It?s Good Friday, 2002, about seven in the evening. Since I was about ten and beginning to wake up to the meaning of the gospel, this day has had profound meaning for me. Today again, the passion has been much in my thoughts. I?ve been thinking about the mystery of compassion as it is revealed in the life of Jesus, and how, for me, it is the core of his message.
In 1993, I was going through a time of vision similar to one that is happening to me now, and I asked to see two worlds: one that was just a bit worse off than ours, and another that was just a bit better off. I came to know these two worlds in great detail, as they were revealed in a series of vivid images. The one that was slightly worse off had skies so polluted that you could not see anything but brown, day and night. It was crowded, and its architecture was vast and monolithic. It was divided into two huge societies, which were at one another?s throats. It was a world of ideology and politics and lies. To understand why this world was worse off than ours, one has only to imagine what our own world would have been like if Hitler had won World War II, and the world had become divided between Nazis and Communists.
A nuclear exchange would have been inevitable, and this other world had a massive explosion of military force, and was ruined.
The world that was slightly better off was extremely complex. In contrast to the sweeping hugeness of the architecture of the first world, it was a polyglot of details. People from this world were rueful about their past, and filled with acceptance of one another. This world was living as Jesus lived, in a state of compassion.
When I was a boy, a priest (yes, there are priests who provide little boys and girls rich wisdom without molesting them) taught me that forgiveness was not an act, it was a state of being. ?Christ?s forgiveness flowed from the cruelties done to him,? this priest said to me. ?In faith, this is the best proof there is of his oneness with God.?
To me, these words contain the meaning of faith, which is not based in some twisted ideology derived from prideful misreading of religious texts, which defines too much of organized religion, but is a part of our natural body, in our blood. It has nothing to do with belief. I don?t know if the story of the resurrection, for example, is true or not, and my faith doesn?t care. Faith is greater than belief. In fact, it isn?t the same thing at all. Belief has to do with ideas. Faith has to do with human nature, recognizing one?s own frailties and failures, and having to courage to love all?including oneself? without reservation, and even without knowledge of whether or not God even cares.
This kind of faith is there because the heart beats. The Master of the Key and I had this exchange about faith:
I asked him: What of Jesus? What of Buddha?
He answered: ?Those are two different, but intertwined, questions. First, you must understand that the teachings of Buddha had reached the community of Hellenized Jews in which Jesus lived. So they form a part of Christianity. He was a spiritual revolutionary who brought a message of mercy and compassion and the dignity of man to a world of unimaginable terror. The Roman rule was blind and brutal and unspeakably greedy. Ancient knowledge was being murdered by Roman ignorance and Roman power. This knowledge consisted of how to consciously form a radiant body so that you would not recur into the physical, so that you would be free. Christ was here to preserve this knowledge and pass it down. But even his deposit was corrupted by Roman politicians, who transformed his practice into a religion after he died.?
But, you know, nothing can extinguish faith, any more than evil can ever extinguish the light of the soul. The Church has suffered so much humiliation and done so much wrong, from the institution of celibacy in the eleventh century for crass political reasons to the burning of Jews and pagans in the middle ages, to the awful silence of Rome during the holocaust and the modern discovery that the church?s most sacred institutions conceal sexual perversion. And yet, that simple statement by a good priest, ?Christ?s forgiveness flowed from the cruelties done to him,? is higher and better and stronger than all of that evil, and points with an arrow?s fine travel straight at the vision of the compassionate world that I saw in 1993.
So one priest, speaking in the light of the holy spirit to a little boy, can in one simple instant wipe away for that little soul all of the vast evil, the towering evil that has come before and followed since.
I have always loved horror stories, and I write them because they have to do with hidden work, soul?s work, the penetration of compassion into the savage recesses of the spirit. There was a writer of these stories called H.P. Lovecraft, who was artless in his construction of fictions, but who understood something so essential and so important about evil, that his works are worth reading not only for a chilly amusement, but for a much more profound purpose: this man, probably on an instinctive level, understood the fragility of evil. He created stories about awesome, vast beasts from another sense of reality, which marched the night, relentless in their power. And yet, their fragility was part of the essence of their power: evil is about destruction, and as Meister Eckhardt said, ?evil must always have an end? for this reason.
So also it is with the evil that surrounds us, with the darkness that right now is threatening the light of our beautiful world. But you know something? The darkness is always threatening the light of our beautiful world, and always failing, and can never extinguish our chance to choose the light. Jesus knew it when he said, ?I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.?
So, I keep following him and keep running from him, loving him and being appalled by him. What is this faith of mine, that defies logic, that defies my own will, that comes from my innocent childhood and insinuates itself into the sophistication of my adulthood? It is an awful faith, because when I say, ?I can?t believe that this man was anything special,? it says, ?I don?t care.? And when I say, ?nobody can get up and walk after they?ve died,? it responds, ?it doesn?t matter.? And when I say, ?I am not a believer,? it says, ?neither am I.?
My grandfather?s favorite poem was by Frances Thompson, ?The Hound of Heaven,? and I remember it well: ?I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind?? How I remember my granddad?s voice as he spoke those lines, resonant and low. When his journey ended, I took the shaft and went on down the road, Frances Thompson echoing in my mind.
I think again of the two worlds, the one that lost itself in ideology and died, and the one that embraced compassion and lives now in humble richness. I wonder, are they real worlds, rolling through their own ancient time, somewhere in the stars? Or are they lessons designed in my mind or in the miracle of the world around us? To my intellect, this matters. If the visions were ?real,? then they somehow mean more. But to my blood, my faith, what difference does it make? The lesson is the same.
Organized religion, in our age, is dying. The ship of souls is turning away from the ancient institutions of religion, but not?oh, very definitely not?from the journey toward God. Across Asia, Buddhism is in retreat. If you ask educated Indians if they ?believe in? the Hindu gods, you will get subtle answers, but they will not add up to ?yes.? Throughout the Moslem world, the louder the fundamentalists scream, the more people quietly seek their freedom. In the United States, the most religious of the western countries, only a third of the people attend church regularly, and the vociferous minority devoted to imposing their ?Christian? ideas on others by force and political subterfuge drive more away every day. And now, the spectacle of perversion being intentionally concealed within the Catholic church by its own leaders, brings yet another crisis.
And yet, this is a world full of faith. Why? What is real faith? Better, perhaps, to ask a question that I asked the Master of the Key: What is real religion?
?From outside of time, man?s effort to know God appears as a single form, a work of art that has evolved across history. You have created it in three phases. The first is negative, the age of sacrifice. This is why the old testament God is so terrible. The moment that God tells Abraham not to kill Isaac is a record of one of the most sacred of all human moments, for it sets the stage for the next age. The second age is positive, the age of worship. This is why the God of the new testament is full of compassion. Your present age is when man and God become one. You find in yourself Christ, Buddha, Allah, Krisna. In this age, the elemental body has evolved to the point that it has the potential to reflect divine ecstasy. It is happening already, in the secret lives of your own children. I am here to bring you a promise from on high: if you surrender yourselves to God, you and the earth will be saved. Otherwise, you will be extinct before the end of the age.?
Now there is real faith, real religion: surrender to the awful question that truly defines our knowledge of God. Another poem, a favorite of mine, expresses in the best way that I know the nature of this surrender, and why He said in the time of his life, ?Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.?
How can we dare that, to let slip the fists of our knowledge into a child?s open hands of faith?
How can we? Another poet tells us, a favorite of mine, Walt Whitman:
?There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he look?d upon, that object he became, And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.?
So, the Hound of Heaven will capture us and make us part of him, if we dare to live the question?who are you, who lives in our blood and asks us to accept the impossible?and thus also live in heaven on this earth, the life of the child.
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