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The Dominating Feature of Postmodern Spirituality: Search

Once upon a time, an old man and his daughter Agapé who enchanted people with her exceptional goodness and beauty lived in a hut on the edge of a desert. Agapé had many suitors. She insisted on her very special condition for marrying one of them: she could give her hand only to the one who will build a large and firm house for her in the desert. Most suitors were immediately put off by that condition. They were well aware of the impossibility of meeting that demand: after all, desert sands are constantly moving so that no permanent dwelling can be built on them with the exception of a tent or a simple hut. But not all of the suitors would listen to the voice of sound reason. Not far from the old man's and girl's house there lived seven able-bodied brothers with their parents. As each brother matured he fell head over heels in love with Agapé. Each was prepared to make whatever sacrifice was demanded of him to win her heart.

The first to go to the desert was the eldest son. As usual, he was the most self-confident of all the brothers: „ My house shall never fall down. Agapé shall be mine.“ He found a nice even spot in the desert and built a wooden house whose individual parts were joined together very well. Then, tired by his hard work, he rested, assured of his success on the following day. An unheard-off sand storm broke out during the night. The wind blew the house miles away and the young man, having fallen out of a window was killed by the furious elements.

This gave an opportunity to the second brother. „This is a chance for outsmarting the eldest brother once and for all,“ he thought and got down to work. He tried to use the brother's house which still held together, digging underneath the house and laying new foundations he could build in the sand. He worked with a joyful mind, hoping to deserve his bride soon. When he was in the midst of his efforts the sands moved unexpectedly under the weight of the house and this came crashing down on the poor man, killing him instantly.

The third brother did take the fate of his two brothers as a sufficiently serious warning against ill conceived action. He decided to explore primarily all the conditions and circumstances of the project. Encouraged by his thoughts of Agapé, he studied the movements of desert sands and the properties of building materials, doing his best to master all the possible laws of motion one has to take into consideration until he developed a really solid theory. But a practical solution was still nowhere in sight. Yet he did not give up trying and tirelessly devoted himself to his studies during which he became absolutely oblivious of his surroundings. So it happened that he was stung by a scorpion and died.

The fourth brother was shattered by the evident hopelessness of the whole situation. He was a very sensitive boy since his childhood and he set his sights on Agapé with unbridled passion. At the same time, he was very well aware that he could never devise a better plan than any of his brothers. He did not know what to do, he only felt that he simply cannot live without Agapé. In apparent anguish and sorrow he groped aimlessly about the desert, composing beautiful poems about his futile love. His fine and fragile soul soon succumbed to despair, and he committed suicide.

The fifth brother realized that there is only one way left for him which might turn out to be the rightpath. If everything that is worldly and human turns out to be posing the threat of death, while trying towin the heart of Agapé, then one must to pin one's hopes on the supernatural. With a deeply religious mind which anticipates only miracles in dedicated faith he went to the house in the desert. He turned it into a shrine, daily bringing sacrifices, meditating, fasting and committing himself to the will of God. He lived the life of a saint and his fame soon spread far and wide. People would come to see him to receive his blessings and advice. But nothing happened with the house. It was still standing there on the sands, as threatened by their sudden movement as ever before. The young man's faith did not give him his Agapé. His sensibility was complicated, full of contradictions. He did not want to admit to himself that he had failed to win Agapé, he want to know nothing about her. He explained the fact that he had to force himself into making pious acts as his own special merit which brings him closer towards God. He dismissed his occasional bursts of hostility towards other people as manifesting his own godliness aiming for loneliness and as providing him with an opportunity for self-sacrifice. He was desperately dependent on everything that made it possible for him to detract attention from the truth deep in his heart that he is missing Agapé terribly much in his life. He was apt to interpret his suffering as a mysterious test devised by God. People seemed to be willingly to understand his problems in the same light, and when he died of his heart condition one day they prepared a ceremonial funeral for him.

„Without accepting the truth there can be no salvation,“ the sixth brother who closely watched the behaviour of his elder brother realized only too well. „I have to start anew, from scratch.“ He thought the old house was as obnoxious as a pawn shop filled with all human errors and follies. He burnt the house down together with all the religious objects, love poems, scientific texts and tools left behind by his brothers. With a pure and dedicated heart he got down to digging deep foundations for a new house for Agapé. It must be possible, he thought, to dig through the sand to solid rock and build a house on it to keep it safe from the elements. He dug on and on, disregarding everything else. He was going deeper and deeper, but his strength was draining away fast. His hands were full of blisters and callouses, his back was scorched by the sun, his legs were wobbly and his eyes glistened with a strange glow. But he kept digging yet harder. One day he stopped eating not to lose time for work. He died insane, at the bottom of the hole he had dug, his hands spasmodically clawing at the endless desert sands.

The seventh and youngest brother shared his elder brother's passion for the truth. He sensed that only through this leads a path to Agapé. His desire for Agapé was so strong that to give her up voluntarily, he felt, would be like death. That is why he decided to follow the same terrible path as his brother but he was encouraged by an uncertain glimmer of hope that perhaps he could be guided and supported also by things existing outside his own iron will. He left for the desert not only with a firm resolve to admit to himself and face all the unpleasant facts of life but also with a bland openness towards everything positive which could give him outside help and which would not amount to delusions. In this jealously guarded state of mind he got down to deepening the foundations. Not even when his work progressed well did he allow himself to be intoxicated with the feeling of success – instead he carefully propped up the layers of sand to prevent them from slipping. When his work did not go well he would put his feelings of sorrow, helplessness and anguish into lyrical poems, thus giving vent to his frustrations. Perhaps he prayed too -but more probably it was his self-effacing listening to the oppressive silence of the desert at night which transformed him inwardly. He felt that everything around him was silently supporting him in his efforts. „I shall continue even if I had to dig through into the very centre of the Earth. I have nothing to lose but my desire.“ He broke all his tools and he had to use his bare hands, going on with the last drop of his strength and abandon: and without knowing it he lost his own self for ever. And only then did it happen. The soil under the sand suddenly opened up, sprouting a spring of water. A gorgeous silvery fountain stood there glistening in the sun. Life-supporting water flowed all around, awakening seeds which had laid shrivelled and dried up in the sand. Grass began to grow together with a large palm-tree under which the young man slept for a long time, exhausted by his hard work and protected by its refreshing shadows. When he woke up, birds were singing above him and Agapé was sitting next to him: „You have fulfiled my condition, you have have built with you a house of life for me.“

J. P., the 1970s

A salient feature of the postmodern world is its shifty in-stability; a radical aggravation of the possibility of attaining certainties: these range from elementary certainties of everyday life via those associated with the reliability of technical and scientific reason or with the meaningfulness of aesthetically cultivated experience to those certainties that create outward support for religious life. Lurking behind all the attempts at leading a spiritual and moral life is the drastic phenomenon of the desert. Faced with it, even the tragic nihilism of the advan-ced modern era is found to be just an empty pose. The hidden reverse side of the postmodern lightness, abandon and playful-ness, sometimes appearing a trifle spasmodic, is a silent and raw element of seriousness verging on the insane. Drawing on both sources, the postmodern expression which has not yet achieved its catharsis typically keeps oscillating between the ridiculous and the horrible. But the more the „too human“ matters tend to be acquiring as superficial a quality as some waxworks, the more radical opportunity is offered to present-day man of relaxing himself to the very depth of his being for accepting that which addresses him radically „from the outside“. Moving on the shifting sands of the postmodern world not only a blind ephemeral bustle and hustle but also the launching a new search is possible. The measure of hope connected with it is commensurate to the intensity of the present-day feelings of uncertainty. The different nature of future certainties will probably correspond with the unusual character of alterantives now available for mutual confrontation. The postmodern development of the Western civilization and culture is unique: for the first time in mankind's history it offers the chance of giving the floor probably to all cultures anyone can ever hear of, regardless of their geographic or historical distance from the contemporary West. They have their say in that (powerful) sense that ranging from magic to Zen it is now possible not only to read about them but also to experience everything, personally and at first hand, which belongs to the cultural reality concerned. This mutual opening-up of the worlds, a process whose originator and cross-section our own civilization has grown to be thanks to its long-standing academic training throughout the thousand-year long accumulation of knowledge about everything and anything any knowledge can be obtained, is – for the first time in history – so hugely multi-dimensional and so utterly unarranged beforehand. In its post-modern hospitality the Western world has all but given up its own explanatory frameworks in which „alien“ influences and elements could somehow be placed into well-defined and meaningful contexts. With the extent of this non-conceptuality of the total offer of the possibilities of spiritual life our era far exceeds both of the similarly characterized eras, namely the end of Antiquity and late Renaissance. The search for transcendence in the post-modern era is not, in the least, „obligatorily“ aimed in a certain direction through some kind of generally accepted order of faith, religious practice or spiritual experience. It is a search in the fullest sense of the term: roughly speaking – all the roads leading from its point of departure are equally accessible and equally unknown.

Surrounded by the confusing multitude of spiritual alterna-tives, the reflecting thought, shocked by the unbounded nature of their seeming accidentality, relativity and chaos, initially seems to be losing itself but gradually it can regain its role of a sensitive discoverer of an inner order through which the search for transcendence intuitively arranges itself on its own, sorting out its alternatives according to the rules and criteria which are not established artificially and from the outside but which form a spontaneous component of the very process of searching. An attempt is now made to develop the basic constants marking that inner order and to investigate its specific inner criteria.

© Jolana Poláková | Licence Creative Commons
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