Thursday, April 26, 2018

the ideal is an illusion...

"The ideal doesn't exist," writes Jean Vanier. "The personal equilibrium and the harmony people dream of come only after years and years of struggle, and then only as flashes of grace and peace." Sounding much like Stephen Mitchell in his books, The Gospel According to Jesus and The Book of Job, Vanier insists that idealistic and/or sentimental yearnings for peace keep us from doing the hard work of being fully alive in our flesh in this moment. As others have said, "The perfect is the enemy of the good" and keeps us from being engaged and real in the present.

Peace is the fruit of love and service to others. I'd like to tell the people in communities:  Stop looking for peace. Give yourselves where you are. Stop looking at yourselves, look instead at your brothers and sisters in need. Ask how you can better love your brothers and sisters. Then you will find peace. (Vanier)

Mitchell offers a clarifying insight: human beings often have a nostalgia for the future. Like my own critique of John Lennon's self-absorbed utopianism from earlier this week, the Jewish/Zen Buddhist poet, Mitchell, notes that:

There is such a thing as nostalgia for the future. Both Judaism and Christianity ache with it. It is a vision of the Golden Age, the days of perpetual summer in a world of straw-eating lions and roses without thorns, when human life will be foolproof, and fulfilled in an endlessly prolonged finale of delight. I don’t mean to make fun of the messianic vision. In many ways it is admirable, and it has inspired political and religious leaders from Isaiah to Martin Luther King. But it is a kind of benign insanity. And if we take it seriously enough, if we live it twenty-four hours a day, we will spend all our time working in anticipation, and will never enter the Sabbath of the heart. How moving and at the same time how ridiculous is the story of the Hasidic rabbi who, every morning, as soon as he woke up, would rush out his front door to see if the Messiah had arrived.(Another Hasidic story, about a more mature stage of this consciousness, takes place at the Passover seder. The rabbi tells his chief disciple to go outside and see if the Messiah has come. “But Rabbi, if the Messiah came, wouldn’t you know it in here?” the disciple says, pointing to his heart. “Ah,” says the rabbi, pointing to his own heart, “but in here, the Messiah has already come.”) Who among the now-middle-aged doesn’t remember the fervor of the Sixties, when young people believed that love could transform the world? “You may say I’m a dreamer,” John Lennon sang, “but I’m not the only one.” The messianic dream of the future may be humanity’s sweetest dream. But it is a dream nevertheless, as long as there is a separation between inside and outside, as long as we don’t transform ourselves. And Jesus, like the Buddha, was a man who had awakened from all dreams.

Mitchell makes the same case in his commentary on Job, too. After a careful
analysis of the story of an upright and moral man who is brought low by brokenness and suffering, Mitchell offers two truths that resonate with Vanier's wisdom. First, as Job's suffering becomes intolerable, he cannot remain faithful and sane without crying out against the pain.  Second, it is only after his anger embraces his sorrow that Job experiences a new intimacy with the holy. It is no longer a faith of binary morality or childlike trust. Now Job knows an integration of flesh and spirit beyond easy comprehension.

What does it mean to answer someone about human suffering? For there are answers beyond the one-size-fits-all propositions of the theologians. But these answers can’t be imposed from the outside. They will resonate only where the questioner lets them enter. Above all, they require a willingness to accept what can be excruciating to the ego. Often we find such reality unbearable. The light is so brilliant that it hurts, as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and we retreat to the softer glow of a familiar, comfortable grief. There is never an answer to the great question of life and death, unless it is my answer or yours. Because ultimately it isn’t a question that is addressed, but a person. Our whole being has to be answered. At that point, both question and answer disappear, like hunger after a good meal.

“God is subtle, but not malicious,” Einstein said in a different context. We have to listen to the Voice from the Whirlwind in a more oblique mode, as if its true meaning lay inside the logical framework of its words. First, we should notice how the answer consists mostly of questions (a good Jewish trait). In their volume and insistence, these questions acquire a peculiar quality. They sound in our ears as a ground bass to the melody of their content, and eventually function as a kind of benign subliminal message, asking a fundamental question that will dissolve everything Job thought he knew.

The closest we can get to that question is: What do you know? During their dialogue, Job and the friends agree about the limits of human understanding, but none of them suspects how absolute those limits are. In order to approach God, Job has to let go of all ideas about God: he must put a cloud of unknowing (as a medieval Christian author expressed it) between himself and God, or have the Voice do this for him.

Job's anger and sorrow evoke an encounter with the holy wherein the suffering servant is swept into a whirlwind. Mitchell is precise in illuminating why this matters:

Job is taken up into a state of vision, and enters a world of primal energy, independent of human beings, which includes what humans might experience as terrifying or evil: lightning, the primordial sea, hungry lions on the prowl, the ferocious war-horse, the vulture feeding his young with the rotting flesh of the slain. Violence, deprivation, or death form the context for many of these pictures, and the animals are to them as figure is to ground. The horse exults because of the battle; without the corpses, the vulture couldn’t exist in his grisly solicitude. We are among the most elemental realities, at the center of which there is an indestructible power, an indestructible joy.

This worldview stands, of course, in direct opposition to the Genesis myth in which man is given dominion over all creatures. It is a God’s-eye view of creation before man, beyond good and evil, marked by the innocence of a mind that has stepped outside the circle of human values. (When I was a very young Zen student, caught up in the problem of evil, I once asked my teacher, “Why does shit smell so bad?” He said, “If you were a fly, it would taste like candy.”)

There is another text that can be contrasted: the peaceable kingdom of First Isaiah, where the wolf lies down with the lamb. Beside Job’s vision, this seems a naive version of paradise, and as elusive as its direct descendent, the Marxist End-of-Days. Since Isaiah still equates the humane with the human, his desire turns wilderness into a zoo, stocked with nonviolent and vegetarian lions. The Voice, however, doesn’t moralize. It has the clarity, the pitilessness, of nature and of all great art. Is the world of flesh-eaters a demonic parody of God’s intent? And what about our compassion for the prey? Projecting our civilized feelings onto the antelope torn apart by lions, we see mere horror: nature red in tooth and claw. But animals aren’t victims, and don’t feel sorry for themselves. The lioness springs without malice; the torn antelope suffers and lets go; each plays its role in the sacred game. When we watch from the periphery, as in a television film, we can sense the dignity this relationship confers on both hunter and hunted, even in the midst of great pain.

What the Voice means is that paradise isn’t situated in the past or future, and doesn’t require a world tamed or edited by the moral sense. It is our world, when we perceive it clearly, without eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is an experience of the Sabbath vision: looking at reality, the world of starving children and nuclear menace, and recognizing that it is very good.


And when the time is right - when the whirlwind has ended temporarily - Job is
filled with awe. He is bewildered, but silent. Into this staggering stillness the Holy One takes on every anthropomorphic projection sentimental and/or moralistic humanity has ever articulated about the Divine - and devours them. Job's former theology is shredded. Job's intellectual diversions are destroyed. Into the mystery of such sacred emptiness, Job confesses: Once I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me... Once I had heard of Thee by the ear, but now my eye sees... and I repent. (Job 42) He does not speak of this illumination as one shamed by the power of the Holy, but as one awed by the magnitude of the Lord. Job is now at peace with reality. With God's abiding justice that is incomprehensible and reassuring at the same time. Once, he attests, I knew the words of my tradition. Once I parroted the platitudes of my faith. But I never experienced them: but now that I have, everything is different.

After more than 50 years of living in community - learning how God brings wisdom and healing to us all through our brokenness and fragility rather than our strength - Vanier gently invites us to get real. Ideals are a distraction. Be loving and engaged right where you are. Then, with practice and lots of forgiveness, you too will know moments of assurance. Vanier writes in his commentary on the Gospel of St. John:

(John's) prologue ends: "The Word became flesh." The word that is in communion with God, this word that is at the heart of all things and at the source of creation, became flesh. John does not write that the Word became a human being, but that the Word became flesh - and flesh is a fragile reality. Flesh and blood are fragile, vulnerable, and dependent. The Word became flesh... the infinite became little. (Vanier, The Gospel of John, pp. 1-2)

Our growth, maturation, peace "comes through the gradual discovery of the vulnerability of Jesus, the Word who became flesh. It will be this emerging understanding that in his fragility, Jesus is giving us life... in this we will better understand who we are, with our own fragility, our vulnerability, our fears, and our prejudices. We will come to understand that our own need to be transformed" is revealed in our flesh.  The peace that passes understand is passed to us through our flesh - broken, fragile and tender. 

+ St. John's Bible
+ Job
+ Enlightenment
+ Serenity Prayer

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