ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.
Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.
Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)
You’re still here! Either you want to find a way to embody the Tao, the collected and shared teachings that are the birthright of all humans who claim them, or you’re reading along to see how this trainwreck ends. That’s ok. You’re here and I’m going to keep talking.
The Tao seems attractive: it’s been called all sorts of things by different philosophers and traditions. The Wiki offers, “The Perennial philosophy (Latin: philosophia perennis), also referred to as perennialism and perennial wisdom, is a perspective in spirituality that views all of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown.” And, I’m sure that some readers may have assumed I was going there. I’ve avoided that phrase on purpose.
I prefer the Tao (道) because, as I mentioned, C.S. Lewis uses that term. Of course he is also stealing it from another tradition but, personally, I find Taoism a very attractive way to walk. By coincidence, “Tao” also means “way” so it all fits together somehow. It also avoids all the metaphysical and occult shenanigans of philosophia perennis by already being attached to a specific meaning. If you think I’m offering a form of that, you will assume I mean “the perennial tradition,” alone, is enough. I do not mean that at all.
Perennialism is close… but not close enough. So, to convey the idea of “Perennialism plus the rest of whatever it is” I’m going to stick with Lewis’ Tao.
Robert Heinlein has his characters say in Stranger in a Strange Land, “Humility is endless. I am only an egg.” It is said that that book was written to invent a religion: it succeeded. The Church of All Worlds is still around. He stopped short, missing the mark by assuming humans would follow literally anyone: including a fictional messiah from Mars. Since his messiah is fictional it’s actually Heinlein. Heinlein grasped Perennialism, but he missed the Tao. He’s right though, as far as he goes: humility is endless. Oddly, he missed the mark exactly here, at humility. If you want to follow the Tao, you have to humble yourself and follow someone else. Why? Because this path has been walked before therefore you will be behind someone. It’s best to be aware of that. There’s no way to lead on this path: you can follow. Following is not a bad thing – and humility is what is needed to learn. We do not have the chance, chronologically, to lead unless you want to assume (as many do) that literally everyone who has come before was wrong. That’s not Tao: that’s chronological arrogance; the assumption that the new, the now, the modern, the current is right because we “know more”. Tao says no to that. It’s the democracy of the past: there are literally millions and millions of folks, living and dead, who disagree with you. That should make you humble, not arrogant.
So who do you follow? Yes, different living and dead folks will have different answers here. Still, Bob Dylan says, “You gotta serve somebody.” Who does the Grail serve? What does that mean to you? I can’t answer this for you and I can’t show you the way beyond this point. All I can do is tell you how I got here.
Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, has often appealed to me. Before he wrote one of the foundational texts of Chinese teaching, he was court official. One day he was done. He abandoned court life and fame and was riding off into the wilderness to be alone. A gatekeeper realized the wisdom of this and asked the old man to write down what he had learned. That’s where the Tao te Ching came from. When I got to college and read the book “officially” for a class, the professor rattled off a list of passages that he was sure we had all underlined. Gosh, was I embarrassed because he was right. My “profound sense of wisdom” in these texts was that of any other 19-year-old fanboy. Still, there was something here. I held on to this text until about 5 years ago, really. It sat on a shelf with a lot of texts I considered “scripture”.
The same class also walked us through the basics of Hinduism and Buddhism. I have a profound respect for all three traditions. They are the aboriginal wisdom of half of the humans of the world and long before the West learned that Jupiter, Ammon, and Zeus were all the same (along with Alexander), this unified culture was growing and fecund. Yet I found no appeal in the Buddha and the Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains are all ethic groups long before they are religions (as the West understands things). You cannot convert to Jainism: you have to be born into it. Taoism pulled me along though. The idea that water flows down because of its nature, that it’s intended to do so, and in doing so it destroys rocks and carves canyons: this appealed to me. What’s my nature?
Long before this though, of course, I was raised in a Christian house among other such houses. I heard an evangelist preach hellfire on the radio when I was six and it scared me. Sometime in 1970 I prayed what is called “The Sinner’s Prayer” and “accepted Jesus into my heart”. This was the first of many such events when I was moved by my emotions to do something religious. Thing is, these things never stuck. If you were to check in with me a week, maybe two later – in 197o or 1992 – you’d have found that the emotional event made no change in my life. It felt good, though, to be terribly scared, and then “saved” or to cry brutally over my lost soul. My full-immersion water baptism in the Southern Baptist Church was very moving, very brief, very meaningless. I had to redo it when I became Methodist later because it wasn’t in the name of the Holy Trinity.
And that sentence should clue you into something important: all of this was rootless. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. At 55, I’ve have not yet managed to stay at one mailing address for four successive Christmases. We would move to a new house and the three of us kids would go to the closest church. Whatever church was closest was good enough: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian. I think Mom took us to a Catholic Church once. In the post-council Chaos of 1969/70/71, all I can remember is when I talked to the minister after the children’s service, Mom was horrified that I had done so. I remember being dismissed from the adult service and then there was a room where guitars and people wearing masks sang songs about the Gospel. Anyway… this rootlessness rubbed off on me. It’s dictated my spiritual path.
What religions have I not tried? my friend Steve asked. That list is very short. I’ve walked through several forms of Christianity, looked at Judaism, thought about Sufism, dipped deeply into the New Age, Pagan reconstructionism, Feminist Wicca, ritual magic, Gnosticism, Theosophy, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, it goes on. I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed or traumatized.
When I discovered sex this story gets interesting for what I experienced as my rootlessness suddenly became a quest for connection and a continual string of emotional events, sexual contacts, that left me unchanged – and yet changed me greatly. The further into this world I went the more selfish I became – mostly, I was convinced, for my own protection. Truth be told, after a while selfish just was fun. Sex is not supposed to be selfish: there’s a whole book on this, but let’s take it as part of the process here. Eventually, I learned that sex that is not about self-gift is not a good thing. The self-gift has to be total, entire, and unreserved. Our bodies are built for this self-sacrifice: even the circuits of our brain are set up to trigger and auto-program from the intense hormonal release.
Our souls and bodies aside though, we are fallen. We need only look around for deep understanding that simply wanting to do something is not a reason for doing it. The newspapers and social mediae are littered with horrifying stories that begin, essentially, with “Because I wanted to do this…” Anyone who has paid attention to the world for the last few centuries (if not millennia) knows that “because I wanted to” is one sure sign that something is wrong.
So although “I wanted to” was driving quite the party in my life, it was not making me happy. I don’t mean I wasn’t having fun: I was. I mean I was not happy. I was not able to wake up every day and say I’m happy being me, I’m honored fully by the choices I’ve made, and I’m going to keep going. Most days I woke up and wondered, “What should I change to get happy?” And I’d make a change: move 3,000 miles, switch lovers or jobs, spend hundreds of dollars on a credit card, try a new religion. Sometimes all at once as moving across the country is very liberating and expensive. I’ve done that 7 times since 1984. Change was not fixing things. And somehow, all the changes still left me with me: like one of those essays about how everyone is “unique” but we’re all the same. Every time I changed, I was just more like me. And being like me was getting to be more and more something I didn’t like.
At the same time this was happening (from 1983-2016) another thing was happening. As my focus was getting more and more narrow, as my selfishness was becoming more of my raison d’etre. The Tao was claiming more and more of my heart. Even though I ran away in 2016 to a monastery I was there for selfish reasons: I was there out of fear and self-preservation.
Coming out of the monastery was the first real crack in my habit. How’s that for a pun? This post has gone on long enough. Next one coming later.