(The highs and lows (hopefully not the cycle) of spiritual life; edited version)
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 Catholic charismatics’ Christian Life Program (Life in the Spirit Seminar). I gave in to the temptation to 'go down.' I never expected it would mean going down to the pits of hell right after tasting heaven.
J. D. Salinger, in his novel Franny and Zooey, has an apt phrase for what I've been through right after the high part, i.e., 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 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’ was grossly 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, which I aspired to be. I can’t quite forget how the history author Zaide described the national hero’s achievement: a long, long list of the many hats he wore. “Oh my,” I thought, “I could be like this.” Before long, I could say I was a philatelist, numismatist, marine biologist, petrologist and lepidopterologist, if there's ever such a word. And I was genuinely so, for 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 the hues of 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 stash of stuff which someone called “ephemera” because these 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 noticed 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 I had.
Life was exciting and wonderful in a mysterious way but, that early, the likelihood that everything could be empty didn't escape me as well. I was a thinking, constantly self-questioning kid, as acquisitive as I was inquisitive. What was that all about? I couldn't make sense of it except to devour everything and enjoy the good life.
And now came this stab at 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 God’s love – or the concept of it, though I had a hard time explaining what “unconditional” meant. In order to feel that unconditional love, I had to convert, so that struck me as not unconditional.
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 thought I could wrestle with Satan himself.
I seem to have unlocked some of life's meaning, but I also began to feel the worldly life to be hopelessly empty, and that's when serious trouble began. The life of a convert 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, still had meetings to catch, physiological needs to meet, skills to hone so that I could remain competent. 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 increasingly surely, my personal revelation from above was that my “calling” lay in a pursuit that struck me as ironically whimsical, a craft in which I should lust for life in order to be effective.
Ah, what trouble -- this sense of Zen detachment. It meant readiness to die anytime. It meant losing my lust for life. What I was now hoping for was something that already transcended all worldliness that my only immediate prospect was the grave. A character in popular movie (The Big Chill) put it more succinctly and unaesthetically: "With everything being boring, your only hope is to die." The usual zest for life was suddenly gone just when I thought I found a new life.
The spiritual high, I found, was simply impossible to maintain, like a lady in high society who’s suddenly lost her fortune. With total incompatibility with the goings-on in a world that is still bearing the brunt of Adam and Eve's fall, I eventually found myself succumbing to a lot of little compromises. But since I feared the loss of that high, which was addictive, I chose to struggle for some time, to fight back, to achieve that delicate balance between asceticism and worldly pressure. Eventually the push-and-pull struggle got elevated into an art form: the moment I reached Balancing Artist status, I half-expected to be canonized as a living saint anytime. Christianity, I found, was very hard to almost impossible to practice in the real world; the Christian was bound to suffer in anguish. I learned to relish that anguish without knowing I was in the middle of spiritual pride.
Even harder to contend with was this thought temptation: All my efforts to be good were pointless, for I was bound to fall anyway. Of what use was personal advancement, climbing the corporate ladder, running the rat race, social prestige? What use was “success”? Oh, how fleeting worldly happiness could be. Nothing else in this world could possibly satisfy after all that.
Alas, life goes on even for the wannabe 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 elevating novel become mere memory in a matter of minutes. I contrived a corrupted Latin phrase for this as a motto at the time: Vanitas et veritas.
What do I do on such a plane of existence except endure boredom as a desert monk would survive the sandstorm? For me, this went to a totally unexpected direction: depression. It might not have been of the clinical sort, with anhedonia as symptom and all, but I certainly was down there in the dumps, the pits. 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. I turned into a new-stuff addict to ease myself through the pain. Within a short span of time, I would juggle myself between movies, plays, workshops, dancing lessons, sporting events, books, fashions, sounds, dishes, and computer things. And I was not yet 27.
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. A catastrophic long-winded downfall. Thankfully, grace rained out on me and I eventually got bored of getting bored. Until I just found myself slowly getting 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, a little kid’s smile, a birdsong, a sudden rain in summer, hot chamomile 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 pure love, joy, hope, and peace, that I was no longer bound to fall and sin and experience pain. I forgot that I remain a descendant of Adam and Eve, that I too have partaken of Eden's forbidden fruit, causing our species’ collective fall from grace, and 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. Worst of all, I gave up fighting when I sensed defeat, thinking everything on earth was fallen anyway, so why bother with contamination?
It didn’t occur to me that after all the euphoria should come the hard part: the hard work of high maintenance. It didn’t occur to me that the world was not likely to change with me, at my pace, just because I did. I decided to change, but expected to be rewarded with a permanent paradise on earth, but when it never came, I pronounced everything as fallen and futile.
How to strike a balance between the spiritual and the temporal, between heaven and earth? Tough question. I’d rather that I be doused with cold water rather than attempt an answer. What I can say is that there's no way to go but down when you're up there. Savor the euphoric part, I’d say, but after that, life is a life-long vigil at maintaining spiritual homoestasis. We should constantly be keeping an ever-watchful eye so as not to remain passive that we get bored and complacent, depressed, and suicidal; or blinded by misplaced zeal that we become totally unreasonable.
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