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Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles' Creedby David Steindl-rast
What does this really mean?
The original version of the Creed begins with the word credo, from which the English word creed derives. The single word credo is translated by two English words, i believe. We shall take a closer look at the Latin word in the next section. Here we focuson the meaning of the "I" that speaks in the Creed. Who is that "I"?
Only when they are joined together in the phrase i believe do these two words reveal their full meaning. They define each other, as it were. When the "I" that speaks here "believes," this means infinitely more than accepting an unproven proposition aslikely; it is rather an expression of unconditional trust. Only when we know that this is what believing means can we understand which "I" is speaking here; and only this "I," in turn, can believe, in the full sense of believing. Only an "I" brave enough forthe radical confidence of unconditional trust can be our true Self. Our little ego--which we often mean when we say "I"--is incapable of the courageous trust of faith. Why? Because the opposite of faith as trust is not doubt but fearfulness, and our ego thriveson fear. The ego owes its very existence to the illusion of being separated from the whole--little me against the rest of the world. No wonder it feels isolated, insecure, and threatened. Our true Self is securely embedded in the whole of being. What couldit possibly fear? It trusts.
By saying I BELIEVE, giving both words of this phrase their full weight, we blow the sham of the ego to pieces and enter into an altogether new reality. We give expression to what it means to be fully human.
Let me express this in a somewhat whimsical image: Little X enters a little church--all perfectly harmless and uneventful. But then comes the time to recite the Creed, and Little X says, "i believe." Suddenly--for eyes focused on a deeper reality--roofand steeple of the church fly off, the walls crumble, time and space are suspended. All that is left is the one, all-embracing human Self in the eternal Now.
The Creed speaks in the language of the Christian religion, but also in the voice of a spirituality that lies deeper than any particular tradition. The I that says "i believe" is our true Self, the one authentic Self all humans have in common.
How do we know this is so?
"Know thyself!" reads the inscription above the entrance to Apollo's temple at Delphi, site of the famous oracle. But the ancient Greeks were not alone in this admonition of the key to wisdom. Any human being who reaches a certain stage of awareness isconfronted with the challenge of self-knowledge. And as soon as we embark on the journey of self-exploration, we discover the distinction between the self we observe and a bigger Self that does the observing. We need not elaborate here on the implications.Reliable guidance to self-knowledge is readily available today, say, in the books of Eckhard Tolle or through Gempo Roshi's Big Mind Process. In our context here, we need only pay attention to two facts:
1. Self-observation shows us how deeply we are entangled in what we have called the ego. We can't even stop our own thoughts or the torrent of stories by which the ego keeps up the illusion of being an independent entity. 2. The more we learn to live in the now, the more we will discover the Self. As simple a practice as being alert to the opportunity each moment offers us--opportunity to breathe, to enjoy, to learn--will make us more and more at home in that Self whichis one with all. There we experience no fear and can smile at the efforts of the ego to perpetuate itself.
Greek statues typically have a support leg and a free leg. Beginners in self-awareness stand with their support leg firmly in their ego consciousness. The goal of spiritual training is to shift our weight until the center of gravity rests in the true Self--ourBuddha nature, as Buddhists would say; other traditions use other expressions. Saint Paul writes, "I live, yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
Try to feel your way inside toward that core of yourself where you are the Watcher who is notyour thoughts but can watch them. This going-inward unveils your Self to yourself--your Christself. The more we identify with this reality, the more we become uniquely ourselves and, at the same time, one with all others. Only this Self can "believe" in thefull sense; only our true Self can trust unconditionally.
This is the reason that the Creed, although it is a community's declaration, does not begin with the word we but with I. This quintessential human Self--Purusha in Hindu mythology, IItoi (the Man in the Maze) in the myths of the Tohono O'Odham in Arizona,the Cosmic Christ, to give but three of many names--speaks in me and through me, because this is who I truly am.
Why make such a point of this?
If we understand the first two words of the Creed correctly, we know what "believing" means and which "I" is speaking here. This turns out to show that the Creed is not what most people think it is. Usually it is taken to be a proclamation of beliefs bywhich Christians distinguish themselves from all others. Rightly understood, however, it is the expression of a faith shared by all who find and acknowledge their true Self--and there is no other faith. What people call different faiths are merely differentbelief systems, different expressions of the one universal attitude of existential faith. Far from affirming differences between "us" and "the others," the Creed takes the sting out of these distinctions. It proclaims, in the language and imagery of the Christiantradition, a faith that is common to all human beings. Its very first word stands for that Self to which all spiritual traditions point the way.
Every one of these traditions is, as it were, a different door leading to the same sanctuary. The more we find the way to this inner sacred space and become at home there, the more freely will we be able to go in and out through the different doors. Wewill no longer be blocked by what seems strange to us, nor will we cling to what is familiar. Common Sense tells us how vital such an understanding is in a world still torn by wars of religion. There are still people who apparently think that one can becomea better Christian at the expense of being fully human--truly humane. Anyone who puts Christian ideology above the concern for human beings could serve as an example for this incorrect understanding. Thus, what could be more urgent than to realize that theChristian profession of faith makes full humanness its cornerstone? Since it is the quintessential human who speaks in the Creed, we will apply this insight to the text as a whole and find what each of its statements means in universal terms. Actually, if you just said i believe, and really knew what you meant by it, allthat the Creed spells out would be summed up in that one phrase.
Nothing is more difficult than to believe--truly to believe--in the love of another human being. Nothing is more natural than love, yet nothing is more unbelievable. That your friend loves you goes without saying, yet, for that very reason, saying so mustultimately remain unconvincing. More is needed. But what is this "more"? It is the trust--the faith--that must be supplied by the one who receives love.
My first experience of all this started as a childhood game, a staring contest with my cousin. We invented this game (or rather reinvented it, as every new generation does, I am convinced) as we lay there on a red-and-white checkered blanket on the lawn,bored and a bit resentful for still having to take an afternoon nap even though we felt so grown-up by now. It started as a contest about who could look longer into the other's eyes. Turn away and you lose. But suddenly it turned into more than a game. Maybethis began by seeing our own image mirrored small and dark in the other's pupil. What happened after that cannot easily be put into words. Somehow, we fell into each other's eyes. Like children in a fairy tale who fall into a magic pool, we were now in an enchantedland. Here one could be two and yet be one. When our eyes began to water, both of us closed them at the same time.
Later we tried to laugh it all off, but deep down we knew that we had glimpsed the real world. At that level of intense awareness, all is love. Seeing is love, breathing is love, being is love--love as a belonging that cannot be questioned or doubted. Decades later I read the line by E. E. Cummings "i am through you so i," and I remembered. In retrospect I could recognize what the experience shared with my cousin had been: an encounter with God. Only a great poet can sum up so succinctly the insight--theconviction--that flows from an encounter like that. "i am through you so i." The you must be there for the I to find itself. Trust in you gives me trust in myself. In the encounter between the you and the I, faith is born. I am so truly I because I have faithin you. Only the I that comes about through faith can have faith.
And you? When and how have you encountered that paradox? Don't look in your memory for some big external event. For you, too, a playful moment in childhood may have provided that flash of insight never forgotten, often neglected, eminently worth recovering.
I Believe in God
What does this really mean?
This initial statement contains, as in a seed, the whole of the Creed. It means that I dedicate myself in complete trust to a power greater than myself. This dedication is a commitment of my whole being--mind and body--from my heart, my innermost being,my "deep heart's core" to use an expression coined by William Butler Yeats.
Faith is far more than the sum total of beliefs. Beliefs are merely pointers; faith is profound trust in the actuality to which beliefs point. The Creed mentions beliefs, but it is a statement of faith, not of beliefs. There are many beliefs, but thereis ultimately only one faith: faith in God. Beliefs are only so many windows toward the one actuality with which faith is concerned: God.
In the original Latin, the opening phrase of the Creed i believe is one word, credo, from which the English word creed derives. Credo is a compound of cor ("heart") and do ("I give") and means literally "I give my heart." This is an expression of faith,not of belief. The original connotation of "believing" was not so different from "giving one's heart"; the word has the same linguistic root as love. Today, however, the meaning has completely shifted. By belief, one gives one's intellectual assent; by faith,one gives one's heart, in total trust. And the reference point of such trust is what the word god signifies whenever it is properly used.
In this initial proclamation of the Creed, the word god is used merely as a pointer. It indicates a direction, the direction of the human heart's ultimate trust. Here god is not yet identified as source and goal of my life, my highest value; its meaningis still waiting to be clothed in images like the famous one by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Ground of being, and granite of it: past all grasp, God." At this point in the Creed the term "God" refers merely to the goal of an inveterate longing of the humanheart for meaning. The persistence of that feeling, however, implies a deep trust that our longing can and will be stilled. This trust is the most basic faith.
How do we know this is so?
From the time we become conscious as human beings we are aware (no matter how vaguely) of the transcendent. Are you aware that everything you experience becomes in your mind a story? This starts in childhood, as soon as we become conscious. Even if younever tell this story to any person, the fact that it is a story implies a listener who takes an interest in our life story. Although we rarely focus on it, this awareness provides the contrasting background onto which we project whatever else we are awareof. In this sense we implicitly know what is meant by god before we know anything else: the Listener for whom we make a story out of our life.
But many people have become allergic, as it were, to the word god. This is understandable. Too often the G-word has been misunderstood and misused. In an attempt to point at the experiential reality without pushing the wrong linguistic button, I oftenuse synonyms--"Ultimate Reality," "Ground of Being," "Source of Life," and the like. Yet, when we want to understand the Creed, our task is not to replace the word god with a different one, but rather to deepen our understanding of its meaning, especially themeaning it acquires in the context of professing one's faith.
Abraham Maslow has called attention to what he calls "peak experiences" as decisive for an understanding of religious faith. In our peak moments, we experience existential communion with an ultimate reality that transcends our own limited self. This experienceis so basic that we cannot reasonably doubt its insight. It makes no sense to ask, "Is this real?" because what we encounter here is the reality that sets our standard for all that is real.
One of the leading psychiatrists of the mid-twentieth century, Maslow set himself the task of finding out what characterizes people whom one would consider models of mental health. To his great surprise he found that the psychologically healthy, highlycreative, and resilient people he examined had one thing in common: mystic moments. They reported experiences in which they felt a sense of limitless belonging and experienced the goodness and beauty of all that exists--very much like the great mystics of thedifferent spiritual traditions. Maslow spoke of "peak experiences" because his colleagues frowned upon the term "mystic," but to the end of his life he insisted that there was no difference between the two. He also found that everyone seems to have these experiences--tothe extent to which one is allowed to generalize. What distinguishes truly great human beings from ordinary people is that they let their lives be shaped by their mystic insights. For instance, they behave toward others as one behaves toward people to whomone belongs; they live gratefully aware of the goodness and beauty we encounter everywhere.
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