The Paradox of Radical Trust

On his live album Precious Friend, Arlo Guthrie cracked a joke: “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” Seekers of holy nonduality recognize this: in the economy of grace, the words of the author of Ecclesiastes ring true as ever: “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven: … a time for loving, a time for hating; a time for war, a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8)

When I read this list, I’m tempted to fall back into the human desire to control life by managing our experience: “It’s okay to love, but not to hate; peace is better than war” and so forth. And why not? I’m much more interested in loving that hating, in being a peacemaker than a warmonger.

But you can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in. Like it or not, we live in a world where war happens; where hate happens, where abuse and addiction and violence all happen. And while it’s imperative to make moral choices to inform and guide our lives (abuse and violence are not okay), contemplative practice brings us face to face with the reality that we are called to live in, and respond to, and love and forgive, a world where light and dark both exist, both persist, and both impact the course of our lives and the choices we are called to make.

My first spiritual director, a wonderful woman named Lin whom I met through the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, told me when I was only about 25 years old that my core spiritual issue was learning how to trust. More than three decades later, I’m still working on this one.

I wonder what trusting the Spirit really looks like from a deep contemplative place? As Lin so shrewdly observed, I must agree with her that my capacity to trust is hardly exemplary: I trust, and I mistrust. I have faith, and I doubt. I respond spontaneously to the urging of my heart or intuition, and I second-guess myself. I accept the wisdom of my faith community and my tradition, and I argue against such wisdom.

St. Paul tells us love always trusts. But sometimes that means even trusting doubt, or boundaries, or the inability to trust. (Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash)

But you can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in. Perhaps we can only trust to the extent that we also can doubt. Perhaps our ability to say yes — to our tradition or our teachers — is shaped by our capacity to say no. Perhaps the key to trust is learning to trust both our trusting and our doubting.

The radical nonduality to which contemplation invites us is not an “everything goes” nihilism, where nothing really matters. Rather, to use Richard Rohr’s elegant phrase, it is an “everything belongs” embrace, where that which is good is affirmed, and that which is bad is accepted even as it is called to change. If we hate the haters, aren’t we just lending energy to their pattern? Only by loving the haters can we ever hope for radical transformation. That is the secret of forgiveness, as well as of unconditional love.

Every day I try to respond anew to the invitation Lin gave me so many years ago: let’s trust the Spirit, and do so radically. But ironically, that includes even trusting all the ways in which we choose not to trust. Not to acquiesce to our mistrust, but, paradoxically, to accept it: thereby creating the space where the Spirit may continue to move in, and transform, our lives.



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