Some Notes

  1.   There is this story about the great master of Rinzai Zen, Hakuin, 17th century: 

A samurai came to Hakuin and said:

“I want to know about heaven and hell.  Do they really exist?” he asked.

Hakuin looked at the soldier and asked him, “Who are you?”

“I am a samurai,” announced the proud warrior.

“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such insightful things? You are merely a callous, brutish soldier! Go away and do not waste my time with your foolish questions,” Hakuin said, waving his hand to drive away the samurai.

The enraged samurai couldn’t take Hakuin’s insults. He drew his sword, readied for the kill, when Hakuin calmly retorted, “This is hell.”

The soldier was taken aback. His face softened. Humbled by the wisdom of Hakuin, he put away his sword and bowed before the Zen Master.

“And this is heaven,” Hakuin stated, just as calmly.”

Indeed.  Amazing how in all the great spiritual traditions there is some variant of this:  the “Two Paths,”  “the Choice.”  In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh tells the People of Israel:  “I put before you Life and Death.  Choose.”  In the Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings after the Gospels, it says:  There is a way that leads to Life, and a way that leads to death.  In the Upanishads we read of the call to move from the mode of unreality to Reality, from darkness to Light.   And so on.  Needless to say we are not talking about physical life or death but rather two radically different ways of being in the world, in history.  In a sense our very being is this crossroads where these two paths present themselves for our choice always and everywhere.

I write all this with the echoes of war and slaughter in the background.  In history it seems never to change.  One reason for that is that the “way of death,” “hell,” never appears to us for what it really is….   It comes to us as an apparent “good” or at least a “necessity.”  A way to stop the “bad”; a means to solve the “problem” facing us; something that will help us overcome what we fear, etc., etc.  

I am not talking just about our current situation.  In all places and all times we find our fellow human beings facing the same choice.,…and more often than not choosing “death.”   Consider what happened when a rouge group of radical fundamentalist  Islamic fanatics attacked the U.S. on 09/11.  Our reaction led to two major wars in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed.  It looked more like a bloodlust for revenge rather than a seeking of justice.  Needless to say it did not solve any “problem.”  Amazing how this occurs continually throughout history.  I think of early colonial America, New England, 17th century, when the first British colonists were pushing onto  certain land where some Native Americans from a small tribe felt that was a serious act of trespass and a threat to them.  Several colonists were killed.  All the colonists banded together and massacred this tribe…no one was left.  I also think of early medieval France, where the Albigensians seemed like a threat to the Church.  The pope called upon some nobles to “solve the problem.”  The Albigensians got slaughtered, thousands of them.  Also, shortly later, St. Bernard, yes SAINT Bernard, called for the killing of the Islamic inhabitants of the Holy Land….to most of Europe they seemed like a real threat to Christianity….except to Francis of Assisi.   And lest anyone think that somehow primitive, indigenous people were less prone to such choosing, history would prove them wrong.  An example:  the Hopi tribe around 1700.  The Hopi have had a reputation as a “peaceful” group of people, and mostly that has been the case.  However, there are a few very dark moments.  Around 1700 the Hopi village of Awatovi was apparently wandering from its traditional religious beliefs, even flirting with Christianity.  The half dozen other villages were alarmed at this development.  The men got together and in one night massacred all the inhabitants of Awatovi, except for a few women and children.   The amazing thing was that these were their fellow tribesmen, their own kin, not some outside group threatening them.

So these are just some examples of THAT choice of path, life or death, heaven or hell, and here they are writ extra large and played out on the grand stage of history.  Here we are mostly “spectators,” troubled and bewildered by what we see.  However, that choice is also very much present in the nitty-gritty of our everyday life.  At times secretly and obscurely, at other times very obviously, we are always and everywhere present at that choice in all we do, say, think….  In a very real sense in all that we actually then become life or death, we become hell or heaven.  That’s what Hakuin was getting at.

  1. The vow of poverty.

I am thinking of the classic vow that Catholic monks and nuns profess (and some religious), and this is not to be confused with the economic condition that can be quite deleterious to people, both physically and mentally.  In fact even the vow, ancient as it is, can still be muddled, misrepresented, and totally distorted.  Lets ponder this one a bit.

First, a couple of funny stories: 

When I was studying theology in Berkeley back around 1982, I was once invited by a group of young Jesuit fellow students to go out for a festive meal.  It was quite a gourmet affair!  At the end I naively asked how were we paying for this, thinking we would all share in the cost.  One of the Jesuit’s held up a credit card and proclaimed:  “Our Lady of Visa!”

A few years earlier Dan Berrigan visited that Jesuit theologate for about several months.  Berrigan was a famous (in some circles infamous!) Jesuit:  poet, good friend of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, and a radical peace activist.  He believed in living in Catholic Worker simplicity.  After experiencing life at the Jesuit theologate for a while, he quipped:  “If this be poverty, bring on chastity!”  (Actually he was not far off on that one, but that’s another story!)


What the vow of poverty really means is not easy to grasp.  Our notions about it can be truly muddled in several different ways:

  1. Poverty is viewed in a sort of arithmetic mode—so if you have 10 things, then get rid of 4, you have increased  your observance of “poverty.”  This kind of approach comes from a mistaken imitation of iconic folks like Francis of Assisi and some of the Desert Fathers and also from some language in the Gospels.  The fact is that all these point to a much deeper sense of what this vow is all about, and which you can completely miss by a crude imitation.  Yes,  a kind of simplification of life is truly commendable and spiritually healthy, but it is not yet at the heart of this vow of poverty.
  1. Also commendable is the attempt to live in solidarity with the truly poor of the world.  A strong motivation for “poverty” but also not yet at the heart of it all.
  1. A common distortion of the vow of poverty takes place when the monk/religious claims “poverty” while relying expansively on the collective resources of the group….and the financial support of wealthy benefactors.  Now there is nothing wrong in monks holding out a begging bowl as it were.  It is an ancient tradition in many places.  There is an equally strong tradition where monks should be self-supporting through the labor of their hands.  In any case, the individual religious benefits from the collective wealth of the institution.  Needless to say this opens up a lot  of possibilities to distortions of all kinds.
  1. Another problem view of the vow of poverty…..what I call the “modern age approach.”  “We modern people have different needs and a different sensibility, so the vow of poverty will be expressed differently by us.”  Yes, there is a grain of truth in all this, but one problem is that poverty begins to mean whatever we want  it to mean.  At times this practice becomes a total joke and really a scandal .  

What is at the heart of the vow of poverty?  We can begin by saying that the vow initiates a kind of deconstruction of our identity through “ownership.”  “I am what  I own.”  Or, “I own, therefore I am.”  What I possess gives me a sense of my own reality…..such is the subtext of much of social life.    So the vow brings (or should bring) all this into question.  I mean, what a strange thing “ownership” really is, if you think about  it!  Look at those archetypal stories about the monk and the robber who has come to rob his cell….the monk running after the robber with some item that the robber somehow missed!  Those kind of stories hit at that central illusion of this ego self “owning” something.  And then think of that absurdity of “owning” land.  The earth we live upon is a shared reality.  Native Americans had no sense of individuals owning particular plots of land; the tribe as a whole looked upon an area of land as a hunting ground for the tribe.  This points to what Thich Nhat Hanh called “interbeing.”  The essence of our existence is interrelatedness; in a very real sense we live a shared reality, not as “owners” but as participants in that reality.  In my opinion Catholic theology and spirituality does not do a very good job of elucidating that vision.  The closest we get is the notion of “stewardship.”  We are called to be good “stewards,” etc., etc.  So the vow of poverty is a marker of sorts of our “interbeing,” but you see it has to be real.  And this is the hard part!  Because that may mean quite different things in different concrete contexts.  And, really, one can even use physical poverty to solidify one’s illusory notion of this ego self “not owning” anything.  In that case, the vow not only does not deconstruct this “owner ego,” but it in fact puts him/her on a pedestal to be admired….  The bottom line is that it takes real spiritual discernment (so, so hard to get) to see what is your path of poverty.

And if you want a glimpse of what ultimately the real “practice of poverty” teaches us, here is a quote from Merton that tells it all:

“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…I have no program for this seeing.  It is only given.  But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

  1. A song:  “Suzanne”

Just like Jerry Garcia’s “Ripple,” this is a very special song….one of my big favorites.  It comes from pop culture, but it is sooooo  much more than that!  Written by Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, it has the multi layered textuality and the subtle symbolism of great poetry but with no pretense at all.  Here are the lyrics:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And then you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And then you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And then you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind

On one level the poem seems to start out as an intriguing and warm portrayal of a man’s relationship with a mentally disabled woman.  But the poem very quickly jumbles all such expectations.  I wonder what the people from pop culture circles made of this song!  To begin to understand it’s multi layered symbolism, “you will have to travel blind.”  Some quick notes and hints:

Consider Suzanne not only as a real woman, but also as symbol/embodiment of Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom,  Sophia, Divine wisdom….in Jewish mysticism (Cohen is Jewish) and in late Russian theology God’s wisdom is feminine, Sophia, related to the Holy Spirit.  Do you see now that the sudden intrusion of Jesus is not so “intrusive”?  

Note the dark allusion to “your wisdom.”   Implied contrast to Suzanne’s “wisdom.”

The image of this mentally disabled girl as  icon/embodiment of Divine Wisdom is a rich paradox beyond words.   Connections to the “fool” tradition….another manifestation of Divine Wisdom….Suzanne as “fool.”

(Haunting echoes of Oedipus for whom wisdom and blindness are coterminous.)

But don’t forget the poem is also about a complex man/woman relationship.  

Recall also Merton falling in love with that nurse, which  inspired his beautiful meditation on Hagia Sophia.

And at this  link you will hear Cohen’s own rendition of this beautiful song with the lyrics showing: