In my college dorm laundry room, some undergrad had written “This way to Jesus” in black Sharpie on one of the ventilation pipes. Above the words the person had drawn a long trailing arrow that pointed up toward the ceiling. It was really the only embellishment in the room, and during the years I lived there every time I was in the basement, folding my t-shirts and pairing my socks, a sense of futility would wash over me when I saw the grafitti. The joke became a metaphor for something I’d felt for as long as I could remember: a deep desire for God paired with despair of ever finding him. If I wanted God, I thought then, I had to be willing to do anything — leave my family, walk on water, feed thousands of people with one loaf of bread, or, apparently, make myself small enough to fit through a five-inch wide pipe — but there was no way in hell I could succeed, no way I could ever really enter that compelling Presence.
I’d first connected with this desire/despair combination at the age of eight or nine, when I’d read C.S. Lewis‘ Narnia books. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe particularly affected me; I wanted to have an adventure like Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter had had at their great-uncle’s house, in the Land of Spare ‘Oom. I was jealous of them because they had gotten to actually meet the Lion-God creature, Aslan, to touch his fur, to feel his warm golden breath on their faces. Susan and Lucy even got a one-on-one (granted, they had to witness Aslan being tortured and killed, but of course there was the part later when he was alive again and took them onto his back and they ran all over Narnia). Those girls were special, I assumed, because I wanted an encounter with the Holy so bad my stomach ached but no mysterious wardrobes ever opened to me.
As I grew up I did have intense encounters with Mystery, and even if they had nothing to do with blinding lights or burning bushes they nourished me and deepened my understanding of God/Spirit/Source. But the truth is that I’ve often confused the spiritual journey with self-improvement, and the practices of faith with superstition. I’ve believed that only if I am committed enough, only if I become the right kind of disciple, only if I say the right prayers in the right way and have the right notebook for my journal, only if I win the approval of those I admire — only then will I find God. With the same magical thinking common to children, I’ve prayed to have my flaws and untidy feelings taken from me so that I can actually actualize.
The problem with this framework is that it conceives of imperfection and pain as obstacles to a spiritual life — instead of the raw material — and that spiritual life as something bestowed rather than found. And yet my deepest encounters of the Ineffable have come when I’ve reached some personal limit and have been unable to fix or understand myself or the people around me, not when I’ve tried to manifest control.
What a relief that, after years of trial and error, it’s become clearer to me that not only does Spirit reveal itself when I see and accept my own flaws and feelings and those of others, but that what I seek does not come from outside. In fact, that wild, sacred Lion is always breathing inside me, close as blood — inviting me again and again to turn toward the intuition, the holy wisdom, the playful confidence that’s endlessly available, for no other reason than because I’m a soul in the world, made in the image of God.