Category Archives: Festival Days


I cannot believe I am writing this, but I would like to reflect a bit on this Grateful Dead song: “Ripple”–words by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia. It is an extraordinarily beautiful song, haunting in its multi-layered meaning and in its lyrical performance. There are various interpretations of it, some shallow and misleading, others catch the deeper drift of this poem. But here I would like to venture another kind of interpretation. And I would like to do this as a kind of preparation for the final installment of my reflections on Christian advaita, which I hope to have for the next posting. So, first of all here are the lyrics of this remarkable song:


If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air


Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone


You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home


Because it is primarily a song, it needs to be heard as a song in order to catch its subtle movements and nuances. There is a studio version done by the Grateful Dead that is especially clear for listening purposes and that can be found here:

But you also have to see it in its actual performance where the words may not be as clear to hear but the trade-off is that you see this amazing dynamic of a rock concert by the Grateful Dead performing this very subtle and lyrical song to a very loud crowd! And here is just one example:


Let’s begin with a most fundamental and basic view of the poem: it is both a song and a poem–in ancient times there was no distinction–and its most obvious theme encompasses the various possibilities and problems in communicating a deep experience or a deep insight in human language and through human art, the built-in limitations of language and art to express that which is most intimate and most transcendent in us. But what I would like to suggest and add that this song/poem also expresses one of the deepest dynamics of spirituality and one of the most crucial dilemmas faced by those of us who are trying to come to terms with a Christian version of advaita. (Obviously this was not the intended meaning of Hunter and Garcia but then no work of art is limited to what its creator intended.)

In talking of advaita, Abhishiktananda always referred to the radically ineffable nature of the advaita experience, the fact that you cannot express it in words or concepts, all words and concepts and thoughts and ideas, all fail in touching this experience. All you get are some images and faint reflections of the reality, the so-called “namarupa,” which in Abhishiktananda’s reckoning includes even the most sacrosanct Christian doctrines. As we shall see in the next posting, the theologians will say, “Not so fast, Abhishiktananda, our words, feeble though they be, are truly connected to the reality we are trying to express and in some sense represent that reality.” We shall argue that one later, but here let us see what “Ripple,” and the Grateful Dead have to contribute.

In ancient times poetry/song was considered a “divine gift,” in fact coming from the divine realm and manifesting it. Consider the opening line of Homer’s Illiad: “Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son, Achilleus, and its devastation…..” Also here is the opening line from Homer’s Odyssey: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…..” So in this reckoning the artist is not even really the real creator/storyteller. It is the Divine which uses the poet as a medium to speak/sing the story and in its telling/singing we are connected to the Divine realm as we hear it and take it in. The song/poem participates in a divine vision of the human drama. It is certainly not just the poet “expressing himself.” Underlying all this is an understanding of the mystery of language and knowledge as imbued with the numinous. But the “Divine” in that world is not yet a wholly transcendent realm but one simply parallel as it were with our natural world. It is simply like an “alternate universe” or like “another dimension” of pop science fiction. With the development in human consciousness and a growing awareness of a more profound and transcendent divine reality, the limitations of human language and art to “make present” that reality became more and more painfully obvious.


“Ripple” shares in all this in a most remarkable way. It begins: “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine,” and this immediately evokes the ancient and classical world where language and song illumine all and convey a kind of transparency to all. The song fully conveys the meaning of the artist, the meaning of the reality it sings about. (Classical Christian theology and spirituality seems to have that same kind of confidence in its language.)


“Ripple” continues: “And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung.” The confidence of the artist/singer is not based on his own skill or the “fineness” of his “instrument,” whether it be the “harp” or his talent or his mind. It is the “harp unstrung” which is the source of this song. This is a symbolic paradox, obviously not humanly possible, which veils the real transcendent source of the song (the theology/spirituality). Such paradox is a common motif in the ancient and pre-modern world as a way of veiling the transcendent Divine Reality as when Aquinas says that we know God best when we know Him as Unknown, and recall the Cloud of Unknowing, etc.


But “Ripple” Immediately infuses a kind of doubt about all this, a problematic that may be inherent in this level of communication between two people. Recall that the very first word of the song is “If,” making the situation more like a wish than a reality, the implication is that my words are not quite like that at all, no so luminous and transparent. But the song gets more explicit: “Would you hear my voice come through the music, Would you hold it near as it were your own?” The point is that every artist (and in a certain sense this holds for all of us in our most intimate and most important communication) has the question whether he/she have really been able to communicate their vision, their knowledge, their experience. Whether the song was done a thousand years ago or just yesterday and you hear it, do you really share in the artist’s vision/experience fully or in some incomplete and fragmented way? “Ripple’s” answer is clear:   “It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.” There is a sadness here, and the whole song has a kind of mellow sadness; but that is only due to a realization of human finiteness and limitation even at the deepest levels of our experience. The song ponders the utter futility of such communication. (And also of course theology and spirituality is a kind of “hand-me-down” and these thoughts are also broken and so totally inadequate in capturing the original experience–Abhishiktananda was saying this with vehemence at the end of his life. The utter futility of Christian theology in capturing the vision of advaita was his concern.)

But “Ripple” doesn’t leave us there; it continues:

“I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air “


The poet/singer gives up wrestling with this dilemma, and then suddenly the whole song pivots and becomes something quite new. No matter the limitations and shortcomings and opaqueness of language and art, we must continue the human effort to communicate what is deepest in us. (And no matter the feebleness in our God-language, it is the human thing to continue doing.) From here on the song actually lifts us up.   And all this is marked with this remarkable chorus which is really a haiku and gives us the title of the song:

“Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow.”


The image is once more shrouded in paradox and mystery. The “ripple” is seemingly without any cause, without any reason for being. It is not accessible to rational and “scientific analysis.” The Grateful Dead have been seen as promoting a kind of hedonistic nihilism where the human being is but a faint and feeble “ripple” within a vast and empty space and empty of meaning except to join in the pleasures of the moment. Taken out of context, this haiku could be read in that way. But within this song, it is something altogether different. This haiku evokes the paradox and mystery which imbues our real existence and this song, and the music at this point actually lifts the song slightly out of that mellow sadness which otherwise underlies it thoroughly. Recall that most famous koan with Basho’s frog jumping into the pond, as it does everytime you read the haiku, and in the splash and in the ripples from that the whole cosmos is recreated and renewed. So, really this haiku is a zen koan of sorts–what is the sound of one hand clapping? The poet/singer as zen master. Where we will find our “consolation,” our “rest,” our “place,” our essential humanity, is indicated by this koan. No rational analysis here; it eludes all such seeking. This is true of all koans; we discover what we discover as we awaken from our shallow slumber and our petty notions of who we are. But if we are going to say any words they must be imbued with the same paradox and mystery as the koan. Also, like all koans, when we become one with this “ripple” we will awaken and be liberated from our shallow dualistic vision. There is “no wind,” there is no “pebble” falling into the water causing the ripple, there is ONLY the utter stillness and the ripple. There is only ONE reality. This neither the “spirituality of nihilism,” nor the simplistic spirituality that envisions some God standing out there “making” the world and us “happen,” like the clockmaker God of the 18th Century deists who winds up the clock and stands back and watches it work. No, the “ripple” is all there is; there is only ONE REALITY but it is not projections of our ego self.

The song/poem continues in this vein. The issue it is addressing is not on the level of simple human satisfactions, wants, desires, needs, etc. These may or may not be dealt with on a simple human level and human interrelationships. So whether your “cup be empty” or “full,” there is something more urgent, more fundamental to be aware of.  “Ripple” continues:

“Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men.”


Robert Hunter, the man who wrote so many lyrics to so many songs performed by the Grateful Dead, said that this was his most favorite line and the most beautiful he had ever written. The “fountain” is that which refreshes us, recreates us; it is the source from which we draw our art, our song, our spirituality, our feeble ability to communicate the experience of the heart. It is this which we seek in all our other seekings; and it is not something that we create or construct or control. It is that which is Transcendent in us, and it is that which we truly are. Gently the song lays aside our concerns about whether our “cup be full or empty” and moves into a whole different dimension of our identity. Interestingly enough, for all the pessimism at the beginning of the song about its communication being a “hand-me-down,” and the “thoughts being broken,” it does appear that at the very least the song can point us in the right direction for this journey. (And so that would also hold for theology/spirituality.)

“Ripple” continues now with a keen insight into the journey into that divine/ transcendent identity, not made with human hands:

“There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone”


This is extremely important. The way to that kind of awakening, to that satori on the other side of that koan, to a “mystical experience,” if you will, of who one truly is, well, there is no map, no directions, no “how-to” directions, no “GPS” to guide you. And what’s more, it is excruciatingly unique. That’s why you cannot read spiritual works like cookbooks or imitating other peoples lives. There is a “terrible” uniqueness that one has to go through, each of us knows this in our hearts, that particular “eye of the needle” which beckons us, maybe not until we are dying do we become aware of it; but it is that which we must pass through absolutely alone until we emerge into a whole other vision of who we are. Death and Resurrection.


“Ripple” then concludes with some advice for those who consider themselves artistic or spiritual “leaders.” And then the whole song finishes with a line that is both sad and engaging and evocative: “If I knew the way, I would take you home.” The poem/song began with one kind of “If” statement, “If my words did glow…,” beginning with the problematic of artistic communication; and now it ends with another kind of “If” statement, “If I knew the way….,” the problematic of knowledge in the human heart. No one, absolutely no one knows the Way that You have to take to that universally recognized and yearned-for abode of fulfillment and truth and reality: Home (or whatever else we might want to call it). But the offer is beautiful and it leaves us with a sense of companionship on our own effort to make our way there, a companionship of the poem/song that will go with us into the Silence behind and beyond all words and all songs, into the Light.







David Foster Wallace

A most remarkable young man with a tragic ending. A writer of great talent who may have developed into one of America’s truly great writers and visionaries. (I personally was not a fan of his writing but I admire talent—and especially a deep, thoughtful heart– wherever it may be found.) At this time I just want to focus on one moment of his short life: a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. It is almost a legendary commencement address by now. He did not speak in platitudes or in the usual clichés thrown at graduating seniors. His surprising theme: the key to living a compassionate life. Not the usual topic for a commencement address. Here I would like to touch on some issues that he raises and try to connect these to our own spiritual journey and even to our own religious institutions.

The first point of advice he gives to the young graduates: Ruthlessly question your own beliefs and assumptions. In some respects this sounds like an intellectual cliché, but he is pushing it into areas of life that people are not comfortable with. This from a piece on Wallace in the Huffington Post:

“Wallace is quick to dismantle our preconceived notions about the liberal arts cliche that education “teaches you how to think,” and makes it the goal of his discussion to illuminate what this platitude really means. And it’s not just about critical thinking or the ability to analyze or argue well.

An important part of truly learning how to think, he says, is becoming “just a little less arrogant” — having some awareness of how little we actually know, and behaving accordingly.

“To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties,” Wallace explains. “Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.”

“I don’t know” can be a very profound position in life! We are all little tyrants of certainties that are anything but that, but alas our egos require certainty as one of its credentials. There is a built-in arrogance in the self-centered vision that we all normally carry about. So something maybe does come along and shakes this up a bit and knocks some of that arrogance off. The ancient Greek tragedians already had an inkling that knowledge (which they loved) easily brings hubris and arrogance, and it is only suffering that brings wisdom(and they knew that from experience!) Now by this we do not mean to put “ignorance” on a pedestal or laud a perpetual invocation to everyday agnosticism. If you are designing a bridge, please do get it right! “I don’t know” will NOT do! No, what we are talking about is more like the human dilemma of being human, of talking about the things that matter most to our hearts, of that which relates us to each other and to that Ultimate Reality which speaks to our hearts. Yes, certitude and real knowledge can be found even here, but it will only be on the other side of a Great Divide that is usually only crossed at great cost, in the giving of one’s whole self, in the embrace of both life and death, through unspeakable suffering. So this “certitude” and this “knowledge” will be so different from what usually passes as such in this world that it will almost be unrecognizable—but it will be marked by a profound humility, it’s only clear sign.

Now we can push our line of pondering in yet another direction: what if we apply these same words to our collective personas, our nation and our church. The United States of America and the Catholic Church are two institutions that especially live wanting to “breathe certainty” in all they say and all they do. This inevitably leads to a hubristic posture with sad and even tragic consequences. But the ability of an institution to question its own assumptions and beliefs and the language it uses to convey these is limited by the ability of its members to do that on an individual basis within their own lives. So the usual thing is that they come to accept that institutional certainty as totally natural and a true state of affairs and so nothing changes.

The next point Wallace raises: Growing is a movement from narcissism to connection. Here is the HuffPo writer on this: “We live and think from a completely self-centered place, says Wallace — and of course, it’s natural to perceive all things relative to ourselves. This is the way we automatically engage with the world — self-centeredness is our “default setting.” A very monastic perspective. A very Buddhist notion. Here again is Wallace: “”It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” Each of the great spiritual traditions wants to take us on this journey from narcissism to connection, but it is clear that our society and social order as a whole works totally against that kind of growth. So this is heavy medicine for these young graduates, who are so at home with the connections that their electronic gadgets bring but who for the most part are very much unprepared for the deeper connections of life that require a real self-sacrifice.

Then Wallace makes this point: Stay present and open. Here he is very Buddhist. Here again from the HuffPo article:

“Wallace’s address touched upon an ancient truth: The mind is naturally unruly, and if we are to live with a sense of freedom and peacefulness, we must take some measures to gain control over it. Wallace quotes the old cliche, “The mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

‘It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive,’ says Wallace, ‘instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.’”

Wallace further makes the point that for true compassion true attentiveness is necessary. But we live in a culture and society that values distractions, that wants to keep us distracted by creating false needs and fantasy images. At the very end of his address Wallace puts it very succinctly and very cogently: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

He makes one other point that may make some people very uneasy and be easily misunderstood by many others. He says simply: Create your own meaning. What does he intend by this statement? He is referring not to simple everyday meanings but to the “Big Picture” of our life. In a sense we have a choice, like in the Life of Pi, what story will we accept and live by. But he takes an especially sharp turn with these words: “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

Indeed! Good advice and not only to young graduates from a beautiful person. Sad that David Foster Wallace was later overrun by mental illness and is no longer with us. His luminous words stand out and still speak to us and his presence is with us wherever any small act of love takes place, unnoticed and unrewarded, but marking again and again that the darkness cannot overcome the Light.





Movies and the Spiritual Life

Get out the popcorn,“Monk’s Way, Sannyasi Way, Human Way” goes to the movies!  There’s a couple of movies I would like to talk about, but first let us consider movies in general as relating to the spiritual journey.  At the deeper levels of the spiritual life it must be said that things like movies are purely a diversion and a distraction and can simply get in the way.  At the deepest level it won’t really matter but there is a bit of a journey before one gets there.  But mostly it is like all of societal life, a feeble substitute for what the spiritual life opens up for us.  Go out into the midst of society, into the streets, the stores, the homes, the gathering places and look and listen to what people are doing and saying and what they are concerned about and what interests them; and you will find it’s all Plato’s Cave.  Recall: a group of people trapped in a deep, dark cave, sitting facing a wall watching the shadows dancing on the wall cast by a fire behind them.  They believe these shadows are reality.  This was Plato’s comment on our condition.  Very apt still, perhaps even more so.  The shadows are simply more technically sophisticated, but they are still shadows.  If one person happens to liberate himself and make it out of this dark cave and emerge into the sunlight, he/she will then see Reality and if that person goes back to tell his/her fellow “prisoners” about this, he will not be believed.  There is no other reality for these people.  Such is the condition of most of societal life, and it is easy to see this if you just look around you.  Thus the spiritual journey is very difficult in the midst of society, and thus so many who have gotten a sense that there is way out of this cave tend to remove themselves to a certain degree from “business as usual” society.


Movies more often than not are simply just another aspect of this “life in the cave of shadows.”  But there is one significant difference.  Before one reaches the deeper levels of the spiritual life when in fact you should just simply put away such diversions, some movies—very few, but some—can give you a sense of what is deeper than the mere surface reality.  There are movies that can indicate that there is more to “here” than this “cave of shadows.”  That is a true function of all great art, and some movies can play the same role.  Now some people might point out that there is this thing called “religious movies.”  What they mean are movies whose very content is emphatically and clearly “very religious”–Biblical movies for example.   With very few exceptions these are to be avoided at all costs(like a lot of religious art)!!  These are mostly the products of very distorted hearts  which project their distortions onto the movie screen.  Of course the whole process starts by a profound misreading of the Biblical text (which is problematic in itself and not as fundamentalists claim: “the truth, nothing but the truth, the whole truth”!) as if it were history or science or biography and then taking that narrative and using it as a vehicle for their own distortions.  Actually Christianity and Judaism have done a lot of that long before there were movies, but now we are talking about movies.  There are a few notable exceptions, and one would be Pasolini’s Gospel of Matthew which was done in the early ‘60s and is still very timely and not out of date.   For many, this movie was a surprise because Pasolini was an unbeliever, a homosexual and a Marxist—so this quiet, poetic, austere, ultrasimple presentation of Jesus in the simple unembellished words of the Gospel came as a total surprise.  Pasolini wanted to make a move about Jesus truthfully, and he used the Gospel of Matthew as his script.  So actually it is very faithful to the Gospel text in a very unusual way—you see the words in a representation of how that world would have looked and sounded.  It is done in the style of Italian neorealism with no established big actors in any role.  He used “real people.” This was not to be some distorted pious holy-card world.    A remarkable portrayal of Jesus that you usually don’t meet in Church!   Also this is not the “mystic Jesus” of Abhishiktananda, for example; nor the Risen Christ of true Christian theology; but it was and still is a very important aspect of Jesus’s life, this portrayal of a gritty, poor Jesus who is not “soft and meek” but a champion of the underclass.  Not someone who simply comes to rubber-stamp your own desires for success, especially if you are rich.  So a movie like this can serve a good purpose if it leads you to question a kind of surface piety and starts you searching for something deeper. A good religious movie can be a launching point for “spiritual depth” but not necessarily so and certainly not very often either.


Now most Biblical movies, whether you call them religious or not, are actually a block to any real spirituality.  Like I said, they are mostly a misreading and misrepresentation of the Biblical text and its many problems and difficulties in interpretation and on top of that they become projections of the moviemakers own distortions which in turn feeds on the distortions of the movie viewers.  (In that regard movies are only carrying on what fundamentalist ministers, priests and rabbis have been doing for centuries.)  A very good example of that is the new movie “Noah.”  A truly horrible movie.   It shows a gross misunderstanding of that Biblical story and furthermore it adds all kinds of elements to “enhance” the story making it simply another Hollywood disaster flick of which there have been many in recent years (one wonders what is going on in our collective unconscious!).  I was curious what some movie reviewers did with that movie and what kind of impact it might have, so I consulted one reviewer and what I found confirmed my worst fears and expectations.  This was written by Bob Grimm, and I will quote extensively:  “I did my share of Bible reading when I was a kid and teen.  In fact, I read it multiple times from cover to cover….  Of all the literature I read as an impressionable youth, none was more violent and more insane than the Bible.  Actually, I will go as far as to say the Bible is the sickest book ever written when it comes to death and destruction.  If you count the predicted Apocalypse, the whole world dies more than once in that particular piece of literature.  That’s a huge body count.  Whether you are religious or not, the Bible is, no doubt, a pretty sweet platform for over-the-top cinema.  With “Noah”, director Darren Aronfsky has concocted a totally crazy, darkly nasty disaster film befitting those few pages in the book of Genesis.”  And so on…!


But there are “spiritual movies” that are not at all at first glance religious or spiritual, certainly not “Biblical,” and these are the ones which are the most interesting, have the deepest impact and bring us to the edge of a real spiritual journey.  I would like to consider two such movies.  The first one is the “Life of Pi,” an award winning movie with an incredible story and very popular both because of the inherent interest in the unusual story and remarkable photography, and also something much deeper….  It is a truly spiritual movie but not in an obvious way—even though it has quite a few overt references to religion in it.  It is a truly spiritual movie in a way that probably makes conservative, orthodox believers in all religions feel a bit uncomfortable even if they don’t quite get the real point of the story.


So what do we make of the “Life of Pi”?  It is an incredible tale of survival of a young Indian man by the name of Piscine Molitor Patel—shortened to Pi.  A would-be writer visits him in his adult home in Canada and requests to hear his strange story of survival.  Pi tells him his whole life story from his childhood.  He asks the writer if he believes in God.  The question is not irrelevant because the whole childhood of Pi is enveloped by the “story of God.”  The writer professes a kind of agnosticism, so Pi tells him that one needs a story to introduce one to the reality of God.  And each and every religion presents a kind of story that introduces one to that Reality.  Pi of course begins his life with the “story” of Hinduism in the person of Krishna, but he is a young man with an open and deep heart (and monks would say, a pure heart) so he is open to learning the other great stories that lead to God.  And so when he learns about Christ he is deeply puzzled and troubled but drawn deeper and deeper into that story.  Then comes the story of Islam.  He takes on each story without abandoning the previous one.  His father chides him about that.  His father is committed to the “story” of science and rationalism.  It is a powerful story that makes things happen, where you control the world, etc.  His father is not interested in any other story.   So this is the first part of the movie and sets the stage for what is to come.

The next part is what most people get interested in—this incredible tale of survival on a large lifeboat with a wild tiger in the middle of the Pacific.  He spends months on this lifeboat with this tiger and a few other animals that get eaten early on.  Pi has quite a few adventures during these months at sea, but when he is finally rescued and the investigators come to talk to him about the shipwreck that killed everyone, including his family, they do not believe his story—it is so incredible.  Thus he begins to tell them a story that they might believe, a very rational, logical but grim account of how his family and a few crew members fought against each other for survival and the use of the few survival resources.  So the investigators are left to believe or to accept either story—they have a choice between these two stories.  At first they choose the obvious, the more rational story that fits their limits of understanding and imagination.  It makes “sense” within their limited perspective.  But it turns out that ultimately they write down the “incredible tiger story” as the true explanation of what happened.  They choose the more wondrous story.  And then Pi asks his visitor, “which  story of the two do you prefer?”  And the young writer also says, the one with the tiger.  And Pi then gives the main line in the whole movie: “And so it is with God.”  The young writer is struggling with his unbelief, with his agnosticism, but Pi points out to him that he is not compelled to believe anything, but of the stories he has heard, the various ones about God and the logical rational scientific one, of these which one would he prefer as the “ground story” of this world, the basis of it all.   The writer does not answer but you can see the smile on his face, a smile of relief.  So, first of all faith is not compulsion and there is no “proof” of anything in the spiritual world.  What we have is a different explanation for the meaning of it all, and that is a start.  But then, and this is what makes the conservative movie viewer very uneasy, the movie seems to be saying that all “stories of God” lead to God.  Here too you have a choice—no compulsion—you will NOT have made a mistake if you choose the “wrong one.”  There is no wrong choice.  Pi somehow absorbs all the stories of God into himself even as he seems to be an Indian Christian.  How can he do that? How can he hold in his heart the “story” of Hinduism, the “story” of Christianity, and the “story” of Islam all at the same time?  God is a Reality so far beyond any story that this Reality is totally beyond our understanding, but we Christians find that we best approach this Reality through the person of Jesus; but that doesn’t mean that we cannot at the same time learn much from the stories of Islam and Hinduism and others and approach God with the greatest intimacy through these stories.     So this is a movie that opens one on a long spiritual journey which transcends the logical rational world both of science and of theology.


Finally there is another movie I would like to consider, one that is even less “religious” than the “Life of Pi.”  This is a short little piece called “Return to Balance: A Climber’s Journey.”  This is not a major movie but a small production that you can probably pick up at your local library on a DVD.  It features world-class rock climber Ron Kauk and it is set in Yosemite.  The movie has no explicit talk of God, of religion, of spirituality, etc., but it is a deeply spiritual movie with a fundamental tone of Taoism and Native American spirituality.  First of all just the scenery itself evokes “something wonderful” underlying all our lives.  It is a beauty and an evocation right from the Chinese Taoist and Buddhist scroll paintings.  It is a picture of a world that Han-shan knew quite well.  And then there is the story of Ron Kauk.  He began his young climbing life in a very competitive spirit, in attempts to “conquer” the mountain, in impressing people, etc.  But climbing turned out to be a spiritual path that transformed his heart.  Now he dwells in the wilds and on the rock walls in a way that very few can appreciate.  He is in a very different space now than where he began, and that’s a true sign of a spiritual journey.  He uses that word “connected” a lot in this movie.  I thought of all those young people in our cities who are constantly texting trying to feel connected, and here is a man who is so deeply connected that they have not a clue about this reality.  “Connectedness” does not come from some gadget but from the heart.  Anyway, this is a very simple, understated movie with few words and no “special effects,” but one with a deeply penetrating insight into the real need of your heart.

Advent & Christmas

We are about to begin another Advent and Christmas season.  There is something peculiar about this season.  In normal secular society it simply doesn’t exist—there is only the “Christmas shopping season,” where cardboard angels in supermarkets announce the good news of lower prices.  But even in Christian circles there is something odd about how Advent and Christmas become this conflation of an eschatological  message–“Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the world”– and a memorial or celebration of the historical moment in the past of the nativity of Jesus.

And the latter dynamic itself is so often done in such a sentimental fashion as to eviscerate any sense of the great mystery behind it and in it.  We are left with the “Baby Jesus” and the creche/nativity scene and some nice carols.  I hate to put it this way, but some of us do not relate well to this stuff; and actually a whole large segment of Christianity never made a big deal out of the nativity itself.  In the Christian East, Christmas is not the big liturgical day that it is in the West—what is more significant is Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord, in other words the manifestation and the recognition of the reality of who Jesus is and the implications of all that.  Be that as it may, in the Medieval West and with some remarkable saints begins the dubious process that ends up in a kind of pure sentimentality and  feeling and emotion by the nineteenth century in most of Europe.  Also all kinds of traditions become attached to this feast, and so the celebration of Christmas is done with a lot of gusto in most of Europe.  Incidentally, the feast was celebrated with flourish quite well even as the Europeans were butchering each other–afterall they sang Christmas carols in the trenches of WWI, and in Germany during the Nazi reign Germans made a big deal of Christmas celebrations.  When these traditions arrived in the U.S., they became quickly transformed into agents of capitalist consumerism, covered over with a veneer of the old sentimentality of “Baby Jesus” and with a dash of a “I Dream of a White Christmas,”  and a sip of egg nog,  etc.  The average Joe Believer/Mary Church-Goer has no chance of being liberated into something deeper, more profound, more challenging because the average priest/minister simply recycles his old homilies and the same sentimental messages each year—though of course couched in proper religious language.  But make no mistake about it—the real revolutionary, shattering reality is left untouched, unnoticed….  Interestingly enough Dickens, in 19th Century England, tried to penetrate the “façade” of this kind of Christmas in his story A Christmas Carol, where he depicts the radical transformation on Christmas night  of the greedy, despairing Ebeneezer Scrooge, icon of unfettered 19th century capitalism.  What is especially interesting is that Dickens has no recourse to the “Baby Jesus”–instead he has Scrooge see his own life from several different perspectives, including Death.  Now Dickens is not really very successful in what he is trying to do because he is still too enmeshed in the 19th century sensibility of sentimentality, but the try is worthy of praise.  Another commendable example can be found in Thomas Merton, in his little-known book entitled “Raids on the Unspeakable,” in which there is a short meditation simply on one scriptural line: “There was no room for them in the inn.”  The title of the essay is “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room.”  This is as good as you can go with the traditional language, but go further we must.

But now we have gotten way ahead of ourselves.  Let us return to our consideration of Advent itself.  Its eschatological message presents its own problems.  Each year we hear the same message:  Christ will come again, a Second Coming, an End of the World, etc.  Lots and lots of theological issues underlying all this.  Fundamentalists and literalists become fixated by this kind of language as if that were the essence of their faith.  Most others however simply become kind of numb to this language as it gets repeated over and over, year after year….  Already among medieval spiritual writers there is an attempt to put this language into a larger spiritual context, so they put it all together in this one phrase:  The Christ Who Comes or The God Who Comes.  First, Christ came into history through the Incarnation and the Nativity celebrated at Christmas; then Christ comes daily into our hearts and into the Real Presence of the Eucharist(mostly Catholic belief); then there is the Christ who will come in the future to bring it all to fulfillment and conclusion.  As I said above, lots of theological issues here to be sure.  Not the least of which is the status of what we call the Old Testament; nor the meaning of that little term, “comes.”  Exactly what does THAT mean?  A few mystics have balked at this language.  This kind of language is so characteristic of the West in its tendency to “externalize” God as a reality “somewhere” out there and so then He “comes” “here”–whatever that means.  This does not resonate well to those who have imbibed deeply of the Asian mystical traditions or even of certain strains of Christian mysticism.

At this point let me quote from Abhishiktananda:

To a monk friend of his in France he wrote in 1960:  “We are now in the middle of advent, that time which is so dear to you.  I admit to being a little weary of these liturgical years coming again and again, which promise so much and leave you apparently where you were before.  So the Jewish prophets, who always foretold wrath for tomorrow, used to paint the day following in shades of eschatological triumph.  As age increases, I get tired of waiting for that to come.  The John of the Gospel is no longer the John of Patmos (i.e. of the Book of Revelation): everything happens within (John 14), and as our sages here say:  It is already here, just realize it.”

And to a friend who was a Carmelite nun in India and who was dreading another Christmas with her fellow nuns, he wrote in 1970:  “Your Christmas will be an interior exile.  How well I understand you!  That is why as a rule I try to spend Christmas and Easter in silence and solitude.  With you this is not a lack of ‘incarnation,’ but simply a difference of approach and calling.  Quite simply accept that you are different, or rather that your sisters should be different; prepare the creches in all simplicity.  It can’t be helped; contact with the depth and the atmosphere of ‘depth’ in which contact with Vedanta makes us live, inevitably uproots us.  Advent, for example, in which I took such delight twenty or thirty years ago, now says so little to me, even though its poetry contains infinite echoes, far beyond the disappointing words.  Who is coming?  And from where?  In order to experience Advent as in time past, I should have to be able to remove myself from the blazing Presence, and dream that it was still ‘coming.’  NOT A ‘WAITING,’ BUT AN AWAKENING SHOULD CONSTITUTE A CHRISTIAN LITURGY(blogger’s emphasis, not the author’s!)….  Add to that the fact that the poetry of the liturgy anesthetizes  Christians who are too often happy to repeat each year, ‘He will come and will not delay,’ while the poor look in vain for bread, shelter and respect.  Advent is the cry of the poor, humiliated and frustrated,…who are WAITING for me, the Christian, to come to their help….”

And finally just a year before he died he writes to his sister:  “A good and holy Christmas—but Christmas is every day, when you have discovered the non-time of your own origin!  Each moment is the dawn of eternity in the explosion of the joy of Being.”

There is an awful lot packed in these words.  Just a few of the many points:

A. Without directly saying so, Abhishiktananda calls into question our reading of certain scriptural language—all that eschatological language of “waiting” and “coming,” both in the Old Testament and in the Gospels and in the Letters and in Revelation (by the way, has anyone really read the macabre goriness of the language in that book?).  He is quite right to challenge it because there are certain strains of Christian theology and spirituality that have made this a “big deal.”  We are termed the “Advent People” who are always waiting for God.  But what if all that language is mythic in the deepest sense of the term?  Referring to something quite else?  Anyone who has even glimpsed their intimacy with the Mystery of God will find the language of “waiting” and “coming” too lame to sustain their experience in the world of language.

B.  Following that up, anyone who has encountered India’s call to interiority; anyone who has been touched by the nondualism of advaita even in Christian mysticism, such a one will not be satisfied with the language of “waiting”or “coming.”  Rather, the key word for them–and really for all of us–is “awakening.”

C.  Many Christian theologians and spiritual writers will be critical of this approach.  They will say that through this “Hindu optic” you lose sight of the historical element and historical character of Christianity.  It is rooted in particular moments in time and in particular places in space.  Thus, we have Jesus of Nazareth, born under Caesar Augustus, crucified in Jerusalem under the Procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, etc., etc.  But what these “facts” mean and their significance needs much deeper pondering, exploration, and debate quite frankly. Because if Christianity grounds itself in “historical facticity” and brushes aside the great world religions(Hinduism, Buddhism and even Sufism in Islam)as their approach to such “facts” varies quite a bit; or if Christianitytakes on  an air of superiority to such  “ahistorical” religions, then paradoxically Christianity is poised to MISS the “coming of the Lord” as He COMES to it in this historical moment through these religions.

D. Finally, there is the poignant “coming” that Abhishiktananda himself points to.  It is the coming of Christ that the poor and wretched of the earth are waiting for—IT IS CHRIST IN US WHO IS TO COME TO THEM!  To feed the hungry, to liberate the oppressed, to wipe away every tear….  This is the real Parousia, and it is only we who are holding it back.  Amen.

Muir’s Church and Snyder’s Religion

One of the characteristics of the modern era is the presence of individuals who have a keen religious sensibility but who no longer can walk the path of the traditional religions.  They have been often disparaged by the “traditionalists” as “doing their own thing,” engaging in a “do-it-yourself” religion, succumbing to an illusory individualism characteristic of modernism, “New Agers” with weird amalgams from various religions, self-centered, self-absorbed, and so on, and so on.  A lot of this criticism is not far off and probably well-earned!  But not in all cases.  There are those persons which the traditional bodies cannot hold–for whatever reason their religious sensibility takes them into uncharted territory.  In fact, those who easily fit in with the traditional bodies, without any friction, without any pain or disagreement, these may have the more serious problem because ALL the traditional bodies have shown a very real dysfunctionality and to be in harmony with THAT is not exactly a recommendation!  To borrow an image: to a crowd that is running away from the Center, the one person who is heading in the opposite direction will seem like the one who is heading in the wrong direction and running away–often the complaint about someone who is “dropping out” and becoming a monk.  Be that as it may, two people who exemplify what we are describing are John Muir and Gary Snyder.

John Muir

Muir is not generally recognized as a religious figure.  He is almost always seen as one of the fathers of the environmental movement in the U.S., as a founder of the Sierra Club(which today he probably would not support at all!), as a lover of the wilderness.  Born in 1838 in Scotland, he was raised in a very strict Protestant home.  His father did not think that the Church of Scotland was strict enough and when the family had moved to the U.S., to Wisconsin, he joined or formed a very strict Christian sect.  By 11 the young Muir had memorized all of the New Testament and a good part of the Old Testament.  But he rebelled against this Christianity and walked away from it all, literally and figuratively.  As a young man he walked all over the developing U.S. and even into Canada in the 1860s–avoiding the Civil War. He knew he could not live without daily intimacy with wild nature and mulled over ways he could live outdoors, “not as a mere sport or plaything excursion, but to find the Law that governs the relations subsisting between human beings and Nature.”   He came to California in 1868, and when he saw the Sierras, that part that is now called Yosemite, he said: “No temple made with hands can compare with this.”  In fact he never stepped into another church ever again, preferring the wilderness.  He wrote: “I never tried to abandon creeds or code of civilization; they went away of their own accord, melting and evaporating noiselessly without any effort and without leaving any consciousness of loss.”

He travelled always alone.  And it is amusing to note what he carried with him, compared to today’s hikers with all their great equipment:  a tin cup, an army jacket, tea, dry bread, a copy of Emerson, reading Emerson by campfire under the stars.  So, no tent, no sleeping bag, etc.  He delighted in experiencing the wilderness “close to his skin” as it were.  One time, in order to experience an oncoming mountain storm, he somehow climbed a tree and lashed himself to it and stayed there while tremendous mountain winds blew and rain fell and the tree swayed violently(storm gusts in the Sierras can get up to 100mph).

Emerson was the only “idea person” or religious figure of any kind that he liked(in this he was close also to that other giant of the environmental movement, Thoreau).  Emerson came out West one time, met Muir, was deeply impressed by him, and offered him a professorship at Harvard.  Muir declined:  “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere professorship.”

What many in the environmental movement do not realize is that the foundation of Muir’s relatedness to wilderness and nature was a sense of God’s presence.  Much more so than in any organized religion.  He thought much of Christianity’s doctrines were bogus, but he had this very deep and abiding realization of God’s presence in the sacrament of the wilderness.  And he went to it like someone going to a church, a holy place, etc.

This had many important implications for what Muir proposed pertaining to the role of wilderness in the national outlook.  There were a number of people that were sympathetic to Muir’s appreciation of nature, but their outlook was more what is called today “wise use.”  Meaning, the wilderness should be protected up to a point for recreational use, but also used for economic development.  Muir vigorously disagreed.  For him that would be like using a church as a shopping mall on Monday through Friday and then for worship on Sat and Sunday.  Or something like that.  The wilderness was a sacrament of something much deeper than any mere economic or recreational exploitation could ever access.  “Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal, or heaven cannot heal, for the earth as seen in the clean wilds of the mountains is about as divine as anything the heart of man can conceive.”

Muir felt a closeness and intimacy with the wild that few moderns ever experience:  “The sun shines not on us but in us, as if truly part and parent of us.  The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing….”  “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home, that wilderness is a necessity.”  Ah, if only that were true and not just a wishful thought on Muir’s part.

As old age crept up on him, he would spend more time in the Bay Area in California, going out to his beloved Yosemite only for a few months at a time.  When he finally died, he was buried in Martinez–with his bodily remains near shipping lanes, oil refineries, congested highways, and the noise of civilization, but the real Muir is somewhere else–Home, of which the wilderness was always a sacrament for him.

  1. Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder, a well-known American poet, is also very much a part of the picture of the American environmental movement and one who also has spent a considerable time in the mountains of the American West.  He shares much with Muir in terms of their common love and appreciation for the wild.  With regard to religion, however, he is decidely different from Muir.  Snyder, although born before World War II, grew up and was educated in post-war America, in the Northwest and in California.  In fact, in his old age he is teaching now at UC Davis and living in his own cabin in the foothills of the Sierras.  Snyder is also much more educated than Muir ever was–he has a master’s degree in Asian languages from UC Berkeley and is fluent in Chinese and Japanese.  It is this which enabled him to have a very intimate knowledge of Buddhism.  He spent a considerable time at a Japanese Zen monastery in Kyoto undergoing the traditional life in the Rinzai lineage.  He speaks of it with great affection, but he is also aware of the problems Buddhism has had historically, and he is not afraid to speak of those also.  This goes double for all the other great world religions–Snyder considers them all just a watered-down version, an obfuscated version of something more primitive, deeper and more archaic–this he hesitates to even call “religion.”  It is a religious consciousness but it doesn’t refer to any “ecclesial God” but to the interconnectedness of all reality–thus his preference for Buddhism–and it expresses itself in mythopoetic terms that can be found in all the great religions in one way or another.

Snyder definitely has a preference for the archaic and the primitive as opposed to the modern civilized–especially in regard to religion:  “We all know what primitive cultures don’t have.  What they do have is this knowledge of connection and responsibility that amounts to a spiritual ascesis for the whole community.  Monks of Christianity or Buddhism, ‘leaving the world'(which means the games of society), are trying, in a decadent way, to achieve what whole primitive communities–men, women, and children–live by daily; and with more wholeness…. Class-structured civilized society is a kind of mass ego.  To transcend the ego is to go beyond society as well.  ‘Beyond’ there lies, inwardly, the unconscious.  Outwardly, the equivalent of the unconscious is the wilderness: both of these terms meet, as one steps even farther on, as one.”

As one can intuit from this, Snyder’s religious consciousness is more complex and nuanced than Muir’s. His thought wrestles with the interface of society, language and ecology.  He accepts the “inevitability” of society, but he is seeking to reduce the destructive aspects of society, especially Western Civilization–which is most alienated from the primitive and archaic.    Snyder’s hero and role-model is the poet-shaman rather than the monk–and certainly not the priest or the urban religious figure of power and office.  In fact one of Snyder’s most successful works is a translation of the Cold Mountain Poems by Han-Shan, a Tang Dynasty(about 600 AD) Zen/Taoist hermit and “fool” who was also a poet and is highly regarded in China.  Cold Mountain is the name of the place where he lived for decades, and it also stands for a certain state of mind.  A sample:

The path to Han-shan’s place is laughable,
A path, but no sign of cart or horse.
Converging gorges–hard to trace their twists
Jumbled cliffs–unbelievably rugged.
A thousand grasses bend with dew,
A hill of pines hums in the wind.
And now I’ve lost the shortcut home,
Body asking shadow, how do you keep up?


In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place–
Bird-paths, but no trails for men.
What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here–how many years–
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
“What’s the use of all that noise and money?

Snyder again:  “Of all the streams of civilized tradition with roots in the paleolithic, poetry is one of the few that can realistically claim an unchanged function and a relevance which will outlast most of the activities that surround us today.  Poets, as few others, must live close to the world that primitive men are in: the world in its nakedness, that is fundamental for all of us–birth, love, death, the sheer fact of being alive.   Music, dance, religion, and philosophy of course have archaic roots–a shared origin with poetry.  Religion has tended to become the social justifier, a lackey to power, instead of the vehicle of hair-raising liberating and healing realizations.  Dance has mostly lost its connection with ritual drama, the miming of animals, or tracing the maze of the spiritual journey.  Most music takes too many tools.  The poet can make it on his own voice and mother tongue while steering a course between crystal clouds of utterly incommunicable nonverbal states….”

Snyder has an interesting take on the archaic roots of spiritual practices:  “I understand even more clearly now…that our earlier ways of self-support, our earlier traditions of life prior to agriculture, required literally thousands of years of great attention and awareness, and long hours of stillness.  An anthropologist, William Laughlin, has written a useful article on hunting as education for children.  His first point is to ask why primitive hunters didn’t have better tools than they did.  The bow of the American Indian didn’t draw more than forty pounds; it looked like a toy.  The technology was very simple.  They did lots of other things extremely well, like building houses forty feet in diameter, raising big totem poles, making very fine boats, etc.  Why, then, does there seem to be a weakness in their hunting technology?  The answer is simple: they didn’t hunt with their tools, they hunted with their minds.  They did things–learning an animal’s behavior–that rendered elaborate tools unnecessary.  You learn animal behavior by becoming an acute observer….  Even more interesting: in a hunting and gathering society you learn the landscape as a field, multidimensionally, rather than as a straight line.  We Americans go everywhere on a road; we have points A and B to get from here to there.  Whenever we want something, we define it being at the end of this  or that line….  Certain kinds of hunting are an entering into the movement -consciousness-mind-presence of animals.  As the Indians say: ‘Hunt for the animal that comes to you.’  When I was a boy I saw old Wishram Indians spearing salmon on the Columbia, standing on a little plank out over a rushing waterfall.  They could stand motionless for thirty minutes with a spear in their hands and suddenly–they ‘d have a salmon.….  I am speculating simply on what are the biophysical, evolutionary roots of meditation and spiritual practice….  We know that the practices of fasting and going off into solitude–stillness–as part of the shaman’s training are universal.  All of these possibilities undoubtedly have been exploited for tens of thousands of years–have been a part of the way people learned what they are doing.”

Snyder again:  “…upper Paleolithic people worked about 15 hours a week and devoted the rest of their time to cultural activities.  That period and shortly thereafter coincides with the emergence of the great cave art–for example in the Pyrenees in southern France.  We can only speculate about who those people were; however, we do know that they were fully intelligent, that their physical appearance was no different from people you see today….  Not only are there thousands of caves and thousands of paintings in the caves, but paintings occur in caves two miles deep where you  have to crawl through pools of cold water and traverse narrow passages in the dark, which open up on chambers that have great paintings in them.  This is one of our primary koans:  What have human beings been up to?  The cave tradition of painting, which runs from 35000 to 10000 years ago is the world’s longest single art tradition.  It completely overwhelms anything else.  In that perspective, civilization is like a tiny thing that occurs very late….  The point that many contemporary anthropologists…are making is that our human experience and all our cultures have not been formed within a context of civilization in cities or large numbers of people.  Our self–biophysically, biopsychically, as an animal of great complexity–was already well-formed and shaped by the experience of bands of people living in relatively small populations in a world in which there was lots of company : other life forms such as whales, birds, animals.  We can judge from the paintings, from the beauty and accuracy of the drawings, the existence of a tremendous interest, exchange and sympathy between people and animals….  To come a step farther: in certain areas of the world, the Neolithic period was long a stable part of human experience.  It represented 8000 to 10000 years of relative affluence, stability, and a high degree of democracy, equality between men and women–a period during which all of our vegetables and animals were domesticated and weaving and ceramics came into being.  Most of the arts that civilization is founded on, the crafts and skills, are the legacy of the Neolithic.  You might say that the groundwork for all contemporary spiritual disciplines was well done by then….  So, in that perspective, civilization is new….libraries and academies are very recent developments….and world religions–Buddhism among them–are quite new.  Behind them are millenia of human beings sharpening, developing, and getting to know themselves.”

Looking on the modern scene, Snyder is not very optimistic:  “I’ll say this real clearly, because it seems that it has to be said over and over again:  There is no place to flee to in the U.S..  There is no “country” that you can go and lay back in.  There is no quiet place in the woods where you can take it easy and be a stoned-out hippie.  The surveyors are there with their orange plastic tape, the bulldozers are down the road warming up their engines, the real estate developers have got it all on the wall with pins on it, the county supervisors are in the back room drinking coffee with the real estate developers, the sheriff’s department is figuring to get a new deputy for your area soon, and the forest service is just about to let out a big logging contract to some company.  That’s the way it is everywhere, right up to the north slope of Alaska, all through Canada, too.  It’s the final gold rush mentality.  The rush right now is on for the last of the resources that are left standing.  And that means that the impact is hitting the so-called country and wilderness.  In that sense we are on the front lines.”

Let us conclude by returning to Snyder’s (and my) favorite, Han-shan:

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 am back at Cold Mountain:
I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.


When men see Han-shan
They all say he’s crazy
And not much to look at
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don’t get what I say
I don’t talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
“Try and make it to Cold Mountain.”

Dickens & Christmas

One of the most famous Christmastime stories is by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Several different movie versions of the story were produced over the years, and now it is a standard and still  a favorite at this time of year.  Set in Victorian England, “a long, long time ago,” it seems almost like a fairy tale, and its happy ending makes people feel good and “somehow” it feels right for Christmas. For some it simply is part of the “sap crap” surrounding Christmastime.  However, there are disturbing elements in the story–disturbing in a good way–things that should awaken us, not lull us into a sentimental slumber.

Dickens calls his story, A Christmas Carol, and this signals to us that the story is a mythopoetic presentation; it is a kind of “carol,” announcing, celebrating, rejoicing–but what?  The story is not really about Christmas; it is “located” within the context of Christmas.  What it really is about is the transformation of a man’s heart, and Dickens wants us to connect it with the meaning and message of Christmas.

The story begins by presenting us with the figure of Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is Christmas Eve in London.  Scrooge is a person who has spiritually and humanly lost his way–he is more a child of the new Industrial Revolution and the unfettered capitalism of his day, rather than a child of God.   He lives only to make money; only that “which fattens the purse” will he entertain.  This is the social milieu Dickens was living in,  and a lot of his art aimed to bring to light “man’s inhumanity to man” which the prevailing social system enhanced.  The underlying philosophy of the economy was that self-interest is beneficial for all of society, or in the memorable words of Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, “Greed is good.”  One does not just sell a product or a service but sells it at the highest price possible because the accumulation of wealth has become an end in itself and intrinsic to self-identity.  Why stop at being a millionaire when you can be a billionaire.  You are what you own.  Homo Consumerus has arrived.   The New Testament, among various texts, tells us that the accumulation of wealth can be a real problem in our relationship to God, but what Dickens is emphasizing is that this leads to a distortion and concealment of our true relationship to “our neighbor.”  It leads to an atomized view of society where you just have this collection of isolated individuals each acting for their self-interest irregardless of how that affects others(or today we would say the environment also).

Dickens presents Scrooge as very unhappy, a real grouch, and his unhappiness runs very deep. Dickens describes his condition:  “But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone…squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching…. Hard and sharp as flint…secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features….” Scrooge’s isolation and lack of fellow-feeling is most obvious by its contrast with what is present in other characters that Dickens brings on the stage right at the outset of the story.  There is his nephew who comes to visit him at his office and wish him a Merry Christmas.  Scrooge is totally dismissive. He sarcastically asks what profit is there in “keeping Christmas,” and the nephew answers that Christmas is “the only time I know of….when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”  Incidentally, what the nephew is referring to is much more deeply presented in Russian spirituality,  and they have a word for it: umilenie, which translates literally as a “melting of the heart” or “tender compassion,” but which means a oneness of heart.

Then there is his bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit, to whom Scrooge is barely able to give Christmas day off and whom he generally mistreats as a throw-away worker.  Then there are the two gentlemen who come to the office–they are collecting alms for the poor and destitute.  Scrooge dismisses them sarcastically and without hesitation.  He comes home late after work, and there begins the real story of his transformation.  First he is visited by the ghost of his old partner Marley.  Marley appears all bound in chains:  “You are fettered,” said Scrooge trembling…..  “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost.  “I made it link by link….”  And then the ghost tells Scrooge that Scrooge himself is “bound in chains that he has made of his own free will.”  Scrooge is frightened but also puzzled–what is this all about, you were a good business man, Marley!   “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”

Then Scrooge is visited by three ghosts or spirits.  First comes the Ghost of Christmas Past, which takes him into his own past to relive both the joys and pains of his past, to open up his heart, to see where things went wrong.  This is the only way to true repentance.  The past is the key to making progress into the future.  Then came the Ghost of Christmas Present, and here Scrooge is taken to see what is going on right under his nose as it were.  He sees the life of his poor worker, Bob Crachit, and his poor family and their crippled little boy Tim, and he sees the lives of those who are poor in London that Christmas Eve.  His heart has already been opened up and now he is more vulnerable to recovering his “connectedness” to his fellow human beings.  Finally comes the Ghost of Christmas Future, and here Dickens is a master spiritual teacher–the reality of death pervades this whole episode, and one might ask how does this belong in a Christmas setting, which is all about birth and new beginnings.  Actually Dickens is in harmony with all the great spiritual traditions in that facing the reality of one’s death in a very concrete way is the great motivator and provider of the energy needed for a transformation of heart.  From this point on Scrooge will live his life with a sense of care for all people but especially those who are already present in his life.  He is no longer motivated by self-interest, but the dynamic of his life will now be an outpouring of self for the benefit of all. This means the using of his resources for the benefit of all and not exploitation. This transformation is both the true celebration of Christmas and the true meaning of Christmas, and from a Christian standpoint it is the Mystery of the Incarnation which opens the door to this transformation.

Advent & Christian Eschatology

In the Christian calendar this time of year is commonly called “Advent,” and the scripture readings in most of the major churches pertain to the so-called “Second Coming.”  In a peculiar way the Church prepares for the celebration of the Mystery of the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh(sarx in Greek–important as we shall see later), by meditating on a mysterious promised second coming at something called “the end of time.”  In our secular society, of course, this time of year is only a shopping season for Christmas–and here Christmas is mostly a “feel-good” time marked out by a bizarre collection of symbols that no longer are hinged to anything religious: snowflakes, candles, wreaths, eggnog, Santa Claus, reindeer, even secular angels announcing the good news of lower prices(can angels lie?), etc.  This time of year is very important to the business world, and so these symbols can be found everywhere.


If you are a Christian, please do not say, “Oh yeah, I understand: God comes to us in Jesus, and then there is the Second Coming at the end of the world.”  Trust me, you do not understand.  No one does.  These are great mysteries, and they should not be treated as if understood–but because of the repetition of the feast and its secularization and commercialization the whole Christmas season is a kind of pseudo-religious cultural cliché.


Here we will focus on the so-called Second Coming and what Christian theology calls “eschatology.”  The scripture readings point to an endtime scenario of cosmic proportions.  Read literally, as the fundamentalists do, this leads to some unfortunate conclusions–among which the mass of humanity is condemned to an eternity in hell for various reasons, and only an elite few are saved(in some readings 144,000).  Here we can use two science fiction movies as illustrations.  The first one is Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  For too many Christians the Second Coming of Christ is like a Super Alien coming to an elite, select few.  It signals its coming in various ways; then it comes and  takes the select few with it; and the others, well……  Of course this caricature is preceded by another caricature that has to do with the first coming or the Mystery of the Incarnation where, in the terms of Christian theology, God is fully and uniquely present in Jesus Christ.  That caricature we may draw from another movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  For too many Christians the Mystery of the Incarnation is reduced to a kind of body-snatching on the part of God.  You know that there is this Jew, Jesus, who looks like us, seems like us, but if you look closely at his eyes, you will see something different, something strange–ah, he is not one of us afterall. It is body-snatcher christology.  The similarity between these two caricatures is that it reduces God to the Ultimate Outsider, the Super Alien.


Now there are different valid theological interpretations of the so-called second coming.  We won’t get into that, but let us explore one important aspect of the meaning of these scriptures that refer to the Second Coming.  Here we will draw on Shakespeare for some help.  Recall his play Macbeth and the soliloquy by the main character, Macbeth:


“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

………………………Out, out brief candle

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.  It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”


Someone once said that Macbeth is the first atheist existentialist.  Not sure about that, but he does articulate a view that is more common than one might realize: the ultimate meaninglessness of life.  Strip away the veneer of a facile optimism, the veneer of a surface social life where one runs around consuming and “having fun” in a prolonged sequence of moments; strip away the veneer of those “little projects” and goals in life, and one big question lurks underneath:  what’s the point of it all?  what is the meaning of all my activity? what is the meaning of life?  As long ago as Pascal and even long before that, many wise voices have pointed out that so much of human activity, especially modern frenetic activity(Thoreau’s “most men live lives of quiet desperation”–not so quiet anymore) is actually a diversion from facing head on the question of the meaning of our life.  Even religion can become merely a prop to ward off the sense of meaninglessness.  As one British author caricatured the naturalistic novel as ODTAA–one damned thing after another–so is the flow of history.   History, both personal and our collective human history, seems no more than a surface procession of events and happenings with no point to it.  Now different religious traditions have different ways of dealing with this question, but here we are concerned primarily with the Christian tradition, and here there is an “appeal to God” to render life meaningful.  Very often this is a superficial maneuver when God is brought in as an explanation when one has run out of one’s own resources to deal with the situation.  God becomes a kind of conventional answer with certain emotional reassurances.  But a “cheap appeal to God” will not endure the next challenge.


So there is another “threat of meaninglessness” that challenges any and every easy “appeal to God.”  Here let us bring in Dostoevsky and his novel Brothers Karamazov.  Dostoevsky has one of his characters, Ivan, relate a story of how an innocent child was torn to shreds by dogs that a rich baron set upon the  child for a trivial reason.  Ivan throws out a challenge to his monk brother, Alyosha:  how can this happen in a world created by God?  what is the possible meaning of claiming there is a good and loving God?  Ivan doesn’t even contest or argue with Alyosha about his faith–he simply “turns in his ticket to this universe.”  He calls this universe ultimately absurd and meaningless if such things are possible, and so he implicates the God that Alyosha believes in, the God who has created this universe.  In a sense Dostoevsky has anticipated the questions raised by the events of the Holocaust and all the genocides through the centuries.  The postmodern thought world, where everything, even religion, has become a commodity to make you feel good, and we are all happy consumers, the postmodern verdict on all this suffering would be: “In the grand scheme of the universe  your suffering is utterly meaningless–life and all that comes with it has no transcendent meaning or value.”  Of course it is never put so directly or so openly–more like it would be: “Shit happens”; “Bummer.”


It is interesting and important that Alyosha does not answer Ivan or argue with him.  We cannot answer the hard questions that someone who is a bearer of such suffering presents to us.  Certainly not by a cheap appeal to God, as if we had a grasp of what we are really claiming to know.  Again, the different religious traditions have different ways of dealing with this situation, but suffice it to say that we can DO the following 3 things:

  1. We can try to prevent victimization as much as it is possible within our power even at great cost to ourselves and our own security.
  2. We can stand WITH the victim in his/her suffering–not as some outsider who brings in the notion of God more to reassure ourselves that everything is really ok.
  3. We can abide in faith.


This last thing needs some explanation, and here we return to our reflection on Advent and Christian Eschatology.  This is the point of all those varied “end of time” scripture readings.  They are meant to empower us in a symbolic way to abide in faith in the most “un-faith-filled” situations in the course of history.  Now let us consider this line of poetry:


for thirty pieces of silver he sold him


This is actually not the full line–we left off the last syllable–here is the full line:


for thirty pieces of silver he sold himself.


In the first quote we had left off the last syllable, “self.”  With the addition of that last syllable the whole sentence is transformed from a brute fact of history into a revelation of an inner meaning of that fact.  But it is only when you get to that last syllable that you understand. This is an interesting illustration of the situation. So history is experienced as this flow of  “one syllable” after another, offering us one naked fact after another, but what Christian eschatology claims is that 1.) there is a “last syllable” that transforms the meaning of it all; and 2.) that this “last syllable” is both “at the end of time” and within our hearts already.  This is due to the fact that when the Divine Logos became flesh, in the traditional translation, it entered history, that which human beings create–and the second coming will be a kind of completion and fulfillment of what began in the Incarnation. The Greek word is sarx–the Word became sarx–that is the flux and flow of human existence, the transience and impermanence of the human reality, in Buddhist terms, samsara.  The “last syllable” of history is now both within history already and “at the end” of history.  The scripture readings, then, point in two directions:  first, that there is a great(indeed, a cosmic) significance to history–history is not just “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”– and the collective history of the human family is significant and not just our own personal holiness or realization and that we as community and as human family share in the unfolding of this meaning, and so the suffering of every man, woman and child, no matter how obscure, is now not lost in the sequence of events but connected to that “last syllable” and therefore part of that which will render history meaningful; and secondly that there is a great significance even to the smallest human activity within history–nothing is “not meaningful”–even offering a drink to a thirsty stranger is now of great significance and meaning because “you did it to Me.”  These eschatological scripture readings, then, empower us, in a symbolic way,  to abide in faith.  Even in the darkest situation, even in the most incomprehensible events, even when all resources for meaning are helpless, we abide in the mystery of faith, not with cheap solutions, but within the silence of our hearts where we sense the presence of that “last syllable,” and beyond the horizon of our history where we look for the manifestation of that “last syllable.”  We abide in the faith that leads to boundless love and transcendent meaning.