We continue to explore the eight spiritual practices for the journey within based on the book, The Soul of a Pilgrim written by Christine Paintner. We are almost getting to the end. Today we explore the practice of embracing the unknown. None of these spiritual practices is easy. We wouldn’t call it practice if it were ever easy. This particular practice is especially challenging because it is counter-cultural. We praise certainty not uncertainty. We say that knowledge is power. We like to be informed so we know what comes next. Any unresolved mysteries make us feel creepy. The unknown, whether it’s a thing or a person, makes us uncomfortable. So, we try to reduce the pain of not knowing by asking questions or talking to the unknown.
We make a mistake when we think we know what’s best for the person we speak to. I don’t know how many times I have made mistakes in my relationship with my family when I thought I knew what’s best for them. We can reduce unnecessary arguments when we start embracing the unknown not just in others but also within ourselves. We fail to honour the gift of diversity – a unique gift that each of us brings to the whole – when we fail to embrace the unknown. The church has made huge mistakes by drawing a line between what’s sacred and what’s mundane, what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s good and what’s bad, and who’s in and who’s out, according to their view.
The church tends to learn the hard way. We have heard how our indigenous sisters and brothers have suffered because of that. We also have heard how lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two spirit and queer communities have suffered because of that. I remember an awkward moment right after I revealed what I did for a living in a conversation with an Indigenous person at the feast that a local First Nation community was hosting on Vancouver Island. Turned out, he was a residential school survivor.
I also have seen how people suffered because they lost their trust in the church as an institutionalized religion. The abuse of power by individuals and by the church bureaucracy have caused irreversible scars on so many. I heard a twenty year old young man crying out “How come the church did this to me?” It was after the higher courts – the Presbytery and the Conference his church belonged to – decided to sell his beloved camp. To him the camp was never a property. It was the sacred place where he had experienced God in his entire life. He not only lost his place of worship, but also his community because of the decision made by the church leadership, who seldom used the camp.
When we fail to embrace the unknown, it’s not just a few but all of us who suffer, because as a wise teacher, Stan McKay said, “The shared life is mystery, not management.” When we embrace the unknown we enter into a right relationship with everyone and everything else.
Karen Armstrong, in her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, talks about the importance of knowing how little we know. She says, “When we cling to our certainties, likes, and dislikes, deeming them essential to our sense of self, we alienate ourselves from the ‘great transformation’ of the Way, because the reality is that we all are in continual flux, moving from one state to another.” Quoting from Zhuangzi, ancient Chinese Scripture, she continues, “An unenlightened person is like a frog in a well who mistakes the tiny patch of sky he can see for the whole; but once he has seen the sky’s immensity, his perspective is changed forever.”
The problem is that most of us don’t even know that we are in the well because it’s all we can see. It’s extremely hard to admit how little we know. We use whatever defense mechanism we have to try to protect ourselves from being so vulnerable. That’s what the disciples did every time they herd Jesus talking about his suffering and death.
According to Mark, the first time they heard, they showed a strong reaction. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. The second time they heard, the gospel says, nobody said anything because they were afraid to ask him. The third time they heard, they started competing against each other; James and John asked for the place of greatest honour, and the rest of the disciples began to be angry with the two. All of their reactions – anger, silence and rivalry – show how much they were in shock. So they chose to deny, deny and deny. What they denied was not only the sad news that they were going to lose their beloved friend and teacher, but also the grace which enabled them to follow the way of Jesus.
Simon Weil points out the meaning of the denial of Peter when he said “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” What seems to be the most faithful response turns out to be the most careless answer. According to Weil, Peter’s response, ‘I will never deny you’ was to deny him already, for it was assuming the source of faithfulness to be in himself and not in grace. That is, Peter did not deny Christ when he broke his promise, but when he made it.
So, instead of reacting right away, whenever we face unfavorable circumstances our most faithful response will be to embrace the unknown so we can remain open to grace. The church has learned the hard way. We can’t pretend that we haven’t heard people’s cries or haven’t seen suffering of the creation. People have suffered and God has suffered. Thankfully, the reverse is also true. We can give glory to God by loving and respecting the whole creation. It all begins when we honour the great mystery in everyone we see, and everything around us.