I confess that I have often been a foolishly proud mystic. In the wizardry of my physical and intellectual prime, I believed that through my studies of psychology and philosophy, through my spiritual practices, and aided by the grace of God, I had left behind many ordinary human troubles, and so much of my own past. I would read these words of Paul and think I knew exactly where he was coming from because I believed I had already come and gone from there too:
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 1 Corinthians 13:11
And I must have put on a pretty convincing act! I have received lots of praise for my seeming equanimity, wisdom, integrity, and self-confidence mixed with humility. It’s not that there isn’t any truth to those appearances, but rather that there has certainly been more of a façade than I’ve been willing to admit to myself, let alone to others. Even so, I’m quite sure I have often been more transparent to others than I realized, and that they knew I wasn’t as genuinely comfortable in my own skin as I wanted to seem.
Some of you, dear readers, will know what I mean when I say how very tired I am of finding myself trapped in old patterns of thought, feeling and behavior. If it hasn’t yet happened, the time may come when you know what it is like to look in the mirror and see a wounded, bewildered, incompetent, and insecure little child looking back at you through weary eyes under a furrowed and wrinkling brow. At the relative midpoint of 50 years, I am awestruck by my own inability to be the “grown-up” I have wanted to be. In fact, it often seems that I don’t manage life as well as I used to do, or as well as I thought I did, and so it is that these other words from Paul frequently ring in my ears:
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Romans 7:18b-19
In my darkest moments it has been easy to fall into the despair and nihilism voiced by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. … And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Ecclesiastes 1:2, 17-18
I prefer the older translations’ use of the word “vanity” to the “meaninglessness” in some newer translations. “Vanity” better communicates the intellectual and moral hubris that the author of Ecclesiastes perceives in himself. This great lover of wisdom, traditionally held to be King Solomon, understands that everything he has done in the name of wisdom has delivered him to this very moment of realizing just how unwise he really is, and how much suffering he has generated in his conceit.
It can be so tempting to see this unmasking as a regression, a failing and falling back from previous excellence, or a “curse” of the mind and ego-defenses not being quite as sharp as they once were. Yet I sense that there is more to this process than the inevitable fall of a house of cards. It feels providential, and so the words of King Hezekiah seem fitting:
But what can I say? He [God] has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. Isaiah 38:15
It is therefore not only conceit that has brought me to such moments, for I see that I have actually been asking for it in countless ways; “asking for it” in the colloquial sense of ignorantly inviting the natural consequences of my actions, but also asking for it in a very literal sense. After all, seeking wisdom and understanding through meditation and prayer must mean that my own foolishness and ignorance will increasingly be revealed, at least to me. Yet I don’t think it is only me that witnesses this baring of my soul, because as I become less able to keep up the old façade it more easily cracks and crumbles before others. And so, as with King Hezekiah, the public embarrassment and private shame of my ego is a constant prodding toward a more genuine humility.
One of the interesting things about this humbling, if not humiliation, is that, despite all the fatigue, grief, and disappointment, it brings a great sense of gratitude and relief. It is impossible for me to be completely honest with myself about my shortcomings without also seeing how fortunate I am to have not made even more suffering for myself and others. I can’t begin to count the number of serious traumas and tragedies that have been narrowly missed, and I am so thankful for this with regard to others, especially those most dear to me. That relief is amplified by the freedom in not feeling so compelled to keep up the old façade.
While I often sense a divine grace in this good fortune, as a mystic I am also graced with having come to know that God holds none of my weakness and folly against me. Without merit, I have been immersed in a baptism of Light and experienced communion with the One Love in which we all live and move and have our being. To continue in the words of King Hezekiah:
Lord, by such things people live; and my spirit finds life in them too. You restored me to health and let me live. Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back. Isaiah 38:16-17
My sins may not yet be finally behind my back, but I know that the memory of them offers not only pain, but also a reminder that my own wisdom and understanding, no matter how inspired, will never be perfect as I have at times secretly fantasized. Perhaps more importantly, such self-awareness stimulates my compassion for those who struggle in similar ways.
God, please help me proceed in humble gratitude and continue leaning on faith, hope and, above all, Love. Amen.