Archive for October, 2008

Perception, Not Interpretation

Monday, October 27th, 2008

I don’t know what you mean when you say that traditional scientists such as the alchemists “identified” themselves with the Divine Principle rather than with the material world. I rather doubt it was very often a case, even theoretically, of Tat tvam asi, but perhaps you’re thinking of some less exalted, or more metaphorical, form of identification.

In the final analysis, the fundamental difference between the traditional and modern sciences can be reduced to the question of whether one is looking “at” or “along” the world of phenomena—this is a C. S. Lewis distinction (see his short essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” in God in the Dock) that I often come back to—and whether one privileges Aristotle’s material and efficient or his formal and final causes.

As I tell my university students, the dispute between evolutionists and “creationists”—I put this word in quotation marks to show that I’m using it in a sense broad enough to include Platonists and Plotinists, as well as Semitic cosmogonists—is not a dispute over how to interpret a common set of perceptions; it’s a dispute over how to perceive, and thus over what is perceived. Perhaps you will recall in this connection Owen Barfield’s distinction in Saving the Appearances between “alpha thinking” and “figuration”. You might also want to take a look at my recent lecture “Requiring Religion” for a somewhat fuller sense of the epistemological divide that’s at stake here.

Rejoice in Distractions

Monday, October 20th, 2008

I realize prayer has lately become something of a vicious circle for you, if one may use this rather ill-sounding phrase for so sacred a subject. This is not the first time you’ve told me of your difficulties in praying to a God you still have trouble believing in and with a view to an immortality that often seems to you equally doubtful. Frankly, if I were praying only “to” such “a” God and only “with a view” to this goal, I would probably have trouble praying too.

Prayer of the Heart, however, is much too concrete, too simple, too immediate, and too immediately self-confirming for such doubts to “catch up” to it. Just a few weeks of practice—serious practice, mind you—should be enough to confirm this high praise. And if the term “prayer” is still a problem, because of the past associations you mention, by all means call it something different. Label it “watchfulness”, if you prefer, for fundamentally it’s simply our effort to be attentive instead of sleeping our way through life, and properly practiced it’s as easy as blinking your eyes, and yet at the same time deeply refreshing and instantly rewarding.

“Easy!” you may well reply. “And what of the demands involved in a truly ‘proper’ practice?” I know you worry—nearly everyone does!—about concentration, and you feel as though you’ve been wasting your time when your mind continually strays from the mantram. In fact, however—and I’ve pointed this out several times in Anamn?sis—in some ways the most fruitful sessions of Invocation are the ones in which we’ve been given the most opportunities, not to sit comfortably at the Center, but repeatedly to bring our minds back to that Center, which means we have every reason to rejoice in distractions!

I admit I’m teasing, but my playfulness has a serious purpose, for there’s certainly nothing “wrong” with distraction as such. For that matter there isn’t anything “wrong” with not doing anything about it—that is, with failing to use distraction as an occasion for practicing the Method of return. This isn’t a moral issue about which you need to feel guilty. It’s a question of “skillful means”, as Buddhists would say.

Certainly, the Name is the Named, and this means we must approach our spiritual work with a keen and respectful sense of the sacred. But be careful that the sacramental identity in question doesn’t keep you from invoking out of a sense of unworthiness. Of course, you’re unworthy! Now, the question is: in what precisely does that “unworthiness” consist? Whence does it come? How deep does it go? The more interested you allow yourself to be in finding an answer to these questions, the more joyful will your prayerful acts of self-observation become.

If Metaphysics Could Be Taught to Everyone

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

I agree, certainly, that we must guard our hearts carefully against presumption, but we needn’t suppose in doing so that metaphysics and esoterism are themselves presumptuous. There is of course such a thing as intellectual pride, but there is also such a thing as anti-intellectual pride. Humility doesn’t mean pretending we don’t see what we do.

It’s unclear, even after numerous conversations with His Grace, whether Archbishop C. can’t see that there must be M?y? in divinis, or whether—ex officio—he has simply decided not to talk about it for fear of scandalizing the bhaktic faithful. Either way, it remains the case that a God who freely chooses to do what He might not have done must be the relatively absolute self-determination of a God who is necessarily all He does and necessarily does all He is, in the ever-present Now of eternity.

It has rightly been said that “Metaphysics cannot be taught to everyone, but if it could be there would be no atheists”. Let us add: there would also be no fideists.

Acquiring Distance on Death

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

I’m very sorry to learn of your illness. I was asked much the same question you pose a few months ago by another correspondent, who had been told he was suffering from a terminal disease and was writing to request my advice about “spiritual” books. Here, if you’re interested, is what I told this person: Mental Health and the Classics.

But yours seems a very different case: for one thing your sickness isn’t immediately life-threatening, at least as far as you know, and for another you’ve already read Plato—perhaps even more times than have I!—as well as Dionysius and Boethius. And though Ramana Maharshi is new to you (or so I gathered from your message), you’re nonetheless familiar from your studies of Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy with much the same intellective strategy, which consists in pulling back from the demands of the seeming self by objectifying it and subjecting it to a dispassionate analysis. A reading list along these lines would seem quite beside the point.

It is perhaps worth noting, however, that one of the authors in this list, namely Boethius, was only three years older than you when he died. Did you realize that? I suppose the kshatriya in you may say that bearing a martyr’s death would be much easier, because more glorious, than dealing with your own present sufferings, trivial though they may appear by comparison. Perhaps, but the Consolation nonetheless suggests that its author felt his fair share of “trivial anxieties” as well! Maybe rereading his book—surely one of the very greatest of all the “great books”—in this light could be a useful meditation for you.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that this will free you from anxiety about death. Nor, I hasten to add, is freedom from anxiety necessarily the unmitigated good you (not unnaturally) imagine. It may well be that your feeling of dread is precisely the God-given means you require to provoke a keener interest in disciplined spiritual practice, the interest you have so often confessed you don’t have. Could it not be that these present sufferings are but a wake-up call to your soul, a true memento mori? Not even the quintessential orison of the Heart can, or should, “cure your anxiety”, and it would be the height of foolishness for me to promise such a cure, or for you to expect it. On the other hand, what I can promise is that faithful perseverance in this mode of prayer will give you the distance you need to observe your anxiety with an increasing dispassion.

This “distance” may at first persist only a heartbeat or two. Eventually, though, the practice will lead to a point where the anxiety is no longer needed and dies away of its own accord. I have no way of knowing when you will reach this stage. But whether it’s on this side of your death, in the midst of your dying, or after your death makes no operative difference. The point is simply that a continual, attentive return to the Name is an excellent way to prepare for that death—as do all those who (like Plato) “pursue philosophy aright”—whether it comes (as you have worried) very soon or only many years hence.