Monthly Archives: April 2015

Native Americans

It is not easy for non-Native Americans to write intelligently and truthfully about Native American issues. So I am glad to have found this piece of writing that explores a very painful area of the experience of Native Americans living within the US. This is a very sad story but it must be told in “white America,” and here is the link:

 I would like to comment in several ways.

1.    I have written a number of times about the horrible history of our treatment of Native Americans, so I won’t go into that here. You have to have a certain knowledge of that in order to fully appreciate what this author is saying. However, I would like to add this: “European/white America” has some very good reasons for closing its eyes to the misery of the Native Americans. When I was a little kid in the 1950s I watched a lot of Westerns–they were very popular then. Even as a kid, however, I was less taken by the actions and persons in the stories than by the majestic backdrop of the stories, the deserts and mountains, the wilderness. It all seemed so marvelous! As I grew up and developed a critical mindset, I watched more Westerns because I was still fascinated by them, but this time I recognized the mythological nature of the stories and presentations. The “mythology of America” is almost totally captured in these depictions, whether it be in cheap, almost laughable dramas, or in artistic masterpieces like some of the John Ford movies, or Lonesome Dove, or Peckinpaugh’s Wild Bunch, or Eastwood’s I would venture so far as to say that you really don’t have a grasp of the mythology that imbues the American self-identity until you begin to understand the role these Westerns played in all that.

Now the depiction of Native Americans in all these Westerns, almost without exception, is ludicrous, offensive, demeaning and just plain false in all kinds of details. So often the Native American was portrayed as an enemy to be conquered, or as an “obstacle” to progress, or as some simpleton who needed White Man to take care of him. These kinds of images deeply infected the mindset of all of us non-Native Americans. The result was the Reservation and “life on the Rez” with all its problems.

 2.  The trouble for Native Americans has been compounded by the fact that some tribes and some parts of some tribal leadership has sold out to white culture and white ways of doing things. Thus you have this strange phenomenon of “Indian Casinos”–which are not even run by Native Americans in most cases–simply that the tribe gets some of the money made because the casino is on Indian land. You also have this phenomenon where certain mining companies have been able to extract various minerals from Native American lands with very little regard for true environmental responsibility. They should not even have been allowed on that sacred land, but, alas, pay-offs are made, and so it goes… This kind of sell-out is like a cancerous tumor within the modern Native American culture, and it has had a destructive effect on its spirit, even as yes some have been made economically well-off to a certain degree.


3.  There is an eerie similarity between what happened to the Palestinians and the Native Americans. In both cases you have disposession and subjugation–and at times outright murder, better called “genocide.” I think the author of this piece is quite correct in emphasizing it as “spiritual genocide”–yes, a lot of Native Americans have been brutally killed by “whitey” but the ones that are around now have been mostly the target of what is truly a “spiritual genocide”–a total evisceration of their religious consciousness and self-understanding via their culture and language.


4.  One of the sad things about the Native American situation is that they don’t have spiritual leadership now on the level of say a Gandhi or even a Martin Luther King. They need to unify against the oppressive culture and find resources within themselves and within their culture to overcome that “spiritual subjugation.” It is not simply an economic problem with an economic solution–like jobs on the Rez–no, in fact that leads to some of these other distortions like casinos and mining. What happens with some of these young Native Americans is that they take in a white culture set of values in part without realizing it in some cases(like a poison pill) and then are driven to depression as they cannot fully realize these values. In that regard they have to re-vision their life completely differently and not be afraid to move in a completely different direction. Gandhi tried to break the hold the British power structure had first of all on the minds and souls of the Indians; then came the political freedom. Without profound spiritual leadership (and that means seeing things beyond one’s own tribal concerns), young Native Americans will either sink into a cancerous depression or else completely sell out to white culture and become just like them. In either case, the genocide that started in 1492 will be complete.


5. What is especially sad for me in reading this piece is to see the really horrible kind of Christianity that has been inflicted on these people. Just like centuries ago, this Christianity is a “tool of the oppressor.” It comes from the outside as an intruder into the Native American psyche and cultural values and has no inkling of the language needed to speak to and to LEARN from these people. And, PLEASE, this means a lot more than a priest putting on feathers to celebrate Mass or smoking a peace pipe. The situation is very analogous to the situation Abhishiktananda encountered in India where so many priests and religious, even Indian ones, wanted to be “more Roman and European” than Indian. What this story hints at is the enormous problem that Christianity has when it meets a new culture and a new–but thoroughly valid and profound–religious consciousness.


The Hidden and the Manifest Revisited

These two terms–“The Hidden” and “The Manifest”–are exceedingly important in spirituality, mysticism, and theology. However they are also very little understood, very little appreciated and almost exceedingly unknown. Most all of the spiritual life can be delineated between these two poles; most all of theistic mysticism requires that we take account of these two terms: “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” Their meaning and significance is not apparent from the everyday usage of these terms. They are lost in a vortex of paradoxes that can make one dizzy if you try to rationally “unravel” their meaning. Consider: in the human–divine encounter what is most hidden is most manifest, and what is most manifest is most hidden. But one might rightly ask, exactly what is it that is Hidden, and exactly what is it that is made Manifest? Suffice it to say for now that these two terms refer primarily and most of all to that Absolute Mystery which we call God, and secondarily they refer then to the Divine-human interaction and Divine-human life. Let us reflect a bit on this–and here of course we are concentrating on the theistic traditions (Christianity, Islam–especially the Sufis– and Jewish mysticism, which we have hardly ever touched upon in this blog). We will not reference either Buddhism or Hinduism to keep things from getting too complicated. There is one other tradition, however, that might help us a lot in appreciating “The Hidden” and “The Manifest,” and that is ancient Taoism but I will leave that for another time.


In Catholic circles, years ago, life in the cloister for monks and nuns was commonly called a “hidden life.” The individual person kind of did vanish inside these religious communities, at least as regard to normal social interactions in society. And there were some truly holy and remarkable people within this “hiddenness”–there was also a lot of pretending and play-acting a role that was, alas, only that, a role, a pious mask that one put over one’s ego self. But these institutions, the monasteries, were themselves hardly a hidden reality within traditional Catholic culture. They were held up for communal and ecclesial admiration and approbation—“the Special Forces of Catholicism!!” The monasteries did not hesitate to play this up and use it for fund raising purposes! Nevertheless, given all this, you could still see within this whole complex picture the iconic nature of that life as it gave a hint–and I use that word deliberately because that is all I can attribute to that life in its institutional nature–a hint of “The Absolute Hidden,” and the “The Absolute Manifest.” Truly, like I said, there were individuals who could go very, very deep within these institutions, who were truly “hidden in God,” and who had intimate knowledge of “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” But the institutions as a whole were only feeble icons of this great Mystery, and yet in a very ironic way they still managed to “hide” and to “make manifest” what it is they were suppose to be all about. But as we write all this we are still at the most external periphery of this Great Mystery.


Among the Russian Orthodox there is this incredible and beautiful tradition of the “fools for Christ.” How I love these people!! These are people who hide their intimacy with God (and one could say that they at the same time by this hiddenness “actualize” that intimacy) by putting on a “mask” of “foolishness,” “dumbness,” “irrationality,” yes, even madness. They are further clothed in profound poverty, homelessness and a solitude that is difficult to articulate. Certainly they are not beacons of religious formalism, of a well-ordered religious life, of social or religious respectability. (By the way, during the peak of Russian Orthodoxy in the 19th Century some have estimated that these “fools” numbered in the hundreds of thousands over the vast expanse of Russia. Compare that to current USA where there may be up to ten thousand contemplative religious, and that includes all the informal and experimental groups that have sprung up in recent decades.) The chief virtue of the “fool” and his/her most apparent posture is that of an unspeakably deep humility, a humility that itself is a form of hiddenness and manifestation. To all rebukes, to all curses, to all rejection, to all meanness, their one and only response would be a profound prostration and in the spirit of Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima they would ask forgiveness from their assailant and for their assailant, for as Fr. Zosima said, the essence of the divine life in us is to always in every circumstance forgive and seek forgiveness even from those who hurt us. What madness, the world will say! Here we are not in the world of logic or of rational connections! And these “fools” were found everywhere: yes, in the monasteries, but also in the streets of the large cities; on country roads, in villages, and even as wild hermits in the great forests. But the essence of their hiddenness was never one of location or social setting, a kind of institutionalized hiddenness; but rather it was a radical inversion, a turning upside down of the usual ego attempt to establish a “fortress” of social identity, even a religious identity, and by this inversion transforming that whole process into a kind of non-identity which we witness as a profoundly deep humility. True, within Russian culture the “fool” seemed to have an accepted place that other people at least thought they recognized; but also at the very same time, the “fool for Christ” was a person with no-place at all. And in our culture this notion of the “fool for Christ” is totally incomprehensible and inconceivable–so this reality goes “underground” and reappears in ways that will be equally bewildering but perhaps even more hidden in its religious significance.


Then there are the Sufis. These are the true masters of “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” Their tradition is replete with holy figures whose holiness and intimacy with God is profoundly hidden and most often hidden by everyday life, perhaps the deepest kind of hiddenness. On the outward surface of things they might be engaged in all kinds of usual human activities, like trade, crafts, etc.; they could even be married; but in the depths they are people of great silence, deep humility, of intimate knowledge of that Absolute Mystery within the Heart and focused on THAT with unspeakable intensity.  They also have their “fools,” and very often their holy figures have also in common with Western monks and holy people, a kinship with deep poverty. Two words associated with the Sufis have their root meaning in a total poverty (like Francis of Asissi): “fakir” in Arabic; and “dervish” in Persian. To illustrate that this poverty is not ordinary and not a matter simply of subtracting items from one’s belongings, consider that there were several Sufi holy men who were men of great wealth and power(rare cases, but still there), but they held these positions as if they owned nothing, with not a trace of these realities leaving even a fingerprint of possession on their hearts. They were totally transparent and impervious to the lures of such things but simply exercised a certain responsibility of stewardship. When you witness in monastic life how monks can get very possessive over a favorite item or book, well, then you begin to appreciate the nature of this hiddenness.


In Jewish mysticism, among the Hasidim, there are the legendary Zaddikim, the 36 hidden holy men in the world, whose holiness keeps the cosmos together. This is close to the Sufi ideal above in that these figures are hidden in ordinary life–one could be a butcher, another a merchant, etc. What’s extra special here is that in some cases the hiddenness is of such depth and profundity that the person himself is not aware that he is doing anything special. In fact, he may be bothered by some possible character flaw or shortcoming. In other words he is even hidden from his own eyes! He has not chosen the path of hiddenness, but is totally on it due to the Divine Reality itself.


Now we begin to get into some very deep waters! And that brings us then to this new level of hiddenness–this is where “The Hidden” is not so much a choice on our part but something that God bestows on us–you might say that it is God who does the hiding! It is certainly not the equivalent of a choice in lifestyle or way of life.   And this applies then not only to these secret Zaddikim, but also to the Sufis, the “fools,” Christian monks, and so many other holy people in ordinary life, among all of whom there are these profound icons of God’s Presence even as they might be thoroughly hidden in a “cloud” that only at rare moments one has the privilege of seeing into. I think each of us has on occasion run into some such figure, on a street corner, in a monastery, at home even, wherever….I think there are certainly more than 36 such figures but it is they who truly hold this universe together. Their holiness is not something that can ever be put on display because it is the Divine Reality which conceals them.


Time to get a bit theological. Earlier I had raised the question: what is this “Hiddenness” and what is this “Manifest” stuff? There is a primary meaning to these terms and a secondary meaning; and it was the secondary that I have been discussing. By looking at some very special examples of very special people, we begin to see that what is both Hidden and Manifest is their holiness if you will. There is a very profound paradox here. What is most truly and deeply hidden concerning the holiness of these people is also the most manifest; but access to that which is truly manifest about their holiness is only available to one who enters their profound hiddenness. The “two” are not two “stages” in life, or two “aspects” of life, or anything of that sort; no, they are both one and the same Reality in which the Heart abides, sometimes by choice, sometimes by realization that THAT is who they are, sometimes even without knowing anything at all….


When I use the word “holiness” here, I am afraid it sounds a bit abstract or some quality of personhood that one can somehow achieve or produce. Nothing of the sort. Let us backup a bit. Recall that the Bible tells us that only God is holy. When we attribute holiness to a person, it is not as if he/she gets somekind of character stamp or merit badge. No, holiness in the real sense is the very Presence of that Absolute Mystery which we call God. And when we call someone “holy” all we really mean, or should mean, is that this person conveys to us something of that Absolute Mystery. It is the very Reality of God that is present.


Now this Reality is both concealed and unconcealed within the same dynamism of Presence–and I say “dynamism” because that Reality is never a static presence. As Aquinas termed God: Pure Act. It is as if God enjoys, so to speak, in concealing Himself so that we go looking for Him, so to speak.   This is the basis of the erotic language of the Song of Songs in the Bible and the language of various western mystics. And furthermore God so enjoys manifesting Who He Is that we have all of creation for that. The Sufi mystical theologians speak of all creation as a true self-manifestation of the Absolute Self of God which is truly and also absolutely unknowable in itself. Like one of our hymns proclaims: All the earth proclaims the Lord. Indeed, but this “proclaims” is not like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon; no, it is like the Russian icon, a bearer of the reality which it speaks of.


So the Reality of God is both concealed and unconcealed in everything! Take a pebble, a beautiful little flower springing up wild, the twinkle in a dog’s eyes as you hold a tasty treat, the lovely smile of a child, the hearty laugh of a friend, a compassionate gesture, the act of sex, a whisper of wind, the loud boom of thunder, etc., etc…..all these hold within themselves The Hidden and The Manifest. But the Sufis push this even to greater depths(naturally!). What if a disease strikes you; or you are financially ruined; betrayed by someone you trusted; slandered by someone; what if your child dies due to an accident or disease, etc., etc. Is God concealed and unconcealed in all this? Many of the Sufi mystics would say, most certainly. But this is not something that one should take upon oneself to say to another in some casual, superficial spirit. It is a Reality that is beyond ordinary discourse and rational concepts and not for the “casual observer.” The Sufi mystics’ approach is something like this: they have a saying that goes along this line: It is one thing when the veil is lifted to behold the Divine Reality; it is quite another to behold the Divine Reality within the very veil. Indeed! One has to be blessed with a very special eye for that!!


And where this does come to a remarkable focus, at least for Christian theology and mysticism, is in the person of Jesus Christ. The Absolute Mystery is most hidden, you might say, in this person: after all he is a Jewish male living in a backwater country where nothing important is going on, far off from our modern world–serious limitations, one could say, to “manifesting” anything much less the Divine Reality. Even in the words of the Gospels he is only a carpenter’s son, from Nazareth, not much of anything significant comes from there; he does not even have the proper credentials within his own religious culture to be a significant religious personage. Go figure!   But Christian faith and theology also claims that this person of Jesus Christ is also the most complete manifestation of the Absolute Mystery (which by the way he called “Father,” which in itself leads to another dose of paradox upon paradox in this round of hiddenness and manifestation). The Gospels then are this textual interplay of concealing the Divine Mystery and unconcealing it, all in the person of Jesus Christ. And where this comes to a crescendo is, of course, on the cross–the crucifix, not just the empty cross, the most remarkable symbol, in my opinion, in all of human culture. In that moment of crucifixion, one of the most horrible events anyone could ever witness, we find the Divine Reality most hidden, most concealed. Who could ever see it there? Yet, and this is almost too much for words and language, and yet, paradox upon unspeakable paradox, it is there that the Divine Reality is most manifest. Blessed are you truly who have seen what you have seen……




Prayer of the Heart

There is one thing that I usually do not do and that is recommend any book on Prayer of the Heart. This is not really a “book topic,” though there are some very beautiful texts in the Eastern Orthodox tradition that approach this topic through a consideration of the mantric Jesus Prayer. Nothing wrong with drinking deeply from such sources, but what I would advise and warn against is taking a “methodical” approach to the Prayer of the Heart and ignoring the deeply personal nature and manifestation of it in different people’s lives in very unique circumstances. There is no method, no way, no formula, no path that “leads” to the Prayer of the Heart. Classic Christian sources and even Sufi sources (which also present the Prayer of the Heart) can be misleading because they couch their language precisely in terms of “steps,” “methods,” “stages,” etc. There is a reason for such language but we won’t get into that here. Those who have been exposed to the great Asian traditions also can become enamored with a kind of technical approach to the spiritual life–understandable in certain contexts but could be very misleading in regard to the Prayer of the Heart. In its utter essence the Prayer of the Heart has to do with the unfolding of one’s deepest identity in God and that will always be beyond any formulation or any program, even of a spiritual master or saint. You are you, and there is absolutely no one like you, and finding God in that “youness”(or I should more accurately say “I-ness”) is the essence of Prayer of the Heart.
Having said all this I now want to recommend a little book: Prayer of the Heart in Christian & Sufi Mysticism by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. It is not a great book; certainly not the “last word” on this topic; but it is a beautiful and charming little book filled with many great insights and introducing one to this great topic from several different directions. I would not agree with everything in this book, but it seems to fill a real need in bringing the notion of Prayer of the Heart to a contemporary audience. The really special quality of this little book is that it discusses Prayer of the Heart from both the Christian perspective and the Sufi perspective. Just my opinion, but I think that the Sufis go deeper into this than we do, and I have learned much from what little I have been exposed to. But just as with us there is this tendency to articulate the “journey” into a kind of methodical “cookbook” approach. This is not the essence of what they teach but it is important for the Sufi follower and we need to respect their language. In this little book the author, Vaughan-Lee, a Sufi member but also knowledgeable in Christian mysticism, spends a considerable time using Teresa of Avila as a source for his presentation. Teresa is not one of my favorites, but she is truly a master of Christian mysticism. I never could quite connect with her language about “mansions” and “stages of prayer” and all that kind of stuff, but it turns out that Sufis are quite at home there! So be it.
The book begins with a marvelous Sufi word:
“God Most High hath brought forth creation and said,
​‘Entrust Me with your secrets.
If you do not do this, then look toward Me.
If you do not do this, then listen to Me.
If you do not do this, then wait at My door.
​If you do none of this,
​tell Me of your needs.’”

Indeed! What a deep sense here of what we call “petitionary prayer.” For too many of us In the theistic traditions prayer is often simply an attempt to persuade God to do something for us. Prayer is asking God for this or that. The author of this treatise thoroughly understands that, but in trying to lead us to the “deeper stuff,” contemplative prayer, he is wise in not just ignoring or throwing out or minimizing the role of petitionary prayer in the lives of most people. Actually this kind of simple prayer is a good starting point for Prayer of the Heart. God takes us and loves us and is with us exactly where we are. So never pooh-pooh a simple person’s simple prayer. That prayer in which we tell God of our needs is not for the sake of persuading God to help us(or someone we care about) but to simply abide in the Presence, and so it becomes a gateway to the true Prayer of the Heart. And true Prayer of the Heart is perhaps best understood as the Christian/Sufi experience of advaita, true non-dualism–expressed this way, however, itsounds like just another abstract idea or notion. Our author expresses it in a much more beautiful and profound way:
“In the silent niche of the heart the lover experiences the truth that there is only one prayer that underlies all of creation–the prayer in which the Beloved is present, not as a personal God or Creator, but as something both inexpressible and intimate. In this innermost recognition of the heart the lover recognizes the Beloved as something inseparable from himself. And in these moments of absorption only the Beloved exists. This primal awareness of the heart is the foundation of all prayer and all praise. In the words of Rumi: ‘Become silent and go by way of silence toward nonexistence, and when you become nonexistent you will be all praise and laud.’ Through the prayer of the heart the lover inwardly opens to the silence of the soul where the Beloved is always present. Here the lover and the Beloved meet, and the lover surrenders into the emptiness. In the formlessness of love we are absorbed deeper and deeper until we are so lost that there is only the ecstasy of unknowing. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes this as the ‘highest part of contemplation’ which ‘hangeth all wholly in this darkness and in this cloud of unknowing; with a loving striving and a blind beholding unto the naked being of God Himself only.’”

Let us now leave the ambience of this marvelous little book and move in a different direction. Earlier I mentioned that I am not in favor of a language that inclines toward a methodical, step-by-step approach to Prayer of the Heart. There’s a reason for that, and here I would like to invoke some Gospel language and imagery, specifically Luke 23: 39-43, very appropriate considering we are in the season of the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ. Let me quote:
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? 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 justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
First of all note the radical change taking place as the text proceeds. We begin in a world we know quite well–the world of rewards and punishments, of man-made law and order, of strict measure and intense self-regard. Where we end up is way beyond all this, in a transcendent place of “unspeakable delineation.” Two criminals are executed, each on a cross, alongside Jesus. In a sense they are getting “what they deserve”–according to man-made law. These guys were “bad to the bone” because even then execution was not usually done for petty crimes. But no matter the nature of their criminality; the Gospel does not focus on their “badness.” It merely points at this label that they were given then–for indeed we are prone to live by labels, like also “goodness,” “holiness,” etc. For Jesus himself said that ONLY God is good, only God is holy.
It appears that both criminals are somehow aware of the charges against Jesus: that he claims he is “the Christ” and the “Son of God” and that he has some kind of kingdom that cannot be touched by the Jewish and Roman authorities. One criminal urges him with words that echo and remind one of the Devil’s temptation of Jesus in the desert: “Save yourself (and us)” –earlier in Luke the Devil tells Jesus that if he is the Son of God to throw himself off the heights and he won’t be hurt–meaning his divine nature will save him from all harm (Lk4: 9-13). That criminal is making that kind of statement to Jesus and including himself in it. Very clever. It is that continual and perennial offer of a false identity to all of us; it is the distortion of our own divine nature.
The other criminal acknowledges the “rules of the game”–he and his cohort are “guilty”–as we all are and as Kafka and the existentialists have pointed out. But even according to the “rules” of this game, Jesus is “innocent,” so something is really wrong here. The thing is that here we are in this world of “guilty” and “innocent” labels, and these can be manipulated in all kinds of ways. But this criminal somehow manages to step out of this world with one heart-rending expression: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”–whatever that kingdom is, it surely must be better that this! Here let us recall that Sufi invitation to Prayer at the beginning of this reflection: “…if you do none of this, then tell Me of your needs.” This criminal has uttered the quintessential prayer of petition! And this is the real and true gateway to the Prayer of the Heart. And when we stand with this criminal and utter from our own depths this kind of prayer of petition than we are on the way to this Prayer.
Now note the response of Jesus. There is an immediacy here that is breath-taking–“Today”, not an evaluation of the merits of the man, not an invitation to be “polished” and “prepared” in some afterlife purgatory that later theological and spiritual reflection seemed to need for “purification” purposes–I never could understand that. That person on the cross is not in a position to proceed toward God step-by-step in a well-organized spiritual life following all the religious rules of his day. No, with that cry he is more like catapulted into the Divine Reality, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that his heart and his awareness are suddenly opened up to who he really is. That’s why I think that this figure of Good Friday, Jesus on the Cross, is the most radical and deepest koan of all–the one that shatters our self-constructed walls and puts us in Paradise.
So, Jesus tells him: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The word “paradise” is extremely complex and rich in meaning. Avoiding the silly, the superficial, the cliché, the narrow readings of this word, what it refers to is that unspeakable intimacy with God. “Paradise” is where we are one with God; we “walk with Him as with a friend”–as Genesis refers to it in its mythic presentation of human origins. This is the Christian (and Judaic and Islamic ) meaning also in its mystical traditions, and also one could claim that this Is the Western equivalent of the Advaita of the Upanishads and Shankara and Kashmir Saivism. But be that as it may, truly it is the proper Scriptural symbol for what it means to be in continual Prayer of the Heart. And this is not some kind of “mystical option” but what it truly means to be a Christian and even simply a human being. Dostoyevsky’s archetypal Russian monk, Father Zosima said that if we had the eyes to see it, we would see that indeed “Today we are in Paradise.”