Monthly Archives: September 2022

Confessions of a Peripatetic Contemplative

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  1. A beautiful summary of St. John of the Cross can be found in this excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece poem, “Four Quartets.”  A lot of this kind of teaching could also be found among Sufis , and some of it even in ancient Taoism.  

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

                                    You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

I have always had trouble reading St. John of the Cross; his language to me was like the proverbial fingernails scratched across a blackboard.  Certainly not because  it is “old school” spirituality,  which often has been abused by people who did not really grasp what it was saying….I love Julian of Norwich and Eckhart and the Desert Fathers, all of whom are older and suffered a similar fate.  I prefer the “old stuff” any day over modern spiritual writings.  But with John of the Cross it’s simply his language, the way he expresses things.

One thing I noticed about my own inclinations is how I have neglected reflecting on poetry, poetic language as a vehicle that can bring spiritual insight.  Here, Eliot’s poetry mediates for me John of the Cross and his poetic expression of the spiritual journey.

Now there is an important caution to mention.  I recall reading Merton somewhere saying, I think it was in the Conjectures, that he was kind of leaving Rilke whom he had focused on for a long while.  Although Rilke was a major poet and seemed to be an explorer of the realms of silence and solitude, Merton now felt that this was the silence and solitude of the  individual, isolated ego self, not the depths that Merton was focused on.  So this is a noteworthy caution:  poetic language can be very intoxicating to many of us, but that does not mean it can or will lead us every time to the depths of our being.  That caution aside, poetry, even the most secular, can be a valuable companion on the journey.

  1. I have always loved the Presocratics and especially Heraclitus.  Here is one of his fragments that I marvel at:

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“The Lord, whose oracle is in Delphi, neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.”

Now this is a theological statement, isn’t it?  I got into big trouble once in one of my Greek classes at a big name university when I made this point.  My professor told me in no uncertain terms, “There is NO religion in these statements.”  I disagreed but kept my mouth shut.  It made me think of something Kenneth Rexroth wrote concerning the Song of Songs and the Book of Job:

“To judge from contemporary literature, the easiest books of the Bible for modern man, in his completely secular society, to appreciate are Job and the Song of Songs.  The reason is obvious.  They are not what he thinks of as religious.  Least of all do they fit into the common  notion of the ‘Judaeo-Christian Tradition.’  From the Talmudists or the unknown authors of the Kabbalah to Orthodox rabbis or Hasidic zaddiks drunk with holiness, from the Fathers of the Church to the mystics of the Middle Ages, these two books, of all in the Old Testament, have been held central to the meaning of religion.  So today’s extraordinary reversal of judgement shows only that most men in our predatory thing-bound society have no idea of what religion is.”

In any case, here in this fragment of Heraclitus we find a “theos” (a god, Apollo), and we find a “logos,” (in New Testament times translated as “word,” but having a far richer and deeper meaning….here translated as “reveal”…parallel to the word that indicates “conceal”…..thus we have theo-logy, and this at the very roots, beginnings, foundations of western philosophy.

The philosopher, John Sallis, associated this Heraclitus saying with Plato’s figure of Socrates in the Apology.  What Plato is portraying there is Socrates as THE sign given by Apollo. In other words, what’s primary here are not this or that statement from Socrates as a fragment of logic to be analyzed, but rather what’s primary is this whole dialogical persona who invites us into a process. And when we accept the invitation to interpret this sign, we discover the capacity and opportunity to discover the luminosity of the Divine Reality in rationality and in knowing its limits.

Now consider if and how this might even apply to the figure of Jesus  in the Gospels.  He does call  himself a “sign” in several places in the Gospels.  Here again what’s primary is the person of Jesus who is THE sign given by the Absolute Mystery of the Divine Reality.  Interpreting this sign, we are drawn into the depths of our own mystery, of who we are, individually and together.

  1. Spiritual teachers.  A difficult topic.  All the various spiritual traditions have their various takes on this phenomenon.  I will stick mainly, but not solely, to my own Christian tradition.

Spiritual teachers come in many “flavors, colors, and sizes.”  In other words there is quite a variety and diversity in the concrete manifestations of this reality.  And most importantly there is a very broad spectrum of what you might call “intensity” or quality of the phenomenon.  At one end you will find people who simply have gained some experience and knowledge following a certain spiritual path.  They can be helpful in many circumstances.  Unfortunately there also is a chance you can be misdirected, misled….  Every person’s spiritual path is absolutely unique and really only unfolds to the view of that person.  Sometimes a “guide” or “teacher” can only help discern certain “landmarks” of that path; sometimes he/she can only hold your hand as you traverse a perilous/dark part.   An overly “instructive” approach can be not only totally useless but even harmful.  In the last analysis, one needs to understand that maybe one can get along quite well without a spiritual teacher.  But there are many of this kind of spiritual teacher….simply “buyer beware.”

Then there is the other far end of the spectrum, and here you might say we find the essence of the spiritual teacher.  Very, very few of these folks!  You are extremely fortunate and blessed if you know of one….you will  not find them by looking for credentials in the usual sense.  

Now, what can we say about this “special” person?  First of all, this category of “special” is not in this person’s world.  He/she does not live within the boundaries of these kinds of dualisms, like special/not special.  Secondly, this person has an unusual spiritual clarity.  This is not in terms of what we call “knowledge” or “information.”  In fact, do not fall for the razzle-dazzle of knowledge flashed out to impress, attract, domineer, or even to cover over something else.  Knowledge and intelligence are a good thing and not to be demeaned, but this is not what we are seeking here.  This spiritual teacher is in  a sense the kind of person Zhuangzi wants to meet, the one who has “forgotten words.”  Here, in fact, we can also apply the Heraclitus saying:  yes, this person will speak to you of spiritual realities; but he/she will neither reveal nor conceal what is in the depths of your being, but he/she will be a sign of that reality.  In other words, what this spiritual teacher conveys will not come from outside you but from within….as he/she manifests the gateless gate, the door that is no-door, your identity after all other identities are dust and ashes.  Recall this Desert Father story:

“Three monks used to go and visit blessed Antony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything.  After a long time, Abba Antony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’”  

Finally, a key existential characteristic of this spiritual teacher will be a radically diminished self-interest in everything he/she says or does.  There is a kind of heaviness, burdensomeness, entanglement and encumbrance in all self-interest.  Recall the Gospel words about this burdensome, weighed-down way of life.  To be with this person you might catch the intoxication of the lightness and ultimate freedom of life.

Now why am I writing all this?  Well, I will confess to a very odd situation.  For decades upon decades now, I have met many people who have enlightened me about this or that in the spiritual journey.  And for that I am truly grateful.  However, beyond all that, I have had two incredible spiritual teachers I discovered when I was 16.  And this will sound kind of strange:  one is Dostoevsky’s  Father Zosima, the other is the Chinese poet-recluse-fool Han Shan.  One is a fictional character (though based on a historical figure); the other is a real figure but from over a 1000 years ago and in a  culture and language that is radically different from what I am used to.  Now, my situation, can it get any weirder than that?! But I absolutely refuse to explain myself in this!!

(As an afterthought, recall the “sign” that Fr. Zosima gives to his young  disciple, Alyosha.  It might even be called a “counter sign.”  Zosima dies, and his body starts corrupting very soon, as if that were a sign of his low spirituality.  Read what that does to Alyosha.  Also, consider the “sign” that Zosima is when he prostates himself before the buffoon and lecher, old man Karamazov.)

  1. Pathei Mathos.   When you get to the age that I am, there is sometimes the tendency to say to oneself, I wish I had this clarity way back then when I was young.  But that’s not how life works.

I vividly remember the days of being a young monk, “Brother Know-it-all,” walking around my monastic community or at school at the university, with this odd tee shirt that had these ancient Greek words on it:  Pathei Mathos, “Learning through Suffering,” from Aeschylus.  “Brother Know-it-all” did not understand how prophetic those words would be.