Sunday, April 12, 2009


Deafened by the voice of desire
you are unaware the Beloved

lives in the core of your heart.

Stop the noise,

and you will hear His voice
in the silence.

Imitating others,

I failed to find myself.

I looked inside and discovered
I only knew my name.

When I stepped outside

I found my real Self.

(Rumi, Rubaiyat #181, 77)

In my work and study I often run into some broad sweeping criticisms of Western Christianity. (And I must admit, I’m getting a little tired of it, always being the one to defend Western Christianity!) One of the criticisms is that Western Christians are too focused on our “cult of the dark night” and all our Sturm und Drang, as opposed to other mystical traditions that seem to be bursting with light and serenity. I’ve even read criticism of a master of the spiritual life such as Gregory the Great for dwelling too much on the pain and effort of the approach to God, and focusing too much on how the soul has to fight its way out of the darkness that is its natural element. Maybe that’s true––historically we have often fallen into the trap of getting caught up in Good Friday and forgetting about Easter Sunday––but only up to a point. We have to remember, for instance, that St John of the Cross wrote his mystical verses about the dark night while he was trapped in a prison cell, and put there by his own brothers; and that Gregory the Great was forced into the papacy while the Roman Empire was collapsing, the Emperor had abdicated, Rome was infected with famine and pestilence, floods and earthquakes, Greeks and the barbarians were invading, and he had to take over, when all he wanted to do was be a simple monk. There actually was a lot of “storm and stress.” The amazing thing is that either of them continued to hope at all. So we could also say the opposite is true too in our modern era, as I’ve heard it said, that the dark side of modern popular spirituality is that there is no dark side to modern popular spirituality. It’s easy for us to talk about light and serenity while we sit sleek and well fed in hot tubs and air-conditioning, when the lot of many in our world is great darkness, innocent, unmerited suffering and abject poverty.

Even without tremendous suffering (if anyone can possibly avoid it), still in the course of our lives, in the course of the evolution of our consciousness, in the course of our coming forth from God like a word shouted across the span of the sky, we accumulate layer upon layer of persona, layer upon layer of habit, layer upon layer of compulsion and enslavements, not to mention layer upon layer of innocent cultural conditioning. And all those things can, and often do, hide our real self. At some point it all has to go, whether we are Buddhist, Hindu or shamans; every tradition teaches this. This is the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies. If there is a perennial philosophy, a sanatana dharma, then surely this is one of Jesus’ contributions to it. That if that grain falls into the ground and dies, if the husk of our being is shucked off, it will yield a rich harvest, something new will be born, our real self hidden in God. Jesus’ story impels us to believe that our fundamental being, our real self cannot be annihilated, even if the husk is shucked off by abject suffering or by the subtler but no less profound progressive stripping that is the invitation of the spiritual life.

Maybe we can see this in a different light when viewed through the prism of another tradition. There is this mysterious concept in Sufism known as fana, usually translated as “annihilation,” annihilation of the self or of the ego, though some argue that that is too strong of a word. Even though the Sufis always maintain a distinction between the Creator and the Creature, still they teach that the goal of the spiritual life is a loss of a sense of a separate self in the union with God. This is a great theme of the poet Rumi, and––talk about Sturm und Drang!––what anguish he went through at the loss of his beloved friend Shams that led to Rumi’s own dissolution of self before his real enlightenment. But, equally important, it doesn’t end there in that fana. Because fana is followed by baqa–revival, a re-vivification, a return to the self, but a return to an enhanced self. To our surprise, union with God and the so-called annihilation does not destroy our natural capacities, but fulfills them! When the obscuring egoism has been stripped away, we discover the divine presence at the heart of our own being, and from this we experience greater self-realization and greater self-control. In this baqa-revival, we come bounding back from the fana–annihilation more fully human, the ideal human-ness that God intended all along. Karen Armstrong suggests that what Sufis are describing is the same state that the Greek Christians call “deification.”

And I am suggesting Jesus’ resurrection as the ultimate baqa, surviving the abject suffering of his body, his physical being; and surviving also the stripping of all the layers of his psyche, everything he held dear, anything he could have possibly held on to as a self-identity; and even of his spiritual being, his own sense of union with God. He comes bounding back, the Song of Songs says, Leaping the mountains, bounding the hills.

I keep threatening that I’m going to write a book and call it: “Nothing Gets Left Behind.” Pedro Arrupe in a reading we heard the other day referred to “humanity’s integral salvation.” Our natural capacities not destroyed but fulfilled, our humanity enhanced. In other words, nothing gets left behind. And that begins already now. Don Arrupe says, “The destination of humankind [is] to the joint participation in the future salvation,” but it “starts right now here on earth,” and so it “has to be put into practice here and now in every dimension of our human existence.” This is what it means to be an Easter people. We get it all back enhanced, but we only get it back after we’ve let it all go, risked its annihilation, after the dark night. And so John of the Cross says, “Now that I no longer desire them, I have them all without desire.”

Perhaps this is what we haven’t accented enough, the baqa–the revival of our vivified enhanced humanity, even in this life. As hard as it is, we simply must believe that there is a freedom here in this way, this stripping away of all that obscures our real self, this kenosis of Jesus, in this discovery of divine presence–– the love of God at the heart of our own being. When we stray off the path, or when we are tempted to despair of our progress even after many years of struggling, when we are feeling as if we have made little progress, Easter reminds us that we simply must believe that in following the way of Jesus, this is where we are led, to our own hearts, to our own enhanced humanity, to this truth, the truth of who we truly are––and that is the truth that can set us free, the real moksha, the real liberation from the cycle of life and death, and that would lead to our baqa–revival, and we come bounding back re-vivified, a return to the self, the enhanced, deified self that God intended all along.

We have to do it at some point in our lives––at the final moment perhaps––, stand naked and poor before Ultimate Reality, and face the god of death. So we may as well do it now. Because of Jesus, the god of death doesn’t have to be named “Satan,” anymore; he’s no longer the tempter, because Jesus’ story tells us Death no longer has the victory, Death doesn’t really have any sting, because our real self hidden in God cannot be annihilated. So Death becomes Yama instead, as the Katha Upanishad calls him, our teacher, who tells us that the death we have to undergo in this life is learning to choose the good over the merely pleasurable (2:1), and tells us that…
…by the yoga of the study of the self,
the wise will come to know that which is hard to see,
that which is deeply hidden,
that which lies in a cave of the heart and rests in the depths,
the ancient deity––and pass beyond joy and sorrow.” (2:12)
And that would be the ultimate baqa, the final liberation.