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

Oct 122012
 

While I and many others have a lot to say about Christian mysticism, it’s worth considering how using ‘mysticism’ as a modifier for ‘Christian’ is somewhat redundant.  In other words, it can be argued that Christianity is already mystical by nature, and that all Christians are therefore mystics, especially if they understand this aspect of our religion.  The purpose of this post is to make a case that Christianity is indeed a mystical religion, and discuss what value there may be in continuing to use terms like ‘Christian mysticism.’

For the purposes of this post, let’s begin with Merriam-Webster for a conventional understanding of  ‘mysticism,’ ‘mystical,’ and ‘mystic.’

Mysticism:
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)

Mystical:
1 a : having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence <the mystical food of the sacrament>
b : involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality <the mystical experience of the Inner Light>

Mystic:
1: a follower of a mystical way of life
2: an advocate of a theory of mysticism

Notice these key words:

  • union
  • direct communion
  • direct knowledge
  • subjective communion

These words speak to a connectedness with God, a oneness with God that mystics believe, and some may actually know, is possible to experience or realize.  Technically speaking, it follows that to use ‘mysticism,’ ‘mystical’ or ‘mystic’ as a modifier for ‘Christian’ could imply that Christianity itself isn’t inherently mystical, and that some of us have added mysticism to it.  So we should ask if that is the case or not.

Does Christianity already include mysticism? Let’s begin to answer that question by reviewing some relevant scriptures.

Jesus Declares the Kingdom of God is Within

“Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He replied to them by saying, the kingdom of God does not come with signs to be observed or with visible display, nor will people say, Look! Here [it is]! or, See, [it is] there! For behold, the kingdom of God is within you [in your hearts] and among you [surrounding you].” (Luke 17:20-21 AMP)

The Prayer of Jesus for His Followers to Know They are One with God

My prayer is not for them [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (John 17:20-23)

St. Paul on Our Interconnection with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit

While in Athens, Paul argued for the closeness of God by quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides:

…he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’  (Acts 17:27-28)

Speaking to the Corinthians, Paul made these statements:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? … For it is said, ‘But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.’ … Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:15, 17, 19a)

St. John on Love as Union with God

No one has ever seen God. But if we love one another, God lives in us. His love is made complete in us.  We know that we belong to him and he belongs to us. He has given us his Holy Spirit. …  So we know that God loves us. We depend on it.  God is love. Anyone who leads a life of love shows that he is joined to God. And God is joined to him.  (1 John 4:12-13, 16)

There are many more scriptural references we could draw on, but these words attributed to Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John are enough to suggest that, at the very least, it is possible to personally know union with God, even if only under certain circumstances.  It is also understandable why some of us find in them the further revelation that we are already one with God, though we may not be aware of it.  From these passages, it is obvious that mysticism as previously defined is an inherent part of Christianity, unless we take their words as nothing more than the loosest form of metaphor. (But be careful, for if we take it as nothing more than flowery prose, then we have poor grounds to take Jesus more literally when he says, “I and my Father are one,” a statement central to his prayer for his followers.)  All Christians, if by the term we mean those who consider themselves adherents to the theology of Jesus and his Apostles, are therefore mystics as defined by Merriam-Webster, whether we recognize ourselves as such or not.

Given this conclusion, what value is there in using terms like ‘Christian mysticism’ ‘mystical Christianity’ or ‘Christian mystic’?   We begin to answer that by acknowledging the simple fact that not everyone uses or understands the meaning of ‘mysticism’ offered above, and neither do all recognize that Christianity fits that definition. Likewise, many of us have personally experienced varieties of Christian spirituality that hinge more upon emphasizing the distance between God and humanity rather than upon our communion with God.  To overtly use these terms is therefore to emphasize one’s own commitment to intentionally engage in and/or draw attention to this aspect of Christianity.

Finally, I want to suggest that a technical redundancy is the least of all risks in using these terms.  One of the bigger risks is reinforcing a perception that mysticism is an innovation within Christianity, a departure from the “faith of our fathers,” if not some entirely foreign and heretical appendage grafted onto our religion.  Therefore, whenever we speak of mysticism in Christianity, I think we have a duty to help others understand that we are talking about something lived and taught by Jesus and his Apostles, something they prayed that all their followers would come to know.  Another risk is building up spiritual pride through the notion that, in applying these terms to oneself, one is somehow identifying oneself as a ‘better’ Christian, or, God forbid, even a ‘true’ Christian.  It is for this reason that some of us choose not to apply them to ourselves.   While that might be the wisest option for some, I don’t believe it should be a rule for all, anymore than I believe we should avoid calling ourselves Christians because we might be prideful in doing so.  I think Jesus’ teachings about sharing the Good News and letting our lights shine are instructive in this context. Even so, these same teachings remind us that our loving actions are the best testimony and fruits we have to share with others, and that any words we might use without them are no more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.  Any mysticism that doesn’t eventually yield such fruit is, at best, a distraction.

Agape

Oct 102012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maranatha!

Agape

Sep 182012
 

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

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

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

Is “Person” a Fitting Term for God?

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

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

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

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

Mysticism and the Trans-Personal Perspective on God

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

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

The Existential Challenges and Rewards of Unknowing

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

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

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

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

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

Agape

Sep 112012
 

September 11 seems like a fitting day to offer this prayer that has been on my heart for some time now.  I am very cautious about addressing politics in this blog.  When I do, I try to do so in a way that is free from partisan biases.  Public prayers are also something I am cautious about for a number of reasons.  I hope you can join this prayer without reservation, regardless of your specific political and economic beliefs.  There is nothing in it that isn’t among the teachings of Jesus, much of which can be found in the Sermon on the Mount.  More importantly, I hope we can each do our parts to serve its vision, and not simply wait for God to intervene like a parent imposing order on unruly children.  Let us be like the children who honor their parents by following their wise counsel.

Most Holy and Loving God, hear our prayer:

In our efforts to work out the ways we live together at all levels of society – neighborhood, city, state, nation, and world – help us overcome the temptations to be untrusting, deceitful, intolerant, self-righteous, and hostile.   Help free us from greed, gluttony, and the temptation to enjoy unjust gain, all of which Jesus called ‘Mammon.’  When we encounter such attitudes in others, help us remember that behind them are fears and hopes in connection with the natural desires for happiness and wellbeing that we all share.   Help us remember that, if we would love You fully, we must love our neighbors, even those we might call our enemies.   Help us be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers with all people.  Strengthen our courage to turn the other cheek while also standing bravely with the oppressed.   Magnify our compassion and our resolve to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to serve those whom we might regard as the least among us, and to love them even as we would love Your Son who is the light within all born into this world.  Most Gracious One, help us remember in gratitude that You are ever with us, feeding us with the miraculous loaves of Your love, and that we are thereby empowered to manifest Your love on earth as it is in Heaven, if we will only let the light within us, which is Your light, shine unhidden.  Finally, Spirit of Wisdom, sharpen our discernment to uphold policies that will best serve these ethical principles and to elect leaders who will do likewise, assuming neither holiness among those who cry “Lord, Lord!” nor wickedness among those who do not.

In Your Ineffable Name we pray, amen.

Agape

Sep 012012
 

(Click here to view Part One)

John Miller 2John, what counsel or advice would you give to someone who came to you for help with developing his or her spirituality?

Spirituality has, at its first step, morality:  spirituality presupposes morality.  In the ancient mystery schools, one was not given access to the spiritual teacher until and unless the initiate showed evidence of moral maturity.  As far as I know, this is standard in the spiritual traditions.  But what does this mean?

First, it means taking stock of oneself, examining one’s “baggage,” seeing where one needs to “work on oneself.”  The well-known Buddhist insight is that our sense of separate ego leads to desires, which in themselves are harmless enough until we become attached to them and expect them to be fulfilled.  Philosopher Ken Keyes wrote:  “We automatically trigger feelings of unhappiness when the people and circumstances around us do not meet our expectations.”  Expectations lead often to disappointment, then frustration and anger, and finally violence, whether mental or emotional or physical.  Second, kindness:  spiritual people must develop the virtue of kindness.  The Dalai Lama says it quite succinctly: “My religion is kindness.”  Third, it is important to attempt to develop agape, unconditional love.  Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ research into near-death experience led her to conclude, from the experiences of those who had died and been resuscitated, that loving unconditionally and finding a way to be of service to others are, in large measure, what makes life meaningful and worthwhile.  Fourth, the person on the spiritual path should strive to see the Divine (or Christ, Buddha-nature) in everyone. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me,” Jesus supposedly said (Matt. 25:40).

The next step beyond developing a moral nature is to develop an intellectual understanding of the spiritual worldview or worldviews. This places moral action within a context larger than the ordinary conception of life.

And finally, I would say, to develop spiritually is to develop spiritual disciplines and techniques, among them prayer and meditation. It is one thing to intellectually understand the nature of the spiritual, and it is quite another to experience the spiritual “realities” for oneself.  Ultimately, knowing, in so far as it is possible, must be done oneself, wherein one becomes one’s own authority, grounded in the authenticity of one’s own spiritual experience.

Thus, quite simply, there are three steps to the spiritual:  moral, intellectual, and inward “spiritual” discipline yielding experiences of the “higher order” or spiritual realities.

I should add that it is important, if not essential, for a spiritual aspirant to become a member of a community.  The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of the sangha or community, and the same seems to be true of other spiritual traditions.  You know, from your own experience, the importance of the Masonic tradition in your own spirituality.  The same is true for those for whom Theosophy or the Rosicrucians offer similar communities of believers.

You highlighted the importance of developing moral maturity.  How does one go about doing so, and what are some signs that it is being attained?  You also spoke of developing intellectual understanding of spiritual worldviews.  Which specific philosophers, theorists, or authorities have you found to be especially helpful in your work with students, regardless of the particular traditions they may adhere to?  Could you also share a little about what makes each so valuable? Finally, how does one differentiate between genuine experience of the “higher order,” or spiritual realities, and delusions?

First, regarding developing moral maturity, I would say that it is important to develop what are called “virtues”: respect, kindness, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, love, empathy, patience, and the like.  The more one develops these, the more loving one becomes; and this I take to be a sign of moral maturity.

You ask about developing an intellectual understanding of the spiritual world.  What convinced me immediately to the “truth” of the spiritual (metaphysical) world view was the fact that I could fit my the conclusions (knowledge) of many years of reading and studding into that world view.  If there are different levels of experienced Reality (physical level, emotional or astral level, mental levels, and spiritual levels), then I could fit the imagery of Homer’s Odyssey, which I so deeply respect, into those levels.  The journey of Odysseus is a journey through these levels and the lessons that each teaches.  But it would lead us astray if I were to go into detail.  The empiricists, like materialists, were describing the physical world; the ethics of the Stoics, the astral world; Aristotle and empiricists like Hume and Hobbes the visible world; Plato and Hegel and Leibniz, among others, the spiritual world or conception of reality.  But that’s too much of an oversimplification.

My introduction to the metaphysical world view was through Theosophy; but later I studied the Oriental traditions and taught them.  What are some major spiritual works? The Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, for the Hindu tradition; the Tao Te Ching; the general Buddhist tradition; Goethe’s Faust, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Homer’s Odyssey, for the literary tradition.  Of course, for Christians, the New Testament, particularly the Gospels of Matthew and John are central as illustrations of ways of loving (Matthew) and Christian metaphysics (John).  But the literature must be interpreted spiritually, so one needs a spiritual (metaphysical) framework in which to understand the great literature of the world.  I have taught all these works, in one course or another, and students who are spiritually awakened respond to them all.

Yoga, or union with God, is best discussed in the Yoga-Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.  The understanding of how ego, with its fearful and desiring nature, leads to violence is beautifully detailed in the Buddhist tradition:  ego leads to desire, desire to expectation, expectation to disappointment, disappointment to frustration, frustration to anger, and anger to violence.  The 25th chapter of Matthew illustrates how to be loving and ultimately to see the divine in each person, and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is central to Christian spiritual teachings.  Sophocles’ Oedipus story, of one who kills his father (God) and marries his mother (Matter) tells the story of us all:  we “kill” the divine nature in us in order to serve our material interests (rule our lives in our own manner).  For philosophy, I naturally gravitate toward Plato and particularly his metaphors and allegories:  the allegory of the Cave (Republic VII), the myth of the soldier Er who dies and goes into the underworld, only to return to tell us what happens (Republic X), among others.

Which did I find most important?  The Bhagavad Gita, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex understood as explained above, and the Gospel of Matthew (chapters cited).  And for philosophical works, the Republic of Plato and (and this is one you love, too) his Symposium, the delightful and informatively insightful dialog on love.

You ask, finally, how one differentiates between genuine and perhaps spurious (delusional) spiritual experiences of a “higher order.”  My own personal experience is that there is a “noetic” (knowledge-inspired) quality to genuine experiences.  When the experiences break into one’s normal consciousness, or in a meditative state, there would seem to be a self-authenticating quality about them. I am wary of experiences induced by, or produced by, emotional states; but I recognize that there are ecstatic states of bliss and joy, peace and love, that arise in a spiritual context (such as Sufi dancing).  One might also say, “By their fruits they are known.”  So the effect in the lives of those who have had a genuine experience may be a sign.

Yes, I’m thankful you introduced me to Plato and his dialogues on love, such as the Symposium.  It’s interesting that the fruits of spiritual and mystical experience bring us spiraling back to more naturally express the virtues and moral maturity of a more fully loving soul.

John, thank you so much for your time and thoughtfulness.  We could easily go on and on, and so perhaps we’ll do something like this again.  In closing, is there anything else you want to share with our readers?

About you, Chuck:  in my forty-five years of college and university teaching, I have been privileged to befriend a number of intelligent and caring students who have become successful and wonderful people, but none more loving, more intelligent, more dedicated to spirituality or serving others than you.  It has been a privilege and honor to have been a part of your life since you and Susan were students of mine so many years ago.  To your readers:  you are truly in the presence of a man whose dedication to truth and whose love for humanity mark him as genuinely wise.

Those words are more than kind, John. Thank you. The next time we meet, dinner and drinks are on me!  To our readers, I confess to a bit of an inner struggle over whether to include them or not, but obviously I chose to do so.  It’s John’s answer to my question, and I hope it illustrates to you the very gracious person he is.  If you would like to correspond with John, please tell me and I will connect you with him.

Aug 312012
 

INTRODUCTION

John Miller 2The following interview is with John F. Miller, III, Ph.D., who was my first meditation teacher and is my primary mentor in philosophy and spirituality.  More importantly, he is a very dear friend.  If there is one lesson that I have come to most cherish from John, it is the centrality of love, not only as we experience it emotionally and behaviorally, but as the very nature of being itself.  I trust you will hear his beautiful spirit, big heart, and keen intellect coming through his words.

Here’s a little background information on John:  He graduated  Phi Beta Kappa from Gettysburg College in 1960, with majors in both Greek and philosophy.  Earning an MA at the University of Maryland (1963) and a Ph.D. at New York University (1969), John taught for forty-five years at various colleges and universities, including three years at the University of South Florida, twenty years at North Texas (where I was one of his students), and since 1991 at local community colleges in Tampa and St. Petersburg.  Author of some thirty articles published in philosophical, theological, and para-psychological journals, he was for three years the president of the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research (now the Academy of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies, Inc.).  For four decades, John has spoken at conferences as well.

Dr. Leroy Howe dedicated  his book, Seeking a God to Glorify, to John. Dr. Howe has held three pastorates, a university chaplaincy, and served 29 years as a faculty member of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, teaching courses in both theology and pastoral care.  In personal correspondence between Dr. Howe and myself, he once said this about John:

When I was in college, and continuing to search for the Truth that underlay the Christian truths with which I was struggling, I came across Paul Tillich’s book, The Protestant Era. In it, he drew an enormously illuminating distinction for me in discussing the doctrine of justification by faith. He extended justification in our sins to justification in our doubts. I read everything Tillich wrote after that, had some conversations with him during graduate school years, and almost wrote a dissertation on him, had my friend David Kelsey not beaten me to it. Over the years, I’ve encountered a number of people who, like me, “read Tillich in college” and were transformed intellectually by the experience.

I think encountering John Miller is something like that. Humble as he is, he is also a numinous figure in so many peoples’ lives, including my own.

* * * * * * *

(In the following dialogue, my statements and questions are in italics, and John’s are in normal font.  I’ve inserted links to certain references along the way.)

John, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.  I’ve known so many people whose lives have been touched and even transformed through their relationships with you, and I’m grateful to count myself among them.  One of the things I’ve learned that comes with gratitude for a blessing is the desire to share that blessing with others.  I hope that our readers will find something useful in our dialogue.

Thank you for your  love and friendship over all these years.  It is I, dear friend, who feel deeply blessed.   Any way that I can cooperate with you would please me.

One of the first things I learned with you is the importance of not assuming that a word means the same to others as to oneself, even if we participate in the same culture, tradition, or school of thought.  So what does the term “God” mean to you?

For me, the word “God” has so many connotations that I reject, that I would prefer not to use the word.  But that’s hard to do in our culture and in my philosophy classes as well.

The terms “God” or “gods” and “goddesses” arose in a pre-scientific/pre-modern era, when the earth was generally believed to be the center of creation.  The gods lived in the mountains and waters, and provided the explanation for phenomena not understood in natural terms.  Among other things, they offered comfort from the feeling of helplessness that we all feel in the midst of a natural world that, as the Existentialists say, seems utterly indifferent to human desires and needs.

In our scientific understanding of the universe as consisting of a billion galaxies, many of which have perhaps a billion stars, the gods seem “mythological” or an “illusion” (Freud: The Future of an Illusion).  As Protestant theologian Paul Tillich argues, there is a “God beyond God”: the Reality of the Divine lies beyond our ability to conceptualize it.  The opening line of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching cautions that the Tao (Ultimate Reality, God) that can be put into words is not the Eternal Reality (God).  During the Sixties, there was a movement among some young American Protestant theologians, known as “the Death-of-God movement,” which argued and called for the letting go of the traditional concept of God.  I can appreciate the wisdom of that proposal.

So what does “God” mean to me?  First, I must confess that I have never had a personal experience of that Reality denoted by the term “God,” but that is not to deny that others might have had such an experience or that God can be experienced as a Person.  But such is not my experience.  I can conceive of God as a spiritual Presence and Power, a creative Force, expressing itself as Love and Wisdom, at once immanent in the universe and yet transcendent to it, the Source of Life and Consciousness or, better,  Life Itself and Awareness/Consciousness Itself, expressing Itself as Nature, yet being not merely identical to the universe, at once the entirety of reality (Brahman), yet in essence one with our own human spiritual nature.  As Jesus said, “I and my father are one.”  As John writes in his Prologue to his Gospel: the Logos, the creative expression of God, is the “light” within everyone who comes into the world.

You conceive of God as not only transcendent but also immanent, a Presence and Power, a creative Force, expressing itself as Love and Wisdom, Life Itself and Awareness/Consciousness Itself, expressing Itself as Nature.  How would you describe your relationship with God, which you also refer to as a Reality, and how does that differ from the personal experience you say you have never had?

I have had two exceptionally profound experiences during a technique that is termed “re-birthing,” where one breathes rhythmically for an hour or more, going deeper into one’s own being.  If God dwells within us as our deepest Self, then my experience of Self in those occasions was one of overwhelming Love, in the first experience, and of profoundly and utterly Being Loved, in the second.  I had a similar feeling of what I can describe only as “Cosmic or Divine Love,” which poured through me, fifty years ago, when I saw again a beloved friend whom I had known since the second grade but had not seen in years.  It was as though the crown of my head opened, and “Divine or Cosmic Love” poured through me and out of my chest.  I’ve never felt such love for another person in quite that way since.

In an exceptional experience, on the occasion of walking to school  (North Texas) deliberately without judging, I was suddenly overcome by a state of ecstatic consciousness in which I heard these words: “God veils Himself in many forms of Love.”  It was as though everything that I experienced that morning walking to school, in a state of non-judgment, was the concrete expression of God, expressing Himself as Love.  The use of “Him” is, of course, metaphorical.

I have experienced what I take to be “soul consciousness” on more than one occasion.  If the soul is the repository of our spirit, which is one with the Divine Spirit, then I would reason that I have experienced the Divine as it manifests at the soul level.  In the Hindu and Yogic (and Theosophical) traditions, the soul is termed the “anandamaya kosha,” the body or vehicle (kosha) through which Reality (Sat) is experienced as “Ananda”: joy, peace, love, bliss, and ecstasy.  One experience of this state of consciousness occurred when I was watching a student performance, at North Texas, of “The Man of La Mancha.”  Suddenly I realized that Don Quixote was the Christ figure, loving without judgment Aldonza who was experienced as “Dolcinea,” the pure and beautiful soul that is all our souls’ nature.  I was raptured into this state of soul-awareness of bliss, which lasted for some three hours.  So if the experience of one’s soul, and the divinity within it, is an experience of God manifest in limited form, then I have had that experience.

When I meditate, there are times when I feel the presence of the “Masters,” who themselves are expressions of the Divine, individualized however.  So I would not count those experiences as experiences of God.

For years I have said a mantra, expressing that the Divine power lies within me, the Divine Love expresses through me, and the Divine Wisdom manifests in my life.  But saying a mantra is not experiencing God.

From time to time I pray, saying words of a prayer I learned in church when I was a child. But saying words, even in prayer, is not experiencing God.  Recently, because I have friends with lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer, I’ve been saying a long and formulated (by religious science) prayer, pausing between each verse, saying the names of those friends whose healing I implore of Spirit.  But, again, I can go into a somewhat altered state of consciousness, but not one that I would identify as experiencing God.  I am careful to distinguish a feeling with an experience of God.  Maybe for most people they are the same.  For me, I’d not make that identity.

This is hardly a brief answer, Chuck, but there may not be even one experience of God; or, depending on how one interprets them, I may have had more than one such experience.

(End of Part One.  Part Two addresses the development of spirituality.)