A. The Question
What’s the point of it all? What’s it all about anyway? A very big question. Maybe the biggest question of them all. A universal question. Nobody escapes this question. Even when avoided it still is answered. Everyone asks this question, whether they realize it or not; everyone answers it also whether they realize it or not. But, and this is very important, the REAL answer will never be something in language. The question that we perceive in our words pervades all we do and all we are–or think we are. And so will the answer. The realization of death brings a certain urgency to the question. The individual person answers this question, and also every society gives an answer of sorts. This is a problem because there is a strong tendency and urge to take on the answer given by our society as our very own. Instead of going into the depths of one’s heart and wrestling with the question there. In Zen terms it is like wrestling with a koan; in Christian terms it is like in the Old Testament, wrestling with God. The question is really an icon of the Presence of God–it connects you with that Reality–it gives you a sense of “something more” over the horizon of your experiences. But pick your own metaphor.
Another problem: the answer given by any society, ancient or modern, progressive or conservative, rich or poor, religious or secular, it’s always going to be false. Any society will always have a convincing substitute answer that will insure its increase and flourishing rather than allow any process or questioning that may lead to its dismantling–which may happen if we critique the very “glue” that holds that society together by means of a “higher purpose” to our life. In any case no social order can ever satisfy that question in our heart–but granted there are “better” social arrangements and “worse” ones. Be that as it may, our own society is amazingly transparent in its shallowness and falseness in dealing with such a question. First of all there is the popular myth that everyone in our society is free to search for their own answer. This is a myth in the worst sense of the word–a lie, propaganda, an ideology to maintain our society. If you venture too far outside the boundaries of what constitutes an acceptable answer according to our society, you will be punished in one manner or another. And one way the answer provided by our society can be summarized is the following: what’s it all about is for you to be a happy consumer. Marketing and advertising pervade all of our life whether we realize it or not. The magazine Adbusters has been exposing this for the last 2 or 3 years with great acumen. What underlies the whole economy and the ethos of this culture is the happy consumer. And what is he/she happy about? Choices, among other things. This is a big word for us. Better to have ten brands of breakfeast cereal available to choose from than just two! But there are a whole cluster of values that constitute the happy consumer: success, good appearance, being liked, wealth, being “in tune” with what’s going on, etc. We all know the images that this way of thinking generates, images that surround us all the time, language that fills our ears and minds with assumptions about “what’s the point of it all”. The “good life” is the life of the happy consumer who doesn’t rock the boat. More about this later. Of course there are answers given in the modern West that have “more” to them intellectually speaking–whether it be from the cluster of values of the rational Enlightenment or the current Nietzschean post-modernism–in either case their values and the answers they give merely undergird the fundamental social ideology that pushes us all in the direction of “happy consumers” living on the surface of reality because there is only the surface as we know it–an endless universe of commodities, bought and sold endlessly, a multitude of Andy Warhol icons connecting us to nothing.
Now there are people in every society who are not satisfied with any way their society answers this question. Or with whatever answer they themselves have managed up to that point. Pondering the reality of death can unmask all social answers as shallow, as inadequate at best. So certain people step outside the horizon provided by their society. More often than not this is a religious quest. Sometimes this results in the person joining a religious group or becoming a monk. While basically a sound move, the problem is that the group they join is another “society” embedded within the larger society and even though it may speak a very different language, even the language of “leaving the world,” it nevertheless tends to truncate the real journey and provide a mere shadow of the reality the person is seeking as his/her answer. And more about this later, but for now let us simply return to our old friends the Desert Fathers. This is the beginnings of Christian monasticism; here you have a sizeable number of people in the Middle East of the 4th Century who were asking in their own way: What’s the point of it all? They felt a need to leave their society, even physically, in order to answer that question. But out in the desert they began to form an alternative society that also began in short term to provide its own made-up answers, its own substitutes for the real thing, and many of them did succumb to these substitutes. Sometimes this problematic situation was very, very subtle, and it took a very deep, experienced elder–one who had not fallen for the substitutes–to discern the situation that another was confused about. Consider the following story:
“Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said, ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingertips became like ten lamps of fire. He said, ‘Why not be totally changed into fire?'”
Great story. Lot has left the life lived in society, with its values and answers, religious or otherwise, and he is seeking the “more” in life–that which can begin to answer the question buried in his heart. He sees this “more” as something he needs to do—one additional thing among a list of things he has been doing. He’s mistaken of course, but it is quite an understandable mistake. Out in the desert he either creates a pattern or order of life, or he enters into one already established by others–in other words, maybe joins a group. This is all ok and normal and the human thing to do. We create social arrangements and order because it is our nature to do so. Thus today a person might join the Trappists, the Benedictines, the Carthusians, the Camaldolese, etc, etc., but the problem is that the new social order and arrangement of things, call it monastic even, generates its own ideology and mythology and provides various substitute answers. Lot’s life is now circumscribed by this list of things he does–A, B, C, and D–what today we would call “monastic practices.” Lot correctly senses that there is something yet “more”–A, B,C,and D is not what ultimately brought him to the desert. He is on the verge of making a big mistake in thinking that that “more” will be another thing on the list–item E which he has yet to discover and DO. Abba Joseph with his great wisdom and experience wipes the slate clean of A, B,C and D–note he does not say that Lot was wrong in doing these things or that they are not necessary–he simply points Lot in a completely different direction because Lot was spiritually ready to “go beyond.” And mysteriously it is not something that Lot WILL DO, but something that WILL BE DONE to Lot if he opens himself to it: he will “become fire,” he will be transformed.
B. The Noble Lie
To continue our discussion and diagnose the problem even deeper we need to invoke one of the greatest thinkers on the world stage: Plato. Plato’s contribution here is the notion of the Noble Lie and the allegory of the Cave. Let us begin with this allegory.
In the beginning of the Allegory of the Cave Plato represents man’s condition as being “chained in a cave,” with only a fire behind him. He sits in darkness. He perceives the world by watching the shadows on the wall. He sits in darkness with the false light of the fire and does not realize that this existence is wrong or lacking. It merely is his existence — he knows no other nor offers any complaint.
Plato next imagines in the Allegory of the Cave what would occur if one chained man suddenly escaped from his bondage and got out into the real world. Plato describes how some people would immediately be frightened and want to return to the cave and the familiar dark existence. Others would look at the sun and finally see the world as it truly is. They would know their previous existence was a farce, a shadow of truth, and they would come to understand that their lives had been one of deception. A few would embrace the sun, and the true life and have a far better understanding of “truth.” They would also want to return to the cave to free the others in bondage, and would be puzzled by people still in the cave who would not believe the now “enlightened” truth bearer. (Something like the Bodhisattva tradition in Mahayana Buddhism). Many would refuse to acknowledge any truth beyond their current existence in the cave.
It is quite apparent that our question–what’s the point of it all?– and its answer would be formulated quite differently depending on whether we are still “chained in the cave” or somehow broken free. Just as Plato did, we in the modern West have to identify our own “unreality” and make a break with it. Chris Hedges, in his incredible book, Empire of Illusion, writes acutely about this:
“We are chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism, and pop psychology. In The Image: a Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin writes that in contemporary culture the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stagecraft. Americans, he writes, increasingly live in a ‘world where fantasy is more real than reality.’ He writes: ‘We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.’ ”
The astute critic William Deresiewicz has written the following in an essay entitled, “The End of Solitude”: “The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge–broadband tipping the Web from text to image; social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider–the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. it wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to hundreds on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves–by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity.”
The reason for going on about this at length is that given our modern situation our very ability to become aware of THAT question in our heart and to go beyond our society’s manufactured answers is at stake. Anyone who finally has some realization that they have to “break out of the cave” will perhaps find the escape hard and lonely. It will not be as simple as just moving out into a desert place or joining a group of similar-minded individuals. What’s the point of it all: when that question arises within one’s heart and the answers sold by society do not satisfy, then, yes, we will search for an “alternative” place, an alternative arrangement of life that perhaps allows us to seek out the “more” that is there in our existence. Perhaps we join a religious community; perhaps we drop-out in solitude; perhaps we join some group like the Catholic Worker–a whole lot of possibilities. But whatever it is we DO, this also inevitably presents its own substitute answers to the question in our heart. There is no simple “escape” to a “pure place.” Why?
Now we turn to Plato and his second contribution to our discussion: the Noble Lie. The noble lie is a kind of myth that is at the heart of EVERY kind of society and every social arrangement, no matter how large or how small or how “alternative.” According to Plato, it is essentially false but the telling of it insures an orderly and stable society. (Somewhere Gregory of Nyssa, probably borrowing from Plato, says that all human beings are liars–and not in the sense of telling fibs!) It is to the benefit of all to maintain the noble lie–especially to the benefit of the elites of the society–so they are its chief propagators and guarantors. The noble lie is mostly silent and invisible but it props up all national and social ideologies and through them sometimes becomes clearly apparent. It doesn’t matter what the social matrix is, whether it be a state or a church, a religious community or a political party, etc, it will have at its core a noble lie. The telling of the myth which the noble lie generates will ensure the maintenance and stability of the social group. This becomes all-important. That’s why so many Catholic religious groups and monastic communities are so obsessed about “lasting.” This has become more important than “becoming all fire.” And here we may add parenthetically that for many Catholics it is especially hard to admit the presence of the Noble Lie within the Church. The “holiness” of the Church has been preached with such vigor that any negativity within the Church is very difficult to admit. This has been done not only by conservative propagandists but even by eminent theologians like Henri de Lubac, among others. The Church is seen as “unstained” no matter what happens in history. The strain in trying to reconcile actual historical fact with this ecclesial ideology begins to break eventually and people turn away from the Church.
Now whatever answer that is given to our question that is not in harmony with the myth that is at the heart of our society will not be allowed. But escaping to solitude is not exactly a solution either. For the hermit, like Lot, has his rule of life, his arrangement of things, his view of himself and his world, his implicit relationality to other people, etc. All this also contains the noble lie. Yes, the hermit has this myth-spinning going on also within his own cell. It is a social existence afterall, even if stripped down to the bare bone. We cannot eradicate the Noble Lie like a bad tooth–just pull it out. It is part of our social existence. And so the one who has gone into solitude will degenerate and disintegrate into some caricature if he/she is not able to live with an awareness of the Noble Lie working within their own cell. That is why so few can go off by themselves. That awareness which can be very burdensome in the beginning–that awareness which is needed to live like Lot and then seek the “more”–that awareness was called by our friends the Desert Fathers, humility, meaning “of the earth,” a very misunderstood word.
Finally, there are basic people who avoid the big question in their heart, or cover it over with multitudes of activities and diversions–they usually end up “building their house” (to use a New Testament image) on a foundation of “respectability,” being good citizens, ethical behavior, generally not only being a happy consumer but also a “good” person. When the “storms of life” come this proves to be inadequate. When death stares one in the face, it all crumbles. “Being good” is not good enough. But such a crisis at the same time provides a truly deep opportunity to finally face “the question” in its essence without any false props. So in a sense one then is invited to “leave the world,” wherever one is, whatever one’s situation, and begin the true journey.
C. Leaving the World
This phrase is familiar to older Catholics as it was a part of the language of Catholic spirituality pre-Vatican II. It then fell out of favor and was generally dropped. Too bad. A phrase largely misunderstood–back then and also now. Unfortunately it came to mean only entering some kind of cloistered religious life, like a monastery, or maybe the priesthood. Again, there is an implicit ideological tilt given to this expression and the geography of the religious life is very peculiarly depicted as “out of this world.” Gary Snyder mentions this phrase in his writings, and he puts it more in tune with the Desert Fathers when he says that “leaving the world” for all monks (Christian and Buddhist) meant leaving the “games of society.” This is very easy in a sense, and at the same time it is also very difficult, and it can get complicated and a person can get really lost.
Consider now someone who enters a monastic community. He/she is seeking that “more” that is somehow there in life. He/she is willing to give their whole life in order to wrestle with that question: what’s the point of it all? And to give their whole life in order to answer it. But the first problem that hits anyone with any living sensibility is the discovery that the games of society are also inside the religious community–disguised by a whole religious culture. This makes it seem like they cannot answer that persistent question. Yes, he/she will have a different arrangement of their life than when they were “in the world”; they probably will be speaking a different language with different values. Indeed, their innate “goodness” may deepen; they will be “humble in a manner of speaking,” “obedient,” “prayerful,” etc. But a crisis will be brewing deep down–for the games of society are right there at their fingertips. More than that, if they have any sensitivity at all, they will begin to sense, as noted above, the presence of the Noble Lie within their own community. They will begin to question the community’s validity and viability. At a certain point a person may throw in the towel and just leave. The question itself may begin to seem like an illusion. Or another person, and this happens all too often, will smother that awareness and latch on to the social identity that the community and the Rule give him/her. It is a security of a kind, and it does give one a certain status. Being a Trappist or a Benedictine becomes “the point of it all” although he/she will probably never say that(they will only speak of God of course), but their life will speak quite clearly what they are about. If they are an active group, then as with their compatriots “in the world” they will very easily get lost in their work. There are, of course, those who learn to live with the knowledge that the Noble Lie will not be transcended by going anywhere, that they might as well stay where they have “awakened” and use whatever pain or suffering it brings as “fuel” for the deeper journey. Or as the Desert Fathers put it: Stay in your Cell, and your Cell will teach you everything. And there are so many other things one could point to in how different people respond to this situation.
The next level of discovery is when one who has “left the world,” discovers the games of society within his/her own mind. This is a most important moment. It is one thing to see the games of society within one’s community–and one can get simply hard and judgmental and all mixed up with that–but it is quite another thing to see even a little bit the same stuff within one’s own mind. Here is where the real work of the monk begins; here is where the real “leaving of the world” starts. And here different spiritual traditions provide different “antidotes” as it were for the falseness which one discovers within oneself. What they all seem to share, though, is that the “antidote” is more or less like something that happens to one, not something that one does; and it is intrinsically connected to the answer one’s heart has been seeking, an answer which will be manifested in one’s whole being: “Why not be totally changed into fire?” More about this in another posting!