“What do I do if I practice and practice and practice, and nothing ever happens?”
“What do I do if I pray and pray and pray, and God never answers my prayers?”
This question, in all its variations, is one of the most critical questions you will face in the course of your spiritual growth. But it is one of the most difficult to answer. I’ve asked this question of a number of spiritual practitioners, from different paths, and the answer is almost invariably something like “be patient, it will happen eventually.” True as this answer may be, it doesn’t seem to offer a lot of help in figuring out what to do in the meantime.
But I did once get an answer that was different – both startling and illuminating in a way. It came from a Trappist monk, of whom I had just asked this question. He started by discussing the question of whether God (as a Catholic monk, he preferred to use the G-word) is immanent or transcendent – “here among us” or “out there somewhere” to put it simply.
“God cannot be completely transcendent because then we would never be able to make a connection with Him. But on the other hand, he cannot be totally immanent, or He would be right here in our world, and there wouldn’t be anything special about Him” or words to that effect.
True enough, but a bit abstract – Theology 101 stuff, and I didn’t see what it had to do with my question. Impatiently, I interrupted him. “Father, I know all that. But what does it have to do with the question I asked? He looked me straight in the eye, and with a mischievous smile replied, “In other words” – here he paused for emphasis – “finding Transcendence is always a game of hide and seek!”
So there you have it. In its implications, it really isn’t much different from the standard answer. But his unexpected metaphor got me thinking. If it’s truly a game of hide and seek, and you haven’t found God yet, the obvious thing is to keep looking. But how? And where? Are we talking different locations? Different churches perhaps? In the park? On the river? In a dark room? The possibilities seem limitless, and the monk’s insight doesn’t offer us any clues about where might be the most fruitful place to look.
But what if we have it backward? What if the Transcendent is actually trying to find us, but we are the one who is hiding? In this case, the metaphor gives us a bit more to chew on. Let’s start with the question of why would you hide from the Transcendent in the first place? How does that even make sense if you are right in the middle of praying or meditating and expecting a result? Well, it might be that part of you is seeking out Heaven but another part of you really doesn’t want to be found. And the best way not to be found would be to not open the door when there is a knock.
Let’s jump to a different metaphor to try to make this clear. You’ve probably heard of the “green room”, right? It’s the place where guests wait before they go on camera for a TV show. I don’t know if the room is really green – but that’s what they call it anyways.
Let’s say you are in the green room and waiting to be called. What do you do? Well, if you have faith that you will be called sooner or later (and you darn better well, or you’re wasting your time there in the first place!) you don’t want to wander too far away. If you are off somewhere at the wrong time, you might miss the call. So you stay put. Make yourself quite easy to be found, in other words.
What if we have it backward? What if the Transcendent is actually trying to find us, but we are the one who is hiding?
But since you don’t know exactly when the call might come, you want to make sure that you are ready – ready all the time. Getting too engrossed in that novel you brought with you is not a good idea – could make it more difficult to re-focus when you finally do appear on stage. Same goes for chomping on a sandwich, for obvious reasons. You might allow yourself a few sips from your coffee cup, as long as you are careful not to spill it on your shirt.
But whatever minor activities you might indulge in, you will be very careful to maintain your focus – trying to visualize a confident entrance, rehearsing your best jokes, working out a self-fulfilling expectation for how the interview will go. You want to make sure you are “on” – energetic and dynamic, the second you walk on camera.
This gives us a hint about what to do while we are in the green room of the Transcendent – get ready, be ready, stay ready. Make ourselves more ready with each passing day. Rehearse our lines – what will you say in an interview with the Transcendent? Remember that we cannot predict or even expect the exact moment when this will happen. And that raises a slightly different complication which no doubt contributes to the difficulties.
In the world’s green rooms, you’re not likely to have to wait more than an hour or two – the shows simply don’t go on that long. But in the green room of the Transcendent, things can go on much longer – months, years, decades even. As a human being, you’re not wired to maintain a high state of readiness all the time. Eventually the adrenalin will run out and you’ll be left exhausted. You will have to let your guard down. Or worse, give up entirely on what might seem to be a fruitless quest.
This is where Shimenawa Virtue #6 – playfulness – comes in. When we realize we can’t maintain the intensity (Virtue #5) indefinitely, the trick is to switch to a lower level of intensity that still helps us to preserve our awareness and our focus. After all, hide-and-seek is a game, right? And we know that the Transcendent also has a playful and humorous nature. If you don’t believe me, just think about what has happened to all the great plans you had back in 2019. So why not play along with the Transcendent on this one?
In other words, why not make it a game? You can look under rocks. “Are you here?” Or in the branches of trees. “Are you up there?” Look into the wind. “Is this the shimenawa that will take me to You?” You can keep this up a lot longer, and with a much lighter heart.
It might even come to pass that your playful, accepting approach proves to be an easier match for the Transcendent than your searching intensity, which can easily shade into an entitled, demanding attitude that could actually be inhibiting your efforts to connect.
There is a story they tell about the great mystic, Theresa of Avila. She was on kitchen duty in her cloister one evening, when her Lord descended to take possession of her soul and put her into ecstasy. According to the story, she actually turned Him down, with a short comment – “Not now, Lord, you’ll burn the soup!”
Now that’s what I mean by playfulness – they were on such intimate terms, almost like a loving couple goofing off in the kitchen. What’s to prevent us from approaching the Transcendent with a similar attitude of loving playfulness?