On Love

The complete readings are here.

1 Cor 13:9-10

“For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
Caravaggio: The Conversion on the Way to Damascus
Today we have a beautiful and well-known passage from Corinthians. It is a dense and mystical section of text, so it is tempting to wax philosophically about its connection to the Eastern traditions I know and love. However, I’d like instead to share some more specific thoughts, and I apologize if they are not very clear yet.

Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians was written by Paul of Tarsus, the “thirteenth” Apostle who did not meet Christ in his lifetime but who experienced a legendary vision of him on the road to Damascus. (The “Road to Damascus!” Sounds so mythical, don’t you think?)

“In regard to spiritual gifts, brothers,” Paul writes, “I do not want you to be unaware.” Paul’s compassion toward his audience is clear, and I find this a fascinating moment because he is literally writing about monotheism to a formerly polytheistic people.

If I speak in human
and angelic tongues
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong
or a clashing cymbal.”

He continues: “You know how, when you were pagans, you were constantly attracted [to] and led away by mute idols.” I love that phrase. MUTE idols. Instantly conjures up the vision of countless temples with unblinking statues nestled in them, adorned with flowers and incense by their dutiful worshipers. Paul calls them “mute” because he believes they cannot fill you the way the Holy Spirit does.

I was speaking recently with a devout Catholic and experienced again the shock of being in the presence of a true believer. He declared confidently to me, “God exists. He proved it to us when he sent Jesus Christ. What else do you need?” As one whose faith is more marked by doubt than by deliverance, I forget sometimes that this is what religion means for many people: certainty in an uncertain world.

So I wonder how Paul felt as he wrote this letter to the Corinthians. Was it easier for him to be unafflicted by doubt, living in the pre-Enlightenment era? Was he a true believer? One thing that is clear to me today is that, much as I would like to believe differently, I am currently a monotheist. Until now my faith has simply been monotheism without the dogma, a dedication to a single life force/love experience which can be tapped into and called upon for guidance.

Even worse (for my Zen-mind), there is something ultimately egoistic about this. Though I acknowledge with due humility my inability to fully understand, comprehend or otherwise grok the Great Mind or the Tao or whatever, simply the idea that I have access to a force beyond myself implies a sense of personal power which extends beyond my physical form. “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” as the saying goes.

At present we see indistinctly,
as through a glass darkly…”

Furthermore, monotheism seems inherently jingoistic. It’s easy enough to incorporate the gods of a newly-encountered tribe into your own pantheon; historical evidence suggests it happened time and again. But monotheism allows for no such breadth of experience. Perhaps worse, it encourages one to declare condescendingly to the new tribe that their relationship to your truth-source will continue to grow over time (while silently congratulating oneself for magnanimity, of course). Indeed, monotheism appears downright colonial compared to its multi-culti alternative.

At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully,
as I am fully known.”

Ironically monotheism was originally hailed for its unifying principle. No more staring at the shadows of pagan gods on cave walls, there is Truth in the bright light of the Platonic sun! Seems a bit dated, no?

I have a dear friend who swears that Nietzsche and his adherents reject this notion, and we often talk about the parallels between Zen and Nihilism. I’m still working on that understanding, still trying to draw Nietzsche’s mind out of his obscurantist texts. In the meantime, what I have learned from Zen is the simple necessity of practice.

And this is the thought I leave you with, as a frame for Paul’s beautiful words. (If you haven’t yet, click the link at the top for the full text. It’s wonderful.) It is easy to read his words and experience a magnificent calm or even an inner rising. But it took a man powerfully devoted to his spiritual path to create them.

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

— “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” by Ranier Maria Rilke.
Translation by Stephen Mitchell.

(The sermon this week is filled with some of my favorite works of spiritual art. I invite you to share your own in the comments.)

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