Sometimes, something is so well-written that it deserves to be shared even if it isn’t a homily.
When both teacher and students know that the center of their study is neither the one nor the other, but rather the matter at hand; when their whole attention is drawn to what lies before both of them; when they both know neither one is superior or subordinate to the other, but that they are both guided and led by that which bids them to think, they might find themselves surprised—and humbled—by what presents itself to them.
That seems to be what happened to me today, as I tried to wrap up my course in the philosophy of religion. I had already in mind how I was to conclude the course. But one of my more attentive and perceptive students reminded me of a question that he raised in the previous session, but which we didn’t have the time to address as the bell had already rung. So I asked him to bring it up again today. Which of course I forgot.
So there, today he reminded me about it, just as I was about to begin my review and conclusion of the course. At that moment I dropped everything I had planned, sensing that the question was more important. He wondered whether there was a conflict between, on the one hand, Kierkegaard’s infinite passion, the inwardness of the self, and on the other hand, Meister Eckhart’s emptying and detachment (Abgeschiedenheit). Because it seems that when one renounces everything, in radical poverty, when one reaches that state of detachment and emptying of the self, one can no longer bring oneself to be passionate about anything.
But then we saw that perhaps it wasn’t really a conflict or contradiction. What we have rather is a paradox, a mystery. For it is she who has reached the state of detachment who can really be infinitely passionate about something—something that transcends the self. We learn from Eckhart that the breakthrough takes place precisely in detachment. That same breakthrough allows one to be infinitely passionate about what transcends the self.
Perhaps this very paradox, this mystery (that is to say, of the self, of human freedom), is the one that can tie the whole course together, from Simone Weil—who spoke of waiting, and the development of the faculty of attention (waiting and the exercise of attention also demand emptying and detachment)—through Kierkegaard, all the way to Eckhart.
That is also perhaps the story of Christmas—the event when God emptied Himself of everything, in complete detachment from Himself, the very same emptying and detachment that allowed Him to manifest His infinite passion, from the moment He lay in the manger, until He opened His arms and His heart on the Cross.
In this Season of Advent, we are not being asked to understand this mystery. For that is beyond all our understanding. Rather, we are simply being invited to dwell in it, the way the shepherds did on that first day of Christmas.
Dr Remmon Barabaza teaches philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila University.