Galesburg, Lake Storey, Gesse #2
From the comments below:
Exactly: is the experience an end in itself (in which case it is idolatry, to put it in old-fashioned terms) or is it a conduit to the Other, the Thou who is infinite? That is how I have (perhaps a little simplistically) arrived at a method of discrimination. It is also an important antidote to both gratuitous self-pleasuring and gratuitous self-denial. Self-denial is not automatically saintly if it reflects a compulsive preoccupation with achieving some hypothetical goodness. [K's response to my post]
The "old-fashioned" term idolatry, yes. Which is at the heart of Christian mysticism. Which I have avoided using up to this point because it also belongs to a whole register of religious language I almost can't hear without my childhood god of hellfire and wrath making a big comeback (who is himself an idol). Christian education in its various manifestations--Sunday school to catechism--uses the term "idolatry" to teach its congregations about that very difficult first commandment, the love and worship of God, but without a vigilant contemplative attempt to really understand what idolatry is, or what love for God means, that teaching produces more confusion and more idolatrous thinking than it prevents. It is often treated too literally (in that sense in which literalism lacks context). It is too often used to beat people senseless. And so it sets people against religion. Period. Especially in a culture where the stakes in the expression of individualism are so high.
The Brothers say that the commandments are "ordered towards love," like an instruction manual on how to live a more loving existence, which (to me) is all refreshingly fine and well until you find yourself butting heads against the first commandment: "you shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve," and "you shall have no other gods before me," which includes somewhere in there a reference to not making any "graven images" for yourself. My initial reaction to it (even now) is always, "Sheeeeesh, no way, get me out of here," and I suspect that's a common reaction. Without a theological frame of reference--a strong sense of how this language is describing what love is and does--and a grasp on what is multifaceted (and not emphatically redundant) in the language, it seems an impossible demand on humanity, poor humanity, which, God or no God, so often sees itself as having little recourse to much beyond its own devices.
I'm launching into territory that is far beyond what I am capable of expressing here because it is a command towards the contemplation of the ineffable, an imperative towards resting in the infinite, and therefore ultimately one that is beyond the resting place of words. It is about understanding what I tend to do with all my longing and want. I tend to want to put a finite stop to my longing, to rest somewhere in the world in front of me even as I recognize there is no rest available in words, in creature comforts, in communal causes, in work, or even in my relationships with others, not for long. I have on hand all kinds of anthropological, psychological, sociological, political, ethical, scientific, and aesthetic expressions that describe the various functions (and disfunctions) of desire, many of them with an agnostic agenda towards individual self-sufficiency. Self help, self healing, self reliance. I ought to be able to help myself heal and to live with desire as though it is just another function of life--at times rending and creative and wonderfully energetic, at other times clandestine, unconscious, latent, terrible. But if I put all of my desire into the service of my own concerns--myself, my family, my community, my globe, etc--then desire is always self-referencing. I am God. Which, given I might believe that God is nothing more than human projection, is the very best I can do. It can be a very beautiful kind of altruism, but it is always subjectively limited, and it can make for a world view that may strive towards tolerance, but not necessarily towards charity. For then it is up to me to decide what love is without imposing my views on others, so that tolerance (in its prevalent currency) seems to be a fair compromise between us, whereas charity seems like a much greater imposition that I dare not ask of you.