living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Self-transendence

Thomas Merton: The Basic Sin of Christianity

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Being a Christian has never been easy for me. There have been numerous seasons where I’ve wanted to simply ditch the whole program. Yet, over the years, I eventually came to see that I had good Christian reasons for my dissatisfaction. This morning I came across a wonderful passage by Thomas Merton that helps illuminate what I mean by that. He suggests that Christianity is tempted with a single basic sin. He says that,

The basic sin, for Christianity, is rejecting others in order to choose oneself, deciding against others and deciding for oneself. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 172.)

It is a simple statement with powerful depth. With that single sentence Merton essentially captures all the various elements of my religion that made it nearly impossible for me to remain. From the stubborn defense of cherished readings of the Bible against other truth-seeking discourses (such as the empirical sciences) to the exclusivist theology in which only those who believed the right things would attain true humanity and avoid everlasting torment. All of these things amounted to the choosing and defense of oneself and one’s ideas over against the destabilizing possibilities that others represent.

Merton and the Dali Lama

During my own religious crisis, I would often say that what I wanted more than anything was truth. If my religion, and therefore the meaning of my life, was not in fact truth, I wanted to know that. While I was in seminary I encountered some who seemed much more keen on preserving the meaning of their life in the form of their religion. I was always unsettled and aggravated by such encounters. At the time, I interpreted it as a conflict between truth and Christianity, and as such I felt a growing pressure to leave Christianity. It would be some time yet before I came to see the conflict as having much more to do with the sin of self-justification.

Merton drives the point home powerfully:

Why is this sin so basic? Because the idea that you can choose yourself, approve yourself, and then offer yourself (fully “chosen” and “approved”) to God, applies the assertion of yourself over against God. From this root of error comes all the sour leafage and fruitage of a life of self-examination, interminable problems and unending decisions, always making right choices, walking on the razor edge of an impossibly subtle ethic (with an equally subtle psychology to take care of the unconscious). All this implies the frenzied conviction that one can be [one’s] own light and [one’s] own justification, and that God is there for a purpose: to issue the stamp of confirmation upon my own rightness. In such a religion the Cross becomes meaningless except as the (blasphemous) certification that because you suffer, because you are misunderstood, you are justified twice over—you are a martyr. Martyr means witness. You are then a witness? To what? To your own infallible light and your own justice, which you have chosen.
This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus ever did or taught. (Conjectures, 172.)

In contrast to much of what passes as Christianity in our day, Merton helps us see that the true mark of Christian faithfulness lies not in vigorous demonstrations of certainty, or in a zeal to defend the purity of the faith against the contamination of others (be they political, religious, or otherwise). Such are the machinations of self-preservation. True Christianity is just the opposite. True Christianity, like Christ, exposes our self-preserving tendencies. True Christianity cares little about whether or not it is true Christianity, for its eyes are no longer anxiously searching itself for its own justification. In the power of grace, one’s “self” is allowed to pass away, and others cease to be a threat. A posture of defense turns to a posture of hospitality.

This is not a form of Christianity that I have any temptation to leave. It is not open to my critique, but rather I find myself always exposed in its presence. But not only exposed, also accepted, and called by its beauty. It has been a long road, but I am deeply grateful for thinkers like Merton who have helped me see that what seemed like unfaithfulness was in reality the movement of a deeper stirring. I pray that we all might find such light to live by, beyond pretension, defensiveness, and fear.

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Written by Alex

August 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

Ultramarathon Running as Spiritual Practice

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tony-anton-krupicka-twin-peaksThere is a nearly naked man who runs up mountains. He does it for a living. Those who meet him in the high country often remark that encountering him was much like meeting Jesus. A nearly naked, funny-sunglasses-wearing, mountain running, fast, Jesus. His name is Anton Krupicka. He’s a self-trained, top-tier, ultra-marathon athlete, who lives in Boulder Colorado (as such people tend to do). Not too long ago I heard him comment on the idea of human limitation. As one who does a lot of thinking about limits, runs on a much more modest scale, and who also enjoys mountain based adventure, I’ve found myself coming back to his words often. You can hear it from his own mouth here, but what he said was this:

I’m not sure if anything is possible in life or in running, but I think that… I actually think that there are limits. But I don’t think that nearly anyone actually reaches their personal limit, be it physically or mentally, when it comes to endurance sport in the mountains. It’s mentally, that’s how we push ourselves is through our mind, and our bodies are so much stronger than we ever give ourselves credit for.*

It’s from words like this that we can understand the way that endurance running becomes “spiritual” for so many. If spirituality is thought of as essentially self-transcendence, then what Anton is on about here is an example of just that; the “self” that is transcended is the self-limited-self. (Doing this in the mountains doesn’t hurt much either, I’d add). As I’ve reflected on this, I’ve had Krupicka in conversation with Benedictine monk, Sebastian Moore. Moore extends and amplifies Krupicka’s thoughts on limits beyond physical endurance, but the same dynamics are in play. He also gives a provocative answer to the question of why, as Anton suggests, we never reach our personal limit. He says,

…we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit–which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.… We stay very near the known and the familiar. Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let This Mind Be in You, 127.)

Moore’s modest suggestion is that we never reach the limits of life because the limit is not simply “as fast or as far as one can physically run,” nor is it “the happiest we can possibly be,” or “the maximum pain threshold.” His insight is simple and radically reframing. The reason we never reach our limit is that our limit is death. One’s personal limit is therefore “running one’s self to death.” Understandably, then, we construct a “safer” world in which to live. We create our own self-limited-self.

Not only do most of us not run ultra-marathons, most of us don’t venture into the mountains at all… there’s bears and such out there, you know. And for that same reason most of us never experience the truly religious quality of 3,000 feet of open air between us and a turquoise alpine lake below (not to mention having a grizzly roar at you on its hind legs from 25 yards). But forget mountains for a moment. The same is true for life in general. As Ernest Becker so wonderfully made clear, society itself is, in part, the corporate construction of the self-limited-self. It gives us a limited set of roles to play, and a basic monitory system with which (if we work hard, etc) we can purchase security and leisure (Insurance policies, cars with air-bags, security systems, vacations, weekends, health-club memberships, and so on). Our fear of death, our terror of our own limits, creates an ego-organized-self and a communal system. In contrast to these self-protective dynamics we have these crazy people like Krupicka who radically chase after their own limits by embracing the risk of the chase.

I think also of Daniel Suelo who, as Mark Sundeen recounts in his biography, renounced the use of money after realizing that “Money perpetuated the fantasy of immortal earthly life, the illusion that we could determine the future.” (The Man Who Quit Money, 224.) These figures really are “crazy” in a sense. In their own way, they reject the “normal” self-limiting scheme that society creates for us. Their insanity reminds us that earthly safety is an illusion, and that the ‘happiness’ realized in the quest for it is a lie. In doing so, they reject the fear that drives the system by embracing the object of fear: the limits of life. Freed of its horror, the limits of life become something to be played with rather than attacked or repressed. That’s the radical paradox of all this. By embracing that from which our “normal” quest for happiness flees, the fullness of life is allowed to emerge. Just as Moore said, “To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit–which is death.”

This was a new insight for me… that the fullness of life might be thought of as a life freed to live all the way to the limit of life, death. It can be said another way: the fullness of life is possible only in freedom from all the infinite number of ways that we fear death. Sit for a moment and reflect on the innumerable ways that your own life is shaped by an attempt to stave off death. Really think about it; ponder the ways that each of those decisions limits you and separates you from “the dream of yourself” and from others. Now, picture nearly naked, funny-sunglasses-wearing, Jesus running amongst the peaks. He’s not someone else. He is you.

P.S. Don’t miss this recent mountain running film featuring Anton and produced by Joel Wolpert. *Incidentally, Radiolab recently had a delightful (as always) short on the relation of our minds to pain in runners.