I’m a fan of British detective shows. I like them partly because they tend to be character-driven instead of action-driven. They also tend to focus more apprehending the criminal by understanding the perpetrator’s motives rather than on destroying the evil-doer by any means possible. As a result, the cases are solved more often by outwitting the villain than on subduing him/her through violence. And since there is always an abundance of possible suspects, all somehow involved in questionable sexual and/or financial activities, the stories imply that few of us are as morally pure as we’d like to think we are.
These shows tend to have several distinct parts: THE CRIME, THE PURSUIT, and THE APPREHENSION. The first and third parts are relatively short and straight-forward. The bulk of the action takes place in the second part, as the tenacious detectives collect and examine evidence, discover clues, conduct multiple interviews, develop a plausible narrative, and ultimately identify their prime suspect. It is this evolving process of unraveling the mystery that makes each episode appealing and worth watching. The more complex and inscrutable the mystery, the more we’re captivated by it. We can’t resist seeing someone make sense out of something that initially seems so totally baffling.
Perhaps the reason these detective shows intrigue us is because they parallel our own spiritual struggles so closely. On some deep level, we all have a sense that a crime has been committed against us. Whether we think it was God or our parents or some other culprit who victimized us, we feel that we have been unjustly deprived of something essential for our physical, emotional, or spiritual well-being. In some way, our lives feel broken or incomplete. A sense of wholeness has been lost, and we can’t resist the impulse to solve the mystery and bring the criminal to justice.
At that point, the pursuit begins. Like intrepid detectives, we doggedly examine the evidence, look for clues, interview anyone who can enlarge our understanding and shed new light on the one(s) responsible for our current state. At times, the trail goes cold, and we fear that the mystery is unsolvable. But then, we get a break, and new clues appear and open up new avenues of inquiry.
Eventually, our detective work bears fruit. We get a lead to where our suspect resides. We catch a glimpse of a suspicious figure sneaking through the trees. The hooded figure steps out of the shadows, removes a mask, and finally, we see the criminal’s face. But just as on TV, the person we see before us is not who we expect. The face that is revealed to us . . . is our own! The one who has caused us such misery is none other than a part of ourselves that we have failed to recognize and embrace. The crime done to us was not the removal of something precious and irreplaceable, but rather it’s our self-inflicted blindness to the wholeness that is already ours. The wounds and experiences that we thought had diminished us turn out to be seeds that have born priceless fruit that we have not appreciated or utilized. The scene of the crime has become the cradle of blessing. Our vulnerability has become the vehicle of our salvation.
Our spiritual journey is not ultimately one in which we search and apprehend the Divine Mystery. Rather, as in Frances Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven,” it is God who ultimately pursues us with the patience of a tireless detective, not to judge, punish, or destroy us, but to open our blind eyes to the blessedness that is already ours. The task of a spiritual director is to persuade us to stop running away and let ourselves be caught.