Saturday, November 6, 2010

november 6: some last random notes from the mountain

"The basic postulate of universality is that there exist inherent rights to human dignity that no one may deny to their fellow creatures, whether on the grounds of religion, colour, nationaltiy or sex, or on any other consideration. This means, among other things, that any attack on the fundamental rights of men and women in the name of some tradition--religious or other--is contrary to the spirit of universality. There cannot be on the one hand an overall general charter of human rights and on the other hand special and particular charters for Muslims, Jews, Christians, Africans, Asians and the rest...
Everything that has to do with fundamental rights--the right to live as a full citizen on the soil of one's fathers, free of persecution or discrimination; the right to live with dignity anywhere; the right to choose one's life and loves and beliefs freely, while respecting the rights of others; the right of free access to knowledge, health and a decent and honourable life--none of this, and the list is not exhaustive, may be denied to our fellow human beings on the pretext of preserving a belief, an ancestral practice or a tradition." (Maalouf, 88-89)

At a social level, no matter how we describe the Beginning and the End, creation and heaven, we should be able to agree on this much, this is ground we have to share, built on our basic humanity. Without this there is little left to discuss, and at times we are impelled to wrest our rights and the rights of others out of the clenched totalitarian fists of despots and warlords. Hence the UN Charter on the Family, the Millenium Development Goals, the Assisi Decalogue of Peace, the Global Ethic, etc. Our traditions deserve to be respected only insofar as they are respectable, only insofar as they themselves respect the fundamental rights of human beings, Maalouf says.

At a personal level, this little section from Robert Frager's introduction to "The Essential Sufism" fell right into my trap, both using the word "goal" and dealing with the self. He says that "the goal of all mysticism is to cleanse the heart, to educate or transform the self, and to find God." Then he distinguishes between the lower and higher level of self. "The lowest level of the self is dominated by pride, egotism, and totally self-centered greed and lust." This level is the part within each person that leads away from Truth, that in us which is focused out instead of in. "The lowest level of the self, the ego or lower personality, is made up of impulses, or drives, to satisfy desires. These drives dominate reason or judgment and are defined as the forces in one's nature that must be brought under control. The self must be transformed--this is the ideal. The self is like a wild horse; it is powerful and virtually uncontrollable." But as the lower self becomes trained, it becomes capable of serving the individual and revealing the higher self, the true self. The highest level, on the other hand, is the pure self, and at this level there is no duality, no separation from God. (Essential Sufism, 19, 20)

I wonder, is that only the goal of mysticism or the goal of spirituality or is that the real goal of religion in general? The transformation of the self, the revealing of the true self, the higher self, the self hidden in God, the seed of our real being, of who we really are.

Amin Maalouf, as he ties up this book "On Identity," explains how religion fulfills two needs in the human being: the need for transcendence and the need for belonging, identity; and he dreams that religion can rid itself of that latter, to stop being a means of identity so that it can function as a pure spirituality unencumbered by egoistic cravings. He contrasts universality with uniformity, and dreams that we can still fight for the universality of values and even the sharing of cultural riches--in music, in art, in cuisine, in literature--while fighting against uniformity: the impoverishment of standardization, hegemony, conformism and anything that threatens the individual richness of each civilization. So we can find a way of belonging, a new universal way to identify ourselves--as belonging to the human race!--that still celebrates our diversity. I wonder, at a cultural level is it just or mainly us in the US that exports uniformity--Macdonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, soap operas and sitcoms--while other cultures export food, music, art, dance, fashion, language, spirituality? Of course there is always jazz and all the other music that came out of the unfortuante marriage of the peoples of Africa with the slave trade of the New World, (Maalouf points to it as well), but does the credit, as its roots, actually go back to Africa? I'm embarrassed by that, but also heartened that the US embassy here in Lebanon is bringing in cultural envoys such as John to show something deeper of our culture; and I am happy to not only be here as a Catholic Christian, but also as an American, to show that we have something else to offer at a cultural and intellectual level.

Kahil Gibran, who often has a dark view of humanity, writes about it more poetically yet in his essay "the Voice of the Poet":

Human beings separate into factions and tribes and adhere to countries and regions whereas I see my essence as foreign to any one land and alien to any single popele. The entire earth is my homeland and the human family is my clan. For I have found human beings to be weak, and it is small minded for them to divide themselves up; the earth is cramped, so that only ignorance leads people to partition it into realms and principalities.

I'll have one more little trek up the mountain this afternoon to the Chapel of the Hermitage, now on the weekend full of visitors; but especially a little more time on the slope coming down where I've found a great spot behind the ruins of one of the old hermitages. Sitting on this spot some 4000 feet above the sea and valleys of Lebanon below, the sounds of construction and farm equipment and tour busses drifting up, the breeze blowing around the precipice, even the bustling monastery and guest house below, reaffirms to me why monks head up mountains and out into deserts and forests. It's not simply to escape the world, though there is an element of escape involved ("Fuga mundi!" was the old monastic cry.) It's to cleanse the palate, to fast and to reconnect with the deeper aspects of our human being, our being human. And if we are impelled or called or pulled out into the world for love or in service, we carry that silence with us, the silence that most everybody else does not or cannot access. One wonders sometimes at the various manifestations of Christianity, what they actually have to do with Jesus. I must confess that I think this often about the pomp and hierarchical pageantry of Roman liturgy. Well, monks go to the mountain to try to be like Jesus, to try and have Jesus' experience, to try to hear that still small voice that whispers deep at the entrance of the cave of the heart. I was contemplating the beatific face of Charbel and his confrere Estaban, and imagining them even leaving the monastery to live a quieter and simpler life still in a more inaccessible spot, and I was guessing from the smiles on their faces that they had had an experience of that deepest part of themselves that is already somehow in union with God, available to Spirit.

It is said of Muhammad that, after his experiences on Mount Hira, outwardly he was still only a man--bashar, but inwardly he was in perfect union with God, and so became al-insan al-kamil--the universal person, the full realization of human-ness. The perfect person is the one who is in union with God who dwells in the heart, because the heart is the arsh al-rahman--the throne of the Compassionate. This is an ideal held out to all of us, because we carry within us all the Divine attributes and all multiple states of being; we are mirrors of God in which God looks and sees God, and we are a microcosm of the macrocosm and of the metacosm. But I could also imagine a Buddhist monk sitting in my little spot in the ruins, dropping off body and mind at the feet of the Buddha, smiling inwardly at the realization of surrender to the waves of origination, of being and becoming, in wisdom and compassion. I could imagine an Indian sannyasi chanting the OM along with the resonance in the mountain itself, vibrating with the being, knowledge and bliss that is Source and Summit, Ground of Being and Consciousness. As I could imagine Jesus abiding there with his Abba, dancing on the edge of eternity, sensing the breeze carressing him and telling him, "You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased."

I didn't tell you about the doves, did I? They're all over the place here. One beautiful white one just swooped past my open window, wing to wing with some black bird, the two of them dancing merrily in the breeze.