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The Limits of Enlightenment

February 17, 2012

“If you work on your mind with your mind, how can you avoid a terrible confusion?” — famous old Zen riddle

Satori? Nothing mysterious about it. Everybody, even a roaring atheist, knows a great deal about spiritual enlightenment.

After all, seers and sages have been anatomizing ultimate reality for as long as human records survive. So many different texts turn up that we begin to suspect achieving enlightenment, like climbing Everest, is unusual but not impossible.

What else do we know? To begin with, we can say for certain that reaching ultimate reality is not like passing through a shimmering force field into a greener land bearing a brighter sun. The involuntary testimony of a god and a saint, their shocked suffering under torture, proves this, soberingly enough.

Christ’s agonies on the Cross reduced Him to begging out loud for some explanation: “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Jesus revealed a horrified terror no different than that of St. Joan of Arc, of whom it was reported by some who watched her burn at the stake, the Maid of Orleans never truly believed God would let the fire hurt her until the flames actually reached her flesh.

And, therefore, neither deities in mortal form nor saints come among us as virgin soldiers can mentally will themselves across a barrier into any mode of Being which evades the worst necessity of human flesh — to suffer.

Their spirits suffered even worse. “What if I was wrong?” What tears at us in St. Joan’s screams as in Christ’s silence is the terrible plummeting of a super-human into all-too-human doubt. “What if I was wrong about… everything?”

All lovers want is for the loving never to stop. And suddenly, at the worst moment of their greatest need, God doesn’t answer their calls. So, to the suffering bodies and shattered certainties of Christ and the Maid, now a third torture was also added, something simple and pathetic: a lover’s broken heart.

Helpless not to feel betrayed, for a few moments Jesus and Joan at last become enough like the generations of the rest of us to join in humanity’s never-ending reproach to God. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor lectures Christ: “You ask too much of us!”

Young martial artists make the same complaint to their masters.


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