Don’t burn that book!

If you ever kept a diary or journal in adolescence and came across it years later,you know from personal experience the unique sort of cringe produced when faced with one’s own primitive attempts to be articulate, sincere and truthful.

And just in time for Valentine’s Day, click below for the latest research on meditation and love from the laboratories of the “Georgetown of Connecticut”: 

Of the many thousands of diaries started by tweens and teens every year, almost equal numbers are surely destroyed by their panicked authors a few years later. Happy (or at least relieved) is the erstwhile diarist who at such a moment can say with confidence, “Thank God nobody but me has ever seen this!” Book-burning never seemed so enlightened and appropriate, even to the most broad-minded. Although most diaries record the gray succession of uneventful days, it is usually the intense emotional moments that we care about – the awkward recording of first love, family crises, personal perspectives on events of the day, occasional insights into how the world works, and so forth. A diary is evidence of a personal effort to understand life’s experiences – or to survive them, explain them or justify them – and memorialize them for the future.

An intense experience that is not reflected somewhere in words or images, even only approximately, can rarely be effectively integrated into our psyche or into the larger fabric of our personal history. Therapeutic psychology, psychiatry, spiritual direction, counseling, and many other cognitive or psychic healing arts are predicated on this idea. First we describe or render what has happened or is happening. Then we explore its meaning within the universe of other meanings in our life – and in so doing perhaps find a way to mitigate, change or even enhance its impact on us.  Myths and sacred scriptures serve a similar function at the level of a whole people or civilization. They are, in a certain sense, the diaries of humanity. And, if you believe in a gradual evolution in human consciousness analogous to that of an individual, some of humanity’s early records produce the same sort of cringe that our own adolescent writing does.

In the Bible, for example, “fear of the Lord” is said to be the ”beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs, 9:10), a characteristic of the “blameless and upright man” (Job 2:3), and is highly recommended in dozens of other places. The contemporary mind, however, recoils at this language. Is fear, we wonder, really so central to our relationship with God? It is impossible to finesse this endorsement of fear by saying that it had a different meaning then than it does now, perhaps something such as “awe” or “respect.” Fear of the Lord in our English version of the Bible is almost always a translation of some variant of the Hebrew word yirah, a term that does encompass awe and respect in its field of meaning – along with dread, dismay, and other ominous possibilities. So, yes, it’s awe and respect, but of the sort the boss of the crime family expects when he enters the room. If we are wise enough to know what’s good for us, we’ll look awed and show him lots of respect.

John Main, the Irish Benedictine monk after whom our meditation center at Georgetown is named, took a vow of obedience, as all monks do. Obedience is a concept and a word that go back to the very origins of his monastic order. And yetMain had the audacity to argue, in a talk to fellow monks a few years before he died, that the traditional language of monasticism and spirituality had to be rethought. “Obedience,” he said, “is a bankrupt term.” It no longer had currency, he thought, no longer had value to move people to action. He proposed “responsiveness” as a more appropriate, contemporary equivalent of the word obedience.

So what do we do? Throw out great chunks of the Bible if we find the language and the consciousness it represents too archaic? Jettison the Rule of St. Benedict and its bankrupt terms? Burn our old diaries?

It would be a pity and a great mistake if we did. These old texts show that fearis gradually being superseded by love, compassion and forgiveness in our understanding of our relationship to the divine. Responsiveness is slowly emerging as the new meaning of obedience. Sacred texts are sacred at least in part simply because they tell our story. Like our diaries, they prove – with some cringes along the way – that consciousness can and does evolve. And good thing, too: we’ve still got a long way to go!

Gregory Robison
Director