Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shine on!

Shine on, shine on,
There'll be time enough for darkness when everything's gone.
Shine on, shine on,
There is work to be done in the dark before dawn.
(Daisy May Erlewine)

I learned a long time ago that one of the biggest faults we human beings have, that winds up leading to even bigger problems in the long run, is this two-pronged approach we take to life––avoiding pain and augmenting pleasure. If you think about it, you could almost fit your whole day into one of those two categories––avoiding pain and augmenting pleasure.

“What are you up to today?”
“Avoiding pain. How ‘bout you?”
“Augmenting pleasure…”

We are forever trying to build up a life of ease and comfort, padding our nests and battening down our hatches. We are forever trying to get away from hard things, and we especially want to get rid of any kind of pain as soon as we get a hint of it, whether by an aspirin or by a drink or some harder drug, or some kind of diversion that gets our mind off it. I have two close friends who say almost the same thing: one, who endured the death of several of her family members, a difficult divorce and just had a ling transplant, says, “It’s only pain”; and the other says, “Sometimes things just hurt.” Like a death, or a dysfunctional family, or a debilitating disease. Sometimes we just have to feel the pain, grieve, wail, cry, so that it can pass.

The poet David Whyte says when we are little children we get a little black bag strapped to our waists and everything frightening or painful we throw in the black bag. And it stretches and stretches so that by the time we are adults we can barely fit through the door because the bag is so large. We try to keep on avoiding looking at all those things that we fear or that are going to be difficult for us to face, but at some point––let’s hope this doesn’t have to wait until our deaths––we’re going to have to face it all, and deal with it, and let go of it. And we’re going to have to let go of the pleasures we’ve been clinging to as well, even the legitimate pleasures, loved ones, careers, sometimes even health of mind and body. As Teilhard wrote in The Divine Milieu, “The Master of Death will come soon enough––and perhaps we can already hear his footsteps. There is no need to forestall his hour nor fear it.”

There’s a lot of sweetness and light in the readings we read in church today. First is the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 8, proclaiming that the Gentiles are going to see a great light. This is a passage that is used liturgically also at Christmas time: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in darkness a light has shone.” Later in the text those famous lines come that is not quoted here––I remember it well because some friends of mine and I were working with this text during the summer of 2006 when Israel was in the process of bombing the smithereens out of Lebanon (with the US’s tacit approval), just the opposite of what is going on here, where: “For every boot that trampled in battle, every cloak rolled in blood shall be burnt as fuel for flames. For unto us a child is given, to us a child is born…” And in the Gospel of Matthew we see Jesus is going into the land of the Gentiles, bringing his light, a light that is now going to be for all people, not just for the chosen few.

I’ve heard is said that the dark side of modern spirituality is that it has no dark side. Lest we get too comfortable, there are three little correctives to the sweetness and light in the readings today. In the Isaiah reading, this light shines where there has first been great degradation, great darkness, and Isaiah says it is specifically by the hand of the lord that this degradation and darkness had come, like John the Baptist’s axe laid to the root of the tree. And Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (4:12-23) is sending his disciples out not just to announce the light, but to call people to repentance so that they can actually make room for this light. And we sneak St Paul’s words in from the end of the second reading (1 Cor 1: 17)––so that the cross of Christ may not be emptied of its power. In this context it seems to me that the repentance could be just what I mentioned earlier. It’s time to get real! It’s time to open that black bag of fears and avoidances you’ve been carrying around, empty it out and face the reality of life. Or as Jesus puts it in another place, “Take up your cross and follow me.” So that the cross of Christ not be emptied of its meaning. Repent may mean to stop clinging to pleasure, even to legitimate pleasure. Stop worrying about what to wear or what to eat or tomorrow––do not live in fear, my little flock! So that the cross of Christ may not be emptied of its power. It’s just pain, it’s just a cross, and it may kill you but it will not destroy you.

There’s a song a friend of mine introduced me to recently and I can’t stop singing it. It also seems to fit so well with today’s readings. It strikes me as an announcement of the gospel, of the good news, even if it doesn’t specifically mention Jesus, because it mentions Jesus’ way. It’s called “Shine On.”
Knocked me off of my feet
But I think it's time for me to start walking again,
Stop running away from things.
Next time you see me,
I will be singing a new song
I am learning to shine on.

Shine on, shine on,
There'll be time enough for darkness when everything's gone.
Shine on, shine on,
There is work to be done in the dark before dawn.

It's been hard not to give in,
And it ain't easy living in hard times.
I know it's weighing on your mind.
Next time you see me,
I'll be uplifting, yes I will give you hope!
I am learning as I go to shine on.

I know how dark it seems,
Feel it coming up inside of me,
And I feel it in you too, in everything you do.
Next time you see me,
We'll both be laughing, oh just to be alive!
We are learning to shine, shine on.

I think this would be a good thing for us to sing to the world right now. I my circle, there are many people despairing, many people hurting, many people hopeless about life. But so that the cross of Christ not be emptied of its meaning, I think we should be announcing this good news to the world: Shine on, shine on. / There'll be time enough for darkness when everything's gone. / Shine on, shine on. / There is work to be done in the dark before dawn. And that work to be done is just what Jesus sent his apostles out to do: preaching that the reign of God is at hand, curing disease and illness among the people, especially the dis-ease of despair, the illness of hopelessness, so that the people who walk in darkness can see the great light of Christ, through us, with us and in us.

Friday, January 21, 2011

the great transformation, the great archetypes

Would you become a pilgrim on the road to Love?
The first condition is that you make yourself humble as dust and ashes.
(Ansari of Heart)

Karen Armstrong has a little different version of what the Perennial Philosophy is in her magisterial book on the Axial Period called The Great Transformation. A simple version of her view is the realization that every single person, every object, and every experience on earth is actually but a replica––a pale shadow, at that––of a reality in another realm or sphere of existence––let’s call it the divine world. That sacred world is then understood as the prototype of human existence, and it is richer, stronger, and more enduring than anything on earth. And because it is so men and women wanted desperately to participate in it. (The Great Transformation, p. xxi) Armstrong points out for example how even in modern times, when we seem to have abandoned the perennial philosophy, “people slavishly follow the dictates of fashion and even do violence to their faces and figures in order to reproduce the current standard of beauty. The cult of celebrity shows that we still revere models who epitomize ‘superhumanity,’” our cult of entertainment and sports celebrity, for example. “People sometimes go to great lengths to see their idols, and feel an ecstatic enhancement of being in their presence. They imitate their dress and behavior. It seems that human beings naturally tend toward the archetypal and paradigmatic.” (GT, p. xxi) But ultimately, at least as the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches it, the human person is created in the image of God, who is a perfect being (in the first story of creation), and in whom the Holy Spirit is breathed into the center (the second story of Creation). And so even the great archetype of the Purusha, the Christ, Adam Kadmon, al-Insan al-Kamil––the prototypes of humanity that we are meant to follow and imitate, not merely worship, who are somehow also the pattern of our existence, the “image of God” that is the center of our beings.

I ran into a beautiful little book in a bookstore in Phoenix last week. I didn’t buy but I read enough of it to be dangerous and think I knew what it was all about, enough to quote it! It was called The Heart of Philosophy, by the famous Jacob Needleman, some of whose writings I have already read. In the introduction to the book he writes about two different approaches to philosophy, two different levels really. There is the philosophy that deals with the surface level, our ordinary consciousness, things as they are. And then there is the philosophy that deals with the “heart of the matter,” the prime things, the Self of the self (what Huxley will call “autology” as opposed to “psychology”). The thing that really interested me about this distinction, though, was the names he gives them. The first type of philosophy is of the ego; the second type he categorizes as––are you ready?––eros. Eros is the deep down stuff, the realm of the archetypes and prototypes and the Self of the self, that toward which we are striving and longing. Yes, you could even say the gods, the daemons (as opposed to demons), the devas.

Now we are back in the realm of Hederman’s (MPH) thought on eros, and its deeper meaning as well. Our own longing, our loves, even our infatuations are siren calls from that level of meaning. Even someone with whom we fall in love is somehow a symbol of a fullness that we are not yet, and we are called to be in relationship with that, as well as with her or him. In some way, the one with whom we are infatuated or in love is a kind of god/dess (in the loosest sense of the word), and this is why their attention or rejection is so powerful to us––it is like being seen by God! Or being rejected by God! Of course he or she are not God, but our innards don’t know that. Our hearts (our deepest hearts) only know that there is something else we are longing for. What healthy psychosexual development and emotional growth teach us is exactly what MPH was talking about, recognizing the other as subject and not object, which means pulling back our projections of perfection and realizing that the other is also a human striving for perfection, and not an object to be consumed, just as our desire is not something to be satisfied (and therefore done away with, killed!). The other spurs us on to who, what we could be, can be, if we are stay in that tense relationship with that which calls us into being, into fullness of being. Because ultimately, since the human person is created in the image of God, who is a perfect being (in the first story of creation), our eros is really directed at the divine, the fulfillment, not just the satisfaction, of our desire. And so, again, the great archetype of the Purusha, the Christ, Adam Kadmon, al-Insan al-Kamil––the prototypes of humanity that we are meant to follow and imitate, not merely worship, who are somehow also the pattern of our existence, the “image of God” that is the center of our beings. And so no less an orthodox Christian writer than Saint Basil the Great wrote that we achieve what is beyond our wildest imaginings––we become God. Whether it is by participation as orthodox Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach, or because we share the same substance as the monistic traditions teach, doesn’t matter much to me (doesn’t really seem to matter much to Huxley either––“something similar to or even identical with divine Reality), and doesn’t seem to alter the path very much. This of course is again the telos and scopos, by the way.) I feel content with the fact that if I stay on the right path I am going to become God.

Monday, January 10, 2011

the ache we feel: reflections on Perennial Philosophy

There’s no true love affair which will not break your heart.
There’s no marriage that will not eventually break your heart…
There’s no good work in the world that will not break your heart.
There’s no way of parenting a child without them breaking your heart,
and you breaking yours.
And there’s no way of coming to know yourself in that internal marriage
without going through that existential sense of disappointment about who you’ve discovered you are.
There’s no way forward without a real sense of vulnerable heartbreak.
(David Whyte)

So, there are two ways that I want to tie the last entry in with Huxley.

The first is his discourse about our relationship to Nature in Chapter IV, on “God in the World.” He exposes it first by telling the strange little story (pp. 76ff.) from the writings of Chuang Tzu about Shu and Hu boring holes in Chaos and consequently killing him. Chaos is Nature, and Shu and Hu represent our inadvertent attempts to improve on it. The Taoists and the other proponents of the Perennial philosophy have “no desire to bully Nature into subsertving ill-considered temporal ends, at variance with the final end of [human being] as formulated by the Perennial Philosophy… to work with Nature, so as to produce material and social conditions in which individuals may realize Tao on every level from the physiological up to the spiritual.” (PP, 77) Contrast that to the Westerners/Christians (of course!), the believers in “Inevitable Progress” who
… thought they would improve on Nature by turning prairies into wheat fields and produced deserts; who proudly proclaimed the Conquest of the Air, and then discovered that they had defeated civilization; who chopped down vast forests to provide the newsprint demanded by universal literacy which was to make the world safe for intelligence and democracy, and got wholesale erosion, pulp magazines and the organs of Fascist, Communist, capitalist and nationalist propaganda… the devotees of the apocalyptic religion of Inevitable Progress, and their creed is the Kingdom of Heaven outside you, and in the future.

Let’s please leave East and West, Taoists versus Christian, prophetic versus mystical, out of this for a second (I have images of the banks of the Ganges and the streets of Bangkok covered with garbage and endless construction…), and just call it this: The difference lies in human beings who start believing in Progress as our final end as opposed to what the Perennial Philosophy offers as our end, our goal (scopos and telos):
The important thing is that individual men and women should come to the unitive knowledge of the divine Ground, and what interests them in regard to the social environment is not its progressiveness or non-progressiveness… but the degree to which it helps or hinders individuals in their advance toward [our] final end… (PP, 80)

Part and parcel of this, looking back at Hederman’s language (again, henceforth MPH), is that we unfortunately see Nature as an object to be had to satisfy our needs and desires, rather than a subject in its own right, to be lived with, to be in being with. Expand the image of the apple to be eaten out to the entire created world. And the best of Christian mystical theology in relation to the world and Nature, in modern times as articulated by Teilhard de Chardin, but from the get-go as articulated by Paul in the letter to the Romans is this: all creation is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies. Creation is a being in its own right, and even if we do posit a certain, though debated, privileged position to the “precious human birth” (Buddhism), in the “priesthood of humanity,” right relationship is to be servant of creation, abiding with creation, not creation’s master/despoiler. Our monastic community belongs to the Four Winds Council, an interfaith group that advocates for the wilderness, and part of our mission statement refers to Nature as a precious resource. Some people quibbled with that word, because even seeing Nature as a “resource” somehow views it as a commodity and an object in relation to humanity, not as being in its own right. Creation has its own eros, its own thrust forward, and our evolution and Her evolution are intimately tied together. And so, it would be well for us to move in that regard too from having to being.

The other place where MPH’s writings struck me as resonating with Huxley is in the latter’s comments on love or, rather, on “Charity,” in Chapter V, and here we move from the apple to the human being. Applying the same sensibility––that in our relationships, from casual friendships all the way through our deepest loves and infatuations, we need to move from loving as “wanting you” to loving as “wanting for you,” from “having you” to “being with you”––Huxley’s meditation is brilliant and moving:
We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge and when the love is sufficiently disinterested and sufficiently intense, the knowledge becomes unitive knowledge and so takes on the quality of infallibility. (PP, 81)

While disinterested here sounds cold and indifferent, it is not. It means, I have no agenda for you, I do not want you. I still remember that classic definition of agape that I learned when I was 15 years old: to love without asking for anyting in return. That’s what Huxley means here by “disinterested.”

The ache that we feel that call “love” is the ache of our own selves groaning, and perhaps all of creation groaning with us while we await the redemption of our bodies. It is the ache of desire; it is our growing pains, the pain of evolution stretching our bones and those of all creation. And we want to take away the ache, and we think we can take away the ache by having something or someone. But we are only killing the ache temporarily. It shall return, maybe in a fiercer way, maybe disguised as a compulsion or an addiction, maybe as a sickness or neurosis. The ideal, it seems to me, is to hold our pleasure with open hands, let it slip in and be grateful and in awe of it when it comes as well as when it goes away on its own trajectory––what does Mary Oliver say, “Doesn’t everything die / and too soon?”––and also learn to live with the ache, and recognize it as the “wound of love,” the wound that pulls us forward into being. As David Whyte says, to end the quote that I cited above, to sum this up:
It can be a tremendously good thing to tell yourself, to remind yourself,
a blessed thing, a merciful thing, to remind yourself
that heartbreak is actually a normal phenomenon of any sincere human path,
and that we should just be ready for the particular form that it takes…

Sunday, January 9, 2011

solo ai poveri

The nature of this one Reality is such that it cannot be directly and immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit.
(Aldous Huxley)

Today in the Christian tradition we clebrate the Baptism of the Lord. There are two texts about this feast that I love to quote. The first one is this: The voice of God the Father made itself heard over Christ at the moment of his Baptism so as to reach humanity on earth by means of him and in him: “This is my Beloved!” Jesus did not receive this title for himself, but to give its glory to us. Now if I had read that out of context I might have made some kind of joke about it being a bunch of New Age hooey––“Oh sure, it’s all about me! It’s all about us. Perfect for the Me Generation and our navel gazing culture!”––except for the fact that it’s from St Cyril of Jerusalem, and it wasn’t a slip of the tongue or the pen. It’s in the Catechism, which follows it up by saying that Everything that happened to [Jesus] lets us know that, after the bath of water, the Holy Spirit swoops down upon us from high heaven and that, adopted by the Father’s voice, we become children of God. (CCC, 537) So it is all about us! Everything that happened to Jesus happened so that we would know that we become children of God. Jesus didn’t receive the title “Beloved” for himself; he received it to give its glory to us.

There are two more sayings that I like to add to this, which again I have been quoting over and over again these past few weeks. St Basil the Great is even bolder than St Cyril: he writes that by the gift of the Holy Spirit of Jesus we become citizens of heaven; by the gift of the Holy Spirit of Jesus we are admitted into the company of angels... Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness to God; indeed we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations––by the gift of the Holy Spirit of Jesus we become God. I might have thought that that was a slip of the pen too, except that that is quoted in a prayer book called the Office of Readings, the official prayer book of the Church. Then there’s one more little text that I love to quote, and it happens right at Mass when the priest pours water into the wine (If I’ve mentioned this once I’ve mentioned it a thousand times): By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity. That’s what this whole thing is about! Sharing in divinity!

Now, I often wonder why we don’t talk about all those things more. Last week at Holy Cross I preached about the mystery and the secret of Jesus’ message, all these same things: that we are called to be participants in the divine nature, that this is all about us, that the kingdom of heaven is among us and within us. And I told folks that they should go and tell everybody, and I still stand by that, too. That prayer of the priest, for instance, is one of those prayers that used to be called the “secret” prayers, and I was saying that they aren’t secret anymore.

But there’s also some validity to it being a secret too, because the wrong part of us hears those things, the unregenerate part of us, the part of us that doesn’t want to reform or repent. And that’s where the real meaning of Baptism comes in. All that was the Good News. Here’s the bad news…

We often forget that Baptism is a symbol of death before it is a symbol of new life. It’s a symbol of drowning. Water itself mythologically is both a symbol of life and of death. Think of the River Styx in Greek mythology that formed the boundary between Earth and the Underworld or Hades, with its ferryman Charon. That became part of the description of hell in the Christian West as well, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Blake’s Paradise Lost. But I am specifically thinking of the Red Sea: the Hebrews cross safely, but the Pharoah’s charioteers were drowned. It’s that event that gets remembered at Easter and at our Baptism. I’m also thinking of Jesus walking across the waters so many times in the Gospels, as if he were the new Charon and the new Moses, walking across the waters of death and guiding others safely across, too. But it’s almost as if he couldn’t do that––walk across the waters––until he had immersed himself in it first, allowed himself to drown. And so for us: somehow it’s only by drowning gracefully that we can walk the roads of earth with ease and grace as disciples of Jesus. It is only by something in us dying that we can access all that is promised to us by those other great writers: being divinized, participating in the divine nature, owning our real inheritance, becoming who we are.

Of course I can’t forget the diksha of sannyasa initiation when the renunciate goes into the water and strips off all the clothes and comes back out naked to be sent off wandering, dead to the world. I found out that according to classic Indian tradition you would feed a sannyasi with your left hand, the dirty hand, because the sannyasi is dead, and you wouldn’t want to touch a corpse and get defiled.

There’s a beautiful saying of St Clare of Assisi: Ne sono sicurissima il Regno dei cieli il Signore lo promette e lo dona solo ai poveri––“Of this I am sure, that the Lord promises and grants the Reign of heaven only to the poor.” We could say it this other way, too: the Lord promises and grants the Reign of heaven only to those who have drowned gracefully in the waters of Baptism, only those who have died in some way. Died to what? Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy points out that in all traditions––though he points mostly to the life of Jesus and to many Christian saints––Ultimate Reality is only clearly understood by those who have made themselves loving, pure in heart and poor in spirit. (PP, x) “… it is a fact which cannot be fully realized or directly experienced, except by souls… who have fulfilled certain conditions.” Then he quotes the famous phrase of St Augustine: Ama et fac quod vis––“Love and do what you will”; but he says you can only do this “when you have learnt the infinitely difficult art of loving God with all your mind and heart, and your neighbor as yourself…” (PP, 71) That is the baptismal death we have to undergo, over and over again.

The reason, perhaps, that we don’t shout all those other things about our sharing in divinity from the rooftops is because we might end up deifying our ego! We might think that we can just coast on this salvation that is granted us; we might think that we can rest back on our laurels and enjoy our exalted status. But it doesn’t work that way, at least not for us mere mortals. “Love and do what you will”; but you can only do this “when you have learnt the infinitely difficult art of loving God with all your mind and heart, and your neighbor as yourself…” That is the baptismal death we have to undergo over and over again in order to share in Jesus’ divinity. The Lord promises and grants the Reign of heaven only to the poor.

We should also hear this other thing too though, in the depths of our being, these words that Jesus was supposed to pass on to all humanity: You are my Beloved! Those words and that knowledge that we are the beloved, the knowledge that we are destined to inherit the reign of God, should make us want to find our real self, should make us long to discover that self that is already in some way already in union with God, created in God’s image, should make us want to know what it means to be a participant in the divine nature––and die to everything else but that in the waters of Baptism.

So, in a sense, Jesus says, Come on in! The water is fine––you may drown, but you won’t die. You real self, hidden in God, will arise, as a participant in divine nature.

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...

Sunday, January 2, 2011

what's the secret?

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents.
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.
(David Whyte, "What to Remember When Waking")

The word “epiphany” is such a dense word. I like to think that words don’t just have multiple meanings in various situations, but that they somehow mean a whole bunch of things at the same time. Like the word “realize,” which I’ve grown so fond of these days. To realize something means two things. I can mean to become aware of something, like, “I suddenly realized that…” But it also can mean “to make something real,” as in when we realize a dream or realize a plan. But maybe those are not two different meanings; maybe when we become aware of something it really becomes real.

So, “epiphany” means for the Christian tradition today this feast, which used to always be celebrated on January 6th, 12 days after Christmas, commemorating the visit of the three magi from the east to Jesus in Bethlehem. But in its origin––and this is why Christianity borrowed the word from the Greek––an epiphany meant any manifestation or appearance of a divine being or some kind of supernatural reality. And then later it comes to mean a flash of insight, but not a mere moment of ordinary inspiration. Epiphany means a realization of the essence of something, even a glimpse at the essence of reality itself, a sudden flash of understanding of the big picture, the ground of being and consciousness maybe. To understand for a moment what it’s all about. The Carmelite author and teacher William MacNamara described contemplative prayer and meditation as a “long loving glance at the really real.” That’s it: God is the Really Real, and when we take a long loving glance we may catch of glimpse of Ultimate Reality. It may be akin to the enlightenment experience that out Asian traditions speak of, or the experience of kensho or satori in the Japanese Buddhist tradition.

But saying, “I had an epiphany” is not exactly correct. It’s like saying, “I had a dream!” No, you didn’t do anything; you were asleep and a dream had you. It’s the same with an epiphany. It signifies that the Divine, God, Ultimate Reality is revealing itself, and we are passive in the process. We can prepare ourselves, but an epiphany is a startling ambush of grace.

These are some of my favorite epiphanies in the scriptures: Moses before the burning bush, and again when he climbs Mount Zion and God is revealed in the dark cloud and fire; Jacob wrestling with the angel; Elijah waiting for God in the cave and God is not in the firestorm or the raging wind or in the earthquake, but in the sound of sheer silence, the still small voice; or Mary conceiving by the Holy Spirit; and this baby that the wise men from the east find with his mother in Bethlehem.

A baby! I can’t think of a better epiphany than what we learn from, how we are amazed by a baby, especially a newborn baby. This is very significant, that glimpsing at a baby we would somehow get a glimpse of Absolute Reality, that everything is somehow summed up in this child, that gazing at this baby we might understand what its all about. This is not just about baby Jesus: this is also about us, about all humanity, all of flesh and all creation, since “Christ is the first born of all creation.” You see, just as we say about the Baptism of the Lord, that what Jesus undergoes he undergoes for all flesh, so it applies here too: who Jesus is he is for all humanity, for all flesh, for all creation; what Jesus achieves he achieves for all humanity, for all flesh, for all creation; what Jesus receives he receives for all humanity, for all flesh, for all creation. This is Christian mysticism at its most refined.

I’ve recently been struck by how many times Saint Paul especially uses the word “secret” or “mystery.” Even in the reading from Ephesians we heard for the feast of Epiphany––“the mystery hidden before all ages, now revealed in Jesus.” It’s a new way of seeing Jesus, isn’t it? That he came to reveal a secret, to uncover a mystery that had not been made known before. So when Philip asks Jesus to “show us the Father” Jesus tells him, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” If we see Jesus, if we really realize who Jesus is, we will be able to figure out what God is like. “I’m what God is like,” Jesus is saying. But it is also true, since we are branches on the vine, according to Jesus, that if we see Jesus we also realize what it means to be a human being. If we take a long loving glance at Jesus we will realize both what God is and who we are.

So, what’s the secret? What’s the secret?!?

Here it is:

The Father is glad to give you the kingdom!! The gates of heaven are not locked! They’re open! As a matter of fact the kingdom of heaven is among you, within you! (Excuse all these exclamation marks but there is no other way to convey this unless I write in capital letters in bold font… MAYBE I WILL!!!)

What’s the secret?! We are beloved daughters, beloved sons, precious in God’s sight, branches on the vine, and how far could a branch be from the vine?!

What’s the secret? Peter says it quietly in his epistle, we are meant to be PARTICIPANTS IN THE DIVINE NATURE!! If we really realized what that meant it would become real! Divinity is not just something to be adored. It is something to be participated in!!!!!

What’s the secret, what’s the big mystery? Only this, as the priest says when pouring the water into the wine (one of the old “secret prayers” at Mass), we are meant to share in the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity. Saint Augustine said it even bolder: Christ became a human child so that every human being might become God! Saint Basil says the same thing, we receive what is beyond our wildest dreams: we become God; we are divinized! I have said it so many times––I have no idea what that means, but I can’t wait to find out! If we only realized that, whew, what a difference it would make.

What’s the big secret? What’s the mystery? That God’s temple is holy, but the temple is not a building; God’s temple is holy, Paul says, AND YOU ARE THAT TEMPLE!!!! YOU ARE THAT TEMPLE!!!! What’s the secret? That the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us, and from there is flows form out of our hearts like a stream of life giving water bringing healing to the whole world.

If only we could realize these things––become aware of them, make them real… Well, to realize them, all we have to do is follow the way of Jesus, which to me involves two steps. First realize our own dignity, realize who we are, become aware of it and make it real. Then, allow ourselves to be emptied, die to the little self we have thought we were up ‘til now so that our real self, hidden with Christ in God can emerge, the real self that is a participant in divine nature, so that we too could become instruments of God’s peace and healing for our world, yeast in the dough, salt for the earth, light for the world. May this epiphany happen to us, and may we realize what it is, and who we are because of it––to be aware, to make it real in ourselves and in our world.

every moment is a moment of crisis

And because you are children,
God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,
crying, “Abba! Father!”
So you are no longer a slave, but a child,
and if a child, then an heir, through God.
(Gal 4:6-7)

On New Year’s Day in the Roman Catholic tradition we celebrate two things at once, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God and the World Day of Peace. Last night we held our 6th annual Interfaith Meditation Vigil for Peace in the wonderful hall at Holy Cross parish, with presenters from Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Bah’ai and Christianity. I know there were also At the same time events going on at Santa Cruz Zen Center around the corner, and up at Mount Madonna, and at the Land of Medicine Buddha. I don’t remember things like that going on when I was a kid. New Year’s Eve was all about partying, not spent in spiritual practice. That leads me to think that we are going somewhere––that there’s some kind of evolution of consciousness going on, that we would spend New Year’s Eve doing spiritual practice instead of getting wasted or eating a bunch of sweets and staying up watching TV all night.

I was thinking that all of us are people who believe that we can change the consciousness of the world by starting with ourselves, and then finding each other. That’s the true meaning of satsang in the Hindu tradition––the community of those who seek the truth, of the Sangha in which Buddhists take refuge, or the koinonia–community of Christianity. We’re standing together, supporting each others’ paths, with our arms linked together, marching in the same direction.

I know that Pope Benedict is not very popular. Folks think of him as some old conservative German guy. One of my friends teases me all the time about how much I bring him up in public by saying to me, “You know, people don’t like him!” But, you know, in spite of the fact that he frustrates me a lot too and I don’t always agree with his positions on things, I recognize that he is very brilliant and comes out with some insights that are unexpected for an old conservative German guy. Besides that, I always make it a point to cite the most conservative sources possible for a progressive point of view. I especially like to read his New Year’s message every year and mine it for gems, and this year was no exception. Last year his talk was entitled “If you want peace, protect the environment,” and he used the phrase “global solidarity” several times. This year he mainly addressed religious freedom, but he didn’t simply talk about the persecution of Christians (which he could have given the deaths in Iraq and now just yesterday in Egypt as well); he addressed religious freedom as a common patrimony of the whole family of the earth’s peoples. He spoke about it as “an essential element of a constitutional state” that cannot be denied without “at the same time encroaching on all fundamental rights and freedoms,” and “the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights,” “the attainment of an integral development which concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension.” These are marvelous phrases, because what he is addressing is solidarity with every human being.

So I found it also significant and powerful that those of us who were gathered together for these events last night were from different faith traditions. Especially given the fact that there is so much violence done in the name of religion in this day and age, and isn’t the history of Christianity itself stained with it? We of different traditions may not agree between us on the big theological and philosophical questions, but there are so many purely human questions that we can face together that our common humanity, our good sense, and our intelligence can lead us to agree on. We all know intrinsically that it is not good for children to starve, for example. We know that it is not good for people to be displaced from their homeland because of the exploitation of nature. We know that it is not a good thing to blow up somebody’s place of worship or murder people while they are praying, let alone any time. And, on this World Day of Peace it’s also important to note that if we really think about it, we have to admit that the “military industrial complex,” which President Eisenhower warned us about in his famous farewell speech in 1960, has yet to come up with any permanent, lasting solutions to the world’s problem, only stop gap short term ones.

What we and our friends were proposing in our gatherings for peace is that an essential ingredient in our evolution of consciousness, in our forward march into the future, is being right with God, being in right relationship with Spirit––whatever our traditions calls that source of life, Ultimate Reality, the Ground of our Being, that deepest element of ourselves. For most of us, especially those not granted the luxury or the call of a cloistered monastic life, we don’t have the luxury of escaping the exigencies of daily living in order to get our spiritual life before we engage in the world, but in our spiritual practice and in our spiritual gatherings we are remembering that while we are building our lives “in the world” we also need to make sure that our spiritual life is right, that that is an essential element in the equation, and if it is right it will affect everything and help steer everything in the right direction.

My friends and I have started to study Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy lately. In one of the early chapters he writes about how soldiers in crisis situations in war can somehow immediately transcend or drop down below their individual idiosyncrasies and differences for a time and rise to extraordinary unquestioning heroism. And then he makes an analogy to saints, saying something similar goes on in the life of sanctity. But whereas the objectives of military training are limited and relatively simple, at least focused, the aim of the spiritual life is much less narrowly specialized:

Here the aim is primarily to bring human beings to a state in which, because there are no longer any God-eclipsing obstacles between themselves and Reality, they are able to be aware continuously of the divine Ground of their own an all other beings; secondarily, as a means to this end, to meet all, even the most trivial circumstances of daily living without malice, greed, self-assertion or voluntary ignorance, but consistently with love and understanding. Because its objectives are not limited, because, for the lover of God, every moment is a moment of crisis, spiritually training is incomparably more difficult and searching than military training. There are a good many soldiers, few saints. (Perennial Philosophy, 43)

I guess that’s what we were and are up to, I like to think of us as “spiritual warriors,” aiming toward sanctity, for ourselves and for the world, to be able to meet everything and everyone without malice or greed or self-assertion––Blessed are the poor in spirit!––to meet everything and everyone with love and understanding. A good goal to start the new year with: renewing our commitment to our spiritual practice that will help us go beyond our small self to discover the peace that surpasses all understanding that is the ground of our being¬––the Spirit in our hearts, crying, “Abba!”; to renew our commitment to our satsang, Sangha, community, those whom we are walking with and sharing in mutual support; and allowing all that to be the yeast in the dough of our lives so that we can be the yeast n the dough of the world.