Three Miracles in the Sinai

In December of 1978, on a lonely stretch of the Sharm al Sheck to Suez highway, the driver of a passing car attacked the van I was in. An object came through the windshield, slammed into the rear door and ricocheted around the floor. I thought it was a grenade. I said: “we are dead.”

Four months before I had flown from New York to London. I didn’t have an itinerary, but had the idea to visit Jerusalem and the Sinai. I made my way through eleven European countries, then east across Turkey, south through Syria and Jordan, west across the Allenby Bridge to the West Bank and into Israel, and then south to the Sinai, then under Israeli occupation.

In my knapsack I had a letter from the chairman of the Department of Religion at Swarthmore College. The letter, addressed to no one in particular, said that I was a student enrolled in the department and to please extend all curtesy to me. I had asked the chairman to write the letter because I had thought I might visit Mount Athos in Greece, Santa Caterina in the Sinai or some other place of worship I came across.

I kept the letter in an envelope in a plastic bag in an interior pocket of my knapsack. By the time I got to the Sinai, after over 5,000 miles of trains and busses and ferries and hitchhiking the letter was intact and in good condition.

That I got to the Sinai at all was a miracle. I had hitchhiked south from Jerusalem wearing Israeli army fatigues given me by a rabbinical student who was dismayed by the rags my two changes of clothing had become in 3 plus months and 5,000 miles on the road.

An unarmed Israeli soldier, hitchhiking alone on desolate stretches of the Dead Sea highway at the time was, and undoubtedly still is, a sitting target for abduction or death. I had no issues and found the hitchhiking so reliable that, when the road passed a pretty spot next to the Dead Sea, I asked the driver to stop so that I could take a swim.

The fact that my attire made me a target had occurred to me as I stood on the side of the highway so, after my swim, I flagged a bus and took it to the terminal in Ber Sheba. From there I caught a bus to Eilat.

Two weeks out of Jerusalem I was living in my pup tent on the beach in Dahab, a tiny town on the east side of the Sinai peninsula across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. The beach had several hundred young travelers from all over the world living in rented huts. I spent my days snorkeling the coral reef and my nights with women I invited to share my tent.

A spot like Dahab attracts a steady flow of vacationing kids who appear for a few days or a week and then leave, as well as a contingent of road people who settle-in for a few months of easy living.

Among the road people who had settled-in were two members of an outlaw European motorcycle club who were jumping bail.

These fellows had a van which made them a notable anomaly. Everyone else on the beach had arrived by bus and carrying a knapsack.

The snack bar in Dahab had very little on offer: yogurt, coffee, falafel. There was a small market in a town some miles away, and the guys with the van made runs to it for supplies. They did this simply and generously not as a business. They only asked for some help with the gas money. Their generosity won them notoriety and friendship on the beach.

In time the guys with the van began a small business. They shuttled some beach people, including me, back and forth to various sites including a whaddi–a dry river bed–that led to a hidden and remote oasis 4 miles from a dirt track barely passable by car. The walk over the river bed back and forth to the oasis was breathtakingly beautiful and, for me, other worldly.

We had agreed to finish the hike at nightfall, and so watched the time and got to the dirt road at the appointed time.

The van was late and so we had to wait. In the desert, once the sun sets, the temperature drops quickly. That night in late November or early December the temperature went from pleasant to shivering-cold in less than half an hour.

First Miracle: Insight

All around us there were leafless spherically-shaped bushes filled with needle-sharp thorns about an inch long.

The branches of these bushes were thin and densely packed, but the thorns made any attempt to break them into firewood unthinkable.

One fellow in our hiking party knelt down and lit a bush near its root.

The bush was like a ball of kindling, and in a few moments the entire bush was engulfed in flames that reached maybe 7 feet into the air. We gathered around the fire to warm ourselves but, as quickly as the fire had engulfed the bush, it had consumed the fuel and was out, leaving only a scorched root.

We moved on to the next bush, lit it, and warmed ourselves for a couple of minutes. In about twenty minutes we had burned five or six bushes, leaving a trail of black stumps.

And then someone said: “I wish these bushes wouldn’t go out.” I froze where I was standing. “Oh my God,” I said. Then, “Guys, I just realized something: this is the origin of the story of Moses and the burning bush.” Most ignored me, but a few gave me quizzical looks. “People have been freezing in this desert for thousands of years. And for thousands of years the only available wood has been these bushes. What would a miracle be here in this desert? A miracle would be a bush that burns but is not consumed by burning. Everybody who has spent time in this desert–the wilderness of Moab–has wished for a bush that burns but is not consumed.

A few days after the hike to the oasis I asked the guys with the van if they would be game to drive across the Sinai to The Monastery of Santa Caterina at the base of Mount Sinai. Their reply was immediate: “Sure, if you can fill the van.”

A few days later 10 of us piled into the van and headed to Mount Sinai.

We headed south to Sharma-al Shiek and from there north on the Sharm to Suez highway. Our idea was to turn onto a rutted dirt road across the desert to Mount Sinai that teed into the coast road about 50 kilometers north of Sharm-al-Shek.

Second Miracle: Survival

About 30 kilometers north of Sharm we were cruising at 120 km per hour (70 MPH). I was sitting in the back on a pile of knapsacks and watching the road through the windshield. In the distance I saw a Mercedes approach in the opposite lane. I had never seen a car approach so fast and consequently I focused on it. With my experiences since I now know the approaching car was going at least 100 MPH (160 km/h).

As it approached a hand reached-out the driver’s window and flipped something in front of us. The driver’s aim was perfect, the object smashed through the windshield and slammed into the back door of the van. The object was going so fast relative to the van that I do not remember separate sounds from the twin impacts, I remember just one big smashing sound.

I saw the fist-size object whizzing around the floor of the van like a supercharged pool ball. I thought it was a grenade and said: “we’re dead.”

It was a rock.

The relative speed of the rock to the van, and the people in it, was at least 170 MPH. Had it hit anyone’s head squarely they would have been killed.

There were three people sitting in the front seat and seven scattered about the back and sitting on knapsacks.

Somehow the rock went between the driver and the person next to him, slammed the rear door–destroying the latch we learned later–and spent its energy whizzing around the floor. Aside from a few superficial cuts on one if the driver’s hands, no one was hurt. Had the rock hit the driver he certainly would have lost control at high speed and would have likely rolled the van. The seven people in the back including me, together with the luggage tossed in willy-nilly, would have bounced around like ping pong balls. Some us would have been killed or maimed and the survivors would have waited hours for medical help, or the bullets of the rock-thrower, on that lonely stretch of highway.

The driver slowed the van and stopped. But, before we could all get out, the driver’s partner and I came to the same thought. “Don’t let that son of a bitch get a second shot at us. Keep going. Fast.”

We pulled back on to the road and continued north to the dirt road that crosses the desert and leads to Santa Caterina at the base of Mount Sinai.

The road was a deeply rutted washboard and we made very slow going. We stopped at a village and purchased food. The owner of the van removed the remaining shards of glass from the windshield.

We camped a few miles east of the village and arrived at Santa Caterina the some time the next day and made camp a few hundred yards from the Monastery’s walls.

The next day I took my letter and walked to the monastery built, legend has it, on the spot where God spoke to Moses from the burning bush.

Third Miracle: New Understanding

I went directly to the monastery’s office and presented myself to the Abbot who, it turned-out, spoke excellent English.

I gave him the letter. He read it, looked at me directly, and asked: “what do you want?”

I explained that I was a student of religion and wanted to see more than what the tourists see on their tours of the ossuary and library which features a framed letter written and signed by the prophet Mohammed himself stating that the Monastery of Santa Caterina is a holy place and that no Muslim shall ever raise his hand against it.

He told me to take the tour and return.

In the courtyard I had an unforgettable encounter with a monk. I can’t say exactly why the encounter was extraordinary, but I can describe my impression. A monk, in his late twenties or early thirties, and I walked past each other in the courtyard. I felt–how to describe this?–a quality of presence in this man. I said “good morning” in Greek, and in Greek he responded “good morning.” That was the entire exchange but, as I write these words almost 40 years later, I can almost see this monk’s face in my mind and feel his energy.

I toured the monastery and returned to the abbot’s office.

The abbot was not at his desk but was sitting in a chair next to a small end table. On the table was a large bowl of olives, a small dish for pits and the letter. The abbot sat deathly still. He ate one olive after another, moving only his arm and mouth.

I stood in front of him, waiting for him to speak. He said nothing and just ate olive after olive.

Many years later I realized that he had been weighing me; but at that moment I had no idea why he was silent nor why he didn’t offer me an olive.

Unable to bear the silence I finally said: “well?”

He looked at me and said: “When you meet Philip Metzidakis give him my regards.”

I responded immediately “I am Philip Metzidakis.”

“Oh?” He said. Then, after a pause, “You don’t speak Greek?”

“No. My father is Greek. My mother is Armenian. I grew-up in the United States. We spoke English in my home.”

“You were baptized?”

“Yes. Greek Orthodox.

“Come back when you speak Greek. I am a monk. I will say nothing.” He handed me the letter. I took it and left.

I walked back to our camp unable to make sense of what had happened. As I turned the encounter over in my memory many thoughts and emotions came-up. I had the sense that I was trying on reactions as you would try on a new coat. Anger? Should I get angry? No, anger didn’t seem to fit. Dismissal? Deem the abbot–was he in fact the abbot–to be a pompous jerk? No, that didn’t fit either. Frustration? Sure, I was frustrated, but that amounted to nothing. The fact was I had been given a task–learn Greek and return–by a man I didn’t know but whose presence and self-possession even then I knew was rare. And, beyond his presence, this man spoke excellent English. This was an educated man. I found the entire exchange utterly inscrutable and impossible to label.

I imagine, but don’t know, that there are turning points in everyone’s life. For me being told by a monk in a remote monastery that I had not met myself was a life-changing event. I can say without any fear of exaggeration that my spiritual search–real already for over a decade–took a new direction that day. I learned that self-study, not the study of a teaching or the passion of others, is where spiritual search moves from theory to practice.

Not many years later I understood what the abbot had said. I realized that he had seen that I was not actually related to myself, that in fact I was a young man without a self.

In time I came to understand the truth of the abbot’s measure of me as a man, not as a theory, but as an experienced fact. I’ve since come to understand that this realization of having no self is the first step in all serious spiritual search; and that this realization comes only after a long preparation.

Somehow the abbot, in an audience that lasted fewer than 5 minutes, redirected my spiritual search from an outward pursuit for objective answers and a glimpse of universal meaning to an inward search to meet myself. I see this redirection of my attention and orientation as a kind of miracle.


Twenty years after my visit to Santa Caterina I visited Mount Athos. Through a series of odd coincidences I was led to, met and made friends with an extraordinary and near solitary monk who lives in a very modest house in a remote high valley on the Athonite peninsula.

Our friendship blossomed and over the next fifteen years I made several trips trips to visit him. In time I learned that he had been at Santa Caterina when I had visited in 1978. On my fourth trip to Mount Athos, while sipping coffee with my friend, I realized he was the monk with whom I had crossed paths in the courtyard of the monastery of Santa Caterina and with whom I had exchanged “good mornings” more than thirty years prior.

On Spiritual Practice

This essay was first published under the title “Expertise” in May of 2013 in the annual journal of Brooklyn Aikikai. I am very grateful to the dojo’s sensei, Mr. Robert Savocca, for inviting me to publish a piece in his dojo’s premier issue.

In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell identifies a precondition of expertise. He argues that it takes 10,000 hours to master a discipline. If you want to be good piano player you must practice 10,000 hours; if you want to want to be a good computer programmer you must program for 10,000 hours; if you want to be a good carpenter you must build for 10,000 hours; if you want to earn a black-belt you must be on the mat for 10,000 hours. How long is 10,000 hours? If you work a 40-hour week, 50 weeks a year, it is 5 years. At two hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, it takes 20 years to accumulate 10,000 hours.

The point, of course, is that (pick your term) expertise/ realization/ understanding/ insight/ proficiency/ mastery requires practice, a lot of practice.

This is no doubt true of all human enterprise, but I don’t think Gladwell’s formulation applies to spiritual matters. Or, more precisely, I don’t think there is a linear correlation between practice and realization. This statement is not at all radical. In the 19th century a Zen master named Sengai painted a now famous cartoon of smiling frog on a lily pad. The caption reads: “If by seated meditation one becomes a Buddha…” Sengai leaves it to the reader to finish the sentence: “then all frogs on lily pads are Buddhas.”

Today pictures of smiling frogs hang in meditation halls and zendos across the planet.

Clearly Sengai is telling us that besides accepting the forms left to us by generations of seekers, something else is necessary: we need to be intelligent and we need to be hungry. The Buddha did not just happen to sit under the bodhi tree for eight days any more than Paul just happened to take the road to Damascus. The Buddha and Paul paid for their realizations not in eight days under a tree nor in thirty days on a road, but by staying in front of their unknowing for years until, depending on the story, they sat or walked until they broke-through to a new understanding. The notion that realization will just come to me, in an unpaid for bolt from above, is stupid at best, spiritually decadent at worst.

The Sufis, known for aphorisms rather than paintings, have a formulation as rattling as Sengai’s:

All are doomed save those who know;

All who know are lost save those who practice;

All who practice are adrift save those who practice with right intention;

And all who practice with right intention are in grave danger.

It is of course glib to mix metaphors and ask: “Can a frog have right intention?” But it is not at all glib to ask what practice is. In fact, if I don’t ask the question: “What is practice,” and confront what I find in my life, I will live thinking I know until I die, like a smiling frog on a lily pad.

If we look we see practice—or what passes for it—all around us. We see members of various religions adopt specific costumes and diets and hair cuts as integral parts of their daily practice. We see women with yoga mats stuffed into their knapsacks on the subway and on the street. We meet vegetarians who tell us that they forsake meat in the name of world peace. We see people cross themselves before eating. We see church parking lots full on Sundays. At sunset during Ramadan we see men gathered around plates of dates. We see self-appointed true believers shave the beards of others they deem apostates. We see all manner of unspeakable violence visited on members of one religion by members of another, on the scale of individual horrors and on the scale of vast populations, all carried out in the name of practice. George Sydney, in his autobiographical novel For the Love of Dying, tells us that American chaplains deployed in the Korean War taught young soldiers struggling with having become killers that if they killed not for killing’s sake, but with knowledge of the justice of the cause, then their killing was not murder, but an act of Christian love.

No doubt these chaplains had 10,000 hours of practice. But I don’t think Mr. Jesus would have seen these chaplains as ministers of his teaching. On the contrary, I think his judgment would have been harsh: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Mathew 7, 15-16 KJV

And, I don’t think it is a stretch to add: We shall know ourselves by our fruits. Our “fruits” derive from our being, from who we actually are ontologically. And our practice exists—depending on the metaphors we adopt—to transform our being, to bring us closer to God, to realize our true nature, to find the Way, to arrive at the Promised Land.

And here’s the rub: I can measure what it means to play the flute well, to program a computer well, to cook well, to dance well, to draw well. Any of these I can accomplish in 10,000 hours if I have the energy and inclination and the time before I die. But I have no idea what it means to be closer to God, to transform my being, to find my true nature, to arrive at the Promised Land. The fact is the object of my practice is my own perfection, my own evolution, my own transformation—to use the alchemical metaphor—from a man of lead into a man of gold. And I have no idea what this really means, the realization of my coarseness and my hunger for a finer life notwithstanding.

So, in the face of this fact a subtle and generally unnoticed movement takes place: the object of my practice is concretized. Put poetically: the ineffable is inexorably materialized. And put simply: since what we seek is mysterious and unknown, we seek-out instead the known and the defined and the easily grasped.  This impulse to replace the unknown with the known, the mysterious with the defined, and the magical with the mechanical is an elemental fact of how we live and make sense of the world. Analogous reductions are useful for many things, like transforming wind into electricity and the wish for justice into campaign contributions. But in the realm of spiritual practice such reductions enjoin the possibility of a deeper understanding because they move us from higher worlds to lower worlds, from the sacred to the generic.

This movement, from the ineffable to the concrete, takes many spiritually insidious forms. For example, when my body becomes still in seated meditation I quickly discover that I cannot escape what Korean Buddhists call “the chirping of cicadas,” that is the endless loop of associative and spurious inner-talking that passes for consciousness and upon which, to a large extent, I base my ego.  Faced with this fact I have a choice: on one hand I can suffer that I am mostly unconscious living meat on a meditation cushion, a realization that can be utterly undoing if I take it in. But, on the other hand, if I switch the focus from my ontology to something simple and measurable like time, I can boast to myself and others about how many hours I sit each day. And presto I am no longer a lost soul seeking a finer insight; I am instead a senior seeker with a deep practice.

In just this way, by attending mass every Sunday for a year, I can earn an award from my pastor for my manifest devotion to Christ and his teaching. Or I can wear special clothing to show all those who see me that I am a reverent member of a clan-that-is-better-than-you. Or, if I am some kind of clergy, I can get a special hat, or robe, or belt or title. By adding-up my time on the way, or by wearing a costume or haircut or beard, or by changing my diet or by embracing some other concrete form I no longer have to face the mystery of metanoia; instead I “repent” by counting Hail Marys. (Footnote: A particularly interesting essay on metanoia was written by Maurice Nicoll and is included as the fifth chapter of his posthumously published book: “The Mark”)

And so, after 30 years of chanting/ sitting/ praying/ seeking in a community I can claim eldership for my long involvement that I label “practice,” my inner nullity, my “fruits,” notwithstanding. Now I can approach my death like a smiling frog, confident of my transformation conferred automatically by years on the lily pad.

Practice that defines itself by forms, I suggest, is not practice at all: it’s a balm against the terror of getting older. Such “practice” has nothing to do with the inner suffering attendant to the alchemical transformation of lead into gold; instead it is all about getting a gold crown and earning a “place.”

If the substitution of the known for the unknown is not a practice that leads to transformation, what sort of practice does?  And what is an intelligent approach?

Clearly what is intelligent is not simply the accumulation of hours and years. Nor is it enough to say that the time must be well-spent in sincere search. Practice, if it is to be liberating, must have another aspect. Practice must be in the direction of increased consciousness, which I propose derives from a new capacity of seeing.

To my mind practice cannot be separated from life itself. Life is lived only now, only moment-to-moment. I believe that if practice is to be transformative it must, like living itself, become a moment-to-moment enterprise of seeing. What use is it to me if on the cushion I find a special energy that animates me, if on standing I become again and again a venal, ordinary man?

Yes, of course, at the beginning, and for a number of years, glimpses of a finer possibility are signposts that suggest that I’m on the right path, but a practice that yields only glimpses after 30 years is neutered.

The practice on the cushion, the practice in church, the practice separated from life has meaning only if it becomes a practice in life, in the moment.

When I realize that my practice is not transformative, that I’m living only for glimpses, I realize then that my practice cannot be separated from my quotidian existence. If in the exchange of money for a bus ticket I am simply a juggler paper and metal discs I do not exist as a man.

In the face of such an impression there can be a strong impulse to retreat to the cushion in search of a moment of presence. But to my mind the stronger response to this impression is to struggle to watch, and in the watching become more than a robotic handler of paper and coins. In fact, it is the practice of watching that brings me into the present. It is the practice of watching that must become my actual practice. In a word, I must learn to “see.” And my practice must become seeing.

This is not new, in some traditions growing the capacity to see is called “developing a third eye.” Zen Buddhists teach that real living is “moment-to-moment Zen.” In the English translations of the New Testament the seeing I am describing is called “watching.”

I am not a Buddhist, I am a Christian, and so the vocabulary that I use to describe practice derives from the New Testament. Probably, given what the church has done to the teaching of Jesus, few people who describe themselves as “Christians” would ever guess that the essence of the teaching of Jesus is to find enlightenment (The Kingdom of God) through watching.

Of course the modern church does not teach “watching” as the key to enlightenment. The modern church teaches some sort of mind-numbing gibberish about taking Jesus as a “personal savior” and through that relationship gaining eternal life in heaven, or something like that. The modern church—and I lump all the denominations together—has nothing to do, or very little to do, with the teaching of Jesus. In fact, many who call themselves Christians would label me a heretic for suggesting that the Kingdom of God is enlightenment and not a concrete post-death reality where the righteous live eternally in bliss. I am not at all concerned with “Christians” of this sort and I refer them to this:

Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” Gospel of Thomas, Saying 3, Lambdin translation.

“The Kingdom of God,” contrary to Sunday school notions, is not some external reward for being very, very nice or, in the absence of nice, a reward for those who feel very badly about not being nice and pray for forgiveness. Such notions, while they anesthetize hundreds of millions against the horror of facing a death defined by eternal obliteration, are of no spiritual value whatsoever. The Kingdom of Heaven, I submit again, is enlightenment in the here and now attained by the practice of watching in the here and now.

Similarly, the Hebrew idea of the “Promised Land” is not a geographical place on the earth but, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is a metaphor for enlightenment. The Israelite’s journey out of “Egypt” into the “Wilderness” and finally to the “Promised Land” is a metaphor for the spiritual search. It starts in “Egypt” which is a symbol of ordinary life devoid of meaning or, in the language of Exodus: “slavery.” Egypt, built on sand, symbolizes the instability of ordinary life. The “Wilderness” is the state of being in question, of seeking, of unknowing. Eating unleavened bread in the wilderness represents living a life only partially informed with a greater meaning. The text of Exodus states that the Israelites “went up out of Egypt.” Wandering lost in the wilderness—a metaphor immediately meaningful to anyone who has searched—is on a higher spiritual level than the instability and absurdity of ordinary life, thus “up out of Egypt.” Wandering in the “wilderness” for for thirty years, daunting as it is, is a precondition to finding the Promised Land, that is to enlightenment.

In the Gospels Jesus is very clear that seeking and finding is for very few. It is only the institutional church, founded by Paul, that teaches general salvation. Jesus states: “…for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Matthew 7:13-14 KJV

My spiritual questions led me to the academic study of religion, to the Gurdjieff Work and to Mount Athos. On Mount Athos the monks endeavor to be present to their lives moment-to-moment while simultaneously praying ceaselessly. The practice of watching moment-to-moment they call “nipsis,” and define thus: “watching innerly and outerly simultaneously, soberly.”

George Gurdjieff made no secret of the origin of his teaching: he said that his work was “esoteric Christianity.” To my mind Gurdjieff’s genius was to strip the near-secret Athonite practice of its devotional element, and bring a teaching based on nipsis, which he called “self-observation,” to the secular west.

The academic study of religion brought me some knowledge, but no help with the questions that plagued me and brought me to the study of religion in the first place.

I think that most–after many years in search of a vivifying practice that can be lived day-to-day, moment-to-moment–will eventually hear an organic cry for help issue from their depths. This cry appears almost unexpectedly. If this cry is directed at others, it can only lead so far. But when the ache for being and understanding becomes unendurable the appeal for help becomes an action we call prayer. Practice leads to prayer. It is not the other way around, as anyone who has an existential struggle has realized.

The word “prayer,” unfortunately, is so freighted with diverse associations and evokes such strong reactions–positive and negative–that its essential meaning is obscured. The premise behind prayer, and a spiritual sensibility generally, is that we live in a hierarchical universe. The world we live in is one world. There are higher and lower worlds. Prayer is an attempt to make a connection between worlds with the aim of informing a lower world with the intelligence and energy of a higher world.

The most important Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, follows exactly this structure. It opens: “Our Father who art in Heaven” which is the acknowledgement of levels, and continues “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” which is the hope that the higher inform the lower.

The impulse to pray appears when I feel that the energy and intelligence available to me as I am is exhausted, and nothing will help except something entirely different, higher and currently unknown.

The Athonite prayer, with which the monks try to stay in contact ceaselessly, is this: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” I think this prayer, powerful as it is, has lost its energy for a modern man. Invoking the intercession of the dead, and maybe the never existing, is not compelling to the cultured and educated of our time.  A modern man must find a different mode of prayer.

There are no one-size-fits-all approaches or prayers. But I will share my approach.

In the Gospel of Thomas, an Essene text discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, a question is posed to Jesus: “Rabbi, what is the secret?”  And Jesus answers: “The secret is a movement and a rest.” In the Lambdin translation the saying is rendered: “If they ask you, ‘What is the sign of your father in you?’, say to them, ‘It is movement and repose.'” (Saying 50)

I have found that the wish for presence is constantly undone by the action of living. I wish to be in one instant, and become hypnotized and lost in the next. All who try to become present discover this.

The movement and a rest that Jesus teaches, like the “push and a pause” that Gurdjieff teaches, is the method I follow. I engage into the flow of life, into the current of doing. In that engagement I lose myself. Then I return, I receive the impression of what is by watching innerly and outerly. In time the movement out and the movement in become like a kind spiritual breathing: I vanish, I return; I’m dispersed, I’m collected.

This approach, this method, I find very helpful, but it is not the end of the story. The energy I need for return wanes, and an organic wish appears to connect to more potent energies with the hope that they may help. It is at this point, in my experience, that prayer has meaning.

Which prayer? I can think of no better prayer than Jesus’ last: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? But it may be that the primal prayer that best expresses my longing is one word long: “Please.”

The point of practice, I submit, is not to see God. The point of practice is to see what is.

What is, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is within you and without you. The practice of watching reveals not only my inner life to me, it also brings a larger clarity. As I begin to see myself more clearly, I also begin to see others more clearly: their motivations, their fears, their attachments, their relationships one with another. Practice brings understanding.

But does practice lead to the growth of the soul? To immortality? To objective meaning? I don’t know. But I do know from experience that there is an ontological difference between a man with a real practice and a man without one. I have seen again and again that a man of practice gathers inner quiet and, when the situation is tense, is capable of response over reaction. Put somewhat differently, a man with a practice struggles to be. A man without practice simply assumes that he exists.

Daily practice is the work, not willy-nilly but over a lifetime, to come into being in order to participate more consciously in life. To some this last sentence is gibberish. To others who have tasted their nothingness, and are ready to pay for their transformation, it is their touchstone.