Archive for January, 2014

Spiritual Radii

Monday, January 27th, 2014

A former graduate student of mine, a Roman Catholic like you—and having, like you, a serious interest in the philosophia perennis and the contemplative paths of the world’s orthodox religions—researched the question you pose with some care. And when I say “researched” I don’t mean only with books and in libraries, but by spending time living in monasteries. He came away convinced that the Carthusians are (your word) the most “mystical”, traditional, and serious of the various Catholic orders.

The problem, however, is that unless one is committed to actually becoming a monk it’s impossible for a Catholic layman to share in this particular world and to benefit from its spiritual practices, as visitors are not permitted in Carthusian houses. My former student was in fact a monastic aspirant at the time (and has since joined another order), and it was only as such that he was allowed to spend time with the Carthusians. Until and unless you can in good conscience say you have a monastic vocation, those doors will be closed to you.

This is quite different from what one finds in Orthodox monasticism, where hospitality toward pilgrims has always been stressed and where spiritual advice is more or less readily given to visitors. It’s not uncommon even for the monks of the Holy Mountain—including those living in the sketes and hermitages, and not only cenobites—to have lay disciples. Withdrawn as these fathers otherwise are from the world, their spiritual radii tend to extend rather broadly and with greater impact into the Orthodox world at large.

A False Dichotomy

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Platonic knowledge is more than mental assent to a proposition; it’s the vision of the whole man, rightly formed by training in geometry, music, and gymnastics (among other arts). The writer of the rather jejune article you cite, claiming as he does that Plato is “wrong” to suppose that “ignorance and not sin is the root of our problems”, needs to reread—or more likely read—The Republic.

What the Platonist calls ignorance is itself in part volitional, the result of a willful refusal to undertake the necessary forms of ascesis, whether the intellective ascesis of dialectic, the physical ascesis of yoga or some other form of “body work”, or the emotional ascesis at work in the assimilation of sacred art. Sin, after all, is a “missing of the mark” (hamartia), a failure of focus, which in turn is attendant upon a vision clouded and fractured by distraction.

The dispute in question is a dispute between perspectives: the first, the Platonic, is jnanic or gnostic; the second, which this writer means to defend, is bhaktic or moral. The distinction is expressed very nicely by Schuon:

Gnosis objectifies sin—error carried into action—by reducing it to its impersonal causes, but it subjectifies the definition of sin by making the quality of an action depend on personal intention. On the other hand, the moral perspective subjectifies sin by identifying it as it were the agent, but it objectifies the definition of sin by making the quality of an action depend on a rule, hence an external norm.”

Let’s also keep this in mind: Plato is a dialectician, not a dogmatist. He can’t be “wrong”!