Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mystagogia: Beginning Again

"Behold, I tell you a mystery." God is mysterious. To write this is not to imply that God is unknowable. I do, however, mean to imply that God cannot be known simply by reading about Him, any more than someone can be my friend simply by reading my blog. All spiritual beings manifest mystery: "Deep is calling on deep," is one passage of Scripture that the Fathers frequently used to express this fact. A human voice seeking God, calling out to God, is one fathomless depth seeking another.

We are all driven to know other spiritual beings. We are made for communion. We are incomplete without each other and without God. Our differences suggest this, and where post-modern philosophy posits a fundamental violence caused by a supposed desire to wipe out difference, to make other persons like myself, Christians say that where this violence exists, it is a form of sin, not of nature. Nature, created good, impels us to appreciate the necessity of difference in communion. St. Paul gave this truth its classic expression:

"There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit....For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ....For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body....The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you,"....Now you are the body of Christ and individually member of it [excerpts from 1 Corinthians 12]."

People who 'fall in love' experience something of the reality of our desire for communion and the goodness of communion. Life somehow seems to make more sense. One's own gifts seem to find purpose in serving another, whose own gifts seem so precious.

What we find, after initial enthusiasm in love, at work, or in other meaningful activity, is that there are inside us areas of 'blockage'. We find something strange about other persons, or unnerving in ourselves. Communion seems to threaten us with annihilation of what is unique in us or other persons. We lose heart; we need a 'gut check'. Will we trust the original inspiration, and do battle against what stands in the way of love and responsibility? Or will we give into the post-modern nihilism of constant flux, 'tolerance' that is simply an excuse for not caring?

In the language of Christianity, those 'blockages', those parts of ourselves that kick against the goad, that seek preservation of a narrow self instead of solidarity with the bigger picture: this is part of the matrix of sin, either 'original' or personal and chosen sin. We are born with an inclination toward poor choices and weaken what should be a naturally joyful response to life. The moments of falling in love, being rapt in the beauty of a sunset or a beautiful church, of being creative, these are moments of grace, in which the call to communion gives us insight into the radical freedom and goodness of the Creator and His creation. This is merely insight and not full understanding because those blockages in us are still there, and because spiritual beings are unfathomable mysteries. Our insight suggests that the pursuit of love is worthwhile, that behind the mysteries of life is Someone Who is Good and Who is Love.

It is because we have this fundamental conviction of God's goodness that we make the 'gut check' that allows us to confront the unconverted parts of ourselves, those 'blockages' that undermine love and joy. This is why the universal tradition of the Church, in accord with other major religions and ancient philosophies, sees the need for asceticism if we are to progress in wisdom, insight and understanding. We cannot simply go toward truth with our minds without taking account of the sluggish neediness of an ill-disciplined body and will. Pascal captured this memorably in a Pensee: man ponders the mysteries of far-away galaxies one moment, and the next curses the banal and insignificant fly that lands on his brow. Our path to wholeness and holiness begins with recognition of our present state, with all the ambiguities of our motives, all the hidden compromises that we have made with disintegration.

This is what is captured by the early monastic tradition when we read quotes such as these:

"Whoever wishes to attain to the theoretike [that is, spiritual knowledge of God] must first pursue practical knowledge with all his strength and power. For the praktike [practical knowledge=moral virtue] can be possessed without the theoretical, but the theoretical can never be seized without the practical. For certain steps...follow one another according to [a] method [so that] a person can attain to a heaight to which he cannot fly if the first step has not been takeen. In vain, therefore, does someone who does not reject the contagion of vice strive for the vision of God. 'For the Spirit of God hates deception, and it does not dwell in a body subject to sin [Wisdom 1: 5, 4].

"Now this practical perfection exists in a twofold form. Its first mode is that of knowing the nature of all the vices and the method of remedying them. The second is that of discerning the sequence of the virtues and forming our mind by their perfection in such a way that it is obedient to them not as if it were coerced and subjected to an arbitrary rule but as taking pleasure in and enjoying what is so to say a natural good, thus mounting with delight the hard and narrow way. [Cassian, Conf XVI. 1-2; emphases added; cf. RB 7: 67-70, and 58: 8]"

Abba Antony the Great expresses a similar nexus of teaching in his famous first exhortation after emerging from his fortress, with his "soul in a state of purity, for it was not constricted by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor affected by either laughter or dejection. Moreover...he was not annoyed any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature."
[Vita Harper Collins ed. p. 18]

He goes on to teach thus: "Having therefore made a beginning and set out already on the way of virtue, let us press forward to what lies ahead....For virtue exists when the soul maintains its intellectual part according to nature....When it turns from its course and is twisted away from what it naturally is, then we speak of the vice of the soul....First we ought to understand this....much prayer and asceticism is needed so that one who receives through the Spirit the gift of discrimination of spirits might be able to recognize their traits. [pp 22-24]"

At first blush, this emphasis on learning what the vices are and their traits tends to strike [post-]moderns as overly harsh, obsessed by sin and self-worthlessness. The opposite in fact is the case. The best defense is a good offense: zealous to guard 'what is in accord with nature' and is therefore good, we first set out to do combat against whatever lessens our humanity and our freedom, whatever stands in the way of our growing in understanding of the mysteries of God.

So God willing, we will really move on to theoretike this coming week.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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