Archive for October, 2010

Deflections

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Regarding your question about pride, while I see the distinction you make well enough, I’m not sure one should try to ignore or suppress a feeling of satisfaction at a job well done. It’s one thing to prevent an innocent appreciation of a woman’s beauty from turning into lust by averting one’s eyes, but the satisfaction one feels with accomplishment seems to me much less easily ignored, intimately linked as it is to one’s performance of the job itself. I don’t see how a man can do something well without knowing it, and if he means to do well, as he should, it seems impossible not to be pleased when the intention comes to fruition. I’m reminded of Schuon’s observation that humility does not mean that an intelligent man must suppose himself stupid; this isn’t quite what you had in mind, I realize, but trying not to know what one can’t help but know runs the risk, it seems to me, of a similar convolution.

On the other hand, your confessor is obviously right that you need to “step back”—not so much, however, in order to ask yourself why you’re so concerned about what people think of you (though that too is a good question), but rather to ask why you so very foolishly assume that you, your ego, can take credit for the gifts it’s been given or even for the energy and will to deploy those gifts. As you might imagine, a professor struggles with the same set of temptations: one wishes to be as clear and as persuasive as possible so as to place the Truth in an attractive light, while at the same time keeping oneself, and indeed the very wish, entirely out of the way. Experience suggests that the best line of defense against pride in such cases is not to suppress the knowledge that one has managed to do something well nor the happiness which naturally accompanies this knowledge, but rather to convert the happiness into a feeling of gratitude to God, to use it as an occasion of praise and thanksgiving. Step back by all means, but I suggest that at least occasionally you work at transposing the hourly cry of the Desert Father you mention—a cry of lamentation for his sin—into an hourly prayer of thanksgiving for the great bounty you’ve been given.

Of course, one can, and should, take measures to deflect the praise of others as much as possible, and you can do this in part by encouraging them—lightly, not didactically—to see that they too should be praising God and not you. “Wow, Professor B., what an awesome lecture that was!” To which you might reply, “Thanks, but you know if I hadn’t discovered So-and-so’s book, I would never have had that idea”; or maybe, with an even more self-deprecating honesty: “Thanks, but if you spent as much time as I did thinking and revising and staying up late, and if you had a wife who would put up with being ignored for hours on end, you might have done even better!” I’m not saying you need to use such lines with all and sundry; different “deflections” will suit different people. But you get the idea.

I’m reminded of a story Owen Barfield once told me about his friend C. S. Lewis, a man blessed with what one of his former students called “the most powerful and best trained intellect in the world” (George Bailey in C. S. Lewis: Speaker and Teacher). His genius notwithstanding, Lewis seems to have been a master of “deflection”—to such a point that, on at least one occasion, he fully attributed a triumph of his own to someone else. Barfield described praising one of Lewis’s best poems; Lewis remembered the poem, which he’d written just a few months before their conversation, and he agreed it was excellent, but according to Barfield he had completely forgotten it was his own work, and strongly protested that Barfield was in fact the author!

Satisfaction as such is fine; in fact—as I’ve suggested—it’s inevitable, even desirable. It’s the demon of self-satisfaction we need to beware of.

And When They Saw It They Marveled

Friday, October 15th, 2010

“And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, He [Jesus] was hungry. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came, if haply He might find anything thereon: and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee forever” (Mark 11:12-14).

“And when He saw a fig tree in the way, He came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away” (Matthew 21:19-20).

You write to ask for my interpretation of these mysterious passages. Schuon once told me: “It is easy to be infallible. You just say, ‘I don’t know!'” So that’s my initial response, to admit my ignorance! Of course, if this incident is (as you say) truly “koanic” in character, we shouldn’t expect to find a purely discursive or verbal solution. Ignorance on the plane of reason is inevitable, and indeed “fruitful” in a way mere figs are not.

Having made this confession, I can however offer a brief suggestion. The key, it seems to me, is to remember who Christ is: namely, the Creator of both Heaven and Earth—”all things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3)—and thus the Creator not only of trees but of seasons. Both are His servants and are necessarily subject to His will.

I don’t mean to suggest that His will is arbitrary or merely a matter of whim, and that He can do just anything, however odd or disproportionate. On the contrary, Christ’s deeds, rightly understood, will always finally make sense, as did those of Al-Khidr, whose mysterious actions—including even the murder of a young boy—could not but scandalize Moses (see the Koran 18:65-82).

I bring up Moses deliberately, not just because of Al-Khidr, but because it seems to me that the episode with the Fig Tree is meant to tell us something about Christ’s relationship to the Law, a Law which dictates that certain things be done at certain times and places, even as the seasons dictate that figs appear at certain times and not others.

Now Christ at once completes and transcends the Law: “I am come not to destroy but fulfill” (Matthew 5:17), He says, and yet we’re also told in the Scriptures that “the Law was given by Moses, but Grace and Truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), the adversative “but” clearly indicating a dichotomy between two distinct planes, one exoteric and the other esoteric.

Obviously the esoteric goes beyond the exoteric while yet subsuming it (see “Two Esoterisms” in Schuon’s Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism). Different seasons notwithstanding, the whole point of a fig tree is for there to be figs; winter thus exists for the sake of summer and not vice versa. In the same way, the whole point of the Law is to lead men to righteousness; its “times and places” are for the sake of a timeless perfection and not vice versa.

In cursing the Tree, Christ was certainly not exhibiting anger toward the Tree as such, as the atheist Bertrand Russell rather foolishly surmised. On the contrary, He was underscoring the Tree’s very reason for being. And He was reminding us that “except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees”—except , that is, we go beyond the “jot and tittle” of exoteric expectations and assumptions—”ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Let me repeat my first and simplest answer: “I don’t know.” But perhaps this suggestion will help point you along your own more “fruitful” lines of reflection.