Monday, June 21, 2010

Moderation in all things except love

The relationships between and among opposites have always interested me. I've been interested in I and Thou, subject and object, body and spirit, good and evil, light and darkness, the apophatic way and the cataphatic way. I've also always had a problem with the oppositional nature of these dualities. I've never come up with a good way to describe my problem with this binary, 1 versus 0, on and off, etc. They don't [always] have to be charged + and -. Instead they can [sometimes] coexist.

Many systems like to add a third component to keep things in balance. Christianity venerates the Trinity and its mysteries; Robert Pirsig adds something he calls "Quality" to the mix. Sometimes this is helpful and sometimes it is not. There are things that are good and some that are evil. In such cases a value judgment is useful and good.

A couple of days ago I was reading Jensen and he gave me another lens through which to see this issue. I'll quote him at length. In my notes about this passage I wrote "dichotomies as disconnectons, differences as versus."

"It's all about disconnection. This culture is based on disconnection. Man (strong) versus woman (weak), man (good) versus nature (flawed), thought (honest) versus emotion (misleading), spirit (pure) versus flesh (polluted), love (good) versus hate (bad), serenity (good) versus anger (bad), nonattachment (good) versus attachment (bad), nonviolence (righteous) versus violence (evil) and so on ad nauseum. So often I've heard pacifists and others say we need to get rid of all dualism, that by speaking of those who are killing the planet as my enemy I am perpetuating the same dualisms that got us here. But striving to eradicate dualism is perpetuating the same dualsim! This time it's nondualism (good) versus dualism (bad). It's all nonsense. The problem isn't that there are pairs of opposites. Opposites exist. Nor is the problem that there are values assigned to these opposites. We can--and I certainly woud--argue against the values chosen by this culture for each of these poles, but the truth is that the different poles do have different values. And that leads to the real problem, which is the word versus. Yes, men and women are different. But they are not in opposition; instead they work together" (533). He goes on to say explicitly that almost all of the opposites are different but that they work together.

Spirit is good, but (I believe) we have flesh for a reason. As I've said before, Gnosticism used to appeal to me, almost, but implies that our bodies are prisons instead of being gifts and tools we use together with our spirits. Many of us know the picture of Jesus as serene and pure and good, but what about when Jesus got angry and even violent and overturned the tables in the Temple? Anger can be good when it is anger at the right things, when it can be directed toward something that needs to be done.

"What happens if you reconnect?" Jensen asks. "What happens if you make choises as to when you should think, and when you should feel? What happens if your thoughts and feelings mere and diverge and flow in and out of each other, with each one taking the fore when appropriate (and sometimes when inappropriate, since perfection does not exist in the real world, and emotions and thoughts each sometimes make mistakes: That's life) and with them working sometimes together and sometimes in opposition?" (533-534). He continues for the next page.

I'm not so sure I buy into the premise that hate is ever good. I think I'm more sold on Jensen's idea that Love does not always equal Pacifism (though I'm still pretty pacifistic myself). Sometimes when we love we have to get our hands dirty. I'm not about going and hurting people, but I am about making sure that when you (or me, really) are faced with tough choices that you do what is Right and not what is best for you and your moral purity - for its own sake. I still don't want to force anybody to do anything. I don't want to infringe on someone's free will. But reactionary force is just. Mamas lash out when their babies are being threatened. By extension, we can and should lash out when that which sustain us is being threatened? It's not as simple as black and white. That's why we've been given sacred texts, consciencess, minds of our own, and a community of very different individuals with their own perspectives. More preaching: let's build communities. Of necessity. Of respect. Of love.

[Note: I came up with the title for this blog post after I wrote the whole thing. I wasn't sure how I got from Dualism to Communities of Love, so I had to go back and think. And I was reminded of the phrase that has been one of my mantras for about ten years now. There you have it. Just make sure you pay attention to what love really means.]

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Manifest Destiny

"Whereas it was previously considered uncouth for anyone to even suggest that economic hegemony might motivate U.S. military action, our leaders are now boldly selling wars as commendable instruments of such profit-focused imperialism."

- from an article about the recent "news" that Afghanistan has cool minerals we want to steal

Conversation continues in many salons about why we're at war and what constitutes a just war. U.S. politicians seem to agree (or at least a majority of them do) that it is right for us to go to war when other nations or peoples have control of resources we want or that we think we "need" to sustain (ha!) our quality of life. Because it's what the American people want. Because we deserve it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Thanks and A Shift

I've failed. ECM (Exploring Christian Mysticism) is on hold for a while. I've been caught up in other projects ...

and my religious reading has gone by the wayside... for now.

Yes, Jensen's book has been at the heart of a lot of what I'm doing lately. I have a tendency to throw myself into things without always thinking them through. That's why I'm talking with friends who agree with me and with friends who think I'm crazy and taking things a bit too far.

It's easy to take the radical viewpoint and ignore moderation in the middle. And it's easy if you take the radical viewpoint to pull people towards the middle. If you're not going to follow Jensen's advice (sort of) and blow up dams to take down the evil civilization which steals and kills, at least use less. Or be aware of what you're using.

I am a very lucky person. I have a job that pays me well, and I can afford to eat mostly local, organic, and/or vegetarian fare. I am lucky to be increasingly involved in a church and in friendships that mean something to me. I am lucky enough to have the leisure time to pursue things about which I am passionate. These things are important to me. These connections matter.

I am also lucky that I think it is interesting to explore matters of sustainability further. It is both important and fun to think about such problems, as heartbreaking as it may also be.

I am lucky to have friends who are willing to read my posts and show me gently where I've failed to proofread (or edit or think things through or censor myself or structure things logically, etc.). I am lucky that people find my openness charming rather than ascerbic and offensive (okay, some of the time).

I am lucky when I know when to stop (some of the time). Time to get to work :-)

Friday, June 11, 2010

During the past few days I've been frustrated at some issues I've had including accent marks over and around letters for my next post here, which may eventually be about ascetisism. :-) Maybe it's a sign that I should avoid blogging as an excercise in ascetic contemplation myself.

While I figure that out, let me share with you some lyrics from a song by one of my favorite dead musicians (there are so many), the singer-songwriter Harry Chapin:

I can see myself it's a golden sunrise
Young boy open up your eyes
It's supposed to be your day.
Now off you go horizon bound
And you won't stop until you've found
Your own kind of way.
And the wind will whip your tousled hair,
The sun, the rain, the sweet despair,
Great tales of love and strife.
And somewhere on your path to glory
You will write your story of a life.

And all the towns that you walk through
And all the people that you talk to
Sing you their songs.
And there are times you change your stride,
There are times you can't decide
Still you go on.
And then the young girls dance their gypsy tunes
And share the secrets of the moon
So soon you find a wife.
And though she sees your dreams go poorly
Still she joins your story of a life.

So you settle down and the children come
And you find a place that you come from.
Your wandering is done.
And all your dreams of open spaces
You find in your children's faces
One by one.
And all the trips you know you missed
And all the lips you never kissed
Cut through you like a knife.
And now you see stretched out before thee
Just another story of a life.

So what do you do now?
When she looks at you now?
You know those same old jokes all the jesters tell
You tell them to her now.
And all the same old songs all the minstrels sang
You sing 'em to her now.
But it don't matter anyhow
'Cause she knows by now.

So every chance you take don't mean a thing.
What variations can you bring
To this shopworn melody.
And every year goes by like a tollin' bell.
It's battered merchandise you sell.
Not well, she can see.
And though she's heard it all a thousand times
Couched in your attempted rhymes
She'll march to your drum and fife.
But the question echoes up before me
Where's the magic story of a life?

Now sometimes words can serve me well
Sometimes words can go to hell
For all that they do.
And for every dream that took me high
There's been a dream that's passed me by.
I know it's so true
And I can see it clear out to the end
And I'll whisper to her now again
Because she shared my life.
For more than all the ghosts of glory
She makes up the story,
She's the only story
Of my life.

Friday, June 04, 2010

ECM, Day 12: Madame Guyon, mostly in her own words

Madame Guyon lived from 1648 to 1717. She was a Quietist, which means that she believed in complete passivity with respect to God, "even to the point of not wishing to be saved" (41). Pretty extreme stuff, right?

Biblical exegesis was not something women were trained, encouraged, or allowed to do, but she was pretty dedicated and endeavored to write about the entire Bible. She wrote with vigor and clarity, and I think I will just let some of her words speak for themselves.

I picked this excerpt, which groks on the verse from Song that reads "Let him kiss me with the kiss of the mouth," because it relates to the Trinity, a mystery and a metaphor that has been on my mind a lot lately.

"The kiss which the soul desires of its God is essential union, or a real, permanent and lasting possession of its divine object. It is the spiritual marriage. That this may be understood, it is necessary to explain the difference between a union of the powers and essential union. Either of them may be transitory, and for a few moments only, or permanent and lasting.

"The union of the powers is that by which God unites the soul to himself, but very superficially; it is more properly a touch than a union. It is nevertheless united to the Trinity of persons according to the different effects proper to the individual persons.... This union is accomplished in order, in all the powers of the soul, and is sometimes perceived in one or two of them according to the designs of God, and at other times in all three together. This constitutes the application of the soul to the Holy Trinity according to the distinct persons. When the union is in the understanding alone, it is a union of pure intellect and is attributed to the Word as a distinct person. When the union is in the memory, which is effected by an absorption of the soul into God and a profound forgetfulness of the creature, it is attributed to the Father as a distinct person. And when it takes place in the will alone by a loving joy without sight or knowledge of anything distinct, it is a union of love and is attributed to the Holy Spirit as a distinct person. This last is the most perfect of all, because it approaches nearer than any other to essential union, and is generally the road by which the soul arrives at it. All these unions are divine embraces--but they are not the kiss of the mouth" (42).

The kiss of the mouth is something deeper still, something she goes on to describe as a "spiritual marriage [...] where God takes the soul and unites himself to it, no longer by way of the persons of the Trinity, nor by any act or means, but immediately by reducing all into unity and by possessing it in his own unity. Then it is the kiss of his mouth, and real and perfect possession. It is an enjoyment which is neither barren nor unfruitful, since it extends to nothing less than the communication of the Word of God to the soul" (42).

It seems to me that Madame Guyon explores the massive ineffability of God and how she desires to join with Him not for her sake but because it is Right.

Next, we jump into a new chapter of Christian mysticism with asceticism, the practice of denying oneself bodily pleasures, and sometimes even necessities, for some higher good. For the mystics McGinn looks at, asceticism was a way to prepare oneself for union with God. Remember that asceticism should be (according to McGinn's interpretation of mystical thought, belief, and tradition) a means to an end and not an end itself. Purge so that God may fill.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

ECM, Day 11: First Taste of Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart is crazy and almost heretical in a lot of ways. These are among the many reasons I like him. Today's excerpt is one of his difficult ones, at least at first, because he starts with a very bizarre translation of the Gospel of Luke and doesn't really explain (in the passage in McGinn's anthology, anyway) why he chooses this reading. What Eckhart manages to explore and convey on the basis of that shaky premise, however, is super cool, and I hope you'll enjoy reading about it.

"Our Lord Jesus Christ went up into a citadel and was received/conceived by a virgin who was a wife." This is the translation of Eckhart's translation of the Latin of the Greek of Luke 10:38 by the Buddhist-affiliated Maurice Walshe, a translator McGinn seems to favor for Eckhart's work. Talk about derivatives! Needless to say, this is not the present day Catholic translation of 'our' own introduction to the famous Mary and Martha in the Gospel, but it proves effective perhaps in the old German and in the metaphor that Eckhart builds up afterwards.

To Eckhart, a virgin is someone who is open and empty, "offering no hindrance to the highest Truth" (McGinn 36). To be a wife, on the other hand, is to bear fruit. "For a man to receive God within him is good, and in receiving he is virgin. But for God to be fruitful in him is better, for only the fruitfulness of the gift is the thanks rendered for that gift, and herein the spirit is a wife, whose gratitude is fecundity, bearing Jesus again in God's paternal Heart" (37). Deep (and sometimes convolutedly-written) stuff! I rewrote it in my notes in these ways:


Indeed, both of these are necessary, in Eckhart's mind and, in part, in mine, to do good work. I offer these as pairs of concepts, and thinking about them this way makes me appreciate the idea of the Trinity even more. Faith and Works must be Inspired (by the spirit). Serenity and Courage have to come with Wisdom. Father, Son, and Spirit. Openness, Action, and... well, you fill in the blank :-)

All of this is well and good. Then Eckhart goes even further and gives me a reason to introduce you to his apophatic type of mysticism, the type that groks on the idea of being the open virgin and takes it even further. I'll quote Eckhart himself here:

People wedded to things of this world bear little fruit, including "all those who are bound with attachment to prayer, fasting, vigils and all kinds of outward discipline and mortification. All attachment to any work that involves the loss of freedom to wait on God in the here and now, and to follow him alone in the light wherein he would show you what to do and what not to do, every moment freely and anew, as if you had nothing else and neither would nor could do otherwise--any such attachment or set practice wich repeatedly denies you freedom, I call a year; for your soul will bear no fruit till it has done this work to which you are possessively attached, and you too will have no trust in God or in yourself before you have done the work you embraced with attachment, for otherwise you will have no peace. Thus you will bring forth no fruit till your work is done. This is what I call 'a year,' and the fruit of it is paltry because it springs from attachment to the task and not from freedom" (37).
Attachment = Bad

There is a beautiful passage by Eckhart on the next page in which he describes the joy of God and the exquisiteness of existing in the moment devoid of all else with and of God. Perhaps I will transcribe it later or otherwise relay it to anybody who is interested.

Beyond those passages, the rest of the sermon was rather difficult without a lot of context and I did not want to share it. Eckhart talks about how God in the citadel is beyond form, explanation, how he is "indivisible, without mode or properties," transcending the trinity and becoming what I can only approximate as Tao (40). I'm personally fond of this interpretation, but I wonder how much of it comes from Walshe's Eastern biases as translator. O, if only I wanted to go back and learn medieval German and translate it myself. But that's a highly esoteric Ph.D. for much for focused and selfish Emily.

Next: a 17th century woman's take on Song of Songs.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

ECM, Day 10: Bernard of Clairvaux and more Song of Songs

There's been so much life to live, so many conversations to have, and so many other books to read lately! Today at lunch I finally made time to read Bernard of Clairvaux's rather impressive musings on Song of Songs. I was not thrilled at the first couple of pages of his exegesis, in which he does some basic language play and literary analysis. At one point, though, things get interesting and he starts to compare the storerooms in the bridal chamber from Song of Songs to
1. discipline,
2. nature, and
3. grace.

As I wrote in my notes, I find such metaphors fun and interesting but not always useful. And then I read further...

"In the first [room, discipline], guided by moral principles, you discover how you are inferior to others, in the second you find the basis for equality, in the third what makes you greater; that is: the grounds for submission, for co-operation, for authority; or if you will: to be subject, to co-exist, to preside. In the first you bear the status of learner, in the second that of companion, in the third that of master. For nature has made men equal. But since this natural moral gift was corrupted by pride, men became impatient of equal status. Driven by the urge to surpass their fellows, they spared no efforts to achieve this superiority; with an itch for vainglory and promoted by envy, they lived in mutual rivalry (Gal 5:26). Our primary task is to tame this wilfulness of character by submission to discipline in the first room, where the stubborn will, worn down by the hard and prolonged schooling of experienced mentors, is humbled and healed. The natural goodness lost by pride is recovered by obedience, and they learn, as far as in them lies, to live peacefully and sociably with all who share their nature, with all men, no longer through fear of discipline but by the impulse of love" (McGinn 29-30). Bernard goes on to talk about how wonderful it is to live in harmony.

Later on that page he talks about how leaders should not lead by domineering but by influencing out of love. He pulls out key passages to this effect: "Love is the fullness of the law" (Romans 13:10) and "If you love your brother you have fulfilled the law" (Romans 13:8). It's tough to argue with that, and as hard as it is to obey sometimes, it is a joyful law that makes sense to my soul.

Bernard does not stop here. He pushes the idea of the bridegroom as God and the bride as any soul who comes in union with him. Bernard speaks a little about the awesome ineffability of God, even if his metaphor is a little antiquated and angrifying: "the king has not one bedroom only, but several. For he has more than one queen; his concubines are many" (31). He explains it a bit better: "All do not experience the delight of the Bridegroom's private visit in the same room, the Father has different arrangements for each (Mt 20:23). For we did not choose him but he chose us and appointed places for us (Jn 15:16); and in the place of each one's appointment there he is too." Indeed, "[t]here are many rooms [...] and each [...] finds there the place and destination suited to her merits until the grace of contemplation allows her to advance further and share the happiness of her Lord" (32).

In other words, we each have our own gifts, our own roles, our own talents, and our own unique experiences of the Divine.

This last bit is not as directly related, but it groks with my thoughts recently on the acquisition and creation of knowledge and of what life has to offer:
"Instruction makes us learned, experience makes us wise" (33).
Aside from the translator's love of comma splices, I can hardly disagree :-)

Go in peace. Next time: more Eckhart! [It's like more cowbell, only better!]