Monday, July 30, 2007

IX The Human Experience of God at Turning Points: A Theological Expose of Spiritual Counterfeits

Solitude: even more, stillness within that solitude: everything in our culture mitigates against it, from the first prerequisite of the ability to stay in one room, to overcoming the culture’s horror vacui, the terror of space or time that is not filled up and overflowing, whether it is our plate at the restaurant, our clothes cupboard, our shelf of spiritual books or, most terrifying of all, the landscape of interior solitude. For the reality of solitude is the reality of the human condition; solitude is the mother of community; solitude is the womb from which we are born. And when we return to solitude to find our true being-in-God, we go through many deaths whether we are monk or mother, so that we might truly live.

In solitude we become theologians, for theology is as rooted in our biology as is mythology. And unless we encourage each person to become a theologian, we will not survive the ecological crisis. The sort of theology I have been describing goes far beyond the confines of Christianity to the deepest human constants and the appropriate place of humanity in creation, life that neither dominates nor fears, but lives out the humility of interdependence.

In solitude we discover our self-delusion, and this discovery alone already benefits the community of creation, and not our selves only. In Christian terms, we are as bound to one another in the Body by our sins as by resurrection. Morphic resonance in creation is more than rats learning a maze more easily after one has learnt it, or monkeys washing fruit without seeing the individual who first washed hers. We may speak of the resonances of our being-in-conversion helping or hindering, depending on our choice, Christ’s transfiguration of all that is.

"Better the person who has perceived his sins," [says Isaac the Syrian, the 7th century saint] "than the person who profits the world by his appearance. Better the person who has once sighed over himself, than he who raises the dead by his prayer, while dwelling among many. Better the person who has been deemed worthy to behold himself, than the person who has been deemed worthy to behold angels; the latter partakes of the eyes of the body, the former the eye of the soul. Better is the person who has clung to Christ in mourning all by himself, than the person who celebrates Him in a congregation.

"You have...been ask for mercy for the world, to keep vigil for the salvation of all, and to partake in every [one's] suffering, both the just and the sinners."

The choice for the conversion that can occur only in solitude brings us to tears, for it is only in stillness that we become aware of what is unacknowledged and unconverted in us, and it is only when we weep—with or without physical tears—that we have any sure indication of changes occuring on a level beyond the merely conscious beyond an escape into yet more hyperreality. Tears are a sign that we are struggling with power of one sort or another: the loss of ours, the entering of God’s. By tears the unseen wildness in us is tamed for God, the wayward found, the compromised made inviolably vulnerable.

"Tears are to the mind the border, as it were, between the bodily and the spiritual state, between the state of being subject to the passions and that of purity....

"Some tears cause burning, others provide a kind of unction. All tears which flow out of compunction and anguish of heart as a result of sins dry up the body and burn it. And often when these tears are shed, a person will even feel that some harm has been done to his brain. A person will necessarily encounter this order of tears first of all. Then by them the door leading to the second order will be opened for him, an order which is by far superior, because it constitutes the sign of the receiving of mercy. What is this? Those tears which pour forth as a result of some insight provide the body with a kind of unction; they flow spontaneously and there is no compulsion in them. They also anoint the body and the appearance of the face is changed. For a joyful heart renders the body beautiful."

Most of all, tears arise from stillness and led us to deeper stillness:

"From stillness [we] can gain possession of the three [causes of tears]: love of God, awestruck wonder at His mysteries, and humility of heart. Without these it is unthinkable that a man should be accounted worthy to taste of the wellspring of flaming compunction arising from the love of God. There is no passion so fervent as the love of God. O Lord, deem me worthy to taste of this wellspring! Therefore, if a man does not have stillness, he will not be acquainted with even one of these, though he perform many virtuous deeds. He cannot know what the love of God is, nor spiritual knowledge, nor possess true humility of heart. He will not know these three virtues, or rather these three glorious gifts.

It is from this womb of solitude and stillness that we are born.

"Once you have reached the place of tears, then know that the mind has left the prison of this world and set its foot on the road towards the new world. Then it begins to breathe the wonderful air which is there; it begins to shed tears. For now the birth pangs of the spiritual infant grow strong, since grace, the common mother of all, makes haste to give birth mystically to the soul, the image of God, into the light of the world to come. And when the time of birth is come, then the mind will perceive something of what belongs to that world, like a faint perfume which an infant receives inside the body in which it has grown. Then, unable to endure what is unwonted, it (the spiritual infant) will set the body to weeping mingled with joy which surpasses the sweetness of honey. Together with the growing of this interior infant there will be an increase of tears.] The stream of tears occurs when the mind has begun to become serene....

"From this place of peace the intellect will begin to see hidden things. Then the Holy Spirit will begin to reveal before it heavenly things, while God dwells in you and promotes spiritual fruits in you. Then you will start to become aware of the transformation which the whole nature will receive in the renewal of all things, dimly and as though by hints."

Isaac considers this new birth by tears to be our true baptism, of which the rite was but a sign and type:

"Repentance is given to a man a grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God. That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we [now] receive as a gift by means of repentance."

Monday, July 23, 2007

VIII The Human Experience of God at Turning Points: A Theological Expose of Spiritual Counterfeits

I have come across too many truly puzzled people, both inside and outside the Church, who are leading lives of great holiness, and yet are made to feel that they are somehow inferior, incomplete beings because they are not academic theologians, ordained, monastics, or solitaries of a particular type. While I do not have time to do the sort of debunking I would like on this topic, anyone can aspire to holiness. In fact, there is absolutely no reason that people who are married, have three kids and a job can’t be consecrated in some way if they so desire. Such special consecrations shouldn’t be necessary for any of us, but we have so devalued baptism that the number of people who see their baptism in terms of the consecration of their very being in willing kenosis are in a tiny minority, and the baptised community provides them with little support for their vocation beyond perhaps labelling them a little weird.

I speak as one who has had years in community, years in solitude, and a brief marriage of convenience that included four stepchildren, a vineyard and a winery; a marriage made when I despaired that it would ever be possible to live the life I have now professed. Looking back, I know that solitude never left me; that, ironically, it was during the brief marriage with time cooking and organizing and counselling, balanced with time amongst the vines and gurgling barrels in the silent winery that I began to discover the depths of solitude, the truth and reality of solitude. And I personally know several hundred other people—think how many there must be in the wider community—who have received the same shattering knowledge and are bewildered because they don’t fit or can’t be forced into the traditional system of uniformity and expediency that is the killing field of the aesthetic fallacy.

The problem is that today’s society, especially today’s religious culture, refuses to let us be simple, to get on with it, to let God work on what is given. This is particularly a problem in contemporary society where we do not know appropriately how to leave each other alone at any level. The minute one uses the word solitary, listeners seem to shift into hyperreality: they have visions of pseudo-gothic follies, or, dare I say it, caravans in North Wales. Solitude, as Isaac the Syrian and others show us, is rather a matter of the heart. It is supremely a matter of staying politically unentangled and uncompromised, for it is only from an uncompromised position that we can undertake true action as agents of transfiguration.

To live in today’s world and today’s church, and within them offer the solitary witness of staying uncompromised by their power struggles, unviolated by their attempts to corrupt yet remaining vulnerable and compassionate, is what will, in fact, change the world. The resonances of the kenotic power of transformation are just as potent from those in the marketplace who rise in the night and pray in the dark, as from those who have made some sort formal profession, live in monasteries, rise in the night and pray in the dark. It is simply a matter of becoming willing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

VII The Human Experience of God at Turning Points: A Theological Expose of Spiritual Counterfeits

There are many more of these counterfeits: they are everywhere. There is the confusion between grandeur and grandiosity, ever the peril of the religious leader; there is the confusion between dialogue and dialectic, ever the peril of Liberation theology. The line between them is subtle: dialogue can lead us through the narrow way to freedom, but to be caught between the opposing forces of a Marxist dialectic is just another murderous trap.

The subtext of many of these counterfeits is the confusion between individualism and authenticity. Individualism is dedicated to action, authenticity to being; the one rushes heedlessly; the other is content to wait for the Word in stillness. Individualism isolates; authenticity treasures solitude for the sake of the community and right action within that community. Self-reflection attempts change by constraint; self-forgetfulness opens to change by the self-emptying that is aspiration. Constraint focuses on the image that dissatisfies; aspiration elicits self-forgetfulness; constraint is the crushing burden of the law; aspiration is Elijah’s whirlwind. Each of us holds these subliminal models of power which, given the context, our woundedness, and grace, alternate in ascendency. In our solitude we can discover which predominates, and if we find our selves moving from constraint towards aspiration, we may know that love is casting out fear and salvation is at hand.

The danger of so-called conversion experiences, particularly in a consumer culture where self-esteem is bought at the price of self-respect, is that they often give us the impression that a task has been accomplished, that we will live happily ever after. The danger in this fundamentalist idea of conversion is that it gives the impression that everything is under control, when in fact what is out of control and can never be in control, what is unconverted and beyond our control to convert, is still powerfully at work in us, often refuting what we have professed and damaging others, though our repression may not allow us to see these affects. And at the root of this illusion of control we are denying the reality of death in all its forms.

Today, altogether too much emphasis is placed on conversion that occurs on a conscious level, and on spiritual discernment taken from material that irrupts into the merely discursive. There is the additional danger that mutual discernment, when it is not devolving into dominance and co-dependence, too frequently shrinks from the prophetic role, and as a result, discernment amounts to little more than “if it feels good, do it.” As Robert McAllister has pointed out, “Everyone at some time needs the strength of a friend who says, ‘Please don’t do that. It is not good for you.’“ We need to be careful that we do not give “the cold stone of counselling to one who needs the warm bread of concern.”

Moreover, there is a fallacy to which Christianity has succumbed from practically the year one, what I call the aesthetic fallacy. The aesthetic fallacy constructs a hierarchy of holiness according to static criteria. It is related to the Greek idea that to be united with beauty, matter must be shed; that beauty can never associate with what is ugly. This is in sharp contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition that reveals Beauty willing to be marred for the sake of the creation.

The aesthetic fallacy in one of its manifestations says that the celibate religious professional is somehow elevated above the rest of humanity. In a similar form, it declares that there is a perfect religious template to which people must be conformed if they are to be complete, no matter that God created each of us as a unique being, or what forcing our uniqueness into a template means in terms of the cost in human lives.

The aesthetic fallacy is based on a mechanistic and linear opposition between true and false self, and the assumption that we can know which is which. It assumes we can know what bits of ourselves should be discarded, and that it is possible to discard them. The truth is that the self is more like stars and galaxies coming into being: all the elements are needed, those that we in our ignornace label “good” and those we label “bad”. The self is continually being formed by God in co-creative response to our deepest desires, and the rest of creation.

But here is something in us that likes to cling to the aesthetic fallacy, in part, I suspect, because it gets us off the hook. The aesthetic fallacy implies that only the elite can reach the static perfection of the true self. They are there for us poor hopeless slobs to admire. Secretly, this allows us to think, “If only the elite are holy, why should I bother?” We all know people with the failed monk syndrome. It is this creation-denying lust for mystique that is the source of the star system by which we are so dominated in our culture today. It is the elitist attitude of late antiquity, which, with gross inappropriateness, was stitched onto Christianity along with the philosopher’s robe.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Online Course through CDSP, Spring 2008

From March 24- May 11, 2008, I will be teaching an online course for CDSP, the Episcopal Seminary in Berkeley, California, entitled The Uses of Silence. There will be a weekly reading assignment, as well as a short essay by the instructor, and participation in discussion of assigned questions.

This course may be taken for Continuing Education Units. For further information about the CDSP program and how their online courses work, or to register for a course, please go to Later in the year I will post a full course description and bibliography on this blog.

Monday, July 09, 2007

VI The Human Experience of God at Turning Points: A Theological Expose of Spiritual Counterfeits

The humility of Christ: we seem to have forgotten that for any worship, thought, or activity to be called “Christian” it must be rooted in the humility of Christ. In attempting to discern what is salvagable both in scriptural and ecclesial tradition, in sorting out what is cultural bias and what is essential, in recovering the life-enhancing religious symbols that have been put to corrupt use, we seem to forget, amid hurled accusations of prejudiced selectivity, that we do in fact have the criterion we need, and that is the humility of Christ. In Christian typology the Tree of the Cross, which is the humility of Christ, recapitulates and transfigures the tree of the Garden, which is the lust for control beyond the capacity of the creature.

The tree of the Garden and the Tree that is the Cross show us the two models of power: the immaturity and destructiveness or the maturity and transfiguration to which each leads. Put simply, the presumption to control that is the religion of the marketplace creates a self-reflective, dualistic, hierarchical system that rules by constraint, fragmentation, co-dependence, isolation, delusion, and noise.

By contrast, the humility of Christ shows us the interdependent egalitarianism of the desert, its unity in diversity. The humility of Christ rules by aspiration and silence. Its ritual patterns express encounter with God in the solitude of the heart, an encounter entered for the sake ofthe community of creation. Thus in Christianity, sacrifice is transformed from an exercise in exteriorized surrogacy, to the offering of each of our embodied lives.

Our bodies are the altar God gives us on which to make this sacrifice which is commingled Christ’s indwelling, and is to be reverenced as such. Far from being abstract beauty that can be approached only when sullied matter is discarded, the Beauty of the divine humility chooses to be marred. The density that is its glory generates and radiates life, integrity, and freedom to all that springs from its source, and its rule is unconditional love.

Conversion from slavery to the puppetmaster to freedom in the wounded God is a continuous and ever-deepening process, and requires that each person become a theologian. If we are to embrace the issues of power and suffering, we may not simply make an intellectual assent. Rather, our whole being, conscious and unconscious, matter and spirit, is integrated and focused singly and wholly toward the divine, open and responsive to the divine indwelling. We seek not only healing, which is a sign of our mortality, we seek transfiguration, which is our life in God.

We need to be converted from the puppetmaster-god to the humility of Christ. Every time we condemn, we mirror the puppetmaster. When we condemn people because of their sexual orientation, we are committing precisely the sin of Sodom, because we are acting out of fear—fear of what people will say, fear of going against prevailing opinion, fear of our own unresolved sexual fears; we are turning to the secure controlling surrogacy of an idol. When we condemn people because of their sexuality, we cripple not only their ability to relate; we cripple all relationships, including our own. We drown in the effluent of our repression.

A Christian morality does not merely reflect prevailing opinion but more often is called on to transform prevailing opinion. The degree to which we have the courage to go to the heart of pain to find new life, joy, and love is the degree to which we enter the humility of Christ’s sacrifice, and our willingness to be part of that sacrifice is the measure of our priesthood and our Eucharist whether or not we are ordained. Priesthood is commitment to a sacrificial way of being; and this commitment is not, and cannot be bestowed by ministerial ordination.

The humility of Christ rules by love, and this love alone is our security; it is this love alone that sets our life in an open place with all the risks of freedom. By contrast, here are some of the means by which western culture tries to seduce us into the consumer counterfeit of our transfiguration in Christ.

First, the culture suggests we substitute self-reflection for self-forgetfulness. This is a particular danger of the spiritual journey: we become fixed on our selves instead of God, and we worry about what people think of us. In so-called spiritual direction, for example, there is often the temptation to move someone into the light when they are in fact in darkness. However well-intentioned, this is a move into false light; the move itself is a lie, and if not properly discerned can become demonic. If we measure our selves or others against any false horizon, or use a false horizon for discernment, we are in illusion. Transformation takes place out of our sight by grace and can be measured only by the coordinates of grace.

To cite another example, it is obvious that if I ask “am I self-forgetful” I am not. Instead of yielding to these counterfeits, we rather undertake what prayer and work seem wise, and wait on God in the darkling light. While we may speak of darkness and light, we ultimately wait where there is neither darkness nor light, or, if you prefer, beyond which darkness and light are both alike. In the end, experience is distracting and falls away, for we are no longer self-reflective because we have been found in God. Put another way, experience of God no longer is episodic, and in its continuity, it is no longer experienced as “experience of God”.

Another seduction is the confusion of self-image and self-esteem for self-respect. To create a self-image is illusion; to settle for self-esteem at the expense of self-respect leads to moral chaos and despair. Self-respect arises from self-forgetfulness. We cannot ponder Matthew 18 often enough to drive this home. Do not distract the little ones from their gaze on God, for you make them aware of their status—or lack of it—from a marketplace point of view. You drag them back into the power-struggles of a merely linear world.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Thank You

Many thanks to the readers who nominated this blog for the Blogger Choice Awards, and to the reader who suggested that my typographical problems might be solved by switching from Safari to Firefox. I'll look into it, techno-dork though I am.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Forced Choices

It has been interesting to watch The Episcopal Church confronting the sort of forced choices that its reluctantly departing and deeply committed liberal members have been making for decades: to serve the institution or to try to live the gospel. Can this be a sign of hope for the future? Is it too much to think that the institution is finally waking up to the fact that its structure in this day and age is untenable, and that the whole thing—including its educational practices and its internal policies—needs to be re-thought from the ground up?

The Executive Council has declined to play the Akinola game, summed up by the Austin Lounge Lizards' trenchant song, "Jesus Loves Me But He Can't Stand You", even if it risks fracturing the Anglican Communion. And rightly so: who wants to belong to an Anglican Communion that is more interested in the prestige of its members than the truth of the Gospel?

As time passes and the battles escalate and everything stays the same within the hermetically sealed hierarchy, more and more devout, ordinary people are confronted with the forced choice of focusing their life in God or the institution. There should be no division. A focused life in God is based on a wellspring of silence from which all activity in the church should proceed, and without which it is merely one more dysfunctional group. The world of dialectic has no place in the life of contemplative union to which we are all called, which the church is supposed to enable, from which all "ministry" (a word that needs to be dropped) should proceed, and which is the sole reason for the church's existence.

It is in realized contemplative union (a realization of our shared nature with God) that we receive the risen life that informs all the rest of what we do and gives the impetus for serving others. The role of the church is to teach us to carry the silence and the holy into the kingdom of noise; but if the institutional church itself has become noise, then it no longer has reason for existence.

This approach does not admit laissez faire; far from it. But it does understand Jesus as the Way into the silence where that union is realized and en-Christed, and it understands that the teaching, life and ethics of Jesus evolve out of his own understanding of the demands of the Way of Silence, which, among the many lessons it teaches, are a humility about the limitations of human knowledge and judgment, and a limitless compassion.

Garry Wills' recent book, "What Jesus Meant," reiterates the problem from a Roman Catholic perspective that resonates far beyond a single institution. For anyone interested in the questions facing the Anglican Communion (or any religious institution that calls itself "Christian"—the fundamental problems are the same) this book is a must read.

Jesus himself is among the marginalized, and his message is for the marginalized. He preached against religious structures and the "law" that issued from them, cast invariably in terms of the self-interest of the clergy. There is no excuse and no justification for the sort of institutional church structures we have today, which were developed during the Middle Ages, reiterated during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, devolved into a business model in the 1950s, and which are still based on power and preferment, the infantilization of the laity, and loaded with magical thinking.

In the last few days, some of the African bishops have declared, like petulant children, that they will not attend Lambeth. If they can't get everything they want right now, they won't play. If the Communion at large will not be hostage to their bullying intrusiveness into a jurisdiction that is not theirs, they will hold an alternative meeting. This decision is bent on shoring up the vanity of the self-certified, and justifying the arrogance of their condemnation; it is cutting off the nose to spite the face. It is the antithesis of the relational communion based on shared contemplation (whether or not it is recognized as such) which binds Christians together.

Old habits die hard, and the "aren't we wonderful" mentality needs always to be challenged, whether in the Akinola camp, or the mainstream Anglican Communion. It might be salutary for the next year, if, instead of splendid self-affirming liturgies, every diocesan clergy conference and convention, and certainly the next House of Bishops and Primates meetings, not to mention Lambeth itself, were to commence their proceedings with these cautionary words from the Austin Lounge Lizards:

I know you smoke, I know you drink that brew
I just can't abide a sinner like you
God can't either, that's why I know it to be true that
Jesus loves me--but he can't stand you.

I'm going to heaven, boys, when I die
'Cause I've crossed every "t" and I've dotted every "i'
My preacher tell me that I'm God's kind of guy; that's why
Jesus loves me-—but you're gonna fry.

God loves all his children, by gum
That don't mean he won't incinerate some
Can't you feel those hot flames licking you
Woo woo woo....

I'm raising my kids in a righteous way
So don't be sending your kids over to my house to play
Yours'll grow up stoned, left-leaning, and gay; I know
Jesus told me on the phone today.

Jesus loves me, this I know
And he told me where you're gonna go
There's lots of room for your kind down below
Whoa whoa whoa
Jesus loves me but he can't stand you . . .