"Faith and the Path" by Bro. David Steindl-Rast O.S.B.
You do what’s right, not because it’s easy or because it’s hard. You do it because you are alert to the guidance that comes to you.
When we speak about the path, we should keep in mind that there is only one path, and everyone who is going is on that one path. It may look as if people were going in different directions; but as long as they are going, they are just on the path.
I have tried to find the simplest characteristics of the path, and I come up with two. One is inclusiveness and the other is narrowness. If your notion of the path is inclusive enough – I don’t mean just a mental notion, I mean your whole approach – if your approach is inclusive enough to include every other path, then you are on the one path.
That’s really all that needs to be said about it. Wherever you come across anything that is exclusive in your path, well, that doesn’t mean that the path is wrong, it just means that to that extent you still haven’t completely discovered your own path.
The Narrowness is the Path
As for narrowness, when we are really alert to the guidance that leads us on the path, we find ourselves again and again confronted with what we call straits. It is tough; it is difficult. In the Christian context we say it is the Cross. “The one who takes up my Cross and follows Me is my disciple.” That is what is meant by narrowness.
You see immediately that this narrowness is by no means a contradiction to inclusiveness. It is not one of those paradoxes that sometimes you find in the spiritual way. These two really come from two different directions. The narrowness of the path means that if it is truly your path – the one meant for you – you will have to find it narrow sooner or later.
That is very important, because if we are not alert to the fact that the very narrowness is the path, we are apt to say, “Oh well, this is getting too tough; this must not be my path. I’d better try something else.” The more difficult it gets – in the right sense – the more truly you can be sure you are on the path.
Of course, there is also a danger of turning this into some sort of idol and saying, “I always do the more difficult thing.” That would be just as wrong as saying, “I always do the easier thing.” There’s no difference between the two. You do what’s right, not because it’s easy or because it’s hard. You do it because you are alert to the guidance that comes to you.
Now I come to something which may at first sight seem specifically Christian – or Biblical, I should rather say. But when you listen very carefully, you will see that we speak about a reality which is quite universal: faith. Faith and the path are inseparable from one another. Faith is that dynamism of going on the path. Faith is what makes it possible for you to go on.
Now, you see immediately that faith in this sense must mean something other than believing something. Faith includes believing in something, because life includes believing something. But the emphasis on believing something, which we have connected with faith in recent Christian tradition, is lopsided, even dangerous, because in the full concept, faith is not primarily believing something, but is primarily trusting someone. Faith is not giving your signature to a list of beliefs and dogmas. That will come in eventually – but what faith is, from the very start, is courageous trust. It may start simply with trust in life, and eventually open its way toward trust in the Source of all life.
Complexity and Simplicity
All of you, I’m sure, are struggling for simplicity of life. But there’s a way of settling for simplicity that is simplistic, a kind of childish oversimplification. You haven’t really dared to face the complexity of life. That’s the danger. And that’s where my recent experience started.
External life is tremendously complex. The more you become alert to things, the more you realize how complex they are. And I’m not even talking about natural things – just about something like switching on the light. If you ever switch on a light, with a minimum degree of awareness, you would just be staggered by the complexity with which you are in touch. Not only the people who work in the generators but the people who built the switch. Those who did the wiring in the building. Those who mined the metal. And this is just the thinnest crust of complexity on this incredibly complex universe.
I have been aware for a long time of this outer complexity. But you become aware, one day, of your inner complexity – of what has to happen when you take a piece of bread, what has to happen in your body so that you don’t die from that little piece of bread. A hundred thousand little processes have to go on within your body to digest that piece of bread, over which you have absolutely no control and which you have never understood and which you never will understand. And that’s supposedly you!
I haven’t even spoken about the psyche and the unconscious and all the complexities we find there. In other words, what I call “me” and what I experience in living is somehow at the crossroads of that external and that internal complexity in which I am immersed. And somehow I can find simplicity there. I can find a still point there.
I’m not quite clear how this happens, but it’s much more important that it happens than that I understand how it happens. I do understand that it has something to do with finding order, finding harmony in your world.
The Courage to Let Go
It’s a tremendous thing that every time we venture out, we find more and more complex order. When we investigate that complexity – in biology or in chemistry or even in psychology – we find that it is a structured complexity. It is harmony. It is something like music, which includes discords, but the discords are somehow part of a greater harmony and make the harmony more interesting, complex, and beautiful.
Every time we look out, we find order. And then comes the moment when something new is thrown at us. For instance, in science, new findings. Or in life, new experiences. They suddenly seem to shatter the order we have established, to put the order we are familiar with into crisis. And then comes the point where all spiritual life begins, where you begin to move on the path or not. That’s the moment of decision. Because that is the moment where either we hang on for dear life (which is death) to that order we have already found, or we let go in the courageous trust that we will find a greater order. And that letting go is possible only through faith. That is what faith is: the courage to let go.
We practice that from the beginning in our spiritual life in little things. But it gets more and more difficult as we go on, and that is the narrowness of the path; that difficulty, those straits in which we get because we have to let go and let go and let go. And the further we go, the more everything seems to be chaos. Yet we trust that through this chaos we will find order.
The Courage to Be Yourself
Nobody can give you a guarantee. Nobody can say, “Yes, you will pull through. Yes, there is order there.” No, the only thing you have to fall back on is your courage and also your memory – your memory that every time you did that in the past, every time you died, you were born to a greater, more comprehensive order.
So the path is really this going on from harmony to greater harmony, always through periods of disharmony and discord, or from life to life, always through periods of death. That is the path; and the dynamism of that is faith, is courage.
So you need faith. You need faith in yourself, in that inner voice, the voice of circumstance that tells you what is the right thing for you and the courage to do it, to really enter into it. And in the last analysis, really, the courage to be yourself.
Question by a retreatant: When you are on the part of the path which is inclusive, and you hear a voice, but you are not completely sure – is there some way to tell?
That’s a very important question and it is really the question of self-deception. “How can I be sure I am not deceiving myself?” The answer is, you can’t.
That is what faith is all about – that you trust and you go on even though you are not absolutely sure that you are not deceiving yourself; you trust that it will fall in place eventually if you go on trying not to deceive yourself. The wrong answer would be, “Well, since I can’t be sure that I’m not deceiving myself, let’s go on deceiving myself.” No, that’s not the answer. The answer is, “I can’t ever really be sure.” Only when you feel, “Now I’m sure that I’m not deceiving myself” – that’s the one moment you can be sure that you are deceiving yourself.
At any other time, you are suspended precisely in that vacuum that is necessary for the path. Otherwise there wouldn’t be anywhere to go. You’d just be stuck. It’s the space that makes room for doubt and only in that space of doubt can faith move.
There is no other way. There is no other space for faith, except doubt. Doubt is the vacuum into which faith moves. And the doubt, “Am I not deceiving myself?” is the vacuum into which my total dedication not to deceive myself – trusting that God will help me and teach me – moves.
That’s as much of an answer as I can give, because the question is an existential one. It is not a matter of answering it so that you can write it down and take it home with you. The answer must be something that challenges you to live it out.
Originally given as a talk at a yoga retreat during the summer of 1974. Reprinted from Integral Yoga, Vol. VII, No. 1, 1975, pp.9-12.