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Solution No. 3

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

Is there such a thing as an esoteric Christianity, or did Christ overcome and abolish all such distinctions? It seems to me the answer to your question is … yes!

While it is true that in Christ “the middle wall of partition” has been “broken down” (Ephesians 2:14), St Paul continues to “speak wisdom only among them that are perfect” (1 Corinthians 2:6). Even though “there is neither Jew nor Greek … neither bond nor free … neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), the deacon still cries out, “The doors! The doors!”

Much could be said about the eso-exoteric, or exo-esoteric, nature of Christianity, but a good place to begin is with the Sermon on the Mount, and a good way to begin this beginning is to compare the opening verse of the Sermon with the penultimate verse: that is, Matthew 5:1 and Matthew 7:28. Here too we are faced with the same paradoxical “yes”.

Matthew 5:1: “And seeing the multitudes, He went up into a mountain: and when He was set, His disciples came unto him.”

The Sermon, it seems, was delivered not to the many but to a chosen few. Christ withdraws from “the multitudes”, and only the disciples “came unto Him” and are permitted to hear. This of course is a pattern we see several times in the Gospels. After feeding the five thousand, for example, we’re told that “Jesus constrained His disciples to get into a ship, and to go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up into a mountain to pray” (Matthew 14:22-23). In several places, this withdrawal takes place in order that Christ might have a private moment with His disciples to explain to them something He has said to the crowd in a parable. Again an example from Matthew: “All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake He not unto them: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and His disciples came unto Him, saying, Declare unto us the parable” (13:34-36).

Basing ourselves on these verses and other passages like them, we’re obliged to assume that Christ very deliberately reserved at least some of His teaching for a limited number. How few those few might have been differs at different points in the narrative, for it seems there are circles in circles. There are the Seventy, but then there are the Twelve, and within those Twelve there are three (Peter, James, and John), and then again there is one (John). It therefore makes perfect sense that Christ would have gone apart from the “multitudes” if He had something special or particularly important to say in this Sermon, something presupposing a certain set of qualifications or a certain intensity of commitment.

But there’s a surprise waiting for us at the end of the Sermon, and as you can see, it’s the very same paradox.

Matthew 7:28: “And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at His doctrine.”

The King James translation, which I’m quoting here, masks the surprise I have in mind. You have to look at the Greek instead. If you do, you’ll immediately see that the “multitudes” of 5:1 and the “people” of 7:28 are the same. The term in each case is ὄχλος (ochlos), a word that means, not just a “crowd”, but a moving or jostling crowd, hence a “mob” or a “rabble”, or even “undisciplined masses”. When the Sermon begins, we’re told that Jesus and the disciples had left this ὄχλος behind, this mob of “natural men” (1 Corinthians 2:14), who “seeing see not, and hearing they hear not” (Matthew 13:13). But now here they are, having apparently listened to at least some of the Sermon and having been understandably “astonished” by its power: astonished, yes, but the Greek ἐξεπλήσσοντο (exeplēssonto) might be even more tellingly rendered as “overwhelmed”, “amazed”, “astounded”—even “driven out of their senses” or “panic-struck”.

So what’s going on? Had Jesus’ teaching been reserved for the few, as it seemed at the start, or was it in fact broadcast openly to any and all who happened to be there, however radical a transformation (“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” [Romans 12:2]) might be demanded of them?

There are three ways of solving this interpretive problem. A first possibility is to say that we were simply mistaken in thinking that Jesus had initially withdrawn from the crowd. In fact everyone had ascended the mountain. But then why does Matthew mention only the disciples as having “come to Him”? A second, rather pedestrian option is to say that Jesus did withdraw from the masses, but they saw Him leave, knew in what direction He had gone, and secretly followed Him up the mountain. They were either there all along, but perhaps hiding somewhere in the background, or they arrived at some point after the Sermon started, which is why Matthew initially speaks of the disciples alone being present.

But there’s a third, much subtler resolution, and in my opinion it’s the best. Indeed it’s the only one that is true to the Gospel as a whole, serving as it does to underscore as well as to explain our paradox. It consists in saying that Solution 1 and Solution 2 are both true: only the disciples came … but so too did the ὄχλος: the “multitudes”, the “people”, the “mob”—Plato’s οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi).

But doesn’t it have to be either one or the other? Not at all. It might have to be if the disciples weren’t still disciples, if in other words they had already fully obeyed Christ’s command in the Sermon at Matthew 5:48 and had become “perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”. But they clearly hadn’t, and neither have we, disciples though we may hope to be. There was still within each of them, as there is within each of us, an exoteric “mob” of passions, a “jostling crowd” of thoughts, and “undisciplined masses” of unrepented sins. This “multitude” couldn’t help but come when they came, and it couldn’t help but be “astonished” and “struck with fear” by the words of the Sermon.

There is indeed an esoteric, inner Christianity, but if my interpretation here is correct—if Solution No. 3 is correct—the line of demarcation between outer and inner is not so much a line between as within people. And it follows, of course, that only those who are, and who know themselves to be, a “jostling crowd”, and who therefore find themselves “panic-struck” by the terror of their situation—those and those alone are the true esotericists.

Definition of a Saint

Friday, October 9th, 2015

I recently came across the following definition, apropos our discussion of holiness, and thought you would be as interested—and as chastened!—as I. It comes from Dumitru Staniloe’s book The Experience of God. I have made a few alterations in the translation.

In the saint there is nothing trivial, nothing coarse, nothing base, nothing affected, nothing insincere. He is the culmination of sensitivity and transparency. The saint grasps the various conditions of the soul in all who come before him. Avoiding everything that would cause them sadness, he does not avoid what will help them see and overcome their weaknesses. He is able to read the least articulate needs of others and fulfill them promptly, even as he reads their faults, however skillfully hidden; and through the delicate power of his being, he exercises upon them a purifying action.

His is a spirit of sacrifice for the sake of all, with no concern for himself, a spirit giving warmth to others and assuring them they are not alone. There is no one more humble or simple, no one less artificial, less theatrical, or hypocritical, no one more natural in his behavior, no one more fully accepting of all that is truly human. The saint has overcome every duality within himself, as Saint Maximos the Confessor says. He has overcome the struggle between soul and body, the divergence between good intentions and discordant deeds, between deceptive appearance and hidden thoughts, between what is claimed and what is really the case. He has become simple because he has surrendered himself entirely to God, and this is why he can surrender himself utterly in communication with others.

The saint lends courage. At times, through a humor marked by his gentleness, he shrinks the delusions created by fear or pride or the passions. He smiles but does not laugh sarcastically. He is serious but never frightened. He finds value in the humblest of persons, considering them to be great mysteries created by God and destined to eternal communion with Him. Through simplicity the saint makes himself almost unobserved, but he appears when there is need for consolation, for encouragement or help. He is the most unassuming of beings, and yet his appearance is so striking that it gives rise in others to the sense of discovering in him, and thus in themselves, what is truly human.

His presence is at once endearing and bracing, drawing—unintentionally—the most attention. He becomes for you the most intimate of all and the most understanding. You never feel more at ease than when you are near him, but at the same time he forces you into a corner and makes you see your inadequacies and failings. He overwhelms you with the warmth of his goodness and makes you ashamed of how far you have fallen, of how far you have sunk in your artificiality, superficiality, and duplicity. For these appear in sharp relief in the comparison you are obliged to make, unwillingly, between yourself and him. He exercises no worldly power and gives no harsh commands, but you feel in him an unyielding firmness in his convictions and in the advice he gives. His opinion about what you should do, expressed in delicate words or by a discreet look, becomes for you a command, and to fulfill this command you find yourself capable of any effort or sacrifice.

Whoever approaches a saint discovers in him the summit of goodness and spiritual power, covered by a veil of humility. He is an illustration of the greatness and power of kenosis. From the saint there radiates an imperturbable silence and peace, and yet a participation in the pain of others that reaches the point of tears. He is rooted in the loving and suffering stability of the Incarnate One and blossoms forth in the power and goodness of God.

Beneficial Under Any Condition

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

If invocation without full attention were an “insult” to God, I’m afraid all but a very few of the saints and sages would be guilty. Who of the rest of us can make it through even a short session of formal prayer without the mind wandering and having to be brought back, wandering and having to be brought back … perhaps ten times in as many seconds? “Full attention” is a tall order indeed!

As you’ve already deduced, I would thus side with those who say that “invocation is beneficial under any condition”. Now of course, benefit is a matter of degree. Obviously a given repetition of the Name, or sequence of such repetitions, during which we are in fact fully attentive, or at least closely approaching that state, will prove of more value—not because of any difference in the power of the Name itself, but because we are able to assimilate and appropriate that power more fully or deeply, more organically.

The advice of those whom I trust on this subject is therefore to make the invocation a companion throughout the day, giving the Name as much attention as possible, but being confident that even when our attention must be directed elsewhere, or has been distracted elsewhere, the Name is still at work within us.

All and None

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Am I “content” with Schuon’s “interpretatations” of the Trinity? It seems to me your question is tantamount to asking: “Is there more than one way in which to envisage the Trinity?” And of course the answer is yes. Schuon’s interpretations, as you call them—each of which has its precedent in the Christian tradition—help to underscore the fact that a Mystery necessarily eludes the net of discursive formulation. None of these perspectives can capture the Truth on its own, and Schuon knows it.

You mention the distinction he draws between a vertical Trinity, where the Father is understood to be uniquely absolute and the source of the other two Persons, and a horizontal Trinity, in which Father, Son, and Spirit are construed as equivalent—that is, equally divine—whether at the level of Beyond-Being or within Being itself. The first of these standpoints can be found in St Irenaeus, who spoke of the Son and the Spirit as the Father’s “two hands”, as well as in the Cappadocian claim that the Father is the aitia or “cause” of the other two Persons. The second standpoint, on the other hand, echoes the more characteristically western thinking of St Augustine or St Thomas.

Schuon’s discussions of the Trinity are considerably more polyvalent, however, than this relatively simple distinction suggests. You say that you have “little interest” in his “horizontal Trinity”, but this leaves me wondering which “horizontalities” you have in mind, for there are several. I recommend in this regard that you consult a chapter entitled “Evidence and Mystery” in Schuon’s Logic and Transcendence. Here one finds a difficult and demanding, but most rewarding, set of reflections, which conclude with the following summary of “the” horizontal Trinity:

Let us summarize in order to be as clear as possible. First: in the Absolute, which is the Essence, the Persons are not dis­cernible as Persons, although they are comprised within it in a certain non-distinc­tive manner since the Essence is necessarily the archetype of each possible Person, and this means that the Essence includes aspects without itself being differentiated; in the divine Relative, however, the Persons are present as such, and for man this Relative functions in practice as the Absolute. Second: there is but one single divine Person having three modalities, though according to another aspect the modalities appear in turn as Persons. Third: the three Persons are dis­tinct from one another, but in this respect they are not identical with the Essence. Fourth: each Person is identical with the Es­sence, and in this respect each is in the Essence, which makes it permissible to say that in a certain way each Person is in the other two or—speaking paradoxically and elliptically—that it is identified with them, the One Essence being each Person in the undifferentiated Absolute.

To repeat what I said above, I do not believe we are to think of this as a list of options, a collection of dishes on some metaphysical smorgasbord, from which we must choose the Trinity that appeals to us most. No, Schuon’s point—his incontestable point, or so it seems to me—is that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity necessarily embraces these multiple, mutually illumining aspects. The Trinity “is” each, while at the same time transcending all.

By the way, for those among my fellow Orthodox Christians who often seek (not without reason) to “absolutize” the Trinity over against the teachings of other monotheisms and who might therefore object to Schuon’s claim above that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit may be construed, from one point of view, as indiscernible and undifferentiated “aspects” of a single Absolute, it will perhaps be useful to conclude by calling attention to a few lines from Prayers by the Lake by St Nikolai Velimirovich:

Eternity exists in eternity just as duration exists in time. In one eternity, O Lord, You were in ineffable sameness and vesperal blessedness. At that time Your Hypostases were the truth within You, for it was impossible for them not to be in You. But they did not recognize one another, for they were unconscious of their diversity. In a second eternity You were in Your matinal blessedness, and the three Hypostases recognized themselves as such.

The Father was not before the Son, nor was the Son before the Father, nor was the All-Holy Spirit before or after the Father and the Son. As a man while waking suddenly opens both eyes at the same time, so did the three Hypostases within. You suddenly open at the same time. There is no Father without the Son and no Son without the Holy Spirit.

When I lie beside my lake and sleep unconsciously, neither the power of consciousness, nor desire, nor action, die within me—rather they all flow into one blessed, nirvana­-like, indistinguishable unity. When the sun pours out its gold over the lake, I awaken not as a nirvana-like unity, but as a tri-unity of consciousness, desire, and action. This is Your history in my soul, O Lord, interpreter of my life.

The Unavoidable “He”

Monday, August 17th, 2015

What do I advise you to do when it comes to linguistic politics? I suppose I would advise you to keep a low profile for now, certainly until you get your degree, and perhaps, depending on where you get a job, until you are tenured. As the great Crossett once told me, “save your martyrdom for where it counts”.

Ideological interest in “inclusive” language has been around throughout my career. Never one to capitulate, I did make a slight concession during my first year of graduate school. In the papers I wrote for the doctoral seminar, I began using the word “person” where I should have used the word “man”, but each time I did so I inserted a footnote informing the reader that “wherever the word ‘person’ is used, the word ‘man’ is intended”. A little wiser and less pretentious now, I must say I look back on this with some embarrassment, not because I’ve decided the ideologues are right—far from it—but because it’s clear this provocation served no purpose, except to let off some steam!

Admittedly, “keeping a low profile” when it comes to current pronominal usage is difficult, and in some syntactical instances virtually impossible—unless, that is, one is prepared to say things that are either ambiguous or downright ugly. Peter Kreeft has presented the choices available to those who are determined to be inoffensive:

The use of the traditional inclusive generic pronoun “he” is a decision of language, not of gender justice. There are only six alternatives. (1) We could use the grammatically misleading and numerically incorrect “they.” But when we say “one baby was healthier than the others because they didn’t drink that milk,” we do not know whether the antecedent of “they” is “one” or “others,” so we don’t know whether to give or take away the milk. Such language codes could be dangerous to baby’s health. (2) Another alternative is the politically intrusive “in-your-face” generic “she,” which I would probably use if I were an angry, politically intrusive, in-your-face woman, but I am not any of those things. (3) Changing “he” to “he or she” refutes itself in such comically clumsy and ugly revisions as the following: “What does it profit a man or woman if he or she gains the whole world but loses his or her own soul? Or what shall a man or woman give in exchange for his or her soul?” The answer is: he or she will give up his or her linguistic sanity. (4) We could also be both intrusive and clumsy by saying “she or he.” (5) Or we could use the neuter “it,” which is both dehumanizing and inaccurate. (6) Or we could combine all the linguistic garbage together and use “she or he or it,” which, abbreviated, would sound like “sh…it.” I believe in the equal intelligence and value of women, but not in the intelligence or value of “political correctness,” linguistic ugliness, grammatical inaccuracy, conceptual confusion, or dehumanizing pronouns (Socratic Logic, 3rd ed., p. 36, n. 1).

One and the Same

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Yes, I can see your problem. It’s so very easy for us to misunderstand or misconstrue the nature of someone else’s experience, what you call their “subjective reality”, based (as our interpretation must be) on the words they use to describe it.

I’m in the midst of a controversy of my own at the moment, and it’s moving along similar terminological lines. As I said to a correspondent who is aware of this particular clash of perspectives, disputes like this are useful insofar as they give us an opportunity to distinguish the real esotericists from their pretenders. The former, well aware of the Zen maxim that “false words are true when they lead to enlightenment; true words are false when they breed attachment”, are much more likely to cut their interlocutors some slack!

I was talking with another friend just the other day, and he provided yet a further case in point. We were reflecting on the meaning of the Delphic imperative: Gnothi seauton. He recalled visiting a Sufi zawiyah in Morocco some years ago, and being severely criticized by one of the fuqara for having said that knowing oneself means finding oneself. No, the dervish replied: we must lose ourselves—we must be extinguished (fana)!

My friend found himself unable to explain to this man what anyone who has read the Gospels knows: that finding and losing are one and the same!

Nothing to Fear

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

“Christianity makes me feel threatened”, you say. Forgive me, but I think this is simply a holdover from your evangelical past. There’s nothing of the sort in Orthodoxy. God doesn’t “threaten” or “punish”, nor does He ever get “angry”; these anthropomorphic expressions do not describe God as He is in Himself, but rather the way in which His presence is experienced by the ego.

I think here of a comment by Schuon: “Hell is the reply of Reality to the ego that wants to be absolute.”

Or, turning to a very different source, there’s the Christian author C. S. Lewis. “The gates of Hell,” he writes, “are locked on the inside”, a line quoted with approval by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in his book The Orthodox Way. By the way, his Eminence goes so far as to say in that book that Satan himself might be saved, though what God’s relationship with the Devil may be is “none of our business”.

True, it’s the rare Orthodox authority who espouses universal salvation so explicitly as St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac the Syrian. But this doesn’t mean everyone else in the Church is convinced of the opposite: that some will necessarily suffer eternal damnation. On the contrary, the Orthodox faithful are entirely justified, without in any way departing from the teachings of the Church, in hoping all may be saved.

The only thing one must not believe or teach as an Orthodox Christian is that people can be saved in spite of themselves, or as it were against their will. On the contrary, repentance (metanoia = a radical “change of mind”) is necessary, whether here or hereafter—a free act of self-abnegation, a willing “death” of the ego and its passions.

But is this really so different from Pure Land Buddhism, the tradition you say you are now considering? The Bodhisattvas don’t save those who don’t wish to be saved: the nembutsu must be uttered with total faith, which means not without a struggle, not without effort, not without putting aside all our likes and dislikes, our attachments and fears.

For a different, but I think complementary take, on what I’m saying, I suggest you listen to this podcast (courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio):

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/prayingintherain/what_does_god_look_like

The speaker is an Orthodox priest in Canada. What he says in these reflections is standard Orthodox teaching on the subject of God’s “anger”; there’s nothing at all idiosyncratic about it. I hope he helps to convince you that (to appropriate Roosevelt for quite a different purpose) you have nothing to fear but fear itself!

Yin and Yang in the Altar

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Without doubt there were deaconesses in the early Church. What you call the “liturgical and pastoral functions” of these women never included, however—and in an Orthodox context never could include—“leading a service”. An all-male priesthood has always been the norm and the rule.

The women’s “liturgical functions” would have included assisting the priest at the altar, and their “pastoral functions” would have involved ministering to women in labor, visiting the sick, and perhaps also baptizing women (for, as you probably know, in the early Church one was baptized naked).

There is some debate at present among Orthodox Christians as to whether this early office should be restored. Some worry it would send the wrong signal and lead certain people to suppose that a female diaconate can, and should, serve as a path toward a female priesthood. Others say, no, this was always understood to be a very different office and role.

Some  argue that menstruation is an issue—that blood must be kept away from the altar. As you may know, in the strictest of Orthodox contexts, women are asked not only not to receive communion during their time of the month, but not even to remain in the nave during the consecration of the Mysteries. But this has nothing to do with the fact per se that they are women. It’s about the relationship between communion and blood.

During a visit to a monastery some years ago, when I was working in the gardens after communing that morning—with the Blood of Christ still “in my system”—I accidentally cut myself. A monk who saw what happened immediately rushed to my side, whipped out a cloth to wipe the cut, and told me he would later dispose of the cloth by burning it, this being a traditional Orthodox method of handling sacred things no longer in use.

Frankly, though, I don’t think menstruation was, or is, what’s at stake in this context. For women, and not only older women, can and do serve the priest in the altar in women’s monasteries, where (of course) there are no other men beside the clergy.

You ask for my “personal” opinion. I suppose I’m in favor of deaconesses, though I readily admit there may be aspects to this question that I don’t understand. It seems to me, however, quite apart from the usefulness and practicality of having women serve women in the specific contexts I’ve mentioned, that the presence of deaconesses—the presence of a responsive yin moving at the behest of the initiating yang around the altar and about the church—could only add to the symbolic power of the Liturgy.

Seeing the Life Above

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

You are struggling, you say, with belief in an afterlife. There are a variety of reassurances one might provide. How I might address a given interlocutor (including you) depends on what sort of background and what set of assumptions he brings to the conversation.

I don’t know you, obviously, but I’ll assume, since you are “an avid reader of the perennialist authors”, that you’ve grasped the distinction between exotericism and esotericism, as well as the parallel distinction between reason and Intellect.

If so, one possible answer to your dilemma is this: what exotericism calls the “afterlife” and envisions as a future state, esotericism views as an “above-life”, a present state of being and consciousness, to which we have access even now, before we die physically, by means of the Intellect (the Nous of the Hesychast Fathers).

So how can you “be at peace with [your] religion’s notion of the afterlife”? By transposing the horizontal “not yet” of the religio formalis into the vertical “now” of the religio cordis. And how are you to supposed to do this? Through a traditional spiritual practice, a practice designed to work on every level of your microcosm: body, emotions, will, and mind.

Some people may be better assisted, at least at first, by “proofs” of a rational kind, or perhaps testimonies from those who have had “near-death experiences”. But the esotericist will always prefer an intellective proof, the sort of proof that requires us to leave Plato’s cave and see the Sun for ourselves.

A Truly Transformative Ascesis

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

The main reason for fasting and other forms of ascesis is, ideally, to break our attachments, or else, when that proves too difficult, at least to make us more keenly aware of them than we ordinarily are. So the first question we have to ask ourselves is: To what am I most strongly attached? It may or may not be to meat and other animal products, or to food in general. In which case, keeping the dietary rules of Lent is, I agree, not really the point.

More important is an inward ascesis. What I have in mind, in part, is the wresting we’re obliged to engage in whenever we confront, not our attachments to what the body prefers (as for example food and sleep), but our wish to be right, to be thought well of, to get our own way, and so forth. Whenever we catch ourselves inwardly judging others, growing impatient at the person running the cash register at the grocery store, relishing praise, nursing the feelings of self-pity and resentment, we have an opportunity to “fast”, to take a step back from our inward state.

Given this, I would say: No, doing “what I can”, contrary to what you wrote in your message, is not the best answer. The best answer is to try to do what I probably can’t, and then to watch myself, openly and honestly and without flinching, as I fail; and then—here’s the key—not to allow myself to “feel bad about it”, for that’s just the ego in yet another disguise. Watching, thus understood, is very, very hard work, but it’s key to a genuine and truly transformative ascesis.