Marta’s Destiny (further reflections)


 All religions are not the same. For example, Christianity is uniquely a personalistic religion. Which distinguishes it from every other expression of faith.

 You may find elsewhere a personal dimension to some degree, but never to the level that you find in Christianity, where the core affirmation is the view of God as person

 The remarkable consequence of this emphasis on the personal is that "the personhood of God gives ultimate validity to the personhood of human beings.” (Peter L. Berger, Questions of Faith, p. 22)

 Such an emphasis "emphatically validates the infinite worth and dignity of the human person.” (Berger)

 Indeed, the incomparable Christian perspective is that personality is the glory of the universe.

 This regard for the personal is coming from what Berger calls "an insight into the relation between the human condition and the ultimate constitution of reality.” 

The insight is that the personal relationship between man and God is, to use Berger’s phrase, "an ontological antiphony.”  

To understand Berger’s phrase, think of the antiphonal singing of a choir. This is when a choir engages in alternate or responsive singing. 

 In an antiphonal relationship, there is a personal correspondence. There is a symmetry between God’s nature and human nature. There is a highly personal communion.

 This emphasis on the personal gives Christianity it's "crucially distinctive quality.”

 Which is that the person matters. You as you matters. 

 This is affirmed in the Eastern Orthodox communion rite where the priest addresses you by name when you receive communion. It is you as a particular you that is being recognized.   

 The Eucharist is an affirmation that the highest and deepest point of contact between man and God is a deeply personal event.

 Now it has sometimes been expressed, especially by mystics, that this emphasis upon the personal dimension is an unenlightened level of understanding that must be overcome or transcended.

 That is, the thinking is that the sense you have of yourself as a distinct somebody has to be abrogated. You’ve got to get past your illusory sense of a separate self. You have to let go of your limited identity to realize your identity with God, or That.

 You’ve got to let go of your sense of your self in order to enter that deeper reality - an impersonal dimension. You are to break past what Martin Buber called the “I/thou” relationship.  

 It is thought that access to that higher impersonal realm can only be reached if I leave behind "all vestiges of my empirical self.” (Berger)

 This was Meister Eckhart’s point when he distinguished between "God, the personal God of Biblical revelation, and the Godhead, the impersonal divinity of mystical experience.” (Berger)

 Mystics like Eckhart use the language of a merger with the Divine that, in a sense, takes you out. And thus it is often said that in the mystical experience, nothing remains of you. In other words, you as you, are no more.

 In the mystical experience, you have become God, or have realized that you are That. But you are most certainly not you. Game over.

 And yet, I’ve never thought that those who talk about a mystic fusion with the Divine ever really pull it off. You still find them knocking about - they are still flesh and blood - no matter how high they have soared.

 That is, there will be, in spite of all of the talk of being absorbed in the Divine, a concern about the personal and the particular. You cannot get away from it. 

 For example, in the tradition that I know best, that of Siddha Yoga, the talk is almost constant about merging with the Divine as the highest ideal. And yet when you visit a Siddha Yoga ashram, you will clearly see that the highest emphasis of the place is upon the uniqueness, the particularity, of the Meditation Master. 

 You can barely walk a few steps without seeing the Guru's picture. And you will hear everyone exclaim that there’s nobody like her!

 She’s that distinct.

 Another case in point is that I once stayed in a home in Seattle where the picture of the Siddha Yoga Guru was almost everywhere. Pictures of her were scotchtaped onto the bedside table. On the lamp. And on all four walls. 

 Pretty well everywhere you looked, there she was. 

 It was, how can I say this kindly and with respect? - a little much… (Though pictures of Jesus and the sheep everywhere would have been just as bad.) 

 And so therefore the idea of what it means for man and God to become one has to be qualified. Which prompts me to say that in a high quality relationship that there is union, yes, but separation is maintained. (and should be!)

 For when one person is absorbed into another - her identity lost - you know you’ve got trouble, or at least something very immature.

 When in contrast there is a strong and vital union, personality isn’t obliterated. It is enhanced. The union enables each to become more and more particular. Each becomes stronger, too.

 Otherwise you’ve got something gooey going on. And maybe should start over.

 Except that this time, before you throw yourself at Betty Sue, you need first to find a life. For if Betty Sue is to become somebody, she will need to be connected with someone who is already somebody. And vice versa.

 Peter Berger’s question has always been mine about the nature of ultimate reality. He asks: "I want to know whether this reality is in any way capable of interacting with me in a way that does not negate my own personhood.” 

 Peter’s question implies a strong yes to the experience of union with the Divine, but a strong no to the negation of personality.

 For Berger, certain experiences have served to clarify his thinking on the subject of the meaning of union with God. He tells the story: "On my first trip to India I was in Calcutta, on my way to visit a religious scholar, when I encountered a Hindu funeral procession.

 "It is a shocking sight for a modern Westerner, since there is no coffin - the corpse, in this instance an old man, lies exposed on a wooden plank." 

 "There was a rather small number of mourners in the procession, and some of them were chanting.”

 They were chanting from the Bhagavad Gita - the Song of the Lord - where it reads: “Even as a person casts off worn-out clothes and puts on others that are new, so the embodied Self casts off worn-out bodies and enters into others that are new." 

 "Weapons cut It not; fire burns It not; water wets It not; the wind does not wither It. This Self cannot be cut, nor burnt, nor wetted, nor withered." 

 "Eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, immovable, the Self is the same for ever."

 "This Self is said to be unmanifest, incomprehensible, and unchangeable.” 

 "Therefore, knowing It to be so, you should not grieve. (Swami Nikhilananda, The Bhagavad Gita, p. 20)

 Which is supposed to be a source of consolation to any mourner. 

 But of no comfort to Peter Berger whose response was: "If I had been one of the mourners in the funeral procession, I would not have been consoled.” 

 Why no consolation?

 Berger worked out for himself that he could only believe in a religion that upheld three essentials - the infinite value of this person, this body, and this world. 

 Since the Gita does not emphasize “the unique value of these empirical realities” Berger felt himself compelled to say no to the Gita.

 And yet adds the point that, to say no does not mean that "the experience underlying the worldview of the Gita is simply an illusion.” 

 No. The Hindus have a point, as do the mystics of the Christian religion. Which is that the mystic experience in which "the self loses itself in an ocean of universal being is a real experience.” And then adds that “it would be presumptious and implausible to propose that this experience is nothing but several millenia’s worth of illusion.” 

 Indeed, Berger celebrates the “liberating quality” of the mystic experience: “To give up the tensions and contractions of the self is a great emotional relief!” 

 And thus the mystic experience is real, but has to be interpreted as an experience of both union and separation simultaneously.

 I know from my own experiences of deep meditation that I can sometimes feel that I have entirely lost a sense of self. Yet I emerge (so far anyway) from the stillness with an enhanced sense of my own personhood. I’m still Al.

 Which takes me back to a Sunday almost four years ago when a baby girl named Marta was placed in my arms by her mother. 

 My new job as Marta’s godfather was to present her to the priest for Holy Communion.

 The event that day happened swiftly and smoothly. Which was a relief. For Marta had been giving the impression that she was not going to cooperate.

 And I, who knew how to handle boys, since I had raised three sons, had been feeling anxious about how it would go with a little girl.

 Writing a few years ago, I said something to the effect that there’s never been another creation like Marta, and never will be. She is a special child of God - unique and particular.

 I wrote about Marta's shining particularity and expressed the thought that surely the God who created Marta is invested in preserving her.

 Which is indeed the Christian promise and the point of my article.

 The person is the glory of the universe. Therefore, Marta is the glory of the universe. 

 I made the affirmation then and make it again now that Marta has an eternal destiny as a distinctive being.

 In Christian terms, Marta’s destiny is to be transfigured and glorified. Which is why her parents bring her every Sunday to a church sanctuary where the sign at its entrance reads: 'Enter the place of Transfiguration.’

 The sign does not say 'Enter the place of Obliteration.’ People can choose to obliterate themselves elsewhere.  

 Every Sunday I have the privilege of presenting Marta to the priest for Holy Communion.

 That action, perhaps more than anything else, has enabled me to affirm the uniqueness of the Christian faith. 

 That action, like no other, has helped me to sort out and clarify what I most deeply believe.