Empty Days

Thursday, September 15, 2005



On orderly life when left to oneself:

Once, amidst terrible infighting with his thoughts, St.Antony cried out: "Lord, I want salvation, but my thoughts prevent me." Suddenly he saw a vision: somebody looking very much like himself is sitting at work, then he gets up and starts praying, and then goes back to work. "Do like this and you will be saved", - said an angel to Antonius.




On reading:

"You're worried that in reading spiritual writings without guidance you might conceive false opinion and devious thoughts. You're quite right to be so worried. Therefore, if you care to avoid such a harmful eventuality, do not read without discrimination any of those new writings of supposedly spiritual content but by such authors who did not acertain their teachings by a saintly life. Rather read whatever written by the fathers of the church who are well known to the Church and were found without doubt to be helpful to the soul."

This advice dates from XIXc and has lost yet some more of its grounding ever since the new russian church canonized the whole family of the last russian tzar who was shot by the bolsheviks. One can say whatever about the poor tzar and his family but certainly not that they had anything to do with any sort of personal saintliness.

However the whole idea of aligning words with deeds is timeless and doubtlessly true.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005



Meditations on that camel and a needle's ear.

I keep wondering what it is that I found in those churches. Perhaps it means something that Russia remained communist for such a long time: religion was literally wiped out from people's minds - all spiritual discourse was banned, along with places of worship which were basically turned either into museums or warehouses. What it means is that saving religion as a spiritual tradition despite this bannishment required real sacrifice and a true inner purpose. All the stale wordly residue that accumulated previously through historic merging of state and church was washed out from the face of russian orthodoxy - today it is being rediscovered as a true refuge from the raging emptiness of free-market values: while the West keeps distributing across the globe its wonder-recipies for economic paradises, ordinary russians are trying to find something else to munch on beside banknotes.

Well, to say the least: it does something to one's mind when in a crowded church people go down on their knees in throngs and with complete willingness and sorrow. And it is probably not without consequence that those who come to church do so because they want and need to for real - and not out of empty observance (as does happen on big traditional holidays however). People are in a bad situation in Russia nowdays and those sorrows they drag about are not minor, they're major, and they're shared by many. All this suffering is brought to church and it becomes a place of communion for a whole nation.

I can't say I've seen that happening everywhere else I've been to. But this is because I've only been to western europe and north america - the richest parts of the world. I am pretty sure that the situation is very different and much more alive in poorer lands where people are by necessity less neurotic about wordly competition and wealth - and thus far less arrogant and self-centered.

To put it plainly: there are almost no places in the West anymore (except some very wild nature perhaps) where one can find spirit and be touched by it - while there are still many more such places in less favored lands. Reason doesn't understand this because reason doesn't feel - to a rational thinking all places and nations are basically the same and spirit is understood as a sort of universal abstraction without anything tangible about it. But it's not like that - it's a living thing much more than a concept and it relates to things.

To be continued.

Monday, September 12, 2005



St. Augustine - Confessions.
Time never lapses, nor does it glide at leisure through our sense perceptions. It does strange things in the mind. Lo, time came and went from day to day, and by coming and going it brought to my mind other ideas and remembrances, and little by little they patched me up again with earlier kinds of pleasure and my sorrow yielded a bit to them. But yet there followed after this sorrow, not other sorrows just like it, but the causes of other sorrows. For why had that first sorrow so easily penetrated to the quick except that I had poured out my soul onto the dust, by loving a man as if he would never die who nevertheless had to die?

What revived and refreshed me, more than anything else, was the consolation of other friends, with whom I went on loving the things I loved instead of thee. This was a monstrous fable and a tedious lie which was corrupting my soul with its "itching ears"[99] by its adulterous rubbing. And that fable would not die to me as often as one of my friends died. And there were other things in our companionship that took strong hold of my mind: to discourse and jest with him; to indulge in courteous exchanges; to read pleasant books together; to trifle together; to be earnest together; to differ at times without ill-humor, as a man might do with himself, and even through these infrequent dissensions to find zest in our more frequent agreements; sometimes teaching, sometimes being taught; longing for someone absent with impatience and welcoming the homecomer with joy. These and similar tokens of friendship, which spring spontaneously from the hearts of those who love and are loved in return -- in countenance, tongue, eyes, and a thousand ingratiating gestures -- were all so much fuel to melt our souls together, and out of the many made us one.
[Book 4, ch.8]
It's not so much a book of Confessions as a book on Conversion. It's about emptiness underlying a seeming fullness of life and how one was led out of this desert - from within and not from without. But why and how really remains unknown.
Let the proud laugh at me, and those who have not yet been savingly cast down and stricken by thee, O my God.(...) For what am I to myself without thee but a guide to my own downfall? Or what am I, even at the best, but one suckled on thy milk and feeding on thee, O Food that never perishes?
[Book 4, ch.1]
For a good many years I meant to read this book as I heard good things of it - but it is only now that this finally seems very much to the point.

Sunday, September 11, 2005



Virtual hermetics.

In the last few days I've been a lot on the web (having been deprived of such luxurious internet-usage while in Russia of course) looking to see what's available in terms of eastern orthodox hermetics. Predictably lots is available auf Russisch. And actually - way too much is available. So that a lot of ponderous crap has to be separated from some tangible good. The problem with traditional religion is that so much energy is usually spent loudly defending its rightness against all other religions, while real questions of inner life are taken for granted. One needs a lot of good will and a clear spirit in order to be able to bypass such violent manifestations - literally to forgive the outer visage of church and not get bogged down by it - and look for the little gold hidden inside so many quarrelous words.

The desert fathers were mostly preoccupied with hermetics rather than theological disputes and are thus a better and more valuable read. Also they all have very personal experience of what they're talking about. One saying I liked a lot: "to those pure of heart everything is pure". That's because of the ability to forgive and yet keep to the right way inside oneself.

*

And then I was thinking about those strange hermits of old who chose to go to lonely places in order to pray for years and years and years an unknown entity which they called God. Today it does seem like a very strange thing to do - how can it make sense if there is no one to address, nothing but one's own mind out there? Isn't that the general belief?

And if one tried today and went to a solitary place in the woods - where would one find such faith inside one's own mind not to go completely mad out there, knocking one's head against the wall of inner emptiness - who will one call out to?

And why would one do that in the first place?

There is no tradition and no support for such endeavors anymore. It is public anathema to even envisage such madness. Therefore one needs to hide - and pretend that one doesn't believe - in order to keep a little faith.
It's a pretty drastic situation. Very hard to be left alone and not be sought out with dogs and police by worried relatives.

The other danger of getting so much at odds with the world about these things is that one can set out on false grounds: wishing to affirm oneself against the rest of humanity, instead of demolishing one's self in order to find the way out.

But people who went into the desert, went with heart and not with thought. And maybe that's why they survived out there for so long. The motivation must be pure and strong.

And the question remains: how does one get such motivation today and from what live sources, when literally the whole world around you is hostile to such thinking?





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