(The highs and lows (hopefully not the cycle) of spiritual life)
They say that when you reach rock-bottom in your life, there's no other way to go but up. But what if you have reached the zenith? Does it follow that you'll have no other way to go but down?
This sums up my problem with achieving that spiritual high right after my renewal experience via the Christian Life Program (Life in the Spirit Seminar). I gave in to the temptation to 'go down.'
J. D. Salinger, in his novel Franny and Zooey, has an apt phrase for what I've been through right after the high part; the all-fired-up euphoric part that 'triggered' the 'problem': "detachment from all hankerings." Detachment is one of the major fruits of my new-found faith and I initially found it to be good. Attachment especially to materials things controlling me seem to have vanished almost overnight. All my worldly passions flew out of the window after attending and completing the Christian Life Program. Before long, I had nothing more exciting to do but meet by Maker.
Soon, however, I also became bored with life at large. I woke up one day to find out that the business of trying hard to be holy is incompatible with the world I was born into. I knew I could no longer live in a world full of compromises, competition, corruption. This, strangely, got me depressed.
In my wonder years as a wide-eyed, open-mouthed boy, I was a picture of someone who's full of love, or lust, for life. I would collect stamps, postcards, coins, shells, rocks, spiders and butterflies, among other things. I modeled myself after Jose Rizal, whom I saw as a renaissance man. You could say I was a philatelist, numismatist, marine biologist, petrologist and lepidopterologist, if there's ever such a word. And I was genuinely so. Would you believe I was in the habit of tracking down the more than fifty species of spiders, butterflies, ants, and birds in our wide yard alone in the province? I would make sketches of butterflies and color them with fascination. I was so astounded by the mysterious beauty and overpowering variety I found in nature; I couldn't express my amazement other than by collecting everything I fancied.
As if these were not enough, I would grow up to be a very nostalgic and romantic person. My heart thumped at the sight of old things, of history and antiquity. I couldn't just throw away my moldering, dusty stuff because they signified a kind of charm I couldn't quite describe.
I knew I was a fool. I might as well be a garbage collector. I would notice how my peers feigned excitement at the things that interested me - while I had to suppress myself lest I'd be seen as a weirdo. I realized not everyone shared the same temperament as I.
Life was exciting and wonderful in a way that was mysterious but, that early, the likelihood that everything could be empty didn't escape me as well. I was a thinking, constantly self-questioning kid and as acquisitive as I was inquisitive. What was the meaning of it all? I couldn't make sense of it except to devour everything and enjoy the good life.
And now came the life in the renewal, which I, too, absorbed like a sponge. I 'surrendered' in the hope that I could unlock life's meaning behind all that mystery. I reveled in the love of the Lord. I could almost see Him and touch Him. He alone sufficed in my life. I basked in His goodness.
I felt powerful with Him. I felt like I could face a thousand demons without a single strand of hair raising out of fear. I could wrestle with Satan himself.
I seem to have unlocked some of life's meaning, but I also found worldly life to be empty, and that's how my trouble began. It was supposed to be good, but soon I found myself having no choice but to go on living in the world. I still needed to go to work, I still had meetings to catch, physiological needs to meet, skills to hone so that I could remain competent in my job. Making matters worse was that I realized that the cloister, the only logical place where I could escape life's vanities and continue to live my life to an earthly heaven, didn't impress upon me as a possible option. Slowly but surely, my personal revelation was that I'd be in an ironically whimsical pursuit, one who should lust for life in order to be effective in his craft.
There's the rub, this detachment from all hankerings. It means readiness to die anytime. It means losing your lust for life. What you're now hoping for is something that already transcends all worldliness; your only immediate prospect is the grave. A character in the movie The Big Chill put it more succinctly: "With everything being boring, your only hope is to die." The usual zest for life is gone just when I thought I found a new life.
As I have said, a spiritual high is kind of troublesome because it is incompatible with the goings-on in a world that is still bearing the brunt of Adam and Eve's fall. So sooner or later, you find yourself succumbing to a lot of little compromises. But since you fear the loss of that high, you choose to struggle, to fight back, to achieve that delicate balance between asceticism and worldly pressures. Eventually you realize that the struggle can be elevated into an art form: The moment you reach Balancing Artist status, you can expect to be canonized as a living saint! Christianity, I found, is very hard to almost impossible to practice in the real world; the Christian is bound to suffer in anguish.
But even harder is this: With the new mindset, all your worldly efforts become pointless. Of what use is personal advancement, climbing the corporate ladder, running the rat race, social prestige? What is success anyway? Oh, how fleeting worldly happiness can be! Nothing else in this world could possibly satisfy me after everything I went through in the renewal.
Alas, life goes on even for the ascetic. A delicious meal, a lovely conversation, a hilarious joke, a baby's affection, all are ephemeral. Even the best of music fade out. Today's high fashion is tomorrow's laughingstock. A memorable movie and novel become mere memory in a matter of minutes.
What do I do on such a plane of existence except endure boredom? For me, this developed into a totally unexpected result: I got depressed. I found life so flawed and unnerving that the only solution, it seemed, was to engage in a frantic search for an ever-new source of pleasure no matter how fleeting. I didn't have the choice but be constantly on the lookout for something new: Within a short span of time, I would juggle between a movie, act in a short play, join a creative writing workshop, learn the basics of dancing the swing, practice the barn dance, play ping-pong and watch a soccer game, finish a storyl I have shelved for a year, get an article published, buy a glossy art book, retro shirts and new sounds, try fetuccini alfredo and putanesca at a posh restaurant, and learn at least four new computer games.
Somehow doing and learning new things provided the cure to boredom if only for a few moments. But before long, I'd wake up to find myself where I started: worldliness, the world ruled by the senses. Thankfully, God's grace rained out upon me and I eventually got bored of getting bored. Until I just found myself slowly going out of the mess.
It took me sometime to regain that old excitement in the simpler things in life: hot buns from the neighborhood bakery, my little nephew's smile, a bird's song, a sudden rain in the summer, hot tea with lemon, a call from a long-lost friend, a new pair of socks, an inspiring passage, a macaroon with a cherry bit on top.
Looking from my current state of mind which I'm optimistic is both peaceful and balanced, my mistake seemed to be one of self-delusion, deluding myself that life with God even while still here on earth, is already heaven, in the sense that life would be easier and happier, free from suffering, hurts, pains, disappointments that there's no more work to do except to await God, that there's no more emotions left but love, joy, hope, peace, that I was no longer bound to fall and sin and experience pain. I forgot that I remain descended from Adam and Eve, that I too have partaken of Eden's forbidden fruit, causing our collective fall from grace, that as such, I couldn't escape my share of hardship and pain. It was a given fact but I wrongfully hoped to be spared. I believed hardship and pain would go away if I ignored them. I knew and have learned to accept that earthly life was temporary but I was surprised that with suffering, it might feel like an eternity.
As long as we live, we will sin; that's for sure; we will still fall. That's what I've learned from having savored the spiritual high. We can't be spared from life's sorrows, temptations, hunger, pain, lust, because of our inescapable fate, our fallen nature. After all the euphoria, there is much work to do, hard work.
I guess depression came to me because I was expecting a literal heaven-on-earth and I failed. The world I live in, I found out, runs counter to that expectation. I failed to see or conveniently forgot that the world as it is, is not likely to change with me just because I did. And that it is I who should continuously change...unless, as I have said, I shut myself off from the world and live as a Trappist monk. (But even that choice is also subject to hard work.)
The thing to do next, apparently, is to struggle until the day of my final redemption; a tall order, really: striking a balance between the spiritual and the temporal, between heaven and earth. The realization came very slowly, but it still felt like a douse of cold water.
So it's true then: there's no way to go but down when you're up there. Savor the euphoric part, yes, but after that, Christian life ought to be a life-long vigil. We should constantly be keeping an ever-watchful eye so as not to remain passive that we get bored, depressed and suicidal or overly zealous that we become unreasonable in our expectations.
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