Archive for July, 2007

Clerical Esoterists

Monday, July 30th, 2007

Is it reasonable for someone with an esoteric vocation to consider the pastoral ministry? Of course. Is it reasonable for such a person to do so within the context of Protestantism, specifically the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? There, I must confess, I am rather doubtful. Yes, the clergy I mentioned in “Those Who Hold the Reins” are all Orthodox priests, and it seems to me evident that the Eastern Church is the best choice for the serious Christian seeker who aspires to living a truly contemplative life.

Of course—as you say—there was Boehme, and in a chapter called “The Question of Protestantism” in his book Christianity/Islam: Perspectives on Esoteric Ecumenism”, Schuon also mentions such “saintly” figures as Gerhard Tersteegen, William Law, John Smith the Platonist, and a few other notable Protestants. But these were exceptional men even in their own time; to take them as models today, in an era when the mainstream Protestant churches have become something not even their founders would recognize, doesn't seem to me very logical.

Your being “at home” in the Lutheran church and the fact that you've received the good counsel you mentioned from a Lutheran pastor are by no means irrelevant considerations, certainly, and I don't mean to downplay these important aspects of your continuing formation. Nonetheless, I would spend my time at Yale taking a very careful, very serious look at this question. Your familiarity (and affinity) with the piety of Lutheran parishioners would doubtless make it a priori easier for you to function in their world, but would that world give you the spiritual nourishment you yourself need?

Understand, please: esoterists aren't exactly popping up everywhere even in the Orthodox Churches! Quite the contrary, the spiritual life of the East is just as much marked overall by bhaktic sensibilities as is that life in the West, whether Catholic or Protestant; this of course is perfectly consistent with the Christian upaya, and nothing we need be surprised about. On the other hand, it's not for nothing that the Orthodox are taught a doctrine of theosis, not for nothing that everyone in their parishes is encouraged to have a rule of prayer and to take fasting and the ascetic life seriously, not for nothing that the iconography and hymnody are manifest signs and embodiments of “another world”. Can one find such things as a Lutheran?

My Starets is Best for Me

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Yes, I think it is useful—in fact essential—to consider the matter of personal affinity with a guide. One must be careful, however, that a supposed “affinity” is not in fact a disguise for the ego just wanting to have its own way! It is obvious that a good master will sometimes rebuke and criticize us, and we must not decide to change masters simply because we prefer not to be challenged or corrected or because we are look for more pleasant companionship. On the other hand, it is important to have the confidence, born of both affection and respect, to ask those who guide us whatever questions we wish, and if one is having difficulty in this domain, it may in part be the result of a certain lack of affinity. This is simply in the nature of things.

Do you have the little book by Bishop Kallistos called The Orthodox Way? His words there (Chapter 5) are useful: “The starets cannot help another unless the other . . . opens his heart in loving trust to the starets. . . . Because the relationship is always personal, a particular starets cannot help everyone equally. He can help only those who are specifically sent to him by the Spirit. Likewise the disciple should not say, ‘My starets is better than all the others.’ He should say only: ‘My starets is the best for me” (p. 97).

Worshiping the Father in Spirit and Truth

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

In professing belief in the Trinity, what Christians are saying—and of course you already know this very well—is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all, and equally, divine: each is to be regarded, therefore, as uncreated, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc. Whatever can be truly said of God can be truly said of each of these three distinct Persons. Nevertheless (odd as this may sound) only the Father is God as such, as can be seen in the opening apposition of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” “The hour cometh,” says Christ, “and now is, when true worshippers shall worship the Father in Spirit [i.e., in the Holy Spirit] and in Truth [i.e., in the Son, who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6)]” (John 4:23). The Father is clearly to be given the primacy, but He is worshipped precisely in the Spirit and in the Son, who share His divinity.

This is a point insisted on with special force by the Orthodox East, though in fact, being the clear teaching of the Ecumenical Councils, it is—or should be—the common heritage of all traditional Christians. “Greek theology attributes the origin of the hypostatic ‘substance’ [of divinity] to the hypostasis [i.e, the Person] of the Father, not to the common essence. The Father is the ’cause’ (aitia) and the ‘principle’ (archē) of the divine nature that is in the Son and the Spirit” (J. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology [Fordham, 1974], 183). St Irenaeus speaks of the Father as having “two hands”, the Son and the Spirit, a metaphor meant to convey both the unity of the common essence but also a certain hierarchy among the Persons who share that essence, and thus to reconcile the two sayings of Christ: “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30), and “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).

In the Christian West, of course, the “monarchy” (as it is called) of the Father is somewhat obscured by the addition of the term filioque—”and the Son”—to the Nicene Creed and by the resulting doctrine of the “double procession” of the Holy Spirit. By teaching that the Son is begotten by the Father alone but that together the Father and the Son are the source of the Spirit, the West (at least in the eyes of the East) ends up compromising the unity of the Trinity. I doubt I could prove this, but I suspect that if Meister Eckhart had lived and taught in an Orthodox, rather than a Roman Catholic, environment he would not have felt obliged to distinguish between Gott (“God”) and Gottheit (“Godhead”). The doctrine of God the Father would have sufficiently conveyed the idea of a single, transpersonal, and ineffable Source of divinity.

As long as I’m speaking of Eckhart, let me add that it would be a mistake, in my opinion, for you to try to build a case for the esoteric equivalence of the Christian and Muslim understandings of God primarily on the teaching of someone who is widely—though mistakenly—regarded by Christians as a heretic. (“Christian orthodoxy [does] not permit the attempt to rescue monotheism by attributing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to some prior principle of origin” [J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2 (Chicago, 1974), 232.) This of course is to take nothing away from Eckhart, whom I dearly love. But if one is trying to persuade the faithful of the two traditions to be more respectful of each other’s theologies, Eckhart is probably not the most useful author to cite! I would instead concentrate on parallels between Allah and God the Father, in relation to Whom, as every Christian is obliged to admit, the Son and the Spirit must be regarded as “subordinate”—though with a subordination, to repeat a key point, which in no way diminishes the full divinity of both the Father’s “two hands”.

I repeat this point to forestall any simplistic “mapping” as it were of the Christian Deity, in which the Father’s supremacy might be misleadingly pictured as a static pre-eminence. Yes, the Father is “greater” than the Son and the Spirit, and this in a sense “solves the problem” (as a Muslim friend recently said to me) of relating or reconciling the Christian and Muslim views of God; of course, Christians will still insist upon “associating” the Second and Third Persons with the First Person, referring to them all as homoousios (“of the same essence”), but this is done in a way which nonetheless protects the Father’s sovereignty and which is thus de jure consistent (at least as I see it) with the prohibition in Islam against shirk (“association”). At the same time one must be careful not to forget that Christian Trinitarianism is not unlike Hindu advaitism. The Vedantist teaches that the Supreme Reality is “not two”, which is not quite the same thing after all as saying that it is merely “one”. Similarly, the Christian teaches that God is “three”, but this doesn’t mean He is not also “one”! What it does mean is that the unity of divinity is “dynamic” in character, as attested by the doctrine of perichoresis (the Greek term) or circumincessio (the Latin equivalent), whereby the Persons are said to share in the common essence or substance of divinity precisely by interpenetrating and “giving way” to each other. Perfect tawhīd for the Christian is thus a matter of henosis (“union” in Greek), not hen (arithmetical “oneness”).

Striving for Balance

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

I certainly did not mean to imply—in my post on the subject of “Vanity“—that we should take no interest in our physical or external appearance. The young woman who had written me, and to whom I was responding, had confessed to being “rather obsessed” with looking at herself in a mirror, and it was with this in mind that I recommended a momento mori on the inevitability of bodily death and decay.

But no, I am very far from suggesting that a person should “cultivate slovenliness”. In fact I have sometimes been accused by my readers and students of going too far in the other direction, notably in the chapter called “The Practice of Beauty” in my Advice to the Serious Seeker. Summing up Schuon's stress on the importance of beauty in one's day-to-day life, I wrote as follows:

We must strive for a balance that avoids both an obsessive perfectionism and a cynicism or slovenliness which thinks that anything is permitted. The most important key is conformity with the natural environment. You should try to make sure, within whatever the realistic limits are in your case, that the materials, colors, and kinds of things in your ambience are as consistent as possible with the simplicity, humility, and dignity of nature. . . .

You might not ordinarily think of things this way, but your ambience actually begins with your physical body. It is your closest or most immediate environment, and beauty must be honored beginning there. How beautiful a given body or face might be is not of course within a given person's control, though he is to some degree responsible for the manner of his aging. To this extent our attentiveness to beauty is closely bound up with maintaining our health and physical vigor. But the beauty of the body resides not only in its static appearance. It also involves such things as carriage and movement. . . .

Then there is the matter of how we dress and adorn our bodies. It is quite remarkable how utterly indifferent most of our contemporaries seem to be to their clothing. Many people whose rectitude we have no reason to doubt, and whose character we may even admire, seem nevertheless completely oblivious to their appearance. The rule once again should be consistency or conformity with nature.

Sloppiness should be eschewed at all costs, for as Schuon points out, “Spirituality has an aristocratic air by definition”, which is fundamentally opposed to the “democratizing untidiness” of our times. Aristocracy, however, is not the same thing as an artificial formality. Powdered wigs and lace were in their own day just as unnatural as the opposite extreme is in our own. Dignity and simplicity go hand in hand. . . . Like icons we are not to call attention to ourselves but to be translucent (pp. 132-34).

Hagioritic Holiday

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

Thank you for your kind inquiry concerning my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain, and of course for your prayers. The trip was very fruitful indeed, for which of course Deo gratias. My son went with me, and we had a spiritually nourishing, if physically exhausting, week hiking every day and staying in seven different monasteries. I kept a journal, and my plan is to compose a short narrative (with a few photographs) for posting as a new page on this weblog. You might want to look for that in a month or so.

The primary aim of the trip, as I am sure you will understand, was to breathe the atmosphere of this ancient and holy place: to steep ourselves in the exquisitely beautiful Liturgies, venerate the numerous wonder-working icons and relics, and revel in some of the most breath-taking scenery anywhere in the world. But yes, there were also a number of opportunities for informative and stimulating conversations with some of the fathers we met concerning their monastic pattern of life and the practice of hesychia.

As for what you called “the degree of intellectuality” on the Mountain, this is rather difficult for me to assess after so short a stay, and I would not wish to judge whether the brightest of the monks we talked to were jnanins or simply very intelligent and erudite bhaktas. In such an ambience, where the very rocks themselves are imbued with the many centuries of prayer, it seems to me that this distinction actually makes little difference, knowledge and love becoming one at their summit.

Yes, there is a distinct strain of “fundamentalism” in certain monasteries, notably Esphigmenou—or so I am told, though we did not visit there. On the other hand the spiritual ethos of Simonopetra, where we did spend some time, is clearly much more supple and open, the now ailing former abbot and elder, Aimilianos, having been by all accounts much more upayic than Pharisaical in his dealings with his disciples.

Invocatory Concentration

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

You continue to express a keen interest in “levels” and “landmarks” in the spiritual Path, and you write to ask me (not for the first time) about specific “exercises” analogous to the yogic and Sufic “techniques” you have read about in books—exercises a Christian might use in moving from (1) Apatheia to (2) Nepsis to (3) Hesychia to (4) Agape to (5) Theologia to (6) Theosis. “Maybe,” you write, recalling one of my earlier criticisms of this line of thinking, “my mind is too attached to the image of a ladder,” and yet there must surely be some sense—you protest—in which we are to see ourselves as progressing or advancing spiritually, or else there would be no point in “following” an Orthodox “Path”. And if there is advancement, does it not follow—this seems to be the heart of your message—that one may look at certain “states” as being “signs” of movement along that Path, signs that more and more subtle or refined or exacting techniques are in order?

As I have told you before, FS strongly dissuaded those who came to him for spiritual direction from concerning themselves with the pranayamic and other psychosomatic exercises you seem to have in mind. And regarding the various signs or landmarks you mention, he said to me once very forcefully—and with an accentuating flourish of his hand—”I have absolutely no interest in ‘states of consciousness’!” The point of so uncompromising a dismissal should be clear to you by now: namely, that for someone who is endeavoring to follow a Mantrayana or Way of the Name such states can very easily become mere distractions from the “one thing needful”, and in giving them our attention—in however peripheral or occasional a way—we cannot but sacrifice a portion of the mindful focus that the Name, and thus the Named, deserve.

I have recently had occasion to reread a number of Schuon's letters, and with your query in mind I was struck by several passages that speak to this issue precisely. The following three observations seem especially worthy of your careful reflection:

The entire emphasis must be placed on the Invocation, and other practices must be reduced to a minimum. For the Invocation contains everything, and it is sufficiently demanding and exacting to allow us to simplify our religious practice. The great argument of Japa and J?do is that in maintaining other practices alongside the Invocation one comes to doubt the efficacy of the invocatory practice itself and hence the divine Mercy; now faith is one of the conditions sine qua non of the invocatory Path (Letter of 9 July 1981).

You allude to a form of concentration that—in becoming more and more inward—would pierce through to the “determining causes of the inner phenomena” of man. But in fact in order to reach these causes it is enough to concentrate on the Divine Name that one is invoking. There is much discussion about concentration today, but efforts to concentrate are undertaken in a manner that is extra-traditional, hence in a purely profane and exclusively psychological way. These kinds of pseudo-yogas lead to nothing, if only because nothing can be done without Grace, and this Grace acts only within methods that are intrinsically orthodox, that is, within the religions. In any case the quintessential Path is concentration by means of the Invocation of God; this path proceeds on the basis of the metaphysical discernment between the illusory and the Real, and it is carried on with the help of the virtues of patience and trust or with resignation and joy (Letter of 6 September 1970).

In the spiritual life one must simplify the means, not make them more complicated; one must always return to the fundamental elements, which alone matter: discernment between the Absolute and the contingent or relative; methodical practice of the Invocation; realization of the essential virtues. And no perfectionism: one must not force matters in order to be perfectly concentrated; this introduces into the Invocation a false and bitter element, which is worse than distraction pure and simple. Heaven does not ask perfection of us; it asks for sincerity, hence right intention. It is not a matter of torturing ourselves; it is a matter of practicing the Invocation with simplicity and perseverance; perseverance is everything. And one must absolutely avoid the expectation of results; “I love because I love,” Saint Bernard said. The expectation of results takes the beauty and purity out of the Path—even its grandeur, I will say—and ipso facto compromises its efficacy. The practice is our task; the results are God's. We aspire intellectually to the Divine Reality and individually to salvation, and this without having to dot the “i’s”. What other methods do does not concern us; what matters is to know that our Method contains all that is necessary from the twofold human and metaphysical viewpoint (Letter of 26 January 1983).

Regularity, Intensity, Thoroughness

Friday, July 6th, 2007

The criteria for assessment in my honors seminars are implicit in the syllabus, which describes each course as “a shared conversational inquiry” in which “a premium will be placed on precision, explanation, and defense” and in which “students will be held doubly accountable: for courteously listening to the contributions of others and for patiently justifying their own observations”. The syllabus explains further that the assigned essays should be viewed, not as research papers or book reports, but “as continuing conversations” in which their authors “wrestle in writing with the ideas opened up by the books” discussed in class.

These aims and this approach to grading are unusual enough, however, that it is often useful on the first day of class to spell out the criteria a bit more fully and to set forth more explicitly what standards the students will be asked to adhere to. The Socratic method of teaching, with its continual use of elenchus or cross-examination, is well suited to helping students learn to think in a more cogent and disciplined fashion, and it is the regularity, intensity, and thoroughness of their thinking, and not their mastery of a certain “content” or collection of facts, which count in these seminars.

As a means to helping students assess their own progress in becoming better thinkers, not just at the end of the semester but on a day to day basis, I encourage them to pose the following sets of questions—to each other in class and outside of class to themselves as they read the books and prepare their essays. The questions are organized in nine categories, which amount to nine essential criteria for assessing work in the seminars:

1. Clarity. Could you elaborate further? Could you give me an example from something we read for today? Could you just say that again, more slowly and audibly?!

2. Accuracy. How might we check on that fact? Is every word in this essay spelled correctly? Have I verified the wording and page number of that quotation?

3. Precision. Could you please define that word? Could you refer us to a particular passage? Does that sentence I just typed conform to C. S. Lewis's rule for writing: “Decide exactly what you want to say, and say exactly that”?

4. Relevance. How does that observation relate to the problem at hand? How does it bear on the question So-and-so asked last time? Does what I am about to say help us understand the second to the last page of our reading assignment?

5. Depth. What hidden or double meanings may make this a more difficult problem than we suspect? What are some of the complexities of this question? Have we probed beneath the surface of our own assumptions?

6. Breadth. Do we need to approach this problem from a different angle? How does the author's perspective differ from that of the other authors we have read? What are some of the implications we need to deal with?

7. Logic. Do your observations make sense when taken all together? Does my first paragraph really fit with my last? Does what I conclude truly follow from the evidence I presented?

8. Significance. Is this the most important problem to consider? Is this the central idea of the book—or the chapter, the paragraph, the sentence? Which of these ideas is the most crucial to our deliberations this semester?

9. Fairness. Do I have a vested but unexamined interest in this point of view? Have I given thoughtful time to my reading and have I really understood what I read? Have I listened to what other people say in class and tried to see things as they do?

Throughout the semester, I make a point of observing each of the students very carefully, as they should be observing themselves. It is evident which of them are taking these criteria seriously, which are therefore fully prepared for each class, which are willing to assist their peers in becoming more confident and able dialecticians, and which are open to improving the written expression of their thought through a careful study of my critical comments, both propositional and “symbolic”, on their essays.

But something else is important, too. I also make a point of keeping track of which students are prepared to take risks—to tackle the more difficult and fruitful questions in their papers and to put forward the more venturesome observations in class discussion. These risks will, of course, often be met with criticisms, and the proposals a given student advances may more than once be rejected. But I remind them that it is only when we express ourselves freely and fully that our thinking is given the chance to improve. Imaginative—even “off the wall”—insights, coupled with wit and good humor, do not go unnoticed, or unrewarded.

Those Who Hold the Reins

Sunday, July 1st, 2007

I quote from your message: “You state in your book of Advice to the Serious Seeker (as have other Traditionalist writers) that initiation into spiritual esoterism presupposes adherence to an exoteric path. Yet those who hold the reins of exoteric institutions, at least within Christendom, seem to reject, deny, or be oblivious to the esoteric dimension. I can see no point in committing to an exoteric body that cannot or will not provide a pathway to spiritual initiation.”

These words are most perspicacious; indeed they cut straight to the heart of the problem most Christian seekers face. My godfather, the late Alvin Moore, Jr., often quoted the following scripture in this regard: “Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered” (Luke 11:52).

To be sure, a small minority of seekers are able to find, among those who “hold the reins”, a few priests who are open to esoterism or (an even rarer possibility) who are themselves following an esoteric path. Among my own close acquaintances there are three Orthodox priests in this second category—one of whom is a hieromonk and abbot—and of course I often suggest that qualified inquirers visit their parishes.

By far the majority of Christians who wish to follow a jnanic path, however—and hence the majority of those who come to me for advice—are obliged to keep their esoterism to themselves when in church, while receiving the sacramental nourishment the exoteric tradition has to offer. But of course this is no little thing: the sacraments are precisely the “point in committing to an exoteric body” in the first place, and one should be thankful that such Mysteries are still accessible, whatever the opinions of those who transmit them.

I agree that this is a less than fully desirable situation, especially for someone like you who is looking for what you call “an integral spiritual community”, but it is by no means an impossible one.