“Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able…”
-Luke 13:24 (RSV-CE)
I find a connection between “taking up ones cross and following the Christ” and an opening of the gate between the heart and the mind. If I were to give the gate a name, I would call it humility. Humility is without a doubt the key to true and sincere external expressions of faith, prayer and good works.
Over the many years of my Christian life, vocal prayer has been difficult. In the beginning, the difficulty seemed to be about finding the words. But in time I came to realize that the difficulty lie in finding the sincerity. That is, in expressing words which in reality matched the condition or expression of the heart, the living soul, the true self. This is not terribly surprising to me, as nearly everything about my faith has been a journey from the exterior to the interior, which has been often frustrating and at times humiliating.
At some point along the way, I perceived this difficulty as a kind of blockage, a thick and deadly darkness which I could scarcely fathom. It still frightens me tremendously. Ironically, this particular darkness has a highlighting effect. It highlights a horrific emptiness, an aloneness which could best be described as being utterly unknown, even to my own self. I say “highlighting” because there comes a sense of purpose in the recognition, in realizing the emptiness and loneliness. It is a purpose which seems to reveal one simple, paradoxical truth: meaninglessness, devoid of purpose, which is death. And like all things related to death, one feels appalled by it, as though it were the ultimate offense, which in fact it is. Everything deep within my heart says that I am meant for life, eternal life in fact, not death, or meaningless or emptiness or aloneness. These things are horror to the soul, an abomination. And so, to realize it is to engage a light in the darkness, perhaps only a very faint light at first, but a light nonetheless, an ember of hope, a vague consolation…
It is easy to say that such emptiness is the outcome of sin, perpetuated every generation since the fall of our first parents. It is easy to say that it is separation from God. But it is another thing entirely to understand it. That is the trouble with darkness. It is blindness, which makes discernment exceedingly difficult.
My own emptiness seems to have come about through many years of paying no attention whatsoever to the inner life, and instead focusing on who and/or what I should be, how I should behave, how to perform or how to be productive. Without assigning blame, except toward myself, these things have, so far as I can tell, been heavily influenced by my upbringing, through entertainment, through the perceived threats of varied penalties for not behaving or performing or producing as expected by external forces. These and no doubt other forces, filtered through my own uninspired perception conspired to form my ego, a false self detached from the heart of who and what I actually am at my deepest point, my origin, where life is. Without any attention paid to my inner life for decades, there was no way to comprehend that there is a God, and no way to comprehend that I am more than just animated flesh; that in fact there is a deep and untouchable place in which exists my living soul, a temple. It is expressly the detachment from the reality of my true self which has caused the false self, an illusion of who I thought I should be, or have desired to be, to flourish and engage unchecked with any fantasy it saw fit. A pseudo-reality, an illusion, darkness. Layers and layers of darkness.
With so little attention paid to this ultimate reality, my ego was left to define its morality according to observations of others and my own emotions, whether or not something “felt” (or tasted, or smelled, or sounded) good or bad, whether or not they served me well, or gave me what I wanted. Despite such a twisted perception, I find it important to note here the invisible compulsion to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong. At the end of the day, I wish to be good, and to do good. Evil holds no real appeal, aside from the temptations of very temporary pleasures one may attain sensibly. They fulfill nothing. In this I find revealed the existence of my conscience, where cries “the voice in the desert wilderness,” separate from my will, from a deeper place within. And it carries with it considerable weight and influence upon the will.
I’ve learned that my ego is unconscionable, it knows only how to want, and left unchecked it grows evermore centered upon itself. Conversely, my true self desires only to please its Creator, to be the image and likeness of Him, as I was created to be. St. Paul speaks of this conflicting duality:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
-Romans 7:15 (RSV-CE)
It took many years for me to approach my own inwardness, which I eventually learned was the Kingdom of God. Ultimately it happened motivated by the never ending futility of trying to find the God of my heart externally and sensationally. The frustration of which provided enough of the right stuff to look past a highly ignorant, unhealthy and unwarranted fear of Christian mysticism. But I digress…
Hope which God gives, through unfathomable Grace, is that very life within me, the spark and source of what I am. It is in fact Him. God is life and truth and love and all that is good. This I have somehow understood for some time now, thanks be to God. God truly is my only hope. Only He is able to show this miserable servant the way through all the ugly, sticky darkness, that a way through really exists.
I have drawn a fair amount of hope in this regard through the writings of Saints John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. In particular, John’s Dark Night of the Soul (both the poem and his commentary) and Theresa’s Way of Perfection. Another book of enormity is The Cloud of Unknowing, author unknown. These authors and their writings dive deeply into the interior life, the darkness associated with the false self, original sin, and speak in a kind of language that only the soul can understand, truly. Through their writings, my meditative habits have changed drastically and I find a lot of questions for God.
What consists the darkness, I ask Him? For only He could know, so far as I can tell. The moment the question is asked, be it quietly and deep within or be it sprung forth upon my lips, the darkness fades a bit and dissipates and the ember of Hope turns to flame!
My soul awaits Your Wisdom, O Lord! And my hope burns more brightly than ever, as it is accompanied by an eager and curious expectation, an anticipation of something new and wonderful! Because of Hope, the Anchor who has made it possible to weather the stormy darkness, I wait, I wait and marvel at the joy of it.
I wait upon this cross, Lord, and know I am far less than worthy of it. Or maybe it would be more correct to say that I wait at or wait with this cross! I am unable to disdain the joy of it! Let this way be made straight, Lord, I beg of You. The wait, O Lord, is at the very least not a running away, which surely You know I am a master of. I am grateful there is strength of will to abide. It seems to me that to abide, to dwell, is to bear. And although the weight of it seems crushing and immobilizing, (surely nothing compared to the Cross you bore, O Lord), surely one must still be able to follow You, otherwise you would not say that one must do so! Likewise, surely one must have the capacity to “strive to enter through the narrow gate” else you’d not teach us to do so! O that I might pass through, never to return, O God! I find great hope in You, O Word, O Lord, hope that if You command it, not only is it possible, it must also be inevitable. For you commanded all of creation to be and it was. Surely your servant’s present darkness is but a trifle, hardly even worth noticing compared to such a feat! And so, Lord Jesus, I hope gratefully. May you be praised and blessed without end!
May You, in Your infinite Mercy dissipate this darkness, my self-centeredness, my pride, my ego, this false self which is a stumbling block of my own making! Although I surely made it, it was a blind and deaf folly. I possess not the wisdom to unmake it. It is a wonder that I can recognize it at all! Surely this too is your Mercy and Grace. Strengthen my will, O Lord, I beg of you, to at least resist the self-serving impulses and temptations which constitute the strength of my false self, that old and decrepit sinful, fallen nature. Bend my attention, forcefully if necessary away from myself and onto You always and forever, O Lord! Help your miserable servant to detach from it all, to starve his sickened roots in the world which stir up so much inward darkness and serve only to allure the living soul, Your Creation made in your image and likeness, away from You and onto the vain, the empty, the meaningless, the self-serving…wretched and weak thing that I am, how can you stand the sight of me?
Surely my ego causes this darkness that stands between my heart and mind, my ego that blinds and deafens my soul. My ego leans with all its might upon the doorway to keep it closed, of this I am quite certain, and I cannot fathom why it does so, aside from the certainty of its inevitable destruction within Your Glorious Presence…what purpose does the ego serve? Why does it exist? What is the point? It seems only to serve darkness and evil, and itself. It seems very much to be a twisted creation of my own mind, made in a twisted image and likeness of perhaps how and/or what I perceive myself to be, a twisted little god, which I am not, which does not exist in reality because You did not speak it into existence…no, the ego came about another way entirely, and does it really exist at all? Is it not perhaps a twisted reality, a mere illusion, a deception which desires to hold the soul hostage for its own selfish ends? I wonder…
May You, in your Mercy and Wisdom shed Your Glorious Light upon the Truth of this, O Lord, your miserable servant hopes in You, O Word, God and Maker of all that is, and destroyer of falsity and lies…I pray, through the intercession of Mary my Mother, through the intercessions of my brother and friend of my heart John of the Cross and his dear sister and friend Theresa of Avila, whose writings inspire me mightily, to and through Jesus the Christ our Lord, in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and to His Glory, forever.