A Calling: Part Two

A Calling: Part Two

When chapter 6 of Abbot William’s autobiography opens, it is mid-1951, and he has joined the Trappist abbey at Spencer. He writes about the spiritual path as a whole, not merely the monastic vocation: “The spiritual life deepens and grows with perseverance, stability, and steadfast prayer. The soul finds grace in the several means held out to it in the most ordinary way of Catholic and contemplative monastic life: daily celebration of the Divine Liturgy, daily reception of the Eucharist, a life of prayer, regular chanting of the Divine Praises, the example of the holy religious that surround him, and the atmosphere created by the ensemble of all the above.” (p. 52)

Let us pause there: first, the spiritual life. There is such a thing as a spiritual life. Like any life, it has a birth, a maturing, and eventually a death. But it does not have to be a death such as the body endures. Rather, the death of the body may be the shedding of the husk, so that the spiritual seed may come to life in a form better suited to it. See John 12:24-25: “Amen, amen I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remains alone. But if it die, it brings forth much fruit. He that loves his life shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world, keeps it unto life eternal.”

The spiritual is also like the physical life in that it can only continue for so long without nourishment. It will do better when constant care is paid to it, although the nature of the attention it needs may change. Just as the body needs sleep, so too does the spiritual life need a certain rest. The art of resting spiritually to benefit, and not to lapse, is a truly arcane art.

Second, the Abbot speak of perseverance. That is, to keep going when one might easily stop. Gurdjieff’s doctrine of octaves seems to me to shed a great deal of light on this. There are certain stages in the development of any process where it goes swimmingly, even, as it were, by itself. But then in each octave or organic phase, there come two points where something from outside must enter, and a third point, where the process could reverse, but something from within is needed.

So let us take the process of learning German. I commence, and at first I acquire a good deal of information, but then there will come a point, not too far in, when something seems utterly strange to me or hard to remember (e.g. the declension of the German articles). If I cannot get past this point, I will never be able to satisfactorily advance. I must learn the early lessons well if I am to have a solid foundation. And then, when I have a good knowledge, some laziness creeps in: do I continue until I master German or is near enough good enough? I work in an environment where I am surrounded by people born in Lebanon who have started learning English. Not one of them has ever got past this point. They get so far, and then they are happy. They do not continue to improve.

At each of these two points, I must be open to something from outside the process itself, because the impetus with which I bean is not sufficient. This is in the nature of the universe. At each point I have to size up my situation objectively and ask myself if I wish to continue with whole I have commenced or not. I have to look at myself and my situation objectively. If I do wish to continue, then hard work will be needed to pass the point in question. I may need to sit down and test myself over and over again on declensions. This shows that what is needed is an assessment that other interests in my life can and should be sacrificed to this effort. Perhaps what is outside the process which enters here is a renewal of my aim.

And then there is the fifth or half-way point of the octave, where it can continue or reverse. This often presents as a simple giving up, not because of any difficulty, just because of lassitude. If I am in the habit of quitting, it is easier to do so on each occasion. If I am not, it is easier to continue. This aspect is rather more mysterious than the other two: it is notable that Gurdjieff mentions it in All and Everything, but apparently said nothing to Ouspensky, and hence it is not to be found in the pages of In Search of the Miraculous.

Then the abbot mentions “stability”. Why “stability”. It comes from the Latin verb stare meaning “to stand”. Something is “stable” if it is able to stand. I would relate this to Gurdjieff’s ae of Three. There is always an interplay of opposing forces: do this, don’t, put it up, take it down. But if I am stable, I am able to bring the third or neutralising force, which harmonises between the active and the negative impulses. Someone too optimistic is as unstable as someone who is too pessimistic. I need balance.

It is not so easy to bring stability in the conditions of my life, and it is even harder to do so in the conditions of a monastery, which is what the Abbot is speaking of. There are so many apparently good reasons to change. There are so many apparently good reasons to resist change. How to know when to allow change, and when not to? The third force is needed, and in a religious setting, this needs wisdom.

Wisdom is not so easy to acquire, it needs someone who is not only intelligent, but whose feeling also participates in his reasoning. To be precise, it needs the action of the higher emotional centre, to use Gurdjieff’s terms. It needs a feeling which can sense reality, or at the very least, can sense a lack of reality, and so “knows”, or perhaps senses, what must be avoided.

In the Church, the holy tradition is the receptacle of a great deal of wisdom. The tradition of the Church represents, to a significant degree, the inheritance of higher mind. It is not possible for ordinary people to attain to this by naked desire, by arrogating to themselves the right to judge, or by obtaining degrees, no matter how high the degree or how exalted the university.

To be continued

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *