Thursday, June 08, 2006

Abelard, Eckhart and Keats

This passage came up this evening at our LPA course, strangely, since it is for the third or fourth time I have stumbled across it recently:

From somewhere near them in the words a cry rose, a thin cry, of such intolerable anguish that Abelard turned dizzy on his feet, and caught at the wall of the hut. "It's a child's voice," he said.

Thibault had gone outside. The cry came again. "A rabbit," said Thibault. He listened. "It'll be in a trap. Hugh told me he was putting them down."

"O God," Abelard muttered. "Let it die quickly."

But the cry came yet again. He plunged through a thicket of hornbeam. "Watch out," said Thibault, thrusting past him. "The trap might take the hand off you."

The rabbit stopped shrieking when they stooped over it, either from exhaustion, or in some last extremity of fear. Thibault held the teeth of the trap apart, and Abelard gathered up the little creature in his hands. It lay for a moment breathing quickly, then in some blind recognition of the kindness that had met it at the last, the small head thrust and nestled against his arm, and it died.

It was that last confiding thrust that broke Abelard's heart. He looked down at the little draggled body, his mouth shaking. "Thibault," he said, "do you think there is a God at all? Whatever has come to me, I earned it. But what did this one do?"

Thibault nodded.

"I know," he said. "Only, I think God is in it too."

Abelard looked up sharply.

"In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?"

Again Thibault nodded.

"Then why doesn't he stop it?"

"I don't know," said Thibault. "Unless it's like the prodigal son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this," he stroked the limp body, "is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do."

Abelard looked at him, perplexed. "Thibault, do you mean Calvary?"

Thibault shook his head. "That was only a piece of it--the piece that we saw--in time. Like that." He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. "That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ's life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because Christ was like that, kind, and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that forever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped."

Abelard looked at him, the blunt nose and the wide mouth, the honest troubled eyes. He could have knelt before him.

"Then, Thibault," he said slowly, "you think that all this," he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, "all the pain of the world, was Christ's cross?"

"God's cross," said Thibault. "And it goes on."

From Peter Abelard
by Helen Waddell
It brings me back once again to the thought that we, if we are truly to follow Christ, to become like him, then there is this terrible identification, this empathy, in all the full sense of the word.

Merriam Webster's Medical Dictionary defines empathy like this:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner...
but it's deeper than that. John Keats spoke famously of "negative capability" - by which he seemed to mean not only the ability to open oneself to experience (including, crucially, others' experience) but also to remain within that experience, or knowledge, without attempting to reduce it to intellectually manageable proportions - or in Keats' own words: "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

Only so can we truly respond to the quality that Meister Eckhart just called istigkeit, is-ness... Negative capability is a kind of empathy "which permits us simply to let things be in whatever may be their uncertainty and their mystery." (Nathan Scott)

But don't imagine - as I think Eckhart's contemporary detractors imagined - that this implies a kind of detachment, a cold withdrawal from the world and the suffering creatures that inhabit it. In 1985 the Pope, John Paul II, said: "Did not Eckhart teach his disciples: 'All that God asks you most pressingly is to go out of yourself - and let God be God in you'? One could think that, in separating himself from creatures, the mystic leaves his brothers, humanity, behind. The same Eckhart affirms that, on the contrary, the mystic is marvellously present to them on the only level where he can truly reach them, that is in God."

Paul said, " have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3:3)

Eckhart makes the vital link between Abelard and Keats - that as we are open uncritically to our created sisters and brothers, human and otherwise, we are able as Christians to be open in Christ, and that this openness is in itself somehow redemptive, as we simply walk with them through the dark valley, bearing the light of Christ in our own hearts.

From this comes true prayer, for it is only in this condition of openness to suffering in Christ that we are able to pray for people and situations as they are rather than as we conceive them to be, or as we assume they ought to be.

I want to finish with a quote I've mentioned before, from Br. Ramon SSF, where he explains this kind of prayer better than anyone I know:

We have seen that the Jesus Prayer involves body, mind and spirit... The cosmic nature of the Prayer means that the believer lives as a human being in solidarity with all other human beings, and with the animal creation, together with the whole created order (the cosmos). All this is drawn into and affected by the Prayer. One person's prayers send out vibrations and reverberations that increase the power of the divine Love in the cosmos.

The Christian is well aware of the fact that the world is also evil. There is a falseness and alienation which has distracted and infected the world, and men and women of prayer, by the power of the Name of Jesus, stand against the cosmic darkness, and enter into conflict with dark powers... The power of the Jesus Prayer is the armour against the wiles of the devil, taking heed of the apostle's word, 'Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayers and supplications...' [Ephesians 6:18]

From Praying the Jesus Prayer by Br Ramon SSF (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1988) Page 26.

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