Wachet auf!

The same theme keeps coming back into my mind as I live some very special moments in my life. I have deliberately chosen the title that reminds us of the Bach cantata to which I linked a week ago, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, the voice calls us). We are exhorted to wake up. In which way and from what kind of sleep? Clearly it doesn’t mean the moment at 6 am (or whatever time) when the alarm clock goes off and we climb bleary-eyed out of bed to make coffee and think about the day ahead. It is a much deeper meaning of sleep and waking.

It is an analogy taking from our daily cycle of sleeping and awakening. Sleeping is something we find very pleasant, especially if we are in a warm bed with familiar things around us. Sleep is also essential for life. We return in a way to our mother’s womb, unconsciousness and oblivion, the suspension of all the concerns and worries we have. It is also a “little death” as the office of Compline attests in the psalms, the hymn and final prayer. There is another meaning of sleep, the obliviousness of the realities of our lives and what really needs to be done. Sleep, both real and our intended analogy, are lower states of consciousness. Here are a few lovely lines of John Keats I set to music a couple of years ago:

What, but thee Sleep? Soft closer of our eyes!
Low murmurer of tender lullabies!
Light hoverer around our happy pillows!
Wreather of poppy buds, and weeping willows!
Silent entangler of a beauty’s tresses!
Most happy listener! when the morning blesses
Thee for enlivening all the cheerful eyes
That glance so brightly at the new sun-rise.

The kind of awakening I want to describe is that search for enlightenment, to which a few of us aspire, the highest level of consciousness. There are many states of consciousness, from sleep to drunkenness, our ordinary consciousness of getting that cup of coffee and feeling more human, the effect of psychedelics and higher states of mysticism (whether they can be attributed to God or extraordinary functions of the brain). Sometimes, we experience that sense of oneness with the All like the sailor at sea or Nietzsche’s titan Ubermensch walking the Alps like in the opening of a more recent Frankenstein film. The lone man in his ugliness and suffering in the snow is a powerful archetype.

I have been through a few weeks of extreme stress due to marriage issues, and I have wondered whether I should deal with this as an illness or the vector of a new understanding. Stress, as a doctor will tell us, is a reaction to danger. It is perfectly natural. The adrenalin rises when we are driving a car and an accident situation arises. We jam on the brakes and swerve to avoid the collision, and the worst is avoided (hopefully). For a few moments, we are overcome by a tingling sensation in our whole bodies, an extreme wakefulness, exactly what caused the reflex to slow the car without thinking about it or taking a conscious decision about what to do. This is stress at its most positive. In more emotional situations of life like in marriage or at work, for example, the process is slower than a near accident on the road, and it lasts for longer. Medicine offers various remedies against depression and stress, but are we as well equipped to do something about what is poisoning our lives? Personally, I chose to live with the stress and use it to find a new level of understanding. I refuse the drugs and I know I will be the stronger for it.

Waking up can be the “aha!” moment, when the electric bulb lights up or whichever analogy you choose. Occasionally, we experience something beyond ordinary awareness, an inspiration. The fiddle-string nerves can bring us to seek to transcend the poison, leave hatred and bitterness behind, close the door and find a new world. Here I am reminded of the scene in the film Amadeus, when Mozart’s wife and mother-in-law have an argument. Meanwhile, Mozart quietly goes into his study and continues to work on a composition. It often happens to a man under pressure from feminine emotions – he withdraws into contemplative solitude and enters a different level. Why do men and women have to be so different emotionally and spiritually? We should be complementary, but we are not.

I was extremely struck by the saying of Bernard Moitessier – C’est là, dans l’immense désert de l’Océan Austral, que je sens pleinement à quel point l’homme est à la fois un atome et un Dieu. This was for him an epiphany moment, an experience of God and the All. These past two weeks, I have not been to sea, but practically shut-in at home with a morose wife in the other bedroom. The only escape available to me was the imagination, by which everything is possible. Monastics often tell us that the imagination can lead us into danger, become an addictive drug, but it is also the key to creativity. It takes time for us to know where we are going, and I have that nagging sense of incompleteness. This is something we have to accept, for the process is ongoing. We remember the words of Jesus, “Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High“.

Other concepts of “waking up” are found in the eastern religions, in the practice of Yoga (when done properly). I have not had this kind of experience, and we should indeed be careful not to ask for more than what is good for us.

Waking up is not the same as awareness. We are aware (or should be) of the environment when we drive a car, sail a boat or simply walk downstairs. If we are not, we will have an accident and perhaps even get killed. Clumsiness is a sign of health problems, or simply carelessness about everyday things. I find clumsy and careless people hard to tolerate, because I really do appreciate precision and thought given to everything.

Waking up is something in our deepest being. It seems to us incomplete throughout life, even if it began with some inspiration. It is life-changing and we understand life totally differently. It is not something we can buy or learn during a crash course and get an instant “turn-on” (I don’t mean this in a sexual meaning). This awakening becomes our life vocation whether we are Christians, Buddhists or people who are alienated from any conventional religious tradition but yet seek beyond the noise, apologetics and marketing of those who are desperate to keep their institutions from crumbling financially. However, the awakening is gradual and frustratingly slow.

Our pilgrimages to enlightenment are so diverse, according to our different talents and vocations. In searching for ideas and answers to questions about change and vocation on Google, I discovered the notion of metanoia, the Greek word for change or transformation of mind. The word is used in Christianity to mean conversion, the process of a person turning from his past life to becoming a Christian. The prime example we find is St Paul, the persecutor of Christians falling off his horse, becoming blind and undergoing the transformation that would lead to his Baptism and becoming an Apostle. Psychologists like Jung used the word much more generally in the lives of people. There comes a point of life when we think and understand in a new way. We see a deeper meaning in life, and decisions we made in the past seem so superficial and immature. The “mid-life” crisis is often a sign of this metanoia. Priests leave the priesthood and get married, and formerly married men embrace the solitary life, but not always.

Waking up means emerging from the clouds into clear sunlight, as an aeroplane does after taking off. We learn that we have spent much of our life forcing pain down behind a British stiff upper lip, but it can be used in our regeneration, to become more compassionate to others who suffer more than we do. We need to discover what is within ourselves, especially all the conflicts behaving almost like autonomous personalities setting our aspirations to nought.

If we can arrive at an awaken state, we learn to focus on the essential. I am brought to think of composers like Mozart and Mendelssohn whose attention was precise and surgical. The result of their ability to concentrate and persevere is their abiding music. Our perception of things becomes more subtle and tolerant of imperfections outside ourselves. I do believe that such consciousness will bring us out of complexes and neuroses for which psychiatrists usually prescribe drugs. When the life of spirit is uppermost, one thing I have noticed is the ability to see the “big picture”, understand the things that are really going on in the world and often waved away as conspiracy theories. Indeed, some of the more absurd conspiracy theories are themselves signs of unconsciousness – and idiocy.

One of the most important things for me is being on the edge, challenging conventional thinking. This was a part of the “psychedelic” era when I was a young boy, which I remember as a strange paradox of individualism, silliness and a few true intuitions. Mainstream society emphasises power, money, status, control, efficiency, material growth and suchlike. These things never attracted me, and I was drawn to music, and in time to Catholic Christianity, priesthood and spiritual life.

I was always impressed with the words of Oscar Wilde as he languished in prison: You may realise it when I say that had I been released last May, as I tried to be, I would have left this place loathing it and every official in it with a bitterness of hatred that would have poisoned my life. This thought has been going through my mind these past few weeks. When we emerge from suffering, we must not do so with hatred, but with love for a higher ideal, something that is good and transcendent. Hatred only serves to poison the hater, and evil always flies back in the face of its perpetrator.

One thing this time has given me is patience, the ability not to allow my anxiety force me into rash judgements and actions. Good things come to those who can wait. Change for the better should not frighten us, if it is for the better. The Establishment likes everything to stay the same, the condition of stability. Change and spiritual growth are signs of life. When we are awake, we seek to be authentic, no masks or caricatures, no appearances or trappings beyond what we really are.

I have also had to think about attachments and addiction. It is not only to alcohol, drugs and cigarettes that we can become addicted, but also to things that appear to enhance our personality and fill in the void. One such addiction is that of the “dependent” person on another person, on his or her spouse or family, causing frustration and bitterness. It is the very worst basis of a relationship. X married Y because X needs Y affectively as a “drug” but hasn’t the slightest concern for the well-being, personality or feelings of Y. All Y can do is get out of the relationship however painful that will be, because otherwise he will die spiritually under the stifling toxicity.

Another thing I notice about “The Pit” is that people think nothing will happen unless they make it happen by their rational criteria. Nothing can be left to nature. The Romantic loves the seeming chaos of nature and randomness. The world has its rights independently of man. Being awaken brings us humility, tenderness, compassion and empathy. A couple of days ago when I was shopping, someone jumped ahead of me in the queue. His excuse was that he had left his items at the till and that he returned to the shelf to get something he had forgotten. He was ready for a hard battle to convince me, as if the normal response would be indignation and aggression. I felt no reason to challenge him, and simply let him take his place in front of me. It only cost me a couple of minutes. I feel the same way on the road when driving. Why are people so aggressive? The sense of entitlement one finds with many people is frightening. Christ’s way is humility, which is in truth realism about ourselves – we are both atoms and gods. I have often commented on the contrast between the ideology of strength and will, as found in twentieth-century totalitarianism, and the words and spirit of the Beatitudes – Blessed are the poor in spirit… When we see a handicapped child in a wheelchair or a man with half his face eaten away by cancer, what is our reaction? Should they be euthanised or seen as little angels of God whose spirits are already in the same heaven as Lazarus? Christianity’s weakness becomes its strength.

Waking up is the cure to all our ills, not anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills. I refuse to take either, but rather let the frayed nerves do the waking – that’s what they are for. Unfortunately, waking up is not for everyone. Those with narcissistic and toxic personalities do not have the real basis of self to do this work. The inner reality of a bad personality is the void, the absence of humanity, which is a terrifying indictment for any human being. Was Calvin right? Are some intrinsically devoid of grace and made for damnation? I find that difficult to believe, but such beings obviously exist.

Another idea goes round, which is difficult to challenge with any credibility, the imprisoning effect of some religious ideologies. One purpose of this blog is to expose them so that we can keep and cherish the baby whilst changing the bathwater. Those who are very extroverted are dependent on the approval of others and follow fashions in clothing and consumer habits. “Groupthink” is something really nasty. We would prefer to believe it didn’t exist – but it does and is all around us.

The liturgical year begins with Advent, which is both a moment of awakening and waiting, because knowledge and consciousness only come progressively – just like over centuries with the Jewish people and the Gentiles and adepts of the mystery religions. Waking up is an experience of humanity over the centuries and the decades of our own lives.

In this little piece, I have particularly reflected on the idea of waking up at an individual or personal level. There is also the question of our whole world and humanity. A part of our vocation is get as many people as possible to understand the absurdity of our political and economic system and the suffering it causes through perpetual warfare and support of Islamic terrorism. That might be a vocation for some, and for others among us, we are drawn to the vocation of “white martyrdom”, the call of the cloister or the solitary’s little house of prayer.

I don’t think any of us can really be self-aware of being “awaken”. I have the impression of being conscious of something that can no longer be buried underground or covered up, forgotten or anaesthetised. I have the impression of a long learning curve that will cost me dearly, but yet lead me to a sense of meaning and direction in this absurd life. I wish my readers a similar discovery this Advent and the years and decades during which we wait for God and the dawning Redemption.

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