Nov 262013
 

spilled chaliceEach year at this time I try to give renewed contemplation to the theme of *Thanksgiving.  Because my experience in life has led me to appreciate the deep significance of gratitude and its expression, I try to dive into this theme and emerge with a perspective somewhat different from previous years.   This year there have been lots of opportunities to engage this meditation without waiting for this particular season of reflection, and it has led to a perspective expressed in the title – Thanks for Nothing.

About halfway through this year, on June 6th, my mother, Joyce Dunning, died at the age of 85.   I am grateful she died relatively peacefully, surrounded by family, Joyce Dunningaware that she was leaving us, and spiritually ready.  It was also a blessing that, as she had hoped, she died before she lost the ability to live independently in the house where she and my father raised my two sisters and me.

I can’t adequately say how grateful I am for the lives she and my father lived and gave to their family and friends, and the many ways they made the world a better place than the one they were born into.  Both of them were children of the Great Depression and abusive alcoholic fathers.  For part of my mother’s childhood, she lived in a dirt-floor shack, enduring both physical and emotional hardships.  My father, Buddy Dunning, also had a difficult childhood, one that was very unstable as the family moved from place to place, often more than once a year, due in large part to his father’s alcoholism.

Even so, my parents resolved that they would learn from their parents’ mistakes rather than emulate them.  So, while my parents were demanding, and sometimes perhaps even more harsh than they needed to be, they nonetheless provided a home for their children that was far more stable, safe, and healthy than either of them had known.  It was a home in which faith, hope, and love reigned.

Certainly, I am profoundly thankful for the home they made, and the mutual trust, understanding, kindness, and warmth they engendered among my sisters and me, and that now lives in our extended families.  In many ways, we are each very different people with our own lifestyles, attitudes, and beliefs, but we also each learned from our parents that these things, even as cherished as some of them are, are nonetheless superficial compared to that which underlies as well as transcends everything.

In addition to losing my mother this year, Susan and I also lost our two beloved cats, Lefty and Rio.  We will always be grateful for the joy, comfort, peace, and companionship they shared with us.  Now their memories and spirits are added to those of the other four-legged family members who still live in our hearts, each having helped us become better human beings than we might otherwise have been.

I am also immeasurably grateful for the loved ones who have stood with me, knelt with me, cried with me, laughed with me, and listened, counseled, or sat in silence with me, not only through this trying year but also many times past.   My amazing spouse, Susan, and her sweet family, have been through it with me every step of the way, each sharing in the grief and the joys because they all loved my mother, Lefty, and Rio as their own.   Countless friends and coworkers, many of whom have been coping with their own significant challenges, have reached out to offer sympathy, compassion, and support in their own ways.  Even the simplest gesture has touched me deeply.

So, what in the heck could I possibly mean when I say I am giving thanks for nothing?!  Simply this – the events of this year have quickened my appreciation for the fact that my deepest and most abiding gratitude is not for any thing, no object or possession, and not even for the physical presence or memory of loved ones.  That for which I am most thankful is quite literally no thing, and no mere idea or attitude.  The name I find most appealing for this no-thing is Love, although another might say Truth, Spirit, or God.

Love in this ultimate sense, this Divine sense, is that which brings all things into being, brings all things together, and gives rise to all that is new through the joining and passing away of all that was and is.  This Love has no opposite, nothing to resist it, no place where it is not.  If such words seem to make no sense, then perhaps they can serve to point beyond the limitations of our sentiments, language, and logic toward the essential Mystery with which every spirituality and science has its own love affair, its own way of embracing an ever more complete knowledge and understanding, each in its own way giving thanks for that No-Thing in which everything has its meaning.  My mother and father nurtured in me this gratitude, this love for Love itself, and I am thankful.

Maranatha

Agape

 

* Even though I view thankfulness as universal, and this holiday as an opportunity to remember and celebrate the spiritual unity of humanity, it is nonetheless true that many Native Americans consider Thanksgiving Day as a National Day of Mourning.  In my thankfulness, I also remember that much for which I am thankful has come with the cost of horrible atrocities.  I wish to honor the many contributions, both willing and unwilling, Native American people have made to the USA and the world.

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…

Jul 232013
 

A Non-Dualist Foundation

Those familiar with my previous writings know that I am most drawn to a non-dual perspective as the starting point for my theological and moral thoughts. Non-dualism is not anti-dualist in the sense that it attempts to ignore duality or entirely escape from it. Rather, it holds that duality is itself subsumed by a greater reality, that of interconnectedness, oneness, unity. In order to address the subject of this blog post from that greater perspective, let’s begin by considering how it can be consistent with scripture. While I am very cautious about taking any scripture at face value, there are some that I gravitate to as strong hints, if not simple and direct statements, of non-dualism expressed in theistic terms.

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. Isaiah 45:7

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.John 1:1-13

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” Luke 17:20-21

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ … ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’Matthew 25:40, 45

[Jesus prayed] “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”John 17:20-23

For in Him we live and move and have our being.Acts 17:28a

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:4-6

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, beginning and end,’ saith the Lord, ‘who is, and who was, and who is coming — the Almighty.’ Revelation 1:8

So, as I now understand such passages, while we perceive a world of dualistic oppositions – like light and darkness, peace and evil, spirit and flesh, or life and death – all of it is nonetheless united in God’s oneness. I don’t want to engage in mere prooftexting, so I acknowledge other passages that appear to declare something is rejected by God, or not of God.  Still, I think such statements are clearly made from the perspective of dualism, and thus speak to how something seems to oppose the things we prefer to identify with God, such as light, peace, and life. Furthermore, I suspect that even the most inspired writers of scripture could move back and forth between these two perspectives just as we do today.   In any case, the common scripturally based theological assertion is that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and so nothing within the realm of duality can be outside God’s mind, power, and presence.

Non-dualism is right there in the midst of ordinary Christian theology, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear.  The Logos, the Kingdom, and the King are always here, in everything. We just fail to realize it because we are so captivated by our dualistic perspectives, and so desperately trying to achieve an either/or type of certainty through the judgments we make. In making such judgments, no matter how well intended they are, we nonetheless mentally cut something off from the whole, and thus we reinforce the illusion of separation from God and each other in some way. In short, we have made our own dualistic reasoning and concepts into a false god to which we bow rather than embrace the Mysterious One and All.

Realizing Unity

We are all already united with God because God is both in and around all. All of our experiences must therefore be experiences of God, which might seem to challenge the notion of a mystical path, a way of seeking union with God. What seeking is necessary?! It’s already happening! One response to this challenge is that what we are actually seeking is not a union with God that has yet to happen, but greater realization of the unity that already exists, always has, and always will.By ‘realization,’ I mean to experience something with awareness and understanding, and to express such awareness and understanding through our actions. For example, people who have fallen in love know that sometimes it isn’t realized until after the fact. Suddenly, there is simply the awakening of “Oh! I’m in love!”, followed by changes in behavior intended to more fully act upon it, to experience and express a more complete manifestation of its possibilities. Each of these elements – experience, awareness, understanding, and expression – is necessary to make something more fully real in our lives, to real-ize it rather than leave our consciousness of it within the realm of speculations, hopes, and potentialities. Thus, the actual aim of mysticism is neither to make union with God happen nor to wait for union to happen (although we often fall back on wording of either sort), but to let go of the illusion of separation and more fully realize the ever-present fact of unity.

Practicing Unity

How might we go about letting go of that illusion and realizing unity? There are many possible varieties of unitive experience. Let us again refer to the analogy of lovers. Think of all the ways lovers can experience and express their connection with each other; it can be sensed with the body, felt with the emotions, understood with the mind, and deeply intuited in silence. When lovers look upon each other, there is union in sight. When they hear each other, there is union in sound. Likewise, there is union in touch, smell, and taste. When they share attraction and affection, there is union in emotion. When their thoughts are focused on each other, and especially in those moments when they know each other’s thoughts, there is union in mind. And, of course, the most complete realization of their union occurs when they are consciously experiencing and expressing all of it. We may realize union with God in much the same way, with all our heart, soul, and mind.

As the scriptures teach, God is over all, in all, and through all, and so we are constantly surrounded and interpenetrated by opportunities to realize union with God. Thus, a practice with significant transformative potential is to regard all of existence, including oneself, as a work of art in which God is at once the inspiration, the artist, the medium, the tools, the actions, the product, and the audience. Everything we experience is a combination of divine forces formed in limited and particular expressions of God’s infinite potential for creation.

Jesus said, “It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the All. From Me did the All come forth, and unto Me did the All extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there.”Thomas 77

Feel the warmth of the sun, and recognize that it is but an infinitesimal speck of God’s power. Gaze upon a fluttering leaf, and there is God’s hand waving to all within sight. Listen to thunder roll, and hear God drumming for all with ears to hear. Smell the decay of death, and so inhale God’s slow sigh. Feel the mysterious rise of tears when listening to a hymn, and feel the unspeakable beauty of God. Discern the mathematics of a circle, and there is a thought from the infinity of God’s mind.Feel closeness of spirit in the company of others with like minds, and sense God’s arms reaching for you and through you toward others. Enfold yourself with a lover, and welcome communion with God. Experience the pain of grief, and there is God letting the present flow into the past.  Empty yourself completely into stillness and silence, and there is God’s unfathomable fullness beyond space and time, ever annihilating and renewing all within the field of space and time.

That last sentence refers to the most valued practice in contemplative Christianity, and to what may be called the mystical experience, which is to say the quintessential or most transcendent mystical experience.  Prior to this event, all the anthropomorphic metaphors we project onto God, even in an attempt to more fully unite with God, continue to raise the veils of dualism and thus some degree of the illusion of separation. The great mystics, like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, the Blessed Jan van Ruysbroek, and many others, have tried to point beyond these veils toward a realization of union that is free of all doubt, all hope, and all speculation. Robert Forman calls it the Pure Consciousness Event. Yet, as these other mystics do in their own ways, Forman also notes that we re-emerge from the complete unity of the Pure Consciousness Event. We always come back into duality to some degree, but sometimes with an awareness, a “memory” if you will, and a greater realization of the unity that subsumes duality and expresses itself through duality. Forman refers to this development as the Dualistic Mystical State, a concept similar to that of the unitive state or unitive way in traditional Christian theology.

Prior to the Pure Consciousness Event, we can approximate the Dualistic Mystical State through the practice of regarding all other forms of experience as limited encounters with God. Such a practice can help us prepare for the ultimate experience, and might even facilitate it. It is certainly a valid attempt to more fully realize the union with God that we intuit, hypothesize, hope for, or sense in some way, but do not yet actually know. But, once the mystical experience has come there is no more need to “regard” other experiences as connections with God, for then we know it just as surely as a lucid dreamer recognizes a dream for what it is while it is actually happening.

Practicing Unity is Love

Whether regarding all of existence as in and of God, or knowing it is so and being engaged in further realizing it, we are loving God more fully. We are opening our souls, our minds, our hearts, and our arms and hands to welcome the Divine in the light and the darkness, in peace and evil, in the flesh (incarnate) and the spirit, in life and death. In this context, we may find even greater depth in Jesus’ teaching to love everyone, even our enemies. While an enemy might be another human being, in any given moment it might also be an idea, a desire in one’s own soul, a machine, or a natural event such as a flood. To love even these enemies is the unconditional love that isn’t caught in dualistic oppositions with hate, fear, or apathy. It is a transcendent love that acknowledges and accepts everything and all just as it is, appreciates the inextricable interconnectedness of everything and all, and rejoices and participates in the never ending transformation and renewal of everything and all.

His disciples said to him, “When will you be visible to us, and when shall we behold you?”

He said, “When you strip naked without being ashamed, and take your garments and put them under your feet like little children and tread upon them, then you will see the child of the Living, and you will not be afraid.”Thomas 37

Even if only for one brief and yet eternal moment, let’s strip off the layers of dualistic clothing on consciousness to directly know the One that is Its own Father, Mother, and Child, and thus more fully realize That which is living, dying, and being reborn in, around, and through all of us and everything else in every moment.

Maranatha

Agape

Jul 192013
 

JanusThere are many different things that move us to take a mystical path. Some of those things are genuine motives and intentions, meaning they really are aimed at the essence of mysticism, which is realizing our oneness with That which we call “God.” Other motives and intentions aren’t so genuine, are more deceptive, and we may see in mysticism opportunities to satisfy them along the way. I’m convinced that sometimes the genuine and the deceptive work together in ways that are truly beneficial in the long run. But, it also seems to me that at times one must yield to the other. If for no other reason than simplicity, we may refer to it as an instance of virtue when the deceptive yields to the genuine, and thus the opposite is an instance of vice. Here are some of the vices that have seemed especially tempting to people I’ve known on mystical paths, certainly including me.

Hypocrisy: choosing to appear more virtuous, principled, or adherent to some belief or value than one actually is; more of an intentional deception or pretense than an unconscious dynamic.

Spiritual Pride: attitudes of arrogance, conceit, self-righteousness, or vanity based on the conviction that one’s spiritual beliefs or practices make one superior to others in one or more ways.

False Humility: denying one’s own value, strengths, or accomplishments or otherwise assuming an inauthentic appearance of being meek, lowly, or servile; a pretense often motivated by the fear of seeming prideful.

Spiritual Materialism: collecting things as evidence to oneself and others of being spiritually or philosophically sophisticated, advanced, or praiseworthy; such “things” may include artworks, books, concepts, historical knowledge, jargon, degrees, titles, honors, positions, vows, practices, spiritual experiences, students, disciples, etc.

False Asceticism: adopting forms of austerity, abstinence, and fasting, or appearing to do so, for the purposes of seeming more holy, enlightened, or pious to oneself or others; a somewhat ironic blend of hypocrisy and spiritual materialism.

Acedia: a state of apathy, ennui, boredom or laziness connected with a devaluation of the ordinary activities of life; often involves a conceptual opposition of the spiritual and the physical aspects of existence.

Romantic Despair: similar to acedia, but a more extreme attitude of hopelessness, pointlessness, pessimism, and defeatism, involving dissatisfaction with life for failing to be congruent with one’s ideas about the way it should or could be.

Romantic Rage: an extreme attitude of loathing, hatred, and ill will toward various aspects of life for failing to be congruent with one’s ideas about the way they should or could be.

Debauchery: an extreme indulgence in one or more forms of sensual pleasure; on the one hand this can be connected with concepts about communing with the immanence of the divine in materiality, while on the other it can be related to notions of the material being entirely disconnected from the divine.

This is not a complete list, by any means, but perhaps it is a good starting place for anyone interested in the topic. As you no doubt see, these vices can intersect in countless ways with each other. For example, the alcoholic person whose drinking is a debauchery combined with romantic despair and/or romantic rage.   (I’ve met many people in recovery that I knew or suspected were frustrated mystics.)  It is probably also obvious that all vices can involve greater or lesser degrees of both conscious and unconscious factors. As I leave these things for our further consideration, I note that all of it involves the illusion of separateness and the ensuing spiral of illusions needed to defend and reinforce it. And my closing questions are these: How might reflection on these vices be useful to someone who desires to realize a greater union with God?  How might it assist us in serving the Great Commandments to love?

Agape

May 142013
 

Recently, a friend took me to task for making the comment that mysticism doesn’t have much to do with angels and demons. Her surprise and head-scratching are understandable, especially since I have so often stated my agreement with the Apostle Paul that God is the One in which we live and move and have our being, and that every experience is thus an experience of God if we would only realize it as such. So, in this blog post I’d like to clarify my own understanding of the term ‘mysticism’, and also comment on its relevance, or lack thereof, to other things of spiritual mystery.

The Essence of Mysticism

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘mysticism’ means:

1: the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)

In popular use, the word ‘mysticism’ often loses these more specific meanings, and this is reflected by a broader point in the definition of ‘mystical’:

1 a: having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence

The latter definition actually fits well with the etymology of ‘mysticism,’ which has the same root as our word ‘mystery’, the Greek mys, which means to conceal. Our word, ‘mystic,’ apparently traces back to the Greek mystikos, denoting an initiate of a mystery religion, a sect with secret ceremonies that facilitated powerful spiritual experiences and/or taught esoteric doctrines about life and the Cosmos.

For all of the reasons stated above, people often use ‘mysticism’ or ‘mystical’ as a blanket term that may include all sorts of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of a religious or spiritual nature, and especially anything of a mysterious or seemingly supernatural or paranormal nature. Some of these things – like angels, demons, exorcism, faith-healing, blessings, visions, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and various kinds of miracles – have their places in Christian tradition and even Church doctrine, but, strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary parts of mysticism as it has developed among theologians, monastics, and others who devoted their lives to penetrating the Christian mysteries.

In early Church history, mysticism included three mutually supportive areas of focus: (1) the contemplative practice of being present to, and even consciously one with, God’s presence; (2) meditation upon the concealed or secret meanings of scripture; and (3) the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of the Trinity, which reaches its summit in the Eucharist. While it was understood that each of these three areas supported the others, through the centuries it also became increasingly apparent that the essence of mysticism was most directly engaged through contemplative practice. Without it, the other two areas increasingly descend toward hollow doctrinal conformity and superstitions about scripture and the sacraments.

This insight about the centrality of contemplation to mysticism is reflected in the primary entries for the word ‘mysticism’ in most contemporary dictionaries, like the two given above. Consider the significance of the following words from those definitions:

  • union
  • direct communion
  • direct knowledge
  • subjective experience

These words are about the oneness with God that mystics believe, and some may actually know, is possible to experience or realize directly, which is to say in an unmediated way. This particular understanding of the essence of mysticism is reflected in the earliest writings of Christian theology.

…in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with IT that transcends all being and all knowledge. Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysus (5th-6th Century)

And before that, St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions (4th Century):

If to any man the tumult of the flesh were silenced; and the phantoms of earth and waters and air were silenced; and the poles were silent as well; indeed, if the very soul grew silent to herself, and went beyond herself by not thinking of herself; if fancies and imaginary revelations were silenced; if every tongue and every sign and every transient thing–for actually if any man could hear them, all these would say, ‘We did not create ourselves, but were created by Him who abides forever’–and if, having uttered this, they too should be silent, having stirred our ears to hear Him who created them; and if then He alone spoke, not through them but by Himself, that we might hear His word, not in fleshly tongue or angelic voice, nor sound of thunder, nor the obscurity of a parable, but might hear Him–Him for whose sake we love these things–if we could hear Him without these, as we two now strained ourselves to do, we then with rapid thought might touch on that Eternal Wisdom which abides over all. And if this could be sustained, and other visions of a far different kind be taken away, and this one should so ravish and absorb and envelop its beholder in these inward joys that his life might be eternally like that one moment of knowledge which we now sighed after–would not this be the reality of the saying, ‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’?

I’d like to offer an analogy that I hope can effectively illustrate part of what St. Augustine is saying about this experience or state, and thereby shed some light on Christian mysticism as distinct from other kinds of spirituality.

Imagine a great puppeteer, one who is legendary for both making and performing with puppets. You decide you’d like to learn more about this great artist, and so you go to one of the puppet shows. The puppeteer is so talented that the puppets seem to be actually alive, with their own movements and voices, their own distinct wills, thoughts, and feelings. The show is so fantastic that you keep coming back to see it and others, spellbound by the mastery shining through them. During the shows you are very taken by what you see and hear, and eventually you even forget that you are watching puppets, let alone remember that they are being animated by a puppeteer.

And then one day, during an intermission in one of the shows, you suddenly recall why you started coming to the shows – to learn more about the puppeteer. You shake your head and laugh, reminding yourself that everything you are seeing is being created by someone you can’t directly see. As entertaining and beautiful as the show itself is, you begin to feel a growing sense of wonder, of admiration and gratitude, of love, for the unseen genius behind the scenes who has made you think and feel so many things. You feel a desire to meet the puppeteer personally, to shake hands, to speak face to face, so you can share your admiration and learn more about the puppeteer. Of course, you know that the puppets and the show are revelations of the puppeteer’s intelligence, skill, love, and spirit, and thus you are indirectly in communication with the puppeteer, but the indirectness of it, the incompleteness of it, the inadequacy of it, becomes increasingly obvious. You know that whatever your appreciation for the show is now, it will be enriched many times over, in both depth and breadth, if you can know the puppeteer intimately. You know you will never again be nearly as satisfied with simply sitting in the audience and watching the show. You are smitten.

Asking around, you learn that most people in the audience have never seen the puppeteer. Some of them say it never occurred to them to try because they’re just here for the show. There are other people who doubt that there is any puppeteer, and instead believe they are watching machines that run on their own. Others say they’ve caught a glimpse of the puppeteer, and you listen patiently as they describe what they think the puppeteer is like based on their fleeting impressions, obviously filling in large blanks with things others have said and from their own imaginations. It occurs to you that they have made their own mental puppet of the puppeteer! Some claim to know the puppeteer personally, but when you ask how you can meet the puppeteer, most only tell you to keep going to the show and watching the puppets. Some say the only way to know the puppeteer is for oneself to try being a puppeteer. One or two quietly admit they have actually seen and spoken with the puppeteer, and they say that the only way to do so is to go sit by the locked backstage door, waiting patiently until the puppeteer emerges after the show. They say there is no way to know how long the wait will be; the puppeteer might come out right away, but sometimes the puppeteer seems to never come out. When you ask them what the puppeteer is like, they simply smile, sigh, shake their heads, and perhaps utter an enigmatic word or two. Something about them earns your trust, and perhaps it is because you see in them the same love for the puppeteer that you feel growing in your own heart. You resolve to do as they have done, giving yourself to this love for as long as it takes.

Mysticism is such a love affair with God. Yes, the mystic loves the works of the Creator, and deeply loves the immanent presence of the Creator’s Spirit and Logos in those works, but also feels that this love of the Creator’s works remains unfulfilled until the Creator is known directly. As the Blessed Jan van Ruysbroeck says in The Sparkling Stone (14th Century):

The spirit forever continues to burn in itself, for its love is eternal; and it feels itself ever more and more to be burnt up in love, for it is drawn and transformed into the Unity of God, where the spirit burns in love. If it observes itself, it finds a distinction and an otherness between itself and God; but where it is burnt up it is undifferentiated and without distinction, and therefore it feels nothing but unity; for the flame of the Love of God consumes and devours all that it can enfold in its Self.

These terms ‘undifferentiated’ and ‘without distinction’ aren’t just the kind of romantic prose about union that we often apply to our strongest feelings for other people. They can and should be taken literally, and if they are then it becomes apparent that there is only one kind of experience that qualifies as totally mystical, no matter how many different ways humans might arrive at it. In utter and complete oneness there is no other to behold or to be beheld by. Anything else, no matter how revelatory, inspiring, or transformative, is not the mystical experience spoken of by the great mystics. So, while mysterious things – like the secret meanings of scripture, the magic of the liturgy, miracles, or demons and angels – might lead someone into mysticism, into the contemplative pursuit of the One behind those veils, he or she should also realize that such concerns are not the essence of mysticism and must, at some point, be released, even if only momentarily.

In stronger words than my own, Ruysbroeck concludes:

…all those are deceived who fancy themselves to be contemplative, and yet inordinately love, practice, or possess, some creaturely thing; or who fancy that they enjoy God before they are empty of images, or that they rest before they enjoy. All such are deceived; for we must make ourselves fit for God with an open heart, with a peaceful conscience, with naked contemplation, without hypocrisy, in sincerity and truth.

While these statements might sound like doctrine, something we should simply accept in submission to religious authority, I don’t read them that way. It isn’t merely an arbitrary decree of theologically or institutionally acceptable concepts to point out that there is a natural and logical order in such things, one that has been repeatedly discovered and taught by the mystics of different eras and also in religions other than Christianity; the cup must be empty before it can be filled.

Beyond Mysticism?

Another friend, who states he doesn’t consider himself either a mystic or a contemplative, asks if there might be something beyond mysticism. In one respect, I can answer yes. The direct realization of oneness with God can come without identifying oneself as a mystic, or holding any philosophy, or practicing any methods that might be called ‘mysticism.’ There are plenty of cases of full-blown mystical experience occurring in the absence of any special desire or effort. In such cases, one’s consciousness suddenly and directly shifts into a state stripped bare of all words, images, feelings, and any trace of a me-God duality. This can happen ‘beyond’ mysticism because mysticism is, after all, a human thing, and God is not constrained to act within the bounds of human things. However, once such a moment has occurred, if a memory of it persists and the person understands its significance, then, technically speaking, that person is a mystic and has, ironically, gone beyond non-mysticism.

Here are two reasons I can answer no, there isn’t anything beyond mysticism: First, it’s clearly circular to say so, but there is no pursuit beyond mysticism because there is nothing to pursue beyond the deepest mystery of God. Mysticism reaches as beyond as anything can! Second, once the aim of mysticism, which is knowing our oneness with God, has been directly realized and is no longer just a matter of concepts, beliefs, or feelings, then everything after that can, potentially, also be realized as direct contact with God in some particular way, rather than being assumed, hoped, or hypothesized as such.

For me, that last observation suggests that the more meaningful questions are about what lies beyond the mystical experience itself, where ‘beyond’ points to what comes afterward. In Christianity, like other religions, our lore is filled with stories of the miraculous works of people who have received the ultimate touch of the Absolute and identification with the Ground of Being. These stories therefore heavily shape our expectations about what it means to be a mystic, and reinforce the common misperception that such mysterious things are essential to mysticism. They can even lead people to question the validity of their own mystical experience or that of someone else. Yet, as Jack Kornfield addresses in his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, most of us will continue living with many if not most of the ordinary limitations of human existence, even if we have an extraordinary awareness of the nature of this existence. In other words, the gift of the mystical state does not necessarily bring with it any other spiritual gifts, let alone totally transform us into saintly miracle workers and glorious battlers of demons. We must instead commit ourselves to opening our hearts and minds in a lifelong process of unfolding the depths of wisdom the mystical experience holds for our own unique and very human lives.

Finally, I also believe there is something beyond mysticism in terms of importance, and that is love in general. While it could be argued that mysticism is the ultimate response to the Great Commandment to love, and to Jesus’ admonition to seek first the Kingdom of God, I would counter with another of his admonitions: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Mysticism isn’t for everyone, and its followers are not automatically ‘superior’ Christians or human beings, just as those who do not pursue the mystical path are not therefore necessarily ‘inferior’ Christians or human beings. In this light, mysticism can be understood as one among many ways of loving.

Agape

Jan 172013
 

mirror-reflection-in-sphere2The image of a mirror can be very helpful in understanding contemplative experience, because it is the nature of our consciousness, of our minds, to reflect.   The term ‘reflect’ not only refers to the act of pondering upon something, but refers even more directly to the way the mind works.  All the images we see in our minds –  whether images of things in the world around us, of memories, fantasies, or inspired visions – are representations of things and not the things themselves.  This process is also true for all our other senses, but nothing represents the reflective nature of the mind better than the way a mirror works for the sense of sight.  Even when a person attempts to think of his or her own mind, the thought is only an image of the mind, and thus is an action or a part of the mind, but not the mind itself.

It may be that in those last statements you can see how thinking about something can actually interfere with our ability to be as authentically present in the moment as possible, and thus to more completely observe and perceive its greater reality or truth.   As an example, consider the well know phenomenon that thinking too much about doing something, like dancing, while actually trying to do it, gets in the way of dancing as well as we might.  Another example can be found in the obsessive shutterbug, one who can’t stop taking pictures of something long enough to simply be present in the more direct experience of it.  The more we think about something, the less we actually experience it, whether it is something we regard as external to self or something as internal as our most secret thoughts and feelings.

When practicing silent or contemplative prayer, one sits in greater openness to whatever arises in consciousness, whether a sensory perception in response to something external, or thoughts and feelings arising in other ways.  This kind of prayer is practiced in faithful acceptance of whatever actually is, filtering and distorting it as little as possible with expectations, rules, analyses, or judgments. It means opening our awareness  more completely to the immediate fact of God’s creation and the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit.  We therefore see more clearly the truth of things just as they are in the present moment, and less as though in a cloudy mirror.   According to 1st Corinthians 13, seeing more clearly like this happens in the context of our maturation in love.

One of the most common experiences in this kind of practice is a greater awareness of the whole of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  Furthermore, most of us aren’t pleased to observe how much of a crazy mess is going on within us.   We discover that we aren’t nearly as rational, centered, well balanced, practically competent, emotionally secure, intellectually certain, spiritually enlightened, or morally virtuous as we like to pretend to others and ourselves.   In fact, anyone who practices like this for very long eventually comes to see in oneself the seeds, if not the seedlings, or even the flowers, of every sin ever committed by anyone.

There are many ways we can react to looking in that mirror.  I have no doubt that an intuitive sense of these possibilities, if not some actual experience of them, leads some people to consider contemplative practice too dangerous, and even speak of it as risking demonic possession.   Those sorts of fears should be respected for the individuals gripped by them, because too much raw truth can be harmful  when we’re unprepared to cope with it.   Yet, for others, the initial shock and horror of their existential disillusionment eventually gives way to deeper and more authentic reverence, humility, gratitude, compassion, kindness, and selflessness.  We get past being entirely captivated by all the frailty, confusion, fragmentation, dishonesty, and negativity of our own humanity and that of others, and we see that these things come and go within a greater context, the beautiful wholeness of our being and becoming.  Our own looking inward upon the mirror of the soul, releasing our illusions and accepting what is, in turn leads us to see others more clearly and to love them more freely.  This is how contemplative practice serves the Great Commandments to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Agape

Dec 062012
 

Take notice that this is a meditation, and not a neatly linear exposition on these matters. If you manage to bear with me, we’re going to loop around and through various points, with little concern for being tangential and repetitive. It’s going to be downright scattered! I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t finish. Still, there is a method to this madness.

Last year I began my Advent meditation by putting myself in the place of Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem. In fact, for many years now my heart and mind have increasingly been drawn to them, and especially to Mary, during the Advent and Christmas season. As some of you know, I adhere to a Sophianic tradition of Christianity. In short, Mary is venerated as not only the Mother of Christ, Vessel of the Holy Spirit, but also as an embodiment of Sophia, the Wisdom of God. This identity parallels that of Jesus being venerated as an embodiment of Logos, the Word or Reason of God. (For many Christians, even Sophianic ones, it is considered heresy to connect Mary and Sophia in this way.) In this year’s Advent meditation, I want to share more of my exploration of some of these issues.

As with Christologies and theologies, there are differences from one Sophiology or Mariology to another in how we conceptualize the nature of Sophia and Mary’s relationship with Sophia. For some Sophianic Christians, including me, Sophia is regarded as the personification of the Holy Spirit. In other words, just as we refer to the Creator as Abba, Father, the First Person of the Trinity, and to the Logos as Christ, the Son and Second Person of the Trinity, so we also refer to the Holy Spirit as Sophia, Wisdom, the Mother, the Third Person of the Trinity. Relating to Sophia, the Holy Spirit, in feminine terms follows the traditional language in canonical books such as Proverbs and The Wisdom of Solomon. There are also statements in the New Testament referring to Wisdom as ‘her’. ‘Sophia’ is actually Greek for wisdom, and the word is feminine in gender and a popular name for females.

There are many directions we could go from here, but I want to focus on the significance I find in relating to God not only as masculine, but also as feminine. In my view, the Western world has developed unhealthy psychological and sociological imbalances by relating to God almost exclusively in masculine images and terms, and we need to redress those imbalances. But, honestly, it was not awareness of these cultural imbalances that led me to ponder the Divine Feminine, but rather awareness of something missing in my own experience. I realized that if part of my religious experience is relating to God in an anthropomorphic way, as seems so perfectly natural to do, then to do so without including the feminine would be something significantly less than the wholeness I feel moved to experience and express.

In relating to God through feminine personifications (such as Mother, Queen, Sister, Midwife, Bride), I must acknowledge that I actually engage in a little gender stereotyping. This approach might seem counterproductive in some ways, and it certainly has the potential to become divisive if we don’t first lay a thoughtful foundation, but I also think it is unavoidable.I also want to strongly affirm that there is only One Supreme Being — God transcending gender and also manifesting all gender possibilities. What I am talking about here is really nothing more than a variation of Trinitarian theology.

In continuing this meditation, it would seem helpful to have a sense of what we mean by the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. One problem that could arise here is bogging down in a detailed and eternal analysis of this polarity, with lots of quibbling over semantics and differences of perspective. But gender norms are not merely a product of our conscious thinking, personal experiences, and cultural influences, for there are unconscious and perhaps metaphysical factors involved. For example,  archetypes, in the Platonic and Jungian senses, are like psychological and metaphysical blueprints that exist prior to our conceptualizations of them, and perhaps the most fundamental manifestation of gender archetypes are the typical anatomical and neurochemical differences between males and females. The fact that such powerful factors contribute to gender norms tells us that, no matter how we consciously choose to relate to them, we are each bound to have certain basic, even instinctive, reactions to and attitudes about different genders.

So, keeping in mind that the intention is to move toward wholeness, counterbalancing the masculine forms imposed on our images and concepts of God, the objective is to consciously relate to God through feminine forms as well.  All the while, let’s proceed with the understanding that we are working with dualistic symbolism as a means of experiencing and expressing more of the diversity within the Unity of God. Therefore, rather than using this meditation to list a bunch of qualities associated with the masculine and the feminine, I would encourage everyone to proceed with a less analytical understanding of these polarities, simply allowing our own natural ‘gut-level’ tendencies to begin directing our thoughts and feelings. By observing our own tendencies, we will gain awareness of our personal and cultural biases, and I believe we get closer to wholeness in our understanding of not only ourselves but of our relationships with God. The symbolism, and thus the collective psychology, of mainstream Christianity is largely patriarchical, referring directly to two of the Three Persons of the Trinity in masculine terms – the Father and the Son. Even the Holy Spirit is sometimes addressed as ‘he’ in the New Testament. While most Christians are very accustomed to this, it is nonetheless an imbalanced way of thinking about and relating to God. Mainstream Catholic and Orthodox Christianity has made some room for connecting with Spirit in a feminine form through its veneration of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as an immaculate soul, untainted by sin, who was united with the Holy Spirit. Having been impregnated by the Holy Spirit and having given birth to the Incarnation of the Son, she is intimately connected with the Trinity for all who revere her, whether in heresy or otherwise.

Hear and feel the wonder, adoration, and devotion in these excerpts from traditional Catholic prayers to Mary, the Rosa Mystica:

Maria, Rosa Mystica, fragrant rose of mysticism, wonderful flower of divine knowledge, of purity and blinding beauty, of brilliant, shining glory, of power and overwhelmingly blessing love: we kneel before you to pray, to look, to listen; to look at you and inhale your heavenly perfume until we have, above all, taken something of your immaculate, pure, and perfect being into our inner selves…. Maria Rosa Mystica – Mystical Rose, Immaculate Conception – Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ – Mother of Grace – Mother of the Mystical Body, of the Church… You came down on earth to call upon us children of this earth to love each other, to unite, and live in peace.

There have also been Christian saints who have spoken directly of the Divine in feminine terms. In her discourse entitled “The Revelations of Divine Love”, the anchoress Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) actually speaks of each of the Three Persons of the Trinity in feminine and masculine terms, often in the same sentence. For example:

God All Power is our natural Father, and God All Wisdom is our natural Mother, with the Love and the Goodness of the Holy Spirit — who is all one God, one Lord.

As noted at the beginning of this meditation, the tradition of identifying the feminine aspect of God with Divine Wisdom is ancient. About 200-250 years before Julian, the great poet and composer St. Hildegard of Bingen wrote this praise to Sophia:

Sophia! You of the whirling wings, circling, encompassing energy of God: you quicken the world in your clasp. One wing soars in heaven, one wing sweeps the earth, and the third flies all around us. Praise to Sophia! Let all the earth praise her!

Orthodox and Gnostic Christianity also traditionally venerate Sophia (not to be confused with St. Sophia) as the Divine Wisdom praised in the book of Proverbs in a clearly feminine way:

Blessed is the man that findeth wisdom, and is rich in prudence. The purchasing thereof is better than the merchandise of silver, and her fruit than the chief and purest gold. She is more precious than all riches: and all the things that are desired, are not to be compared to her. Length of days is in her right hand, and in her left hand riches and glory. Her ways are beautiful ways, and all her paths are peaceable. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her, and he that shall retain her is blessed. Proverbs 3:13-18

Sophianic Christians often identify Sophia with the Shekinah of Judaism. Shekinah is the Presence of God said to have manifested as the pillar of flame above the Ark of the Covenant. She is the Spirit of God that moved upon the face of the waters in Genesis 1:2. Shekinah is also venerated in Judaism as the Sabbath Queen or Sabbath Bride, the special Presence of the Spirit of God that should be remembered, welcomed, and cherished on the Sabbath. With regard to Judaism, there are also schools of Kabbalah that teach God’s first gender expression is not masculine, but feminine. The view is that, prior to creation, all that ‘exists’ is God, and there are no dualities, no differences, no ‘parts’, just God in God’s Perfect Infinite and Eternal Unity. Then, in order for there to be something different, something that could conceive of itself as apart from God, God willed a space within Godself that was then empty of God. This movement was creation of the heaven and earth duality spoken of in Genesis 1:1, and the earth “was without form and void”. In effect, God first created a womb within Godself, and thereby God’s femininity was manifest. It is only after this, when God injects God’s essence, ‘Light’ (Gen. 1:3), into this womb that God’s masculinity is expressed. A Gnostic poem from the earliest centuries of Christianity (2nd or 3rd century), “Thunder Perfect Mind”, presents the Divine speaking of Itself in feminine terms:

For I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the mother and the daughter. I am the members of my mother. I am the barren one and many are her sons. I am she whose wedding is great, and I have not taken a husband. I am the midwife and she who does not bear. I am the solace of my labor pains. I am the bride and the bridegroom, and it is my husband who begot me. I am the mother of my father and the sister of my husband and he is my offspring.

It should be clear that when Jews and Christians revere the Divine Feminine we are not worshipping a goddess over and above God, but simply adoring certain attributes of the One God that we can instinctively relate to as feminine in character. This practice is strange and difficult for some folks, especially mainstream Protestant Christians who are taught to think exclusively of God as masculine. I can relate! For a very long time, even long after beginning my mystical studies and practice, I just didn’t like all this stuff about the Divine Feminine. My attitude was that if my highest concept of God transcended gender, then that’s the way I should always think and talk about God. Yet, I’ve come to know that, at least for me, this view was too narrow, too incomplete and, ironically, too dualistic. In my current philosophy (philo-sophia = love of wisdom!), my relationship with the Holy Spirit through a feminine personification is quite powerful in all ways, not just intellectually, but emotionally, physically, and transcendentally. The latter simply cannot be spoken of, yet it stimulates the other kinds of experience and expression in my love affair with God. And those words “love affair” are quite literal. While contemplating the Divine Feminine at first brought me into the more common experience of God as Mother or Queen, quite unexpectedly She also called me into a sacred romance with Her as Lover and Bride. This romance has been expressed in mystical love poems since November of 2006, when I wrote Deep Within the Well of this Heart. I had written previous poems of adoration and devotion to God in masculine and gender-neutral terms, but this was the first time I actually addressed God as ‘lover’, and it was a genuine expression of an opening and liberation of my heart that occurred in contemplation of Her. Since then, many of my poems have been even more overtly addressed to Her and romantic in tone, such as in Queen of Spirits. My hope is that poems like these might help open other hearts to Her as mine has been.

There is so much more that could be said about how the Divine Feminine shows up throughout the history of Christianity, both exoterically and esoterically. This post is by no means an attempt to do the topic justice, but merely to provide an introduction to it that helps raise some possibilities during this season in which Mary has such a central role.

And now I will end this meditation with one of the oldest (c. 250 AD) and most widely used prayers in Orthodox Christianity, the Sub tuum Praesidium:

Under thy compassion we take refuge, Mother of God; do not disregard our prayers in the midst of tribulation, but deliver us from danger, O Only Pure, Only Blessed One. Amen.

Agape

Nov 212012
 

Over the years, Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday.  Part of my Thanksgiving practice is to approach the word ‘thanksgiving’ anew, meditating upon it without assuming I have plumbed all its depths.  Those meditations have led me to explore some of its meaning in previous Thanksgiving posts.  This year I want to begin by highlighting its universality.   On Thanksgiving Day, we unite our hearts and minds around a single theme that we can all value, regardless of our religious, political, and ethnic differences.  It requires no air of nationalism, patriotism, or allegiance to any cause.  Rich and poor alike can feel the glow of thankfulness in their hearts, and know the joy of expressing it.  It is simply and fundamentally human to know and share gratitude.  Therefore this day is a very natural opportunity to remember our unity in the spirit of humanity.*

Rather than say much more on the universality in thanksgiving, this year I want to invite you to ponder its universality for yourself, and to include that theme along with some other questions and ideas about thanksgiving.  What does the word ‘thanksgiving’ mean to you?  Does it mean to remember people and things for which you are or might be thankful?  Does it mean to offer up your thanks in prayer and praise to God?  Does it mean to share your gratitude openly with others?  All of the above?  Is there something else?  How does it affect your understanding of thanksgiving if you apply Matthew 25:40?

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

Who will you directly, personally, and sincerely thank for being who and what they are?

Here are some words from others that I find worth pondering, and I offer them for your meditations as well.

The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.
Melody Beattie

Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High.
Psalm 50:14 (NLT)

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
Albert Schweitzer

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.
John Milton

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. Do not stifle the Holy Spirit.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-19 (NLT)

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
Gilbert K. Chesterton

A person however learned and qualified in his life’s work in whom gratitude is absent, is devoid of that beauty of character which makes personality fragrant.
Hazrat Inayat Khan

Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart.
Colossians 4:2 (NLT)

‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.
Alice Walker

Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.
Karl Barth

Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks.
1 Timothy 4:4(NLT)

God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive Him there with gratitude in that sacrament.
Evelyn Underhill

In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.
Thomas Erskine

My thanks to you, dear reader, for being someone who visits this blog and ChristianMystics.com, meeting others and me in spirit whether you comment or not.  May you know the deepest blessings of thankfulness and gratitude, where giver and receiver meet and realize their unity, and thus giving and receiving are one.   In the comments section, please share anything that comes to you while you meditate upon thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Agape

* Even though I view thankfulness as universal, and this holiday as an opportunity to remember and celebrate the spiritual unity of humanity, it is nonetheless true that many Native Americans consider Thanksgiving Day as a National Day of Mourning.  In my thankfulness, I also remember that much for which I am thankful has come with the cost of horrible atrocities.  I wish to honor the many contributions, willing and unwilling, Native American people have made to the USA and the world.

Nov 162012
 

The great mystic anchoress, Julian of Norwich, has said these two simple things:

Between God and the soul there is no between. (1)

The fullness of Joy is to behold God in everything. (2)

While these statements are short and plainly written, their implications for the mystical life are nonetheless profound.

First, let’s consider what is meant by ‘soul’. Today, as in Julian’s day, it is common for Christians to think of the soul as an immaterial thinking and feeling aspect of our being that occupies or animates the physical body. (Anima, the Greek root of ‘animate’, actually means soul.)  For some people, ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are interchangeable, yet in Christianity there is an ancient tradition of considering the whole human being as a trinity – body, soul, and spirit – where spirit is the very essence of our being in its most transcendent state or level. The soul is therefore the immanent manifestation of spirit, taking on a particular identity through life in this world. In this context, we see that the soul of a human being, at least while living in this world, cannot be understood in its wholeness apart from the body. The importance of this wholeness to Christianity is reflected in the doctrine of the resurrection of the physical body.   In any case, all of our thoughts and feelings, our knowledge of self, of the world, and even of God, develop in conjunction with our bodily experiences in this world. Therefore, in reflecting upon the soul’s relationship with God, it makes sense to consider all the dimensions of human experience – physical, emotional, intellectual, and transcendental – as offering ways of knowing oneness with God or, as Julian says, beholding God in everything.

It is my observation that most people who are driven to experience greater communion with God tend to seek powerful emotional or intellectual experiences they take to be the preferred evidence of God’s presence in their lives. In fact, many people focus almost exclusively on a particular type of experience as the only one they consider truly valid, and so they might strive repeatedly to evoke such an experience through corresponding activities and ignore or negate the other possibilities. However, if Julian is right, and I believe she is, then limiting the ways we are open to knowing God is how we ourselves create an illusory “between” to separate us from God, and thereby we rob ourselves of the “fullness of joy” that is possible for us.

Opportunities to appreciate this fullness are constantly available.  It takes very little consideration to realize that these dimensions are intricately interconnected. Indeed it is arguably impossible to conceive of a physical, emotional, or intellectual experience that is not accompanied by experience in at least one of the other two dimensions.  Even dreams, visions, and hallucinations, which we might be tempted to deny any material reality, are nonetheless accompanied by electrochemical activity in our bodies, and they are experienced by the mind as having the sensory characteristics of physical objects and events. And while intuiting or contemplation in the transcendental dimension can occur apart from the other dimensions, it also immediately gives rise to reactions in one or more of them.

Finally, in playing on Julian’s words, I want to note that ‘the fullness of love is to behold the beloved in all ways’ – physical, emotional, intellectual, and transcendental.  In its various forms, prayer, being the intentional effort to commune with God,  also has the potential to reach across all four dimensions, if it does not always do so to some degree. These realizations, taken with Jesus’ teaching to love God with all that we are and our neighbors as ourselves, and all of it considered within the context of St. John’s assertion that God is Love, provides us with the richest, most promising, most accessible, and most whole model for what it can mean to be a Christian mystic.

Maranatha

Agape

 

 

1.Chapter 46, Revelations of Divine Love; another version reads, “For our soul is so fully oned to God of His own Goodness that between God and our soul may be right nought.”

2. Chapter 35; another version reads, “…for it is more worship to God to behold Him in all than in any special thing.”

Oct 102012
 

Following the theme of my previous post on the personal dimension of Christianity, and picking up on the resurgence of interest in spiritual experiences in ChristianMystics.com, this post examines what it can mean to have a ’personal’ experience of and relationship with God.  As a case in point, I’ll be sharing the experience of a young man with whom I have been close friends.

I want to begin by stating that any spiritual experience or relationship would necessarily be ‘personal’ to the extent that one relates it to his or her own presence in this world as a more or less unique and self-aware human being, a person.   Just as your own experience or relationship with nature is said to be your personal experience or relationship with nature, so it is with spiritual experiences.  Very simply put, they are personal if for no other reason than persons are having them.  Still, it’s been my observation that by ‘personal’ we Christians often mean something else.  What I think we typically mean is that we are conceiving of our experience and relationship with God as we would with another person.  In the previous post, I highlighted our tendency to anthropomorphize God, which is perfectly understandable since that is the primary (but not the only) language the Bible and our tradition uses to address the Divine.  But rather than simply rehash that particular issue, I want to draw attention to how we conceptualize our spiritual experiences.  To do that, I will start by sharing the story of a young man’s spiritual, if not mystical, experience. He prefers to remain anonymous, and so I will refer to him as ‘Thomas.’

One Sunday afternoon in his senior year of high school, Thomas lay on his bed aware that the time was drawing near for the youth meeting at church.  As president of the youth group, he felt a duty to be there, but he was seriously considering staying home because he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis.   As a leader of his youth group and a baptized Christian, Thomas was feeling like a phony in his recent realization that he had never had the personal experience of God or Jesus that seemed to be central to the spirituality he had been taught.  For weeks he had lamented that, even though he believed in God and Jesus, and loved the story of Jesus and his legacy in our religion, he only knew Jesus as a historical figure and could only imagine relating to him as the human being described in scripture.   In other words, he had never sensed any living presence of God or Jesus in his heart and mind that seemed to have a spirit and life of its own.  Thomas had felt strong emotions of awe, humility, and gratitude when he thought about God and Jesus, and even powerful feelings of inspiration, hope, and motivation, but he took those as his own emotional reactions to things he believed about God and Jesus.  He had to admit to himself that, while he believed in God, he had never really felt directly touched by God, and also that Jesus wasn’t any more personally real to him than Moses or King David.

So Thomas lay there on his bed, unable to do anything else after weeks of wondering if there was something wrong with him, or if he had misunderstood what this whole experience of God was supposed to be like, or if he just hadn’t previously given this matter the attention it deserved.  He came to the conclusion that there must be something real to a personal experience of God, and in that moment it seemed like life wasn’t worth living without it.  With a silent voice from the depths of his soul, Thomas cried out that he was ready to die if that’s what it took to reveal the truth to him, one way or the other.  Thomas says that he hadn’t become suicidal, but that something inside him snapped.  He says he now believes it was the breaking of attachment to his old spiritual life and ways of thinking about God.  In that letting go, he wept until his eyes went dry and his body simply couldn’t sob any longer, and then found himself completely emptied of any but the faintest fleeting thoughts and feelings.  He was exhausted, and he was in a strange limbo between hope and hopelessness, just accepting the emptiness within him and the silence around him.  And then something happened.

Suddenly Thomas clearly felt another presence, which seemed to be both within and around him.  He felt the presence, its attention, and its care and concern for him, and he felt an infinite depth to it.  There was no voice or other sound, no flash of light, and no vision or image that appeared before him or in his mind. He simply felt it all very clearly, and instantly knew this was something quite different from previous emotional reactions to his beliefs about God and Jesus.  In that moment this presence was an undeniable ‘other’ which was nonetheless inseparable from him.  And, just as quickly, Thomas responded to this presence as The Presence, as God making Godself directly known to him, and he absolutely vibrated with joy and thankfulness.  Eventually he got off the bed and went to the youth meeting, and did so with an incredible new depth of assurance, gratitude, and peace.

Many observations and questions came up for Thomas in the aftermath of his experience. In particular, he noticed that there was nothing about it that immediately spoke to him as Jesus himself.  In fact, there really wasn’t much about the Presence that felt remotely human to him, except that he sensed It was aware and loving.  He recognized that he wanted to think of the Presence as Jesus, but he realized that to do so would have been an assumption about the Presence rather than something that was revealed to him by the Presence Itself.

One effect of this experience might seem a bit odd, because on the one hand Thomas felt a clearer and stronger connection with God and more spiritually alive than ever before, but he still hadn’t had an experience of Jesus as an actual living presence in his life.  In other words, he was feeling more connected to God and therefore his religion, but was also therefore even more acutely aware that he lacked something most others around him spoke about having – an immediate awareness of, and relationship with, Jesus.  Another part of the oddness was that even though he more clearly felt a difference between him and his Christian siblings on this matter, Thomas also felt a greater sense of peace with it. He now realized that his discomfort was solely about being different from other people, since his doubts about knowing and being loved by God were gone.  Thomas knew there was no issue between him and God about Jesus essentially remaining a historical figure to him.

Another effect of that experience was the initiation of his interest in meditation.  Soon after that experience, Thomas somehow got the impression that people who meditated were more likely to have such experiences, and even to have them repeatedly, if not whenever they liked.  Perhaps you can understand why that possibility sounded attractive to him. God had given him a very tasty treat, and he wanted more!  So Thomas began dabbling with meditation, but that’s about all he did.  The idea of meditation, let alone the practice of it, was extremely foreign to his world, which was a predominantly Southern Baptist, blue-collar, Texas town where people still sometimes rode horses on the street.  The library had only a few books that even touched on the subject, and none of them offered detailed instructions.  There certainly weren’t any meditation groups or teachers in town. About all Thomas could discover was that sitting cross-legged and chanting “aum” was supposed to be powerful stuff, so he tried it a number of times and found that he liked it. He found it produced an inner calm, stillness, peace, and centeredness close to what he had known just before and after his experience of the Presence.  In that space it was easy to remember the feelings he’d had in response to the Presence, and even to feel as though he was in some way drawing closer to the Presence.  Even so, the Presence Itself didn’t come to Thomas again like It had that first time.  He didn’t established a routine practice of meditation, and eventually ended up leaving it alone for several years, but he was still impressed with its value.

Over the next few years, as he continued to mature into young adulthood and become more acquainted with comparative religious studies, psychology, anthropology, and other sciences, and as the memory of the Presence faded a little, it became easier for Thomas to doubt the validity of his experience.  He learned there were plenty of scientists who considered such things to be entirely produced by the human brain, and he found their arguments persuasive enough to acknowledge that as a possibility for his own experience. Even so, he also remained quite open to the idea that it was exactly what he had understood it to be in the moment.  There were more tests and trials ahead of Thomas, including a long and sometimes miserable period of spiritual dryness.  But in time other understandings and experiences would come, he would return to the practice of meditation as a discipline rather than a quest, and his faith would be more fully awakened and realized. By the way, even though Jesus has remained a historical figure to him, Thomas says Christ was eventually realized as something even more real to him than his own personality.

I want to begin wrapping up this account of Thomas’s experience by pointing out how very personal it was.  Not only did he have a direct and unmediated personal experience of the Presence, it was also personally authentic.  By ‘authentic,’ I mean that he was honest with himself in not succumbing to both internal and external pressure to conclude that the Presence was one and the same as the historical person of Jesus.  In other words, he didn’t allow his experience to be redefined or distorted by his religion, but instead allowed the experience to transform his religion in a very personal way. Thomas further demonstrated that he wasn’t too afraid or ashamed to admit it to himself and God when he even came to doubt the experience itself.  He trusted that an all-knowing and loving God must want his most honest expression of faith.  Thomas realized that if he had any pretensions at all added to his faith, it wouldn’t be God that he was fooling, but only himself and other human beings. So it was that Thomas bared his whole personhood not only to God but to himself, and in doing so he found a greater sense of acceptance, peace, and communion with God and with himself.

Finally, Thomas wants to make sure two things are clear.  First, just because he didn’t experience Jesus as immediately present to him in person, that doesn’t mean that he believes such a thing isn’t possible; it just wasn’t the gift God gave to him.  Second, he thinks it’s very important to acknowledge that other people have emptied themselves before God the way he did on the bed that day, and yet no new awareness of God has come to them.   He has no explanation for why that would happen to him and not others. He says he feels a lot of compassion and understanding for why some people might feel cheated or even abandoned by God.  He asks that we remember Jesus’ statement that “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”  Thomas says the very fact that we so deeply want to experience God more directly is itself evidence of God’s presence in our hearts.   To that, I would add only that Jesus teaches loving others is the most important way to love God, and that it follows such love is therefore a way to directly know and experience God in our lives.  It might not be the kind of ‘personal’ experience we want, but it is one that is always available to us.

Maranatha!

Agape