Friday, March 21, 2014

DESIRE NOTHING: THE ZEN OF SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS

So, you want to be happy, really happy? Then, here's what you need to do. Desire nothing. Desire to possess nothing. Desire to be nothing. Desire to know nothing.

Conventional Christians, especially those of an evangelical bent (how I love that word ‘bent,’ so apt in the case of those just mentioned), are very wary of Christian mysticism. Someone once said, 'Mysticism: it begins in "mist", centres in "I", and ends in schism.' Funny, but not really true. Real mysticism helps to eliminate that 'I' or self. I’m not at all wary of mysticism, because I draw from a considerable number of diverse spiritual traditions and I'm more interested in what the various world religions have in common than what divides them as well as people.

Now, the great theme throughout the ages is unity … oneness. This is so beautifully expressed in the Shema Yisrael (‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One’ [Dt 6:4]), but the theme of unity and oneness can be found in all the world’s religions and systems of spirituality. Here’s another major theme, and important spiritual principle … the need to weed-out the personal self.

All the world’s religions stress the importance of purification. (Of course, some take this too far!) We need to progressively weaken and weed-out all of the structures of the personal self in order to open oneself to an experience of one’s True Self. This involves the complete subjugation of our lower nature by the higher. I love what William Temple had to say about the matter of selfishness. He said, ‘For the trouble is that we are self-centred, and no effort of the self can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour.’ We need to be made free from all forms and notions of self-identification, self-absorption, self-obsession and self-centredness, but how is that accomplished. The ‘problem’ identified by Archbishop Temple is very real indeed.

Saint John of the Cross [pictured above and below] was a major figure of the Counter-Reformation. He was a Carmelite friar and priest … and one of the all-time great Christian mystics. He is also remembered as having been one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language, his poems being full of rich imagery and symbolism. There was a Zen-like quality to much of his spiritual writing. Take this gem, for example:

In order to arrive at pleasure in everything
Desire to have pleasure in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything,
Desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything
Desire to be nothing.
In order to arrive at knowing everything,
Desire to know nothing.
In order to arrive at that wherein thou hast no pleasure,
Thou must go by a way wherein thou hast no pleasure.
In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not
Thou must go by a way thou knowest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou possest not,
Thou must go by a way that thou possesst not.
In order to arrive at that which thou art not,
Thou must go through that which thou art not.
When thy mind dwells upon anything,
Thou art ceasing to cast thyself upon the All.
For in order to pass from the all to the All,
Thou hast to deny thyself wholly in all.
And when thou comest to possess it wholly,
Thou must possess it without desiring anything.
For, if thou wilt have anything in having all,
Thou hast not thy treasure purely in God.


All this is reminiscent of a number of recorded sayings of Jesus, such as these:

For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.’ (Mk 8:35)

But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’ (Mk 10:31)

‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’ (Lk 6:21)

The mystic of whatever persuasion constantly seeks out those areas of their life which are governed by the little, selfish ‘I’, and place them under the control of the selfless ‘I’, or, if you like, the Self (Christ, God, or whatever). This is something which each of us must do for ourselves. Others can but point the way, so to speak, but we must walk the path. No other person can do that for us. Giving up, letting go, surrender---they all mean pretty much the same thing---these things are damn hard. It is like death, which each of us must face and experience personally. If we would travel far we must travel light, and in order to gain something greater, we must give up many things that hold us back. 

All this we know, but, oh, how difficult this is! The ‘old me’ must die daily … indeed, every moment of each day. We must truly want that ‘treasure’ of which Saint John of the Cross writes … and we must be willing to go to any length to get it. The recovering alcoholic and addict knows this so very well. You must too.

There is an old Christian hymn written by Helen H Lemmel that contains these beautiful lines:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Now, Christian or not, there is a ‘wonderful face’ to which we must all turn and face. For some it is the face of Jesus, for others it is the face of Buddha or some other holy person. For many who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and others who don’t even feel comfortable with the word ‘spiritual’ (and that’s OK, too), it is the face of their own higher or best self. Whatever be that ‘face’ for you, turn your eyes upon it, never lose sight of it, look full into that wonderful face, hold that image firmly in your mind throughout the day and all the days to come … and the things of earth will grow strangely dim. They will, indeed.

Love and blessings to you all.


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