Friday, October 28, 2016

The Words of Our Imperfect Teachers, Part IV

Gilt Buddha
Shanghai, China

Perfect: Middle English: from Old French perfet, from Latin perfectus ‘completed,’ from the verb perficere, from per- ‘through, completely’ + facere ‘do.’

 Perhaps the reason that Gurdjieff gives us a cosmology of imperfection is hidden in the root meaning of the word perfect: to be "completely done.” In the cyclical cosmology of the enneagram— a symbol of eternal circulation, which is indeed the model of the created universe presented in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson — nothing is ever finished. There can be no final doing, because doing is what one might call a perpetual motion machine. One's work is never done; there is always one more step. The idea is certainly embedded in Christian prayer in the words, "world without end, amen.” 

A world without end is an unfinished world, a world forever in the process of creation and forever in the process of maintenance. (Think here on the third obligolnian striving.) It is by default imperfect.

 In this world of imperfection, meaning and value arise in the tension between where “I am” and what remains to be done. Viktor Frankl pointed this out in Man's Search for Meaning:

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him. (page 127.)

 From this doctrine of imperfection, we can derive a new insight and meaning from Gurdjieff's classic prayers: "I am — I wish to be” and “Lord have mercy.” "I am” is the awareness of my being; "I wish to be" is an acknowledgment of my striving towards a task; and "Lord have Mercy” is the potential meaning I must struggle to fulfill.

I say that "Lord have Mercy" is the potential meaning I must struggle to fill for a specific reason. We must remember here that Ibn al ‘Arabi— the preeminent, foundational, and unsurpassable scholar of Sufism — assigned us the place of vicegerents. A vicegerent is, literally, a person holding office — that is, one assigned responsibility. He explained quite succinctly that we are assigned as vicegerents of God, that is, those assigned to act on God's behalf.

We are, in other words, God’s agencies, and when we intone the words, “Lord have Mercy,” we acknowledge not just that we wish for God to have mercy on us. In saying these words, we are also required to take on the task — freely chosen, as Frankl explains it— to have mercy on behalf of God. Within this understanding are encompassed the ideas of intentional suffering, forgiveness, and Christ's sacrifice on the cross. We thus see that the Beelzebub’s cosmology of imperfection is directly related to these questions and inextricably intertwined with the ultimate meaning of spiritual work.
 In the context of both the cosmology of imperfection and Frankl's deeply spiritual existentialism, we are called upon to fulfill a role which we first need to see we are unwilling and unable to take on. We must furthermore understand that our search for peace and our search for perfection are actually antithetical to the task itself; our task precludes restful bliss and the absence of tension. It precludes a world of peace and beauty. God would have no need for agents in such a world; His vicegerents are called upon to act on His behalf only in a cosmos of imperfection.

 There are mysteries here that offer no easy path of penetration; but they demand a much deeper contemplation than we usually give them.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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