And if your hand scandalizes you, cut it off. It is better that you enter into life disabled than having two hands to go away into Gehenna, into unquenchable fire. And if your foot scandalizes you, cut it off. It is better to enter into life maimed than having two feet to be cast into Gehenna. And if your eye scandalizes you, throw it away. It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than having two eyes to be cast into Gehenna, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.
In their commentary on Mark’s gospel, John R. Donohue and Daniel J. Harrington point out that the key word of this passage is from the Greek root skandalon, which is “an obstacle or stumbling block that trips up someone on the way” (The Gospel of Mark, p. 287). As dramatic and perhaps hyperbolic as this passage sounds to us, we all fully know and experience the call it issues to the radical detachment required if we are to continue on the way. The way is no less than what Han F. deWit in The Spiritual Path calls “a transformation of our experience of reality.” The truth is that we cling with all our might to our distorted and illusory ways of experiencing and responding to reality. In today’s gospel Jesus is teaching us that we must be willing to “cut off” anything, no matter how dearly we hold it, that is an obstacle to being brought into the light of the truth of things.
Several years ago while traveling overseas in the course of my work for the community, I experienced a person at one of our meetings who publicly reacted to my voice and dialect in a belittling and humiliating way. Given my personal history of self-consciousness and depreciation around my own voice and speaking, I was profoundly hurt and deeply enraged. When I returned home and described the incident to a close friend, he replied: “That sounds like a good person to stay away from.” I was somewhat stunned by his counsel. As I understood our spiritual tradition, we were always to “forgive,” to attempt to love those who did not love us, to give our hat and cloak to the one who took our shirt. Somehow, however, I suspected that he was not denying these truths in what he said, but that he was rather pointing to an equally compelling spiritual directive: to cut off from persons and things who were obstacles to my own conversion and the transformation of my experience of reality.
It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The spiritual path requires of us that we go by a way of unknowing. As long as we stay with what we know and the ways that are familiar to us, our experience of reality will remain the same. We shall continue to suffer from the same distortions that we have carried throughout our lives.
So, what was my friend counseling me “to stay away from”? It was, I think, the reactions and upsets that this person evoked in me. As long as I kept “grinding away” in my mind about him, what I perceived and judged as his arrogance and disrespect, the more the obstacle that he and his behaviors were for me. To give this incident the place in my life that I was giving it was nothing but a millstone around my neck.
As we travel along our own spiritual paths, we experience many obstacles along the way. These may be things that antagonize and upset us, or they may be things that distract and gratify us. These skandalon tend to obsess us and to hold fast our attention. They have the power to reduce our experience of reality to the troublesome stones and even pebbles on which we stub our feet. When my friend told me that this was “a good person to stay away from,” he was telling me that persons, situations, and events that would so evoke the deepest of fears and resistances in me are best not dwelt on. This does not mean to repress the experience but not to obsessively react in the same way over and over again. The stumbling blocks must be recognized but not become focal. Once I have stumbled over a rock on my path, I should stay away from it the next time.
To try to illuminate one aspect of the spiritual path always runs the danger of seeming to neglect its complement. So, when we recognize the need to “keep away” from some persons, things, and situations, it can sound as if we are favoring isolation over involvement. Yet, this is very much not the case. It is, in fact, our obsessiveness in life that limits our involvement. When the “scandals” of our lives dominate our consciousness, we become unable to “take in” reality but rather only our fearful and anxious perspective of it. As I learned “to stay away from” that in the other which so disturbed me and detached from my desire in imagination and thought “to set things right,” the experience began to recede into the context of the larger world. I became more able to set aside my own insecurities and fear and to continue the work given to me to do without being deterred from it.
In life there are constant obstacles to our journey on the way. These obstacles have the power to stifle our deeper desire and to drain our generosity. In today’s gospel Jesus tells us to cut off those things that would keep us from following our own deeper call. They may be possessions, or reputation, relationships or position. We “hold on” not only in fear, desire, and affection but also in resentment, anger, and rage. There are times when, for the sake of remaining true to the Way for us and available for involvement and service in the world, we must learn how to “stay away from.” Such a moment is a coming to grips with our own weakness and loneliness. Yet, these are the very contours of our call. There are countless ways of being distracted from the call and wandering off of our true course. At such times, we need to learn to “cut off” the distraction and to return to the singleness of purpose and purity of heart that the spiritual path and the call to discipleship demand.
We tend to destroy or acquire the objects of our aggression or greed rather than to give up our aggression or greed. That often seems the only possible way for us to live. But it can cause us to adhere to certain ways of experiencing even though we (rationally) know better and understand that these ways of experiencing are harmful to us or others. The power or motivation to let go of a destructive way of experiencing reality often escapes us precisely because we cannot recognize its illusory, relative nature.
. . . the contemplative traditions are directed primarily at a transformation of our experience of reality and not at a transformation of reality. Both are distinct from each other and are connected with each other. What I mean is this: the more transparent our perspective on (our) reality becomes, the more mental freedom we have to work with our circumstances. Within that freedom lies an element of increasing selflessness because our desires and interests have also become more transparent. In this way more room is created for a less compulsive and more open way of working with our circumstances in life. This selfless openness unlocks possibilities, but, one may ask, possibilities for what? These are possibilities for changing something in our reality for the well-being of all. Thus the transformation of our experience of reality becomes manifest in the world as involvement. The less we are of the world, the more we can do something good for the world. This also means that our contemplative development is increasingly less determined by our external circumstances and increasingly more by how much openmindedness and mental freedom we have attained.
Han F. deWit, The Spiritual Path, pp. 71-2