11.05.2008

Settle Down, Children... Let's Talk about "Aridity."

I've been way out of stride lately in an effort to please my faithful readers -- too much politics, not enough tr-th-seeking.

So let's back at it:

In J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Franny discovers decides to walk the path(s?) of spiritual refinement after discovering the many (seemingly authentic) narratives of mystical experience. She is buzzing along in life perfectly content until she recognizes that it is--how to put it?--very strange that there are so many bizarre first person accounts of spiritual experience. I can't remember which writers she cites, but it was a list like this: Buddha, St. Paul, Augustine, Plotinus, Mohammed, St. Augustine, Hildegard of Bignen, Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Emanuel Swedenborg, T.S. Eliot, and so on...

Franny moves quickly from simply "recognizing" the fact of the existence of these testimonies to an interest in experiencing such a phenomena for herself. I don't know how to account for that. William James seems to have been interested in mysticism without being a mystic, but sometimes I suspect he was a mystic in disguise.

Anyway, Franny discovers the fabled Russian book, The Way of the Pilgrim, which tells the story of a "seeker" who is interested in learning what St. Paul meant by the phrase, "Pray unceasingly." The seeking pilgrim finds a monk that tells him that he can have the experience of Gd: all he has to do is say the words, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." The monk tells him to really focus on the word mercy. The monk also mentions that it doesn't matter whether you believe the prayer or not, so long as you are actually saying it aloud (you can say it to yourself after you've let it settle into your... heart/mind/soul.)

Following in the soul-steps of the Pilgrim, Franny begins muttering the prayer. The "Franny" section of the book ends with her having, apparently, a nervous breakdown, muttering, it is implied, the "Jesus prayer."

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Well, I suppose I could claim one similar -- ahem -- "nervous breakdown" in my life. In my experience, it could not be described as "fun," but I don't think of it as a bad thing. Anyway, my point is this: I'm reading St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul lately, and I'm finding it really compelling -- not least because I presumed that the Dark Night was a bad thing for the spirit. It turns out, the Dark Night is actually a necessary process, a kind of purgative and preparatory cleansing. The most interesting part is that St. J of the C describes it all as deterministic. Not unlike the Buddhist Sotapanna, who, once entering the stream, cannot turn back, John's archetypal saint seems driven forward (or rather, pulled nearer to G-d).

I loved, immediately-upon-reading, St. J/of/C's description of the descent into the Dark Night -- and some of you might, too. Let me quote a couple paragraphs:

...as G-d sets the soul in this dark night to the end that He may quench and purge its sensual desire, He allows it not to find attraction or sweetness in anything whatsoever. In such a case it may be considered very probable that this aridity and insipidity proceed not from recently committed sins or imperfections. For, if this were so, the soul would feel in its nature some inclination or desire to taste other things than those of God; since, whenever the desire is allowed indulgence in any imperfection, it immediately feels inclined thereto, whether little or much, in proportion to the pleasure and love that it has put into it. Since, however, this lack of enjoyment in things above or below might proceed from some indisposition or melancholy humor, which oftentimes makes it impossible for the soul to take pleasure in anything, it becomes necessary to apply the second sign and condition.

The second sign whereby a man may believe himself to be experiencing the said purgation is that the memory is ordinarily centered upon G-d, with painful care and solicitude, thinking that it is not serving G-d, but is backsliding, because it finds itself without sweetness in the things of G-d. And in such a case it is evident that this lack of sweetness and this aridity come not from weakness and lukewarmness; for it is the nature of lukewarmness not to care greatly or to have any inward solicitude for the things of G-d. There is thus a great difference between aridity and lukewarmness...

...when it is the spirit that receives the pleasure, the flesh is left without savour and is too weak to perform any action. But the spirit, which all the time is being fed, goes forward in strength, and with more alertness and solicitude than before, in its anxiety not to fail G-d; and if it is not immediately conscious of spiritual sweetness and delight, but only of aridity and lack of sweetness, the reason for this is the strangeness of the exchange; for its palate has been accustomed to those other sensual pleasures upon which its eyes are still fixed...

What does it mean to pray without ceasing? Does all of this sound deeply, even physically, familiar to anyone else, or am I alone on this very strange road?--me and Franny. Later that page, St. J/of/C says,
...although at first the spirit feels no sweetness, for the reasons that we have just given, it feels that it is deriving stength and energy to act from the substance which this inward food gives it, the which food is the beginning of a contemplation that is dark and arid to the senses; which contemplation is secret and hidden from the very person that experiences it; and ordinarily, together with the aridity and emptiness which it causes in the senses, it gives the soul an inclination and desire to be alone and in quietness, without being able to think of any particular thing or having the desire to do so. If those souls to whom this comes to pass knew how to be quiet at this time, and troubled not about performing any kind of action, whether inward or outward, neither had any anxiety about doing anything, then they would delicately experience this inward refreshment in that ease and freedom from care. So delicate is this refreshment that ordinarily, if a man have desire or care to experience it, he experiences it not; for as I say, it does its work when the soul is most at ease and freest from care; it is like the air which, if one would close one's hand upon it, escapes.
Hmm... so that's what this is going to be about? Learning (again, Gd?!) to be quiet, letting go of anxiety? Seems so easy.

Sometimes, infrequently, and involuntarily, as I'm about to fall asleep at night, I feel what seems to be an extra-warm liquid oozing through my body, especially in my fingers an up the middle of my back, up my neck, and (it feels like) into my whole head. So refreshing.

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