Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Sign of the Cross

What an amazing “little thing” it is — the sign of the cross.  First of all the cross itself is the symbol within all Christianity.  You can see it in the context of almost any church building, and it hangs within many a Christian dwelling.  But now we are going to focus on a physical gesture one makes with one’s body:  the sign of the cross.  It is so common within both Catholic and Orthodox traditions that one hardly reflects on it.  It is such a simple gesture.  And for many believers it has become almost automatic.  One learns it in childhood.  One will make it as one begins to pray; when one enters a church; during a liturgy or prayer service; even a small thing like saying grace before a meal, etc.  Its simplicity and its centrality within the Christian tradition go together, but what can it possibly mean?

There is a kind of standard theological explanation one can refer to–the cross is the instrument upon which Jesus died his salvific death and through this death we are “saved.”  And making the sign of the cross, then, is a kind of physical reminder, or if you will, a kind of physical mantra, repeating the symbolic form of that awesome event.  All this is true, but the problem is that words like “salvation,” “redemption,” “death on the Cross,” etc. are used without engaging the deep mystery at their roots. We feel secure if we just mouth the given doctrine in language.  So we use over and over again these words until they become platitudes and religious cliches from overuse–as if we really understood the depths of the words we were using merely by repeating them.   They become as automatic as that physical gesture.  In order to even begin to penetrate that fog and to even approach a little bit the deep meaning of the sign of the cross in our life and its true theological significance, we need to start at a more existential point:  the reality of suffering.  Here we also meet all our fellow brothers and sisters in all the world religions.  We all have to wrestle with the reality of suffering.  Certain conservative Christians have pointed to a supposed serious difference between the central symbol of Christianity, the cross, and the central symbol of Buddhism, the Buddha sitting in a lotus position with a serene face and a faint smile.  But this kind of understanding is worse than “mixing apples and oranges”–it is a travesty of understanding.  For one thing, the central axiom and foundation of Buddhism is simply that to exist is to suffer.  Then one would want to ask, why is the Buddha so serene–but that would take us on another journey.

Suffering is universal.  We are immersed in an ocean of suffering.  And here we want to include all kinds of suffering.  Just now as I type these words someone is starving to death somewhere; someone in Pakistan has lost all they have in the enormous floods;  someone is laying somewhere dying alone; someone is in awful physical pain from some incurable disease; someone has been betrayed by a loved one or a friend; someone has lost their job and is on the verge of becoming homeless; someone is devoured by a need for drugs or sex; someone is devoured by anger, hatred or fear; and yes even the “evil person” who is perhaps doing us or someone else harm, even that person is totally immersed in suffering–just think of all the “devils” devouring his heart with greed, hatred, lust, etc.  And even with the person who seems to be well-off there is the ever-present feeling in the heart of dissatisfaction, of a constant yearning for something else, of fault-finding around us and so on.  And here we meet the real Buddhist notion of suffering as that fundamental craving in our heart that leads to no end of desire.  It is all suffering. We cannot find a place and stand there and say, “Ah, here there is no suffering.”

So to make the sign of the cross is, then first of all, a kind of acknowledgment that we are immersed in this sea of suffering, that we are connected to everyone’s suffering, that we ourselves know suffering simply because we exist. To make the sign of the cross with awareness, then, would be a great spiritual practice–like prostrations, like what our Orthodox friends do with their countless makings of the sign of the cross during their prayer services.

And why are we connected with everyone’s suffering?  Here we will push into specifically Christian thought and into the Christian symbolism of the cross: it is because of Jesus.  The particularity of that historical moment, his suffering and death on the cross, according to Christian belief, is a profound manifestation of the reality of God, among other things. And making the sign of the cross is a kind of physical reminder of the particular moment.  This is the message of the Gospel of John, the gospel of the manifestation of God.  We have spoken many times of the Mystery of God, and the Gospel of John says that whatever else you might intuit about God, when you look at Jesus you are looking right at the heart and mystery of God–“He who sees me, sees the Father.”  And the Gospel brings it all to a focus when Jesus is on the cross.  This is the ultimate manifestation of who God is.  So when we make the sign of the cross we also are “replaying” as it were that manifestation of the ultimate mystery of God.  God is revealed as that Total and Absolute Self-Emptying Love.  From this we then see that God is within our suffering, not as some outsider looking on with pity, but as one suffering with us and in us.  To borrow an image from the Old Testament, our suffering neighbor is the Burning Bush and so are we in our own suffering.  And when we make the sign of the cross we also acknowledge that reality and bring it to our awareness.   Indeed, to borrow something from Augustine, we could say that God is closer to us than our own suffering is.  In any case, this God is present to us in our very suffering, no matter how great or how small.  And through that Presence we are connected to all those who suffer, meaning to all of humanity.  And by making that sign of the cross we actualize that awareness also.

Let us now recall something from our reflections on Good Friday in a previous posting.  To borrow from Louis Dupres, let us again recall that famous slave hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  And of course when the slaves sang this, they could answer in their hearts that yes, they were “there”–that “there” is here because He is here with them in their suffering, He is crucified  in them.  To make the sign of the cross, then, with awareness is to enter into that “there” and “here,” to be with Jesus in His suffering with me and with my neighbor whether he be a family member or someone 10000 miles away in Pakistan.

Now let us dispel some possible mistaken lines of thought.  Let nothing said here imply that we have some explanation for the reality of suffering–there is no such thing.  There are ideologies and rationalizations for suffering, religious, social, political, and these are used for manipulating or anesthetizing people so they can be “used” in some way. There are mythic “explanations” but they are of a different order. One can raise the question why does God allow suffering.  Let us be clear: we have no answer.  We only have our faith in an infinitely loving God who is with us in our suffering.  One could say that as long as you have a finite world, contingent and dependent being(as the Buddhists would say), suffering is an inevitable fact.  But that hardly seems to satisfy anyone.

Furthermore, let nothing said here imply that the proper attitude toward suffering is merely passive acceptance.  Actually it is quite the opposite.  If you have a toothache, you should do something about it.  If we see someone suffering in a way that we can alleviate it somehow, like feeding the hungry or confronting the injustice they experience or whatever, then we should definitely give our whole being to this–but, you see, this will entail suffering on our part and we need to accept that–even to the point of giving our life.  “No greater love has a person than to give his life for his friend.”(Jesus)  The exercise of compassion will entail some kind suffering on our part–especially if we see the futility of it.

The presence and significance of suffering in human existence is an absolutely critical awareness for spirituality of almost any tradition–though it takes on some different tonalities in different traditions.  For some people this is a very negative view and rejected.  For example, many Westerners even into our time regarded Buddhism as “life-denying,” as negative,  because its foundational axiom is that to exist is to suffer.  One wonders how unaware those people were/are of their own existence, of what is around them, etc.  But just look at the Dalai Lama, hardly a negative, morose person.  He radiates joy and happiness.  The point is that the two are not contradictory states of being/awareness.  In a sense the duality of suffering and bliss needs to be overcome.   In any case, that is why the Dalai Lama makes compassion the central point of all spiritual teaching–because we are all “in it.”  Then there was the critical comment by the famous Russian theologian Alexander Schmemann concerning many liberal Christian thinkers in the 20th Century.  He said that their thinking seems to imply that somehow the event of Good Friday can be “undone” if we are simply good enough, if we act nicely enough, if we are engaged in the pursuit of social justice, and so on.   As if we could establish “paradise”  and eliminate the “smell of death” and the fact of human suffering through the push of human progress and “undo” the darkness of Good Friday.  But it is precisely on Good Friday while hanging from the cross that Jesus proclaimed to the thief, and to us, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”  This is not a paradise of our doing.  We proclaim, “Truly He is Risen,” AND we make the sign of the cross, and if we do it with even a semblance of the awareness of the Dalai Lama, we will be with him in the joy that surpasses understanding and at the same time in that knowledge of the reality of suffering.

The Dalia Lama has said that the goal of Buddhism (“enlightenment”) and the goal of all religion is to feel the suffering of the other as our very own.  This is a very down-to-earth criterion of spiritual realization, and the result is that the act of compassion is not some external “good deed”(through which we “keep score” on our “goodness”) but our very state of being and consciousness with which we bind our wounds.  The “other’s” suffering is no longer “his problem” that we might help with–it is our problem which we cannot leave unattended–if no more than to offer companionship in the sorrow.  In the Gospel Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan, the religious outcast, who binds up the wounds of the man beaten up by some robbers.  The religious figures and religious leaders who pass by the man in need are so full of their “religion” that they have not a clue as to what the goal of true religion is–as the Dalai Lama put it.  When the Risen Christ confronts Thomas in his doubts and asks him to put forth his hand and touch the wounds that Jesus had suffered, He also is asking us not to be afraid  “in the light of the Resurrection” to touch our own wounds and our own suffering because they are also His.    All this symbolized and remembered in the sign of the cross.

“Religion” in the News

Religion is in the news again.
Well, considering the nature of “the news” this is not a good sign. It shows the growing dysfunctionality of our society, and this is something to worry about.

First of all, there is all this hysteria being drummed up by certain conservatives and Republicans and other folks about the so-called mosque at Ground Zero. Sadly enough even some decent Democrats have succumbed to that bombardment and have proposed that it would be “wiser” to move it elsewhere. What is really frustrating is that the facts of the case are seldom articulated. First, the “mosque” is not a mosque but a community center built by American Moslems that would be open to all people–called Park 51. It does have a room for Moslem people to pray in–afterall they are called to prayer 5 times a day–something like Christian monks. Secondly, this building is not on Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center but 2 to 3 blocks away. Within a 3 block radius of Ground Zero there are a porn shop, a gay bar, and 2 strip clubs–seems like no one thought these were any kind of desecration to Ground Zero. By the way, the majority of the residents of the area approved of the project. Furthermore, there is a Moslem Prayer Room right within the Pentagon, and it got hit by one of those planes.

Let us take a closer look at the problem. How very strange to conflate pious Moslems with these crazy radical extremists who distorted the Koran and their own faith in undertaking their horrible deeds. One suspects there must be some underlying motive in fanning hatred for Islam among the American people. Considering how many people there are of this faith and how many countries there are where this faith is dominant, one suspects that a potential exists for many wars and conflicts if this hatred is fanned and exacerbated–much, much money can be made by certain people and certain enterprises with countless conflicts and wars or threats of wars. One can’t help but suspect that….. In any case, the results of all this hateful fear mongering are scary in themselves. Just a few days ago some pastor in Gainesville, Florida decided to have a “burn a Koran Day.” Fortunately 16 other pastors in that same town in response will read from the Koran in their prayer services. This is just an example. There are so many poorly educated, ill-informed, irrational, fearful, anxiety-ridden people in our society that it doesn’t take much to cause trouble. And it doesn’t help if our leaders, including the President, simply say that these people “have a right” to build their center–no these leaders should be brothers and sisters whose piety and goodness adds to the greatness of America. But American politicians are afraid of really associating with people of Islamic faith–unless it is for their oil. By the way, it is funny and strange how one “criticism” of President Obama is that he is secretly a Moslem! As if being a Moslem were some bad thing.

A few more thoughts: So there is a Moslem prayer room in the Pentagon itself. American Moslems work in the Pentagon. American Moslems worked in the World Trade Center and were killed also. American Moslems were among the first responders–firemen and policemen. Some died as they bravely were trying to rescue non-Moslems. Moslem dead hallow that ground also. It is such an outrage to demonize Islam or any one religion. All the religions have their problem people and their problem moments, and one needs to sort through all of that. Just think of Christianity, for example. During World War I both sides were very clearly self-identified as “Christian.” Heck, on Christmas Eve both sides would stop shooting at each other and sing “Silent Night, Holy Night”! How strange! Yet nobody here in the U.S. complained about the Christian churches because there were Christians shooting at Americans over there. Actually what they did do is focus on people of German extraction, and these did have a problem. Consider that those irrational young men who identified themselves with a distorted Islam and who did that horrible deed were mostly from Saudi Arabia and our government to this day is on the best of terms with the Saudis(oh, how we need their oil!), well, we see how religion has really very little to do with all this except in a very distorted way. But Americans seem to really need an enemy, someone to demonize, someone to hate, someone to consider themselves superior to–the list of such targets is long. Recently, once Russian communism was out of the picture, Islam became a convenient target. And so the story goes. How few Americans there are who recognize the beauty and depth and power of Islam in human hearts totally turned toward God.

A Postscript to the Above:

This is from a blog by Roger Ebert:

“I find hope in the words of two American strippers interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. Cassandra, who works at New York Dolls, just around the corner from the proposed community center, said she worried that calls to prayer might wake up the neighbors. The WSJ writes: ‘But when she was told that the organizers aren’t planning loudspeakers, she said she didn’t have a problem with the project: ‘I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s freedom of religion, you know?’

“Chris works in the Pussycat Lounge, even closer to the site. When the airplanes struck the World Trade Center, Chris became a Red Cross volunteer working with survivors. The WSJ writes she “sat on a barstool in a tiny, shiny red dress and defended Park51. ‘They’re not building a mosque in the World Trade Center. It’s all good. You have your synagogues and your churches. And you have a mosque.’ Chris lost eight of her friends on Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters from the Brooklyn firehouse she lived next to at the time, but ‘the people who did it are not going to the mosque.’

“Cassandra and Chris reflect American values more instinctively and correctly on this issue, let it be said, than Sarah Palin, Howard Dean, Newt Gingrich, Harry Reid and Rudy Giuliani, who should know better.” – Roger Ebert

Now another very unfortunate example is a recent article from the New York Times–dated August 21, “Sex Scandal Has American Buddhists Looking Within.” In a posting some time ago this blog pondered the scandals surrounding the San Francisco Zen Center–a very sad state of affairs stretching almost 2 decades. This is another example along the same lines. It has to do with the revelation of the papers of Robert Aitken, a very well-known figure in American Zen Buddhism. Apparently the roshi he was associated with engaged in numerous sexual exploitations of his women students, and Aitken kept meticulous notes on this which were kept secretly by him–all the details, names, places and dates–and now the papers have been made public upon Aitken’s recent death. Another serious blow to American Buddhism. No Catholic is in any position to “throw stones” at these people considering the history of Catholic priests, recent and otherwise! However, there is a peculiar quality to these Buddhist situations that needs to be looked at.

One wonders why Aitken never stood up and protested while he was a student of this roshi–perhaps it was because he himself wanted to be a recognized master and this required a “transmission” from this roshi. Just speculating. It could be simply that there was this awesome reverence for the roshi and one hardly dare speak against him. The teacher – disciple relationship was/is sacrosanct. It seems that this might be the center of this problem. Whether in Christianity or Buddhism or anywhere else, it seems that this role of roshi, guru, master, teacher, spiritual father is very problematic–especially for us moderns. It imbues one party with enormous power over the life of another who willingly enters into that relationship surrendering their autonomy for a so-called higher good. An idealized view of some special figures in the tradition, who may or may not have been as portrayed, who nevertheless were rare, this becomes a kind of cloak that too many put on. The enticements and seductions of this kind of authority are enormous–a very, very rare few can exercise such authority with anything approaching authenticity. Yet there are literally thousands of people who present themselves as spiritual teachers, gurus, masters, spiritual fathers, etc. When I was a student years ago in Berkeley, I remember seeing often a bumper sticker: Question All Authority. Loved it. The emphasis should be on “ALL.” Not just political and social, but religious too, and especially spiritual, yes, spiritual. Too many people accept “spiritual authority” as if that were beyond questioning. No such thing. In fact, considering all the problems all religious traditions have been having, it would be a good idea to have a moratorium on having roshis, masters, gurus, teachers, spiritual fathers, etc. Drop all the titles, distinctions, specialness, etc. at least for a generation or two and see how that goes. We will be better off simply learning from one another. And to have a coherent community we might elect someone as “leader” for a time who would keep things focused and coherently working but then would step down and another person would be elected and so on. And what if the pope lived in a simple house and simply visited every church as a simple pilgrim and prayed with everyone that they truly follow the Gospel…. But now I am dreaming….

There are many Desert Father stories pertinent to the above topic, but let us conclude by simply referring to Jesus in the Gospel. On Holy Thurday, in the Gospel of John, he showed what a real “spiritual teacher” is. And he warned the people around him about wanting to be “masters” and “leaders”–they should take “the last place”–not one of distinction—not exercising power in the way of the world, etc. Jesus is actually a deconstruction of that kind of spiritual authority that exploits and uses people–no matter in what tradition it is found

What’s the Point of it All?

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!