Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The need for apatheia

Sitting in the chapel of the Forest of Peace monastery in the week following 9/11, the assembled group were exchanging reflections on the unfolding events (as part of the Mass).

These revolved, understandably, around trying to find a silver lining of meaning to that dark descended cloud.

The outpouring of initiatives to build inter-faith, cross-cultural understanding (and indeed protect the integrity of minority communities and individuals from harm) featured prominently.

This, I noticed, made me surprisingly nervous, especially in that contemplative setting. It was a nervousness I tried to articulate, baldly and badly.

This seeking after doing good (though good in itself) had a quality of over-enthusiastic neediness around it. It might, I suggested, distract you from a still, quiet interior self-examination into the forces within ourselves that lead to results of such sinfulness; and, why this surge of attention and concern would not last precisely because we were clinging to it as an answer towards what had happened when, in truth, the only answer could be to bring us back to our condition: a humanity that is unable to sustainably will the good.

It is a condition to which the practice of religion is meant to be an answer, a therapy, but one that comes about fitfully. Something is missing namely not only an understanding of what we aspire to but of all the forces that not only support such aspiration but that conspire within us to thwart it. An ability to rest in detachment and see what is at stake. Too often an idea 'grabs us' and in the excitement of being carried away, we do not notice that, in fact, we have not changed. The emotion ebbs away returning us to square one.

Having said this (or similar) I was looked at a mite strangely, surely I was not criticizing these initiatives? They are a great response to what has happened etc etc.

I was not criticizing them but querying the spirit in which they were held and the realism with which they were seen. Could we implement them without expectation of result (exterior or interior)? Could we deliver them dispassionately for themselves rather than answering our own need to be seen to be doing something?  I doubted it and yet this is what religion is meant to realize in us.

I realize that this line of questioning was amplified in me by reading Jacob Needleman's 'Lost Christianity'  of which it is a core question. I was reminded of this as I read that remarkable book once more.

What is necessary for Christianity not simply to be believed in but to be effective in its depths? Part of the answer is a deeper realization of who we are and the forces that compose us and how we struggle with those forces to allow grace to be present and effective.

It is an invitation to the practice of what used to be called apatheia - an ability to see ourselves without passion - to see how thoughts arise within us and are drawn into effective emotions (positively and negatively) so that we have the space in mind to ground decisions that lead towards the light (rather than the dark). Too often in the lack of internal space our emotions have us in a way that even when they are positive have no staying or deepening power.

What the world needs is more apathy, correctly understood, and less enthusiasm! It was a curious sermon to be offering in that week of all weeks when the pressure was on to be doing something (anything)! But a necessary one.


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