Thursday, January 6, 2011

Justice and Punishment

The concepts of justice and punishment are routinely considered in terms of external life; when I apply the ideas to inner work, however, I find they inhabit a very different landscape.

In inner work, every external "punishment" must be understood as just. I put the word punishment in quotation marks, because negative things that happen to me externally-- which I might consider as punishment-- are actually help. That is to say, every condition that punishes me, that brings me to contrition or an understanding of difficulty, is sent to me strictly to help heal me. I encounter this idea in Meister Eckhart's teachings, as well as other places.

This is very difficult to understand. The ordinary self–the ego, the "I" I usually work with–doesn't see difficulty, pain, or challenge as anything positive. It is incapable of it. This understanding can only arrive when the centers come together in a certain way, and a real feeling enters. When this experience--a seed of the remorse of conscience-- arrives, one can begin to understand that what one has encountered in life is not only fully just, but is, in fact, exactly what one needed in order to work.

I don't really understand this, but God is actually being generous when such difficulty is sent. All of the great possibilities in a life arise directly because of these terrible difficulties, which are a form of Grace and Love.

I suppose that sounds stupid, doesn't it? Horrible things happen to people. Is that Grace and Love? My ordinary being questions that–even rejects it, struggles with it, argues that it is impossible, and demands that revenge be extracted. Are you familiar with that? Most of us are.

Yet if real understanding arises, I can understand within myself–only within myself, and from the perspective of myself–that the punishment that I encounter in my life is just.

This complex emotional understanding is only available in understanding the context of sin, or, what the Hindus and Buddhists would referred to as karma. Now, that idea has baggage that does not necessarily apply in the Gurdjieff work or Christianity, but the concepts are, I believe, linked.

A man's relationship with his own sin is a private matter between himself and God. We make the question of sin, of justice and punishment, a public one in our religions and our institutions, and yet it is only in the deepest and most inaccessible parts of a man's soul that these questions can really be confronted and understood.

I'm pondering this because I had a moment today where I saw how absolutely just my own punishment has been throughout my life. I always experience my own difficulties as negative when they are taking place; I never value them, I always resent and resist them. Yet later I see how absolutely necessary they were for me. How else can I wake up, if I don't truly suffer in many ways? How will my arrogance never be softened if it is not beaten with sticks?

This is where I begin to encounter a taste of some real humility for what I am, for how I have lived, for how far short I fall of what is needed.

Perhaps all that sounds harsh. And one needs to be careful to distinguish between real experiences of remorse, a real understanding of this question, and perverse self-flagellation, which is a very different matter. One must not judge oneself; one must see, and above all, one must see that life as it is presented is in fact just. The universe is arranged that way. The souls in Dante's purgatory have it absolutely right: they willingly accept their punishment, they understand that it is completely and utterly just--that it is what they need.

Moments when I confront these truths, these understandings that arise from an emotional reconciliation, are the moments that mark the difference between a dead universe ruled by accident and circumstance, and a living reality which is universally penetrated by divine intelligence.

The odd thing may be that we have to choose between those two alternatives. One would think that one or the other had to be true; that one possibility excludes the other.

In man, according to the level of his development, that is exactly the case.

May our prayers be heard.

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