Archive for April, 2009

Holy Monotony

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

During the course of your daily sessions of prayer, you say, the Name of All?h has occasionally “interposed” itself while you were repeating the Jesus Prayer, and you want to know what I think.

It goes without saying, of course, that there’s nothing “un-Christian” about invoking this Name. As you doubtless know, All?h simply means “God”, and this is how Melkites and other Arabic-speaking Christians would normally address the Deity. On the other hand, as a matter of spiritual method, it’s obviously inadvisable to mix divine Names when engaging in Prayer of the Heart, the aim—or at least one aim—of which is a deepened concentration leading to hesychia or imperturbable stillness. There is also this methodical point to be noted: to say—as you did in your letter—that this interposition “just happens for no apparent reason” suggests a lapse of attention on your part; otherwise you wouldn’t find yourself doing something you hadn’t intended.

Do I think you’re “in danger”? No, but I do strongly advise you against giving place to this Name during your formal sessions of prayer. You speak of having sometimes deliberately stopped the Jesus Prayer in order to invoke All?h “several times” before returning to the Name of Christ. This is unwise. My counsel, on the contrary, is that as soon as you’ve noticed this phenomenon, you should immediately turn your attention back to the words of the Jesus Prayer, gently but also firmly and insistently. Of course, as I’ve already noted, there’s clearly nothing wrong with a Christian calling upon the Name of God as such—or rather the Name “God” as such, be it Deus, Theos, or All?h—rather than an avataric Name. If you feel a strong desire to invoke All?h, you should certainly feel free to do so outside the formal invocatory sessions.

As for attending the Buddhist “gathering” you mention, it’s certainly possible—indeed highly desirable—to learn from the other traditions, but I would very strongly caution you not to join in any of the actual practices this retreat may entail; anything that might in any way compete for “psychic space” with your rule of prayer should be assiduously avoided. Listening to the lectures is fine, and so is “just sitting” or breathing, or even endeavoring to watch the inward movements of your mind. But if you’re invited to engage in a visualization of a Buddhist mandala or dakini, or to invoke a Buddhist mantram, you should obviously not do so. This should go without saying, but sometimes restating the self-evident is important.

A final word of warning. Each of the questions you’ve posed suggests you’re bored, or discontented in some way, with the very simplicity of the Christic invocation. It’s true, of course, that there’s something “monotonous” about the Hesychast path, but holy monotony is precisely one of its strengths! For its part the ego wants some novelty to escape to or some complexity to hide in, whether it’s making use of an alternative mantram or investigating the teachings of another religion. The efficacy of our method consists in the fact that we systematically avoid fulfilling this egoic desire, turning our attention repeatedly back to the “one thing needful”. Nothing else matters; in fact nothing else even exists.

The Divine Sun

Monday, April 13th, 2009

A comment appeared a few days ago here on Anamn?sis. Written by someone operating under the alias “Thurbolt Smagg”—my first thought, I confess, was that one of the diabolical legion in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters had begun reading this weblog—it was tagged to a post of mine from last November entitled “Too Much Perennialism“.

Mr (or could it be Ms?) Smagg opines that perennialists should get over their “us vs. them” mentality and realize that the problems they face in academia are the same as those facing all religious studies professors, and in fact everyone in the humanities: namely, how to justify a discipline that fails to “offer scientific discoveries” or “innovations in health care” in an era when “the value of higher education” is increasingly linked to its “career possibilities”. He (or she) advises perennialists to take the temperature of the times and exploit the culture’s “passionate interest in matters of value and ethics”, the university’s “preoccupation with diversity”, and the “emergence of (or return to) the notion of interdisciplinary study”, the goal in each case being “to find a basis for cultural critique that does not simply fall on deaf ears”. In short “we must mine current trends in education for traces of the perennial wisdom, and build upon those traces”.

What this means, however, is that perennialists need to extract their heads from the sand and resist what Smagg perceives as their tendency to eschew other disciplines. “If we have quarantined ourselves from interdisciplinary discourse, it should come as no surprise that our viewpoint is considered irrelevant”. My correspondent concludes: “If perennialism can indeed claim for itself a future, it will not be because a professor—such as Dr Cutsinger—finally succeeds in explaining perennialism to his department chairman. It will be because a fully engaged scholar—such as Dr Cutsinger—sees the deep game and understands the territory in which the battle for the future is fought.”

Justifying the discipline. Exploiting public interest. Mining current trends. Battling for the future. It’s difficult to know quite what to say in response, especially since Thurbolt—if I may presume such familiarity—seems to have nothing but my best interests at heart, or at least the best interests of those academic perennialists among my readers who aspire to be deans or grants officers, or who perhaps are simply praying for tenure. Since I have tenure and don’t want to be a dean, I suppose I’m in a rather different category, and maybe it’s for that reason that the first thing to come into my mind was a passage from Gai Eaton’s wonderful book The King of the Castle:

To bring religion to the people is a fine and necessary undertaking, but this is not a situation in which the proposed end can be said to justify the means. The further people have drifted from the truth, the greater is the temptation to water down the truth, glossing over its less palatable aspects and, in short, allowing a policy of compromise to become one of adulteration. In this way it is hoped that the common man [here we might substitute: the typical funding agency or tenure and promotion committee] will be encouraged to find a small corner in his busy life for religion without having to change his ways or to grapple with disturbing thoughts.

It is a forlorn hope. Standing, as it were, at the pavement’s edge with his tray of goods, the priest [Smagg’s perennialist?] reduces the price until he is offering his wares for nothing…. And still the passers-by go their way, sorry over having to ignore such a nice man but with more important matters demanding their attention…. Had they been offered a real alternative, a rock firm-planted from the beginning of time, they might have been prepared to pay a high price. It is even possible, had the priest [or perennialist] turned his back upon them, attending only to the divine sun which seizes and holds his gaze, they might have come up quietly behind him, knelt down—looking where he looks—and forgotten all their care and all their troubles (London: The Bodley Head, 1977, pp. 17-18).

I’m under no illusions, or not at least on this count! I’m fairly sure that anyone likely to become my chairman will never really understand what I’m up to, and I’ve no doubt at all that carving out a space in academia for a fully funded Center of Perennialist Studies is—well, just the sort of absurd fantasy one of Screwtape’s minions might be expected to try and tempt me with! But that’s not why I’m in this job, never has been and never will be. I’m in it for the students, and I’m delighted to say that once again this semester I’ve been blessed with a few who seem drawn to the Sun.