Monthly Archives: January 2010

A Few Words About Nothing & The Mystery of God, Part I

Shakespeare’s King Lear says, “Nothing will come of nothing.”  In common terms, so true; but in the classic Christian doctrine of creation–“creatio ex nihil”–creation out of nothing–the whole universe, the whole of reality comes out of nothing.  This is not a Biblical account but a spiritual and philosophical intuition and result of a certain line of reasoning.  Here we are in the antechamber of a great mystery.  Of course one can deny the whole thing by saying that this whole always existed, never not-existed.  We are merely a random rearrangement of elements that always existed–ultimately we are the result of chance.  Between these two positions there are some philosophical choices about what line of reasoning one finds more plausible.  Ultimately of course the choice is never made without other directing influences.  But in either case, there is this annoying and mysterious reality of “nothingness” still hovering around.

Let us clarify:  there is nothing, and then there is “nothing”.  By “nothing” we do not mean just an empty space.  Afterall, an empty space is still something!  So “nothingness” here will mean  a lot more than just emptiness in the normal sense.

There is a nothingness that is beyond all our conceptions of nothing. It is not just non-being as opposed to being.  No it transcends the opposition of being and non-being.

There is a poverty that is beyond poverty.

There is a silence which is beyond all silence.

There is a  solitude that is beyond all solitude.

There is a communion beyond all community, togetherness and connectivity!

There is a Name beyond all names and it cannot be named.

Such is the spiritual and mystical intuition that inhabits a number of traditions.

The cawing of the crow in the freshness of the morning stillness emerges out of this Nothingness and returns to it.  When your log fire goes out, this is where it goes to.

One of the deep metaphysical fears lurking in the thought of death is that we will slide into nothingness.  Even some of the saints have reported that at the approach of death there was this chilling, cold feeling of nothingness opening up before them.  They go beyond this, of course, but some will say this is simply a delusion; others will say that they transcend this fear of non-being that death signifies and they transcend into the Nothingness beyond non-being.

The Christian notion of God is beyond both being and non-being, and this is the beginning of the mystery of God.  Classic Catholic mystical theology has always said that we know God most when we realize that we do know God.  St. Augustine said: “If we can grasp it, it’s not God.”

Most Christians rely on the figure of Jesus in the New Testament, both artistically and in the ideas and images in their minds.  They also may rely on the images of Mary and the saints.  This seems to bring the reality of God close to them in a comforting way.  All this is absolutely true and good.  However, what too often happens is that a person never really encounters the awesome mystery of God which abides in their hearts and surrounds their lives on all sides.  Without some such encounter of this awesome Mystery, our common piety is apt to deteriorate into something trivial and superficial.  Mystery is the essential foundation of the spiritual life.  When our spiritual senses are alive, we sense that our lives are immersed in a holy mystery that is closer to us than we are to ourselves.  It is also a Mystery that offers itself to us as Gift in every concrete encounter with every concrete reality.  And yet it is also at the same time a Mystery that is Wholly Other–so other that it best be left described as Nothingness.

When we say “mystery” we do not mean the word in the usual sense.  It is not something to be solved, a puzzle or a riddle that we can solve given enough time and resources.  No, the mystery of God is something much. much deeper.  The great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, spoke of “the human being in the presence of Absolute Mystery.”  Some Christians might balk that after Jesus we have this knowledge of God and that’s it.  This is a delicate theological point, which we will ponder in Part II, in a later posting.  Suffice it to say now that even after the revelation of Jesus Christ, there still remains the absolute incomprehensible mystery of God. The incomprehensibility of God is an infinite richness that we will never exhaust, and it remains even after God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ–Mystery remaining Mystery, not because of a lack of intelligibility, but because of an excess of intelligibility.

There are all kinds of images of God in the Bible.  Some of them profound; some of them good, enticing, inviting; some of them not so good, even repellent.  Not all images of God are equal.  A fundamentalist approach makes each image equal and each image basically infallible–not realizing how humanly constructed they are.  Mystery takes us beyond all images, both the good and the not good.

Apart from the Bible, people of all kinds have promoted all kinds of other images of God.  And everyone, including atheists, have an image of God whether they care to realize that or not.  New Agers often have this sense of God as somekind of universal force; old and modern deists have this image of God as the Great Clockmaker–somewhat scientifically acceptable.  Often personal images of God are reduced to someone who doles out punishments or treats/rewards.  In that case you try hard to appease this entity.  Then Mormons have this image of God that is very peculiar coming from the Christian side–God is seen as being in the form of a man, physically so.

And what do you mean when you say the word “God”?

Property, Ownership, and Poverty

In Catholic monasticism there is a vow of poverty.  Something similar can be found in the other monastic traditions. Also even for people not under vows but who are trying to live a serious spiritual life the dynamic labeled here “poverty” takes on a critical importance.  Right at the outset it should be said that there is both an external and an internal dimension to this notion of poverty.  And it should also be noted that ultimately the internal dimension is the most important–it is where one’s sense of identity abides, who you are, and what is the point of it all.  This latter shall be extensively discussed when we get to Ash Wednesday and Lent in a later posting.  Furthermore, nothing said here should be construed as a cosmetic overlay on the misery and social poverty of billions who are exploited and abused by economic and social systems that preach “a world of plenty.”  In fact if the rest of us simply practiced a humane poverty that problem would be partially solved.

Before we get to the notion of poverty in the spiritual journey, a few words are needed about the notions of “ownership” and “private property.”  In the modern West we have practically made a god out of these ideas. Tolstoy said that all property is theft–a typical Tolstoyean exaggeration, but you see what he is getting at.  It is at the very least a social construct, perhaps one could say a fiction, or to be more kindly and comprehensive, a myth.  In the Republic Plato says that at the core of every society there is this thing which he calls a “noble lie.”  It is something which is at the foundation of that society, a basis for its cohesion, yet it is also a fiction.  And every society has a “noble lie.”  And only those who are truly enlightened by what Plato calls “philosophy”–which is not the modern meaning of that word–truly “know the score.”  So for the modern West perhaps this notion of “private property” is at least one aspect of our “noble lie,” the myth that holds things together in our culture.

It is so arbitrary, isn’t it–I mean you draw a line here and you say stuff on this side of the line is “mine” and stuff on that side of the line is “yours.”  And I have a piece of paper that says this stuff is “mine.”  The sociologist Robert Bellah has pointed out the deeper psychological and spiritual implications of ownership(in his masterly study Habits of the Heart).  Say I want a car to get from point A to point B on some regular basis(already questionable to start with, but let us proceed on that assumption).  I could easily buy a Ford or a Chevy but I am “well off” and I buy a Mercedes.  The average Joe Blow can afford a Ford or Chevy but he cannot afford a Mercedes.  The whole point of owning a Mercedes, paying that extra amount, getting that leather, etc.,  is deep down, unmasked, a desire to say: “I am not like you; I am different; I am well off.”  I own a Mercedes because Joe Blow cannot own one, and when I drive around I proclaim that difference and I establish my sense of identity in that difference.  A total spiritual fiction.  Perhaps even to say, “I am a better human being.”  In any case,  the  notion of ownership has a very real bearing then on our sense of identity at the core of our being.  In the modern West this is simply a matter now of “you are what you own,” or “the one with the most toys at the end wins.”

Think of land, of Mother Earth, and this notion of “owning” it is even more bizarre.  Most aboriginal peoples have a founding myth where the territory they inhabit is given to them by the Great Spirit or a Deity, but it is a matter for the tribe’s use or thriving, not for ownership in the modern sense.  Everything of that land is seen in relation to that original gift.  Needless to say complications can arise as people did migrate and climactic conditions forced some tribes out of their territories into another place, etc. Conflicts could and did arise.  In the movie, Grapes of Wrath, based on Steinbeck’s novel, there is a scene early on where a sharecropper’s cabin is demolished by a bulldozer sent by the bank who now owns the land the sharecropper is sitting on.  The movie and the book raise the question of ownership of land–whose land is it anyway, and what does it mean to “own” anything?

All religious traditions have a very mixed record with regard to this point.  Institutionally they participate in the ideology of the culture in which they are situated.  This is reflected then in something like their notions of ownership and property and the meaning of poverty.  Monasteries have owned serfs and huge amounts of land and stuff; religious groups have owned slaves and have been very powerful in terms of their wealth.  Incidentally, in a related matter, monks have also been associated with violence and war at times as they succumbed to the ideology of their society–there is a new book coming out soon which details this even for Buddhist monks who normally are considered to be non-violent.  However, alongside this, in a kind of contrary and subversive spirit, each tradition has also had its holy men and women who have deconstructed their society’s  and their tradition’s notions of ownership and have redefined the value of poverty.  In the Christian tradition we find figures like St. Francis and Dorothy Day among so many others, and these stand in contrast not just with Wall Street greed, but also in contrast to folk like the European Protestants who theologized that wealth was a sign of blessing from God–the conclusion being then that those who had wealth were “blessed” and those who didn’t, well,…..   They seem to have ignored the Sermon on the Mount and followed one vein of Old Testament theology, which in itself was critiqued  by other voices within the Old Testament.  Today we see some of this in modern America in the so-called Gospel of Prosperity.  Also in some of these mega-churches where the member is offered all kinds of ministry in order to prosper, to invest well, to be healthy, to be happy, to be successful, etc. Everything except for the thirst for holiness.  Leon Bloy’s famous quip is forgotten: “The only sadness is the sadness of not being a saint.”

In any case, there is a peculiar problem within Catholic monasticism(which probably also afflicts other monastic groups like the Buddhists).  The Catholic monk, if he/she is a member of an officially recognized order will take a vow of poverty.  That means he/she will give up ownership of stuff–everything is owned by the community as it were.  The problem is that so many of these official communities are so well-endowed–often they sit on enormous land holdings, and often the monks have “all the comforts of home” at their fingertips while never having to worry about paying any bills or where their next meal will come from.  Some will even have access to “Our Lady of Visa” and can go shopping on the monastery’s bill–of course with the abbot’s blessing.  Now the standard reply to this kind of criticism is that with the vow of poverty the monk lets go of controlling his belongings, that there is a check on any human urge to own and possess, and that primarily the vow is meant as an interior work–or as often it is put, spiritual poverty is what counts.  Now this is largely true, and we shall get to the significance of interior poverty in a later posting, but it still must be said that this apologia for a comfortable life while professing “poverty” sounds dubious to many people.  There is a connection between external, material poverty and so-called spiritual poverty, but that connection is very difficult to articulate except in the context of a whole spiritual theology.

We won’t attempt that now, but it is striking that almost all reform movements within Catholicism and within Eastern Orthodox monasticism have called for a return to a real external, material poverty as an expression of something deeply spiritual and authentic.  St. Francis, for example,  did not preach just an interior poverty–his Lady Poverty was one tough lady to be sure!  For those not in official monastic life but who are serious about a spiritual life, there are many other prophetic figures.  There is Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.  There is the even more interesting and more significant figure of Gandhi, about whom we shall have to reflect at another time.  And there is our own American Henry David Thoreau, who summed up the whole dynamic of ownership and property for someone who seeks spiritual health: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Ok, you will probably want to point out some inconsistencies on the part of any of these figures, as if that would vitiate their teaching.  Inconsistencies granted.  As Emerson put it:  “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Irregardless of who our role model may be we will find ourselves somewhere along this spectrum that ranges from St. Francis(or St. Nil) to the Tsar of Old Russia(or maybe to one of our billionaires)–the Tsar’s winter home in St. Petersburg had 1050 rooms, 1886 doors, 1945 windows, and 117 staircases–there is an Indian billionaire that is building his own skyscraper in Mumbai that will probably top this!).  Doubtless we are much closer to St. Francis than to these other folk, but whatever be the case we need to keep a critical eye on the dynamic that is really operative in our lives and social situations.  Do not let any communal ideology or cultural ideology or national ideology or religious ideology blind us into making ownership and property some kind of hidden deity–in other words, we really must have that, we absolutely need that, we have earned that–or it belongs to the community, not to me, so that’s ok….etc. etc.   There is a big difference between having the stuff that makes life humane and decent and a felt need to live in huge homes, gated communities, drive expensive cars, have all the latest toys, etc. etc.  To be in this condition is to be dangerously blind  to our real condition, to our relationship to others, to our true identity.  Recall Jesus’s parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man(Luke 16: 19-31).  Amen.

Enoch & Paradise: An Introduction to Russian Spirituality

There is a line in the Book of Genesis that is easy to miss considering the monumental nature of what is presented there.  One translation reads:  “And Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”(Gen5:24)  Another translation: “And Enoch walked with God, and he vanished for God took him.”  A simplistic reading of this would be:  Enoch was a good man and then he died.  No, this line has a lot more to say than that!

Note that there are three elements in that verse:

  1. Enoch walks with God
  2. Enoch “vanishes” or “he was not”
  3. God took him

The first term, “walking with God,” is not some vague reference to moral uprightness or saying one’s prayers.  It refers us directly back to the state of paradise described in Genesis 3: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…”  Although the situation being presented is the narrative of the Fall, the implication of this line is that the human being’s natural condition “before the Fall” was this “casual intimacy” with God–as if walking in a garden with a friend.  So to “walk with God” is to be present to the Divine Presence which fills all of creation.  Now there are degrees and depths to this “presencing”, and it is not until one “returns to Paradise” that it is in its fullness.  This “return to Paradise” was a great theme of the early monastic fathers and the hesychasts of the Russian tradition.  Once the Fall has taken place; once Adam and Eve have asserted the primacy of their ego identity, not receiving the Divine Life as a gift but thinking they could just “take it” as it were; then we are no longer “in Paradise”; we are no longer “walking with God,” walking within the Divine Presence in its fullness.

The next element is this mysterious vanishing, “he was not.”  The “vanishing” is concomitant to “walking with God.”  The Russian hesychasts saw that the “return to Paradise” was signalled by the stripping off of the masks and disguises of the ego identity, by a kind of nakedness of personhood, so that one could say that one’s ego centered identity has vanished.  The general term they used was “humility,” and this has nothing to do with the psychological posturing of the ego or with the sickness of self-hatred and self-rejection–this is a theme we shall return to again and again.  And this is in harmony with the teachings of all the great traditions in their own terms.  For example, the Sufis talk about fana or annihilation–this is the extinction of that very ego centered sense of self.  When al-Hallaj says, “I am the Truth,” he is not blaspheming as the conservative traditionalists would have it, but what he means is that his sense of “I-ness” now comes from God, not from any egocentric affirmation.  His whole identity is now “of God.”  When one “walks with God” one realizes that only God truly IS–and everything else in relationship to that “Isness” is as nothing.

The third element tells us: “God took him.”  It is God’s agency that accomplishes this–not our own efforts, which in any case would be shot through with egocentric desire no matter how “spiritual” they may seem.  There are no techniques, no methods, no practices that will accomplish this “return to Paradise.”  The story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel is one parable of the futility of “reaching heaven” by our own efforts.  According to the Russian spiritual fathers, the return to Paradise takes place through faith, through humility, through continual repentance, and through total forgiveness.  This is an enormous topic to which we shall return many times during this year, but let us consider just one aspect of this “return” now.

The “return to Paradise” now begins at the “foot of the Cross.”  This will mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people in a thousand different situations, but for sure it is now no longer a matter of our moral uprightness or our spirituality or our knowledge that will bring us “home.”  Consider the following scene from Luke 23:39-42:  “One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!’  But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’  Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov we find several concrete existential depictions of what this “return to Paradise” is like.  It can almost be summarized in three words: forgiveness, responsibility, repentance.  And these three will need an extensive explanation because they are a lot more than the usual surface meanings we give them.  In any case, Dostoevsky presents the early life of his creation, the great spiritual father Fr. Zosima.  As a young man he was a military cadet, and he gets himself into a duel over a girlfriend.  The night before he is in a foul mood and he strikes his servant in the face over a trivial matter.  He cannot sleep very long:

“Suddenly I got up…I went to the window, opened it, looked into the garden–I watched the sun rising, the weather was warm, beautiful, the birds began to chime.  Why is it, I thought, that I feel something, as it were, mean and shameful in my soul?  Is it because…I am afraid of death, afraid to be killed?  No, not that, not that at all….  And suddenly I understood at once what it was: it was because I had beaten Afanasy the night before!  I suddenly pictured it all as if it were happening over again: he is standing before me, and I strike him in the face with all my might, and he keeps his arms at his sides, head erect, eyes staring straight ahead as if he were at attention; he winces at each blow…this is what a man can be brought to, a man beating his fellow man!  …it was as if a sharp needle went through my soul.  I stood as if dazed, and the sun was shining, the leaves were rejoicing, glistening, and the birds, the birds were praising God…I covered my face with my hands, fell on my bed and burst into sobs.  And then I remembered my brother Markel, and his words to the servants before his death: ‘My good ones, my dears, why are you serving me, why do you love me, and am I worthy of being served?’  Yes, am I worthy? suddenly leaped into my mind.  Indeed, how did I deserve that another man, just like me, the image and likeness of God, should serve me?  This question then pierced my mind for the first time in my life.  [I remembered my brother again]: ‘Mother, heart of my heart, truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.’  Lord, I wept and thought, can that possibly not be true?  Indeed, I am perhaps the most guilty of all….  And suddenly the whole truth appeared to me in its full enlightenment: what was I setting out to do?  I was setting out to kill a kind, intelligent, noble man…. I lay there flat on my bed, my face pressed into the pillow….  Suddenly my comrade, the lieutenant, came in with the pistols to fetch me….    ‘Wait a bit,’ I said to him… I ran back into the house alone, straight to Afanasy’s room: ‘Afanasy,’ I said, ‘yesterday I struck you twice in the face.  Forgive me.’  He started as he were afraid, and I saw that it was not enough, not enough, and suddenly, just as I was, epaulettes and all, I threw myself at his feet with my forehead to the ground: ‘Forgive me,’ I said.  At that he was completely astounded: ‘My dear master, but how can you….I’m not   worthy…’  And he suddenly began weeping himself, just as I had done shortly before, covered his face with both hands….  [He goes to the place of the duel]    They set us twelve paces apart, the first shot was his–I stood cheerfully  before him, face to face…looking at him lovingly….  He fired.  The shot just grazed by cheek and nicked my ear….and I seized my pistol, turned around, and sent it hurtling up into the trees….  I said to my adversary: ‘My dear sir, forgive a foolish young man, for it is my own fault that I offended you and have now made you shoot at me….  Gentlemen, I cried suddenly from the bottom of my heart, look at the divine gifts around us: the clear sky, the fresh air, the tender grass, the birds, nature is beautiful and sinless, and we, we alone, are godless and foolish, and do not understand that life is paradise…and we [then] shall embrace each other and weep….'”

This moment of conversion and enlightenment then infuses all of Zosima’s life as a monk and a spiritual father and it is a constant in his teaching.  We shall return to his teaching extensively in later blogs, but suffice it to say now that for Fr. Zosima and the Russian hesychasts, “paradise” was returned to by a radical redefinition of our human identity through our acceptance of “our neighbor” in love, forgiveness, humility and mercy.  First of all, this will inevitably place us “within the dynamic of the Cross.”  Then furthermore this uncovers the real nature of our relationality to all of reality.  And then we are “walking with God.”