Loving Death

Out at Thoughts, Prayers & Song, James declares his intention to stop tolerating systems of predation that allow the wealthy to survive by pressuring the poor into situations that guarantee their premature death.

In guiding our sensitivity, James focuses on war and violence. Those are only methods for something more profound: worship of death. Those that flourish by ignoring the costs on others are in fact reliant upon sacrifice. They may willfully ignore that reliance, but death still flourishes as the driving preoccupation of billions of people. Everything they do is driven by that preeminent power.

James hopes for an era of peace, and with Advent that hope focuses on the arrival of Jesus. The lion sheathes its claws to lie with the lamb.

Paradoxically, Jesus’ mission ended at the cross. Death prevails, at least for a time. Even given the resurrection, we might wonder: is the only path to eternal life through death’s door? Is that the meaning of “pick up your cross and carry it?”

I am confident that it is not. That confidence is grounded in the similarities between death and peace when considered as spiritual agents. Peace keeps things apart that might create conflict. The lion does not take the lamb in its jaws; nations agree to honor their borders. Peace becomes death, however, when it asserts the right to claim what it guards as its own.

Jesus died on the cross with perfect love, and so death could not claim him. Instead, he redeemed the peace that was corrupted by selfishness. In loving death, Jesus reminded Death of its of its former purpose. In choosing to accept it, Peace was restored.

The great promise of Rev. 13 is that “those that die in the Lord will rest form their struggles.” Dying in the Lord is to give our souls into the safe harbor of love, and thus to be held in peace until this age of death is brought to a close.

Thus I understand “pick up your cross and carry it” to mean “Do as I did, and reclaim the death that hides your soul from the father.” Have sympathy for the great heart-cry in Eden: “Where are you?” followed by the lament “Surely you will die.” Allow Christ through you to reclaim every smallest portion of his kingdom, until fear and callousness lose their grip, and we enter Paradise.

This came to me Monday night during a scribble response to the Hawaiian practice Ho-opo-no-po-no. The healer enters into a corrupted place and meditates on these four lines:

I am sorry. I forgive you. Thank-you. I love you.

My image started as a hillside with a dip. The next stroke added a boulder, atop which Sisyphus was drawn in contemplation. Death’s skull hovered over the horizon. The redeemed sage addressed it: “Plplplplplplpl!”

And I realized that my subconscious was telling me to focus my Ho-opo-no-po-no meditation in this way:

I am sorry, Peace, that you were corrupted by selfishness. I forgive you, Death, for keeping those I love from me. Thank-you, Death, for preserving their integrity until I was ready to receive them. I love you, Death, and offer you the gift of my love that you might be restored as Peace.

The Season of Peace

Among the seven forms of selfishness released upon the Earth when the seals were broken in heaven [Rev. 6], the prince of death is that mystical presence that divides us from those that we love and feasts on our sorrow.

In this season, we celebrate a man who submitted to death, yet still loving those that abused him [Luke 23:34]. Through his devotion, Jesus suffused death with love. He converted that impenetrable barrier into a shield that keeps warring spirits apart until they find the strength to forgive one another [Matt. 1:21 and Luke 24:47].

For those of us that in this season celebrate Christmas, this is the source of its meaning and joy.

Dying in Peace

Standard Christian theology is that Christ died so that God could forgive our sins. But I think that Jesus said something a little more subtle: that he would die for “the forgiveness of sin.”

As I understand it, God is not about choosing those worthy to live in his presence, he is concerned with healing. A sin is a sin because it leaves a wound in the soul. That wound cannot be healed until we are ready to forgive the sin – to let it go so that it may be displaced by love. When that occurs, even the most vicious criminal becomes qualified to enter paradise.

Even better, though, is to hold on to the sin. It is to do as Jesus did – to allow the sin to take hold of us, and then to forgive it so that it may be suffused by love, and so made noble.

Death is a sin because is separates things that cherish one another. That cherishing reflects a mutually beneficial relationship. So for death to enforce such separation is to deny the parties those benefits, and thus to wound them.

In dying, Jesus allowed the servants of Death (the priests that slaughtered innocent creatures on the altar) to have their way with him, and forgave them. He suffused death with love, and so became the Prince of Peace.

How does that work? Because warring parties need to be separated. That can be accomplished in death, but what Jesus does is offer a spiritual refuge in which we can reflect until we figure out how to share strength with the ones we war against.

Sometimes, of course, that is our selves. Peace starts within, and when we accept Jesus, we allow him into our hearts and minds and grant him loving dominion over the conflicts that rage within us.

As Cain learned, it isn’t easy, but God understands that sin cannot be healed unless we wrestle with it. Terrible things happen: Cain murdered his brother Abel. But even then, that most heinous of sins was not punished with death. Instead, Cain was sent away to think, reflect, and become stronger.

Away, Away…

“There’s been a lot of deterioration since last night,” my mother told me.

He’s really weak. When I came through the door on Thursday, I could see the light in his face. Saturday he did not stir until I sat down next to him. We eventually rolled him over on his back. As he stared up into the lamp hanging from the ceiling, my mother asked him “Is Brian supposed to take that down yet?” There was a green piece of ruled paper curled up in the scroll work. “It didn’t make much sense,” she told me.

I thought, “Oh, but it does.”

On Christmas eve I had told him about the lineage that he was struggling with. Yesterday we felt our way toward freedom. He suffered from childhood polio, which left him with neuropathy in his legs. “Do you remember what it was like to run, before your legs became sick?”

He paused, trying to reach back. “No. I don’t.”

“Well, maybe your mother or grandmother can help.”

As I sat on the bed beside him, I rested my hand on his hip, and then caressed downward towards his lifeless feet. “Away, away the bad stuff.” It was where the domineering will had pooled. For three hours, off and on, we worked through it, sometimes holding hands. I felt the pain of the arguments and rejection he had suffered in his childhood, mostly from family but also from the peers that enjoyed bullying this genius who graduated from high school at fourteen. “I will receive that from you,” I promised him.

Indeed, I did, as the day passed into evening. He was lying on his side, looking at me hopefully, and I put my right hand on his cheek. A look of bliss came over his features, and I cemented the connection by placing my left hand on the crown of his head. The tears came as his sorrow poured into me – carrying all those lesser spirits that had been forced into him but that didn’t have a place.

“I’m so glad that you were my father.”

God and Human

One of the more frustrating problems faith is trying to make sense of pronouncements that characterize realities that we cannot understand. In Christianity, a great deal of dialog, derision and good-old-fashioned blood-letting revolves around the concept that Jesus was at once both God and man. It is related to the problem of the Holy Trinity that was the most controversial issue in the Council of Nicea, and continues to divide the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

To critical onlookers this probably appears to be ludicrous ado about nothing, merely an attempt to layer a veneer of respectability over a huckster’s mumbo-jumbo. But to those that take the program of Christianity seriously, the mystery is a real problem. Jesus clearly expected us to be more. That is hinted by his repeated pronouncement “Your faith has healed you.” It becomes more explicit when he tells the disciples “there is nothing I do that you cannot do yourselves” leading him to observe peevishly, when waken on a stormy sea, “Oh ye of little faith!” And of course, ultimately he avers to his students “Things even greater than these shall you do.”

Clearly, Jesus’s expectation was that he was only an existence proof, not a singular phenomenon.

So how do we become like him? What is this faith? What power does it allow to enter into us? And as Jesus demonstrated, how do we establish a permanent and continuous living with and through that power?

The key, I believe, is clear through Jesus’s teachings. He began with parables that characterize the unconditional and infinitely forgiving love of the Father. At the midpoint, he simplifies the Law as “Love your God, and love your neighbor as though he was yourself.” And finally, in the great struggle in Gethsemane, he conquers the fears of the flesh and surrenders himself fully to his love of the world. And in his resurrection, his glory testifies to the authority earned in his remaking of heaven and earth through the mechanism of his sacrifice.

So he is God and Human. But why God? Why the best, most powerful God? What is it about love that is so powerful?

To understand this, we have to turn to the realm of the Almighty, where the ethereal host evolves under different laws of physics. What we know is that angels do not have flesh. They are souls living in pure relation. What is common between their realm and ours is that some of those relationship are beneficial, and some harmful.

Two forms of relation are particularly potent. First is the relation of Death, which creates insuperable barriers between the angels, preventing them from entering in relation. Although there is a certain restfulness in death, by its very nature its grasp is difficult to escape. The second is Unconditional Love, which seeks restlessly to maximize the benefits of relation. It is a force that helps angels escape circumstances that suppress their expression, liberating them into mutually beneficial engagements that generate new and unexpected possibilities. As we are told, liberated spirits facilitate the spread of love by “singing” its praises.

In the Book of Revelation, John is brought into Heaven. While Heaven is not the Realm of the Almighty, but reflects its dynamic. Around a throne occupied by Unconditional Love, twenty-four principal angels are gathered wearing crowns. When the living creatures sing the praises of love, the angels are compelled to lay aside their crowns and bow in praise to the one on the throne.

Why is this so? If so powerful, why should love sit on a throne, isolated from us, guarded in fact by fearsome predators? That is not its desire, as revealed in the final Chapters, where no light and no temple is found in the city of God because love has been woven into its very fabric.

The problem is that when offered power, we think first of ourselves. Trapped here in this physical existence, full of pain and struggle, we use our strength to compel others to serve us. We violate the compact of unconditional love. We corrupt it with “sin.” To become as Jesus, we must surrender our self-concern. We must think only of others, and trust that they will concern themselves with us.

This was the compact that Adam and Eve sundered in the Garden of Eden. Given the task of tending God’s kingdom on earth, they thought of themselves. God tried for many generations to overcome that sin, but the gap was too great between his perfection and our fallen state. Jesus came down to experience that fallen state, to struggle with its frailty, to have his compassion sharpened on the point of our daily peril. It was only in the intimacy of the disease that healing could be given.

So this is how Jesus was both God and Human: he was a one-way street. Through him, only love came. Impervious to self-concern, no sin went back the other way. And through the humanity of his courage, love gave those he encountered the strength to turn aside from fear and accept the healing power of love.

And finally, in his encounter with death on the cross, love suffused that presence and turned it into the agent of peace. Death is no longer a final separation, but an agent that brings surcease when fear pushes us into violence. Having submitted death, the Prince of Peace is capable of cocooning us in love until we recall our better selves.

So this is the answer: in submitting to the teachings of Christ, we become gods in loving one another, and thus receive from each other the power to bring good into the world, and thus experience good to the limit of our capacity.

Peek-a-boo with the Prince of Peace

When the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they were at the end of their rope. There was no resistance to its presence, because they had surrendered their lives already. There was no place to go but up.

As the repository of truth, the Holy Spririt opens us into understanding that may make our prior lives seem shallow and vain. That was certainly true for the disciples, but it was an experience that they received joyfully for suffering had been their prior occupation. To have revealed the purpose of that struggle was to discover the extent of their own strength.

To understand the mechanisms whereby Christ arranged this transformation, we have to understand the nature of Death. Not “death”, which is the end of our physical existence, but “death” as revealed in Revelation: one of the six forms of selfishness that-  approximately three billion years ago – were released upon the world when the seals of the scroll were broken.

Death is not the destroyer, but a divider. When we die, we pass through a door that human love can rarely penetrate. In moments of intense psychic focus – when our lives are threatened, for example – messages may pierce the veil, but the grieving that survivors suffer reflects the loss of a relationship with the departed soul. Death is the personality that manages that barrier.

Sometimes there is value in separation. It allows us to shed associations that are harmful to us. As suggested in the parables of Hades and the Inferno, that process may continue even after dying, as we surrender to Death the destructive energies we accumulated during our lives. Consider the pride of the pathetic Sisyphus, mindlessly pushing a rock up against the pressure of Death’s will, like a galley slave pulling an oar. This is why the evil fear to die – they know intuitively that their spirits will be broken and repurposed in the afterlife.

So why did Christ struggle for us against Death? Because Death serves no purpose but the spread of its influence. It is a greedy spirit, and loathes to surrender its captives. Indeed, it held sway in the world for a long, long time. The drives of Darwinian evolution are simply an impotent exploration of biological strategies for avoiding Death’s grasp.

This is why the innocent Adam was told “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree [of the Knowledge of Good and Evil], for surely you will die.” The pull of death on our physiology is manifested by a deep winding of its influence within our DNA. When God “breathed life” into Adam, it was to dispel that presence. When the fruit was eaten, we opened our hearts once again to death.

We are nearing the end of the long road of pain and suffering that was set before us. The key is to embrace the Prince of Peace. Looking at the degree to which human history is defined by our wars, we need to step back and consider why that has been so difficult.

The short answer is because it is like dying.

You see, when Jesus took up his cross, he did not conquer death. He confronted it, let it work its will on him, and suffused it with love. Jesus tamed death, chaining its hunger to the service of love. There are things in the world that do not work well together. The tension between Hitler and Stalin is an illustration, as is the tension between freedom and government. To prevent those tensions from flaring into destruction, sometimes things need to be separated. They need to “go to their rooms,” not as punishment, but to give them time to relax and envision a resolution of their differences.

This is the authority that Christ gained on the cross: To turn the talents of Death to the purposes of healing and creation.

The challenge that we must confront is our investment in the psychological practices of death avoidance. For many of us, they define our existence. We create conflict around ourselves as a means of protecting ourselves from loss of life. In a sense, the strong still eat the weak, it’s just that they do it indirectly, using the police to impose the Sisyphean burden on our underclasses. Having acquired that power, we console ourselves with the construction of a facade of elegance and civility, a facade now being torn away most notably by Donald Trump.

So to accept the Prince of Peace is to become aware of that social vampirism. It is to become aware that there are others that need his attention more. It is to become aware that we are the cause of our own pain.

That is why those that have the power to elaborate it instead run from the Truth that transforms the world.

Pity poor Christ in his suffering for the oppressed. Calling out with love to the powerful is the only method allowed to him.

Running on Empty

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised – after all, how many people testify that they turned to spiritual practice because they wanted to share the secrets of their material success and psychological balance. No, even if, as Siddhartha and Jesus did, they seek after solutions for others, most seekers after inner truth do so because they find the world to be unsatisfactory. So most spiritual paths start by attacking that which is considered to be most wrong.

In the case of Buddhism, that process beings with deprogramming. The seeker turns inwards and attempts to break the association between her experience of the present moment and its interpretation by the mind. The goal is to understand the operation of the mind, and to correct its programming so that we can construct more successfully our lives.

As Ethan Nichtern describes this process in “The Road Home”, the currency of the successful life is bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is that ephemeral awareness that human nature is constructed to empower our well-being. All the tools are available to us, if we only apply ourselves to learning the craft of living well.

Nichtern does not expose the contradiction of that process: in order to live well, we must murder our dissatisfied self. Our resolve is fortified by applying the law of cause-and-effect to the history of our lives. When we recognize the connection between our misunderstanding and our dissatisfaction, it becomes clear that we should modify our understanding. While the impact of that change is healing of our relationship with the world, that takes time to manifest. Immediately, the change is in fact a form of self-murder.

I experienced this a number of times in my first year in college. As I expanded my awareness of the world of the intellect, I had dreams of my old self dissolving into this greater realm. That old self wasn’t a bad self, and it inhabited a world that I was comfortable navigating. I knew that I couldn’t go back, and so with growth came mourning for the self that had died.

When she has severed the sense of self from the process of forming judgments about the world, the Buddhist seeker is prepared for a journey into emptiness. Nichtern cautions clearly that this is not to surrender a search for meaning. Rather, it is to recognize that the self – our personal experience – is not the entire measure of meaning.

Nichtern illustrates the problem with a parable of the irritating mother-in-law. Rising from the mat, the meditator considers with satisfaction the clarity of mind that he has attained. Then the phone rings, and mother-in-law demands an audience. Equanimity is replaced with dread and anger.

The wisdom of all great spiritual teachings is that it doesn’t help to project our ill-feeling back on the trigger. That simply reinforces the pattern – obviously they find us irritating as well. Instead, we have to learn to project equanimity into our relationships, both beneficial and hostile. When the latter overwhelm us, we should seek separation.

As Nichtern documents, the Buddhist concept of emptiness has a complex lineage. I also find it to be subtle, almost to opacity. He eventually resorts to a metaphor: the ego is like a cocoon, protected in the shell of hardened ideas, but seeking from deep within to transform into a liberated soul. To become empty is to break out of our cocoon. Our experience becomes “empty” because we are no longer bound by the constraints of the cocoon. To be “empty” is to be free.

But free for what? Nichtern asserts that the Buddhist practitioner, recognizing the interdependence between her well-being and the well-being of others, is motivated to seek after healing for the world as a whole. This is a freedom to, rather than the ideal of freedom from which is so popular in America and expressed to magnificently by W.C. Fields with the comedic line, “Go away kid. You’re botherin’ me.”

Put in this context, I find it valuable to make the leap to a more accessible characterization of the dysfunction addressed by Buddhist practice: quite simply, it is selfishness. When embarking in her practice, the acolyte must learn to surrender the protective cocoon that defines her hostile experience. For her own good, that self must be relinquished, allowing her to emerge into constructive engagement with the world. That engagement necessarily involves relationships, and Buddhism offers that wisdom that attaining healthy relationships requires that we not impose our experience on others. We must seek instead to improve our experience.

In Christian practice, selfishness is recognized as the antidyne of unconditional love. In the material world, selfishness manifests most powerfully as predation — the tendency to say “I don’t care how much effort was required to make this. I don’t care how much it will hurt to lose it. I want it, and I’m going to take it.” In the spiritual realm, selfishness desires nothing but itself, and so is arid, producing nothing of value except by coopting the virtues (interesting, then, that Jesus went into the desert to confront Satan).

When the Christian surrenders to the strength of unconditional love, they conquer selfishness. That condition is characterized, not as emptiness, but as peace, arising from the same source as does Buddhist bodhichitta: the realization that reality is organized to bring us into a life that is both satisfying and rich.