Tag Archives: Neoplatonic Three-fold Path

Purgation: Begin by Letting Go

A Sermon from 14 October 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 10:17-31.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.  19 You know the commandments:  ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words.  But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


If you ever have used the prayer tool called the labyrinth, then you know about the Neoplatonic understanding of the spiritual journey as a three-fold path – the path from the letting go of purgation, through the revelation of illumination, finally to the bliss of union.  Many students of scripture prefer to follow the biblical view of spirituality as a four-fold path.  A Way that begins with an understanding of our original blessedness in the Via Positiva, through the letting go of the Via Negativa, to the birthing of the Via Creativa, which leads to renewal – a new creation in the Via Transformativa (Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 2000, pp. 23, 26).  Both paths are ways of recognizing that the spiritual life moves through various predictable stages.  We do well to be aware of the ways lest the experiences of living drastically shock us when circumstances bring us to the next phase of the journey.

The labyrinth gives us a condensed experience of the entire spiritual journey.  It’s not any old backyard maze.  Standing at the opening of the labyrinth; one sees a large, four-quadrant circle having anywhere from three to eleven circuits or paths moving from the outside of the circle to the inside.  As an ancient tool for experiencing the spiritual journey, those who walk or trace a labyrinth give themselves over to about 30-60 minutes to go deeper with God.  I always encourage those using a labyrinth to go slow.  If walking one, unite each step with your breath in order to calm yourself enough to recognize the movement of Spirit within.  In every step, be deliberate.  Don’t worry that you think you’re about to be at the middle, then turn the next corner to find the path before you taking you far away from the center.  Feeling like you’re heading almost all the way back to the beginning.  The spiritual life’s like that.  The point is to keep walking.

As we enter the labyrinth, we let go.  Let go of the busy-ness of the day.  Let go of the worries that constantly gnaw.  Let go of any guilt we have over things done and things left undone.  It’s the purgation of the three-fold path or the Via Negativa of the four-fold one.  The critical phase of the journey.  Without which we wouldn’t get very far.  Because think about it:  if we won’t let go.  If we don’t purge things from our lives that continually distract, we’ll never hear the whispers of God’s Spirit.  Without purgation, nothing much will take place at the center of a labyrinth other than the continual chatter of the loop that runs in our head.  If we don’t let go – if we don’t release from whatever gets in the way of our daily connection to God – we can’t receive what God eagerly wants to give us:  new insights for the journey, a felt sense of the Presence of the Holy with us, peace amid life’s storms.  Nothing new will be born if we refuse what can be scary; but is the absolutely necessary step of letting go whatever stands between us and the incredible experience of union with the LORD our God.

The Master spiritual teacher Jesus knew the Way.  He knew that no matter how difficult the letting go can be, that release must happen.  The gospel of Mark shows us as it opens with Jesus’ first public words.  The invitation is to let go:  “The time is fulfilled,” the gospel reads.  “And the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus might as well have said:  “let go!”  Let go of the way you have been going.  Let go of whatever is separating you from God.  Let go of whatever keeps you here and now today from living in the kingdom of God.  . . .  No sooner is the proclamation made in general – the gospel not revealing to whom Jesus directed his first public words.  No sooner does the One baptized as God’s Beloved charge anyone who would hear to release whatever they must; than we’re told that Jesus passes along the sea of Galilee saying these words to Simon and his brother Andrew:  “Follow me.”  He goes a little farther around the shoreline to say to other fishermen, James and John:  “Follow me” (Mark 1:16-20).  Surely the sea was dotted that day with those fishing the waters.  We know father Zebedee and several hired hands were in the boat.  The miraculous thing is, four men let go.  They release themselves from their professions and follow along behind the Christ.  They don’t know where they are heading.  That’s exactly what the Via Negativa is like.  Letting go is like wandering around in the darkness a while until what will unfold unfolds.  Releasing what is known, something else has a chance to grow.

With these fishermen, Jesus continues on his journey.  Until the gospel of Mark records in the tenth chapter that a man runs up to Jesus.  He kneels at his feet.  It seems the man wants union.  He longs for eternal life.  He’s followed the religious rules.  Now he wants something More.  Maybe he’s seen it in the life of Christ.  Teaching with profound wisdom.  Making significant differences in the lives of so very many people.  An authority and passion and surge of Life that only comes from deep connection with the Divine.  The man wants it too.  Eternal Life – which isn’t understood in the original language as some sort of heaven in a hereafter.  It’s more a sense of abundant, alive Life now.  Dwelling deeply with God in the culmination of the three and four-fold spiritual paths.  Union.  Communion with the One who created, redeems, and sustains.  Such connection that truly changes lives – blessedly transforming.  The man at Jesus’ feet wants that.  . . .  Inviting him onto the path, Jesus has to tell him to let go.  It’s the first step – the one that gets replicated daily in life behind the Christ.  . . .  The man at Jesus’ feet lacks the willingness to enter the labyrinth.  To purge himself of what is getting in his way of life with God.  He refuses to let go.

What about us?  For those who want to be Christ’s disciples – for those who desire to lead a life worthy of him; are we willing to let go?  And I’m not talking about going out to sell all we have as the way of our release.  Like the man in the gospel, physical possessions might be the block for some of us.  Our wealth might be what gets in our way of life with God.  But what about those of us stuck in a sense that we never could be good enough to be in deep union with God?  What about those of us stuck in our heads – in our left, rational brain so that we can’t logically figure out how being last means being first?  What about those of us who are filling that inner longing with everything else but intimacy with God?  What about those of us who are too afraid of that moment after release – those scary seconds that could last a very long time.  When we could grope in darkness seemingly forever before illumination ever comes.  Do we have the courage to let go?

A man stops Jesus on his journey because he really, really, really wants deep union with God – here and now and forever after.  Shocked at the first step, he has no concept of the spiritual path.  For as an infamous Thirteenth Century theologian once said:  “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction” (Meister Eckhart quoted by Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 2000, p. 132).  For only that which is empty can be filled.  Only that which is last can be first.

Does it seem unlikely for us?  An impossible first step to let go?  Thanks be to God, Christ declared:  All things are possible with God (Mark 10:27).  . . .  Rumor has it, the words remained with him on a cross.  Just before his final release gave way to a glorious new morn’!  For that, we eternally give great thanks!

In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, and the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)