Eckhart’s Obedience

2,800 words

Readers of this blog will likely be familiar with Meister Eckhart. A Dominican friar from Germany, he entered the order in 1275, the same year Thomas Aquinas died, and after a career distinguished by academic achievement at Paris in Thomas’ chair, high administrative responsibility in his order in Germany and the Rhineland, and a widespread reputation as a preacher and counsellor of the Beguines, a lay women’s movement in the Rhineland and the Low Countries, was con­demned by the official Church at Avignon in 1328. He escaped what might have been a most heinous execution by dying of natural causes before sentence could be passed.

His condemnation must be understood in the context of his times. Church authorities used the Inquisition to control groups like the Beguines whom they claimed were guilty of heresy. The Beguines were self-governing communities of laywomen who had dedicated themselves to contemplative prayer and a life of Christian perfection but were not under the control of the official Church or any of its approved religious orders. Eckhart supported them, taught and counselled them and was himself a disciple of one of their own advanced contemplatives, Marguerite Porrete, who was burned at the stake in 1310 in Paris by an Inquisitor of Eckhart’s own order. As for the issue of heresy, many believe it was largely the concoction of church authorities determined to maintain control of a population increasingly aware of the corruption and hypocrisy of the hierarchy. The Beguines were condemned in 1318. Eckhart’s conviction of heresy 10 years later was not an unconnected event.

Eckhart was a monk in an age when spirituality was moving out of the monasteries. Monasticism was coming under criticism for arrogating to religious elites the means of perfection and the contemplative life, while lay men and women were consigned to second class Christian citizenship. Movements like the Beguines and their priest supporters sprang up in response. They were most active in “frontier” areas where new towns were expanding with the influx of serfs freed from their fiefs by land enclosures. The sermons for which Eckhart is most famous and which contain the most radical expression of his vision, were aimed at a spirituality for laypeople. They were delivered in the vernacular German — the language spoken by these searching people — itself a daring and iconoclastic gesture at the time, representing a movement toward democratization. His work was clearly an attempt to bring the best theology to ordinary Christians and to emphasize the effectiveness of the active life in achieving perfection. The Meister was famous for reversing John’s judgment; he said “Martha has chosen the better part.”

It could all be subsumed under the heading of “reform,” and while no definitive reform would be forthcoming for at least another century, and Luther’s revolt, two centuries, the universal desire for reform and the broad outlines of its scope were already in place. Eckhart has been identified as the symbolic precursor of the Reformation in the Christian West. Nevertheless, the mysticism that was characteristic of Eckhart’s time and can be said to constitute the bulk of his contribution, was not characteristic of later reformers. The growing “personalist” spirituality that imagined Jesus as one’s intimate friend, confidant and even spouse, represented by such works as The Imitation of Christ, was not yet solidly in place, and Eckhart’s Logos spirituality had more in common with Benedict of Nursia than Thomas à Kempis.

Eckhart’s system and Doctrine of God

Eckhart’s system was internally consistent. Peoples’ needs derived from what they were as human beings, and that in turn reflected the nature of the “God” from whom they emanated and in whose “ground” they remained immersed for eternity. Whether you began with the behavior he encouraged, or with the doctrine of “God” that he proposed, it all fit together.

Perhaps the place to start is where Eckhart seems most at odds with the mainstream understanding of Christianity: the doctrine of “God.”

For Eckhart, Being, esse, is “God.” This does not seem very radical given the philosophical thought of his age. It is similar to what the principal theologians believed. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that “God is being.” But their ultimate meaning was different. Aquinas meant that God had his own being which was absolute and unconditioned, but also created another kind of being that was conditioned and dependent on his. Aquinas called the second, esse commune. It was finite; belonged to creatures and was distinct from “God’s” which was esse in se subsistens — infinite. With Eckhart, in contrast, there was only one esse. It was Aristotle’s “Pure Act,” conceptually akin to what, in a material universe we would call “matter’s energy,” and everything that existed participated in the unique and exclusive existence — esse — which was “God.” There were not two esse’s. There was only one. To exist at all, therefore, was to possess and be energized by the only esse there was, and for Eckhart, that was God.

This neo-Platonic participation made Eckhart’s system different from his contemporaries, and the source of misunderstanding that got him in trouble with the thought police. But from our point of view it makes his concept of “God” much closer to what modern science might infer from the absolute autonomy of matter that it observes as the building blocks of all existing things. If material reality is absolutely commensurate with esse, i.e., if matter is the very energy of existence itself, then material energy is “God.” “God” is material, and in a material universe, Eckhart’s “Being is God” remains intact.

Eckhart’s definition of Being as God brought him to imagine a “Godhead” of pure limpid being with characteristics derived from the simple bareness of the concept. This “Godhead” is the serene unrelated “ground” from which all things flowed, and in which the human soul pre-existed as an “idea” in the divine mind from all eternity. Eckhart distinguished the utterly detached Godhead from the image of “God” the Creator of the universe, later identified as a Trinity of Persons who related to humankind in and through the redemptive work of the Logos in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Triune God of Christian doctrine was, for Eckhart, a theophany — a mask — a role, as it were, assumed by the Godhead for the purposes of relating to humankind. To embrace this Trinity, therefore, was not the ultimate quest for human beings. The final goal was to “break through” the conceptual imagery of Christian doctrine and touch the “Godhead” itself in whose infinite ground the finite being finds its home: its origin and place of rest. The “breakthrough” recapitulated the neo-Platonic reditus — the return of all things to their source.

The Trinitarian analog for this cosmic cycle involves the generation of the Son by the Father as a first instance of the “boiling over” of divine self-love in an abundant generosity that necessarily reproduces itself “outside” itself. God cannot help it. He must love and reproduce himself even if he didn’t want to; and since he is ground he reproduces himself as ground. That is the exitus. In a second instance, creation emanates from the Father as part of the same dynamic of overflowing love that generated the Son; and the “boiling over” is reproduced a third time in the “birth of the Son” in the soul of the human being in “grace,” setting up a tension of attraction that propels the individual on a return — a reditus — back to the ground. The “soul,” swept up in this dynamic of Trinitarian love, becomes aware of its destiny — its true identity as ground in the Godhead. When that awareness occurs in this life it is what Eckhart calls “the breakthrough.” This identification with the utterly detached serene transcendent “One” beyond the Trinity who needs nothing is the keynote of Eckhart’s vision.

The “birth of the Son” in the soul means the human being is necessarily immersed in a cosmic trajectory that is finalized only with the breaking through to the “Godhead,” the ultimate ground where there is no more “God” as a Creator-entity separate from the things he creates. All of Being is identified as itself as it was from all eternity. Thus the human being, re-immersed in its source, now knows itself to be “ground,” i.e., everything once thought to be unique to “God.” The soul realizes it is an integral part of its own source and reason for being. It is like a drop of water in the ocean. It’s in describing this Godhead, the Alpha source of the primaeval exitus and the Omega goal of the final reditus, that Eckhart’s language about “God” yaws so noticeably from the mainstream:

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

“Free of all things,” is the characteristic of the Godhead, pure Being, who lives in a detachment of unrelated serenity which ultimately must also necessarily characterize the human being who originated in that “ground” and always remains constituted by it. Detachment, therefore, is the key to the liberation of the human being. As the individual becomes more detached, he becomes more and more like the Godhead, the ground to which he is returning.

As a corollary to this concept of the Godhead Eckhart counsels his disciples to avoid “prayer of petition” because the detached unrelated source of all things is beyond change of any kind and therefore could not possibly respond to prayer in time. God has known everyone’s needs from all eternity. Besides, as ground, the human being realizes he needs nothing; to ask for anything more than what one already is, is meaningless.

Obedience and the ego

The “birth of the Son” in the soul marks the incorporation of the individual into this cycle of return. But its occurrence is neither automatic nor passive. The individual is responsible for an active receptivity which involves preparing space for the birth by “letting-go” and “clearing-out” everything that is not consistent with the soul’s own participation in the “ground.” Generally translated “detachment,” Eckhart uses German words that were later picked up by 20th century philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s asceticism, however, is not Eckhart’s. The modern existentialist is trying to find a way for dasein, the human self, to “create” itself (find itself) by allowing “being” to emerge and stand out resolutely in the gale winds of nothingness, while the mediaeval Meister is explicitly intent on eliminating the self-creating human ego in favor of allowing the “ground” which the soul shares with the Godhead, to become empty — the place where the “Son,” a new Self, is born and replaces the false needy and grasping ego.  All this happens here and now, as the point in which God’s creative action is actively sustaining the existence of all things.

The final step for Eckhart is the identification of “obedience” as the most effective tool for achieving detachment — the reduction of the power of the false, self-creating human ego — providing the emptiness which is the sine qua non condition for the entry of God. Once the soul is empty, God flows in, as it were, necessarily here and now, because the soul has become all and only “ground” and, morally speaking, presents no obstacle to the creative presence of the Godhead. There is no longer any false human ego, whose self-will claims to be the creator of itself, blocking God’s access to the shared ground and the “Son’s” loving return.

It is the attachment to imaginary “goods” which are pursued with existential intensity that “clutter” the ground making it impossible for God follow through on the process of bringing the soul back to its ground in the Godhead. Detachment, therefore, equates to a radical poverty that is the flip-side of the infinite wealth (nobility) of the individual. Eckhart called the human soul “the aristocrat” which would explain why the Inquisitors said: “he confused the ordinary people.” The soul, whose ultimate ground existed before birth and is shared with God, is already in possession of that existential wellspring — Being itself — that the ego thinks it lacks and must go out and find and possess. “Letting go” therefore involves dropping the fantasies of need and the delusions of inadequacy that generate the lust for accumulation — including “merit” in the afterlife — that are the spontaneous deceptions of the ego.  

This emphasis on the false ego and its replacement by the infinite aristocratic “Self” of the divine Logos puts Eckhart in a direct line of inheritance with Christian ascetics going back to the New Testament itself. Paul spoke emphatically and often about “putting on Christ” and urged his readers to put aside the “old self” in exchange for the “new self” created to be like God. In Galatians he boasted, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.” Eckhart’s insistence that the “old self” is to be identified as ”having your own way” finds its psycho-spiritual antithesis in obedience.

Following Benedict, since obedience is not sought as an end in itself but only for its power to transform the selfish, grasping, self-exalting self into a generous, compassionate, servant of others, there should be little chance that obedience will be made into an absolute. It is a tool for breaking the habitual self-exaltation and self-protection that requires the abasement and exploitation of others. Obedience is not a totalitarian idol demanding the humiliation and obliteration of the self, an absolute demand of good order, a tool of the state. For Eckhart as for Benedict obedience is not for the sake of society; it is meant to serve the healing of the individual. So it should never fall into the false quid pro quo transactional category that was responsible for turning the gospel into law under Roman tutelage despite Paul’s attempts to prevent it. Obedience is a means for intensifying and re-directing the self’s energy toward the acceptance, enhancement and service of others … turning the ego into a more highly energized “self” driven by donation, generosity, self-emptying and the wellbeing of others: the human recapitulation of the divine “boiling over” of creative love.

In modern terms it is the self-forgetful abundant benevolence characteristic of matter’s energy itself, LIFE, the very “stuff” of which we are made. I am convinced this is essentially what Eckhart experienced. He called it “being,” we call it matter’s self-transcending energy; but it is the same thing. It is the Source of LIFE, the Godhead beyond the metaphors of doctrine. By realigning the self with the “ground,” the return is anticipated in the individual’s contemplative experience. That’s what he calls the breakthrough. We know we belong to the totality, and we are not distracted by seeking a final answer anywhere else than in our return to it.

Self-forgetful, self-emptying. Understanding the transformative purpose of religious obedience brings us back full circle to Benedict’s humility. The achievement of humility represents the final metamorphosis of the false self into the “true self” which Paul said was “to be like God.” Once we realize that obedience is a tool and what it is supposed to be used for, it may occur to us that there are other things that we may use for the same purpose. Not all of us, after all, have access to an “abbot” or another religious superior who understands the transformative function of obedience. Many people are caught in situations — at work, in the family — where obedience is demanded for all the wrong reasons by someone whose own sense of inadequacy requires the abasement and exploitation of others for compensation. Obedience under these circumstances will more than likely have a reverse demonic effect. The assaulted “ego” will defend, protect and enlarge itself.

But the person sincerely in search of humility, having understood its significance, can find alternatives to religious obedience that will work as tools for the transformation of the self. There is nothing “sacred” about obedience in itself. Detachment can be pursued by other means. Once we understand that the false, self-exalting self is nothing but a futile attempt to compensate for one’s own feelings of inadequacy and exclusion, our awareness of our eternal origin in the “ground” (our belonging to the totality of matter’s energy) and the divine dynamic at work in bringing us back to our source (the return of the material of our organisms to the pool at death to be recycled), gives us a foothold for denying the ego’s demands. “Obedience” can be taken as a metaphor for anything that will help us deflate the false ego.

post script

Matter’s self-transcending energy and Eckhart’s Esse

800 words

In the universe observed by modern science, all things are constructed from the same building blocks: the quanta of material energy, sometimes observed as particles, sometimes as waves or energy fields. Metaphysically speaking, there is only one “kind of thing” out there, material energy in the form it has assumed as the result of the aggregation, integration and complexification of itself — evolution. There is nothing else. Since material energy is all that exists, it is reasonable to assert that its energy is before all else an energy for being-here. In other words, there is no other “existence” that is prior to or responsible for the existence of self-transcen­ding matter.  Self-transcending matter is esse — the energy of existence.

Of course we know Eckhart was a Platonist and thought of “being” as an idea. But in his world, ideas were also “things,” what they called “substances.” The substance genus to which ideas belonged was immaterial “spirit.” Being was a very special idea; it included all other things and all other ideas. It was an infinite and transcendent Spirit. That could only be “God.”

Eckhart’s focus on the simplicity of Being meant that his worldview was an idealist monism akin to Hegel. Everything that existed was Being, “God” by participation. Since being was immaterial, everything was basically “spirit.” Eckhart does not explain why or how “matter” came to exist in this world of spirit, and as far as humans are concerned, matter has no meaning except as a foil for spirit. Spirit dominated the universe. Matter was a kind of non-being, or anti-being that needed to be eliminated or neutralized so spirit could realize its full potential.

However, if we take “being” and “material energy” to be conceptual equivalents, as modern science suggests, Eckhart’s terminology explains the world much better than dualists like Aquinas, because esse in our world is also a monism. For us everything is made of self-transcen­ding matter; there is no such thing as “spirit.” Spiritual phenomena are the products of matter. Ideas are not things. They are the changeable mental states that human organisms assume when they think. People are “things.” Ideas are not.

Participation was a Platonic notion that worked within that ancient theory of substantial ideas: two “things” of the same species, like two people, must participate in the idea of what they have in common: humanity. The physical compenetration implied in participation was believed possible precisely because ideas were immaterial. Also, the two participants were both human beings, they shared the same one idea univocally. Humanity was the same in all its manifestations.

However, two existing things, God and any creature, both participate in the idea of being. But Being is “God.” God and creatures are not at all on the same level. Therefore the idea of being could not be applied to each univocally. Aquinas proposed that being be applied analogously to God and creatures, effectively dividing the concept of being between esse that was unencumbered by any principle of limitation, and esse that was limited by a defining form. The first he called esse in se subsistens, and the latter he called esse commune.

But the concept of Being is not divisible without introducing a factor which would have to be some kind of unrealized potential. Esse commune includes such potency as part of its definition. But that would contradict the very definition of Being as Act. Once it stopped being Pure Act and admitted a potential to be more, it stopped being “Being.” Once potency was introduced it became a “thing.”

Also ideas are only “one.” Divide an idea by some qualitative differentiation and you have two ideas, not one idea with two “levels” of itself. So Aquinas’ attempt to avoid pantheism amounted to an equivocal predication. He ended up saying that there were two separate “esse’s,” one that belonged to God and the other that was proper to all created things.

Unfortunately for Eckhart, his idealism also falls by the same premise. This highlights the contradictions internal to all forms of Idealism (belief in “immaterial” reality). “Being” as an idea cannot be shared at different levels (i.e., between Creator and creature) without imagining it as something divisible, that means quantifiable, which immediately neutralizes it as an idea and converts it into some kind of “stuff,” matter. To imagine Being as Act that is quantifiable is to imagine esse as a force field, material energy. It stops being only an idea, “spirit,” and becomes “stuff,” matter . Eckhart’s system works as a monism of neutral, self-transcen­ding matter.

But if the energy packets that constitute material reality are themselves the very act of existence, they are esse, and we participate in its energy by literally disposing of different quantities and levels of complexification of these quanta of energy without sacrificing anything of their quality as existential.

To make all this easier to grasp, think of LIFE itself. A large complex multi-cellular animal like a human being is not any more alive than a single celled paramecium. Similarly, all things are “God” by participation because they are made of the same “stuff” as “God” — material energy — while their “level” of functioning differs from one another by the amount of material energy possessed and the degree of complexity achieved through evolution enjoyed by the organism at that point in time. “God” is the infinite pool of material energy that expresses itself in incrementally more sophisticated ways through the emergent forms that it has evolved into. That’s why we call it self-transcending materialism. Evolution determines the form and function of the living energy of matter. “God” in this system, as Whitehead said, is both Alpha and Omega — the initial fully dispersed energy source driving the evolving complexification of matter, and matter’s eventual advanced level of functioning made possible by that evolution. If you want an example, just look at our spectacular universe with earth’s trillion of hierarchically ordered life forms from cyanobacteria to humankind. We are all — ALL — made of the same stuff.

Eckhart must have had something like the totality of the pool of material energy in mind when he generated his imagery about the “Godhead” as ground and the “soul’s” participation in it. He could not have been clearer: “God” was not an entity, nor rational, nor a person, and everything was part of “God” and necessarily shared those characteristics, therefore “God was all things.”

Let’s not get lost here. Forget the mediaeval categories. “God,” as John asserted, is LIFE. Science may avoid using the name but it does not dispute the fact, and LIFE as we find it, is material.

Tony Equale, May 20, 2017

[1] From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201

 

Benedict’s Humility

3,300 words

One of the major distorting factors in the formation of Western Christianity was the unnatural focus on celibacy due to the Platonic denigration of matter and elevation of “spirit” to a separate metaphysical substance. Sometimes celebrated with allegorical erotic imagery from the Biblical “Song of Songs,” celibacy was often taken literally as a “marriage” with God. Those and associated distortions were borne forward by the monastic movement that became the principal residence of those ideals. But it would be shortsighted in the extreme to identify monasticism solely with its principal flaw and overlook the millennia of struggle it contributed in the pursuit of an earthly human happiness.

It might seem strange to characterize the monastic quest as “this worldly” when, here in the West at least, it comes attached to a Christian religion whose fixation on Plato’s other world built an extraordinary civilization powered by an inverted dynamism of fear and alienation. The fact is that monasticism antedated Christianity by many centuries and ascetics who were not yet caught in the trap of Plato’s imaginary world had already established the terms of the search, and those terms were happiness in the only world there was. Western monasticism inherited that movement, and offers an ultimate happiness whose achieve­ment, reversing the priorities of Christianity, is explicitly conditioned on abandoning any desire for possessions of any kind, and that includes after death.

Benedict of Nursia

The Benedictine Order has long been acknowledged as the beginning and epicenter of western monasticism. Its founder, Benedict of Nursia, lived from 487 to 547. His order became a widespread, multi-community phenomenon and his ancient Rule was used in one form or another by later religious orders. The Rule was written by Benedict himself, and will be the subject of our inquiry.

Even though celibacy was an unconditional requirement of Benedict’s Rule, it seems its significance came more from Plato’s spiritualism than as a by-product of interpersonal relationship with “God.” Not only is nuptial imagery not found anywhere in the Rule, but the “love of God” or “love of Christ” are sparsely mentioned and then mainly as motivational formalities. There is no direct and explicit focus on a personal relationship with God or Christ as the driving force in the monastic pursuit as conceived by Benedict’s Rule.

But a thorough reading reveals much more. The Rule tells us about the way The Christian message was understood and transmitted in the west in Late Antiquity, and how monasticism conceived its role in that context.

For example, the Rule as written is not centered on Catholic sacramental ritual and the necessary role of the priest.  The word “eucharist” never appears in the Rule, and where “mass” occurs it is always a schedule reference, as in “such and such will be done after mass.” Sacramental “grace” seems not to even have been a theological category and “confession” was understood generically and not as a sacramental event made available by priestly absolution. The Rule seems to consider the entry of priests into the monastery as something of a problem; the Rule makes it quite explicit that they should not presume to perform any sacerdotal functions outside of the direct orders of the abbot. Clearly the monastery wasn’t just a parish for the spiritual elite.

The Benedictine rule has guided the Christian monastic search for wisdom and human fulfillment for 1500 years. It is a short, simple document, produced in the middle of the sixth century. Scholars agree that it is a milder redaction of one written some decades earlier anonymously known as The Rule of the Master. Benedict’s Rule reads more like a friendly letter designed to outline the general intent of the monastery than a systematic document laying out a detailed program and daily schedule.

Clues to the unsophisticated nature of its recommendations are found throughout. Chapter 7, which will be our principal focus in this essay, is a prime example. The Chapter is exclusively devoted to humility. It lists in total 12 “degrees” of humility, no one of which could ever be considered a greater degree than any other. The reader gets the impression that by making a cumulative list, Benedict was trying to emphasize what Elliott would say 1500 years later: “humility is endless.” The unique focus of the chapter and its central location in the rule suggest that humility might be considered the leitmotiv of the Rule.

Humility

But the importance of humility was not a personal insight of Benedict’s. John Cassian, who brought the experience of the Eastern desert hermits to the West, listed “10 rungs on the ladder of humility” in his Institutes written around 420. The Rule of the Master which was composed later by someone who clearly was influenced by Cassian’s text, expanded the list to the 12 “degrees” later repeated by Benedict.

In chapter 5 of Benedict’s 73 chapter Rule, he gives away the game and says that the first degree of humility is “obedience.” He says nothing more about it at that point. But by chapter 7 it sounds like he has decided to work from a different paradigm because there, without acknowledging that he had already declared himself on the issue, he says: the first degree of humility is the “fear of God.”

This is a key oversight and a clue to Benedict’s whole vision. By fear he’s not kidding. He’s talking about being terrified of “the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God.” As becomes clear by the end of the chapter, this first degree really means “first step;” it is one of the two brackets that frame the entire discussion. The Chapter opens by declaring that the monk is expected to begin out of fear of punishment and hope for reward. But after he has mastered the whole 12 degrees of humility, it is hoped he will be a changed man. The last paragraph of chapter 7 reads:

Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casts out fear. In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue. May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.

This clarifies the matter. The phrase “fear of God” was not a generic placeholder, an hyperbole for taking your moral responsibilities seriously. In Benedict’s view you come to his program because you’re scared. You can’t live a Christian life and you know what that will mean for you in the end. But he has no problem with that. In fact it seems quite natural, and the alert reader even gets the impression that this fear and the monastic program work in tandem.

But a young man in the sixth century, afraid for his “soul,” who read the Rule before he entered, would realize that the monastery’s goal is precisely to cast out the very fear that brought him there. He would know up front that the monk is someone in the process of having his motivation transformed from selfish to selfless, from fearful to fearless, from self-protective and acquisitive to abundantly generous, from a resistant and grudging compliance to a zest and pleasure in aligning oneself with LIFE itself. Benedict’s word for this transformation is “humility.” That one word, in Benedict’s Rule, I believe, contains the very essence of his view of human happiness as understood by a sixth century Christian in the Latin West.

Fear

It’s difficult for us not to question the source of that initial fear. Why should the Christian message ever have inspired fear? Obviously in the sixth century there was real fear of “God’s” punishment and the eternal damnation that would cap it off. And I believe it would also be fair to say that if “fear” could be identified by Benedict as the universal and necessary source of the monastic vocation, fear must have been the prevailing motivation proposed by the official Church — in its preaching, sacramental rituals and personal counselling — for all Christians.

I want to point out that most people throughout history and probably even today, would see nothing extraordinary in this. It is exactly what they think religion is all about: people doing what they are supposed to do (as commanded by “God”) and by that means establishing the rule of justice — peace and harmony among men. Failing to obey entails punishment. Religion, and in this case, Christianity, is envisioned primarily as a behavioral program, subordinate to the good of society and therefore something of an ancillary political ideology. In this case perfect obedience — universal moral compliance by all members of the community at all times — would usher in the millennium. It would correspond to the definition of the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus spoke of so often. God will reign over the earth when humankind obeys his commands.

Some, like myself, would challenge this interpretation. As I read it, Jesus’ message was not some kind of re-promulga­tion of the “law,” but rather the definitive announcement of the love of a “Father” whose irreversible benevolence translates into a forgiveness without limit. The keynote is mercy born of compassion. Our Father’s love for us then becomes the model and motivation for our behavior. It is no longer a matter of law, if it ever was. We are to imitate “God” not obey him. It was a message that was intended to cast out fear. If Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” he meant the community of people who had heard the message of God’s endless forbearance and lived compassionate joyous lives in the knowledge of their unbreakable bonds of fearless intimacy with the source of LIFE.

Was Benedict one of them? Is the Rule’s explicit declaration that the very purpose of “humility” was to cast out fear, an indication that Benedict recognized a seminal defect in the secular Church’s message? In other words, did he see monasticism as an evangelical corrective, healing the distorted souls of men who had been deformed by the Imperial Church’s flawed transmission of the gospel and thereby bringing it back to its proper bearing?

Wasn’t there another possibility? Wouldn’t an obedience habituated by years of repeated practice, reinforced by a rule, an abbot and a community of fellow participants, give confidence and peace of mind to the fearful monk, a confidence that would also appear to cast out fear? I believe this amounts to asking: in Benedict’s view, does fear remain an aspect of motivation throughout the monk’s life, or does it actually get cast out?

The Rule says (7:11)

The monk is always to turn over in his mind how all who despise God will fall into hell for their sins, as well as the everlasting life prepared for those who fear God.

So fear remains — in the background, for sure — but it’s always there. It seems that Benedict and the “secular” Church were on the same page, after all. Claims that monasticism was a reaction on the part of persecution-hardened Christians to the sudden wealth, ease and luxury that accompanied Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, did not correspond to the inversion of gospel values that turned Christianity into a quid pro quo moral enterprise. That inversion had to have preceded Constantine’s conversion and, in my opinion, in fact made the latter possible. With the class division of Christian society into elites and commoners, the investiture of the clergy with magical powers, the transformation of the sacraments into quasi-hydraulic suppliers of “grace,” and the fear of eternal damnation for failing to obey the law, Greco-Roman Christianity represented a significant reversal of the egalitarian structures, symbolic rituals and free forgiveness of the Christian communities founded in the apostolic age.

So it’s no surprise that the monastic reaction would also have occurred earlier. Antony and the first of the Eastern desert Fathers began their ascetic experiments in 270, an entire generation before the Diocletian persecution of 303 which was terminated by Constantine’s victory in 312. From Antony’s own writings and his authoritative biography by Athanasius of Alexandria it is more than clear that the essential structures of Greco-Roman Christianity had already displaced the formations evident in Paul’s epistles. Gone was what Luther would identify as Paul’s emphasis on “free forgiveness,” in favor of a quid pro quo system in which moral behavior — obedience to God’s law — was rewarded or punished according to your level of compliance. Gone also was any enthusiastic anticipation of an imminent return of Christ. Eschatological urgency had been transferred to the personal Judgment facing each individual “soul” at the time of death and was the new source of the “fear” that western religions offer as their “stock-in-trade,” proven effective in the running of the far flung and culturally diverse Roman Empire.

obedience

It’s important to elucidate the link between these issues. The “fear” and “hope for reward” that is generated is exclusively connected to compliance with law. “Obedience” is the subjective disposition that activates compliance. So the fear that serves as the motivation for entering the monastery is the antithesis of obedience: fear arises precisely from disobedience. Therefore it should come as no surprise to learn that humility, clearly identified by the founders of western monasticism as the apex of Christian perfection, should be primarily the work and result of obedience.

But the issue is more complex.

The means to humility, in Benedict’s strategy, was obedience. Not only the initial announcement in chapter 5, but then in chapter 7 the second degree of humility reverts to “doing the will of him who sent me.” The third follows hard on the second and counsels the monk to “submit to the Superior in all obedience.”

The fourth degree of humility is that the monk “hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulties and contradictions and even, possibly, injustice, enduring all without growing weary and running away.” The unapologetic concatenation of humility with obedience in step after step as the driving force in spiritual development in Benedict’s mind is not disputable.

It’s hard to miss the point. These first four degrees of humility are simply different ways of restating that the most important tool for personal development, a tool the monastery is intent on utilizing, is obedience. This is more important than it may seem at first. For I contend that after Benedict’s establishment of humility as transformative of human motivation, his coupling of humility with obedience makes it unmistakably clear that not only is obedience a means and not an end in itself, but that the “kingdom of ‘God,’” for those who might have been erroneously deceived by the de facto preaching and pastoral program of the Church into thinking that it was essentially compliance with law, is to be identified as precisely this personal moral/affective transformation, and nothing else. The “kingdom of God” is the community of the humble: those who have gotten beyond frightened obedience.

This is a complex and somewhat convoluted point; but I hope I can make it clear: Regardless of the distortions of the gospel message that propelled compliant obedience into prominence in the Christian life of Late Antiquity, the monastic ideal as re-presented by Benedict is personal transformation — human healing and the creative energy it releases — not social harmony, distributive justice, or any other community goal, however noble, achieved by a dead, fearful, forced or self-interested compliance. The fact that the pastoral program of the “secular” Church served to provide a solid first step on the road to perfection would have fit perfectly into Benedict’s generally accepted scheme of things. But however valid that first step of fear was, Benedict was also very clear that it had to be transcended. It was not the fullness of Christian life; and it was the monastery’s job to start from there and carry it to fulfillment.

I believe Benedict’s Rule is indirectly stating that the purpose of the monastery is not to make men obedient … or to get a particular pattern of social behavior habituated, rooted in place and running smoothly. Obedience, in other words, was not an end in itself, necessary for social harmony. While the common good was clearly an indirect beneficiary, peace in the community was not the very purpose for demanding obedience. If it were, the motivation that the monk brought to the performance of this compliance would be irrelevant. The end would be the compliance itself, nothing else; the “12 degrees” and endless pursuit of humility would be superfluous. There would be no talk of “casting out fear,” for fear would continue be the most effective driver of compliance.

Benedict’s rule was not a program of social compliance. The Kingdom of God had to be established not in behavior but in the rectification of the emotions, the alignment of the human individual with the joy of LIFE and compassionate service toward the universal suffering LIFE entails. Moral behavior, thirst for justice, peacemaking, mutual aid, would necessarily follow; hence obedience was also a bell-whether: it was an indicator of who was humble. Only those who had gotten past having their own way were capable of obeying with a full heart and there would be no way to hide it. Where there was that kind of obedience, there had to be humility.

From the very first it is made abundantly clear that the most important tool for the achievement of humility is obedience. This immediately gives obedience a much higher purpose than the good order and efficient running of the monastery. By making obedience the servant of humility and not of good order, Benedict made obedience subordinate to personal growth and spiritual expansion, and not the suppressive submersion of the individual in a well-oiled machine. Did his successors all share that priority?

Humility, obedience and the nature of “God.”

There is much to reflect on as we look at this important development in our religious history. It illustrates with great clarity the issues we have been confronting in our pursuit of a new understanding of the “nature” of God as revealed by modern science. It doesn’t take long to realize that the sixth century Roman Catholicism that began to push people into monasteries was not very different from the Tridentine Catholicism that many of us were formed in prior to the Second Vatican Council. I would also wager that in many places not much has changed.

The “fear” that drove Christians into monastic life could only have been provided by a personal, punishing “God.” That means that somewhere along the line those who were in charge of the Christian communities had to decide that the loving, forgiving “Father” they had received from the parables of Jesus had to be re-imagined and re-issued as a wrathful punitive authority whose primary concern was compliance with commandments, not compassion for the self-lacerating grasping generated by the harshness of life. The tradition that Benedict inherited understood Jesus’ message, and utilized its distorted application to reverse the intent of that application and its effects. By making obedience ancillary to humility, it placed the broken human heart and the abject poverty of humankind in a position of revelatory prominence. It was humility that told us what “God” was really like: a “God” that “divinized” the humble, not the compliant. What was that all about?

In the next post I will turn to another monk, Johannes Eckhart, a fourteenth century Dominican whose radical re-conceptualization of “God” — in terms I believe consistent with modern science — was elaborated together with an equally radical re-conceptualization of the significance of obedience. Eckhart’s vision will help us move toward an ascetical practice that is consistent with the best insights of our ancient tradition while functioning totally within the sphere of the transcendent materialism that explains the reality of our universe and our place in it.

 

 

 

 

A Suggestion

I have been gratified by the interest shown in these last two blogposts: “Sex, Celibacy and the Nature of ‘God’” and “Catholicism and the Solitary Ideal.” For those who would like explore these same issues from a slightly different angle, see my blogpost of June 2015 entitled “Thinking of Edith Stein (III).”  It can be found in the archives.

Tony Equale

Catholicism and the Solitary Ideal

2,500 words

April 2017

This post is a follow-up on the previous one; it is short but ambitious. It takes a broad historical look at how the celibate ideal, based on the belief in the possibility of a psycho-erotic relationship with “God,” contributed to (1) the individualism that characterizes Western society some say to a pathological degree, (2) the abasement of women rendering marriage as an institution a school of domination and exploitation which is learned by the children, and from there to (3) the construction of an entire civilization built on domination of the weak by the strong and the justification of structural inequality.

That’s quite an indictment, especially when you consider that it claims to have its roots in a religious mysticism that is specific to Christianity. Other traditions have their mysticism, by which I mean a belief in the possibility of direct contact with “God” and a corresponding program for pursuing it, but none have been so amenable to nourishing anything like the cultural defects listed above.

Of course they may very well contribute to other failings found in their respective societies. It’s not my place to analyze or criticize them; I limit myself to my own cultural heritage and the religion that gave it birth. And in my own, a pyramid of religious doctrines arose, constructed upon the naïve belief in an anthropomorphic “God” whose humanoid “personality” was disposed to enter into an intimate personal relationship with a human being, who for all the infinity of difference that separated them, was also, like “God,” a “person.”

In the Platonic universe that spawned these notions, a human person was believed to be a “soul,” that is, an immaterial substance — spirit — whose eternal destiny after death was to live without the body to which it had been unnaturally attached during life. Belief in spirit as a category of being was the leitmotiv of Platonic philosophy which provided the official interpretation of the significance of Christianity beginning in the second century of the common era. Platonism scientifically projected imagined entities like the “soul” and “God” that are with us to this day. It was precisely because both “God” and the human soul were spirit-persons that they could have a relationship of lovers – for love was believed to be an immaterial valence between persons totally free of the complications of the body.

Platonic scorn for the body led to a conviction that such a spiritual relationship with “God” was not only possible but that it was necessary for full Christian redemption; it was only divine love that could substitute for and displace a corrupt erotic relationship between human beings, and no amount of contrary evidence could convince them otherwise. In a religious tradition that believed that the body had been fatally degraded from its former spiritual condition by the sin of Adam, the desires arising from the sex drive were themselves the primary empirical proof that the body was unnatural — corrupt — it refused to obey the dictates of reason, spirit.

This all worked together to erect an unassailable belief in the asexual Christian ideal of the virgin — the celibate hero, the bride of Christ — who lived on the spiritual nourishment provided by his/her divine lover, harvesting the concrete first-fruits of the redemptive reconquest of the body, subjecting it once again to the rule of spiritual reason and anticipating the spiritual soul’s final liberation from the tyranny of the flesh at death.

In such a scenario, those who entered into human marriage were by that fact eliminating the possibility of a faithful monogamous relationship with “God.” That meant they were formally alienating the one source of “super-natural” power capable of overcoming the unruly urges of the flesh. By embracing their sexuality they had consigned themselves to a marginated existence as second class human beings, condemned to eking out a trembling salvation through obedience to the proper authorities. By choosing to marry, and therefore to forego the celibate ideal, both the man and the woman had chosen a path that led away from human perfection. They had opted for an inferior and truncated humanity, forever estranged from the possibility of its ultimate fulfillment because the nuptials with “God” could never occur.

The Solitary Individual

This made the solitary individual the ideal human being in the Christian world. What appeared outwardly to be an eremitic seclusion was said to really be a sign of an invisible sustaining relationship with “God.” Given the uncontested belief in such an ideal and its promotion by the highest authorities, it was natural that on all sides and in all walks of life people would tend, in whatever way was open to them, to imitate the Christian ideal, no matter how absurd or far-fetched it might be.

For example: the warrior ethos of the Germanic peoples merged with the Christian ideal of the virginal bride of Christ to produce the iconic western figure of the Knight Errant, the solitary warrior who fights for justice and the oppressed, for true religion, and for the survival of the clan and nation. It’s easy to recognize this adolescent image as it morphs through subsequent epiphanies, some of which were gross distortions of the ideal: crusaders fighting to regain the “Holy Land” for the true faith from the hated Muslim infidels, and while they were at it, carry out wholesale slaughter of unbelieving Jews; Spanish conquistadores seizing the lands of heathen aliens whom they then enslaved in order to “win them for Christ.”

Marriage

The Church claimed the solitary life reflected the “mind of Christ.” But the historical Jesus was a single man cut down in his youth by political events before he had a chance to marry. His ministry was the work of a youthful solitary firebrand and, unfortunately, Christian perfection – the “imitation of Christ” – came to be modeled on that phase of his life. Whether Nikos Kazantzakis was right and Jesus had a “girl-friend” doesn’t change anything. In either case he was not married; he was an example of the solitary ideal. His wisdom was thought to come full-blown from heaven, not from the family and community that formed him. The earliest Christians appreciated that Jesus’ wisdom came from Judaism; for them, he was the messiah. But as Christianity became a Greco-Roman religion, it lost touch with its Jewish roots; the Nicaean declaration of his co-equal divinity with the Father was effective in wiping out all vestiges of Jesus’ humanity, and that included his ethnicity and family matrix.

The Christian people never lost sight of our gendered reality, however, and Mary was quickly selected to accompany Jesus as part of the model of perfection. But please note, in a way parallel to what happened to Jesus, she was also divinized and de-humanized. She was very early on made into a solitary – a “virgin,” impregnated not by man but by the Holy Spirit – rather than being accepted for the married woman that she really was, and her life with her husband as the source of her deep humanity.

Throughout Catholic Church history, married people, mesmerized by the celibate ideal promoted by the Platonic Church, tried in every way possible absurdly to realize its goals in the place least conducive to their achievement: the conjugal bed. Couples were told to focus their attention during copulation only on the purpose that justified it: reproduction. They were to avoid any direct acquiescence in the pleasures that accompanied the act; to do so was venial sin. The insistence on setting spiritual reason to rule bodily sexuality eventuated in declaring birth control sinful and unnatural because it thwarted the one justifiable reason for sex, and encouraged performing sex for “other” reasons. Couples were encouraged to abstain from sex periodically for the good of their soul; and the practice of “living as brother and sister” after childbearing years in order to dedicate themselves to works of service and ministry usually performed by religious was lauded by the Church and highly recommended. But the clearest indication of the abasement of marriage was the denial of holy orders to all but celibate men; women’s bodies, even if they were celibate, were too bound up with the reproductive cycles of organic life to ever become fully “spiritual.”

The family: a school of exploitation and domination

The married man, father of the family, already considered the owner of everything in his household, a belief inherited from a more ancient culture, would be confirmed in his sense of solitariness by the new Christian ideal. The image would continue to militate against any thought of parity between man and woman and the egalitarian partnership that should have been the Christian ideal.

I claim marriage is a school of perfection every bit as much as a religious community, and the Church should have put all its energies there instead of trying to turn the parish priest into an other worldly monk and the people into lustful sinners in need of his condescending ministrations to avoid damnation in hell. At the time of the Reformation some of the leaders, like von Carlstadt, were in favor of refusing ministry to all but married men, because they saw celibacy as an hypocrisy and family life as the locus of Christian perfection. They eliminated monasteries altogether. Luther said some beautiful things about marriage and he had great respect for his wife.

The Protestant reformers closed the monasteries and convents and devised a model of married clergy, but in reaction Catholicism reaffirmed the supremacy of celibacy and virginity, anathematizing those who would hold “that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony” (Council of Trent, Twenty-fourth session, Canon X). Tridentine Catholicism remained in effect until Vatican II.[1]

The “Catholic Mystique” is still dominated by the mediaeval celibate (solitary) ideal, and even the modern married “reformers” of Vatican II do not write about the school of perfection that is marriage. Their spirituality remains cauterized by the solitary celibate ideal, now universalized into a western individualism that has achieved in the eyes of many the morbidity of an illness. The solitary celibate is the Catholic mystique and along with the papacy, Catholicism’s perennial marketable “brand.”

The center of Catholic life is the celibate “padre.” It has made Catholics deaf to reality. Not even the recent proofs of its unsustainability and the pedophilic “blowback” that it has created can cause them to reconsider. The inability to acknowledge failure is a sure guarantee that is will never be overcome and rectified. No flaw could be more tragic.

Humankind is one species made up of both male and female. Males’ and females’ perspectives differ because our bodies differ. Men and women have different points of view that remain insuperable until they begin to share their bodies with one another. That’s called marriage. Married men and women famously and almost inevitably take on one another’s perspectives through the daily business of living together over a lifetime, men becoming “feminized” and women becoming “masculinized” … each coming to understand how the “other” sees things and thus each expanding their own potential as human beings.

But for their “spirituality” Catholics still turn to solitary celibates who come up with shriveled mono-gender concepts concocted in monastery laboratories by men and women running away from one another and their own sexuality … possibly stemming from an oppressive patriarchal family life they experienced as children. Many of us alive today know what that’s not just theory. It seems to me that to call “neo-feminism” the Christian Ideal could only be a perspective of the “solitary” Christian — the monk, the celibate, the “bride of Christ,” the “religious,” — promoted by a mediaeval monastic Catholicism that continues unreformed to this day.

 Social Revolution

It’s not coincidental that the solitary celibate ideal, historically speaking, happened to run concurrently with a European society that was structurally divided along class lines, a small elite minority upper class, superior in every sense to an uneducated, servile lower class — the vast majority of the population — whom the elites ruled with absolute domination and oppressive economic exploitation throughout the entire time of the political hegemony of the Catholic Church, from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries. Catholic celibates in every case, except for those few who had chosen voluntary poverty as a sign of rejection of the prevailing system, were part of the ruling class. The identification of the Catholic celibate elites with the economic interests and power goals of the European aristocracy has been on indisputable display through­out western political history, but never clearer than during the period from the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century to the full flowering of democratic nationalism at the end of the 19th. The Catholic Church resisted the derogation of aristocratic rule every step of the way. Even today, when inherited class is supposedly no longer the determining factor in the assignment of positions of power, the celibate Catholic hierarchy can be found supporting the interests and the values of the elites with whom they continue to identify.

Is it simply a revolutionary fantasy of mine that IF from early on — from before Christianity took on Plato’s bi-focal vision — the followers of Jesus had maintained his earthy Jewish concept of the absolute identity of the human person with the human organism, that we would have accepted our bodies and the material conditions of their formation as fully human … and therefore fully capable of the divinization Jesus preached? Had we accepted the full humanity of our bodies in principle might we have avoided denigrating the bodies of women as somehow less than human? Would that have militated against the perennial abasement of women by Christian theologians like even the revered “Fathers” of the Church? Would that, in turn, have prevented the exclusionary male take-over of leadership roles in the Church? Would that have maintained the image of the mature married man and woman as the Christian Ideal? And would the identification of Church leadership with the destiny and aspirations of married heads of families have ensured the rejection, reformation or even prevention of the development of a two class society where the strong are permitted to dominate and abuse the weak, and where parents struggling to raise their children are routinely exploited? IF the Church, in other words, had identified married family life and the married man and woman as the Christian Ideal, wouldn’t she have necessarily been a champion of the underclass?

There is no reason, in theory, why that cannot happen …

Tony Equale

[1] Phillip Berryman, History and “The Family,” Lonergan Workshop, Boston College, June 2015

Sex, Celibacy and the Nature of God

Part 1

2,400 words

April 2017

The argument of this short essay is not complicated or particularly original, but it is world changing for Christianity and especially Catholicism. Simply put, beyond all the theological controversies, doctrinal disagreements and even major religious differences in the West, the “nature” of “God” was one “doctrine” that no one disputed. I contend that all the western religious programs are emanations of that assumed idea of “God.” Once you change that idea, your religious program, and the human society that is built on it will necessarily change radically. Christianity is one example of how the idea of “God” shaped religion and eventually an entire culture.

It was all contained in the word. Once you said “God” you could only mean one thing … an “idea” that by the middle ages some claimed was so clear and inarguable that it included within itself proof for the existence of what it denoted. In other words, the very concept forced you to conclude by iron logic that there had to be a “God.” This was called the “ontological argument.” It was first articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in 1076, and then reissued in slightly different form in later centuries by other philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz. Anselm’s classic statement concluded: “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogium)

The cogency of that argument has been challenged since its publication and rejected by most mainline theologians. But regardless of its effectiveness as a “proof,” its perennial re-emer­gence seems to be due to the phenomenon we are discussing here: that no one, even its opponents, disputed the definition of ‘God’ that it was built on: “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Such an overarching label contained, of course, everything we have always imagined “God” to be: a separate entity, a rational person, all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, the source, origin and sustenance of all things and the model on which they were designed.

The evolution of “God”

The various aspects of that definition evolved in the Near east beginning in pre-history. A Semitic tribe who called themselves “Hebrews” attributed their existence, inheritance and political destiny to a god named “Yahweh.” Their original understanding of what Yahweh was like mirrored the beliefs of the people in their part of the world and evolved over time. He was thought to be one of a multitude of war gods whose status in the divine realm rose or fell depending on the success or failure of the tribe on earth with whom they had an association sealed by contract. The contract stipulated that Yahweh would provide victory in battle and political ascendancy to the tribe in exchange for worship, sacrifices, monuments, love and respect from the tribe’s people. Love and respect was shown by adherence to a code of ritualized conduct that would mark them out as his devotees wherever they went.

As their political fortunes sank in the competition for power in the fertile crescent of that era, the decision of the “nation,” now called Israel, to remain faithful to their god despite his failure on the battlefield, introduced a new dimension into their national religion and a new understanding of the terms of the contract. After the catastrophic exile to Babylon in 587 bce, they realized that, with Yahweh, it could not be a business contract about success or failure. Their growing awareness that peace and harmony among men was actually the result of human moral behavior — justice — brought them to a deeper appreciation of what the commandments meant and therefore what Yahweh ultimately was all about. Their code of conduct came to be appreciated for its moral significance, and Yahweh was understood now as a god of moral wisdom whose superiority over other gods was not military, but had to do with spiritual depth. Yahweh’s greatness resided in the fact that he gave his people the Torah — the Law — which taught men how to live justly, collaborate and thrive. The relationship endured the transition back to Palestine, and the people were able to accept their abasement as an element of what they were learning about religion and life … and this strange god of theirs. In tandem with their own moral evolution their idea of Yahweh had matured and their relationship with him deepened the way husbands and wives deepen their bond through overcoming trials. No longer a contract for war and the accumulation of power, Israel’s agreement with Yahweh was seen more like a marriage between loving and forgiving spouses who at the end of the day were interested in being together … having one another … whatever their worldly fate.

The Song of Songs

These sentiments were articulated in an extraordinary assortment of openly erotic love poems found among the Wisdom books in the Hebrews’ sacred writings assembled after the exile. They are known collectively today as “The Song of Songs,” and “The Song of Solomon,” in earlier English versions, “The Canticle of Canticles.” Some believe they were intentionally composed as an allegory of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, and others think the poems were common love songs that were selected for the purpose of elucidating the new insight about the nature of the contract.  In either case, commentators agree that they are post exilic and their religious significance was collective, not individual.  It had to do with a new understanding of the covenant, the contract, the relationship between Yahweh and his people.

These poems sing of the intensities of emotion that attend relationships involving sexual love between a man and a woman. They describe the joy of togetherness and possession, and the anguish and despair of separation and loss. Whether they were written for the purpose of characterizing the vicissitudes between the suffering Hebrew people and their protector or not, the entire series must be read as precisely such a metaphor. Yahweh is depicted as a man and is given a dominant, ruling, protecting male personality, Israel as a woman, a weak, needy, vulnerable female eager for union with the male lover.

There is no sense dwelling on the difference between a metaphorical and a literal interpretation of these poems. The distinction made no difference to the people who wrote, selected or read the poetry. They saw the similarities and that was the object of their interest. It was not until the scientific mentality of later centuries that anyone cared at all about what was literal and what was metaphor: before that they were both real in the same way because they both had the same effect. If the poems presented Yahweh as a humanoid male person, it was because that was what everyone thought he was, and there was no reason to suspect that he wasn’t or would not act the part, in any case.

Christians appropriated that poetry as they did the entire Bible and applied it to their own community, the Church.  Ho theos, “God” — the word they used instead of Yahweh — was identified with the “Word,” who had taken flesh in the man Jesus. The “Word” was like a male lover of universal humanity whose union with humankind in the Incarnation were the nuptials that constituted the Church.

While the “Song of Songs” is exclusively focused on love imagery, the theme is not limited to that book. It is found throughout the scriptures of both testaments. At first, the Christian usage paralleled the Hebrew by seeing the poems as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The subsequent application of the clearly individual imagery of the poems to the relationship between “God” and the individual Christian “soul” was an inevitable development and internally consistent: for what is the Catholic Church but the aggregate of its people, the totality of its individual members. The imagery of the Song of Songs soon came to be primarily applied to the relationship between “God” and the individual (Christian) soul and in that form the poems took on an entirely different theological meaning, and one that came to dominate the Christian view of life and redemption. The transition from collective to individual application had the effect of replacing the allegorical character of the poetry with a literal significance, for it eliminated the distance between the analogs. Individual terminology was now applied to a relationship between individual lovers; insisting on allegory under these circumstances would have amounted to a forced reading that could not be expected to endure. It was a major influence on the Western version of the “nature” of “God.”

Nicaea’s Doctrine of “God”

These developments were occurring historically at the same time as the doctrine of “God” being elaborated by Christian theologians under the influence of the political demands of the Roman State, was forced into an unnatural focus on the unique personality of “God-with-Us” in Jesus and his elevation to equal divine status with the “Father.” Nicaea had the effect of “personalizing” “God” in Christ and justifying the spirituality that imagined this new human personal “God” as entering into a love relationship with an individual human person. The elements of the prior, platonic imagery of “God” as a nameless, motionless, distant and infinitely transcendent “Spirit” far removed from any possible contact with humankind, receded into the background as Christians turned their attention to the worship of the god-man, Christ, and compliance with “his” moral demands as the “Judge of the Living and the Dead.” The devotion to Mary was necessitated by this elevation of Jesus from being mediator — one of us, pleading on our behalf — to being “God” himself.  Mary became the new mediator, a human being we could trust to intercede for us with her Son.

“God” became a thoroughly human person and it was as a human person that “he” was imagined to relate to the individual soul, and the “Song of Songs” was disproportionately influential in guaranteeing that that imagery about “God” dominated the Christian imagination.

This was reinforced by the agreement of the “Fathers” of the Church, the earliest interpreters of Christianity who wrote during the first seven hundred years of Christian history. In sermons, letters, reflections and theological treatises, they elaborated what the Church as always regarded as the most authentic understanding of its own significance and the safest pathway to redemption — correct relationship to “God.”  New Testament Paul’s explicit identification of the relationship between Christ and the Church as a “marriage” was the first Christian reference to the tradition. Hippolytus of Rome in the second century wrote a lost treatise on the “Song,” but it was given a thorough theological exploration by Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian considered the greatest Christian thinker of antiquity.  Many consider him a martyr.  He was imprisoned during the persecution of Emperor Decius and cruelly tortured.  He was physically broken and died in 254 A.D.  Origen‘s vision was embraced and his thinking imitated by subsequent Fathers.  Gregory of Nyssa wrote his own commentary on “The Song” in the fourth century; Ambrose of Milan quoted extensively from “The Song” in his treatises on “God” and virginity. The “Song’s” significance was also evident in the work of Jerome and Augustine.

By the end of antiquity, through the consensus of the Fathers, the interpretation that the love poems of the “Song” were allegorical representations of the intimate relationship between Christ and the individual soul had come to achieve almost biblical status. In collaboration with the Platonic distortions about the evil of the fleshly matter, it grounded the pursuit of Christian perfection in the suppression of human sexuality. The ideal Christian was a virgin, or failing that, a committed celibate.

Sponsa Christi, Christian Virginity

The virginal ideal occupied a privileged place among the Christians of Late Antiquity. But however unchallengeably superior, it still remained a counsel that was understood to be completely voluntary. There were no laws forbidding marriage;  however, the pressures of the neo-Platonic denigration of the flesh made adamant by a still competitive Manichaean Christianity, introduced legal restrictions on the exercise of sexuality by priests on the days they celebrated the eucharist.  As early as the fourth century, seven hundred years before celibacy was to be mandated by conciliar degree, Councils at Elvira in Spain and Carthage in North Africa were insisting that the priests that consecrated the eucharist were to abstain from intercourse with their wives. The writing was on the wall. The identification of sexuality as evil or at least as hostile to the sacred was clearly functional at the same time that Christian perfection was being defined as a marriage relationship with Christ. The unambiguous call to virginity using the texts of the “Song” as support, was a principal theme for Western Fathers like Ambrose and Jerome. You married Christ and you forsook all others exactly the way a bride embraced her husband and forsook intimate contact with all other men. The two events could not have been so correlated in practice if they were not in fact also taken to be of the same order of metaphysical reality. To cling to Christ was a psycho-sexual act that could not occur in the presence of a similar embrace of a finite human being. “God” and man were literally equated as sexual partners; to have one was to exclude the other. Celibacy was a simple matter of fidelity. Despite theologians’ insistence that they were applying the poems of the “Song” allegorically, in practice they functioned literally, and that led to the absurd image of the sponsa Christi, the “bride” of Christ as a literal relationship on which it was believed you could build your life.

An added anomaly in this whole issue was that the sponsa Christi image was applied equally to men as to women on the grounds that the anima, the soul, was feminine, while “God” and certainly Christ were indisputably male. This mixing of metaphors helps explain why the imagery of the “bride” may have worked well in communities of women but always problematically with men. The gender reversal was not so easily accomplished, though as we know, certainly not beyond the pale of possibility. The human imagination, apparently, has no limits.

Part 2

2,100 words

Monasteries

Because monasticism pre-dated Christianity, many of the elements of its program were traditional and did not necessarily reflect the focus on the sacred marriage as the goal of the monk’s pursuits. But in the western tradition founded by Ambrose and Jerome, the counsel offered specifically to communities of religious women about the centrality of the “Song” and its relationship with “God,” came to represent something of an alternative — a source of revival and renewal when traditional male monasticism following Benedict’s ancient rule needed reform. The Cistercian reform instituted at Citeaux in 1098 founded a daughter monastery at Clairvaux in 1115 under the leadership of the Abbot Bernard, Clairvaux’s most famous monk and the order’s most dedicated reformer. His spirituality was characterized by his greatest written work: Sermons on the Song of Songs.

Bernard’s reputation as a reformer made him the most prominent political figure in Europe in an Age when the Church dominated politics. He rallied European monarchs behind the papacy of Innocent II averting a deep schism in Christendom; he organized the second Crusade for the conquest of Palestine at the request of Pope Eugenius III who as Bernardo de Pisa had been a monk at Clairvaux under himself as abbot. So it should not come as a surprise to learn that Abbot Bernard had been an organizing force at the 2nd Lateran Council which decreed universal clerical celibacy in 1139. One can assume that the influential author of the 86 sermons On the Song of Songs supported the Council’s canons 6 and 7 which ordered all clergy above the order of subdeacon to put away their wives.

The Mediaeval theocratic dream of a “Kingdom of God on Earth” which had been conjured by the Papal domination of Christendom, resisted being rudely awakened to the reality of the resulting dysfunction by the constant call to reform. “Reform” kept the dream alive. The Church exclusively looked to the monasteries for its reformers. The monks and their way of life were seen as the only salvation from Church corruption. It is my contention that the disastrous imposition of celibacy on the universal priesthood was part of the overall attempt to bring monastic ideals and discipline to a Church hierarchy addicted equally to the pursuit of impossible platonic absurdities and the wealth and personal security that came with power.

Celibacy was perhaps a viable demand in monasteries where the sexual drive could be sublimated by a family interaction supplied by the community. But to impose celibacy on the universal clergy living alone in the world was to invite a level of hypocrisy and corruption far greater than the inheritance of parish benefices by the sons of priests which had occasioned the reform measure of 1139.

Faith in the “magic” Church

Whatever historians may claim about the economic reasons why clerical celibacy has remained mandatory, I believe that its identification with the Catholic “brand” is indisputable and is entirely due to the mystical dimension. The wizard with magic powers “married to ‘God’” is at the heart of the mystique of the Catholic priest.  It formed the cornerstone of a constellation of “beliefs” considered characteristically “Catholic” that had evolved in the Middle Ages that included the “real” (physical) presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread (permanently present in the Church tabernacle) uniquely provided by the magical powers of the ordained priest whose “soul” had received a special sigillum — “seal” — that would remain for eternity … and the ability, also unique to the priest, to elevate “imperfect” (selfish, frightened) contrition to “perfect” (meriting immediate salvation) through the magical words of absolution in the sacrament of penance (auricular confession).  These beliefs were the bedrock of Catholic parish life for a thousand years, and the scholarship acknowledged by Vatican II that identified them all as of questionable Christian authenticity could not prevail against it.  The perdurance of this configuration of beliefs can be seen today in current cultural artifacts like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a film of 2017 whose evocation of the Japanese martyrs of the 17th century could be called “an exploration of faith” only because of the lingering nostalgia for the historically obsolete ideology of Tridentine Catholicism that it was premised on.

It was because of this “faith” in the effective (miraculous) presence of a “God”-entity in the lives of believing Catholics — in the eucharistic bread, in the powers of the priest to forgive sins, and in the mystical presence of Christ in the person of the celibate priest “married to ‘God’” whose fidelity to his vows was itself a proof of “God’s” miraculous presence — that Catholics believed there was no alternative. “Outside the Church there was no salvation,” and they knew exactly why.

The Nature of “God”

The entire point of this essay is to reflect on the nature of “God,” and how that affected the nature of the Church. It should be clear from what has been said so far that much of what Catholics believe about the nature of “God” has been shaped by imagery drawn from ancient sources and ancient ways of relating to “God.” It also should go without saying that the understanding of what “God” is like has evolved through the ages in tandem with our own growing understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This occurred as much in ancient times as it has in our own. The “nature of ‘God’” is not something “out there” we can look at in itself in order to determine what it is, nor was it “revealed” and clearly recorded in the Bible.  What “God” is like can only be inferred from what we know about ourselves and our world, and is time-dependent on when we come to know it on the time line of our evolving moral consciousness.

I contend that the allegory of the “Song of Solomon” early in Christian history came to be taken literally instead of symbolically, and that collaborated with other influences to fatally skew our understanding of what “God” is like.   That disastrous distortion, I am convinced, prevented any true relationship to “God” from occurring, and resulted in a Church whose authority structures, ritual practices, disciplinary decrees and pastoral counseling were warped and twisted to conform to the implications of that impossible and absurd relationship.

Mystical marriage, the theme of the 16th century “theology” of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, imagined a “God” who was a rational humanoid entity — a being — whose masculine “presence” and “absence” was literally reflected in the emotions of the human individual, falsely identified as a feminine “soul” regardless of whether their body was male or female.   It was further believed that such a marriage was in every affective respect, except physical sexuality, able to take the place of marriage between humans, and if it did not, it was entirely the fault of the human partner who failed to yield to the advances of the divine lover.

The attempt to build a Church on a priesthood defined by such impossible fantasies accounts for the massive dysfunction of Catholic clerical life in every age: celibate hypocrisy became the norm and cover-up its constant companion. The continued absurd belief in a humanoid personal “God” is also responsible for the Catholic failure to integrate with the realities of life in our universe across the board, from the inability to accept the real creative initiative of matter in the evolution of the cosmos, through the realities of psychic inheritance due to human evolution (not original sin) and the common sense acknowledgement of the sexual and family needs of every human being.

“God” and true mysticism

“God” is not a “being, greater than which nothing can be imagined;” “God” is not an individual entity of any kind, so is not a “being.”  “God” is energy, LIFE, in mediaeval terms, Pure Act.  Therefore “he” is neither a “he” nor a “person” as we use the term. “God” is not outside of or other than the universe of matter. “God” is the pervasive and all-suffusive energy of LIFE and existence, and as such is intimately interior to every particle of matter and every individual entity everywhere and at all times in the immensely long history of our vast cosmos. “God’s” intimate interior presence to any human individual, far from taking the place of their relationship with a human sexual partner is the source of the outward focus of their sexual need: toward a companion for the purpose of survival and reproduction — more LIFE.  When the mystic is in touch with “God” he is in touch with his own personal, individual concrete LIFE-force transmitted to him with the cells of his parents and pre-disposed to certain preferences through the inherited configurations of his body and the behavioral choices he has made. The face of the “God” who enlivens his self is his very own face, always open to new choice, always aware of its conditioned dependent nature because of the driven character of his conatus, always in need of LIFE because it knows intimately — connaturally — it is not LIFE itself.

This “God” of ours, we have come to realize, is not as our sacred sources and ancient traditions have depicted.  “He” is not “male,” and even Genesis suggested that both male and female were required to even give a modicum of accuracy to the nature of the creative, generous, LIFE-giving, openhanded, big-hearted energy that was “God.” “God” is not a person. “God” is exactly as you see LIFE functioning throughout all the levels of biota and in all the environmental niches across the face of the earth, from deep-sea thermal vents, to dust particles circling high above the planet in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There is nothing arcane, or hidden, or mysterious, or self-protective about LIFE.  It readily yields its secrets to our probing instruments and our penetrating mathematics.  Its vulnerability is legendary: we swat a fly fearlessly without a thought about reprisal from the phylum of Arthropoda.  LIFE is as fully present in the fly as in us despite the vastly different levels of functioning.

So we say LIFE is an energy that exists and functions in and through emergent entities congealed and configured through the drive of the conatus to survive and to thrive. “God” is not the person we thought.  We were misled by our ancestors who may be forgiven their mistake.  How could they have known otherwise?  Look at the world, it all fits together like a clock.  How natural to think that some rational Craftsman designed and fashioned it that way.  We know better now.  Thanks to centuries of science and the commitment to sit humbly at the feet of nature we are coming to understand. “God” is not a rational “being.”

I am not the first to realize this. The great mediaeval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, the immediate successor to Thomas Aquinas in the chair of theology at Paris, writing in the 1320’s in Germany said:

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefor God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

“God” is an immense, all-pervasive benvolent and superabundant creative force — the energy of matter — that lends its very own “self” to be the flesh and bones and scales and fur and horns and hooves of all things that fly and swim and crawl and hunt and think and build. But “God” is not our “friend,” “God” is not our “lover,” “God” is not a warrior or a psychiatrist or a surgeon or judge and executioner. Just as we have to learn to forgive our ancestors for their mistakes in thinking they knew the face of “God,” so too we must learn to forgive the real “God” for not being the fantasy that we had cherished and come to expect. “God” is not the protective father nor punishing policman our infantile selves need, to do and to avoid what we know we should.  “God” is not a champion. “God” is not a hero. If we want heroes, let‘s be heroes. If we want champions, be a champion. After all, the LIFE energy coursing in our veins is “God’s” own energy, and if that energy is to become all it can be, it is only with our collaboration and acquiescence.  If “God” is to be a hero it is in and through our heroism, for the LIFE we share in, is the only “God” there is.

 

 

[1] From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201

 

Poetry and Prayer

Tony Equale

March 2017

3,000 words

 

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

   (W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben)

                                 

Poetry is transporting. It’s ethereal, magical; it’s almost other-worldly, but it is not prayer. Poetry produces its effect because it activates a special dimension in us — an intelligence that sits slightly above it all, like a horseman, with a perspective you don’t get when you’re on the ground and stuck in one place. This cognitive dimension goes beyond our usual work-a-day perception which we pursue for the purposes of survival. The horseman has other interests. This “other” dimension suffuses both the object of perception and the human perceiver. It is an essential bond between them that bypasses use and need. When that dimension is described accurately — it need not be in words — it produces its characteristic effect: enlightenment. It’s as if we are seeing those things for the first time … which is to say that we never really knew them before this moment. Poetry, then, is like science in that respect: it reveals what things are … what they really are, not what we thought they were.

Often the “new” perception requires going beyond conventional uses of language, art and music to find a substitute mode of expression, which may also include silence, or cacophony, to evoke what the poet sees, and simultaneously functions as a vehicle for eliciting that same reaction in the listener. In all cases, I want to emphasize, what poetry reveals is reality. Any suggestion that a poem is some kind of superimposition that coats things with a layer of emotion, or injects them with an outside energy they do not themselves possess, is false. The emotion that results from poetry emerges authentically from the reality as it echoes in the poet. The poetry reveals what binds the reality and the seer together. It reveals that, in fact, they are one.

Poetry allows things to shine with their own interior light. The poet says clearly what is clearly seen, … and what the seer sees is himself. Poetry is a self-recog­ni­­­tion mirrored in the object seen; for what is encountered, identified and communicated is what things have in common, and what they have in common is what I am.

science

All the various levels of human perception do exactly the same thing, but with different labels for the commonality. The scientific level appropriates reality as material energy and provides the mathematical descriptions of how it displays itself universally across all the various instances of its presence. Observer and observed, not entirely unlike the poet and his vision, share a common reality — their material existence — and the quantifiable tests and instruments of measurement used are equally conformed to the material components of the thing observed and the observing material organism. Science is possible because we are one and the same thing: material energy, quantifiably comparable to each other.

In the process of surviving, matter evolves. At a certain point the measurable quantities in the evolving sequence become so incomparable that we say some “other” thing has emerged that must be measured separately. Determining exactly when something stops being merely a modification and becomes a different thing is never without controversy. And the reason is that, underneath it all, despite appearances, nothing has changed. The underlying reality is always and only matter’s energy. And matter’s energy will always evolve if it is going to convert entropy into an existence that perdures, survives … .

The perceptions characteristic of everyday life are a subset of scientific observations, simply limited to more primitive measuring instruments and common quantities that focus on the practical applications for human survival. In both cases what the objective viewpoint sees, and measures, and expresses are the equations of matter’s needy behavior: Matter, including us as material organisms, must evolve, work and struggle in order to remain itself.

philosophy

At the philosophical level, with its own conceptual tools, we do the same. We appropriate the very same reality, but now in its quality as “being” or “existence.” What Philosophy is looking at, however, is not simply an “idea;” it is the same material energy that was examined by the scientist, but now under a different rubric: material energy as existential — material energy as constitutive of reality itself; material energy as “being.” They are one and the same thing, only Philosophy does not take existence for granted as Science does but queries it in its very quality as existence, asking what does it mean, this strange phenomenon: to be?

But what gauge does the philosopher use to determine that meaning? There are those that say the question cannot be answered because you immediately have to ask “compared to what”? Since being comprises everything, the only thing that being could be contrasted with is non-being. But non-being is nothing; it does not exist. No one knows what it means “not to exist” because the only thing we can experience and have ever experienced is what exists. There is no such thing as non-being. So to ask, “what does it mean to be”? … cannot be answered without begging the question. You either know what existence is, or you don’t. Existence cannot be defined in terms other than itself because there are no other terms. We cannot look at existence from outside because there is no outside. There is no philosophical horseman on a quest riding above the grubby business of living and dying. We are material organisms; living and dying is what we do … and our eyes are hot with the desire TO BE.

Our desire to be is the key. The meaning of being cannot be articulated apart from the existential need of the enquirer. The “cold eye” of the poet, in other words, if it is valid at all, must be grounded in some other aspect of universal reality not explained by science and philosophy.

Because it occupies the wider perspective, it is Philosophy not Science that recognizes and asserts that it is the same needy material energy that is the dynamism of existence. The philosopher does not manipulate “being” as if the concept were something in itself, as Plato thought, apart from the real world of matter — an “idea” whose logical features provided a map of reality. It’s the philosophers’ task to see clearly where existence resides. That place, alas, it turns out, is in his heart, that is to say, in his own material organism. The philosopher looks for an objective viewpoint, but there is none. Matter’s lust for LIFE gets in the way and cannot be suppressed. The examiner, the philosopher, is invested in being-here for he is nothing more nor less than material energy. Life and death cannot be bypassed. There’s no way to evaluate “being” except with the eyes of desire.

The philosopher, like the scientist, confirms the poet’s vision: that all things are one. But what he has learned from his honest inclusion of himself in science’s equations is that being-here-now is a scary, threatened, struggling thing … the object of everyone’s and everything’s uncontrollable desire, the source of great fear as well as joy.

the poet

So where does the poet get his “cold eye”?  How does he look on life and death, unlike the scientist and philosopher, and pass them by? It is my contention that the poet transcends cerebral rationality and using the eyes of his body, experiences in himself and in the “thing” his eye has alighted on, a common energy that gives him a different perspective on it all. He not only sees that all things are at root the “same thing” but he feels it. They have this universal oneness because they all share the same existential dynamism, LIFE, which the poet experiences first hand as his LIFE, himself.   He experiences somatically that his LIFE also exists beyond him, and that means his LIFE is part of something much bigger … something transcendent.

To the poet, things are not just there; he sees that they are doing something … and that they are all doing the same thing. He not only sees that they are alive, he experiences them liv-ing as he is. Drawing attention to the “-ing” in that word is a clumsy effort to emphasize the active and autonomous nature of the phenomenon. LIFE, which is another word for “being,” is not some “thing,” it is a pervasive energy, a force field, that all things activate as their very own, but, by the very fact that they all activate it, is clearly beyond them all. The poet is in direct touch in himself with the living force energizing all things in the present moment. It transports him to a realm beyond living and dying, to the energy of LIFE itself. He sees what the pray-er will try to embrace.

prayer

Prayer is not an entirely different phenomenon from poetry. It is not a seeing, however; it is rather an attempt at an embrace, a union. What prayer reaches out to embrace is LIFE itself precisely as the object of desire. Prayer may follow poetry’s vision, more so than any other universal mode of perception, like science and philosophy, for while they all deal with the bond that unites all things, the poet is in touch with it as the energy of his own LIFE. The poet knows he rides on eagle’s wings because of how far he suddenly can see. But he is not ready to step off a cliff because of it. The pray-er is.

Poetry is a deep-body seeing. But prayer goes beyond seeing. The poet recognizes the living dynamism that is operative in all things as his own. His reaction is a self-embrace that incorporates the “other” because they are both LIFE. The pray-er, on the other hand, seduced by what the poet’s cold eye has discerned, wagers all on LIFE as the subject and object of desire, and reaches out to embrace it, as if it were “someone” or “something.” What suppliants historically have felt perfectly comfortable calling a “person,” I identify as LIFE itself. In my own case, I use the word “someone” reluctantly and only because without it an essential feature of what justifies prayer’s transcendence over poetry will be omitted. But I insist, LIFE is absolutely NOT a person.

I say LIFE cannot be called a “person,” because it is not an individual entity and it does not have rational intelligence. If it did, it would respond to me in conversation; it would at least acknow­ledge my presence and identify itself. It’s what “persons” do. Moreover, if it were a person, sup­plication would make sense … and “God” would become responsible for all the evil in the world because one of the burdens of being a “person” is that you are held accountable for what you do or fail to do for others. We cannot deny LIFE’s complete indifference to human suffering. LIFE does none of the things expected of a person, therefore LIFE is not a person.

LIFE is the living energy of all entities; but it is not itself an entity. How can a “non-entity” be real? That’s not a rhetorical question. It can be real the same way any force-field or pervasive energy, whose presence is on display suffused in a myriad of entities, is real without being a “thing.” LIFE is a force-field, equally active in every entity that is alive, but not found any­­where alone and by itself. LIFE is not a “thing,” an entity or an individual.

And yet, squirm as we might, we cannot suppress the acknowledgement that LIFE is a benevolent force. The deck is stacked on this question because we humans are made of matter’s living energy and we are not able to view LIFE without desire, for we are LIFE. We also see its creative generosity on unmistakable display in its universal manifestations: the intense affect that accompanies every aspect of sexual reproduction of every organism from the most primitive to the most complex without exception. The living feelings that we experience within ourselves as we participate in these processes we can see mirrored in every living organism. Despite the varied forms it takes in different species, everywhere the LIFE-force is seen, it leans out in the same direction. It is what the philosopher discovered in querying being: if it is we who define existence, it can only be defined as the object of universal desire. To us it has no other meaning. Those who move from poetry to prayer have decided to trust it and plunge headlong into the abyss. Prayer is the attempt to be one with LIFE.

Everything made of matter, everything that exists speaks so repeatedly and unequivocally of desire for LIFE as to make it a cliché. We are made of desire … we are made for desire … and bite our tongues as we may, we can hardly keep from saying: we are made BY desire. LIFE appears to us as the desire to live … in us! After all, LIFE was not my idea. How did I come to own LIFE?

The object of prayer is to possess LIFE itself. It is a function of our need to be here. Our immediate temptation is to reason backwards to a singular source. Each thing alive received its life from its parents. No pool of chemicals and proteins has yet been able to generate LIFE out of its own resources, or to concoct it out of the surrounding environment. LIFE comes only passed on by living things that reproduce. Science, moreover, has determined that everything living on planet earth is made of cells that are the living inheritors of one original proto cell. It is natural, then, to assume that LIFE, the force-field, is itself a singular entity; but that’s not the way LIFE is found in nature. LIFE suffuses all things; it is owned and deployed with equal autonomy by each living thing, eradicating any possible individuality to the field itself. In my case I can say without equivocation, LIFE is my very own. That instantaneously makes it unavailable to its own individuality.

This is the beginning of prayer: the clear perception that our own being is enfolded in LIFE, not a vague unspecified LIFE, but a LIFE defined by desire not more or less present and active in us than in any other living thing. What poetry perceives as the threads and fibers of connection, prayer takes a step further and reaches out to as intended, generous. The reality of desire in us prods the pray-er to see desire as more than metaphor.  LIFE is not only my own; LIFE desires to be owned … LIFE wants to be alive in others. “I” am what LIFE has done. LIFE “chose” to live as me. I reach full maturity, physically, psychologically, when I can give LIFE to others.

Other?

In prayer I reach out to embrace LIFE as if it were something other than myself. Indeed, the poetic perception of the commonality of LIFE shared among all living things seems at first to encourage such an objectification; LIFE is clearly more than myself. That seems to imply “other.” Throughout our history prayer has been directed to LIFE as to an independent rational humanoid entity called “God,” — the totally “other” — whom we imagined as simply a much larger version of a human person. But reality interrupts our dream. LIFE is not an entity. LIFE belongs equally to myriads of living organisms; no organism is more alive than any other. The most privileged source of the perception of LIFE — where we know it most unmistakably — is ourselves. I am LIFE but I am not all of LIFE. I am forced to assume some kind of distinction, if not separation and distance, between my individual being and LIFE — this force-field — which preceded me in the procreative cells of my parents, and which my own reproductive cells pass on with or without my conscious intention. LIFE does the same for every living thing on planet earth and perhaps everywhere in the universe. LIFE may not be rational, but you cannot deny it is generous, abundant, magnanimous, profuse, munificent, sharing, openhanded, bighearted … and transcendent. Those who are seduced by this undeniable extravagance may be forgiven.

The subsequent struggle to survive can delude me into thinking that LIFE is an achievement of mine. But I cannot forget that my “self” — my body — came formed by the unconscious processes of LIFE, namely the reproductive action of my parents. This organismic “self” — me — is the original coherence of my body; it anteceded the accretions that I have attached to my organism by the way I have consciously lived my life. My body is the product of LIFE itself. It is an open potential always ready to be activated in ways that I choose. This is the power residing in my organism that “can do” anything; it is not fatally determined by any past choices and therefore it is the source of the radical freedom every human being enjoys. This is the self that LIFE made.

I reach out for LIFE but I am already in a state of indistinguishable unity with it. Rather than thinking I have earned and own LIFE, the determining factors coming from the other side of this relationship are so preponderant that I feel compelled to express it the other way around: LIFE reached out and took possession of me … gave me itself, made me part of itself. LIFE owns me.

Prayer, then, is the conscious acknowledgement of my receptor status with LIFE. I have been enveloped by LIFE which has embraced and infused me with itself, making me inescapably one with it. Nothing is more solid or more unarguable. The LIFE I have is not mine; it was not my choice. But that means that whatever union I hoped to gain by reaching out, was already given at birth. Prayer, in the first instance, therefore, is the conscious appropriation of my real identity, LIFE … and all that it entails.

 

EUREKA!

Guest Blog by Frank Lawlor

What author first opened up the world of the written word for you?  Perhaps this author was not called a writer at all. Perhaps he or she was a cartoonist. Cartoonists can say so much without words. For instance, when a character has an idea, the cartoonist puts a light bulb in the “dialogue box” over the character’s head. We know right away that the character has had a sudden and big idea because that is what the bulb suggests. We relate to this because we (although at the time we may have been only about 9 years old) have also had a sudden big idea. Over two thousand years ago a Greek author called such an event “a Eureka! moment”. It happened when he, a Greek philosopher/scientist whose name was Archimedes, suddenly realized why some things float. He happened to be in the bathtub when this happened. He got so excited that he jumped out of the tub and ran into the street shouting his joy in solving a big puzzle. The word he used was “Eureka”. Now we all recognize that feeling when we suddenly solve some puzzle or other. We too have a Eureka moment; although we might get dressed before telling everyone. Perhaps a genius is a person who has many such moments ; but we all do sometimes.

Recently I had a Eureka moment as I was having a very relaxing massage. I have always been im­pressed during a massage with the fact that our skin is an enormous organ incorporating millions of sensitive nerves over its entire surface.  We realize very vividly that the skin is the largest organ of our body. The deft rubbing of the hands of the massager very pleasantly stimulates the sensitive nerves in the skin and muscles most of which we are never aware of. The first mas­sage provides this realization as a Eureka moment. This was not my particular big idea today. Rather, it followed a new puzzle and led to a bright bulb solution.

First, the puzzle: Why is it astonishing that so vast an entity as our covering of skin can be so amaz­ingly experienced as good, precious, huge and a fantastic sensory treasure? Why only now should this experience be “new” when the skin is stimulated as a whole entity in itself ? Why, so late in a long life should such a basic sensation be so new and astonishing? This has to be an important puzzle because this “whole skin” experience must logically have been the most primitive and the first great sensory experience that we all had at the moment of birth, going as we all did from the experience of a warm liquid environment to the atmospheric world of cool evaporation. No wonder newborns cry! Following that trauma we all had what must frequently have been a very pleasant whole skin experience arising from our mother’s affectionate touching. No wonder infants learn so early to smile ! Do we humans lose that joy because our vast skin surface is as adults so seldom touched ? Or is it because, early in life we learn that our bodies are material realities and therefore inferior to the more important reality of our soul? Do we learn very early in life that the pleasure of being touched or even of touching is a forbidden pleasure for which we should feel guilty ? This idea came down to us from another ancient Greek philosopher/scientist, Plato, whose Eureka insight was the duality of all reality: material reality and a parallel spiritual reality. The first reality, matter, is evil, decomposes, gets dirty, causes pain and suffering, and finally it does the worst thing of all to us: IT DIES !  The spiritual reality proposed by Plato is the pure world of ideas, of perfection, of the real us, and it defeats material reality by being ETERNAL, never dying !  This ancient insight, however mistaken it may be, comes down to us as one of the central doctrines of Western religion and culture. These deepest cultural beliefs turn us away from the primal joy of our material bodies and their millions of delightful sensations. Therefore, as the puzzle and its solution suddenly merged, I was fortunate enough have a Eureka moment that I now cherish.

Thinking about this experience, I see more clearly how our Platonic belief system, even if accepted only implicitly as a cornerstone of our cultural world view, can restrict the intrinsic pleasure and appreciation of being a material reality.  I think that many people would still choose the Dualism of Plato despite the total lack of evidence that a parallel spiritual reality exists. Perhaps its promise of immortality is why it is believed by so many billions of us. Life is obviously our most cherished reality and its promised permanence can replace the horror of its cessation in death. For this reason the spiritual has become the supreme reality for so many of us. The promise of an eternal extension of our life in a perpetual state that knows no pain or sickness, sadness or death is just too powerful a premise to reject merely because it violates common sense and universal experience.

The abstract invention of Plato’s Spiritual Reality would seem to have defeated Nature in the sense that Nature presents us each with the inevitability of our own individual fate. However, I would contend that Nature itself meets this challenge with its own defeat of Death. If we look at our Planet’s history, the life we see so abundant all around us is the closest approximation to the “eternal life” promise of Plato’s idea. Life has existed on Earth for about 4 billion years. Life has outlasted the greatest mountain chains on the surface of the planet. Mount Everest is only the most recent “tallest” mountain. It is only about 600 million years old. Life has outlasted all of the mountains as well as the former oceans of Earth and the “once upon a time” continents that predated our present continents. Humble single celled photosynthesizing bacteria billions of years ago produced the oxygen of Earth’s present atmosphere. These bacteria live with us today even though each and every one of them only lives a few weeks. Our own species has persisted in life for over a million years.  Life itself is as close to eternal as our imaginations can encompass. This conquest of Life over Death is perhaps very abstract when faced with the concrete, easily imagined reality of our own personal death.  On the other hand, even the entire material reality of our own bodies is a permanent part of our planet and will persist in existence, often as a bit of other living beings, as long as our Solar System persists. Even then beyond our own solar system, no atom of our earthly existence will cease to find a place in the Universe.  Plato did not think of matter this way because Science had not yet developed the methods necessary to probe deeply into the properties of matter and energy.

Would Plato have bothered with his own Eureka moment which marked his invention of “spiritual” reality if he lived today? Would matter, as we now understand it, be seen by him as too inferior to be conceived as the instrument of life, of understanding, and of creativity ? In the past several hundred years Science has provided us with an enormous series of “Eureka !” moments which provide us with a different, scientific view of material reality.  A very basic insight that Science has given us is that all Life on Earth has evolved in an incomprehensibly long series of small modifications from a single proto-cell to the millions of more complex life forms ranging from single celled bacteria through the entire range of multicellular plant and animal life that covers planet Earth.  All of these forms of life are built up of living cells all of which demonstrate their common origin.  Trillions of cells make up a single human or a towering Sequoia tree. And additional trillions combine to make an Elephant or a Blue Whale. Each living cell is astonishingly alike in its size, internal “organs”, protective outer covering and in its superbly complex bio-chemical processes of nutrition, reproduction, metabolism, molecular composition and methods of recognizing, attacking and surviving disease.

In addition to all of these common features, all living cells incorporate into their central organ, the nucleus, a unique molecule which is responsible for the entire panoply of the features of life. This molecule is called DNA. This microscopic molecule provides the instructions for every detail of every living cell. It is a vast ”instruction manual” written in a chemical code which only recently has be decoded. Not only does this molecule provide all of the information for a cell to be a functioning part of a Rose Bush or of a Garter Snake or of a human but it also provides all of the tiny details that make one individual identifyingly different from any other individual of whatever species. This ’’individuality” has traditionally been attributed to “The Soul”.  All of this is common to all of life on Earth, despite the many differences that give each type of cell its unique functions as it supports the life of “its” organism.  The phenomena of unity and diversity is basic in the story of the Evolution of life and equally basic in the story of the unity that marks the reproduction and maturation of living matter. This aspect of the study of life deals with the study of the single fertilized cell from which multi celled organisms develop and the subsequent study of the process of development by cell diversification. A human is made up of over two hundred different kinds of cells: blood, liver, skin, brain, bone, antibodies, etc. etc.  All of these cells develop from one cell, diversify, and each variation reproduces its own kind of cell many times over during the life of the organism. This represents another kind of evolution mirroring the overall Evolution of all of life in all of its diversity.

In a sense, it is DNA which evolves; specifically the DNA in the reproductive cells is modified by the process of Evolution. This is the source of all of life’s ever increasing diversity. Amazingly, each cell in any organism contains the same DNA as found in all of the other cells of the organism. Since almost all cells have a life span much shorter than the life span of the organism, each cell must reproduce its self and in that process it must copy its DNA into the “daughter” cell.  The processes of life are enormously complex.

Plato did not have the advantage of this Scientific view of Life. If he had this insight we might ques­tion whether he would see Life as a duality rather than a most astonishing unity? I have attemp­ted here to give a feeling for the unity of all life. When we grasp this oneness of Life how can we logically propose or accept a basic duality?  If duality is the solution to any problem hindering the understanding of the nature of life, then what is the problem?

Frank Lawlor

Pine Island, Florida

Feb. 2017