In some ways I’d like to be a Christian, but have never believed that Christ was tortured on the cross to redeem my soul. Despite all my upbringing from an early age, it just never caught on. Yet I cannot deny the power of this religion, across two millennia. If it guides us to a truth about how to live, then the wisdom, the solid rock on which it stands, has to be there for everyone. Any sacred book is the product of human hands, usually many. We may call it “inspired”, perhaps even “received”, but not dictated, as some Christians believe of the Bible.
Scholars tell us that the Tao Te Ching, like many ancient texts, was developed over centuries. Let it speak for itself, in its gentle, quiet style:
Its gnomic verses will have little impact for the casual reader, curious to find out quickly what it’s all about. It doesn’t work that way. I can only read it in a certain mood: one in which I’m ready to take it to heart, into the deepest place. And then I find that some fragment hits the spot, takes me to a place beyond words: a place reachable by the illiterate or deaf and dumb. Like the Bible it’s been endlessly pored over by scholars, yet it warns us in the first verse that it speaks to a place beyond naming.
How do I get to this place? The third verse tells me. I don’t realize how much I’m caught in desire till what I depend upon becomes unreachable. Normally, I take everyday comforts for granted. These are the “manifestations”. Of what? The daily blessings in my life for which I daily give thanks. To whom or what? To a source, which a Christian will call God. Lao Tzu, as interpreted above, calls it darkness, in the recognition that there’s something we can never know, in the ordinary sense. Darkness within darkness.
What am I to do with this? In one sense, nothing, for my doing is constantly infected with desire: I want this moment to pass and be replaced by a better moment; I want to regain what once I had—the good parts—and forget the bad parts; I want to escape my negative vision of reality and replace it with some pleasant fantasy.
What’s wrong with desire? It’s not actually an infection, of course. We are imbued with it, along with all creation. Desire makes babies, desire drives the Origin of Species. “Love makes the world go round” remains as a wish, the goal of each religion, sacred or profane.
I said above that sacred books are generally the work of many hands. But then there’s The Mirror of Simple Souls, written by one woman, a French Beguine, writing in her own language. She was burned alive as a heretic in 1310 after spending years, in jail and out, refusing requests by the Inquisition to withdraw her book. It has become precious to me, despite her complex writing style. In her day, not many could read at all. The “Simple” in her title didn’t mean uneducated. It was written for those whose soul yearned to be “unencumbered”, and “annihilated”—by Love. Here’s an extract:
I see that the Tao Te Ching and The Mirror of Simple Souls are in total agreement, despite their different styles; and that Marguerite Porete actually died for me, so I could be touched and guided by her words. Did Christ die for me on the Cross? Perhaps it’s my loss but I cannot see it.