A. A Kind of Personal Inventory. It’s good to do this every once in a while– to list the authors who have helped, who have influenced, who have shaped you the most in your spiritual journey, and who have had the greatest impact on your vision of the spiritual path. I see that I really need three lists!
The first list is as described, and I will limit myself to the “top ten”:
- Merton — certainly at the top of my list and probably so for a lot of other people.
- The Desert Fathers, and the men & women of the desert tradition however named or unnamed — for me the sine qua non of Christian monastic life
- The author of the Gospel of John
- Dostoievesky and his creation Fr. Zosima
- Han Shan
- Ibn ‘Arabi
- The authors of the Philokalia
So that is my “top ten” list! I think this covers a lot of bases, and it is interesting to see the differences here. I mean there are the “loquacious ones” who speak volumes about mysticism, like Eckhart and Ibn Arabi; and then there are the silent, terse ones, who are very down to earth, like the Desert Fathers and Han Shan. But I feel I don’t do justice to a whole bunch of other people who have been very helpful to me, and if I don’t put them on some list also it just won’t feel right!! So I have a “2nd team” as it were, a back-up group who pinch-hit whenever needed, and here are they:
11.Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu
12. Plato and his whole tradition
13. Karl Rahner
16. Andre Louf
17. Thoreau and Edward Abbey
18. The rest of the New Testament
19. Kallistos Ware
By the way, I do not impute any significance to the numbering—there is no ranking implied except in the case of Merton, who would be #1 on my list. Now, a third list is more like a “to do” list—of people, of books, of lines of thought that I need to “hang out” with more than I have in the past. They are calling to me for a little more attention! And here is that list:
I. The Upanishads and Shankara
III. St. Isaac the Syrian
IV. John of the Cross
V. Titus Burckhardt and Martin Lings on Sufism
VI. Chinese and Japanese hermits and poets
VII. Tauler and Ruysbroeck
VIII. Russian theology and spirituality
IX. Hadewijch and Hildegard
X. A. Coomarswamy
XI. St. Maximus and St. Gregory Palamas
So be it. Surely there have been all kinds of other authors that have inspired or informed me, but these are the ones I connect with the most. So much for the inventory. Needless to say this list will change in a year or so!
B. The recent news from Afghanistan has been exceedingly sad. That soldier that went bezerk and shot up all those people, killing 9 children and 3 women among his victims, what an enormous tragedy. The root cause of this kind of thing is not one man’s mental state but a whole state of war. War will create these kinds of things. There is no such thing as a “nice war,” where atrocities do not happen. The US is very adept at pretending that it can unleash the violence of war and still somehow “control” it or contain it. It’s all part of the high-tech gadgetry we now use to kill people. President Obama is relying more on these Predator Drones to kill “our enemies” from the air, from way up there, so our hands our seemingly clean even as we say, “Ooops, sorry, we got the wrong house!” Or we kill American citizens without due process of law, like a trial where they could defend themselves. But of course this is small stuff compared to the fire bombing of a German city in WWII when we incinerated thousands of civilians, men, women and children. Or the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima. The message is “if you attack us, somebody pays for it 10x, 100x, 1000x.” Today we try to sanitize the violence of war through our mass media, but then something like this happens and it is impossible to disguise. Needless to say even the burning of the Quran a few weeks ago was a hideous act, a sacrilege indeed. Already an indication how unraveling it all is over there.
So what are we doing over there? What is the point of this war—any war really? Both Democrats and Republicans are implicated in this war. Afghanistan is extremely rich in its hidden resources, but it is one of the poorest countries in the world today. Consider this: right now we are spending close to 10 billion dollars a month on this war alone. And only a couple of months of the war costs more than the whole GDP of Afghanistan for a year. Also, the cost of this war is hurting our own country real bad. Of that 10 billion, 40%, or 4 billion each month is borrowed money, adding to our debt. Just think what that kind of money could do for education or health care costs…..
President Obama says that he will be bringing the troops home…soon. Not soon enough. And the Predator Drones will keep flying….and trust me we will have a large military base in Afghanistan like we do in Iraq now and in dozens of other countries. The American Empire continues to grow no matter who is president….because ultimately we are run by the multinational corporations and do their bidding.
In another direction, but in the same vein, please read this account of Sister Dianna Ortiz:
C. Mysticism. I have used that word a lot in recent postings, so I felt I should post an advisory about its various meanings or uses. It is not an unambiguous term, nor is it free of some dubious associations. First of all, the word has been appropriated by the New Age Movement, and there it has taken on meanings almost at complete variance from its original meaning. This is especially true of Sufi materials that have been lifted from their traditional matrix by New Agers and turned into something quite different, a real distortion. Even in general usuage the word has taken on colorations never really there in the beginning. Titus Burckhardt, a Sufi and a scholar, has this to say: “Scientific works commonly define Sufism as ‘Muslim mysticism’ and we too would readily adopt the epithet ‘mystical’ to designate that which distinguishes Sufism from the simply religious aspect of Islam if that word still bore the meaning given it by the Greek Fathers of the early Christian Church and those who followed their spiritual line: they used it to designate what is related to knowledge of ‘the mysteries.'” And the greatest of “the mysteries” is the “union of God and the human person,” or to put it another way, “the Presence of God in the Heart.” And there are other ways of putting it.
In any case, what must not be confused with mysticism in this proper sense is the panoply of phenomena which might be delusional, psychic, paranormal or just a kind of physical trick. There are people in all traditions who are engrossed with these kind of phenomena. Just like the good old word, “metaphysics” has been degraded in pop culture to weird things, so has mysticism.
There is one more bit of confusion to clear up. Often, especially in Christian circles, mysticism is connected with a kind of ecstatic devotional love whereas a cool intellectual demeanor is looked upon as “not mystical.” Let us borrow a few terms from our Hindu friends to help us out. The Hindus have this sharp differentiation between religious paths that are “jnana,” the path of knowledge; “bhakti,” the path of love and devotion; and they have a third which we won’t touch here, “karma,” the way of action and service(Gandhi would be a key example of this one). Now both Sufis and Christian contemplatives have similar differentiations except they are not so clearly or distinctly marked out–the lines can get quite blurred. So St. Francis would be a bhakti; while Eckhart and John of the Cross, a jnani. And among the Sufis Rumi, Rabia, and al-Hallaj would be in the bhakti camp while Ibn Arabi in the jnani camp. However all this is a bit facile, and actually the Sufis truly have a good understanding how both knowledge and love relate and interweave in any healthy mysticism. In fact they have a very deep theology about all that. It is never simply one or the other, and both are present to varying degrees and varying temperments. The important thing to note is that mysticism is never of “one color.”
D. This poem was brought to my attention by a friend. It comes from an 18th Century Japanese Zen monk/layman, Gekka Gensho. He lived in a monastery for about 40 years, then left and lived in Kyoto as a layman:
Making the busy streets my home
right down in the heart of things
only one friend shares my poverty
a scrawny wooden staff;
having learned the ways of silence
amidst the noise of urban life
taking things as they come to me
now everywhere I am is true.
Truly profound. Beautiful. Right at the heart of what it means to be a monk, but not clothed with the credentials of monasticism. Now we can push this a bit further and ask: why “everywhere I am is true”? Why indeed? Each tradition, including the Zen one from which this poem emanates, has its own way of dealing with such a question, but I think my Sufi friends have the deepest insight(insight=”seeing into…). Simply put they live and breathe every breath with the knowledge that the ground of every place and every moment is Mercy and Compassion. This is not a matter of sentimentality; nor is it really an easy thing to say–in fact it can be in certain circumstances an outrageous thing to say. But for those who “know”…. But much more about that in our next Foundations Series!