Thursday 11 August 2016

Written in Water #19: Enlightenment

A meditation. A confession.

I fell in love with you late, beauty so antique and so new; I fell in love with you late.
And see, you were within, and I was without, and it was outside I went searching for you. And I, ugly, dove into the pretty things you made. You were with me; I was not with you. Things held me in a place far from you, things which would not exist at all if they didn't exist in you.
You called and cried out and broke through my deafness.
You blazed and you shone and you chased away my blindness.
You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath, and I breathe in you.
I tasted, and I hunger, and I thirst.
You touched me and I burn for your peace.
Augustine, Confessions X. 27. 38

The Confessions of Augustine, written sometime near to 400CE, is in part an autobiography, but is also an account of the spiritual life of the author, and, finally, his conception of God and his experience of enlightenment. Of conversion.

Its transition from fairly direct autobiographical narrative to mystic journey into the idea of God comes at precisely this point, and from here on in, the Confessions in their final four and a bit books travel into the realms of idea, into the heart of existence, with a personal confession of the moment where everything changed for Augustine, and hence the moment where everything changes for his life story.

Enlightenment is a weird thing. It transforms language, or our experience of language, from something commonplace and bland into something transformative, fundamental to our sense of self.

An enlightenment, which might be framed as a religious or political conversion, a shattering magical ritual, or a profound spiritual experience, is the intersection between something moving inside ourselves and an external stimulus. A lot of psychological research has been done on what causes it, and a deal of literary research has been done on how it's described in narrative (and I know that because some of that research was by me), but in the end it's important to take away that what changes us changes us because we were ready to be changed. We were ready. A thing inside us, a package of something explosive, needs to meet the thing in the world outside that will detonate it.

If you've ever been subject to one of these experiences, it's often impossible at the time to understand how much of our enlightenment came from within. Evangelical Christians often tell enthusiastic converts "You can't argue people into the Kingdom," but of course the new zealot believes utterly that this is in fact exactly what has happened to them, that they have heard an argument that trumps all others; they repeat it to everyone who will listen as if it were a magical incantation, a wand which when it strikes the unconvinced, will transform the unbeliever into a believer, too. Of course it doesn't.

It works for things other than religion too; I've lost count, for example, of the newly minted atheists I've met who've quoted the bon mots of Dawkins and co verbatim, repeatedly, as if they're shining torches into the night of unreason, magic reason-beams that will save you from the darkness of religion with one zap. Of course, you can't argue a person into becoming someone else, but of course the New Atheist enterprise is superficially all about reason, and you try and tell a convinced New Atheist that he wasn't just argued into transforming his attitude to life. It's the biggest myth of liberal discourse that people can be reasoned into changing who they are (and of course the basis of darker, pernicious ideas about love and hate and relationships that stick to the edges of our society like that black stuff that you can never quite eradicate from the edges of your bathtub).

("But Richard Dawkins is right!" someone will say. But the truth or even the factual basis of a belief is entirely irrelevant to the effect it has on a person.)

For most people these phrases, regardless of whether it's John 3:16 or that line about the pointlessness of looking for fairies at the bottom of the garden, are just words, and the new evangelist hits a stage of disillusionment, which might mean that they settle down and realise that something else is at play, and rebuild themselves around that, or they try endless refinements of the transformative truth in the hopes of bringing others to the place that they had been brought to (a tactic not without success, certainly enough success that it keeps some people going for a lifetime), or they begin to doubt sufficiently to give up the whole faith after a season as a bad lot.

I've seen them all. Hell, I've been at least one of them myself.

On the 5th October 1994, at about 8.45pm, a boy said something to me that was banal and to be honest probably not even theologically correct in any traditional expression of Christology, but at the time it turned me upside down. It remade me. I am not that boy anymore, and actually I left behind that particular expression of faith pretty quickly, but I never unconverted. I have never been quite able to shake the profound reach of that moment upon me, and although my beliefs have changed (and deeply), I exist in its context. It is the single most shattering moment of my life. In some ways it began the path from adolescence to adulthood. It made me who I am. If I cannot do other than to say that I am still a practising member of at least one religion, it is because, for all the disillusionments that have changed me since, that one moment never lost its hold on me.

I think I was twenty when I first came across the Augustine passage above, and I've returned to it over and over and translated it several times, each time unsatisfyingly. In the Latin it's beautiful, its cadences and rhythms and symmetries conducive to, well, a small restatement of that original moment of enlightenment.

I asked for it to be read (in one of my translations) at my wedding.

I think it's the nearest anything I've read comes to describing the indescribable, the moment of being transformed by an idea. Except of course, if you've never experienced a moment of transforming enlightenment, can it even describe that?

I don't know. As much as I suspect it's impossible to describe the experience of enlightenment to one who has not seen enlightenment, it works the other way, too. The moment that this mixture of internal and external forces makes its change in you it becomes literally impossible to conceive what it was like for you without it. Even the experience of disillusionment doesn't remove that. You never truly go back.

I was transformed. I experienced myth. I left the world of the rational behind forever.

I was annihilated and remade. The implications of this scare me sometimes.