Friday, 27 May 2011

Providence, intuition, discernment: a spiritual path for moderns?

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1. Providence

From C.S. Lewis Surprised by Joy:

"What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it."


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2. Intuition
 
From Blaise Pascal Pensees:
 
"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.
 
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3. Discernment
 
From Father Seraphim Rose: his life and works, by Hieromonk Damascene. Quoting a letter by Fr. Seraphim:
 
"Well, we are all flawed. Perhaps that is the great spiritual fact of our times - that all the teachers are flawed, there are no great elders left, but only 'part time' spiritual teachers who spend part of their time undoing their good works. 
 
"We should be thankful for the good teaching we can get, but sober and cautious.
 
"The lesson to you is probably sobriety. Yes, you should trust your heart (...) what better thing do we have?
 
"Certainly not your calculating mind. (...)
 
"Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov's constant advice to the Christians of the last times is: there are no elders left, check all teaching against the Gospel (...)
 
"I'm sorry I don't have any real advice for you in your grief, unless it's just one word: yes, trust your heart and conscience, and don't do anything to violate them. (...)
 
"The Fathers still speak to us through their writings (have you read Unseen Warfare recently?), and life itself is a teacher if we try to live humbly and soberly (...)"
 
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Putting together Lewis. Pascal and Fr. Seraphim we can see a path through the morass of corruption (which includes ourselves, of course).
 
In the past it was possible to advise the Christian to be guided by those wiser than himself, join a Church (without being too picky about which specific Church), to subordinate his will to that Church, its ministers and its living tradition.
 
Yet now there are no wise; and the mainstream Churches and their traditions (as we perceive them now) have become schools of worldliness - reduced to ethical rules and subordinated to secular morality.
 
Where then can we turn? Where is knowledge that we can trust?
 
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There is an answer.
 
If there is indeed divine providence we can trust experience to provide honest feedback on our choices. We will not be allowed to stray far without warning.
 
(We may choose to ignore these warnings, but there will be warnings.)
 
If we are indeed made in God's image then we have within us trustworthy intuition: a 'heart' which can discern the warmth of right choices and the coldness of wrong choices. We have a conscience which is tormented by wrong paths and peaceful in right paths. 
 
(There will temptations - with pleasure-seeking impersonating love, pride impersonating conscience; with spiritual dryness impersonating coldness of heart - but with love and humility and guidance from scripture and ancient Holy tradition these temptations may be detected.)
 
We have the potential to use our heart and conscience to evaluate and to learn from experience; to discern wisdom when we encounter it.
 
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Where should we look?
 
In a time of corruption we cannot find The Good (undivided, in whole) in the mainstream - neither from among powerful institutions and high status people; nor from professional, technical or bureaucratic sources.
 
We may find goodness and wisdom among the humble, we may find it among the powerless or the persecuted. But not necessarily - and the truly humble, powerless and persecuted are themselves non-obvious; obscured by corruptly-designated proxies.
 
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To experience The Good we must therefore look to the past and to 'fantasy'.
 
We can experience The Good in writings from better times and places, and from imaginative accounts of better times and places. From ancient scripture, biography theology, philosophy, history and literature; and from works like the Lord of the Rings (above all), from Narnia, and (yes!) from the Harry Potter books.
 
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In all of these we can see for ourselves - imaginatively - the benign workings of providence and intuition as exemplified by the moral choices and wrong-turnings-repented of the Good protagonists; and contemplate the consequences of mistaken choices (driven by pride, hedonism and power-seeking) among the wicked.
 
From such vicarious sources we can learn what The Good feels like - we can experience Good (and its opposite), so that we will know them if (or when) we encounter Good (or its opposite) in our modern world.
 
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If we are fortunate, we may encounter The Good among actual people and institutions here-and-now; but if we are not fortunate then we might not encounter The Good except vicariously.
 
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Nonetheless, we should seek what Lewis termed 'Joy', Sehnsucht or enchantment; follow hunches and hints, glimmerings and glimpses; withdraw-from and shun that which chills our hearts and violates our conscience.
 
Interpret what we find in light of the Gospels and the wisdom of the past - and any good teaching we might by fortune receive.
 
And trust to providence and intuition: We will not, ultimately, be disappointed.
 
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15 comments:

  1. I'm just finishing my second part time semester in seminary. I'm wrestling with these issues more than I ever have in my life. While I think there are a number of good things and ideas in my church, I also have a great deal of doubt about other things.

    After a lifetime as a computer geek, the corruption in our current society is one of the main forces that led me to seminary.

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  2. "If there is indeed divine providence we can trust experience to provide honest feedback on our choices. We will not be allowed to stray far without warning."

    I like this vision. A great Designer does not make any part of his vision deceptive; it may be temporarily inscrutable, but the clues are always there.

    The paragraphs about trusting heart over intellect remind me of what some of my Buddhist friends speak about. The intellect is inherently deconstructive, and as a result, splits us from reality as soon as we try to think of it.

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  3. @Brett - I should make clear that what I said does not apply to Buddhism. For Buddhists there is no providence, and they are aiming at something quite different from salvation.

    @GaPOz - it must be tough for you to maintain integrity in these circumstances.

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  4. bgc - are they really looking for something different than salvation? The goal of Pure Land Buddhism is to be reborn in the "pure land" of one of the Buddhas and to work towards enlightenment or nirvana from there. There seems to be very little emphasis on actual enlightenment in the Japanese traditions.

    I just finished my second semester of studying Buddhism in seminary. Going back to school to work on a M.Div. has already been life changing for me.

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  5. @GaPOz- having spent several years on it, I regard comparative religion/ mythology as a mire; something that it is easy to get stuck in and difficult to get out from.

    Of course there are similarities between religions, as would be expected since it would be remarkable if there were not (they all have a similar basis in Natural Law morality, for example).

    But Christianity is a very different thing from Buddhism at its core, in the sense that a at their most advanced a Christian Saint and a Buddhist holy man are very different things: the similarities are superficial, the differences are profound.

    A creator, personal, incarnated, dying and resurrected God of Love; who is part of a Trinity; via whom salvation to become a Son of God is attained - all this core material is surely qualitatively different from any other religion?

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  6. @bgc: I appreciate that Buddhism and Christianity are wildly different. There may be some overlap in technique. And as you mention elsewhere, it's only too easy to borrow part of a philosophy and claim an equivalency.

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  7. As a Christian I find comfort in the thought that, where they exist at all, the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar are perfect. They may be surrounded by unappealing music, feeble preaching, a liturgy whose style makes one cringe; but where they exist at all, they must be perfect.

    http://dilexitprior.blogspot.com/2007/04/tolkien-on-eucharist.html

    Unfortunately, one cannot always be sure that what is supposed to be the sacrament, is so. Is Baptism "In the Name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier" really Baptism? Is a Lord's Supper rite in a church that denies the consecrated bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ, truly the Sacrament of the Altar?

    From a Lutheran reader.

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  8. PS I should have made it clear, in my previous message, that I am not referring to doubt-engendering things in my own church.

    My point was that, as we struggle against our times, we need something more than whatever disciplines we may be able to practice in our own lives; we need something that is firm when other things are unstable. I believe we have them in the Gospel of Christ and in His Sacraments.

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  9. @Dale - thanks for those comments. But I can't provide a brief response.

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  10. This was sent to me recently, from Tito Colliander's "Way of the Ascetics":

    "Never be sure of yourself. Never make a good resolution, and never think: Oh yes, I'll make out all right. Never believe in your own power and strength to resist temptation of any kind great or small. Think, on the contrary: I am sure to fall as soon as it comes upon me. Self-confidence is a dangerous confederate. The less strength you credit yourself with, the more surely you stand. Acknowledge that you are weak, completely unable to resist the slightest beckoning of the devil. Then to your astonishment you will find that he has no power over you. For if you have made the Lord your refuge you will soon be able to ensure that no evil shall befall you. The only evil that can befall a Christian is sin."

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  11. @Dale - This seems to confirm the need to begin with the Negative Path (via negativa) - of repentance and asceticism; but that the positive path, or emphasis may emerge later.

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  12. Made in God's image, we are :)
    It's true. Completely true.
    But what is "God"?
    A better question might be: "Does God know himself?"
    Is this God thing self-aware, or does it simply exist without self-awareness?
    I observed a crow, once, over a period of some six months, and was struck by the way it simply "was".
    Nothing self-conscious about it. It responded honestly and instinctively to its world. In the moment.
    That is God-consciousness, or Zen, as people might understand Zen. Natural and free.
    People have a lot of difficulty with this.

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  13. "I observed a crow, once, over a period of some six months, and was struck by the way it simply "was". "

    Indeed. And I have experienced the yearning to escape self-consciousness.

    But there are two directions - one is down to animals, the other is up towards God.

    As people get closer to God, they (apparently - this is not from my experience) become less egotistical, self-conscious. It happened to C.S Lewis, for example, over the years.

    And as a few approach Sainthood they seem to lose it altogether - they simply are, but in heaven on earth.

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  14. "But there are two directions - one is down to animals, the other is up towards God."

    OK I understand the sentiment, but there is nothing "downward" about animals. And nothing "upward" about God.
    The two are - in fact - the same.
    The one is a manifestation of the other, and nothing separates them.
    Humans, one the other hand...

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  15. For a Christian; Crows, and humans and God are different! And there is a scale of being.

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