I just woke up to something so blindingly obvious I can’t believe it took me so long to understand it. But I’ve been on the trail of this since I was fifteen, and only tonight got the point – that’s 44 years.
So, when I was fifteen I asked Jesus into my heart, to be my Master. I gave my life to him. It’s been his property ever since, and I have – though it remains true that my choices and how I have lived have not always been what he has asked of me or shown me how to be.
Then just a little while after that, still when I was fifteen, I came across the life and writings of St Francis of Assisi – and I recognized in him the quiet eye, the single-pointed concentration of being, that I knew I wanted. And the joy of a pared-down life, the freedom and exhilaration of irreducible minimalism. Exposure to angels, to the presence of God. Luminous humility.
I loved Francis then and I do still. I love his slightly unhinged literalism, the blaze of his compassion and tenderness, his astonishing self-discipline, his ability to turn away from himself to a gaiety so translucent that Holy Spirit shone right through.
So, there was Francis, lodged in my mind and heart, in my consciousness.
When I was sixteen I worked with nuns, and I searched in them for the inspiration I’d found in Francis – and didn’t find it. Some of them I liked better than others, but they were only people, if you see what I mean. Just women who had chosen to live that way. Nothing special.
When I was eighteen I left home and went to live with some monks in the West Country. Unusual men – I think it would be fair to say they were even somewhat odd. Delightful in their way. I lived with them for a while. I liked some things about their company – but one lived with fairly serious mental illness, another struggled with the turbulence of his humanity. They were interesting, I learned about life from living with them; but they did not have what I was looking for.
I went from there to college, and met the nuns attached to the cathedral where I worshipped. They used to invite me to tea and I found them intriguing – but not inspiring. Most weeks I attended a rather wonderful prayer meeting at a monastery of Poor Clares. I loved them, and their way of life delighted me. They were darlings, but I could not find what I was looking for in any one of them.
I made friends with the monks at Ampleforth, and found inspiration there. In the unfolding of time, two of the Ampleforth monks have remained vivid in my mind – dearly loved, people through whom I saw the light of Christ shine so clear. But they could not answer my questions – even dodged and rebuffed me. Something evasive, elusive, something I could not grasp. Something that disappointed me and slipped away from me. What I was seeking wasn’t there.
I searched everywhere – reading the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and Gandhi and Lao Tsu, sniffing along the Amish trail and looking among the Plain people.
Everywhere I looked and read and studied, all I found was people – ordinary people – when I got close enough to really see. People with foibles and issues and frailties; only people like me.
Early on in my search I asked God for a guru, and the Spirit breathed inside me saying, you have to be what you are searching for – you have to be your own guru.
I tried out spiritual directors and writers and communities and teachers and leaders. I watched and I listened, I weighed and I thought. And always I found some that was good and some that was lacking. Nothing I could entirely trust myself to.
Alongside this I had been tracking simplicity, experimenting in myriad ways with the holy poverty I saw in the life of Francis – trying and failing, working on it, seeing its power and letting it slip through my fingers.
I tried simplicity of dress and taking up little space, owning and disowning, a while wearing saris, a while wearing Plain dress – and attracting gently affectionate mockery or silent bewilderment.
Along the way I encountered all manner of traumas and tearing griefs – losses and terrifying life crashes, the implosion of illusions including illusions about my own integrity and spirituality. I learned that nothing could be relied on, not even oneself; nothing is permanent, everything passes.
I came to minimalism and discovered its startling power – taking me closer to freedom. The less you have the more you have.
And every now and then the intense longing would spiral round, for my community, for the people on the same trail, the same path. And I wanted a teacher, a guru. But every time when I thought I’d found someone, I looked closer and thought . . . hmm . . .
This last stretch of time – the last few months – has come back the intense longing for people to compare notes with, who are on the same track; and for a teacher, a guru. But the thought doesn’t even have the time to expire before I know, “Not that . . . not that . . .”
I know that if I found others committed to extreme minimalism, trying by every means to live the most pared down life, the most frugal and hidden and poor – we would recognise each other, but have nothing to say. Because it doesn’t really organize or formulate – it comes to the place where it just is, where there is only the self and God and silence, and nothing else will do.
And then it was just tonight, recognizing that, I understood what had been in front of me all along – why the nuns and monks and anabaptists and Amish and all the rest had never been able to supply the thing I was looking for; it’s not in the person, it’s in the life.
The person is only ever just that – a person – a flawed and ordinary human being. The wonder, the transformation, the light shining through is not in the person, it’s in the committed life. The person becomes the fuel for the burning of the flame, and the flame rests on them like Pentecost, is upon them but does not belong to them, rests on them but is not owned by them.
There is no guru, no teacher, no authority. There is only the Tao – the way – and you’re either walking it or you’re not. Life is the teacher, the guru, the message.
This has happened to me before once or twice, this coming out into the loneliness of naked light, where the unbearable love of Christ waits in uncompromised silence. I glimpse it and then shut my eyes, can’t look, let it slip. It’s very hard to sustain. I find myself wanting someone to do it with, to be a pilgrim alongside – but that’s the thing; everybody is, but nobody perfectly is. We are all on the journey – or at the very least muddling around the same territory like book mites traversing a map.
Life will be my teacher and Christ my companion and in the untracked improbability of the Tao I will be lost and found and lonely and come home to myself a thousand times. And the less I have the more I will have until I have nothing and come into my inheritance, Light invisible and unimaginable. Which I have to say doesn’t sound very promising, because what it offers is abjectly terrifying until one’s being slips into that socket and knows this was home all along.