One week ago, I published an article entitled, “Hard questions I ask myself about hierarchy and institutions.” In it, I deliberately challenged the energy behind so much post-modern and progressive resistance to or rejection of hierarchies and institutions per se. I suggested that self-examination is necessary to discern the degree to which our kicking at the powers is rooted in a spirit of ambition, a history of wounding or the deeper problem of self-will. I identified in some measure with all three and issued heart-felt cautions regarding the perils of ‘gung-ho gurus’ and ‘one-generation faith.’
I chose to pause a full week so that the self-reflection about these themes could begin its good work in me and perhaps some readers. Holy Week is, after all, a time for death of false-selves (or the 'flesh' as the Apostle Paul would say). My hope is that where those internal and external dangers have been exposed, we will give adequate time and energy to discerning them, though that is only the first step in a much longer journey.
Now I’d like to offer part 2 to that discussion—a more difficult set of questions because, as with part 1, the people who tend to appropriate and apply them are often the last folks who should. That is, when we put the brakes on dismissing hierarchy and institution too easily, who listens? Too often, it is the most compliant, the most submissive, those most vulnerable to spiritual abuse or domestic violence, etc. Those who most need to question hierarchy and institution are frequently prepared to endure their most abusive forms for too long.
So too with this follow-up piece. I am about to suggest a kind of transcendence of hierarchy, an awakening that summons some to let go and move on. But I’m loath to do so because, again, those who most need to learn submission and surrender will instinctively be first to grab hold of what's coming as a license to run amok in self-will. Meanwhile, those who would derive most benefit are more likely to find the implications worrisome for the same reasons I do.
Nevertheless, if we can hear both articles in tandem, then perhaps we can hold the tension they create unbroken, and from there catch a glimmer of wisdom rising on the horizon.
As with part 1, I’d like to employ Hermann Hesse’s last full-length novel, The Glass Bead Game, as my key source for this reflection. But this time, I will allow him to deliver the lesson directly without comment. Thus, the excerpt is longer but well worth undergoing.
For a summary and analysis of the novel, Ron Dart does a fine job in the videos found HERE. But for the sake of immediate context, I will boil it down to four sentence. The novel is set in a non-religious but monastic type community (Castalia) or "Province" of elite thinkers who synthesize the major academic and artistic disciplines in thought experiments they call “the Glass Bead Game.” The story follows the rise of a young pupil, Joseph Knecht, on his ascent through the hierarchy of his institution until he becomes the Magister Ludi—the master in charge of the glass bead game. At the pinnacle of his success (or so he thought), he begins to ask his own hard questions and comes to see cracks in the foundation. He sees fatal vulnerabilities in his order and his hierarchy. He is awakened to how disconnected they have become from the world and how irrelevant they are to it. Sound familiar? Yes, this is certainly a parable for our situation. We find Knecht on the verge of resigning, reflecting after a discussion with the head of his order, and about to sacrifice his legacy and his reputation for the mystery of whatever is coming next. His thoughts voice my second set of hard questions.
One caveat: Hesse's work should not literally be regarded through the binary eyes of pro-institution/hierarchy versus anti-institution/hierarchy as if they were simply opposed. He is addressing through narrative the need to synthesize a life of contemplation (vita contemplativa), where the order is a picture of the life of the mind, along with a life of action (vita active), symbolized by his departure from the order. But I leave that for another day. For now, back to transcending institution.
I dedicate this excerpt to those who stand at that same threshold, with these parting words: Be of good courage, honour your awakening, but perhaps let the fruit of your life before God (rather than grandiose claims before others) determine that you were enlightened rather than wayward.
And now to Hesse’s Magister Ludi, Joseph Knecht:
There was a paragraph in the rules that had once been assigned to him as a subject for meditation, in the last days of his youthful freedom. That had been shortly before his admission into the order. Now, reading the paragraph again, he meditated on it once more, and while doing so he became aware of how utterly different a person he was now from the rather anxious young tutor he had been then.” If the high board summons you to a post,” the passage read, “know this: Each upward step on the ladder of officialdom is not a step into freedom, but into constraint. The greater the power of the office, the stricter the servitude. The stronger the personality, the more forbidden is the arbitrary exercise of the will.”
How final and unequivocal all that had once sounded, but how greatly the meaning of so many of the words had changed, especially such insidious words as “constrained,” “personality,” “will.” And yet how beautifully clear, how well-formed and admirably suggestive the sentences were; how absolute, timeless, and incontestably true they could appear to a young mind! Ah yes, and so they would’ve been, if only Castalia were the world, the whole multifarious but indivisible world, instead of being merely a tiny world within the greater, or a section boldly and violently carved out of it. If the earth were an elite school, if the order were the community of all men and the head of the order God, how perfect these sentences would be, and how flawless the entire rule.
If only that have been so, how lovely, helpful, current and innocently beautiful life would be. And once that had really been so; once he had been able to see it that way: the order and the Castalian spirit as equivalent to the divine and the absolute, the Province as the world, Castalians as mankind, and the non-Castalian sphere as a kind of children’s world, a threshold to the Province, virgin soil still awaiting cultivation and ultimate redemption, a world looking reverently up to Castalia and every so often sending charming visitors such as young Plinio.
How strange was his own situation, how strange the nature of Joseph Knecht’s own mind! In former days, and in fact only yesterday, had he not considered his own special kind of perception – that way of experiencing reality which he called “awakening” – as a slow, step-by-step penetration into the heart of the universe, into the core of truth; as something in itself absolute, a continuous path or progression which nevertheless had to be achieved gradually?
In his youth he saw it right and essential to acknowledge the validity of the outside world as Plinio represented it, but at the same time deliberately to hold aloof from it. At that time it had seemed to him progress, an awakening, to make himself Castalian.
And again it had been progress, and his own truths, when after years of doubting he had decided in favor of the Glass Bead Game and the life of Waldzell. It had been the same again when at Master Thomas’s command he entered the service, was inducted into the order by the Music Master, and later when he accepted the appointment as Magister. Each time he had taken a larger or smaller step on a seemingly straight road – and yet he now stood at the end of this road, and by no means at the heart of the universe and the innermost core of truth.
Rather, his present awakening, too, was no more than a brief opening of his eyes, a finding himself in a new situation, a fitting into new constellations. The same strict, clear, unequivocal, straight path that had brought him [here] was now leading him out again. What had been a consequence of acts of awakening had likewise been a consequence of partings. Castalia, the Game, the magistracy – each had been a theme which needed to be developed and dismissed; each had been a space to pass through, to transcend. Already they lay behind him. And evidently, even in times past when he had thought and done the opposite of the things he was thinking and doing today, he had somehow known or at least dimly divined the dubiousness of it all. Had he not, in that poem written in his student days and dealing with stages and partings, placed above it the imperative title “Transcend!”?
Thus his path had been a circle, or an ellipse or spiral or whatever, but certainly not straight; straight lines evidently belonged only to geometry, not to nature and life. Yet he had faithfully obeyed the exhortation and self-encouragement of his poem, even after he had long forgotten the poem and the awakening he had then experienced.
Granted, he had not perfectly obeyed, not without falterings, doubts, temptations, and struggles. But he had courageously passed through stage upon stage, space upon space, composedly and with reasonable serenity – not with such radiant cheerfulness as the old Music Master, but without weariness and dejection, without disloyalty and defection. And if at this point he had at least become a defector from the Castalian point of view, if he were flouting all the morality of the order, seemingly serving only the needs of his own individuality – still, this too would be done in the spirit of courage and of music. No matter how it turned out, he would do it with serenity and a clean tempo. If only he had been able to clarify to Master Alexander what seemed so clear to him; if only he had been able to prove that the apparent willfulness of his present action was in reality service and obedience, that he was moving not toward freedom, but toward new, strange, and hitherto unknown ties; that he was not a fugitive, but a man responding to a summons; not headstrong, but obedient; not Master, but sacrifice!