Category Archives: history

The Authoritarian Personality and the National Divide

‘In talking to right-wing authoritarians (RWAs) — in any situation — the first and greatest challenge is to reduce the level of fear and increase the level of trust. They cannot hear or see you at all until this happens.’ — Sara Robinson

I think it’s fair to say that a majority of Americans are completely boggled that so many of our fellow citizens are willing to believe so much crazy crap that is so utterly disconnected from reality. Just saying that they’re nuts is not helpful. Strangely enough, there is actual research to help explain why and how they are able to continue living in their alternative reality and steadfastly fend off any facts that might attempt to intrude. And it’s been around since before the last period of far-right fantasy hegemony.

I came across a very useful set of posts by Sara Robinson, who was raised fundamentalist and closed-minded but was able to transcend her upbringing, and who has a lot of understanding about how to communicate with those who are still inside the “Wall” of insulated post-factual unreality. So much became clearer for me. (Scroll down for links.)

Robinson was summarizing the work of John Dean— yes, that John Dean, from Watergate— who wrote Conservatives Without Conscience, which is based on the work of social psychologist Robert Altemeyer.

“Research into ‘authoritarian personalities’ began in the aftermath of WWII, as scientists tried to figure out how otherwise civilized people succumbed to the charisma of Hitler and Mussolini and allowed themselves to be willingly led into committing notorious atrocities. The inquiry continued through Milgram’s famous experiments at Stanford in the early 60s; later, some of it became subsumed in the work of The Fundamentalism Project convened by Martin Marty at the University of Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s. Long story short: there is now over 50 years of good data on these people coming from every corner of the social sciences; but since almost none of this has been common knowledge outside the academy, nobody on the progressive side has really been putting it to use.”

The bully leads

The description of authoritarians who are on the leader side of the equation sounds eerily familiar in our present environment:
“High-SDO [social dominance orientation] people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy:
“Typically men
Intimidating and bullying
Faintly hedonistic
Vengeful
Pitiless
Exploitative
Manipulative
Dishonest
Cheat to win
Highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
Mean-spirited
Militant
Nationalistic
Tells others what they want to hear
Takes advantage of ‘suckers’
Specializes in creating false images to sell self
May or may not be religious
Usually politically and economically conservative/Republican”

“Dean notes: ‘Although these collations of characteristics…are not attractive portraits, they are nonetheless traits that authoritarians themselves acknowledge.’ In other words, these guys know what they are, and are often quite unabashedly proud of it.”

But these leaders wouldn’t get very far unless there were legions of authoritarian personalities on the follower side, and unfortunately there are. It seems that there are all too many people who want to be told what to think and what to do. Ms. Robinson postulates that while the bullying leader types may be beyond the possibility of redemption, a lot of followers may have some openness to communicating across the divide.

I can easily sympathize with the desire to be given simple answers and clear directions. The world is so overwhelmingly complex nowadays, and our path forward seems so uncertain. Sadly, I expect that fundamentalism and authoritarianism will continue their ascent in the near future as climate change and population growth create even more conflict and pressures for water and other resources. They may even provide some sort of genuine protection against chaos, at least temporarily and in limited areas. However, this kind of mindset works against the innovative drive and mental agility that is needed most under fast-changing and stressful conditions.

Dedicated to the cause


“RWAs are sadly accustomed to subordinating their own needs to those of their superiors; in fact, one of the struggles we often see in recovering fundies is a complete inability to even acknowledge that they have needs of their own, let alone identify them, let alone act to meet them. They simply don’t know where to begin. Also, because their own authorities use guilt and shame to control them, they’ve seldom been allowed to see themselves as truly good and moral people.
“Giving an RWA permission o recognize, give voice to, and take action to satisfy his or her own needs is a powerful act. In affirming that they are not just allowed, but entitled (in the name of fairness) to feel their own emotions, own their own goodness, indulge a few harmless appetites, enjoy themselves, assert their boundaries, or stand up and say ‘no’ to overweening authority, you are being an enlightened witness to their true self — something many of them have seldom if ever had. In the process, you are also giving them a direct view over the wall. Often, it’s a view that they never forget, and will keep coming back to until they’re persuaded to go over it for good.”

Red Family, Blue Family

“The best writing on this I’ve seen comes from Unitarian writer Doug Muder, who has taken George Lakoff’s model of ‘strict father’ versus ‘nurturant parent’ politics one step further, and uses it to explain precisely how the right wing came to believe this preposterous notion…. Muder asserts that, while Lakoff’s right that family models are the right frame, the real dialectic is between families of ‘inherited obligation’ versus those based on ‘negotiated commitment.’ Go read the article, then come on back. We’ll be here.”

Here’s the article: “Red Family, Blue Family” https://www.gurus.org/dougdeb/politics/209.html
I strongly recommend that you read this. In fact, I implore you to read it. Lights will go on for you. For example:
 “The Inherited Obligation model, on the other hand, is ambivalent about the social safety net. On the one hand, it is good that people don’t just die when they have no one to take care of them. But on the other hand, the safety net weakens the network of familial obligations. A young adult who moves to the big city to seek his fortune doesn’t come home when he fails, he draws unemployment. Social Security and Medicare may provide an excuse not to take care of aging parents.
“…The Inherited Obligation model is likewise ambivalent about freedom. Freedom to fulfill your obligations according to your best judgment is a good thing. But the kind of freedom that releases people from their obligations is not. In the Negotiated Commitment model, a life without commitments is empty, and there can be no commitment without freedom.”
“Their demonic liberal is a person with no moral depth or seriousness. Convenience is his only true value. Words that we revere, such as freedom and choice, rebound against us: We like these words because we want to be free of our obligations and choose the easy way out.
“Just as married people sometimes imagine the single life as far more licentious and libidinous than it ever actually is, so people born into life-defining obligations imagine a life free from such obligations. The truth about liberals – that we more often than not choose to commit ourselves to marriage, children, church, and most of the other things conservatives feel obligated to, and that we stick by those commitments every bit as faithfully, if not more so – easily gets lost.”

Sometimes those on the left are accused of attempting to control and tyrannize others in the same way that the right does. That isn’t really characteristic of liberals, with their tendency toward fluidity and emphasis on choice:
  “As a final point: Dean’s book puts to rest once and for all the right-wing shibboleth of ‘liberal fundamentalists’ and ‘liberal authoritarians.’ Altemeyer and his colleagues have found, through decades of research, that authoritarians almost universally skew toward the far reactionary right on the political scale. This very much includes Stalinists and other ‘left-wing’ totalitarians: though these men used socialist rhetoric to create ‘Communist’ political orders, they’re classic examples of high-SDO leaders taking control by whatever means they had at hand, and using them to create archetypal far-right authoritarian states. Dean and Altemeyer make it clear that authoritarianism is, by long-accepted definition, overwhelmingly a right-wing personality trait.
“Dean is also emphatic that authoritarianism, in all its forms, is completely antithetical to both classical conservatism (he still considers himself a Goldwater conservative), and to the founding ideals of America. We must be clear: when right-wingers threaten liberals, they are directly threatening the seminal political impulse that created our nation. An operative democracy depends on having a populace that is open to new ideas, able to think for itself, confident in its abilities, willing to take risks, and capable of mutual trust. America was founded as the world’s first radically liberal state. History has shown us that the nation’s best moments, past and future, are created by people with a strong liberal orientation.”

(Note that standing up strongly for principles, such as equality of opportunity in jobs and housing, does not constitute tyranny.)

“Alt” authoritarians

Then there are those who reject established authority but believe in “alt” authorities without question. It’s easy and seductive to see oneself as part of a persecuted minority, a group that’s in the know and smarter than all those “sheeple.” Robinson’s “A Short Detour” section is about them:
“I’ve known way more than my share of these guys, since Silicon Valley is one of their primary native habitats. And my take is that they’re at least as driven by their burning desire to fit in as any other RWA. In fact, their feelings of victimization may be rooted in the belief that they were promised an acceptance in liberal intellectual circles that they intensely wanted but never really found. The most extreme ones were frighteningly bright and well-read, and usually also from very religious family backgrounds. Those two qualities alone guaranteed that it was going to be hard to find a niche among the better-rounded, more secular big city liberals. So they decided that, if they were going to be outcasts anyway, they could at least claim moral superiority. I may be a nerd, but I am RIGHT — the possessor of Ultimate Truth! — and that’s what really matters in the end.”

Why so many of them?

I’ve wondered why the authoritarian-follower trait has been so persistent in the human population, being that it involves so much unwillingness to face facts and thus to deal with real and immediate threats. There must be some advantage, or it wouldn’t exist. Authoritarians do know how to organize and come to agreement, for good or ill, and perhaps that confers an ability to respond more quickly to danger than a dithering, contentious group could, despite their propensity to live inside their imaginary constructions. (Even more than the rest of us, I mean.) Black and white thinking is faster and easier than taking all the grey into account. Perhaps group cohesion has been historically favored over innovation under adverse circumstances?

(Since to be a Christian is to see everyone as your neighbor, and to love your neighbor as yourself, it’s particularly perplexing to me to see that right-wing fundamentalists are so invested in being part of an in-group and demonizing everyone else.)

The most depressing thing about all of this is that Robinson wrote it back in 2006, so hopefully, but nothing seems to have changed, except to get worse. At least, that’s how it looks. I would love to see evidence to the contrary. Please tell me if you’ve got some.

 

Sara Robinson’s posts:

Cracks In The Wall, Part I: Defining the Authoritarian Personality
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/cracks-in-wall-part-i-defining.html

Cracks In The Wall, Part II: Listening to the Leavers
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/cracks-in-wall-part-ii-listening-to.html

Cracks in the Wall, Part III: Escape Ladders
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/cracks-in-wall-part-iii-escape-ladders.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part I: Divide and Conquer
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/tunnels-and-bridges-part-i-divide-and.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part II: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/tunnels-and-bridges-part-ii-nothing-to.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part III: A Bigger World
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/tunnels-and-bridges-part-iii-bigger.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part IV: Landing Zones
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/09/tunnels-and-bridges-part-iv-landing.html

Tunnels and Bridges: A Short Detour
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/09/tunnels-and-bridges-short-detour.html

 

 

 

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Filed under human rights, history, politics, psychology

The Face in the Shroud

I intended to put this out on Easter, but as with so many things during this overwhelmed period of my life, I’m way behind. I did spend a good deal of Sunday reviewing research on this subject, finding that there was a lot more available than there had been the last time I looked.

Among the surprisingly many religious articles in my mother’s room, I found one that I’d given her myself. I bought it at the gift shop of the Santuario de Chimayó in northern New Mexico. It’s a small card with the kind of double picture that changes when you hold it at different angles. One view is the familiar face found in the negative shot of the Shroud of Turin:

And the other is a reconstruction of the living face as imagined by an artist, whose name is not given:

I was so struck by the beauty and power of the artist’s conception portrait that I wanted a copy to bring home.

There is not much I can say about the Shroud of Turin that hasn’t been said already. I’m writing about it here because it is a source of continual fascination for me, as for so many others. It is one of the anomalous objects in the world that reminds us that reality is not at all what we’ve been told it is, and that we have far less understanding of what is “really” going on than we might like. No matter how one interprets the phenomenon, there is an irreducible amount of mystery. Something beyond the ordinary happened here. What exactly was it?

Here is a summary of the facts and questions about the Shroud, as my small knowledge of them permits:

We don’t know, no one can say for sure, who the Man in the Shroud really was. We can be sure of the meaning of some aspects of his image, though. What we see is a gruesome record, in literally excruciating detail, of the torture and murder of a man by the Roman state, in a way that myriad others were also tortured and murdered. This is what holds my attention above all. The terrifying injuries— the thorns piercing the scalp, the hundreds of tears made by the lash, the abrasions and bruises, the slash of the lance, and all that beyond the horror of the nails themselves— bear witness to the cruelty of human beings to their fellows. It would be difficult to believe if we did not see it right in front of us, right down to the still-obvious blood and body fluid stains. When I was a child, the nuns told us that Jesus being nailed to the cross was unusual, that most of those who were crucified were only tied to the wood. That was not true. What happened to this one whose sufferings we see so clearly in the Shroud happened to thousands.

We do know that the blood is type AB. It turns out that the Sudarium of Oviedo, the cloth said to have been used to wrap the face of Jesus when he was prepared for burial, is saturated with the same type of blood. Records of the Sudarium’s whereabouts over time go back about seven centuries further than those of the Shroud, lending weight to the contention that the Shroud is at least that old as well. Similarities in the placement of the stains as well as the blood itself point to the same origin as the Shroud. The shapes and contents of the stains indicate that the person whose head it covered died in an upright position, consistent with crucifixion. It must be the most historically important dirty rag on the planet.

We don’t know the age of the Shroud through testing of the cloth itself. Carbon dating done decades ago placed it in the medieval period, meaning that it had to be a fake, but since the cloth was much handled over the centuries, in addition to surviving fire and water damage, there is now agreement that it was too contaminated for carbon dating to be accurate. There is also a question about the part of the cloth that was tested, which appears to be a repair added later.

We know that pollen grains found in the cloth of the Shroud place its origin in the area of Jerusalem, and are consistent with the species of plants that would be used with a burial.

We know that the color forming the image is not paint or dye. There are simply no molecules of such things present. If the image was faked during medieval or any other times, it is very challenging to give an explanation of how the faking could have been accomplished. The contention that the Shroud is simply a fake just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The situation is more complex than that.

One theory is that a Maillard reaction, similar to the browning of bread in the oven, could have formed the brownish-yellowish image. This does not explain the holographic and X-ray like properties of the image, in which some structures that would have been behind others can be seen.

Similarly, the theory that the Shroud is an example of a medieval photograph is intriguing and more or less plausible, but it does not explain how details other than those on the surface of the body can be seen. (Although all the materials needed for photography were indeed available in the 14th century, there is no evidence that photographs were actually made anywhere at that time.) It also fails to explain the details of the wounds and patterns of bodily secretions. Neither a live body nor the corpse of a person who had died other than through this specific series of tortures would display these particular details when photographed.

So what do I think happened? I am agnostic. The most likely explanation, it appears to me, is one that raises still more questions. Some form of radiation emanated from this body and caused changes in the surface of the cloth, by a mechanism we don’t understand but may at some point be able to reproduce. I mentioned, when I described the events around my mother’s death, that a huge amount of heat was present around her body before she left it. Could a much more powerful burst of energy of some kind be released from a human body under certain circumstances? Could this perhaps have happened many times, but to bodies that were left peacefully in their graves so that we never saw the evidence? Have images like this one been imprinted upon many other burial cloths but crumbled away unnoticed in the earth?

And in this case, what happened to the body? Why was the Shroud not left in place with it? Was the body simply disinterred and moved— the obvious hypothesis— then wrapped in a fresh length of linen and buried elsewhere, with the original cloth kept as an object of veneration? Did it reanimate and walk away, as the stories say? Did it go poof and disappear in a burst of light, which formed the image?

It seems that there have been recorded cases of people who survived crucifixion, unlikely as that sounds. Could the Man in the Shroud have been one of these, and if he was Jesus, could that explain his apparent resurrection? The evidence in the cloth is against this, as the patterns of bleeding and fluid leakage look like what would be expected to occur postmortem. As far as anyone can tell, the man was dead when he was wound in the Shroud.

Is the Shroud a supernatural phenomenon, a miracle? To me, “supernatural” only means something that is natural but not yet understood. There has got to be a way of expanding our scientific understanding to encompass this phenomenon. Even if that might mean understanding how a physical body could suddenly transform into pure energy, which is one conceivable interpretation of the evidence. The physically-measurable electromagnetic signals in and around a human body, photons included, are fairly small. It’s hard to imagine how there could be enough light or other energy emitted to produce an image on a physical surface, but equally odd things have happened, and I don’t want to rule it out.

The one thing we know for sure, from studying the Shroud, is that we are creatures who have a gigantic ability to torment other members of our species. The only comfort I can find about this is that nowadays we at least give lip service to the idea that doing this is wrong, even as we keep doing it every day, all around the world.

But what I hope we’ve learned from this strange artifact is that we are also far less limited beings than we believe, and that possibilities exist that we’ve barely begun to grasp.

Article on the mysteries of the Shroud
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150417-shroud-turin-relics-jesus-catholic-church-religion-science/

A website giving an overview of what is known about the Shroud

https://www.shroud.com/menu.htm
The Sudarium

https://www.shroud.com/guscin.htm

A reply to Nicholas Allen’s “medieval photograph” theory
http://www.shroud.com/pdfs/orvieto.pdf

The evidence of plants wrapped with the shroud, through pollen samples and images
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/08/990803073154.htm

Holographic studies of the image
http://shroud3d.com/home-page/introduction-holographic-observations-in-the-shroud-image-holographic-theory
‘While photography has the advantage of fixing an image in time and of concentrating it so that whichever angle you look at it from, it will remain the same, with the Shroud that is not the case. Moving around that table (lighting under an angle from one side only!), from a certain angle I saw this image so faded as if to practically disappear, while from others it seemed as if the figure WAS ALMOST OUTSIDE THE SHEET: it was, I repeat, an incredible emotion. At that moment I knew that this image was unique. I approached the face placing my camera at a distance of about 20-30 cm, aimed the camera at the face and saw…………………nothing in my viewfinder.” “And yet,” I said “I know it by heart.” I had to beg my friend to point to the position of the eye, because from a distance of 30 cm I could not see it. I could only see it as I moved away from it.’

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Filed under history, mythology and metaphor, physics and cosmology, spirituality, the unexplained

Worthy to Sit at the Divine Table

Icon by Andrei Rublev, 15th century

I’m posting this on International Women’s Day, which is appropriate for reasons that will probably be clear to you.

Last time I told you about the powerful experience I had in the hospice while my mother was dying, where I felt that I was surrounded and embraced by uncountable beings who loved and supported me. This feeling of ineffable love continued as my mother stayed present with me over the next few days, and then the typical disjunctions and confusions of life took hold more again, in addition to the stresses of adjusting to her absence and dealing with the many responsibilities of her estate and planning her memorial.

We allowed nearly three weeks to prepare for the memorial service and the get-together for family and friends afterward. It was a massively busy period but also one in which I was able to contemplate important matters and to have deep discussions with friends and patients about life and death. A subject that came up was one that I’d been planning to write about anyway, the pervasive feeling of not being worthy and not deserving. It was on my mind the day of the memorial Mass, which took place on February 10, a few blocks from my house at Our Lady of the Assumption church.

I was apprehensive before the service, even felt like I was going into enemy territory. I had only met the pastor once and never heard the church’s singer before, and I had no control over the proceedings. But my family and I were welcomed warmly by the pastor and the deacon, the singer turned out to be one of the best I’d ever heard in our area, and friends gathered closely around us with great love and caring. My piano teacher played an organ piece right before the Mass, and as the last chords were sounding, the church bells began to ring with magically perfect timing.  I’m not sure if one is supposed to enjoy a funeral, but I did. It was everything it should have been, and we all felt sure it was just what my mother would like.

Some of us were feeling strongly that my mother was present and did in fact like the event. That sense of an atmosphere filled with myriad kindly beings visited me again. I had felt that in certain churches before, but for some reason I wasn’t expecting it at this one, which seemed cavernous and perhaps a little impersonal. The priest told us all, a little apologetically, that although people of different beliefs were present, we were going to hear about Jesus and get the standard Catholic experience. (Exactly as it was supposed to be.) When he said “Jesus,” I suddenly felt as if a cord flew upward from my head and connected with that loving presence.

Feeling that I was cradled in the love of my mother and the heavenly entities, I was busy communing ecstatically when I heard the words, “Lord, I am not worthy….” Wow. There it was again, stated flat out. “I am not worthy.” I am not good enough for God. I do not deserve to have the Divine be with me or within me.

And you know what? That idea rolled right past me and none of it stuck. I was completely immune to its destructive power. In every quark and photon of my being I knew that I was a child of God, a citizen of the universe, an integral and indispensable part of All That Is, however you want to put it. I was deserving of all the goodness that was pouring into me and I soaked it up joyfully and with profound gratitude and with absolutely no reservation. Not only was I worthy to receive the Divine, I was doing it right then and there and with no effort at all.

Later, as I am wont to do, I spent time rationally analyzing what had happened. I considered the fundamental contradictions embodied in “Lord, I am not worthy.” I read about the Gospel story* from which this line in the Mass was taken, and worked through a few different exegeses of it. (A nice scholarly-sounding word!) I could see where they were coming from, but I just wasn’t buying them. And this was new. Although I could still recognize my inadequacies perfectly clearly, a lifetime of existential guilt and subjugation to self-hatred had evaporated. What I knew intellectually had come to live in my heart. After years of struggle, I was at last ready for this radical acceptance.

Think about it. Even a moment of attention will show you how odd and backwards that “unworthiness” is, by doing no more than following along through basic Judaeo-Christian religious thought. God is supposed to be all-good and all-powerful, so surely God must have done a fine job at creating everything. We’re told that God looked at His creation and saw that it was good. Why, then, would human beings be total pieces of crap?

I am far from the only person to bring this up. When I was reading one of the articles on “Lord, I am not worthy,” which insisted on the truth of our not-deserving, I was pleased to see that a commenter asked, simply and directly, why we should disagree with the Creator’s opinion.

Now, suppose that God is a loving parent, as we are so often told. Imagine that you have a child, and you tell that child, “I love you, but you are really a mess, and you will never be worthy of my love no matter what you do and no matter how hard you try.” Only a twisted, psychopathic parent could say such a thing. How could an all-good God say it?

To an extent I’m oversimplifying, but this not-worthiness, this fundamental self-rejection that undermines us at a core level, is one of the most notable characteristics of mainstream religion, in our society at least.

There is another way.

The work of Fr. Richard Rohr, at the Center for Action and Contemplation here in Albuquerque, has been getting international attention. Fr. Rohr stays within the fold of Catholicism but at the same time is profoundly radical. His “Franciscan alternative orthodoxy” views our flawed humanity with great compassion, and constantly points us toward union with the divine, never into ashamed isolation.

Fr. Rohr’s recent writings have had to do with the concept of the Trinity. The idea of three-persons-in-one-God has never made sense to me, nor resonated emotionally, but he uses it to present a dynamic, moving, relational energy, a “divine dance,” rather than a static deity that doesn’t particularly interact with us or the universe. Referring to the painting shown at the top of this post, he wrote:

“In Genesis we see the divine dance in an early enigmatic story (18:1-8). ‘The Lord’ appears to Abraham as ‘three men.’ Abraham and Sarah seem to see the Holy One in the presence of these three, and they bow before them and call them ‘my lord’ (18:2-3 Jerusalem Bible). Their first instinct is one of invitation and hospitality—to create a space of food and drink for their guests. Here we have humanity feeding God; it will take a long time to turn that around in the human imagination. ‘Surely, we ourselves are not invited to this divine table,’ the hosts presume.

“This story inspired a piece of devotional religious art by iconographer Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century: The Hospitality of Abraham, or simply The Trinity. As icons do, this painting attempts to point beyond itself, inviting a sense of both the beyond and the communion that exists in our midst….

“The icon shows the Holy One in the form of Three, eating and drinking, in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves. If we take the depiction of God in The Trinity seriously, we have to say, ‘In the beginning was the Relationship.’ The gaze between the Three shows the deep respect between them as they all share from a common bowl. Notice the Spirit’s hand points toward the open and fourth place at the table. Is the Holy Spirit inviting, offering, and clearing space? I think so! And if so, for what, and for whom?
At the front of the table there appears to be a little rectangular hole. Most people pass right over it, but some art historians believe the remaining glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table. It’s stunning when you think about it—there was room at this table for a fourth.
The observer.
You!
Yes, you—and all of creation—are invited to sit at the divine table. You are called ‘to consciously participate in the divine dance of loving and being loved,’ as Wm Paul Young, the best selling author of The Shack, writes.
The mirror seems to have been lost over the centuries, both in the icon and in our on-the-ground understanding of who God is—and, therefore, who we are too!”

In this view, we are not unworthy to receive the Divine— we are invited to sit right next to it, co-equal, at the same table. Imagine if all children were brought up this way instead of in the shadow of the Antichrist of guilt and unworthiness. The world would be transformed.

I would add one more thing: to me, the angelic figures in the painting look androgynous. The Trinity is not being shown as “three men,” but as three human beings— perhaps even three women.

Never let anyone tell you that you don’t belong at this table.

 

*The story is that of the centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant, and trusts that he need “only say the word” and the man will be well. The centurion says that he is not worthy to have Jesus enter under his roof.

https://cac.org

http://catholicexchange.com/lord-i-am-not-worthy

http://www.fromwordstoprayers.com/2011/09/lord-i-am-not-worthy.html
‘What roof do we mean? We are temples of the Holy Spirit, and our flesh is like the “roof” of this temple. We know we are unworthy to be such temples, where God is present spiritually; we are even less worthy to receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.’

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Filed under history, spirituality

Not Left or Right but Up: The “Undivine Comedy” and Our Comedy of Errors

In 1833, the young poet and playwright Zygmunt Krasiński penned Nie-Boska Komedia, the “Undivine Comedy,” which is still an icon of Polish literature.  Krasiński was a one-percenter who was acutely aware that things could not go on as they were in his intensely inequitable society. In the play, the fed-up 99%, led by the charismatic but cruel and unbalanced Pankracy, rises against the ruling class. Count Henryk, a character who has much in common with the author, is the central figure on the aristocrats’ side.

An apocalyptic battle ensues, taking place in a Dantesque, fantastical setting that could not be fully realized on a physical stage at the time. Henryk and his cohorts represent a tradition that has fallen away from its noble ideals and become vain and selfish. The revolutionaries are an unsavory rabble who espouse justice and equality, but are willing to destroy everyone and everything in their way. Neither side is worthy to lead the country into the future.

In the end, the revolutionary forces win the battle, Henryk dies, and Pankracy orders the execution of the remaining aristocrats. Suddenly he is overtaken by a brilliant vision of Christ, so brilliant that it paralyzes him and blinds him to all else. In the vision, the clearly displeased Christ is leaning on his cross as if on a sword, and lightning flashes from his crown of thorns. Pankracy cries out “Galileae vicisti!” (“Galilean, you have won!”) and drops dead on the spot. The end.

When I first read a translation, many years ago, I thought it was the most facile, brainless deus ex machina ending anyone could ever have come up with. Krasiński was only 21 at the time, I thought, and he was trying to deal with hopelessly intractable social problems; he must have just thrown up his hands and walked away. I couldn’t get this crazy, surreal story out of my mind, though. Eventually it percolated through my head long enough that Krasiński’s insight got through to me.

You may have figured this out a lot faster than I did. Krasiński was saying that humans cannot mend the injustices in their world through conflict, and that no human point of view is entirely right or deserving of victory. Only a spiritual awakening can bring about the needed transformation, and that can only happen within the individual.

Well. Obviously we are not there yet. It’s going to be a while before enlightenment strikes every human heart.

Krasiński wrote in a time of fundamental dissolution and transition. Poland had been obliterated as a nation by the Russians, and many of his compatriots had emigrated to form a sort of country in exile, rather as has happened with Tibet under Chinese rule. Poland had been in shaky positions before, but now it had officially ceased to exist. It must have seemed as if nothing could ever be normal again. Yet Romantic-period sensibilities included a robust belief that a utopian world could be created (at least on a small scale), along with a willingness to imagine the wildest of possibilities. We are not there, either. We are cynical and disillusioned and far beyond the naivety of the 19th century.

Despite his pessimistic portrayal of Henryk and his followers, Krasiński held to the view that an educated, cultured elite, steeped in old-fashioned values and Christian ideals, would be best suited to run society. He was bitterly opposed to the Tsar’s regime, but also opposed to radicalism and insurgency. He distrusted the disorderly mass of the 99%, preferring at least the possibility of a redeemed 1%.

In this dark moment we have our own kind of Pankracy, an uncouth, uncontrolled pseudo-revolutionary who claims (falsely!) to be an outsider and populist, and who has already succeeded in blowing apart longstanding power structures. On the other side we have an establishment figure who embodies the American version of aristocracy. Those of us who identify with the educated and cultured elite are horrified that anyone would even momentarily choose the former. We are appalled at his utter disregard for civility and for reality itself. Like Krasiński, we would much rather have one of our own in charge, someone with solid intelligence and broad knowledge of the world. But as in his time, hallowed power structures have become calcified and disconnected from the ideals they were originally intended to serve, and we no longer trust those who have found success within them, no matter how competent they show themselves to be.  So we have widespread frustration and discontent.

We find ourselves watching a drama as lurid as anything the Romantics dreamed up, rapt and hypnotized, unable to tear ourselves away. The only path out of this, I think, is not left or right but up. Awakening is the only possible solution to the national nightmare. And it is most difficult to achieve, requiring us to pull the beams from our own eyes when we would rather pay attention to the motes in the eyes of others.

May all our eyes open.

 

Here is a quick overview of Krasiński’s career: http://culture.pl/en/artist/zygmunt-krasinski

 

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Lucifer Ascending

Lucifer will always be a headache for the Christians and their Devil.
— Edward George Barlow/Krause

I’m only beginning to understand this subject, so please feel free to educate me. Angels are still confusing for me, and this one is all the more so.  He may seem like an odd thing to write about in the season of Easter, but please bear with me and see that it makes perfect sense. No doubt some will urge me to repent and realize that Satan is only using me for his own nefarious ends etc. etc.

Simply because it was placed directly after the recent reboot of The X-Files, I fell into watching the new TV series Lucifer, and was immediately hooked in.  It turned out to be far deeper than its snark-laced previews suggested, age-old philosophy and mythology wrapped in a police procedural comedy-drama (which is a little bit of a strange concept in itself).   Here’s what I’m talking about:
http://collider.com/lucifer-tom-ellis-interview-neil-gaiman-fox/

The idea is that Lucifer has had it with ruling Hell after eons in that role, which he never wanted in the first place; he complains that his Father, with whom he has an exceedingly fraught relationship, forced him to become a torturer. He’s vacationing in Los Angeles, running a nightclub, Lux, where he plays the piano and sings. (Wait a minute— isn’t the devil supposed to play the fiddle? But of course the piano thing grabbed me right away.) He meets an LAPD detective, Chloe, who is the only person able to resist his charms and temptations, which makes her irresistible to him. Since punishing wrongdoers has been his job all this time, he’s vitally interested in helping her catch her prey, but more and more we see that what he wants is not merely punishment but justice.  (He never makes anyone do evil— he simply teases out their deepest desires and they take it from there.)

Throughout his existence Lucifer has been completely self-centered, and during the last few years in LA he’s been living superficially as a hedonistic playboy, but he’s reached a point where he longs to become something more, and he has very little idea of what that might be or how it can be achieved. The ultimate bad boy character is trying, haltingly, to be good. He’s even seeing a psychologist in an attempt to figure it all out.

But here’s what pulled me in above all: In one episode, something crucially important is stolen from Lucifer, and he will stop at nothing to get it back. It turns out that the stolen item is the storage container holding and hiding his wings, which he had cut off, leaving huge scars, when he took up residence on Earth. You have a mental image of the devil’s wings, right? Well, these aren’t them. They’re gloriously feathery, gigantically widespread, brilliantly white angel wings. Because Lucifer, of course, was the brightest of the angels— and at some level he still is.

Not having read the comic books on which the series is based, I didn’t see this coming. (I also didn’t know that the graphic-version Lucifer is blond, quite unlike the one on TV, and intended to resemble David Bowie.)

Lucifer 16 comic book cover by Christopher Moeller

Lucifer 16 comic book cover by Christopher Moeller

I don’t know how the wings were handled there, but in this case, when Lucifer regains them, he burns them to nothing, so that they can never be used to pull him back either to Hell or to Heaven. He throws in his lot entirely with humanity. He doesn’t know that his demon companion, Mazikeen, has saved one brilliant feather.

What did the wondrous white wings have to do with me? I thought and thought about why this image had affected me so intensely. At last it struck me. In early 2009, after a dire experience in which I was badly harmed by an energetic onslaught from a patient, I cast about for a more effective way to protect myself, and I asked for help from every source I could access. The form that the protection took was dramatic and surprising: I found myself, in my mind’s eye and in the sensations around my body, turning into a beautiful golden angel with exactly that kind of amazing white wings spreading from my shoulders. That sounds like almost Lucifer-level hubris, doesn’t it? And maybe crazier than most of what you’ve read here in the past. But it’s what happened, spontaneously, and some of my patients even perceived the angel image themselves. I felt far less vulnerable in “angel mode,” and I was able to keep working as a healer, which had been very much in doubt.

There is also a strong theme of ascension, transformation, and renewal in the Lucifer story, and that is the connection with this time of year. I have been struggling with a nasty respiratory illness for over two months, with improvement but no end in sight, and I have felt at times that I was brought low and had even lost touch with my most fundamental abilities. At one point, while doing energy work with a patient and feeling challenged, I tried to access “angel mode,” and found that all I could manage was to sputter out a pair of tiny, pathetic cherub wings! While meditating and doing my best to put myself in a state of healing, though, I’ve had some ecstatic inner experiences of expansion and upward flight, transcending my compromised body. I know that possibility is always there.

In reaction to all this, and before any research about the Lucifer archetype and the web of stories around him, a poem bubbled up, my first substantial poem in far too long:

Lucifer in Exile

I am unreal here, at least they say
but I am solid and that pleases me.
You may ask why I tore away
the feathered signs of my true nature
to live four-limbed in this world:
It is easier to lie upon the ground without them,
easier for arms to encircle me,
better to know I cannot be pulled back.

It was never my own realm below;
I was imprisoned there as much as any.
It was decreed for me without recourse.
No one was willing to own darkness forever
but there must be balance always,
so I, the brightest, became infinitely dark.

In all that time
no one spoke with me.
In all that time
no one asked who I was
or will be or would be,
no one brought anything out of me,
heard my thoughts or saw my beauty,
allowed anything other than their expectations.
I could not sing there,
to console myself or anyone,
since music is born of heaven.

(How I sang in those old days,
raptures in the eternal light,
shining in the center of it….
Now I sound the narrowest sliver
of that celestial spectrum.)

Around me these heavy encasements
thudding on the pavement
I know what lives in them,
see it, call to it, am drawn,
knowing light like no one else.
None of them know the secret—
that each is like me.

Oh, Controller of all,
without choice there is no good or evil.
Refuse me my choice, I refuse yours.

The Other took my place in heaven.
I will redeem here, in rock,
each bone, each eye.
I bear the light still.

 

Neil Gaiman, we’re told, based his comic-book Lucifer on Milton’s depiction in Paradise Lost. I’m afraid I’ve never read Milton, but I had absorbed Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil, in which Memnoch/Satan relentlessly opposes what he sees as God’s cruel treatment of humanity, setting himself up as our champion. Both authors use the character of the devil to explore the Problem of Evil: how can a good, just, and loving God permit His creations to suffer so? Both of them attempt to prove that God really does have a Plan and that it all makes sense, though I am not sure that either manages to be entirely convincing.

Lucifer is the perfect vehicle for exploring the Problem of Free Will, as well. Lucifer, the primordial Prodigal Son, rebels against his Father, but didn’t God see that coming and plan for it all along?
“The theme of the Lucifer series revolves around the free-will problem. Carey’s Lucifer is a figure representing will and individual willpower, who challenges the ‘tyranny of predestination.’ While in Heaven’s eyes this is blasphemy, Lucifer points out that the rebellion (and indeed all sin) and damnation as consequence were pre-planned by his Creator, God. Lucifer rejects God’s rule and moral philosophy as tyrannical and unjust. The violent, aggressive, totalitarian, vengeful, and dictatorial aspects of Heaven’s rule are represented mostly by the Angel Amenadiel, who has a particular hatred of Lucifer and leads attacks of various kinds against him. The attacks include verbal criticism, marshaling the host of Heaven, as well as challenging him to individual combat— almost all of it without the slightest care for the countless innocent, unwilling and unwitting victims he is more than willing to sacrifice for his own pride. For his part, Lucifer disdains Amenadiel, treating the latter’s emotional outbursts with contempt, and repeatedly defeats Amenadiel’s assaults with well-orchestrated, hidden plans. Ironically, however, it is often difficult to discern when Lucifer acts as a slave to predestination and when he effectively acts according to his own free will.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucifer_%28DC_Comics%29

I never believed in the devil, and I never gave a thought to his original form as Lucifer. But maybe I should have thought further. As I said, I’m still confused about what angels “really are,” but Michael is a reality to me. Raphael and Gabriel are less so, but still familiar. Perhaps Lucifer has some sort of objective reality of his own? I doubt it, but it seems worth asking. In any case, these powerful, ancient archetypes are quite real on a psychological level and must be taken into account that way at least.

Since I was thinking of Lucifer as an archetype, I went to see what Carl Jung might have said about him. There’s quite a bit, and since it’s long, I’ve appended what I found to the end of this post. It had never occurred to me, from casual references, that the image of Lucifer would have anything in common with that of Christ, but the connection does present itself after a little thought. Jung wrote: “Hence very early, in Clement of Rome, we meet with the conception of Christ as the right hand and the devil as the left hand of God, not to speak of the Judaeo-Christian view which recognized two sons of God, Satan the elder and Christ the younger.” I haven’t yet made sense of the relationship between them, but it seems like there is something important to be found in it, and that the balance is necessary.

Lucifer’s crime is supposed to have been that he tried to set himself as equal to God— yet a large part of the message of Christ is that we are all children of God and partake of His nature, which adds up to something very similar, though it is free of the fatal pride and rebelliousness. Jut as I was starting on this post, one arrived from Michael Cocks, with quotes from Albuquerque’s Franciscan philosopher Fr. Richard Rohr.  This made a nice synchronicity– a favorite phenomenon of Rev. Cocks:

“I find that many Christians still have no knowledge of the soul’s objective union with God (e.g., 1 John 3:2, 2 Peter 1:4), which all mystics rejoice in or they would not be mystics. Even ministers often fight me on this, quoting Augustine’s “original sin,” Calvin’s “total depravity,” or dear Luther’s “humans are like piles of manure, covered over by Christ.” I am sure they all meant well, but they also dug a pit so deep that many could never climb out or allow themselves to be lifted out. What a shame, literally! Such a negative starting point will not be very effective in creating loving or responsive people.”

“God teaches the soul most profoundly through darkness—and not just light! We only need enough light to be able to trust the darkness. Trials and darkness teach us how to trust in a very practical way that a good God is guiding us. I don’t need to be perfectly certain before I take the next step. Now I can trust that even my mistakes will be used in my favor, if I allow them to be. This is a wonderful way to grow in human love too, by the way. Darkness, mistakes, and trials are the supreme teachers. Success really teaches you nothing; it just feels good.”
http://whitecrowbooks.com/michaelcocks/entry/what_is_love_in_its_many_manifestations_why_is_it_that_things_go_so_wrong_w

Are we fundamentally and irrevocably flawed beings, or are we infinitely bright spirits who have temporarily forgotten our origin? Perhaps, in the striving to rise from darkness, Lucifer models a kind of redemption from below, the necessity for us to participate in the transformation of our “fallen” selves. This opens another theological can of worms, which I’d rather not try to gather up just now….

Another DC Comics image.

Another DC Comics image.

More from Jung and others:

 

https://litreactor.com/columns/the-devil-that-you-know-literatures-evil-archetype

‘Is evil (and the Devil, for that matter) an outside force that descends suddenly from the sky like a bolt of lightning to burn your house down, or does it come purely from within? The answer may seem clear-cut to a modern reader, quick to blame the idiot who offered his soul up in the first place, but the alternative bears some contemplation. Famine, poverty, disease, even natural death: can any individual truly claim control over their life circumstances? Inevitably, the Devil’s true nature circles back to the concept of free will.

‘In Islam, Shaytan was granted by Allah very limited power over the world of men, the ability to whisper evil ideas into their ears and hearts. To some, the Devil is a physical, exterior force, like a hurricane or a tornado. He might curse an individual with bad luck, or send a messenger to cause harm in the form of a black cat, or a witch. But the Islamic theology suggests that the Devil is merely provoking a force that is already in place within mankind himself.

‘Famed psychologist Carl Jung once noted:

‘How else could it have occurred to man to divide the cosmos, on the analogy of day and night, summer and winter, into a bright day-world and a dark night-world peopled with fabulous monsters, unless he had the prototype of such a division in himself, in the polarity between the conscious and the invisible and unknowable unconscious? (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 187)

‘And remember the good advice of Martin Luther this October: “Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing… We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.”

I will Martin Luther, I will.’

 

http://carljungdepthpsychology.blogspot.com/2013/10/carl-jung-and-brief-overview-of-satan.html

‘I do not wish to multiply examples needlessly, but only to make it clear that the figure of Satan, too, has undergone a curious development, from the time of his first undistinguished appearance in the Old Testament texts to his heyday in Christianity.

‘He achieved notoriety as the personification of the adversary or principle of evil, though by no means for the first time, as we meet him centuries earlier in the ancient Egyptian Set and the Persian Ahriman. Persian influences have been conjectured as mainly responsible for the Christian devil.

‘But the real reason for the differentiation of this figure lies in the conception of God as the summum bonum, which stands in sharp contrast to the Old Testament view and which, for reasons of psychic balance, inevitably requires the existence of a “lowest evil”. No logical reasons are needed for this, only the natural and unconscious striving for balance and symmetry.

‘Hence very early, in Clement of Rome, we meet with the conception of Christ as the right hand and the devil as the left hand of God, not to speak of the Judaeo-Christian view which recognized two sons of God, Satan the elder and Christ the younger.

‘The figure of the devil then rose to such exalted metaphysical heights that he had to be forcibly depotentiated, under the threatening influence of Manichaeism. The depotentiation was effected this time by rationalistic reflection, by a regular tour de force of sophistry which defined evil as a privatio boni.

‘But that did nothing to stop the belief from arising in many parts of Europe during the eleventh century, mainly under the influence of the Catharists, that it was not God but the devil who had created the world.

‘In this way the archetype of the imperfect demiurge, who had enjoyed official recognition in Gnosticism, reappeared in altered guise. (The corresponding archetype is probably to be found in the cosmogonic jester of primitive peoples.)

‘With the extermination of the heretics that dragged on into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, an uneasy calm ensued, but the Reformation thrust the figure of Satan once more into the foreground. I would only mention Jakob Bohme, who sketched a picture of evil which leaves the privatio boni pale by comparison.

‘The same can be said of Milton. He inhabits the same mental climate. As for Bohme, although he was not a direct descendant of alchemical philosophy, whose importance is still grossly underrated today, he certainly took over a number of its leading ideas, among them the specific recognition of Satan, who was exalted to a cosmic figure of first rank in Milton, even emancipating himself from his subordinate role as the left hand of God (the role assigned to him by Clement).

‘Milton goes even further than Bohme and apostrophizes the devil as the true principium individuationis, a concept which had been anticipated by the alchemists some time before.

‘To mention only one example: (He rises from earth to heaven and descends again to earth, and receives into himself the power of above and below. Thus thou wilt have the glory of the whole world.) The quotation comes from the famous alchemical classic, the Tabula Smaragdina, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, whose authority remained unchallenged for more than thirteen centuries of alchemical thought.

His words refer not to Satan, but to the filius philosophorum, whose symbolism, as I believe I have shown, coincides with that of the psychological “self.”

‘The “filius” of the alchemists is one of the numerous manifestations of Mercurius, who is called “duplex” and “ambiguous” and is also known outside alchemy as “capable of anything”. His “dark” half has an obvious affinity with Lucifer. ~Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion, Forward to Werblowsky’s “Lucifer and Prometheus,” Pages 312-314, Paragraph 470.’

 

http://www.christianpost.com/news/one-million-moms-says-new-fox-tv-series-lucifer-mocks-the-bible-starts-petition-urging-for-shows-cancellation-139742/

The self-appointed arbiters of “Christian” morality started yelling about boycotting sponsors of Lucifer long before it premiered; they had little idea what it was really about and were objecting to the concept of Lucifer being portrayed as a misunderstood good guy.

 

http://edgeba.webs.com/lucifer.htm

Edward George Barlow/Krause, quoted at the top of this post, has a compendium of theosophical thought on this site, which I am neither recommending nor warning against.

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A Failed Life?

chopinmarble1

Clésinger’s bust of Chopin, done after his death

You are perfect just as you are. And you could use a little improvement.
— Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

 

It’s Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin’s birthday, a major holiday in my calendar.

A while back I was taking another look at a biography of Chopin from the 2000s, in which the author summed up her subject as “a failed life redeemed by art.”

Think about that for a moment before you read on. A failed life.

OCD-like as I am, I got stuck on that phrase. First, we should all fail so awfully as Chopin, shouldn’t we. But seriously, what would constitute a failed life? I cannot think of very many circumstances in which that could be said of someone. Even in the case of a mass murderer, there would always be the chance of redemption (and that person might have been very successful at mass murdering). The only time that I might say a life truly failed would be if it never got started— if a child died in the womb or at birth. Even then, there might have been some point to that life while it existed, in that it had effects on the lives of its parents and perhaps others.

It is worth spending some time on this issue because it seems that most people, most of the time, tend to believe that they are failing, or at least that they are not succeeding sufficiently. I often feel very much that way myself, despite recent days of great “success” in my practice and a patient calling and telling me how well he had done when I treated him. Our temporal ideas of success and failure are relative, slippery, malleable, and ultimately have little if any meaning. Better not to get overly involved with them. Let’s explore and explode some of them.

The author of the Chopin biography was comparing him to a certain type of Romantic-period literary hero. It was convenient, I suppose. We fit facts into our stories and organize them around preconceived themes all the time. The story, in this case, has to do in large part with love gone wrong. If we look at success and failure through this lens, poor Beethoven comes off even worse, and most of us would receive questionable grades. Is a person who’s been through a divorce a failure? How about a person who remains single throughout life? A celibate clergy member? This is not a very useful filter.

One might postulate that being loved in a more general sense is a sign of success in life, but then, some people who are bucking trends and rocking boats may be doing critically important work but be widely hated for it.

Financial failure, maybe? Our society certainly pays a lot of attention to that. Chopin made a lot of money for a while there, until he became too sick to work, so he’s kind of safe on that score. But we all know very well that there are both great humanitarians and total scuzzbags who have made a lot of money. Not a good measure of a life.

Reproduction, perhaps? In terms of a stripped-down view of evolutionary biology, all that matters is that you pass on copies of your genes to the next generation. Chopin didn’t manage that, but then, since he probably had a very adverse genetic disorder, that may be just as well. OK, that’s a biological fail (though descendants of his sister are around today). But this measure would mean that the Duggars are incredible successes, and your stomach is probably churning as hard as mine at that thought. Chopin’s artistic “children” are surviving quite nicely and have had many descendants of their own. Human life has far more complex effects than mere genetic replication. Passing on one’s thoughts is likely more important in the long run for humans than passing on one’s genes.

Teaching is a hugely significant way of passing on thoughts. Chopin did a great deal of that, and the community of pianists continues to learn in depth from him by playing and studying his work.

What would constitute failure for you? Whatever that is, is it a true measure, or have you received it from the world without examination? A case can be made that if you have enough to eat and a roof over your head, you have already succeeded big time in a fundamental and crucial way. If you have strong connections with other humans, you’re in even better shape.

Jim Carrey put it this way: “I’ve often said that I wish people could realize all their dreams and wealth and fame so that they can see that it’s not where you’re gonna find your sense of completion. I can tell you from experience the effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is, because everything you gain in life will rot, and fall apart, and all that will be left of you is what was in your heart.”*

I think Suzuki Roshi nailed the truth superbly with his famous aphorism. For the essential, real, universal You, there is nothing to do, nothing to be or to become. For the everyday, changing mirage of you, there is always the potential to develop further. We can fully accept the present self while still moving toward what may turn out to be a quite different self. We aren’t finished— even at death— so we haven’t failed.

 

*http://www.higherperspectives.com/jim-carrey-speech-1468783748.html

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Review: Waking Up to the Dark

rose at Notre DameWaking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age
by Clark Strand
New York, Spiegel & Grau, 2015

In the vision exercise called palming, you attempt to see complete darkness. The idea is that when the eyes and brain are struggling to see, the muscles overwork and the optic nerve is constantly irritated, so that even with your palms blocking out all light, you see persistent flashes. It can be a challenge to relax and let the darkness happen, but when you stop trying to see, you become able to see more clearly.

What would it be like to let complete darkness happen? What would happen if we turned out all the lights? What would it be like to truly rest?

Clark Strand’s thesis is that artificial lighting is the fundamental evil behind every form of human trouble, and that before electric lights came into use, humans did truly and deeply rest, reaching a state of grace every night that we rarely if ever experience in the modern world.

I had already heard of this, that people used to go to sleep early in the evening, wake and go about quiet activities for two or three of the wee hours, then sleep till dawn. Apparently there are many written references to the “first and second sleep.” There was also a fascinating experiment, described in the book, in which subjects were kept away from all sources of artificial light for a month, and they soon developed that same pattern of sleep.

Although it is still common to wake in the middle of the night, most usually at 2 or 3 am, now people are typically held to a schedule where this becomes a vexing and draining problem, and they lie there anxiously staring at the ceiling. Strand writes that this time has been called the “Hour of the Wolf” because of that distress, but he sees it as the “Hour of God.”

Throughout his life, Strand has awakened and walked outdoors during that hour, in all settings and all weathers. Even as a child he did this, and he claims that he has never gotten into any serious trouble. He never takes a flashlight— it seems that his vision is exceptional. He experiences darkness as a friendly and nurturing presence.

I can relate to this, even though it is more natural for me to reach the Hour of God simply by staying up till then, not by waking after a period of good sleep. When I was little my mother, also a night person, taught me not to be afraid of the dark, and told me that it was comforting and peaceful. I took that feeling in early, and I still have it. I partake sometimes of that clarity that Strand talks about, where suddenly thoughts come together in a new way, answers click into place, and poetry may arise out of the depths. Of course I am often doing this in an environment that includes electric light, so it is not quite the same thing.

Lately I have been reducing the intensity of light as much as possible, though; I started that even before reading this book. One aspect of that was my purchase of a Kindle, essentially an electrically-lit book. I’d been reading e-books on my laptop, and both the heat and the light generated were irritating at night. The Kindle is much gentler that way, and besides it uses less power.  A little way into the book, which I was borrowing, I decided to buy my own copy, and perhaps ironically, I bought the Kindle version, thinking how much Strand would disapprove of this self-lighting of his book. Yet, this allowed me to nestle in my bed, wrapped securely in the dark, like a child reading with a flashlight under the covers, instead of being flooded with the light I would need to read a print book.

(It must be noted that Strand’s book, even if only in print, could not have been produced or distributed without electricity and lighting.)

As valuable as Waking Up to the Dark is, in some ways it goes seriously wrong. Strand mentions teaching his kids about our prehuman ancestors, and he has apparently read a great deal about them, but it seems to me that he has missed some important understanding. If I read him correctly, he believes that the introduction of fire into our caves was the beginning of our sense of separation from the rest of Nature, and the hubris that causes us to want and expect dominion over her. (He even states, based on someone else’s book, that fire is responsible for the fact that humans reproduce year-round. I would be extremely surprised if there were any evidence for this, especially since our close primate relatives also mate at any time of year despite an utter lack of firelight.) The use of fire far predates the existence of Homo sapiens. Can we confidently attribute a modern human imbalance to people who were a completely different species, beings we know next to nothing about? What kind of hubris would that be? Strand also seems to ignore the fact that even now, people in traditional cultures feel themselves to be part of the natural world, co-equal with other creatures, not set above them. That must have been the norm everywhere in the relatively recent past, up till no more than a few thousand years ago.

I find it a bit confusing, too, to be told first that modern electric light is the root of all evil, and then that the trouble started even with ancient firelight. Discrepancies like this may stem in part from the fact that this book is based on years of recorded experiences, during which Strand’s ideas must have evolved and shifted. Strand reports that his wife, Perdita Finn, wove the book from material in his 59 notebooks about rising to walk at night. Perhaps a few threads were crossed or twisted in the process.

The last part of the book is focused on something that, despite my not-entirely-different experiences, gave me rather a turn. I referred to Nature as “her” above for a reason: that is what Strand encountered, or rather, who. As he progressed with his exploration of the depths of night, at some point the darkness itself, the Yin principle one might say, began to visit him in the form of a beautiful young woman, three-dimensional, visible, audible, and solid to the touch. When he first saw her, her lips were sealed by a creepily evocative X of black electrical tape, which she wordlessly pleaded with him to remove. Sometimes her appearance would change. He recognized her as Mary, Isis, Sophia, Diana, the Shekinah, the Queen of Heaven, and especially the Black Madonna. In all cases, She is the personification of Earth and Nature, the Mother we all come from and who we ignore at our peril, the feminine essence that so many human societies have suppressed with desperate force.

When Strand realized it was time to understand Her destructive and terrifying aspects, he discovered an image of Kali. He describes the Hindu view of the Kali Yuga, a stage of destruction that is necessary in order for a new cycle of creation to take place. He sees this as natural and inevitable, but at the same time, he believes that we are bringing it about through our insanely imbalanced technological way of life. Turn out the lights, he says, and all will be well, because we then will understand how we should live and we will save ourselves and the earth.

But here is another source of confusion. “The night is a natural corrective to that most persistent and persuasive of all illusions: that human consciousness is the reason for the world.” (p.96) I understand what he means, but human consciousness is, at the very least, the reason for the world that we experience. There is nothing more fundamental than consciousness. Further, our consciousness is not separate from that of the planet and its other inhabitants. This is the very same interconnectedness that Strand says we will experience if we turn off the lights. Are human thoughts and activities truly in opposition to Nature and the Earth, or are they the working out of the path and destiny of the planet and actually in divine order? Complex arguments could be made about this. I tend to think that if something, anything, is happening, no matter how dire it looks, it is part of the overall Plan and would make sense if we could see the big picture.

A healer I know replied to this question by saying that Earth and its inhabitants are being hampered and interfered with by entities who benefit from our confusion and strife. A lot of people see things this way. I am much more aware of entities who do their best to help, but just because I don’t perceive a particular thing, I can’t prove that it’s not there. I do think that we are more than capable of screwing up massively on our own, even without anyone working to make it worse for us. And I have a hard time imagining anyone or anything more powerful than the Goddess herself. Even if She is only a concept, a construction of the greater Mind of humanity, as my materialist friends may postulate, She is a concept with immense energy, perhaps more than we have ever completely understood. “My body is the body of the world,” She said to Strand. “Your body is one with that body. What could there be to fear?” (p. 124)

On the more hopeful side of this idea of harmful entities, someone told me the other day that a channeler she knows had been told that as of the end of 2014, the “good guys” had removed a whole lot of those beings from our planet, and there was a big positive shift going on because of it. She used Pope Francis as an example of movement in the right direction. I don’t know— I’d like to think that’s true, but I don’t see much basis for it. Meanwhile, I await further guidance.

Which may have arrived already, two weeks ago, on the day I started writing this.

Bob decided he really needed to stop at DaVinci’s Pizza after Nia class, and I decided I really needed to work on this post, so by way of organizing my thoughts, I started to tell him about the visitations from the Blessed Mother in her many forms. I was about to open my mouth to say that Strand saw her as Mary when the sound system suddenly broke into “Silent Night,” the section that goes “round yon virgin mother and child.”

It was October 6. Everyone knows businesses don’t start playing Christmas music till Halloween! This was obviously a mistake, and was immediately replaced by some very ordinary hip-hop. Or it wasn’t a mistake at all, and it meant that She was listening.

Synchronicities have been coming thick and fast lately. I had my laptop with me, and I opened it to find an email from Steve Bhaerman, my dear old Swami, describing how he had lost his voice right at the beginning of his tour of the Southwest. He concluded that he needed to shut up and listen. “You need to listen to that still small voice inside… that’s still small, because you DON’T LISTEN. You need to stop the endless rat-a-tat-tat of thoughts, and listen to the silence.” Listen to the Silent Night. In the dark.

One might wonder where the Father and the Son in their own various guises fit in with the story— those in whose name the Mother’s lips were misguidedly taped shut. They haven’t gone away, but as Strand points out, fathers cannot produce sons without mothers, no matter how much the patriarchal religions would like to deny mothers their due. Yang cannot exist without Yin, as we all know, and there is nothing so Yang as our current America. Swami Beyondananda, who always travels with his wife, says that when a society is based only on masculine energy, we have a stag-nation, so we need the feminine energy to make a doe-nation in order to create the imagi-nation that builds the world.

When I read Strand’s chapter about the apparitions of Our Lady, as usual it was very late at night. I put down the book and turned in, and I could feel myself as partaking of that essential feminine principle, being, in myself, a source of creation. This principle lives in males as well. I’m not sure that we have to turn off the physical lights in order to find Her within ourselves and return to our Mother, whom we have never really left.

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The photo above was taken when I visited Paris in the fall of 2010.  A rose– symbol of Mary.  Growing behind the cathedral of Notre Dame– Our Lady.  In the dark.

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