Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Circle of Giving

"As the bearer of the empty place, the religious mendicant has an active duty beyond his supplication. He is the vehicle of that fluidity which is abundance. The wealth of the group touches his bowl at all sides, as if it were the center of a wheel where the spokes meet. The gift gathers there, and the mendicant gives it away again when he meets someone who is empty. In European folk tales, the beggar often turns out to be Wotan, the true 'owner' of the land, who asks for charity though it is his own wealth he moves within, and who then responds to neediness by filling it with gifts. He is godfather to the poor. . . 

"[Footnote: ...In the spiritual world, new life comes to those who give up.]

"Such stories declare that the gift does move from plenty to emptiness. It seeks the barren, the arid, the stuck, and the poor. The Lord says, 'All that opens the womb is mine,' for it is He who filled the empty womb, having earlier stood as a beggar by the sacrificial fire or the gates of the palace."

                                      — Lewis Hyde, The Gift, 24-25.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sister Water

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sor'Acqua, 
la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
 she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Water is, or should be, high on everyone's agenda, as it may soon become very scarce in some parts of the world. Climate change means that prolonged drought is often broken by torrential rain and flash floods, which, far from relieving the drought, wash away precious topsoil and the seeds that lie dormant in it.
But in this post I want to talk about water from St Francis' point of view and from the point of view of the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11).
St Francis' adjectives are telling: useful, humble, precious and pure. Water is useful: life cannot exist without it. It is humble: its ubiquity in some parts of the world tend to make the inhabitants take water for granted. It is precious: water may be ubiquitous in some areas, but potable water is another question altogether. In the ancient world and in the Middle Ages, it was often dangerous to drink water: water was made into 'small' beer, or mixed with a little wine to make it drinkable. Water is casta: chaste. The word is really untranslatable: it can also mean austere, severe, stark, simple, sober, virgin, innocent. As so often in medieval—and biblical—literature, all meanings are meant.
I would like to introduce yet another nuance: it is indicative of the soul, and, in certain circumstances, the soul infused by the Holy Spirit. The Bible and other religious texts are full of images of springs of water, fountains, rain, dew used in this sense; and in an arid environment, the falling of rain can even induce a kind of inebriation, another term used for the Spirit-filled person. It is this last sense of inebriation that brings to mind the story of the Wedding at Cana.
It is no accident that the jars that Jesus instructs the steward to fill usually contain water for washing, the most humble sort of water, fine for this purpose, but not for drinking. Though it may not be drinkable, this water retains something of its 'innocence', if you like; it can be made pure. But Jesus makes it more than pure: he makes it into wine, and not just any old wine, but the best wine.
It's hardly necessary to labour the point: that as water flows through the filter of the Word it is purified and filled with the Spirit. It is still liquid, it is still water, but it is infused water, and it is made for rejoicing at the marriage of heaven and earth.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Person Can Meditate to Become a More Efficient Killer

A reputable Buddhist and scholar sent me this link; it has attached to it the usual vitriolic comments with a few, far too few, sane ones as well.

Friday, September 13, 2013

What Is Ugly?

Behold the lowly blobfish!

Voted by the public as the ugliest animal on the planet, it is now the mascot of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society.

Now, clearly ugly, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  I  happen to react to this photograph with a soft and empathetic Aw-w-w-w-w-w.

Hooray for the blobfish for daring to be ugly—though evidently not with impunity, for so-called ugly animals have as hard a time of it, if not harder, than 'ugly' people. Even on the wildlife programme called 'Monkey Life', which takes place in a primate preserve in the South of England, the stump-tailed macaques are affectionately called 'Uglies'.

Who is going to save the uglies—human and animal? Well, evidently the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, which started out as a joke (rather like the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society) but now has found its purpose, which is summed up in its name.

The animals have an advocate, but who is going to watch out for the ugly people in this society obsessed with impossible figures and faces, plastic surgery and frozen doll-like looks? It's a well-known fact that all sorts of people who are not fashionably 'beautiful' are discriminated against in all sorts of ways, from the way they earn their livelihood to the way they are served in a shop to the way they are cared for in hospital.

And don't think these so-called uglies don't know it.

Maybe we need a 'People Preservation Society'—no questions asked.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

'How Much Should it Cost to Find God?'

As I was surfing through the news this morning, I came across an article by this title in The Atlantic, by an author with the obvious pseudonym of Natasha Scripture. It's worth reading, if only to see how desperate people are, and how willing to be fooled people are. The comments posted below the article are about what you would expect.

At the risk of repeating myself, the self-help and so-called spirituality industry in the USA is now worth 13 billion dollars.

While it is everyone's privilege and peril to choose their own poison, there are several very basic principles to remember about this business—I use the word advisedly.

First, it thrives on telling people, directly or indirectly, that there is always something wrong with them.

Second, it sells its products by encouraging people to have an 'experience' of some sort. As we all know, spiritual maturity is about self-forgetfulness, not self-preoccupation, and looking for 'experiences' is bound to bring emptiness, disappointment, even despair.

Third, when people crash and burn from the high they have experienced from one of these self-styled gurus they are told once again that something is wrong with them. And on and on in an endless, vicious circle.

Remember what Eckhart said: If you're doing anything special, it's not God.

This doesn't mean that there are not books that are helpful, but they are mostly texts before the 15th century—with the exceptions of Julian of Norwich (who died sometime after 1414; read the Glasscoe edition, which is published by Exeter, and I believe is now online), Gerson, Nicholas of Cusa and others of the apophatic tradition. After the 15th century the names are fewer and fewer: some Quakers, some metaphysical poets, Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, it is also necessary to remember that most of these works, when they have originated in another language, have probably been mis-translated, because many of the translators also are looking for 'experience'. If you see the word 'experience' discount it. It's probably a mistake. This solipsistic meaning of 'experience' doesn't appear until the 14th century. Up until then, and still today in French, it meant 'experiment'. That's why the Cloud-author uses the word 'prove'.

The worst danger of all, perhaps, comes from those so-called teachers who have understood to a certain extent and then sold out to the commercial 'spirituality' industry.

The hardest fact to accept in all this is that, for the most part, there are no teachers. The wisdom has been lost. But we can help each other, and all it takes is a little common sense, an increasingly rare trait in itself. Better to go to a trusted friend when in need of discernment and encouragement than to shell out the month's rent money to one of these charlatans who will only lock you deeper into your self-consciousness.

It's not about 'special': feeling special, special clothes, special activities, special teachers. It's about living an ordinary, everyday life—which has also become increasingly rare.

'Seek to the beholding', says Julian, and everything will be added unto you.

That's all we need to know, and all the rest will be added unto us.

Book News

For all of you who have kindly asked after my new book, Silence: A User's Guide, there is good news. I have just completed drafting Part I, which consists of seven chapters, and I've already started working on Part II. I'm hoping to have a complete draft by the end of the year. So please don't lose heart: it's on the way!

It's also the reason I've been a bit slow with blog posts: hope now to improve!

Thank you all for your patience!

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Substance and Evidence of Faith

On Sunday I was privileged to read at the 40th wedding anniversary celebration of some close friends. It was as perfect a liturgy of its type as I have ever seen: every word chosen carefully, every movement. It was held in a 14th century leper chapel, austerely beautiful, serene in its private garden setting—an oasis amid the clamour of East Oxford. I will never forget the sight of my friends framed in the gothic west doorway, when they had walked back up the aisle after the blessing and turned to face the congregation.
As so often happens when reading aloud, the passage opened up in front of me, radiant with light:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Wherefore seeing we are also compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 11:1 and 12:1-2).
This is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament, but I had never before consciously noticed the paradoxes implicit in the language. Faith is substance and evidence of things not seen—faith that is beyond all imagination, beyond everything we know, and in terms of everyday senses, beyond seeing. This turns the everyday notions of substance and evidence on their heads. Substance and evidence are not the tangibles offered in a court of law for evidence (and examples from law are frequent in the writings of Paul); it is precisely the intangible nature of faith that makes it both substance and evidence.
Then Paul (or the writer using Paul's name) says Therefore—you can almost hear his joyous laughter as he says or writes this paradoxical word. We have encountered this therefore elsewhere, at the 'bottom' of the paradoxical chiasmus of Phil 2:5-11: '...but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore...'
This is not the therefore that is translated into Latin as ergo, QED. This is a therefore that is as open-ended as faith itself, better translated, perhaps, as 'on account of this'—in other words, there is no guarantee to Jesus as to what will happen after he is obedient unto death, but it is on account of the totality of his self-emptying of his self-conscious construct of self that he is exalted, and his Godliness manifest. It is also, as I have written elsewhere, a signal for the movement of our self-conscious minds into liminality to the far event-horizon, where faith becomes the only way forward. For us, it is a recapitulation of the chiasmus of Philippians, the same self-emptying, the same letting-go of all claims except the claim of letting-go, which is faith—and of course it is impossible to claim faith, possible only to open oneself to it.
The use of therefore in the passage from Hebrews is just as audacious as that in Philippians. It implicitly claims that faith, in which our material eyes see nothing, is the only way for true seeing, and the writer assumes that his readers/hearers understand this knowing by unknowing; they already have been instructed in what faith is. It's one of those passages where a confident assertion saves a lot of petty wrangling. He doesn't try to persuade: he simply moves forward, the text itself making the giant leap of faith. 
And with that claim that is no claim he makes faith joyous instead of fearful; for those who have faith, who see truly, now know that 'we are compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses'—so there is no reason to be downhearted, or anxious about running forward into what we do not know, but to race ever deeper into it and into our integrity, our shared nature with God which nothing can shake, not even the shame of what in the world's eyes is humiliation and pain.
And in this is our exaltation.