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Consecrated to the Sublime
by M. Ali Lakhani
Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
A candle is not there to illuminate itself.
Nawab Jan-Fishan Khan
One sometimes encounters the view that human beings should look to their own salvation and leave the world to its own fate. In extreme cases, this view extends to an attitude that is completely contra mundum, a retreat from all worldly relations, even a disregard for the body and the physical world it represents. In less extreme instances, it manifests in an ascetic tendency taking the form of voluntary privations and renunciations. To what extent is this view justified from the standpoint of tradition, and how is one to integrate the necessary disciplines of tradition with the demands of living in the modern world?
Despite any apparent expressions to the contrary, the aim of life for the traditionalist is not to escape the world, merely to escape the world as such. This is not a mere semantic distinction, rather it represents a substantive difference in how one sees and experiences the world. The “escape” is ontological, that is to say, it is a “passage from distinctive or mental consciousness to unitive or cardiac consciousness” (Schuon), from a psychological level of self to an interiority that is spiritual, universal and therefore transcendent or participatory. It represents both a recognition of the metaphysical transparency of things and a reordering of our very beings to accord with that perspective of reality. One is not concerned here so much with our relative viewpoints that lead to our respective individual and psychological experiences of living, rather there is in the eyes of tradition a transcendent dimension accessible to each of us, which integrates and effaces our subjective experiences of reality within an objective and participatory view of the world that alone merits the appellation “Real.” In all ages and cultures there have existed a few privileged human beings who have attested to experiencing this “other” transcendent world, in comparison with which the solid world of our senses appears insubstantial and illusory. It is as though the common experience of living is but a rude dream from which we must awaken. In Hinduism, this is one of the meanings of maya, the samsaric world of illusion and forgetting -- the cosmic dream. Similarly, in Islam, one can cite the famous Hadith: “All who live in this world are asleep, and when they die they awaken.”
But through the subordination of the terrestrial to the celestial, there is a devaluation of immanent reality, and in this devaluation lies the potentially erroneous disregard of the mundane for the sake of personal salvation. Erroneous because, though traditional metaphysics invites us to discern the reality of transcendence -- the source of the illumination that pervades and constitutes this world -- it teaches us also to appreciate how all that it immanently pervades and illumines is sacred and holy by the very grace of its illumination. Once enlightened, the self experiences its deepest core as universal and participatory and therefore is incapable, by virtue of the compassion that constitutes the essence of its universality, of renouncing the world -- with which it is, in this sense, co-extensive. This is why all traditions identify sanctity with salvific compassion. Herein lies the nobility of the boddhisattvic ideal: to recognize the salvific nature inherent in all creation and to conform oneself to that nature by becoming an instrument of grace for the salvation of all beings.
In Eckhart’s controversial reading of the famous passage in Luke about Mary and Martha, he anticipates the Reformation’s critique of monasticism by refusing to read the words of Jesus as a repudiation of praxis/action (as represented by Martha) in favor of theoria/contemplation (as represented by Mary). Instead he sees Martha as the more spiritually mature because of her ability to combine the “one thing needful” (apprehending and conforming to her “real” nature) with her cares of the world -- that is, attending to the mundane, but not at the expense of necessary interiorization. Martha pleads with Jesus about her sister, not because she selfishly wants Mary’s help, but because she wants her to awaken from the paralysis of a partial view of reality -- one that wallows in transcendence and forgets that God is also in the details of His creation. She wants Mary to be with God in the world, to be like her, “among cares”, yet not “within cares.” And Jesus’ response, in Eckhart’s reading, means: “Be reassured, Martha, she has chosen the better part, which will lose itself in her. The highest thing that can happen to a creature will happen to her. She will be as happy as you.” For Eckhart, then, happiness lies in the maturity of combining work and spirituality, of living in both worlds at the same time, not merely in “basking in religious feelings.”
The more conventional reading of the Mary/Martha passage is to fault Martha with being too “cumbered” to attend to the “one thing needful.” But does this imply an abandonment of the cares of the world in the cause of personal salvation? From the traditional perspective, Eckhart’s reading is not incompatible in an essential sense with the conventional interpretation of the text. It is not the world we have to exclude, but our cumbersome, “intermediary” selves. Not renunciation that we must achieve, but detachment. The goal is not to flee the world but to be detached from it, to be “unencumbered” in the sense of becoming an empty vessel, a channel, a passage for Light. As Eckhart states: “For all who are active in the light are soaring toward God, free and unencumbered of all that is intermediary. Their light is their works and their works are their light.” The focus on the “one thing needful” (the attunement of our selves to what is essential, to becoming a passage for light) is precisely what is required of us in order to see the world afresh, with new eyes that give it its proper worth. It is this metanoia or transformation of our very being that gives us a new way of seeing the world, one that enables us to embrace it, not passionately but compassionately, so that what once seemed ordinary and mundane, with the grace of vision, becomes extraordinary and radiant. This is the process of the development of theophanic vision, which Li Liweng expresses poetically as follows:
First we look at the hills in the painting,
Then we look at the painting in the hills.
Both “hills” and “painting” must be seen. God must be seen as a real presence in the world -- or, more accurately, the world must be seen as a projection of the divine. It is in this manner that the world can be viewed as sacred, so that each task, indeed our very lives, become acts of worship consecrated to the sublime.
How is this to be achieved in the modern world? The world we live in offers us great freedom, perhaps more so than in any other period of history. Technological advances have improved our material comforts, information, health and quality of life, all of which has served to increase our freedom. Yet our freedom has paradoxically diminished as it has grown. Our traditional foundations have gradually eroded as our material pursuits have expanded. There is an addictive quality to these pursuits. We are seduced by the illusory world and, as we satiate ourselves, our malaise grows. As our pleasures increase, our joys diminish. Our freedom is curtailed by the pressures of living, the demands of time, and the compulsions of the material world. As these pressures, demands and compulsions grow, so too does our sense of apathy and spiritual discontent. Modern lifestyles, with few exceptions, allow little room for traditional pursuits. Such pursuits are often regarded as anachronistic and are increasingly privatized.
Given the destabilization -- perhaps, more accurately, eradication -- of the traditional world, one may ask whether it is any longer realistic for human beings, except by retreating from the world, to live consecrated lives. The answer depends on how one apprehends the nature of reality itself. In the famous words of Abu Sa’id al-Kharraz: “God cannot be known except as a synthesis of opposites.” This coincidentia oppositorum, which is central to the traditional understanding of reality, contains the key to the art of living. Just as one is required to apprehend the divine as both Absolute and Infinite, transcendent and immanent, hidden and manifest, stern and compassionate, Father and Mother, so one is required, like Martha (in Eckhart’s interpretation), to live in “both worlds” at the same time. We can -- in fact must -- be in the world, yet not of it. Granted that our relationship with the world is predicated by both our perception of it as well as our spiritual temperament, and that these may at times lead us away from the world; also, that there are spiritual disciplines that appear to deprecate the mundane where that relationship may otherwise be overemphasized; yet, in all this it is important to remember that any intermediate stage of spiritual growth which corresponds to a movement away from the world is eventually surpassed by a return to the world precisely because “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” (Hopkins).
What, then, are the methods by which we should relate to the world? There are two necessary methods, both interrelated, and neither involves a renunciation of the world, but rather requires a special engagement with it. The first method is aimed at refining our quality of perception, and requires us to discern what is Real -- which in turn requires the exercise of our innate intelligence, through the remembrance of our Origin, the visualization of its Presence symbolically and anagogically, and an acknowledgment of our End and the purposes it shapes. This entails, not a retreat from the world, but an ability to integrate it with the transcendent Source of its illumination. Once we can perceive the Alpha and Omega, the Awwal and Akhir, co-existing in the here and now, in the very core of our being and in the minutiae of living, then our “doors of perception” can be said to be cleansed. Once we can perceive the One who “fathers-forth whose beauty is past change,” then can we truly yearn to “praise Him”. We are merely journeying through the world, and we must do so, ever mindful of our Destination, yet rejoicing in the reminder of its Presence amid our surroundings.
The second method is aimed at disciplining our will, and requires us to conform ourselves to what is Real -- which in turn requires us to be true to Reality by becoming -- or, more accurately, being -- what we know and thereby conforming our wills to our intellects and integrating the two domains which these faculties represent, namely, praxis and theoria. Again, this requires a quality of engagement with life that is the very antithesis of its renunciation. We must honor God within His creation by conforming to our Adamic self and by avoiding the hubristic choice of Iblis. As human beings, we are composed of both dust and spirit, an amalgam that is both worldly and transcendent, both carnal and divine. As such, we are capable of incarnating within us either that which is infernal or angelic. Our choice is clear. We must, within the crucible of our very beings, discover the basis of conforming the essential principles of Truth within us to the innate Beauty or Virtue that is our spiritual heritage. Though shaped by a transcendent Power, we are not without free will. In a very real sense, we have the ability to fashion our own ends. Just as there is no quietistic retreat from the affairs of the world in the traditional notion of spiritual maturity, so there is no corresponding idea of fatalism. According to the well-known Sufi saying, one must “trust in God, but tie one’s camel first.” But the “tying of one’s camel” should not be an act of transgression from the praxis dictated by theoria. “Know Thyself,” said the oracle. For only by knowing what is sacred within ourselves can we know what is sacred in all things. It is this gift of knowledge that makes humanity the stewards of creation and accountable for its care. We are free precisely in order that we may attend to the “one thing needful” and thus conform intrinsically to our archetypal natures, no matter what the extrinsic conditions and contingent circumstances of modernity may be.
What does all this mean in practical terms? First, we must learn the art of spiritual literacy. As with any other form of learning, this requires guidance and an attitude that facilitates learning. We must develop within ourselves a receptivity that attunes us to our intellectual intuitions so that we can begin to perceive the world as a theophany, radiating the divine. Second, we must incarnate within ourselves those qualities of virtue that conform our independent and free wills to our spiritual intuitions and sensibilities. This too requires guidance, as well as grace, forbearance, perseverence, and the rigors of spiritual discipline. For the human will is recalcitrant and refractory. It is easily tempted and can seduce the other faculties to serve its own ends.
By refining our faculties of perception and disciplining our wayward passions, we can hope to become like the divine charioteer of the Bhagavad Gita. By these methods we may hope to achieve our real purpose in this our terrestrial abode: to remake our very selves by being ontologically reborn into the radiant plenitude of transcendent Light so that, like candles in readiness, we may be lit by Its Flame, and our Presence illumine all the dark and empty corners of this world. Let us conclude with words of Nasir Khusraw:
The sun has the power of turning stone into ruby
Which no force of elements can turn again into its original state –
I am like that ruby now, and the sun is he
By whose light this dark world becomes lit.