Friday, 28 May 2010

Why Nirvana and Heaven Are Not the Same Thing

This morning, the Office of Readings (Matins) had this passage from Augustine's commentary on 1 John.

We have been promised that we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. By these words, the tongue has done its best; now we must apply the meditation of the heart. Although they are the words of Saint John, what are they in comparison with the divine reality? And how can we, so greatly inferior to John in merit, add anything of our own? Yet we have received, as John has told us, an anointing by the Holy One which teaches us inwardly more than our tongue can speak. Let us turn to this source of knowledge, and because at present you cannot see, make it your business to desire the divine vision.

The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: Not that I have already obtained this, he said, or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it. We might ask him, “If you have not yet obtained it, what are you doing in this life?” This one thing I do, answers Paul, forgetting what lies behind, and stretching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize to which I am called in the life above. Not only did Paul say he stretched forward, but he also declared that he pressed on toward a chosen goal. He realised in fact that he was still short of receiving what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.

Such is our Christian life. By desiring heaven we exercise the powers of our soul. Now this exercise will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this world. Let me return to the example I have already used, of filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed. Yes, it must be cleansed even if you have to work hard and scour it. It must be made fit for the new thing, whatever it may be.

We may go on speaking figuratively of honey, gold or wine – but whatever we say we cannot express the reality we are to receive. The name of that reality is God. But who will claim that in that one syllable we utter the full expanse of our heart’s desire? Therefore, whatever we say is necessarily less than the full truth. We must extend ourselves toward the measure of Christ so that when he comes he may fill us with his presence. Then we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Here is the very essence of the difference between Buddhism and Christianity.


Matthias said...

GAB thanks for this .Sadly many people are turning to Buddhism ,because they have become disillusioned with Christianity and Judaism .Perhaps it is because Buddhism offers them a easier path although they need to work for Nirvana as in RIGHT THOUGHTS,RIGHT ACTIONS,RIGHT DEEDS Accepting suffering as part of thje process of Selflesssness and to attain Nirvana.
talking about attainment,GAB i know i responded to your excellent answer regarding your being received into the Catholic Church. For about 18 months I have been tossing up as to making thie step of going to RCIA. I am still contemplating joining but via a Eastern Catholic church.Perhaps because a great many of these have suffered and are suffering persecution,and i want to identify with them;also because it is the Catholic Church that is making the stand for the gospel without compromise,perhaps ably assisted by the Presbyterian and Lutherans here in oz,but where is my own church the Baptists? MIA i think!!!
I also am persuadefd by you being originally Evangelical proddie,and have become a Evangelical Catholic.
What ails me as regards the step?
history-ie a need to let go of the Reformation for it seems it is over. The Inquisition is another historical reality that i need to come to grips with and lastly Papal infalliblity.
I am not really worried by reactions of fmaily and friends-some are ardent Proddies and thus anticatholic,some not Christians and thus are cynical of religion in general.
but reading this passage from St augustine has helped me along this path a little more.

GAB said...


Re letting go of the Reformation, I think you'd be very interested in the book I'm reading at the moment. It's "The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism" by Louis Bouyer. Bouyer's thesis is that at the heart of the Reformation were several positive principles which were present in the Chistian tradition but had perhaps been neglected or had lain dormant for a number of centuries viz. the sovereignty of God, the absolute necessity of grace, the need for personal, individual engagement with the Faith and reverence for and immersion in Scripture. He goes into each of these at some length and in a scholarly fashion, quoting chunks of Luther and Calvin along the way to demonstrate his points. He also proposes that each of these positive principles was unnecessarily tied to a negative principle, such as extrinsic justification, the idea of God's action and man's as a zero-sum game (hence, among other things, double predestination) and the pitting of personal faith against anything external eg. ecclesiastical institutions, ritual, etc. This he blames on nominalist philosophy, which had been in vogue since the late Middle Ages, and he goes to some lengths to show that neither the first (or later) Protestants nor their first Catholic interlocutors noticed or questioned the nominalist assumptions they shared, thus the negative principles and the positive were regarded by both sides as inextricable and intimately bound up with each other. Bouyer, on the other hand, sees the negative principles as ultimately undermining the positive and proposes that Protestantism had and has something positive and worthwhile to offer Christendom, but that it can only fully express that potential and fulfill that vocation as a movement within the Catholic Church rather than one outside it.

It's a fascinating thesis, and its significant because, if its true, it means those of us who join the Church bearing within us that heritage, far from leaving everything behind (and it does feel like that sometimes), are in fact, by the grace of God, enriching the Church and allowing that heritage to reach its fulfillment in us.

Matthias said...

Thanks for this GAB and i think it interesting that according to one historian,if Cardinal Pole had been elected POpe the Reformation could or would have occurred as a Protestant movement within the Catholic Church.Wonder if it is still possible given the depth of wondering away from the Gospel by proddie churches ,

GAB said...

It does admittedly seem doubtful, but then again a fascinating precedent has been set by Summorum Pontificum. With God anything is possible, so who knows?

I realise that I didn't say anything about the things you mentioned that you haven't come to grips with yet so, at the risk of talking your ear off, I might. Of course we know that anyone in the Church can sin, even badly, but when that sin is institutionalised, that becomes a huge challenge to one's faith (this, I suppose, is why the sexual abuse scandals have been such a scandla to so many). So I understand why the Inquisition might be a substantial difficulty. I'm not sure what I can offer on that count, not having done a huge amount of reading on the matter, but I would suggest some reading is in order. I think the Inquisition has become one of those cultural narratives (like Galileo). Clearly, nobody would ever want to resurrect it, and one can hardly deny that a lot of dodginess and morally questionable practices went on, but from what little I have read I gather that it is arguable if the institution was fundamentally flawed in its essence, as opposed to an institution that used dodgy practices towards a good, or at least neutral, end. Anyway, worth looking into in detail (assuming of course you haven't already- maybe you have).

Re papal infallibility, one of the unfortunate events of history, I believe, was the interruption of Vatican I, where this dogma was defined. It left an almost ninety year gap where a whole host of questions remained unresolved which, by rights, ought to have been addressed along with papal infallibility. The most pressing of these was the relationship of the Bishop of Rome to the other bishops. I suspect that if the collegiality of the episcopate and papal infallibility had been addressed at the same time, the latter would be not nearly so looming an issue as it is for many people. In any case, the two doctrines should be taken together, because without each other they are incomplete.

The Pope is not a monarch or a CEO. He does not have the ability to pronounce semi-divine fiats. He is, rather, like the hub of a bicycle wheel which, though not being greater than any of the spokes (for if the spokes weren't there, the whole wheel would collapse) keeps them in position so that the wheel can turn. Infallible statements (which are few and far-between anyway and which, interestingly, have almost all occurred between Vatican I and II) are solely in the service of that role.