Archive for June, 2011

Catharsis Comes First

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

I agree that “not even the addict is equally attached to all things”, but our attachments to the odd numbers can’t help but color our perception of the even numbers. I would certainly beware of supposing myself “safely able to contemplate” anything, without risk of attachment, until and unless I had reached a much broader and deeper apatheia in relation to creatures in general.

The Philokalic Fathers, as you know, distinguish several stages in the process of temptation, ranging from “provocation”—as when a person sees a billboard with a Big Mac during a fast period—through “coupling” and “assent”, and thence to a final stage of “prepossession”, where giving in to the temptation has become so habitual that, for all intents and purposes, he is no longer free not to eat hamburgers.

But obviously gluttony vis-à-vis hamburgers doesn’t exist in isolation from gluttony as such, nor—and here’s the point—does gluttony exist in isolation from the other sicknesses of the soul.

A “consuming” relation to a single thing, no matter how seemingly trivial it may be, has a way of growing like a cancer and consuming all the other aspects of our psychic life. It’s a very short step indeed before “I” become indistinguishable from my desires and aversions. Seeing God in creatures—really seeing Him, and not just entertaining some sort of theory about theophanic vision—is at that point all but impossible.

What practical conclusion is to be drawn? Our efforts should be focused at the level of catharsis; best to leave photisis, let alone theosis, to God.

Little Children Are Not Damned

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Precision is clearly called for. It’s quite unfair of you to oversimplify things and say that we Christians “encourage self-doubt” while you Buddhists don’t. Your childhood experiences with the total depravity crowd, while certainly unfortunate, do not entitle you to paint a whole religion in such terms.

As you must surely know, there are innumerable accounts in Zen of masters encouraging massive “doubt” in their charges and treating them very strictly, even severely, with a view to pushing them toward satori. On the other hand it’s possible for Christians to place their stress on the “other Power” of Christ in such a way as to remain utterly free from all feelings of personal unworthiness.

I’m reminded in this regard of the following excerpt from an interview with the “Little Flower”, St Thérèse of Lisieux:

“What would you do,” she was asked, “if you could begin over again your religious life?”

“I think I should do as I have already done.”

“Then you do not share the feeling of the hermit who said: ‘While a quarter of an hour, or even a breath of life, still remains to me, I shall fear the fires of hell even though I should have spent long years in penance’?”

“No, I do not share that fear; I am too small. Little children are not damned.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t mean we’re to go to the opposite extreme, throwing out doubt and substituting complacency. On the contrary the key is to continue demanding a great deal of oneself while nonetheless realizing that our efforts are as nothing in the face of the Absolute.

“No one,” it is said, “finds God by seeking Him. But only those who seek Him find Him.”

The spiritual life is deeply koanic in character. We must work as hard as we can (“work out your salvation with fear and trembling”), as if everything depended on us, while simultaneously reposing in the knowledge that everything depends on God (“for God is at work within you”). This is not a rationally resolvable puzzle; it can only be solved existentially. As I’ve said before in the pages of this weblog: Solvitur ambulando.