Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Proposition 15 He

Proposition 15: He who clearly and distinctly understands himself and his emotions loves God, and does so the more, the more he understands himself and his emotions.

- Baruch Spinoza, Book 5, Ethics

* * *

My translation of Spinoza says this: "Spinoza was one of the three greatest Jewish teachers, along with Jesus and the author of Job, and the only one of the great Western philosophers who deserves to be compared to Lao-Tzu or the Buddha. He lived with the irreproachable integrity of someone who understands not in his head, but in his blood and bones."

That is about as far away from living a fucked life as you can get. But why? Why is irreproachable integrity so far out of our reach? The answer is held in Proposition 15: do you clearly and distictly understand yourself?

* * *

I have known but one person who lived with such integrity, and I knew him only in a few brief moments of my life: Fr. Damien, the Guestmaster and later Abbot of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Ky.

The life of a Cistercian monk is so completely out of step with the world that surrounds it so as to make that life seem like fiction: devotion, solitude, silence. But the one aspect of the life that is always left out is doubt. I came to see the brothers and monks of the Abbey not as men who had achieved a state of grace, but rather as ones who wrestled with their desire for that state and their doubt that it existed. They lived their lives on the bone.

Damien is tall in my memory, wiry strong, with large knobby hands, close cropped hair and a pervasive sense of decency and patience about him. On my retreats to the Abbey nothing was required of me - no mass, no confessions, no nothing. It was about as non-religious as a monastery could get. I was there in the throes of my confusion at the break up of my first marriage. After a few days of walking the grounds in a stupefied silence I asked Damien if he'd hear my confession.

We sat next to one another - no screen, no division between us. I tried to remember the script of, "Forgive me father, for I have sinned..." but I had no heart for it. Damien sat still, his eyes closed, waiting for me to continue and I finally said, "My greatest sin, Father, is that I find myself here and not at home with my wife." I pierced him through with those words. He winced and shook his head slightly from side to side and then he raised a hand over me, still not looking at me, and in a voice that echoed from some deeper place than his throat, absolved me of that sin.

Later, as I was leaving, he told me I needed to "sit with it," the mess of my life and find out what worked and what didn't and then do that which worked.

* * *

Perhaps it is unfair to compare ourselves to thinkers like Spinoza, or to those who have the ability to withstand and/or bear fools with loving kindness as Damien did, but what is a man's reach for, if not to exceed his grasp? The more we know ourselves, the more we sit with the mess of our lives, the closer we come to fulfilling Proposition 15. For some of you fucked fuckers even mentioning God will throw you in a tizzy, but that is only because in your fuckedness you've assumed God means what you've been taught in Sunday school. That is a fiction, a beautiful fiction and for some it is a great comfort. But God, as Baruch would have you know is "a being absolutely infinite," of whose attributes your irreproachable self is but one aspect.

Now get to it.


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