Shabkar revisited

One of my old Commentariat, who is not a Catholic, nor a “joiner” by disposition (a reticence I understand), writes to maintain his sympathetic aloofness. He window-shops religions, but never buys. (This also appeals to my old Adam.) He quotes from the Life of Shabkar, a Tibetan classic I apparently mentioned in passing, a couple of years ago. Shorn of its context, and perhaps a few explanatory notes, the excerpt he selected was side-splitting.

Truth be told, like Kipling before me (we both came from Lahore), I love a Lama; and never more than when he retreats uphill into fluffsome obscurity. The higher up the mountains, the better, and Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol ascends sometimes to a point that is almost Catholic. It will take, however, more study and reading than most moderns have the leisure to perform, to follow the Yogin of Amdo to his lair. For this “laughing philosopher” of the early XIXth century is expounding a doctrine whose sublime humour is not immediately accessible to us. We laugh at all the wrong passages, and in a way rather differently than the Yogin intended. A child of the modern West might well need more than the Tibetan language, to laugh with Shabkar, and not at him. On the other hand, an intelligent Catholic monk would have much less trouble, picking his way up the slopes; for he has already climbed some surprisingly similar “spiritual mountains.”

What any reader could appreciate — I thought at the time — is the more naïve joy in simply being with this strangely kind and companionable Shabkar, however briefly; and going with him along the fields and footpaths of what was still a mediaeval Tibet — hearing echoes of our own wandering scholars, and of their laughter in the face of the dangers of the road; and feeling with them the great beauty of a world without cars or handsets, in which the highwaymen are all low-tech. Surely I have quoted before my beloved English poet, thinker, and mountaineer, Michael Roberts:

Coming out of the mountains of a summer evening,
Travelling alone;
Coming out of the mountains


I think that our Apostle and Evangelist, Saint John the Divine, can be better understood if we glimpse him that way: in his moments as free spirit along the open road, travelling afoot, on his way from one glorious adventure to another. Nothing takes this man by surprise. While the last of the Four Evangelists in the biblical order, I often suspect Saint John’s Gospel was the first to be written — the more in light of recent archaeological finds. But whether or not it was, we all know it stands apart from the Synoptics; that it is sui generis in comparison with the other three Gospels. (From its spiritual angle, each of the four is one-of-a-kind, but I am being “comparative.”) Saint John of his nature goes his own way. If there was one Christian who never really needed to be told by an angel, “Fear not!” — John was he.

Peculiarly, he was “the disciple whom Christ loved”: a statement six times repeated, but never once explained. Yet in light of the whole teaching — and let us add the three Johannine Epistles to his bibliography, along with his Apocalypse, and stand tall with all the Church Fathers against the tenured Professors of Splodge — it makes perfect sense. For the relationship of Jesus with John, uniquely among the Apostles, is without complexity. A sinner, no doubt, was John as all men, but there is nothing in him that seems to need breaking. There is hardly another Saint like him, until perhaps Saint Francis of Assisi; another who is so uncomplicated. That Book of Revelations may present many enigmatic figures to us, as all creatures of Heaven and Hell must be; but in Saint John there is no enigma. He simply goes about his way.

With a smile, John tells us six times in his Gospel, that Jesus loves him. It is the way a lover says, “I love Jesus.”

The flip side of his holy aloofness, is an extraordinary precision as an observer, both of the events unfolding around him, and of the visions that come to him. Saint John in the mountain on Patmos is, to my reading, the same Saint John of the Word, and I no longer hesitate to subscribe to the ancient tradition, that the “various Johns” are, verily, one. (The faithless among scholars cannot possibly accept this, because they would then have to accept the New Testament as true, rather than as a spindle on which to wind doctoral dissertations.)

The one Apostle who was never martyred, never needed to be. (Compare: the closing of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”)


The same who quoted Shabkar, from his religious window-shopping — finding something in the yogin beyond his comprehension, or perhaps his patience, as “a way among ways” — had this to add on a topic closer to home:

“Catholicism is certainly one way — perhaps the take-no-prisoners way — but it seems too simple, and at the same time too elaborate somehow.”

By some amusing coincidence my reply to that had already been filed, but was just appearing on the Catholic Thing website, at midnight a few hours ago (here). It is this very paradox, of the ridiculously small and simple, at the root of the ridiculously large and complex, which persuades me that Catholic Christianity carries throughout the ring of truth. Our Lord is too much like the universe He created, not to be the Author of it. For it is, as I said over there, “full to busting with scale reversals.” And the Church, as it were, proceeds filioque, like the universe itself, “from the Son.”


Another of my correspondents, who styles himself “Constantinos the Vain and Simply Awful,” confesses that while he cannot possibly disbelieve in God, and is contemptuous of the tired, pathetic arguments presented by the “New Atheists,” he nevertheless has “issues” with God, and moreover, issues that will Need to be Settled. He is angry with God, and with His works, and for what he considers to be Darn Good Reasons. He realizes that his problem is not with the Church, but with her Founder.

I have met several in his case, and am inclined almost to congratulate them, for having a closer relationship with “the Godhead” (love this word, that is hated by the prim), than I do.

The next step is Fear. And the step after that is Love. On this Feast of John we commemorate a man who hopped, skipped, and jumped the whole course to its conclusion. Saint John pray for us, who are slow.