Jul 192013
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agape

May 142013
 

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

The Essence of Mysticism

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘mysticism’ means:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • union
  • direct communion
  • direct knowledge
  • subjective experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In stronger words than my own, Ruysbroeck concludes:

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

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

Beyond Mysticism?

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

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

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

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

Agape

Feb 162013
 

Christian mysticism is frequently written and spoken about as a very solitary and private thing.  In many ways, that is certainly the case, and understandably so.  The shift into mysticism from the more common experiences and expressions of spiritual life is, for most of us, a shift toward introversion in our religious attitudes and practices.  In this shift, we remove some of our attention and effort from conforming with externally imposed doctrines and behavioral norms, and place more attention and effort on plumbing the depths of Spirit immediately present within ourselves.   The desire for belonging to a community, or for the acceptance and approval of some institutional authority, thus becomes a lower priority. We can experience both internal and external resistance to this change.  With some of us, that resistance is encountered as a threat to answering the call to union with God, and so it sometimes happens that relationship itself is narrowly judged by us as a distraction.  All of this plays into the stereotype of mystic as hermit.  Yet the messages of Jesus consistently emphasize relationship as central to our spiritual lives. Relationship with God and relationships with our fellow human beings are not only presented as equally important but as inseparably intertwined.  The centrality of this theme suggests there could be much to gain in thinking more about relationship itself.  Therefore, in this post we will begin with the most abstract examination of relationship, and from there consider various implications for the significance of relationship.

The Ubiquity of Relationship

An interesting thing about relationship is that it is always present.  Nothing can exist in any way and not be in relationship, regardless of whether we are speaking of a material object or something as ethereal as a thought.  In fact, it is impossible to conceive of anything apart from relationship.  Even the effort to imagine or describe something alone, in isolation from other objects, nonetheless involves the perception of its own different characteristics, each of which is in relationship with the others through their participation in the whole.  In science, relationships are typically expressed in mathematics, which is nothing other than a system of describing and exploring relationship.  While this pursuit can be, as with quantum physics, very far removed from ordinary experiences of relationship in most people’s lives, we need only turn to the fields of accounting, geometry, meteorology, and psychological testing to see how mathematics helps us understand many common forms of relationship.  (Even the word under-stand shouts of relationship!)  Likewise, all art is an exploration of and participation in relationship.  Just these few examples from both science and art reveal that we cannot conceive of being in any way apart from relationship, and that the meaning we find in or give to being itself is likewise inseparable from relationship.  Being and meaning are so thoroughly dependent upon relationship that it would not be too much of a stretch to conclude that they are functions of relationship, that they are only able to emerge within relationship itself.

It should be noted that our usual way of thinking about relationship is being turned upon its head.  The typical thought process assumes that relationship emerges from and between the being of different things.  In other words, we usually think of an object or idea as something relatively static and self-existent, and our perception of relationship only emerges as we simultaneously consider that thing and something else.  Relationship is thus treated as a matter of how things that are assumed to be separate are judged to be different or alike, their locations relevant to each other, what effects they may have upon each other, and so forth.  Now, however, we are considering that there are no things, no objects or ideas, without there first being relationship. The awareness of a thing, even of oneself, is thus the perception of a constellation of relationships that we perceive as sufficiently unique to distinguish it from other constellations.    In other words, “thing-ness” is nothing other than the constellation of relationships.  Relationship is the basis of existence itself.

atom

Considering this possibility may be so radically different that it seems absurd, and so I invite you to try it merely as a thought experiment.  Try to set aside your usual habits of thinking and see what happens if you take it as a given that relationship is most fundamental, that it is that from which all emerges, that in which each thing has its being and thus its meaning.   In the language of various philosophies, we are now attempting to work with the possibility that relationship is the ground of being.  For a Christian, this means we are trying to think of God as Relationship itself, using “Relationship” in the same way we might use Truth, Mind, Perfection, Nothing, All, Spirit, Father, or another capitalized term to signify God in some particularly meaningful way.  So, to reiterate, for the present purposes we are speaking of God as the Supreme Relationship.

A Theology of Relationship

If we take Relationship as the ground of being, and thus being as a function of Relationship, then Relationship is more than being and not simply identical with it.  If this is so, then both being and non-being are subsumed by Relationship; they are states within the whole all-encompassing scope of the Supreme Relationship.  But what do we mean by these terms, “being” and “non-being?”   We may take the concept of being, even in this unusual context, as reasonably apparent and even self-evident.   To be is to exist in some manner; being is “is-ness.”  Yet we have just encountered the perspective that we cannot conceive of a particular being, a thing that is, without recognizing its distinctness as a constellation of relationships.  Non-being is thus a state in which there are no constellations of relationships to distinguish from each other.  There are two ways we can account for such a state – one is absolute chaos and the other is absolute order.  In absolute chaos, the relational principle of change is so completely dominant that nothing, no thing, can ever emerge from its “anarchy” to manifest as something distinct from the chaos.  In absolute order, the relational principle of stasis is so completely dominant that nothing can ever emerge from its “tyranny.”  Absolute chaos and absolute order are thus extreme conditions of relationship we conceptualize as opposites, which are, nonetheless, identical in their non-being-ness.  Within the whole of Relationship itself, we thus have a trinity of fundamental relationship states that are different yet inseparable from each other – non-being as absolute chaos, non-being as absolute order, and being.

order & chaos co-mingled

In this model, Relationship begets Creation (the totality of being represented in the graphic by white and all tints of red and blue), through the interaction of chaos and order.  One analogy that readily lends itself for understanding these states in Relationship is a magnetic field or electric current.  Just as magnetism or electricity arises between positive and negative polarities, all the possibilities of being are understood as arising in the tension between, and/or the co-mingling of, absolute order and absolute chaos.

We should note that unlike some theological models, this one does not dispense with the possibility for a personal relationship with God, it does not deny God’s personhood, and it does not minimize the significance of experiencing a spiritual or mystical presence.   All of these things are instead embraced as actual forms of relationship that can manifest in the field of being, and thus between the Supreme Relationship and us.

Practical Implications

Every theological model has practical implications.  In other words, the way we think about God has effects, both obvious and subtle, on how we think and feel and on what we do.  Consider, for example, all the possible effects of thinking about God in exclusively masculine or feminine terms, or as a jealous parent or temperamental judge.  Consider the ramifications of thinking about God in deistic terms, as a creative intelligence that crafted the cosmos and then retreated from the scene. Thinking of God as an impersonal force also shapes us in its own ways.  It’s important to consider these things because it can help us more fully understand ourselves and why we and others think and act in certain ways.  Furthermore, it can challenge us to ponder whether or not the way we think about God really serves the whole truth of our being as well as it might.  For example, we might say that we believe there is nothing more important than peace, but if we conceive of God primarily as a temperamental judge, then it’s likely that many of our feelings and actions will not be in harmony with the principle of peace.  In effect, this self-contradiction puts us at odds with ourselves, and our presence in the world and effect on others will reflect it.

The following paragraphs provide starting places for working with a few specific implications of thinking about God as Relationship.

An Implicate Ethic in Creation

golden-mean

The Golden Mean

One of the implications of this model is that the more thoroughly chaos and order are integrated, then the more optimal are the possibilities for being.  Movement from the middle toward chaos is a movement away from the harmonizing, stabilizing, sustaining effects of order. Therefore, being increasingly dissolves into anarchy approaching the non-being of absolute chaos.  Movement from the middle toward order is movement away from the liberating, diversifying, renovating effects of chaos.  Therefore, being increasingly solidifies into tyranny approaching the non-being of absolute order.   So it is that this model resonates very well with the ancient Greek doctrine of the Golden Mean, the Middle Way of Buddhism, the Pillar of Equilibrium on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and the Tao.  The ethics of these doctrines typically highlight virtues such as moderation, temperance, integrity, and equanimity, while also not denying the freedom and possible value of moving toward an extreme from time to time.  There are limitless ways this ethic might actually be put into practice in our everyday lives, from such macro issues as international politics to such micro issues as what one does for dinner tonight.

Relationships as Spiritual Experiences

Ponder for a moment what it means to regard Relationship itself as utterly Divine.  It implies that all forms of relationship are therefore divine in some particular way, which further implies that all relationships are, each in their own way, a direct though limited encounter with God.  And beyond this, since everything is, in some way, in relationship with everything else, then we are constantly encountering God in an ongoing myriad of different expressions.  Even further, if we accept the idea that a thing is actually a constellation of relationships, and has no existence otherwise, then all things are inherently divine.   There is nothing that is not divine, including ourselves, and every relationship is interconnected with all others and thus part of the whole Relationship that is God, the Supreme Relationship inclusive of all being and non-being.   Relationship is unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity.   We therefore have the possibility of realizing every relationship as not only spiritual in nature, but also potentially mystical in significance.  This perspective makes it possible for mysticism to be more than an introverted pursuit; it is freed from the realm of private solitary practice and opened up as a whole way of life.

Love

As mystics often write and speak about the centrality of Love, the unity of Love, the transcendence and immanence of Love, of God as Love, it isn’t unusual for people to question what that really means.  Such questions are significant.  To think of Love as something not limited by duality, as something that, in the broadest scope, has no opposite such as hate, or fear, or apathy, can leave us empty of anything but the vaguest intuition about Love.  That befuddlement is fitting because it reveals we are plumbing the depths of the concept of Love all the way down into the mystery of the ineffableness of God.  It is pushing the finiteness of a word to its breaking point in an effort to make it an emblem for the Infinite. In classic theological language, it is following the Via Positiva all the way to the conceptual chasm where one can only go further by, ironically, resting in the Via Negativa.  Even so, perhaps there is some value in considering the possibility that the meanings of Love and Relationship merge at this point, with Love as relationship realized in wholeness, and Relationship as love realized in all things.

love-mandala-01-flowering-heart-17793368

In closing, I ask you to consider what it might mean to actually live your life from this perspective that Relationship is the Ground of Being, that God is the Supreme Relationship in which all other relationships live and move and have their being.  What effects might it have on your thoughts, feelings, and actions?  How could it impact your understanding of Christianity and your identity and self-expression as a Christian?  How might it affect your attitudes toward other religions, toward the non-religious, or on political and social issues?  What about your behavior as a citizen, your attitudes about sexuality, your presence among co-workers, family, friends, and so on?

Agape

Feb 062013
 

This post continues on the theme of the previous post, The Illusion of Separateness.

We begin before the beginning, outside of time and space, with the Nameless, Faceless, Indescribable One that is the Source and Ground of All, which we simply refer to now as…

1. Unity

Genesis

origen1

2. Duality within Unity

In some way that defies our complete understanding, ‘within’ the Transcendent Unity we call ‘God,’ there is an ‘intention’ for the freedom of otherness to be.  Some of our creation myths try to explain why this happens, yet others leave it as a mystery.  The story of Genesis, for example, does not explain why God wills creation; we are only given a beginning of space-time in which God creates the distinction of heaven and earth. From this basic duality, of Godself and other, arises all the diversity of creation in response to God’s will, and all of it is declared “good,” which is to say that, at least so far, things are as they should be.

Note:  In this context, ‘other’ refers not only to other persons, but anything considered to be ‘not me.’  This is an important point to keep in mind as further points refer to ‘others.’

The Fall and the Spiral of Illusions

3. The Illusion of Separateness

Despite the multiplicity of forms in creation, careful reading of scripture reveals that it is all actually one.  Everything and everyone lives, moves, and has its being in God. There is nowhere that God is not. Yet we can become intoxicated by duality and thus fail to perceive our unity with the All and the One.  This is the symbolism of being tempted by the serpent, eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and ejection from Eden.   The self-other binary of duality has become a veil on unity, a distraction from it, and is thus distorted into the illusion of separateness.  It is not a fall from grace, but a fall from the intimate awareness of grace.

4. The Illusion of Lacking

Our delusion of separation is at odds with our latent memory, or intuitive knowledge, of unity; it is a dissonance, an incongruity, felt by us as incompleteness.  It is the root of all uneasiness, all discomfort, with self and others. In Genesis, this uncomfortable feeling of lacking and need is revealed in Adam’s lonely desire for a mate, and later in the couple’s shame about their nakedness.  Out of our deep knowing of unity as truth, a desire emerges to eliminate the discomfort that accompanies the illusion of lacking and need.  Yet that desire can conflate with a desire to expand self, because self is perceived as the most immediate thing, and thus least illusory, within the illusion of separateness.  In such confusion, we believe others must be drawn into self in order to rebuild wholeness and thus relieve our existential discomfort.  Desire is thereby revealed as more fundamental than need in our existence.  Everything perceived as a need is actually something we desire in order to maintain or undo the illusions of separateness.  Even the need to survive disappears if one no longer desires to live.

5. The Illusion of Acquiring/Possessing

Acting in response to the illusion of need and the desire to expand self, self attempts to relieve discomfort through acquiring/possessing others (people, things, ideas, experiences, etc.), and thus ironically defends, perpetuates, and compounds the illusion of self’s separateness.

6. The Illusion of Strengths/Weaknesses

In the processes of acquiring and possessing, we perceive patterns within a binaries of (a) ease versus difficulty and (b) ability versus inability.  We compare and contrast self and others in these ways, conceptualizing different kinds of talent, skill, and knowledge, and judging each other according to competence in acquiring and possessing.

7. The Illusion of Conflict with Others

We experience that others acting to acquire and possess can interfere with our acquiring and possessing, even completely preventing or undoing our own acquiring and possessing.  We therefore conclude that some others must be outperformed, if not eliminated, in order for self to acquire and possess as easily and freely as possible.

8. The Illusion of Winners/Losers

We perceive a success-failure binary in the competition to acquire and possess.  Winners are judged as good because they model the illusory ideal of defending, perpetuating, and expanding self.

9. The Illusion of Self-Improvement/Self-Diminishment

We perceive a progress-regress binary in winning and losing, and thus in developing and maintaining (acquiring and possessing) self-efficacy, which is our sense of ability to achieve success in drawing others into self.

Notice how every step reinforces and compounds the previous steps, and thus our energies spiral out into an ever larger, more complex, and more unmanageable illusory existence.  Yet, every step also offers the possibility of awakening to these illusions.

What are we to do about all of this?

Some spiritual traditions seem to insist that the whole phenomenon of otherness is either a cosmic mistake or a flaw in the spirit of humanity.  The fact of duality, of the self-other binary that is at the very heart of creation, is judged as the fundamental evil that makes all of creation corrupt.  This way of thinking often leads to re-assessing self as the most immediate falsehood rather than the most immediate reality, and thus to the conclusion that the only way out of illusion is to utterly destroy self.  A similar but more extroverted reaction is the quest for an idealized world in which all distinctions of otherness, and thus all differences, are eliminated.  It is, in effect, an attempt to eliminate diversity and establish universal conformity to some imagined state of perfection.

Unless we take the view that the Adonai of Genesis is a false god, a deluded and megalomaniacal demiurge bent on making a cosmic mistake, then we cannot conclude from our myth that creation, with its dualism, is an evil to be undone.  Instead, our creation myth suggests that the primary problem is the illusion of separation, and Jesus promises that it is possible to overcome, or be delivered from, this problem.  It might seem paradoxical, but he calls us to return to awareness of unity while still participating in duality.  As we shall see, such a call only seems paradoxical when viewed from a position still fully immersed in the illusion of separateness.

Lucidity

cosmic-eye-mandala-print

As frequent readers of this blog are likely to know, lucid dreaming is my favorite analogy for a state of being in which one has awareness of unity while still participating in duality; in lucid dreaming, one clearly knows he or she is dreaming while the dream is happening.  It is a state less enmeshed in the illusions of separateness between self and the various ‘others’ experienced in the dream, and yet the dream and one’s presence in it continues to manifest.  Anyone who experiences lucidity knows what a liberating moment it can be.  What may have, only seconds before, seemed like an unbearable nightmare can suddenly be experienced with a light heart, even a sense of humor, not unlike a Halloween house of horrors.  More pleasant dreams can have their beauty magnified as the wonder and awe of their artistry is more deeply appreciated.  Imagine what it is like to realize that the mind you call your own is somehow mysteriously creating and sustaining an entire world around you, and with incredible detail and vibrancy.   If you have had this experience, then you may also know what it is like to begin working with the dream as a piece of art, shaping and crafting it according to your own wishes.  A nightmare can be completely transformed into an experience of peace and joy.  A monotonous repetition of typical events can be seized as an opportunity to break the laws of physics and fly in the air or breathe underwater.  Almost anything is possible, and no ugliness seems quite as genuinely threatening to you or any ‘other’ in the dream.

Mystical insight, enlightenment, revelation, or whatever you want to call it, can impart a similar liberation with regard to our presence in the so-called ‘waking world.’  According to some mystics, philosophers, and physicists, our ‘waking world’ is like a shared dream in which all of our seemingly individual minds are participating with a consensus, both conscious and unconscious, about how things should work.  Individuals who become lucid in this world attain some measure of liberation from the ‘rules,’ and thus greater freedom and power to consciously shape the world.  Furthermore, just as one can fade in and out of lucidity within a dream, we can do so in the waking world.  One moment we can remember unity and enjoy our freedom in greater measure, and the very next moment again fall into the sleep of illusory separateness.  Therefore, the mechanisms of lucidity are, to some extent, obviously beyond our conscious control, at least for most of us.  On the other hand, the desire to experience lucidity, and the intention to maintain it, do seem to make a significant difference.  If the great sages and seers of history have spoken truthfully, then there is not only a Spiral of Illusions, but also a Spiral of Lucidity that we can engage.

Why?

Why… does God do this?  …are we here?   …seek lucidity? This takes us full-circle back to the beginning.  Genesis doesn’t say why God creates, only that God does, and that God considers it good. We can therefore conclude that it is not an evil to be destroyed, a mistake to be undone, or a prison to be escaped.  The Genesis myth further suggests that we are created to be God’s partners in creation, tending to God’s garden while directly aware of God’s presence; we have the innate potential to be conscious participants in manifesting the All’s infinite possibilities.  In addition, we learn that we are endowed with freedom, for without it we would be severely limited in our ability to intentionally transform things from one state into something new and different, yet that freedom also makes it possible for us to forget and ignore the unity of the One and All.   These observations lead me to believe that when we ask the why questions, what we are really seeking is some understanding of what we should do with our existence and freedom, as if that answer lies external to our own hearts’ desires.  If we are indeed created to be free co-creators, then the more meaningful question is this:  What do you want to do with your existence and freedom?

There are many more questions and implications we could continue to explore, such as what this model suggests about our perceptions of good and evil, sin and morality, heaven and hell, grace, salvation, and every other aspect of our lives, religious and otherwise.  But, in closing, you are especially welcomed to reflect upon how these possibilities might relate to our understandings of love – what it is, why it is the Greatest Commandment to love God with all that we are and our neighbors as ourselves, and the ways we can do so.

Agape

Jan 312013
 

One of the most common mystical insights shared among spiritual people of all times and traditions, and increasingly among physicists, is that our notion of separateness is an illusion, and that we are all one.  This post offers related quotes for our reflection.  More importantly, it poses some questions to ponder deeply.  Readers are welcome to share responses below.

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

I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!  …  As you have done unto the least of these, so have you done to me. … As you have not done to them, so have you not done to me. Jesus of Nazareth

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. … ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Paul the Apostle

Our soul is so fully united to God of His own Goodness that absolutely nothing comes between God and our soul.  …  It is more worshipful to behold God in all than in any special thing. Julian of Norwich

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.  Black Elk

The God who existed before any religion counts on you to make the oneness of the human family known and celebrated. Desmond Tutu

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another. Thomas Merton

A human being is a part of the whole called by us “the universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical illusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.   Albert Einstein

We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness. … Human beings are not separate from each other or Nature. We are totally interrelated and our actions have consequences to all. What we do to others we do to ourselves. What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there. Yasutani Roshi

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Identification with your mind creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgments, and definitions that blocks all true relationship. It comes between you and yourself, between you and your fellow man and woman, between you and nature, between you and God. It is this screen of thought that creates the illusion of separateness, the illusion that there is you and a totally separate “other.” You then forget the essential fact that, underneath the level of physical appearances and separate forms, you are one with all that is. Eckhart Tolle

All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything. Swami Vivekananda

Wisdom is nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life. Herman Hesse

 

Questions

  • In what ways does the idea that separateness is an illusion appeal to you or make sense to you?
  • In what ways does this idea seem unbelievable or make you uncomfortable?
  • If you somehow came to a compelling belief in the truth of this idea, or perhaps even a direct realization or revelation of oneness, how might it change you, your relationships, your theology and ideas about sin and salvation, your politics, and other aspects of your life?

Agape

Jan 172013
 

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

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

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

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

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

Agape

Dec 062012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agape

Nov 212012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.
Karl Barth

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

Agape

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

Nov 162012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maranatha

Agape

 

 

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

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

Nov 132012
 

First, it is no longer because…

…I’d be afraid of eternal hellfire if I weren’t a Christian. I just don’t believe that’s how things work.  It is impossible for me to believe in a supreme god so cruel and narrow-minded that he/she/it would create billions of human beings to be born into circumstances making it impossible to choose Christianity, or any other belief system, as the only way to eternal bliss.  While we might be free to create our own living hell to the degree that we choose the illusion of separation from the One, I do not believe that choice is available to us as a limited-time offer.  As I understand it, God’s love must be infinite, and so we have all eternity to welcome it and thus realize our oneness with God and each other.  However any of our beliefs and understandings might be mistaken, and our actions misguided, I completely trust God to be endlessly merciful and patient with understanding each of us even better than we understand ourselves.

…I’m too afraid of following a different path from many of my loved ones. While I know that some of my Christian friends and family members would be disappointed and in fear for my soul if I disavowed Christianity, I also know that others would not.  All the human acceptance, belonging, and companionship I could ever need would still be available to me, and I know that those hurt or frightened by my choice would be okay.  Furthermore, there is a limit to how far I am willing to go in accommodating the prejudices of even my dearest loved ones, and for everyone’s sake one thing I will not do is pretend to hold religious beliefs that don’t make sense to me or resonate with the still small voice in my heart.

…I judge other religions as inferior, misguided, or evil. As a Christian, I believe we all share equally in the Logos, the Word that is one with God and through which all that is has come to be.  As I understand it, when Jesus says things such as, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6),  he is speaking on behalf of the universal Logos, not of himself as the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth. Every philosophy, religion, spiritual tradition, every art and every science, is a manifestation of the Logos expressing and experiencing Itself through us.  In keeping with this, I do not believe the Christian Bible, in any version, is the one, true, inerrant, perfect and complete word of God, or even the best collection of revelation and wisdom available to all humanity.  There is no ‘best one’ for all humanity, but only a ‘best’ for each of us if we are so moved by the Spirit to discover for ourselves.  Finally, to me Christianity is not a religious team competing against other religious teams.  I will not cheer “Yay!” for ‘our side’ and “Boo!” for ‘their side.’  There is only one side, and it is all of us, believers of every faith and non-believers alike, each responding to the mysteries of our existence in the best way we can.

Each of those motivations has, at one time in my life or another, been part of why I called myself a Christian.  I’m thankful for the Divine Grace and Infinite Love that has freed me from them.

I am a Christian because…

…I was born into a Christian world. The sounds of Christianity were entering my consciousness before I left my mother’s womb.  All the other sensations of Christianity have been flooding into me ever since I was born.  My abilities to think, to speak, to sing, to recognize my feelings, to experience trust, hope, and love, to identify one person as family, another as friend, and another as neighbor or community member, all of these developments in my consciousness occurred in a Christian environment.  The stories of the Bible were like family legends.  Jesus was a beloved member of the family we all hoped to finally meet face-to-face, and his Father was our Heavenly Father whom we trusted to guide and protect us.  In time, I would even come to embrace his mother as The Mother.  I know that all of this means I am virtually hardwired to experience and express myself as a Christian. Therefore, all the deepest insights into my own psyche, both conscious and subconscious, all the highest realizations of the spirit animating my life in this world, all the most powerful acts of love I can participate in, cannot help but be interwoven with the emblems, stories, and rituals of Christianity.  Every piece of it is a path back through my psychological inner child to the spiritual child that is a spark of the Divine. The same is true of any other religion for those who are born to it.

…Christianity is my religious home. I have had my rebellion and have made my quest into the larger world of religions and philosophies.  I have enjoyed and benefited from what I have found.  Some of those things will always be with me, and others I will return to from time to time.  Yet, like the prodigal son, I also discovered that home is indeed where the heart is, and my heart is enfolded by Christianity.  It is the religion in which I find it most natural to express my spiritual awe, gratitude, and love of life.  Despite what I previously said about not being too afraid to be different from many of my loved ones, the fact remains that Christianity is interwoven with most of my closest relationships.  It is the common language of spirit we speak with each other, and I no longer see it as a barrier between me and the people of other faiths.  I’m deeply grateful for all these things, and no longer see any compelling reason to reject Christianity as my religious home.  Home is where the heart is.

…I don’t need to practice a different religion. I have found that Christianity offers everything I want and need in a religion.  Where I once judged it inferior in some ways to other religions, I have come to see that this was primarily because my own perspective was so narrow, shallow, and poorly informed, and because my immediate religious environment was so limited. Both the worldly and the mystical wisdom of our scriptures and early fathers and mothers becomes clearer with each passing year. Even as the history of our religion has many examples of very human shortcomings and atrocities, I nonetheless see the cup of this tradition overflowing with intelligence, creativity, grace, peace, joy, and love. The poetry, visual art, music, and ceremonies of Christianity are beautiful to me.  They inspire me to contemplate the transcendent and they move me to feel intimacy and kinship with all creation.  The Church offers me countless opportunities, encouragement, support, and role models for service to others.  What else could I possibly need?  Perhaps a different perspective is needed from time to time, but one perspective needs to already be in place in order for another to be different, and I no longer feel that being a Christian prohibits me from seeing differently.

Maranatha

Agape