Poignancy of the Path
In the classes I teach I try to engage with material that deals with real life. I figure if spirituality does not connect with life as most of us live it, then it is probably not worth doing. This is the reason I usually have a component of every class that asks the student to reflect on his or her experience. It varies among the classes, but I do intend for every class to have this experiential aspect. In other words, how does any particular reading or exercise have the potential to affect your real life?
I intend for the examinations and the papers also to hook into real life. Again, I am not sure I can justify asking the students to learn things if it somehow does not apply to real life---their real life. This is precisely what makes teaching fun for me. And it is what makes reading the things they write so fascinating. It is not hypothetical stuff. It is real life---their real life.
Recently I read a paper that hit me---I was moved. It was not the happy-ever-after kind of paper. That would be unrealistic to think that I teach a class, everyone gets it and they live happily ever after. Instead, I know there always is an issue of timing in people’s spiritual lives. And I know there is an element of readiness. I am not in charge of someone else’s spiritual journey. I might be helpful, but I cannot live another person’s life. I can offer guidance and, maybe, some knowledge. But ultimately each person takes on the task of walking his or her own spiritual path.
I know this, but sometimes I am still caught off guard. I was recently caught off guard when I began to read a student’s reflection on his journey. The paper was very well written. Good organization, lucidly crafted. The ideas flowed flawlessly. But as I read on, I realized this was heartfelt stuff that was being poured onto the page. I felt like I had been led to sacred ground.
It was sacred ground, but it was not happy-ever-after. I was being invited into the heart of someone who was struggling. Of course, that is the nature of some of the journey on the spiritual pilgrimage. Just ask Jesus or the Buddha. Ask some of those Jews who were caught in Egypt and wandered for years in the desert. As I read on, I felt like I ought to take off my shoes, as the Israelites were asked to do when they approached the Divinity.
The thing that struck me about the person writing the paper was his own awareness. He is quite aware. And in many cases, he knows what he probably should do to get on with the spiritual journey. But he is not yet ready. One such sentence touched me with stark realism. The person said, “I hate to admit to my faults because I know that I do not want to fix them.” This demonstrates the poignancy of the path. It reminded me of the lament of the Apostle Paul who wondered why he did the things he knew he should not do? That is a real human, spiritual question.
I read on in the paper. My friend says, “I do feel lost. I do not know myself.” He continues to describe in the starkest realism I have read for a while. Finally he concludes that he is experiencing these problems in life because “I think this is because I lack ‘spirit’ in my life.” Once more, I felt the poignancy of the path. This is not hypothetical---a case study in some book on spirituality. Instead it is a real person---someone I have come to know and value as a person and friend. That’s what makes it poignant.
Clearly there are answers I could offer my friend. I could give him a good book or two to read, as if reading a book magically makes the issues go away or be healed. I always caution against this. In his case, the problem is not really knowledge. He knows enough, just as St. Paul knew enough. To the contrary, the real problem is the will. He does not yet have the will to do what he should do and what, deep down, he really wants to do. But right now, his will in in some kind of bondage.
Clearly, he does not need advice from me---or anyone else. So what can we offer the person who is experiencing the poignancy of the path? Actually we can offer quite a bit. We can offer a sense of understanding. I understand the times I have been at a similar stage on my path. I appreciate the understanding of others.
We also can offer patience and community. I doubt that much of our spiritual pilgrimage can be rushed. Patience allows for the spiritual fermentation to ripen our journey. And community is always important. Too many people today are choosing or, even, being forced to travel their spiritual path alone.
Community is where we have the best chance to receive the understanding and patience required for the journey. Community offers the love and care to sustain us in our deserts of wanderings. Community offers the consolation of others to be an antidote to the desolation of our own isolation. Finally, we are all in it together.