Paths of Desire
God is love. Man essentially desires love more than anything else. Therefore, when in his right mind, man will seek God before all other things.
This sums up the basic equation of my life. Everything about me is a corollary to this; either acting rationally seeking to dwell with my God, or acting irrationally seeking love in other quarters.
I am an Orthodox Christian, having come to the Orthodox Faith several years ago, after a lifetime journey through the Protestant milieu, an adolescence spent in study and meditation on The Bhagavad-Gita, and meditations with Buddhist monks, college years searching for truth as explained by Taoism, applying my own hermeneutics using critical thinking, fighting my way through the battlefield of contemporary university intellectual arrogance and hubris, coming out on the other side of academia with a desire for something real and adventurous, and joining a small group of spiritual seekers following a spiritual leader on a four-year inner journey of discovery and revelation; which opened doors for me into the truths of the spiritual warfare, which all of us are fighting every moment of every day, whether we are aware of it or not, which is spoken about by our Lord Jesus Christ and all of his followers from Paul, Peter and James, to all the great teachers which came after them.
There are faith, hope, and love. There are virtue and vice, truth and deception, and a myriad of paths extending into the future, waiting to be trod upon. And a smaller number of paths which have already been taken, which if traced back to their origins, make for an interesting tale.
To my memory, the first steps I took along these paths of desire were initiated by my admiration for my pastor. He was a tall, intellectual man, a former Bishop in the Methodist Church. His sermons were serious and challenging, and stirred me inside. I didn’t really understand much of what he said, as I was still in grade-school and lacked the vocabulary at my early age, but my soul understood him, and I loved him for this. He inspired me to make my faith real and to act upon it, and to approach it rationally with sincerity. He believed I would become a pastor myself someday and he invested some time in me to help me along this way. I remember him taking several of us up into the church loft to examine more closely the circular stain-glass window there, with the symbols of the four evangelists at the cardinal points: the winged man which symbolizes Matthew, the winged lion which symbolizes Mark, and the winged Ox for Luke and the Eagle for John. I think he envisioned a straight and narrow path for me, perhaps hoping these winged evangelists would help speed me on my way. But my path, as for many of us, would not be all that straight or narrow.
Several years later I became a confirmed member of the Methodist Church. I wanted to do this, but I also couldn’t imagine an alternate decision. After our confirmation class a couple of my friends decided at the time not to be confirmed. I remember being perplexed by this and also a little scandalized. If I loved God, which I did, how could I not choose to be confirmed? I didn’t know of any other options at the time, it seemed a rather binary decision, yes or no. I didn’t know there could also be a yes…but, or a no…and, or a yes but over there instead. My world was still fairly small, but that was about to change in many significant ways.
It was around the same time as I was confirmed, in ninth grade, that my pastor retired and was replaced by a different type of pastor. He was also a very nice person, but he preferred a more worldly approach to faith, somehow connecting it to football games. So instead of deep, philosophical questions and challenges from the pulpit we now got football scores and statistics from the weekend’s slew of games. Perhaps there was something to this, I could see that others liked it, but whatever the connection between football and faith, it was lost on me and soon I lost my interest in church.
I stopped attending church in tenth grade and that was the year I discovered the writer Hermann Hesse. I devoured his books: Narcissus and Goldmund, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game. He described the worlds that I sensed existing someplace; the inner turmoil of a life lived in the world in contrast to the life lived for God, the individual’s determined effort, exertion and sacrifice on the path to enlightenment, and the refined, sublime world on a hill, Castalia, where men could pursue intellectual pursuits unabated, apart from the mundanity of the world, but for the world’s benefit.
I began thinking about monasticism and monks. Why didn’t my church tradition have monks? I didn’t know anything at the time about church history, the great schism, the protestant reformation, so I had no knowledge of the context that my form of Christianity was born from, and the misunderstandings or even open hostility it had towards monasticism. To me it just seemed like such a great idea; to dedicate one’s life to God living out the struggle like Jesus did in the desert, or following the example of John the Baptist as he lived, ascetically, eating locusts and honey, or as Paul described when he talked about the two ways of living; married in the world, or single in order to dedicate oneself wholly to Christ. It didn’t make any sense to me why we wouldn’t avail ourselves of this noble path and all that it could offer, and I began to idealize this way of life. I wrote short homages on the walls of my bedroom extolling the virtue of celibacy and began to pray every night. I made a small altar in my room and I formed the habit before bed of praying in this way: I lit a candle and I wrote on a small slip of paper something to focus on in my prayer—perhaps a virtue one night, an intercession for someone another night, and I would put this slip in a little metal box which I stored under my altar and then I would sit on the floor with my legs crossed and gaze at the candle and contemplate whatever it was I had written.
I also felt inspired to try some ascetic disciplines, inspired by Siddhartha from Hesse’s book of the same name, I attempted to stand all night downstairs in our family room. I think the character in the book did it as an act of defiance against his parents, which I’m ashamed to say I also found agreeable and inspiring. I don’t remember if the character in the book also tried to stand through the night on one leg or if that was my own innovation, but in either case I was emulating that character, or in my pride, trying to outdo him. I attempted my first all-night vigil in this way, standing on one leg in the dark in the middle of our family room. I did not make it very long and soon found my way back up into my bed.
This ascetic failure gave me a healthier respect for Siddhartha and it humbled me a little bit. But I had at some point in my young life grabbed with both hands from the tree of pride, and unfortunately I wasn’t humbled for long. I still recall reading at some point from some spiritual elder of some faith, how, in his opinion, it wasn’t a good idea for people to pursue advanced spiritual disciplines at too early an age, but instead this should be left for later in life, not earlier than middle age. In my youthful exuberance (stupidity) I didn’t take this as an admonition or a caution but instead as a challenge. I was determined to be the youngest person ever to find enlightenment and show this old codger how it’s done. It is with some amusement that I write this now, at the age of forty-eight, being now the old codger I sought then to teach a lesson, also with gratefulness that my youthful haste didn’t leave me with any lasting damage, but also it leaves me a little sad that I was so arrogant then, and also so alone and without good guidance.
Spiritually I was very alone throughout adolescence. On occasion I went to the church I grew up attending, but they weren’t serious; they only wanted us to play games and essentially waste time. There were no real answers there for me. My mom was very loving and had a strong faith and was very encouraging to me, but she wasn’t able to guide me; we were in many ways living in different worlds. My dad had moved out years ago when my parents divorced while I was in seventh grade, and while he also was a very loving parent, and had good advice when it came to the things of this world, he didn’t understand spiritual things, matters of faith, and we were likewise distant in these essential things.
So, the following year, when I was in eleventh grade, I was thirsty for some kind of spiritual guidance. I was surprised to find it from my honors biology teacher. He enjoyed talking with students after class and at some point he learned that I enjoyed Hermann Hesse, and because of this, he thought I might enjoy something in a similar vein, so he recommended that I read The Bhagavad-Gita, a classic and pillar of the Hindu religious canon. So I bought a copy and it became my new bible for several years. Among other things it describes the battlefield of the inner spiritual war that we face; our battle between virtue and vice. I found this very appealing and studied it nightly, adding it as part of my prayer discipline.
This same year I found further spiritual direction from another seemingly unlikely place, the high school drama department. For me, this was the place to put spiritual theory into practice; it was an experimental lab for the inner person, a place where the primary question asked over and over again is: ‘what is your motivation?’, and a place to explore authentically our feelings and come to understand ourselves better, and also to transform ourselves. Though not at all overtly religious, I found that it was a facsimile of it, in that it sought truth by asking sincere questions about our inner drives, motivations and desires, and though it didn’t have as its goal the transformation of the soul, I found that I could use it for this purpose within me. I could practice transforming vices into virtues, I could practice watching my inner thoughts and bringing these supposedly hidden things out to the surface where they could be of benefit to me, or be transformed by me, and I could, over time, become a more empathetic person, coming to a better understanding of others by accessing the root causes of their moral and ethical strengths and weaknesses, by way of the struggle and practice of discovering and acting out my own. My ego loved the attention of the stage, but more importantly my soul loved the inner exploration encouraged during rehearsal, and this is what kept me coming back to acting and the theater for many years.
This was also the year my nascent promiscuity came into full bloom. I can’t blame the theater for my own inner proclivities, but it was an environment that encouraged creativity in many forms, and didn’t discourage many at the same time. On this topic, my first friend in this way told me, ‘once you’ve tried it you will only want more, and there is no turning back’. It sounded so foreboding when she said it, and while I disagree with her conclusions, I have to say she wasn’t lying that it would be a difficult struggle for me from that time forward. So much for my homage to celibacy which I had written so brightly on my bedroom wall only a couple years earlier. It was from this time that I began to understand the inner struggles first-hand, although it would take me many years before I could say I gained any ability or power to overcome this, and only then by the grace of God.
We can find and experience oneness in spirit with God. St Paul writes about this in First Corinthians. This is the goal, the teleology of our entire life here on earth in preparation for the next life. But nobody told me about this back then. I had heard the phrase, ‘you have a friend in Jesus’, or that ‘Jesus is my best friend’, things like that, but to me, then, they were just words without meaning. I didn’t know anyone that understood how to have a real relationship with God, a meaningful one, one that actually could fill the emptiness, the loneliness that I felt in my soul. So I looked for oneness in a more tangible, bodily way; a way that made sense to me, which I could understand and actually feel erase the loneliness within me, at least briefly.
God knows how strong the desire for love, and for oneness is within us. He placed it there, so I believe this is also why He says, again through St Paul, to flee sexual immorality. Because if we don’t flee from it as quickly as we can, if we linger with it even for a short time, we come to believe that it is right and natural because, of course it is based on our natural inherent desire, and very soon we can be overcome and make it our natural course of life, our habit, and ultimately it will draw us further away from God. This is certainly what I did, and over the course of my late teens and early twenties, while on the surface I sought for a relationship with God, actually in my depths I sunk deeper and deeper into depravity, further and further from God, without even recognizing it.
The summer between my junior and senior years of high school I travelled to South Africa. It was 1986 and the unrest in that country due to apartheid and the growing resistance to those policies was at a boiling point. I had recently discovered that Mahatma Gandhi was an ardent reader of The Bhagavad Gita, which I also loved, and he had spent part of his life in South Africa. I had a deepening sense of meaninglessness over my own life at this time, and I decided to try to assuage this emptiness within me through an adventure. Somehow the connection I felt to Gandhi, and the excitement of the unrest drew me to South Africa. I wanted to experience this for myself and see it with my own eyes.
The trip did not disappoint. I visited Soweto with a black police officer I met. He also escorted me through the dark underbelly of Johannesberg one night and kept me close so I wouldn’t be hurt. I swam by moonlight in the Indian Ocean, kicked soccer balls around with kids in Kwa Zulu, visited Lesotho and just generally had an amazing time. But when I returned home, and to my senior year in school, I was overcome with boredom; and the feeling of meaninglessness that the trip was intended to repair was only exacerbated by it. I wanted to travel, I wanted to be anywhere but in school and my grades showed it. I had been a very good student up until that time but I barely attended classes my senior year and by the end I only managed to graduate by the good graces of the school administration whom I had ingratiated myself to using charm, persuasion and some luck.
I have always believed that God is my help, even when I haven’t been aware of Him, and He has always given me a lifeline, so to speak, to get through even the most difficult times. And so it was, in my senior year; though I struggled with boredom and meaninglessness, I had the good fortune to audition and join the school Chamber Singers group. For me this was heaven on earth, because we sang the most beautiful music, practicing every morning at 7am for an hour before school started. This was my reason for getting up in the morning. I still remember many of the hymns and madrigals that we sang that year, but the one that has stayed with me most strongly over the years, and which soothed me then and gave me hope in that dark time, was the hymn, “Ubi Caritas”. Here are the lyrics, good to read at any stage in life:
Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ’s love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
And may we with the saints also,
See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
The joy that is immense and good,
Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.
I first set foot into an Orthodox Church later that year after I decided to make a survey of some alternatives to the church of my youth. I was struck by the beauty of the golden onion domes on the exterior of the building and it was this that drew me in for the service; and once inside I was awed by the iconography and the quality of light as it penetrated through the windows above. The service was in Russian so I didn’t understand anything, but I remember being very impressed with the beauty of the liturgy. As a complete contrast to this I also attended meetings with the Quakers. Here there was a complete absence of anything I could recognize as a church; they met in a community hall and sat on chairs in a large circle. I appreciated the stillness and silence of their gathering but after a few visits I could see that the group was dominated by a few very vocal individuals, and the topics of their monologues veered from politics to all variations of strange things having nothing to do with God. I also visited a Mormon temple since I had several Mormon friends in school and all of them were incredibly sweet and kind and I very much enjoyed them; and their parents were also always very thoughtful and loving to me. The service was fine, I don’t remember a lot about it actually, but I didn’t feel as if I was drawn in any way towards that faith. I did out of respect take a copy of the Book of Mormon, at their request, and leafed through it for several weeks to gain a general overview and understanding of where they were coming from.
That summer, after graduating from high school, a friend and I began regularly attending the early morning meditation at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. The location was beautiful, near the summit of a nearby mountain, surrounded by large oak trees and grassy slopes. The meditation center was large and spacious and filled with light, and doors which opened out onto a large deck in the midst of the oaks. We would begin with about an hour of sitting meditation and then there was optional walking meditation out on the deck and then an opportunity to share some soup with the resident monks. I looked forward to this morning routine and liked learning words like ‘zazen’, which is the practice of letting judgmental thoughts pass through the mind without engaging them, and ‘zafu’, which is the firm little round cushions we sat on during meditation. I also came to enjoy the resonant and hollow sound of the bell, which announced the beginning and ending of the meditation sessions. Over time I discovered that while I enjoyed so many of the aesthetic aspects of this place and also appreciated developing skills in observing my thoughts and letting them go, I didn’t find answers to my loneliness or the emptiness I felt inside, and so, I eventually stopped visiting the Zen monks, but was grateful to them for what they had taught me.
To Be Continued…