Stranger in a Strange Land
We will continue, here, to mine the rich veins of wisdom woven into the parable of the Prodigal Son….
I will reproduce the parable here for those who aren’t fully familiar with it. It comes from Luke chapter 15, verses 11 – 32 of the King James Version,
11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:
12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.
26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
This parable is the product of a truly creative, highly enlightened mind for, in a few compact sentences potent in meaning, it summarises the entire history of the spiritual condition and state of Man while accounting for the proper place and authentic role of what is called “religion” in human affairs (but which is not what human beings have generally made of it over time). I would be so bold as to say that, if all the Biblical tradition were lost except this one parable, it would still be enough, for it is the root. And as long as the root is alive, the plant will regrow. Virtually everything else of wisdom in the recorded gospels — or the dharma — of Jesus is branch, leaf, and flower arising from this one root, and all refer back to this root, for it expresses what men distinguish as “divine truth”. If Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy conceived of God as “the power that makes men speak”, or the power that enthuses man to speak, this parable conforms to that conception.
And in a very real sense, you are this root. Therefore, the parable is well worth meditating upon. For it is about you, and is about all of us. By “all of us” I mean exactly what the Buddhists mean when the speak of “all sentient beings” — all creatures great and small.
From the one which is the Source come the two who are the sons. These “sons” are related spiritual principles which, in recognising themselves as “sons” and as related, fraternal, and brotherly spiritual principles emanating from a common root, conceive this Source as “Father”. “Father” does not exist until there are “sons” to call this Source “Father”. “Father” is analogy and metaphor for how the One becomes two. The two here are, however, Adam and Lucifer, or perhaps more properly the Adamic and the Luciferic spiritual principles. That the brother who remained behind while the Adamic went forth is actually Lucifer may come as something of a shock to many, but will become clearer in due course. But the Adamic principle is called “the younger son”, while the Luciferic is the elder son.
In verse 12, the younger son asks for his “portion”, and it is said that the Father “divided unto them his living”, that is, his “living” is his substance, which is the divine nature of the godhead and its properties and attributes, its energetic wealth and creative potentials, its own infinity and its own eternity, for this is its “living”. For all intents and purposes, this “Father” is what cultural philosopher Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present origin“, which is root and source as abiding presence. In this sense, to appreciate the parable properly one must absolutely overcome the temptation to think of it in literal terms of temporicity or as an historical fact. It is enacted daily. One must suspend the tendency to think in exclusive terms of past and future, or outside and inside.
Thus endowed, the younger son takes his leave of the Source and embarks upon a journey into a far away land. This is a psychic journey which is a “descent” in the sense of a separation or division, and which is customarily called “the fall of Adam” or fall from “a state of grace”. It is a journey into the realm of Physis, of course, but more to the point it is a psychic separation in which the soul principle becomes ensnared in the webwork — in the tapestry — of spacetime as embodied being, for this is the very meaning of the name “Adam”, which means “earth” or “soil”, and which is still echoed in our related words “human” and “humus” and “humility” and “humiliation”, and so on.
In this dream of existence in Physis, the soul principle awakes as the embodied being — the Adamic being. Having assumed a human form and shape, and draped itself in this attire, it now identifies with it completely and has become forgetful of itself and of its source and origin. It has, in effect, squandered its talents, energies, and creative potentialities in “riotous living” — in intoxication with sensation and the sensation of being embodied existence. It is somewhat like the drunk who can’t recall or remember what he did the night before while he was having such a good time. This trance-like state of self-intoxication is “the Selfhood”, as Blake called it, and is egoic being.
This condition is the condition of narcissism and is what is narrated in the great myth of Narcissus and Echo in which the consciousness of Narcissus becomes ensnared, trapped, and fatally imprisoned in his own images and projections. In other terms, this is the condition called “idolatry”, and idolatry is forgetfulness of who and what one truly is. This condition, the all-too-human condition in Nietzsche’s terms, is what is called here the “far country” and it is segregation or separation from the true self brought on by forgetfulness. This is what “lost soul” means.
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or
Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the
properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations,
and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city &
country. placing it under its mental deity.
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of &
enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the
mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood.
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounced that the Gods had orderd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast. — William Blake
The soul principle or vital core, itself, is not human. It clothes itself in this form but, in so doing, often confuses this form with itself as an actor might get lost in his imagined role or character (and frequently does). What William Blake calls “the Poetic Genius”, which is the true man, does not itself assume human form. It is what generates and sustains the human form or human mold and then acts in character. “Human” is a role we play, but in which we may become lost, which is the condition of narcissism or self-idolatry.
“Riotous living” is self-indulgence. It is squandering or abusing in an irresponsible, undisciplined, and destructively perverse or distorted way the energies, creativity, and talents with which the soul principle is endowed. This is the “famine” of the next line, “And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.” The mighty famine in the land is spiritual destitution and desolation, a sense of lack or unsatisfactory, unfulfilled existence. The ego-nature feels starved of sustaining vitality, and this is the “hunger” spoken of. The more forgetful becomes the ego-nature, the more existence is experienced as unsatisfactory, as depleted, desolate and miserable.
This is the condition Buddhism calls “dukkha” — which is malaise or suffering. The condition is brought on by delusion about the true nature of self, which delusion arises from forgetfulness, as afflicted Narcissus. One has become “a stranger in a strange land” with a sense of inadequacy, deficiency, alienation from or maladjustment to reality. This “famine” is the result of a separation of the human nature or egoic being from its true source.
Having squandered his “inheritance” and his birthright, which are his energies, the Prodigal Son affixes himself to another. He seeks to locate the sustaining source of his life outside himself. No longer self-sustaining, he becomes a dependent. He becomes unfree. He becomes enslaved to something that he now relies upon for his own spiritual sustenance, something external to himself. “And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.” This “citizen” could be anything, but it pertains to having fallen into a condition of unfreedom. The analogy is pertinent. To become a swineherd in those days, was to fall into the lowest point of social existence and state of debasement and humiliation. This, again, is a spiritual state — a state of quantification and gross materialism — in which the ego-nature has completely lost the map and the Ariadne’s thread leading out from the overpowering maze of its existence. It is maximum forgetfulness that is called “Cloud of Unknowing” or “samsara”. It is the state known as “Hell”.
This spiritual condition of debasement, deadness, and unfreedom of the Prodigal Son is exactly what is explored by Rene Guenon in his book The Reign of Quantity and in Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society, as both are understandably concerned, in their different ways, with the fall into quantity and the quantification of the soul. It is also the spiritual condition of man as Nietzsche finds it in his opening pages of Thus Spake Zarathustra, when Zarathustra delivers his discourses on “what is man?” (and also, what is the cure for man). That “man is the sick animal,” as Nietzsche taught, is connected with the condition of dukkha as the Buddhists teach of it.
(This is the irony of Nietzsche, that his writings often follow the exact pattern and form of the Scriptures, for his “all-too-human” condition corresponds to this nadir, or lowest point, of the Prodigal Son’s existence in the parable. In fact, for Nietzsche man’s spiritual condition is even lower than the swineherd’s, “You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm”.)
But, behold! It is precisely at this lowest nadir and most debased point of existence — of complete crisis, exile, and estrangement; of dukkha — that the Prodigal Son, who is ego-nature, finally comes to himself. It is in duress that he comes to remembrance of who and what he is truly and from whence he arises. This is the enlightenment of the Adamic nature. This enlightenment is also revivification and resurrection, for he is as one raised again from the dead by remembrance. It corresponds to one of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise”.
This is William Blake’s “Glad Day” in which Albion, the fallen Man, awakens to the totality of himself, for Albion is the Prodigal Son spoken of in the parable and who is the transcendent or self-realised nature,
Blake’s accompanying comment to this picture is “Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves / Giving himself for the Nations he danc’d the dance of Eternal Death”, which clearly equates him in his previous fallen state with the Prodigal Son.
This re-membrance as “enlightenment” (it bears repeating) is not what we typically call “memory”, which is merely reflection. True “re-membrance” is overcoming the condition of dis-memberment, as all true “recollection” is not recall, but a true coming to the totality of oneself as an integral whole. As long as the ego experiences itself as particular, separate, apart, segregate (and not integrate or “collected”) it exists as an outcast and in a state of dis-memberment, and thus tortured, fractured, divided, atomised. It is truly as homeless as the Prodigal Son is homeless, and feels itself as rootless. This condition of homelessness or rootlessness (which condition finds its echo in the word “deracinated”) is a spiritual and psychic one.
This was the pattern, too, of the life of Jesus, who lived and died as “the Son of Man” in his torn-to-pieceshood as the Prodigal Son, but resurrected as the “son of God”, the enlightened Christic principle, as the Prodigal homecoming. In some important ways, the entire life of Jesus was to serve as a living symbolisation of the journey of the Prodigal Son, who is Everyman and Everywoman. Jesus lived as he taught, but in ways far more profound than most people realise. For they do not see that the life of Jesus was intended as a living map of self-overcoming, a map for human beings of how one becomes what one is truly, and not as something to be worshipped and adored from afar! For that “afar” is the perpetuation of the state of estrangement — the “far country” itself.
The very word “religion” has the meaning “homecoming”, for Latin re-ligere (a word related to “intelligence”, too) means to “re-connect” or re-membering in the sense of return or refound (ligere is connected with “ligament”). It is not a matter of believing this or that dogma or principle, but of an actual practice or a journeying, a journeying within to the root source of oneself. For was it not said that “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you” and not outside? And that “the body is the temple of the living God”? Therefore religion, in its truest and most authentic sense, is the practice of coming to oneself, the overcoming of the dismembered state by a supreme act of re-membrance, for which the parable of the Prodigal Son serves as map.
He “came to himself” and ceased to remain a stranger in a strange land. His homecoming was indeed a “Glad Day” as Blake depicted it. But he also came home enriched by his adventures and experience in “the far country”. The elder son, however, was resentful of this, which begs the question: who IS this elder son who is the spirit of resentment? That is in the nature of the resentment ascribed to Lucifer, as his rebellious act.
Here, however, the parable ends rather abruptly. We will try to complete it in another post.