It is Easter time, and it would be appropriate to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s Resurrection in the Christian scheme of things.  However I want to do something different; I would like to approach this from a purely personal standpoint, not from theology, or scripture, or philosophy, or anthropology, but start from the fact of death, my own death, not death as an abstraction.  I am in my late 70s, and I see so many of my contemporaries dying around me.  The reality of death is not some far-off experience for someone like me, even if I live into my 90s.  

It fascinates me to see the different attitudes/visions of death, its meaning, its approach, that people have.  Consider the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who wrote these lines as his father was dying:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And then there is the New Testament, Pauline cry: O Death, where is thy sting?

There is a striking difference in the emotion behind each statement, but what is more striking is the commonality underlying the surface difference.  In both cases death is envisioned as something of an “enemy,” something which is at war with you….  In the first  instance, it is kind of despairing, you go down “fighting,” but you do go down.  In the second instance, death is defeated or its seeming victory is manifested as a fraud.  

These are pretty much the views present in Western Civ, both secular and Christian.  Of course, the majority of this population does not care to reflect on the reality of death; diversions of any  kind, even the most self-destructive, are preferable.  And modern culture is very, very capable of providing these.  However, this majority group is still basically in the same camp: death is something to be feared, something definitely negative….don’t even think about it.  

Now I myself never fit in with  any of these camps.  I remember very well standing next to the body of my dead father when I was four years old.  It was a wake; there’s a photo of that moment.  My father was killed in an accident, a sudden shocking event in my life.  I am only 4, but I am not crying and I am not shielded from the reality.  In the photo I am standing next to the open casket looking at my dead father.  Yes, there is a certain sadness in the young face, a sense of loss. All natural feelings.   But the dominant feeling in that sad gaze is that I am looking at something that is totally opaque to me; there is nothing here that I can grasp in any way, that I can have any hope of understanding.  There is an absolute finality to death, a door that can’t be opened, a wall beyond which you cannot see.  That young gaze is encountering the Mystery of death, a great, profound, universal mystery which every human being encounters in one way or another.

So begin the stories, the speculations, the theologies, the myths, the diversions….it all begins when we gaze upon that impenetrable Mystery…death.  And it is amazing, all the interpretations we try to give to this Mystery, the different attitudes, the varied visions….  At the heart of Christianity is the Resurrection of Christ; he endures death, but it is ………and here you can fill in a lot of different words:  overcome, defeated, transcended, and the phrasing can be changed in a lot of ways, from the pop, superficial, filled with our ego-fulfilling fantasies, to St. Paul’s (in some passages) truly profound respect for the unspeakable nature of  this death/Resurrection.

But from early on I began to feel something lacking, something not quite right with the usual Christian “read” of death/resurrection.  Not that it was fundamentally wrong, but that it seemed a stifled vision of things, due mainly to the fact that even our deepest theological, and should I also say “mythic,” vision was impoverished by the limitations of the religious mindset of the Semitic and Hellenistic cultures.  Recall the profound change of vision in Abhishiktananda and even Merton as they encountered the deepest traditions of Asia.  For me it all began about age 14, in faltering steps, as I started reading ancient Taoism and Zen.  To make a long story short, I eventually developed a rather different vision and approach to the Mystery of death.  And if your vision and interpretation of death changes, so will your vision and interpretation of resurrection.

Death is not my “enemy,” something to fear, not because it  has been “overcome,” but because it never was that.  I see myself as a member of what Gary Snyder calls the “Community of All Beings,” like in those ancient Chinese paintings, where human beings are a small part of a great Whole.  Gary Snyder, one of my favorites and someone who has strongly influenced my vision, as a kid dropped out of Christianity.  Why?   In Sunday School he was told animals don’t go to heaven.   As Snyder put it, “The moral engagement with the nonhuman world was nonexistent in Sunday School.”  Already as a kid he had a different sensibility and a different vision…probably due to his spending a lot of time in the wilds of the Northwest as he was growing up.  For Snyder, the human community was only one of many.  

 St. Francis’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” so rare in Christianity, is a hint of all this—too bad that most Christians take this as a pious sentiment.  So I see myself as part of this Wholeness in which death is a normal process, really a process of transformation.  And all beings can be said to participate in this process.  (We have to pause to point out that we are focusing on the simple reality of death, not its surrounding circumstances.  If someone is tortured and dies, there is nothing “natural” about that torture and suffering, and it’s obviously quite different than dying in old age.  The injustice surrounding the former can truly be said to be “overcome” in the Christian read of things called the Resurrection.)  And all beings can be said to participate in this process.

So what does Resurrection mean in this light?  Maybe it points to the Divine Presence within this Community of All Beings.  But more than that, it makes the Mystery of death into the greatest adventure and revelation of all existence.  Death seems to strip us of everything, all we have, all we achieved, all we know,  all our credentials, all our images, everything that we think we are, that’s why from the standpoint of our ego, it seems like oblivion and nothingness, an absolute poverty of being, symbolized so well by the authentic sannyasi.  Christ’s Resurrection means that we can yield and surrender to this process.  To echo St. Paul, what we shall be, we cannot put into words;  but we will not be without that Wholeness which is the real fabric of our being, only now totally illuminated by the Mystery of the Divine Presence.  And perhaps the very special Christian contribution to this vision is that the Reality you surrender to in death is Absolute Love and Compassion, Infinite Mercy.   And if death is seen as some kind of impenetrable veil , well, let us again borrow from that great Sufi, Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi,  :

“It is not a question of knowing God when the veil be lifted, but of knowing God in the veil itself.”


As a kind of “Ps.” To this reflection, here is a quote about St. Francis from a Benedictine website!

“Francis invites us to embrace rather than battle Sister Death, to love not to despise Sister Death, to welcome not to shun Sister Death. Saint Francis’ invitation not to live in fear of death or with hatred toward death opens our life as it did that of the saint to the joy of eternal life. Someday Sister Death will greet us and we will go home to our God who created us, loves us, and redeems us through Jesus our Savior.

As Francis lay dying in a small hut built for him near the chapel of San Damiano where he had heard God’s call for him to rebuild the church, he wrote The Canticle of Brother Sun, considered to be the first poem written in the Italian language and certainly one of the most profound. The poem of praise to God for all of creation concludes: ‘Praised be my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death, from whom no living person can escape.’”


The continuing Saga of Lent

This Lent I was pondering the great jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane.  A man of incredible spiritual sensitivity and vision.  He played during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and his album, A Love Supreme, is considered a masterpiece, both musically and spiritually.   The article on this album in Wikipedia is worth reading:

If one’s view of “spiritual music” is restricted to “church stuff,” good or bad, Gregorian/Russian Orthodox chant, or sentimental hymns, well, then one will miss the beauty and power of what unfolds in this work of art.  Merton is known to have listened to Coltrane on a phonograph in his hermitage; he was so moved by it.   Granted, Coltrane’s kind of music is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is beneficial in deep ways to encounter his kind of vision.  

Look at this quote:

“God breathes through us so completely, so gently we hardly feel it, yet, it is our everything.”

For Coltrane God is the Great Saxophonist, and our lives, our very existence, is His Music.  Lent is a time for beginning to hear THAT music, and perhaps with the Sufi dervishes, to enter the Dance of all Being.

Not many jazz musicians spoke like this:

“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being… When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups.”

Then, there is this little-known cogent expression that is overflowing with common sense:

“I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.”

This applies not only to old classical music but even more so to the classics of spirituality and yes even the old sacred texts of all the great traditions.  Speaking of which, it is very interesting that Coltrane was not a full member of any of the great traditions.  Usually this is not recommended for anybody; it is just too easy to get “lost” and end up in a weird spiritual fog.  But Coltrane was one of those rare people who had a profound spiritual compass to  keep him on track.  He was one of those people exemplified by Rumi’s famous quote:

“The lovers of God have no religion but God alone.”

Another companion this Lent, who brings out another side to Lent, is Chris Hedges.  Ok, I read him all year round, and yes, reading him makes  it feel like Lent 24/7, 12 months of the year.  He is  not easy, uplifting reading.  And he seems to be a “one-rant man,” not much variety in what he says; sometimes it gets a bit numbing.  But most Importantly, Hedges is our version of Jeremiah, the great and difficult Old Testament prophet.  At times he seems to overstate his case; at other times he seems to miss something important; but there is also an unavoidable truth in his provocative vision.   The quote below is from a speech he gave recently to a group in Washington, DC.:

“Idolatry is the primal sin from which all other sins derive. Idols tempt us to become God. They demand the sacrifice of others in the mad quest for wealth, fame or power. But the idol always ends by requiring self-sacrifice, leaving us to perish on the blood-soaked altars we erected for others. 

For empires are not murdered, they commit suicide at the feet of the idols that entrance them. 

We are here today to denounce the unelected, unaccountable high priests of Empire, who funnel the bodies of millions of victims, along with trillions of our national wealth, into the bowels of our own version of the Canaanite idol, Moloch.

The political class, the media, the entertainment industry, the financiers and even religious institutions bay like wolves for the blood of Muslims or Russians or Chinese, or whoever the idol has demonized as unworthy of life. There were no rational objectives in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Somalia. There are none in Ukraine. Permanent war and industrial slaughter are their own justification. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman earn billions of dollars in profits. The vast expenditures demanded by the Pentagon are sacrosanct. The cabal of warmongering pundits, diplomats and technocrats, who smugly dodge responsibility for the array of military disasters they orchestrate, are protean, shifting adroitly with the political tides, moving from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party and then back again, mutating from cold warriors to neocons to liberal interventionists.

These pimps of war do not see the corpses of their victims. I did. Including children. Every lifeless body I stood over as a reporter in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Bosnia, or Kosovo, month after month, year after year, exposed their moral bankruptcy, intellectual dishonesty, sick bloodlust and delusional fantasies. They are puppets of the Pentagon, a state within a state, and the weapons manufacturers who lavishly fund their think tanks.   Like some mutant strain of an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they cannot be vanquished. It does not matter how wrong they are, how absurd their theories of global dominance, how many times they lie or denigrate other cultures and societies as uncivilized or how many they condemn to death. They are immovable props, parasites vomited up in the dying days of all empires, ready to sell us the next virtuous war against whoever they have decided is the new Hitler. The map changes. The game is the same.”

Hedges has a very intense Biblical vision, and here he reminded me of an absolutely critical theme in the Bible: idolatry.  This has always meant and always will mean one key thing:  the falsification of that Ultimate Absolute Reality which we call  God.  The “idols” of primitive cultures are merely the fingerprints of this illusory dynamic which is very much with us in the modern world.  I think I will leave it at that….this is a “monster” topic for pondering.  Trust me, it is not a simple, easy to grasp thing!

And to conclude this Lenten reflection here are two samples of spoof ads from my favorite magazine: Adbusters.




Religion, the Self, & the Veil

Lets begin by remembering several marvelous stories.  First, a Zen story:

“A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, (17th century Zen master) whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter’s accusation, he simply replied “Is that so?”

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

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

Then there is a longer Desert Father story about Macarius that is very similar to the above Zen story.

“At about the age of 30, he began his life of asceticism in a cell near his village. The people of the village admired his humbleness and purity and took him to the Bishop of Ashmoun who ordained Marcarius as a priest for them. Father Marcarius had not wished to become a priest. In his humility he could not refuse.

A certain young girl in the village became pregnant and accused Father Macarius of fathering her unborn child. The people without weighing the matter immediately sought him out and brought him back to the village. They beat and whipped Father Marcarius severely and hung huge black pots around his neck. He was forced to go before the village while they were mocking him and saying, “This monk seduced our daughter. Let him be hanged.” With the merciless behavior shown to him he continued in humility.

When allowed to return to his cell, he gave a young man all the mats that he had made from the work of his hands. Father Marcarius instructed the young man to “Sell these mats and give the money to MY WIFE that she may eat.” Father Macarius in thought had accepted this young woman as his wife without a single denial or bitter thought. He worked night and day making mats to send money to her. 

At the time of the young girl’s delivery, she suffered many days in labor. The unbearable pain motivated the girl into telling the truth regarding Father Macarius. She related to all that she had falsely accused this priest and that he had never so much as touched her. Having not been able to deliver until she confessed, the entire village was remorseful at their judgmental actions. When Father Macarius heard that the village was on route to seek his forgiveness he fled to the place where he would live the remainder of his holy life.”

Now you may be wondering what these stories have to do with “religion” as such.  Well, everything!  But I readily admit that these stories are troubling or disturbingly enigmatic  to many people….and seem to have very little to do with religion as they see it and engage it.  And that is very unfortunate.

I remember hearing this very intelligent person  say the following:

“I believe in God.  I believe in science.  I don’t believe in religion.”

Interesting observation.  I suspect it reflects the position of quite a few intelligent people.  When the word “religion” is used, it usually refers to official “organized religion.”  And this reality has a bad taste for many people.  Atheists will often point out how organized religion has caused so much injustice, so much suffering to so many people, that it has been used as a pretext for so much awful stuff in history.  And, really, who can disagree with them?  Afterall, Jesus was crucified by religious people for religious reasons….  And truly this sad phenomenon holds for all religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American religion, etc., etc.  (An atheist once said this: “Jesus is like Elvis to me.  I love the guy.  It’s his fan clubs that freak me out.”)  Then there’s also that interesting distinction many modern people make between being “spiritual” and  being “religious.”  So the word “religion” and the social reality it points to is truly very problematical.  (And there is the issue that our modern use of the word “religion” is not quite in tune with its root meaning in ancient cultures.  But that’s an issue we won’t go into.)

Let me put it very bluntly, tersely, and perhaps too provocatively:  Any “religion” that does not address the phenomenon of “the self” is going to yield “rotten fruit.”  And every religious teaching and activity insofar as it misleads people about the nature of this phenomenon will end up being toxic in the long run, no matter how “religiously” it is dressed up.  The two stories above illustrate how two very different figures in two very different religious traditions acted in profoundly similar ways because their realization of “selfhood” was no longer a social or psychological construct.  It was now the result of a true and deep  realization.  And their way of “being in the world” is unspeakably, unfathomably different….yet this is “being religious” or “being spiritual” ( or whatever you want to call it) in its truest sense.   Without this realization, we can have all kinds of good, pious intentions, all kinds of rituals, all kinds of religious teachings, all kinds of “good works,” but our religion will be an attractive, addictive  imitation of the real thing.  

A few quotes from various traditions that might give you a hint of what this involves:

“But what then should they do? First of all, they should renounce themselves, and then they will have renounced all things. Truly, if someone were to renounce a kingdom or the whole world while still holding onto themselves, then they would have renounced nothing at all. And indeed, if someone renounces themselves, then whatever they might keep, whether the kingdom or honor or whatever it may be, they will still have renounced all things.”

                                                                       Meister Eckhart

“He meditates, he thinks he is meditating, he is pleased with the fact that he is meditating; where does that get him, apart from it all strengthening his ego.”

                                                           Ramana Maharshi

“Who am I?”

        Ramana Maharshi

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


“The way of the Buddha is to know yourself, to know yourself is to forget yourself, to forget yourself is to be enlightened by all things.  


“The Sufi is the one who is not.” 

          Abu al-Hasan Kharaqani

“The thickest veils between man and God are the wise man’s wisdom, the worshipper’s worship, and the devotion of the devout.”

                           Bayazid Bistami

What do mean by “the self”?  It is that which says “I,” “me,” “mine.”  It is “the subject” as in subjective; it is called “the ego.”   (The Sufis call it the “nafs.”) All of this flows from a sense of personhood that we all have, but each tradition has a significantly different understanding of the ultimate nature of this self.  I won’t get into that now; what is more interesting is how each tradition diagnoses  the problem with the self and proposes what seems like a radical “cure.”

That sense of personhood comes wrapped  with a dynamic, a tendency “toward self.”  Its pervasiveness makes it seem “normal,” “natural.”  “You got to look out for yourself.”  Its more intense manifestation we call “narcissism,” self-absorption, self-centeredness.  On top of all that we have cultural, social, and psychological forces focusing on this self and its various drives toward self-hood….until our sense of personhood is dominated by a total self-referral in all we do, in all we know, in all we see, in all we value.  We follow thoughts and feelings blindly, believing our self-image and the socially constructed values and realities.   Lets face it, we live in a culture where all this is more than “normal.”  Our economy, capitalism, is built on a deep-rooted self-interest.   And whatever religion you practice in this culture will be poisoned by this dynamic, whether it be Christianity or Buddhism or whatever….  This will happen to the extent that any religion fails to critique its own inner religious life  as it becomes caught up in that drive “toward self.”  In my own Christianity,  let me illustrate with a quote from Meister Eckhart:

“Some people want to see God with their eyes as they see a cow, and to love Him as they love a cow – for the milk and cheese and profit it brings them. This is how it is with people who love God for the sake of outward wealth or inward comfort. They do not rightly love God, when they love Him for their own advantage. ”  

But there is a much deeper sense of personhood in us that is a kind of liberation from this pervasive and hypnotic hold that self-referral has on us.  This self-referral becomes an anchor of personhood, as a locus of our identity, and is so deeply  entrenched In our sense of who we are that any  negation of this ego self is now looked upon with suspicion, especially in the modern West,  and certainly in the wider secular culture.  This is understandable considering the misunderstandings and distortions in the pre-Vatican II view of all this.  First, consider the fundamental Christian “cure” for this congenital self-centeredness…all focused in one word: humility.  Recall how this word is foundational to all Christian monasticism; how central it is in the Rule of St. Benedict and in the Desert Fathers.  But here there is something sad….how badly distorted this “humility” gets in Christian spiritual history.  Instead of pointing to that deep personhood which has no name and no credentials, as if “no one” was there, a profound poverty and emptiness that is repugnant and frightening to our self-centeredness, like death itself, what we often got is a call and a teaching to “grit our teeth” and stifle our selfish urges, our self-centeredness.  In effect this leads to a spirituality of will-power, as if by exercising will-power we can become a truly “humble self.”  What distortions of personhood this led to is a sad story.  As Ramana Maharshi would put it, who is this who is stifling your self-centeredness?  Why, it’s that same self!  You’re merely exercising that same “muscle” and it’s getting stronger!  And that can lead either to giving up and accepting that self-centeredness as your real personhood, your identity, or you ratchet up the stifling effort.  The “vicious circle” begins, and it can end up in ridiculous displays of self-centeredness masked as self-sacrifice.  Dostoievsky’s Father Zosima gives us the ultimate example:  a person might even be willing to be crucified as long as there is a crowd there to applaud and praise the “self-sacrificer.”

The roots of authentic Christian humility, and therefore the realization of that deep self, are of course in the New Testament.  The whole Sermon on the Mount for a start…but this can be totally derailed if also taken as “acts of my will.”  The Sermon on the Mount is really a vision of life lived with a completely different sense of identity than that shallow self-centered “I”.  Furthermore,  there are those various words of Jesus that lead so many ministers, exegetes, and priests to make verbal pretzels, twisting them into some “reasonable” shape.  Sayings that are paradoxes (or  koans) where gain  is loss and he who loves his life, loses it, and being last is being first, and so on.  Nothing about these words is simple, but once you take into account the semitic mindset and semitic language matrix, you begin to see that all these sayings are intensely working counter to our usual self-centered perspective.  What all these sayings point to is the fact that we have a deeper sense of personhood, a more mysterious and more profound sense of personhood than that shallow ego self.  And a resultant vision of all reality that is radically different.

As I write this, Lent is approaching and Ash Wednesday is only a few days away. For those of us within the Catholic tradition, we go to Church where the priest puts a smudge of ash on your  forehead and says something like “Dust you are and unto dust  you will return.”  (Unfortunately some priests thinking this is “too negative” use some other wording.)  The most common take on these words is that they refer to our physical death and a classic reminder to “reform” one’s life…..the  “memento mori” of monks.  Not really wrong, but totally inadequate.  The dust/ashes point to the absolute insubstantiality of what we perceive as our reality, one could even say the unreality of this “I.”  Buddhism would certainly say this.  Not that the phenomenon of my “I-ness” is an illusion, like a mirage, but that its “realness” is like nothingness, emptiness, compared to the Reality of God.  And here we can turn to the Christian mystical tradition to even begin to sense what these words point to.

First of all, we will find that our personhood has a much deeper foundation than our psychological ego (and of course totally beyond that self-image our social life feeds us).  We are invited to a self-knowledge that is much deeper and vastly more consequential than what psychology or sociology teaches us.  (Someone once put it this way:  “Psychologists are the fender repairmen of the spiritual world.”)  So, what constitutes “personhood,” my true personhood?  (In a sense this question is also: what is a human being?)  Meister Eckhart, from the 14th century begins our journey:

“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”

The whole Christian mystical tradition calls us to this profound self-knowledge; and in the modern era no one has articulated our depths and the real meaning of our personhood  better than Abhishiktananda (Merton of the ‘60s would be a close second).  What is astonishing is how theological he is considering that some people, like his compatriot Monchanin, considered him to be “lost” in Advaita Vedanta and the Upanishads.  Abhishiktananda tells us that not only our deepest self but also our whole being is to be seen within the context of the Christian Trinitarian vision of the Absolute Reality.  

Deep within us, within our consciousness, there is what you might call, a “placeless place,” paradoxically a “nowhere” when we ask where can we find this “place,” what some in the Tradition call, “the  heart.”  From the standpoint of the ego self it seems to be totally empty, total poverty and silence.  This “place” is not cluttered by the usual garbage of our minds…our incessant thinking, our turbulent emotions, and our erroneous self-centeredness.  This “place” is beyond our grasp to manipulate or dress-up in various self-images.  But this is also the “place” where the “I am” of God is spoken, in the depths of my own “I am.”  These apparently “two” “I am’s” are not really two, nor are they one and the same.  This nonduality  is also exemplified in these quotes from Meister Eckhart:

“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

“There is something in the soul that is so akin to God that it is one with Him… It has nothing in common with anything created.”

 This is THE mystery.  The reality of my “I am” is totally grounded in the absolute reality of God.


“There is only one thing that really is—the being-in-communion of the Father and the Son in the unity of the Spirit, at the heart of all Being.  This is reality, “the Real of the real, satyasya satyam….  It is in this alone that everything that exists has its existence, and that human beings, …come to be, and to be themselves.”  

So, what constitutes personhood?  According to Abhishiktananda, it is what Jesus communicates,…”that experience of being from the Father and going to the Father.”  

Again, following Abhishiktananda, when we go deep within, no place remains where we might independently pronounce our “I.”  Before, we can even breathe our own “I,” the abyss has already resounded with the “I” which God addresses to himself from all eternity.  In other words, the identity of every person, their selfhood, their personhood, is grounded in this Mystery of God’s Presence to      Himself.

Jesus penetrated beyond his own “I” (as Jesus of Nazareth…and the various identities, titles thrown at Jesus), into the mystery of the Source, which he calls “Father”….. “I and the Father are one.” 

Abhishiktananda, following St. Paul and Galatians:

“And whoever penetrates within himself to the supreme mystery, in Christ, has passed into God, from death to life, from darkness to light, ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ “ (Galatians 2).  

So for the Christian it is in Christ and through Christ that he/she discovers their deepest self, their true personhood, which is at the same time their unity with the Absolute Reality, the Source of all reality, which he/she can now call “Father.”  Or as Abhishiktananda put it:

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

To borrow from Abhishiktananda again:  One could say that our whole journey as human beings should be an absolute surrender of the peripheral ego to the inner Mystery. (Again exemplified by Jesus.)

One last thing—in all theistic mysticism this ego self is seen as a kind of obstacle or obstruction between our being and God.  In one sense it really is that and can be experienced as that.  Note these sentiments from one of the greatest Sufi mystics, Al-hallaj:

“Between me and Thou is an ‘I am’ which torments me.  O take, by your own ‘I am,’ mine from between us.”

In the Sufi tradition “the veil” is a term for various obstructions that seem to block our realization of who we are in relation to God.  And of course the ultimate obstruction is the “nafs,” the ego self.  So far, so good, all familiar territory as it were.  But one of the greatest Sufi mystics of the 20th century, Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi,  pushes us Beyond:

“It is not a question of knowing God when the veil be lifted, but of knowing God in the veil itself.”


When you can say that, you won’t need any Lent!  But, for the rest of us, Happy Ash Wednesday!!


The Road to Hell…

Before I begin a special request for your support as I move through the healing process of an agressive Prostate Cancer. I’ve never done any kind of fundraising but need help at this time. If you are able please visit:

The Road to Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solitude, Hermits, and All That Kind of Stuff

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Some preliminaries:

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



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

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

The Heart of the Matter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Additional Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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  1. What exactly do you see here?

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

Consider the following four instances:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. History and Controversy

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

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

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

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

And author John Clayton writing in the same article said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Alternative Visions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(From the Holy Transfiguration Monastery translation)

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

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



Confessions of a Peripatetic Contemplative

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  1. A beautiful summary of St. John of the Cross can be found in this excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece poem, “Four Quartets.”  A lot of this kind of teaching could also be found among Sufis , and some of it even in ancient Taoism.  

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

                                    You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

I have always had trouble reading St. John of the Cross; his language to me was like the proverbial fingernails scratched across a blackboard.  Certainly not because  it is “old school” spirituality,  which often has been abused by people who did not really grasp what it was saying….I love Julian of Norwich and Eckhart and the Desert Fathers, all of whom are older and suffered a similar fate.  I prefer the “old stuff” any day over modern spiritual writings.  But with John of the Cross it’s simply his language, the way he expresses things.

One thing I noticed about my own inclinations is how I have neglected reflecting on poetry, poetic language as a vehicle that can bring spiritual insight.  Here, Eliot’s poetry mediates for me John of the Cross and his poetic expression of the spiritual journey.

Now there is an important caution to mention.  I recall reading Merton somewhere saying, I think it was in the Conjectures, that he was kind of leaving Rilke whom he had focused on for a long while.  Although Rilke was a major poet and seemed to be an explorer of the realms of silence and solitude, Merton now felt that this was the silence and solitude of the  individual, isolated ego self, not the depths that Merton was focused on.  So this is a noteworthy caution:  poetic language can be very intoxicating to many of us, but that does not mean it can or will lead us every time to the depths of our being.  That caution aside, poetry, even the most secular, can be a valuable companion on the journey.

  1. I have always loved the Presocratics and especially Heraclitus.  Here is one of his fragments that I marvel at:

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“The Lord, whose oracle is in Delphi, neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.”

Now this is a theological statement, isn’t it?  I got into big trouble once in one of my Greek classes at a big name university when I made this point.  My professor told me in no uncertain terms, “There is NO religion in these statements.”  I disagreed but kept my mouth shut.  It made me think of something Kenneth Rexroth wrote concerning the Song of Songs and the Book of Job:

“To judge from contemporary literature, the easiest books of the Bible for modern man, in his completely secular society, to appreciate are Job and the Song of Songs.  The reason is obvious.  They are not what he thinks of as religious.  Least of all do they fit into the common  notion of the ‘Judaeo-Christian Tradition.’  From the Talmudists or the unknown authors of the Kabbalah to Orthodox rabbis or Hasidic zaddiks drunk with holiness, from the Fathers of the Church to the mystics of the Middle Ages, these two books, of all in the Old Testament, have been held central to the meaning of religion.  So today’s extraordinary reversal of judgement shows only that most men in our predatory thing-bound society have no idea of what religion is.”

In any case, here in this fragment of Heraclitus we find a “theos” (a god, Apollo), and we find a “logos,” (in New Testament times translated as “word,” but having a far richer and deeper meaning….here translated as “reveal”…parallel to the word that indicates “conceal”…..thus we have theo-logy, and this at the very roots, beginnings, foundations of western philosophy.

The philosopher, John Sallis, associated this Heraclitus saying with Plato’s figure of Socrates in the Apology.  What Plato is portraying there is Socrates as THE sign given by Apollo. In other words, what’s primary here are not this or that statement from Socrates as a fragment of logic to be analyzed, but rather what’s primary is this whole dialogical persona who invites us into a process. And when we accept the invitation to interpret this sign, we discover the capacity and opportunity to discover the luminosity of the Divine Reality in rationality and in knowing its limits.

Now consider if and how this might even apply to the figure of Jesus  in the Gospels.  He does call  himself a “sign” in several places in the Gospels.  Here again what’s primary is the person of Jesus who is THE sign given by the Absolute Mystery of the Divine Reality.  Interpreting this sign, we are drawn into the depths of our own mystery, of who we are, individually and together.

  1. Spiritual teachers.  A difficult topic.  All the various spiritual traditions have their various takes on this phenomenon.  I will stick mainly, but not solely, to my own Christian tradition.

Spiritual teachers come in many “flavors, colors, and sizes.”  In other words there is quite a variety and diversity in the concrete manifestations of this reality.  And most importantly there is a very broad spectrum of what you might call “intensity” or quality of the phenomenon.  At one end you will find people who simply have gained some experience and knowledge following a certain spiritual path.  They can be helpful in many circumstances.  Unfortunately there also is a chance you can be misdirected, misled….  Every person’s spiritual path is absolutely unique and really only unfolds to the view of that person.  Sometimes a “guide” or “teacher” can only help discern certain “landmarks” of that path; sometimes he/she can only hold your hand as you traverse a perilous/dark part.   An overly “instructive” approach can be not only totally useless but even harmful.  In the last analysis, one needs to understand that maybe one can get along quite well without a spiritual teacher.  But there are many of this kind of spiritual teacher….simply “buyer beware.”

Then there is the other far end of the spectrum, and here you might say we find the essence of the spiritual teacher.  Very, very few of these folks!  You are extremely fortunate and blessed if you know of one….you will  not find them by looking for credentials in the usual sense.  

Now, what can we say about this “special” person?  First of all, this category of “special” is not in this person’s world.  He/she does not live within the boundaries of these kinds of dualisms, like special/not special.  Secondly, this person has an unusual spiritual clarity.  This is not in terms of what we call “knowledge” or “information.”  In fact, do not fall for the razzle-dazzle of knowledge flashed out to impress, attract, domineer, or even to cover over something else.  Knowledge and intelligence are a good thing and not to be demeaned, but this is not what we are seeking here.  This spiritual teacher is in  a sense the kind of person Zhuangzi wants to meet, the one who has “forgotten words.”  Here, in fact, we can also apply the Heraclitus saying:  yes, this person will speak to you of spiritual realities; but he/she will neither reveal nor conceal what is in the depths of your being, but he/she will be a sign of that reality.  In other words, what this spiritual teacher conveys will not come from outside you but from within….as he/she manifests the gateless gate, the door that is no-door, your identity after all other identities are dust and ashes.  Recall this Desert Father story:

“Three monks used to go and visit blessed Antony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything.  After a long time, Abba Antony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’”  

Finally, a key existential characteristic of this spiritual teacher will be a radically diminished self-interest in everything he/she says or does.  There is a kind of heaviness, burdensomeness, entanglement and encumbrance in all self-interest.  Recall the Gospel words about this burdensome, weighed-down way of life.  To be with this person you might catch the intoxication of the lightness and ultimate freedom of life.

Now why am I writing all this?  Well, I will confess to a very odd situation.  For decades upon decades now, I have met many people who have enlightened me about this or that in the spiritual journey.  And for that I am truly grateful.  However, beyond all that, I have had two incredible spiritual teachers I discovered when I was 16.  And this will sound kind of strange:  one is Dostoevsky’s  Father Zosima, the other is the Chinese poet-recluse-fool Han Shan.  One is a fictional character (though based on a historical figure); the other is a real figure but from over a 1000 years ago and in a  culture and language that is radically different from what I am used to.  Now, my situation, can it get any weirder than that?! But I absolutely refuse to explain myself in this!!

(As an afterthought, recall the “sign” that Fr. Zosima gives to his young  disciple, Alyosha.  It might even be called a “counter sign.”  Zosima dies, and his body starts corrupting very soon, as if that were a sign of his low spirituality.  Read what that does to Alyosha.  Also, consider the “sign” that Zosima is when he prostates himself before the buffoon and lecher, old man Karamazov.)

  1. Pathei Mathos.   When you get to the age that I am, there is sometimes the tendency to say to oneself, I wish I had this clarity way back then when I was young.  But that’s not how life works.

I vividly remember the days of being a young monk, “Brother Know-it-all,” walking around my monastic community or at school at the university, with this odd tee shirt that had these ancient Greek words on it:  Pathei Mathos, “Learning through Suffering,” from Aeschylus.  “Brother Know-it-all” did not understand how prophetic those words would be.

Some Notes Circling Around a Silent Center


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

So…what do you say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trans. By Gia-Fu Feng

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

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

“In my first thirty years of life

  I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.

  Walked by rivers through deep green grass

  Entered cities of boiling red dust.

  Tried drugs but couldn’t make Immortal;

  Read books and wrote poems on history.

  Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:

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

Trans. By Gary Snyder

Marvelous, succinct account of a spiritual journey….

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

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

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

The next line hints at the Confucian path.

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

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

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

Trans. By Gia-Fu Feng

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

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

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

Wallace Stegner

The Peace of Wild Things

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

Gimme that ole’ time environmentalism!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rendition by Merton

Alas, this blogger has not forgotten words!

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

Note:  “Way” = Tao

Li the Mountain Recluse Stays

the Night on Our Boat

It’s dusk, my boat such tranquil silence,

mist rising over waters deep and still,

and to welcome a guest for the night,

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

A master at the gate of Way, my visitor

arrives from exalted mountain peaks,

lofty cloudswept face raised all delight,

heart all sage clarity spacious and free.

Our thoughts begin where words end.

Refining dark-enigma depths, we gaze

quiet mystery into each other and smile,

sharing the mind that’s forgotten mind.


A Few Critical Notes About Spirituality


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones)

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

(from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones)

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

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

Layman Pang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

how we envision goodness/holiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

holiness is.

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

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

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

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

without complaining responsibility for raising that child (same kind of 

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

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

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

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

container that holds our images of goodness/holiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

to reach the top.

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

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

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

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

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

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

twenty years.”

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

or another in all the major traditions.  

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

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

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

point of it all.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

that can be named is not the absolute goal.

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

self always appropriates every aspect of the journey  for its own 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wendell Berry put it well:

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

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

“There is  no need of spiritual progress,

  Nor of contemplation, disputation or discussion,

       Nor meditation, concentration nor even the effort

of  prayer—

    Please tell me clearly: What is supreme Truth?

    Listen:   Neither renounce nor possess anything,

      Share in the joy of total Reality

and be as you are!”

And a final farewell from our zen friends:

Joshu asked Nansen: “What is the path?”

Nansen said: “Everyday life is the path.”

Joshu asked:  “Can it be studied?”

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

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

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

At these words Joshu was enlightened.

From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones



A Potpourri of Provocations, A Paucity of Platitudes

I.  The Catholic thing.  

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

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

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

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

II.  John Muir

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

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

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

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

III.  State of the World

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

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

V.  Our History

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

VI. Lent

My favorite season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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