Progress – however little, however long it takes
Today I read Chapter 4 verses 6 and 7 of The Bhagavad Gita. Sri Krishna says:
“6. My true being is unborn and changeless. I am the Lord who dwells in every creature. Through the power of my own Maya, I manifest myself in a finite form.
“7. Whenever dharma declines, O Bharata, and the purpose of life is forgotten, I manifest myself.”1
In Eknath Easwaran’s commentary on the verses, he describes the feeling of making progress in our spiritual and moral lives:
“It takes a few years for ordinary people like us to come to accept that the greatest blessing has fallen upon us without our deserving it. We can never get over the amazement of it. We are so frail, so petty, so full of weaknesses, yet in spite of all this, He whose love and power know no bounds has in his infinite mercy chosen us. For a long time, we think there must have been some mistake. Only after years of observing the daily growth in security, the increasing capacity to think of others, do we come to accept that, for no reason we can give, the mystic’s mantle has fallen upon us.”2
If there is a level before novice, maybe pre-novice or supreme beginner, that’s where I am in this process. Sure, I took a bunch of theology classes in college – but that was 25+ years ago and I approached the topic intellectually. Now, coming to theology in an intellectual way matters. But it is not the only path to tread.
To an intellectual method, I want to add an emotional dimension. The mind can grasp truth; so can the heart.
And again, as a pre-novice or supreme beginner here – about 40 days into reading the Bible and a few months into commentaries on The Bhagavad Gita – I’ve barely reached the starting line of the journey. Progress seems so far away: what does “progress in my spiritual practice” mean anyway? What markers will signal progress?
Or is that my rational, intellectual brain working? Will feelings mark the milestones?
Easwaran reminds me that progress can happen. It may seem distant, obscure, uncertain or even treacherous. But steps accumulate.
A Jesuit professor at college, Fr James Schall, told us we'd be lucky to get true wisdom by the age of 50. I thought of that often as I deemed myself truly wise at 19, 20, 25, 30 and 32. “This wisdom thing ain't all that hard, Father. Come on,” I condescended. Since then, I've felt the sneaking suspicion I may need a few years beyond 50 to get there -- and maybe more than a few years.
Maybe after years on this journey, I will have only taken a few steps. As I reflected on my relationship with my body, hard work may only deliver a small improvement – or even only forestall decline. That’s alright. As The Gita informs us, we must do our sacred work, but we don’t have the right to the fruit of that work. That admonition means to focus our attention on the work itself.
It also reminds me of this quote from Aristotle, which has also stayed with me since those days studying with Fr. Schall:
“But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.”3
Making progress, however little, toward the highest things. That certainly seems like a worthy endeavor.
- Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living: 1 (p. 233). Nilgiri Press. Kindle Edition.
- Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living: 1 (p. 235). Nilgiri Press. Kindle Edition.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, chapter 7.
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