Beauty's in the Eye of the Beer Holder
In fact, the only way we ourselves can know about God is by religioning. A religion is not primarily something you “have” or “know.” Rather, it must be something you do--like playing a musical instrument in order to make music present. I always say that one does not become religious after deciding with the mind or ego whether or not God exists. Rather, one becomes religious in order to find out. Just as science is the appropriate means with which to study the properties of matter, religion is the means with which we study the properties of Spirit.
Whatever the quantum world is in itself, science is helpless to say. Looked at this way, it’s a particle. Looked at that way, it’s a wave. It is just so with religion. Religions are ways to look at (and even “through”) God in order to reveal different aspects and dimensions of him. But this doesn’t mean that the entire enterprises is subjective, any more than quantum physics is subjective just because knowledge of the subatomic realm depends upon the way we look at it.
So the question really isn’t whether or not God exists. The existence of God can easily be proven to someone who is inclined to believe the evidence. To someone not so inclined, no amount of evidence will suffice. This is an idea that Petey heard from Assistant Village Idiot, but to whom he would ungraciously prefer not to give credit (typical).
A clear way to express it is, being that God is real, how do we actually make him ex-ist? That is, the literal meaning of exist is to “stand out.” Thus, in this way of looking at things, something can be real but not exist.
Speaking of my extended family, the saddest thing that’s ever happened in my life was the sudden death of my sister-in-law four years ago, who was only 39 years old at the time and left behind a two year old son. A year after her death there was an “unveiling” ceremony at the cemetery, as in Judaism one waits a year before inscribing the person’s name on the tombstone. But although nominally Jewish, the in-law side of my family is rather militantly secular, so there was no rabbi there, no sacred words, no ritual, no “religioning.” Somebody read a poem, but it mostly made the poet present, not God. Everyone stared at the tombstone, looked at their shoes, shuffled around awkwardly, and that was it. No religioning whatsoever. In fact, God wasn’t even invited.
Given how much I’ve changed between then and now, I think that today I would have felt more comfortable in doing my little part to try to bring God into the ceremony. Free-lance holy man that I am, I’m sure I could write something appropriate to the occasion, and in fact, I would feel obligated to do so. Because as you grow spiritually, the obligation to conform to God should extend to every detail of your life, from the simplest thing to the most profound and important.
Personally I would have a great deal of difficulty being an Orthodox Jew. And yet, I have a profound respect for this tradition, because they put into practice the ideas I am discussing here. For the purpose of all the rules and procedures is to create an environment of spiritual ascent, and this is something everyone needs to do in their lives, regardless of their spiritual approach.
While we cannot manufacture grace, we can do many things that interfere with its operation or which facilitate our awareness of its presence. One of my greatest influences, Frithjof Schuon, emphasized the importance of beauty in all aspects of one’s life. Beauty, he believed, represented a plane within the realm of sensible forms that is pierced by radiation from the Divine light. Contemplating this Divine light can draw us back upstream to its ultimate source.
Schuon identifies three essential spiritual elements that one cannot do without: Truth, Virtue, and Prayer. Each of these is actually an aspect of the others. A fourth element is beauty, but it is considered extrinsic because, strictly speaking, one may still advance without it--for example, if you are stuck in a jail cell.
But we should not minimize the importance of beauty, especially in this day and age, filled with so much ugliness and barbarity wherever we look. Unfortunately, we have come to increasingly inhabit a world that is the very opposite of what the Orthodox Jew attempts to create in his life. That is, we have created a descending world that constantly fragments and disperses our attention, and which drags our consciousness down and out, from the center to the periphery.
Here is what is at the ultimate root of the so-called “culture war”: are we going to live in an ascending culture or a descending one? In just my lifetime, I have seen how these positions have been reversed. When I was a boy growing up in the 1960’s, there were still many elements and reminders of ascent all around. There were plenty of virtuous and heroic men to look up to, both in real life and in the media. There wasn’t the secular hatred of the higher life, nor was there the obnoxious celebration of everything that is coarse, vulgar, and “authentic.” There was implicit awareness of a spiritual hierarchy, and some acknowledgment that it was worthwhile to try to aspire upward--not materially, but spiritually.
Today everyone is equal, but the only way you can achieve that is by assaulting and negating the vertical. I hope my son always knows that there are people lower than him to whom he is obligated, and people higher than him to whom he has the obligation to revere and emulate. Never emulate someone lower, and never presume to instruct or consider yourself equal to the truly Superior Man. Both stances are spiritually toxic. Schuon is just one of about a dozen such personages to whom I look up with reverence, awe, and gratitude.
The most insignificant object in your life can be a trivial knickknack or it can be a metaphysically transparent gift from heaven. If we wish to become more aware of God’s presence, it is critical to create an ambiance in which he is more likely to appear. Again, in the final analysis, God can be excluded from nowhere. This is not his problem, but our problem. But do not deliberately make matters worse than you have to by choosing situations and environments that obscure God’s presence.
For beauty is a form of vertical recollection. Through it we recall our divine origin. Schuon believes that the best way is to imitate the beauty of virgin nature insofar as that is possible. Nature has an inherent equilibrium, harmony, simplicity, dignity and humility. I am always reminded of this when I ride my bike in the hills around my house. In looking at the spontaneous patterns produced by the wildflowers below or the clouds above, I am constantly reminded that no artist could achieve this simple perfection of form. The world effortlessly tosses up these beautiful patterns and forms, everything in its proper place--just as if all creation is a spontaneous prayer.
So in our own lives, it’s best to imitate the simplicity of nature, to make our ambiance as natural as possible. I began simplifying my life many years ago, mainly to create more “slack” with which to engage my spiritual practice. I did not know at the time that this simplicity was not just a support, but an actual means of spiritual recollection.
Lisa will appreciate this, for even our outward comportment is of the utmost importance: our posture, our bearing, how we carry ourselves, our gestures--each of these can enhance our nobility and bring us into conformity with our divine center, or can reflect spiritual apathy and a loss of dignity. Our bearing, to the extent that we can achieve it, should reflect the motionless center, the still point within. Try it some time. In other words, don’t just go searching for that still center. Rather, assume it’s already there, and begin walking and acting in conformity with it--back erect, head head high, stately comportment. You’ll find that you get “feedback” right away from that calm center. You will reflect it.
Likewise, clothing is critical. No, this does not mean being a self-absorbed “dandy,” nor does it have anything do do with the opposite extreme in the Muslim world. But if you go to a mall and see the horrifying manner in which people dress these days, you feel the effect. It is literally unfit for the dignity of human beings. Nor does it have anything to do with prudery. A thirteen year old girl wearing pants with “juicy” emblazoned on her butt is an incipient lost soul who is probably the luckless victim of absolutely clueless and spiritually bereft parents. Obviously, tattoos are a nonstarter, for they detract from the body’s natural beauty. God did not intend your body to be a crass billboard for your ego’s inane advertisements. Your body is a material reflection of the divine nature. You can highlight that or detract from it.
Even needless sloppiness should be avoided. By its very nature, according to Schuon, Spirituality has an aristocratic air that is fundamentally at odds with the democratizing spirit of the times. The denial of beauty is just one more way that our culture denies Truth.
Your home environment is especially critical to an ambiance of ascent. Again, according to Schuon, “what dress is to nudity, one’s dwelling is to the natural environment,” in the sense that we should seek simplicity, use natural materials if possible, minimize clutter, and have sacred art and liturgical symbols to remind us of the vertical. “Your dwelling should be a a sanctuary in which everything works together in disposing your soul toward Prayer. It should be a garden or oasis in the midst of life’s turmoil where movement toward God is unimpeded by the world’s noise and distractions.” At least one corner--preferably a room---should be set aside solely for the purposes of divine reading, meditation and prayer.
You must also be extremely careful about what and who you allow to enter your soul. Everything has an effect, including music, television, newspapers, magazines. I’m sure that well over 90% of the the content of these things creates a tamasic atmosphere of descent. When I pick up one of the major liberal newspapers, or a Time or Newsweek in an office, I am primarily struck by how stupid they are. It is a world of breathless trivia, urgent superficiality, pseudo-sophisticated nonsense, and elevation of the momentary to far beyond its importance.
And perhaps most importantly, it is absolutely vital to associate yourselves with “men of ascending tendency.” Of course, there are many relationships we cannot avoid--coworkers, relatives, etc.--which is all the more reason to be part of satsanga or association of people who are serious about the spiritual life.
Clearly that is one of the purposes of this blog. I am sure there must be others, but I know of no other blog that explicitly attempts to reverse perspective and deal with contemporary events in an ascending manner, from the standpoint of eternity rather than time. I try my best to provide not “all the news that’s fit to print,” but all the perennial truth that the roaring torrent of eternity will fit into my meandering creek (or crock, depending on your politics) of a post.
Frithjof Schuon, whom I consider easily one of the greatest religious geniuses of the 20th century, is for many people a difficult read. Frankly he is not for everyone, for his is a way of jnana or pure metaphysics. Some of the above discussion was inspired by a book entitled Advice to the Serious Seeker: Meditations on the Teaching of Frithjof Schuon, by James Cutsinger (see sidebar). Even it would probably be a challenge for most readers who are not themselves of a jnani temperament. No need to worry, however. In the future I will continue to do my best to make Schuon’s ideas accessible and hopefully useful to all. As I said, while I do not agree with his every teaching, he is nevertheless one of about a dozen of my go-to guys.