Our Biblical Blog /'Examined Life'
Our Biblical Blog /'Examined Life'
In times of crisis, the main question is: can the course of our story be altered? Can it change for the better? Today's reading on Lot's leaving Sodom and Gomorrah bears this good news. The preceding story, Abraham's successful prayers for the city of Nineveh already showed this. What strikes us in these stories, that both of them negotiate with God. Abraham is driving a hard bargain. He begs for God's mercy for fifty. Step by step, he lowers the number of righteous for whose sake God will change his mind and save the city. 'Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for the lack of five?' God – destiny – is moved by this love for fellow human beings.
In Lot's case it is not saving the city. He hosts the angels of history the night before destroying the sinful cities. 'And he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.' Then the angels of destruction warn Lot to warn his relatives, and himself, to leave in time. They show compassion, in response to Lot's generosity.
The good news is that powers that shape our history can be altered. Human compassion can liberate powers of grace and initiate a new turn. So, history is not destiny, it is not a closed iron cage. The challenge is twofold. To have compassion and charity ready in our hearts, and to meet the angels of our cities in time. The question is as to whether the meeting point is in our churches. And weather the angels will find those persons, whom they want to meet, or who have the power – like Abraham and Lot did – to move them to compassion.
The corona virus causes immense anxiety. Its arrival is like that of an asteroid. It hits our ‘earth’, our safe day-to-day life. One of its effects is our reawakening from among our daily distractions. The milliard pluralities around which we have been spinning, being torn into thousand pieces, suddenly is compressed. Like the will-o’-the-wisp, the multiple lights of our high-tech culture disappear. We are left alone and facing again the one reality. Our fragile, long unscrutinised life.
Facing this one life is just as painful as facing the merciless pluralities that confront our consciousness. Actually, this loss of control, the exhaustion by the thousand forces which we are captive of is an unbearable pain. We simply can’t get out of their grip. Our sins like artificial lights are dazzling our eyes. We are coloured, day and night, by these explosions of artificial lights. Yep, our one life can be lost for good. Just as real, as the coronavirus on the threshold of our secure existence.
In the light of the powers of distraction (our constant being de-centred) Jesus’ words attain a new significance. ‘Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.’ (Luke 10:4-5). This is the only way to regain our strength in the sun-storm of deconstruction in which we live. This is the only credible voice, our command of simplification. We must simplify ourselves in order to perceive the lost unifying centre. Amidst fake pluralisms the one genuine universal.
I don’t know what it is. But we will perceive it, even grow a language to be addressed by it, and speak to it, when we undergo the experience of having one moneybag, one haversack, one pair of sandals and no worthless distraction.
‘You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Mt 5:48) Is it a statement which is ‘outside’ our banal human life? Or, on the contrary, this saying reveals God as the closest to us? I believe, it could be said only by the God who is Emmanuel. It could be said only by a God, who in Jesus, is our brother, and in the Holy Spirit, is our sister. The closest one.
In order to understand, and most importantly to accept this closeness, we can have a look at the films which come ‘close to us’ every day. My feelings are ambiguous about them. Up until recently I was really struggling with their ‘iconoclasm’. One might call it decadence, even manipulation. There is always something disturbing in the level of violence, and the exaggerated human drama in these soaps (E.g., East Enders, Fleabag, or the Netflix series,
The Stranger). As Christians, we can feel a kind of aversion against their ‘iconoclasm’. Everything emerges in the end twisted, and incurably complex. We are entertained by our own sins and failures. Good old ‘virtues’ are falling apart, broken families, adultery are the new standards of the human condition. Christians feel a remorse, even a kind of anger, and could see the media of not simply promoting, but consolidating the new status quo.
However, it is at this point where Jesus’ demand for perfection is prompting us to see things differently. This command removes all fears from us. There is a warm embrace of love in it: ‘be perfect’ also means ‘I am wi th you’. This commandment is also saying, ‘see things with me’. ‘See yourself not from the outside but from within!’
Owing to this gift ‘to be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect’, we can see these films as a call for conversion, and compassion. They hold us a mirror: yes, human situations are very complex. Perhaps, their most important message for us is that we Christians are not outside these stories. (And if it is true, there should be always mitigating circumstances.) We are complicit in these situations: our sins, our desires, our failures are not different but are the same. The only difference is that we are aware of this call. In all the midst of it, which is only surfacing in our films, ‘you must be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
All of us were shattered today when the news broke that Jan Vanier, the founder of the L’arche community which does a wonderful work with people with disability, committed sexual assault on 6 women. An outstanding icon is falling, now, and now everything feels like in those films. One’s faith could fall apart because of scandals like this. And all this is very sad, and tragic, indeed. Yet, it is that very sentence about perfection, with all the underlying meanings which we touched upon at the beginning, which rescues our faith unharmed. Even strengthened. ‘You must be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect!’ See in all these situations God’s rescuing mercy and compassion with the human condition. Our perfect God, when he judges us, is also perfect in searching for all the mitigating circumstances, why we are so wounded and underachieving.
And something wonderful emerges, always, if we cling to this very source of hope, faith, and love: ‘be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!’ Let us think about our call, what is involved in this demand. What can we do to re-valuate and live all the requirements of the law of Love. T.S. Eliot’s poem is the perfect illustration of how timing Jesus’ command is, and what it means in practice. (See Choruses from ‘The Rock’, 1934)
‘God destined for his most holy Mother a favour worthy of the love of a Son who, since he is all-wise, all-powerful, and all-good, necessarily prepared a Mother in keeping with himself. Therefore, he willed that his redemption be applied to her in the form of a remedy that would keep her safe, so that sin which spreads down from generations to generation would not reach her.’ (Saint Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Ch.6)
Psychoanalysis speaks of the unconscious. By this are meant those regions of the psyche of which we are unaware. Different schools in the psychoanalytic tradition speak of individual unconscious, or like C. G. Jung, the collective unconscious. The latter refers to deeply buried collective memory which throughout generations, all members of the human family share.
It is worth raising the idea to see sin as our ‘existential unconscious’. Sin seems to leave a trace in the human memory, even if it gets forgotten by the individual, that is our common experience. What if individual sin is a memory mark, is imprinted – in however a subtle way – into our DNA itself. It becomes part of not only our psychological composite but that of our biological existence itself. Both on individual and on a collective level.
Sin, as a sequence of memories, accumulates. Unconsciously it can affect our life-decisions, way of thinking, even our worldview. (Not to mention our sense of God!) That would explain, while there are epochs, when peoples walk leaden-footed – in the wrong direction and are often blind to recognise it. We should contemplate this mystery, how ‘sin’ becomes part of our aging… How it affects our thinking, potentials, our development and our love itself.
Yet the point is to see and revisit the church’s teaching on Mary’s ‘perfect nature’. Cannot we see it as if the ‘shadow-dimension’ is not present in her DNA? Sin is simply not part of her ‘existential unconscious’. Just like in the case of Jesus Christ. (Or, to lesser extent, this is the case of great religious figures and divines in all traditions?) This condition gave them an unparalleled susceptibility to God’s presence and guidance. Their decisions, their prayers were not blocked at all by what weighs us down, sin, our existential unconscious.
If the above model has a truth in it, one might understand the importance of bringing this hidden dimension before God, who alone can reveal and treat our fallenness.
This is just a brief remark. What happens when no one comes to a service? For there are days as such. Listening to the numbers, is one thing. Listening to the continuity of services, is another. Churches must be kept open, not only in the physical sense. For in our services, sacred history comes alive through our readings. We become contemporaries of what was said in those texts. Like developing a film-negative (good old days), those words have photographed into themselves the actual historical surrounding. That’s why it feels moving to be the contemporary of a prophet. That’s why it is humbling to see how faith was endangered, the difficulties Apostle Paul faced.
Our churches, before anyone arrives, is full of this sacred history. Yet, our task is to keep our churches alive, ‘praying what is prescribed’, and thus, to keep sacred history open.
A church service, without someone to attend, is something not easy to take in. In such moments it is consoling to recall Jesus’ previous miracles (‘presences’). I am personally thankful to the Lord for this reminder. He keeps asking us in such ‘lonely’ services: ‘...Or do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves among the five thousand, how many baskets full of scraps did you collect?...Are you still without perception?’
With our collapsing democracies and imploding biosphere, it’s no wonder that people despair. The Austrian psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl presciently described such sentiments in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). He wrote of something that ‘so many patients complain [about] today, namely, the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives’. A nihilistic wisdom emerges when staring down the apocalypse. There’s something predictable in our current pandemics, from addiction to belief in pseudoscientific theories, for in Frankl’s analysis, ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.’ When scientists worry that humanity might have just one generation left, we can agree that ours is an abnormal situation. Which is why Man’s Search for Meaning is the work to return to in these humid days of the Anthropocene.
Already a successful psychotherapist before he was sent to Auschwitz and then Dachau, Frankl was part of what’s known as the ‘third wave’ of Viennese psychoanalysis. Reacting against both Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, Frankl rejected the first’s theories concerning the ‘will to pleasure’ and the latter’s ‘will to power’. By contrast, Frankl writes that: ‘Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalisation” of instinctual drives.’
Frankl argued that literature, art, religion and all the other cultural phenomena that place meaning at their core are things-unto-themselves, and furthermore are the very basis for how we find purpose. In private practice, Frankl developed a methodology he called ‘logotherapy’ – from logos, Greek for ‘reason’ – describing it as defined by the fact that ‘this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man’. He believed that there was much that humanity can live without, but if we’re devoid of a sense of purpose and meaning then we ensure our eventual demise.
In Vienna, he was Dr Viktor Frankl, head of the neurology department of the Rothschild Hospital. In Auschwitz, he was ‘number 119,104’. The concentration camp was the null point of meaning, a type of absolute zero for purpose in life. Already having developed his theories about logotherapy, Frankl smuggled a manuscript he was working on into the camp, only to lose it, later forced to recreate it from memory. While in the camps, he informally worked as a physician, finding that acting as analyst to his fellow prisoners gave him purpose, even as he ostensibly assisted others. In those discussions, he came to conclusions that became foundational for humanistic psychology.
One was that the ‘prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed’. Frankl recounts how even in the camps, where suicide was endemic, the prisoners who seemed to have the best chance of survival were not necessarily the strongest or physically healthiest, but those somehow capable of directing their thoughts towards a sense of meaning. A few prisoners were ‘able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom’, and in the imagining of such a space there was the potential for survival.
Frankl imagined intricate conversations with his wife Tilly (who, he later discovered, had been murdered at another camp), or of lecturing a future crowd about the psychology of the camps – which was precisely his work for the rest of his life. Man’s Search for Meaning – with its conviction that: ‘Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions’ – became a postwar bestseller. Translated into more than two dozen languages, selling more than 12 millions copies, and frequently chosen by book clubs and college psychology, philosophy and religion courses, Man’s Search for Meaning has its place in the cultural zeitgeist, with whole university and hospital departments geared around both humanistic psychology and logotherapy. Even though Frankl was a physician, his form of psychoanalysis often seemed to have more in common with a form of secularised rabbinic Judaism than with science.
Man’s Search for Meaning is structured in two parts. The first constitutes Frankl’s Holocaust testimony, bearing similarity to writings by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. In the second part, he elaborates on logotherapy, arguing that the meaning of life is found in ‘experiencing something – such as goodness, truth and beauty – by experiencing nature and culture or … by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him’, not simply in spite of apocalyptic situations, but because of them.
The book has been maligned as superficial pop-existentialism; a vestige of middle-brow culture offering platitudinous New Age panaceas. Such a reading isn’t entirely unfair. And seven decades later, one might blanche at the sexist language, or the hokey suggestion that a ‘Statue of Responsibility’ be constructed on the US West Coast. However, a fuller consideration of Frankl’s concept of ‘tragic optimism’ should give more attention to the former rather than the latter before the therapist is impugned as overly rosy. When he writes ‘Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake,’ it’s hard to accuse him of being a Pollyanna.
Some critics accuse Frankl of victim-blaming. The American scholar Lawrence Langer in 1982 even wrote that Man’s Search for Meaning is ‘almost sinister’. According to him, Frankl reduced survival to an issue of a positivity; Langer argues that the book does a profound disservice to the millions who perished. A critique such as this has some merit to it, and yet Frankl’s actual implications are different. His book evidences no moralising against those who’d lost a sense of meaning. Frankl’s study doesn’t advocate logotherapy as an ethical but as a strategic response to tragedy.
When identifying meaninglessness, it would be a mistake to find it within the individual who suffers. Frankl’s fellow prisoners weren’t responsible for the concentration camps, just as somebody born into a cycle of poverty isn’t at fault, nor is any one of us (unless you happen to be an oil executive) the cause of our collapsing ecosystem. Nothing in logotherapy implies acceptance of the status quo, for the struggle to alter political, material, social, cultural and economic conditions is paramount. What logotherapy offers is something different, a way to envision meaning, despite things not being in your control. In his preface to the book’s 2006 edition, Rabbi Harold Kushner glosses Frankl’s argument by saying that: ‘Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.’
Far from being obsessed with the meaning of life, logotherapy demands that patients orient themselves to the idea of individual meaning, to ‘think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly’, as Frankl writes. Logotherapy – asking patients to clear an imaginative space to orient themselves towards some higher meaning – provides a response to intolerable situations.
Frankl writes that he ‘grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.’ It is easy to be cynical about such a claim, proving Frankl’s point. In our small, petty, limited, cruel era, it seems hard to come across much collective human affection, and yet our pettiness, limitations and cruelty are in their own way a response to the looming apocalypse. ‘Every age has its own collective neurosis,’ Frankl writes, ‘and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it.’ If we’re exhausted, fatigued, anxious, enraged, despairing and confused at the collapse of our individual fortunes, our social networks, our communities, our industries, our democracy, our very planet, it’s no wonder we’ve developed a certain collective neurosis. Yet humanistic psychology has not been in vogue for decades; in its place, we have fashionable sociobiology and misapplied neuroscience in the form of the Panglossian Steven Pinker and the Svengali platitudes of Jordan Peterson.
In one of the book’s most remarkable passages, Frankl recounts how, when his work group was allowed a meagre few hours of rest, a fellow prisoner interrupted them and ‘asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see a wonderful sunset’. With a prose style that tends towards the clinical, albeit with a distinct sense of the sacred, Frankl here gives himself over to the transcendent:
Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colours, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky.
From this vision, here in a place whose very definition was the nullification of meaning, another prisoner remarked: ‘How beautiful the world could be!’ Such is the promise of logotherapy – not to ensure that there will be more sunsets, for that is our individual and societal responsibility. What logotherapy offers, rather, is the promise to be in awe at a sunset, even if it does happen to be our last one; to find wonder, meaning, beauty and grace even in the apocalypse, even in hell. The rest is up to us.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
What we are trying to do in our little church at the end of the world is ‘letting God be God’. We have re-created the basics of monastic life, that is, its focusing on God. What God says. Regardless of numbers, we sing the morning and evening prayers. The lectio divina, with its long readings, is built into these services. We simply let God speak; his sacred texts being read aloud. We are just waiting if this ‘hotspot’ makes a difference.
All we know is that when we let God to be a member of our community, He starts creating ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ among us. Or, it is like an airport of self-knowledge. Without these prayer-times this airport would be closed. No arrivals, no departures.
Today’s Gospel is such an important illustration of the importance of these monastic (heart-focused) opening times. The astuteness of the Syro-Phonecian woman should be our example. We need to bring our ‘muted churches’ before the Lord, just as she had brought her little daughter (detached from Tradition, the continuous and full reading of Sacred Scripture, shortened prayer times, one or two services per week, the abandoned sacrament of reconciliation, etc.).
This healing is a profound symbol of how letting God be God makes us speaking again. She goes home and finds her child lying on the bed ‘and thee devil gone’. The devil gone: when our churches are lit with ‘the speaking presence of God’. Based on a monastic blueprint.
And a last remark. It is not about numeric growth. The point is having a space where Jesus, the divine Word of God resides. Where ‘he could not pass unrecognised’.
It amazes us how quickly Jesus sees across situations. ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand…’ Teaching, healing follows instantaneously, as if he had an immediate access to all aspects of human (and divine!) life. Indeed, he has this power. He understands and has power over all the diversities of human life.
Saint Francis de Sales invites us to trace behind this God’s own mastery over the diversity of Creation. This mastery over all the diversity and fragmentation will help us understand where Jesus’ power of healing (and teaching) comes from. The following quotes from his Treatise on the Love of God will show how Jesus as ‘the eternal Word’ is directly rooted in God’s one unique action which creates the universe and keeps it alive.
‘In Him there is only one most simple and infinite perfection, and in that perfection only one sole most unique and most pure act…In God there are not many actions, but only one sole act, which is the divinity itself, yet this act is so perfect’ that it comprehends and initiates all diversity in the world, including the diversity of human actions.
All comes from this one word, from this ‘one Jesus’. All enfold from this ‘supreme unity’ of the one creative act of God. ‘This supreme unity of the divine act is opposed to the confusion and disorder but not to distinction and variety. On the contrary, it employs these last to bring forth beauty by reducing all difference and diversity to proportion, proportion to order, and order to the unity of the world, which comprises all created things, both visible and invisible All these together are called the universe, perhaps because all their diversity is reduced to unity, as if one were to say “unidiverse”, that is, unique and diverse, unique along with diversity and diverse along with unity.
In sum, God’s supreme unity diversifies all things, and his permanent eternity gives change to all things, because the perfection of his unity is above all difference and variety and must therefore have both means to furnish all diverse created perfections with thief being and contain power to produce them.’ ‘This single eternal will of his divine majesty extends its force from age to age and into ages of ages to all that has been, that is, or that will be into eternity.’ (Saint Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Vol.I, Ch 2 ‘That in God There is But One Single Act, Which is His Own Divinity’)
So how can we see Jesus as our healer and teacher? In his person − as the above quote says − all the diversity of our life is already there. In Jesus, God’s single unique act of Creation ‘speaks to us’, ‘which is His own divinity’. All of our actions, good and bad, all of our situations are embraced by Jesus. In his presence, we are embraced by God, as part of his one single act of creation. It is this immediacy which heals and teaches us in today’s Gospel. Let us listen to it again (Mk 7:14-23)
A very compelling scene: ‘wherever he went, to village, or town, or farm, they laid down the sick in the open spaces, begging him o let them touch even the fringe of his cloak.’ All go to Jesus. As he has become the centre of the landscape, but the very centre of all human landscapes. Even the birds up in the open places, or on trees, house-tops are puzzled to see these processions…
In this ‘re-centring’ on Jesus, history becomes honest. Through our individual needs we admit: we need Salvation. As the centre of life.
In those processions of need (for healing), all the distractions in life, which enclose us into our sensual experiences and satiable desires are unmasked. They become secondary as we come out of our ‘banal self’. We can see in it, how this realm of prayer is our collective unconscious. It is so real, but it can be so deeply buried in us.
The birds, up in the trees, overlooking the scene, would be indeed puzzled how humans, in these moments of request, come alive.
We can contemplate further in this scene, how the recognition of our vulnerability, is the only way of suspending the destructive tendencies in us: wars, fights, and divisions.
The scene, in the final outcome, shows what religion is about. Bringing people in touching distance of their centre of redemption. ‘All those who touched him were cured.’
‘And he instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a staff − no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purses. They were to wear sandals but, he added, “Don not take a spare tunic”.’ (Mk 6:7) The point is not what they don’t take with them, but what they do. We can imagine, how they will feel this special ‘something’ when they feel a bit chilly, and would instinctively put on their back their spared tunic. Or, when their sandals got out of shape, and they put on the spare one. But no. This sensation soon gives place to a special peace and warmth in their hearts. They just feel the gentle weight of their friendship with their Master. Through this being stripped of their concerns (their engineering their future, and being in control), they can just focus on their new inner force. Literally, they walk in the Spirit. Defenceless, but fully protected.
From that special first walk, from the mixture of dust and their footsteps, emerges all theology and Christian wisdom. ‘There is an unparalleled likeness, there is an unparalleled correspondence between God and man because of their reciprocal perfection. This does not mean that God can receive any perfection from man. But just as man cannot be perfected except by the divine goodness, so also divine goodness can rightly exercise its perfection outside itself nowhere so well as upon our humanity. The one ahs great need and great capacity to receive good; the other has great abundance and great inclination to bestow it…The more of affluence the good possesses, the stronger is its inclination to diffuse and communicate itself.’ (Saint Francis de Sales, Treatise on The Love of God, chapter 15.)
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..