Let it never be said that Christianity has nothing in common with the good of other religions and philosophies. Whatever is good and true in other religions and philosophies, Christians are free to take and, recognizing their value, thank God for the crumbs scattered over the globe. It may not seem enough to live off, but it is still food.
One of my favourite philosophers is Mencius (perhaps more properly called Mengzi). After Confucius (Kongzi) he is probably the most important ancient Chinese philosopher. He is not, of course, a philosopher in the theoretical tradition of the Greeks, but he is a kind of practitioner of life, as philosophers aimed to be in ancient China.
What strikes me especially about Mencius is how otherworldly his perspective is. I don’t mean he doesn’t care for this world. No, I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that, for Mencius, this world is cared for only and best by those who let themselves be formed by the other world. And Mencius is very direct. It will hurt. When “Heaven” molds us to complete some good in this world, we will first feel as if we can do no good at all. We will feel withered. We we languish. We will suffer in mind and body, until the whole of our nature is brought into conformity with its purpose:
When Heaven is about to bestow a great responsibility on a particular person, it will always first subject one’s heart and resolution to bitterness, belabour one’s muscles and bones, starve one’s body and flesh, deprive one’s person, and thwart and bring chaos to what one does. By means of these things it perturbs one’s heart, toughens one’s nature, and provides those things of which one is incapable. (Mengzi 6B15)
It strikes me that this is remarkably like a description of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. Everything one does must fail. We must be brought to nothing, humiliated; we must be (subjectively) annihilated under the hand of God (Heaven) in order to be objectively conformed to a great mission, calling, and usefulness for others. Indeed, this very same Heaven tests and proves us if we are to be of use to it – for what else could be the meaning of the interior growth which is obtained through the tears of this world?
This is a fascinating description of life from a pre-Christian thinker. It takes a very high view of the landscape of life. It is intent on the activity of “Heaven” and our place in usefulness for the world.
There is a lot of similarity with Mencius’ exposition of the lot of the person who intends to be useful for this world, under the hand of a much more powerful Heaven, and the description which Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) gives of the dark night of the soul:
Each individual familiar with the interior life knows that it is precisely those called by God to achieve the extraordinary who must also pass through extraordinary tests. These are not only worldly difficulties and needs but rather spiritual suffering and temptations even harder to endure – that which mystical theology terms ‘the dark night of the soul.’
These sufferings exist to toughen us, to loosen our hold on our own judgment and ideas, and to throw us into relying on God and his providence.
Contemplation, beginning as it does with the onset of the dark night, thus makes us useful for others. It is in becoming more of our God-given self and less reliant on our own judgment and ideas of our self, that we become more useful for others. That is the seeming paradox of contemplation. Contemplation vivifies action. In fact, the more of the darkness of contemplation through which we pass, the more we will be able to do for this world and the place of ourselves and others in the next.