The Maryknoll Nun – Playboy Centerfold Paradox, Part 1

Does the spiritual life prepare people for worldly life? In what ways is this true or not true?

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost

two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood.jpgIn recent posts I was tempted to go off on more tangents than I did, but there’s a certain flow which needs to be respected. So I’ve saved up some topics for further exploration here.

In “A Question of Forgiveness,” I found myself referring shorthand to “worldly people” and “spiritual people.” Those quick to complain about any trace of Manichaean dualism might say that there really is no such thing, that everyone has a mix of spiritual and worldly elements inside them. By the same token, some people subscribe to a wishy-washy, Upper West Side, John Lennon definition of spirituality in which “everything is spiritual.”

Yet, spiritual seekers tend to have a more definite sense that some things are intrinsically spiritual, while others lead us farther away from spirituality. Not all roads lead to Rome (or Vrindavan):

If you go to a place where there are flowers, incense, spiritual music, and people are praying and meditating, you will get one kind of vibration. If you go to a place where people are taking drugs and listening to satanic metal, you will get a completely different vibration. As a practical matter, it’s helpful to recognize the difference.

If you try to stand an egg on its head, it will always fall in one direction or another. The same is true of human nature. It’s almost impossible for a person to remain evenly balanced between spiritual and worldly drives and ambitions. Either spiritual or worldly qualities will predominate during any given period of their lives. Some people may lurch from side to side, but they do not remain perfectly balanced in the middle.

So, to speak in general terms about worldly people and spiritual people is not wrong, provided we accept that each person is potentially divine, that each person has some freedom of choice, and that people often change over time. Sometimes worldly people become spiritual; sometimes spiritual people become worldly.

In Christian theology, the impossibility of serving two masters is often stressed:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.

— The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Without exploring all the mystical implications in this passage, we can note how it comports with the psychological reality of human nature, and of apostasy. Those individuals who are divided in their nature may become like two persons: When their worldly qualities come to overpower their spiritual qualities, they may hate the spiritual part of themselves, hate their spiritual past, and hate the teacher who initiated them into spiritual practice. The aspiring soul is still present, but it cannot express itself because the human being has made friends with worldliness.

The soul is like the charioteer, but the other parts of our being may be dark and unruly, always looking for an opportunity to rebel, to gallop off in some other direction. What the soul loves, our own mind and vital may hate. But by practising spirituality, we aim to gradually bring the mind and vital under control, so that they cooperate in the soul’s mission.

When we are conscious of God and of the soul, we feel that the spiritual life is something good and beneficial. This is not merely a mental attitude, but something we feel deeply as a life-experience. We try to please God and please our soul, and we find that we receive many inner blessings for our efforts. These inner blessings help to convince us that we are doing the right thing in our lives by taking the spiritual approach.

But if we fall victim to doubt — if we doubt God, doubt the soul, and doubt the spiritual master who gave us initiation — then those very things which we took for many years to be good will suddenly seem bad. This is sometimes known as a hostile attack, where a person who was once very spiritual becomes a stark atheist and actively tries to take away the faith of others, or negate other’s spiritual efforts.

Faith can only be known by means of faith; love of God can only be known by love of God; light can only by seen by means of light. If we lose access to these things, then if we are spiritual seekers we will not be able to make sense of our lives, because for spiritual seekers, faith, love of God, and love of light are the essence of life.

When people suffer a hostile attack, they end their spiritual practice, and then blame the spiritual life for all the problems which ensue. This is clearly a misattribution of cause and effect.

— The author, from “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life”

These conflicts within the individual are also mirrored in society. During a spiritual phase, a person may join a spiritual group where people pray and meditate, read spiritual books, play spiritual music, and cultivate the life of the soul. But if their worldly nature rebels, then the same person may do a complete volte-face and join some sort of anti-cult group. There, people may claim that those who believe in God and the life of the soul are “brainwashed,” or under “mind control,” or otherwise deluded or exploited.

They supposedly need to be “rescued,” “deprogrammed,” “exit counselled,” or exposed to “testimonials” vilifying their spiritual group or teacher. This is euphemistically referred to as a process of “cult education” deemed necessary to return them to a condition of presumed psychological health — i.e. secular materialism and conformity to mainstream values. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, to equate psychological health with “reversion to the mean” (wink!) is a mistake that would never be made by a trailblazer in psychology like Carl Jung.

Nevertheless, if the de-conversion therapy, re-education, or re-socialization is successful (according to the objectives of its proponents), then those targeted will be turned back into average citizens who subscribe to production, consumption, and procreation as the end-all and be-all of life, and who can be relied upon to act with familiar motives of ego and ambition. Then their old friends and relatives (who always hated their spiritual phase) can pronounce them “cured,” welcoming them back into the fold of those who place self-interest above self-giving, and who are far too clever and sophisticated to be “taken in” by any faith-based philosophy requiring an integral commitment. The dwarves are for themselves!

Indeed, in “C.S. Lewis and the Mind Only Prison,” Henry Karlson explains how the author of The Chronicles of Narnia presented Platonist beliefs in a manner which also resonates with Hindu/Buddhist beliefs about the way that our own actions come to condition our minds, so that we are trapped in a hermeneutic of interpretation (or misinterpretation) which we ourselves create. These are deep concepts, and quoting only a portion of Karlson’s article would not do it justice. I suggest you check it out yourself:

“C.S. Lewis and the Mind Only Prison”

Psychological health in the true Jungian sense entails finding the means to remove that distorted hermeneutic by which we misapprehend the nature of the universe. Or as I say in “Paint It Black!”:

Spiritual intelligence is intelligence which is aware of the existence of God or of higher spiritual Truth. This higher awareness brings insight and understanding (or gnosis), so that we begin to see the universe as it truly is, not according to our limited mental constructs. Spiritual intelligence is intelligence which has received some illumination from higher light and wisdom, so that it no longer lives alone in a dark room, seeing only its own self-produced shadows. Spiritual intelligence is intelligence from which the “ink of the mind” has been dispelled in whole or in part, so that the universe may be seen in all its true, glowing colours.

But this understanding is rare. If we begin to achieve it, then statistically it will make us different from the majority, which embraces some variation on secular materialism or scientific rationalism as their guide for living. Spiritual insight will take us down a different road — one less traveled by.

Among apostates, anti-cultists, and participants in so-called “ex-cult support groups,” the complaint is often voiced that spiritual training does not prepare one for worldly life. If you begin to see reality as it is, will this necessarily make you rich and well-loved by your peers? Plato says no, based in part on his living experience of The Death of Socrates.

In the above lesson on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Alex Gendler closes by asking:

As we go about our lives, can we be confident in what we think we know? Perhaps one day, a glimmer of light may punch a hole in your most basic assumptions. Will you break free to struggle towards the light, even if it costs you your friends and family, or stick with comfortable and familiar illusions? Truth or habit? Light or shadow? Hard choices, but if it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. There are lots of us down here.

In the modern world (as in the ancient one), most nation states are ruled by political leaders of one stripe or another. There is often a huge amount of hoopla attendant to choosing the next political leader, and this takes on the nature of a sporting event (if not a war).

In our inner, spiritual lives, we are ideally free to worship as we please, to choose our own philosopher-kings. Yet, the inner life may be ignored to such an extent that it is made to look utterly irrelevant, like terra incognita.

Alex Gendler voices the concern that our friends and family may be satisfied with surface appearances, with comfortable and familiar illusions. Among one hundred persons, perhaps only one will care to break free to struggle towards the light. Yet, spiritual master Sri Chinmoy says: “No life should remain an unexplored reality.”

Here in Part 1, we’ve begun to grapple with the the seeming conflict between developing spiritual insight, and recognizing that spiritual insight is often not much valued in the world. Faced with opposing choices — like becoming a Maryknoll nun or a Playboy centerfold — we may (like Robert Frost) feel sorry that we could not travel both roads and be one traveler.

dorothy-faces-two-roadsMore next time.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy on The Greek Philosophers

Question: Could you speak a little about the Greek philosophers?

Sri Chinmoy: Socrates lived philosophy. Plato expressed philosophy. Aristotle combined the two.

Socrates tried to express the Truth in a very simple way. Sometimes he would speak for an hour to hammer home one idea. At other times, he could express the Truth in very few words. In Plato’s case, he went on and on. He brought his mind, his scholarship and everything to support his statements. If Plato had not come, then nobody would have known who Socrates was.

Aristotle was Plato’s disciple, but in some ways he surpassed his Guru. He was able to discover a few things directly. Where Plato’s mind was roaming and roaming, Aristotle expanded the mind and was able to perceive a higher Truth. That is why he got such unparalleled appreciation from Plato. Plato once said that if he placed his whole academy on one side and Aristotle on the other, Aristotle would win in terms of wisdom.

— Sri Chinmoy, from Philosophy: Wisdom-Chariot of the Mind, Agni Press, 1999


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A Study In Contrasts

When designing the main graphic for this site, I already had it in the back of my mind that ethics and spirituality are related but not quite the same. We may think of ethics as having to do with moral codes, perhaps inflexible, carved in stone; while spirituality conjures up images more fluid and flowing. Then too, if we were to follow the custom of the romance languages and assign a gender even to abstract nouns, would ethics be masculine and spirituality feminine?

The challenge was to view them both within the same “frame,” and so what took shape was a study in contrasts: Socrates stone-faced and the word “ethics” tightly set in carved lettering, but the word “spirituality” done in a more flowing script, suffused with light and adjoined by a picture of Sri Sarada Devi, the consort of Sri Ramakrishna.

In the person of Sarada Devi, we’re already faced with a mini-conundrum: Sri Ramakrishna liked to remain in ecstatic trance, taking neither food nor drink. As a result, his physical health would sometimes suffer. When he was ill, Sarada Devi had to coax him to drink milk. Seeing the quantity, he would sometimes protest; but she assured him it was only “a seer or a seer and a quarter.” In fact, it was much more. She was lying! When queried about this, she said that in spiritual matters she was always completely truthful, but there was no harm in saying such about food in order to nurse Ramakrishna back to health. (A “seer” or “sihr” is a traditional unit of measurement in India.)

A similar conundrum is posed by the old parable in which a murderer is chasing an innocent man, who takes refuge in the house of a monk. The monk answers the door, and the murderer asks: “Is the man I am chasing here? If so, I must kill him.” The monk lies and says: “No, he is not here, I have not seen him.” If the monk told the truth, a murder would be committed; but by telling a lie, he protects human life. Has he acted ethically?

Socrates and Sarada Devi are a study in contrasts because the former has come to epitomize the Socratic method of seeking the truth through critical reasoning, while the latter embodies the visionary aspect of faith: to understand a thing by knowing its essence intuitively, rather than dissecting it mentally.

This suggests a theme which may recur in our peregrinations: moral codes and rules of procedure are highly fallible, subject to human error, human weakness, and the desire to rig the outcome in accordance with self-interest. A visionary approach may sometimes be superior, provided we can be certain that the vision is a true one.

Socrates himself is a figure both fascinating and tragic. At the end of his life, out of favour with Athenian citizenry, he was forced to drink hemlock. His death, described in Plato’s Phaedo, entails much weeping by friends and disciples, but little by Socrates himself, who remarks:

“I am not very likely to persuade other men that I do not regard my present situation as a misfortune, if I cannot even persuade you that I am no worse off now than at any other time in my life. Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more lustily than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god whose ministers they are.”

Plato further recounts:

“Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: ‘You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed.’ The man answered: ‘You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act.’ At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates […] Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend.”

This tragic scene nonetheless becomes charming to the ear when translated into French and set to music. For his Mort de Socrate (1919), Erik Satie used Victor Cousin’s translation, admiring it for its clarity, simplicity and beauty. Let us now listen:

As for the death of Sarada Devi, it is described by her foremost biographer, Swami Nikhilananda of the Ramakrishna Order of monks:

On Tuesday, July 21, 1920, about one o’clock in the morning, it became evident that Holy Mother’s last moments were at hand. The attendants began to chant the Lord’s name. Half an hour later the Mother breathed deeply several times and entered into deep samadhi. Peace-eyed slumber settled over her body, which, though ravaged by a long illness, suddenly relaxed and gave out a celestial light. Many of her devotees were deceived by this radiance and thought she was still with them.

Next morning, about half-past ten, the funeral procession was formed. Swami Saradananda and many devotees joined it. To the accompaniment of devotional music, the body was taken across the Ganges to the Belur Math. There the women devotees bathed it and dressed it in a new cloth. A funeral pyre of sandalwood was made on the bank of the river, to the north of Swami Vivekananda’s memorial temple. About three o’clock the fire was lighted. Before the funeral was over it began to rain heavily on the other side of the Ganges and the devotees were afraid it might interfere with the cremation. But not a drop of rain fell on their side. At last the mournful ceremony was over and Swami Saradananda poured the first pitcher of water over the slow-burning fire. Then the rain came in torrents and extinguished the last embers.

Three shrines now stand as memorials to Holy Mother, all erected by the loving care of her beloved child Swami Saradananda. One is the Udbodhan, where she spent the last eleven years of her active life. The second, a white temple, stands on the bank of the Ganges at the Belur Math where her body was consigned to fire. The third, another white temple, has been erected on the site of her birth at Jayrambati. From the top of this temple flutters a flag emblazoned with the simple word “Ma,” reminding her devotees from far and near of her repeated assurance that she would stand by them till their hour of liberation, and recalling to them her words of benediction: “I am the Mother of the virtuous, I am the Mother of the wicked. Whenever you are in distress, say to yourself: ‘I have a Mother.'”

A study in contrasts.