Full of Presence


 Professor James Cutsinger, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, was on an airplane when he first opened a book by the Swiss philosopher, Frithjof Schuon. Here’s how it went: He says he 'read the first page, read the first page, and read the first page! He then stopped reading. Why? Because the writing was too arresting, too absorbing, to push past. The Professor couldn’t read on as he sensed that this depth of writing required and deserved more time and attention than he felt he could give it while in an airplane cabin. (Godspeed Interview) 

 Indeed, Schuon’s writing in my experience is of a nature such that it has to be read slowly and savored, to be read perhaps in the quiet of one’s study, a library, park, or sacred setting. Writing this profound will best yield its fruit in the right conditions and with reverential attentiveness.

 Now it isn't that Schuon's writing is dense and convoluted. On the contrary, it’s so penetratingly clear that it pulls the mind in while stirring the soul into life. The writing has an immense power that creates a contemplative state.  

 You don't speed read Frithjof Schuon. By its nature this writing cannot be quickly digested. It wasn't meant to be guzzled.

 Far from being like a dry textbook of some kind, Schuon’s writing is more like a finely composed piece of music that captivates so thoroughly that you drop everything to listen to it. Your days of multi-tasking are over if you decide to spend some time with Frithjof Schuon. 

 Cutsinger says that there was a quality to Schuon's writing that distinguished it from any other twentieth century writings he'd come across. Its effect was to propel him to that 'heart' within, which when activated can alter the course of one's life. Which is exactly what happened to Cutsinger, for the next thing he knew he was in contact with Schuon personally and travelling to visit the sage annually for a ten year period until Schuon’s death in 1998. 

 Of particular interest to me was when Professor Cutsinger described Frithjof Schuon as someone "full of presence." Schuon was no academic for whom the study of religion and philosophy was some kind of intellectual enterprise. No. For him study itself was a spiritual discipline and practice. The whole point of study was to be transformed - to become over time, as I am saying, someone “full of presence.”  

 Typically, our attention may be given to matters which, by their nature are not especially transforming or 'presence creating.' As we chase after and become fixated on various 'lesser things' we thereby become over time 'full of many things’ but perhaps not "full of presence." We therefore stand at a distance from any real possibility of holiness or sanctity, a possible state of fullness. We remain alienated from that condition of refinement that would give our lives a sense of meaning and joy and a spillover effect of inspiration upon those around us.

 Thus it is no mystery why more more of us aren’t showing up in the world "full of presence.” Our less than noble pursuits are serving to reinforce a perpetual identity crisis. Neglecting to be carefully discerning about how best to use our time we may be too readily positioning ourselves to participate in various mazes of noise and distraction where any sense of identity is swallowed up. Our way in the world may be a well rehearsed vanishing act from our higher and greater possibilities. 

 As a consequence, no clear and strong sense of self emerges since no great vision is being continually placed before one’s mind and heart.   

 It is sometimes said, for example, about persons who lack vision and whose presence therefore communicates an absence of fullness that, well, ’there’s a kind of a fog or haze around her. She lives inside a dark cloud of negativity. When she opens her mouth there is always a whine and a complaint about something. She’s made a pact with pain. She’s become a friend of pain.'

 Thus oriented, such a one keeps knocking her essential self right out of commission. It’s a habit, a way of life, to incapacitate herself by repeated acts of self-sabotage.

 Instead of emerging over time as a force with which to reckon because of an ongoing quest for higher things, she remains a torn, fragmented entity.

 I think it just goes to figure that if the primary or essential self has vacated the premises what remains may be but a bundle of stimulated behaviour. No vital, full, being appears but only one's various responses to this or that stimulus. 

 In such a run down condition one may appear as but 'a motivation, an aversion, a habit’ - as nothing more substantial than that. (Owen Barfield, The Disappearing Trick, The Golden Blade, pp. 53-66) The constricted humanoid under observation is moving and acting in this way or that, but what, if anything, is behind and beneath all of the reactions and restlessness? Is anybody home? Or is it that the essential self been smothered and covered over by avalanches of distorting sensory data? 

 Robotically, as if programmed, not a few adrift beings have nothing better to do with themselves than to wait in line with a mob for a new gadget from Walmart, K-Mart or Target. (I’m writing soon after Black Friday) As Peggy Noonan described the sad event: "Black Friday - that creepy sales bacchanal in which the lost, the lonely, the stupid and the compulsive lined up before midnight Friday to crash through the doors, trampling children and frightening clerks along the way.” (Peggy Noonan, Next Year Stay Home, America, WSJ) 

 Surely someone with a first-rate sense of self would not be found anywhere near such a mad scene. Instead, in a galaxy far, far away she is attempting to live a higher, nobler life. Someone whose interest is in becoming a ‘person in full' will resist, in every way she can, anything that might reduce or diminish her sense of self.

 This includes as well offering up resistance against any views of human nature that batter down one’s imaginative capacities. James Hillman in his book Re-Visioning Psychology writes of imagination smashing literalistic modes of mind on display in the areas of reason, science and belief.

 Now, we may associate a narrow mindset with some forms of religion but a literalist mindset is not the exclusive property of religious wackadoos. When science falls into scientism or reason falls to merely arguing and mouthing off, the same kind of restricting narrowness is in control and on display. (James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology p.4)

 Hillman gives the example of a particular imagination smasher in the form of a man named, Martin Mersenne, who lived from 1588 to 1648. Martin is a familiar character for me. He’s appeared in several nightmares. 

 Well, what was Mersenne about? This fellow's preference, says Hillman, was for "contemporary empirical experience rather than for the opinions of the ancients.” He thus, for example as a 'facts guy,' reduced metaphorical statements to their literal level and was inclined therefore to ask such burning questions as 'Just how high was Jacob’s ladder?' 

 According to Martin, says Hillman, any idea of an inner life or soul, that is, of the existence of some kind of inner animating principle or spark within, was to be burnt out of your sense of being in the name of God and of proper religion. Hillman calls Mersenne a personification of that in each of us who "upholds reason at the cost of the imagination."

 "It is," Hillman states, "Mersenne’s voice we hear when we ask for the facts, and when we reduce the images and metaphors of the psyche to dogmas on the one hand or scientific measurements on the other." This narrowness leaves no room for the psyche and its possible development. You’ve got a dream, do you? Don’t tell it to Martin! He’s sure to shoot it down.

 Now in this same vein, you may have heard that Charles Darwin, without coming under Martin Mersenne’s direct influence, nevertheless, made it his long term practice to bury that imaginative part of himself that Martin was so concerned to stomp out of existence.

 Confesses Darwin: "Up to the age of thirty, I read poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, which gave me great pleasure. Even as a schoolboy, I took intense delight in Shakespeare.” These writings, along with a focus on pictures and music, had given Darwin a "very great delight." 

 But that was then. After years of failing to exercise the muscles of his imagination Darwin lamented that he could "no longer endure to read a line of poetry. I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have lost any taste for pictures or music." 

 Darwin’s blunted mind had become "a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts." 

 After the unburdening, Darwin states: "If I had to live my life again I would make it a rule to read some poetry or listen to some music at least once every week." To be thus engaged, felt Drawin, "the parts of my brain atophied could thus have been kept alive."  

 Darwin’s dirge is about the loss of the capacity to imagine and to feel. He described his condition as "a loss of happiness," a loss "that may possibly be injurious to the intellectual and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." Indeed!

 Darwin’s neglect of the inner life is a warning to those of us are forever focusing externally and rarely if ever, internally. 

 Now, a contrary figure to the imagination smasher, Martin Mersenne, is Marcilia Ficino (1433 to 1499) who gave his attention to the life of spirit. He lived in the culture of a Western Christianity which at its Church Council of 869 had removed the word ‘spirit’ from the definition of the human being's constitution.

 This was a view of human nature that the Eastern Christians refused to accept. They maintained in contrast, says Barfield, "a Christianity of the spirit as well as of soul and body.” Which meant that they were lending their support to that tripartite view of human nature which states that the human being consists of body, soul and spirit.

 Each of these dimensions of the human being need equal attention if a possible fullness of being and of presence is going to emerge.

 Ficino’s role in contrast to Martin Mersenne’s approach was to bring to Renaissance Italy, Plato’s 'cosmology of spirit.' "Here," says Barfield "was the spirit itself knocking at the door of the West for readmittance."

 Well, Ficino was the leading light of the Florentine Academy or Platonic Academy, as it's been called. Ficino translated into Latin the whole of Plato’s dialogues. He is the author of the eighteen books that make up The Platonic Theology.

 Ficino’s perspective is lofty: "Therefore seek yourself beyond the world." Translation: 'Enter the place of Transfiguration’ words which happen to be inscribed at the entrance of the Orthodox sanctuary I attend. The message is to 'get beyond yourself. Enter higher dimensions. Get elevated. Learn to take off. Learn to fly!'

 "To come to yourself, says Ficino "you must fly beyond the world and look back on it. For you are beyond the world while you yourself contemplate it.”  

 "But you believe yourself to be in the abyss of this world simply because you do not discern yourself flying above the heavens, but see your shadow, the body, in the abyss.” That is, without an ennobling vision one languishes in some dark cave. 

 "It is," as Ficino explains, "as if a boy leaning over a well were to imagine himself at the bottom although it is only his shadow he sees reflected there, until he turns his gaze back to himself. Or it is as if a bird flying in the air and watching its shadow were to believe it flew on the earth.” (Owen Barfield, Ficino and the Florentine Academy)

 We are made for the higher development of spirit. We are made for 'experiences which grasp eternity.' We were made to relate to the Absolute. 

 As easy as it may be to disappear from the world as any kind of vital and full presence, we are capable of a roaring come back! 

 There is so much more to us than our external behaviour, a more, a vital being,   that can be distinguished, cultivated and realized.

  We exist as immense possibilities, candidates for transfiguration. 

   We have the potential to be a rich and full presence in the world. It all depends on the direction of our attention. 


Tibi Christe Splendor, Monks of Fontgombault