Monday, July 8, 2013

"The practice of self-discovery"

Here's another very interesting citation from Wonderfully Created, Wonderfully Restored:
 “Our only available starting point for the practice of self-discovery is our wants and desires as we actually experience them. Therefore, Thomas [Aquinas] says, we ought to pray for what we think we want regardless. For prayer is in a certain manner a hermeneutic of the human will, so that by way of placing our desires as we experience them before God we are asking also that those desires be unfolded, explicated, thereby to release their real significance, the real want that is wrapped up in, implicated in all their opacity in their form as experienced. Therefore, says Thomas, we ought to pray, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, in response to our animal desire (secundum sensualitatem). For when we pray as Jesus did then, out of animal need and desire—for Jesus was scared of death, as naturally any animal is—we are placing that animal need and desire within the interpretative power of the divine will itself, wherein alone we will discover our own real will.”

- Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait

It's an interesting approach - one that does, in fact, weave self-examination and prayer tightly together as joint practice.  That's a good thing, from my point of view - and from A.A.'s point of view, too.  Here's what Step 11 has to say about this:
There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation, and prayer. Taken separately, these practices can bring much relief and benefit. But when they are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakable foundation for life. Now and then we may be granted a glimpse of that ultimate reality which is God's kingdom. And we will be comforted and assured that our own destiny in that realm will be secure for so long as we try, however falteringly, to find and do the will of our own Creator.

I don't agree, though, that this is "our only available starting point"!   Another very effective starting point is the one A.A. uses:  confession - and, in fact, something even more striking:  public confession.  That's what A.A. meetings are all about; a recovering alcoholic stands in front of the assembled group and tells his or her own story of living:   addiction, decline, fall, recovery.   The story includes both  facts and, importantly, feelings; these stories are sometimes called "qualifications" - a word which comes from a long time ago, I suspect, and which means to suggest that the person telling their story actually qualifies to speak about alcoholism first-hand!

The reason for doing this is twofold, as far as I can see:  first, it reminds the person speaking about the facts of the case.  It helps us keep in mind "What we were like, what happened, and what we are like now."   This is a terrific help in staying sober, a day at a time; it reminds us that no matter how hard life may seem, it is, simply, infinitely better than it used to be.  It's straightforwardly a statement of facts - in particular facts about the past that have become impossible to deny, much as we might wish to (continue to) deny them.

The second reason is the social reason, and it rests on the fact that the story of addiction is always the same:  "the progressive deterioration of the human personality."   This means that a story told this way - openly and without shame or fear (and often with great humor) - can help people new to the program identify with what's being said.  This helps cut through the denial that's a central feature of alcoholism and addiction; alcoholics make an art form of refusing to acknowledge the facts of our own lives.  Everything gets shoveled under mounds of self-justification and/or baldfaced denial of reality, in order to avoid having to deal with the out-of-control mess we've actually made of our lives. 

(This is also what the "Personal Stories" section in the book Alcoholics Anonymous is about; the book was created expressly - before the internet! - so that it could reach alcoholics with the message and help with the process of identification.)

Now, I may be wrong.  Perhaps alcoholics are uniquely gifted in our abilities and talents in the areas of self-justification and self-deception.   Perhaps we are singularly dishonest with ourselves and others; it's very true that we're experts in this area.  But unique?  I don't think so, simply on the basis of observation.  I think most people are completely capable of pulling the wool over their own eyes any time they especially need to.  (Rowan Williams refers to this as the colosaal degree of human self-delusion.)

In other words:  in (I suspect) a rather large number of cases self-justification and self-preservation will do everything possible to cover over and try to disguise "our wants and desires as we actually experience them"!

There is something else, too:  it's hard doing this by yourself.  It's hard to admit to certain feelings (and failings); it's hard to recognize motives your ego doesn't want to recognize; it's hard to understand your own feelings sometimes.  It's just plain damn hard - and often frightening - to try to face all this by yourself; we need the help of others who've been through it themselves.  In other words:  we need identification coming back at us, too - and we need to be able to laugh with somebody else about the absurdity that is human life on earth, and about our own absurdity.

This, I think, is another reason - though hardly explored at all - that faith is a social phenomenon.   We really can't do these things alone; we really do "have to bring somebody else into it":
Though we may at first be startled to realize that God knows all about us, we are apt to get used to that quite quickly. Somehow, being alone with God doesn't seem as embarrassing as facing up to another person. Until we actually sit down and talk aloud about what we have so long hidden, our willingness to clean house is still largely theoretical. When we are honest with another person, it confirms that we have been honest with ourselves and with God.

The second difficulty is this: what comes to us alone may be garbled by our own rationalization and wishful thinking. The benefit of talking to another person is that we can get his direct comment and counsel on our situation, and there can be no doubt in our minds what that advice is. Going it alone in spiritual matters is dangerous. How many times have we heard well-intentioned people claim the guidance of God when it was all too plain that they were sorely mistaken. Lacking both practice and humility, they had deluded themselves and were able to justify the most arrant nonsense on the ground that this was what God had told them. It is worth noting that people of very high spiritual development almost always insist on checking with friends or spiritual advisers the guidance they feel they have received from God. Surely, then, a novice ought not lay himself open to the chance of making foolish, perhaps tragic, blunders in this fashion. While the comment or advice of others may be by no means infallible, it is likely to be far more specific than any direct guidance we may receive while we are still so inexperienced in establishing contact with a Power greater than ourselves.

Perhaps what's needed is some process of Christian qualification.  We do have plenty of "conversion" stories; there are many such stories in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles.  We also hear them in the lives of the saints:  St. Monica, St. Augustine, St. Martin of Tours, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, etc.   (And here is another reason to ask questions about HWHM; some of the people chosen simply cannot qualify. That is, they don't permit us to identify in any way that helps us in our spiritual formation.)  But there isn't much in detail in many of these - or is it that it's difficult to understand or identify with the facts of living in long-ago eras?   In any case, there's not much discussion of the process, either.  And of course, this leaves out people who weren't adult converts, but whose faith is no less deep.

I think really we need to talk about what good literature talks about:  the human condition itself, and the human experience of living.  Perhaps righteousness talk ought to be put to one side; it doesn't seem to help much.  I think maybe using a list like the "Seven Deadly Sins" was a better system; it's a way to name  character defects precisely and to be consistent about it.   Things like this also take into account the human experience in living; the Seven Deadly Sins aren't theoretical, after all - and why throw out wisdom and experience of this sort?

Think, too, about Greek tragedies - and about the notion of the "fatal flaw."  That's something that can bring a person to ruin - and isn't that exactly what we're concerned with here?   If we really believe - and I do - that Christ redeems us, then we need to talk about "before and after":  our own defects - and the redemption of those defects, and what that entails.  That means getting specific - and learning from other peoples' experiences.  We need to talk about How It Works, just as A.A. does. 

And we maybe need to talk more publicly about what sorts of character defects our faith actually addresses in ourselves.  The church honestly hasn't been very good at this, always seeming to prefer the "you" form (AKA "scolding") to the "I" form ("reportage," that is).....

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