Archive for Plotinus

Emerging from the Desert

Plotinus by Sybil Archibald
Plotinus by Sybil Archibald

Form in Void
The tree is stripped,
All color, fragrance gone,
Yet already on the bough,
Uncaring spring!
Ikkyu Sojun 15th century

Three years ago, my family and I moved from the Northeastern United States to Florida. This summer we returned to the north- a circle complete, a spiritual trial survived.

We headed south seeking warmer weather and improvement in my health. My husband’s business closed so we sold our home and moved to paradise with a smile, happy to leave the busy northern pace and the weight of our possessions. More than anything, we sought a simplified life with deeper connections to one another and less stress.

I undertook this journey with an open heart. I was happy to begin a new adventure, but was blindsided by what happened. Within a month of moving I contracted shingles on my left eye and for 3 years my health related challenges never settled down. For example, my esophagus stopped working and I had a long period where I had to be on a liquid diet. These various issues kept me pretty much in bed. Under the circumstances, I found it difficult to meet people and became removed from the flow of life around me.

My life was literally stripped of everything but my family and my art. Friends, my house, my garden, life as I knew it had evaporated and I had no ability to replace it. It was definitely not what I expected upon moving to paradise and you won’t be surprised to hear that I experienced many dark days and nights.

At the time it seemed unfair and unbearable. Now, however, I see the reason. After meditating on the early desert fathers of Christianity, it is clear why I needed to be separated from my active life. The desert fathers believed that social interaction interfered with spiritual growth. They escaped into solitude deep in the desert. In In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Treasures of the World’s Religions), John Chryssavgis writes:

“Desert” (eremos) literally means “abandonment”; it is the term from which we derive the word “hermit”.…The desert signified death: nothing grows in the desert. Your very existence is, therefore, threatened. In the desert you will find no one and no thing. In the desert, you can only face up to yourself and to every aspect of your self, to your temptations, and to your reality. You confront your own heart, and your heart’s deepest desires, without any scapegoat, without any hiding place.…After all, you cannot hide in the desert; there is no room for lying or deceit there. Your very self is reflected in the dry desert, and you are obliged to face up to this self.…The desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not of personal retreat. It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace. It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape. It is a place of repentance, not recuperation. Living in the desert does not mean living without people; it means living for God. Antony and the other desert dwellers never forgot this.

The desert fathers forced themselves to face who they truly were, to wrestle and triumph over their demons. I was not so brave. I didn’t willingly undertake the loss of everything as they did, but none the less, this is what happened. I was left with myself alone. Everything that I ran to escape, the anxieties, the pain, the loss was there to greet me.

For many years this blog charted not only my spiritual journey, but my struggle to make art. When I lived up north, the pain of making art was hard to bear. It brought up my internal struggles, grief and anger: all these years in bed while careers were made and lives lived. In Florida, after about a year of being forced to sit with all of these feelings, they began to trickle away. Even my fear of being immersed in the creative process began to melt. I finally surrendered and art became my lifeline as it was in the beginning and always should have been.

I would rest up for days and then drag myself into the studio. Gradually it happened, I began to hit my stride again. This feeling I hadn’t had in 15 years of illness began to creep over me. I was in the process of becoming the vessel I always longed to be. I felt the creativity surge through me. I felt life begin again inside.

Now that I’m back in the Northeast, I’ve left the desert and returned to the true land of paradise; here where my association to others is strong and my friends are happy to see me. My material possessions- my garden and house are gone but my connection to life is restored. I have to be grateful for the difficulties and pain I experienced in Florida, because in journeying through I found myself again. The desert ends up being a beautiful place. I have unearthed that space within that acts as a door between heaven and earth. It is an entrance for creativity to flow from the Divine into the material world. I am only one of many, many doors, but it gives me heart to go on. My job is to protect that space from the busyness of everyday life; to grow it like the garden I once had, a desert transformed.

Here are some examples of what I’m currently working on:

St. Francis of Assisi (Dimension: 55″x 18″) / The Pregnant Virgin Mary ( Dimensions: 55″x 18″ )
St. Francis by Sybil Archibald The Pregnant Virgin Mary by Sybil Archibald
Click the images for more views and closeups.
St. Teresa of Avila
St. Teresa by Sybil Archibald St. Teresa by Sybil Archibald
For more of my new work check my online gallery.

The Feminine Aspect of the Divine

Goddess of Willendorf

Since yesterday I quoted a mystic who has such a strong sense of the masculine aspect of God, I thought a little balance was in order:

God is a Woman,
I am Her doll.
She is my Love,
She is my All.
-Sri Chinmoy

I have often talked here about my sense of the creative nature of God in feminine terms. I have spoken of the artist’s need to enter into the Womb of God, in order to access Divine creativity. This Womb is a state of pre-Being and is described by Plotinus as “the One”. His use of the term “the One” is wonderful because it is gender neutral. The ultimate act of creativity is when the One emanates or births, Being, everything that is. If an artist can tap into this eternal process, it will add untold power and healing potential to their works.

Often as I write here, I question my use of the word “God” as excessively limiting. I love Eckhart’s admonishment to discard “God” as an idea to allow something greater than we can conceive to connect with us. There is an interesting post on Tim Victor’s blog discussing this very problem. He suggests a term “Godde” as a combination of God and Goddess. I am considering adopting it but it still feels too limiting to me. When I pray, I always say God/Goddess/All That Is, but this may be too cumbersome for writing purposes.

All human definitions and description of the Divine are so very limited, but it concerns me that we limit ourselves unnecessarily by giving God a gender attribute. Of course the Divine has a glorious masculine aspect, this is Being, the active principle. But let us not cut ourselves off from the Womb and stillness.

I’d love your thoughts on the terms you use for the Divine.

Behold, Mary,
you who increase life,
who rebuilds the path,
You who confused death
and wore down the serpent,
To you Eve raised herself up,
her neck rigid with inflated arrogance.

You strode upon this arrogance
while bearing God’s Son of Heaven,
through whom the spirit of God breaths.

O gentle and loving Mother,
I behold you.
For Heaven released into the world
that which you brought forth.

This one,
through whom the spirit of God breaths.

Glory to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

And to this one,
through whom the spirit of God breaths.
-Hildegard of Bingen

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A bit of good news: Heather’s Poor Excuse is back up and running.

The Spiritual Earth

Earth from Moon
The greatest spiritual crisis facing humanity today is rectifying our relationship to the Earth. Sadly, our culture has taught us that physicality and spirituality are incompatible. Thomas Berry, an amazing contemporary theologian, describes our collective state like this:

The earth process has been generally ignored by the religious-spiritual currents of the West. Our alienation goes so deep that it is beyond our conscious mode of awareness. While there are tributes to the earth in the scriptures and in Christian liturgy, there is a tendency to see the earth as a seductive reality, which brought about alienation from God in the agricultural peoples of the Near East. Earth worship was the ultimate idolatry, the cause of the Fall, and thereby the cause of sacrificial redemption by divine personality. Thus, too, the Christian sense of being crucified to the world and living only for the savior. This personal savior orientation has led to an interpersonal devotionalism that quite easily dispenses with earth except as a convenient support for life.

My interest in spirituality and mysticism lies primarily in the via negativa. I’m here to tell you that the via negativa and physicality, the Earth, are compatible. In fact they are integral to one another.

The mystic who embraces the via negativa tells us that God is unknowable, greater than anything our mind can conceive. We must therefor remove our mind from the equation, releasing all our ‘ideas’ of God and surrender our need to control. We must surrender any limits that our small minds might place on the unlimited Divine. We must not even will to will ‘God’s’ will.

Because this path often requires a withdrawal in silence, it is falsely thought of as an escape from the world. It is not an escape from material reality; rather, it is a complete surrender into it. God and material reality, our Earth, are inseparable. Naturalist John Muir, though not a practitioner of the via negativa can still help us begin to understand the fundamental link between Earth and God. John Muir

These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty,
no petty personal hope or experience has room to be . . . . the whole
body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire
or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all
one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure
glow not explainable. One’s body then seems homogeneous
throughout, sound as a crystal.
– John Muir

The Franciscan mystic Bonaventure (13th century) described all of creation as a vestige, a footprint, of God. Plotinus (3rd century CE) tells us that God emanates form, creation, without ceasing. Eckhart (14th century) describes God as self-generating, creating without cease. He believes that there was a sort of womb of God which he calls “the Abyss of God” which “… remains forever unique, uniform, and self-generating.” The practitioner of the via negativa seeks entrance to this womb, but it is with the understanding that they will not stay there in the place of no thing, they cannot. This womb is a place of constant birthing, of constant creation. By returning to this place, the mystic is “decreated” (see Tauler) and created at once. There is nothing that is created that is not the Divine. Sufi mystic Sheikh Nur Al Jerrahi (Lex Hixon) of blessed memory, puts this beautifully:

The heart is the spring at the center of a clearing within the uncharted forest of creation. Here, what is human, irradiated by Divine Love, transforms into what is Divine. There is nothing other than perfect humanity-which is simply the conscious realization that God alone exits. (p.372)

God alone exists, thus Earth, rain, illness, grass, everything is God. Eckhart also confirms this view: “Ego, the word ‘I’ is proper to no one but God alone in his uniqueness.”

TreeIf God alone exists, that means that everything that is is God, Being. Thus we do a deep disservice to ourselves and to God by denying our relationship to the Earth. As Thomas Berry says,” Not to recognize the spirituality of the earth is to indicate a radical lack of spiritual perception in ourselves.” Berry goes on the say that:

We need to understand that the earth acts in all that acts upon the earth. The earth is acting in us whenever we act. In and through the earth spiritual energy is present. This spiritual energy emerges in the total complex of earth functions. Each form of life is integrated with every other life form.

Illumination from the Scivias by Hildegard of Bingen

Our very spiritual nature is dependant on our embrace of the Earth. By denying it, we deny ourselves and the Divine. Hildegard of Bingen tells us that creation is linked to viriditas, a term which Matthew Fox translates roughly as greening power. Hildegard says that “the word is all verdant greening, all creativity.” Hildegard understands that God is fundamentally creative and the material and the Divine are fused because of the act of creation.

There is no creation that does not have a radiance. Be it greenness or seed, blossom or beauty, it could not be creation without it.

As an artist, the act of creation is especially present for me. But it is there in every moment of every life, not just the artist’s, if we allow it. Moon from EarthHumanity has but to step out of the way and let the unceasing creativity of the Divine flow though us. Stepping out of the way means letting go of control. Period. We cannot say ‘I’ll let God direct my life” while still draining and destroying the Earth, because God is the Earth. God is alone, there is nothing which is not God. While we fight for control of our planet, we dam up the joyous flow of Light and Creativity into the world. For us to become “all verdant and greening” we need do nothing but accept what is, our physicality and deep spiritual connection to the Earth. I leave you with the words of biologist Elisabet Sahtouris who has worked to heal the divide between science and religion:

Our human task now is to wake up and recognize ourselves as parts or aspects of God-as-Nature and behave accordingly. All are One, all harm harms each of us, all blessings bless each of us.

[Speaking to a congregation] I urged them to occasionally see themselves as the creative edge of God (a phrase I learned from a dear friend) — as God looking out through their eyes, acting through their hands, walking on their feet, and to observe how that changed things for them…

dirt

Note: Over the next few weeks I will be adding a page to this site entitled Earth, with more views and resources on this line of thinking.

Sister Wendy, Plotinus & Beauty in Art

Yesterday there was a fascinating interview with Sister Wendy on The Huffington Post. I want to highlight two things she said. The first relates to praying in the tradition of the via negativa. When asked how she prays, Sister Wendy says:

I go about it as I think everyone should go about it. I look to God and let him love me. Prayer is God’s business, not everyone’s business. That’s where mistakes are made: people think they’re responsible. Just be quiet and let God draw you into his peace.

Beautiful! The second interesting quote regards finding the Divine in art:

When I realized that one could talk about the beauty of art and so show people the beauty of God without using a word that might frighten them…People that don’t believe in God are in contact with him when they are looking at him, at beauty. God is found in all art. Ballet dancing, hunting scenes, Carraveggios. Wherever you’ve got this great power of beauty, you’ve got God.

That’s an interesting way of looking at it. The mystical tradition would say that there is nothing which is not God. God is present everywhere (see my post on this here) even in a scrap of discarded trash. But I think Sister Wendy is getting at something deeper here, things that are “traditionally” beautiful can open a closed soul in a gentle way. There is value in gentleness.

This is not to say all art should fit traditional norms of beauty (if such a thing exists).There can be great beauty in pain and sorrow as St. Francis teaches us with his rose scented stigmata. If my goal is to bring a greater experience of the Divine into world, it must by necessity be done with beauty because the Divine is Absolute Beauty. All beauty reflect Beauty. As Plotinus says:

When one discerns in the bodily, the Idea that binds and masters matter of itself formless and indeed recalcitrant to formation, and when also detects an uncommon form stamped upon those that are common, then at a stroke one grasps the scattered multiplicity, gathers it together, and draws it within oneself to present it there to one’s interior and indivisible ones as concordant, congenial, a friend….
Plotinus, Enneads I, 6{1} Beauty

Here, the “Idea” is form that gives existence to physical matter. For Plotinus form is emanated directly from the Divine and therefore the entire material world is united, bound together by true and absolute Beauty. The trick for artists is how deeply
we move toward uncovering absolute Beauty, how much can we polish the mirror of the world.

Ouroboros

Yesterday I had a doctor’s appointment. It seemed like a normal appointment until, in the middle of a technical discussion, my doctor described one of my symptoms as a serpent with its tail in its mouth. I was floored. To hear an allopathic doctor refer to an ancient mystical symbol was completely unexpected.

The symbol of a serpent with its tail in its mouth, or Ouroboros (Auroboros/Uroboros), dates back to 1,600 BCE in Ancient Egypt but has been used at many times and in many cultures. I am most familiar with it from from medieval & alchemical manuscripts. (For an interesting discussion by contemporary alchemists click here.)

The Ouroboros contains so many meanings: the circular, cyclical nature of time, regeneration and rebirth, and all is one to name a few. My doctor used this symbol to describe a situation that once started, feeds on itself. He described it like a storm, once it starts it continues going round and round much like a tornado or “a snake with its tail in its month”.

If the Ouroboros contains the meaning that all ‘existence’ is one, one of its meanings must be Divine Intelligence. According to Plotinus, the One (emptiness, non-existence, & the womb of God) emanates Divine Intelligence, which is primal existence, pure Being. The Intelligence then emanates more forms, but It is the first division with the Godhead. Before it there is Nothingness, non-being. That the Ouroboros represents the oneness of “all existence” means it must necessarily represent the One’s first emanation: the Intelligence. Divine Intelligence or Reason cannot be comprehended by man. It seems, much like a tornado, to be a state of complete chaos. The moments of chaos in our lives, therefore, are moments when we come closest to knowing God’s existence.

I have always understood that my physical ailments are divinely sent. They have been my greatest teacher, my Guru so to speak, my guide into the hidden mysteries of life. But, sometimes this can be forgotten in the daily grind of life. Yesterday, in a phrase, the symbol of the Ouroboros reminded me of the gift I have been given: the closeness of my embrace with the Divine.

Update: As with most symbols, this one works on many levels. On one level it represents the Intelligence, but on another level it can represent the One as well. It is the union of opposites, the end (the tail) and the beginning (the head) at the same time. Its circularity recalls the Womb of God, the nothingness, precipitated by holding two opposites as one, which births forth the Universe. During the medieval period they also spoke of this state as the squared circle.

The Womb of God & the Artist

This is so radical:

When I stood in my first cause, I then had no “God,” and then I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing, for I was an empty being, and the only truth in which I rejoiced was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted; and so I stood, empty of God and everything. But when I went out from my own free will and received my created being, then I had a “God,” for before there were any creatures, God was not “God,” but he was what he was. But when creatures came to be and received their created being, then God was not “God” in Himself, but he was “God” in the creatures. (p. 200) Meister Eckhart (13th century German Christian Mystic)

Eckhart is telling us that the idea of “God” blocks God. Words, ideas, even knowing itself is another veil between the soul and God. He wants us to go deeper into God, to release everything- ourselves, God, even the will to do God’s will. In doing so, he directs us to the womb of God, to Pre-Being. The womb of God eternally births God as Being, Reason, etc. all the active attributes of God. It is everything in potentiality. Eckhart’s idea echoes Plotnius’ concept of the One that emanates the Intelligence.

So where is the artist in this? Eckhart is giving us a road map to tap the creative well of the Divine. In releasing everything, language, wants, attachments, we will ultimately connect to that place within us that birthed us. This is the Womb of God, a state of Pre-Being which births forth the Universe eternally. It is the ground, the basis, cause of all form and of existence itself. To contact that ground within ourselves causes an immediate creative birth or emanation. If an artist finds this place, their creative output is assured. Eckhart describes this state thus:

If it could be that a fly had reason and could with its reason seek out eternal depths of the divine being from which it issued, I say God, with all that he has as he is “God,” could not fulfill or satisfy the fly. So therefore let us pray to God to be free of “God,” and that we may apprehend and rejoice in the everlasting truth in which the highest angel and the fly and the soul are equal- there where I was established, where I wanted what I was what I wanted. (p. 200)

St. John of the Cross & the Artist

Of the Divine Word
Pregnant with the holy
Word will come the Virgin
Walking down the road
If you will take her in.

(The original Spanish is so much better…)
Del Verbo divino
La Virgen prenada
viene de carmino
si le dias posado.
St. John of the Cross

This beautiful poem is a road map for what a spiritual artist must do to hook into the flow of Divine creativity. The fundamentally creative nature of the Universe is represented here as the pregnant Virgin. Her pregnancy is physical creativity in potentiality. Her virginity is the state of her mind and soul; it has nothing to do with her sexuality. The pregnant Mary instructs us on how to make ourselves ready to receive the creative spirit. We must make ourselves as virgin ground, unstamped by the traumas & desires of life. We must be open and hold ourselves empty in order to be filled. St John reminds us that this is all that is necessary for the Divine to enter into us. It is the nature of the Divine to create, or as Plotinus would say, to emanate form. If we allow the Divine in, our own creative output is assured and, more importantly, sacred. It is the moment of creation, the intimacy an artist can feel with God that is the object. It is that union, which without effort, spontaneously produces the form which will be come a physical work of art. What’s more, art that is produced in this way captures the resonance of that experience and can, on some level, transmit some of that energy to its viewer. This is the ideal that the spiritual artist must continually strive for.

Plotinus

I’m deep into my copy of the Essential Plotinus.

This quote from “Contemplation” says everything to me about what it means to make art:

Were one to ask Nature why it produces, it might-if willing-thus reply:”You should never have put the question. Silently, as I am silent and little given to talk, you should have tried to understand…that what comes to be is the object of my silent contemplation: mine is a contemplative nature. The contemplative in me produces the object contemplated much as geometricians draw their figures while contemplating. I do not draw. But, contemplating, I drop within me the lines constitutive of bodily forms. Within me I preserve traces of my source that brought me into being. They too were born of contemplation and without action on their own part gave birth to me.

Plotinus is a genius, obviously! He describes so perfectly how an artist can go inside to find and connect with those “traces” of our Divine Source. By contemplating (observing & being with) these traces we automatically tap into them, resonate with their fundamentally generative nature. Creativity pours forth “without action”. This means without forcing it, naturally without pain or struggle. This is probably anathema. Artists are supposed to suffer, how can you be an artist with out pain? This model of creativity opens the possibility of creation in a new way. The journey inside is not paddling up river, it’s plugging in.

More on Plotinus later…