The last few months I have been reading the fourteenth century German mystic Meister Eckhart and spending a good deal of time pondering his teachings. Like Jesus – and most mystics – his words are often more sparse than we would hope for. But, more troubling, they are filled with paradoxes and seeming contradictions. Among many paradoxical teachings Jesus offers he tells us that to save our life we must lose it, and that the first will be last and the last first. Meister Eckhart follows this same pattern, sprinkling his sermons with teachings such as God is both everywhere and nowhere, everything but nothing, and hidden and revealed.
Physicist Neils Bohr is famous for saying that while the opposite of a correct statement is a false one, the opposite of a profound truth is often another, seemingly contradictory, profound truth. No where is this more true than in the case of spiritual truths. But in order to grasp the larger truth – or better, to be grasped and held by it – it is essential that we be prepared to hold the tension associated with the two apparently contradictory elements.
This kind of tension is not always warmly welcomed by those who want their faith to be simple, consistent, water-tight, and something they can grasp and count their own. Mystery threatens such control. We should, therefore, be suspicious when our faith can be reduced to a system of neat and tight beliefs that we can hold with certainty. What that means is that rather than faith being a container for mysteries that hold us, our beliefs are something we have created to try and hold ourselves.
My father divided the last decade of his life between a period of protracted grieving over the death of my mother and a season of great joy in a new marriage. My brother and I were delighted for him as we watched his old vitality return and everything within him re-embrace life, even while his own was beginning to slide away from him. His second wife was quite a bit more theologically conservative than him, and superficially he gave appearance of taking on much of her worldview and convictional certainty. A year or so before he died I asked him if the list of things about which he was certain was growing or shrinking. I could not have been happier with his answer. Without hesitating, he told me that he was less certain about more things, but that at the same time, his trust in God was stronger than it had ever been. I pronounced a blessing on the shape of his journey and told him I was thrilled to see that as he walked through what he knew were his last years he had the courage and trust to let go of rigid certainties he had embraced for much of his life and exchange these for an embrace of God.
The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai , offers us a similar thought about certainty and faith in one of the short, pithy poems for which he is famous. If you are able, read it aloud and slowly – the way good poems should always be read. Even better, read it several times, listening for the truth it holds.
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.