The Holy Longing or The Ox Rider Riding the Ox in Search of the Ox: Whitterings, April 2005

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. John 12. 24-25

As an Anglo-Catholic I was taught that the preeminent example of the spiritual life was to found in the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary completely surrendered her will to that of the Divine Will by allowing her ego to be subsumed by God’s. Thus she was able to be the Theotokos (the title given to her by the Early Church Councils, meaning God Bearer) and to become the vehicle for the incarnation. We too are to allow our egos to be sublimated to the Will of God so that we too can allow Christ to live in us as St Paul tells us. Mary therefore becomes an icon of our own spiritual life, we are to die to self so that we can give birth to Christ in ourselves so that Christ may enter again into his creation through our lives. This way of looking at Christian spirituality is profoundly feminine as it conceives of the human soul as female and as mother. I find that this is way too often a neglected aspect within our predominantly patriarchical, phallocentric western spirituality.

Interestingly enough the Buddhist religion also conceives of the spiritual life as allowing each persons individual Buddha Nature to shine forth by removing the outer encrustations of egotism (the self refereeing or self centered aspect of the mind and heart as opposed to the God centered aspect of our nature). The idea of the Christ that waits inside each of us to be given birth and the Buddha nature inside each of us waiting to be revealed seem to be extraordinarily close. Actually the two religion’s spirituality are also very close up until they part ways fundamentally at the end. Buddhist seek to leave the world of suffering by detachment and Christians, following the incarnate and Crucified Christ, seek to enter into the world and find redemption through suffering.

In Archbishop Rowan Williams’s book Lost Icons he points to a fundamental flaw in the post modern conception of the soul and its liberation. The soul is the Christ nature within us. His argument runs a couple of hundred pages and it would be impossible to relate the subtleties of his argument in just a few sentences. I highly suggest the book to anyone with the perseverance to struggle with it. Basically he suggests that modern Western people conceive of the soul as being an isolated entity that exists as a complete and separate part of our composition. Most people think that the soul is something that is already formed and that needs to be found or connected with. Archbishop Williams says that the soul is almost the opposite of this conception. He believes the soul is not that which we are searching for but instead it is the searcher who searches. As the Zen saying goes we are in the spiritual life:

An ox rider
Riding the ox
In search of the ox.

The soul is that which is constantly changing and growing as we are open to God in all of our life’s experiences and relationships. God’s nature, as we understand through the doctrine of the Trinity, is in constant movement, God’s creation is also in constant movement as the creation is still in process, and so the soul which reflects God’s nature and His creation is also in movement. The soul does not exist separately from our culture, our community, our past and our interactions with others and their interaction with us.

He suggests that the way the soul is nourished to grow and the egotistical self is decreased is in the open vulnerable experience of true love and in the practice of discipline. In our society we are used to instantaneous gratification. We desire objects and people and when we are unable to obtain them we get frustrated, scared or we panic. It is in this place where we experience this questioning of identity that the real spiritual work is done and not in trying to solve the problem that will allow us to obtain our goal. In our tradition fasting, simplicity, discipline, meditation, prayer and celibacy have all be uses to maximize the experience of questioning that comes when we hit obstacles and are thrown back upon ourselves.

“Authentic religious (in this case Christian) practice begins in the attempt to attend to the movement of self-questioning – to refuse to cover over, evade or explain the pain or shock of whatever brings the self into question, to hold onto the difficulty before the almost inevitable descent into pathos and personal drama begins. ‘The soul’ is what happens in the process of such attention: it is the movement that begins whenever man [sic] experiences the psychological pain of contradiction.” Lost Icons, page151

Goethe in his poem the Holy Longing, written in 1814, looks at the transformation of the soul into dominance in the human self using the other example of intimate love. Here he shows that love, at its best, pushes the self beyond the borders of itself and into the vulnerable apprehension of the beloved. This in turn can push the soul into utter transformation by pushing the loving apprehension of the beloved into a loving apprehension of God (which is really what we love in the other). This Holy Longing and Holy Love cost everything. The ego must become totally consumed into that of the Divine. It is nothing less than the death of the self. What then happens it nothing short of rebirth, Resurrection. You can not hold onto your life and have freedom you must die to have freedom. “If any man would save his life he shall lose it and if any man would lose his self for my sake he shall gain it.” This is when we become like the Blessed Virgin and give birth to Christ within us.

The Holy Longing

Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
Because the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
What longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights,
Where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
A strange feeling comes over you
When you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught
In the obsession with darkness,
And a desire for higher love-making
Sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter,
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
And, finally, insane for the light,
You are the butterfly and you are gone.

And so long as you haven’t experienced
This: to die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.