Saturday, August 9, 2008

a loving wrestle

When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’
(Mt 17: 14-20)
There was an interesting confluence of elements with today’s Gospel that tie together by happenstance this week’s liturgical calendar and the retreat that I’m offering. Of course earlier this week we celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration, a feast that ought to strike all kinds of resonances for contemplatives and monks. Especially as our eastern Christian tradition never tires of pointing out, we ourselves can be transfigured by this indwelling power of God, God’s spirit.

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading the works of Sri Aurobindo again recently and found that passage that I quoted earlier this week, synchronistically, on the feast of the Transfiguration itself. He writes that spirit is that which is both immanent in the elements of creation and is also liberated out of them. But liberation of the Spirit out of the elements not meant to be an escape from those elements––from the material world, from the body, from the world of mentality, from the psyche. It must also be a return upon those elements, and a return upon the activities of those elements to exalt them and transform them. And then he writes the sentence that really got me: “The immanence itself would have no credible reason for being if it did not end in such a transfiguration.” The human mind can become capable of the glories of the Divine Light, human emotion and sensibility can be transformed, human action can feel itself to be the motion of divine, and even the physical substance of our being can “partake of the purity of supernal essence…” So everything depends on not just on the ascent but also on that return, and our destiny must be the fulfillment and transfiguration, not a rooting out and an annulling, of matter, body, mind, soul.

That is setting the bar pretty high, to claim that the spiritual life can effect this kind of transformation in us body and soul, but that is also a beautiful articulation of Christianity as I understand it. But there is more. After we realize unity with the Divine and sum up in ourselves all the possibilities of it, we then “pour them out by thought, action and all other means on [our] surroundings so that the whole [human] race may approach nearer to the attainment of its supreme personality.” So “besides the great solitaries who have sought and attained self-liberation,” there have always been “the great spiritual teachers who have also liberated others… [who have] thrown themselves upon the world, grappled with it in a loving wrestle and striven to compel its consent to its own transfiguration.”

The reason I bring this up, is because Matthew and Mark both place this story (see above) right after the Transfiguration. Luke does the same thing but on the following day. For Matthew and Mark it is as Jesus is coming down the mountain, where Peter wanted to build three tents and stay, as we may be tempted to remain in the pernicious peace of our individual enlightenment and not want to mess it up with the noise and bustle of human interaction and inserting ourselves in the material and psychic messiness of life as it is, or to somehow be “pure spirit,” unencumbered by the clumsy body or the messiness of the soul. But insert ourselves we must, re-inhabit our bodies we must, even as Jesus descended from the mountain, throwing himself once again upon the world, grappling with it in a “loving wrestle” striving to compel its consent to its own––striving to compel us to our own––liberation and transfiguration.

If we are to have faith, it is in this that we can have faith: first of all that our spiritual life, our spiritual practices are meant to have an extraordinary effect on our bodies and our souls, that they can be transfigured, transformed. And secondly, that as we come back down the mountain, as the Tibetans say, “with bliss bestowing hands,” we can be the instruments of others’ liberation as well, as Jesus was the instrument of the liberation of this boy from his possession. As a matter of fact, we may not have to do much at all; as Nelson Mandela said, when we are liberated from our own fears, our very presence automatically others. Let's hope that we can re-inhabit our humanity, throw ourselves upon the world––even if it only be the small world of our local community––, grapple with it all in a loving wrestle and strive to compel its consent to its own transfiguration.