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