All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. If only we could see these “wounds” as the way through, as Jesus did, then they would become sacred wounds rather than scars to deny, disguise, or project onto others. I am sorry to admit that I first see my wounds as an obstacle more than a gift. Healing is a long journey.
If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative, or bitter. This is the storyline of many of the greatest novels, myths, and stories of every culture. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children.
Scapegoating, exporting our unresolved hurt, is the most common storyline of human history. The Jesus Story is about radically transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing on the pain to the next generation. Unless we can find a meaning for human suffering, that God is somehow in it and can also use it for good, humanity is in major trouble. Because we will suffer. Even the Buddha said that suffering is part of the deal!
We shouldn’t try to get rid of our own pain until we’ve learned what it has to teach. When we can hold our pain consciously and trustfully (and not project it elsewhere), we find ourselves in a very special liminal space. Here we are open to learning and breaking through to a much deeper level of faith and consciousness. Please trust me on this. We must all carry the cross of our own reality until God transforms us through it. These are the wounded healers of the world, and healers who have fully faced their wounds are the only ones who heal anyone else.
As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross or, as in Michelangelo’s Pietà cradling Jesus’ body. One would expect her to take her role wailing or protesting, but she doesn’t! We must reflect on this deeply. Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. It’s as if she is saying, “There’s something deeper happening here. How can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?” Consider the analogy of energy circuits: Most of us are relay stations; only a minority are transformers—people who actually change the electrical charge that passes through us.
Jesus on the cross and Mary standing beneath the cross are classic images of transformative spirituality. They do not return the hostility, hatred, accusations, or malice directed at them. They hold the suffering until it becomes resurrection! That’s the core mystery of Christianity. It takes our whole life to begin to comprehend this. It tends to be the wisdom of elders, not youngers.
Unfortunately, our natural instinct is to try to fix pain, to control it, or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love, and he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand in liminal space, to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until we are moved by grace to a much deeper level and a much larger frame, where our private pain is not center stage but a mystery shared with every act of bloodshed and every tear wept since the beginning of time. Our pain is not just our own.
The Bible, in its entirety, finds a balance between knowing and not-knowing, between using particular and carefully chosen words and having humility about words, even though the ensuing traditions have not often found that same balance. “Churchianity,” by its very definition, needs to speak with absolutes and certainties. It feels its job is to make absolute truth claims and feels very fragile when it cannot. Then, we followers think we must be certain about things we are not really certain of at all (which is the beginning of the loss of faith)! This is a similar predicament that politicians experience, needing to project an image of self-assurance and confidence, even though we all know they’re faking it just like the rest of us. As Marcus Borg (1942-2015) and others suggest in The Emerging Christian Way, absolute correctness is the largely impossible task institutional Christianity has taken upon itself.  Organized religion is now crumbling beneath this impossible and false goal, it seems to me.
I understand the individual ego’s and the institution’s structural need for clarity, some basic order, and identity, especially to get us started when we are young. Religion then needs a key to unlock itself from itself—but from the inside, which many call the mystical or contemplative tradition. Most successful reforms come from using one’s own internal resources to self-correct. The words “mystery,” “mystical,” and “mutter” all come from the Indo-European root word muein, which means to “hush or close the lips.” We must start with humble, patient, wordless unknowing, sincere curiosity, or what many call “beginner’s mind.” Only then are we truly teachable. Otherwise, we only hear whatever confirms our present understanding.
Without such humility, religion has cried “wolf” too many times in history and later been proven wrong. Observe earlier authoritative Church statements on democracy, war, torture, slavery, women, treatment of Jews, revolutions, liturgical forms, the “Doctrine of Discovery” of the New World, the Latin language, and the earth-centered universe—to name just a few big ones. If we had balanced our “knowing” with some honest not-knowing, we would never have made such egregious mistakes. We could always prove whatever we wanted by twisting one line of Scripture. The biblical text was not allowed to change us as much as many Christians have used it to exclude and judge other people.
All of this would require a ceaseless jihad (which did not mean “holy war” but “effort,” “struggle”), because it was extremely difficult to implement the will of God in a tragically flawed world. Muslims must make a determined endeavor on all fronts—intellectual, social, economic, moral, spiritual, and political. Sometimes they might have to fight, as Muhammad did when the Meccan kafirun vowed to exterminate the Muslim community. But aggressive warfare was outlawed, and the only justification for war was self-defense.  . . . An important and oft-quoted tradition (hadith) has Muhammad say on his way home after a battle: “We are returning from the Lesser Jihad [the battle] and going to the Greater Jihad,” the far more important and difficult struggle to reform one’s own society and one’s own heart. Eventually, when the war with Mecca was turning in his favor, Muhammad adopted a policy of nonviolence. .
Like any religious tradition, Islam would change and evolve. Muslims acquired a large empire, stretching from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas, but true to Qur’anic principles, nobody was forced to become Muslim. Indeed, for the first hundred years after the Prophet’s death, conversion to Islam was actually discouraged, because Islam was a din [way of life] for the Arabs, the descendants of Abraham’s elder son, Ishmael, just as Judaism was for the sons of Isaac, and Christianity for the followers of the gospel.
Faith, therefore, was a matter of practical insight and active commitment; it had little to do with abstract belief or theological conjecture.
I would add that mature Islam beautifully parallels the Franciscan and Christian contemplative emphasis on orthopraxy (right practice) and the importance of nondual consciousness. For our jihad to be nonviolent and transformative, our actions must be rooted in an inner experience of love and communion—what we call contemplation. Opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to union takes lifelong practice.
Little by little we begin to respond to God’s love, but we still perceive God’s love as dependent on our ideal response. We believe that grace is a conditional gift, that God will love us if we are good, that God will save or reward us if we keep the commandments or go to church.
As we practice giving and receiving love, we begin to see God’s love is infinite and unconditional, but the implications are just too mind-blowing. We acknowledge that God loves us whether we are good or bad, and that God is gracious to the just and the unjust alike. But we still think that God is doing that from afar, from up in heaven somewhere. We do not yet see ourselves as inherently participating in the same process. Frankly, we have not yet discovered our own soul.
Finally, we make the breakthrough to seeing that God’s grace and love is present within us, through us, with us, and even as us! We wake up to who we truly are: the image and likeness of God.
.. The mystery of incarnation has come full circle. We can now enjoy God’s temple within our own body as the Apostle Paul teaches (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and throughout), and we can love ourselves, others, and God by the one same flow. It is all one stream of Love! We fully realize that it is God who is doing the loving, and we surrender ourselves to being channels and instruments of that Divine Flow in the world. We do not initiate the process; we only continue it.