Saturday, April 26, 2014

True mentors are often hidden


I've come across this scenario time and again in well-known books which focus on reflection and philosophy. The earnestly seeking author, with a thirst for knowledge, is willing to travel far to seek the meaning of life. He (or she) eventually stumbles across a wise old guru in some secluded, non-western country, who genuinely doesn't want to be drawn to the world's attention. So the author promises to keep their identity secret if the guru will spout off his immense spiritual insight (which the guru seems quite willing to do). Then the author goes home (usually to America) and writes a book which goes on to hit the big time and earn millions.

In 'The Monk who Sold his Ferrari' the main character, Julian Mantle, stays with a hidden Indian tribe who enable him to turn his life around so that by the time he gets home, he is unrecognisable. In 'Eat, Pray, Love', Elizabeth Gilbert inserts a note in the preface telling readers that her personal guru and Ashram director would prefer not to be named, and asks readers to please respect that person's privacy by not attempting to dig around and find out. There is also her medicine man friend, Ketut, who presumably still lives his simple tribal lifestyle, unchanged by the success of the book in which he features. Just recently, I came across a similar theme in a book by a young woman who was supposedly told the secret of vibrant, glowing health beyond the age of 100 by an old tribeswoman who simply wanted to be known as 'Teresa.'

When I started planning this blog post, I wondered why I felt a bit indignant and annoyed. I think the whole subject seemed to reek of exploitation. The poor mentors, whose wisdom is drawn from, get nothing, while the opportunistic authors make a fortune, enabling them to have book tours around the world and mansions in several different countries. That doesn't seem fair at all. Then, with further reflection, I realise that I'm thinking about it from a limited, western materialist perspective myself.

The mentors themselves probably think they've got off lightly, and wouldn't exchange their modest, hidden lifestyles for those of the authors for all the world. It would be far too high a price to pay. At present, they have the freedom to go where they choose when they choose, have hours at their disposal for reflection and prayer, are free to observe the pattern of the days and have no demands on them to change or adapt their treasured personal rhythms for anybody. Exchanging this for a celebrity's lifestyle, in which every journalist or media mogul wants a piece out of them, their words and photos are splashed over the pages of magazines to be criticised and pulled apart, and every minute of their time is quickly accounted for with no space for personal care would be a nightmare for them. Having to live this way for the mere praise of men would mean nothing to many of them, who would be quick to declare that they prefer to live for 'an audience of One'. They possibly even pity their famous author friends, for being willing to settle for all this.

Are these anonymous gurus onto something, in their choice to pull back and enjoy obscurity? I really think they are. The way God seems to have designed the world bears this out. Where do miners usually find the most precious gold? It is buried deep under the earth, and not generally lying around on the surface for any old casual hiker to trip over. God seems to want to provide us with the need to search for our treasure, so that we value it all the more.

It's the same with literature. Sometimes, the little old, plain-covered book by some unknown author you find crammed back on the dusty shelf of a second hand shop has more value than the most famous best-seller on the New York Times list. And sometimes, even though you've been studying your Bible, or other sacred historical text, for years and years, a very subtle insight may suddenly hit you in the face, making you exclaim, 'How could I have missed this, all these years?' God could have had one of his prophets spell it out so it would be impossible to miss, but then it wouldn't be so precious. The very hidden quality gives it much of its value.

I'm not saying not to listen to the words of our celebrities and admired thinkers, whose faces smile at us when we turn on our TVs. The world is full of quotable wisdom from famous figures such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, who got their positions deservedly. It's just handy to sometimes give a thought to old monastery care-takers, devout peasants in Italian coastal villagers, and even the people we rub shoulders with on our own streets and meeting halls. Any one of them could be potential gurus. If we simply brush past, assuming that they are nothing more than plain John or Jane Does like the rest of us, we never know what we may miss.

For that matter, let's not be quick to shrug off those sudden thoughts that seem to well up from deep in our own minds and hearts, and resonate with something inside us. Don't forget, we're told that we ourselves are temples of the Holy Spirit, and St. Paul tells us in the book of Colossians that the biggest mystery in God in us. Let's not get so caught up looking for someone big, important and famous enough to tell us what we ought to think and do, that we forget about the mentor who is as close as our next breath.

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