I recall when my mother, an impeccable speller who spent much of my early years as a typist for court reporters, pointed out that the word had no “e”. This was apparently a common mistake made by many in the legal profession. For some reason that always stayed with me. Whenever I see the word I immediately look for the extra “e”, which due to the vagaries of this patchwork, loan-word language we call English must be turned away.
In our house judgment was a commonplace. My father had grown up with an extremely judgmental set of parents. The judgments frequently took the form of petty gossip about other members of the family, their moral and financial failings, the short-comings in their personal characters, their idiosyncrasies, their physical defects. My grandfather was especially hard on his son (my father) and his sons-in-law. Because my grandfather was a great lover of women, my mother and his two daughters escaped much of this public shaming. This tendency to constantly look for the flaws was exacerbated and multiplied by the extremely judgmental flavor of Evangelical Fundamentalism in which our family was immersed- a religion in which the “primordial fall and Christ’s redemption of man” and the utter “depravity of human nature” were the central themes.
I grew up believing that all human beings were flawed from the get-go and that no matter how hard we tried, we were- in the end- utterly WRONG in every way, except in our ability to acquiesce to the totally undeserved love of God. The older I get, the more I realize, that this extreme form of Christianity appealed so deeply to my family because on both sides there was so much emotional abuse. Both of my parents were raised in homes where they were led to feel that there was something not right about who they were. They judged others even as they were severely judged by their parents. They found a religion whose primary mythological tropes were divine wrath, primordial disapproval, the incontrovertible necessity of cosmic punishment culminating in the self-sacrifice of God Himself.
When I was about 8, my mother bought me two of Madeleine L’Engle’s well-known children’s books “A Wrinkle in Time” and “A Wind in the Door.” These were the first evidence that there could exist a flavor of Christian spirituality that was not fundamentalist. L’Engle was a high-church, ecumenist. In the second book the heroine encounters a mysterious beast first taken for a dragon- in fact it is not a dragon- it is “cherubim”. This is a plural word, the singular being cherub. This cluster of beings appears as a great sphere of wings, eyes and puffs of flame and smoke. I was enchanted by the wonderful, mysterious character: both one and many- so fierce in appearance, yet so gentle. 14 years later I would meet L’Engle one evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC and take communion with her. I would get to thank her for her books- which in many ways guided me on a new spiritual path.
The cherub/cherubim are mysterious angelic-figures appearing a number of times in the Hebrew Bible – we are told by near-Eastern scholars that they probably began as guardian figures found on the royal chambers and municipal buildings of many middle eastern states. The cherubim are described in various ways in the Bible, but they are usually strange hybrids (the visions of Ezekiel are especially bizarre and wondrous), they often appear together (or as one being made of many- hence L’Engle’s use of the plural) and can be rather fierce. They have multiple heads and six wings and shimmer and shine as if they are made of jewels or colored fires. They are very close to God’s presence. They share characteristics with the winged bulls of Babylon and may derive in part from these or share a common mythic prototype with them.
It is “cherubs or cherubim” that drive Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden after they eat the forbidden fruit and wake up to “the knowledge of good and evil.” Medieval and Renaissance images of the “expulsion from the garden” are rendered over and over again in paintings and sculptures, culminating in the most famous version by Michaelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The divine figure of wrath is singular here- it is shown as an ordinary angel with a sword. In the book of Genesis however the appearance of the celestial guardian of the gate is more ambiguous. We are told merely that
“he [god] drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”
The flaming sword that turns this way and that insures that the disobedient progenitors of the human species will never be able to return. The meaning of the tale is also ambiguous (thus over two thousand years of exegesis- a long chain of judgments if you will). According to the text, god feared that our first parents would eat from the tree of life (the other special tree in Eden mentioned) and thus not only have the discerning power of the divine, but life eternal. In effect- becoming equal with god (this is what the satanic serpent has told Eve earlier in the story. The serpent may have been telling the truth all along. This alternate reading is in fact the core doctrine of Gnosticism- another form of Christian belief that was stamped out by the official church in the first three centuries of the common era).
Many modern thinkers have postulated that this “terrible parent” who reigns over the Christian psyche has been one of the main pyschological building/stumbling blocks of Western peoples since the advent of Christian rule. Think about it: the maker of the world (who is not OF THE WORLD) is the ultimate figure of judgment. To the Gnostics this horrible, jealous figure could not have been the One True God. They gave him a name: Yaldobaoth or used the word “demiurge” to describe him. The demiurge was a minor deity (the Lord of this World) who through his own pride and egoism manifested the strange world of matter in which we find ourselves imprisoned.
Unlike the Erinyes or Nemesis (the divine figures of judgment in the classical Greek pantheon), God the Father (in the orthodox Christian understanding) will burn everyone in eternal fire who has not accepted the gift of the death of his only child. What a peculiar myth we have inherited! There are of course countless inflections and variations on this- but over them the figure of wrath who must be appeased holds sway.
In my 20′s I discovered the new age classic “A Course in Miracles”. A new Christian scripture “channeled” (aren’t all holy books?) by two doctors in NYC in the mid-20th century. The text turns the Christian mythos inside out and illuminates it with an especially Gnostic sensibility. The material world and our experience of duality are the result of a primordial error- but it is not disobedience to a divine father figure- it is in fact the belief that we could ever be separate entities to begin with! Thus all of our judgments are our own unenlightened acts of self-abuse:
“Therefore, hold no one prisoner. Release instead of bind, for thus are you made free. The way is simple. Every time you feel a stab of anger, realize you hold a sword above your head. And it will fall or be averted as you choose to be condemned or free.”
Discovering “The Course in Miracle”- like the books of Madeleine L’Engle- seemed like a moment of divine intercession, a harbor after all those years of sailing through the choppy waters of divine wrath. By making the fierce cherubim, those unwelcoming guardians of the garden, into something, sweet and gentle, she reinterpreted for me the vision of god’s fiercest emissaries. Likewise, the flaming sword of justice with which my grandfather and father cut through every other man they met, became through the teachings of “The Course in Miracles”, a symbol of my own internalized wrath. The sword of judgment was a figment of my own warped imagination- and I had hung it not only over my enemies’ heads- but over my own head too.
When I pass judgment I find that what I have done is in fact set up a guardian to the garden. Eden is that place of primordial oneness, the place where we live naked, unashamed and in a state of timeless trust. There god and human and man and woman and plant and animal all lived together, in a state without right and wrong, in a moment of acceptance. The act of disobedience is a figment of the imagination. It is a product of a cruel psychological posture, the uttering of a cosmic”NO”. In our error we have imagined that there is another way other than Divine Love, other than Divine Acceptance of WHAT IS. All the horrors of separation follow.
The men who raised me lived in abject terror. They hung swords like Christmas tree ornaments over the heads of every other man (and many women) that they met- it was as if this was a necessary ritual. And of course it was! For both of these men- my beloved grandfather and father- could hardly look at themselves in a mirror they were full of so much shame. This shame was amplified and found its perfect match in their insane religiosity- all based on the divine acts of wrath, judgment and damnation. I absorbed this fully and still struggle to accept others just as they are- and myself just as I am.
There are many other adages that echo this psychological posture “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” “We judge others by the same standards that we judge ourselves.” In the end it is all a game of shadow-boxing.
My husband reminded me a few days ago that in the act of judgment one is also making the decision to NOT LISTEN. I know YOU and what you have done WRONG. The error you committed defines not only who you are- it makes you into a thing. I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE AND THAT IS THAT. Because I can see you so clearly as the thing that needs to be judged I do not need to listen. I do not require an explanation, a story, or a place where the two of us can meet— a garden perhaps– to see one another and to listen to one another. The sword is flaming! The sword of judgment turns this way and that way and guards the path IN. There is no way IN without being cut to pieces- a further act of division- another mythic act of dismemberment. Furthermore- those sacred beasts which often have four faces WATCH- they survey the scene- as beacons of judgment the rays of their fierce watch insure that NO ONE CROSSES THE THRESHOLD.
If you Google the phrase “judgment vs. judgement” you will find many exchanges between people- especially in the legal profession- regarding the back and forth history of the “missing ‘e’” in the word. Several sources say that either spelling is acceptable, although the one sans ‘e’ is considered the most commonly accepted and/or correct form. There are heated debates- there is anger and JUDGMENT recorded in these online forums over this ‘e’. One is reminded of the Scholastics and other church-men and also of rabbis who spent their lives (as academics STILL DO) parsing the essential minor details of long dead things.
When the sword falls it divides. Before it falls it creates a sense of anxiety- for we expect it, like the blade of the guillotine or the proverbial “other shoe” to fall at any moment.
For my part I wish to suspend judgment today. I wish to lay down my sword and call off the cherubim. I want to try and reenter the garden, to meet my father and my grandfather there- to meet everyone I meet today there… IN THAT QUIET PLACE THAT EXISTED BEFORE THE FALL.