Little did I appreciate then that most people were already along a spiritual path that they had struggled and worked hard at navigating. A path that had led them to insights and awakenings that I could not fathom. Not because I had not begun to experience these moments of ecstasy, calm and profound knowing but because I had not travelled their path.
“Whilst we are on different paths we are all striving to surmount the same mountain.”
This was reinforced when, two weeks ago. I shared an assembly for 320 junior school pupils in Oldham with two of the schools community leaders: the local vicar and the Imam and scholar from the local Mosque.
I have been working with the staff, students and community on values based learning for over a year. It had gone well and we could see clear impact on teaching, learning and behaviour. We had shared our values with parents and the local community and things we going well. It was suggested that we take a further step to show the importance of respect, tolerance and the benefits of diversity by leading a values based assembly. The staff thought it would be helpful for the children to see how each faith interprets the four values that connect us all, the things that makes us human: courage, compassion, life-force and wisdom.
The vicar talked with passion about the Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. How when questioned by God he had the courage to reflect upon his behaviour (Saul was hunting down Christians and killing them at this time). When exposed to the kindness of others who looked past mere outward show of difference his own compassion was kindled. However, it was his courageous action to challenge himself and what others expected him to be that turned his life around. He spent his remaining years seeking to create a life of wisdom and value culminating in establishing the Church of Rome.
The children, predominantly from Islamic homes, really engaged not only in the story but the passion and sincerity with which the vicar spoke.
Next, the Imam stood and told a wonderful story about the first Elephant in Arabia and how everyone came to marvel at this remarkable and powerful beast. In their number there were four blind men who all wanted to discover what all the fuss was about.
They were taken to the elephant and each took hold. The first held the tail saying “Ah, it is thin and bendy with a fury end.” “No” said the second, who was holding a leg, “It is like a great tree.” “You are both mistaken” said the third who hands were exploring the ear, “It is like a great leaf.” “No, no,” said the fourth blind man, who was holding the tusk “It is very smooth and curved, like a finely polished stick.” Of course, concluded the Imam, they were all right.
He said that we are like the four blind men. We are each holding onto that part of God that our culture, experience and knowledge has brought us to. We will all express our understanding of this one divinity in our own way. But, like the blind men holding the same elephant, we are all connected to the same truth.
It is only through developing our own courage and compassion to question in order to discover what we have in common with others who do not see the world as we do. This way we find the energy, the life-force, to make the effort to reach out to each other. We also find the wisdom to look beyond our own limited understanding and fear of who we are and what me might become.
After 30 years of practice I found the experience in the school hall in Oldham profoundly moving. I had no desire to drag either the Christian or the Muslim from their paths onto mine for the simple reason it was evident that we are not only on the same path but all three of us are riding on the same elephant.