Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the mystical marriage

Love is sufficient of itself,
it gives pleasure by itself
and because of itself.
It is its own merit,
its own reward.
Love looks for no cause outside itself,
no effect beyond itself.
Its profit lies in its practice.
I love because I love,
I love that I may love.

Love is a great thing
so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead,
flows back to its source,
always drawing from there
the water which constantly replenishes it.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 83 on the Song of Songs

There could hardly be someone with more zeal for the monastic life than Bernard of Clairvaux, doctor mellifluus–the honey-tongued teacher. When he entered Citeaux at 23 years old, a mere 15 years after its founding, he brought 30 others with him. And then at the age of 25 he took twelve monks with him and founded a new house at Clairvaux of which he was named abbot. When Bernard preached his fiery sermons about conversion, he wasn’t trying to convert people away from sin or to Christianity. He was preaching conversion to the monastic life. Pope Bendict writes about him in his encyclical Spe Salvi, how it was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. But Bernard had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and for the whole world. In one place he quotes pseudo-Rufinus saying: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish...” Even more, Bernard was convinced that mystical pleasures were not just about eternal life, and not just to be read about, but were meant to be experienced now through the contemplative life.

On a few occasions I have been asked to teach a World Religions class both for a Catholic high school and for Mount Madonna School, which is at the yoga/retreat center run by Baba Hari Das’ followers. I am always trying to find some kind of a clear line to show not just the similarities between traditions but, respectfully, also the differences. Last year I decided that the clearest way was to speak about differing understandings of the self.

For Hinduism, at least the strict advaita Vedanta that many people gravitate to in our neck of the woods, they teach that at the end of our spiritual search we discover that our own self is Brahman, or Brahman is Atman, and tat tvam asi–You are that! And so one can say Aham Brahm’asmi–I am Brahman. Now that doesn’t mean that I, Cyprian, am God; it means I, Cyprian, am only an illusion; I don’t really exist. Only the Great Self, Brahman, really exists. And this is when we escape the endless round of births and death; when this ignorance is cleared up and we realize this, then we are free. The Buddha goes one step further; a foundational doctrine for him is anatta, translated “no self” or “not self.” Not only is there no abiding self of me, neither is there an abiding Eternal Self that can be grasped. Everything is in flux and all things arise co-dependently, and so there is nothing to grasp at. As a matter of fact, that grasping at some kind of “self” is the cause of dukka–suffering––which is the second noble truth of Buddhism. The Christian mystic will have an experience like this, but it will be considered a working of grace, so much so that St Bernard will write at one point:
To lose yourself as if you no longer existed,
to sense yourself no more,
to be emptied, virtually annihilated––
that comes not from human feelings,
but a heaven-sent conversion.
But for the Christian mystic, this annihilation is a passing phenomenon, like Jesus’ death on the cross preceded the resurrection. The mystical union does not ultimately mean the annihilation of the human self, or waking up to the fact that there is no self, or the swallowing up of the finite human into the divine infinity or endless flux. For the Christian mystic, not only is there a self, but that self remains, eternally, in relationship to Ultimate Reality, who we call God.

Fr Bede was very much in this tradition, not only in distinguishing Christianity from the religions of Asia but even in distinguishing himself from Abhishiktananda. He said that the mystery of communion in God and with God is that “the Father and the Son become a total unity and are yet distinct, and that is true of [human beings] and God as well. We are one, and yet we are distinct. There is never a total loss of self.” Even if in consciousness there could be, or could seem to be, pure identity, “in love there’s never pure identity because love involves two, and yet the two become one. That’s the great mystery.” Hence, he said, for the Christian the Indian metaphor of the ocean and the droplet that re-merges with the ocean “is not adequate”: "You can say the drop merges in the ocean, but you can also say the ocean is present in the drop ... In the ultimate state the individual is totally there, totally realized, but also in total communion with all the rest."

This is where St Bernard comes in very strongly. The mystical union, Bernard says, is when the soul is married to God and, though of different substances, it becomes one spirit with God. If there is a way to sum up Christian mystical experience, this is undoubtedly the most sublime: that we become one spirit with God in a mystical marriage.

I think it’s notable that Bernard is sometimes referred to as the last of the Patristic era; and also notable that he is just on the cusp of the dawning of Scholastic theology. We often talk about the three centers of gravity in the human person: the gut, the heart and the head. If I am not stretching this all too far, I like to think of the early monastic tradition and fathers as the gut, rooted in practical spirituality, close to the earth and close to the movements of their own inner beings. And of course it is not a far stretch to see the Scholastic era well represented by the head. But on the way from the gut to the head, it was necessary to pass through the heart; and somehow Bernard represents that for me. A great gush of affective spirituality on the way to the heady Scholastic era.

Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs is considered a mystical masterpiece and his own capolavoro. It’s comprised of 86 different sermons offering a verse-by-verse commentary, and he had still only gotten to the third chapter! Interpretation of the Song of Songs of course already had a long venerable history by the time Bernard got a hold of it. The rabbis saw it as a metaphor for the covenant between God and Israel; that’s why they included an erotic love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Christians see it as a song between Christ and the church, the whole church. And then Origen, followed by Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the Great, begin to see it as a love song between God and the individual soul. Bernard certainly knew this tradition and drew on it. But in his hands the Song of Songs becomes something new again. It’s almost as if he created a whole new vocabulary for the Western mystical tradition, with a whole new set of images and themes. He was convinced that erotic language was the best analogy for describing the human encounter with the divine. The Song, Bernard says in his first sermon on it, “…expresses the mounting desires of the soul, its marriage song, an exultation of spirit poured forth in figurative language pregnant with delight.” (SCC 1.7-8) From Bernard on this kind of language will stay in the Western mystical tradition, and perhaps come to its apogee in the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, but it is with Bernard that it gets its first real push. In Sermon 83 on the Song he writes:
When she loves perfectly, the soul is wedded to the Word . . .
Truly this is a spiritual contract, a holy marriage.
It is more than a contract, it is an embrace:
an embrace where identity of will makes of two one spirit. (SCC 83.3)
One spirit with God! Now, he is only echoing St Pauls' language here, but still this is an astounding claim! God, in Christ, and the soul become one spirit! Notice here, it is not even an annihilation of our will; but an identity of our will with God’s. Nothing of us is lost. If God and the soul “cohere with the bond of love” we are “said to be of one spirit” with God.

Let him kiss me with the kiss of his lips, the Song says. What does this mean to be kissed by the kiss? Well, Jesus is the kiss of God. Just as we are the image of the image, so we are kissed by the kiss, kissed by the Word, kissed by Jesus. That’s Jesus’ function as Word made flesh: to kiss us, unite us with himself so that as one spirit with him we can be of one spirit with God through him, with him and in him.

We’ve been on retreat all week and this is a nice way to end the week. Our conferences were excellent, offered by Columba Stewart, OSB, undoubtedly one of the world’s experts on early monastic sources. But they were a little academic, and it took some time for them to sink down into the gut. St Bernard serves as a reminder that on the way from our head to our gut (or from our gut to our head) we should make sure we don’t hurry too quickly past the heart, and let God kiss us with the kiss of his lips, let Jesus invite us to the wedding chamber, to the wedding banquet, so as to make of us one spirit with God.

The sad thing is that, after allowing himself to get lured into spending the better part of his career involved in the politics of the church––including preaching an ill-fated Crusade!––, shortly before his death Bernard wrote in a letter that he was a sort of “modern chimera, neither cleric nor layman. I have kept the habit of a monk, but I have long ago abandoned the life.” History has judged him differently, but it is too bad that he himself was not tasting the sweetness of union with God as an old man. The good are always tempted by the good, my spiritual director tells me. Let’s make sure we don’t get caught up in the “stuff” of religion––whatever tradition––to the expense of the real stuff.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

dialogue with paul and benedict

The fact that we are distinct from the world does not mean that we are entirely separated from it. Nor does it mean that we are indifferent to it, afraid of it, or contemptuous of it. When the Church distinguishes itself from humanity, it does so not in order to oppose it, but to come closer to it... On the contrary, it finds in its own salvation an argument for showing more concern and more love for those who live close at hand, or to whom it can go in its endeavor to make all alike share the blessing of salvation. (Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam #63)
Some years ago at the monastery––this was a public event so I am not breaking any secrets––one of our novices, who was quite well educated, was doing the readings at Vigils and came upon John Chrysostom’s commentary on this week’s Gospel. It's Mt 15:21-28, the story of the Canaanite woman asking for healing for her daughter, in which Jesus at first refuses her because it is not right for him to take "what is meant for children and throw it to the dogs." And this novice got to the line, right near the beginning of the reading, where John Chrysostom says, “She was a woman, a Canaanite, and a dog…” at which point he slammed the book shut and stormed out of the chapel, never to return. (And I mean never, he left the community shortly after that, for other extenuating circumstances.) When asked later why he had done that, he said, “Because that was a racist and sexist reading, and never should have been read in a public liturgy.” The whole thing was my fault; I was the one picking the readings at the time, and knowing what I know now I agree with him. We don’t think metaphorically anymore, and we also know enough about John Chrysostom and many of the writers of the patristic era, that they did in fact have a rather dubious unenlightened misogynistic anthropology when it came to women.

I have also learned along the way that, although we have the scholarly right to question the exact veracity of some of the Gospel accounts and words of Jesus, whenever Jesus appears in an unfavorable light in the Gospels, as in today’s reading, it’s probably true, for the simple fact that otherwise the compilers of the Gospels would never have left it in. I take some comfort in thinking that we are missing something here, a nod or a wink, a tone of voice. Everything I know about Jesus leads me to believe that, though he did deem his mission prior to his death to be mainly to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he was not a racist, and regularly did extend his healing mercy outside of the visible boundaries of Israel. Was Jesus having some kind of a dharma battle with her, simply re-iterating ironically a rather commonly held belief of the Jews at the time merely so he could show the wrong-headedness of it? This is something we will never know, but if we note the context in which the church puts this reading and the ultimate outcome of the exchange we have a very clear idea of what we are meant to learn from it, especially viewed in the light of the first reading, a Scripture that surely Jesus knew well coming as it does from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, which scholars think was the book that was most influential on Jesus’ own theology, quoted in the Gospel more often than any other book of the Hebrew Scriptures except for the psalms. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Is 56:7)

The other thing I note is this phrase, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus had said this once before in the Gospel of Matthew, when he was sending the twelve out for the first time and he told them not to go into Gentile territory or enter any Samaritan town, but to go instead “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I tend to think, rather optimistically perhaps, that the really important modifier in that phrase is not the prepositional phrase, “of the house of Israel,” but rather the adjective “lost.” In other words, don’t go to the fat cats in the temple––they already have their rewards, and Jesus saves for them the worst displays of the acerbic side of his personality. No, go instead to the lost sheep, an image that will figure so prominently in his parables as well.

With al that as a caveat, I must admit I got most of my thinking about these readings from two recent columns by John Allen, one on Pope Paul VI and the other on Pope Benedict. He reported about Pope Benedict holding what has become an annual event for him last week: he had a Q&A session with the priests of the Alto Adige region of Italy, in the Italian Alps where he vacations. Among other things, a propos today's Gospel, Pope Benedict said this: “In the course of time, I have come to realize that we have to follow the example of the Lord, who was very open with people who were at the margins of Israel… If we can see even a tiny flame of desire for communion in the church… it seems right to me to be rather generous” with them. So even the smallest stirrings of the faith should be encouraged rather than snuffed out, and so he said his instinct is to err on the side of mercy.

That all got me thinking about Pope Paul VI. Something he said has been rather foundational for me in my work: in his opening address to the second session of the Vatican Council, he called on the council fathers to adjust their relations with the world: “Not to conquer,” he said, “but to serve; not to despise but to appreciate; not to condemn but to comfort.” This was an ongoing theme of Pope Paul––dialogue, gentle, respectful conversation. One of the most neglected treasures among recent papal teachings is Pope Paul’s 1964 encyclical on the church Ecclesiam Suam, in which he laid out his vision of what the church’s engagement with humanity might look like. He said that the church could “reduce its relationships to a minimum,” it could “isolate itself from dealings with secular society”; it could set about point out “the evils that can be found in secular society, condemning them and declaring crusades against them;” or it could feasibly approach so close to secular society merely to try "to exercise a theocratic power over it.” “But it seems to Us,” he wrote, “that the relationship of the church to the world––without precluding other legitimate forms of expression––can be represented better in a dialogue.” (As a matter of fact he uses the word “dialogue” over 70 times in that encyclical. Computers are wonderful for that kind of thing.)

And then he goes on to describe that dialogue in terms of four qualities: clarity, meekness, trust and prudence. Clarity, meaning not just that our position is articulated clearly but that language should be “understandable, acceptable, and well-chosen”; meek, meaning that dialogue is “not proud, not bitter, not offensive.” Trust, meaning not just confidence in the power of one’s own words, but also in welcoming the trust of the interlocutor, a trust that promotes confidence and friendship. And prudence, meaning not just that we don’t take risks but trying to learn the sensitivities of the hearer, and adapting ourselves and our manner of presentation in a reasonable way, so that “we not be displeasing and incomprehensible.” (Why we might not want to refer to a Canaanite woman as a “dog”!) There’s a French phrase that his attitude reminds me of: noblesse oblige––the noblest among us are the one who have the responsibility to act with generosity and graciousness. The authority of our part in the dialogue, he said, is intrinsic to the truth it explains; our authority comes from the charity it communicates and the example it proposes. Our authority is not a command, nor is it an imposition. It is peaceful; it avoids violent methods; it is patient; it is generous. Before speaking, we have to listen to the other person’s heart as well as their voice. The other must first be understood; and, wherever possible, agreed with. “In the very act of trying to make ourselves pastors, fathers and teachers… we must make ourselves their brothers” and sisters.

John Allen wrote that in an era of what he calls "ideological tribalism," theologically and politically, it seems good for us to remember this largeness of spirit, and I am finding that Pope Benedict is carrying much of this same spirit in his modus operandi, to many peoples’ surprise. At this same Q&A session, he was asked some questions about evangelization and, instead of talking about specific aggressive strategies, he spoke about the cultivation of simple human virtues, very much in the spirit of Paul VI: “Honesty, joy, openness to listening to one’s neighbor, the capacity to forgive, generosity, goodness, [and] cordiality.” Very much in the spirit of what Paul VI wrote, he said these are the things that are “indicative of the fact that faith is truly present,” (are they not what St Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit”?) And these are the things that give the best form of witness. It reminded me of the often quoted saying of St Francis, which has undoubtedly been reduced to a sound byte: “Spread the Gospel; use words if necessary.” Or, as a craggy old missionary living in Hell’s Kitchen in the Bronx said once, “The Gospel spreads itself. All we have to do is show up.”

Let’s hope that the Lord’s house, our house, the house of the Church, the house of our communities, would truly be a house of prayer for all people and that we can learn this spirit of civility in dialogue, and through the example of Jesus, seek for the lost ones, and bring them home with honesty, joy, openness, forgiveness, generosity, goodness, cordiality, patience. And these words could describe all of our relationships:
Not to conquer but to serve,
not to despise but to appreciate,
not to condemn but to comfort.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

abandoning the temple

Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house and stopped above the cherubim. The cherubim lifted up their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight as they went out with the wheels beside them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the river Chebar; and I knew that they were cherubim. Each had four faces, each four wings, and underneath their wings something like human hands. As for what their faces were like, they were the same faces whose appearance I had seen by the river Chebar. Each one moved straight ahead. Ez 10:18-22

There was a wild reading today at Mass from Ezekiel 9 and 10. Before that vision of Ezekiel that I pasted here above, we hear all this anger, murdering, slaying, defiling the temple in the name of God––and we have the suspicion that Ezekiel’s own anger and frustration at being an exile is mixed in with God’s anger here. In some way we have to keep an eye on the development of Ezekiel’s own understanding of things as revealed by later prophecies too. But first of all what's incredible is this: God is abandoning the temple! And sitting on a nearby hill watching accusingly. It’s as if someone were to have a vision of the Blessed Sacrament flying out of St Peter’s and sitting on the Aventine Hill overlooking Vatican City. And why has the Spirit abandoned the Temple? Because of their idolatry…

James Alison will make the connection between this section of Ezekiel and Jesus’ own confrontation in the temple with the Pharisees in John 8, when Jesus tells them they are not really the children of Abraham because of their own actions and their refusal to believe in the new revelation that Jesus brings, the "good news of reconciliation." Alison points out the power of the words that end that chapter: that, just as in Ezekiel, Jesus “left the Temple.” God in Jesus becomes detached from the sacred bloodline. God has raised up a new kind of David who is a universal shepherd and sovereign, who excludes no one, just as Ezekiel will prophesy later in Chapter 34 (:23). In some way we could read Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel the same way (Mt 18:15-20), in which he is advocating going to the greatest lengths to heal any breach between people, to bring about reconciliation, to re-member the body. Even when Jesus says that we should regard someone who refuses this reconciliation as if they were "a tax collector or a Gentile" is not necessarily a way of cutting them off, but acknowledging that even their being of the same race and religion as us doesn’t matter without that unity of heart. One assumes the opposite could be said as well, as evidenced so often in the Gospels: if someone is of one mind and heart with you, even if they be a Gentile or a Samaritan or a tax collector or a prostitute, they are your family, because whenever, wherever two or three are gathered in this love, there I am in your midst.

In a sense that’s the outer sense, the radical inclusivity that Jesus is proclaiming and embodying. But there is an inner sense to it, too. I like to think of it as Jesus’ own relocation of the Temple. At the beginning of John’s Gospel he says, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again,” and John let’s us know that he was talking about the temple of his own body, and it is out of that temple that the life-giving stream will pour at the end of John’s Gospel in the form of blood and water. (Note here again the resonance with the prophecy of Ezekiel 47 that we sing during Eastertime: "I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple...") But that life-giving stream doesn’t just pour over us: it flows into us and then back out of us. That’s why St Paul and St Peter will tell us over and over––"God’s temple is holy and you are that temple!" And Jesus himself will prophesy in John’s Gospel that the same stream of life giving water shall flow from out of the believer’s heart! The temple has been relocated into the person of Jesus, and by extension now relocated into our own persons. Later Ezekiel himself will come upon this new knowledge in Chapter 36 when he prophesies “I will put my spirit within you,” and “I will give you a new heart.” These are also the dry bones in Ezekiel 37 that are given life by the inrush of the shekinah, the ruah.

Carl Jung wrote that he thought life seems to have gone out of the churches in the West, and as its next dwelling place the Holy Spirit appears to have selected the human individual. Perhaps he was having his own version of Ezekiel’s vision. But this should come as no surprise nor cause undo worry to us. What the great psychotherapist is stumbling upon, of course, is Christianity: “The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us.” But perhaps Dr Jung did not understand what church really is anyway: not buildings, not the outer trappings, but living stones, as St Peter wrote, people who have this living water, this shekinah, inside of them, whenever, wherever two or three are gathered in the common bond of this one thing necessary––whether they be Gentiles or Jews; whenever two or three are united in the heart, sincerely searching together for this great I AM that is the ground of our quest––whether they be tax collectors or sinners. There I AM is in the midst of them.

Idolatry may not take the form of idols of silver and gold. But it could be that anything external that we worship over that internal dwelling of the presence of God, that one thing necessary, is an idol. This is why it is so central for Jesus to quote Hosea so often: “It is love that I desire not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not a useless offering.”

I think this is in some way the prophetic sign of the monk in this day and age, perhaps even especially of the solitary monk: that we ultimately can’t count on institutions, even the institution of monasticism, to hold us up. We are the ones who carry this fire under our robes, sometimes sneaking it out of the sanctuary and offering it surreptitiously to like-minded, like-hearted people, dis-enfranchised exiles we meet along the way. And tell them, “Don’t worry! Let the walls fall! It’s in you!” Even when the clergy commit heinous acts of betrayal, even when our sisters and brothers in religion or religious life fall into lethargy or lose their zeal, even if our monasteries get burned down by fire or slip into the ocean in a landslide, don’t worry: the Spirit dwells somewhere else, the real power has been placed in us, the law is written on our hearts. But the church is not an institution; it’s a body. Eucharist is not an institution; it’s a relationship with Jesus and with one another. And monasticism is not an institution; as our former prior general told me, it’s an energy. None of these things are their externals: they are containers of the internal dwelling of the shekinah, the spirit.

Nor will we be alone; in the most unexpected places, maybe among Gentiles and Samaritans and tax collectors and prostitutes, we will find others who have heard that still small voice, who have found the one thing necessary, who have understood the good news of reconciliation. This is the real basis for community. And when we gather, God in Jesus in the unity of this holy Spirit will be in our midst.

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.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Instead of beginning with a quote, this whole entry (just about) will be a quote. A few weeks ago someone kindly offered me a stash of books that his mother had left behind when she died, mostly books on Indian and Buddhist spirituality, including a dozen or so volumes of Sri Aurobindo, among them The Synthesis of Yoga which is had been reading last time at Shaitnvanam. Just in the first three chapters I am again startled to find how much resonance there is with Bede Griffiths thought on spirit, soul and boyd, which Aurbindo calls bodily or material, mental and spiritual. But this bleow especially struck me yesterday, reading it on the feast of the transfiguration. (What is yet to discovered is how much Aurobindo himself, on the other hand, was influenced by Christianity.)

The goal of evolution is also its cause,
it is that which is immanent in its elements and out of them is liberated.
But the liberation is surely imperfect if it is only an escape and there is not return upon the containing substance and activities to exalt and transform them.
The immanence itself would have no credible reason for being
if it did not end in such a transfiguration.

But if human mind can become capable of the glories of the Divine Light,
human emotion and sensibility can be transformed into the mould
and assume the measure and movement of the supreme Bliss,
human action not only represent but feel itself to be th motion of divine and non-egoistic Force
and the physical substance of our being sufficiently partake of the purity of supernal essence,
sufficiently unify plasticity and durable constancy to support
and prolong these highest experiences and agencies,
then all the long labour of Nature will end in a crowning justification
and her evolution reveal their profound significance.
So dazzling is even a glimpse of this supreme existence
and so absorbing its attraction that, once seen,
we feel readily justified in neglecting all else for its pursuit.

Integral yoga* is that which, having found the Transcendent,
can return upon the universe and possess it,
retaining the power freely to descend as well as ascend the great stair of existence.. For if the eternal Wisdom exists at all,
the faculty of the mind also must have some high use and destiny.
That use must depend on its place in the ascent
and in that return and that destiny must be fulfillment and transfiguration,
not a rooting out and an annulling.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 18-19

*Might I have said here "integral spirituality"?

Or as St Paul might say:
We are waiting for our Savior,
our Lord Jesus Christ
Who will transfigure our lowly bodies
into glorious copies of his.