The seraphim angels that ring God’s throne are “the ones who burn.’” This came by text from a friend who spotted the “Burning World” issue of Parabola in a Whole Foods in Pittsburgh. “Why do those closest to God have to burn?” I texted back (my friend has spent the last several years studying Christian theology). Do people think of this when they pray to be close to God? My friend sent a text quoting C.S. Lewis, “Why should heaven be boring?”
Yet we do make heaven boring, at least I do. In my midnight projections, I am not just free from anxiety and stress about work and money, I am standing still and serene on a heavenly higher ground above all struggle and uncertainty. I have been around Parabola long enough to know that in Christianity, in Judaism, in Greek mythology, in many religions and ways, to behold God (or the gods, in the case of Greek mythology) is to be incinerated in one way or another. To be close to Truth is to burn. Instead of glossing over this detail which is embedded in many cultures and in the ages, can I accept it investigate it, maybe even embrace it?
Take this down, many notches from God to our own particular human situations. Notice that seeing the truth does sometimes burn. What burns and exactly when? The false “I” burns, and at those moments when we see that we are not what we dream we are, not what we want to project to the world that we are, when we catch ourselves being small. Sometimes life shows us how bound we are by our conditioning–not even integrated creatures but a collection of disparate pieces. And in those moments, we burn, not with the usual egocentric fire the Buddhists label as “greed, hatred, and delusion” but with a purifying internal fire, a fire that sheds light. We can burn with embarrassment or a kind of being shame—or even with a kind of quiet and holy remorse of conscience, which the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff called the most sacred kind of intelligence. Conscience is an intelligence that relates us to the whole.
More and more, I am growing to appreciate how great fiction can capture the inner drama of such moments. One cold night last week, I watched Martin Scorsese’s film version of “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton’s great novel of high society in Old New York in the 1870’s. The film sweeps us through opulent scenes–evenings at the opera, archery contests on Newport lawns, lavish dances and dinners—yet its tale of love experienced and lost is very wrenching and timeless. Viewing it, I understand why Henry James and is friends gave Wharton nicknames like the Eagle and the Angel of Devastation. She shows the truths that burn.
The great Scorsese was lauded for being exquisitely faithful to the novel. (Mr. Scorsese happens to be a Parabola reader and I like to think that his exquisite sensitivity is reflected in his reading Parabola). The hero of “The Age of Innocence,” Newland Archer (played in the film by Daniel Day-Lewis), is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), the innocent and shallow girl his society wants him to marry. But Newland falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), an interesting, independent woman who is never really accepted by Newland’s tribe – and that tribe that smoothly closes ranks to keep the lovers apart.
At the time of the film’s release, Francine Prose wrote about the thrill of watching “Newland discover, Columbus-like, the existence of female intelligence. We see a man schooled to value May Welland’s goodness, docility and malleability slowly realize that he prefers Countess Olenska, a woman with experience, wit, even her own opinions.” Watching it a decade later, I was startled by how well it captures the way we are all trapped by conditions—not by class and social custom but by human nature itself. We are conditioned. “The Age of Innocence”—the book and the film–is art and not life. Yet it conveys those moments in life when we see what is yet also see that we are inextricably bound by our conditioning, that as we cannot change.
Near the end of the film and the book, Newland learns that the Countess Olenska is moving back to Europe. At a farewell party organized by May, now his wife, we watch Newland’s ordinary “I” drown in a flurry of unexpected impressions. Newland suddenly sees that in the eyes of his world he is not the self-sacrificing man he dreams he is. In the words of the novel, “to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers. . . . He guessed himself to have been, for months, the center of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything . . . ”
Nothing has ever happened between the two and nothing ever will. The heart burns, watching the scene because life is like this. It slips away while we yearn and dream we have control. Yet, thankfully, in real life in the midst of such a searing kind of seeing, a new energy can appear, a new willingness to open to what is. These are “clearings” when real change is possible. We notice that we were living in a world of thought, of illusion, and see beyond. There is a flash of direct perception—a seeing through “truths” we have become attached to—that can lead to an opening of the heart. Sometimes, at such a moment it can feel like a new influence is flowing in. There can be forgiveness, a letting go and transcending of all that was previously held to be true in order to take our place in a greater wholeness. We can love and accept ourselves and others as we are, not caring about the judgments of others.
A moment like this, accepting what is without illusion, greed, or aversion, can be wildly freeing and creative. As J.K. Rowling said in a speech at Harvard, in June 2008: “An so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” In such a moment we begin to know who we really are and what we can trust. As Goethe said (at least according to Google): “All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.