As Richard Rohr traces the human spiritual journey, he suggests that, if undertaken skillfully and intentionally, it moves from a first simplicity, through increasing complexity, and then arrives at what he calls a second simplicity, a place of greater acceptance, compassion, and intimacy with God.
I wonder if you have ever noticed that the Bible, as we now have it, both begins and ends in a garden?
The beginning, of course, is the familiar story of the garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve and the whole story that gets them out of the garden. One way of seeing this story is as a movement from the first simplicity of the spiritual journey — the place of the child, represented by the garden itself — to the greater complexity that lies outside the garden. The story is presented as an ejection of Adam and Eve from the garden on account of their inability to follow the rules. But I think we could imagine this story as representing a more natural human evolution: children begin in a kind of innocence, a blissful unknowing about the world. As they grow, they move out from that first simplicity into an increasingly complex world. They both reach for knowledge and have knowledge thrust upon them, and this is necessary for human growth. Thus, the journey out of the garden is necessary, as are the flaming swords that guard the entrance to Eden in the biblical story — because once we emerge from that innocence into the complexity of the larger world, we can never go back to it.
As we grow out of our first simplicity and encounter the larger world, we find ourselves in a place full of paradoxes and contradictions, a place that can be quite chaotic. We have a tendency, armed with expanded knowledge, to think that we know more and better than we actually do. The worldview that forms as we move away from that first simplicity we usually universalize, believing that our view is the correct view that should be shared by others. We use that worldview to organize this new-found complexity, to make sense of it. Information that does not correspond to that worldview we discard or reject, and we also have a tendency to discard and reject others who don’t share our view.
Yet, having left that first simplicity behind, the memory of it lingers. From time to time, there is activated in us a longing for that first simplicity, when life seemed more enchanted and much simpler. We often experience this longing as nostalgia. And, at times, that longing can be powerful, indeed.
The end of the book of Revelation is really a story about longing, about hoping for a second simplicity. Chapters 21 and 22 describe, at first, a city — the New Jerusalem — coming down out of heaven. It is a luminous, radiant, impossibly beautiful sort of place that is filled with light. At the center of this city is a garden, and at the center of this garden is the tree of life (that other tree in Eden from which Adam and Eve did not eat). God dwells in the midst of this tree, and its leaves provide healing. We are told that this is a place where tears are dried, where death, mourning, and pain are no more.
This garden with which the Bible ends represents well the second simplicity that we can arrive at in our spiritual journey. In this second simplicity, we have passed through both necessary suffering and necessary joy — the various downs and ups of life — and we have used these experiences skillfully to take us deeper, to move us toward a greater intimacy with God. Death, mourning, and pain don’t disappear from our lives, but our relationship with them has changed. We have learned that these things are part of the “is-ness” of life, and that they do not have the power to destroy us, as we once thought. We have learned that our lives are more than what we thought, have learned that there is a depth in us — our true self, our soul — that is held by God in such a way that it can’t be annihilated. Our perspective has shifted.
We have also come to know God not as a magic wand sort of God (a term Rohr uses, that I love), who will use his magic on our behalf if we believe the right things or say the right prayer or have enough faith or belong to the proper group. We have learned that God is to be discovered in the unfolding of our lives, working with us from the inside out. God does not assure us of a blissful life free of suffering nor does God cause us to suffer because of our sins. Rather, God moves with us through both the necessary joy and the necessary suffering of life, inviting us deeply into the is-ness of life that we might discover our true depth, and live from that deep place.
We are able, in this second simplicity, to recognize the true significance of the religious vocation: to both seek and affirm that, in Rohr’s words, there is some coherence, purpose, benevolence, and direction in the universe, even when we cannot work it all out clearly and completely. We are content to affirm all of this, while leaving the mystery in many ways unresolved. And we are content to accept the “is-ness” of other people, recognizing them as fellow travelers in this great journey, no longer needing to make them over in our image or reject them if we can’t, able to look upon others with compassion, and no longer afraid of ideas that are different from our own.
Unfortunately, arriving at this second simplicity is not assured. It depends on whether we are willing to use the journey of our lives skillfully, to take the opportunities it presents to go deeper. It depends, in many ways, on our willingness to stop demanding explanations and placing blame when life doesn’t go the way we think it should, and instead pay more attention to the question, “Now that this has happened, how are you going to respond?” It is, in many ways, about learning to move with life’s current rather than trying to swim upstream against it. Life, ultimately, is a river that flows from Eden to the New Jerusalem’s Tree of Life — if we flow with it.