Joy without Sadness and Sadness without Joy

VanYou see that, in this world, joy without tears is also sadness, and that sadness without joy is even more unbearable. As a result, if we do not know how to change sadness into joy, and to offer this joy to God, our life will be so burdened under the weight of sadness that our soul will lose all interest in the spiritual life.
Little Brother Marcel Văn CSsR (1928–1959)

Buddhist Iconography, Christian Iconography: Buddhist Spirituality, Christian Spirituality

At Kun Iam Temple in Macau

The picture above was taken at Kun Iam Temple in Macau.

I live in Asia. I know full well that not all Buddhist saints, all Taoist figures, all Hindu figures, all religious figures depicted in temples here, have the same look to them. There’s variety. There are different themes. There are different ideals. We must acknowledge this. At the very least, that’s fair. But it’s also not fair to deny that images like the one above are real. And this image looks nothing like the ideal of Christianity.

I’m far from the first one to notice this peculiar fact. While I was not yet a Catholic, I read these words of G. K. Chesterton’s:

No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that… The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.

Of course, Chesterton, in the middle of this thought, clarifies:

Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances.

His goal is not to condemn, let alone condemn real people whose ideals and hearts are not corrupted in their environment, whatever it may be. And my goal, too, is not to condemn. In fact, I’ve learned a thing or two (hopefully more) from Buddhist teachers and from living in a predominantly Buddhist country. Indeed, I’m convinced non-Christians can go pretty far on the spiritual journey!

If I want to point out divergences, it’s only to help Christians do what Christians are called to do, and to be what they are called to be. For G. K. Chesteron has a point. Aside from representing a beautiful human being, the image at the top of this page has little in common with the image of a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral.

But we needn’t take a Gothic cathedral. (I have little taste for Gothic art, especially Gothic revival. The outwardness of Christian eyes shouldn’t be “frantic”, for one thing. It should be a peaceful, joyful outwardness.) We could take other styles and expressions of Christian culture. We don’t have to get caught in the medieval world. We could take Christianity in Asia to contrast with Buddhism in Asia. In Macau also there is a Chapel of Francis Xavier, where a bone of the saint used to be held (Saint Francis Xavier died on Saint John’s Island, near Macau). At that chapel, we have this fiery depiction of the saint:

At the Chapel of Francis Xavier in Coloane Village, Macau

Granted that, just like the image from Kun Iam Temple, this image is just one image. It’s no scientific survey, by far. But the contrast is stunning. In the first image, we have a happiness with one’s state: the eyes are contentedly inwards, the belly full, the smile satisfied with the things of the world. In the second image, we have a fire: the eyes are peaceful but alive, outwards; the background is aflame; the icon itself proclaims that this man left all to carry the Cross. If there’s any inwardness to the eyes, it’s an inwardness of peace and joy, which sees the Beloved, who is Another, setting up home in Francis’ heart. The inwardness is not contented, it is peaceful and joyful. Any inwardness is itself a relationship – a relationship with the Three who dwell, with the whole Church of Heaven, in the hearts of the just.

This is why it’s nonsense to take “meditation” practices from other religious traditions are try to baptize them. All practices have a goal. We can’t change the practice’s goal by calling it “Christian”. Christian prayer has a goal of its own, begun in the revelation to the Jewish people and culminating in the very person of that one Jewish man who is Jesus Christ. Christian prayer must be Christian prayer. It must begin with salvation history. Salvation history says, “God is Father, God is Love.”

Christian prayer is, “Daddy, I need you; I love you.” It’s not an enlightening idea. It’s not an emptying of the mind. It’s a totally affective transformation of the human person into God, who was crucified. While saints like John of the Cross teach that God will take away our spiritual control and strip us of our sense consolations and spiritual consolations, they never say to deliberately seek an empty mind. For a self-emptied mind means a very powerful self-will – and for Christians, this self-will must be starved, not fed. We cannot empty our mind. And that’s not the point. We can only do the will of God, and God will show us that our mind, our heart, our affections, Sacred Heart depicted at the shrine of Mary Annai Celangkanni in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesiaour will, our memory: all are ill-suited to accommodate God. Then, when we see this, God will dry them up, carve our capacities deeper, and pour himself into them. Hence the colourful fire in the icon of the Apostle of Asia. Caught in the divine fire, burning as a dwelling-place for the Divine Three at the deepest point of our soul, the human being is transformed and transfigured piece by piece. But not by being stuck on his belly and his mind! Far from it. He is transformed and transfigured in Divine Light by seeing that the heart is the centre of the human person. The heart, not the belly (solar plexus), not the mind. And all must become shaped by a burning heart, where the Trinity dwells.

Christian contemplation (and Christian meditation, for the goal of Christian meditative practices is contemplation itself) and the “contemplation” or “meditation” of some others may not be the same. The words and the sources don’t matter. Who said words and what words they chose are not of great importance. But the reality expressed matters a lot. The goal, the image, the ideal, make all the difference in the world. Which image – that taken at Kun Iam Temple or that take at the Chapel of Francis Xavier – better matches what we want from life? What are we aiming at? What is the Christian’s goal in prayer?

The Christian seeks God’s will. The Christian seeks joy, for God is Father. The image at the top of this post is not full of joy that comes in the midst of sadness; it has only, or primarily, contentedness. But should we be content with anything less that God himself?

Knowledge through Love

JacquesIn Christian contemplation our intelligence is supremely alive, in a nocturnal darkness more instructive than any concept: blind as to its natural mode of operation, intelligence knows only by virtue of the connaturality that love creates between the soul who loves and the God it loves, a God who loves it first.
Jacques Maritain (1882–1973)

Alien Monkey

A somewhat silly poem about the major themes of the spiritual journey.

On another planet,
On another world,
Lived a spotted monkey,
Ears and tail curled.

This dear monkey lived on
Plains beside the sea:
Great green waves there roared and
Crashed upon the beach.

One day little monkey
Heard a Voice at sea:
“Up!” it whispered sweetly.
“Come and follow me.”

But he saw no island;
He saw only waves,
Crashing, tumbling, smashing;
Sat he for a day.

Sat he for a week and
Sat he for a month.
Lonely was his heart now
Would he choose to come?

Yes, he wanted deeply:
See the Voice I must!
But there seemed no way to
Find the Voice across

All the waves so loudly
Hitting ‘pon the shore.
So the monkey carried
On just as before.

Days and weeks and months passed.
Monkey ne’er forgot.
That sweet Voice that called him,
Urged him to get up.

One day passed an eagle
Soaring on the wind,
Monkey asked the eagle,
“Where did you begin?”

“I began so far back.
I forget the place.
But I want to soar on,
Find that Voice of grace.”

“You heard of the Voice, too?”
“Yes, I did, for sure.”
Sad, the little monkey
Knew that he was poor

If he had no Voice that
Sang so sweetly in
His heart to urge him
On into the din.

As the eagle passed by,
Monkey made his mind.
He would venture onwards,
His sweet Voice he’d find.

He prepared his tools and
Built a boat from scratch.
Calculated fully,
Boat the sea would match.

Out he set one morning,
Off into the sea.
Sun upon his left side,
Shining on his knee.

Monkey’s plans did work well
For a little while.
Happy in his own plans,
And in all the miles

That he’d travelled safely,
Though by his own means.
Then came on the storms which
Battered his ship’s beams.

Down came monkey’s mast and
Plunged into the deep.
Monkey watched it pulled by
waves – away – he weeped.

All the waves were churning,
Monkey feared for life.
But it not relented
For ten days and nights.

Then came one great wave which
Threw him from his boat
Monkey then knew surely
Primates do not float.

Sinking, he knew only
How the deep it felt
In the dark where only
Silent creatures dwelt.

But a strange thing happened.
Monkey didn’t drown.
What monkey discovered
Brought joy to his frown.

Spotted monkey species
Could this water breathe.
And the Water whispered,
“This is what you need.

“Spotted monkeys never
Need to stay on land.
Water more their home is
Than a beach of sand.

“Come and dance inside Me.
I’m the Voice you love.
Deep into Me fall now,
Move down from above.

“I’m your home to swim in.
You had just forgot!
Your own plans were useless.
So here I you brought.

“Now you know your true self:
You must learn to be
Sea within the monkey,
Monkey in the sea.”