Monday, February 21, 2011

Charles Williams: Descent into Hell

[A wordy offering]
In Charles Williams’ novel Descent into Hell, one of the characters, an old man and a wise poet, Peter Stanhope, helps a young woman, Pauline, who is tormented by fear. She fears meeting her double. One might argue that she is psychotic, believing that her double exists and that she has several times seen her double walking toward her. Psychotic or not, Pauline’s fear is real. She is like everyone else. We all (and often) experience very real fear, worry, anxiety, doubt or any number of distressing feeling-thoughts over matters that are not real, over matters that we imagine may be real, or may become real, but are in fact not real. Few of us have hallucinations as Pauline seems to have, but all of us create mental scenarios that are no more real than hallucinations, but which produce in us very real emotional responses and even mental confusion.
I am intrigued by the way Stanhope helps Pauline. He does not question the logical possibility of meeting one’s double, nor does he attempt to assure Pauline that such a thing can’t “really” happen. He accepts her version of reality as hers, and offers to bear part of her suffering--the real suffering that she is experiencing because of what seems to be her fantasy. If she will allow him, Stanhope says to Pauline, he will carry her fear for her so that she will not have to bear it. Pauline doubts this is possible, but Stanhope persists and encourages her to accept that he will bear it. He refers to St. Paul’s words, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” but he does not dwell there. He focuses on encouraging Pauline, when she feels fear coming on her to remember that she does not need to carry it, because he is carrying it for her. Stanhope will be afraid for her, so she doesn’t have to be.
When they part company, Stanhope allows himself to imagine and then feel the fear Pauline must experience seeing her double walking toward her, and the increasing dread that something terrible will happen if they ever meet. Of course for Stanhope, the fear is easier to bear than it is for Pauline. He feels it, but he feels it as one who is not trapped by it, as one strong, as one who willingly carries the load of someone weaker, someone he cares for. For her part, Pauline forgets about the matter and enjoys her walk home distracted by pleasant sights and smells and thoughts. She forgets until she realizes that she has not been afraid. In realizing that she is not afraid, fear seems to knock at her door. She knows that Stanhope must have done something--she doesn’t know what it is nor how it has worked--but she chooses to believe it, to accept that Stanhope is carrying her fear so she doesn’t have to: she said that she would let Stanhope handle the “trouble,” and to keep her word, that is what she would do.
On one level, we can say that Pauline’s deliverance from fear is a mere psychological trick. We see right through it. However, as most of us know from experience, psychological tricks seldom really work, or seldom work very well. Just on a psychological level, the trust necessary for one to believe fully the words of another--especially about a matter that as been deeply hidden and tormenting since childhood--is so rare that I am tempted to say its occurrence is miraculous. People whom we can trust are very rare. People whose wisdom is manifest, whose genuine care for us is not questioned, and whose love is not possessive, grabbing nor contingent, such people are very, very rare.
Understanding how a psychological trick might work is one thing, finding someone whose character is such that he or she can pull it off, that’s another matter altogether.

But if we probe deeper than the mere psychology, we might see something that Williams says is “hidden in the central mystery of Christendom.” This is something Williams calls “The Doctrine of Substituted Love.” What he seems to mean--I guess I’ll understand it more as I finish the novel--is that, so long as both parties are willing, it is indeed possible to “bear one another’s burdens.” Central to Christianity is Christ’s bearing the burden of sin for the whole world. Those who would be free from the driving passions of sin may experience the lifting, the freedom, from the sinful passions--if they really want it. Similarly, each of us are able to bear the burdens of those we love and have our burdens born in turn. In fact, Williams goes so far as to say this is a universal law, and “not to give up your parcel is as much to rebel as not to carry another’s.”
I think Williams is onto something. I have experienced something like this phenomenon myself in relationships with those I have come to trust. I have experienced, on the one hand, the lessening of anxiety, worry or any number of unnamed mental torments by obeying (trusting) the advice, counsel or just accepting the support of a friend. On the other hand, I have also taken the suffering of others into my heart. Whether or not it has done them any good, I cannot say. I’m sure correlations are not linear. One bears the pain of another out of love, not utility.
I don’t think “the doctrine of substituted love” is a good name for this principle. Nevertheless, I know that something like this principle functions in the universe. Love compels us to bear one another’s burdens. And just as compelling, love teaches us to let others bear our burdens, for so we fulfill the law of Christ.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Tips to Avoid Delusion When Reading Spiritual Books

“Do not deceive yourself with idle hopes/ That in the world to come you will find life/If you have not tried to find it in this present world.”
From “The Ladder of Divine Graces” by Theophanes the Monk in volume 3 of The Philokalia.
Generally speaking, I do not recommend that people read the Philokalia, except as guided by a spiritual father. This is important for several reasons. First, like the Bible, the Philokalia is a set of texts written at different times by different authors for different purposes, although mostly to inspire monks in the spiritual life. Consequently, an unguided reader might make connections or imagine applications that are just that: imagination, not reality.

Further, the Philokalia is a set of collected texts. That is, it contains only selected texts from selected authors. These texts were selected in the late Middle Ages to meet a specific need. I won’t get into what the specific need was--that is not the purpose of this post--but I mention it only to emphasize that without guidance someone reading the Philokalia might wrongly think that it represents a complete summary of Eastern Orthodox spiritual wisdom. The Philokalia certainly is a treasury of Orthodox spiritual wisdom, but it is, to use a metaphor, only the gold in the treasury. There are also the diamonds and rubies, silver and platinum, and the other valuable gifts within the treasury of the Orthodox Church. These too must be appreciated in order to taste the fullness of the wisdom within the Church.
However, the biggest danger in reading the Philokalia without guidance--which, by the way, applies to the reading of any spiritual books, especially the Bible--is that people can deceive themselves into thinking they not only understand what they are reading, but also that they are actually practicing and experiencing what they are reading about. This is called delusion.
Unfortunately, there are very few experienced spiritual fathers. For many in the West, the only access to spiritual wisdom is through reading. For those who find themselves in this position, I suggest the following to help defend against the delusion that might come about from reading spiritual literature without guidance.
  1. Submit to the Church. As St. James said, If you can’t love the brother whom you see, how can you love God whom you have not seen? Similarly, if you cannot submit to the rhythm and discipline of the Church, you are fooling yourself to think that you are submitting to God through your own application and interpretation of the spiritual books you are reading.
  2. Take seriously the criticism of others, especially those who love you or who have a position of spiritual authority in your life. If others say that you are too________, you need to take it seriously. They may not be completely right, but they are probably neither completely wrong. Never quickly dismiss criticism. Always assume that others are more likely to see you more clearly than you see yourself. Always assume that you are wrong at some level and need to be corrected.
  3. Avoid pushing things to their extreme, logical or otherwise. A little aspirin can heal you, too much can kill you. There is no single key to the spiritual life. There is no one schema by which everything else must be interpreted. No words, principles or categories suffice to reveal God’s glory. Words may point the way, but the way itself must be known through experience. And no one experience, or even the totality of one person’s experience, no matter how profound, is the whole picture.
  4. Keep in mind that experience is always partial. Although you may indeed have experience in the spiritual life, consider your experience to be shallow. Assume that you have only scratched the surface. And if you think you can relate to the spiritual experiences you are reading about, be certain that you only relate to them as a child sounding out the words in a university text book relates to that text book.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Terrifying Good

In Charles Williams Descent into Hell, one of the characters contemplates "a good so alien as to be terrifying."  I think that is what Peter Damascene sees.  How can being a slave, being sick, or being in subjugation bring about anything good?  I can see why some would worry about possible philosophical slight of hand.  They wonder, how can evil produce good?

But what if good is much more alien than we suppose?  What if turning the other cheek and not resisting evil really is the way to good?  It is rather terrifying to take Jesus literally.

This is, I think, part of the reason why the Church needs monastics.  Most of us have neither the courage nor the faith to take Jesus at His word.  To do so would involve too much suffering.  However, in a monastic context, spiritual athletes can be trained--that is literally what the word "asceticism" means.  In a monastic context, it is possible--it has indeed been done--to train a man and woman to leave everything and follow Christ.  And when they do, their words are terrifying to us.  Like Peter Damascene's.

Last Sunday was the Gospel reading of the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  Like the Publican, my heart trembles at the terrible and alien reality of God's goodness.  Like the Publican, all I can do is beat my chest and stand afar off and cry: "Have mercy on me the sinner."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Where You Are Right Now

We are all tempted at various times to think that if the conditions of our life were different, we could serve God better.  This is not wisdom.  Right now, where you are, in the condition of your life today, you not only can serve God, but it is also the only way you can serve God.  A sick man can not serve God as a healthy man, for he is not a healthy man.  To put off full-hearted devotion to God until circumstances change is to waste you life in procrastination.

"The general gifts consist of the four elements and all that results from them, all the wonderful and awesome works of God outlined in Holy Scripture. The particular gifts are those gifts which God bestows upon every man individually, whether it be riches for the sake of charity, or poverty for the sake of patience with humility; whether it be authority for the sake of justice and the strengthening of virtues, or subjugation and slavery for the sake of the expeditious salvation of the soul; be it health for the sake of helping the infirm, or illness for the sake of the wreath of patience; be it understanding and skill in gaining wealth for the sake of virtue, or weakness and lack of skill for the sake of submissive humility. Even though they appear contrary to one another, all these are very good according to their purpose." -- St. Peter Damascene

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Lucky Ducky Feeds the Hungry

I watched two coyotes frolic in our field today.  
One of them was probably the one that got “Lucky Ducky” a few days ago.  Lucky was an amazing duck.  We hatched her under a bantam hen, and she was raised to think she was a chicken.  When she became mature, we bought another duck to try to teach Lucky to behave more duck-like.  
Lucky was afraid of the water.  

She liked to hang out with her new duck friend.  They particularly liked to look for slugs and snails in the bushes together, but when the new duck went into the pond, Lucky went back to the chicken coop.  
One day I had enough of the mess she was making in the chicken coop, and I caught Lucky and threw her into the pond.  Perhaps I was cruel, perhaps a better man would have continued trying to bribe her into the pond.  But I am not a better man.  
I threw her out about six feet into the pond.  She freaked out.  But she floated and quickly figured out how to propel herself back to shore where she climbed out and waddled very quickly back to the chicken coop.  
But the next day, Lucky followed her duck friend all the way to the edge of the water.  She took a few drinks, and waddled back.  The following day she stood with her feet in the water.  Finally, she began to swim,  and soon discovered that there were a lot more yummy mollusks in the pond than in the bushes.  She began spending several hours a day on the pond.
Lucky was the best laying duck we have ever owned.  She laid an egg almost every day for over two years.  Perhaps she learnt from her adopted family.
Lucky was blind in one eye.  This made it easy to catch her when you needed to.  Unfortunately, it made it easier for the coyote too.
Bonnie saw the whole thing.  She said the coyote was efficient and it was over quickly.  No wonder the coyotes are frolicking.  They have been dining on grain-fed duck all week.  

Monday, February 07, 2011

Emma, Truth and Salvation

As I have been reading Emma, I have been repeatedly struck by the importance of truth in Emma’s growth. I think this is one of the reasons why I like this novel so much.
One of my theologoumena (personal opinions about theology that are not a matter of dogma) is that all salvation, repentance and spiritual growth have to do with seeing and accepting the truth. Not particularly the truth about Jesus Christ, in the sense of accurate theological or historical knowledge of who Christ is and what he has done, that truth takes “ears to hear and eyes to see.” One does not know the Truth, even if one knows the facts. Knowledge of Christ the Truth comes only as we are able to see and accept truth in all aspects of life, and most particularly, the truth about ourselves. Accepting theological data does not save, but seeing and accepting the truth about ourselves may be the foundation of our salvation for it enables us to see Christ.
To know Christ, we have to begin first by knowing ourselves. We must know ourselves because we create our own lenses through which we see ourselves and see what is outside ourselves. Until those lenses begin to be corrected, we are lost in the world of our own delusions (even if we have the facts right). Both John the Baptist and Christ began their public ministry with these words, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Many say that Kingdom of Heaven refers to Christ Himself; however, I’m open to different ways to understand it. But regardless of what exactly Kingdom of Heaven means, one thing is certain: the imperative of the Kingdom of Heaven is repentance. And here we get to my point: in order to repent, I need to know myself, where I have failed, what I need to turn from, and what I need to turn toward. I need to know myself as I really am, the truth about myself; then I can repent, then I can grow in salvation, then I can begin to see Christ as He really is.
Emma finds freedom from her childish delusions in the course of the very rough first year of her majority. One might even say she is saved, although that may be stretching it too far for those who expect to find all spiritual transformation couched in religious terminology. Certainly we see Emma repent. And in my own stretch of typological fancy, I like to imagine that in her marriage to Mr. Knightly, the only one who ever tells her the truth, is an image of the Church’s marriage to Christ, and thus its final salvation.
[To be continued…]

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Communities and Loneliness

Communities: more than one.  Most of us move in and out communities.  The advent of modern transportation (beginning with the railway in the mid ninetieth century) first made it possible, then made it necessary, for people (in large numbers) to leave traditional communities and form new and increasingly temporary communities.  The advent of the internet has made community something even more transient. 

We belong to many different communities--communities related to work, to family, to recreation, to where we live, to what we believe or what motivates us in terms of religion, politics, causes or concerns.  You would think that with all of these communities, people would feel connected.  But they don't.  The proliferation of communities has been accompanied by an almost complete evaporation of any binding quality.  That is, communities of shared interest, shared life, or shared stuff exist only so long as it is convenient for the individual members of the communities.  Not only is one's membership in just about any community (including the nuclear family) completely voluntary, even the level of one's participation, one's transparency, or one's responsibility in that community is almost completely dependent on the whim of each individual member.
The world was not always that way.  As little as 150 years ago in Europe (and much more recently in other parts of the world), a person was born in the house he or she died in, never traveled more than 50 miles in his or her lifetime, never changed his or her job, and was a member of a religious tradition and a particular worshiping place that he or she never chose.  Most of the people who lived in a particular geographical community were also members of the extended family community, who were also members of the same worship community and whose business relationships were generally interconnected.  There were very few secrets.  Everyone knew just about everything about everyone, and no one had a choice about his or her responsibilities or level of participation.  Community was not a matter of choice, it was a matter of birth.  You were born into it.
And so today with our mobility and instant communication and our memberships in dozens of (often) very shallow and short-lived communities, today we are lonely.  Today we wonder why no one knows us, no one cares, no one seems to share anything really.  We wonder why our chosen communities today do not produce the same level of intimacy and caring that we imagine traditional communities provide.
And yet I wonder how much better or worse off we really are today with our many voluntary communities.  Actually, in terms of loneliness, I don't think it is much different.  Certainly life in a traditional village was no nirvana (all you have to do is read a little between the lines of any older piece of fiction to confirm that).  Finding genuine human connection, real sharing, real community within an unchanging set of neighbours may not have been any easier 150 or a thousand years ago than it is today.  Certainly human beings were no less selfish and no less shallow in the past than they are today.  

Certainly specific circumstances differ, yet the longings of the human heart do not.  Perhaps today we are lonely because we do not have the relationships we want to have, the relationships we imagine we should have, the community that we imagine will supply what seems to be missing.  I'd like to suggest that perhaps our very freedom has fooled us.  The fact that we are free to choose communities has fooled us into thinking that if we could only choose the right community, we would feel connected.  We would feel like were really are in a community--whatever we imagine that is supposed to feel like.

What if nothing has really changed much?  What if loneliness and lack of connectedness has very little to do with which or what communities I am connected to, and a whole lot to do with who I am in myself?  I think it might.  I think that inner transformation changes everything outside me.    I think that if I can find love in me, God's love for me and God's love for my neighbour--whether I've chosen him or her as my neighbour or not, regardless of how shallow or selfish that neighbour is--if I can find that love, then I can find community.

Some of you know that I correspond every week with a man in solitary confinement in a super maximum security prison in the U.S.  Monk Anthony, as he is now known, has found God's love in his heart.  His letters breathe the love he has for his guards and fellow inmates.  In the more than ten years I have been writing Monk Anthony, never once has he mentioned loneliness.  Love of God producing love of neighbour has made him feel at home in his unchosen community.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Community and Repentance

[I have been asked to give a talk on "community" to a group of zealous, young, mostly Mennonite Christians who have been trying for a couple of years to form an intentional community. Below is an initial reflection.]

If we look to the earliest Christians for a model of community, surely we must begin with Luke’s description of the first days of the church recorded in Acts 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship [community], in the breaking of bread and in prayers.”
Preceding this description of the earliest Christian community are St. Peter’s instructions as to how one enters the Christian community: “Repent baptized…and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Repentance precedes community. If we are going to understand how both to create and sustain Christian Community, I think we must begin by reflecting on how we might ourselves better repent.
I’d like to reflect a little on what repentance is not--or what may be tied to repentance, but is not repentance itself. Then I’d like to take a stab at what repentance may be, especially as it relates to creating and sustaining Christian community.
First, repentance is not essentially a moral matter. Certainly, repentance may involve morality, but when it does, moral change is a consequence of repentance, not repentance itself. People adjust their morality for all sorts of reasons, reasons that often have nothing at all to do with one’s relationship with God or one’s love for neighbor. Many drug addicts, sexual profligates, gangsters, burglars or white collar criminals have cleaned up their life for the perfectly selfish reason that they realized that their moral choices were making them miserable. Vanity and pride often motivate people to “do good.” Those who would never fast or rise early to pray for the sake of their souls, will diet severely and go to the gym every morning before work in order to look good in a bathing suit. No, mere moral change is not repentance.
And on the flip side, there are men and women whose hearts turn to God, who love their neighbor much more than themselves, and who yet are unable to make notable changes to their moral life. Lifestyles are ensnaring. Circumstances in life may make it impossible, or nearly impossible, for some people to change their behavior. I have seen heroin addicts kick the habit for the sake of Christ again and again, only to return to the drug and eventually die in an overdose. Addictions of all sorts hold us in ways that are very difficult to shake off, even if we are desperate to change. I have also known and have known of people involved in seriously immoral and/or illegal activity and who prayed earnestly for a way out. In most of these cases, the people involved were supporting or protecting others whose well being or very life would be at risk if they stopped the immoral or illegal activity they were doing. Sometimes, God provided a way out rather quickly. Sometimes it took years. Sometimes it took death.
No, repentance in not a matter of mere morality.
Secondly, repentance is not an emotional experience. Repentance may be emotional, or it may not. One may have intense emotional experiences as one grows in repentance, or one may not. The tearful weeping over personal sin or harm caused to others is not itself repentance. Repentance may touch the emotions powerfully, or it may not. And even those who have very emotional experiences related to repentance may not express that emotion outwardly. Some may live for weeks or months with a constant emotional pain, like a knife sticking into their side, but show very little outward sign of that pain. Others wail uncontrollably. You cannot judge someone’s emotional pain by outward signs. Much less can you identify repentance with outward emotional display. Repentance is something much deeper than emotions, although it may touch the emotions.
Finally, repentance is not something you do once and for all. Repentance is a way of life. Repentance is not one turning point, it is a life of constantly turning to God.
Constantly turning to God. This is repentance.
The word “repentance” comes from the Greek word metanoia, and unfortunately, the literal translation of metanoia is quite misleading. Literally it means “with the mind” or “to change the mind.” This is misleading because when we think of “mind” in English we think of the rational part of our brain. To change our minds implies a rational decision--usually based on evidence or argument. Such an understanding of repentance, in my experience, far from creating community, goes a long way toward destroying Christian community.
So long as repentance (change of mind) is based on rationality, we are driven to demonize or belittle those who do not seem to repent, those who disagree with us. When repentance is based on reason, we force ourselves into a syllogistic trap. Those who do not seem to repent do not do so for only two possible reasons: the person either can’t understand the reasons why he or she should repent, or the person won’t accept the reasons. In the latter case, the apparently unrepentant one is demonized. She or he is an intentional sinner because she or he chooses not see reason. In the former case, the person is marginalized, belittled or despised. The person’s inability to see reason may inspire pity, but mostly she or he is just not taken seriously. She or he is treated like a child or a fool who just doesn’t know any better. Either way, demon or fool, such an understanding of repentance based on rationality destroys community because it legitimizes the marginalization of those who don’t seem to get it.
However, there is another way to understand metanoia. In the ancient Christian tradition, especially as it is understood and interpreted by the Eastern Christian Fathers and Mothers, mind (or in Greek, nous) is not understood as the reasoning part of the brain, but rather as that part of the mind, or what in English we generally call heart, that can know and have relationship with God. So in this tradition, repentance is understood as turning one’s heart to God. To be a little more specific, repentance means submitting the rational mind to the heart, learning to pay attention to or in the heart.
Such an understanding of repentance helps create and build community because it moves the focus of relationships inward away from behavior. It moves the focus to the heart, where we meet God and where we can begin to see others from a new perspective. It may sound strange, this idea of seeing with the heart, but many of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church have used the expression “eyes of the heart” to refer to this part of our mind or heart that can know God. When we can see others with our heart, we can love them, even if they do not love us, even if they annoy us at some level, even if they hate us. Love can be the only foundation for successful Christian community.
This does not mean that behavior is irrelevant. Communities require rules, or rather shared expectations. However, repentance, the ongoing turning of the heart toward God and growth in the ability to see one another with the eyes of the heart provides the grace that keep rules from becoming legalism. Communities often have to make tough decisions about what is and isn’t appropriate in that community. But love, seeing with the eyes of the heart, helps communities make tough transitions in at least two very practical ways.
First, when you love, you listen. What so quickly destroys community in the rationality-based model of repentance is that only those who fit a predetermined mold are listened to seriously. Who really listens to fools or demons? We may pretend to listen to make them feel better, but really we have already made up our mind. Community requires real listening, listening with the heart. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, a seventh century guide to Christian community living, only minor decisions were to be made with the counsel of the leadership of the community. All important decisions were to be made after everyone in the community had been heard. And here, St. Benedict makes an interesting comment: “God often reveals what is better to the younger.” And younger here refers not merely to age, but to spiritual maturity also. Love helps us listen to everyone.
Finally, seeing with the eyes of our heart enables us to have compassion, to share the pain of others. And when we share in the pain of others, we are careful to cause as little pain as possible. Sooner or later, more or less often, separation is necessary in a community. Not everybody fits well into every community. Sometimes separation is voluntary, a mutual realization that “salvation” (in the broadest possible sense) is not possible here, that the problems cannot be solved in the context of this community as it is now.
However, sometimes amputation is called for. Sometimes for the safety of the whole or of a vulnerable minority an offending member must be forcibly excommunicated--separated from the community. It is very difficult to know when someone is dangerous to a community. Often those of a vulnerable group are also those who have been marginalized, whose voices are not listened to seriously, especially if the dangerous one is a leader. Only by listening with our hearts, listening to everyone, even the weak, the young, and those who don't seem to get it, can we make our community a safe place.

However the apparently offending member needs to be listened to carefully too, without prejudgement. Careful listening may not heal the wound, the person may still need to leave the community. But perpetrators are usually victims too, and knowing that, seeing that and feeling that can help a great deal. For even if there must be an amputation, proper care and attention can safeguard against infection, resentment and sometimes even a witch hunt, which can kill community life more quickly than just about anything.
The first Christians required a miracle of the Holy Spirit to be a community, and any successful Christian community requires nothing less. I have suggested that one important aspect of that miracle of the Holy Spirit is repentance, repentance understood as an ongoing attention to the heart, an ongoing turning of the heart towards God. The ongoing repentance of the heart helps create and sustain community by moving the locus of discernment away from what is seen outwardly with the eyes to what is seen inwardly with the eyes of the heart, what is seen through love. But loving others starts with me. It starts with my repentance, my turning of my heart to God, letting my mind descend into my heart, and learning to see others there. Repentance precedes community. Repentance does not make community life less difficult. It only makes it more loving, more Christian, more transforming.