Hamartia

In classical literature, and by classical I mean Greek not Jane Austen, there is a clear link between sympathy, pity, fear and the catharsis, or resolution, of those fears. The fact that this heart-tugging works is undeniable.

For Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, the mechanism how it works was mapped out (even if the “why” question is not suitably explained): first the audience must be made to sympathize with a character. Then, as the story develops, they start to fear what is about to happen through omniscience (i.e. being show what is going on behind the scenes and that the main character does not know). Finally it all comes crashing down around the hero and the audience can experience some liberation from their feelings of compassion and fear (catharsis, a term which Aristotle from medicine and which means “refining”) – that is, the viewer of tragedy can sharpen, refine, their own moral sense by living vicariously through the difficulties of the character. The Greeks saw the arts as having a didactic component in the teaching of morals and virtues. Heck they even saw that in sport as well. Keep this in mind.

There is one further technical detail that is important before we move on to the news: hamartia. Usually this is translated as the “fatal flaw”, although it is not as strong as that, more like a bad mistake or an error. In other words it is not an innate flaw – that is a Christian idea, not present to the ancient Greeks.

To make a good Greek tragedy the hero must have a moment upon which hinges the whole play. That moment cannot be some form of innate failure because those old Greeks did not go for the anti-hero type, in fact despised them. But it cannot also be completely random bad luck, because that would remove any chance of fear, the slow building of tension which makes for a good play.

To work really well, as in Oedipus, the fatal flaw must be coupled with the hero’s central virtue! Now how about that for a twist? The hero does what in his eyes and in his limited knowledge (this is critical) seems like a good deed, a good idea, and later, as events unfold, turns out to be a really really bad move.

The audience is given information about how bad of a move it is, and watches, like a slow motion car crash…

So that’s the mechanism. We know it works.

I have been watching the NBC Winter Olympics and it is quite revealing. There is a constant attempt to create sympathy in American television – almost all shows, and certainly all reality shows attempt to create a form of tragedy, giving its viewers a little frisson of catharsis. Not much, mind you. Not enough to go change their ways. Just a little thrill.

There is something about Americans who are attracted to tragedy like a moth to light.

Primetime TV is as carefully orchestrated as a Greek play. With advertising placed at suitable dramatic pauses. The viewer’s sympathy is aroused artificially through the not-so-subtle use of cutback footage which highlights the athlete’s likability – usually through some sort of tragedy (there it is again!)

There is this pathological need to create sympathy for the competitor, so that during the event the fear (of failure) can be more deeply expressed. And while I could see this being mildly useful for an event I knew nothing about, we see this stuff even during sports which people are very familiar with, American football or baseball for example.

It seems that Americans find it very difficult to simply observe excellence and enjoy mastery. It needs to be tragic, dramatic!

So we see the pushing of Bode Miller to cry and talk about his recently deceased brother. I shake my head with some disgust, and turn off the TV. Can’t we just watch people doing great feats of athletic ability without turning it into a soap opera? Must we highlight, and if we cannot find it, then fabricate hamartia?

And, of course, because of America’s puritanism, the hamartia is better if it can be shown to be an in-born quality. But let us not talk about virtues. It is quite a feat to get me to care about so-and-so but without feeling that this will refine my own sense of rightness, of virtue. I want my heroes to have an inborn flaw, or at least a parentally imposed one, and I want to see them go up very high and then crash very loudly. This is what happens.

the problem with flaws without virtues is that it makes all of us coarser. The issue with too much sympathy for the anti-hero is that it renders the very concept of virtue unusable.

Solutions? How about highlighting virtues without worrying too much about flaws? How about, you know, actually being a little embarrassed about flaws? How about basing our social lives around the development of virtue?

Of course, the question can be asked “Whose virtue?” And even while this could, and should, be hotly debated, I believe such a debate would allow us to be refined, rather than being made coarser.

Posted in Thoughts

Lover

Eye contact with my lover
Held long unblinking
My breath is breathed in
I am my lovers no other will suffice

I do not blink and hardly breathe
I utter not a word
Just my lover fills me
There is no other, no other

I hold still though heart is trembling
My lips are dry, my palms are clammy
My stomach in knots
I am happy, there is no other

My lover’s arms hold me
My lover’s strength holds me
I tremble like a new-born kitten
I cry – there is no other

My lover upon me loving
I can hold nothing back
There is no though or prayer
Only love upon love

Love over love, no other
Over each other lost in love
No other between
My lover’s lips, my heart on fire

Posted in Thoughts

Three words

Unconditional, unexpected, undeserved. These three adjectives modify, expand, and clarify the noun “love”. God’s love is all of these, and the experience of this threefold love is transformative.

The undeserved is quite obvious. It is not “undeserved” in a moralistic or pietistic sense. It is actually undeserved in a realistic sense: what could the limited creature possibly do to deserve the love, or even the passing glance, of the Eternal Creator?

The unexpected is again how things work. There are many things I can think I do not deserve, or do deserve, but which I can calculate the odds of getting them. Even if the odds are astronomical, I can still somewhat grasp the possibility or impossibility of the event. But God’s love is unexpected, and even unexpectable! It will always come as a surprise – a deep transcendent twist which changes everything – when it appears it is as if all context for all thought has now shifted a step to the right.

Finally it is not only undeserved and unexpected, but it is also unconditional. This means that there is no condition I can meet to be loved. There is no context that could possibly justify or facilitate such love. Further, there is nothing I can possibly do which would create a condition which would prevent God from loving me.

This threefold love is the Way of Jesus. The encounter with this threefold love in the street we are walking down, the road we are driving on, the supermarket aisle we are shopping in, the concrete encounter with the very real transcendent threefold love has a cost. The cost is a deep transformation of the very fibers of my being from being the lover to being the beloved.

The clarify, usually, especially in some spiritual literature, a person is described as the lover who pursues and tries to woo a shy and demure Beloved, who is God. This is how we all approach spiritual life – we are the pursuers, the goal is the pursued. We are the hunters, and God the prey. Think through it for a while and you will see an exaltation of agency, of human free will.

What I am calling an encounter with the threefold love takes that idea and flips it over on its belly. Suddenly I realize and see quite clearly that God is the one who pursues, woos, hunts, chases me! I am God’s Beloved.

But it goes even deeper. In the Song of Songs there is a deep realization that “I belong to my lover and my lover belongs to me”, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

This mutual possession flattens the distance between God and person until it becomes meaningless to hold any separation between them. One whom God loves is not capable of being away from Gos in any meaningful way – not physically, not mentally, not spiritually.

Such a beloved then finds themselves joining the circle of beloveds across space and time, all those who have recognized that they are not the lovers, but rather the loved – the circle of the beloved by God.

If you realize this, your job then is to take first this admonition “don’t rouse, don’t arouse love until it desires.” But with that in mind all those who themselves beloved are to ““Rise up, my dearest, my fairest, and go.” Go where? Go and wake the ones loved by God who are sleeping but whose hearts are awake!

Posted in Thoughts

The Axe Man

There once was an axe man. The king asked the axe man to chop down the trees in the magical forest. Eventually the axe man’s axe was getting blunt from much use. As he did not have a whetstone he said to himself, “I will go around the kingdom and find one. Surely someone has a way to sharpen my axe!”

So, he put the axe over his shoulder and off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

He came across an orphan girl, who was gathering berries in the forest. The axe man approached her and said, “Sweet orphan girl do you have a whetstone? See my axe is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The orphan replied, “Dear sir, I am an orphan. I do not have a home, or even food! See here I am gathering wild berries. And there, you see the meager fire I started with a few twigs. I do not even have a name!”

And the axe man said, “You do not have a whetstone? How will I grind my axe?”

And so the axe man swung his axe and chopped the orphan girl to bits. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

He came across a little hovel off the main road. He knocked on the door and after some shuffling, a very old widow cracked open the door. The axe man removed his hat and said, “Dear madam, do you have a whetstone? See my axe is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The widow said, “Dear Mr. Axeman,” she said through the crack on the door, “I am a poor widow, and live alone. My teeth are all gone and I cannot eat meat, so I have nothing that cuts, and nothing to sharpen it either.”

And he said, “So you say you have nothing that cuts, and nothing to sharpen it either? You do not have a whetstone? How will I grind my axe?” And so the axe man swung his axe and broke down the door, and he kicked down the widow and chopped her to bits. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

He came across a gardener and asked, “Dear gardener do you have a whetstone? See my ax is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The gardener stopped working for a moment, took off his hat and wiped his brow. He looked at the axe man for a moment. He said, “I too work for the king. I am responsible for planting all these trees in his forest, which you chop down. I do have a whetstone but I will not lend it to you for any price!”

And he said, “So you do have a whetstone but will not let me use it for any price? How will I grind my axe?” And so the axe man swung his axe and chopped the gardener to bits. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he looked through the gardener’s tools, but could not find a whetstone. He then piled all the gardener’s belongings in a pile, and threw the body of the gardener on top and set it all on fire. After watching the fire for a while he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

The axe man then came across a knight, who was sitting by a small fire. The knight eyed him suspiciously but continued to cook his meal. The axe man, holding his hat in his hand said, “Dear noble knight do you have a whetstone? See my ax is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The knight looked at the axe man and replied. “I do not have a whetstone. I have a magical sword which is always sharp!”

And axe man said, “You do not have a whetstone because you have a magical sword? How will I grind my axe?”

And so the axe man swung his axe at the defenseless knight and chopped him to bits. He then used his axe to smash the magical sword into many pieces and flung them in different directions in the forest. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

Later that day the axe man came across a small cottage which belonged to a witch. He came to the door and knocked. From inside he heard, “Enter!” The witch was standing by an open fire pit, and was stirring a large cauldron with some foul-smelling liquid. He walked in and asked, “Witch! Give me a spell to make my ax always sharp! See my ax is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The witch cackled. “So you want a magic axe heh? Just like that fine young knight that I helped so long ago?”

“Yes,” said the axe man, “I want an enchanted axe that never loses its edge.

“It will cost you! You will have to give up cutting down trees in my magical forest for a whole year!”

And he said, “So you will make my axe magical as long as I do not cut trees down on your magical forest for a year?” And so the axe man swung his axe and chopped her to bits. After he cleaned the blood from his axe, he said, “Oh me! My axe is getting more and blunt each day! How will I go back to chopping trees? I must continue to search for a whetstone.” And placing the axe on his shoulder off he went whistling looking for a whetstone.

Eventually the ax man came across a ferocious dragon that was terrorizing many villages in the magical forest. The dragon was curled over a pile of loot puffing on a pipe made of human bone.

The axe man said, “Dear dragon, I see you have terrorized many villages, plundered them of their gold and silver and killed thousands of people. In all you looted do you have a whetstone? See my ax is blunt and I cannot cut as many trees in the magical forest as before, and the king will be upset. If I could borrow your whetstone I would be eternally grateful!”

The dragon replied, “Why yes I do! Here it is!” The axe man was delighted. He sharpened his axe and it was so sharp it could cut through a small tree in one swing.

The dragon then said, “Your axe is very sharp! But I fear that soon it will be blunt again. Then what will you do?”

The axe man stopped swinging his axe and sat down sad. “It is true, the ax will eventually fail again!”

The dragon then said, “I have an idea, I will let you use my whetstone which I pillaged from the village every day, all I ask is that you help me as I go about destroying villages.”

The axe man frowned, “But how about the king? He needs magical trees!”

The dragon nodded, and puffed thoughtfully on his pipe for a while, “I see you are a wise and loyal ax man. Well, whenever I am not going to pillage and destroy villages, you can spend your time cutting the forest for the king.”

The axe man was very happy, “That is wonderful! You have a deal! When shall we start?”

“There is no better time than the present,” the dragon nodded wisely. The axe man then placed his shining and sharpened axe over his shoulder and off he went whistling following the dragon.

Posted in Thoughts

The Judas Syndrome

I confess that there are quite a few things that stick in my craw about church. First of all there is the whole institutional nature of it. I am with Donatists who were less-than-welcoming to those who were converted both into and out of, and then back into Christianity following the fashion of the day. I think the church should be truly  again in the side of any power – be it the pagan Cesar or the Christian Holy Roman Emperor. Don’t matter. If “it” has power, than Christianity will challenge it, first by demonstrating powerlessness, and second by refusing to hide. It is a sort of bold weakness.

The second thing that really annoys me are those Christians who fall into what I call the Judas Syndrome, from here in John 12: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” The story then goes on to clarify that he had his own agenda, and it was much less than noble caring for the poor.

And here’s the issue, I have most frequently seen people condemn the activities of others more vociferously in direct inverse proportion to their own interest in that activity. For example, people will claim it is a waste of money to buy tickets to a concert for a band they do not like, or shake their heads with much disdain when complaining that “Americans” spend more time caring and have more passion for the Super Bowl (or some other sporting event) than for the “real problems” of the world.

I know, it is not even an intuition, that this betrays only their own motives, or prejudices or preferences. People who do not follow sports think that following sports is trivial. Why? Because their own self-esteem demands that whatever they follow be non-trivial, in fact be very important.

I have set in countless meetings where someone would intone piously “I know the Lord has great plans for me!” I am yet to hear anyone say, “The Lord just sort of hopes I will survive another year without a major screw up!” Or, “God is calling me to be mediocre.”

I remember laughing out loud when talking to New Agers (are they still around?) who would all of them be certain they were Cleopatra in a previous life….you know, someone Had to have been a slave or something. But no!

I digress. The Judas Syndrome is actually quite dangerous, and sneaky. Pretty much our whole lives are ruled by either vanity or self-pride. A slight difference between the two: vanity is based on illusion. It is believing your own press releases. It is easy to spot by everyone who is not you, or your doting parent! Pride on the other hand is usually based on actual facts, but it is a misplacing of credit. For both of these problems humility is the cure.

Let us take the example of playing the piano to tease out the differences. if someone says, “You play the piano?” here’s how the answers would go.

Pride will say “I worked very hard to be the best pianist in the world!” While, again, you may indeed be a good pianist, pride would claim it was all your work. How about your teachers? How about your parents? How about your genes? How about your socio-economic status which afforded the luxury of such an expensive instrument, lessons etc.

Vanity would say something like, “I had a couple of lessons, but the teacher did not grasp my genius. There is no point in going through all these hoops anyway, because I am so talented that it would simply be too hard for others.” And so on. It is always other people who are to blame for the vain person’s failings. Or, even worse, they could actually be quite good and say, “Oh no I just tickle the ivories!” This is false modesty, and its only purpose is to elicit a response from others which stroke their egos, “Oh no! You are brilliant!”

A good step towards humility will say “I play the piano well. It is a gift I have.” It is both factual (assuming that is that the person does indeed play the piano) and it places the credit where it is due – it is a gift.

True humility would probably say something like, “I was given a gift of playing the piano, I took responsibility, with the help of so many people like my family and my teachers,  for nurturing it and developing this gift to its fullness, so that I could in turn help others to achieve their gifts.”

It is not just the wording that is different, but the way the person sees themselves in the world. The humble person is one who can truly see reality as it is. they do not deny gifts (false modesty), and they do not deny they are gifts! They also understand they are not alone, and that they owe so much to so many for so long.

A truly humble person is a sight to behold. Not meek, in the sense fo a scared little rabbit. But not vainglorious or puffed up like a peacock either.

Finally, it is important to note that people are complicated, and they can be humble about certain things, truly humble and completely vain about others! This is because, until we are fully anchored in Christ, we have many many “mes”, many many centers, but that is for another time.

For now the work is simple – feed with attention, intention, unconditional positive regard your humble selves – those are your allies. refuse to react to your vain and prideful selves, instead reprogram them, one at a time, one occasion at a time, to be humble. Train your selves.

Posted in Thoughts

3 things only

Occasionally, or is it inevitable, we reach a level where we want to grow. Be it physically, or mentally, or emotionally, or spiritually. One way or another we all need to grow, and as you grow in one area the other areas need to grow as well to keep balance. As you grow intellectually, you should take time to work on your physical and emotional health. Otherwise you become unbalanced, and unhealthy behaviors begin to solidify around you. You become tangled and knotted.

But how do you start? As with most realms of human endeavor you are faced with multiple, and conflicting, schools of thought when it comes to training. Myself, I subscribe to whatever school brings the most result with the simplest method. That is just who I am. Some people are like Scholastics of Workout – highly complex regimens with multiple cycles and complexities. They thrive in obscurities and complications. Others, like me, tend to be more “Petrine” – wanting a simple fisherman’s faith.

For example, just recently I started lifting weights. This is a new activity for me, since I have always been a runner. From all the multiple schools out there, the multiple programs, the multiple techniques, I had to choose something to get me going. And since I tend to prefer simplicity I went with the most minimalist approach I could find. In this more minimalist school, weightlifting consists of only three things: picking something heavy off the floor, lifting something heavy over your head, and carrying something heavy over a certain distance. That’s pretty much it. Within those three simple tasks there is potentially a lifetime of learning.

As with the body, so with the spirit
But what has this to do with Religious life? Well I find that the rules which work for the body apply equally well to the spirit. So this is what I consider the three spiritual exercises that every Christian, and most especially religious, should practice: fasting, vigils, and almsgiving.

I will take each in turn briefly, starting with the last:

1) Almsgiving
The root for “alms” is the Greek “eleos” which means compassion, mercy, kindness, pity for those afflicted, etc.
So the giving of alms is the same thing as being compassionate. You see someone on the road and you have compassion for them, like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:32-37).

So, while in one sense almsgiving means “giving money,” I think this might end up being a cop out. It would be interesting to If all you do is drop some coins in the little bucket of the homeless man, but at the same time you avoid making eye contact, you avoid asking him or her their name, you avoid giving them money next time because you have given once already, and so on, then I would say that you are not really practicing almsgiving.

Almsgiving is not tithing, by the way, as the giving of your first fruit is quite different than the need for constant compassion.

2) Vigils
This is quite simple: stay up praying. Anyone who is a parent knows very well what it is like. Either we are up praying for a sick child, or we are up praying for the safe arrival of a teen who went to a party driving and is not home yet.

I would like to point out a critical difference: to worry is not to pray. Worry might get you praying, but if you continue to worry you are not exactly praying. A good vigil should scour the inside of your cups, so that you are left pure inside and out. Exhausted as well, but purified. Which parent, after a night of high fever, or worse, sitting in the emergency room does not feel “cleansed” when the fever breaks in the morning, or the doctor tells us that everything is fine?

Traditionally there were a couple of different ways of counting the “watches of the night” – by older Jewish reckoning they had three periods: from sunset to ten o’clock; the second or “middle watch” was from ten until two o’clock (Judges 7:19 ); the third, “the morning watch,” from two to sunrise. The Romans, being perhaps a little more organized about this cut the night watches into four periods: from sunset to 9 p.m., from 9 p.m. to midnight, from midnight to 3 a.m., and from 3 a.m. until sunrise (around 6 a.m.).

So, by all means let your worry take you to your knees. But once there I would suggest that you leave your worries with God. This is no different from when you walk up to the altar and kneel to receive Communion, you should bring your worries and your joys, your successes and your failures. But if you bring gifts to Jesus, and then pick them up and take them back with you that is not true discipleship. If you give, and then you take it back you are hardly a friend….As the BCP says: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”

More importantly, vigils are, at their heart, an exercise in awakening, or in staying awake. The funny thing we find in spiritual life is that we have these moments of wakefulness and then we promptly fall back to sleep.

So we can and should be practicing vigils 24 hours a day, seven days a week! Peter says in his first Epistle: “Be sober, be watchful your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. resist him, firm in your faith.”

This is the true spiritual dimension of vigils, which staying up at night are merely its outward form. Resist sleep, resist unconsciousness, resist walking around like a zombie. Be awake and stay awake, vigilant.

3) Fasting
This one is harder. It is always great to hear people talking about fasting during Lent. But please do not be like someone who once told me that they loved fasting at Lent. I was impressed and asked them how did they manage to love fasting, since that is a particularly advanced spiritual discipline. “Oh,” they replied, “It is easy – I just keep reminding myself how great I will look in my Easter dress!” Sigh. That is not fasting, that is dieting. Far be it for me to suggest that you should or should not diet. That is between you, God and your physician. But let’s not confused one thing with the other.

The other approach, much more common among the enlightened elites at monasteries, is to regulate fasting. Take this from the Didache, also called “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles” and is dated by most scholars to the late first or early 2nd century. It was considered by some of the Early Church Fathers as part of the New Testament, but eventually it did not make it. Here’s what it says about fasting: “Your fasts should not be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays. You should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”

Because, certainly, Mondays are the Devil’s day no? Who fasts on a Monday? Freaks! Whatever. This happens more often than not, and in monastic life we call this developing scruples. It is a really annoying stage, sort of a spiritual adolescence, where you see things so clearly as black and white, and you have no qualms in pointing out everyone’s hypocrisy. Takes some time to temper that enthusiasm, and develop a more grounded and rounded faith.

Again, there are deeper meanings of “fasting.” At once being hungry should help develop compassion for those who are hungry; being hungry also is a way to physically remind ourselves of our starving spirits who crave for God’s Love. And we can take it further, how about starving our egos by refusing to talk about ourselves, not even once?

You will know if you are fasting if it is hard and painful. If it is easy and enjoyable, and if you could keep it up for a long time, it is at best a diet. Fasting from things will purge you from the inside out, and cannot (and should not) go on for very long.

The point of the work
All other spiritual disciplines will end up in these three. You either will be compassionate or you will not. You either will be able to overcome sleep (both real and metaphorical) or you will not. And you will either be willing to suffer deprivation and hunger (again both real and metaphorical) or you will not.

These three exercises are the quickest way to get the bottom of who you really are. When you are hungry you will tend to be more mean-spirited, more selfish, more greedy. Actually not “more” – those traits will be more in evidence, I should say! They will come up more quickly. The same happens with vigils – it is amazing how the sleep-deprived then to be direct, blunt, even rude. Just not enough energy there to lie! Again, almsgiving forces us to care about others – and there is nothing more annoying in the world than being told that I should care about someone else!

A program
Twice a week you should physically fast. The early church did it. If twice a week is too hard can you at least hold back from eating on Sunday until after church? There are numerous health benefits from fasting btw, and you will fit better in your Easter dress!

Once a month you should vigil. Pick a night where you can sleep the next day during the day, maybe a Friday and until Saturday. If all night is not possible, go until sometime past midnight. But do not do it watching TV or any other form of entertaining. Just you, the Bible, maybe a devotional book. Perhaps a notebook etc. But really it should be you and God, alone.

Every day you should give alms, which is a churchy way of saying “you should give a rat’s ass!” Care about others, every day! Look them in the eye and give. Make it personal! Everyday you should pray the Prayer attributed to St. Francis. Every morning. Pray it and mean it.

Also everyday you should pray for the Holy Spirit to help you to stay awake and vigilant. Pick a prayer word and try to remember to say it as many times a day as possible, for example.

And finally, it goes without saying that everyday you should fast from egoistic behaviors. You should also fast from negative emotions.

If you include these basic exercises into your spiritual routine, you will reap countless benefits.

Posted in Thoughts

Deep sacred reading

Reading sacred texts is not the same as reading regular texts, books, magazines, newspapers. In fact, in many ways, it works in almost the exact opposite way. Working on sacred texts, with their often difficult language is not simply a work of increasing our vocabulary, or polishing our syntax, even though having a better vocabulary and being able to write with ease and grace are indeed valuable skills to learn. Working on the language of sacred texts is at the deepest levels about working on self.

When we approach the numinous, when we are before the Burning Bush, we remove the sandals of language and are struck dumb. At that level there is a momentary stopping of the constant inner babbling. But we are still a word in God’s lips. We have always been one – God called us forth from the nothing through the Word.

So work on sacred texts at its deepest level is work on self, and work on self is, traditionally, described in the language of purification. It is a process of refinement, of removing the excess, of filtering out impurities, until only the essence is left. This essence is a potent distillation of our body, mind and soul.

Nowadays everyone takes multivitamins. These multivitamins are small little pills which can be easily swallowed, but they carry within them the distilled essence of a variety of minerals which can be found scattered and diluted in plants and animals. What the multivitamin does is it condenses all of these beneficial elements into one small and potent pill. For example to consume the equivalent amount of vitamin A in one pill a person would have to eat two or three carrot sticks, a cup of spinach, some asparagus spears, some broccoli, plus some apricots and peaches. This is to match one ingredient in a multivitamin. I am not saying don’t eat your veggies, this is not about diet, and there are many other side benefits to eating all those things which a pill cannot equate. But that is for another discussion.

In a sense, when we reach our Burning Bush, when we reach this deep core of silence, we are left with just the multivitamin of our selves. To get there we will need to purify our bodies, our spirits, our minds, our souls. We will need to distill them to their most basic essences. Everything which is not beneficial will have to be discarded as pulp.

There are four ways by which we practice this purification and condensation. These are:

  • Prudence – that is, right perspective and thinking. This is the inner language – the words we think before we speak. Practicing prudence means we learn to take into account our prejudices, and to weigh carefully our words, and our actions. In the Rule of Benedict this kind of skill is the next to last rung on the ladder of perfection! It states: “The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’ (Sextus, Enchidirion, 134 or 145)“
  • Justice – that is, right social actions and relationships. To be just is to be able to discern how a relationship needs to be pruned or corrected to enable the Holy Spirit to move more freely, more abundantly within and through the lines of connection between people. This heals Creation in profound ways and accelerates the Second Coming. Justice is living in Isaiah 40. Where every action is making the way clear for the Lord. “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened.  Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together;  the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”
  • Fortitude – that is, right effort (perseverance). A common error many fall into is called the Sunk Cost Fallacy. This is the kind of error that says that if you have gone so far you might as well keep going. If you invested so much money you might as well keep spending. If you have put so many years on a relationship you might as well keep going. Accepting our “sunk costs” is very painful, it is humiliating. It requires a lot of fortitude to be able to pull out of such a trap. Perseverance is not about effort, about keep it going no matter what. It is about the right effort, orthopraxis.
  • Temperance – that is, right intention and internal relationships. While we control our external actions and words with prudence, we control our internal drives and desires with temperance. It is not a case of self-denial, but a question of appropriate indulgence. There is a difference. If we begin with the premise that the Lord our God is a good and loving God who creates a good and loving world, then pleasure, joy, peace, happiness, are all good and natural states to live in. In fact it is pain, sorrow, sadness, and death which are a result of the Fall. Temperance is to return our inner lives to that ideal back in the beginning. The first work in temperance is to understand the right and wrong ways to be a human being. The second and final step is to chip away everything that is sub-human in us.

It might seem strange that all these practices are required just so we can get to some texts with difficult language, but this is because we are, at our deepest core, words, or a word. And not just any word, not a symbol, or some abstraction. For the Word was made flesh. So there is never a separation between words and body, thoughts and actions, feelings and imagination. It is all embodied, because the Word was embodied.

Working with language, then, is also a good way to move deeply into our essence. The work is clearly outlined in James’ epistle chapter 3. The brother of Our Lord says: “Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.” He then goes on to outline the external, observable fruits of what he calls the “taming the tongue”: “Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom.”

So when talking about words and language James goes on to point out about living a life filled with mercy and good actions. What has that to do with words? Everything! But only if we understand the Word that resides in our core, the Name which is our sacred and secret name, the Logos which is our very essence. It is all connected. So here we have a beginning of a way of training ourselves to go deeper into language. Scriptural language, sacred texts, are sacred not because they are printed in special gold ink, or because the pages are made from discarded angel feathers. They are sacred because their specific arrangement of thoughts and even sounds vibrates at the deepest core of our Word – they are in harmony with the Word.

What happens when you strike a tuning fork? It vibrates at a certain frequency. If you place that fork next to another one which has a similar pitch the second fork will also begin to respond in kind. This is what happens with sacred texts. We need to learn how to read sacred texts with an ear to these subtle vibrations. We need to be purified so that we can notice these vibrations and cooperate with them, enhancing the harmony, amplifying the response.

Posted in Thoughts