Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Swallowed up

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Looking down at sin, and corruption, and distraction, you are all swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory, and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace.

If George Fox had never written anything else, the words in a letter to Lady Claypole (Elizabeth Cromwell, the second daughter of Oliver Cromwell) would be evidence of Fox’s profound insight into human nature. Condemning those who fail in various ways is a sure route to being captured by failure. When the mind focuses on sin, it can never break free of sin; it lives in a world of awareness of sin, and this world is cramped and stifling and ultimately unsustainable. Literature is filled with stories of preachers and ministers who specialize in pointing out the sins of others and who eventually fall into the very sins against which they preach most passionately. One need not turn to fictional literature for such stories; they can also be found regularly in the daily news.

Fox’s words to Elizabeth Cromwell are more than a warning not to become too obsessed with the failings of others lest those failings become one’s own. It also has the positive advice to look at that which makes shortcomings known. Fox calls it the light that discovers—in modern English we would say “reveals”—these sins, corruptions and distractions. That inward light, which corresponds in part to what we might call conscience, shines equally on all sins, corruptions and distractions, including one’s own. When the light is shone on one’s own failures, it also reveals the way to stop failing. Nothing more is required than to stop doing whatever it is that is blocking success, and whatever that may be, it is obvious to anyone who recognizes that he or she if failing.

Probably all of us have become habituated at least to some degree to making excuses for our own failures. We know what we should do, but somehow we think we cannot help doing it. In talking about inability to act, the Chinese philosopher Mengzi said there are two situations in which a person says “I cannot.” As an example of one situation, Menzi gave picking up a mountain, tucking it under one’s arm and jumping across the ocean. This task is physically impossible, so it is legitimate to say that one cannot do it. As an example of another situation, Mengzi gave the example of helping an elderly person find firewood. Helping out in such a situation is something anyone can do, so when one says “I cannot help,” what one is really saying is “I do not choose to help. I do not wish to help.” One of our greatest tragedies as human beings, says Mengzi, is that we fail to distinguish between these two ways of saying “I cannot.” We deny our own unwillingness to be humane, benevolent, kind and helpful when being that way would be slightly inconvenient or would distract us from the immediate pursuit of some transitory and essentially meaningless pleasure or bit of fun. We fail to be ashamed of our own selfishness.

The light that discovers our own unwillingness to act on love also reveals everything that it is necessary to do to quit failing to act on love. All that is needed is to act on love. And all that is needed to do that is to stop thinking only of oneself. It is that simple.

An effective way to avoid being aware of one’s own selfishness is to focus on the selfishness of others, to see their failures and shortcomings. But being blind to one’s own failings is the only benefit that comes from focusing one’s vision on the sins of others. And that benefit is so piddling and empty that it should be easy to forgo it in favor of the enormous benefit of seeing one’s own failures, seeing the way out of them and then taking the way out.

For better or for worse, I see what I must do to be fully at peace. Can I do it? Yes. Will I do it? Suffice it to say, there is no good reason not to.

A longer excerpt from Fox’s letter to Lady Claypole is found in an online version of his Journal.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, March 23, 2009 at 10:47

Posted in Vocal ministry

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