Thinking, and the Big Divide
Driving to a meeting yesterday afternoon in Baton Rouge, I heard a fascinating interview on NPR with the marvelously named Marie Mutsuki Mockett, a Japanese-American author of a memoir in which she details grieving her Japanese father’s death. She went to Mount Doom, an extinct volcano in Japan, where Japanese go to mourn their dead. There she met a Buddhist priest:
He was an extraordinary character — a sort of severe and serious, eccentric character — who told me with great pride that his nickname, when he had been in the monastery for 20 years was Darth Vader. …
I told him about my meditation training. And I told him how irritated I was to have to sit there for three hours, how irritated I was … because I had thought that if I wanted to understand anything about Buddhism and what Buddhism had to offer, I thought I was supposed to read sutras and texts and, you know, think — like what I did in college. And he said, “Oh, you Westerners … You always want to know why you have to do something before you do it.” And he said, “In Japan, we make you do something, and then you learn ‘why’ afterward. … Sometimes, you just need to do something and learn the lesson later.” Which is perhaps a healthier way to live, because you can’t always know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sometimes you simply have to go through and experience.
Yes, I thought, that’s exactly how it is. And it’s how it is in Orthodox Christianity. Maybe this is what the friend at St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas meant when she told Julie and me, upon our entering the Orthodox church, “It will take you ten years to become Orthodox.” She meant “to begin to think like an Orthodox Christian.” I thought at the time that was a strange thing to say, but in the past year or two, I’ve come to appreciate the truth of it. If you surrender to the rituals, to the liturgical prayers, to the Psalms and all the rest, you begin to see things about yourself and the world that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and to experience the world in a new way.
In the newest Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers talks with a couple of theologians about art and theology, and how it is that visual art and music can convey religious truths that cannot adequately be captured in formal propositions. Listening to those interviews, I thought of the Commedia, and how Dante struggles in his verse to convey the experience of Paradise:
Once there we shall behold what we hold true
through faith, not proven but self-evident:
a primal truth, incontrovertible.
Words cannot capture the reality of what the soul experiences there. Here he writes of seeing Beatrice’s smile near the summit of Heaven:
The beauty I saw there goes far beyond
all mortal reach; I think that only He
Who made it knows the full joy of its being.
At this point I admit to my defeat:
no poet, comic or tragic, was
more outdone by his theme than I am now;
for as sunlight does to the weakest eyes,
so did the mere thought of her lovely smile
strike every recognition from my mind.
Yes. Yes! In Dante, to know God is not to philosophize about God, to reason about God, but to see God, and to love the sight with all your heart. Perception perceives love, and love is essential to knowing. How different that is from the way we in the West today perceive things. In one of his interviews, Ken Myers observes that the difference between the modern age and what preceded it is that in the pre-modern era (that gave birth to Dante, and that more or less died with Dante), people believed that the point of life was to conform the soul to Reality — to harmonize with a cosmic order that exists independently of the soul, but that can be known. In the modern era, man regards what he once saw as cosmos as, instead, inert matter that can and should be manipulated and shaped according to man’s will and genius.
I think what my friend meant when she said it would take a decade to become Orthodox is that to think as an Orthodox Christian means shedding seven centuries of the Western habit of mind characteristic of modernity. This is why I found Dante to be so resonant with Orthodox Christianity. Dante was fully Catholic, obviously, but the culture in which Dante lived was pre-modern, thus enchanted. The experience of Orthodoxy today is, to my perception, far more “enchanted” than the experience of Catholicism, except on occasions like the mass I attended at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia. That doesn’t make Orthodoxy more true than Catholicism, in the propositional sense, but I do think it means that in this time and place, the Orthodox vision helps modern people to see divine truths more clearly than Westerners (like me) whose inner eye is occluded by 700 years of teaching ourselves not to see the things that are.
I ordered a thin book after listening to the current Mars Hill Audio Journal, calledA Little Manual for Knowing. Its author is Esther Lightcap Meek, a philosopher interviewed in this edition of the Journal. The book is a practical manual of epistemology. In the introduction, which I read yesterday after the book came in, Meek writes:
Many people don’t think much about how we know because we take it for granted. But we tacitly presume some things about knowing. We tend to think knowledge is information, facts, bits of data, “content,” true statements — true statement justified by other true statements. And while this isn’t exactly false, we tend to have a vision of knowledge as being only this. We conclude that gaining knowledge is collecting information — and we’re done — educated, trained, expert, certain.
This is a philosophical orientation, an unexamined one. It has a lot of appeal, because it is quantifiable, measurable, assessable, and commodifiable. It offers control and power. But we’ll see that the knowledge-as-information vision is actually defective and damaging. It distorts reality and humanness, and it gets in the way of good knowing.
This is what the experience of Orthodoxy, especially these past two years, has taught me: to dwell constantly in an analytic, critical mode of being, as I tend to do, is to buffer myself against “good knowing.” My priest played a key role in healing me from my depression and physical illness by teaching me, through a prayer rule, how to disconnect from analytical engagement with the world, and to just be still in it. Believe me, I still struggle with this, constantly, but I have experienced the wisdom and truth of this method. Similarly, imaginative engagement with the art of Dante Alighieri led me to a healing experience of God in great beauty, and taught me that knowing God with the mind is important, but it cannot substitute for knowing Him with the heart. As the Yale Dantist Giuseppe Mazzotta says, in the end, the Commedia teaches us that true conversion cannot be other than a conversion of the heart; everything else must follow from that.
I recently read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book A Time to Keep Silence, a slim volume of reflections on his stays in monasteries. Leigh Fermor was a religious unbeliever, but he did believe in the power of monasteries to purify the vision. Here he is describing the experience of growing accustomed to the Benedictine abbey of St. Wandrille, to which he had retreated from Paris, seeking an atmosphere conducive to writing:
The period during which normal standards recede and the strange new world becomes reality is slow, and, at first, acutely painful.
To begin with, I slept badly at night and fell asleep during the day, felt restless alone in my cell and depressed by the lack of alcohol, the disappearance of which had caused a sudden halt in the customary monsoon. The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the house I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church — Mass, Vespers and Compline — were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity. This new dispensation left nineteen hours a day of god-like freedom. Work became easier every moment; and, when I was not working, I was either exploring the Abbey and the neighbouring countryside, or reading. The Abbey became the reverse of a tome — not, indeed, a Thelema or Nepenthe, but a silent university, a country house, a castle hanging in mid-air beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations. A verse from the office of Compline expresses the same thought; and it was no doubt an unconscious memory of it that prompted me to put it down: Altissismum posuisti refugium tuum …. non accedet ad te malum et flagellum non appropinquabit tabernaculo tuo. [Thou hast made the Most High thy refuge … no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. — RD]
Last night, about an hour before bedtime, my sons asked me if I wanted to take a walk around the neighborhood. No, actually, I did not; I don’t like going outside much. But I knew I should want to, so I did. It took about twenty minutes to make a loop through the neighborhood, a small subdivision out in the country. The houses are not close together; the night sky is clear from light pollution. After we had walked for a few minutes in the cool night air, I observed the canopy of stars above, and thought, look, how marvelous. I don’t know when was the last time that I had truly seen the stars. We passed by the house of a neighbor down the street, who was sleeping. A massive, Entish oak tree anchors the front yard. It was dark, and I was struck by the bigness of the living thing. I pass that oak every day, but last night, I saw it differently. It looked as if it dwelled in mystery, as if it were hiding a secret.
I think it was. Is.