Reflections over Morning Coffee

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Reposted from my website blog – original date: September 5, 2011

Joseph Campbell’s little google widget on my igoogle page has been there so long that I thought I had seen all the quotes it contained, but this morning I read this one:

Life is sorrowful. How do you live with that? You realize the eternal within yourself. You disengage, and yet, reengage. You—and here’s the beautiful formula—“participate with joy in the sorrows of the world.” You play the game. It hurts, but you know that you have found the place that is transcendent of injury and fulfillments. You are there, and that’s it.

A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living

He has written about this idea several times and in several places, but this particular perspective on it was new to me. Maybe because its from one of the few of his books that I don’t have in my library: a recent compilation of essays and speeches.

As I read it, especially the part that I’ve italicized, I immediately thought of a passage from Eliot’s Four Quartets that has always fascinated me, partly because I wasn’t certain if I completely understood what he meant.

There are three conditions which often look alike

Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:

Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment

From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference

Which resembles the others as death resembles life,

Being between two lives—unflowering, between

The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:

For liberation—not less of love but expanding

Of love beyond desire, and so liberation

From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country

Begins as attachment to our own field of action

And comes to find that action of little importance

Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,

History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,

The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,

To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

T. S. Eliot; “Little Gidding;” Four Quartets

I have always wondered how one might reach that position of “detachment,” and if was really as desirable as Eliot seemed to believe. I did not connect it to that Buddhist expression that Joe is so fond of, that “joyful participation in sorrow.” Eliot, a thorough Anglican Christian, uses references that are usually more from Hinduism than Buddhism when he is exploring other perspectives, and my personal experience of both of those other “isms” is limited.

Anyway, as I sat down here this morning, coffee in hand, and automatically, still half asleep opened that page on my computer (part of the morning ritual) and stared blankly at that passage from Campbell, a new variation of a familiar allusion, the first word that came into my head was “Eliot,” and my hand reached for the little thin copy of Four Quartets that stays on the bookshelf at my desk. for once, I knew immediately where to look within the book. Most often I have to browse through the whole 60 pages to find something I remember but can’t quite place where (he, too, uses the same ideas and expressions over and over).

So I reread them both a couple of times as the coffee started to do its morning thing and pull me out of that half-asleep stupor, and I thought, “How cool is that?” Two different theologies, both different from my own Judeo-Christian one, approaching a paradoxical idea from a completely different stand, using totally different metaphors to express this transcendent thing, and by putting them together, I come closer than I ever have to a sense of understanding the abstract concept that lies beneath them.

Ram Lopez (I should probably say Father Ramiro), the rector at the Episcopal church near my home, would often talk about the importance of a committed Christian needing to be “in the world, but not of it,” and I wondered how one was to do that. Eliot’s “detachment” seemed to me to be a little on the cold side, and neither approach, to my thinking, allowed for the passion that is a part of being human. Without passion, how could one be compassionate (“com” meaning with).

And as I read Joe’s answer this morning, “You play the game. It hurts, but you know that you have found the place that is transcendent of injury and fulfillments. ”

[Richard and his “reluctant Messiah” friend and teacher have just been to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a film that they have seen several times over, because they just like it that much. Don explains to Richard how seeing a movie is a metaphor for living a life.]

“You can hold a reel of film in your hands,” he said, “and it’s all finished and complete–beginning, middle, and end are all there that same second. The film exists beyond the time that it records, and if you know what the movie is, you know generally what’s going to happen before you walk into the theater: there’s going to be battles and excitement, winners and losers, romance, disaster; you know that’s all going to be there. but in order to get caught up and be swept away in it, in order to enjoy it to its most, you have to put it in a projector and let it go through the lens minute by minute…any illusion requires space and time to be experienced. So you pay your nickel and you get your ticket and you settle down and forget what’s going on outside the theater and the movie begins for you.”Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah; Richard Bach

And when we see a good movie, or read a well-written book, we sometimes reach the point, for a little while, where we “suspend our disbelief” and get caught up in the fiction as though it were real – just like we “suspend our disbelief” in any transcendent reality when we are born into this one.

Occasionally, though, we get glimpses. Wordsworth called them “Intimations of Immortality.”

Eliot has called it “The point of intersection of the timeless/With time,” “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood,” “[Where] the impossible union/Of spheres of existence is actual,”

Here the past and future

Are conquered, and reconciled,

Where action were otherwise movement

Of that which is only moved

And has in it no source of movement—

Driven by daemonic, chthonic

Powers. And right action is freedom

From past and future also.

For most of us, this is the aim

Never here to be realised;

Who are only undefeated

Because we have gone on trying;

So, we “play the game. It hurts, but [we] know that [we] have found the place that is transcendent of injury and fulfillments. [We] are [here], and that’s it.

In that state of detachment which is nothing like “indifference”: lies that “joyful participation,” because we get that it is, at last, an illusion.  We are more than this little existence.


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