To use a title like, “Road to God,” might seem fairly arrogant. If I were to see this title, I might think the author knows the road to God and is going to share the secret. I can assure you this author does not know the road to God and I don’t have any secrets. So at least I am not arrogant! In fact on this issue, I am incredibly humble. I would like to learn something about that road so I could begin the journey.
This topic arose as I was preparing for a class. One of the ongoing joys in teaching spirituality is getting a chance to keep reading and thinking about something that is so personally important to me. In fact, I might well claim spirituality is the most important thing in the world to me. That is because I do think it offers insight and assistance in finding my way to God. And to find my way there is to discover meaning and purpose for myself and, indeed, for the life we are can live. That helps me understand my life as a miracle and not a waste.
A key book I use for the contemplative spirituality class I teach is by Roger Walsh, entitled Essential Spirituality. The book is full of nuggets that help the beginning in the journey, as well as the seasoned pilgrim. Most of the time I feel like the beginner. Half the time I am reminded of something I forgot and by this forgetting realize why I am such a slogger on the divine trail to the Holy One. But I plan to “keep on keepin’on.”
In a section in Walsh’s book called, “Cultivate Spiritual Intelligence,” Walsh focuses a great deal on wisdom. Sprinkled throughout the text are one-liners from the spiritual giants of the past. These sayings usually illustrate the point Walsh is making. Typically, I am amazed at how simple these sayings are, but also how difficult they can be to implement in my life. I would like to share one of these now.
Walsh quotes a line from the Buddha. The Buddha says, “Self-knowledge is the shortest road to the knowledge of God.” I immediately want to say, “Yes…of course that is true.” But then I realize how tricky it is to feel confident that I know myself. I laugh at how long I have lived “being myself,” I assume. But I am really? Walsh and other spiritual writers are pretty confident many of us spend time---maybe a lifetime---being someone other than who we really are.
It is commonplace to know that we often are presenting a mask to the world. We pretend to be someone we really are not. Like actors on a stage, we perform a role. We often become so adept at playing our role, we forget that we are actually in a role. The role becomes real---in our mind, at least. We can spend so much time “outside of ourselves” that we no longer have a clue who we really are. We are a mystery to ourselves as much as we are a mystery to others.
Another version of what the monk, Thomas Merton, calls the “false self” is the illusion that our self can be. This illusion can take various forms. Many of us think we are better than we actually are. For example, most of us do not think we lie. But if ask about gossiping---which may be a mild form of not telling the truth---we squirm a little. I know when gossiping comes up in the classroom, every student admits to participating! And I am not immune to the gossip disease.
I conclude that self-knowledge is not as easy as it seems when I first read the Buddha’s sentence. So what is the road to self-knowledge? Here I am no expert, but a couple things seem obvious. In the first place honesty---brutal honesty---is necessary. I think a lie about myself never brings me to self-knowledge. And illusion and pretension are forms of a lie about who I am. They are not bad, so much as they are wrong. You cannot start down a wrong path and get to a right end. So I have to be honest with myself.
Secondly, I am confident that being honest with myself is more possible if I have some form of community in which I practice honesty. A community might be a little as a very good friend. I need another to help me not pretend. I need that friend occasionally to say, “Really?” The other needs to ask me if what I just assumed about myself is really true? If a good friend comes to know me pretty deeply, then that is a great mirror to my own look at myself. In fact there are times others may know us better than we know ourselves.
Honesty and community are keys for the beginning of self-knowledge, which is the way we begin the journey on the road to God. Perhaps the further down the road we get, the more knowledge of myself I get. The good news is it takes a lifetime to travel that road to God. It is not a sprint.
I suspect that our true self continues to grow and deepen, so the journey is ever progressing. It does not mean we can never rest, but to stop means life is over. I am on the way!