Friday, 27 May 2011

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


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."

2. Intuition
From Blaise Pascal Pensees:
"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.
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 (...)"
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.