Ripple

I cannot believe I am writing this, but I would like to reflect a bit on this Grateful Dead song: “Ripple”–words by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia. It is an extraordinarily beautiful song, haunting in its multi-layered meaning and in its lyrical performance. There are various interpretations of it, some shallow and misleading, others catch the deeper drift of this poem. But here I would like to venture another kind of interpretation. And I would like to do this as a kind of preparation for the final installment of my reflections on Christian advaita, which I hope to have for the next posting. So, first of all here are the lyrics of this remarkable song:

 

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

(Chorus)

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

(Chorus)

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

 

Because it is primarily a song, it needs to be heard as a song in order to catch its subtle movements and nuances. There is a studio version done by the Grateful Dead that is especially clear for listening purposes and that can be found here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFsbAuX9P4w

But you also have to see it in its actual performance where the words may not be as clear to hear but the trade-off is that you see this amazing dynamic of a rock concert by the Grateful Dead performing this very subtle and lyrical song to a very loud crowd! And here is just one example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JT8zLTaKxeE

 

Let’s begin with a most fundamental and basic view of the poem: it is both a song and a poem–in ancient times there was no distinction–and its most obvious theme encompasses the various possibilities and problems in communicating a deep experience or a deep insight in human language and through human art, the built-in limitations of language and art to express that which is most intimate and most transcendent in us. But what I would like to suggest and add that this song/poem also expresses one of the deepest dynamics of spirituality and one of the most crucial dilemmas faced by those of us who are trying to come to terms with a Christian version of advaita. (Obviously this was not the intended meaning of Hunter and Garcia but then no work of art is limited to what its creator intended.)

In talking of advaita, Abhishiktananda always referred to the radically ineffable nature of the advaita experience, the fact that you cannot express it in words or concepts, all words and concepts and thoughts and ideas, all fail in touching this experience. All you get are some images and faint reflections of the reality, the so-called “namarupa,” which in Abhishiktananda’s reckoning includes even the most sacrosanct Christian doctrines. As we shall see in the next posting, the theologians will say, “Not so fast, Abhishiktananda, our words, feeble though they be, are truly connected to the reality we are trying to express and in some sense represent that reality.” We shall argue that one later, but here let us see what “Ripple,” and the Grateful Dead have to contribute.

In ancient times poetry/song was considered a “divine gift,” in fact coming from the divine realm and manifesting it. Consider the opening line of Homer’s Illiad: “Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son, Achilleus, and its devastation…..” Also here is the opening line from Homer’s Odyssey: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…..” So in this reckoning the artist is not even really the real creator/storyteller. It is the Divine which uses the poet as a medium to speak/sing the story and in its telling/singing we are connected to the Divine realm as we hear it and take it in. The song/poem participates in a divine vision of the human drama. It is certainly not just the poet “expressing himself.” Underlying all this is an understanding of the mystery of language and knowledge as imbued with the numinous. But the “Divine” in that world is not yet a wholly transcendent realm but one simply parallel as it were with our natural world. It is simply like an “alternate universe” or like “another dimension” of pop science fiction. With the development in human consciousness and a growing awareness of a more profound and transcendent divine reality, the limitations of human language and art to “make present” that reality became more and more painfully obvious.

 

“Ripple” shares in all this in a most remarkable way. It begins: “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine,” and this immediately evokes the ancient and classical world where language and song illumine all and convey a kind of transparency to all. The song fully conveys the meaning of the artist, the meaning of the reality it sings about. (Classical Christian theology and spirituality seems to have that same kind of confidence in its language.)

 

“Ripple” continues: “And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung.” The confidence of the artist/singer is not based on his own skill or the “fineness” of his “instrument,” whether it be the “harp” or his talent or his mind. It is the “harp unstrung” which is the source of this song. This is a symbolic paradox, obviously not humanly possible, which veils the real transcendent source of the song (the theology/spirituality). Such paradox is a common motif in the ancient and pre-modern world as a way of veiling the transcendent Divine Reality as when Aquinas says that we know God best when we know Him as Unknown, and recall the Cloud of Unknowing, etc.

 

But “Ripple” Immediately infuses a kind of doubt about all this, a problematic that may be inherent in this level of communication between two people. Recall that the very first word of the song is “If,” making the situation more like a wish than a reality, the implication is that my words are not quite like that at all, no so luminous and transparent. But the song gets more explicit: “Would you hear my voice come through the music, Would you hold it near as it were your own?” The point is that every artist (and in a certain sense this holds for all of us in our most intimate and most important communication) has the question whether he/she have really been able to communicate their vision, their knowledge, their experience. Whether the song was done a thousand years ago or just yesterday and you hear it, do you really share in the artist’s vision/experience fully or in some incomplete and fragmented way? “Ripple’s” answer is clear:   “It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.” There is a sadness here, and the whole song has a kind of mellow sadness; but that is only due to a realization of human finiteness and limitation even at the deepest levels of our experience. The song ponders the utter futility of such communication. (And also of course theology and spirituality is a kind of “hand-me-down” and these thoughts are also broken and so totally inadequate in capturing the original experience–Abhishiktananda was saying this with vehemence at the end of his life. The utter futility of Christian theology in capturing the vision of advaita was his concern.)

But “Ripple” doesn’t leave us there; it continues:


“I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air “

 

The poet/singer gives up wrestling with this dilemma, and then suddenly the whole song pivots and becomes something quite new. No matter the limitations and shortcomings and opaqueness of language and art, we must continue the human effort to communicate what is deepest in us. (And no matter the feebleness in our God-language, it is the human thing to continue doing.) From here on the song actually lifts us up.   And all this is marked with this remarkable chorus which is really a haiku and gives us the title of the song:

“Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow.”

 

The image is once more shrouded in paradox and mystery. The “ripple” is seemingly without any cause, without any reason for being. It is not accessible to rational and “scientific analysis.” The Grateful Dead have been seen as promoting a kind of hedonistic nihilism where the human being is but a faint and feeble “ripple” within a vast and empty space and empty of meaning except to join in the pleasures of the moment. Taken out of context, this haiku could be read in that way. But within this song, it is something altogether different. This haiku evokes the paradox and mystery which imbues our real existence and this song, and the music at this point actually lifts the song slightly out of that mellow sadness which otherwise underlies it thoroughly. Recall that most famous koan with Basho’s frog jumping into the pond, as it does everytime you read the haiku, and in the splash and in the ripples from that the whole cosmos is recreated and renewed. So, really this haiku is a zen koan of sorts–what is the sound of one hand clapping? The poet/singer as zen master. Where we will find our “consolation,” our “rest,” our “place,” our essential humanity, is indicated by this koan. No rational analysis here; it eludes all such seeking. This is true of all koans; we discover what we discover as we awaken from our shallow slumber and our petty notions of who we are. But if we are going to say any words they must be imbued with the same paradox and mystery as the koan. Also, like all koans, when we become one with this “ripple” we will awaken and be liberated from our shallow dualistic vision. There is “no wind,” there is no “pebble” falling into the water causing the ripple, there is ONLY the utter stillness and the ripple. There is only ONE reality. This neither the “spirituality of nihilism,” nor the simplistic spirituality that envisions some God standing out there “making” the world and us “happen,” like the clockmaker God of the 18th Century deists who winds up the clock and stands back and watches it work. No, the “ripple” is all there is; there is only ONE REALITY but it is not projections of our ego self.

The song/poem continues in this vein. The issue it is addressing is not on the level of simple human satisfactions, wants, desires, needs, etc. These may or may not be dealt with on a simple human level and human interrelationships. So whether your “cup be empty” or “full,” there is something more urgent, more fundamental to be aware of.  “Ripple” continues:

“Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men.”

 

Robert Hunter, the man who wrote so many lyrics to so many songs performed by the Grateful Dead, said that this was his most favorite line and the most beautiful he had ever written. The “fountain” is that which refreshes us, recreates us; it is the source from which we draw our art, our song, our spirituality, our feeble ability to communicate the experience of the heart. It is this which we seek in all our other seekings; and it is not something that we create or construct or control. It is that which is Transcendent in us, and it is that which we truly are. Gently the song lays aside our concerns about whether our “cup be full or empty” and moves into a whole different dimension of our identity. Interestingly enough, for all the pessimism at the beginning of the song about its communication being a “hand-me-down,” and the “thoughts being broken,” it does appear that at the very least the song can point us in the right direction for this journey. (And so that would also hold for theology/spirituality.)

“Ripple” continues now with a keen insight into the journey into that divine/ transcendent identity, not made with human hands:

“There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone”

 

This is extremely important. The way to that kind of awakening, to that satori on the other side of that koan, to a “mystical experience,” if you will, of who one truly is, well, there is no map, no directions, no “how-to” directions, no “GPS” to guide you. And what’s more, it is excruciatingly unique. That’s why you cannot read spiritual works like cookbooks or imitating other peoples lives. There is a “terrible” uniqueness that one has to go through, each of us knows this in our hearts, that particular “eye of the needle” which beckons us, maybe not until we are dying do we become aware of it; but it is that which we must pass through absolutely alone until we emerge into a whole other vision of who we are. Death and Resurrection.

 

“Ripple” then concludes with some advice for those who consider themselves artistic or spiritual “leaders.” And then the whole song finishes with a line that is both sad and engaging and evocative: “If I knew the way, I would take you home.” The poem/song began with one kind of “If” statement, “If my words did glow…,” beginning with the problematic of artistic communication; and now it ends with another kind of “If” statement, “If I knew the way….,” the problematic of knowledge in the human heart. No one, absolutely no one knows the Way that You have to take to that universally recognized and yearned-for abode of fulfillment and truth and reality: Home (or whatever else we might want to call it). But the offer is beautiful and it leaves us with a sense of companionship on our own effort to make our way there, a companionship of the poem/song that will go with us into the Silence behind and beyond all words and all songs, into the Light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can a Monk be in a Funk?

Well, yes! A lot of people would not think that. They project an idealized spiritual world and it is mostly an illusion and too many monks lap it up. I mean that when you “give up everything” you begin to want to be admired for that! And so you can’t afford to show the weakness and fragility and the emotional quicksand that stalks us all–even “holy” people. Well, ok, if a monk can be in a funk, so can anyone else, and sometimes that is the only honest feeling to have. No sugar-coated “hopefulness,” just trying to keep your feet on the ground of the Real. Always, always aim for that; whether it be comfortable or not, whether it be painful or not, whether it be dark or light….it is this which is the true Holy Ground. Staretz Silouan heard the “Lord’s voice” speak to him: Keep your mind in hell and despair not. Indeed. In our time and in our situation, not bad advice. The important thing is to let the Consuming Fire of the Divine Reality cleanse us of all illusions. Truly it will happen. The Divine Light, then, will be that by which we see everything.

And now for a few stories from the “funk vortex” all around us and within us:

  1. Recently I saw a story in the Washington Post about an exhibit at the Library of Congress about that famous World War II American leader, General George Patton. That he was a remarkable military leader and a genius at orchestrating tank attacks is without question and widely known. But something that is not known by many is the fact that Patton also wrote poetry voluminously. Frankly it’s all lousy, but it does reveal him more than his façade of military splendor. Here is a poem written at the end of World War I when he was a young colonel still learning his trade as it were:

We can but hope that e’re we drown

‘Neath treacle floods of grace

The tuneless horns of mighty Mars

Once more shall rouse the Race

When such times come, Oh! God of War

Grant that we pass midst strife

Knowing once more the whitehot joy

Of taking human life.

 

Patton loved war. He loved the battlefield of human carnage. He felt depressed when WW I ended and also at the end of WW II. If you saw this in a movie, you would consider this a caricature. But, unfortunately, we do not have a movie here. And here is the biggest mistake you might make: you might consider him an anomaly, a bizarre exception, a uniquely distorted heart, etc. I don’t think so. This darkness is hidden in the human heart and it manifests itself over and over, again and again, in the distant past, in the recent past, in our own very “advanced” modern era, wherever you look…. There is something in our hearts that loves war, loves killing and brutalizing and conquering. That’s the real reason we have wars. The myth of Cain and Abel begins this story; but more importantly we see that even religion is involved in this urge and a pretext for killing.

Americans have this fantasy of being righteous and just and in pursuit of the good and the true. We lie to ourselves over and over. We killed Native Americans as a form of genocide among many others. We have participated in the brutalization and the killing of all kinds of people down to this very day in the drone killings approved by both Republicans and Democrats. As the radical Black leader, Stokely Carmichael used to say: Violence is as American as apple pie.

Then again don’t make up the story of primitive people being pure victims. There is plenty of evidence that prehistoric and historic indigenous inhabitants of the Americas committed wars and slaughtered people and brutalized many. So what I am trying to point out is that there is no innocence in this regard, and it is an illusion if you try to disassociate yourself from this history as if these were merely abberrations in our history. Better to be like Gandhi, start with your own heart and find the roots of nonviolence there by facing the dynamic of violence that haunts our nature. Individually we may not be as distorted as Patton, but trust me, the love of killing is part of the fabric of our nationhood because violence is lodged deep in the human heart. Amazing that this man is lionized as a military hero! (And here we might reference that marvelous trilogy of scholarly analysis by Richard Slotkin of the American infatuation with the myth of violence. This explains our love of guns!)

 

  1. Religion is really very tiresome. I did not say “God.” I said “religion.” Any religion. The word “God” refers to that Ultimate Reality which is the ground of all that is and truly the only Real. Religion refers to what we human beings do about all that, and it has a tendency to become very unreal. And it can become a real source of the “funk.” It can become paradoxically an obfuscation of the Ultimate Reality because it is imprisoned in its own illusions–illusions in “religious garb and religious language.”

For a starter, for too many people “religion” and “God” are inseparable–they think that when you say God you inevitably are “talking religion,” and when you say religion, you are most often talking about God. Not true. I have met people who do not use the word “religion” much but are deeply and truly “religious” and “spiritual” in the deepest and truest sense of the word. Abhishiktananda mentions somewhere that when he met some Quakers in India early in his sojourn there he was shocked–he said that they “didn’t believe in any of the things you’re supposed to believe in” but were more Christian than anyone else he had ever met. Religion can become simply another way to expand one’s ego identity; it can easily become a vehicle for all one’s crazy fears, paranoia, violence, greed, even lust. God has nothing to do with this (or “enlightenment” for that matter), but the words of religion and spirituality can multiply and take over one’s discourse. (The Pharisees in the Gospel are one portrayal of this reality, but let’s not put the problem “back there”–it is our current church situation as well.)

Religion can also become very tiresome when it seems to lose touch with the realities people experience. Religious language especially begins to lose its power to grasp the heart when our leaders wallow in platitudes and banalities and retreat to ready-made formulas. A recent example is this:

https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/lets-be-honest-its-lack-faith

 

This is a short article which I found in the National Catholic Reporter. Written by Bishop Tobin of Rhode Island, it addresses some issues that he had seen addressed in an earlier issue. The key issue, as the Bishop sees it, is that young people are unhappy with the Church and voting with their feet by walking away from it in large numbers. Bishop Tobin thinks he has it all figured out, and it’s summed up in the title of the piece: “Let’s Be Honest, It’s a Lack of Faith.” Really?! The lameness of this is beyond description. I won’t go into a detailed analysis of how bad this article is; let everyone discover what they can in it. When I first read it I got depressed–this is after all the church I belong to. The sad thing is that there is a certain truth in what he is trying to express, but his focus is all wrong and superficial and filled with religious phrases that he learned in seminary, the repeating of which made him a good institutional figurehead. As I have often written in different ways, I don’t believe that the Church (or monasticism for that matter) should be worried about young people or anyone else. Church people who get all wrapped up about this start resorting to all kinds of “gimmicks” in order to appeal to young people (the “liberal” approach) or attribute “sinfulness” that keeps people from coming to the Church (the “conservative” approach). What’s important is that the Church (and monasticism) be truly and starkly real, speak the Gospel in its naked power uncompromisingly, teach the mystical truth of our identity in God and not just a “membership” in the Church, etc., etc. If we had that, we wouldn’t be worried about who is or isn’t “in” the Church.

But the Church speaks mostly in a most compromised and muted way about all these things. It often comes across as simply protecting its institutional skin. At other times the Church seems allied with the forces of darkness and lies and pure institutional egoism disguised by an ecclesiology of “the holiness of the Church.” Recently Pope Francis apologized to Rwanda for the participation of Catholic leaders in Rwanda in the incredible massacres of thousands of people by one tribe versus another. The Catholic priests and nuns were members of one tribe that felt it had been greatly wronged and went on a killing binge. The apology is good but also very weak because it doesn’t get at the root of the problem: Catholic Christianity did not penetrate and challenge the cultural and tribal/national identity of these people, so that tribal identity was primary not the shared humanity they had with all other people. This kind of thing happens all the time and all over the place. It was so true of the “Christianization” of Europe which actually was totally shallow, no matter the grand cathedrals and the “pageants of faith.” And we see this of course in our own American situation. A small example: Amazing to me that Congressman Paul Ryan, a member of the Catholic Church, is not condemned from all the Catholic pulpits–here is a man who wants to destroy Medicare and Social Security and make life miserable for millions of poor people. Another congressman, who happened to vote for a bill that had funding for abortion clinics is told by his bishop that he cannot receive communion at a Catholic Mass. Another example: Still amazing to me that the American bishops never once condemned the various American wars in the Middle East, nor the continued use of drone killings, etc.

Ok, they occasionally issue vaguely worded documents that somehow manage to sputter out something real. No matter. Actually if any of the bishops actually did say anything prophetic, they might not be believed because they have been seen in various kinds of deceptions and subterfuge. Note the New York Archdiocese: it is fighting “tooth and nail,” lobbying very hard against a bill in the New York legislature that would extend the statute of limitations for child abuse victimization, so that those who were abused as children decades ago can come out now and sue the Church for compensation for all the pain they have experienced. The fact that the bishops are against this is interesting. They want to say that they are sorry for all that abuse by priests, but then their main thrust is to protect the institutional church from feeling “any” pain as a result of this. Maybe it’s things like that that can cause “a lack of faith.” I think the Church has a long way to go in this regard. I wouldn’t blame anyone from walking away from this Church.

 

  1. Speaking of Church language, here is a humorous but cogent representation of a certain kind of “Jesus” that may seem a caricature but I think he is more prevalent than you think. This was written by Derek Penwell and I saw it on Huffington Post:
  • ”Love your friends, bless those who bless you … and screw everybody else.”
  • “If you had the faith of this mustard seed … you wouldn’t need all that fancy ‘affordable health care.’”
  • “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? I mean, look at all these liberals, and their un-Christian ‘caring for widows, orphans, and the stranger.’ Why can’t they care about Christian stuff, like the 2nd amendment or school prayer?”
  • “Go, sell all you have and give it to the richest one percent.”
  • “Blessed are those who hate immigrants in my name, for they shall inherit all the jobs white people don’t want to do.”
  • “Follow me and I will make you fishers of … people who look just like you.”
  • “Give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give unto God only what you can’t hide on your 1040.”
  • “Let the little children come to me … unless they’re in Head Start or need help with school lunches, then cast them out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of their tiny little teeth.”
  • “Go ye therefore into all the world … and make sure everybody hates Muslims. Because obviously.”
  • “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery, but I say to you … unless she’s a lot younger, prettier (like a model or whatever), and you’ve had enough foresight to sign a prenup.’”
  • “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you … what the hell? They’ve got it coming.’”
  • ”You have heard it said that healthcare should be a right for everyone, but I say to you, ‘If you can store up for yourselves another new Benz, even though it comes from money meant for poor people’s chemotherapy, then you should totally do it.’”
  • “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven … but if you have a suitably large investment portfolio, that definitely won’t hurt.”
  • “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Marginalia—“This only applies to People of Color and women in abusive relationships.”)
  • “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but I say to you … just kidding. That’s for suckers!”
  • “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all straight, cisgender, middle class white guys unto myself.”
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … except refugees. They definitely do not count.”
  • “So therefore , none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Wait. Actually, he did say that, but he probably shouldn’t have.)

 

  1. At this time of year, around Eastertime, I am overcome with the hegemony of the Easter Bunny! This character dominates our cultural sense of Easter; his presence is ubiquitous.  Down with the Easter Bunny! Does anyone have a good recipe for rabbit stew?

 

  1. So lately we have had all this talk about a new health insurance plan, “Trumpcare” if you will, and it got defeated. Progressives should not get too jubilant about this because it was actually only the really, really bad defeating the really bad. The people who actually were responsible for breaking Trumpcare did so because they want to destroy the whole social structure that is a safety net for the physical well-being of people: Medicare, Social Security, etc. Trumpcare, in their eyes, was only a tiny step in that direction and they were expecting a lot more from him. Stay tuned for “tax reform”…..it will be a doozy!

With all this hullabaloo about health insurance, there is an amazing shortage of analysis that gets at the root problem: this insane American compulsion to put every aspect of our lives in the “free market.” Health insurance and health care “for profit” is a serious distortion of what is at stake. There is not another developed industrial country that deals with the well-being of its people as simply another consumer product, a commodity, by which someone can make money. On the contrary, all this should be considered a God-given right for every person no matter their economic status. Obama had an opportunity to challenge the prevailing view but passed on it, preferring to tweak the system and make it a “kinder and gentler” for profit system. It’s helping some people; it’s hurting a lot of people. But these folks today are out to destroy the whole thing.

Here is an interesting little op-ed piece from the New York Times by a person coming from Finland and reflecting on our health insurance system:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/18/opinion/the-fake-freedom-of-american-health-care.html?_r=0

 

  1. Speaking of the “free market,” (actually there is no such thing but an illusion perpetrated by the upper class that controls all the levers to manipulate the economy), there is this very, very interesting reflection by an Indian economist on our whole economic and social perspective. Lynn Parramore writes about this in Alternet in an essay with the title, “Have We Been Denying Our Human Nature For Four Hundred Years”:

 

Here are a few relevant quotes:

“Rajani Kanth, a political economist, social thinker, and poet, goes beyond any of these for the answer. In his view, what’s throwing most of us off kilter— whether we think of ourselves as left or right, capitalist or socialist—was birthed 400 years ago during the period of the Enlightenment. It’s a set of assumptions, a particular way of looking at the world that pushed out previous modes of existence, many quite ancient and time-tested, and eventually rose to dominate the world in its Anglo-American form.

We’re taught to think of the Enlightenment as the blessed end to the Dark Ages, a splendid blossoming of human reason. But what if instead of bringing us to a better world, some of this period’s key ideas ended up producing something even darker?

Kanth argues that this framework, which he calls Eurocentric modernism, is collapsing, and unless we understand why and how it has distorted our reality, we might just end up burnt to a crisp as this misanthropic Death Star starts to bulge and blaze in its dying throes.

Kanth’s latest book, Farewell to Modernism: On Human Devolution in the Twenty-First Century, tells the history of a set of bad ideas. He first caught the scent that something was off as an economics student in India, wondering why, despite his mastery of the mathematics and technology of the discipline, the logic always escaped him. Then one day he had an epiphany: the whole thing was “cockeyed from start to finish.” To his amazement, his best teachers agreed. “Then why are we studying economics?” demanded the pupil. “To protect ourselves from the lies of economists,” replied the great economist Joan Robinson.

Kanth realized that people are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent trucking and bartering through life. Smith had turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers.”

“Using his training in history and cultural theory, Kanth dedicated himself to investigating how this way of thinking took hold of us and how it delivered a society which is essentially asocial — one in which everybody sees everybody else as a means to their own private ends. Eurocentric modernism, he argues, consigned us to an endless and exhausting Hobbesian competition. For every expansion of the market, we found our social space shrunk and our natural environment spoiled. For every benefit we received, there came a new way to pit us against each other. Have the costs become too high?”

 

“Kanth thinks what we’d much prefer is to live in what he calls a ‘social economy of affections,’ or, put more simply, a moral economy. He points out that the simple societies Europeans were so moved by when they first began to study them, conjuring images of the ‘noble savage,’ tended toward cooperation, not competition. They emphasized feeling and mutual affection. Karl Marx got his idea of communism from looking at the early anthropological studies of simple societies, where he was inspired by the way humans tended to relate to each other. Today we are taught to believe that society doesn’t owe us a living, says Kanth. “Well, in simple societies they felt the exact opposite. Everybody owed everybody else.  There were mutual ties. People didn’t rely on a social contract that you can break. Instead, they had a social compact. You can’t break it. You’re born with it, and you’re delighted to be part of it because it nurtures you. That’s very different from a Hobbesian notion that we’re all out to zap each other.”

 

And so the essay goes. I am sure that you can find some criticisms of his ideas, but the basic thrust of this is without doubt truly valid. I think that Robert Bellah wrote in this vein in his monumental book, Habits of the Heart, years ago, and Merton anticipated Kanth’s analysis in his own social criticism. In some ways, the economic model for society would best be found in a monastery when it is authentically lived out, as Merton pointed out even in his last speech in Asia–but also as he pointed out this requires more than a change in ideas, but a radical change in heart, in consciousness, “a conversion of heart” as Benedict pointed out.

 

  1. I am eager to get out into the wilderness once more, the true sacrament of the Real! But, alas, my usual places of camping are under 10 feet of snow at present. I usually head out to the mountains in June but this year may be a bit hard for that. Well, anyway, a few positive words in conclusion from some of my fellow wilderness enthusiasts:

 

“I suspect the real glories of Yosemite belong to the backpackers, the trudgers and trekkers, those who finish a strenuous climb and wait for their psyches to catch up, suffer a thunderstorm on an alpine fell, and most of all, let the night spirits seep into their sleep. The real glories of Yosemite belong to those who are comfortable with being uncomfortable, who know it’s all right to be afraid, to be cold, wet, tired, and hungry, to be euphoric and, on occasion, ecstatic.

                                                                                    Ann Zwinger

“Most of all, I was awed, very early and indelibly…. The universe was neither hostile nor friendly, simply indifferent to my small, freezing-handed, steam-breathing figure in the white waste. You do not feel that mystery in city canyons or on suburban lawns. What you feel is the specious persuasiveness of human control, human management and organization and rearrangement. You do not know who the ultimate Authority is. Out in the public lands, where the nearest neighbor may be ten miles away and the stars are closer than the nearest town, you do.”

                                                                    Wallace Stegner

 

 

“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”

                                                                  John Muir

 

 

 

 

 

Toward a Christian Advaita, Part III

Continuing our reflections…. There’s one of the letters that Abhishiktananda wrote to someone describing some time he spent with his one disciple, Marc. In that letter he says that he and Marc had spent two whole days studying and reflecting on just the first line of the Gospel of John. As I mentioned in the previous posting this is very rich ground and it is key in developing a theological foundation and a spirituality of a Christian advaita.

Let me begin with a quote from Abhishiktananda, from the mid ‘60s when he wrote Saccidananda:

“It is a fact that Jesus never expressed himself in terms like those used, for example, by Ramana Maharshi, and still less does his teaching echo that of the Upanishads. No one has the right to isolate the saying, ‘My Father and I are one’(John 10:30), and to interpret it without reference to the rest of the Gospel. Advaitins themselves apply a similar rule when anyone lays too much emphasis on the apparently dualistic expressions which can be found here and there in the Hindu Scriptures.

“For Jesus, God is truly ‘an Other,’ another I distinct from his own I. Jesus addresses God as ‘You,’ and God also speaks to him in the second person. With this You, this Other, Jesus has continual communion and communication. But the relationship is a particularly profound and mysterious one. No words can adequately describe it or fully express its richness.”

“Again, at the deepest level of his human consciousness, underlying all his activity, all he said and did, there appears that secret and inexpressible relationship that he has with God. He calls God his Father, and that in a sense that no Jew had ever done before. To reveal the Father is the heart of his message, the purpose of his mission in the world…. Jesus constantly refers to that Other from whom he has come and to whom he is going. When he speaks, it is only to repeat what he has first heard from his Father…. The Father who dwells in him bears witness to him….One senses that the continual recollection of the Father underlies Jesus’ consciousness at every moment. He cannot think of himself without being aware of his Father at the very source of this thought of himself; and equally the awareness which he had of himself simply as a man seems to lead him irresistibly to the thought and awareness of the Father deep within, deeper than his own I, the Father from whom he comes and to whom he goes.”

 

By the end of his life in the early ‘70s, Abhishiktananda was not satisfied with this wording and he criticized his own work in Saccidananda, and you can see from his letters and his journal that he was moving in a more radical direction and he was more uncomfortable with the capacity of traditional formulations to capture the experience of advaita. But this earlier language does serve several good purposes. For one, it does help the person who is new to advaita to begin to explore the possibility of a Christian advaita and not just stay in a bhakti mode as it were. But more importantly, this language reflects quite accurately the real struggle in the Gospel of John between the language of relationality–and thus an implied dualism, “God” as the “Other”–and the language of “oneness,” advaita.

What’s being conveyed in this language reaches a kind of crescendo in the final discourse of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Both relationality and oneness are paramount and neither can be dropped out of the Christian picture. Jesus is “the Logos” in “sarx,” in the human condition totally and fully. Thus Jesus manifests who the “Father” is(this is the function of the Logos), who this Source is and what is this Source all about. Don’t be thrown by that term, “Father”; it is a Semitic expression in contrast to the seemingly more abstract Greek term, “Logos.” It personalizes the Source, and thus this language pushes the vision into a relational, dualistic focus. However, it is also, in this context of the Gospel, not an emotive word, a kind of bhakti endearment, nor is it a gender designator. It is not as if there were “another” person sitting across the table from you. (Thus the folks who want to replace “Father” with “Mother” are missing the point, focusing on a wrong emphasis as if gender is an issue here. True, later generations made the same mistake in making male gender critical in this rendering of the Source. Here is Abhishiktananda: “The words Abba, Amma, Ba, Ma, are the first babbling of the infant, his first expression of relationship. Ba, Ma, designate not the father-mother, but the person close to him whose relationship has for him an absolute value, who is his support, his loka. God the Father[or Mother] is so much more than the abstract symbol of the one who begets.” )

Jesus in the Gospel of John does two things at the same time: on the one hand he manifests an incredible relationality with the Source, “the Father,” which has this intimacy which was jolting to the Semitic mindset. This is apparent in his appropriation of the word, “Abba,” which would never ever be used in reference to God in a Semitic setting. When we reduce “abba” to an emotive or gender word we miss out on the full implications of what the Gospel is pointing to. (As Abhishiktananda said “abba” is the “mystery of non-distance.”) On the other hand, this Jesus of the Gospel also claims that he is “one” with the Source. As Abhishiktananda correctly warns us, we cannot jump from this statement alone to a claim for a Christian advaita. This is a mysterious oneness, and it is very important to recall that Jesus never says that he is “the Father.” “My Father and I are one” is not the same saying as “I am the Father.” That would be what we earlier called “monism”–Jesus and “the Father” are one thing, simply two different appearances of the same thing–this is not uncommon among various Hindu advaitins. But Jesus does emphatically claim a “oneness” with the Source which is all wrapped in absolute Mystery. Remember that Jesus says that NO ONE knows “the Father”… except “the Son.” Thus, oneness with Source is only “known” through and in this relationality. A very paradoxical situation! And then this Jesus of the Gospel invites us into a participation in that oneness. This then introduces the other “mysterious” party in this relationality, the Holy Spirit. And believe me, no one knows what they are talking about when they talk about the Holy Spirit. We do know what Paul tells us is very, very significant: it is the Holy Spirit which utters “abba” in the depths of our hearts; and thus it is the Holy Spirit which is the “agent” as it were of Christian advaita.

 

So Christian advaita will always be wrapped in Total Mystery which speaks to us through symbols and languages of paradox and mystery which are there for our hearts and minds to ponder. It is always characterized by relationality AND oneness, the irreducible poles of the Mystery between which we live our historical lives and by which our very humanity constantly shines…the Transfiguration…. In the last years of his life, Abhishiktananda was still wrestling to better express this Mystery but he was also pushing the language into new territory. Here is a sample from 1972, a year before his death:

“The Trinity is a threefold depth when the laser penetrates to the deepest point of my being. A threefold depth of myself, not an idea received from without, in the abstract, but an experience of my own consciousness which the Master’s revelation nevertheless helps one to formulate…. The name of these depths: sahatvam – vaktram – gudham.

–Sahatvam: the mystery of being-together, or relationship, of the Spirit.

— Vaktram: the face manifested by the word, vak, the Purusha.

–Gudham: the absolutely ineffable Ground, the Father.

The name of God had been at the same time revealed and hidden in the O.T. Yet in it God had spoken so much. In it God had revealed so much of himself. Jesus claimed for him the function of the Word and of Judgment. He gave back to God his mystery by taking for him the function of God manifesting God.

God is communion–God is Word and face–God is mystery.

I am communion. I am word and face. I am mystery.

Each human “I” is communion, word and face, mystery.

The whole of creation is communion, word and face, mystery.

Sahatvam, vaktram, gudham.”

Continuing….

“So long as I call anyone on earth brother (on whatever grounds I may do this) I have the right to give the name Father to the ultimate depth of the guha….

“Christian experience is really the experience of advaita lived out in human communion. And that is what the Trinity is. But we have sought to escape this fire by deifying formulas and institutions. Christian experience is the Spirit who makes human beings to be brothers and to gather around the unique, cosmic, archetypal Purusha, of whom Jesus is the preferred expression for an entire segment of humanity. But we should not base an ‘apodictic’ theology on this essentially relative mental foundation (a particular myth), in terms of which the Gospel has been thought and expressed. The gospel lived in the Spirit. The Spirit alone is important. No form can hold the Spirit, it passes through them all.

“The Father is not necessarily Someone to whom I would address adoration–prayer, to whom I would say Thou, of whom I would say He. I adore him just as truly when I am recollected in my depth, in myself, outside myself…. I discover him, I adore him, when I say Thou to another person, from the very depth of my own I. Un-born, to whom should I address myself? Born from every look that rests on me, I adore the Father in my surrender to that look.

“Offer the rite, offer the prayer in all freedom-spontaneity. No one can impose it on me. But in the group of believers it has its value. And that is why I was as genuine at Poona in the liturgy as in the Upanishads. Therefore a refusal of all theology–both that which ‘namarupin’ Christians impose on me, and equally that which no less namarupin Vedantins want to impose on me! I am, according to the Trinitarian model, indivisibly non-dual and in communion, ‘both’ of them, the one through the other. Theological questions: recover the wisdom of the Buddha’s silence. Refusal, even refusal of the refusal.”

 

An amazing statement! And only one of many such statements in the last years of his life. To be continued………..

 

 

Toward a Christian Advaita, Part II: The Gospel of John

Continuing our reflections on the possibility of a Christian version of advaita, nonduality. Here we will focus on one of the most fundamental documents of Christian identity and thought: the Gospel of John. While there are also many parts of Paul that could be helpful in this regard; and while the other Gospels can also be brought into a coherent harmony with a nondualistic vision, it is John who is most important and most critical for our purposes. Our guide in all this is of course Abhishiktananda.

“In the beginning was the Word”….such is the opening of the Gospel in most translations. We have to be attentive to the multiple nuances and rich layers of signification of each word, especially in a deep ancient language like Greek. And so here we run into a problem–every translation, no matter how good, ends up flattening to a more or less extent the nuances of the original. Here the Greek reads (in transliteration): En arche en ho logos. The word “arche” here is usually and correctly translated as “beginning,” but this beginning is not simply the first element in a sequence. Like if you have the sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., you just have a series of elements and “1” is simply the first, or the “beginning” of this sequence. But when John starts “en arche,” he is not pointing to a sequence but to something that is “first” or a “beginning” in the sense of being fundamental, the ground on which all else is built you might say. The first principle of it all. And this is, according to John, the “logos,” weakly translated as the “word.” But this is not the fault of the translators because it is impossible to get into English or any other modern language the amazing richness of meaning that “logos” has. If you look it up in the famous and comprehensive Greek dictionary by Liiddell & Scott, you will find several pages on this word alone. It is one of the most ancient words in the Indo-European family and it has a long history of numerous associations and nuances. It was a very important word for Heraclitus, for Plato and Aristotle, and into modern times when Heidegger reflected on the Greek roots of Western thought through a reflection of the nuances of this little word. Just to scratch the surface, logos can mean the following: that by which the inward thought is expressed, that which is said or spoken, a word, language, a saying, speech, discourse, a story, a conversation, report, history, a narrative, a proposition, a principle, rationality, thought, reason, an account, and much more. You can see this word appearing at the roots of many modern words, like anthropology and theology, the logos of anthropos (or human beings), and the logos of theos (or God).

So you can see that John is plunging us right into the depths with the very first words. In a sense he is saying that the foundation of all that is is a kind of “self-expression”, an implied relationality. There is the Source; then there is “that by which the inward thought of the Source is expressed,” and made manifest, the Logos. So we are also seemingly plunged into a vision of a kind of “twoness” or dualism. John tells us: kai ho logos en pros ton theon–translated as, “and the Word was with God.” Here we need to note two new important terms: theos = “God,” but immediately note not to imagine or think you know what this word refers to. All images of “God” must be cast aside at this point; all notions of “someone” or “something” “out there” are not it–a kind of mental idolatry that is purged by whatever serious spiritual path we take until we meet the real Mystery of the One we call God. We misread the Scriptures almost always by a kind of lazy familiarity with the words and think we know what is being said to us. And the next word is even more critical for our purposes: pros = “with” in the translation, but in actuality the primary sense of pros is “toward” or “to” and “with” is a kind of derivative sense. So the underlying meaning is that there is this “to-ness” to God, that the Logos is “toward” God in the fullest meaning of that, a dynamic of relationality that is turned to this Reality. You see that the word “with” is a weaker notion in that it connotes merely proximity in a sense: the Logos is with God; but in reality the Logos is totally turned toward God. All this of course seems to imply a fundamental dualism before there is even any creation.

But the very next sentence throws us into the paradox and mystery of this Reality: kai theos en ho logos, translated as “and the Word was God.” So we have a real dilemma here. The Logos is not only “with” “God,” or “toward” “God,” but also and at the same time equivalent to “God.” So in normal language all of this looks like we have “2” of something–“2” of God. Later, when we are introduced to the “Holy Spirit,” we seem to be saying there are “3” of these called “God.” But it must be emphasized right away that this is not “normal” language or language in its everyday usage. This is not a “counting” situation. All classic traditional Trinitarian theology of all the main traditions recognizes this. The Trinity is a total Mystery. There seems to be a “threeness” there and at the same time a “oneness.” How this can be is totally beyond our capacity to conceptualize or explain. But there have been attempts to precisely do that and they are called heresies: conceptualizations that mislead us from the truth. One was called tritheism: basically this said that the Logos, or later called the Son, and the “Father” and the Holy Spirit are three enumerated and separate entities, in other words, “three gods.” This absolutizes multiplicity and dualism right within the Divine Reality. As crude as this sounds, I am afraid that a lot of popular piety and popular religious thought is very close to this because it doesn’t take the mystery aspect seriously enough. There are these “3” and three they are, and a lot of popular religiosity has this feel about it. And this can have a devastating effect on spirituality and the religious life.

Now the other heresy, which I believe was called “modalism,” reduces the Mystery in the other direction: oneness. The “three” are merely aspects or appearances of One Reality. “Threeness” here is merely a function of a certain difference in the “showing” of the Divine Reality. In both cases what we have is a collapsing of the Divine Mystery into one or the other of its poles. Very difficult to maintain both poles when we have such a deep drive to rationalize and explain reality. And even though we are speaking only of the Divine Reality, this has a paradigmatic effect on the whole dualism/nondualism argument. You see, if multiplicity is the very nature of the Divine Reality then there is no question that dualism is the more proper way of conceiving our relationship to the Divine Reality. We stand before the Trinity in prayer as the “fourth” enumerated element. On the other hand, if oneness is the very nature of the Divine Reality then we are drawn into what is called “monism,” everything is really only One, multiplicity is only an illusion, maya. Certain strains of Indian religious thought are very strong on that. Abhishiktananda knew that was a crucial wrong turn in the spiritual road, that claiming that all multiplicity in reality is only maya, would never allow Christian nondualism to be discovered. Yet he also had his undeniable advaitic experience of the Divine Reality. He found a promising path in plunging ever deeper into the fundamental Christian Mystery of the Trinity and then reinterpreting the Jesus story in a more untraditional way.

So in the very first sentence the Gospel of John has immersed us into the depths and exposed us to a deep conundrum. The next sentence practically repeats this and emphasizes this line of thought: “He was in the beginning with God.” This repetition is striking and not without a purpose. Then the next sentence opens up a new door: “All things came into being through him”–meaning “through” the Logos. Well, this brings all of “creation” or, if you will, all of reality into the picture. Everything, all, absolutely nothing excluded except the “beginningless” Divine Reality, exists only “through” the Logos; and what this “through” means is kind of the “crown jewels” of the Gospel. Everything, like one blade of grass or your very self, exists only because of the Logos; and it’s important to see this correctly, not as the “clockmaker” God of the Englightenment Age deists who looked at the Divine Reality and creation in a mechanical relationship: this God makes the universe like a clockmaker making a clock and then he sets it “there” and it goes by itself. This is a very crude kind of dualism. But the implication of the text and the deepest Christian theology and mysticism would say that the Logos is present “in” every created reality as the one keeping that reality in existence–apart from the Logos it would go out of existence. And the text finishes this line : “and without him not one thing came into being.”

There are a lot of other points to be made in the next few lines like all that language about “light” and “darkness” which seems to point to another symbol of dualism but in actuality all that does is make a kind of distinction that our Buddhists friends tend to make: the difference between being “awake” and “not awake” to reality; but we will skip all this and proceed to something of absolutely crucial importance: “And the Logos became flesh.” I especially want to avoid that usual translation of “Logos” as “Word” because that is a weak rendering whose real meaning we are totally numb to. The Greek word for what is translated as “flesh” is “sarx,” and here again the radical nature of this statement is not at all apparent. Sarx does not just mean “flesh” as what you have on your bones; that image really stands for the whole human condition, human finitude, human fraility and limitation, etc. To borrow something from the Buddhists: sarx is the human situation viewed through samsara. You have to realize that in the Greek-thought world of that time, which would have included all the writers and readers of the Gospel of John, the logos as located within the Divine Reality cannot possibly have anything to do with sarx. They are at opposite poles as it were and imply a radical dualism. The Gospel, thus, makes this radical claim that the Logos “became” sarx. Wow! The whole Gospel is engaged in this delicate dance between dualism and oneness, and here it seems as if the dualism is totally overcome. But of course the key word here is “became,” which then turns into quite a bone of contention over the centuries leading to many different kinds of heresies and different kinds of traditional interpretations and including Abhishiktananda’s radical reinterpretation which may or may not cohere with Church teaching. Abhishiktananda wanted to look at this statement through the eyes of Advaita Vedanta, through the eyes of the Upanishads, through the eyes of the rishis who had this experience of advaita. I am not sure if the Church will ever be able to do that in any serious way.

Be that as it may, what we want to do now is simply appreciate the radical nature of this statement. It is even deeper and more fully needing exploration than even that profound Buddhist realization: samsara=nirvana, the elimination of the final duality within the human mind. In a future posting we will continue to ponder this delicate dance within the Gospel between dualism and oneness, and we will bring in explicitly Abhishiktananda’s words.

To be continued…..

 

 

Another Tale of Two Cities, or “I Ain’t No Preacher No More”

There is this famous and powerful trope in Western literature: the two cities. Plato had it; Augustine had it most famously–the City of God and the City of Man; it is hidden within many works of literature and history. But of course there is that marvelous Dickens novel: A Tale of Two Cities. What’s important to remember is that this trope does not primarily refer to actual physical locations or cities but the city is more or less a symbol of a state of mind and a state of heart. Truly, physical cities are very often named here; physical places like Rome, like Paris and London, have an important presence here; but still what matters is something deeper that these different locales merely point to or symbolize in many different layers of significance. So let’s take a look at a couple of these tales of modern vintage.

The words in quotes are a powerful line from a very great American novel: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was also turned into a remarkable movie by John Ford. Here we are not going to engage in literary criticism or analysis, but I think the novel has some very interesting and important religious aspects, and it is on these that I would like to reflect a bit. A personal note: years ago when we first started to show movies in my monastic community (and I will totally deny any part in such an arrangement–unless someone has some pictures showing me setting up the DVD player), we wondered what would be some good movies to show the community. One time we hit on The Grapes of Wrath, and it was really interesting to see it in the monastic context as it showed the very real struggles of people to hold on to their humanity in a very hostile world. All the little aches and pains of monastic life and all the griping of monks about this or that situation seemed a bit exaggerated.

Overview and summary of the plot: the story is set at the height of the Great Depression in 1936, the “dust bowl” of Oklahoma, and the tenant-farmer economy that was the fate of millions. It is the story of the Joad family with Ma Joad and her oldest son, Tom, being the main characters. There is also another very important but mysterious character, Jim Casy, a former preacher who accompanies the Joads on their trek to California. These are tenant farmers; that means they don’t own the land they farm; the Bank owns it all. They have to turn over a certain amount of their crop as “rent.” In the mid ‘30s, during the height of the Great Depression, a tremendous drought hit this area and the land turned to dust and the winds blew and blew creating vast dust storms and millions of acres were lost to farming. The banks took over the land driving these tenant farmers out. Many of them, like the Joads, headed for California to become farmworkers picking vegetables and fruit–remember this is way before all the Hispanics that came into the fields of California to become farmworkers and Cesar Chavez and that era.

Now Steinbeck did not write just an historical/sociological study–but in fact it does have a lot of such observations–he wrote a novel, a story of deep significance for all human beings in all situations. If we focus on the three mentioned characters we will see this narrative as a kind of “conversion story.” So the “two cities” here might seem like the Joads in Oklahoma and the Joads in California and there is the journey from one to the other. There’s a certain truth in that, but the much deeper thing is the inner state of the key characters and their journey from one state of heart to another. Consider these three characters:

Tom: At the beginning of the story Tom is basically a good guy, the oldest and favorite son of the family, good-natured and thoughtful. A bit of a hot head, he accidentally kills a man in a bar fight and does some time in prison. As the novel begins he is on his way home. He makes do with what life hands him, but things have changed at home. He has a certain down-to-earth wisdom that makes him a fierce protector of the family’s well-being. By the end of the novel that whole inner dynamism has been transformed into a vision that encompasses not only his own family but the downtrodden everywhere. At the very end he is almost a Christ-like figure, the Risen Christ, who vanishes as an individual ego and is now going to be found everywhere where there are people who are mistreated and suffering.

Ma Joad: She is the stalwart anchor of the family, much stronger interiorly than her husband. As with Tom, at the beginning her main concern is with the welfare of her family. By the end of the novel she has journeyed with Tom to another sense of belonging. It is now “we, the people” that is her perspective.

Jim Casy: This guy is the most interesting character in the novel. His is the most radical conversion that we witness. At the beginning of the story when Tom meets him on the dusty road as Tom is walking back home after his release from prison, Casy confesses to Tom, “I ain’t no preacher no more.” He had been the community preacher; a kind of Pentecostal fundamentalist preacher. There are some grotesque descriptions of this, but you have to understand that what all this represents is all religion that is simply a manipulation of people. The “preacher” is an agent of this, and you can see this in the modern televangelists among others. But actually this happens in all religious traditions, and every member of every religious tradition needs a kind of “conversion” from the “city” of religion as manipulation, as external rule following, as guilt inducing, as institutional authority, as “anxiety-bleeding” through a showcase of excessive emotionalism or a magic show, etc., etc. All this and more Casy has left behind. As he puts it, “I lost the call.” He says he no longer can “preach.” This actually refers to this whole mode of religiosity. (Personal note: After seeing this movie I used to bother some people in my community that as a young priest I was going around saying with Casy, “I ain’t no preacher no more.” Actually I felt very close to Casy then. I felt that my homilies were simply a form of manipulation. I could be very clever because I was smart, but the actual words would turn to ash when they left my mouth or so I felt. And I felt this was not just me but the whole religious enterprise. We were not speaking the “Word of God” but our own clever manipulative words that either made us look good, or induced people to feel good, to give donations, to keep the “thing” going. In actuality, or so it seemed to me, God was truly silent, maybe in a way like never before, and I should cease my words and become more silent myself so that I could enter into the meaning of that silence and learn what it had to teach me. ) So we see Casy in the beginning of the novel already having made the first step in his “conversion,” in his leave-taking of that mode of religiosity. He grows by leaps and bounds and in a certain sense he becomes a kind of spiritual guide to Tom and his own conversion. Their religiosity now no longer has any reference to “Jesus” or “God” because these were only words that people used in a way that blinded them to their responsibilities to each other. The only mark of their religiosity is what we hear in the Gospel parable of “the sheep and the goats”(Mt. 25: 31-46).

Let’s listen to some quotes from the novel:

First, to get a flavor of Steinbeck’s marvelous writing here is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel as Steinbeck is already thematizing the “two cities” trope–in this case it is the “city of the horse” vs. the “city of the tractor”–and all this foreshadowing the deeper divisions that will become apparent:

“The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this. Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the plow shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight. And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and he need not come back for weeks of months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation. For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much, much more, and land is so much more than its analysis. That man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry, and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land.”

So the Joads, as poor and miserable as they are, are not alienated from the land, from the roots of their being. But their religiosity at this point is very external, rule-oriented, magical and superstitious, and it is still another form of alienation that they contend with. Here is Casy at the beginning of the novel describing to Tom something of his new liberated heart:

“”Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’… I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’… I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”

 

Here is an amazing vignette of the “two cities” as Casy is at the Joad farm with Tom and it’s mealtime and he is asked to say “Grace”:

“Casy ran his fingers through his hair nervously. ‘I got to tell you, I ain’t a preacher no more. If me jus’ bein glad to be here an’ bein’ thankful for people that’s kind and generous, if that’s enough–why, I’ll say that kinda grace. But I ain’t a preacher no more.’

‘Say her,’ said Granma. ‘An’ get in a word about us goin’ to California.’ The preacher bowed his head, and the others bowed their heads. Ma folded her hands over her stomach and bowed her head. Granma bowed so low that her nose was nearly in her plate of biscuit and gravy. Tom, leaning against the wall, a plate in his hands, bowed stiffly, and Granpa bowed his head sidewise, so that he could keep one mean and merry eye on the preacher. And on the preacher’s face there was a look not of prayer, but of thought; and in his tone not supplication, but conjecture.

‘I been thinkin,’ he said. ‘I been in the hills, thinkin’, almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness to think His way out of a mess of troubles.’ ‘Pu-raise Gawd!’ Granma said, and the preacher glanced over at her in surprise.

‘Seems like Jesus got all messed up with troubles, and He couldn’t figure nothin’ out, an’ He got to feelin’ what the hell good is it all, an’ what’s the use fightin’ an’ figurin’. Got tired, got good an’ tired, an’ His sperit all wore out. Jus about come to the conclusion, the hell with it. An’ so He went off into the wilderness.’

‘A–men,’ Granma bleated…. ‘I ain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus,’ the preacher went on. ‘But I got tired like Him, an’ I got mixed up like Him, an’ I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin’ stuff. Nightimes I’d lay on my back an’ look up at the stars, morning I’d set an’ watch the sun come up; midday I’d look out from a hill at the rollin’ dry country; evenin’ I’d foller the sun down. Sometimes I’d pray like I always done. On’y I couldn’t figure what I was prayin’ to or for. There were the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.’

‘Hallelujah,’ said Granma, and she rocked a little, back and forth, trying to catch hold of an ecstasy.

‘An’ I got thinkin’, on’y it wasn’t thinkin’, it was deeper down than thinkin’. I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ an’ draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang–that’s right, that’s holy. An’ then I got thinkin’ I don’t even know what I mean by holy.’ He paused, but the bowed heads stayed down, for they had been trained like dogs to rise at the ‘amen’ signal. ‘I can’t say no grace like I use’ ta say. I’m glad of the holiness of breakfast. I’m glad there’s love here. That’s all.’ The heads stayed down. The preacher looked around. ‘I’ve got your breakfast cold,’ he said; and then he remembered. ‘Amen,’ he said, and all the heads came up.

‘A—men,’ said Granma, and she fell to her breakfast, and broke down the soggy biscuits with her hard old toothless gums. Tom ate quickly, and Pa crammed his mouth. There was no talk until the food was gone, the coffee drunk; only the crunch of chewed food and slurp of coffee cooled in the transit to the tongue. Ma watched the preacher as he ate, and her eyes were questioning, probing and understanding. She watched him as though he were suddenly a spirit, not human anymore, a voice out of the ground.”

What an incredible scene, and I am sorry to say that it is left out of the movie version. But it is magnificent in showing the unfolding awakening in Casy while the others are still in the “old city of religion”–except that something has stirred within Ma Joad.

 

Ma Joad’s last words as it were. She is talking to her son Tom who is going to have to vanish as he is being pursued by security goons in a corporate camp for farmworkers:

““Why, Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.’
‘We take a beatin’ all the time.’
‘I know.’ Ma chuckled. ‘Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But, Tom, we keep a-comin’. Don’ you fret none, Tom. A different time’s comin’.”

When the group is on the road to California, Granpa dies and has to be buried. Casy is asked once more to say a few words:

““Pa said, “Won’t you say a few words? Ain’t none of our folks ever been buried without a few words.”
Connie led Rose of Sharon to the graveside, she reluctant. “You got to,” Connie said. “It ain’t decent not to. It’ll jus’ be a little.
The firelight fell on the grouped people, showing their faces and their eyes, dwindling on their dark clothes. All the hats were off now. The light danced, jerking over the people.
Casy said, “It’ll be a short one.” He bowed his head, and the others followed his lead. Casy said solemnly, “This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ just died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters. An’ now his dead, an’ that don’t matter. Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an’ he says ‘All that lives is holy.’ Got to thinkin’, an’ purty soon it means more than the words says. An’ I woundn’ pray for a ol’ fella that’s dead. He’s awright. He got a job to do, but it’s all laid out for’im an’ there’s on’y one way to do it. But us, we got a job to do, an’ they’s a thousan’ ways, an’ we don’ know which one to take. An’ if I was to pray, it’d be for the folks that don’ know which way to turn. Grampa here, he got the easy straight. An’ now cover ‘im up and let’im get to his work.” He raised his head.”

 

And finally there are these amazing last words of Tom–Casy has been killed by the goons during a strike– as he is saying farewell to his mother in the dead of night as he has to take off and disappear or the whole family would be molested badly by the security goons out to break the farmworkers’ strike. He has picked up Casy’s vision; he has undergone a transformation, and he has become an enigmatic Christ-figure:

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

 

Now we turn to a very different story, a biography of sorts of a person who died very recently: Charles Liteky. Very few have heard of him, but those in the peace movement and resistance movement knew him well. A most amazing person.

Born into a traditional Catholic family, the son of a career military man, he was ordained a priest in 1960. He became an Army Catholic chaplain and volunteered for Vietnam. In his own words: “Politically,” he would write later, “I was a clerical hawk, who believed that any war against communism was just. I knew little to nothing about Vietnam and its centuries-long struggle to free itself from foreign domination.” So Liteky was in this “city” of traditional religion and traditional patriotism and the two were very much intertwined. In December of 1967, as a young priest, he was assigned to an army unit that was active in engaging Vietcong forces. One day they were severely ambushed, the whole unit was paralyzed by enemy firepower. Numerous casualties happened, and Liteky, under great danger to himself, pulled 20 wounded men to safety and saved their lives. He was under constant fire as he went back again and again to get another wounded soldier. In 1968 President Johnson awarded him the country’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. As he put the medal on him LBJ whispered to him, “I’d rather have one of these babies than be president.”

Liteky stayed in the Army and returned to Vietnam. The war, the carnage and the destroyed lives, took their toll on him. As he put it, “I left the Army in 1971 with my humanity severely damaged.” He tried to be a counselor at the VA, but this only exposed him further to the wounds of war. He ended up leaving the priesthood in the mid ‘70s. So he joined with Casy in saying, “I ain’t no preacher no more.”

Eight years later he married an ex-nun, and his wife opened his eyes to what the U.S. government was doing in Central America. It was the Reagan era. He became an ardent resister and peace activist, now totally transformed in his outlook but with that same sense of courage and focus. Eighteen years after his winning of the Medal of Honor, in 1984, Charles Liteky renounced the Medal and the lifetime monthly stipend that came with it. This he did in protest of the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America. Nobody had ever renounced the Medal of Honor before. In a paradoxical sense, he was still “saving lives,” but now with a much deeper, broader vision—wherever there are people suffering he said, “I’ll be there.” He was one with Christ.

 

Toward a Christian Advaita, Part I

We will spend a few postings during 2017 reflecting on the possibilities of a Christian advaita, a Christian nonduality. This will not be a scholarly or theological exercise, but we do want to rely on real knowledge and serious theology. The use of one’s intelligence is important in approaching spirituality lest one fall into the trap of fundamentalism. Our main resource will be the writings of Abhishiktananda, especially the letters and the diary. There he was uninhibited in his own reflections and explorations since it wouldn’t get him into trouble with the Church authorities. A wise move considering what happened to other Catholic thinkers! We do have one problem in that a new edition of both the letters and the diary are planned for the near future, with the diary apparently containing some previously unpublished material. We may have to revise our conclusions after that comes out!

Another very important resource is Eckhart, but he is more difficult for us since his vision is couched in the language of medieval Thomism. We will make sparing use of him. More central and more important is simply the Gospel of John, the foundational document of Christian mysticism; and somewhere Abhishiktananda called it the “Christian Upanishad.” Interesting. The Hindu Upanishads are, of course, the text, the scripture that bears witness most acutely to the advaitic experience with the One we call “God.” It was Abhishiktananda’s deepest wish and his deepest sense of mission or vocation to draw this experience into Christianity and to re-express it in Christian terms. More than that, he was trying to find advaita within the heart of Christianity, and for him the Gospel of John was going to be a key element in this endeavor. I really believe that Abhishiktananda was onto something here, and so our own reflection will proceed with one eye always on these resources.

 

Now before we take our plunge, there is one major problem to confront: Christianity’s seeming aversion to advaita. No doubt about it, basic Christian thought and basic Christian piety is very much dualistic. There is the creator-creature distinction; then there is Jesus over there and here I am–and even where this kind of outlook gets very spiritualized as a “presence” within one, or as in Eastern Orthodox spirituality, where one is “divinized,” the fact is that you and Christ are treated as “two,” as “separate,” and as finally united by a very fragile bond in that “twoness.” Finally, there is the sense of a remote God, the Father, and maybe even the whole Trinity as a kind of fearful remote reality, so one turns and focuses on some saint or Mary. Sadly this becomes the basic spirituality of way too many Catholics and other Christians. (I am totally ignoring Protestant fundamentalists, who would be a caricature of the above-stated and so not even worth our consideration here.) But if we turn to some Christian mystics and if we become conversant with a truly developed theological outlook, we might find it all not necessarily or simplistically dualistic.

The person we will find to be most helpful in this regard is Jacques Dupuis, a Jesuit theologian who taught in India for many years and became friends with Abhishiktananda in the last years of his life. Dupuis was deeply interested in the encounter of Christianity with the great world religions, and because of his life in India this was mostly focused on Hinduism. This encounter very much is shaped by what we believe is the meaning and significance of Jesus Christ. And in this regard Dupuis is an expert, and we will consult his authoritative book: Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions. Dupuis is very sympathetic to Abhishiktananda’s ideas and very respectful of his spiritual experience, but he is also not uncritical of what he believes to be some questionable aspects of Abhishiktananda’s formulations or whether Abhishiktananda can reconcile his articulated spiritual experience with traditional Catholic Christology. We will consider what he has to say–it is important to our consideration of the possibility of a Christian advaita.

 

Now to start off let us clarify what is a not uncommon misunderstanding: that advaita necessarily implies monism. “Advaita” means “not two”; so the usual supposition would say, “Well, then, advaita means “one.” That would indicate monism. That would mean that “I” and “God” are one substance really–thus “monism.” Dualism is simply the affirmation that “God” and “I” are distinctly different and thus “two.” Advaita says: Not so! But does that necessarily force us to say “one” in the sense of monism? I am afraid that a large number of Hindu sages and also Western intellectuals seem to believe that is the case. Certain people with mystical experience of advaita, both Hindu and Christians like Abhishiktananda and Eckhart, seem to indicate that the situation is much more nuanced and that there is another choice of sorts here. In a very real sense, Christian advaita would prefer to say, “not one, not two”; this would be the Christian version of the “neti, neti” of the Upanishads.

Lets approach our problem in another way. Christianity and Christian mysticism is fundamentally and deeply relational. The ground of all relationality is the relationality within the Trinity.   Then there is the relationship of Jesus to the one he calls Father. Then there is the relationship of Jesus to his disciples. And finally, there is the relationship of the disciples among themselves and to the rest of the world. All this “relationship” stuff seems to point in another direction from advaita: dualism. Afterall the disciple prays to Jesus; the disciple “returns” to the Father, etc. And “I” am I, and “you” are you. The “other” is still and always the other. Even Buber’s attempt at creating a deeper sense of union within the Judeo-Christian perspective with the “I-thou” formulation still does not escape the sense of “otherness.” Advaita, on the other hand, seems to obliterate all sense of otherness. Here is Abhishiktananda giving us a sense of the problem we face:

“Not allowing myself to locate God anywhere outside me, but recognizing that within as well as without there is only He alone. For if there were God plus an ‘other,’ he would no longer be God, the Absolute! Nothing is left but he who says : I AM! Then what does it matter where I ‘myself’ am? It is his business! But how to say ‘Him’? ‘Who’ is there to speak of ‘Him’? Nothing is left but He who says ‘I’ ‘aham,’ from eternity to eternity. OM is precisely the word of the one who in the presence of the mystery can do no more.”

 

Abhishiktananda will be our guide in future postings on this topic as he both articulates the crucial nature of the problem most forcefully and at the same time he shows us a way out of our dilemma. Let’s be clear at the outset: there is no solution to our problem in the sense of any conceptual understanding or any systematic thought. There is only a hint, a faint scent, a glimmer of light that we can catch in all our symbols and stories and language and theories. If we have the proper preparation of a certain kind of religious experience, then we might find out how advaita and our Christian identity will cohere. But trust me, this is not an easy matter–Abhishiktananda is a witness to that! Our little reflections will be merely a “preparation of the ground” for the real work of the heart.

So our plan, then, will be first to focus on the Gospel of John, then we will focus on what Abhishiktananda has to say as our “Master Teacher,” and then we will listen to Dupuis and his appraisal of Abhishiktananda’s presentation. Finally, we will, perhaps, present our own appraisal of Dupuis. So that’s it for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quotes and Musings for Hard Times

Wei Ying-wu was an outstanding Chinese poet during the great Tang period. But he came at the end of it and experienced its collapse into chaos and destruction. A collection of his poems is entitled In Such Hard Times. I think we are entering our own “hard times,” not that our past has been a “walk in the park.” I am not a poet, so I can’t offer any consoling poems, but I will share some quotes from some friends “off the beaten path.”

 

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” Henry David Thoreau

Comment: We pretty much have a sense of how this works on a spiritual and individual level, even a psychological level such as you only come to grips with your addiction when you hit rock bottom. But how would this work on a collective scale, like a whole country, like the U.S.? It has always amazed me how Americans by and large are blind to the dark and sinful (and I use that word deliberately) nature of the roots of their country. Perhaps we are entering an era when this will no longer be “hidden” but unmasked; the furies unleashed, the hounds of chaos ripping at our social fabric. We might find ourselves truly “lost” as a nation. Then what?

 

 

“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”   John Muir

Comment: I don’t think Muir foresaw an era that wanted to abolish all wilderness. Make it all into a park here; totally destroy it through the extraction craze and pollution there; and everywhere it is simply another commodity for our use. Lots of people will even quote the Bible on that one.

 

“Know, O beloved, that man was not created in jest or at random, but marvelously made and for some great end.” Al-Ghazzali

Comment: To borrow from the ancient Chinese poet, “In such times as these,” we better hang on to this notion no matter what.

 

“When human beings lose their connection to nature, to heaven and earth, then they do not know how to nurture their environment or how to rule their world – which is saying the same thing. Human beings destroy their ecology at the same time that they destroy one another. From that perspective, healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal, elemental connection with the phenomenal world.”

Chogyam Trungpa

Comment: Not a bad insight for a deeply mixed up Tibetan lama. But “in such times as these” you got to find your wisdom wherever you can.

 

Alexander Sozhenitsyn wrote this piece of advice to all his fellow refuseniks in Stalinist Russia:

“Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position; all is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, and if both ears can hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory!”

Comment: Only someone who has suffered much, who has stared into the deep dark pit of history can write like this. Perhaps we are approaching our own time of being “refuseniks” at great cost to ourselves. But I would add another note: the Dalai Lama and my friends the Desert Fathers would say that you should cherish the most those who hate you and want to do harm to you; it is these who will most test your heart and tell you who you really are.

 

From a book review by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a famous basketball player and a devout Muslim:

“In 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s friend Senator Richard Henry Lee expressed both of their opinions when he asserted in Congress, referring to Muslims and Hindus, that “true freedom embraces the Mahometan and the Gentoo as well as the Christian religion.” In 1777, the Muslim kingdom of Morocco became the first country in the world to formally accept the United States as a sovereign nation. In 1786, when the United States needed protection from North African pirates who were stealing ships and enslaving crews, it signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which stated that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquillity of Musselmen.” In 1785, George Washington declared that he would welcome Muslim workers at Mount Vernon. In 1786, Jefferson triumphed in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, by persuading the Legislature to overwhelmingly reject attempts to include Jesus Christ as the religious authority in the bill. Jefferson later declared that this was one of his three greatest accomplishments.”

Comment: Interesting how this undermines how fundamentalists and other narrow-minded Christians portray the beginnings of the United States. We are not a theocracy which is ruled by a particular religious view but a secular community, and so every religious person should find a space of free expression within this undefined secular space. But lest we get carried away with a romantic view of this early era, it is also very evident that NOT ALL people were welcome or tolerated, such as the many Native Americans. Here’s a few quotes pertaining to that:

From The Spanish Requerimiento: “But if you do not submit…we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you…. We shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them.”

 

“The only true method of treating the savages is to keep them in proper subjection and punish, without exception, the transgressors.”

                           Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces

 

When Columbus came in 1492 to Hispaniola there were several million Native Americans there–an estimate, a very large number. By 1520 there were only 20,000; by 1535, 0. Why? Partly because of the diseases the Spaniards brought; partly because of the policy of genocide. Here is an excerpt from Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican Friar who documented what the Spaniards did:

“It was a general rule among the Spaniards to be cruel; not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings or having a minute to think at all. So they would cut an Indian’s hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and they would send him on saying, ‘Go now, spread the news to your Chiefs.’ They would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow. They burned or hanged captured chiefs.”

Comments: Important to note that the Church only stepped in to stop this kind of activity when de las Casas presented the full story to the Pope and the king and queen of Spain. But you have to realize that the religious powers of Europe were fully behind the movement into the New World. The Church enabled and empowered these people through its language and its teachings.

 

Shifting gears, here’s a few quotes from one of my favorites, Edward Abbey:

“Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”

 

“You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light.”

Comment: Spiritually this is so true. Deep, deep spiritual experience first comes (most often) as an incredible darkness (see John of the Cross for this, and also Merton). The temptation is to try and deal with it in terms of words and concepts we are familiar with. Bad! Abide in the darkness, rather, until it transforms into a knowledge beyond knowledge. Now with regard to a social situation, “darkness” is a lot trickier to deal with. Yes, a lot of words trying to explain our darkness can only get more confusing. Look at all the analysis after the election!! But total silence is not right either. A real wisdom is called for, “to study this darkness.”

“There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.”

Comment: Our electronic wizardry and infrastructure is an attempt “to be everywhere at once.” This hurried, instantaneous mode of life infects everything we do and are.

 

“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.”

 

“Whenever I see a photograph of some sportsman grinning over his kill, I am always impressed by the striking moral and esthetic superiority of the dead animal to the live one.”

Comment: I have always wondered why do people enjoy killing animals for trophies. It’s one thing if you need food; but so much of hunting is simply killing animals for the enjoyment of killing.

 

“The ugliest thing in America is greed, the lust for power and domination, the lunatic ideology of perpetual Growth – with a capital G. ‘Progress’ in our nation has for too long been confused with ‘Growth’; I see the two as different, almost incompatible, since progress means, or should mean, change for the better – toward social justice, a livable and open world, equal opportunity and affirmative action for all forms of life. And I mean all forms, not merely the human. The grizzly, the wolf, the rattlesnake, the condor, the coyote, the crocodile, whatever, each and every species has as much right to be here as we do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War and the Crisis of Language

This is actually the title of an essay by Thomas Merton, written in 1968, the last year of his life, and published only after his death. It was written during the height of the Vietnam War, and it belongs to a whole collection of Merton anti-war writings. As was often the case, in this instance Merton articulated something broader and more deep than just a policy disagreement with the government. Using such resources as Gandhi, Orwell, James Joyce and so many others, he delves into the abuse and degradation of our communication by means of language. This denatured language then becomes an instrument for obfuscating or just plain excusing the atrocities and injustices that we commit. Recall Orwell’s 1984, the slogans, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is slavery,” “Ignorance is strength,” and so on. Recall the sign at the gate of Auschwitz: Arbeit macht Frei, Work makes one free. Maybe it’s not THAT bad in modern America, but it’s pretty close. Merton loved the example of the American military commander who actually said, “In order to save the village, it became necessary to destroy it.” He thought the following pretty much summed up the attitude and the language of those who supported the war:

“The Asian whose future we are about to decide is either a bad guy or a good guy. If he is a bad guy, he obviously has to be killed. If he is a good guy, he is on our side and he ought to be ready to die for freedom. We will provide an opportunity for him to do so: we will kill him to prevent him falling under the tyranny of a demonic enemy.”

 

Merton of course saw that this war language was only the end-result of a long process of a degradation of language as a bearer of meaning. This took place in advertising, in pop culture, and in political discourse. Decades before folks such as at Adbusters critiqued modern discourse at all levels, Merton had nailed down the vacuity and triviality of pop culture, this vacuity which then colonized all our thinking. In this essay he uses the example of a perfume ad from a magazine, and then comments:

“Now let us turn elsewhere, to the language of advertisement, which at times approaches the mystic and charismatic heights of glossolalia. Here too, utterance is final. No doubt there are insinuations of dialogue, but really there is no dialogue with an advertisement, just as there was no dialogue between the sirens and the crews they lured to disaster on their rocks.[Reference to the Odyssey] There is nothing to do but be hypnotized and drown, unless you have somehow acquired a fortunate case of deafness. But who can guarantee that he is deaf enough? Meanwhile, it is the vocation of the poet–or anti-poet–not to be deaf to such things but to apply his ear intently to their corrupt charms. An example: a perfume advertisement from The New Yorker (September 17, 1966).

I present the poem as it appears on a full page, with a picture of a lady swooning with delight at her own smell–the smell of Arpege. (Note that the word properly signifies a sound–arpeggio. Aware that we are now smelling music, let us be on our guard!)

For the love of Arpege . . .

There’s a new hair spray!

The world’s most adored fragrance

now in a hair spray. But not hair spray

as you know it.

A delicate-as-air-spray

Your hair takes on a shimmer and sheen

that’s wonderfully young.

You seem to spray new life and bounce

right into it. And a coif of Arpege has

one more thing no other hair spray has.

It has Arpege.

 

One look at this masterpiece and the anti-poet recognizes himself beaten hands down. This is beyond parody. It must stand inviolate in its own victorious rejection of meaning. We must avoid the temptation to dwell on details: interior rhyme, suggestions of an esoteric cult (the use of our product, besides making you young again, is also a kind of gnostic initiation), of magic (our product gives you a hat of smell–a “coif”–it clothes you in an aura of music-radiance perfume). What I want to point out is the logical structure of this sonata: it is a foolproof tautology, locked tight upon itself, impenetrable, unbreakable, irrefutable. It is endowed with a finality so inviolable that it is beyond debate and beyond reason. Faced with the declaration that “Arpege has Arpege,” reason is reduced to silence (I almost said despair). Here again we have an example of speech that is at once totally trivial and totally definitive. It has nothing to do with anything real (although of course the sale of the product is a matter of considerable importance to the manufacturer), but what it says, it says with utter finality.”

One can read the whole Merton essay online here:

http://www.aloha.net/~stroble/merton2.html

 

Now I am not about to rehash the Vietnam era or launch into a general critique of our culture. It’s just that we have recently had this miserable election, and it was full of the kinds of things that Merton et al. were talking about way back then: not just the usual political lies, but now much more sophisticated “fake news,” sloganeering, myths and images for our consumption that are totally unreal. You see the only thing that has changed since the Vietnam era is the amazing speed and immediacy of all this unreality: cell phones and texting, twitter and social media, etc. The general populace is drugged with mindless entertainment, with pain killers(an epidemic in our country right now–one of the pharmaceutical giants shipped over 750 million pain-killing pills just to West Virginia, a town of just over 390 got 7 million pills alone), with mind-numbing and dumbing education that stifles critical thinking, with narcotics of all kinds. And the whole thing is wrapped up in this package of language that disguises the unreality of it all. “I am a consumer; therefore I am.”

Now I want to emphasize that in many ways this is nothing new in American history. It is actually our history which is more and more focused on the unreal as we move into technological modernity and postmodernity. This is a history that is awash in blood, in genocide, in slavery, etc.; and it’s all covered over by a language of myth, fantasy, not just “fake news” but even “fake history.” We have simply gotten very, very good at producing this fakery and feeding it to the general population. From the “advance of civilization” that was used to justify the annihilation of Native Americans to the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” that was manufactured to justify our invasion of Vietnam to the “weapons of mass destruction” and the “war on terror” that all our leaders signed on to (including Hillary Clinton–but not Bernie Sanders, almost alone in this regard), all our history is loaded with “fakery” and manufactured propaganda. The effectiveness of all this was demonstrated when we invaded Iraq and there was absolutely no war protest at all in this country. All the big media players like the New York Times and the Washington Post joined in the parade toward this destruction. You are being manipulated in ways that you are hardly aware of. So Obama is portrayed as a “progressive,” Clinton as a “protector of children and minorities,” and you are invited to “Make America Great,” etc., etc. You will hear about “free trade” and the “free market,” but there ain’t no such animal in this zoo. The deck is stacked; the game is rigged for the benefit of maybe 1% or so. Financial institutions that are “too big to fail,” etc. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been talking about this, but most of the populace is so drugged out on the toys and games of our culture that they can hardly understand the implications of what they are told.

Chris Hedges, as usual, has written powerfully about this in a recent piece. Its title is “’Fake News’ in America: Homegrown, and Far From New.” Here is the link to the whole piece:

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/fake_news_homegrown_and_far_from_new_20161218

 

It’s interesting that Hedges was a Pulitzer Prize winning international journalist with the New York Times decades ago when he was forced out because he was reporting on how Israel was treating the Palestinians in graphic detail. So he is one who knows the modern news biz…..and as he says, it is more a business than a service of fact and information. Here is an extended quote from that piece:

 

“The media landscape in America is dominated by “fake news.” It has been for decades. This fake news does not emanate from the Kremlin. It is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that is skillfully designed and managed by public relations agencies, publicists and communications departments on behalf of individuals, government and corporations to manipulate public opinion. This propaganda industry stages pseudo-events to shape our perception of reality. The public is so awash in these lies, delivered 24 hours a day through electronic devices and print, that viewers and readers can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction.

Donald Trump and the racist-conspiracy theorists, generals and billionaires around him inherited and exploited this condition, just as they have inherited and will exploit the destruction of civil liberties and collapse of democratic institutions. Trump did not create this political, moral and intellectual vacuum. It created him. It created a world where fact is interchangeable with opinion, where celebrities have huge megaphones simply because they are celebrities, where information must be entertaining and where we can all believe what we want to believe regardless of truth. A demagogue like Trump is what you get when you turn culture and the press into burlesque. 

Journalists long ago gave up trying to describe an objective world or give a voice to ordinary men and women. They became conditioned to cater to corporate demands. News personalities, who often make millions of dollars a year, became courtiers. They peddle gossip. They promote consumerism and imperialism. They chatter endlessly about polls, strategies, presentation and tactics or play guessing games about upcoming presidential appointments. They fill news holes with trivial, emotionally driven stories that make us feel good about ourselves. They are incapable of genuine reporting. They rely on professional propagandists to frame all discussion and debate……… The 20th century’s cultural and social transformation, E.P. Thompson wrote in his essay “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” has turned out to be much more than the embrace of an economic system or the celebration of patriotism. It is, he pointed out, part of a revolutionary reinterpretation of reality. It marks the ascendancy of mass culture and the destruction of genuine culture and genuine intellectual life.

Richard Sennett, in his book “The Fall of the Public Man,” identified the rise of mass culture as one of the prime forces behind what he termed a new “collective personality … generated by a common fantasy.” And the century’s great propagandists would not only agree but would add that those who can manipulate and shape those fantasies determine the directions taken by the “collective personality.”

This huge internal pressure, hidden from public view, makes the production of good journalism and good scholarship very, very difficult. Those reporters and academics who care about the truth and don’t back down are subjected to subtle and at times overt coercion and often are purged from institutions.”

 

 

If you are in the world of religion, don’t think that you are immune from all this or that you are “above all this,” or that this has nothing to do with you. In fact religion produces its own linguistic obfuscations galore, and certainly Christian church history has its own mirages and delusions written all over it. All religions have participated, more or less, in the deceptive abuse of language for the purpose of self-aggrandizement and gaining power. Just compare for example, all those religious and spiritual books about the “glories of the Church” with the real history of the Church. No wonder it is understandable that some people have this intuitive aversion to anything religious these days! Consider this example from Church history: the Doctrine of Discovery–this allowed the taking of lands from Native Americans and if they resisted we were allowed to kill them. This was government policy, law and civil practice. But the roots of this injustice lay in religious language, in various papal bulls from the 15th Century that literally allowed “Christian” European nations to enslave, dispossess and/or kill all indigenous peoples in the New World who were not Christians. Several popes have asked forgiveness on behalf of the Church for this incredible moment in history, but not one, not even Pope Francis, has rescinded or rejected any of these papal bulls. Papal language, I guess, is considered sacrosanct, and a pope can never be caught saying something that has to be denied later, no matter how outrageous. If the language is couched in religion, then it seems untouchable. (Something like this occurs among evangelical Christians and their use of the Bible–Biblical language cannot be critiqued.) A more complete treatment of some of this matter can be found in a series of stories done by the National Catholic Reporter:

https://www.ncronline.org/news/peace-justice/disastrous-doctrine-had-papal-roots

 

 

 

 

 

Another Potpourri of Comments

A. Wendell Berry, who had a few friends among the Amish and some interactions with them, has this interesting contribution: a list of Amish social principles.

 

“1. No institutions except family and church. The church is the community.

  1. The one community institution–the church–is not an organization: no building, no building fund, etc.
  2. The only chosen leaders are church leaders, and those are chosen by lot.
  3. They don’t have specialization in the pure, modern sense. Their craftsmen, ministers, etc. are also farmers. Agriculture is a norm, like binocular vision.
  4. They all work with their hands.
  5. They force the issue of community dependence; won’t buy insurance or accept government help.
  6. They vote on technological changes. For adoption, the vote must be unanimous.”

Berry goes on commenting: “This last rule I learned from Randy Wittman. If there is even one dissenter, he says, they assume the Devil is with the majority! This would make ‘progress’ very slow–but, I think, probably fast enough….. What impresses me is that, though the community is seen as a positive good, most of these principles are negative in intent or bearing. Unlike modern American government which is snarled in many rules prescribing what to do, Amish government consists of a few rules saying what not to do.”

B.  The influence and role of the news media in the election. Just a hint of how it goes: The Tyndall Report analyzed all the media in their political coverage during the primary season of the election year. In a span of 1000 minutes of coverage, Trump got 327 minutes; Bernie received just 20 minutes. Hilary got 121 minutes of campaign coverage, six times the amount Sanders received. ABC World News Tonight aired 81 minutes on Donald Trump compared with just 20 seconds for Sanders. This is just the tip of the iceberg in how the media distort our awareness of real things. Trump was a media icon; Bernie was an unknown delivering a serious message that needed some real thinking about. But we are more and more a people that thrives on slogans and simplistic solutions to our problems.

C.   January is the month of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. MLK Day is celebrated in January; and the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination is January 30th. Here’s a few quotes to celebrates these giants of our era:

Martin Luther King: “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many White Citizens Councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”

 

This, of course, is thoroughly in the Gandhian tradition, and perhaps one might want to say it is too idealized. But if we don’t have those kinds of ideals we are lost as human beings. Speaking of Gandhi, here are a few quotes from him:

“If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

D.   Standing Rock. As I write this the protestors at Standing Rock seem to have won some kind of victory as the Army Corp of Engineers has denied the permit for the company laying the pipeline. It is a victory for nonviolence, for resistance, for the Native American people….though it is a very fragile victory which the Trump Administration might unravel. Long before Standing Rock, Pope Francis wrote the following which sums up very clearly what was at stake in this situation:

““In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.”

Here is a lovely website showing the various people involved in this action:

http://www.truthdig.com/avbooth/item/scenes_of_celebration_at_standing_rock_20161205

E.   Chris Hedges has another acute commentary on our situation, entitled “The Mafia State”:

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_mafia_state_20161204

F.    The New Monasticism Revisited. In a more spiritual vein, I was rummaging through some older Merton material, from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Amazing how so much of that stuff feels so dated; it reads at times as if you were in a stuffy old room. There are a few exceptions, like the essay “Philosophy of Solitude,” for example. But it is also amazing how different Merton begins to sound after 1960 or thereabouts. One of the essays I stumbled on was something I had not read before, “The Christian in the Diaspora.” It is a lengthy reflection on the post-Vatican II Church and the modern theologians, like Karl Rahner, who were trying to address the Western modern world in which the Christian was going to be surrounded by a mass of unbelief and in which the Christian was going to be a true minority. How to live in such a situation, and what should the Christian’s attitude be toward such a situation? Somehow those don’t seem to be our concerns today–a lot of what he describes has happened, or we have simply gotten numb to our situation, or these have been transformed into other questions, and we are dealing with various consequences of all this in one way or another. But there is one whole section of this essay that still has a direct importance for us today in its urgency and its insight: “The Monk in the Diaspora.” Here he tackles the question of monastic identity in this situation of modernity and now we would say post-modernity. Merton: “The effectiveness of the monk’s presence in the world and of his monastic witness to the Gospel of Christ will depend on his ability to see his own place in relation to the world correctly. He too must learn to understand his monastic calling in the general diaspora situation of the whole Church.”

The felt need for reformulation and revitalization of the monastic charism was long experienced and is somewhat still with us. The two major problems that have plagued monastic renewal and still do: a fossilization of monastic identity into a kind of medieval theme-park with a fortress Church institution, or a re-structuring of monastic life by people who do not have a deep experience and knowledge of monastic tradition. It is the latter which is, in my opinion, a more serious problem because it can seem like a really new monasticism is being born. The other stuff is so obviously wrong that there is no need to comment.

Merton tosses this all around, and a lot of this material is familiar to those of us who have read his monastic writings; but then he touches ground with something that you hardly hear about or know much about: the Russian Orthodox monasticism as envisioned by Russian theologians and writers in their own diaspora in Europe in the middle of the 20th Century. Interesting that Merton finds them an intriguing guide for perhaps some radical aspects of some new monasticism. A few Merton quotes:

“Modern Russian Orthodox writers who live literally in a diaspora (mostly in France) have carefully taken stock of the monastic movement and have traced the beginning of a new outlook back to the last century which was in fact the golden age of Russian monasticism. Leon Zander, regarding the monasticism of the Russian 19th century through the eyes of Dostoevsky, feels that the author of The Brothers Karamazov was speaking in some measure prophetically when he described the person and doctrine of the ideal staretz in Father Zossima. It is well known that Zossima is supposed to have been a life portrait of Staretz Ambrose of Optino…. According to Zander, the portrait of Zossima is not psychological or historical, but is a piece of ‘iconography.’ Zossima embodies and typifies not the 19th century monk but Dostoevsky’s own view of the inner meaning of monasticism. Indeed this Staretz is a ‘prophetic’ type of what the monk of the future should be. Zossima is, in other words, what Dostoevsky thought the monks of the twentieth century needed to become.”

“…Zander quotes Rozanov and other writers who see in the clash between the Staretz, Zossima, and the fierce ascetic, Ferrapont, a contrast between two forms of monasticism, the traditional and the ‘new.’ In fact, the Startzi were much criticized and attacked in their own time. They were by no means looked upon with unanimous favor in the monasteries. Their charismatic openness to the world, was reproved and they were criticized for the marginal life they tended to lead in relation to the traditional monastic framework. Ferrapont…is convinced that Zossima is an imposter, a relaxed monk, undermining the ancient fabric of monasticism….”

Merton then quotes Rozanov: “Dostoevsky has formulated an eternal truth, reaching down into the most essential reality of monasticism. It is the truth of a conflict between two ideals: one which speaks a benediction and one which passes sentence of damnation, one which embraces the world and one which spits on the world, one which accepts pain (for itself) and one which plunges others deeper into pain.”

Merton continues: “Ferrapont stands for the full authority of the powerful and venerable monastic institution with all its medieval Byzantine traditions, all its hieratic observances, its sacred order, its security, its regularity, and its prestige. His ascesis is part of a mighty religious institution organized for power, manifesting that power in the inexorable condemnation of all that does not conform absolutely to its hieratic demands. It rejects as evil and damnable all that does not submit to the claims of a formidably organized body of traditions, in thought, morality and worship…. Zossima on the other hand is no ascetic, no ritualist, and his monastic practice is, by the standards of Ferrapont, lax and inconsistent. His observance…is not austere and, what is worse, he is in free spontaneous communication with the wicked world, since sinners crowd to his cell for advice and blessing. Yet Zossima is in no sense merely an activist, on the contrary he is, according to Dostoevsky, Rozanov, Zander, and modern Russian Orthodox writers, the ‘ikon of the true monk.’ He is truly solitary, fully dedicated and forgetful of self, a genuine man of God, totally converted to God yet perfectly aware of his own weakness and limitations, humble, merciful, and totally submissive not merely to law but to truth.”

All of the above then leads Merton to a striking conclusion: “The monk of the diaspora is, then, the charismatic man of God, distinguished from the world only by his humility and his dedication, by his fidelity to life and to truth, rather than by his garments, the cloister in which he lives, by his hieratic gestures and ascetic practices. He does not live a strange life that makes him a wonder to the rest of men. In Dostoevesky’s novel we read that old Karamazov, the scoundrel and blasphemer, has nothing good to say to any of the monks except Zossima but moved by the Staretz’s simple words, he confesses: ‘Talking to you, one is able to breathe.’”

Merton continues: “The modern Russian theologians writing in the Paris diaspora are all keenly aware that this was a prophetic insight into the needs of our own time, for which they are now developing the idea of ‘monasticity of the heart (monachisme interiorise’). This is not merely a conventional notion of ‘an interior life for the layman’ but the idea of the lay-monk, hidden, solitary and unprotected, without the benefit of distinguishing marks and outward forms, called to deepen his monastic vocation ‘beneath the level of forms’ and penetrating to the ‘ontological roots, the mystical essence’ of the monastic life….”

 

Very, very interesting. A fascinating historical embodiment of this phenomenon, not mentioned by Merton in this essay, is the example of Anthony Bloom, son of Russian emigres. He lived a double life of sorts for years. He earned his living as a doctor while secretly being a monk and spending long nights in prayer and worship. Later he was asked by his spiritual father to “come out of the closet,” as it were, because no one knew he was a monk, and to serve the Russian community as a bishop. There were a number of other such examples in Europe at that time, men and women. These were the original “new monks”!!

As marvelous as this sounds, it has a very limited application, and I am afraid that not much of that survives into our day in Europe, though, of course, by its very nature, it is a “hidden reality” and hard to estimate its real impact. Suffice it to say that the monastic movement benefited from these people greatly and still does today, and who knows what goes “unseen” by the mass media…. What’s important is that these people are like a monastic compass, always pointing to the “true north,” that which is the real essence of the monastic charism. Interestingly enough, Abhishiktananda lived in this era with these people, and in his own way was calling for something along these lines. His approach was to recognize the “namarupa” of not only Christian monasticism but also of Christianity itself, and to recognize what is relative and what is essential.

Response to the Election: Buddhist & Christian

The Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar has done us a great service. They asked various Zen Buddhist teachers to write some kind of response/advice for people who have experienced post-election trauma in terms of fear, shock, anxiety, and especially feelings of hatred and anger. Here is the link to all that:

http://www.lionsroar.com/buddhist-teachers-respond-to-news-of-trumps-presidential-win/

Most of the stuff is good basic stuff and helpful to a greater or lesser degree. Some of it borders on the platitudinous or is too vague to be helpful. And some is seriously inadequate: “Be kind to yourself” is not a “bullseye,” nor does it even hit the target. After having said all this, I look around at various Catholic publications, especially the National Catholic Reporter, and I see nothing like this at all. You would think they would round up a bunch of Catholic progressives, lay and religious, and ask them to voice some advice on where we go from here. So far I have not seen anything. I guess it’s just business as usual with us Catholics.

Returning to the Lion’s Roar collection, what bothers me most of all about it is one missing word in the collection, a very important word: RESISTANCE.   Wisdom about hope and healing is good and important, but ultimately that is an inadequate response. In fact I don’t believe you can have authentic hope or real healing until you are engaged in resistance. Indeed, the best way to deal with that post-election trauma is to commit oneself to resistance. Our mentors in such times as these should be, of course, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, among others. Next, the questions arise: resistance to what? Resistance how?

Resistance to what? That’s not hard to see. Our environment is under serious threat; many of our fellow human beings are under threat in various ways; the very social fabric of a decent life is under dire threat. We have to meet each of these threats with the proper medicine. The country is divided in an alarming way, and there is a large segment that seems blind to the dangers we are facing. In their blindness they can cause even more damage and hurt. In so many ways this did not begin on election day but has been an ongoing story for very long. It’s just that election day has brought a new urgency to the situation. And by the way, even if Clinton had won the election the call for resistance would still have been necessary but not so clearly obvious at first. There would have been relief at first, celebration, and then the real appointments and policies would have unfolded and if you were a keen observer of the scene you would have noticed some disturbing signs. These “centrist Democrats” have a way of hiding their damage. Consider this example from the Obama Administration. A very little known, very little covered in the media move by this Administration was the signing into law Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. This overturns the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. So now this permits the military to carry out what are called “extraordinary renditions” of U.S. citizens, strip them of due process and hold them indefinitely in military detention centers. Centrist Democrats say they are against rounding up of immigrants and putting Moslems in internment camps (like the Japanese, American citizens, who were interned during World War II), but this Obama move simply prepares the ground for such actions.

 

 

Resistance how? Ah, this is the truly tough one! Our fellow neighbors, our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings are the agents of these threats. What we cannot and must not do in our resistance is to demonize these people. This is what the Lion’s Roar contributors seriously missed–the key question in all this is how to engage in resistance without demonizing the other? To advise “love” is just too vague and doesn’t deal with the real situation of the real evil that people can and will do. As Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima admonished (and this was one of Dorothy Day’s favorite quotes), real love is a harsh and hard reality that will take its toll on you….not just a nice feeling you have for others…which will evaporate like a mist once you are “slapped down.”  The temptation and lure of scorn, derision, rejection and even hatred for that “other,” then, is very real–and found quite a lot in political progressive discourse these days– and can hide under the banner of “resisting evil,” but that is not the way of real spiritual maturity. But let’s be clear about this: in this regard we are all “beginners,” “learners,” “mere toddlers learning how to walk.” This is very deep stuff and let no one think he/she has a handle on it–but we can support and encourage each other on this path. “Stronger Together,” as someone recently said!! Let’s look at this a bit more in detail.

The obligation to resistance is truly there, but the concrete shape it takes in a given life will of course vary quite a bit. A contemplative monk will not normally engage in the same day-to-day activities as one whose real calling is to be a social activist. There may be times and circumstances where the difference between the two will be indistinguishable, but here we are simply talking about a whole life path. For a contemplative monk there are two dangers that must be avoided, two pitfalls that must be navigated around. One is the idea that the monk must drop his contemplative way of life and proceed to the barricades of protest. It makes no sense for the monk to lose the very essence of what he/she is about, abandoning that silence and solitude that marks their life and which in fact is the deepest ground of all resistance to real evil; there is no sense in the monk tossing aside his/hers very real and very precious contribution to the Church and to all of humanity in that very solitude and silence. No need to go into that here; we can discuss this at another time. I must say that in my own experience of monastic life I don’t think this was ever a real danger with the majority of monastic people. Very few monks were ever tempted this way; the majority of people who left monastic life since the ‘60s left mostly because they discovered that was not their real path.

Now the other danger is the very real one and the more serious one: to think that in monastic life you are “above” all that stuff, that you are “immune” to its dangers, that only the “inner life” matters, etc. It is an interesting dualism that was at one time prevalent and still is present among Catholic monastics: “the world,” and “monastic life.” In a context of a society that is difficult to come to terms with, where life is lived in a complex and problematic way and ambiguous to the nth degree, where people seem to have so many mixed motivations, etc., etc., the lure to withdraw into a purely interior world or at best deal only with the people in your own life, well, that is a problem that is truly there. And you can see a bit of this in the Buddhist contributors also.

For contemplative monastics Merton issued many warnings about a false contemplative stance where the monks claimed an “innocence” from all that stuff. Here is one pertinent quote:

“The contemplative life is not, and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with its sufferings, its crises, its confusions and its errors. First of all, the attempt itself would be illusory. No person can withdraw completely from the society of his fellow men; and the monastic community is deeply implicated, for better or for worse, in the economic, political, and social structures of the contemporary world. To forget or to ignore this does not absolve the monk from responsibility for participation in events in which his very silence and ‘not knowing’ may constitute a form of complicity. The mere fact of ‘ignoring’ what goes on can become a political decision. Too often it has happened that contemplative communities in Europe, whose individual members were absorbed in otherworldly recollection, have officially and publicly given support to totalitarian movements. In such cases it can ultimately be said that the monk in his liturgy, in his study or in his contemplation is actually participating in things he congratulates himself on having renounced…. The monastic flight from the world into the desert is not a mere refusal to know anything about the world, but a total rejection of all standards of judgment which imply attachment to a history of delusion, egoism and sin. Not of course a vain denial that the monk too is a sinner (this would be an even worse delusion), but a definitive refusal to participate in those activities which have no other fruit than to prolong the reign of untruth, greed, cruelty and arrogance in the world of men…. The adversary is not time, not history, but the evil will and the accumulated inheritance of past untruth and past sin. This evil the monk must see. He must even denounce it, if others fail to do so. What is the meaning of this ‘denunciation’? Is it to be regarded as a political act in the sense of an expressed determination to influence politics? Perhaps indirectly so. I speak not only as a monk but also as a responsible citizen of a very powerful nation. However, it is not my intention to imply that a state which is, and should be, secular, has to be guided by the perspectives of an eschatological Church. But I do intend to say at what point I and Christians who think as I do become morally obligated to dissent.”

 

At this point we are still at this dilemma: how does a contemplative (and so many others also, who may be obligated by family responsibilities, for example) practice resistance? No easy answers here. Mostly you have to look into your own heart and your own circumstances and be very attentive to what you can and should do or say. Resistance can begin with a lot of little things; and most of all resistance has to become a state of mind. Example: years ago we all wondered how ever would the gruesome Soviet empire get taken down? Very little known at first, there were Russians who were beginning to practice a refusal to cooperate with the State, artists and poets at first, then many others. This grew into a tidal wave by the 1970s, and these people even got their own name: refusniks! They refused to support the brutal State in whatever way they could. By the early 1980s this State was crumbling. Ignorant American media attributed this to the Reagan “hard line,” but it was decades of inner sacrifice and courage and determination by millions to derail the machinery of oppression by simply refusing to cooperate with it.

Another example–this time of what could have been/should have been: Standing Rock. We all know what is going on there. Native Americans planting the seed of what might become a major movement. It made me wonder….why did not all the Trappist monasteries at least issue a statement in support of these people. That might have jolted the Catholic population. Even more interesting and potent would have been if all the monastic groups would have sent a delegation of several dozen monks to join the Native American protestors on the front lines. Gosh, these monks go to all kinds of nice conferences and gatherings–doesn’t seem to bother their “contemplation” to do that, so why not to Standing Rock. It would have been noticed, believe me! Come to think of it, it probably would have been even better if they had networked with Buddhists, Sufis and others, all these together would be present at the side of these Native Americans. And I think they were badly needed. Recently I read that a lot of whites have come who are treating this like a Burning Man gathering, hanging out and smoking pot, and not participating in a disciplined way in the protest. This is troubling to the Native American leadership as it adds to their concerns. This is an extremely important point: nonviolent protest has to be disciplined, focused, not just a “happening.” Monks would have been a good presence.

 

By the way, here is a link to a nice video presentation of Chris Hedges doing a report on Standing Rock:

http://www.truthdig.com/avbooth/item/chris_hedges_meets_the_resistance_at_standing_rock_20161126

 

Let’s turn now to that toxic mixture of anger/hatred and political realities. A real lot of that lately. A number of commentators, some are white leftist or Democratic pundits, but more are commentators who are people of color and are fed up with white voters. One good example of this is a piece by Sonali Kolhatkar with the title, “I’m Done Trying to Empathize With Poor White Trump Voters.” Here is the link:

http://www.truthdig.com/report/category/sonali_kolhatkar

Sonali’s position is well-stated, powerful, and convincing. I am white, but I felt something of that anger the day after the election. However, it must be pointed out also that the communities of color either did not show up at the polls in the same numbers as they did for Obama or even worse, more people of color voted this time for Trump than they did for Romney or McCain in previous elections. Granted this is not a large number but it does indicate something else is going on. But most importantly, no matter what the facts be, the feelings and attitude expressed in this article will not help us to advance to a real form of resistance for the long term—and a long term will probably be needed. We do need to better understand those who think so differently from us, and when we confront them, and confront them we absolutely must, our state of mind and heart must be in peace and truth, humility and freedom, courage and seeking understanding. A bit of that is apparent in another piece, this time by Chris Hedges, “We Are All Deplorables.” Hedges is a very tough critic of our society, one of the toughest out there, and he doesn’t hesitate to paint a picture that is very dark and scary. Coming from a religious background, having studied theology at Harvard Divinity School, he sometimes sounds like one of the Old Testament prophets. Tough language indeed. However, here he is trying to understand who we are and where we are and why,….why did so many vote for Trump. Like I said, I think this step is badly needed if we are going to have a real resistance and a real encounter with our brothers and sisters who think differently. Here is a long quote from that article:

“My relatives in Maine are deplorables. I cannot write on their behalf. I can write in their defense. They live in towns and villages that have been ravaged by deindustrialization. The bank in Mechanic Falls, where my grandparents lived, is boarded up, along with nearly every downtown store. The paper mill closed decades ago. There is a strip club in the center of the town. The jobs, at least the good ones, are gone. Many of my relatives and their neighbors work up to 70 hours a week at three minimum-wage jobs, without benefits, to make perhaps $35,000 a year. Or they have no jobs. They cannot afford adequate health coverage under the scam of Obamacare. Alcoholism is rampant in the region. Heroin addiction is an epidemic. Labs producing the street drug methamphetamine make up a cottage industry. Suicide is common. Domestic abuse and sexual assault destroy families. Despair and rage among the population have fueled an inchoate racism, homophobia and Islamophobia and feed the latent and ever present poison of white supremacy. They also nourish the magical thinking peddled by the con artists in the Christian right, the state lotteries that fleece the poor, and an entertainment industry that night after night shows visions of an America and a lifestyle on television screens—“The Apprentice” typified this—that foster unattainable dreams of wealth and celebrity.

Those who are cast aside as human refuse often have a psychological need for illusions and scapegoats. They desperately seek the promise of divine intervention. They unplug from a reality that is too hard to bear. They see in others, especially those who are different, the obstacles to their advancement and success. We must recognize and understand the profound despair that leads to these reactions. To understand these reactions is not to condone them.

The suffering of the white underclass is real. Its members struggle with humiliation and a crippling loss of self-worth and dignity. The last thing they need, or deserve, is politically correct thought police telling them what to say and think and condemning them as mutations of human beings.”

 

Hedges continues:

“Those cast aside by the neoliberal order have an economic identity that both the liberal class and the right wing are unwilling to acknowledge. This economic identity is one the white underclass shares with other discarded people, including the undocumented workers and the people of color demonized by the carnival barkers on cable news shows. This is an economic reality the power elites invest great energy in masking.

The self-righteousness of the liberal class, which revels in imagined tolerance and enlightenment while condemning the white underclass as irredeemable, widens the divide between white low-wage workers and urban elites. Liberals have no right to pass judgment on these so-called deplorables without acknowledging their pain. They must listen to their stories, which the corporate media shut out. They must offer solutions that provide the possibility of economic stability and self-respect.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood the downward spiral of hating those who hate you. “In a real sense all life is inter-related,” he wrote in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. …”

We cannot battle the racism, bigotry and hate crimes that will be stoked by the Donald Trump presidency without first battling for economic justice. This is not a gap between the tolerant and the intolerant. It is a gap between most of the American population and our oligarchic and corporate elites, which Trump epitomizes. It is a gap that is understood only in the light of the demand for economic justice. And when we start to speak in the language of justice first, and the language of inclusiveness second, we will begin to blunt the protofascism being embraced by many Trump supporters.

I spent two years writing a book on the Christian right called “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” I spent many months with dispossessed white workers in states such as Missouri, Kansas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and California. I carried into the book project all the prejudices that come with being raised in the liberal church—a disdain for a magic Jesus who answers your prayers and makes you rich, a repugnance at the rejection of rationality and science and at the literal interpretation of the Bible, a horror of the sacralization of the American empire, and a revulsion against the racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and blind intolerance that often afflict those who retreat into a binary world of good and evil.

Those enthralled by such thinking are Christian heretics—Jesus did not come to make us rich and powerful and bless America’s empire—and potential fascists. They have fused the iconography and symbols of the American state with the iconography and symbols of the Christian religion. They believe they can create a “Christian” America. The American flag is given the same sacred value as the Christian cross. The Pledge of Allegiance has the religious power of the Lord’s Prayer. That a sleazy developer and con artist was chosen as their vehicle—81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump—for achieving this goal is startling, to say the least. But this is not a reality-based movement. Most of those who profit from this culture of despair, many wrapped in the halo of the ministry, are, like Trump, slick, amoral trolls.”

 

Hedges looks toward the future, and it doesn’t look very bright, in fact rather dark. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, and Mother Nature may have the final word on this human experiment on Planet Earth. I think he is basically right, and if you think that all this gets resolved when we kick Trump out of office in 4 years (if then!), I think you still haven’t grasped how really bad off we are. Resistance is the only authentic way of being human in this situation, no matter what the future holds. We all have a vocation to be “refusniks” now. Monks were the original refusniks. It remains to be seen if today’s monks will have the vision to see what their “resistance” is all about. Beautiful liturgy with beautiful chant will not be enough.

I will let Hedges have the last word:

“There will be rebels. They will live in the shadows. They will be the renegade painters, sculptors, poets, writers, journalists, musicians, actors, dancers, organizers, activists, mystics, intellectuals and other outcasts who are willing to accept personal sacrifice. They will not surrender their integrity, creativity, independence and finally their souls. They will speak the truth. The state will have little tolerance of them. They will be poor. The wider society will be conditioned by mass propaganda to write them off as parasites or traitors. They will keep alive what is left of dignity and freedom. Perhaps one day they will rise up and triumph. But one does not live in poverty and on the margins of society because of the certainty of success. One lives like that because to collaborate with radical evil is to betray all that is good and beautiful. It is to become a captive. It is to give up the moral autonomy that makes us human. The rebels will be our hope.”       Amen!