Chapter 1

From the Unreal to the Real

In a cold temperate climate the blazing sun is a friendly presence. As its rays impinge on us, so the body expands in joyful response, and even the taut emotional life relaxes for a moment. We may even smile in unconscious thanksgiving and see some pleasant prospect ahead of us. Then its beneficent rays are unobtrusively intercepted by clouds; its presence seems to recede, and a chill enfolds us, both in body and mind. It brings to our inner awareness the transience of all things beautiful and comforting, the realization of how short-lived our periods of happiness are, invariably succeeded by episodes of frustration as our plans are interrupted and our hopes delayed.

In due course the sun ends its daily circuit and sets in the west; darkness falls, covering our portion of the globe. This we take in our stride, for we know that the sun's influence is never at an end even when it is invisible; without it our lives would perish in an instant. We fall sound asleep during the dark pall of the night with the beautiful trust of a little child - who is indeed our true stature irrespective of the distinction we may have attained in the world. We are confident that we will awaken to the light of another day, fresh for new experiences to fulfil our destiny, of whose nature we are both ignorant and yet dimly aware at the same time. And in the day we do our work, encouraged by the sun's radiance and subdued into pensive reflection by the dullness induced by a cloudy sky. Darkness and light succeed each other day by day, yet we respond to Jesus' observation, "While daylight lasts we must carry on the work of him who sent me; night comes, when no one can work" (John 9:4). He goes on to say that while he is in the world he is the light of the world. But what is the nature of the darkness of the night that we are due to experience, first physically but later spiritually also? We confront the earthly darkness with a faith in the workings of the natural order, but what is the basis of the faith that may guide us through the darkness of the inner man? This is the soul, the organ of intimate identity where we may make judgements of value and then commit ourselves to abide by them. The action of the soul in doing this work is the free will.

This deeper darkness confronts us in our private lives, our hidden solitude, from the time that we are aware of our separate unique identity, of which our special name is an outer mark of meaning that distinguishes us from all other people. The youth may confront the challenges of life with apparent indifference as he surmounts them without difficulty, but his sensitive soul flinches at the shafts of criticism and misunderstanding that are an inevitable burden of daily life; they cast a foreboding shadow on the horizon but are easily dismissed as he continues on his breathless way. As life progresses the heavier clouds of competition, jealousy and failure cast a darker, more persistent shadow which becomes doubly threatening as the corruption of the world adds to its power. A person is coming to age psychologically, in mind and soul, when he learns to accept that no human agency is likely to advance his career, that his future prosperity depends on himself alone using the gifts with which he has been endowed. When human support fails, or at least reaches its limit, he may make the sudden discovery of a deeper source of help, one that is constant and always available. Its presence lies within him, the awareness of God, who is in fact both an external source of love and a deeper indwelling within the soul. But how few of us attain that degree of spiritual knowledge, which shows itself outwardly as an emotional maturity that gives of itself and does not look for rewards and praise! The happy few who have made the transition from human dependence to divine service have scaled one level of darkness, and can face the flux of day and night with a degree of composure that is independent of material circumstances, being anchored in a sea of spiritual values.

Most of us, however, look with distaste on the advent of ageing. We dread the encroachment of each year into the glow of our present security, for it brings with it a chill that presages increasing impotence in life's struggle, loneliness and physical enfeeblement. The moment of truth about the basic human condition generally, and our own more particularly, has a darkness about it that is so forbidding that its advent is delayed for as long as possible by a fevered participation in the affairs of the present moment. This participation is one of escape rather than direct awareness, and therefore its role is to shield us from reality rather than to bring us closer to our true end. The darkness may be banished by the artificial light of worldly diversions, but in due course that light flickers and is then extinguished. How dark then is the ensuing gloom!

The gloom is intensified as the flow of relationships, on which the life of the person depends, is menaced by the inroads of the death of those close to us. We accept their support without acknowledgement in the course of the day; we almost forget their contribution to the memorable experiences of our life, little realizing that it is their presence which is the essence of most of the beauty in our existence. As the sun descends and declines in the west, so do our lives fade away on a mute note of sadness: too late have we discovered what was crucially important for us in eternity, too little have we done to ennoble the world and heal its creatures. But deep within us there flickers a spark of hope, a belief that a new day will dawn with more experiences to be tasted, more wisdom to be acquired, more love to be shown. The spark burns from the spirit deeply placed in the soul, the point of contact between God and us. This is the seat of the highest judgements of value. We read in Numbers 3:38 that in the course of the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and the arrival in the Promised Land, Moses was stationed with Aaron and his sons in front of the Tabernacle on the east. They were stationed in front of the Tent of Presence towards the sunrise. This is a beautiful symbol of the inextinguishable nature of human aspiration towards mortal completion and the vision of God. As the Israelites followed the way of the sunrise to reach their glorious destination, so also do we advance by hope, strengthened by faith, towards our destined end, which is God.

The way, alas, is neither uniformly well lit nor is it of even contour. It is interrupted by dark, precipitous valleys of such magnitude that we can all too easily lose our way, indeed our very bearings, in them. Then it seems as if we have taken the wrong path, made the wrong journey, and that we are to be swallowed up, like travellers lost in a vast desert, in oblivion. But we have to go on, for there is no obvious place of turning back, any more than the ungrateful, intransigent Israelites could really return to Egypt, with all its enticements recalled to mind but none of the harsh punishment of the slave drivers. One cannot turn back; indeed, no one who sets his hand to the plough and then keeps looking back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). Turning back, or even gazing nostalgically towards the past, is tantamount to committing suicide, to cursing Cod, to turning one's face to the wall and dying. The living darkness at least teaches us something about eternity: in it we learn that we are nothing in our own right, that all identity based on the world's power is an illusion, that our very concepts of reality, determined by worldly models, are vain. We learn that the ultimate reality to which we grope has no relation to anything we may conceive mentally, but is to be understood intuitively as the supreme No-Thing, in the same way that we are also nothing apart from it. And yet from this ineffable No-Thing flows the love and power that creates and sustains all things, even ourselves. The knowledge that emerges out of this debris of shattered illusion is our true inheritance; a love that shows itself in absolute dereliction is our reward. We begin to understand the teaching of St Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:2, that faith in God sufficient to move mountains, but without love, is vain. Indeed, that faith may have to be all but shattered before we can begin to know love. The darkness is here to teach us about love in utter hopelessness; then alone may we be filled with the No-Thing that leaves us complete.

It must also be said that the way is, in addition, interspersed with high mountains which it is our privilege to scale, aided by the grace of God. At their peak we see the Promised Land as did the dying Moses: "Then Moses went up from the lowlands of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, eastwards from Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land" (Deuteronomy 34:1). He was allowed to see it all with his own eyes, but he could not cross over into it, because he had proved himself unworthy of that supreme privilege. Likewise, the great mystics have seen the heavenly realm from the peak of the mountain of illumination where the uncreated light of God is the ground of eternity. But then they have had to descend to the lower depths once more, as did Peter, James and John after their vision of the Lord Jesus in his transcendent glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. And Jesus himself had to descend fearfully yet triumphantly to the darkest of all valleys.

In an alley sloping downwards and imperceptibly darkening as its contours are assayed, we can see a number of people who are, in fact, representatives of the human condition. Previously they had all led successful lives, at least by worldly standards, their very prosperity separating them from the general run of their fellows in a self contained style of living, complacent, assured and insensitive. And then the bastion of their security was summarily removed - in real life that removal is usually sudden and precipitate, for until then they had lived in selfish unawareness both of themselves and of the world around them. The collapse is total; the light of assurance is extinguished, and all that is left is a void containing a distracted individual groping vainly for a landmark of orientation, a trace of identification. There seems to be no one to help as the world pursues its heedless course. It is a sad fact that most of us are as oblivious of our communal responsibility to a wounded fellow as the priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. To be fair to human nature, it responds with alacrity to anyone who is physically hurt, but it is less helpful to those whose wound is deeper and therefore less obvious. It is noteworthy, furthermore, that in the parable the one who comes to the assistance of the victim of robbery with violence is a Samaritan, a heretic outside the pale of the local community. It may well be that his bitter experience of ostracism, rejection and loneliness made him especially conscious of the traveller's plight and sensitive to his isolation. In this moment of recognition the outsider could identify himself with the victim. This is indeed a small fruit of suffering patiently endured or an injustice borne without recrimination. Society at large, by contrast, is often blind and cruel, because like the crowd who witnessed Jesus' crucifixion, it does not know what it is doing. It must be admitted that the indifference of the mass of humanity is seldom appreciably altered by the virtue of a person it has rejected, for most of us are so immersed in our own private fantasies that we are seldom available to see anything outside ourselves. In fact, the potential will to good among most people is considerable, but before this can be activated a considerable shock is often necessary to break into the general apathy. It is this blind indifference with its total unawareness that can be so terrifying in a mass of people; a few may be moved by the disinterested concern and transparent holiness of an individual member, but most remain untouched. In the darkness the deeper challenges of life may, paradoxically, be far better seen and confronted, so that a definite decision can be made: whether we are to declare ourselves for or against a commitment to become authentic people, manifest children of God.

And so those about to enter the valley of darkness disappear from the general view. They see themselves accurately for the first time in their lives as little children exposed to the inclement elements of existence, against which they had been so tightly insulated by the security they had achieved. There is the general atmosphere of bereavement, the stripping away of a relationship or a circumstance around which the life of the person had previously revolved. Bereavement in this general formulation includes much more than the death of a loved one, with which the term is usually associated. A person may be dispossessed of his employment which was the bastion of his sense of self-esteem, to say nothing of the financial consequences of the calamity. Usually it is an immaterial thing that has been taken away: a betrayal of one's trust, a repudiation of the love one had borne a marriage partner in the sordid business of infidelity, a throwing up in one's face of one's inner social insecurity based on racial or religious grounds. Previously an edifice of security, even propriety; had been erected to conceal the unsure foundations of one's origin, and now the whole contrivance is demolished. One stands once more as a little child, cowering at the world's disdain. In fact most of the disdain is a creation of one's own unsteady mind; the world goes on oblivious of one's hurt. It is the past with its insecurity and fear that dominates the consciousness of the victim, and this he projects onto the present situation. An insult of the long past, if it remains dormant and its emotional charge is not spent, comes back forcibly into one's mind, and brings one back to one's situation at that time. Perhaps one was a mere child then, but the memory allied to the present bereavement can easily cut one down to the size of a child, flinching from yet railing against the injustice of life. The darkness becomes more intense as hope is excluded and one is surrounded by the dank coldness of isolation: nobody cares and one is left behind to perish in oblivion.

The general run of society has little use for failures, whether these be enterprises that falter or people who do not make the grade according to the world's criteria of success or respectability. The same condemnation holds true, unfortunately, in many instances of religious renewal. Its protagonists are all too often perplexed by those among them who fail to show a radical transformation of character or a conspicuous inner healing of some embarrassing impediment. To them success proves that God is with them; indeed success can easily become a very proof of God's power, even his existence. In this way their pattern of belief and its ensuing course of action is proved to be divinely inspired. But when one of their members fails to reach the mark or attain an outer, manifest healing, they tend to cast the burden of his condition squarely in his face: perhaps his faith was insufficient or else unacknowledged sin was lurking in the background. That God's ways of healing may be beyond mortal comprehension is often a proposition that lies outside their simplistic, emotional range of understanding; admittedly Jesus healed the sick, but he was unable to save himself from a particularly ignominious death on the cross between two criminals. From their point of view it is better that the unhealed member should be discharged forthwith from the company of the elect, so that their easy assurance may not be too severely challenged. The failed person can thus conveniently be expelled from their midst and be submerged in the amorphous hell of secular society, left to drown in a mass of faceless people. These jostle each other while pushing and straining to attain an end which is an illusion.

And so it comes about that the summary dismissal of an apparently doomed person may be the initial movement forced upon him towards his attainment of the light, a light illuminating a trackless waste whose contours remain uncharted. But at least it has a strange authenticity which is lacking in so much of the formal social scene. In this scene his associates want to have as little to do with him as possible because involvement is menacing. It brings one too close to the brink of one's own insecurity, to the moment of truth which one would delay as long as possible. Once one concerns oneself with another person's plight, one exposes oneself to his psychic emanations, to the sharpness of his pain. At the same time one tends to distance oneself from the company of the prosperous and successful, with whom, in one's baser moments one would like to be identified. By contrast, the ones who have been stripped of all with which they have previously identified themselves are attaining an authenticity that they previously lacked. Indeed, they are coming together in the darkness, and a fellowship, as yet intangible, is forming even though the participants are scarcely aware of each other. This type of unforced fellowship is common to all those who lie incarcerated, whether in gaols for criminal offenders or in prison camps set aside for political or religious deviants. Their antecedents may be questionable, but their future has a common destiny. They may either perish on a note of despair or else go on into a new life of purification. The good and the bad share a common abode. In the way ahead a new identity is to be forged for each one of them.

Chapter 2
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