A Faith Beyond Belief
Around the world, people tell stories of Nasrudin, a sometimes bumbling and often clever spiritual teacher of the ancient Middle East who was better at navigating the depths than the surface of life.
In one story, an old friend tells Nasrudin that he has decided to go off on an adventure and discover the meaning of life. He’s going to miss him, the friend says, adding, “Nasrudin, why don’t you give me that lovely ring on your finger. I’ll wear it, and that way every time I look at it I’ll think of you and your wisdom.”
Nasrudin, not one to part easily with a precious possession, replies, “I have a better idea. Why don’t I keep the ring, and then every time you look at your finger and notice that there’s no ring there, you’ll think of me.”
This is one of many stories about spiritual emptiness—not the literal idea of nothingness as understood in a negative way but a valuable kind of lack that serves the spirit.
Spiritual people often are obsessed with having something to believe in, something to be proud of, something that sets them apart. They want to attain a stage of understanding, a level of wisdom or perfection, and they’d like to possess the truth. They consider their list of beliefs precious and give special honor to their teacher and their local community of fellow believers. They’d like to see miracles and will even travel great distances to check out the new appearance of a saint. Many spiritual people hold on to their faith as a thing, while the most refined teachings often recommend developing a taste for nothing.
This special appreciation for nothing, called sunyata in India and “the negative way” in the Christian tradition, is essential on the spiritual path. When you relax the heroic tendency to know everything and to possess wisdom and belong to the right community, then you have a chance of seeing something really important. You might glimpse the divinity within nature, the sacred in other people, and the holy core of your own self.
You don’t go looking for the right community, because you understand that spiritual community appears at every moment you make a heartfelt connection in the world. You don’t cling to a set of beliefs, because you notice that every experience has such depth that you can sense the divine in it. You don’t need to believe as much as to trust and to see in a sacred manner.
The objects of our belief are often defenses against the sacred rather than its manifestations. We cling to certain practices and a language because we fear the sense of spiritual free fall involved in being open to constant revelations and epiphanies. These latter experiences, visible only to the naked eye, the eye not covered by lenses of belief, offer a different kind of certainty, the kind that comes from relaxed openness rather than anxious need.
Years ago, I was an anxious Catholic, closed to the wisdom of other traditions, believing in a limited set of terms given to me fully defined and sanctioned, unaware of the lessons I could take from the natural world and those I could explore openly and freely. Now I am a less-heroic Catholic, in the eyes of some not a Catholic at all. I’m an empty Catholic, a man whose ardent and cherished Catholicism is invisible in my thoughts and in the way I live and is only a hair’s width away from all other traditions.
I “cultivate my ignorance” about spiritual matters, a lesson I learned from my favorite theologian, Nicholas of Cusa, who said each of us should pursue our own unique form of spiritual ignorance, our own ways of shedding the need to know everything. I also cultivate uncertainty and the sense of belonging to every and no community or tradition. Paradoxically, this letting go intensifies my faith and makes me more religious.
Look at your fingers, and focus on one that doesn’t have a ring on it. That’s a reminder to keep your mind open and your heart unfastened. Notice how empty that finger is, and be reminded that in order to be infused with wisdom and purpose you have to be empty. Otherwise, you won’t be ready when you stumble upon yet another pebble of insight or behold some new revelation. If your fingers are all ringed with fixed ideas and final conclusions, they won’t be free to receive a new insight and keep your spiritual progress alive.