The human being is an affected being.
To be affected is to be subject to a fate we cannot escape which impacts upon us powerfully, like a heavy blow or a tender caress. Either way, we are reached at the core; either way, we are penetrated, touched, moved, in the living quick.
We cannot distance ourselves from this fate. We cannot place ourselves outside it, so as to look at it ‘objectively.’ We cannot place ourselves above it, so as to look down on it ‘all encompassingly.’ We are totally caught up in it. We are wholly given over to it. We are immersed in this fate. We are in it up to our necks, and over our heads, not able to get beyond it.
Therefore, we cannot feign neutrality towards it. We are at stake in it, and consequently we have a stake in how it turns out. We care which way it goes, because that impacts upon us totally.
From this fatedness is all human destiny carved out. There are different ways to respond to this fate. It can be for heaven or hell: it can make us deep and great, or it can lay waste to us and make us small.
At the smallest, affectedness makes us concerned only for what happens to us. We care what happens only to ourselves, or those few we identify with, rely on, belong to. Our ‘care’ is worry. At the greatest, affectedness makes us concerned for what happens to everything and everyone, including those strange to us, or even those who are enemies. Our ‘care’ is love. We care what happens, not just to ourselves or to our own, but to everything and everyone, simply because they too are at jeopardy, they too are in pain, they too must undergo loss. This is the spirituality of heart: we are moved by the suffering other to us such that to join with it, in order to help and make common cause with it, we will put ourselves at even profounder risk and expose ourselves to even profounder suffering. Our affectedness either shrivels us, closes us down and shuts us in, or expands us, opens us up and moves us out.
The same passion that arises from our affectedness can either be self serving or self giving, self preserving or self sacrificing, self pleasing or self emptying. The heart is the deepest or the most shallow, the greatest or the most small, a human being can be.
Humanity has always sought a Tree of Knowledge by which to escape from the affected condition in which human Life is radically situated. ‘Salvation by de-situation’ has always been through knowing. All that changes from culture to culture, from olden times to the present era, is the nature of that knowing. In the past, this knowledge needed to be metaphysical: philosophy transcends this world, by rising up toward an other worldly perch from which to over view it, and comprehend it. At the present, this manoeuvre of ‘re-situating’ takes a different form but is still operative: the aim of science is to separate the mind from the ground-level experience in order to stand back from it, explain it, and thereby be able to predict and control it. One abstraction is about getting free of this world, the other abstraction is about dominating this world. But both seek to be existentially impregnable, both seek to reach a position where existence cannot hurt the human being, by switching all awareness to the mind, and transferring the mind to somewhere at a safe and secure remove. The mind ceases to be able to attend to the experiencing that reveals how the human being is situated, and as a result becomes capable only of seeing, only of viewing, the world; the mind loses the capacity of getting close, of embracing, of being directly in touch with and touched by, what it meets on the ground. Seeing, or viewing, becomes indirect. It is at a distance. Its aim is to keep reality at a distance, metaphysically or scientifically, so as to reduce reality’s impact. Nothing is directly encountered. A spectral or mentalised life, a life transferred to unreal spheres, takes over. This mutes the existential bite of existing in the world, but also robs the human being of any immediate access to the world. As this abstractionism increases, human beings become detached observers, not able to be involved participants. Nothing affects the person—but the person affects nothing.
Kierkegaard critiqued this use of the mind, whether metaphysical or scientific, as “thought without a thinker.” The affected ‘existent’, the person, disappears, because the real nature of the meeting of this person and the world is abstracted away from. But Dostoyevsky saw the other side of this equation: the world in its vividness, in its paradox of fearfulness and wonder, the reality that is affecting, also disappears. As Dostoyevsky puts it, Idea becomes more real than Life. Idea irons out Life, and in the end, people prefer the Idea of Life to Life: “The cognition of life is superior to life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness—superior to happiness.” This is why Dostoyevsky rejected the naturalism of the western novel [materialism, and its offshoot naturalism, are another Idea put in the place of Life], and said of his novels: “I am merely a realist in the higher sense, that is, I portray all the depths of the human.”
Dostoyevsky repeatedly attacked, through his stories, the ‘unrealism’ of a science too abstracted from the existential mess and conundrum of life on the ground in this world: positivist science created a pseudo psychology where questions of good and evil, life and death, meaning and absurdity, beauty and ugliness, were banished from their prominent place in human experience. But he also attacked a religion that was in its own way equally unrealistic: a religion falsely raised out of the existential cauldron, peddling answers and solutions that evaded it, rather than jumping in to it. Interestingly enough, both a certain kind of science and a certain kind of religion provide an all too easy out, albeit in reverse ways.
Both Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky foresaw, in the 19th century, the increasing abstractionism that would dehumanise and denude humanity of pith and juice and spark, in the 20th and 21st centuries. Like Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky protested against this Mephistophlean evil, the evil of the mind’s ability to offer a false salvation through indifference to our fate. Such indifference is not, as it pretends to be, some superior mental state; it is simply the killing off of all consciousness and life below the neck that is in unbreakable dialogue with reality, and is forced to be real as a result.
My friend Karin Greenhead comments on the human result of abstractionism in this manner. “There is a lot of this about in church as well as in the world: the fear of knocking oneself off balance by experiencing or risking anything of any profundity. I wonder if westerners.. cultivate a particular version of this that.. goes with ‘enlightenment’ and wealth—they/we are very defended. People don’t look out of their own eyes and engage with others without a wall, the gaze itself is a wall, whereas I am often struck by the immediacy of the gaze of many oppressed and third world peoples. Their souls seem to be more accessible to them and live with them at the skin’s surface, not buried far behind, which is what I feel here.”
In a letter to his brother, Dostoyevsky defends the need to regain the humanity lost to abstractionism: “Mankind is a mystery. It must be unravelled, and if it takes a whole life time, don’t say it is a waste of time. I’m preoccupied with the mystery because I want to be a human being.”
And Franz Kafka, in a letter to Oskar Pollak, dated January 27, 1904, put it like this: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.. We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
The cost of escape either through metaphysical transcendence or through scientific control is to cease to have a heart. For unlike the mind, the heart is that in the human being which is totally nailed to the ground, and not able to flee the affecting condition in which it finds itself. The heart is that in the human being which takes the hit, and has to rise up to meet it, or go under to it. As in Act 5, Scene 7, of Macbeth, when all options have run out, and Macbeth says, “They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, but bear-like I must fight the course”, so the heart is bound hand and foot to the world where it has its life, being, and action. In this world the heart steps up, and takes its stand, or runs away and falls down.
The heart experiences the situation in which humanity is placed, and has to see it through to the end. For the heart, there is no way above; for the heart, there is no way around. For the heart, there is no way beyond. For the heart, there is only a way through, but this way can go either way, there is no guarantee how it will turn out, it means taking a chance. Things are exposed to the hazard of harm, loss, ruination. This world is not secured.
The heart is existentially situated, and thus is inherently affected. To be an affected being is to be a being of heart. To be a non affected being is to be a being of no heart. But because heart rumbles beneath, whether acknowledged or not, the pretence of non affectedness is a sickening of heart, a loss of heart: an inability to keep faith with having a heart. Keeping faith with this, not running from it, not seeking spiritual or materialistic ‘release’ from our affected condition, is passion. Passion is what keeps faith with the heart, for it is generated precisely by what it must accept, and cannot change. In this sense, passion is love’s muscle.
It is passion that must suffer and carry the affected condition of the human heart in this world. It is passion that goes with this, or flees it; breaks down under it, or comes through; leaps in to it through faith or tries to cheat with it through inauthentic moves of false power. It is passion that is brave and generous toward ‘the passible’ condition of the heart, and of all the world, and of all things, beings, persons in the world like passengers in a single boat sailing over profound seas. For the world is placed in the care of the heart. Only if it lays its hands on us, can we lay our hands on it. The heart is both vulnerable and spirited, both malleable and open to influence, yet at the same time resolute and dedicated. The affected condition of the human heart is a thing of terror and beauty.
It moves us to behold it because it is what moves us in our depths, whether we face this or avert our gaze.
The ascetic path of mystical religion, especially in its monastic form, is ambiguous on just this point of the ‘passible.’ At its best, it represents a purification of the passible nature of passion, to bring out its stance most true to heart. At its worst, and this is all too common, it seeks a type of ‘dispassion’ that jettisons the whole drama of passion in its existential relationship to the world. True dispassion is a kind of sifting, a kind of clarification, that separates wheat from chaff in passion, in order to carry forward passion’s mission in the world less weakly and more strongly. Its self-control is a standing back from the shallow [conventional and normal], the deranged [neurotic and crazy], the evil [power mad], the toughened [hardened but heartless], in passion, in order to plunge in with the heroic [true], in passion. Here, stillness is the preliminary to action, and silence is the central turning point of the storm.
But, much monasticism, Buddhist and Christian, uses dispassion as a way to de-invest in passion, and thereby sever passion’s attachment to the world. The sign of this is that neither passion, nor world, are regarded as ‘spiritual.’ The Impassible is preferred to the Passible, Contemplation is preferred to Action, Mysticism is preferred to Redemption. This is the Greek error. Though ancient Greek culture had many figures tossed on the waves of heart passion, this invariably ended in tragedy; therefore Greek spirituality turned from the Dionysic toward the Apolline; and pursued Eros as love, eschewing the more difficult and disturbing love constituted by the Daemonic. The Eros of union with God is Greek; but the Daemonic passion of enworlded suffering and enworlded journey and battle, in order to follow in our passion’s doing what God’s passion is doing, in history, for the collective of all mankind, is Jewish.
Clearly not Jewish, and hence more Greek than Christian, is the remark of Theophan the Recluse: “We simply need to remind ourselves that God does not favour any kind of passion… Because of this, passion sets God against us and cuts us off from him” [‘The Heart of Salvation’]. This statement could not be more in error. It is the fallen passions, what Buddhism calls ‘delusive cravings’, that cut us off from God, but that is not because they are ‘passionate’, but because they are a failure within passion to hit its true mark. They are false to passion’s real calling. Without the true passion, there is no human action in history and in the community that ‘obediently’, and ‘faithfully’, follows God’s action in history and in the community. Theophan is recommending giving up on the human heart, whereas God’s real spark in us requires us to use our heart. In action, we use our heart for God. God’s Light is born in contemplation, but God’s Fire is born in action. We can contemplate God’s Fire, and be awestruck by its big heartedness of action in the world, for the world, but that is not enough; we must more irrationally trust God’s Fire in our own human fire, in our own action: this is passion. Theophan is promoting the usual monastic mistake about passion, and hence promoting contemplation as more ultimate than action. For the Jews, it is the other way round: though the Old Testament is full of mystical and visionary revelations—like Plato’s ‘theoria’—these events enhance the collaboration between God and humanity. If the human passion does as God’s passion does in the world process, this will unite the two hearts, divine and human. This is holiness; without passion there can be no holiness.
Consequently, all the heroes of the Old Testament were men and women of Daemonically anguished passion, and they had to wrestle in all the passible states the heart is capable of, which includes madness and criminality as failures of true heroism, as well as fanaticism as the failure of true righteousness and superstition as the failure of true loyalty. What could be farther from the monastic quiet of contemplation than the troubled and turbulent lives lived out to the full by the Jewish heroes of faith in the Old Testament? Passion has to pass through all these states, to sift wheat from chaff, to recover the true fire [heaven] from the raging and devouring flames [hell]. This is required, because the Jewish heroes remain committed to the world in a manner that the monastics do not, with notable exceptions like Mother Maria Skobtsova.1 It is no good purifying the heart, then remaining withdrawn from the fray. The monastic claim that a holy love arises automatically out of purification is misleading: the heart can be cleaned, but if it won’t give itself wholly up to the buffets of the world that are the price of admission to the redeeming of the world, then ‘house cleaning’ will not spark the real passion, and in that case, the sifted state is worse than the un-sifted state. This is because a certain sort of quieted heart that loses the false attachment to the world also loses the true attachment to the world, and thinks that heartless state of calm and clarity is ‘spiritual.’ It is not. St John Chrysostom once delivered a severe sermon to monastics, telling them they had no right to some spiritual peace outside the world, but had no other ultimate purpose in living monastically than to support those in the world, upholding them in their struggle.2
It is necessary to break free of false attachment: this clears a path towards the true attachment. Purification has only done its job if it returns us to passion’s most ardent attachment to the world.
Not surprisingly, it was in the very midst of these anguished wrestlings with heroism, with madness, with evil, with fanaticism, and with superstition, which were always turbulent and troubled in heart rather than ‘cool, calm, and collected’, that the Jews gave birth to the Messianic hope, the hope that the ultimate of passion will be the test God must endure, and the sacrifice God must make, to redeem the entire world. A God without passion, an impassible God, is a fiction of other worldly metaphysics, and is not the true God revealed among the Jews. The true God makes humanity passionate because he is passionate. He created us a being of heart because he is a being of heart.
The paradox is, then: the Greeks could not see anything spiritual in the human tragedy of passion, whereas the Jews located spirituality no where else than in this tragedy. They not only accepted the pain and shouldered the burden, but they elected to go all the way with it. If the heart’s tragedy cannot be redeemed, they will end up with egg on their face. If it is the heart’s tragedy alone that can be redeemed, then their turbulent and troubled enworlded passion will finally be vindicated. The story the Bible tells is this journey and battle of passion in the world. It tells the story of all that the heart must undergo, by virtue of what the heart undertakes.
Our affectedness must remain in suspense because the end remains suspended between heaven and hell. My friend Andy Harmon’s song states it as it is. “Who can say where love will take us, whether it will save or forsake us, but what else can we do?”
Passion is what rises from the heart to meet the ‘passible’ condition of human existence, and passes through it, to take it to the other side, and lose no one and lose no thing on the way, but redeem all. Passion is what rises from the heart to make a difference to what can turn out either way.
Passion starts where all knowledge, of any ilk, ends. It is an existential position which moves the human being to go beyond what is directly available, beyond what is readily understandable, beyond what is easily obtainable. Kierkegaard says of this paradox, it is the uncertainty in which everything finite is suspended that can generate an infinite passion in the human heart.
By having to dwell within limitation, passion is moved to go beyond all limit.
A writer says of one of Dostoyevsky’s most realistic novels: “Perhaps the key to understanding Raskolnikov is through [realising] that suffering is a means of enlightenment. He did not freely live in the desert eating roots and locusts to purify himself. Circumstances forced his suffering upon him, as they force suffering on most of humanity. What his suffering broke down was his egoism and its attendant rationalism.”
Dostoyevsky foresaw that the growth of Rationalism also entailed a growth of Individualism, or as he often terms it, Egoism. The Mind becomes the fortress and defence for the isolate, lone Ego, which breaks not only with God, but also with nature and other people, in order to be ‘free’ to fulfil its gifts [Jung’s ‘Individuation’] and push its autonomy to a limitless potency [Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’]. Another version of this Rationalist Egoism was the appeal to ‘enlightened self interest’ used to buttress the rivalry, and selfishness, of the capitalist societies evolving in the west. All this is the attempt to create what Dostoyevsky called ‘the Man—God.’
Suffering can destroy the Rationalist Egoism, the utilitarian ethic, the Man—God. In Dostoyevsky’s novels, only the acceptance of suffering takes us to the depth of the world, and to the depth of the human heart. It kindles a strange spark. We want to go into the belly of existence’s dragon because that is where ‘it is really happening.’ That is where more than our own life is at risk= that is where everyone and everything is at risk, and where our passion is required, to make the difference. This is the irrational step, from our depth into existence’s depth, through a wound; we know this step in its absence as the oldest pain deep in the heart, and we know it in its presence as the different way of meeting that pain which promises a changed ball game for everything and everyone.
This step, of joining the suffering of the world through one’s own suffering, is the ultimate kindling of passion. This carries the sense of breaking through to a new land of heart.
My step daughter Anita Harmon, who is a practicing Buddhist, once wrote me:
“When you speak of heart I have always felt that you mean what I mean by ‘commitment’, the crazy kind of commitment that won’t let go, give up, or avoid fate, no matter what. As you say, it is the kind of commitment that says, ‘if you go down I’m going down with you.’ And I think this is what you feel about God. He’s going all the way no matter what. Of course this commitment comes from the heart because it is all about courage, and non rational unconditional love. No sane person would do it. Even the spiritually wise might well shudder at it. So it is a sort of holy fool position, who says it’s not enough for me to be OK, redeemed, unless you are too, and if you can’t be, or won’t be, I’m going down with the ship, with you.”
This is the crunch. Suffering may open us, and humble us, taking us across a frontier only the broken reach. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. But suffering may also create the sinking ship, because we can’t, or we won’t, accept it.
There is a place where all human beings really live. This is the heart.
There is a place where all human beings are suffering. This is the heart.
Heart is what is affected.
Heart is affected because it is placed at the centre of the dilemma, the predicament, the paradox, of existence. This is the koan for which there is no solution.
This is the place where the heart really lives.
This is the difficult place. This is the sticking place.
Here the heart has to accept suffering as what is, but this fate is onerous and an ordeal. Thus everything the heart can say about what it is struggling with is poetry, which comes out of a silence where words fail.
There are no words that can really voice the heart’s affliction, its apprehension and agony, about what it has been given and what it has failed.
The pain in the heart that is deep in every human being is beyond any words because the hope and despair are so terrible, so wrenching, so beyond imagining. Everything that can be said about the heart, and the passion with which it seeks to accept, and undergo, come through, and act nobly toward, its existential fatedness, is inarticulate.
The heart in us is sore because the pain that is deep in the heart is very old, and implacable. Nothing can remove it. Nothing can fix it. Nothing can change it. It is what it is. It just is what is. Because of it, if we listen to the heart in us, we hear crying. We hear a crying so old and so deep, it has exhausted all words. It comes out in the most nerve jangling screeching of Antonios Dalgas in rembetiko, and in the sorrowing of the earth carried like a stabbing pregnancy in the voice of Nina de los Pines in flamenco. Nothing is more deeply believed by the human heart than God’s heartlessness. Academic theologians are relieved to abstract themselves safely into the mind, to evade it. Scientists and materialists glory in tying to prove God does not exist, to evade it. Consumerism eats and drinks itself to the glut of death, to evade it. Western converts to Buddhism say it is possible to have a religion without any theistic God, to evade it. The sensation-seeking adventurers live for today and forget tomorrow, to evade it. The street thugs swagger and bully the weak, to evade it. The philistines keep to the busy everyday surface, to evade it. The fashionable follow glittering but hollow celebrity, to evade it. The religious worship churchiness, or turn moral struggle into Satanic accusation, or turn ascetical discipline into other-worldly Mephistophlean angelizing, and Luciferian superiority, to evade it.
Everyone is evading the heartbreak so old and deep, it cannot be evaded, only covered over, hidden away, buried where it should not be found. This is the belief God has no heart, and even if he did, it is powerless to make any difference. We prefer to believe, in our heart, ‘there is no God’ rather than facing what we really believe about the God who forged the human heart, binding its sinews in tension and suspense before he released his hold upon it, and it began to beat. We know him in the heart. God has left too great a mark on us, in the heart, where we really live, in our suffering, for any abstractions of mind or any consolations of soul to work. The heart knows the heartbreak. We know God made our heart to beat and we also know we cannot believe in this God in the heart where it matters. In the heart, this God has either chickened out, a long time back, or even if he is still around, he is too weak, too powerless, to make any dent. But the other side of it is that neither do we believe in our heart, for we know it has either chickened out, a long time back, or even if it is still around, it is too weak, too powerless, to make any dent. We are in abject despair, about the God we do not believe in because not believing in him means we cannot believe in the human heart he made like his. Over both God and the human heart there lies a curse.
Yet, in this extreme despair is the possibility of turn around, where we know something else without any voice.
Passion is that in the human heart created by God to embrace and enter the place of dilemma, predicament, koan, cross-roads, and see to the end what its paradox is for.
Christ is universal because he addresses this place, and makes the decisive change there, for all human beings.
Christ, only Christ, shows God has a heart for what he has made, by putting God’s unwavering passion where human passion falters. This is the Cross of Christ.
Christ goes into it fully and Christ goes all the way through it, so we can do the same.
Passion cannot see in advance, passion cannot understand, but must just live out to the full and to the end, the paradox most severe of all: in passion’s heroic encounter, we must lose to win, fail to succeed.
The vindication of human passion is the vindication of the divine passion that created it, that marked it, that scorched it, in spiritual fire.
- St Maria Skobtsova was, along with two other monastics, killed by the Nazis for hiding Jews in her refuge in Paris. Other examples of monastics who understood the need to leave the monastery as a spiritual haven in order to fulfill Christ’s call to work and die for the redeeming of the world include, for example, St Philothei of Athens , a nun who was killed by the Turks because she was helping slave women to escape; or, St Kosmas the Aitolian [18th century], who left Athos to preach widely the urgent need for education and was also martyred for the stand he took.
- A monk on Mt Athos whom I met whilst living there for several months conveyed this sermon to me, in order to demonstrate that not all monasticism is understood and practiced as ‘other worldly.’ According to John Demakis [Raising Lazarus, ed. Muse, S., Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Mass., 2004, p 17], St Basil asserted the same point: “St Basil did not expect his monks to stay cloistered in their cells and pray all day, but rather should balance their prayerful life [theoria] with good deeds for their fellow man [philanthropia].” Demakis [ibid, p 17] points out that the early church in Byzantium supported many philanthropic institutions, including homes for the poor [ptochotropheia], homes for orphans [orphanotrophia], homes for the aged [gerokomeia], and hospitals [nosokomeia and xenones]. Indeed, “rival Christian factions often vied with each other in who would do more good works” [ibid, p 17]. Moreover, as Patriarch of Constantinople [from 398 AD], St John Chrysostom thundered against slavery and on behalf of the equality of women, and threatened fire from heaven upon the luxury and vanity of the rich [Payne, R., ibid, p 217]. He combined the way of contemplation and the way of action in one: the former he likened to night, when the dew falling from heaven heals our wounds and calms our griefs, while the latter is likened to the fierce heat of the day which scorches and burns us [Payne, R., ibid, p 212]. But this link between quiet and tumult did not last. Perhaps over time as the church increasingly sided with the rich and powerful, in effect backing the most worldly, so monasticism became increasingly other worldly. Whatever the cause, the ultimate danger of monasticism is to embrace the heresy of ‘Angelism’: the desire to be raised above human frailty, so as to become pure spirit without body. This is the road to total heartlessness. It turns asceticism into a ‘yoga of ascent’, rather than a tool for discerning the difference between the two hearts. The heart as such is transcended, as the monastic becomes more ethereal, and confuses this etherealized state with ‘spirituality.’ It is nothing of the kind, rather it is just one of many ‘abstracted’ states which exemplify the Faustian problem of knowledge as escape from existential wrestlings. This is the evil of Mephistophles. The name in Greek means ‘foul air.’ Angelizing spirituality is in fact a too rarified air. The person becomes too attenuated, too thin, to really live. This ‘thinness’ is not the life more abundant brought by the Spirit.