As an avid reader of harder literature and a former inner city school teacher, I sometimes like to think there’s not a whole lot that can shake me up. But there were two stories I came across this week that got to me. One was about a former professional football player getting out of prison after serving his sentence. His crime? He was convicted of hiring a hit man to kill a woman carrying his child. The woman died. The child survived, but grew up severely brain damaged and is now 17. The other story, more widely reported, was ISIS’s use of the citizens of Mosul, including young boys, as human shields, and their later systematic execution.
As I reflected on why these two stories struck me deeply, the answer was fairly simple. In this season of life, with a four-year-old son, part of my ego-identity is that of father. And beyond that, it took us years to be able to conceive going through several rounds of testing, tracking, and fertility treatment. If there’s a greater gift in life than parenthood, of being a caretaker and nurturer of a life, I can’t think of it right now. So to have these two stories, one part of an ongoing war, the other more domestic and intimate, of this level of desecration, was jarring.
And yet, part of the contemplative path or the mystic journey, is confronting the reality of human suffering on a profound level. This is the Paschal Mystery, the transformative capacity of suffering. We don’t shy away from it, but look at our collective capacity for evil. But here is the important turn. Instead of summoning the usual moral condemnation, we allow ourselves to be interrogated by the suffering. How do we at times benefit from the suffering of others? What injustices do we accept? Which ones do we contribute to? And what are the mechanisms by which that occurs?
Yes, on the social level, we have a responsibility to keep society safe by enacting and enforcing just laws. But part of moving toward spiritual maturity is reflecting on the nature of violence itself and how we participate in it.
One of the radical moves of the Judeo-Christian tradition over, say, the Homeric tradition, is the idea of the Imago Dei, or that all people, not just Old Testament Hebrews or New Testament Christians, are made in the divine image, or carry the divine spark.
But the thick dust of our ego mechanisms, our desires, conditioning, and attachments clouds that over and most of us live most of our lives at a pretty low level of consciousness. We don’t recognize it in ourselves and we sure as hell don’t recognize it in others.
Many of us have heard of the Dark Night of the Soul, a time of deep suffering or loss that paradoxically moves us forward on the path to maturity and awareness. But many mystics describe an even deeper valley further along the spiritual path, the Night of the Spirit, during which even our spiritual consolations or faith practices produce only dryness. And we become fully aware of our own capacity for evil, violence, and depravity.
Now, this isn’t to produce a perpetual guilt trip, but simply an awareness of the False Self at work, to cultivate inner humility, and ultimately compassion. As Keating puts it in Invitation to Love, “The language of humility can be misunderstood. Basically, it is the experiential awareness that without God’s help, we are capable of every sin (read: evil). The night of the spirit is an intensive course in humility.” The contemplative path is about opening ourselves both to that degree of awareness and opening ourselves to being helped.
As long as I’m experiencing an internal war, an internal violence, of desire and competition and condescension, selfishness, greed, lust, whatever, the seeds of violence are there. Even if we eradicated injustice completely for a moment, the attachment, anger and resentment within my own person would bring it about again. The conditions are all there.
Another mystic, Thomas Merton, addressed this in his classic New Seeds of Contemplation, “It is not only our hatred of others which is dangerous, but also and above all our hatred of ourselves: particularly that hatred of ourselves which is too deep and too powerful to be consciously faced. For it is this which makes us see our own evil in others and unable to see it in ourselves…For only love – which means humility – can exorcise the fear that is the root of all war.” The kind of humility Merton is talking about doesn’t come through religious participation or sermons or songs or retreats, but truly through a radical commitment to self-observation.
Rae Carruth, ISIS and the rest are my touchstones this week. We obviously have to address perpetrators of this kind of injustice. But at the same time, if I only get angry and summon righteous indignation over the evils that hit close to home for me, I am living mostly out of my own ego. I still have to recognize the need for diligent self-observation. This process deepens my compassion instead of fueling my self-righteousness.
What am I doing, saying, and thinking? Where is my mind going and why? What are my habit reactions? What are my acting out behaviors? What emotions am I addicted to? If I don’t grow to a higher degree of awareness in these areas, I’ll stay trapped in my own little dramas. I won’t have a whole lot of inner space left to see others, to identify with their suffering. And the word compassion means literally to suffer with others.
That’s the kind of love, Merton, the mystics, and Christ himself were after. And it’s our inner seeds of violence that keep us from it.