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Consider the Ravens
On letting go.
If anyone went on for a thousand years asking of life: “why are you living?” life, if it could answer, would only say: “I live so that I may live.” That is because life lives out of its own ground and springs from its own source, and so it lives without asking why it is itself living. If anyone asked a truthful man who works out of his own ground: “Why are you performing your works?” and if he were to give a straight answer, he would only say, “I work so that I may work.”
—Meister Eckhart. Sermon 5b.
The rose is without 'why'; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it. O Man, as long as you exist, know, have, and cherish, You have not been delivered, believe me, of your burden.
Those who are skilled toil, and those who are clever worry. While those who do not possess such abilities seek nothing and yet eat their fill. They drift through life like unmoored boats.
I have found a curious thing happening to me in contemplation as of late. Nothing grand mind you. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is so small that it could easily have been missed. Memories of people I knew long ago—and not close friends, mind you—are coming up in both silence and in dreams. That in itself, I wager, isn’t all that strange or even notable. What is a bit baffling to me is the degree of emotional attachment that these memories bring. There is even a sense of profound regret and longing that seems wildly disproportionate to the actual role such people have ever played in my life.
I suppose there could be many different explanations for this. One of which is that they simply represent a specific time in a more particular way than those who have cut across the different phases of my life, i.e., it is merely an exercise in nostalgia. This is certainly possible and I don’t rule it out. But my own hunch at the moment is that there may be something else at work in all this. On that in theory, at least I find to be, if true, a telling aspect of being human.
It strikes me that it may very well be that even cursory meetings and connections to others may lay down deeper tracks into our hearts than we know or could even imagine. That as odd as it might be to say, even someone we never paid much attention to can leave a lasting impression on us and affect our lives in ways that we can never fully reckon. And that out there somewhere we too might be playing that same role for someone else.
Less of our lives may be lost to us than we think. Maybe nothing is ever actually wasted. If you had told me that some chance meeting years ago of, say, someone I only vaguely knew in college was going to come back and haunt me decades later I would not have been inclined to believe it. But it is precisely what is happening. But I don’t think the strangeness ends there.
What seems to me even stranger still is that these memories and emotions are also a kind of trap. Not because of who the other person was or what they might have done (or not), but because I remain so strangely and tenaciously attached to the past. I don’t know why exactly even in these seemingly trivial aspects it remains so difficult to do. But only by allowing these charged memories to rise to my attention can I begin to let them go. And I very much want to let them go.
In my time here at the monastery and in silence there have certainly been more than a few difficult and challenging moments of facing myself. But these made perfect sense in the overall economy of my life. There have certainly been aspects of this that have surprised me, but that these aspects of my life were important was hardly surprising to me. I already long knew of their importance. My guess is that if one is to persist in the contemplative path there is absolutely no disordered attachment that can be left remaining. Everything must be let go of—and eventually will be. We will be emptied and thereby be filled. This is the inevitable conclusion, it seems, of the whole process.
We are needless to say, very strange creatures. We are able to adapt ourselves to nearly any harsh environment on earth and still find a way to thrive. This is both our strength and the cause of our looming catastrophes. But that isn’t all. At the same time that we are, at least collectively, so utterly unstoppable we are creatures who, individually at least, are so easily broken. Not only easily broken, but at times seemingly impossible to fix. We are most vulnerable to this, of course, when we are young. Much of what damages us is done unwittingly in most cases. Our similarly damaged caretakers, despite their best efforts, can’t seem to do otherwise. This is the great and quotidian tragedy of being human. On and on it goes This is not even to bring the more horrific aspects of human existence into the equation. These can break us even more significantly and at any time. Most of us are blessed to be spared ever having to deal with them.
In response, at least in the modern and postmodern West, we have been flooded with a dizzying array of therapies that purport to heal us at a deep level. We live, we are told, in a therapeutic age. These therapies are almost invariably marketed to us as “paradigm-shifting” and as “radical breakthroughs”. In my own life, somewhat embarrassingly in retrospect, I have tried out more than just a few. It is an indicator of just how lost I have been, and how lost we all are. It isn’t that these purported therapies have no effect—though I think some of those effects have been wholly negative—but that they never seem to be able to reach deep enough to truly make a difference. Or at least any difference that isn’t mainly superficial cosmetic. They keep us spinning our wheels.
As I have said more than once, the problem with contemplation is that it works. It works so well, in fact, and can often be so excruciating, that we’d almost rather do nearly anything else. Instead, we look for shortcuts. Hence our obsession with “life hacks” and the easy way around. As far as I can tell there are none. But neither is this a path of strenuous effort and self-will. The only way through is down and by letting go. In that sense, it is exceedingly simple. But this is no easy process and it cannot be controlled.
As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing tells us:
In short, let God’s grace do with you what it wants. Let it lead you wherever it wishes. Let it work and you receive. Look on it, watch it, and leave it alone. Don’t meddle with it, trying to help, as if you could assist grace. Fear that your interference could wreck everything. Instead, be the tree, and let it be the carpenter. Be the house, and let it be the homeowner living there. Become blind during contemplative prayer and cut yourself off from needing to know things. Knowledge hinders, not helps you in contemplation. Be content feeling moved in a delightful, loving way by something mysterious and unknown, leaving you entirely focused on God, with no other thought than of him alone. Let your naked desire rest there.
And as simple as that is it isn’t easy at all for us to do. We keep wanting to interfere and hurry things along. I have all too clearly seen this in myself throughout my time here. It isn’t enough to let things be and follow their own course. Thinking I know better I continually throw in my own two cents worth and that invariably only mucks things up. Slowly—ever so slowly—I have begun to learn to let it be. God doesn’t need my help. I just need to keep showing up and giving myself over to work of stillness and silence. The times that I am able to do so continually prove that no matter how difficult, or even excruciating it may prove to be, the more I surrender the more deeply and the more quickly the whole thing will go. More quickly doesn’t mean quick. But that much, at least, is up to me. Not much else is. For all our cleverness in devising methods and therapies little is actually required of us. Our contributions often only get in the way. We have all we need already working within ourselves if only we could stop interfering.
It is out of this inner ground that you should perform all your works without asking, “Why?” I say truly: so long as you perform your works for the kingdom of heaven, or for God’s sake, or for the sake of your eternal blessedness, and you work them from without, you are going completely astray. You may be tolerated, but it is not the best. Because truly, when people think that they acquiring more God in inwardness, and devotion, in sweetness and in various approaches than they do by the fireside or in the stable, you are acting just as if you took God and muffled his head up in a cloak and pushed him under a bench. Whoever is seeking God by ways is finding ways and losing God, who in ways is hidden. But whoever seeks for God without ways will find him as he is in himself, and that man will live with the Son, and he is life itself. [all emphases mine]
And then a bit later:
Now God wants no more form you than that you should in creaturely fashion go out of yourself, and let God be God in you. [emphasis mine]
We live in a time of ever-proliferating systems of control. We all came of age—more or less—in such systems. The school system, for one. All of the media we consume and popular culture and other similar manipulations. Quite understandably we seek a response. In being thus formed we may inadvertently respond to the increasingly inescapable systems of control with another counter-system of our own. What is an ideology but the desire to impose our own system as the system? I don’t think that will work. It is far too late. Rather, doing so only hastens the imposition of what we seek to escape. And honestly, at this late hour, there might not be any such avenue of escape.
But that hardly means that all hope is lost. The problem is and has always been, our delusional dependence on ourselves and our various schemes. How has that been working out lately? Or ever? All this time we have been looking in the entirely wrong direction. I know that I have. But as late as it might very well be, it is never too late to turn around. Metanoia. There is great hope in surrender and letting things go and letting things be. In a radical, all-pervasive trust in God alone. I know to some ears that this might sound counterintuitive and maybe even defeatist, but I think it is exactly the opposite. This is where hope lies.
This is where the only hope lies.
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Do you really value a happiness that can pass away? Is present fortune dear to you when she can’t be trusted to stay and when she brings grief as she departs? But if she can’t be retained through your own will, and if she brings ruin when she leaves, what else can she be but a sign of coming disaster? It’s not enough, after all, to see what is placed before our eyes; widsom takes thought for how things will turn out in the end. The temporary nature of any situation should keep a person from fearing Fortune’s threats or hoping for her enticements. In short, as soon as you bow your neck to Fortune’s yoke, you have to endure without complaint whatever happens under her terms. If you should try to impose rules on her coming and going, when you’ve willing chosen her as a mistress, won’t your impatience worsen the bad luck that you can’t change? If you entrusted your sails to the wind, you’d move forward in the direction it was blowing, not where you chose to go. If you entrusted seeds to the fields, you’d expect some good years and some bad years. Now you’ve given yourself to the rule of fortune; you must conform yourself to her ways. Would you try to hold back to force of a wheel in motion? O most foolish of men! If Fortune began to be permanent, she would cease to be fortune.
—Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy.
All fortune is good fortune; for it either rewards, disciplines, amends, or punishes, and so is either useful or just.
― Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy.