The Mystery of Paradox

Joy Cowley
Sea of Faith Network (NZ) Conference
6 October 2000

I was still in my twenties when I discovered that intellectual pursuit of the Christian religion was a fairly short course which offered little spiritual satisfaction. I think anyone of my age knows what I mean by intellectual pursuit. The earnest young seeker finds it first in Bible Study with the assistance of concordances and Scriptural commentaries written by learned people who often differ and therefore confuse. The hunger persists. The pursuit goes on—ecclesiology, hermeneutics, eschatology, ontological and teleological arguments—fine collections of words, thought cutting thought like butter cutting butter. In my pursuit of religious knowledge I found plenty to occupy the mind but very little to satisfy spiritual hunger. There were tantalising tastes of spiritual nourishment, but these seemed to be associated more with the seeking than the results of the search, and they escaped deiinition.

At a young age I had read the Bible with similar results. Three of the gospels described the works and teachings of Jesus Christ and the fact that these were written decades after Jesus' life, troubled a teenager who who already knew the frailty of human memory, the subtlety of human persuasion. How much was gospel truth? How much were party political speeches? Where was the eternal foundation? In my own desire for permanence I could understand the need for Moses to have law on tablets of stone and for Josiah Smith to be given tablets of gold. I believe that need is still a condition of early journey. We prefer the immovable rock of fundamentalism to the space where chaos theory joins hands with mysticism.

Ah, but back in those adolescent years there was a fourth gospel, the gospel of St John, that offered me a different kind of experience. On the surface, the words seemed much me same as the other gospels but they had a deeper effect. The John Gospel seemed to sweep me away beyond meaning, far beyond itself and myself to a new wordless territory where my little cramped heart unfolded and kept on unfolding like the wings of a a new butterfly. I encountered mystery. "There was a certain man of the pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. The same came to Jesus by night and said, Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said, "Except a man be born again he cannot enter the kingdom of God." Mystery. "The wind bloweth where it listeth and thou hearest the sound thereof but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth so it is of everyone born of the spirit." Mystery. Words that bypass the head to land wondrously in the heart.

I must say I am on the side of Catholics who mourned the loss of the Latin Mass, Protestants who lost the the King James Bible. Poetry was taken away. Mystery removed. Language became prisoner to its meaning.

I learned that religion and spirituality were not the same thing. Religion is the map. Spirituality is the journey. Religion is my belief system that in a cultiral context, attempts to define and describe spiritual journey. Spiritual journey is living with awareness. What awareness? I expect there are many answers. Mine have become quite simple. Awareness is a form of prayer, the seeing of the sacred in the present moment. We come from a greater reality, we return to that greater reality. Our short time here, this little forgetting, is for the growth of the energy field we call the soul, and that growth runs counter to the primary instinct for survival whose function we call the ego. This is the mystery of paradox.

All the world religions teach the transcendence of the ego. The teachings of Jesus are full of such statements as, "He who loves his life shall lose it. Sell all you have and give it to the poor. Take up your cross and follow me." This used to sound like doom and gloom to my young ears, and so it should. We need to build up a strong ego in order to transcend it. You can't place demands for seeding on a plant that is in its flowering stage. Self-abnegation is about the fulness of living, not its denial. It's about freedom, about dissemination, it's about the heart finding its home ground. An anonymous 15C monk described the process beautifully:

"Know thyself, 'tis half the path to God, then lose thyself and the rest of the way is trod."

In that second half of the journey, we realise that the blessings outlined in the Beatitudes are not a proffered analgesic for pain, nor are they about piety. They are the reality of paradox.

In weakness we find strength.
In pain we find healing.
In darkness we find light.
In poverty we find riches.
In loss we find gain.
In chaos we find order.
In the Many we find the One.

I recendy read a Native American metaphor for spiritual journey: it said that there is only one great river but there are many canoes. A person cannot go down the river in two canoes but he or she can paddle alongside other canoes and thus gain companionship and increased insights into the river and the journey.

My canoe is Christian and it is Christ-centred. I'm not concerned with arguments about the historical Jesus. These seem unimportant and far removed from the truth of the incarnation as I know it. Nor can I give credence to fall/redemption theology, or any other theology that makes God small. Again, my belief tends to be simple. There is the divine spark in all of us. Whenever there has been need in human history, the spark has incarnated as a bright flame: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Ramakrishna, Mohammed, Buddha, Marcus Aurelius. But there was a time two thousand years ago, when the Incarnation came as a great fire that is still burning up history, a god-man fully awakened to the divine state, who walked us through everying we could expect from life, including death, unwrapping for us the mysteries of spiritual growth as he went. That is the Christ I know and if that belief is wrong for someone else, that's okay. It's the truth that rests with me and my relationship with God.

If I leave the canoe metaphor and go back to image of religion being a map for spirituality which is the journey, I should say a few words about the maps I value. I don't mind if maps are rough or unfinished, crudely presented, as long as the person who has drawn the map has made it from his or her own journey. I don't want maps from a professional map-maker who has not set foot outside the official map-making office. As you may guess, most of the maps that have meaning for me, were drawn by the mystics, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila. St John of the Cross, Francis of Assissi—and many modern writers. These days, mysticism has gone mainstrem.

So far in this talk I have use the language of metaphor because really, that's the only way I can talk about spiritual matters. I am now going to read you a short story which is in the language of fable. It is my attempt to explain further the celebration of paradox.


The Pilgrim: A Fable

I began the spiritual journey in a fervour of prayer, asking God to give me the companions I needed for the road. The voice in my heart was gentle but firm. "Name your needs."
    Ah, but that was easy. There were three whose company represented my constant longing. "Wisdom! Compassion! Holiness!" I cried.
    The voice in my heart agreed that these were excellent choices, and then it left me. I wasted no time but set out, delighted that I had found favour in God's eyes and that I was to travel with goodness at my side. But my companions did not appear. I looked for them along the road. I called their names in vain. Indeed, I was so concerned with finding them, that at first I didn't notice the ruffians who followed me at a short distance. They were travellers of the worst kind, ragged, shifty-eyed, probably thieves and possibly murderers. I tried to outpace them. They walked faster. I stopped at a wayside shrine, hoping that they would pass. They stopped too.
    "Who are you?" I cried.
    The man with the bandaged hands, said, "My name is Error."
    The woman with matted hair and a crooked back, laughed and said, "I am Pain."
    The oldest of the three, a man with no hair and thick-lensed spectacles, said, "People around here call me Doubt".
    Error, Pain and Doubt! At last I understood what was happening. These three had been sent to test me. Christ had met evil in the wilderness and I must expect the same kind of trials. If I proved worthy, then I would receive the companions I'd requested.
    It was not difficult to reject these disreputable, creatures. "Be gone from me!" I shouted, raising my hand.
    My order had the most extraordinary effect. They shrieked with laughter, failing against each other, hooting and howling and holding their sides. "That is good!" cackled Error. "Do that again!"
    "Wonderful performance!" agreed Pain.
    I tried a more reasonable approach. "Look, I'm on a sacred journey and this road leads directly to God. You must go. There is no place for you here."
    They were still smirking and nudging each other. "Oh yeah?" said Doubt.
    "That's what you think," said Pain, grinning through her tangled hair.
    They watched with interest while I prayed. "0 God, come to my aid. 0 Lord, make haste to help me."
    Nothing happened. I sighed, convinced more than ever, that this was a time of trial which would soon pass. I continued on the road and they shuffled along behind me, now closer than ever. The fact that I was continually aware of their presence, interfered greatly with my prayer and songs of praise.
    As the days past, the company of Error, Doubt and Pain became so troublesome that my songs of rejoicing to the Lord my God, fell away to nothing, replaced by a constant prayer to be rid of these foul companions. I was deeply troubled and all the more so because it seemed that the voice of my heart was silent. Like the prophets of old, I felt that God had abandoned me in my time of trial. As for Error, Doubt and Pain, in spite of repeated rejection, they had become more bold and were now travelling beside me, wanting to engage me in conversation. There were times when I had to walk with my fingers in my ears. My pace was so slow that I feared I would never make the distance.
    One night, in the deepest despair, I called out in prayer, "Help me!"
    At once I felt the softening of the heart that indicated the presence of God, and the voice, warm yet firm, said, "What do you want?"
    "Help me to get rid of them!" I cried.
    "Why don't you listen to what they have to say?" said the voice.
    "You can't be serious!" I cried.
    "Listen to their stories," the voice insisted.
    "But Lord, these are evil beings. They represent everything you detest!"
    "Oh? who told you that?"
    I was silent, for it seemed that this too, the faithful voke in the heart, was quietly mocking me.
    In spite of my concerns, I slept well that night. In the morning I allowed Doubt to walk beside me and I didn't stop my ears when he began to talk. "Nice scenery, isn't it?" he said.
    At least, I don't have to answer, I decided.
    "Have you noticed that we've been going up hill?"
    I looked at the road, and yes, it was sloping upwards.
    "Getting steeper," said Doubt, "but the views are getting better. You can see a lot more now, can't you?"
    I had to nod in agreement.
    "Pilgrimage is interesting," said Doubt. "It's all about movement. You leave some things behind but you go on to a wider and better view. It's called progress." He looked at me and gave a sly cackle. "Ever heard of Pilgrims Progress?"
    I still could not bring myself to speak to him.
    "Of course," he said, "there are pilgrims who don't get very far because they don't want to leave the signposts of their childhood. You see them sitting in the road. But that's okay. God's got plenty of time."
    When he mentioned God, I looked sharply at him. "Do you know God?"
    "Oh sure. We're great buddies."
    He's lying, I thought. So I said to him, "What does God look like?"
    "Don't ask" said Doubt. "I'll tell you something today and tell you something different next month."
    "Because you're a liar" I cried triumphantly.
    "Nope. Because I tell the truth," said Doubt "It's about movement, remember? Leaving things behind? Signposts? Images of the Divine? They tend to change with journey. That's because our understanding of God keeps getting bigger."
    I refused to answer. I'd had enough of his company for one morning and was relieved when he stepped back a pace or two; but the peace did not last long. Pain came sidling up and tried to take my arm. I shook her away.
    She laughed. "No one wants to walk with me. Funny, that. Can't say I blame you. There was only one who welcomed pain with wide open arms and even he had some misgivings."
    I refused to look at her.
    "Trouble is, most people are so busy running away from hurt, that they miss it's messages. Oh yes, there's a lot to learn from pain."
    Like what? I thought, keeping my eyes on the road.
    "Pain can be like a hard-bristled broom," she said. "It can sweep the unreal from our life and make space for the real. It can also be a kind of pressure gauge telling us when we're stuck. That's especially true for emotional pain."
    I thought of the pain in my own life and was angry that she should trivialise it, but still I did not look at her.
    "No one ever wants pain," she said. "But there are ways of dealing with it."
    "How?" I snapped, unable to hold silence any longer.
    "By acknowledging its existence. By working with it instead of running away from it. By listening to what it is saying. Pain, you know, is a part of the wholeness of God."
    Now I was good and angry. I turned on her, "What do you know about God?"
    She drew her hair back to look directly at me. "Not as much as God knows about me," she said with a slow smile.
    As I suspected, it was now Error's turn. He fell into step beside me and I looked down at the dirty bandages on his hands, and the scars that showed at the edges. "Gidday," he said, meeting my gaze.
    I quickly looked away.
    "Not speaking, eh? I said to the others, I said, I'd better go last because I'm the most unpopular. People make excuses for Pain and Doubt, but not for Error. I'm at the bottom of everyone's list."
    Well he's not wrong about that, I thought.
    "The nearest I got to good publicity was ages ago, when some guy in the Church called me a happy fault. He'd just realised that people who don't make mistakes, don't make anything. He'd finally worked out that I brought him closer to God."
    I kept walking. I was thinking that whoever had called him a happy fault was half right. The last half.
    "I might be unpopular but it's a huge job. The big apple. You know, the knowledge of good and evil in the one fruit? If you haven't known error how can you choose good? But there you are, most people don't see it that way. As soon as error pops up in their lives, they blame someone else. You know why they do that?"
    I don't answer. He's going to tell me anyway.
    "Because they want to see themselves as good. Well, let me tell you something. Most of the evil out there in the world is done by people convinced of their goodness. They don't acknowledge my existence in their lives, and that means they don't learn about important things like transcendence and wholeness."
    "That's because they see you as the enemy," I replied.
    Error shrugs. "I'm the enemy of pride. I'm the friend of spiritual growth. If pilgrims recognise my guidance, I show them how to find the compass needle that points to true North. But okay, I don't expect you to greet me like a long lost friend. We'll talk again tomorrow."
    They left me alone for the rest of the day and in the evening, camped some distance from me. That gave me time to consider what they'd said. By the next morning, I found that I was ready to resume conversation with them and was even able to ask questions.
    Doubt told me that when we are young, we are like trees that need careful staking and tying, to protect us from strong winds, but later, as we grow, the same stakes and ties that have given us support can interfere with our growth. "Let me put that in other words," said Doubt. "When you're a child on the journey, you need the security of a narrow road but as you advance the way will broaden. God will keep calling you to a larger place until you discover that your road has no horizons at all. Everywhere you look, you'll see the Divine.
    It was Pain's turn. She talked about deep anguish and how time could render it down to rich compost for growth. She asked me had I noticed that people who had done great things for humanity, had come from backgrounds of pain. "They are the ones who have learned from me," she said. "But not all manage that. There are some who avoid me, and others who use me to get attention. They don't understand that pain is inevitable in life and it can become part of a birthing process if we choose to learn from it."
    Now Error fell into step beside me. He spoke a lot about humility. He said did I realise that perfection had no space for growth and no need for the Divine. Had I really thought of that? I said, no, I hadn't, and he laughed. "why do you think Jesus chose sinners for friends?" he said.
    The days passed in conversation and the miles flew by, even though the road was now quite steep. Instead of praying to be rid of these fellow-travellers, I now thanked God for them, for in spite of their appearance, I had learned greatly from them. I was now sure that they had been sent by a wise and loving God as the companions I needed, rather than those I had requested.
    One morning I told my good friend Doubt that I finally understood what he meant when he told me that the images of God changed with journey."
    He looked pleased. "Just like our names," he said.
    "Your names?" I echoed.
    "Sure," said Doubt. "Haven't you worked it out yet?"
    "I don't understand," I said. "Worked what out?"
    "How our names change along the road." Doubt put his hand on Pain's shoulder. "This is Compassion," he said. Then he held up Error's scarred hand. "His other name is Wisdom."
    I looked at Pain and Error, and felt their truth in my heart. "And you?" I asked Doubt.
    He chuckled. "Yep. My other name is Holiness."

Joy Cowley