Prof. Dr. David J. Goa - Ways of Imperfection Spiritual Disciplines for the Healing Of the World from Barla Platformu on Vimeo.
Ways of Imperfection
Spiritual Disciplines for the Healing of the World
David J. Goa, Director
Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion & Public Life
University of Alberta
An Invited Paper
The Risale-i Nur: Knowledge, Faith, Morality and the Future of Humankind
An international conference of
The Istanbul Foundation for Science and Culture
Ways of Imperfection
Spiritual Disciplines for the Healing of the World
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . .
to appoint unto them that mourn . . .
to give unto them beauty for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
that they might be called trees of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.
-- Isaiah 62:1a,3
My strength is sufficient for thee:
for my strength is made perfect in weakness.
-- II Corinthians 12: 9
All of us who walk the fragile pathways of our wounded world are invited by the Revelation and the deep veins of all that is best in our theology to a spiritual renaissance. We are invited to be transformed by a relationship with God and to draw forth the gift of compassion and mercy shown to us by “the most Merciful” and bequeath it to the life of the world. We are invited to draw close to God and, through Divine grace, to the recovery of who we are created to be. We are invited to see all creation including every human being as a mirror of the Creator and lover of the worlds. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, both in his life and through the Risale-i Nur calls us to those spiritual disciplines that lead to the recovery of the central gifts of our human nature: impotence, poverty and compassion. He invites us to the deep cultivation of the disciplines that, through God’s grace, transform our mind and heart, that open our eyes so we see again that we are guests of God, travelers “in the Name of God”, Bismillah, through the deserts and vineyards of the world. With the recovery of the gifts of our nature, impotence, poverty and compassion, we stand before the life of the world with a new freedom that makes it possible to speak a healing word without fear or desire.
There is a remarkable synergy between the call of the New Said in The Words and in Letters and elsewhere and the spiritual theology of Orthodox Christianity, the tradition in which I stand and whose disciplines I exercise. Both call us to a recovery of the central duty of all human beings: to worship the Creator and sustainer of life. Both call us to exercise the spiritual disciplines that Revelation has taught us may, through God’s grace, led to a recovery of our human nature: the disciplines of prayer and fasting. And both speak to us of the fruit of such discipline: a life lived present to our natural gifts, our impotence, poverty and compassion, our “ways of imperfection” that begin to open us to God, the ways through which God finds us.
The Duty of Worship
There is a refrain running through the Risale-i Nur. The human nature was created for the worship of God and only truly finds its home in the act of adoration. The very name “Orthodox”, given to the whole tradition of the Christian East, means “proper praise”. Often a more modern definition is applied and many, both some of the faithful of the church and scholars with no commitment to the Revelation reduce the word “orthodox” to right and proper belief, or, to put it even more precisely, right propositional statements about the divine. This is a recent invention. In the Greek language of the early Christians “ortho” and “doxa” are root words that together mean “the right” or “proper praise” of the Creator and sustainer of life. It is to “worship God in spirit and in truth.”
Here is how Orthodox Christian worship begins:
Blessed is our God always, now, and ever and unto ages of ages.
O Lord our God, whose might is incomparable, whose glory is incomprehensible, whose mercy is infinite, and whose love of man is ineffable, do thou thyself, O Master, in thy tenderheartedness look down upon us and upon this holy house, and grant us and those who pray with us thy rich mercies and compassion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul; O lord my God, Thou hast been magnified exceedingly.
Confession and majesty hast Thou put on, Who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment,
Who stretchest out the heaven as it were a curtain; who supporteth His chambers in the waters,
Who appointeth the clouds for His ascent, Who walketh upon the wings of the winds,
Who maketh His angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire,
Who established the earth in the sureness thereof; it shall not be turned back for ever and ever.
The abyss like a garment is His mantle; upon the mountains shall the waters stand.
At Thy rebuke they will flee, at the voice of Thy thunder shall they be afraid.
The mountains rise up and the plains sink down, unto the place where Thou hast established them.
-- Psalm 103
These opening words of worship that we chant together in Orthodox churches around the world are written on my heart. When I am privileged to hear the faithful chant the first sura of the Glorious Qur’an, the Fatiha (“opening”), in home or Mosque, I hear echoed what I know so well.
Bismillah, In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds;
The Compassionate, the Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment;
You alone do we worship, and to You alone do we pray for help;
Guide us on the Straight Path.
The way of those to whom You have favoured;
Not to those who have incurred Your wrath. Nor to those who go astray.
Human beings were made for the worship of God and only find their true home in adoration. Our response to this most basic disposition of the mind and heart will orient us to God, to ourselves and to the world. To worship is the most basic of human desires, the desire for God, and it brings with it the greatest of challenges. When we misunderstand this desire in our heart or when we are misled as to its meaning we stumble into the precinct of idolatry. Instead of opening our heart and mind to the Creator of the worlds we elevate some lesser being or dimension of human experience, some desire or fear, even some virtue or principle and seek in it the satisfaction of this basic longing to adore God. In our day idolatry takes its own particular forms. Nursi saw these as clustering around atheism, materialism and naturalism. Each of these deserves attention and I will say a little about them in a paper to follow this one. Human beings as adorers or the human nature as supplicant, this, as Nursi saw better than most, is the central disposition of our being and for that reason it is also our point of greatest vulnerability.
The Recovery of Our Created Nature
In the Orthodox tradition of Christianity we have a distinct way of understanding this challenge for the human mind and heart. It is quite different from the understanding in the Christian West, the Latin tradition of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Here too I find a synergy with Said Nursi.
The human mind has the capacity for memory and imagination. As far as we know we are the only creatures for whom remembering and imagining occupy such a central place in identity. Our memory and imagination may easily create a prism through which we see and engage life. These dimensions of our mind are a gift. They are also an enormous challenge. Because we remember it is possible for us to hang onto the pain and pleasure we have experienced, to linger with it and long to replicate it. Indeed, it is difficult for us not to do this. This impulse has turned many a person into a sensualist. Many others, having experienced brutality and humiliation, have reordered their identity and live and see the world through the lens of victim. Because we can imagine life different than it is we can cling to utopian dreams with no basis in reality, far flung idealizations. Indeed, it is difficult for us not to do this. Nations, empires and civilizations have sometimes been built on such utopian notions and we see them flourish, devour portions of the world and then crumble into a dim memory. Nostalgia and utopian dreaming, the longing for what no longer is and the desire for what never has been, plague the human mind. Nostalgia and utopian dreaming can rip us out of the reality of our life together. When this occurs we step out of the world God has given us into a world of our own making. We are estranged from God, the life of the world and our own deepest self, these three, in a single moment. Nostalgia for the past or a utopian dream of the future robs us of the Divine Presence.
We have a powerful description of this part of the human struggle in Said Nursi’s Sixth Letter. He talks of his withdrawal to the “top of Cam Dagi, the Pine Mountain, in the mountains of Barla.” He is in a deep struggle with loneliness, exile, a sense of loss and separation from all that he loved.
My Lord! I am a stranger, I have no one, I am weak, I am powerless, I am impotent, I am old;
I am without will; I seek recourse, I seek forgiveness, I seek help
from Your Court, O God!
Said Nursi has entered a “dark night of the soul”. On the other side of this struggle, as the estrangement lifts, Nursi writes, “Since we have a Compassionate Creator, there can be no exile for us! Since He exists, everything exists for us. Since He exists the angels exist too. The world is not empty. Lonely mountains and empty deserts are full of Almighty God’s servants. Apart from His conscious servants, stones and trees also become like familiar friends when seen through His light and on His account. They may converse with us and give us enjoyment.”
Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer and Fasting
If sin is stepping outside of the world of God’s making into a world fabricated out of our own passions, our nostalgia and utopian dreaming, what is the pathway for the recovery of the Divine Presence? How do we find our way back into friendship with God, back to being a servant of the Master of the Universe, and, thus, back to our created nature?
In Orthodox theology all spiritual disciplines are forms of prayer and fasting. There are only these two spiritual disciplines, prayer and fasting. Both are revealed to us as aids for our return to and remaining in the Divine Presence. Orthodox theology of prayer speaks of it as having two intimately related purposes. Prayer is given to us as a discipline for quieting the cacophony of our mind and heart, for letting go of the preoccupations facing us in our daily life, for offering up to the throne of God’s grace the inner passions, the nostalgia and utopian dreaming that have come to frame the way we understand ourselves and God and our way of relating to the world. We use an ancient Greek word for this dimension of prayer. It is the apophatic (literally “turning away from speech”) aspect of prayer and its disciplines aid us in turning away from our own mental constructs. The first stage of prayer is to empty our mind and heart of all fear and desire, to quiet our soul and let go of all those attachments through which we have come to understand ourselves, God, and the world. It cultivates in us a place empty of worldly desire, a place where we may again encounter the living God and rediscover the Divine grace that holds all life together. This apophatic discipline is accompanied by the act of confession and reconciliation since we are unable to let go of our passions as long as we suffer from enmity towards our brothers or sisters. Setting matters right with others is part of this discipline of self-emptying. It is the beginning of restoring that place at the centre of our being where God’s grace has its rightful dwelling.
Both the cycles of liturgical prayer, our common prayer together in fellowship, and our cycles of personal prayer begin with the disciplines of self-emptying, of letting go and restoring that place where God’s grace is again orienting our life. And it is out of this restored dwelling place of grace that we praise God with sincerity and wholeness of heart.
A fifth century Church Father, St. John Cassian (d. 435), describes the monastic prayer commonly found throughout Orthodox monasteries in his day, a form of prayer that continues as a particular discipline, not only in monasteries, but in the lives of all faithful Orthodox Christians in our own day. Here is his description from fifteen hundred years ago.
All the eastern cenobitic communities, especially in Egypt, have the following rule for prayer and chanting. When the brothers have gathered for this purpose at the time of assembly, they do not immediately rush to kneel as soon as the chanting is completed, but stand for a little while, before bending their knees, and pray with their hands outstretched. After this they fall to the ground and pray again for a little while, in a kneeling position. Then they all rise at the same time, and with hands outstretched, and with greater intensity, at length they complete their supplications. No one bends his knee or rises from a kneeling position until the one leading them in prayer bends or rises first.
Every time I am privileged to be in the presence of Muslim prayer, Rak’ah, I am filled with a sense of the great continuity of God’s servants stretching back through the seventh century into early Christian monasteries where men and women held up their hands and placed all the world behind them, bent their knees and prostrated in supplication. It is only when we are emptied of our passions that we open again to the grace and compassion of God. The deepest of human desires, the desire to adore the Creator of all that is flows from this emptiness. Every time this occurs in the life of a woman or man, they return to their created nature, remember the Divine and regard the world again through the eyes given by Revelation. “Behold I make all things new.”
Muslims and Orthodox Christians share a vigorous discipline of fasting and this also aids us in emptying ourselves of this world’s desires and of the passions which have claimed these desires and reoriented our lives around them. Here is Said Nursi on fasting.
[F]asting in the month of Ramadan awakens even the most heedless and obstinate to their weaknesses, impotence, and want. Hunger makes them think of their stomachs and they understand the need therein. They realize how unsound are their weak bodies, and perceive how needy they are for kindness and compassion. So they abandon the soul’s pharaoh-like despotism and recognizing their utter impotence and want, perceive a desire to take refuge at the divine court. They prepare themselves to knock at the door of mercy with the hands of thankfulness – so long as heedlessness has not destroyed their hearts, that is.
[Fasting] is a healing physical and spiritual diet of the most important kind. When man’s instinctual soul eats and drinks just as it pleases, it is both harmful for man’s physical life from the medical point of view, and when it hurls itself on everything it encounters whether licit or illicit, it quite simply poisons his spiritual life. Further, it is difficult for such a soul to obey the heart and the spirit; it willfully takes the reins into its own hands and then man cannot ride it, it rather rides man. But by means of fasting in Ramadan, it becomes accustomed to a sort of diet. It tries to discipline itself and learns to listen to commands.
Fasting in the Orthodox Christian tradition is based on three insights. The first one was found in the Hebrew Bible where we read of the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving and the prophets speak of them as part of what human beings can do as they seek the forgiveness of their sins. Each of these is a sign of repentance, a recognition that one has turned from God and wishes to turn back and reorient one’s life to the mercy of God by calling on that mercy and sharing it with others. The second insight is drawn from the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer where we learned through the writings of various spiritual teachers and saints that fasting can substantially aid the concentration of the mind and heart in prayer. We set aside the normal needs and appetites of our life and focus out attention on the spiritual life. Through fasting our heartfelt prayer and sincerity come to occupy more time and space in our life. The third insight is embodied in Orthodox piety of devotion, a form of memoria passionis, a time set aside to remember the grace of God present in and through our suffering in life, a grace unveiled for us and modeled in the suffering of Jesus Christ and the saints. Behind all three insights is the spiritual need to reach into the depth of the human mind and heart and anoint and heal the diseases located there, diseases that are preventing us from bringing our whole life, mind and body, joy and suffering, and our weakness into one single act of remembrance of God. Fasting is a discipline leading us to participation in the love of God, a love shown so vividly in the life of the prophets and all those women and men who have been servants of the Holy One. As Nursi has noted, it is not only possible but likely that we become so attached to both physical food and our spiritual appetites that we no longer act out of freedom. To use his formulation, the passions that have taken root in our soul and seized the reins of our life, drive our mind and heart. We are lost to our appetites and our life is reoriented around these appetites. Fasting, like prayer itself, helps us empty ourselves of these appetites, physical, psychological and spiritual, so we can stand in God’s grace and respond to the life of the world with the liberty befitting our created nature.
Service for the Life of the World
I began by suggesting the deep synergy between Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Risale-i Nur and the Orthodox spiritual tradition in which I stand. Both call us to a recovery of the central duty of all human beings to worship the Creator and Sustainer of life. Both call us to the pathway of prayer and fasting leading to a recovery of our human nature. And both speak to us of the fruit of such discipline: a life lived present to our natural gifts, our impotence, poverty and compassion, our ways of imperfection.
When I first read sections of the Risale-i Nur in which Said Nursi discusses impotence, poverty and compassion, the word “impotence” fell oddly on my ear. It took some work to unwrap and begin to understand what all is involved in his use of this particular word, why the translator of his work has chosen to use this word and startle the read into a deeper consideration. We have a rich tradition of thought on “poverty” and “compassion” within Orthodoxy but the use of the word “impotence” seems strange at first, and I cast about for a short time to find a way into hearing what this great teacher is inviting us to consider. Perhaps my own initial struggle to understand is itself a witness to just how profoundly we resist thinking about our weakness. In a world that highlights power and potency, a world in which even the best normally orient their thinking around how they can change life for the better, make a difference and create that which is new and better, in such a world “impotence” is not commonly spoken of as a gift.
Then the words of Jesus Christ’s best known sermon, his most familiar and treasured words came to my mind, words I also pray every time we gather together to worship the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. They are a portion of the words of what Christians call the Sermon on the Mount. Let me give you the key part of this text, the Beatitudes, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5.
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth, and taught them saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
When I was a child the first beatitude, the first declaration of the blessed life, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, was curious, words I was never sure I understood, words difficult to take to heart. I memorized them but they always sat upon my heart and I could not, like the other beatitudes, “place them within my heart.”
"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What did Jesus Christ mean by “poor in spirit”? What did the translators mean in choosing this expression? If I read Said Nursi right, the “impotence” he speaks of and the blessed condition Jesus Christ speaks of in this beatitude are the same. Let me walk into a consideration of the “poor in spirit” and see if you recognize in it the impotence of which Bediuzzaman speaks.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.”
This is a disturbing text, as disturbing to us as it must have been to those who first heard it. The Greek word used for “poor” in the first beatitude is ptochos. It does not refer to a person of modest means or one who possesses very little, one who has no luxuries. There is a different word for that. Rather ptochos refers to a person who is destitute, one who has “no place to lay his head.” What does Jesus mean by placing at the threshold of the blessed life the condition of complete emptiness?
Is he saying that as long as we harbour anything of our own spirit, any nostalgia or utopian dreaming, any ambition, any ideal, any absolute, any need, any wound, any appetite at all, we will not have the spiritual gifts he points to in each of the other marks of the blessed life? Without being empty of our own ego, our own way of seeing what faces us in our daily experience we will not have
the capacity to mourn
the stance of meekness
the thirst for righteousness
a pure heart
the skill to make peace
the will to suffer for righteousness sake
What does poor in spirit mean? “Spirit”, of course, is one of the most complex words in scripture and in the Jewish and Christian tradition. But its use in this text is deeply anchored in the central human challenge, the challenge to our mind and heart that I have spoken of earlier. When our identity, our way of knowing ourselves, God and the world flow from our own passions, our own nostalgia and utopian dreaming, our own fears and desires, when it flows from those things we seek to protect and project and hang on to, whether physical or spiritual, we are filled with a spirit of our own making. To turn the beatitude around: “cursed are those rich in a spirit full of their own fears and desires.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.”
Being poor in spirit is knowing I cannot save myself; that I cannot heal myself; that I have no defense against the enemy, against death, spiritual and otherwise, in all its complex forms that daily greet me. It is that awareness that Said Nursi came to on the mountain in Barla, that we need God’s help and mercy more than we need anything else.
Being poor in spirit is to be free of the rule of fear and desire, the great forces that place us in a world of our own making, a world where even the love and mercy of God cannot reach us. Faith’s natural place at the centre of our nature, the orientation of our mind and heart, is replaced by the accumulated fears and desires we imagine our selves to be. We live in and from our own self-image. Our self-image becomes our treasured idol and remains the object of our gaze and we remain locked up inside with the world veiled to us. We only see what we project. And the tragedy in this is that the Mosque of Creation, to use that lovely phrase of Said Nursi, is no longer the place of our habitation.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their’s is the kingdom of Heaven.”
Being poor in spirit is the beginning of the spiritual life. Without knowing our impotence, our weakness, without being grounded in dependence on God we walk the pathways of our own making in a world of our own making. We do this no matter how virtuous such pathways may appear to us and to others. Nursi invites us to a renewed sense of our own impotence so we might see the whole of the Mosque of Creation as a mirror of God. Jesus Christ speaks of the blessed life opening up to each of us through being poor in a spirit of our own making. From this way of being, which our world so often considers weakness, flows a life of service and healing, a life present to God’s mercy and participating in that mercy for the healing of God’s beloved creation.
* * * *
There is a story told by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko that gives us a sudden glimpse of the experience of the kingdom of heaven – in Russia, in the midst of the war, with Stalin ruling from the Kremlin, and Hitler’s armies pushing eastward.
In 1944 Yevtushenko’s mother took him from Siberia to Moscow. He was 10 years old. They were in a huge crowd that witnessed a procession of 20,000 German prisoners of war being marched across Red Square. Yevtushenko recalls in his autobiography:
The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women – Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.
At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebeian victors. “They smell of perfume, the bastards,” someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.
All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent – the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.
Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, “Let me through.” There must have been something about her which made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a coloured handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.
The gesture of a single woman broke through what the Apostle Paul describes as “the dividing wall of enmity” (Eph. 2:14). Her eyes had been opened to see suffering German boys and young men rather than Nazi soldiers. Her poverty of spirit, emptied even of its images of the enemy, compelled her to respond and give away what little she had. On that day in 1944 the terror of history gave way to poverty of spirit. It was a moment when the kingdom of heaven flooded across Red Square.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jacob Needleman in his book Why Can’t We Be Good? (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2007: 18-19) retells a story from the Rabbi Hillel the Elder who was a contemporary of King Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.E.). While we do not know if Jesus Christ had heard this story the sensibility it expresses is remarkably similar to what we find in his teaching. Here is Needleman’s retelling. “The pupil asks the rabbi, “Why are we told to place these words upon our hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these words in our heart?
In fact, the question already lives within the differing translations of the text. The Hebrew, al-levavekha, means “upon your heart,” but in the vast majority of the English translations it is rendered as “in your heart.” It is as though the translators, like the pupil in the story, cannot understand why it is said “upon your heart.”
Why, then are we not told to place these words, these root words of the entire teaching, in our heart?
The rabbi answers: “Because,” he replies, “we are unable to put these words into our heart. All that we can do is to place these words upon our heart.”
The pupil waits. He has come to understand that the teaching is about himself, myself, one’s own being. The ideas are about me, here, in front of the question of myself. Hearing the rabbi’s reply, more of the question begins to form on the pupil’s lips: Then what am I to do? What are we to do? But before he can speak it, the rabbi answers. “Our hearts are closed. All we can do is to place these words upon our heart. And there they stay . . . “
“. . . until one day the heart breaks . . .and the words fall in.”