What I Found at The Bottom of The Cliff
written by: Long Hammer
When I yelled Geronimo and jumped off the cliff called the “Leap of Faith”, I didn’t feel like I was falling. In fact, it didn’t feel like I had done anything at all. I guess I was expecting something dramatic. A sense of panic, an expectation of a terrible crash or perhaps falling into a pool of bliss, at least a feeling of wind rushing by … nothing! This long-awaited, but dreaded leap turned out to be anticlimactic.
For months, I had debated with myself about taking the leap. Could I accept as true the long list of seemingly fantastic stories about the creation of the universe and mankind described in the Old Testament of the Bible? Was the account true, was “Sacred History” to be taken seriously or was it just ancient superstition?
Something deep inside me wanted to believe the ancient story. After my retirement from business, I had conducted a merciless reassessment of my belief system and core values. This reappraisal left me in a state of hopelessness and despair. My previously held worldview based on modern rationalist principles had collapsed. I no longer believed that all of creation was the product of random lumps of dead matter bumping into one another in the void. I hoped that the traditional religious view of creation might be closer to the truth even though it seems to lay in tatters in the modern world.
Mathew Arnold, the 19th-century sage and poet, summed up my current view of the world in the closing lines of his poem, Dover Beach …
“The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long roar…
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here on a darkling plain
Swept with confused and alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Ignorant armies clashing by night, seems to me to sum up the current state of world affairs. Who are the good guys and who are the bad. Nothing makes much sense as we try to sift out the truth from the constant stream of propaganda, which plays 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I had killed off all of the modern gods I had once believed in so what was left? In a state, of what can only be described as quiet desperation, I concluded that if there was a creator God that existed in a separate realm from our world and if the rules governing this realm were completely different from our own, then all things were possible. I decided that the Old Testament creation stories were metaphorically true and perhaps the best attempt humanly possible for describing such a strange series of events.
I had been going to Catholic Mass for many years, but I always felt like an outsider. Respectful of the strong belief I witnessed in others, I was unable to identify with their religious enthusiasm. An old Jesuit encouraged me to read the Bible and study other religious texts in order to enhance my faith. Much of what I read was inspiring and beautiful, but nothing seemed to move me in the direction of a spiritual awakening.
The best guidance I discovered was in the Gospel of Thomas, where in Saying #2, Jesus tells his disciples, “Let the seeker keep seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will be troubled. When he is troubled, he will be astonished. When he is astonished, he will be invincible to everything. And when he is invincible to everything, he will be at rest.”
From this text, I got the idea that spiritual awakening is a quest rather than an event. Perhaps some people, like Paul on the road to Damascus, have a vision which alters their life from that moment on, but I think most people need to work at it.
With this thought in mind, it is now my belief a person taking the leap is really committing to a journey. It would not be correct to say that after I took my leap nothing happened. I did feel different once I had mentally consented to the Bible and its sacred history. The supernatural realm is now a real, concrete thing for me, and my small place in the universe is acknowledged.
After taking the leap, I did find something: a narrow and dark path. The only light on this path was a small but warm glow at its far end. There was just enough light so that I could move slowly along without stumbling and falling off the path, but I had to be wary and, on my guard, as I sensed there was danger all around. So, I took as my theme song for this journey…
“Lead kindly light, amidst the grey gloom
The night is long and I am far from home
Here in the dark, I do not ask to see
The path ahead – one step enough for me
Lead on, lead on, kindly light.”
To help me on my way down the path, I decided to utilize an ancient Catholic mediation practice called Lectio Divina, or sacred reading. I selected this approach to meditation because it seeks to fill one’s mind with the divine, unlike Eastern meditation practice which seeks to fill the mind with nothingness. In the past, I attempted Eastern meditation and failed as I was never able to clear my mind completely.
The Lectio Divina approach attempts to draw a person closer to God via a prayerful reading of Scriptures, such as the Book of Psalms or the Gospels. There are four steps in the process: Lectio (read), Meditatio (receive), Oratio (respond), and Contemplatio (rest) which occur over about an hour. Those new to the practice are warned that the technique requires repetition and that one should not anticipant immediate results (or any result, for that matter). I like the idea of moving slowly along a path, step by step. Hopefully, Lectio Devina will be a key to unlocking the promised astonishment and invincibility. I can assure you, I’m already troubled.
After a few sessions, I can attest that this mediation business is not easy. Setting aside the time every day to do the work is a challenge and maintaining my concentration during the hour-long session is also troublesome. I get through the Lectio (read) where you are instructed the read slowly and pray fully, opening yourself to God’s Spirit. I’m still doing Okay in the Meditatio (Receive) phase, where I again read the material, waiting for something to draw my attention. If I find something in the material that sounds true or beautiful, it becomes my meditation topic. The trouble begins in the third reading in the Oratio (Respond) phase. Here you are instructed to listen for God’s invitation and respond from the heart. I’m listening, but I cannot say that I’m hearing anything divine. My thoughts run to the mundane and earthly. My mind seems to be stuck in the concerns of my family, friends, and community. New thoughts on old problems do seem to emerge from these Lectio Divina sessions, but they are not ethereal or otherworldly, just thoughts about life down here on planet Earth.
One new thought which hit me like a ton of bricks was since my retirement I have become a traitor to my class. All of the concepts and opinions which I once held and my family, old friends, and neighbors still hold, seem to me to be at odds with my new view of reality. My aggressive reassessment of former core values has left me the “odd man out” in my community.
I live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood filled with very pleasant retired “management class” people. By management class, I mean people who ended their careers as senior managers, business owners, high-ranking government workers, etc. My old friends are the same sort of people, as are the majority of my family members. All of these people have certain things in common aside from their bank accounts. They all tend to be earnest supporters of the status quo, and they rely on the same “trusted” sources of information: the New York Times, NPR, and Network News Organizations. In my experience, these news outlets all sing the same song. As a result my friends reflexively support the operations of our government agencies and conform to the dictates of establishment authority figures. Attempts to present alternative points of view or contrary data are met with blank stares or outright hostility
What strikes me as remarkable about their current mindset is that in many cases these same people were “hippies” in their younger years and during those times were extremely skeptical of the pronouncements of the government or members of the establishment. Liberals of the 60s and 70s seem to have become pro-establishment supporters, while people like myself that supported our county’s involvement in Viet Nam are the outsiders.
I’ve learned after a couple of unpleasant experiences that it is unwise to press management class people with information that does not conform to their preferred narrative. Long ago, Plato said, “Those who are able to see beyond the shadows and lies of their culture will never be understood, let alone believed by the masses.” Wise words from the distant past which I will follow in the future.
Being the man that is out of step with the rest of the band also makes me feel very isolated and lonely. I think I understand why so many people want to look at the world through “rose-colored glasses” but I think the practice is foolish and even dangerous. A person that is unable to look at reality square in the face will be unprepared if world events become unsettled and unpredictable.
My decision to look more deeply into the Christian religion is just another example of my being out of the mainstream of contemporary thought. In many cases, my family and friends are not true atheists as they have a wide assortment of spiritual and mystic beliefs. Bits and pieces of Buddhist teachings, Jungian psychology, Native American spirituality, and even belief in ghosts seem to fulfill their spiritual needs. Few, if any of them, would find the traditional Christian path to be useful in broadening a person’s knowledge of the supernatural reality.
The lack of support and understanding from my family and friends regarding my spiritual quest adds to my trepidation about this journey. But that is not the major source of my nervousness. As I begin the third movement in the Lectio Divina sequence called Oratio or respond, I begin to experience a sense of unease and even fear. Why should I feel nervous and fearful as I sit quietly in a chair inviting God to speak to me? Because I believe God is not all warm and fuzzy, God is not your kindly uncle, God can be an earthquake! The Trappist, Thomas Merton has said, “Christ who sleeps like dynamite is your paper flesh.” Think about a power great enough to create a universe, don’t just think about the nice things that Jesus said and did, think about the God of the Old Testament and visions of Saint John in The Apocalypse.
I will paraphrase an Old Testament text that sums up the potential personal cost, “No one can see God and live” by adding “as one lived before the vision.” The ultimate goal of this meditation practice is to open up direct communication between a person and God. If the practice is successful, then the person is apparently changed forever. Not only will their personality be changed, but their entire worldview will be altered.
My Father used to warn me that I should be careful of what I ask for. I learned enough about the teaching of Jesus to know that his worldview has almost nothing in common with the modern world. His orientation is otherworldly and anti-materialist. He insists that people follow the ten commandments to the letter and follow the golden rule without fail. There is no way someone can attain a true connection with God and remain a full participant in contemporary society.
Do I want to go down a path that will further alienate me from my family and friends? For over fifty years I was a happy and content middle American. I had pursued the “American Dream” and had attained it. I was at ease with my family, friends, and the larger community. A round peg, in a round hole, so to speak. For reasons not entirely clear, I decided to reassess all of my ideas about how things work in the world and about the values that had guided my life up to that point in time. The process left my mental world in ruins and my emotions in disarray. The only bright spot seems to be that I was now viewing the world without rose-colored glasses. In other words, I was seeing truth.
I don’t want to get bogged down in a philosophical debate on “What is truth?” I don’t have the educational background to even start such a dialogue. The value I personally place on truth is immense. Further, I believe that there is such a thing as “universal truth” and this once again, puts me at odds with contemporary thinking. Since Emmanuel Kant came on the scene and told us not to trust our senses, many moderns believe that truth is relative, something true today may be untrue tomorrow. One man’s truth is another man’s lie and so on. I concede that much in the materialist world is subject to flux. The world is no longer flat but round, the earth is not the center of the universe and cholera is not caused by swamp gas. But I think that in the supernatural realm, there is universal truth. Unfortunately, like everything else in this realm, I can offer no concrete proof. This notion of mine is a product of faith.
So apparently for me, the quest for truth is worth the potential risks of an encounter with an angry God.
Thelma Hall is an authority on Lectio Divina meditation technique and has written a book entitled Too Deep for Words. She makes a distinction between parts of Lectio that are meditative and contemplative. She explains that the first movements, Lectio and Meditatio, are meditative while the second movements, Oratio and Contemplatio, are contemplative.
According to Ms. Hall, the meditation in the first parts of the process Lectio and Meditatio are activities of the intellect and imagination. As long as a person remains at this level their efforts fall short of genuine prayer. For the goal of prayer is not thoughts or concepts or knowledge about God, but union with God. This observation makes sense to me in that my reading of the Bible texts is a comfortable experience and therefore non-threatening. The whole thing is a mental exercise that occurs strictly in my head and so I remain in control.
The required contemplation in the Oratio and Contemplatio phases is another kettle of fish. Known as “prayer of the heart,” they are not a predetermined process of our intellect; they are not something you “do” which leads to the next thing to do. They are an active effort to keep your heart open to God and to put yourself at the disposal of the Holy Spirit. This is where the rubber meets the road for me. I freely admit I have a problem with trust. My seventy-plus years on this planet have not given me many reasons to trust much of anything. The thought of opening myself to some unknown force of unbelievable power that will change me in unknown ways is frankly, terrifying.
Ms. Hall goes on to instruct her readers that “self-surrender” is necessary in order to become properly contemplative in prayer. For me, the idea of self-surrender has an almost purely negative connotation. It implies a giving up, a kind of defeat, submission, or capitulation, but most of all it implies a loss of control. She states that this step is necessary in order for a person to surrender their “false self”. She goes on to say that by following Jesus along a path, he will take you in a direction directly opposite your instinctive self-oriented choices. I very much want to maintain my self-security. The idea of adopting an attitude of radical trust and turning myself over to another – even God, turns my blood to ice! My personal autonomy has been the cornerstone of my very being – all of my life. The defensive and in fact, self-protective nature of my autonomy is the only thing in my mind that keeps the wolves at bay and the monsters firmly locked in the closet. Losing it is almost unimaginable.
Ms. Hall however has a reply to this dilemma. Her answer has all the subtlety of a broad side of cannon fire from an old sailing ship. She cites numerous Doctors of the Church, renowned theologians, and modern psychologists who all agree that within each of us is a state of alienation and a confused self-identity. According to her experts, each of us has a false self which overrides our true self. This false self begins almost at birth when we are totally dependent on others for our survival. A baby’s ego or false self does not perceive itself to be relative, but absolute. Infants have an implicit assumption of deity. The crying baby is comforted and its every need is catered to – everything is given, nothing demanded in return.
This idyllic state is relatively short-lived for most of us and the illusion that we are the “center of the universe” collides with new demands and expectations. So, a long process of fabricating a defense system begins. Devious and elaborate ways are found to “get my way” and to preserve the deity within. “Watch out for number one” becomes an implicit and instinctive motto for those who want to express a kind of overt autonomy (I guess that’s me). At the opposite pole is the person that uses a more subtle technique, they are meek, self-effacing, using a “people pleasing” persona to maintain their self-interests.
Many years ago, I had a conversation with a psychologist and he gave me his professional definition of happiness. He said, “People are happy when they get what they want and are unhappy when they don’t.” This view of human nature by a man of our age seems like a good summary of our times and validates the point made above. I know I’ve been guilty of this very thing most of my life. My favorite way of getting what I want is formulating “good arguments” but I can also bully and pout and fly into a rage if necessary. I’m not alone in this behavior, everyone I have ever known has resorted to such tactics from time to time. Clearly, some people are less prone to manipulative behavior, but it does seem to be a basic part of our operating system.
Ms. Hall tells us that if a person allows it, God will work a process of “disillusionment” in them which will destroy their false self. Wordless contemplation with the Holy Spirit will strip away their false self-autonomy, self-sufficiency, control, pride, role-playing, and limits on generosity and eventually reveal the person’s true self. She doesn’t sugarcoat the process, she calls it a struggle which occurs both internally and externally. A process where the false-self edifice built over a lifetime must decrease and a new true self be allowed to increase. As John the Baptist once said, “He must increase, I must decrease.”
Ms. Hall tells me that at the end of this struggle, a person will have the unshakable conviction that a loving God resides in the deep center of their heart. This would seem to be the invincibility and rest promised in the Gospel of Thomas.
So now is the time to answer the question from the title of this piece. After walking a short way down the dark and narrow path at the bottom of the cliff called the “Leap of Faith” – all I found so far is another damn cliff. This time the cliff is named the “Leap of Self-Surrender.” In order to take the plunge this time, I must loosen my grip on my cherished autonomy and self-sufficiency. Set aside my ability to intellectualize and rationalize. Shifting my center of being away from my self-concerns and surrendering to the will of God. Quite the challenge!
After thinking about Ms. Hill’s assertion that God will work a process of “disillusionment” in me if I asked for it, I wonder if I already made that request. Since my retirement, driven by a powerful force, I don’t fully understand, I turned my worldview inside out. Everything I held dear was subject to review, many of my cherished ideas fell by the wayside. Was the Holy Spirit the motivator behind this reassessment? The process has certainly left me disillusioned.
Moving forward in “fear and trepidation” not knowing if my hoped-for encounter with God will be gentle and loving or an encounter with a hurricane, I’m fearful about this but something tells me I must go for it… Geronimo!
READ CONFESSIONS OF A RED PILL ADDICT
- What I Found at The Bottom of The Cliff - May 21, 2023
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