiding values of Jesus.
Which story of reality is true? I don’t know! But who is that “I” that doesn’t know?! That “I” is my conscious self that fears challenging long-standing Christian tradition that has on the whole taught me life-giving values and has been modeled by servant leaders whom I respect.
But there is another “I” – a deeper, wholer self – that has already decided that this indeed is the narrow way that leads to life. This “I” listens to Cynthia, reads her books, or listens to others of like mind every day of my life. This “I” has decided I need to hear this message every day, not out of fear, but out of yearning and enlivenment and joy and hope. This “I” has given much time and treasure to traveling to Italy, New Zealand (2x), and Scotland to participate in week-long Wisdom Schools with Cynthia, something I never did in my previous 20 years of professional development. And finally and most convincingly, this “I” tears up when it sees my students, the vast majority of whom accept this message, try it, and find it worthy of their time and rewarding of their efforts. Even 14 year old boys seem to get it, for goodness sake! It rings true not just for me, but for so many of us – in our bodies, minds, and hearts.
Some deeper “I” has decided that this is the path of life.
But it is Wisdom’s wager, and I still ask myself frequently: how do I know – really know – that this is true? It brings to mind one of Thomas Merton’s famous quotes:
“This act of total surrender is not merely a fantastic intellectual and mystical gamble; it is something much more serious. It is an act of love for this unseen person, who, in the very gift of love by which we surrender ourselves to his reality also makes his presence known to us.”
And so I have – with some hesitation – placed my bet – in love – trusting that if I have erred, a corrective will emerge in time.
So let’s end with a Wisdom Tradition metaphor about the spiritual life. The image from Cynthia’s teachings that returns to me over and over again comes from her quoting of Rumi, the Sufi poet:
Quivering with each moment
Like a drop of mercury
This then is the goal. To be open, supple, and wholly responsive to every moment like a drop of pooled mercury. This is the place I’m trying to stay – in the present –in habitation with the Holy One, which my tradition names “I am.”
A special thanks to those who who meditate with me, who do body scans and loving kindness meditations, who join me in the pursuit of the Holy One,
the music of the spheres, in the present moment.