Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mystery and the Middle Way

When I listen to Rachmaninoff's Vespers, I get a spiritual uplift that I really cannot explain.  There is something amazing from the very first "Amin" to the very last.  What is this feeling?  Is it the manipulation of the music?  Is it a cultural message that I've been brought up to know?

Rachmaninoff wrote the Vespers in 1916, shortly before the overthrow of the Tsar, when much was amiss in Russian society.  Sadly, the spiritual traditions from which Rachmaninoff wrote this amazing music would be lost for nearly a century.  Perhaps he suspected something would be lost.  There is deep in us, seemingly, a sense of the unknown that motivates, inspires, and alters our consciousness through its mystery.

I was reading a wonderful piece this morning entitled "Meaning of the Rachmaninoff Vespers", by Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther:

Rachmaninov wrote this music in 1916, when the future of Russia was about to become a prolonged, dehumanizing catastrophe, through the Revolution which Nicholas II and Alexandra by their appalling policies had made inevitable. Even Nicholas’ abdication was the result of his incompetence.  But there is in Russian history, and in the heart of all Russians, a depth of sorrowful love, which receives catastrophe as a kind of revelation.  At least, this is the general argument of Nicholas Berdyaev, one of Russian Orthodoxy’s greatest writers and advocates.  As he says:
The mystery always remains; it is deepened by our knowledge.  Knowledge destroys only false mysteries created by our own ignorance, but there are other mysteries which confront us when we reach the depth of knowledge.  God is a mystery, and the knowledge of God is communicated in mystery.  Rational theology is false theology, for it denies the mystery that surrounds God.
I have spoken on this blog about how the Middle Way is one of truth, of sorting out or oneself what is true, discarding things that are not true, and adopting things that are.  Yet there are many things which remain 'unknowable' in my journey along the Way.

If I am honest with myself, really, truly, deeply honest, then I have to realize that much of what I believe is based upon assertion: My belief is not based upon a systematic, epistemological method, but rather, that it feels good to me.  I have suggested in other posts that this feeling of certainty can be dangerous, as it allows blind acceptance of things not true.

But to objectively put everything I believe into a 'true' or 'not true' category based upon critical thinking perhaps denies something that I cannot explain, or that upon explaining it and 'demystifying' it, it loses power to me. 

Objective pursuit of truth can be starkly depressing, as so much of what we believe of spiritual things cannot be proven or disproven.  And if I adopt the 'all or nothing' paradigm, then 'nothing' is a lonely place. 

I love the statement, above, by Nicholas Berdyaev.  The pursuit of knowledge in the Middle Way has allowed me to reject some things that simply are not true: literalism in things.  But as I plumb the depths of this knowledge, there is something that remains -- a mystery not of the unknown, but of the unknowable.  There is a connection between humans that cannot be fully explained in science.  Sure, I can surmise that the mechanisms of non-verbal communication, of the subtleties of our non-conscious mind connecting through subtle signals can connect with others in their non-conscious perceptions, but this hardly satisfies. 

Even the 'why' can be explained: evolution required us to relate together, to flock, much as birds do to survive the winters. 

But to rationalize the unknowable, the mystery of not only human connection, but the spiritual basis of all that is, is to lose sight of the wonder of all that is. 

If I think of agape, 'godly love', I don't think there are words to justify it, to explain it, to defend it.  It simply is.  Why I love, how I love...these are all a very deep mystery.  Yet I love -- that is a fact, an undeniable, unalterable fact.  And more so, I feel loved by something greater than myself, outside my conscious self.  The moment I try to explain this love, to rationalize it, I lose the sense of awe and mystery.

How many times have I heard music or spoken word that touches me to the core.  It isn't the words, it's the feeling.  How many times have I heard chant of scripture, any scripture, and been transported to another plane of existence: yet hearing the translation of the words, it has no power at all. 

If the Middle Way is about sorting out truth of things, I have to also admit the truth of spiritual feelings.  At one extreme, religious people tend to define these feelings of spirituality within the confines of their belief and arduously defend their beliefs.  At the other, the rational mind tends to reject the idea of spiritual feelings as being simply a manifestation of brain chemistry and emotion.  To these two poles, I ask, "Where does Godly Love (agape) fit"? 

And I would answer, "In the Middle". 

When I am into a mode of studying principles that defend my beliefs, or of arguing things about whatever, somehow I seem to lose a sense of awe and mystery that accompanies a faith in the unknowable.  I need that sense of awe and mystery.  I need to feel the wonder -- maybe it's just my personal feelings of inadequacy, or a program I was grown up to follow, I don't know or care.

How many times in my life have I realized how important it is to daily feast upon the Word and feel of the spirit.  A discipline of reading and praying tends to feed the soul in ways that cannot be achieved with intellectualism.  I need this, and yet, my reading and praying, of whatever form it is, cannot be and should not be an escape from reality.  My feasting upon the Word, my communion with god must lead me to a better, more fulfilled life, one connected with the realities of my personal situation and context.

This is a great paradox: by opening up my mind to the Mystery, I return to reality with a sense of purpose, of focus, and armed with the ability to sort out truth and what I need to do about it. 

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