Monthly Archives: October 2013

Random Thoughts

When you go out into the true wilderness, and not just some “park,” what strikes you first of all is how quiet it all is…the silence of the wilderness is a powerful antitode to all our own noise…internal and external. The wild places are teeming with life, yet it is so quiet…. However, our age being what it is, there is another presence in the wilderness. At least this is true for the Sierras and the wild western deserts: the hum and roar of jet engines far above. The “angels of death” are practicing far above us. They seem to be always there. We don’t hear them in our urban landscapes because they are not allowed over cities, but over the wilds they can do their thing. And it is amazing how they intrude into this holy silence with their machinery of war and death. All kinds of interesting thoughts there….

A few gems from Abhishiktananda:

“There is no part of our life in which we can escape the mystery of God which fills our whole being….”

“There is in the Gospel much more than Christian piety has so far discovered.”

“The supreme ideal of Hinduism: the absolute surrender of the peripheral ego to the Inner Mystery.” (No better definition of the spiritual life as a whole!)

“Christ is my Sadguru—my true Guru—and he makes himself the singer of the Presence of this Inner Mystery which Jesus called the Father, and of the relationship to the very heart of the Mystery which Jesus called the Spirit.”

“Piety is perhaps the most subtle and also the surest way for the ego to escape pursuit and re-establish its status and dignity.”

Just a sample from the thoughts of a person I consider the most important spiritual figure of our time. I don’t think he will ever be canonized, but that is something that I also think he himself would recoil from. When they canonize John Paul II who did so much to create the atmosphere that encouraged the hiding of the child abuse cases, I am not sure that I would want to be in the same “club.” No, the really important people in the Church, like Abhishiktananda and Dorothy Day among many others, they will not get canonized.

Speaking of which, the new Pope has made quite a splash. Certainly the things he has said since his election have generally been quite refreshing to hear considering the recent history of the papacy. But I am not fully convinced this will amount to much. I hope I am wrong! There is that old pop saying: He talks the talk, but does he walk the walk? You really have to watch what he really does, and this will make all the difference. There is of course the possibility that he is truly sincere but that the ossified structures and mentality of the institution will not budge in any significant way no matter what he says. I certainly hope that he is more than just the “kinder, gentler pope”—I hope that he does something more, for example, than just call for a “greater role for women in the Church.” Instead he could make a real dent in the ossification of the Church if he, for example, opened up the diaconate for women. This would not involve any doctrinal revamping (which they fear more than anything else!), just a shift in church practice. So we shall see……

Speaking of dysfunctionality, what about our government, our politics, our economy, our whole country!!!! We are so beyond any reasonable comment….but I have found several voices that sum up our situation quite well….and it is not a pretty picture. If you really think that by just a “correct vote” you can change the situation, you are badly mistaken. We are well beyond that! Here is one such voice:

Some words from John Muir:

“The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.”

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

“No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening—still all is Beauty.”

“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”

Syria has been in the news for the last few months. Real bad news. Whenever I hear about Syria in the media, my mind wanders to another, more ancient Shria. Perhaps it is the Syria of the Sufis in and around Damascus, that most ancient of cities. More likely it is the Syria of the first Christian monks. Very little is known about this fascinating moment in Christian history. Very few in the West seem to care. Most people who do study Christian history/Church history tend to fix the beginnings of Christian monasticism in Egypt with the Life of Antony as a kind of benchmark for dating the “beginning.” However, in Syria Christian monastic life had already been going on for over a century when Antony entered his cave. As a matter of fact, Christianity in Syria was almost totally monastic. This is worth a look, so let us step back a bit.

What modern Western Christians don’t realize (or don’t want to admit) is that early Christianity was a very diverse phenomenon. There were many different “Christianities” to put it awkwardly. Of course one emerged as the dominant form: the Church of Rome, and it proclaimed itself as “divinely established” from the getgo. You know how it is after a war—the victors end up writing the history of the war, not the losers; and of course the victory is then seen as the outcome of “truth” and “justice,” and in some way as inevitable. Similarly here. The “Roman view” of all this history has prevailed but historical scholarship has made a few “adjustments” in that narrative. For example, the Church’s view of the so-called Albigensian heresy has been one of total negativity, as if these people were the epitome of evil and a threat to civilization. This kind of justified their extermination—we call it genocide today! But it was fighting heresy then. In any case, modern historical scholarship shows them to be simply “too ascetical’—celibacy, for example was the norm, not marriage. This movement developed as a reaction in fact to the decadence of the Church around the 9th century. Their real sin, as it were, however, was the fact that they ignored the authority of Rome. This has always been the “unforgiveable sin,” and so all kinds of stories were made up about them and they were eventually wiped out in a blood bath in Southern France.

Getting back to our Syrians, they too were extreme ascetics from our modern viewpoint. Becoming a Christian meant becoming a celibate ascetic, a hermit perhaps, a wandering monk perhaps, or even some more exotic form of life, like a pillar monk, etc. Regular or normal family life, conducting business or a trade was over. And this was due NOT to some “rejection” of the body but to an intense awareness of the Presence of the Divine in what is termed the Holy Spirit. This was a Christianity very much oriented toward the Holy Spirit. And also very importantly this dynamic was also intensely eschatological. In other words the “end time,” the “last days” had arrived and there was no point in that other way of life. They were living the ultimate eschatological life. In many ways you can see that this kind of Christianity was not going to “sweep the Empire,” but it is an amazing paradigm of a different view of Christian life, and to condemn it is simply to be narrow-minded. By the way you can see also that they were not going to compromise with “the State,” with “society,” even if the rest of the Church was going that route with Constantine when Christianity became the state religion—you can see this same tension in the Egyptian desert also.
In Syria this way of life goes back almost to the 1st century, to that time of the formation of the New Testament. Their key document seems to be the Gospel of Luke, which has been shown to radicalize the sayings of Jesus in several key places, compared to Matthew for example. Many scholars believe that the Gospel of Luke comes from the Syrian environment. So this form of Christianity is there from the very beginning, not a later development. An interesting angle: Syria was at the crossroads of travel and trade with Asia. Some scholars believe that maybe these people derived some inspiration from seeing Buddhist monks or the sannyasi of India. That is possible, but alas there is no proof of that. Truly these people resemble more the sannyasi than anything else out there! Imagine a Church where sannyasa would be the norm, not an exception!

One of the most significant early documents of Syriac Christianity is the Acts of Thomas, from very early 2nd century, from the time of the formation of the New Testament. This document does not make it into the accepted canon simply because it may be too radical and uncompromising with the rest of society and the state. It recurrently uses the terms “stranger” and “foreigner” as positive terms for being a Christian. It equates being a Christian with a certain kind of “homelessness.” This has both a social and psychological aspect. The social means that you no longer identify yourself with your tribe, your nation, your state—you are no longer an American, an Indian, a German, etc. This all becomes meaningless, and the State no longer holds authority over you—only insofar as you willingly comply with its laws as they seem to be “for the good.” You can see that this would not be tolerable for any State. But now your identity comes from elsewhere. You are “homeless” in a very profound sense. It is eschatological. The psychological aspect has to do with another kind of “uprooting.” There is a dynamic in us that is always seeking satisfaction of all kinds, from the most shallow to the deepest form. The kind of “uprooting” that the Syriacs are talking about has to do with transcending that—recognizing that this is a “bottomless” task! No end to it. There is “no real satisfaction” on this side of the eschaton. Thus you are as a “stranger” and “foreigner” in this world, totally “homeless” and therefore never “satisfied” with anything in this world and so the seeking of that is illusory. This is similar to what the Buddhists mean by “desire” and samsara.

Gabriele Winkler has written profoundly about this Syriac scene, and I think that soon I will need to re-examine that world!