A Handful of Sand Thrown into the Sea
I am back from vacation and ready to rumble! I will be posting several new blog posts in the coming week(s) but need a few days to clear the decks of things that have piled up in my absence. However, I do have a treat for my subscribers…. Linked below is a guest blog by Father Isaac Slater. I have been pestering him for a while to send me an essay and he did not disappoint. I think this is simply wonderful and well worth everyone’s time to read.
Here is some brief biographical information: Originally from Toronto, Canada, Isaac (John) Slater has lived since 2000 as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of the Genesee in New York. He is the author of a few collections of poetry (including Lean) and most recently, Beyond Measure: the Poetics of the Image in Bernard of Clairvaux.
His post begins below. Enjoy!
Once the Japanese poet (and Zen holy fool) Ryokan (1758-1831) was approached by his brother. The man’s teenaged son, Ryokan’s nephew, was getting into all kinds of trouble and he was unable to make him change. Maybe the reproaches of a great hermit would get through where a father’s entreaties had failed. Ryokan invited father and son to his cottage in the wilderness. They spent a delightful weekend camping out, fishing, and exploring the countryside. The father kept expecting Ryokan to challenge his son but throughout the whole time he never said a word. As the two were departing the young man kneeled over to fasten Ryokan’s sandals. He felt something wet coursing down his neck and when he looked up, here was his uncle weeping over him silently. He was struck to the heart and resolved to change his life.
St. Bernard taught that the threat of punishment or promise of gain could prompt us to make a superficial change in our lives, for a brief time, but only the experience of being loved, unconditionally, just as we are, could motivate us to change from within, in a way that would last: Sponte afficit, spontaneum fecit, “Love moves us freely and it makes us free.” There’s no guarantee that even the most genuine expression of unconditional love will provoke such change, and really it’s not meant to, has no ulterior motive. As St Bernard writes in another place: “Love is sufficient for itself; it gives pleasure to itself, and for its own sake. It is its own merit and own reward. Love needs no cause beyond itself, nor does it demand fruits; it is its own purpose. I love because I love; I love that I may love.” Ryokan loves his nephew just as he is, in his folly and suffering. There are no strings attached, and it’s precisely the freedom and sincerity of this love that makes the nephew realize his fault and want to change.
This is the kind of love God reveals in going to the Cross: unconditional, not-judging, completely gratuitous. It hopes only to awaken a like response—not fearful or self-interested but gratuitous and free. Contemplative monastic life is one way to experience and express that gratuitous love, a way that, because it does not carry out an active ministry, gives it a particular focus. While it is love in response to love, without ulterior motive, precisely because of this, it spills over and brings life to the entire body. As St. Therese of Lisieux understood, it is like the woman in John who shatters the jar of precious nard at the feet of Jesus, “and the fragrance filled the entire house.”
As love gives rise to (gratuitous) love, the unfailing fidelity of God is the wellspring of the monk’s own fidelity. Personally, I came to see this in a powerful way as I approached the time for my own final vows (2005). I had been thinking that the ceremony might be a bit of an anti-climax. In my heart I had already given myself over to God and the ritual profession of vows at some level seemed like a formality. Yet in the weeklong retreat beforehand and in a particular way, during the rite itself, I had the sense of God vowing himself to me, committing himself to support me in this way of life, promising to make it fruitful. On my own, how could I solemnly vow to walk on water every day of my life, to carry out something completely beyond my strength? But God had never shown me anything but mercy and absolute faithfulness, he had never let me down, and when I saw my own promise of fidelity as nothing more than the extension and overflow of his own, I was filled with confidence, ready to promise the impossible.
Monastic life blends something wild, reckless and erotic with the measured and methodical, the shattering of the jar with the daily, detailed repetition of a simple, obscure and laborious way of life. In this it is very much like running, and monks have often used the image of the monk as runner. Just as the runner wills the boundless but races on a measured, artificially limited course, the monk expresses a boundless love in the deliberate concrete “track” of the monastic day. The more he internalizes the rhythms and practices of the life the easier it becomes to express the infinite in and through the everyday, as the runner, with training, can more effectively actualize his boundless desire for self-transcendence. St. Benedict speaks in his Rule of how monastic practice feels narrow at the outset but that if one perseveres with faith his heart will expand and overflow with “the inexpressible delight of love.” External constraint yields interior expansion.
To love as we have been loved in Jesus Crucified means to love unconditionally, without judging, to align ourselves with the Advocate and not the Accuser. Jesus willingly took our sin on himself and suffered violence without responding in kind, asking the Father to forgive his killers. The gospel challenges us to “Accept one another, as Christ has accepted you (Rom 15:7).” The first monks took this to heart and placed a particular stress on not judging, not comparing oneself to others, and even taking the sins of another on oneself: “Abba Poemen said to Abba Joseph, ‘Tell me how to become a monk.’ He replied, ‘If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, in all circumstances say, Who am I? and do not judge anyone.’” Not judging is considered the quintessence of what it means to be a monk, not some incidental extra. The sense of self (Who am I?) that would form the basis of judgment over against another is relinquished.
Another story tells of two monks who went into the city to sell their wares. They separate for a time and when they rejoin one another to return to the desert the one confesses in great shame that he has ‘fallen into fornication’ and cannot bear to return to the monastery. His brother eventually persuades him, promising to say that he too fell into sin and to share the penance. They return, confess, are both reprimanded and given heavy penances. In a few days an angel reveals to the elders the truth of the matter and that the one monk’s sin has been forgiven because of the other’s mercy.
In his masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevski prophetically depicts a particular expression of this desert path of not judging as the antidote to the murderous rivalry and isolation consuming the modern world. The elder Zosima teaches that we are guilty (or “responsible”) to all for everything, and to realize this, to take it all on oneself is paradise. Only Jesus, who ‘became sin’ has taken the place of one guilty to all for everything so perhaps part of what the elder has in view is precisely a kind of union with Jesus in taking on the sin and suffering of others. At a certain point in the story the proud, intellectual Ivan abruptly cuts ties with his family and sets off alone for Moscow. Instead of taking on another’s sin, he passes his desire to murder his father on to his half-brother who carries out Ivan’s unspoken wish. Alyosha, the book’s hero, by contrast, is sent away from the monastery by his elder and by obedience plunged into the tortuous entanglements of his brothers and friends. Instead of Ivan’s clean break, the modernist dream of autonomy, he sets to work as a peacemaker in the midst of rivalrous conflicts that nearly devour him. He actively takes responsibility for the failings of his brothers and their complex implications.
People will sometimes ask, Your monastic life is so simple and austere, what could you possibly have to do penance for? Of course, a man doesn’t become a monk because of his many sins but because he’s been forgiven (“The one who’s been forgiven much, loves much”). Monastic life is a way to make of one’s life a continual song of gratitude. But in this matter of judging others, one discovers over time both how destructive it is and how very deep down it goes: to the foundation of one’s very sense of self. We reject and exclude in others what we’ve failed to accept in ourselves: selves, like groups, built on the persecution of scapegoats. In the hothouse environment of cloistered monastic life it’s only a matter of time before the shadow-play starts, all kinds of subliminal tension. Sometimes we can’t accept something in another until we’ve come to accept it in ourselves, but often it seems to work the other way, and the struggle to get along with a brother who gets under our skin leads to a deeper acceptance of something in ourselves we couldn’t have otherwise acknowledged. There’s no escape hatch in the cloister. You can’t go to the bar after work with friends and let off steam about an annoying co-worker. He’s across from you in choir, at the sink next to you, brushing his teeth… Such micro-frictions are invaluable aids to humility and self-knowledge. It’s harder to fool yourself into imagining you’ve arrived when you’re ready to throttle Brother X for his whiny off-pitch chanting in choir! You have to live with other people and find a way to get along rather than simply change external circumstances. What is it about this person that I find so difficult and why? How can I adjust my stance to respond more freely?
In his recent book That All Shall Be Saved David Bentley Hart makes a persuasive case for universal salvation. It’s a (sometimes amusingly) pugnacious and belligerent book but the reviews have consistently failed to meet or even address its central argument about the nature of a God who could allow the eternal torture and exclusion of his creatures. In any case, one thing that struck me in reflecting on the book was how one’s perspective on others here and now changes the moment we imagine that all shall be saved. As long as we’re imagining some ultimate separation of Us and Them our addiction to conflict remains safely grounded. If ultimately ALL will be together, after suitable stints in Purgatory, gazing on the face of God forever… it’s harder to lose sight of the redeemable kernel in even our most deplorable adversary. Each person expresses a unique, irreplaceable facet of the divine, however disfigured—and can’t be dismissed, or reduced to their worst opinions.
Us Against Them
I’m not at all suggesting some kind of relativistic both-siderism. In conflicts, it matters if one side’s account is more accurate than the other’s. However, what so often happens is that the truth in the arguments of each side is lost sight of while the opposing rival becomes the target of vengeful fascination. As usual in such mimetic entanglements the more the two sides contrast themselves the more they resemble one another. Suspicion, slander and insinuation, a fierce attachment to one’s storyline and continuous ‘doubling down’ on one’s position characterize both combatants. One can hold the right thing in the wrong way, use the truth of one’s position as a club to attack and expose another. In any case, the truth is not some objectified storyline but a reality that emerges of itself when we step out of the way, strip off our armor and release our attachment to limited articulations of a reality always larger than our concepts: “Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish opinions (Verses on the Faith-Mind, Seng-ts’an).”
The difference between the way of the world and the way of the gospel is not so much the difference between two competing accounts as two ways of being together—either building up a sense of oneself over and against an excluded other or standing with the victim, sharing the place of the stone rejected by the builders. The Christian community is one that gives greatest honor to the least honorable part and where the greatest wash the feet of the least. It defends those on whose exclusion ‘the world’ is constructed. ALL those so excluded. This is crucial because as we see so clearly today one can righteously advocate for a vulnerable population and make hatred of the offending party the very pillar of one’s identity! The Church defends the dignity of every human being, regardless of who they are and what they’ve done— the unborn child threatened by abortion, the serial killer on death-row—both are fashioned in the image of God and possess a basic dignity that can never be extinguished. [hyperlink to https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-culture-of-death-and-a-new-plague-of-cafeteria-consequentialism/ ]
“Until one has indeed become the brother of all, there will be no brotherhood.” In Dostoevski’s vision, we become the brother of all by taking the lowest place, the place of the scapegoat. We take the blame on ourselves and seek pardon. Jesus portrays this attitude in the figure of the father in the story of the prodigal son. It’s possible to read the two sons as two sides of ourselves in tension: the reckless and sensual against the stingy accuser. Often these two chase each another in circles—within us, or often, when one side is projected onto another person or group. While as readers of the parable we tend to identify with one or another son, arguably, the challenge is to become the father. Immature and undeveloped, both sons caricature different sides of their father, a father who is both lavishly generous and balanced, stable. The father drastically humbles himself, and willingly takes on the shame and dishonor his sons incur, in order to bring about their reconciliation. Only when we experience such love, in encountering the Crucified, can we begin to reconcile the warring “brothers” in our hearts, and in our communities. Coming “to know and believe,” and to live from such love more and more is the lifelong work of conversion of heart to which the monk commits himself.
The Grand Inquisitor
The Brothers Karamazov can be read as a kind of extended parody-meditation on the parable of the prodigal son. This is suggested for instance by the early chapter heading “The First Son Sent Packing.” Instead of the younger son being entrusted with his complete inheritance even before the death of the father, the older son (Dimitri) is “sent packing” by his stingy, lascivious father, Fyodor, having been deceived and shortchanged of the money due him. Here Dimitri is akin to the reckless, hedonistic prodigal and the next son Ivan, with his lofty moral indignation, the son who stays at home. The elder Zosima models the true father. He contains in himself the vitality of Dimitri and moral passion of Ivan but in a spiritual and integrated form. The youngest brother Alyosha, Zosima’s spiritual heir, is challenged over the course of the book to himself become a ‘father’ like Zosima and to reconcile his two brothers, both in fact and, within himself, the energies they represent.
Before launching into his famous ‘poem of the Grand Inquisitor’ Ivan details a disturbing array of ‘true crime’ accounts of children suffering ghastly torture. He concludes with his decision to “return his ticket” to a universe in which the good of the many is built upon the destruction of the innocent. Though marked by a certain proud indignation, and a love that is more abstract than concrete (like several other characters in the book he loves ‘mankind’ but strains to love particular men) the account so far attests genuine compassion and concern for victims, a just outrage at human cruelty. But Ivan blames God and the metaphysical rather than human order for such violence. The “solution” he proposes in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor (a stand-in at some level for the emerging elite of secular revolutionary social engineers) works precisely by the exclusion and replacement of the innocent Christ and the freedom to which he calls human beings. The terrible violence against the innocent (the accounts of tortured children) are the result of human, not divine violence, and the gesture of “returning the ticket” simply masks the disowning and cloaking of this responsibility. In this it is the antithesis of Zosima’s ideal of the willingness to be “guilty to all for everything,” to stand in the place of the persecuted and excluded and to suffer with them.
Very broadly, it’s not hard to see both dimensions of this outlook in various secular ideologies today: a genuine, sometimes heroic concern for victims, one that is often far ahead of the Church in decrying injustice and standing with the marginal, and a despotic social engineering eager to lift from humanity’s shoulders the heavy burden of authentic freedom. The state positions itself as sole protector of individual freedom (“rights”) over against mediating communities like families, unions, churches, which it portrays as backward and controlling. Of course by systematically weakening such institutions and moving individuals to rely more and more on the state alone, the effective freedom of individuals is subtly, gradually, diminished.
In their attitude towards ‘the world’ Christians replicate the division: some stress the genuine concern for victims among secular movements and emphasize the ways they are more Christian than the Church in their prophetic solidarity with those at the margin; while others focus exclusively on the despotic, social engineering maneuvers of secular political elites, unwilling to admit even a grain of real concern for victims. The first tend to replace anything recognizably Christian with social commitments, while the second fail to heed, and often react defensively against, the valuable challenge and critique offered by many secular movements where “seeds of the Logos” are clearly germinating.
Alyosha’s response to Ivan’s magnificent, feverish diatribe is twofold. Immediately, and to Ivan’s delight, Alyosha kisses him on the lips, as Christ does the Grand Inquisitor in the legend. Part of the sense of this mysterious and provocative sign would seem to be that Alyosha validates the goodness present in Ivan and his real concern for victims, as Christ does, even for the Grand Inquisitor. At numerous points in the story Alyosha embodies the willingness of God to accept even the most meager good deed and to forgive enormous sins in return, as in Grushenka’s folk tale of the onion given by a sinner to a poor woman. Next, Alyosha spends the rest of the book putting into practice the way of active love advocated by the elder Zosima. He serves as a peacemaker and voice of conscience who brings out the best in others, even his father Fyodor, precisely by his refusal to judge them. In obedience to Zosima, he becomes a “monk in the world” demonstrating what it means to take on himself the guilt of others. Alyosha willingly becomes entangled in the concrete particulars, the pettiness and banality of real people and works to alleviate their misery. Ivan by contrast, as we have seen, breaks all ties with his family at the critical moment, paving the way for the murder of his father which he secretly desires. So, with spontaneous admiration, without any trace of condescension, Alyosha first honors the nobility of Ivan’s soul as revealed in his passionate concern for innocent victims of cruelty. Then he refutes the social engineering inquisition not by posturing, not with a competing storyline, but by the witness of a gentle but relentless active love. This twofold approach seems to me to be a promising, intensely challenging, way forward for Christians today.
At Vatican II, John 23rd famously declared, regarding non-Catholic Christians that “what unites us is much greater than what divides us.” With his latest encyclical, Pope Francis extends that perspective to include all humanity. The experience of birth, suffering and death, work, hope and struggle, shared by all human beings forms the basis of a common humanity. He repeats as a refrain through the letter, “No one is saved alone; we can only be saved together (Fratelli Tutti 32).” While the immediate context for this remark is the covid pandemic, it at least raises the question of what this might mean with regard to eternal salvation. That is, if we can only be saved together from something like a pandemic, where our complex interdependence is evident at every step, can it really be so different with our ultimate destiny?
A Handful of Sand
In the trial scene at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Dimitri’s defense lawyer argues that overwhelming the defendant with mercy will move him to change his life while a vengeful punishment will only reinforce his resentment and alienation. “Justice” is far better satisfied when the guilty see the harm caused by their action and repent with deep remorse than when a harsh punishment is imposed and the perpetrator reacts defensively with still greater angst. The more restorative or rehabilitative approach to justice must be grounded in a truly universal respect for the dignity of each and every person regardless of their crime. At the level of conscience, the awareness of being loved in one’s sin, at one’s very worst, is simultaneously consoling and excruciatingly painful, more exacting than any prison sentence. Ultimately there is no comparison between even the worst atrocities we commit and the boundless love of God. St Isaac of Syria wrote: “As a handful of sand thrown into the sea, so are the sins of all humanity in the ocean of divine mercy.” We tend to fixate on the few grains of sand that belong to us, or those of our rival, to the point that we lose sight of the ocean. Conversion works a Copernican shift where we let go of that fixation and lift our gaze to God, turn from our miseria to his misericordia as the first Cistercians liked to say. Only then can we see our own sins and those of others in right perspective. Just as when driving a car one needs to “look well ahead” to see their immediate surroundings so we can only see sin accurately when gazing toward the far horizon of divine mercy. We only know our sin in the moment we know it’s forgiven.
Contemplative prayer, which everything in the monk’s day springs from and returns to, is the way of drawing near to God, of letting God be God, all-merciful. It’s the cultivation of a stillness, an inner spaciousness in which the ‘rival brothers,’ all the disparate, wounded, sinful, banal, magnificent and noble aspects of ourselves are allowed into the open and accepted. The very stone we rejected as builders of our personal Babel becomes the cornerstone of a new way of being in which the weakest member holds the place of honor.
“Keep your heart at peace and a multitude around you will be saved” (St. Seraphim of Sarov). If we fail at the work of interior reconciliation we inevitably foist our own conflicts on others. A “monk” it has been said, “is anyone for whom the work of the heart comes first.” St. Isaac of Syria, who makes more than one mysterious appearance in The Brothers Karamazov, warns of monks who work wonders then fall calamitously, “For they were still sickly in soul, and instead of caring for their soul’s health, they cast themselves into the sea of this world in order to heal the souls of others, but being yet in ill health…they lost their souls and fell away from their hope in God.” The monk is weaker than others and needs the support of seclusion and austerity to heal his soul and stay close to God. At the same time, in terms of his calling, in the kingdom where the last shall be first, the monk has a singular role. St. Isaac stresses the preeminence of the inner work for all of us:
The man who is conscious of his sins is greater than someone who profits the whole world by the sight of his countenance. The man who sighs over his soul for but one hour is greater than someone who raises the dead by his prayer while dwelling amid many men. The man who is deemed worthy to see himself is greater than someone who is deemed worthy to see the angels, for the latter has communion through his bodily eyes, but the former through the eyes of his soul. The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than someone who praises God in the congregation of men.