Stone, Confucian Temple, Shanghai
Photograph by the author
Shanghai, Oct. 29
Sometimes one goes a long way through life only to come to things, after great difficulty, that one sees one ought to have seen much more easily.
Life itself weirdly obscures things; it interferes with living.
Above all, I think that life draws us away from God with all of its events. I find myself immersed in a contradiction whereby I can only find God by living; yet it is living itself that draws me away, confusing me with the untold number of events that connect with my desires and fears to tempt me in one hundred directions — one thousand directions — every direction but that direction which turns me back towards God.
This morning I was lying on the bed looking at my feet, and I realized that although I have feet, I never think about them or know anything about them. Like the rest of my body and my being itself, I take these things for granted. An active and mindful relationship with them often seems to escape me. I'm not sure why I bring that up here, except that it somehow seems to have something to do with this insight that life draws me away from living.
It's this insight — an inward sight— that I want to come into a more intimate relationship with. That inward vision is also an inward hearing, and an inward touching: the necessary effort of engaging in impression within all of the parts, thinking, feeling, sensing. The inward sight urges me, with an instinct somehow long forgotten — yet still the ember burns — to forsake all other things and follow God, to be willing to turn away from every image and idol, from every edifice I have erected for myself, towards that great mystery of the Perfection.
I am in every way inadequate to this task. Yet I'm supported by love; and it never allows me to forget that, even as it sinks into my bones and reminds me of the essential sorrow at the heart of all being. There isn't any difference between that sorrow and that love; if there truly were a terror of any situation, it might be to come to this moment in one’s spiritual work and realize that all the freedom I thought I would buy my effort is nothing more than the privilege of participating in this inescapable sorrow which penetrates everything.
It has its opposite side, of course, yet that does not seem to be its primary manifestation.
I was on the street in Pudong yesterday afternoon at lunch, preparing to cross traffic with my office staff. The street is lined with lovely flower boxes, bursting with extraordinary saffron colored marigolds. There are a few petunias — shocking red — mixed in for effect, but the marigolds beckoned. I bent down to smell them, to take in the beautiful yet acrid odor of their blossoms. It was then, taking in the wholeness of those flowers and that street and the sun that fell on everything, that I felt for a moment in every cell of my being God's generosity, and how he creates this beauty for us which is infinitely sustaining and infinitely joyful, even in the midst — and at exactly the same time — that this sorrow penetrates to the bone.
Thinking back on this, I realize that one cannot exist without the other. It gave me a taste of exactly what Mr. Gurdjieff meant when he said that every joy comes only from payment in the form of something already suffered. We must pick up our inner burdens (and our outer ones) in order to participate in God's joy; yet we must always return to the sorrow.
The allegory of the Holy Planet Purgatory is a quite perfect poetic rendering of this situation, even though it's written in prose. I say poetic because it leaves an enormous amount of empty space between the words which can only be filled by our own experience.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.