inscendence and deconstruction

(cyprian, for Ash Wednesday)

I keep going back to this brilliant essay by Bill Plotkin that I read some years ago about Thomas Berry and Berry’s notion of what he calls inscendence—‘inscendence’ as opposed to ‘transcendence.’ Whereas transcendence is our drive away from the world, away from creation, away from our bodies, inscendence is the movement within, the inward movement that is needed to complement and sometimes correct our transcendence. The idea is that there are times in our life when, as individuals, we have to “descend to our instinctive resources in order to reinvent ourselves.” (The bigger issue the Berry and Plotkin are both addressing of course is that “there are times when our species, collectively, must do so” also, and they think that this is such an era—but that’s another topic.)[1] I think this is a good description of what has to happen every now and then in the spiritual journey––we have to reinvent ourselves by going down; and I think this is a good description of what we are being asked to do during Lent, this forty days in the desert, stripping down to basics.

This inscendence is sinkinthg back into the source of everything, like Jesus in the desert, like Jesus in the tomb, those times when we have to learn to “trust our unknowing and during which we no longer belong to the world in our old ways, ‘a stranger’ again,” re-rooted, like trees.[2] There in the presence of the source of everything, we hope to be remade, reinvented. Berry noted the similarity of this movement to the shamanic initiation, when before one becomes a priest there is a certain ritual dismembering that has to happen, one must be somehow ripped apart in order to become the vessel of divinity. In the shamanic initiation a person with the calling turns away from the world and toward the unconscious, in solitude, a period of introversion.

The physicality of all this in Berry’s writing is important, and not just a metaphor; it’s a firm belief that encoded in our DNA is the soul’s code, the law written on our hearts, if you will, and the spiritual power that has been the thrust behind our evolution in consciousness and otherwise all along. Our genetic coding, that is, as opposed to our cultural coding: even our cultural coding has to get stripped away too, maybe especially. Here there is no slave or free, no Jew or Greek, no woman or man. So if we are “reinvented,” it is to make us what we have been or have been meant to be all along that perhaps got covered over by our cultural coding.

That line that Plotkin writes about trusting “our unknowing and during which we no longer belong to the world in our old ways, ‘a stranger’ again” reminded me of William Johnston’s writings about The Mysticism of the Cloud of Unknowing. This is the beauty of the practice of contemplative prayer––that we do sink into our own bodiliness to discover that which is deeper than and the source of material reality, the ground of our being and the ground of all consciousness. I love this paragraph of William Johnston:

…in the purified tranquility of darkness, … the soul goes down, down to the very center of its own being, nakedly to encounter God who secretly dwells in silent love at the sovereign point of the spirit.[3]

This is also my eccentric take on the theme that comes up in The Life of the Five Brothers in our Camaldolese tradition, when Bruno Boniface describes the third good as being for those who cupientibus dissolvi et esse cum Christo–those who wish to ‘dissolvi’ and be with Christ. Fr. Thomas (who is a brilliant linguist and translator) and I spoke about this at length. The Latin in the text of The Five Brothers doesn’t say “depart” as it would be in Saint Paul’s original quote in the Letter to the Philippians (1:23), but “dissolve”; the Italians render it sciogliersi–to break apart, to melt. I like the poetry of that: Lent is a time when we let what we think of as our real self dissolve, break apart, in order to find our real self hidden with Christ in God. I like to point out that this is also similar to Saint Romuald’s advice to the hermit in his Brief Rule which we usually translate as “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting…”––a piece of advice that could sum up the whole of the spirituality of the cell! But the Latin verb used there is destrue, which as Fr. Thomas says could be a “false friend” if we were tempted to translate it as “destroy yourself,” as our Peter Damian (Belisle) did. But Thomas and I agreed on a rather un-poetic translation: “deconstruct yourself.” What I always find interesting about this is that the advice given to the missionary and the advice given to the hermit are pretty much the same: de-construct yourself and sit waiting; dissolve and be totally available. I think this is a good description of what we are asked to do during Lent. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return!”

As we begin this Lenten journey, let’s take the path of inscendence and descend to our instinctive resources in order to reinvent ourselves––or be re-invented!––re-rooted, like trees––“Repent and believe the Good News!” And let’s trust the mercy of God to slowly dissolve us, break us apart, melt us down ‘til we find our real self, hidden with Christ in God. If we have died with the Lord, we shall live with the Lord.

A poem of Kabir:

Dissolver of sugar, dissolve me, if this is the time.

Do it gently with a touch of a hand or a look.

Every morning I wait at dawn.

That’s when it’s happened before.

Or do it suddenly like an execution.

How else can I get ready for death?

[1] Thomas Berry Dreamer of the Earth, ed. Ervin Laszlo and Allan Combs, 42-69.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] William Johnston, The Mysticism of the Cloud, 186.

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