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Two items from the recent news:

  1. The Obama Administration made a tentative modest proposal to set aside a large chunk of wilderness area in Utah and to designate it as “National Wilderness” or “National Monument” or some such title under some such law in order to protect this wilderness from ruin through exploitation.  It would only increase the size of the protected area that Clinton had already set aside.  You should hear the outcry.  Hordes of people and businesses and large companies cried “outrage,” “Federal Government keep out,” “local control,” “this is OUR land,” “socialism,” etc, etc.  The new designation would not have evicted anyone already living in this wilderness.  It would have restricted the use of ATVs–not eliminated them; it would have restricted the building of new structures, not totally prohibited them.  Most of all it would have prevented the creation of new roads, developments, and exploitation for natural resources like mining and generating plants.  I would have loved to ask these people exactly when did this land become “yours”?  When you stole it from the Native Americans and killed them in the process?
  1. A group of hunters in Alaska, hunting in a helicopter–probably fans of Sarah Palin, who subscribes to such practices–wiped out a pack of wolves.  What actually made this noteworthy is that these poor creatures had been tagged with radio collars.  So it was very easy to track them down–they had not a chance.

These two examples show a certain attitude and relationship to the “wild,” to the wilderness.  It can be characterized by the terms “dominance” and “exploitation.”  Though that is not all that is going on as we shall see–it is a view which is prominent in our culture.   People tend to look at the wilderness as something “to be used”–they will of course couch it in terms of benefit for humanity, etc.  Furthermore, this attitude has sometimes been seen as an evil offshoot of Western Civ and/or of Christianity.  However, the real picture is much more complex.  An alternative is sometime presented–a myth of serene Asians living in harmony with nature.  However, the reality is that the Chinese, for example, deforested their lands two thousand years ago.  Many ancient people were oblivious of the damage they were doing to their environment, except that they were less capable of damage than we are now.  Gary Snyder addresses the Asian myth:

“One finds evidence in T’ang and Sung poetry that the barren hills of central and northern China were once richly forested.  The Far Eastern love of nature has become fear of nature….  Chinese nature poets were too often retired bureaucrats living on two or three acres of trees trimmed by hired gardeners.  The professional nature-aesthetes of modern Japan, tea-teachers and flower arrangers, are amazed to hear  that only a century ago dozens of species of birds passed through Kyoto where today only  swallows  and sparrows can be seen, and the aesthetes can  scarcely distinguish those.  ‘Wild’ in the Far East means uncontrollable, objectionable, crude, sexually unrestrained, violent; actually ritually polluting.”

Again, Snyder:  “Although nature is a term that is not of itself threatening, the idea of the ‘wild’ in civilized societies–both Europe and Asian–is often associated with unruliness, disorder, and violence….  The word for ‘wild’ in Chinese, ye (Japanese ya) which basically means ‘open country,’ has a wide set of meanings:  in various combinations the term becomes illicit connection, desert country, an illegitimate child(open-country child), prostitute(open-country flower), and such….  In another context ‘open-country story’ becomes ‘fiction and fictitious romance.’  Other associations are usually with the rustic and uncouth.  In a way ye is taken to mean ‘nature at its worst.’  Although the Chinese and Japanese have long given lip service to nature, only the early Taoists might have thought that wisdom could come of wildness.”

What all this suggests is that our problematical relationship to the wilderness is an age-old problem and one that spans all cultures more or less.  It is in fact a human problem.  Let us be right up front–this is an axiom of our blog: human beings need wilderness in order to be fully human. We cannot prove this to be the case but we intuit its truth.  And a corollary that follows from it: what we do to the wilderness we do to ourselves. If this is true, then we are in deep trouble. And furthermore, if we live cut off or oblivious of real wilderness we become cut off from something deep within ourselves.  From the current issue of Adbusters:  “When we cut off arterial blood to an organ, the organ dies.  When you cut the flow of nature into people’s lives, their spirit dies.  It’s as simple as that.”

It is an undeniable fact that there is this dynamic in human beings toward civilization and culture.  We start out as hunters/gatherers/ herders, and we move toward farming, settlement and then  urbanity.  In the West, already in the Hebrew Bible,  you can see the tension between the values that lie on both sides of this divide.  In fact the city is already an ambiguous reality in the Old Testament.  It is out in the wilderness of the desert that one encounters the mystery of God in a very special way, while cities become the locus of prostitution, human sacrifices, economic injustices, war, tyrannical rulers, false religion, etc.  Today there is no such evident tension–there is for all practical purposes only the modern urban reality–everywhere.  Today most human beings in the West–and ever increasingly in Asia– live with all kinds of electronic media at their fingertips and are more likely to spend time with virtual reality than out in some wilderness.  (At this point we cannot address the separate problem of so many in the Third World who live in a situation that has been historically one of colonialism and exploitation to the point that they too are cut off from a healthy relationship with wilderness and at the same time benefitting little or not at all from modern gadgetry.)  If we are as human beings creatures who carry within ourselves a kind of balance of two sets of values–on the one hand that of civilizing the world around us, creating culture, and on the other that of cherishing and learning from the wilderness–then we can safely say that something has happened to the balance–it has tipped totally one way.  And this has been slowly going on for a long time and is coming to some kind of climax in our age.

A number of writers have addressed the problem eloquently and cogently and prophetically.  One thinks of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Joseph Wood Krutch, Barry Lopez, Bill McKibbin, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, etc.  There also have been fiction writers with a special sensitivity to the values of the wilderness–best example:  William Faulkner, maybe America’s greatest novelist.  And there have been prophetic organizations too, like Greenpeace and movements like Earth First–ambiguous at best in its willingness to condone a violent response to the exploiters and despoilers.  All these have been indeed a “voice in the wilderness”!!    And instead of blending all these voices into one blurred message, we will listen to them and comment on what they have to say in separate blog postings in the future–for they do have different things to say, differences in emphasis and approach and substance.  And the environmental movement as a whole has been a really mixed bag with really mixed results.  This too needs to be looked at

First, a few random quotes:

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men.  The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing.  There was nothing to attract them.  There was nothing to exploit.

Thomas Merton

[Note: not true today–mining, power and tourist industries thrive out there]

If people destroy something replaceable made by mankind, they are called vandals; if they destroy something irreplaceable made by God, they are called developers.

Joseph Wood Krutch

The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.

John Muir

It has always been a part of basic human experience to live in a culture of wilderness.  There has been no wilderness without some kind of human presence for several hundred thousand years.  Nature is not a place to visit, it is home–and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places.

Gary Snyder

Next, to begin with, let us get at least a bit of a handle on the “state of the problem”:  the wilderness areas of the United States have diminished to almost nothing.  What little is left is being slowly turned into “playgrounds” where people can run around in their “off-road” vehicles all over the place–the wilderness becomes a setting for our entertainment, the wilderness as theme park. Many people head out to the mountains in the winter to ski, play, socialize.  This is really not that far from the view of wilderness as a place to make money by extracting whatever you can from it.  John Muir saw the great forests of the Sierras as a cathedral in which his soul was fed with a deeper life; his immediate predecessors of the Gold Rush era saw the same forests as hiding untold wealth in gold and opportunity.  We have become a civilization that evaluates everything by its apparent “usefulness”–this is what makes something “valuable”–mostly usefulness for profit.  But as the early Taoists (as the Desert Fathers) have tried to teach us the very definition of “usefulness” is in question. Perhaps it is precisely that which appears “not useful” which may be most valuable and necessary; e.g., the empty hole in the center of a wheel, the empty space within the pot, etc.   So, the poet, the monk, the wilderness, as these “empty spaces”  are truly necessary ingredients of a truly human way of life.  Personal note:  I was once sitting in a roadside café in the Mojave Desert when a group of German tourists piled in.  They were travelling from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.  One of them pulled out a map and asked me for help in finding the fastest route to Vegas.  I asked him why he wanted the fastest route. It was so beautiful out here.  He answered in his German accent:  “Because there’s nothing out here.”  It is precisely that “nothing” that we need, and we need to preserve it before it becomes “something.”

Gary Snyder:  “Thoreau says, ‘Give me a wildness no civilization can endure.’  That’s clearly not difficult to find.  It is harder to imagine a civilization that wilderness can endure, yet this is what we must try to do.  Wildness is not just the ‘preservation of the world,’ it is the world.  Civilizations east and west have long been on a collision course with wild nature, and now the developed nations in particular have the witless power to destroy not only individual creatures but whole species, whole processes, of the earth.  We need a civilization that can live fully and creatively together with wildness.”

Gary Snyder again:  “The longing for growth is not wrong.  The nub of the problem now is how to flip over, as in jujitsu, the magnificent growth energy of modern civilization into a nonacquisitive search for deeper knowledge of self and nature.  Self-nature.  Mother Nature.  If people come to realize that there are many nonmaterial , nondestructive paths of growth–of the highest and most fascinating order–it would help to dampen the common fear that a steady state economy would mean deadly stagnation.”

At this point it would be helpful to interject just a brief monastic note here.  Christian monks have a long history of making their homes “in the wilderness”.  Now it is true that the monasteries tended to become “outposts” of civilization of sorts, but in the hermit tradition there was this closer rapport with the wilderness.  The hermits often lived in caves or in small cabins in harmony with their surroundings and often, as the stories and myths unfold, making friends with the wild life around them.

On quite another note let us conclude with some words from Edward Abbey from his classic Desert Solitaire:

“Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages.  In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus.  When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.  Probably not.  In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast.  This is not a travel guide but an elegy.  A memorial.  You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.  A bloody rock.  Don’t drop it on your foot–throw it at something big and glassy.  What do you have to lose?”

Not exactly monk-like, not exactly Gandhian, but you have to respect Abbey–his anger is pure, not self-centered; his passion authentic.  Like with Jesus and the money-changers in the temple!

The Kenosis of Christ, the Resurrection, and the Mystery of God, Part II

Part 1 posted Jan 24, 2010

Let us continue our reflection on the Mystery of God which we started a few postings ago. There we emphasized the importance of encountering the Mystery of God in our lives, in the depths of our heart and in everything around us. Now it is fitting that those of us who are Christians reflect on this encounter in the light of Holy Week which is upon us.  The Triduum, the celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday,  and Easter Sunday are in reality one feast, one mystery celebrated in three modes.  And it is this one great feast which should lead us to an ever-deepening encounter with the Mystery of God.  For in the Christian context we are plunged into that Mystery most deeply through the person of Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection.

There is a very prevalent hazard for Christians who especially have not been exposed to the spiritual and mystical traditions within Christianity to view Jesus in a superficial way–as God rewarding me for doing good or punishing me for doing bad or as God holding my hand “in a personal relationship” while “I do this” or “I do that.”   It is that very “I” which should be deconstructed in the light of the Mystery of God.  So when we say we need to “look at Jesus” it certainly is not in this superficial sense.  And this applies even more so to the reality of the Risen Christ.

In St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians there is this passage, which is one of those absolutely critical and central and crucial passages in the whole New Testament:

“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself [literally: “became nothing”] taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of human beings.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (2:3-8)

In Christian faith and in Christian theology it is asserted that we as human beings encounter God most fully in the person of Jesus Christ and we have “knowledge of God” most deeply through and in Jesus Christ.  When we look at Jesus we see directly into the Mystery of God.  But as mentioned before, this does not at all take away the mystery.  Hardly.  In fact if we allow ourselves to be drawn into this Mystery by Jesus, it may take us to places where our language and our concepts will fail us.  So in the quote above Paul invites us to look at Jesus, but he has stripped away all physical and historical details and focuses on the key characteristic that Jesus reveals about God:  God is self-emptying, self-negating.  This perhaps sounds too radical a statement, too large a claim.  But recall that the sign of the cross is present in every Christian church; it is the central symbol of Christianity–it says something about the very nature of the God in whose presence we always stand,  and this moment is not just one moment in a string of moments in Jesus’ life, but the climactic moment.  And recall that the Gospel of John plainly tells us:  when we “see” Jesus, we see the Father.  Also when John tells us that “God is Love,” this is also what he means–not some feeling or emotion or sentiment.  This Reality, then,  the “Mind of Christ”, which is Absolute Love, which is a dynamic of self-emptying, self-negation, is seemingly alien to our “everyday fallen existence” –which in turn is one built on self-promotion, acting in self-interest, being self-centered, confusing this ego identity as “us” etc.–and so plunged into the realm of death.   But Paul also tells us that the “Mind of Christ” is there in us now as gift, as a liberation from this false identity of “fallen existence.”  Following Paul and adapting some language from our Buddhist friends, we can say then that we must discover the Mind of Christ in our ordinary everyday mind.  From the Christian perspective, to do this we must REALLY look at Jesus and follow Him and let what we find carry us into the depths of the Mystery of God, this life of self-emptying.

Now the key focal point of this and of what Paul tells us is Good Friday.  This radical and total self-emptying of Christ on Good Friday is called in Greek: the kenosis of Christ.  We need to stop and ponder that historical fact–the crucifixion.  There was a controversial movie a few years ago entitled The Passion, which was a very realistic portrayal of how the events of Good Friday unfolded.  It was controversial for several reasons, not the least of which was the accusation by some religious people that the movie so emphasized the torture and suffering of Jesus that it distorted the Christian message, that it somehow separated it from the Resurrection, which is the real meaning of Christ.  There may be some truth in that criticism, but actually the movie has a 10 second clip right at the very end which points to the Resurrection and it is this very scene which is more “wrong” than the gruesome scenes–more about that later.  Yes, in Western Christianity there have been in the past periods when the suffering of Christ was separated and looked at in an isolated and unhealthy way–that’s a whole topic in itself.  As said above, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are really one Feast, one Mystery, one Event.  You cannot separate and isolate any one moment from it.  The problem modern Christians are more likely prone to is to gloss over Good Friday and slide into Easter Sunday as if it were a “band aid” on the human condition. The Resurrection is there with the Easter bunny and the colored eggs.   That’s why religion almost never shakes one up at the roots of one’s being, never disturbs you out of your “comfort zone,” never seems to shake anything up.  Lets ‘fess up — we don’t really want to look at Jesus on Good Friday–it can put a crimp in our shopping.  That’s why we miss the real meaning of the Resurrection and how it takes us into the Mystery of God.

Let us turn to the Russian Orthodox Church for a moment.  These people have a reputation for really focusing on the Risen Christ, and it is true to a large extent–you really haven’t celebrated Easter yet until you have been to an Easter Vigil at a Russian Cathedral!  But what is less appreciated by Westerners is the very real and sober grasp of the kenosis of Christ in Russian theology, spirituality and culture.  They have a very existential grasp of Good Friday and those lines from Paul we quoted above.  The Russian religious mind is eager to follow Christ in his self-emptying, self-sacrifice, no matter where that takes it–even to human degradation and human folly.  They have an intuitive feel for this self-emptying dynamic, and they know that it is at the core of all truth, all beauty, all glory, all life, all reality. That is why you will find in Russian spiritual writings a strong dose of humility as a requirement of the spiritual path.  This is not a self-serving version of humility as in “Aw shucks, I’m not so good, etc.”, but it is a profound abasement of one’s ego before the reality of God.  And it is manifested even physically as when Fr. Zosima bows before even those who would demean and degrade him because he knows that God is present also in them.   As an illustration of that, Russian religious culture has a model of holiness that is seldom found anywhere else but is quite in abundance even today in Russia:  the Fool, or more precisely, the Fool for Christ.  These people could be found all over Russia by the hundreds of thousands in 19th Century Russia.  They did not have the credentials of religiosity; they did not have the credentials of respectable society.  Sometimes they would put on the appearance of being mad; sometimes they would hang out at brothels or tavens; sometimes they would just be smelly homeless vagrants–and many, many times, they would really be truly imbecilic or mad, but the Russian religious sensibility detected the presence of this self-emptying Christ in them especially, so there was no distinction made between those who put on a holy mask and those who were lost in that degraded reality.  In a sense this is why Rasputin fooled(no pun intended) so many Russians into idealizing him–he seemed to be a type of Fool for Christ.  But not if you looked carefully!

This kenotic movement by God, this self-emptying into the deepest and darkest corners of the human condition cast an overwhelming spell over the Russian mind and culture.  The “humiliated Christ” slinks unbeknownst through much of Russian literature, appearing in many guises and symbols.  Most modern secular critics have little or no awareness of his presence across the pages and across the sweep of the culture–even into contemporary times.  There is a marvelous little book–very rare and extremely hard to get–that delineates  this figure in the Russian literature of the past 100 years or so:  The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought, by Najda Gorodetsky.  When this kenotic dynamic is apprehended through the “Russian lens,” then we begin to appreciate the power of their celebration of the Resurrection and how the Humiliated Christ and the Risen Christ merge into one Reality.

Very closely related to this but coming at it from a Western perspective is Louis Dupre’s The Deeper Life, one of the best “little” introductions to Christian mysticism.  He begins by speaking of poverty and emptiness:

“That ultimate poverty is also the true humility.  Too often we confuse humility with false modesty.  We secretly hope that if we accuse ourselves of imperfection, God may contradict us, asserting that we are not all that bad.  But God will not contradict us, for imperfection is real and goes to the core of our existence…. True humility consists in the honest acceptance of my imperfection.  The meaning of this humility and this poverty is not simply that of being a means to an end.  It is not motivated, as many think, by the idea that by giving up ambition and possession now I shall be compensated for it later.  Rather than being a means , poverty is a method of giving way to God.  Since to be united with God is simply to be devoid of oneself, poverty and humility are the goal….God means absolute emptiness and poverty.”

A fundamental humility, then, is not a pretending of this or that about oneself, much less is it a neurotic self-hatred that afflicts so many, but it is an existential manifestation of a very deep emptiness and poverty which is one’s real identity–it becomes a total openness to life uninhibited by private desires and ambitions.  In Christian terms it becomes a following of Christ, a disciplship in his kenosis, and into the Mystery of God.                                  Again Dupre:  “In poverty and humility I abandon all that I have and even let go of what I am, in order to reach the uncreated core of my being–God’s own creating act.  God himself dwells in the absolute poverty that knows no possession, not even that of a name.  As we move more deeply into that divine poverty, we shall be less and less inclined to place labels on God or His creatures.”

Again Dupre:  “Negative theology means far more than that we find no adequate names for God.  It means, on a practical-spiritual level, that there exists no failproof method for reaching God, and hence that my only hope lies in the humble awareness of my inadequacy.  My lack of faith, my psychic limitations…, the radical worldliness of my age, this is the dark cloud I must enter deliberately if I am to find God at all.  It is the cloud of my own estrangement, my own waylessness.  No spiritual life can take off without passing through an intense awareness of the emptiness of the creature….  This message seems far removed from the aspirations of a culture predominantly bent on self-fulfillment and self-achievement.”

After laying this groundwork, Dupre then goes on to address the particularity of the Christian mystical journey, the following of Christ in His kenosis.  He quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola:

“I desire and choose poverty with Christ poor, rather than riches; insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors; I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world.”  This “imitation of Christ” is absolutely essential to Christian mysticism–not in the sense of some external, superficial mimicry, where one is constantly looking “in the mirror” to see how one is doing, but much more in the sense of plunging deeply into the human condition both in oneself and in others, unafraid and open to the suffering one will find there.

Dupre, reflecting on Good Friday:  “Christian piety has always sought an intimate presence to Jesus’ Passion rather than a mere commemoration of the past…  To be with Him in the present of His agony and rejection when no triumph was in sight, that is to be where He really was.  But to be present to His hour means more than to be present there in feeling.  It means entering into the dark reality of my own suffering, loneliness and failure.  Only in the brokenness and pain of life am I with Him where He continues to live His agony….How dare I call what possesses so little dignity “suffering”?  Whenever I lift my eyes to the crucified Savior it is mostly to move away from my private misery, certainly not to move into it.  Nevertheless,  Christian piety teaches that very suffering of mine, however despicable and even sinful in its origins, is Jesus’ agony in me.  Comparing my pain with Jesus’ Passion may seem blasphemous.  But all suffering began with a curse.  His as well as mine.  Whether pain has its roots in private weakness and failure, or whether it is inflicted by an entire universe of weakness and failure, the effect remains the same.  To him who suffers, suffering always means failure.  Jesus’ words on the cross–My God, my God why have you forsaken me?–do not express the attitude of one who is performing a clearly understood, effective sacrifice.  They say what suffering has said from the beginning of the world and what it still says in me:  In this I am hopelessly alone.”

The old Black slave song had a line:  “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?”  Was I there in my suffering–for that is where He is being crucified–in me, not in Jerusalem.  Again Dupre:  “Perhaps I shall be able to accomplish no more than silently to accept my inability to accept.  But not more is expected: to confront my bitterness, rebellion, greed, jealousy, rage, impatience is to encounter Jesus’ agony in my own.  I must find Jesus’ agony also in those private worlds of suffering around me, which I am so reluctant to explore and so unable to comprehend.  Here also I am invited to accept, without understanding, Jesus’ agony in the uncouth, the uncivilized, the unlovable.  On Good Friday failure itself has become redemptive.  That Jesus fails in me is the joyous mystery of the union between God and me.”

Hard to speak of the Resurrection after those words!  But it is precisely here that we truly find the Risen Christ–because, remember, the kenotic Christ and the Risen Christ are one–because if Jesus “is crucified” in me and in that wretched person over there, He is also the Risen Christ in me and in that person over there.  The light of the Risen Christ shines through absolutely every darkness–nothing can overcome it.  The Resurrection begins on Holy Thursday and continues on through Good Friday , and we become aware of it and acknowledge it on Easter Sunday!  For the Resurrection is not a “resuscitation” of a dead body; it is not one event in a sequence of events–a kind of interruption of death;  it is not “picking up where one left off” at death–a kind of things continue on and on–that would be a bogus victory over death.  Recall that in the Gospel resurrection narratives both continuity and discontinuity are present and emphasized.  The Gospel makes a point about the “sameness” of the Risen Christ with the crucified Jesus–afterall he shows his wounds.  But there is also a profound discontinuity, a difference–he is also hardly recognizable even to his closest associates.  The Gospel struggles with language here, and it would be a mistake to read these passages in a simplistic and superficial way. The Gospel presents in story and symbol hints and evocations of a radically new reality.  Suffice it to say that the “victory over death” is not an overcoming of just a physical death–no, here death encapsulates a whole realm of darkness, weakness, fear, falseness, misery, frozenness, egocenteredness, despair, disintegration, etc.–our “fallen existence.”  In perhaps a bit of overstatement, we can say, with all due respect to our Buddhist friends, that the “Risen Life” is what they mean by Enlightenment or Nirvana plus_____.  What that plus is we only discover through faith.  But the Resurrection  is a liberation from all fear, all darkness, all falseness and self-deception, all manipulation, etc, and a liberation into a life suffused with spontaneity and unconditional joy and boundless freedom.  We discover  that the Risen Christ is our true identity because He has made us one with Him.  St. Paul:  “It is now not I who lives, but Christ in me.”  People who speak of “dualism” or “monism” are fiddling with language while the Mystery remains.

To be continued in Part III, the Mystery of God and the Holy Trinity.

Solitude and Silence: a few thoughts

No one has written any better about solitude and silence in recent centuries than Thomas Merton.  His long essay, “Notes Toward a Philosophy of Solitude,” as found in Disputed Questions, is the most profound exposition of the topic in English.  His classic short preface to the Japanese edition of Thoughts in Solitude is a masterpiece.  The first line begins, “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.”  Amen.

There are degrees and varying depths to the solitude and silence that people experience.  However that be the case, there is no spiritual life without some elements of solitude and silence being there.  There are a rare few for whom solitude and silence is almost total–they have been given this rare gift which really has no name, and they look at us with their sad-joyful, beautiful eyes unable to communicate the Mystery that envelops them.  Yet what flows through their heart, the silent love and compassion, is what holds this universe together.  Then there are the more numerous for whom the solitude and silence is more diluted, for whom human communication still has a vital and blessed role–Merton would be one of these; Theophane the Russian recluse would be another.  Then there are the many more for whom solitude and silence are momentary but necessary punctuations in the flow of a busy life and without which they not only get lost in the surface of things but also without which they lose contact with their own heart.  One example is the writer Anne LeClaire.  Besides her novels, she has written of her experience of taking every other Monday totally off–a day of silence and solitude away from family and friends.  She tells us: “Like too many of us, I mistook a busy life for a rich one….”

Silence and solitude are TOTALLY countercultural today. (Not that there weren’t people in the past for whom solitude was anathema in their religious and social practices.  Martin Luther, for example, had not a clue about the significance of solitude and hated it with a passion.) Silence and solitude cannot be bought, sold, marketed, used — well, there are its counterfeits which are peddled by a few pseudo-religious salesmen.  Actually religion is quite a big business today–it has been coopted by this consumer culture like almost everything else.  Religion has been drawn into turning itself into a commodity that is bought and sold, advertised, marketed, etc.  But real solitude and silence is totally “out of it”–there is nothing there that can be sold to you; there is nothing there compared to the hypnotic fantasies of virtual reality games. That’s why silence and solitude seem totally unintelligible and incomprehensible to most modern Westerners and their Third World “wannabes.”  We are increasingly self-absorbed, dumbed-down educationally not to think or see clearly and critically, entertained endlessly into a mindless stupor of virtual reality, addressed by our leaders in sound-bytes and slogans, and constantly enticed to buy, buy, buy….  Walmart and other such stores sell these small DVD players that can be mounted on the back seats of cars–supposedly so that your kids can watch movies or play games while they are in the car going somewhere.  That which is fantasy and unreal is now preferable to what is real, which has become “boring.”  Of course postmodernism has been deconstructing all kinds of distinctions, so why not the distinction between reality and unreality.  In such a world silence and solitude become more than functions of a religious/mystical path–they become radical gestures, positions of social and political resistance, affirmations of a basic humanity.  We can borrow a marvelous term from the era of Soviet Russia–people who resisted the system called themselves “refuseniks”–they refused to be cogs in the communist machine.  Today we need people who refuse to be cogs in the consumer machine.  People who discover the meaning of silence and solitude in their lives, to whatever degree, begin to join the ranks of the refuseniks.

Among the buzz words of our era are “connectivity” and “social networking.”  While a lot of good and useful functions can be found for all the technical innovations of our era, the fact is that we are way beyond any such apologia for all our electronic communication.  Just look around any modern urban setting: so many people on cell phones, even when they are with other people or driving; so many people walking about text messaging almost non-stop; so many people with something stuck in their ear listening to something else, etc, etc.  Take a look at this letter written by a young person to the magazine Adbusters:  “It has come to the point that I feel incomplete and isolated when I don’t have my cell phone.  My phone has become an inconvenience, sometimes, for those around me.  My parents have taken it away during dinner because I can’t keep up a conversation without pausing to check if I have a text message.  I am out of the loop if I don’t check Facebook multiple times a day.  I constantly crave music when I don’t have my iPod earphones snuggled in my ears.  Technology is running my life.”

That feeling of being “incomplete and isolated” mentioned by the young person above is what people fear the most.  There is a profound truth behind that fear–the human being, in Christian theology, is a being of communion in the image of God who is also Pure Communion of a transcendent order.  The human being is a pure relationality, not an “isolated island of self-sufficency.”  Something like this is also said by all the other great spiritual traditions.  However, this sense of communion, of oneness with all of creation in fact, is not at all the same as electronic connectivity and social networking.  One has to get beyond an ego sense of identity; one has to discover one’s real heart.  And the paradox is that this is done by allowing oneself to plunge into the seeming “aloneness” at one’s core, the loneliness that one meets there–instead of running away from it through external connectivity.  Silence and solitude, to whatever degree, play a real but paradoxical role in our becoming truly and fully human and divine.

But so many people fear silence and solitude to any degree; as mentioned above for many young people these are almost incomprehensible.  There are some good reasons for this alienation from the depths of one’s being.  Listen to this quote from Adbusters again:  “Someone who is poking around in the fog of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isolation, this ‘solitary confinement of the ego’ is a mass sentence–that millions of people in all the highly industrialized countries are also pacing the prison cells of the self.”  There are two metaphors here for the ego self: the fog, and the prison cell.  To have no deeper sense of identity than one’s own ego self is to be lost in a kind of fog.  You have a hard time distinguishing between what is real and what is not real.  But there is something more scary–the ego self is a kind of isolated confinement, and again if that is your basic sense of identity, then comes the desperate measures to alleviate this seeming isolation and enclosure by the facilities of modern technology.  In a sense, if I am communicating with you, I exist; if I am not communicating with you, do I really exist?  One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that the only way to break out of the isolation of the ego self is to plunge into the reality of solitude and silence. To meet the seeming nothingness at the core of our being.   It is there that we discover our true heart and our true identity, and it is there that all creatures begin to speak their name to us in the silence of our common transient being.

Let us return now to the topic of those for whom solitude and silence has become a way of life, not just a temporary abode. These people are generally called hermits.  Modern western society is probably the first social order in which such a life is beyond comprehension.   That’s why it is so difficult to speak about such a life in our context.  In general hermits seem to be especially bad in explaining their life!  Its “strangeness” to our contemporaries and its precariousness makes many modern hermits insecure and defensive about their life.  Among other things they tend to fall into the trap of telling you “how important” it is what they are doing–they begin “marketing” and “advertising” their life.  One can readily understand that because everyone believes that what they are doing is important or else why do it!  However, hermits tend to make the importance of what they are about into a message.  Hermits should look at their “hermiting” more as breathing–not something you proclaim to the world as being important, but it sure as hell IS important.  You should dwell in solitude the same way as breathing–just do it.  However, a few words about the rationale of the solitary life and a kind of existential description of its dynamic is possible even in our time.

One amazing thing about hermits now and in ages past is the tremendous variety and diversity of living that life.  There is no one pattern or one way of living the call to solitude and silence.   There are some who have had a very clearly marked out path, and they may be affiliated with some religious order or with a church.  Then, at the other extreme, are those who never had a “plan” to be hermits but find themselves thrown into a solitude they cannot explain.  They may not even be ostensibly religious.  And then there are so many in between these two.  Merton mentions somewhere that there was a report of a man who was living as a hermit in the woods of Kentucky, who had been there since the 1940s but was only discovered by others around 1960.  When asked what had brought him to the woods, why was he living like this, he simply replied, “Because of all these wars.”  Merton’s comment: “A true desert father!”

Examples of the diversity:  There is Fr. Lazarus, a Coptic hermit in the Egyptian desert who was once a university professor in Australia.  There is Willard MacDonald, who ran away from the Army when he was drafted because he did not want to go to war–lived as a hermit deep in the northern wilderness of Nova Scotia.  There is the incredible tradition of Chinese hermits, Taoists and Buddhists.  There is a fascinating and mysterious story surrounding the Russian Emperor, Alexander I(1777-1825).  He seems to have died at age 48, but his death was shrouded in secrecy and there arose rumors that his death was faked and he disappeared into the wilderness of Siberia to be a hermit.  He had been the hero of the resistance against the invasion by Napoleon(commemorated by Tolstoy in War and Peace), but he grew more and more “mystical” in his interests and inclinations.  What further makes this an intriguing story is the mysterious and sudden appearance years later of a hermit-staretz in Siberia by the name of Feodor Kuzmich.  No one knew where he came from or who he was, but he seemed to be very learned, could speak many languages, and received both nobility and peasants with a dignified presence.  Needless to say there were all kinds of rumors that this hermit was the old emperor.  And by the way, he DID look like Alexander if you aged him about 20 years and added a big beard!  At least so said the witnesses.  Modern historians are not too convinced.  But in Russia they loved their hermits, and the idea of their beloved Tsar being a hermit was just too irresistible!

In the United States there is a long tradition of secular hermits that is very interesting.  Thoreau, of course, is the most famous, even though he spent only a few years in relative solitude.  But his writing about it, and how it seemed to form the foundation of his view of the emerging American society, forever cemented the idea of  solitude, “hermiting,” with being a social critic–at least implicitly. Thoreau already saw in the middle of the 19th Century that whatever else you might want to say pertaining to the life of solitude and the value of silence, it WAS going to be countercultural within the context of what America was becoming.  Edward Abbey in his periods of solitude in the desert is a more modern example of this. But the hermit’s way of being countercultural is largely not so much in fingerpointing but just silently being “different.” The hermit’s critical stance is one that transcends all social categories–it is one with that empty space that the Chinese Taoists speak of; it is one with the wind blowing through those pine trees; it is one with the owl hooting at night; it is one with the rain filling the gullies.   The old defunct magazine, Life, did a big spread on American hermits in December of 1983.  They are all “odd birds”–and more power to them!

Returning to the explicitly religious hermits, there is a Catholic House of Prayer in Texas, where there are several religious hermits in residence.  What is of interest is the name of their place: Lebh Shomea — in Hebrew that means A Listening Heart.  What a marvelous way to “name” the hermit life.  In reality one cannot name the hermit life in its essence, but this is as good as it can get–one can go in many different directions with this name.  The human world does not collapse under the weight of all its illusions and delusions and darkness and meaningless speeches and noises because all over the globe there are those few who dwell in silence and solitude in so many different circumstances but with one Listening Heart.

A Very Sad Anniversary

Every Lent is a very sad anniversary of an event that very, very few people have any awareness of.  This event is the horrible and tragic murder of a great woman pagan intellectual, Hypatia of Alexandria, by a mob of Christian monks.  There are all kinds of reasons to remember this anniversary, but those of us on the monastic journey especially need to be aware of how even the monastic path can be coopted by very dark forces.


Hypatia was born in Alexandria around 370 A.D., the daughter of a mathematician and philosopher named Theon.  He obviously thought of her very highly and loved her because he educated her to the highest extent possible.  She became his closest collaborator but eventually completely eclipsed him.  She became a scholar in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, and she traced her intellectual heritage back to Plato and Pythagoras, not through the Christian Church.  She studied in Athens for a while, where she earned the laurel wreath, bestowed upon only the best of Athens’ pupils, and on her return she wore this wreath whenever she appeared in public.  Hypatia is said to have been very attractive and a charismatic lecturer; she held widely attended public lectures on Plato and Aristotle. At the end of many a day, she would mount her chariot, which she drove herself, and ride to the lecture hall at the academy, a highly adorned room, with swinging lamps of perfumed oil and a large rotunda handpainted by a Greek artist.  Hypatia, wearing a white robe and her ever present laurel, would face the large crowd and transfix them with her eloquent Greek. Even as a pagan, Hypatia was respected by many intelligent Christians in Alexandria, of whom some became her students–one of them, Synesius of Cyrene, became a bishop. As a true Neoplatonist, she lived a life of exemplary virtue, and she scorned the “frivolities of the flesh” remaining a virgin to the end.  According to Damascius, the whole city “doted on her and worshipped her.”


Around 400A.D. Alexandria was one of the greatest strongholds of Christianity.  However, it was also a time when there were many social disturbances and conflicts between Christians and non-Christians such as Greek Neoplatonists and Jews.  In 391, a Christian mob attacked and burned most of the library at Alexandria.  Around 412, Cyril became archbishop of Alexandria–so now we know him as St. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the Fathers of the Church.  Cyril had a fanatical group of followers and supporters in the desert monks living outside Alexandria.  At a notice from him, implied or direct, a mob would show up in Alexandria to do some “dirty deed”–like burn down a synagogue or chase some poor Jews out of Alexandria–recall that they had been there for centuries: Philo, the Septuagint was translated there, etc.  Cyril wrote some beautiful theology, but he seems to have been one nasty SOB, which makes you wonder about the whole canonization thing in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  In any case, you have to remember that the “desert movement” in early Egyptian monasticism included droves of all kinds of people, very many of them just a mob seeking escape from Roman taxation or a bit crazy or something else.  The true monks were a small minority even then.  Considering the violence of the times, the sayings of the great Desert Fathers are even more noteworthy and challenging than usually supposed.


On one day in March of 415, in Lent,  Hypatia was making her way home when she was waylaid by this kind of mob.  There is no evidence that Cyril directly ordered this attack, yet there is also no sign that he denounced this act or condemned the perpetrators.  The silence is deafening! Hypatia was seen as a threat to the authority and influence of the Christian bishop.  Hypatia was beaten, dragged into a church, skinned alive there, then her body cut up and burned. Apparently anything was ok if it was “for God,” or done “in the name of God.”  This was no “normal assassination.”  One has the feeling that if she were a man, simply killing would have been enough, but a woman who stood before a bishop as an equal, this was not to be tolerated.  A message had to be sent.  These last sentences are, of course, an editorial opinion on my part, but I feel that was the case.  The Church never has liked and barely tolerated women intellectuals who challenge male dominance.  Oh yes, there is Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila,  both of whom were named Doctors of the Church, but neither of whom were well-educated and therefore not a real threat.  Most  women have not fared so well in the Church.


This was written in homage to Hypatia by someone seeking to be on the monk’s path and to keep her memory alive.

Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Identity

This is an interesting season.  The stores have been decked out for Valentine’s Day–a commercial invention to motivate people to buy something.  We are in the dead of winter.  We also have Chinese New Year.  Mardi Gras has started.  And then comes a shocking message: “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”  You hear this if you are Catholic, and you go to Church on a Wednesday popularly known as Ash Wednesday.  You hear these words as the priest puts a smudge of ash on your forehead.  The whole thing is over in seconds.  You leave and perhaps you wipe it off or you walk around town for a while with that mark on your forehead.  Maybe you think about the meaning of those words and the ashes; maybe you don’t.  If you are Catholic, this is the beginning of Lent.

Lent is not a popular theme in our consumer culture.  Lent speaks of “giving things up,” of repentance, etc.  It seems like a gloomy thing.  And the ashes are truly a “countercultural” sign!  They don’t seem to be inviting anyone to buy anything, to have fun, to be fulfilled, to be a success, etc., etc.  Note that in the liturgy when the priest puts the ashes on your forehead, he says, “YOU” are dust, not “your body” is dust.  The liturgy cuts through all the contortions of catholic and christian theology and philosophy and anthropology about all this “body” and “soul” stuff.  The liturgy addresses the whole person, not some part of you even if there is some such part.  Indeed the whole dynamic of Christian salvation and divinization is directed toward the whole person and not just a “soul” as in some misleading language especially in the modern West. 

So there is a “you” which is you!   And the liturgy tells you to your face this “you” is dust!  This may remind some of us of a poem that Zen Master Ikkyu wrote- a bit here translated:

“peace isn’t luck  for six years stand facing a silent wall

until the you of your face melts like a candle.”

Or remember these lines from Simone Weil:

“The good seems to us as a nothingness, since there is no thing that is good.  But this nothingness is not unreal.  Compared with it, everything in existence is unreal.”

“If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God exists, we should find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves do not exist, for it is the same thought.” (And this could have been taken directly from many Sufi masters!)

What Ash Wednesday tells us and what so many spiritual people tell us is that there is something radically insubstantial about us, something so transitory, so evanescent, so empty, etc. that it can rightly be termed as unreal or as nothing.  Ash Wednesday is the gateway to Lent, and it challenges us on our own sense of identity.  Exactly who are you?  And the follow-up question would be: then what is the point of your life?  Every one of the great spiritual traditions has these questions at the heart of their teaching.  If you don’t address this question correctly you leave the person trapped within an identity of compulsion and unquenchable desire–like drinking salt water.  If you get the identity thing wrong, you will be saying, “I want; therefore I am.”  Being human will be equivalent to this churning of desire, by a constant craving that our economy really feeds off on.

Lent is a time for refocusing on our real identity, for shedding false identities, for relativizing what is merely a surface reality.  And on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, we are whacked as if by a paddle from a zen master, a jolt to a false sense of identity that we all build up: “You are dust…..”  This false identity has two components or manifestations as it were.  First, there is that psychological illusion of self-sufficiency which gets translated even into a metaphysical or philosophical position–that your individual self is a self-sustaining entity, not a created entity drawing its being from a Source transcending itself.  This is the point of Simone Weil’s quote–God exists, but if we use that word that way, we might as well say we don’t exist.  Our being exists ONLY moment by moment as a pure gift of one who is Infinite Love and Goodness and Pure Existence. We are a total, moment-to-moment pure Dependence–not an independent being.  Apart from that we are as nothing.  The fact that we “exist” in a relative sense means that God is saying “Yes” to us moment by moment.  Christian theology and piety expresses this fact by calling you a “child of God.”

The second component of this false identity is that we tend to see ourselves as these individualized, atomized selves, as if marbles in a bucket rubbing against each other.  Each person is a kind of Robinson Crusoe, a self-sufficient, self-made person, an island unto himself.  And each individual acts in their own self-interest.   Interestingly enough both Marxism and capitalism see this as the fundamental axiom of their systems.  The only difference is that Marxism wants to change the human being’s self-understanding by changing the external economic and material relations–almost as if by force making the human being into a non-self-centered creature. And it replaces the ego of the individual with the ego of the collective whole.  Capitalism pretty much absorbs the self-interested activity and depends on the “free market” and “reasonable rules of the road” to bring about  a minimizing of friction.  In other words, if my self-centered activity does not harm your self-centered activity, it’s ok.  Now what is important in all this is that both systems are operating with a view of human identity that is an illusion, a nothing really.  The Ash Wednesday liturgy then proclaims this “unreal” self as “dust.”

The consequence of getting  our fundamental identity  wrong–our “original sin”– is that we create a whole bunch of false identities–they are social constructs, images of ourselves, which we carry around and which we want to project to others.  Our social world is especially big on this–advertising lives off this.  For some the image centers on something physical: being youthful, physically attractive.  For someone else, it is being smart, an intellectual.  Still for some other person it may be the appearance of wealth and success, a position they hold,  or even the fact of being ostensibly religious, etc. etc.  Of course these kinds of things are so fragile and so evanescent that one’s life becomes very burdensome and filled with anxiety in trying to maintain any of these as a sense of one’s identity.  Thus the “word” of Ash Wednesday, “You are dust…,” is not exactly received as “good news” because it basically tells me that I am “nothing” and that is the worst thing you can be in this society.  That is why no one really wants to talk or think about death or any of its “signs”–like ageing.  But the ashes on the forehead point to the emptiness of the self, the real and total insubstantiality of the ego self and all its constructs.  Or to put it another way, borrowing from Zen, we accumulate all these “credentials” and then we confuse the credentials with the person.  But as a great Zen Master put it: the goal is to be “the true person of no rank, of no account.”  The true person has no credentials–that’s why he seems to be nothing.  Is it possible to be a social being and not have credentials?  No, not really.  Social existence brings inevitable credentials–even religious ones.  Most people first encounter you, and you encounter most people, through the facticity of credentials–except for the rare staretz or spiritual guide who sees right into your heart.  The spiritually mature person will “wear” his/her credentials very lightly, and then there are those few who are called to radically challenge the whole realm of credentials and false identity.

Returning now to our reflection, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday does not leave us with a negative message.  Indeed when it tells us who we are not, it immediately begins to point to who we really are.  And indeed this is true for the whole Lenten liturgy–especially follow the Gospel readings for the Lenten Sundays.  But, and this is a very important point, who we are is much, much more difficult to put into words than who we are not.  That is why lists of sins are so easy, or moral rules are so popular with some people.  Who we really are will be pointed at indirectly, through metaphors and symbols, through stories, and in a very quiet way that is easy to miss.

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is always from Matthew, from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18).  What is most interesting about this section is that it addresses religious practices–or to put it more precisely, turning religious practices into credentials and therefore living from a false self.  The Gospel speaks of piety, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting–even these can become parts of a false construct.  In Dostoevsky’s novel,  Brothers Karamazov, there is a character, Fr. Ferapont,  who exemplifies this most clearly!  Anyone who has any experience in spiritual discernment knows that the two areas most vulnerable to self-deception are in sex and in religion.  We are most prone to blindness in these two areas, but the Gospel comes down hard only on the latter.  Does anyone notice how many “hard words” there are addressed to religious practitioners?  Do church people pay any attention to them?  Hey, guys, the Gospel is not just speaking of those “nasty” Pharisees, who by the way were THE religious practitioners of the day!

By contrast, the Gospel invites us to go “into our room,” to go to a “secret place.”  If you read this literally you miss the point by the width of the universe!  In Russian hesychasm this “secret place” is the heart, not the physical organ but the central core of your being where your personhood stands naked, without credentials, and receives its being from God.  Truly it is not a “public” place because only you and God can be there–your ego self cannot enter there, cannot find the place because it seems like nothing, seems like “no-place,” but if God is there then all the rest of creation is also there.  More about that later.  This is also the place of real prayer because it is the place where there is no distance between you and God.  As Augustine put it: “God is closer to me than I am to my own self.”  Indeed.  This is also the place where Paradise abides within us.  In a sense it can be said that the whole point of the spiritual life is to “go to this secret place” and live from our real identity and not from all the images and phantoms that swirl in our heads and around us, the false identity of an ego centered existence.

Now note the Gospel for the 1st Sunday of Lent.  This year in the Catholic liturgy it is from Luke 4: 1-13.  Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.  The test is about his true identity.  Jesus, being truly human, has an ego self like we all do–so the Deceiver puts him to the test about his true identity–“IF you are the Son of God,” then do this and this for your ego benefit.  In other words, conflate and confuse this ego self with your identity as “son of the Father.”  Jesus thoroughly rejects it, and this is what we are called to do in Lent.  Focus on our real identity.  Reject the counterfeit that presents itself as “me.”  Incidentally, this also happens to Buddha.  After Enlightenment, Mara the Deceiver appears to him and tries to confuse and deceive him about who he is and what has taken place within him.  The sobering thought is that maybe the whole culture now plays the role of the Deceiver!  In any case, in next Sunday’s Gospel we are presented with the Transfiguration in Luke(Lk 9: 28-36).  This is the confirmation of Jesus’ true identity as “son of the Father,” but it is also inextricably linked with the path Jesus is on toward his passion, death and this mysterious thing called “resurrection.”  So this Gospel is placed as preparation in order to understand then the events of Holy Week coming in a short while.  But of course this is not only a story about Jesus, but an invitation to embrace our own identity as a “child of God,” which is also inextricably linked with the path of Jesus but in our own personal and historical situation. 

One final word:  back in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us: “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”  In a sense the truth of this can be further  manifested if we turn this completely around: Where your heart is, there will your treasure be.  If we believe that our heart is equivalent to our ego-centered self, then we will by necessity treasure all kinds of things mistakenly.  This then is the source of a great deal of unfreedom, compulsion, desire, and anxiety.  For as the Gospel also says: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures…where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.”  It is ultimately “dust” and to dust it all returns.  But if your identity is grounded in your real heart and not your ego-centered identity, then you will discover yourself as a “child of God,” filled with compassion and freedom.