A Truly Transformative Ascesis

May 24th, 2015

The main reason for fasting and other forms of ascesis is, ideally, to break our attachments, or else, when that proves too difficult, at least to make us more keenly aware of them than we ordinarily are. So the first question we have to ask ourselves is: To what am I most strongly attached? It may or may not be to meat and other animal products, or to food in general. In which case, keeping the dietary rules of Lent is, I agree, not really the point.

More important is an inward ascesis. What I have in mind, in part, is the wresting we’re obliged to engage in whenever we confront, not our attachments to what the body prefers (as for example food and sleep), but our wish to be right, to be thought well of, to get our own way, and so forth. Whenever we catch ourselves inwardly judging others, growing impatient at the person running the cash register at the grocery store, relishing praise, nursing the feelings of self-pity and resentment, we have an opportunity to “fast”, to take a step back from our inward state.

Given this, I would say: No, doing “what I can”, contrary to what you wrote in your message, is not the best answer. The best answer is to try to do what I probably can’t, and then to watch myself, openly and honestly and without flinching, as I fail; and then—here’s the key—not to allow myself to “feel bad about it”, for that’s just the ego in yet another disguise. Watching, thus understood, is very, very hard work, but it’s key to a genuine and truly transformative ascesis.

The Vibration of the Whole

April 24th, 2015

As I’m sure you know, there have been a number of official statements, issued by various Orthodox jurisdictions, stating that Orthodoxy and Masonry are not compatible. I think we may, and must, treat these as authoritative, and non-negotiable.

Even so, I understand and respect your interest in finding a traditional Christian framework within which it is possible to be an esotericist. But as an Orthodox Christian myself, as well as an esotericist––as you have defined that term––I must tell you that I feel no need whatsoever for a “double membership” (your phrase) embracing some other initiatic society, whether Masonic or otherwise.

As you know, I’m a scholar of Western esoteric schools and teachings, and I also have some knowledge of spiritual traditions grounded in other religions, including Yoga, Zen, and Sufism. In my opinion, these traditions offer nothing that is not already available within the heart of Orthodoxy Christianity, which is to say within Hesychasm.

The problem with any and all forms of syncretism, especially at the level of ritual, is their neglect of the fact that a tradition’s doctrines, symbols, rites, and mysteries (sacraments) are woven of a single cloth; an invisible link and underlying resonance exist among them, and any alteration, or extrinsic addition, cannot but destroy the “vibration” of the whole. And this vibration is the key to a religion’s salvific power.

In my opinion, therefore, you have a decision: to be a Mason or to be an Orthodox Christian. For many reasons, the latter is the far superior choice. It is not for nothing that Schuon regarded Christianity as an eso-exoteric tradition––that is, a religion in which the esotericism is itself an explicit part of the whole––nor that he believed Orthodoxy to be the most complete and purest form of this faith.

Comment on The Centering Prayer

March 8th, 2015

It has come to my attention that the comment function is not working on this weblog, and apparently has not been for some time. My apologies to any and all who may have wished to respond to my observations. I am looking into fixing the problem.

The friend who alerted me to this issue had wished to comment on a post of mine from late last year on the Centering Prayer. I wanted to make sure what he wished to say had a hearing, so I am posting his comment myself below:

The Centering Prayer was in fact “invented” circa 1975 by Fr. Thomas Keating, then abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, and Fr. Basil Pennington, also of St. Joseph’s.

The “method” was lifted completely from the practice of Transcendental Meditation (which Frs. Keating and Pennington admired because of its popularity at the time) and given a “Christian” costume, and then later a “history” was invented for the practice going back to the Desert Fathers.

In reality, the Centering Prayer as a method is not at all Christian in origin and has no roots in the living tradition of Christian contemplative prayer. Hence the uncontemplative emphasis on psychological “benefits” (like T.M.) and the completely untraditional anomaly of the choosing of a “sacred word”.

A Visionary Equivalent

February 24th, 2015

I agree that a religion without a “goddess” is somehow incomplete. But I don’t agree that there needs to be a Christian dogma to that effect. On the contrary, as I note in my article on Schuon’s Mariology, “Colorless Light and Pure Air”––and as I suggest in another piece on my website, “Femininity, Hierarchy, and God”––the power of Divine Femininity is a function, at least in part, of its hiddenness and elusiveness.

You are right that the Orthodox would oppose any explicit attempt to position the Virgin on the same level as her Son, as a dogma of the kind you envision would seem to require. And opposed they should be. Nonetheless, the hymnography of the Church, notably the Akathist Hymns sung during Lent, speak of the Theotokos in ways any goddess would envy! I’m reminded of G. M. Hopkins’s poem about Mary, in which he says that “her presence, power is great as no goddess’s was deeméd, dreaméd”.

The iconography and architecture of the Church are powerfully suggestive as well. Behind the iconostasis, and behind the altar, in the apse of the Orthodox temple, there is always––or almost always––a huge icon of the Virgin called the Platytera, meaning “the one who is more capacious [than the heavens themselves]”. For unlike the heavens, she is able to contain God Himself. What need for a “goddess-dogma” when one is able to gaze upon this visionary equivalent, or rather more than equivalent?

Hierarchical Non-Dualism

January 25th, 2015

Yes, I certainly do believe that there is, or at least can be, an advaitic form of Christianity; as a matter of fact I’m at work on a book on the subject. I realize this may come as something of a surprise. But as I see it, that’s because you mistakenly think that a non-dual formulation of this, or any other, tradition must be to the exclusion of the hierarchical—and seemingly dualistic—point of view that you associate with neo-Platonic metaphysics. On the contrary, it seems to me that these are two equally plausible perspectives on the same apophatic Reality. Neither is “right”, and neither “wrong”.

It all depends on what a given person means by (your phrase) “the ordinary world”. You point out that the Bodhisattva sees “no difference between Samsara and Nirvana“. True enough, but is the Samsara he sees the same as the Samsara I see? That’s for me a key question. And the answer surely is no. Doesn’t the fact that he sees Samsara as non-different from Nirvana mean that he sees it more truly or clearly than I do? Otherwise what would be the point of this central Mahayanic teaching, if not to help me see in a new, more authentic way?

As I understand it, the hierarchical point of view of neo-Platonism and perennialist metaphysics, culminating “at the top” in an ens realissimum, has the soteriological function of helping draw me out of the old and “up” and “into” a new vision, a new level of experience. But once I have entered upon this higher level and have gained a certain distance on the world as ordinarily viewed through the screen of my habits and attachments, I will see that this ens realissimum, being necessarily infinite, cannot be other than “the ordinary world”, but an ordinary that is now in fact truly extraordinary.

Vigils and the Virtues

January 15th, 2015

It’s risky, as you will no doubt appreciate, to advise a person one has never met regarding such a practice. In principle, yes: struggling against one’s desire for sleep—refusing to be controlled by the appetitive part of the soul, requiring instead that it submit to the rational part and, in turn, to the spiritual intellect—can be a useful exercise, and a good preparation for receiving the Mysteries.

But in fact the usefulness, and appropriateness, of such a practice depends on the motives, capacities, and understanding of the person in question. Pushing against one’s physical limits, or apparent limits, could harm the body and, much worse, could serve to inflate the ego of someone who was attempting to storm Heaven, as it were, by a show of power or prowess.

As for non-Orthodox readings (whether Sufi or otherwise), needless to say I see no problem with those, provided they assist you in the acquisition and development of the virtues: humility, charity, and veracity, above all. Do these texts help one to see himself more clearly and honestly? Do they empty us and open up a space within where God can act? If so, then yes: they are perfectly acceptable for the purpose you, as an Orthodox Christian, have in mind.

The Essence of Christmas

December 25th, 2014

What would I say is “the essence of Christmas”? I believe I’d demur, and rather than trying to come up with something profound of my own—a foolish quest!—I’d quote instead one of my all-time favorite poems, “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe”, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

WILD air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Domestic Policy

December 8th, 2014

How best to conduct foreign policy while being loyal to Christ, the incarnate Logos? That’s an excellent question, the answer to which, I confess, is way beyond me.

Here’s what I can say, however: If you’re looking for a manual on the best way of organizing and running a country, Plato gets almost everything right in his Republic. But as you may remember, even he talks very little about foreign policy, except to say that you’ll need an army and that the guardians of the state, from whom the philosopher-kings are to be chosen, should all be highly trained soldiers. Needless to say, these guardians, having escaped from the Cave, are all fully in tune with the Logos. Be this Logos incarnate or not, they’re clearly among those whom St Justin the Philosopher called “Christians, fearless and unperturbed” (First Apology, 46).

Of course, Plato also says—or more precisely, Glaucon says to Socrates toward the end of the dialogue—that the state they’ve so carefully constructed will almost certainly never exist on this planet. Socrates readily agrees, insisting however that it’s enough if it exists in the heavens for the wise man to contemplate and inwardly emulate. Having first read The Republic as a 19-year old political science major, I did two things: gave up on political science and decided to focus all my energies on inward spiritual work.

It’s not that I’m unconcerned about society or indifferent to other people’s struggles, or opposed to assisting those in need whose paths cross our own. Quite the contrary. I just don’t think there’s much to be done in the way of outwardly “changing the world” that won’t simply result in pushing Evil A to one side so that Evil B can spring up somewhere else. As for terrorism and wars and other forms of global violence—the sorts of things a contemporary foreign policy seems obliged to consider—it seems to me we’d need a deep knowledge of “the powers of the air”, be they planets or demons, in order to be of any lasting benefit to our fellow men, for that’s obviously where all the big troubles start.

So what I do instead is to concentrate on my own domestic policy, a much more modest but also (or so I believe) much more realistic and practical undertaking. I try each day to take a step or two back from my reactions and passions and projections, and in this way to move just a tiny bit closer to hesychia, trusting that St Seraphim was right when he said: “Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation.” And when people ask me about my politics, I just tell them I’m a radical—a “radical traditionalist”, that is, as per this post (which perhaps you’ve noted before).

The Centering Prayer

November 2nd, 2014

Needless to say, traditional Christians should have no objection to a contemplative practice that aims to assist them in becoming aware, or more fully aware, of the apophatic presence of God. The “traditionalist Catholic” criticism of the Centering Prayer which you mention, namely, that it is “too much like” a Buddhist quest for nirvana, is entirely beside the point.

That said, I do have some serious reservations about the Centering Prayer. For one thing, the presentations I’ve heard on this subject—notably a lecture some years ago by Father Thomas Keating—seemed to me to place far too much emphasis on the method’s psychological benefits. Such an emphasis can very easily lead the uninformed inquirer into thinking that spirituality is little more than a matter of relaxing and “letting God take over”. Serious seekers must realize that no transformative practice, or at least none worthy of the name, is going to be easy. There will always be a certain dimension of struggle and effort, a battle with habits and with what the Christian East calls the “passions”. Have the Centering proponents given this fact quite the attention it deserves?

There’s another, more problematic issue, however. Am I not right that practitioners of the Centering Prayer are told to choose their own “sacred word”—be it “love” or “happiness” or something equally anodyne—as a support for their “intentions”? You are right, of course, that their practice is outwardly similar in some respects to Hesychasm’s Prayer of the Heart. But in that tradition, it would be entirely out of the question for a person to make such a choice for himself or, more importantly, to use just any “word”. On the contrary, one enters into Hesychastic spiritual work with the blessing of a spiritual father, and the word to be used, most often the Name of the Word, is necessarily sacramental in character, bearing an intrinsic, deifying power of its own.

The key to any path of invocation, whether Christian or otherwise, lies in the fact that the Name is the Named. On their own, uninformed by a truly uncreated energy, our own meager efforts to concentrate and be attentive count for little.

An Exception to the Rule

October 10th, 2014

The only place I recall where Schuon refers to Sikhism is in Understanding Islam.

Having said (not surprisingly) that no new revelation is possible after a “certain cyclical period and the hardening of the terrestrial ambiance”, the Middle Ages marking “gross modo the final limit” and Islam therefore being “the last world religion”, he adds in a footnote:

“As for the Sikh brotherhood, this is an esoterism analogous to that of Kabir, the special position of which is explained by the quite exceptional conditions arising from the contiguity of Hinduism and Sufism; but here too it is a case of a final possibility” (pp. 47-48; p. 48, note 13).

As you rightly surmised, Schuon felt obliged to acknowledge the validity of Sikhism: not as a religion in its own right, however, but rather as a very “exceptional” esoteric synthesis of two other traditions, and as such the last of its kind.

I would not call it, as you did, a “grudging” acceptance, but it was certainly a qualified acceptance, one meant to forestall any attempt to turn this exception into a precedent.