24 April 2015

The Semiotics of Fish

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Parts 20 and 21

The Semiotics of Fish

Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign.  A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else.  This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands for it. Thus, semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie.”  – Umberto Eco

Our mystical voyage with St. Brendan the Navigator and his brother monks continues to sail the darkened horizon that lies between the very distant past and the sunrise of the eternal moment. Following the prophecy of the Paradise of Birds, and after returning to the Community of Ailbe for Christmas, St. Brendan and his seafaring monastics took to the great western sea, which has proven to be a place of dreadful learning.

Far out in the vast blue waters of the Atlantic, the men came upon a place where the clarity of the sea allowed them to catch a glimpse of the fish in their schools and other creatures of the sea swimming beneath the currach.  Astonished by this otherworldly vision, the startled monks begged their abbot not to make a noise which might attract the wrath of the aquatic host, which they could see so plainly beneath their tiny craft.  The men were deathly afraid that the bigger animals would lunge for them and capsize their leather boat.

The holy navigator was sorely disappointed in his monks’ lack of proper perspective, but said nothing, instead hiding his disdain deep in the recesses of his cowl.  At the appointed hour, the sainted priest intoned his prayers loudly so that the masses of fish beneath the currach swirled in circles of darkness.  When he finished his prayers and singing, the fish darted to and fro, leaving the boat and its crew in peace.

Brendan then asked his followers how they could be so frightened of the fish in the sea when they could ride the great monster Jasconius.  How could they dread what they saw below them when they had been saved from monsters far more terrible?  Why did they fear what they saw?

This part of the voyage illustrates the pride of clarity and certitude, that most wicked of semiotic lies in this world of forms.  We are so sure of what we see when things are clear, and yet we fail to remember that even when we can see clearly, we cannot see everything with the eyes in our head.  Material vision can only take us so far; what we see is at best a symbol, a distorted image, an incomplete sentence in the vast volumes of divinity and unity.

Technology has given us a great gift of sight and insight into the workings of language and literature, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, psychology, religious studies; the natural sciences and social sciences, and yet we still face the same human problems faced by our ancestors.  Electric light has not extinguished darkness. Medicine has not made us materially immortal. Yes, we might live longer, healthier lives, but our faith and pride in seeing things as they truly are is a grievous error if that knowledge blocks us from apprehending the truth that is larger than the sum of its parts. 

As Albert Einstein wrote, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.”  This is the spirit with which we can better put our knowledge in context.  This is the kernel of truth that should always remind us of our fundamental lack of vision and knowledge of the larger universe which resides invisibly within us.  This humility of knowledge is the anchor that can keep us from running aground on the perilous shores of arrogance and materialism. 

This is the semiotics of fish as they swim beneath us, whether in obscurity or clarity. The point is, the fish are always there whether we see them or not.


14 April 2015

The Griffin

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 19.

The Griffin

If we could name one of the most potent impediments to spiritual growth, fear would have to be the single most debilitating. Dread and panic prey on our souls like two ravening beasts which hunger for our peace of mind, and tear our plans and best intentions into sinews to be gulped down their gullets.

Fear is indeed a symptom of the spiritual being contained within an animal’s body, and therefore the predicament of our kind. At first sign of danger, like little bunnies, our hearts race; our breath becomes short, and our minds focus only on escape.

So it was with St. Brendan’s brothers as they spied a terrible griffin flying high over their little leather boat.  The griffin is a mythical beast, said to have the hindquarters of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.  When we dwell a moment on this creature's attributes, a certain image of temporal authority arises.  The regal lion, symbol of terrestrial power on the one hand, and the noble eagle, monarch of the air, on the other.    

The brothers quivered in their cassocks at the sight of the great talons of the griffin gaining on them, as they sailed across the waves.  The monks cried out to their abbot, who calmed them and spoke to them of the power of the Beloved whose inspiration and example they followed.  Brendan exhorted his crew to remember the transformational power of the Divine and the protection of the Holy Cross, ancient symbol of the union between spirit and matter. 

Their faith restored, the same giant bird which had brought them the cluster of giant grapes appeared in the sky.  Like the black eagle of St. John, she swooped down as quickly as a shadow to engage the griffin, which was closing in on Brendan’s boat.  Plucking out the griffin’s eyes, their avian protector pursued the beast until it had been vanquished and the brothers had been saved.

No matter how powerful the forces of this world might appear, nothing deserves to live on our fear.  When we come to the realization that what we have within us can never be defeated, and that we must not be tricked by the priorities and chronology of this material existence, we step closer to  transfiguration.  The defeated griffin symbolizes Brendan and his brothers’ close approach to self knowledge.   With such a formidable guardian, surely they must be nearing the Promised Land of the Saints?


(Image: Griffin and Rabbit, Ripon Cathedral)

09 April 2015

The Island of Grapes

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 18.

The Island of Grapes

After being at sea and famished for days, a very large bird appeared to St. Brendan and his navigating monks.  In the feathered creature’s beak was an enormous cluster of grapes, which it dropped into the lap of the good abbot.  This harbinger of abundance seems to represent the fruition of spiritual work.

Spiritual abundance is not like material plenty, because it begins from a different desire and a distinct place in the heart.  To these men, the gargantuan grapes were a boon, a miracle that fed them for the twelve long days before the currach made land on the Island of Grapes.  But if we flip through these pages with an esoteric reading in mind, for these twelve days the monks were feasting on the gigantic fruits which they had earned through spiritual discipline and growth.

To the seeker of gnosis, our journey is not always going to be a walk in the park, but that does not mean that we must punish ourselves, either. On this flat island of sweet spring wells and wild vineyards, Brendan and his brothers would rest and restore their bodies for forty days.Very often when we think of saints and sages of the past, we can feel unworthy or even unable to complete the arduous path that is their legacy. But if we look closer, there is a luxury of time in these stories that we do not afford ourselves. 

When was the last time you rested and restored yourself for more than a month, not including time spent convalescing in a hospital or at home?  What does that tell us about the modern life and conveniences which our species has so cleverly designed to alleviate the need for our efforts? 

The idea that technology makes our lives demonstrably better has long since been refuted, at least from a spiritual vantage.  Of course new medicines and machines save us from pain, discomfort, and enable us to communicate across vast distances in just moments.  But have these things really eased the anguish of being human?  I think when we give them an honest assessment; we would quickly realize what cold comfort these new contraptions afford us.

Today young and old work long hours, they try to have a social life as well, and all this makes them terribly tired.  This is not an economics lesson, but I think it is safe to assert that young families are working and scooting about town for their children more than their parents and grandparents.  Wages have remained relatively stagnant, costs have gone up, and temptations such as the newest smart phone, gadgets and expensive vacations create a temple of living––but weary––stones.

Unfortunately, that temple is doomed to collapse with our health and wealth.  As we age, will we be left with a legacy of hope, love and a lifetime of spiritual advancement, or a mountain of debt, two cars, and a house we will need to sell in order to check into an assisted living apartment?  Will the dove of the Spirit appear to us heavy-laden with fruit, or will we be mired in angst, fearful of losing our materiality? 

There is nothing wrong with abundance or material wealth.  What is important for us to grasp is how we approach it.  If we are living for material things and placing them above the importance of the people around us, then we will reap a loiterer’s harvest.  If, on the other hand, we are able to make the love of those around us a priority, and recognize the Divine Beloved in them, even a bunch of grapes will seem an immense treasure. 

This is the mysticism of Brendan and many others: That as a result of our apprehension and appreciation for spiritual abundance, our souls will shine all the brighter as we prepare for our life in the spirit.


04 April 2015

Remember the Myrrhbearers

This is a day for all those who have sat at the bedside of a dying loved one. A day for all who have wiped the brow of a soul in pain; for the cherished memory of our closest and dearest partners, friends and family who, though an unexplained and miraculous compassion, stick with us to the bitter end. 

This day is yours.

On Easter, many of my friends and colleagues will deliver beautiful homilies on the resurrection of Christ and the triumph of light over the forces of darkness, and they are right to do so.  Love will prevail, and the cycle will go on.  But on this Easter vigil, I would like to draw your attention to the wearying role of the caregiver, because there dwells in those compassionate beings a golden brilliance that is obscured by the darkness of their task. Their images are hidden by their light.

Not giving up hope and dignity in our final hours in the flesh is something that is a true challenge.  Having seen quite a lot of sickness and death in the past couple of years, nothing will make me forget the sound of rattled breathing or the softly distant expression of a person at death's door.  It was not sadness or terror that filled the air with the presence of the angel of death. It was a spirit of relief, of peace in the knowledge that a beloved soul had found release from the pain of this world.  In that peace, there is an unexplainable distance that seems to hold you spellbound to its timelessness. It is in these few moments that the beloved who had been suffering slips away from the world of forms.

And there, the caregiver sits in silence knowing that there is one less soul in the room. Until we meet again in the spirit, we realize that this is the last goodbye, and we mourn.  But the caregiver picks up the phone.  The caregiver, like a modern day myrrhbearer, prepares the body for its last dignities and rites.  The myrrhbearer's work is never finished. Life must go on until there are no more tears to wipe, or wounds to clean.  

When all hope had ceased, and the world darkened and hushed in the wake of pitiless cruelty, the myrrhbearers did not stop caring. When all the apostles and disciples left the scene of death in mourning, some people stayed, and others returned at the first break of dawn with more lamps, spices, incense and myrrh.  The myrrhbearer's work is never finished. 

If there was ever a list of men and women who lived the new commandment to love one another as their slain rabbi had loved them, it would be those who were with him in his last agony, took down his body, washed and tended his wounds, prepared the tomb, and returned to stand vigil that early Sunday morning when all hope was lost.  The myrrhbearer's work is never finished.

At our Easter tables, let us remember our myrrhbearers. Let us remember those among us who, like Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Joses, Mary, the wife of Cleopas, Martha of Bethany, Sister of Lazarus, Mary of Bethany, Sister of Lazarus, Joanna, the wife of Chuza the steward of Herod Antipas, Salome, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Susanna, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus, will love us even when we are no longer able to express our love in return.  

The myrrhbearer's work is never finished. 


Image:  Mikhail Nesterov The Empty Tomb (1889)