by Karen Armstrong,
© 2001 by Karen Armstrong
Published by Penguin Books 205 pp.

an insightful biography

book cover

Karen Armstrong, the author of the best-sellers A History of God, The Battle for God, and Islam: A Short History, is known for her reputation as a lucid and insightful historian of Western religions, with a particular expertise on Islam. Leaving the interplay of monotheistic history might seem like a departure for her, but it really isn’t. Even in A History of God, Armstrong referred often to happenings in the Buddhist world to give an even wider perspective to Western religious history. Apparently, she has an inside connection; she dedicates this book to Lindsey Armstrong, her Buddhist sister.

There are many excellent biographies of the Buddha available, especially coming from a faith perspective, such as Thich Nhat Hahn’s Old Path, White Clouds. However, Armstrong predictably applies her historian’s ability to capture the sense of the time and presents Siddhatta Gotama (aka Siddhartha Gautama; Armstrong uses Pali forms consistently in this book) in the context of his time and culture. She begins with a frank assessment of the difficulty of a historian’s work in capturing Gotama’s life. Although the massive Pali canon bursts at the seams with his conversations and accounts of events in his life, they are conspicuously stylized for recitation, and they deliberately avoid revealing his personality. Furthermore, they were not committed to writing until hundreds of years after his death, so a historian must use them judiciously. Nevertheless, Armstrong dives into the accounts, separating the oldest accounts from later ones, and embellishments from history. Her style might seem somewhat repetitive to someone familiar with Buddhism, but she wants to build a clear understanding with a reader who knows nothing on the subject. Generally, her style is clear and fresh, only occasionally does her perspective get in the way, for instance, in psychologizing Mara the tempter’s appearance as Buddha’s subconscious “shadow.”

looking around the buddha

Armstrong’s greatest accomplishment here is in looking around the Buddha to give the reader a sense of the social and political situation in upper Ganges basin, the family life of a prince of a major tribe, and the interweaving threads of his family and companions throughout his life. For instance, we find that becoming a sanyasin, a renunciate monk, was not at all uncommon. Armstrong shows us that thousands of young people throughout the region were sick of the structure of their society and resolved to “go forth” as renunciates, rebelling against a world-system that seemed evil and meaningless by dedicating themselves to finding the key to total liberation from it. For them, total liberation meant never having to return to this realm where ultimately sickness and death prevail. So pervasive was the dissatisfaction with the state of things, that Armstrong says these mendicant monks were seen as “heroic pioneers” and were “honored as rebels” by society as a whole.

The account of the six years between Gotama’s “going forth” to becoming the enlightened one is particularly fascinating. We learn surprisingly specific information of the teachers he had, the philosophies they upheld, the disciplines he practiced, and why he ultimately found all of them lacking. From there, we learn of his dedication to the practice of mindfulness, the discovery of the Eightfold Path, and his enlightenment.

Much Buddhist writing is simply dreary. Unenlightened Buddhists not only lack the experience which they seek, but they may not have the environment of joyous enlightenment around them to fuel their quest with joy. Non-Buddhists who write on Buddhism routinely misinterpret vital but difficult concepts such as nirvanaanicca, and anatta, sometimes even believing them to signify a quest for annihilation! (Amazing the persistence of such ignorance.) Armstrong is the first writer I’ve come across who successfully communicates the incredible joy the Buddha radiated, which drew tens of thousands of people to his radical way of life. People saw something passionate and compelling in him! In short, this book will certainly give readers new insight into the Buddha, and might give many new insight into Buddhism itself.

The Lord of the Rings

The Mythical Journey

When thinking about the spirituality of The Lord of the Rings, it’s important to keep in mind that Tolkien explicitly stated it is not an allegory, a story with a unequivocal symbolic meaning. Rather, LOTR is a myth, a story with a wealth of symbols, more of a flashlight than a map. Here are some of my thoughts about some of its key symbols, and their significance for those on the mystical path.

Above all else, LOTR is a story about the journey. Our journey is filled with grace, light, peace, and hope—the spiritual path is easy—(except for when it’s not). The Lord of the Rings presents the path as shared struggle. It’s a trek from the blissful, peaceful land called The Shire (symbolic of our home in God) to battle the forces (mostly spiritual) which are seeking to dominate Middle Earth with their lust for power.

Here, absolute power can be gained through the One Ring. This ring has its roots in Plato’s Republic, which describes a ring that could be used to render the wearer invisible and visible at will. Boromir, a prince of Middle Earth, who repeatedly becomes seduced by the Ring’s strange temptation, shows the particular situation of leaders regarding power. The temptation is to think that with more power, more good can be accomplished. But history shows that fighting wars to exert power over an enemy seldom leads to lasting peace. No exertion of power can change the spirit. Plato and Tolkien both came to the conclusion that the Ring’s power would certainly be used for evil, corrupting even the best people despite their initial intentions, and so the wisest of the free peoples of Middle Earth refuse the Ring.

But the question remains “is there something wrong with power itself?” After all, can’t power be used for good? Certainly, but the ego wants power to change things to suit itself, catering to its fears, attachments, pride, and indifference to the spirit and the needs of the world. True spiritual power comes from humility, which is to say, by not seeking it at all. More than most tales, LOTR depicts the internal part of the struggle as well as the external—Frodo’s struggle is less against those who are trying to seize the Ring, and more against his own weakness against temptation. Our journey is a struggle to overcome our own ego, with its desire for power and control.

Another compelling symbol is the hero. It isn’t an immortal elf-lord who must destroy the Ring, but a frightened, mortal, little hobbit. And in our lives, instead of waving his hand over the earth and vanquishing sin and temptation, God entrusts us frightened, mortal, little creatures to be her hands and feet in the world, and build the Kingdom of love. And through it all, we must consistently refuse the temptation to build this Kingdom by force. The Kingdom of God is love, and comes only through Kingdom living, living by love.

Another question that comes up frequently is if there is a Christ figure in LOTR. The simple answer is no, there are several Christ figures in LOTR. Arwen prays that all of the grace she has may go to healing another. Like Christ, Gandalf and Aragorn make sacrifice themselves to help his friends, while battling the forces of darkness. And Frodo follows a call away from a pleasant life at home into danger and ever-greater suffering on behalf of the Shire and Middle-Earth. It is a deep teaching of Christianity that although there is one Lord, there are many Christs.

Great myths to continue to speak to us in changing ways even in changing circumstances. What is the Ring I’m carrying? Who are my friends in the Fellowship? Am I willing to “unmake” the Ring by surrendering my ego?

The epic

Every twenty years or so, an epic movie or series comes along that inspires a generation. I’m thinking of Gone with the Wind in the ’30s, Ben-Hur in the ’50s, the first Star Wars trilogy in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and now the Lord of the Rings at the beginning of the 21st century. It is that good. The script (by Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and director Peter Jackson) took what must be some of the most intimidating material there is, and interprets it brilliantly. Jackson avoids the mistake Chris Columbus made with the first two Harry Potter films of filming whole scenes literally, and instead reshapes the whole vast arc of the myth into a moving and exciting drama, comprehensible for a newcomer to the tale, while not compromising the sense of the richness of Middle-Earth lore.

What is most impressive is that Jackson’s Lord of the Rings not only succeeds, but in my mind surpasses Tolkien’s masterwork. Whereas Tolkien could be somewhat impersonal and meandering, Jackson makes this a compelling character-driven saga with a brilliant sense of dramatic pacing. There is less of “the Road going ever on and on,” and more of a band of very vulnerable and fallible people weighted by a terrible mission. The sense of the Ring’s sheer evil, and the irresistibility of its temptation is brought home far more powerfully than in the book. So is the tragedy of the sacrifices that the characters are called upon to make: Bilbo’s sorrow for leaving and burdening Frodo with the Ring’s evil; Gandalf, like Christ, laying down his life for his friends, and perhaps most of all, Boromir’s death in battle, which seldom leaves a dry eye in the theater.

In fact, every change that Jackson makes seems to be a change for the better—when Frodo is wounded, we know the extent of his danger, and the suspense is powerful somehow even on the third viewing. In the book, he just seemed to be vaguely ill, and only after he was completely healed, was the true danger he was in revealed offhandedly. The pacing and dramatic logic is vastly superior. In the book, seventeen years(!) elapse before Gandalf returns to tell Frodo that the Ring must leave the Shire immediately. Much more logically, the film has Gandalf rushing back after a brief, single-pointed mission to research the truth of the One Ring, a focus on immediacy and urgency that permeates the film. There is also an omniscient point-of-view now, which allows cross-cutting between the Fellowship and Saruman.

Language and dialogue are also more natural. Few lines come from the book unaltered, so middle-class hobbits and warrior men no longer sound like British professors. The Elvish language of Sindarin is used subtly and beautifully in those communities. Aragorn and Arwen make their tryst speaking in the beautiful language of the elves.

In the book, battle was usually described in one or two undramatic paragraphs. Not so here. Although there’s no gore, battle is awful and terrifying, a manifestation of the evil that has infected the world, as indeed it is in our world as well. There are no cheery Star Wars-like dogfights on the Death Star here. Warriors are brave because they have the resolve to face their fear, not because they’re nonchalant or reckless.

And there is beauty. I’d say LOTR is worth seeing at full price simply for the majestic New Zealand scenery alone—fjords, meadows, rivers, and breathtaking mountains. The warm hominess of the Shire is so pleasant that you can easily understand why hobbits are loath to leave their beautiful country. And the elegance of Rivendell and the haunting radiance of Lothlorien at night are superb, reminiscent of the artwork of Arthur Rackham in his Wagnerian Ring cycle illustrations.

The casting is perfect. Elijah Wood’s strangely huge eyes perfectly express the awful sense of burden and fear that Frodo carries. Ian McKellen brings Gandalf’s heart and wisdom to life. Billy Boyd plays Pippin as the center of the comic relief with a charming naivety. Ian Holm brings forth Bilbo as the curmudgeonly but deeply loving old man who’s pondering the meaning of his life as he nears its end. Orlando Bloom plays the elf Legolas with an constant and unselfconscious dignity and grace that befits the immortal race of Middle Earth, and Liv Tyler presents Lady Arwen with power, tenderness, love, and beauty.

The photography is awesome. Most amazing of all is that the hobbits—all played by fully grown men—never seem to be over four feet tall, whether they are sitting, walking, or standing, alone or with humans, or the even taller elves. Throughout, close-ups and long shots are used ingeniously to involve us with the characters in their quest. Effects donot overwhelm this story—they serve it, brilliantly and judiciously—the emphasis is always upon the characters.

It is reported that at the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas said, “All that I have written is but straw compared to that which I have seen.” I believe Tolkien might have felt the same way about the massive mythical world that dominated his creative life. Thanks to Peter Jackson and the thousands of others who partook in this effort, I think we can come closer to seeing what Tolkien saw.Movie stills © 2001 New Line Cinema Productions Inc.

The Coming of the Cosmic Christ

the healing of mother earth and the birth of a global renaissance

©1988 by Matthew Fox
Published by: HarperCollins, 278 pp.

tying it all together

When I encountered this book in the late 80s, I knew that God was leading me to a different kind of faith than I had encountered in my churches. I had read several other books which began pointing me into this wonderful direction of the Wild Things of God. Walking on Water, by Madeleine L’Engle, was the book that let me know that there was a more holistic, deeper way of being Christian, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy by Tom Sine showed me that it was something which involved action and justice, and Richard Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline revealed that it had been growing throughout Church history. But this one tied it all together, and gave a name to the thing which had been tugging at my soul for several years: mysticism.

When I say this book “ties it all together,” I’m making an understatement. It’s almost easier to describe what The Coming of the Cosmic Christ is not about, for Fox relates this cosmic Christian perspective to everything. Fox, a Dominican Catholic priest at the time of its writing (now Episcopalian), became uniquely prepared to write this book through his previous works. His earlier books ranged from his translations and commentaries on the wild mysticism of Meister Eckhart (Passion for Creation) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Sheer Joy) to his revelation of compassion as the central theme of Biblical Christianity (A Spirituality Named Compassion), and his treatment of the four essential paths of Christian mysticism in Original Blessing. Passion for Creation (originally titled Breakthrough) was called “the most important book on mysticism in 500 years,” by one writer, and few who have read this groundbreaking work would quickly disagree. Yet The Coming of the Cosmic Christ is the one almost certainly to be remembered as his masterpiece.

the death of compassion

Fox divides the book into five sections, beginning with a vivid image which came to him in a dream: “Your mother is dying.” Using this image, he examines how Compassion is dying as seen by all contemporary crises throughout the world: Mother Earth is dying, hope is dying, the youth are dying, and native peoples, cultures, religions, and wisdom are dying. The news is sobering. Fox pulls no punches on summarizing the world-wide extent of social decay, environmental destruction, political oppression, the devastating tolls of wars and million-dollar-a-minute military spending, religious intolerance, and increasing despair. However, he reminds us that although compassion may be dying, it is not dead! There is still hope, and it is ours to bring to the world.

the answer of authentic mysticism

In the second section he examines what mysticism is, and what it isn’t. Fox shows mysticism as something cosmological, showing the place of the person within all creation, and believes that when true cosmology, true awareness of one’s place in the Universe is absent, persons and cultures will often substitute “pseudo-mysticisms” to fill the void, such as fundamentalisms (of any religion or ideology), militarism, alcoholism, and the brain-numbing worship of popular celebrities. He further shows how Jesus embodies all the characteristics of a true mystic, and is the founder of Christian mysticism.

The third section, titled “The Quest for the Cosmic Christ,” is an inspirational survey of the mystical tradition from the Bible, through Christ and the apostles, through the Church Fathers, the medieval mystics, up to modern-day mystics. This “Cosmic Christ” is not “another Christ,” but simply the living Christ, the compassionate Word, rooted in Jesus, and living today.

The fourth section shows the suffering of Christ continuing in the suffering of the poor, the victims of war and greed, and the sufferings of Mother Earth. They too are Christ, since Christ is the One “in whom all things hold together,” and Jesus identifies himself with “the least of these” on earth.

a vision of the second coming

The fifth and final section is by far the longest. Titled “A Vision of the Second Coming: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance,” this is a manifesto of social mysticism. Fox believes that true mysticism is not, and cannot be, a private affair. It is by nature redemptive, as Christ is, and so we must become Christ, enacting the resurrection of the living Cosmic Christ in our beings and then our actions, to transform society and bring healing to all its suffering, broken parts through love, imagination, peacemaking, and environmental, moral, and social justice. Fox shows, with conviction and enthusiasm, how restoring the mystical mind of compassion (the Christian work of love) can bring a global renaissance to the entire world, including every aspect of society, from religion to sexuality, from peace-making and disarmament to mentoring the young. Remaking the world will require unparalleled creativity. Fox says: “The living cosmology ushered in by the Cosmic Christ will do more than redeem creativity itself; it will propose creativity as a moral virtue—indeed as the most important moral virtue of the upcoming civilization“. Fox urges us to begin a great work, the same great work that Jesus challenged us to 2000 years ago: to live and build the divine Kingdom.

This book is almost certainly the most comprehensive on what a modern mystical Christian worldview can be, and one of the most comprehensive books I’ve seen on anything, period. There are plenty of books on the trends of evil in this world system, plenty of calls for peacemaking, plenty of appeals for spiritual renewal, but Cosmic Christ addresses all these issues and more, with information, insight, and inspiration.

That said, this really isn’t an introduction to the mystical path. For one thing, it’s not an introductory book, but a scholarly examination (with hundreds of footnotes) of the need for a radical change through the world. Secondly, Fox never discusses the personal entrance into the mystic adventure. Too often, he makes it sound like mysticism is another world-view, rather than the transformative encounter with divine Reality. He never mentions meditation or contemplation, and he is quite vague on how exactly to be changed in order to change the world. But this is a different kind of mystical writing: shouting like a prophet for us to embrace a social, global mysticism through action and love. Fox’s courage and genius in proclaiming the urgency of following Jesus’ teachings and building his Kingdom of compassion is beyond inspirational. Simply put, this book changed my life.

Centering Prayer:

Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form

by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.
©1980 by Cistercian Abbey of Spencer, Inc.
An Image Book, published by Doubleday, 254 pp.

an introduction and guide

Father Pennington builds upon the spiritual practice of The Cloud of Unknowing, and makes it not only perfectly understandable, but irresistible. He starts off from a place to which none of the other classics (at least which I’ve read) on contemplative prayer ever went, a historical overview on contemplation. He briefly recounts how strains of silent prayer, or contemplative prayer, developed and intermingled from the “Desert Fathers,” the earliest Christian monastic tradition, the lectio-meditatio-oratio-contemplatio tradition of later Western monasteries, the “Jesus Prayer” and hesychast traditions of Eastern Christianity, the Cloud of Unknowing, up to the Carmelite saints of prayer, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. He also gives an overview of how these traditions continued into modern times, and how growing awareness of Eastern methods of meditation increased interest in Christian meditation to the Christian laity everywhere. This of course, is all preliminary, but interesting.

Next is the presentation of “Centering Prayer,” what he calls a new “packaging” of contemplative prayer. It’s the approach of The Cloud of Unknowing, but distilled into three simple “rules.”

Rule One: At the beginning of the Prayer, we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith to God dwelling in our depths; and at the end of the prayer we take several minutes to come out, mentally praying the “Our Father” or some other prayer.

Rule Two: After resting for a bit in the center in faith-full love, we take a single, simple word that expresses this response and begin to let it repeat itself within.

Rule Three: Whenever in the course of the Prayer we become aware of anything else, we simply gently return to the Presence by use of the prayer word.

Pennington’s rules for centering prayer are helpful and brief. I found that I was soon doing centering prayer, rather than just thinking about doing it. Nevertheless, there are many challenges: distracting thoughts, consistency of practice, fitting centering prayer into the larger whole of one’s day-to-day living, service, and the larger whole of one’s spiritual life, for instance. The majority of the pages here are about these concerns—this is a how-to book for busy Christian laypeople, and Pennington beautifully addresses all of these items and more.

Fr. Pennington writes from the perspective of having given workshops and retreats on centering prayer for several years, with experience of helping thousands of people overcome these obstacles. Furthermore, he also brings his perspective as a religious priest, with years of ongoing training in daily deep prayer. The result is a how-to book, describing a practical method for the most elusive of all spiritual disciplines.

ancient and modern voices

Yet on my second reading of Centering Prayer, I find I prefer The Cloud for its emphasis that the true method of contemplation is essentially love, far more than it is a prayer word. There is an analytical tone to the book, which is helpful in some respects, but it seems to me now to quench the infectiously loving and passionate spirit of contemplation as exemplified by the author of The CloudThe Cloud is far more open, far more passionate, far more joyful, and at least after a decent time of becoming familiar with this “contemplative work of love,” more helpful. And as one continues on the path, Privy Counseling may well become the most treasured of all three of these works.

However, I’d urge anyone interested in Christian meditation to read both modern books like Centering Prayer or Open Mind, Open Heart, and classics such as The Cloud and Privy Counsel. Also, check out the Centering Prayer website at http://www.centeringprayer.com.