The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 30: Pleasures and Treasures

 
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Detail of a botched “restoration” of a painting of Mary by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. News story here.

 

Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. The wise do not look for happiness in them. But those who overcome the impulses of lust and anger which arise in the body are made whole and live in joy. They find their joy, their light, and their rest completely within themselves. United with the Lord, they attain nirvana in Brahman. (BG, 5:22-24)  

Yesterday I pointed out that like the Sermon on the Mount, the above quote singles out the passions of anger and lust as particular traps. It also connects to Jesus’s words in another way:

“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them.  Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, CEB)

Earthly treasures have this in common: they end. We value them for a time because they bring pleasure to the senses, but when they end we feel sad, or angry, and we long for more.

My mind goes to news of the recent botched painting restoration in Spain. Of course we want things of beauty to be preserved, and we want great works of art to last so that they can be seen by future generations. But nothing lasts forever, and sometimes our efforts to preserve our pleasure actually lead to ruin. This particular amateur “restoration” left the Virgin Mary looking hideous and goofy.

Yes, the ruin of a beautiful work of art is sad and outrageous, but I can’t help laughing when I see these photographs. Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. Sometimes we try to “hold on” to an aesthetic experience of great art by possessing a painting, as if owning it will let us own the feeling of it. We put art in museums (to visit occasionally) or on our walls (where they become simply more furniture). Sometimes artists, like Banksy, try to draw our attention to the strange relationship between art, temporality, money, and ownership by destroying their own art.

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Banksy released a video of the “rehearsal” of his prank. Excellent in-depth news here.

Our desire to possess, to keep, to hold on, all of this is attachment. We get angry because our attachment is threatened. We covet and lust because we want to own. We want to preserve this moment of pleasure or comfort and carry it into the next one, and the next, which is an impossible task.

Jesus says our real treasure is “in the heavens,” or the skies. Krishna says it is within ourselves. I think there is little difference between the two.

Prayer:
God of Time and Timelessness, of the Eternal and the Finite, help me to find my treasure in you,
in the sky, in myself.

Home Again

I was unpacking my office boxes at the new house, trying to figure out what would go where. After putting up some new shelves and loading them with my books, it felt like something was missing. “Hang on,” Angela said to me. “I think I know what this needs.”

She went to the basement and returned with an oblong box. After peeling away the newspaper and bubble wrap inside, she brought out the Last Supper sculpture my parents gave me as a seminary graduating gift. I put it on the top shelf. Something inside me clicked.

Last Supper sculpture

“NOW it is my office,” I said.

There is a period of time after moving when the new space still feels alien, like you are in someone else’s home. Bringing something familiar into the new space helped me make an emotional switch.

I sometimes have a tendency to spiritualize things, as though objects and places do not matter. But physical things do matter. We learn and experience the world in primal ways like touch and smell. Physical things communicate meaning. We attach memories and ideas to them, inscribing and arranging our world in a way that helps us navigate it. In the same way that objects made me feel grief at leaving my familiar home, they can comfort, too.

Since I’m working from home now, I’ve thought quite a bit about how to teach  and remind myself that I’m at work. I cannot, for example, work in my bathrobe. I need to dress and act as though I’m going to work. I was proud that today, my first day “in the office,” I was downstairs by 8:00, journaling, reading the Bible, and making my to-do list. In MY office.

As I begin dreaming what our church worship space will be like, I enjoy imagining the kinds of things that will help people feel welcome, that will communicate values and theological meaning. I think about the cultural and counter-cultural ideas we want to teach through touch and smell and sight, using the kinds of primal senses God gave us to experience our world. I would love to learn from others: what kinds of things communicate welcome to you? A sense of sacred space? What physical signs and symbols point you toward spiritual mystery?