Monday, February 9, 2009

The Spirit and the Flesh

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Gal. 5: 16-23)

When I read a passage from one of the scriptures of the great traditions, or the writings of the poets, mystics or saints, I start with the assumption that what I am reading is true. I assume that these writings have been preserved for thousands of years and continue to exert such powerful effects on millions of people because they do, in fact, contain power. The wisdom traditions house great wisdom. I try as much as possible to approach these texts with the mindset that they are truly revealed. This is particularly important when I encounter a difficult passage, one that challenges my preferences and prejudices.

I'm distrustful of translations of texts that are really "versions," that smooth the rough edges and make a text more palatable and pleasing. I try to remember when reading something I don't like right away that if the scriptures only said things I agreed with, then they couldn't truly be wisdom texts because, really, I'm just not that wise. I try to appreciate being challenged, upset, confused, turned off. There, perhaps, is something I can learn.

I find the passage above from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians difficult. The opposition of Spirit to flesh is troubling to me. At first reading, I thought, "Oh, here it is. The Christian contempt for sex and the body. No need to really pay attention to this nonsense." The whole thing seems to set up a dichotomy between spirit and body that feels untenable, each excluded from the other. On one side is the body, on the other is the spirit, and never the twain shall meet.

But that is my prejudice about Christianity, that it is somehow hostile to the body and to sex. That may or may not be true. I am not qualified to make any kind of definitive statement about that. But a closer reading shows that that's not what this passage is about. The "works of the flesh," it's true, include "fornication," but they also include "idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit [translated elsewhere as 'factions'], envy, and drunkenness." These latter qualities are more psychological or emotional than bodily or physical. "Flesh," then, must refer to a state of consciousness rather than the literal body. It is a state of consciousness that is somehow opposed to that other state of consciousness called "Spirit."

Reflecting on these two states of consciousness, I have come to think of "flesh consciousness" as a kind of cramped, greedy, unreflective, reflexive mindset. Spirit, by contrast, is open, inclusive, generous. Flesh is only about me. Spirit reaches out and includes all things (which means the body, too) and all people.

Other traditions also draw a contrast between a kind of body consciousness and a more spiritual awareness. The Tao Te Ching, for instance, states "misfortune comes from having a body." The translators point out in their notes that it is not possible to understand such a natural philosophy as being hostile to the body and that, therefore, body must refer to a state of consciousness like ego or persona. The remedy for the misfortune that comes from the body is to "treat the whole world as your self." In other words, to "walk by the Spirit." Flesh consciousness, therefore, takes the self (the ego or body) as the center of the world, while Spirit consciousness sees the whole world as the true self.

What I find interesting here is how my own prejudice had me interpreting these verses before I'd even read them. I was sure I knew where they were going and what they were about. They were going to confirm what I already knew about the dark side of Christianity. In other words, I was in a state of "flesh consciousness" (enmity, anger, selfishness) on my first reading and I almost missed "the fruit of the Spirit."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Only The Lonely

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you,
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth,

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs—

leaving you (it impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
(translated by Robert Bly)

When I read the lines, “one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth, / leaving you, not really belonging to either,” I experienced a deep loneliness. But it is a loneliness in which I feel I am most at home in myself. A sadness full of longing that makes me happy. My wife likes to tease me about being an archetypally lonely man given to roaming the deserted beach in winter at night lost in my melancholy. There is some truth to this. But I want to say a word in defense of loneliness.

Loneliness is not alienation. In loneliness the Other exists. In alienation, it does not. In loneliness there is longing, in alienation, isolation. In depression or alienation the missing factor is meaning, or a sense of purpose, or contact with the invisible realms of existence. Rilke’s “not belonging” to either heaven or earth is really an affirmation of both. For it seems to me that it is the feeling of separateness that awakens consciousness of the other, that establishes, I believe, the reality of the other. And it is in separateness, in distinctness from one another that love becomes possible. And so, in some sense, loneliness is the soil in which love grows.

The great teachers of the value of loneliness are the Sufis. Rumi says, “the grief you cry out from / draws you toward union.” Hafiz, in his poem, My Eyes So Soft, is even more emphatic:

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft
My voice so tender,
My need of God
Absolutely clear.

One of my other teachers in this is Frank Sinatra, when he sings, “the songs I know, only the lonely know.” Loneliness teaches a secret knowledge – the value of love. The whole torch song tradition speaks to the truth that, sometimes, love is intensified through the experience of separation. It is more present in its absence. All of a sudden we become aware of the depth of our love when it’s object is gone. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

In Rilke’s poem, the awareness of the two worlds we inhabit, heaven and earth, begins with the recognition of our separateness from both. I think he is saying that we don’t really know either until we know both. But knowing both means belonging to neither. Earth without heaven, says Rilke, is “hopelessly dark.” And without the activity, the variety, the transience of time-bound existence, heaven is “unswerving,” changeless, eternal monotony.

Suspended between these two great powers, says Rilke, all we can do is turn to ourselves, our own little lives, “timid and standing high and growing.” And it is there, perhaps, that we might discover we are not separate after all. “One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.” The two worlds exist in our own hearts. “The Kingdom of Heaven is inside you.”

I think of all the ways I avoid or distract myself from my feelings of loneliness – of longing, of loving, of “my need of God.” – watching TV, surfing the web, shopping for little electronic gadgets, even reading. I need to spend more time at the beach.