Some years ago, I was hiking with some friends in the Canadian Rockies north of Banff, Alberta. We camped out our first night in a large opening in the side of one of the mountains. The space effectively created a kind of tall, shallow cave that allowed us to get under its shelter enough to create a fire for warmth that was out of the wind. After supper, we sat with our backs to the fire and conversed as we watched our shadows dancing on the cave wall. There is only so much hand shadow play and small talk that can take place in such a setting that before long, talk becomes philosophical and ponderous.
And suddenly we were staring at the shadows and reminded of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where from birth, people are chained in a cave and the only reality they know is within that cave. A fire behind them projects shadows on the wall; they hear voices outside the cave and assume they come from the shadow figures.
In the story, one day, one of the prisoners is freed and turns around and sees the fire that causes the shadows. But he is overwhelmed by the brilliance of the flame and temporarily blinded. And Plato says, suppose someone tells this man that the fire is actually real and the shadows are not. But for the man, the blinding light of the fire feels too painful and discomforting. It has skewed everything he knows, so he returns back to his chains and the shadows on the wall.
And we were arguing over what’s real and not real, and why some things frighten us and not others, when Paul, one of our company, said it reminded him of that scene in the Matrix. “The first one,” he says. “The best one,” he adds. “That scene where Neo meets the Oracle in her kitchen and she points to the sign above the door that reads ‘temet nosce’ (“know thyself”). It’s a reference to the inscription at the entrance to the inner court of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.”
Needless to say, the rest of us were impressed. But then Paul continued more intensly, “Sometimes the truth of who you are can smack you up side your head and the first thing you wanna do is get back to the cave where it’s warm and you don’t have to look at the light. You don’t have to face the truth. Where being true to yourself, as Polonius advised Laertes in Hamlet, just means living in your own little bubble of reality for as long as you can without having to face the greater truth of how interdependent we are with one another and with the environment and these mountains and all of life itself!”
OK, to be fair, Paul was our local Luddite, intellectual, and environmental activist. So bringing him along meant both taking advantage of his rugged outdoor, survivalist skills as well as being subjected to his lessons in philosophy and social commentary. But, truth be told, I think he was on to something that I still have trouble facing myself 15 years later.
There is this crazy story in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus, early in his ministry, is holding court in the synagogue, disrupting the natural order of power and religious pedagogy, when a man “with an unclean spirit” enters the space and begins taunting him as someone who has come to destroy their way of life. And Jesus silences the demonic spirit and frees the man from its power over him.
The phrase “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” comes immediately to mind. But, in reality, how do we know who we really are? What is really true? Are we just staring at images of our own making, living out truths of our own design (or of another’s design for us)? At shadows on a wall? What demonic doubts or fears or egoistic needs are driving our actions and thoughts instead of what’s truly real and important? When neuroscience today is telling us we aren’t nearly as sure of what we think as we think we are, then what are we to think? How are we to live intentionally into this mystery of who we are, and who we are with one another, in as troubled a world as many of us have ever seen in a very long time? I don’t believe we will find this on our own. If the grace of God and the life of Jesus teaches us anything, it is that we have to get there together.
This Sunday, I will conclude our Epiphany series, Living on Purpose: Six Practices for a More Intentional Spirituality with the sixth practice, “Becoming Who You Are.” The Revolution Band will offer the music of Widespread Panic, Mumford and Sons, and new music from Alice Merton! I’m looking forward to being back with you. I hope you can join us.