In 1872, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem (1263 – “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”) that neatly sums up how human beings awaken to knowledge of God. When she wrote this poem, Dickinson’s greatest work was behind her; there is a sense in which these eight lines feel almost like an afterthought. But in truth, it is one of her finest pieces of work, a helpful note for those who turn to her not only as a wonderful poet but also as a spiritual preceptor.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
the Truth’s superb surprise
We are by nature bent on discovering the truth of our wholeness – that is, we know at the deepest level that we are separated and broken and dimly remember a state in which we were not. Our return to that state of perfection and wholeness is what drives the spiritual and religious quest. Indeed, Karen Armstrong has argued that spiritual epiphany or insight – a personal experience of the transcendent – may well be the primary defining human characteristic (The Case for God, p. 9).
Thus, Dickinson’s premise is that we must ultimately have “all the truth.” We cannot settle for part of it. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ repeated insistence in A Course in Miracles that compromise is not possible. We cannot have some light and some darkness too. Everything and nothing cannot, by definition, be mutual possibilities (e.g., T-3.II.1).
And yet, we are not – most of us – ready for the whole truth. We are so deeply enmeshed in the ego’s argument that we are bodies at war with other bodies, stalked by an angry and vengeful God, that if we were wrenched out of it at once our heads would explode. As Dickinson puts it the Truth’s “superb surprise” is simply too bright for us. And so it is revealed to us gently, circuitously even – as if the Holy Spirit loops us ever closer to the vivid center of being where only Love exists.
This calls to mind an important passage in the text of A Course in Miracles in which Jesus reminds us that we are not going to advance lickety-split from nightmare to awakening.
So fearful is the dream, so seeming real, he could not waken to reality without the sweat of terror and a scream of mortal fear, unless a gentler dream preceded his awakening, and allowed his calmer mind to welcome, not to fear, the Voice that calls with love to awaken him; a gentler dream, in which his suffering was healed and where his brother was his friend (T-27.VII.13:4).
Dickinson says something similar in the final half of her wonderful poem.
As Lightening to the Children eased
with explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
or every man be blind –
Though we are clearly adults in body, in our spiritual lives we are more like little children. Orphans, even. The Truth must be revealed to us gently and slowly, in pieces, with clear and simple explanations of what is happening, so that we see the light gradually. It is the only way, suggests Dickinson, that a human being can come at last to Truth.
Jesus does not disagree.
How can you wake children in a more kindly way than by a gentle Voice that will not frighten them, but will merely remind them that the night is over and the light has come? You do not inform them that the nightmares that frightened them so badly are not real, because children believe in magic. You merely reassure them that they are safe now (T-6.V.2:1-3).
When I briefly (and ineptly) studied and practiced Buddhism in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I was deeply invested in enlightenment as an “aha!” moment. Waking up was an event bestowed upon worthy individuals by worthier ones – notably Buddha, although I was still deeply infatuated with Jesus at that time. It was something external to me that would be handed over as a reward – kind of like a badge or a trophy.
It took me a long time to see the silliness of that position, and even longer one to accept the alternative. Fortunately, Jesus is patient. In time, I began to understand that the Holy Spirit was not separate from me, and that “me and I” were simply shallow and painful symbols of the powerful decision-making mind.
You are the dreamer of the world of dreams. No other cause it has, nor ever will (T-27.VII.13:1-2).
Jesus is not talking about the figure in the dream – the egoic self to which we are all more or less still attached – but to the dreamer who projects the world. When we see that, we can assess the results of our efforts. And finding them wanting – as rigorous honesty will inevitably do – then we can open up the door to an alternative. We can let Jesus and the Holy Spirit help us to “see” better.
In essence, we are letting them “dazzle” us with happier and happier dreams until we can at last let dreaming go altogether.
There is enough testimony out there to conclude that for some people, this awakening thing really is like a snapping of the proverbial fingers. They go to bed with the ego and wake up to the Holy Spirit. But for most of us, the truth indeed “dazzles gradually.” We pray, we practice, we do what is in front of us. One step forward, two steps back. Maybe a little slide to the left or right. Maybe we stop by the roadside and cry a little, or whine about how hard it is. Maybe we help somebody or let somebody help us (thank you!).
Little by little we start to realize that the rays of God’s love are both more plentiful and present. We are happy – don’t analyze it! – and getting happier.
Take heart for those moments when you are aware of – and can accept – God’s love, even if it’s just a sliver. When we are starving, a crumb is better than nothing. Soon enough you’ll be ready for the occasional crust, and then a thick slice. And one day – maybe this afternoon, maybe next year, maybe in a decade or two – you’ll embrace the whole loaf. It’s all God asks.