Saturday, August 30, 2014

Two novelists of the Holy




I recall being on an aeroplane, flying I cannot remember where, when a woman, sitting beside me, literally pulled the book from my hands and looking at it declared, 'This must be interesting. Tell me about it'! My absorption must have been evident and a provocation.

The book in question was Nikos Kazantzakis' 'Report to Greco', his autobiography (or autobiographical novel), a copy of which arrived today (as I cannot recall what happened to the previous copy, perhaps I donated it to my neighbour's curiosity).

If I could nominate a novelist who 'captures' the last century evocatively and in the way that sets the questions for the new, two would immediately come to mind. They would be Kazantzakis and Aldous Huxley. They are two very different spirits but are bound by one central question - if the old, still prevalent, forms of religious framing are dying, what can we offer that is new, renewing?

Kazantzakis' response was primarily to revisit the Christian story and ask what is it that we can believe given that what we are asked to believe no longer satisfies?

God can no longer be seen as the 'omnipotent author' organising His creation from without but an en-spirited process that is emergent from within. God is a lure drawing an evolutionary process on. God is an immersed actor who suffers the conflict that such a reality necessarily entails. Evolution is creative but prodigal and messy but once the die of creating is cast, there is no other way.

In this evolutionary process man has a central role, evolution comes to a fully embodied self-consciousness in him. It is through his struggle, pitched between the interplay of spirit and matter, that love and freedom comes to fruition in the world, expressed in the lives of saints, though saints manifest themselves in many guises - the lusting gusto of a Zorba, drenched in a celebration of the sensory and the sensual as well as the more 'conventional' image of St Francis (though it must be said nothing is ever truly 'conventional' in Kazantzakis' portrayals)!

Huxley's spirit is an altogether quieter one - indeed he could be Zorba's bookish, English interlocutor, who he teaches to dance - except that in his own way, Huxley was as deeply adventurous (and both were prepared to travel through 'solutions' discarding as they went. Kazantzakis went through Nietzsche, Lenin and the Buddha before 'settling' on Christ). Huxley's adventures were, however, inward - through the disciplines of thought and spiritual practice including his experiments with drugs. His was a fully articulated turn to experience, a turn that began in earliest childhood and the importance of developing what would now be called attuned attachment between caregiver and baby. A grounding in empathetic soundness and bodily integrity from which a compassionate life can flow.

Both, however, arrive at a core intuition that the abiding salvation of the world hinges around a call to holiness that aligns spirit - soul - body and though it can be supported and sustained by a social order, it is everywhere and always, an individual's project. Both of them were aware that we need more saints and that wanting to be such was not an aberrant (or arrogant) desire but a desire that was central to what it meant to be human.

'The glory of God' wrote St Irenaeus 'is a human being fully alive' - a sentence I first encountered in Huxley and would be an apt epitaph for Kazantzakis' struggle.



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