Monday, April 19, 2010

Reconciliation, and Mercy

There's no doubt that there are aspects of Gurdjieff's teaching that do not square properly with conventional Christianity.

At least, they do not appear to on the surface.

Yet there is little doubt that Gurdjieff did indeed bring us "esoteric" Christianity -- a Christianity stemming from the deepest form of practice, not dissimilar from the "prayer of the heart" presented in the Philokalia, as it was practiced by the early church fathers. And the "mantras" (such as they are) of the Gurdjieff work, "Lord have Mercy" and "I am- I wish to be," have the undeniable taste of Old-Testament submission in them. Both bushes and souls find themselves on fire together in the midst of such practice.

I've been pondering how we reconcile the question of the Christian teaching of man's eternal soul with the question of Gurdjieff's assertion, that is, that man does not have a soul unless he earns it.

They can't both be right. And this is not a question subject to the "verification" that Gurdjieff calls on us to perform.

Because of a series of extraordinary events in my own life which began many years ago and which I will not recount in detail, I don't believe in God anymore. I don't believe in Christianity either.

Instead, I crossed a line, speaking strictly and only for myself, where I know there is a God and I know that what we call "Christianity" is real; it truly is one of those rare teachings that came from a much higher level. All the monkeying around that mankind could possibly do with it will never be able to change that.

One of the indubitable results of stepping over a line like this, in which one acquires an understanding -- and I speak here specifically of an actual understanding, not a theory or a belief -- that something is absolutely and irrevocably true is that one discovers that one cannot just have part of something that is true. If something is true, all of it is true. Ergo, I can't take a Gurdjieffian paring knife to Christianity. My own understanding, put in general terms, is that if one thing is true, everything is true. There may be some readers who understand what I am saying.

The stories in the New Testament were not written by a gang of gullible rubes, shepherds and farmers--nor were they crafted by spiritual con artists out to make a buck. They came from some of the most intelligent, urbane, and well-educated people of the world they emerged in. For us to presume some form of ignorance or naïveté on their part is nothing if not disingenuous.

I will take that statement one step further. Many of the stories we encounter in Christianity -- for example, Saul being struck blind on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6) are not fantasies penned by gullible individuals with an agenda to sell. These are true stories of things that actually happened, written by intelligent people who had a true encounter with those "miraculous" properties Ouspensky so eagerly sought. So I happen to know, in this specific instance, that what happened to Saul is absolutely true.

I know this statement will be controversial to many readers, but I stand directly on my word.

Once one sees in such a radical manner that Christianity is, in its essence and at its heart, absolutely true--without swallowing the entire oeuvre in a paroxysm of abject literalism-- one is left with the question of what one can "throw out" in order to align what Gurdjieff taught with what the Bible says.

Of course, people easily divide themselves into two camps here: the ones who say that Gurdjieff was a heretic and must be cast out like the devil, and the ones who say the whole Christian religion is fundamentally corrupted and meaningless. I know people in both of these camps. They are utterly contemptuous of one another; the question provokes a great deal of negative emotions and even outright anger.

I would venture to say both camps are correct. That is, of course, an outrageous contention, an irreconcilable contention, and furthermore -- I know you are thinking to yourself, as you cultivate and nurse that little sense of outrage that is growing in you even as you read this -- a copout. That is to say, it somehow sidesteps the whole question and pretends it's not even there.

That simply isn't the case. I will explain.

In Phillipians 4:7, we come across a resonant phrase used by the apostle Paul which has found its way into the Christian service. It neatly bridges the gap between all our various opinions, understandings, and questions.

Paul refers to "the peace of God which passeth all understanding."

Now, there is no doubt that men can achieve understandings. Understandings are not, let us be clear, beliefs or knowledge. Anyone can believe; anyone can know. These things are ordinary. Understanding is a different quality in a man's being. It is a moment in which a man sees that he is under a higher authority.

Gurdjieff spoke often of the difference between knowledge and understanding, and wanted those who practiced his method to comprehend that there was a difference. Furthermore, although he did not explicitly explain it -- although it is implied in the relationship of the law of three to the law of seven, as delineated in the enneagram-- a man does not come to understanding by his own doing. That is, a higher force must provide what is called a "shock" in order for understanding to be present.

A man must have an indubitable, concrete, and absolute experience of the higher in order to know that it is real. Only then can he begin to understand. It's safe to say that men join works like the Gurdjieff work in order to acquire just such an understanding... not knowing, of course, what they are bargaining for, which is going to cost far, far more than the coin of personality they are so comfortably jingling in their pocket.

Even after such an experience, a man's understanding is inevitably limited.

Paul refers to a quality-- available to man-- which passes all understanding. He calls this quality "the peace of God." But it hardly matters what he calls it. His point is that there is an inner state that transcends what we call understanding.

From this perspective, it's pointless to argue about whether or not we have an immortal soul, or whether Christianity is true or not. The truth, such as it is, is absolutely transcendental-- it lies on a higher level, beyond our understanding. This is exactly what the author of the famous esoteric Christian work "the cloud of unknowing" was trying to get to.

So. One can understand a good deal, but it does not eliminate questions. I still often ponder this question of a soul.

We are all part of the body of God. We can't separate ourselves from it. Gurdjieff himself told us that the finest particles of what he called His Endlessness permeated every aspect of reality. Along these lines, we may begin to understand what Zen Master Dogen was getting at when he said that there was no such thing as enlightenment. We are all already enlightened -- we are made of light -- we are part of this body of God. We have simply lost our sense of it. Which is back to what I was getting at in the previous post, when I explained that we are trying to recover what we are, not "evolve up" to it or re-create it.

Perhaps it isn't the existence or non-existence of the soul that is the question... but rather, the nature of exactly what the "soul" is. I suspect we don't really understand that question. And perhaps this is where we cross the line into territory that does pass all understanding.

When we discuss the idea that man "has" a soul, we are presuming (well, perhaps we are presuming) that this "soul" belongs to a man, that it is his -- that it is, in other words, tangled up with this peculiar Western idea of private property, instead of just being an aspect, or a fragment, of God's existence, and thus-- insofar as there is a property of Being in man-- it is not his own property at all, but rather, an expression of something much more, as the Germans would put it, raffiniert.

Ah, dear readers. I am afraid I have failed to clarify anything whatsoever. Such is the fate of man: doomed forever to ponder and to reason, but never to sort things out properly.

One might say that within the more expansive framework I have presented, we may find the seeds of a form of reconciliation between the traditional, more generous Christian teachings on the subject, and the almost calvinistic Gurdjieffian viewpoints, which often oddly (and perhaps accurately) echo the doctrine of total depravity.

But maybe that's the optimist in me speaking.

One thing that I will say with certainty. We do not say "Lord have Mercy" in any idle way in this work; we say it because it is a true property of the Lord: the Lord is infinitely merciful. The story of Saul on the road to Damascus (the same road, let us take note, which Paul encountered his enlightenment experience on) is the story of a man who was truly, to put it bluntly, a right bastard.

Yet the Lord chose him as his instrument, forgave him his sins, and opened his heart so that he could be filled with the Holy Spirit.

This property of Mercy suggests to me that what Mr. Gurdjieff said was absolutely true: no effort is ever wasted. The property of Mercy offers all men the chance for redemption at any point on the path...

if only we open our hearts enough.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

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