Thursday, December 13, 2012

A dissociative digression on my need to (re-)discover my I

Reading Jacob Needleman’s book Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery, I encountered the extraordinary figure of Fr. Sylvan, a Christian monk Needleman met while traveling home from an inter-religious conference in the Far East in the early 1970s. Fr. Sylvan’s affiliation is not clear, even to Needleman, not even after he received a package containing a journal the monk wrote for him after their encounter, an attempt to answer the questions posed by Prof. Needleman during their time together, which was sent to him after Fr. Sylvan’s death. My guess is that Fr. Sylvan was probably a Coptic monk, but perhaps Orthodox, or maybe Syriac.

In the extract of the journal published by Needleman I was particularly struck by Fr. Sylvan’s insistence of the necessity of what might be called, to borrow from Don Giussani, the discovery of one’s I. Fr. Sylvan wrote:
We must work to know what God is doing in ourselves and then God will enable us, through power, to love my neighbor. We need power, energy, to love, that is, to not get absorbed by our emotional reactions to the other. This energy... cannot appear without self-struggle of a specific, revealed nature"
I don’t mind relating that the word I eliminated by using an ellipsis is the word “magic,” which would take more effort to put into context than I am willing to make here.

It seems to me that love must factor in here somewhere, not silly, sappy, emotive, sentimental love, but true love, something like what I think Fr. Aldo Trento meant when, describing his personal experience with Don Gius, gazing on myself with the same tenderness with which Christ gazes on me, or God taking pity on my nothingness. Jesus' command to love my neighbor as I live myself, it seems to me, is at the root of this (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27).

Fr. Sylvan wrote about the need, to borrow something from Walker Percy, whose Love in the Ruins: the Adventures of a Bad Catholic At a Time Near the End of the World I just finished reading, the importance of not to being abstracted from one's self and the need to align one’s perceptions with reality. This is where I detect yet another connection with the teaching of Don Gius. The problem also consists of experiencing what you believe and adequately conveying that experience, which quickly puts you up against the limitations of language, but enables one to grasp something Derrida insisted upon, the ontological priority of writing over speech.

In an attempt to align my observations and the connections they have prompted with reality, I note something that Sean Penn said in a recent interview with Esquire. I do not do so in order to be judgmental in the least, but because of the honesty of Penn’s observation and, frankly, its convenience for making at least part of my point. Referring to his fourteen year marriage to Robyn Wright, he shared, "There is no shame in my saying that we all want to be loved by someone. As I look back over my life in romance, I don't feel I've ever had that. I have been the only one that was unaware of the fraud in a few of these circumstances blindly." He went on to say, "When you get divorced, all the truths that come out, you sit there and you go, What the fuck was I doing? What was I doing believing that this person was invested in this way? Which is a fantastically strong humiliation in the best sense. It can make somebody very bitter and very hard and closed off, but I find it does the opposite to me."

He went on to describe what his reaction to this realization was, both initially and subsequently: "And so I go out and I strike out four nights in a row, drinking at a bar and ending up home, you know, drunk. And on the fourth day I said, 'I could just go sit in the middle of the bed and watch TV at four in the afternoon, too. I don't have anything.' My daughter's eighteen and she's doing her thing, my son's with his mother. So I turned on the TV and there was this earthquake in Haiti.” His response to that is amazing. Whatever you might think of Penn or his outspoken politics, you can’t argue with what he has done in Haiti, for Haitians, or, for that matter, what he says here (well, as my experience on social media has taught me, people can and will argue with anything and everything- I am certainly that argumentative at times). I can’t help but wonder whether he has yet found that love he so deeply desires, that we all desire. I do appreciate his public honesty. No doubt he’ll pay a price for that, which, at least from my perspective, makes it all that much more valuable.

My experience has taught me that no human being can bear the weight of my need to be loved. Nonetheless, it is a lesson I have to re-learn with more frequency than I care to admit. This, in turn, puts me in mind of a favorite hymn: "Lord, whose love in humble service," which begins, "Lord, whose love in humble service bore the weight of human need." We have no greater need than to be loved. "In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). God sent His Son to expiate our sin by loving us even though we are unlovable, to resolve the contradiction at core of our being: our deep need to be loved and our refusal to love.

Please permit me another insight from Fr. Sylvan and a connection, one that the departed monk made himself, namely with Kierkegaard. The wise monk wrote, "Purity of intention is to seek and struggle for one's own self" Is this much/any different from what Kirkegaard insisted upon when he averred that "Purity of heart is to will one thing"? Lest we overlook it, the subtitle of this work is "spiritual preparation for the office of confession" Writing of Kirkegaard, I think in our present moment, with the New Evangelization in mind, Kierkegaard’s distinction between Christianity and Christendom, a variation on the Augustianian postulation of two kingdoms, but as filtered through Luther and in vehement response to Hegel, is most useful.

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