Monday, August 31, 2009

nothing from the outside

Why wash your hands and mouth?
Why chant with a mouth full of fraud?
Kabir says, Search in the heart, in the heart alone.

I’ve been down at New Camaldoli for the last two and a half weeks, first on retreat with the brothers, then just hanging out––reading, hiking, eating well, enjoying the brothers’ company and the communal prayer, getting kind of re-charged from the months before and prepped for the months ahead, touching base with the “Mother Ship.” My time there ended with me giving a three-day retreat on the life and teachings of Fr. Bede and Abhishiktananda. Besides the four conferences and showing the biographical films, I was asked to preside and preach for Sunday Mass as well, as an end of the retreat and my time there

It was the Gospel from Mark 7, where Jesus and his disciples are being criticized for not purifying themselves before they ate. And Jesus says, “Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person; but the things that come from within are what defile.” It really turns things around for anyone who thinks he or she can climb to heaven merely by the ladder of religious observance, to hear Jesus say that. It was especially shocking for the Jews of Jesus’ times since so many things were forbidden or restricted by the Law. But Jesus, as always, is pointing out that the real issue is something deeper. The practice of ablutions or of abstaining from certain foods, like the practice of fasting or any other spiritual practice, is really about something deeper. What is that something deeper?

Maybe this one other example will give us a first hint, still in the realm of food. I had a friend who was struggling with her weight, but even more than that she knew she was struggling with compulsive over-eating. She had started working a 12-step program around her eating issues, and she said to her sponsor how she was going to feel so good when she was skinny. And her sponsor said to her, “This isn’t about being skinny. This is about freedom.” It wasn’t what was going into her that was the real problem; it was what was coming out of her––the craving, the longing, the grasping. It’s about looking for something outside of us to make us feel good inside of us.

Don’t think advertisers don’t know this, how to exploit our natural drives for sustenance, for procreation, for building. We’ve been reading a lot lately about what scientists are calling “conditioned hyper-eating,” how food companies have made an insidious science out of this. They even boast of knowing how to set up the craving in us and even tap into the addictive cycle, tap into natural pleasures and turn them into traps. So, yes, again, it’s about freedom. We could be tempted into simply diving into Joseph Campbell’s injunction to “follow your bliss” or some kind of nebulous freedom of the children of God. But I must say, from my experience it takes us quite a while actually to find that authentic bliss, just as it takes us a long time to shake off the shackles that bind us and find that freedom. How can you tell someone who is addicted to alcohol, drugs, or to fat and sugar, or caffeine or nicotine, or shopping or pornography, to follow their bliss? Our bliss, like our real self, is hidden under our compulsions, under what Evagrius calls our “passions,” the disordered drives, the accumulated layers of conditioning and habit.

There is a reading from the Katha Upanishad that Abhishiktananda and especially Fr. Bede quoted countless times, and I’d like to bring it up in this context too.
The Self-Existent One pierced the senses
and therefore we see outer things and not the inner Self.
Rare discriminating people who desire immortality
turn their eyes away and see the indwelling Self.
The Sanskrit words used here are very interesting: the word which is translated here as “pierced”––vyatrnat––actually means more like “destroyed” or “killed” or at least “injured”: the Self-Existent One (that is, God) destroyed or killed or at least injured the senses; and so we look outside of ourselves and do not see… what? The antar-atman––the inner atman, what St. Paul or St. Peter might refer to as our “spirit” or “the inner person.”

A Yoga teacher I studied with in India used a very evocative image once. He said, “We are always eating the world, even with our eyes and our noses; we are grasping and grabbing and hauling things into ourselves. We live outside of ourselves, thinking that something from the outside is going to make us happy.” And as he said that, I thought of the climax of Augustine’s Confessions, his own conversion experience, when he says to God, “You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you… On entering into myself I saw, as it were with the eye of the soul, what was beyond the eye of the soul, beyond my spirit: your immutable light.” God is within us; we are on the outside!

This is where healthy approach to asceticism and the spiritual life begins. (We are also of course in the brackish waters of the age-old dialectic between faith and works here––which the letter to James addresses head on––but healthy asceticism it seems to me is our co-operating with the movements of grace. This is what comes out of us––our response to that grace.) A first movement is somehow simply stripping away the accumulated layers that are not really us, which of course is based on a basic optimism, a belief that there’s something good about us, ¬¬created, as we are, in the image and likeness of God, and that there’s something good inside of us, so that even our “injured senses” can be conduits of the divine, and even if our nature is “fallen,” grace can and will and does build on it. As the Amritabindu Upanishad teaches,
Driven by the senses the mind becomes impure;
but when the senses are under control, the mind becomes pure.
Driven by the senses we become bound;
but with the senses mastered, we become free.
Now, by under “control” and “mastered” we don’t mean suppressed, oppressed or repressed. We mean brought into right relationship; we mean that they sacrifice their autonomy to the deepest part of us, where the Law of God is written on our hearts, the deepest part of us that, as Paul says in Romans 7, already agrees with the Law of God.

St. James teaches famously that everything we have––“every worthwhile gift, every genuine benefit––comes from above,” that is, it’s a gift; it’s all grace. But then he goes on to say that if all we do is listen to the Word that has been implanted in us without acting on that word, “we are deceiving yourselves.” So I wonder if we could also say that not only does nothing outside of us make us impure, but nothing outside of us is going to make us holy either. It’s not just the gift; it’s the affect that that gift has on us; it is how we let it transform us; it’s how we co-operate with grace; it’s how we let that become a power in our lives that makes the difference, as James adds, it’s how we “welcome that Word”––in other words, it’s what comes out of us.

A final movement, those glorious words of Moses we also heard: “What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” This has to be heard also in the context again of St. James. How close? Implanted in us, that’s how close. In this context, it’s hard not to remember St. Paul quoting Deuteronomy 30 in this regard in the letter to the Romans: The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart; or Jeremiah prophesying that the days are coming when God would make a new covenant––I will write in on their hearts. On the one hand both Paul and James use this teaching to call people to faith in Jesus––if you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead. On the other hand, Paul, similarly to James, argues that just receiving the Law will not save anyone. That’s why he can say that when unbelievers––those who do not declare with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe with their hearts that God raised him from the dead––do what is written in the Law, they show that the Law is written on the heart. (This, by the way, becomes the basis of the Catholic teaching on natural law.)

This also becomes in some way the foundation of the teaching of Vatican II in Nostra Aetate, the document on dealing with non-Christian religions, that the “Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in other religions”; and why we have “a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and the doctrines which, although differing in many ways from our own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all people.” This is why the Church, urges us to “enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions;” while witnessing to our own faith and way of life, we “acknowledge, preserve and [even] encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians…”

It’s this basic optimism about the human race that gives rise to such folks as Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths. I’m so happy to even be an acolyte in this great procession, to be part of this optimistic lineage.