Thursday, 29 April 2021

The Goddess in Parmenides


In the second half of his work Science & Religion in Archaic Greece, the present writer’s mentor, the late Roger Sworder, sets out his reading of the famous poem of Parmenides. The section is entitled ‘Parmenides at Delphi’ and Sworder presents a novel hypothesis in which the cosmology of Parmenides’ poem reveals how the Delphic oracle operated in principle. It is a very tight and subtle reading that departs from the usual commentary on Parmenides, carefully drawing parallels between multivalent symbolisms. This was the centre-piece of Roger Sworder’s life’s work: a comprehensive, and Platonic, reading of Parmenides of Elea.

The key move that he makes in this reading is to identify the “goddess” who features in the poem and who instructs the narrator as Aphrodite. He argues that the poem allegorizes the passage of the evening star into the Gates of Night. This is an unusual identification. Scholars have suggested a wide range of deities for the mysterious “goddess” but Sworder’s suggestion of Aphrodite is peculiar to him. Most common in our own times are readings of the poem developed by Peter Kingsley in which he sees the chthonic deities Persephone and Demeter as the key figures in the poem. Kingsley’s reading is shamanic. He sees the poem as a journey into the underworld. He is, importantly, anti-Platonic. He regards Plato as fundamentally out of step with the true nature of Parmenides’ philosophy. Unlike Sworder, he does not see Plato's account of Parmenides as illuminating but rather a departure from Presocratic gnosis into an arid logocentrism that sent Western civilization in the wrong direction for millenia.

The present writer, of course, has a soft spot for the reading offered by his mentor and had the opportunity, extending over decades, to discuss it with him in detail. The identification of Aphrodite as the “goddess” was always the key. But is it right? It is a brilliant solution, certainly, but it has always seemed to the present writer that there is another – somewhat obvious – contender – which is to say there is, therefore, an entirely different way to read the poem, and not only the poem but the whole of Parmenides’ philosophy. Sworder’s reading is far more elegant and cogent than Kingsley’s - which is to say less anthropological - and it supplies answers to most of the conundrums of the poem, and it has the considerable virtue of accounting for pre-modern modes of thinking rather than distorting Parmenides with a modern lens, but it is hardly conclusive. The question is still open.

The other contender is Athena. It is a rather obvious possibility simply because Athena is the goddess of philosophy, and whoever the goddess in the poem might be she instructs the narrator, Parmenides, in philosophy. Which goddess in the Greek pantheon is most likely to take a man by the hand and school him in philosophy? Aphrodite? Persephone? Necessity? Surely the first name that comes to mind is Athena? It is not much to go on, admittedly, but as a starting point it is incontestable. Regarding dating, the attribution of philosophy to Athena is roughly concurrent with Parmenides. Philosophy was a new science. Athena was its divine sponsor.

Let us therefore try to marshall a few preliminary points in support of such an identification. The suggestion has been made before (by Eric Havelock, for instance, in 1958) but it seems not to have been pursued in any thoroughgoing studies. Any case, of course, would need to be argued in great detail and with careful reference to Parmenides’ dense and difficult Greek. In regards the “goddess” though, we are told very little directly in the text. Everything must be inferred and taken from context. Given this, is there a prima facie case? Some general observations:

* There is no doubt whatsoever that Parmenides’ poem (written in hexameter) has Homeric echoes and allusions throughout, and especially in the opening ‘proem’. It is arguable that the primary allusion is to Odysseus in his role as the man who goes to places beyond where ordinary mortals go. The entire poem is presented as such a journey. In that case, might not the parallel extend to the goddess who guides Parmenides being the same goddess who guided Odysseus: namely Athena?


*More generally, Athena is patroness of heroic endeavour; the narrator’s philosophical journey in Parmenides poem is presented as heroic. Otto described Athena as the “goddess of nearness” who mentors and mothers heroes. This conforms very neatly to the role of the goddess in the poem.(The "goddess of nearness" guides the hero through places far.)


*The specific allusion to the Odyssey seems to be to Odysseus’ journey to the island of Circe (a daughter of the sun), an ultimate place where, we are told, day and night meet. As well, the chariot ride in the poem appears to be an allusion to the chariot ride of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, in search of his father. The use of Homeric models may be just a poetic formality, but it is more likely to be thematic. We are to understand the narrator as an Odysseus-like figure.


*Note that the goddess instructs the hero of Parmenides’ poem with “deceptive words”. We are reminded that in the parallel parts of the Odyssey Athena lied to Odysseus. For Athena it is sometimes prudent to use skilful deceptions. This is exactly true of the goddess in the poem. If ancient readers of the poem could not help but see the allusions to the Circe episode of the Odyssey, then the goddess’ use of “skilful means” in the poem would immediately recall Athena’s treatment of Odysseus at that point in the Odyssey. The narrator of Parmenides’ poem, like Odysseus, is instructed by and must learn from “the deceptive order of my words.”


*Most importantly – this is perhaps the strongest of these points - regarding the striking chariot and equine symbolism in Parmenides’ poem, note that Athena was sometimes given the epithet Hippia (of the horses) because she reputedly created the bit, bridle and chariot. The poem gives emphasis to exactly these things. The entire chariot-ride metaphor in the poem may be taken as a motif of Athena. The poem features her technology. Poseidon is the god of horses, but Athena is the goddess of the technology that tames and renders horses useful for humans. In the Homeric Hymns we are told “she first taught human craftsmen how to build chariots and work the bronze…” All of the equine and chariot symbolism in the poem is well-accounted for by identifying the goddess as Athena (indeed, much better than any other candidate.)

*It is worth asking what was the cultic context of Parmenides’ poem? (Or is it a free-standing literary fiction?) Kingsley thinks it reflects certain practices and rituals of an iatromantic school in Elea. The archaeology tells us that the city of Elea hosted a cult of Aesclepius (god of medicine) but the archaeology also reveals a major temple of Athena. Athena was one of the chief deities of the city. (This is perhaps not saying much since she was a panhellenic favorite, but we can confirm her worship in Elea.) If we take it that the poem had a religious setting, what goddess was prominent in Parmenides’ city?


*Numismatic evidence confirms this. Surviving coins from Elea (albeit slightly later than Parmenides’ time) feature depictions of Athena. There is scant evidence, but we can surely say that Athena was an important deity to the Eleans.


*We must remember that the Eleans came originally from Phocaea, a city established – according to Pausanius - under Athenian leadership. The Phocaeans, then the Eleans, had strong links with Athens, including a shared royal line. The colony had ancestral and historical links with Athens. We can suppose that this fact probably elevates the status of Athena among the Eleans. Sworder gives emphasis to the history of the Eleans and their exile from Phocaea (he takes Parmenides as the great spiritual patriarch of his people and the poem as patriotic) but he overlooks the foundational connections between the Eleans and Athens.  If the poem reflects the epic journey of the Phocaean exiles and establishes a new colony in Magna Grecia (a type of founding revelation, as Sworder would have it) then might not Parmenides turn to Athena for this purpose since it was she who first established the colony in Phocaea?


*It is entirely proper and conventional that Parmenides does not name Athena in his poem but refers to her just as “the goddess”. Plato does the same. Of all deities, Athena is most typically just referred to as “the goddess”. Sworder thinks that the goddess is not named because her identification as Aphrodite would have been plainly obvious to readers, yet, it seems, Sworder was the first person in 2500 years to spell it out? Might not the goddess be unnamed for some other reason? Might it not be a convention? Might it not signal that the goddess in question is so mighty that it is proper and pious to be reticient to use her name? That would be Athena.


Then there is the evidence we can extract from Plato’s account of Parmenides:


*In Plato’s depiction of Parmenides, he has Parmenides visiting Athens for the Panathenea – the great festival of Athena. That is, we are to believe that Parmenides – a very old man - traveled all the way to Athens from Elea in order to observe the festival of Athena. On the face of it, this might indicate that Parmenides had a particular reverence for this goddess. If Plato understands the “goddess” in Parmenides’ poem to be Athena, then we can understand why he depicted the Elean in Athens celebrating the Panathanea.


*Moreover, Plato’s entire discussion of Parmenides’ encounter with Socrates is framed by the festival of the Panathenea. Most scholars think this is merely a literary device to explain why old Parmenides was in Athens in the first place. But perhaps the subject of the dialogue is appropriate to the festival, and appropriate to the goddess? As a general point, the settings of Plato’s dialogues are carefully constructed and are not unimportant. Why has Plato set his ‘Parmenides’ on the festival of Athena? Why does Plato depict Parmenides paying homage to this goddess? There might be many reasons, but it might suggest a particular affinity with the great goddess of philosophy.


*Plato uses the same device in the Timaeus. That dialogue is Plato’s own “peri phuseos” (On Nature) – the same genre as Parmenides’ poem. (It shares many of the same structures regarding truth and seeming.) It too is set on “the festival of the goddess” (the Panathenaea) but the goddess (Athena) in that case is unnamed – just “The Goddess”.


*Regarding the actual philosophical content of Parmenides’ poem, the question must be asked: how is the philosophy and doctrine imparted in the instruction given by the goddess typical of that goddess? Sworder has some ammunition. He points to the fragments of Parmenides’ poem that concern sex and reproduction. Certainly, some of the fragments can be be said to be entirely appropriate to the goddess Aphrodite. She brings female to male and male to female. Yet Venus is named as a separate deity – the mixed seeds of Venus - in fragment 18. And it is harder to ascribe the teachings regarding Being and Not-Being to Aphrodite. (As a general criticism, Sworder’s reading works better for the Way of Seeming than for the Way of Truth. He admits this, but thinks that the proper way to understand the poem – and its metaphysics - is through its cosmology.)


*Few deities are more complex than Athena, and her character changes and expands over time. But later accounts routinely identify her as a metaphysical goddess. They suppose that her renowned virginity is emblematic of an otherworldly nature. She is aloof, mental. A goddess of nous. Relevant to Parmenides, this is true among the Pythagoreans. Although originally a goddess of action, she became the goddess of (virginal) contemplation, par excellence. Which other goddess has such metaphysical concerns? Which other goddess might instruct a contemplative in metaphysics?


*One of Athena’s skills is making philosophical distinctions. Consider the most common story of her birth: Zeus married and impregnated Metis ("most knowing of the gods and men" (Hesiod, frag. 343.15; Theogony 886–900) but then, to avoid being usurped by a son, swallowed her. Zeus subsequently developed a headache, so Hephaestus – weilding his axe – split Zeus’ head in two and out jumped Athena, fully grown and fully armed. This strange story tells us that Athena is a mental deity (born from Zeus’ head) but the story also concerns making mental distinctions – Zeus’ head is split in two. (His “splitting headache” is a mythological pun.) One reading of the myth might be: where we make fundamental distinctions, there is Athena, fully formed. The poem of Parmenides consists of a series of fundamental distinctions: truth/seeming, being/non-being, etcetera.


*Moreover, this goddess – more than any other in the entire Greek pantheon – embodies the idea of paradox: and Parmenides philosophy, and that of his school and pupils like Zeno, is resoundingly paradoxical. The main claim of this philosophy, we might say, is that all opposites are identical. Night is day and day is night. The failure of the “opinion of mortals” is that they fail to grasp this paradox and all that it implies.  The paradox of Athena is a stark one in the context of Greek sociology: she is the most masculine of any goddess. She is a strange combination of masculine and feminine qualities. She is quite remarkable in this respect. We might not appreciate this because she is familiar to us, but in her context she is remarkable. Although she represents the Polis, and is preeminently the sponsor of the Greek patriarchal order, along with Zeus (who she almost matches), she paradoxically destabilizes that order; she refuses to marry and can defend her chastity with as much military strength, ferocity and prowess as Ares himself. As mythographers often point out, she is a very odd mixture of traits that are paradoxical against all Greek sociological norms. Might not Athena be a suitable goddess to reveal the paradoxes of Parmenides’ poem? Paradox is her domain.

*As per Sworder, the depiction of the "goddess" bringing together female and male and male and female would undoubtedly suit Aphrodite, but it is role not alien to Athena. In Aeschylus' Eumenides (736 - 738) - one of our best sources regarding the cultus of Athena - she is depicted as reconciling men and gods and also, because of her nature and her birth, Aeschylus says, men and women. This goddess - in whom masculine and feminine traits are mixed - reconciles female to male and male to female.

*According to Parmenides, when we escape the “opinions of mortals” and take the Way of Truth – we leave the physical realm and dwell in pure thought – we encounter paradox. This, surely, is the point of Zeno’s famous paradoxes. In the physical universe Achilles overtakes the tortoise, but not in the realm of pure thought. That realm of pure thought is the “virginity” of Athena, and it is inherently paradoxical.

*In Athens, especially, the paradoxes of Athena go further: she is not just a virgin, but rather a virgin mother. (The Athenians explored this paradox in intricate surrogacy myths.) The ultimate paradox of Athena is that, although she is resolutely virginal, and a metaphysical goddess, she is – mysteriously – a goddess of generation. She is involved in creation, but without ever being sullied by it.


*One of the curiosities of Parmenides’ poem is why the Way of Seeming is even necessary. Why not just the Way of Truth? Why the “deceptive order of words”? It seems – paradoxically – that you cannot have one without the other. In any mythology – Christianity, most notably – the configuration “Virgin Mother” depicts the paradox of non-duality: the Many doesn’t really exist, but it must exist for the One to be One. Or some such rendering of the transcendent/immanent paradox. This paradox – however one understands it - is the centre-piece of Parmenidean philosophy. In Greek mythology it is most typical of Athena, virgin and mother. This (paradoxical) maternal aspect of Athena might possibly account for material concerning birth and reproduction in the fragments of Parmenides’ poem. At least, there is no reason to think such material might be contrary to the character of Athena and an obstacle to identifying her as the goddess of the poem.

* * * 

All of this is just a sketch. Does it have legs? Roger Sworder was quick to pour a ton of cold water on it. Assuredly, countless objections, ifs and buts, readily come to mind. The above are just scatter-gun remarks made from memory and without much deliberation or further research. But it still seems to the present writer like a promising line of inquiry.

Harper McAlpine Black

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Masaccio's Holy Trinity

One of the most significant and remarkable paintings in the entire Western canon is Masaccio's Holy Trinity, to be found in the Dominican basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It is an extraordinary work in many ways, but not least because it is the first rendering of true perspectival space in history. Painted (we think) in the 1410s it represents an amazing leap in perspectival consciousness. Giotto had begun exploring pictorial space - that is, the illusion of a third dimension on a two dimensional surface - a century earlier. It was hardly pursued after that, but then, suddenly, Masaccio produced the Holy Trinity. It was an amazing departure from all previous conventions. We do not know the steps, but somehow young Masaccio was able to take the nascent perspective of Giotto to its logical conclusion. The Holy Trinity is a fresco painted to appear as if its internal space is exactly continuous with reality. That is, it seems as though you could walk into it. When it was new and freshly painted and its colours vibrant it must have been truly remarkable to its contemporaries. Masaccio had created a new world. Its importance is often overlooked in standard accounts of the Renaissance. It was the painting that linked the Early Renaissance with the High Renaissance. It changed everything.

It is remarkable for many other reasons too. Theologically, and symbolically, it is a revolutionary work with many arcane and mysterious features. As with its use of pictorial space, it goes back to an earlier iconography which it then develops with almost scientific precision. The artist it tackling one of the most difficult subjects in Christian art: the Trinity. How do you depict the doctrine of the Trinity? Three Persons in One God is, by definition, a supra-rational mystery. How do you depict an ineffable mystery? It took Christians several centuries to define the Trinity (with tautologies) in words. Christian art has always struggled to render the doctrine of the Trinity in a satisfactory and theologically acceptable manner. Most often in traditional icons the Three Persons are simply depicted as three separate individuals, thus:

But this hardly captures their Unity. It is theologically inexact. Other artists attempted more creative but awkward compositions with almost grotesque consequences:

The iconography Masaccio has followed and refined and amplified is of a relatively obscure type found in the work of the early Renaissance painter Gaddi:

Notice the gold background in this icon. This is exactly where the momentous change has occurred. In Gaddi's painting - in the pre-Renaissance or 'Byzantine' tradition - the gold background represents the Eternal. The Trinity are in Eternity. Masaccio, however, has replaced the gold background with an illusion of real space, and therefore real time too. He takes Gaddi's obscure arrangement of the Persons of the Trinity and places it within precise and we might say a 'rational' space. It looks as though the Persons of the Trinity are right there, life-sized, in a chapel set in the wall of the church. Indeed, one can draw an exact floor plan of this illusory chapel, and we can ascertain that the illusion was created with such mathematical precision that the fresco is made to be seen from an exact point on the floor of the basilica. Theologically, the Trinity have moved from Eternity to the World. The Persons are situated within the created world, not beyond it. There has been a shift from transcendence to immanence. We moderns typically admire this about the Renaissance, but as we can see the shift means that men moved their gaze from Heaven to Earth. Few paintings illustrate this more willfully than Masaccio's fresco. It is not a pretty painting. In fact, it is pretty ugly. But as a theological document it is astounding.

It's full theology could only be appreciated in our own times, however. At some point the fresco had been moved from its original location, and had only been known for centuries out of context and, it turned out, incomplete. Here is how the painting was known for most of its history:

But when the fresco was relocated to its original position in modern restorations, another part of the painting was uncovered. It had been lost and forgotten. Some early written accounts referred to the painting depicting 'The Death' but it was not understood what this meant. During restorations, though, a whole lower section of the fresco was discovered depicting a tomb and a skeleton in repose. Only once this lower section was discovered were we able to see the full painting in its original composition, thus:

Iconographhically, the 'Death' entombed below the Trinity changes everything. What has happened is that Masaccio has taken the skull that Gaddi places at the bottom of the crucifix in his Trinity icon and has expanded the motif into a full skeleton in a tomb. In that case, we can identify the tomb with confidence as the tomb of Adam. In Gaddi's traditional iconography the skull of Adam is positioned at the foot of the cross, theologically signifying Christ's redemption of Adam's mortal sin. This is in fact a commonplace in crucifixion iconography. Once again, Masaccio has taken a leap in his departure from tradition. The skull of Adam becomes a whole skeleton in a tomb below the cross.

Moreover, above the skeleton is an inscription. It presumably announces the whole theme of the work. It is a momenta mori. The inscription says, in Italian: WHAT YOU ARE I ONCE WAS, WHAT I AM YOU WILL BE. The fact this is in Italian and not Latin is remarkable in its historical context. It is not just for clerical eyes but is intended for the common man. It simply says: This skeleton was once a living man like you, but one day you too will be a skeleton like him. And yet, within the whole painting, it has a double meaning. For these might also be the words of God. In that case it means: I, God, was once a man so that you, man, can be God. The words of the inscription might equally be spoken by dead Adam or living Christ. It is remarkable that Masaccio has taken this simple momenta mori - a common moralistic reminder of one's mortality - and given it this theological twist.

There is vastly more to be said about this painting. It is somewhat sparse and austere, yet its every detail has significance. Notice the colours, for example. Alternations of red and blue - action and contemplation. Notice how the colours are reversed inside and outside the space of the chapel. So Masaccio's illusory space is, as it were, a mirror. The space within the chapel is continuous with real space (through perspective) and yet within that space colours are reversed. This matter really calls for a complete discussion in itself. It is more complicated. Notice the colours red and blue in the robes of God the Father. Then notice the checkers of red and blue in the vault of the ceiling. Red and blue are traditional iconographical colours, but once more Masaccio has developed this symbolism - usually crude in Byzantine icons - in sophisticated and theologically remarkable ways.

All things considered, there is no question that the theology of the painting is orthodox, and yet it takes orthodox doctrine and symbolism into new configurations. It is unlikely that Masaccio did this unilaterally. For a start, the painting was commissioned, and we see the two donors standing outside the chapel in the painting. The artist was no doubt meeting the specifications of the family who was paying for the job. More important, though, is the likely involvement of the Dominicans. When we delve deeper into the painting we run into an important fact: it is a strange painting in a church with many strange paintings. The Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella seemed to have had a taste for arcane iconography. And we also know that the same Dominicans had a particular interest in mathematics and mathematical symbolism. Their philosophical stripe was what medievals called 'Realist'. The Holy Trinity fresco at Santa Maria Novella is, without doubt, a Dominican painting. It is inconceivable that such a work could have been made in a Fransiscan setting. It presents a vision of a rational, mathematical reality. It is a very intellectual painting. The space might be real but it is not naturalistic in a sentimental sense. There is no emotion whatsoever. The Fransiscans used perspective for far more humanistic, not to say 'nominalist', purposes.

Notice the donors. They are looking at each other and are not actually engaged with the inner chapel. Inside the chapel are the Blessed Virgin and John the Beloved. (We know, therefore, that the crucifixion element of the painting is following the Gospel of John.) Notice the gesture of the Virgin Mary. It is the only gesture in the painting which is otherwise entirely static and still. Only the Virgin Mary moves. Her gesture welcomes us into the painting. She is looking at us, the viewer. She is looking out into real space. (Unlike God the Father who is staring ahead into transcendent space. God the Father is very deliberately not looking at any point in the basilica but rather into emptiness.) The Virgin's gesture says "Behold!" and invites us into the three dimensional space. Notice this in relation to Christ's loincloth, however. Christ's loincloth is slipping. It is barely covering his genitals. We actually see his pubic hair. This is the only drama and tension in the whole painting. Is that loincloth going to slip off or not? It is as though the Virgin Mary's gesture is holding it up. This has an interesting theology.

We might consider other aspects of this painting in later posts.

Harper McAlpine Black

Friday, 23 April 2021

Choosing my religion.


Across the decades I have encountered many people in the category of "serious seeker". Perplexed by life, drawn by a higher calling, they feel a strong need for a religious affiliation, or at least if not a formal affiliation then a spiritual path. This once seemed to me like a perfectly normal, indeed noble, activity, but the eventualities of the cases I have known have made me doubt this. Some cases of 'serious seeker' have happy outcomes, but in a high number of cases the search is ultimately barren. 

I will relate one case. I met a man at a cafe in Asia one time, an Englishman, who had traveled to Asia with the earnest intention of becoming a Buddhist. He had studied Buddhism in books in England for years. He related how he had set out with certain requirements. He needed a religion that emphasized peace, for example, and compassion, and the environment, and the brotherhood of man. 


His story, though, was that he had lived among monks in Thailand and was shocked and appalled by their worldiness and corruption, their love of money and their disrespectful attitude to women. I could tell he was somewhat broken by the experience. He had traveled half way around the world and had his spiritual dreams shattered. He still subscribed to Buddhist principles, he said, but he couldn't see himself taking refuge in the sanga


In other cases, serious seekers scuttled off to the various corners of the world to throw themselves into a carefully selected spiritual path. It was short-lived. A few years later I'd meet them selling corporate real estate, hardly a spiritual bone in their body. "Whatever happened to going to Rishikesh and being transformed into a living god by sexual yoga?" I ask. It didn't work out. 


The thing I've come to appreciate is that: in most cases you don't choose a religion; a religion chooses you. And as a general rule I would say: unless you hate it, it's not going to work. That is, for it to be real a spiritual path must be inescapable. It must be compelling. Very often it will not be what you want or what you think you deserve. It will just insist. You will fight it and flee from it, but when you turn around, there it is again. 


This type of struggle is much healthier than having a shopping list with tick boxes: consumer spirituality. That approach rarely works for finding a religion, just as it rarely works for finding a partner. We see ourselves marrying a sophisticated socialite: we marry the girl next door. It was always going to happen. You cannot plan a religious conversion. It happens to you, not because of you. It is not like selecting a new washing machine or renovating a kitchen. 

And beware, I would say, of any religion that flatters your prejudices. A lot of spirituality is an exercise in self virtue signalling. We have a desperate need to tell ourselves how virtuous we are. People look for a religion that caters to their (secular) moral sense and political opinions. If you don't find things that are disagreeable in a religion, it is almost certainly the wrong religion for you. If your new religion is an echo-chamber for your Establishment Progressive values, then all you have is a social club on religious themes.

And, in any case, a moral perspective seems to me a relatively paltry criterion when it comes to a religion or a spirituality. Sentimentality is spiritual death. The hook of religion has to be deep. You don't need a religion to refrain from stealing and adultery. A religion might not even make you a better person. Morality is the shallow end of the pool. Unless you are driven by ultimate concerns, ultimate mysteries, a cosmic anguish, all your religion is is a set of rules. Granted, some people are so morally wretched they need a set of rules or they'll be dangerous, but this only becomes the principle concern of a religion in its decline. It's not the place to start.

The place to start is always a calling. Resist it all you will, it won't go away. Very often it will only happen with trevail. Your world falls apart. In the wilderness, you hear the voice. Better still, it is a slow, persistent nagging. In the Islamic order this is described as a sense of "homesickness". The melancholy of life is a homesickness. This feeling, rather than seeking out something that conforms to your sense of your own virtue, is a much better basis for serious seeking. 

But, as they say, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Which is also to say, when the student is not ready, the teacher does not appear. Readiness, openness, worthiness: this is the proper concern of the serious seeker. Be worthy. And pay attention. There will be signs. 

Then, one day, there's a knock at the door. It's the elders. You think to yourself "I fucking hate Mormons" but within a few weeks you're a Latter Day Saint signing up to do your mission in Venezuela. Religion, I think, should be unexpected. If your friends and family are shocked and bewildered by your conversion, it's probably a good sign. 

Better still, and most promising of all in terms of spiritual longevity, is when friends and family are shocked and bewildered because you've found your way back to the religion they've all defined themselves against. The serious seekers with the best outcomes, as a rule, go back to where they started. Catholics. Or Anglicans. Or whatever. They resist it for years, but it calls them back. Best of all is when you yourself are shocked and bewildered.

Many of us are given a specific religion, and all of us are given a culture shaped by a religion or religions whether we like it or not. In principle, these religions are wholesome things, and embody an ancestral history of spiritual yearning. In principle, they contain all things needful. We might consider the question of whether we were born to a particular religious tradition for a reason. And equally we might ask if there is a good reason to go elsewhere rather than delve deeper into what one was given. Properly speaking, even in a secularized context, there is a matter of gratitude involved too, as a solid foundation. 

It remains common, though, for people to find their childhood faith empty and feel a strong call to some other tradition. My observation has been that a high proportion of cross-cultural religious conversions fail, but those that are successful are often so successful that we can only say they are natural. I know a man of Greek Orthodox birth who found a home in Zen and is utterly and comprehensively adapted to that spiritual culture. One can only conclude he has a Zen soul. 


You cannot engineer that, though. Not easily. It only happens when a religion chooses you. You fall into it. For reasons unknown you were born Jewish but there was never any doubt that you'd end up a Hari Krishna. The aforementioned 'homesickness' is involved here. Jewish-smewish, Judaism was never your home. Synagogue left you still feeling homesick. When you find the right religion, or it finds you, it is a homecoming. 


It is still difficult, though. The church that chooses you might still be wracked with scandal and a poncy modern liturgy, and you hate it, but it's home.

To the objection that seekers seek because a perfect spiritual path has yet to knock on their door, and that waiting around for a religion to choose you - especially in our current spiritual morass - is a losing strategy, this is where attention comes in. You have to ask the right questions and notice the right things. There are mysterious matters of time and place involved. The literature is full of stories of fools who mistake their spiritual master for a shabby old bum and tell him to move along.

Some of the best cautionary tales for serious seekers are to be found in the canon of Sufi teaching stories. The collections retold by Idris Shah are adequate for the purpose. All of the points above could be illustrated by Sufi stories. What about the dervish who heard about a celestial drink and walked all the way to China to find it? When he arrived, they showed him a camelia, the tea plant. 'What!' cried the dervish. "I've got one of those growing at my home at my back door!" 


Harper McAlpine Black


Guenon: The Infinite and the Indefinite