The American Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön has written a book called The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. I haven’t read it yet, although I like her work and so I hope to one of these days; but I’m mentioning it because the title alone is, for me, provocative. Sooner or later meditation or contemplation alone will take us to the places that scare us. Indeed, life will take us to the places that scare us. We lose a job, a relationship, a valued possession, our health. Worse than our own suffering is the suffering of those we love. And when loved ones die, or leave in any other way, a huge hole can emerge in our lives that seemingly nothing will fill. The Buddha very rightly noted in the first of his Four Noble Truths that suffering happens. Birth, aging, illness, death, clinging, separation, and other aspects of life all bring us to suffering. And no one likes to suffer, and so the places that scare us (or perhaps I should say, the places that scare me) are those places where suffering will possibly or probably or most certainly will come to me.
Since both Benedictine and Celtic spirituality are all about hospitality, I suppose the obvious question here is, how do we offer hospitality to our suffering, and to the places that scare us? I’m not sure I buy into Chödrön’s subtitle: is “fearlessness” really on the menu? Granted, Jesus told us to be not afraid; he also told us to be perfect (in that context he was talking specifically about loving those who do evil). I’m currently reading The Teaching of the 12, Tony Jones’ commentary on the Didache, and he sees in that ancient manuscript this kind of Gospel-inspired commitment to loving acceptance of even those persons we are tempted to hold in judgment. The Gospel is all about busting through judgment and judgmentalism and embracing radically those even whose actions or behaviors we find scandalous. I don’t know about you, but I’m not there yet. Just like I’m not to fearlessness yet. It seems to me that before we can be fearless or perfect in our love, we have to grow into it. And moving into the places that scare us, and accepting the fact that we are very much afraid, and by the grace of God, doing it anyway, is an important first step. Again by the grace of God, the fearlessness will come, later. But if we wait for fearlessness before we go to the places that scare us, we will probably just wind up immobilized.
I’ve been thinking about all this a lot lately, not only because I’m playing with the question of “tame spirituality” vis-a-vis “wild spirituality,” but also because I’m having a hard time settling on what my next book project should be. Basically, I have three options: should I explore mysticism again, or should I turn my focus back to something more Celtic, or should I write about my transition from Paganism to Catholicism? Guess which of the three scares me the most (simply because it is the closest to my own heart)? Why, though, should my own story scare me? Because of all the pitfalls I see along the way. I’m afraid that I will share too much of my own shadow, or that I will project too much of my own shadow onto either Paganism or Catholicism. I’m afraid that, in an effort to avoid the pitfall of projection, that I will retreat from being honest in talking about my experiences both as a Pagan or as a Catholic. In other words, to write my story, I must be fearlessly honest about myself, but also about all my experience, both in Pagan or in Christian circles. Such fearless confessional writing is different from the rather journalistic task of celebrating mysticism. And I fear that I am not strong enough or good enough to rise to the challenge that such a task presents to me.
Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, says Susan Jeffers. And I agree with her. Sit in the middle of the fear, and breathe through it. We know we are alive when we go into the places that scare us, not to prove how macho we are, but simply to practice that hospitality that can give birth to true fearlessness. But knowing all this doesn’t make it any less scary going in. There’s another book out there that I’ve never read; it’s called The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. I don’t know about other writers, but I deal with fear as a writer by bludgeoning my way through it. “Transcending” fear is a fine art that I have yet to master.
Maybe the reason why this blog strikes at least one reader as tame is because I’ve been shying away from the stuff that scares me. I suppose now that this is on my radar screen I need to do something about it. And I will, as soon as my hands stop shaking.