Archive for the ‘St. Augustine’ Category

Gods, Porn, Methods   Leave a comment

End of year thoughts.

The caption of the photo below has a mini-spoiler — skip as needed.

tradition-books

Yoda has good counsel about books in “Last of the Jedi”

“I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet”, writes author, Buddhist and atheist Stephen Batchelor, “but this does not mean that either God or Hamlet has nothing of value to say” (Batchelor, Stephen. Living with the Devil. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2004). I gotta ask you: Doesn’t that deserve its own t-shirt?!

What are some of the things that God (or Hamlet) says to us? For the sake of foolishness or efficiency, let’s lump them together, prince and deity.

As late incarnations of the Fisher King, Hamlet, his father and his uncle all share a corruption also infecting their land itself: “something rotten in the state of Denmark”, indeed. Any sources of healing? A grail? There must be something.

Hmm. Fratricide, regicide, suicide — really no good options there. Hamlet at over 400 years old isn’t quite yet as immortal as a god, but it’s on its way, and even a god might well draw the line at three such wretched choices. There may be “special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, the prince reflects, recalling Scriptural assurances of a Divine Plan behind things, but you can tell when such lines have their own threads in our online fora, with people asking “What does it mean?” that the current beta version of the Divine Plan has sent all birds south for the winter of our play. No birds to save us here, no dove for any Ark, wren for inspiration, Eagle of the West to airlift us out of Mordor.

In a word, things suck. It’s gotten to the point where the Prince selfishly denies even his best friend Horatio the “felicity” or happiness of suicide: “Absent thee from felicity awhile/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story”. But, I ask Hamlet and God, are any of our stories worth that? Have things always sucked this much? Do we have any overarching story that can make sense of this world for us? (Three questions, Existential Triad #26.) In all its delicious suffering and gloom and razor wit, we could fairly call Hamlet (the play) a piece of Renaissance theater porn.

Is a spiritual search pornographic? Do we play out spiritual scripts to arouse ourselves in ways others (or we ourselves) deem destructive? (Is that a rhetorical question?!)

Horatio says, speaking of Hamlet — and speaking of all of us, too, because that’s what great cultural achievements do, after all — “he was likely, had he been put on/To have proved most royal”. Yes, along with the dead prince, we’re all “put on”, and all “likely”: life as a matter of the odds.

The “royal” part, though — we just can’t accept that yet, even in the face of stories trying their level best to show us, and teach us how. That identity — it implies too much, the gap yawning between what we are and what we could be, an open wound. So we reject it whenever possible, saving such inward knowing for our most unguarded moments with our favorite music, books, films, crafts, people, waking dreams. (Yes, these things rank nearly equal in my life.) Or “children’s movies” we watch with the kids, that may get it half-right, half of the time.

A 27 Dec. ’17 article (film spoiler alert!) in The Atlantic gets in on the Game.  (We’re all playing.) Writing in “Why The Last Jedi Is More ‘Spiritual’ Than ‘Religious'”, Chaim Saiman begins:

For at least two generations, the Star Wars saga has served as a kind of secularized American religion. Throughout the series, the Force is a stand-in for a divine power that draws on a number of mystical traditions, representing the balance of good and evil, the promise of an ultimate unity, and the notion that those learned in its ways can tap into the infinite.

As Saiman scrutinizes the distinctly contemporary sensibility pervading “Last of the Jedi’s” attitude towards tradition, he concludes “… even a fictional secular religion will likely reflect the spiritual economy of its time”. Our tendency to value experiences over learning, or feeling over wisdom (not that these pairs equate) means we often hold traditions suspect without ever having immersed ourselves in them to learn them from the inside. So we often run from one workshop or neo-tradition or guru to another, collecting them like trophies or merit badges. Unlike Rey, we don’t come with a Force chip apparently pre-installed and active as a standard factory setting. (“Oh yes we do!”, say the stories.) Sci-fi porn?

If there’s a shift in the philosophical and religious tone in “Jedi” from the 1977 original Episode IV “A New Hope”, Saiman asserts, it’s that traditions have failed, and we’re thrown back on ourselves. Self-help porn?

So what, in turn, does that mean for our “spiritual economy”?

The great critic and author Harold Bloom told his students, referring to literary criticism, that interpretation is another form of more or less “creative misreading”.

Let’s extend Bloom’s insight where he never intended it, a popular form of magic in itself. How often we misread our lives and each other, the influences they bear on us, and our own motives and desires! Particularly well-done misreadings fill our theaters and earphones, climb our playlists and Top Tens, shaping the zeitgeist ever since zeits became geisty.

Bloom was famous for telling his students “There is no method except yourself” as far as criticism is concerned, and that too feels more widely applicable to our lives.

Or at least to mine. So here goes. Traditions exist, wisdom exists, we encounter them and decide out of all that we are what we will choose and value. In a pinch, we even creatively assign responsibility for our choices to any and everyone else, out of all sorts of motives, honing and refining our method.

Truth is never OSFA, “one size fits all”, though we recognize reflections everywhere, shards of what often feels like an original Mirror. Human traditions often grab hold of a single shard and — terrified they’ll lose even that one — erect it as the sole truth. Maybe this is our original and only idolatry.

So Hamlet instructs the actors for the play-within-the-play, stand-ins for all of us: “Hold the mirror up to nature (or, we might say, existence), to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. If there’s one thing true wisdom does, it’s to show us such forms and pressures. Not only the holes of a culture and civilization at any given moment, especially our own, but also the rebalancing factors and energies we can apply to survive and thrive in that civilization, and when it starts to falter, after.

In the end, the problem isn’t tradition or ritual, but dead tradition and rotting ritual. The soup of spirituality needs the pot of form, or we go about a life or five with vague intentions that ultimately give us little and fail us at need. “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s”, wrote William Blake.

Almost right.

St Augustine caravaggioFor once I’ll trust old Auggie, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), with the last words this time, with a few annotations. Words suitable to conclude this blog for 2017, and open the way for a new cycle in the new year.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not [only] in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy [unless you need to!], but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going.

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Images: tradition; Caravaggio’s St. Augustine.

 

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2: Druid and Christian — Elemental Sacraments   Leave a comment

[Part 1|2|3|4|5]

In the previous post I wrote: “In sacrament rather than creed lies one potent meeting-place for Druid and Christian”. It’s this junction that I’ll continue to explore here.

What’s a sacrament? A means of perceiving the sacred. Though every culture has them, in the West our access points to the holy can feel few and far between, even more precious because of their rarity. Of course we’ve trimmed and peeled many of them away ourselves — some too soon, others well after their expiration dates.

 

fireworship-yi2

Fire worship among the Yi people in Kunming, China. Xinhua News.

Nonetheless, as a doorway, sacrament itself isn’t holy, except by association. It acquires a secondary patina of holiness that makes up part of the uplift we can experience when we turn its way, if it’s still working. For it can indeed be profaned, though the underlying sacred reality it points to is immune to human tampering. That reality wouldn’t be worth much, after all, if we could trample it in the mud.  (And we do our share of trampling. One of the more startling instances comes from Quebecois French, which intentionally repurposes Catholic vocabulary for profanity — including the word sacrament itself.)

water-heart

Hence, when “the barbarians are at the gates”, they (we) can destroy things of beauty, reverence and spiritual power, but the reality that gave them birth remains untouched. It will burst forth again in new forms and guises to open the eyes and the hearts of people yet unborn.

Will it? We certainly say and believe such things. Are they merely a kind of whistling in the dark?

One test lies in sacraments themselves. Many of them may receive scant acknowledgement in a given culture. Yet who among us who has deeply loved another person doubts that there is a sacrament made manifest? We can and do sentimentalize it, in part to avoid its sacramental power.

Other examples abound, instances that many cultures hedge about with rituals of word and action. A meal shared with others, a birth, a death, a “first” in a young life: first love, first kill, first sexual experience, first assumption of other adult roles and responsibilities. The fact that in so-called secular cultures we still institutionalize and legalize such things as drinking alcohol, driving cars, voting, joining the military, merely confirms a spiritual fact — awkwardly, perhaps, and blindly groping for its deeper truth, no doubt. That we confer grades of status by age attests to our discomfort with other criteria — ones that require wisdom, vision, insight. It’s easier to grant status mechanically, by the calendar, than to search a heart.

A sacrament, then, because it’s “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” as the 5th century St. Augustine perceived, acknowledges something that already exists. We don’t create it, though we allow it to take shape and form, to have an impact, because we make room for it in our lives. (There seems to be a Minimum Sacramental Quotient, an MSQ, in every life: we’re all born, eat, and die, even if we shy away from, and struggle to avoid, every other divine intrusion on our human busy-ness.) We can midwife the sacred, and catalyze and welcome it, then, or resist it, but only up to a point. Grace is gratia, gift — and ample reason for gratitude.

When Druids initiate a new Bard, something happens that allows a sacrament that outward manifestation. When a Christian experiences the presence of God in prayer or Communion, the connection with the sacred moves from inner potential to outer expression. We can sense it, often, with our physical bodies. Or in the words of one of the repeating songs from Beauty and the Beast, “There’s something there that wasn’t there before”. Lacking other means of access, many people experience sacraments, or at least a sacramental flavor, in the “profane” world of Hollywood and the entertainment “industry”. So let’s be more profane, not less: pro-fane, standing near a fane or shrine, rubbing shoulders with gods and spirits outside, if not in the fane, or making a fane of our bodies and lives.

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One common friction-point in midwifing a sacrament is means. “What’s your fane?” Deny another’s access-points to the sacred by discrediting their sacraments, and you attempt to own and control and box in what is not, in the end, wholly subject to human will. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “No salvation outside the Church”, just doesn’t work for many people any more. (Not to mention that sometimes what you’re looking for isn’t salvation but something else entirely.)

There’s a Pagan movement towards what has been critiqued as “inflation”, and a Christian one that has been likewise critiqued as “deflation”, of the human self. Pagans appear to deify, and Christians to abase, the self, Both meta-techniques strive to open the doors to the sacred by removing obstacles to sacraments. And making a proper container for what is holy can be a deal of work. Latter-day solutions like “spiritual-but-not-religious” attempt to bypass the need for containers altogether, but they offer their own problems, and containers tend to creep back in.

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Samhain. Hallowed Evening. Masses, rituals for the Dead-who-live. Calling out their names, those who have passed in the previous year. Hear them named around the evening fire.

“Look in the mirror, Ancestor. The veil is always thin.”

“What we have received, we pass on.”

“What do you bring from the Otherworld? And what can we offer you?”

“Assist me to erect the ancient altar at which in days past all worshipped, the great altar of all things” run the words of one Pagan rite.

Introibo ad altare Dei, intones the Catholic priest, using the words from Psalm 42:4. “I will go into the altar of God”.

“Look at the shape of the altar; it is your own consciousness”, says one of the Wise.

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Can we see here the faint outlines of a shared set of sacraments for Christian Druids and Druid Christians? What links followers of Grail, Cross and Star, who long to extend what each does best, sacramental elements, elemental sacraments in the broader sense of components, basic parts, building materials for the Door that is always open, the “Door without a Key”? Jesus says “I stand at the door and knock”, and Merlin waves and beckons from the other side. Earth and water, air and fire, blood and mistletoe, wine and breath, we bring you to our altars.

In our awkward groping ways, we all stumble on and into sacraments. For those looking to learn from these two neighboring traditions, ones with Trees at their centers, maybe one of the first sacraments to celebrate is humility with each other, humilis, an attitude and approach close to the earth, humus. “Earth my body, fire my spirit …”

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Images: Fire worship; “Living water“.

 

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