what is it that I must face, who is helping, who is hurting
My Dear One,
Having made the decision to cross the threshold, it is time for the journey to begin in earnest. The remainder of the journey will be about many tests, both small and great, which all lead up to and help prepare us for the larger, ultimate test that is yet to come. Which is to say, in terms of the spiritual journey, once we set out to accomplish something, to make some significant change, transformation or growth, there will be many days of trials before the end result.
If our goal were to run a marathon, there would be many days of gradually being able to run just a bit farther or just a bit faster. Each of these days would be trials in and of themselves, some of them we win and some we lose. But we must keep trying until one day, we wake up, lace on our shoes, go and run the full 26.2 miles.
Now, take that same analogy and apply it to the spiritual journey. You cannot presume to step across the threshold and be able to attain your goal all in one attempt. There will likely be many obstacles and tests that on one level are keeping you from your goal and on another are training you precisely for your goal, making you wiser, more adept, more resilient, showing you just how much strength you actually have.
Joseph Campbell addresses this stage in the spiritual journey this way:
“And so it happens that if anyone - in whatever society - undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolic figures (any of which may swallow him) … In the vocabulary of the mystics this is the second stage of the Way, that of the ‘purification of the self,’ when the senses are ‘cleansed and humbled,’ and the energies and interests ‘concentrated upon transcendental things’; or in the vocabulary of more modern turn: this is the process of dissolving, transcending, or transmuting the infantile stages of our personal past.” The Hero With a Thousand Faces, p. 84
If we are to grow, we must inevitably grow out of or past our prior stages of being. If our goal is better knowledge of our selves, we must let go of our perceived limitations and familiar patterns of being. If our goal is to better love others, we must let go of our lesser ways of loving. If our goal is a deeper relationship with God, we must let go of the comfortable familiarity of our distance and neglect. In the process of this growth, there will be numerous difficulties “any of which may swallow us” but, and this is key, so long as we keep moving forward they either won’t swallow us or, if they do, like Jonah in the belly of the great sea creature, through that ingestion we are actually being drawn deeper into the Universal Transformative Journey and transported further along The Way.
Movie Example: The Sandlot
Scotty Smalls is an awkward fifth grade new kid in town. The connective tissue of the boys in his neighborhood is the sandlot baseball game they play and their love of America’s Pastime. But Scotty doesn’t know how to play baseball and his stepfather, though he loves the game, has little interest in teaching him. However the boys need one more person to have a team of nine players and so he is allowed to play. Over the summer, with the help/teasing of the other boys on the team, Scotty slowly learns the rules and becomes a better player. Even though he keeps making mistakes, and almost gives up, he doesn’t thanks to the mentorship of Benny Rodriguez, the best player on their team. And when the entire team has to face their “great beast,” the large, seemingly ferocious dog beyond the left field wall who consumes all their home runs, in order to retrieve Scotty’s stepfather’s Babe Ruth signed ball, Benny proves to be the hero they all believe he is. By the end of the movie, we find that Benny and Scotty have remained close friends thanks to the game of baseball and the places they carve out for themselves within that mutual love.
The many, many trials Scotty faces each help him realize his own inherent worth, not just as a baseball player but especially as a friend. If he had given up because of the tests he faced, he would have missed out on the transformative friendships forged through love of America’s great game.
Biblical Example: Jesus’ Public Ministry
Lest we think that The Test is something that can be dealt with and dispatched in short order, look no further than Jesus’ life to see just how varied and prolonged this can be. In the span of three years, he faced spiritual tests from demons, physical tests from those who sought to throw him off a cliff outside his hometown, mental tests from the scribes and Pharisees who sought to trick him with questions with no good answers, and vocational tests as he continues to try to mentor a group of disciples who seem consistently and continuously clueless.
Whether he was defending a woman about to be stoned to death (“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”) or trying to help his disciples prepare for their own eventual tests through witnessing his death and resurrection (“because I live, you also will live”) Jesus is showing us how to endure our own tests and trials by both word and example.
What great tests have you already overcome? How can the experiences you have already had of enduring life’s humiliations, failures, insights, and triumphs inform what might lie ahead for you? Thinking back to the work you did last week on gaining clarity about what you are seeking, how are things similar this time or different from other journeys you have made?
We’ve already examined the important role of The Mentor in the transformative journey. But there are many other figures who may or may not be present for you: the Challenger, the Adversary, the Magician, the Shapeshifter, the Tempter, the Father, the Mother, and others. To learn more about these, I again commend to you Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey as well as the work of Carl Jung and countless others on the archetypes in psychology and literature. Who are the people who are present in your story or whom you will meet in the coming trials ahead who play some of these roles for you? Who is there to help show you The Way, assist you over obstacles, place obstacles before you, appear to be one thing but then reveal themselves to be quite another, etc.? Some will help you along The Way and others will hurt you. The fact that both will happen cannot be avoided and must be accepted from the start. Learning to become wise and discerning about who is who will serve you well and save you from many missteps. And still, keep an open mind. Sometimes people surprise us.
Your Journey this week
This stage of the journey, as we’ve already noted, is not something we can accomplish in the course of one week. This work will take as long as it will take for you, depending on the particularity of your journey and what it is you aim to accomplish at this juncture. Is the work before you about one particular relationship, one particular question about your career and calling, one particular life-puzzle you cannot seem to solve, one particular habit you are trying to kick? All of these will take time. And if we are about the larger goal of assuming the Christ nature, the work will take a lifetime.
Rather than become preoccupied with how long this work will take, focus instead on the next step. Now that we’ve crossed the threshold, rejoice that we are at least on the journey. How long this takes and when/if it ends is not nearly as important as our willingness to make the trek. God honors our efforts. The results, often, are completely beyond our control and, finally, are not our greatest concern.
The great spiritual adventurer and mentor Thomas Merton, in a letter to a frustrated young activist, once wrote,
“And then this: do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
A great deal does have to be gone through but as we go through these struggles, we gradually ease into our lifework, inch closer to our goal, even if at times we aren’t sure what that goal looks like or anything akin to a path that will get us there.
Keep moving. Way leads on to Way.
following The Way,