Great Love or Great Suffering – Two Paths to Non-duality
Recently I’ve been listening to Fr. Richard Rohr’s three CD set, Exploring and Experiencing The Naked Now, a recording of two webcasts in which he talks about his work on non-dual thinking and the insights of the contemplative/mystic tradition of Christianity. Rohr’s work provides a fine background for the last couple of weeks of Lent and moving into Easter.
A central insight of Rohr’s work is that non-dualistic thinking is central to experiencing the mystery of Christ and the Trinity. God is One, yet we know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The contrast boggles the mind when we try to explain, define or otherwise pin down the mystery. Our minds, trained to make logical distinctions and put all we experience into categories of “this/not that,” find it hard to deal with the “yes/and” of combining such seemingly irreconcilable statements. Nevertheless, Jesus calls us into the mystery and teaches through example, images and stories that seem to contradict each other. In one place, for example, he says that his followers are to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them. In another, he counsels that it’s time to take swords along to the place where he and is friends planned to spend the night. At yet another, he turns over the tables of the money-changers in the temple and drives them out. Then when the chips are down, he heals the ear of the servant of the High Priest in the Garden of Gethsemane and goes to his death without offering resistance. So which is it? Non-violent always or Violent sometimes? Do we simply choose one meaning – the one that suits what we want to do – or are we supposed to try to make some logical sense of the contrasting statements/actions or must we somehow live in the mystery, without needing to explain it logically. And if we do that, won’t we be seen as somehow immature and childish?
Rohr suggests that a return to the contemplative mindset is essential in the long-run. It is the ultimate goal of the spiritual life. Union with God, a return to the non-duality of the Garden of Eden, is the final goal of our lives and quest. We start non-dualistically as infants and small children. We move away from non-dualism around the age of reason and begin to be able to separate from God, make wrong choices, and, dare I say it, to sin. We learn what is right and what is wrong. We learn to make distinctions. Then we think we’ve got it all set for the rest of our lives. But we’re right smack dab in the middle of a dualistic world and mindset. So everything gets phrased in terms of win/lose or “limited good” (a concept from anthropology) — what is good for you will take something from me. We forget, or perhaps haven’t consciously experienced, that God’s love comes to us like water flowing through a pipeline or electricity flowing down a wire. As long as there’s no blockage, it just keeps coming. The critical thing is to keep the pipe open, the transmission line unbroken. But that gets scary. The “what ifs” start raising their ugly heads. And we fight against anyone or anything that seems to threaten the way things are now, even if it’s not ideal. And so we block the flow, partially or totally.
Rohr argues that the only way we can move beyond dualism in our thinking and again enter non-dualistic reality is through the path of great love or the path of great suffering. In both situations, the normal ways of coping or experiencing reality fall away. We don’t have the energy to block the flow. We’re too deeply in the joy or sorrow. “Everything’s coming up roses …” as the song says. Or, alternatively, we cry out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Where are you when I need you God? In either condition, we are open to experience the wonder of God’s love and compassion without trying to (or even being capable of) splitting it into dualistic compartments or categories. The experiences are too overwhelming, too all encompasing, too intense to allow for separation and dualism. And then we can grow in wisdom. And we experience redemption – a return to union with our God – set free from the normal ties that hold us bound in worry of losing our “secure” duality.
Meanwhile, “back at the farm,” the troubles and tragedies of world events continue through Holy Week. A small group of people are arrested for plotting to kill a police officer and then kill more officers at his funeral, all in the name of Christ. What madness is this? Bombs explode in crowded places around the world, in the name of God. What madness is that? How can religious people believe that the creator of all of us and of all of the wonders of the universe could want us to be killing each other? And how could we dare to think we do it in his name, by his authorization? How can Christians be terrorists, as Leonard Pitts notes in a recent column? Is our God really so helpless or so impotent that he could condone such action, such dualistic us/them action?
Jesus went to the cross rather than try to force God’s hand to free his nation from the Romans by inciting a rebellion, as some would have liked. He went to the cross rather than deny the truth that God is more interested in the way we treat each other than in the sacrifices we bring to the altar. He went to the cross rather than run away and deny that he had experienced a very special relationship with his Father, one that the Father wants to share with the rest of us too. And redemption came out of that great passionate love and suffering. Easter came to all the world and our separation from God came to a resounding end.
May each of us move forward in this Easter season in joy and trust, building on the faith of our younger years and beginning to enter into the world of contemplation, of not dividing the “real” from the “ideal,” of really believing the Good News, that love is all that really matters, and love will make all the suffering lead to the peace and deep, deep joy of the children of God.