With the Ancient Desert Monks behind the Happy Mexican

March 22, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Razor Wire and Broken Fence

Razor Wire and Broken Fence behind the Happy Mexican Restaurant, 2017

 

Two fish were swimming side by side in the ocean. The first said to the second, "the water is warm and clear today." The second responded, "what water?" [1]

Attentiveness does not just happen. It must be cultivated. We can only be awakened to deeper seeing, and ultimately to deeper living, if we teach ourselves to pay attention.

The men and women who began moving to the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the third and fourth centuries to practice a contemplative desert spirituality knew this. Theirs was a world in which faithful living had become difficult. It was made difficult by the emergence of an empire which often cloaked its quest for military conquest, economic domination, and exploitation of the vulnerable in Christian symbols and rhetoric.  Beginning with Constantine in the early fourth century and extending down through the history of "Christendom" to our own time, the Prince of Peace has often been gradually transformed into a triumphalist, flag-waving Jesus who sanctifies the imperial bid for domination, exploitation, and the suppression of difference in the name of security and patriotism. In a fateful dream on the night before his greatest battle at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine saw the Chi-Rho and heard the words, "in this sign, conquer." His dream seems to be a common one.

The driving question for these desert contemplatives was simple but profound, how do we live faithfully in a world where the faith we profess has been co-opted by empire? It was a subversive, unpatriotic, unwelcome question, and it remains so in this, our own season of empire.

The desert contemplatives answered this question by withdrawing from the world to live in the desert. While they withdrew from empire, they did not abandon the struggle against it. They knew that the line between our inner and outer landscapes is porous. They withdrew from the outward world of empire so that they could focus on the ways that empire comes to occupy the inner world of the soul. These desert monks knew that the political, military, and economic engine of empire was fueled by that other, more pernicious and elusive form of empire that colonizes the heart, enslaves the imagination, and infects all the small and ordinary activities of daily life in ways that often remain invisible to us.

At the heart of their strategy of resistance, lay spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, worship, fasting, extending hospitality to vulnerable guests, engaging in mutual correction, gardening, basket weaving, and caring for the sick, exploited, and outcasts of empire. They knew that we cannot merely profess a counter-cultural spirituality; we must train for it daily by reimagining even the most mundane of daily practices, freeing them from the dynamics of violence, domination, and exclusion pursued in Jesus' name. Such practices exorcized the demons of empire that dwelt in the heart and that keep empire alive in the outer world of politics, economics, and culture. The conflict with empire was indeed a cosmic conflict with "the powers and principalities of this present age," but victory would come only by prevailing in the small skirmishes of ordinary daily life. Victory would come by changing one's diet, clothing, sleeping practices, labor, and social circles. [2]

The spiritual disciplines aimed at many things, but among the most important of them was the cultivation of prosoche, attentiveness. Attentiveness is mindful seeing, purposefully lingering before things so that they may reveal themselves on their own terms and in their fullest depth and complexity. Pursuing prosoche meant learning to see the world as it really is rather than through the distorting lens of anxiety and acquisitiveness brought to it by the false, fallen self. Practicing prosoche meant observing carefully, deliberately, and dispassionately the subtleties of things as they really are. Such attentiveness awakened a heightened sense of nuance, a new-found comfort with complexity and ambiguity, and joyful delight in the variegated beauty of ordinary, mundane things. To practice prosoche was to retrain our eyes to see the world as God would have us see it, undistorted by the possessiveness and drive for domination rooted in the false self of empire. Pursuing prosoche was an antidote to illusion, a celebration of the realness of things as they are in their naked givenness and stark facticity. To engage in prosoche was to shatter the delusion of "alternative facts" and the spin of internalized imperial narratives of fear, threat, and conquest. Cultivating prosoche meant deepening one's capacity for complexity, making room for the foreignness of things and other people. [3]

Prosoche was closely related to diakrisis, that form of wise, patient discernment that makes nuanced, measured judgments informed by carefully seen, subtle, relevant distinctions. [4] Together Prosoche and diakrisis undermined the reductionistic, binary oppositional thinking demanded by imperial propaganda and the politics of fear and exclusion. Prosoche and diakrisis were an inoculation against the self-serving oversimplifications produced and required by our anxious, imperious drive for domination and control. To recast things in more contemporary terms, attentiveness and discernment destabilize "either-or," "yes-no,"  "us-them,"  "black-white," "insider- outsider," "liberal-conservative,"  and "deserving-undeserving," for example. By so doing, they school the imagination in resistance to the reductionistic thinking demanded by empire.

Simplistic binary oppositional thinking and living have again become a mark of our age. They are fed by political memes on social media, pithy bumper stickers, "news" networks that pluck only partisan soundbytes from complex stories, political propaganda, and extremist blogs masquerading as reliable sources of news. They are also fed by the fundamentalist religion of the right, and, if we are honest, of the left as well.  Such thinking thrives on fear and anxiety, promising us a seemingly irresistible form of clarity and certitude about the dangerous world before us. Such thinking seems to bring a reassuring order to the swirling chaos of our troubled world.

But if the ancient desert contemplatives can teach us anything, it is that such simplistic thinking is driven by that old, false self within us, that self that would be its own god. And perhaps we can learn from them to cultivate prosoche and diakrisis again. We cannot, of course, simply mimic their ancient spiritual disciplines in some desperate flight of nostalgia. We will need to adapt them in ways suitable for our own time. Part of such adaptation will mean that we consider again the power of art and artistic creativity in our daily lives.

I have walked behind the Happy Mexican Restaurant in a struggling section of downtown Memphis many times. Its façade is painted in bright colors and bears kitschy images of stereotyped mariachi singers whose dark, gap-toothed faces grin without pause. But behind the Happy Mexican, smiling faces give way to a tall fence, a tangled weave of metal, broken wood, and razor wire designed to keep thieves and vandals out. Behind the fence are dumpsters filled with the rotting food scraped from last night's plates. Next to these is a large grease trap that holds the discarded, acrid oils from the kitchen fryer. It stinks behind the Happy Mexican, and it is surely an ugly place.

And yet, as I stood next to the fence for a twenty minutes studying the shapes and patterns, I was struck by the graceful curves of the razor wire designed to tear flesh. The pattern of the fractured wood lattice behind it only multiplied the strange beauty of geometry set against the sunless grey sky. Here in ugliness was beauty. But this beauty did not erase ugliness. The fence was ugly and beautiful at the same time, a soiled, secular sacrament suspended in the sky. My eye said both "yes" and "no," and the longer I looked the more richly commingled they became. Here was a moment of prosoche, that deep attentiveness to the complexity of the world that awakens diakrisis, discerning judgment at home with ambiguity, complexity, and even paradox.  The givenness of this little, smelly scene disrupted the simplistic impulse to add it quickly to the column of ugly things and rush on in search of something pretty to balance the imperial ledger.

I do not think a single encounter such as the one behind the Happy Mexican will expunge empire from the mind. But perhaps as the desert contemplatives thought, cultivating such encounters in the small, daily skirmishes of ordinary life will eventually help us do so. At any rate, that evening as I watched the news, lying presidents, spying microwave ovens, make-believe wiretaps, chest-thumping patriotism, inept propaganda, and the political memes of social media seemed just a bit farther away.

Maybe a fish was becoming aware of the water.

 

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  1. Borrowed and paraphrased from David Foster Wallace, "This is Water." Commencement Address at Kenyon College, May 21, 2005. Transcript available at  https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf 
  2. For a general introduction to the rise of ascetic, contemplative desert spirituality in late antiquity, see Derwas James Chitty's, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestian Monasticism Under the Christian Empire (St. Vladimirs Press, 1977). For a more focused treatment of the emergence and role that the desert contemplatives played in the context of empire and its complex patronage system, see Peter Brown's classic essay, "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity" (The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 61 (1971), pp. 80-101). Brown's essay is available online at https://faculty.washington.edu/brownj9/LifeoftheProphet/The%20Rise%20of%20the%20Holy%20Man%20-%20Brown.pdf
  3. Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. See especially chapter 5, "Prosoche: The Art of Attention," pp. 141-78.
  4. Christie, 148

 


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