Archive for January, 2009

The Ground of Common Joy

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Thank you for sharing your experience working with this hospice patient. What you said of your final conversations with the woman reminded me of something C. S. Lewis wrote shortly after the death of his great friend Charles Williams. It was not that his friend had been changed by death, Lewis said; it was death that had been changed by its encounter with his friend. “Trampling down death by death,” we sing in the Paschal Troparion. We sing these words, of course, in celebration of the victory of the risen Lord, and yet they apply just as much, through Him, to those who have been “baptized into Christ and have put on Christ”. They too trample death. “Though we die,” wrote Saint Athanasius, “we no longer die death as before.”

Is this not perhaps the Orthodox “context” for the experience you are looking for—the context in which we can understand how, and why, this woman’s blessed repose made it possible for you to somehow “physically” take something from it? It is metaphysically evident that we are all “one flesh”, and I would think—given the heart-wrenching and yet ennobling and transforming ministry you are now engaged in—that this becomes concretely more and more clear to you every day. It should therefore be no surprise that what one person experiences at so pivotal a moment as death cannot but have reverberations for the rest of us, especially those with whom the person has shared certain intimate moments.

I think this must be what you had in mind in talking about the “ground of common suffering”. But let’s add immediately that there’s also a “ground of common joy”.

Holy Carefreeness

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

I believe you’re making this much more complicated than it needs to be. By its very nature, a mantray?na gives us a sacred object upon which to concentrate, namely (in our case) the Name of God.

But we don’t need to “narrow our consciousness by an intense concentration”, to use your formulation. For one thing, this sounds too much like thinking about what your fingers are doing, and not about the music, when you’re playing the piano, and it represents a significant departure from the tariki or “Other Power” sacramentally contained in the Name. One of the goals of this practice, after all, is to escape the illusion that everything somehow depends on us—on us who are not. So no: We should keep our attention on the mantram, not on our attention on the mantram, and we need not concern ourselves with the “degree of intensity”.

Perhaps the following from Schuon will be of some help:

“What matters a priori is not that we know how to concentrate; what matters is that we love to practice the Invocation…. It is better to invoke with joy while being a little distracted by harmless thoughts than to invoke without joy because the effort of concentration prevents one from being happy. It is necessary to guard against a perfectionism that is angry and ambitious, and basically individualistic; it is necessary to guard against all ‘zeal of bitterness’. It is better to invoke with carefreeness, like a bird which sings or like a child at play. Holy carefreeness readily combines with the sense of the sacred, thanks to confidence in God. Metaphysical knowledge and holy childlikeness must go hand in hand: ‘extremes meet’. A had?th says that there will be a people who will enter Paradise like a flock of birds” (“The Book of Keys”, No. 940, “Concentration”).

Unless I’m mistaken, what your Dzogchen teaching calls the “natural state” is what Schuon here means by “holy childlikeness”. But this is not opposed to concentration, nor a fortiori to the Invocation; on the contrary, it is this concentration in its purest form.

Rescuing Anselm

Monday, January 12th, 2009

You want to know whether the following is a threat to Anselm’s ontological argument:

1. The only way to prove something a priori is if its opposite is a contradiction.

2. If something is a contradiction, it is inconceivable.

3. Everything can be conceived not to exist.

4. Therefore, nothing can be proven to exist a priori, including God.

You’ve read, or perhaps listened to, my lecture on Anselm, so you know that the argument doesn’t actually turn on the claim that the nonexistence of God is contradictory and that the existence of God is therefore necessary, though in fact one comes to acknowledge this necessity as result of seeing in Proslogion 2 that “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” cannot exist in the mind alone.

Much in this Humean criticism turns on the word “conceive”: Hume is certainly right that if something is contradictory it can’t really be conceived. But it’s nonetheless easy enough to imagine we’re “conceiving” something just because it’s expressed as a noun or nominal phrase in a syntactically sound English sentence. It’s not obvious to most people at first glance, for example, that “a rock too heavy for God to lift” is a contradiction, and so they think they’re “conceiving” such a rock as a real possibility. This is the atheist’s mistake with regard to the supposed non-existence of God.

It’s also important to keep in mind that for Hume only those things that disclose themselves in facts of an empirical kind can be truly said to exist, and of course every such thing, being contingent, can be conceived not to exist. But here’s where the third of Saint Thomas’s ways kicks in: if everything were contingent, then there could have been some time, or some possible state of affairs, in which nothing existed. But ex nihilo nihil fit. Or alternatively one could perhaps borrow from Descartes and point out that the “conceiver” who conceives of “everything” as not existing cannot conceive of himself not existing; hence he cannot really conceive of everything as not existing.

These are the lines along which I would direct my thoughts if I were you.