Thirst

“Thirst is the craving for fluids, resulting in the basic instinct to drink.”

In the Orphic theogonies Water together with Creation and Mud were the first things to emerge at the dawn of creation. This ‘trinity’ of elements is amazingly revealing in terms of the origins of humankind. Up to 60% of the human adult body is water and every living cell needs this chemical substance to keep functioning. We can survive for up to three weeks without food but die within days without water. What connects us even more than Poetics, or Music, or Art, or the collective amazement before any astounding marvel of human achievement, is water. And then there is thirst. At some point when we are starved of water, thirst will become more vital and desiring than all else. Thirst like blood which flows in our bodies is oblivious to creed, colour, or rank. “Of hunger and thirst, thirst is the greater imperative.” (Yann Martell, Life of Pi)

The most religious will thirst similarly to the most irreligious. The colour of our skin will not save us or deliver us from thirst. The greatest general will thirst in equal degrees to his lowliest foot soldier and he too would beg for water. There are some extraordinary exceptions, but these are unique and rare. Thirst like death makes us totally vulnerable. What is more in the account of Christ’s crucifixion in the gospels we find the incredible exclamation from the GodMan himself, “I thirst” (Jn 19:28 cf. Ps 69:21). The line which might run through biology and metaphysics and the understated difference between surviving and living becomes increasingly blurred during extreme times of mental and physical distress. Thirst is the great equaliser. It chastens and brings us to our knees in a hurry. With unrequited thirst there are no grey areas.

We can survive without our great poets and musicians and artists. But we cannot live without water. So when tempted to boast of our physical attributes or to flaunt our material successes, let us reflect on our grim condition three days from now without water. We first must quench our thirst and then afterwards we can create and build, but without water we can do nothing. Unsurprisingly, the first thing which the unfortunate figure dives from the well-known parable of “the rich man and Lazarus” asks is for a drop of water that he might “cool his tongue” (Lk 16:19-31). It was his thirst that he first sought to quench before all else, even before the warning to his closest kin of his horrible predicament. When we thirst the only thing which matters is water. If the powerful or godless have nothing else to contemplate upon, if memory of death is not enough, then let it be thirst, the need for water. Thirst humbles us. It brings us nearer to the soil. To the mud.

Thirst is a dominant metaphor in religious writings and is directly linked to the seeking after the divine, and of wisdom, and knowledge. In the Judaeo-Christian scriptures thirst amongst other things, such as the pursuit of righteousness symbolises the seeking after the living God and eternal life (Ps 63:1; Jn 4:14). In Islam where water is the source of all creation the Quran quenches the thirst for knowledge. In Buddhism spiritual thirst is quenched by the water of the Buddha’s teachings. In Hinduism where all water is held to be sacred there is the unquenchable thirst for the unknown. In Zoroastrianism the Supreme Being Ahuramazda creates water to defeat the demon of thirst. In many indigenous cultures water must not be polluted and all living beings must be relieved of their thirst.

Postscript: In this too robots will be ‘superior’ to us, not necessarily for their artificial intelligence, but for the fact they will not need water. Robots [or the biomechatronic organisms of the future] will not thirst. This alone will point to their inhumanity.

“Our dear God thank you for the blessing of water in our home, please do remind us daily that thirst connects us intimately to every other human being and that we should reflect upon this reality as we do upon our death, we pray too for all our brothers and sisters who at this very moment thirst and are without clean water.”

On Accepting Correction with a Cheerful Heart

“Brevity and conciseness are the parents of correction.” (Hosea Ballou)

Accepting correction at the best of times can prove difficult but with a cheerful heart? Whether in the quest of spiritual enlightenment or not, for often we find it harder to be ‘put right’ when we imagine the Creator on our side, it would seem too much to ask. To be corrected might be humbling enough, but to be thankful and with a gracious disposition, is that demanding too much? At the same time a good education can make little difference to our willingness to be corrected. In fact, the more qualified we are, the less likely we will take kindly to correction. Intransigence and an inflated opinion of oneself are huge blocks which stand in the way of admitting error. Our ego is normally at odds with the practice of humility. One of the reasons we do not like to be corrected, wrote the American transcendentalist R. W. Emerson, is the sense we are being “persecuted whenever we are contradicted.” Is this not also true of ourselves? We habitually connect correction with reproof (or being judged from which we instinctively recoil).

It is impossible to improve our lives, to learn new things and to succeed in reaching our goals, without accepting at least some form of correction. Sometimes this instruction to set us right might be constant and subtle until we ourselves learn the lesson and are able to teach it to others (learning a craft or acquiring a new set of skills for example). On other occasions it might need to be immediate and direct lest we cause ourselves or others preventable harm (substance abuse or the habit of lying for instance). More commonly it will be something as simple as the pointing out of an obvious fallacy or an inconsistency in our argument. The etymology of the word “correction” is revealing. It can be traced to the Latin corrigere which is “to make straight, bring into order”. Think also on the stonemason and carpenter who use the spirit level to indicate with precision the horizontal or vertical of a surface.

All this has more to do with acceptance and much less with self-blame. Without quarrel or egomania. Saint Paul in one of his pastoral epistles speaks of correction “with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:23). And how might we achieve this gentle art of correction? It can be achieved by sharing in the sufferings of the other. Abraham Lincoln’s favourite Old Testament book Proverbs equates the acceptance of correction as the pathway to life and with the gaining of wisdom, “Listen to advice and accept correction, and in the end you will be wise” (Prov 19:20). Not surprisingly, it is the humble in spirit who are more often the wisest among us. They are the ones who are ‘vulnerable’ to a ‘change of heart’ for correction is hollow when it is removed from transformation. Similarly to pain which in itself cannot build character unless it is fully faced.

Correction and pain will very often follow one after the other. The truth can sometimes hurt.

There is a treasured story in the ascetic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church of a simple old monk doing obedience when he was corrected by his much younger bishop on the approved rendering of the Pater Noster. The old monk on gladly accepting this correction quickly forgot one of the rubrics and ran after his superior to be corrected once more. By this time the young bishop and his party had returned to the boat which had brought them to this distant monastic community. The venerable recluse without giving it a second thought, and intent on doing his obedience and looking to be corrected [that is to be “brought into order”], thought it nothing to chase after the small vessel by running on the water! Now, certainly, this marvellous little story need not be taken literally but the lesson is wondrous and full of implications. To accept correction is to open ourselves up to infinite possibilities and to realize our potential. This has nothing to do with deflating and antagonistic criticism, but everything to do with life affirming growth. In teaching others, to paraphrase the Serbian poet and essayist Dejan Stojanović, we also correct ourselves. There is no instance where correction from a trusted person (such as parent, teacher, or mentor) has not been to our betterment.

Even if we should disagree with what we hear or if the direction might be a little askew for no human being is infallible, to at least contemplate the possibility that we might have fallen into error and allowed for pride to make us hard of hearing. Sometimes we will discern the importance of this intercession years later or during a moment of luminous clarity. Hindsight, too, will often reveal to us where we might have fallen short of the mark and lost valuable time going about in circles. We should respond to ‘blame’ the same way as we might respond to ‘praise’ the Buddhist tradition has taught, with “mindfulness and equanimity”. In one place of the Brahmajala Sutta after a disagreement between two monks on an aspect of Siddhartha’s personality, the Buddha himself indifferent to the content of the conversation was concerned only with how his disciples would accept either praise or blame. It was the attitude which mattered with all else being nothing more than “hindrance”.

For the community of believers within the Christian tradition correction with its correlation to “gnosiology” [theory of knowledge] brings us closer to the authentic expression of the Holy Spirit who lives and acts within us. What is more to a nearer proximity of what it really means to be Christ-like.

“Dear Lord, help me to accept correction and to seek the counsel from those you have set on my path with a cheerful heart and not with a recalcitrant spirit. Allow me to see all the clearer even as my natural sight grows dimmer, the marvellous gifts of growth and the realization of potential that come with being corrected from those who truly love me.”

The Qualities of a Good Teacher

“So what does a good teacher do? Create tension- but just the right amount.” (Donald Norman)

What are the qualities of a good teacher? It is another of those difficult questions for which there is no single answer. Though teachers come from different walks of life we normally associate this most important of vocations to education. “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” This recognizable quote from Henry Adams, the 19th century American historian and intellectual, is brilliant in capturing the significance and consequence of the craft. Broadly speaking we could connect the “teacher” to any position of authority whose role it is to instruct and to lead by example. That is, to serve not only in their prime position of educator, but also as role model. Parents, most would agree, are at the top of the teaching pyramid. Here, we are specifically looking at the educator, those persons who step into a classroom and are typically given charge of a young group of people. More than the requirement for high-quality training, the character or disposition of the teacher is the most important of all qualities.

We find countless lists of what makes a “good teacher”. Invariably, and with good reason: ability to motivate and to inspire, leadership, command of subject, communication and listening skills, patience, flexibility, vision, trust, humour, and professionalism. Wisdom, the exercise of good judgement and the practise of discernment cannot be taught. That comes with experience and is at the core of the pedagogical framework. Indeed, without at least some of these qualities the teaching of anything is doomed. There are three other qualities however, which underpin those mentioned above and allow for even the most “uneducated” and “least qualified” amongst us to become truly great teachers. Some of the greatest teachers have not ticked the “right boxes” and do not have a resume registering famed alma maters or cataloguing pages of publications. Many have been unschooled, rejected and overlooked in the world, only to be discovered later. What are the essential qualities that most would look for in an inspirational teacher and which would give substance to all else? These are humility, passion, and sacrifice. It is always assumed, of course, that knowledge and the engagement of critical dialogue [which is the love and pursuit of truth] are the underlying principles in the educational process.

  • Humility, the modest view of our own self-importance, is the founding block to teaching. It is this interior quality, the most priceless of attributes which permits for the teacher to both give and to receive instruction, to be open to correction as he or she teaches and corrects others.
  • Passion, but not with a “paroxysm” for the subject which is being taught. It is an unrehearsed enthusiasm to teach the subject and to share in the larger or smaller fragments of the revelation.
  • Sacrifice, to be willing to give up of himself or herself in ways not normally expected, so that the student might thrive and shine. Even if this means the laying down of one’s own life that the student might live in the place of the teacher: not only metaphorically, but also literally.
“What else?” asked the young pupil of the old man.
Discernment, you simply must have discernment,” he responded cheerfully.
“What do you mean?” the young pupil persisted.
“To know when to encourage and to never, but to never clip the wings…
Oh yes and do not forget to allow for improvisation,” the old man added parting the waves from his head.

 

Not surprisingly given the capacities and potential of our human nature, we are not bereft of majestic examples of great teachers. There are many. They rise and set like little suns. Their hearts and minds are fuelled with compassion. The common goal to teach the ability to see. From the ancient world the illustrious Socrates elenctic method notwithstanding, symbolizes [and represents] in his selfless and sensible person all of the enumerated qualities mentioned above. In more recent times Viktor Frankl embodies the greatness of the teaching vocation and its ecumenical scope borne and realized from within the most terrible atrocity of the holocaust. And from the world’s indigenous cultures we learn the critical importance of the teacher not forgetting to draw upon his or her experience and background in the passing on of knowledge. For the community of believers we turn to Jesus Christ, the highest example of teacher for Christians, who brings the light, and who reveals the way. He who forgives, and who lays down his life for those who both dismiss and accept him. For ultimately, the truly great teacher is the one who heals “every kind of sickness” (Matt 4:23).

“Oh Lord, do not allow for me to take the gift of teaching, if I should indeed possess it, for granted. But rather help me to grow in this most precious of callings and to learn from those who come to me.”

On Loving Oneself

Andrei rublev  trinity  (C.1411)

Andrei rublev trinity (C.1411)

“To love yourself right now, just as you are, is to give yourself heaven. Don’t wait until you die. If you wait, you die now. If you love, you love now.” (Alan Cohen)

One of the most difficult things for both religious and non-religious alike is to love oneself. That is, to accept ourselves as we are in the moment and not as we might want ourselves to be tomorrow. It can be more difficult than the giving or the asking of forgiveness. Why is it so hard? “The most terrifying thing,” writes C. J. Jung the well-known founder of analytical psychology, “is to accept oneself completely.” Of course, we are not speaking of egotistical or hedonistic self-worship which has become one of the staples of modern culture given the rise and ubiquity of social media. Loving ourselves for who we are is for the most part insufferably hard because no one knows us as we know ourselves. No one has access to those dark places of the soul which we ourselves possess and would recoil from, if we were to encounter them in another. “But I do nothing upon myself”, reflects the 16th century English poet and cleric John Donne, “and yet am mine own executioner.”

In our hearts we have committed abominable crimes, too despicable and shameful to mention. We know all too well who we really are deep down. We punish ourselves, sometimes mercilessly, for our past misdemeanours and mistakes. We needlessly poison our spirits. We relive the pain we have caused others or which has been delivered to us. And so it must, and it will hurt. But here, in the very place of that agonizing conflict rests our way out from this condition of ‘self-unforgiving’. Only after this toughest of confrontations with one of the most sensitive components of our consciousness, can we come to a true comprehension of what it means to love oneself. Vironika Tugaleva, who fought many life-threatening battles to do with her self-esteem, writes knowingly from her own experience, “You will not love anyone or anything until those eyes in the mirror soften up and embrace the beauty that is already within.”

It is very important to arrive at a place where we are at peace with the present, the eternal-present, to come to an understanding that any absolute resolution can only ever come with our death. For the present let us consider ourselves works in progress imbued with an infinite grace and the potential to accomplish wonderful things. There is no denying the effect and burden of guilt, for real or even perceived failings, volumes have been written on this subject. The underlying consensus of the literature is unless we deal with this pressing weight of self-condemnation (again an entirely different matter to self-correction and interior vigilance), unless we find our own way out, unless we initiate a process where we can begin to be gentle and kind to ourselves, we will only perpetuate the anger or self-hatred. There will be no peace for the heart remains agitated. And so we look for the other, destructive ways out, we abuse ourselves through various forms of addictions and cause damage to both the mind and the body. We set about decomposing and deconstructing “the temple”.

For each one of us the path to self-love will be different, we will be touched and inspired by separate revelations and distinct moments of higher intuition. But there are to be found in each of our stories some very similar signposts. To offer a peace offering where we have offended and to repair a wrong where possible; to make a personal sacrifice in whatever way that might be demanded of us; to not permit for others to diminish or to wound our self-esteem; to surround ourselves with people who practice the art of love; to respect ourselves; to love as we ourselves might wish to be loved; and especially to forgive those who have hurt us. We should try, also, to remember we are fragile and wounded creatures ourselves and that we are dealing with other similarly imperfect creatures. “The other” is living out the conditions of his or her soul’s present state of enlightenment and they too are on the journey to self-knowledge.

So why is it important to love and to be kind to ourselves? Because it is only in loving ourselves can we unleash the great torrent of love and grace which rests dormant with in us, for it is precisely here that one of the greatest spiritual maxims has been spoken, and this by the GodMan Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). Unless we love ourselves, that is, to see the potential grandeur and awesomeness within us which flows from the creative energies of the Creator, we cannot love our neighbour. That is why there is so much hate in the world, and why killing and wars will not end. We have stopped loving ourselves and so we have stopped seeing God in the presence of the other.

Prayer, however we might choose to initially practise it, brings us back into the interior of our being and to the recognition that we are not a random existence. Our presence upon this earth was an act and a movement of infinite Love. We had been loved and known, Jeremiah the OT Prophet gives us to understand, even before we were “formed” in our mother’s wombs (Jer. 1:5). Loving myself means I acknowledge my absolute uniqueness. I establish my self-worth in the originating act and movement of Love proceeding and emanating from the Creator. The acknowledgement of the existence and continuing activity of this originating source of Love which has brought us into being is where the principal foundation of our value and uniqueness is to be found. It is not in our achievements or temporal successes, not in our fame or gilded reputations, not in our possessions or accumulation of wealth, not in our physical attractiveness or in our great intellects.

One of the fundamental teachings of Trinitarian theology, which has also been stunningly presented to us in the Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, is the reciprocity of love which emanates and flows eternally between each of the three divine persons. There is a “stumbling block” for those who would criticize the Scriptures as pointing to a God who makes too many demands to be loved and to be worshiped. If the Creator did not have this divine sense of self-worth His love for us would be impossibly diminished. It is this self-worth which led to Gethsemane. It is where He empties Himself of His divine splendour to save the world. Here is the highest example of theophany and humanity. The great fruits of this self-love into which we are called, are humility and self-knowledge. “Yet not I”, says Saint Paul, “but the grace of God which was in me” (1Cor. 15:10). There is no place here for self-aggrandizement nor for vainglory. This is not the “self-love” of the beautiful hunter Narcissus who saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it. He could not detach himself from his image and eventually drowned. These are things we should always guard against and cannot ever be immune from. 

Significantly, in patristic literature when the narcissistic elements of ‘self-love’ are warned against, it is invariably in the context of kenodoxia, which is, vainglory and empty pride.

“Dear Lord, teach me the proper and safest way to love myself that I might draw nearer to You, to discern Your imprint on my hand, to experience You in my neighbour.”