50 Spiritual Classics captures the diversity of life journeys that span centuries, continents, spiritual traditions and secular beliefs: from the historical The Book of Chuang Tzu to modern insight from the Kabbalah, from St. Augustine's Confessions to Rick Warren's phenomenon The Purpose-Driven Life. The first and only bite-sized guide to the very best in spiritual writing.
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The Prophet is a book of prose poetry that made its Lebanese-American author famous. Commonly found in gift shops and frequently quoted at weddings or any occasion where uplifting “spiritual” thoughts are required, the work has never been a favorite of intellectuals and to some readers it may seem a little twee or pompous, yet its author was a genuine artist and scholar whose wisdom was hard-earned.
The book begins with a man named Almustafa living on an island called Orphalese. Locals consider him something of a sage, but he is from elsewhere and has waited 12 years for the right ship to take him home. From a hill above the town, he sees his ship coming into the harbor, and realizes his sadness at leaving the people he has got to know. The elders of the city ask him not to leave. A priestess steps forward and asks Almustafa to tell them his philosophy of life before he goes, to speak his truth to the crowds gathered. What he has to say forms the basis of the book.
The Prophet provides timeless spiritual wisdom on a range of subjects, including giving, eating and drinking, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, teaching, time, pleasure, religion, death, beauty, and friendship. Corresponding to each chapter are evocative drawings by Gibran himself.
Here we look at a handful of the themes; however, this is a work that asks to be read in full.
Love and marriage
Foolish is the person, the prophet says, who “would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,” since wishing this leads to less of a person, who has seen less pain but also less pure joy. The prophet says:
“When love beckons to you, follow him
Though his ways are hard and steep.”
We cannot wish for love to reach only a certain measure, or to presume that we can direct its course, “for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.” As much as love allows for our growth, it also acts to prune us so that we grow straight and tall.
When questioned about marriage, the prophet departs from the conventional wisdom that it involves two people becoming one. A true marriage gives both people space to develop their individuality, in the same way that “the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” His rule for a good partnership: “Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.”
Why do the unemployed feel so wretched? Is it just the lack of money? The answer can be found in the prophet’s explanation of the real meaning of work:
“You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession.”
It is not merely the loss of a wage or even status that is so disheartening, but the feeling that you have been left out of normal life.
Neither is it enough just to work for money alone. People think of work as a curse, the prophet says, but in doing your work “you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born.” Through work you express your love for whoever will benefit from it, and satisfy your own need to create. Those who enjoy their work know that it is a secret to fulfillment, that we can be saved through what we do.
Sorrow and pain
Sorrow carves out our being, says the prophet, but the space it makes provides room for more joy in another season of life. In one of his outstanding lines, he remarks, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Try to marvel at your pain as another experience of precious life. If you can do this, you can be more serene about your emotions, like the passing of the seasons.
Few realize, the prophet says, that suffering is the means to heal ourselves, “the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.” The next time you feel sorrow, consider that it may have been self-chosen at some level of your being, to bring about an enlargement of your self. Without struggles we would learn nothing about life.
Guard against the love of houses and things, the prophet warns, for these comforts erode the strength of the soul. If you attach yourself too much to the domestic luxuries of life, “You house shall not be an anchor but a mast.” You will be tied to it when the ship sinks.
The longing for freedom is itself a kind of slavery. When people speak about wanting to be free, often it is aspects of themselves they are trying to escape.
Good and evil
There is no such thing as evil. Evil is simply good that has gone hungry and thirsty, and can find satisfaction for its needs nowhere else but dark places. There is light, and there is the absence of light, which is evil. Shine a light on evil and it will disappear.
You cannot ask for anything in prayer, because God already knows your deepest needs. As God is our main need, so we should not pray for other things, but should ask for more of God.
The divided self
The prophet likens the soul to a battlefield, in which our reason and passion seem eternally opposed. Yet it does not do much good to fight either: you have to be a peacemaker, loving all your warring elements, before you can heal yourself.
The boundless self
The prophet tries to convey to those gathered that the lives we lead on Earth represent only a fraction of our larger selves. We all have “giant selves” inside us, but we first have to recognize that they may exist. “In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness,” the prophet says. In pursuit of self-knowledge, therefore, we are looking for the best in ourselves.
Taken as a whole, Gibran’s book is a metaphor for the mystery of life: we come into the world and go back to where we came from. As the prophet readies himself to board his ship, it is clear that his words refer not to his journey across the seas but to the world he came from before he was born. His life now seems to him like a short dream.
The book suggests that we should be glad of any experience of life, even if it seems full of pain, because after death we will see that life had a pattern and a purpose, and that what seems to us now as “good” and “bad” will be appreciated without judgment as good for our souls. The prophet tells the crowd waiting his departure—probably to their bafflement—that soon “another woman shall bear me.” He promises to return, no doubt as some advanced soul able to lift up those who trudge through life having forgotten their heavenly origin.
Yet the reader understands that the “me” of whom the prophet speaks is an illusion, that the separation we feel from other people and all forms of life while on Earth is not real. We are merely expressions of a greater unity now forgotten. As he looks forward to his journey, Almustafa likens himself to “a boundless drop in a boundless ocean.” To feel yourself to be a temporary manifestation of an infinite source is greatly comforting, and perhaps accounts for the feeling of peace and liberation that many people experience on reading The Prophet.
Born in 1883 in northern Ottoman Lebanon, Gibran received no schooling, but was given informal religious and language lessons by a priest. His father’s gambling brought the family to financial ruin, which prompted his mother to emigrate with her children (and without Gibran Sr.) to the United States. A registration error on arrival in Boston created the name “Kahlil” instead of the correct Khalil.
At school, Kahlil showed talent at drawing and found a mentor in the artist and photographer Fred Holland Day, but he returned to Lebanon to complete his secondary schooling. At 19 he went back to Boston, but his mother, brother, and one of his sisters tragically died from tuberculosis. He found another mentor in Mary Haskell, a headmistress with an interest in orphans who supported Gibran’s painting career, and he began to have his prose poetry, short stories, and essays published in Arabic.
In 1908 Gibran began a two-year stay in Paris, studying art, and in 1912 he moved permanently to New York, where he was able to exhibit his paintings and have more work published, including Al-Ajniha Al-Mutakassirah (“The Broken Wings”) and The Madman. In 1920 he established a society of Arab writers, and continued his writing in Arabic in support of Lebanon and Syria’s emancipation from Ottoman rule.
The Prophet, published in 1923, received largely unfavorable reviews, but word of mouth made it a bestseller. After Gibran’s death in 1931, associates completed and published the two sequels he had begun: The Garden of the Prophet and Death of the Prophet.
Meetings with Remarkable Men
“From my point of view, he can be called a remarkable man who stands out from those around him by the resourcefulness of his mind, and who knows how to be restrained in the manifestations which proceed from his nature, at the same time conducting himself justly and tolerantly towards the weaknesses of others.”
In a nutshell
Most people sleepwalk through life. Reject convention and become your own person
In a similar vein
Carlos Castaneda Journey to Ixtlan (p. 48)
Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception (p. 124)
James Redfield The Celestine Prophecy (p. 210)
Idries Shah The Way of the Sufi (p. 228)
Part of Britain’s postwar intellectual élite, Aldous Huxley was educated at Eton College and Oxford University, where because of an eye condition he was diverted away from a scientific career toward the world of literature. The same condition later prompted a move to the sunny dryness of California.
Ironically for a person with eyesight problems, Huxley’s great interest was how our ways of seeing could either liberate or imprison us. He is probably best known for Brave New World, the dystopian vision of a society in which technology has outstripped morality. Like Orwell’s 1984, it showed that power lay in the ability to make other people accept your view of the world, and that this uniformity of perception killed the human spirit.
One path around perceptional conformity, Huxley noticed, was through mystical or religious states of mind. His book The Perennial Philosophy had picked out the common threads in the world’s religions, quoting at length from the various saints and mystics that had taken human consciousness to another level. One of these was English visionary William Blake, who had written: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Taking off the blinkers
That quote appears at the beginning of Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, an essay that describes his eye-opening experience with the drug mescalin. Though no mystic himself, Huxley wanted at least to have a glimpse of the higher states that the likes of Blake, Emmanuel Swedenborg, and the eastern mystics had described, and in mescalin he found a possible shortcut to open the perceptual doors.
Mescalin is an extract of the root of the Mexican peyotl cactus, which had long been eaten and venerated by the peoples of Mexico and the American Southwest because it prompted visionary experiences. The drug, which was not illegal, inhibited the production of enzymes regulating the supply of glucose to the brain cells. While normally the brain worked as a filtering mechanism, sifting out information not relevant to survival, mescalin effectively took these blinkers off. Those taking it would therefore see the world as if for the first time.
So it was that one spring day in 1953, in the presence of his wife Maria and a friend playing the role of scientific observer, Huxley first tried mescalin in his Los Angeles home. In the first hour of the experiment, he saw no wonderful worlds of the William Blake variety, only a modest dance of lights and moving structures and shapes. Instead, it was the everyday things around him that took on a new significance.
A small vase of flowers including a rose, a carnation, and an iris stood on the table next to him, which he had admired in passing that morning at breakfast. As the drug began to really take effect, the flowers seem to shine with inner light as well as their surface beauty. Huxley wrote: “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.”
Seeing beyond the object
Our normal state of mind is continually calculating the relationships between things, measuring and analyzing. But Huxley reported that under the influence of mescalin, place, time, and distance ceased to matter very much.
He looks at his watch, but realizes it exists “in another universe,” because he has discovered what it means to live in a perpetual present. For the first time, he grasps directly the idea of “beingness” that he has read about in eastern religion, the bliss of truly living in the moment.
He looks at a table, desk, and chair that are also in the room, but not as discrete objects. They appear to him more like the abstract arrangement of diagonals and shapes of modern art, like a composition by Georges Braque or Juan Gris. He now sees only patterns of light; the part of his brain that normally speaks in terms of “that is the chair where I sit to work at my desk” has been shut off: “The legs, for example of that chair—how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness!” He sees the “nature of things” as opposed to their worth as objects—the way a mystic perceives the world. Huxley marvels at the folds in his trousers, which suddenly appear as “a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity!”
Taken out of context, these descriptions make the author seem like just another idiot on drugs. But that very opinion would prove his point—that someone in normal reduced consciousness cannot appreciate the world for itself, but only fit things into existing categories or labels. This, he argues, is why artists labor to recreate in stone or in oil paint the intricate details of the fabric of a dress or a curtain, not so much to make it look “correct,” but to express the quality of matter itself—the fabric of creation itself.
In discussing the paintings of Dutch master Jan Vermeer, Huxley proposed that the artist was not interested in expressing the personality of his subject, because for him people were just still lives that afforded the chance to express the “is-ness” of matter, for example the skin of a girl, a pearl earring, the folds of a skirt. His paintings glow with something, but it is less the sitter themselves than the mystery behind existence itself, the beauty within.
Fitting reality into language
Huxley explained his experience in terms of the fact that the brain and nervous system are a “reducing valve” that present to us only a small amount of the consciousness of the “Mind at large.” Language, he suggests, is simply how we have come to encode this reduced awareness. The positive side of language is that it gives us access to accumulated wisdom and experience; its downside is that it sets ways of seeing the world into concrete. Unless something has been given a name, for instance, it does not really exist.
However, when we are able briefly to shut off our mind, which interprets reality in symbols or speech or words, our perception again takes on the freshness of first discovery. Huxley mentions St. Thomas Aquinas, who had some kind of spiritual experience near the end of his life. Aquinas decided not to go on with his unfinished book, because after what he had experienced, all his verbalized concepts and thoughts on theology and God seemed like a lot of clumsy nonsense.
This mistake of understanding our symbols of things as their actuality is one of the insights that came to Huxley. He saw that language and art, however beautiful, can only ever be a representation of the higher beauty of unseen reality.
Beyond the self
At times the trip got a bit much for Huxley, and he realized why the literature of religious experience talks of horror and fear as much as ecstasy. In higher states there is the fear of being overwhelmed, of your little brain not being able to cope with what you see and experience. He describes this as “the incompatibility between man’s egotism and the divine purity.”
Huxley explains that mescalin’s restriction of sugar to the brain results in the normal activity of the ego becoming weak. There were two people in the room with him, he wrote, “but both belonged to the world from which, for the moment, mescalin had delivered me—the world of selves, of time, or moral judgments and utilitarian considerations, the world (and it was this aspect of human life which I wished, above all else, to forget) of self-assertion, of cocksureness, of over-valued words and idolatrously worshipped notions.”
Huxley’s insight is echoed by many a saint, mystic, genius, and yogi who has tried to convey what being a human is like when the ego has been transcended. Lost in the direct perception of reality, our ego disappears and we become a “not-self,” one with nature or God.
Many mystics have been reluctant, given what they have seen, to be brought back to earth and deal with the problems people bring before them. Yet for Huxley, the experience of loss of a sense of self was liberating. With the ego moved temporarily out of the way, he was allowed to observe the true wonder of existence. He saw that personal feelings are just not that important, that the cheap thoughts and pretensions that normally fill the mind are nothing when brought before that wonder. Further, imagination and creativity did not really emanate from personality, Huxley now understood: they were more the result of a lifting of the veil, allowing him to see beyond the self.
Huxley’s drug experiment showed him that most people live within a very narrow band of perception, and that this narrowness makes for less of a life. If something came along that was an aid to breaking free of these intellectual chains, it was worth investigating. Yet Huxley also acknowledged that a drug-induced opening up of the mind could only ever be temporary; he did not live to see the social and intellectual revolution of the 1960s in which people forgot this essential caveat.
The very literate Californian rock legends The Doors took their name from Huxley’s essay, and the term “human potential” arose from a series of lectures given by Huxley at the groundbreaking Esalen Institute, founded in 1962. Though it was by no great design that he ended up there, Huxley’s presence in California until the early 1960s was one of the seeds that grew into a flowering of alternative ways of seeing and being.
Huxley’s simple observation was that if our great artists, geniuses, and saints had been able to break open the doors to perception, surely this was a path that all humanity might take. While our language and way of perceiving had been shaped by the need for survival, and therefore had admitted only a limited reality, it was also part of being human to try to go beyond the normal sense of self. Perhaps in the future, it would be not only the mystics who could experience the great spiritual mysteries first hand, but anyone who was open to them.
Born in 1894 in Surrey, England, Huxley was the grandson of the distinguished biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, and had writers and poets on his mother’s side of the family.
His mother died of cancer when he was only 14. While at Eton, an eye disease almost turned him blind, but he recovered enough to go on to Oxford University. While at Oxford he enjoyed the company of Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, and D. H. Lawrence.
Huxley married in 1919, to the Belgian Maria Nys. They traveled frequently through the 1920s, including trips to India and the United States, and divided their time between England and Italy. In these years Huxley wrote Chrome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925), and Point Counter Point (1928). Brave New World (1932) was partly inspired by his experience of fascist Italy under Mussolini.
The Huxleys moved to California in 1937, where Aldous worked as a Hollywood screenwriter. Maria died of breast cancer the year after the publication of The Doors of Perception, and Huxley married again in 1955 to Laura Archera. The essay Heaven and Hell (1956) expanded on the ideas in The Doors of Perception, and the utopian novel Island (1962) provided a spiritual counterpoint to Brave New World.
Huxley died in 1963, on the same day as C. S. Lewis and President John F. Kennedy.
The Varieties of Religious Experience
“Were one to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it exists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves hereto.”
“The potentialities of development in human souls are unfathomable. So many who seemed irretrievably hardened have in point of fact been softened, converted, regenerated, in ways that amazed the subjects even more than they surprised the spectators.”
In a nutshell
If a person’s religion succeeds in making them more whole and providing inspiration, then it works.
Teresa of Avila
As a teenager in sixteenth-century Catholic Spain, Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada enjoyed dressing up and reading novels of knightly chivalry and romance. Vivacious, with alabaster skin and shiny black hair, she enjoyed her own flirtations and little romances, but was sure to keep them secret to preserve family honor.
As she moved toward adulthood, her choices were limited to marriage or becoming a nun. The Carmelite Order’s Convent of the Incarnation, just outside Avila, was one where the sisters could have their own rooms, receive visitors, and read. These freedoms appealed to Teresa, and against the wishes of her father, who expected her to marry, she joined up as a novice. Although she had felt no vocation or special closeness to God, she found convent life to her liking.
With her intellect and way with people, Teresa might have risen to the head of her convent, but otherwise lived an unremarkable life. However, she began to have raptures and visions, mystical experiences that turned her into a something of a holy celebrity. Spain was in the grip of the Inquisition, and Teresa’s claim that her raptures allowed her to converse directly with God bypassed the authority of the Church. Many believed that these conversations were not with the Lord but with Satan. She had to be careful. Teresa turned to confessors, learned religious men who had the authority to correctly diagnose her states as real or imaginary. Their probing luckily led to a consensus that her experiences were a genuine gift from God.
Teresa worked to reform the Carmelite order (toward stricter observance) and founded 17 new convents and two monasteries. These activities are chronicled in her popular and influential Life. It is nevertheless Interior Castle that is considered to be her masterpiece.
A description of the stages of her soul’s growth, the book was originally intended for the eyes of the Carmelite sisters only, in order that they may feel less alone in their spiritual trials. Teresa’s inspiration was her imagining of the soul “as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.”
In Spanish the book is known as Las Moradas (“The Mansions”). We will now briefly visit these dwelling places.
This initial level of the life of the soul is likened to a courtyard surrounding the castle, in which prowl the “venomous creatures” of sin. Here humility is slowly learned through the effects of sinful action. Souls are challenged to find the discipline required to act from beyond base impulses. Though God desires the best for the soul, its ability to recognize and love God is not great, and therefore self-knowledge also will be limited.
Teresa speaks of those who are continually busying themselves with their affairs, never realizing the treasure that lies within. Some do have the honest desire to enter the door of the castle through prayer and meditation, but their prayer is too infrequent and weak. They cannot concentrate on much beside their preoccupations and attachments.
Most people would fit this picture, yet Teresa says that, even if it does not do much for you, just the attempt to get in on the first floor of the castle is a great step.
We now appreciate the need for regular prayer to stave off our old ways and so feel a comforting nearness to God. God makes a great effort to beckon us closer, even though we are very much still involved in the “pastimes and businesses and pleasures and hagglings” of this world. The devil continues to try to make us believe that material things and relationships are of an eternal nature and all-important. Teresa says of this crucial point: “What confusion the devils bring about in the poor soul, and how distressed it is, not knowing if it ought to proceed farther or return to the room where it was before!” Here we must keep foremost in mind that all earthly things come to an end, while God’s love is eternal, and we come to realize that life outside the castle of the soul never gives us full security or the peace that we desire.
In the second mansions, the soul starts to get more in charge of itself, and seeks out the things of God to keep it on the spiritual path. Through prayer it becomes more able to resist temptations. Yet in this first flush of real love for the divine realm, we tend to look for spiritual favors. Instead, we should be willing to suffer more, offering our suffering to God.
By this point we may be perceived by others as being good or religious, yet these rarefied heights are a dangerous place for the seeker of God. Whatever faith and godliness we have achieved so far, in the third mansions of the soul they are at risk of evaporating through hubris and forgetting to fear God. Teresa counsels us to remain humble, for “the more we have received of Him, the more deeply do we remain in His debt.” We may experience periods of aridity when we do not feel the rush of love or faith, but we must plow through them and not be restless.
At this level of the interior castle we stand on a threshold: full surrender to the divine—or going back to relying on our own reason.
This is the first mystical level of the castle, when we are depending less on ourselves and relying on God, falling into his embrace with trust. Instead of always thinking about God, we begin to receive the gift of natural understanding. Teresa tells the reader “not to think much but to love much.”
These mansions are of such beauty that we are not able to describe them to those who have yet to see. We start to get natural blessings or consolations without even praying for them. This is the long-awaited takeoff point in our awakening, when striving gives way to grace.
Within these walls unity with God is achieved. We can pray all we like, but spiritual union is a mystery. When it happens it is unmistakable. Teresa here uses her famous analogy of the silkworm. The soul is like the silkworm that feeds on the sustenance of God, and when we are in a state of full trust we are cocooned in divine love. Only from this parcel of piety can we emerge as a butterfly, imbued with a lightness never before possessed. Teresa writes: “It sets no store by the things it did when it was a worm—that is, by its gradual weaving of the cocoon. It has wings now: how can it be content to crawl along slowly when it is able to fly?”
The soul is now engaged to the spouse (God), but God seeks to test it a little more before marriage. The soul is awarded even greater favors, but also greater trials. This is the time when we are most vulnerable to a “dark night of the soul.”
A soul in this mansion is enraptured by the face of God and a feeling of great humility occurs. Given what we have seen and felt, to return to the Earth seems like an affliction. We would dismiss the world entirely, except that we can do works for God while still here.
Finally, betrothal to God, with perfect peace and tranquility. As the soul dies to itself, a person becomes a perfect expression of God on earth: a saint. Though events and trials still happen, they occur as if around the person, not really affecting them.
The medium of advancement
For Teresa, the soul’s journey was divided into two stages: in the first to third mansions striving on one’s own to get closer to God, and thereafter progress that comes from God’s grace.
Yet only through prayer and meditation, she warns, can we begin to progress. Prayer is not for getting things, but for drawing closer to God and his will. It is the act of admitting that we don’t know everything, that there is a higher power who will help if he is let in on a problem. The chance of experiencing grace or divine favors increases the more we engage in thoughts about God in prayer. Pray, Teresa urged, even when you don’t think it is effective. The divine timescale is different from the human.
Going to church, saying prayers, reading holy works, forgiving people—all seem old-fashioned now, yet such things take us out of the incessant chatter of our minds, elevating us to greater and more lasting things. Simple worship and contemplation keeps us on the straight and narrow, providing a clear path through the thickets of our mind.
Throughout Interior Castle Teresa states her ignorance before “learned men” and describes herself as a “bird with a broken wing,” hopeless at writing and offering nothing new. Yet this picture of a demure sister who knew little was largely false, because when she wrote it Teresa was a powerful figure who did not suffer fools gladly. Single-minded, even brash, she was a good negotiator and had learned something of finance and law. She enjoyed conversations about books, cultivated society figures, and liked having a good meal and a laugh. “There is a time for penance,” she is reputed to have said, “and a time for partridge.”
The non-religious mind finds it hard to comprehend how someone can channel their love toward something invisible, but in Teresa’s case it only served to awaken her individuality and powers. If she had married, it is unlikely much would have come of her life, but as a “bride of Christ” she beat a path that not even her teenage books of chivalric romance could match in excitement or purpose. Indeed, there is a famous Bernini sculpture of Teresa in one of her prayerful ecstasies, in which she appears as if having an orgasm. It is this sort of passion that motivated the great earthly achievements of the saints.
St. Teresa of Avila
Teresa was born in 1515. Her grandfather was a Jew who had converted to Catholicism, and her father retained a life-long fear of being exposed as not genuine Christian nobility. Teresa joined the Carmelite order in 1533, taking her vows two years later. In 1562 she left the convent where she had lived for almost 30 years to found, in a small house in Avila, the Convent of St Joseph. In 1567 the general of the Carmelite order requested that she extend her convent reforms.
Teresa died in 1582 at the convent of Alba, but her body was exhumed a few months later. The total lack of decomposition indicated that she was a saint, and her body parts were given away to various convents as holy relics. It was said that her unearthed body emitted the “odor of sanctity.” She was canonized in 1622, and in 1970 was the first woman to achieve the Vatican’s distinction of Doctor of the Church.
Interior Castle was written in only three months and edited by her friend Padre Gracian, provincial of the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites. The original unedited version is generally read today, and the classic English translation (used here) is by Edgar Allison Peers.
A Simple Path
“The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality.”
“The fruit of silence is prayer
The fruit of prayer is faith
The fruit of faith is love
The fruit of love is service
The fruit of service is peace.”
In a nutshell
In addition to physical help, give spiritual solace to those in need.
In a similar vein
G. K. Chesterton St Francis of Assisi (p. 54)
Mohatmas Gandhi An Autobiography (p. 84)
Teresa of Avila Interior Castle (p. 252)
Most of us experience tensions between who we want to be and who we are. The more divided our self is, the greater the torment, but this in itself provides a strong motivation to be healed. Augustine’s bitter inner struggles lasted well into his 30s and although he lived over 1,500 years ago, the story of his inner victories is still very relevant.
In the first decades of his life, Augustine coasted on his high native intelligence and was a success professionally, but he found that his brains and wide learning did not make him happy or at peace. His red-blooded enjoyment of life’s pleasures delivered only emptiness.
In contrast, after his conversion to Christianity, Augustine became one of the founding fathers of the Church, author of the famous De Civitate Dei (“The City of God”) and originator of the Augustinian religious order.
Yet the voice that speaks in The Confessions is not that of a “great man.” Intimate and honest, it charts Augustine’s gradual move away from selfish concerns and toward a life with God. With a good translation (here we use E. M. Blaiklock’s*) you may feel like you are reading the diaries of a friend, struggling to improve themselves and live a more spiritual life. The Confessions is one of the very earliest autobiographies and a seminal work in European literature, and is perhaps the classic book on how spiritual awakening (or being “born again”) can radically change a life.
Augustine was born in 354 in the last years of the Roman Empire in the North African province of Numidia (now Tunisia). His father, Patricius, was a minor local official and followed the conventional paganism of the empire. His mother, Monica, was a Christian convert.
Augustine did not like school, yet was considered a bright student, reading Cicero, Virgil, Plato, and Aristotle. In the Confessions, he complains that elegant speech and writing skills were at the time held to be more important than moral teaching, and he had these in abundance. To further his education he was sent to another school of grammar and rhetoric 20 miles from home and graduated at the top of his class.
At 16, Augustine came back to his parents’ home for a year. He was growing up, and amusingly recalls that while bathing one day his father noticed his burgeoning “maturity.” This year of freedom, he ruefully recounts, was a painful mistake, consumed as he was by lustful thoughts and actions. Sin, he says, “oozed out of him like a secretion out of fat.” He suspects that the only reason his parents did not try to channel his energies into marriage was that a wife might have restricted his ambition.
Ever the tormented and guilt-ridden soul, Augustine writes with pain about what to many would seem trifling youthful incidents. There is a famous confession of how he and his friends shook the pears down from a pear tree and made off with them, not because they were hungry but for fun. For Augustine, the incident becomes a personal symbol of the depravity of life without a conscience.
Cauldron of temptation
Augustine’s life takes on some direction again with a move to Carthage, a center of learning where he continues his studies. But it is also a port city (across the Mediterranean from Sicily), with all its temptations, “where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves.” He lives only to satisfy his desires, even committing an “act of lust” inside a church. At night he ventures to the theater, particularly to see plays about extreme grief or lewdness. Yet the more pleasures he enjoys, the more meaningless his life becomes.
Nevertheless, he remains a voracious reader, and one book in particular, Cicero’s Hortensius, increases his liking for philosophy and awakens a search for truth. He also tries reading the Bible, but admits he did not then possess the humility required to understand its message. Augustine’s natural spiritual leanings are channeled into the Manichean sect, an offshoot of Christianity that mixes Gnostic gospel, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism; to his mother’s despair, he holds on to the Manichean faith for nine years. He also delves into astrology.
Professionally, Augustine becomes a teacher of rhetoric, which he ashamedly calls “the sale of loquacity,” and works in both Carthage and his native Tagaste. That his chosen work emphasizes style over content is just another basis for Augustine’s malaise. He turns into an expert cynic, yet enjoys no wellspring of truth in his own mind. This is how he sums up life in his 20s:
“For this space of nine years (from my nineteenth year to my eight-and-twentieth) we lived seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving, in divers lusts; openly, by sciences which they call liberal; secretly, with a false-named religion; here proud, there superstitious, every where vain.
Here, hunting after the emptiness of popular praise, down even to theatrical applauses, and poetic prizes, and strifes for grassy garlands, and the follies of shows, and the intemperance of desires.”
Augustine begins living with a girl out of wedlock and they have a child together, Adeodatus. Because of his guilt he describes the relationship as unholy and conceived in lust, although he concedes that she loves him and they love the child. Later, pressure from his mother makes them split up.
Something else spins Augustine into a dark night of the soul: the death of a friend. The depth of his grief shocks him, until he realizes that his bitterness and misery are underlying, deeper than any specific event. He tries to find peace in quiet places, in books, in eating and drinking, and in sex, but it continues to elude him.
Augustine emerges from his 20s with two realizations: that learning and intelligence have not led him to any sense of the truth (they have only taught him how to question and doubt); and that his long pursuit of pleasure has made him miserable.
He concludes that intelligence must be “enlightened by another light”; that is, God. However, he is not ready to believe that God can accept and transform his misery.
Slow and painful discovery
In 383, escaping his mother, Augustine moves to Rome. The following year, with the help of Manichean friends, he gets a post teaching rhetoric in Milan, where he enjoys going to watch the famous Bishop of Ambrose preach, not for religious insight but to study his skill as an orator. Ambrose becomes something of a mentor, and gradually the bishop’s Christian message seeps through to Augustine’s thoughts. At first he thinks of the Bible as full of “absurd stories,” although he cannot discount other parts of it.
Augustine admits to being “worn out by anxieties and fears,” the familiar complaint of someone who lives for external things yet has no inner peace. Prosperity, he says, always eludes him just as he is about to grab it. People are continually saying that what matters is the source of a person’s happiness, but his source, he remarks to his friends in characteristic honesty, is pride and glory in himself.
Yet Augustine comes to the realization that it may not be the lot of human beings always to be suffering. With the greater perspective we gain from being closer to God, miseries and torments can be washed away: “For whithersoever the soul of man turns itself, unless toward Thee, it is riveted upon sorrows.”
Without God, Augustine reflects, he is nothing but a “guide to his own downfall.” However, he continues a painful process of reasoning about his faith, and after still more questioning about who God really is, he hears a voice say to him, simply, “I am that I am.”
This does not calm his thoughts for long. His main worry is that if he were to become a priest he would not be able to resist the pleasures of the flesh. The denouement of his struggle comes when he and his friend Alypius are staying at a house in the country. Full of his usual desperation, Augustine throws himself down beneath a fig tree and weeps for his miserable faithless self. How long does he need to wait, he cries out, before he is saved and healed?
Then comes the climax of the Confessions: he hears a child’s voice coming over a wall, playing some kind of game with the words “Pick it up and read it.” Taking this as a sign, Augustine rushes back to where his friend is sitting and grabs the Bible he has been reading before, opening it at random. The passage his eyes fall on says this: The path to God is not in the ways of lust, gluttony and competition, but through Jesus.
Augustine hands in his resignation as a teacher, returns to Africa, and is ordained as a priest. In 396 he becomes the Bishop of Hippo (modern-day Annaba in Algeria), a post he will hold until his death. He becomes a passionate critic of various heresies, including his old Manichean faith, and makes himself the great defender of the orthodox Catholic Church.
If your misery is great enough, there is a chance that you will arrive at an equally great sense of peace and purpose that less intense people will never experience. The Confessions is one of the best pieces of writing on how a divided, tormented person can be healed through religion.
Yet Augustine is not really an inspirational character in the way that St. Francis of Assisi was, and in many respects his dogmatism and guilt about sex and the enjoyment of life shaped the Church for the worse. Translator E. M. Blaiklock has bluntly noted the elements of weakness in Augustine’s personality, which included deception, lust, and the inability to make commitments, and most readers will wince at his treatment of his de facto wife. It also might be said that the younger Augustine, with his close friends, lively nature, and wide interests, would surely have been a more enjoyable character to have around than the older, doctrinaire bishop that he became.
However, you will not find many figures in history who more fully expressed their potential to the maximum. From his inauspicious Roman backwater childhood and fast-living student days, it is remarkable that Augustine became (along with Aquinas) the major intellectual figure in the Christian West for the next 1,000 years. His huge work, The City of God (426), which took 13 years to write, became a theological foundation stone for the emergent Christian religion. All this from a black man born into the fringes of a white empire.
Augustine died in the year 430, just as the Vandals were closing in to sack and pillage his city. It is said that many of his parishioners were killed. The Confessions therefore form an important historical record of the places and customs of a world that was soon to change forever.
These facts are nevertheless not as interesting as the book’s description of an inner revolution. Augustine discovered the spiritual secret that is the basis for all religions—that faith can bring peace and order to a tortured mind.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
“He spoke of very simple things—that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form.”
“Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull’s life is so short, and with these gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.”
In a nutshell
The purpose of live is not simply to survive, but to seek perfection in yourself.
In a similar vein
Michael Newton Journey of Souls (p. 186)
Paramahansa Yogananda Autobiography of a Yogi (p. 300)
Gary Zukav The Seat of the Soul (p. 306)
W. Somerset Maugham
The Razor’s Edge reads like a novel but was based on Maugham’s remembrance of people he knew. Involved himself in the events he relates, he was both the narrator and one of the book’s characters.
What does the title mean? Maugham prefaced the work with a line from the Upanishads: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” The book is about what people do with their lives, and the difficulty that most of us have in choosing a path that allows us to really develop our spiritual muscles. On one side of the razor is an existence of security seeking, conformity, and accomplishment of social goals; and on the other a losing of the self within a larger quest to find life’s meaning. Most of us do not consciously choose this latter path, but Somerset Maugham’s fascination with a person who did was the seed for The Razor’s Edge.
Maugham sold a remarkable 40 million books, but this was his biggest seller. Set in Paris, Chicago, London, and the south of France in the 1920s and 1930s, the story pulls you in from the start and the characters are beautifully drawn. However, it is the book’s glimpses of spiritual mystery through the eyes of its main character Larry Darrell that probably accounts for its continuing popularity. This commentary covers the bare bones of the story and the characters.
Larry and Isabel
Larry Darrell is a young American who has been away in the war in France flying planes. He is engaged to Isabel Bradley, who is charming, attractive, and from a good Chicago family. The only thing standing in the way of their marriage is Larry’s strange reluctance to get a job. Though he has a small private income that allows him not to work, Isabel and her mother think it only right that a man should have an office to go to every day, and that he should want to get ahead in the fastest-growing economy in the world.
Their friend Gray Maturin is the plodding but pleasant son of a millionaire. Gray’s father offers Larry a position in his company, effectively setting him up for life, but still Larry demurs. His outlook is put down to a need for adjustment after the war, and when he decides to go and live in Paris, Isabel and her mother consider this as sowing wild oats before he settles down. They agree that Larry will go away for a year or two, but the engagement will remain in place.
When Larry gets to Paris, the debonair Elliot Templeton, Isabel’s uncle, is willing to launch him into society, but Larry has not even brought with him a dinner suit and has taken a room in a dingy hotel.
A year passes, and another, and finally Isabel visits him. Despite their differences they are still in love, and Isabel believes that when it comes to it Larry will buckle down in order not to lose her. She wants and expects a good life with nice things and children. He tries to convince her that his life is incredibly rich, and that she should join him on his travels and intellectual and spiritual seeking. But it becomes obvious that they have totally different agendas and they agree to break off the engagement.
Isabel marries Gray Maturin one year later. She does not love him as she does Larry, but she wants to be married.
Maugham recounts these events to show that Larry was a comparatively normal young man who at some point decides that there is more to life than being comfortable. He knows that there is no security in life, and can no longer be the happy-go-lucky young guy that he was before. In the war he had known friends who were live wires one day and dead the next, therefore he values every minute of existence. He does not yet know what he is looking for, but is aware of some dimension of life that is greater than himself. When Maugham makes his entry in the book, in a meeting with Larry, he learns that Larry has been reading Spinoza and Descartes, but it is his interest in Ruysbroek, a Flemish mystic, that alerts Maugham to Larry’s deeper interest. Maugham sees that Larry’s spiritual search is ultimately more important to him than love.
In the years that follow, Larry spends time in a French monastery, reads his way through the mystical literature, and takes on arduous jobs “to clear his head.” These include stints as a laborer in a French coalmine and on a German farm, and as a deckhand on a steamship plying its way to the Far East. The ship stops in Bombay for three days, and on the last day Larry suddenly decides that India has something to teach him. He stays for two years.
Maugham sees each of the main characters every few years, and keeps track of their movements. He learns that Larry spent time in an ashram devoted to the enlightened guru Sri Ganesha, and had a life-changing mystical experience up a mountain. Isabel and Gray, who prospered greatly in the 1920s, lose everything in the Great Depression. While trying to get back on their feet, they borrow Elliot Templeton’s apartment in Paris. Due to his change in fortune Gray now suffers bad headaches. One day the couple are visited by Larry, back from the subcontinent, who seems to have gained healing powers; he quietly rids Gray of his malady through a kind of hypnosis.
When Maugham himself moves to the south of France, he has Elliot Templeton as his neighbor. Despite his ill health, Templeton drags himself out to parties and functions, noting, “If you’re not seen everywhere you’re forgotten.” His chief aim in life has been to be recognized in European society, but in his last days he is already being forgotten. Maugham takes care in describing Templeton, if only to provide a counterfoil to Larry, who prefers anonymity and has zero interest in status and money. Not surprisingly, Templeton dies a lonely and pathetic figure, while the reader’s last impression of Larry is of a person of rare serenity and self-possession.
Despite his experiences, Larry has meanwhile come to the conclusion that it is not for him to live cloistered away in an ashram or monastery, but to love the world and live in it.
A greater love
One of Maugham’s themes is that people seek in life what means the most to them, and often the love of another person is not the highest thing. Partly by way of consolation for the love she lost, he suggests to Isabel that passion can wreck people’s lives or simply get in the way of a productive existence. He ventures the suggestion that Larry was never really in love with her; ultimately the pleasure that being with Isabel would have given him would not match what he gained from his search for the Absolute.
In this respect, The Razor’s Edge is an unsentimental book. It cleanly exposes each character’s motivation, showing that we all define our purpose in life and live according to that end. It is better not to choose as our objective a particular thing or person, but rather to adopt a generic value that will shape our actions. While Gray sought a well-paid position and Isabel a nice life, Larry found his happiness through a sense of the reality of God. His example shows that we do not generally fall into spiritual grace by accident; we must decide that enlightenment is the goal of our life and not be distracted by a lesser path.
As Maugham admits, his book has no happy ending in a romantic sense. He is simply left with the feeling that in Larry he has witnessed an unusually successful life. Larry is free-willed and autonomous, while the other characters have been enslaved by their own neuroses or social convention. They have fates according to their habits of thought and insecurities, but Larry is truly in charge of his destiny. Maugham’s last contact with him comes when he is sent a book that Larry has written. It consists of essays on a handful of historical figures—Sulla, Rubens, Goethe—each of whom, it occurs to Maugham, led unusually successful lives.
The Razor’s Edge is one of the better introductions to the spiritual path because nothing is forced on the reader. Maugham was something of a skeptic, and he could not explain what had changed Larry’s life. The air of mystery that surrounded his friend was perhaps a whiff of some larger divine mystery—but he rightly leaves it up to readers to draw their own conclusions.
Although he was very much a man of the world, not overtly religious, and as a writer was able to dissect a personality with ease, Maugham clearly saw something new and special in Larry Darrell. All the characters in the book see life as essentially about survival or recognition, but Larry is comfortable enough in his own skin to seek answers to the larger questions. Maugham had met Larry when he was only 20, but even at this age he seemed free of the normal vanities, wants, and cares of this world. He found some kind of spiritual secret that allowed him not to be worried about getting ahead, but simply to be ecstatic about being alive. Larry might be seen as an embodiment of the “perfect man” celebrated in the Taoist classic The Book of Chuang Tzu; that is, a person who has found the calm center after penetrating the rings of fear and desire that ensnare most of us.
While not especially insightful into eastern religion or the process of spiritual awakening, the strength of The Razor’s Edge is that it demonstrates the different paths that people take in life and whether or not those paths ultimately bring them satisfaction. It shows that how we live is really a spiritual matter, because by our actions and decisions we express our deepest views of the purpose of existence.
William Somerset Maugham
Born in 1874, Maugham grew up in the English town of Whitstable and then in Paris until he was 10. He was schooled in England and attended university in Germany. He studied for a while to become a doctor in London, but became a full-time writer after the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897).
Maugham married and had other female relationships, but later in life was openly homosexual. In 1927 he settled in the south of France and lived at Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat and was very well connected socially. He worked as a spy during the Second World War.
His 70-plus books include Of Human Bondage (1915), generally considered his greatest work, The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930), and the autobiographical The Summing Up. He was also famous as a playwright and for his collections of short stories. Maugham died in 1965, aged 91.
The Way of the Peaceful Warrior
“Soc, I’ve been battling illusions my whole life, preoccupied with every petty personal problem. I’ve dedicated my life to self-improvement without grasping the one problem that sent me seeking in the first place. While trying to make everything in the world work out for me, I kept getting sucked back into my own mind, always preoccupied with me, me, me.”
In a nutshell
Lose your self-importance and adopt a strategy of unreasonable happiness.
In a similar vein
Carlos Castaneda Journey to Ixtlan (p. 48)
Robert M. Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 204)
James Redfield The Celestine Prophecy (p. 210)
Shunryu Suzuki Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p. 240)
Chögyam Trungpa Cutting through Spiritual Materialism (p. 270)
The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure was the biggest-selling book in the world for three years in the late 1990s. The two most common reactions to it are “This is trash” and “It changed my life.” The first group of readers focus on the style of the writing; the second hone in on Redfield’s messages, codified in the nine insights woven into the story. While this might not be highbrow literature, on the other hand critical praise or condemnation is irrelevant for a large portion of the reading public—we want to know if our friends liked a book—and it was word of mouth that made The Celestine Prophecy a hyperseller.
Redfield has admitted that he is more of a social commentator than a novelist, and the book reads as if it is a set of ideas with the convention of a novel foisted onto it. He could easily have written The Celestine Prophecy as non-fiction, forming a chapter out of each of the insights, but would more than a few thousand people have read it? The grand theme—an emerging humanity-wide consciousness—required a fictional narrative to make it really come alive, in this case an adventure story that carries the reader into the Peruvian Andes, where an ancient manuscript surfaces in jungle ruins. The manuscript states that the end of the twentieth century will be a time of spiritual awakening.
The originality of The Celestine Prophecy lies in its combination of the soul-searching character of the New Age with a Hollywood screenplay sequence of close scrapes and sexual attraction. But what is it about the ideas that makes the novel so alluring?
Some creative works stand out because they were the first to express in a popular way what was latent in the culture, and this book really tapped into something. The idea of synchronicity, first postulated by Carl Jung (see Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 136), is no longer new, but Redfield revived interest in it by saying that coincidences were happening more often, to a greater number of people, and that they were somehow linked to our evolution as a species. His book focused on a growing belief that some or all coincidences are not instances of mere chance but carry meaning.
The first of the book’s nine insights claims that it is awareness of synchronicity more than anything else that will lead us to a cultural transformation, because once we admit it is real, our whole view of how the universe works must change—it becomes a meaningful universe.
It is no surprise that in the later The Celestine Vision, Redfield refers to Thomas Kuhn, whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions showed how small anomalies can eventually turn upside down a whole theory or way of seeing the world. The Celestine Vision is Redfield’s non-fictional account of his influences and philosophy. In it he suggests that only in direct experience do we find truth, yet we hang on to models of how the world works that do not fit our experience. This view has little respect for both the western tradition of objective scientific proof or Christianity’s demand for blind faith. It is genuinely democratic, because we are asked only to believe in what we have actually experienced, whether or not science or religion has validated it. In The Celestine Prophecy Redfield sets up the Peruvian church and army as the bad guys who seek to control dissemination of the insights, but in the age of freedom of information we know they cannot win. Spiritual knowledge is a matter for the individual and cannot be “instructed.”
The second insight that Redfield describes is the “longer now,” an enlargement of the circle of our thinking beyond our life, our job, our country, to appreciate humanity across the ages. We see the evolution of humankind almost as the story of a single person. A character in the book explains that in the last 1,000 years we have moved from a world centered on God to one based on our own achievements and discoveries. The philosophical security we felt in the Middle Ages was replaced by a drive for secular material security, but now this is being questioned. The attachment to “scarcity consciousness” is being eclipsed by the realization that we must now pursue what has most meaning for us. The past few hundred years have set the stage for a new era of “mystery appreciation”—whatever we find amazing, and nothing less, will determine how we spend our time.
The third insight says that the universe is pure energy. Our way of seeing the world is based on the apparent solidity of matter, but our science is yet to detect the subtle energies that flow through and around things, including the living. Astounding experiments in particle physics show that the forms in which particles manifest depends on whether they are being observed. Other experiments show that among two sets of plants in the same conditions, those that are given “loving attention” grow more rapidly. Redfield’s question is: To what extent does the universe as a whole—since it is made up of the same particles—respond to our expectations?
The fourth insight extends the concept of “everything is energy” to human relationships. Because we don’t know exactly how to restore the energy flowing around the universe to ourselves, we seek to steal it from other people. The fifth insight is the antidote to the fourth: we know that at any time we can access the “higher source” and regain any lost energy. Instead of the crime of using other people to get energy, we go into ourselves and access it through meditation, silence, or being with nature.
The sixth insight is about the “control dramas” that we all develop in order to direct energy to ourselves, taking on the roles, for example, of “Intimidator,” “Poor Me,” or “Aloof.” Control dramas do not let us progress as human beings, but seeing them objectively gives us the power to kill them off.
You will have to get the book to find out the last three insights, and subsequent Redfield novels reveal yet more.
The Celestine Prophecy was successful because it renewed interest in spirituality while being tough on traditional religion. In asserting the idea of direct intuition of spiritual knowledge it was a genuine Gnostic work.
Redfield tapped into the feeling that “the truth is out there,” and by merging the ancient spiritual quest with a racy adventure set in the here and now (the first chapter begins in a parking lot), he masterfully satisfied a market thirst for danger and sacredness.
It is easy to be cynical about The Celestine Prophecy, but the fact is that it has had a transformative effect on many people, and its insights relate directly to the concerns of our time: the preoccupation with relationships and their fragile balance; environmental awareness, particularly the healing power of nature and the energy radiating from old forests; and the desire to see the human experiment in its entirety.
Perhaps Redfield’s main theme is that the resolution and avoidance of conflict in human relationships is the most important issue in the universal scheme of things. Conflict and ill will create friction against the natural flow of energy in the universe, whereas to love unconditionally is to move with this energy and take on its grace and power. In this state we actually exist at a higher mental and physical vibration.
In this respect, though initially attractive as a spiritual self-
development book, what makes The Celestine Prophecy so compelling is its broader theme of the non-physical evolution of the human species.
Born in 1950, Redfield grew up in a Methodist family near Birmingham, Alabama. He attended Auburn University, where he studied eastern philosophies, including Taoism and Zen Buddhism, as part of a sociology major. He later received a Master’s degree in counseling and spent more than 15 years as a therapist to abused adolescents.
Quitting his job in 1989 to write full time, Redfield took almost two and a half years to write The Celestine Prophecy. The first edition was self-published, but word of mouth spread quickly and Warner Books bought the rights. The book spent 145 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Redfield’s other books include the sequel, The Tenth Insight: The Afterlife Dimension, The Celestine Vision, The Celestine Prophecy: An Experiential Guide (with Carol Adrienne), and The Secret of Shambhala: In Search of the Eleventh Insight, another adventure, set in Tibet.
Redfield lives in Alabama and Florida.
The Four Agreements
“Your whole mind is a fog which the Toltecs called a mitote (pronounced MIH-TOE’-TAY). Your mind is a dream where a thousand people talk at the same time, and nobody understands each other. This is the condition of the human mind—a big mitote, and with that big mitote you cannot see what you really are.”
In a nutshell
By consciously adopting agreements with ourselves on how to act with integrity, we begin to take control of our lives.
In a similar vein
Carlos Castaneda Journey to Ixtlan (p. 48)
Dan Millman The Way of the Peaceful Warrior (p. 180)
John O’Donohue Anam Cara (p. 198)
50 Spiritual Classics
Timeless wisdom from
50 great books of
inner discovery, enlightenment, and purpose
Daniel C. Matt
Every religion seems to give rise to mystical offshoots that provide more intimacy with the divine, compared with the dogma and institutions of the mother faith. These offshoots push the boundaries of devotion, contemplation, and knowledge and can inspire believers and reinvigorate the faith. From Islam, for instance, came Sufism, from Christianity the medieval mystics—and from Judaism Kabbalah.
Like everything else, spirituality has its fashions, and in recent years Kabbalah (which means “receiving”) has become a craze that has attracted celebrities. In a mundane secular world there is an air of holy mystery and impenetrability about Kabbalah that is alluring, and many of the popular books on the subject also market it as a tool to solve the reader’s problems. The further attraction of Kabbalah is that it brings out the feminine aspect of Judaism.
Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism was written before the craze, yet is a modern, accessible introduction to the movement’s origins and fundamental ideas, in the same way that Idries Shah’s The Way of the Sufi is a classic introduction to Sufism. Essentially an anthology of writings by some of the great interpreters of Kabbalah, the book retains the reserve traditionally associated with the subject, but also gives the reader a taste of its wisdom.
A path out of obscurity
Though its roots are ancient, Kabbalah did not really come into being until the 1100s, in a learned Jewish community in southern France. It eventually spread over the Pyrenees into Spain, incorporating elements of Pythagorean, Neoplatonic, and Sufi mysticism along the way.
In 1280, Moses de Leon, a Spanish Jewish mystic, produced a body of writing that he claimed was “channeled.” This grew into the huge Sefer ha-Zohar, “The Book of Radiance,” written in Aramaic. These writings, essentially a commentary on the Torah in fictional form, became the Zohar as we know it today. The Zohar revealed the Torah to be a code that illuminates the mechanics of creation, or how the world emerged from the Infinite (called “Ein Sof”).
In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain, and many kabbalists went to Palestine, specifically to the village of Safed above the Sea of Galilee. The most famous among its teachers was Moses Cordovero, whose The Pomegranate Orchard summarized three centuries of Kabbalah wisdom. His mantle was taken over by Isaac Luria or Ha-Ari (“The Lion”), who wrote nothing but whose ideas became a strong influence on Hasidic Judaism in Eastern Europe.
Interestingly, the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola read all Latin Kabbalah translations, and defended them as writings that confirmed the divinity of Jesus. This tradition of Kabbalah influence on non-Jewish philosophers continued with, among others, Gottfried Leibniz, Emanuel Swedenborg, and William Blake.
Kabbalah’s best-known modern-era exponent was Abraham Isaac Kook at the end of the nineteenth century, but the revival of contemporary interest can be traced to Gershom Scholem, whose classic Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1961) took Kabbalah out of the shadows and made it accessible to the world.
What is Kabbalah?
The purpose of Kabbalah practice is to take a person back to the “cosmic consciousness” or mystical union that humankind once enjoyed with God at the beginning of creation, before the “fall” into the knowledge of good and evil (symbolized by Adam and Eve).
To achieve this mystical end and still remain within conventional Judaism, Matt notes that the early kabbalists had to stay very observant of traditional teachings and law. They remained committed to the Talmud (the foundational body of Jewish law, story, and custom) and the Bible, which expressed the traditional, masculine values of God, exemplified by the mitsvot (Commandments), but sought to complement these with an exploration of the more feminine aspect of the divine (symbolized by the female archetype or goddess, Shekhinah) which they believed was conducive to mystical union.
Enlightenment of this type was not going to be achieved through mere intellectual study, so a system of learning was devised based on the sefiroth, a map of consciousness evoking every aspect of creation and personhood.
The ten vessels
Before Kabbalah came into being there was the Sefer Yetsirah (“The Book of Creation”), a foundational book in Jewish mysticism. It said that God created the world by speaking it into existence through a combination of sacred letters and numerical entities, the ten sefirot. These emerged from Ein Sof, the unknowable divine essence or godly infinity that preceded time and space.
Early kabbalist Isaac Luria attempted to explain the beginnings of the world and the meaning of human existence through his teachings on the sefirot. His conception was as follows: Within the emptiness or vacuum of Ein Sof there appeared a light. The light began emanating into spiritual containers or vessels (the sefirot). Some of these could not withstand the divine light and so shattered. Most of the light returned to its origin but the shattered remains of the vessels, plus the sparks created, were trapped in material existence. The task of human life is to “raise the sparks” again to their original divinity, which can only be achieved through living a holy life; actions in everyday life are considered either to promote or impede the raising or restoration of the divine sparks.
Another way to explain Ein Sof and the sefirot is to imagine the light of God shining through stained-glass windows, with each of the sefirot being an archetypal expression or quality of God that can be found in creation generally or humans specifically.
The sefirot and their qualities include: Keter (the crown from which the others spring); Hokhmah (wisdom); Binah (understanding); Hesed (love); Gevurah (power); Tif’eret (beauty); Netsah (eternity); Hod (splendor); Yesod (foundation); and Shekhinah (divine presence).
Matt provides a lengthy explanation of the sefirot and how they can be guides to character and life. They are potentialities that wait to be activated within us. People can become expressions of particular sefirot, he suggests. Abraham was a man of Hesed, Isaac of Gevurah, Joseph a master of Yesod, and so on.
According to Kabbalah, the divine realm needs human action to make the world fulfill its potential. Without us, God is incomplete. In return, it is up to us to ponder the mysteries of God and creation.
Matt quotes Moses de Leon as observing:
“How precious it is to know that God generates all of existence. From one bit of existence, the soul can perceive the existence of God, which has neither beginning nor end.”
By frequently thinking of the vastness of God, we are humbled and become merely a vehicle for divine expression.
Dov Baer, an eighteenth-century Hasidic master, said:
“If you think of yourself as something, then God cannot clothe himself in you, for God is infinite.”
Kabbalah is about self-fulfillment, but this true fulfillment of all our potentialities can only come about through a “cleaving to God.” De Leon held that the soul takes on human form because it is not complete and needs to be fulfilled “in all dimensions.” Our lives on Earth are about fulfillment of a purpose that God has intended, and the Kabbalah provides the path to self-knowledge that is required to discover this purpose. The notion of “raising the sparks” means simply to begin recognizing and fulfilling the potentiality that God has endowed us with.
Why has there been so much secrecy surrounding Kabbalah learning? Traditionally there were restrictions on who could gain access to kabbalistic teachings, such as that they had to be over 40, married, and in sound heart and mind. While these restrictions have in many cases gone by the wayside, the reasoning behind them is not unsound. Because it deals with the deepest issues of self and God, Kabbalah is apt to spin anyone out of their normal orbits of thinking, and its masters know that mystical knowledge can drive a person mad if they are not able to incorporate it into their understanding of the world. On this point, Matt quotes Isaac of Akko:
“Strive to see supernal light, for I have brought you into a vast ocean. Be careful! Strive to see, yet escape drowning.”
Kabbalah teachers have never gone out of their way to find adherents, for the simple reason that there is no point forcing learning on anyone who is not ready to swim in its waters. But for those who are genuine in their desire for spiritual development, Kabbalah is an incredibly rich ground of inspiration and guidance that belongs not merely to Judaism, but to humanity.
There are now many introductions to the field, but The Essential Kabbalah remains one of the best because it is not too academic, but nor is it lightweight, the author being a leading scholar in his field and a Zohar translator. If you want greater depth, read Gershom Scholem (The Origins of the Kabbalah or On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism), or Moshe Idel (Kabbalah: New Perspectives). Better still, read the Zohar itself.
Daniel C. Matt
Matt has a doctorate from Brandeis University and has taught at Stanford University and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. From 1979 to 2000 he was Professor of Jewish mysticism at the Center for Jewish Studies, Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. From this post Matt was asked by the Hyatt hotels heiress Margot Pritzker to produce a new English translation of the Zohar. The first volume was published in 2003.
Matt’s other books include Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment and God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science and Spirituality. He is based in Jerusalem.
The Razor’s Edge
“He is without ambition and he has no desire for fame; to become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than just himself. He is too modest to set himself up as an example to others; but it may be he thinks that a few uncertain souls, drawn to him like moths to a candle, will be brought in time to share his own glowing belief that ultimate satisfaction can only be found in the life of the spirit.”
In a nutshell
Attain real peace by moving beyond the ego’s fears and wants and living a life of the spirit.
In a similar vein
Chuang Tzu The Book of Chuang Tzu (p. 66)
Hermann Hesse Siddartha (p. 118)
Helen Schucman & William Thetford
A landmark modern spiritual text, A Course in Miracles has unusual origins. In 1965, Dr. Helen Schucman was a research psychologist at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. Her workplace was no different to millions of others in that politics and status seeking among staff had created a strained atmosphere. One day, the head of her department, Dr. William Thetford, announced he was tired of what was going on and that there must be another, better way. Schucman agreed to help him find it, and soon after began having strange dreams, then hearing a voice that seemed to want her to write down what it was saying. The first sentence she recorded in her shorthand notebook was “This is a course in miracles.” Thetford typed up the notes, beginning a process that would last seven years and result in the 1,200-page A Course in Miracles that we know today. In Course circles, Schucman and Thetford are considered the vehicles for the book’s appearance, rather than its authors.
Is the book a delusion? You might think so, except that the text itself has a diamond-like clarity, and apart from the fact that Schucman, who died in 1981, was a professed atheist who never capitalized on the Course phenomenon.
With its distinctive blue binding and gold lettering, including a workbook for students and manual for teachers, the book has sold over a million copies and spawned self-study groups around the world. Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love popularized its message and is a masterful introduction to Course ideas, and Gary R. Renard’s The Disappearance of the Universe has further illuminated its teachings.
A course in true awareness
“This is a course in miracles. It is a required course. Only the time you take it is voluntary. Free will does not mean that you can establish the curriculum.”
This droll opening statement presents A Course in Miracles as a book revealing “house rules” for being a human in this universe, principles that operate unerringly whether we take heed of them or not.
But why a course in miracles? A miracle can be expressed in many forms, physical and mental, but its essential feature is a sudden freedom from misperception. In the book’s words, a miracle is simply “removing the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence.” When this moment takes place—called the “holy instant”—we feel the peace of God because we see things as they really are, not though the self’s normal clouds of arrogance and ignorance. This event is a miracle because it is permanent; we may forget that it happened, but as soon as we remind ourselves of it the same effect is felt.
The book’s distinction between reality and unreality (or knowledge and perception) is important. Reality/knowledge is what God is and what comes of God: “It can be unrecognized, but it cannot be changed.” It is also beyond time. In contrast, unreality/perception is the world that we normally perceive, involving interpretation rather than facts. What we perceive seems true, but it is only true through our lens. What is given by God, on the other hand, is not perceived but known. It is unmistakable, and therefore dependable.
The Course’s popularity probably owes much to its insights into relationships. One of its memorable distinctions is that between “special” relationships and “holy” relationships. Special relationships are built on the ego’s desires, and many people will only ever have relationships on this basis. Such relationships, the Course says, are a way of excluding God from our life. Their holy alternative, in contrast, happens when we let God in on it: “The holy relationship is the old, special relationship transformed.” On this issue the book can make uncomfortable reading, as we may realize just how much our relationships have been forged from selfishness rather than a desire for truthful, loving partnerships.
When we ask God, or more specifically the “Holy Spirit,” to enter our relationship, changes happen quickly: “At once His goal replaces yours.” In an unholy relationship, it is our goal for the relationship that makes it meaningful. In a normal relationship, if we don’t get what we want we usually try to end it, because the emphasis is on what we want (i.e., the ego). The problem with this is that we will always feel slightly uneasy about our relationships, because they have no solid foundation. We think we know what is best for us, but in truth the ego does not really have a goal for our relationships except using them for its own benefit.
God, on the other hand, does have a definite goal for the relationship, so it is a matter of having faith in that goal being revealed. The experience of the Holy Spirit being present initially gives us faith, but that faith turns to conviction. We are given the chance to save our relationship from our own selves. “Whom God has joined as one,” the Course says, “the ego cannot put asunder.”
One of the themes of A Course in Miracles is the need to forgive, not because it is a nice thing to do, but because it allows us to cast off misperception and see truth again:
“Forgiveness is the means by which we will remember. Through forgiveness the thinking of the world is reversed.”
To forgive is to see through to the essential innocence of a person, the truth behind the façade. When we are able to do this, instead of constantly feeling the need to judge or attack, we will have a healed relationship.
A recurring idea in the Course is that “only love is real.” Logically, this means that everything else—the whole world—is an illusion. The purpose of prayer and meditation is to have our misperceptions about this reality healed. When a misperception is seen for what it is, it is never our ego that has allowed us to see the light, but only the appreciation of true reality from outside the ego. It is impossible to get a right answer amid conflict, the Course says, because the answer will be shaped by that conflict. We try to solve our problems by thought alone, but this only results in both questions and answers that relate to the ego.
An honest question, on the other hand, “asks for something that you do not know.” A real answer is one that is right today and right tomorrow, which comes in a “holy instant”; that is, a momentary flash of awareness that is delivered as a gift from God. When truth is experienced, it seems like a miracle, because it did not come from us as we currently know ourselves to be, but from the self that has always been one with God. Our separation from God is illusory.
To receive this sort of guidance, we have to forget about thinking and just be still: “In quietness are all things answered, and is every problem quietly resolved.”
Who is in control?
When we are confused about who or what we are, it means that we are torn between what our ego may desire and what is naturally ours. The ego loves busyness and creating and sustaining problems, which should be an indicator that these problems may not be as real as we think they are, but are created by a part of us that wants to maintain itself.
This belief that we are a solitary entity floating along in the world is “the depth of madness,” the Course says, because in reality we are one with the God that created us, and have always been so. The word “atonement” (at-one-ment) means the remembrance of this fact, and when we admit it, no room is left for doubt and insecurity. As the Course asserts:
“All things work together for good. There are no exceptions except in the ego’s judgment.”
The book further points out why many people do not even like thinking about God or spiritual matters: because any recognition of God points “to the nonexistence of the ego itself,” and most people identify with their ego. Since the ego believes in itself as a self-created entity, it cannot accept the wholeness of God. What is meant by the concept of the second coming of Christ? Not the physical arrival of a Christ-person on Earth, the Course says, but rather the end of the ego’s dominion. The Holy Spirit is God’s messenger to bring this about, sent to cure the tortured misconceptions that the ego makes us believe are real.
There are countless examples of “channeled” writings, but A Course in Miracles remains the gold standard. It has been described as a bible for the new millennium, and the comparison is not ridiculous. Like the Bible, it seems to contain an answer for just about every issue, and it is so big that you are unlikely to read it cover to cover. It employs biblical language and references, but instead of parables uses plain logic and rigorous distinctions to change the reader’s mind. The writing is often beautiful.
Some readers will be put off by the Christian terminology, but this is simply the form used to express universal truths that can be found in all religions. Despite the Christian references, fundamentalists do not like the Course, claiming it to be an amalgam of blasphemous New Age ideas. Mainstream religions are quick to denounce such books because they lay claim to being the wisdom of God channeled through a human author, but is this not the way nearly all religions began? That is, as a particularly well-attuned individual receiving the divine word, which followers later turned into a system of organized practice.
Whether its source is divine or not, if you have an open mind it would be difficult not to take away something inspirational from reading A Course in Miracles. If you have ever felt a miracle happen to you in terms of a sudden awareness or greater understanding, you will see where it is coming from. All religions teach that separation is an illusion, and that a reawakened awareness of our unity with God makes all things possible. The Course simply confirms the “normality” of miracles when we are aligned with a higher power, and gives us the wonderful idea that life is simply a course in understanding the spiritual laws that can make us happy.
The Way of the Sufi
“Asked why a certain Sufi sheikh did not appear to the outward eye to follow a religiously devout life, Nizamuddin Awliya said: ‘Kings bury their treasures in one of two places. The first, and obvious one, is in the strong-room, which can be burgled, emptied or usurped. The other, and more enduring one, is in the earth, in a ruin where nobody would think of looking for it.”
In a nutshell
Spirituality is not about emotional security, it is about finding truth.
In a similar vein
Ghazzali The Alchemy of Happiness (p. 90)
G. I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (p. 102)
Shunryu Suzuki Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p. 240)
One of the few well-known facts of Mother Teresa’s life was the timing of her death, which came in the same week as Princess Diana’s in 1997. They were two of the most significant women of our time, loved in different ways, but many thought it characteristic of Mother Teresa’s humility that her passing would be overshadowed by someone even more famous than her. But what do we really know about her and what is her legacy?
Despite many biographies, she did not write a complete book of her own. A Simple Path comes close. Compiled by the religious writer Lucinda Vardey, it is written from Mother Teresa’s point of view and based on conversations with her and with other sisters and brothers of her Missionaries of Charity order, plus volunteers who have worked in its homes around the world.
Though an uncritical portrait, you cannot come away from reading it with anything but admiration for Mother Teresa’s work. It will be a bit too Christian for some, with prayers included in the text and many mentions of the power of Jesus, but this book is perhaps the clearest expression of what she stood for, and its description of sad lives given some dignity will bring a tear to many a reader’s eye.
The bare bones of Mother Teresa’s story are these: Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopjet, Albania in 1910, the youngest of three children, she had a middle-class upbringing; her father was a building contractor and importer. When he died prematurely her mother formed a business selling cloth and doing embroidery, creating a strong model of female resilience.
At 18, Agnes went to Ireland to become a nun with the Loreto Sisters, who she knew did missionary work in India. Transferred to Calcutta, and taking the name of Teresa after St. Therèse of Lisieux, she taught in a Loreto school for many years before becoming headmistress. A period of illness gave her for time for reflection, and in 1946 she received her “second calling”: to help “the poorest of the poor” in the slums of Calcutta. Though the Sisters required her to continue teaching, in 1950 she was able to establish her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, with its familiar blue and white habit.
The order grew swiftly. By 1960 there were 25 homes across India, and in 1966 the Missionaries of Charity Brothers was founded. Through the 1970s and 1980s Mother Teresa founded many branches outside India, including hospices, homes for drug addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes, and centers in US and European cities to care for people suffering from AIDS. Also established were homes for abused or abandoned children, people with leprosy, tuberculosis sufferers, and those with mental illnesses. The order’s work also includes family planning clinics and Bible study groups.
Though the most common image people have is of the famous nun walking the streets of Calcutta, the order now has a presence in 100 countries, with over 500 missions from Tokyo to Bogotá to Los Angeles. While vocations in the Catholic church have been steadily declining in the last 50 years, the Missionaries of Charity has had huge growth, even since Mother Teresa’s death.
Mother Teresa’s motivation
In A Simple Path, Mother Teresa recounts a visit to a soup kitchen for the homeless in London. She reached out to a man who had been living in a cardboard box, and he said, “It’s been a long time since I felt the warmth of a human hand.”
Mother Teresa would often note that many people who came to the order’s missions were not necessarily hungry; they wanted to be recognized, to have a sense of peace, to relax. The job of the Missionaries of Charity, she says, is not to figure out the hows and whys of homelessness, but to allow a person to experience some dignity, particularly if they are dying. In her words: “There are many in the world dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.”
The Sisters take a vow of poverty in order to be able to rely fully on the providence of God. They can own only two sets of clothes, a bucket, sandals, a metal plate for meals, and basic bedding. Without suffering themselves, Mother Teresa explains, their work would just be social work. The primary motivation of the order is always religious; their work is dedicated to Jesus. She is fond of the phrase “love until it hurts,” because the Sisters appreciate the paradoxical joy of suffering if it is directed toward a purpose. By saving others they save themselves, an idea backed up by the order’s volunteers.
The section of A Simple Path dealing with the experiences of volunteers is the most powerful. Clearly, you can’t be a volunteer for any length of time without it changing your life in some way, and many come to see that in normal secular life they are unhappy without really realizing it.
Penny, a beauty therapist, found herself virtually by accident at the Nirmal Hriday home in Calcutta, and ended up staying for six months. Her work involved washing destitute people, and although what she saw and did was traumatic, the experience became the catalyst for a desired career change into psychotherapy. Part of the idea of the homes, Mother Teresa says, is simply to let people come in contact with the poor, so that “it’s not just these ‘millions’ of people, but somebody you’ve actually touched.”
A Simple Path does make you think about the value of pursuing wealth and secular things. Peter, another volunteer, says: “I’ve come to realize that the fewer possessions you have the happier you are. When you see the simple way the sisters live it can totally change your life… I believe the simplest way is the easiest way to God.” Another volunteer realized that his office job back home was not the real world; working with the Missionaries of Charity seemed more real. Seeing life and death every day put trivial matters into perspective.
Life in rich countries can make people feel isolated and vulnerable, but this sort of selfless work provides focus and a level of emotional integration that normal secular life may not. One of the principles guiding the order is “The fruit of service is peace.”
Prayer as fuel
In 1976, Mother Teresa opened a contemplative branch of her order in New York, known as Sisters of the Word. The vocation of these women is simply to pray most of the day in silence. If you become silent, Mother Teresa points out, God can speak to you: “Prayer feeds the soul—as blood is to the body.”
The book has several stories about the right people turning up at the right time to help the order, as the result of prayer. With their crushing demands to serve the destitute and sick, for many of the nuns and brothers prayer provides a chance to recharge with spiritual motivation. As Mother Teresa herself remarks, “Without prayer I could not work for even half an hour. I get my strength from God through prayer.”
In the book, praying and forgiving emerge as the answer to every kind of difficulty. By getting our own emotions out of the way we are able to let God use us in the best way possible, and this begins with prayer.
Mother Teresa as leader
When a number of sisters were interviewed about their impressions of Mother Teresa after her 19 years spent at the Loreto school before starting the Missionaries of Charity, collectively they noted nothing really remarkable about her except for fragile health. Yet this was the same person, Lucinda Vardey comments, who became “the quintessential, energetic entrepreneur, who has perceived a need and done something about it, built an organization against all odds, formulated its constitution, and sent out branches all over the world.”
What made her such a visionary? The portrait we are given in A Simple Path is of a person combining the strongest will with complete surrender to God. She had a powerful mixture of practicality and holiness that allowed her to build an organization comparable to a large company in complexity, at the same time inspiring anyone who met her with her simple zeal for goodness and hope. Yet Mother Teresa must have had a level of ambition and shrewdness to make her dream come alive, and she did not shy from courting kings and presidents when she felt it in the order’s or the Church’s interests to do so.
Though Teresa took her religious name from the simple and childlike St. Therèse of Lisieux, in her own life she was more similar to Teresa of Avila, the pious but forthright founder of 17 Spanish convents who could converse easily with powerful men (see Interior Castle, p. 252). Like the Avilan, who was 40 by the time she founded her first convent, Mother Teresa was also a comparatively late starter. Most people don’t know that she spent almost 20 years as a teacher and then head of a school before embarking on her famous work in the Calcutta slums, and was 40 by the time the Missionaries of Charity was fully under way. Yet from this point she became one of the twentieth century’s leading “entrepreneurs for God,” spreading her organization onto every continent. Its growth resembled a successful business franchise whose unchanging principles allowed it to grow fast without losing its strong identity and purpose.
The greater world only started taking note of Mother Teresa after Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1969 documentary, Something Beautiful for God. Since then most appraisals of her have been hagiographic, but in recent years critics have suggested that we need to take a look behind the myth of Mother Teresa. Author Christopher Hitchens has been the most strident, his charges including the following:
[image: Image] Teresa was a wily operator who always sided with the most conservative political forces in every country where her order had a presence. She praised the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, for example, and was a friend of the Duvalier family in Haiti.
[image: Image] She was a Catholic fundamentalist who opposed the Vatican Council reforms of the 1960s, and tried to intervene in an Irish referendum on abortion. The Church accepted her only because she attracted new believers.
[image: Image] Despite hefty financial donations, care facilities under her management remained primitive, supporting the accusation that the aim of her order was not to save lives but to give people a “good Catholic death.”
Though these charges may well be true, on balance the good that Mother Teresa did outweighs any negatives. There are hundreds of thousands of lepers, abused children, addicts, and others whose lot has improved because of the Sisters. Any large organization has its downside and its agendas to push, and the Missionaries of Charity are no different. If they did not exist to spread the word of Jesus, then there would be little to distinguish them from the Red Cross.
Standards of physical care are obviously a major issue, yet as Mother Teresa says throughout her book, what people hunger for most is for someone to look them in the eye and extend a warm hand. While hospitals fix people’s bodies, the Missionaries of Charity are a reminder that a life gone wrong is as important as any other life, and that a person is above all a soul.
The Power of Now
“Don’t look for any other state than the one you are in now; otherwise, you will set up inner conflict and unconscious resistance. Forgive yourself for not being at peace. The moment you completely accept your non-peace, your non-peace becomes transmuted into peace. Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender.”
“To offer no resistance to life is to be in a state of grace, ease, and lightness. This state is then no longer dependent upon things being in a certain way, good or bad. It seems paradoxical, yet when your inner dependency on form is gone, the general conditions of your life, the outer forms, tend to improve greatly.”
In a nutshell
Transform your life by the simple realization that the only time you ever have is this moment.
In a similar vein
St. Augustine Confessions (p. 20)
Ram Dass Be Here Now (p. 72)
Thich Nhat Hanh The Miracle of Mindfulness (p. 192)
Shunryu Suzuki Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p. 240)
Neale Donald Walsch Conversations with God (p. 276)
Epictetus was a Roman slave whose master, Epaphroditus, was an officer of Emperor Nero’s personal guard. After his master was put to death by Nero’s successor Domitian, Epictetus was given his freedom.
Epictetus might have had an unremarkable life except that, while still a slave, he was allowed to attend philosophy lectures, and as an adult freedman he became a distinguished philosopher in the Stoic tradition. From slave to philosopher is an astonishing leap, and clearly gave Epictetus unusual insight into the human condition.
Epictetus himself did not write any books. His pupil Arrian (later the biographer of Alexander the Great) took down his thoughts to create the eight-volume Discourses, of which only four volumes survived. The essence of the Discourses was distilled into a much shorter Enchiridion, Greek for handbook or manual, which with a good translation (here George Long’s is used) is very accessible to today’s reader.
What is Stoicism? As a body of thought it originated in Greece around 300 BCE, but became a major influence in ancient Rome. Its intellectual and spiritual features include submission to providence or universal law, independence of mind, restraint in living and emotion, and fearlessness of loss and death. This commentary discusses Epictetus’s expression of the Stoic way.
“Lead me, O Zeus, and thou O Destiny,
The way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
I make myself a wretch, and still must follow.”
This verse appears at the end of the Enchiridion and sums up the Stoic philosophy of acceptance. By submission to Zeus (the creator in Greek mythology), a person could gain a rare equanimity in the knowledge that they were acting in accord with the universe. As everyone had a certain role to play in life, the choice to fight what was clearly our destiny could only bring misery. Another great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, put it this way: “Love nothing but that which comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny. For what could more aptly fit your needs?” It is when we refuse to accept that an event has happened, Epictetus taught, that pain is the most extreme.
Under the heading “How a man on every occasion can maintain his proper character,” Epictetus points out that whatever seems “intolerable” can be made tolerable if it is seen to be rational. Events themselves are not necessarily painful; what really causes grief is the feeling that there is no reason behind what we are going through. Yet if we can accept that the workings of God are rational, we can feel safe in the knowledge that all things happen for a reason—even if with our limited vision we cannot see it.
Epictetus mentions the willingness with which Socrates went to his imprisonment and death. Why did he not struggle? Because in his quiet acknowledgment of his fate, he could mentally remain free. Epictetus tells the story of Agrippinus, who when told that the Roman Senate had begun a trial against him (which would probably end with his death or exile), continued with his daily habits of exercise and bathing. When later a messenger came to him with the news that he had been condemned, he did not let out an anguished cry, but calmly inquired whether he was to be put to death or banished. When told the sentence of banishment, he immediately began making arrangements for the move.
Agrippinus is said to have remarked: “I am not a hindrance to myself.” He meant that no wild emotions could overtake his inner peace or resolve; full acceptance of his fate provided equanimity, which he prized above all honors or possessions.
The greater gifts
Epictetus observed that although we are animals to the extent that we eat and drink and copulate and sleep, the task of humans is to make sense of the world and understand our place in it. In this contemplation, we are led to an appreciation of the intelligence behind the workings of the universe, and enjoy some detachment from things and events. Our gifts are not just physical, but include the power to endure anything and to develop greatness of soul. These gifts, Epictetus believed, are as much a part of us as hearing or sight.
Epictetus likened difficulties to a “ro