Archive for the ‘Being human’ Category


Monday, April 21st, 2008

Suicide, particularly the suicide of young men, is something we have all become aware of lately. I have been reading Paul Lebeau’s book on Etty Hillesum and came across this quotation which seemed very appropriate.

Je vous ai dit ce que je pense d’une mort qui l’on s’infligerait volontairement, et je vais maintenant vous dire ce que je n’ai jamais exprimé jusqu’ici. Ensuite nous n’en parlerons plus jamais. J’ai moi-même, vers l’époque de votre naissance envisagé cette éventualité, que je dois aujourd’hui rejeter. Je considère qu’une telle fin est une injustice métaphysique, une offense a l’esprit. C’est un manque de confiance vis-a-vis du Bien éternel, une infidélité à l’égard de notre devoir le plus intime: celui d’obéir a une loi universelle. Celui qui se tue est un meurtrier, non seulement de lui-même, mais aussi d’autrui. Car l’homme ne se divise pas. Une telle mort, j’en suis profondément convaincu, n’est pas une libération, comme peut l’être une mort naturelle et innocente. Toute violence commise en ce monde prolifère, comme chacun de nos actes. Nous sommes ici pour porter une partie de la souffrance de monde, en lui offrant notre coeur, non pour l’aggraver par un acte de violence. [Walther Rathenau, Lettres à une amante, quoted in Paul Lebau, Etty Hillesum: Un itinéraire spirituel Amsterdam 1941 – Auschwitx 1943 Albin Michel, Paris 2001 pp. 98f]

The idea that we are all members one of another goes back a long, long way. I must look up what Paul had to say, and John Donne was very eloquent. But it is an idea that does not fit easily into our individualistic and consumerist society. We cannot bear the thought of any infringement of what we consider our freedom to live and be as we wish. Apart from the obvious attachments which bind us to family and friends there are also the hidden bonds which link all of humanity, a link that is not just between humans but with all of nature and, of course, with God himself.

 This is why Rathenau calls suicide a ‘metaphysical injustice’, an offence against the spirit. Of course, terms like links or bonds are very inadequate and imply that the individual elements in the chain of being have an existence prior to, or independent of their incorporation with others and that this incorporation is something in addition to their individual existence. Something added on. Something, in the case of we humans, that is optional and from which we can withdraw or, tragically in the case of many, something unknown and unsuspected. In fact, this relationship is not something in addition to our being but constitutes being. D. W. Mann expresses it very well looking simply from the level of material existence.

With bodily birth the self is born.  The universe of self-experience comes into being through the severance act of birth.  But the resultant separateness, which I have said lies at the heart of the self-experience, is from a biophysical perspective more illusory than real.  While the body lives, it remains a standing wave of active earth, gathered and propelled by the happenstance channelling of genes into an amnesic emissary from the mineral world.  We are of earth but not within it, moving ever so slightly beyond it but always in its outstretched stream, borrowing and returning, dust to dust. Into this fabric each of us weaves, from earth, through man and woman, man into woman, out of woman aloft into life, and finally back into earth, our single stitch of life.  The generations quit the earth, like ragged seams.  In all but ecstatic moments we feel separate, but in physical fact our bodies join us to the earth, to one another, and to the seemingly separate universe that envelopes us.[Mann D.W., A Simple Theory of the Self, W.W. Norton, New York, 1994 p. 42f]

I love this idea of the self as a standing wave. It is powerful and dynamic and fits very well with Buddhist ideas. It connects the notion of unity and continuity with the image of movement and constant change. So, if this is a description of the self at a material level how much more does this unity with all being apply at the psychological, social, and, above all, spiritual levels. 

One of the things to be regretted about our modern society is the atomisation of the individual. Impersonal urban society with its anonymity and lack of a sense of community militates against a sense of belonging. Many welcome this and the feeling of freedom it gives them. Many more are damaged by it and find it difficult to sustain interpersonal relationships, let alone have any sense of connectedness. But, even for a person with strong family ties and a network of friendships, great suffering can reduce the parameters of their existence to the pain wracked contours of the body. So it is difficult to blame someone who is terminally ill and locked into a private world of suffering for wanting to end it all. For them, perhaps, there is no apparent connectedness, not at a physical, or a social, or a spiritual level. Maybe there is a malevolent connection at the physical level which has caused the disease or whatever is making them ill. Not only do they see no future, they see no value in their present life and certainly not in suffering. 

It is difficult for anyone to see virtue in suffering – a mother in labour, perhaps, will welcome suffering, not for itself but as a means to an end. So where does this idea that suffering can be salvific come from? As far as I can make out this idea is found only within the Christian context. For atheists and agnostics suffering is not problematic. It is simply the result of the three brute facts of existence – contingency, powerlessness and scarcity.

 The more control one can achieve over these the more one can avoid suffering, at least for a time. For Buddhists there is no question that suffering is evil. Their preoccupation is in overcoming it. Ultimately, they say, this can be achieved by attaining complete detachment (nirvana) from the illusory self (anatta). For Christians suffering presents a twofold problem. If God is infinitely powerful and infinitely good why does he allow suffering? And secondly, how, in what way, is suffering redemptive? Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it never was and that it wasn’t by his suffering that Christ redeemed us, but by his refusal to allow the prospect of suffering to divert him from his mission. 


Friday, April 4th, 2008

I came across an article on pratityasamutpada  (dependent arising) and consciousness today. The whole article is an exploration of the idea –

There is a growing consensus in Western thought and science that we may understand ourselves and our world more deeply if we think in terms of patterns of relationships rather than of reified essences or independent entities—if we think, that is, in the traditional Buddhist terms of dependent arising.*

He concludes

Our shared world, then, dependent upon our shared species-specific cognitive structures, is ultimately inseparable from our shared cognitive awareness, dependent upon our shared linguistic, symbolic structures. As Deacon declares: a person’s symbolic experience of consciousness…is not within the head…This [symbolic] self is indeed not bounded within a mind or body…[it] is intersubjective in the most thoroughgoing sense of the term. [Deacon, T.W. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: W.W. Norton & Co.]

I have a feeling that this sharing includes far more than symbolic experience and that it is more than just consciousness, though that is complex enough. We are neither reified essences, nor independent entities. Use of the word ‘soul’ to signify the essential person does not help here – though it has a long tradition. We are like those plants, nettles are a good example, which above ground appear as individual but below spring from the same complex root system. At the conscious level we speak and interact as individuals, free to engage or to disengage with each other, free to help or to hurt, to love or to hate, unaware that at deeper levels we are all members one of another. We do not realize that in hurting, hating, or damaging others we are also damaging ourselves. And conversely, the good we do to others benefits us too. 

However, the plant analogy only goes so far. The dimensions of human interconnectivity and intersubjectivity are many and various – some conscious, many unconscious; some material and physical, many relational and psychological. There is also a transcendent dimension. This is not part of our experience (at least at a conscious level), just as much of our interconnectivity is not experienced at a conscious level. As someone once said, ‘The Unconscious is not unconscious, only the Conscious is unconscious of what the Unconscious is conscious of.’

 We are somehow aware that there is vastly more to being human than we can ever explain or articulate. And this more is the fact that our being is confined neither to the mind, nor to the body. It emerges from and extends into the being of others, as does theirs into ours. It is rooted deep in the elements of nature, the soil and the landscape, the sun and the stars. Deepest of all, deep, deep within, is the Spirit. 

* The dependent arising of a cognitive unconscious in Buddhism and science, W. S. Waldron Dept of Religion, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT 05753, USA. 

Naked faith

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

I try not to think too much about faith for fear that if it is examined too closely it will be found to be nothing but an illusion, a vague wraith hovering at the periphery of vision which vanishes when looked at squarely. Peter had no problem when he stepped out of the boat onto the water. But when he looked down and saw the impossibility of his situation, he panicked. The trust he had in Jesus vanished when exposed to stark reality. I have no problem with fides quae (that which is believed), with theology, or with the message of scripture. But I do have a problem with fides qua (commitment, trust). It is an eyes-shut-and-hope-for-the-best stance and that is not good enough. It will do fine for a beginning but finds it very difficult coping with naked reality, and sooner or later we all have to cope with naked reality, because sooner or later we are going to be stripped naked and left exposed, eyes wide open, all our pretences and deceptions fluttering away. That’s when we’re really going to need a strong faith but we’ll find that what we had has dissolved leaving us without a rock to stand on, and there won’t be any boat to grab for either, nor will there be Jesus to rescue us. That is when we start to drown and that will be the beginning of salvation. The nasty bit is that drowning is a slow process.

I am more and more convinced that there is much going on beneath the surface of which we are not really aware – although I have this conviction it has no basis that can be seen, nothing you can point to. Above the surface there is the steady erosion of the false masks we wear. We are riven with contradictions which, up till now, have not been apparent, or we have ignored. It is as though I am inhabited by two persons and neither one is real. One is looking for God, for a purpose in living, an actor uncertain of his role looking for the script he has never seen. The other is a self-centred adolescent looking for gratification, a hangover from a past that has never been properly lived through, examined and seen for what it is, and then transcended. Neither is real. Both are constructs. This blindness to these contradictions and failings is in fact only part of the problem and probably not a major part at that. It is merely a sign of something deeper, something pervasive, all the more insidious because it is unrecognised. I have just remembered a dream I had last night. I picked up a fresh juicy apple only to discover with a shock that the underside was rotten, slimy and brown. Perhaps it is a symbol of my unadmitted awareness of a dichotomous self. I am suddenly thrust back to the question of what it means to be a person. I thought I had more or less decided that a person is a nexus of relationships rooted in God. Quite simple really, and the purpose of prayer is to keep open and amplify the channels through which God’s love flows.

Now, it no longer seems so simple. It is so easy to overlook the bits of the jigsaw that don’t fit – selfishness, self-centredness, the evil which dehumanises, depersonalises and has the power to destroy. This stripping away of masks and illusions does not leave a naked core self but simply a hollowness. Perhaps that is why we so desperately needed masks and illusions in the first place, so that this emptiness might be obscured and covered up. The person is like a tangled skein of multi-coloured strands of wool. It looks so solid and substantial but when you untangle the strands, tracing each one back to its origin, you are left with nothing. The analogy cannot be taken too far. All this raises a whole heap of questions and the answers are not to be found by deduction or analysis. The Buddha was so right to insist that there are questions to which there are no answers, or at least, no answers that can be articulated. Pursuing such questions leads to despair. The only thing to be done is to keep clinging to faith, however feeble, however inadequate. In the empty darkness it is something rather than nothing. And then there is the hope that whatever it is that is going on beneath the surface of awareness will become apparent and love will no longer be blind.

Spiritual life

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

I can understand why some of the mediaeval religious got involved in all sorts of penitential excesses. It is very frustrating spending days, weeks, months in prayer and trying to lead a religious life only to seem to be getting nowhere. The trouble is that one’s mindset is constantly changing, influenced, if not determined, by events, the body, feelings and all sorts of things over which one has no control. So there will be a few ‘good’ days followed by many mediocre ones. The feeling that one is getting nowhere may not be true in an absolute sense but it certainly feels true and when it comes to feelings no amount of pep-talking to oneself is going to change them. What is to be done. There is need for some sort of strategy that takes account of the fact that one is a process and not a fixed entity. The strategy has to be one that goes with the flow, dealing with the highs and the lows, the times of ennui and accidie, as well as those of fervour and enthusiasm. The traditional monastic strategy is an enclosed cadre vowed to a regime of poverty, chastity and obedience which carries the individual along. For most enclosure is not appropriate – though there may be a longing for solitude. And I am suspicious about taking vows for reasons that I have not fully worked out. They are a bit like a straightjacket restricting any contrary movement. My feeling is that there is no merit in not doing something one is constrained from doing anyway. I remember talking to a monk once, a long time ago now. He said that he always wore clerical clothes and a collar when he went out of the monastery because they acted as a constraint against actions he might not otherwise be able to resist. So vows can be a help, but as long as they are necessary one has not achieved that conversio morum which is one of the preliminary goals of the religious life. It is a bit like learning to ride a bike. You will never learn as long as someone is holding it so that you don’t fall. There are going to be falls. That is inevitable. One just has to keep getting up afterwards, dusting oneself off, swallowing wounded pride and shame and get on with it. 

So, a strategy. My initial feeling is that meditation is the key, and I mean meditation seriously done for an hour morning and evening, not half an hour of vacuity and drifting thoughts. I believe there is a document from the Vatican this week condemning New Age practices, including meditation. Such blanket condemnations do no good and do not reflect well on the Church’s ability to make religious judgements. There are some forms of meditation which are questionable leading either to a form of self aggrandisement or to a pandering to the emotions. I don’t see, though, how any form of meditation based on Buddhist practice can be anything but helpful. After all, they have been doing it for two and a half thousand years and have learnt a thing or two about the mind and how it works. And it is the mind, especially the will, which is the key factor here. No religious progress can be made if bodily feeling and emotions determine action and lifestyle. So let’s try to work out the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.


God is the WHAT, if that’s not blasphemy. One of the questions that really bugs me, considering that God is Ultimate Reality, the All in All, and that we are destined to be oned with Him, is why we need to go through this whole samsaric process. Bernadette Roberts uses the analogy of a bubble to explain the relationship of the individual to God. Like the air, God is both inside and outside the bubble. When the bubble is popped there exists only God. Our usual awareness is of the iridescent surface of the bubble – the individual self – and we fail to recognise either the inner or the outer reality. The analogy cannot be taken too far. Suffice to say that God is both the ground of our being and also the wholly transcendent Other towards whom we are drawn – an irreconcilable paradox. So, given that God is the All in All, why is the individual process of birth-life-death necessary? In other words, why me, why you, why anybody? There has, in the past, been a tendency to play down the significance of this life, that is, its importance is seen to lie only in the fact that it is a precursor to the next. In the East it has been seen as samsara, an insubstantial and illusory reality compared to Brahman, or to Sunyata; in the West as a ‘vale of tears’, an unpleasant interlude between birth and death, the definitive birth into eternity. This cannot be a valid approach to the meaning of this life. The fact that God is Creator means that creation has an absolute significance, the fact that God is incarnate means that humanity has an absolute significance, the fact that God is immanent means that what is indwelt has absolute significance, the fact that God is transcendent means that what is transcended has absolute significance. In trying to see the light we fail to see what the light illuminates, or rather, we only see the shadow that it casts. If we could only turn our gaze away from the shadows to see what it is that the light is illuminating. That, after all, is what God sees. But we cannot. We can only see from our own human perspective. Though there are glimpses; from time to time an intuition,  a feeling, an intimation of depths beyond depths.


There tend to be two approaches one in which the mind, the other in which the will (love) predominates. In practice I don’t think the two can be separated and, ideally, they ought to work in tandem but usually one or the other is dominant. The mind is the intellectual approach which sets out a path, a programme of action to be followed. It is based on knowledge and on the premise that the ultimate goal is to know the truth. The will is the way of love and faith (= trust). 

Meditation is a path from which to see more clearly. It is a path which leads to the awareness of emptiness. Emptiness is a standpoint from which things and the self show themselves for what they are:

True emptiness is nothing less than what reaches awareness in all of us as our own absolute self-nature. In addition, this emptiness is the point at which each and every entity that is said to exist becomes manifest as what it is in itself, in the form of its true suchness.

[James W. Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2001, p. 222]


What does all this mean to one not familiar with Buddhist concepts? Emptiness is the contingent nature of reality as we know it, including ourselves and our own self awareness.  The bottom line is that there is no security, solidity, or permanency. All is flux, panta rei, as the ancient Greeks perceived. The only certainty is constant change. The hard problem is how to make sense of this constant change. How can anything have meaning if it is just a momentary phenomenon in a sea of momentary phenomena. And this goes for people too. What meaning had the lives of all the countless millions of people who lived in the past. What meaning will our lives have a hundred years from now. Looked at in this way depression looms. There are no satisfactory answers. This is why it is so important to come to perceive reality as it actually is – empty/contingent. 

There are no spiritual ‘rocks’ to which one can tether oneself. This is not to say that spirituality and spiritual practices are not necessary. They are vital, but they are propaedeutic and one needs to be prepared to have all support knocked away and to be set adrift. I can understand what Buddha means when he says that we must be our own resource. This is not Pelagianism. In the end all one has is this contingent self which is no-self. Only when one realises this, makes it real, does the true nature of Reality become apparent. This is not Pelagianism because God is immanent in all that is and especially in us. All life, all energy is drawn from Him but this is not a datum of experience – though sometimes there are hints and intimations. It is because we cannot be aware of the transcendent dimension of reality that we cannot see contingency/emptiness in context. And so we appear to be alone, drifting on a boundless and featureless ocean. All that is left is faith/trust, more or less blind, and love. This is the only way, the only strategy.

Getting nowhere

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

Came across this from Teilhard de Chardin –

How… can it be that ‘when I come down from the mountain’ and in spite of the glorious vision I still retain, I find that I am so little a better man, so little at peace, so incapable of expressing my actions, and thus adequately communicating to others, the wonderful unity I feel encompassing me?

Is there, in fact a Universal Christ, is there a Divine Milieu?

Or am I after all a dupe of a mirage in my own mind?

I often ask myself that question.

[Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of the Matter, Collins, London, 1978, 101, quoted in Ursula King, Christ in all Things: Exploring Spirituality with Teilhard de Chardin, SCM Press, London 1997, 91]

I know exactly what he means, less about the mountain perhaps, but certainly the feeling of being stuck in a rut, or perhaps better, a deep hole, getting nowhere and feeling intensely the pointlessness, futility and suffering that afflicts so many people. There is so much energy in the world willing love, compassion, peace, healing, forgiveness and an end to suffering, yet it seems to have little effect on the rich and powerful who determine our political and socio-economic structures.  Teilhard talks about the ‘mountain’, I prefer to think of the depth beneath the surface of our everyday reality.  


Thursday, March 6th, 2008


I am trying to put my finger on what it is exactly… – I don’t even know how to express what I want to say. I’ll try to explain. The other day I went for a long strenuous walk. As I climbed the hill at the end of the park, breathing heavily, I stopped to catch my breath and looked back at the forest of naked trees all of various shades of brown. The air was crisp and cold, the sky blue and it was easy to feel a sense of oneness with all of nature and all of life. Behind me the sound of traffic and I thought of all the millions of people, some busy, some passing time idly (Keynsham seems to be full of elderly people who wander round the shops, not shopping – just passing the time, something to do.), some in pain, suffering, many dying and I thought, ‘What are they accomplishing?’ Being an individual is fine. Being ‘free’ is fine. We only come together and unite when we recognise short term goals that are of mutual benefit. What a waste! What a world we could build if only we could find a common vision and unite to realise it. No doubt our individualism confers advantages. The last thing we want is to become a static society like bees or termites, marvellously suited to their particular niche but unable to adapt to changing circumstances. Our individuality may result in a sort of semi-ordered chaos but this in turn provokes a wonderful (literally) creativity. I can see all this and in the case of bees and termites the sacrifice of individuals for the common good is of little cosmic, or ontological significance. (I hope I am not being too chauvinist here. All living creatures, however small, are breathtakingly marvellous.) But each human being is, as the OT puts it, created in the image and likeness of God. Each human being bridges the temporal/eternal divide – if they are divided. It cannot therefore be a matter of indifference that many fail to meet their potential, that many suffer and die needlessly and that many prey on and exploit others not recognising in them the transcendental dimension of their existence, nor their own, for that matter, not recognising that in each person divine and human meet. This is what bothers me. What about all those (seemingly) wasted lives. What role does God have in all this?

To refine matters a bit – the problem does not lie with all those who recognise that life has a spiritual dimension, who are striving for union with God, or for enlightenment, however they understand Ultimate Reality. Nor does it lie with all those utterly selfish individuals who do not recognise the rights and feelings of others but strive only to augment their own power and wealth. These have made their decision and within the parameters of their personal worldview live authentically. My problem lies with (probably) the vast majority who lie somewhere between these two extremes. It lies with those who are reactive rather than proactive, who drift, often at random, drawn more by their feelings than driven by conscious striving. It lies with those who, because they lack the mental or moral ability, or because they are in a social, economic, or political situation from which they cannot escape, are forced to live a passive existence, never to realise their creative potential. It lies too with those who have been damaged by abuse of one kind or another, those who, B. D. Perry says, are ‘incubated in terror’. I realise I am making a gross exaggeration here and that one can never judge another by appearances. One of the most humbling moments of my life was when I was hitching through the rain forest in Quintana Ro in Mexico and we came across a clearing where some chicleros lived. These people were the poorest of the poor. Yet they invited us into their hut and brought out a box of little alphabet biscuits, all they had to eat. They insisted we each take a handful. To refuse would have been an insult to their pride and their hospitality. So we each took a little, watched by the wide-eyed children with their swollen bellies and knowing that each little biscuit we ate was one less for them. So you cannot judge. Here were people who, in spite of their poverty achieved a level of dignity and humanity, and a generosity that I doubt I would have had were I in their situation.

But what about all these people who for one reason or another live inauthentic lives? This really is the waste, a sinful waste of human potential. And we cannot blame anyone for it, including God, but ourselves. I will never forget how children changed during their first Autumn term in one school I taught in. All would arrive at their new school at the beginning of term in their new uniforms, bright eyed and willing to learn, a future full of hope before them. They were placed in mixed ability classes. By half-term they had all been assessed and were reassigned, some to the top two streams, the majority to the middle band, and the rest to the bottom streams. These last were going to be the non-achievers, at least academically, and they knew it. The light would go out of their eyes. They had been rejected and from then on they began to behave accordingly. I suppose given the political and social pressures and the scarcity of resources it is asking too much of schools to see education in broader terms than the purely academic. But the political and academic spheres comprise intelligent people and we ought to be able to see that such narrow educational goals are not helping children to realise their potential. Not even the so-called bright ones. We had a PhD student lodger once who, apart from pure physics, had less general knowledge than our teenage children. 

But this is getting away from the point. I suppose what I am groping towards is an understanding of a theology of failure and waste – at least understood in conventional terms.  To his contemporaries Christ was a failure. It was only in retrospect, after the Resurrection, that his disciples began to understand what Paul called foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block for the Jews. On several occasions Jesus went out of his way to point out that seemingly insignificant human lives had a spiritual and moral resonance that far outweighed anything the religious establishment of the time could offer. By looking with conventional eyes, by seeing only the surface, we are missing most of the picture. But how can we get to see the greater depths, to see what lies beyond material appearances? Perhaps ‘seeing’ is the wrong word and something like ‘feeling’, or ‘intuiting’ would be better. My immediate response is that we need to get away from the habit of reifying, of seeing only objects and what can be measured materially, and become more responsive to relationships, of the relationship process and that in effect we are each of us more a nexus of relationships than material bodies. We need to begin to live not in ourselves, nor in others, but in the aidagara, in the betweeness of people and of things.


Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

Thinking about the discussion with — the other day it occurred to me that one of the reasons why conversion is so difficult is because it means giving up autonomy. The person for whom God does not exist can, at least potentially, be completely autonomous. S/he can, in fact must, decide for themselves how much weight they are going to give to social obligations, moral codes and the demands of others. Their attitude can range from total subservience to the will of others to complete idiosyncrasy. Once one acknowledges the existence of God (I do not mean here mere intellectual assent to a belief but the awareness of an existential relationship however dimly or unthematically felt) the second option no longer applies. They now know, however unreflectively, that their being is inextricably intermingled with the being of God and consequently with the being of others also. Autonomy was never an option. It was once an illusion, a desperate attempt to assert the reality of an independent self, a self that could be possessed.

Possessive quality is found in the conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them.  The individual is seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of a larger social whole, but as an owner of himself.  The individual is free, it is thought, inasmuch as he is the proprietor of his person and capacities.  The human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession.  Society becomes a lot of free equal individuals related to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they acquired by their exercise.  Society consists of relations of exchange between proprietors.[Macpherson C.B, The Political Theory of Political Individualism, Penguin 1962]


Of course we are not all possessive individualists but so many have the implicit belief that ultimately, ‘I am myself and I can decide what I am going to do with myself.’ Belief in God, however, entails the loss of even the illusion of independence.


Thursday, February 28th, 2008

It is interesting to compare Thomas Merton’s and Etty Hillesum’s diaries, both of which I am reading. Both mystics, but very different types. Merton yearns for solitude. He wants to be detached from all that is to do with the ordinary human interactions of everyday life. No shopping, socialising, listening to jazz in clubs, no involvement in work and projects with other people – he wants none of this. Like Thoreau, he wants to be alone in his beloved woods. His diaries are about his thoughts on being alone and about his writing. They, at least the earlier ones, are full of ‘spontaneous’ prayers and tend to give the impression that they were written with an eye to eventual publication. Interestingly they say little about his feelings, about his deepest longings and about the tides of his prayer. Etty, on the other hand, wants to immerse herself in people. Her major vocation is to love others, not just individually but collectively. She sees her relationship with S as important because, through it, she is learning to translate her intense feelings for him as an individual into love for all. As well as her emotional, often confused and always passionate relationships with others, there is developing a private and increasingly profound relationship with God. 

What is interesting for me just now are the different approaches to detachment by these two people, each  a mystic, each with an awareness of the presence of God, each seeking fulfilment in God. One adopts the traditional ascetic approach that goes all the way back to the Desert Fathers, whose way of life he sees as the ideal. The other knows nothing of the traditions of spirituality, or asceticism and has only her feelings and insight to guide her. She is involved in intimate relationships with several men, and may have had an abortion. Her sensuality and eroticism are as much part of the ordinary way of things for her as her love for others and her growing awareness of God. What does her life tell us about the role of asceticism in spiritual development? Asceticism is obviously just a means to an end. Ultimately, however  it is arrived at, this involves detachment from self and, although Etty is not an ascetic, she is prepared to make that ultimate sacrifice. This is shown when, out of love for them, she volunteered to share the fate of her compatriots in the concentration camp. 

 Merton lives by the traditional spiritual code of Cistercian monasticism but chafes against the rough edges that do not suit his temperament. He is torn between the support of monastic order and the beauty of the sung office; the desire for solitude in the hushed serenity of his beloved woods, and the seemingly haphazard pull of inchoate feelings and desires. Etty is guided by her feelings and these, as the days go by, run more and more strongly, drawn by the attractive force of love – love for God, love for others, love for both inextricably intermingled. With Merton God is, as often as not, absent and sought with longing. With Etty God is increasingly present as an undercurrent drawing her towards a more explicit awareness. What is becoming clear in all of this is that the action of God must be taken into account. I tended to think of Him as Love, universally bestowed on all, as light from the sun. And there is good NT evidence for this view. If any are not aware of this love it is not because it is withheld from them but because they are not sufficiently receptive to it – too self preoccupied perhaps, or their lifestyle prohibits it. It is obvious, however, just from looking at Merton and Etty, that this is much too simplistic. Although his benevolence is bestowed on all, God also intervenes on an individual basis. And this makes sense if our relationship with Him is to be personal rather than impersonal.


Friday, February 22nd, 2008

 I just started reading Etty Hillesum’s diaries, An Interrupted Life. She writes well. But the interesting thing about her is not her writing style but her personal and religious development. Unusually for a spiritual writer, because that is what she is, the sexual dimension of her life is an important factor, one that she  deals with openly and frankly. She was a Jew, a rather detached one until the Nazi attitude to the Jews made her aware of her racial and religious inheritance, so she was never exposed to Jansenist attitudes. She became a mystic with none of the negative feelings about sex which seem to infect Christians, especially Catholics. So I hope to learn something from her. 

There is an enormous chasm in Christian spirituality, which is only now beginning to be addressed. On the one hand there is the insistence on celibacy. Not just celibacy as in the married state but celibacy as in detachment from any sexual relationship. The mystic ideal – and every spiritual life is oriented towards the mystical in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, as far as I can gather – involves an absolute detachment, sooner or later, from everything that is not God. Later this is reversed when all that is egotistic and selfish has been detached from and the person is able to give her/himself in absolute freedom. The Ten Oxherding Pictures can be applied just as easily to Christianity as to Zen. This detachment  process is the cause of the two ‘nights’ and the depression which they often induce. It is also the reason why the spiritual life is such a struggle. It runs counter to the natural human instinct towards greater integration and involvement with others – which brings us to the other hand. 

We are social beings and our identity and consciousness of who and what we are is determined by our relationships. Each one of us is a nexus of relationships. This is where Christianity and Buddhism complement each other. The Buddhist insight is that when the knot of these relationships is unravelled nothing is left. There is nothing inside the knot, no hidden and enduring kernel such as a permanent self or soul. Which raises some very interesting questions. What is a relationship if the poles of the relationship are themselves ephemeral nexus of relationships? This is an impossible question which leads to the suspicion that its posing could only arise from a misunderstanding of what reality is, an understanding which is too mechanistic. Another question – what is the nothing which remains? Again this can be understood in a nihilistic way, which gets us nowhere, or in the sense of nothing which is not something, nothing in the sense of sunyata, emptiness, a void which is a dynamic process. This is as far as Buddhism goes. The Christian insight, revelation, is that the nothingness is God, the Transcendent Other. 


Now the journey from the beginning of the spiritual life, when one asks, ‘Who am I?; Where am I going?; What is the meaning of life?’ – to the realisation of the loss of self in God is a long one, a lifetime long. And it is a journey in a vehicle  with just a tiny window to the side. We cannot see what is ahead but we can see a little of where we are. Sometimes the vehicle  stops, sometimes it gets stuck on a side road, sometimes it even goes into reverse. But we think we know where we are going so we press on. We have plenty of guide books, many of them conflicting. As the journey progresses it gets darker and darker. Soon we can see nothing out of the side window and don’t know whether we are on the right road, or even whether we are still moving. There are a very few exceptional people who have a vehicle with lights so that they can see fairly clearly and their stories give us courage and reassurance. Eventually we are going to have to get out of the vehicle and go on without it but this is the last thing we want to do. We cannot even imagine ourselves doing it. The vehicle is all we have. We have no idea of what is outside, even if there is an outside. At least inside we have our books and can read about our journey and about the journeys of others. We can even talk to others in their vehicles and compare notes. We hope that eventually the vehicle will arrive and we’ll know, perhaps we’ll be told, it’s OK to get out now. But that is not going to happen. The vehicle is not going to get us to the end of the journey. It cannot. Sooner or later we are going to have to step out into the darkness. That’s when we encounter the biggest problem of all. We cannot remember getting into the vehicle and, on looking around it, we do not see a door. How do we get out? This reminds me of the Zen koan of the goose in the bottle, in fact it is the koan of the goose and the bottle. There is no concealed entrance, no hidden latch which will open a secret door. When we come to understand what the vehicle is and why we are in it, then it will no longer be a problem.

A Zen monk called Riko goes to his master Nansen and quotes the famous Zen koan.

‘You put a gosling into a bottle and the gosling grows up to be a goose. 

Master, how to get the goose out of the bottle without breaking the bottle?’

The master doesn’t answer.

Riko walks away from the master and then the master shouts out, ‘Riko!’

Riko replies, ‘Yes Master.’

And the master says, ‘There, the goose is out!’


I have strayed from the point I was trying to make – the conflict between the injunction to detachment, including celibacy and sex, and the human need to relate to others. I remember a story about an old abbot of a monastery in Ireland. When po
stulants came and asked to become monks he would say to them, ‘Have you ever been in love?’ More often than not they would indignantly deny that the thought of such a thing had ever crossed their mind. He would then send them away, telling them to find a girl and fall in love, and if after that they still wanted to be monks he would welcome them. No doubt the story is apocryphal but the point is a serious one. Becoming a person is a long, and for some, slow process of growth and development. It is a process of relating to and being related to, of giving and receiving, of giving up and receiving back, of being filled and of being emptied. Above all it is a process of opening up and allowing others in. It is the discovery that being is more important than having and that in order to be it is not necessary to have. In all of this sexual feelings and orientation are defining factors. There is a sexual dimension in all our relating. Men relate to men differently than they relate to women. A woman can give something to a man no other man can give simply because she is a woman and vice versa. Each relationship is unique but the sexual chemistry is always a factor, essential in order to become a lover, a father/mother, a son/daughter, a brother /sister, a friend, a companion. It is in these becomings that we discover who we are. It is in these becomings that we take possession of the self that we give in each relationship. Now to ask a person who has not yet achieved a measure of personal stability, who is still not quite sure who they are, to ask such a person to renounce the sexual dimension of themselves, because that is what the vow of celibacy amounts to in the Church, is to ask them to renounce personal fulfilment. It is no wonder that so many go off the rails. 


Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I find myself increasingly at an impasse faced with the imponderable mystery of what it means to be human, to be me. The more I read and the more I think, the more I find myself standing at the edge of an impossibly high cliff, so high that no ground can be seen below – depths receding into depths of impenetrable darkness. What has led me to the edge of this abyss and why am I here? Why can life not be a comfortable round of gentle pleasure and easy satisfaction? Why am I thrust out of the sheltered valleys of companionable society onto this solitary peak? It seems I have been climbing, searching for an answer, only to find myself faced with a great void. There is nowhere further to go, not even a glimpse of another peak beyond – nothing. Nor is there any going back. The imperative to search, to go forward is as great as ever. In any case to go back would be to give the lie to the mystery within, the dream that is not a dream, the urge to be. And so I stand looking into the nothingness. Perhaps I should throw myself off and into the darkness. But I don’t know how to do that. I cannot leave the solid ground beneath my feet. I am weighed down by my heaviness, unable to launch myself forward, unable to go back. And so I stand, looking out into the void, trying to block out the siren calls and the mocking jeers from the comfortable valleys behind.