Monday, September 29, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition IV

For the early Christians, the 'passions' were to be traded for a single passion, that is the love of God manifest in the life of each person. Ephrem, who lived 300 years before Isaac, was not the monk the later biographical tradition portrays him to be, but a dedicated choirmaster. He may have made some kind of religious consecration, but that is not important. In the early Syrian tradition there was only one standard for Christians, applicable to both celibate and married. The idea of virginity is single-heartedness, the true chastity which may or may not include celibacy. We are impoverished by our much narrower modern notion of virginity, which seems to have become technical like everything else.

In Ephrem's hymns there is no confusion of 'the world' and creation: creation is revered and celebrated with the single-heartedness that can come only when theology is united to prayer. Ephrem's theology is worship, engagement with God as opposed to the positing of God. He understands that a kenotic God who points away from the divine Self in outpouring love cannot be posited, and that to systematise is to kill the life of the very God whom theology purports to reveal. Ephrem's theology of prayer knows that to confine God to mere human reason is to blaspheme.

Ephrem understands 'virginity' as the mystery of human focussed relatedness to God, who reaches over the ontological abyss. Thus virginity is not confined to mere genital continence, but is closer to Kierkegaard's description of purity of heart: to will one thing, that is, to be willing to mirror God's life, contained and outpoured, over that cannot but move to the heart of pain to find new life, hope, and joy. In willingness to be so emptied, God is revealed indwelling the daily life of each Christian in whatever walk of life.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition III

What do we mean by 'the world'?

What is the life of which we are emptied? Isaac of Nineveh (seventh century) has a wonderfully exact description of 'the world' (more specifically, the 'passions'):

". . . these are: love of riches; the gathering of possessions, fattening up the body, giving rise to the tendency toward carnal desire; love of honour, which is the source of envy; the exercise of position of power; pride and the trappings of authority; outward elegance; glory among men, which is the cause of resentment; fear for the body." [3]

Note that these passions not only induce the illusion of power and status, security and even immortality in the person who possesses (or is possessed by) them, but that they also provoke envy and resentment in others. At their root is 'bodily fear', that is, the fear of death. To yield to the passions, to deny mortality is to begin a malignant cycle. One lie needs to be supported by another. Isaac's perception of the passions and their effects on the world are echoed in modern psychological theory. Isaac is writing for monks, but he draws on an older, pre-monastic tradition.

[3] Tr. Sebastian Brock; see also The Ascetical Homilies of Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller (Boston 1984) p. 297; and Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh, tr. A.J. Wensinck (Nieuwe Reeks, Deel XXIII, No. 1, 2969).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition II

[Continuing the post from September 2, 2008]

Ephrem, the fourth-century Syrian writer, understands both the type and the incarnation of this kenosis:

Just as the bush on Horeb bore
God in the flame,
So did Mary bear
Christ in her virginity [. . .] .

A virgin is pregnant with God
and a barren woman is pregnant with a virgin
the son of sterility leaps at the pregnancy of virginity. [2]

While the tradition of kenosis as a personal striving of each Christian has been kept alive in some areas of the Christian East, in the West it has surfaced primarily through Christology. In some spiritual movements, it has been seen chiefly as an idea of imitation, that is, imposed or self-imposed acts of abasement. This artificial, often merely external practice is not the tradition of tears. Its practice stems in part from a confusion between 'the world' as a set of human attitudes, and the material creation. To reject 'the world' does not mean rejection of the creation.

The tradition of tears is concerned not with imitation but with the indwelling of the kenotic Christ, an indwelling that is in part hidden in us at creation, in part manifest when we are willing to be open to God's kenotic life, making room for it to pour out through us. If you put an open glass of colored water under a faucet and turn the faucet freely on, the water in the glass will soon run nearly clear.

[2] Sebastian Brock, tr., Harp of the Spirit (London 1983) pp. 62-3.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Spirituality IS Political

The other day the post about Sarah Barracuda received a comment from someone who signed himself "Ulrich." I didn't add it to the Palin comments, because I think I needs a response of its own.

Ulrich wrote: ". . . . Another solitary [the writer identifies himself as a solitary] sent me the link to your website. I understand the importance of the presidential election for Americans, but was disappointed to find that a solitary does not share insights on spirituality etc, rather than on Ms Palin. Monk"

My first response was that he simply didn't look around the blog beyond the page on view. Perhaps he is new to the internet, though this seems unlikely as he obviously wanted to advertise his own URL (sorry).

Then I realized that perhaps he is one of these people who thinks that spirituality should cut us off from politics. But it is exactly this attitude that gave us Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il, the Burmese junta and George Bush.

There is nothing more political than spirituality and there is nothing more subversive to tyrants than the work of silence.

In an exterior sense, the power of silence was recently summed up by a Burmese quoted in The New Yorker: "Very few people realize the power of silence is harder to crush." [August 25, p. 52] At the same time, in a crisis such as the one our country faces, people who are normally silent have an especial obligation to make themselves heard at the political level. I grew up in congressional and diplomatic Washington, and inside knowledge creates additional pressure on me to do so.

In an interior sense, the work of silence teaches you to read hearts. I wrote my post about Palin from reading her heart, not from knowing anything particular about her background in Wasilla, but from the glimpses I have had, from the way she ran her gubernatorial campaign, and from the sound of her voice. It was impressionistic, but it turned out to be far more accurate than I knew at a merely rational level.

Spiritual insight is unique to each person. It was an expression of my spiritual insight [pace Ulrich] to write the post about Palin. In a different time and place, it was an expression of Bonhoeffer's spiritual insight to be part of the plot to assassinate Hitler.

At first blush, the one may seem absurd when spoken in the same breath with the other. But Palin thinks that both the Iraq War and the Alaska gas pipline are "the will of God," which means that she thinks that what she wants and what Dubya wants are the same as the will of God. Aside from the megalomania these statements evidence, there is a very real concern that her stunning lack of education and experience not only of administration and Washington, but also of the diversity of the world, combined with her cynical use of religion, may push her to decide that Armageddon is the will of God.

There are many fundamentalists with beliefs similar to hers who wish to hasten the end of the planet. In any event she cannot help but be short-sighted and faulty in judgment, no matter how much she is coached—and it is doubtful how much she is capable of receiving. Once a pit bull gets her jaws clamped around an idea, it's almost impossible to make her to let go, much less pay attention to anything else.

Never in the history of this nation has spirituality been so necessarily political, and woe betide you if you think you can retreat. Never was spirituality meant to be an escape in any event. It is rather an unshakeable commitment to risk your life for what you believe, and never were your life and the lives of everyone on this planet so much on the line as in this election. Even if it may seem life-threatening, take the risk to talk to your neighbors; write to the media; get the vote out.

Palin's name calling—"Washington elite"—won't hide the fact that she has neither education nor cultural background and apparently could care less about either one. It is not elitism to be educated; it is an obligation to democracy. It is not elitism to have culture: it is the most fundamental courtesy to others.

To run a country, especially one with so much international power and responsibility, requires both. Dubya had plenty of opportunity for them, and chose to reject them. And look where he has got us? We are a pariah nation, an embarrassment to the world, a laughingstock, and so deeply immersed in economic, military and diplomatic folly that we may never be able to extricate ourselves. Most certainly we will not if the McCain/Palin ticket is elected.

So, Ulrich, what will it be? Do we stick our heads in the sand and let the Republicans tighten their grip on this country's broken constitution? Do we let the tyranny and erosion of civil liberties develop further? Do we let the fat cats get fatter and the poor people get poorer? Do we shame this nation by putting in power someone who, under ordinary circumstances, would be laughed out of polite society, alongside an old, old man with lewd habits, PTSD and a vicious temper?

Spirituality is political, Ulrich. Look to your own country's history if you don't believe me.

And welcome to my blog.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Ethics Issuing from Silence IV

When silence is the wellspring, day-to-day living evolves toward simplicity and unobtrusiveness. To inhabit silence naturally leads to embracing silence in the exterior as well as interior worlds. Changes to the way you live may take place subtly and gradually, almost without your realizing it.

One sign that this growth is taking place is the desire to get rid of "stuff" and refusing to acquire more. It is something of a shock the first time you walk into a big store and realize that not only is there nothing you want to buy but that most of what is on offer looks shabby and sad (not to mention a waste of natural resources). It isn't a matter of like or dislike but rather of indifference and compassion.

Another indication is a growing disinclination to engage in activities that will leave you feeling jangled, that introduce a lot of static. Even though you know that you are still living from the well of silence underneath all the interference, there is an increasing tendency to avoid music, people, situations that are "exciting," or to seek excitement, or to eat or drink things that increase cravings (like sugar, or alcohol, which becomes sugar), which become a nuisance. There is a profound joy in sharing a glass of wine with friends or family, or as an enhancement to carefully prepared food, but casual drinking falls by the wayside, and activities such as "schmoozing" become repellent.

You also begin to realize that there are images, sounds and other sensory memories that are disturbing, that you wish you had never seen or heard, and you begin to take stock of what you read and what you watch. Your tolerance for watching or reading about incidents of violence, suspense, betrayal and humiliation drops to zero.

Personal soap operas fall by the wayside and you look for real solutions, or the patience to live with a situation until it changes, or with your own faults, which probably won't. The work of silence is a refuge but not an escape.

You may find to your surprise that your taste in music, art and other cultural activities is changing. You find that a little goes a very long way, that the nuances resonate more widely and in greater depth than you previously had any idea; you keep finding new layers of richness. You develop a taste for simply being still, wherever you are, but especially in the presence of great beauty, especially natural beauty.

You seek wisdom. Slogans, half-truth, political insincerity, being told what someone thinks you want to hear (he or she is often trained to manipulate instead of relate) as opposed of being told the truth becomes so naked that you wonder why anyone falls for these ploys—until you look at the faces around you and see the expressions of lostness, bewilderment and pain.

In short, there is good news and bad news. The "bad" news is that you will never again feel at home in the culture around you. The good news is that you now lead a life whose riches were once unimaginable. There is no language to describe it. Far from being a selfish exercise, a life lived from the wellspring of silence influences other lives—but without our being aware of this fact. Silence itself has resonances, but the way you have come to be in the world quietly opens the possibility of transfiguration to everyone around you.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition I

[First published in Sobornost, Spring 1987, pp. 14-23]

In the earliest days of the Church, tears had an integral place in Christian life, and we find their most eloquent champions in the early Syrian tradition, especially in Ephrem and Isaac. Like so many insights of the early Church, teaching on tears has fallen prey to theological reductionism, and what is communicated to us today is not profound insight into human nature, but spiritual imperative. As a result, especially in the West, tears have been relegated to the spiritual museum where they are regarded as quaint, embarrassing and even shameful.

There is, however, a growing realisation that something is radically wrong with this view. The first attempt to recover the theology of tears was made in 1947 by Irenée Hauscher in his Penthos. [1] Ironically, contemporary efforts at recovery have been primarily in the secular arena in biochemical research on tears, recently summarised in Crying: The Mystery of Tears by William Frey (1985).

Tears: the basic Christian experience

Early writers on tears had a profound understanding of the human person. They intuitively mapped out its fragmentation through human sin and its integration accomplished by the grace of tears. This term referred to actual weeping, but it was also a euphemism for an organic transformation of the person. it is my thesis that tears are absolutely central to Christian experience, and that we need to recover them toay. Tears signify losing one's life—or what one thinks is one's life; one's pseudo-life—in order to gain true life; tears are at the core of receiving and mirroring the outpouring of God's love in kenosis, which begins with creation and reaches its culmination in Jesus the Christ.

"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, and became obedient until death, even death on a cross." (Phil. 2:5-9 RSV)

[1] English translation by Anselm Hufstader (Kalamazoo 1982). On the subject of this article see Maggie Ross, The Fountain and the Furnace: The Way of Tears and Fire (Ramsey NJ, 1986)