“When I was young I thought the goal of a spiritual life was some form of bliss or contentment. In my pride, I wanted not only to attain this but to be seen to have attained it. Christian mysticism and Buddhism intrigued me, and of course I understood neither of them.”
This self-admission by John Garvey in the current issue of Commonweal magazine really caught my attention! I became even more intrigued by his honest admission that “being a fool for a while is part of the process.”
Garvey explains that it wasn’t until many years later that he turned around to look at his life and saw that what had led him to where he really was involved a mix of depression, anger, fear, and anxiety. As the wise sage he has become, Garvey observes that “all you can deal with at the start is yourself.”
Seems so obvious, self-evident. But is it? Aren’t most of us inclined to fix everybody else before we get to ourselves? And if we courageously look in the mirror are we not inclined to shift blame? Even “accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” can be little more than a delay tactic forestalling life-saving major surgery.
Garvey tells of a man who was ordained a Zen monk, and is now an Orthodox Christian. He teaches meditation and asks his students, “What do you hope to gain from this?” They may say something about having a more whole life, serenity, etc.—the usual clichés that surround the idea of enlightenment.
The monk points out that he is a divorced man, a recovering alcoholic, and has suffered through long periods on unemployment—the point being that nothing, including meditation, can guarantee wholeness or any sense of moral or therapeutic achievement.
It is common for people to think of morality as a major end of the religious life, or some sense of “being right” with God, or of being on the right side of a particular issue. Garvey has come to recognize that this need to be right is at best ego-satisfaction and an idolatrous temptation.
What John Garvey didn’t see when he was younger — and why I resonate so strongly with his reflection — is quite simple: the common insight of the great religious traditions is that something is wrong! Something about ordinary human consciousness doesn’t work, and it only gets worse when we try to put ourselves in control, to fix things.
To admit that I need help and cannot somehow conjure it up through my own power is liberating. We must turn from ourselves to something outside ourselves, hoping it will be gracious. We must acknowledge our core interior emptiness.
This is where the Christian story matters so much—brokenness is the beginning of salvation! We must enter our emptiness, return to the radical “nothingness” from which all was created. In a culture addicted to control, power and autonomy this knowledge is hard to come by.
How much more counter-cultural can we get than to believe, to truly profess, that we are the most open to grace when we admit how broken we are. But it is in this that we are saved!
You may access John Garvey’s excellent reflection [here]. However, Commonweal restricts full access to subscribers. My post here is largely dependent on his insights so I hope I have done him — and you — justice.