Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions
Tolkien’s analogy has been a mainstay in my mind when I’ve contemplated the spiritual path. The image is one of near-impossibility, an ever-on-the-brinkness that cusps collapse. He must have intended it, beyond the mere amusement of breathing new life to a dormant Nordic myth, the oh-so-apropos analogy the ring of power has to our very real—and very mythic—spiritual life.
But to move away from the riddles just a nudge:
In my personal spiritual life, especially when really considering issues of how my beliefs might affect politics, and how the mistakes of a Catholic past give pause to the supposed solution of having a “spiritual” institution govern this worldly “shadow of death”, I’ve fallen back often on Tolkien’s message. It speaks softly to our world but blares like a horn of Mordor from his fantasy one: the ring of power cannot be wielded, even by the most noble of hearts. The ring of power, for the Good of the world, can only be destroyed.
To our false-pride-filled Ego, power is the drug that runs its world. Even in the darkest, most poverty-stricken and resource-empty street, a seething, malignant attempt to gain control is there. Perhaps power is seen at its most ugly in the fight of African warlords for control, willing to massacre tens of thousands of their own people if it means being on top. Or the sex-slave industry, fueled by others we might rush to call evil who care only for money and the means it brings with it. With every possibility this Ego seeks its dominion of the world, clutching through whatever means necessary to assert its coercive control over the natural world.
Which may be the essence of spirituality: to somehow transcend the physical world through faith, and willfully throw the ring in the smoldering cauldron—thereby disowning the chance for control—and declare to all Middle Earth (now I’m speaking of ours) that there is something beyond this world. However much it may be a heaven-here-and-now transcendence, it’s still a transcendence through faith, acceptance, and surrender. And sacrifice.
But it’s hard-to throw all trappings of power away, to continually walk the path of surrender and sacrifice. After all, the seemingly more real temptations of enjoyment and pleasure-‘fixes’ are within grasp, dangling around our necks just waiting for our finger to fondle.
Tolkien’s flaming tower in the black, industrial heart of Mordor is a cruel one, and paints the Ego and its drive to power as a formidable foe indeed…
It’s an image once more brought to mind (and heart, I suppose) during a reading of Shantaram. (Brief plug: Gergory David Roberts’ personal account of his journey through India and the changes it wrought on him is a masterpiece, skillfully crafted. I can’t possibly recommend it enough) I’m still reading the book, and wanted to write this post while I’m still muddling around in the unclear direction of where his account might go. But the image of the ring and its power and the analogy Tolkien-through-Frodo invites us to see drifted to mind as I struggled with the characters brought to life in Gregory Robert’s Bombay.
A fugitive on the run himself, the author quickly settles in the underground world of Bombay filled with characters sharp enough to sever legs, and morals as loose as the most addicted of junkies. As a matter of fact, some of them are junkies, yet Roberts paints them with more shades than just dark, scattering the shadows with hints of what may lay beyond. As a reader, it can be a struggle, because I find myself not wanting to accept these people he calls “friends”, and their sophisticated and too-clever approach to life.
For example: “’Really, my dear foolish Ulla, nothing changes at all…if you want to curdle the milk of your human kindness, or turn your compassion into contempt, get a job as a waitress or a cleaner. The two fastest ways to develop a healthy loathing for the human race and its destiny is to serve it food, or clean up after it, on the minimum wage. I have done both jobs, in those terrible days when I was forced to work for a living. It was horrible. I shudder now in thinking about it. That’s where I learned that nothing ever really changes…
…’I wouldn’t do it,’ Ulla said frowning. ‘I hate sadness. I can’t bear it. I would rather have nothing at all than even a little sadness. I think that’s why I love to sleep so much, na? It’s impossible to be really sad when you’re asleep. You can be happy and afraid and angry in your dreams, but you have to be wide awake to be sad, don’t you think?’
‘I’m with you, Ulla,’ Vikram agreed. ‘There’s too much fucking sadness in the world…That’s why everybody is getting so stoned all the time. I know that’s why I’m getting so stoned all the time.’…
…’The facts of life are very simple. In the beginning we feared everything—animals, the weather, the trees, the night sky—everything except each other. Now we fear each other, and almost nothing else. No-one knows why anyone does anything. No-one tells the truth. No-one is happy. No-one is safe. In the face of all that is so wrong with the world, the very worst thing you can do is survive. And yet you must survive. It is this dilemma that makes us believe and cling to the lie that we have a soul, and that there is a God who cares about its fate. And now you have it…’
..’I’m not sure what he just said,’ Vikram muttered, after a pause, ‘but somehow I agree with him, and feel insulted, at the same time.’”
Ok, so The Brothers Karamazov springs to mind with the worldview proposed above, similar to the language Dmitri Karamazov uses when saying that there is no sin, only hunger; implying that people do terrible acts merely because a cruel universe gives no other choice. Reading this, not wanting to accept the view I once lived by, other thoughts floated through my consciousness, thoughts of how faith is a verb, and requires an action to support the belief that something Good might exist, that likewise doubt is a verb—that our actions justify our beliefs, cementing them into a fixed worldview. Each step, each made decision in either direction further fixes the perception in something Holy or wholly absent. It’s what the Eastern folk call Karma.
But Tolkein’s imagery spoke to something deeper. The entire culture and circle of friends the author brings to life bubbled up the thought I myself often used to justify my petty thefts: sure, it was clear that the black-market world and those in it were cut-throat and cared only about personal interests, throwing friends away as easily as hot potato if it meant further gain. But, the author illustrated again, these criminals are hardly different than those that rule our world legitimately. The difference is that those that rule the world are powerful enough to write the laws that will keep them in power, defining those that might try to beat their created system as ‘criminal’. In the dark heart and rejection of those labeled ‘criminal’, we see the ruthlessness and banality of what we actually praise in another context.
These people who pushed heroin and worked with drug-lords to increase their standing in the Bombay underground were people, little more evil—as far as the bottom line at the end of the day—than some of the business people I interact with.
But I couldn’t let it just ride like that. Something didn’t sit right in my soul; yes, my soul. Because I’ve been fortunate enough to take the ring of power from my finger, realizing I couldn’t will myself past my ego, and, surrendering with humility, I wear the Ego over my burdened neck. Yes, Frodo, I know how heavy it can sometimes be.
That was exactly it: these people wanted power, and nothing else, pushing all other values to the margins. And, like the ring, it corrupted them. One of the main characters summed it up powerfully herself:
“’Yes. You’re a good listener. That’s dangerous, because it’s so hard to resist. Being listened to—really listened to—is the second-best thing in the world.’
‘What’s the first best thing?’
‘Everybody knows that. The best thing in the world is power.’
‘Oh is it?’ I asked laughing. ‘What about sex?’
‘No. Apart from the biology, sex is all about power. That’s why it’s such a rush.’
I laughed again.
‘And what about love? A lot of people say that love is the best thing in the world, not power.’
‘They’re wrong,’ she said with terse finality. ‘Love is the opposite of power. That’s why we fear it so much.’”
And there you have Tolkein’s analogy brought back full circle: the opposite of love is power, a willful decision to put aside the control or leverage you might have, and allow yourself to be vulnerable, open and honest, stripped bare of all illusions of power or above-thou whatever ring we’ve decided to furnish based on our social structure might have given us. It’s probably why so many relationships fade over time, because it’s difficult to stay open and vulnerable for any length of time. But Frodo knew the importance of carrying the burden to the end. And he wasn’t the only one…
ST. FRANCIS THE RING BEARER
Why, the story our Great Western Culture is founded on had one such holy figure who could have brought legions of angels down, as the Bible says, if he so wished. But, our example of what the divine life might look like, Jesus played the part of Love till the brutal, brutal end.
More than just a coincidence (as any who’s read any of these posts will know I think), I once more came across a recent Newsweek article that sparked the Tolkien portrait of spirituality. “The Forgotten Jesus” explores a recurrent theme in popular culture, reflecting a growing consciousness of the institutional walls of religion being broken down. The spiritual message of the Gospels (in particular) has remained incredibly resilient through our Western Civilization’s history, and we might be witnessing another move similar to the Protestant Reformation in which Martin Luther publicly cried his grievances with “the Church”. Political and social circumstances were ripe for change to blossom…
The article provides compelling trivia I was previously unaware of: Thomas Jefferson was quite spiritual. And he detested religion, going so far as to cut out passages from the Bible that he concluded were corrupted by later authorities looking to push their agenda through the Scriptures.
“I am a real Christian,” Jefferson insisted against the fundamentalists and clerics of his time. “That is to say, a disciple of the doctrine of Jesus.”
Two things spring to mind. (1) That Jefferson had a healthy-dose of self-confidence to assume he could edit the scriptures as his logic advised, and (2) it reminds me of Leo Tolstoy, who basically did the same thing a world away in Russia, saving (as he put it) the true message of Jesus from the corrupting influence of the Russian Orthodox Clergy. And as it turns out, both influential intellectuals’ cropping resulted in the same essential message:
“Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories…Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.”
To Tolstoy’s credit, he actually ended up giving up his material wealth—the equivalent in his time as if a billionaire would give away his. A noble in a land starkly divided between rich and poor, Tolstoy chose to live amongst the peasants of “his land”, though he couldn’t bring himself to sell his estate because his wife and children (not seeing things the same as he did) would suffer so greatly.
Jefferson’s extrapolation of the “true Gospel” message was much the same, using spiritual language that makes me breath deep in surrender and ease: “love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made.”
With only this slightly modified language of Jesus, we see the holy figure painting a much more spiritually transcendent image of “God the father” than later churches would seem to convey—the much derided white-bearded, angry (and jealous) God “on high” somewhere in the galaxy, eagerly on guard to smite those who might walk against his will.
The above language paints an image of transcendence, of letting go, and springs to mind the spiritual essence of religious traditions across space and time: that we are connected to All that is, that what we see with our eyes is but the surface of something much deeper, and the substance at the core of our being is of the same, indestructible surface of the All.
Of course, borrowing language from that of the Hindus and Buddhists, sometimes our inner source is blocked off from the muddy cake of our surface self, when the ego becomes blind to the deeper nature and serves only itself; seeing only the surface in which it tries to become master of, it seeks sanctification from the surface world—drugs, drink, sex, or power. But you can’t get enough of what you don’t really need, and so this surface self is rarely satisfied, and addiction begins. Or, you can take the ring off the finger, and surrender the power of the surface world to something else. You can commit to throw the ring in the fires of Mordor.
“Above all [Jesus’ message, according to Jefferson]: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all human beings that is the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.”
Coincidence, as ever, runs a coherent line through my life, springing up the image of the Ring of Power once more as I contemplate the spiritual path.
When I got sober (through a spiritual awakening, finding the buried divinity that my ego and all its lusting had covered up), I started my walk in the childhood familiarity of a conservative worldview. Yet I could never reconcile my deep awareness of God, or the All, with some obsessive crusade against abortion. Jesus came to the earth to make sure Democrats didn’t allow abortion, gays didn’t marry, and that evolution wasn’t taught. It didn’t sit right, and I early decided that spirituality was one of those so personal and deep things, that I never really saw it motivating political movements. Like Tolstoy said, “Each man wants to change the world, and no one wants to change himself.” There was enough work to do with my own heart, I wasn’t sure that spirituality required that I start crusades against people who didn’t act or think the same as me.
Which isn’t to say that politics isn’t important, and that movements are essential; it’s just to say that I don’t think they go well with the spiritual quest.
“The Forgotten Jesus”, as printed in the May edition of Newsweek, makes much the same claim: “A Christian cannot find salvation by fighting political battles, winning a few news cycles, or funding an anti-abortion super pac.”
“We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion. On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care.”
The author, a professed believer in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection, goes on to describe the crises of the modern church, and organized religion in particular. He doesn’t defend the church, and seems to think a move away from the old structure a good idea.
“…many suburban evangelicals embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich. Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those whit fallible memory. Still others insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old—something we now know by light of reason and science is simply untrue.”
He calls for a new approach to faith. In so doing, he evokes the past, looking to examples of old that might apply to the present. He shows both its applicability, and the need for an increased “spiritual vocabulary” in the public consciousness.
MOVING AWAY FROM BUZZWORDS
Let’s face it: Frodo’s a bit of a freak. Especially in the movies—the thing he relates to the most is Gollum. The author of “The Forgotten Jesus” gives St. Francis as an example of what the new type of faith might look like. What a minute, what? St. Francis the hippie? St. Francis the homeless beggar who talked with birds? For our age? Those that carry the ring, renouncing power, do they always have to be so damn…bizarre?
The magazine article attributes a recent biography on the saint for painting Francis, though still insane by our standards, as someone a bit more conceivable. Before he went all saint on the world, he was just a secular guy like you or me, who “suddenly found peace in service to those he previously shrank from: lepers…”.
“He did not cut out passages of the Gospels to render them more reasonable than they appear to the modern mind. He simply opened the Gospels at random—as was often the custom at the time—and found three passages. They told him to ‘sell what you have and give to the poor,’ to ‘take nothing for your journey,’ not even a second tunic, and to ‘deny himself’ and follow the path of Jesus.
…Francis insisted on living utterly without power over others.” Unfortunately, his fame spread, and he was forced to deal with his own celebrity, “and it tormented, wracked, and almost killed him. He had to be last, not first. He wanted to be always the ‘lesser brother,’ not the founder of an order.”
Tolkien’s vision is once more realized in the spirituality of Francis, who shrank from the power of the ring in order to keep what peace and joy he had found. But the ring always wants to be found.
Through Francis’ extreme example, the article filters a practical recipe for today: a lesson in simplicity, in living for the day, in the forgiveness of others, and of denying oneself. “Francis did not found an order designed to think or control. He insisted on the simplicity of manual labor, prayer, and the sacraments.”
Don’t get me wrong: I admire St. Francis. Hell, I framed his words in a picture frame and placed them on my desk when I taught at a boarding school for drug-addicts: “Can true humility and compassion exist in our words and eyes unless we know we too are capable of any act?” I honestly think that St. Francis might be my “spirit-guide” (another story completely). But his example of aesthetic extremes of self-denial as a talisman for our day?
“The Forgotten Jesus” laments the crises in religion: “It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial…given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and towards ‘spirituality’, co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert.”
What comes out in the above paragraph is the old buzzword “spirituality” and its negative connotation. Implied is that those who don’t follow Catholicism to the letter are somehow “lost” or that those who follow “spirituality” are somehow lesser than those who are “Christian”.
My response to the crises of organized religion the author points towards is that we need to move past buzzwords. To put it bluntly, what the fuck do we mean when we say “spirituality”? It’s like the buzzword “socialism” in America. No one can really tell me what it is, just that we DON’T WANT IT!
I argue that spirituality isn’t some lesser form of Christianity, but the essential form of it. Again I’m brought back to the principles of the 12 steps and AA—there are plenty of good, upstanding “religious” folk who just could not “beat alcohol” until they actually worked “spiritual principles”. Every religion has them, and the author pointed out the ones for Christianity in the Francis example.
For our purposes, let’s define religion as the outward, canonized sets of rituals, beliefs, and personal conduct within a given belief system which, through their adherence, connects one to the Ultimate Reality. Spirituality, then, would be the personal connection to that Ultimate Reality. The root of the word is important: “spirit” implies something transcendent, beyond the material, revealed world. Part of spirituality would involve that point within where the physical and non meet.
And one other great spiritual master offered a useful analogy (it seems like these spiritual guides really like their analogies). The Buddha, when talking about crossing into Nirvana, described the journey as moving from one shore of a lake (or river) in a raft. The raft that takes you across could be considered the religion. But, the Buddha said, sometimes when you get to the other side, you find the raft is no longer useful. Why, it’s even a bit of a burden. Though you have great affection and admiration for it helping you get across, there is no more need for it. You are on the other side.
As Jesus put it, speaking to his culture of Jews: Love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made.
So each religion has a set of rituals and codes (too often the superficial ego-world focuses only on the surface-level belief) that help transcend the ego, prescribing humility as a per-requisite, and the journey is than made to that blissful “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus claimed was “within you”.
But Christianity isn’t the only raft. It’s a beautiful one, sure, and one I grew up with. But, as the Buddha is also attributed as saying, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.” The goal of religion is not to adhere to some look-good image of conduct and expressed belief. The goal of religion is to attune your soul to that deep part of you that transcends this mortal veil. Because all too often the image of being a “good, religious person” becomes just another ring on our finger.
Maybe the image is too bleak. We’ve been talking about transcendence, after all. Jesus did say that the Kingdom of Heaven is within you. Frodo suffered alone as he trudged towards the fires of Mt. Doom, which, if we are to take Tolkien too literally (God forbid!) might seem like the denial of power as some tiring, brooding trial with little hope of success. I’d be the first to disagree. Francis, you’ll remember, denied the power because he found so much peace in helping others. There is peace and fulfillment—true and lasting—in deciding to carry the ring around our necks, to walk in humility and outside of our egos. Walking the vistas in this life on our personal treks to Mt. Doom affords some lofty, spectacular, and beautiful, beautiful views. The path, without question, takes us to heights that those who would wield the ring would never see.
Yet the ring does call. If we’re honest, times come when we’re tempted. As I like to fall back on the drug-addict example, me being one and all, and the disease is still there. We can slip back on that ring, slip back into that ego, and all is lost. Quickly.
So maybe Tolkien’s image does hold. We can be happy on the march to Mt. Doom, but there is a burden we carry. Yet hanging it around our necks, we allow the All to shine through us, allowing the ego to dangle as well, knowing that as long as we can see its manifestations through our struggle, we know we’re not wearing it.
And the journey alone is worth it. God only knows what lays beyond.