Each year on my birthday, I look forward to reading the meditation for August 29th in Daily Word, the devotional magazine of Unity Church.
The message has always tended to be something I could welcome as a motto for the new year, something which affirmed my sense of self and reassured me that I was on the so-called “spiritual path.”
This year, however, I stumbled mentally. The day’s topic was “Pray for Others,” and the opening affirmation was:
I pray for you, knowing that God is blessing you now and always.
The scripture passage following the text of the meditation was this one:
In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” – Luke 3:11
My disappointment was so palpable that I almost put the meditation away without finishing it.
Then I recalled that I’ve had this reaction almost every time the Daily Word message has directed my attention to others, rather than to myself.
Journaling later that day at my favorite coffeehouse, I realized that this reaction shows me how much of what I call my daily “faith and practice” is really just about me. About sustaining and reassuring and comforting me.
I may voice more generous concerns and professions in blogs or conversations or worship. Yet the baseline of my day for several years now has been my own sense of loss, anger, distress, longing, loneliness, and so on. And, hence, my pleading that somehow or other I be able to find a daily “spiritual routine” which will give me relief.
As I wrote in “On waiting and squirming,” for most of a decade I have secretly been on guard against “caring too much” about people or being “in the path of obligation” to help them.
I am lost in this.
What I’ve just described is the unvarnished version of what Quakers call experiencing the Inner Light, rather than the New Age-y version. Simon St. Laurent recently shared a relevant passage from Fox in a post to his Light and Silence: Reflections on Quakerism:
The Lord doth show unto a man his thoughts, and discovereth all the secret workings in man. A man may be brought to see all his evil thoughts and running mind and vain imagination….
Sitting in the coffeehouse with this fresh self-awareness, I picked up my other, newer devotional reading, Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, and read:
Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.
For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial “doubt.” This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious “faith” of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion. This false “faith” which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our “religion” is subjected to inexorable questioning.
This torment is a kind of trial by fire in which we are compelled, by the very light of invisible truth which has reached us in the dark ray of contemplation, to examine, to doubt and finally to reject all the prejudices and conventions that we have hitherto accepted as if they were dogmas….
What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, clichés, slogans, rationalizations!
The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply “is.” (13-14)
How bizarrely comforting it is to read this!
In the Buddhist metaphor, it describes that rare moment of letting all of one’s acquired significators for experience fall away.
In the Pagan metaphor, it is what I’ve experienced when the Crone—or Kali—says, “Nothing is sacred. No thing that you have seized upon to save you is sacred. Let it all go.”
Though I will not pretend that I am suddenly better at praying for others instead of only for myself, the light is shining on that wound within me. Perhaps, if I resist turning off that light….
Meanwhile, the last part of that chapter from Merton gives me another odd sort of comfort:
In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because “God is not a what,” not a “thing.”
That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.”
He is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am.”
And so it is.