Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 15D — Our Response Part 2

The Brothers Karamazov can be seen as a meditation on the ways that a man might confront the issue of being the prodigal son: father Karamazov and the sons, including Smerdyakov, each represents one possible road that a man might take. The only thing missing in this day and age is the son who has become the disciple of a guru ‘in Bokhara’—although after a fashion Pierre in War and Peace covers that angle.

However, our young reader, being an essentially humble man, might very easily return to the Father’s house. He might not need the dramatic destruction of his life to bring him to his senses. We ourselves do not know beforehand how things will evolve in the life of another, not having the charisms of discernment and prevoyance. However, we do have some hope for our young Romanian reader. We feel he has made his journey and found the Father. We shall see.

One thing that is very important in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is this. The younger son was very far off—the Gospel is emphatic on that point—when the Father ran out of the house to meet him. What this means is that God waits for our slightest turn towards repentance and then rushes towards us.

It is in this context that we should reconsider the case of Tatiana Goricheva. She was leading the life of a hippy in Brezhnev’s Russia, and in a turn to the East, she was reciting continually the ‘Our Father’ as a mantra, without any remote idea of (re)converting to Orthodoxy. And God heard her. As she herself wrote: ‘…from the nothingness of a meaningless existence bordering on desperation we had come into the Father's house, into the church, which for us was paradise.’ We can see the pig-herding in the meaningless existence bordering on desperation; we can see the return to the Father’s house.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, once the younger son had started on his journey back to the Father’s house, the Father ran out to meet him, told a servant to slaughter the fatted calf, dressed his lost son in new clothes and put a ring on his finger. He didn’t wait with crossed arms at the door. What does that mean? It means that once we make a decision to search for God (even as vaguely and confusedly as Tatiana Goricheva in reciting the ‘Our Father’ as a mantra), God rushes out of his house in the Heavens to meet us and to help us, to embrace us with his overwhelming love. After all, from one second to the next Tatiana went from lost hippy to enlightened, believing Orthodox. It was not all her own work. But we have to reach the stage of recognizing our own sin, our own desperation. We must conquer our pride and recognize the truth. It is very important to realize how confused Tatiana’s turn to God was. There was nothing of sitting down to write a list of sins before going to a confessor so as to be reconciled to God—that was after God had run out to embrace his lost daughter.

As we have pointed out, many of our young reader’s classmates will go through life blithely unaware of this narrative of salvation, distracted from distraction to distraction like newspapers blowing before the wind. Even Eliot went through this narrative, as can be seen in his Four Quartets. Our reader’s classmates may be intelligent; they may realize something is wrong; they just won’t connect that sense of wrongness with God.

Here there is a problem. In the schools of upper-class America, there is no God. These schools are children of the Enlightenment, where God is gone. A whole generation of the West is going through life indifferent to religion. Appalling. Elder Sophrony, who lived the last decades of his life in England, where he is buried in the monastery he founded, remarks on the unprecedented apostasy in our day of the West from Christ. There is a slight correction to be made to his remark. The working class left Christ in the 19th Century. It is the middle and upper classes that are abandoning Christ in the West, starting in the second half of the 20th Century.

Our reader is Orthodox. He is not unwashed. Let us suppose that he makes the spiritual journey of the prodigal son to pig-herding, there to repent. There is a danger that he will be drawn into an Evangelical Protestant narrative, and that he will suffer serious, perhaps life-long, damage. There is a great plasticity of personality in a person who has reached the stage of repentance. That is why he is vulnerable to taking the first road that he sees. This of course is an illustration of the proverb that a drowning man will clutch at straws.

How does a baptized Orthodox actualize the narrative of salvation? If we want, of being born again? He attends the mystery (sacrament) of confession in the Orthodox Church. Without making the journey to the altar of the Evangelical Protestant to be prayed over. He resumes going to Church, assuming he has stopped. He then, when the confessor permits, receives communion. We once heard a man remark that he went to confession, evidently for the first time in his life, and felt something like a shiver when the priest read the prayer of forgiveness. From that moment on, he was a devout Orthodox believer. Since his son became an Athonite monk, we can assume that his shiver was genuine and that he set a good example in the family. For the unbaptized, the movement of repentance leads towards Orthodox baptism. For the baptized Orthodox, the same movement leads towards an Orthodox priest who hears confessions.

There is a delicate matter here. Our reader (we really don’t know him, so he shouldn’t think that we’re discussing him personally; we are using him literarily) might say, ‘Well let’s give this fellow ‘Orthodox Monk’ a shot; I’ll go to confession and see if anything comes of it.’ Naturally, there’s going to be no shiver when the priest reads the prayers of absolution, no sudden changing of the light-bulbs, if the fellow goes to confession mechanically, as a lark (although you never know). That spiritual reduction to herding pigs has to take place; that recognition that the Gospel is the truth has to take place; and then the return to the Father’s house through the mystery of confession can occur in such a way that the person is indeed made a new man when the Father rushes out to greet his son who was dead and is now born again.

The Brothers Karamazov is all about this.

Our reader has raised the matter of The Glass Bead Game. We read that work when it was known as Magister Ludi. That might date us. What we recall is that the bead game itself was a metaphor, based on Indra’s net, of the life of the intellect. That life of the intellect is counterposed by Hesse to the act of self-sacrifice of the Master who jumps into the lake to save his young disciple, knowing full well that he will thus lose his own life. We have never thought that the bead game was a metaphor for meditation per se, since only in the Roman Catholic Church is meditation understood to be an activity of the intellect at all remotely similar to the bead game. There might be a mere problem with the terminology here, since we can call anything whatever we want—the essence of the matter is important. However, we have always understood the bead game to be a metaphor for a sort of Scholastic Theology that busies itself with building more and more refined systems.

In the East, meditation is a means of entering into deeper, non-intellectual strata of the personality, of surpassing the intellect, of reaching God non-verbally.

In the Orthodox tradition of the Philokalia, meditation is a term that is not used: the term used is the ‘Jesus Prayer’, and what is cultivated is ‘sobriety’. Sobriety is a method intended to help the mind or nous stop thinking thoughts, so as to leave the mind or nous open in an interior silence to the Holy Spirit, which raises it to a non-verbal direct contemplation or sight of God (understood in a perfectly Christian way, taking into account that St John the Evangelist says that no one has ever seen God).

What interests us in The Glass Bead Game here is what we thought was the central theme of the work: the contrast between the ultimately sterile life of the mind and the act of the heart which sacrifices itself for another. In this regard, it is well to realize that an integral (if advanced) part of the practice of sobriety and of the Jesus Prayer as taught in the Philokalia is to bring the mind or nous down from the head into the heart. This is to be taken literally, not metaphorically. Hence, the Orthodox tradition of meditation, if we can use that word, is centred on the heart of man. As we have just pointed out, this tradition is not foreign to the non-verbal contemplation of God, understood in an Orthodox way. However, this centring of the spiritual endeavour on the soul is actualized by meditation centred on the heart of man.

This is important, for there is in the Orthodox method of the Philokalia a joining of the two elements that Hesse contrasts in The Glass Bead Game: the mind or nous and the heart. In the tradition of the Philokalia, the natural seat of the mind or nous is the heart. In Orthodoxy, the bead game, so to speak, is played out in the heart.

Let us be a little clearer. What is peculiar about Orthodoxy? Orthodoxy teaches love. One of the results of centring the meditative religious practice on the heart is that the Orthodox—after much suffering—learns to love. Now at the age that we are seniors in high school, love is a very important matter. However, it is usually experienced as a quest to find someone who loves us, not as a quest to learn to love another. The love that the Orthodox practitioner of the Jesus Prayer over his lifetime learns to practise is the spiritual love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that with joy sacrifices itself for the sinner without condemnation and condescension. We have seen this love. It takes much time and much pain to open the heart. Once it is open, however, the person can love; and the strength of his love is the strength of the Holy Spirit. No other religion teaches this. No other religion can. No other religion has the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If it did, it would be Christian.

For an introduction to Orthodoxy at this level, see Wounded by Love.

As our young reader is undoubtedly aware, Hesse comes out of a certain tradition in the Western history of ideas: he was psychoanalyzed by C. G. Jung. This might lead the reader to turn to that sort of religion, to that sort of religious experience—the sort taught by Jung, by the Tibetan Dalai Lama and so on.

The central issue here is this: Who is Jesus Christ? Is he the second Person of the Holy Trinity who was made flesh so that we might become gods by Grace, as St Athanasios the Great of Alexandria teaches us in ‘On the Incarnation’? Is he a prophet as is taught by Islam? Is he a bodhisattva as perhaps is taught by the Dalai Lama? Was he just a great ethical teacher, as was taught by post-Enlightenment moralists? Is he a symbol of the Self (counterposed in the Jungian system to the ego) as a Roman Catholic priest who had been through Jungian psychoanalysis once told us? Who is he? This is one of the basic questions that our reader must answer in his days of herding pigs. When he realizes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then he can get on over to the Orthodox confessor.

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