Category Archives: religion and spirituality

“Like Kittens Given Their Own Tails to Tease”

Vaclav Havel was a playwright, poet, and artist who became the first president of the Czech Republic in 1992 after helping lead a successful revolution against the Communists.  His involvement in politics was not the route that most men of his artistic persuasion would follow but his voracious reading in religion and the arts led him to action, not idle thought, or as pointed out recently in the Times Literary Supplement, “working for social and political improvement, not for glory, but to put his soul in order.”  Havel had a hunger in the heart that led him into the ethereal, even the occult, but he also was grounded in reality and recognized that the lure of intellectual and spiritual escapism must not be allowed to capture him.  He recognized that passion, that as Hamlet put it, “the native hue of resolution, sicklie’d o’er with the pale cast of thought…(would)…lose the name of action.”  Or, to put it in New Testament words, “Faith without action is dead.” (This was from a book review of “Vaclav Havel” by Kieran Williams.)

Havel lived through social and political turmoil in his youth during the Communist Revolution when his comfortably ensconced family suffered loss of wealth and status making the young Havel “self-conscious about his social origin.”  This “self-consciousness” produced what the book reviewer, Lesley Chamberlain, described as “productive friction” in his soul which simultaneously created or affirmed a belief in a soul and the insight that engagement in the human endeavor was an important part of “putting his soul in order.”  This “productive friction” will not take place in anyone’s life without some unsettling experience at some point in life as otherwise one will just bumble along life’s way comfortably ensconced in one’s view of the world, like “kittens given their tail to tease,” as Goethe put it.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Language is Nuanced and Contextual

Ben Carson is now on stage with Trump, playing his part in the daily clown show.  He almost immediately made a splash when in his first speech after taking office as Housing and Urban Development Secretary described slaves on slave ships as “immigrants.”   When he was immediately criticized over this statement, he responded with, “Look up the definition of immigrants.”

Carson is another demonstration of the Trump administration’s lack of appreciation of nuance in language, reminding me of the former Supreme Court jurist, Antonin Scalia who argued, “The constitution means just what it says.”  Conservative politicians, and theologians, are literalists and do not consider the contextual dimension of words.  Though these very same persons will readily argue that one who cries “Fire” in a theater does not have the right to do so, that venue being one one “context” which is relevant to the use of words.

Carson replied in response to critics of his observation, “Look it up in the dictionary!.”  He is right, “immigrant” means someone moving to another country.  However, the notion that a black person in the bowels of an 18th century slave ship was an “immigrant” is just absolutely ridiculous.  And, though this is only obliquely related, let me show you a photo of Ben Carson and Jesus in his household, the nuances of which are highly comical.

If only I was skilled with photo-shop, you would soon see a picture of myself with Jesus and Buddha on either side of me, arms around me and myself with a beatific smile.  This photo is such a stunning example of how Ben Carson, and so many of the Republican Party, have no idea of how they are coming across to the onlooker.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

Shakespeare’s Advise to the Wounded Soul

Shakespeare offered wisdom for all dimensions of the human experience.  For example, here he offered insight into maladies of the soul still relevant to modern times:

MACBETH   Cure her of that. 
                Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, 
                Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, 
                Raze out the written troubles of the brain 
                And with some sweet oblivious antidote 
                Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff 
                Which weighs upon the heart?

PHYSICIAN  Therein must the patient minister unto herself.

Shakespeare was one of the greatest spiritual teachers we have ever had.  He certainly realized the value of “the healer’s art” I’m sure but he knew that ultimately each individual is alone, left with the responsibility of “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Others may assist us, and should, but ultimately we have to muster up the courage to confront the demons that haunt us in our inner most depths.

In religion and in the mental health profession, the quick cure is always fashionable.  These two enterprises often proffer only fads and fashions designed only as a band-aid that can only temporarily cover an existential crisis that needs to be “lived” through.  As someone put it, matters have the heart cannot be resolved by “thinking” through them but only by “feeling” through them.

Here I include a modern translation of the above Shakespearean quote:

In a modern translation, this part of the scene would say “Cure her of that. Can’t you treat a diseased mind? Take away her memory of sorrow? Use some drug to erase the troubling thoughts from her brain and ease her heart?” This is describing how Macbeth is pleading for his wife’s health. He feels compelled to treat her and is saddened when he hears from the doctor that one cannot mend the emotionally ill. This leads Macbeth into a rant that almost accuses the doctor of not being a doctor at all because he’s not able to cure someone emotionally sick. Macbeth is needing the doctor to be able to do something, use some drug that can help her in any way

 

The Heart’s “Beastly Little Treasures”

My dear mother often trotted out home-spun wisdom that I’m sure she picked up from her upbringing in the farmland of south-central Missouri.  One of my favorites was, in reference to someone who obviously thought way too much of himself, “I wish I could buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.  I’d be a millionaire.”  I stumbled across the 19th century novelist George Eliot’s version of this wisdom yesterday, “What mortal is there of us, who would find his satisfaction enhanced by an opportunity of comparing the picture he presents to himself of his doings, with the picture they make on the mental retina of his neighbours? We are poor plants buoyed up by the air-vessels of our own conceit.”

None of us are exempt from this vanity and that is not necessarily a fault.  “Tis just a human foible.  Of course, occasionally someone like Donald Trump comes along and this “human foible” is magnified for us and we see how catastrophic it can be.  It is important to have self-respect and even self-love in some sense.  Failure to do so merely reflects what Carl Jung termed “ego deflation” which is an inverted form of “ego inflation.”  Jung realized that with either extreme there was inordinate attention on our self and a lack of attention on other people and the world outside of our ego, that we probably saw only “the small bright circle of our consciousness, beyond which lies the darkness.”  It is very humbling to suddenly realize, “Uh oh, this has pretty much been all about me so far in my life.”

“Self” consciousness or self-awareness is very challenging.  It requires what spiritual teachers often call “soul work.”  It entails looking within as well as without, the “within” dimension often requiring confronting what poet Ranier Rilke described as the heart’s “beastly little treasures.”

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

Wordsworth’s “Preludes” and Subjectivity

Just after the turn of the century, I had the privilege of living in Cambridge, England for an academic year with my wife who was doing research at Lucy Cavendish College at Cambridge University.  One of my personal highlights was attending a wine tasting at the Cambridge University office of William Wordsworth.  There I was in awe as I soaked up the atmosphere of the room where this great poet had studied and written, my “awe” certainly enhanced by very the very fine wine!  I was taken by handwritten copies of some of his poetry displayed on the walls and original editions of his work on display.  I reveled for a while in the “spirit” of one of my most beloved poets.

This past week the New York Review of Books had a lengthy report of a new book about one of Wordsworth’s most famous lyrical poems, “The Preludes.”  This book review by Helen Vendler delves into some of the personal misfortunates that befell Wordsworth in life, especially in his youth, all of which turned him inward and eventually gave expression to beautiful poetic imagery of a soul that had been denied the comfort of traditional life.  It reminds me of something W. H. Auden said of W.B. Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”  Wordsworth’s world was often very maddening and it did turn him away from the horror of what he was witnessing toward the subjective comfort of poetic reverie.

I will post a link to the entire book review at the conclusion.  Here I would like to share an excerpt from the preludes which has been offering me reassurance for the past 30 years or so, reassuring me that he too saw as did Shakespeare, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may”:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!

Book review by Helen Vendler of Wordsworth’s “Preludes”:  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/02/23/wordsworth-heard-voices-in-my-head/

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ADDENDUM–I have diversified this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

The Simple “Complexity” of Spirit

I have deep conviction that life is essentially a spiritual enterprise; or, as someone has said, “We are spiritual beings having an human moment.”   But to be honest, I’m hesitant to even use words like “spiritual” for in my culture they too often refer to jargon and rhetoric which I now see as ideological bondage described by the Apostle Paul as, the “letter of the law” which he described as spiritually lethal.

Bear with me here as, in my hubris, I attempt to define “spirit,”  to put into words that which is Ineffable and therefore beyond the grasp of language. The human ego is driven to attempt to but this Essential into words, to capture that which always eludes the effort to grasp it.  This is the existential dilemma of human beings, having in their heart an intrinsic drive to find meaning only to eventually to discover that the Ground of our being where meaning is found is always beyond our ego’s effort to capture, and therefore “own” it.   This obsession eventually brings us face to face with the experience of humility in which we have the opportunity to accept that this “Ground” is present in the very quest that drives us and is satisfied when we begin to resign from the “beseeching” of the ego and rest in the comfort of Grace, in the knowledge offered to us by W. H. Auden that “the Center that we cannot find is known to the unconscious mind.  There is no need to despair, we are already there.” Or, to put this wisdom in biblical terms, we must come to realize that God is “the author and the finisher of our faith” so that at some point we give up the efforts of “the flesh” to earn salvation, be this effort intellectual or moral endeavor.

This brings up the subject of meditation, a dimension of prayer which is usually dismissed in Protestantism as it is antithetical to Protestantism’s obsessively rational approach to Spirit.  Meditation brings one to recognize the limitation of rational thought, a recognition that teaches one the value of thinking but simultaneously the value of recognizing, and experiencing that there is more to spiritual endeavor (and to life) than rationality.  The most powerful expression of this insight I’ve ever run across was provided by Shakespeare when, in Hamlet, King Claudius was on his knees in prayer, offering these words, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.  Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

So, how have I done in defining Spirit?  Failed miserably huh?  Well, good.  Then I’ve accomplished my purpose.  Life is a spiritual enterprise and rational understanding of it is completely beyond the grasp of our finite mind.  When this understanding and experience of finitude begins to sink into our ego-ridden consciousness, we are brought to our knees…so to speak, or perhaps literally.  For then we begin to embrace the incomprehensible Mystery of life which, paradoxically we recognize always has and always will Graciously embrace us.  “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

ADDENDUM–I am about to diversify with this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

 

I am a Writer

I’m a writer.  It has taken me 65 years to make this bold assertion though this blogging experience of the past five years has been a very tentative, left-handed way of making this announcement.  And “endeavor” was a deliberately chosen term as it has been and always will be a struggle as writing of any substance must come from the heart; and anything that flows from that bastion of “beastly little treasures” will be a struggle.  The heart is the innermost recess of our being, so “inner most” that, if you will let me slip into Zen for a moment, it is a “No Thing” and can best be described as emptiness.  Therefore, if you “know” what your heart is…that is if you cognitively grasp your heart, or think that you do…I would beg to differ with you.  For the “heart” always lies beyond our conscious grasp.  And this “emptiness” is very much related to the Christian teaching of “losing your self to find your self” and finding our “self” in the sense that Jesus had in mind is much more than a cognitive, rational, linear-thinking enterprise.  You could even say it is a “work of the cross” but not in an intellectual way but in the constellation of archetypal energies which will often feel like a crucifixion.

Acknowledgement that anything is beyond the grasp of our conscious mind is frightening to most people, especially those of us in the West.  Since the Descartes dictum, “I think, therefore I am” the West has been worshipping thinking or reason and we have slowly come to be convinced that the whole of life can be reduced to linear thinking, i.e. reason.  And this has made us technologically and scientifically great but left us with a spiritual emptiness that will soon leave my country, the United States, with a man who is egregiously mentally ill as its President.  “They call it Reason, using Light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.” (Goethe)

But writing and all artistic enterprises can only spring from a heart that novelist Toni Morrison described as “petal open.”  That is where spirituality flows from, other than the “letter of the law” variety which is only what the Apostle Paul called a “work of the flesh.”  My favorite description of this vulnerable heart was written by Shakespeare whose character Hamlet, with great intensity lamented to his mother that he could never unburden his heart to her because it was, “bronzed o’er with the damned cast of thought so that it” is a barrier against “sense” (or feeling) and thus not “made of penetrable stuff.”  Shakespeare knew that an open heart can be “penetrated” while a closed heart, one shrouded by an enculturated verbal patina will be reduced to mindless palaver, “the well worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness.” (Conrad Aiken)

But words do have the capacity to furrow into the depths of our heart and there we can use them to “unpack our heart.”(see footnote below).  But the unopen heart will only reflect from its patina a slough of jargon and packaged, formulaic speech in accordance with what the speaker perceives will gain him the greatest approbation.  Here is the opening stanza of a poem by Irish poet W. R. Rodgers who in 1942 recognized the “post-truth” dimension of language that is currently plaguing our world.

WORDS (an excerpt)

By W. R. Rodgers

Once words were unthinking things, signaling

Artlessly the heart’s secret screech or roar,

Its foremost ardour or its farthest wish,

Its actual ache or naked rancour.

And once they were the gangways for anger,

Overriding the minds qualms and quagmires.

Wires that through weary miles of slow surmise

Carried the feverish message of fact

In their effortless core.  Once they were these,

But now they are the life-like skins and screens

Stretched skillfully on frames and formulae,

To terrify or tame, cynical shows

Meant only to deter or draw men on,

The tricks and tags of every demagogue,

Mere scarecrow proverbs, rhetorical decoys,

Face-savers, salves, facades, the shields and shells

Of shored decay behind which cave minds sleep

And sprawl like gangsters behind bodyguards.

(FOOTNOTE:  For you Shakespearean scholars, I am misapplying this line of “unpacking my heart with words” to describe something useful, when in the play “Hamlet” it described prostitutes deliberately plying their trade knowing that they could then go and perfunctorily confess their sins.  Hmm!)