The Third Path
Article ID: 15419
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: May 12th. 2013
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A few months ago I was watched as Turner Classic Movies played yet another sweep of vintage movies. Not having many other real choices on the idiot box to view at the moment, I kept the channel tuned and watched the movie ďRazorís EdgeĒ (1946) . The movie was based on a book of the same name: The Razorís Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, published in 1944. Its epigraph reads, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard, " taken from a verse in the Katha-Upanishad. The Razorís Edge tells the story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life. The story begins through the eyes of Larryís friends and acquaintances as they witness his personality change after the War. His rejection of conventional life and search for meaningful experience allows him to thrive while the more materialistic characters suffer reversals of fortune.Ē
As the movie progressed, I suddenly up and said, ďHey what is this?Ē Yeah, the plot winds along in the typical mid-20th century melodramatic fashion, but the idea caught me. It helped me to frame something Iíve felt for a while, but had not consciously focused on understanding. You see, I have a hard time conformingÖ. to anybodyís expectations, to any dogma or orthodox spiritual path.
What intrigued me about the story was how at one point the main character has asked to spend time with a spiritual teacher in India. In the dialogue that follows, the holy man says there are three paths to follow in life. They are the paths of works, the path of devotion, and then there is the third path. Itís just a model to explain things and yes, it vastly oversimplifies the incredibly complex reality of the world we live in. However, models are useful in helping us mere mortals understand and relate to bigger concepts.
So stop reading further right now if you want me to tell you Ďwhat you needí. The third path is a personal one and all I can tell you is what it has meant for me. For better or worse, here are the ideas presented in a simplistic way. I actually would say there are four paths if you want to look at it in this way, but the fourth path is the one where a person just aimlessly wanders. Sadly, I know more than a few who live their life this way. So for whatever itís worth, here is how I relate to the three paths.
Living for your Works:
In a secular, often-narcissistic world an easy to recognize path is the one of works. These are people who live their lives working on behalf of themselves and others around them. These people are builders and joiners who participate in the world. They add to the world around them with their works, whether is in helping a cause or simply by contributing in a manifest, physical way to those things that make the world go round. People like this may not give lots of time to worship as they are dealing with doing things whether it is physical or mental. Donít think that just because this is a path of doing things that this means labor is what people who live this life do. Writers and thinkers can also fit into this category since the act of writing is a labor in itself. All I have to do is look at my farm and work career to know that Iím not a stranger to this path. I find that working for others, and taking care of the needs of my farm, both satisfy me in a deep way. The only problem for me is when Ďworksí become just Ďworkí. On top of my career, caring for the farm absorbed my time and kept me isolated from the very world I want to work so hard to be a part of.
Looking at myself, in my own life Iíve devoted a lot of myself to a career of service. After exposure to working in law enforcement, I decided to teach children and connect with the land with a farm. I found the two paths together added up to an almost overwhelming commitment of constant effort. I love the work of it all, but I look around and see how Ďworksí leaves no mark beyond the immediacy of each effort as its done, and know I canít simply live my whole life around daily labors. I still needed more to be complete.
Living for your Faith:
In the Wiccan/Pagan community we generally tout the path of devotion. Those who follow this path practice worship as way of life. Wicca in particular asks its practitioners to aspire to be High Priest or High Priestess. Practicing the faith is defined as being a member of a Coven, and ultimately leading it. To define your life by the practice of your religion is for people who live their lives in emulation and to the discipline. The path of faith means to closely adhere to the rules and rituals that govern the practice of religion. Be it Pagan or mainstream religion, those who live a life of faith demonstrate their devotion in both large and small ways. These are people who will live by the strictest ritual customs with a smile, for this to them is a part of their daily worship and defines who they are.
Two examples of friends come to mind as people whom I admire for their faith: One is a lady who describes herself a Jewish kitchen Witch. Originally a rebel from a family of southern evangelical Christians, she converted to Judaism when she married. She loves her adopted faith with its devotions and manages to blend her Wiccan practices with raising her children in a practicing Jewish household. Another one of my best friends is Deacon of his Episcopal Church. His family has roots in their Southern Maryland community going back to the 1670s. He belongs to a church where his family has practiced their religion for many generations. He always impresses me with his intense sense of community.
Some years ago, my wife and I found that we could no longer keep up the long distance trek to our old coven. We decided to join a Gardinarian circle that was relatively close and seemed be a nice group. Or should I say we Ďstartedí to join one. Ultimately, neither my wife nor I could reconcile ourselves with some of the absolutes we were told we must believe and the constraints of practices in observing them. No offense to any of the practitioners of this path: it was just not one we could follow. Why? Why canít I reconcile myself to just accept the dogma and rules of a particular path? Many of my own family still adhere to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Rite Catholic paths as well. It may work for them, but even if raised in that tradition (or maybe because I came from it) , I can only shake my head in wonder why they stick with it. Well, St. Thomas Aquinas did say that one needs faith and reason to be a good Catholic. Iím sure many eclectic Pagans and Wiccans have come to the same conclusion: that we canít give up our autonomy out of convenience just to be a part of something. I make no bones about it; I know that rules are needed in a belief system. However, the rules needed to define beliefs seem to me to conflict with rules simply designed to control and manipulate behaviors among practitioners.
Faith for me: I wanted something better than blindly going to church every Sunday and repeating a liturgy based on the life of a man who said our lives should be something more, but whose religion had fossilized into meaningless protocol and devotion. The path of devotion led me into religion, but never held me in thrall. Still I admit a bit of envy for my friends who can completely give themselves to their faith. After many years Iíve come to realize that for whatever shortcomings Wiccans may have from time to time as individuals, people are people and to look beyond individuals and their quirks for the common shared values. What I admire the most about the Pagan/Wiccan paths is that there are so many possibilities. The fact that there generally isnít a rigid dogma, or any specific course of practices to follow, attracts me.
The Third Path:
So then, there is the third path. It is my road of self-experience and understanding. Iím one of those who follow this, and canít simply reconcile themselves with the practice of faith or just give themselves into a life of works. If you are one of these people, you must always strive to understand.
I still have the book that set me on my path to intellectual curiosity. It was an undergrad textbook titled ďMain Currents of Western ThoughtĒ. This curiosity led me to my first Masters in a program studying intellectual history and it continues to engage me now. The Pagan path continues to keep me seeking the truth revealed in the world around them me. Iím constantly looking, seeking and understanding what the divine means. As W. Somerset Maugham put it so well, there is no set course for the third path. These are people who experiment, criticize and analyze, and sometimes experience breakthroughs crossing boundaries that may be impossible to explain to others. If they find fulfillment, it may be reaching a special point in their lives, or even the process itself of seeking understanding and perspective. If merely being an educator and having a farm were enough, I wouldnít be constantly going back to the world of spiritual understanding and studying. I have to keep looking. It is just a part of who I am.
Itís not just the Pagan path I study either, though Iíve read quite a few books by now. As I write this, Iím finishing reading the Book of Mormon. In the last couple of years, Iíve also read the Koran, the commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a Buddhist reader. (Not all the same time!) My library also includes more than a few books on Wiccan and Paganism. So far I havenít found a single path that works in its entirety for me, but I do see there is an element of truth in all that Iíve studied. Iím at the point in my own life where I tend to look hard and honestly at who and what I am. Midlife can be a time of spiritual crisis and renewed understanding. Sometimes Iím sad because it is hard to express the unity I see: the divine spirit that threads through so much Iíve studied. I am inspired by the greatness potential of Wicca and the other New Age religions. It is exciting to be here to witness the growth of a great movement. I have hope that the people who are so much a part of this process can keep working for the greatness that is possible and not let human pettiness mire it all in smallness.
Some years ago, I attended Ecumonicon and the Rev. Charles Butler charged me to lead. At the time I told him I wasnít a leader. As usual, Charles was one step ahead of everyone else, myself included. Thanks, guy.
So here I was, in the middle of this rather mundane movie, dumbstruck by the message. How was it that my own path and the other courses I had seen and passed by could be enunciated so simply and clearly? I never even finished viewing the movie. My mind was too busy mapping out a course Iíd pursued for decades as the path Iíd followed became clear.
The Third Path: Itís not an easy road to follow. Nobody makes a road map to follow here. Iím afraid that it hasnít made me a good practitioner of the faiths Iíve investigated, but it does make my quest for spiritual understanding a richer one. These days, I have come to appreciate all religions in their ideals. Maybe Iíll always be bit of an outsider, but I canít have it any other way. Nor would I ever want to.
Blessed be in your own path.
Quoted directly from the first part of the article.
Main Currents of Western Thought. Bauer, Franklin Le Van ed., New Haven, CT., Yale University Press., 1978.
Copyright: c. 2103 A. I. Mychalus
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