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:
- 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!)
- 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:
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.
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
“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.”
“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.”