I Am Undone
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 6:1-5
New Testament Reading: John 3:15-30
Did you know there is a spirituality of beauty? That
preoccupation with the aesthetic can serve as a kind of devotional exercise? I
believe it is so. Let me explain why.
First, as you contemplate a poem, or a painting, or a
living landscape outspread before you, don't you experience a rising sense of
wonder beginning to sweep over you and carry you away? Isn't there a sense of
transport? Of rapture?
There are certain poems which are a revelatory experience
for me. The spine tingles and the soul marvels that words can be so associated.
Great music awakens something within and stirs it up. Art causes you to
transcend yourself, and that, in religious terms, is a reaching up of the soul
Paul speaks of a spiritual experience that he had kept
secret for fourteen years, until the Corinthians dragged it out of him. It was
either so personal or so unbelievable that he never said a word about it. It
was, he said, an experience of being caught up to heaven, to the paradise of
God, where he heard divine secrets beyond the capability of man to utter.
But the most puzzling thing about the passage (2
Corinthians 12:1-10) is the way he first speaks of the vision as having been
someone else's! "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught
up to the third heaven... On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own
behalf I will not boast..." But finally he decides to come clean and admit
it is he himself whose journey to heaven is under discussion. Why this coyness,
this distinctly unPauline reticence?
Some scholars have suggested, with some plausibility,
that Paul could never overcome a certain sense of psychic dissociation which he
experienced during that trance state. He had lost any sense of selfhood. He was
so utterly swept up and out of himself that he almost remembered the whole
thing as if it had happened to someone else!
And I suggest that the experience of beauty does
something of the same thing to the one who lets himself be moved by beauty
wherever it will take him.
Have you ever felt a certain ache, a certain sense of
yearning connected with some vision of great beauty? If you analyze it, I wager
you will find that the yearning is a strange feeling of frustration.
Frustration at what? That you can't put this great beauty into words? Possibly.
But I rather suspect that the ego inside you is reacting,
if only for a moment, in the only primitive way it knows how. It desires that
beauty, to possess it, to consume it. It sees a great good and wants to own it.
It wants to devour it.
In the play and movie Inherit the Wind journalist and
incurable cynic E.K. Hornbeck, fictional counterpart to H.L. Mencken, reviews
the tawdry history of Homo Not-So-Sapiens: When man first noticed the stars
above him, he reached up to seize them, thinking they were something to eat.
Finding that he couldn't reach them, he gave up and decided they were groceries
belonging to some higher being. And thus theism was born!
Well, maybe the birth of belief in God was a bit more
complicated than that. But I suspect Hornbeck had correctly hit upon some
thing. In the moment of aching beauty, the ego does treat the beautiful as a
kind of higher groceries. And in a sense the soul does feast on them by its
sheer openness to beauty.
But one immediately realizes that one cannot possess the
beauty of a landscape. And one soon forgets the self, lost in wonder. (Unless,
of course, you're a multi-billionaire, in which case you can buy it, but then
you'll soon come to take it for granted and end up strip mining it!)
Prevented from possessing, the ego withers away for the
moment, and the beauty shines unobstructed. Self no longer stands in its way,
blocking the view.
Beauty, then, because it overwhelms the self, decenters
the self. Beauty frees you from self-fixation. Self is forced off the stage so
the show can begin.
Imagine a scene in a movie theatre. There is a problem:
some loudmouth in the theatre, a class clown who never grew up, decides he
wants to be the featured attraction, not the movie. So he makes smart-alec
remarks. You grow increasingly annoyed until you are finally ready to get up
and punch him in the mouth! But suddenly something happens! He falls silent. It
seems that the film was so interesting that he, too, got absorbed in it and
just forgot all about being the center of attention! As Woody Allen says in
Annie Hall, wouldn't it be great if life were really like this? But if such a
thing were to happen, it would be an exact parallel to what happens in the
aesthetic moment: the ego, usually so possessive and self-centered, falls
silent and is borne away on a crest of wonder. That is a spiritual experience.
And worship is the same way. One seeks to be mindful of
God, not of oneself, except during the sermon, perhaps, when you ought to ask
whether what you are hearing might correct or improve you.
But worship per se, the contemplation of God in all his
worthiness -- well, what does the Prophet Isaiah say about it?
He is meditating in the courts of the Temple in
Jerusalem, trying to gain some perspective on the tumultuous events of the day,
the recent death of King Uzziah, the dangers from foreign empires, when suddenly
what is usually invisible to human eyes becomes for a moment visible! He sees
God enthroned above the Ark of the Covenant and surrounded by flaming spirits!
And they are discussing him!
What is Isaiah's first reaction? It is the hasty
retirement of the ego from the field. He exclaims, as his knees give way and he
raises a forearm to shield his eyes, "Woe is me! For I am undone!"
H.P. Lovecraft, my favorite author, strove to create a
certain effect of breathless wonder, and for that reason, he actually
suppressed characterization from his stories. He said that the evocation of the
mood should itself be the main character in such a story, the narrator merely
the frame through which the picture of the mood is presented to the reader.
Well, that is precisely what happens to Isaiah: he
recedes from the center of the canvas to become the frame, so that the mighty
Lord of Hosts may be more clearly seen.
That is the humility of John the Baptist in the Fourth
Gospel: he has sought only to point the way, and having done that, he is
content, even eager, to fade away into the margins.
When we feel the epiphany of God, of the Holy, the
materialization of the Spirit in our midst, let the self-effacing John the
Baptist, the self-forgetful Isaiah, be our models. Indeed, let us forget having
any model at all. Let us forget ourselves in the moment of epiphany as we do in
the moment of aesthetic ecstasy.
Isaiah's words "I am undone" strike me as
especially fortunate. What does this mean?
"I," that is, the ego, is like a tightly
fastened knot that keeps intact the rope net of selfishness, the roped-off zone
of defensiveness. It is a noose that hangs, a bond that restricts my movement
toward that which is greater than me.
But in the moment of wonder, worship, and holy amazement,
the clenched knot of the "I" is undone, the fetters slip off, and I
stand free before eternity.
Buddhism and Christianity agree on this central fact of
spirituality: the ego must go! At least it must not hog center stage!
Jesus says that any would-be disciple must deny the self
and follow him. The Buddha says one must admit that there is no atman, no self,
that unites all our thoughts, instincts, and desires into one integrated whole.
It is an illusion that must be surrendered before we can know liberation,
because the liberation we need is precisely that of being freed of the
obnoxious tyranny of the self!
Go ahead, now! Reproach me with the worst of
contradictions! Tell me that all I have been saying this morning is the very
opposite of selflessness! Isn't spirituality the worst kind of self-focus? What
else is introspection but a lot of navel-gazing?
I, too, have that criticism to level at many forms of
spirituality. But I am not advocating introspection, if you've noticed
carefully. I am saying that preoccupation with higher things than the ego will
take care of that. Don't sink into the sugary miasma of pietism! Anything but
that! Forget yourself and look else where! "Whoever would save his soul
will lose it!"
It is true, in the great systems of pietistic
spirituality, the self becomes a world, a god, and greater than God! One
entertains the mad delusion that God exists only to further one's own
spirituality, that the divine plan of the ages is mainly taken up with the
ridding of suburban churchgoers of petty peccadilloes.
I thought of this once while watching The Last Temptation
of Christ. There John the Baptist, long lost to himself and having become but
the funnel for the howling winds of eternity, thunders forth the oracle that in
due time God will purge the earth with torrents of fire, hurricanes of Spirit.
For some reason it came home to me just how pathetic are
our attempts to whittle down and contain such grand things larger than the earth
into dwarfish effigies that are more our size, actually smaller than us!
When we are done, the divine Spirit that sweeps the gulfs
of space and gives life to the world has become no more than a function of our
sticky devotions, the thing we credit with enabling us to stay praying for ten
whole minutes when we used to pray for five! Yes, we have been filled with the
Spirit, all right!
You tell me who it is, Bultmann or the charismatics, who
has reduced all of theology to human experience?
Do you think God created the world for your benefit? Do
you think he is waiting anxiously to find out whether you will do what he wants
or believe his favorite theology? If so, my friend, you have an exalted view of
yourself! And God has decreased in direct proportion to your own increase!
Slip the knot! Loose the bands! Undo the "I"!
Let things return to their proper configuration, with beauty, and wonder at the
Robert M. Price
Copyright©2006 by Robert
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