Constellations

Although I live in an area where the night sky is not (yet) polluted with light, I have not learned the constellations. I know the basics, such as Orion’s belt and the dippers, Polaris and the subtle Milky Way. As much as I enjoy gazing at the night sky, I guess I just don’t see the bears, scorpions, and goddesses that the ancient Greeks saw.

Of course, this is largely cultural. First, if I lived south of the equator I would see different stars and constellations, but to live in ancient India, China, Europe or North America, one would have “seen” different constellations, too. Perhaps one would have seen heroes from the Ramayana or the Norse sagas, or mountain cranes, trickster foxes, or river salmon.

Inheriting ancient Greek versions of the stars is no different than how we have come to name the days of the week, the months of the year, or the years themselves as being before or after some great historical event. Each culture has a unique experience. We are inevitably surrounded by culture, by very specific cultures at that, or, perhaps, by their remnants, which many are not even aware of and assume to be normal for the world.

If we can but suspend the many parts of culture in our minds, even for a while, then our vision is inevitably clearer. We can appreciate the whole so much the better, like gazing at the beautiful night sky and seeing the stars for the first time.

St. Neilos on asceticism

St. Neilos (5th century) composed a discourse (included in the Philokalia) on ascetic practice for the monks under his charge, but the work disappoints the modern reader because of its elementary exhortations and its impatient tone of voice.

Perhaps his monks were worldly men who needed basic instruction. Or perhaps they were particularly ill-willed. Neilos rails against all the monks of his day as being ignorant, arrogant (with a “Pharisaic superciliousness”), deceitful, and covetous. He expounds on the dangers of property, on the frequenting of cities, on the evils of commerce, farming, and the professions. He widens his criticisms to include teachers of monks and spiritual directors, whom he describes as equally “disgraceful.” All of this Neilos writes using strained and awkward analogies to events and characters of the Old Testament.

Neilos indicates that “outward practices of asceticism” are but the initial step for successful monastic life on the way to what he calls “stillness.” But he does not elaborate on stillness, expending his written efforts on exhorting his recalcitrant monks. It seems an exasperating task. At least Neilos closes more positively:

If our attachment to things gives them this power over our intelligence and stops the senses from functioning, how much more should the love of wisdom cause our intellect to renounce both sensory things and the senses themselves, lifting it up and concentrating it upon the contemplation of spiritual things?

Rage against death?

In the famous poem addressing his dying father, poet Dylan Thomas wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night;
Rage, rage, against the dying light.

We cannot ignore the depths of sorrow expressed here, the voice of human instinct. Death is not only the loss of a loved one but also the stark realization of one’s own mortality, which can bring sorrow, a tragic sense. We know from studies that grief follows specific patterns and phases, long before we can claim it to be the beginning of equanimity.

We instinctively want to live indefinitely, against God, nature, and reality, for we cannot fathom that this mind, this intellect, so carefully cultivated for so many years, so uniquely apportioned by the universe to oneself, will suffer an enormous injustice about which we instinctively want to rage.

If we have seen a mature animal pass away, we would be shamed by its stern resolution, by its apparent conformity to nature, by its lack of rage. That may seem an anthropomorphism, a generalization. We have but to witness it. For isn’t an animal perceptive of its world, familiar with its environs? The difference, of course, is that it has constructed no ego, no self-consciousness. We identify a personaity, but the animal does not. It has no self-esteem, though it constantly interacts with its environment. Except when attacked violently by humans, a dying animal can be said to seem to let go, to collect itself, to pass away without wanting to be noticed. It does not, or cannot, rage.

Language

In a chapter of his book The World of Silence, Max Picard describes the character of ancient languages as proceeding from silence. The anthropologist might think this is just a metaphor but there is an economy and starkness in ancient languages that conforms to nature as much as to the primitiveness of the language’s culture. It is not speculation to imagine the link of such people to the primordial silence from plain, forests, deserts, mountains.

Ancient languages have no experience of the enormous degree of contrivance, tecnology, and artificial social structure and classes that modern times have evolved.

Picard thinks of ancient languages as vertical pillars, both strong and stable but also spare and necessary. There are no frills and excesses, for the language emerges from the same minnimal necessity as the seasons and the stars.

Modern thought and expression oscillates horizontally, accomplishing or signifying little, recording the interminable oscillations of culture, artificial thought, the latest technology. Returning to silence is not merely to still the clamoring voice of restlessness within us but to disengage from the contrivances of what is human-made and to listen to the primordial within us.

The object of faith

Faith opts for an object in most Western traditions. Even if objects are accretions from culture and tradition as in the Old Testament or projections of ideal forms as in Plato, they function as external and “other.” Nevertheless, these are objects hard to have faith in if faith is understood as belief. That very difficulty throws the individual back into the culture as the sustenance of faith. Faith becames dependent on culture. This is a stumbling-block for the solitary.

On the fringes of Western mysticism and in most Eastern traditions, however, the process of objectifying is not so presumptuous. The experience of oneness makes the subject/object relationship less rigid. The discovery of that oneness opens up a whole new direction for reflection and faith. For one thing, the self no longer depends so literally on his or her culture.

At this point, faith becomes confidence in the fruitful outcome of the process, not adherence to an object that is separate and distinct from self. Perhaps this notion of faith is closer to the virtue of hope in classical Western thought. But even in this tradition, faith and hope must culminate in charity or love in order to be efficacious. And love is the non-duality to which Eastern traditions refer, not an object but a relationship. The “object” of faith is the discipline to proceed on the path.