Friday, December 24, 2010

the eros of advent

Past and future veil God from our sight;
burn up both of them with fire. How long
will you be partitioned by these segments, like a reed?
So long as a reed is partitioned, it is not privy to secrets,
nor is it vocal in response to lip and breathing.

I read a beautiful little book this year by a Chinese Trappist named Joseph Chu-Cong called “The Contemplative Experience.” The title did not do justice to the subject matter; as a faithful son of Bernard of Clairvaux he was writing about the Song of Songs and how the Greek concept of love as eros is operative in the spiritual life. This is another topic I have been fascinated with these years, these different types of love––libido, philia, eros, agape. It started with Fr Bede’s insistence that eros leads into agape, and then a discovery that the ancient Christian writers spoke about God’s eros–longing for us and our eros-longing for God. Hence why the Song of Songs would be included in the Bible at all, how romantic love is only a symbol of the greater longing. As a matter of fact Pope Benedict wrote his first encyclical on this, too, and got roundly criticized. One earnest conservative writer wrote that we needed from the pope was a whole lot more discipline and a lot less “love and Mozart.” (I disagree vehemently: I think we need a lot more love and Mozart, or some kind of music and art.)

Anyway, someone like Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian says that eros simply is the love that is a “movement of that which is lower in power and meaning to that which is higher.” That puts all of our other erotic impulses in a new light doesn’t it, but also makes it apply all the more to the spiritual quest. The “movement of that which is lower in power and meaning to that which is higher.” Simple enough to say it is the love that is a longing, but it is a longing that draws us out of ourselves, toward ecstasy as much as if not more than enstasy. What was interesting about Fr Chu-Cong’s notion of eros was that he said it was a longing that doesn’t really want to be satisfied: but that eros wants their to be more and more longing, that somehow the longing is the thing, the longing is the impulse, the drive, the evolution, if you will, the impetus toward higher and higher and more sublime things. Because often we find that when we have what we think we wanted we are left dissatisfied. We didn’t really want the desire to be fulfilled, at least not yet, or not in that way. Fr Bede would say eros is meant to constellate in agape–the love that is self-donation, and the Yogic tradition would say that it rises ever higher and higher to meet the descent of Divine grace, when in the “tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high breaks upon us.” The “movement of that which is lower in power and meaning to that which is higher,” but then that which is higher bends down to meet us.

What does this have to do with Advent? St Benedict says that a monk’s whole life should be a little Lent. I always think of two former monks of our community during Advent. One is Fr Aelred who used to weep the first time we sang the Conditor Alme Siderum. And the other is Peter-Damian, because he and I agreed that if we were to write the Rule we would say “the monk’s whole life should be a little Advent.” It is this watching and waiting that somehow characterize our whole life, the long hours of vigil, listening, watching, waiting, preparing… I love the longing the eros, if you will, embedded both in the monastic life and in Advent, and I usually find myself a little disappointed when Christmas rolls around because our celebrations can’t possibly capture that for which we are really longing. It’s not about what happened so much as it is about what will happen–in me, in us. We hear so much from Luke’s Gospel the last week of Advent, because Luke’s Gospel is all about the fulfillment of promises. I have to realize that what I am waiting for is not another celebration of some moment in past history after all; the promise I have been waiting to be fulfilled is for that Word to really take root in my heart, and for me to become wholly incarnate myself, for me myself to be a vessel of God’s power and peace, an echo of God’s love and grace. That’s when the Incarnation happens anew and anew and again and again and eternally.

This was the last day of Advent. I savored it. I recommend that we try not to let Christmas distract us from starting the waiting all over again after the celebrations of Christmas, but instead let Christmas be a reminder of what we are really waiting for––for this lowly being of ours to be transfigured into a glorious copy of Jesus’ own being, who came to share in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity. And let’s not settle for anything less than that.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

barren wombs

God has confused the proud in their inmost thoughts,
cast the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places;
the hungry ones are given everything they need to live
while the rich are sent away with empty hands.
(Lk 1:52)

I’ve been fascinated for some time with this idea of the Axial Period, the idea that beginning around 2500 years ago a certain evolution in human and spiritual consciousness took place. It was marked first of all by the piercing of the rational mind through the mythical one, and also the beginning of being able to chart an individual spiritual course removed from the tribe––hence the birth of monasticism in Buddhism and Hinduism, for instance. This development in consciousness also brought with it a movement away from the earth, and consequently away from the body as well, and it had a decidedly more masculine bent to it. Henceforth the spiritual itinerary would be marked by ascending, climbing mountains, and the lotus flower that sticks its lovely head out of the water far away from the mud. Later on in the mystical treatises of Christianity we see this same course plotted out––John Climacus’ The Ladder of Perfection, John of the Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel, even a woman gets in on this “masculine” approach in The Interior Castle of Teresa of Ávila, all the way up to Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Implicit in all of these teachings is the stress laid on separation from the world with all its temptations and distractions.

But there are those who think that this “masculine” approach has perhaps reached its apogee, its height, and may even have passed its usefulness. While we don’t want to leave the rational mind behind nor any of the gains of this 1st Axial consciousness, now its time, for instance, to recover the earth that we’ve treated as a distraction––seeing what a mess we have made out of it and recognizing that our own survival as a race depends on a better relationship with our planetary home. Perhaps in our day and age its time to recover the body and bodiliness in general––seeing how we have grown so far from living according to our nature (kata physin, as the ancient Greeks would say), seeing how so many of our young people indulge more and more in self-mutilation, and how the growth and spread of diseases such as cancer are only increasing. Perhaps it’s time to understand this mass movement of an uprising of the feminine in a new way––not just an end to the obvious exploitation and abuse of women (what Abbot Mark Hederer calls our innate tendency to “gyno-cide”) but a real recognition of a whole aspect of and approach to reality that we easily ignore in our race to the top of the mountain, knocking all over contenders off on the way. Once we get to the top of that mountain, if we ever do, we might find and have found ourselves left rather barren. And so these thinkers propose that we are in a new axial period in this day and age, an age of descent added to the ascent. This all reminds me again of the new mysticism proposed by William Johnson that he dreamed would be more rooted in social justice, and a kataphatic mysticism of light, and more rooted in the earth like the theology of Teilhard de Chardin, and that, finally, would be more feminine.

All that to say, I don’t think this second Axial period is just getting started now: I think it started back in the stories of the birth of Jesus, which were already serving as a corrective to the upward-only arc. So much of the story revolves around the males not getting it, of the women getting it, and the Divine choosing to take root in seemingly barren wombs. While we are racing to the top, in these stories God is “coming down” in the humblest, darkest, warmest places, in Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel, in Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, and finally the fullness of the godhead dwelling bodily in the humble dark warm womb of this virginal heart––Mary. Just as the triumph of Jesus’ flesh in the resurrection and ascension is not just Jesus’ flesh but somehow all flesh and all of creation that is groaning and in agony as we await the redemption of our bodies, so too now in the story of Mary being pregnant with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Divine is already manifesting, not just in one woman’s body, but in flesh itself, and in earth itself, even before Jesus is immersed in the waters of the Jordan and mixes with the mud, the Word is already turning the water of our humanity into the wine of divinity and coming to be buried in the heart of the earth. It’s already happening.

The wombs that have really proven to be barren are the three things that get mentioned in Mary’s canticle: our pride, our might, and our riches. Especially our intellectual pride that thinks it can build an architecture to contain the Divine and keep out all the surprises that don’t fit into our neat categories; our might, which has not yet proven to be capable of producing a lasting peace anywhere on the planet has shown itself to be really barren; and our riches, our prosperity has not led to the real prosperity of happiness and has left us barren. So in Mary’s song, as in the Song of Hannah and Psalm 112, which were its inspiration, God’s mighty foolishness shows its power against the barren womb of our intellectual arrogance; the mighty are cast from their thrones and in their place are lifted up the weak who seemed to be barren; the rich are sent away empty and the starving are lifted up, the ones who seemed to be barren!

In order for the Word to take flesh anew in our world, and to take place in our very own selves, we first have to see and admit our own barrenness, the barrenness of our whole trajectory at times, the barrenness of our goals, of our motives, of our energies. Admit how we have tried to escape the mundane, lowly, weak, seemingly barren places where, to our surprise, God has actually chosen to dwell; admit how often we have failed to recognize how holy everything around us is––that the world is not just a temptation and a distraction to be avoided but the very garden where the seed of the Word gets planted. Then we prepare for the Word to plant itself, root itself, manifest itself, here, there, everywhere.