Monday, September 27, 2010

What We Are and Where We Are

Man is committed at birth to two journeys. The first he cannot escape, for this is the journey of action and experience as he travels down the stream of his own lifetime and creates—a man of his period, localized in time and space—a story which is an expression, in this particular mode, of his ultimate identity. The second journey, which can—at least in a certain sense—be avoided, is upstream, using time and locality only as starting points, leading beyond their zone. This is the journey described in countless myths and legends, the arduous, perilous way towards the centre of being, the passage from the ephemeral and illusory towards the eternally real. It was to provide a landscape for this journey that the monster Chaos was slain and an ordered world raised from the waters, and it was to provide a negotiable way through this landscape that the prophets labored, Christ died and Muhammed led the people of the City into battle in the Arabian wastes.

In a normal society the circumstances of the first journey provide supports for the second, and it was man's aim in the past to build and maintain a physical and social environment in which every element had a dual character, existing as a ‘thing’ in terms of the first journey, standing as a symbol and signpost in terms of the second. For a very long time now the routes of these two journeys have been diverging, and it is not by chance that the last of the great, world-transforming Revelations laid such particular emphasis upon the duty of pilgrimage: the pious Moslem on his way to Mecca is like a dancer who, by the steps he takes towards the physical symbol of all centrality, acts out the drama of his own inner, timeless journey, just as, in his obligatory prayers, he creates a tiny area of consecrated territory—confined to the dimensions of his prayer-mat—in an environment that has become almost totally profane. From this point of view it might be said that the sacred rules of Islam were specially designed to protect the traveler in a world which no longer offers him any foothold.

But the fact that we find ourselves now in a world in which the two paths have diverged so far that they can scarcely any longer be related to each other is not, in the last analysis, a senseless accident. The human world, being what it is, could only decay in the course of time, but, since decay is itself a necessary aspect of a larger pattern and since there are possibilities which can only find existential expression in such a context as ours, this is where we belong. We live out our lives here and now (rather than in some paradisal environment) because it is our nature to be where we are. And we are told that there are compensations available to such as us which were not available to the less degenerate men of earlier times. "You are in an age in which, if you neglect one-tenth of what is ordered, you will be condemned", the Prophet of Islam told his Companions, "but after this a time will come when he who observes one-tenth of what is now ordered will be saved".

... What We Are and Where We Are, Charles Le Gai Eaton

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