Physician, Get Over Thyself, and Learn Something from The Life of Brian
As you know, yesterday's was a repost. Readers responded with an enthusiastic "tails up," so I decided to check out the comments on the original post from five years ago, not just to gauge the reaction, but to mine them for new material.
Some readers chimed in with their own advice, but one comment stands out. After a lengthy, detailed, and helpful deuscourse on the difficulties of the path, longtime reader Brian says,
Lord have mercy. I pray I have given a good account.
This summarizes my ambivalent reaction to any positive feelings generated by yesterday's post -- not "thank the Lord," but rather, "Lord have mercy on me, a winner!," because now I own it. It very much reminds me of an aphorism of Don Colacho:
No one should dare, without trembling, to influence anyone's destiny.
Or how about, Wisdom comes down to not showing God how things should be done.
And from the complementary perspective, another aphorism: Nothing is more unforgivable than voluntarily imprisoning ourselves in another's convictions, when we should be trying to break through even the bars in the dungeon of our own intelligence.
So if things don't work out, it's your own fault for believing me. Reader waives all liability. Unprofessional seeker on a closed course. Offer void if revelation is altered or not used in a manner consistent with divine instructions.
In response to my warning to off-road aspirants and freelance seekers who attempt to go it alone, reader Squishy objected that:
"I think you do a disservice to those who shun tradition and seek out their own paths. There are mystical truths to be had everywhere, and it seems there are modes of knowing them as numerous as there are discernible bits of human culture to concentrate upon and unify with."
Which brings to mind a comment by Schuon, that "there are no metaphysical or cosmological reasons why, in exceptional cases, direct intellection should not arise in men who have no link at all with revealed wisdom, but an exception, if it proves the rule, assuredly could not constitute the rule"; and "an accident does not take the place of a principle."
True, the spirit blows where it will, but not only where it will. Rather, there are cosmic weather patterns, areas of heat and light, land and water, fire and ice.
In response to Squishy, Brian suggested that "the historico-spiritual record flatly contradicts your thesis. I do not think there are one in a million people remotely capable of being a free-spirit and actually achieving theoria of an elevated kind without the support of a singular tradition. St. Anthony the Great had to escape Alexandria and spent 30 years alone in the desert before he finally 'got it' on his own -- 30 years of private struggle! And this in a time when hardship was the norm. And let's not forget Buddha spending all those years looking for his middle-way. What age did he finally achieve his satori? Do not think you can re-invent the wheel so easily.
"No, those who claim that just anyone can go off on their own and enter spiritual warfare without the support and guidance of an active and knowledgeable community, a tradition with experience in fighting those battles, is almost certain to only find delusion rather than theosis. Too many earnest monks (Christian, Buddhist, and others) have discovered that to their dismay.
"So Squishy, the very idea is an invitation to failure from the start, since it begins with the assumption of individual autonomy, and a severe lack of humility -- these are the very things that have to be fought before theoria can occur. It is like a boy-child thinking he can step into the ring with Rocky Balboa and prevail rather than being reduced to a bloody pulp -- not pretty.
"If you, or anyone, is truly serious about this stuff, do what all those who have actually 'been there done that' advise -- commit to a tradition which has a heavy emphasis on and support for ascetic disipline (I recommend Orthodox Christianity), find a spiritual mentor, and really really listen to what he says, and really really DO what he tells you. Enlightenment, theoria, and theosis begin with obedience and humility -- all traditions agree on that."
This is no different than when one is sick, or, as Cousin Dupree reminds me, when one is in trouble with the law. He is not the first self-styled lawyer with a fool for a client. And physician, get over thyself!
PSGInfinity commented that he would be delighted to see Squishy succeed, "but I'm not optimistic. [A] spiritual journey starts out as an apprenticeship, wherein you learn the ropes from more experienced (inner)spacefarers. Most human endeavors requiring an apprenticeship do so precisely because the apprenticeship process shortens an error-filled learning curve. So good luck, and beware the pitfalls of addiction..."
Another long-time reader, Alan, suggested that "The first step is to realize you are really asleep and not alive. The second is to work on remaining awake -- knowing that you are. Everything flows from those two steps."
In other words, wake up and stay that way. You know, watch and pray. Alan reminds us of Jesus' words, that "The thief comes but to steal, and kill, and destroy. I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly."
Brian was unusually frisky that day. He writes that "There is a paradox in spiritual learning. The further you advance on the path, the more you realize how far you are from the goal. This has been the most humbling realization for me, the knowledge that I can never graduate and get my sheepskin from the 'U. of the Most Holy.'"
Amen to that. If this weren't the case, then I should have pretty much finished arguing my case a million words ago, but instead, I've apparently just cleared my throat.
Brian continues: "You can never stop and enjoy the view, because the moment you do, you fall into pride, and the fall is all that much greater the more you have actually progressed -- one mistake can be literally (and eternally) fatal. So I say to you, you know not of what you speak. Spirituality is a life and death game, the teacher is not books and universities but rather life and death themselves. It's a hard lesson, especially for those who are most intellectually talented."
I would respectfully modify that somewhat, because I believe there is a complementarity involved, of simultaneously "enjoying" but never being satisfied. We eat for today, but that doesn't mean we don't have to work for tomorrow's harvest. There is both "movement" toward the center, while abiding in it.
Brian warns of reducing God to a manageable concept, or of trying to contain Spirit within the boundaries of reason, O within (k):
"The Logos that can be named is not the true Logos. Squishy, with all due respect, your wish-fullfillment fantasy is to make the spiritual intellectual, because then the endeavor seems manageable, achievable, something you can do on your own in the privacy of your own home. I know this because I've been where you are (as have many many others), and even now there is always a strong temptation to reduction, just as scientists constantly battle their temptation to reduce everything to physics. That is your block (and perhaps your permanent cross to bear), the temptation to reductionism, and your pride in thinking you can do that without consequence.
"Listen, the history of spirituality [demonstrates] that transmission of teachings is easy, like any human discipline. However, realization of Truth and then living that Truth is a wholly different matter. The followers of Christ and Buddha, for example, were invariably blockheads, no matter how many ways they received the teaching. The Apostles, for example, didn't get it until Pentecost, until after Christ had shown the way by His life. You are called to follow and abandon blockheadedness -- we all are.
Not sure why Brain is a reader, since he already gets Bob: "There is an absolute and divine Truth. It is a necessary precondition for all logic, morality, and intelligibility -- it is Logos. An aspect of this truth is that we are all blockheads who keep thinking we can 'forge a path anew' and expect to arrive at the same place -- this is the hubris of the philosophers. There is no bootstrap solution -- we are fallen creatures in desperate need of outside assistance. The good news is that we have received that assistance. Descartes was all wrong when he started with himself cogitating. God is precogital."
I say -- and Brian would no doubt agree -- pre- and post-, Alpha and Omega, ground and destiny, source and goal.
Brian concludes by invoking the need to "Begin with humility -- pray for it -- empty yourself of pride, for this is the spiritual method at its core. Only then will there be space for the spirit to begin working within you. This is the first step, and the second, and the third, until the day you die, and beyond...
"Lord have mercy. I pray I have given a good account."
A genuine vocation leads the writer to to write only for himself: first out of pride, then out of humility. --Don Colacho's Aphorisms
Related: Why is it So Hard to Become a Better Person?