The Inner Path To Christ 10

How do we enter on the Way?

There are steps or stages in the discipline of discipleship. The very first of these steps apart from christening, is what might be called The Turning Point. It arises from an unmistakable awareness that something is missing from your life; or it comes because of a feeling arising from an inner sense of emptiness or isolation. You may feel cut off from something you know you should be a part of. Sometimes it arises because you are faced by a great tragedy, a loss or illness confronting you with death.

In terms of the Christian story, this first step can be symbolised by the experience of Mary’s mother Anna.  A description of Mary’s parents is not given in the New Testament as it stands but is found in the Apocryphal New Testament (Apocryphal New Testament. Protevangelion. Hone edition).  There we find the following description:

There was in Israel a man and wife known as Joachim and Anna. Although elderly, wealthy, and giving of their wealth to the Temple, they became ashamed, for they had no child. Therefore, with his unhappiness upon him, ‘Joachim retired into the wilderness, and fixed his tent there, and fasted forty days and forty nights, saying to himself, “I will not go down either to eat or drink, till the Lord my God shall look down upon me, but prayer shall be my meat and drink.” In the meantime his wife Anna was distressed and perplexed twofold, and said, “I will mourn, both for my widowhood and my barrenness”.’

When Joachim had been in the wilderness some time, ‘on a certain day when he was alone, the angel of the Lord stood by him with a prodigious light’ and said, “When God shuts the womb of any person, he does it for this reason, that he may in a more wonderful manner open it again, and that which is born appears to be not the product of lust, but the gift of God. Therefore, Anna your wife shall bring you a daughter, and you shall call her name Mary.” Afterwards the angel appeared to Anna his wife saying, “Fear not, neither think that which you see is a spirit: For I am that angel who hath offered up your prayers and alms before God, and am now sent to you, that I may inform, that a daughter will be born unto you, who shall be called Mary, and shall be blessed above all women.”

This story is not being presented as history, but as a parable describing the barrenness you may feel in your life, and the longing and searching that may lead to that first touch, that first encounter with something beyond yourself. This first meeting, this first brush with something living that is beyond the narrow confines of your own personality, may be very small, or very deeply felt.  But as with the story of Joachim and Anna, usually there comes with it an assurance, a sense of meeting something good, something More.  Victor Gollancz describes his own first encounter as follows:

For an hour past I have been the prey of a vague anxiety; I recognise my old enemy – – – It is a sense of void and anguish; a sense of something lacking: what? Love, peace, God perhaps? The essence of my hell was outlawry. By the sin which, as I felt, I had committed, I had broken the links that united me with universal living: I was separate, alone, without lot or part in the everything. I had deprived myself, treacherously, of it: I had deprived it, quite as treacherously, of me.

One forenoon, when my terror and despair seemed to be at their height, and after a total insomnia that had lasted for twenty-two days, and every muscle and nerve ached, I set out for a walk with my wife. We went very slowly along a country lane… About half an hour later we turned, sharply left, into a dark and narrow path that descended: and soon came out into a great open space – a sort of water meadow, with herds grazing, and a high inland cliff just in front of us. There was dappled sunlight everywhere, and a slight breeze. I felt suddenly very still: and then I heard the inland cliff, and the grass and water and sky, say very distinctly to me, ‘A humble and a contrite heart He will not despise.’ When I say I heard them say it, I mean, quite literally, that I heard them say it; a voice came from them: but they were also themselves the voice, and the voice was also within me. I said to my wife ‘The trouble is over’, and that night I slept a little. (Quoted from Darkness to Light, ed. by Victor Gollancz. Published by Gollancz).

This contact, this meeting, comes to us because there has been an inner shift, an inner change of heart.  It is a change from believing there is nothing but your own will, your own opinions, your own power, to that of perhaps uncertainty, or towards an opening, a longing.  If this change has not happened in your life and you wish to practise discipleship, then you need to cultivate the change.  Consider whether your inner condition is one that shuts out the possibility of the human spirit and love. To take the first step, take time each day meditating upon this change of heart. See if you can feel or create this within you.

Some thoughts to ponder that might help this inner shift are as follows.

  • Ask yourself what power you have in the world, and how much control you have over your life. For instance, you may be able to decide many of the things you do, but can you make your heart beat and digest your food? What actual independence do you have, considering that you need others to make your clothes, grow your food, build the house you live in, and so on?
  • Do you actually know who you are and from what you emerged? Giving a name to your parents and grandparents is not an answer.
  • Whatever attitude you have to the process of life in creatures and the universe, does it explain all the phenomena that surrounds you? Are you that wise?
  • Practise recognising that your thoughts and emotions never ever reflect reality. At these times remember that if you think of a person you know, your thoughts or feelings are never ever that person.  Also, what you feel and think about yourself can never ever be anything more than a tiny fragment of information.  That tiny fragment, if taken seriously, gives a totally distorted view.  To understand and to judge who you really are you would need to be completely aware of all the factors in history, and in the lives of your forebears, and in fact in the development of the cosmos, that led to your existence and to your present situation.  Likewise, when you think about events, people, political situations, always realise that you are considering with a tiny fraction of the information you really need to be wise.
  • Therefore, stand with some humility before the fact of your own existence and before the world.  That humility may act as a leader to open your heart and mind to something more than you have experienced so far. 

The second step of Discipleship is the way of Mary

Virgin Mary is an image of your own human situation and represents the possibility of a virginal mind and feelings. Put simply this means that we drop preconceptions, we melt away fixed opinions, rigid attitudes, perhaps through prayer, meditation or perseverance. So, the birth of the Virgin Mary symbolises this change of heart, and the life of Mary shows what can come of it.

The story of Mary beautifully illustrates step.  She is a young girl who has just started menstruation.  She is therefore fertile, open and loving.  How much more we can receive from that mysterious spirit of life that is around us and within us if we have an open and loving heart, a love that has unfolded like a beautiful flower toward the unknown mystery that we have given the name of Life or God?

Evelyn Underhill, writing under the name John Cordelier in her book The Spiral Way, has this to say about Mary:

So many had gone up the mountain to that one desired encounter; only to be thwarted by the cloud that broods upon the summit and hides from human eyes the Shining Light within. The great prophets, poets, and philosophers of the antique world – all these had gone up, all had marked classic moments in the ascent of the race. Then came a little girl, pure, meek, and receptive: and ran easily to her destiny and the destiny of the universe because she was ‘full of grace.’ She held out her heart to the Invisible and in this act flung a bridge across the chasm that separates Illusion from Reality. Mary becomes by this circumstance the type and pattern of each human soul. Consciously or unconsciously, all are candidates for her high office. All, truly can become the mothers of God. (Published by Watkins – See http://www.evelynunderhill.org ).

The life of prayer is often spoken of as part of the Christian path.  But prayer can so easily be the mechanical mouthing of certain words, repeated over and over. We may make the movements of our mouth, we may repeat the words, but do we really experience them – do we make them an outflow of a real inner feeling? The great saints of East and West have gone beyond words and ego-directed movements, to the real changing of self. Some of the changes they made within themselves are almost universal.  This is true of the Prayer of the Virgin Soul.

Here is a person’s experience as they begin to take that path:

‘I was in a huge cathedral, the mother church. I wanted to go to the toilet/gents. As I held my penis to urinate it became a snake and it reached down to the urinal to drink. It was thirsty. I struggled with it, pulling it away from the unclean liquid. Still holding it I walked to a basin and gave it pure water to drink.’

It is not just his penis he is struggling with, it is the direction his sexual urges take him that he is struggling with. Out of his sense of love and connection with Life – the cathedral – he wants to lift his drive toward something that will not leave him with a sense of uncleanness. In this sense it might be something one wrestled with, depicting the wrestle one has with one’s inner drives and hungers, especially sexuality or anger.

He felt that the Mother Church was his human experience of meeting the divine principle within him, free from all dogmatism or sectarianism, free of all groups, and is something new for each person. It is the source, when met, of all religions, for it is the source of ourselves.

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