August 2, 2009

Living the Questions: The Mystery of Paradox

When I was first got sick some years back with an autoimmune disease, my life went topsy turvy for awhile. I could no longer backpack or hike, my aerobic exercise regimen was sharply curtailed, and I was dreadfully tired, foggy in the mind, and hurting all over, all of the time. Eventually I went on medical leave from my job.

During that time I was presented with what seemed to be impossibly contradictory promptings. One day I would be led to believe with all of my being that I would be healed, completely. On the next I would be led to accept the fact of my illness with grace. These two positions seemed diametrically opposed, the "either/or" of my health crisis.

To believe without reservation that there was a Power in the universe that could actually heal me was tempting – I so wanted to be completely well again, to get my old life back! I knew and believed in the power of the healing stories in the New Testament: especially the stories of the Gerasene demoniac, the leper at the well, and the woman whose bleeding stopped when she touched the robe of Jesus. But there was also something about the act of believing without reservation that felt false to me – as if I was refusing to accept the reality of this diagnosable disease that was having such a huge impact on my life.

On the other hand, if I accepted the disease as my teacher and constant companion in life, wasn’t I shutting the door on being one of the few for whom the disease mysteriously disappears, never to return? Was I saying “no” to a possible miracle? In the midst of the inner turmoil, I felt as if I was being torn apart, while needing to figure it out now so I could get my old life back.

One day a vision came to me. I saw myself walking carefully along the narrow ridge of a Lake Michigan sand dune. To the left of me fell the slope of Absolute Faith. To the right of me fell the slope of Acceptance. I heard the Inward Teacher tell me that my task was to walk along the ridge, keeping my balance, falling neither to the right nor the left. I was to walk between Absolute Faith and Acceptance.

Over the years, as I have learned to be there, in that liminal place between, my vision has widened. With the eagle, I can sometimes look down on myself from above, and I see a world in which the slope of Absolute Faith and the slope of Acceptance touch above and below. They are one – two halves of a singularity, the yin and yang of healing, if you will. They are not opposites but complementarities. Together, as I am learning to walk between them, they are healing me, and healing me well.

It seems to me that all spirituality comes down to this, to paradox. Our seemingly natural desire to understand, to create discrete labels and containers for all the details of our world and experience is at mortal odds with the Divine Reality in which All is One. There is no Truth to know and own. There is no Way that is the Only Way. Having once tasted the complex bouquet of Paradox, the simple palate of Either/Or no longer satisfies. Once touched by the finger of God, there is no way to get back to the old, comfortable, predictable life. And perhaps that is the point.

Perhaps this is also why Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”