Monday, October 27, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition VII

This self-limiting of God reaches its ultimate glory and potency in the handing over of Jesus the Christ, God willingly made object for us. Christ, the one who does not think equality with God a thing to be grasped, is raised high like Moses' serpent to heal us from the poison of our wanting to grasp control of everything and everyone and even our own theosis; to heal us from that which enslaves, and brings us every day closer to total annihilation; to show us that in the willing acknowledgement of our greatest weakness God can most powerfully enter and pour love through us.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


A twenty-year old article on the gift of tears and virginity may at first blush hardly seem relevant to the crises of the moment, but this first impression is in itself a symptom of what has gone wrong in our culture. In the article now being interrupted, we have been exploring an ancient understanding of the integrity of the human person which needs to be revived in our day.

Integrity is a function of an over-riding vision or aspiration. Without an aspiration to which we can commit our lives we are condemned to a reductive, passive existence. "Where there is no vision, the people perish." (Prov. 29:18) It is no accident that the commodification of human aspiration into greed expressed as competitive excess, the resulting financial meltdown, the hyper-sexualization of society, and climate change have all conflated into a single catastrophe. [See also George Monbiot's article in the Guardian, October 14, 2008.] We could call the current mess a failure of virginity, that is, a single-hearted vision that widens and deepens our understanding of what it means to be human.

As we have seen, the notion of virginity—particularly in the Judeo-Christian tradition (whose attitudes affect us whether or not we wish them to)—has not always been related to genital intactness. Rather it refers to a much larger range of notions, which includes integrity, but goes far beyond it. It includes the realms of silence and being silenced.

According to Geza Vermes (Jesus the Jew) at the turn of the millennium into the Common Era, "virginity" in the Jewish world was rarely thought of as genital intactness. Instead, it far more commonly related to pre-pubescent and post-menopausal women—you could be a virgin twice in your life; or else it functioned as an indication as to whether a woman had been married only to one husband. These notions amplify certain bible stories such as the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth—both virgins, by the standards of the day. Equally, the metaphor of virgin birth—to cite another example—can be understood as a metaphor about the singleness (single-heartedness, complete focus) that gives birth to the soul. Or, in the case of the Virgin Mary, the Single Only One (God) seeking a single only one (Mary) to gestate the Only-Begotten (Jesus-Christ).

It is in this sense of a commitment to seeking the deep, core silence of trans-figuration that virginity, rapture and the ordinary world engage. We are not given the gift of rapture, of the suspension of self-consciousness and the profound changes that accompany it, as a reward for being merely genitally intact. In fact, for some people this state adds further layers of self-consciousness. Nor is an obsessive preoccupation with "impure thoughts" or similar strictures likely to be of much use in changing the world and the way we function in it. Rather it is the willingness to concentrate on the mundane task at hand, whether that is the breath in meditation, sorting sox from the laundry basket or laughing with a friend that imperceptibly carry us across the threshold.

To recapitulate, the work of silence is in itself neutral, as recent molecular studies on insight and memory show. But these studies fall far short of the more comprehensive and nuanced understanding that were operative in the ancient and medieval worlds. Analysis, verbalization and mythologizing arise not only from trying to communicate what in fact can only be entered into by each person in his or her own interior solitude, but also from efforts to try to make the process an attractive alternative to the noise, heedlessness and power-games of our ordinary waking hallucination, the hallucination than has brought us to this present pass.

Although the writings of Ephrem and other early Christians were extant in the West from Anglo-Saxon times, the textual trail of Syriac writings is elusive. But in the end the textual trail is not important, because the question of virginity/integrity is perennial, especially among women who are subject to physical violation and religious oppression. One of the miniatures from the Rothschild Canticles (c. 1300) illustrates the problem. This manuscript, which contains paintings and quotations designed to reveal the radiance of the work of silence, was made for and probably by women.

Folio 51r (see above) has two panels: the bottom panel shows a dark, veiled, bowed woman with a unicorn's head in her lap, rending it vulnerable to the spear, while the upper panel shows a woman stark naked, dancing with an alive and obviously delighted unicorn. The woman in the lower panel is virgin in body; the one in the upper panel has recovered the "robe of glory", the naked and unashamed virginity of single-heartedness that is paradise, the undistracted communion between the human and the divine. The unicorn is willing to give its life to the woman in the bottom panel in order that she might be set free to be drawn to spiritual growth into the true virginity, of which physical virginity is but a token.

But we must not forget the silenced and the hyper-sexualized. Women and men who have been violated in any way, but especially physically, bear a terrible burden of shame and guilt. To understand that the violation of the body cannot touch the pointe vierge of the soul can be a valuable aid to healing.

We might say that virginity in this sense has itself been silenced by having been reduced to genitility. Ours is an age of negative aspiration. It arises in part because of failed attempts to impose rules that become meaningless without an overall vision, whether that vision is "sacred" or "secular". It is fashionable to be redneck, to be uneducated, to be vulgar, to be wholly sexualized, to scoff at morality, discipline, and even what used to be considered basic human decency. Entertainment is full of violence, deceit, material excess, nihilism and death.

Some of these attitudes can be laid at the door of religion itself. They were spawned by reaction to extreme ideas of "original sin" and "total depravity" that have led to a hidden despair: I am only my body. Life is about gratifying its urges. I have no power over it or over those who would violate it or the trajectory of my own life. Once I have been polluted, once I have lost my "virginity", I can never again be whole or perfect. And if I can never again find innocence, why bother with morality? Any integrity I might develop would only be a sham, a pale echo of what went before.

But as we have seen, growth into true virginity, the depths of the work of silence, is utterly different from this caricature; it is rather a vast and limitless interior landscape. It is the focus of the whole creation coinhered with the single movement of love that some people call God. Subsumed under this wider notion of virginity are chastity, integrity, inviolable vulnerability, incoercible autonomy, wholeness, solitary, single—unity of inner and outer, of man and woman, of image and what is imaged, of our ordinary life lived from the wellspring of transfigurative silence. It is the uncompromising joyous wildness of undistracted longing and love, the focused passion for dispassion that this deepest silence bestows.

But entering this paradise through the work of silence means the often terrifying abandonment of all images of our selves, of whatever we call "God", or spirituality, or prayer, or those activities with which we comfort our selves—everything sacred or secular that creates a barrier between us and the interior refining fire if not allowed to fall away. Entering paradise requires us abandon all ways of self-reflection and "cling to nothing visible", which is difficult only if we refuse to surrender to the simplicity of the process.

Yet we have not abandoned the body. The fire within informs all of life, however exalted, however mundane. Resurrection of the mind happens through the body but is not limited to it.

If we could restore this ancient and radical notion of virginity/aspiration/rapture and the ethics implicit in it; if we could link it with the transfiguration and joy that is found in the work of silence and the overflowing of its healing effects on those around us, then morality might again become viable because it would be seen as part of a vision that enthralls and draws us. We would not be confined to the strictures and platitudes of constraint that both sicken us and have led to the opposite effect from what they intended. With transcendent vision we might once again be refocused to grow beyond our perceived limits, set free from the reductive dead end of greed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition VI

I am drawing a distinction here between self and self-image. Giving up this self-image involves letting go the illusion of power; particularly of the illusion that we are in control and that we can control, and that we should control. It is our desire to control that brings us to slavery, because our own designs are limited, and cannot help but end in a closed system, a dead end. The closed system may give us a sense of security, but it obviates possibility. And salvation—being sprung from a trap–means possibility.

What do we mean by control? Giving up the world, in Isaac's definition, is often rightly put in terms of self-control. But this is not the world's entrapping control. Self-control is really a gathering of the fragments of self-image in order to be emptied, in order to lose control. It involves letting go the illusions of power that keep us full of self-image. Self-image must be emptied out, in order that God, who is always emptying out divine mercy on creation, might enter, indwell, and pour out through us the transfiguring Spirit onto the earth. This right kind of letting go control is especially important in terms of our ideas of how God works in us, in terms of what, or how important we think particular gifts are. Often we are trapped by our ideas of God and holiness.

God's life is able to dwell in us whether or not we cooperate. We exist by mercy. But if we are to grow into the image, the mirroring, of God's willing powerlessness, we need to increase our capacity to have the divine love poured out through us. In ancient tradition, God 'absented' a bit, or 'pulled aside the skirts of glory' in order to make room for the creation, since God was everywhere. The kenosis of God begins with creation, because God is committed to be involved in it, to give it freedom, to suffer-with in its joys and sorrows, in its bewilderment and pain. And it means that God willingly limits God's power to intervene and control.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition V

Becoming Virgin

I heard a young man singing one day
Would that someone would pull me down and rebuild me, and make me a virgin once again,
and I told him that this request of yours is possible with Jesus.

How is this single-heartedness achieved? Through self-knowledge, a rigorous and unflinching, though dispassionate examination of all the ways in which we seek power, status and security by the creation of the kinds of illusion Isaac has listed in his description of 'the world'. But this rigorous honesty is not self-judgment: that would be assuming another kind of power. It is rather allowing one's self to be exposed to the light of God that illuminates and burns away all that is not pure, and it is that piercing light that is katanyxis, the painful shock that shows us the illusory nature of our perceptions about our selves, the sham image we desire to project, It is the shock that begins to turn us toward repentance, the penthos which is the matrix of holy tears.

All of us constantly create these illusions about our selves. Secular society is built on them—which is why a single-hearted person is so disturbing to it. Self-image is what sells billions of pounds' worth of goods every year by advertising which insinuates that our appearance is everything, and that our status in the world depends on owning this or that product, or being seen in this or that place. But it is precisely this illusory self-image that must be given up. It must be given up because it is a trap that enslaves, and it is a trap that is built up to give us illusory security from the fantasies we have about death (Heb. 2:14-15); God becomes incarnate to free us precisely from this slavery, and the word salvation, in one of its oldest forms, means being sprung from a trap.

[4] Isaac of Antioch, tr. Sebastian Brock in Syriac Perspectives on Late Antiquity (London 1984), pp. v, 27-8.