Lenten Observance: Day 1

Though I am no longer a Catholic, Lent remains something of a big thing to me. I have some years given up TV or given up eating snacks or sweets. I don’t do this every year, but I always feel that it is a good time to stop what I’m normally doing and take a brief time out. This season I thought I’d be sure to take about 15 min each day to journal. As free form journalling doesn’t always work for me, I thought I’d take a text to work with. It should enable me to say something, if I’m in dialog with some text. As I am already reading (again) the “Tao te Ching,” for two other reasons, I thought I’d use it as my text. As there are 40 days of Lent (and 81 “chapters” of the “Tao”), this will work out to 2 per day. So, with to begin: the first 2 chapters — I am using Stephen Mitchell’s translation, which follows the usual order, with the opening starting “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” Some editions start with what in my book is Chapter 38, and pick up with 1-37 after Chapter 81. That is the order in particular manuscripts of the Tao, but I shall be using what had been the traditional order until late in the 20th c.
So what is this first chapter all about? In some ways, it’s a meditation on language. Language allows us to name things and to categorize things, which allows us to manipulate ideas and formulate theories. So we refer to particular biological phenomena as viruses, and those so categorized are seen as harmful, so that steps can be taken to combat them. There are other biological phenomena which we don’t try to stop, which are helpful. The problem with naming things is that distinctions are then made. Man v. woman; good v. bad; child v. adult and so on. As a result of the binary nature of language (words have meanings in opposition to other words, and in the context of other words), it becomes easy to see the world in black & white terms: granola good; Twinkie bad. And though this may work, such binary opposition itself is a distortion, as happens when light is seen as good and dark as bad, and then males or a male god (Apollo) get associated with light, so that women are associated with darkness and murkiness and are seen with some suspicion. Or when we become fixated on a particular point as right, which closes other doors and other options. And sometimes we spend a lot of time defending our position against attacks, further encrusting ourselves with terminology, and further cutting ourselves off from the world. This is how I generally see the “true religion” bind — it’s usually associated with Catholicism, which bills itself as “the true religion,” but it can be matched with any kind of orthodoxy — if there’s a right way of doing things, then there’s a wrong way. And any truth that might be found in that “wrong way” is lost to us.

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