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Children of the Desert
When Teresa of Avila described the soul as an interior castle which most people never explore, she was stating truth we needed Freud and Jung to demonstrate. In our fragmented society, in which we are alienated from our inner resources, we remain largely dismissive of the most ancient and neglected spring of wisdom in Western Culture, its mystical tradition.
-- Colin Thompson
I don't want you to go away with the impression that there's any -- you know -- any inconveniences involved in the religious life. I mean a lot of people don't take it up just because they think it's going to involve a certain amount of nasty application and perseverence -- you know what I mean?...As soon as we get out of chapel here, I hope you'll accept from me a little volume I've always admired..."God Is My Hobby."
-- J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
From time to time, the believer has to ask: "Am I who I say I am?" In my case, the question has a particular focus. "Am I a Christian?" or "Am I still a Christian?" I have my answer ready: "Yes, I am."
If I already have the answer, why pose the question in the first place? There are two reasons. One, a pattern of questioning is part of the way I believe. Questioning of this sort deepens and strengthens me in my belief. Probing doubt is the handmaid of faith. It is my way of entering the Interior Castle. Two, the questioning process (by which I don't mean mere intellectual puzzle solving) itself is arevelation to me of God's gracious way of dealing with us. That, is why believers, from time to time, need, a break with their old ways of believing. Believers as well as unbelievers are in need of conversion. But it's easy to see why this approach doesn't go down too well in our culture. Few would want to be free of either their idolatrous imaginings or their fixed opinions.
My trip around the world set up a pattern of questioning and wondering. I met many different types of people, believers and unbelievers alike. I had occasions for soul-searching and reassessment. I was struck by the variety and complexity of human personalities and societies. Nothing can hold us together, I thought, unless it be something outside us or a commitment to waiting and silence.
All of this may sound simple-minded, but my distance from home forced me to ask basic questions: How am I to be in the world? How am I to be in the world with all these others? Whatever answer I came up with, the process would surely involve a lot of waiting and listening. I felt like a newborn baby. There was no choice but to begin again.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke speaks of Herz-Werk. This "heartwork" is indispensable to those who wish to follow that "way of believing" associated with the desert. My particular Herz-Werk (which I trust is shared by many) involves posing this question: How can I be a believer in today's world in such a way that it involves my whole self -- my passion, my intelligence, and my allegiance? My question always invites me to return to the desert.
The Roman Catholic theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, has recently stated that it is no longer possible to believe simply on someone else's say so -- that is, on naked authority. This, he claims, has been true since the eighteenth century, the period known as the Enlightenment. But people are capable of believing what they will, and of believing "a hundred impossible things before breakfast." Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of religion where our almost infinite capacity for self-deception has all the room in the world to exercise its random craziness. I do not think for one moment that Father Schillebeeckx believes that the issue of authority is unimportant. What is of great concern today are the grounds for believing anything at all.
Those of us who follow the desert way of believing cannot believe something because someone in authority tells us it is so. This is true with regard to the Bible and the Creeds as well as with hierarchial authority. I read the Bible and I recite the Creeds and I believe them; but I don't believe them because I am supposed to. I believe them because I find them to be true. My believing has to be grounded in experience, and has continually to be tested and authenticated by it. I have to admit that this doesn't get me very far. Having dispensed with external authority, I am left with the dubious witness of my own experience. I have become my own pope, but with no promise of infallibility. I have little to go on. How am I to judge and evaluate my experience? I'm not even sure that I know how to experience the world. How reliable am I? If I'm not careful, my version of the desert way quickly degenerates into a mere problem-solving device that helps me bypass the issue of my own profound unreliability.
There is, of course, a great deal that I can do to anesthetize myself with a "religious" solution. This solution often takes on one of two forms. The first is the pseudomystical one of the cults; these cheap ways to a commercialized Nirvana bypass the mind altogether. The second is the old-time authoritarian one of dogmatic or biblical fundamentalism. Either approach to believing is dangerously immature. Just as we are capable of believing impossible things or believing things on impossible grounds, so also we have the choice of remaining immature. Politicians, religious leaders, and teachers know of our longing to remain infantile. It takes a spiritually mature person to enter the Kingdom of God...Soul Making. Copyright © by Alan W. Jones. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.