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A long spiral staircase can be difficult to climb

How difficult can it be?

Written by Professor Lance Butler.

Our culture makes things easy for us, except when it doesn’t. It’s easier to look things up online than it was in a library; it’s easier to buy things on credit than it was to save up for them; modern transport has made it easier to cover long distances in comfort.


On the other hand we like some hard things: Extreme Fitness and the Iron Man Challenge; people rowing the Atlantic in small boats (though my friends who did this last year were by no means alone out there on the ocean); the concept of the ten-thousand hours needed to become good at anything; an admiration for anyone who manages to learn Japanese.


It’s the same with the things we call spiritual, which seem both easy and fiendishly difficult. At the easy level: becoming mindful for a second takes almost no effort. Being friendly to one’s fellow humans when they are behaving badly only requires a moment of stepping back and thinking ‘He’s doing his best’ – though we might allow an exception for Road Rage here. Recognising the possibility of a greater presence in nature when walking in the hills on a summer’s day isn’t hard.


It’s the next step that can thwart and puzzle you. What are you meant to do, among all the other scores of things you have to do each day, to make your openness to another dimension a bit more permanent, to connect more deeply with whatever it is that corresponds to the word ‘spiritual’, to love everyone all the time? Brief moments may have shown you the way: music may have awakened vaguely spiritual feelings in you; nature may have shown you beauty that moves your heart; kindness from others may have elevated your thoughts. But what next? That’s the hard part: where to go next.


Do we need to go to church again, as in the old days? Should we spend an hour meditating each morning or volunteer for a charity? Do we need to read more, talk more seriously and watch more lectures on YouTube? Or do we need silence and detachment from the world? Should we spend a year at Dharamsala? A week on Holy Island? An afternoon chanting Om? Even the decision can be difficult, let alone actually doing it.


We might consider the thoughts of Teresa of Avila to help find an answer to these questions. The Interior Castle of 1577 is her advice to nuns about just the matter we are discussing. Her idea is to ask how they can persist in their vocations and make some sort of spiritual progress? Teresa frames her advice in purely Catholic terms, but I think we can see in it something for ourselves.


In the outer courts of the internal castle that Teresa imagines there are snares and beasts and irritations that distract us from our quest – which in Teresa’s mind is our quest for union with God. As her nuns try to become more aware of higher things and go further in she warns them that these snares may consist of useless questions such as: ‘I wonder whether people are noticing me or not? If I follow this course will harm come to me? Dare I begin this work? Would it not seem presumptuous? Will people think badly of me if I make myself singular? Are extremes bad, even virtuous extremes? Perhaps I shall fail and be a source of scandal to good people?’ and so on.


In our less-religious day we are likely to have similar doubts: ‘Am I wasting my time here?’ ‘Am I just fulfilling some neurotic need when I throw myself into the arms of the Buddha, Transcendental Meditation or the Virgin Mary?’ ‘What effect would it have on my career were I to be caught praying?’ ‘What if the materialists are simply right and all this is nonsense?’ ‘Why bother to meditate?’ ‘Why bother to try to be ‘’good”’?


The clue here is to remember that the world is dynamic, that nothing remains the same from one instant to the next. There is no fixed point that can be reached or which offers permanent sanctuary. There are spiritual questions but no final spiritual answers.


In other words our situation is a process, a going on, not a collection like a collection of stamps or silver. Life isn’t something that can be added up; at the end of it you don’t have a fungible pile of seconds, days or years. There is no point at which we can say ‘Well, I’ve got enough charity in now’ or ‘I think I’ve meditated enough’ or ‘OK, I’ve now seen the whole truth.’


So the hard parts of spiritual life are just bigger versions of the easy parts and not quantitively different. A kindness or a mystical thought aren’t possessions that you have, they are  actions you perform in time. And they are always waiting to be performed again. St Teresa’s nuns are told that they may never get moments of mystical insight or union with the divine or whatever is waiting for them in the central chamber of the interior castle, but that it doesn’t matter. The point lies in the waiting, the trying, the hoping, the starting again. In spiritual matters we are always at the beginning, never at the end.


And after all it isn’t difficult to begin to want to be better or more in touch with the spiritual. And it isn’t difficult to take a small first step: there isn’t much effort in thinking ‘I’d like to meditate!’ or ‘I could smile!’ And then all you have to do is realise that there are no big steps afterwards – only more small steps which are of course, always the same step.

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