existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Month: January, 2014

The constancy of Beauty

It seems to me that those things which appear to be beautiful to me are, in fact, beautiful. Is this surprising? Yes. Because I have thought something was true, only to find out that it was not true. I have thought that something was good, only to find out that it was not. But beauty does not seem to capable of lying. Now it is most definitely the case that something which did not seem to be beautiful then turned out to be beautiful.

I do not think we are drawn toward what is false, but we falsely think certain things are true when they are not. Likewise, I do not think that we are drawn toward what is bad, but we falsely thing that things are good when they are not. We are not drawn toward what is ugly – but can we falsely think that something is beautiful? If not, then is it possible that beauty is our most reliable guide?


The soul as inheritance

The theme I have been developing the past few weeks is that personhood is both an inborn right and an inheritance. I’ve written about in a few other places. It is an insistent topic, and so it is one that I would like to pay closer attention to.

It started, I think, with the prodigal son. We tend to think that our soul is ours, so we can do with it as we like. Like the prodigal son, however, we find that this is not the case. We see the soul as something that belongs to us, but really it is more that we belong to our soul, that we are our soul. It is our existence in the world, and if we treat it as a commodity, then we will treat our very existence as a commodity.

The idea of the birthright comes up throughout Scripture. Jacob tricked Esau into giving him his birthright for a pot of soup. Adam and Eve rejected their birthright in exchange for the fruit of knowledge.

There is a pattern here. Our desires grab on to things that they want. Why would this be? We are mistaken about where value lies. These things are goods that we want for ourselves-  knowledge, food, travel and good times. But how, and why, does this transform us so? When I think that I can do whatever I want with myself, I become a fungible asset. In some way it removes me from the moral order of the universe.

Coming into our inheritance of personhood is a matter of taking our place in the moral order of the universe. This is not at all to say that our course in life is mapped out already; our inheritance is to labor in freedom. We are not consigned to any fate except for that which exists by the factors of control inherent in existence, but not being so consigned does not exempt us from obligations and commitments freely entered into. Regarding the first part, we are contingent beings who inhabit a contingent world, and therefore we are delimited by the natural physical limitations of the world as well as by the exercise of power by others. We can, as far as we are able, change those things, but only as far as we are able. We might say that we are born into this earthly or natural inheritance. Regarding the second part: it comes to pass, then, that we come to understand our heavenly inheritance, which is our personhood, and to which we are called to live into. This is not, as for the prodigal son, a fungible gift which can be freely exchanged for whatever is desired. Rather, it is an invaluable pearl for which we labor freely, not as a means of our desire, but the very end (telos) of our desire. Thus we enter into commitments and obligations, but only out of desire for that which is eternal. The matter is not whether we will satisfy the desires of some person or persons, or whether we will earn our place in the world, but whether we will live into that which is our true calling.

We have this inheritance as our general calling as human beings, which is to labor for the kingdom of God, to exercise compassion, to work toward union of all things, and to lift up all proximal beings into eternity through praise. Yet our personhood is not simply a general living, but it leads us to a particular kind of living, directing our usage of our earthly inheritance for the greater good. The earthly inheritance may be dispensed with as necessary, but only in view of the heavenly inheritance. Thus it says “let your Yes be Yes and your No be No,” yet our ultimate allegiance is to our heavenly rather than our earthly inheritance.

Now I have written about the world as inheritance and the soul as inheritance. This makes sense, because the soul is as large as the world. Buber says that the really real is relation, and that we meet the world. In this meeting the duality of self and world are overcome; that which desires and that which is desired meet in the self-giving being of God.

The world as inheritance

It is sometimes said of eco-friendly practices that they are necessary if we are to continue living on this planet. The assumption is that resources are limited, and if we want these resources to continue to be available to future generations, we must limit our use of them. Is it necessary to leverage utilitarian arguments in order to advance the cause of social justice? Arguments in favor of prudence and care – redude, reuse, recycle – are cast in terms of rapidly-diminishing resources and the fact that we may have to be wise now so that it will last longer. Do we need to capitulate to this ultiltarian ethic? This may well be a Faustian bargain that proponents of eco-justice are asked to make.

The question, according to Erzium Kohak, is not what kind of world do we want to leave our children and grand-children, but what kind of people do we become when we only see the world around us as a supply – albeit limited – for our own purposes. The answer, in short, is that we do not become much at all. It is not so much the speed with which we grab, but the notion that the world is merely there for us to use as we like. We become much like the prodigal son who saw the inheritance as his, to do with as he liked. Yet in grabbing what, in his ruthless, glib, logic, belonged to him anyway, he gave up his claim to sonship and personhood. The next part of the story is simply the logical outcome of giving up this claim. He was tossed around by circumstances, used by the world that he aimed to use for his own pleasure.

In grabbing what is, in our own ruthless, glib, logic, rightfully ours, we give up our own inheritance as persons and as participators in a world of meaning. How do we want to live in this world? If we take our place as belonging to the world – not possessing the world – we might find that we do indeed have a place in it, and that it is sufficient for our needs. This depends on recognizing value beyond instrumental, and beyond the motive of attainment. It is understandable that we look at the world and see only wealth to be used, as the younger son must have long daydreamed about the money that belonged to him and that he could use for good fun. Understandable, but nonetheless destructive.

We’ve made a mess of things, of that there is no doubt. Not only have we squandered our money on easy living, but we’ve become strangers to this world, aliens and alienated. So much so that “natural” has come to mean “that which is not of us.” The world that looks back at us is dead, because we have turned it to our own use. And as the prodigal son thought of the well-fed servants on his father’s homestead, we see animals that all have bread enough. They all have a place in this order of creation, whereas we are dying of a hunger both physical and spiritual. How did we come to be strangers in the world over which we rule?

And what would it mean for us to come home?

The son did not return home demanding sonship – he rightfully recognized that he gave up his right to sonship. He came home to be a servant. He is given sonship, yet, but as a free gift, which is the only way it can be given and the only way it can be received. So also we, when we do not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, when we resist the opportunity to act as gods in this world, when we take the form of a servant, then we also will be given the glory of sons and daughters. When we humbly acknowledge the worthiness of our great inheritance – this magnificent world – then we will be ready to receive it. Becoming servants is the only way that we can live into our personhood. If we would become great in this world, we must become the world’s servant, not only of our fellow human beings, but of the whole order of creation.

The moral sense of nature

It is remarkable how much we let our technologies run the game for us. Two in particular–money and the clock–we let run rampant, to the point that they have actually changed the way we understand reality and our place in reality. Money has dehumanized our labor, and the clock has detached us from the natural rhythm of the seasons and the day. How did we let that happen? How does it happen that the tools we use to interact more easily with the world around us come to define reality for us? What is time without the clock? I think many of us take it for granted that time is a thing that ticks on, uniformly and infinitely. We have no moral sense of time – the fitting season, the right time. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “there is a time for gathering, and a time for scattering.”

In fact I would even suggest that “reason” is yet another tool that has come to define reality for us in a distorted way. Reason is a tool that we use to conceptualize the world in order to think about it. But somehow we come to believe that our concepts of the world are actually the world.

It is almost enough to make me a Marxist, but it is deeper than history, and so history can not save us. Somehow we must learn to recover the awe of the world as it is in itself, not as it is defined by our tools and technologies.

Sorrow and love

Sorrow and love are similar, I think, in that both seem to swallow us up. If this is true, then I understand why people fear both of them and desire both of them. I think that this may also be why people in sorrow and people in love are unreachable at a certain degree – they are swallowed up in their sorrow, or swallowed up in their love, and unless we are going to be swallowed up as well we have to maintain some distance. Not to say that we shouldn’t be with people in sorrow, but realizing also that there are places that we simply can not go, even though we may have been there before.

It is good

When God had finished the work of creation, he uttered the benediction “It is good.” These resounding words are echoed each and every time a creature participates in life, in its own particular manner of being. As trees stretch toward the sun, as bacteria divide and divide again, as photons stream through the vacuum of space, as squirrels build nests and prepare for the winter, all bear in themselves the benediction “it is good.”

We humans alone can perceive that that goodness is precarious. We often fail to see the goodness. The benediction that other creatures can speak with such ease in their mere existence, we ourselves often doubt. And for good reason. There is sorrow in the world.

For those who have seen sorrow, is it possible to recover that simple statement of faith: it is good? Is it possible to say it authentically? We have to learn again to delight in our being, taking our place among all other creatures in the pantheon of existence. I think this means we will have to accept our existence as a gift.

wide soaring circles
through a cloud-whitened morning
the flock of gray gulls

Sacred fire

The sacredness of the world must be kept alive as one keeps a flame alive to stay warm. We must tend to those fires of sacredness which are kindled by the manifold presence of being in the world. The whole world is ablaze with the fire of sacred being. All these things–trees, birds, towers, clouds, oceans, people, continents–shine forth “like shook foil.”

But then we crash back into life and see that it is all so dreary and ordinary. It is precisely here, in the dreariness, that we must learn to see the presence of God. Not to leave the dreariness, but even within to say “yes, it is meaningful;” to still be able to bow; to be taken hold of; to be addressed; to address, not as ‘It’ but as ‘Thou;’ to be in right relation, brother of the earth. Not in holy feelings, but in conduct and motion. To yet affirm it as good. This is the one single proclamation which began with creation and culminated in incarnation: “it is good.” What else is there to do, but to bless creation? All of life might very well be a matter of blessing: “it is very good.”

There is no accident in beauty

There is no accident in beauty. No one, upon installing that glass window, expected someone sitting where I am sitting to see it suddenly light aflame in the golden setting sun. But there it is, radiance equal to any. Beauty is not a by-product. Beauty unlocks the true nature of that window. It lifts mundane things up into eternity.

Two haiku about the winter wind

I think everyone north of the Mason Dixon line has been very cold this week.

On epiphany
a devouring winter wind
is the city’s gift

Fire-warmed voices
talking about the smell of
the sea’s salty air

Thoughts on the New Year

I am deeply grateful for this past year.

The fog lifted. Just as I forgot it was there. Or, I should say, just as  I forgot that it was ever not a part of my life.

But it also remains. That’s ok. I don’t want nor expect to have endless happiness. But I’m just grateful that I’ve experienced a depth of happiness I have not experienced in a very long time.

I saw glimpses of a pearl of great price.

Lord I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word, and I shall be healed.

The soul has an infinite depth, as of the night sky. I am humbled by this mystery.

People I care about are changing. Some for the better, some for the worse. Growth is weird. It does not always put us into a place of greater bliss or happiness or fun, but it does seem to put us into a place of greater contentment. People I know who are growing are also admitting into their lives greater complexity, concern, and labor. I think there is something I could learn from that.

discovered Haiku (very happy about that);
visited both my brother and sister;
was introduced to Thomas Merton, Erazim Kohak, and Parker Palmer;
began to understood the value of wisdom