CELTIC SPIRITUALITY

March 17, 2011

CELTIC MYSTICISM

 Reflecting on the vast changes that have taken place in our Catholic “spirituality,” I think the central place should  be assigned to the evolution of our sense of the presence of God.  I’m sure we all remember in the “old days” before the liturgical changes, the principal focus of Catholic life was on the “real presence,” the doctrine of transubstantiation and the holy orders which enabled it.  The “real presence” was the most significant difference that separated us from the protestants … and it explains why there was such an energy on the part of “Catholics” to stay separate from them.  We had the real presence, because we had real sacraments … and we had real sacraments because we had real “priests.” 

 Catholic life revolved around the real presence.  The local parish church offered “benediction” at least once a week if not more; the movement for all-night vigils and extended “exposition” was very strong and expanding.  And even in the most avant-garde monasticism in those days, the Little Brothers of Charles de Foucauld, their spiritual program was focused on a room set aside for the blessed sacrament where they spent hours in silence.  The “mass” was important less because it was a “sacrifice” than because it was the time and place where Jesus’ “presence” was made real in the “host,” later to be kept reserved in the tabernacle.  It was the center of Catholic life

If we were sometimes encouraged by retreat-masters to “practice the presence of God” because “God” was supposed to be everywhere, it was always something of an “exercise” of the imagination.  In the blessed sacrament, however, we “knew” that Jesus was present, and even though not visible, our sense of certainty supported by the teachings of our infallible church made it seem easier to hold onto than the thought that “God” was everywhere.  Maybe it was because the monstrance and the “species” were handled with such awe and ceremony.  No one, remember, could even touch the host … that was reserved for the priest’s anointed hands.  The very physical structure of the church building was organized around the altar and its golden tabernacle — a modern holy of holies.  If “God” was present anywhere, He was there in the host.  The small red sanctuary light in a dark church was a symbol and constant reminder that “God” was with us; we were always not far from where “God” actually dwelt physically on earth — the nearest Catholic church.

 As the liturgical changes began to transform Catholic life, we became aware that the “real presence” as Augustine himself said, was secondary to the re-enactment of the shared meal — the eucharist — which, as presented in the gospels, was Jesus’ personally chosen symbol of his message and mission.  The meal of love and remem­brance among friends embodied the full significance of his obedience unto death — his reality among us as he saw it.  He was assassinated by those who had no respect for humanity.  The sacred meal he asked us to repeat in his memory celebrated the sacred humanity he shared with us.  Far from being a defeat, his death was recognized by those who understood his message as a triumph over the vain attempt to dehumanize him.

 It was as if the “presence of God” exploded out of the “host” and into “the Church,” the people of “God,” bearing the “Spirit” of Jesus and his love of people.  We were suddenly encouraged to find God out in the world, in the hearts of people, near and far, and not locked away in the tabernacle of a dark church waiting for solitary individuals to attempt a private communication.  The energy released by the liberation of “God” from the host into the world had a remarkable effect on our lives … those, I mean, that didn’t resist it.  We began to understand the beatitudes as if for the first time … what it meant to hunger and thirst for justice, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to join the meek of the earth, and yearn for the inheritance that has been robbed by all those things that dehumanize us.  We began to experience the “presence of God” everywhere through a love of people … a morality no longer focused on avoiding sin or pursuing personal purity and “perfection,” but on the “greater things:” compassion, justice and the community that is born from them. 

 But while all this is true, I wonder if we remember what a shock it was at the time, and how difficult for many, especially older Catholics — and the older Catholic in each of us — whose prayer-life had been forged and fenced by the golden vessels of “the real presence.”  Many were severely disorientated.  We, the younger ones mostly, were not.  We caught the fire that was started and ran with it … according to our lights.  It was a breathtaking time … but if we remember, the change was a shock, and even among us not all made the transition gracefully, and some not at all.

Then there was ecumenism.  One of the “aftershocks” of the explosive “liberation of God” from the host was the tearing down of the walls of the enclosure itself.  More and more of the ecclesiastical edifice, artificially isolated and insulated by Catholic “beliefs” for centuries, proved powerless before the winds that swept the world and to which Catholics responded.  But it has gone even further.  I believe we are seeing the “liberation of God” from Christianity itself as a local and necessarily short-sighted tradition, to the entire human family.  “God” is indeed everywhere, and we should not be surprised that nothing can contain this “Spirit” of sacred humanity that breathes where it will. 

 The most “divine” thing about Jesus was that he was fully and profoundly human.  Nothing human was foreign to him.  And so there are no “foreigners” among us, not because we are commanded to it by our Teacher, but because of the very flesh we share.  Any structure, physical, social or doctrinal, that stands in the way of our shared humanity, is ultimately doomed before the overwhelming power of this humanizing force.  It is no longer in our hands, much less in the hands of any ecclesiastical authority.  To find guides to help us through the rubble of this collapse, we have had to look outward … to others, to other traditions, to other visions and to science.  But, through it all, there was never a doubt, never anything to worry about … the others, all the others, are also human.  Their humanity can be trusted.  The human “Spirit” Jesus loved so much has been there all along, waiting for us to open our eyes and discover it — to acknowledge the ties that bind — that we are one family.  He died in defense of the sacredness of humanity, and we live in the spirit of his commitment.  We are human, the way Jesus was human, and nothing human is foreign to us.

Science with its “shocking” discoveries is part of this volcanic eruption.  It is flinging us even further from the parish church and out into “God’s” universal creation — what the Irish theologian and mystic John Scotus Eriúgena called the “Mask of God.”  He was convinced that it is there that we catch a glimpse of what “God” is really like, as Paul said: “… as through a glass darkly,” and perhaps “grope after him and find him … for in him we live and move and have our being.”  Science, of all things, branded since the days of “No-No” as the arch-enemy of all things good and holy, opens our eyes to the vastness, depth and creative power of the “presence of God.”  God is indeed everywhere, for if there is a where at all, it is because God was there before us, present, waiting patiently for our arrival — for our eyes to become accustomed to the darkness and discern the sparkle behind the mask.  And when we see how not only every bit of flesh but every particle of matter is charged with a brilliant creativity so “divine” as to have created, as from nothing at all, every single last form and structure and process and organism and person in the universe, we get a new understanding of the presence of that creative power we call “God” — what Eriúgena called Natura naturans.  The entire Universe “created itself” out of “nothing” to show us exactly what we are dealing with.  Our sacred humanity, so well served by Jesus’ “obedient” fidelity, we now see as one emergent item in an immense cosmic organism that runs wider and deeper than our eyes can see.  Flying at the new altitudes provided by science gives us a perspective we never had before.  We see now that it is not that “God” is present to us … but that if we are “present” at all — if we exist — it is because we are an emergent part of God’s presence.  Our human flesh is simply a leaf and flower on this immense tree of irrepressible life.  We are the products of an expanding evolving love-body so incomprehensibly selfless and universal that we despair at the attempt to find words to bear our thoughts. 

 But this sense of the presence of God is very different from the stillness of the cavernous stone temples of our youth.  It may leave us “speechless” but it doesn’t leave us quiet.  The very ground we stand on is holy … how can we keep from singing? 

 Tony Equale

MEMENTO, HOMO, QUIA PULVIS ES …

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es …

 If “spirit” exists, and has the qualities and character it is said to have, then the existence of matter makes no sense at all, and you have to explain it.  The old Platonists at least had the intellectual honesty to admit that matter was an anomaly in a spiritual world and they came up with the theory that it was a dungeon of punishment for an alleged “fall” from the world of ideas.  To become fully human, you had to escape matter (your body) and get back home.  Their offspring, the neo-Platonists 500 years later, were more sophisticated about it.  They claimed matter was “non-being” in the process of being “conquered” by being.  To be fully human you had to conquer your portion of it, your body, and fill it with spirit.  The program for “spiritualizing” your flesh was called “spirituality.”  The Greek Christians were inspired by neo-Platonism and, although they were restricted by the Hebrew insistence that creation was “good,” they still treated “matter” as a vile corrupted appendage that needed to be “spiritualized” through ritual and ascetical purification to make it human.  So, the ancients of our Greek dualist tradition all agreed that matter was a serious problem … it was a “spiritual” problem because it caused problems for the spirit.  Matter for all of them was real, powerful and fully alive — hell bent on the wrong things.  It was matter that accounted for evil in the world.  Spirit had to struggle with matter because matter was the agent of evil and could derail our spiritual destiny.

But with the onset of modern times, matter ceased being a “problem,” because by reducing it to utter lifeless inertness, supine before the awesome power of technology (mind), its “spiritual” significance was eviscerated entirely.  Technology took the spiritual struggle out of dominating matter; it ceased requiring personal engagement.  Moderns are complete “idealists,” and reductionism is the flip-side of idealism.  They don’t call matter “corrupt” and corrupting, that’s old wives’ tales.  Matter is no longer evil, it’s worse.  For them matter is treated as if it did not exist.  Nothing but “mind” really exists.  Humans are “minds” created by a “Mind-God,” and the presence of matter as the universal matrix is simply a minor (temporary)  glitch whose significance can be effectively ignored because technology (mind) has or will shortly dispense with it.  Matter does not matter.  We no longer need to “worry” about it.  It is simply manipulated out of the way, or manipulated for our whims and pleasures by our technology.  It’s treated as an obstacle to be eliminated … like the way time and distance disappear before the magic of high-speed travel and electronic communication.  Matter to the moderns is not real, it’s a trivial impediment to our gratifications with no intrinsic significance or meaning whatsoever. 

Modern religious dualists share this perspective. Two recent and otherwise excellent books by Paul Knitter and Harvey Cox, both focused on updating Christian thinking, do not even consider the issue of our material existence.  Of all the new knowledge and various cultural factors they use to confront and re-evaluate our tradition, the discoveries of the  material sciences and organic evolution are completely left out of both.  To me, these theologians seem lost in the mind.  Is it insignificant to them that we now know it was matter that evolved mind to serve its needs not the other way around?  It’s so easy to get lost in our heads.  And then we can’t understand what people are, and what they have to do … and so we construct societies and economic systems that are anti-human.  Our dualist religions are a cause of this mis-understanding.

 It means that our human cultural products, and religion is one of them, have no context, no ground. They just float there … like they hang from sky hooks.  Knitter for example, relates to “creation” from the point of view of a “God” who is love.  But beautiful as that is, please notice, it still retains the traditional image of the human being as a mind, the product of another mental agent — “God” — another mind.  The flesh, the body, the earth, even as medium, is left out.  It’s as if science and the world it has revealed over the last two centuries never existed.  The actual organic, material etiology for the entire panoply of human activities is simply omitted.  There is a Haitian proverb that says, “Behind the mountains, there are more mountains.”  For these cerebral theologians, there are only the near mountains they can see.  How can you talk about mysticism, as Knitter does, and not take the universal picture into account — the farther mountains and more mountains that stretch on out to the sea — the ground on which we stand?   Even if you really thought a “mental” God created by using material evolution only as a means for other “mental” ends … why isn’t the choice of means itself a significant element of your analysis of who this “God” is and why he does what he does?  Matter is ignored.  I am totally mystified.

To all this I respond: Given the utter incompatibility between matter and spirit, there is only one possible explanation why matter exists at all — and that is because it has to exist, there is nothing else.  There is no spirit, for if there were, there would be nothing else but spirit.  Matter is here because it is all there is; matter is existence itself.  It was matter that produced mind, not the other way around … mind is a material function.  From this you can get a sense of exactly how alienated we are from ourselves.  We have been “turned around” a full 1800.  “We turn the world upside down and then stand on our heads to look at it.”  Of course we are constantly frustrated — we have no idea who the hell we are. We live in a DisneyLand of the mind.  We have no respect for the sacred material matrix in which we live and move and have our being … which spawned us and owns uswhose family name we bear.   As a result, we’ve lost our sense of belonging, and the meaning of life, and we sleep-walk into never-neverland of the “mind” in search of it.  But what we come back with from that “other world” is a fairy-tale that evaporates like a dream at the “awakening” — i.e., when matter reasserts its proprietary rights in a way that cannot be denied — at the death event … when we are called home to the bosom of our “mother.”  “… et in pulverem reverteris.”

We must begin to re-interpret our religious traditions radically.  They encapsulate a great deal of human wisdom gleaned and garnered through the millennia, and they encourage us to a profound love of existence.  But their vision of that reality was flawed because they lacked the tools to see it clearly.  That’s nothing new.  It’s happened to us many times before.  Imagine what a shock it was for us to discover that the earth revolved around the sun and not the sun around the earth.  We still can hardly believe it when we watch the sun “rise” and “set” everyday for our delighted eyes as it has since the beginning of the human appreciation of the beautiful.  The same is true of our understanding of ourselves and “God.”  We are matter’s energy and so is “God” because matter’s energy is all there is.  There is nothing else.  There is no remainder.  Matter made mind … mind did not make matter.  And in us matter continues to make an ever clearer and more perfect “mind” with the love, compassion and respect for reality-as-it-is that our heritage inspires. 

 We must own up to our family name, and take pride in it.  We have to stop despising our grubby and grasping origins.  We are earth … we come from earth and unto earth we return.  We can trust it.  It spawned us and gave us eyes to gaze in wonder at this raucous “experiment in green.”  If we are already the result of such awesome marvels, what future must it hold in store?  As material energy we have been part of this creative evolving “family” for 13.7 billion years and maybe even more … we will always be part of it wherever it goes and whatever it does. 

Tony Equale

P.S.  The books referred to above are:

Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Oneworld pr. Oxford, 2009

Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

UNKNOWING II

Unknowing II

(This is the second of two essays on this topic.  The first is immediately below it)

But still and all, have we answered the question … why the word unknowing?  Why not ignorance? There are reasons the mystics created it, and why generations of them have sustained it and preserved it in trans­lation into many lan­guages. Un­know­ing is not the same as ignorance.

 Unknowing is engaged.  Ignorance is not; it is passive; it refers to the simple absence of “knowledge.”  We are all automatically ignorant of every­thing we do not know. The ignorant bear no necessary relationship to what they are ignorant of. Most likely they are not aware of what they do not know, and might not care if they were.  This ab­sence of human engagement, even negatively, may help explain why the word is often used as an insult.  Even brute animals are ignorant.

 In this regard, it is also interesting that you never find the word “unknow­­ledge” in the mystical literature either. I think it is true for the same reason. Such a word would suggest a bare lack of “knowledge.”  But the term un­knowing does not refer to a static condition. It is an action word; it refers to a living relationship, an embrace.

 Unknowing implies an active even passionate relationship to what we do not know.  More than a search, or a quest for an allegedly absent “knowledge,” it goes further and suggests some sort of embrace, or an active grasp of the unknown with a cogni­tive dimension.  What can this possibly mean?

Faith

 In two earlier posts I tried to elaborate the notion of faith as the active appropriation of our common possession of material energy, existence. 

 The fulcrum around which that discussion turned was the fact that the subject and object of existential “knowledge” was one and the same thing. It meant that it was impossible for the enquiring subject to “objectify” material energy (existence) and study it as if it were “something out there” to which s/he could relate as to an “other.”  The searching subject, as active, is itself always within the circle of the matter that it is searching to understand.  It was one of the central con­clu­sions of The Mystery of Matter. It meant that “matter” was not the object of “knowledge,” but of a cognitive experience I call understanding.

 [This is the fundamental reason why physical reductionism, which may be of value as a scientific strategy used by certain limited disciplines, does not work as an ultimate philosophical position, because the “condition” of the matter studied by physics in isolation does not take into account the other “conditions” that very same matter assumes later … in life … in the higher animals … and in us.  Physics is a limited discipline. It cannot be the sole judge of the nature of elements that also func­tion integrally in the organisms studied by biology, the cognitive sciences and soci­ology.  If you are trying to determine the “nature” of quarks and gluons (the most basic components of ordi­nary matter known to date), the quark in my heart or brain, functioning as an integral component of conscious, compassionate and committed hu­man political-ethical behavior, is no less a quark nor are its abilities any the less validly on display in my human activity than in the CERN particle accelerator. To talk about the nature of “quarks” therefore, you have to look at the way they behave everywhere they are found. Obviously they are capable of existing and functioning in more than one “condition.”  A trans-disciplinary science like cosmo-ontology, using methodological tools designed for the purpose, is needed to interpret this phenomenon.

 Mat­ter is what it is.  And what it is, accounts for what you see it doing right before your eyesAny arbitrary “reduction” in the scope and range, depth and intensity of its actual, real, observable function­ing, is a distortion — that means false.]

 What this means is that there is no way for us to “know” matter without “knowing” ourselves, for we are matter.  Since we are driven by a conatus that is passionately involved in continuing to exist — derived from the very energy of matter itself — to fail to appropriate its dynamism is to fail to “know” matter as it is. The uncomplicated recognition that that dynamism is also us … and constitutive of us as it is, is the basic “cognitive content” of the act of faithFaith, then, as I define it, is the active embrace of existencematter’s energy — for what it is, as we experience it in all its manifestations which includes our driven “selves.” 

The use of the cross-out is a reminder that the faith referred to is a completely natural human act. There is no supernatural agency or object of any kind required or implied. Unfortunately, the word has been wed to religion for so long that it is easy to forget that it is more fundamentally an ordinary human phenomenon. But that is exactly the way it is intended here. Faith trusts existence, matter’s energy, as it would its mother … or even itself. Why?  Because the subject of the act of faith is nothing but matter’s energy.  I trust myself.

 In this regard there’s a point here that has not been made explicit. And that is that the Buddhists have the same experience, but they do not call it an experience of “God.” They call it “enlightenment.” Buddhism is a non-theist “religion.” We in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic west have also described the same expe­ri­ence and we call it “God.” How could exactly the same experience be “labeled” (named) two different things unless the labels derive from a different data source than direct experi­ence. “Know­ledge” refers back to a cognitive cultural product, word-con­cepts, that are used to interpret direct experience. They are not the same thing at all. It is our tradition that suggests that this is an experi­ence of “God” and that tradition goes back thousands of years and may even pre-date Mosaic mo­no­theism. But there’s nothing in this fact that trumps tra­di­tion and gives us the right to claim direct “knowledge” of “God.” The only thing that is direct is the experience. The name is an interpretation, media­ted by cul­ture. The experience is something “atheists” and Buddhists equally lay claim to. 

 As far as I am concerned, it is an experience of “that in which we live and move and have our being,” Paul’s definition of “God” in Acts 17 and the phrase I use in MM to suggest that it is ma­te­ri­al energy that fits all as­pects of that definition. I claim that it is the in­dis­putable source of our sense of the sacred, putting it on solid ground and not in some ethereal realm.  What labels (names) we use for it afterward — “God” or “enlight­enment” or nothing — are much less important.

 Unknowing, therefore, is another word for faith.  And it is exactly the kind of faith that John of the Cross said put us in contact, boca a boca,  with the source of existence. It is not necessarily ecstatic. That source was for him “God,” for others perhaps like the Buddhists, an eye-opening dynamism they choose not to name.  Naming it, as we saw even at the very birth of our own tradition, was considered by our religious ancestors a fatal, irreparable mistake.  Faith is the act of surrender to the dynamic be­ne­volence of existence, such as it is.  It is an act that appropriates every­thing that material energy — from ve­ri­fiable observation — can be validly said to be, including its con­stitutive presence as my organic self. 

 It is as simple and natural and “enlightening” as it is elusive.  Unknowing, as strange as it sounds, seems to capture it all.