Fundamentals & Foundations, Part VI: Kenosis

Consider these words from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (2: 2-8):  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

A classic text in Christianity of what is sometimes called “kenotic spirituality.”  Actually it is a foundational text for all Christian spirituality, and one could really say that kenosis, in one form or another, appears in all true spiritualities.  This self-emptying is an important dynamic in all religious paths even as it may have different nuances, totally incommensurable layers of background text and narrative,  and radically diverse indicators and symbols.  Thus, the Buddha sitting in calm meditation with that inimitable hint of a smile and Christ in agony on the cross are two very different symbols but both lead us into the realm of kenosis, and we won’t speculate about their relationship any more than that.  We will limit ourselves to some random reflections on kenosis as foundation for the Christian spiritual path, but as usual we will keep one eye on our Sufi friends and on Abhishiktananda’s Christian advaita.

Within Christianity, Russian Orthodox spirituality has a very strong “kenotic element.”  The “fools for Christ,” the radical nonviolence of some of its holy people, the strong hermit tradition, a sense of the value of suffering….all these point in that direction.  Paradoxically (at least for some) this spirituality is also known for its beautiful emphasis on the Resurrection and for a strong sense for what might be termed “spiritual beauty.”

Kenosis…what can it possibly mean?  We term it “self-emptying.”  The words from the New Testament quoted above are not at all self-explanatory.  They have been interpreted in some seriously different ways.  But it is obvious that the radical kenosis of Jesus Christ is meant to serve paradigmatically for all human beings.  But also, kenosis is not “something we do,” a project that the ego self can undertake, another spiritual practice among many others, etc.  Rather, with our Sufi friends, all we need do is be attentive to “what is.”  Truly it will take us where we need to be.

Adam, the Biblical prototype, the first human being, is called the “icon” of God (in the image of God, etc.).  Jesus, the so-called new prototype is termed as “in the form of God” (morphe theou).  There are very deep implications on how one reads these two phrases.  Some scholars claim that the two terms are interchangeable; that they basically refer to the same thing.  Others say, no, “morphe” refers to the very essence of God and “icon” obviously does not.  From the standpoint of a mystical spirituality, these kind of arguments are a waste of time, though not without some interest.  From the standpoint of a nondualistic Christian mysticism, like Christian advaita, as in Abhishiktananda’s latest Christology(as opposed to his earlier ruminations), what this phrase would seem to mean is that what God is, Jesus is.  “That thou art,” in a Christian perspective.  Obviously not in his arms and legs, etc., but in what makes Jesus truly Jesus, this is in the morphe theou.  In the Greek thought-world everything has a morphe, a form—so there is the form of a dog, the form of a cat, the form of a rock, etc.  The form is what makes something to be that which it is.  There is form and matter.  Matter is the stuff; form is what makes it to be this particular stuff as opposed to some other stuff.  So that is where this word is coming from, but that does not necessarily mean it has that  precise a meaning.  But we can infer still that somehow this morphe theou means that what the reality of the Ultimate Mystery is, Jesus is truly that.  “That thou art.”  He manifests that Reality in the purest, most translucent way.  There is absolutely nothing in Jesus that obscures that reality—and yet it can be said to be “concealed” on the cross—that most cruel form of execution that only the worst criminal or worst enemy would get.

Abhishiktananda was often fond of pointing out that the meaning of such a text is way beyond any textual/verbal analysis, and it requires a certain spiritual experience to really get at its core.  But this text is very rich and loaded with meaning in almost every word and phrase, and it would be satisfying and interesting and beneficial to do a detailed, word-by-word analysis and reflection, yet  we will skip that for the time being and simply “underline” some key signposts as it were as the text wants to take us to a place we might not be aware of.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….”  Abhishiktananda tended toward the end of his life toward a Christology which focused on the awareness within Jesus of his relationship to that Ultimate Reality which he called “abba.”  Abhishiktananda claimed that this was the only way the Semitic mindset could get at the advaitic experience of Jesus–in that experience of “sonship” and in the language of “the kingdom of heaven.” There is much to recommend in that reading, and this text certainly seems to point in that direction.  However, this text also seems to be taking us to a place where no “advaitic experience” seems possible:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me….”  The kenosis of Jesus on the Cross is a concealment of all religious experience.  At the very end there is only surrender to what seems like utter emptiness—“Into your hands….”

So the text proceeds: Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.”  Indeed.  “Equality”–very loaded word here, but we shall focus on “grasped.”  Whatever you want to make of “equality with God,” it is not something that can be “grasped.”  Why?  Because only the ego self, the phenomenal self “grasps.”  And our God-identity cannot be grasped in any way.  This text should also remind us of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness where in fact his God-identity was presented to him by the Tempter as indeed something to grasp and hold onto as a credential.  So we are invited to follow Jesus in his kenosis where our own God-identity unfolds, not as a “something we grasp” but as pure gift and grace and love..

The Buddha teaches along these lines:  if your house is on fire, you get out of that house.  And your house is on fire, so…..   Jesus in his kenosis opens a door.  In fact he says, “I am the door…”   The whole point of a door is that it is an empty space.  Jesus in his kenosis reveals the Great Emptiness, which is not-empty because it is not a something alongside other somethings, but that which is infinite and unimaginable Love(and this is something radically new in human awareness).  Al-Hallaj was ecstatic as they crucified him….without any ego he proclaimed “I am the Truth.”  “That thou art.”  But let us listen once more to Merton’s remarkable meditation on this “Door”:

“The door of emptiness.  Of no-where.  Of no-place for a self, which cannot be entered by a self.  And therefore is of no use to someone who is going somewhere.  Is it a door at all?  The door of no-door….  The door without sign, without indicator, without information.  Not particularized.  Hence no one can say of it ‘This is it!  This is the door.’  It is not recognizable as a door.  It is not led up to by other things pointing to it:  ‘We are not it, but that is it–the door.  No sign saying, ‘Exit.’  No use looking for indications.  Any door with a sign on it, any door that proclaims itself to be a door is not the door….  The door without wish.  The undesired.  The unplanned door. The door never expected.  Never wanted.  Not desirable as a door.  Not a joke, not a trap door.  Not select.  Not exclusive.  Not for a few.  Not for many.  Not for.  Door without aim.  Door without end.  Does not respond to a key–so do not imagine you have a key.  Do not have your hopes on possession of the key….  When you have asked for a list of all the doors, this one is not on the list.  When you have asked the numbers of all the doors, this one is without a number.  Do not be deceived into thinking this door is merely hard to find and difficult to open.  When sought it fades.  Recedes.  Diminishes.  Is nothing.  There is no threshold.  No footing.  It is not empty space.  It is neither this world nor another.  It is not based on anything.  Because it has no foundation, it is the end of sorrow.  Nothing remains to be done….  Christ said, ‘I am the door.’  The nailed door.  The cross, they nail the door shut with death.  The resurrection: ‘You see, I am not [that kind of] door.’  ‘Why do you look up to heaven?’….  I am the opening, the ‘shewing,’ the revelation, the door of light, the Light itself.  ‘I am the Light,’ and the light is in the world from the beginning.”

St. Francis is perhaps the purest example within Christianity of Christ’s kenotic path.  Read his account of the “Perfect Joy.”  Every time I read it, I get totally flattened—it is so radical.  Easy to misread.  It is not about “trying real hard” to “enjoy” getting insulted, rejected, etc.  Some real bad spirituality abounds in this regard!  No, it is rather living from a very different center than our phenomenal ego self with all its desires and wants and grasping…it  is living from the place of the no-self, the Self of the Upanishads…it is an exemplum of what is said in Luke 17:33(and other similar texts):  “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life will preserve it.”  As Abhishiktananda points out, this is at the heart of Christian advaita.  The life of communion, of unity beyond understanding, of unbounded love, of infinite bliss, is not found by expanding the ego self to infinity, but paradoxically through the narrow gate of this kenosis.

When you make the Sign of the Cross, you manifest the Ultimate Reality.  (Someone may wish to point out that whatever you do that is not “evil” is also the case.  Agreed, but there may be something different in this case.)  Who and What God is are both unconcealed and concealed by the cross.  To borrow from our Sufi friends:  it is the Ultimate Veil.  And it is one thing to know God when the veil is lifted; it is quite another to know that Ultimate Reality in the veil itself.  The very life of God, the very dynamism of God is kenosis—the total self-emptying which is a Total Gift of Self—such underlies the very meaning of the Trinitarian relations.  And within this Mystery we have our being and our identity–not outside of it, or apart from it.  God, being God, does not parcel Himself out, bit by bit, a little gift here, a little gift there, as popular piety would have it.  No, the Total Mystery abides within our hearts and within everything that is—or it would not even exist.  God gives Himself Totally in an unspeakable movement of Self-emptying which we call Love, and this Love is at the core of all that is Real.

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