Quick thought exercise. Who is it you think of in your own life that you associate with the word wisdom? Someone who doesn’t get caught up in games of status and recognition. Someone who is able to skillfully navigate emotionally charged interactions. Someone at once grounded, aware, insightful, honest, and humble, possessed of a quiet inner strength with no need to call undue attention to itself.
Call it wisdom. Call it maturity. Call it Christlikeness. If we’re on some form of spiritual path, isn’t this where most of us want to be?
How do we get from where so many of us are to this place of wisdom? We’ve heard the sermons or sang the songs or listened to lectures or read the books, but still, something is off, sometimes painfully so.
Some of us are highly learned and accomplished, but are still addicted, or angry, or quietly resentful, or petty, or depressed, or anxious, or controlling.
Where is this “light yoke” or “life abundant” we keep hearing about?
We seem to keep running into the walls set up by our egos that keep us hemmed in. Where is healing to be found? How do we get to this place of wisdom?
Some of us are able to avoid even thinking about these questions until some sort of crisis breaks through our life rhythms. It takes something radical to move us out of the rut, to get some perspective and reflect on the fact that something needs to change.
For some people it takes hitting rock bottom to face their addiction, for example. This point of facing up to the destruction we’ve wrought is that moment of turning in humility, of being poor in spirit, so to speak.
As Khalil Gibran puts it, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” And so often we learn that wisdom lies on the other side of understanding, our need to define and limit and fit everything into a tidy box.
This is the path of descent that is so counterintuitive in our culture of advancement, acquisition, and excess.
Fr. Richard Rohr discusses the difficulty, even for biblical literalists, to honestly follow Christ’s admonishment to his disciples to “take nothing for the journey; no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no second tunic.” There’s nothing left for the ego to hold on to. Nothing left to differentiate us, to make us feel special or superior. We’re entirely dependent on others. Losers. Beggars. Bums.
The addict, the exposed fraud, and the outcast each know something of this space.
And it’s the portal to wisdom. This stripping away. This loss. This identifying with the excluded and the loser, not just ideologically, but in a visceral, personal way.
Neither is it the end of the story.
It’s part of the pattern in ancient myths and the spiritual texts of the soul’s journey to God, the soul’s journey home. There are further discoveries and development, new life and relationships and communities and growth.
The downward way is the first leg of the journey. And massively transformational. And what comes next? Learning how to walk upright. Learning how to learn. Learning how to follow the anger back to the wound, and the wound back to its source, and then let go. Learning how to be, to accept, to become a channel for a love that transcends this little me and what I get out of it.
Dante doesn’t behold the beatific vision of the highest heaven until he has walked through the fires of the Inferno.
And yet, after the descent the way back upward leads far higher than he ever could have gotten on his own.
I wonder if we can imagine what our lives would look like at full flowering.
But for so many of us, like Dante after waking up in the forest, the road to Mount Joy is blocked, and we have to take a longer road first to find out what has to go. To get to the land of wisdom, we have to start with the way of descent.
Contemplative Light’s Christian Mystics class is 70% off during Lent when you use the gift code LENT2019.
Cynthia Bourgeault on The Path of Descent
Richard Rohr on the Paschal Mystery
Marc Thomas Shaw’s book Dante’s Road: The Journey Home For The Modern Soul
Traveling downward in order to reach new heights of understanding, perception, and compassion has certainly been my experience, and it continues to be. My journey has seemed more like riding a roller coaster than taking a journey of one descent and one incline. I always have more to learn, and I often block my journey by insisting I can handle things my way and find an easier, softer way of handling whatever challenge I am facing. Every time surrender is the first step of my journey upward. Thankfully, reaching the turning point I call "willingness" (the precursor of surrender) happens more quickly and easily than it did at the rock bottom start of my journey. I won’t say surrender and traveling upward gets easier; but each step taken after surrendering is a gift of hope and joy.