Archive for September, 2008

On Being Wary of Postulates and Programs

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Yes, of course: the doctrine of the Resurrection places the emphasis on a continuity—indeed a physical, “flesh and blood” continuity—between what we are (or seem to be) now and what we shall be after death.

For Christians, the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrectional body have always been regarded as paradigmatic: whatever was true of Him will be true for us as well, and this means that in the Resurrection we too will be able to eat and be touched, and our bodies will bear at least some of their distinguishing physical marks. For the Christian tradition, as for the other Semitic exoterisms, Paradise is thus limited (your word) to a perpetuation of the individual state, or—as you put it—to the idea that the “ego will live again”. Here we return, as so often, to the essential distinction between salvation on the one hand and liberation (moksha) on the other.

But we must be very cautious in using this term “limited” lest we end up despising Heaven’s promises and gifts! Commenting on the Sufi aphorism that “Paradise is but a prison”, Schuon wisely observes,

“The words in question are essentially the expression of an experience on the part of men who have penetrated the veil of M?y?; presented as a postulate or a program, it has about it something that is singularly disproportionate, unreal, and ill-sounding. That Paradise can be a ‘prison’ means: the world of phenomena, whatever it may be, is perceived as a limitation, or a system of limitations, by him who has tasted the Essence; it does not mean: Paradise is not good enough a priori for this man or that man; quod absit” (René Guénon, Some Observations [Sophia Perennis, 2004], p. 47).

And let’s be certain to remember this too: though Christian eschatology takes no explicit interest in anything beyond the individual state, a fully orthodox understanding of the Resurrection is nonetheless obliged to take seriously these words of the Beloved Disciple: “Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as he is” (1 John 3:2). He who sees God the Son as He is, and who has truly become a son of God himself, is clearly no longer merely human; or if he is human, we’re not! His “natural energies” have been replaced by the “uncreated energies” of God (Saint Maximos the Confessor), and he has become “without origin and infinite” (Saint Gregory Palamas).

To know that “we shall be like him” is to expect continuity, as I’ve admitted already, but isn’t it obvious that there must also be a dimension of discontinuity? For though He could be touched (John 20:27), He could also pass though locked doors (John 20:19). Here we have, at the very level of the Gospel’s “flesh and blood” narrative, an esoteric opening toward the supra-formal, and thus toward liberation or deliverance.

Asked whether in the Resurrection men would have the same body, a new body, or no body, Origen responded, “Yes!”

The “Presence” of a Master

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Regarding your question about finding a spiritual master, I would caution you to be careful about placing quite the emphasis you have on “presence”. Of course, you certainly have a right to expect that a genuine shaykh or murshid will display all the virtues and that his bearing will in some fashion manifest his inward station. On the other hand, you should beware of getting caught up in displays or phenomena. As it happens, the gifts and attainments of a true master may be veiled, whether by virtue of his simplicity alone or, in some cases, by his deliberately surprising and paradoxical actions. We Orthodox, as I’m sure you know, speak about the “fool for Christ”, and there are analogues to this possibility in every tradition.

A certain caution is particularly important for those who are seeking to follow a path of gnosis, for it’s in the very nature of jn?na marga to accentuate doctrine and the objective techniques of method, not psychosomatic states and experiences, nor by extension the personal “charisma” of the guide. There are of course Sufi taruq in which the barakah of the shaykh constitutes an important dimension of spiritual life for his disciples, who are nourished as it were by the perfumed atmosphere of his presence. I’m told by a former student of mine who entered the Naqshabandi Order in order to become a murid of Shaykh Nazim that he’s an excellent example of a master of this kind and that many of the disciples in this tar?qah are—not surprisingly, perhaps—mutabbarikun rather than “travelers” proper. It sounds as though the master you’ve encountered is in the same basic category.

Please understand that I don’t at all mean to disparage this possibility; it doubtless meets the needs of certain seekers. But it shouldn’t serve as a measure of all legitimate Sufism, nor of spiritual guidance more generally.

Behind Yourself

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

You speak of occasionally having the sense that something within you, which is “more than you”, is always praying, even in the moments when you are feeling the most distracted and spiritually indolent; and when you have this experience, you say, it’s as if you were positioned in some way “behind” yourself.

This is a not uncommon sensation for someone who is engaged in a disciplined life of prayer. One thinks of the words of Solomon: “I sleep, but my heart waketh” (Canticles 5:2). It should be accepted with gratitude, certainly—as a “consolation”, to use Roman Catholic parlance, and as an encouragement toward further spiritual effort. But I would not recommend that you attempt to “make something of it” or to “do” something with it.

As Schuon wisely pointed out, “Instead of being governed by phenomena or following inspirations, we should submit to principles and accomplish actions. What God wants of us or what He wishes us to know is to be found in things that are certain and necessary, not in things that are probable and moreover conjectural”—things, precisely, like the meanings or messages that we might otherwise be tempted to suppose lie hidden in unusual states of consciousness. This is clearly excellent advice, and applicable on numerous levels.

Perhaps I should add, however, that what you describe does amount to an experiential confirmation of the fact—were confirmation needed—that duo sunt in homine (“there are two [selves] in man”): namely, the psycho-somatic individuality, on the one hand, and the transpersonal Spirit or Intellect, which is increatus et increabile, on the other. It’s in the nature of things that the created should sometimes “sense” the Uncreated, but it would be a mistake to try to magnify or manipulate this sensation, or to lay in wait for an encore.

One is grateful for the warmth of the sun, especially after days and days of cloudy weather, and one may enjoy seeing its image on the surface of a calm pool of water. But concentrating too exclusively on the warmth or the reflection can easily lead away from the sun itself.

Not the Liturgys Fault

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

I believe you’d be wise to get some distance on your emotions. We’re to have cool heads and warm hearts, not hot heads and cold hearts. Not that you’re very close to running the latter risk—your evident compassion seems proof against a low cardiac temperature—but your mental apparatus does appear close to boiling! So let’s stop and give this some calming thought. If an esoterist knows anything, it’s that not everyone is an esoterist. Most people need propositional boundaries, and it’s in the very nature of things that every religion thinks its boundaries the best. True, vilifying other paths is stupid, but it’s surely not the first time you’ve encountered people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

In any case one goes to Church—as I’ve pointed out many times before—not to enter into an ecumenical dialogue or to promulgate the virtues of metaphysics, but simply and solely to participate in the Holy Mysteries, and the Church in its wisdom decided centuries ago that the validity and efficacy of those Mysteries do not depend on the intelligence, and certainly not on the open-mindedness, of a given priest. Forgive me for being blunt, but yes: you were definitely “in error” in walking out of a Divine Liturgy. It’s not the poor Liturgy’s fault, after all, if the homilist says something silly. And frankly, being “broken hearted” or feeling the need to “weep” for “the whole world” seems to me a little over the top. We can wish all day long that people were different or for the world to change, but better that we focus our energy—energy that would otherwise be wasted—on our rule of prayer, for in this at least we have the realistic hope of changing something that we really can change for the better: ourselves.

I had to smile when you spoke of Missouri as “the Bible belt”. “Hah,” I thought, “she ought to live in South Carolina!” No, you probably don’t have the temperament for the sort of thing I do in my teaching and writing. So go ahead—if you wish—and pass my Paths to the Heart along to this priest, inwardly asking God to help you stop feeling “an aversion to taking communion” from him simply because, by God’s grace, you’ve been given the power to see his limitations for what they are. And then, if St George’s continues to seem problematic, check out another church in town. As you’ve surely discovered, at least some Orthodox are more contented than Father N. with leaving it to God to decide how salvation works and who exactly is going to benefit from it.