a rebbe once asked his students what would they do if they knew this was their last hour of life. the answers were the usual suspects: praying, reading the torah, giving to charity, etc. the rabbi’s reply was that he would continue to do whatever it was he was doing, for all of life is sacred. i agree. there is no human deed, nor there is any being, or place or time that is more or is less sacred than any other. there isn’t anything that is not sacred, but at the same time, we must make it so. it is will and grace, for sacredness is nothing other than the between of an i an a thou. at the beginning it was the encounter said martin buber. emannuel levinas stated it differently: ethics is first philosophy.
place these two teaching side by side: shantideva said, “whatever joy there is in this world, all comes from desiring others to be happy, and whatever suffering there is in this world, all comes from desiring myself to be happy”. st. teresa of avila said, “we cannot be sure whether we are loving god, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are. but we can know quite well whether we are loving our neighbor.” together, these two teachings are saying what fr. gustavo gutierrez called “the sacrament of the neighbor”, or the dalai lama’s “my religion is kindness”. they are trying to tell us that we need to understand that the essence of religion is nothing other than the i-thou relationship with all beings. whatever we imagine god to be, or whatever we think she wants from us, the foundation of the spiritual life will not be found in moments of ecstatic mystical experiences, but rather in the simple, plain, “ordinary mind” encounter with the face of the other. martin buber genially summarized the spiritual life when he said “all real life is dialogue”.
a relationship with god not mediated by beliefs is one mediated by faith. soren kierkegaard said that “the function of prayer is not to influence god, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” in other words, once we understand the utter futility of the act of prayer, we may become transformed in a new awareness of faith. for faith is what arises after we discard all beliefs.
faith is sustained by absurdity, and this is why we cling to poetry with such despair. this is the observation that matters most in all of poetry: is there poetry after words? is poetry only about words relating to other words, image relating to image? or in other words, is there such thing as a poetic life? we give words too much credit and poets know that. many tell us it is better to abide in silence and then dutifully proceed to write copious volumes to explain it’s virtues. it seems silence inspires the most words. the poetic life is not just a life of writing poetry. we live poetry by the way we live, and some of us also like to write about it. i enjoy that too. but art is not just artifacts. the poetic life is a social project, it is what martin buber called the “dialogical life.” poetry is in the between of an i and a thou.
in one of his poems, rabbi abraham joshua heschel wrote: “to unmask the god who disguised himself as world.” but why a disguise? how is the world different from god? baruch spinoza said that god is nature, and when i love nature i love god. rabbi abraham yitzhak hacohen kook wrote: “inner meditation is very demanding. it seeks to ascend without letting anything in the world disturb it.” but why is the world a disturbance? we meditate with the world, not away from it. it all comes down to this: recognizing the god that is everything we say thou to everything. then nothing is a disguise nor a disturbance, everything becomes presence and encounter. martin buber said: “to look away from the world, or to stare at it, does not help a man to reach god; but he who sees the world in him stands in his presence.”
© Hune Margulies
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