Saturday, January 8, 2011

mad crazy love; reflections on the Perennial Philosophy

It is truly the Beloved who visits you.
Yes, but he comes invisible, hidden, and incomprehensible.
He comes to touch you, not to be seen,
he makes you taste of him, not to pour himself out in you entirely.
He comes to draw your affection not to satisfy your desire.
(Hugh of St Victor)

(Someone suggested that I put more effort into keeping up the blog when I am not on the road. I am not sure I can do this consistently, but here I am giving it a try. Since the Sangha is reading Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy together I thought that might give me some fodder and inspire some commentary. We’ll see how it goes…)

I’ve been reading a second book of Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman recently, this one entitled “Manikon Eros: Mad Crazy Love.” (The first one I read about which I wrote some while on the road was Underground Cathedrals.) I'm taking these ideas mainly from Chapter 3 of this new book, "Pleasure for Pleasure." He writes quite a but about eros, that breed of love that I have been rather fascinated with intellectually and personally for some ten years. There is a title of a book in Italian that sort of sums up my quest: “Eros Redento––Eros Redeemed.” It all started out with a few sentences of
Bede Griffiths written to his beloved Russill:
Agape without eros simply does not work. It leaves our human nature starved. Of course, eros without agape is equally disastrous. It leaves us to the compulsion of human and sexual love . . . In meditation we can learn to let our own natural desires, our eros, awaken and surrender it to God, that is, let it be taken up into agape. It must neither be suppressed nor indulged. It is surrender that is called for . . .

These sentences were also the basis of an article I wrote called “Awaken and Surrender.” That coupled with the mystic Dionysius the Areopagite who wrote in the “Divine Names” that “In God, eros is outgoing, ecstatic. Because of it lovers no longer belong to themselves but to those whom they love.” Hederman (henceforth MPH) is addressing all forms of eros, at its most primal sexual as well as our eros for God and God’s eros for us.

There is a slippery slope here that I keep running into, and that is the “knife-edge,” to use a phrase Huxley mentions several times, between liberty-freedom and license. In other words, the awakening is one aspect; the surrendering is quite another.

MPH is using Aquinas’ three-fold understanding of the soul, that the soul is vegetal, sensory and spiritual. (Not too far a stretch to see the Spirit, Soul and Body anthropology applying, is it?) Traditionally Western Greek philosophy speaks of three parts of the soul; I like to think of the three functions of the soul: the vegetal, the sensory and the spiritual.

And then he distinguished between needs and desires.
• The vegetal part of the soul has needs, biological needs.
• The spiritual part of the soul has desires, the desire for ultimate happiness.
• Between those two is the sensory soul that has both needs and desires.

Now, here I take off in my own language and use of this model.
• The biological needs of the vegetal soul are obvious, and always, though sometimes grudgingly acknowledged as such by spiritual traditions––though there is always the danger of “angelism” and excesses of mortification.
• The needs of the sensory soul are the normal emotional psycho-sexual needs of human development and growth, real needs, the love of the mother, the security of the father, the mirroring.
• The desires, on the other hand, are for pleasure, but I think those pleasures are intimately tied to those needs. Sometimes religious traditions will refer to them as “legitimate pleasures.” But MPH is suggesting that they are beyond legitimate––they are necessary. I think right away of the great work of Thomas More in his books Care of the Soul and Soul Mates, how he opened up for me the whole realm of soul-making, from psychology through the arts on up into spirituality. And also of Bede’s phrase: “Agape without eros simply does not work. It leaves our human nature starved.”
• But there is a contradiction that makes up the nature of desire: we must have pleasure or our souls will starve; but pleasure can satisfy only for a time––it is never infinite nor absolute.
• Here we make a distinction here between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure means finite, evanescent things. Happiness on the other hand means eternal, everlasting things. Also, pleasures are “satisfied,” temporary fixes, if you will; happiness instead is fulfillment, eternal. And that of course is the domain of the spiritual part of the soul––happiness, fulfillment, the thirst for the eternal, the everlasting.

There is another contradiction: in “satisfying” a desire, we are actually killing two things: we have killed our desire, and we have also killed that which we have possessed to satisfy that desire. MPH uses the example of an apple (which has now forever changed the way I see and eat apples!). I want an apple. I am the subject, and the apple is the object. I want an apple! In wanting to eat the apple I am actually trying to annihilate, get rid of, kill my desire for that apple. Do you see? I am uncomfortable with desire, so I want to get rid of it by satisfying it. But if I could for a moment stop seeing the apple in relationship to me––the object of my desire––perhaps suddenly the apple could become a subject itself. Without me, what is it? Something protecting its own seed with a beautiful protective red or yellow or green coating. If I eat it, it is no longer that. I have killed both my desire and the apple. Of course it should be a pretty easy shift over to applying this human relationships. Aquinas, again, distinguished between imperfect and perfect love. Imperfect love is when I am drawn to you for the good you can do me. Perfect love is when I am drawn to the good that you are in and of yourself.

My language for this: imperfect love is when “I love you” means “I want you.” Perfect love is when “I love you” means “I want for you,” when I see you not as an object that I want to possess––and devour and kill!––but as a subject with your own being, your own desire, your own trajectory.

The problem is also that we think of desire as the desire to have something, to possess something. And MPH is suggesting that we need to move from having desires to recognizing desire is the very stuff and thrust of our being, because our perfection is not in the possession of a thing or an object. In the book by Joseph Chu-Cong that I’ve quoted so often now, he lays this whole dynamic out, quoting Diotima in Plato’s Symposium, C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves, Rollo May’s Love and Will as well as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, all to make the point that eros is a heavenly force that gets misdirected. When we think of eros as sex, we think of eros as tension that wants to be released––or an desire that wants to be satisfied by being annihilated by eating the apple, drinking a glass of wine, having sex. But if we think of eros as the very force of our being, it is the love that is a longing to beget, to engender, a love that in some way does not want to be satisfied. The spiritual life purifies our desire, ‘til it becomes an expression of the very fullness of God.

This is what I mean by Christian tantra.

But, and this is a subtle point, neither is our perfection in complete “dispossession of ourselves,” he says, “some kind of emptiness.” I struggled with that because those words are so important to me both in terms of the kenotic language of the Gospel and the monastic way east and west, but bear with it with me. Maybe we only need to reconfigure our own sense of emptiness. Our perfection, he says, instead lies in an act of relationship with what really is. Our perfection lies in an act of love, an act that is in itself renunciation, allowing something, or someone, simply to “be,” without possessing it, without killing both it and our desire. What I am renouncing is my “having,” to allow both my being as desire and your being as subject to continue to live.

Ah now, I just came back to the kenosis of Jesus that Paul speaks of: he did not cling to godliness! What we renounce is clinging, selfish clinging. Siddhartha Guatama just walked in the room with his second noble truth.

(Mind you, I am riffing on this in a way that MPH didn’t, but I don’t think it is far from his thinking, since he also writes about the nature of “being in love” and infatuation.)

So we must move from having to being. He is suggesting that the very nature of our being is desire–eros. I see this as an outward self-transcending thrust that is the power of personal growth and all evolution, personal and of consciousness, even cosmic consciousness. And fulfillment, as opposed to satisfaction, and happiness, as opposed to mere pleasure, can only come when I move from grasping and clinging so as to possess, to being. This is being in love: love that sees another and all other objects not as objects to be had by me, but as subjects themselves, driven by this same evolutionary thrust. And we are being to being, shoulder to shoulder, moving forward to our fulfillment and happiness. Our relationships then become relationships of being to being, built on mutual understanding of the other as subject: how can I help you move forward? What is it in me that pulls you forward? What is it in my attraction you that calls forth the rest of my being? My desire for an other can then be seen as a reminder of my own desire to be, a movement toward something other or beyond myself that the other exemplifies. We allow desire to inform us. Love then is a dis-position that allows reality to inform me of its real presence––not my projected need, not as an object in my sphere of existence to grasped and consumed and annihilated, but as a signpost to a fullness, a fulfillment of myself. Love is essence in relationship with essence, who I really am in relationship with who you really are.

What does this have to do with the Perennial Philosophy? More to come...