Wednesday, April 9, 2008

...but do we need faith?


Every morning, I get up between five and 5:30 a.m. when it is still dark. I have a cup of coffee and I do some reading from a particular spiritual tradition. For two years, it was Zen Buddhism. Right now, I'm working on the New Testament.

This darkness of the morning reminds me of the darkness I live in. Both Zen Buddhism and the New Testament speak of enlightenment; yet, like most people, I only know a tiny little bit about that subject. I am a man trying to see the entire interior of a vast palace through a keyhole in the front door. Within this body and this life, I'm surrounded by a kind of darkness. Rays of light may penetrate here and there to illuminate, but the overall condition is one of unknowing.

Nonetheless, one thing I know for a fact is that this entire darkness is penetrated by love. This love is a very fine kind of material substance that can support me in my effort. I have to have a wish to contact it, however; if I ignore it, if I don't care about it enough to take some initiative, it becomes much more difficult for it to reach me.

It's difficult to live surrounded by the darkness of ordinary life. I am pulled in so many directions by its demands that I forget to attend to my inner conditions and requirements. I get confused, because my mind and my body both invent passions, desires, and beliefs that aren't very helpful in my search to be in contact with something finer within myself.

As Gurdjieff eventually told Ouspensky (perhaps when he finally thought he could handle it,--if so, he called that one wrong--) I need faith to help me stay the course in my effort and my work. So perhaps the Christian idea of faith is all-too-oddly orthodox, in this otherwise apparently unorthodox work.

But is the Gurdjieff work so unorthodox, after all? Could a Greek Orthodox boy really run away to join the spiritual circus, and never come home again?

Or do the roots of his practice penetrate deeper into the heart of conventional Christian faith than we usually admit to ourselves?

Towards the end of Hebrews, we find the question of faith examined over and over again. (all quotes taken from the Oxford University Press New Oxford Annotated Bible, 2007)

"But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the Word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible." (Hebrews 10:39-11:3)

What is it that causes me to shrink back and be lost? It is always a question of my fear. If I let my fear dominate me, it will shake my faith and destroy it. I need strength and courage in my work in order to go forward.

I need to remember that what is seen is not the end of things. The roots of reality lie--as any physicist might remind me --in places less obvious than what my ordinary senses collect and interpret.

Immediately after this passage, Hebrews lists the many men of the Old Testament who worked and suffered through their faith, despite the fact that they went unrewarded.

"All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city for them." (Hebrews 11:13-16.)

Here I think we see clearly that we come from somewhere else. We are strangers and foreigners on the earth, seeking something beyond this place where we find ourselves.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us... Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood." (Hebrews 12.1-4)

In the reference to the great cloud of witnesses, and the preceding litany of Old Testament figures and events, we find allusions to the untold amounts of work done by those who have gone before us. In it, there are echoes of Gurdjieff's contention that mankind is engaged in a much greater effort, overall, than what any one man can understand.

The Buddhists maintain quite the same thing in their understanding that all mankind must eventually become enlightened. What is encouraging here is the suggestion that that we draw strength in our work from all of the efforts of those who have gone before us.

Here, in other words, we find an understanding of what Michel DeSalzmann instructed--the community is the teacher. It is the collective action both through time, and within the faith, that gives us our possibilities.

And indeed, there is a moment in "Beelzebub's tales to his Grandson" where Hassein ponders just this question. Beelzebub wisely advises him to not worry about this too much, but to attend rather to effecting a greater unity of his own inner parts. It is always, in other words, the work at hand that we need to be concerned with.

"Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather healed. Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled." (Hebrews 12:11-15.)

This passage might as well have been written by the Buddhists. In addition to its call for right action, it issues a command for us all to act as bodhisattvas.

As a friend of mine in the work pointed out yesterday, the Gurdjieff practice is indeed esoteric Christianity. As I grow older, I am able to embrace this wholeheartedly, and without embarrassment. In doing so, I embrace the Christian faith itself as being much larger than what I find between the margins of any page, or the walls of any church. Its contacts with the other great traditions are intimate and heartfelt.

Let not the petty-mindedness of literal Christians, Gospel-peddlers and Hell-and-brimstone moralists distract us from the vibrant heart of this great tradition. Instead, we can draw courage from its roots, which reach far back in time, to men and Schools unknown, who paid in hard coin to bring us the understandings which we still benefit from today.

Like the alcoholic who is tempted to drink--and I know this beast all too well, it has haunted me for over 26 years of sobriety--I must not grow weary or lose heart. Instead, when the inebriating temptations of my doubt assault me, may I redouble my efforts and redouble them again. This is just like not drinking-- every day I must make the effort.

In this regard, even the most unlikely characteristics may be of use.

In "Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness," Suzuki Roshi recalls that the reason he succeeded as a Zen monk was because he was dull, stubborn, and obstinate. He was at the monastery long after the Zen superstars around him burned out and left. He never perceived himself as being on a race track to enlightenment -- always just walking along a path. He had a faith that motivated him and a persistence that supported him. And he knew, I think, that this darkness we inhabit is penetrated by love in every direction.

Any idiot can break rocks with a hammer. But water, wind, and time can break them down, and render them beautiful at the same time.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Lee for your beautiful and Oh so honest in sights about Jesus and the Work.
    Again I salute you and pray that in All and Everything you strive All and everything you do that Jesus will become such an incandescent light that you will never never doubt Him at All.
    You have a very sound mind and a very large heart, your ship will never run aground.
    God Bless You, and keep you skimming the waters to that revered and luxuriant Promised Land


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