Author Archives: Monksway

The Road to Hell…

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The Road to Hell

That phrase appears in various contexts:  like a kind of marker of pop wisdom, “The road to  hell is paved with good intentions”; or as a lyric from a rock song; or as a catch- all for all kinds of bad situations, etc.  But here I want to allude to its use recently by the General Secretary of the UN, Antonio Guterres, as he put it bluntly:

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.  We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing.”

From what has transpired at COP27, it looks like no national leaders have taken the General Secretary’s words seriously.  But here I would like to expand the full impact of that statement to include our (U.S.A.) political culture and our social and economic “climate.”  And I would like to begin this reflection with an episode shown on CNN….here is  the link:

Jordan Klepper, a CNN reporter interviews this white, middle-class woman who is an “election denier.”  Klepper asks her about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.  She says it was a peaceful gathering.  She says she turned off her TV when it started showing the attack because that “was not what was happening.”  This person is living inside her own bubble…her own world of “truth.”  Only what pleases her is accepted as true, as fact.  That is a scary and dangerous place to be.  And what is even more disturbing is that millions of Americans, the overwhelming majority, both conservative AND liberal are in the same boat.  I don’t think that modern social media caused this, but it certainly enabled it, enhanced it, and thoroughly cemented it in the national fabric. Everyone, liberal or conservative, has their own truth now or what passes for the truth; and maybe you might want to say that this is simply the human condition.  But now we seem even unable or unwilling to dialogue, to discuss our differences, to try and understand the “other guy.”   Everyone lives in their own bubble of “reality.”  Postmodernism provided an ersatz intellectual foundation for this social climate: “there is no objective truth,”  “all truth is a social construction.”  What this leads to is a very real “road to hell.”

Our political culture is one stage on which this is so clearly manifest.  Look at this video of an interview of comedian and satirist Bill Maher.  While I have found myself often disagreeing with his Libertarian politics and while he predicts the election wrong (as so many pundits did),  I think here he offers at least a partially helpful insight into this polarization:

And then there’s this conservative law professor and her experience at one of the top law schools in the country:

Then there’s this story, both funny and alarming.  Recall the bizarre world of professional wrestling…it is all a staged show.  One guy dresses and acts the “good guy” role, the “hero”; and the other guy is “the villain,” “the bad guy,” like in Grade B westerns.  They put on a show pounding each other, while the crowd vents quite loudly their feelings of approval or disapproval.  Well, it appears that two wrestlers who were going to tour West Virginia thought it would be a good show if one of them was labeled as “Progressive Liberal,”…he would be the “bad guy”!!  It turned out that this worked too well….the crowds not only got worked up, but the show was on the verge of spilling over into violence against that one wrestler.  

Historically something has happened in this country that is hard to explain.  We have a very large segment of the population that seems unable or unwilling to talk civilly about their political and social differences….they seem paralyzed by a mirage of suspicions and a lust for power to overcome “the other.”  Then, also, there is a sizeable segment of the population that seems truly impossible to reach with reasonable discourse as fellow citizens.  The recipe for social chaos and violence is there.  The road to hell.  How and why this happened is a complex story, but lets point out one element of this story:  the role of the Democratic Party in getting us here.   

You would think that the Dems were mostly innocent in creating this scenario but like I said the history is complex and long.  It begins in the 1930s, during the Depression, when FDR built a powerful coalition with the working class, the poor, the intellectuals.  In the 1960s LBJ added Blacks and the Civil Rights Movement to that coalition. The Republicans had the large business class.  We all know how that turned out!  The Republicans tried various nefarious tactics to wrest power from the Dems; and each tactic worked to erode a truthful dialogue/debate about policy.  For example, during the Cold War the common campaign tactic of the Republicans was to call the Dems “soft on Communism.”  This scared people.  Then came “the Southern strategy,” the Republican alliance with segregationists, “States Rights” people, white peoples fear of Black ascendancy, etc.  A whole host of other issues were trotted out, but at the heart of it all and hidden was Coolidge’s famous maxim:  What’s good for business is good for America.  Peel away all other arguments and you will see that’s why we have a for-profit health-care system and why education is becoming a consumer commodity, and why our natural world has been trashed, etc.  

The last Dem to speak with the power to hold FDR’s coalition together was Bobby Kennedy in 1968, running for president before being gunned down.  Today there is an echo from that past in Bernie Sanders, but it’s very telling that Bernie’s language about “class warfare”  does not really connect very well even though it captures the truth more so than any other analysis.  

About two decades ago historian Thomas Frank focused on one State, Kansas, and did a close study how the political/social culture got transformed from strongly progressive to intensely right-wing (even “conservative” is not an adequate description…Frank was conservative while in college).  Here’s how Frank begins:

“Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers – when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ furthest imaginings – when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work – you could be damned sure about what would follow. Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.”

Frank writes a whole book (What’s the Matter With Kansas?) analyzing the change in Kansas from 1900 to 2000.  There are a number of factors that led to this amazing transformation, but it is striking how the Dems themselves contributed to this situation by retreating from economic liberalism to focus on social liberalism.  It is a complex picture, but here is Frank zeroing in on a core point:

“The Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and — more important — the money of these coveted constituencies, “New Democrats” think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation and the rest of it.”

Now we have this awful situation where a significant segment of the population has been trashed by the “System,” and they are angry and their anger is mostly irrational and chaotic, not addressing any real problems, and due to successful “brainwashing” by certain elements in the Republican Party this anger is aimed primarily at so-called “liberals,” “progressives,” or simply Dems.  But the sad fact is that the folks they are angry at are mostly NOT liberal or progressive.  Take President Biden for example.  We vote for him because we legitimately fear the other side.  But his track record is hardly progressive!  This puts us on a “road to hell,” but simply a bit slower, more gentle ride….   Here Chris Hedges documents Biden’s sad record:

One has to say, however, that there still are some progressives who know how to speak to their people.  Who knows, maybe their number will increase….  Here is one such example:

And then we have to place this whole political dysfunctionality in the context of a massive social and cultural decay.  And strangely religion seems to be of no help here.  Just recently I read this piece in the National Catholic Reporter about the latest big meeting of American bishops—the gist of the story is the “continuing slide of the American bishops into irrelevance.”  The country is awash with guns—there are about 393,000,000 guns in the U.S…..please take a  look at this chart:

The whole country, rural and urban, poor and well-off, is saturated in drugs of all kind.  Gambling is mesmerizing more and more people and corrupting more and more of our cultural institutions….even higher education.  Take a look at this story:

So at this point a key question does arise: In the face of all this, what do I do as an individual?  There is no “American Gandhi” on the  horizon to tell us “I know a way out of hell.”  So first of all we need to use whatever resources we can muster to deeply reflect on our communal condition and our own roll and place in this mess.  Here’s just a small example from Chris Hedges when he was a young reporter for the New York Times, covering the Bosnian war in the 1990s:

“ During the war in Bosnia, I worked my way through the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” The novel,  populated with 400 characters, was not an escape from the war. The specter of death and the expiring world of La Belle Epoque  haunts Proust’s work. He wrote it as he was dying; in fact, Proust was making corrections to the manuscript the night before his death in his hermetically sealed, cork-lined bedroom in Paris. 

The novel was a lens that allowed me to reflect on the disintegration, delusions and mortality around me. Proust gave me the words to describe aspects of the human condition I knew instinctively, but had trouble articulating. He elucidates the conflicting ways we perceive reality, exacerbated in war, and how each of us comes to our own peculiar and self-serving truths. He explores the fragility of human goodness, the seduction and hollowness of power and social status, the inconstancy of the human heart and racism, especially antisemitism. 

Those who see in his work a retreat from the world are poor readers of Proust. His power is his Freudian understanding of the subterranean forces that shape human existence. The novel is grounded in the bitter wisdom of Ecclesiastes: The beauty of youth, the allure of fame, wealth, success, power, along with literary and artistic brilliance, reap a horrendous toll on those beguiled by them, for they are transitory, and perish. “

Secondly, when we speak or act it  must come from the heart, not from our spasmodic, chaotic feelings and delusions, which all of us experience.  Cheap sentiments won’t help us; manipulation of people won’t bring us peace. Self-serving obfuscations will only blind us more and more. (During the pre-election period I happened to see a number of political ads touting this or that candidate.  Not owning a TV, I was amazed at what I saw….all kinds of misleading half-truths in an attempt to manipulate our perception, and a whole bunch of mud-slinging…from both sides.)   In our darkness we need to make all our words, all our acts, bearers of clarity, of wisdom, of love, of compassion, and most of all (in Gandhi’s spirit) of truth.

I am reminded of my friends, the ancient Chinese poets and  hermits who often lived in terrible times—a lot to learn from them; and I am also reminded of Boris Pasternak, who wrote Doctor Zhivago during the height of Stalinism.  Read Merton’s account of this great writer and his wisdom in Merton’s Disputed Questions.

Solitude, Hermits, and All That Kind of Stuff

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Some preliminaries:

  1. If you go to You Tube and type “Chinese Hermits” in their search engine, you might be surprised to see a whole bunch of videos.  Most of them are good; a few are a bit “odd.”  The best ones are connected, one way or another, to Bill Porter (aka, Red Pine).  Many years ago when I was in a seminary studying theology, I had a Chinese friend who knew of my inclinations toward the hermit life, and one day she tells me to my astonishment that the Chinese culture has had a very prominent tradition of the hermit life for thousands of years.  There were not the organized “religious orders” like in the modern West; more like the Desert Fathers, folks who would go out into the wilderness, into the mountains for the Chinese, for a period of time, or for life, as a spiritual journey, usually Buddhist, sometimes Taoist.  
  1. Porter, who was fluent in Chinese and acquainted with this tradition, went to China about 1989, when China began opening up.  He was curious to see what, If anything, was left of the hermit tradition after Mao and the Cultural Revolution.  What he found was a still strongly surviving hermit presence in the  mountains.  The numbers were down, but the life was still being lived and growing.  Porter wrote a book about his journey to find the hermits, Road to Heaven.  It hardly got  noticed here in the U.S.; but when it got translated into Chinese, it became a “best seller” over there.  The Chinese people themselves were delighted to find out that their hermit tradition, although weak, was still alive and going.  Several of the You Tube videos follow Porter on several return visits to the mountains where he retraces his steps from decades ago, showing what has changed and what hasn’t.
  1. In the videos you see the usual presence of old hermits, but also a surprising number of younger people.  There is significant disillusionment with the materialism of modern China, with the corruption, with the doggy-dog competition for success, and with an authoritarian political life.  So the search for “something more, something different” gets an impetus.
  1. What struck me about all these Chinese hermits, young and old, was their basic humanity (the Buddhists very clear; the Taoists not so much; modern Taoism has little connection with ancient Taoism).  What you find among them are simple, down-to-earth people, serious and intense in their practice of meditation, lightsome in all else. Getting along as best as they can with no frills or  no need of approval.  My two favorite videos were these:



The first one is titled:  Assignment Asia: A Modern Hermit in China.  It features a young Chinese woman who has been living as a hermit for a few years.  She showed a graceful maturity, strength of character, and a keen common sense in her assessments.  The next one is titled:  Amongst White Clouds.  It opens on a very deep note, and I will return to this shortly.

  1. Chinese culture and history are filled with profound paradoxes and disturbing contradictions.  This was also true in religion.   No culture has produced a deeper and  more  mystical vision of our relation to the natural world, and this is evidenced in its artists, poets, and religious thinkers.  And yet you will not find a civilization that has experienced more ecological degradation than China.  A disturbing enigma!  In one of the videos,  Porter is visiting some temples in Xian, one of the major cities, and you notice the incredible air pollution.  You wonder how they can breathe!  A reality and a symbol of the problem.

The Heart of the Matter:

  1. Amongst White Clouds opens slowly…you hear a man’s voice in Chinese slowly, calmly saying something, and these words appear in the subtitles:

“Once delusion is extinguished, your wisdom naturally arises, and you don’t differentiate suffering and joy.  Actually this joy and this suffering, they are the same, the same.”

His face is intense, and he seems to be himself amazed at his “discovery.”  We can begin by saying we are out of our depth here!  But first we badly need to make a point here—one does not say such things casually over a latte….!  One does not say such things to a person suffering either physically or mentally….this is not like some kind of verbal pill that offers relief….  These words flow out of an inner illumination that is beyond all words and concepts, and it is only in such a context that you can even ponder the meaning of such a statement.  In a sense this hermit gives us a koan through which we must view the hermit life. 

The video begins with these words, and as it continues and you see a lot of the interesting (and sometimes bewildering) externals of these engaging people, that statement stays with you as a reminder of the depths this life engages….the silent, secret “heart of this life.”

  1. Switching to the West, in our society there are people who simply live alone for one reason or another.   They are often called “hermits.”  These are not the folks I will be referring to.  Nor even necessarily the people who are members of religious orders or officially recognized by  the Church which allows some to live as hermits of one kind or another.   The key word now becomes  “solitude.”  Often used  as equivalent to “hermit,” and that’s ok; but it really points us to a deep inner reality.  Solitude is an aloneness that can be external, but primarily it is an inner reality.  And the person who has written most profoundly about this is of course Thomas Merton—and the quintessential Merton teaching can be found in an essay, “Philosophy of Solitude,” found in Disputed Questions.  

This solitude, then, is not the aloneness of an individual, separate and isolate from others, standing apart and “looking down” on the mass of humanity.  (And sadly this kind of solitude is not limited to cranky, eccentric malcontents but often could be found in formal religious settings.)  Rather, this solitude is the “aloneness” of unity where there is no ”other.”  But to the “solitary one,” whoever he or she may be, whether in a religious order or someone just seeking a deeper meaning to their life, this deep solitude will at first not manifest itself; maybe only as a kind of gentle loneliness, as a bewilderment of what passes for normalcy, as an inability to take seriously the projects,  the pieties, the obsessions, the “games” of his/her neighbors.  In due time this solitude will become the illumination that is born within when “delusion is extinguished.”  There is no locus, no method, no label, no map, no “way” for any of this.  But the physical hermit, as he/she journeys into this Mystery, is an icon and a reminder of “the heart of the matter.”  In their silent, ordinary life, the hermit gradually becomes lost in a solitude he/she cannot explain.

Let us listen to Merton as he emphasizes interior solitude even and especially for the physical hermit:

“…men and women who  have not so much chosen solitude as been chosen by it.  And these have not generally found their way into the desert either through simplicity or through innocence.  Theirs is the solitude that is reached the hard way….  To say that they have been ‘found’ and chosen by solitude is a metaphor that must not be taken to mean that they have been drawn into it entirely passively.  The solitude of which I speak is not full grown and true until it has been elected by a deep interior decision.  Solitude may choose and select a person for herself, but this person is not hers until he has accepted.  On the other hand no amount of deciding will do any good, if one has not first been invited to make that decision.  The door to solitude opens only from the inside.  This is true of both solitudes, the exterior and the interior.  No matter how alone one may be , if he has not been invited to interior solitude and accepted the invitation with full consciousness of what he is doing, he cannot be what I call a monachos, or solitary.  But one who has made this choice and kept to it is always alone, no matter how many people there may be around him. Not that he is withdrawn from them, or that he is not one of them.  His solitude is not of that order at all.  It does not set him apart from them in contrast and self-affirmation.  It affirms nothing.  It is at the same time empty and universal.  He is one, not by virtue of separation, but by virtue of inner spiritual unity.  And this inner unity is at the same time the inner unity of all.  Needless to say, such unity is secret and unknown.  Even those who enter it, know it only, so to speak, by ‘unknowing.’

“It should therefore be clear that one who seeks to enter into this kind of solitude by affirming himself and separating himself from others, and intensifying his awareness of his own individual being, is only traveling further and further away from it.  But the one who has been found by solitude, and invited to enter it, and has entered freely, falls into the desert the way a ripe fruit falls out of a tree.  It does not matter what kind of a desert it may be:  in the midst of men or far from them.  It is the one vast desert of emptiness which belongs to no one and to everyone.  It is the place of silence where one word is spoken by God.  And in that word are spoken both God Himself and all things.

“Often the lonely and empty have found their way into this pure silence only after many false starts.  They have taken many wrong roads, even roads that were totally alien to their character and vocation.  They have repeatedly contradicted themselves and their inmost truth.  Their very nature seems itself to be a contradiction.  They have perhaps few ‘clear signs’ of any vocation.  But they end up nevertheless alone.  Their way is to have no way.  Their destiny is poverty, emptiness, anonymity.”

Some Additional Notes:

  1. Important to remember that “solitude” and the “hermit” do have different interpretations, different valuations, different meanings as we look at various historical periods and various cultures.  What Merton is saying is meant for the modern West and this highly complex technological culture and a climate of mass humanity.  You would have to greatly modify what he says if you were talking about, for example, a pre-modern tribal culture.  Lets explore this a bit.

What is the root meaning of the word “hermit”?   Eventually its roots can be traced back to the ancient Greek word “eremos,”  meaning a place that is uninhabited,  empty, desolate, a wilderness, a desert, etc.  Thus a hermit is a “person of the wilderness.”  Also, if you dig deeper,  the Indo-European root of the Greek eremos is “erem,” which indicates “to rest, be quiet”—interesting that the Sanskrit word, “ramate,” comes from the same root and means “to rest,” also the Lithuanian “rimti,” to be quiet.

Now all this is very interesting…the eremos, the place of the hermit is set in contradistinction to the village, the town, the city, where the work of civilization goes on.  Out there, “outside civilization,” or “the human dwelling place,” there is great ambiguity.  In some places the “bad person,” the unwanted one, is expelled from the human environment; he/she becomes the “outsider.”  In some situations, the person goes out voluntarily, perhaps temporarily, leaves the accepted human environment to discover the point of their life and their real identity.  Remember that for premodern cultures who you are is pretty much determined by your membership in the group.  So when a young Native American would go out “into the wilderness” on a  “vision quest” that would tell them who they really are and the point of  their life, as an initiation into adulthood in their tribe, this already shows a need for “something more” that transcends the group.  He/she temporarily becomes an “outsider,” a person of the wilderness, to receive something that the collective cannot give  him.  Of course the young person  now returns to take their place in their society, but now with an enhanced sense of their identity that in turn enriches the community.  Another kind of situation occurs In ancient China:  the Buddhist /poet who usually holds a high place in the Confucian social order is either expelled or flees from the “red dust” of the city(referred to  here in previous postings).  Buddhism can be practiced in the city, but when the person goes out  into  the landscape of “mountains and rivers,” becomes an “outsider” of sorts, then something deeper unfolds.

Now lets switch scenes.  In the Gospels we find Jesus going out to the “eremos” to pray, and then there is the “Temptation in the Wilderness” episode.  Really the essence of it is a matter of Jesus’s identity, who he is.  In a very real sense Jesus “extinguishes delusion” in this wilderness and affirms that his real identity is an absolute gift of  his absolute unity with the Absolute Mystery whom he now can call “Abba, Father.”  Note also how Jesus is now always an “outsider,” not a man of the city, certainly not what we would call today a member of  the establishment.  In one Christmas reflection, Merton mentions that in the Nativity accounts, it is the shepherds, the folks outside the city, who are first to receive the “Good News.”  They are the remnant of the true Israel who with Moses had to go out to the “eremos” to discover their true identity, the meaning of their very existence.  Later on in Christianity, the desert monks follow this pattern, and one will totally misunderstand their teachings unless one sees this pattern and this dynamic of “extinguishing delusion.”  

As an example of how badly the whole thing can be misread and misinterpreted, consider the example of the early American colonists, the Puritans.  For them, the wilderness was the locale of the Devil, the Evil One, not a place for one of “the Elect.”  In fact, those who were “native” to the wilderness or were “influenced” by it partook of this evil and needed to be “extinguished.”  This explains both the witchcraft fears and a hidden attitude  that manifested in the continuing saga of cruel injustice toward Native Americans, whose very culture was practically extinguished.  (Please do not fall for the “Thanksgiving myth!)

  1. Looking at a book like The Book of Hermits, whose author is also the person behind the interesting website, “Hermitary,” can be confusing.  On the one hand, it is a comprehensive survey cutting across all  ages and all cultures to give brief accounts of people one way or another connected with solitude.  But the problem is  that the book makes no effort to distinguish between the “real” and the “ersatz.”  I think that approach is problematical.  Just living alone or talking about solitude does  not make one a hermit or living solitude, unless one is using such terms only in a sociological sense.  Then one has a potpourri of examples, but it all can be very misleading.  The person who recently attacked Paul Pelosi was described by his neighbors as a “loner,” he lived alone.  Enough said.
  1. Reading some parts of Merton, you could get the  idea that living in solitude is a breeze, only fulfilling, deeply satisfying, always relieving one of what was bothering one, the problems just falling away, etc., etc.  Here’s a couple of quotes from his personal journals that say “Not exactly!”

“I see more and more that solitude is not something to play with.  It is deadly serious, and much as I have wanted, I have not been serious enough about it.  It is not enough just to ‘like solitude’ or love it even.  Even if you like it, solitude can wreck you, I believe, if you desire it only for your own sake….  Solitude is a stern mother who brooks no nonsense.  And the question arises—am I so full of nonsense that she will cast me out?  I pray that she will not, and I suppose that is going to take much prayer.” 

“Unfortunately even in solitude, though I try not to and sometimes claim not to, I still depend too much emotionally on the idea of being accepted and approved and of having a place in society.  But obviously there is no such thing as absolute solitude.  Even my solitude is my place in society.”

“The solitary life, now that I really confront it, is awesome, wonderful, and I see I have no strength of my own for it….  It seems to me that solitude rips off all the masks and all the disguises.  Everything but straight affirmation or silence is mocked and judged by the silence of the forest.”

And so we end on the note that began this reflection:  the extinction of delusion and the wisdom that then naturally arises.




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  1. What exactly do you see here?

Lets begin with this simple question…it will become a more and more important question as we progress with our reflection.  

Consider the following four instances:

 1st.  Near the Eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine, California, in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, you will find this intriguing landscape known as the Alabama Hills.  About 1920 the Hollywood movie people discovered this place as a marvelous setting for movies.  They came to make movies here, and they kept coming and coming…hundreds of  movies made even to the 2000s.  Science fiction, “cowboys and Indians,” epics, dramas, etc.  The Sierras and the Alabama Hills proved to be a stage prop for this fantasy machine known as Hollywood.  Remarkable how these people were not awestruck by the reality, the stark beauty, the silent mystery of this majestic land….instead the only thing on their  minds was this false mythologizing of American history, their self-absorbed fantasies, their skill at fabricating an illusion, when the reality right in front of them was so much greater.  What was it that they were seeing?  They created lies while the reality and the truth was staring them in the face.

2nd.  When the first Europeans came upon the Grand Canyon, they were men who were in search of “cities of gold.”  Their response upon beholding this majestic and awesome scene was dismay, cursing at their bad luck, wondering how ever to cross this “obstacle” to their search.  The Grand Canyon as “obstacle.”  Indeed!  And this kind of perspective was repeated so often by pioneers pushing for the California gold fields and “free” Western lands.  The land they walked and rode through was mostly an “obstacle.”  Exactly what was it that these people saw?

3rd.  Once I was camping near one of the great hiking trails in the whole world: the John Muir Trail in the Sierras.  One day a young backpacker appeared on the trail.  I always enjoyed seeing them, imagining the beauty of the vistas they witnessed.  But there was something wrong this time.  He was wearing earbuds and was obviously absorbed in his own music.  I asked him why he needed this.  He replied that on a long hike it can get quite boring.  I wondered what he was looking at on his hike.  No sign of boredom in Ansel Adams or John Muir!

4th.  Ronald Reagan, running for governor of California in 1966, had this comment about the ancient forests of the far West:

“I think, too, that we’ve got to recognize that where the preservation of a natural resource like the redwoods is concerned, that there is a commonsense limit.  I mean, if you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees—you know, a tree is a tree, how many more you need to look at?”

Maybe when you have seen one tree you have seen them all!  

Different people encounter wilderness for different reasons…and this creates disagreements and controversies about how we are to treat wilderness, how we are to relate to it.  Some see wilderness as a source of recreation and entertainment; some see it as a form of challenge to test themselves, a source of achievement; some see it as a source of wealth, a commodity; others see it as a potential home or a resource for our benefit/survival.  Still others will see it as a form of inspiration. And a new group sees it as a great place to grow pot (see this story:

And so on, and so on.  And this leads us to the next consideration.

  1. History and Controversy

So there are people with pro-environmental concerns; there are also people with what might be termed as anti-environmental attitudes, though to be accurate they usually disguise themselves as the more “moderate” environmentalists, like the “wise use” movement; and finally, the largest group, folks who seem to have no interest or no concern about all this.  But what is striking to me are the very serious arguments and disagreements, and yes the very different visions within the environmental movement from its beginnings.  And all this has some very serious impacts on the wilderness, what little there is left of it (less than 3% of all land in the lower 48).

In the 19th century there is the famous example of Gifford Pinchot vs. John Muir.  At first the two were good friends who championed the protection of large tracts of American forest land.  Later they ended up on opposite sides of this endeavor.  There were actually two different visions operative.  It became known as preservation vs. conservation, and to this day the argument still goes on!  “Conservation” is about a multi-use approach to the wildlands…protecting some and making compromises with logging, mining, and recreation interests.  “Preservation” is about keeping it as wild as possible.  

About the original dispute we  find this in the magazine Humanities (journal for the National Endowment for the Humanities):

“In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt’s Department of the Interior granted San Francisco the authority to dam the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley for use as a reservoir. For Pinchot, a close friend and adviser to the president, this was an obvious choice. San Francisco’s water system could not adequately serve its growing population, and the dam presented a solution. For Muir, damming Hetch Hetchy was a blasphemy. You might as well deface the world’s great cathedrals, he said, ‘for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.’ The issue was decided in December 1913, when Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Bill into law, authorizing the dam’s construction. Muir would die just over a year later, and many would define Hetch Hetchy as the tragic climax of his life.”

And author John Clayton writing in the same article said:

“People sort of tend to lean one way or another. If you’re a poet, if you’re religious or spiritual, or you’re an artist, you’re probably a Muir person. And if you’re an engineer or a manager, or if you’re interested in fairness or democratic processes, you’re probably a Pinchot person.”

One of the fundamental underlying differences in their vision (and this  holds for many subsequent followers of each man) is whether the human person is seen as the primary and dominant constituent of Nature or is the human person only one element of this great reality we call Nature.  Where you stand on this can have many interesting implications, as illustrated in this story about Muir and Pinchot:

“Once they traveled together — along with several other people interested in the future — on an overnight government expedition to the Grand Canyon. As the two men walked together along a rocky canyon trail, they spotted a tarantula. Pinchot raised his boot to step on the creature. Muir stopped Pinchot by telling him that the tarantula had just as much right to be on the trail as they did.”

In the last few decades another kind of argument has developed, one questioning the very notion of “wilderness.”  Perhaps hard to believe but these are “liberal,” “progressive,” folk, mostly academics, very highly educated (and one suspects not having spent much time in the real wilderness as opposed to reading papers about the wilderness).  The most widely known of these critics is William Cronon, a professor of environmental history at the University of Wisconsin.  The following quotes are from an article in the New York Times of 1995 which he wrote as a kind of summary of a major scholarly paper.  Cronon:

“PRESERVING WILDERNESS HAS FOR DECADES BEEN A fundamental tenet — indeed, a passion — of the environmental movement, especially in the United States. For many Americans, wilderness stands as the last place where civilization, that all-too-human disease, has not fully infected the earth. It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, a refuge we must somehow recover to save the planet. As Henry David Thoreau famously declared, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

But is it? The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation — indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an endangered but still transcendent nature can be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it is a product of that civilization. As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own longings and desires. Wilderness can hardly be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationship with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself a part of the problem.”

“One of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang. In virtually all its manifestations, wilderness represents a flight from history. Seen as the original garden, it is a place outside time, from which human beings had to be ejected before the fallen world of history could properly begin. Seen as the frontier, it is a savage world at the dawn of civilization, whose transformation represents the very beginning of the national historical epic. Seen as sacred nature, it is the home of a God who transcends history, untouched by time’s arrow. No matter what the angle from which we regard it, wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world in which our past has ensnared us. It is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul, the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are — or ought to be.

“The trouble with wilderness is that it reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. It offers the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world. The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living — urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves no place in which human beings can actually make their living from the land.

“We live in an urban-industrial civilization, but too often pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness. We work our nine-to-five jobs, we drive our cars (not least to reach the wilderness), we benefit from the intricate and all too invisible networks with which society shelters us, all the while pretending that these things are not an essential part of who we are. By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves for the homes we actually inhabit. In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings somehow outside nature — in all these ways, wilderness poses a threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the 20th century.”

Cronon is a very intelligent scholar, and in his overall critique he makes some important points.  However, I think he is fundamentally wrong; and he misreads and misinterprets the meaning of the wilderness for human life.  I am not going to go over his claims point by point…that would take us well past this being a blog posting!  Cronon has converted a lot of environmentalists to his view, but there have also been some serious and vigorous challenges and counter-arguments by some important names in the movement, like Gary Snyder and David Foreman, among many others.  Here is a heated rebuttal of Cronon by Ken Brower:

What is striking is that within the environmental movement itself there are these very radically different philosophies and assumptions and visions.  Now what about religion?  

  1. Alternative Visions

I will primarily stick to Christianity and the West, except for a reference to China, Taoism and Buddhism.

Christianity is a real mixed bag when  it comes to our attitudes to wilderness and nature in general.  Consider this little gem from a conservative evangelical pastor:

“Any preacher who decides to get involved in environmental issues is like a heart surgeon who suddenly leaves an operation to fix a clogged toilet.”

To be fair, there is a growing number of evangelicals who have a  more enlightened attitude.  And of course among us Catholics we have Pope Francis summoning all the Catholic resources he could in support of  positive environmental concerns in his encyclical Laudato Si (and one should add some surprising sharp attacks on the economic and social systems that seem to be the cause of ecological degradation).  I am not going to waste any time in dealing with all the “anti-environmental”arguments and attitudes; there are enough problematic issues within the “positive Christian” camp.

In the 1960s, Lynn White, a historian at UCLA, caused quite a stir when he proposed that Christianity had a large role in bringing about the ecological crisis of the 20th Century.  This is from Wikipedia:

“In 1967, White conjectured that the Christian influences in the Middle Ages were at the root of ecological crisis in the 20th century. He gave a lecture on December 26, 1966, titled, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” at the Washington meeting of the AAAS, that was later published in the journal Science.  White’s article was based on the premise that “all forms of life modify their context”, i.e. every living organism in some way alters its environment or habitat. He believed man’s relationship with the natural environment was always a dynamic and interactive one, even in the Middle Ages, but marked the Industrial Revolution as a fundamental turning point in our ecological history. He suggests that at this point the hypotheses of science were married to the possibilities of technology and our ability to destroy and exploit the environment was vastly increased. Nevertheless, he also suggests that the mentality of the Industrial Revolution, that the earth was a resource for human consumption, was much older than the actuality of machinery, and has its roots in medieval Christianity and attitudes towards nature. He suggests that “what people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.” Citing the Genesis creation story he argued that Judeo-Christian theology had swept away pagan animism and normalized exploitation of the natural world because:

  1. The Bible asserts man’s dominion over nature and establishes a trend of anthropocentrism.
  2. Christianity makes a distinction between man (formed in God’s image) and the rest of creation, which has no “soul” or “reason” and is thus inferior.

He posited that these beliefs have led to an indifference towards nature which continues to impact in an industrial, “post-Christian” world. He concludes that applying more science and technology to the problem will not help, that it is humanity’s fundamental ideas about nature that must change; we must abandon “superior, contemptuous” attitudes that makes us ‘willing to use it [the earth] for our slightest whim.’” 

Needless to say this led to a vigorous response on the part of Christian thinkers and theologians.  Even today you can see that Pope Francis is basically trying to say that whatever was the understanding in the past, that is not quite how we see it today.  However, there is a problem.  Item #1 above flows right out of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis.  Recall that there are 2 creation stories in Genesis:  Chapter 1 and 2.  The key line in chapter 1, v.26:  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  The Hebrew word that is translated as “dominion” is a very strong, emphatic word; it indicates the right to dominate and to possess absolute control over the entire earth.  Now in Chapter 2: 15 the key line goes like this:  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”  What is implied here is a significant difference of vision:  dominance vs. stewardship.  Pope Francis and many other Christian leaders are obviously emphasizing the latter:  the human being is to take care of the natural world.  But Lynn White was right that the former theological view greatly informed Western Civ which even now continues to degrade the environment because it assumes human mastery over all.  You can well imagine how all this plays out when it comes to assessing the value of wilderness.

There is another important point here:  the Christian vision is fundamentally anthropocentric, the human being is the center of creation.  This flows straight from items #1 and 2 above.  Even the “good steward” is still the one for whom everything else exists.  (And there is a strong dualism implied in this:  here I am, there is the “natural world,” the wilderness….this is perhaps a blindness to the fact that my being and the natural world form one reality.)  Ancient Taoism and Buddhism offer an alternative vision where the human being is simply a member, together with all other creatures, of a still greater reality.  Compare ancient Chinese depictions of the human being with say, European Renaissance.  In ancient Taoism and Chinese Buddhism, the key words are kinship, interdependence, interrelatedness, etc.  Now, guess what….Pope Francis uses some of this language in his encyclical.  It does not cohere very well with the anthropocentric vision, but in fact the title and inspiration of the whole encyclical comes from a source that displays still some hope that the Christian vision need not be dominated by the big human ego to be the big boss of creation:  St. Francis and especially his Canticle of all Creatures:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Here is a vision that we are all one family.  And I thought of another source of this kind of alternative vision, a more ancient source, perhaps not as clear as the one above and surely not as well known: St. Isaac the Syrian, 6th Century.

“And what is a merciful heart?  It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and at the recollection and sight of them, the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears.  From the strong and vehement mercy that grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.  For this reason, he offers up prayers with tears continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.  And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles, because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.”

(From the Holy Transfiguration Monastery translation)

And in conclusion I return to the question, What do you see when you go out into the wilderness?

“Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?”  Job 39: 26



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.

Some Notes Circling Around a Silent Center


I.   There is a Zen story:  A young monk comes to the Zen master and says, “I am a new monk in the monastery, please show me where I can enter the Way.”

The Zen master thought a while, then said, “Do you hear the sound of the stream outside?”  “Yes,” the monk said.  “Enter there,” said the Zen master.

Then there’s these words of the (Risen) Christ in John’s Gospel:

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light.”

Sure looks like two different “Ways,” two different visions.  Not really possible to blend these two into one, is it?  Neither conceptually nor emotionally, as long as we are in the field of language and ideas.  Lets try a zen approach, putting it like this:

If you say these two Ways are the same, you are as blind as the proverbial 


If you say they are different, you have no more vision than a boulder.

So…what do you say?

So…maybe ….. “Not one, not two, stop counting.”

Or maybe you could pull out a coin:  two sides, one coin….both two AND one.

Not so sure about that approach…feels like a manipulation of image and words in order to make it seem like you KNOW the reality.  Been there, done that.

There is a dualism here in these two visions that may be intractable…as long as we are in the field of language, concepts, ideas, etc.  The fact is that dualism is intrinsic to this field.  We cannot “think” our way out of this bag!  The moment we think of nondualism, we have created another dualism!!  The pair:  dualism/nondualism and we have another dualism!…and so It goes round and round….   Conceptually we find ourselves in a kind of hall of mirrors where it is impossible to see what is real.  Linguistically we are trapped in an inescapable cage of dualism, always THAT TWO, and remember what is the most fundamental dualism of all, the one that lurks in the foundations of all our ideas:  being/nonbeing, presence/absence.  And how do you cross THAT chasm!?  

According to ancient Taoism, in every presence there is also absence; and in every absence there is also presence.  Authentic Taoism provides a key here, but perhaps we already have too many words….

My ancient Chinese friend and Taoist master, Zhuangzi (3rd century BCE), gives us some advice:

“At first Tao had no name.  Words are not eternal.  Because of words, there are distinctions….  Beyond the six realms of heaven, earth, and the four directions, the wise accept but do not discuss.  Within the six realms, they discuss but do not pass judgment….  When there is division, there is something which is not divided.  When there is questioning, there is something that is beyond the question….  Great Tao is beyond description.  Great argument uses no words….  Tao that is manifest is not Tao.  Words that argue miss the point….  Knowing enough to stop when one does  not know is perfection.  Who can understand an argument that has no words and Tao that cannot be expressed?  One who can understand this may be called the treasure house of heaven….”

Trans. By Gia-Fu Feng

Lets conclude this rumination with the thought that whatever is your “Way,” it must pass through your heart if it is authentic and not an ersatz way.  There you may uncover the Ground of all the real Ways, but then you will have No-words because you will be Nobody.

II.  I recall Han Shan, 6th-7th century CE Chinese poet and recluse, and one of my absolute favorites of all time and of all traditions.  When I grow up, I want to be like Han Shan!  But enough of this “bromance,”….  I was thinking of this poem of his:

“In my first thirty years of life

  I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.

  Walked by rivers through deep green grass

  Entered cities of boiling red dust.

  Tried drugs but couldn’t make Immortal;

  Read books and wrote poems on history.

  Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:

  I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.”

Trans. By Gary Snyder

Marvelous, succinct account of a spiritual journey….

“Red dust,” a fascinating term.  It’s close to what the Gospel of John calls “the world,” but more concrete and more colorful.  Imagine a major ancient city in China, about two thousand years ago, hundreds of thousands of people.  The wide red – dirt streets filled with people and animals, teeming with activity, busyness…people in hot pursuit of their own ends, seeking their “good” in whatever way they conceive it.  Some in wealth, some in power, some in pleasure, some in relationship, some in just survival, some in possession, some in religion, some in longevity, some in influence and status, etc.  Two other images are also recalled at this point:  in the  Old Testament the Tower of Babel, and in the Gospel the man in one of the parables who builds a bigger and bigger barn in order to enhance his capacity for possession and wealth.  (Both Han Shan and the Bible seem to think that this is the essence of civilization!  A scary thought….)  

I remember Robert Bellah, the eminent Berkeley sociologist, once saying that the real reason for someone buying s $70000 car instead of a $20000 car is that then this person can say, “I am different from you.”  In other words that’s also the real point of acquiring that $70000.  Such is the realm of “red dust.”

Another interesting term: “drugs”….Snyder’s felicitous translation of the Chinese which refers to elixirs and magic potions.  Taoism, by Han Shan’s time, had degenerated into something very different from its ancient roots in Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi 8 or 9 centuries earlier.  

The next line hints at the Confucian path.

The ancient master, Zhuangzi, gives us  this morsel of authentic Taoism, and this  is in harmony with where Han Shan ends up:

“Do not seek fame.  Do not make plans.  Do not be absorbed by activities.  Do not think that you know.  Be aware of all that is and dwell in the infinite.  Wander where there is no path.  Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing.  Be empty, that is all.

The mind of one who is perfect is like a mirror.  It grasps nothing.  It expects nothing.  It reflects, but does not hold.  Therefore, the perfect person can act without effort.”

Trans. By Gia-Fu Feng

III.  Wilderness.  You would think there is no controversy about this notion of wilderness.  But, alas, you would be wrong.  It sure surprised me to find the depth and extent of the arguments.  And I am not referring to the long-standing and well-known battle between environmentalists and folks who want to exploit the environment either for pleasure or for wealth.  No, what is surprising is the intensity of the argument within the so-called environmental movement.  Trust me, “environmentalism” seems to cover a wide array of positions and visions.  I won’t go into that here; I might reflect on that in a later posting; but I do want to touch on one point.

Old time environmentalists have been under attack the last few decades from academics and so-called “progressives.”  Again, I want to reflect on that in a bit more detail later.  The old timers, from Thoreau and Muir to Stegner and Berry, have been accused of romanticizing “pristine wilderness,” of being insensitive to indigenous peoples, of creating a false  notion of our relationship to the wilds, etc.  What is missing from the current intellectual class of critics is the real sense of what modern humanity needs at the core of its being.  No one claims that old time environmentalists were infallible, but their vision has a deep truth for us.

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again . . . can we have the chance to see ourselves ….. in the world part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.”

Wallace Stegner

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
― Wendell Berry

Gimme that ole’ time environmentalism!!

IV.  Do not confuse  paradoxes with  contradictions.  Our lives contain both; but the former lead into the depths and mystery of who we are, while the latter…well, these are the things we seldom see in ourselves…more likely we see them in others….and if we do catch a glimpse of the contradictions we create, perhaps we are person enough so that we can laugh at ourselves and our foibles and self-images.  Certainly social life exhibits the contradictions of life all around us, but it is amazing how blind we can be about our own condition.

The other day I am in a car, and I notice a bumper sticker on the car in front of me.  It proclaims: “St. Francis Yacht Club.”  Wow, I think to myself.  I didn’t realize that St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of yacht clubs!!  This is beyond comment!  Then I remembered that in Incline Village by Lake Tahoe the parish church there (Anglican I believe) is St. Francis of Assisi….this is the home of  billionaires, hedge fund managers, ceo’s, etc.  I don’t know what to say!  Do any of those people go to that Church?  It would certainly be one of those prophetic and epiphanic moments if that Church were empty every Sunday.  Otherwise the contradiction is just bizarre.  Also, there is St. James Village, a gated community of wealthy people near Tahoe.  Wonder if any of those folk have read that famous Letter of St. James?

Paradox.  Something quite different.  Unless we peer into the heart of the paradoxes of life, we will never catch even a glimpse of the depths of our being.  Zhuangzi again illumines our way:

The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.

The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits.  When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.

The purpose of words is to convey ideas.  When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.

Where can I find a person who has forgotten words?  He is the one I would like to talk to.

Rendition by Merton

Alas, this blogger has not forgotten words!

V.  To conclude, let me share a poem written in China over a thousand years ago by Po Chu-I, and translated by the very talented David Hinton.  The poem has a serenity and a depth hardly ever found in western literature:

Note:  “Way” = Tao

Li the Mountain Recluse Stays

the Night on Our Boat

It’s dusk, my boat such tranquil silence,

mist rising over waters deep and still,

and to welcome a guest for the night,

there’s evening wine, an autumn ch’in.

A master at the gate of Way, my visitor

arrives from exalted mountain peaks,

lofty cloudswept face raised all delight,

heart all sage clarity spacious and free.

Our thoughts begin where words end.

Refining dark-enigma depths, we gaze

quiet mystery into each other and smile,

sharing the mind that’s forgotten mind.


A Few Critical Notes About Spirituality


  1. A highly respected Trappist abbot, Andre Louf, had this to say about the hermit life:

“  In a sense the effect of solitude is a secularizing one; it gives release from many false ideas and illusions, from myth of every kind. It teaches one how to be an ordinary human being, frail and in need of help.”

So much in that short quote; so much I would heartily agree with; and yet there may be more there than he intended but which I also found fascinating.  

Now we all live within myths, by myths, through myths.  These are one of the means that make our lives more than just “one damn thing after another.”  Myths lend coherence to all our choices, illumine our grasp of the past, and give us a horizon to aim for as our future.  The human being needs myth as much as air, water, and food.  This is not what Louf is talking about.  

Human beings are very talented mythmakers, and this is pervasive in all aspects of their lives, and this also includes especially religion and spirituality.  With the beginning of the modern era came an intellectual movement, “secularization,”  really a call for a kind of demythologizing of religion among other things.  The science of history and rationality would be all that is allowed in understanding the essence of religion, etc.  We won’t get into that here, but what was not seen is that our sense of our history and our rationality are inevitably interwoven with mythology.  You can’t have one without the other.  The thinking behind “demythologizing” is itself fraught with myths of  its own.  And all this too is not what Louf is referring to….but we are getting close.

Myths can be and often are also an obstruction to our vision, a kind of drug that mimics reality, and sometimes just plain toxic to our heart and mind.

Louf speaks of “false ideas and illusions,” things which afflict folks both in secular life and religious life.  People in secular life are fed toxic myths by their culture; they are drugged by self-images that chain them to an ultimate futility, and so on.  But people in religious life are prone to their own version of such toxic myths.   Merton has written especially well about all this.  So Louf is proposing that real solitude can have a salutary effect on these kind of ills, purging the “false ideas and illusions” of religious life.  Mostly all this is very, very true; and yet one must add that hermits are susceptible to their own version of these illusions.  No one is immune; and the purging process of “demythologizing” might be too steep a mountain to climb for some.

  1. The ancient Greeks believed that the human person was communal by nature, meant to live in community.  They had a saying that someone who lived in solitude was either a madman or a god.  Interesting implications!  

Solitude gets hard, very, very hard without a certain supply of mythology.  The hermit begins to fill the void by telling himself stories,  even subconsciously.  Stories about who he/she is; stories about what their life is about.  Inevitably and initially these stories are a kind of self-preoccupation, making the hermit’s life into something “special.”  For some this can end up in a kind of craziness; for many others it’s a sad spectacle of human beings working very hard to “fortify” their stories in various ways.  BUT…if the process of solitude unfolds in a healthy way, a kind of deconstruction of these stories, a very real personal demythologizing, begins to take place; and then one rediscovers, or more likely discovers for the first time, the “specialness” of ordinary life.  And the heavy burden of some “identity” or credentials (whether created/imposed by one’s society or one’s own fantasy) yields to the freedom and “lightness” of being nobody, a “true person of no title” as Zen puts it.

  1. And this brings us to our Zen friends, who I think best illustrate what Louf is pointing to (but I doubt he would agree with this!).  Consider the following from Zen:  

“When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinsu priest…was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.  Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.  ‘The founder of our sect,’ boasted the priest, ‘had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air.  Can you do such a wonderful thing?’  Bankei replied lightly: ‘Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen.  My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.’”

(from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones)

“A monk told Joshu, ‘I have just entered the monastery.  Please teach me.’  Joshu asked, ‘Have you eaten your rice porridge?’  The monk replied, ‘Yes, I have eaten.’  Joshu said, ‘Then you had better wash your bowl.’   Mumon’s comment:  Joshu is the man who opens his mouth and shows his heart.  I doubt if this monk really saw Joshu’s heart.

(from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones)

“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water”

“My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and chopping wood.”

Layman Pang

Much could be said about these, but I will refrain from commentary.  Suffice it to say these zen accounts illustrate a nuanced version of what Louf is pointing to.  Just my opinion, but I think that zen is more effective and goes deeper in demythologizing our personal spiritual life (though not without perils of its own).  Probably Louf would not agree!  But speaking from experience, the new Christian monk has few resources to help him/her discover the “right path”; but they will find a plethora of “distractions” of a spiritual/religious kind.  And as for the full Christian hermit living a full solitary life, if he/she is not open to this personal, intimate demythologizing of their life, they will likely succumb to a weirdness and an impoverishment that is truly lamentable.  

Closely associated with the above is of course the myth of the “special way,” which of course makes one “special.”  The rigors of a full solitude will work very hard to deconstruct the “specialness” of one’s position as a hermit, but sad to say many hermits still are able to keep building and rebuilding that fortress of “specialness.”  And the institution of the Church is there with its seal of approval.  

And for all those of us not living in solitude but caught up in “religious busyness,” here is a wise word from Meister Eckhart:

“If a person thinks he will get more of God by meditation, by devotions, by ecstasies or by a special infusion of grace, than by the kitchen stove or in the stable—that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around his head  and shoving him under a bench.  For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it.  But whoever seeks God without any special way gets him as he is in himself, and that person lives with the Son  and is life itself.”

  1. Then there is the myth of “goodness/holiness.”  Consider this story from the Gospel of Luke(18:18-22):

“And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’  And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good?  Only God is good. You know the commandments:  Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal….’  All these I have observed  from my youth.’  And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, ‘One thing you still lack.  Sell all that you have, and distribute to the poor…and come follow me.’”

What a remarkable account…so simple yet so subtle and profound.  We 

all have inside us this need to see ourselves, and for others to see us, as 

“good”; and for some the appearance, the feeling, the approbation of  

            “holiness.”  Look how Jesus, like a zen master, demythologizes that sense 

of goodness the man had in one stroke.  “Why do you call me good?  Only 

God is good.”  For too many “goodness” consists in “keeping the rules.”  

Jesus does not throw this out.  For a harmonious community and a 

harmonious way of life a certain rule-keeping is important.  But it’s 

obvious here that this man is looking for something beyond his notion

  that goodness  flows from rule-keeping.  And surely that is also us!  Jesus

calls for a total radical change, and this means also a radical change in 

how we envision goodness/holiness.

Dostoievsky’s Brothers Karamazov has a lot to say in this regard.  Recall 

how Staretz Zosima shared cookies and tea with women in his cell and 

this was frowned upon by the ascetics of the monastery.  And then when 

his body corrupted soon after death, this was looked upon by all as a lack 

of holiness.  Recall also that talk by Zosima as he goes at length to show

our great capacity to falsify every gesture of love, that the self wants to 

get some benefit for itself and vitiate even our apparent acts of self-

sacrifice.  He points to an imagined example of a man who was willing

to suffer and even be crucified as long as there were people there 

giving him adulation and applause.  But, he said, real love is a “harsh

and dreadful” reality (Dorothy Day’s favorite quote) where there is no

adulation and approval.  So it is with our sense of what real goodness/

holiness is.

And finally there is this demythologizing of goodness/holiness with a

dramatic wallop, jolting us out of the habitual narrowness of our ego self 

that thrives on images and fantasies.  So there is the example of the 

desert monk who was accused of fathering a child and who accepted 

without complaining responsibility for raising that child (same kind of 

story shows up in zen literature).  Then there is the monk who enjoyed a 

drink in a brothel tavern and conversed with prostitutes.  And how about 

the zen master who lived under a bridge in Kyoto; or, in the Russian 

tradition, look at the “fool for Christ.”  Such folks break that precious 

container that holds our images of goodness/holiness.

  1. Finally we come to the “granddaddy” of all toxic spiritual myths.  This one

comes in various packages and disguises.  You’ll get a glimpse of it in

every suggestion of “trying harder to achieve your goal”; “more pain,

more gain”; “measuring your progress”; “labor”—how often that notion 

appears in Orthodox and Desert spirituality….”the labors of the ascetics.”

One is reminded of Sisyphus and the rock he pushes uphill and never able

to reach the top.

Here zen also comes to the rescue.  Consider the following story:

A new monk comes to the zen master and asks him how long will it take 

to reach enlightenment if he works very hard at it.  The zen master said, 

“About ten years.”  The new monk was dismayed.  “What if I work extra

hard, applying myself totally all day, every day, how long will it then 

take?”  The zen master thought for a while and said, “Then it will take 

twenty years.”

Here we have a profound paradox, yet one which is also found in one way 

or another in all the major traditions.  

What is it pointing to?  First of all it is NOT an inducement to be passive, 

do nothing, advocate a watered-down spirituality, laziness, etc.  No, you 

must “do,” but then you must “not do,” as your “doing” obscures the 

point of it all.  

Note, every spiritual tradition presents you with a “path,” a “way,” for 

your journey to a goal it names.  The path has an obvious part consisting

of various practices, engagements, commitments, etc.  All this is good and

proper for a spiritual journey.  Focus and a certain kind of structuring of 

the life is helpful.  However, borrowing a sensibility from the authentic 

ancient Taoist tradition, we could say:  the path that can be named is not

the ultimate path, the journey that can be named is not the final journey;

the practices that can be named are not the deepest practices; the goal 

that can be named is not the absolute goal.

You see, what  happens on any and every spiritual journey is that the ego 

self always appropriates every aspect of the journey  for its own 

enhancement, so that all the structures and practices and teachings begin

to serve the self and obscure the Reality of the Journey.  If allowed to 

flourish, this will lead either to personal weirdness or just a plain sense of 

futility.  At a certain point one perhaps will feel like Sisyphus and the 

“rock” will become too heavy.  And the signposts of the journey, on which 

you so much depended, will no longer make sense or will not even be 

there.  For some this is the where one gives up (the self is THAT rock and

what a heavy burden it is!); or, even worse, one plunges into 

“more effort,” etc.  “double-down” on the ego self as it were (but you 

don’t realize that’s what you are doing).  But it is precisely here that one

can discover the path, the journey, the goal, that has No Name.

Wendell Berry put it well:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.”

At this point I will conclude with two quotes.  From Abhinvagupta (about 900CE), the great spiritual master of Kashmir Saivism:

“There is  no need of spiritual progress,

  Nor of contemplation, disputation or discussion,

       Nor meditation, concentration nor even the effort

of  prayer—

    Please tell me clearly: What is supreme Truth?

    Listen:   Neither renounce nor possess anything,

      Share in the joy of total Reality

and be as you are!”

And a final farewell from our zen friends:

Joshu asked Nansen: “What is the path?”

Nansen said: “Everyday life is the path.”

Joshu asked:  “Can it be studied?”

Nansen said:  “If you try to study it, you will be far away from it.”

Joshu asked:  “If I do not study it, how can I know it is the path?”

Nansen said:  “The path does  not belong to the perception world, neither does it belong to the nonperception world.  Cognition is a delusion and noncognition is senseless.  If you want to reach the true path beyond doubt, place yourself in the same freedom as the sky.  You name it neither good nor not-good.”

At these words Joshu was enlightened.

From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones



A Potpourri of Provocations, A Paucity of Platitudes

I.  The Catholic thing.  

Recently I read a news story that at first I thought it had come from The Onion, but no, it was a serious story.  It appears that somehow it was discovered that a Catholic priest had been doing baptisms “wrong” for years.  Without malice or any negative intentionality he had been saying, during the ritual, “We baptize you in the Name of the Father….,etc.”  WRONG, says his bishop and the Vatican.  The correct formula is “I baptize you….etc.”  Ok, so far I get it.  The next step blew me away:  both his bishop and the Vatican said that all these baptisms over a period of something like 20 years, hundreds of them, are all invalid….in other words these folks are NOT baptized.  This theologically-trained observer of the scene finds this disturbing!  Understand, the priest was not malicious, not mentally off, not “being creative,” not trying to do “something different,” etc……just making an honest mistake, or perhaps just trying to involve the whole community, with the full intention of baptizing people.  But Church Authorities say, Nope, no Baptism has taken place because of this one word mistake…..(and is it really a mistake?).   To an outsider this all looks like what is often suspected but seldom openly expressed: that Catholic sacraments are simply an extension of the “magic mentality” that pervades primitive religiosity….you have to say the correct “magic words” and you get the result.  I can’t blame them when I see something like this, but what are the real problems and implications of this mess.

The official explanation is that it is only Christ who baptizes; the priest is merely a “stand-in” so to speak.  He is a sign that Christ is the one baptizing.  He acts “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ.  So it is appropriate and necessary that the priest say “I baptize you….”  Such is the official word, which is ok as far as it goes; but that position does need some fine tuning and interpretation and then it all might look a bit different. 

So, first, consider the Catholic doctrine of the “Body of Christ,” the community of believers  constitutes the “Body of Christ,” the true reality of Christ in the Mystery of the Resurrection.  As the Gospel of John puts it, “I am the vine, you are the branches…..”  Also in the Gospels, “Where two or three are gathered, there I am….”   So, when this priest said “we,” he was not excluding the Reality of Christ….the Body of Christ and the true Reality of Christ was present in that “we.”  (There is also a case to be made that this priest was making a nondualistic approach to Baptism without realizing, but that is a long argument.)  One begins to get the feeling that “we” as the Body of Christ, as the Presence of Christ is not taken very seriously when church officials take such positions.  Is it only a kind of pious rhetoric?  

But, secondly, a whole other conundrum is opened up here;  we have another very interesting aspect to this matter.  The priest acts in persona Christi; the “real baptizer” is Christ.  Now consider the following scene.  Someone is dying in a public place without a priest, and he asks to be baptized.  In such a case, according to Church doctrine, anyone who is there can baptize this person.   It is an “extraordinary baptism” but a real baptism.  Now, say the one who is baptizing the person is a woman.  In effect she is acting in persona Christi.  Christ is still the baptizer, but obviously she is capable of being there in persona Christi!  But the Catholic argument against female priests has been that Jesus was a male (even though in the Resurrection there is no more male or female!), and so only a male can represent him.  And this has been made into a doctrinal absolute.  But obviously there are exceptional circumstances where a woman clearly is in persona Christi during the sacrament.  So this doctrine cannot be an absolute.  Why can’t a woman then be in persona Christi during the Eucharist?

II.  John Muir

One of my favorite people, and, alas, now accused of being a racist!  A bit of background:  Long before Muir had arrived in California and long before he had ventured into the  Sierras and Yosemite Valley, there was a genocidal extermination of Native Americans through much of California.   Incredibly enough this received a lot of support from territorial and later State officials.  By the time Muir had arrived most Native Americans had vanished from Yosemite.  The complaint about Muir is that nowhere in his writings does Muir condemn this tragic situation or even allude to it.  In fact, he celebrates the natural beauty of the Sierras in their “emptiness,” as if no humans ever lived there.  And there are some other  serious problems with his language; and his new-found critics are quite vigorous in their attack.  Below are links to two other views of Muir which show the more nuanced Muir.  Suffice it to say, whether you go with the critics or the defenders, today we need to be aware of the total context of our language and our historical situation.

But I would like to venture a bit beyond what either critics or defenders are saying.  What almost no one seems to get is that Muir is staunchly against the anthropocentric view of reality, which is dominant in western civilization.  This means that the human person is the center of the Cosmos, of reality.  As Alexander Pope put it, “Man is the measure of all things.”  During the Renaissance the emergence of humanism was a sign of this mindset.  

As I mentioned in a previous posting on western artistic depictions of nature, here we see the human being writ large.  By contrast, in Chinese art for example, the human being is only a very small part of the Total Reality.  In the anthropocentric view the wilderness, nature, is there “for man,” as a resource for enjoyment or exploitation or simple use.  The human person is “in charge.”  A goodly amount of this comes out of the Judaeo-Christian view as exhibited in the opening chapters of Genesis.  And interestingly enough, recall how for ancient and medieval westerners especially, the earth was the center of the cosmos.  After Copernicus and Galileo (with much resistance from the Church), that was no longer so.  And then with modern science we now know that the earth Is only this tiny speck of matter in an incredibly vast universe.

Now Muir is much closer to the Chinese Taoist view…even though there is no evidence that he ever encountered their art or thought.  For him, the wilderness, nature, had a value of its own that had nothing to do with its “usefulness” for man.  The human person was not alien to the wilderness; indeed, the wilderness was a sacrament of deep truths that the human person badly needed to discover; and one of them certainly was that the human is only a very small piece of this vast mystery.  But one thing for sure, the wilderness was not “yours” to do with it what you want.  And no matter who you were, brown, black, or white, natives who lived there for thousands of years or newcomers who came to get what they can from it; no matter if you were rich or poor, etc., he would not hesitate to call you out on it and in sharp language.  Not the human person but Nature had priority.  This is not a popular view, then or now.  The American poet, Robinson Jeffers, from the early 20th Century,  can be put in this camp; at times he was called an anti-humanist!  Same goes for Edward Abbey.  The fact is that most conservationists and environmentalists would not be in this camp because the more common view is that the wilderness, nature, is there “for man,” to use the old language.  It is there as a kind of surrounding resource either for human beings to enjoy or to create wealth or to make a home in it, etc.  Neither Muir nor the ancient Chinese Taoists would buy into that!

III.  State of the World

It’s a mess.  Enough said.  But one can’t help but note this awful war in Ukraine.  A lot of people are suffering this insane ordeal, and Putin is certainly to blame; but there is something that all the national media are not telling us about the background of this war, how we got “here” in the first place.   And the U.S.’s role in all this!  Of course they won’t tell you about all that….it implicates everybody, Democrats, Republicans, the ideology of the American Empire, etc….all hidden under a veneer of our patriotic rhetoric.  Take a look at this little tour of recent history:

Now another big mess is our political situation.  The Republicans seem to be mostly insane, like totally out of touch with anything real.  The Dems have a different problem.   Many years ago the humorist, Will Rogers, said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party.  I am a Democrat.”  And that begins to get at their problem:  they are a chaotic mess, a chaotic amalgamation of various interest groups, some of which are good, some of which are bad, very bad.  (You have to remember that initially the Dems were the home for the segregationists, and later they specialized in lies to get us into various wars.) In the pop media they are portrayed as “Liberals,” or “the Left,” neither of which is even closely true.  And the rhetoric of “centrism,” or “being a moderate,” is a smoke screen for the right wing agenda with which even the more sane Republicans are more comfortable. There is a small segment of the Dems that is distinctly better than anything the Republicans offer, but it’s not true of the party at large.  In fact, there are some who see little or no difference in the two parties.  Here is one such cogent argument:

V.  Our History

Lately I have been drumming on the history both of my Church and my country and how seriously It is flawed and how so many prefer to hide that fact.   This is not just “bad history” but it distorts our present and our hopes for the future.  And this glorification of our institutions is a disturbing phenomenon; a refusal to live in the truth.  It is only when an alcoholic knows he/she is in trouble that they can be helped; it is only when a person knows he has “sinned” that he can be forgiven.  But so much of both country and church seems to want to live in a kind of institutional fantasy, and most alarmingly we are urged to teach this fantasy to our children, to pass it on to the next generation.  But recently I came across a refreshing approach to this problem…in the National Catholic Reporter.  The author, Thomas Reese, is a Jesuit whom I have often disagreed with, but here I am grateful that he reminded me of something very important:  you can see American history through a kind of biblical lens, an evangelical approach if you will.  He points out that the various authors of the Old Testament do not conceal or sugarcoat the awful failings of the state of Israel.  It is all there for all to see, and its consequences fully explained.  Neither institutions nor individuals are spared.  The article was a good reminder, especially to more conservative, evangelically minded folk.  Here is the link:

VI. Lent

My favorite season.

But first there is Mardi Gras.  Everyone knows about Mardi Gras, but I don’t think many know of the roots of this celebration.  Its most ancient roots are probably in ancient Rome, then in medieval and Renaissance Europe, where a hedonistic celebration was engaged in view of some religious functions.  In the United States Mardi Gras can be traced back to the early part of the 19th Century in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, both places rich in French and Catholic history.  The celebrations and parades were put on by these secretive “mystic” societies.  The Order of Myths was one of the most prominent.

The Order of Myths chose, as its symbolic emblem, “Folly chasing Death around a broken column of life.” During parades, a person dressed in a jester’s suit, as Folly, chases a person dressed in a skeleton suit as Death, around a Greek column on the emblem float.  That motto or expression, “Folly Chasing Death Around a Broken Column of Life,” really fascinates me.  It can take on several very different meanings.

1.  First, it can be simply all-out nihilism.  In other words, all human activity is just folly chasing death…..and the conclusion of this line of thought is eat, drink and be merry…..there is no other meaning to life.  Macbeth:  “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

2.  There is an “official” interpretation of this motto by the Order of Myths:  here you see Folly chasing Death, catching it and beating it….Folly wins!  Weird!  They kind of get it wrong!  Somehow Folly (whether partying, having fun, or whatever) beats death.  Now what is interesting about this is that it’s a perverse echo of the Pauline theme:  recall, “Death where is thy sting?…….”  It is Christ who defeats death.

3.  Now in this interpretation we will have recourse to the Bible:  the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Gospels.  . recall, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity….”  This can easily be mistaken for the first reading, but here the reality of God is fundamental.  As one wise Jesuit put it to me, “All is negotiable, except the Glory of God.”  And then there is this bullseye from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 12:

“He spoke a parable to them, saying, ‘The ground of a certain rich man brought forth abundantly. He reasoned within himself, saying, ‘What will I do, because I don’t have room to store my crops?’ He said, ‘This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. I will tell my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.”‘ “But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Folly chasing Death, indeed.  This could be the banner around most of our endeavors and institutions…Wall Street, the Pentagon, our national ideology, our entertainments, our desire for more and more,  all our own little projects which we take so seriously, all our constructed identities, etc., etc.   There is a whole Buddhist approach to this, and the general diagnosis of the problem is very similar; but we shall refrain from going into that now.  Suffice it to say, this is a good intro to Lent, and it is closer to the real meaning of Lent.  We have to get way beyond “giving things up” for Lent, and focus more intently on what is real.  Lent introduces us to THE JOURNEY from the unreal to the Real.

Two Old Favorites Remembered

Thoughts and memories about two old favorites of mine.  Recently I heard about the death of Thich Nhat Hanh, and I was jarred into an awareness that I had forgotten how much I was inspired by him when I was a young man.  He and D. T. Suzuki and a few others made a home for me in Zen.  That was before I had discovered the Chinese masters and made new friends.

Thich Nhat Hanh was a monk in the Vietnamese Zen tradition, otherwise called  Vietnamese Thien—equivalent to Chinese Chan, and then Japanese Zen.  And this is how we usually term it in the West.  The Vietnamese received this tradition directly from the Chinese, without any Japanese influence, so it has that kind of “softer” feel to it.

Thich Nhat Hanh was not welcome either in North Vietnam or South Vietnam during the war years because of his  nonviolence teaching.  In fact he had to live in France for several decades before he was allowed to return home about 2005.

Here’s a few quotes from him:

“There is no need to run, strive, search or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation. Most people cannot believe that just walking as if you have nowhere to go is enough.”

“The Buddha said, ‘My practice is the practice of nonpractice.’ That means a lot. Give up all struggle. Allow yourself to be, to rest.”

“People talk about entering nirvana, but we are already there. Aimlessness and nirvana are one.”

“Many of us have been running all our lives. Practice stopping.”

“So please, when you practice meditation or walking meditation, don’t make any effort. Allow yourself to be like that pebble at rest. The pebble is resting at the bottom of the river and the pebble does not have to do anything. While you are walking, you are resting. While you are sitting, you are resting.”

“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.”

“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.”

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”


Deceptively simple words, and very vulnerable to misinterpretation.  Also, remember the context of these words and  the audience they are meant for: the modern West.  We are folks who are, in his words, “rushing toward the future.”  We practice idolatry with our so-called achievements which have the substantiality of mist, vanishing in a “breeze.”  Thus the anxiety, the fear of loss; in the face of which, the intensification of effort to “roll that boulder up that hill” which seems to be the icon of modern life. .   And when we become religious/spiritual we tend to succumb to that same dynamic (and that’s true for all religious traditions).   But Thich Nhat Hanh is here pointing us toward the “treasure” that rust cannot destroy, moth cannot eat, thief cannot take.  

But there is another still deeper aspect to Nhat Hanh’s words.  We find ourselves with a profound dilemma, an unresolvable paradox.  There are a few Zen stories and koans that illustrate the matter…like this one:

 A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”

The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

So we are to act without acting; to do without doing; to seek without seeking; to want without wanting; to grasp by…….letting go.  The spiritual life begins here.

Another quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: 

“Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a life span beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die. We believe that we are born from nothing and when we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with fear of annihilation.

“The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.”

A very challenging quote; also a deep summary of what is at the heart of all Buddhism.  And also very vulnerable to being misunderstood and misinterpreted.   More words here would not help.  It is not at the level of concepts or notions that one begins to get a sense of what Nhat Hanh is pointing to.  Here we are in the presence of a truth that either one realizes or not.  

The other person I found myself pondering is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor.  Intelligent, charismatic, he saw the staleness of Christianity in modern Germany, the social, conventional stance of a “nationalist Christianity.”  He touched the hearts of many young Germans with a vision of radical discipleship.  He resisted the Nazi regime from the very beginning.  He was a dedicated pacifist, until things got really bad when he tried to help the men who set out to kill Hitler.  Bonhoeffer was caught and executed.

  Now this was a strange occurrence.  Bonhoeffer had been one of my favorites about 40 years ago when, as a young monk, I was studying theology.  I wrote a paper about Bonhoeffer’s Christology for one of my classes and got an A, but that’s not what drew me to him!  In any case, years later I kind of lost track of his writings, and I honestly had not one thought about him or his writings for at least the last 20 years or so….until out of the clear blue his name popped up, out of nowhere, with no provocation, in the midst of some ruminations.  I could not resist revisiting some of my favorite quotes of his that still cause me to “wake up.”

And here’s a few of them:

“In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. . . . The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought that takes success for its standard.”

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

“The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.”

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our important daily tasks, just as the priest-perhaps reading the Bible-passed by the man who had fallen among robbers. When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised in our lives to show us that God’s way, and not our own, is what counts.”

“Do not worry! Earthly goods deceive the human heart into believing that they give it security and freedom from worry. But in truth, they are what cause anxiety. The heart which clings to goods receives with them the choking burden of worry. Worry collects treasures, and treasures produce more worries. We desire to secure our lives with earthly goods; we want our worrying to make us worry-free, but the truth is the opposite. The chains which bind us to earthly goods, the clutches which hold the goods tight, are themselves worries.”

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.  Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.”

“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”

“Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.”

“The gift of Christ is not the Christian religion, but the grace and love of God which culminate in the cross.” 

Two very interesting and profound human beings.  How do you compare them?  Well, you don’t.  Words can lead you to appreciate the gift you receive in their lives, but also the same words can get in the way of your own realization of the Truth they bear.  Suffice it to say that both lives give authentic witness to the Truth within us.

A Bit of History

Lets begin with India.  Vir Das is a very popular stand-up comedian from India who has been touring the US.   This is from a recent article in the Washington Post:

“The comedian from Mumbai stood onstage Friday night at the Kennedy Center with a camouflage-print shirt on his back and fire in his belly.  Before closing his sold-out show, Vir Das told his Washington audience he needed to talk about his homeland. He didn’t come from one India, Das said, but two Indias, seemingly at odds.  Today’s India is a country that is proudly vegetarian yet oppresses protesting farmers, Das said. It’s a country that worships women but grapples with horrific rape cases. It’s a country brimming with a huge, young population but is led by septuagenarian leaders with outdated ideas.” ( He could have also added, a country that espouses a religious view of reality but also allows one group to call for the extermination of Muslims!)

When this appeared online the response in India was just as expected: outrage and applause.  There were calls for censorship, for muzzling him, even for prosecution.  Not surprising considering the restrictions on free speech that the current government is bringing about or its denial of some of its real problems.  (The US State Dept. issued a travel advisory warning travelers to India that rape has alarmingly increased in India.)  But none of this is the point of this reflection.  I am more interested in the level of awareness of this young Indian, the fact that he understands, at least in part,  the “two” situation.  This can be and has been trivialized by saying that, yes, every culture has some good and some bad in it.  The situation is more complex and more interesting and more problematic than that.  All cultures, all countries, all religions live in a kind of dualism of vision.  There’s the story they tell themselves about their strengths and virtues, their truths, their contributions to the human condition; and then there is another story which is really not told, which holds a nightmare of darkness and chaos and confusion and violence, which we grapple with but try to pretend that it is not really an integral part of our fabric.  In other words, our children do not learn our real history, do not learn what were “the sins of the fathers” and therefore they are cut off from redeeming that past from its delusions and darkness. Thus they become vulnerable to the sloganeering of MAGA, to the fantasy vision of early America, to the arrogance of power, to a delusional sense of what constitutes the “good life” for an American, etc.  To put it in Vir Das’s terms:  we all live in two Americas, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not.  And each is as real as the other, and it has been that way since the beginning!

Lets recall Norman Rockwell, the illustrator.  He became famous for his “sweet,” heart-warming depictions of life in small-town America….of course almost all white with a few Black people in ambiguous roles.  These drawings appeared as the front page of each issue of the magazine Saturday Evening Post.  When the Civil Rights era unfolded in the ‘60s, he wanted to include Blacks in a fuller way in his portrayals.  The Post would not allow it unless Blacks were shown in a subservient position.  He refused and left.  When he joined Look magazine, his first drawing showed a little Black girl being escorted to school through an angry crowd by a U.S. Marshall.  So…Rockwell had visited both Americas.  The really sad part and the really alarming part is that the majority of Americans seem not to want to know the “other America.”  And this “other America” pervades the whole culture until it is seen for what it is and confronted with the truth.

Two years ago, 2019, the NY Times published The 1619 Project, a collection of essays by some historians and other scholars, to memorialize the 500 year anniversary of the arrival of the first ship bringing African slaves to the New World.  But this was far more than some “remembrance”; it examined and highlighted the impact of slavery, the pervasive effects of slavery throughout our culture and economy, how it shaped the racism that infects our institutions and our collective lives even today.  A lot of this kind of analysis has not been taught widely in the history classes of our schools.  Certainly not in the American history class I had in my high school!  And, significantly enough, teachers today who have tried to use some of this material in their classes have run into heated opposition from parents’ groups and others.  Yes, some of the claims made in The Project might be overstated; and yes this material is not really for grade school members; but overall The Project is a bullseye, and can be wisely used in high school history.  When properly used it could help everyone, students and parents, come to terms with who “I” am, who “we” are, and how do we journey as a culture and a society from “here” to “there.”  Sadly many parents want to live only in a fantasy myth of America.  (I won’t go into it here, but it is also interesting to see the academic and elite feathers that were ruffled by The Project.  Don’t think that the “American fairy tale” dominates only MAGA lower classes.)

You might think that slavery and American capitalism have nothing to do with each other.  You won’t learn much about this from the standard history books used in high schools and colleges.  See if this essay doesn’t open a disturbing door:

Then, there’s the infamous 2nd Amendment of the Constitution, the one which all gun lovers in America swear by.  There are a number of reasons why this constitutional bow to gun-toting citizens was inserted.  Among them, two were connected to the institution of slavery.  Several slave-holding states wanted this provision in the constitution to legitimize the arming of civilians who went hunting for runaway slaves…even to the “free” states.  Also, unspoken, but very real was the fear among slave owners of slave rebellions and the physical danger they posed.  You needed guns to protect yourself from retaliation!  Even today there’s quite a few whites who have this subconscious fear of Black people buried deep within them.  

I bet you never heard of “sundown towns” (sometimes also known as “sunset towns”).  I certainly did not hear of these until very recently.  These were prevalent in the South, but they were also abundantly available in the Midwest and could also be found in significant numbers everywhere else.  A “sundown town” was one where people of color were either explicitly told not to be out on the street after sunset, or there was a general understanding that it was not wise for them to be out at that time.  Here is the wiki page on this phenomenon; read and be shocked:

Lets not forget our Native American brothers and sisters.  Most of us have some sense of the physical trauma that Native Americans experienced from White America right from the get go, from colonial times all the way to the beginning of the 20th Century.  Even so, when you become informed of the details you will still be shocked.  But few of us have any real grasp of the psychological and cultural genocide experienced by Native Americans.  Consider the story below:

And I bet you never heard this story in your history class:

D. H. Lawrence, the famous British writer, lived for a number of years in Taos, New Mexico.  He was a keen observer of American mythologies and a sharp interpreter of their meaning.  Once, in writing about the frontier myths created by James Fenimore Cooper, he opined:

“But you have there the myth of the essential white America.  All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play.  The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.  It has never yet melted.”

“Land of the Free, Home of the Brave!”  Right?

Admittedly a partial truth here, a grain of truth  here…..but unless the “other part” is admitted, brought out into the light, not for browbeating people but for an authentic and collective healing (recall the scripture readings for Ash Wed. and Lent), unless we really see how we got “here,”  we will continue deteriorating spiritually, socially, economically.  To borrow from Jesus, if the “darkness” is our light, then we truly live in the Dark.

Purity of Heart: A Few Thoughts

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Of all the incredibly enigmatic, mysterious, seemingly impossible statements in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, this one is the “most” everything!  We are so used to hearing these words in church services and homilies that we are mostly numb to the mystery, even the shock value of ALL  the mysterious, paradoxical,  statements of the Sermon.  And, sadly, often what preachers and spiritual writers have to say does not help at all.  As if the purpose of religious discourse is to “take the air” out of the Mystery.  Let’s ponder this fragment of the Sermon a bit.

What in the world does “purity of heart” mean anyway?  Too often this has focused narrowly on one’s sexual integrity.  Or just keeping “bad thoughts” out whatever they might be.  The Christian tradition, as a whole, is a mixed bag in this regard.  We find bits and pieces of deep insight that at least point us in the right direction, but also we find so much of impoverished spirituality.   Then there is the other half of the statement:  how in the world can anyone “see” God?  This one is a real mind-bender!   Whatever this word “see” means in this context, it cannot be “see” in our usual sense.  God is not an object out there among the world of objects in front of our eyes.  We are not in a subject-object relationship to God.  Also, it should not be reduced to some metaphorical status as it often has been in Christianity.  Now think of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the context for the Gospel.  We are told that no one can “see God and live”(Exodus 33:20).  Also consider this pericope from the Gospel of John (14:8-9):

 “Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father,* and that will be enough for us.”d

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?e

One implication of these words is a confirmation of the Old Testament understanding that one cannot “see” God directly….you can see God’s “glory”….you can “see His ‘back’” (Exodus 33:23)….you can encounter the Mystery of God in those mysterious angelic encounters of the Bible…., so by “seeing” Jesus we can “see” the Father so to speak, the Absolute Mystery of God, another kind of “indirect” seeing but one that opens for us otherwise unfathomable depths.  But maybe “purity of heart” is even needed to truly “see” Jesus.   A lot could be said here, but I would like to push on in another way.  However, there is one question  that is very important which I will leave unanswered.  Do Jesus’s words here refer to the historical Jesus or to the Risen Christ?

Words from Thomas Merton:

“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything  that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.  These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests.  But what can the wind say where there is no hearer?  There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer.  That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”

Words from an Introduction to a Japanese translation of Thoughts in Solitude.  In my opinion, this Introduction may be one of the most beautiful and deepest reflections in Merton’s writings, and it certainly shows Zen’s influence on him.  In any case, we might want to say the same thing about “purity of heart” and leave it at that.  “Purity of heart” is not just a cipher for a bushel of virtues or a pretext for moral legalism or even the result of spiritual methods and practices.   Rather, however we want to explain purity of heart, it is what opens us to an intimate awareness of the Mystery of God…and so we ‘begin to see” God.  And here silence is best.   On the other hand, a bit of verbal-reflection might still be helpful in pointing us in the right direction.   We shall explore some aspects of  purity of heart through a three-pronged approach.

The first will be Scriptural.  The expression, “purity of heart,” or some variant of it, can be found in both old and modern works of spirituality, especially contemplative spirituality.   We can see it being used even in interreligious dialogue with folks trying to equate that expression with some expression from another tradition.  We’ll come back to that later.  But for now  we cannot get a sense of what this “purity of heart” is by ignoring its scriptural roots.  When I was in the seminary and we had our scripture class, it was interesting to discover how Jesus was presented differently in each of the Gospels, so you could see in each Gospel, and sometimes in various parts of each Gospel, something different and new about who Jesus was and what he was about.  The Sermon on the Mount is one of those moments.  And it is very interesting why this moment is totally absent from Mark and John and very differently presented in Luke; but we will stay with Matthew’s famous version.  Jesus, it is said, goes “up a mountain” and begins to teach the people.  He is presented as the “New Moses” establishing a “New Law.”   Moses came down from the “mountain of the encounter” with the Ten Commandments, which then delineated all of Israel’s relationships, both horizontal and vertical.  Jesus now opens up for us something new and radically different.  From Matthew 5 through Matthew 6 there is a collection of separate statements of truly enormous consequence.  Yes, the statements could be lined up as a series of “laws,” but they are not of that character. (They are also not what one wit called them, “suggestions or guidelines.”)   You have very little of “do not do this,” but rather much more of “do this.”  Take all the statements as a whole rather than isolate each one to figure out what it is saying; and you begin to sense that a whole new way of life, a whole new identity, a whole new level of awareness is  opened up for us.  And it seems that this is, to borrow a Buddhist expression, our “original face,” “our original nature.”

So my first proposal is to consider  the sayings as a whole; and how their revelatory function, all together, point at a radically new reality which is at the same time the oldest reality.  “Blessed are pure in heart” contains whatever else all the other expressions say; and all the other expressions contain, imply, and  exhibit whatever it is that “purity of heart” means.

For the second prong let’s look at the Desert Fathers, the origins of Christian monasticism.  These folks definitely took the Sermon on the Mount as more than just “suggestions or guidelines”!  But first we need to make a distinction between Cassian (and Evagrius) and the grand old monks, especially of that 1st generation.  Among the latter there was hardly a mention of “purity of heart” in direct terms; but for Cassian “purity of heart” was the foundation for his monastic spirituality.  (By the way, it’s interesting to see how someone like Meister Eckhart, by contrast, takes “poverty of spirit”  from the Sermon as the linchpin for developing his mystical spirituality).  In his Conferences, a classic of monastic spirituality, Cassian systematizes what in fact is more mysterious and much more vast in scope.  So he says that the ultimate goal of all monks is the “kingdom of God,” but the immediate goal and the means by which one “gets there” is “purity of heart.” And purity of heart is associated with what today we would call contemplative prayer, and finally it leads to agape, that totally selfless love.   I was taught this when I was a novice, and this sounds reasonable and it is basically ok.  But I found it a bit too pat and structured, like Cassian was trying to coral and tame something much more dynamic and wild and mysterious.  When you start out on the spiritual journey, the “scaffolding” of structures and systems and methods may be a real good, but as you go on you may discover yourself without any “ladder” underneath you!  Incidentally, that is one of the values of engaging the Old Testament:  the encounter with God is never the result of some method or system or “school of spirituality.”  It is good to have a home, but then there is the moment when you find yourself truly “homeless” no matter where you are, and that holy ground might not look like what the books described.

In any case, Cassian supposedly presents the teachings of the grand old monks of Scete; it’s as if he and we are listening to them as they teach.  That’s an effective literary technique, but it doesn’t mesh with the actual sayings and stories from the Alphabetical Collection, for example (translated by Benedicta Ward).  As Merton mentions more than once, the actual sayings for the most part are simple, humble, concrete, existential examples of a certain kind of struggle and journey, not a presentation of a system, and definitely no attempt to “map out” purity of heart.  (By the way, later writers like Palladius, really get carried away at times with fascination for the “odd.”)

Now Evagrius is not quite the systematizer that Cassian is.  He is a true intellectual, well-educated in the Platonic tradition, who has ardently taken up the desert life of the first monks.  He makes some important contributions in the early development of the Christian contemplative prayer tradition.  What Evagrius does is connect purity of heart with Platonic/Stoic apatheia….our word “apathy” comes from it, and sometimes apatheia gets translated as “indifference,” without feeling, etc.  That is a mistake.  Apatheia really means a kind of integration of all our faculties to be working in a harmonious way.  Evagrius pushes this into the depths of our minds and consciousness in the pursuit of what he terms, “pure prayer.”  Once you are no longer driven by chaotic thoughts and feelings, you are laying the foundation for pure prayer; and for Evagrius this is somehow what purity of heart is all about.  Not bad, in fact quite good but very inadequate for getting a fuller sense of what purity of heart is as it impacts all levels of human existence.  And just as with Cassian, the actual sayings and stories of the grand old monks seem to have a different feel and a different optic.

So, let me make two proposals at this point:  First of all, I propose that we do not look for a “definition” or a “map” or some schematic explaining what purity of heart is/means for these pioneers of Christian monastic/contemplative life.  Rather, among the grand old monks, especially of that 1st generation, what you get in most of their sayings (certainly not all) are what I would call “markers” or “signposts,” or, to change metaphors, a “fragrant scent” indicating the presence of something transcending the boundaries of what we usually call “life.”

Consider this story:

“Three brothers were in the habit of going to see the blessed Anthony every year. The first two would ask him questions about their thoughts and the salvation of the soul. But the third would keep silence without asking anything. Eventually Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You have been coming here to see me for a long time now and you never ask me any questions.’ The other replied, ‘One thing is enough for me, Father… to see you.’”

This beautiful story is at the same time one of those “markers” of the presence of purity of heart but without naming it or explaining it.  Also it illustrates how someone encounters that reality—not in words, a system of spirituality, etc.—but in a very concrete person.  No words, no explanations are then needed.  And this story is also very important and very exceptional in that it comes from a subculture that pulsates with the expression, “Give me a word, Abba, that I may live, that I may be saved….”  In other words, give me, in my existential predicament, my now need, that particular path for me that leads to…and this expression is never explicitly used…that leads to purity of heart.  Here this third brother no longer needs that word or any words….here is a person already well on the way….  In Anthony he finds his affirmation.  As that old pop saying goes: it takes like to know like.

And here consider this story, quite the opposite of the above, the marker here is for absence of purity of heart:

“The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults; and seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, ‘You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers.’”

This story illustrates quite well that these early desert monks understood the nature of a “counterfeit spirituality” and its consequences.  What it doesn’t show and which is illustrated in some other stories is the moment of awakening when the monk realizes the false ground of his spirituality and then begins the journey from the unreal to the Real.  And this brings us to the second proposal.

The second proposal I would like to make is more difficult to express, but it goes like this:  Lets not look at purity of heart as a “something you possess,” a state of mind or heart, a state of being, a condition, etc.  Rather, it is more like a dynamic process, a journey….   To borrow from the Upanishads, purity of heart is really the journey from the unreal to the Real, it is the very dynamism of this journey, involving the whole complex of human life, mind, heart, body, emotions, desires,….  And purity of heart in this sense is not restricted to being a monk; rather it characterizes the most fundamental call of every human being.  

However, it also touches most intimately the monastic identity.  Recall those amazing words of the great Macarius:  “I am not yet a monk, but I have seen monks.”  You are not yet a monk; you are always becoming a monk.  You are engaged in an incredible process of which you could never foresee its true dimensions.  Becoming a monk means that you declare yourself formally and openly to wanting to give yourself totally to this journey.  (I only wish that in our formal monastic institutions when a young person is professing to be a monk, they would ceremonially tell him/her, “you are not yet a monk, but you are becoming one.”  It is not a status  or a state of life but a journey with a particular external modality.)

To see the seriousness and depths of this process/journey let us refer to Gregory of Nyssa.  Gregory emphasized the infinity of God.   Just think what this means.  For Gregory this infinitude means that a limited being, a created being, can never reach a grasp or understanding of God.  For Gregory, however, this is the whole point of existence, our life, and the “afterlife”—from the very beginning and for all eternity we have this constant progression, an ἐπέκτασις in Greek (epektasis), toward a knowledge and vision of the infinite God.  We will for all eternity increase in our knowledge of God, in this movement “into God.”  And this means for all eternity our joy, our happiness, our bliss, our fulfillment will be increasing.  But this journey/process starts right here and right now, and we can call it purity of heart.  We find hints of all this in the New Testament, as in 1 John 3:2:

“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”

And another hint of this even from an old work by Jean Danielou:

“There is at once for the soul an aspect of stability and possession, which is her participation in God, and an aspect of movement, which is the ever infinite gap between what she possesses of God and what He is…Spiritual life is thus an everlasting transformation of the soul in Christ Jesus in the form of a growing ardour, thirst for God growing as participation in Him increases, which is accompanied by a growing stability, the soul becoming simple, and fixed ever more firmly in God. J. Danielou: Platonisme et theologie mystique, Paris, 1944, pp. 305-307.

Returning to the Sayings of the Desert Monks, my proposal is, then, that many of the sayings are markers or signposts of this  incredible process/journey; and if we want to get a sense of what purity of heart entails, it would help to ponder these sayings in a way that doesn’t make of them simplistic or moralistic or superficial exhortations.  Consider a few of the sayings/stories: 

“Two hermits lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, ‘Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as is the way of men.’ The other answered, ‘I don’t know how a quarrel happens.’ The first said, ‘Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, That’s mine. Then you say, No, it’s mine. That is how you begin a quarrel.’ So they put a brick between them, and one of them said, ‘That’s mine.’ The other said, ‘No; it’s mine.’ He answered, ‘Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.’ They were unable to argue with each other.”

“The devil appeared to a monk disguised as an angel of light, and said to him, ‘I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.’ But the monk said, ‘Are you sure you weren’t sent to someone else? I am not worthy to have an angel sent to me.’ At that the devil vanished.”

[This monk has “no credentials,” a “no-monk” in Zen terms.]

“One day Abba John the Dwarf was sitting down in Scetis, and the brethren came to him to ask him about their thoughts. One of the elders said, ‘John, you are like a courtesan who shows her beauty to increase the number of her lovers.’ Abba John kissed him and said, ‘You are quite right, Father.’ One of his disciples said to him, ‘Do you not mind that in your heart?’ But he said, ‘No, I am the same inside as I am outside.’ “

“Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this; ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.”

[An interesting story which first of all shows a monk recovering from a counterfeit spirituality (what some in this case might call apatheia!).  More importantly, if you don’t get thrown by the “war, struggle” language, you will notice that he moves from a static position, having this “possession” of a credential, “peace,” to a true engagement with his condition so that he can make “progress.”  The essence of a spiritual life is not something static, least of all an “identity,” but more like a journey; and at times it can get very difficult.]

“Abba Lot came one day to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Father, I keep my little rule to the best of my ability. I observe my modest fast and my contemplative silence. I say my prayers and do my meditation. I endeavour as far as I can to drive useless thoughts out of my heart. What more can I do?’  The elder rose to answer and lifted his hands to heaven. His fingers looked like lighted candles and he said, ‘Why not become wholly fire?’”

[An incredibly marvelous story!  So much could be said here, but I will refrain!]

Now we will move to the third prong of our reflection: the interreligious context.  Here you might think there is nothing for us; after all we are dealing with a scriptural term from the Christian tradition.  Partially that may be correct.  It would be a mistake to simply equate “purity of heart” with something in Buddhism or Taoism that looks similar.  On the level of language and concepts there are many possibilities for a spiritual mirage—things seem to be there when they are not really there.  A lot of good people have been fooled this way by being too hasty and overeager to reach out to another tradition.  Merton admitted making this mistake in his dialogue with D.T. Suzuki.  This is from Zen and the Birds of Appetite:

“At this point I may take occasion to say clearly that, in my dialog with Dr, Suzuki, my choice of Cassian’s “purity of heart” as a Christian expression of Zen-consciousness was an unfortunate example.  No doubt there are passages in Cassian and Evagrius…which suggest some tendency toward the “emptiness” of Zen.  But Cassian’s idea of “purity of heart,”…while it may or may not be mystical, is not yet Zen because it still maintains that the supreme consciousness resides in a distinct heart which is pure and which is therefore ready and even worthy to receive a vision of God.  It is still very aware of a “pure,” distinct  and separate self-consciosness.”

(Incidentally, this means that Cassian’s purity of heart is not compatible with a nondualistic spirituality.)

However, given such cautions, we may still find some of the previously mentioned “markers” for what is purity of heart when it begins to be grasped in its depths and in its mystery.  My basic premise is that purity of heart is not just for the Christian monk, but it is an essential dynamic for every human being.  To steal from Cassian:  the immediate goal of being human is purity of heart!  (But understood in a much deeper way.)

Consider Gandhi.  Consider this story about him:

One day a mother brought her young boy to Gandhi’s ashram.  When she met him she asked Gandhi, “Please tell my son not to eat sugar.  It’s not good for him.”  Gandhi looked at them, and then told her, “Come back tomorrow and bring the boy.”  When she came back the next day, Gandhi told the boy not to eat sugar.  The perplexed mother asked him, “Why didn’t you just say that yesterday?”  Gandhi said, “Yesterday I was eating sugar myself!  Today I stopped.”

Gandhi was trying to be “the same inside and outside” like Abba John the Dwarf.  There were truly many moments in Gandhi’s life that illustrated markers for purity of heart, but there is one word that encapsulates everything Gandhi was about and how he, as a modern person, showed a human being fully engaged in that process which can be called purity of heart and that word is:  satyagraha.  It is often translated as “nonviolence,” but literally means “holding on to truth.”  You will not find one clearer marker of purity of heart, not even among the grand old desert monks, than in the practice of nonviolence when it is authentically a defining part of someone’s life.

Then there are the great Zen masters.  A lovely way to end our reflection on purity of heart is with two Zen storys.  The first is about the great Japanese Rinzai master, Hakuin:

“A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter’s accusation, he simply replied ‘Is that so?’

When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. ‘Is that so?’ Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. ‘Is that so?’ Hakuin said as he handed them the child.”

[Two comments:  There is a very similar story from the Desert Fathers concerning Abba Macarius.  Secondly, I saw some people’s comments about this story and it was pretty sad.]

The next Zen story is from ancient China:

“A monk once asked Master Chao Chou, ‘Who is Chao Chou?’  Chao Chou replied: ‘East Gate, West Gate, South Gate, North Gate.’”

Commentary by the Japanese philosopher of religion, Toshihiko Izutsu.

“That is to say, Chao Chou is completely open.  All the gates of the city are open, and nothing is concealed.  Chao Chou stands right in the middle of the City, i.e., the middle of the Universe.  One can come to see him from any and every direction.  The Gates that have once been artificially established to separate the ‘interior’ from the‘exterior’ are now wide open.  There is no ‘interior.’  There is no ‘exterior.’  There is just Chao Chou, and he is all-transparent.”