Sunday, September 30, 2007

The belly of a paradox

Next Monday (October 8) I turn 30. Yeesh. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who writes a lot on masculine spirituality and initiation rituals, says that it's hard for us to "get it" in terms of the spiritual quest before the age of 30, so I'm really hoping that I am about to start to "get it." It also just so happens that the readings for that day are from the Book of Jonah, a delightful little book with a serious message. In the monastic literature, Jonah in the belly of the beast is a standard image for the "hidden life" of the monk in the monastery, being transformed (digested?) by the encounter with God's purposes taking him/her in a direction away from his/her desires.

Just as Thomas Merton, in his classic book The Sign of Jonas, could contrast his desire for more solitude and silence (with the Carthusians or Camaldolese hermits) with the inexplicable something that kept him at Gethsemani despite the noise, the busyness, the crowdedness, I can look back over the last eleven years as a member of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart and marvel at the inexplicable something that has conspired to overcome my impatience, my arrogance, my personal preferences. In many cultures, the initiation of the boy into the young man involves a ritual death, such as baptism in the early church, or even “digestion” by a god or a monster, which culminates in a ritual rebirth. I can’t exactly say I have had more than my share of death to deal with, but I am greatly blessed that my community has, as Richard Rohr puts it, held my feet to the fire long enough to become feet. I say all of this by way of gratitude to the community of Brothers and friends and family who have mentored me and put up with more from me than any of us realize, and by way of introduction to the little essay that follows. I wrote this for the directed readings course I am taking on "Sacred Landscapes" -- spirituality and geography -- as a synthesis of the book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, by my teacher Belden Lane.

“[L]ike Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” (Merton 11) Images of being swallowed, digested, and regurgitated abound in the mythological literature, including the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and in the monastic tradition of Christianity. What is it about the archetype of the “belly of the beast” that serves as an image of transformation in so many cultures and spiritual traditions?

Central to the desert spirituality and the transformation that takes place “in the belly of the beast” is an anthropology that understands our truest self over against the ego, which operates on a certain set of illusions and falsehoods. If it is true that the primary task of the ego is to secure itself in relation to the world, then it will follow that the ego will react negatively to anything that serves to un-secure it, whether through denial, violence, or any of a hundred other smokescreens that can distract the ego from its own essential fragility and unimportance to the world. “Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth.” (Cunningham 392) This seems to be why harsh taskmasters and elders have been so important in the initiation of young people in so many cultures and time periods: the ego squirms away from the “death” that initiation inevitably forces them to face. Even if it is true that “the desert tradition never seeks the destruction of the self,” (Solace 13) undercutting the ego and its need for control is a fairly standard practice, essential to bring the person into contact with the self, the true self who is to be distinguished from the false self that the ego tries to construct for itself.

Here the image of the belly of the beast becomes important. For Jonah, the beast symbolizes that which takes him in a direction he does not want to go, while “the sign of Jonas” represents for Jesus the transformation that comes from entering into death. For the Christian, as Merton puts it, “To fully ‘hear’ and ‘receive’ the word of the cross means much more than simple assent to the dogmatic proposition that Christ died for out sins. It means to be ‘nailed to the cross with Christ,’ so that the ego-self is no longer the principle of our deepest actions, which now proceed from Christ living in us.” (Cunningham 418) This rather wintry piety is essential to avoid turning Dame Julian’s deep truth, “All will be well” into an artificially sunny (and self-serving) “All will be well for me.” Like the parent who lets the baby cry itself to sleep rather than get up every time it makes a little noise, the belly of the beast is a reminder that the world is not here to be at my disposal. Job, another of the many classic Biblical figures who are thrown into the belly of the beast, has to reckon with the fact that the world “goes on perfectly well without him, even though it surely seemed in the bleak corridors of his imagination that nothing could have continued beyond the enormity of his suffering.” (Solace 55)

What happens when there is no one around to affirm all the personae I put out for people to praise or console, when no one is impressed by how many degrees or cars or sexual conquests (or, for that matter, levels of humility or spiritual “attainments”) I have racked up? In such a situation, “the fragile ego loses its props and supporting lines. Its incessant need for validation is ignored.” (Solace 43) This is quite a far cry from the “Jesus loves me, this I know” brand of Christianity which has so compartmentalized God to some private corner of my life that all it can do is bolster my self-esteem, the “housebroken and eminently companionable” God (Solace 53) who is functionally an extension of my ego and so has nothing new to challenge me with. It is also, by the way, a far cry from the God whose truth can be summed up, "Vote Republican" or "Vote Democrat," a God who is useful only for structure legitimation, which is the crudest and most shameless extension of ego legitimation.

The true solitary is able to critique and challenge, without needing to condemn (and without needing to see him- or herself as a prophet), because he or she has seen his or her own voracious ego and has been caught in the web of attachments to false security and gratification; the solitary too has known the “rhinoceritis” (in Merton’s language) within him- or herself and has felt the temptation to join the herd. It is for this reason that the desert mothers and fathers feared pride as the greatest of sins in the desert: contempt for the world could lead them to believe that they were better than others, that they were free of the ego-chains that bound “ordinary” people, in effect lording their poverty over the wealthy and taking pride in their humility. However necessary asceticism-as-discipline may be for the sake of equilibrium and attentiveness, the danger is that the person see him/herself as a hero, as having accomplished something through force of will that others have not, which is simply one more accomplishment upon which the ego could hang its hat.

Biblical language such as John’s use of “the world” or Paul’s use of “the flesh” as something in opposition to the kingdom of God has long been misunderstood, often producing a dualistic, spiritualized concept of salvation that dismisses sexuality as shameful and injustice as irrelevant to gospel. Both metaphors, however, point to something quite different: not “the world” as physical place, but rather “the worldly” as set of assumptions about who and what we truly are; not “the flesh” as weak and sinful biology, but “the fleshly” that makes either our appetites or our neuroses the standard of behavior. In contradistinction to these two stands the proper understanding of the monastic virtue of contemptus mundi: not a literal “contempt for the world,” but contempt for the illusions that the uncritical ego assumes are the final reality of the world and the self. “What they [the desert monks] fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” (Solace 166)

Ideally, there is nothing left to prove, nothing left but to acknowledge one’s own falsehoods and humility; if the desert, as vast and ancient as it is, does not seem to take my ego and its demands seriously, why should I? “The greatest spiritual teachers in Zen Buddhism were those who took themselves least seriously. When they met each other, they would roll with laughter at the idea that they were supposed to be holy and worthy of reverence-having somehow mastered the infinite in their teachings. They drew pictures of each other with fat stomachs and scowling faces, dressed in tattered clothes, playing in the dirt with children. They gave titles to each other, such as ‘Great Bag of Rice’ or ‘Snowflake on a Hot Oven.’” (“Zen Clown” 260) One author, reviewing the film Into Great Silence, says of the Carthusians pictured in the film, “They look like soldiers. I suppose that means that they look like men who have seen a lot, and borne a lot. They also look like men you wouldn't cross: they look almost like criminals in that way. One might say, too, that they look like the ideal of the peasant or the seaman. Some of them permit themselves a dry, minimal smile, and those are very enigmatic moments.” (North) They don’t have angelic faces, don’t smugly look down on the lay person who comes to film them or claim to have mastered the mysteries of God. They are simply men, albeit men who have spent their lives trying to cut through the noise of “the world,” both the external world and their egos’ needs to “be somebody.”

Ritualized encounters with death in the belly of the beast typically enact rebirth as well, so that the tomb is at once the womb, from the emergence from the deathly waters in early baptism (“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” – Col 3:3) through the emergence of the initiate from the womb of the sweatlodge. The kernel of the ego, with the falsity of life it needed to live to sustain itself, has been cracked so that the new life of the true self (which was always there, but unseen and unlived) can be manifest. “Thus, in the heart of anguish [that is, the belly of the beast] are found the gifts of peace and understanding: not simply in personal illumination and liberation, but by commitment and empathy, for the comtemplative must assume the universal anguish and the inescapable condition of mortal man.” (Cunningham 394) That is, kenosis, the desert, the belly of the whale, has on the far side of it an opening up into compassion, which comes from having seen the shipwreck of one’s own inner life, having seen the foolishness of the person we try to present to others, having an ongoing awareness of one’s own dance between addiction and grace, and thus being able to recognize the same in other people.


Cunningham, Lawrence. Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992.
Lane, Belden. “Merton as Zen Clown.” Theology Today. Vol. 46, #3, October 1989 pp 256-68.
---. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Merton, Thomas. The Sign of Jonas. NY: Harcourt & Brace, 1953.
North, Philip. “Being a Fly on the Monastery Enclosure Wall: Into Great Silence- Philip
Gröning.” The Social Affairs Unit. March 9, 2007.
< http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/001436.php> Accessed 30 September 2007.

1 comment:

Dan Fitzpatrick said...

i cant get enough of rohr's wisdom. he opens up God for us in light of the real world. his wisdom is what a lot of the western world needs.

http://touchingbasewithgod.blogspot.com/.