Text: I Corinthians4:5, Psalm 27
Date: July 10, 2011
Writer: Rev. David JH Hart
Last night I went to see the movie everyone has been telling me I must see, albeit at the same time one that everyone comes away from scratching their heads. It’s called Tree of Life and is directed by Terrence Malick. The film is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s and follows the life journey of the eldest son Jack, played as a as an adult by Sean Penn, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father played by Brad Pitt. It’s a long, but exquisitely done meditation on human suffering, the meaning of life and the capacity of faith to heal life. It dwells at length on the incredible beauty of the natural world and the wonders of creation both to show how creation shapes the human destiny in a very self-centred quest for human survival, but also as a sacrament pointing beyond itself to the the source of creation, namely God.
Part of the reason the movie captured me is because it tells much of the story of my life. I grew up in the same era and my family had to deal with the same loss that Jack’s family has to deal with, the death of a child. In my case, it was the death of two children. Where the movie fails is in its tendency to sometimes fall back into giving cliché answers in the face of the mystery. In the face of the really true suffering of the world, one eventually comes to realize that no easy answers about God or the hereafter ultimately can succeed. As you all know, three years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. As with anyone diagnosed with cancer, I went through a period of time quite convinced that I was going to die. And let me tell you, it was a powerful object lesson. The lesson was that any abstract conceptualizations we human beings can come up with, any ultimate knowledge that we think we have, is in the face of death bogus. It doesn’t succeed in convincing us. I have accompanied many people to the portal of death … I have now been there myself, and I have seen how the varying degrees and types of faith have assisted people in that process. And the cliché answers that God is waiting for us in heaven and will make everything alright, doesn’t in the end cut it, at least for most.
Here we come back to the series I’ve started with you last week on Eckhart Tolle’s, the Power of Now. Tolle’s book is nothing new, but it does provide a good starting place for a renewed and deeper search for God that is permeating the planet today.
Tolle’s point, one made with great humility, the same one made by the Book of Job, in the Hebrew Bible, is that in the face of the incredible suffering of human life and the incredibly beautiful but ferocious majesty of creation, the human mind eventually must break down in the face of this. There simply are no abstract, conceptual answers that can make sense of it. In that conceptual breakdown, faith may arise. Not the faith that subsequently comes up with conceptual answers but the faith that learns to rest in quiet acceptance of the mystery. As Job says to God, “I know that you can do all things: you have only to think something and it is done. “Who is this obscuring my plans with such ignorant words?” you asked. That was me. I’ve been spouting off about things I can’t understand, about wonders beyond my experience and my knowledge. And so I now take back all that I said, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Faith, as Marcus Borg has suggested, does not consist of “forcing the mind to believe things that don’t make sense to it”. Rather, true faith leads to a deep stilling of the mind, leads to a deep inner letting go and acceptance of the mystery of life, and such faith leads to a deep clarity about life. When the mind is filled with abstract conceptualizing about life, the universe and the meaning of it all, the mind often cannot see the forest for the trees. But when the mind becomes still and clear, like still water, it recognizes what the movie lifts up at the end … it recognizes that what is important in life is love, family, community, compassion and caring for one another. This is wisdom, the wisdom that arises out of faith, faith which is a stilling of the mind in the presence of the Great Mystery.
But it is at this point that Tolle pushes a little further than traditional religion has generally pushed in the past. He goes to a place people are deeply hungering for in the world today, and which has always been present in the religious paths of the world. There are found in Job two cryptic lines, “Formerly I knew you only by word of mouth, but now I see you face to face.” What is Job talking about. Obviously, this seeing face to face is what leads him to a great sense of peace in the midst of his enormous suffering. It is the path of the mystic, the path which truly is Part 2 of the journey of faith. And I would suggest to you that it represents the great spiritual longing of our present era in human civilization.
Faith leads us to recognize with humility that the mind cannot comprehend ultimate mystery, either the mystery of creation, the mystery of pain and suffering and certainly not the mystery of the mind of God. As such, faith leads us, as with Job, to a deep level of letting go and of simple trust. But that letting go, and simple trust, when it permeates the mind deeply, leads to a progressive inner stillness. And it is a stillness that can be cultivated in the life of prayer and meditation. That stillness leads to an inward loss of self and to an ever deepening sense of sheer presence. When the mind becomes progressively more still, it stops generating the sense of “me”. And as the sense of “me” diminishes, the sense of a powerful presence, not a presence separate from me, but just a presence, emerges. And that presence is home, is peace, is awe inspiring, is incredible wondrous. But beyond that, words break down and nothing more can be said. But to come to that point, the me generated by mind needs to grow still and as me disappears, what emerges but a great, great peace, the peace that Jesus says passes all understanding, the peace that the world desperately craves. The reason Eckhart Tolle has sold so many books and the reason BUC has initiated Going Deeper during the week to provide a place where people can begin to cultivate this peace.
The human mind is an incredibly important tool that generates knowledge about how the world works. But wisdom, about the essence of what things are is not generated by the mind, but rather from a deeper place of “no mind.” Paul talks about an inner light that focus on Christ brings to us. The Psalmist talks about Yahweh being our light and salvation. This light is the inner wisdom that comes from a deeper place than mind. This light emerges out of the stillness and peace of faith, and both together are the antidote for the suffering in the world today.