Posts tagged ‘seeing’

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.

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February 4, 2018

teaching long of rest and waiting

These are thoughts that I put down as I sat with my Grandma and other family members near the end of my Grandma’s life. She was in her own bedroom and surrounded by loved ones:

My body holds me closer hourly
It will have me know it fully before I’m fully known
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel
I have my gasped breaths and throbbing heart

This morning, my eyes bring less daylight
But this less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more
And I have let go, almost, of saying

Today’s snowfall blankets my roof and windows
Without my knowing now
Still, it joins the many here over months and years
Teaching long of rest and waiting
These small white bodies
Carry downward flames from heaven
Without heat but made of fire still
That banks and burns
In quiet

My body cradles its own light as a treasure carried far,
Carried up, soon, past a snow that I’ll know newly,
A flame to lay down before my loving lord

Among her last words to me (the day before) were: “My little Jesse, you brought me tadpoles.”

And here also are the two passages that I included in my remarks at my Grandma’s funeral:

And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood.

From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say, “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.

…I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

From “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

March 26, 2012

sees the world rightly

Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (ending with the significant number seven and calling for silence regarding things that can only be seen):

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

[Note: Wittgenstein’s confidence in the abilities of language to portray reality is largely restored later in life as this passage indicates.]

September 7, 2011

he came softly, unobserved

He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him. That might be one of the best passages in the poem. I mean, why they recognized Him. The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile fo infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out his hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments. An old man in the the crowd, blind from childhood, creis out, “O Lord, heal me and I shall see Thee!” and, as it were, scales fall from his eyes and the bland man sees Him.

From the opening of “The Grand Inquisitor,” a story told by Ivan to his brother Alyosha in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

August 16, 2011

for now

For now treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.

From a sermon by Augustine, cited by Robert Louis Wilken in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God on pages 50 and 76.

July 28, 2011

stand in the glow of ripeness

Love

Czesław Miłosz

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart.
Without knowing it, from various ills –
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Thanks to Hallie for singling out this poem. I owe thanks to a common friend for my small enjoyment of poetry. It is good to read more by Miłosz.

July 19, 2011

a girl stood before him

A girl stood before him in midstream: alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed in the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird.

Yesterday’s Beatrice image, brought to mind many others. This one is from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (near the end of chapter IV).

Just after deciding not to become a priest, Stephen Dedalus has a (secular) vision of Mary, incarnate as this young girl by the sea. He sees all the beauty of his homeland in her and begins his quest for exile as a poet of Ireland. His vision is epiphanic and humanizing, although it draws him away from his Catholic faith. I quote only a brief opening line because so much of the passage requires the broader context of the story and surrounding imagery.

July 18, 2011

my eye beheld true magic and majesty

This wordless, 14-minute short is well worth several viewings. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore displays desolation and beauty with a magic and majesty of its own.


July 5, 2011

all leaves have been woven

No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept “leaf” is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be “leaf”—some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be a correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form.

“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” by Friedrich Nietzsche (1873)

We’ll be enjoying sand grains, rocks and waves on the Maine cost today, and I can never enjoy the vast array of particulars without thinking of Nietzsche’s passion for them.

June 30, 2011

charged with the task of visiting other cities

The word “theory” comes from the ancient Greek word theorein, meaning “to see.”

…Over time, it came to describe a special and intensified form of “seeing” in the Greek world. Certain designated city officials— theoroi—were charged with the task of visiting other cities, to “see” events such as religious or theatrical or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city, where they would then give an account of what they had seen. To “theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey, an encounter with the “other” in which the theorist would attempt to comprehend, assess, compare, and then, in the idiom of his own city, explain what had been seen to his fellow citizens. This encounter would inevitably raise questions about the customs or practices of the theorist’s own city. Why do we do things this way? Might there be a better way of organizing the regime? Might there be a best way of life that is not our way? This tension between the theorist’s role as critic and the city’s imperative to protect its way of life is deeply embedded in the history and the practice of political theory.

Patrick J. Deneen in “Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange” from The Intercollegiate Review (Spring 2002), pp. 34-35.

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