Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of a young man who was desperate to become enlightened. He traveled to a monastery and talked with a teacher.
“If I really focus on becoming enlightened, how long will it take?” he asked.
“For you, it will probably take ten years,” said the teacher.
“Ten years? But I will make this the focus on my life. I will commit everything I have to becoming enlightened,” said the young man.
“Then for you, it will probably take twenty years,” said the teacher.
“How can that be? If I focus on nothing else, surely I will be enlightened sooner!” the young man replied.
“Then for you, it will probably take thirty years,” said the teacher.
In an age where wisdom seems so elusive and so desperately needed, it’s tempting to pursue it with a dogged relentlessness. The pursuit itself could give some comfort to the disorienting world we live in. What better than pursuing your own betterment with everything you are and everything you have?
But that isn’t how enlightenment works. This story reminds us that Lady Wisdom finds us, not the other way around. Enlightenment is a gift of grace that comes, if we are lucky, as we open ourselves to the vulnerability and possibility of never receiving it. Does that make sense? We have to risk not becoming enlightened, not encountering the deep Source of Being, in order to be open enough to receive it. Our pursuit blocks the path.
When St. John of the Cross talked about the “dark night of the soul,” that’s in part what he was trying to teach us. There is a moment of inconsolable despair, hitting rock bottom, where we must give up our images of God, give up our illusion of being “better than” another, give up the pursuit of holiness, and then, with those stripped away, God appears.
That’s what happened with Jesus on the cross in the Christian gospels. His last words were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of course, we know that God had not, but Jesus calling out shows us that in that moment of surrender, God became known to Jesus beyond his imagination. The God of Resurrection broke through. Jesus’ surrender of his limiting expectation of God granted an entirely new inbreaking of God.
I hope some of this makes sense. Sometimes, this becomes hard to language. As we move into the weekend, let’s meditate on surrender and pray for the gift of enlightenment.
We are in this together,
Rev. Cameron Trimble
Author of Piloting Church: Helping Your Congregation Take Flight