Each day I walk from here to there, and back again; and as I go, I walk through meadows overgrown with thistles, or nettles, or some-such prickly things, and pass by walls covered with masses of thorny vines, which also hang in abundance from the trees, and reach down as if grabbing for me, yearning to hold me in their arms, as I walk beneath them. Wild little creatures populate their foliage, dropping things, or throwing them at me, as they scurry about in the half-dark, amidst thickets of the scrubby, twiggy trees which are ubiquitous here, and hide the sun, I imagine, somewhere up above.
Occasionally I stumble on one of these cast-offs thrown into my path. Now and then, falling to the ground, I let out a curse, before I’m quite able to stop myself. I’ve even gotten myself stuck in the mud, stumbling over these things, as I make my journey here and there.
But the strangest thing began to happen a while back, and this is what I’d like to share with you. It began, I think, when I read somewhere in the Bible, probably Galatians, that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and I decided that I wanted these things. I considered for some time how I might get them, when it occurred to me that first I needed to make some room for them.
I already had fruits of a worse spirit within me, things such as anger and lust, self-righteousness and criticism; things which clogged me up so to speak, and backed me up, so that there was no space inside for the better fruits. What I really needed was a spiritual enema, if you will pardon the expression, and so I prayed for this, as I made my resolution to stop feeding myself these bitter fruits, which had given me so much internal strife and discomfort.
Thankfully, with God’s help, I began the long process of starving the bad fruits within me, in hopes they would shrivel and fall off the vine, and make room for the better ones.
One day, as I walked, it happened that I saw a beautiful woman. This in itself should not be a problem, but sometimes my thoughts wander at times like these, in ways that aren’t right, and sometimes I follow these thoughts. In fact, this is exactly how I’ve gotten myself stuck in the past, as I crane my neck to look at her, for a moment too long, and lose my way, and fall into a sticky, sickly-sweet slime. This particular day however, I didn’t follow these thoughts, but let them go on alone. I suppose they ended up, these thoughts, neck deep in the mud, but who cares. Instead, I directed my attention to God Himself, and I focused my thoughts, and my rising desire away from her, and towards Him. As I did this, the muddy, murky, slimy puddle I had begun to thrust myself into, transformed into a clear and sun-drenched pond, with waters still and sublime. What a refreshing change, let me tell you; and I felt no shame wading into these waters, believe me.
I’ve also had the habit of carrying around with me a bad attitude consisting of criticism of things, people, life, existence itself; and to this I’ve added a large measure of irritation and frustration which I have dispersed freely in all directions, without control. Almost gleefully, sometimes, I’ve spread these seeds, like a demented ‘Johnny Appleseed’ throwing criticism to the wind by the handful, and tossing complaints in every direction. What is surprising however, is the way that these seeds have taken root, and grown up into large thickets of ugliness, casting shadows over my world, and thrusting all that I see into a dim and ghastly pallor. Yet, when first I stopped my tongue, and shut my mouth, behold, the world grew a little brighter.
Then, as I resisted these ticklish thoughts, and when I turned away from the giddiness that wraps these rancorous candies—replacing them with gratitude and humility instead, with words and thoughts of thankfulness—the ubiquitous, sorrowful forests came alive within me with a renewed vigor, and my world brightened tremendously. Light filtered down through the canopy of my previously twisted forest, and touched me with a softer warmth which filled me. And I must tell you, this helped me find my way.
In the rising light I found it much easier to avoid the projectiles and traps thrust into my path by those myriad strange little creatures overhead. In fact, many of them must be night creatures I surmised, because there were far fewer now above me, in the gathering light.
There are times, far too many really, when the thorny vines that reach out to grab me, as I walk about, find me an easy prey. So as I lash out at others in anger, I find myself encircled and constricted by their seductive, deadly grasp. They hug me and hold me close, at times like these, with the love of an asp, and with the tenacity of a boa. I can feel the blood rise into my face and my chest tighten and my pulse increase; and as I strain in my aggression, I can feel these vines tightening, attempting to strangle the life out of me.
But recently I discovered a better use for my anger, perhaps the only really good use for it that exists. I decided to divert it away from the people in my life and instead, turn it exclusively upon myself, or rather entirely upon those bad fruits within me that I was mentioning earlier to you. I gave them no rest, but in my anger I harassed them, and attacked them, and drove them out. And the results were threefold: first, there was no lingering aftertaste of shame from my angry activities, whereas before, whenever I directed my anger outward towards others, I invariably, and inevitably felt remorse afterwards, but in this case I felt an empowerment, and a nobility, rise up within me after driving away these little monsters within; and second, my anger acted like a machete or a potent herbicide which made those thorny vines retreat, and in their absence I felt a wave of peace, and I could breathe again; and third, these vines began to bloom.
They bloomed tremendously and with a fragrance sweet and joyful. For long periods I would just stand beneath these flower-laden vines, where they twined amongst the trees, and I would lift my head and inhale deeply to smell their floral sweetness; and where they rambled across the little walls, beneath the sun-drenched sky, I would bend over and bury my face deep within their jasmine and honeysuckle beauty, and forget all trace of irritation.
By now, I was enjoying going here and there much more than I had before, because my world was becoming more beautiful than it had been before. But there was still the problem of the nettles everywhere I went. These prickly things hedged me in on every side and limited my freedom and mobility. How to get rid of them?
One day—as I gingerly picked my way around them, taking great care not to disturb them, so as not to get stung—I was startled by a sudden, loud sound of applause. Actually, it was only thunder, as the clouds were rolling in, but to my foolish heart I imagined it as applause. I turned to my left, and to my right, in search of my admirers, and in my delirium I imagined the sea of nettles around me were crowds of people, watching me in rapt attention, waiting breathlessly to experience what monumental thing I might say, or do next. Oh, how glorious I was, standing there above my people, the prince of the thistles, the star among the weeds. And as I felt the familiar rush of that deceptive fame rising within me, I felt dizzy with anticipation, hoping that I might be important, and in this ridiculous reverie I fainted, and fell upon my face.
When I awoke, a moment later, my body was stinging all over, and my eyes were watering, I assume from having landed in a patch of nettles. I rubbed my eyes to stop the flow of tears, but couldn’t. I tried to lift myself back onto my feet, but felt so weary. Instead, I lay there beneath the nettles and gave up. I needed a break, although whether I needed it or not, I had lost the will to continue picking my way around these obnoxious weeds.
I glanced around at the world beneath the nettles, as I continued lying on the ground. This world was dust, and emptiness, as a result of the weed cover above, which had choked out most other vegetation underneath. Even so, I saw a small flower here, and a patch of grass there, and these gave me hope. As I spent more time here, so close to the dirt, I grew more comfortable with my surroundings, and became grateful for the simplicity of this humble world. Upon closer inspection it wasn’t so empty after all; in fact, it was teeming with life—little mosses growing in the shadow of rocks, seeds of this and that beginning to push up through the soil, ants doing what ants do—so much life, all interconnected and beautiful, working together so naturally.
I considered how fortunate I was to have been brought down to this place, brought into intimacy with creation, and shown a different perspective. I looked up at the sky above me, at the sunlight filtering down through the nettles, and felt relief, because it was far less troublesome for me now, as I began looking up at the world around me, rather than looking down at it, as I had become accustomed to doing.
Eventually, I returned to my feet, but resolved to remember the lesson of laying in the nettles. Since that time, when I am tempted to think of myself too highly, or of others too lowly, I remember the humility of the world I met beneath the weeds, and this motivates me to resist playing along with my delusions.
As I continued to resist pride, and vanity, and all of the other prickly things which alienate me from the world, the masses of nettles which had previously hedged me in, began to dry up and wilt away; and in time, the meadows opened up to me, released from the tyranny of the thistles. I ran freely across large open spaces, filled with grasses and wildflowers; and I began walking more intimately with others, without the fear of stinging them, or of being stung by them.
Today, as I walked here and there, I stopped for a while to rest beside a pond. Its clear waters revealed their depths to me, and in its glassy reflection, I saw the clouds passing overhead. Sunshine filled this place, and only the passing hours changed the intensity and color of the light. As the sun descended in the sky, the light around me turned from brilliant to golden, and warmed the trees across the pond—a muted incandescent.
My thoughts had wandered to things from my past as I sat here, and as I pondered these things, I suddenly awoke to the realization that these thoughts were clouding my vision of the present. Quite literally, these musings about the past were acting like a thin veil over my eyes, or putting it another way, they gave the air around me an unnatural heaviness, as if it were a little too thick. When I put away these thoughts of the past, and simply experienced the current moment—witnessing the golden light as it reflected upon the tree trunk in front of me—it was as if suddenly a layer were removed within the air, so that it became clearer, and the world around me appeared closer, and more intimate to my senses. This startled me, but I enjoyed it—the vibrant clarity of the present moment.
Soon after this, my mind began wandering again, this time to plans I was making for the future. The excitement and anticipation of coming events gave me a little thrill, which I reveled in for a moment, until I suddenly awoke again to the realization that these thoughts as well, were obscuring my vision of the present, and diminishing my perception of the beauty of the world around me. My thought life had a real and ontological effect on my physical vision, and diminished my experience of the world. I experimented with this phenomena several times, purposefully thinking about the past; and observed, as the nearly imperceptible veil returned to cloud my sight. Then, as I put these thoughts of the past out of my mind, I could see the veil lift again.
Now that the twin veils of past and future thoughts had been removed, I experienced the world around me with greater clarity, and as I watched the sunlight moving gently through the trees, I understood that God is present. But soon thereafter, as the mind is prone to do, thoughts of other times, and places, crept back in unnoticed, and clouded my vision of the beautiful. I felt these thoughts carry me out of the moment, out of my true life once again, and I followed them, seduced and enthralled by their promises.
Such is the back and forth journey of the spiritual life, but may God’s grace guide and awaken us. The Beautiful is available to all. May we discover it, as we journey from here to there; and may we dwell therein, eternally.