Wednesday, April 22, 2009

There and Back, Part 4: Reading the Entrails

For many years in New York City, I lived in a neighborhood that was chockablock with classical musicians. There were four opera singers, for instance, in my building alone (one was my upstairs neighbor, with whom I tried to coordinate our practice schedules), and scores more lived up and down the street and on the surrounding blocks. There were also many instrumentalists, composers, and conductors around. Another neighbor, two flights up in my building, was a violinist who was also a colleague in my doctoral program; and to rehearse for the many concert gigs I had in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I simply walked around the corner to my recital pianist's apartment. It wasn't until later that the neighborhood became hip; a high density of classical musicians living in an area for cheap rent and proximity to the music schools, concert venues, and teachers of the West Side does decidedly little for a neighborhood's hipness, since classical musicians are themselves mostly not hip at all. But there was a palpable sense of artistic comradeship and shared purpose in the community. At rush hour, one squeezed into seats next to fellow-travelers studying Schirmer opera scores as they listened to Discmans on their way to temporary office jobs, and it wasn't unusual, when walking down the street on warm days, to hear the sounds of many voices and instruments practicing through the open windows of apartment buildings.

I became close friends with one of my singer neighbors, N., a beautiful and gifted soprano who lived in my building. Also a wind player, she had earned degrees in both opera and oboe at prestigious conservatories. We were constantly in and out of each other's apartments. She would drop in on Sunday nights, and I would make us tea while we had deep heart-to-heart talks, mostly about men and heartbreak, which were as constant in our conversation as they were inevitable in our lives. In spite of her beauty, intelligence, and tremendous drive, N. had no better luck than I at holding onto romantic relationships. This phenomenon was an accepted hazard among young women of our set, class, and time. Although we longed for what we hardly dared admit were husbands, we were close to giving up. The men of our set simply had few compelling reasons to marry, and many compelling reasons not to.

N.'s father had been a rage-filled alcoholic, as well as a professional pornographer. Like me, she dabbled in occult practices -- astrology for her, tarot cards for me -- that were passed off as innocent, and that gave us some sense that we could understand and control our lives. I remember the last time I read tarot cards, a practice I had vowed to discontinue after being confirmed in 2003, was for N. I reluctantly agreed on this occasion, shortly after Confirmantion, as she was deeply troubled and believed that seeing tarot pictures laid out might give her some sort of road map through her sorrow. I felt a physical chill while peering at her cards, and had to put on a sweater.

In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. This document warns that, while some practices, even Christian ones, "automatically produce a feeling of quiet . . . [and] perhaps even phenomena of light and warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being [to] take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life." Cardinal Ratzinger goes further to warn:

Giving [these phenomena] a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead ot psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.

This was the problem for N. and me. We sincerely wanted to know God better, to know His will for us, to know His love for us, and to do the right thing. But we simply didn't know how. We thought we could draw down His wisdom into our own lives by the practice of gnosis, special knowledge. We tried to read the entrails, but we had no faith. In fact, it was very hard for us to have faith in the midst of lives that were chaotic at best (by the grace of God, I was able, eventually, to find my faith).

In the months before I moved out of the building to get married, N. was in a crash-and-burn relationship of a whole new dimension. She had fallen in love with M., a construction worker and part-time model, a devastatingly handsome man who was also a hopeless drug addict and alcoholic. She tried to keep him sober, but both N. and M. (who was also attracted to gnosticism) held themselves aloof from the poor souls who were forced through hitting rock-bottom to go to twelve-step meetings with non-gorgeous losers in moldy church basements. In a last-ditch effort, they went on a trip to South America, where, under the supervision of a tribal shaman, they ingested hallucinogenic herbs and had visionary experiences that they hoped would not only cure him of his addiction, but would also reveal the paths that they were to take in the future.

When they got back to New York, they were full of purpose. But soon M. was using again and N. was in despair. The final straw was when he called her to his side while he sat up all night freebasing cocaine, and then sent her out for beer in the morning when the bodegas opened so he could come down. After that horrible night she didn't see him for weeks, but then ran into him on the street one day, where he revelaed that he was getting married to a single mother of his acquaintance. They were expecting a child.

I wonder now if occult practices, even if undertaken innocently, inevitably result in tremendous moral disorder in the lives of the practitioners.


Karinann said...

I definitely think there is a link between immorality and occult practices. I dabbled a little myself and while I don't think it was the direct cause of anything I was doing immorally, it definitely contributed. So many of our young people are involved in all sorts of occult practices thinking it very innocent. They are looking for God and don't know it.Unfortunately what they find is sinister and evil.

Pentimento said...

I agree, Karinann. And in N.'s case, the door to evil had been opened wide by those who were supposed to be taking care of her in childhood.

Maclin said...

I was pretty knowledgeable about astrology at one time. I don't think it did me any spiritual harm in the sense that people often mean about the occult--exposing me to demonic influence, leading me into further evil, that sort of thing. In fact, on balance, I'd say it was of a little positive benefit to me, in opening my mind to the possibility of order in the universe, and even more in a negative way, by teaching me something about the lure and hopelessness of gnosticism. The great temptation with astrology was the seeming possibility that you could Figure It All Out, and yet the picture was always shifting and dissolving under one's eyes, because everything was always ambiguous. I saw this and put it aside well before the change of heart that turned into conversion. I can see how one could literally drive oneself crazy trying to cover all the interpretive bases.

I still think it's quite an elegant and fascinating system and am agnostic about whether it does or doesn't have a connection to psychological reality. There are some things in my chart in relation to those of certain other people (e.g. my wife) that are at a minimum thought-provoking.

Maclin said...

p.s. Meant to hit preview, not publish. I was going to say, I didn't practice what was called "horary" astrology--i.e., trying to predict the future with it. Trying to understand the past and present with it was problematic enough. The one or two times I tried horary charts the results were hopelessly ambiguous. And there was always the sense that one might be listening to the Sphinx.

Pentimento said...

I think the great danger of all gnostic practices is that they stoke one's pride in subtle ways.

I've started reading the Gospels (a novel thought!), and they have me banging my head against the wall. What could He possibly have meant by x, y, or z . . . He makes discipleship seem singularly unattractive . . . etc.

And you're absolutely right. Astrology is an elegant system. Tarot cards have beautiful, intriguing pictures on them. I used to read tea leaves and Turkish coffee grouds too. Occasionally I was able to predict the future based on my interpretation of the pictures, but mostly it was, as for you with astrology, about giving a clearer picture of the past and present that came out of it.

The lure of special knowledge is so strong. And these systems for acquiring it, as we know, were practiced and utilized throughout the ancient world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church's main opposition to occult practices seems to be that they put the human striving for special knowledge before trust in God. It's that trust that is so hard for me, and the injunction that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Simplicity is a stumbling-block for some of us, and complex gnostic systems a powerful attraction. But gnosticism was, essentially, the first sin.

I used to know a guy in NYC who read palms. He was very, very skilled. He told me once that the only reason he did it was to help people to know God. I understand his point and I believe he really loved God. But when the great teachers and mystics talk about darkness and nothingness and not-knowing, and when Christ himself says that the only sign that will be given is the sign of Jonah, I think it means we have to give up special knowledge. Easier said than done for some.