Crossing the Abyss: A reflection on Luke 10.25–37
A sermon given at All Hallows by Anna Davie on 11 July 2004
When I read this story of the Good Samaritan recently, it occurred to me that this wasn’t necessarily the title that Jesus would have given it. I suspect that Jesus would not have given it a title at all, because in responding to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ it seems to me he is providing us with a mystery and not an answer. And the mystery, it seems to me, is in the relationship between all the characters in the story, those who crossed by on the other side, the one who is wounded and robbed, the robbers themselves, the Samaritan and his donkey. Maybe the story could just as easily be called ‘The Good Donkey’ or ‘My neighbours the robbers’ or just ‘Well, what do you think?’
More often than not this story is interpreted as a call to notice and respond to the suffering of others — and it can certainly be explored on that level very fruitfully — but the more I thought about it, the more it spoke to me on so many other levels and in so many other ways.
One quotation particularly came to mind when I read this passage in Luke, and that was something Thomas Merton said:
‘Of what avail is it if we can travel to the moon, if we cannot cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all journeys, and without it all the rest are useless.’
If we think about this story in the light of what Merton has said, then maybe it can be read as a response to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’, as a challenge to us to explore the inner journey each of us is making in our lives.
One reading of it could be that what Jesus is saying is that we are on a journey, and at points along the way we are robbed and beaten, maybe by others or by ourselves, and we’re lying on the road battered, bruised and alone. When that happens we may ignore those bruises, that woundedness, and cross by on the other side out of fear or loathing, or because we no longer care about ourselves. Maybe we feel we deserve the punishment. Maybe our inner critics tell us we have failed and do not deserve to be helped. But someone comes and puts us on a donkey and takes us away and cares for us until we are healed. Someone crosses that abyss and ends that separation, and Merton says that without this journey across the road to our battered selves all the other journeys are useless.
Maybe it’s about accepting that we got robbed and beaten up. As the Buddha pointed out, ‘there is suffering’, and in order to do something about that suffering we first need to accept that it is there, it is real. We’re lying on the road. We are bleeding.
Someone needs to notice, and something also needs to carry us on its back and take us to safety, to healing. As I said earlier, one alternative title for the story could be ‘The Good Donkey’, and another title I thought of for this reflection was ‘Finding our Inner Donkey and carrying ourselves away’.
I like the image of a donkey that carries us, because it reminds me of the part of ourselves that does not debate or think or tangle ourselves in knots of self-doubt but holds us without thought.
Another image that I find helpful is one that the Islamic mystic Rumi speaks of when he says:
‘Be a full bucket,
Drawn up the dark way of a well,
Then lifted up
into the light.’
Be a full bucket. Be an inanimate object, something that does not think, but simply is, that does its job, that bears us upwards, up the ‘dark way of a well’, into the light.
I read a beautiful book recently called Learning to fall — the rewards of an imperfect life by a man called Philip Simmons, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 35. He died fairly recently, but in the years between his diagnosis and his death he wrote this book about what he had learned from living with a terminal disabling condition, and he gave talks about his insights into life. There are many beautiful chapters in this book, but the one that seems most relevant to this concept of being like a donkey is one entitled ‘Wild Things’. In it he says:
‘Fact is, animals are neither innocent not guilty, neither pure nor corrupt, for these are strictly human categories. Indeed, if we’re to envy animals, it’s precisely because they live outside such categories. And here we come to the heart of the matter. For what would it mean to experience our own actions in such a way that the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t apply? It would mean living, like animals, without doubt as to our life’s purpose. It would mean living in such perfect alignment with that purpose that our every act flowed effortlessly from what was highest and truest within us. It would mean rising each day to forage or feed, to shelter and care for our young, to laze or labour, fight or frolic, without distraction, without self-judgement, without taking one step off life’s true path. And even in the face of misery and terror, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even as the sleet freezes our hides or the hawk descends upon us, it would mean living in the faith that this, too, is the way. Imagine living in such a fashion and you begin to imagine what I mean by becoming a wild thing.’
Simmons suggests that in order to cultivate such a life it is necessary to practise a way of not thinking, because, as he puts it, ‘we think too much’. He quotes an Indian yogi who said that ‘self-observation without judgement is the highest spiritual discipline’. The donkey does not think how he is going to bear the load, he simply does it one step at a time until he reaches the inn.
Maybe when we cross the abyss to our battered selves we need that practice of non-thinking, that animal nature we can experience in the simplicity of just sitting with ourselves, meditating, knitting, walking, making bread, whatever it is that quietens the chatter of self-criticism and analysis, and allows us to simply be in our lives and come home to ourselves. Krishnamurti said:
‘There is great happiness in not wanting, in not being something, in not going somewhere.’
When we can stop and rest our minds in silence, and give up the striving to fix everything and improve ourselves or work everything out, we can find that peace that passes all understanding. It is always there, like a good neighbour. One of the most beautiful descriptions of prayer and meditation I have ever read comes from the Indian mystic Kabir, who said:
‘The blue sky stretches out, farther and farther,
The daily sense of failure recedes,
The damage I have done myself fades,
A million suns come forth with light,
When I sit firmly in that world.’
Sometimes we need to set ourselves on the donkey’s back and let our battered bodies and minds be taken to a place of healing. We need to be our own Good Samaritan and recognise that we are hurt and do not need further batterings of self-criticism and programmes of self-improvement, but a simple animal nature, a quieter plodding on, where we stop thinking and chattering on to ourselves and just let ourselves be.
When we continually batter ourselves with self-criticism, when we give in to greed and hatred, we become like robbers. We lie to ourselves, and when we live out of a lie we are more prone to manipulate, disempower and hate others.
We may not want hurt others, we may want to be good or be seen to be good, but we are all prone to robbing ourselves and others of dignity out of our grasping, our fear of letting go and ultimately our fear of ourselves. We mug ourselves and others on our journey. ‘We forget that we are your home.’
Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is myself. My neighbour is a robber. The robber is myself. My neighbour walks by on the other side and so do I. That’s me battered and bleeding on the road, and it is you and them and all of us. And Jesus said that someone came and comes and will always be there to pick us up and heal us. A dumb animal carries us on its body, and we are that animal and that body, and so is our neighbour and so is God.
And terrible, bloody things happen to us on the road. And I think maybe what Jesus is saying is that we are not alone. We may be the one who batters and robs, the one who is left bleeding and alone, and the one who walks by on the other side; but, no matter what, we are not alone.
Who is my neighbour? Does he really answer that question, or is it more that he calls us to look at that story and cross that abyss that separates us from ourselves, in order that we can heal both ourselves and others by knowing that we are loved and that our suffering does not go unnoticed?
Sometimes I don’t know. Especially in my own moments of despair I really don’t know, and I struggle with all of this, and I’m sure we all do at times. We struggle to know if we can really trust ourselves or each other or God. Maybe we struggle with the very notion of God and with the reality of love in our lives.
I guess what I do know is that if we allow the Good Samaritan to place the battered body on the broad, still back of the donkey, we can journey to the inn and be healed somehow. Sometimes the body feels very battered by betrayal, oppression, self-criticism, all the troubles of this life, and it needs a place to rest; and if we sit firmly in the world where the blue sky stretches out farther and farther, then the damage we have done to ourselves fades and we can cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.
True forgiveness and love for oneself is what awaits us at the inn, and it is always there, it is where we are going and where we already are, and that place can become visible when we look for it like a stranger on the road searching for the person who needs our help. That person is us. We are our neighbour and our neighbour is us. As Rumi said:
‘Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.’
When we can place ourselves upon the back of the donkey and allow ourselves to be healed, to place all our fears and troubles at the foot of the Cross, then we can be free. There is nothing to be frightened of, not really. When we can give up robbing ourselves of dignity, when we no longer batter ourselves with self-hatred, when we no longer ignore our woundedness but love ourselves as we are, then we cross that abyss.
As Mary Oliver said:
‘You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk a thousand miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’
No one can steal or destroy love. It lives, it breathes, it enfolds us and carries us home. No human atrocity or oppression can ever separate us from the love of God. When we truly love ourselves and others, there is nothing that cannot be forgiven or healed. We live in God’s love. We can decide to love, as Martin Luther King decided in the face of hatred and domination. He decided to love. Each day may we wake up deciding to love who we are, to accept and nurture our souls and bodies, and from there to go out into the world and live that love.
‘Wherever you travel, I’ll be there,
I’ll be there.
Wherever you travel, I’ll be there.
And the creed and the colour
And the name won’t matter.
I’ll be there.’
Copyright © 2004 Anna Davie
This page was last updated on Sunday, 11 July 2004
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