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Abhishiktananda Revisited

Time to revisit our old friend! As I have mentioned on several occasions, I believe that Abhishiktananda is one of the most important religious figures of modern Christianity. He died on December 7, 1973, 40 years ago, seems like a whole age ago. His writings are in all the libraries of the seminaries in his beloved India, but as one theologian told me they are sadly largely collecting dust. Most of the younger Indian theology students are more interested in various forms of Indian Liberation Theology or in some conservative reconstruction of the Christian past. Never mind—his influence has gone far beyond India to so many people seeking a deep contemplative life and especially those drawn to the encounter of Christianity with the great Asian religions. Now granted the number of such people is not great compared to all those who follow pop evangelical writers or mainstream Catholic or Protestant voices, but the importance of someone like Abhishiktananda cannot be measured by numbers of any kind.

Over the years there have been quite a few studies done of Abhishiktananda’s thought, theology and spirituality. Some are good and helpful, some are critical, some are superficially critical, and some are superficially laudatory. Whatever be the case, getting even a bit of his insights is most welcome. His written work does present various problems among which is that a lot of it was written very quickly and in a kind of ad hoc way, addressing some pressing problem or issue confronting him, especially in his numerous letters and in his diary—sources of some of his deepest insights. One is left to wonder how he might have developed these kernels of insight into a more refined contemplative/mystical theology—or if he would have even done that. Another possible problem is the narrowness of his interest, his laser-like focus on one thing: the encounter of Christianity with Hinduism, and even with just one path within Hinduism, Advaita. If your interests lie elsewhere, you might easily miss the importance of what he is trying to relate. However, the biggest problem in approaching Abhishiktananda and the biggest obstacle in getting a handle on his thinking is the fact that he develops as time goes by and his thought has some very serious changes. The Abhishiktananda of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is not quite the Abhishiktananda of the early ‘50s even though he was already sitting in a cave at Aurunachala even then. Some of his strongest supporters claim that he was “already there” even then, but I think there is a real revolution in his thought as he gets into the 1960s.

What I am getting at can be seen in his book Saccidananda, his only book-length theological reflection, which he started composing about 1960 and finally got published by 1965. By the late ‘60s he had so changed his ideas that he considered this book no longer representing his thinking. However, when it was published it became quite popular in certain circles and also received some critical notice. The publisher wanted him to revise it and to republish it in the ‘early’70s but he said that he would now have to totally rewrite it. However he got talked into a revision of sorts and sent it out and this is the copy we have, but it does not truly represent his most developed thought—if that’s what you are looking for. And the revolution in his thinking that this little book begins has to do with how a Christian views the other great world religions. Abhishiktananda was trained in a progressive but traditional Catholic theology that gave rise to the Vatican II Council. The conservative view at that time looked on all other religions as simply being false if not downright leading to hell. The new view was that God was truly known in some way in all the great world religions, but that they were somehow incomplete and Christianity’s coming would be a kind of fulfillment and completetion of what was lacking in them. At least implicitly Christianity was held as “superior” and as the goal toward which all other religions were moving, but they were seen as holding a partial truth not to be demeaned or dismissed. When Abhishiktananda arrived in India in the late ‘40s he was very close to this position, but already you see in him an openness and a willingness to explore and encounter beyond the traditional lines. Well, by the late ‘60s there is a veritable revolution in his thinking. He turns the whole thing upside down! Speaking from his own deep religious/mystical experience of Advaita, he no longer sees this as being “incomplete” in the old sense of that term. In fact it is Christianity which he insists needs the experience of Advaita in order to come into its own fullness. Needless to say this is not going to fly in Rome!

Let’s do some exploring pertaining to these points by looking at some quotes. First let us listen to what may be his most formidable critic, his old monastic companion from his early days in India: Jules Monchanin, a brilliant and deep man of prayer in his own right:

“Serious divergences between us have cast a shadow over these last years; I think he goes too far in his concessions to Hinduism, and it seems to me more and more doubtful that the essence of Christianity can be recovered the other side of Advaita. Advaita, like yoga and more than it, is an abyss. Whoever in an experience of vertigo throws himself into it does not know what he will find at the bottom. I am afraid he may find himself rather than the living Trinitarian God.”

This is not a simple criticism which can easily be brushed off, and it does not come from someone who doesn’t know theology or who is congenitally conservative and not open to a grand encounter. However, the difference between Monchanin (and so many other Christian intellectuals who could not and cannot follow Abhishiktananda ) and Abhishiktananda is that the latter did venture into that abyss and his reports, at least for some of us, point to a profound discovery and realization. As someone put it: Abhishiktananda moved from interpreting Advaita in Christian terms to understanding Christ in the light of his own Advaitic experience. This is a new realization of the Christ-event and it leaves you wondering about the role of the Church in all this.

In relation to this is the general criticism of all contemplative life and mysticism as simply being narcissistic, a pre-occupation with one’s own self, not really in tune with the “Love Commandment” of the Gospel. Abhishiktananda understood this very deeply and confronted such criticsm vigorously(and this is one indicator that his Advaita experience is truly genuine):

“The act of pure love is what awakes. Advaita, non-duality, is not an intellectual discovery, but an attitude of the soul. It is much more the impossibility of saying ‘Two’ than the affirmation of ‘One.’ What is the use of saying ‘One’ in one’s thought, if one says ‘Two’ in one’s life. To say ‘One’ in one’s life: that is Love.”

This kind of statement is of course at the heart of what the New Testament says in so many different ways. And it is interesting that he puts it in “Advaitic” terms as if to say that this brings a new understanding of what the Gospel is saying. As many other times he says that we do not fully see how much the Gospel holds until we see it through the eyes of Advaita (granted this is not everyone’s cup of tea ).

Abhishiktananda is not fooled by general piety and religiosity, a kind of acting out of superficial religion—which is the real enemy of “love of neighbor”:
“Piety is perhaps the most subtle and also the surest way for the ego to escape pursuit and re-establish its status and dignity.” (Dostoiyevsky’s Father Zosima points to a similar insight.)

Here he is in harmony with that other great Hindu Advaitist, Ramana Maharshi:
“He meditates, he thinks he is meditating, he is pleased with the fact that he is meditating; where does that get him, apart from strengthening his ego.”
And this from one of the great Sufi masters, Bistami:
“The thickest veils between man and God are the wise man’s wisdom, the worshipper’s worship and the devotion of the devout.”

Like all the great spiritual masters of all the great traditions, Abhishiktananda focuses on the problem of identity: “who am I?” He summed up the whole spiritual journey in one marvelous expression: “The absolute surrender of the peripheral ego to the inner Mystery.” For Christians the Mystery has a face as the Gospel presents it in the person of Jesus. But Christian mysticism does not seek for you to “imagine” Jesus in your heart. A Christian Advaita, as Abhishiktananda sees it, moves way beyond praying to a God who is solely extrinsic to uis and is contacted exclusively by our own ideas and our own discursive reasoning. It affirms that the Risen Christ, who has no limitations or determinations, is at the core of our being. There is the “placeless place” within us, within our deepest consciousness—which in the Hesychast tradition is termed “the heart.” So God is not an object to be looked at; nor to be petitioned out of one’s own self-centeredness that is so filled with a bias toward oneself. Now for the pure Advaitist that very central Mystery has no face, just a pure Interiority. It is the “I Am” of God spoken in your heart as the ground of your little personal “I am.”

That sense of “I-ness” that every human being has is certainly real in its own right and level but if one only knows the superficial “I” then even the religious life gets warped. In the modern world this “I-ness” is especially exacerbated by mistakingly thinking that what we are is what we own or what we do or some such extrinsic dynamic. Happiness and fulfillment and the whole point of life then seems to consist in aggrandizing and protecting and embellishing all that. Abhishiktananda knew all about the delusion of all that quite early in his spiritual life, but when he has his heart attack toward the end in 1973, when he is no longer able to do anything, when in a sense he even has to give up “being Abhishiktananda,” then he serenely experiences the “deep I” which no longer is a matter of any extrinsic object or activity. From his Diary:

“Seeing myself so helpless, incapable of any thought or movement, I was released from being identified with this “I” which until then had thought, willed, rushed about, was anxious about each and every thing. Disconnection! That whole consciousness in which I habitually lived was no longer mine, but I, I still was.”

In the Christ-event, then, from Abhishiktananda’s viewpoint, what constitutes true personhood, in Christian terms, is that experience of being from the Father and going to the Father—using the language of Jesus. This is what Jesus communicates. This is where some Christians would say that Abhishiktananda gets problematical: the figure and role of Jesus. For Abhishiktananda Jesus is more the “frame of a window” through which we can see who we really are—not so much the “contents of a painting.” When Jesus says that “The Father and I are one,” this is meant to communicate an experience of Advaita in Middle Eastern, Jewish terms and this is a communication of our own identity that Jesus brings to us. And you begin to see some concerns that some might have when you catch the full implications of a statement like this:

“See Jesus in his infinite mystery, without setting him apart, and if he is the very mystery of every person, why refuse to adore him in each one and to recognize his unique glory in that person…and why demand that people should always and everywhere give to this mystery the name that was given to him when he appeared in Israel?”

This kind of statement makes even some very good people uneasy—because it seems to make the dynamic of evangelization in the classic sense unnecessary. Toward the end of his life Abhishiktananda had arrived at that point. For him a lot of the “Christian message” was namarupa, mythology and symbolism for this universal inner mystery of Absolute Presence. For him the Jesus of the Gospels was the window on this reality but that did not mean that would be the case for someone else. Let us listen to some key statements from him:

“Christ is my Sadguru—my true Guru—and he makes himself the singer of the Presence of this inner Mystery which Jesus called the Father, and of the relationship to the very heart of the Mystery which Jesus called the Spirit.”

“Far more than being the ‘head’ of a religion, Jesus is first of all a questioning of every human being. An examination of each one about his relation with God and with his brothers, as actually lived.”

“Jesus the Advaita, the Only Son of the Father, to whom we are not second, but in whom we are all one Son and in whose Spirit we are One with the Father.”

In each of the quotes above there is much more there than meets the casual eye, and one can understand why traditionally trained Christians would be/can be uneasy with such language. Abhishiktananda is quite ready and willing to take you beyond the boundaries of traditional Christian understanding if you let him. And now listen to this—here he is referring to the Eucharist, which he celebrated all the time in his role as priest and which some point to his “relative conservatism” as if he had still a traditional understanding of this sacrament:

“Every act that I perform is a divine act. Every act performed by any creature, every movement of unconscious or inanimate creatures is a divine act as much as the divine generation itself. God is completely and totally present in each of his manifestations (just as Christ is present in every host and in every particle…)”

For Abhishiktananda, the great words of the Eucharist, “This is My Body,” are no longer relegated to a discrete specimen of bread but pronounced as a revelation of the real nature of all that is real as it flows into the Ultimate Reality. The Eucharist is truly a celebration of Reality but not the only one—“Lead me from the unreal to the Real” chants the Hindu prayer!

Let me conclude with one of his last entries in his Diary, just before his death:

“The Trinity cannot be understood apart from the experience of Advaita, of non-duality. Jesus lived with his Father this experience of non-duality, an experience at once lacerating and fulfilling, all transcending, which carries away and leads beyond all; the gift of Wisdom, deep co-naturality, an explosion which whoever experiences it cannot escape.”

To follow Abhishiktananda beyond the boundaries of traditional Christianity may be hazardous, but then again it may be the “one thing necessary” for some of us.

More Issues

Henry Giroux, a Canadian, is one of my favorite social critics and public intellectuals (with Chris Hedges of course). I usually catch him on Truthout, and there he has recently written about the corruption of the public university. Not a small matter or something that can be ignored without serious consequences. If our religious institutions are suppose to form and direct our hearts toward the “higher things” of life, our universities are suppose to inform our minds and empower us to think intelligently and critically about our life and our society. But, alas, we are in serious trouble on both fronts!

Giroux’s target here is the university. It has become mostly a shil for corporate America and the maintenance of the status quo. Yes, there are some decent people there and some real scholars, but the institution as a whole has been totally undermined as a bastion of independent thought, as a home for deep thought in the classic sense. Read Giroux’s lengthy, powerful, and devastating indictment here:”>

The nation is abuzz with Obamacare talk! Conservatives and Republicans are absolutely apoplectic about it. Most of what they complain about are either small problems or downright lies and fabrications on their part. A few things are actual, real problems, but what truly bothers them is the increasing role of the Federal Government. They are against that even if that were to produce good results for people. But about such a thing we could have an honest debate in other circumstances—but not now, for the simple reason that BOTH sides are absolutely wrong on this issue (and so many others). The trouble with Obamacare is not a broken-down website or the fact that the government tells you that you must have health insurance. The real problem is that Obamacare is another subterfuge for big business, for the insurance companies to make a ton of money. Yes, Obamacare will help some people; it will also hurt a few people. But you really miss the underlying narrative if you just look at these kind of numbers. No, the U.S. did NOT have a great health care system in private hands as the Right claims—there were (and are) so many serious problems with it, but what the Obama administration came up with is this strange blending and joining of corporate and government elements which is truly toxic—as in the military-industrial complex in another segment of our society. An extensive description and analysis of how this happened and why can be found here:

. Not too long ago the Pope gave a homily in which he said something astonishing. He used the term “ideological Christianity” and he called it an illness within the Church! Indeed! A remarkable diagnosis coming from the highest office in the Catholic Church. This afflicts all Christians but there is a particular “flavor” of it within Catholicism. As the Pope put it, these people become not followers/disciples of the person of Jesus Christ, but of an ideology which is called Christianity. They are more interested in “being right,” in “being correct,” rather than following the person of Jesus Christ. They avoid the real cost and the real terms of discipleship. The reality of Jesus attracts people to the Church; ideology repels them. (This reminds me of Abhishiktananda saying somewhere how he met a number of Indians/Hindus who very much loved the person of Jesus but who were put off by Church people.) Ideological Christians become hard and brittle judges who believe, well, that they are superior to others who don’t hold the “correct doctrine.” They do not invite anyone to discipleship; they beckon them only to accept that particular ideology. The Pope also said that the cause of this illness was the lack of “true prayer.” I believe by this he meant “contemplative prayer.” I think it is simply impossible to have entered the realm of deep contemplative prayer and be an ideological Christian. This takes you beyond any ritual, sacramental, external, verbal, conceptual system of Christianity.

Now given all this that the Pope said, it is so disappointing to see his actions are very different. Just one example, described in the National Catholic Reporter, has him appoint a bishop for Hartford, Connecticut who seems seriously afflicted with this illness. Defenders of the Pope will say that he doesn’t have full knowledge of the man he appoints, he is simply presented with some names on a list and some information about each of them. Well, I think if he really wants to “make a difference” in the Church, he better find a way to make his actions and appointments correspond to his teachings. For example, he could appoint a woman to the College of Cardinals—at least one!! There is no church doctrine that stands in the way—you do not need to be an ordained priest in order to be a cardinal—Jacques Maritain, who had been a married layman, was made a Cardinal toward the end of his life in order to honor him for his service to the Church. More than words or symbolic actions are needed. Pope John XXIII called for the Vatican II Council in the first year of his pontificate.

One Last Thought: How different things would be if we all lived like Socrates, Jesus, and Gandhi. Very simple really, isn’t it? But all three were murdered—by State and religious interests.

The Trail

There are many trails, and then there is The Trail. I will be speaking of The Trail symbolically, metaphorically, and of at least one empirical reality—The Pacific Crest Trail.

Anyone who goes out even a little bit into some wilderness area will have some experience of hiking on some trail—and the joy, the views, the exposure to the wild, the wonders, the effort, the challenges, etc., etc. But there are three trails within the U.S. that are extra, extra special: the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. From “Hiking the Triple Crown”: “…it is the three great north-to-south trails—the so-called Triple Crown trails—that have captured the imagination of long-distance and weekend backpackers alike.”

The Appalachain Trail (from now on referred to as the AT) is 2167 miles long; the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT) is 2650 miles long; and the Continental Divide Trail (the CDT) is 3100 miles long. Each of these follows one of America’s three great mountain systems; the variety of terrain and ecosystems represented in these trails is nothing short of mind-boggling. Each of these trails has its own challenges and its own attractions, and their distances can make it almost seem “beyond reach”; but “trail dogs” will tell you that most anyone in good health can do these trails—the key ingredient is desire. Of course it is quite possible to do these trails in segments—some people hike only for a few days on one of these trails ; some stay on the trail for a few weeks; and others go the whole way and this usually takes several months. Whatever it be, rest assured that you will learn something about yourself, about life, about reality, when you get on one of these trails.

Among the three great trails, there is one that stands out above the others: the Pacific Crest Trail. Among “trail dogs,” people who have done these trails and many others around the world, the PCT may rank as the very best long trail in the world—characterized by incredible views, enormous challenges, the longest stretches of unremitting wilderness, and ranging from sea-level desert to over 13,000 feet footpaths around glaciers. Within this stretch the PCT overlaps another trail which was established independently, the John Muir Trail (JMT). The PCT with the JMT runs for a bit over 200 miles from the Mt. Whitney area to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. The John Muir Trail is generally considered the “Jewel in the Crown” of the PCT. It is the most challenging and the most beautiful part of the PCT. Most hikers need about 15 days to do this segment(but of course some do it in less time but I don’t understand why rush through this beautiful country) and food resupply is very difficult. Also you spend a lot of time above 9000 feet and this causes altitude sickness if you have not acclimatized(hikers who come from LA or the Bay Area who just hop on this trail get it bad if they don’t take the time to acclimatize). But the reward is almost an unspeakable beauty that John Muir wrote about so eloquently—calling this area the “Range of Light.” You encounter numerous peaks over 14,000 feet, glaciers, numerous pristine high mountain lakes, and real solitude—some find it difficult to be by themselves night after night in an absolute wilderness!

Here are some photos of the John Muir Trail as found on Google and taken by various hikers at various times:

The popularity of the PCT has increased over the years, but the number of people who do the whole trail is still very small. Around the year 2000, there were about 200-300 people who started on the PCT at the Mexican Border heading north. Only about 50% of those who started made it to the end. Now that figure is more like 800 people who start and the percentage of finishers is much higher. Normally the south-to-north direction is considered the best way of doing it, but many have also done the opposite direction. You generally start in the Southern California desert in April, then you make it to the High Sierras about June, and then you end by the Canadian border before the winter snows come.

Equipment issues are interesting! You will need something like a 0 degree sleeping bag for the High Sierras in June (most of the trail here is over 9000 feet)—at night it will get down to something like 20 degrees(some make it with a 20 degree bag but you might then have to sleep a bit chilly at times); the lightest small tent possible; a bear canister—yes, this is mandatory in the High Sierras because the bears will come after your food if it is simply in the backpack! Usually you can pack about 10 days worth of food in one of these bear canisters—you learn to cut down your needs to the bare essentials (no pun intended!!) What you stuff in the bear canister would make a Desert Father proud of you! Resupplying on the JMT is particularly difficult—there are only about three possibilities and 2 of them require you to detour from the trail quite a few miles. At Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, those who continue on the PCT can easily get resupplied at a grocery store by the trail or have supplies sent to them to the post office that will hold packages for them. In fact some of the hikers send food packages to themselves at various spots along the trail which they pick up as they get there.

Here are some quotes about the JMT and the PCT from several books:

From The John Muir Trail: “The John Muir Trail passes through what many backpackers agree is the finest mountain scenery in the United States…. This is a land of 13,000-foot and 14,000-foot peaks, of soaring granite cliffs, of lakes literally by the thousands, of canyons 5000 feet deep. It is a land where man’s trails touch only a tiny portion of the total area, so that by leaving the trail you can find utter solitude. It is a land uncrossed by road for 140 airline miles …. The JMT is not a place to hike on impulse. Its length, its remoteness, and its great changes in altitude mean that you must plan your hike if you are going to enjoy it, or even to complete it.”

From Hiking the Triple Crown: “The PCT is a “hiker’s hike,” no question about it. Much of the trail passes through large tracts of wilderness, including the High Sierra complex (the longest wilderness in the continguous states)…. There are no shelters to congregate hikers together, and trail towns are farther apart with fewer hiker-oriented amenities.”

Like I mentioned above, at Tuolumne Meadows there is a grocery store, a post office and a grill where many campers and tourists and hikers take time out for refreshments. Sitting at the outdoor tables is fascinating because you see so many different kinds of people. There are the tourists who are in a hurry to see as much as they can and then hurry home; there are the campers and short-term hikers who are obviously enjoying the wilderness; and then there are the long-term hikers coming off the PCT or the JMT for refreshing and refilling their supplies. You can see from their faces, their bodies, and their eyes that they are in a different space. There is something about being on such a trail that has a deep effect on a person. Many have written that this hike has changed them and their lives—a truly transformative experience. On such a journey, of such length, with such challenges, where you are largely removed from the structures and supports of modern social life, the way you normally live your life and your whole identity comes into question. At the very least you begin to see through the multitude of superficial and trivial pursuits and gadgets of our modern existence. When you are on The Trail, the wilderness is silent about who you are—or better, it speaks in a language you yet do not understand. Perhaps after many, many days of hiking 15 miles, then sleeping on hard ground, then getting up and hiking another 15 miles, then sleeping on hard ground again, when life has been stripped to the bare essentials, perhaps then, just perhaps you might begin to catch a whisper of what the wilderness is saying—it is God’s Wisdom speaking to you, Hagia Sophia, and just perhaps you might begin to hear that voice within your own heart.

One final thought: The Trail is ultimately a symbol and a metaphor for the whole religious/spiritual life. I will leave it to you to work out the details of this connection, and perhaps you will really need to have hiked quite a bit to see the connection, but it is there. Suffice it to say that just as there are not many who take up these long trails, there are also very few who take up the real spiritual journey—there is a price to pay and there is a need for a kind of desire that surmounts all obstacles to see it to the finish. Already in the Gospels there are plenty of indications that not many want to really do this. They are more like “tourists” who want a picture of Jesus, and a label to wear that says:”Christian” or maybe just “religious.”

Random Thoughts

When you go out into the true wilderness, and not just some “park,” what strikes you first of all is how quiet it all is…the silence of the wilderness is a powerful antitode to all our own noise…internal and external. The wild places are teeming with life, yet it is so quiet…. However, our age being what it is, there is another presence in the wilderness. At least this is true for the Sierras and the wild western deserts: the hum and roar of jet engines far above. The “angels of death” are practicing far above us. They seem to be always there. We don’t hear them in our urban landscapes because they are not allowed over cities, but over the wilds they can do their thing. And it is amazing how they intrude into this holy silence with their machinery of war and death. All kinds of interesting thoughts there….

A few gems from Abhishiktananda:

“There is no part of our life in which we can escape the mystery of God which fills our whole being….”

“There is in the Gospel much more than Christian piety has so far discovered.”

“The supreme ideal of Hinduism: the absolute surrender of the peripheral ego to the Inner Mystery.” (No better definition of the spiritual life as a whole!)

“Christ is my Sadguru—my true Guru—and he makes himself the singer of the Presence of this Inner Mystery which Jesus called the Father, and of the relationship to the very heart of the Mystery which Jesus called the Spirit.”

“Piety is perhaps the most subtle and also the surest way for the ego to escape pursuit and re-establish its status and dignity.”

Just a sample from the thoughts of a person I consider the most important spiritual figure of our time. I don’t think he will ever be canonized, but that is something that I also think he himself would recoil from. When they canonize John Paul II who did so much to create the atmosphere that encouraged the hiding of the child abuse cases, I am not sure that I would want to be in the same “club.” No, the really important people in the Church, like Abhishiktananda and Dorothy Day among many others, they will not get canonized.

Speaking of which, the new Pope has made quite a splash. Certainly the things he has said since his election have generally been quite refreshing to hear considering the recent history of the papacy. But I am not fully convinced this will amount to much. I hope I am wrong! There is that old pop saying: He talks the talk, but does he walk the walk? You really have to watch what he really does, and this will make all the difference. There is of course the possibility that he is truly sincere but that the ossified structures and mentality of the institution will not budge in any significant way no matter what he says. I certainly hope that he is more than just the “kinder, gentler pope”—I hope that he does something more, for example, than just call for a “greater role for women in the Church.” Instead he could make a real dent in the ossification of the Church if he, for example, opened up the diaconate for women. This would not involve any doctrinal revamping (which they fear more than anything else!), just a shift in church practice. So we shall see……

Speaking of dysfunctionality, what about our government, our politics, our economy, our whole country!!!! We are so beyond any reasonable comment….but I have found several voices that sum up our situation quite well….and it is not a pretty picture. If you really think that by just a “correct vote” you can change the situation, you are badly mistaken. We are well beyond that! Here is one such voice:

Some words from John Muir:

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

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

“No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening—still all is Beauty.”

“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”

Syria has been in the news for the last few months. Real bad news. Whenever I hear about Syria in the media, my mind wanders to another, more ancient Shria. Perhaps it is the Syria of the Sufis in and around Damascus, that most ancient of cities. More likely it is the Syria of the first Christian monks. Very little is known about this fascinating moment in Christian history. Very few in the West seem to care. Most people who do study Christian history/Church history tend to fix the beginnings of Christian monasticism in Egypt with the Life of Antony as a kind of benchmark for dating the “beginning.” However, in Syria Christian monastic life had already been going on for over a century when Antony entered his cave. As a matter of fact, Christianity in Syria was almost totally monastic. This is worth a look, so let us step back a bit.

What modern Western Christians don’t realize (or don’t want to admit) is that early Christianity was a very diverse phenomenon. There were many different “Christianities” to put it awkwardly. Of course one emerged as the dominant form: the Church of Rome, and it proclaimed itself as “divinely established” from the getgo. You know how it is after a war—the victors end up writing the history of the war, not the losers; and of course the victory is then seen as the outcome of “truth” and “justice,” and in some way as inevitable. Similarly here. The “Roman view” of all this history has prevailed but historical scholarship has made a few “adjustments” in that narrative. For example, the Church’s view of the so-called Albigensian heresy has been one of total negativity, as if these people were the epitome of evil and a threat to civilization. This kind of justified their extermination—we call it genocide today! But it was fighting heresy then. In any case, modern historical scholarship shows them to be simply “too ascetical’—celibacy, for example was the norm, not marriage. This movement developed as a reaction in fact to the decadence of the Church around the 9th century. Their real sin, as it were, however, was the fact that they ignored the authority of Rome. This has always been the “unforgiveable sin,” and so all kinds of stories were made up about them and they were eventually wiped out in a blood bath in Southern France.

Getting back to our Syrians, they too were extreme ascetics from our modern viewpoint. Becoming a Christian meant becoming a celibate ascetic, a hermit perhaps, a wandering monk perhaps, or even some more exotic form of life, like a pillar monk, etc. Regular or normal family life, conducting business or a trade was over. And this was due NOT to some “rejection” of the body but to an intense awareness of the Presence of the Divine in what is termed the Holy Spirit. This was a Christianity very much oriented toward the Holy Spirit. And also very importantly this dynamic was also intensely eschatological. In other words the “end time,” the “last days” had arrived and there was no point in that other way of life. They were living the ultimate eschatological life. In many ways you can see that this kind of Christianity was not going to “sweep the Empire,” but it is an amazing paradigm of a different view of Christian life, and to condemn it is simply to be narrow-minded. By the way you can see also that they were not going to compromise with “the State,” with “society,” even if the rest of the Church was going that route with Constantine when Christianity became the state religion—you can see this same tension in the Egyptian desert also.
In Syria this way of life goes back almost to the 1st century, to that time of the formation of the New Testament. Their key document seems to be the Gospel of Luke, which has been shown to radicalize the sayings of Jesus in several key places, compared to Matthew for example. Many scholars believe that the Gospel of Luke comes from the Syrian environment. So this form of Christianity is there from the very beginning, not a later development. An interesting angle: Syria was at the crossroads of travel and trade with Asia. Some scholars believe that maybe these people derived some inspiration from seeing Buddhist monks or the sannyasi of India. That is possible, but alas there is no proof of that. Truly these people resemble more the sannyasi than anything else out there! Imagine a Church where sannyasa would be the norm, not an exception!

One of the most significant early documents of Syriac Christianity is the Acts of Thomas, from very early 2nd century, from the time of the formation of the New Testament. This document does not make it into the accepted canon simply because it may be too radical and uncompromising with the rest of society and the state. It recurrently uses the terms “stranger” and “foreigner” as positive terms for being a Christian. It equates being a Christian with a certain kind of “homelessness.” This has both a social and psychological aspect. The social means that you no longer identify yourself with your tribe, your nation, your state—you are no longer an American, an Indian, a German, etc. This all becomes meaningless, and the State no longer holds authority over you—only insofar as you willingly comply with its laws as they seem to be “for the good.” You can see that this would not be tolerable for any State. But now your identity comes from elsewhere. You are “homeless” in a very profound sense. It is eschatological. The psychological aspect has to do with another kind of “uprooting.” There is a dynamic in us that is always seeking satisfaction of all kinds, from the most shallow to the deepest form. The kind of “uprooting” that the Syriacs are talking about has to do with transcending that—recognizing that this is a “bottomless” task! No end to it. There is “no real satisfaction” on this side of the eschaton. Thus you are as a “stranger” and “foreigner” in this world, totally “homeless” and therefore never “satisfied” with anything in this world and so the seeking of that is illusory. This is similar to what the Buddhists mean by “desire” and samsara.

Gabriele Winkler has written profoundly about this Syriac scene, and I think that soon I will need to re-examine that world!

Revisiting Foundations & Fundamentals: The Mercy

Recently a friend sent me this quote from Julian of Norwich, and it inspired the reflection below: “First, there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.”

In the last posting we revisited the Foundations & Fundamentals postings of last year as once more we reflected on the Absolute Mystery of God. In this posting we will do some more revisiting of the Foundations & Fundamentals as we reflect on what I called in the previous posting as “The Mercy.” You may be wondering at the unusual wording—why don’t I just say, “The Mercy of God”? There are a number of reasons and these may become apparent as we proceed.

In the last posting I reflected on the Names of God in light of the utter and transcendent Absolute Mystery that God is. To recap: for Pseudo-Dionysius the Reality of God is wrapped in total incomprehensibility, but because God does not, as it were,” stay “ “within Godness” but engages in Self-communication both in so-called inspired scriptures and in a pouring out of this reality which we call “creation,” everything then in this reality somehow conveys God’s Self-communication; and so we can have and do have all these Names for God, and indeed we have all these “words” of God. Thus, from a blade of grass to the person of Jesus Christ(according to Christian tradition) we learn “who” God is. ALL the Names are of course truly inadequate, more or less, to comprehend the Absolute Reality of God, but they do carry a real and true knowledge of God. (To diverge: Eastern Orthodox theology carries this distinction of the essence and the energies of God. We can never ever know the essence of God, but we have real contact with God through the energies of God, which are not just some “effect” of God but also truly God. This distinction is problematical in that it seems to divide God into 2 parts, but Eastern theologians insist that is not the case and in any way the notion is interesting and useful in some ways.)

Now to turn to our Islamic/Sufi friends—they have the most profound theology and a whole spirituality of the Names of God. The Names are innumerable but there are 99 special Names of God. It is a kind of pyramid of higher and lower levels, and the Names toward the top of this scheme are “the All-Merciful” and “the All-Compassionate”—“ar Rahim, ar Rahman.” From Annemarie Schimmel, a great scholar of Islamic mysticism: “The fact that God has been described in the Koran as possessing the most beautiful names forms the basis for a whole theology of the divine names…–though the mystics knew that these names were not proper names applicable to God, but derivative. The usual collection of these names of glorification comprises 99 names. The Greatest Name is hidden,….”

I won’t go into the very subtle distinction between these two Names: the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate. We went into that in the first posting on this subject. Let us concentrate on the Name, the All-Merciful. What’s important here is that this “mercy” is not seen as some separate thing/activity apart from God. No, it is more like the very “fabric” of God as it were. It is the Presence in another mode. Nor is this “mercy” a matter of emotive intentionality or a matter of “feelings.” But of course human language of longing, of desire, of kindness, etc. can all be used in reference to God—as in fact the Sufis are very good at this.

The essence of this Name, “the All-Merciful,” pertains to the very Reality of God in all its manifestations, absolutely all! Thus for the Sufi, for the mystic who has the eyes to see it, this Mercy is present in all things and all events and all persons. Thus we can name God everywhere and at all times. Our very being is a manifestation of the Name of God as Mercy. Now this is understandably very difficult to grasp in a lot of situations. Let me refer to and paraphrase a Sufi teaching: There is a veil that covers the reality of God in all the bad, negative things of our reality. It is one thing to see God when we lift this veil; it is quite another thing to see God in this veil. Now this is not to make light of or negate the reality of all the bad things in life. All our anguish, all our mistakes and failings, all our cries, all our struggles, all our pains, all our illnesses, all our frustrations and desperations, etc. are very real, but as we “awaken” to the Reality of God we will see it present in all this, even this—and God’s Name there is Mercy. Can you believe it? Perhaps Jesus on the Cross is the ultimate image of that.

Now let us switch back to the Christian tradition. When we see Jesus, we see this Name, “God, the All-Merciful,” personified; we see the human reality manifesting the Divine Reality, we see what this Mercy is like in human terms. At this point let us turn to the Christian East and the Jesus Prayer. The full prayer runs like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is used by those in the Hesychast tradition as a gateway to the deepest realms of contemplative prayer. But there are various levels of this prayer and various realizations of its meaning. It starts out as a kind of “asking,” “pleading” for this “stuff” called “mercy.” It’s as if you were standing in front of Jesus. So there is this image of God in Jesus, then you, and then this “stuff” or “activity” called “mercy”—same thing happens with that other Christian word “grace.” This of course is a crude picture. The Hesychast masters all insist that you must drop all images, all attempts in visualizing, all pictures in the mind, but enter into this Prayer in a kind of “silence of the mind.” Because first the Prayer will unfold the Presence as Mercy in every fiber of your being, in every moment, in every situation—to borrow from and paraphrase Abhishiktananda, “Maybe there is only the Mercy!” But then the Prayer will take you beyond all Names, even Mercy, into the very Absolute Mystery of God where our own relationship to God is concealed. And the journey is forever.

In conclusion, let me go back to our Sufi friends. A saying from Bayezid Bistami: “God spoke: ‘Everybody wants something from Me. Only Bayezid wants Me Myself.’” Bullseye! Indeed! If we seek “mercy” as some gift from God, that is one level of realization, but when we seek only God, then we have God’s Mercy everywhere and at all times. If we seek only God, what is it that we lack?

Foundations & Fundamentals Once More: A Return to The Mystery and the Knowledge of God

Over a year ago I did a series of postings on what I called “Foundations & Fundamentals” of the spiritual/mystical path within the Christian tradition, with an eye open to whatever might help us on our way that the other great traditions teach. Indeed, there is much to learn from them. In any case, one posting was entitled “The Mystery of God and the Knowledge of God”—a very important topic. Needless to say we are only skimming the surface of what needs to be said, and so, as promised, we return to this topic again and again. In this posting we will discuss this in three parts: A. the nature of religion; B., the Gospels and the figure of Christ; C. Pseudo-Dionysius. So let us begin.

A. The Nature of Religion.
Among the various things that could be said about religion in general is that whatever historical forms it takes on it seeks to relate the human to an ultimate, absolute Reality. Each of the great world religions has its own set of symbols, rituals, teachings, and practices, all of which are meant to point toward that Absolute Reality, to make one more and more aware of it, and most importantly to embody that relationality in one way or another. (We will set aside Buddhism here because it needs “special treatment” in this regard.) And the embodiment that is most universal, cutting across all the traditions, is precisely “in” a human being. This is what we mean by the terms “holy man,” “holy woman,” “saint,” “mystic,” etc. There is this person in each tradition who is awake, more or less, to varying degrees, to his/her relatedness to the Absolute Reality.

Now there are two things that each of the great traditions can be said to hold in common concerning this topic: 1. The Absolute Reality is also essentially an Absolute Mystery; 2. That relationship to the Absolute Reality is in itself an impenetrable mystery. But even by using the word “mystery” we are in danger of trivializing what we want to express. This “mystery” is not something that can or ever be lifted—it is not due to some insufficiency of our minds that somehow falls away when we die. It is not some “add-on,” a cover as it were, that temporarily conceals the Absolute Reality. No, Mystery is of the essential nature of the Absolute Reality and our relationship to it is to travel deeper and deeper into it. So that relationship is also wrapped in absolute mystery. What that means is that this relationship cannot be “unwrapped” for our scrutiny as some scientific object—that it will always be BEYOND our understanding but which will fill our lives and our being more and more in an unspeakable way. This is very important to note because for too many adherents of the various traditions that relationship seems pretty well mapped out. One reason for that is that we are also made for “knowledge” of this Absolute Mystery. A seeming contradiction because our word “knowledge” almost always connotes a rational, scientific grasp of the reality in front of us—or else it does not get the term “knowledge.” Knowledge of the Absolute Mystery and knowledge of our relationship to that Mystery will be of a totally different kind. Thus, we better be careful about all our “maps”!

Note, I have avoided the use of the word “God.” Those of us in the Christian tradition tend to use this word and overuse it without any sense of awe of the Mystery behind it. It’s as if this Reality were merely an adjunct to our lives, or as if our little minds had a grasp of it. So, “God does this,” “God doesn’t do that,” “God loves you,” “God’s plan,” “God’s reward,” “God’s punishment,” etc., etc. Some of this God-language is important and carries meaning in its own limited way; some of it is misleading; some of it is downright wrong. Without a sense of the Mystery underlying the word “God” we use it at our peril—even if we are quoting Scriptures. Not to jump too far ahead at this point, but it is interesting how very little God-language there is among the great Desert Fathers, the great early monks.

Now we have to encounter another important word in this regard, “transcendence.” There is a lot of overlap between this term and Mystery, but Transcendence in reference to God covers a lot more ground as it were. In a sense God is an absolute mystery because of that absolute and unspeakable transcendence—there is a “Beyondness” to God that is not measureable, not understandable, not comprehensible, not imagineable, not communicable. The Reality of God is so Beyond that it is not even able to be symbolized. Thus the tradition of contemplative prayer in Christianity always insists on the way of negation: silence, abandoning all images in one’s mind, etc. To borrow from the Upanishads, pertaining to that Ultimate Reality, it is always “not this, not that.” And what is most important is that our very relationality to that Absolute, Transcendent Mystery is also wrapped in that Beyondness. In other words, be careful about what you think your relationship to God is, what image or idea you carry in your head, what feelings may connect to that, positive or negative. Whatever you feel or think or imagine about this falls short by the width of the universe!! That very relationship is so Beyond anything we can conjure. It is neither dualism, nor monism, not theism nor pantheism—these are only feeble concepts—we are neither one, nor two—we are beyond that kind of counting! That’s why I enjoy these words from the Heart Sutra (a modern translation):

Gate’, gate’, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, wow!

Now we have to face the fact that even this Transcendence gets trivialized. It simply becomes “God way out there somewhere.” Or it becomes “God is all-powerful and can do anything.” And then we get stupid logical games like, “Can God square a circle?” “If God knows the future,…..” And so on, and so on. And if we are a bit smart and religiously educated we can even play the transcendence/immanence game, trying to create a logical conundrum like a puzzle to solve. Suffice it to say that whatever the term “immanence” connotes is already packed within that term “transcendence” when it is truly expressed.

Let me conclude this part with one positive affirmation. Your life is totally wrapped in the Absolute Transcendent Mystery of God. There is no “outside” to this where you could stand and observe this or make statements about it. Your relationship to that Mystery makes itself known to you through a kind of “unknowing,” which can also be termed as an “awakening.” There are degrees of this awakening, or to put it better, once awake you never cease “becoming more awake” as it were, journeying ever more deeply into the Mystery filled with the Beyond, beyond all comprehension. So—final statement—there is no gap, no distance between you and God. The language of separation is at best a symbolic discourse of human exhortation, modeled on human love. At worst it is delusional. Wherever you are, whoever you are, God is more there than you are, and in fact God is more you than you are yourself.

B. The Gospels and the figure of Jesus
Here we venture into more difficult territory! The Gospels are the central documents of the Christian tradition, and the figure of Jesus Christ and how we interpret him is the pivotal point for all else. Truly this Word is a “two-edged sword,” but not in the traditional sense. On the one hand this Word is a source of and a summons to real wonderment, puzzle, questioning, awe, mystery—all of which beckons us always toward that Absolute Mystery. On the other hand that Word easily gets “captured” and trivialized. A veritable “Jesusology” develops where the figure of Jesus is somewhere out there on whom are projected our longings, our fears, our fantasies, our neurotic behavior, etc. This kind of thing happens in all the great world religions in different ways, but in Christianity this kind of misappropriation of the Scriptures and especially of the Gospels is almost rampant.

What do we actually see when we look at the Gospels? Primarily two things: 1.) A very strange, perplexing form of life; 2.) the person and figure of Jesus. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a whole new way of life is emphasized. The person of Jesus is obviously prominent but when we get to John this person becomes the “whole thing.” In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the parables, the healings, the injunctions and descriptions of a new way of life(like in the Sermon of the Mount) signal a break with our usual understanding of things. Suffice it to say that in our rationally organized social matrix the “last” are not the “first,” etc. It is interesting to see what Christians often do with all this language that steps outside their normal boundaries. For example, the Sermon on the Mount is sometimes presented as a call to a “Super Ethics,” one which of course no one lives up to and so then we have this teaching on forgiveness. Another “ethical” option is to push this into the eschaton, the Second Coming—the language and activity of Jesus presages this final and ultimate action of God. Still another option is to see all this as symbolic (but of what?—here often the “symbolized” is simply some projection of something within us, within our psyche). And finally there is the option where you simply use that language to “get a fix” on Jesus’s identity as “Son of God.” (Of course there are the few saints and holy people who have taken these words literally and truly made much of that.)

Now of course none of this is completely wrong; it’s just that they all fall short of something incredibly profound. All these readings stand at an unspeakable Door that opens on that Absolute Mystery. But perhaps with the Gospel of John you step through that Door, indeed you are almost pushed through it! Indeed, it is in this Gospel that Jesus says, “I am the Door”—and a host of other symbolic identity statements. How to even approach reading these without trivializing or making into platitudes or religious clichés? Consider Thomas Merton’s little meditation on Jesus as Door in the Gospel of John—it can be found in his collection, The Asian Journal. Short but very effective and most importantly evocative of that great mystery underlying this figure of Jesus. And it is extremely significant that Merton can do this kind of reflection within his exposure to the other great world religions. That speaks a ton!

We have not touched on the Pauline Letters or the figure of the “Risen Christ.” That we will have to do in a later posting because that needs a whole treatment in itself. Here I just want to emphasize that the language of the Gospels and the figure of Jesus in them does not take away the Absolute Mystery of God. In fact we can say that the Jesus of the Gospels is not so much a “comfort figure,” a “church creator,” but one who brings that Mystery awfully close to our hearts! In Paul, then, we will discover that Mystery in our own hearts! Lots more to discuss here, and some of it we will touch in the next section.

Addendum: Jesus on the cross, the message of Jesus crucified, the Cross/Crucifix—all this is the central symbolism of Christianity. Nothing else is even close. (For Abhishiktananda’s Christology that is not the case, and that needs a close look.) This is the “last stop,” one might say, in what can be said as Jesus “passes over” into the Absolute Mystery that he came from and now becomes the Risen Christ. All this and the Pauline Letters we will need to reflect on later as we get closer to next Lent.

C. Pseudo-Dionysius
Among the great early Christian figures, this person is lost to history. We really do not know who or what or where he was. There have been many guesses but the only reasonably reliable information places him in the 6th Century and perhaps in Syria. Why is he important? He is the most intense exponent of the absolute incomprehensibility and transcendence of God. Yes, he does have some good company in this regard in Gregory of Nyssa among others, but his focus on the Absolute Mystery is so total that other aspects of Christian doctrine seem to get lost and inevitably his “orthodoxy” has been questioned. No matter. St. Maximus the Confessor endorsed his writings, and so Pseudo-Dionysius became a foundation stone for Eastern Orthodox theology and mysticism. In the West his influence was also wide but more problematical. You can see him in The Cloud of Unknowing, in Eckhart, in John of the Cross. He is used extensively by Aquinas, but perhaps in a mistaken or distorted way, at least from the Orthodox point of view.

There are four works attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius that we have: The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. The latter two are, in my opinion, practically unreadable for most modern Western Christians—I mean they will really have no idea what is going on in the text! (Eastern Christians, hold your peace! You are in the same boat with us but a.) You don’t quite want to admit that; b.) Yes, you are closer to what Pseudo-Dionysius is saying than we are, but once you step outside your liturgy you are there with us in this rationalistic, scientific myopia that cannot see beyond its mental nose!) Now if you were a person living in Constantinople around 600 and went to the Holy Liturgy at the Church of the Hagia Sophia, The Celestial Hierarchy and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy would be perfectly and lucidly meaningful and fit right in. It is a Neoplatonic vision of the cosmos, the homo religiosus, and Divine Revelation in an incredibly beautiful and unified structure. Everything in it opens us to a new awareness and points toward that Absolute Beauty which is Absolute and Transcendent Mystery. The Neoplatonic universe is one in which we live immersed in rich symbolism and an unspeakable interconnectedness and inner-connectedness. The reality of Church and worship then takes on a wholly different look and feel—and present day Orthodox practice is a pale shadow of that and Western practice is…well, the less said the better….

So let us turn to the two works that are more accessible to us—though definitely not everybody’s cup of tea! Here we also find Neoplatonism and here I can’t help but be amused. When I was studying theology about 30 years ago, it was very “in” to disparage Neoplatonism—it was a real “bad word” in Christian theology! Both in Roman Catholic and in Protestant circles the call was for a return to the “authentic Christianity of its Jewish background.” Orthodox theologians had already for a long time been running away from any “contamination” by Platonism—alas, with not too much success because independent scholars would embarrassingly point out the various Platonic elements in the early Church Fathers. This call to a “pure Christianity” is bogus. This call to some “original Jewish Christianity” was a serious mistake and a diversion from some real problems. At the time of the beginnings of Christianity there were actually multiple Judaisms. Not one. So which one do you want to return to? Certainly the Jews of Alexandria were thoroughly Greek and Platonic. How about Qumran? Not too well-known, but there were folk at Qumran who were translating Plato into Hebrew(in Alexandria they were translating everything Hebrew into Greek!). Even in the Palestine of Jesus there were different versions of Judaism. It is only later that the Rabbinic and Talmudic Judaism suppressed and eliminated the thought-world of all these other Judaisms, and so what we have today is this one Rabbinic Judaism(but the modern period has produced some splintering even here).

Sorry for the digression, but it is important to see that the Neoplatonism in Christianity is not some kind of distortion or obfuscation. Neoplatonism is the rails on which early Christianity rides(Philo and his friends in Alexandria were already doing that). It is an essential feature of the growth and developing self-understanding of this religious awakening. Now our problem is that the Church so emphatically privileges that early language that it becomes impossible to rearticulate and reinterpret that profound religious awakening as laid out in the New Testament and especially in the Pauline Letters. We are afraid to see the very limited human boundaries of these writings. At times we turn this Scripture into an idol, indeed even that! And I don’t mean “make it modern”!! Please! I am thinking of our God-given encounter with all the great world religions. I am thinking of how Abhishiktananda struggled and suffered to “refind” Christianity in the experience of Advaita Vedanta, which was as real to him as the experiences of John of the Cross. Could Advaita be another “set of rails” that Indian Christian experience could ride on(and a few other of us as hitchhikers!)? Frankly I don’t think so—the Church won’t allow it; “conversion” for Indians became a “leaving behind” not a “bringing with” experience; and finally not many want to pay the price that Abhishiktananda paid. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground….”

Back to Pseudo-Dionysius! In his Neoplatonic vision the whole cosmos, this beautiful ordered reality, the whole world and everything in it down to a blade of grass, comes from this Absolute Transcendent Source, and then it returns there. This two-fold movement is matched by a two-fold paradox. On the one hand all of creation, because it flows from God, reveals God (Rom 1:20). On the other hand, no one has ever seen God (Ex 33:20; John 1:18; 1John 4:12). In so far as everything proceeds from God and reveals God to a certain extent, we will always have “names” for God. From our human experience of reality and from the revelation found in Scripture we can “name” God to a certain extent. This is the thesis of Pseudo-Dionysius in his Divine Names. But every name, even the names we derive from Scripture, are severely limited and do not reveal the Absolute Transcendent Mystery of God. This is very important. Because we have all these names for God from Scripture especially, like “God is Good;” “Father;” “Savior;” “Love;” etc; etc., we tend to lose sense of the Absolute Mystery and most importantly we lose the sense that our relationship to that Absolute Mystery is also a Mystery and not ever exhausted by or through any of these names. If that happens, then our prayer becomes shallow and our minds and hearts become sanctuaries of pious idolatry. That’s why the journey in contemplative prayer is always a journey of rooting out these “pious idols,” and going beyond all names into deep silence and Mystery where we and God are in an unspeakable relationship.

A quote from The Divine Names (the Luibheid translation): “Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process. Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this Supra-existent Being. Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name. It is and it is as no other being is. Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence….”

Another quote from The Divine Names (the Luibheid translation): “Truly and supernaturally enlightened after this blessed union, they discover that although it is the cause of everything, it is not a thing since it transcends all things in a manner beyond being. Hence, with regard to the supra-essential being of God—transcendent Goodness transcendentally there—no lover of the truth which is above all truth will seek to praise it as word or power or mind or life or being. No. It is at a total remove from every condition, movement, life, imagination, conjecture, name, discourse, thought, conception, being, rest, dwelling, unity, limit, infinity, the totality of existence. And yet, since it is the underpinning of goodness, and by merely being there is the cause of everything, to praise this divinely beneficent Providence you must turn to all of creation. It is there at the center of everything and everything has it for a destiny. It is there ‘before all things and in it all things hold together.’ Because it is there the world has come to be and exists. All things long for it…. Realizing all this, the theologians praise it by every name—and as the Nameless One.”

And one more: “And the fact that the transcendent Godhead is one and triune must not be understood in any of our own typical senses. No. There is the transcendent unity of God and the fruitfulness of God, and as we prepare to sing this truth we use the names Trinity and Unity for that which is in fact beyond every name, calling it the transcendent being above every being. But no unity or trinity, no number or oneness, no fruitfulness, indeed, nothing that is or is known can proclaim that hiddenness beyond every mind and reason of the transcendent Godhead which transcends every being. There is no name for it nor expression. We cannot follow it into its inaccessible dwelling place so far above us, and we cannot even call it by the name of goodness.”

Now The Mystical Theology is an extremely short work of only a few pages. In The Divine Names the emphasis was our “procession” from God—a very Neoplatonic notion—and so the possibility of drawing “names” for God from our experience and the Scriptures—though each “name” is extremely limited in its communication of the Divine Reality. Now in The Mystical Theology the emphasis, and most intensely so, is on our “return” to the Divine Reality, and here there can only be loss of all our concepts and names for the Divine Reality. So Pseudo-Dionysius advises us “to leave behind…everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge. By an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be uplifted to the ray of the divine shadow which is above everything that is.” (Luibheid translation)

Pseudo-Dionysius is so intense in this that I think he scares the “willies” out of our basic “Christian-in-the-pew” piety! Here he is again: “Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.” (Luibheid translation)

And so it is that it must be emphatically underlined that not only is this Absolute Reality an Absolute Mystery, but our relationality to this Absolute Reality and indeed our very identity is also wrapped up within this Inexpressible Mystery. This realizaton should have great consequences for our spiritual life!

In conclusion, I am reminded of the words of a still more ancient friend, Lao Tzu: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.”

No wonder that when John Wu, a Catholic Chinese scholar, translated the Gospel of John, he wrote: “In the beginning was the Tao….”

Ah, Wilderness

This is the title of a play, a comedy, by the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill. It is not one of his “great works,” a piece of fluff based totally on the East Coast, having nothing to do with real wilderness! However, I felt like stealing the title! The urge to do some reflecting on real wilderness has hit me due to some experiences in the real wilderness!

In one of the very early blog postings I had written extensively about “the call of the wild” as a kind of spiritual journey for some people—as organized religion became less appealing, some have turned to the wilderness for guidance of the inner self. John Muir said that he could not go into a church, but the wilderness was his cathedral. That I find very understandable! Don’t forget, the wilderness was the original training ground of holy men and women, of hermits, of spiritual seekers. It seems that every society and every civilization has a way of blunting that spiritual urge or redirecting it to something else. So off we go and flee!

Recently I got a chance to go out into some real wilderness. A few reflections seem called for. As usual, the “problems” I saw were the first things to hit me and nag at me! I still remember vividly from years ago an encounter with some German tourists on the edge of Death Valley in one of those roadside “desert rat” cafes. They said they were in a hurry to get to Las Vegas and were looking for a shortcut. I advised them to take their time and take in the desert vistas—it was winter and cool. One of the young Germans said,”Why? There’s nothing there.” In a sense he represents a whole group of urban sophisticated people for whom the wilderness has nothing to offer and means nothing. The number of this group of people is increasing rapidly and that bodes ill for all of us. A variant of this view is of course the vision of wilderness simply as a place to exploit, a moneymaker, wilderness as a commodity, etc.

Then there’s another group, and this one I encountered frequently—people who are curious about the wilderness but avoid real engagement. They only touch it from the outside. Often they come by bus to a well-prepared spot, get out, get a talk, take photos, get back on the bus, and are gone. Wilderness voyeurs—they enjoy it as a picture. A variant of this is the group that only approaches wilderness when it is packaged well, tamed down, a kind of theme park. I am afraid that a bit of Yosemite Valley is like that. There, on a daily basis in summer, about 25000 people squeeze into an area about 5sq miles. They are treated to a thoroughly packaged experience with many of the amenities of home. Admittedly the views of Half Dome and El Capitan and the other peaks are just plain awesome even from the Valley floor, and they are there to beckon you to go further—for those who have eyes to see and heart to follow. Then there is the rest of Yosemite, hundreds of thousands of acres of true wilderness for you to encounter and learn from. Even Europeans who are familiar with the Alpine scene are blown away at the size, the scope and the enormity of this wilderness. There are trails to campsites so remote you would think you were hiking with John Muir himself!

Speaking of peaks and mountains, I am fascinated by these people who actually climb mountains and even more by those who climb the rock faces of these enormous cliffs. What an incredible sight it is to see someone hanging from the face of a cliff about 2000 feet up and perhaps having no more than a 3 inch ledge! Yosemite is the world capital for such climbing—this is where they all come to prove themselves because there is no place that has so many cliffs of such grand proportions providing an ultimate challenge. First of all, you have to admit and admire the skill, the courage, the determination that is involved. But there is also something else going on, I think. A kind of focus that is hard or impossible to duplicate in any other situation. When you are way up there and you have to get from Point A to Point B and move upward, in a sense you have to solve a problem and there is absolutely nothing that can get in the way of that process—no fear, no thoughts of others, no regrets, no worries, etc. There is only this one problem to attack: how to get to that point. A mistake here could mean death. A super focus has to be there. Normally this is not how people live—usually we are scattered all over the place. So that is one thing. But there is still something else—does this kind of focus “relieve” one of the burden of facing “other problems?” Maybe, maybe not. I mean when you are “up there,” way up there, you cannot be thinking of a failed relationship, of how lonely you are, of the fact your father did not accept you, etc. Or even more to the point, you really set aside the very deep inner question of Who am I, anyway? I don’t mean to be hard on these folk—I admire them immensely—I just sometimes wonder if the adrenalin of that focus is another kind of drug. But I definitely still stand in awe of their achievements and wonder if I can learn from them.

I was in Yosemite as July 4th was approaching. Patriotic symbols and music were seen and heard. Sorry, but I don’t see America as Beautiful or the home of the free and the brave. The mountains, the desert, the rivers, the bears, etc. are beautiful but not the United States of America. This is NOT God’s country, folks! When the first white people came into Yosemite Valley they hunted down the Natives who lived there like they were wild game. Those they didn’t kill they simply drove out of the valley. Enough said.

Tuolumne Meadows, where I was staying, is a crossroads of a sort for various kinds of trails, short, long and very long. The John Muir Trail, which is over 200 miles long, starts in Yosemite and goes to Mount Whitney. The much longer trail is the Pacific Crest Trail which goes from Mexico to Canada. Yosemite is about 900 miles from Mexico and about 1700 miles from Canada. I saw hikers coming off both of these trails. There is a grocery store and a post office at Tuolumne Meadows, so these long range hikers get resupplied here and they are allowed to crash at this backpackers campsite to rest. I enjoy people watching! So I observed a bunch of these hikers. Most were young people—I would say under 30. But there were a few older ones. There was one older guy who looked like a classic picture of a Chinese hermit, except he was not Chinese! I mean he had this flowing long white beard, and flowing long white hair and these incredibly beautiful peaceful eyes. Indeed! They all carry these big backpacks stuffed with necessities for they might be up in the mountains for several weeks before they get to another supply point. Some of the young people had that trail weary look and were happy for a refreshing beer from the store! But you could see there is this real camaraderie of the “long trail”—they share an experience that the rest of us can only dream about.

So like I said, there are these two focal points in Yosemite: Yosemite Valley, which is very crowded in the summer(but the sights are spectacular), and Tuolumne Meadows. Tioga Pass Road runs through the heart of Yosemite connecting the two centers. At Tuolumne there is a Wilderness Permit Center, a Visitor’s Center, a grocery store, a post office, and a hamburger grill with a small menu. So there are usually a lot of people gathered in this area too, but nothing like the Valley. There are picnic tables outside the store/grill where you can sit and people watch! There is also a large campground nearby, the main Tuolumne Meadows Campground with about 300 sites(and a special hikers campsite for those coming off the long trails). I stayed there. At first I thought it would be horrible, but I was surprised how nice it was. I mean first of all the campers were all very quiet, so there was almost like a monastic silence in the evening and early morning. The only sound was the Tuolumne River flowing rapidly nearby. Lots of big trees and boulders for shade. Then there are literally dozens of trailheads nearby for day hiking or overnight hiking into the wilderness, and that’s what most of the people were doing. For overnight hiking you need to get a permit(free), and then you can camp anywhere on the trail. Lots of bears in the area, trust me!! The scenery is beyond anything words can say. Just riding along Tioga Pass Road is so spectacular you have to watch not having an accident by gawking! (By the way there are many other campgrounds along Tioga Pass Rd which also have their merits). I will only say this: there is a kind of Wisdom present in those granite rock cliffs and peaks and gorges and walls, there is a kind of Wisdom present in the beauty of that Wholeness which they silently speak of, the Hidden Wholeness that Merton referred to in one of his poetic reflections on Sophia. It is a Transcendent Wisdom but it also abides in our hearts, and we, all of us campers and hikers and climbers, come to a place like Yosemite in a sense to get closer to what is in our own hearts—even if we do it in some very inadequate and mixed up way. Hopefully we will touch that Wisdom some day before it is too late.

I was reading Han Shan by lantern light amidst these mountains and cliffs and big trees and bears—a very fitting setting that he would find congenial! So I will give him the last word:

I climb the road to Cold Mountain,
The road to Cold Mountain that never ends.
The valleys are long and strewn with stones;
The streams broad and banked with thick grass.
Moss is slippery, though no rain has fallen;
Pines sigh, but it isn’t the wind.
Who can break from the snares of the world
And sit with me among the white clouds?

Translated by Burton Watson

Difference and Center

There is something very fascinating about the differences found in the various religious/mystical traditions of the world. Each and every tradition has built up a whole package of its own symbols, myths, rituals, doctrines, scriptures, practices, etc. I suppose one can develop quite an academic career in studying their differences(and similarities), and indeed this is a very interesting and helpful endeavor. However, and this is a big however, each tradition also has at its core, at its center, that which alone renders all that other stuff meaningful and properly used AND which no scholarly enterprise can touch: an experience of transcendent and absolute simplicity, an experience of Unspeakable Mystery, an Ultimate Reality beyond all language, beyond all concepts, beyond all symbols, and fundamentally transforming the whole person. No one, whether it be a learned scholar or an ordinary adherent of some given tradition, can speak with any authority about its real meaning without recourse to that central reality and its experience.

Speaking of differences consider the following: the Russian Orthodox and the Quakers. These are two “sub-traditions” as it were within the grand tradition of Christianity. Now even though both are under this one umbrella, in many ways they push difference to the extreme. A certain external look at them and you could hardly believe they are even the same religion. However, for both that central reality is named: the living Presence of the Risen Christ in the heart of the believer, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the immediacy of the Reality of God—all different ways of articulating that central reality. It is only from that standpoint that one can make the deeper kind of connections between these two “sub-traditions” and locate them on the map of Christianity in a true and deep way.

Consider now another pair: Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Two very different manifestations of Buddhism arising from a core central experience of Buddha himself. And then even within Tibetan Buddhism and within Zen there are also several variants with all kinds of differences of serious significance. One can get lost among the differences if one loses sight of that utterly simple, unspeakable, central reality which is the foundation of all Buddhism. What each variant presents is another kind of journey to that realization. Tibetan Buddhism is noted for an incredible complexity of analysis of consciousness and the human mind. For some this is too intimidating as a spiritual path; for others, just what the doctor ordered! They have a veritable technology of elaborate analysis and meditational practices that gradually lead one to that fundamental experience. Now Zen appears to be utterly simple, stark, extremely direct, without any metaphysics—yet actually it does have quite a lot of writing around it, but in comparison to Tibetan Buddhism it is utterly without elaboration or system. Zen developed in China, so the story goes, when Indian Buddhism came with all its metaphysical and analytical baggage. The Chinese spirit and Taoism took care of that! It has been said that Zen had as its father, Buddhism, and as its mother, Taoism; and the Child resembles more the mother!

Now when we get to comparing the Great Traditions things get more dicey—like Christianity and Buddhism. Here we are less able to say that both aim at the same central reality. We should be humble about our claims. Only the one who has reached those peaks can speak with authority that the Christian “there” and the Buddhist “there” are really the same thing in different language, expressed in different symbols. Even to speak that way shows a great distance from that Absolute Reality of absolute simplicity. And speaking of “simplicity” does not mean that the path is easy, short, uncomplicated, without troubles, straight, etc. Quite the contrary, this is where we do find a lot of common ground between the various traditions—they all indicate a long, arduous, difficult path that needs an awful lot of determination, commitment, “one’s whole life, mind, body, heart.” Here we can do a lot of comparing and sharing! Let me point out a few examples.

When Merton visited the Tibetan Buddhists just a month or so before his death, he met and really hit it off with one of the lamas—Chatral Rinpoche. At the time Merton met him Chatral was about 55 years old—about the same age as Merton—and he was already considered one of the great living masters of Dzogchen (“Great Perfection”)—this is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s “prize jewels,” a very direct rigorous intense path to the Great Realization(the Dalai Lama warned Merton not to be fooled by its utter simplicity and that it would behoove him to get a good grounding in the Buddhist metaphysics of Madhayamika). What was really touching about this encounter is that both men acknowledged that they had not “reached” the Great Realization of each of their traditions, but both recognized in each other that they were “very close.” What is amazing about this is that Chatral had been at it for over 30 years and was a teacher and hermit of great renown among the Tibetan Buddhists.

Another example: I recently watched a taped lecture by the Dalai Lama. It was a series of talks he gave to American Tibetan Buddhists in New York a few years ago. Marvelous stuff and truly an amazing person. What I think startled a few people is that he very simply and humbly stated that he had not “reached” the ultimate experience, that he had no
“special powers,” that he had no “special realizations” of any kind. He was simply a person “on that journey.” In a sense this is what one would expect him to say, and anyone who did claim “special realization” should be held suspect. But in this case his manner was very simple and direct and if he wished to avoid saying anything about his state of awareness it was readily available to him.

And just to throw in somebody else from another tradition: Shaikh al-‘Alawi, the great 20th Century Sufi Master from North Africa, says somewhere that only one in 10,000 of those who come to him for instruction and guidance “reach the peak.” But, and this is important, he also underscores the goodness and rightness of that journey. So one of the first things to be liberated from in this process is the notion of “achievement”—as if you were going to “achieve” this realization. Yes, the journey is very long and hard, but it is also the only thing really worth doing with our lives. And where we start and where we end up might be in two radically different places. Never mind how far we get, or even if we get lost and then have to make our way back to the path….never mind, the journey is all that matters and to realize that is already in some measure to be at the Center. The Buddhists call it “enlightenment,” but I prefer —“awakening.”

Even if we cannot make any direct conceptual comparisons between the core realizations of these various and different spiritual traditions, nevertheless we can observe something about them indirectly as it were. As an analogy let us use the example of Black Holes in the universe. Scientists are fairly certain that there is a massive Black Hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. We can’t see anything because by its very nature a Black Hole prevents any information from flowing out. It’s gravitational field is so strong that not even a ray of light can escape its grasp. So all we see is an empty place there—thus the name, Black Hole. However, the space around it is severely affected and distorted by that same gravitational field. Thus scientists are able to calculate, from these effects, a lot about at least the external nature of the Black Hole.

So it is with that mysterious center that each tradition seeks out. In a sense our only conceptual knowledge pertains more to the “effects” and “consequences” of that core realization, or as one gets closer and closer to that realization its effects become more apparent. And here there is something somewhat surprising in store: these “effects” are very similar no matter which tradition we look at. And here I will use Buddhist language because it is so succinct to designate what I am speaking about: limitless freedom, endless clarity, infinite compassion, and No-self. More about this in the next posting.

Of course a Christianity of conventional piety and a Buddhism of conventional piety have very little chance of meeting and having a fruitful dialogue. Well, they can be “nice” to each other! True spiritual seekers in both traditions have a much better chance of having a dialogue in depth about their various differences, and more importantly about what it truly is they are seeking—not just some words/concepts. But, and this would be the big thing, what if a Milarepa met a Francis of Asissi? I will venture a guess—there would be a profound smile on each person’s face and a profound silence as they bowed toward each other. No words can enter that circle. So frustrating to a scholar!

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

Holy Saturday, the Economy, the Church, & Mansur al-Hallaj

Now let me see, have I forgotten anything!? Maybe, but it doesn’t look like it. Ok, this is a kind of “blog stew” where I throw in all kinds of stuff and with a bit of “cooking” it may stick together and be tasty! Actually I was going to deal with all these topics separately under the heading of “New Notes,” but then I found them kind of sticking together. So, here goes.

Perhaps it is odd to reflect on Holy Saturday so long after it has passed; perhaps it is not so odd. From a religious and liturgical standpoint, it is a peculiar day—there is absolute stillness, nothing happens. Speaking only of my own Catholic tradition, I think here we have it just right: there is no service of any kind on Holy Saturday—the only day of the year so designated. If anyone has some service on Holy Saturday, I think they are missing the point here. Sure, many parishes have the Easter Vigil usually late Saturday evening, but that is ok because traditionally, liturgically, the next day begins at sundown. So at sundown Holy Saturday is over and the Easter Vigil can begin. But on Holy Saturday Jesus is “buried in the tomb,” and the Church must remain silent. In a sense it cannot even “be” church; but it waits for that Awakening.

On Holy Saturday, in our society, it’s business as usual—with a certain Easter flourish. Easter bunnies, flowers, chocolate eggs, and all kinds of bright things abound. Such is the nature of our reflection on the Great Mystery of the Resurrection. There is a façade of unreality smacked on top of the deep unreality of what our lives are all about: being “happy consumers,” “happy church-goers.” Yes, the two seem to go together unfortunately. The underlying message in too many churches is that you can be a happy consumer because when you die that’s not the end because Christ is risen. Sounds crude and perhaps unfair and certainly never explicitly put that way. But even at best the Resurrection seems nothing more than an “overlay” on our otherwise secular activities. The central mystery of Christianity seems nothing more than an “addition” to our regular lives, which are somehow enhanced by this “Easter celebration.”

Our phenomenal, historical, samsaric existence goes on as on any Saturday. Human beings buy and sell, make love, raise children, engage in war, wash the car, do the dishes, read a book, feel pain and joy, etc. But liturgically the Church has come to a still point, a great quiet, an empty space. And as our Taoist friends would put it, it is the empty space that renders this whole structure valuable and meaningful. But how and why? Incidentally, the monk-hermit is a living icon of Holy Saturday—he/she is the “empty space” within the life of the church and the community. Everyone wants him/her to contribute to that community life, but in his “not being there,” the contribution is of greater dimensions.

Now there is a special twist to all this which makes it even more difficult to grasp. Holy Saturday is not an isolated entity. It is an integral part of the Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Easter Vigil. It is rightly said that this is truly only ONE celebration, one contemplation of ONE great mystery in several different modes. The Mystery of the Resurrection already begins and is made manifest on Holy Thursday in the washing of the feet and the breaking of the bread. The Mystery of the Resurrection is already present and manifest on the Cross on Good Friday—this takes some spiritual insight to even begin to sense. And of course the Mystery of the Resurrection explodes into full manifestation at the Easter Vigil. So what happened to Holy Saturday? That “empty space,” that “tomb,” that supreme quiet, is also a manifestation of the Mystery of the Resurrection. But note another anomaly—we did say TRIduum, meaning “3”—but here we have seemingly 4 parts. Again, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are relatively clear in their importance—so what happens to Holy Saturday—it seems like the human appendix in our body, something unnecessarily there and can be done without, tossed away without any real loss. Ah, quite the contrary. The other three great moments gather around this “empty quiet space,” and they manifest their great message within this “quiet, empty space.” Beyond that I can say no more.

Now we shift gears. Jesus said that where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there I am. Indeed. This is true ecclesially, liturgically and existentially. The meaning of Church is to gather in the name of the Risen Christ, who is now beyond all boundaries, all designations, all titles, all concepts, etc. The Chuch’s meaning and mission becomes manifest in every true gathering in that Name. This is the role of the liturgy. On Holy Thursday begins the Triduum, and the liturgy there focuses on the washing of the feet and the breaking of the bread. It is truly good that the new pope washed the feet of Moslems and women—the reasons for this are obvious and we need not rehash the history. One only hopes that there is more than these symbolic actions that will take place. In any case, the “washing of the feet” is one profound symbolic action(but not the only one) of the meaning of “church”, the faith community. In a sense this ritual, symbolic action manifests at least one dimension of the “church.” To illumine the full significance of this let us turn to Islam, and at its heart is this thing called “perfect servanthood.” This is what every pious Moslem aims at, and of course the Sufi mystics pushed this to its deepest level, and among the greatest of them, Mansur al-Hallaj, we reach an unspeakable depth. Al-Hallaj said that in perfect servanthood “God becomes my ‘I’.” In perfect servanthood we transcend our superficial ego-self, and God becomes manifest in our very being—our very person becomes like the Burning Bush that Moses witnessed. One of the Desert Fathers said, “Why not become all fire?” Al-Hallaj died crucified and mutilated because of his alleged blasphemy in which he claimed an unspeakable intimacy with God. Sounds familiar? When he was on the cross, he proclaimed “I am the Truth,” or sometimes translated as “I am Reality.” It was no longer the little ego of a Persian itinerant religious teacher who was speaking but the Ultimate Reality which we call God who was one with al-Hallaj in his perfect servanthood.

Now the Church has an institutional ego—no matter who you are, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, non-denominational, small, large, whatever. In fact all religious bodies have this institutional ego, and on Holy Thursday this ego is invited to a self-transcendence, indeed a real death, if you will, to manifest “perfect servanthood,” and so then to truly manifest the Ultimate Reality of God. This will take a lot more than pious words about “loving the poor,” etc. Does any Church dare let go of its institutional ego? Does any Church or any religious body dare even to admit that it has one?

Consider this example. You might recall the Michael Moore film about our economy. A very provocative indictment of where our priorities have been and are. At one point in the movie there is a scene in which Moore wraps that yellow police tape around the New York Stock Exchange—it is a “crime scene”!! That’s a funny scene but also very telling and in fact in keeping with some of the prophets of the Old Testament. So many people have been hurt by the financial manipulations of the big financial institutions. Now I was thinking, if only that had been a bishop wrapping that tape around the New York Stock Exchange, several bishops, calling it not only a “crime scene,” but a “den of thieves.” They could have invited ministers and priests, rabbis and Imams, to join them. What a powerful scene that would have been! “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I will be.” Yeah, there would have been consequences, name-calling, criticism, threats, etc. But it would have been a small step toward “perfect servanthood”—certainly more so than any liturgical gestures. But I think it is the preservation of the institutional ego that keeps them from things like that. And it keeps them also from things much deeper. The main function of the Church is not to point to itself, even as it is the “Body of Christ,” but to point to that Awakening within the human heart of every person regardless who they are, that Awakening in to their identity in the Risen Christ even as this may go beyond all church formulations that we can recognize. But this “pointing” can only happen as the Church discovers and unfolds into “perfect servanthood” existentially and not just symbolically, and this can only unfold as the Church enters its own Holy Saturday within which it surrenders to the silence and the “empty space” of the Mystery. And we conclude with our hermit-monk who in his/her solitude incarnates the “vacancy” of Holy Saturday and so journeys into a very real “perfect servanthood,” which is his gift to all of humanity, not only the Church.

“You are My Son” Part II

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Mt3:17 Baptism

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Mt 17: 5 Transfiguration

“You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Mark 1: 11 Baptism

“This is my Son, the Beloved.” Mark 9: 8 Transfiguration

“You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Luke 4: 22 Baptism

“This is my Son, my Chosen,…” Luke 9:35 Transfiguration

We will pick up where we left off in the previous posting. But first we have to confront a bit of a difficulty in the Christian expression of this Awakening. Because the Jesus of history was a Jewish male, his “breakthrough,” his realization, his Awakening into that intimacy with the Ultimate Transcendent Mystery of Yahweh was spoken of in terms of the intimacy of “Father-Son” language. Where does that leave the other half of the human race—women? Again, the question does arise, how much do you privilege this language. Church doctrine does it so absolutely that it won’t even allow women to be priests, because in this view the priest is a “representation” of the historical Jesus. I won’t get into this argument, but as for the language of the Awakening, it is best viewed from the “other side” of the Paschal Mystery. In the Risen Christ there is no longer “Jew or Greek,” neither “male nor female.” Not in the sense that Jesus’s maleness somehow vanishes, but only that in the Resurrection it becomes transcended. Gender differences, ethnic differences, cultural differences, all recede into a kind of insignificance compared to the one Reality. This is the end of all dualities, an advaita that cuts across all human differences and “otherness.” So the paradigm, that which we look to as a “model” or pattern, is the Jesus of history, but the “realization,” our own actual Awakening is an awakening into the Risen Christ, who is beyond all historical limitations or definitions.

Feels like beating the proverbial dead horse, but I need to again point out that for too many Christians religion is a matter of “pleasing God,” “avoiding sin”—whatever that is, “keeping laws,” “doing good to get a reward”—like heaven, etc. But Jesus himself said, “Why do you call me good; only God is good.” A truly profound statement that just slips by in the Gospel. And Paul rails against a fundamental dependency on “doing good works.” And Luther was certainly right in criticizing a “religion of works,” but he misunderstood in a fundamental way what is meant by “sinfulness.” There is no “distance” between you and God—ever.

Now we come to another problem—not unrelated to the above stuff. Abhishiktananda focused on the Baptism pericopes in the Gospel as a central moment when Jesus breaks through to his experience of advaita with Yahweh. This became for Abhishiktananda, in his later years, the key event in the Gospels. With this new awareness of the Source of his life, Jesus engages the people and culture around him, and this makes him misunderstood by some, (mistakenly) admired by others, threatened by still others. It leads ultimately to an execution in which he remains faithful to that profound new sense of his identity—which was already tested in the pericope of the Temptation in the Wilderness. Interestingly enough, the Transfiguration account is a kind of continuation of this “You are My Son,” a confirmation of that original breakthrough into the advaita experience with his “Father.” But this time it is intimately tied to his oncoming death and the so-called Resurrection—the Paschal Mystery. How the advaita Awakening is tied to the Paschal Mystery is not easy to see or explain. Abhishiktananda does something that seems to break with Christian Tradition—he places the Baptism event at the center of his Awakening Christology and makes the Paschal Mystery seemingly a secondary thing, an outcome of that Awakening somehow. We will resist getting into the various Christological problems this entails!

One definite connection, however, is that once Jesus has his Awakening in the waters of the Jordan, he begins life with a new sense of identity that defies all labels, which others are eager to bestow on him. Jesus asks us why we want to carry the heavy burden of this ego-identity—in fact there are so many identities which encumber us and they are so burdensome and “heavy”—why not “awaken” and enter into his identity, which is in a real sense a no-identity, and this is a very light burden. The “kingdom” is merely life lived within this Awakening. (Incidentally the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes can also be best understood as life lived from deep within this Awakening.)

Awakening has to do with a profound upheaval of identity, an “atomic explosion” in the words of Abhishiktananda. No title, no label, no indicator, no human constructs, no language can render “who you are.” And so it is with Jesus. In the Temptation in the Wilderness right after his Baptism, Jesus faces the full power of false identities. Then various people try to put different labels on him, and he resists this with that mysterious and vague term, “son of Man.” The Son of Man must suffer and die he says, and then he enters definitively into a whole new identity and life, which is the Resurrection, which is not just another identity among the many others but properly speaking it is no-identity. So the Awakening begins for Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, but it is not definitive until his death and Resurrection. The importance of this death cannot be overstated. The Cross is the obliteration of all identities and all apparent ties and all seeming realities. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even the initial awakening of Jesus in the Jordan is now put to the test by seemingly being obliterated. Jesus totally surrendens to this seeming Nothingness. It is only then that he enters into that unspeakable realization which is called the Resurrection, which is totally beyond all formulations, all identities, all namarupa. And so it is with us also as we follow him. Ultimately our advaita is with a Nameless God, the Nameless One in whom we too become Nameless and so beyond all limitations, all boundaries, all contingencies, etc. The Church is YET to fully realize this even as it re-enacts and celebrates the events of the Paschal Mystery. For some in the Church who are still in the primitive realization of dualism and legalism, the death of Jesus is a kind of “guilt payment,” a making of satisfaction for the “sins” of others, etc. This means being trapped within the Hebraic-Greek namarupa of early Christianity; it is being trapped within a legalistic, monarchical, dualistic framework imposed on the experience of Jesus.

Now we come to the most profound part of Abhishiktananda’s Awakening Christology. Here he turns to and plants himself deep within the Gospel of John—which he at times almost calls a Christian Upanishad. The Gospel of John has a very different presentation of Jesus and his experience of “sonship.” In fact it does not have any pericope on the Baptism or the Transfiguration in the same sense as the Synoptic Gospels. That “blazing light” of the Christian version of advaita permeates the whole Gospel of John. The language of “sonship” is the very fabric of the work, and it reaches a crescendo in the final chapters of the Last Supper discourse. The Gospel is replete with names, titles and symbols designating Jesus: rabbi, teacher, messiah, king, prophet, “the Vine,” “the Light,” the Word,” “the door,” “the gate,” “the Bread,” etc. Ultimately in death, on Good Friday, Jesus becomes “nameless,” though a deeply ironic and devastating “King of the Jews” sign is hung on the Cross. The cross is the sign of the obliteration of all signs, all names, all titles. There is only one thing that passes through the eye of this needle, and the Gospel of John really makes it emphatic: John 8:58 “Before Abraham was, I am.” Abhishiktananda zeros in on this as an explicit claim of Advaita in Jesus. In this obvious reference of the “I AM WHO AM” of the Old Testament Yahweh, the utterly Transcendent utter Mystery who holds all in being, Jesus realizes his oneness with this Reality. His “I am” dwells within the Absolute “I AM” of the Divine Reality.

Now let us be clear about this: in Jesus this does not mean the expansion of the ego self into some infinite identity. On the contrary, Jesus always points toward the Cross and the passage through the Paschal Mystery. The Sufis speak of “extinction,” of “fana,” pertaining to that small i—the ego self. And so it is with all of us. We are invited in and through Jesus to enter into the Paschal Mystery and so into our real identity which is in an unspeakable union with I AM—our own little i surrenders to the Great I AM which is at the core of our being. This Awakening can begin at any time but it really culminates in our death. The Resurrection is another way of speaking of our real and ultimate identity in the non-duality of the Trinitarian Communion which is the root of our being and of everyone and everything else. At the Easter Vigil, the Church proclaims “Lumen Christi”—the Light of Christ is this light of non-duality in our hearts and the darkness which it enters and dispels is the “darkness” of separation, distance, duality, etc., etc. Within this Lumen Christi we begin to see who we really are, and so when we clean the floor it is also God cleaning the floor and when we do the dishes, it is also God doing the dishes, and so on. In and through the Paschal Mystery of Christ we transcend the Otherness of the Utterly Transcendent Other.

So let us conclude with some quotes from Abhishiktananda:

“Jesus is a person who has totally discovered, realized his mystery…His name is “I AM”…. Jesus is saviour by virtue of having realized his NAME. He has shown and has opened the way out of samsara, the phenomenal world, and has reached the guha, the padam, beyond the heavens…which is the mystery of the Father. In discovering the Father, he has not found an “Other”: “I and the Father are one.” In the only Spirit he has discovered his non-duality with Yahweh; it is the Spirit that is the link, the non-duality.”
From The Diary.

“Jesus did not cudgel his brains to make a philosophy about his advaita with God. He lived this non-duality with absolute intensity simply by gazing like a child at his ‘Abba.’ And he taught his people to live, simply but deeply, a life of loving union with their brothers—a union of mutual giving without limit. And in the absoluteness of their self giving to God and the neighbor, the non-dual Absolute is found and lived with far greater truth than in Vedantin speculations.”
From his letters.

“Jesus experienced such a closeness to God—probably the very same as is revealed in the advaitic experience—that he exploded the biblical idea of ‘Father’ and of ‘Son of God’ to the extent of calling God ‘Abba,’ i.e., the name which in Aramaic only the one who is ‘born from’ him can say to anyone. But the term ‘Son’ is only imagery, and I fear the theologians have treated this image too much as an absolute, to an extent that becomes simply mythical. In Johannine terms Jesus discovers that the I AM of Yahweh beonged to himself, or rather, putting it the other way round, it was in the brilliant light of his own I AM that he discovered the true meaning, total and unimagineable, of the name of Yahweh. To call God ‘Abba’ is an equivalent in Semitic terms of advaita, the fundamental experience. It seems that in his Baptism he had an overwhelming experience, he felt himself to be Son, not in a notional Greek fashion, but that he had a commission given by Yahweh to fulfil, and in this commission he felt his nearness to Yahweh…. It is the reduction of the mystery of Jesus to a Jewish or Greek concept that makes the dialogue of salvation with non-Christians so difficult. One culture has monopolized Jesus. He has been turned into an idea—it is easier than to let yourself be scorched by contact with him….”
From his letters.