A Season for Kenosis (I)

 

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A Night for All Souls, Mountainview Cemetery

Since becoming Catholic, my love for the real meaning of Christmas has only grown. This year, I decided to do something extra in preparation for the Season of Advent, the season of ‘Holy Waiting’ in anticipation of the Incarnation.

 

Every year, Mountain View Cemetery holds A Night for All Souls, a public event and art installation that corresponds to the Christian Holy-day of All Saints and Souls Days, and the ancient Pagan Holy-day of Samhain (pronounced Saw-win). For the past couple years, I have really enjoyed this time of year. With the land turning from summer to winter and having lost several family members and friends, it was a good time to reflect on transitions; on life and death.

I wanted to do something to connect this time of year to my anticipation of Advent. I have heard of celebrating the Celtic Advent, which begins around mid-November. But it occurred to me that as we prepare to receive the Incarnation into the world, meditating on transition, on death, on our blessed dead was the perfect time to deepen our understanding of the mysterious idea of Kenosis.

Kenosis is Greek and literally means self-emptying. Paul uses this curious phrase in Philippians chapter 2, where he says:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (NIV) 

God emptied himself of divinity to take on humanity, so that we could, in turn, enter into the divine presence.

This idea has cosmological implications. One of the monks that I interviewed for my PhD had this to say:

God reached into the far end of the universe, like grabbing the back end of a balloon and pulled it back the other direction. He’s made himself present by becoming part of the created order precisely so he can pull the entire created order back up into himself. Christ is the head of everything, and everything is present in him. Everything finds its expression before God in Christ. So when I’m encountering the beauty of a flower…any part of creation…I’m encountering some part of Christ, some radiance of Christ.

Christ’s full divinity and full humanity mean that the cosmos is not a static creation, but an ongoing event that is moving toward God. Teachers like Teilhard de Chardin and his contemporary interpreter Ilia Delio, see this as corroborating scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries that see the universe, not as a static space, but an unfolding drama, wherein human beings play an integral role with the rest of creation.

Kenosis also takes on an ethical dimension in Christianity. Not only did God empty himself of Godself to become human, but the way back to God on the Christian path is to mimic this self-emptying through the cultivation of agape, or love.

In Simone Weil’s (1909-1943) Gravity and Grace she writes:

It is God who in love withdraws from us so that we can love him. For if we were exposed to the direct radiance of his love, without the protection of space, of time and of matter, we should be evaporated like water in the sun; there would not be enough ‘I’ in us to make it possible to surrender the ‘I’ for love’s sake. Necessity is the screen set between God and us so that we can be. It is for us to pierce through the screen so that we can cease to be.

To cease to be often comes across as a kind of Eastern annihilationism. However, in Christianity, to empty ourselves is really to strip down the layers of prejudice, pretence, greed, selfishness and hate that plague us as human beings and discover what Thomas Merton calls the ‘True Self’ which lies at the core of our being. Weil goes on to write:

May God grant me to become nothing. In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me.

To empty the self is to dig down to the source of the living waters that bubble up at the core of our being, where God is continually present to us and in fact creating us at each moment. If you are like me, there is still a long way to get there. But no amount of work on my part will get me all the way there. So long as I am looking, waiting, watching for God, She tends to bubble up and surface in unexpected and grace-filled ways.

This is why Kenosis is such an important Christian practice, and perhaps why this is a good season to engage it more deeply. As we enter the season of Holy Longing (Eros), we await the refreshing fulfilment of the Incarnation. Once we have emptied ourselves of the clutter of self-regard and sin, we are more prepared to be filled with the pure love of Christ (Agape). This dance between Eros and Agape is a productive tension in Christianity, and it seems like the perfect time of the liturgical calendar to engage it most playfully. Longing and fulfilment, emptiness and fullness, eros and agape tug at each other. Christianity is a religion that seeks to find itself by giving up the self, a religion that worships one God in three persons. Or, as Mother Clare Morgan writes, “Christianity is about paradox. Our greatest wealth is our poverty. Our greatest strength is our vulnerability. Our greatest armor is the wound in our side.”

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Redemption

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Redemption comes in tiny ripples, not crashing waves.

Redemption arrives quietly like swallows—one or two appear overnight and stay on for a time.

Redemption comes in an instant like the sparkle of grains of sand that catch the sun just right.

Redemption works on a person like the tides.

What begins as the sharp edges of broken glass-hearts, yield their violence to the slow washing over of the ever breathing sea.

Redemption comes like clouds of pollen from sturdy pines that somehow find the nakedness of fertile cones.

And, once acknowledged in the heart, redemption, ever present, becomes a ripened seed that plunges into the fecund darkness of earth with an unwavering hope that she too will become a towering tree.

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Two Walks

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On Sunday I took two walks. One before church and one after. The first took me through the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver’s urban core. I set up the vestments and chalices for the morning Mass. Then, I left the church and headed west along the boundary between Gastown and Chinatown. Gentrification has created a kind of checker board of social housing interspersed with hip up and coming vintage stores, pizza by the slice and dive bars. Buildings tower over head. The streets are still sparse in the early cool of Sunday morning. A man lies sleeping in a doorway. A woman j-walks slowly eyes fixed to the ground. Crows and pigeons forage and peck at the street.

As I round a corner, turning north and then east, the streets are even more sparse. Trinket and tourist shops are still closed. There are a few early risers with cameras. The uneven pavement rests, waiting for the city to wake. I try to make unthreatening eye contact. I try to pray for each person. I forget. My mind wanders and then I start up again.

I return to the church and attend Mass. It is solemn and beautiful. The familiar words, chants and choreography nourish me. I relish in the tiny morsel of bread and sour wine that dissolves into my mouth, dissolving me with it.

The second through a second growth douglas fir forest in North Vancouver. Its tall trees and clean air have become something of a sacred grove for me as I work through a dark period in my life. A period in my life that is rich with the productive pain of spiritual growth.  After coffee and a few greetings I drive to the Northshore and take a familiar trail down toward Lynn Creek. The trees tower over me. The sun peeks through in speckles and flecks from high above. The forest is still cool and still even though it is after noon. I ask the trees and salal to pray for me like they are saints. I pass couples and tourists, dog walkers and families. I try to make unthreatening eye contact. I try to pray for each person. I forget. My mind wanders and then I start up again. Crows and robins forage and peck at the ground. I approach the gurgle of Lynn Creek. I sit on a flat rock caressed on all sides by water. My mind drifts off into the soft sound and continuously flowing water. My two walks were really just one long walk.

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Gull Feathers

 

 

 

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The high tide pushed the gull feathers into a straight line along several hundred feet of beach.

There was no sign of the body.

Only the inscribed threshold of those delicate feathers on the rocky shore.

 

Non-Yogis Like Me Should Not Practice Yoga. There I Said It.

In a popular online Yoga for Complete Beginners video, the instructor begins by inviting participants into a Sanskrit-named pose. We, the viewers, are going to relax, to ‘watch’ the breath, ‘create space’ in the body, and ‘connect’ with ourselves. We are encouraged to remember that there are no right or wrong poses. The movements are about “self-expression” and “awareness” of the body. When I finished my awkward attempts at the poses and lay on my back listening to the soft exit music of the video, I admit, I felt good. But I am soon distracted with self-criticisms. A lifelong curmudgeon and cynic about all things trendy, I am skeptical about the surge in popularity of yoga in North America. But if yoga feels good, and contributes to a general sense of wellbeing and fitness, then what’s the big deal? Why write a post like this?

Well, in this post I will articulate some generally unpopular opinions that will leave most yoga aficionados annoyed. But this post is really a way for me to figure out my own relationship to yoga, helpful to others or not. Let me start by saying that I have nothing against people who dive fully into their spiritual or religious practices, and, I have no problem with authentic conversions. Religions should earn their adherents, and if they are not filling us spiritually we should look elsewhere. What I am concerned with is a twofold problem with the adoption of Eastern spiritual practices in the West: appropriation for profit, and, a buffet spirituality mentality that only serves to reinforce the primary Western religion of consumerism and self-centered ego worship. Offended yet?

Yoga came to the West in the 19th century, but since the 1990s has taken the Western world by storm. A 2016 survey suggests that over 36 million Americans practice some form of yoga, and the United Nations has even declared an International Day of Yoga. There is a growing yoga industry in North America, especially the Pacific Northwest, and practicing yoga classes are promoted as promising immediate physical and emotional benefits to practitioners. Characteristically, we even have North American-adapted versions of yoga that serve specific demographics: Acro, Power, Flow, Hot, Bikram, Yin, Restorative, Gentle, etc. each with a different emphasis, benefit or purpose. As journalist Hanna Rosin points out in her Atlantic article, ‘Striking a Pose’,“Where older religions promised heaven, the church of yoga promises quicker, more practical, earthly gratification, in the form of better heart rates and well-toned arms.”

In Roots of Yoga James Mallinson and Mark Singleton describe the deep historical and ecumenical roots of yoga as a spiritual path. Yoga has a diverse cast of practitioners from the beginning. It can be broadly defined as a psycho-physical technique that was designed to facilitate the achievement of overall well being and in the case of most serious yogis throughout history, spiritual enlightenment. The Vedas, the oldest religious texts in Hinduism, and arguably the world, make mention of visionary meditation, posture, mantra repetition, and breathe control as part of their central practice of venerating and petitioning various Deities.

Key passages from the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, also Hindu scriptures, mention yoga, but there are also sources going back to ancient Tantric, Buddhist and even Jain traditions. This is because in around 500 BCE, Buddhists, Jains, and Ajivikas, began to split off from the Brahmanic sects to form their own ascetical cohorts and lineages motivated by finding an end to suffering and the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). The goal was liberation (moksha, nirvana), which included the annihilation of the individual ego, not its enhancement, into the Divine Source.

According to Mallinson and Singleton, yoga was initially practiced through meditation techniques. The earliest definition of Yoga comes from the Katha Upanishad, wherein the senses are held still, like a chariot driver controlling his horses. However, these Yogins also developed a suit of austerities to win favors from the gods, or to intensify their meditation practice and bring the body into alignment with the soul. Patanjali’s Yogasutras (2CE) is the most prominent text in the history of contemporary Yoga, wherein the author lays out metaphysical and practice concerns with yoga as a path to enlightenment. However, two centuries before this text, the Yogacara school of Buddhism was also teaching a form of Yoga as well, suggesting that yoga does not have a single lineage or origin, though it did emerge from the Indian constellation of spiritual and religious practices that have today solidified into various religious traditions.

In around 1,000 CE what is now called Hatha Yoga developed out of several lineages in India, which were designed to be more accessible to householders, rather than purely for ascetics, hermits or monks. Yoga soon became a practice that anyone could engage in regardless of caste, class or metaphysical persuasion. Hatha drew broadly from Patanjali and Tantra traditions, but began to focus on a more intensive use of postures called Asanas, to lead the body and mind into greater unity. Proper diet, regulated breathing, and a focus on practice apart from caste and metaphysical school, made Hatha a diverse and widely adaptable lineage. Especially within the Hatha lineage, yoga had no centralized Vatican-like interpreter or missionary order, and it diffused through various Hindu-Buddhist lineages as one of many techniques which led one to enlightenment.

On his tour of Europe and North America, particularly his speech at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions, Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga and Hinduism to the West. Hindu philosophy took root with Transcendentalist nature spirituality of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Theosophical mysticism of Helena Blavatsky. During the 1960s, like other eastern traditions, it became a foil to the establishment religions, especially Christianity, with its rigid dogmas and cerebral worship. Yoga became another badge of hippie counter-culture along with LSD, Transcendental Meditation and flower power. And of course, some were absolutely authentically drawn to yoga’s ecumenical appeal, its emphasis on practice, and its myriad benefits for wellbeing.

Today Yoga is big business with millions of Americans and Canadians practicing it at least once or twice a month. In Vancouver, there are just about as many yoga studios as sushi joints and coffee shops, not to mentions tradition churches or temples. Yoga as a form of exercise really took off in the 1990s with Entrepreneurial gurus such as Bikram Choudhury and a thousand others. President Barack Obama endorsed yoga as a “universal language of spiritual exercise,” and even the American College of Sports Medicine recommends integrating yoga into one’s exercise regime.

If yoga is such an adaptable and beneficial practice, what’s the problem? Well, despite its flexibility, in its Western setting, I fear that it has been completely bent out of shape, to use an appropriate analogy, and has taken on a very different set of values and objectives. To be clear I do not deny the transferability and diffusion of religious and spiritual traditions. All religion is hybrid, mixture, conversation. But I can’t help but worry that the yoga boom has gotten out of hand, that it has appropriated the mystique of yoga from its original purpose in the service of the religion of self, promoted by capitalism.

Yoga, like Mindfulness TM has been coopted into the capitalist project of desire and identity fulfillment rather than as extensions of the paths that lead to liberation and transformation. I am not against conversion, or against white yogi’s who are embedded within an identifiable lineage. But hip yoga fitness hubs that cater to Western standards of beauty, body type and a vaguely spiritual identity, do violence to the traditions they have stolen from. Yoga is not a marketing slogan, a clever T-shirt punch line, or a décor. It seems that yoga and mindfulness are increasingly being employed to satiate proximate desires for relaxation, productivity, bodily health and fitness, rather than as tools in the human quest for ultimate desire and fulfillment through union with God. As Hanna Rosin writes, “yoga is no longer a spiritual antidote to the upscale Western lifestyle; it’s just the latest manifestation.”

So, can non-Yogis practice Yoga? The answer I am afraid is simply no. Yogis should practice yoga, wherever they come from, but to appropriate yoga into the Western cult of the Self, is wrong. In addition, practicing yoga casually, or from within another tradition fosters a spiritual buffet mentality which is not only appropriative but religiously lazy. So where should non-Yogis go for practices that promote spiritual and physical wellbeing? Does the west not have a comparable tradition? Yes, in fact we do. As journalist Linda Johnsen points out ancient Greeks and Romans practiced something like Yoga which in Greek was called Henosis or, which cultivated a single-pointed awareness of the unitary consciousness that pervades existence. The 3rd century BCE Greek philosopher Plotinus’s last words were “Try to unite the divinity in yourself, with the divinity in all things.” In the Gymnasium, where Greeks competed naked, fitness and enlightenment were stops along the same path. Only in the modern West has bodily wellness and spiritual wellness been so divided. But not without an effort to keep the two together. For example, in the 1850s there was a movement called the ‘New Gymnastics’ (with a more modest dress code) for the purpose of renewing the body and the soul in the service of ensuring healthy and balanced communities.

We in the West seem to always be looking for a remedy for the busy, sedentary modern life, even while we refuse to abandon it for something more wholesome and spirituality satisfying. So, of course one obvious response is that we need to change the structures of society so that our lives are more balanced, whole and fulfilling in the first place! But that is a whole other article. But my question remains, why didn’t we just revive the gymnastics movements, or create something similar? What is it about eastern spiritualities and practices that is so irresistible to some in the secular West?

There is of course no single answer to this question, which is admittedly reductive from the start, but at least for my own purposes a helpful starting point. By and large, I see a connection between the rise of the spiritual but not religious and the failure of western spiritual traditions to fully engage with practices that unify body and the soul, before engaging with metaphysical or theological questions. It seems that many Christian denominations lead with belief, creed or scriptural interpretation, rather than teaching first and foremost ways of sinking into the deep and sustaining relationship with the Divine. For example, Christian and yoga instructor Karen Hefford in her article “Why are People Going to Yoga Instead of Church?” sheds light on the attraction of yoga for some Christians. She writes:

“I find more comfort in the silence of my yoga practice than I do when I am in church. I feel a deeper connection while practicing yoga because it is about surrendering and finding peace… Prayer is often about asking for something or thanking God. Yoga is more about clearing the mind… and surrendering it all.”

If Christian churches are not teaching the deep tradition of silence, surrender, and peace that is at the heart of Christianity, then they have done the Christian tradition a great disservice. Yoga should not be a spiritual supplement, a revenue generator, or a youth magnet for churches, it is its own path to God and people who practice it should be on that path. Christians should begin with their own tradition, before we dialogue and learn from others.

For example, Centering Prayer, a tradition derived from the anonymous 14th century writer of the Cloud of the Unknowing, but promoted by many contemporary denominations, teaches a kind of meditation that strives to go beyond words and petitions for the mysterious silence of God. It is prayer, but prayer that does not treat God as our own personal vending machine. In addition, as Karen Hefford points out in her article, the 13th century Saint Dominic taught nine different symbolic postures for prayer, each of which engaged the body in a unique way; from a profound bow, to a full prostration, to genuflecting, and standing in the shape of the cross. In another case, for Eastern Orthodox, who typically do not have pews in their churches, and where services are mostly done standing, when a worshiper enters a church, they often cross themselves several times, touch the ground, kneel or even prostrate on the ground. Or as another example, why not simply reciting the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me) while stretching, running or walking? These forms of somatic prayer could be a seed of the return of Christian prostration sessions which are oriented toward an icon, altar, or an easterly aspect, which has deep roots and history in Christian architecture, symbolizing the return of the Sun and the Son. Of course Dominic also practiced a more intense asceticism, including self-flagellation, but this will seem tame compared to the austerities of the early Yogis.

To summarize: I am all for a full-bodied embrace of a spiritual tradition that puts one on the path to self-realization in God through harmonizing body, soul and spirit. What I am opposed to is a capitalistic cult of the spiritual identity that promises to make a few enterprising entrepreneurs millions of dollars all while reinforcing rather than eliminating the ego, the cult of sexy bodies, and the buffet style self-indulgence of some spiritual but not religious seekers. In addition, I believe that Christianity has the resources to fulfill the intuition of yoga’s appeal if it were to more creatively engage its own history, theology and spirituality.

Why we Need the Cursing Psalms

DSC_0925.jpgToday in my morning prayers I read Psalms 58. If you are not familiar, Psalms 58 is one of the more vicious “Cursing” Psalms, wherein the poet-author begs God for vengeance on his enemies. Some exceptionally gruesome lines read:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;

tear out the fangs of these lions, O Lord!

Let them vanish like water that runs away;

Let them wither like grass that is trodden underfoot.

Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,

like a woman’s miscarriage that never sees the sun.

This visceral desire for vengeance reminded me of the other infamous Psalm 137, which reads:

O daughter of Bablylon, destroyer,

blessed whoever repays you

the payment you paid us!

Blessed whoever grasps and shatters

your children on the rock!

Listening to mild mannered monks chant these lines is an interesting experience, but there is of course a theology behind it. The Psalms express and give voice to the entire range of human emotion, good and bad, and to chant the Psalms is to enter into those emotions on behalf of those who might be feeling them.

When I heard that a man known for past political activism killed two men on a train in Portland for confronting him over his harassment of two women, I felt angry. When I heard that Islamists had ambushed and killed over 20 Christians as they travelled to a monastery in Egypt, I was furious. When I heard about Manchester, Paris, Orlando, Charleston, the list goes on, I wanted justice. The cowardly acts of terrorists by these white supremacists and Islamist Extremists are cut from the same cloth.

In Psalm 137, the Psalmist is reeling from the recent leveling of Jerusalem by Babylonian forces. The carnage left the Jews feeling completely abandoned by God. And at times like this, with more and more senseless violence we can feel the same.

As a human being, my initial reaction is a desire for vengeance, justice and annihilation. But as someone who believes in the reality of the Christian story, I am also committed to reading the Psalms through the lens of Christ, who asks me to dash my vice, sin and hatred on the rock of his paschal mystery. The Psalms name the justifiable reaction, but Christ calls us to purify them, and to move toward a place of forgiveness, love and nonviolence.

Liturgy as Ecology

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Saint James Anglican Church

I attend a High Mass Anglo-Catholic Parish in Vancouver called Saint James. There are sometimes 12 people in the Chancel at a time, attending to the consecration of the Eucharist, swarming in dervish like semi-circles around the eastward facing priest. Priests, deacons, sub-deacons, acolytes, thurifer, torch bearers and crucifer. No single one of us, even the priest makes the dance complete. We are each an integral part of the liturgical ecology.

This is of course not a food chain, but food is involved. Our oikos is the altar,  the place where we bring the fruits of the land, the work of human hands, and  ourselves, and to turn it, ever so slowly, into God. As an ecosystem transfers energy from up the trophic hierarchy from simple to complex organisms, so we during the liturgy, move the desires of our hearts into God’s desires; a little more each day.

It is true, that if we stay on the surface, the liturgy can be boring and repetitive. But just under the surface, the intricate dance that turns bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ on the altar, is an icon for the everyday intricacy that turns our food into our bodies; bodies that make up the mystical body of Christ.

Pale Green

In the spring,

The pale yellow-green leaves of the maples

Bleed into the rich yellow plumage of the just-arrived warblers.

By the time the maple leaves are deep green with summer,

The warblers will have gone.

–May 17, 2017