The Myth of the Great Secret: Prologue
Peace is at the heart of all because Avalokitesvara-Kwannon, the mighty Bodhisattva, Boundless Love, includes, regards, and dwells within (without exception) every sentient being. (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p. 160)
often from learning and
thinking than from intuition. I was in graduate school in Theology on
the way to the priesthood; I'd learned about the truths of Roman
Catholic Christianity. I'd also studied C.G. Jung and Alan Watts and
Joseph Campbell; I'd learned about the truths of the world's
religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. I'd thought a lot about
God. But once when I was living in the Servite Priory in southern
California, I experienced intuition. Though it lasted only a moment,
it came to influence all my thinking since.
The monastery, house lore had it, was built during the 1920s by a rich eccentric who needed to disappear into the California desert where enemies would never find him. To gratify the whim of his wife, who had loved the Alhambra at Granada, he constructed a Moorish castle complete with moat, minaret, domes, and hanging gardens. After his death (of perfectly natural causes) the property, like so many other such odd estates, ended up in the hands of the Church, in this case, the Order of Servants of Mary. To counter the Islamic influence, the Servites had erected a huge fountain depicting Our Lady's bodily assumption into heaven right in the middle of the hanging gardens. And to house some fifty novices and students they'd added two dormitory wings on the crest of the hill above the castle.
By the time I arrived at the castle it had been a seminary for years, but it still retained some of the original exotic flavor. The road into the property bridged an arroyo euphemistically referred to as "the moat," then dipped down to pass under an arcade which upheld a terrace overlooking the arroyo, and finally circled a rock-walled garden in front of the main entrance. From there a huge doorway led into a marbled antechamber, up a few steps, and into the great hall, which the Servites were now using as a chapel. Lining both sides of the huge room were glass doors painted with brilliant icons depicting the Catholic sacramental system; on the right these opened onto the terrace above the moat and on the left, onto a central tiled court, where palm trees and tall cypresses shaded the Shrine of the Assumption and what was left of the gardens of cypresses, succulents, and cactuses.
It was no longer a hideaway. The sprawl of Los Angeles had reached all the way to the desert and surrounded the property. And there was no need for hiding anymore. Indeed, the seminary maintained a very visible presence in the middle-class suburb of Riverside. We had a large crowd of followers and friends of the community. And we conducted very popular and well-attended liturgies on Sunday mornings. This was in 1969 when progressive Catholics were spiritually exhilarated by folk guitars and still expected that the Mass in the vernacular was going to make religion more relevant in their lives. It was after one such liturgy, toward the end of the first summer I lived there, that my life changed.
After Mass, I had gone back to prepare
for the community. Being pretty good at it and enjoying cooking, that
summer I'd taken on responsibility for the kitchen duties. The room
was a mess. The previous night the arrival of visitors from the
Midwest had inspired an impromptu party. Now dirty dishes from the
coffee-and-doughnut social following the morning Mass were piling up
atop the remains of that party. To add to the confusion, during the
evening one of the visitors had fallen against a lavatory in one of
the upstairs rooms, knocking it off the wall. The pipes burst and
rained water into the refectory adjoining the kitchen. As part of the
late-night repair, the water had been mopped up, but in the morning
the floor was still dirty and streaked.
The Prior of the house, a gentle, saintly, and somewhat reclusive man named Father Peregrine Graffius, assumed the job of waxing and buffing the refectory floor. (I think he wanted to avoid all the hoopla surrounding the arrival of the visitors.) I set out to straighten up the kitchen and wash the dishes. It seemed like an endless chore. More dishes were being brought in from the after-Mass social than I could keep up with. And nobody was volunteering to help. I grew first angry, then philosophical, then despondent. The previous school year I'd been quite taken by the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant with its insistence that for human actions to have moral significance they had to be done out of duty and not desire. Even before discovering Kant, I'd read Joseph Campbell's account of the Buddhist saint Avalokitesvara who overcame personal desire and saved the world by vowing to take upon himself the suffering of the world. Swept with zeal in the fervor of Campbell's words, I'd made the bodhisattva vow myself. And so that morning I'd kept reminding myself of my commitment to duty and to overcoming personal whim.
Just as I finished in the kitchen, the Prior came in and asked me to help him replace the tables in the refectory, then to put away the buffing machine for him. That would be my last chore. The house was quiet now. All the guests had left. The brothers, for whom it turned out I'd unnecessarily fixed lunch, had gone off with the visitors from the Midwest. All morning I'd been alternately cursing the makers of this mess and berating myself for not accepting my religious duty more gracefully. I was exhausted and emotionally drained.
I rolled the buffing machine out into the courtyard. It caught on a tile and the brush fell off. As I was replacing it, the machine slipped and fell on my fingers. Then, when I pushed open the door to the chapel, a pile of folding chairs that had been carelessly leaned up against the door frame crashed down, and the brush fell off the machine a second time. I stacked the chairs properly, reassembled the machine, and managed to get it through the door and down the aisle to the back closet where it was kept. I found there was no room in the closet because folding chairs there had also been stacked improperly and in order to get the machine inside the door I had to position it precariously on the edge of the brush. It slipped and fell on my fingers again.
I slammed the door to the closet. I almost screamed I was so angry. But then a curious peace descended upon me. As I started to walk back toward the front of the hall, I realized that despite my resistance I had been behaving correctly. I had indeed been doing my duty. And, I realized, that was how God would be acting in my spiritual life. I saw that all that had been happening that morning, including all my complaining and resisting and fussing, had been the instrument by which God was shaping and molding my spirit, by which I was being taught to accept things the way they are and not just the way my ego wanted them to be.
And then, in a flash, I saw that these events had not been the instrument of God, but had been God. And I knew in that moment that I was seeing the face of God. All my life, I had prayed to know what God looked like, to see the face of God. And I knew then that I'd always been seeing it, that I had always been in the presence of God because God had always been my present experience. The chapel turned to God all around and stretched out endlessly. The universe opened up to me. Everything was obvious. My sense of ego disappeared. There was only God and whatever was left of me, I realized, was also God and had always been God. I sank to my knees on the steps of the sanctuary, amazed that suddenly I seemed to be seeing the divine so clearly, and that it was all so simple.
It lasted only a moment. A quizzical voice inside my head asked if I was having a mystical experience. With that self-reflection, the walls of the room slammed back into place. I was me again, imprisoned in my ego. Shaken but elated, I staggered out of the chapel and across the courtyard. As I was ascending the walkway that led up to the novitiate wing, again for a moment the stairs turned into God bearing me up--as they had always been, but which I'd never understood.
The experience can be
explained away. It may
have been simply the effect of coffee and doughnuts and stress and
too much adrenaline decaying in my brain. And yet. . .
The experience changed my life. I have since then never quite doubted that life is the vision of God's face--though my measuring and evaluating ego continues to veil it from me--and that such a God is very different from the one I'd been taught about in catechism or that is preached about by television ministers or talked about in mainstream churches.
As I said, I'd been moved spiritually and intellectually by my reading The Hero With A Thousand Faces a few years earlier. Joseph Campbell had explained to my satisfaction how the myths of the world's different religions are all metaphors for the qualities of God. He had inspired in me a fascination with the Buddhist myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesava. He had sown seeds in me, I understood, for the realization of the meaning of that--and of all--myth. He had set me up for the discovery of a secret.
That is how I discovered that there is a Great Secret that is everywhere hidden and everywhere revealed. Listen, let me tell you a secret . . .
From The Myth of the Great Secret: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell (Celestial Arts, 1992). (This book is no longer in print, but can be downloaded free from this site. Click here for info about downloading or buying a used copy.