Tuesday, 17 August 2010
Today I have learned this new word. Gelassenheit.
Sometimes encountering a new word stirs up wonder as much as meeting a captivating new person who lingers in every corner of the psyche long after the time together is over.
Gelassenheit. It has given me so much to think about. Here follows what I have learned.
Lassen means to leave, so gelassen means to leave go or let go. ‘-heit’ as an ending is comparable to the English ‘-ness’ (eg fröhlichkeit and happiness – I guess the k comes about because you can’t really have fröhlichheit): so gelassenheit is letting-go-ness, the ability to let things be, to leave them as they are, to let them rest and not pursue them when it is not wise.
It isn’t only a passive thing though, a refraining from disturbing what was better left alone; gelassenheit, like ‘letting go’, can also be understood in active terms as releasing-ness – having in one’s heart the attitude that allows freedom. So this might be forgiveness, the ability to let go a grudge or a spiritual debt (or a financial debt for that matter), or having about oneself the kind of comfortableness that engenders release from tension and anxiety. It’s a peaceable, forgiving word. The Amish, who value gelassenheit, are known sometimes as Die Stille im Lande (maybe best translated as the Quiet People in our Midst), and gelassenheit is part of what underlies that quietness.
The German philosopher Heidegger liked the word. He described it as having the spirit or attitude of availability before What-Is that lets us be content to leave things in their inchoate or potential form of mystery and uncertainty. In the terminology of the Church, that would be like the contemplative prayer of the mystic tradition, that gazes upon God in adoration that forbears from analysis. And indeed Heidegger did come upon the word in the tradition of Christian mysticism, in the writings of Meister Eckhart.
Eckhart talked about the poverty of spirit (as in, ‘How blessed are the poor in spirit’ of the Sermon on the Mount) in terms of contentment: when desire and will and ambition are stilled because the soul has found her peace in God, wanting only what God wants, satisfied with what God gives, and therefore at peace with what is.
Eckhart says that the prerequisite for this condition is an empty spirit, immersed in the beloved will of God, having no desire for any thing of its own accord but only for what God in His good pleasure chooses to give. And indeed, what point could there be in desiring anything else? If God has not willed or given it, of what value could it be?
He (Eckhart not God) says that, when they hear about this gelassenheit, oftentimes people become all stirred up wanting to make changes in their circumstances – engage in a specific course of action, go and live in a hermitage or join a special community or something – but he says all of that is just about yourself really. He says that the way to find quietness and rest in God’s will is to leave/abandon yourself; as Jesus said, Whoever wishes to come after me, let him deny himself… And Eckhart says the way to make a start with that is wherever you find yourself, deny yourself. He says that this should apply to how we direct our goodness, that we should not be fussy or choosy about how or where we are good, not select this or that course of action, not do good so much as just be good. And he says we should even apply gelassenheit to our ideas about God, letting go of preconceptions and theological constructs so as to leave ourselves unhindered and open to experience directly the mystery immanent and transcendent that lies beyond all our intellection pigeonholing of the Divine.
Gelassenheit, letting go of everything, is a primal state of simplicity allowing us directly to experience the reality of God (this is how Eckhart sees it).
It also manifests in such virtues as humility and mercy, for it is willing to let go of status, privilege and deserved place, and willing to let go of grievances and grudges and the right to punish and pass judgement.
Gelassenheit is a key concept in the Amish way of life, and underlies their aversion to individualistic self-expression. In Amish culture gelassenheit manifests as calmness and meekness, composure, stolidity, imperturbability, and also as submission – the willingness to relinquish self-interest or one’s own way and will.
Why I at the present moment find this word so illuminating is that I can immediately see its relevance to the practice of head-covering, for that arises out of the Christian tradition of submission. I personally dislike the word ‘submission’, because for me it imports association with sadism, power games, domination and life-stifling cruelty and selfishness – not attractive, then! But if I substitute for ‘submission’ the term ‘gelassenheit’, that imports for me an entirely new perspective – relinquishing self-image and agendas in favour of allowing the way things are to simply be, letting go of addiction to power and status, permitting the flow of grace, letting the sweetness of humility permeate relationships, allowing the freedom of detachment like taking off a constricting corset or cutting a sheep free from a strand of barbed wire fencing tangled tight in its fleece.
Headcovering as gelassenheit is a relaxing of the grasping fist, opening the hand in the stream of grace instead of vainly clutching at the living water, opening the cage door to let the imprisoned bird fly free.
It’s not a million miles from the wu-wei of the Tao – the art of non-doing – (see Chapter 37 of the Tao Te Ching) whereby without apparently doing anything, effortlessly the sage achieves everything.
Staying with the Tao for a minute, gelassenheit is also reminiscent of the Valley Spirit (see Chapter 6 & Chapter 28 of the Tao), the feminine principle which receives, which allows penetration by the other, taking the lowest place like the riverbed at the bottom of the valley, lying below what is above. This humility and passivity (in the true sense of the word passive; permitting, allowing) is recognized in the Tao as immensely powerful – ‘The sea is the king of a hundred streams because it lies below them’. ‘The greatest misfortune is the self,’ says Chapter 13: ‘If I have no self, what misfortune do I have?’
In Chapter 7 Lao Tsu points out that the reason Heaven and Earth continue without being exhausted is that they do not live for themselves – and immediately I can see that is true. The whole nature of sin, the whole ecological and environmental disaster that humanity is, comes about because of selfishness, self-aggrandisment, self-interest. Gelassenheit would permit the earth to heal.
And in Chapter 8 Lao Tsu says that wise people are like water, finding their way unassumingly to the lowest place.
Chapter 13 continues:
So one who values the self as the world
Can be given the world
One who loves the self as the world
Can be entrusted with the world
Thus gelassenheit makes the spirit as wide and kind as the sky, full of understanding, gentle and receptive.
Gelassenheit among the Amish is the refusal to be self-promoting, embracing insignificance, avoiding pushing oneself forward.
I guess it also accepts if need be the condition of finding oneself to be counter-culture, laughable and at odds with the mainstream, accepting that awkward and uncomfortable experience with the peace of the person who has built her nest in the will of God. At the top of this entry I have posted again a picture I’ve shown you before of a nest we saw and photographed up on Blubberhouses Moor in North Yorkshire, tucked down in a deep crevice within the rock formations there: ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee’; ‘Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God’ (Psalm 84:3 KJV).
What I am finding is that the practice of headcovering has its own language, and is potent for this genre of spiritual experience. It speaks to me, in a way that I had never expected. The headcovering talks to me all day long without ever really saying anything, about gelassenheit and the principle of humility and the valley spirit, the way of peace. That seems like a jolly good thing to me.