Monday, April 1, 2019

Gentleness heals your fractured self

Begging pardon up-front for what will certainly be a rambling blog post, I begin by noting that what I love about A.M. Allchin, Rowan Williams, and John O'Donohue and their retrieval of Celtic spirituality is their rejection of Stoicism, or at least the substitution of a peculiar form of Stoicism for Christian as well as other spiritualities. For whatever reason, Stoicism is deeply rooted in the Western psyche. Hence, Westerners, particularly Americans, have a pronounced tendency to turn everything into a Stoic-inspired moralism.

Because it is Lent, I will resist the temptation to digress backward starting with Jansenism, moving to Calvinism, then to Scholasticism, before arriving at Stoicism.

As Marx demonstrates, this Stoic-inspired mindset, which he correctly characterizes as bourgeois, has deep social roots. The trunk and barren branches that sprout from these roots are the economic and political implications revealed by Marxian analysis. This only serves to show us our need to do what Bob Marley urged us to do: free our minds. Jesus came to enable us to do just that! As an aside, I don't mind admitting that I find Alasdair MacIntyre's leap from Christianity and Marxism to After Virtue quite incomprehensible.

As proponents of Stoicism would no doubt insist, what I have described is not only a reduction of Christianity, Buddhism, et al., but of Stoicism as well. Even so, I cannot personally square Stoicism with Christianity. My experience of it amounts to what I can only describe as spiritual constipation. What a lot of people still don't recognize is that many forms of Christianity are really just forms of warmed-over Stoicism.

If we take "faith" to mean what the late Anglican systematic theologian John Macquarrie insisted it means- a mode of being- then its concrete aspect is a way of life, which, in turn, gives birth to particular lifestyles. Taking "way of life" to refer to Christian praxis, which comes in threes: faith, hope, and love; leitourgia, martyria, diakonia; prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, there should be as many Christian lifestyles as there are Christians. Christianity is a mode of being not merely in but for the world.

Like a lot of people, I experienced a very moralistic religious upbringing. It was an upbringing that traded in guilt and shame. Being made to feel guilt and shame for being human malformed how I perceive myself. Without going into detail, one example of this is that for decades after becoming sexually aware, I lived with a very fractured sexuality. This fracture was the result believing, deep down, that sex is inherently dirty and having sexual desires is depraved. This meant I saw myself as a depraved person for having sexual desires and urges. My experience has taught me that denying every pleasurable impulse is at least as destructive as giving into every pleasurable impulse, if not more so.

This was all brought to mind this morning by reading a section of John O'Donohue's Anam Cara. In this section, as he does throughout the book, he writes of the importance of being gentle with yourself, the importance not only of being a friend to yourself but, in this instance, of being a kind parent to your own waywardness:
In a sense, you are called to be a loving parent to your delinquent qualities. Your kindness will slowly poultice their negativity, alleviate their fear, and help them to see that your soul is a home where there is no judgment or febrile hunger fir a fixed and limited identity. The negative threatens us so powerfully precisely because it is an invitation to a art of compassion and self-enlargement that our small thinking utterly resists
As any reader of my blog can quickly learn, I am not opposed to practicing disciplines, be they spiritual, physical, or intellectual. I just don't want to judge myself, let alone others, on that basis. After all, disciplines are but means to ends. Too often we mistake them as ends in themselves. Mistaking disciplines as ends instead of means is one example of our tendency to think small.

Several years ago, a beautiful friend of mine, Casey, suddenly took his own life. He was a popular, kind, and successful person. I met Casey in one of my annual confirmation prep classes for adults. We remained friends until his untimely death at his own hand. At the banquet celebrating his life, every place-setting featured a note printed on card-stock:

O'Donohue, a native of Western Ireland, uses the image of a hearth with a fire in it as the image of one's soul. I like this because it is consistent with the ancient Christian "divine spark" anthropology. We encounter the divine within in the most immediate way we are capable of encountering it. In O'Donohue's thought, the Celtic equivalent for a burning bush becomes burning dried peat in the fireplace. This is very earthy. Earthiness is important because earth is the "stuff" of which we are wonderfully made. Besides, as the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews avers: "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29).

For those like me, who are wondering "febrile," "poultice"? In this context, "febrile" means "having or showing a great deal of nervous excitement or energy." "Poultice" refers to "a soft, moist mass of material, typically of plant material or flour, applied to the body to relieve soreness and inflammation and kept in place with a cloth."

Hey, it's April! One quarter of 2019 has come and gone. As the Smothers' Brothers sang years ago: Whatever happened to time?/It doesn't come around anymore/The last time I saw time/It was walking out the door. Play a friendly trick on a few people today.

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