Archive for the ‘Meaning’ Category

Rage against the dying of the light

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

As you get older the intimations of mortality increase. Abilities decline, especially the ability to do sustained and constructive work. More and more effort is required to accomplish even the most trivial of tasks. The desire and the ability to engage in the day to day preoccupations of those with whom you live diminishes and you begin to live a little apart. The temptation arises just to let go and let be, to drift, averting the gaze from the steadily approaching terminus by occupying the mind with distractions. Rather than beginning to divest yourself of the accumulated baggage, the detritus of an often uncoordinated life, you cling to memories, to the comforting and the familiar. You arrived naked and alone, naked and alone you will depart – but this thought, lurking in the shadows of the mind, is not allowed. Instead the mind preoccupies itself with entertainment.

You can see where Dylan Thomas is coming from. He was young then, full of passion and the fire of youth. To watch his father quietly approaching death was very painful. He did not understand what it is to be old, what it is to have every option taken away, what it is to be lying in the anteroom, waiting for the final door to open. He understood that his father was dying, that his body was failing and could not support life for much longer. His understanding, though, was rational, an intellectual grasp but not a physical, nor an emotional one. Marx said that, ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’ For Marx social being included and was part of material being. Dylan’s material being was that of a young and vigorous man. He could not appreciate what it was to be old, feeble and at the point of death. So he raged, and willed his father to rage ‘against the dying of the light’.

We don’t know what Dylan’s father felt. However, the approach of death, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, does concentrate the mind wonderfully, leading to an acute awareness of this moment now. Normally we tend to live in our heads, caught up in thoughts, projecting ourselves forwards, backwards, elsewhere, as we deal with a multitude of preoccupations. Normally the mind’s focus is anywhere but here and now unless compelled by immediate circumstances. For those facing death, however, this moment now achieves an intensity perhaps never before felt. And out of that heightened awareness arise two questions, like two sides of the same coin, ‘What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? 

For Christians questions concerning the meaning of life and death find answers in the life and words of Jesus Christ. To live is to love with a degree of unselfishness which only makes sense, and perhaps is only possible, if I am not just ‘I’, ‘me’ but ‘we’, ‘us’. Ultimately it is to make the discovery that my being is in God. And to die is to make the transition from this life to a risen life in Christ.

For Buddhists to live is to strive to unself the self; to strive to see reality as it is and not as we would have it be; to discover, as the Heart Sutra puts it, that ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’. At the heart of Buddhism is the idea ‘pratityasamutpada’, codependency. Nothing exists of itself alone, everything is dependent on a multitude of causes. To live is to strive to pierce through the multitude of appearances to the emptiness that underlies them, to the extinction that is death, to ultimate reality.

The ‘now’ of those moments before death is unlike any other ‘now’. This is where the journey ends. There will be no transition into the future. No future, simply those two pressing questions to which no satisfactory answer is possible. This is the now of the mystery of life and death. Only hope remains.

Les mille voix de l’énorme mystère
Parlent autour de toi,
Les mille lois de la nature entière
Bougent autour de toi,
Les arcs d’argent de l’invisible
Prennent ton âme et sa ferveur pour cible.
Mais tu n’as peur, oh ! simple coeur,
Mais tu n’as peur, puisque ta foi
Est que toute la terre collabore
A cet amour que fit éclore
La vie et son mystère en toi.

Émile VERHAEREN: Viens lentement t’asseoir

 

The Present Moment

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

I am conscious that I have yet to finish the Phronema entry on God Within. I want to see if I can explain immanence using Nishida’s idea of ‘front structure’. Interestingly it, ties in very well with Simone Weil’s idea that what separates us is also that which connects us. And with Polanyi’s explanation of tacit knowledge using the analogy of a blind man’s stick.

Meanwhile, I came across a very interesting interview with Jane Hirshfield,

Zen and the Art of Poetry (www.bu.edu/agni/interviews/online/2006/towler.html).

Interesting, not just because of what she had to say about the influence of Zen on poetry, but also because of her mention of a poet I had never heard of before, whose discovery was for her like Chapman’s Homer to Keats – Czeslaw Milosz. So I looked up the poem of his she first encountered, titled appropriately enough Encounter.


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.

A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.

One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,

Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going

The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.


The poem has all the immediacy and emotional punch of a haiku focusing on the present moment. So it is easy to see why it would appeal to anyone immersed in Zen. What appears at first to be a nostalgic reflection, a little sad perhaps, is transformed by the last line, ‘I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder,’ which refocuses the attention on a moment in that wonderful winter dawn.

Which raises again, it comes up again and again, the significance of the present moment. A moment so fleeting, suddenly… now… then gone. Not to be repeated, but neither quite forever. Because with the glimpse of a photograph, the surfacing of a memory sparked by a taste, a sound, smell, voice, or some other trigger and that moment is there again in all its immediacy. The moment was, and has gone, but its emotional impact has transcended time.

That art thou

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Reading Joseph O Leary

I came across one of those tantalising pieces of information that spark off a whole series of thoughts. Beethoven apparently had the phrase tat tvam asi above his desk. I wouldn’t have thought that knowledge of the Upanishads was very prevalent in Europe in his time, but there you are. It is not altogether surprising though, when you consider his music (especially the 6th and the 9th symphonies), that B was so struck by this idea that he had it before him as he worked. The Chandogya Upanishad tells story of Uddâlaka and how he gently leads his son Svetaketu to the realisation that Ultimate Reality, that whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere, is within. Life is not about acquiring that which one does not have, or becoming that which one is not, or not yet. Life is a journey of discovery, the discovery of what one is and always has been. Tat tvam asi – That art thou.

This goes right to the heart of the problem of subjective experience. Of what value are our lives? There are (rare?) days when we seem to touch the heights. There are days when the crushing weight of existence itself stifles the will to live. Most days, however, are the uneventful round of daily living, ordinary, banal even and, for the most part, unmemorable. Of what use are these lives, these days, hours of routine existence? Time passes. It seeps away like water into sand, as in a Beckett play.

Even more to the point, what about those days that are full of pain, lives that are filled with suffering? The mystery of suffering and evil is one of those factors that abrades the sense of well being and turns the gaze inward. Pain inhibits every thought but the desire that the suffering should cease. All the more shocking then, to come across these lines of Rilke

How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner ear–, not only a season
in time–, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.*


Squander? Wish them gone? How can one accept suffering as part of the normal scheme of things, built in to the fabric of our existence and as much part of reality as happiness, or health, or joy? Rilke’s words shock. They are a reality check which forces us to stand back and look again, forces us to hold up our unquestioned assumptions and examine them. Happiness/unhappiness, health/sickness, joy/sadness, pleasure/pain – these are the coinage of our lives. The present moment, and only this present moment, is where we touch reality.

* The Duino Elegies, No. 10

Comparisons

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

I am reading William Johnston’s Mystical Theology and Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness. Johnston’s is a good survey, clear, concise and just the sort of book I could have done with when I was teaching. He has the knack of summarising brilliantly. Nishitani is a revelation. It is one of those books which gives a new insight into questions which have always been there and which you thought you understood. Reading Nishitani you realise that you were only skating on the surface.

Concerning W. Johnston’s Mystical Theology – I feel that he is avoiding coming to the point. On p.182 he says that the emptiness and nothingness of St. John of the Cross is not the same as the emptiness and nothingness of Zen. This is precisely what exercises me. If the underlying reality is One then surely, whatever tradition one comes from, there must come a time when the cultural wrappings, the labels and names we attach to ideas and experiences, are discarded. 

Johnston is annoying when he keeps talking from within the tradition he is writing about. I wish he would take a more objective approach. What the Christian tradition calls sin covers anything from murder to the human condition. Original sin is seen as evil. It is simply the human condition – contingency, powerlessness and scarcity. This is an area that needs much more thinking. I feel the Buddhist way of looking at all this is a much more healthy one.

Facing death

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

I listened recently to a podcast of Nuala O Faolain’s interview  about her approaching death.

Available here  http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2008/pc/pod-v-120408-40m53s-marianfinucane.mp3

She is a highly intelligent woman, a writer and has just discovered that she has terminal cancer and not very long to live. The interview explores her feelings at this time, how she reacted to the discovery and how it has affected her and her attitudes.

… as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life… It amazed me, Marian, how quickly life turned black, immediately almost… I can’t be consoled by mention of God. I can’t… though I respect and adore the art that arises from the love of God and though nearly everybody I love and respect themselves believe in God, it is meaningless to me, really meaningless……the very essence of this experience is aloneness … and you’re walking around and all you know is that whatever it is you are feeling or thinking is yours and nobody else’s. And there is nobody else to lay it off on and that aloneness is the centre and the thing that you never know when you are well ……I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me, the world said to me that’s enough of you now and what’s more we’re not going to give you any little treats at the end …

We all know that we are going to die sometime but normally this fact does not worry us or affect our attitude to life. It will happen sometime in the unforeseeable future. Death, extinction, did not bother Nuala until she unexpectedly learnt that for her it was going to occur within a few months. And then everything changed. Life became black and meaningless. Most of the things that she had enjoyed and that gave meaning to her life lost their savour. Two questions immediately intrigue me. Why? Why should the knowledge of imminent death deprive life of meaning? And, would belief in God and an afterlife have made a difference?

What gives meaning? Why should one thing, action, event have meaning while another does not? Part of the answer would seem to be significance. This wedding ring has meaning for me because of its significance. That pebble on the beach has no importance and therefore means nothing to me. The phrase ‘this bread’ in the context of the Eucharist has enormous significance for believers, in the context of a bakery it has no particular import. A kiss on the cheek when greeting a stranger means little. A kiss from a loved one means everything. Significance, it would seem, is determined by relationship and context.

Time is another major factor. We do not want our pleasure, joy, happiness to be limited by time. We do not want to be parted from what we love and those we love. There will be an end sometime, but no parameters have been set, no limits fixed and so we can look forward to a future stretching into forever. Because the future stretches forever there is no point in thinking about it. This allows us to focus on the present. The present is here now. It will always be here, here now and tomorrow it will be here again. This takes the pressure off the present. If the present is not quite as we would want it, that’s OK, we can work to improve things for tomorrow. We look forward to tomorrow. Tomorrow will be better. We look forward to enjoying the fruit of our labour, to working on projects, to holidays, to seeing our children grow. In fact life is a process projected into the future, working, growing, creating, discovering. We do not think about an end, only about going on and on. 

Until you are told that in six months time there will be no more tomorrows, that time for you will cease. And suddenly there is no looking forward to a future. There is only today and the next few days. There will be no more projects, no more growing, or creating, or discovering. It is like driving a fast car, exulting in the speed and the skill, and then it runs out of fuel and you are left sitting in a motionless vehicle, going nowhere. A car that can not go has lost its meaning. Life with no future has no meaning, or has it? Of what value is this moment now – not the past which led up to it, nor the moments to come, but this moment now? Can it be separated from the past and the future? They only exist in the mind. Only this now is real. Only this now exists. What, if anything, gives it value? This is the real question. For me now this moment, why should it matter? We may say that what happened in the past can affect our attitude to this now, enhance or detract from its significance, help or hinder our ability to grasp it. Likewise the now may be important because it is the springboard to the future. I suspect that this is one of the factors which led to Nuala’s sadness. She had had a full rich life, lived with exuberance and many achievements. In comparison her now is barren and sterile lacking, as it does, any possibility of a future.

The analogy that immediately comes to mind is that life is like a surfer riding a wave. It is lived at speed and to the full, balancing relationships, projects, experiences in an exciting onward rush. Then suddenly the shore is in sight and in a few moments one will be cast like flotsam onto the beach. The ride will be over, finished. There is nothing left to live for but these few last moments before extinction.

But the analogy cannot be carried very far because the wave of life does not come to an end in an explosion of white surf, but goes on and on. And the surfer? She ceases to ride the wave, certainly. But what happens then? Is she absorbed into the wave which continues on its onward journey? Again, the analogy fails. Nevertheless D. W. Mann’s description of life as a standing wave is very helpful.

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]

The feeling of separateness is an illusion. On the physical level our bodies are absorbed back into the wave. There is, however, much more than the physical process, though even on the physical level there are depths and depths that physicists and cosmologists are only beginning to understand. There is also the spiritual dimension, though some, including Nuala, might disagree. Yet testimony going back to the dawn of human history shows an awareness of ‘something there’, a dimension that transcends the physical and the human.*

  For some this awareness was always there. For others it may occur as the result of a significant experience. For still others it may have been part of the environment in which they grew up but, like fairy tales and belief in Father Christmas, evaporated with the social pressures and tensions of lived life. Finally, there are those for whom is was never a factor. Nuala, I think, falls into the third category.

Anyway, whether the awareness is there or not, there is nothing, as someone once said, like the prospect of death to concentrate the mind. And to focus it on this all too fleeting now, revealing it with its beauty, with its ugliness, but this time more as a spectacle in which one cannot really participate because there is no time. There is not time to get involved, to engage with others, to initiate anything because the time left is so fleeting, or so it seems. The end is approaching so quickly, faculties fading and the ability to engage as before so uncertain that all one can do is to stand helplessly, already a bystander, soon to be gone. One feels alienated already, in a sense, rejected by life. “… all you know is that whatever it is you are feeling or thinking is yours and nobody else’s,” as Nuala puts it. 

Formerly subjective and objective time merged seamlessly, as did subjective and objective experience. Formerly, for example, going for a walk with friends you interacted with them, engaging in conversation and all the while the road passed by under your feet. You could see the road stretching ahead and where you would be in five, or ten minutes time, and all the while your friends accompanied you. In the distance, perhaps, you could see mountains where you and your friends would be in a few hours. The journey is a shared experience, a merging of both the objective and the subjective. And then, all of a sudden you are sidelined. The world has ‘turned its back’. Your friends continue along the road but you can no longer see ahead, or share the common experience with them as before. The mountains still exist but you will never reach them. And so you stand there, intensely aware of your situation, of the world about you, a world as meaningless now as a broken down car. Except it is not the world that has broken down but you.

Now you have become a prisoner in your subjective experience, an experience that is shared with no one else that you know. You gaze out at the world as at a cinematic display. You no longer belong. It belongs to others, to your friends, those you love. Above all it belongs to the young, vibrant with life. You stand at life’s edge. Behind you all is movement, conversations, shouts, laughter and activity. Before you is the dark void and you stand at the crumbling edge. There is a Zen story which goes like this:

One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!

Apparently in the original it was a poisonous berry but D. T. Suzuki changed it thinking that this would not appeal to Westerners. Both versions are appropriate here and worth thinking about. The temptation to take poison must be great. It would quickly bring to an end a
n appalling situation. Death is certain. The only question is will it be now quickly, or soon, perhaps slowly with much suffering? Certainly Sartre would say, take the poison. Make your final act an authentic one in keeping with your status as a free and rational human being. 

But the strawberry version raises another question. Does subjective experience in itself have a value that transcends the here and now? The story implies that it does and that its value lies in moments of exquisite sensation. Most of us have probably experienced times of heightened awareness and profound happiness, perhaps on first falling in love, or before a beautiful sunset. There may have been other times when, in the company of friends, with talk and laughter flowing, all enjoying the pleasure of being together, we have felt such a simple and deep happiness that we wished this moment to continue forever. Such moments have a centrifugal effect, drawing us out of ourselves so that we feel that our being extends into that of others, into the wider world, into nature itself. While suffering has a centripetal effect, drawing us inward, enclosing us within this pain-full body. The point of the strawberry story is that this instant of pure pleasure allows the man to transcend his dire situation, if only for a few moments. 

Why some should have a sense of transcendence, while others do not, or very rarely; why some have faith in God and an afterlife, while others not, are questions with no easy answer. Nevertheless, faith or no faith, the approach of death means a closing in. Our dimensions begin to shrink to the extent of a failing body. We have been launched on a trajectory into the dark and all we can do is hope. Even if we cannot believe we can hope. And in hoping we can, perhaps, begin to transcend this dark now.

* cf Hardy, Alister; The Spiritual Nature of Man, OUP, Oxford,1979; Hay, David; Religious Experience Today, Mowbray, London 1990; Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit, Darton, Longman and Todd, London 2006 

Prayer and suffering

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Thinking about prayer and the intercession of the saints leeds to much reflection on the actual state of these saints now. Why should requests to them be more favourably received than requests to God, or Jesus and anyway, whatever their preoccupations and interests while alive, why should they be concerned with me and my problems now. On the other hand my problems are insignificant compared to those of others in so many places. So what right have I to any preferential treatment, especially since evidence of divine intervention in peoples affairs is patchy, to say the least.

This raises the much more profound question of God’s relationship to us and to the world in general. The more I think, pray and meditate the more I become aware of the absolute transcendence of God. On the one hand there is all that tradition and theology have to say of the immanence of God and which I believe. The idea that our Christian destiny is a process of theosis makes much sense. It integrates religious experience with lives of self-sacrifice for others and for God. It explains why loving self-sacrifice for the sake of others does not have to be overtly, or even consciously, religious. But suffering I do not understand. The suffering resulting from self-sacrifice I can understand and I can understand how it can be something willingly accepted, embraced even. Love is kenotic; it is an outpouring of self; it is creative and life-giving and birth always includes a death. But I cannot understand how destructive suffering, the suffering resulting from evil and hatred fits in – the suffering that corrupts, perverts and ultimately destroys the receiver and, more often than not, the giver as well. In the face of the destructive  power of evil, as in Iraq or Palestine, individual acts of self-sacrificial love, of altruism, of generous forgiveness even of the enemy, shine as feeble guttering candles in an all-pervading gloom. 

If God is immanent one wonders why the progress towards theosis has to be so tentative and halting? Why something generated so deep in the depths of the individual that it rarely rises to conscious awareness and then only ambiguously? If above all we are social beings (as even Marx was aware), if our very humanity is dependent on our sociality, if in Christ, and in the Eucharist, we are members one of another, why is each so alone in his suffering? Pain scours and abrades to the depths of being. Perhaps it is cleansing us of self but in doing that it reveals nothing there in the depths, not God, not light, only emptiness and darkness. None of this makes sense. There are no answers, none that can be articulated anyway, or expressed. There is a feeling, however, no more than that, of being on the brink. Of what? A mystery so vast… 

Reality and reality

Monday, April 14th, 2008

Came across an interesting article the other day. In What Sense a Saviour? The nature and function of Jesus in Radical Theology by Trevor Greenfield.* It was the question itself rather than the radical theology bit that interested me. It was also interesting how quickly and easily Greenfield accepted the premises of radical theology and dismissed the supernatural. OK, we no longer accept the three-decker universe of early and medieval Christians. We are now used to thinking in more than three, or even four, dimensions, but Greenfield dismisses the idea of the supernatural as another, or even fundamental, dimension.

An attempt can be made to circumvent the problem of the seemingly ever-increasing distance between man and God by another simple replacement, namely, ‘out there’ can become ‘beyond there’, taking God and heaven out of the universe altogether whilst still allowing the basic original concept to remain intact. At first glance this would seem to solve the problem once and for all as heaven is moved to another dimension, a realm that science and cosmology can never penetrate. But this time, however, it doesn’t work as well as earlier changes because, as Robinson observes, the paradigm shift resulting from our changing cosmological understanding has brought with it fundamental changes to religious language. Whilst, for centuries goodness and profundity were expressed in terms of height and elevation, now man thinks of profundity in terms of the depth of experience. Man has no desire for a heaven above the clouds or above the universe. He now searches innermost, not outermost, for truth and understanding.

I don’t see a problem here. The needs of many people are still met by an ‘up there’, or ‘in Heaven’ metaphor and a fairly literal understanding of the New Testament and the creeds is not an obstacle to faith, prayer, or a sense of meaning. For others the ‘out there’, or another dimension will suffice. Ultimately no metaphors, symbols or language can deal with the Transcendent and anyone with a basic understanding of the New Testament should realise this, at least implicitly. The problem lies not with philosophy but with psychology. How does one make the transition from a faith based on symbols and metaphors, a faith that can be articulated and explained, to an apophatic faith where all is silence and darkness? Greenfieldacknowledges this, that it is not so much a theological problem as an existential one. It follows that it is in the existential moment, in the ‘now’, this moment that I am living through, that I must look for answers, for meaning. The Protestant tradition seems to have a problem with an immanent God, but the fact that the idea of a transcendent God no longer satisfies the quest for meaning, as Greenfield would have it, does not mean that all is lost. Ultimately each person must stand alone in this now and look within himself, look into the depths that fall and fall into the darkness. To do so is counter intuitive . It is the last thing you want to do. Shaken by a sort of existential vertigo you want to turn away, run away to somewhere bright and solid and secure. To do so is to turn from Reality back to reality, back to the familiar, warm, comfortable reality we have always known, which promises everything but sooner or later ends in suffering and death. And so, for some, it is the last thing they will do. At the point of death there is no turning away. Far better, then, to prepare for this existential possibility earlier rather than later, when you have all your faculties and are not debilitated by illness and pain.

 *http://www.quodlibet.net/greenfield-saviour.shtml

The imperative to love

Friday, April 11th, 2008

It struck me the other day that the greater emphasis in much that I am reading is on consciousness and awareness and that there is little or none on relationships and love. This is only half the picture. As Marx said we are social creatures, always have been. There is some evidence that language developed in order to manage complex social relationships, and philosophy and theology developed from language in response to the cognitive imperative. While entropy seems to be the way of things as far as the material universe is concerned, there is a drive in the sentient universe towards increasing organisation, complexity and interconnectedness. Perhaps Absolute Reality is ‘That’, neither objective nor subjective, the coincidence of opposites and, transcending all categories, One. And perhaps we, in our deepest being, are oned with the One. To focus exclusively on That is to diminish our present reality, which ephemeral and transient though it may be, is the stepping stone to the truth. Even if we are, like shooting stars, brief trajectories in the darkness, emerging from and disappearing into nothingness, we need to know why. We cannot know what is this nothingness from which we emerge and into which we vanish. What was before we were cannot be part of our experience, nor what will be after we have been. All we have is this now. But if this now, while it may not be really real, is the conduit to Absolute Reality then we need to understand the why of it. And none of the great religions seem to be able to do this.

There are plenty of creation myths, myths to explain the brute facts of existence and salvation myths. But there is no satisfactory explanation, that I am aware, as to why, to put it crudely, there is God and not-God. This is not a proper dichotomy but an apparent one because ultimately everything either is, or within, God – depending on whether one is a monist, pantheist, or pan-en-theist. According to Bernadette Roberts (and, mutatis mutandis, Buddhists) the only thing that is not God, that stands over and against God, is self. So why the apparent dichotomy? Why selves? Especially ‘Why selves?’ if the self is only a relative and conditional phenomenon. I think the ‘only’ in the last sentence points to an unquestioned assumption that the relative and the conditional are not important, or at least much less important than the absolute and unconditional. This assumption may be due to a tendency to think in reified terms, misplaced concreteness again, rather than in processual terms. We have got it into our heads that Ultimate Reality, because it is absolute and transcends spatio-temporal categories, is static – the unmoved mover etc., the ground of being. Maybe. I think our categories of absolute and relative, unconditional and conditional are too crude. I have a gut feeling, no more at present and I cannot explain it, that the self, or rather the person in whom are many selves, is more important, as is the imperative to love, than the fact that it is relative and conditional would seem to imply.

Black frost

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Prayer remains very difficult. This question of the intersection of human awareness and reality continues to bother me. It seems that lately I am trapped within myself. There is no beyond, or other, or transcendence. Which makes it very difficult when all I want is to let self go, get rid of it (if that is not too much of an oxymoron). Such an attitude is possible when one is, however dimly, aware of transcendence, aware of a sense of presence, of the Other. It becomes impossible, perverse even, when the only reality is that which is mediated by the self. Anything else is a memory, an academic conjecture, something to be believed. Suddenly I understand what blind faith is. There is no support, not emotional, not intellectual, not experiential. There is only the will, a will that flickers and gutters like the stub of  candle, feeble in the face of adversity and the centripetal effect of suffering, stronger when wellbeing supports it. This is darkness, of what variety I don’t know. 

I came across this poem by R. S. Thomas. I am always surprised when I come across a reading which seems utterly appropriate at the time and which opens out and widens the horizon from the constricted view of the self.

I have seen it standing up grey,

Gaunt, as though no sunlight

Could ever thaw out the music

Of the great bell, terrible

In its own way, for religion

is like that. There are times

When a black frost is upon

One’s whole being, and the heart

In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

But who is to know? Always, 

Even in winter, in the cold

Of a stone church, on his knees

Someone is praying, whose prayers fall

Steadily, through the hard spell 

Of weather that is between God

And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain

That brings the sun and afterwards flowers

On the raw graves and the throbbing of bells.

Moments

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

I keep coming back to the significance of the present moment. Way back I came across the ‘Sacrament of the Present Moment’. De Caussade, I think, put forward the idea. The idea is to try and live each moment sub specie aeternitate, i.e. aware of God’s presence in and through everything. At the time I took this simply as a device to help the individual to be recollected and extend his prayer into everyday activities.  God is always present and the idea is to try and stay connected to Him during the mundane daily routine. This is not quite what I have in mind now. 

Is there an ontological significance in the intersection of human awareness and objective reality? We have all had times when we became aware of a moment of heightened significance. This is the feeling that this moment being lived through is of supreme importance, that one is in touch with, if not Ultimate Reality, then with something of cosmic significance. Natural mystical experiences and numinous experiences come into this category, as do a whole host of other non-mystical experiences which can sometimes act as a trigger – a moment in a relationship, taking hold of a child’s hand, the sight  of a bee nuzzling a flower. What I am wondering is – is each moment of our human lives charged with ontological significance or only those moments of which we are aware? Do our actions reverberate throughout the cosmos? My feeling is yes. Each person, like a jewel in Indra’s net, reflects and is reflected by the myriads of other jewels/persons*. But I have no evidence and there can be no empirical evidence. Most of us seem to go through life wrapped in our self-preoccupations. If we are aware of a wider influence on others it is through direct action and the media rather than a spiritual, or cosmic interconnectedness. But there is an interconnectedness, of that I am quite sure.

*[In the heavenly abode of the great Indian god, Indra, there is hung a wonderful net that stretches out in all directions. The net’s clever weaver has strung a single jewel in each eye, and since the net is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. If we look at a single jewel, we discover that its polished surface reflects every other jewel. Not only that, the infinity of jewels reflected in the one we are looking at simultaneously reflects all the other jewels, so that there occurs an infinite reflecting process.]