There is purported to be a Chinese curse (No Chinese source has yet been found, however.) that masks as a blessing: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, we certainly do live in interesting times! We are facing the first worldwide pandemic in one hundred years. The global economy has been seriously shaken thrice in the last two decades. Most everyone reading these words clearly remembers the events of 9/11 and the wars that followed. Advances in science and technology are increasing exponentially, as are their detriments. The world faces ecological havoc, the likes of which threaten our very existence. And, for all its blessings and curses, the “internet of things” is knocking on our doorstep (I will be doing a sermon about the onset of A.I. this spring.). The list can be made very long... these are definitely interesting times!
This all reminds me of a teaching story from the Sufi tradition:
“Jesus (upon whom be peace!) saw the world revealed in the form of an ugly old hag.
He asked her how many husbands she had possessed. She replied that they were countless.
He asked whether they had died or been divorced. She said that she had slain them all.
‘I marvel,’ said Jesus, ‘at the fools who see what you have done to others yet still desire you!’”
Now, this could easily turn into an anti-worldly message. That seems to be its trajectory, does it not? But we’re going to peel the worldly onion one layer deeper than that. Rather than push back against the world, with all its vicissitudes, we are going to set this teaching story in the larger context of Jesus’ other teachings. We begin by asking, did Jesus deprecate life in the world? He did not. Quite the contrary!
Jesus saw the world as the abode of the kingdom, per the Gospel of Thomas, “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth,” and the Gospel of Luke, “For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” The problem, said Jesus, was not life on earth. The problem was that “people do not see it [the kingdom of God].” This gets to the crux of Jesus’ ministry. His ministry did not aim, as modern day evangelistic preachers tell us, at delivering people from this miserable world into a perfect, eternal state of heaven. Jesus’ ministry aimed at helping people see that they already inhabit the kingdom; that the kingdom is spread out among them now. Jesus’ was the quintessential spiritual optometrist!
Well, if Jesus taught that the “kingdom of God was spread out upon the earth,” why would he, per the Sufi teaching story, marvel at the fools who see what the world has done to others yet still desire the world? It’s all about desire and identification, those forces that cloud one’s vision like a cataract of the soul.
The earth is the realm of the sacred. And, it is inhabited by us creatures of desire. The spiritual life is the art of knowing the proper limits of desire (we must survive, after all), coupled with the ability to keep one’s eyes (and mind and heart) open to the sacredness in which we are enmeshed. When desire dominates, as it does with those (most) that live for the gratification of desire, the capacity to recognize life’s sacred depth is proportionately compromised (One cannot take in the lilies of the field when one is constantly digging for diamonds.). The result is an over identification with the objects of gratification: money, power, fame, food, sex... whose transitory and fleeting nature ultimately bring suffering (classic Buddhist teaching).
Those who live life for the gratification of desire, who are over identified with the objects of gratification, are ultimately “slain” by the world. That is, their spirits are depleted by the suffering that follows from the pursuit of what is transitory and fleeting; never realizing the sacred depth of life that offers ongoing sustenance and innate joyfulness.
Knowing this, Jesus’ counseled a shift of attention = a turn of the mind (metanoia) = “repentance.” He aimed to reawaken us to the kingdom by calling our attention to different objects, objects that are doorways to the sacred: the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the vineyards and the fields rips for harvest... the nature theme in general. (For those wanting to explore the imagery of nature themes in Jesus’ teaching, the work of Niel Douglass-Klotz regarding Jesus’ words in the original Aramaic is very informative.) Indeed, every phenomenon of nature, from the flowering fields to the running rivers to the floating clouds will, if we are receptive enough to the experience, open a doorway to the sacred.
Once we successfully turn our attention to the sacred and enter therein, our greatest longing is satisfied – our longing to know we belong to the greater reality of which we are, in essence, a part. When this occurs, when that longing is satisfied, desire returns to its proper place in our lives and we are no longer identified with the world’s objects of gratification. It is then that we are able, as Jesus’ counseled, to live in the world but not be of it.
Being in the world but not of it is the reconciliation of Jesus' teaching that “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth” with the simultaneous recognition that the world slays all who marry her. We need not deprecate life in this world, only engage it from our identification with Spirit.
Now, pause and breathe deeply... hear the birds calling to you out your window... respond to that call with your mind and heart... and enter in...