Monday, December 31, 2007

so the children may die no more

Softly and far there sounds a lament,
and a still small voice implores
the strength of a people whose lives will be spent
so the children may die no more.
Tim Mannion, Rachel's Lament

Some years ago, a fine songwriter named Tim Mannion wrote a piece called Rachel’s Lament, using this little snippet from the prophet Jeremiah that gets quoted in Matthew’s Gospel at the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents: “the sound of Rachel weeping in the streets, for her children are no more.” Oddly enough, he wrote the piece when his son Sean was born, having some doubts about having brought a child into a world that seemed to be careening headlong toward annihilating itself. As he said, “For the swords of Herod still rise and fall indeed as nations spend billions of dollars on nuclear weapons while millions of children starve to death each day.”

I think of that song every year during this season, as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents and the Holy Family in the Roman tradition, and when we celebrate World Peace Day on January 1st; but I’ve especially been thinking of that song this year because of the Holy Father Pope Benedict’s World Peace Day message, which was released early this year. It’s called “The Human Family, A Community of Peace.” Not surprisingly, he starts out by saying that the building up of a community of peace has to begin in the home, with the family, (#3) because that’s where children have to learn the language and the actions of peace, the vocabulary of peace that they can carry with them through their whole lives. The letter to the Colossians, read on the feast of the Holy Family, beautifully spells out this vocabulary and these gestures of peace:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col 3:12-14)
But peace is not an isolated state. Citing the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Holy See’s own Charter of the Rights of the Family, Pope Benedict goes on to say that in order for there to be peace, families need to have a home, families need employment, families need the possibility of schooling for children, and families need basic health care for all, because if “society and public policy are not committed to assisting … people in these areas,” he says, “they deprive themselves of an essential resource in the service of peace.” (#5)

Earlier in the document he had quoted Gaudium et Spes, saying that “All peoples are one community and have one origin, because God caused the whole human race to dwell on the face of the earth; and all people have one final end, God.” (#1). And the next section (#8) of the letter is entitled, “Humanity is one great family.” This may seem a little touchy-feely but coming from a philosopher-academic such as Pope Benedict, we shouldn’t take it so. The human race has to learn to see itself as one big family, because that is what it is––literally not figuratively. We are all related to each other, with familial relationships like parents, spouses, siblings, aunties and uncles, and nieces and nephews, so we can apply the same language and actions that we expect in the home to the whole human race. (#6)

And so, in the next section he insists, since this family needs a home, that we need to care for the environment that has been entrusted to us “to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom.” Yes, he hastens to add that it’s important that assessments be carried out “prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom,” and that they be “uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions,” but he says that “prudence does not mean failing to accept responsibilities and postponing decisions” because “the problems looming on the horizon are complex and time is short.” We simply must to gain a “’sense’ that the earth is ‘our common home’” We must reach “agreement on a model of sustainable development” so as to ensure “the well-being of all while respecting environmental balance.” What this means is not selfishly thinking that nature is “at the complete disposal of our own interests,” because “future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves.” (#7-8) As the native peoples teach us, the earth does not belong to us; it belongs to our children.

Furthermore, the Holy Father says, there needs to be an economy that is capable of responding to the requirements of a common good. But now that the human family has become increasingly unified as a result of globalization, we need to be aware that the common good is now planetary in scope. We have to ensure a “prudent use of resources and an equitable distribution of wealth. In particular… aid given to poor countries.” (#10)

But the thing that really got my attention was the last section. The Holy Father concludes his message speaking about the international arms race and nuclear weaponry. He first of all points out “with regret” the growing number of states that are engaged in the arms race, and how even some developing nations allocate a significant portion of their tiny domestic product to the purchase of weapons. But this is not just pointing fingers at Iran; as far as he is concerned, no one goes without some share in the blame. “The responsibility for this baneful commerce is not limited, because “the countries of the industrially developed world profit immensely from the sale of [these] arms, while the ruling oligarchies in many poor countries [try] to reinforce their stronghold by acquiring ever more sophisticated weaponry.” And so,
In difficult times such as these, it is truly necessary for all persons of good will to come together to reach concrete agreements aimed at an effective demilitarization, especially in the area of nuclear arms. At a time when the process of nuclear non-proliferation is at a stand-still, I feel bound to entreat those in authority to resume with greater determination negotiations for a progressive and mutually agreed dismantling of existing nuclear weapons. In renewing this appeal, I know that I am echoing the desire of all those concerned for the future of humanity. (#14)
In a statement that he issued while presenting Benedict’s message to the press Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace added that global spending on weaponry reached $1.204 billion in 2006, and that spending on arms went up 37 percent over the period 1997-2006. That’s the largest level of spending ever recorded, even during the ‘Cold War.’ Martino also argued that the arms race that this spending fuels is actually counter-productive with regard to anti-terrorism efforts, since build-ups in arms actually make the world less secure, not more.

In conclusion the Holy Father noted, along with the Charter on the Family and the Anniversary of World Peace Day, that sixty years ago the United Nations Organization issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying that with that document
… the human family reacted against the horrors of the Second World War by acknowledging its own unity, based on the equal dignity of all men and women, and by putting respect for the fundamental rights of individuals and peoples at the [very] center of human coexistence. This was a decisive step forward along the difficult and demanding path towards harmony and peace.
And so he ends by inviting “every man and woman to have a more lively sense of belonging to the one human family, and to strive to make human coexistence increasingly reflect [the] conviction” of belonging to the one human family, because this is what is essential for the establishment of true and lasting peace. (#15)

This is what should inform our prayer today: we should lament that the swords of Herod still rise and fall indeed, and we should lament our part in it, even if it be small, through our complacency our through our willful ignorance. But let’s not just lament: let’s let our celebrations increase in us, as the Holy Father suggests, a conviction of our unity, a conviction of the equal dignity of all women and men, and the conviction that respect for the fundamental rights of individuals and peoples is the center of human coexistence, a conviction to care for our planetary home, and the conviction that, even if we can’t do anything to improve the situation of others, we at least do nothing that aids and abets in worsening it. And let’s not stop believing that there is an answer other than weapons, even against all evidence to the contrary.

Tim’s lament ends with a challenge:
Softly and far there sounds a lament
And a still small voice implores
The strength of a people whose lives will be spent
So the children may die no more.

cyprian
world peace day 07

Monday, December 24, 2007

ascending and descending

(I got to preach for Christmas Mass down here at the hermitage––a real honor.)

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good tidings!
Is 52:7

And the monk goes back to the world with bliss-bestowing hands.
Tibetan saying

As many of you know, the geographical layout of Camaldoli in Italy is very striking and very instructive. Up near the top of the mountain is the Sacro Eremo, 15 cells surrounding the church, not unlike the layout here at New Camaldoli. It is a place of deep silence and introspection, and I got the impression when I visited there for the first time that this was the very center of our spirituality, this silence, this stillness. My lasting image of the place is of a cold day in early January, and the fierce wind blowing grey clouds over the top of the mountain, almost frightening, certainly awe-inspiring in its severity, the monks all huddled up in their cowls, heads lowered silently entering the church; the choir stalls separated one from the other by big arm rests; at vigils in the morning just the minimum of lighting by which to read the office books. Even though the lunches and dinners are in common there is a kind of respectful hush over everyone passing the food and rather whispering exchanges of conversation. They seem to be uncomfortable with the fact that meals were no longer in silence.

On the other hand, a mere 3 kilometers down the road lies the monastery. My first and lasting impression of that place is that it reminded me of my little squat Italian grandmother, with her arms out-stretched burying my head in her bosom as she squeezed me and sat me down to feed me. Perhaps it will come as no surprise that I have come to think of that as the “motherhouse.” Lunches and dinners are kind of a raucous affair, and there are always guests coming in who are greeted with loud cries and embraces and kisses on the cheek, and the phone is ringing, and there always seems to be an excuse for a little dolce at the end of the meal. In Romuald’s genius, this place was established not just to care for the hermits above, but also for the foresteria and the greeting of guests, and the antica farmacia to supply medicine for the sick, the fonte buono, the well that gives off this delicious mountain spring water, and up until today the monastery host’s countless pilgrims and conferences and retreats.

I must say I preferred staying up at the eremo when I was there; and yet every now and then I felt like I needed to sneak down the hill and at least have pranzo at the monastery. There was something so humanizing about it.

Why I bring that up is because I feel like Christmas is like a trip down the hill to the monastery, to my Italian grandmother.

Spirituality, especially monastic and contemplative spirituality, can be so heady, so lofty, so––if you’ll excuse me for saying so––so spiritual, and seem sometimes as if it had nothing to do with the earth or the body or real life. And I don’t mean just Christian spirituality. Spirituality in general, even yogic spirituality, which seems to be so concentrated on bodily postures and diet and breathing, can leave you with the impression, that it’s still all just about the atman, the spirit, and a total detachment from any bodily consciousness.

Bruno has been trying to tell us for years, but it is really starting to sink in for me, partially because now that my eyes are opened I am seeing it echoed everywhere, and I am especially seeing this year it in our celebration of Christmas. While we are busy ascending to God––climbing the ladder of monks, climbing the steps of spiritual perfection, ascending our ziggurats and seven-storey mountains to heaven––in Jesus, as Pope Benedict writes in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, “God has revealed himself in his descending.” So, it seems to me, if we want to be perfect as God is perfect, we need to descend as well. This is the whole scandal of Christianity. We heard the beautiful hymn to the Word from the prologue of the Gospel of John today. It’s instructive to recall exactly what this philosophical concept logos–“word” had come to mean to Jesus’ contemporaries. For example for Philo (a Hellenized Jewish philosopher who lived from 20 BC to 50 AD) the logos was both the creative principle and divine wisdom, but he, like all the ancient Greeks always felt it was necessary to maintain the distinction between the perfect idea and imperfect matter. And that’s why the logos was necessary, he taught, because God cannot come into contact with matter. This what Christianity turns on its ear in claiming that God has come into contact with matter! Worse yet, God has become matter. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Ken Wilber writes about the difference between ascending and descending religions, and I think he would say Christianity is one of the ascending religions. He suggests that harmony is found in the union of the ascending and the descending currents, and not in a kind of brutal war between the two. “Only when Ascending and Descending are united … can both be saved. And those who do not contribute to this union not only destroy the only Earth we have, but forfeit the only heaven they might otherwise embrace.” (A Brief History…, p. 12-13) From my understanding, he actually just stumbled onto Christianity, because this is specifically what happens in Christianity, or at least what is supposed to happen––it is a union of the ascending and descending. While we are busy ascending to God, “God has revealed himself in his descending.”

We are always adding gilt banners and trumpets to Christmas, because otherwise the whole thing just seems too ordinary. Just a baby, just dirty diapers. At first I used to get annoyed about all the folderol, and then I started to think, yes, but why stop there? Why not gild everything!? Why not suddenly see how holy everything is? Maybe that’s what Christmas does––it gilds everything, let’s us know how holy everything is.

It’s not so much that I want to remind us to descend again while we are ascending; I more want to point out all the ways that we do already descend, and celebrate them such. I was thinking about my brothers here the other day, living this monastic life that could look as if it were a fuga mundi–flight from the world or contemptus mundi–contempt for the world or, even worse, a withdrawal from responsibility for the world in search of some private salvation. There’s a beautiful saying from the Tibetan tradition, that monks come back to the world with bliss-bestowing hands. Our founder St Romuald had a marvelous vision of white-robed monks climbing a ladder; but the other day as I was coming down the mountain from Avila I had a vision of white robed-monk climbing down a mountain.

...and in my vision I saw Benedict getting up at 2:30 in the morning to clean out the walk-in refrigerator;
I saw Raniero sitting in his office answering Christmas mail until nine o’clock,
and Daniel going to put warm compresses on Fr Bernard’s eyes.
I saw Emmaus turning everything he touches into a work of art.
I saw Bruno’s years of lectio and study turning into breath-taking homilies,
and I saw Robert after serving as prior for years now working happily in the bookstore,
and John quietly filing books in the library;
there was Zacchaeus with his warm hospitality to anyone who comes through,
and Fish running to town to welcome a vocation candidate and making sure there is a note and flowers to greet him;
I saw Michael making sure that all the work gets done around the place,
and Gabriel (after how many years?!) still trimming the candles and setting up the chapel for each liturgy
and Emmanuel on his tractor trimming trees and leaving oranges in my hatch,
Isaac making hundreds of candles
and Bernard still having the strength and desire to meet with retreatants,
Isaiah finding time to hear another confession,
Bede doing countless little unseen tasks,
Joshua faithfully doing the housekeeping day in and day out,
Jose-Luis bringing all of his infectious levity to everything he does.

And I knew that in them and in those actions, while they were ascending, God was revealing himself in their descending and the Word was being made flesh, coming back to the world with bliss-bestowing hands.

For our visitors too, I invite you to look at your own lives and how many ways you descend––in raising children, in caring for a sick relative, in making the long commute each day to work, in filing papers in and office or teaching young people, in plumbing and carpentry, in art and science, in cooking and cleaning. Not only is Jesus’ cradle already glowing now; the whole world seems to be glowing today, all of our mundane existences and duties, “our daily round and common task,” all glow from within because––because of Jesus’ birth––there is no distinction between the perfect idea and imperfect matter! While we are busy ascending to God, “God has revealed himself in his descending.” The logos is necessary not because God cannot come into contact with matter but because it is how God comes into contact with matter. The scandal is God has come into contact with matter. God has become matter! The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, with bliss-bestowing hands.

“In Jesus Christ God has revealed himself in his descending.” And not just at his birth. His birth was only the beginning of the long descent of his life, into the waters of the Jordan, into the heart of our existence, “emptying himself and taking the form of a slave,” even into the hell of our desperation and separation. As the Holy Father writes, so too our “ascent to God occurs precisely in the descent of humble service, in the descent of love, for love is God’s essence,” and is thus the power that truly purifies us and enables us to see God. And even if “the world” forgets the source and the reason for the season, this part of it they get right. They know it’s all about love, the love that purifies and lets us see God face to face.

It’s not that we don’t ascend anymore; it’s that we know while and when we are ascending that there is going to be a descent as well, and somehow that it gives a certain lightness to our steps, a knowledge changes the way we ascend, and gives more joy to the ascent. We know that we are not going to ultimately leave anything behind, like the bread and wine that get lifted up at the altar and gets transubstantiated. To the famous patristic adage, “God became a human being so that we might become God,”––which is scandalous enough––our brother Cassian liked to remind us that Johannes Metz added, “God became human so that we might become human.” As we pray at the preparation of the gifts, this Christmas day let us hope that we may “come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Even more, let us hope we can humble ourselves to share in the humanity of Christ so that we may share in his divinity, because that’s what it really means to be human, to participate in the divine nature, to ascend and descend, up the ladder and down the mountain over and over and over again.

cyprian,
christmas 07

Friday, December 21, 2007

opening, closing the gates of heaven

O Key of David,
scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and you close without contest!
O Antiphon for December 20

Opening, closing the gates heaven,
can you be like a woman?
Tao Te Ching, #10

I’m down with my brother monks at the hermitage for Christmas. I was supposed to preach today, those gorgeous readings form the Song of Songs (2:8-14): "Hark! My lover––here he comes springing across the mountains… Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one and come!"; and John the Baptist leaping in the womb of Mary at the Visitation (Lk 1:39ff.). I was preparing to talk about Origen’s use of that reading from the Song of Songs:
The soul is not made one with the Word of God and joined with Him until such a time as all the winter of her personal disorders and the storm of her vices has passed so that she no longer vacillates and is carried about with every kind of doctrine … Then also she will hear ‘the voice of the turtle dove’, which surely denotes that wisdom which the steward of the Word speaks among the perfect, the deep wisdom of God which is hidden in mystery. (On the Song, III)
But Bruno came to my cell at around 9:30 and asked if I would trade with him. Mind you, we very rarely visit each other’s cells so it was like I was getting a Visitation myself. I honestly thought maybe he didn’t know I was there and was coming because he had stored something here. But instead, he asked me to preach for him that day because he had to go to town for a broken tooth, and he would trade me for another day. It was the story of the Annunciation, Gabriel appearing to Mary and announcing that she was to bear a son. I agreed but demanded he give me a double portion of his spirit. Well, I really asked him to give me an idea of what he had been going say. He launched into a bunch of stuff but this is all I remembered after he left: “The purity and poverty of faith.”

So I started out by saying, "We can say it over and over again, but at some point we will really believe in spiritual reality, that if we are receptive and open, that is, if we are pure and poor, if we have the purity and poverty of faith, if we are ready, the Word will be planted in us, individually and corporately."

When I set the scene of the Annunciation to music in the oratorio that I wrote, “The Song of Luke,” after the recitative there was a little ballet. In the music there is a dialogue going on between the clarinet (the signature instrument of Gabriel-God) and the oboe (the signature instrument of Mary). All the way through the piece they are answering each other, contradicting each other, teaching each other even. Only at two points do they ever play the same notes in unison. For the first time, I told the performers to just blurt out the long sustained note without any regard of beauty of tone (a nod to Hindemith’s solo viola sonatas). But the second time they play a unison line I wanted them to sound like one instrument. I was speaking with another musician and composer recently, one who is very well-schooled, and he said to me, out of nowhere––meaning I don’t think he has ever heard the Annunciation Dance that I wrote for the “Song of Luke”––“For example, you would never have an oboe and a clarinet play together”! Well, I was too stupid to know that, and I remembered that we had had a hard time getting them to blend live and on the recording, but eventually we did get it. It just takes some work. It takes a certain purity of tone on the part of the oboe, which normally is difficult to play and has a thin reedy sound at its best. And it takes a certain “poverty” even on the part of the clarinet to not dominate the volume.

And maybe it’s the same thing with divinity and humanity. If we just keep trying, we can eventually line the timbre of our humanity up with the timbre of divinity. And perhaps God’s clarinet will also change its timbre a little bit in order to line up with ours, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, just as Jesus humbled himself to share in our humanity.

That phrase, “poverty and purity of faith” applied too to the first reading from Isaiah 7. The Lord offers Ahaz a sign––“Let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!” But Ahaz says, “I will not ask!” And because Ahaz did not ask, because he had no agenda and was pure receptivity, because he was virginal and chose to be poor, the virgin conceived and bore a child––God with us. It reminded me of Solomon too who wouldn’t ask for anything other than wisdom.

I’m kind of stuck on this idea lately, that someone said to me years ago, that we are all “feminine” in the spiritual life, that is, archetypally feminine, that is, receptive instead of aggressive. I know that there are certain feminists who do not like classifying certain things as feminine, but even the Tao also calls this the feminine, the yielding. And then it occurred to me (in the middle of celebrating Mass) that the phrase from the Tao that I was about to quote: “Opening closing the gates of the sky, can you be like a woman?” was awfully similar to the O Antiphon, the title for Jesus, that was to be sung that day: “O Key of David, scepter of the house of Israel, you open and you close without contest.”

We need a lot of this attitude and outlook, a lot of this lack of agenda, a lot of this receptivity, individually and corporately, if we are to be on the spiritual path. We need to have no agenda about the divine. Receptive and virginal like Mary. Like Ahaz who wouldn’t even ask for a sign. Like Solomon who wanted nothing but wisdom. Like Jesus who emptied himself. A friend of mine wrote me and added to that list, “like Joseph who doesn’t speak but just surrenders to a dream. Like Peter who just dives in.” And like his two year-old daughter who wants nothing but laughter. “Behold, because you did not ask for a sign,” the Lord tells Ahaz, “the virgin will conceive and bear a child and you shall call him God-With-Us, Emannu-el.” I think it was Ahaz himself who was the virgin at that point––and Solomon, even Joseph––like Mary. I even suggested that Jesus himself was a virgin, who “emptied himself.” When we have a lack of agenda, when we are emptied, then we are fertile ground for the surprise of the Word taking root there.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

SANGHA TALK: desert monasticism 5: John Cassian

JOHN CASSIAN

John Cassian was a monk and an ascetical writer who was the first to introduce Eastern monasticism into the West.
• Probably born either in Provence or in present day Rumania, near the delta of the Danube; d. about 435, probably near Marseilles.
• The son of wealthy parents, he received a good education, and while yet a youth visited the holy places in Palestine, accompanied by a friend, Germanus, who was some years his senior.
• In Bethlehem Cassian and Germanus began living the monastic life, but, as in the case of many of their contemporaries, the desire of learning “the science of sanctity from its most eminent teachers” soon enticed them to the Egyptian deserts.
• Lived in Scetis from about 380 until 399 (19 years); they may also have visited Nitria and Kellia, and may have had contact with the Pachomians as well, but he was most likely never in one of these centers.
• After their first seven years they obtained an extension of their leave of absence from Bethlehem and returned to Egypt, where they remained several years longer. It was during this period of his life that Cassian collected the materials for his two principal works, the Institutes and the Conferences.
  • The Institutes full title is De institutis coenobiorum et de octo principalium vitiorum remedies––The Insitutes of the Cenobium and the Remedies for the Eight Principal Vices (cf. Evagrius!)
• “. . . are mainly taken up with what belongs to the outer man and the customs of the coenobia,” the monastic life in common (Instit., II, 9)
• The first four books of the Institutes treat of the rules governing the monastic life, illustrated by examples from the author's personal observation in Egypt and Palestine;
• The eight remaining books are devoted to the eight principal obstacles to perfection encountered by monks: gluttony, impurity, covetousness, anger, dejection, acedia (ennui), vainglory, and pride.
  • The Conferences are a record of the conversations Cassian and Germanus had with the Egyptian solitaries about the interior life.
• The Conferences “deal rather with the training of the inner man and the perfection of the heart.” (Instit., II, 9)
  • These two works, especially the latter, were held in the highest esteem by his contemporaries and by several later founders of religious orders.
• After he left Egypt, Cassian would go on to found two monasteries near Marseilles, and it was for that audience that he wrote his Institutes and Conferences. He was not writing a history of Egyptian monasticism though there is tendency to rely on him for that. Rather he was trying to reform Gallic monasticism by showing them how the Egyptian monks lived.

Post-Egypt
• After their time in Egypt the companions went to Constantinople, where Cassian became a favorite disciple of St. John Chrysostom, who ordained Cassian to the diaconate and placed the treasures of his cathedral in his charge. After St John Chrysostom’s exile of from Constantinople (his second), Cassian was sent as an envoy to Rome by the clergy of Constantinople to intercede to Pope Innocent I in behalf of their bishop. It was probably in Rome that Cassian was ordained to the priesthood.
• From then on out we hear nothing more of Germanus, nor is anything known of Cassian either for the next decade or more.
• About 415 he founded two monasteries at Marseilles, one for men, over the tomb of St. Victor, a martyr of the last Christian persecution under Maximian (286-305), and the other for women. There he spends the remainder of his days.

As Origen and Evagrius before him, Cassian did not himself escape the suspicion of erroneous teaching; he is regarded as the originator of what is known as Semi-pelagianism.
• Particularly in his third and fifth, and most especially in his thirteenth Conference he deals with moral questions, and some think he exaggerates the role of free will by claiming that the initial steps to salvation were in the power of each individual, unaided by grace.
• This may be a reaction against St. Augustine who taught (in De correptione et gratia) the irresistible power of grace and predestination, which Cassian saw as a kind of fatalism.
• But he is caught in what may be an over-reaction, because on the other extreme there is the heresy of Pelagianism that derives its name from Pelagius.
  • Pelagius was a British monk and Christian teacher (born: c. 350 British Isles, died: c. 418, Egypt) whose views on original sin, grace, and predestination were vehemently opposed by Saint Augustine. This actually played a large part in shaping Augustine's influential doctrines on these topics.
  • Pelagius taught that human beings have the ability to fulfill the commands of God by exercising the freedom of human will apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God and/or doing good or bad without the aid of Divine intervention.
  • Pelagianism teaches that human nature is basically good. Thus it denies original sin, which is a major contribution of Augustine, the notion that we have inherited a sinful nature from Adam. Pelagius taught that Adam only hurt himself when he fell and none of his descendents were affected by Adam’s sin so that each person is born with the same purity and moral abilities as Adam was when he was first made by God. And so people can choose God by the exercise of their free will and rational thought. God’s grace, then, is merely an aid to help individuals come to him.
  • Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that we are by nature sinners (Eph. 2:3; Psalm 51:5), because sin entered the world through Adam: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.” (Rom. 3:10-12) Therefore, we are unable to do God's will. (See also Rom. 6:16; 7:14)
  • Some recent writings from Pope Benedict, who is a strong Augustinian. show the same line of thinking:
… the Beatitudes stand opposed to our spontaneous sense of existence, our hunger and thirst for life. (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 98)

We are not ready made children of God from the start, but we are meant to become increasingly more so by growing more and more deeply in communion with Jesus. (ibid., p. 139)
  • Pelagianism was condemned as heresy in 418.
• What Cassian is accused of is Semi-Pelagianism, a weaker form of Pelagianism; as a matter of fact he is considered its major proponent.
  • Cassian did not deny the doctrine of the Fall; he does not deny original sin and its effects upon the human soul and will; he even admitted the existence and the necessity of an interior grace.
  • But he teaches that we cooperate with God to achieve our salvation, and, even more, that we can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of our own free will and through our own human effort. This would mean that grace is not absolutely necessary to maintain faith.
  • For Cassian, grace supports the will in resisting temptations and attaining sanctity. But he maintains (this is all from Conference 13:12ff.) that after the Fall there still remained in every soul “some seeds of goodness... implanted by the kindness of the Creator,” which, however, must be “quickened by the assistance of God.” Without this assistance “they will not be able to attain an increase of perfection.” Therefore, “we must take care not to refer all the merits of the saints to the Lord in such a way as to ascribe nothing but what is perverse to human nature.” We must not hold that “God made man such that he can never will or be capable of what is good, or else God has not granted [us] a free will, if [God] has suffered [us] only to will or be capable of what is evil” (ibid).
  • Mind you: this is big, and will be similar to what Lutheranism will criticize the Roman church for, grace versus works. Because grace is the completely unmerited and freely given favor of God upon the sinner, if we are the ones who first seek God then God is responding to the good effort of seeking him, which is not grace but what is due the person who chooses to believe in God apart from God’s initial effort, etc.
• The three opposing views have been summed up briefly as follows:
  • St. Augustine regarded humanity in its natural state as dead,
  • Pelagius regarded humanity in its natural state as quite sound,
  • Cassian regarded humanity in its natural state as sick. The “error” of Cassian was to regard a purely natural act, proceeding from the exercise of free will, as the first step to salvation.
What does this say about our kata physin––"according to nature"? This is a difference between the western and the eastern church which never fully accepted the notion of original sin.

Cassian himself actually took no part in the controversy, which arose over his teaching shortly before his death. Even his earliest opponent (Prosper of Aquitaine), without naming him, alludes to Cassian with great respect as a man of more than ordinary virtues.
• But Semi-pelagianism was finally condemned by the Council of Orange in 529.
• Ironically, in a third work more minor work of Cassian, De Incarnatione Domini contra Nestorium, written at the request of the Roman Archdeacon Leo (afterwards Pope Leo the Great) about 430-431, which was a defense of orthodox doctrine against the errors of a different heresy, Nestorianism, Cassian denounces Pelagianism as the source of this new heresy.

In spite of this, like Origen and Evagrius, Cassian’s person and his writings will be very influential, and contributed greatly to the diffusion of monasticism in the West.
• Although he was never formally canonized, St. Gregory the Great regarded him as a saint, and it is related that Pope Urban V (1362-1370), who had been an abbot of the monastery of St. Victor, had the words Saint Cassian engraved on the silver casket that contained his (Cassian’s) head.
• At Marseilles his feast is celebrated on the 23rd of July, and his name is found among the saints of the Greek Calendar.
• And the Conferences and the Institutes are going to have lasting influence mainly because of St. Benedict who cites Cassian in his Rule.
  • Benedict called Cassian’s writings a speculum monasticum–mirror of monasticism, and ordered selections from the Conferences which to be read daily in his monasteries.

Some samples of teaching, three important terms

Purity of heart: the goal of monastic life
• That practice of holiness, at different times described at love or perfection or contemplation or tranquility, without which, Cassian says (1.5.2), the kingdom of heaven, which is the ultimate goal of the monk, “will not be able to be seized.”
• Also said to be interchangeable with what Evagrius teaches as apatheia, but Cassian avoids this word because of its associations with Evagrius.
• Eg. St Jerome’s critique of Evagrius:
Evagrius Pontus…put out a book and maxims on apatheia, which we would call impassibility or imperturbability––when the mind is never disturbed by the vice of perturbation and, to put it simply, is either a stone or God.
  • Even worse he links Evagrius’ apatheia with Pelagianism, which Jerome especially hated.
• Boniface Ramsey describes the state of purity of heart as
. . . the last condition to be arrived at by the monk in the world of time. It is, moreover, the sole condition necessary for the attainment of the kingdom of heaven: It both presupposes all possible good observances, to the degree that they are necessary for a given individual, and imposes meaning and direction on all such observances, which must be considered secondary to it.
  • Cassian himself says, “It behooves us to carry out the things that are secondary––namely, fasting, vigils, the solitary life and meditation on Scripture––for the sake of the principal goal which is purity of heart or love, rather than for their sake to neglect this principal virtue.” (1.7.2)
  • In other words don’t consider fasting, vigils, solitude and Scripture as ends in and of themselves to the expense of purity of heart; but also don’t neglect them either because they are means to the end. Purity of heart “presupposes all good observances…” which are the atmosphere in which purity of heart is achieved.

Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven
mainly drawn from first Conference with Abba Moses
• Cassian distinguishes between the end (telos/finis) and the goal (scopos/destinatio): the goal (scopos) of the monk is purity of heart”; but “the end (telos) of our profession… is the kingdom of heaven.”
• “…after the devil has been expelled and the vices no longer reign at all, the kingdom of heaven can be established in us, as the evangelist says: ‘The kingdom of God will not come with observation, nor will they say: Here it is, or there it is. For amen I say to you that the Kingdom of God is within you’… Thus, if the kingdom of God is within us, and the kingdom of God is itself righteousness and peace and joy, then whoever abides in these things is undoubtably in the kingdom of heaven.”
• “For the ancients, the Kingdom of heaven is [nothing other than] the Holy Spirit ruling over our faculties, ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’ … the Kingdom of God is . . . the reign of love, love that informs and directs our other faculties.” (Being Still, Jean-Yves le Loup)
• Again, Pope Benedict, from his section on the Our Father
…kingdom of God means ‘dominion of God’

The Kingdom of God comes by way of a listening heart. (p. 146)
  • Since Jesus is the kingdom of God (autobasiliea), communion with Jesus is entry into the kingdom, hence he quotes Reinhold Schneider:
The life of this Kingdom is Christ’s continuing life in those who are his own. …in the heart that is touched and transformed by [the vital power of Christ], the Kingdom begins…. The roots of the indestructible tree seek to penetrate into each heart.
  • And then Benedict goes on to write
To pray for the Kingdom to God is to say to Jesus: Let us be yours, Lord! Pervade us, live in us; gather scattered humanity in your body, so that I you everything may be subordinated to God and you can then hand over the universe to the Father, in order that ‘God may be all in all.’
Discretion: lies at the service of purity of heart
• See Second Conference, with Abba Moses
• The virtue that distinguishes between good and bad, or more often between and mere appearance if good;
• Ordinarily practiced by submitting oneself humbly to the judgment and the insight of others––the surest possible guarantee in a fallible existence that subjectivity does not cloud our judgment
• The ruling virtue of the Conferences and one of the main themes that informs St Benedict in his Rule for Monks.

Three threes: from the Third Conference on Renunciation
• Three callings
  • From God as an inspiration in our heart or even when we are sleeping, like Abraham or Antony (read 3. IV.1)
  • That which comes from human agency, “when moved by example or teaching of certain holy persons.”
  • That which proceeds from need, when we are compelled at least involuntarily to hasten to God…” (3.IV.4)
Of these three kinds, then, although the first two seem to be supported by better beginnings, nonetheless we find that even on the third level, which seems inferior and lukewarm, there have been people who are perfect and very fervent in spirit…

• Three renunciations: all exemplified by Abraham (VI.1ff)
  • “… that which by bodily fashion we despise all the wealth and resources of the world”: as Abraham is told ‘Leave your country’
  • “…that by which we reject former behavior, vices and affections of soul and body”: as Abraham is told “‘your kinfolk’… [things] related to us from our birth by a connection as it were of a certain affinity or consanguinity…”
  • “… that by which we call our mind away from everything that is present and visible and contemplate only what is to come and desire those things that are invisible”: as Abraham is told to leave “‘your father’s house’––namely, of every vestige of this world which the eyes can gaze upon.”
Is this Cassian’s version of the three stages of the soul’s ascent to God?

• Three kinds of riches: bad, good and indifferent (IX.1ff.)
  • Bad: responding to the Beatitudes, ‘Woe to you rich…’; and “Blessed are the poor.”
  • Good: “…those which it is a matter of great virtue and nobility to have acquired”;
  • Indifferent: “…those which can either be good or bad, since they can tend either way depending on the desire and the character of those who use them.”

Method of Prayer
Some have been searching for a method or technique of prayer in desert monasticism. In Conference 10, “On Prayer,” we get the closest thing possible. Abba Isaac teaches John and Germanus a formula for contemplation that had been handed down to him by a few of the oldest fathers.
• Abba Isaac say that this formula would be sufficient for anyone in any circumstance who wanted to have continuous recollection of God.
• It is simply this: to keep the words ever before you, “O God come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.”
• The reason this very verse is chosen from out of all the scriptures (Ps. 70:1) is because these words contain
… an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a consciousness of one's own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand.
So what we have here––as Basil Pennington and Laurence Freeman have taught––is the use of a short prayer that it is very much in the tradition of the mantra from the way in which it is presented.
• Abba Isaac says that we use this as a “formula for meditation, intent on driving every other sort of thought from [our] heart.” As we say of the mantra, it is a “tool for thinking,” “using a thorn to remove a thorn.”
• Abba Isaac says
Perhaps wandering thoughts surge about my soul like boiling water, and I cannot control them, nor can I offer prayer without its being interrupted by silly images. I feel so dry that I am incapable of spiritual feelings, and many sighs and groans cannot save me from dreariness. I must say, ‘O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me.’
• Abba Isaac goes on to say, that we use this phrase to “cast away the wealth and multiplicity of other thoughts, and restrict ourselves to the poverty of this single word.

There are so many things contained in this short teaching!
• Mainly there is the issue of thoughts, what do we do about what many Buddhists call the “monkey mind,” that is always jumping from this branch to the next, and will never sit still for even a moment. We can try to fight our thoughts and try to make our mind stop jumping around by sheer force of will. But that doesn’t work for most people––we get caught up in thinking about not thinking and we waste all of our energy trying not to think.
• Shunryu Suzuki’s, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, says that when we are meditating we should not try to stop our thinking, but let it stop itself.
If something comes to your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it.... it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves they gradually will become calmer and calmer. In five or ten minutes, your mind will be completely serene and calm. (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 34)
• What we do is not focus on our thinking, on our monkey mind; we focus on our mantra, on our word, and attach our breath, our intention and attention to it as if it were a little rock that we were holding onto to take us to the depths of a pool of water.
• The Buddha said
As in the oceans depth no wave is born, but all is still, so let the practitioners be still, be motionless, and nowhere should they swell. (Sutta Nipata, Kornfield, p. 79)
• On the surface there may be all kinds of little ripples and even big waves (and fallen leaves and old beer cans!), but we want to go below the surface, below the active mind, below all the activity on the surface and, as Jesus says to the apostles, “cast into the deep.” So if, as Abba Isaac says, "wandering thoughts surge about my soul like boiling water, and I cannot control them, nor can I offer prayer without its being interrupted by silly images," we cling to our mantra.

Let’s remember this early important them: the desert monks were all about constant prayer. And this formula from Abba Isaac is a practical tool toward reaching a state of constant prayer. It is intimately tied in with communion with God and the reign of God.

Pope Benedict on Prayer:
The other false form of prayer the Lord warns us against is the chatter, the verbiage, that smothers the spirit. We are all familiar with the danger of reciting formulas… our relationship with God should not be confined to such momentary situations, but should be present as the bedrock of our soul. In order for that to happen, this relation has to be constantly revived and the affairs of our everyday lives have to be constantly related back to it. The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray… This orientation pervasively shaping our whole consciousness, this silent presence of God at the heart of our thinking, our meditating, and our being, is what we mean by “prayer without ceasing.” This is ultimately what we mean by love of God, which is at the same time the condition and driving force behind love of neighbor.
This is what prayer really is––being in silent inward communion with God. (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 129-130)
Thich Nhat Hahn, Living Buddha, Living Christ
The moment you go back to your breath and you breathe mindfully, holiness is there, because mindfulness is the substance of holiness. God is there, the Holy Spirit is there at the same time.
Associate all this now: The desert monks were all about constant prayer. The kingdom of God is the dominion of God the Holy Spirit in a listening heart. Prayer is that constant listening heart, constant awareness of the presence of God within, informing our faculties.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

SANGHA TALK: desert monasticism 4: evagrius

EVAGRIUS (345-399)

Evagrius is a contemporary and colleague of some great figures in church history such as Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen (or “the Theologian”) Gregory of Nyssa, Melania and Rufinus.
• As my confrere Fr Bruno says, this is an era when bishops were theologians and theologians were mystics.

We’ll discuss Evagrius’ life in four geographical phases: Cappadocia, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Egypt.

1. Cappadocia
• born in Cappadocia (Asia Minor, modern day Turkey) in the year 345. His place of birth was probably Ibora, Pontus.
• We know next to nothing of Evagrius' youth and education but that it was through his father that he became familiar with St. Basil the Great, who consecrated Evagrius lector (one of the minor orders on the way to priesthood and thereby numbered him among his clergy) somewhere in between 370 and 379.
• St Basil was one of the group of great oriental theologians to whom we owe our articulation of the Trinity and the Incarnation.
i. He was also the chief organizer of ascetic community life in the East, known as the father of eastern monasticism. His rule is still the basis of Greek and Russian monastic tradition.
ii. His brother is another great mystical writer of the church, Gregory (known as “of Nyssa”).
iii. Basil had studied at Constantinople and went on from there to Athens, which was still the great university city of the Greek-speaking world. Here another young Cappadocian, Gregory Nazianzen, was his fellow student and close friend. With Basil and his brother Gregory, the three of them make up the trio known as “the Cappadocian Doctors” of the church.

Basil had a deep impact upon the young Evagrius who saw St. Basil as a fountain of orthodox teaching.
• It is likely that Evagrius became familiar with Origen through St. Basil, who was himself an Origenist. Evagrius’ Origenism however became much more radical than Basil’s.
• Evagrius belonged to the intellectual-spiritual circle around these great Cappadocians, and became quite well known to Gregory Nazianzen (the Theologian) and probably Gregory of Nyssa as well.
• He was not at any time involved with the heretical teachings of Arianism, or Gnosticism; he teaches an orthodox Christology and Trinitarianism.

2. Constantinople
• Evagrius was devastated at the death of Basil in 379; he had lost his spiritual father, and fled to Constantinople.
• There St. Gregory (known as “the Theologian” or Nazianzen) who was bishop, became his spiritual father and ordained Evagrius a deacon. Evagrius served him well, especially during the Ecumenical Council of 381 during various controversies.
• He and St. Gregory Nazianzen were close friends. Evagrius would remain a pupil of St. Gregory for the rest of his life, but Gregory was forced to surrender his bishoric and he left Evagrius behind to serve his successor, Nectarius. St. Gregory would refer to Evagrius as the one who “stood beside him without being self interested.”
• Evagrius build up an enormous reputation for himself as a very skilled theologian, a reputation that might have been his downfall because he became proud and arrogant, and eventually ended up in a romantic entanglement of some sort with the wife of a Roman prefect. Not clear whether it was simply his infatuation or there was an actual affair.
• He suffered what appears to have been a nervous breakdown, and his life was in danger because the betrayed husband had planned an ambush on his life. Warned in a dream of the latter, Evagrius fled to Jerusalem to the monastic community of Rufinus and Melania the Elder.

[some background on Melania and Rufinus...

Tyrannius Rufinus (349-410)
• from Italy, Aquileia. He studied in Rome, where he met St Jerome, who encouraged him to become a monk.
• In 371, Rufinus travelled to Egypt to live in the Nitrian desert. He became a disciple of Didymus of Alexandria, and John of Jerusalem ordained him in 390.
• He is best known as a translator of the works of Pamphilius of C├Žsarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil the Great––and especially of Origen!
• He also translated and extended an important work known as the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius; his continuation of the work became the first history of the western church. And his commentary on the Apostles' Creed contains the earliest known continuous Latin text of the creed.

Melania the Elder (about 341 - about 410 CE)
• born in Spain, widowed at 22: the same illness that took her husband also took two of her sons and left her with one living son, with whom she moved to Rome.
• There she became a Christian and, when her son was ten, placed him with a guardian and set off for Alexandria where she joined other Christian desert ascetics.
• She associated with monks of the Arian party -- those who believed that God the Son, Christ, had been created after God the Father. When the Arians were banished from Egypt, she left with them.
• Melania came to Jerusalem, where she founded a monastery with Rufinus, whom she'd met in Alexandria.

Both were students Origen.
• Later when Origen's teachings were condemned, Rufinus refused to renounce them, and so St Jerome also condemned Rufinus.
• Melania founded more monasteries and promoted theological tolerance and the unity of Christianity.]

3. Jerusalem
• It is always noted that Evagrius did not go back to his well-known haunt in Cappadocia. In Jerusalem Rufinus and Melania became great friends and helped him back on his feet again. He was about 37 at the time.
• But his psyche broke down again and he became very sick, suffering from a burning fever that threatened to dehydrate him so he would die.
• As the story goes, the physicians were at a loss to help him but Melania “perceived in her spirit” that this sickness did not come from an ordinary cause, but that there was something deeper going on, and she confronted Evagrius about it.
• Evagrius admitted he had fled from Constantinople due his troubles with the prefect’s wife and that he had made a vow to the Lord to “watch after his soul,” which he had not done. Melania told him only if he would lay down his life for Christ and live as a monk he would survive his illness, and be made whole again. Evagrius agreed to do so and within a few days he was restored to his health and adopted the monastic life.
• Probably received his monk’s cloth from the hands of Rufinus in 383, and he would later write about it to Rufinus in great gratitude.
• During this period, due to his association with Rufinus and Melania, he was also introduced to Origen’s works to an even greater extent, and became introduced into the tradition in Egypt of the circle known as the Tall Brothers.
• These two “nervous breakdowns” can be seen as the foundation of Evagrius’ own ability as a “psychotherapist,” and his gift of reading souls and counseling people who were plagued with “passions” and “demons.”

3. Egypt
• Evagrius now set out for Egypt, the center of monasticism at that time, about 39 years of age.
• In Egypt, Evagrius received training and spiritual advice from a famous monk known as Macarius the Great, and also likely from St. Didymus the Blind. Interesting that the sources speak of him learning at the feet of––upanishad––these two greats a direct teaching from master to disciple.
• Evagrius is now in the company of the circle of monks known as the Tall Brothers or the Long Brothers who were well-trained and well-experienced intellectual Origenist monks.
• He settled in the Nitrian desert and would remain there for the remaining fifteen years of his life.
• He himself became a well-known abba. It is said that he had an enormous capacity to discern spirits, and was an excellent “psychotherapist.”
• In Evagrius’ teaching we see a marriage of Egyptian monastic spirituality and Origenism of the Egyptian intellectually inclined monks.
• This “intellectualism” that is in his background is important, the marriage of intellect and spirituality that is a salient feature of the Hellenistic Cappadocians as opposed, perhaps, to the simplicity of the indigenous Egyptian monks among whom he lived. (See, for example, the life of Antony.)
• Evagrius’ severe ascetism damaged his health, and later in life he reduced his ascetic standards. But as a result of his severe lifestyle he died, peacefully, in 399 at the age of only fifty-four.

Right after his death, an enormous controversy broke out concerning Origen and the tradition that looked to him as its father. Evagrius was spared seeing his friends persecuted, and driven from their homes, and condemned.
• Origen and Orgineism and its condemnation has a very complicated history; there not only theological issues at stake; neither side seems to have been the communion of saints…
• As J.E. Bamberger explains: Evagrius “speculated at great length upon certain of the more daring of Origen’s teachings, such as the doctrine of pre-exisence of souls and the doctrine of the eventual return of all souls, even those of demons, to the primitive union with Divinity [apkatastasis]. It is not so certain the Origen himself held some of these points at the end of his life [!]. In any case he was quite careful to express his submission to the Church’s judgment on their orthodoxy. Evagrius was less cautious… Evagrius tended to pursue principles to their extreme logical conclusions and then proceeded to adopt them in this extreme form as norms for life.” (intro. to Praktikos, p. xxv)
• “Evagrius joined Origen and Didymus the Blind [note: his teacher in Nitria] on the list of heretics. The first official condemnation was at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553… The next three Ecumenical Councils that met made it a part of their business to repeat this same condemnation.” (intro. to Praktikos, p. xxv)
• Also––and this seems even more important––the Egyptian monks viewed “with suspicion the intellectual pursuits of the more cultured and refined monks of Hellenistic background… One of their chief objections to the system taught by Evagrius was the immateriality of God, the doctrine that held that [God] was pure spirit. This was indeed a keystone in the Evagrian system. Literally all depended on it. In opposition to this view the Copts [Egyptians] for the most part help an anthropomorphic concept of the divinity. They considered that [God] was in his very form a pattern for the structure of the human body, except in larger proportions. After all, they reasoned, the Bible tells us that [the human person] is made in the image and likeness of God.” (intro. to Praktikos, p., xlviii)
• We see evidence of this, for instance, in Evagrius’ Chapters on Prayer:
a. #66: “When you are praying do not fancy the Divinity like some image formed within yourself. Avoid also allowing your spirit to be impressed with the seal of some particular shape, but rather, free from all matter, draw near the immaterial Being and you will attain understanding.”
b. #114: “Do not by any means strive to fashion some image or visualize some form at the time of prayer.”
c. See also Chapters on Prayer #3, 62, 92, 128
• Evagrius is in good company here, if he has had commerce with Gregory of Nyssa especially, the beginning of our own apophatic tradition (see Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, for instance).

Doctrine

Recall Origen’s system of the three stages of the soul’s ascent to God: ethike, physike, and enoptike. When Evagrius writes about the stages of the soul’s ascent he names them: pratike, physike and theologia.
• The term pratike is very instructive; it means “the practice of virtue.” Compare to ethike of Orgien, and “purgation” of St John of the Cross.
• One of his most famous writings of course is called the Praktikos, which we have been reading.

To understand the central teaching of Praktikos, and what I think is the most practical (if you’ll excuse the pun) aspect of his teaching there are three terms that are important
logismoi: a train of thought which engages the mind so that bit by bit one drifts away from what one is supposed to be doing into a world of fantasy. A monk’s mind (for instance, since he is writing mainly to monks) becomes befogged and besotted by these thoughts so that he cannot concentrate on the actual reality of his own life.
patheia (passions): ways in which our human faculties get trapped in pointless and irrational reactions. They are not emotions as such; they are disordered reactions, so that passionless can be stated to be "health of the soul."
  • I am reminded of the term “disproportionate recurring reactions,” or DRRs of the PRH program.
  • These actually cloud our view and understanding of reality, what is really going on besides leading to debilitating obsessions and compulsions.
• apatheia: the absence of passions––pointless, irrational reactions; full possession under the divine contemplation of the affective faculties so that disordered passions are resolved into a state of abiding calm.

In Praktikos (see esp. #6–14), Evagrius lays out the eight logismoi, or the eight evil thoughts. Aside from one, acedie, you might recognize the other seven as what become later the seven deadly sins.

• #7, gluttony: suggests to a monk that he give up his ascetic efforts and brings the mind to concern for his physical well-being, the scarcity of commodities of life and worry about his body
• #8, impurity: impels one to lust after bodies; it attacks more strenuously those who practice continence
o see also #22: When it is our lust that flames up they cause us to seek out once again the friendly company of [people] and call us callous and uncivil in the hope that while we feel the desire for bodies we might happen upon them.”
• #9, avarice: fear of old age and the future
• #10, sadness: comes from deprivation of one's desires, often accompanies anger
• #11, anger: boiling up and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury or is thought to have done so
• #12, acedia: instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, for his very life itself
  • we often translate this as listlessness and refer to as “the noonday devil,” the specifically monastic vice
  • “The time of temptation is not the time to leave one's cell, devising plausible precepts. Rather, stand firmly and be patient. . . above all face up to the demon of acedia. . . Indeed to flee and shun such conflicts schools the spirit in awkwardness, cowardice and fear.” (#28)
• #13, vainglory: desire to make their struggles known publicly
  • “The demon of vainglory lives in a state of opposition to the demon of impurity, so that it is impossible for both of them to assault the soul at the same time... the ability to drive away the thought of vainglory through humility, or the power to repel the demon of impurity through temperance is a most profound proof of apatheia.” (#58)
• #14, pride: to deny that God is your helper and consider that you yourself are the cause of virtuous actions

This is not so much a battle against the sins themselves as against the logismoi which are unbalanced passions, thoughts that cause the temptations to sin.
• What conquering these unbalanced passions leads to is called apatheia. That sounds like “apathy” but it’s not what we understand as apathy. It means more or less “a state of tranquility,” which Evagrius claims is the natural state of the soul.
• When Evagrius speaks of the logismoi and patheia in the Pratikos, for instance, he means ways in which our human faculties get trapped in pointless and irrational reactions, ways that are para physin––against our nature.
• Even our passions are basically good energies gone awry; the disordered passions are not just emotions; they are disordered reactions, so that passionless or apatheia is “health of the soul.” (see Prak. #56)
• It is still not emotionless-ness that he is pointing us toward, but “a state of harmony in which all our faculties are doing precisely what they were created to do”––kata physin!––according to our nature––“so that they do not disturb our equilibrium or hinder the proper clarity which the mind should have.” (Tugwell, Ways, p. 28)
• Note the similarity to Athanaius’ description of Antony upon coming out of the tombs. The ascetical life does not destroy our human nature body and soul, but brings to us to our natural state.
• Evagrius: “When we were created at the beginning, seeds of virtue existed in us naturally but no malice at all.” That is our natural state. It is the demons who have hounded us and chased us from this state which is naturally ours.
• Compare to what George Maloney writes in “Breath of the Mystic”
  • “So good does not get superimposed on us from the outside; it is evil that comes from the outside, outside of God’s creation and outside of our own nature. Evil does not come from our basic nature. It can and does touch our intellect; it can and does touch and our will. But the good news is that it can never touch or destroy or completely corrupt our nature. We can lose grace, we can lose our likeness to God, but the nature given to us can never be destroyed. The image of God that is the very mark of our being can be covered, tarnished, hidden, but it can never be destroyed––it is our very nature.”
There are two proofs, you might say of apatheia.
• First, we know when the soul reaches a state of apatheia, because she is able to pray without distraction, with the peace that comes from an undisturbed conscience.
  • The state of apatheia means “a state of self-mastery and attention form which one cannot be dislodged by distractions or by the kinds of outbursts of spiritual energy that expresses itself in anger and resentment.” (Louth, The Wilderness of God, p. 63-64)
  • "The kingdom of heaven is apatheia of the soul along with true knowledge of existing things." (Prak. #2)
  • "We recognize the indications of apatheia by our thoughts during the day, but we recognize it by our dreams during the night. We call apatheia the health of the soul..." (Prak. #56)
  • The proof of apatheia is had when the spirit begins to see its own light, when it remains in a state of tranquility in the presence of the images it has during sleep and when it maintains it calm as it beholds the affairs of life. (Prak. #64)
  • The soul which has apatheia is not simply the one which is not disturbed by changing events but the one which remains unmoved at the memory of them as well. (Prak. #67)
• Second proof of apatheia is agape!
  • #81 Agape is the progeny of apatheia. Apatheia is the very flower of ascesis. Ascesis consists in keeping the commandments...
  • So, the formula might be stated, ascesis leads to apatheia leads to agape; discipline leads to tranquility of soul, tranquility of soul leads to charity.
  • #84, “The goal of the asctic life is charity; the goal of contemplative knowledge is theology. The beginnings of each are faith and contemplation of nature respectively.”
  • apatheia and agape are but two aspects of a single reality

According to Evagrius what we are seeking is a relatively permanent state of deep calm arising from the full and harmonious integration of the emotional life under the influence of love
• not a leveling of human emotions to an equal degree of indifference to all people but a state where all people can be loved at least to the extent that one lives peacefully and without resentment toward others. (see Prak. #100)
• According to Evagrius in his writing On Prayer #27, the logismoi that “darken the mind and cause ruin to the state of prayer are the most serious ones:
• “… those inspired by anger, resentment, brooding on slights (or imagined slights) to oneself… The soul afflicted by such logismoi can no longer pray at all.” (#27)
• Evagrius teaches that, “People who hoard their miseries and brood on their wrongs and then expect to pray are like people who draw water and pour it into a jug with holes in it.” (#22)
• The fundamental remedy is to realize that anger against other people is never justified. So Evagrius writes:
  • When you pray as you should, you will run into all kinds of things that make you suppose that it would be entirely right for you to make use of anger. But there is no such thing as justified anger against your neighbor. If you look you will find that it is possible for the matter to be settled quite well without anger. Use any device you can to avoid losing your temper. (#24)
Other favorite passages from Praktikos
  • 15. Reading, vigils and prayer––these are the thing that lend stability to the wandering mind. Hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire. Turbid anger is calmed by singing the psalms, by patience and almsgiving. But all these practices must be engaged in according to due measure and at the appropriate times. What is untimely done, or done without measure, endures but a short time. And what is short-lived is more harmful than profitable.
  • 22. When under some provocation or other the irascible part of our soul is stirred up, it is just at that moment that the demons suggest to us the advantages of solitude... When it is our lust that flames up they cause us to seek out once again the friendly company of men and call us callous and uncivil in the hope that while we find the desire for bodies we might happen upon them. Give no confidence to such promptings; on the contrary follow the opposite course.
  • 29. ...the monk should always live as if he were to die tomorrow but at the same time he should treat his body as if he were to live on with it for many years to come. . .
  • 38. The passions are accustomed to be stirred up by the senses, so that when charity and continence are lodged in the soul then the passions are not stirred up.
  • 42. When you are tempted do not fall immediately to prayer. First utter some angry words against the one who afflicts you.
  • 50. If there is a monk who wishes to take the measure of some of the more fierce demons so as to gain experience in his monastic art, then let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity, their periods of decline and follow them as they rise and fall. Let him note well the complexity of his thoughts, their periodicity, the demons that cause them. Watch the order of their succession and the nature of their associations. Then let him ask Christ for the explanations of the data he has observed. For the demons become thoroughly infuriated with those who practice active virtue in a manner that is increasingly contemplative. They are even of a mind to "pierce the upright of heart through, under cover of darkness."
  • 100. …it is possible to associate with all in a manner that is above passion... free of hatred and resentment... Our old men are to be honored like the angels for it is they who have anointed us for the battles and who tread the wounds we suffer from the bites of wild beasts.

Some other writings a propos our topic:

1. On the [Evil] Thoughts
• relatively lengthy treatise of 43 sections
• Evagrius analyzes closely the tactics of demons and the counterattacks available to the ascetic. He explains the interrelationships between the various evil thoughts, and provides a glimpse into the anthropological, and cosmological notions that undergird his advice on spiritual warfare.

2. The Eight Spirits of Wickedness
• Evagrius devotes each of eight chapters to the evil thoughts, in this sequence: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, vainglory, pride.
• Each chapter contains mostly brief aphorisms, frequently set in pairs, occasionally punctuated by longer discursive paragraphs.
• advice on how to combat the evil thoughts, is ripe with metaphorical imagery, intended to be read slowly and contemplated.

3. On the Vices Opposed to the Virtues
• brief treatise addressed to the monk Eulogios
• each of the nine chapters epitomizes the characteristics of a vice, then that of its antithetical virtue.
• gluttony versus abstinence,
• fornication versus chastity,
• avarice versus freedom from possessions,
• sadness versus joy,
• anger versus patience,
• acedia versus perseverance,
• vainglory versus freedom from vainglory,
• jealousy vesus freedom from jealousy,
• pride versus humility.
• departs from the traditional eight vices, because Evagrius inserts jealousy, a subject he normally does not discuss extensively

4. Antirrheticos
• Lists of Scriptures that are effective in combatting the eight passions.
• organized according to the eight passions with scriptures listed according to their biblical order.

Monday, November 26, 2007

muscular christianity

The one who takes upon himself
the humiliation of the people
is fit to rule them;
the one who takes upon himself
the country’s disasters
deserves to be king of the universe.
The truth often sounds paradoxical.
Tao te Ching #78

The spiritual life is full of paradoxes and seeming contradictions. For example, the Hindus teach that even though God pierced the senses to look outward, the wise look inward, and it is there that they see the deathless Spirit. My favorite example of paradox is the Tao te Ching, that ancient Chinese book of wisdom. It teaches things like (#63): Practice non-action; work without doing; taste the tasteless … reward bitterness with care. The demands of the Gospel are just as paradoxical, too; as I like to say, they are like swimming upstream: love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you; give to those who cannot pay you back––things like that. Everything about Jesus’ royalty is as paradoxical as the Tao te Ching. (By the way, the Tao te Ching was written as a kind of instruction book for rulers, so very a propos to quote it in this context.) The Tao says, Great straightness seems twisted; great intelligence seems stupid; great eloquence seems awkward. Jesus says, The greatest among you is the one who serves, the one who lays down his life as ransom.

Some time ago I heard someone on the radio offering a commentary on the era of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, making comparisons to our own day and age. There was a lot of talk in that era about a “muscular Christianity,” and that the reason we were involved in certain military conflicts in the world was to “Christianize” those parts of the world with our muscular Christianity. It was a disaster in that time for complicated reasons. But the very term “muscular Christianity” made me wince a little, when I see it against the context of the Gospel portrait of Jesus. Jesus categorically rejected violence as a means of accomplishing anything for the kingdom of God. Peter writes that (1Pet. 2:23), When Jesus was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; and Paul says (1 Cor 1:25), God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. What Jesus ultimately conquered was death itself, and everything that leads to death, and all forms of death, and any form of violence or anger or retribution or vengeance or retaliation or exclusion that leads to death. Death, he said, has nothing to do with God––this is a God of the living!

When we get some kind of image that we can really hold on to, we hold on with all our might! Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, another one of those feasts we can really grab on to. After all the demands of the Gospel, all the paradoxes and non-sequiturs, after all the fuzziness of mystical theology, we can finally breathe a sigh of relief: now here is a God we can understand: Christ the King! It conjures up images for us of a “muscular Christianity.” Even for we Americans who have not been raised with royal blood lines, we still can conjure up images, like the Kennedy family or the Bush family, or rock stars, movie stars, sports figures. Jesus Christ Superstar! I think right away of the great churches in Europe, either the huge frescoes on the ceilings of basilicas, or the mosaics in the apses of the churches that were influenced by Byzantine Christianity––huge Christ figures, holding banners, flanked by angels and people falling to the ground overcome by his majesty and power, trumpets and timpani.

This could be kind of a muscular feast, Christ the King. Do not be fooled by it; let’s not think like the world. Let’s not be seduced into any kind of triumphalism. This feast may help us conjure up an image of a sleek and strong Jesus, which gives us a certain comfort. But Jesus is not sleek and strong in the Gospel we heard today. Jesus is the suffering servant hanging on a cross. Behold your king, the soldiers jeer. Behold your king comes, John’s Gospel quotes the prophet Zechariah when it tells the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem quoted on Palm Sunday, riding on a donkey. Behold your king, Pilate says to the Jews, beaten and crowned with thorns and a mock purple cloak. Only the criminal, the scum of the earth, recognizes that this is actually where the real power is.

Jesus was put to death not because he was a rival superpower; he was put to death by the political super-power because he chose to be powerless. Jesus wasn’t put to death because he was upholding some kind of an objective code of moral or ritual behavior. He was put to death because he refused to condemn sinners, because he chose mercy over sacrifice; Jesus was put to death because he said, Be merciful, as your Father is merciful. Jesus was put to death because he said, Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. “The world,” the “rulers of this age” couldn’t and can’t stand to hear that, just as we can't stand to hear it when we think in the way of the world.

For me, just like talk about snow and winter and sleigh bells can totally distract us from the real meaning of Christmas, I think all those images of Christ as King can distract us from how Jesus is the King of the Universe. In contrast to those images of royalty, blue blood and superstardom, let’s remind ourselves again of the images of how Jesus was and is a king. He was born in a barn (that used to be the way my mother scolded me when I acted rudely in the house, “What were you born in a barn?”); no wife or family; he seemed to have been a wandering beggar, at least a mendicant preacher. But these teachings, those are what really give us insight into the kind of king Jesus was, those same paradoxical teachings we mentioned above, but add to that things like, “The greatest among you must be the ones who serve,” which we hear over and over again in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of Mark, because the disciples just couldn’t get it. Jesus had to keep telling them over and over again (and so he tells us!), “Whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.” We imagine a king having servants and slaves and everything he wishes for and yet Jesus says of himself, “I have come not to be served but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many”; what kind of king is that? Then in the passion narratives––some kind of king!––at the last supper he takes off a cloak and wraps a towel around himself and washes his disciples’ feet. Some kind of king! What a disappointment! And it was therefore that God raised him on high and gave him the name above all other names. And then of course the greatest image right around the passion itself. The whole thing was a sarcastic mockery: the purple cloak, the crown made out of thorns, the sign over his head on the cross proclaiming him king, and offering no resistance as the thief next to him notes sarcastically. This is what the church would have us remember today, why she asks us to read this Gospel––because this is the kind of king Jesus not just was but is. Because, to follow up on that, when he comes back from the dead, if that were one of us, the first temptation would be to climb to the top of that parapet and say “Who’s king of the mountain now?” and reek a little revenge. But no, he comes back without revenge, without anger and says, “Peace.”

This is where Jesus is really a Taoist master: #78 says, The one who takes upon himself the humiliation of the people is fit to rule them; the one who takes upon himself the country’s disasters deserves to be king of the universe. The truth often sounds paradoxical. Paul tells us in the letter to the Colossians which we just heard, In him all the fullness was pleased to dwell. This is a marvelous word in Greek, pleroma, the fullness of divinity. But the only way to access that fullness, this source of the universe with which Jesus was filled, was emptiness, utter poverty. And it is because of that emptiness, poverty, total availability to the Spirit in thought word and action, and acceptance of the whole of the human condition, with its joys and griefs and pain and death shames and disasters, without offering any resistance to it, that Jesus was the king of the universe. That’s the kind of king Jesus is.

Ilia Delio in her book “The Humility of God” like no one else has pointed out to me not only how Jesus shows us what God is like (as Jesus says to Phillip in the Gospel of John, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father!”), but specifically what Jesus is witnessing to us is the humility of God, God’s choice to be powerless among us. When we look at Christ crucified we are learning something about God the Father as well. Ilia writes that “God is most God-like in the suffering of the cross.” What is shown to us in the cross is that the power of God is the “powerlessness of God’s unconditional love.” This is a love that “cannot be overcome by human power” and cannot “be conquered by human force.” God’s unconditional love, as shown to us in the weakness and powerlessness of the cross, is the power to heal and, beyond that, the power to transform death into life. (Delio, p. 96) And then she quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing before he was martyred about how the humility of God is such that he even allows “himself be pushed out of the world on the cross.” God on the cross “is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us.” The Scriptures point us precisely to God’s powerlessness and suffering, because God can only help the suffering.

At the end of the church year, we fix our minds on the last things, and we start to look forward to how Jesus will come again. Let’s not waste too much time staring in the sky waiting for a sleek and strong Jesus to come riding in his Hummer; more important is to do what Jesus has said to do now, and to realize that Christ is here now as he said, not in any sort of muscular way, not in the sleek and the strong. God, in Jesus, is still here among us, not beating anybody up, but rather seeking out the lost, bringing back the strayed, binding up the injured, healing the sick. Christ is here, as he himself says, in the hungry, in the thirsty, in the stranger, in the naked, the sick and the prisoner. Jesus is here whenever the fruits of the spirit are being manifested: wherever there is charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, modesty evidenced in our relations with the world. Mother Teresa to me is a better example of muscular Christianity, gnarled up toes from walking the streets of Calcutta, beat up fingers from spending her days wiping filth and excrement from the filthy bodies of people dying in the streets, and calloused knees from hours of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament; and, as we have come to find out, going on despite years of spiritual darkness. That’s muscular Christianity, and those are the same muscles we should be developing. And the muscle of our brain, our mind, letting it be transformed by the Gospel. This is how we are meant to triumph.

Let’s remember that this feast is also about us: our Baptism anoints us to be prophets, priests and kings (and queens) in Jesus’ image. Do you remember the famous hymn of Lucien Deiss (of happy memory) that was sung so often some years back that was taken from the first letter of Peter? “Priestly, people, kingly people, holy people!” I love to remind people of this when we celebrate Baptisms that at our Baptism we were anointed along with Jesus, prophets, priests and royalty, that we use the sacred chrism on the infant, the same oil that is used to anoint prophets, the same oil that is poured over a priests hands when he is ordained, the same oil that is poured over a queen or king’s head when they are anointed (as we heard in the story of David’s anointing from the book of Samuel). Just as we share in the prophecy and priesthood of Jesus by virtue of our Baptism, so we share in his royalty. That’s why the church has us listen to St Paul letter to the Colossians on this feast also, to remind us that this feast is not just about Jesus: we give thanks because God has made us fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light, and transferred us into the kingdom of Jesus. Paul says that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus bodily, and the Gospel of John begins by telling us that from the fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (Jn 1:16). So let us pray that we too would be royalty as Jesus was a king––broken and poured out––so that we can exercise our dominion in the world in the way our king does, from the cross, the greatest as the servants, with the towel around our waist washing each other’s feet.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

SANGHA TALK: desert monasticism 3: origen

ORIGEN

We skip back in history a little bit to talk about Origen, before we go to Evagrius, because he is going to be foundational for Evagrius, as well as John Cassian.
• (c. 185-c. 254) born in Alexandria, Egypt;
• his father was martyred during persecutions in 202, and he was only prevented from running after martyrdom himself by some kind of ruse by his mother
• received a great Greek education and became the head of Catechetical school in Alexandria
• even though he wasn’t a monk he lived a strict ascetical life of fasting, vigils and voluntary poverty––according to history even mutilated himself at one point: “If your eye causes you to sin…”
• he was imprisoned and subjected to prolonged torture under the persecution of Decius and eventually died in prison.

The charge has been made that Christian mystical theology is nothing but baptized Platonism, but it is with Origen that we begin to discuss specifically Christian mystical theology.
• He is definitely a student of Plato himself––he had the same teacher as the great neo-Platonist Plotinus––but what’s important is that Origen studies Plato as a Christian.
• Other great thinkers of the era such as Justin Martyr or Clement of Alexandria converted from philosophy to Christianity, but Origen comes at Platonism as a Christian.
• For most of the writers of this era, what we call the Patristic era, the mystical life is nothing other than “the ultimate flowering of the life of baptism,” the ultimate fruition of our sharing in Jesus’ death and risen life by virtue of having been baptized in water and the Holy Spirit.
• The same holds true for Origen: the mystical life is simply the working out of Christ’s union with the soul that has already happened with Baptism, the realizing of the communion between God and the soul that is already there, a dialogue between Christ and the soul. And Origen expresses this in language drawn from the great philosopher Plato.

But let’s state right up front: though highly influential Origen is condemned for a few things, and this is why, even in spite of being martyred, he has never been declared a saint:
• He believed in the pre-existence of souls and so was accused of metempsychosis––transmigration of souls, or re-incarnation!
• Denial of identity between the mortal body and the resurrected body
• Accused of interpreting Scripture only allegorically
• He also has a theory that was picked up later by Hans Ur van Balthasar called Apocatastasis: that death does not decide the ultimate fate of the soul (again similar to re-incarnation) but in the end all creatures, even the Devil, will be saved. This of course is what Holy Saturday and Jesus’ descent into hell is all about.
• This condemnation and suspicion will have a lasting effect. Evagrius is a student of his thought, and so was held in suspicion; and John Cassian is a follower of Evagrius and the desert tradition, and he too will never be canonized, though all three of them will have great impact on Christian mystical theology, and none so much as Origen himself.


the three stages

This is a favorite model of mine when speaking of the spiritual life. It will receive its most eloquent aritculation many centuries later from St John of the Cross. But here is Origen's version of it:

In the prologue of his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen had written about how the philosophers (that is, the Greeks, Stoics and Middle Platonists) had taught of a three-fold ascent of the soul to union with the Divine.
• The first stage is ethike, as in the word “ethics,” which deals with the manner of life and the habits of virtue;
• then comes the stage of physike, like the word “physics,” which deals with the inner nature of things, their essential form;
• and finally comes enoptike, a very strange word to us, translated sometimes as “inspective” but roughly meaning the same as metaphysics.
o As Origen writes enoptike is “that by which we go beyond things seen and contemplate somewhat of the things divine and heavenly, beholding them with the mind alone, for they are beyond the range of bodily sight.”
o I hope that last bit sounds familiar because we are again in the area of the apophatic––those things which are beyond the range of bodily sight.

Origen is deeply rooted in the Scriptures; for him the encounter with the Divine comes through an encounter with the Word.
• He is concerned with the soul being one with the Word, who we know to have been made flesh in Jesus.
• Origen first proposes the three levels of meaning of Scripture: literal, moral and allegorical (of which he preferred the last which got him in trouble); later in the tradition of lectio divina this developes into the four levels of meaning of Scripture: literal, allegorical, moral (tropological) and unitive (anagogical)
• Origen finds this same pathway, the three stages of the soul’s ascent, in the Scriptures. He uses three Wisdom books as examples: the Book of Proverbs, he says, deals with ethics; physics is dealt with in Ecclesiastes, and finally, of course, enoptics, the contemplation of God, is what the Song of Songs is all about. In his Commentary on the Song of Songs he writes

"The soul is not made one with the Word of God and joined with Him until such a time as all the winter of her personal disorders and the storm of her vices has passed so that she no longer vacillates and is carried about with every kind of doctrine … Then also she will hear ‘the voice of the turtle dove’, which surely denotes that wisdom which the steward of the Word speaks among the perfect, the deep wisdom of God which is hidden in mystery. "

Origen also insists on the idea of a progression through these stages, that they are successive, and even writes about Jesus going through them. Let’s talk a little about each of stage.

The first stage of the soul’s ascent, ethics, is the formation of virtues, which is actually pretty obvious, but we will deal with it more a little later.
• By the time it reaches St John of the Cross, this stage will be known as the purgative stage. (release!, yamas)
• The second, physics, is the stage of “natural contemplation,” a seeing into the true nature of things. We know it best as the illuminative stage (receive). This is two-fold, negative and positive.
o On the positive side, Origen teaches that the only way we can know anything of divine reality is through some image, some hint found in created things. God has placed in all creatures some teaching and some knowledge of invisible and heavenly things through which the soul can climb to spiritual understanding. We will see this come to full fruition in Francis of Assisi for whom everything in creation is a sign of the wonder and love of God. This is natural contemplation, in which the wisdom of earth leads us to seek the source of those things.
o On the negative side, at some point in life we also realize the transience and futility of all created things. Perhaps this is why Origen chose Ecclesiastes as emblematic of this second stage, because it begins:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!
All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
All things are wearisome; more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Like Plato, Origen thinks that the aim of these first two ways is to subdue the body to the soul, to order the body through the mind. So far, there is no problem, but as we move on we run into trouble area.
• After the body is subdued to the soul, we are then to “free the soul from the body.” And so the final stage, enoptike, what St John of the Cross will call the unitive stage, is mainly something the soul looks forward to after death, when the soul becomes nous and is free to contemplate invisible reality.
• Now perhaps you can see the impetus behind him mutilating himself, and the trouble with his thinking that the mortal body and the resurrected body have nothing to do with each other. Christianity is about the redemption of the body, the flesh and all creation!
• We have to be very careful with this language about “freeing the soul from the body”! This is Platonic language, not biblical language! In here is hidden an easy tendency to see the body as a “tomb for the soul” as Plato did instead of a temple of the Holy Spirit as Jesus did. It is easy to see the body as an anchor weighing down the soul instead of an instrument of salvation.
• Here is where we really need to Christianize our language, and to root everything in the Incarnation of Jesus: the flesh is not bad! Otherwise the Word never would have paid it the great compliment of taking it! Let’s remember that Christianity is based on the fact that Jesus came back from the dead with a glorified body––it was the body that was raised from the dead, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father.
• In our efforts to de-mythologize these events in the life of Jesus in our modern era––just like Origen’s tendency to prefer only the allegorical meaning of Scripture––we might be at risk of throwing out the whole point of the Incarnation!

Let’s balance this out and maybe apply a corrective to the imbalance of Origen.

I have been very struck lately by the language that my confrere Bruno Barnhart has been using especially in his book, The Future of Wisdom. He suggest that the language of “ascent,” which we are using here in the soul’s ascent to God, must be complemented by the language of “descent.
• This is also the move from Baptism to Eucharist: perhaps the experience non-duality with the Divine being a good descriptor of the baptismal experience, but then we move to be broken up for and passed out to the world in world and service, and incarnating that union with the divine in our lives.
• To balance this teaching let’s remember that the ascent is only the first part of it, the foundation, the beginning and not the end.
• The movement then gets set up in the spiritual life of Baptism–Eucharist, breathing in-breathing out, knowledge of our identity becomes power in us, power to co-create and to participate.
• There is a common tendency in all spiritual traditions to become removed from the body, from matter, from the earth, but this is a salient feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition (in spite of the early monks’ neo-Platonist tendencies): that we are concerned with incarnating the incarnation.

Some notes from Bruno to end:

The working out of the Christ event takes place at an incarnation depth beyond the level of our consciousness and thought.
• The marriage of East and West ultimately is to be found in the event of the Incarnation through which the human person awakens to the non-dual divine light as one’s own identity
• and consequently to the divine power within oneself as one’s own generative freedom, the capability of creating a human world. (FW, p. 143)
• In the course of history this wisdom (participatory consciousness) has been eclipsed by human rationality.

What comes from this is a certain marvelous freedom or autonomy and with it the related sense of a distinct identity, of a personal self based on these two things––the non-dual divine light as my own identity and the generative freedom that divine power gives me.
• That freedom-autonomy, that sense of distinct identity, with its concomitant energy, become the pivotal transitional point on the way from Christianity to the modern secular West (FW, p. 122)
• of course that is what disappears in the reditus of the eastern contemplative enstasy, samadhi, absorption, in the soul’s interior ascent to God of the Greeks, of the rishis, of the Buddhists, of the Taoist hermits.
• But if instead of seeing it as the peak of the mountain we see it as the fountain of life-giving water, the summit becoming the source, then our exitus, our going out of ourselves in participation the eucharistic movement can truly lead to ecstasy, and the summit becomes again the source.
• This could be specifically Christianity’s contribution to the conversation, because Christ’s basic gift to humanity is this autonomy and freedom based on the knowledge of Being.