Wednesday, January 19, 2005

In and down 

"Spirituality, like leadership, is a hard thing to define. But Annie Dillard has given us a vivid image of what authentic spirituality is about: "In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life here together. This is given. It is not learned."

"Here Dillard names two crucial features of any spiritual journey. One is that it will take us inward and downward, toward the hardest realities of our lives, rather than outward and upward toward abstraction, idealisation, and exhortation. The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking.

"Why must we go in and down? Because as we do so, we will meet the darkness that we carry within ourselves – the ultimate source of the shadows that we project onto other people. If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone 'out there' into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

"But, says Annie Dillard, if we ride those monsters all the way down, we break through to something precious – to 'the unified field, our complex and inexplicable caring for each other,' to the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives. Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of 'hidden wholeness' because they have been there and know the way."

Parker J. Palmer, in 'Let Your Life Speak', quoting Annie Dillard in 'Teaching a Stone to Talk'.

Thank goodness: a writer - two writers – who acknowledge that as paradoxical human beings we are both radiant beings AND full of shadows.

I grow a little tired of hearing from writers who seem only to want to acknowledge the positive facets of humanity; teachers who tell us that, deep down, we're really all perfect beings and it's just a crust of imperfection that sits on the surface preventing us seeing the good within ourselves and each other.

I believe that in our core being we are both perfect AND flawed; that is to say we carry within us, at all times, seeds which may grow into great good AND seeds that may grow into great evil. To deny that is to deny the reality of who we are; to deny the voice of our own experience.

The paradox of humanity is that we are both of these things at once. We don't have to take sides as to whether, at heart, we're irredeemable sinners or haloed saints – the reality is that we have the capacity to be both, and in holding that capacity, we in effect ARE both, and both at the same time. However much we try to empower one and disempower the other, neither capacity will ever entirely leave us.

I'd like to say more, but I'm finding it harder and harder to connect with the thinker and writer in me. As I read Palmer's words this morning, it was as if I heard snatches of a once familiar melody – but I couldn’t complete the tune.

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