Mysticism


Caught between…Well, I did it. I went. Feeling spiritually downcast these days, I went to one of the local Southern Baptist mini-megachurches in the area for an evening service tonight. I just needed to do it. I sucked it up, decided that I didn’t have to have a “high-church” experience tonight, or traditional baptist hymnology on an organ, but wanted to be with people who genuinely love their image of God and Christ. Most of all, I just wanted to sing contemporary praise music. I can’t explain why, and even if I could, it would be in forced academicese.

I ended up sitting next to the Associate Pastor, who I actually know a little bit. When I arrived, about 5 minutes after the start of the service, and joined in with the singing. We shortly broke into small prayer groups.

All I really want to note is how contemplative this was. I don’t believe that I have experienced such a moving spirit of prayer since I was at Glastonbury Abbey.

Being a practicing Christian, or of any other faith tradition, and a professional academic scholar of religion really is to be caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, especially when one’s family doesn’t really see what the fuss is about, as much as they might try. It can get pretty lonely between the stone and the wall.

It was a good night. A good, good night.

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Word Made Flesh.Whatever else Christian faith may be, it is incarnational at its core. It is common for us to think of this in the classical expression of “God becoming man,” but the gospel of John speaks of it in terms that are not spoken of nearly as much. For John, the incarnation is the Word becoming Flesh.

I offer up some thoughts of reflection on the idea of Word becoming flesh.

Flesh is passionate and desirous.

But it is not only passionate and desirous for other flesh, but also for knowledge.

Knowledge for us comes in the form of Words, and we are oversaturated with words in the twenty-first century.

Knowledge is erotic. The Bible tells us as much in its Hebrew expression, and the classical Greeks knew this to be the case in Homer as well.

To know something is to regard it, and as Jane Hirshfield notes, “what we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking.” The power of the Word is in its power to seduce us and to awaken desire for knowledge.

Adrienne Rich: “I dreamed you were a poem, I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…”

Rich, again:

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What kind of atonement is this all about?
-and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.

and:

I have written so many words
wanting to live inside you
to be of use to you

The Desert Fathers of the Christian tradition believed the flesh to be evil on account of its capacity for passion and desire, and so they fled into the desert, long the archetype of dryness, infertility, and anti-passion. Yet it is in this environment where passion and desire are awakened most. They also had a profound mistrust of the written word, and yet their own words were assiduously recorded onto parchments. It was as if the Fathers knew the eroticism of knowledge and the desire for the Word.

The connection between parched desire and parchment may be more than coincidental.

evagrius.gif A few words of wisdom from the Desert Father Evagrius before hitting the sack:

Evagrius said, “A wandering mind is strengthened by reading, and prayer. Passion is dampened down by hunger and work and solitude. Anger is repressed by psalmody and long-suffering and mercy. But all these should be at the proper times and in due measure. If they are used at the wrong times and to excess, they are useful for a short time. But what is only useful for a short time, is harmful in the long run” (Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, 93).

Just when you think you’ve seen everything, stuff like this reminds you of what Bruce Cockburn says: You’ve Never Seen Everything. For which, I guess, we can only be thankful. But here’s a new one, at least to me: Virtue Perfume, a new beauty product that the creators say was inspired by biblical ingredients and which is geared toward assisting the wearer, or the lover, as the case may be, towards spiritual attainment. $80 bucks gets you a chance to be biblical, spiritual, and sexy all at the same time.

Scent From the Bible

Obviously this kind of materialist marketing, capitalizing on obscure content from the text of the Bible, is nothing new. Pop-culture pragmatic evangelical products have been around for at least 30 or so years and include everything from rock music to visual art of biblical scenes and characters, Christian Tee-shirts that parody popular consumerist products and ideology, to Christian horror flicks. The Christian retail industry hit something like $4 billion dollars in sales three years ago, and this figure doesn’t even include sales of Catholic bookshops and gift stores that marked incense, images, and other such sensory aids to worship. So I suppose that the surprising thing is that it took so long for a Christian perfume to appear at all.

Now, while I find the consumer-capitalist junk products of Tee-shirts and other Christiany knick-knacks highly problematic, especially for the purpose of evangelism, I can definitely appreciate sensory, physical, and material elements in the practice of faith. The natural, physical world exists to be experienced through the senses, which can deepen faith for those who have it and can inspire mystical ecstasy even among those who profess no faith or who cannot intellectually assent to the Divine. There is nothing that inspires my experience of God so much as things that allow me to participate in the physical, sensory world of the Creation. So much that I find sensorily beautiful move me to tears and to stronger faith. And smells are one of these; food, for example, is a spiritual experience for me from time to time, as it engages sight, smell, and taste. The human body is also an inspiration to beauty that engages the senses. I love good perfumes on my woman. So the concept of something like Virtue Perfume as an aid to experiencing the sacred isn’t particularly foreign or offensive to me.

What I find ridiculous is the need to justify the spiritual value of sensory and bodily beauty to certain Christian groups by marketing the stuff as a religious product and, especially, by making it “biblical.” As if to say that smelling good and feeling sensual or sexy is sinf, unchristian, and unbiblical unless it can be shown that smelling good, feeling sensual, or being sexy is OK’ed by Scripture. The way Virtue tries to pull this off is by listing its ingredients as “biblical.” And so they are. But so what? In fact, the website even notes that one of these biblical ingredients, Apricot, was probably the original forbidden fruit. This would have been news to medieval theologians like Bernard, no stranger to sensual spirituality himself, who thought of the fruit as the apple, and of modern scholars who find it much more likely that the forbidden fruit was the pomegranate. But in any case, it is highly ironic that an ap-peal to the forbidden fruit in this very biblical list would be used as an aid to experiencing God.

The thinking is that “Christians won’t buy perfumes if they psychologically associate them with negative stereotypes of sexuality that most perfumes perpetuate.” And that’s probably the case. Why feed into the sex industry even more by buying products that perpetuate sexual imagery that is damaging and destructive? It is tough, I suppose, to avoid thinking of having wild sex on the beach if your schnozz picks up avirtue-perfume.gif whiff Nautica or whatever. Having a marketing image that provides an alternative to ads like Nautica’s or Calvin Klein’s is commendable, but to actually say it’s “biblical” goes a bit over the top. Some things can be good, and sensual, without having to justify it as being biblical.

Plus, its $80.00 bucks.

Cover of Davis McCombs, Ultima ThuleI’m sitting here doing a little reading from Davis McCombs’ Ultima Thule, a collection of the author’s poems inspired by Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Told from the vantage point of a slave cavern guide to tourists of Mammoth Cave in the 19th century, these poems are stunning reflections on beauty and provide some pretty awesome metaphors for life, spirituality, the whole bit. As a religionist and student of scriptures who also views the natural world in metaphoric terms for deep spirituality and community ethics, I was particularly taken by the poem “Tours:”

Tours

The services of a guide cannot, as a rule,
be dispensed with; we alone can disentangle
the winding passageways. I will admit
the tours for me grow burdensome.
How long must I endure their need to fill
with talk the natural silence? I have heard
it all before, their proposed improvements:
Widen the trails so that two carriages
may pass abreast … Here, a capacious ballroom.
Mere fancies. And yet beneath their words
I have discerned a kind of rough-hewn fear.
From drawing rooms and formal gardens
they come to me, from sunlit lives they enter
the chill, grand and instantaneous night. (Ultima Thule, p. 17)

This is such a striking metaphor for what we as educators do. It also speaks to me in terms of stewardship; like the poet, we have all heard of proposed improvements to just about everything from Bibles to Bayous. Despite my vocation, I do feel moved to sometimes just turn off the exegesis, turn off the exposition, the discussion, and just let the text/landscape speak for itself, in silence.

And the rough-hewn fear … yeah, for both student and educator, laity and pastor, reader and expositor.

To do this poem justice, I must cease now, and let it speak to you in the silence.

View of Crater LakeRecently I have been reflecting on what it means to try to live a real life in a world that strikes me as becoming increasingly unreal. Our world aspires now to unrealistic expectations of “progress” on the one hand or to the imminent advent of a salvific messiah to bring us to an eternal utopia on the other. Beauty is commodified and objectivized, to the point that we can no longer tell the difference between what is authentically beautiful and intrinsically good and what is a commercialized copy to serve ends that are anything but good. Seems like we have somehow exchanged genuine love for the beautiful and the good for a crass faith in fakes, as Umberto Eco puts it. Even when an occasional prophet comes along to expose the idols we have constructed, we typically have no idea how to restore, or re-create, an original beauty that can deconstruct our original sin.

In a recent post, Audrey (of saintsophia.wordpress.com) expresses her desire to be able to recreate in a way that gets her away from the pains and horror of the ugliness of real life, what Merton would call the “dread of emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity” that results in the “experience of boredom and of spiritual disorientation” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p. 25). I have been feeling exactly the same, and the recent events in Blacksburg, Virginia, as well as the student’s self-proclaimed justifications for his actions, demonstrate how much the faith in fakes has taken over. Like Audrey, I also seek to recreate and to develop a spirituality and consciousness of beauty and goodness and ingenuity that can combat the faith in fakes wherever we find it (and this includes, let it be said right now, our churches and communities of faith). How do we live a real life in an unreal world? How do we life a life that seeks creation and recreation, that consecrates the beautiful and cherishes the good, that names the holy and recognizes the sacred?

 

Diane Ackerman, “The Work of the Poet is to Name What is Holy”

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy:

the spring snow
that hides unevenness
but also records
a dog walked at lunchtime,
the hieroglyphs of birds,
pawprints of a life
tiny but resolute;

how, like Russian dolls,
we nest in previous selves;

the lustrous itch
that compels and oyster
to forge a pearl,
or a poet a verse;

the drawing on of evening
belted at the waist;

snowfields of diamond dust;

the cozy monotony
of our days, in which
love appears with a holler;

the way a man’s body
has its own geography –
cliffs, aqueducts, pumice fields,
but a woman’s is the jungle,
hot, steamy, full of song;

the brain’s curiosity shop
filled with quaint mementos
and shadowy antiques
hidden away in drawers;

the plain geometry
of you, me, and art –
our angles at rest
among shifting forms.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,

and not to mind so much
the pinch of words
to cope with memories
weak as falling buildings,

or render loss, love,
and the penitentiary
of worry where we live.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,
a task fit for eternity,
or the small Eden of this hour.

Harlan Hubbard’s “Pastoral Kentucky Hillside With Sheep”

From A Timbered Choir, 1991:1 (p. 125-6).

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We’d oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, or
A healthy whore. Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty become
What we have feared to be.

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