---Study of the Heart Tree by Palmarin Merges
In the Landscape of the Heart we meet up with parts of the self that we both desire and fear. The heart longs to feel fully alive; it craves connection and happiness. If allowed to follow its cravings, the heart feels everything: love and loneliness, contentment and gloom, passion and apathy. Like waves on the shore, our hearts normally rush toward joy, then pull back, afraid of pain and loss. Heartfulness is the willingness and the ability not to pull back. If we want to "feel the rapture of being alive," as Joseph Campbell describes the object of the spiritual search, we have to experience the whole ocean of emotions.
Heartfulness work is like swimming lessons: it teaches a skill that very few people seem to naturally possess. But unlike swimming lessons, which can be easily obtained at any YMCA pool or local beach, heartfulness skills are not usually taught in our culture. Most of us didn't learn as children that sadness is sister to happiness and that to deny one is to suppress the other. We weren't given specific tools to handle grief, to deal with crisis, to welcome loss as a natural part of being alive. It was not suggested that in order to understand ourselves we should look to the ways in which our parents cared for us and for each other. No one said, "Here is the best way to communicate when you are angry so that your relationships can flourish in honesty and love." Instead, the whole subject of emotions and psychological development was ignored at best and usually was sentimentalized, or ridiculed, or corked.
"Emotional intelligence," as psychologist Daniel Goleman calls the wisdom of the heart, needs to be nurtured and developed, just like any kind of intelligence. We've put more emphasis on math and history and language than on the skills needed to love our lives and to interact well with each other as mates, families, friends, and communities. Elementary schools don't include honest communication or compassionate listening in the curriculum. High schools don't require students to know how to develop healthy emotional boundaries, how to be strong and gentle at the same time, how to make wise decisions based on what we really want—or how to know what we want in the first place.
Society devises laws to keep domestic and public order, but rules for moral behavior are different from tools for heartful living. They may point us in the same direction—toward kindness, compassion, and decency—but heartfulness is not about being told what to do. Heartfulness warns us not to "grin and bear it," not just to settle for what religions talk about, not to follow rules for the sake of obedience—but to find out for ourselves what we love and what we want. If values don't come from what we love, they become doctrine. Heartfulness leads us away from a rote doctrine of love to loving behavior through self-love, to forgiveness of others through self-forgiveness, to understanding human nature through self-understanding.
By the time most of us have reached adulthood we find ourselves in a curious situation: we have an emotional life but we don't really know how to manage it. The luckiest among us have happy marriages and loving families, deal gracefully with loss and pain, and feel deeply into the pleasures of daily life. The most unfortunate are crippled by depression, unable to make lasting bonds with others, and dulled to the ordinary magic of being alive. In the middle are the rest of us, bobbing in our own emotional oceans, sometimes on top of the water, and often under waves of depression or anger or confusion. You may recognize in yourself the most common emotional coping strategy: in order not to feel the darker emotions—sadness, or pain, or hatred—we turn off the heart's capacity to feel at all. And then we are puzzled by why it is so hard to love, to enjoy, and even to know what we feel or want.
It makes sense that if we don't want to feel unhappy, and we don't know how to cultivate happiness, that we would just turn off the part of ourselves that feels. This is something that we learn to do early on. If our childhood pain was great, we learn all too well how to shut down feelings. The heart then becomes the locked repository for childhood wounds and confusion. The lessons of repression and avoidance learned long ago become trusted habits.
If the purpose of life is to "feel the rapture of being alive," and if our capacity to feel is crippled by old wounds and a lack of emotional education, then it follows that an important part of the spiritual path is to heal the heart and to become emotionally intelligent. Then why is it that the territory of the heart is so rarely explored on the classical spiritual journey? One answer is that the heart's contradictory, messy, and passionate nature seems at odds with some religions. Sin-based religions especially have made it their mission to control the world, not to love it for what it is. The less controllable aspects of our humanness—erotic love, rage and anger, beauty and sadness—have been labeled too passionate or irrational to be trusted. Better to leave passion out of a "spiritual" person's life altogether.
To bring the heart along on the spiritual path is to open Pandora's box. Once opened, the heart wants to feel the rapture of being alive. It longs to know love; it remembers pain; it feels rage; it demands change. It wants to knowjoy in the here and now, in the body, with other people, through the senses. No wonder our culture—with its Puritanical roots and its patriarchal power structure—has made sure the box has stayed locked. But the lack of heartfulness in life is a tragedy, because an enlightened heart delivers what we expect from the spiritual search: wisdom, peace, and a life of miracles.
The question "What shall we do about it?" is only asked by those who do not understand the problem. If a problem can be solved at all, to understand it and to know what to do about it are the same thing. On the other hand, doing something about a problem which you do not understand is like trying to clear away darkness by thrusting it aside with your hands. When light is brought, the darkness vanishes at once.
This applies particularly to the problem now before us. How are we to heal the split between "I" and "me", the brain and the body, man and nature, and bring all the vicious circles which it produces to an end? How are we to experience life as something other than a honey trap in which we are the struggling flies? How are we to find security and peace of mind in a world whose very nature is insecurity, impermanence, and unceasing change? All these questions demand a method and a course of action. At the same time, all of them show that the problem has not been understood. We do not need action yet. We need more light.
Light, here, means awareness to be aware of life, of experience as it is at this moment, without any judgement or ideas about it. In other words, you have to see and feel what you are experiencing as it is. And not as it is named. This very simple "opening of the eyes" brings about the most extraordinary transformation of understanding and living, and shows that many of our most baffling problems are pure illusion. This may sound like an over-simplification because most people imagine themselves to be fully enough aware of the present already, but we shall see that this is far from true.
Because awareness is a view of reality free from ideas and judgements, it is clearly impossible to define and write down what it reveals. Anything which can be described is an idea, and I cannot make a positive statement about something-the real world-which is not an idea. I shall therefore have to be content with talking about the false impressions which awareness removes, rather than the truth which it reveals. The latter can only be symbolized with words which mean little or nothing to those without a direct understanding of the truth in question.
What is true and positive is too real and too living to be described, and to try describe it is like putting red paint on a red rose. Therefore most of what follows will have to have a rather negative quality. The truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light, an art not unlike sculpting, in which the artist creates, not by building, but by hacking away.
We saw the question about finding security and peace of mind in an impermanent world showed that the problem had not been understood. Before going any further, it must be clear that the kind of security we are talking about is primarily spiritual and psychological. To exist at all, human beings must have a minimum livelihood in terms of food, drink, and clothing-with the understanding, however, that it cannot last indefinitely. But if the assurance of a minimum lively hood for sixty years would even begin to satisfy the heart of man, human problems would amount to very little. Indeed, the very reason why we do not have this assurance is that we want so much more than the minimum necessities. It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is commentaries and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separation which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the "I", but it is just the feeling of being an isolated "I" which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.
To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.
We look for this security by fortifying and enclosing ourselves in innumerable ways. We want the protection of being "exclusive" and "special," seeking to belong to the safest church, the best nation, the highest class, the right set, and the "nice" people. These defences lead to divisions between us, and so to more insecurity demanding more defences. Of course it is all done in the sincere belief that we are trying to do the right things and live in the best way; but this, too, is a contradiction.
I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good "I" who is going to improve the bad " me." "I," who has let has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward "me," and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently "I" will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make "me" behave so badly.
We have hardly begun to consider this problem unless it is clear that the craving for security is itself a pain and a contradiction, and that the more we pursue it, the more painful it becomes. This is true in whatever form of security may be conceived. You want to be happy, to forget yourself, and yet the more you remember the self you want to forget. You want to escape from pain, but the more you struggle to escape, the more you inflame the agony. You are afraid and want to be brave, but the effort to be brave is fear trying to run away from itself. You want peace of mind, but the attempt to pacify it is like trying to calm the waves with a flat-iron.
We are all familiar with this kind of vicious circle in the form of worry. We know that worrying is futile, but we go on doing it because calling it futile does not stop it. We worry because we feel unsafe, and want to be safe. Yet it is perfectly useless to say that we should not want to be to be safe. Calling a desire bad names doesn't get rid of it. What we have to discover is that when we imagine that we have found it, we don't like it. In other words, if we can really understand what we are looking for-what safety is isolation, and what we do to ourselves when we look for it-we shall see that we do not want it at all. No one has to tell you that that you should not hold your breath for ten minutes. You know that you can't do it, and that the attempt is most uncomfortable.
The principle thing is to understand that there is no safety or insecurity. One of the worst vicious circles is the problem of the alcoholic. In very many cases he knows quite clearly that he is destroying himself, that, for him, liquor is poison, that he actually hates being drunk, and even dislikes the taste of liquor. Yet he drinks. For, dislike it as he may, the experience of not drinking is worse. It gives him the "horrors," for he stands face to face with the unveiled, basic insecurity of the world.
Herein lies the crux of the matter. To stand face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it, you must not face it but be it. It is like the Persian story of the sage who came close the door of Heaven and knocked. From within the voice of God asked, "Who is there" and the sage answered, "It is I." "In this House," replied the voice, "there is no room for thee and me." So the sage went away, and spent many years pondering over this answer in deep meditation. Returning a second time, the voice asked the same question, and again the sage answered, "It is I." The door remained closed. After some years he returned for the third time, and, at his knocking, the voice once more demanded, "Who is there?" And the sage cried, "It is thyself!" The door was opened.
To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change, more even than to observe the transitoriness of life. The notion of security is based is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life. We are struggling to make sure that of the permanence, continuity, and the safety of this enduring core, this centre and the soul of our being which we call "I." For this we think to be the real man-thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the knower of our knowledge. We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realise that this "I" does not exist.
Understanding comes through awareness. Can we, then, approach our experience-our sensations, feeling, and thoughts-quite simply, as if we had never known them before, and, without prejudice, look at what is going on? You may ask, "Which experiences, which sensations and feelings, shall we look at?" I will answer, "Which ones can you look at?" The answer is that you must look at the ones you have now.
That is surely rather obvious. But very obvious things are oftened overlooked. If a feeling is not present, you are not aware of it. There is no experience but present experience. What you know, what you are actually aware of, is just what is happening at this moment, and no more.
We are seeing, then, that our experience is altogether momentary. From one point of view, each moment is so elusive and so brief that we cannot even think about it before it is gone. From another point of view, this moment is always here, since we know no other moment than the present moment. It is always dying, always becoming past more rapidly than imagination can conceive. Yet at the same time is always being born, always new, emerging just as rapidly from the complete unknown which we call the future. Thinking about it almost makes you breathless.
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Category:Anthony de Mello
A person is beyond the thinking mind. Many of you would probably be proud to be called Americans, as many Indians would probably be proud to be called Indians. But what is “American,” what is “Indian”? It’s a convention; it’s not part of your nature. All you’ve got is a label. You really don’t know the person. The concept always misses or omits something extremely important, something precious that is only found in reality, which is concrete uniqueness. The great Krishnamurti put it so well when he said, “The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.” How true! The first time the child sees that fluffy, alive, moving object, and you say to him, Sparrow,” then tomorrow when the child sees another fluffy, moving object similar to it he says, “Oh, sparrows. I’ve seen sparrows. I’m bored by sparrows.”
If you don’t look at things through your concepts, you’ll never be bored. Every single thing is unique. Every sparrow is unlike every other sparrow despite the similarities. It’s a great help to have similarities, so we can abstract, so that we can have a concept. It’s a great help, from the point of view of communication, education, science. But it’s also very misleading and a great hindrance to seeing this concrete individual. If all you experience is your concept, you’re not experiencing reality, because reality is concrete. The concept is a help, to lead you to reality, but when you get there, you’ve got to intuit or experience it directly.
A second quality of a concept is that it is static whereas reality is in flux. We use the
same name for Niagara Falls, but that body of water is constantly changing. You’ve got the word “river,” but the water there is constantly flowing. You’ve got one word for your “body,” but the cells in your body are constantly being renewed. Let’s suppose, for example, there is an enormous wind outside and I want the people in my country to get an idea of what an American gale or hurricane is like. So I capture it in a cigar box and I go back home and say, “Look at this.” Naturally, it isn’t a gale anymore, is it? Once it’s captured. Or if I want you to get the feel of what the flow of a river is like and I bring it to you in a bucket. The moment I put it into a bucket it has stopped flowing. The moment you put things into a concept, they stop flowing; they become static, dead. A frozen wave is not a wave. A wave is essentially movement, action; when you freeze it, it is not a wave. Concepts are always frozen. Reality flows. Finally, if we are to believe the mystics (and it doesn’t take too much of an effort to understand this, or even believe it, but no one can see it at once), reality is whole, but words and concepts fragment reality. That is why it is so difficult to translate from one language to another, because each language cuts reality up differently. The English word “home” is impossible to translate into French or Spanish. “Casa” is not quite “home”; “home” has associations that are peculiar to the English language. Every language has untranslatable words and expressions, because we’re cutting reality up and adding something or subtracting something and usage keeps changing. Reality is a whole and we cut it up to make concepts and we use words to indicate different parts. If you had never seen an animal in your life, for example, and one day you found a tail—just a tail—and somebody told you, “That’s a tail,” would you have any idea of what it was if you had no idea what an animal was?
Ideas actually fragment the vision, intuition, or experience of reality as a whole. This is what the mystics are perpetually telling us. Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless. A Hindu priest once had a dispute with a philosopher who claimed that the final barrier to God was the word “God,” the concept of God. The priest was quite shocked by this, but the philosopher said, “The ass that you mount —and that you use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. You use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it.” You don’t need to be a mystic to understand that reality is something that cannot be captured by words or concepts. To know reality you have to know beyond knowing.
Do those words ring a bell? Those of you who are familiar with The Cloud of Unknowing would recognize the expression. Poets, painters, mystics, and the great philosophers all have intimations of its truth. Let’s suppose that one day I’m watching a tree. Until now, every time I saw a tree, I said, “Well, it’s a tree,” But today when I’m looking at the tree, I don’t see a tree. At least I don’t see what I’m accustomed to seeing. I see something with the freshness of a child’s vision. I have no word for it. I see something unique, whole, flowing, not fragmented. And I’m in awe. If you were to ask me, “What did you see?” what do you think I’d answer? I have no word for it. There is no word for reality. Because as soon as I put a word to it, we’re back into concepts again.
And if I cannot express this reality that is visible to my senses, how does one express what cannot be seen by the eye or heard by the ear? How does one find a word for the reality of God? Are you beginning to understand what Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and all the rest were saying and what the Church teaches constantly when she says that God is mystery, is unintelligible to the human mind?
The great Karl Rahner, in one of his last letters, wrote to a young German drug addict who had asked him for help. The addict had said, “You theologians talk about God, but how could this God be relevant in my life? How could this God get me off drugs?” Rahner said to him, “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.” And talking to a group of theologians in London, Rahner said, “The task of the theologian is to explain everything through God, and to explain God as unexplainable.” Unexplainable mystery. One does not know, one cannot say. One says, “Ah, ah...”
Words are pointers, they’re not descriptions. Tragically, people fall into idolatry because they think that where God is concerned, the word is the thing. How could you get so crazy? Can you be crazier than that? Even where human beings are concerned, or trees and leaves and animals, the word is not the thing. And you would say that, where God is concerned, the word is one thing? What are you talking about? An internationally famous scripture scholar attended this course in San Francisco, and he said to me, “My God, after listening to you, I understand that I’ve been an idol worshipper all my life!” He said this openly. “It never struck me that I had been an idol worshipper. My idol was not made of wood or metal; it was a mental idol.” These are the more dangerous idol worshippers. They use a very subtle substance, the mind, to produce their God.
What I’m leading you to is the following: awareness of reality, around you. Awareness means to watch, to observe what is going on within you and around you. “Going on” is pretty accurate: Trees, grass, flowers, animals, rock, all of reality is moving. One observes it, one watches it. How essential it is for the human being not just to observe himself or herself, but to watch all of reality. Are you imprisoned by your concepts? Do you want to break out of your prison? Then look; observe; spend hours observing. Watching what? Anything. The faces of people, the shapes of trees, a bird in flight, a pile of stones, watch the grass grow. Get in touch with things, look at them. Hopefully you will then break out of these rigid patterns we have all developed, out of what our thoughts and our words have imposed on us. Hopefully we will see. What will we see? This thing that we choose to call reality, whatever is beyond words and concepts. This is a spiritual exercise—connected with spirituality—connected with breaking out of your cage, out of the imprisonment of the concepts and words.
How sad if we pass through life and never see it with the eyes of a child. This doesn’t mean you should drop your concepts totally; they’re very precious. Though we begin without them, concepts have a very positive function. Thanks to them we develop our intelligence.
We’re invited, not to become children, but to become like children. We do have to fall from a stage of innocence and be thrown out of paradise; we do have to develop an “I” and a “me” through these concepts. But then we need to return to paradise. We need to be redeemed again. We need to put off the old man, the old nature, the conditioned self, and return to the state of the child but without being a child. When we start off in life, we look at reality with wonder, but it isn’t the intelligent wonder of the mystics; it’s the formless wonder of the child. Then wonder dies and is replaced by boredom, as we develop language and words and concepts. Then hopefully, if we’re lucky, we’ll return to wonder again.
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"The corruption of the best is the worst."
"These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their
hearts aren't in it ... so I am going to step in and shock them awake,
astonish them, and stand them on their ears."
—(Isaiah 29:14, Eugene Peterson translation)
A recent study on altruism is supposed to have shown that people affiliated with religion are statistically no less or more loving than people who call themselves unbelievers. In fact, they are often more egocentric, and only a very small percentage is genuinely or heroically altruistic. If true, this is surely disappointing and humiliating for religion, although I must say that it largely matches my own observations. Some of the most naturally generous people I have ever known have been secularized Jews. And they don't even believe in an afterlife system of reward and punishment! We really have to look at this.
I believe there is a deep dilemma and contradiction at the heart of institutional Christianity. Maybe it is even a necessary one. All I know is that it can only be resolved by authentic inner experience, "prayer," mysticism, or dare I call it, "spirituality." I am convinced that religion, in its common cultural and external forms, largely protects the ego, especially the group ego, instead of transforming it. If people do not go beyond first level metaphors, rituals, and comprehension, most religions seem to end up with a God who is often angry, petulant, needy, jealous, and who will love us only if we are "worthy" and belonging to the correct group. We end up with the impossible scenario of a God who is "small," and often less loving than the best people we know! This supposedly divine love is quite measured and conditional, and yet ironically demands from us a perfect and unconditional love. Such a salvation system will never work, unless we allow an utterly new dimension of love "to astonish us and stand us on our ears," as Isaiah says above. Unless God is able and allowed to love us unconditionally, we will never know how to do the same.
Most people I know would never torture another human being under any conditions. Yet people believe in a god who not only tortures, but tortures for all eternity. That is bitter vengeance by anyone's definition. Why would anyone want to be alone with such a testy and temperamental god? Why would anyone go on the great mystical journey into divine intimacy with such an unsafe lover? Why would anyone trust such a god to know how to love those who really need it? I personally know many people who are much more generous and imaginative than this god is. We have ended up being ourselves more loving, or at least trying to be, than the god we profess to believe! Such a religion is in deep trouble—at its core.
Most of my Jewish and Christian friends are very tolerant and accepting of different races, cultures, and religions. They are willing to see good wherever good is to be seen. But not our god. Our god only likes "born again" Americans, and preferably morally successful and "normal" people, who hopefully attend my denominational service on the proper day. (This is easily the quickest growing form of religion in most countries today). Even stingy little Richard Rohr ends up being much more caring, patient, generous, and merciful than Yahweh Sabaoth! How did we get to such absurdity? Especially after Jesus spends most of his ministry affirming those who are wounded, unworthy, not successful, normal, or properly affiliated?
Perhaps you say, "But religion has always taught me that God is love!" Yes, religion "says the right words," but this god we hear about is never allowed to be loving in the way that we have experienced it from even our middle range friends and lovers. I have experienced immense patience, tolerance, and mercy from many of my friends. They put up with my failures and idiosyncrasies, and eventually know that some of my patterns will never even change. They often accept me as I am, and learn to love me as I am—which eventually almost indirectly changes me! Every good parent knows that unmerited love creates love-in-return. Grace creates gracious people. But not our god! God, and the history of religion, seem to prefer mandates, coercion, blame, and shame to achieve some kind of supposed transformation. This is quite helpful for social order and control of the immature, I really understand that. But it is quite clear to me, in the later years of my life, that God does not love me if I change, but God loves me so that I can change. That is an entirely different agenda.
It often seems that religion's most common concern is to find out what God does not like, where God is not present, and who God does approve for hating and excluding. Perhaps we are seeking to legitimate our own need to exclude and hate and dominate? Why else would we like a God who succeeds by punishing and always dominates? We have been told in recent years that God does not like homosexuals, God is not present in mosques and synagogues, and that God is not bothered at all by the direct and collateral damage of our necessary wars. Abortion killing is the only killing that is inherently bad because the fetus is "innocent life." This "morality" will only work if we can dare to think of ourselves as innocent. If legal protection and moral response depends on us being innocent or worthy, then who can be "saved?" What makes the Good News good news is precisely that God loves and defends unworthy and non-innocent life. Otherwise, you and I have little hope. And we can easily justify capital punishment, torture, euthanasia, and even pre-emptive wars against the unworthy ones—which is exactly what we have done. We have become the small god we worship.
I think my central disappointment with much of religion is that it is so stingy in its attitudes, and actually seems to prefer a stingy god. It loves tribalism and group think. It likes to convert others more than change itself. Religions are notorious for excluding, expelling, and excommunicating. It is almost their job description. We actually fear and condemn anything that appears to be a call to mercy beyond our boundary markers. Any universalism ("catholicity") or inclusivity is deemed dangerous. It feels like abdication of sacred ground, for some reason. We always come up with our fear of others, our fear of contamination, our fear of losing some supposed great truth that we are protecting and living. What fragile people religion has often created.
Monotheism's great breakthrough was that its God was "Lord of all the earth." Doesn't monotheism necessarily prepare us for one pattern, one reality, one world—one love? Yet the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have been—up to now—inclusive only at very small levels. The very people who defend the "Creator of all things" are the last ones who really defend that same creation. Sure, God created all things, but we only have to love and respect small parts of it, which just happens to be my part—"Our people" much more than "all people." The ecologists, humanists, and some globalists end up being much more "monotheistic" in practice than most Christians I know.
Isaiah loves to speak of "the nations counting as nothingness and emptiness" (40:17), that "all of humanity will see the glory of God" (40:5), and that "my house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples" (56:7), which is later quoted by Jesus. The light revealed to Israel is to be "the light to all the nations" (42:6) because their message offers illumination for everybody and not just for themselves.
Jesus is the universalist par excellence, always making the outsider the hero of his stories, the non-Jews those with more faith and more compassion, the sinners those who are saved, the women better than the men, and as he continually puts it, "the last first"—while the so-called elect and chosen are his constant opponents. Jesus' clear criterion for one who speaks with authority is simply one who has gone through the belly of the whale experience, or what he calls the "sign of Jonah," the "only" sign he will give. Membership in a group or correct verbiage is not what gives you authority in Jesus' understanding, but those who "drink the cup that I must drink and are baptized with the baptism which I must be baptized" (Mark 10:39). This is "the true authority of those who have suffered" and come through the cleansing bath transformed.
Jesus reaches this shocking and scandalous conclusion because his starting place is quite different. He does not begin with any preoccupation with human sinfulness or the weighing of worthiness or unworthiness (that is the preoccupation of the ego). In fact, he just assumes that we are all "sick and in need of a physician." As he puts it, "I did not come to call the virtuous" (Mark 2:17). Jesus' starting place is human suffering instead of human sinfulness. How else can you explain his full time ministry of healing, exorcism, affirmation of the excluded ones, the alleviation of human distress and humiliation? He is not naive about sin, but just recognizes that human sinfulness, "hardness of heart," is much more a symptom than a cause. Sin largely reveals the problem and he uses it for diagnostic purposes, not for condemnation or exclusion. Sin, for Jesus, is not a set of purity codes or debt codes—which he goes out of his way to flaunt—but inner attitudes which blind and bind us inside of ourselves, and away from communion and mercy.
It is not moral unworthiness that keeps people from God, but moral righteousness and self-sufficiency. It is that simple recognition, which is almost his constant message, which makes Jesus the ultimate, perennial, and radical reformer of religion, and why religious people oppose him. It makes one wonder if such a foundational critique can ever fashion itself into a proper religion at all. I agree with Simone Weil who said "the problem with Christianity is that it insists on seeing itself as a separate religion, instead of a healing message for all religions." I am afraid that is what will always emerge when you have religion without spirituality, or pious practices without inner experience. The very best thing will then become the very worst thing, and the only way through is to "be awakened and astonished" by a divine love that is of an utterly new dimension.
Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. For more information please visit www.cacradicalgrace.org.
Rohr, Richard. 2007. My Problem with Religion. Tikkun 22(4): 20.