Thursday, February 14, 2008

Orthodoxy & Bridal Mysticism, Part 2 of 3, Method

Gerald May fairly well describes the method of bridal mysticism, which aims, by prayer and contemplation, to detach the person from absolutely everything except God Himself. The idea is that once these attachments are broken or transcended, there will be more room for your attachment to God to flower. You seek to become detached even from your friends, family, religious images, “consolations” in prayer, and especially from your images of God and your own self-image, built upon such ephemeral and mortal components as gender, race, nationality, age, and so forth. Destroy your demands, your cravings, and your addictions so that the new may be built upon the rubble.

The Orthodox method is more or less the reverse. One concentrates upon loving Christ and participating in His life and love, letting Him live in our flesh and blood. And the more we succeed in doing this, the more He displaces whatever in us does not belong there, and heals all that is disordered, and reveals Himself to us.

The difference in method is vastly important, mainly because the bridal method simply doesn’t work! See Fr. Stephen’s excellent post on why it doesn’t.

I used to think it did. I fancied that I had transcended all attachments and was now free. No personal disaster distressed me; no good fortune elated me, and that was how it was supposed to be, I was taught. And if your purpose is, as the Buddha’s was, to avoid suffering, it did work. But the price you pay for that is to forfeit all feeling. As my teacher once told me, “If there were some kind of surgery that would remove emotions, I’d have it!” As there is no such surgery, we accomplished the same thing another way: by “contemplation”, but it is really self-hypnosis. You end up a zombie. But not because you have really transcended anything! You have only repressed it. And you have lost yourself in the meanwhile, not in the good sense, but in the sense of being numb to everything. Nothing attracts, nothing delights -- except "prayer", which means contemplating your own, divine soul. You become an empty shell. Demetrios (my husband) listened for years afterward to my tearful descriptions of this, fascinated from a psychiatric point of view. Finally, one day, he said, “Ah, I understand now! In psychiatry, we call that ‘depersonalization’. But this is the first time I ever knew people did it to themselves intentionally!”

Depersonalization in psychiatry is that defense mechanism by which a tragedy temporarily seems unreal, that keeps us from crying until perhaps after the funeral. On September 11, I couldn’t cry until late that night. Bridal mysticism induces that as a permanent state: all this that is happening is unreal. This isn’t the real me it’s happening to. The real me is beyond all this, invulnerable and impervious to all this. The real me is divine.

If you’re lucky or blessed enough to be delivered from this dark nothingness, the first two passions out of the deep freeze are almost always lust and rage, both coming at you with a vengeance. And if you’ve been a zombie for quite some time, passions will have become unfamiliar to you and you will have forgotten how to deal with them, so you can get into heaps of trouble.

We need to concentrate on Christ, gearing all our ascetical endeavors, under the guidance of our spiritual father, toward growth in Him, and letting Him do such work in us as He will, as He knows is best for us, at His pace, which will be the pace He knows is best for us. Then we are never empty; we are filled with Him to capacity, and our poor, small capacity will keep expanding. We are never zombies.

And we never lose our joy! After all, Christ wants our joy to be “full”. (John 16:24) And St. John said, “And these things write we to you, that your joy may be full.” Love itself IS joy, and if we squelch all possibility of joy in us, we’ve inadvertently squelched true love, as well. There is no such thing as joyless love! Orthodox saints, like small children, are full of joy. They are very much alive, emotionally and every other way, except to sin. Christ was full of joy, such joy that He didn’t mind being crucified for us; in fact, He couldn’t wait to be! “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:3. “Set before Him” here doesn’t mean in His future, but in His presence.) In Orthodoxy, we face our suffering, and find new meaning in it, and grow from it, and with Christ, get through it. "And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us." (Romans 5:3-5)

Another note on method: in Orthodox Christianity, the mystical life is a corporate project rather than an individual one. There is no secret garden where only you and Christ walk alone. (Yes, that's a tingly sort of feeling, isn't it? That tingle gives away its carnality! It's also gnostic, as bridal mysticism pretty much is throughout.) No, you walk in that garden in the company of all the saints who ever came before you and all who ever shall come after you, plus all the saints in the making as you are, plus all the angels. The spiritual life involves each of us indwelling each other (Ephesians 4:25) and bringing each other home. We view Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church. There is where the analogy of married love does work, there where St. Paul put it.