Archive for August, 2009

Being Grateful

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

You say you aren’t as grateful as you should be for the blessings in your life, and you would like to take steps to acquire this virtue.

Gratitude is at least partly a function of need: The greater our felt need for X the greater our gratitude—or the greater in any case is the opportunity or occasion for gratitude—when we finally receive X. Hence the importance of fasting from food and thus also the importance of times of chastity and abstinence within a healthy marriage. The “insensate brute” you’ve detected in yourself must first be curbed and then transformed; self-mastery precedes self-transcendence. One thinks of C. S. Lewis’s Great Divorce and the lizard that was changed into a horse. But this can happen only if we make a regular practice of not giving in to the desires of the moment.

The Fathers all say that the belly is where the problems tend to start. It’s a good practice, if this seems to be the root of one’s own brutishness, to make a habit of not eating to satiation. Leave the table a little hungry—not so hungry you’re physically uncomfortable or distracted by growling until the next meal, but just enough so that you’re reminded of the fact of your dependency on the gift of food. Knowing as you sit down to a meal that you’re not going to eat “all you want” will also make the food you do eat taste better—this of course is a common experience—and it’s much easier to be thankful for things that are tasty!

It should go without saying, but it’s also important not to “multi-task”: When you’re eating, pay attention to each and every morsel—don’t just shovel food in. I think of the Zen disciple who, when he asked about the true meaning of Zen, was told by his master, “When you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep.” “But doesn’t everybody do this?” he objected. “No,” the master responded. “When they eat, they think of ten thousand things, and when they sleep, they dream innumerable dreams.”

A final word: You said you want to acquire the virtue of gratitude, but be careful here. No virtue is ever ours, never something we can appropriate and claim as our own. On the contrary we should enter into gratitude and the other virtues, endeavoring to participate in them as fully as possible, but with the knowledge that they belong to God. Rather than wanting to be perfect we’re better advised to want not to be imperfect.

The Woman

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Is there some specifically, or especially, esoteric reason, you ask, for Christ’s seemingly harsh words to His Mother in John 2:4? The setting, of course, is the marriage feast at Cana, and in the preceding verse Mary has informed Her Son that the wine has run out. Then come the words that concern you, and that have concerned many others: “Jesus saith unto Her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.”

Here are a few points worth considering.

In the first place, the KJV translation you quote, and which I’ve reproduced here, seems to miss the point of the Greek. What Christ actually says is ti emoi kai soi—literally, “what (is this) to me and you?” I don’t mean to suggest there is nothing koanic about the question; it’s a curious response, to be sure. Nonetheless the Greek makes it clear that Christ is by no means opposing Himself to His Mother; on the contrary the passage serves to remind us that these two avataric Personages are together opposed to the other wedding guests. They are in an altogether different category, for She and He are alike in being “not of this world” (John 18:36).

Be that as it may, the very next verse proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ’s words were in no way a rebuff or rebuke of Mary. Here we find Her only recorded public utterance, and what She says would be a total non sequitur if Her Son’s words had been intended to “put Her off”, as we say, or silence Her. Far from demurely withdrawing, Her response is to manifest something of Her celestial authority by issuing a command to the servants—a command to the effect that Christ’s own as-yet-to-be issued, but anticipated, injunction be obeyed: “Whatever He says unto you, do it.”

Some have worried about the mode of address in which the Son speaks to the Mother: “Woman”, He says, rather than something (apparently) more endearing or personal. I have seen it argued that at the time this would have been a more or less typical way of addressing any woman, even one’s mother, without there being anything derogatory about it. But whether that is the case or not—I shall leave it to the linguists and cultural historians to address this point—what I can say is that, esoterically speaking, it is surely more appropriate to address the Virgin in an impersonal rather than a personal way, for what She is essentially or metaphysically is indeed Woman, “the eternal Feminine”, with all this signifies and implies.

Finally, I would remind you of what Schuon had to say regarding the necessary “parsimony” with which Mary is treated in the Scriptures; it is not unreasonable to suppose that the exchange at Cana between Her and Her Son serves much the same purpose: namely, that of veiling Her true reality. As Schuon points out, the Virgin “lived in effacement and refused to perform miracles; the almost complete silence of the Gospel in regard to her illustrates this effacement.” But it illustrates as well—however indirectly and allusively—something of this Woman’s true greatness, for in their very reticence the scriptures provide us with a first and most important hint that “Maryam is identifiable with esoteric Truth (Haq?qah) inasmuch as she is a secret Revelation” (see my “Colorless Light and Pure Air“, p. 5).

A Devil in the Room

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Regarding the “fantasies” and “distractions” you report, it seems to me you are dealing with these logismoi already in the best possible way: that is, by objectifying the various sensations, images, and thoughts as they arise in order to look upon them as distinct phenomena, which though they may be temporarily in you are not you.

While I certainly do not mean to trivialize the “principalities and powers” you speak of, from a methodical point of view it makes little difference whether a given thought has been planted by a demonic agency or is our own physiological or psychological construction. In either case the “disturbance” is not problematic until and unless we “couple” with it—I am using the language of the Philokalic Fathers here—and the very thought “Oh, my goodness: there is a devil in my room!” can itself lead to such “coupling”.

As the Bhagavad G?ta teaches, “There is no lustral water like unto knowledge”—the knowledge in this case that devils have no more power over us than indigestion until and unless we give it to them. For “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Spiritual virility, aristocracy, a sense of the sacred, seeing things as if in the crystalline clarity of a mountaintop vista: This is the standpoint one should make a habit of adopting, with the help of God.

The Combustion of Spiritual Knowledge

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

A follow-up to my last post, “Sifting the Wheat“. Someone has written in response with the following criticism:

I thoroughly agree with your stated preference in pedagogy. But if I’m right that human beings can enjoy a knowledge of the Truth only through faith as distinct from perception and intellection (this I believe is the meaning of “fideism), and if—as I confidently assume—you as a Christian are a fideist, then I must ask whether you really want to hold that “clear and careful thought cannot but lead to the Truth”. It would seem to me that while Truth must be consistent with “clear and careful thought”, the latter in and of itself is insufficient to lead to the former.

First, this is not what fideism means; the fideist is the person who supposes that “knowledge of the Truth” (that is, God) is impossible and that we must therefore content ourselves in this life with “blind” faith (contra Hebrews 11:1).

Second, not all Christians are fideists, and I’m certainly not; how a reader of Anamn?sis could have become so “confident” about something so wide of the mark is certainly a puzzle, but of course “M?y? is a greater mystery than ?tm?“.

Third, my correspondent is certainly mistaken in thinking that perception and a fortiori intellection yield no knowledge of a spiritual order; he favors, he says, a dialectical pedagogy, but elenchos would be worthless if it didn’t lead to gnosis.

The last sentence of this communication has the paradoxical force of every half-truth. True enough, dianoia—that is, discursive thought—is insufficient “in and of itself”. But if it is wielded “clearly and carefully”, it can open up and out of itself into noesis, which is intuitive and not merely discursive, immediate and not indirect.

Here is the way I make the point in my book of Advice to the Serious Seeker:

Wood is not fire any more than logic is intuitive insight. But if you rub two pieces of wood together with sufficient intensity, heat is produced, and suddenly a flame springs forth. So it is with our thoughts. We cannot exactly rub them together, but we can bring them into contact in a mode befitting their kind of reality, and we can press them against each other by applying the pressure of logical consistency. Handle them loosely—let them mean just anything, show no concern for sequence, coherence, or proportion—and they will remain mere mental notions. But handle them with discipline and rigor, and they can become with God’s help supports for the combustion of spiritual knowledge (pp. 19-20).