12 June 2010

Discovering Fire

It was somewhere in the inner steppes of Asia that Teilhard de Chardin, the misunderstood Jesuit paleontologist (and some say, mystic) reflected on how attachment to God occurs. "I must first pass through an agonizing phase of diminution for which no tangible compensation will be given me." I am reminded here of the extreme, outlandish branch of Islamic mysticism, Sufism, which wants nothing more than fana: the complete and total obliteration of the self.

Chardin himself made a few important discoveries and wrote books that are, in many places, indecipherable to anyone but himself. Nevertheless, his following grew and well after his death, his ruminations continue to be unpacked and spread out. He got in trouble with the Church a time or two for commenting on areas of thought for which the higher-ups considered him unqualified. I digress.

It's not difficult to see why spirituality eludes us, or more precisely, why we elude spirituality. If one sees at the outset that the path is going to be fraught with necessary difficulty and perhaps even loss of self, who but the most zealous or insane would venture into it? Enter here the lapsed Catholic, the yawning Protestant, the shrugging Jew and embarrassed Muslim: the reduction of spirituality to a cultural calendar of festivals and rituals, robbed completely of any real meaning by our fear of deeper waters.

Several years ago I took part in a Corpus Christi procession around the Cathedral. People moved in line with varied levels of enthusiasm. I smoked a cigarette. At one particular place, when the priest performed benediction and we were all kneeling to receive it, I happened behind a presumably homeless man. He didn't kneel, but he did pass gas in the faces of all the pietati behind him. I was amused and disgusted, a not infrequent personal reaction to religious undertakings.

Chardin goes on, "This is why, pouring into my chalice the bitterness of all separations, of all limitations, and of all sterile fallings away, you then hold it out to me. 'Drink ye all of this.'"

A friend recently revealed to me that coffee was not around at the time of Jesus but had it been, he opined, Jesus would have most certainly used it instead of wine for the ritual. He suggested I imagine what it would be like to walk into a church and get caught by that enticing aroma of brewing joe. You'd have better morning mass attendance, provided the church used quality beans and not the masked sawdust one so often encounters passing for coffee. Both coffee and wine are liquids indicative of social gatherings, but I'm getting away from the point.

The point is that Chardin, like so many struggling believers, suffered long for his perceived separation from God and the limitations of language and expression in dealing with it. Most of us give up at this point and to do so with a clean conscience, frantically muster up so-called legitimate grievances with whatever is the religion in question. Too strict, too corrupt, too outdated, too perfunctory, too irrelevant. Banal as the grievances tend to be, they do succeed in vaulting the self as an independent, free-thinking island. And that is really what is at issue: a radical and illusory hangup of independence that will never fit into a spiritual context.

The host is raised and we pass gas. Interpret at will.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your insights grow evermore incisive! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and commentary on contemporary life, such as it is. Of course, the quest to love and be loved is as elusive as faith in the unseen. Maybe we will see "fire" discovered for the second time in the history of the world...