Friday, 5 October 2007

Prayer bones

Just came across this image in the "historical anatomies" collection of the US National Library of Medicine:

I don't know what I'd use it for, but it cries out to be used for something.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Intermediate Christianity

Before I return Jacob Needleman's Lost Christianity to Julianne, I want to note down the things that struck me in it, particularly "intermediate Christianity".

Intermediate Christianity isn't in the sense of "basic, intermediate, advanced" (though that works too), but more in the sense of a Christianity that's intermediate between the external, "assent to propositions + good behaviour" Christianity and the full-on mystical union with God. It has a more modest aim than the latter; it aims to bring into being the soul.

Needleman's argument (derived from his mysterious Father Sylvan) is that what we usually tend to call "soul" is actually just thought and emotion at the external, small-s-self, egoic level. Actual soul is much more; it involves a return to authentic being which reflects the original paradisal innocence (which, as someone who aspires to be the Innocent Man, is something I'm interested in). This authentic being is not the being constructed for us by our various interactions with the world; it's the "face you had before you were born" of Zen. For most people, it isn't simply hidden, Father Sylvan claims; actually, it doesn't even exist. It only comes to exist when we let go of the external thoughts and emotions that we think of as our "self". When we do so, we encounter, not different thoughts and emotions, but a new level of knowing and a new level of feeling that is quite unlike the former level.

"Intermediate Christianity" also points to the soul as the aspect of ourselves that is able to relate both to the world and to God, paying attention to both - and "attention" is a key word. Here he brings in centering prayer specifically - he was among the early discoverers of what Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington were up to (the book is originally from the 1980s).

The soul, too, is formed, is present, in the moment of self-questioning, before our genuine response to anything turns into a programmed reaction, and before we resolve the paradoxes. Retaining the energy of this moment of questioning within ourselves, rather than allowing it to disperse by being absorbed in the usual thoughts and emotions, we can come to awareness of the subtler energies within ourselves which form, eventually, the soul.

We have been carrying on all this time as if the Bible addressed itself to people at the level we are at, the external level of ordinary thoughts and emotions, and told them to be at the level of saints. No wonder we couldn't do it. No, says Father Sylvan (echoing Gurdjieff); it addresses itself to intermediate Christians, to people who have a genuine existence and a real soul, who are able to love others as they love themselves because they have an authentic self to love.

And finally, Needleman offers reflections on what it means to "love" our neighbour. Just to help them in ways that are beneficial to them? This is a weak definition of love; love is not less than this but surely it is more than this. "To love my neighbour is to assist the arising and the unfolding in him of that which can harmonize the real elements of his nature" - and we can't do this for others until we have done it for ourselves. (As the great Hasidic teacher said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?")

I'll close with personal responses to two quotes from Father Sylvan.

"The intellect cannot be abandoned until it knows why it must be abandoned and theoretically agree to it." - p. 207
I think this has been a part of my struggle with Centering Prayer (which I still don't practice regularly and consistently). I find it difficult to let go; I need to have reasons why it's a good idea (though I now have a great many).

One of the reasons that "intermediate Christianity" appeals to me as a concept is that I don't feel ready for the higher kind, the mysticism of a Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross that gives up all for the beloved. It doesn't reflect well on me, but it's true: I just don't love God that much, not yet, anyway. Seeking to be the Innocent Man, to have a genuine existence, to form a soul? That I can aspire to.

" order to attain to the immediate you must begin by setting aside the language of the Christian religion." - p. 208

I've been trying to read some of the writings of the theosophers, Jacob Boehme and co., and my problem is that although (I'm reliably informed) what they're expressing is not just the same old-time religion that I strove so earnestly in when I was young and foolish, their language is the language of that religion, and it's a barrier for me; I keep being emotionally ejected into the assumption that the language is empty, which for them it wasn't, but for me, now, it is. So approaching things a bit differently - whether via Buddhist language, or Meditations on the Tarot, or Kabbalah, or however - is helping me to, paradoxically, get back to Christianity in a way that things phrased as Christianity don't. Again, I'm not claiming that I don't have issues here; clearly I do. But given that I do, the fact that I can find a way of working around them is, I think, the important fact.