Thursday, March 30, 2017

"Cold Mountain," Mortality, Meaning, Meaninglessness

“God became man that man might become God"
Church Father, St. Athanasius 
ca 298–373

Dear D,

Thanks for your email and the superb passage from Cold Mountain.

To avoid unwelcome logorrhea, I will lay out a few general "ideas" relating to my own experience of aging, meaning and meaninglessness.

"Take what you can use and let the rest go by." (And if you haven't time, energy, patience or desire to read another word that's fine too. There will be no test.)

First, it is evident (to me) that we are embedded in a boundless, insoluble mystery.

Contemplating this mystery, I conceive God as the Magnum Mysterium -- a seldom-used "name of God" in the Christian tradition.

The Magnum Mysterium: Einstein On The Great Mystery

What we know with any measure of certainty is what we perceive with our senses, intuit with our hearts and apprehend with our minds. 

All three ways of knowing -- insofar as we "know" -- are dependent on a person's physical body

Without relying on guesswork or acts of faith (important as they may be), "this is it." 

We are here. (We are always right here.)

It is now. (It is always now.) 

By the standard definition of God as "something, someone or some being larger and more powerful than an individual human self or aggregate of selves" we live in the enveloping presence of God.

Borrowing from de Chardin, we are embedded in "The Divine Milieu."

We also know that "Love exists" and that "The Whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

We do not know - and cannot know - what "The Whole" is, or what the synergistic operation of the "supra-Whole" may be.   

"It" is "beyond human conception" every bit as impossible for mind to comprehend as it is impossible for our teeth to bite themselves. 

To the extent that the bible provides guidance I am struck that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" - which is to say that, in light of Judeo-Christian wisdom, the "direction" of "divinity" is away from "heaven" and into "earth" --- the Incarnation which means enfleshment, "into carnum."

I also see each of us -- and all of us dwelling together in community (which is its own kind of "being") --  as sensorial extensions of The Divine Presence by which "divinity-deity" "moves," knowedgeably, into earth-flesh-matter-mater-matrix, dwelling within and among us.

Through Incarnation, Divinity -- which is to say "the bigger, more powerful than I/we" -- manifests, explores and knows itself.

What Happens When Jesus Is Identified As The Embodiment Of Love

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ: "Research As Adoration"

John Ford, John Wayne, Aquinas And Theosis (Christian Divinization)

Aquinas, St. Symeon The New Theologian And Their Spiritual Kin

"Since God Doesn't Heal Amputees, Humankind Will. The Future Of Christian Theology"

If God is conceived as an ocean subtending and informing creation-as-we-know-it-through-our-senses, each of us -- indeed every sentient being -- is a sensory probe whereby God-Logos "gets to know himself/herself/itself/themselves"" as God-Flesh-Incarnation. (Gandhi's description of the relationship between God and humankind is revealing: "Although every drop of the ocean partakes of the nature of ocean, no single drop is the ocean." I "quote" from memory.)

Although the unfathomability of the Magnum Mysterium makes it impossible to "rule anything out," I increasingly think that expectation of a "divine reward" "over there... on the far shore" (while such "reward" and "far shore" may be real) is not something to grasp at. 

And, perhaps, not even to hope for. 

"Virtue is its own reward." 

And "vice is its own punishment."

Recently, I heard someone say: "We are not punished for our sins. We are punished by our sins."

In the "Book of Genesis," God-Yahweh's very first self-definition/self-revelation is this: "I AM who AM." 

To me, this quintessentially existential definition of God points to the wisdom of "settling into" the IS-ness of immanent "God-Flesh," not being in ANY hurry to "get back" to the abstract, purely-transcendent Logos. (Gandhi also said - and again I quote from memory: "God would not dare to appear to a hungry man except in the form of bread.")

Even on the face of it, we are wisely advised to "real-ize"-- to enflesh and to flesh out -- what we "know" to be "real," which is to say the world of "matter-mater-matrix" which our human sensoria can probe -- -- and which we can meaningfully agree upon without falling into the kind of theological trap that has largely trashed doctrinal-dogmatic Christianity:

"I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. "Well, there's so much to live for!" "Like what?" "Well... are you religious?" He said yes. I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?" "Christian." "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant ? "Protestant." "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?" "Baptist" "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?" "Baptist Church of God!" "Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?" "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.   
Emo Philips

By setting down roots and becoming more real incarnations, we increasingly enter common union, which is, of course, communion. Although the matrix-of-community is more real than any one of us, it starts when individuals integrate into synergistic super-structures comprising The Communitarian Whole.

Setting down roots... 

It has always been Christianity's metaphor to see human beings rising into divine communion - "up and away" into the beatific vision of Glorious God On High.

Although words are always metaphorical and fail to express the existential essence of "AM-IS," I have long sensed that divinity might more plausibly rise into us from below -- from The Ground of Being -- and that we need to sink roots into the earth beneath us in order to commingle most readily with God who is under-standing. 

The Way.

The Truth.

The Life.

In their "religious lives," most people find resonance with divinity in religious art, religious music, religious architecture and religious feasts. 

Notably, all these endeavors are made possible by material objects.

Using artistry as a springboard -- and I include the kitchen as another kind of creative "studio" -- I suggest that resonance-with-divinity is more readily resonant, indeed most readily resonant, through acts of creation that produce objet d'art.

I will close with an autobiographical passage from British author J.B. Priestley, whose novella, "The Carfitt Crisis" I discovered at the Picton Library while living in Liverpool, 1976-77.

"Just before I went to America, during the exhausting weeks when I was busy with my Time Plays, I had such a dream, and I think it left a greater impression on my mind than any experience I had ever known before, awake or in dreams, and said more to me about this life than any book I have ever read. The setting of the dream was quite simple, and owed something to the fact that not long before my wife had visited the lighthouse here at St. Catherine's to do some bird ringing. I dreamt I was standing at the top of a very high tower, alone, looking down upon myriads of birds all flying in one direction; every kind of bird was there, all the birds in the world. It was a noble sight, this vast aerial river of birds. But now in some mysterious fashion the gear was changed, and time speeded up, so that I saw generations of birds, watched them break their shells, flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grew only to crumble; bodies were sleek, and then, in a flash bled and shrivelled; and death struck everywhere at every second. What was the use of all this blind struggle towards life, this eager trying of wings, this hurried mating, this flight and surge, all this gigantic meaningless effort?

As I stared down, seeming to see every creature's ignoble little history almost at a glance, I felt sick at heart. It would be better if not one of them, if not one of us, had been born, if the struggle ceased for ever. I stood on my tower, still alone, desperately unhappy. But now the gear was changed again, and the time went faster still, and it was rushing by at such a rate, that the birds could not show any movement, but were like an enormous plain sown with feathers. But along this plain, flickering through the bodies themselves, there now passed a sort of white flame, trembling, dancing, then hurrying on; and as soon as I saw it I knew that this white flame was life itself, the very quintessence of being; and then it came to me, in a rocket burst of ecstasy, that nothing mattered, nothing could ever matter, because nothing else was real but this quivering and hurrying lambency of being. Birds, men and creatures not yet shaped and coloured, all were of no account except so far as this flame of life travelled though them. It left nothing to mourn over behind it; what I had thought was tragedy was mere emptiness or a shadow show; for now all real feeling was caught and purified and danced on ecstatically with the white flame of life. I had never before felt such deep happiness as I knew at the end of my dream of the tower and the birds." 

And so, I feel it is left to us to do as we will.

But how can we better or more meaningfully dedicate ourselves to "the white flame of life" than to undertake acts of creation -- co-creation really -- whose ecstasy (from the Latin "ex stasis")  joins our individual incarnations with The Incarnation of Life that IS - an ecstasy that lets the lambency-of-being course through ourselves and our senses when we do whatever we can to attune ourselves to - and join oourselves with - the overarching act of Creation. 

We fit ourselves into "the harmonies." 

And that fitness is both fit and fitting.

There are chords.

And there is discord.

We may choose.

Pax tecum


PS I will also mention that it seems increasingly likely that we might - AT NEED - use psychedelics (and I must stress the fundamental importance, if not necessity, of using them in collaboration with knowledgeable healers) both to relieve unrelenting angst and to find a way through some of life's most "paralytic" conundrums. I am not at the point where I "need" to go down this road, but I think we must be honest about an admittedly risky approach to healing "unfixably" broken spirits. (Here is a more subtle and probably more discerning view of psychedelics from the Zen standpoint: )

Pax on both houses: LSD Research: There's A Reason People Feel ...

Apr 13, 2016 - The researchers asked the people to rate their mood changes—getting answers like “I'm tripping like crazy” or “nothing is happening”—their ...

Pax on both houses: How Ayelet Waldman Found A Calmer Life On ...

Jan 23, 2017 - How Ayelet Waldman Found A Calmer Life On Tiny Doses Of LSD. The polymath writer, known for defying expectation, turned a treatment for ...

Pax on both houses: The Dreaded 'Bad Trip' on LSD -- Researchers ...

Aug 25, 2014 - He told me about a half-keg running at someone's house nearby. Then ... At the time, in the mid-1990s, both LSD and 'shrooms were peaking in ...

Pax on both houses: Large Study Links Controled LSD Use To ...

Jan 9, 2014 - a hallucinogenic mushroom but not the source of LSD) ... “They add to both the older and emerging body of data indicating beneficial effects of ...
Diane Rehm Show: Using Psychedelic Drugs To Treat PTSD & Other Mental Disorders
Pax tecum,


Pax on both houses: Palestrina and Lauridsen - O Magnum Mysterium

Dec 16, 2013 - and less feigned knowledge. ***. Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme's best known work is "Mysterium Magnum." ...

Pax on both houses: Magnum Mysterium: Evangelicals LOVE Trump ...

Mar 18, 2016 - Magnum Mysterium: Evangelicals LOVE Trump Who Is On His 3rd Wife .... Updated Compendium Of Pax Posts About Donald Trump.

Pax on both houses: Fred Owens' Experience Of Africa, The Magnum ...

Feb 6, 2017 - Fred Owens' Experience Of Africa, The Magnum Mysterium And Rilke's Insight. Image may contain: 2 people, child, tree, outdoor and nature.

Pax on both houses: My Review Of Martin Scorsese's "Silence" With ...

Jan 29, 2017 - And when an individual's life is done, I think "what comes next" is best left in the lap of theMagnum Mysterium - one of Christianity's many ...

Pax on both houses: "The Mystery We Are" And "The Island Of ...

Feb 8, 2015 - "The Mystery We Are" And "The Island Of Knowledge". O Magnum Mysterium. The Birth of God-Man O Magnum Mysterium Musical Settings

On Mon, Mar 6, 2017 at 5:13 PM, DS wrote:


Though I am not quite 58, I too am keenly aware that twilight is much closer to me than dawn.  There is a passage in Cold Mountain that captured the feeling and has stuck with me in the years since reading the book.

They were both at such an age that they stood on a cusp. They could think in one part of their minds that their whole lives stretched out before them without boundary or limit. At the same time another part guessed that youth was about over for them and what lay ahead was another country entirely, wherein the possibilities narrowed down moment by moment.

My internal quandary is with how to respond to the realization.  Do I need to accomplish, complete, experience this thing (whatever it might be) while I still can; or is it all just dust in the wind, not worth chasing after even if I could?  A battle between mania and inertness.


On Monday, March 6, 2017 4:50 PM, Alan Archibald <> wrote:

Dear D,

Thanks for your email.

Middle of April should work well.

Pax vobiscum


PS My bedtime is really erratic. I turn 70 in August. Ever since I entered my late sixties, I live with a clear sense that my remaining time is limited - and it's passing faster all the time. A British author for whom I have I high regard, J.B. Priestley, commented in his mid-80s that "Life had become the continual blur of bending over to pick up today's paper. Fortunately, sleep is a movable feast. If I get caught up in music or reading or writing, I don't let Morpheus get in my way. 

No comments:

Post a Comment