Chapter 8: Crossing The Threshold

Down the Rabbit HoleAs I mentioned previously, theology is analysis or dissection. It is a one-dimensional rendition of a multi-dimensional experience. Imagine a photograph of a bird in flight. The photograph is an image frozen in time and although it has some elements of reality, a faint suggestion, it is still lacking in comparison to the "real thing." The photograph cannot transmit to us the dimensions of time and space in which the real animal lives; it cannot give us an experience of it. Likewise, in context of this example, theology builds an elaborate system of thought upon this one-dimensional image of the "real thing." The metaphor, on the other hand, attempts to pitch us into an experience of the real world, into the dimensions of space and time. It encourages us to do away with the picture of the bird and to go outside and see for ourselves birds in flight. Theology, as we find it in mainstream religion, corrals imagination; metaphors unleash it and invite us to enter an entirely different dimension, which is beyond the reach of the rational mind alone.

I recall the alienation that I felt as a child after leaving church every Sunday. During the sermon, the priest would often discuss some topic related to the Scriptures and then expound for some time on theology. My mind would wander and invent games to escape the blistering boredom. I would often sit very still and stare at the life-sized statues of Mary and Jesus and the saints until I could almost see them moving; and I would secretly proclaim to myself these incidents to be miracles, that these divine figures were somehow trying to communicate with me, as a reward for my playful piety. The smell of incense and melting candles wafted through the air and ethereal light shone through colorful stain glass windows. The sound of silence, when present, was often mesmerizing, broken occasionally by one lonely voice, reciting a Gregorian chant. All of these things were filled with mystery for me and pointed to a strange yet familiar wonder that was just a bit out of my reach; they lived on that subtle cusp between the human world and the divine. Now, looking back, I realize that metaphor and theology lived side by side in that church. The metaphor - the statues, the incense, the candles, the light, the colors, the silence, and the music - was drawing me inwardly to a wave of experience of unimaginable and profound depths while the theology was shutting me out from the experience and trying to bind me to a specific fact. The theology was "factualizing" or fossilizing the metaphor by keeping my mind busy with discussions fabricated by human rationale. Meanwhile, I wished to escape these thoughts so that I may see God moving. We spent a lot of time in church talking about "It" and very little time living "It." And once outside the church, the effects of those dimly lit moments of experience quickly wore off and the story of Jesus and the Message regressed every time to something that was little more than a fable, outside the realm of my experience. And the theology was reinforced time and again outside of church, on the street corners, on the neighbor’s balcony, and in my own home.

Simplicity also is an essential characteristic of the experience; it is a result, not a cause, of the perception or experience. In Matthew 18:3, Jesus says: "Verily I say unto you, except you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." That is to say, this experience renders one like a child, always captivated in the moment, in awe even at the most insignificant of things. Watch how children become fascinated by small insects or by patterns in the sand on the beach. They stop, crouch down and begin to play, unaware of the world around them and the marching of time. In this passage Jesus refers to the child’s view of life as such. As adults, we lose the wonder and surprise in life, become so numb and accustomed to our days and are entranced by the idea or concept of reality that we fail to see the constant miracles that reality affords us. And this numbness is reflected in much of our theology and our world. Theology can often be swarming with complex ideas, but its twisted complexity shuts out experience and our ability to truly look upon the world with wonder and innocence. We can look at art in the same way. There is an element of innocence and simplicity in every great work of art that may or may not be perceived. Many academics have built careers on "explaining" great works of art. In explaining this art, they may call upon complex and technical theories and build mountains of their thoughts, but their explanations can never give us a direct experience of the art.

Here I offer one final but important note about the nature of this perception. It is not built up by our conscious will but by a breaking down of sorts. Orthodoxy may call it the saving grace of God. Psychology may point to some movement in the subconscious that triggers it. To be sure, this perception is not determined by some divine dictator who chooses the way in which he distributes his grace; rather, it is a paradoxical movement hidden within and yet outside of conscious human will or ability. This perception comes about not through willful effort or desire or merit or reward but through release and trust, or authentic faith as described earlier.

The door through which the sage must enter into this Landscape is of specific dimensions and proportions, determined by the unique impulse to his own life. Those dimensions are different for every individual and he cannot gauge them with his limited measuring stick of his intellect. If the sage can enter through that door, he will become like a mirror that reflects its own image. His individual will is crucified and recognized for the illusion or limitation that it is. As a result, this perception of the false is simultaneously his new sight. The sage is the only one who can choose to let go, step aside and trust the impulse of his own life to take its course within him. He must open this door of his own free will. This statement has its counterpart in orthodoxy where the believer must accept Christ as his savior. The believer's salvation hinges on his decision as to whether or not he chooses to open the door to Christ. For the sage who enters into this experience, the message of Jesus comes alive. He comes to recognize Jesus’ life as a psychological account of his own journey that ultimately ties together all aspects of his life. The sage gets the sense that his life, with all of its joy, suffering, wonder and pain, is a sublime tapestry, a unified and organic work of art in which he is participating. His past, present and future become a unified movement. His history gains a significance that it did not previously have. He beholds his past as having been composed like a song or a poem, as result of who he is now. He gets the sense that the life in which he is participating is the life that he was meant to lead. At these mysterious crossroads, divine providence and free will converge and disappear. The sage is now living in the famed eternal NOW, free from the hypnotic effects of conceptual reality. With all of his struggles and frustrations and doubts and “wrong turns” he becomes a transparent symbol for something truly sublime and inexpressible. He becomes like the drifting clouds overhead that are of perfect beauty, whether they are weeping and raging and grey, covering the sky in darkness, or in perfect stillness, adorned in the whiteness of purity. Psychologically speaking, the fragments of the sage become integrated into a unity that is living out of its center. He lives in balance between the outer and inner worlds much like the sun lives because of a balance between the crushing force of gravity and the expanding nuclear force. The dark fragments of the psyche are illuminated and their power is assimilated and integrated. The sage no longer fights the dragons and the demons but now assimilates them and harnesses their power, not through a battle of force, of good and evil, but through a realization of these energies as a part of his own being. He no longer fights the world but now confronts himself in his image of the world. He finally understands that the world is a reflection of himself and his attitude or perspective.

We can talk about this experience from different perspectives. We can look at it from a psychological perspective or from an artistic one. We can talk about it from a metaphysical or philosophical viewpoint. We can even discuss it from a sociological position. The point is that none of these perspectives, by themselves or even together, can give an accurate sense of the experience because they wander into the world of concepts. We must constantly come back to the perception itself, which is beyond concepts. Moreover, no viewpoint can integrate or reveal the mystery that is its essence. The perception transcends any system of ideas or beliefs because it is living and dynamic. And to know it, one must take a “leap of faith” and let go. This perception brings the sage to a state of mind that is outside of time and space. Do not ask one who lives in this state of mind whether or not he believes in life after death, for example. The question itself is meaningless because the experience is constantly breaking our ordinary, familiar construct of reality to which that question belongs. Linear concepts of past and future break down and therefore are meaningless in this very moment. Physicists use the term “singularity” to describe a point where the laws of physics and of the reality we know break down, such as the period before the Big Bang of Creation. This definition works well for our discussion here. We can think of time as a horizontal line on a graph. Points on the line represent moments in time that cover the past, present and future. Now imagine a vertical line cutting through the horizontal line. While we can move along that vertical line, there is no movement in the horizontal direction. That dynamic, vertical movement represents the perception or experience or Landscape that is in discussion.

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