The first suffering is taken up voluntarily, as an act of self-offering motivated by love. It is our attempt to approach more closely to God. We accept to be disciplined, in order to be a disciple. We seek to keep God’s instructions, we seek to walk in God’s statutes. If we do this seriously, we discover we cannot do it; we realise the will cannot govern the source of resistance to God that is a part of our heart. At this point we accept a more radical kind of first suffering than that of following the law. We turn to asceticism, to wrestle with the inherent resistance, by flushing it out of its hiding place in, and challenging its hold over, the heart.
‘Suffering deliberately chosen’: this refers mainly to asceticism.
1, The Need For Asceticism
In asceticism, we rein ourselves back, to discriminate what is genuinely of the heart from what distorts the heart. Asceticism refuses that romanticism and idealism whereby we justify all that the heart does simply on the grounds it came from the heart. Christ said [Matthew, 15, 19] the heart is the source of every fallen passion we enact in the world, from pride and vainglory, through greed and lust, to envy and hate; the heart is our biggest and our smallest, the origin of malice, viciousness, and sadism as well as of nobility, gentleness, and tenderness. Hence, asceticism is realistic: to get the true out of the heart, its falsity must be purged, as happens to metal when heated to molten conditions and the impurities that weaken its native strength are burnt out.
2, The Danger of Asceticism
But the Philokalia rightly puts a limit on how far we can go in the heart with asceticism, saying the suffering that is deliberately chosen cannot totally free the heart from sin: it cannot change the deep death and the deep hell within us, at root. All the first suffering can do is to make sin captive, and weaken its compulsion on the heart, but sin is not fully removed from the source where it is lodged in us. In the second suffering, which comes like a flood, a storm, an earthquake, the heart is forced into the depth where sin is wrestled with existentially: only here can the existential way to overcome it be found. Here it is do or die– trust the heart to God, or see the devil defeat the whole venture of heart between God and humanity. In the deep place, Christ was in a battle for the ultimate, and when the suffering not chosen drives us into the deep place we are thrust into the same ultimate battle. At that extremity, we either tough it out alone, which invariably fails, or we turn to God. Only the God who created the heart can be with us in the deep ultimate: Christ is the last battle of that God.
God respects what the heart gives up when it holds back, but God also knows only what the heart gives when it dives in can change anything fundamentally.
Therefore, asceticism is necessary, but not sufficient, to the Christian calling. It has a vital limitation. There are steps the deep heart must take that are beyond the strictures and practices of any and all asceticism. With our heart we have to risk God’s heart, with our heart we have to suffer God’s heart: this is the passion beyond asceticism. All steps of passion, from when the infant first comes into the world ‘piping loud’, to the day of final decision when we bind ourselves to the sticking place, there is a giving of love and a zeal for the truth of love that has to be trusted if it is to be tried. For only in our passion can we follow where Christ went in his passion– the place of crisis: the garden of Gethsemane; the place of sacrifice: the hill of Golgotha; the place of redemption: the pit of death and the furnace of hell.
Because of its emphasis on the fallen passions, and the need to curb these so that they will not totally dominate and compel our being and action in the world, asceticism has only a poor grasp of the inherent passion that, though fallen, is not destroyed, and has to be revived and freed, if we are to walk the road Christ went down. We have to use the heart, and cannot be assured that in using it we will not make mistakes, or stumble, again and again; for the world requires our loving heart to act, despite the co-existence of the unloving heart, long before the heart is pure and able to live and act with whole-hearted passion. The passionate Peter, not the contemplative John, nor the intellectual Paul, is Christ’s rock precisely because Peter was impulsive and took chances. He kept getting in over his head, out of his depth, but some sincerity of heart enabled him to repent as he went along, and to shed the false as he took the chance of using the true. This wave-tossed and fire-scorched passion of Peter was ascetically disciplined by existence, by living, but it seamlessly melded with interior and exterior heart action. The heart has to venture something in action toward the world= it has to love, through passion. That leap into the unknown, without security or guarantee, is faith, not perfecting ourselves in such a way we never give in to false passion, but also never act the true passion.
Zorba the Greek showed true heart passion when he intervened, at danger to his own life, to save the village widow whom the men wanted to kill with knives because they could not handle their own sexual urges toward her. Zorba the Greek showed true heart passion when he married a washed up old French prostitute, to save her from final despair. It was true heart passion when mother Maria Skobtsova allowed Jews to shelter in her monastery in Paris at the time of World War Two, a deed that cost her and her friends their lives at the hands of the Nazis. It was true heart passion when my adopted Lakota brother, at the age of nine, was confronted by Frank Fools Crow, the last of the great holy men [wicasa wakan], and charged with the impossible task of carrying on the tradition of the warrior society called the ‘Strong Hearts’ [Cante Tenze], and this boy took to heart the responsibility placed on his shoulders, vowing his life to it, no matter what. It was true heart passion when Peter wept for his three betrayals of Christ. Contrition of heart is necessary; but God also will accept an existentially ‘troubled spirit’ and ‘broken heart’ [Psalm 51, 18].
The problem of ascetic self-mastery when misused is that it becomes a means of sneering at others’ endeavours. It becomes an excuse for adopting a life stance of small heartedness where the person ‘buries their talent in the earth’ [Matthew 25, 14-39] rather than risk it might not remain ‘intact’ but might get ‘wrongly spent.’ This parable of Christ is clear= when the master who gave the talent returns to the person who buried it, the person says, ‘I knew you were a stern master, so I did nothing with the talent you loaned me, in order to return it to you just as you gave it.’ Far from being praised for this scrupulous guarding, the master says to the person, ‘you could have put it out to usury, so I would have had my increase.’ Usury was a sin to the Jews, thus the master prefers that the talent is spent even if that process of trying to produce a return on the original investment includes sin rather than it is not spent at all. Asceticism, if not carefully nuanced, promotes quietism and pietism, a prissy correctness, with no passion for the interior depth in us and no passion for the exterior depth in the world. Bad asceticism kills the heart. In the name of purging the heart’s errors, it fails to ever use, true passion of heart.
A life spent restraining love in order to uncover its purity, but never letting love off the leash because the purity might become soiled, is like an actor who rehearses meticulously but never goes on stage for fear he will forget his lines, or an athlete who trains faithfully but never enters the race for fear he will drop the baton.
The people whom asceticism affects like this would be better off eschewing it entirely, and letting their life be the mixture of ‘tares and wheat’ that we all are from the start. Some attempts to improve on this mixture, in short, are for the worse, not the better. Christ referred to this when he spoke of a man whose purification casts out one devil, and seven new and worse devils come to take up residence in his ‘spotless house.’ He is dried out, and swept clean, but “the last state of that man is worse than the first” [Matthew, 12, 43-45].
3, The Way That Is Not Of Christ
Christ remains a scandal not only to secular but also to religious people, of every ilk: he offers the redemption no one wants because no one has faith it can work. Christ refuses to ‘rescue’ anyone from anything; rather, he takes everyone to the depth of everything, to redeem it all.
In Buddhism, the highest status is afforded monastic asceticism, but this is justified, since the Buddhist ascetical yoke really does lead to almost the entirety of what Buddhism calls its followers to seek. In fact, the comparison between Orthodox monastic asceticism of the ‘height-seeking’ kind and Buddhism is even closer. Though the spiritual terminology is a little different, the following passage by Ignatii Brianchaninov is identical in ethos, in ‘spirit’, to the Buddhist goal of enlightenment:
“Christian perfection consists of a pure heart to which God appears and which he manifests his presence through diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit. He who has attained this perfection becomes the bearer of light and fulfils the commandment to love his neighbour not by any material service, but by the service of the spirit, guiding those who seek salvation, setting them up again when they fall and healing their wounded souls” [quoted by Father Sakharov, Sourozh, 99, 2005, p 41].
There is a hidden betrayal of the world in this spiritual stance, and also there is a hidden individualism; rather than joining with the brothers and sisters who are in the world, this spiritual path stands back, rises up, finds light, offers light to those still down, and draws a few up to its higher place. But this is not really Christian, though it might be adequate to Buddhism. Why? Because it does not really radically join with people at their most lost, and it does not become a radical sacrifice to their lostness.
In this very Buddhistic passage of Brianchaninov there is a failure to grasp what Christ is really doing on the Cross and in his subsequent Descent into hades and hell, for Christ was no Buddha reaching down and raising up those relative few who can be uplifted by his light. Rather, Christ joined with and was wounded by his brothers and sisters in the world, himself becoming the seed that must ‘die into the ground’ in order to ‘bear fruit’: the fruit of redemption of the ground of existence. Rising up into light, but leaving the world intrinsically unredeemed in its dark, hard, suffering depth, is not the Christian path.
4, Christ’s Way
The matins service of Holy Saturday, celebrated on Friday evening in Passion Week, tells a very different story of redemption from that sought by those seeking to preserve the best in the height from the worst in the depth:
‘O life-giving vine, thou wast lifted up from the earth, yet hast Thou poured out the wine of [thy blood]. I glorify thy passion and thy Cross.’
‘O Christ, ..the angels were amazed and glorified thy self-abasement.’
‘Foreseeing thy divine self-emptying upon the Cross, Habakkuk cried out marvelling: “Thou hast cut short the strength of the powerful, ..and preached to those in hell”.’
‘To earth hast thou come down, O master, to save Adam: and not finding him on earth, thou hast descended into hell, seeking him there.’
‘O Jesus, my Christ and king of all, why hast thou come to those in hell? Is it to set free the race of mortal humanity?’
‘O life, how canst thou die? How canst thou dwell in a tomb? Yet thou dost destroy death’s kingdom and raise the dead from hell.’
‘He who holds the earth in the hollow of his hand is held fast by the earth; put to death.. he delivers the dead from the grasping hand of hell.’
‘Willingly thou diest as a mortal man.. but as God thou dost raise up the dead from the grave and from the depths of sin.’
‘By dying, O my God, thou puttest death to death through thy divine power.’
‘The deceiver is deceived, and those he misled are set free by thy wisdom, O my God.’
‘All-devouring hell received within himself the rock of life, and cast forth all the dead that he had swallowed since the beginning..’
‘Christ the life, by tasting death, has delivered mortal men from death, and now gives life to all.’
‘..O word, thou hast descended to dread hell and raised up the race of mortal men.’
‘Source of the river of life, the wisdom of God descends into the tomb and gives life to all those in the depths of hell.’
‘How great the joy, how full the gladness, that thou hast brought to those in hell, shining as lightning in its gloomy depths.’
‘The whole creation was altered by thy passion; for all things suffered with thee, knowing, O word, that thou holdest all in unity.’
‘Now art thou hidden like the setting sun beneath the earth and covered by the night of death; but.. rise in brighter dawn.’
‘He who holds all things in unity was lifted on the cross, and the whole creation wept to see him hanging naked on the tree. The sun hid its rays and the stars cast aside their brightness; the earth shook in mighty fear, the sea fled and the rocks were rent, and many graves were opened and the bodies of the saints arose. Hell groaned below.. But the women cried aloud: “this is the most blessed Sabbath on which Christ sleeps, but on the third day he shall rise again”.’
‘Hell was wounded in the heart when it received him whose side was pierced by the spear; consumed by divine fire it groaned aloud at our salvation.. O God, our deliverer, blessed art thou.’
We venerate thy passion, O Christ.’
This is what David means in the Psalms, when he speaks of the need to ‘pass through water and fire.’ By living in the world we get wet, by living in the world we get burnt. Christ embraced this, and redeemed and transformed the possibility of the world by being immersed in it, and wounded by it. Buddha offers light as exit from the suffering of the world process; Christ plunges into that very suffering, gives himself over to it, and by that sacrificial deed, changes the suffering from within, revealing it as the only way to love the world redemptively. This is the ultimate love, for as Christ says, ‘no man has greater love than he who lays down his life for his friends.’ Buddha: ‘the enlightened one’; Christ: ‘the suffering one.’ Light has no power to redeem the world; only the suffering of love can redeem the suffering world.
Our prayer for the neighbour, much less our active service to him, is useless unless we are able to ‘suffer’ him in our love: be with him, bear him, and finally sacrifice ourselves for him. If we are rising up, higher and higher, we resent and refuse any such suffering, for it drags us down. It calls us to a difficult, dark, struggling place, and that is where we do not want to go, in ourselves, and thus in the world and in the brother and sister. We want only the knowledge and freedom and unfettered joy of the light.
On the Cross, the best is sacrificed for the worst, but the sacrifice does not stop there. It proceeds and is really only complete in the Descent into death and hell. For this sacrificial dying is what allows the best to plumb the deep, and in the deep undergo a suffering in which the best gives itself wholly to the worst. This redeems the worst in the place it is most lost, in the deep ground of its being.
Out of death, the water of eternal life. Out of hell, the fire of eternal truth.
Such is Christ’s way.
This way is a reversal, a paradox, an inversion, of the religious desire to escape the world, and escape the brothers and sisters in it, so we can return, alone, to God, whether this escape is put in more Western dualistic, or put in more Oriental monistic, terms. The Westerner rises to heaven to escape the earth; the Oriental returns to ontological oneness to escape existential otherness. Or, to put this escape in straight-forward human terms, we want the best to get free of, and get above, the worst. Even if we kindly and patiently — ‘compassionately’ in Buddhism — throw down a rope ladder, and haul a few ‘hurt souls’ up with us as we rise into the light, this is not the fullness of Christ. This is not even the teachings and healings of Christ in the gospels, but it is certainly not Christ on the Cross, and it is certainly not Christ Descending into the hades of dark deadening and into the hell of burning torment.
Monastic asceticism is only purged of the error to which it is invariably prone– in Buddhism no less than in Eastern Christianity– when the structure of spiritual discipline and spiritual practice no longer delivers what it aims at, but out of the blue just crumbles. For no reason, numinous cracks appear. The floor boards give way. The person experiences themselves falling into profound disorientation and doubt. In reality, they are ‘falling’ in to the heart: entering the depth where love cannot be made a law, the depth where love cannot be made an ascetic yoke.
Christ told St Silouan, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” The hellishness spoken of here is deep in the human heart, which is where hades and hell are rooted in us. It took Silouan many years of spiritual depression, of being forced down into the place to which Christ descended after his crucifixion, to accept what this deep place’s suffering can become: [a] the suffering of, on the one hand, ceasing to want to raise the best out of the worst, so the best can be preserved, glorious and triumphant, from the worst; [b] and on the other hand, the suffering of finally accepting and allowing the best to be given over to the worst, so the worst can be redeemed, and thereby become the best. The person who can suffer in this way in the depths can then return to the world, and see Christ in the world’s worst, and make the same sacrifice to them that Christ did: he can die for the stranger and the enemy because they are all ‘friends.’
All human beings are afflicted with the desire to escape, yet simply resort to different ways of accomplishing this exit from the deep heart, but the monastic ascetics, whatever ostensible religion they are in, are likely to be the most tempted by the religious version of the exit. This is why they have to be Daemonically forced down into the depths, deprived of light and joy, for such long periods, by the suffering unchosen that comes suddenly. But in this way Christ accepts the loving motive that indwells their spiritual error, honouring them, as he did Silouan, with the opportunity to embrace the mystery of the seed that must die to be planted, and must be planted to bear fruit. Silouan came through– for at the end of his ‘season in hell’ he could reveal its fruit in him simply: ‘my life is my brother.’
Similarly Christ-like is this Sufi declaration:
“The Sufi opens his hands to the universe
And gives away each instant free.
Unlike someone who begs on the street for money to survive,
A dervish begs to give you his life.”
Later Buddhism itself moved in a more Christ-like direction, as a famous statement from Dogen Zengi, dating from the 14th century, attests:
“The more we realize, the more compassionate we become; and the more compassionate we become, the more deluded we have to be. When all things are wallowing in the mud, we have to jump into the mud to be with them. Just sitting back, we can’t accomplish much. And obviously when we get into the mud, we become muddy. That’s being deluded within delusion — that’s our life.”
This is taken by Zen to mean that the Buddha’s spiritual enlightenment is not enough. Being not-deluded and rising above humanity’s travail is another kind of delusion. Therefore, it is necessary to go back into delusion [human suffering] to play a part. In other words, escape is out.
In Tibet this Christ-like new direction in Buddhism is manifest in the story of Geshe Chekhawa who lived in the 11th century. He was an advanced master of meditation but one day he stumbled upon two lines in a book that threw him: “Give all profit and gain to others, take all loss and defeat on yourself.” The unconditional love expressed in these lines astonished him. It was a new step. He set out to find the master who had written such lines, but this person was dead; instead, after a long search he met the person’s chief disciple. He asked the disciple how important these two lines were for Buddhism, and received an unexpected reply: “Whether you like it or not, you will have to live this teaching if you truly desire to attain Buddhahood.” This reply shocked Geshe Chekhawa almost as much as his first encounter with the lines. He stayed with the disciple for 12 years to study this new teaching, undergoing all kinds of hardships and ordeals, receiving criticism and abuse from other Buddhists. At the end of his life, Geshe Chekhawa told his followers he had been praying to be reborn in the hell realms, so as to be of help to all the beings there. Unfortunately, he added, he had a dream showing him he would be reborn in the realm of the Buddhas. He was disappointed and begged his students, with tears in his eyes, to pray to the Buddhas that this would not happen, and that his passionate yearning to help the beings in hell would be granted. Sogyal Rinpoche describes such passionate love as “dedicating ourselves to others, taking on their suffering rather than cherishing ourselves” [‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, 1992, p 189].
The Elder Paisios of Mount Athos puts the same point forcefully:
“Prayer which is not from the heart, but is made only by the mind, doesn’t go any further. To pray with the heart, we must hurt. Just as when we hit our hand or some other part of our body our mind is gathered to the point where we are hurting, so also for the mind to gather in the heart, the heart must hurt. We should make the other’s pain our own. We must love the other, must hurt for him, so that we can pray for him. We must come out, little by little, from our own self and begin to love, to hurt for other people..”
The figure of the Oriental Guru, whatever his spiritual attainment and
spiritual benevolence, is not the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Anointed One: chosen and anointed by God to be the sacrifice for the redemption of the world.
This new way in which Christ suffers our old suffering allows us to remain in it and to meet it as he does. Death and hell are redeemed in us. This is what makes us unafraid of the death and hell in the world. We go back to the world, willing to go on its wrack, willing to be stretched by it, in order to bring to its depth what Christ brought to our depth: redemption.
It is clear that Christ’s deed on the Cross, and in the Descent into hades and hell, is ultimately engaged with and committed in action to the destiny of the world. Our deepest love and our deepest rejection of love only operate from the heart toward the world. It is this buried love and last rejection of love that Christ’s ‘redemptive love’ addresses.
It is this enworlded existential condition itself, in all its passion and pathos, which will be redeemed, in depth, on the ground, in time and over time, for all who dwell in it.
[i] It is only where the real existential possibility is lost to tragedy that it can be regained.
[ii] What makes the difference is a sacrificial suffering, a different way of embracing the tragedy, that Christ offers.
[iii] We must be in the tragedy to know we need this offer; he must go into the tragedy to make the offer count.
Such is Christ’s way.