Archive for ‘truth & prophets’

July 6, 2018

no need for any of it

Why did they waste candles on daylight? Him standing there, talking about people dead who knows how long, if the stories about them were even true, and most of the people listening, or trying to listen. There was no need for any of it. The days came and went on their own, without any praying about it. And still, everywhere, meetings and revivals, people seeing the light. Finding comfort where there was no comfort, just an old man saying something he’d said so many times he probably didn’t hear it himself. It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America—they had to call it something. The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn’t tell her that, either. But he knows, she could see it in him. Why does he want more of it, with his house so empty, his wife and child so long in the ground? The evening and the morning, the singing and the praying. The strangeness of it. You couldn’t stop looking. He would walk up the hill to that sad place and find them all covered in roses. If he knew, and if he didn’t know, who had made them bloom that way, he would think it was strange and right. There was no need for roses.

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

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June 10, 2018

I could make anything a body wanted

Yesterday, we finished listening as a whole family to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. It was a car trip listen, and we drove by the Mark Twain House near Hartford while hearing the last chapter. It was my second reading, and it seemed a rather bleak double satire (on both the “old” and the “new” England) by this Mississippi River boy. The critique of old England is bitter and relentless. However, I’m not sure that Yankee New England fairs any better in the end. For example, it’s hard not to read this passage without a hint of satirical critique against the spirit of “Yankee ingenuity.”

I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words. My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why, I could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make any difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, I could invent one—and do it as easy as rolling off a log.

In the moments after the end of the book, Nessa (14 years old) said wanted to name her first baby girl “Hello Central” in honor of Sandy and her child. Nessa was really sad to think of this mother and child abandoned in the sixth century as a victim of the dueling powers of Merlin’s magic verses the Yankee’s modern science. Both kids had some very thoughtful questions about the story. Merlin’s old sorcery powers were mocked throughout, but they seemed to come out decisively ahead in the end (banishing the Yankee through time and getting a grizzly “last laugh”). Twain was a wild and tragic fellow.

June 7, 2018

more tracks than necessary

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1973.

June 7, 2018

fight magic with magic

Fairy-tale Logic
by A.E. Stallings

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks—

You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve,
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.

May 29, 2018

the pebble is a perfect creature equal to itself

Here is the original English translation (1968) of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Kamyk” by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott:

the pebble
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning
with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire
its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity
I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth
—Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Notes: Peter Dale Scott later recommended that the poem’s first line should have been translated “a pebble…” instead of “the pebble” and also that the closing line should read: “with an eye calm and very clear.” This poem can also be found online in a slightly differing translation in which “stone” replaces “pebble” and the origin of which I cannot find.

For another beautiful poem about stones, see this poem by Charles Simic.

 

May 15, 2018

part of the dance the fireflies are dancing

From A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle:

You human beings tend to want good things to last forever. They don’t. Not while we’re in time.”

“…Let’s feel the twirling of the earth,” Beezie said, “That’s part of the dance the fireflies are dancing, too. Can you feel it?”

Chuck squeezed his eyelids tightly closed. He gave a little gasp. “Oh, Beezie! I felt as though the earth had tilted!” He sat up, clutching at the rock. “It made me dizzy.”

“…It can be a bit scary, being part of earth and stars and fireflies and clouds and rocks. Lie down again. You won’t fall off, I promise.”

May 10, 2018

closer in a way to the original day of the crucifixion

Working to capture the first step of Charles Taylor’s argument within A Secular Age, James K.A. Smith summarizes five pre-modern ways of understanding (or of inhabiting life) that served for centuries as powerful obstacles to unbelief:

  1. Understanding of the individual person as “porous” and subject to the influence of many powerful outside realities (i.e. as vulnerable and existing within an enchanted world).
  2. Understanding that every life depends on every other life to maintain a healthy social fabric that sustains us all (i.e. that no one can rise or fall alone).
  3. Understanding shared eternal values or an aiming of all human life toward something beyond ordinary human flourishing.
  4. Understanding of a higher sense of time that is not merely linear or chronological.
  5. Understanding of a porous cosmos that is suspended within its own beyond (i.e. that we inhabit a world that is created and dependent on a reality that is greater than itself).

Here are a few excerpts from Smith. On the 3th understanding:

We miss this if we retroactively impose our “privatized” picture of faith upon abbeys and monasteries and imagine that the monks are devoting themselves to personal pursuits of salvation. The monks pray for the world in the world’s stead. So the social body loves this tension between transcendence and the mundane by a kind of division of labor.

Second, the social body in Christendom has a sense of time that allows even those daily engaged in domestic life to nonetheless pursue rhythms and rituals that inhabit this tension between the pressures of now and the hopes of eternity. Rhythms and seasons create opportunity to live the tension.

On the 4th understanding:

Higher times “introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events that were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked” (p. 55). This is somewhat akin to Kierkegaard’s account of “contemporaneity” in Philosophical Fragments: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than midsummer’s day 1997” (Secular Age, p. 55). Our “encasing” in secular time has changed this, and so we take our experience of time to be “natural” (i.e., not a construal): “We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done” (p. 59). So nothing “higher” impinges upon our calendars — only the tick-tock of chronos, and the self-imposed burdens of our “projects.”

On the 5th understanding:

It’s as if the universe has layers, and we are always folded into the middle. If the premodern self is “porous,” so too is the premodern cosmos.

May 2, 2018

not in the head but in the chest

The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 190 to 194:

To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention and the standing before the invisible Lord, not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart. When the divine warmth comes, all this will be clear.

…When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by way of prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart. Placed by the creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals…. The intellectual faculty in man’s soul, though spiritual, dwells in the brain, that is to say in the head: in the same way, the spiritual faculty which we term the spirit of man, though spiritual, dwells in the upper part of the heart, close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.

From The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault:

It is certainly true that the heart’s native language is affectivity—perception through deep feelingness. But it may come as a shock to contemporary seekers to learn that the things we nowadays identify with the feeling life—passion, drama, intensity, compelling emotion—are qualities that in the ancient anatomical treatises were associated not with the heart but with the liver! They are signs of agitation and turbidity (an excess of bile!) rather than authentic feelingness. In fact, they are traditionally seen as the roadblocks to the authentic feeling life, the saboteurs that steal its energy and distort its true nature.

And so before we can even begin to unlock the wisdom of these ancient texts, we need to gently set aside our contemporary fascination with emotivity as the royal road to spiritual authenticity and return to the classic understanding from which these teachings emerge, which features the heart in a far more spacious and luminous role.

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

…Unanimously, the Christian wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of this lower-level noise is “the passions.” As the Philokalia repeatedly emphasizes, the problem with the passions is that they divide the heart.15 A heart that is divided, pulled this way and that by competing inner agendas, is like a wind-tossed sea: unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.

Here again is a teaching that tends to set contemporary people’s teeth on edge. I know this from personal experience, because the issue comes up at nearly every workshop I give. To our modern Western way of hearing, “passion” is a good thing: something akin to élan vital, the source of our aliveness and motivation. It is to be encouraged, not discouraged. At a recent workshop I led, a bishop approached me with some concern and explained that in his diocese, following the recommendations of a church consultant, he had managed to boost morale and productivity by significant percentages simply by encouraging his clergy “to follow their passions.”

Well-nigh universally today, the notion of “passionlessness” (a quality eagerly sought after in the ancient teachings of the desert fathers and mothers) equates to “emotionally brain dead.” If you take away passion, what is left?

So once again we have to begin with some decoding.

If you consult any English dictionary, you will discover that the word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer” (passio is the first-person singular). But this still doesn’t get us all the way, because the literal, now largely archaic, meaning of the verb “to suffer” (to “undergo or experience”) is literally to be acted upon. The chief operative here is the involuntary and mechanical aspect of the transaction. And according to the traditional wisdom teachings, it is precisely that involuntary and mechanical aspect of being “grabbed” that leads to suffering in the sense of how we use the term today. Thus, in the ancient insights on which this spiritual teaching rests, passion did not mean élan vital, energy, or aliveness. It designated being stuck, grabbed, and blindly reactive.

This original meaning is clearly uppermost in the powerful teaching of the fourth-century desert father Evagrius Ponticus. Sometimes credited with being the first spiritual psychologist in the Christian West, Evagrius developed a marvelously subtle teaching on the progressive nature of emotional entanglement, a teaching that would eventually bear fruit in the fully articulated doctrine of the seven deadly sins. His core realization was that when the first stirrings of what will eventually become full-fledged passionate outbursts appear on the screen of consciousness, they begin as “thoughts”—logismoi, in his words—streams of associative logic following well-conditioned inner tracks. At first they are merely that—“thought-loops,” mere flotsam on the endlessly moving river of the mind. But at some point a thought-loop will entrain with one’s sense of identity—an emotional value or point of view is suddenly at stake—and then one is hooked. A passion is born, and the emotions spew forth. Thomas Keating has marvelously repackaged this ancient teaching in his diagram of the life cycle of an emotion,16 a core part of his Centering Prayer teaching. This diagram makes clear that once the emotion is engaged, once that sense of “I” locks in, what follows is a full-scale emotional uproar—which then, as Father Keating points out, simply drives the syndrome deeper and deeper into the unconscious, where it becomes even more involuntary and mechanically triggered.

What breaks the syndrome? For Evagrius, liberation lies in an increasingly developed inner capacity to notice when a thought is beginning to take on emotional coloration and to nip it in the bud before it becomes a passion by dis-identifying or disengaging from it. This is the essence of the teaching that has held sway in our tradition for more than a thousand years.

Now, of course, there are various ways of going about this disengaging. Contemporary psychology has added the important qualifier that disengaging is not the same thing as repressing (which is simply sweeping the issue under the psychological rug) and has developed important methodologies for allowing people to become consciously present to and “own” the stew fermenting within them. But it must also be stated that “owning” does not automatically entail either “acting out” or verbally “expressing” that emotional uproar. Rather, the genius of the earlier tradition has been to insist that if one can merely back the identification out—that sense of “me,” stuck to a fixed frame of reference or value—then the energy being co-opted and squandered in useless emotional turmoil can be recaptured at a higher level to strengthen the intensity and clarity of heart perceptivity. Rather than fueling the “reactive ego-self,” the energy can be “rejoined to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” And that, essentially, constitutes the goal of purification—at least as it has been understood in service of conscious transformation.

See also my previous post: Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church.

April 28, 2018

until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together

Memory eternal, James Cone. The author of The Cross and the Lynching Tree passed away today:

The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha—should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death. But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.

…Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called “the crucified peoples of history.” The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the “cost of discipleship,” it has become a form of “cheap grace,” an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

April 22, 2018

in reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal

Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (book II, chapter 3, “Concerning angels”) by Saint John of Damascus:

He is Himself the Maker and Creator of the angels: for He brought them out of nothing into being and created them after His own image, an incorporeal race, a sort of spirit or immaterial fire: in the words of the divine David, He maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire: and He has described their lightness and the ardour, and heat, and keenness and sharpness with which they hunger for God and serve Him, and how they are borne to the regions above and are quite delivered from all material thought.

An angel, then, is an intelligent essence, in perpetual motion, with free-will, incorporeal, ministering to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature: and the Creator alone knows the form and limitation of its essence. But all that we can understand is, that it is incorporeal and immaterial. For all that is compared with God Who alone is incomparable, we find to be dense and material. For in reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal.

The angel’s nature then is rational, and intelligent, and endowed with free-will, changeable in will, or fickle. For all that is created is changeable, and only that which is un-created is unchangeable. Also all that is rational is endowed with free-will. As it is, then, rational and intelligent, it is endowed with free-will: and as it is created, it is changeable, having power either to abide or progress in goodness, or to turn towards evil.

It is not susceptible of repentance because it is incorporeal. For it is owing to the weakness of his body that man comes to have repentance.

It is immortal, not by natures but by grace. For all that has had beginning comes also to its natural end. But God alone is eternal, or rather, He is above the Eternal: for He, the Creator of times, is not under the dominion of time, but above time.

They are secondary intelligent lights derived from that first light which is without beginning, for they have the power of illumination; they have no need of tongue or hearing, but without uttering words they communicate to each other their own thoughts and counsels.

Through the Word, therefore, all the angels were created, and through the sanctification by the Holy Spirit were they brought to perfection, sharing each in proportion to his worth and rank in brightness and grace.

They are circumscribed: for when they are in the Heaven they are not on the earth: and when they are sent by God down to the earth they do not remain in the Heaven. They are not hemmed in by walls and doors, and bars and seals, for they are quite unlimited. Unlimited, I repeat, for it is not as they really are that they reveal themselves to the worthy men to whom God wishes them to appear, but in a changed form which the beholders are capable of seeing. For that alone is naturally and strictly unlimited which is un-created. For every created thing is limited by God Who created it.

Further, apart from their essence they receive the sanctification from the Spirit: through the divine grace they prophesy: they have no need of marriage for they are immortal.

Seeing that they are minds they are in mental places, and are not circumscribed after the fashion of a body. For they have not a bodily form by nature, nor are they tended in three dimensions. But to whatever post they may be assigned, there they are present after the manner of a mind and energise, and cannot be present and energise in various places at the same time.

Whether they are equals in essence or differ from one another we know not. God, their Creator, Who knoweth all things, alone knoweth. But they differ from each other in brightness and position, whether it is that their position is dependent on their brightness, or their brightness on their position: and they impart brightness to one another, because they excel one another in rank and nature. And clearly the higher share their brightness and knowledge with the lower.

They are mighty and prompt to fulfil the will of the Deity, and their nature is endowed with such celerity that wherever the Divine glance bids them there they are straightway found. They are the guardians of the divisions of the earth: they are set over nations and regions, allotted to them by their Creator: they govern all our affairs and bring us succour. And the reason surely is because they are set over us by the divine will and command and are ever in the vicinity of God.

With difficulty they are moved to evil, yet they are not absolutely immoveable: but now they are altogether immoveable, not by nature but by grace and by their nearness to the Only Good.

They behold God according to their capacity, and this is their food.

They are above us for they are incorporeal, and are free of all bodily passion, yet are not passionless: for the Deity alone is passionless.

They take different forms at the bidding of their Master, God, and thus reveal themselves to men and unveil the divine mysteries to them.

They have Heaven for their dwelling-place, and have one duty, to sing God’s praise and carry out His divine will.

Moreover, as that most holy, and sacred, and gifted theologian, Dionysius the Areopagite says, All theology, that is to say, the holy Scripture, has nine different names for the heavenly essences. These essences that divine master in sacred things divides into three groups, each containing three. And the first group, he says, consists of those who are in God’s presence and are said to be directly and immediately one with Him, viz., the Seraphim with their six wings, the many-eyed Cherubim and those that sit in the holiest thrones. The second group is that of the Dominions, and the Powers, and the Authorities; and the third, and last, is that of the Rulers and Archangels and Angels

Some, indeed, like Gregory the Theologian, say that these were before the creation of other things. He thinks that the angelic and heavenly powers were first and that thought was their function. Others, again, hold that they were created after the first heaven was made. But all are agreed that it was before the foundation of man. For myself, I am in harmony with the theologian. For it was fitting that the mental essence should be the first created, and then that which can be perceived, and finally man himself, in whose being both parts are united.

But those who say that the angels are creators of any kind of essence whatever are the mouth of their father, the devil. For since they are created things they are not creators. But He Who creates and provides for and maintains all things is God, Who alone is uncreate and is praised and glorified in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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