On Quiet and Other Ramblings

9 07 2008

It’s really quiet here. I don’t mind it at all. It reminds me a bit of my old cell back in the monastery. I have said before that one of the complaints that I don’t have since leaving the monastic life is having enough time to pray. After you go through all of the hand wringing and breast beating about being “a sinner” and “forgetfulness of God”, I would tell you, “Go ahead. Go into the desert and see how well you pray.” If you are like me, you’ll probably just have a 50 Cent song stuck in your head. And it’s not about our “evil age” or our corrupt lives. It is just about life in the here and now. Anyone who has read the Fathers of the Desert for a paragraph would conclude that very quickly. So I am satisfied with the little “quiet time” I have with God.

That being said, I am probably one of the least “spiritual” people that I know. This is not for lack of trying. Not to “spiritually brag” or anything, but while all of you were chasing girls and playing video games in your teenage years, I was busy in front of the Tabernacle reading St. Alphonsus Liguori on my knees. (Well, that was half of it. The other half I spent flyering picket lines.) But after all of that effort, I am still just as distracted, if not more, in my daily life. That is why I probably focus on liturgy and other trinkets so much: they keep me from getting distracted.

My favorite time at the monastery was Sunday morning when I got to sleep in until six (to this day, sleeping past 6:30 a.m. is nearly impossible for this country boy). After I got the church ready for liturgy and the trapeza ready for potluck, I would go to my cell and recite the Psalter complete with metanoias and prostrations… just playin’. Actually, I would sit on the comfortable if old sofa in my cell and read a book. That was my spiritual preparation: maybe a little dissipated, maybe a little lazy. But I preferred rest and quiet to eighteen thousand prayers rushing through my brain, or trying to force myself in saying the Jesus Prayer on my chotki.

To tell the truth, I really don’t miss any of it. I don’t miss the four hour long services, the walks in the desert, the fifteen hour shifts at the bakery… it’s all so much old-hat to me. Philosophy is supposed to be preparation for death, and the best way to prepare for death in my case is simply to live. That is not to knock two thousand years of Christian ascetical traditions (and the ancient pagan schools like Pythagoreanism that they mimicked… oops, did I just say that out loud), but one should be mildly content that one does not have to do these things.

In other words, I don’t counter-pose being a good Christian to being a complete human being. Christianity should be a foundation for your life, your life should not be an attempt to serve as a foundation for Christianity. That is why attempts to demonstrate that the Fathers of the Church are some infallible Delphic Oracle against all of our problems or the hierarchical Church has the best game plan for defeating the mass spread of relativism never sit well with me. If anything, what is spread throughout much of the Christian Internet is “churchiness” and not real religion. The mark of being a good Christian and a complete human being isn’t how well we can comment on the latest ecclesiastical gossip or how well I can respond to someone who disagrees with me. It certainly isn’t about looking at ecclesiastical vestments and ceremonies on websites as one would look at porn. If you are not a cleric or don’t work directly for the Church, I am very ambivalent about you getting your jollies off of these things. Do they make you a better worker/spouse/friend/father etc.? Or are they just escapism? Maybe you should find another sandbox to play in.

I admit it, I do these things and often I try to stop myself. And like other bloggers, I have the nasty habit of going on other blogs and planting comments hoping that people link back to me and I get more readers that way. (There, I said it. The secret’s out.) But my real ulterior motives have nothing to do with leading people into Roman Catholic traditionalism or my particular views on the Pope, the Vatican, etc. They are to get people to convert to Neoplatonism. There you go: the cat’s out of the bag. That is not to say that I counter-pose Neoplatonism to Roman Catholicism; on the contrary, I think they are like peanut butter and jelly. I want you to read Hadot, Plato, Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, Marsilio Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola because they might make you a better human being and help you appreciate the beauty of this lovely earth of ours. I am not talking about making you a saint: if you are at the point where you are going to achieve the unitive way, don’t read this blog because it’s not going to help you. But I have to live with all of you, and if I have to live in a world where informed Catholics spend all of their time on the Internet debating Calvinists about double predestination while drinking a Mountain Dew and listening to U2, I am going to huddle up in a corner and die of despair. It is only through a return to the very ancient foundations of humanity that we will once again be able to make things as beautiful as Chartres Cathedral, classical polyphony, and even a Holy Week procession in the highlands of Peru. That doesn’t come through argument, but through an initiation into something higher and more exalted.

I am not a saint, nor am I even holy. I don’t pretend to teach anyone anything: if anything, all I can do is show people things. That’s what I do here: I show, and sometimes I explain, but I don’t do it very well. You should take from it what you like.



5 responses

12 07 2008
Michael Cifone

Apologies: not “Alfonso” (another good friend of mine with a blog) but “Arturo”.

12 07 2008
Michael Cifone

In reference to Alfonzo’s comment to “jacobus”:

You see, what you’ve realized of Plotinus or the Neoplatonics is true, I would argue, of every real philosophy, to some extent or another. “Philosophy” (and here’s where labels begin to be problematic) is just another name for “coming to terms with life”, which means also an awareness of death and of the “ultimate things” (the things that really matter). All the greats have this at their core: be it Heidegger, Plato, Kant, Anselm, the Indian sages (Vedatins, Buddhists), the list can also include Native American spiritualities too (and the many African spiritualities that have yet to make an appearance in the common conversation amongst text-based traditions East and West). There’s only one lesson in all these traditions, and it’s universal: coming to terms with death (and life — they’re dual), and an appreciation of the silence out of which your inner self can be discerned, manifested and gotten hold of.

Why fall into one or the other? The answer is somewhat complex, as it must deal with the deep relationship between thought and geography and the larger socio-political forces that shape a culture and imprint on an individual mind. Part of why we’re drawn to one form of spirituality (if at all) is partly a reflection of the culture we’re born into, and also partly a reflection of the psychological makeup we bring to the spiritual table, as it were. There’s a venerable tradition in Tibetan Buddhism of finding the “right fit” for each individual personality regarding the particular form of spirituality (Buddhism in this case) an individual will eventually adopt (which may change, and which may eventually lead the individual away from monasticism or Buddhism altogether). The point is that as the person, so the spirit, and so the form of union between the two, expressed visibly as a spiritual discipline.

So, I would argue the following controversial claim: there’s only *one* spirituality — one undivided, inseparable structure — which admits of many manifestations. Of course, this assertion is familiar (Huxley famously adopted it). This thesis clearly emphasizes, or at any rate seems to emphasize, similarity over difference. But there’s precisely the deeper spiritual rub: the unity is the dual relationship between similarity and difference. Together they form the unity which I assert (which is seemingly paradoxical, but actually a rather banal observation), out of which both differences and similarities are derivable. The Jainists and Middle-Way Buddhists each had half of the total story: reality is “both, and” (the Jainist), as well as “neither, nor” (the Buddhist).

Yes, there is a “catholic” point of view. Christ had it; but so did many other wise men (and women) who bothered to pay attention to reality as it is (Socrates, Plotinus, Buddha, Mahavira, Merton), rather than as tradition and individual differences color it.

10 07 2008

“It is only through a return to the very ancient foundations of humanity that we will once again be able to make things as beautiful as Chartres Cathedral, classical polyphony, and even a Holy Week procession in the highlands of Peru.”

Indeed. Sometimes I think your blog might be better subtitled: “A Chronicle of Humane Christianity.”

9 07 2008
Arturo Vasquez


I haven’t read enough of him to really know. I will say however that when I mention Neoplatonism, I don’t mean some set of doctrines or premises that I adhere to like the Kantian categorical imperative or the existence of Heidegger’s Dasein. It is rather a way of viewing the world and interacting with it. The ancient Neoplatonists did not venerate Plato because he was the first to “get it right” but rather because he passed down and distilled the knowledge passed down from even more venerable and ancient fonts: Pythagoras, Orpheus, and the gods themselves. In the end, what is fundamental is the idea that what is below is a dim reflection of what is above (as the old Hermetic axiom goes: “as above, so below” ) and all things are in each other according to their proper mode. I am particularily a student of theurgic Neoplatonism, which simply states that it is better to “do the sacred” than understand it. The sacred is not then something that is at the end of knowledge, but at its foundation as well. It returns to itself after having been dispersed into matter. But these are just very sketchy drawings of these things.

I will say, however, that it is quite ironic that what passes for Aristotilian moderate realism gave birth to a society that can disregard the body altogether and create art that is totally decrepit and ugly (i.e. most modern churches, but that is just the tip of the iceberg). For all the baiting against Platonism that it regards matter as evil and imperfect, Platonism is arguably the mother of every beautiful piece of art that Western civilization has ever produced. (Let us not even go to India, where the idea that the universe is an illusion created musical, visual and dance artforms that rival those of the West.) I will thus put out a challenge to anyone to bring me an example of an “Aristotilian” work of art. For all the talk of hylomorphism and its greater compatibility with Christian revelation, all I see is things going downhill since its enshrinement as the “official” metaphysics of the Church. [Note: I realize that the actual Aristotle was actually more sympathetic to Platonism than many scholars have let on, and Aquinas as well. May God deliver them from their followers!] It is a very funny joke of God that the best way to exalt matter is to “neglect” it; the best way to exalt the body is to lift the soul even higher. Take that for what it’s worth.

9 07 2008
Lee Hamilton

In your opinion, would it be correct to say that Benedict XVI is a Neoplatonist? His writings are what got me started on this track, originally. He seemed to describe a philosophical Christianity that was totally different from the ‘old school’ French Canadian Catholicism I grew up with.

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