Monthly Archives: February 2024

Just Another Poor Translation

We are getting close to Ash Wednesday, one of my most favorite days….and then there’s Lent!  Who could ask for more?  And this year Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 14….coinciding with Valentine’s Day.  Kind of a jarring combo there, but I’m sure there will be some who will manage to pull off a double celebration.  I won’t be doing that here.

Ash Wednesday has several layers of meaning, and even as a youngster I was intrigued by the significance of this feast.  Even then I surmised that “giving up” something “for Lent” was at best a symbolic gesture.  But when the priest called me “dust” as he put ashes on  my childhood forehead, this sent a chill down my spine…not of fear or dread or anything like that, rather a sense of something very deep yet very personal being said to me.  Since I have been writing these reflections I have on several occasions pondered the challenging mystery of Ash Wednesday.  So I will once more throw out some thoughts, some old, some new, as this feast and this season never ceases to intrigue  and amaze me.

  1. “Folly Chasing Death around the Broken Pillar of Life”  I wrote about this a while back…it is the theme of a float that appears in the great Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans just before Ash Wednesday.  The history of this float goes way back to the 19th century.  It’s a fascinating symbolic portrayal of what Ash Wednesday and Lent are suppose to cure (though it’s not always seen that way).  It is a depiction of what my ancient Chinese  friends called “boiling red dust.”  It is that constant activity, whether internal or external, to fortify and enhance the ego self, the built- in futility and delusion of all activity that is centered on self. self-interest, self affirmation.  It is also what our Buddhist friends diagnose as “suffering”(and we could learn a lot from them about all this), pushing that “rock” up that hill of life.  So, so much of social activity (even “religious”)  seems to be just that.  In this we encounter  the core delusion of existence.  So…Ash Wednesday/Lent is suppose to bring us face to face with this core delusion of our existence.
  1. Traditional Biblical religion was aware of this problem, and we see it portrayed in the Bible in various allegorical and symbolic ways….like the “Tower of Babel” story for example.  The Bible also proposes a “cure” and calls for a “change” in perspective which it names “repentance” and “conversion,” and this has certain symbolic gestures.  In Job 42:6, at the end of his confession, Job repents in sackcloth and ashes. And in the city of Nineveh, after Jonah preaches conversion and repentance, all the people proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth, and even the king covers himself with sackcloth and sits in ashes, as told in Jonah 3:5–6.  These kinds of things are all over the Bible.   The gestures seem odd at first; they seem depressing to some people, just a lot of negativity.  Certainly serious, perhaps somber, and sometimes even morose….our modern culture is not at home with this language of conversion and repentance…too filled with negativity.  A certain kind of negation is definitely an important part of Lent, but it must symbolically address the core problem:  what self centeredness and self-interest are really all about; and, more critically, point to a new awareness from which new actions, new life, a new sense of self will flow.  An illuminating comparison can be made with the Buddhist notion of “Right View,” the first on the “Noble Eightfold Path.”  On Ash Wednesday and Lent we are really invited to fundamentally change our understanding of what  is Real and what is unreal!
  1. Abhishiktananda summarized the essence of the spiritual life in this manner:  

“The essential task is the surrender of the peripheral ego to the interior mystery.”

Now it may not look like it, but Ash Wednesday and this incredible statement are both pointing to the same thing.  The “peripheral ego” is as insubstantial as dust, but it claims everything we do, everything we perceive, everything we think …so all becomes a kind of “folly”….recall the  opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes.   To “de-center” from this psychological mirage is at the heart of what we call “conversion.”  And the call to “repentance” is an opening and an invitation to a much deeper and very different sense of self…sometimes called “no-self.”  There is no other liberation from this “folly” which ultimately ends in futility, despair, death.  To help us understand this we can do no better than call on our Sufi friends, who have a profound and amazing grasp of the issue.

  1. From Rumi:

“Knock, And He’ll open the door
Vanish, And He’ll make you shine like the sun
Fall, And He’ll raise you to the heavens
Become nothing, And He’ll turn you into everything.”

The whole Sufi program in a nutshell! 

For the Sufis, Abhishiktananda’s  “peripheral ego” is called the “nafs, and“surrender” is called “fana,” which translates best as “extinction” or “annihilation”…ouch!….sure sounds like a term that can scare someone!   But it’s not like one comes down with a sledge hammer on  one’s psychological “I,” a kind of suppression  No, nothing like that at all….rather more like realizing the “right view” of this “I.”  It is a deep existential realization that this “I” that claims center stage is as insubstantial as dust, a real nothingness as it were.  But from the Sufi standpoint the main problem with this “I,” the nafs, is that it stands in opposition to God.  Here “I” am; there is God….it makes an “otherness” of God that is never really bridgeable.  

Only the word “I” divides me from God.
Yunus Emre

But the Sufis know that this “separation” is a kind of mirage; there is a much deeper sense of “I” which is both you and not-you at the same time; it is the mystery of mysteries, the inner sanctum of what is most real, the place where God’s “I” and your “I” are one….the most incomprehensible and inexpressible reality.  Someone like Meister Eckhart pointed to this mystery in his own way:  “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”  And recall some Pauline statements (which sometimes become religious platitudes) like:  There is NOTHING that can come between you and the love of God for you in Christ.

And I cherish this from al-Hallaj:

“I saw my Lord with the eye of the heart
I asked, ‘Who are You?’
He replied, ‘You’”

There is also the Islamic notion of the “faqir,” sometimes written in English as “fakir,” and usually translated as “the poor one.”  Among the Sufis this was a very important reality, and it had much more to do with interior poverty than with material things…but those also.  You might say that the poverty of the faqir is a poverty of “I-ness.”  If this is not at the heart of all Lenten “giving up” of this or that, then that gesture becomes a religious façade and even worse, an enhancement of that peripheral ego.  In any case, we do have an example of an “ultimate faqir”:  al-Hallaj.

  1. Mansur Al-Hallaj.  The most remarkable Sufi in all of history, and the one who leaves you in absolute silence when you meet him.  For a good part of his life he lived in Baghdad in the 9th century.  And what was peculiar for him he preached openly and in the streets and markets of Baghdad his mystical spirituality of oneness with God….stuff that was suppose to be discreetly talked about in small, almost secret groups.  Also, he had a deep regard for Jesus (true for Islam as a whole) and a most intense longing to be like him even to the point of being crucified.  Well, as they say, be careful  what you wish for….this is exactly what happened to him.  The authorities in Baghdad arrested him for preaching heresy openly to the public…as in the quote above.  (Eerie the similarity with Jesus!)  He was jailed for a long time, would not recant, and finally they crucified him(the details of all this are not clear but the top scholar on his life puts it like this).  On the cross he proclaimed, “Anā al-ḥaqq,” “I am the Truth,” meaning “I am God,”(al-Haqq can be translated either as “Truth,” or as “Reality”…. as al-Haqq was/is one of the most sacred names for God in the fascinating Islamic theology of God’s Names. )  And you can see the implications of this word in all its translations.  This so outraged the authorities that they dismembered him, burnt the remains, and scattered his ashes in the Tigris River.

Mansur Al-Hallaj was not a raving madman.  In his ecstatic proclamation he was bearing witness to the “annihilation” of that superficial “I,” becoming the ultimate faqir….all that was left of him was the Divine Reality in al-Hallaj….”God’s I” manifest as his “I”.  This is at the heart of all Sufi teaching.  A Sufi saying:  You are not you when you are you but (you are you) when God is you!  

A Christian example of a true faqir:  St. Francis of Assisi.  Think of his stigmata.  Whether legendry or historical, the story of the stigmata is not some religious sideshow or spurious validation of his life(as presented in some other cases).  Rather think of this story in the light of al-Hallaj.  Also, there is that remarkable parable Francis tells his disciple:  “What is Perfect Joy?”  You can only misunderstand this parable as a call to a masochistic life if you don’t see it as a witness to the total faqir ideal of the Sufis.

  1. In the spirit of Mansur al-Hallaj recall St. Paul’s radical statement:  “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me.”  That “not I” is what Lent is all about.  That “not I” is a negation, yes, but what it negates is as insubstantial as dust yet it seems like your very being.  That “not I” opens you to your liberation from the shackles and limitations of your ego identity.  
  1. If you’re wondering about the title of this reflection, maybe this Sufi saying will help:

“God’s language is silence; all else is a poor translation.”

Happy Lent!