100 years ago today, the countries fighting the “Great War,” the “war to end all wars,” signed an Armistice, and fighting ceased. That was 1918. It did not begin again in Europe openly until 1 September 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both invaded Poland. But already by 1935, as I recall the year, German troops re-occupied the Rhineland unchallenged by the French and British; annexation of Austria, then the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, then the annexation of all of Czechoslovakia followed rapidly. If the Great War ended (and is not seen continuing in the “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for decades), it was not until 1945. What we call “World War I” and “World War II” were clearly two phases in the same horrific conflict between Britain-France and Germany-Austria. Obviously the U.S. entered both wars, quite late, on the side of the Atlantic powers, and Russia first fought with Britain-France until the Revolution of 1917, then fought against Germany until June 1941. As Churchill foresaw, “ally” Soviet Union gradually became the main antagonist to the Atlantic powers as Germany’s fate was sealed. And this is just the European theater.
The world wars, or global wars, that began at least as early as 1914 continue in some forms today, but by no means on the same scale as what happened between 1914-1945. As many realize, if there is another outbreak of global war on a vast scale, the devastation will likely make the horrors of WWI and WWII seem relatively minor. Looking back over the last hundred years, one sees more mass killing and mass destruction than would ever have seemed possible two hundred years ago. When the French Revolution—Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, after so much blood flowed in those European wars, who would have imagined that such a spectacle of murder and destruction was a mere prelude to what would come shortly thereafter.
Armistice day, now our “Veterans’ Day.” The mind sees row upon row of graves in Arlington, or in Normandy, or in Flander’s fields, or mass graves in China, or in Japan… I recall one of the most moving sites I have visited, on the southern end of Okinawa, where tens of thousands of Japanese leapt from cliffs into the sea below rather than be taken captive by American soldiers. Each Japanese prefecture has erected a monument for peace, huge rocks with nothing on them but simple Konji, or Japanese script, with such words as “Peace,” and utter silence. Not a voice is heard as we walked among those memorial rocks. Peace is desired, and yetl, probably to the end of human history, there will be hatred, violence, killing. Armistice Day is a sober reminder that most sadly, there is nor can there be “a war to end all wars,” but only an effort by each and by all to root out the causes of war from one’s own heart. That is the way, the only sure way, as taught by the Buddha about 2500 years ago. A genuine armistice—cessation of arms, of fighting—begins with renouncing all ill-will, hatred, illusion in one’s mind. There is no other way to peace, no other way to a genuine armistice. Anything less is a mere abatement of outward violence as passions seethe.
Shanti, shanti, shanti
Peace to all,
The following letter is part of a dialogue with a young Catholic father who is strongly concerned with the lack of spiritual nourishment in the Church today.
20 June 2018
Dear friend in Christ,
As I wrote in my last memo to parishioners, one’s “spiritual life,” or mental-spiritual development, depends on the efforts a human being makes as trusting in the presence and creative power of God. It does not depend on attending Mass or on the Sacraments, in and of themselves. What the churches offer may invite those present to “participate worthily,” that is, to be attentive and eagerly desire God, and lovingly surrender to the ever-present One, putting His “will” into practice. Put concretely: what happens or does not happen in the mind / “heart” of the participant is what matters in religious services, and not what happens in space-time (externally). What matters is utterly simple: either one is turning towards God, or away from God. All life is either conversion or diversion, epistrophe or apostrophe, using the technical terms developed by the Stoics. As St. Augustine lamented in his Confessions: “Behold, You were within, but I was without….” External worship encourages one to linger “without,” rather than to be present within—present to and with the Presence that we by long tradition call “God.”
The serious problem with Christianity, far beyond clerical abuses of various kinds, is clerical neglect: the failure to help nourish parishioners with healthy, wholesome intellectual-spiritual formation and guidance. One way to put this is simple: Consider your own life, and imagine what your spiritual life would be without the efforts you made to study philosophy (and perhaps theology). I consider my own example, known from within: My family attended religious services weekly as I was growing up, but I am not aware of having received much spiritual or intellectual nourishment through them. The same is true today: other than some “consolation” people may get from attending religious services (and that consolation is of limited value), the benefits that I have seen have come to those men and women who took their own spiritual life seriously, who made a deliberate and conscious effort to study, pray, turn from evil, and do good; very little benefit accrues to those who passively attend any kind of service, whether evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on.
The real problem facing human beings is how to become truly awake and alive in one’s lifetime. Meditation and study, linked with personal discipline, as in the Christian and Buddhist traditions, does far more good than fairly mindless, passive sharing in any religious ceremonies. The example, goodness, love from men and women who happen to be Christian of one sort or another has been highly helpful to me, but such goodness is not directly linked to attending services, or “reading the bible,” as in evangelical traditions. Furthermore, much of the good that can be offered to persons in religious services is lost on social programs and the “social gospel,” which is indeed “no gospel at all.” Clergy have often neglected to assist in the spiritual formation of their people, probably in large part because “one cannot give what one does not have.” From what I hear from parishioners who attend Masses elsewhere when they travel or are away from home, they find little intellectual-spiritual meat in the preaching / teaching, but rather see emphases on outward forms of worship, entertaining music, social action programs, and the like. In the case of Catholic clergy, many do not even struggle to prepare homilies, but download canned “homilies” off the internet, or take them from “homily helps.” Unless the priest or minister is speaking “from faith to faith” (Romans 1), he or she is not “preaching Christ,” and helping to form the hearer, but just amusing, entertaining, perhaps chastising. The word that forms the hearer must grow out of a spirit alive in the now to the presence of God. Otherwise, it is not the “word of God,” but mere human words of more or less mindless chatter. If and only if the one preaching is immediately present to divine Presence is one in truth a “minister of the Word.” In the words of the Apostle, “the written text kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Had I not studied philosophy and sought to practice meditation as a Benedictine monk, and not been blessed to have some truly good examples of right living and practical wisdom in my life, I think that I would have received very little spiritual-intellectual nourishment as a Catholic Christian. What do the churches have to offer to human beings? One often must seek God, loving and doing the truth, despite what is being done in and by the churches. Neither the educational establishments in our society, nor the religious institutions, are now offering human beings much that is truly beneficial. Or to put the matter differently: unless one struggles to learn, and works hard to grow morally, intellectually, and spiritually, one will be unformed, deformed, malnourished. Our schools, universities, churches have largely been failing to do what they ought to do, and generally pretend to do, at considerable expense.