Walking the Sacred Path… A Journey To God?

August 5, 2009 - 7:37 pm 5 Comments

1009688_meditation_gardenPathways of Self discovery? A Journey to God? Reflections On Walking The Sacred Journey

The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

Opening Words: From the Medieval mystic, Miester Eckhart, when commented on the lack of our spiritual understanding, he said,” God has not moved or been lost, it is up to each of us to go out for a walk!

There are many ways, avenues, or paths one can take through life; some of them are easily found, others are hard to finish. In one’s pursuit of hidden or interior answers, it usually requires more conscious effort to receive or reveal directions that are best suited for your steps. Depending on one’s personality and spiritual inclinations, we humans will often choose to look for answers down the path that most readily available, most attractive, or the ones that will safely fulfill our initial curiosity without much risk.

Today, my theme is Path Symbolism, and my first advice to you is, that I want you all to go take a hike! … (wait a minute… That doesn’t sound right!)

I meant to say that I would like to invite you to begin, if you have not yet done so, your own interior journey towards discovering more about yourself, and to invite you to look more intuitively into what might be the meaning, inspiration, and purpose for your life… As Walt Whitman would put it, to saunter, to loaf, and then to invite your soul….

A couple of caveats… First, if anyone- be they teacher, guru, therapist, or any sort of counselor states emphatically that the path towards finding oneself, finding inspiration, or finding God is an easy or effortless one, run!

Second, while I readily admit to having my own subset of assumptions around the importance of such a journey as it relates to enhanced classical spirituality, world theology, deeper mystical comprehension and the like, I am fully aware that not all of you share in this search as being a distinctly God-centered. So I will ask those among us who do not share a need for a transcendent reference point or God, to use my statements and metaphors as steps to towards one’s inner self; or higher self; as a personal path of inspiration, creativity, purpose or meaning…

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Today, I invite you to start down the four classical spiritual paths by introducing some ancient tools, and then offer you some archetypal examples and some personal explanations from my own odyssey through liberal religion and life.

The idea of a walking a mystical path, going on a spiritual journey, paradoxically trying to reach within and beyond oneself has a long and rich religious history. As a very brief synopsis, we find these mystical and personal journeys in the great Myths and stories of Egypt, China, and India, and all through the Western traditions. From a universal perspective, it could be considered a central fact of life; that each of us is on a path towards Self or God realization; as it states in words of Krishna found in the Bhagavad Gita: “Walking is not solely a means for getting somewhere; By whatever path persons approach ME, even so do I welcome them, for the paths they take in every direction are ultimately mine.”

Path symbolism, taking or being on a pilgrimage of inner or sacred discovery has become its own long shelf of books in any esoteric library. In our world today, there is an extraordinary access to this information, once reserved for only the highest teachers or most advanced adepts, now can be readily found at Borders, Barnes & Noble or ordered from Amazon! It is so readily available that there is almost no excuse, information wise, not to be setting out on some kind of quest!

There are four classical paths down the spiritual journey; found in the four Yogas of traditional Hindu practice; the four Noble Truths of Buddhism; the four-leaf clover among the Druids; the four seasons among the indigenous peoples, and the four paths of Creation Spirituality, which if I am invited back, I will explore and explain then.

For now, I will simply state that while religious orthodoxy in the West claims only three ways to spiritual maturity and wholeness, the more spiritual and mystical and affirming approach has four- four being known as number of balance or a complete approach.

One of the ways this four-part teaching is easily accessed is through spiritual tools such as the Tarot- one of the paths from antiquity… Wait a minute? Isn’t that fortune telling nonsense? The answer is yes… And no.

As a focal point for meditation, or for opening up one’s intuition, one can use almost any tool, image, technique. One can stare into a fish tank, stand on one’s head, sit on a pole, lie on a bed of nails, you can do whatever you think or feel that will bring you some insights! (The longer I remain in ministry, offer counsel and spiritual direction, and as I continue to witness and sometimes participate in the fads and observe the whims of human culture, I can readily admit that we humans are capable of doing a lot of preposterous things in our lives, thinking that somehow they will be good for us!)

Concerning using spiritual accessories or tools, all across the spectrum of world spirituality, we have a wide variety of focal points for our inner work: From gemstones to Runes, to crystal balls to pendulums, from dowsing rods, I-Ching sticks and coins…

In our tolerant and inclusive world view, whatever works for a person is permissible, as long as one uses it ethically and responsibly. Basically, the rule for finding or using any technique or spiritual tool is whatever your religious culture condones, chooses or prefers, they will make available- from sweat lodges to vision quests, from novenas to shrine visitations, from Scriptural study to nature walks, from dreams to diet, all can be used to further one’s inner awareness, appreciation or affirmation of the mystery and miracles of life.

The proper or guided use of the Tarot then transcends any superfical notion, and deepens the awareness of the meandering of our psyche and the cards act as an can be used to reveal intuitive metaphors for the inward journey to the core realities of God or oneself. In the Tarot, and in mysticism in general, there are these four paths a person can walk that will lead them to further and deeper understanding.

They are:Experience; knowledge; truth; and love

In the Tarot, these pathways are symbolized as wands, pentacles, swords, and cups, or if you prefer, clubs, diamonds, spades and hearts- You see, there is a lot more to playing cards than bridge, poker, and gin rummy!

Each of the suits in a card deck has a design or a symbolic value attached to it. Each suit, according to this school of ancient wisdom, has a vital task to teach us, and serious study will assist you down a particular facet of life….

Ultimately, we are to learn the whole deck; to evaluate our lives as a whole, and learn each of the four major lessons before we can consider our lives to balanced, integrated, attuned or complete.

The first way, is the path of experience, wands, or clubs:

As a general rule, most human beings, at some time or another, follow this most common or universal path. Here our life experiences, if sufficiently learned, lead us to some modicum of wisdom and/or common sense. This is the area of life where we have to exercise will and self control. Here we have the school of hard knocks, addictions, or when receiving a kick from life is as good as getting a boost! It is, without a doubt, the most painful, and yet, sometimes this path which is associated with suffering, provides we humans with the most effective, even a more redemptive way to learn life’s lessons. Here we have the statement that I have been down so deep and so long, that the ground looks up to me!

The second way of the Tarot is the way of knowledge, or pentacles or diamonds, is also common in our modern world. But when pursued alone,

It is likely to be expansive, wide ranging, but often superficial- covering many surfaces without reaching very far into the depths. It involves us in logic, the exercise of analytical reason, and collecting information, even to the saturation point! Done in its extreme we create an intellectual gluttony- and we live in the illusion that we will ever know all that we need to in this life, and that reason is enough to get us through….

While condoned and well accepted as a cultural norm, we humans engage in discussing and debating its relative merits in an exhaustive, ad nasuam way. This is the media hound- the glutton for information, falsely thinking that if you know about something it is as good as internalizing its teachings for you.

The third way, the way of truth, swords or spades, is the path of the committed or continual seeker. It is often arduous, and carries the person far and wide, both within and without. It usually involves more long term, even rigorous training, physical and mental disciplines, apprenticeships, and other demands in service to knowing what is the truth for this particular soul or person. Here, at the worst, we can find the New Age junkie and at the best, the sincere, perpetual student; the clever impostor and the skilled practitioner and just because you have practiced or rehearsed it well, it, does not mean you understand or apply it fully or completely in your life choices and values.

The fourth way, cups or hearts, is the way of love; the way of the heart or devotion. It is the one generally recognized as being the most saintly, selfless, empty and poor. It is the leading monastic approach in the West. It relies on veneration; on building relationships, and on service. Here we have the monk; the nun; the devotee; It is a way or path that advocates the transmutation of desire as a path toward self or god-realization, However, we also can find here the self-sacrifical person, the martyr, and the person who loses themselves in others.

Obviously, these descriptions are highly simplified- but it would take hours for a full disclosure of its depths, and years of embodiment to learn all its wisdom. Because this older way of the Tarot, like the Kabbala, and the I Ching before it, are arcane and confusing, so now I will switch now to some modern steps and metaphors…. Ones I hope that any commuter, traveler, walker or itinerant can relate to and comprehend. As I have devised it, there are four archetypal ways to travel through life, each having the capacity for teaching us certain truths about ourselves; about the nature of faith; wisdom; understanding; awareness, etc.

Each way contains a valuable gift for us; each offers us insights, gleanings, and ways of unlocking the essential mysteries of who and what we are as human beings. Each way leading us to a greater affirmation and appreciation of the wonder and awe that can be found inside each of us. …

The four modern paths are:

The Wanderer- representing the path of experience and reconciliation

The Nomad- representing the path of knowledge and learning

The Sojourner- representing the path towards searching for the truth

The Mendicant- representing the path towards selflessness and love

These four ways are also chosen by people based on their personality, their spiritual inclinations, their talents, and their particular emphasis on life. An example who be if the person is a teacher/researcher, the path of knowledge is most familiar and attractive; If the person is a natural caregiver, then the path of love could be most suitable or familiar for them. Over the years, when people have consulted me about the spiritual life, I will evaluate the themes in their life story, and then I often will help them to find the spiritual path most suitable for them….

It is important to state that no path is superior, better or worse- each contains lessons, insights, advantages and challenges. Ultimately, the deeper one goes in one path, the side roads and alleyways that connect us to the other paths appear, and will converge, and will lend you their deep insights and their wisdom towards completion.

Who is the wanderer? The wander in us asks the question, “How do I survive in this world? What is necessary for me to do or to change? The wanderer comes down to us through our Western religious tradition in the figure of Abraham, who the Scriptures called, The wandering Aramean,” who bravely sought out a way to avoid cruel fate, and the capricious nature gods of his ancestors, and to find an abiding faith in one supreme God who became the Yahweh or God of the Hebrew Scriptures. We also are given a vignette of Jesus as the wanderer in the desert, right after he was baptized by the Holy Spirit- that is, acknowledged as an inspired man, teacher and avatar, and sent out to wander in the desert where he would be tempted by the Devil- also known archetypally as the embodiment of worldly, selfish needs, desires, ambitions, and powers.

The wanderer is someone who most often learns from tests and trials- she or he remains fixed or stubborn until someone or something came along with a painful wake up call that creates havoc, turmoil, and the need to turn their life around. The wanderer (wands or clubs) is not someone who is usually interested in the esoteria of religion; just sees it as a social norm. Only when their life turns problematic, and the striving seems futile, does the wanderer comes back from his personal parabolas, dead ends, and their business of chasing unrealistic tangents, only then do they return to a place of solace and faith or self discovery. Another way of looking at the wanderer in us is that he or she finds God by looking in the rearview mirror… You see, God has been tailgating them for some time- and finally they let God run into them!

There are times when I have brashly gone down the road of experience, only to find that I have been the Fool, ready to walk off the cliff! I was not sure what I would find, nor what I was willing to leave behind. Struggling with trying to find how I fit into society, which cultural image to follow or whose style to copy or to find out what do people expect of me. ….Predictably- known to everyone but me, I found myself in a psycho-social ditch. All I could do, was to climb out, backtrack, and pray for which way I should go to find myself. Because this is such a universal human experience, it might explain why the song, Amazing Grace, has such universal appeal, as a song for those lost wanderers….

The nomad (pentacles or diamonds) comes down the path next. And this is the kind of peripatetic traveler who is always looking for answers, and believes that if only I can know enough, I will be happy and secure. Trekking from school to school, book to book, they adopt knowledge as salvation,,, yet, the nomad doesn’t realize that he or she is looking for themselves which cannot be found by logic or rational intelligence alone. Here is the perpetual student; the observer; the philosopher; the scientist and the secular humanist who is lead by their theories and afraid of their doubts. When they do find an answer, they try to apply that same answer everywhere they go, and it becomes for them a narrow path, or a convoluted circuit. They often settle for good ethics and yet remain spiritually unsure and unduly ready to discard any conflicting thoughts or beliefs.

If what they hear or what they are exposed to doesn’t  personally compute or make sense in their rational world, they are quick to discard it. The Nomad is represented by the old Unitarian joke about going to the discussion about heaven… It wasn’t until my last year in theological school, that I became a U-U. It was an unknown, and frankly an unwelcome possibility! That is because the only previously Unitarian minister I had known was a renegade egotist who eventually became a felon and was finally disbarred or defrocked. (gun running, tax evasion, and pedophilia?)

As I try to remember him, among the things he prided himself on never needing to use the word, God, much less believing in one! He told everyone about his high IQ, but offered little if any pastoral care or empathy. Since he had inherited money, he installed a swimming pool under the church, kept his pet iguanas running around, had stuffed animals in the pews. He brought in a railroad car to live in?, never through out a newspaper, and unfortunately for anyone who got too near to me, rarely showered!

So you see, in my senior year, (some 8 years later) when my classmates and I had a long discussion about which denomination would suit me best, I was chagrined! Since most of my peers had not done the depth of exploring East and West that I had, and I knew that I was a poor fit, being personally uncomfortable as a Protestant moral judge, focussing my sermons on what is right and wrong like a modern Calvinist!

I did not know which denominational group would take me! Once I found out that the U-Us did indeed accept spiritual misfits like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, I said dealing with skepticism and doubt, and emphasizing my intellect, even though I knew it was incomplete was more comfortable for me, and it would be easier than judging others, so I figured that there had to be some room in U-Uism for me!

The next traveler along the path is represented by the sojourner (swords or spades) This type of person delves deeply into themselves, and their peregrinations lead them to various teachers, gurus, and adepts where they take up residence for a long while. Theirs is a desire to know something deeply; and they are held as a willing, captive apprentice until that lesson is gleaned. Then they move eagerly on to the next discipline, training, ashram or monastery. …

The sojourner is the modern mystic and prophet who follows intently an inner call to a yet unknown destination, trusting that the truth as they come to know it, will lead them to a direct and deeper understanding of God and/or themselves. They employ all these techniques, systems, and approaches to their lives, which can make these people appear unduly complex, and their personal and relational lives very demanding. These training’s and mystical experiences can build bridges or barriers to understanding people and the world they still have to realistically live in.

I can remember approximately 30 years ago, going before the Fellowship committee, and then being more recently interviewed by the head of the Dept. of Ministry. The Fellowship Committee are the 14 people who decide where you are properly prepared, screened, and ready or even worthy of becoming a U-U minister. After three years and earning a second master’s, then a year’s internship, followed by a full psychological assessment, and other requirements, for my fellowship status and the right to apply for any ministry openings, I had to present a 15 minute sermon and be quizzed by many experienced ministers on everything from history to theology, from ethics to social justice convictions. They were amazed that I was so well versed and experienced in religious practice, and had explored so many groups, approaches in such depth. But they failed me anyway! I was too new to being a U-U, and they recommended another year of internship and experience…. At the time, it was quite a set back, and a hardship; but with distance and perspective, it was an invaluable ordeal- that next year, I was given a green light to pursue a settled placement.

A few years ago, as I was starting the interim ministry training, the new department head heard about my life odyssey and its many journeys within and without, and remarked that I am the most inner directed minister he had ever met! I thanked him for acknowledging my complex and varied journey…. But I also have to admit to it being a hazardous assessment, as I have frightened off many congregations, as being too spiritual for them! So currently, this spiritual vagabond is delighted to be an interim minister with a Unity congregation that takes living more metaphysically seriously! I can see my knowledge and experience as being  a kind of “Metaphysical Johnny Appleseed.” that encourages others on their path…

The last of the travelers is the mendicant, who is represented by the path of cups, hearts, the path of love, devotion, and service. I use the image of the mendicant, who is not a beggar, but someone who has reduced their human needs to just the essentials, and yet might still feel spiritually poverty-stricken. The mendicant is challenged by the emptiness one can feel without an active relational expression or focus for love in their lives, which can be a source of significant pain or hold feelings of profound incompleteness for her or him.

The mendicant’s question is found in how is it that a person is to love? Are there ways to love that are better? More exhalted, more selfless, serene, and secure? How do I fill myself with love for God or for others? If that is the goal, then how do I empty myself of personal needs and desires, so I can fill myself with concern for others?

Mendicants will migrate towards rituals, prayers, ceremonies and service that are more devotional. They seek to go beyond the conscious mind and move through life with a free and open heart. They seek an inner understanding and an outer expression of that affection that offers themselves and others a sense of hope, health, happiness and release. This traveler is not very concerned with theology or being analytical; they are on the path for emotional reasons. Theirs is a need for companionship, for attaining or experiencing a healing parental or spousal relationship or presence in their lives- some blessed assurance that all will be well.

My spiritual pilgrimage as a mendicant took me into training as a spiritual director, and worship leader. I was compelled into it by my feelings of disillusionment and dissolution. I was getting disillusioned by how ineffective my ministry had become at ushering change in my congregation and in all my attempts at supporting spiritual growth in that community and social justice in the outside world. In short I was broken hearted and burnout. When the militant humanists in the church forced me to resign,

I lost everything- my home, my marriage, my career… I had hit bottom and had to rebuild everything… Knowing that I had to be true to myself and dedicated to my sense of God as the only thing I could trust, If I was going to remain a minister, I had to come back to the ministry heart first-  acknowledging both my wounds and my wonders, as my best teachers, teachers who would speak to me from the heart…

This path asks me to seek, and then to be filled with a sustained devotion and sense of dedication to my highest sense of what is possible, what is right, what nurtures, uplifts, heals and what sets straight my own brokenness, and what sense of the Holy consoles me when the my empathy overloads me, when my memories plague me, or just when it gets to be too much.. . Having repeated this lesson in the last 5 years, I have had to undergo another long self exam, and the outcome of being a Unity minister appears to be my best answer! and While I am in  this renewal, and feel enthused to become a Unity minister, I know I have at least a lifetime to go…. Where is my home base? Probably as the sojourner, but through my experiences of love and loss, I am more open, listening and learning from my heart more than ever before….

I earnest encourage your journeys into self-discovery, into God, into having a more purposeful and meaningful life. Whichever path you choose, trust that it will be the right one for you. When there is a need to learn from other directions and pathways, you can give yourself permission to change direction, alter your course, and find a new approach to answers- just do not allow yourself to get stuck, comfortable, or to become arrogant or smug.

To summarize, We humans are all called to travel; to find our right path for us to walk- as the Buddhists and the Hindus teach us, to follow our Dharma- the direction in which our deep self or our souls need to go…

You see, Life is quite a journey… So don’t be afraid of getting dirty or choosing a steep road! And remember this piece of sage advice, recommended to me each week by those great Western theologians of my childhood, Dale Evans and Roy Rogers,

Happy Trails to you! So be It!

Closing Words:

Therapist and poet, Ann Hillman, offers us this insight:

[We are all on a journey together… To the center of [ourselves] and to the core of the universe… Look deep into yourself, and into another… That is the holy journey….

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