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

Jun 222012
 

Thanks to my friend, Steve Schrader, for striking the spark that ignited this post.

In a recent blog post at Psychology Today, Carl Routlidge Ph.D.,  spoke of religion as a response to existential threats.  Angst – our deep, pervasive, and often shadowy feeling of dread, doubt, fear, despair, and anxiety in the face of life – is undoubtedly one of the driving factors behind religion.  Christian existentialists have reflected on this truth in great depth, as in Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, to which I must pay homage.  While this post certainly reflects my own experiences and ideas, there is little here that isn’t more fully examined in Tillich’s work.

We have lots of unhealthy ways of responding to angst, and there are examples of such dis-ease in the imbalances of two extreme expressions of our religion.  Look closely and you can find it is the dank and musty secret in the closet behind the veil of a way that seems to be all about doves, rainbows, flowers, and honey.  On the other hand, it is also the searing smokey furnace in the basement underneath the way of hellfire and brimstone, world hating, and self-loathing.   In both cases, the energy of angst is not accepted for what it actually is, and this lack of acceptance amounts to a denial of our fear in the broadest sense.  Some of us even mistakenly speak of fear as the opposite of love, as if it is the very worst evil there is.   Its energy is therefore rerouted into attitudes that not only feel safer to us and others, but also seem to facilitate actually doing something in response to the supposed causes of our more specific fears.  For some of us, it is the barely bridled anger of a militant moralism obsessed with the dichotomy of sin and purity, and for others it is the sticky, saccharine sweet, whitewash of escapist optimism.  Some of us even jump back and forth from one of these extremes to the other.  To some extent, we must fall back on such defensive patterns in order to survive; it is the fight-or-flight response at the level of being itself.  Without it, we would too often be paralyzed in our angst.  We wouldn’t really live at all.

But is this all there is to religion?  Not according to those who have jesus-walking-on-water-benjamin-mcpherson[1rev]knowingly walked on the stormy waters of their own angst.  Accepting angst as something other than an evil to be vanquished is a vital part of an authentic faith.  This may be one of the deeper meanings in our language about fearing God.  According to Proverbs, that fear is intimately linked with wisdom, and in Psalms with humility and the desire for forgiveness and renewal.  As with existential philosophers and therapists, our great prophets, preachers and saints consistently tell us that there is something psychologically and spiritually healthy about standing naked before all the dark frightening aspects and possibilities of our existence – aloneness, uncertainty, impermanence, and pain.

Any genuine path of mysticism must include a deeper awareness, acceptance, and integration of these aspects of our being.  We may be drawn to mysticism as a way that seems to offer the ultimate escape from them but, if we are genuinely devoted to the fullest possible communion with Truth and Love, we cannot avoid them.  This inevitability is profoundly explored in the writings of St. John of the Cross, Mother Theresa, Soren Kierkegaard, and Paul Tillich among many others.  It can even be heard when Jesus describes the Way of the Cross:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? Mark 8:31-37

His own personal angst is more dramatically recorded in his experience in the garden of Gethsemane:

Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.”He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed.  He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me.”

 

He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father!  If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me.  Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”

Jesus in Gethsemane

Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep.  He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation.  For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!”  Matthew 26:36-41

 

Part of the Good News is that it’s possible to discover something wonderful on the other side of all that darkness.  There is indeed a resurrection after the psychological crucifixion of accepting and learning to live with our anguish, distress, and crushing grief.   That resurrection isn’t the end of suffering; even after Jesus’ resurrection his body was still wounded caravaggio-thomasand still knew hunger.  Rather, we awaken to a clearer realization of the context of that suffering and the meaning we can give to it; in short, we can have life more abundantly, just as Jesus wished for us.  Accepting existence in its wholeness, and thus living life in our own wholeness, means no longer having to be constantly either at war with or trying to run away from ourselves, others, the world, or reality itself.  It bestows a peace that transcends the conflicts of our black-and-white either/or thinking without merely hiding them behind angelic fantasies.  With that peace comes awareness of our freedom to simply be; to live authentically; to try and to fail; to fall and get back up; to do something other than punish ourselves in pursuit of illusory perfection; to be co-creators of the richest kinds of beauty; and to know love in all its colors, flavors, scents, sounds, and textures, even when it is unrequited, and even where we once might have found nothing but indifference, fear, or hate.

Some of us also come to see this dynamic of psychological crucifixion and rebirth as only one example of a truly cosmic principle and pattern.  Our mystical experience gives us greater hope, if not genuine certainty, that there is much more to our existence than accidental interactions of energy occasionally coalescing in the form of a human brain destined for cellular decay.  By the same token, however, it can make the possibility of such annihilation fade to near insignificance compared to the awesome fact that there is indeed, right here and now, a virtually infinite amount of something rather than nothing, and that we are free to do with this miracle as we will!

Oh God, thank you just for this much!  Help us embrace our freedom in wholeness. Amen.

Agape

Jun 152012
 

It seems to me that understanding what we really mean by “faith” is one of the most important exercises in being a Christian.  It also seems that for most Christians faith is defined in terms of assent to specific theological ideas.  Said more bluntly, our predominant contemporary approach to faith is the practice of proclaiming and otherwise acting as if particular doctrines about God and Jesus are facts, no matter what we truly think and feel. We can call this dogmatic faith, because it is doctrinaire in its attitudes and also because it is largely an attempt to have faith in the doctrines rather than in our personal relationships with God.  As a central part of dogmatic faith, many of us have been trained to resist, conceal, and deny what we truly think and feel, especially if it includes any disagreement, doubt, or uncertainty about doctrine.  The self-conflict that naturally results from such a practice is sometimes even touted as praiseworthy internal warfare against demonic deception.  In effect, we’re taught that faith means an active distrust of our own hearts and minds.  Is this what Jesus and his earliest followers intended?  Is this what God wants?  I have strong faith that the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no.” In an effort to loosen some of the chains of dogmatic faith, this post looks carefully at the meaning of faith in early Christianity, shows how it connects with mysticism, and explores some implications for our religious life.

Faith Defined

When we look at the ancient Hebrew and Greek words for faith, we find not only a greater breadth of meaning than dogmatism but also a very different emphasis.  In the Tanakh, a key Hebrew word translated into English as “faith” is emunah, which more specifically connotes an active trust and confidence in someone or something.  In the New Testament, the words relating to faith and belief are the Greek pistis (noun) or pisteuo (verb), which similarly connote trust, fidelity, and reliance.  Among other places, pistis appears in what may be the most commonly cited Christian scripture to define faith, Hebrews 11:1:

“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” NLT

This little statement is a concise yet penetrating revelation about the intimate relationship of faith and hope.  Hope is the anticipation of something we desire, and as such it has both emotional and intellectual components. The intellectual aspect is an idea of what we want to happen, and the emotional aspect is a positive feeling that it will happen.  Faith is therefore specifically identified as the root, source, or power behind that positive feeling in hope.  With faith as a prerequisite, hope cannot be contingent upon what a person should feel or think.  No matter how clear a vision might be for what we think we should hope, if the personal emotional conviction is not also there, then there is no real faith behind it, and thus there is no real hope. Pretended hope is faithless, and thus isn’t hope at all.  Hope is a deeply personal experience that isn’t a matter of choosing one option over others because someone else encourages it; that is merely consent at best.  Hope can certainly be influenced by others, and even shared in common with others, but each person’s hope must be her or his own, driven by his or her own faith.

Along those lines, note that this verse doesn’t say faith is confidence specifically in church doctrine, in what we hear from the pulpit, or even in scripture.  In fact, the second clause clearly specifies that faith is about unseen things.  Doctrines, preachers, and scriptures can all point toward things that we cannot see, but they themselves are seen, and thus they are not the ultimate objects of our faith, our greatest trust, confidence, or reliance.  This observation is supported by taking the full context of Hebrews 11,  in which all the examples cited for great faith – including Able, Enoch, Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses – are credited for acting upon their own very personal and immediate experiences of God’s call, for acting upon their hope in serving the Divine, and not for their submission to religious authorities and doctrines.  Some of these examples further reveal that faith cannot be equated with the positive emotional aspect of hope.  With Noah, for example, while his faith in the purpose of the ark may have been positive, his faith in the coming deluge would have been sorrowful.

In this view, we can see that faith is deep trust and powerful conviction connected to one’s personal awareness of God. It is not a particular feeling, not just a function of emotion, but instead the presence of something else that stirs emotional responses in us.  It is not a matter of choice, not merely a derivative of conscious reasoning, but rather a power that rises up from the spirit within us to direct our reasoning and choices. If faith isn’t simply the product of conscious processes like thinking and feeling, it must come from some other place.  In psychological terms, we would say that faith rises up from the unconscious, perhaps intuitively or even instinctively, and as such it bears a striking resemblance to what we mean by the word will.  In terms of Christian spirituality, the New Testament consistently says faith is a gift from God.  Some Christians understand this to mean that one either has faith or does not, depending on Divine intervention.  On the other hand, some of us believe that all people have received faith from God, but for one reason or another not everyone experiences it as consciously directed toward God. It might instead be directed toward science, nature, humanity, love, happiness, peace, power, life itself, or any number of other things. My experience suggests that everyone has a deep compelling conviction that something is most worthy of their trust and allegiance, and faith is therefore an inherent guiding function in human beings.  Again, this is not unlike how we speak of the will.

Faith and Authenticity

Each of us has our own faith, just as each of us has our own sensations.  We can no more give our faith to someone else, or take someone else’s faith into ourselves, than we can see through each others eyes, hear through each others ears, or smell through each others noses.  We can describe those experiences to each other, we can describe how we have been affected by them, and we can even lead each other into situations that will produce very similar experiences, but the experiences themselves are nontransferable.  Faith is like this in that the conviction that something or someone is trustworthy happens internally, as do the thoughts and feelings connected with that conviction.  In effect, we cannot simply adopt someone else’s beliefs as our own.  Even if we trust someone else’s ideas and conclusions more than our own, we must first have faith in our own ability to make that judgment, and our own faith in the other person is still our own faith.  It is therefore inescapable that all decisions start with faith in one’s own ability to make those decisions, even if it seems to mean turning all ensuing decisions over to someone else.  Every acceptance of someone else’s choice is thus a response to our own faith.  The really important questions are therefore about the degree to which we are responding authentically to our faith, acknowledging and honoring the fact that its source and presence is within ourselves.

Let’s ask some of those questions in the context of three very basic ideas we Christians share about God:

1. God is the source of all truth and love.
2. God’s supreme will is for truth and love to reign above all.
3. Our love for God should be done with all that we are.

If this is all true, and my faith tells me it is, then which better honors God – fully accepting our responsibility for what we think and feel, or trying to pretend it can be turned over to someone else, or to a church or a book?  Is it even possible for us to genuinely believe that God expects us to lie to ourselves about what we really think and feel?  Can we come to any reasonable conclusion that our salvation is determined by trying to force ourselves to believe, or pretend to believe, a particular set of theological notions?  And if that is indeed the way one defines a faith necessary for salvation, then how is that not actually a path of works to try earning God’s unmerited grace?

I suspect that somewhere in each of us is the very natural hope, and thus the faith, that God really does want us to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, just as Jesus said.  To me, this must mean that God wants our complete authenticity, including our doubts and uncertainties, and definitely not our disingenuous conformity to doctrine or tradition.  I suspect that denying what we truly think and feel is therefore more about fear of human judgment and punishment than it is about pleasing God, although the religious training many of us have received can make it difficult to know the difference.

Faith and Scripture

While faith itself may be innate, the mind driven by faith must focus that energy upon something.  Yet the mind makes mistakes for all sorts of reasons, including poor information and faulty logic.  The mind stimulated by faith therefore benefits from having reference points and guidelines that have been tested by time.  Likewise, we benefit from guidelines on how to manage the very powerful feelings stimulated by faith.  These are the purposes of the Bible in Christianity.  Even though there was no New Testament as we know it for many generations of early Christians, and it has only been in the last few hundred years that most Christians have been able to read the Bible for themselves, it has become central to making Christianity the unique religion that it is. Yet the Bible is neither the religion itself nor the supreme object of our faith, and it is certainly not a manual for an inauthentic “fake it ’til you make it” imitation of faith.

If we rely upon the Bible as a central aid in loving God with all our heart and mind, we have a responsibility to develop the deepest and clearest possible understanding of its meanings.  For many of us, dogmatic faith has insisted that understanding the Bible is simply a matter of regarding it as a perfectly complete, plainspoken, and inerrant dictation from God.  For others of us, this approach requires far too much confidence in the human beings who wrote, edited, compiled, and translated the works in the Bible, no matter how inspired they were.  When we look at the history of the Bible, we clearly see it has been and still is subject to the same human shortcomings and follies as other literature.  We therefore cannot claim to know exactly what Jesus said, what was and was not put into his mouth by the writers of the gospels. Supposing we did know that much, we still couldn’t honestly be so certain of precisely what he or they meant that we could exclude all other possibilities; there are just too many complicating factors. Very few of us are qualified to know how translation into our own native language skews the meanings we gather from the Bible, and those who are qualified can and do come to stalemates where one possibility is as valid as another.  The greatest Biblical scholars cannot say with complete certainty when Jesus was and wasn’t speaking in some degree of metaphor, and they cannot avoid being confronted with passages that conflict with each other in different ways. Even the attempt to read something as literally as possible sometimes leads to radically different understandings.  With all of these observations, it is quite reasonable to conclude that we are all actually interpreting everything in the Bible, whether we realize it or not.  Furthermore, when faced with various passages that seem to conflict with each other, making decisions about which ones are closer to the truth as we understand it automatically makes everyone a “cafeteria Christian” to some extent.

But with all the different possible directions to look for meanings, how do we know which ones to pursue?  This is where faith always steps in for each of us.  The nourishment we select from the buffet of possibilities is determined by our faith, how each of our hearts and minds are moved by our own trust and conviction in what is true.  Referring back to Hebrews 11:1, we can see that paying attention to our hopes is an important part of the process.  Being honest with ourselves about what we hope a scripture means can help us look more directly into what our faith is telling us about the truth of ourselves and our relationships with God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we won’t misunderstand and make mistakes, but it does mean that they will at least be honest misunderstandings and mistakes.  That’s not only as it should be, it’s the only way it can be if we are going to be as authentic as possible, and thus it would seem that God would expect as much.  Furthermore, we don’t need to have answers for everything but we should admit (at least to ourselves) when there are some things that we simply do not believe.   Some people say that in such cases we must suspend our own disbelief and place our trust in doctrine.  But we should ask how it honors the God of Truth to try filling the gap of doubt with someone else’s thoughts, especially when the “still small voice” in one’s heart is speaking otherwise.  It seems to me that sometimes faith requires us to wrestle with the angels.

Conclusion: Mystical Faith

Referring back to “Faith Defined,” we once again consider the figures cited as examples of faith, and especially what the Bible says about their relationships with God.   We consistently find that they communed directly with God: They heard God, they spoke with God, they walked with God, and they even argued with God.  In the end, they all served what they best understood to be God’s will no matter what anyone else thought, said, or did.  Their immediate personal relationships with God are emphasized as central to their faith, and not their relationships with scriptures, doctrines, religious institutions, or any other mediating entities.  Those secondary things certainly played important roles at various times, but none were ever more important to our exemplars than the voice of the Spirit speaking through their own trust in God, their confidence in their personal relationships with God, and their convictions about what would best serve God.  In short, their faith was exceptionally authentic, and it was also exceptionally mystical.

What made their faith mystical is that it was unmediated.  Because mystics are concerned with the fullest possible realization of unity with God, we seek to commune directly with God.  The mystical way is as literal as it can be in reading and responding to the call to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  We turn inward to open the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s immediate presence in our own beings, and we do so trusting that God wants our authentic love more than anything else.  So it is that we strive to quietly lay our hearts and minds bare before God, respectfully avoiding, at least before God, the pretense of beliefs we do not actually hold.  We are confident that the hopes arising in and from these moments are evidence of our faith being formed by God’s infinite wisdom and love.  Yet, because turning inward also makes us more profoundly aware of our humanity, we understand that we can err in the thinking, the management of emotions, and the actions driven by the energy of our faith.  We understand that there are consequences for such errors, but we trust that the loss of Divine Grace will never be one of them. We also hope to learn through those consequences, and thus follow our faith into greater experiences and expressions of love.

With this deep awareness and acceptance of our own humanity, we realize that faith, the voice of the Spirit, can lead individuals and groups in somewhat different directions. It is therefore easier for us to welcome and love others with beliefs different from our own, and especially in matters of theological doctrine.  In fact, our faith leads us to open our arms wider to embrace and celebrate the differences, not only the similarities, arising from all people’s relationships with The One who is Truth, Life, and Love Itself, and thus evolve together into greater fulfillment of the prayer, “Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Maranatha

Agape

Apr 112012
 

I confess that I have often been a foolishly proud mystic.  In the wizardry of my physical and intellectual prime, I believed that through my studies of psychology and philosophy, through my spiritual practices, and aided by the grace of God, I had left behind many ordinary human troubles, and so much of my own past.  I would read these words of Paul and think I knew exactly where he was coming from because I believed I had already come and gone from there too:

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  1 Corinthians 13:11

And I must have put on a pretty convincing act!  I have received lots of praise for my seeming equanimity, wisdom, integrity, and self-confidence mixed with humility.  It’s not that there isn’t any truth to those appearances, but rather that there has certainly been more of a façade than I’ve been willing to admit to myself, let alone to others.  Even so, I’m quite sure I have often been more transparent to others than I realized, and that they knew I wasn’t as genuinely comfortable in my own skin as I wanted to seem.

Some of you, dear readers, will know what I mean when I say how very tired I am of finding myself trapped in old patterns of thought, feeling and behavior. If it hasn’t yet happened, the time may come when you know what it is like to look in the mirror and see a wounded, bewildered, incompetent, and insecure little child looking back at you through weary eyes under a furrowed and wrinkling brow.  At the relative midpoint of 50 years, I am awestruck by my own inability to be the “grown-up” I have wanted to be.  In fact, it often seems that I don’t manage life as well as I used to do, or as well as I thought I did, and so it is that these other words from Paul frequently ring in my ears:

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Romans 7:18b-19

In my darkest moments it has been easy to fall into the despair and nihilism voiced by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. … And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.  Ecclesiastes 1:2, 17-18

I prefer the older translations’ use of the word “vanity” to the “meaninglessness” in some newer translations.  “Vanity” better communicates the intellectual and moral hubris that the author of Ecclesiastes perceives in himself.   This great lover of wisdom, traditionally held to be King Solomon, understands that everything he has done in the name of wisdom has delivered him to this very moment of realizing just how unwise he really is, and how much suffering he has generated in his conceit.

It can be so tempting to see this unmasking as a regression, a failing and falling back from previous excellence, or a “curse” of the mind and ego-defenses not being quite as sharp as they once were.  Yet I sense that there is more to this process than the inevitable fall of a house of cards.  It feels providential, and so the words of King Hezekiah seem fitting:

But what can I say?   He [God] has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul.  Isaiah 38:15

It is therefore not only conceit that has brought me to such moments, for I see that I have actually been asking for it in countless ways; “asking for it” in the colloquial sense of ignorantly inviting the natural consequences of my actions, but also asking for it in a very literal sense.  After all, seeking wisdom and understanding through meditation and prayer must mean that my own foolishness and ignorance will increasingly be revealed, at least to me.  Yet I don’t think it is only me that witnesses this baring of my soul, because as I become less able to keep up the old façade it more easily cracks and crumbles before others.   And so, as with King Hezekiah, the public embarrassment and private shame of my ego is a constant prodding toward a more genuine humility.

One of the interesting things about this humbling, if not humiliation, is that, despite all the fatigue, grief, and disappointment, it brings a great sense of gratitude and relief.   It is impossible for me to be completely honest with myself about my shortcomings without also seeing how fortunate I am to have not made even more suffering for myself and others.   I can’t begin to count the number of serious traumas and tragedies that have been narrowly missed, and I am so thankful for this with regard to others, especially those most dear to me. That relief is amplified by the freedom in not feeling so compelled to keep up the old façade.

While I often sense a divine grace in this good fortune, as a mystic I am also graced with having come to know that God holds none of my weakness and folly against me.   Without merit, I have been immersed in a baptism of Light and experienced communion with the One Love in which we all live and move and have our being.  To continue in the words of King Hezekiah:

Lord, by such things people live; and my spirit finds life in them too.  You restored me to health and let me live.  Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish.  In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back. Isaiah 38:16-17

My sins may not yet be finally behind my back, but I know that the memory of them offers not only pain, but also a reminder that my own wisdom and understanding, no matter how inspired, will never be perfect as I have at times secretly fantasized.  Perhaps more importantly, such self-awareness stimulates my compassion for those who struggle in similar ways.

God, please help me proceed in humble gratitude and continue leaning on faith, hope and, above all, Love. Amen.

Agape

 

 

Apr 062011
 

In part 2, we considered the possibility that Satan – the voice of selfishness and the temptation to take the east way out – led Jesus to confront his own sense of existential emptiness and spiritual hunger.  In doing so, it was suggested that Jesus experienced compassion for all others who suffer not only with physical hunger but with these deeper issues, and that he also realized such challenges are not best answered through temporary acquisitions the way physical hunger is by physical food. To attempt satisfying our spiritual needs in such ways would be to put economic power above faith.   It was further suggested that Jesus realized our emptiness and spiritual hunger are not wrongs to be righted, not lackings to be eliminated, but are instead natural symptoms of our freedom and the will to live it.  There is liberation in welcoming and embracing them.

For the second and third temptations, I will offer an expanded hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and Satan.

The Second Temptation

The Adversary’s next pitch, this time for political power, amounts to something like this:

Okay, Jesus, you’ve realized your freedom and your will to do something meaningful with it.  You care deeply about all of humanity, and you realize economic power isn’t the ultimate answer.  After all, a full belly doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, does it?  So think about this:  You could fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah and rule all the nations of this world, and in doing so you could command things to be whatever you wish.  You could end all wars, stop oppression of the weak and the righteous, put an end to hunger for everyone, and make the world a utopia.  Just imagine!  The New Jerusalem!  Heaven on earth!  Now that’s something the Son of God should do, right?

This proposition has got to sound pretty good to Jesus, and we can imagine it would be an even bigger temptation than pursuing economic power alone.  But then Jesus hears something to this effect:

Of course, the rub is that all these ignorant human beings were created with free will, which means not everyone is going to want to get on board with your plans.  Unless you want rebels and insurgents undermining everything you do, you’re going to have to make everyone want to get on board.  And, to be blunt, the only way that’s going to happen is if you acknowledge the fact that it’s my spirit running the show down here.  I mean, Jesus, just look around!  Distrust, selfishness, temptation, manipulation, violence – these are things that really move people!  Embrace these principles and, with your powers, you’ll have the whole world eating out of your hand, and the rebels and insurgents be damned! Literally! Hahahahahaha!

Jesus doesn’t fall for it.  Tyranny isn’t the way to peace and love, and so  he responds:

It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

Jesus has realized the wisdom that a 20th century bard would express in this way:

There is no political solution to our troubled evolution. Have no faith in constitution. There is no bloody revolution. We are spirits in the material world.  (“Spirits in the Material World”, by the Police, written by Sting)

The Third Temptation

The voice of Satan doesn’t miss a beat:

Okay, okay, so it’s a religious solution you are here to provide. I can dig it!  So come with me.

Whether in a vision or in actuality, Jesus finds himself atop the temple in Jerusalem.

Look at all those people down there, thirsty for God’s grace,  hoping and praying for miracles, and making sacrifices because they believe they have to appease a jealous, angry, vengeful Father.  And no wonder!  This living hell is a long way from the Garden of Eden, and there isn’t a soul down there who doesn’t know guilt and shame.  I’ve got to hand it to you – you’re right that no amount of money and no king is going to cure those diseases.  What people need is to actually see that God really is with them right now, loving them just as they are, and that they can welcome that love and let it live through them. But what is it going to take to wake them up, Jesus?  If preaching, prophecy and rituals were enough, then things clearly wouldn’t be in such a mess, would they?

No.  What they need is just what they are praying for – a miraculous sign that makes it obvious God is among them.  If you could pull off a great miracle like that, one that would prove beyond any doubt you are the Son of God, then surely everyone will listen to you.  They’ll know how divine you are and that you speak the truth.  All believers will recognize you as the Great Shepherd, and you’ll have the kind of power to change lives that priests and preachers only dream about or pretend to have.  You could show everyone the way to peace and harmony, and they will listen because they will have seen for themselves that you and your Father are one.

Nothing would prove who you are and open the way for the one true religion better than beating death itself!  Jump off of here and let what is written in the scriptures be fulfilled. Let the angels do their duty and catch you in front of all these witnesses!  Go on! It will be a glorious and awe-inspiring event that all of humanity will remember for all time!

Then, slowly and softly, almost in a whisper, the Accuser adds:

And, if you’re not the Son of God…? Well, then you’ll die quickly in a supreme leap of faith and be freed from all of this mess anyway.

So, what do you say?

Jesus answers:

The Scriptures also say, “You must not test the Lord your God.”

This statement may seem fairly simple, but it communicates more than may be apparent at first glance.   Let’s not forget that a temptation is not tempting if one does not feel tempted.  So how is it that Jesus feels tempted?  If, as so many in the Church believe, Jesus knows beyond any doubt he is the one and only incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, if he knows he is possessed with the most miraculous of divine powers, if he knows his path is to offer himself as the Paschal Lamb for all of humanity, then wouldn’t he know that he would survive to complete his mission?  If all of that were true, then how would throwing himself off the temple be a temptation to him and a testing of God?  This act would be tempting to Jesus because Jesus himself is very aware of his humanness and uncertain of the extent to which he is specially divine.  The voice of temptation keeps digging at him, “If you are the Son of God….”  It would be a test of God to prove, once and for all, who Jesus is, and perhaps not only to prove it to everyone else, but also to Jesus himself.    If this is not Jesus’ experience, then there would be little to no temptation or test of God in this moment atop the temple.  In the end, it seems Jesus decides to heed the laws of nature, gravity in this case, and trust God will work through him in other ways.

But what if this line of reasoning is off target and Jesus is quite certain the angels would catch him?  Why wouldn’t he add that miracle to the list of others he’s going to accomplish?  Perhaps Jesus knows such an act would only reinforce the perception that God is most with those who are born special rather than with everyone, including the poorest, the meekest, the sickest, the least of humanity.  Maybe he knows it would only make him seem more an object of worship than a teacher to emulate.  Maybe he knows that kind of confusion is already destined to become a bigger distraction from his message than he would prefer.  Perhaps he knows that even people who might witness such a miracle wouldn’t believe it, and that some of those who at first believed would in time doubt their own experience.  Maybe he knows it would very soon become another point of religious argument and division rather than one of faith and kinship.  It seems reasonable that Jesus could have foreseen all these things and, whether or not it would be a test of God, the temptation to prove God’s love through some grand miraculous event just will not send the messages he wants to send.  In the end, it seems Jesus finds the promise of religious power to also be more of a distraction than an aid to helping people welcome and live with Divine peace and love.

Mar 202011
 

The First Temptation

The first temptation centers on Jesus’ hunger, and at the very least it is the physical hunger he feels due to his fasting. Consider that fasting is a spiritual discipline, a practice taken on in order to cleanse and strengthen one’s soul, and we have a better idea of why the Spirit led him into the wilderness.  Anyone who has taken up such a practice knows the inner voice that offers excuses to take the easy way out, to give in to our desires for immediate gratification and temporary comforts rather than persevere in our devotion to greater principles.  That’s the first role in which the character of Satan makes his appearance, but what could Jesus possibly want that would give Satan an avenue to tempt him this way?  Is it merely physical hunger? As we saw in part 1, it’s not too hard to imagine that Jesus is concerned about the risks he knows await him if he follows through with challenging the authority of religious, political and economic powers to come between us and God’s peace.  So it is that I think his encounter with hunger leads Jesus to specifically face the challenges of the economic powers in his own psyche.

In both societal and personal terms, economic powers are concerned with acquiring wealth not merely for the basic needs and comforts of wellbeing, but for protecting oneself and one’s acquisitions, for the power to help and influence others, and also for indulgence in luxuries.  In his own hunger, Jesus must sympathize with the hunger of others.  It surely occurs to him that he can turn his energies, whether miraculous or not, to the development of economic power, all with the very noble intention of improving the lives of the poor and hungry.  Such a temptation would likely be amplified by knowing that his life and the lives of his loved ones can be made much more comfortable by taking a nice percentage all to themselves.  Perhaps in these thoughts he is not unlike many of us who aspire to make a living through philanthropy and humanitarian service.  Yet Jesus holds fast, reminding himself that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” After all, it was not in a shower of coins that God’s love descended upon him after baptism, but as a dove of  spiritual peace.

None of this is to say that economic power is in itself evil, or that we must all follow a path of poverty like Jesus, although arguments have sometimes been made for both ideas.  To me it seems a simple fact that we all need and want things economic power enables us to more easily acquire, while most of us would also agree that we can pursue such things to excess, and that to do so usually, if not always, becomes destructive in some way.  Despite the universal nature of such temptations, in the most immediate sense we are each alone in feeling them, alone in deciding how we will respond, and alone in our accountability for our decisions.  This does not mean that no empathy, understanding or support is available from anybody else, but simply that nobody else can step into our skin, into our souls, to directly encounter and manage what we’re facing.  The desire to escape the reality of that aloneness and responsibility is often what fuels a pursuit for physical and emotional pleasures to excess and even addiction.  Thus we see that vices of economic power have at their root an anxious sense of inadequacy, an existential emptiness, and an often unacknowledged spiritual hunger, all of which we try to soothe with things like drugs, food, possessions, and experiences of all sorts, including personal relationships and the acquiring of knowledge.

So, through the discipline of fasting alone in the wilderness, Jesus has put himself on a collision course with an opportunity to realize the significance of emptiness.  When it arrives in full force, his key realization is that the greater issue is not his physical hunger, which could easily be satisfied with a piece of bread, but rather it is a deeper hunger that we all share and that no amount of “bread”, literally or figuratively, can ever satisfy.  But what could possibly satisfy such an emptiness and hunger?

In some versions of the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  This statement is a more complete reference to  Deuteronomy 8:3, which is found in the context of an admonishment to live according to the commandments of the Torah.  So a common interpretation of Jesus’ words is simply as a declaration of the importance of scripture, but there is more depth available to us.  Deuteronomy 8:3 draws a direct connection between the word of God and manna, which by the time of Jesus had long been used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment received through God’s grace.  This latter inference is most consistent with one of the central teachings of Jesus upon his return to civilization, which is essentially that the spirit of the law supersedes the letter.  In short, God’s love is our most essential spiritual nourishment.

It’s easy enough to give a religiously correct answer like “God”, or something with even broader appeal like “love”.  But if that’s all there is to it then there should be a lot less trouble in our world with angst about our emptiness and spiritual hunger and with the economic vices such angst can breed.  It seems clear that a faith based solely on doctrinal assertions isn’t enough, and here is where we find more relevance to the practice of mysticism.  While they have many differences, one thing agreed upon by existential therapies and the mystical traditions of many religions is that emptiness and spiritual hunger are facts of our being we all share, and they cannot be eliminated through any of the usual means of seeking security and comfort.  From this point, a further agreement is that, rather than trying to fill our emptiness and spiritual hunger, we must somehow accept them and come to some kind of peace with them.  By being still in meditation and mindfulness with our perceived lacking, and giving up the presumption that we can correct it, even giving up the idea that it is a wrong that needs to be corrected, we can begin to realize our emptiness and hunger not so much as a lacking, but as an openness to the countless possibilities of a wonderful mystery in which we all share.  The emptiness can thus be welcomed as our freedom, our liberation, and the hunger as our will to live it.  In learning to love our emptiness and hunger in this way, we find ourselves prepared to receive the contemplative realization of a more profound unity with the Transcendent Mystery we Christians call “God”, and this unity is Light, Life and Love itself.  The emptiness is realized as fullness.

We’ll examine the second and third temptations of Jesus in part 3.

Mar 152011
 

As often happens, another chain of synchronicities has brought a theme to the forefront.   The comments of friends and acquaintances, and my own recent experiences (including an Ignatian-type exercise related to the beginning of Lent) have highlighted the issue of aloneness for those who intend to follow a mystical path.  Over the coming weeks, I will address this theme in the context of Jesus’ own experiences of aloneness.

For just a few moments, imagine yourself as Jesus, being baptized in the Jordan by the charismatic preacher of repentance and righteousness, your cousin, John.  The water flows over you, and as you lift your eyes up to the sky you receive the Holy Spirit’s message that you are God’s beloved child.   In that moment you know you have a special mission to teach about rebirth to the peace of God’s infinite love, and to do so at all costs.  Somewhere deep inside you sense just how radical and threatening that mission will be to the powers of this world – political, religious, economic – and, at the base of it all, to the powers of the vices in the human psyche.  You have seen for yourself what such powers have done with people who were too radical, and what the final costs will likely be for you.

Retreating to Encounter Self

Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit would lead you directly out into the wilderness to fast, meditate, and pray about this calling?  A thoughtful and cautious person might think: “Am I really up to this?  Do I really have what it takes?  I had better take some time to double-check myself, my motives, intentions, and desires, before I try to take on that kind of responsibility.”  I believe Jesus probably had such thoughts, that he walked off into the wilderness not only knowing he would be tempted, but to actually discover and deal with his temptations, allowing God’s prosecutor to put him on trial; in essence, Jesus was putting himself on trial.

Many of us have heard sermons making it seem as though Satan’s temptations were little more than formal confirmations of Jesus’ divine wisdom and commitment to his mission as the perfect Lamb of Atonement.  It is as if there were no true temptations, just staged opportunities for a barely human Jesus to prove a rebellious Satan’s foolishness.  Well, I don’t buy it.  Unless Satan is less insightful than the average con artist, he wouldn’t waste his time offering temptations that weren’t really temptations at all.  I see Jesus’ experience as parallel to the trials God allowed Satan to inflict upon Job, which were a real test of Job’s faith in the justice, mercy and love of God, a real test of his own commitment to actually hold fast to them even when it seemed God was being anything but just, merciful and loving.  As with Job, Satan’s job is to test Jesus where he is most vulnerable and, being a different man with a different life, he is tested in different ways.

So it is that by reflecting on the temptations Jesus faced alone in the wilderness, we get a deeper look into the psyche of a real human being, one with whom we can relate and feel a real sense of kinship and togetherness.  I believe that in doing so we can find his example far more inspiring and encouraging than that of a man’s body merely being used by the Creator like a sock puppet.  In part 2, we’ll consider the first temptation from this perspective.

Feb 062011
 

jesus-sweating-blood-in-gethsemaneThis is a perennial topic in spirituality, and Christian devotion is certainly no exception. We have our ascetics who have glorified the value of suffering to the point of practicing the most extreme forms of mortification.  We’ve had clergy and elders who have directed the faithful to always quietly submit to whatever abuses, cruelties or injustices they may have suffered as trials of faith.  I’ve heard of Inquisitors who went into raptures of ecstasy at hearing people cry out to God as they burned at the stake.  Mother Teresa allegedly did not allow patients in her care to receive pain medication because she believed it was so important for people to suffer with Christ.

As mystics we seek to know union with God, and to live in accord with our faith in and knowledge of that union. How does suffering, our own and that of others, fit into this context?

The Roots of Suffering

Let’s avoid the temptation to slip into distraction with ontological tail-chasing about why suffering exists at all.  My preference is to begin by simply accepting the existential reality, and from that place begin considering what meaning it has for me.  And, before going further, it may be helpful to note that there are two general classes of suffering:  The first is the basic experience of physical and emotional pain immediately resulting from loss, injury or disease,  and the second is the additional suffering we create for ourselves with our mental responses to the fact or possibility of such things.  While this post has relevance to the first class of suffering, it is actually the second class that is of primary concern.  That sort of suffering is something we have more opportunity to prevent or transform, and not only for our own benefit but also because it so often spills over into the lives of others.

It first occurs to me that suffering reveals our illusions, or at least our attachments to them.  It is actually our resistance to accepting illusions for what they are that causes so much of our distress and dis-ease in life.  Sometimes this happens when we get what we thought we wanted, only to find the reality is significantly different from our dreams.  Sometimes it happens because of the experience of impermanence and our vain struggles to preserve what was.

“Attachment” and “impermanence” seem to be key words here.  It’s simple enough to see how our desires to keep and hold what pleases us must always be thwarted by the reality of impermanence here in this world.  A deeper truth of this is that we tend to define ourselves through our attachments, though we might not realize it, either on the whole or with specifics.   But anyone who has experienced a significant loss – like the death of a loved one, the breakup of an intimate relationship, the loss of a career, an ability, a reputation, a home, or even membership in some group – to some degree knows that anxious sense of having lost something of the self.  Sometimes in these situations we even ask ourselves, “Who am I now?”

So we can see how in the depths of such suffering one often, if not always, perceives a blow to one’s own self-concept, and there is little to nothing we want to protect and preserve more than the self-concept; it is simply the survival instinct, if nothing else.  The truth, however, is that the personal self is temporary.  It is always changing and, despite a more or less constant sense of a “me”, that “me” is obviously never precisely what it was a little while ago.  It is memories of “me” that largely form the collage each of us habitually relies upon for a self-concept, the patchwork emblem we have of the present “me”.  So at best the self-concept is a fluid theory or working hypothesis of who and what we have been and are becoming in this world.  At worst it is an illusion we mistake for a concrete actuality, the psychological equivalent of an idolized statue standing on fragile clay feet, destined to eventually be broken.

The Transformation of Suffering

I think this issue is close to the very core of the mystical impulse.  On the one hand suffering urges us to desire the eternal, to identify with it no matter how paradoxical that may seem.  On the other hand we are drawn to the fleeting unique beauty of impermanent things.  Is there an unresolvable opposition here that begs us to abandon one for the other?  There are many ways we can respond to this juxtaposition, but it seems the general tone of Christian mysticism is to focus on Love.  For us, the value of suffering can begin to be found in its revelation of our illusory attachments and reminding us of our obsession with protecting and preserving the self-concept.  We are thus provided the opportunity to transform temporal suffering from something to be fled at all costs into a catalyst for more fully knowing eternal Love.

Among other ways, people have tried to define Love as the very principle of union itself, the reintegrating power that resolves oppositions and dissolves separation into oneness.  However, when two or more join in love, another one often arises from them.  So it is with all forms of Love as we know it, and so it is that the principle of union is never the last word on the meaning of Love.  Love transcends the duality of separation, union, and the birth of the new.  It is in Love that we know and rejoice in both the eternal, transcendent mystery of non-duality and the temporal ever-becoming, ever-passing wonder of the relative world.

So, for Christian mystics, what are the implications about the suffering of others?  First and foremost it is a reminder of our shared humanity, and that awareness combined with the focus on Love naturally delivers us to compassion, kindness and service.  Yet, as the human heart and mind strive to express something of Love, it is often said that one can only love another to the extent that he or she loves self.  It’s easy to get the idea that one must place self-love first and foremost on some sort of love agenda, as if we would otherwise have less Love to offer others. On the other hand, much has also been said about forgetting self in the love of others, as though time spent in loving self always robs others of Love. But these distinctions reveal our fear that there is some absolute limit to our ability to express Love, if not a limitation in Love itself; it is an assumed lacking that reduces infinite Love to a temporal commodity rather than an eternal good.  Notions such as these are veils on Love’s transcendence of all dualities, for genuine love of self and genuine love of others each have the effect of magnifying the other, despite the suffering that may be intertwined with them.  Like mirrors facing one another, notions of giver and receiver evaporate into the infinite depths of their shared reflection. And so it is that in expressing compassion and kindness in response to the suffering of others, we become a unique temporal flowering of the transcendence of eternal Love; we actually participate in the mystery of the Incarnation, and thus, in the language of our tradition, shine as the light of Christ in this world.

 

Jan 302011
 

I, this watching, listening, reflecting point of consciousness, in the depths of meditation experience the will opening awareness to the vast silence in which all thoughts come and go.  Attention traces back along the paths of their manifestation – from words back to images, sounds and feelings.  Through these forms it traces back to pulses of energy filled with potential and emerging from the silence as though born out of nothing.

With continued observation it becomes clear that in the silence, beyond all perception, are mysterious intelligent forces and dynamics composing those emergent pulses. In time it is discerned there are forces and dynamics of different categories, “intelligences” focused on different aims, each leaving a resonance within the pulses it sends.  Through these pulses and the forms into which they unfold, increasing familiarity finds that some of those intelligences are aware of this probing, and some of them desire to communicate and be known.

As intention and openness to communication builds on many sides, the mysterious intelligences respond at times with bursts and floods of energy pulses.  These bursts and floods stimulate imagination to unfold the most dazzling artistic displays in dreams, visions, locutions, and the like, brimming with the excitement and disclosure of newly met lovers. Growing intimacy clarifies the “voices” of various intelligences, each singing at different times in differing degrees of cacophony, harmony, or unison. Patient intention for truth eventually distinguishes within the chorus a certain voice interweaving itself in and through all the others. At first it seems only one among the many, yet it becomes realized as the one to which all others respond, as a choir does to the whispers and motions of its conductor.

With knowledge of the central wisdom and power of the intelligence behind that voice, I resolve to focus attention upon it. I make known my commitment to it and to all the intelligences that might listen, so that those which can still themselves or sing harmonious responses to that voice will do so and thereby assist me in communing with its source.  What follows is an attempt at transcribing some of our communication, freely acknowledging that my abilities to single out that voice, translate it, and understand its meaning are still in development and sometimes in error, or perhaps always so to some degree.

An Allegorical Conversation

Hello. I believe I am welcome to communicate as directly as possible with you, is that correct?

You are more than welcome, much more.

I feel awe in doing so. It is a mixture of excitement, joy, wonder, anticipation, so many feelings, but also fear, I must admit.

Yes, that’s all natural, including your fear. Be still. It passes.

Thank you.  I see that this is my response to the unknown, knowing that I cannot predict or control it. It is my lack of trust in myself to protect and preserve myself.

Yes, that fear and lack of trust stem from your desire to remain much as you are, to not die to the illusion of yourself, and the conflict of that desire with the knowledge of your limitations and the desire to be free from them, to die to the illusion of yourself as you know you must. It is simply part of your present existence that you cannot clearly discern the illusion of you from the essence that you truly are.  You know this.

Yes, I do. I wish it were otherwise.

You do and you don’t wish it were otherwise, which is fine.  In time it becomes otherwise, but outside of time it already is, always was, and always will be.  You know this, and that knowledge is what enables you to be patient with and even enjoy the illusion despite its torments.

Yes, and with that, in this moment, I sense a release from the fear of communicating with you so freely.

That’s right.  You are free to communicate with me as openly, honestly and informally as your most intimate friend, even more so.

Okay, that makes sense.  And, as in an intimate conversation with a dear friend, it naturally calls for devotion.

Yes, and with time the rapport builds.  Though there are phases in which I seem silent and distant to you, even absent, they pass so that you increasingly come to know we are present to each other in all circumstances.

I’m smiling with the thought and feeling of that.

As am I.

Hmm. I’ve wondered if you feel things like I do.

I feel everything, everything you feel, everything every creature feels, has ever felt or ever will feel.

That’s comforting, yet I cannot begin to imagine what that must be like for you.

Once when you were lucid you were asked what would happen if you didn’t imagine anything, and so for a moment you emptied yourself into complete silence and stillness, and then suddenly it was filled with golden light, as if by an explosion.

Yes! I recall it was so alive and full!  It was humming and buzzing and shining with so much energy!

That moment was a glimpse of what it’s like to feel everything all at once.

What do you call it?

Your mind might call it “Life”, “Light”, or “Logos” but your heart is already calling out another name.

Yeah, it’s “Love”, and more than I ever thought love could be.

Yes.

Love is everything. It is the Logos, the Life and the Light. Even the things I don’t always recognize as love must be Love.

Yes.

You are Love.

I am.

I want to know you, so much!

You do know me, and always have known me, and your knowing continues to grow.

Ah, yes, I have known you in so many ways, some of them lesser and some greater.

Yes, but now you know the greatness even in the least of these.

Ha ha ha ha!  Yes!  Yes, you remind me that as a child I learned to see you in the Jesus who spoke such similar words.

“Jesus loves the little children….”  You know the song.

Oh, you bring tears to my eyes!

I love you. You know it is always true.

Yes, yes, my beloved. I’m so grateful. My tears say what words cannot.

I am always with you. I know what is in your heart.

Yes, thank you.  I forget that so easily.  I am so easily distracted and absorbed in the illusions.

It’s okay. You are my child at play in the playground I have given you.  If I had not wanted you to forget yourself in play, I would not have made it so.

But there is not only joyful play here. There is labor and misery and evil here too.  Did you create these?

What I am about to tell you is only one way to comprehend this mystery, yet it is true. I create you and your kind with individuality. Into each of your beings I pour some of my love, my life, will, and creativity, and I seal it with the forgetting of its root, and then send you into the natural world with its laws, which I have ordained.  I do this so that you might be free to participate in creation with me, even to make worlds of your own.

In the forgetting of your root you sense your loss and limitation, yet the heat of my eternal being and the will to become is also there. Thus, believing you are that which is temporary and bound to space and time as you know it, rather than remembering you are that which is eternal and free, you desire to artificially make the temporal into something eternal, the illusory into the real, the relative into the absolute, and therefore cannot help but know the frustration of your desires and the fear of oblivion.

So it is that your ignorance and fear shape your understanding of things, and thus much of your relative reality, into what you call misery and evil.  Yet, I made all of this to be as it is, and though I am not bound to it, I am in it with you, within you and all around you.  I have not only sealed you with the forgetting of your root, but have also endowed you with the potential to break that seal and begin remembering me, and so begin to see love glowing through the veils that are your suffering.

If everything is love, even misery and evil, why should I care what anyone experiences or does?  Why be compassionate and ethical?

There are many ways to answer, and one way is this: Because you can’t really stop yourself.  It is part of who and what you are to want these things for yourself and others, and it would only be compounding the illusions of your life for you to pretend otherwise. This desire is part of what breaks the seal of forgetting your root. It involves recognizing your deepest self in others, for I am in each of you.  It is interwoven with your desire for the truth beyond the duality of evil and good as you know good, in that state where all is known as the Love that has no opposite.

Heaven. It’s about bringing heaven and earth together as much as possible.

Yes.

I believe all of this, but it’s still hard to understand how love can create circumstances that are sure to result in suffering. That seems more like cruelty than love.

From the perspective of separation it must seem to be so, but consider three things: First, I am with you even in that suffering, suffering with you, though in me the suffering is known as love.  Second, I only reveal the truth to you in the ways you are presently able to accept it.  Third, even to one who has awakened to remember and find union with me to the fullest possible extent, the necessity of it all shall remain a mystery, for it is such even to me, who knows it is undeniably true.

Even for you?!  Aren’t you God?!

I am.  Yet “I am” is somewhat like the awakening of consciousness from deep sleep.  It takes little attention for “I am” to know there is a still and silent One that is the transcendent source and substance of all that is possible and all that is impossible.  I am the first-born of That. I am one with That, yet I am not all It was, is or can be.

Ah, in this I hear the answer to why there is something instead of nothing: All we can know of this, all we can communicate, is that it is the mysterious will of the silent One.

Yes.

So you do not have the power to change the essential way of things?

Yes and no.  If I were to change the essential way of things, it would be the will of the One working through me, but the will of the One is for things to be as they are.

I can sense this line of questioning isn’t going to reveal much more to me.

You are free to change the subject.

Thank you. I feel this is a good place to rest, though one more question comes to mind: What if I share this with others? I know some will welcome it, but I know others will not, and I am a little fearful of how it will affect them and how they will respond.

Let go of your fear.  Remember that what they and you really are cannot be harmed, and that my love is always with you, each and all. When you share these words, some might hear it as you do and take comfort, and others might hear it as the babbling of a child and they will smile with grace. Some might hear it as a mockingbird heralding the dawn, as the howling of a dog in the night, the squealing of a hungry pig, or the taunting of a devil.  All hear as they are best able to hear, and they respond accordingly.  Go now and do what you must with love, from love, for love, and you will know me as you have said you want so much to do.

Thank you, Love.  It makes no sense to say goodbye.

Hello!

Jan 152011
 

Dedication

Today Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 82 years old. Monday is the USA’s national day of remembrance for him.  It is a great privilege to have witnessed the way Spirit worked through him to directly impact the world in which so many of us lived and matured, and into which so many more have since been born and raised.  With heartfelt gratitude to him and the One who gave him to us, I dedicate today’s post to beloved Brother King, may he rest in peace.

Click here for his speech, “A Knock at Midnight” (duration 7:24).
Click here for his last speech, “Mountaintop”, given the night before his assassination (duration 1:16).

The Humanity of Jesus

Mainstream Christian theology holds that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Even so, many of us have been schooled in a vision of Jesus where his humanity is accounted for by little more than his birth and death in a body of flesh and bone.  Yet the Gospels and other reports of his life do indeed show us something more of the human who called himself the Son of Man.  Let’s ponder the person revealed in these passages:

As a Boy

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:41-52)

After Baptism by John

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,  where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.  For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.  (Luke 4:1-13)

When Asked to Heal a Boy

On the next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. And a man from the crowd shouted, saying, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only boy, and a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams, and it throws him into a convulsion with foaming at the mouth; and only with difficulty does it leave him, mauling him as it leaves. I begged your disciples to cast it out, and they could not.”

And Jesus answered and said, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” (Luke 9:37-42)

After the Miracle of Feeding Four Thousand

The Pharisees came out and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him.  Sighing deeply in his spirit, he said, “Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” (Mark 8:11-12)

Responding to Being Called “Good Teacher”

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18:19)

Before Raising Lazarus from the Dead

Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, he groaned in the spirit and was troubled.  And he said, “Where have you laid him?”

They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” And some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again groaning in himself, came to the tomb. (John 11:33-38)

On the Road from the Mount of Olives

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it [because he saw that it would be destroyed.] (Luke 19:41)

In the Temple

And he found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  And he made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves he said, “Take these things away; stop making my Father’s house a place of business.” (John 2:14-16)

Foretelling the Return of the Son of Man

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

At the Last Supper

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

Before His Arrest

And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and he knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from me; nevertheless not my will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly. Then his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.  (Luke 22:41-44)

Upon the Cross

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is, being interpreted, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

What are the Implications?

Other non-canonical texts even paint a picture of Jesus as a temperamental boy and then a man with a special love for his disciple Mary Magdalene. But leaving those aside, the canonical Gospels do more than enough to challenge the notion of a Jesus untroubled by normal human feelings, like: curiosity, frustration, humility, sadness, anger (even to the point of aggression!), fearful agony, and even despair.  The Gospels certainly do not portray a being fully conscious with the transcendent all-knowing mind of God Almighty; in fact, they make it clear that Jesus considered himself less than, and subordinate to, the One he called Abba.

Please understand that none of this is intended to be a denial of the divinity of Jesus or that he was an incarnation of the Logos or Second Person of the Trinity.  It is instead offered as an opportunity to rethink what such words and ideas mean, to meditate upon the mystery of how Jesus could be divine, the Light and Word of God, and also thoroughly human.  For many of us, these considerations naturally connect with considering our own natures, and in that context let’s review two more passages in addition to one previously listed:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word 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. (John 1:1-4)

“Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came —and Scripture cannot be set aside— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:30-38)

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

Maybe it’s enough to trust God and just sit quietly with all of this, letting Christ speak to each of us, and the Holy Spirit move each of us, as they will.