"For while all things were in quiet silence" . . . Exploring Advent with Henry Bugbee 2

Advent Star
Readings: Mark 1:1-8

From a sermon by Meister Eckhart (1260-1327)

Dum medium silentium tenerent omnia et nox in suo cursu medium iter haberet etc. 
(“For while all things were in quiet silence and the night was in the midst of her course, etc.”)
Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15

Here in time we make holiday because the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity is now born in time, in human nature. St Augustine says this birth is always happening. But if it happens not in me what does it profit me? What matters is that it shall happen in me.

           We intend therefore to speak of this birth as taking place in us: as being consummated in the virtuous soul; for it is the perfect soul that God speaks his Word. What I shall say is true only of the perfect man, of him who has walked and is still walking the way of God; not of the natural undisciplined man who is entirely remote from and unconscious of this birth.
          There is a saying of the wise man: “When all things lay in the midst of silence then leapt there down into me from on high, from the royal throne, a secret word.”

Sermon No. 1 in Meister Ecckhart (vol. 1) Franz Pfeiffer, trans C. de. B. Evans, Watkins 1949, p. 3

After these beautiful words by Eckhart on a text from the Wisdom of Solomon I think it is worth printing a slightly longer extract of the passage as it appears in the Authorised Version. The immediate context of the passage is the plagues in Egypt. I hope this may act as an important reminder always to read around the texts your preacher — including the current one — is using. Make what you will (good and ill) of Eckhart’s decision to stop quoting Solomon’s words where he did. Eckhart might be distorting Solomon’s words, but then again, he might not . . .

For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty word leapt down from heaven, out of thy royal throne, as a fierce man of warre into the midst of a land of destruction, and it brought thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword, and standing up filled all things with death, and it touched the heaven, but it stood upon the earth. Then suddenly visions of horrible dreams troubled them sore, and terrours came upon them unlooked for. And one thrown here, another there half dead, showed the cause of his death (18:14-18).


To begin our Advent meditations last week I introduced you to Henry Bugbee’s thought that “Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now” (Inward Morning, p. 155). 

Along with this I introduced the idea of “patiency” in Bugbee’s thinking which is connected intimately with wilderness and the wild. All these themes are, of course, key in the the season of Advent, a season which focusses on patient preparation in the wilderness so as to open oneself up, in an actively receptive way, to the possibility that something new is soon to enter the world. This something new is, of course, expressed and symbolised in the Christian myth as “the Christ-child”.

I realise that the word “patiency” was, itself, not uniformly liked but, as I indicated at the time, I think it is the right word because it is trying to get at, not simply “the act of being patient” that a person may (or may not) display, but rather at certain ongoing inner disposition which continually can come to guide their way of being-in-the-world.

During the conversation immediately after the address I indicated that floating around in the background of what I had been talking about was a German word, that word was “Gelassenheit”, often translated into (philosophical) English as “releasement”. The word has a very long and important history in German religious and philosophical thought and Heidegger particularly picked up on its use by the great thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327).

So, for example, Eckhart had faith that when the soul has “left” (gelassen) all willing behind it becomes open to God, that is to say, the divine and the sacred — the “more than”. Having let go of merely creaturely things, the soul can now allow God be God. So Ekchart can write:

“Where the creature ends, there God begins to be. Now God desires nothing more of you than that you go out of yourself according to creaturely mode of being and let God be God in you” (Q,180,32-4/Bl.,127).

For John D. Caputo this indicates that for Eckhart:

“The soul with Gelassenheit has become, to use one of Eckhart’s simple but illustrative comparisons, like a good vessel; it is closed on the bottom — to creatures [or creaturely things] — and open on the top — to God (Q,227,35-228,1/Serm., 148). It has become an empty receptacle (Q.114,24-7/Cl.,122), i.e., a receiving place, for the birth of the Son.” (John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger's Thought, Fordham University Press, 1986, p.121)

With these thoughts in mind I want to say that to develop patiency, this disposition of active receptiveness, is something like to make a soul with Gelassenheit which lets the new idea, thought or insight to be born in and among us.

It is perhaps no surprise that this word has been, and still is, much used by various Anabaptist groups such as the Amish, and whether they are German or English speaking communities. Indeed on a current Amish website you can read the following:

“Gelassenheit carries many meanings—self-surrender, submission, yielding to the will of God and to others, contentment, and a calm spirit. Most important, Gelassenheit is the opposite of bold individualism that promotes self-interest at every turn.”

As a great admirer in many, many ways of the Anabaptists (after all remember that our own Polish forbears, the Socinians, were also part of this sixteenth-century radical Reformation movement) it is something of this attitude that last week I was trying to encourage in us, we who so clearly live in a “Black Friday” age increasingly obsessed with an individualism that promotes self-interest.

Now, although when he wrote the words we considered last week Bugbee didn’t know first-hand Heidegger’s work he did, at the time, know Meister Eckhart’s writings very well. Bugbee was also deeply influenced by the great Zen teacher D. T. Suzuki whom he had met and spent time with whilst Bugbee was teaching at Harvard.

(By the way, Suzuki came up towards the end of this week’s edition of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” on the subject of Zen. I thoroughly recommend listening to it.)

Now, Suzuki was closely connected with the Kyoto School and the key figures in that most certainly were influenced by both Eckhart and Heidegger. The Kyoto School is the name given to the early twentieth-century Japanese philosophical movement centred at Kyoto University that engaged deeply with western philosophy and religious ideas and which began to use them to help reformulate their own, distinctive East Asian religious and moral insights. Given that many of us here feel a great attraction to Eastern philosophy even as we remain intimately related to the liberal Christian tradition, it seems well worth briefly introducing you to a insight from the founder of this school, Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962) that is related to the things we began to explore last week.

Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962)
As the horrors of the Second World War increasingly became apparent, Hajime began to ask himself whether he had really behaved and taught as he should have. He had to admit he had not. Here is how he speaks of this:

“. . . as the tensions of World War II grew ever more fierce and with it the regulation of thinking, weak-willed as I was, I found myself unable to resist and could not but yield to some degree to the prevalent mood, which is a shame deeper than I can bear. The already blind militarism had led so many of our graduates precipitously to the battlefields; among the fallen were more than ten from philosophy, for which I feel the height of responsibility and remorse. I can only lower my head and earnestly lament my sin” (Source Wikipedia).

This recognition caused him considerable distress and he came to the conclusion that a real solution to this was not something in his power. He tells us,

“At that moment something astonishing happened. In the midst of my distress I let go and surrendered myself humbly to my own inability. I was suddenly brought to new insight! My penitent confession — metanoiesis (zange 懺悔) — unexpectedly threw me back on my own interiority and away from things external. There was no longer any question of my teaching and correcting others under the circumstances — I who could not deliver myself to do the correct thing" (quoted in Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p.11).

Metanoiesis, what on earth is that?” I hear you ask. Well, it is derived from a Greek word (μετανόησις) meaning “conversion” or “repentance”. In this season of patient preparation in the wilderness one of the things we have been encouraged to do for two millennia is to repent, turn our lives around in preparation for something new to enter the world —  something John the Baptist was encouraging in our first reading.

The Japanese word Hajime uses for repentance is zange 懺悔. To this he began to add the word “dō” 道 (path or way). Most of you will know this latter word through it’s use in the name “Judo” (柔道), the modern martial art and Olympic sport created in Japan in 1882. The name is made up of two Japanese words, “jū”, meaning “gentle” and “dō” meaning, as you have just heard, path or way -- Judo means, then, "the gentle-way". Many of you will also know the word “dō” with its Chinese pronunciation “Tao” (Dao). So Hajime offers us “zangedo”, a path or way of turning one’s self-around, repenting, of letting go, of developing patiency. It seems to me not unreasonable to say that he seems to be encouraging nothing less than the discipline of making a soul with Gelassenheit.

Writing about Hajime's moment of repentance the British philosopher Michael McGhee emphasised it was not so much that Hajime “decided that he should do one thing or the other: the point is that he no longer had to make a decision.” Indeed, as Hajime says, in this state, “It is no longer I who pursue philosophy, but rather zange (metanoiesis) that thinks through me” (ibid. p. 11).

The crucial point to grasp here is that Hajime’s new insight comes only after he had let go and his insight did not come because of his “self-power” (jiriki) but because of an “Other-power” (tariki). Again Hajime notes:

“This Other-power brings about a conversion in me that heads along a path hitherto unknown to me . . . This is what I am calling metanoetics, the philosophy of Other-power” (ibid. p. 11).

As I'm sure many of us know it is so often the case that at these crucial moments of letting go the necessary space and conditions are created for something Other, something new and saving to come over the horizons of our limited thoughts and enter into our frame of reference in a fashion that, on further reflection, enables us to make use of it — i.e. to have our ways of thinking and acting in the world irreversibly changed.

Traditionally in the West, of course, this Other-power (tariki) has been called God and, in the Christmas myth this Other-power is first seen in the tiny figure of a new-born child, Jesus, whose name is also Emmanuel, God with us. Although, personally, I am not completely averse to calling this Other-power (tariki) God, the term Other-power might usefully be employed by those of us who continue struggle with traditional, supernatural theistic concepts of God.

But notice something else too, which is that although Hajime’s new insight is not in his own self-power (jiriki) the Other-power (tariki) which comes to him, could only come in so far as he could exercise enough self-power (jiriki) truly to acknowledge this and to practise accordingly. In other words Hajime is saying, as have so many of the great spiritual teachers of humankind including John the Baptist, Jesus, Meister Eckhart, Heidegger, Bugbee, the Buddha and Suzuki, that we have to practice a discipline of letting go if we are ever to develop patiency, Gelassenheit and experience God first-hand.

This season before Christmas is, in Christian thought anyway, a very good time during which we can particularly concentrate on this matter. But the question remains, what practical thing is in our self-power that we can do to help us develop patiency or Gelassenheit and so come encounter this "Other-power"? Last week I told you my own preferred way of doing this through mindfulness meditation and also through a related practice that Bugbee called “a meditation of place” (Inward Morning p. 139). His words bear repeating from last week because they are so important:

Henry Bugbee (1915-1999)
“During my years of graduate study before the war I studied philosophy in the classroom and at a desk, but my philosophy took shape mainly on foot. It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but through walking that was essentially a meditation of the place. And the balance in which I weighed ideas I was studying was always that established in the experience of walking in the place. I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified by racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality” (The Inward Morning, p. 139).

What both Bugbee and Hajime are strongly suggesting to us is that we must find ways to use what is in our self-power to allow this mysterious, life-giving and even divine and sacred Other-power to emerge into view. The promise of all this is simple — when we let go properly, with patiency and Gelassenheit in our soul, we create the right conditions which allows a new way forward, a new idea or insight to be born in our world.

The end claim is that we are then able to understand that self-power and Other-power are not to be thought of a separate things but, in fact, intimately related and interpenetrating parts of an extraordinary, mysterious, flowing and creative whole that one may call Nature or God, God or Nature. We come to see, as Bugbee suggests:

"Is it not more accurate to say that we participate in creation than that we create? Is not creation as it touches us in what we do an interlocking of the resources with which we act, an interlocking of them with that which firms and claims them as a province assimilated to incarnation? To participate in creation is to be relieved of undue emphasis or accent placed upon ourselves" (Inward Morning, p. 222. Also quoted by Andrew Feenberg in an excellent essay entitled, "Zen Existentialism: Bugbee's Japanese Influence" in Wilderness and the Heart: Henry Bugbee's Philosophy of Place, Presence and Memory, University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 89)

So my Advent message to you today is simple — it is no more or less than that which John the Baptist, Jesus, Buddha, Meister Eckhart, Heidegger, Bugbee, Suzuki and Hajime have given in their own times and places:  Repent and develop patiency and Gellasenheit, for a better way of being in the world is always-already at hand.


NB: A very good general introduction to the Kyoto School has been written by Robert E. Carter called: The Kyoto School: An Introduction.