Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001
The essence of the downward journey is freedom from the illusion that it is the world that gives us both our identity and our worth.
We have almost as much difficulty understanding that biblical term ‘the world’ as we do the nature of God. This shouldn’t be – because our world also is the enemy of the soul. It demands that we compete for its approval. It rewards a tiny minority with its fickle adulation – which often destroys them – and consigns the rest of us to the role of ‘loser’ or ‘wannabe’. It is, in other words, a vast pyramid of esteem, a composite of all the smaller pyramids we pass through in life – family, school, neighbourhood, firm, city, state – and (often if not always) church.
So long as we play the game all these pyramids demand – postponing self-acceptance until we have been accepted or recognised by them – so long will we be Sisyphus, rolling the stone of self-dislike interminably uphill, until our strength gives out. That is a moment of terrible danger – but also a fleeting window of opportunity. It is dangerous because it tempts us to respond with despair, anger and sometimes murderous aggression or suicide. It is also an opportunity because we may then tumble to the essential stupidity of ordering human community, and valuing ourselves, in this way. We may then recognise this tendency as the root of all evil – and understand the cross as an expression of divine solidarity with our humiliation. Unfortunately, the churches’ historical participation in the pyramid system, and the stupid theology that results (e.g. God as medieval king angrily demanding Jesus’s pain in reparation for his lost ‘honour’) may deprive us of this insight.
Even the spirituality market implies a pyramid, at the summit of which must be those who have read deeply the writings of all the accredited spiritual masters from Buddha to Theresa of Lisieux. And so one may buy all of these books and begin the rolling of the stone – perhaps missing the fact that the unique characteristic of the journey of both was not towards the acquisition of knowledge – a matter of addition, and of the head – but towards acceptance of their own vulnerability – a matter of subtraction, and of the heart.
But what is the point of becoming spiritual if you cannot make it work for you? I hear this question – and its ambiguity. ‘Working for you’ could mean doing for you what it did for Buddha or Therese (i.e. make sense) – or it could mean making you well known as a wise and spiritual person. The trouble is that the spirituality market will exploit particularly the second meaning – because your purchases will burgeon with your desire to move always upward, in deep dissatisfaction with where you are, in order to become a spirituality expert. Notice again the world’s magnetic force – you are setting out to be spiritual in order to be ‘up there’ – the antithesis of the spiritual. The last thing you may consider is the possibility of moving in the opposite direction – of seeking to know less by knowing only the most important thing.
That most important thing in the Judeo-Christian tradition – that pearl of great price – is that you are already as loved and as worthy of esteem as you will ever be – already infinitely loved and respected. The condition of not knowing this, and fleeing from it towards the approval of the world, is sin. The tears that follow its discovery are called repentance – in which you weep also for the sin of ever having thought of yourself as unloved – for not having loved yourself as you are.
It follows from this that all of us are equally, and infinitely, loved – and that the pyramids we build are the product of an illusion. That illusion is the notion that the overall sum of our worth is what others think of us – when they are equally insecure. Gripped by this illusion we are slaves to it – and escape is virtually impossible
For Jesus the single most important truth was that he was loved by the creator of all things, the Father. From this great truth – and the relationship it gave him with the Father – came the revelatory journey which unlocked ‘things hidden since the beginning of the world’. Essentially what was hidden, and what remains hidden from most, is that the world preserves its power over us not just by insisting that we compete for its approval, but by victimising those at its base. From their plight we must flee – upwards, driven by fear. Ambition – desire to be at the top, adored and invulnerable, draws us in the same direction. Fear and hubris rule the world, imprisoning the spirit of generosity which desperately seeks escape.
These days throughout the west we are amazed by the sudden fall of ‘great men’ who not so long ago ‘bestrode the world’. Their gifts were also their temptation. Their ability to climb the political pyramid made them susceptible to flattery and sycophantic attention of all kinds – and they succumbed to sexual or monetary temptation on a scale that shamed them when revealed. Great wisdom can be gained by pondering the meaning of these events – for they merely reiterate the lives of ancient heroes, archetypally David.
If Jesus was not divine he was then even more mysterious – for neither fear nor hubris determined his actions from first to last (although he experienced – i.e. was ‘tempted’ by both). To the degree that we study him as a mere human he becomes unlike any other man. To the degree that we insist that he was God, he reveals God to be unlike our expectation. For us, both Gods and heroes must triumph and remain invulnerable. Yet Jesus accepted humiliation and defeat, and revealed God as both humble and vulnerable. Psychologically he is impossible to explain – unless we accept the reality of what he insisted upon. That reality was the Father, a spiritual being with whom he could communicate at will, who gave him the specific task of revealing and upending the spirits of fear and hubris which build the pyramids of esteem that govern the world.
Yet Jesus also tells us that those who follow him become his brothers and sisters, to whom he has revealed all that the Father had told him, and with whom he and the Father will live in the same intimacy. How do we find our way to this point of meeting?
Ancient heroes had to do something violently heroic to win the recognition of the world. Think of Theseus who must destroy the monsters who fall in his way as he journeys to Athens to be recognised by his father, King Aegeus. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus was recognised by Abba at the very beginning of his own journey – for doing nothing more than stepping down into the waters of the Jordan, in fellowship with repentant sinners who also sought the baptism of John. This episode is immediately followed by Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, and his rejection of the temptations to ascend the worldly pyramids of state and temple. His mission becomes the granting of forgiveness and esteem freely to those at the base of these pyramids, (usually far from Jerusalem), to whom he gives most of the rest of his life. For this effrontery he is hated ‘by the world’, and murdered by it, in the time-honoured manner.
The downward journey today could well begin with nothing more dramatic than the granting of respect and esteem – that is, of love – to someone we know who has less of these things than we ourselves, and who may have suffered a recent humiliation. If this is difficult, the difficulty lies in our greater respect for the world, the only source of our embarrassment, than for God – so prayer is strongly indicated. And this prayer should be part of our private life – for ostentatious prayer is a prayer addressed to the world rather than to God.
It must be clearly understood that this practice of according respect to those whom the world considers our inferiors must not be condescension – for they are in fact our equals. Its purpose is to discover the kind of relationship that Jesus formed very quickly with people he has just met – a relationship of fundamental equality and mutual trust. He did not presume that his relationship with Abba entitled him to greater esteem – but sought to draw others into the same relationship.
Another aspect of this journey is the discovery that the person next to us at any given moment is often the person to whom we should be speaking at that moment, for the sake of both. This is still a feature of the lives of people who live in remote places – every meeting is seen as an unmissable opportunity for conversation. Yet in our great cities people will often spend hours daily physically close to others with whom they exchange not a word. The convention in the tube in London is to avoid eye contact – so people examine one another surreptitiously, or read, or compute. Fear and hubris rule equally here also – for cities are above all else pyramids of esteem – and the person next to you might be an addict or drug rapist – or snub you as an inferior. Yet what might you be missing as your eyes slide about, looking vainly for an advertisement worth reading?
In particular you might exchange views on the reasons for the exhaustion that inevitably follows the endless busyness of modern city life. The man with the computer was told a decade a go that it would make his life less hectic – but the opposite seems to be the truth. He doesn’t have time simply to ‘shoot the breeze’ – he must switch on in transit and finish that report. The reason probably is that he believes that all his colleagues – his rivals for promotion – have this equipment too, and will steal a march. So it always will be – for it is in the nature of the world to disconnect us from where and when we are, to live in a tomorrow that never comes.
Yet what happens to the exhausted mind is eventually despair – and how will that help the firm? Tireless worship of yet another convoy of ocean-crossing buzzwords must eventually end in burnout – so who benefits? What if we all got together and said no to freneticism, technobabble and jargonising simultaneously? I reckon that nine out of ten eye-sliding city straphangers would find that question meaningful.
In Ireland it is usually in the craik in the pub that we get closest to this kind of common insight – and maybe this is the source of some alcohol addiction also – for the association of alcohol with genuine companionship and relaxation may create the false conclusion that one is impossible without the other. In those hours when today’s humiliations have been related, and their authors properly reviled, we ease down. Our friends are those who do not threaten us, and who can share in our meagre triumphs. Yet tomorrow beckons, inexorable as closing time – and battle is soon joined once more.
The tireless busyness of great cities, audible even through double or treble glazing, sets a rhythm to which we unconsciously dance. That seems to be true of any large community. And the car now allows that rhythm to radiate out into the countryside, far louder now than the hum of bees that used to be a byword for business. The discovery of the process of evolution should impress us with the slowness of God’s time – but instead it seems to have ratcheted even tighter our determination to live in tomorrow rather than today. It becomes daily more difficult to find stillness, to discover the rhythm of God’s tune, and dance to that instead.
That is why there has always been a connection between deep spiritual work, and isolation. We tend to associate the desert into which Jesus went merely with asceticism – but we should note that he went there from the Jordan, directly after the Father’s revelation of himself and recognition of his son. So we can assume that Jesus was simply seeking a stillness and peace within which he could discover the meaning of this extraordinary relationship. The hermitical and monastic traditions – which preserved the church through centuries of corruption of its superstructure – follow the same search for the one who speaks in stillness.
It is also always a search for the self – of who one is – the integrated ‘me’ shorn of pretence, falseness, that personality I put on like a shirt in order to please the world. The knowledge that it is the ‘me’ that I hide from the world that God alone fully knows – this is important knowledge that we have forgotten how to teach in our schools.
It can be rediscovered still in Ireland today – especially in the west. I did not discover that my own desert had been the wilds of Lough Corrib until I found that it was there as a teenager I had found a happiness so mysterious that when I found myself much later in the darkest valley of my own crisis, gratitude came pouring out to whoever had created it – just, it seemed, for me. In Galway again recently, determined to escape the hum of the city, I came upon a dirt road that seemed to follow inland a beautiful small river tumbling towards the sea. My wife and I followed it on foot, and within ten minutes the movement of the breeze and the rush of falling water had enveloped us completely, shutting out the rush of traffic, easing the almost imperceptible tension it builds within us. That was the Sabbath experience we must all seek – the rest from labour that only God’s music can provide.
These then are the elements of the downward journey: a realisation of the Father’s primordial and unchangeable esteem for us as brother or sister of the Lord; a determination to live in this knowledge, giving the same respect to everyone we meet; a seeking of the slower rhythm of God’s time in whatever form of wilderness we can find. Also a willingness to listen for a call that may ask of us a particular service in challenging the world, or serving its casualties. Then we will inevitably find that whatever tortuous route we have followed in life to this point will have a particular meaning for others on a similar path. No life is ever ruined once we again find fellowship with the God who so wisely – like the Father of the prodigal son – gave us our primordial freedom, and will now give meaning and redemption to our utmost waywardness.