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Great (Holy) Saturday – April 3, 2010

This is the solemn day on which the Church recollects the time during which Jesus is entombed. It is the time before the bulb re-emerges after a dark winter’s incubation. It is the dark cloud obscuring the Sun that surely will burn brightly and warm the planet once again when its cover moves by. It is the potential within the kinetic, the pause before your next breath, the time of sleep just before re-awakening, and that ever so brief silent pause between two waves arriving at the beach.

The Orthodox reference to the “harrowing of hell” captures the theological import of Christ’s passing into the netherworld to redeem and carry into paradise the souls of the deceased, most significantly, the archetypal Adam and Eve. The presumed stain of Original Sin is cleansed at His incursion into Hell, bringing Light to the darkest of places. Altars world-wide remain stripped of linens and vestments shift to pure white. Mass is not performed until midnight ( or the symbolic start of Easter ( Resurrection Sunday) at another late Saturday night appointed time). The world waits.

The entire Triduum is about preparation and expectation. Waiting is a core theme across all spiritual teachings. On this day before the most Holy of days in Christendom, what is it that we await? How does the mythology of the church relate to our lives and the realities that we construct around us? Where is the relevancy of such mystical events for a post-modern scientific society?

Firstly, that I use the word “mythology” is not meant to suggest that the events we celebrate are any less real. Quite the contrary, it only attests to my intent to apply anagogical reasoning to these events as we must when it comes to mysteries that we know tacitly or in poetic and non-experimental ways. That I love my wife, daughter, and son requires no proof though, were you to ask me to do so, I would resort to the lexicon of the Heart. It is a thoughtful phenomenological detailing that presents the clearest and most robust path to understanding the “mysteries.”

The “Free Online Dictionary” ( thefreedictionary.com) defines anagogy as: “A mystical interpretation of a word, passage, or text, especially scriptural exegesis that detects allusions to heaven or the afterlife.” It defines “mystical” as:

1. Of or having a spiritual reality or import not apparent to the intelligence or senses.
2. Of, relating to, or stemming from direct communion with ultimate reality or God: a mystical religion.

Heaven and the afterlife are metaphors for infinite consciousness, non-mortal being, the Platonic realm of forms ( or the inherent matrix of foundational archetypes that prefigures and predisposes the created to coalesce in its diverse forms), the well of souls ( or the unknowable place from which our individual consciousness came and to which one day it returns), and the ground that informs our deepest dreaming, our prayerful intentions, our moments of insight, epiphany and enlightenment. With this framework in mind, then, I ask: What is it that we await on this “Great Saturday”?

It is summed in three words: the inexhaustible Light! Light plays a major role in all of scripture, Western and Eastern. Light is a powerful and intrinsic need of all living things and it plays a very central role in the story of the life of every human being. We experience the light in very similar ways. After a long winter, few can resist the allure of a surprisingly bright day. People move out of their homes and take to the streets and the open markets and cafes. In the United States, college students from the North, Midwest and Northwest move in a great exodus toward the more direct sunlight on Spring break. In Europe, many head south. In the East, the same applies as people move toward the equator and further south of it to enjoy the beneficient sunlight, the warmth, and the penetrating rays that are so deeply restorative.

The light plays a key role in consciousness and experience from very early in life. We open our eyes after birth for the first time and light streams in. After a period of adjustment, so much of our learning and the development of language and thought is based on vision. As young children, who among hasn’t had a bad night with fears of things emerging from the darkness; those compelling fears that take archetypal monstrous forms. The cure for such moments is pretty much always the same: turn on the light.

Some years ago, while traveling on business, I was awakened around 2 AM experiencing a frightening shortness of breath. I was momentarily terrified. My first thought was to turn on the light after which I dressed and went to the lobby of the hotel where other people were present. On doing so, everything settled down. On long-distance car trips, there are stretches of road across farmland in the U.S or mountain roads where there is very little light. Such driving late at night is especially unnerving and I always find myself less tense when I see lights in the distance: the sign of civilization and the presence of other people.

As I write this, my daughter is on the road somewhere in Illinois on her way back to college after her Summer break. I spoke with her last night and she was stopping in a small town for the night. Her comment was simply: ” It is so dark here. I can’t see a thing. It’s time to stop, get something to eat and turn in. I’ll continue in the morning.” I’ve said before that we are made of the same stuff as stars. Indeed, all that exists ultimately came from the stars. We are light-centric creatures and this need is expressed in many ways in all the corners of our lives. Our language is replete with light references: enlightenment, to light on a flower, alight, delight, daylight, earthlight, light headed, light-hearted, limelight, highlight, etc. We are capable of contemplating the Infinite and so we routinely do in our visions, including the perfect and infinite Light: a light that knows no evening, the Christic Light. That is what we await on this Great Saturday.

How does the mythology of the Church ( and this phototrophic disposition) relate to our spiritual lives and the realities that we construct around us in this post-modern, scientific age? Maths are axiomatic, based on faith in certain logical propositions, and maths can and do arrive at conflicting conclusions. It appears that in this most regal of the logical endeavors of humanity there is more than one right answer. Non-euclidean geometries deviate in key ways from the axioms of Euclid and arrive at justifiable and verifiable conclusions that simply do not square with Euclidean propositions.

So, are there multiple realities and diverse possible worlds? Absolutely. And what about scientific certainties? There are few of them actually. In fact, the uncertainty principle and the two as yet irreconcilable forms of lawfulness (Newtonian and Quantum mechanical) cause us to continue to search for new unifying theories. New maths arise all the time, and have especially done so over the course of the last century. This raises the bar on what it means “to know.” There is a mystical character to number theory. Science applies rarified and esoteric methods and a language of its own ( filled with poetry, by the way) to study the mystery of being. So, in fact, science and mysticism intersect all the time. It is dogma that gets us hung up.

The big objection from many is that scientific truth is “verifiable” and the tenets of religious belief are not. That is so. However, the foundations of “religion” are rooted  in verifiable experiences. We experience the dearth of light and rejoice at its return and that motivation is observable and verifiable. Reductionism to the absurd is illogical and fruitless. One should always avoid the tyranny of one method to study the phenomena around us. Experimentation has its proper place, but historical and phenomenological methods do also.

In focusing less on belief and more on experience, such days as this Holy Saturday present us with archetypal mystery. In our services and prayers, we use poetry and anagogy to know from the inside out, to use intuition and to share something that arises from the collective unconscious. The divine flows through us and the mystery of the Crucified God is emblazoned in the consciousness of Christendom. In Buddhism, similarly, the tension between clear sight and real suffering is the pivot around which engaged Buddhism revolves.

Anagogical reason must and will never take a back seat to logical analysis and experimentation. To even attempt doing so is to do violence to what it means to be who we are. We must ever strive to tell the story of insight, intuition and experience remembering the difference between our models and the real thing. We dress up G-d in many ways, but that the human condition is always searching for the Supreme Ultimate is undeniable. The diverse manners in which we adorn the Mystery are beautiful, but we need to remind ourselves that it is an adornment.

Beneath all the dressings, the liturgies, and the scaffolding of beliefs erected along-side, what matters is at the heart. It is the raw experience of the Presence of the Light that splits the darkness of death. It is the Light of the resurrected Christ that we await. It is the annihilation of the dual nature of thought and the redemption of the world of creaturely selfishness and the sense of being alone. It is all about remembering who we really are and from whence we really come.

Let us await the Light giving ourselves the time today to also study our own inner darkness.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Great ( Holy) Thursday, April 1, 2010

A day also called “Maundy”  Thursday in the Anglican tradition, or the “mandatum”, the mandate to perform the “Lord’s Supper.” This is also the day of the washing of the feet. Traditionally, the Pope washes the feet of priests and priests do so for parishioners. Together, these ritual jewels of the Church celebrate the central mystery: the Presence of the divine savior among us in the intimate acts of washing and eating.

A good friend and fellow Bishop refers to the “Mass” as “Divine Alimentation.” We are fed by the Prince of Peace. We are directly privy, without need of any intermediary, to the sanctum sanctorum. Celebrating the savior in an act of eating is to continue in the path of total conversion; the transfiguration of mind-body and spirit from the inside out. We literally become the Temple of the Lord.

The word “Mass” is telling. It derives from the latin word “missa,” which means dismissal, or, put differently, a going forth in accordance with a great commissioning. In the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, we are fed with the expectation that we will then go and likewise feed others. We are given the mandate to be fishers of men and women; to bring them the great comfort and consolation of the truth that the Kingdom of G-d rests within them.

It is traditionally on Holy Thursday that the bishops consecrate the oils of chrism, the catechumens, and the sick. In addition, the Holy Thursday celebration also calls for a gathering of the priesthood so that priestly vows can be reaffirmed. Looking at the day in its entirety, we recognize in it a call for deep personal and transpersonal renewal and a resetting of purpose. It is a time for blessing, cleansing, and the reinvigorated zeal to serve the Gospel. We are reminded of our sacred identity and our calling. It is a beautiful celebration and it is an alchemical re-enchantment.

I am a priest. I vowed to serve for the rest of my life. My service is different from that of a parish priest as I do not have daily celebrations to officiate but mostly ad hoc ones. As the Abbot of  a “monastery without walls,” the role is that of spiritual facilitator, teacher, friend, and the sacerdotal functions come as they may.

What does it mean to be a post-denominational priest? It means that one’s identity is wrapped in continuous and diverse prayer, and the readiness to fulfill the mandatum in nontraditional ways. It means finding new paths for engaging the teaching in dialogue with people while maintaining a less visible or pronounce priestly profile. It  also always calls for celebration of the sacraments as living vehicles for conversion and epiphany when there are two or more gathered with a yearning to do so.

I enter into this Holy Thursday evening as I have earlier ones, with a deep sense of awe and gratitude. I feel honored to have been called to witness to mystery and to be a voice for spiritual living. I rejoice in the meditative time in which I can hold up all those I love and know, and the world around me with profound hope of an enduring illumination. I rest tonight in the firm conviction that a powerful force is present to synchronistically guide my next steps and words.

I am a child of the stars, of the wind, of the stillness and of the laughter. I am a child of the Eucharist and a minstrel singing about the depth and breadth of our capacity for love. I am a humble poet searching for the right words and phrases to give sound to my heart.

I am a simple priest. I open myself to the next mandate, the next need, the next chance to touch the fabric of the Son of Man. I am one who is ever searching for His face among all the writing, all the poetry, all the religions, all the cries and tears and laughter, and the rich tapestry of human thought and scientific discovery.

Maranatha!

Amen.

1 Corinthians 11- 23-26, New American Bible

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread,
and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. 12
A person should examine himself, 13 and so eat the bread and drink the cup.
For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment 14 on himself.
That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.
If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment;
but since we are judged by (the) Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Therefore, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.
If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that your meetings may not result in judgment. The other matters I shall set in order when I come.
[I am separately uploading a Liturgy this evening that emerged from my scholarship and passion for ritual over the years. It is the Liturgy that I use in the Order and at the High Masses that we celebrate here. I hope you find it a helpful complement to your Eastertide meditations. You can find it on a page linked to the “Garden of the Christos” page in pdf format.]
© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Great ( Holy) Wednesday, March 31, 2010

This day is also called “Spy Wednesday,” the day designated by the Western Church, as the one on which we recall the first betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot in his collusion with the Sanhedrin, while Jesus was himself at Bethany where he was anointed by Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. The spikenard oil she used was expensive, and so a controversy broke out among the apostles over what seemed to them an extravagance, and frivolous behavior on Mary’s part, especially given the fact that the oil would have fetched a good price at market and the proceeds could have been better applied to feeding the poor.

The power of this day is in the parallel themes of betrayal/ second-guessing, and a costly, unhesitating generosity.

On the theme of betrayal, we can all painfully recall moments when those close to us have acted without  forethought in ways that hurt us. Maybe they revealed a confidence, or chose to openly criticize us in front of others, perhaps making use of knowledge that they could only have had because they were so close. Much in the news these days, and far more serious, are the stories of flagrant infidelities; promises broken that wound whole families and tarnish reputations.

Very often, the one committing the act of betrayal is well-intentioned if misguided. In the case of Judas, he was the dupe of the Sanhedrin. He envisioned a rapprochement between Jesus and the Sanhedrin. His real sin was in being so blinded by his own egoistic vision of how things should evolve ( and his inflated sense of himself as more politically astute) that he failed to accurately read the motivations of shadowy and secret alliances, and the deeper vision of the one he truly had hoped to serve.

When we let people draw very close, they become the most dangerous people in our lives. They have intimate details of our habits and usual whereabouts and our soft spots and vulnerabilities. The old cliché “you hurt the ones you love” is all too true. We are given a treasure to hold when people offer themselves to us in deeply personal ways. Our faithful stewardship of that gift is a spiritual imperative. In acting, we must always ask: In whose interests am I acting? To what degree is it mostly about my needs, agendas, priorities and beliefs, and not theirs?

There are certainly betrayers among us, and those who one day can become so. One only need look at the depth of enmity expressed between once trusting but now estranged partners in a marital breakup to see the tragic miscarriages of love. More important on this day, however, is the “spy” (or betrayer) within. It is a day on which to think back to the moments when our own better judgment was absent, and when we acted so foolishly as to cause someone dear to us to suffer through our words, deeds, or sins of omission.

There are also those times when we feign friendship in cultivating a politically valuable relationship. In those moments, we deceive and are disingenuine,  using the other person for our own ends. (We have all been there either dramatically or in more subtle and nuanced ways). The Gospel calls us to a very high standard of conduct. It demands so much more from us by way of fidelity and follow-through on our commitments and vows. It also demands that we move swiftly to forgive those who wrong us through a thoughtless word or deed for there, by the grace of G-d, go we.

We live in a time when vows seem anachronistic. This is the age, after all, of the pre-nuptial agreement, and the so-called “trial periods” of living together. We suffer cultural paranoia and so risk losing the joy attached to firm and unshakeable vows in which our fidelity, though surely to be tested, is proven resilient and robust. In achieving such relationships, we move, as Teilhard de Chardin captured in his writing, toward the “Pleroma,”  or the Fullness of the Christic vision.

What are the vows that I have taken? Today is a good day to renew them and consider the history of my faithfulness to them and where, when, and why I fell short.

On the matter of the anointing with precious oil by Mary at Bethany, I can certainly appreciate the frugality expressed in the Apostles’ objections. The act seemed wasteful and careless. Of course, this is the epitome of homo economicus, a strong feature of the current zeitgeist. But there are other considerations. In Mary’s gracious act of expending the precious oil, she, in one movement, foreshadows the Chosen One, the death on the Cross, and the later anointing of Jesus’ crucified body  with the precious oils as mandated by Jewish custom of those times. Her intent, in the moment, spontaneously and without calculation, was to signify, viscerally and sensually, the deep personal meaning of her vow to Jesus, her devotion, and Christ’s unshakeable vow to the World; to be its Light!

My daughter has her best friend joining her in our home this week for a few days. My wife and I are delighted to see her again and extend the warmth of our home to her. We have worked pretty hard over the last few weeks to make things ready. We wanted her to feel an important part of the family. We have (and would always) go the extra step to make the time and the space special, and invest the resources to do so.

Now, one can argue that the “budget” may not have a line item set aside for such an occasion, especially because they are usually not planned well in advance. In our case, we accelerated needed work on the room that would be offered to our friend and guest. We redecorated it (certainly with the longer term future in mind) but with principal focus on making her time with us very special and memorable.

There are times when we spend more than others might, who,  looking “in” at these times of constrained finances, might challenge the wisdom of  unflinching and unreserved hospitality. They might (and have) argued that doing less is more prudent, and that the extras are nice-to-have, but maybe ill-timed. These are well-meaning comments and articulate a reality I recognize, particularly since the economic crash of late 2008. They are offered from an objective and essentially economic vantage point.

Nevertheless, having acknowledged that, our choices are motivated not by objective criteria alone,  but more substantially, by a subjective “enthusmia;” our intent to create a place of relaxation and restoration, a sanctuary of warmth and friendship. In doing so, we extend our love for our daughter to all those that she calls “friend.” This is as it should be. This is spiritual practice ( and very much consonant with the spirit of Franciscan Spirituality).

While one can still be “economical,” life is too short to miss the small chances to add light and joy when given the opportunity to do so. Hospitality, as I wrote in an earlier post, is an advanced form of spiritual practice, and it warrants pulling out our finest linens, dishes, foods, and, yes, the precious oils by which to “anoint” in the names of Love and caring.

The Spirit of Holy Wednesday asks us to retake our vows, redouble our efforts to fulfill them, and recalibrate the sincerity of our loving so that it  transcends the vagaries of politics, economics, and all the many other temporal agendas.

Mark 14:10-12 (King James Version)

10And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.

11And when they heard it, they were glad, and promised to give him money. And he sought how he might conveniently betray him.

12And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?

The Hymn of Kassiani

[written by Kassiani the Nun in the 9th century]:

O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, sensing Your Divinity, takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer. With lamentations she brings you myrrh in anticipation of your entombment. “Woe to me!” she cries, “for me night has become a frenzy of licentiousness, a dark and moonless love of sin. Receive the fountain of my tears, O You who gathers into clouds the waters of the sea. Incline unto me, unto the sighings of my heart, O You who bowed the heavens by your ineffable condescension. I will wash your immaculate feet with kisses and dry them again with the tresses of my hair; those very feet at whose sound Eve hid herself from in fear when she heard You walking in Paradise in the twilight of the day. As for the multitude of my sins and the depths of Your judgments, who can search them out, O Savior of souls, my Savior? Do not disdain me Your handmaiden, O You who are boundless in mercy.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Great ( Holy) Tuesday, March 30, 2010

“Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”

This day in the Easter cycle commemorates this parable about remaining attentive, vigilant, at the ready to receive the invitation to join in when that offer comes.

Recalling the parable, ten virgins awaited the Bridegroom of which only five were really well prepared when he arrived. The attentive five had procured what they needed by way of oil for their lamps. The other five were lax and put off doing so, and when word came of the Bridegroom’s approach, they begged the well-prepared five for some of their supply. The vigilant five denied them realizing that all of them had equal opportunity and resources to get ready. The “foolish” five then rushed to the market to buy the necessary oil, but the Bridegroom arrived before their return and so they were shut out. The five that had planned were ready and were received with open arms and enthusiasm. The other five were denied access. G-d favors the well prepared.

This is a story about “mindfulness,” a much used, if not abused, word in today’s lexicon. There are many moments in the Gospels ( and, indeed, in the Jewish scriptures overall) about the need to be watchful. It is also a story about the differences between false and true compassion. Doesn’t the Master’s rejection of the five “foolish” ones betray a lack of compassion on his part?

Not at all! He simply holds the lax five accountable; a lesson in “tough love.”  They failed to be ready, so he moved on. They squandered the time they had with trivialities. They allowed themselves to become distracted. Authentic compassion is not saccharine and undifferentiating. Quite the contrary, it respects each person enough to hold them accountable.

We are all accountable for what we say, do, and think. We must answer for who we really are. In facilitating executive leadership development sessions, there are those who invariably return late from a break or from lunch. Some argue that it is best and more gracious to wait for all to arrive. Others contend that at the appointed time, our session continues regardless of who isn’t yet in the room. I am an advocate of the latter over the former philosophy. Out of respect for those who are there on time, I begin on time. The stragglers simply have to catch up.

In these days of political spin-meisters and subterfuge, excuse making and deceptive speech and advertising, the art of lying has been elevated to a seemingly grand and noble art form. The gift of gab and salesmanship has taken a front seat, and quiet leadership, diplomacy, and inviolable integrity, a back seat. With but a very few refreshing examples of notable leaders who are working hard to be otherwise in a terribly dysfunctional system ( e.g., Barack Obama), the choir of demonizers, hate mongers, fear peddlers, and distractors are legion.

It would seem that telling a lie over and over, despite clear factual evidence to the contrary, is held equal to truth in the easily influenced minds of way too many. Whatever happened to accountability? Ignoble and disreputable behavior should result in penalty. In these days of rehab clinics for all things, taking a brief  time away in so-called “rehab” ( e.g., Tiger Woods and the sexual addiction rehab clinic), and all is forgiven. Remarkable, it seems, is the rate of rehabilitation among those with means.

Camouflage, gamesmanship, coercion, lobbying, advertising, bargaining and calling in favors, and buying votes does not a well prepared “virgin” make!

Today is a day for inner diagnosis. In fact, all of Easter week is a time for self-assessment, and this day is set aside as the one on which we test our integrity, our attentiveness to detail, our discipline, or the lack thereof, and the mindfulness with which we step through our daily round. It is a time to ask about whether we too are caught short and find ourselves rushing off to the store to buy some 11th hour oil as we’ve just heard of the Master’s approach. As usual, the best tests are not those that involve big things, but the small ones that betray our careless distractibility.

Yesterday, our gardener was scheduled to stop by the house to pick up the signed contract for his continued work with us over the upcoming growing season. I marked down that he would be stopping by and had the contact in hand when we spoke by phone of his intent to do so. Well, he came by  the house and my wife answered the door and then notified me that he was waiting. I then rushed around my office desperately looking for the contract that was nowhere to be found. Obviously, I mindlessly set it down somewhere meaning, no doubt, to put it out so it would be handy when he arrived.

In effect, when I spoke with the gardener, a very good and hard-working man who cares deeply about the fine work that he always does, a generous and gracious man, I was not really paying close attention. My mind was divided among several things. As a result, I embarrassed myself by not having the contract to give him. He was, as always, gracious and understanding. He laughed it off and said he would catch it two weeks from now when he stopped by to begin the Spring cleaning.

As I meditate on this event today, I  must confess to being like one of the “foolish five” having allowed myself to get fragmented and lose focus and so make a commitment that I couldn’t keep. When I spoke with him on the phone, I was clearly NOT present!. This is a call to fresh action. I apologized for my lapse and I was sincere in that apology but what was also necessary was an immediate change in how I handle planning for meetings after such phone conversations. The only proper response is an accountable one which means one followed by demonstrable and reliable change. There is no excuse. He came out of his way and I wasted his time, and his time is no less important than mine.

This is the meaning of this day. To recalibrate our inner resources so that we are fully vigilant. To practice real, not theoretical zen, in being alive to the compelling NOW, and embrace the real and emergent over the anticipated and imagined.

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
And five of them were wise, and five were foolish
They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.
And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.
Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.
And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.
But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

– Matthew 25:1-13, King James Version

Final questions: Why ten virgins? Why not two, or four, or six ( three wise and three foolish)? The Bible in fact makes much of the number “10.” It recurs often. For example: the 10 plagues visited upon Egypt, Abraham’s 10 trials, completion of the Lord’s Prayer in 10 clauses, Noah’s completion of the Antidiluvian Age at the 10th generation from G-d, etc. The examples are many. Many commentators refer to the Biblical reference to “10” as symbolic of the perfect Divine Order.

The number ten completes a decade cycle and is a short-hand representation of all numbers. It is the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. The “10” Virgins are symbolic of the entire nation of Israel and the fundamental paradox of maintaining the sacred vigil vs losing heart, focus, and becoming lost on the narrow path of righteousness.

Why virgins and not mature women? Well, this seems more straightforward. The Bridegroom brings experience to innocence. There is more of a trembling expectation among the young and inexperienced, and a mix of intoxicating excitement and profound tension and apprehension about being all the other expects.

When one pictures the scene and recalls that time in life, it is easy to feel the rightness of the parable. To be distracted on the night of the Bridegroom’s arrival is truly a sinful condition. It suggests that the full import of this night and the transformative character of it compared to all others is unappreciated. The foolish virgins betray a lack of right and natural anticipation.

The characteristic enthusiasm of such a night would never permit even the possibility of being so blatantly ill prepared. Is the “Nation of Israel” keeping faith, eyes wide open on the truth, and seeking after true Knowledge, or is she seduced by matters of power, wealth, status, territoriality, gossip, and game-playing?

This day challenges us to answer this query personally.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Norman’s Woe is a coastal reef in Gloucester Massachusetts immortalized by the tragic poem ” The wreck of the Hesperus” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It tells of the captain of a ship, the Hesperus, who met a fierce storm off the Eastern coast of New England. His daughter was onboard. Other senior crewman offered their good counsel but the captain was filled with hubris and refused to hear it.

In trying to save his daughter from the ravaging seas, he had her strapped to the mast to avoid the threat of seeing her swept overboard by the tall and ferocious waves crashing on deck. Horribly, all perished, including the girl, who drowned as the ship capsized and, having been tied to the mast, was unable to free herself and possibly survive the calamity.

The tale of an innocent’s death and that of all crewman on the reef is a cautionary fable loosely based on a devastating blizzard that in fact did occur off the coast of New England in 1839. The story rings in my ears as I read the wonderful just published book, Breakfast with Socrates, by Robert Rowland Smith.

In this breezy and very accessible retelling of the legacy of philosophy, Smith places each of many of the great philosophers in the midst of our everyday experiences, and we get an opportunity to briefly “dine with them” and imagine conversation on the questions with which we struggle as we navigate the mysteries, triumphs, and travails of our lives. All of this got me to thinking about the enormous treasure trove that is the classics.

Each of the great books, treasures that have withstood the test of time, offer enlightened and ever fresh commentary on our condition. Each of the voices from the ancient choir of the lovers of wisdom offer free counsel to anyone with the courage and mental fortitude to embrace it. Yet, the overwhelming lack of interest, generally speaking, in the classical library remains an undeniable reality.

The cry for relevance, practical plug-and-play utility, and small-minded self-help prescriptions is deafening. It is as if two meals are served: One a banquet of culinary genius, gourmet foods and great wines, and all for free, and it is rejected; while the other,  a grease-stained bag of fast food burgers costing far more than it’s worth, offering unwholesome calories, and containing excessive undisclosed filler materials and meat shot full of antibiotics and hormones, is the one hastily chosen and enthusiastically consumed.

It is time to go back, all of us, regardless of how well versed we are in the classics in general and the writings of the great philosophers in particular, and set up a renewed daily diet of wholesome calories. Furthermore, here’s the irony, like the free gourmet meal, the classics can be downloaded for free.

It is time to learn the lesson of the Hesperus and listen to the counsel of elder sages who speak to us from the deep recesses of recorded history. We can still save the young girl,  the archetypal Sophia, who is the the very soul of Wisdom. We can still rescue her from drowning in the turbulent and vicious seas of postmodernity and 21st century egoism and spiritual consumerism. We can resuscitate her and so revel in the sweetness of her voice, the alertness of her sight, and youthful embrace of the real.

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman’s Woe!

Excerpted from the poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Rousseau's Dream

So much of life is fantasy. We delude ourselves, collude with the self, and allude the Self. We play with existential dilemmas, anguish over them, turn ourselves inside-out, and hold ourselves too often incompetent in the face of life’s drama. This is the dark side of our imaginative capacities. We are creative spirits and we delight in the construction of new worlds including those in which we are hero and anti-hero. This is all thoroughly beautiful as long as we stay in touch with what we are doing.

So, where’s the problem? The biggest source of our suffering is rooted in forgetting that we made it all up. It was Plato who said: ” All is remembering.”

I am a novel full of intersecting plots and diverse characters ( from simple to complex, wise to foolish, grand to petty, beautiful to ugly, well-meaning and kind to selfish and misanthropic), places ( real, imagined, and an amalgam of the two), and times (the present, a distant future, or an, as-if remembered, past). This is the Kabuki theater of the mind and the manufacture of selves.

So, it’s no wonder that we love going to the theater and the movies, and enjoy the art of story-telling and having stories told to us. The state of play of our condition can be perhaps best assessed by watching the changing face of the Best Seller Lists, what makes it big at the box office, what thrives and what dies in dramatic television series. It is all the projected stuff of our nature externalized on paper, celluloid/ acetate, stage, or digital media.

So what do we then do when our own stories of self intersect with those of others, and the grand collective, interactive story that our cultures and world is ever actively weaving? What are we to do when we find ourselves caught up in challenges that we didn’t make, but that others and other forces seemingly conjure up for us?

  1. Think Less, Move More: It would be good to dance. If you are able, dance, free form or otherwise. Get lost in movement and let the cognitive circuits cool down. It can be as simple as a brisk walk, but a dance with more complex movement would be best. Tai chi or Yoga would also fit the bill.
  2. Leap To Faith: It is important to take a leap and put the logical machinery aside. Note that this is not a leap “OF” faith, or blind belief, but a leap “TO” faith, a choice to suspend analysis and go with gut instinct. If writing, switch to poetry. If not, vocalize what you feel, and know that you know what to do even if you think you don’t.
  3. Consult the Sacred Scribe Within: Many have discovered the virtues of “proprioceptive writing,’ automatic writing, or stream of consciousness writing and these are powerful tools. In addition, paying close attention to dreams, what Erich Fromm once referred to as the “forgotten language” in his book of the same name, is perfect practice. In doing the latter, watch the images. Remember, that the one who writes your dreams, the Divine Inner scribe, the Beloved, already knows all the secrets and wants to show them to you.
  4. Laugh: Find cause to really laugh because the only cure for the tragic in life, as Shakespeare knew so well, is high comedy.

American poet Walt Whitman sums it up beautifully in his “Song of Myself“:

51

The past and present wilt–I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

52

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

In telling the tale of ourselves, let us write the story forward with exuberance.  Embrace the grays and shadows as punctuating edges and frames for our colors. Let us abandon ourselves to the weaving we do on our looms of song and image and weave from the heart.

It is a great solace to know that the grand writer, song-maker, choreographer, and artist who resides in our souls, who is our soul, already knows how it all turns out. We pose the riddles for which we already have the answers but, as a matter of right order and creative decorum, it is a compromise with infinity that we feign ignorance of them ( forgetting) lest the Agatha Christie mystery of life lose its suspenseful and electrifying savor.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

While disappointed overall in the new movie, Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, I nonetheless enjoyed it. This is primarily owing to my affection for all things written or inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the iconic detective. Perhaps I was spoiled by the weekly series that I so enjoyed as a young man in which the incisive, enigmatic, and brilliantly observant Holmes was played by the late Basil Rathbone, and the kindly, loyal, if often befuddled, Dr. Watson, by the estimable Nigel Bruce.

In all portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, the essential quality is that of an incomparable reader of small signs that tell a larger story about a person: the places s/he has frequented, habits, styles, preferences, place of origin from vocal accents, and myriad other telling details. This is the very quality we so love to see in action as Holmes works with such passionate love of the puzzle to unravel the criminal mysteries with which he is tasked. As a foil for his genius, Conan Doyle created the character of Inspector Lastrade, the always too late, oblivious, plodding bureaucrat, ever being upstaged by the perceptive Holmes and envious of his skills. These same qualities are certainly on display in the new movie along with more attention given to the cocaine addiction, excesses, and bizarre idiosyncracies of the character.

What I walked away thinking about was the spiritual discipline of Sherlock Holmes. This was brought home to me this evening in a conversation with my daughter in a local bookstore. Sitting in the café, she commented on how she loved to watch people and interpret what they might be thinking, what motivates them, what they are like, what they do for fun, their neuroses, and other small idiosyncracies. She shared it as a guilty pleasure as she wondered if it was being judgmental. However, as she wasn’t attributing necessarily negative or positive values to what she observed, I assured her that, in fact, it merely demonstrated her native sensitivities and fascination with people and their lives.

In any event, this got me to thinking about Holmes and his talent for observation. In a very significant way, Sherlock Holmes’ spirituality is most like the enlightened state prized by the Zen Buddhists: total clarity, living in the present, seeing what is truly before us in all of its telling details. It struck me that the act of people-watching, without judgment, is an exercise in the practice of the present moment. It demands undistracted focus and inner calm. Rather than sitting on a Zafu and Zabuton with eyes lightly lidded in a zendo, this practice is done while walking, conversing, sitting, or lying down. It requires eyes wide open, and keen attention to the smallest fact. Like Sherlock Holmes, the observations benefit from knowing a great deal about many things to give context for interpreting what we see.

This practice of spiritual detective work also requires genuine fascination with the lives and habits of other people. To see what is true necessitates empathy, the ability to image and play out potential scenarios, and exercise practical imagination. All in all, one can only benefit by practice of these things as well as draw nearer other people in appreciating the complex dimensionality that sums to a life.

Every person is a richly storied phenomenon. To see with the eyes of Sherlock Holmes is to live grandly and in full appreciation of the human condition: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

© Brother Anthony Thomas and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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