He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Praying with Icons: Christ the King

Grant this, O Lord, that in your stately, humble
entrance to the city of Jerusalem we will see an
eternal procession of the Son from His eternal
Father whose heavenly household has mansion
after mansion prepared for those who love Him.

Grant this, O Lord, that we might gaze on Thy
crown of thorns and weep for You, anointed in
Your own precious blood, High Priest who by
the authority of God makes the sacrifice upon
the humble wooden altar for the sins of many.

Grant this, O Lord, that in venerating a Cross,
the honor I give to it shall pass to You who are
deserving of all my love, who taught that loss
of our lives for Your sake will save us, Savior
and fulfillment of both Law and the Prophets.

To thee, O Lord, we lift up our hearts, minds,
and strength, just as Your Son commanded us
that we love God and neighbor fully, loving
also our enemies, as He did, Christ the King.


Note:  The above icon is one I purchased from easterngiftshop.com as a gift.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Bhagavad Gita: The Meditation of Krishna

Listen to the embedded podcast version of this post or read the written version below.

Previously, in The Wisdom of Krishna, I examined what Krishna taught Arjuna about the nature and practice of wisdom.  Shortly after the teachings on wisdom referenced previously, Krishna goes on to teach Arjuna about the practice of meditation.  What we generally think of as meditation in the West is related to, but not quite the same as the meditation spoken of by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.

As I've mentioned before, the Bhagavad Gita is a discourse that strikes at the heart of spiritual matters, and it is a discourse that takes place on a great battlefield at the climax of the great epic known as the Mahabharata.  The battle is about to be joined by great warriors, and it is at this time of calm before the storm that Krishna helps Arjuna to understand his place in this life and the nature of spiritual fulfillment.

After Krishna has answered his question about how to live wisely, he speaks further about unity with Brahman and the nature of Brahman.  And later he moves on to the practice of meditation, which he recommends to all spiritual aspirants.

"It is not those who lack energy or refrain from action, but those who work without expectation of reward who attain the goal of meditation.  Theirs is the true renunciation.  Therefore, Arjuna, you should understand that renunciation and the performance of selfless service are the same.  Those who cannot renounce attachment to the results of their work are far from the path.
For aspirants who want to climb the mountain of spiritual awareness, the path is selfless work; for those who have ascended to yoga the path is stillness and peace.  When you have freed yourself from attachment to the results of work, and from desires for the enjoyment of sense objects, you will ascend to the unitive state.
Reshape yourself through the power of your will; never let yourself be degraded by self-will.  The will is the only friend of the Self, and the will is the only enemy of the Self.
To those who have conquered themselves, the will is a friend.  But it is the enemy of those who have not found the Self within them."

After reiterating previous points about the contemplative life and the active life both being paths to union with the divine life, Krishna comes back to another familiar concept: Ātman.  This is the word being translated as "the Self" as distinct from one's self in the sense of the ego.  Unlike the self of the ego, that incorrigible pursuer of transient desires, Ātman is the most true and most real self, the enduring consciousness which can partake in the divine life.

The fullness of the ego and the fullness of Ātman are not compatible with one another.  We can see this clearly in the lives of those who have given themselves over to their addictions.  They become shadows of the true Self we know can shine forth from within them; the addict is lost to us, not because they have suffered physical death, but because they have pushed out the potential for the glory of human flourishing in favor of the next temporary high which does not ultimately satisfy.

Union with the divine means that our enslavement to the ego's constant call to the next pleasure, the next worry about what will happen to us, or the next attempt to avoid any small pain must be abolished.  Only our wills can be made strong enough to free us of the chains of desire which bind the ego, and only the consistent weakening of our wills can leave us trapped in addictions.

Strengthening our will in selfless service allows us to fight the ego's control more effectively, and as we release more of the ego's control over our lives, we can see more clearly the true Self, Ātman.  This helps us to meditate because it increasingly liberates us from our daily worries, and the meditation in turn helps us to overthrow more of the ego's control so that we can seek union with the divine.

"The supreme Reality stands revealed in the consciousness of those who have conquered themselves.  They live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame.
They are completely fulfilled by spiritual wisdom and Self-realization.  Having conquered their senses, they have climbed to the summit of human consciousness.  To such people a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same.  They are equally disposed to family, enemies, and friends, to those who support them and those who are hostile, to the good and the evil alike.  Because they are impartial, they rise to great heights.
Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation.  With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions."

Krishna teaches us that this conquering of the ego results in being able to transcend our previous constant focus on concerns about the material world, about the pursuit of possessions and wealth or social standing and prestige.  Paradoxically, it is precisely this detachment which leads people to become well-respected by many.

It is the person who participates in the divine life who can deal with people as they truly are, both recognizing their strengths and weaknesses and wondrous inherent value without performing those cold calculations made by the ego to determine whether our actions directly benefit us or not.  It is the conquering of the selfish instinct that leads us to be more like the divine sustainer of all that is: Vishnu.

Vishnu, whose avatar at this point and time is Krishna, speaking with Arjuna before a great battle, rains the blessings of life down upon the good and evil people alike, upon friends and enemies, and upon those who are supportive and those who are hostile.  This is part and parcel of the divine life: to give selflessly, even to those who hate you and set themselves against you.

Now that Krishna has expounded a bit on the benefit of meditation, he explains to Arjuna how to go about meditating:

"Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass.  Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts.  Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified.  Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering.  With all fear dissolved in the peace of the Self and all actions dedicated to Brahman, controlling the mind and fixing it on me, sit in meditation with me as your only goal.  With senses and mind constantly controlled through meditation, united with the Self within, an aspirant attains nirvana, the state of abiding joy and peace in me.
Arjuna, those who eat too much or eat too little, who sleep too much or sleep too little, will not succeed in meditation.  But those who are temperate in eating and sleeping, work and recreation, will come to the end of sorrow through meditation.  Through constant effort they learn to withdraw the mind from selfish cravings and absorb it in the Self.  Thus they attain the state of union."

The description Krishna provides of how one ought to meditate is drawn from traditional Indian contemplative practices regarding seating and posture and one-pointedness.  But this meditation is not the meditation of contemporary mindfulness movements.  Rather than directing us to stand clear of our own minds, Krishna bids us to fill our minds with an unwavering contemplation of the divine life which is embodied in Krishna.

He warns us that the taking of ascetic practices to extremes or self-indulgence in transient pleasures will prevent us from effective meditation.  When the mind is addicted to seeking the next transient pleasure and avoiding the next feeling of pain, it cannot focus sufficiently in meditation.  And when the mind is distracted by constant hunger pangs and the pain of dehydration, it is also unable to focus sufficiently.

Effective meditation is less a matter of extremes and more a matter of finding a healthy balance.  To meditate is to walk a tightrope over the abyss of our own thoughts, and to feed our tendency for self-indulgence or unhealthy self-denial is to lose the balance necessary for perfecting the tightrope walk of the mind.

"When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place.  In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself.  Beholding the Self by means of the Self, an aspirant knows the joy and peace of complete fulfillment.  Having attained that abiding joy of the senses, revealed in the stilled mind, they never swerve from the eternal truth.  They desire nothing else and cannot be shaken by the heaviest burden of sorrow.
The practice of meditation frees one from all affliction.  This is the path of yoga.  Follow it with determination and sustained enthusiasm.  Renouncing wholeheartedly all selfish desires and expectations, use your will to control the senses.  Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self.
Wherever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the Self.  Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind.  Freeing themselves from the taint of self-will, with their consciousness unified, they become one with Brahman."

Krishna teaches us that the cultivation of the ability to walk on the tightrope over the abyss of the mind leads to the freedom of being able to experience one's own eternal consciousness without the impediments of the worries and cravings that constantly intrude upon our attempts to find lasting joy.  A healthy asceticism, the balanced self-denial of one who does not indulge in excessive eating or drinking before a tightrope walk and also does not starve or dehydrate himself before the tightrope walk, is what will help us to find serenity within the landscapes of the mind's eye.

This balance allows us to walk the narrow path to union with the divine, to oneness with Brahman, the creative principle which underlies and suffuses all that exists, including our own consciousness.  This union with the divine is both a fuller participation in the divine life and a fuller realization of our own life.

"The infinite joy of touching Brahman is easily attained by those who are free from the burden of evil and established within themselves.  They see the Self in every creature and all creation in the Self.  With consciousness unified through meditation, they see everything with an equal eye.
I am ever present to those who have realized me in every creature.  Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me.  They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me.  Wherever they may live, they abide in me.
When a person responds to the sorrows and joys of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union."

Once we have begun to see the divine life in ourselves, we cannot help but see it in others, how it suffuses the whole world and brings it to the flowering of terrifying beauty.  And we cannot help but see how inextricably bound up our lives are with the lives of others, how their sorrows become our sorrows and their joys become our joys.

This is a lovely response to Arjuna's question, but he still has doubts after Krishna's exposition of the power of meditation.  Arjuna asks, "O Krishna, the stillness of divine union which you describe is beyond my comprehension.  How can the mind, which is so restless, attain lasting peace?  Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent; trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind."

Arjuna is very right here that the kind of meditation described by Krishna is extremely difficult to attain.  I know from experience that it takes great effort to gain the ability to find this kind of serenity for even a short while.  And Krishna acknowledges this:

"It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control.  But it can be conquered, Arjuna, through regular practice and detachment.  Those who lack self-control will find it difficult to progress in meditation; but those who are self-controlled, striving earnestly through the right means, will attain the goal."

This, however, does not completely assuage Arjuna's doubts.  He asks another question: "Krishna, what happens to one who has faith but who lacks self-control and wanders from the path, not attaining success in yoga?  If he becomes deluded on the spiritual path, will he lose the support of both worlds, like a cloud scattered in the sky?  Krishna, you can dispel all doubts; remove this doubt which binds me."

Arjuna recognizes that faith alone will not carry him through, at least not faith in the divine as a mere belief held in a philosophical way.  He sees instinctively that there is a grave spiritual danger in belief without having the self-control to live out that belief in the radical way described by Krishna.

Krishna exhorts him to let the belief push him forward until it is possible to gain the necessary self-control, to grow in the capacity for meditation rather than giving up because perfection in meditation cannot be acquired quickly.

"Arjuna, my son, such a person will not be destroyed.  No one who does good work will ever come to a bad end, either here or in the world to come.
When such people die, they go to other realms where the righteous live.  They dwell there for countless years and then are reborn into a home which is pure and prosperous.  Or they may be born into a family where meditation is practiced; to be born into such a family is extremely rare.  The wisdom they have acquired in previous lives will be reawakened, Arjuna, and they will strive even harder for Self-realization.  Indeed, they will be driven on by the strength of their past disciplines.  Even one who inquires after the practice of meditation rises above those who simply perform rituals.
Through constant effort over many lifetimes, a person becomes purified of all selfish desires and attains the supreme goal of life.
Meditation is superior to severe asceticism and the path of knowledge.  It is also superior to selfless service.  May you attain the goal of meditation, Arjuna!  Even among those who meditate, that man or woman who worships me with perfect faith, completely absorbed in me, is the most firmly established in yoga."

Krishna goes on to reassure Arjuna that his efforts, even if they do not lead quickly to perfection, are indeed worthwhile.  Krishna does not want Arjuna to make his reaching perfection the enemy of reaching what is good and closer to perfection than where he was before.  Krishna does not ask us to make perfection a matter of our unhealthy attachment to immediate gratification.

To indulge in our desire for immediate gratification with regard to the spiritual life defeats the purpose of the spiritual life and leaves us trapped in the cycle of reliance on transient pleasures from which Krishna is trying to help liberate us.

Though perfection in meditation takes time and consistent effort, union with the divine and fullness of life for ourselves is worth it.  And as Krishna advised Arjuna, to lose all selfishness in true and sincere worship roots us deeply in precisely this union with the divine and fullness of life.

This is the meditation of Krishna, the immersion of our consciousness into the ocean of the divine life, the strength of our faith propelling us into the depths of oneness with all that lives, buoyed up by waves of divine energy so that we might not drown in oneness, instead living fully within and inseparably from the ultimate cause of our lives.

The Yoga of Krishna - The Wisdom of Krishna - The Meditation of Krishna

Note: The above is a depiction of Krishna dancing.

The Protestant Intuition: Divine Gifts & Human Works

In this follow-up to a previous post on some basic intuitions of Protestant thought, I will be examining some additional intuitions with which I was brought up and have now rejected.

One of the intuitions which those of us who were/are heirs of the Reformation have inherited from Martin Luther is a suspicion of any talk about human works in the context of discussion topics like justification or salvation.  Understandably, many folks want to steer well clear of the idea that we can merit salvation by our works.

This idea that we can ascend to the heights of heavenly virtue by our own works, that Christ's sacrifice on the Cross was only an instructive example of divine love rather than an efficacious atonement for the sins of many, is a very old heresy well known to the Catholic Church.  We call it Pelagianism, named after a personally very nice but doctrinally very off-base fellow named Pelagius who was a well-educated monk from the British Isles.

Like Pelagius, Martin Luther took some good points a bit too far and ended up in schism and heresy himself.  Perhaps the key point in all of Luther's theological expositions was that God's grace is a divine gift bestowed on us freely, a gift we accept through faith in Christ.  Luther thought that the Catholic Church's use of indulgences stood in contradiction to this truth of the faith.  And, in fairness, some people definitely did abuse indulgences offered by the Church.

Where Luther was wrong was in the nature of the connection between works and justification (or salvation).  He believes that the Catholic Church teaches that we can earn our way to Heaven by means of indulgences.  But that's not even what indulgences are as defined by the Church.

Indulgences just remit some of the temporal punishment for sin.  And no matter how much of the temporal punishment is remitted, from a Catholic perspective we could still choose against God and find ourselves in eternal punishment.  No matter how virtuous we are or how many indulgences we might gain, there is no ticket to Heaven according to the Church.

The Church teaches that our good works do not merit the grace of salvation in any sense whatsoever.  She teaches that our merits are far too little to accomplish such a thing, and it is only through the divine gift of the superabundant merits of Christ which are vicariously applied to the satisfaction of our debt of sin that we have any hope of salvation.

At the same time, the Church teaches that good works are a necessary part of the journey to salvation.  She does not seek to remove the Epistle of James from the canon of Scripture, which teaches us that:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.

Where I think some folks (like Martin Luther and those of us who inherited his thought) get hung up in reading James is on the idea that we need to perform certain good works as part of the salvific process. And I think I might be able to address those concerns by way of analogy.

Let's consider the gifts we might get from our parents. Maybe we are given a teddy bear when we're young, or a book, or a video game console. These require only minimal responsibility from us to take care of, but they do require some responsibility.

On the other hand, the greatest gifts which parents give to their children, such as a pet, or a car, or a trust fund for college, these require a large responsibility to take care of them as part of accepting the gift. If the greater gifts often have the greater responsibility associated with them, how much more the responsibility for the gift of salvation?

We don't suggest that the parent's child has earned the gift of the pet dog, or new car, or trust fund for college just because they're responsible for taking care of these gifts, do we? Would we suggest that they're even trying to earn these things if they do in fact take very good care of the gift they've been given?

Of course not. And neither should we think that the Christian who proposes that we have a responsibility to do the works needed to take care of the gift of salvation is trying to earn their salvation or that it's possible to earn their salvation by those works.

Related: The Protestant Intuition: Church and Empire

Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Catena Aurea: The First Lent

The Catena Aurea is a work of Biblical commentary compiled by St. Thomas Aquinas.  It contains the verses of the Gospels immediately followed by the most relevant commentaries of the Church Fathers upon that subject and/or that specific verse.  As I read the English translation commissioned by Cardinal John Henry Newman, I will be providing information about what the Catena Aurea contains regarding certain questions that are generally controversial or interesting to me.

*     *     *

The temptation of Jesus in the desert is briefly mentioned in the Gospel of Mark as set out in the Catena Aurea, and immediately follows His baptism.  Typically of Mark, whose Gospel is the shortest in length by far, he describes the events briefly, jumping from one key event in Christ's life to the next, as we see in this passage from the 1st chapter of Mark's Gospel:

9.  And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in the Jordan.
10.  And straightaway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11.  And there came a voice from heaven, saying, 'Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'
12.  And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness.
13.  And he was there in the wilderness 40 days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.

So why did Jesus spend 40 days in the desert?  It seems like a rather arbitrary number, the same as the number of days in the season of Lent which is celebrated in honor of Christ's forty-day sojourn.

The Venerable Bede (672 AD - 735 AD), echoing some of St. John Chrysostom's thoughts, explains to us the general importance of Christ's temptation in the desert, and also the importance of the number 40:

Bede;  But He retires into the desert that He may teach us that, leaving the allurements of the world, and the company of the wicked, we should in all things obey the Divine commands.  He is left alone and tempted by the devil, that He might teach us, that all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution; whence it follows, And he was in the wilderness forty days and forty nights, and was tempted of Satan.  But He was tempted forty days and forty nights, that He might shew us, that as long as we live here and serve God, whether prosperity smile upon us, which is meant by the day, or adversity smite us, which agrees with the figure of the night, at all times our adversary is at hand, who ceases not to trouble our way by temptations.  For the forty days and forty nights imply the whole time of this world, for the globe in which we are serving God is divided into four quarters.  Again, there are Ten Commandments, by observing which we fight against our enemy, but four times 10 are forty.

The Venerable Bede is working here within a very long tradition of Judaic numerical symbolism that recalls the salvation history of the people Israel, but that's not his primary focus.  He really wants us to draw the spiritual lesson from the Gospel.

Bede;  There follows, and he was with the wild beasts.  Consider also that Christ dwells among the wild beasts as man, but, as God, uses the ministry of Angels.  Thus, when in the solitude of a holy life we bear with unpolluted mind the bestial manners of men, we merit to have the ministry of Angels, by whom, when freed from the body, we shall be transferred to everlasting happiness.

Our Lenten journey is not merely a matter of punishing the flesh in a sort of masochistic ritual, but rather a drawing away from transient pleasures as we are drawing toward the divine life of love.

The next couple of verses in the Gospel of Mark also harbor a deep spiritual meaning, and draw us to think about Lent once again:

14.  Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God.
15.  And saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the Gospel."

The words of Jesus here are the words spoken to me by the priest on Ash Wednesday as he makes the sign of the cross on my forehead with ashes: "Repent and believe the Gospel!"  We are reminded at the beginning of Lent of the purpose of the Lenten struggle, to prepare ourselves to believe and live out the Gospel message of Jesus Christ which follows upon our repentance.

Bede; Repent, therefore, and believe; that is, renounce dead works; for of what use is believing without good works?  The merit of good works does not, however, bring to faith, but faith begins, that good works may follow.

The Venerable Bede points out our repentance is demonstrated by the abandonment of our sinful works that lead to eternal death and the taking up of the works of righteousness, and he is careful to note, long before the Protestant Reformation, that good works are a fruit of faith, the supernatural virtue which is a gift from God, rather than a way of earning our way into Heaven.

He also explains over a thousand years in advance of Bart Ehrman's observations why the author of the Gospel of John didn't spend much time on describing the forty days in the desert.

Bede; Let no one, however, suppose that the putting of John in prison took place immediately after the forty days' temptation and the fast of the Lord; for whosoever reads the Gospel of John will find, that the Lord taught many things before the putting of John in prison, and also did many miracles.; for you have in this Gospel, This beginning of miracles did Jesus; and afterwards, for John was not yet cast into prison.  Now it is said, that when John read the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he approved indeed the text of the history, and affirmed that they had spoken truth, but said that they had composed the history of only one year after John was cast into prison, in which year also he suffered.  Passing over then the year of which the transactions had been published by the three others, he related the events of the former period, before John was cast into prison.  When therefore Mark had said that Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, he subjoins, saying, since the time is fulfilled, etc.

The Venerable Bede notes that the narratives in the various Gospels are compatible and indeed mutually reinforcing.  The Gospel of Matthew, for example, has more detail about Christ's sojourn into the desert where he was tempted by Satan.

And the commentaries of the Church Fathers on the Gospel of Matthew are likewise more detailed.  For example, St. John Chrysostom (347 AD - 437 AD) and St. Gregory the Great (540 AD - 604 AD) have interesting comments on the fasting which Christ underwent.

Chrys. But that you may learn how great a good is fasting, and what a mighty shield against the Deil, and that after baptism you ought to give attention to fasting and not to lusts, therefore Christ fasted, not Himself needing it, but teaching us by His example.
Greg.  The Creator of all things took no food whatever during forty days.  We also, at the season of Lent as much as in us lies afflict our flesh by abstinence.  The number forty is preserved, because the virtue of the decalogue is preserved in the books of the holy Gospel; and ten taken four times amounts to forty.  Or, because in this mortal body we consist of four elements by the delights of which we go against the Lord's precept received by the decalogue.  And as we transgress the decalogue through the lusts of this flesh, it is fitting that we afflict the flesh forty-fold.  Or, as by the Law we offer the tenth of our goods, so we strive to offer the tenth of our time.  And from the first Sunday of Lent to the rejoicing of the paschal festival is a space of six weeks, or forty-two days, subtracting from which the six Sundays which are not kept there remain thirty-six.  Now as the year consists of three hundred and sixty-five, by the affliction of these thirty-six we give the tenth of our year to God.

As we can see from these commentaries, the importance of fasting for Christians had not been forgotten by the Early Church.  Also, the Lenten Fast was well established in the first few centuries of Christianity, and was seen as an important part of taking up our cross and following Christ.  It was indeed the fulfillment of the Law of Moses as summed up in the Ten Commandments (or decalogue).

The First Lent, shown to us an example by Christ, is celebrated again and again by those of us who strive to follow Him, just as we celebrate His life, death, and resurrection each year in the liturgical cycle.

The First Lent - The Brothers of Jesus - Jesus Versus the Pharisees

Note:  The above is a picture of my copy of the Catena Aurea (Volume 2: St. Mark).

Monday, March 20, 2017

Fair Questions: How are we Christians saved?

Some time ago, a friend was asking questions about the old debate about the role of faith and works in our salvation.  It's pretty clear from Sacred Scripture that both faith and works are involved.  After all, we "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2) and we are "justified not by the works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ." (Galatians 2)

There are many good explanations of how we are justified and saved (examples here, here, and here).  These sorts of exegetical and philosophical explanations of justification and salvation are valuable, and we should want to have good answers to these questions as faithful Christians.

Nonetheless, for the person living the Christian life, the more important question is: how does this actually work?  Or, how do faith and works intersect in our lives such that we are justified and saved?

And can we understand it theologically without learning a lot of technical jargon?

I think that we can, and I hope my use of an analogy from natural relationships to supernatural relationships (while recognizing the limits of such analogies) will be helpful in doing so.

In our most godly relationships, we give of ourselves freely to the other, rooted in a love purified by God's grace. We do this in imitation of God who loves us freely, pouring out His grace upon us whether we reciprocate His love for us or not.  In the godly relationships that we have with other people, we cannot earn their love, nor can they earn our love; it is truly a gift.

This reciprocal gift, given over and over again, is efficacious for our development in joy and peace and ultimately in holiness. The more holy the person with whom we cultivate this godly relationship and the more we give of ourselves in the relationship, the holier we become as we grow closer to them (albeit not perfectly holy).

No one has earned anything in these godly relationships.  It was all a gift made in the spirit of love. It's just that the natural result of relationships of mutual self-giving love is an increase in holiness in proportion to the holiness of the persons in the relationship and in proportion to their reciprocal self-giving.

God is perfectly holy, and so when we cultivate this reciprocal self-giving relationship of love with God, by the generous gift of His grace, the natural and supernatural result of this relationship of mutually self-giving love is perfect holiness (in proportion to the perfect holiness of God and the incomprehensible abundance of His gift of grace).

We are thus saved, not by earning it through our own works, but rather through accepting and entering into the natural and supernatural process which God has given to us so that we may finally rest our restless hearts in Him alone.

Our faith in Christ our God spurs us constantly to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling as we regard with profound gratitude the gift of His only-begotten Son who came so that we might be adopted into the Heavenly household as sons and daughters of the Most High.

Related: Does the existence of Hell contradict God's unconditional love?

Note:  The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Surveying the Moral Landscape Again

Back in 2013, I responded to a TED Talk given by Sam Harris about how science can determine human values by pointing out that even if he's correct, this has consequences with which he should not be pleased.

Though my argument about the consequences of his view may have been highly unusual, I was far from the only philosopher to take issue with Harris' claim that science can determine human values.  And he graciously responded by offering a challenge to other philosophers seeking to refute his position.

Ryan Born's surprisingly brief essay was the winner of that challenge (in the sense that his response was judged to be the best), though he definitely did not persuade Harris to recant his position that science can determine morality.  Nonetheless, his essay from 2014 is well worth reading.

It provides an excellent summary of the basic argument against Harris' claim that he has found a way to determine human values using scientific means.  Harris, of course, responded to the essay with one of his own to defend his position.  And, having read it, I found it very helpful.

At the very least, it makes his position more understandable, whether one agrees with it or not.  His rebuttal offered to Ryan Born's points is fairly effective, and I recommend that everyone with an interest in the topic read it at his blog under the title "Clarifying the Moral Landscape" for that reason.

Harris' response isn't intended to address my previous critique, and I don't want to re-hash that argument here even though my argument could certainly use some refinement.  Nonetheless, I do want to address some of his responses to Born's essay.  Harris writes:

I also disagree with the distinction Ryan draws between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” enterprises. Ethics is prescriptive only because we tend to talk about it that way—and I believe this emphasis comes, in large part, from the stultifying influence of Abrahamic religion. We could just as well think about ethics descriptively. Certain experiences, relationships, social institutions, and technological developments are possible—and there are more or less direct ways to arrive at them. Again, we have a navigation problem. To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive). In my view, moralizing notions like “should” and “ought” are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are better than others.
Many readers seem confused by the fact that my account of ethics isn’t overtly prescriptive.

I don't find myself confused at all that Harris' account of ethics is first and foremost a descriptive account of how we experience various states.  It makes perfect sense if one's goal is to understand morality as a science in the general sense in which he uses the term "science".  Science is a descriptive endeavor, though its descriptions help clarify our sense of what the world is like and how to navigate it.

And in the same way, Harris thinks that the descriptions of science help us clarify our sense of the moral options available to us so that we can navigate them.  It's completely coherent with his general worldview, which tries to reduce everything to and ground everything in the descriptive methodology of science defined more generally.

The spuriousness of our traditional categories in moral philosophy can be seen in how we teach our children to be good. Why do we want them to be good in the first place? Well, at a minimum, we’d rather they not wind up bludgeoned in a ditch. More generally, we want them to flourish—to live happy, creative, meaningful lives—and to help make the world a better place. All this entails talking about rules and heuristics (deontology), a person’s character (virtue ethics), and the good and bad consequences of certain actions (consequentialism). But it all reduces to a concern for the well-being of our children and (generally to a lesser extent) of the people with whom they will interact. I don’t believe that any sane person is concerned with abstract principles and virtues—such as justice and loyalty—independent of the ways they affect our lives.

Harris is right, I think, that traditional categories in moral philosophy suggest clear distinctions that might not exist with such stark separation as they are often presented, though I do think they have more merit than he does (you can see why below).

I'm less sure that he's right that all these factors (moral duties and heuristics, personal character, consequences for ourselves and others) reduce to a concern for well-being.  Mature ethical reasoning on our part does seem to at least take into account well-being in some way, but I'm not sure why the consistent inclusion of well-being suggests that we can reduce those other factors to well-being.

What's the evidence for the claim that they all reduce to a concern about consequences?  The general attitude of parents cited by Harris doesn't persuade me on this point any more than Ryan Born's points persuaded him.

Ryan also seems to take for granted that the traditional categories of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics are conceptually valid and worth maintaining. However, I believe that partitioning moral philosophy in this way begs the very question at issue—and this is one reason I tend not to identify myself as a “consequentialist.” Everyone knows—or thinks he knows—that consequentialism fails to capture much of what we value. This is true almost by definition, because, as Ryan observes, “serious competing theories of value and morality exist.”
But if the categorical imperative (one of Kant’s foundational contributions to deontology, or rule-based ethics) reliably made everyone miserable, no one would defend it as an ethical principle. Similarly, if virtues such as generosity, wisdom, and honesty caused nothing but pain and chaos, no sane person could consider them good. In my view, deontologists and virtue ethicists smuggle the good consequences of their ethics into the conversation from the start.

Harris is correct that both deontologists and virtue ethicists take consequences into account, though I'm not sure that it's fair to say that either group of ethicists are smuggling them in.  The difference between a consequentialist and deontologist is one of the order in which their principles are invoked.

For a consequentialist, the first principle in ethical reasoning is the consideration of consequences, and the consideration of intentionality because intentions often lead to consequences, and the consideration of virtues is performed because our character produces consequences for ourselves and others.

For a deontologist, the order is different.  The first principle in ethical reasoning is the intentional carrying out of our moral duty (the Kantian categorical imperative, for example), though we may need to cultivate various virtues in order to carry out our moral duty reliably, and the foundational moral duty may be defined in the way that it is (at least in part) because it reduces the harmful consequences of our behavior when it is carried out.

I used this example because I wanted to avoid presenting my own position (which is in the virtue ethics tradition) in a self-serving way, but we could understand virtue ethics similarly as positing that the first principle of ethical reasoning is to define and cultivate virtues, virtues being understood as habits of character which lead us to behave intentionally in ways that consistently reduce harmful consequences for others and for ourselves.

That is not my own theory of virtue ethics, but it has some important parallels with the other examples, and so I've used it here.  Regardless, what differentiates the various theories of ethics from one another is the order in which the various factors in ethical reasoning are invoked.

Of course, the differing orders of application of these factors can have serious consequences for our navigation of the moral landscape, and thus for our well-being, and perhaps Harris might see them as worthwhile distinctions to make for that reason.

Surveying the Moral Landscape - Surveying the Moral Landscape Again

Note: The above is a picture I took while running alongside a river.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Catena Aurea: Conceived of the Holy Spirit

The Catena Aurea is a work of Biblical commentary compiled by St. Thomas Aquinas.  It contains the verses of the Gospels immediately followed by the most relevant commentaries of the Church Fathers upon that subject and/or that specific verse.  As I read the English translation commissioned by Cardinal John Henry Newman, I will be providing information about what the Catena Aurea contains regarding certain questions that are generally controversial or interesting to me.

*     *     *

The issue of the virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been debated endlessly for about 2,000 years and continues to be debated endlessly today.  I've read many arguments, both for the position that Mary could not possibly have been a virgin and for the position that she must have been.

Nonetheless, I'm interested to read what the Fathers of the first-millennium Church thought about these things.  In the Catena Aurea, some of their thoughts are compiled as a commentary on the following verse from the Gospel of Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as His mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

One of the things noted by more than one of the Fathers is that this way of describing Christ's conception is quite different from how the preceding genealogies described the conception of his ancestors.  For example, St. John Chrysostom and Remigius, a priest and monk of Auxerre who wrote Biblical commentaries based on the work of earlier Christian scholars:

Chrys. He announces that he is to relate the manner of generation, shewing therein that he is about to speak of some new thing; that you may not suppose when you hear mention of Mary's husband, that Christ was born by the law of nature.   Remig. Yet it might be referred to the foregoing in this way, The generation of Christ was, as I have related, thus, Abraham begat Isaac.

Here, Remigius and St. John Chrysostom observe that the Gospel writer does not simply use the default expression for the conception of Jesus: "X begat Y."  Instead of writing in the same well-known way he had just written many, many times for the genealogy of Christ, he writes of a great discovery.  Namely, that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So why, if Jesus was the Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit, did he need an earthly father?  Doesn't that detract from his uniqueness and suggest that Jesus was conceived by more standard sexual means?

St. Jerome and others were answering this question back in the 300s and earlier, well before Islamic thinkers who noticed that the Qur'an doesn't say anything about Joseph in the infancy narrative of Jesus might have pointed out the discrepancy between the texts of the Gospel and the Qur'an and been prompted to inquire as to why Joseph would be needed in God's plan of salvation.

Jerome; But why is He conceived not of a Virgin merely, but of a Virgin espoused?  First, that by the descent of Joseph, Mary's family might be made known; secondly, that she might not be stoned by the Jews as an adulteress; thirdly, that in her flight into Egypt that she might have the comfort of a husband.  The Martyr Ignatius adds yet a fourth reason, namely, that his birth might be hid from the Devil, looking for him to be born of a wife and not of a virgin.

St. Peter Chrysologus adds that:

If you are not confounded when you hear of the birth of God, let not his conception disturb you, seeing the pure virginity of the mother removes all that might shock human reverence.  And what offence against our awe and reverence is there, when the Deity entered into union with purity that was always dear to Him, where an Angel is mediator, faith is bridesmaid, where chastity is the giving away, virtue the gift, conscience the judge, God the cause; where the conception is inviolateness, the birth virginity, and the mother a virgin.

The point made here by Chrysologus is a sound one: if one believes that the Son of God became a man, then how could one rationally object to the idea that he was born of a virgin?  Which is more implausible from the perspective of one who believes in miracles?

Chrysologus also points us to another concern, which is why the virginity of Mary is important in the grand scheme of salvation history in which God's only-begotten Son enters into the world.

Origen of Alexandria and St. Augustine of Hippo can help us with this concern.  Origen makes a distinction between being espoused (or bethrothed) and united in wedlock via sexual consummation of their union, which generally did not happen immediately upon betrothal.

Origen; She was indeed espoused to Joseph, but not united in wedlock; that is to say, His mother immaculate, His mother incorrupt, His mother pure. His mother! Whose mother? The mother of God, of the Only-Begotten, of the Lord, of the King, of the Maker of all things, and the Redeemer of all.
Aug.  There was no carnal knowledge in this wedlock, because in sinful flesh this could not be without carnal desire which came of sin, and which He would be without, who was to be without sin; and that hence He might teach us that all flesh which is born of sexual union is sinful flesh, seeing that Flesh alone was without sin, which was not so born.

St. Augustine points out that in order for Jesus Christ to be the sinless Son of God, the spotless Lamb who was sacrificed for us, he would need to enter the world in such a way as to avoid inheriting the stain of original sin.  And that in order for Christ's sinlessness to be made clear, he would need to be conceived in a different way than the normal way which was known to pass on the sinfulness inherited from the Fall.

But does that also make Mary someone special for having born Him in her womb and raised Him, or was she a mere fleshly vessel?  St. Cyril of Alexandria helps us to think it through with the mind of the Early Church.

Cyril; What will any one see in the Blessed Virgin more than in other mothers, if she be not the mother of God, but of Christ, or the Lord, as Nestorius says?  For it would not be absurd should any one please to name the mother of any anointed person, the mother of Christ.  Yet she alone and more than they is called the Holy Virgin, and the mother of Christ.  For she bare not a simple man as ye say, but rather the Word incarnate, and made man of God the Father.  But perhaps you say, Tell me, do you think the Virgin was made the mother of His divinity?  To this also we say, that the Word was born of the very substance of God Himself, and without beginning of time always coexisted with the Father.  But in these last times when He was made flesh, that is united to flesh, having a rational soul, He is said to be born of a woman after the flesh.  Yet is this sacrament in a manner brought out like to birth among us; for the mothers of earthly children impart to their nature that flesh that is to be perfected by degrees in the human form; but God sends the life into the animal.  But though these are mothers only of the earthly bodies, yet when they bear children, they are said to bear the whole animal, and not a part of it only.  Such do we see to have been done in the birth of Emmanuel; the Word of God was born of the substance of His Father; but because He took on Him flesh, making it His own, it is necessary to confess that he was born of a woman according to the flesh.  Where seeing He is truly God, how shall anyone doubt to call the Holy Virgin the Mother of God?

Cyril was writing in response to the heresies of Nestorius, who denied that Mary was the bearer of Christ in both His divine and human natures.  Nestorius seemed inclined to take the view that Mary was bearer only of Christ's human nature.

Cyril argues that this is preposterous, because it doesn't match with how we understand the motherhood of anyone else.  Though God creates the soul of a person directly, we don't say that a person's mother is only mother of that person's body.  Indeed, the mother bears and bears with the child in its totality, body and soul as a united whole.

In the same way, the mother of Christ bore her son Jesus in His totality, humanity and divinity united in holiness.  Thus, Cyril concludes (as do many other early Church Fathers at the Council of Ephesus and prior) that Mary is indeed the Mother of God (Theotokos is Cyril's preferred term).

And thus was formalized what many Christians had understood intuitively before: that Mary is the Mother of God.  Though Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, was undoubtedly conceived of the Holy Spirit, at least according to the Early Church, the only-begotten Son of God was also undoubtedly born of a woman named Mary according to the Early Church.

The Curse of Jeconiah - The Two Fathers of Joseph - Conceived of the Holy Spirit

Note:  The above is a picture of my copy of the Catena Aurea (Volume 1: St. Matthew).

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Catena Aurea: The Two Fathers of Joseph

The Catena Aurea is a work of Biblical commentary compiled by St. Thomas Aquinas.  It contains the verses of the Gospels immediately followed by the most relevant commentaries of the Church Fathers upon that subject and/or that specific verse.  As I read the English translation commissioned by Cardinal John Henry Newman, I will be providing information about what the Catena Aurea contains regarding certain questions that are generally controversial or interesting to me.

*     *     *

Today, it is popular to speak of the contradictions in the Bible as if there were obviously many of them.  One of the many things pointed to in the Bible as an embarrassing contradiction is the discrepancy between the the genealogical details of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

The above passage from the Gospel of Matthew, when compared to a passage from the Gospel of Luke below, looks like they are presenting completely different accounts of Jesus' genealogy.

23 Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 24 son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, 25 son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, 26 son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, 27 son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 28 son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, 29 son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, 30 son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, 31 son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David...

Though some of the names listed are the same, they are listed in different orders, and some of the names are quite different, as if they were describing two different branches of a family tree.  Or, as some have charged, two completely different family trees.

While family trees have multiple branches, and it's quite possible to show someone's ancestry going back to multiple figures by different routes, or even back to the same figures by different routes if a society (like the Jews) practices interarriage regularly, that doesn't explain why Joseph has two fathers.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph's father is listed as Jacob.  In the Gospel of Luke, his father is listed as Heli.  Aha!  A contradiction!  Many critics of the Gospels would charge it with the crime of contradiction, at any rate.

This is not a new modern-era criticism of the Gospels, as we see below in a passage from St. Jerome, a priest and monk of Bethlehem who lived from around 340 AD until 420 AD:

This passage is objected to us by the Emperor Julian in his Discrepancy of the Evangelists.  Matthew calls Joseph the son of Jacob, Luke makes him the son of Heli.  He did not know the Scripture manner, one was his father by nature, the other by law.  For we know that God commanded by Moses, that if a brother of near kinsman died without children, another should take his wife, to raise up seed to his brother or kinsman.  But of this matter Africanus the chronologist, and Eusebius of Cesarea, have disputed more fully.

Eusebius (born about 260 AD and dead prior to 341 AD) writes in Book I of his famous work Ecclesiastical History that:

For Matthan and Melchi at different periods had each a son by one and the same wife Jesca.  Matthan, who traced through Solomon, first had her, and died leaving one son, Jacob by name.  As the Law forbade not a widow, either dismissed from her husband, or after the death of her husband, to be married to another, so Melchi, who traced through Matthan, being of the same tribe but of another race, took this widow to his wife, and begat Heli his son.  Thus shall we find Jacob and Heli, though of a different race, yet by the same mother, to have been brethren.  One of whom, namely Jacob, after Heli his brother was deceased without issue, married his wife, and begat on her the third, Joseph, by nature indeed and reason his own son; whereupon also it is written, And Jacob begat Joseph.  But by the Law, he was the son of Heli; for Jacob, being his brother, raised up seed to him.  Thus the genealogy, both as recited by Matthew, and by Luke, stands right and true; Matthew saying, And Jacob begot Joseph; Luke saying, Which was the son, as it was supposed, (for he adds this withal,) of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, which was the son of Melchi.  Nor could be have more significantly or properly expressed that way of generation according to the Law, which was made by a certain adoption that had respect to the dead, carefully leaving out the word begetting throughout even to the end. ... Neither does this lack good authority; nor has it been suddenly devised by us for this purpose. For the kinsmen of our Saviour according to the flesh, either out of desire to shew forth this their so great nobility of stock, or simply for the truth's sake, have delivered it unto us.

As Eusebius notes, the language Luke uses is different, describing Joseph as son of Heli (or Eli as it is sometimes rendered) rather than as begotten by Heli, because he was begotten by Jacob though still Heli's son according to the Law.  And this makes a great deal of sense in a society in which part of the Law's purpose was to ensure family stability and justice in matters of inheritance.

This traditional Judaic distinction between being a man's son by the Law and a man's son by nature is one that any of us should be able to understand.  In the West today as in the past, adoption, step-fathers, and absent or dead biological fathers are quite common.  Many of us have adoptive fathers, step-fathers, or other male family members raising us who are no less our fathers than our biological fathers, and for whom we are indeed sons.

St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived at around the same time as St. Jerome, makes much the same point in De consensu evangelistarum (On the Harmony of the Evangelists):

He is more properly called his son, by whom he was adopted, than had he been said to have been begotten of him of whose flesh he was not born.  Wherefore Matthew, in saying Abraham begot Isaac, and continuing the same phrase down to Jacob begot Joseph, sufficiently declares that he gives the father according to nature, so as that we must hold Joseph to have been begotten, not adopted, by Jacob.  Though even if Luke had used the word begotten, we need not have thought it any serious objection; for it is not absurd to say of an adopted son that he is begotten, not after the flesh, but by affection.  ... And suitably does Luke, who relates Christ's ancestry not in the opening of his Gospel, but at his baptism, follow the line of adoption, as thus more clearly Him out as the Priest that should make atonement for sin.  For by adoption we are made the sons of God, by believing in the Son of God.  But by descent according to the flesh which Matthew follows, we rather see that that Son of God was for us made man.  Luke sufficiently shews that he called Joseph the son of Heli, because he was adopted by Heli, by his calling Adam the son of God, which he was by grace, as he was set in Paradise, though he lost it afterwards by sinning.

In addition to making the distinction between fatherhood by nature and fatherhood by adoption, Augustine makes the point that sonship is and always has been more than sperm donorship.  Fatherhood is first and foremost a spiritual, affective, and formative reality which may include but does not reduce to being the mere biological forebear of the son.

Another great theological mind, St. John Chrysostom, in his homilies, notes another interesting choice of phrasing in the Gospel:

Having gone through all the ancestry, and ended in Joseph, he adds, The husband of Mary, thereby declaring that it was for her sake that he was included in the genealogy.

He observes that though Joseph's lineage is important, it is Mary to whom that lineage leads us, and then to Christ through her motherhood.  Joseph was her husband and an adoptive father to Jesus by the Law, and Christ's father who begat Him is our Father in Heaven.

Just as Joseph had two fathers, one by the natural means of begetting a child and another by familial adoption under the Law, Jesus also had two fathers, being the only-begotten Son of God by supernatural means and another by familial adoption under the Law.

The Curse of Jeconiah - The Two Fathers of Joseph - Conceived of the Holy Spirit

Note:  The above is a picture of my copy of the Catena Aurea (Volume 1: St. Matthew).

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Islamic Mysticism: The Erotic Serenity of Rūmī

As I've mentioned before, Rumi is far from the only Islamic mystic, but he's the poet most likely to be familiar to the Western reader, so his work is a good place to start in examining the subject of Islamic mysticism.  It's valuable to point out that although Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī himself seemed to believe that he was authentically following the teachings of the Prophet as they were received from Allah in the form of the Qur'an, there are plenty of Muslims who find some of his statements to be inimical to Islam.

There are also plenty of Muslims who find his poetry to be a deeply moving reflection of Islamic spirituality, including his poetry using generally romantic, erotic, and even explicitly sexual lyrical constructions to elucidate the profound seeking after divine love that is part of the spiritual life.

That said, Rūmī does not advocate allowing ourselves to become overtaken by our erotic pursuits.  In fact, he warns us of the dangers of abandoning self-control in the throes of what are called nafs in Arabic, a word that has in the Sufi tradition an association with the ego, that part of us which draws us always back into slavery to stimulus-response cycles of unthinkingly seeking immediate pleasure and avoiding any discomfort.

"This is how it is when your animal energies,
the nafs, dominate your soul: 
You have a piece of fine linen
that you're going to make into a coat
to give to a friend, but someone else uses it
to make a pair of pants.  The linen
has no choice in the matter.
It must submit.  Or, it's like
someone breaks into your house
and goes to the garden and plants thornbushes.
An ugly humiliation falls over the place.
Or, you've seen a nomad's dog
lying at the tent entrance, with his head
on the threshold and his eyes closed.
Children pull his tail and touch his face,
but he doesn't move.  He loves the children's
attention and stays humble within it.
But if a stranger walks by, he'll spring up
ferociously.  Now, what if that dog's owner
were not able to control it?
A poor dervish might appear: the dog storms out.
The dervish says, 'I take refuge with God
when the dog of arrogance attacks,'
and the owner has to say, 'So do I!
I'm helpless against this creature
even in my own house!
Just as you can't come close,
I can't go out!'
This is how animal energy becomes monstrous
and ruins life's freshness and beauty."

Rūmī reveals to us that a lack of self-control is fundamentally constraining: it traps us in addictive behavior patterns, frustrating the more meaningful pursuits of life because the lesser pursuit of immediate gratification for transient pleasures.

The full beauty, truth, and goodness of the human person are thus caged by the only prison which can truly hold them: the self in all its egotistical and inglorious slavery to its own whims.  And we are all vulnerable to imprisoning ourselves in this way, as he shows in another poetic tale of romance and adventure.

"Someone offhand to the Caliph of Egypt,
'The King of Mosul
has a concubine like no other,
more beautiful than I can describe.
She looks like this.'
He draws her likeness on paper.
The Caliph drops his cup.
Immediately he sends his captain to Mosul
with an army of thousands.  The siege goes on for a week,
with many casualties, the walls and towers unsteady,
as soft as wax.  The King of Mosul sends an envoy.
'Why this killing?  If you want the city,
I will leave and you can have it!
If you want more wealth, that's even easier.'
The captain takes out the piece of paper
with the girl's picture on it.  This.
The strong King of Mosul is quick to reply.
'Lead her out.  The idol belongs with the idolater.'
When the captain sees her, he falls in love
like the Caliph.  Don't laugh at this.
This loving is also a part of infinite love,
without which the world does not evolve.
Objects move from inorganic to vegetation
to selves endowed with spirit through the urgency
of every love that wants to come to perfection.
This captain thinks the soil looks fertile,
so he sows his seed.  Sleeping, he sees the girl
in a dream.  He makes love to her image,
and his semen spurts out.
After a while he begins to wake.
Slowly he senses the girl is not there.
'I have given my seed into nothing.
I shall put this tricky woman to a test.'
A leader who is not captain of his own body is not one
to be honored, with his semen spilled so in the sand.
Now he loses all control.  He doesn't care
about the Caliph, or about dying.
'I am in love,' he says.
Do not act in such heat.
Take counsel with a master.
But the captain couldn't.
His infatuation is a blackwater wave carrying him away.
Something that doesn't exist makes a phantom
appear in the darkness of a well,
and the phantom itself becomes strong enough
to throw actual lions into the hole.
More advice: it is dangerous to let other men
have intimate connections with the women in your care.
Cotton and fire sparks, those are, together.
Difficult, almost impossible, to quench."

Rūmī, as an experienced Islamic jurist, had no doubt seen many cases of forbidden or merely very ill-advised love affairs.  His story rings with the truth of the human experience of the erotic desire, both in its sexual explosiveness and its obsessive, reckless quality.

Overpowering erotic desire is a profoundly irrational and inescapably tumultuous river of emotion. And once we allow ourselves to be absorbed in it, then we are swept along in the rapids, tumbling into the perilous rocks of life's most heart-wrenching events so quickly that we cannot avoid being struck over and over by our mistakes, all the while burning too intensely with desire to really notice the damage we are doing to ourselves in the process.

And yet, Rūmī also points out to us that erotic desire is a good part of life, and what's more, a necessary part of human flourishing.  Erotic desire is such a powerful good that, like any powerful good, when it is used unwisely, it leads to powerful evil.

"The captain does not return straight to the Caliph,
but instead camps in a secluded meadow.
Blazing, he can't tell ground from sky.
His reason is lost in a drumming sound,
worthless radish and son of a radish.
The Caliph himself a gnat, nothing.
But just as this cultivator tears off the woman's pants
and lies down between her legs, his penis moving
straight to the mark, there's a great tumult
and a rising cry of soldiers outside the tent.
He leaps up with his bare bottom shining
and runs out, scimitar in hand.
A black lion from a nearby swamp
has gotten in among the horses.  Chaos.
The lion jumps twenty feet in the air,
tents billowing like an ocean.
The captain quickly approaches the lion,
splits his head with one blow,
and now he's running back to the women's tent.
When he stretches out her beauty again,
his penis goes even more erect.
The engagement, the coming together, is as with the lion.
His penis stays erect all through it,
and it does not scatter semen feebly.
The beautiful one is amazed at his virility.
Immediately, with great energy she joins with his energy,
and their two spirits go out from them as one.
Whenever two are linked this way, there comes another
from the unseen world.  It may be through birth,
if nothing prevents conception,
but a third does come, when two unite in love,
or in hate.  The intense qualities born
of such joining appear in the spiritual world.
You will recognize them when you go there.
Your associations bear progeny.
Be careful, therefore.  Wait, and be conscious,
before you go to meet anyone.
Remember there are children to consider!
Children you must live with and tend to,
born of your emotions with another, entities
with a form, and a speech, and a place to live.
They are crying to you even now.
You have forgotten us.  Come back.
Be aware of this.  A man and a woman together
always have a spiritual result."

The evil here is not only that the captain seems to care not a bit for the consent of the woman he just abducted from the King of Mosul, though that is indeed an evil thing.  He also disregards the wishes of the Caliph, the ruler to whom he owes obedience.

He abandons the virtues of prudence, temperance, and obedience as he gives himself completely over completely to erotic desire.  Rūmī warns that this will have consequences, that our choices always bear fruit, whether the fruit be poisonous or nourishing.  There are always profound implications when our erotic desires are fulfilled.

Whether in the giving of new life in the form of children or purely in the form of spiritual union, something new bursts forth from the one flesh made by the meeting of man and woman.  A weighty responsibility is the inevitable result of such a union, whether we like it or not.

"The captain was not so aware.  He fell,
and stuck like a gnat in a pot of buttermilk,
totally absorbed in his love affair.  Then,
just as suddenly, he's uninterested.  He tells
the woman, 'Don't say a word of this to the Caliph.'
He takes her there, and the Caliph is smitten.
She's a hundred times more beautiful than he's imagined.
A certain man asks an eloquent teacher,
'What is true and what false?'  'This is false:
a bat hides from the sun, not from the idea of the sun.
It's the idea that puts fear in the bat and leads it
deeper into the cave.  You have an idea
of an enemy that attaches you to certain companions.
Moses, the inner light of revelation,
lit up the top of Sinai, but the mountain
could not hold that light.
Don't deceive yourself in that way!
Having the idea is not living
the reality, of anything.
There's no courage in the idea of battle.
The bathhouse wall is covered with pictures
and much talk of heroism.  Try to make an idea move
from ear to eye.  Then your woolly ears
become as subtle as fibers of light.
Your whole body becomes a mirror,
all eye and spiritual breathing.
Let your ear lead you to your lover.'"

The weighty responsibility is often abandoned, often because we have invested in the idea of our beloved rather than the reality of our beloved.  Both the Caliph and his captain are captivated by the idea of this beautiful woman, though the captain's captivity to the idea ends once he has entered into the reality of her.

The reality of our fellow human beings can never live up to our lofty ideas about them, and thus the inevitable disenchantment of the reckless lover.  While disenchantment is inevitable, our response to this disenchantment is not.  We can choose to end our self-deception and cultivate a more mature understanding of ourselves and others, or we can cling to the false ideas and continue to measure all of reality by those false ideas, a measure that reality will always fail to live up to.

"So the Caliph is mightily in love with this girl.
His kingdom vanishes like lightning.
If your loving is numb, know this: when what you own
can vanish, it's only a dream, a vanity, breath
through a mustache.  It would have killed you.
There are those that say, 'Nothing lasts.'
They're wrong.  Every moment they say,
'If there were some other reality,
I would have seen it. I would know about it.'
Because a child doesn't understand a chain of reasoning,
should adults give up being rational?
If reasonable people don't feel the presence of love
within the universe, that doesn't mean it's not there.
Joseph's brothers did not see Joseph's beauty,
but Jacob never lost sight of it.  Moses at first
saw only a wooden staff, but to his other seeing
it was a viper and cause of panic.
Eyesight is in conflict with inner knowing.
Moses' hand is a hand and a source of light.
These matters are real as the infinite is real,
but they seem religious fantasies to some,
to those who believe only in the reality
of the sexual organs and the digestive tract.
Don't mention the Friend to those.
To others, sex and hunger are fading images,
and the Friend is more constantly, solidly here.
Let the former go to their church, and we'll go to ours.
Don't talk long to skeptics or to those
who claim to be atheists.
So the Caliph has the idea
of entering the beautiful woman,
and he comes to her to do his wanting.
Memory raises his penis, straining it in thought
toward the pushing down and lifting up
which make that member grow large with delight.
But as he actually lies down with the woman,
there comes to him a decree from God
to stop these voluptuous doings.  A very tiny sound,
like a mouse might make.  The penis droops,
and desire slips away."

Though the captain has been disenchanted, the Caliph is still captivated by the idea of this woman he sent an army to retrieve from a faraway kingdom.  He becomes like a child who wants a treat, and doesn't want to follow his parent's advice to abstain from it lest he ruin his dinner.  How very like this we all are when we become addicted to satisfying our fleshly desires!

In his laser-like focus on the pursuit of delight in the embrace of the woman's body, he occludes most of what is real.  His perspective becomes a tiny blurry dot, and he is unable to see not only the fullness of the woman as a person, but even the immense national treasures he is responsible for recede into the background of his mind.

While he is enchanted by the idea of ultimate pleasure, the fullness of reality is invisible to him.  But the prompting of Allah brings him out of the enchantment he allowed himself to remain captive to, the spell of immediate gratification of transient desires.

"He thinks that whispering sound is a snake
rising off the straw mat.  The girl sees his drooping
and sails into fits of laughing at the marvelous thing.
She remembers the captain killing the lion
with his penis standing straight up.
Long and loud her laughter.
Anything she thinks of only increases it,
like the laughter of those who eat hashish.
Everything is funny.
Every emotion has a source and a key that opens it.
The Caliph is furious.  He draws his sword.
'What's so amusing?  Tell me everything you're thinking.
Don't hold anything back.  At this moment
I'm clairvoyant.  If you lie, I'll behead you.
If you tell the truth, I'll give you your freedom.'
He stacks seven Qur'ans on top of each other
and swears to do as he says.
When she finally gets hold of herself,
the girl tells all, in great detail.  Of the camp
in the meadow, the killing of the lion,
the captain's return to the tent with his penis
still hard as the horn of a rhino.
And the contrast with the Caliph's own member
sinking down because of one mouse-whisper.
Hidden things always come to light.
Do not sow bad seed.  Be sure, they'll come up.
Rain and the sun's heat make them rise into the air.
Spring comes after the fall of the leaves,
which is proof enough of the fact of the resurrection.
Secrets come out in Spring, out from earth-lips into leaf.
Worries become wine-headaches.
But where did the wine come from?  Think.
A branch of blossoms does not look like seed.
A man does not resemble semen.  Jesus came
from Gabriel's breath, but he is not in that form.
The grape doesn't look like the vine.
Loving actions are the seed of something
completely different, a living-place.
No origin is like where it leads to.
We can't know where our pain is from.
We don't know all that we've done.
Perhaps it's best that we don't.
Nevertheless we suffer for it."

The Caliph is still in his pride when the woman he has kidnapped begins to laugh at him, and his pride stirs up that terrible fire of anger.  His anger leads him to ask for the truth, and the truth is what sets him free.

It allows him to see the depth of his own sin, how his rash decision to fulfill his erotic desires at any cost came back to bite him, as it often does for all of us.  How many times have we learned, quite painfully, that our rushing into the pursuit of the pleasures of food, drink, and sex cost us far more than moderation would have?  How many times have we, like the captain, failed to learn it?

The Caliph learns from his mistake and moves forward, having abandoned his chariot of pride for the sandal of humility, having broken the chains of his slavery to the ego.

"The Caliph comes back to his clarity. 'In the pride
of my power I took this woman from another,
so of course, someone came to knock on my door.
Whoever commits adultery is a pimp
for his own wife.
If you cause injury to someone, you draw
the same injury toward yourself.  My treachery
made my friend a traitor to me.  This repetition
must stop somewhere.  Here, in an act of mercy.
I'll send you back to the captain,
saying another of my wives is jealous,
and since the captain was brave enough
to bring you back from Mosul,
he shall have you in marriage.'
This is the virility of a prophet.
The Caliph was sexually impotent,
but his manliness was most powerful.
The kernel of true manhood is the ability
to abandon sensual indulgences.  The intensity
of the captain's libido is less than a husk
compared to the Caliph's nobility in ending
the cycle of sowing lust and reaping
secrecy and vengefulness."

The Caliph, having recognized his own failings, begins to try to set things aright inasmuch as they can be once they have been broken by rash decisions.  Following the truth having set him free of pride and wrath and lust (so deadly to the soul), he has a serenity that allows him to view the situation dispassionately and honor the reality of the situation.

He recognizes that the profound union of the woman and the captain, though prompted by his own failings, is a reality which should be honored.  He prompts the captain to treat her as a wife rather than as a mere sexual conquest, and divests himself of the temptation to treat her as a mere sexual conquest in the same act.

The damage has been done to some extent, and yet the balance is restored to some extent.  Though the wounds remain, bandages have been applied and the healing process can now begin.  The captain and the Caliph can both find the serenity they so obviously lacked in their lustful pursuits.

This serenity is the erotic serenity of Rūmī, the powerful desire for the good of all that lays waste to pride and anger and lust.  It is an expression of purity, this serenity, a purity of soul that allows us to do what is necessary to break the cycle of evil.

It is this powerful desire for what is truly good that fulfills our erotic longings.  The serenity of Rūmī is the serenity of one who has moved beyond erotic desire as a mere urge for the press of flesh upon flesh and into erotic desire as an expression of divine love, a selfless willing of what is most pure for all.

By Molavi - Masnavi Manavi Molavi, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17260486

Note:  The above is an artist's rendering of Rumi's portrait.  To see what I used to gather the Rumi quotations, see my Sources page.