Even Silence Has an End by Ingrid Betancourt

Even Silence Has an End is Ingrid Betancourt’s account of being kidnapped by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and held in captivity for 6 years in the Colombian Jungle.   It’s a gripping book – I had difficulty putting it down.  Every time I put it down I wanted to pick it up and find out what happened next.  At the same time, however, it left me feeling unsettled.

I think this may be the second hostage memoir I’ve read.  I remember reading an account of an American man held hostage in Korea (I think it was Korea – it’s been a while).  He and his fellow hostages came up with a means of communicating with one another by making scratching sounds on the wall.  They were not allowed to communicate directly so they somehow figured out how to decipher the scratching sounds.  The author of this memoir was extremely grateful for the company of his fellow hostages.  I can’t remember his name or the exact details, but his amazing capacity for gratitude despite his immense hardship has remained with me for years.

I didn’t sense that same sort of gratitude in Betancourt’s account.  It felt more like forced tolerance.  Of course, she was in captivity for 6 years.  That is an excruciatingly long time.  And she is female, not male, which I’m sure creates completely different considerations.  By Betancourt’s account, her fellow captives were often mysteriously at odds with her.  She blames it on lies their captors told to intentionally put them at odds with one another.  I don’t doubt this is true.  I think what troubles me is that Betancourt seems to take great pains to portray herself as an enlightened, loving, self-reflective heroine; but she paints her dark side just a tad too brightly given the disconnect she experiences with her fellow captives.  Something feels just a tad disingenuous.

I think what most bothered me was how she presented the woman who had been taken hostage with her.   Maybe the story was entirely accurate, but if you’ve been taken hostage with someone, what is the benefit of betraying her in a negative light?  According to psychologists, hostages are generally supportive of those who have been held hostage with them, no matter what sort of crazy degrading behavior they have exhibited.  Betancourt’s portrayal of Carla Rojas was especially problematic for me – especially when describing the interaction of both women with the baby.  I sense a hidden agenda.

Of course, we all have our hidden agendas.  So even if Betancourt is presently unwilling or unable to deal with certain parts of her psyche, her willingness to provide such a detailed account of her captivity is amazing.  I can’t even begin to imagine going through what it is she went through, and for six plus years!!  Who can even imagine what it would be like to be tied to a tree by a chain from your neck for months on end, without knowing how long you will be chained?  Or having to request permission to go to the bathroom, which isn’t actually a bathroom, but a frequently used putrid hole full of insects?

Maybe her fellow captives have reason to take issue with her, just as she may have reason to take issue with them.  I have no idea.  Whatever the case may be, clearly Betancourt is an incredibly strong female with an immense sense of self.  I’m glad to have read her book.

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 29-35 – Sufi Mysticism

Notes on Sufi mysticism from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Sufism is the dominant form of mysticism in Islam.  It is often difficult to say whether Sufism is authentically Muslim or if it just wears the garb of Islam.   No one is quite sure what influenced it, either.  There was a gnostic sect in Iraq known as the Mandians that may have influenced Sufism.  Or it could have been influenced by Neo-Platonists.  Or maybe Manichaeism which arose in Persia.  Iraq was also the center of Jewish mysticism (Merkabah Mysticism) so it could have been influenced by that.  Or, it could have been a reaction to the rigidity of the time.

Dr. Johnson thinks the most likely influence is the universal impulse for personal transformation that is seen in all religions.  This search always takes on the symbols in which it finds itself.

According to Sufis, one must move past appearances to find what is most real (al Haqq).  The empirical world is not what is most real.  It is illusory.  The goal of the path (which is understood internally) is unity with that which is most real.  Ordinary empirical existence camouflages that which is most real.  This camouflage is what is known as “The Veil”.  One must move past appearances to find what is most real.  This is what it means to “Pierce the Veil”.

The Sufis have a threefold path of self-transformation.

  • knowledge
  • love
  • prayer

The Sufi’s progress is marked by definite stages (stations) and is described as a caravan. You cannot rise from one station to another until you have fulfilled the provisions of the first.  A state is a gift from Allah over which the Sufi has no control.  A state could be an ecstatic mystical experience, for instance. States are bestowed, stations are attained.

Early Sufi mysticism is similar to Jewish Merkabah mysticism – there is much referent to going into the heavenly places and receiving knowledge.   Rabi ‘a al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (717-801) was an important early female Sufi and probably the most notable among all the female Sufis.  There was gender equality among the Sufis, thanks in part to Rabi’a.   The sayings of this woman resemble those of the Christian sayings of the Desert Fathers.  They are very short sayings.  Rabi’a lived a life of extreme poverty and trust in Allah.  Stories of miracles began to accumulate around her.

There was a spectacular spread of Islam in its first centuries.  With this spread came an explosion of intellectual energy and innovative speculation in philosophy and theology.  Muslims were making major contributions in every field – math, literature, science, medicine, and this contribution was far exceeding that made by the Christians of that time.  Islam’s greatest brilliance was in the 10th-12th centuries.  It took a while for Europe to catch up.

But there were also tensions in Islam.  Several questions caused quite a bit of division among Islamic thinkers.  Could ijtihad (free inquiry) be applied as much to the doctrines of Islam as to its law?  Is the Quran and Hadith internally coherent, or are they coherent with other knowledge?  Was there any possibility of reconciling the rational inquiry associated especially with Greek philosophy and the highest achievement of human intelligence, but found among idolaters and the Quran, which is directly from God and therefore must bear all truth in itself?  Were there limits to the Sufi experience for it to remain in Islam?

There was an early theological dispute between faith and works: How can Allah be all powerful but hold humans accountable?  This is especially problematic in Islam because the omnipotence of God is so stressed.  Judgment is on the basis of what humans do.  So how can God be both just and powerful?  Perhaps God must be weak and just?

There were three stances taken on this topic.  The Mu’tazila Party took the rationalists approach.  God’s justice must logically be measured by human reason and the human understanding of justice.  Therefore, the Quran is not an eternal word, but only a human word.  The Orthodox Party appealed to Allah as known through the Quran as an absolute measure.  We know justice from what Allah does, and human reason must conform itself to what Allah actually does.  The Quran is therefore eternal and not subject to eternal reason.  Abu’l Hasan al Ash’ari (874-936) applied free inquiry (reason) to faith but still made faith the measure.  He did this by distinguishing the physical Quran as a finite expression of the eternal word of Allah.  This was a compromise position for a problem that is impossible to resolve completely.

Al Ghazzali sought to resolve many of the intellectual tensions and suffered a spiritual crisis in his obsession to do so.  Deliverance from Error (1100) is akin to Augustine’s Confessions (both are spiritual autobiographies).  Al Ghazzali was a student of law, theology and philosoophy.  He was professor and Dean of Nizamiyah University in 1091 and would lecture to as many as 300 students at a time.  He wanted to find out what constitutes certainty in knowledge which eventually led him to become a skeptic for several months in 1095.  Then he became Sufi.  The certitude that al-Ghazzali finally realizes – “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.”   His experience of the Sufi way brought him a kind of certitude.  He discovered that it is located in the heart, not in the mind.  Al Ghazzali adopts an epistemological position that resembles that of Democritus or Epicurus  which is also later adopted by David Hume – all that philosophers can actually see are atoms interacting at random, not real causation.  Philosophy does not give rational certainty because ultimately, it can only provide opinion.  For Al Ghazzali, this means it is Allah alone that causes everything.  Therefore only faith gives secure knowledge of what is real.  Mysticism is the inner meaning of the system, but the Sufi must stay within the exoteric framework of the Shari’ah (law).  The mystic is answerable to the Shari’ah because the patterns of law for the community can itself be a source of inquiry for mystic knowledge.  The Sufi mystical way is an intensification of the Shari’ah way of life.

Ibn al’Arabi is another great Sufi master (1165-1240).  He was born in Spain which was a center of Muslim culture at the time.   He compared Jesus’ ability to raise people from the dead to Gabriel’s utterance of the Quran.  It is Breathing.  His writing is reminiscent of the Kabbalah (the one and the many) and he represents a form of gnosis.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) is probably the best known of all Sufi masters.  He said that Allah is the God of all, both good and evil, and it all goes toward creating a masterpiece, a beautiful tapestry.  Rumi’s religion is one of love.  He founded the Mawlawi Sufiorder that spread throughout Turkey and played a very large role in Turkey’s culture and history.  The order is known for its singing, dancing, and Whirling Dervishes and has always been led by a descendant of its founder.

Europe launched 2 Crusades against Islam in the 13th century, but by this time they had been in Europe for a very long period of time, a time period equivalent to the American Revolutionary War to Ronald Reagan.  It was during this time period that Muslims started making their way into North Africa.  And they remained influential in North Africa for centuries (think Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton).  It’s an ancient civilization by the time of later Sufi mystics.  The Islamic way of life is deeply entrenched in North Africa.

Among the Sufis that greatly influenced this Islamic way of life is Umar ibn al-Farid (1181-1253).  He was a member of the Shafi’i school which emphasized ijtihad – free & critical inquiry.  He was a remarkable poet who lived as a Hermit.  Ibn al-Hasan (1997-1258) founded the Shadhiliyyah Order which resembled a Third Order (lay people) in Christianity.  The Emphasis was on right thinking and right practice and it was a merging of Islam and Sufism.

Ibn Ala’illah (1250-1309) wrote The Book of Wisdom.  He said that the way of the Sufi is not one of instant gratification.  One must move through stages or stations to receive more mystical states.  One should not be longing for special psychological experiences if the fundamental groundwork has not been laid. “The Real is not veiled from you.  Rather, it is you who are veiled from seeing It; for were anything to veil It, then that which veils it would cover It.  But if there were a covering to It, then that would be a limitation to Its Being; Every limitation to anything has power over it.  And He is the omnipotent, above his servants…. The devotees and the ascetics are alienated from everything only because of their absence from God in everything.  Had they contemplated Him in everything, they would not have been alienated from anything.”  For Ala’illah the ascetic is someone who starts off being hard on himself and ends up being hard on everyone else.  The ultimate point of musticism is to be able to have compassion and understanding of all that is.  One is not simply looking at Realy.  One is looking at Reality with Allah’s eyes.

The last North African Sufi Master mentioned by Dr. Johnson is Ibn ‘abbad of Ronda (1332-1390).  He said that the knowledge that comes from the mystic way is diametrically opposed to the Law in the Shari’ah.  Therefore, those who get caught up in the specifics of the Shari’ah are missing the point of the Shari’ah which is the mystic way – the internal transformation of the person.

Then there are the Sufi Saints of Persia and India…

Islam was in Persia from the start.  Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (1006-1089) was extremely conservative intellectually and spiritually.  He was a member of Hanbali, a 9th century conservative legal school that only recognized the Quran and Hadith.  He wrote against the use of ijtihad and was actually imprisoned for a time because he was such a hyper-literalist.  “If the teacher says Allah has a hand, then Allah has a hand.”  He wasn’t capable of great poetry, but there is no mistaking his poetry for the longing of God.  He provides a mystical counter example to Sufism.

At another extreme is Fakhruddin Iraqi (1213-1289) who was a child prodigy that traveled widely.  He actually met Rumi and several other famous Sufis.  His primary interest was esoteric gnosis.  He wrote remarkably gorgeous poetry.  As with Teresa of Avila claiming to be a speck of foam in a vast ocean, Iraqi used the ocean to denote unity with God for waters merge and become One.

Nizam ad-Din Awliya (1242-1325) grew up in intense poverty and down-played the miraculous in favor of humanitarianism.  There is a repeated emphasis in his teaching on directed service and sharing of material possessions amongst people.  There is also a strong emphasis on hospitality and paying attention to manners.

Sharafuddin Ahmad ibn Yahya Maniri (1263-1381) was known as the Spiritual Teacher of the Realm.  He left his wife and children to pursue a life of celibacy.  He found a teacher and escaped into the woods.  After many years, he was persuaded to be a teacher.  He built a center where he taught until his death. The Sufi movement had an internal progression.  It was said to start with Adam and all the prophets were Sufis who wore the cloak that had been bestowed upon them by their predecessors.  Moses and Jesus were in this sense Sufis.

Sufism in the 20th century has been directly affected by modernity, just as Jewish and Christian mysticism.  Sufism, to rationalists, represented everything backwards about Islam.  It appeared way too otherworldly and out of touch with the modern world.  At the same time, it was very threatening to conservative Muslims because Sufism advocated a conversation between Islam and philosophy and science.

Conservative Muslims attack what they consider to be the pantheism of Sufism.  Islamic reform has been constantly moving toward the Exoteric and away from the personal transformation advocated by the Sufis which has made it very difficult for Sufism to find a place within Islam since modern times. It has become quite popular among non Islamic western spiritualists, however.

Fatimah al-Yashrutiyya (1891-1978) was born when her father, the Shaykh Ali Nur al-Din Yashruti was 100 years old.  She was orphaned at the age of 8 but her father had encouraged her and many other girls to follow the way of Sufis and she dedicated herself to the Sufi path.   She was invited to submit a paper on Sufism at a conference in Houston, which she did.  It was subsequently published and provides an example of how Sufism has made it’s way into the wider world.

Idries Shah (1924-1996)  was born in India and has traveled world wide as a Sufi Master.  He presents Sufism as a cognitive mastery that predates and transcends Islam.  In a sense, he de-Islamicized Sufism.   Inayat Khan (1882-1927) was also born in India and claimed Sufism transcended all religion.  He is the Founder of Universal Sufism and the Sufi Order International.

Thomas Merton had read Alawi and was deeply fascinated.  Huston Smith saw Sufism as the key to a philosophia perennis which priveleges spirituality over religion.  The idea is that religious convictions divide people but spirituality unites them and Sufism offers an appropriate candidate for a world embracing spirituality.

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 25 – 20th Century Christian Mystics

Continuing with notes on Christian Mysticism from Dr. Johnson’s Mystical Tradition lecture series

Mysticism flourished in the Middle Ages because the Biblical cosmology assumed at the time provided a coherent reading of the empirical world view.  But then along came the Enlightenment which upset that world view and made it much more difficult for mysticism to flourish.

The Enlightenment created an intellectual upheaval.  First, it claimed that if revelation exists, it must be answerable to the measure of human reason which, by definition, excludes the miraculous.  Second, technological progress had convinced humans that there was a better way of knowing and valuing the world – physics was thought to give a better account of the world than metaphysics.  There is no veil.  What you see IS what you get.  Third, the symbolic world of the Bible was the target of historical inquiry – if the stories of the Bible are not accurate, in what sense are they true?

Besides the intellectual upheaval there was a social and political upheaval as well that led to the collapse of Christendom (the balance between religion and the political order).  A secular, anti-religious state took its place.  Social theory and the social construction of reality take hold.   Society is constructed by human wants and desires, not God.  The theological tendencies within Christianity took on a “this worldly” activist ideal.  Christianity ceased to be about the transformation of the individual and became about the transformation of the world into more righteous, social structures.

Mysticism did manage to continue, and even flourish, in three major forms within Christianity.  In Roman Catholicism, the spiritual life is cultivated among religious and lay people.  Monastic orders have spread throughout the world.  In the U.S. alone, there are 63 Benedictine monastaries and 28 Jesuit Retreat Houses.  In Protestantism, mysticism survived through revivals, tent meetings and faith sharing groups and denominations that have their roots in mysticism (Pentecostal worship, for instance.)  Significant theologians have also emerged whose roots are in mysticism.

Thomas Merton (1915-1963) was a Trappist Monk.  He remained an intellectual but sought the desert experience.  He was profoundly connected with Roman Catholic mysticism but was also deeply modern.  He moved out into the world from his monasticism and sought wisdom from other traditions: Buddhist, Taoist, Sufi, and Christian.  He was truly ecumenical.  He was also active politically.  He believed the contemplative had a critical role to play in society – they were to be like the innocent child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who keeps saying that the Emperor has no clothes, even if it means being condemned as criminals.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was  Jesuit Priest and scientist.  He tried to fuse evolutionary science and faith.  He presented a sort of reversal of Gnosticism.  Gnostics claim that spirit loses itself in matter.  For Teilhard de Chardin, spirit emerges out of matter as it evolves toward ever more complex forms.  Spirit/consciousness arises out of the complexification of matter in accordance with God’s plan, which leads to the development of a cosmic Noosphere (the sphere of human consciousness). The greatest challenge to humanity is therefore moral – will human beings evolve toward unity (God) or toward divisiveness?  Teilhard de Chardin (1965) was also intensely mystical.

And last, but not least, Dr. Johnson presents the first female mystic in the lecture series who wasn’t required to have her writing, ideas and experiences approved by a male confessor… Simone Weil (1909-1943).   Weil was a brilliant philosopher and a political activist.  She was raised in an agnostic Jewish family and identified with the poor and outcast.  She was a Marxist, fought in the Spanish Civil War and worked for a time in a factory.  She engaged in a form of severe fasting which may have been anorexia and died of tuberculosis when she was 34. In 1937, she visited the church where St. Francis had prayed and had a powerful mystical experience.  Similar experiences continued for the rest of her life. This drew her to Catholicism but she refused to get baptized on principle.  Her biggest obstacle to joining the church was an anathema sanctioned by the Church, “may it be cursed”.  As long as the church excludes, she felt she must place herself among the excluded.  Her published work is strikingly similar to Kabbalism.

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 18 – 22 – Western Christian Mysticism – Roman Catholicism

Dr. Johnson provides the most lectures for Western Christian Mysticism in his series, Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam, because he says it is by far the most diverse.  The more central a religion makes its symbol, the more divisions the religion is going to have. The symbol of Jesus Christ is absolutely central to Christianity, therefore the religion is diverse and often divisive.

Greek had always been the language of the Bible and worship for Christians, but in the west, it was eventually replaced by Latin. Greek in the west, was largely forgotten, which means the traditions associated with the language were also lost. Also, with the fall of the Roman order in the 5th & 6th centuries, the Bishops in Rome became much more centralized and powerful while the power of the Bishops in the east remained regionally based.  Not surprisingly, these changes in the west led to theological and cultural misunderstandings with the east and the result was a schism in 1054. The church was divided into Roman Catholicism in the west and Eastern Orthodoxy in the east.

Monastic Tradition

Thanks to the inspiration of the Desert Fathers, a monastic tradition began in the west.  One of the first was Benedictine Monasticism which was founded by Benedict of Nursia (480-550).  He focused on providing a stable structure for cenobites (those living in monastic communities).  He wanted to strike a balance between “ora et labora” – prayer and work.  He avoided harsh asceticism and said that contemplation was not of value in itself, but rather, common life is of value in itself.

Gregory the Great (540-604) was Pope Gregory I from 590-604.  He was both committed to the monastic life and had mystical experiences.  He wrote, “Scripture is like a river again broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”

What typically happens in monasticism is that people live together and grow.  They gain and prosper which makes them lose their radical edge.  That is why monasticism in the west is constantly splitting off into monastic units.  Cistercian monasticism was one of the great reforming traditions.

Bernard of Clairvaoux (1090-1153) is one of the key figures in the spread of Cistercian reform, he was an active sponsor of the Second Crusade, and he helped found the Order of the Knights Templar.  He was also viciously opposed to the development of scholastic theology in the universities (especially Peter Abelard who introduced dialectic into scripture and wanted to make thinking more critical) .  He wrote 86 sermons on The Song of Psalms, and these writings exemplify the emerging mysticism of Western Monasticism which resembled the the interpretation of Jewish Scholars.  Monastic spirituality was primarily about reading scripture historically, allegorically and morally.

William of St. Thierry (1085-1148) sided with Bernard against Abelard.  He provides some of the best examples of an interpretation of scripture known as Lectio Devina.  This was not a scholarly exposition, it was contemplative prayer.

Richard of St. Victor (died in 1173), on the other hand, was more open to Abelard’s approach.  As is true of much of Jewish mysticism and Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Victor represents the movement of the Western tradition toward an emphasis on the ontological union with God and the constraints of the human mind in regards to this union.

Medieval Female Mystics

I found the lecture on female mysticism in the medieval times a little disturbing.

Female mysticism is essentially lacking in almost every single institutionalized religion that exists – this includes Eastern religions.  You have the occasional female sage, but they are few and far between.  They show up in a big way in Roman Catholicism in the middle ages, possibly because women had learned to play the system.  According to Dr. Johnson, they didn’t voice their thoughts on their own.  Their thoughts had to be approved by male confessors, and these male confessors offered heavy instruction on how their thoughts should be voiced.

Dr. Johnson says the reason women were given a voice in the medieval period is because Christianity is one of the few institutionalized religions that maintains a belief in spirit possession.  This belief allowed the marginal and lowly to assert an authoritative place through the claims of spiritual possession.  Women would have had no say otherwise. Claim spiritual possession and you gain power.

Obviously, these women had to be really careful about what they said and how they said it.  Only women who were virgins or widows were allowed to have any say at all.  According to Dr. Johnson, the celibate life was highly attractive to females in the Medieval Ages because women married around the age of 13 and had lots and lots of kids and eventually died in childbirth.  Married life was short and hard.  This made virginity a desirable option.

Religious life was a female’s only hope of a “profession”.  No other options were available to her.  If you were female and wanted an education, you had to enter into the religious life.  And if you wanted any authority whatsoever, you had to have prophetic visions.  If you were female, the only way you could be heard in a patriarchal society was through prophetic visions.

The most well-known female visionaries came from extremely wealthy households.  Which makes you wonder – maybe these females were politically savvy?  Not to say they didn’t have authentic mystical experiences, but maybe the reason these particular females were heard was because they were either virgins or widows and were savvy to the political game?

In Judaism and Islam, marriage and physical erotic love is viewed as a symbol of mysticism.  The same is true in Buddhism.  So at least women are valued in this sense.  In Western Christianity, physical love is taboo.  Why the shift from the Jewish perspective to the Christian perspective? Why are women so severely marginalized?

In Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert (The Eat, Love, Pray lady),  says marriage itself was viewed as unholy until around 1215, when the Roman Catholic Church realized it wasn’t going to be able to keep people from marrying.  Instead, it claimed authority over marriage and imposed all kinds of rules and regulations to try and control it.  Marriage had been a secular institution monitored by families and civil courts until the Roman Catholic Church claimed it for its own.  Erotic love, however, remains taboo – especially in Roman Catholicism.

What has always bothered me about Catholicism (both eastern and western forms) is not just the refusal to allow for female leaders in the Church, but the apparent hatred toward females in general (especially in Roman Catholicism).  Male spiritual leaders aren’t allowed to get married and the women that are presented as important to the church are forced, in a sense, to speak through men. I suppose Islam suffers from some of the same phobias as Catholicism (although female Imams do exist) but women are extremely influential in Judaism, Buddhism, Protestant Christianity and other World Religions these days. Why not Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy? 

Mendicants

A Mendicant is a beggar and this tradition arose within Christianity at the same time Sufi wandering beggars appeared.  The two largest Mendican orders are the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Both contained a second order of females and a third order of lay people and were committed to the radical ideal of evangelical poverty.  Instead of withdrawing from life, members of these orders had a working life among the poor.  These orders thrived because highly energetic, frugal people tend to get rich.  So there was a constant struggle to maintain poverty.  The more institutionalized the orders became, the more they thrived.  This was especially problematic for the Franciscan order which split early on.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is the founder of the Franciscans.  He had a vision of Christ crucified and received the stigmata which he bore for the rest of his life.  He wrote very little.  Much of what we understand about St. Francis comes from Bonaventure (1221-1274) who taught at the University of Paris.  He was a Bishop, Cardinal and great mystic.  Bonaventure creates a theological and mystical compression that links St. Francis’ mysticism to that of the mysticism in the East and Islamic spirituality.  It is an emphasis of the heart (Love of God).  At some point, the mind must give up. There is a leap – a passing over.

Dominican spirituality, on the other hand, is very intellectual.  It was founded by Dominic of Calaruega (1170-1221) and is represented by Thomas Aquinas (1200-1280) and his student Albert the Great (1225-1274), and the Rhineland Mystics: Eckhart von Hocheim (Meister Eckhardt 1260-1328), Johannes Tauler (1300-1361), and Henry Suso (1300-1366).  The Rhineland Mystics were all connected with the University of Paris, they were all from the Rhineland, and they were all very intellectual.

Meister Eckhardt used negative theology like Dionysius.  He was extraordinarily bold which got him into trouble as a heretic.  From 1327-1338, he spent much of his time defending his theology in front of inquisitors that wanted to excommunicate him.   What we find in Eckhardt is a truth that the highest form of mysticism and atheism are very closely related.  God is All is very close to God is Nothing.  God is no “thing” – otherness of God is stretched to the point that God’s isness appears as much as God’s abscence.

Johannes Tauler (1300-1361) was a student of Meister Eckhardt and was Martin Luther’s favorite German theologian.  He managed to soften Meister Eckhardt’s emphasis without rejecting Eckhardt.

Henry Suso (1300-1366) claimed the highest point of the mystical life was not about the individual, it was about God.  In order to become aware of God’s presence in other people, we must allow for the passing away of self.

English Mystics of the 14th Century

The most famous of the mystics at this time was the anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.  This is a 14th century masterpiece.  It borrows from Dionysius the Aeropagite, but we know it is a 14th century work because of its prose.  This presents the Apophatic tradition of the East in Western garb.  It claims that it is not knowledge, but desire and love that penetrates into the divine

Julian of Norwich (1342-1423) is thought to be one of the outstanding mystics of the medieval period.  She was a natural metaphysician who moved easily from what “Is” to what has been brought into being.  She is known for her female language for God and for Jesus and has an outstanding way of presenting this female language which allowed her to break the paternal barriers of language.  For instance, she emphasizes the motherhood in God; the motherhood of grace; and the motherhood of work.

Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) who wrote The Imitation of Christ is actually from the Netherlands rather than England, but Johnson threw him into this lecture.  Kempis says the meaning of life is to be found in the journey to God.  Suffering is a way to follow in the way of Jesus and involves a personal relationship with Jesus.

Johnson concludes this lecture emphasizing that these writers show us the characteristics of medieval spirituality which is concentrated on the figure/humanity of Jesus.  Jesus IS the way to God.  We don’t get to God by doing what he did, but by accepting, embracing, and living out Jesus’ suffering.

15th & 16th Spanish Mystics

Dr. Johnson claims these are a special group of Christian mystics that came about as part of the counter to the Protestant Reformation. It includes Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and three great mystics…

Francisco de Osuna (1492-1540) is this first of these.  He emphasized the prayer of quiet recollection.  He said the way in is through Christ’s divinity and we come out through his humanity.  His was an experiential mysticism rather than a cognitive mysticism and he had a huge affect on Teresa of Avila who is considered a Doctor of the Church and was part of the Order of Mount Carmel.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) suffered from chronic illness and had a vision of hell which inspired her to create a more vigorous Carmelite order than the order she belonged to.  Most of her life was spent founding communities within this order and teaching.  Teresa made a distinction between “busy prayer” and “quiet prayer” and said that the real proof of maturity in mystical life is the actual behavior of the person who is the mystic.  She said there is a mystical betrothal which is the experience of unity, but this doesn’t last.  What lasts is mystical marriage.

Teresa of Avila was friends with John of the Cross (1542-1591).  With Teresa, he helped found the Discalced Carmelites which was the reform of the Order of Mount Carmel (mentioned above).  He is also considered a Doctor of the Church.  His writing is Apophatic (Nothing, Nothing, Nothing) which is reminiscent of The Cloud of Unknowing.  There is a point in spiritual development when approaching God feels exactly the same as approaching nothing.  He calls this the dark night of the soul.  Union with God is not through knowledge.  Knowledge is “nada, nada, nada” (nothing, nothing, nothing).  It is through the embrace of the heart – the giving of self completely to God in love.

Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby

Welcome to Utopia, Notes from a Small Town by Karen Valby is a nonfiction book about a little Texas town about 180 miles from where I live. Karen Valby is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly.  The book started out as an assignment to find an American town that had not yet been affected by the popular culture.  Something about people who were not yet “swallowed whole by the all-consuming, trend hungry maw of Hollywood.”

I have never lived in a small town but my roommate in college was from a very small town.  I ended up dating a guy from her small town for 3 1/2 years (almost my entire college career) so ended up quite familiar with the characters from that little town.  They were like the characters in Utopia.  Many of them ranch owners, ranch hands, restaurant owners, grocery store owners.  They were hard working, tough, intelligent, kind hearted, opinionated, and mostly conservative.  I was in love with that little town.  The newspaper had articles explaining how a local boy broke his arm or that a local restaurant was getting a new state of the art oven.  Everybody knew everybody and who they were related to and how (with the exception of the oil field workers who came through seasonally).  Many of them were extremely gossipy and even sometimes seemed to be outright hateful.  But it was clear that in the end, the town rallied behind its citizens.

I liked it so much that when I decided to teach school, I chose a teeny tiny little town that required a long commute.  It was a little bigger than Utopia because it had a football team and it had just gotten its first McDonalds.  That was a HUGE event.  The marching band was present at the grand opening and the kids were elated.  That was over 25 years ago.  It’s not a small town anymore.  It’s an exurb.  I’m not sure what’s become of my friend’s hometown from college.  I haven’t been back since college.

I genuinely enjoyed reading Karen Valby’s book on Utopia.  It follows the lives of four people: a teenage boy who can’t stand country music and dreams of getting out of Utopia, a teenage girl who is the only African American girl in the school, the mother of multiple sons who have joined the army, and an elderly gentlemen who used to own the local grocery store.  He still shows up at the store every single morning for a male coffee drinking ritual that has been going on for decades.

It’s kind of sad to think that the remaining few towns like Utopia are becoming a thing of the past as corporate America takes over.  I hate to see them go!  Of course, I live in suburbia.  I’m part of the problem.

Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges

Yesterday, my son and husband were extremely excited to be able to get Netflix on their iPhones. Meanwhile, I was on the last chapter of Chris Hedges latest book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle which makes me a bit hesitant to add Netflix to my iPhone.  (Not to mention David Lynch’s admonition against watching a film on a telephone.)

I appreciate Hedges arguments.  I’m just not quite sure what to make of his conclusion that we are on the fast track to totalitarian rule.

Hedges claims that a growing majority of us are living in a fantasy world thanks to the increasing oligarchical rule of corporate America. For instance, we are obsessed with a celebrity culture. The fame of celebrities disguises those who posses true power: corporations and the oligarchic elite.  Hedges says it is as though we are controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid figures on Plato’s cave, and it is a fantasy that is specifically designed to keep us from fighting back.  Hedges calls reality shows like Big Brother “a celebration of a surveillance state”.  People are increasingly willing to be placed on round-the-clock video monitoring and this is problematic.  The use of hidden cameras in these shows reinforces the notion that not only is it normal, it is enviable, to be constantly watched.  You, too, can have celebrity fame simply by being willing to have cameras on you 24/7.  Constant surveillance used to be something we feared.  By manipulating our fascination with celebrity, the elite have made it seem like something we want.

Meanwhile, we are experiencing an epidemic of illiteracy in North America.  Nearly 1/3 of us are illiterate or barely literate and this number grows by 2 million people a year.  42% of college graduates don’t read another book for the rest of their lives!  (Statistics are similar in both Canada and the United States.) Instead, we are bombarded with spectacle.  Hedges finds this extremely disturbing because he says it hasn’t been since the fascist dictatorships or maybe the authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages that content has been so ruthlessly and skillfully controlled. We are allowing propaganda to be a substitute for ideas and ideology.

Hedges says that our faith in illusions has become a secular version of being born again…

These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths.  They encourage us to bow down before the cult of self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith.  It is to become an apostate.  The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power, means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.

As an example of the cruelty of the corporate state, Hedges turns to the pornography industry.  There are 13,000 porn films made every year in the United States, most of these in the San Fernando Valley.  In 2006, porn revenues exceeded $97 billion which is more than the revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix and EarthLink combined.  Porn is very lucrative to large corporations like General Motors and AT&T that receive 80% of all porn dollars spent by consumers (through DIRECTV, Adult Pay Per View, etc.)

Porn is becoming increasingly mainstream, and it is also becoming far more cruel than it has ever been.  Women endure horrible acts of degradation and extreme violence.  Porn has always been about male power, but today it is about the expression of male power through the physical abuse and torture of women. Hedges quotes Robert Jensen who wrote, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity.

What does it say about our culture that cruelty is so easy to market?  What is the difference between glorifying violence in war and glorifying the violence of sexual domination?  I think that the reason porn is so difficult for many people to discuss is not that it is about sex – our culture is saturated in sex.  The reason it is difficult is that porn exposes something very uncomfortable about us.  We accept a culture flooded with images of women who are sexual commodities.  Increasingly, women in pornography are not people having sex but bodies upon which sexual activities of increasing cruelty are played out.  And many men – maybe a majority of men – like it.

Hedges says that porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our culture.  Porn is now fused with the mainstream commercial industry and has evolved to its logical conclusion.  “It first turned women into sexual commodities and then killed women as human beings.”  It’s no wonder we don’t blink when hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan are killed.  It’s no wonder we can throw our mentally ill out onto the street, imprison millions of our youth for non-violent drug crimes, and deny health care to the poor.  According to Hedges, “The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.”

Hedges turns from the mainstream cruelty inherent in the porn industry to America’s elite universities which have become overly specialized and reliant upon the corporate hierarchy.  Hedges says that the development of specialized vocabularies amongst so-called experts in these specialized fields are meant to thwart universal understanding.  “It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions.  It destroys the search for the common good.  It dices disciplines, faculty, students, and finally experts into tiny specialized fragments.  This allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political, and cultural questions.”

Hedges claims that the bankruptcy of our economic and political senses can be traced directly to an assault against the humanities.  By neglecting the humanities, the elite have been allowed to organize education and society around predetermined answers to predetermined questions.  “Students are taught structures designed to produce these answers even as these structures have collapsed.”  Those in charge “have been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system…They have forgotten, because they have not been taught, that human nature is a mixture of good and evil.  They do not have the capacity for critical reflection.”

Universities are becoming nothing more than glorified vocational schools for the corporations, and must adopt the values and operating techniques of the corporations they serve.  “The flight from the humanities has become a flight from conscience.  It has created an elite class of experts who seldom look beyond their tasks and disciplines to put what they do in a wider, social context.  And by absenting themselves from the moral and social questions raised by the humanities, they have opted to serve a corporate structure that has destroyed the culture around them.”  Ironically, the universities are training students for vocations that will soon no longer exist because “they have trained people to maintain a structure that cannot be maintained.”

Hedges views the Positive Psychology as a further method of corporate control.  He says, “Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis… It throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed.  Those who preach it serve the corporate leviathan.”  This is an interesting argument and one I hadn’t fully considered previously.  I’ve liked what I’ve read of Positive Psychology, but I haven’t paid attention to how it is being used within corporations.

Hedges says that it’s use within corporations, makes it possible to claim that those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes are somehow ill when they may have a legitimate claim to their negative attitudes (lack of appropriate pay, insufficient health care, over worked, etc.) Positive psychologists often make arrogant, vague claims using a religious tone. They have learned to manipulate social behavior and by promoting social harmony under the guise of achieving happiness, they have designed a mechanism for conformity.

According to anthropologist Laura Nader, most oppressive systems of power, including classical Western colonialism and proponents of globalization, make use of the idea of social harmony as a control mechanism.  Nader claims that the drive for harmony always lends itself to covert censorship and self-censorship.  The tyranny of harmony, when pushed to an extreme, leads to a life of fantasy that shuts out reality.  It slowly dominates and corrupts the wider culture.  (Again – think Brave New World!)

Hedges says, “The corporate teaching that we can find happiness through conformity to corporate culture is a cruel trick, for it is corporate culture that stokes and feeds the great malaise and disconnect of the culture of illusion…Here in the land of happy thoughts, there are no gross injustices, no abuses of authority, no economic and political systems to challenge, and no reason to complain.  Here, we are all happy.”

So what is to become of us? Hedges thinks our future is bleak. “Never before has our democracy been in such peril or the possibility of totalitarianism as real. Our way of life is over.” And there is little President Obama can do to stop it. It’s been in the making for decades and cannot be undone with a few trillion dollars in bailout money. Hedges points to those who saw it coming… Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul, Andrew Bacevich, Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Ralph Nader.  Also, social critics who wrote books immediately following WWII – David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd), C. Wright Mills, (The Power Elite), William H. White (The Organization of Man), Seymour Mellman (The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline), Daniel Boorstin (The Image: A guide to Pseudo-Events in America), and Reinhold Niebuhr (The Irony of American History) – have proven to be prophetic.

Hedges says that fear and instability has plunged the working class into profound and personal economic despair which, unsurprisingly, drives them into “the arms of the demagogues and charlatans of the radical Christian Right who offer belief in magic, miracles, and the fiction of a utopian Christian nation.  And unless we rapidly re-enfranchise our dispossessed workers into the economy, unless we give them hope, our democracy is doomed.”

Hedges says that the moment China, the oil-rich states, and other international investors stop buying U.S. Treasury Bonds, the dollar will become junk and we will become Weimar Germany, unprepared to deal with the backlash of a betrayed and angry populace.  Christian demagogues and simpletons like Sarah Palin and loudmouth talk-show hosts will make promises of revenge and moral renewal, while the elites retreat into the shelter of privilege and comfort.  The rest of us will be left to the mercy of a security state.  He quotes George Orwell, “A society becomes totalitarian when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud.”

Hedges says there are powerful corporate entities that do not want to lose their influence or wealth and that are waiting for a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control.  Hedges says the tools for doing this are already in place.  “These antidemocratic forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for the ruling elites, and the specter of left-wing descent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to extinguish our democracy.  And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order, and clutching the Christian cross.  By then, exhausted and broken, we may have lost the power to resist.” The worse reality becomes, the less we want to hear about it and the more we are willing to distract ourselves with manufactured illusions.  This is what eventually happens to a dying civilization.

But Hedges says this will not be the end of hope, because the power of love has always been greater than the power of death.  Love cannot be controlled.  It constantly rises up to remind a society of what is real and what is illusion.

The King of Masks

The King of Masks came out in 1999.  I remember seeing it with a friend during one of our rare outings without kids.  She and I were both crying by the end of the film. It actually would have been perfectly appropriate for the kids to have seen, too, but we didn’t know that until after we had seen it.  Maybe it wasn’t rated.  Or maybe we just wanted to get out of the house without kids.  I’m not sure.

Last night, it showed up on my Netflix Instant Watch queue of “Films You Will Love” so I watched it again.  It’s a beautiful story set in 1930s China.  The King of Masks is an elderly street performer who can change masks with a slight of the hand.  The literal translation of the art is “Face Changing”.  This is an old Chinese art and is based on a performer who could change 12 masks at once.  The actor for the film learned to manage 4 (the rest was managed by the magic of film).  He can only pass his art down to a male heir so he goes to where children are sold illegally in the hopes of purchasing a male child.  Lots of girls are sold because there is such a strong preference for males in 1930s China.  It’s heartbreaking!

The old man, Wang, purchases a child who tugs at his heart.  He thinks he has purchased a boy, but soon discovers she is an 8 year old girl.  After this discovery, he tries to get rid of her but she stubbornly remains with him because she has already been sold 7 times.  Her last master beat her.  She promises to scrub the decks and do whatever work Wang demands of her.  So Wang agrees to keep her on, but he is no longer “Grandpa” to her, he is “Boss”.  Zhou Renying plays Doggie and offers a heartwarming performance.  She’s a phenomenal child actress!

The director, Wu Tianming said, “I wanted to make this film because I fear that society is forgetting our Chinese traditions. Those traditions emphasized the value of morality and ethics, proper manners, a sense of honor, and taking care of each other…Through this story of an old man and a child in a world full of struggle and suffering, I wanted to express the importance of love.”  In 1930s China, a street performer was considered to be a member of an elite fraternity, despite his meager lifestyle.  His life is honest, full of integrity, beautiful and even prestigious despite being extremely humble.  He lives a very happy life despite his poverty.

Throughout the film, there are displays of beautiful Chinese festivals and operas complete with the incredible, colorful costumes that go along with them.  We are also shown magnificent statues of Buddha and several Buddhists temples where Wang goes to worship.  It’s an absolutely exquisite film.