The Pearl of Great Price
Chapter 5

The Hollow Image

In the Creation Story we learn that God created man in his own image; when the free choice given to man was used in blind irresponsibility, the image was cracked as the human lurched convulsively on to the hard, pitiless ground of earthly solidity. Through divine grace the form of the image has been put together again but behind the imposing outer façade there lies a gaping void. The inner man is hollow and liable to be possessed by any invading force. The vision of the pearl brings him once more to himself and points to the way of full healing. Healing in this context can be envisaged as a re-creation of the human being in the divine image so that he can start to share in the very being of God.

The further we proceed, the more abruptly are we arrested in our tracks by sharp stabs of inadequacy as our dark shadow side comes to the fore in various guises. The greater our journey, the more familiar appears the landscape, drab, unrelieved by light and full of past failings that show no clear amelioration the more closely they are examined in the pitiless scrutiny of honest sight. There is a calculating insincerity about so much of our apparent progress. The path to the pearl traverses the unwholesome terrain of our own sickness. From time to time we may be so overcome with the hopelessness of the enterprise as to doubt whether we have in fact made any movement at all. And then we see, as if by direct divine intervention, that it is not our business to assess spiritual progress or to measure the extent, if any, of our inner cleansing. The ego consciousness that looks for results, paradoxically by its very insistence, blocks them at every turn; and yet, the doubt is the advance. The disillusion is also the ground of the humility that provides the energizing force moving us onwards in the great work ahead of us. The path is littered with artificial gem-stones, paste masquerading as pearls in their own right. Their presence challenges our own powers of discrimination, for what to one person may be the very light of God can be seen as the false glitter of illusion to a more acute observer. Amongst these false lights are gnostic teachings that promise a quick way to the final destination, demanding of us in turn an unquestioning obedience to the source that brings with it a complete surrender of the critical faculty of the mind. Also included are psychic intimations selfishly sought that, even if they are at times confirmed by later events somehow interfere with our spontaneous responses to immediate events. Well does Jesus remind us all that each day has troubles enough of its own and that we should not be anxious about tomorrow, rather letting it look after itself. It is our needle-pointed attention to the moment in hand that directs us on our way to the pearl. Self-seeking motives, no matter how well couched they may be in a religious or philanthropic framework, can also dazzle us with their inflated grandeur; what appears to be a genuinely disinterested act of charity is soon exposed in its naked egoism. The way to God divests us of all comfortable illusions as it reveals to us our true nature as clearly as it is known to him. The forthright, unsentimental dismantling of our comforting escape routes that protect us from self-knowledge - our shadow piety and calculated conformity - leave us shivering and humiliated in the crisp, cold night air. Then, when the pain can scarcely be tolerated any longer, the pearl of great price declares itself, shedding its directive light upon us, like the sun suddenly emerging from behind a thick mass of clouds, and impels us onwards to proceed with the great work, leaving all behind us that offers spurious comfort at the cost of inner development. All that remains is the faith to live in child-like trust and open wonder at the glory of the present moment. When we find ourselves scarcely tolerable, we are amazed to be embraced in the everlasting arms of God, not only consoled as little children, but also given the strength to continue the work of claiming possession of the pearl, so tantalizingly within our grasp and yet so deceptively remote from us.

An especially dangerous snare on the path is our subservience to the canons of the world's approval and our dependence on the rewards this servitude promises. Indeed, our faulty evaluation of worldly rewards can lead to our equating them with the destination, the end of our seeking. The reward can, in other words, easily be mistaken for the pearl that lies at the heart of divine knowledge. It is in this respect particularly that we cannot serve God and the things of this world at the same time, inasmuch as the earthly recompense will be equated with the divine presence, thereby becoming a vain idol. We cannot advance at the same time as looking back to see what effect our efforts are having on others, and what rewards they are preparing for us. As Jesus puts it, no one who sets his hand to the plough and then keeps looking back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9.62). It is the past associations of our lives that tempt us to look back and in them we seek the appropriate scale of rewards we hope to receive in the future. The possibility that the reward lies in the present moment itself with all that is achieved in that moment eludes us, as in our state of emotional stress and blind unawareness we are diverted into seeking material recompense. It is our divided consciousness that misleads us into paying too much attention to worldly views about success to the occlusion of our deeper spiritual vision. This becomes so befogged by the things of the world that emotional reactions cloud the cool judgement of clear reason. Spiritual aspiration is swept summarily into the corner, where it is left to smoulder like a burnt-out log. It follows therefore that an essential lesson on the way is the control of emotional upsurges. They have to be confronted, accepted for what they are, and then quietly laid aside. We have, in other words, to detach ourselves from emotional interference. As its dangerously destructive potential is neutralized, so we attain an inner release that allows us to do the work ahead of us with calm enjoyment. We return to something of the innocent child that we were many years previously, the child indeed we have to become before we can enter the kingdom of heaven where the pearl shines in undimmed radiance, awaiting our arrival and acceptance. At this juncture we no longer need to compare either ourselves or our particular contribution with anyone or anything outside ourselves; then we can keep our tensed arms steady to bear the emotional stress of everyday living as we proceed directly towards the divine presence. Thus we learn that it is our emotional turmoil that obscures our vision, especially the vision of God, remote and yet closer to us than our own soul, our intimate identity. For it is in God that we realize our identity as the spirit within us lights up the soul that encloses it.

Two episodes in the gospel are especially relevant to this theme: the path is also the destination and those whose attention wanders away from the path drift off into unprofitable realms of discontent. The first is the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16): in this unusual story some of the workers are taken on at crack of dawn at an agreed wage, while others are hired at later times of the day up to an hour before the close of work. The employer then proceeds to pay all the labourers, starting with the late-comers and then moving on to those who had done a full twelve hours' stretch. To their indignation they discover that their fellows, who had done only one hour's work, received exactly the same payment as they who had toiled the whole working-day. Indeed, it seems grossly unfair as they grumble to the employer, but he dismisses them without ado, observing that he has fulfilled his side of the contract with them; how much he decides to pay the others is his business alone.

We cannot fail to sympathize with the early labourers: they seem somehow to have deserved something more in comparison with the later arrivals. Is there any way in which their disappointment could have been softened? As in all great stories we are surveying a multifaceted diamond of wisdom; so many different lessons can be learned from a quiet meditation on it. But one aspect is obvious: the early toilers were quite happy with the arrangement until they were joined by those coming later in the day. It was only when they compared their remuneration with that of those others that their content was shattered and they became angry with disappointment. If only they had kept their minds on their own affairs and not involved themselves with matters outside their concern!

But it may be argued, if this is the way of things, there seems no special advantage in honest, industrious labour; the ones who do a trifle get as much as those who work long and diligently. In fact the early workers have a distinct advantage over those who join them later in the day. The advantage is the dignity of honest labour and the sense of identity, of self-affirmation, that employment confers on those who are about some business. Compared with them, those who drifted around aimlessly until being offered work later were at a disadvantage, a state of affairs especially pertinent to our contemporary situation with its desolation of mass unemployment. Self-respect is closely related to a person's contribution to the society in which he lives; his employment is a source of justifiable self-esteem. To have no apparent place in the functioning of one's society is an implicit rejection no matter how generously one is cared for by the state. Self-esteem cannot be induced by gifts from outside; it depends on the actualization of one's personality so that one feels one's contribution is important in the general flow of events around one. Employment, in other words, has two functions; remuneration and dignity of office. The former is most immediately pertinent, but the latter is ultimately even more significant because it confirms a person's status in the community and the value of his life to those around him in the wider world.

The parable has in fact a wider application. Though the people of Israel are the children of the old covenant, and it is through them that Christ is incarnated, they have no special claims of advantage over the gentiles when the new covenant is promulgated. Their privilege was to be God's chosen people for a special event in the history of humanity's salvation. Nothing could be added by way of reward to that privilege. The same lesson has to be learnt by Jeremiah, chosen by God at an early age as his special prophet, but subject to unremitting hatred and persecution by the very people he had been sent to save from their persistent folly. God did not relieve his sufferings to any noticeable extent: he was simply told to get on with the work and stop grumbling even when his life was in mortal danger. If he persisted in self-commiseration, God would simply dispense with his services and select another prophet in his place. In fact, God's chosen ones cannot escape their vocation any more than could the rebellious Jonah by travelling to the ends of the earth to flee from his duty. But if they persist in faith, even when reviled by all their fellows, a new consciousness will dawn upon them so that the eternity of love will break open their self-imposed shell of rebellious grievance. And so the peak of Jeremiah's work is the prophecy of the new covenant to be written on the hearts of God's people, so that they will know him intuitively without the need of teaching from without (Jeremiah 31.31-4). To have been the mouthpiece of such a prophecy was infinitely more important in terms of the future of mankind than all the plaudits of his contemporaries, in much the same way as the truly enduring reward of a great artist is the appreciation that future generations will bestow on his name in loving gratitude. In such a situation even the promises of heaven in the life beyond death can be seen in their proper perspective as continued work on God's behalf for the whole aspiring, created universe. Virtue is its own reward; when it looks for its due recompense among the events of mundane life, it ceases to be virtue and shows itself instead as calculated manipulation of moral values for the sake of personal advancement. The end is either dishonesty or disappointment.

The second illustration of this principle is the simple story of Jesus with Martha and her sister Mary (Luke 10.38-42). While Martha was distracted by her many tasks, Mary sat imperturbably at the Lord's feet listening in rapt attention to his words. The more immediate task confronting Martha was preparing the meal for her guest, and we can with reason assume that this is what she was doing on this occasion. Her manifest love for Jesus, shared by her sister, would have precluded her doing any other work during his stay with them in the house. It would indeed have contravened common courtesy to have absented herself from her guest in order to perform some routine domestic duty that separated her from him for any length of time. So while Mary was contemplating Jesus, Martha was about the business of preparing a meal for all three of them, a task well within her compass since the repast was likely to have been a simple one. One can sense Martha's increasing chagrin as she sees herself encumbered with the work in the kitchen, while her sister not only does nothing to help her, but is actually enjoying Jesus' company alone in undisturbed delight. One can almost feel Martha's indignation rising up within her as she prepares the meal and lays the table with unnecessary clatter in order to make her presence felt, even if at a distance. At last her exasperation explodes as she asks Jesus if he is unconcerned that she is left to do all the work on her own, and she tells him to send Mary out to lend a hand. I believe Jesus' famous response, "Martha, Martha, you are fretting and fussing about so many things; but one thing is necessary. The part that Mary has chosen is best; and it shall not be taken away from her", is often misconstrued. It is often claimed Jesus is exalting contemplation above action, but such a distinction is superficial as well as of very dubious validity; Martha, who prepares the meal, is surely of as great importance as Mary who simply attends to Jesus with her tranquil presence. I am sure Jesus enjoyed a well-prepared meal in the course of his unceasing ministry of teaching and healing.

It was Martha's attitude that he was gently rebuking, not her work about the house which was no doubt of exemplary quality. She was seeking acknowledgement and appreciation for all she was doing, yet all her labour seemed to be taken for granted and its strain ignored. If only she had kept her attention completely fixed on the domestic work with, as a concession, a pleasant thought about the final product of the meal together, she would have been completely happy, but instead she projected her imagination to the room where Mary and Jesus were alone together, and then brooded over all the bliss that she could not share with them. But the real bliss consisted in preparing the meal for their beloved master. In that frame of mind she would have been as close to Mary and Jesus as if she were sitting quietly in the room with them. She did not realize the privilege that she was given in being able to prepare a meal at all in the first case, and one especially for Jesus in the second. In comparing our lot with that of others we sacrifice the joy of our own existence in the present moment. God is everywhere, even if certain places and occasions focus his presence especially on our attention.

As regards the question of contemplation versus action, I believe there is at the heart of the matter a false antinomy. In fact, contemplation is the highest form of action, because the mind is directed, in the silence of the present moment, to the divine presence. Prayer is defined by the scholastics as the ascent of the mind to God. This ascent moves beyond conceptual images to the darkly dazzling silence where we wait in confident trust for our Lord to reveal himself. This he does with unfailing regularity even if we are so surrounded by the darkness of depression that, like Jesus on the cross, we feel he has forsaken us. But the supreme action of contemplative prayer proceeds according to our will and dedication to the great task, the claiming of the pearl which also embraces the vision of God. Sometimes we feel a heavenly sense of exaltation, sometimes nothing at all. Faith and love keep us about the work as we begin to learn that feelings and psychic impressions, intriguing though they may be, can as easily get in the way of our spiritual advance as illuminate the path ahead of us. What we learn in the action of contemplation it is our duty and privilege to carry out in our worldly vocation. Then, like Brother Lawrence, we may say "The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of the kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament", a declaration of spiritual contemplation in action that ends the Fourth Conversation of the little book The Practice of the Presence of God. In this respect it may be remembered that the person in question was called Nicholas Herman, a Frenchman of lowly birth who, after his service as a soldier and a footman, was admitted a lay brother in a community of Carmelites in Paris in 1666 where he was afterwards known as Brother Lawrence. A humble person of limited intellectual attainment, he was sent to serve in the convent's kitchen, a kind of work not especially congenial to him, but he persisted in his way of spiritual practice, marked especially by his endeavours to do everything as in the presence of God.

St Teresa of Avila, who too could find God easily among the pots and pans of her kitchen, wrote that "to give our Lord a perfect hospitality, Mary and Martha must combine". I would myself concentrate that observation: the two sisters have to become, in essence, a single person. Then we can see how perfect action is possible only as a consequence of perfect contemplation, while perfect contemplation fulfils itself in the angry world by perfect action. Only when the ego, with its innate craving for recognition, praise, recompense and security, is subdued can the person begin to act with a truly disinterested service that is the full measure of love. Then alone does truth guide the action, which no longer strives for the approval of others, but gets on with the work to God's greater glory and the benefit of the neighbour, who is everyone encountered in everyday life.

The hollow image is characterized by its clinging to diversions of earthly comfort, praise, reputation and reward. When it is shriven of these delights, its terrifying emptiness can at last be filled with the love of God in whose will alone is our peace, as Dante wrote in the Paradise section of The Divine Comedy. That will, however, does not overwhelm us either as an oracle or the voice of an imperious despot. It is the courteous still small voice that spoke to Elijah on Mount Horeb (or Sinai), where previously Moses too had received the divine commission to bring the law of righteousness to the people. When we are, like the exhausted Elijah, empty of self, we are ready to receive the divine power, which is in fact the real reward for true service whether to God or simply to our fellow creatures. In respect of service the two are essentially one, in much the same way that the first great commandment, to love God, is inseparably linked to the second, to love our neighbour as ourself.

Chapter 6
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copyright©1988 by Martin Israel.