Saturday, October 27, 2012

bratzlav, teresa, eckhart, zen and buber. between dialogue and mysticism

when we examine the bratzlav hasidic theology, we find that there is an effective distinction being made between the acts of praying and conversing with god. prayer is communal, formal, scheduled and textual, while conversation is private, spontaneous and unscripted.

braztlav hasidim practice "hitbodeduth" which means seclusion in a natural setting for a private conversation with god. everything is fair game during that conversation, as god, regarded as omniscient, already knows the deepest contents of the heart being poured to him. but in the act of conversation there is a here and a now, a "face to face" between man and god, and nothing on man's end is held back. in that sense, the purpose of this practice is not to convey information to a god who already possesses it and who knows the future he himself has predetermined, but to serve both as a cathartic and healing experience for the practitioner himself, as well as to elicit in the conversant the feeling of faith and hope that god will bestow an abundance of blessings in response.

however, we must understand that this practice derives significance only when contrasted with normative judaism's system of formalized prayer. the petitional content of the private conversation with god remains essentially the same as in conventional prayer, only offered to god in a different way. when jacques lacan said "i will show that there is no speech without a response, even if speech meets only with silence…" he offered a fitting description to the practice and purpose of bratzlav's hitbodeduth. every dialogue is a form of conversation, but not every conversation is a form of dialogue.

from the perspective of dialogical ecology, petitional prayer implies that god, in the depth of how our hearts and minds perceive and understand him, still remains a form of 'it'. in other words, a god that will serve our own needs and can be used for that purpose, is an it-god. but the dialogical perspective, as martin buber stated it, is that god can never become an "it", for god is the "eternal thou", a thou that remains so eternally. the setting of isolation in nature is filled with beauty and evocation, but it does not remove the essential non-dialogical nature of the practice itself. as stated above, every dialogue is a form of conversation, but not every conversation is a form of dialogue. but here's a thought: if rather than addressing god, we simply sit or walk or sing or paint or make-love in open-awareness of hitbodeduth, and allow the source of being to call our names and talk to us in any manner it chooses to be present and encounter us, this could become a truer form of i-thou dialogue with her who is the eternal thou.

the virtues of silent meditation are well known and intuitively accepted by all seekers. blaise pascal said "i have discovered that all human evil comes from this: man's being unable to sit still in a room." kafka said it too, deeply well: "you do not need to leave your room. remain sitting at your table and listen. do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. the world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet." kafka reflects here on what i had previously referred to as open-awareness of hitbodeduth.

for those who pray the implicit assumption is that the hearer hears always. and that the hearer will always respond. for that purpose we have made hearing and responding into one single deed, as when we plea "hear my prayers". as to why it might seem as though a prayer went answered, the "official" teachings will usually inform us that it may very well seem so, but the truth is that the answer has been delivered to us in some form, in some manner, somehow, even if we cannot understand it. the answer is "here and now" but it is our sole responsibility to comprehend its content or form. i wish to propose a different idea. it seems to me that to pray with a deep-rooted and heart-wrenching sense of doubt, doubt as to the hearer, the hearing and the response, is the one way to pray as a genuine i-thou dialogue with the one who is, after all is said, done and believed, the one eternal and infinite source of all-doubt.

petitional prayer, paradoxically, is a form of contradiction or denial of what we hold as our basic religious beliefs. there is no information about our needs, wants, and wishes that god is not already aware of. no need to inform him in prayerful petition. there is also no argument we could make to make god change his mind as to what our reward or punishment ought to be for any given action we take or avoid. god already knows it and our fate has already been decided, even before we committed any deed at all, or even knew what we need to pray for. the assumption that we can "talk" god out of a judgement he has made in his infinite wisdom, is quite an anthropocentric presumptuous. if anything is wrong in the universe that needs fixing, god knows of it, and if it is still wrong, it is god who has decided not to fix it. doubtless he needs not our prayers to become aware of it. it seems as though the assumptions behind petitional prayer are not sustainable within the systems of belief from which they spring. praying is inherently a religious contradiction.

but here's the other possibility, the more exciting one. god wants us to become ourselves aware of the wrongs in the world and to make the existential decision to engage in remedial action. we make god aware of nothing, we make ourselves aware of everything, and in that awareness, the dialogical partnership with god begins. in the hebrew language, the word for praying is lehit'palel, which is a reflexive verb meaning praying to one self. it means that we are the prayer, we are the one who prays, and we are the one who hears the prayer.

in communal worship, there is this wonderful moment when we have the opportunity to jointly engage in the process of creating our own personal and communal approaches to both verbal and non-verbal-praying. prayer is often misunderstood as being only words to utter or sacraments to offer. but prayer is the way we live our lives, the deeds we do. prayer is a personal verb. if we ask ourselves about the specific words and actions we choose as prayers, who we direct our prayers to, what it means to practice that which we pray, the answer to all this might perhaps be that one is what one prays, and one prays what one is. “is” is a tricky term, but that’s what's so wonderful about conceiving prayer as an existential rather than a ritual act. prayer is a deed, it is the way one lives one's life in every moment and in every place. we don't celebrate holy events, we create holy events by celebrating them. in a profound sense, we pray to ourselves for we are the hearers and as such we are also the responders to our own prayers.

the choice of the mystic to seclude himself from society is a choice of his desires, and it should not be clothed in the pretentiousness of a compassionate conscience. in other words: there is no benefit to the other in my seclusion, only to myself, and the belief that it is others i serve in my seclusion is little more than spiritual error. the spiritual insights we arrive at or the discoveries we attain in seclusion could be the more deep and powerful if we had arrived at them in the midst of the life of relationship. the lines of relationship intersect in the eternal thou. therefore by saying thou to any being, we are connecting with all of life in the deepest and most fruitful manner.


santa teresa of avila and san juan de la cruz were considered "soul mates". (on account of this, they did their time on the gossip columns of their day.) she was twice his age when they met, and they both shared the same distinct style of mystical practices. teresa is considered a 16th century mystic-reformer, and juan a follower in the same path. aside from that, they both also shared their jewish-marrano ancestry, which is quite a remarkable fact given their exulted standing within the mystical iconography of the catholic church.

somewhat, though not entirely unrelated to the previous, it is intensely fascinating to compare a poem written by st. teresa, with a poem by 13th century also mystic-rebel meister eckhart. eckhart wrote: "the eye through which i see god is the same eye through which god sees me; my eye and god's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” eckhart's statement is probably one of the clearest expressions of the mystical intuition of the merging of the self with the divinity. consider now what teresa wrote: "christ has no body now but yours. no hands, no feet on earth but yours. yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. christ has no body now on earth but yours." both poems seem to be conveying a similar message: our bodies and god's have merged into one. 

but we need to look a bit deeper. when eckhart speaks of love, he is referring to what can primarily be regarded as an overwhelmingly powerful and rapturous emotional content. this is true of most mystics. rumi and hafiz speak of the same, almost disembodied and depersonalized, and yet overwhelming feeling of ecstatic love for the disembodied and depersonalized transcendent source of being. teresa, in contrast, speaks not of love per-se, but of compassion, for compassion is love as it applies to other beings in need. with this emphasis on a loving-ethical response to the presence of the divine within us, that is to say, a response in which the aspects of love and the aspects of ethics merge as one and the same, teresa's vision, i argue, is more quintessentially faithful to her jewish-marrano spiritual ancestry. it brings spinoza to mind, another son of marranos. when spinoza spoke of "intellectual love of god" his reference was the biblical genesis concept of "da'at", when adam "knew - (da'at)" eve and they became as one body. this is loving knowledge, or the knowledge that can be attained solely through the deed of love and the love that can be felt only through the knowing of the other.

both these short poems express a similar understanding concerning the essential nature of the mystical experience. there is the sense of absolute unity of the human self with the self of the godhead. the merging of self and god entails the emptying of the human self and its replacement with the self of the divine. eckhart remained attached to the more conventional perception of the mystical as an inner personal experience of ecstatic merging into the divine. in teresa's case however, we read a more pronounced ethical understanding as to what the mystical experience of unity with the divine should entail. for teresa, the divine presence within us entails not just an inner ecstatic experience, but it is also a call for social action. being one with christ, for teresa, means being the vessel for god's work on earth. 

from a dialogical perspective, the understanding is that the "i" does not exist unless as part of a dual relationship with a thou. dialogue is a form of no-self (anata) but with the difference that the self that enters into an "i-it" relationship becomes itself an "it", and the self that enters into an "i-thou" relationship becomes itself a "thou". isolation and withdrawal are only means to a certain end, not the end itself. following teresa and juan, we can say that the most genuine form of spiritual experience (and i always use the word "experience" with some trepidation because we cannot understand the nature of conscious experiences) is the dialogical-love that takes the form of compassionate action. the term compassion should never be used unless accompanied by the word "action". compassion is not only a feeling inside, it is also that, but in essence compassion is a deed. compassion, like love, and like "god" are verbs. but it is very important to comprehend, that compassionate action must extend to encompass society as a whole and the ecological realm of life. it needs to occupy itself with the roots of our alienation from life, and as it deals with the harsh day to day immediate urgencies it tries to remedy, compassion must also become a transformative programme at the societal and ecological levels.

in the 20th century, religious-rebel martin buber posited dialogue as an alternative to both mysticism and spiritual individualism. in dialogue the presence of the other, as the other, is always confirmed, therefore the self does not merge into a larger unity, nor it separates itself from the whole, but in the act of dialogue it is transformed from "it" to "thou". as zen roshi daido loori said: "you and i are the same thing, yet i am not you and you are not me." in other words, we should not confuse our essential ontological oneness with our existential dialogical nature. from a dialogical understanding, god himself is the between of the i and the thou. 

endnote: one of the interests i have in both these saints is that they hailed from a marrano-jewish origin. part of their social awareness, such as teresa saying that the only body christ has is her own and therefore she must engage in the social works of compassion, i believe, are part of the jewish spiritual heritage she and san juan had internalized. the marrano spiritual experience is quite unique and extraordinary. baruch spinoza belonged to it too and it seems inescapably clear. teresa and juan, two important saints of the catholic church, in fact, in many respects, not only important but recognized pillars of catholic mysticism, introduced into their spiritual practices the commitment to social transformation traceable to their marrano origins and, of course, to the jewish identity of the christ himself.

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