Dec 022014
 

The season of Advent is upon us. This is a time when we traditionally meditate upon the themes of Christ’s coming, whether in the birth of Jesus or in the Second Coming. We therefore may be simultaneously aware of the absence of Jesus and hopeful for his return. While it would seem that this is all taken very literally by most Christians, there is another way that it is meaningful for some of us. The coming and ensuing loss of Jesus, and the hope for his return, can be taken as a pattern for the way an individual’s sense of God’s presence can come and go.

While it seems that some mystics claim they never again felt distant from God after realizing mystical union, others acknowledge that they have found themselves passing through periods of greater or lesser awareness of that union, and sometimes painfully so. Furthermore, one of the most frustrating things about this pattern is that there is nothing that can be done about it. No amount of prayer or other spiritual disciplines provides a magical formula that restores the greatest awareness of God’s presence.  Consider the parallel meaning of these words from Jesus:

At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There He is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There He is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here He is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. (Matthew 24:23-26)

This limitation on our power to realize unity with God should be no surprise; the finite mind of the human soul simply cannot fully comprehend the Infinite, let alone command it.  We may be able to raise ourselves up into higher consciousness in some ways, or remember different forms of God’s presence, but the ultimate fulfillment of our hopes is simply out of our control.  In this context, let’s reflect on the relevance of Jesus’s teaching about the coming of the Son of Man, taking it as a metaphor about the coming of a complete realization of mystical union:

No one knows about that day or hour. Not even the angels in heaven know. The Son does not know. Only the Father knows. … So keep watch. You do not know on what day your Lord will come. You must understand something. Suppose the owner of the house knew what time of night the robber was coming. Then he would have kept watch. He would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready. The Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him. (Matthew 24:36 & 42-44)

Isn’t it striking that Jesus himself said not even the Son knows when the coming will occur!?  These words are spoken by the man we traditionally revere as the Incarnate Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, whom the Apostle John records more than once saying that he is one with God! And yet Jesus also felt moments of distance from God, as evidenced by his own words on the cross, his agony in Gethsemane, and his temptations in the desert.

So the mystic simply keeps watch.  We make ourselves ready with the prayer of stillness and silence. We tend our house by loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves, remembering that God is love.  We try not to deny our feelings when God seems distant, and we avoid masking them with the vanity and arrogance of false spiritual powers.  We may suffer, but we do so with faith, hope, and generiosity of spirit. We allow that very suffering to transform us into greater vessels of compassion and kindness, greater instruments of God’s grace, and thus more fully realize our union with God.

To close, I offer one of my poems that addresses the waxing and waning of mystical awarness:

A Rose Needs to Bloom

O Beloved One,
how often I wish You were here with me,
always here in the flesh to receive
the misty gaze of adoration from these eyes,
the trembling touch of affection from these hands,
the husky whispers of appreciation from these lips.
Oh that I might see Your acceptance
of such spontaneous offerings
in the joyful sparkle of Your eyes,
hear it in the soothing tones of Your voice,
feel it in the welcoming warmth of Your embrace.

But You are the oracle of my soul,
my Cherished One,
knowing my heart and mind
from within their deepest depths.
So I would be a fool not to know
that the need to have this love expressed
is not Your need but my own.
I need it as surely as a rose needs to bloom
simply because it is a rose.

In this pining I believe I feel
something of the bittersweet pain
of Lazarus or the Magdalene,
reborn, renewed, bursting with gratitude,
and then losing You so soon,
always in hopeful longing
to be near You once more.
Yet You remind me that Your spirit
is ever near, both within and without.

O my sun and rain,
my fertile earth and restful night,
You feed this rose to bloom
and be seen by You through the eyes,
and felt with the skin
and in the heart
of everyone I meet.

rose_heart_cross

Maranatha
 

Agape

Aug 202014
 

O Cherished One,
O Vital One,
  love emanates from your presence in this world.
  It floats around you
as the atmosphere of a well-tended garden,
fragrant with the scents
of many flowers, fruits, and herbs,
and with the aroma
of the soft, damp, fertile earth
in which they are rooted.
Your atmosphere of love hums with life,
the hum of countless bees
passionately gathering nectar
for the richest honey. 
It flutters and dances with grace and color,
not only of the blossoms
but also the butterflies and birds
drawn to their bounty.

302688_640

   It offers both the warm stirring light
and the cool soothing shade,
and thus inclusively nurtures
a diversity of creatures
according to their own natures.
It rests peacefully
under the twinkling blanket of night,
and then at each new dawn
sparkles with the dew of awakening,
quenching the thirst of rebirth.
What a joy it is just to breathe in
the atmosphere of your garden!
Yet it is a blessing beyond reckoning
to pass the gate and be welcomed within.

Agape

May 072014
 

St. Isaac of Stella wrote:

Love incited by something external
Is like a small lamp
Whose flame is fed with oil,
Or like a stream fed by rains,
Where flows stop when the rains cease.
But love whose object is God is like
A fountain gushing forth
From the earth.
Its flow never ceases,
For He Himself is the source of this love
And also its food,
Which never grows scarce.

It’s been several years ago now, but after meditation on those words, and a moment of contemplative stillness, I wrote the following poem:

Deep within the well of this heart,
sliding down in the silent darkness,
sinking into the caverns of spirit,
I found You, Beloved One,
the hidden waters,
a mighty rushing in the stillness.

There at Your edge,
where I might have plunged
and fulfilled the fantasy
of a supreme union,
I found instead
the fear of oblivion in You,
and upon this halting
I piled remorse and shame
for my self-judged unworthiness.

Still I dipped a begging hand
into Your ceaseless current,
washed the tear-stained dust
from this mask of sadness
and sipped a drop of Your cool purity.

Such sweet wine You are,
Beloved One,
for this single taste
bestowed an unimagined sobriety,
a joyous awakening to the memory
that this resistance to Your fullness
is among the greatest gifts from You.

In these depths,
all things left within me
that had seemed to interfere
with my dream of perfection
were revealed as channels
for a unique upwelling
of Your goodness.

You created me to be Your lover,
my Beloved.
By Your will we are two
who are nonetheless one.
Never let this be undone
so long as there are others in this world
who thirst for You.

There are many things we could draw out of these two poems, but today my focus is drawn from the very first line of St. Isaac’s work.  So long as we think of God as something or someone entirely separate from and outside of ourselves, external, I believe we are missing a vital point of St. Isaac’s mystical statement.  For those of us who have been  in traditional religious institutions, a great deal of our spiritual thoughts, sentiments, and practices have indeed been incited by something external.  Our attempts to love the Great Mystery we call God can often be almost entirely directed by doctrines and authorities urging us to relate to God as anything but present within our own souls and those of others.   So it is that many of us are led into the recurring misery of feeling that God is separate and distant from us, unresponsive to our prayers and devotions, and that we must therefore be far too corrupt to merit God’s thirst-quenching love.  Yet, it is possible to break free of this psychospiritual tyranny and rediscover the presence of God as Love within us.  But it would be an incomplete understanding of St. Isaac to think this means we should turn all of our attention within, giving our time and energy only to that inward experience.  To accept that the Kingdom of God is already within us begs the further realization that it is within everyone else and all of creation, just as Jesus taught.  In that realization, our love for things external to us, certainly including other people, is directly connected with cherishing and serving God, or Love itself.  Finally, my poem ends with a kind of Christian Bodhisattva vow, a commitment to not make the spiritual life about trying to escape from the world’s suffering, but rather to accept the fact of our presence in this world, and to answer the call to transform that presence for the good of all.

Agape

Apr 182014
 

On this Good Friday, following up on the recent Holy Week Meditation, I’d like to offer two poems that resonate with key themes for meditation.

The first poem is about being in the most frightening, painful, and despairing of moments in life.  It is about those moments when all looks so bleak that we cannot see any way out that doesn’t threaten us to our very core.  It is about our own passages through the Passion.

Becoming the Unknown

This is the dark whirling dance;
No pretty songs to twirl upon,
But groaning, pining whines
For the spirit of merciful redemption
Grinding upon the bloody stonesjesus-swetaing-blood-in-gethsemane
Of judgment’s unbridled execution.

Oh, Peace, where is your sweet breath?
No one kisses with your cool lips
Or embraces with your gentle arms.
The gifts of friendship and relief
Fall around your feet as autumn leaves
Driven down in cold merciless rains.

Harmony, I cannot find you in this fog,
Just the groping, tripping gate
Of feet clumsy with confused intentions;
Grimy, unwelcomed, mixed motives
Twisting haunted howls of confusion
Around this burning blistered tongue.

Compassion, why play hide and seek?
If you charged into this dream
You might share your fruits so freely,
But you sulk in stinking corners
Of ugly self-pity and self-loathing –
These seeping self-inflicted wounds.

Rebirth, is blood truly the price to be paid?
Flesh and heart and soul rendered
Into a stew for the feast of laughing gods?
Shall lightning bolts of betrayal
Illuminate this ancient melodrama,
This tragedy played out heedless of these tears?

Here it is, the present fact of life’s strange song:
Lonesome, hopeful circling,
Casting about for a hidden mooring
In the throes of nature’s raging storm,
Churning gut and mind beyond nausea
Within the swirl of becoming the unknown.

The second poem is about the promise of rebirth, but a rebirth that will not fully come until we stop clinging to what must pass.

Crucifixion

Even under clouds of angst and confusion,
scourged by guilt and pierced by remorse,
with thorns of shame encircling our minds,rosy cross
and the bitter cup of betrayal at our lips,
grace awaits all surrendering souls,
not in a bargain struck by compliance,
but in the gentle joyful awakening
of foolish resistance finally falling away.

In this moment, right here, right now,
at the intersection of body and spirit,
in the mingling of darkness and light,
we participate in the mystery of crucifixion
where the flower of life is ever blooming.

Look! The precious petals are unfolding!

O Living One, help us accept the cross of our existence, transform our own suffering into compassion for the suffering of others, and thus welcome the eternal rebirth of every moment.

Maranatha

Agape

Amen

Apr 102014
 

As many of you know, ChristianMystics.com was the previous host of my blog.  I’m very grateful for the start I was given there, and for the companionship we enjoyed in the social networking that was then a part of that site.  This new site preserves all my blog posts from the previous, and provides an opportunity for me to reconnect with all whom I enjoyed engaging in the depths of mystical thought and feeling, and hopefully we’ll make some new friends here as well!  I look forward to any dialogue that we might share.

While I don’t have any new essays to share at this time, I do have a few new poems I offer to welcome you to the new site.

in rapturous communion

As each clear morning’s twilightthis mockingbird sings (1)
creeps into the indigo sky,
this mockingbird leaves his nest
for a perch high in the open air,
silently ascending to be present
for the passing of the coldest hours
into the warming of a new dawn.

He turns his breast to the rising gold
and feels its rays reaching in
to caress his sonorous heart,
stirring forth the first song of the day,
a joyful fanfare for the light’s return,
and thus he once again joins
the chorus of life unleashed.

Oh, how he sings his nameless love
for the light of the Cherished One!
Not merely for reviving his heart,
but for freely beaming Her warmth
into the naked wonder of being,
illuminating all the glorious world
with which this grateful mockingbird
celebrates in rapturous communion.

 

sighs of content adoration

O Beloved Vital One,
this creature sighs in content adoration
upon remembering your unconditional charity,
the unlimited grace that is your nature,
requiring no sacrifice, penance, or petition
in exchange for your generosity.

Like the soft quiet air of an Alpine glade,
you freely wrap yourself around us all,
and enter into each as the very breath of being.
You are the bearer of morning’s cool mist
and our window to the sun, moon, and stars,
the fabric in which all birds and bees are weaving
the flowing tapestry of Nature’s polyamory,
the ever-present sylphan dancer
with whom all flowers are gladly swaying,
the moving aria all leaves honor with their applause.

Sweet Atmosphere of Life,
within the sparkling gallery of constellations
hangs your Libran sign as a reminder to all
of the selfless harmony you inspire in our souls.
In this celestial form, O Vital Spirit,
with stable stance you patiently wait,
your strong arms hinged upon a sensitive heart,
your cupped hands reaching out,
always ready to receive, to hold and support,
to carefully weigh all things in the balance
by the invisible gravity of love.

And so it is that every creature’s
blood-reddening respiration,
and every artist’s or lover’s thrilling inspiration,
is a testimony to your boundless affection,
our dear Vital One,
and why this creature gratefully
and joyfully sings your praises
with sighs of content adoration.

 

A Blessing for Kindness

May you be
strong enough to be kind
to those who call you a weakling,
wise enough to be kind
to those who call you a fool,
truthful enough to be kind
to those who call you a liar,
peaceful enough to be kind
to those who call you a threat,
and strong, wise, truthful,
and peaceful enough
to be kind to yourself
through all curses, praises,
or indifference.

Agape

 

These poems are also on my poetry site.

Oct 242013
 

abyss

We stand upon the islands of what we think we know,
And the abyss of the Mysteries, vast and deep,
Stretches out from these shifting sands
And well beyond the hazy horizon
Of sensation, emotion, image, and word.

And so we learn the limits of the mind
Through observing the death of our thoughts,
Their drowning into oblivion within the unknown,
And thus we form the fear that swimming into the abyss
Would be the end of all, with no return, no rebirth.

But, now and then, some stranger appears upon the shore,
Or perhaps some old friend, dripping wet and shivering,
Unable to speak, yet eyes oddly ablaze,
A cool fire, a fervent placidness, shining through them,
Trying to communicate something ineffable.

Some of these intrepid souls, each in their own ways,
Reach out to beckon others to join them in the deep.
Some grab, pull, and shove indiscriminately,
Attempting to force the fearful past their fears,
Often leading them only to panicked half-drowning madness.

For these islands of presumed knowledge
Are surrounded by the reefs of our submerged illusions,
And to push souls beyond the banks before their tide and time
Is only to send them crashing upon the jagged edges
Of the damnation and torment they have created for themselves.

Perhaps upon the grand scale of existence
Such violence is necessary for a few,
And maybe even for each soul in some measure,
But why would anyone presume to make it so,
If not to satisfy one’s own illusions of another sort?

Driven by our instinctive need for liberation,
Tempered by the equally deep urge for identity,
Countless souls come to the shore with hearts softly imploring,
“Smile gently and challenge me with a kind voice. Take my hand.
Wade with me into the surf, that I may safely learn to swim.”

Agape

Jul 302013
 

I’ve been involved in many conversations that touched on whether or not Christianity stands, or should stand, in opposition to other belief systems.  This is a topic I feel moved to write and speak about from time to time, as in a previous blog post, “The Challenge of Scriptural Hatred and Violence.”

In this post, I’d like to share a *poem on this theme that I wrote many years ago.  At the time, I was particularly fascinated with the Knights Templar and how they might have been related to some of the esoteric movements in the Christian world. I had been meditating on this matter in various ways when it came to me to simply imagine myself as a Templar knight in the Crusades. In a flash, I received all the imagery and insight of this poem.

The Sword and Trowel

Due to an oath of service
It has come that I must stand
Within this foreign country
On this strange enchanted land,
To raise the ancient Temple
So long lost beneath the sand
Of time and Man’s corruption,
And thus must I have at hand
Both sword and mason’s trowel,
So to serve the Lord’s command.

Princes, kings and potentates
Sent us all across the shore
To cut down the infidels
In a bloody holy war.
They promised righteous glory,
Even life forevermore,
And so we’ve battled inward
Boldly taking on the chore,
Serving up our enemy
To the mercy of our Lord.

But in a lonely vigil
On a cold and eerie night,
Blew a moaning mournful wind
That filled my heart with fright.
I, glimpsing an invader,
Thrust my sword with all my might
Into an airy phantom,
My own shadow by moonlight,
And thus my eyes were opened
And my soul was given sight.

Within that silent moment
I was graced with Light shot through,
And for what seemed an hour,
Yet within a breath or two,
I was freed from all my sin
And stood with the Christ anew
As he vanquished my true foe,
Not pagan, Muslim or Jew,
But the hubris, hate and greed
Sitting on my heart’s back pew.

And now I know my duties
Are most truly to protect
The Cross from all dishonor
And the Temple to erect.
Not with metal sword or tool,
But by love must I perfect
The site of Christ’s next coming
Where His Light shall intersect
The heart of a true brother
Though he’s of another sect.

So I take the sword and trowel
As the tools that I must test,
Not upon a foreign land
But within this human breast,
To conquer evil forces
And intolerance arrest,
Building a fraternity
That will serve the noble quest
To spread illumination
And True Glory manifest.

So, what might we take from this imagery? At one level, it suggests some knights of the Crusades might have been inspired to return to Europe and form secret societies of a more tolerant and universal faith. At another level, I take it as a reflection on how the collective consciousness of Christianity was troubled by its own behavior in the Crusades, and how that disillusionment helped pave the way for broad cultural developments like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Finally, I suspect most of us can relate to the shock and horror of awakening to our own hostility, arrogance, and intolerance, as well as the remorse and resolve to change. Let us be accepting and forgiving of ourselves in that resolve, understanding that “To conquer evil forces / And intolerance arrest,” means to overwhelm them with love.

Agape


* This poem was previously posted on my poetry blog, The Incomplete Works…

Sep 182012
 

Much is made of the idea of a ‘personal’ God in Christianity.  The idea of God being a person, or a unity of three persons, has been with us for so long, and has been so adamantly preached as the key to having an acceptable experience of and relationship with God, that some Christians consider it among the worst sacrilege and blasphemy to speak of God in any other way.  Even so, this is precisely where the Spirit has led many Christian mystics.   It seems to me that this is part of why some Christians have a hard time understanding Christian mystics, let alone recognizing us as ‘good’ Christians.  In this post, I hope to show how, in their most authentic love of God, mystics can embrace other ways of relating to God.

There are lots of traditional biblical arguments for why a Christian could adhere to that “old time religion” in which God is conceived of as a superhuman Father, one who thinks and feels like humans do, whose mind works pretty much like a human’s does, but is different primarily because He is all-knowing, infinitely intelligent, and infinitely wise.  It’s easy to see why this anthropomorphic way of thinking about God is commonly offered, and has at times been brutally enforced, as the only truly Christian way to think and speak about God.  After all, it is the language the Bible itself most commonly uses.  The teachings about God attributed to Jesus are presented in such terms, and then the writings of the Apostles, especially Paul, further speak of relating to the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit in personified terms.

The question that arises for some of us is whether or not it’s necessary to take all that anthropomorphic language literally.  Is there no room in Christianity for people who find such language to be poignant and inspiring, yet also humbly acknowledge that they find it alone inadequate for the Supreme Being, the very Source, Creator, and Sustainer of Existence Itself?  At times, Christian authorities of various sorts have not only answered that question with “No!”,  but they have been willing to destroy lives over the issue.  Why is that?  What are they afraid of?  Where is the definitive Biblical statement that no other way of thinking about God is acceptable to God?  You won’t find it because it doesn’t exist.  There is no “shalt” or “shalt not” with regard to anthropomorphic theism.  In fact, it seems to me that the scriptures offer many opportunities to not be limited to that way of thinking about God.

Is “Person” a Fitting Term for God?

It is interesting that the English word “person” is taken from the Greek prosopon, which originally meant a theatrical mask. The prosopon represented the role, and would obviously have never been confused with the actual actor.  According to Thayer and Smith’s lexicon, in the New Testament prosopon refers to:

1. the face
a. the front of the human head
b. countenance, look
i. the face so far forth as it is the organ of sight, and by it various movements and changes) the index of the inward thoughts and feelings
c. the appearance one presents by his wealth or property, his rank or low condition
i. outward circumstances, external condition
ii. used in expressions which denote to regard the person in one’s judgment and treatment of men
2. the outward appearance of inanimate things

We can see that the word always refers to an outward, worldly, or superficial appearance, not the essence of something, which fluent speakers of Greek, like Jesus and the New Testament authors, would have known.  In many English versions of the New Testament, this word is translated as “person,” and one of the most common contexts is when it is said Jesus and God do not regard the persons of human beings (Matthew 22:16; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21; Galatians 2:6).   To my knowledge, only once is the word prosopon used in reference to God/Christ.  It is in 2nd Corinthians 2:10 where Paul speaks of forgiving others in the person of Christ, which is to say that in such moments the believer’s presence to others is a mask of the Christ within him or her.

In all of these cases, the wording emphasizes appearances, masks upon something more essential, central, and real.  For me, this leads to a theological position that I find very reasonable: When I think of God in anthropomorphic terms, as if a person, then I am looking at a conceptual mask that helps me relate to God in a way that can be very meaningful and helpful, yet can nonetheless sometimes prevent me from experiencing God more directly and more fully.  Said another way, a mask can be very attractive, fun, informative, challenging, even threatening, and somewhat revealing in all of these ways, but if I want to get to know more about who or what is behind the mask, then sometimes I must be willing to let it fall. This is a point where great Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart enter the theological discussion.

Mysticism and the Trans-Personal Perspective on God

This willingness to let go of the masks and simply open to the Ineffable Mystery of God is one way that Christian contemplative mysticism differs from other ways of relating to God and Christ.  This does not mean that Christian mysticism is about giving up faith in God as very much alive and present in and around us.  In fact, for many of us, letting go of the masks of personhood for God has made it easier for us to relate to God as Life Itself, as Love Itself, as Truth Itself, as Reality Itself, but a Life, Love, Truth, and Reality that isn’t limited to our human experiences and understandings; God’s transcendence is revered as much as God’s immanence.  A great number of us even continue to speak to God, about God, and of our relationship with God, in very personal terms.  In my own case, following in the footsteps of greater mystics, I write poetry addressed to God as the Beloved.   I bear witness that it is very natural for some of us to express our most intimate thoughts and feelings about God in such human terms.  Just as we anthropomorphize God by imagining God’s mind to be human-like but with infinite knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom, we also personalize our experience of and relationship with God by likening it to the most rewarding human relationships infinitely magnified.  We simply don’t have a better single way to communicate so much of our relationship with God than in these very personal terms.  Yet among the challenges of a trans-personal mysticism are (1) that we don’t forget it is symbolism to speak of God as a person, (2) there are other symbol systems with their own value, and (3) even the most complete, all-encompassing, and complexly detailed conceptualization falls short for the Infinite and Eternal One.

An important take-away from that last point is that what we know, or think we know, about God is transcended by what we don’t know.  To realize union with God more fully, which is the definitive aim of contemplative mysticism, we must therefore surrender to the Unknown, and we do so through the practice of unknowing. We open ourselves to the immediate presence of God freed from our beliefs, hopes, and expectations about how God “should” be present.  We let go of all words, all images, and all feelings that might arise, understanding them to be parts of a mask we put on God.  It isn’t that we are striving to attain some state of mindlessness, but rather that our awareness sinks down into the purest depths of mind where, if we are so graced, we might realize deeper union with its very source and essence, which we call Spirit, or God.  Likewise, we are not trying to eliminate all our beliefs and hopes so that we walk around in a self-induced state of agnosticism and apathy, but rather remind ourselves that our beliefs and hopes are bound to be inaccurate reflections of even greater truths.

The Existential Challenges and Rewards of Unknowing

At this point I want to address why some people are resistant to letting go of anthropomorphic theism as the only way to think about God.  I believe the short answer is fear.  We fear that it’s unacceptable to God.  We fear it will open the door to delusions or demons. We fear that people who are important to us will be uncomfortable with us, and even ridicule or reject us.  We fear we will lose a sense of confidence and direction about what is meaningful and important in life.  We fear that we will lose something that has given us comfort.  We fear that we will have to admit that we no longer think the way we once thought.  We fear that we will lose our sense of who and what we are as spiritual beings.

I think that last fear penetrates very deeply into one of our most common psychological struggles, which is facing the fact that we don’t fully know ourselves.  One of the great revelations of depth psychology is that, as with an iceberg, there is more to the human psyche beneath the surface of consciousness than above it.  If we aren’t aware of most of our own souls, how can we begin to know even the tiniest fraction about God?!  And beneath all of these fears, perhaps we can see the more basic fear of uncertainty, of the unknown, and our insecurity about simply being in the midst of forces and events that are beyond our ability to anticipate, control, or even fully understand in hindsight.  In fact, many of us have been taught that among the essential purposes of religion are comfort and support in the face of all the fear and uncertainty in life.  When fear and uncertainty are major engines for one’s religious beliefs and attitudes, and especially if one is in denial of them, then the idea of unknowing and embracing God as the Great Mystery can sound like the exact opposite of what one needs.

In my own case, despite having grown up in the Church and practicing a fairly devout mainstream spirituality, and perhaps even as a result of doing so, by my mid-20s I became aware of how much I had been in denial of my uncertainty.  One day, as I drove north on I-35W to go to class at UNT, an epiphany came to me about the extent to which I had been either fighting or fleeing uncertainty with so much of my spiritual life.  For a moment I sat there wondering, “Okay, so now what?  I’m really freaked out about how much more uncertain I am than I ever realized.  What am I supposed to do with this?  How do I do anything without some sense of certainty?”

Almost immediately I saw the image of a toddler boldly living life, unencumbered by uncertainty, and instead fully immersed in the adventure of simply being.  That’s when it not only became okay for me to be uncertain, but I began to see how uncertainty can be transformed into mystery, mystery into freedom, freedom into gratitude and joy, and all of it into love.  That’s also when my understanding of “faith” began to transform from a specific unchanging set of crystallized beliefs into something much deeper and more basic, something more about the simple will to live and to love, and the trust that anything worthy of the name “God” would understand and accept me even better than I understand and accept myself.

Finally, I want to clarify that I am not saying letting go of a strictly anthropomorphic theism and practicing contemplative mysticism is necessary in order to be a “better” Christian, or a happier soul, or a more loving human being, or whatever.  Far be it from me to prescribe what another soul’s relationship with God should or shouldn’t be.  All I can assert is that this is how it has worked out for me and some others, that it is an authentic experience and expression of Christian faith, and to describe some of its demands and rewards.

Agape

Jul 032012
 

Some of us know people who despair of knowing God, maybe including ourselves from time to time.  When we are in these psychospiritual spaces, we desperately want to feel God’s presence in our hearts and minds in the way it is so often glowingly described in song, poetry, and prose, yet fear it may never come, or never return if it has come before.  Even despite our passionate faith, God can seem hopelessly remote, detached, and unconcerned.  We may lament that we want to love God, yet wonder how we can love someone or something we do not know.  At these times, it may not be helpful at all to hear that God is the Great Mystery, as we mystics so often like to say.  It is certainly true that one of the greatest tests of believers, mystics or not, is when we don’t convincingly feel, hear, or see God in any way that we can recognize.

It sometimes angers me that God seems so unconcerned with souls going through those dark nights described by St. John of the Cross, and so touchingly illustrated in the private letters of Mother Teresa.  I wonder how God can be so still and silent, so apparently unresponsive, as a soul begs in agony for some small touch of confirmation.  It is like those moments when a beloved sits impassively as the lover pleads, “Do you still love me?  Oh, my love, do you care?!  Did you ever?”  Sometimes we are even too fearful to ask, or rather so hopeless as to stop trying, though our love for the beloved remains.  I am powerfully moved by compassion and sympathy when I think of people suffering like this.  We all know what it is like to feel the absence of our beloved and even slip into the fear that our love is unrequited; it is miserable, and even fatally unbearable for some.  And yet, there are possibilities of awakening in the fact that we can and do suffer so.

Even though I had grown up in a home of strong faith, and even though I had been touched by a couple of powerful spiritual experiences in my youth, there was a time in my life when my spirituality was so riddled with anxiously feeling God’s absence that I embraced a very skeptical and even cynical agnosticism.  And while I have retained much of the “unknowing” of that time, I did ultimately realize that the word “God” addressed something very real to me.  The impetus of this realization was that rich and painful mix of desire, hope, despair, and yearning I felt for God.  It was all recognized as evidence that there was within me a kind of knowing that didn’t depend on the rational empirical approach to knowledge.  Even though I couldn’t intellectually grasp God, I still somehow knew God.   It was, and is, an intuitive knowing in the truest sense.  It is faith, and it is will.   It isn’t merely emotional, and it cannot be reduced to ego defense mechanisms.  This knowing is certainly intertwined with existential concerns, but it is not simply fantasy to cope with fears of aloneness, meaninglessness, and impermanence.  All of my thoughts and feelings about God, all my desires to know God in every possible way, were realized as aspects of my love for God, just as they would be for a human beloved.  I accepted that I was in love with God, and that my love needed no other evidence, excuses, or explanations.

Yet what relief is there in realizing one does indeed love God while that love continues to feel unrequited?  In ways, this can feel even worse!  It can be shocking to find no satisfying response from God in the wake of such a final acquiescence to the fact that one’s love for God is undeniable.   It can be so disappointing that some people give up all hope.  On the other hand, we might ask if there is something God would have us learn through this suffering, or rather what meaning we might find in it.  At the very least it can develop one’s compassion for others suffering in this way.  For some of us it may also build strength and self-reliance, and perhaps even facilitate self-realization and self-actualization.  In these ways, God’s silence may be for us like the apparent coldness of a mother bear ignoring her young, forcing them to leave her and get on with their lives.  It is as if God is saying, “Stop expecting me to make everything safe, comfortable, and meaningful for you.  It’s your life to live, and I’ve given you the freedom to make of it what you will, so go on and live it.”  Or is this God’s way of encouraging us to actively love God in and through relationships with other creatures rather than keeping our attentions turned within the cloisters of our own souls?  Perhaps that is one among many ways we can become more sensitive to God’s presence, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear.  It is in that vein that I want to share another avenue of meaning that opened for me.

One day in early autumn of 2006, I was musing on this whole issue, and after the briefest pause of contemplative silence these words of St. Francis struck me anew:  “You are that which you are seeking.”  The following poem came out of that moment:

This Yearning Itself

Today, Mysterious Lord,
for you pours out this pining.
It is a sweet grieving.

As though for a dear father
who has left this world,
or a lost first love,
your memory haunts me.

Reaching out to embrace you
these arms enfold emptiness
and wrap themselves
back upon this burning heart.

Yet here you are
in this very melancholy,
the darkness in waiting,
and the longing light,
this yearning itself.

Our feelings of love for God, even the most painful ones, are evidence of the Holy Spirit stirring in our souls!   With further meditation, it struck me how well that fit with St. John’s assertion that God is love.  I realized I was in love with Love Itself, and that every experience of love was therefore in some way, to some degree, an experience of God, a mystical experience.  So, in November of that same year, I tried to express this awakening with the following prose, which I have at times called my manifesto:

After all these years in the study and practice of philosophy, psychology, and other crystallizations of human knowledge, after thousands of meditations and prayers, and countless dreams in both night and day, I have fallen in love with Love. After so long lightly kissing Her hand with the lip service of sophistication, I find myself reeling head over heels into the grand romance, to be seduced by the sacred Lover that is Love and Light and Life Herself. For long enough now, I have been coy with Love and settled for fascination with Her many adornments – the jewels of science that rest upon Her flawless breast, the silky rainbow of arts that are the garments veiling Her blinding perfection. I long to no longer fear being a fool for Love, and I wish to abandon myself in Her, for She is the essence of all wisdom. All the most precious sentiments and noble passions stirring in our hearts, all the most illuminating ideas within our minds, are these not the echoes of Her holy voice?

The great virtues of body, mind and spirit are nothing more than reflections of Love’s transcendent beauty. No mortal can hope to cultivate or command Her, for She is the Supreme Virtue to whom we can only surrender and serve. No mystic realizes union with the Divine but through Love’s unfathomable grace. St. Paul was right that faith, hope and even miraculous works are nothing without Her. Yet few of us are able to keep the eyes of our souls upon Her at all times, with all people, in all things. In our moments of failing vision, faith and hope are means by which we open ourselves to once again fall into the immediacy of Love’s embrace. To have faith in each other, to trust, to give our fidelity, to have hope for our mutual benefit, to cultivate optimism and confidence that together we can give birth to peace and joy, are these not the caresses of Her fingertips?

Join me and let us be lovers of Love. Let us find Her even in those we might hate for their ignorance and fear of Her. Let us sacrifice our own ignorance and fear that we might see Love’s singular light even in the distorted reflections we call evil. In Love we need not conquer or destroy, but nurse all harm into healing, and nurture all suffering as the pains of rebirth.  Join me and let us be lovers of Love.

The fall of 2006, the surrender as it were, wasn’t the end of my spiritual and existential struggles and suffering.  Sometimes I still feel a profound sense of frustration when I don’t experience Love’s love the way I want it – warm, reassuring, nurturing, tender, affectionate, uplifting, inspiring – but now I am more likely to patiently attend to these times, knowing that they too are moments of communing with the Holy Spirit.  I hope you might know this as well.

Agape

Mar 092012
 

from Lenten meditations

Oh you who live the religious life,
if you persevere a time may come
when you finally realize
that all your performance of ritual,
all your prayer and meditation,
all your sacrifices and alms,
all your fasting and service,
have not of themselves
washed away your sinfulness,
made you a better person,
or endeared you more to God.
You will see that none of it
has brought more healing
to your wounded heart
or light to your searching mind,
let alone to the world around you.

If you do not fight or flee this realization,
you may yet come to see
why it is that others before you
have continued in these ways,
as if poets writing poems soon forgotten,
dancers dancing when no one else watches,
or whistlers whistling without thought.
Perhaps then will you begin to know
the true depths of cleansing,
virtue, endearment, healing, and illumination
that were there all along,
already flowing in and through you
and all the world.