How to Think About the Unthinkable
These questions do not call for the discovery of data; they call for the contemplation of possibility.
It is these kinds of questions that beleaguer the soulfrom one end of life to the other. It is these questions that the great spiritual traditions of every age have always set out to face and tame.
But how does this happen and what does it demand of us if we are to brook the inexorable appearance of these confusions, these tormentors of the spirit, and bend them to the best in us?
The truth is that we spend our lives in the centrifuge of paradox. What seems certainly true on the one hand seems just as false on the other. Life is made up of incongruities: Life ends in death; what brings us joy will surely bring us an equal and equivalent amount of sorrow; perfection is a very imperfect concept; fidelities of every ilk promise support but also often end.
How can we account for these things? How can we deal with them? How can we find as much comfort in them as there is confusion? These are the queries that will not go away but which, the spiritual giants of every age knew, need to be faced if we are ever to rise above the agitation of them. There is a point in life when its paradoxes must be not only considered but laid to rest.
The great truth of early monastic spirituality, for instance, lies in the awareness that only when life is lived in the aura of the transcendent, in the discovery of the Spirit present to us in the commonplaces of life, where the paradoxes lie, can we possibly live life to its fullness, plumb life to its depths.
When seekers went out to the wasteland looking for spiritual direction from the Fathers and Mothers of the desert, they did not receive in response to their spiritual questions harsh exercises in self-denial. On the contrary. They received instruction in self-knowledge. They received the wisdom of those who themselves had fathomed the tumult of life’s paradoxes. They were instructed in the need to confront the tensions of them in their own lives. Not to deny them. Not to try to escape them. Not to ignore them. Not even to judge them. They were required to learn to see in the opposites of life the real richness of life.
Stories abound in the Christian tradition extolling the exploits of great spiritual figures whose fasts were Olympian, their years of solitude monumental, their rigorous disciplines on every level breathtaking. And so?
That kind of spiritual discipline is certainly impressive, but it does not represent the whole story. It is not even the greater part of the stories of any of the great spiritual eras or traditions. Seekers throughout the ages, the great mystics of every century, knew that it is not in physical asceticisms alone, let alone essentially, that the soul grows, expands, centers, and becomes its most radiant self.