Life is a School of the Spirit
I've just finished reading a remarkable book by Stephen Lawhead, Byzantium, which relates the life of a young Irish monk. Aidan is one of a small band of monks chosen to accompany a magnificent hand-painted manuscript--what we now know as the Book of Kells--to the farthest reaches of the known world: the glittering city of Byzantium. There the gift will be presented to the Holy Roman Emperor, who they hope will then be predisposed to hear of the difficulties facing the Irish church.
But before reaching landfall in Brittany, the monks' small boat is set upon by Viking raiders who capture Aidan and take him into slavery in their northern homeland. And the Book? It survives, just about, but many more adventures come about before Aidan is finally able to fulfill his quest. Alongside the savage brutality of slavery under several masters and accompanying close escapes, we see betrayal, courage, friendship and deceit. But primarily this novel presents lessons about faith and the tests life plants in its way.
Near the end of the book, Aidan returns to his monastery in Ireland. Here he recounts a conversation with his spiritual mentor Ruadh...
“Oh, aye, it is a school,” I agreed, feeling the throbbing ache of futility. “It is a terrible school wherein we learn harsh and bitter lessons. We begin by trusting, and learn there is no one worthy of our trust. We learn that we are alone in the world, and our cries go unheeded. We learn that death is the only certainty. Yes, we all die; most in agony and torment, some in misery, and the fortunate few in peace, but we all die. Death is God’s answer to all our prayers.”
“Do not blaspheme, Aidan,” cautioned Ruadh sternly.
“Blaspheme!” I challenged angrily. “Why, I speak the very heart of God’s own truth, brother. How is that blasphemy? We put our trust in the Lord God, and were proved fools for believing. We endured slavery and torture and death, and God lifted not a finger to save us. I saw my own Bishop Cadoc hacked to pieces before my eyes and God - the God he loved and served all his days - did not so much as lift a finger to ease his suffering.”
Ruadh regarded me severely, his brow creased in disapproval. “As He did nothing when His beloved son died on the cross,” he pointed out. “We are closest to Christ when sharing the world’s misery. Think you Jesu came to remove our pains? Wherever did you get that notion? The Lord came, not to remove our suffering, but to show the way through it to the glory beyond. We can overcome our travails. That is the promise of the cross.”
“A promise worth as much as the empty air,” I said. “Thirteen monks left this abbey, and only four returned. We paid a fearful price - and all for nothing! All our torment accounted for nothing, and accomplished no purpose. No good came of it. The fortunate ones, that I can see, are the barbarians: they went out for plunder and came back wealthier than they could have imagined. At least they got what they wanted.”
Ruadh was silent for a time. “Aidan, have you lost your faith?” he asked at last.
Aidan had indeed lost his faith, because he had been instructed all his life that God was a personage, the one Creator who rules and controls all people and all events. The only evidence for this was faith, and for Aidan it had not been enough. God had not interceded to prevent his suffering. However, it is not what God can do or has done for us, but what we can do for God. For we are God; God resides within each of us, in our Higher Self.
We have no need to pray for God to magically grant us what we wish, but we do better to pray giving thanks for all that we can be grateful for. Thanks for being alive, to experience and learn from the world, to have the freedom to make mistakes, to be free to act as we will and to receive the consequences of our actions and non-actions. Instead of being puppets, we are able to create a better world; indeed, to express our divinity.
To determine our path, we do well to surrender a choice governed by fear or attachment for the inner knowing of our Higher Self, expressed through our heart - what Krishnamurti calls “choiceless awareness.” We need only ask: “Is this guided by love?” That always points to the true path ahead.
So what remains of worship? I think propitiation plays no part since that lacks respect for the divinity within. Devotion is a better concept; sincere respect for the creative intelligence and wondrous beauty of the Universe of which we are a part. Since God IS all that is, we each are an aspect of divinity that is here to experience Creation. It is the Game of Life, with all of its cruelty, tragedy, heroism and glory. Realizing our freedom and the part we have to play - and its divinity - that is “the glory beyond” as Ruadh pointed out, but here and now.
A personal God who interceded in the Game of Life, breaking its rules, would destroy it. A game requires freedoms, barriers, purposes, unknowns; that is the way of things. Fortunately manipulation is not God’s purpose and thankfully, we are free to create of our lives what we will.
God can be conceived in multiple, equally valid ways - a personal presense; in all and everything, or Creation, if you will; and at the core of each and every one of us... “light that is one though the lamps be many.” So our experience is God’s. When things go wrong, God suffers with us. When things go right, God celebrates alongside us. At all times, God is Love and is in our hearts.
Aidan finally understood this and got his faith back. He went on to build four great churches in Scandinavia, to serve and lead the Vikings who had at first enslaved him and amongst whom he had later found true brotherhood. Saint Aidans’s tomb can be found in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople.