The most powerful prayer, one wellnigh omnipotent, and the worthiest work of all is the outcome of a quiet mind. The quieter it is the more powerful, the worthier, the deeper, the more telling and more perfect the prayer is. To the quiet mind all things are possible. What is a quiet mind? A quiet mind is one which nothing weighs on, nothing worries, which, free from ties and from all self-seeking, is wholly merged into the will of God and dead to its own.
–Meister Eckhart, as translated in A Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Western Mysticism (1985) by Patrick Grant; courtesy of Wikiquote
Back here I discussed two forms of argument against universalism, both of which I considered to be red herrings–that is, arguments that don’t actually address the issue at hand. The first argument boiled down to saying, “Don’t worry about the fate of others–worry about yourself. Your main goal is to keep yourself from going to hell–God will take care of everyone else.” This altogether avoids the issue of whether eternal damnation is just, or congruent with God’s infinite goodness, so it’s certainly a red herring. I had this further to say about it, though:
In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally very, very allergic to the “worry about yourself, never mind about others” argument–or “pseudo-argument”, I should say–for personal reasons. I’ll elaborate those in a post soon to follow, since it would take up too much of the current post if I related them here. Keep tuned for that story.
Well, I want to relate that story now.
The genesis of this post is an odd one. I was talking to a friend about mythology the other day, and he asked what my favorite ancient Greek deity was. Without hesitation I answered that it was Athena. I went on to say that my favorite figure from Norse mythology was Odin, and from Egyptian, Isis. Thus, if I’d been an ancient Greek, I’d have worshiped Athena, and so on. I got to thinking about this a little later, and with the usual flow of stream of consciousness, where one topic leads to another that is sometimes only marginally related, I ended up with something I decided was worth blogging about–hence, the current post.
The title of this post does not refer to Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or any such thing, but to a specific type of religion prevalent in the Mediterranean cultural zone from about the middle of the first millennium BC to the fifth century or so AD. These religions were referred to as “mysteries”, usually with a qualifier (“Mysteries of Eleusis”, “Mysteries of Isis”, “Orphic Mysteries”, and so on), by the people of the time. Scholars of religion in modern times refer to them as “mystery religions”. In order to examine them, we need to back up a bit and look at the broader picture.
Way back here I looked at the distinction between embodied minds–that is to say, creatures like ourselves, which have both bodies and souls–on the one hand, and bodiless creatures–pure minds lacking any kind of body composed of either matter or energy, that is to say, the beings we have traditionally referred to as angels and demons. Later on, I reconsidered the matter, looking at the difficulties in the notion of completely disembodied minds, and speculating on the possibility that angels and demons might have bodies of a sort after all. Recently, I have come across an interesting essay by David Bentley Hart, one of my favorite theologians and men of letters, which throws further light on this subject.
In setting the scene for the essay, Hart very forcibly argues that the Hellenization of Christianity is a feature, not a bug, that it goes back to the very beginning of the faith, and that modern attempts to remove said Hellenization in order to recover a “pure” Christianity are both doomed and missing the point altogether:
Naturally, this [picture of early Christianity drawn by N. T. Wright] also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy—and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.
Wright’s anxiety is quite in keeping with a certain traditional Protestant picture of the pagan and Jewish worlds of late antiquity, one that involves an impermeable cultural partition between them—between, that is, the “philosophy” of the Greeks and the “pure” covenantal piety of the Jews.
Mercy is a sweet gracious working in love, mingled with plenteous pity: for mercy worketh in keeping us, and mercy worketh turning to us all things to good. Mercy, by love, suffereth us to fail in measure and in as much as we fail, in so much we fall; and in as much as we fall, in so much we die: for it needs must be that we die in so much as we fail of the sight and feeling of God that is our life. Our failing is dreadful, our falling is shameful, and our dying is sorrowful: but in all this the sweet eye of pity and love is lifted never off us, nor the working of mercy ceaseth. For I beheld the property of mercy, and I beheld the property of grace: which have two manners of working in one love.
–Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (c. 1393), Ch. 48; courtesy of Wikiquote.
See the land, her Easter keeping,
Rises as her Maker rose.
Seeds, so long in darkness sleeping,
Burst at last from winter snows.
Earth with heaven above rejoices.
Field and gardens rejoices the spring;
Shaughs and woodlands ring with voices,
While the wild birds build and sing.
–Charles Kingsley (1882), in Poems: Including The Saint’s Tragedy, Andromeda, Songs, Ballads, Etc, p. 289.; courtesy of Wikiquote.
To be sure, it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: we are still awaiting Easter; we are not yet standing in the full light but walking toward it full of trust.
― Good Reads.; courtesy of
All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself. Man could do no more. Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract. Externally indeed the ancient world was still at its strongest; it is always at that moment that the inmost weakness begins. But in order to understand that weakness we must repeat what has been said more than once; that it was not the weakness of a thing originally weak. It was emphatically the strength of the world that was turned to weakness and the wisdom of the world that was turned to folly.
In this story of Good Friday it is the best things in the world that are at their worst. That is what really shows us the world at its worst. It was, for instance, the priests of a true monotheism and the soldiers of an international civilisation. Rome, the legend, founded upon fallen Troy and triumphant over fallen Carthage, had stood for a heroism which was the nearest that any pagan ever came to chivalry. Rome had defended the household gods and the human decencies against the ogres of Africa and the hermaphrodite monstrosities of Greece. But in the lightning flash of this incident, we see great Rome, the imperial republic, going downward under her Lucretian doom. Scepticism has eaten away even the confident sanity of the conquerors of the world. He who is enthroned to say what is justice can only ask: ‘What is truth?’ So in that drama which decided the whole fate of antiquity, one of the central figures is fixed in what seems the reverse of his true role. Rome was almost another name for responsibility. Yet he stands for ever as a sort of rocking statue of the irresponsible. Man could do no more. Even the practical had become the impracticable. Standing between the pillars of his own judgement-seat, a Roman had washed his hands of the world.
Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is his heaven and all is right with the world; since the rumour that God had left his heavens to set it right.
–G.K. Chesterton The collected works of G.K. Chesterton (1987) pp.188-90; courtesy of Wikiquote.
In Christianity, when we celebrate the Eucharist, sharing the bread and the wine as the body of God, we do it in the same spirit of piety, of mindfulness, aware that we are alive, enjoying dwelling in the present moment. The message of Jesus during the Seder that has become known as the Last Supper was clear. His disciples had been following Him. They had had the chance to look in His eyes and see Him in person, but it seems they had not yet come into real contact with the marvelous reality of His being. So when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine, he said, This is My body. This is My blood. Drink it, eat it, and you will have life eternal. It was a drastic way to awaken His disciples from forgetfulness. When we look around, we see many people in whom the Holy Spirit does not appear to dwell. They look dead, as though they were dragging around a corpse, their own body. The practice of the Eucharist is to help resurrect these people so they can touch the Kingdom of Life. In the church, the Eucharist is received at every mass. Representatives of the church read from the biblical passage about the Last Supper of Jesus with His twelve disciples, and a special kind of bread called the Host is shared. Everyone partakes as a way to receive the life of Christ into his or her own body. When a priest performs the Eucharistic rite, his role is to bring life to the community. The miracle happens not because he says the words correctly, but because we eat and drink in mindfulness. Holy Communion is a strong bell of mindfulness. We drink and eat all the time, but we usually ingest only our ideas, projects, worries, and anxiety. We do not really eat our bread or drink our beverage. If we allow ourselves to touch our bread deeply, we become reborn, because our bread is life itself. Eating it deeply, we touch the sun, the clouds, the earth, and everything in the cosmos. We touch life, and we touch the Kingdom of God. When I asked Cardinal Jean Daniélou if the Eucharist can be described in this way, he said yes.
When we pick up a piece of bread, we can do it with mindfulness, with Spirit. The bread, the Host, becomes the object of our deep love and concentration. If our concentration is not strong enough, we can try saying its name silently, “Bread,” in the way we would call the name of our beloved. When we do this, the bread will reveal itself to us in its totality, and we can put it in our mouth and chew with real awareness, not chewing anything else, such as our thoughts, our fears, or even our aspirations. This is Holy Communion, to live in faith. When we practice this way, every meal is the Last Supper. In fact, we could call it the First Supper, because everything will be fresh and new.
–Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ
Today, Holy Thursday, commemorates the institution of the Eucharist.