This brings us to the question of the difference between the sorrow of God and my own sorrow. They’re not at all the same thing; my personal sorrow is temporal, not metaphysical, and essentially selfish.
As I learn to see myself more clearly, I learn this over and over again; and perhaps, as I exercise intelligent discrimination, I’ll begin to see how my desire is driven by my personal sorrows, not by a wish for God.
Catherine of Siena proposes an impersonal sorrow that, through experience and manifestation, drives us towards a greater wish for God’s love. Yet sorrow also has the potential to be a strictly selfish, personal, and material function, and in that guise it drives us directly towards the devil. Catherine struggles to explain this early on in The Dialogue:
Some actually extend their cruelty even further, notably refusing the good example of virtue but in their wickedness assuming the role of the devil by dragging others as much as they can for virtue and vice. This is spiritual cruelty: to make oneself the instrument for depriving others of life and dealing out death. Bodily cruelty springs from greed, which not only refuses to share what is one zone but takes what belongs to others, robbing the poor, playing the overlord, cheating, deforming, putting up one neighbor’s goods — and over their very persons — for ransom. (Ibid, p. 34).
One needs to read all of this section in The Dialogue in order to get a flavor of how personal sorrow, and the physical and material desires it births, produce a directly contradictory result to God’s sorrow.
I want for myself; and no matter how much I try to expunge this quality, it remains durable. I sincerely doubt we can truly free ourselves of this impulse by any action that stems from our own volition. It’s spoken of, of course; and yet I stubbornly cling to the belief that freedom, if it exists, is up to me: that it’s within my grasp. I don’t see that the issue of my grasp is the essential problem in the first place.
A close examination of this question of my own desire and my own sorrow uncovers the personalization. When Gurdjieff wrote his essay The Meaning of Life, he characterized the impure as that which contains self interest. To be objective, in other words, an emotion has to be pure. Untinged by personal desire. There is little or no difference between Gurdjieff’s idea of pure emotion and Meister Eckhart’s emptying of self in such a way that even the last iota is gone; only then can God enter – and at that moment, He (God) has no choice. The parallels between this and the Buddhist concept of the extinction of ego are clear enough. Yet without that selfsame knowledge that Gurdjieff equally emphasizes in the aforementioned essay, which in its essence boils down to one simple point, the fact that I am selfish, no realization of it is available. Self-knowledge and the suffering thereof are thus inextricably linked; if I suffer intentionally, one of the things I must suffer is the inner vision of, and an intimate contact with, my own selfishness.
If the buffers that Gurdjieff proposed to Ouspensky have one single chief feature, it is that they all rotate around an axis of selfishness. Every buffer prevents me from seeing how selfish I am, no matter how it functions or in what position it’s placed. I don’t want to see my selfishness. One is unable to avoid comparisons to Swedenborg; in his universe, as well, it is our love of ourselves that leads us to hell. The devil loves himself above all else; it is in his nature. And this devil is what drives every one of us most of the time.
When people speak about the effort at self-knowledge as being one of seeing, and they discuss seeing this and seeing that in themselves, perhaps the overarching aim ends up being overlooked: the aim of seeing my own selfishness. It raises the question of whether seeing is to be pursued without discrimination and without aim. Is it an entirely Catholic science? Or should we attempt to understand that there is a purpose to it, and that this question of selfishness must be inserted into every observation so that I can measure against it?
I would argue the latter. If I don’t see my own selfishness, what does it matter what I see? In the effort to acquire knowledge, perhaps even — dare I reach for something this high? – Gurdjieff’s “pure” knowledge, this knowledge of my own selfishness and an intense personal suffering of it it is the only wasp that may sting me towards God; and without the pain of that sting, I may just stay where I am, because it is in my nature.
I’m very comfortable here, after all.
May your heart be close to God,
and God close to your heart.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.