Meaning and Meaninglessness in Spirituality

Richard Rohr writes powerfully and eloquently about the need to live in the domain of “duality” and recognize the specific relevance of the notion in the realm of spirituality. We do “see through a glass darkly” as the Apostle Paul once noted because this world we live in, which we daily imbibe (usually without any conscious awareness) is made up of infinite complexity, teeming with paradox stemming from this “duality.” One simple example is merely a favorite notion of mine, “We are not what we know ourselves to be. We are much more than that.” But being mere mortals, clothed in flesh, we have had to carve for ourselves an identity fashioned from the ephemeral so that we can function in this beautiful world, a world which…ephemeral thought it might be…is God’s creation.

As we pursue this path which Rohr and others suggest, we must “wrestle with words and meanings” (T. S. Eliot) and thus we dive headfirst into this maelstrom of ambiguity, confusion, doubt, and fear. This is because, here in this land banished from conscious awareness by our “common-sense” day-to-day world, we discover “meaning” and learn that “meaning” inevitably taunts us with “meaninglessness.”

Let me explain why with a simple philosophical maneuver. Imagine a world in which everything was colored blue. In that world, “blue” would therefore not exist for “blue” has no meaning without its complement, “not-blue.” Asking someone to pay attention to “blue” would be like asking a fish to see water.

And the whole of language lies in a similar matrix. However, I must insist that I don’t spent a lot of time wondering about the meaning of most words that I use! If I did, I would soon be swallowed up by an abyss and cease to be functional! I thank the good Lord for this neurological gift as some are not so fortunate. But some words I do deign to explore…to name just a few…god, love, truth, and “right”… and most importantly, in my case, deign to explore the word “Lewis”, the origin of Literary “Lew”. With each of these terms, which I have deemed significant, their complement (including opposite) has to be considered in order for the words to have meaning.

Let me close with an excerpt from W. H. Auden about this treacherous journey. The “Star of Nativity” is speaking his Auden’s Christmas Oratorio:

All those who follow me are led
Onto that glassy mountain where are no
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread,
Where knowledge but increases vertigo;
Those who pursue me take a twisting lone
To find themselves immediately alone
With savage water or unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

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8 thoughts on “Meaning and Meaninglessness in Spirituality

  1. Sandeep Bhalla

    “Knowledge but increases vertigo” is an apt phrase. I intend to use it some time. Problem with knowledge is that it gets out dated sooner than expected. Further what is not known, can not be defined.

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    1. literary lew Post author

      This made me think of something else that T.S. Eliot said in the Four Quartets, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
      And next year’s words await another voice” I include more of the selection for the sake of context. And it is one of my favorite bits of Eliot:

      Last season’s fruit is eaten
      And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
      For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
      And next year’s words await another voice.
      But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
      To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
      Between two worlds become much like each other,
      So I find words I never thought to speak
      In streets I never thought I should revisit
      When I left my body on a distant shore.
      Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
      To purify the dialect of the tribe
      And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
      Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
      To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
      First, the cold friction of expiring sense
      Without enchantment, offering no promise
      But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
      As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
      Second, the conscious impotence of rage
      At human folly, and the laceration
      Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
      And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
      Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
      Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
      Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
      Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
      Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
      From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
      Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
      Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.’

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    1. literary lew Post author

      I remember some of TSE (and others) by heart and used to remember more of it as I deliberately memorized portions of poetry that gripped me. But as time has passed I’ve lost a lot of it…but then that is where Google has stepped in and helped me. I remember precious tidbits and with those tidbits I can readily obtain the rest. TSE”s Four Quartets is one of my very favorite works. And it reflects his deep influence by Eastern religious traditions. Thanks so much for the suggestion of Allama Iqbal. No, I have not heard of him but he is now on my reading list. I have been meaning to ask you to drop some names to me as your culture has such a rich spiritual, literary tradition. Thanks.

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    2. literary lew Post author

      Thanks again for the suggestion of Allama Iqbal. I’m already delving into him and he is very interesting. I passionately love men and women through the ages who have deigned to “think” and not merely be thought by the prevailing ideology of the day. I really like this observation of his, though it is kind of scary to a Western honky like myself, “You the dwelles of the West, should know that
      the world of God is not a shop (of yours).
      Your imagined pure gold is about to lose it
      standard value (as fixed by you).
      Your civilization will commit suicide with its
      own daggers

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  2. Sandeep Bhalla

    I have not read all he has written. But heard two of his works Shikwa or Complaint and Jawaab-e-shikwa or Reply to complaint in Udu as I understand and speak a little of Urdu as well. The rumour has it that he wrote Shikwa before the partition of India and Pakistan and when he was denied entry into ppakistan he undid himself by countering his own ‘complaint’ with ‘reply’. As regards the words quoted above I think that it can be said about the every organized religion which after a time become a prison of rituals rather than practical substance. Verses are interpreted to do anything and everything.

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