Saturday, July 22, 2006

Medieval Christian Zen?

Most of you should remember my fascination with the American Zen stories compiled by Sean Murphy in his delightful book One Bird One Stone: 108 American Zen Stories (for a refresher see here and here). My bedtime reading this week has been Donald Spoto's magnificent Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, which contains some stories to rival the great tradition of Zen for sheer absurdity.

Two of my favorite writers and thinkers, Thomas Merton (in Mystics and Zen Masters) and D.T. Suzuki (in Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist) have observed the similarities between Christian mysticism and Zen. Of course, these two traditions come from wildly different and often opposing world views, and I would hate to simply gloss over that. But they both share in common the evaluation that practice is more important than theory or theology, and that life is more important than our reflections on life. So while they may be coming from very different systems of thought (though mysticism and Zen share in common a refusal to rationalize, they come out of Christianity and Buddhism respectively, which offer very different rational accounts of the nature of the universe) they often produce lives and stories which seem kin to each other.

Here is, from Donald Spoto's biography of Francis, part of the story of one of Francis' earliest companions, a young man named Juniper, called by Spoto "one of the most uncoventional among the early Franciscans":

His odd behavior often had an underlying spiritual motive. On a visit to Rome, he learned that some people, believing he was a wise counselor, were seeking him out for advice. His companions assured him it was pointless trying to avoid such attention and admiration, but they had not taken Juniper's resourcefulness into full account. As he approached the eager crowd, he spotted a group of children on a seesaw. At once, he went over to them and joined the fun as if it were the most important item on his agenda. The enthusiasms of his admirers was at once checked, and they withdrew, disappointed that a holy man should act such a fool.

There are many other such stories of Juniper and the other early Franciscans. And, of course, some of the best and strangest stories are of Francis himself, who took the command to follow Christ distressingly literally at times. But this may be my favorite one. Most of my life up until now has been spent frantically trying to "grow up," to lose the child within and become a fully functioning adult. In my mad race to manhood, however, I have too often ignored my own nature. As Madeleine L'Engle once observed, I am not any particular age, but rather all of the ages I have ever been at the same time. There are moments when I am and must be a grown man, a husband and a father, a responsible adult. But there are other times when I am a playful little boy, or a baby who needs to be held, or a teenager rebelling against the invisible authorities.

To be willing to embrace your inner child and play on a seesaw with little literal children is at the same time liberating and grounding. It is liberating, because it reminds you that you are not just a staid and stuffy adult, but also a former child who from time to time returns to such childhood fancies. It is grounding because it reminds you that you can never truly escape who you once were, so you'd better be able to make peace with yourself as you are, even as you go through the painfully transformative process of sanctification.

1 comment:

Liam said...

St Francis and his followers are all-too easily sentimentalized, but their proposition was provocative and radical. They remind me as well of the figure of the Holy Fool in the Orthodox tradition. They were extremely intense and very playful at the same time.