Monday, November 24, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition IX

Recent studies show that the biochemical processes in irritant or emotional tears relieve stress. Stress is caused by the adaptation of the human person to natural evolutionary change, interplay with other creatures and the environment, and by certain large shifts in life, such as change of job, death of a loved one, divorce. [This paper was published twenty years ago. It is now known that stress is far greater in an urban environment and that deprivation of nature can result in psychosis.] Preliminary findings show tht certain substances that are stress-related are excreted in tears, and that unshed tears lead to many kinds of illness, both physical and psychological. While irritant and emotional tears can be studied in the laboratory, holy tears cannot. But it is significant that emotional tears of joy last but a few moments, while holy tears are unending. Laboratory studies confirm the observations of Isaac, John Climacus, and Symeon the New Theologian that the ability to weep is partly related to genetic disposition, partly to cultural conditioning. Difficulty in weeping can be overcome by willingness to be transformed. [6]

Isaac says emphatically that he will not believe someone's metanoia until he sees this person weep. Isaac's contemporary, John Climacus, seems to be more moderate, saying that he prizes the single tear of someone who finds it nearly impossible to weep. Symeon echoes Isaac by saying tears are mandatory. The seeming contradiction between Climacus and the other two can be resolved by understanding that a person who laments the inability to weep discovers that something fundamental in the inner life must be changed, and that it is possible to become vulnerable to weeping if one is willing. The key here is the willingness to be transformed, to undergo the pain of transformation.

[6] See William Frey, Crying, the Mystery of Tears (Minneapolis 1985).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition VIII

Willingness and willfullness [5]

To enable God we must become willing: that is all we have to do. God will do the rest. In fact, it is very important that we do nothing but become willing. And this willingness is not quietism. It requires every effort; it costs not less than everything. Willingness is not passivity: it is readiness.

Willing for what? Willing to be powerless, willing to limit our seeming power so that God's real power can become active in us, most especially in relation to those things we would like to do for God. Because, as André Louf has pointed out, frequently echoing ancient desert wisdom, the works of asceticism we do by our own effort are entirely pagan: it is only when we run up against the wall of despair at the failure of our efforts, only when we are willing to acknowledge our powerlessness and thus enable God's power to be active in us that our service becomes Christian.

Powerlessness, willing or unwilling, and its associated sense of loss, has long been recognised by modern psychologists as being related to tears of every variety. Perhaps if we had not lost the insight bestowed in the Christian tradition of tears, we might not have needed to invent modern psychology to help us recover it.

Psychology helps us to distinguish between kinds of tears: holy tears are not the same as tears of bereavement, whether this bereavement is for the loss of a person or some other option or thing, although holy tears may permeate other kinds of tears. The grief of bereavement is a response to a more or less unwilling loss; whereas the grief of the way of tears, of repentance, is related to willing loss. The grief of bereavement has a beginning, a middle, and what currently is known as 'closure', a time when the active passage of bereavement ends.

The grief associated with penitence, with the metanoia of being turned inside out is continuous because, as the trust towards God continues and becomes more powerful, the process of being organically transformed, the process of divinisation, also continues. More and more illusion is lost. More and more sense of counterfeit power and control is lost, and tears are an appropriate accompaniment. These tears are the sign both of the Holy Spirit at work in a willing person, and of the willingness itself. They signify a kenotic exchange of love between God and the person. They have nothing to do with melancholy or masochism.

[5] This distinction is spelt out in Gerald May, Will and Spirit, (San Francisco 1982).

Monday, November 10, 2008

90th Anniversary of WWI Armistice

Although the Armistice anniversary is in fact tomorrow on November 11, yesterday was Remembrance Sunday here in England, a deeply moving event that creates a cathartic space for all the ambiguous emotions surrounding the "glorious dead", as they are called on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, not just the dead of the First World War, but all those who have died in combat and are still dying.

The phrase "glorious dead" to me is suspect, however, a means by which stupid politicians try to whitewash the hideous waste of life in all wars, but particularly in the First World War, when 20 million died. The dead are glorious, but not because politicians say they are. They are glorious in their devotion to duty, to community, to each other; but their lives and the lives of their families are also unfathomably tragic.

The poet Wilfrid Owen was able to express these ambiguous emotions in his poems: the folly of war, the sounds of war, the feelings of the men in the trenches, the strange camaraderie with the enemy. He had no illusions as to the bungling, but he, too, did his duty, and he died in combat one week before the Armistice was signed.

His poetry raises unanswerable questions, which Benjamin Britten addresses musically in his shattering setting of some of Owen's poems. Weaving poetic fragments together with the words of the Tridentine requiem Britten evokes the sounds of war, fusing them with echoes of a heaven that must have seemed ironic to those in the trenches, surrounded by the staccato of the guns, screams of outrage and horror, mourning and pain. Yet, in the setting of the poem below, Britten and Owen together consider "Where is God in all this?" so that the final "In paradisum" is not an ironic declaration of nihilism, but the offering an implicit, even hopeful beginning.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.'
'None,' said that other, 'save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now....'

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Trusting Ourselves as Americans

Every broadsheet in the UK has a special section on Barak Obama and his family this morning. There is joy here too, restrained in the British fashion, but joy nonetheless. From the white and black checkout clerks I encountered at Tesco and Sainsbury's yesterday, to Oxford Dons and media personalities such as Stephen Fry, joy it infects the entire human spectrum.

Few people I have spoken to, however, are under any illusion about the task ahead but that is not their focus: their focus is rather on the huge shift that has taken place with the election of Barak Obama, the intangible ramifications that have already begun to leaven and change lives and our perceptions of our selves as human beings.

Although verbiage is pouring out of the press, I find it difficult to write about how I felt during the campaign, in particular about how moved I was watching on television the huge lines of patient people waiting hours and hours to vote in the weeks before the election, and then on the day itself.

If I am tongue-tied about my joy (though intermittent tears may give it away) I want to risk trying to write briefly about my fears before the election, because I know from talking with them that there were other white people who voted for Obama who felt the same way. It is also, for me, a bit of a confession.

When Obama declared his candidacy, I was filled with hope and despair: hope inspired by someone who seemed to have a clearly formed character, who sought integrity, who had a sense of a appropriateness, who was the first candidate since Eisenhower to communicate gravitas, who was a scholar, a thinker, an orator but not a demagogue; who was, to put it crudely, a class act. I also noticed that almost from the beginning of his campaign, some of the subliminal caution that far too often characterizes black-white interchange was vanishing. Perhaps it was in part that Obama was, as one UK commentator put it, "post-race". This singularly important way of being in the world was and is contagious, and has already gone a long way to set us free from the chains of the past. At least for now.

My despair centered around my fellow white Americans. Had we been so intimidated by the Bush administration's assault on our civil liberties that we were beaten into submission? Had the conservative process of dumbing down gone so far as to blind people to the daily diet of lies and slander issuing from both the administration and the Republican candidate and his irresponsible conservative media hounds? Were we too functionally illiterate, too sunk in apathy, too cynical to reognize the opportunity to save ourselves when it stared us in the face?

Most of all, as someone who was a university student when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and a minor participant in the movement that followed; the daughter of parents who hardly concealed the bigotry of their class and upbringing and who could not be persuaded otherwise; the observer of media concentration on Americans who glorified ignorance, violence, the subjugation of women and destructive behavior in general—I wondered how many of us not only subscribed to this caricature but sought to live it? I wondered how many of us might say they supported Obama but would ultimately be seized by fear of black people in the voting booth?

And then there were the young, seeming entirely self-absorbed, sure of their entitlements, swallowed by their techno-toys, poorly educated, appearing to have no greater ideal than "having fun", which often involved the abandonment of basic human decency (hidden under the euphemism "edgy"), frequently fueled by binge drinking, drugs and promiscuity. They seemed to want nothing more than to immerse themselves in chaos, crowds and excessive noise. Even if they could be persuaded that this election was pivotal for their future, would they be able to set these all-consuming pursuits aside long enough to go out and vote?

Bush & Co. deliberately fueled these anxieties and so, frankly, did the media across the board. But it was Bush & Co. who sought to make us afraid of one another in order to be able to distract us from his undermining of our civil liberties. He and his henchmen not only "failed to protect the people" but waged active war on them, as so many pundits have pointed out.

But in the end the neo-con policy of divide and conquer backfired. Along with many of my friends who were not actively involved in the campaign, Bush's policy left me feeing isolated in my fear and loathing. I felt as if my vote would be insignificant and ineffectual against what seemed to be an overwhelming wave of darkness—but something I had to do nonetheless in order to make a statement about what it means to be human. Obama was the only possible way forward for the country I loved and over which I have grieved for much of my life, but would anyone else notice? Voting out of this sense of isolation made the act take on huge significance: it became a supreme folly of desperation, the sort of quietly audacious gesture that people who know they are about to die will sometimes make as a way of laughing at death. Perhaps this sense of isolated audacity infected so many of us older white people that we were able to help elect Obama against what seemed to be insurmountable odds.

Much of the fear, anxiety and hope that pervaded the voting process arose from the concern that we Americans were too far gone to unite and rise up when the time came. Thank God hope won. Thank God we can trust one another again, and feel proud of what we as a country have done. Whatever the future holds, nothing can take this moment away from us; and as we go forward to identify and repair the contents of the global toxic waste dump—material, military, psychological, diplomatic, spiritual—that is the Bush legacy, we can be confident in the memory of this event that showed the majority of us to be, for the first time in the history of our country, a truly united states of America.

Yes we did.

Yes we can.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We DID!!!

Obama is president-elect. We did it! Americans have shown decisively that they have had enough; we have voted for hope, not a continuation of eight years of despair.

McCain was generous in defeat, saying that Obama would be his president. For those of McCain's followers who say the opposite, one can only hope they will realize what an opportunity they are missing to participate in an historic global shift.

This was not the hijacked election of 2000 or the questionable one of 2004. This election is America stating firmly and unequivocally that the atrocities done in its name in the last eight years are not who we are.

May we all work to continue what we have begun and support our new president.

Monday, November 03, 2008


Only one day to go. It's heartening to hear the reports of early voting.

Here in the UK, Barack Obama is a sign of hope. The latest poll shows that if British people could vote, Obama would win 72% of ballots cast. Americans who live and study over here, including myself, have been casting absentee ballots; those—several hundred—who have revealed their votes to the post office manager in my neighborhood have voted for Obama without exception.

America has lost credibility and respect during the Bush years, but Obama has re-ignited hope that America has not lost its vision and its ability to overcome mistakes. The simple fact of Obama's election would be a tremendous shot in the arm, not only to the USA, but to the world at large. Obama's following in Africa and Asia is unlike anything seen before in history.

By contrast, if McCain/Palin win, the worldwide depression—financial, psychological, spiritual—will become catastrophic. America's standing in the world, already at an all-time low, will sink even further. Our broken constitutional system will become beyond repair.

Please, please, if you haven't voted, do so. The lines may be long, the wait may be tedious, but it's worth it. The future of the human race and of the planet hangs on this election.

If you can't vote, pray to whatever you believe in. Open your heart and cast your focused intention on the waters of silence. The resonances of intention are incalculable.