Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Discipline of Uncertainty

"Morning Mystery"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

In one of my very favorite Zen koans, the master asks his student, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The  student desperately attempts to please the master by answering his question but the student's rational and logical thinking get him nowhere and so he sadly tells the master, "I have no answer to your question."  The master then claps his hands in delight as he tells his student, "Yes, you are now on the path to enlightenment."

Indeed when it comes to a spiritual journey there are no clear-cut logical answers. The spiritual journey is a path into mystery and mystery can never be explained. "God" can never be neatly categorized or "figured out.  So, when we finally accept this wisdom and are able to embrace our uncertainty, we are all on the path to enlightenment.

Many people have convinced themselves that, in order to grow in faith you must develop greater certainty. I actually think the opposite is true -to grow in faith we need to develop a Discipline of Uncertainty. 

As I see it, in order to grow in faith and go to deeper places in the spiritual life,  we must be willing to let go of our rigid certainties and glib answers. On a journey of faith we are not afraid of our doubts or fearful of our questions; rather we embrace our uncertainty as a symptom of deeper spiritual growth.

Whenever anyone tells me that they are absolutely sure about their beliefs, I think that they are probably standing on some pretty shaky spiritual ground.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke advised his young student:

Be patient with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves.

I think this is excellent advice for anyone who is on any sort of spiritual journey.

After years of living in a monastery, writing books and giving lectures throughout the world. the renowned Christian monk and author, Thomas Merton, arrived at this ultimate conclusion about the course of his own journey of faith:

When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of answers.
But as I grow old in monastic life and advance further onto solitude, 
I am becoming aware that that I have only begun to ask the questions. 
I have been summoned to explore a desert area of the human heart
in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that
only experience counts.

I live in a desert. a place believed by many to be "deeply spiritual."  I agree that the desert  is a deeply spiritual place, and for me, one of the features of a desert that makes it so "deeply spiritual is that it is not a place of glib certainties and easy answers. There are no defined roads and few trails in the desert, the wilderness terrain is harsh and dry,  and yet this is one of the most beautiful, mystical and awe-inspiring places in which I have ever lived - the desert is a perfect icon of the spiritual life.  

The spiritual journey is indeed a "desert journey." A spiritual path takes us into places where we embrace and even foster uncertainty, into places where we learn how to love the questions and allow "God" to lead us rather than for us to figure "God" out.

Saint John of the Cross once offered this wisdom about the spiritual path:

We are never more in danger of stumbling 
than when we are sure we know where we are going.
If a person wants to be sure of the road he treads on,
he must close his eyes and walk in the dark. 

1 comment:

  1. The thing is we all seek answers and meaning and certainties, and so uncertainty is hard to sit with (probably due to evolution and our need to feel safe in case we get eaten or something). It requires some kind of faith to go alongside it. Faith that the questions will fade in importance if we leave them along enough? Faith that uncertainty is OK? Faith that questions are what keep us fully alive and open to the moment? It seems that certainty is yet another thing to let go of. Thanks Paul as always for your though provoking posts. Sheridan xxxx