Lent: Questioning Old School Spirituality

We are at the beginning of another Lent.  That means something if you are within the Catholic/Orthodox framework.  This is an important time for spiritual and liturgical reasons.  It is a time of clarification of our priorities and our vision and our self-understanding.  This is also at the heart of monastic life, and the monk is the quintessential “Lent person.”  This also happens to be one of my favorite times!

Now Lent can be understood in different ways, and in fact some of this can be very truncated, very superficial, even very distorted.  Unfortunately this is mostly true of a lot of traditional religiosity.   In my youth I was very much a devout follower, but as I got older I began to question more and more of it.  It is not that there aren’t great and profound truths in what I like to call “old school spirituality,” but it is so laden with misconceptions, misunderstandings, superficial concerns, etc., etc.   And so many people are burdened by a language they are so eager and docile to accept.  Granted, this is less true today than a few decades ago; but it still afflicts us in many ways.  

The roots of the problem is in our reticence to “question all authority”—as that old bumper sticker says.  The authority both of persons and the language of our tradition.  In the case of religious traditions, practices and structures, this becomes critical.  Otherwise we can easily become enveloped in a fog of superficial mythology and our spiritual path reduced to simply “trying to be a better person.”  In some cases we can be seriously fooled and badly damaged interiorly.  Recently I saw a report about Jean Vanier, that he was involved in the sexual molestation of a number of women associated with his community of disabled people.  He and the Dominican priest who built this community were hero-worshipped as almost saints, but it turns out there was a “dark side” to this story.  One writer who detailed this sad story correctly points out how certain ecclesial attitudes and structures and language enabled and shielded this situation.  

The hero-worshipping of Vanier and his Dominican cohort is a symptom that can be found in all religious traditions(that’s how certain Buddhist teachers got away with   The religious dynamic in us somehow always drives us to put certain people and certain religious language  and religious structures on a pedestal.  History shows us that is a big mistake with all kinds of serious consequences.  By the way, the “questioning of all authority” is not antinomian or anarchic, and it is as old as the hills.  Read the Desert Fathers, for example,  and you’ll find it there all the time—not of course if you institutionalize their words and turn them into a “fossil record” of conventional piety.  

But getting back to our Lent….  What is this all about?  Old school spirituality speaks of “penance, prayer, and fasting.”  We also hear about “giving-up” stuff during Lent.  That was real big when I was a kid in the ‘50s.  We also get a good dose of what I call “cross-language”—from the Gospel, using that historical moment of Jesus’ crucifixion as a metaphor/symbol of something else.  Ok, all this language has an authentic sense to it and it can serve a true spiritual purpose.  But….how truly sad it is to see that mostly it is handled in a very superficial way and at times in a very distorted way that ultimately leads people away from the depths and mystery of the spiritual journey.

Consider the following insight from a book on Plotinus (Return to the One):

“A person’s illusory and shifting sense of individuality thus must be distinguished from a true sense of self.  If one traces his or her I-ness back to its source, as one would trace a line (or radius) back to the center of the circle from which it emanates, then the core of one’s self will be found to be identical with the core of everything.”

Yes, and this insight is at the heart, one way or another, of all the major spiritual traditions.  Our real identity is not this “solid” isolated self entity that relates to all else via external relations.  Rather we are essentially a pure relationality—not an isolated entity (this is at the heart of the Buddhist no-self doctrine and as my Thomistic philosophy professor put it, our self is like a tunnel at one end of which is this sense of “I” and at the other end, if we look deep enough, is the ultimate reality which we call God and the two are this one tunnel of relationality).  Both Aristotle and the Dalai Lama say that all human beings seek to be “happy,” but if they have a mistaken sense of self their search for happiness will not only be frustrated but actually may cause more suffering and darkness to themselves and to others.  When we begin to realize the interrelatedness that IS our self, this also affects all our understandings of ethics, morality, politics, economics, etc.   So the real meaning of Lent isn’t about “preparing for Easter,” eating fish on Fridays or “giving up” something or going to church more often or even “trying to be a better person” whatever that means, but it has to do really with getting our priorities right and focusing on what is our core identity.  When we finally do get to Easter, we finally get to that symbolic point that is beyond all language, all concepts, all images…the Resurrection in Christian terms, where the Risen Christ manifests to us the meaning of our existence which is not bound by death or any other limitation of identity.  Paul has his moment on the road to Damascus….”Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me”—Paul discovers himself not as this individual trying real hard to “keep the Law,” and he is a real zealot at that, but now he finds a whole new sense of being—not “I” but “Christ.”  So, in the words of the Upanishads, our true Lenten journey is a journey from the unreal to the Real.


Every once in a while it is good to take inventory of such folk in our life and see how that list might change or stay the same over time.  I recall doing this a few years ago it seems, so it’s about time to revisit that effort as I begin 2020.  The list is not in any order, just random.

To begin with there are the obvious:  Thomas Merton and Abhishiktananda.

Then, much less obvious:  Thoreau and Muir and Edward Abbey

Continuing:  Dostoyevsky (especially his Father Zosima)

The Desert Fathers  (collectively, though some more than others)


Lao Tzu and the most incredible of all, the poet, fool and lay hermit Hanshan


I think I have pared my list down to these names as I have reassessed their impact on my life’s journey and my spirituality.  It is important to point out that no claim is being made that these figures are “perfect,” beyond criticism, or “have it all figured out.”  Far from it!!   Now it is also important to acknowledge that I have enjoyed and benefited and marveled at the insights of countless other figures who may in fact be “deeper” people than some on my list.  Who could not learn from St. Antony, St. Seraphim, St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, etc.?  And how about all those other great Chinese figures like Hui Neng, the seminal figure of Zen Buddhism and Lin Chi, otherwise known as Rinzai in Japanese?   And then of course there are these incredible Japanese zen figures like Hakuin, Dogen and Ryokan.  And who could not have been inspired and learned much from such as Santideva and Milarepa and Ramana Maharshi?   All these and so many more have influenced me greatly and profoundly, but the others are the “special favorites” for this person. 

And to start off 2020, here is a “blessing” for your journey from one of my favorites, Edward Abbey:

“May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow, winding and only slightly uphill.  May the wind bring rain for the slickrock potholes fourteen miles on the other side of yonder blue ridge.  May God’s dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your reverie, may the Great Sun dazzle your eyes by day and the Great Bear watch over you by night.”

Another Round of This and That for the New Year


Recently I came across this story of a Native American woman’s encounter with some young white girls.  It starts like this:

“Lori Metoxen, 52, works as an administrator at Oneida Behavioral Health in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a treatment center for indigenous people suffering from addiction and mental illness. Metoxen says one beautiful summer day in 2017 she drove home from work with the windows down, the sunroof open, and her Oneida Nation license plate, available only to members of the tribe, proudly displayed on the back of her car. When she stopped at a traffic light in the part of western Green Bay that belongs to the Oneida Nation reservation, she noticed a car full of white, teenage girls in the lane beside hers.   ‘Go back to Mexico, you scumbag sack of shit!’ one of the girls yelled at Metoxen. 

Stunned, Metoxen remembers saying something like, ‘What is your problem?’ to which the girl, after a string of profanities, replied, 

‘You heard me, go back to Mexico!’ 

‘The angriness of their voices was shocking to me,’ Metoxen, a Native American who is not from Mexico, recounted to HuffPost. ‘They really needed to make somebody feel bad. What was the fun in that?’ 

After a few seconds, the light turned green and the white girls, all laughing, turned left. Metoxen drove straight, and as so often happens after incidents like these, she suddenly realized what she should have said. 

You go back to where you came from! I belong here!’”

(written by Christopher Mathias in the Huffington Post)

I remember once meeting a Native American man who had a t-shirt with the message:  Fighting Illegal Immigration since 1492.  I think he understood the situation!

So one of the problems that seems to be in the air these days is the issue of immigration.  Nothing easy or simple about it; not sure how it can be resolved in a good way.  On the one hand the tough, brute anti-immigrant, seal-the-borders stance is not only morally wrong but also historically wrong-headed and ultimately not even effective at that.  On the other hand, a totally open border where anyone can come in any time is not a workable situation for a modern nation.  In fact it was never such a situation even in pre-modern times among indigenous peoples.  Although you almost never had clear borders, there was a sense of “this is our territory,” and to enter or traverse this territory from another tribe required some negotiation or conflict was a possibility.  In any case, it never was just anybody come into “our territory” even though it was not “our state.”  To be honest we also have to admit that premodern peoples did invade and sometimes force other inhabitants out if they were weaker.    In modern history, when Europeans forced their way into the Americas and kept coming and coming, it was in fact a kind of invasion.  We cannot undo that time, but you see how that complicates the picture.  On the level of politics and economics the situation is intractable, but what that means is that we are not seeing it at a deep enough level.  It means it is time for us to see things radically differently, from the depths of our being, and our flourishing as human beings will depend on that.  


Climate change.  No need to say much on this one.    Recent headlines speak of record temps in Australia and extremely warm pools of ocean water in the vicinity of New Zealand.  And a lot more.  The evidence is all there, but we seem to be strangely stagnant about what we might want to do.  I am reminded of the ancient historian, Livy, who said of his own Rome, “We cannot endure our vices nor their cure.”  It seems like another intractable situation where we seem to have a sense that something is happening but at the same time we seem unable to change anything of our lifestyles that might make a difference in some degree.


Election year and impeachment.  Let “The Circus” begin!  In my opinion impeachment is mostly a distraction from our real problems I don’t see much hope in this process.  The country is sadly, tragically, and stupidly very, very divided.  And to top it all off there is almost no one who seems to be a decent choice to vote for.  I am not seeking the perfect candidate, just someone who is not BSing or just power hungry. I can vote for Sanders and maybe for Warren, but even if one of them wins, the way the country is and the way Congress is, mostly what would happen is that their decent proposals would get gutted out.  The temptation is to blame Trump and the Republicans for our predicament, and they certainly are a significant part of it; but really the Democrats have done more than their share of damage in recent decades.   As usual, Chris Hedges has presented this most eloquently in an essay on Truthdig:

Here is an excerpt from that essay:

“Yes, Trump’s contempt of Congress and attempt to get Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, to open an investigation of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in exchange for almost $400 million in U.S. military aid and allowing Zelensky to visit the White House are impeachable offenses, but trivial and minor ones compared with the constitutional violations that the two parties have institutionalized and, I fear, made permanent. These sustained, bipartisan constitutional violations—not Trump—resulted in the failure of our democracy. Trump is the pus coming out of the wound.  If the Democrats and the Republicans were committed to defending the Constitution why didn’t they impeach George W. Bush when he launched two illegal wars that were never declared by Congress as demanded by the Constitution? Why didn’t they impeach Bush when he authorized placing the entire U.S. public under government surveillance in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment? Why didn’t they impeach Bush when he authorized torture along with kidnapping terrorist suspects around the world and holding them for years in our black sites and offshore penal colonies? Why didn’t they impeach Barack Obama when he expanded these illegal wars to 11, if we count Yemen? Why didn’t they impeach Obama when Edward Snowden revealed that our intelligence agencies are monitoring and spying on almost every citizen and downloading our data and metrics into government computers where they will be stored for perpetuity? Why didn’t they impeach Obama when he misused the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force to erase due process and give the executive branch of government the right to act as judge, jury and executioner in assassinating U.S. citizens, starting with the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and, two weeks later, his 16-year-old son? Why didn’t they impeach Obama when he signed into law Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, in effect overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military as a domestic police force?”

And there’s a lot, lot more there that he says…..


Religion.  Now you would think that religion might be some kind of antidote to all this.  Well, not exactly.  To be precise, by religion I mean the institutions, the structures, the organizations, etc.  It’s hard to say whether it was always like this or we are simply more aware of the rot.  Consider some of these recent news items:

80% of evangelical Christians who voted, voted for Trump.  Now there is an evangelical “army of prayer” praying to save him from impeachment.  And then there was this recent headline:

America’s Christian churches are flush with cash despite declining attendance

The story was about how many Protestant churches are “blessed” with lots of cash and their pastors are doing quite well financially.  

And then there was this headline:

Mormon Church has misled members on $100 billion tax-exempt investment fund, whistleblower alleges

Lest you think we Catholics are exempt from such corruption, consider this recent story in the Wall Street Journal:

Headline:  Vatican Uses Donations for the Poor to Plug Its Budget Deficit


Or two recent stories in the Washington Post:

Headline:   Ousted cardinal McCarrick gave more than $600,000 to fellow clerics, including two popes, records show

This is a story about how the archbishop of Washington, DC, one of the top positions in the Catholic Church basically bribed people who could cause him problems if his sexual predation was outed.  And where do you think that money came from?

The other headline, also from the Post:

W.Va. bishop gave powerful cardinals and other priests $350,000 in cash gifts before his ouster, church records show

Later the Post did another story about this West Virginia bishop and his decadent and opulent lifestyle in one of the poorest dioceses in the country:


You have to read the story to really get a sense of how bad the situation can get!  It is almost too much to believe.

All of this stuff is, of course, only scratching the surface of what ails us.  The sex problems among the church clergy is unspeakably awful and it is not something that we have really confronted or “solved.”  Want to read a current harrowing story about a priest approved by Mother Teresa?  Here is the link:


 But even that is only a symptom of a much deeper dysfunctionality.  Can’t speak for the Protestant scene or the other major religions, each of which have their own serious problems, but we Catholics have a major institutional, theological and spiritual crisis going on and few seem to recognize its true dimensions.

But good people still do good things, and maybe that’s all that matters.  And here is a  story that the struggle to “do the right thing” still has a voice:


I love the photo below—from HuffPost with this story.  It speaks a lot against all the stuff above, but I will refrain from any interpretations.  I also love what this girl said:  

“We’re Apaches.  We’re warriors. The Spaniards and the United States government fought us here. They think they won but they didn’t. The war never ended.”

The struggle will continue.


And then a word from another direction.  From one of my favorite people, the late Tang period hermit and poet, Han-shan (or Cold Mountain):

“Who takes the Cold Mountain Road

takes a road that never ends

the rivers are long and piled with rocks

the streams are wide and choked with grass

it’s not the rain that makes the moss slick

and it’s not the wind that makes the pines moan

who can get past the tangles of the world

and sit with me in the clouds”

And Wang An-shih, who lived several centuries later wrote this in his honor:

“I have read ten thousand  books

and plumbed the truths beneath the sky

those who know know themselves

no one trusts a fool

how rare the idle man of Tao

up there three miles high

he alone has found the source

and thinks of going nowhere else.”

(above translated by Red Pine)


The Tao

From 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.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.

These two spring from the same source but differ in name;

This appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gate to all mystery.

As translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching, the core document of ancient Taoism.  

No, I will not be “naming” the Tao or anything of that sort!   This will only be some scattered thoughts and various reflections.  There are many English language translations of the Tao Te Ching, but the one I will be using is by Feng and English.  Simply from an intuitive feel I sense that this translation has touched the reality of the text more than the others, though many are good and interesting and valuable for comparison and to gain an additional insight.  The ancient Chinese is especially difficult and even native speakers cannot always agree on what the text is getting at.  Thus there are various versions of the text, and the interpretive twist that is applied depends on what the translator brings to the text.  Finally, there are different spellings of Anglicized Chinese terms: as example, in years past it was “Tao Te Ching”—that has become in recent years as “Dao De Jing”—no big deal, the change has to do with politics and cultural/social issues.  I will use the older spelling for these notes.

Taoism has a long and complex history.  Its roots go back to prehistoric shamanism but it emerged as a refined and extremely deep spiritual consciousness around 600 BCE.  Its golden age was from about 600 to about 300 BCE.  Interestingly enough in the West this was also the golden age of Greek philosophy from Parmenides to Aristotle.  

From Jacob Needleman’s Introduction to the Feng/English translation:

“The word Tao…has been characterized as untranslatable by nearly every modern scholar.  But this statement should not lead us to imagine that the meaning of the Tao was any more easily understood by the contemporaries of Lao Tsu.  It would be more to the point to say only, half jokingly, that the word Tao, and even the whole of the Tao Te Ching, is not readily translatable into any language, including Chinese!….  The present translation generally leaves the word Tao in Chinese.  Those who have sought an equivalent in Western languages have almost invariably settled on Way or Path.”

The word “tao” appears all over the place in Chinese culture and in all the various traditions and schools of thought, including the historically dominant Confucianism.  It can have different senses in all these different contexts, and mostly it loses its mysticism and mystery.

Lao Tzu is a seminal figure for authentic Taoism.  Many scholars doubt he even existed and that the text attributed to him was composed by a variety of people.  Frankly I find that totally irrelevant to my purposes.  I know there is a text; there is a voice that speaks through the text; there is a vision that engages me.  Whoever Lao Tzu is, I consider him a dear friend who speaks to my heart.

There is another seminal figure for ancient Taoism: Chuang Tzu.  (Thomas Merton loved Chuang Tzu:  “Chuang Tzu is not concerned with words and formulas about reality, but with the direct existential grasp of reality in itself.  Such a grasp is necessarily obscure and does not lend itself to abstract analysis. It can be presented in a parable, a fable, or a funny story about a conversation between two philosophers….  The whole Chuang Tzu book is an anthology of the thought, the humor, the gossip, and the irony that was current in Taoist circles in the best periods, the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.  But the whole teaching, the ‘way’ contained in these anecdotes, poems, and meditations, is characteristic of a certain mentality found everywhere in the world, a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push, and the self-importance which one must display in order to get along in society.  This other is a ‘way’ that prefers not to get anywhere in the world, or even in the field of some supposedly spiritual attainment.”) 

Like all major religious traditions Taoism did not remain static.  Over time a lot of changes took place; it evolved, it transformed, it degenerated, it became infected with a lot of pop religiosity, which is its condition at present as it barely hangs on precariously in Chinese culture and society.  It has largely become a strange amalgam of superstition, health practices, alchemy, magic, body therapies, martial arts, religious rituals, etc.  This kind of religiosity seems to have been prevalent over the last thousand years or so, but even in ancient times there were figures who poked fun at it or critiqued  it, like the hermit-poet Han Shan.  Needless to say, all the major traditions have had similar problems, but Taoism experienced some special problems of its own in modern times:  Chinese Communism.

There is very little trace of pristine Taoism left, but it can be found here and there, especially in the hermit subculture of China.  And this is a most remarkable story in itself.  There is probably no other culture in which the hermit monk has been more valued than in this especially communal culture of China.  An amazing paradox, and this has been going on for several thousand years.  When the Communists took over there was a strong repression of the hermit movement as with all other religious expressions.  However, “the way of the hermit” was still not lost among the common people no matter the ruling ideology, and so some folks headed out into the wilderness and lay low, albeit not in the numbers of past years.  As the repression began to lessen in the 1980s and 90s, their presence began to be noticed.  The American poetry translator and scholar and travel writer, Red Pine,  went to China in 1989 to see for himself if there were any hermits still in China.  Chinese officials told him there were none; even the monastic centers and temples in the cities that were beginning to be allowed once more to open told him not to waste his time looking for what is not there.  But he decided to visit the legendary mountain wilderness areas where hermits used to inhabit, and to his surprise discovered a remarkable number of them.  Certainly not in the numbers of old, but still an astonishing presence considering the recent history.  He wrote a book about it: Road to Heaven, Encounters with Chinese Hermits.  The really interesting thing about this is that when the book was translated into Chinese in China, it became a big seller.  The general populace of China was still very enchanted with their hermits and wanted to know more about them!  The situation is not unlike the one depicted in another documentary about Tibetan Buddhist nuns in a particular monastery on the Tibet/China border, how their monastery was demolished by the Red Army and they were scattered.  But a number of them kept up the monastic life in secret and the whole thing came back to life when the repression was alleviated.  In any case, inspired by Red Pine’s book, a short documentary was made about these Chinese hermits a few years later (“Amongst White Clouds”).  It is in these circles that you can still find the authentic pristine Taoism.  And of course not only there.

There is another place where you might find authentic Taoism but you might not recognize it there—Chinese Buddhism or to be more precise, Chan, Chinese Zen.  A very elaborate, speculative Buddhism traveled from India primarily to two places, Tibet and China.  In Tibet it got even more elaborate,  and it developed an enormous system and methodology.  In China the opposite happened.  When Indian Buddhism encountered Chinese culture and ancient Taoism, it was transformed into Chinese Zen, which is then the source of what we know as Japanese Zen. (Of course there was also other forms of Buddhism in China.)  For the most part, for the Chinese the incoming Buddhism seemed to them a bit like their native Taoism.  They just stripped it of all its “luggage” and “decorations” and so developed Chinese Zen, an amazingly austere, simple path.  This is a controversial point because many scholars of Taoism simply study what is practiced and taught at the pop Taoism level and which practically what millions of Chinese around the world engage in to some degree.  This is a complex question, and it is probably a worthwhile thing to do, but not what I am interested in.  I think it is important to get a sense of authentic, pristine Taoism, and the roots of this incredible mystical path.    I follow people who are so inclined and who have a deep sense of Taoism, not just a sociological/anthropological interest.  So I follow folks like Merton, Burton Watson, Red Pine, etc.

 In ancient times there were figures like the hermit-poet Han Shan who seemed to combine both a Buddhist vision and a Taoist vision.  Such figures can be found even today, and there is one characteristic that they all seem to share: a very keen sensibility for wilderness and the natural world.  And this greatly influenced Chinese art and poetry.  (You can read about this in a work like David Hinton’s Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China.)  This relationship to the wilderness and a sensibility for its spiritual significance is scarce in the West, but here and there you can catch a glimpse of it in various figures like John Muir and Ansel Adams.  Some of Adams’ photographs from the Sierras and other places remind one of some Chinese scroll paintings.  The human being is “de-centered” in this vision—still there but no longer the center or the “main part” as in Western art.  The human is there as a small but integral part of a much larger Whole, which in itself opens up as a window to the Ultimate Mystery.   In the West the natural world is there for our exploitation, the extraction of resources for our benefit, the source of power and wealth, the playground of our ego self.  Or, the wilderness can be an “obstacle” to be overcome. The Bible and Western Thought are almost of no help here—in fact by some considered the cause of the problem.   (When the first Europeans came to the Grand Canyon, they lamented what an obstacle that was to their explorations for wealth.  When the pioneers came upon the Sierras during the Gold Rush, they only saw the mountains as another obstacle to the gold.  And so on.  Our attitude and treatment of the Native Americans is not unrelated to this mindset.)  After that we become “tourists” in nature; the wilderness is there for play, a theme park of sorts.  Edward Abbey has written bitterly about all that.  Rare is that person who has that Taoist spirit and sees the spiritual significance of the wilderness. 

Merton:  “Chinese Buddhism is in fact an amalgam of Taoism and the ‘Great Vehicle’ (Mahayana Buddhism) of India.  The Taoism that still goes by that name is in fact much further from the original Taoism of Lao Tzu than Zen Buddhism, which preserves intact the living thought of the Tao Te Ching, while popular Taoism is a hodgepodge of quasi-magical rites, folklore, and superstition.”  One might also add that there is a lot of that kind of stuff in many Christian circles also!!

We began by quoting in full the first lines of the Tao Te Ching.  This first chapter or first part or first poem, whatever you call it, is pretty much the essence of it all.  Everything else in the Tao Te Ching is a kind of drawing out the implications and the full meaning of these opening lines.  Unless you get the deep sense of the opening, at least a glimmer of it, the rest of it will seem opaque or banal or just a pile of inscrutable paradoxes (the Christian Gospels have some of this kind of language too).  What might strike you is how much there is of focused ethical language—not abstract, vague mystical language.  For the true Taoist there is a definite way of living and acting in the concrete.  Here I would like to quote a famous and profound Chinese scholar, Wang-Tsit Chan:

“But there is in Lao Tzu a peculiar emphasis on what is generally regarded as negative morality, such as ignorance, humility, compliance, contentment, and above all, weakness.  Lao Tzu is very insistent that we avoid the extreme, the extravagant, and the excessive, do away with desires, knowledge, competition, and things of the senses.  He wants us to be ‘contented with contentment’ and know ‘when to stop.’  He encourages us to ‘keep to humility’ and accept disgrace, to be willing to live in places which others detest, to be low and submissive, to be behind others but never ahead of them, and to ‘become one with the dusty world’….”

For Lao Tzu, Wang-Tsit Chan continues, “water, the infant, the female, the valley, and the uncarved block are used as models for a life according to Tao.  No other school has deliberately selected these as symbols for a good life.  Practically all of these symbolize the life of simplicity.  Some people have therefore regarded the teachings of Lao Tzu as negative and defeatist.  But this is not the case…. Knowledge in the sense of cleverness and cunning  is to be discarded, but knowledge of harmony and the eternal, contentment, where to stop, and the self is highly valued.  Or take simplicity.  The symbol for it is the uncarved block which is not spoiled by artifice.  Metaphysically it stands for the original purity and unity of Tao and ethically it stands for a simple life that is free from cunning and cleverness, is not devoted to the pursuit of profit or marked by hypocritical humanity and righteousness, but is characterized by plainness, tranquility, and purity.”

(from the Introduction to The Way of Lao Tzu by Wing-Tsit Chan)

But, as I said above,  all this can be relegated to a very superficial and stultifying modality unless one has a sense of the depths which that word, “Tao,” opens up—as in the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching.   And there are also other parts of this work that invite our hearts into the depths.

I remember many years ago sitting in the chapel of a Benedictine monastery in the desert in Southern California, just beginning a retreat before I was going to start my own monastic journey in another community.  It was time for vespers, evening prayer, and the community was gathering.  Several dozen other people were there also; it was the end of a prayerful weekend workshop on pottery at the monastery.  Many of the participants were there, and this prayer service was the close of the workshop.  Evening prayer went along in a traditional way, except for one of the readings—they are usually from the Bible, but this one was suppose to be a final thought for the pottery folks but it hit me extra hard:  it was from the Tao Te Ching:

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape the clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes that make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.”

(Feng, English translation)

Most people, especially us Westerners, fixate and value “what is there,” the stuff of reality, that which is.  Normal and understandable, but the Taoist sensibility is keen on “what is not there,” that which is not, emptiness.  It understands the mysterious and profound value of that emptiness—without any need to explain the unexplainable.  The mysterious fruitfulness of this emptiness.  

If I were writing a book on what is called Christian contemplative prayer or meditation, I would begin with this little poem.  The key to going deeply into “contemplative prayer” is to value this particular emptiness and recognize its presence ( a paradox of course, because it is the essential absence!!). 

Let me conclude with one more excerpt from the Gia-Fu Feng, Jane English translation:

“Look, it cannot be seen—it is beyond form.

Listen, it cannot be heard—it is beyond sound.

Grasp, it cannot be held—it is intangible.

These three are indefinable;

Therefore they are joined in one.

From above it is not bright;

From below it is not dark:

An unbroken thread beyond description.

It returns to nothingness.

The form of the formless,

The image of the imageless,

It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.

Follow it and there is no end.

Stay with the ancient Tao,

Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.”

Another Tale of Two Cities

This does not pertain to geography, religion, nationality, etc.  It is a classic trope of sorts which is used to distinguish two very different realities. What I am referring to, then, is a kind of metaphorical “two cities,” two different visions, ways of life, two different states of heart.  It will be a bit of a potpourri but with an underlying common theme.  So let us begin.

  1. Decades ago Marlon Brando won an Oscar for some movie part.  He did not show up for the presentation but sent a Native American woman who read his short speech for him and took the award. This was the speech:

“For 200 years we have said to the Indian people who are fighting for their land, their life, their families and their right to be free: ”Lay down your arms, my friends, and then we will remain together. Only if you lay down your arms, my friends, can we then talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.”

When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them, we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.

But there is one thing which is beyond the reach of this perversity and that is the tremendous verdict of history. And history will surely judge us. But do we care? What kind of moral schizophrenia is it that allows us to shout at the top of our national voice for all the world to hear that we live up to our commitment when every page of history and when all the thirsty, starving, humiliating days and nights of the last 100 years in the lives of the American Indian contradict that voice?”   It would seem that the respect for 

principle and the love of one’s neighbor have become dysfunctional in this country of ours, and that all we have done, all that we have succeeded in accomplishing with our power is simply annihilating the hopes of the newborn countries in this world, as well as friends and enemies alike, that we’re not humane, and that we do not live up to our agreements.

Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don’t concern us, and that we don’t care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.

I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.

Recently there have been a few faltering steps to correct this situation, but too faltering and too few, so I, as a member in this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered. If we are not our brother’s keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.”

There was quite an uproar after this incident.  The pop media and the general populace were outraged that their “pop narcotic” of pop culture was blown up right in front of them.  Not that it really changed anything; though some of us paid some attention to this call to wakefulness about our condition and our history.  I was reminded once more of this incident when I saw this new book, a history of California at that: 

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873

It is a harrowing account of what happened to the original inhabitants of what is now the State of California.  I think every decent person would be shocked to read this well-documented report by an academic historian.  Both Church and State are complicit in what happened to all those people.  It appears that no religious institutions, no religious values seem to have played any role in bringing an end to this tragedy.  It simply ran out of steam when the land was “cleansed” of its indigenous inhabitants and white Europeans could take it all.  Those of us who have benefited from partaking of the many bounties of this beautiful land need to realize we are standing on blood-stained ground.

  • When I was in my teens I saw on TV, on one of the early productions of the PBS, a program that had been taped in San Francisco and then later shown on my PBS station in Chicago in the early ‘60s.  It was a series of lectures by Alan Watts presenting an introduction and an overview of Asian thought and Asian religiosity.  It was quite an eye-opener for me.  It was then that I bought my first book on Zen and another book on Chinese poetry, though I had already read Ezra Pound’s translations of some Chinese poems and had found them quite engaging.  Then I began reading D.T. Suzuiki and as a youngster I was filled with anxiety about how all this was fitting in with my Christianity which I also took very seriously.  I was the only kid on my block and in my Catholic high school who was into THAT stuff! Anxiety was only relieved when I discovered a few years later that Merton was into similar stuff!  In any case, I was recently reminded of that first startling lecture by Watts.

Watts began by showing a Chinese scroll painting called “Mountain after Rain.”  He indicated that so many of these Chinese and Japanese renditions had this feeling for the world of nature, but that they were not like Western landscape art.    This painting was iconic.  It was an expression of religious feeling and knowledge, but not in terms of human figures like in Western (and Eastern Christian) religious art.  Yes, human beings do appear at times in this Asian art, but they are a tiny part, usually you have to look carefully to see some lone figure in one part of the painting, just a small part of it.  In this sensibility a human being does not stand “outside” the natural world in some supernatural realm which is totally apart from it.  Rather there is a harmony of the human being and the natural world. Watts pointed out that our Western ideology, even as it carries the mark of religion, is more about dominating nature. Needless to say the Asian has screwed up here just as much as the Westerner, but what we are talking about are values, ideals, vision, guiding principles.   And here we in the West practically boast about our “conquest of nature,” “conquest of space,” etc. Europeans came to the New World and Asia and Africa and saw it as an opportunity for “conquest.”  Christianity with its deluded and dysfunctional theology was obsessed with the “saving of pagan souls,” and so it became an arm of this conquest more often than not—remarkable exceptions like Bartolemeo de las Casas only prove the point.  Anyway,  it’s in our language as common discourse; we speak of the conquest of mountains, “the conquest of Everest,” e.g.  We stand as “outsiders,” and we beat our surroundings into submission, as the pioneers who built this country were called to do seemingly as a divine mission.  What then happened to the Native Americans is perhaps much more tied to this distortion than I first realized.

  • This year is the 400thanniversary of the beginnings of the slave trade in North America.  It was there right from the beginnings of the European arrival.  Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have been running articles reflecting on this bit of our history.  Interesting that a number of Catholic institutions and groups not only tolerated but benefited from the slave trade.  What can you say?  Today the inheritors of those entities who have benefited from this historical tragedy are trying in some way to make up for that past.  That’s good, but what surprises me in all these accounts very little reflection is spent on how and why basically religious people could tolerate such a state of affairs.  What was the nature of that blindness?  Probably a complex answer, but at least one factor stands out—the institution became the central reality and its well-being the end-all and be-all of everything they did.  The idolatry of “the Church.”  In addition you had this abstract theology and spirituality that was immune from criticism and totally separated from people’s actual lives.  

In any case, there is also a new book out that explains how slavery infected our whole social and economic culture as well:  The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

  • And now as Monty Python would put it, “And now for something completely different.” Recently there was a report on CNN. The title of the story: “Meet the smoking-free, carbon-negative country that passes no law unless it improves citizens’ well-being.”  That country is Bhutan, and this too is quite an eye-opener.  It is quite an unusual place, and in the family of nations most, most unusual.  Here is a brief quote from the story:

“Fiercely proud and protective of its traditions, Bhutan has been closed to outside influences for centuries. The nation only opened its doors to tourism in the 1970s and has decided to take a unique approach to westernization, creating a concept known as the “Gross National Happiness Index.”

Don’t be fooled by the name. This is not just a measure of how much people smile and laugh. It’s a holistic approach to sustainable development that gives as much weight to human flourishing as it does wealth.

“We in Bhutan are very unique; our democracy is very, very unique … in the sense we all are grounded very strongly by our national values,” said Bhutan Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering, who took office in November 2018. “We do not put personal interest ahead of national interest.  When we say Gross National Happiness, it is not the celebrative ‘Ha ha — Ho ho’ kind of happiness that we look for in life,” Lotay explained. “It only means contentment, control of your mind, control of wants in your life. Don’t be jealous with others, be happy with what you have, be compassionate, be a society where you can be more than happy to share.

“Our king rightly calls Gross National Happiness as development with values,” Lotay continues. “If the policy does not have a good amount of happiness index, if the policy is not every environment friendly, if the policy will not be able to ensure that it will result in the well-being of Bhutanese, that policy will never be approved in the country.”

So this is an example of a very different vision of human existence. Here is the article for a fuller perusal:


Needless to say the country has a lot of things it is working on to improve, but what is important are the key principles, the essential vision guiding its development.  These they seem to have gotten right.  

How Deep Do You Want To Go?–Some Reflections, Some Questions

This is not really a true question seeking an answer; it is more like a rhetorical gesture soliciting a certain line of thought.  For one thing the words seem to imply that there is some choice here, like picking a travel destination.  We are a culture that places a high premium on “choice.”  But as Merton was fond of pointing out, perhaps the deepest things in life are not a matter of choice at all.  There is a “giveness” to our life, that which is gift and not choice, encompassing both pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, happiness and sadness, life and death, success and failure; and it is in this giveness that we find our way into the real depths of existence.  Perhaps what you really need to “do” is a kind of awakening from all the myriads and mirages of “choice”; perhaps then you are empowered to say “yes” to what is Really Real.

Let us begin by touching base with some of the obstacles and obfuscations that we can encounter on this spiritual journey into the depths of the mystery that embraces all of us.  So, one of the wrong turns in this journey would be the absolutizing of the formal discourse of religion.  While it is true that the path of any one of the great traditions could open up the depths to us, it is also a sad fact that formal religion in all these traditions also provides numerous obfuscations and possible wrong turns.  This is not to suggest that it is beneficial to be “anchorless,” free-floating as it were, without any commitments.  Quite to the contrary, but it is important to realize what is truly essential in your tradition and what is in fact window-dressing; and to recognize the limitations of even that which is considered essential.

Let me ponder my own Christian tradition.  Various depths of spirituality can be found here.  We are filled with “God-language,” and the universe of symbolic discourse abounds exuberantly, especially in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.  It seems that anyone and everyone, no matter where you are on “the journey,” can find your niche here.  In high school I had a teacher who was an elderly Jesuit priest for whom Jesus was his “buddy,” his BFF as the social media denizens of today would put it.  At the other end of this spectrum would be the French Benedictine sannyasi Abhishiktananda for whom Jesus is a revealer of our nondual relationship to the One we call God. And so many other points in between employing a plethora of symbolic signals.  Without judging any particular person’s spirituality (because we are not privy to what really lies behind the words and symbols by which a person manifests his spiritual awareness and the conceptual resources that person has to express his/her depths), nevertheless not all of these “points” are equal or even worth considering.

A problem arises when we fixate on some spiritual language as if it were the “raison d’etre” of our journey.  Take for example the notions of “sanctity,” “holiness.”  I have on occasion lamented my Church’s proclivity to canonize people, to proclaim them saints.  Just my opinion, but I think this creates a serious confusion of what the spiritual journey is really all about, and it misleads people into a truly wrong-headed spirituality or just as bad it leads many to simply “drop-out” because the models of who they should follow seem so unreal.  Worse yet, the Church claims inerrancy in formally calling someone a “saint,” but then the ones who are held up as “holy” or as “saints” sometimes  show up as very ambiguous, fraught with problems, or downright frauds.  I have wondered many times why they canonized Pope John Paul II–I won’t go into all those reasons but it sure does seem like an ideological move, and this in turn then makes one suspicious about all this religious language about “sanctity.”  Consider even a more radical example:  St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernard was a remarkable Cistercian monk, abbot, spiritual leader, author.  He was extremely popular and so he was declared a saint soon after death.  But what does sanctity mean when a person is so wrong, and not just intellectually but actually in his spiritual sensibility.  Consider his attitude concerning the Crusades.  Here is a quote from Know Thyselfby Ingrid Rossellini: “Relying on prejudice to demonize and dehumanize the Other was, and still remains, the best way to incite man’s zest for hate and killing. By embracing intolerance as a virtue, the medieval Christians became masters at it, as Bernard proved when he wrote, ‘The death of a non-Christian exalts Christ and prevents the propagation of errors.’”  This is only a small sample of much more of such language found in Bernard. He advocated the extermination of Islam from Palestine by killing, if needed, all the Moslems.  (In later centuries this attitude was carried on by Europeans as they encountered the “non-christian” indigenous peoples of the New World.)  By contrast, you cannot imagine Francis of Assisi saying such things. One wonders what really was going on in the spiritual awareness of Bernard.  But, more importantly for us, we have to question something much more subtle.

The “holy go-between.”  This is a short way of pointing to a whole range of problem issues in Christianity–not just the canonized saint.  Our Church seems to feel that we require all these “go-betweens” because the Reality of God is so “beyond” us.  This notion of “beyondness” is at the root of some of the problems that hold people back from a deep spiritual awareness.  Part of the problem stems from our notion of the “otherness” of God.  In traditional theology and mysticism God is the Wholly Other, the Absolute Transcendent One.  But these are words and what one makes of them is crucial.  For way too many people their sense of God’s “otherness” is decidedly impoverished and even misguided.  God’s “otherness” seems to be located in the realm of all “otherness.” Just like you are an “other” to me in my experience, so is God, just much more so.  Yes, we might find it helpful to admit an I-Thou map of our relationship to God;  but if we lose our sense of the absolute Mystery of the One we call God, then this “map” can become a trivial reality.  Due to a kind of “gap” established by this enfeebled “otherness,’ we experience (or we are told we do) a need for “go-betweens” to bridge that gap.  (By the way this is at the root of what is termed “idolatry.”)  One very important antidote to all this is to encounter and dwell in the Holy Mystery of the Absolute Reality which is (usually) called God.   I wonder how many Christians would be bewildered by this quote from Gregory of Nazianzen:

“You who are beyond all, what other name befits you?

No words suffice to hymn you.  Alone you are ineffable.

Of all beings you are the End, you are One, you are all, you are none.

Yet not one thing, nor all things….

You alone are the Unnamable.”

            from the Hymn to God Beyond All Names

Another part of our problem that hinders us from journeying into the depths  is the way many of us perceive the reality of Jesus Christ.  A very crucial matter to us because our very identity as Christians seems to be at stake.  And here we again seem to be locked into a rigid dualism:  Jesus and me.  This comes from a misunderstood, misconceived, misplaced theology and spirituality of the Incarnation.  So people start “worshipping” the baby Jesus at Christmas time, then “imitating “  Jesus, then there is Jesus simply as God “up there” who has saved us, whatever that means to someone.  I don’t mean to be flippant about this very serious matter, but there is a very real misplaced focus on the Jesus of history. Abhishiktananda had quite a struggle in articulating this knotty problem.  We can’t go very far in examining this problem here, but let us touch on one aspect of it.

As Paul puts it in one of his Letters, we no longer “know” Christ “according to the flesh”—note how little there is of the historical Jesus in Paul.  His primary focus is on what Christians call the “Risen Christ.”  This begins to resonate with a kind of nondualism. The language is there; you simply need to be sensitive to it and not hindered by shallow piety.  However, even here we have to recognize the inevitable limitations of Paul’s language.  Abhishiktananda had a keen sense of that.  Both the Semitic and Hellenic conceptual and language structures shape the early understanding of the Christ event.  The Church has absolutized this and made it normative for its own self understanding. However, as Abhishiktananda points out, in the encounter with India’s deep religious tradition(and others also) we are called to reinterpret and, yes, deepen our insight into this Mystery. India presents us with the challenge of advaita, the experience of nondualism; and for us Christians now the Christ-event needs to be rediscovered in this light.  This is the way into the depths.

Here’s a few quotes from Abhishiktananda:

“I am interested in no christo-logy at all….  What I discover above all in Christ is ‘I AM,’….  Of course I can make use of Christ experience to lead Christians to an ‘I AM’ experience, yet it is this I AM experience that really matters. Christ is this very mystery “that I AM,” and in this experience and experiential knowledge all my christo-logy has disintegrated.  It is taking to the end the revelation that we are ‘sons of God,’….  The discovery of Christ’s I AM is the ruin of any Christian theology, for all notions are burnt in the fire of experience….  And I find his mystery shining in every awakening man, in every mythos.”

“To find Christ is to find the self.  In so far as I have contemplated in myself an image of Christ other than my own image, I have not found Christ.  Christ in reality, for me, is myself—but myself ‘raised up,’ in full possession of the Spirit and in full possession by the Spirit.”

“I do not say that the human being is God or that God is the human being, but I deny that the human being plus God makes two.”

“In the process of man’s awakening to himself and to the father, that is, of his salvation, his deification, there are not two(God and soul) working independently and complementing each other, any more than within the Trinity itself the divine Persons can be said to be independent and complementary in their being or their activity.  Words cannot properly express the inner relations of God; nor can words express the no less intimate relationship between man and God.  Christian faith simply makes us realize that man’s freedom essentially echoes, reflects, and shares in the divine freedom, and that human freedom is grounded in the impossibility for it ever to be isolated from God’s.”

Enough about all that; now let us touch on a key point about this journey into the depths.  From the Tao Te Ching:

“In the pursuit of learning, something is gained every day.

 In the pursuit of the Tao, every day something is lost.”

The Gospels also point to this key paradox—discipleship involves a radical loss of sorts.  The Mediterranean mindset (both Semitic and Hellenic) is not comfy with this notion so it tries to soften this with the language of gain; but the Indian goes the whole way into it.  It becomes embodied and symbolized in a concrete way of life: the sannyasi. 

We will get back to this in a moment, but first let me emphasize how really important, how critical, and how truly universal this notion of “loss” is.  In different ways, in different languages and symbols, in different stories, this “loss” is highlighted, celebrated and proposed as our existential goal—not just in words or thoughts.  Very few “connect” with this reality(as the Gospels quite clearly recognize) because, in fact, it seems to go against the grain of everything within us.   We seem made for “possessing,” for “having,” for “owning,” for saying “This is mine.” The whole of human culture (universally), economics, society, politics is built on this foundation.  Thus it all is, in the words of the Gospel, a house built on sand; and why there seems to be so much anxiety in human endeavors.  Also, for many the language of loss strikes them as unacceptably negative and this becomes another kind of mental obstacle to make the “deeper journey,” to reach the “further shore.”

But what if you “let it all go”!?  This is a question posed at the heart of every major serious spiritual tradition. And it points at the importance of this notion of authentic “loss.”  I say “authentic” because there can be a kind of fake loss, meaning another manifestation of gain disguised as loss.  Any loss that we ourselves construct has this character of the inauthentic; or at best it can be a symbol of the real thing, maybe even a kind of preparation for the real thing.  A lot of things about formal religious life can be located here!  Real loss can never be something “we do”; it is always something we undergo, something which comes to us—like the thief in the Desert Father stories or the Zen stories. 

Now let us zero in on the central reality of this loss we are pondering. It has little to do with the peripherals of our existence, the stuff of our daily lives, etc.  Nor is this a numerical thing:  I have 5 things; I lose one; then I lose one more; so now I have only 3 things; I call this “progress.”  Emphatically this is not what I am pointing to.  All the great spiritual traditions recognize, in one way or another, that this seeming “loss” is all about the central issue of who I am, my real identity, the very meaning of my existence.  What happens in this “loss” is that we shed our multi and varied senses of identity….until we become Nobody, that is in a sense no longer on ANY map of identity whether it be social, psychological or even religious. This dynamic of loss may in fact involve various peripherals of our life—honors, possessions, achievements, power, talents, relationships, etc.—because the problem of our self-understanding arises as we mistakenly identify in some way with the connections all these provide.  We seem to need and relish the feedback all these give us:  you are talented; you are valued; you are known; you belong; you are happy (and yes even sadness provides one with a sense of selfhood); you are smart; you are loved; you are somebody.  But the peripherals are not the essential thing here and should not be the primary concern.  They may all be present in our life in one way or another, but the primary focus should be on what Ramana Maharshi expressed so succinctly and so eloquently:  in all situations and all circumstances we need to ask WHO AM I?  

The incredible thing about life is that inevitably we answer that question one way or another with some construct or acquisition, and life comes along and takes “our answer” away.  And this dynamic of loss is wrapped in an enormous and unravelable paradox: loss is gain, the lowly way is the great way, whoever loses his life gains his life, darkness is light, etc., etc.    In the light of this paradox we have to be attentive to when life brings this loss to our doorstep.  There is an old adage common among all authentic spiritual masters that the person who speaks ill of you is the one you should most cherish. For one thing this person gives you a measure of your own spiritual state; you feel anger arising, you feel the desire, even the need for striking back with a harsh word—“turning the other cheek” is just some nice words, you feel the need to defend yourself, etc. After all this is a “thief” who has come to take something away from you; not an item, but your own image of yourself.  And how you respond is how you answer that supreme spiritual question: Who am I?  

And everyone without exception has this dynamic, this work to do because everyone has the afflictions and conflicts of multiple and varied self-images. Even into the depths of the subconscious.  But life unfolds and the entropy of life confronts us in both small ways and big, critical ways.  The disintegration of our bodies in old age is but one example.  We build our house on “looking good,” and note how our society values youthfulness and physical good looks; but the “thief” of old age comes along and the struggle to maintain that and ward off the thief becomes a big industry.  And of course the ultimate, absolute and final thief is Death.  Whatever final self-images we might have protected from all the “precursor thieves,” this is the one that finally finishes the process and we move from being “somebody” to being Nobody.  A scary thing to ponder indeed—that’s why in all cultures there is so much mythology about the death process.  But what they are all trying to say underneath all the verbiage and all the symbols is not to be afraid and simply let go and fall into the Mystery of God because that is where our real identity is—to be lost in the Mystery of God is to be hidden in the Mystery of God and so to be as unnamable as the very Absolute Reality of God.  

Now let us return briefly to the sannyasi—the way of life that most eloquently and most profoundly and most beautifully speaks of this whole process. I wish I could say that Christian monasticism is on a parallel track, simply another variant of this archetype. I won’t go into that here, just simply that even though a person can find the resources within the monastic life for the deepest journey, yet the institution as a whole seems more likely to entangle one in a lot of peripheral stuff disguised as spiritual realities. One “gives up” this or that and then one receives a “hundred fold,” to borrow some Gospel language.  Don’t mean to be flippant, but in my estimation it seems like a reality that is only a shadow of its potential.  Now of course the sannyasi in actuality is quite a mixed reality also; there is plenty of fakery there, pretending, etc.  But the key is that the sannyasi ideal is articulated so much more clearly and radically than any modern monasticism in the Christian world.  The sannyasi is the one who embodies this loss to a radical degree to become a pure empty space manifesting the Unmanifest Mystery of the Absolute Reality. Ramana Maharshi expressed this ideal in a very existential way:

“The ground to sleep on,

the air to be clothed with,

the elbow as pillow, and

the hands a begging bowl,

there is a feast in my heart.

I have a smile for everybody;

I am free from all desires,

I am master of the world,

and in possession of supreme joy

because I have renounced it all.”

Abhishiktananda gives us a more theological read of the sannyasi ideal:

“Sannyasa confronts us with a sign of that which is essentially beyond all signs—indeed, in its sheer transparency to the Absolute it proclaims its own death as a sign….  However, the sannyasi lives in the world of signs, of the divine manifestation, and this world of manifestation needs him, ‘the one beyond signs,’ so that it may realize the impossible possibility of a bridge between the two worlds…. These ascetics who flee the world and care nothing for its recognition are precisely the ones who uphold the world….  They go their way in secret….  But the world…needs to know that they are there, so that it may preserve a reminder of transcendence in the midst of a transient world…. The sign of sannyasa…stands then on the very frontier, the unattainable frontier between two worlds, the world of manifestation and the world of the unmanifest Absolute.  It is the mystery of the sacred lived with the greatest possible interiority.”

Now Abhishiktananda is also very aware of the pitfalls in actual, historical sannyasa, and his words here would apply even more to Christian monasticism:

“The sannyasi has no place, no loka…so if there is a class of Sannyasis, it’s all up with sannyasa!  They have renounced the world—splendid!  So from then on they belong to the loka, the ‘world’ of those who have renounced the world! They constitute themselves a new kind of society, an ‘in-group’ of their own, a spiritual elite apart from the common man, and charged with instructing him, very like those ‘scribes and Pharisees’ whose attitude made even Jesus, the compassionate one, lose his temper. Then a whole new code of correct behavior develops, worse than that of the world, with its courtesy titles, respectful greetings, order of precedence, and the rest.  The wearing of the saffron becomes the sign, not so much of renunciation, as of belonging to the ‘order of swamis.’”

Now you just might wonder if there is anything “beyond” the sannyasi so to speak. Yes there is—the Vedic figure of the kesi.  Here also Abhishiktananda is our authority:

“The kesi does not regard himself as a sannyasi.  There is no world, no loka, in which he belongs.  Free and riding the winds, he traverses the worlds at his pleasure. Wherever he goes, he goes maddened with his own rapture, intoxicated with the unique Self.  Friend of all and fearing none, he bears the Fire, he bears the Light.  Some take him for a common beggar, some for a madman, a few for a sage.  To him it is all one.  He is himself, he is accountable to no one.  He is himself, he is accountable to no one.  His support is in himself, that is to say, in the Spirit from whom he is not ‘other.  Any diksa, any official recognition by society, would amount to bringing him back to the world of signs, the world of krita, that which is made, fabricated, …; but ‘without sign, without name, the yati goes his way’ [from the Upanishads].”

So….we return to our question: How deep do you want to go?

Ikkyu and Some Reflections on the New Year

Let me begin with a poem written about a 150 years ago by a  great Victorian poet and writer, Matthew Arnold. The poem is “Dover Beach,” one of his most famous poems, and this is how it goes:

The sea is calm tonight. 

The tide is full, the moon lies fair 

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light 

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, 

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. 

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! 

Only, from the long line of spray 

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, 

Listen! you hear the grating roar 

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, 

At their return, up the high strand, 

Begin, and cease, and then again begin, 

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring 

The eternal note of sadness in. 

Sophocles long ago 

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we 

Find also in the sound a thought, 

Hearing it by this distant northern sea. 

The Sea of Faith 

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore 

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 

But now I only hear 

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 

Retreating, to the breath 

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 

And naked shingles of the world. 

Ah, love, let us be true 

To one another! for the world, which seems 

To lie before us like a land of dreams, 

So various, so beautiful, so new, 

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, 

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; 

And we are here as on a darkling plain 

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, 

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Various friends have pointed out on more than one occasion that I am too pessimistic in my outlook, but compared to Matthew Arnold in this poem I am practically a raving optimist!  But on a serious note, the poem does have a sadness, a melancholy, a seeming hopelessness in its vision.  And yet it is also strangely attractive, challenging whatever optimism we might bring to the table.  And calling us to a higher reality than all our social arrangements, including those of religion.  

The poem begins with the seeming tranquility and stability of an evening by the sea.  It is a quiet ocean; there is a beauty in the moonlight on the waters, “the cliffs of England stand glimmering and vast,” hinting at both the beauty of Nature and the glory of the British Empire.  We seem to be lulled into resting on this “foundation” of human life, but as the Gospel points out there are many “foundations” out there that are nothing more than sand and if you build your house on that you are doomed.  

The poem then jolts us out of our reverie by deconstructing this seeming tranquility.  The human situation,  social, religious and natural, is just as vulnerable as the little pebbles to the turbulence of the waves that beat on the beach.  It is a timeless situation, both ancient and modern humans had to deal with the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery.”  What is implied in these lines is also a pessimism concerning so-called “progress” in human science and technology as our “hope” for the future. But neither is religion spared from this darkness.  When Arnold refers to “the Sea of Faith,” he means formal religion, the Christian churches through the centuries.  In the 19thCentury Europe it was all falling apart and shrinking into insignificance.

The poem ends in a remarkable way.  Outside the human heart there is nothing, absolutely nothing that we can “build our house on,” that we can trust, that is a source of consolation, etc. “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!”  Obviously a reference to an authentic love between a man and a woman, but this icon represents all that comes from an authentic pure heart.  The “truth” there is all that we ultimately have, and when we lose sight of that as so much of humanity seems to do, then we sink to the depths and darkness of those last lines of the poem.  Considering that this was written just a few decades before the start of the 20thCentury and World War I, truly Matthew Arnold was prescient.  When we walk in that darkness, and darkness it is no matter how lit up it seems to be by our techno world, we discover the nihilism of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:  “Life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I write all this because it seems that we are in a similar situation, where we may be sinking ever deeper into a morass of human confusion and darkness. If you think there is any solution to be found in the messages of politics, economics or religion–I cannot cease marveling how bad off the Catholic scene has become with the priest scandal being so much worse than even recently thought (and here I mean formal religion, not the truths within all the great religious traditions), I think you will at the very least be seriously disappointed, and maybe even become an agent of this darkness.  Arnold’s insight is still our “true star” to guide us.  Only that which is the truth that abides in our heart will matter in the long run.  We must be “true” to one another, and this may entail a deep silence and solitude or it may entail a hidden self-sacrifice which no accounting can figure out. Whatever it be, it is only this which allows us a transcendent vision of our situation.

And this brings me to the next topic: Ikkyu.  You may wonder what does Ikkyu, a medieval Japanese Zen monk and poet, have to do with these reflections.  Well, first of all, he is one of my favorite people, so that is enough reason (!); but seriously he is strangely reassuring to me and a key reminder.  Ikkyu is not some “figurine” in a meticulously manicured zen garden; he lives in a violent and tumultuous setting, he is beset with a decadent zen culture, and his own personal life has a good dose of chaos in it. He is a good reminder of how there is no ideal time or place for our own transformation, for our own life in God. Sometimes we romanticize certain times and places and religious arrangements and this itself can become a serious obstacle to our journey in depth.  Yes, there are some places and some times that may be a bit better off, but rest assured this will not last and ultimately it cannot be the foundation on which we build our house.  This is the meat of Arnold’s poem; the ebb and flow of human misery will always reassert itself.  

So who is this Ikkyu?  (His name translates as “having once paused”). His years are 1394 – 1481.  His mother was a “lady-in-waiting” at the emperor’s court, and it appears his father was the emperor’s son.  Mother and child were ousted from the palace because even a bastard son could make a claim to the throne.  Ikkyu grew up in great poverty, but his mother managed to send him at age 5 to Ankoku-ji, a Zen temple in Kyoto.  There he was well-trained in Buddhist scriptures and the classics of China and Japan. As a young boy he appears to be very bright and very playful, but his whole life he carried a sadness for the unjust treatment of his mother, who died in poverty.  Another interesting thing is that in temple life homosexual love was prevalent…he was exposed to this quite early but he then turned “the other way.”  To the very end of his 87 years he was totally fascinated by members of the opposite sex.  In fact he often preferred staying in brothels rather than in monasteries.  In this regard and in so many others he was a kind of “Zen fool,” when perhaps that was the only road open to integrity and truth.

At age 16 he left his temple and the established zen culture.  He was seeking something much deeper than external zen credentials, which seems to have been the preoccupation of zen monks then (and perhaps now).  And then this from an introduction to Ikkyu’s poetry, Having Once Paused:  “Zen monasteries of the period functioned in ways reminiscent of the medieval European church.  They were lavishly patronized, rich in land and peasant farmers, traders in luxury goods, repositories of culture and its accoutrements, and perfectly interpenetrated by the concerns of their political lords. These make a poor home for serious Zen practice, and  Ikkyu’s home temple was no exception.  At sixteen years old, he quit in disgust and for the next fifteen years trained in poverty under the two most exacting zen masters he could find.”    

The first master he lived with was Ken’o, who was considered an eccentric who lived in a secluded hut outside Kyoto.  This from Extraordinary Zen Masters: “Earlier in his life Ken’o had caused a stir when he refused to accept an inka, a certificate of enlightenment, from Muin,…. In those days such certificates–often purchased or fraudulently obtained –were essential for winning a position at a major temple.  Thus, Ken’o act of rebellion excluded him from becoming a member of the Zen establishment–which suited him and his single disciple, the stubborn and determined Ikkyu, just fine.”  

Ikkyu stayed with Ken’o until the latter’s death; then followed a period of mourning, loss, depression until his mother snapped him out of it and he joined another Zen master who was even more severe and “odd” than Ken’o.  This was Kaso, who had gained enlightenment under Daio who had spent years deepening his realization while living as a beggar in the vicinity of Kyoto’s Fifth Avenue Bridge.  So you can see that Ikkyu fitted in with a kind of “Zen fool” tradition of sorts!

Ikkyu had several zen realizations during his stay with Ken’o, but when the latter tried to present Ikkyu with an inka it first got thrown away, then torn up, then another copy burned by Ikkyu.  His rebellion against the zen establishment was absolute and complete, but his devotion to Kaso was very real:  “He was so devoted to Kaso that he cleaned up his master’s excrement with his bare hands when the ailing Kaso had diarrhea and soiled himself”(Extraordinary Zen Masters).  

There are a lot of stories about Ikkyu, but we will just touch only on a couple. He grew quite famous, his reputation extraordinary and quite mixed to say the least.  He was even invited to be an abbot on several occasions, even accepted, but gave up quickly in that endeavor.  

From Extraordinary Zen Masters:

“When he was staying in Sakai one year, Ikkyu carried a wooden sword with him wherever he went.  ‘Why do you do that,’ people asked.  ‘Swords are for killing people and are hardly appropriate for a monk to carry.’  Ikkyu replied , ‘As long as this sword is in the scabbard, it looks like the real thing and people are impressed, but if it is drawn and revealed as only a wooden stick, it becomes a joke–this is how Buddhism is these days….’”

“Once a rich merchant invited a number of abbots and famous priests to a feast of vegetarian dishes.  When Ikkyu showed up in his shabby robe and tattered straw hat, he was taken for a common beggar, sent around to the back, given a copper coin, and ordered to leave. The next time the merchant hosted a feast, Ikkyu attended in fancy vestments.  Ikkyu removed the vestments and set them before the tray.  ‘What are you doing?’ his host wanted to know. ‘The food belongs to the robes, not to me,’ Ikkyu said as he was going out the door.”

“The down-to-earth, no-nonsense Zen master had many run-ins with the yamabushi (ascetics who practiced austerities in the mountains to attain supernatural powers).  Once a big, swarthy yamabushi accosted Ikkyu and demanded, ‘What is Buddhism?’ Ikkyu replied, ‘The truth within one’s heart.’  The yamabushi took out a razor-sharp dagger and pointed it at Ikkyu’s chest. ‘Well, then, let’s cut out yours and have a look.’  Without flinching, Ikkyu countered with a poem:

Slice open the 

Cherry trees of Yoshino

And where will you find

The blossoms 

That appear spring after spring?”

The stories go on, but I want to conclude with a more touching episode. Ikkyu was a complex figure to say the least, not someone to imitate but certainly someone who inspires some of us in “such times as these,” and furthermore he vividly illustrates Arnold’s call to “stay true to one another.”  In his old age, in his seventies, Ikkyu fell in love with a woman in her thirties who was a blind musician.  She lived with him until his death at age 87.  There was a peace, a serenity, a fulfillment in his old age that surpasses all usual understanding. 

The Theology of Catastrophe

We have just had two more catastrophic fires in California, the Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles and the Camp Fire north of Sacramento.  Both fires have wrecked devastation on so many people; there are so many heartbreaking stories there and also ones of remarkable good fortune.  The fire in SoCal had this special quality about it: it affected many homes of the very wealthy and big names in the pop culture of our country.  What caught my attention was the content of what some of these people were saying.  Like, “The fire just barely missed my house…thank God.”  “God is good.  We didn’t burn down.”  Ok. Understood.  This is a sentiment that is commonly heard in such situations. It is ok as far as it goes, but it also opens up a profound theological and spiritual problem which people tend to ignore because they simply do not have the spiritual resources to deal with it.


Consider this obvious “problem”:  Your house doesn’t burn down and you proclaim “God is good. Thank God.”  Your neighbor’s house burns down; he/she loses everything.  Is that evidence for the fact that maybe God is not good, or more precisely he is “good” here and “not so good” there?  We want to give credit to God for saving us, for defeating our cancer, for keeping the fire away, etc., etc. ; we are hesitant about “giving God credit” for the destruction or sickness or loss that might afflict us.  In such cases mostly we partake of a kind of theological/spiritual sleight-of-hand in order to get around the problem–it’s called pop religion and it is in a very real sense “schizophrenic theology.”  Or we may simply ignore this problem, realizing that we could never resolve this issue, or we just stay silent, which is an honest position and maybe the best one in most cases.

Let’s consider now the deeper implications of all this.  In the 18thCentury in Europe there was a catastrophic earthquake in Lisbon in which thousands upon thousands of people were killed. For many thoughtful people this raised the question of theodicy, how could a good God allow such a thing to happen. It led to a crisis of faith for many. Many years ago Thomas Merton published a journal of reflections called Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander where he pondered Karl Barth’s approach to Mozart. Barth, a great Protestant theologian, was challenged by Mozart, a Roman Catholic of sorts, who lived during the time of the great Lisbon earthquake, and Barth was amazed at Mozart’s response to all the questioning around him.  Here is at length the quotation from Karl Barth that so engaged Merton:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists. 1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis[upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any programme. He was remarkably free from the mania for self-expression. He simply offered himself as the agent by which little bits of horn, metal and catgut could serve as the voices of creation, sometimes leading, sometimes accompanying and sometimes in harmony. He made use of instruments ranging from the piano and violin, through the horn and the clarinet, down to the venerable bassoon, with the human voice somewhere among them, having no special claim to distinction yet distinguished for this very reason. He drew music from them all, expressing even human emotions in the service of this music, and not vice versa. He himself was only an ear for this music, and its mediator to other ears. He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfilment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could.”

(The quote is of course from Barth’s great work, Church Dogmatics(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), 297–99.  But I found it on a very thoughtful, reflective blog by Jason Goroncy–many thanks for sharing this quote with a wider public!)


Well, this is one approach to the problem stated above; something that helps us not to rationalize or trivialize the situation but to transcend its opaqueness and allow ourselves to live within the Divine Mystery and to live beyond all the rational calculations we tend to make about the “meaning of life.”  But there are also other approaches and here I just want to point to one other approach, not unrelated to the above one but still significantly different in its expression.  Now we shall turn to Islamic mysticism for help.  And here also I was helped by a lecture that Merton gave to his community of monks about Islamic mysticism, the Sufis.  Here are a few key quotes from that talk.

Let’s begin with this:

“Ibn ‘Arabi says: ‘If it were not for this love, the world would never have appeared in its concrete existence.’  In this sense, the movement of the world toward existence was a movement of love which brought it into existence.  And not only the movement of the world into existence, the coming of everything into existence is an act of love, the development of everything is an act of love.  Everything that happens is love and is mercy.  Not that it always appears to be that way, very often it appears to be just the opposite.  But everything that happens is love.  And of course the ones in Islam who emphasize this the most are the Sufis….”

“The opening of the Quran…is a kind of fundamental prayer which they say all of the time, which sort of contains everything.  So I’ll just read that, ‘In the Name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate’….  God as Merciful or rahman, is the basic mercy in which everything is grounded; God Himself as the ground of all being is Mercy itself.  And then the Compassion of God is in events.  It shows itself in His intervention in particular events here and there….  ‘In the Name of God the Merciful and the Compassionate, Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being, the All Merciful, the All Compassionate… the Master of the Day of Doom’(Judgment/Accountability).  That is to say He is at the end of the line…we forsee our total extinction in Him, and after the Day of Doom we live only in Him.  You see, after the Day of Doom, the realm of Mercy as ground persists and the ground of Compassion and events ceases, but the Eternal Mercy goes on. ‘Thee only we serve… Guide us on a Straight Path, the path of those whom Thou hast blessed….’  The Straight Path is the…path of Islam….  What is the Straight Path?  How do you know where the Straight Path is?  For Islam it is very simple.  The straight path is purely and simply What Is.  Everything that is is willed by Allah, and whatever is, that’s it, that’s the straight path.”


No comments are really possible to all this–it is profoundly and breathtakingly clear and beyond all commenting, but a few thoughts here might be helpful.  First of all that distinction in Islam between God’s Mercy and God’s Compassion is, I think, very significant and helpful.  Compassion is associated with particularity and ongoing events; this is the basis of our petitionary prayers when we seek the help of God.  We are also invited to show compassion to our neighbor as Jesus taught us, etc.  However, there may come those times and situations where we have no sense of any kind of compassion either from God or from our neighbor.  The true Sufi is not lost here; he/she knows that all, absolutely all that is, is grounded in and manifests the Mercy of God.  The doctor may tell me that I have cancer; it is the Mercy of God.  I may not be able to explain any such thing, and in fact according to the Sufis my only “window” into this mystery is through utter perplexity and bewilderment, not through rational analysis.  But of course, and this is a very big BUT, you do not glibly or randomly say such things to people who are suffering and who are not spiritually prepared to receive such a word.  Here again is Merton:

“That is the sort of thing which works beautifully if you’re a mystic.  But short of mysticism, it can get you in plenty of trouble.  If a person starts rationalizing about the thing, starts figuring it out wrong…starts saying things about it that are …produced by those that do not come from total submission to this thing in a completely spiritual way, then we…can find ourselves rationalizing all kinds of things that shouldn’t be.”


Now the average person generally does not have a grasp or a sense of the Ultimate Reality, God, present in all situations and in all moments and in all things.  Generally this is due to the deeply endemic dualism of most of our understanding and vision. We picture God “over there,” ourselves “here,” and “stuff” between us which we try to arrange in some acceptable manner.  The mystics and the Sufis do not see it that way, and here is Merton clarifying the picture:

“The average person, who stands outside the will of God…and looks on,… he does not understand that really everything is willed by God and makes choices, and…he makes his own plans, and he submits them to God.  His idea of the Mercy of God is that, he makes his plans, and then God being merciful to him helps him so that it pans out the way he wants…. The only basic thing that the Sufis say about it is that a man who lives in that realm doesn’t really know what’s cooking….  He thinks that he is able to stand outside of all this, and make plans, and size things up, and then submit them to Allah, and then he and God are going to work things out….  Ibn ‘Arabi says, ‘Those who are veiled from the truth ask the Absolute to show mercy upon them each in his own particular way.’”

Merton continues by getting to the very heart of the issue: “Actually the ground of everything is within me and it is God, and it is within everybody too.  And there’s one ground for everybody, and this ground is the Divine Mercy…. The people of the unveiling, that is to say the Sufis, ask the Mercy of God to subsist in them.  These are the ones who ask in the Name of God and He shows Mercy upon them only by making the Mercy of God subsist in them.  This is a totally different outlook.  It is the outlook whereby the Mercy of God is not arranged on the outside in events for me–in good and bad events–but it is subsisting in me all the time.  Therefore what happens is that if the Mercy of God is subsisting in me–and that goes to say if I am united with the will of God-…if I am completely united with the will of God in love, it doesn’t matter what happens outside, because everything that is going on outside that makes any sense is grounded in the same ground in which I am grounded.  The opposition between me and everything else ceases, and what remains in terms of opposition is purely accidental and it doesn’t matter. And this is…a basic perspective in all the highest religions.”


And one might add that for the Sufis this is the real meaning of purity of heart, that one is able to live with both the positives and negatives of life, the mistakes, the accidents, the ailments, the malice of others, etc., and also the successes, the escapes, the accomplishments, the good fortune, etc., and see them all grounded in the Mercy of God.   You are never then “outside” the Mercy of God, though at times it may certainly not seem or feel that way.  And truly petitionary prayer is not to be scorned or abandoned; it may in fact be the only spiritual resource available in trying times, and it may be an “entrance” into the realization that you are one with the Mercy of God in all situations. But to reiterate, you do not “preach” this stuff to someone who has lost their home or a loved one; most likely they are not in any condition to receive such a message and it would be certainly misunderstood.  It is best to help a person discover that reality in their own heart in their own way and in their own language.  A “spiritual master,” like a heart surgeon, can perform this “operation” with certainty, but I use that term “master” loosely, not in some kind of professional sense.  Mozart did that for Barth, and Mozart for all his musical genius was not a “spiritual” person as that is normally perceived—that’s why Barth was so perplexed about this person’s ability to reveal to his heart what all the big intellectuals and professional religious could not.  Considering the lack of such folk as Mozart, all we can do is help each other along the road to a vision of the Mercy of God in all things and in all situations.









For many people this is a most unpleasant subject and to be generally avoided. However, a number of thinkers and philosophers have pointed out that in this avoidance we are also running away from our own humanity.  According to some this is the very reason for the diversions and distractions of our society. We would rather engage in all the endless “games” of our social existence rather than reflect on our own mortality and its meaning. Our own death is hardly ever the content of our reflections.  But then most of the great spiritual traditions make it a point to look at the reality of death straight on, pondering its meaning and significance.  In the Christian tradition there used to be that old cliché image of the old monk pondering a skull, the memento mori, the “remembrance of death,” that seemed to so many as bizarre and macabre, and to a certain extent it was that—especially when the original purpose of this “memento mori” was forgotten.  Well, let us make a little effort in recovering the true significance of this remembrance.

First we need to consider the simple phenomenology of death–exactly what happens without attaching any of our meanings to it.  We seem to go totally out of existence.   We seem to be no more; there is no way back; nobody ever comes back into our own existence and experience.  There is a striking finality to death.  If you have ever been around a dead body, it is a chilling experience.  This is the kind of thing that scares people and turns them off from considering the meaning of death.  Modern life tries to shield us from this naked reality–just as it tries to immunize us from being sensitive to the language of Mother Nature.  But the people of old had their own “escapes,” their own “narcotic” to soothe the pain of loss and finality.  They created various stories about “rewards” and “punishments”–in other words in death our lives did not disintegrate into a meaningless nothingness.  They created stories about various kinds of “paradises,” or perhaps a potential to “come back” in some form, thus defeating the seeming finality of death.  And so it went.   

But the deeper spiritual traditions always knew that the question of death–what is it anyway?– was fundamentally and foremost a question about our very identity.  The Hindu holy man, Ramana Maharshi, held that the key to our whole spiritual life is the question: who am I?  Indeed! And so many others in other traditions also focused the spiritual life on that kind of question in various ways. My own favorites, the Desert Fathers, certainly were on target most of the time, but their language often needs deciphering.  Sometimes, though, it was very clear–consider the following story:

“Abba Poemen said to Abba Joseph, ‘Tell me how to become a monk.’  He said, ‘If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, in all circumstances say, ‘Who am I? and do not judge anyone.’” (translation by Benedicta Ward)

This is a remarkably subtle story.  The very notion of monkhood, of becoming a monk is tied to that most universal of all questions: who am I?  Besides this question the other key elements of this story is this “rest”–exactly what is that anyway?–and then that phrase “in all circumstances.” 

Let’s approach this from another angle.  Our sense of identity is what we bring to “all circumstances” and this structures our responses and our experiences and our vision.  We build up this sense of identity from two very different loci: the external, which is the most dominant, and the internal, which is highly valued in modern psychology.  But the great spiritual traditions call all this structuring, both inner and outer, into question.  And the reality of death provides the necessary leverage for this process of deconstruction. 

Let’s consider briefly the so-called inner reality, that sense of “I-ness” that we seem to have deep within us.  This reality forms the basis of what we generally call dualism.  In other words there is that “solid” “I” that is me, and this stands in relation to everything “outside” it, including the Ultimate Reality which we call God.  But  most of the great spiritual traditions call this into question, especially Buddhism which does it in a very detailed and systematic way.  Christianity for the most part has a lot of difficulty here.  Basic Christian thought and piety has this aura of unremitting dualism–there is “I” and then in relation to me there is “God,”–the I-Thou relationship.  Let’s face it, most of standard Christian piety (and all other theistic religions) are locked into this.   This is what Abhishiktananda had so much trouble with.  Christian mysticism of course tries to transcend this dualistic language in various ways.  And you have to be sensitive to what is going on in that language to understand the astonishing depths there, as in Meister Eckhart for example.

But now getting back to our main topic, the reality of death seems to really challenge this sense of “I”-ness that we have.  In death, that “knot” at the core of my being which is called “I,” “me,” seems to get undone, and this is totally scary.  Death seems to make one nameless, a kind of void, a “black hole of existence,” sucking up all that you are as you vanish into it.  That’s why for people whose “I-ness” was of paramount importance built huge monuments to themselves in preparation for death, like the pharaohs of Egypt to this day’s “important people.”  “Who am I?” if this knot gets totally undone. Apparently there is no self there, precisely no-self.  Whatever is “there,” if even that can be said, it cannot be pointed to or named or found on any “map,” theological or psychological. 


Now consider the external locus of our selfhood and this sense is most superficial but also most dominant in social life and most evident.  We live off what others think of us, either bad or good.  Praise or blame is critical to our sense of self.  Some people are totally enclosed in that sense of self and live in constant anxiety and “unrest,” wondering what “feedback” will come to them in all circumstances which announce to them who they are.  In growing up, children are naturally passing through such a phase but now we are speaking of fully grown mature adults whose sense of self is that fragile.  This is not just a modern problem.  Ancient and traditional societies, East and West and in all religions,  were/are built around the notions of “honor” and “shame.”  A totally external locus of identity becomes the measure of your humanity and “worth.” Sometimes with very sad and tragic consequences.  Another very common source of identity is possession: all we have, all the stuff around us, wealth–but even poverty can be used in this regard, religious garb, institutions, nationality, etc.  What makes death so harrowing to these folks is that it comes like a thief and takes it all away, everything that I have used to prop up my sense of identity.   We all know some of the key Zen and Desert Father stories where they encounter this thief. Lots of humor there but also very deep truth.  But here is another Desert Father story that is apt:

“A brother came to Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’  So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’  The brother went there , and abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it.  The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’  He replied ‘No.’  The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’  So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’  He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’  And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’  The brother said no.  The old man said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man.  Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praise, and you can be saved.”

(translated by Benedicta Ward)

This story has been wrongly and grossly interpreted as an invitation to a kind of human insensitivity, as if that could ever be any kind of solution to anything.  Rather this story is an ingenious expansion of that key question: who am I?  And it is through the reality of death that we discover what that is all about.  That exercise that Abba Macarius created for this young monk was meant to deconstruct all his usual social responses and so his usual social identity based on these various external loci.  Death reveals the human stripped of everything, absolutely everything.  What is left?  Only that transcendent locus of our identity that is totally unnameable, unspeakable, something that one cannot “point to,” etc.  For the Desert Fathers this was what they tried to express in such terms as “rest,” “being saved,” “quies” (Latin), or “hesychia” Greek. Recall what Jesus said in the Gospel about having the “right kind” of treasure, the kind that neither moth nor rust can eat away, nor thief can steal.  Death is the moth and rust and thief and will take away everything that is part of that external locus of identity.  Death will reveal who I really am.  So then, who am I?


Consider now a very different example: a poem by Thomas Merton about Ernest Hemingway.  It was written right after Hemingway’s death.  What you have to remember about Hemingway is not only that he was a master of English prose, but also that he had this self-constructed image of himself which was very critical to his self-understanding: that of the macho writer/adventurer/big-time hunter/male hero whom women could not help but adore, etc. Well, as he got into old age that self-image began to crumble and sent him reeling into bouts of depression. Hemingway did not ask himself, “Who am I?”  He assumed his identity was contained in his self-image, and when this “story” could no longer be sustained he totally collapsed and appears to have committed suicide.  Here is Merton’s take on all this:


An Elegy for Ernest Hemingway

“Now for the first time on the night of your death your name is

mentioned in convents, ne cadas in obscurum.

Now with a true bell your story becomes final.  Now men in

monasteries, men of requiems, familiar with the dead, include you

in their offices.

You stand anonymous among thousands, waiting in the dark at

the great stations on the edge of countries known to prayer alone,

where fires are not merciless, we hope, and not without end.

You pass briefly through our midst.  Your books and writings

have not been consulted.  Our prayers are pro defuncto N.

Yet some look up, as though among a crowd of prisoners or displaced

persons, they recognized a friend once known in a far country.

For these the sun also rose after a forgotten war upon an idiom

you made great.  They have not forgotten you.  In their silence you

are still famous, no ritual shade.

How slowly this bell tolls in a monastery tower for a whole age,

and for the quick death of an unsteady dynasty, and for that brave

illusion: the adventurous self!

For with one shot the whole hunt is ended!”


A haunting last line!  A supreme irony too, for what this big-game hunter was really hunting for without realizing it was his true self.  This is what we are mostly doing in all our activities really, in all our attempts to be “somebody.”  Without realizing it we are actually always trying to answer that question, who am I? So death which ends this “hunt” seems very scary, and so we create all kinds of myths in order to “unscare” ourselves. But I will conclude with a Desert Father story that illustrates how deeply and with what subtlety the old masters understood this key question and its relation to death:

“They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he saw them all except Abba Anthony.  So he asked his guide, ‘Where is Abba Anthony?’  He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be.”


In death Anthony loses every marker of self/identity.  (You might say this language is a radicalization of the sannyasi ideal; in fact the authentic sannyasi is the clearest living symbol of all that I have been trying to say above.)  The ultimate truth and  the really real are paradoxically manifest when there is no more “place” for Anthony, for Anthony is now a no-self whose locus is nowhere except in God.




Walking Out With Christ

The Catholic Church, my church, is in deep crisis.  The abuse scandals globally and here in the U.S. are staggering.  The response of the official Church so far has been sad, pathetic, and an insult to the “person in the pew.”  Not to mention a total lack of justice and reality for the victims.  There are no members of the official church who look good at this point, not even Pope Francis, even though the current attack on him right now by right-wing Catholics is merely an opportunity for them to vent their dislike of him.  It’s amazing how nasty the “inside” of the Church is!  In any case, the Pope’s first words about the Pennsylvania Report were very weak and showed that he has no awareness of the real nature and extent of the problem. He and so many others look at this as simply some “bad people” were active in the church and the rest of the prelates were not attentive enough and responsive enough.  Or something like that.  But as I pointed out in the previous posting, this problem is much, much larger than “some bad people” or even some “bad bishops.”  It reveals a structural and a doctrinal problem that has been covered up as well for centuries.  This leads me to think that nothing really substantial will happen–the official church will just wait to let the dust settle.  Yes, a few prelates might “suffer” a bit, like losing their cushy positions; but I think it will mostly be the usual stuff in the long run. To borrow from a Roman historian lamenting the decadence of the Empire:  We can neither stand our sickness, which is becoming terminal; nor can we stand the cure.  I am afraid that there are some folks in the pews who are “taking the cure” their own way–they are leaving.  It is happening in places like Ireland by the droves; and it is beginning here.


To be fair, I have seen quite a few op-ed pieces in recent days that voice a position for staying while others say they have had it.  Both are usually cogent and make a good case for their position.  I am reminded of a Hasidic story told by Martin Buber:  Two rabbis are engaged in a heated debate about some point of the Law.  A third rabbi comes by, hears their disagreement, and turns to Rabbi A and says “You are right.”  Then he turns to Rabbi B and says “You also are right.”  A fourth rabbi was walking by and overheard what this rabbi was saying.  He becomes very agitated and says to this rabbi, “They both can’t be right; they are in total disagreement.”  The third rabbi then turns to him and says, “You know what, you are also right!”


Recently I saw one of these articles in the online version of Salon magazine. Here is the link:


It is a very powerful statement by a woman who has been badly hurt by the Church but “stayed around” to fight the good fight until recently–the Pennsylvania report was the last straw.   The best piece of this kind that I have seen even though I might not agree with every sentiment she utters–it seems she is going to go Episcopalian, but really do you think the Episcopal Church doesn’t have its “sewer” like we do?  Yes, it is a lot smaller sewer simply because they are a lot smaller church.  But I really respect her position and cannot disagree with its orientation.  You really need to read it to understand what a lot of people are struggling with.  Here is the concluding paragraph:

“My older teen became a holidays-only Catholic several years ago, but until recently, my 14-year-old and I still made a Sunday ritual of mass, and the meditative walk to and from church. My daughter doesn’t quite know yet how she wants to proceed, only that her lifelong parish is no longer a place she wishes to be a member of. She says she needs time to figure the rest out. As for me, I’ve always considered myself the making a scene, turning over tables in the temple kind of follower of Christ. And now, I’m following him right out the door of the Catholic church.”


And you know something, she is also right!

I was taken aback by her last sentence; it is actually an amazing image if you think about it.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls himself a “gate,” and a “door.”  You go in and out this door.  It is because of Christ within her that she has a door to leave by. This sounds heretical!  I prefer to stay (sort of), but I think she is right. And you know something, I am also right!