The Path We Choose

The Path We Choose

This is part two of an extract from a manuscript I used
in a class on spirituality and photography
at the Pacific School of Religion,
and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA

Henry David Thoreau, of Waldon Pond fame, claimed he could not keep up his health or his good spirit if he did not walk at least four hours a day, “sauntering through the woods and over hills and fields.” Thoreau maintained his walks in the open, and he followed the natural pathways of meadow, woodland, river, brook. He wanted his walks unobstructed by fence. Thoreau used his walks as metaphorical opposites to what could occur in a town. He enjoyed the freedom of walking off the public road, and he found the paths we chose to walk “symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world.” In other words, the path we choose for our feet many times is symbolic of the path we choose for our hearts.

Theologian Matthew Fox finds four paths to walk: The via positiva, the via negativa, the via creativa, and the via transformativa. Each of these paths offer us an insight for movement toward the divine. In the via positiva we are blessed by the abundant and creative energy of God, and filled with what Fox terms the dabar, the energetic, creative, playful, and imaginative word of God which is in relationship between blessing-giver and blessing-receiver. The via negativa is a path existing in dark space. Via Negative is not asceticism which looks for pain, but the path of the via negativa refuses to deny pain and suffering and therefore is a path of strength. The via creativa is a path that celebrates the power of birth itself. The universe is overwhelmingly fecund. The motion of the cosmos follows a celebratory path of creation. The via transformativa is a path that renews creation. This path is a path of return to the original path of blessing, the via positiva. This is a path to the New Creation, the fulfillment of the promises of God.

The Buddha offers us one eight-fold path which finds a middle way between two extremes: one extreme is the sadistic forms of hedonism, the other extreme is the masochistic forms of asceticism. The eight categories or divisions of this Middle Path are: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The Middle Path, the Magga utilizes these eight factors for the development of the individual’s life to be ethical, mentally disciplined, and wise. The Buddhist Middle Path seeks no less that inner and outer perfection, and perfection–knowledge and understanding of the Ultimate Reality—can only occur on the Path.

Exterior paths are usually thought of as leading to exterior destinations, but many times they can lead to interior destinations as well. Mary Catherine Bateson writes of growing up and being taught by her father, Gregory Bateson, to find clues to what is going on by looking for and finding clues to the mysteries of life. She writes of a natural history lesson wher her father showed her the complexities of the world, and how to find paths by what that which is not a path. Spiderwebs showed the pathways of very small feeding insects. We look for paths to finds clues to what there is to be seen and known. We also look for clues that lead to the paths we seek.

In one sense, our history is a clue to the paths we have taken. This was certainly the case for the Hebrews. Bernard Anderson writes that the Hebrews looked back at all their myths and legends from the Exodus experience, and re-wrote their history to express how they encountered God’s presence in their present experience, and in that present experience was an inchoate pattern for all experiences of their past and present. We, like Gregory Bateson and the early Hebrews, look to the patterns of our present experience to find the patterns of our experience.

A camera records patterns. As we meditate on the patterns of our lives and the paths which form those patterns, what do we see as the analogues around us which bespeak those paths and patterns? I look at the patterns of cow-trails made as cattle graze around a hillside. It is an interesting pattern which is formed. On a spring morning, as the early light bends over the hill’s top, and the greens of early growth are enhanced by the contrast provided by the harsh cross-light, I see an interesting pattern. I know cows have grazed here. I know too that there is a farmer who’s life is caught up in the intricacies of those crossed and circular grazing patterns. I make an image.




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