The Pearl of Great Price
Chapter 10


The still point of the turning world is the deep centre of the soul, the spirit where the Spirit of God lies immanent, bringing us to an active rest where, in our peace, we may serve the world according to his will. The divine will unites with the free human will - unites, it will be noted, not fuses - so that the divine purpose may inform the human understanding, while the human experience of life as it is may direct the divine initiative along the most immediately profitable course of action. So we even in our most inspired moments have to "make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness", make use of our worldly wealth (in all its aspects) to win friends for ourselves, as we have considered in the strange Parable of the Unjust Steward that introduces the sixteenth chapter of St Luke's Gospel. The worldly are indeed more astute than the other-worldly in dealing with their own kind; they at least can effect some relationship with the unpalatable realities of daily life and the people who throng the roads in search of comfort. By contrast, the other-worldly live largely in a world of their own imagining and, despite their good intentions, tend to elude actual contact with many of life's urgent problems. The imagination of pious people can contrive an existence that has little in common with the dangerous world we are called on to inhabit and exalt.

When we function from the spirit within, we are well protected, for the divine source strengthens us against adversity as we attain a firm balance amid the storm of confusion and violence raging around us. But such a close spiritual contact is at first evanescent, becoming a more settled part of our lives only by long apprenticeship in the school of everyday existence. It is made possible by a life of contemplative prayer; the word meditation is widely canvassed nowadays, but its zenith is a stillness in which we are one with the source of all being, whatever name that source may be given according to the tradition of the aspirant. But prayer is the ideal, not simply meditation, since the end of prayer is intercession for the whole world, whereas even the most regular meditation can become a mere personal indulgence. The experience of bliss remains a selfish end until that bliss is bestowed on the world, a challenge impossible until one has, like Christ, descended from the divine heights to the soiled human depths.

It is indeed the soiled human condition that breaks in on us continually as we trudge with laboured steps in the direction of the pearl. This condition is both personal and communal. Some of the personal hindrances to spiritual progress have already been mentioned, and in them the combination of honest awareness and the power of prayer can help to lighten the way. This enlightenment is a gradual process for, just as an eye in darkness has to accommodate itself slowly to the light of day, so the sluggish human psyche can imbibe only a limited amount of truth at any one time. As T. S. Eliot remarks, in Burnt Norton, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality". But as we enter more fully into the light of spiritual day, so do the disturbances of the world around us impinge more painfully upon our sacred silence, tempting us to respond in kind to the outer irritations. As we hit out, so do we lose our spiritual balance. Then at once we fall into the sea of discord around us, and forfeit, at least temporarily, our vision of the pearl set high above on the mountain of transfiguration.

It is in this frame of reference that we can begin to understand the shattering demands of Jesus:

Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer your left. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two. Give when you are asked to give; and do not turn your back on a man who wants to borrow (Matthew 5.39-42).

The more we become emotionally involved with our own rights and privileges, the more do we forfeit that holy equanimity on which all truly constructive action is founded. But this teaching is indeed hard: there is no magic key for the solution of any particular personal or communal problem. Jesus' teaching, if followed literally on every occasion of provocation, would lead to the invariable triumph of the strong over the weak, the dishonest over the humble seeker of justice. We have indeed to resist evil, but the principle of movement is inner acceptance, a less equivocal way than non-violent resistance, which is used for frank moral coercion in political fields. The political protagonist of non-violent resistance is often animated by hatred against his adversary, and this in turn evokes its own quota of hatred against the one who resists. As the Buddha taught at the beginning of the Dhammapada, "Hatred never ceases by hatred; hatred ceases only by love: this is the eternal law."

When therefore we are the object of a personal attack of the type alluded to by Jesus, instead of hitting out against our assailant or detractor at once without due reflection, we should return to the still point in complete confidence. There we will be in communion with the divine presence, and a deeper wisdom will guide our response to the assault on our inner abode. If the attack is a grossly physical one by a violent criminal, the body will have its own inbuilt resources of defence, but a greater wisdom will teach us when we may grapple with the assailant and when we should lie low. It need hardly be said that a calm acceptance of the criminal's fury is far wiser than any bodily response. But after he has wreaked his havoc, the concerted forces of the law will deal with the matter and in due course he will be apprehended, as much for his own good as for that of society. The victim is inevitably the loser no matter how prompt the arrest may have been, but if he is a person of awareness, he may learn much about himself and the priorities that had previously directed his life. If he can have seen and faced his own inadequacies and moved forth towards the light, his terrible encounter with naked violence will have borne a strangely productive fruit. Every experience has something to teach us about ourselves and the wider issues of life provided we have the patience and courtesy to listen rather than simply bemoan our lot and move on in bitter resentment. The same principle holds for the more common, less immediately dangerous attacks that are made on our personal integrity by jealous people. These would like nothing better than to undermine the happiness of those against whom they bear malice. In this respect, it is a sad fact of human nature that hatred of the oppressor often outdistances concern for the oppressed. The release of negative emotions, especially under the guise of morality or religion, is easy and of great immediate satisfaction.

The conservation and growth of positive attitudes, like concern, compassion and love, is a slow, bitterly humiliating process in which we seem to betray ourselves day by day. The further on we are in the quest for the precious pearl, the more insidious are the attacks of the evil one upon us. The road to heaven takes in large stretches of infernal landscape. If, however, the still point is attained and held during the heat of the day's encounters, the Holy Spirit can radiate from us, and produce a calming effect on the surrounding psychic atmosphere. A person who has this effect - one that comes from God and is emitted by the person, for it can never be produced by human will acting alone - is a true minister of healing. He is also a light on the path of the multitudes, who may begin to move away from the wide road that leads to destruction and edge towards the small gate that opens into the narrow road of eternal life.

Nothing persuades as forcibly as living example: Christ is shown in the lives of believers much more arrestingly than by their enthusiastic gestures and utterances. Indeed, the more vigorously we preach, especially when we denounce other people's beliefs, the more does our own naked insecurity reveal itself. When we work from the still point, we are in a wonderful way enabled to respect other points of view and assimilate from them what is helpful in our own journey. At the same time we can, by our very presence, show to others the inadequacies of those points of view. I am in this respect always in debt to St Augustine's statement:

That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christianity (Librum de vera religione, Chapter 10).

This true religion is often called the perennial philosophy or the ageless wisdom. It has in one way or another been taught by all the prophets and sages of mankind, whether eastern or western, but with Christ it took root in the world, which then entered upon its great course of resurrection, the end of which we still await with awe. It will coincide with Christ's coming again, this time in glory. Thus Augustine could in like fashion affirm that the Incarnation was the only Christian doctrine which he could not find in the Platonists. To come back to a more mundane note, when we are assailed by the irritations and aggravations of the living world, our great test is not to return our own volley of abuse forthwith, but rather to return to the centre within the still point of a perilously gyrating universe, taking with us the clamour and confusion around us. This advice may seem strange; surely it would be better to rise above it all and let the stream of disorder rush on beneath our raised feet. But in real living we cannot exclude ourselves from the turmoil and unhappiness of others; indeed, any such movement of escape would soon be checked by even greater disorder impinging upon us from outside. Being so much parts of the one body of humanity, our psychic interrelatedness cannot but draw us back into the vortex of the storm until we have attained such mastery of our emotions that we can control our responses instead of having them overwhelmed by outside pressure. The test of the spiritual life is to know the presence of God at all times, especially when disorder strikes or, even more pertinently, when we are maliciously attacked, whether physically or, more commonly, verbally or psychically. But what is the nature of the response from one who functions from the still point of the soul? There are two aspects of this response: an immediate calm acceptance without any trace of retributive violence, remembering the dictum, "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay" (Romans 12.19), and a more considered deliberation about the matter and the means to prevent, as far as possible, a recurrence of it. The latter is most important, for misdemeanours cannot be allowed to recur unchallenged, as much for the sake of the culprit as for ourselves and society at large. In other words, concern is far removed from sentimental compliance or a desire to cause as little disturbance as possible. This latter is an especially plausible way of evading personal responsibility, not only out of sheer indifference or laziness, but also from fear of being identified too closely with the retributive arm of the law. Since we are enjoined to forgive those who hurt us, not merely a few times, but indefinitely (Matthew 18.21-2), we may feel guilty at harbouring distrust against apparently penitent wrongdoers, especially if these happen to be in our own close circle. Forgiveness, however, does not mean turning a blind eye to bad behaviour, let alone criminal action. It does not annul the cause of justice, but softens its punishment according to the genuine repentance of the wrongdoer. Here there is a difference between the makeshift apology of the brazen offender, who is clearly trading on the finer feelings of his victim so as to escape the results of his evil actions, and the genuine penitence of the morally sensitive person, who has fallen, through his own weakness, into bad company and earnestly resolves a changed life in the future. The first must be handled with stern discipline, the second with protective firmness and loving concern so that his moral vulnerability may be strengthened against the temptations ahead of him in the battle of life. When one confronts the vast face of humanity, concentrated in one's own personality, one shudders at its weakness, and then is amazed at its potential nobility. Jesus' words from the cross "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing", (Luke 23.34), ring out with timeless truth. Jesus' forgiveness is a blank cheque, but before we can take advantage of it we have to repent of the past and sincerely dedicate ourselves to a new life of service and decency. Only then do we know the power of that all-embracing forgiveness.

Thus from the point of stillness decisions can be made in quietness and strength. One of the inveterate problems that affects us all is the constant impingement of our emotions on our thought processes. Emotional thinking is often degrading to the subject and destructive to the object. To have our emotions under proper control so that they can fertilize our thoughts but not dominate them is an important part of spiritual growth. One way of approaching this task is to practise constant awareness and control of our own responses, saying and doing nothing without prior consideration. In this way we will not be subject to impulsive behaviour or intemperate language. The difficulty about this is that the spontaneity of natural existence is gradually sapped, while the ego consciousness assumes an increasingly dominant role. Everything that is said or done is purely for our own benefit - or what we confidently believe to be our benefit. The work of the Holy Spirit is diminished as he is increasingly cut out of our consciousness. To be sure, there are certain perilous situations in which a knife-sharp discretion is vital, and we dare not move beyond elementary safety, but it is a sad life where we cannot let go of our native reserve and allow the creative power of the Holy Spirit to guide us into a new and living way. Certainly there can be no growth into the knowledge of God without the infusion of his spirit into us, and this incurs a life of danger as well as safety. Each new confrontation with life provides an opportunity for growth.

In all four Gospels Christ tells us that we have to die to self in order to find the true being within us, the form of eternal life. A characteristic injunction is found in Mark 8.35-6;

Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the gospel, that man is safe. What can a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?

The point is made even more strongly in John 12.24-5;

A grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies it bears a rich harvest. The man who loves himself is lost, but he who hates himself in this world will be kept safe for eternal life.

Of course, Jesus speaks with the hyperbole of the impassioned spiritual teacher when he talks of self-hatred, and the grain of wheat falling into the ground dies only in its present form. Its life is continued in the shoot that emerges from it and eventually in the numerous seeds that will be shed from its flowering parts. The ego self is not in itself anything but good, since it is the vehicle of our individual expression in the noisy, brash world in which we are summoned to play our part. It is the servant of the personality, subject to change and ultimate death, similar to the body that contains it. The true self is situated in the spirit and the "area" around it, the soul, which is the seat of moral discrimination and whose action is the will, free if unencumbered with emotional attachments that deflect it into unprofitable paths of action. The spiritual path is one of disengagement from the demands of the ego and a return to the soul where the still point is the place of reference, the precious pearl the destination, and the vision of God the constant, if unrecognized, companion. At this stage the ego is absorbed back into the soul, so that our individual expression is now a soul-inspired one and not the thrusting, assertive, egoistical outburst of the past.

This return to the centre of our being comes through the hard, pitiless testing of everyday living and the practice of prayer. The more consistently we can act from the still point within, the closer we are to the pearl and to the experience of eternity. This, rather than the practice of unceasing control of our responses, is the way in which we can be free from the bondage of our passions and the emotional outbursts that emanate from them. We cannot, if we are honest to our nature, simply rise above the aggravations of everyday life so that they cease to ensnare us. It is very fortunate for us that we cannot thus escape painful contact with the less agreeable facts of everyday existence. The contact may be aggravating, infuriating and deeply wounding, but when it has been surmounted in faith and courage, we will find that we have been loosed of some encumbrance of personality of which we had previously been unaware. Just as the sculptor fashions the image from the block of solid stone, so do the aggravations of relationships serve to excise ungainly excrescences of character and leave behind the well-proportioned form of a mature person. The process, needless to say, is a slow one, and the pain inflicted teaches us about the still point, where alone we can weather the storms with relative calm, until we learn by experience how to attain that blessed calm by an act of will. Here, in fact, we attain a knowledge of the confluence of divine grace and human free will. By grace we are led to the still point, by will we can repair there as occasion necessitates. Eventually, of course, we will find our constant abode there. If contemplation is one side of the coin of divine knowledge, active involvement in the world in deeper awareness of the present moment is the other. The more centred we are in our own identity, the more forcibly does our inner integrity assert itself as a quality in its own right, one not needing the assurance of recognition from others to affirm its own validity. Then indeed we can speak in truth, no longer being afraid either of the opinions of other people or of our own shadow side. In the still point shadow and direct consciousness come together as a whole unit. Nothing need therefore be hidden from view - ours as well as that of the world around us - any longer. I am reminded of a statement ascribed to a saint whose name escapes identity, "I never knew peace until I had parted with my own reputation". Whether these words are a true record or merely apocryphal, they speak volumes of truth about the human condition. The approval of other people is a dangerous idol if it deflects us from the course of action that we know is apposite. In fact, we attain far greater recognition by being true to our own particular insights than in attempting to smother them expeditiously in the cause of group solidarity. Our ultimate work is the repair of broken relationships, but this can be achieved only in an atmosphere of clear honesty. Incompatibilities of temperament, to say nothing of the demands for equity in a controversial situation cannot be bridged over by a simple formula of agreement. At the most such a formula may bring the parties together for a discussion, but until the requirements of justice have been met, there will remain a great gulf between them.

Does a spiritually enlightened person therefore cease to respond negatively to the irritations of those around him? He does indeed begin to attain this end, not so much by an act of deliberate will as by being increasingly filled with the Spirit of God whose nature is love. In this frame of mind we can indeed respond positively to the unequivocal injunctions against violence and resentment that resound from the Sermon on the Mount. This does not mean that we should bow our heads in servile submission to injustice, but that we should always be ready to communicate in warm faith with those who have hurt us, even if the intimacy of the conversation may not rise in strength above the level of heartfelt prayer for their repentance and healing. In such a manner the evil actions of unjust people wielding power can be parried with compassion, and our inevitable wounds may become a source of inner healing for ourselves as we, quite spontaneously, become representatives of the world's persecuted and oppressed. The way can at any time lead to death through the infuriated malice of our adversaries, but then at last death itself is seen in its broader context as a continuation of life on a more exalted level of experience.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that hell is other people; but hell is also complete isolation from human fellowship, an experience that hits us full in the face in our periods of loneliness. The situation reminds us of our relationship with the telephone: its frequent jarring calls can so disrupt our private life that we begin to resent its presence, but when it fails to register a dialling tone and cannot be used, we become anxious and dispirited until the fault is put right. Then we are truly thankful. Its unavailability cuts us off from the world, while its insistent presence cuts us off from our own inner composure where peaceful creativity finds its base. It is only when we are well centred in our own being that we can cope with the irritations of the outside world, neither shutting them out nor being overwhelmed by them. It is incidentally no bad thing to feel angry when our inner sanctuary is encroached upon by thoughtless people, who selfishly consume far too much of our precious time without even realizing how they are draining us. This anger is a mechanism of defence, and in due course it will serve to cut short depleting encroachments on our inner space, but when we are truly centred in the still point, the need for anger evaporates, as we find we can act with authority in any situation at any time. In a strange way, unprofitable interviews and telephone calls seem to find their own proper span of time and their moment of termination; we need neither reject the presence of other people nor depend upon it for our own security. When we are fixed in our own identity and centred in the still point we are both completely alone with God and in full communion with the whole world. In this situation our very life is a great intercession for the world and each individual living in it.

When I meditate on the life of Jesus, I see so much of his time spent with uncomprehending people - and his disciples seem to have been remarkably obtuse in understanding his message. Only after the pentecostal downflow of the Holy Spirit upon them, which ignited the Spirit within them, did they begin to grasp the universal significance of his incarnation. But Jesus surely also grew as a person in response to the aggravation he must so often have felt even at the intrusions of his own family during the course of his teaching ministry, so that at the end he could find peace between two criminals crucified on either side of him.

Chapter 11
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copyright©1988 by Martin Israel.