So what then is this journal all about?

September 22nd 2011

Saturday, Bucharest, Romania

N.B. The two little paragraphs below are lifted from my journal which I have oftentimes been happy to share with you. They were drafted on a pleasant September afternoon in Bucharest in 2011. I hope one day to publish it if I can manage to get it into some controllable order. Here I was struggling with the definition of the journal which is a commixture of various literary types ranging from: autobiography, to memoir, to confession, to a history of surveillance, to travel journal, to dream analysis, and to storytelling. But the real question then, as indeed still is now, what is its authentic purpose and what are my true motivations?

… … … … … … … … …

Truth is the correspondence between language and reality, a simple definition which probably sits well with most. Then what of truth in literature?[1] How are we to understand metaphor, myth, or even fairy tale for instance? Is there a better example of the evident stresses that this ‘correspondence’ will often elicit than the battle over the exegesis of the biblical account of creation in the Book of Genesis? What is the cognitive value of this universal ‘story’ and what kind of ‘truth’ is it meaning to convey? And what of the ‘spiritual truths’ put in the mouth of the Starets Zossima by Dostoevski in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov? Or how ‘true’ is Plato’s famous allegory of the cave? An autobiography, a memoir, a life-journal, for example, to what extent are they both literature and science? And how long does a text or document maintain a stable and determinant meaning before the deconstructionists get to it and challenge its structures and propositions? These questions became especially problematic for me from the moment I made reference to method and hence appealed to one of the great canons of science.

One way to arrive at some kind of practical resolution is to think in terms of context.[2] In this specific instance the style and genre framing the journal (whether the narrative as a whole or its smaller constituent parts), would determine the exegetical approach that the reader is being asked to follow in the quest to interpret the text. That would assume, of course, that we have come to some agreement as to what we mean by text in the first place![3] As a case in point, it could mean that if the author makes reference to a “dream” then it is a “dream” and not a “vision”, this might seem to be a subtle distinction for some, but in-between a dream and a vision lies another world. So when Samuel Johnson writes “[t]he value of every story depends on it being true”,[4] it all comes down to how we comprehend ‘story’ and what we expect each time we turn the first page of a book. From the moment I reference this document as a life-journal the reader comes to it with certain well founded expectations. First of all, that it is a ‘true story’ which can be tested and weighed up against its fundamental expositions and that it is not a work of fiction (though there might be elements of fiction scattered throughout, i.e. segments of ‘magical realism’).

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/truth-lies-and-literature

[2] https://www.etymonline.com/word/context

[3] http://kontur.au.dk/fileadmin/www.kontur.au.dk/OLD_ISSUES/pdf/kontur_07/jan_ifversen.pdf

[4] https://books.google.com.au/books?id=GFtVAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA61&lpg=PA61&dq

Realizing the divine within

Gerringong, NSW

One of the great deceptions of our automated world, where people as well as perishable goods are earmarked with an expiry date, is the dreadful lie of the easy path to peace and enlightenment. These two ways are invariably sold and packaged together. The reality is more sobering and gut-wrenching. Most of us know, as if by an inborn instinct, there are no short-cuts to realizing the divine within. For some of us this struggle to realize our potential and come to terms with our “faith seeking understanding” will take many years, if not decades. Anselm knew well what he was talking about with his famous motto fides quaerens intellectum.[1] In other words, “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” And even after having arrived at this “good place”, where we have touched upon some little understanding, the struggle does not end. No one can fight this most important of battles for us; we are alone to work our way through the darkness until we come across one or two shards of blazing light. That is, until we go to sleep one fateful night knowing and believing we would suffer it all again...  All of it… to be at the place where we are at that very moment, when it seemed the heavens opened up for us alone that we might catch a glimpse of our true name: “…and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).  

There is no hidden secret to peace and enlightenment. If there are any secrets, they are evident ones we all discern and attempt to put into practice knowing in our hearts the truth is stumbling upon us rather than the other way round. Gratia urget nos, “grace presses on us”. There is a mystic in each one of us: we have all prayed, or have been dazzled by the stars, or have wept to music. The search for peace itself is mystical at its core. The problem is though these ‘secrets’ are plain enough to see, it is very difficult to consistently put them into practice. These universal truths, sagacious and sensible lessons, have been freely given to us and put down in writing by the wisdom teachers of our collective spiritual tradition. I lived by these few simple but life-altering lessons for many years until without realizing, I gradually abandoned them as I became immersed in the games and intrigues of the world. When I did begin to understand once more, it was almost too late. I thought that “I” knew better and tried to resolve the suffering in my life on my own terms. This is one of the fundamental mistakes which normally goes by the name of pride and is particularly dangerous for a religious who believes they are practising humility. Of course, there is and will be, that right moment when it seems the great resolution has come, but pride would make us blind to the fact that there are strong forces, even on the outside of ourselves, which influence our decision making and can often determine the journey ahead. These ‘strong forces’, opportunity or chance for instance, cannot be ignored nor can they be underestimated for they are always there. This interplay between the self and the outside is like the flesh and sinews which wrap around the bones of the living.

Everything which was good and peaceful in my life revolved around detachment, for example, making an effort to remain unaffected by either praise or criticism. Detachment is not indifference. [2] It is neither apathy nor absence; it is a dignified and quiet presence. It is from this place of stillness and self-control that most favourable things will flow. I will talk again about these lessons later, but they do revolve around three things: love, humility, and self-knowledge. Above all else self-sacrificing love. “Love, and do what you will” are the famous if not scandalous words of Saint Augustine.[3] But what he really is saying, that everything we do, should find its first cause in love: our silence, our tears, and even all that from which we refrain. Those who genuinely experience and participate in this communion of Love are incapable of causing intentional hurt to others. Admittedly, these are idealistic words and few of us will know what it is like to live wholeheartedly by their creed. Yet whatever our weakness or frailty, it should not exclude or discourage us from sharing in the ancient wisdom of such timeless revelations which have from the beginning been disclosed to the heart.[4] In the Gospels the “heart” is where both “good” and “evil” can be stored up (Lk 6:45) and it is the organ of our spiritual and moral cognisance (Mk 2:6-8). This is typical of spiritual literature and emblematic of the universal comprehension of the heart as the place of the subconscious, and seat of the emotions, passions, and appetites.

One of the enduringly hard questions for those interested in the religious experience of humankind[5] has been: why does it seem that the great religious traditions lead us on different, if not often times diametrically opposing paths. Is not all of this hopelessly misleading for our spirit, and can it not ‘twist’ us out of shape? I will not pretend to know the answer. All I can do is to share something of my own response as I have grappled with the question over many years and after having sat at the feet of some wonderful teachers. In my personal encounters with these wise men and women from both the desert and the city, I could not help but observe a discernible parallel in the philosophy of how “good religion” is both understood and practised. I was profoundly excited by this “discovery” for though it was certainly no hidden secret and it is there in plain print in our wisdom literature, it is a lesson that will not come easy. It is for the individual soul to wrestle with the revelation. None of this belongs entirely to the imaginary realm, but it is real like a deep cut to the flesh or the sharp sting of a red pepper on the tongue.     

[1] Saint Anselm’s Proslogion, Preface.

[2] If you wish to explore “detachment” at the profoundly deeper level and its connection to apatheia [‘passionlessness’ or ‘dispassion’] then please see: Anthony M. Coniaris, A Beginner’s Introduction to the Philokalia, (Light & Life, USA, 2004).

[3] In Epist. Joann. Tractatus, vii, 8.

[4] John Climacus: From the Egyptian Desert to the Sinaite Mountain, John Chryssavgis, [Chapter 3 Kardia: The Heart], (Ashgate, England, 2004).

[5] Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, (Scribner, New York, 1984).