Saturday 8 February 2014

Pearls of Wisdom- Who Needs #Buddha 2

The spiritual seeker is often also a great reader. The ancient tradition of seeking out a spiritual teacher or guide and placing oneself under their authority has, in large part, been replaced by an omnivorous consumption of books or a visiting of websites (I don't knock this, it might be the reason why you are reading this blog after all.) The Western seekers frequently find their way to classic texts like the Gita, the Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. More often though people find pleasure in reading collections of pithy wisdom sayings or wisdom stories. Here Sufi Islam, through writers like Rumi, joins the field along with Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Christianity does not, are at least should not though some fundamentalists might disagree, deny that wisdom and truth can be indeed perceived if only in glimpses and flashes in these texts. What practically all Christian traditions do assert, though, is that the Bible is the spiritual text above all other spiritual texts and that every other spiritual writing is at best an auxiliary to it. St Benedict put it this way-
For what page or what utterance 
of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testaments 
is not a most unerring rule for human life? 

Rule of Benedict, Chapter 73

And here we have a problem. Many may indeed pick up the Sacred Scriptures seeking insight but will, like I once did, soon put them down again as being way too full of Angry God and not full enough of Hippy Jesus. Not only this but the jumble of formats- Histories, Laws, Prophecies, Poetry, Gospels, Letters and so on is confusing and daunting. The legacy too of the "Reformation" is that many of us start from the assumption that all the equipment we need to understand the text is the ability to read since every man or woman is qualified to be their own Pope. The fallacy in that argument should be apparent as soon as it is stated. Unless we are historians and lawyers and poets and textual critics how could we expect to grasp the complexity of this interwoven fabric composed and compiled over centuries? Catholics at least are urged to read the Scriptures "with the mind of the Church" which is to say that there have been 2000 years of reflection and commentary on these texts and we should be aware of the fruits of that while we read. This is less daunting than it sounds, study Bibles, like the Navarre Bible series or the little Christian Community Bible (Downloadable), contain brief (-ish) notes alongside the text summarising the content of these commentaries.

Seekers might wonder why it is necessary to take such trouble when all these pearls of wisdom from the East are so straightforward and readily to hand. But appearances are deceptive. What is presented is pre-digested, broken down into McNugget sized chunks and taken out of its context. Those who do read full Eastern works like the Gita discover that they have their own problems which have the same dimensions as our Angry God issues. Arjuna, for example, being urged by Krishna to kill people rather than abstain from violence. We can skate over this because, as I said in the first part, we view Eastern Religion from a distance and can carry the baggage of their history more lightly than that of our own. Nonetheless the problems are there and they are real. If our spiritual hunger is content to be fed with de-contextualised feelgood quotes then we can mine the Bible for them just as easily as any other text so wherein lies the superiority of the East apart from our ability to ignore its 'hard sayings' and difficult texts?

 As I mentioned in the first part one major draw of the Eastern approach is the practice of meditation. There are two methods of using Scripture which, with the help of God's grace, can bring about the kind of states or spiritual experiences which will confer that limpid peaceful clarity and insight that the seeker is thirsting for. One is the use of the Psalms which is too large a subject for now, I hope to address it in a future blog, the other is Lectio Divina a contemplative reading of Scripture. There is a certain amount of confusion when considering this subject because although the word meditation is used frequently in Catholic discourse in this area it traditionally means a different thing from that ascribed to it by the East. Here it has referred to thinking deeply there it has referred to an emptying of the mind. Lectio is a method which is open to being used in either way or in both. Meditation, meaning thought, can lead to Contemplation which means reflecting in the sense that a mirror or still waters reflect.

Guigo the Carthusian wrote what may be the classic exposition of the technique in his The Ladder of Four Rungs  It contains this handy summary-

Understand now what the four staves of this ladder are, each in turn. Reading, Lesson, is busily looking on Holy Scripture with all one's will and wit. Meditation is a studious insearching with the mind to know what was before concealed through desiring proper skill. Prayer is a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good and avoid what is evil. Contemplation is the lifting up of the heart to God tasting somewhat of the heavenly sweetness and savour. Reading seeks, meditation finds, prayer asks, contemplation feels.

Here, indeed, we might feel the lack of a personal Spiritual Director since some passages are more apt to Lectio than others. People trying the technique for the first time would be well advised to seek advice either from a trusted guide or from a good book or website dealing with the subject. And, too, they should bear in mind the advice to read the Scriptures 'with the mind of the Church.' Having said which some of the less obvious passages can lead into the deepest meditation (in either sense) precisely because their meaning makes less immediate impact on the discursive part of our minds. The gentle little Book of Ruth, for example, might fit into this category.

Again I would make the point that with Christianity we should not allow our familiarity with what we suppose it to be to breed contempt and to counter-pose against it a less contaminated Eastern Wisdom. The East is not so pure and the West not so massively flawed as we might at first assume. And finally I will leave you with the words of Guerric of Igny

Search the Scriptures. For you are not mistaken in thinking that you find life in them.....From these gardens the Bridegroom will lead you, if I be not mistaken, into others where rest is more hidden and enjoyment more blessed and beauty more wonderful. When you are absorbed in his praises with accents of exultation and thanksgiving, he will take you into his wonderful tenting place, into the very house of God, into the unapproachable light in which he dwells, where he feeds, where he lies down at midday. 

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  1. Both of these are interesting reads. A friend of mine in the last week had some quite nasty surgery, and is now in recovery facing life with One Less Bodypart. She's actually very upbeat and cheerful about this. In some ways I suspect the difficult bit wasn't the surgery itself, or the pain, which is well managed, but the natural fight or flight reaction that must have engulfed her for a fortnight before. Luckily someone who knows their onions taught her the basics of mindfulness meditation and she did it before and after surgery and says it has really helped. It reminded me that I wanted to give meditation (which I am *hopeless* at) another go.

    What I suspect is that for her, me, and millions of other westerners who go along to Buddhist meditation classes, they don't really know or care what the beliefs of the surrounding faith are, apart from namechecking nirvana and reincarnation. But the bit they are after is the process: the way of slowing down, and getting perspective in a society which - as you say in blog 1 - is always expecting you to do things fast and unreflectively.

    Secondly, I don't think you should underestimate the ignorance of some Western Christians of what their own faith is - they claim to believe X and quote the appropriate bible verse - but prod even a little bit deeper, and their ignorance about Christianity is only a bit less substantial than their ignorance of Buddhism. I suspect if I read much of the official Catholic gloss on various bits of the Bible I would take it with a large pinch of salt, but even that is better than the ironically recent fundie readings that insist that everything is literal - even things like Genesis 1, which 3rd century theologians like Origen realised perfectly well should be understood as metaphor or myth.

    I do think that Christianity is missing a trick by not providing more opportunities for meditation. It would be pretty hard not to be overtaken by some sort of stillness if you tried meditating at the huge Gothic pile on my doorstep. What's actually on offer: Buddhist meditation on breath (breath is sooooo boring) at the Quaker meeting house. The cathedral's so often virtually empty when I wander round there in the day: certainly its little sidechapels are - and I think they could earn quite a few bob toward the roof and the gargoyles from some classes that didn't scare off the general population with too much zealotry, but instead just invited people to learn a bit more focus, peace and attention. But as far as I can tell, it's the exception rather than the rule that these things are provided in Christian, and they certainly aren't offered as 'entry level' activity. Hence even though Buddhists are responsible for just as many cock ups as Christians, it's them who'll keep getting the meditation crowds for the forseeable future....

  2. I would hazard a guess that somewhere in your locality there is a group that prays the Rosary daily, one that prays the Divine Mercy Chaplet regularly, one that uses centering prayer and a Taize group. Part of the reason few people go to them is they tend to be less good at self publicity than the Buddhist-lite organisations. Another reason is the reluctance of many people to get involved with them because they have (or think they have) deep rooted objections to Christianity but not to the Eastern religions despite the latter being every bit as objectionable (or appearing to be so) to Western liberal bourgeois sensibilities as the former.