To fall short of the standards which recommend us

For the religious to fall short of the standards [a standard is a type of flag ordinarily used as a type of identification], which recommends them to the world and to be found out is devastating in at least two ways. First, there is that terrible accusation of hypocrite and second, the expected attacks against their faith. Not only is the individual called a ‘fake’ but their long-held belief system is also called into question. The believer or the secularist for that matter who dares to go public with their moral standard is setting himself or herself up for the inevitable failure. In different but also in some very similar ways there is a resistance to both the believer and the non-believer who exists and moves about in the world. Moral excellence belongs to none. We are all works in progress saint and sinner alike. Who then is the perfect one ["as good as it is possible to be"] living and walking amongst us? The only question seems to be whether our transgressions remain secret or are exposed by some ‘accident’ of history; or a betrayal by a friend; or by our own digital footprint.[1] Nowadays, too, there is the added pressure and anxiety on the believer to appear ‘church like’ on account of the cynical view and increased scrutiny placed on faith-based communities, particularly by the progressively popular ‘anti-religion’ movements which ironically share demonstrable rudiments with religious fundamentalism.

Quotation: Satsuki Shibuya

Quotation: Satsuki Shibuya

So what to do especially during times when everybody seems to be on the lookout for ‘virtue signalling’? Human beings who are trying to practise some form of goodness within one of these faith-based communities are being more and more hunted out of existence as if some kind of sport. There is a hard choice to be made. Keep testifying to those things we hold of value knowing full well we shall fall short of our standard, or remain silent before an increasingly cynical world and say nothing that we might remain protected from scorn and likely ridicule. Writers for instance of such little and imperfect reflections as this present one are particularly susceptible, for compromises and contradictions knock everyday on their door. So then, it has been more than once that I have questioned myself whether I should stop uploading such entries. But I cannot stop. Even, if only for the entirely selfish reasons of self-therapy. And so the inner turmoil of being “mine own executioner” is the price I pay.

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12)

This anxiety of being ‘caught out’ [whether a religious or not] has the potential to paralyse the sensitive heart, to silence and to instil a sickening fear into the mind. It could leave a fellow human being in ruins as they go about trying to conquer their own private demons. Is it let's say hypocritical, to warn and to speak out on the shattering consequences of addiction if one is in secret fighting against an addiction himself or herself? Who knows more than the compulsive obsessive for example or the addicted of the limitless lure and ‘bloodletting’ of their diseases? Understanding the neuropsychology of addictive disorders is a lot harder than the easier option of a too hasty judgement. Our greatest teachers have been the “wounded healers” of our world who have dared speak when they themselves were near enough to burning.[2] Is he or she to keep silent, lest they be called out and labelled a ‘hypocrite’? It is a question which a large number of us will have to face. Whether and despite our imperfections and deviations from our ideal standards, for we are all broken in one way or another and we are [most of us at least] a walking quilt of patches, to keep on spiritually striving or to allow for the fear of falling short to dowse our spirit and so burying our authentic voice? We all want to appear credible and for our reputations to bear significance, the accusation of hypocrisy fills most of us with a sickening dread. Particularly in present times with that appalling association of ‘brand name’ to identity. It is for the individual to decide, to accept all manner of calumny if need be, or to be a crowd pleaser. “Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident,” writes Michael Josephson in a thought-provoking reflection. For there is little doubt that sooner or later we will hear that demoralising sound of stones crashing into our windows.

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn. 8:7)

It is a sad but undeniable truth that we fall, and fall ‘short of the mark’ daily. Transgression of one type or the other is our common lot. We also carry a big sack of contradictions which discourages and holds us down. But we should not despair nor disregard the intent of our hearts which point to the nobler side of ourselves. What things are these heart, and soul, and spirit? They are your inner voice [your conscience], and those invisible forces [of nature] which animate you and give you awareness, which differentiate between The Odyssey and the Apocalypse, that is, your consciousness.[3] It is vital we do not betray ourselves by giving up on what our soul whispers to us in the still of the night, when it reveals to us the truth of who we are called to become. Endurance will bring its own restoration. Every path worth taking is strewn with obstacles, but in essence that is what growth is all about: the ‘struggle’. This is the ongoing story behind all of the great odysseys in literature. Think also on the ‘lowly’ caterpillar which despite its unglamorous state continues on its journey to reveal itself one of nature’s most ethereal creatures, the butterfly. In terms of “us” this could be translated into the psychology of human development and the search for meaning.

To have tried our very best, to have remained vulnerable to attack, to struggle and to agonize [from the Gk. contest] over what it means to be a good person [when in truth none can be all good] even if ‘caught out’ for our transgressions, and to try to hold to the standards we have set ourselves right through to the last hours of our life, may well be our hardest and most beautiful work. More useful than any successful poem or grand score of music we might leave behind. It will certainly be our most enduring. It is what we would normally call our legacy. And so do not give up. The essence of life is growth. It is the ongoing process of broadening and heightening. Allow for no one to stop you from striving to reach the highest within you. As for perfection it is one of the great lies, it does not exist in the corruptible flesh, it’s a mythology in the service of the other ‘walking dead’. Pretending, that is being hypocritical, is very different to trying your very best.[4] The secret here is not to call out others by name. Here, as well, this is very different to fighting for justice instead of going after retribution. If we practise “true love” by forgiving “insults” directed at us, Saint Mark the Ascetic (5th cent. AD) encouragingly counsels, we have found a surer way of becoming “free from hypocrisy”.

There remains the real possibility we will continue to fight and struggle against our fetishes and failings and inconsistencies to our last breath, when we would have hoped to have loved more at the end than at the beginning. That is the glory then, even in the face of defeat to never give up on the ‘conquering’. I recollect here the story of a monk who had no intention of staying in his monastery after experiencing the rigours of the monastic life even after a few weeks. Every evening when alone in his cell he would remove his cassock to place it on the hook behind his door with the sincerest intention of leaving his vocation come morning. He went through this routine to the final days before his death, more than sixty years later. So he remained, he conquered. Was he right or wrong in his endurance? That is for him alone to know but his example is not without its merit. Is it worth it then, ‘wasting’ ourselves in the pursuit of our higher ideals? By ‘wasting’ I do not at all mean ‘destroying’ but giving up on those things which would in fact destroy us. Yes, as one of my favourite authors had once replied, it is worth it when it means stretching our human limitations and digging to the depths of our being even past “the darkness”. I am here referencing the much misunderstood Nikos Kazantzakis who was relentlessly driven to understand the purpose of life:

A command rings out within me: “Dig! What do you see?”
“Men and birds, water and stones.”
“Dig deeper! What do you see?”
“Ideas and dreams, fantasies and lightning flashes!”
“Dig deeper! What do you see?”
“I see nothing! A mute Night, as thick as death. It must be death.”
“Dig deeper!”
“Ah! I cannot penetrate the dark partition! I hear voices and weeping. I hear the flutter of wings on the other shore.”

“Don’t weep! Don’t weep! They are not on the other shore. The voices, the weeping, and the wings are your own heart.”[5]

To outwardly identify someone with their lapse, the reasons which we should probably never know, would be one of our cruelest acts. It is a denial of all their other possibilities. So let us practice compassion in its place. It does matter how we treat others. Love is a combination of many motivating qualities, both known and unknown, but it is compassion [to ‘suffer with’], which is its most recognizable expression. When people are crushed for air and the world around them seems to be falling apart their discernment can fracture into a thousand pieces. A man I once knew, a good man and a respected member of his believing community, had in one unthinkable moment lost all but one of his family in an automobile accident. He turned to alcohol for some years in a hopeless effort to numb the pain which could not be numbed. Yet all along he would say that he understood liquor was not the answer and would in his sober hours warn others of its uselessness. He remained accountable to himself. That was enough. So what was he then? Was he a grieving and suffering soul struggling to survive or was he an unrequited drunkard and a fake? So, yes, let us hold off from such quick judgements. Could we even for a minute put ourselves in the shoes of this modern day Job? To what shadowy places would our own desperation take us or has taken us already? He recovered, by the way, the best he could, to be a source of real hope for others. Even to this day his is one of the names which does help to sustain me.

“It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with His all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.” (The Cloud of Unknowing, anon.)

Do not rush to expose your brother or sister nor to find delight in their humbling. We are all in need of reproof during our times of carelessness but a gentle correction is very different to overlooking the log in your own eye. What if the multiplicity of your own secret transgressions were to be suddenly exposed to the world? I would want for the ground beneath my feet to open fast and to be quickly swallowed up. So let us, then, give the benefit of the doubt to those who struggle yet truly believe in the nobility of the better man or woman, and if they are caught out judge them not by their inglorious fall but rather consider whether they have spread a little more compassion and sunlight into their community. Therefore we should also be very careful of value judgements, that is, judging others based on our own standards and priorities. And let us ask ourselves the following question why is that we do not hold to a similar account the more famous amongst us? We punish the everyday man or woman to the point of persecution, but the celebrity or the powerful we admire and elevate even more when they fall short of those ideals which we would normally consider inviolate. Amazingly, it is as if our idolizing is an inoculation against the charge of hypocrisy against the ‘stars’. If we do not worship the Creator we will worship the created order. We will elevate the corrupt and the decaying material body to a space it cannot survive. We are hurting ourselves and those around us by drinking in the opiate of superficiality, and by lowering our standards we are also selling short the future of our children’s generations. We teach them that success belongs to others and that to them is bequeathed the measure of mediocrity. Because you are wounded, because you have fallen, because you have made a trainload of mistakes, these are not good enough reasons to give up on the person you have been called to become. You are a unique presence in this world “made of star stuff” as Carl Sagan once famously quipped and for the community of believers the very temple of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 6:19f). Do not allow for the stone throwers to diminish your self-worth.

To keep trying to be human till your death, this would be a life well lived. This is then, too, what it means to try to be good. Each day is an opportunity to grow deeper into that eternal potential breathed into us from the moment of our creation and to live out in greatly richer expressions the radiance of compassion. Therefore this is the hardest truth, to “die daily” (1Cor. 15:31). This is the geography of the “unseen warfare”. Ultimately, what really matters in this everyday struggle of ours with all of its ups and downs, is that God alone knows and discerns the true intent of “the hearts of all the children of men” (1Kgs 8:39).

“Dear Lord, you know I am not perfect, too often I have been anxious that I would be found out to have fallen short of the mark, scared of being held to account for not being perfect to my word, yet allow for me to be at peace in the knowledge that trying my best will be my chief and most enduring work.”

[1] By transgression here and throughout, I am referring to a personal moral lapse or weakness, and not to any crime which might have to do with a violence inflicted upon another. This is another matter altogether and would require a different and more immediate response.

[2] Henri J. M. Nouwen’s famously insightful reflection on the healer as wounded himself or herself yet in the service of ministering to others has rarely left my side: https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Healer-Ministry-Contemporary-Society/dp/0385148038

[3] This is a truly huge topic, even when it comes to definitions with many disciplines contributing to our understanding of self and the question of human spirituality, which then naturally spills into the complex connection between the mind and matter. A good start would be with an initial introduction to these subjects from the reliable Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/about.html

[4] Of all places I came across a marvellously discerning article in The Guardian addressing hypocrisy in the modern context [and how we can accuse people wrongly] very useful and certainly worth sharing: https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2016/nov/17/its-only-wrong-when-you-do-it-the-psychology-of-hypocrisy

[5] https://www.lifemasteryhacker.com/blog/nikos-kazantzakis-on-life-death-and-the-meaning-of-it-all

Memory of Death

“Let the memory of death sleep and awake with you” (Saint John of Sinai).

Francisco de Zurbáran  St Francis  (c. 1660)

Francisco de Zurbáran St Francis (c. 1660)

We would do almost anything to push the actuality of our death further into the distance, to that place where ‘bad’ things do not happen. We will not die, death is for others, we tell ourselves. The noise and distraction we introduce into our lives makes it difficult to reflect, to go into the heart. And nowadays, too, the ‘spectacle’ via our connection to the electronic ether dulls us to the reality of our mortality even further. To paraphrase a spiritual writer, “It [death] is always nearer than you think.” We also try to remove traces of death in physical ways as well. We look to do this, for example, by attempting to banish the proofs of decay and death which surround us. We commit the elderly, our Mothers and Fathers (the reservoirs of wisdom and of magnificent stories) into exile, and we makeover our faces in futile efforts for eternal youth. Technology is seen as the solution to this dread that our walk upon this earth will one day come to an end. Those who argue we can live ‘forever’ (depending on the definition of existence) place their faith in the ingenuity of human beings. But does not nature itself, the laws of the physical universe, teach us that to all things there is a beginning and an end? Perhaps the key here is that to all things there is “change”.

It is not unnatural or ‘unhealthy’ to reflect upon and to have memory of death. It is one of the common lessons of the great religious traditions and even of our most profound humanist philosophies, to keep in mind that we shall die. It has not meant to go about being sad or morbid or raising the fist to heaven. In the Scriptures our mortality is considered one of the Creator’s providential miracles, that following in the example of Christ’s triumph over death, we will be raised up into new life which will be eternal and no longer subject to disease and corruption (Rev 21:4). The famous funerary text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is effectively one long reflection on death and why we should prepare for its inevitability with "examination" and "scrutiny". Nothing of this means that death is not ‘real’ or that its pain and horror should not touch us. It is in fact, precisely on account of its dreadfulness and inescapability that we should reflect upon it, and make it a daily exercise to confront and indeed to befriend it. So why should we have memory of death?

Whatever our goals or successes in life, it is the shadow of death which ultimately hangs over everything. For both ourselves and all we create, however beautiful or profound, will one day vanish. Great men and women have no immunity over mortality, and great civilizations have gone and are lost forever. And yet death need not be that awful and terrible ogre that we reckon it to be. What is common to those belonging to believing communities who hold to an afterlife but also for those who do not (yet who have reflected profoundly on their own passing), is the ultimate meaning of life. Our response to death in many ways determines how we understand and go through life. It defines the sanctity and purpose of our life goals, behaviour, and reactions to obstacles. And yes, our comprehension of transgression and sin. More directly, reflecting on our temporality gives meaning to even the simplest actions and fills them with a deeper significance. Though it is not possible for many of us who live in the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the city, we still can experience something of what the spiritual masters have long understood and have attempted to put into daily practice: the recognition our lives are fleeting presences, “Man is like a mere breath; His days are like a passing shadow” (Ps 144:4). For some of these spiritual masters every breath is precious, the very air we inhale and exhale. Earthly possessions and attainments are understood as temporal and illusory as the hours themselves which turn into years and then into centuries. And so paradoxically it is here, in this very fragility of our existence that our uniqueness and significance is to be discovered.

To rise up in the morning and make every effort to live that day as if it may be our last, is one of the mysteries to a rich and fulfilling life. All things are imbued with a more vibrant colour, the song of the Olive-backed Thrush is even sweeter, the rain upon the flesh and the water of the ocean about the feet inspire gratitude, great music and art and literature penetrate our spirits in new and unusual ways. We strive to perform turns of charity in secret. More importantly, we love almost to the point of a sweet and unbearable pain and we forgive with an ease of spirit, each and every contact with a fellow sojourner can be an encounter of consequence. My children and wife too, I see them in a different light. This does not make us dumb or unresponsive to the horrors which are unleashed about us daily, violence and poverty and disease. We find that we become more quickly compassionate and responsive because we have come to understand life is indeed rightly precious. Whether here, in this place, or before the judgement seat of God, there will be accountability for our deeds and actions. Saint Gregory the Theologian echoes the greatest philosopher of all time, Plato, when he counsels that the present life should be a “meditation upon death.”

And so when it is time for us to leave we hope for our acts, big or small, to have been positive and worthwhile. We pray that our contribution and legacy would have inspired and given aspiration to others. All this and more on account of our learning how to die, as did Saint Paul who “die[d] daily” (1Cor 15:31). Ultimately, this is true memory of death. If I was to die today  am I close or near enough to the man or woman I was meant to be.

“Dear Lord, grant me the priceless gift of the memory of death, allow for me to reflect daily on my mortality that I might discover the hidden wonders which surround me. Permit for my heart to rejoice in the everyday miracles of the small but beautiful things, and for my mind to comprehend that all things touch upon the eternal, that nothing is insignificant. Oh, how I pray, for that knowledge which goes beyond the physical eyes to reveal that in every day there is a lifecycle to be lived.” 

On Suffering

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946).

Léon Bonnat  Job  (C19th).   

Léon Bonnat Job (C19th).

 

One of the most important confirmations that I have taken away after reading Viktor Frankl and from studying his Logotherapy is that we must detach from self-image, the source of our deepest suffering. This does not mean to deny our pain but we must not be consumed by it. It is the same with negative thoughts- do not fight them, let them go. Do not engage with that which cannot be reasoned. Carl Jung taught that ‘individuation’ begins with a “tremendous crisis” and that this is a personal journey. Suffering should be accepted, experienced, and dealt with. This is in refutation to the ‘new agers’ who bid us to go around our pain and not through it. But pain is real whether physical or emotional, and it must be confronted head-on otherwise there can be no resolution. That’s when life begins. Even in the context of childbirth, from here experience and growth come to us day by day, one step at a time. This is the meaning of suffering, to bear and to undergo, literally to carry. We can spend our lives denying this evident truth or accept its reality. We may never possess all the answers nor comprehend its origins and causes, but we can make our suffering redemptive and understand it as an opportunity for radical change.  And so when that time arrives when we too cry out, “Oh Lord, why has this dreadful thing happened to me?” we might respond in a way that new opportunities and another way might be revealed to us… as it did for Christ in Gethsemane that night when the answer which came back was that he might save the world.

Hope

“And you shall be secure, because there is hope; yes, you shall dig about you, and you shall take your rest in safety” (Job 11:18).

George Frederic Watts  Hope  (1886)

George Frederic Watts Hope (1886)

Hope is my favourite word. It has helped me survive and not give up looking for meaning during hard times when all appeared lost. It gave substance to the other great words which I needed to trust in: love, faith, and prayer. Why do we place such confidence in these profoundly spiritual expressions of life? I think one of the reasons is because of our 'expectation', that not only are these movements into grace possible, but also do-able. Outside the living-out of hope, this longing for delivery and restoration, how else are we to put into practice those other hope-inspired acts which give purpose and meaning to our lives? Hope is the opposite to despair. It means refusing to surrender or to believe there is no way out. Hope can change everything, and it usually does. Hope is “to bend your ear over your almost shattered lyre,” recollecting George Frederic Watts's evocative painting “Hope” (1886), “to catch the music from the last remaining string.” Needless to say, hope can be experienced in different ways, like our unique reaction to the ringing of a doorbell past midnight.