Writing and the Spirit

Writing and the Spirit

St Mark’s Palo Alto Lent 2001

By Robert Hamerton-Kelly

March 28, 2001

These reflections are neither organized nor integrated. If I were more gifted I would write what the Church Fathers called “Centuries,” as St Maximus Confessor did in the 7th century. He wrote four centuries on love, that is 400 brief aphorisms on human and divine love. I have written four pages of more or less random thoughts on writing about spiritual things, and the first point I wish to make is that it is very difficult, barely possible, and ultimately impossible. When the soul draws near to the divine logos its own logos falls silent in adoration of the wordless word ( cf. 2 Corinthians 12 :4, where Paul says he heard wordless words in a vision) Thus, when such writing reaches its perfection it ceases to be; it is erased by the ineffability of the divine. So the written word is only a temporary mediator, never to be idolized. This is our Christian criticism of the religions of the book, and of fundamentalist interpretation everywhere.

Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I went with friends to the Holy Land. We found ourselves one day in a cheap hotel in Amman, Jordan, and spent much of the day sitting at a table in the center of the common room, while Bedouins in from the desert and waiting for their appointments with the government, sat on chairs around the walls and watched us. We were writing in our diaries. An old man crawled on hands and knees from the wall to our feet and sat there on his haunches gazing up at us wonderingly. We asked a student who passed by what the significance of this gesture was and he answered, “He has fear of you: you write.” Thus we were reminded of the status of the written word in a culture where few could write and where one holy book is the source of all truth. One has only to watch the TV transmissions in Muslim countries to know how the culture venerates this written word. I remember a night in Cairo during Ramadan; hour after hour TV relayed the chanting of the Koran. The cameras focused on the roof fans, not on the chanters; the fans went round and the words droned on, and I slipped away to Christian slumbers, unmoved by the words of the Prophet.

It is significant that the Prophet was illiterate and wrote nothing himself. He dictated his revelations to the scribe Salman – from the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad to the scribe Salman, to the faithful, and catastrophically to the unfaithful especially that blasphemous Salman also called Rushdie. The original Koran was a bag of fragments, sayings recorded on ostraca, vellum scraps, and even animal bones, which were assembled into the current book by a scribe commissioned by the first Sunni caliph, Abu Bakr.

Likewise Socrates did not himself write a book but taught viva voce, his message being transmitted and transformed by the aesthetically powerful dialogues of his pupil Plato. The dialogues are creative writing about a seminal thinker. What the historical Socrates taught we cannot be sure, but we have the Socrates of Plato. Likewise Plato himself never wrote down his real teaching. In his seventh epistle we have hints that he was much more mystical than his rational philosophy suggests. Wisely he did not try to capture in writing the substance of his experience of the divine.

For us the climax of this meditation is Jesus our Lord, who wrote nothing, except scribbles in the sand while he waited for the first stone to be cast at the woman taken in adultery. Writing in the sand does not last very long. We have the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of the epistles, but not the Jesus of history. The real Jesus is the Jesus of faith, the resurrected, victorious incarnate God. The so-called historical Jesus, the Galilean peasant revolutionary, or the apocalyptic prophet of the end of the world, is the Jesus of unbelief, the boring figment of the boring imagination of the Enlightenment. Jesus wrote nothing himself but others wrote gospels and epistles about him.

The fact that these revealers wrote nothing shows that it is very dangerous to write about the deep things of the Spirit, despite the fact that we take a book, the Bible, so seriously. If these revealers were unconcerned to write texts we conclude that there must be no idolization of the text, no fundamentalism. Most illuminating in this regard is Pascal’s jotting, which was found sewn into the lining of his dressing gown: “Fire, fire, fire; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; not the God of the philosophers.” Thus briefly and metaphorically Pascal the premier mathematician of his time records his most significant message. He does not write a book.

I have written books, but not recently. In 1966 my wife and I went trekking in Tibet, along the Kanshung glacier up to the east face of Everest. The day before we started the walking part of the trip I was sitting beside a roaring glacial river at our base camp at 14500 feet. 20000 ft plus peaks were all around. The rest of the party was off training somewhere so I was entirely alone. I read the Greek New Testament, the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. Then I stood up and started to shout into the roar of the river and the majesty of the mountains, “Lazarus Come Forth!” Perhaps I knew that there was a Lazarus in me who needed to come forth, a self that was bound and stinking. In any case I shouted over and over again, “Lazarus Come Forth,” the words of the weeping Jesus to his friend. Suddenly there appeared from behind a big rock a snot-nosed little boy, barefoot and in rags, speaking the international language of the outstretched hand, palm up. I said to him, “So you are Lazarus!” I had nothing to give him excepting my pen, so I handed it over. I have taken that transaction as a sign about my writing. The pen of the bound and suppurating writer has gone into the mountains,, above 15000 ft; I cannot bring it down to take it up again. Since then I have written two or three theological papers, but overwhelmingly only sermons, and I have cultivated the oral practice of prayer without ceasing.

Let me tell you how I try to understand what has happened here. There are three levels of language, primary, secondary and tertiary, and I hope I have moved from the tertiary to the secondary and primary. Primary language is personal prayer, the communication with God that soars to wordlessness, what the Greek spiritual tradition calls, silence, or hesychia, the total tranquility of a heart that dwells in the Presence. Here from the Philokalia is a marvelous description of the process by Theophanis the Monk, unknown except for his name. The text is called The Ladder of Divine Graces which experience has made known to those inspired by God. “The first step is that of purest prayer./ From this there comes a warmth of heart,/ and then a strange, a holy energy,/ Then tears wrung from the heart, God-given./ Then peace from thoughts of every kind./ From this arises purging of the intellect,/ And next the vision of heavenly mysteries./ Unheard-of light is born from this ineffably,/ And thence, beyond all telling, the heart’s illumination./ Last comes – a step that has no limit/Though compassed in a single line-/ Perfection that is endless.”

This text reveals the relationship between the primary and the secondary stages of language. It is a description in secondary language of the primary stage, intended to guide and enable the reader to reach it. Secondary language is therefore edifying and hortatory, intended to communicate information in an existentially relevant way. It is the language of the liturgy and the preaching, part of the event and experience of the divine, the gateway to pure prayer and endless perfection.

The writer of tertiary language has stepped back from involvement and experience – i.e. from stages 1 and 2 – so as to reflect and analyze and then to understand in terms more general and public than levels 1 and 2. Apart from sermons most of what I have written is in this third category so you must interpret what I shall say about writings in the context of this threefold classification.

Let me summarize my second point: We must not substitute a tertiary type of understanding for a primary one. The danger of writing about the experience of faith is that readers might take the written representation for the reality, worship the signpost rather than follow its direction to the reality signified. Here is a quotation from a very great spiritual writer of the early part of last century, the Baron Friedrich von Hugel. “Is the difference not this, that minds belong, roughly speaking, to two classes, which may be called the mystical and positive and the scholastic and theoretical? The first of these would see all truth as a center of intense light losing itself gradually in utter darkness; this center would gradually extend, but the borders would remain fringe, they could never become clear-cut lines. Such a mind when weary of border work would sink back upon its center, its home of peace and light, and thence it would gain fresh conviction and courage to face again the twilight and the dark. Force it to commit itself absolutely to any border distinction, or force it to shift its home or restrain its roamings, and you have done your best to endanger its faith and to ruin its happiness…” In these terms the mind of a spiritual writer should be mystical and positive, and I had been too much scholastic and theoretical before my encounter with the Lazarus of the Himalayas.

So I have for the time being stopped writing books, chiefly because I want to write in modes one and two but, having spent all my life in mode three, I don’t have anything to say, or at least that is how it feels. But I think I shall soon just start writing again and see what comes out. I have often asked, “How do I know what I think before I see what I have written?” And then what I see seems like the thoughts of a stranger. Writing gives an order to ones thinking, which belies the fluidity of the mind, especially in its yearning for God.

Her are some more contributions to a century: J-P Satre: Everyone writes in a foreign language.

Marcel Proust: I write to assuage a guilty conscience.

In the time of Jesus the Tannaitic Rabbis, of whom Hillel and Shammai were the greatest, forbade the writing down of their Torah. Jewish law was carried by word of mouth until the 4th century ce. The great rabbi would choose students to memorize his Torah, and those chosen would be the least intelligent ones, least likely to contaminate the teaching with ideas of their own.






Wisdom for the World II

Wisdom for the World II

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

January 7, 2001

Scripture: Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

“…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”

Luke 3:16

We continue our meditation on the challenge of Epiphany, to mediate Christ to the world. Last Sunday we read the story of the three foreign kings and scholars who came from far away to worship Jesus. They believed that his birth was a revelation of divine wisdom to the world, and that it was worth going a very long way to find it. In this spirit we took up the subject of the Christian Missions to far away places, and I defended the missions, not because I believe their record is without blemish or ambiguity, but because they are unjustly condemned by important elements of our current culture. I pointed out evidence of their contributions, and one of these instances concerned the end of witch hunting in a Papua-New Guinea village in the last decade. Strikingly, the New York Times for Tuesday of last week (01/02/01) carried a story of renewed witch hunting in Indonesia, a corroboration of my sermon and a sign that the spiritual corruption the missions opposed is not past, and still demands the spiritual energy they once showed, to control it.

The spiritual challenges of human life remain constant and therefore the demand on our spiritual resources is constant. If our faith cannot meet those demands and challenges it is not worth much, and for that reason I celebrated the history of the London Missionary Society, which from 1795 to 1997 met those challenges with significant success. It no longer exists, but the missionary activity of our church goes on. I refer you to the weekly inserts in our orders of service. They come from the Board of World Ministries and give us a week-by-week account of how we are meeting the challenge, and an opportunity to support the work in prayer and other ways. Please take them home and use them in your times of prayer.

Our primary place of mission is not far away but right here, in the Bay area, one of the most significant places in the world for the challenge to the life of the spirit. How shall we mediate Christ to our time and place? Let me suggest that one way is to foster a renewed and vital spirituality. Last September Rabbi Michael Lerner gave a speech to the Commonwealth club on his new book entitled Spirit Matters. He is the founding editor of Tikkun magazine and the originator of the phrase “politics of meaning” that the Clintons favored at the beginning of their administration. Rabbi Lerner gives a good analysis of the challenge and some good recommendations about how to meet it. The essence of the challenge is that we have ceased to view the universe as an object of awe and wonder and sought to dominate and control it. We have adopted this same attitude in personal relations, seeking always to dominate and control rather than to let others be. The polite word for this urge to dominate and control is competition, and the fundamental science is economics. I remember the flash of insight I saw when I learned that the term “lusts” in traditional Christian moral theology, – as in the lust to dominate, to fornicate, and to pile up wealth (lust as in libido), which are the three pillars of original sin, – came in the Enlightenment to be called “interests.” No longer lusts, but interests. In19th century England they metamorphosed again into “utilities” and that is what they are called today, in the utilitarian calculus of economics and its accompanying ethic of consequences rather than principles. (The first University Professor of Ethics appointed at Stanford in the late eighties was an economist!).

Lerner says that competition governs our relations with others, turning the other into a utility or interest rather than a center of awe and wonder. Is it any wonder that so many of us feel unacknowledged and alone, even in the midst of the crowd, even in the hyperactivity of meetings and phone calls? No one in that world connects with us as centers of personal wonder; and sadly this neglect carries over into our so-called intimate relations, and spouses are strangers to each other, until they wake up and realize that they do not really like each other and should go their separate ways. To quote Lerner: “Friendships seem less real because they used to be based on solidarity. You could count on other people to be there for you. Increasingly the market consciousness seeps into people’s minds and shapes their behavior, people are looking at friends primarily in terms of a rational calculation: I give to you in rational expectation that you give back in equal amount to me…More and more in loving relationships and families we see the market ethos infecting people to such an extent that they begin to look at other human beings in market terms. And people are continually putting themselves out and trying to represent that they are the best possible product. Ultimately being the best possible product comes down to saying, ’I can satisfy more of your needs than anybody else.’” The insecurity and constant striving that this situation breeds is obvious and deadly.

To correct this, Lerner says that we should agree on a new bottom line of love and caring. His “emancipatory spirituality” says that institutions should be judged on their efficiency in producing love and caring among people, and making people ethically sensitive and spiritually alive. This is not a new analysis, but that does not mean that it is not true. We in Silicon Valley may have an acute case of the old disease of treating people as means to an end rather than ends in themselves, and for us Rabbi Lerner’s analysis is timely. What steps shall we take to emancipate ourselves from this market mentality and contribute to a change in our society towards love and caring?

Lerner advocates, prayer, community and Sabbath. I endorse all three. Prayer is a way of being in touch with the awesome and wonderful creator God, community is an opportunity to see others not a tools for our purposes but as gifts of wonder and awe to our souls, and Sabbath is a deliberate intention to enjoy those whom God has given us in the wonderful world where he has placed us. I recommend that we consider keeping Sabbath with special seriousness. Sabbath is one of the Jews’ great gifts to the world. We take it for granted, and mostly ignore it, but in the Roman world people worked all the time, and the Jews were considered lazy because they took one whole day in seven off from labor. God has given us this wonderful world, God has given us one another; God wants us to take one day in seven to do nothing else that to enjoy these gifts, to revel in the creation and to adore the beauty of God’s own image in those whom we love. We may add to Lerner’s list, service and self-giving, caring for the poor and the stranger and the afflicted. This too enhances our spirit.

So there is little difference on the surface between what the Rabbi sees and what I see, even though we belong to different religions. I daresay all the great religions would endorse this indictment of the instrumentality of human relations in the service of materialism, and all would recommend prayer, community and good deeds. What then makes our Christian approach unique? There is little difference on the surface but at the deeper level the difference is clear. The rampant self-interest of a society where the competitiveness of the market governs all relations, is for us Christians the latest manifestation of the three lusts, – domination, fornication and greed- that are the traditional components of original sin.

It is not sufficient simply to decide to transform ourselves; when I decide to do that I discover that I cannot break free, – in Lerner’s terms, I cannot emancipate myself. Indeed, the more I try the more self-absorbed I become, the more I struggle to free myself the more I am enmeshed in the net of competitiveness. This claim can be tested; down the centuries we Christians have tested it and found it true. The more you struggle to free yourself the more enmeshed you become. We need a savior.

Now I know I risk sounding like the person who advertised a talk, “On Humility and how I achieved it,” but I must speak out of my own experience. For me, the birth, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus is a series of events that achieved a new start for the human race, beyond the three lusts, in all their forms. I have found in Jesus a savior; and not only I but also countless men and women down the ages. If you want to change from a competitive, materialistic person, faith in Jesus Christ is an effective way to promote that change. When we call upon him the Holy Spirit begins the work of transformation in us, and that Holy Spirit is the giver of true spirituality. I cannot prove this but I can attest that I have experienced it to be true and can confidently recommend it to you.

And let me repeat what I have often said: You don’t have to believe the whole Christian creed before you call on Jesus; because you can’t believe everything does not mean that you don’t believe something, and in that respect we are all still on the way to becoming Christians. I have a friend in Budapest whom I counsel by phone from time to time. She is the young widow of a post-doctoral fellow whom I brought to Stanford right after the Cold War. He was killed recently in a traffic accident and she was left with a five-year-old daughter. She asked me for advice on how to handle her daughter’s ongoing emotional insecurity and I said that I had no wisdom to add to what the psychologists were telling her, but that I would pray for Aliz and advised her to pray too. She said she did not know how; her Communist upbringing had left her absolutely ignorant of prayer. So I said, ‘Just start even if you don’t yet believe in God, or know what prayer is. Just let your deepest needs and desires come to word and cry out for help, and you will learn to pray.” And then I taught her the Lord’s Prayer.

There is no doubt that we all need a rebirth of spirituality. Lerner restates for our time and place what is an ancient and ongoing part of the Christian religion, namely, that we are fallen into sin and need to be rescued and renewed. I know that Christ can rescue and renew us, because I know that he sends the Holy Spirit, who in many cases is content to work unrecognized and unnamed. In one sense the Spirit is at work in all of us all the time, mostly unrecognized and unnamed, making us discontented in our sinfulness and causing us to long for wholeness. What a power and a joy it is to know the name of that Spirit, the name by which to call upon him, the name of Jesus! So why not Just do it?