05 Mar The Pathless Path
I woke up feeling vulnerable this morning. Perhaps it has something to do with the rhythms of life. Periods of heavy lifting and activity followed by a pause. This morning, I was in a moment of pause, with nothing pressing on my schedule. Maybe that’s when vulnerability speaks, when we are relaxed enough to hear.
I practiced my meditation and felt little, if any, of the mystical sense of calm and presence. Just a steady stream of thoughts and the occasional catching of myself in the act of chasing them wherever they wanted to lead me. In the moment of realization that a thought has grabbed you, then comes the practice of release. It was my morning spiritual calisthenics, as I do most mornings. Sometimes the meditative practice seems vital, and sometimes not. This morning was a not.
There’s a part of me that wants to keep score of how I’m doing in this spiritual practice thing. I want to measure it, take stock of how I’m progressing, like in the period after the holidays when I’m trying to lose weight. I step on the scale and celebrate or despair, and redouble my efforts at dieting if the news is bad. By sheer force of will, I want to make it happen—be it losing weight or winning my way to enlightenment.
But the spiritual life doesn’t work that way. It’s primarily a matter of catching yourself, time and time again, in your habitual reactivity and forgetfulness. And, then, letting go. What’s hard to accept is that in those times when you seem to be failing the most, you might actually be making the most progress. And those rare moments when you think, “Hey, I might be getting the hang of this,” that’s when things usually begin to unravel. The you that wants to measure and evaluate is another piece to be let go of, I suppose.
I am a student in the Living School of the Center for Action and Contemplation. I turned to a brief video by core faculty member, James Finley, in which he is responding to another student’s observation and question. He says that the spiritual life is really unmanageable, and that it requires a certain getting used to its unmanageability. This begins to make sense when you realize that, as a finite creature, you are trying to form an ongoing relationship with an infinite presence. Our finiteness doesn’t disappear, and it desires to have some control over this divine encounter, which, of course, it can’t. The practice is to get used to an intention for continual letting go and trusting the letting go.
There is a contemplative path which mystics have tried to describe throughout the ages. For would-be spiritual seekers, there is guidance to be found and daily work to be done. But for me, I am becoming aware that the path, itself, can become another diversion. I want to step back and locate myself on the path to God. I want to say, “See, I am here. I have this far to go. Look at how much progress I have made! At this rate, I should be there in this many years, or this many lifetimes.” I want to check off the boxes and show the report card to God, who must surely be impressed. “Good job, John!” is what I long to hear. This is how my experience with paths has always gone. Assignments, work and evaluation. Surely, it must be the same with the contemplative path.
But it is dawning on me that the spiritual path is not a path at all. There is nowhere to travel to where God is, nor any place that we find ourselves where God is not. We are already there with God and there is nothing to be done to arrive. How do you measure or control that? Even in my failures to see, to understand, to practice, to show up faithfully, God is always there loving me. There is nothing more I have to do. And yet, there is always life to live and moments to embrace, however those moments show up.
This morning the moment showed up as vulnerability, which is not a sign of God’s absence, but the reality of God’s presence in my inner experience of vulnerability. I didn’t see that at the time, of course. I just didn’t like the way I felt. My reflex is to judge the moment, resist it when it doesn’t seem right to me. After lunch, I decided to give myself permission to reflect on the day and to put it down on computer screen.
I am trying to revision my work as a pastor as traveling and teaching a spiritual path—one well-traveled and well-described by the great Christian mystics, and non-Christian mystics as well. I am practicing the path. I am studying the path. I am preaching and teaching the path. I am writing about the path. And, then, it occurs to me that it’s a pathless path. God’s funny like that. I hope I can remember to laugh.