Blessed are the poor in spirit

Andrew Rockell
Sunday, 27 July 2014

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5.3). Andrew Rockell. Sunday 27 July 2014.


Transcription from audio:


My name is Andrew and the Beatitude I chose is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I chose that one rather than “Blessed are the poor,” from Luke, because that’s reasonably political and straightforward. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” has caused me trouble for years. It’s the Beatitude I least like and the one I most wanted to wrestle with, so I thought I’d do that with a picture. It always seemed to me a very weird sort of thing to want to celebrate, ‘being poor in spirit.’ Like there’s some virtue in your own self-nullification. And if you’re of a disposition that can do that at home, why make a virtue of it religiously? 


Recently, I came across the idea that being poor in spirit might be about non-possessiveness. ‘Poor’: you don’t own anything, you don’t have anything. And something to do with a contemplative virtue of non-attachment. So, you get your lust, your rage, your greed, your bitterness, you suffering - you just don’t cling to them. That’s nice. Seems a bit more humane. But somewhere, still a wrong note. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with this line. Then, the idea that all of our English translations are translations from the Greek. And the Greek itself may, perhaps, be a translation of something Jesus said in Aramaic. Something happening in Aramaic that couldn’t quite make its way into the Greek without the Greek shattering. So “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” goes this thesis, is the best the Greek could do to make sense of entirely other categories. 


Unpacking the Aramaic we get something slightly odd, that translates into something like “Blessed are those who are refined in the breathing, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The ‘kingdom of heaven,’ is also a bit of a problem. It has erotic dimensions you wouldn’t expect and which we won’t go into in a church service! (But attend to the text version on the website.) [To be appended]. It’s probably more accurately translated ‘the queendom of heaven.’ It’s a feminine dimension of God. Still, as a feminine dimension of God, it’s still a metaphor. For the ability to do something. To have an idea, or a vision of something and be able to enact it, without impediment, as only royalty can. So it’s the ‘I Can’-ness, of God. 


“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is so off-kilter from we can manage to do with it in English. It’s something like, “There is this large, vast, luminous expanse that is the Ground of your Being. You plug into it when you breathe.’ More particularly, you plug into it when you pay attention to your breath. Conscious breathing. Which is fascinating to me, having spent quality time in a variety of other religions. I was always interested that in each of the other religions I experimented with there was a basic practice of breath-meditation. In Christianity, there didn’t seem to be one. Which is a very curious thing, given that we have an ur-myth in Genesis, about God breathing into the human to make the human alive. And it’s not just breath that is breathed into the human. It’s a particular kind of breath. It is the ‘breath within the breath.’ Which is a lovely way of saying ‘breath you pay attention to.’ Turns out Christianity did have a breath-based meditation. It’s part of the Aramaic Christianity from the early centuries and something that continued with the Desert Fathers. And then got lost. So we don’t really know what happened to it.


As to the picture: I began with a white expanse. That is the ‘luminous expanse that is the Ground of Being.’ Across the bottom, there’s a set of four typographic marks. I wanted a way of trying to represent/re-present breathing. So each mark is a different point in the breath cycle. The ‘plus’ is an in-breath, ‘adding’ breath. The circle is a full breath, or a held-breath. The minus sign is an exhalation, an out-breath. The brackets are the empty breath. The basic four points you pay attention to in a breath meditation.


I wanted black on white for a simple opposition: black/white; on/off; in/out. The in/out is a respiratory rhythm. And so the respiratory rhythm determines the colour-scheme for the whole picture: black and white. 


Also a slight resonance with Tibetan Buddhist meditation. There is a breath meditation where you breathe out your tensions and negativities as black smoke and you breathe in white light to replace it. Little side-bar: I was fascinated to discover that Tibetan Buddhism began about the 8th Century but was preceded for at least two centuries by a form of Christianity. And the form of Christianity in Tibet was an Aramaic-speaking Christianity, so I’m interested there might be some sort of lineage of practice there.


Getting the four typographic marks to behave as a picture tied in with a long-term preoccupation of mine, which is pictographs. For reasons I don’t understand, I’m quite obsessed with the idea of words behaving as pictures and pictures behaving as words. At one end of that spectrum [of interest] is kind of the Incarnation, the word becoming flesh, the word becoming a picture. At another end is the idea of hieroglyphics, where words and pictures collapse into each other, or perhaps, haven’t emerged as distinct from each other. It’s a common thing now to recognise Islam as having emerged out of the backdrop of Christianity; Christianity to have emerged out the backdrop of Judaism; and now people are beginning to be more willing to accept the idea of Judaism having emerged out of a backdrop of Egyptian religion, with Akhenaton and the first monotheism. So there’s a kind of Egyptian hieroglyphic theme in the picture. And a weird sort of tidiness that went sort of full circle with the Desert Fathers speaking a language that was an aural form of the hieroglyphics.


And so to the first hieroglyphic. On the left is a tin. So the picture is an icon of the ‘queendom of heaven,’ the ‘I Can’ of heaven. So, I have a visual pun: an eye on a can. More particularly, it’s an actual hieroglyph. It’s an eye, the eye of Horus, the god in the Egyptian pantheon who [...] most closely corresponds with the figure of Jesus. Particularly, Jesus as an infant. Horus is often portrayed as a small child sitting on the lap of a goddess, the goddess Isis. And this is a kind of visual template for what later, Christianity would do with the picture of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ on her lap. I was particularly delighted to discover that this hieroglyph itself actually means, amongst other things, ‘agency.’ So, ‘I can.’ So . . . we have an icon, of ‘I can,’ with an eye on a can, that represents ‘I can.’ So it’s all doing what it says. Which is quite nice. It’s performative. So, this picture enacts its own meaning. 


In the middle, is a human figure. Human figure playing with the Greek idea of ‘icon,’ as eikon, which means image, particularly in the Greek Bible, both Genesis and Colossians, I think, the human image as the best image, of the image of God. This particular human image with arms outstretched is, I would like to think, breathing. So, arms outstretched for maximum lung capacity. He is painted black in keeping with the aesthetic theme but also in spiritual journeys, psychotherapeutic journeys and alchemy, the starting state is a black state, called the nigredo. So that’s the state before anything gets going. It’s the state before one is refined by the process, before one is ‘refined by the breathing’ of the Beatitude. Happily, the doll for the human figure is a Ken doll. So it’s a statement of self-assertion: ‘I, Ken.’ Somewhat ironically, his eyes are painted out. So ‘I ken’ as in ‘I can see’ - well, he can’t . . . But he will. Because ‘I can!’ I was also enjoying the Kiwi-ism. If we try to say ‘I can’ it comes out sounding like ‘I ken.’


Moving along to the feather on the right. That’s another hieroglyph. It’s an ostrich feather. An actual, literal ostrich feather. From an ostrich farm. There is one, near you! Should you want! . . . 


It’s an emblem of the goddess Maat, who is the goddess of Justice. She’s the one who presides over your fate, at death. She has a pair of scales. On one side of the scales goes that feather. And on the other side of the scales goes your heart. If that feather weighs more than your heart, your heart goes up, you go to heaven. If it goes down, you go down. I was intrigued by the descriptions of the confessions that that the human soul makes in front of this goddess. They’re comprehensive. But they didn’t seem to me, in the end, to be about righteousness or morality or even justice as we commonly know it. It’s more about integrity. How were you able to manage to maintain the self that you have been given? Have you done justice to that?  


Which reminds me of the Jewish story about a rabbi called Rabbi Zusya. Probably, many of your will know it. Rabbi Zusya was particularly anxious, towards the end of his life, that he hadn’t lived up to the standards of Moses. He dies and gets to heaven. He meets the challenge from God which is: “The question was never ‘To what extent are you like Moses?’ The question was always, to what extent have you been Rabbi Zusya?’” So, being this particular identity rather than another identity. Which is the serious dimension of having so many visual puns in the thing. Facing the Judgement, facing the Wrath, facing the ire of God. The ‘i-r-e.’ It’s an ‘ire-con.’ 


Moving back across the left: the tin is a Guinness can. Guinness, the national drink of Ireland [or] ‘Eire’: an ‘Eire’-can. 


You might be wondering why I’m so obsessed with the punnage. Previous flatmates have identified me as being ‘visually deaf.’ So I don’t really notice my surroundings unless I can hear them. I was kind of tired of the idea of icons for the visually gifted. ‘Eye-cons.’ I wanted an ‘ear-con’, hence all the sonic punnage. Also, Ireland, my ‘background.’


The feather, coming back to that . . . Oneof the champions historically of the idea of the feminine dimension of God, the queendom of God is of course, Hildegard of Bingen, in the Middle Ages, who famously said this lovely line “I am a feather on the breath of God.” I have no idea what that means but it’s really lovely.  That feather also was at one point in its life, really lovely. When I got it in the post, it was gorgeous. And then superglue happened.  Superglue and a number of other adhesives, which lead it to have a rather wild aspect. Which I am happy about. Because it sort of gives it a wind-born, breath-blown sort of appearance. 


Which brings me back to the idea of breath. In an icon of breath, an ‘air-con.’ Coming back full-circle to the breath-marks across the base. The breath-marks are, if I may say, perfectly centered. Down to the millimeter. They don’t look it! The reason they don’t look it is that the emblems of identity above them are just wherever they could land without crushing each other. And that seemed to me a reasonable description of something that happens during breath-based meditation(s). Doing a breath-based meditation rather sharply centers yourself, rather sharply intensifies your sense of you, as a particular identity. And it also de-centers you. You’re off-centered from that. Against this vast luminous expanse that is the Ground of Being. 


[...] A thing that happens long-term with the breathing, or being refined in the breath that one begins by feeling perhaps connected with God through breathing. And the a sense that ‘breathing is happening,’ and you’re there for it. And eventually a sense that God is doing the breathing and you are the thing being breathed. 


And finally, that there is just - breath. So that is the breath-sequence for “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “My name is Andrew and this is my picture!”