Archive for the ‘Reality’ Category


Thursday, May 1st, 2008

The more I read and the more I think the more I realise that we are all parts of each other.  We extend into each other and in our minute to minute becoming not only do we shape and mould ourselves but we are in turn shaped and moulded by those with whom we interact.  It is so important to be aware of this so that one is conscious not only of one’s own making but that one is making others.  Those who act and behave as though they were independent individuals, self-existing monods, who think that only those  whom they choose  to relate to will relate to them, such people are living in a world of maya, illusion.  We do not choose to be related.  Relationship is at the heart of the cosmos, reality, all that is, God himself.  Not to know this is not to know, to be blind.  Danah Zohar puts it well

Each of my intimate relationships, however brief, does get ‘inside’ me, does add at least some small thread to the tapestry of my being.  But just as diverse small threads do little to make a recognizable pattern in a woven tapestry, so many brief intimacies or small forays into involvement do little for the integration of myself or my union with others.  So dispersed, I lack a theme a central core which either myself or others can recognise as similar to themselves.  I have little on which to build a further relationship. (Zohar, Danah, The Quantum Self, Bloomsbury, London 1989, p. 147)

This is the situation of the narcissistic personality.  Unable to feel any basis for a commitment to others, to Nature or to any coherent set of values, and thus unable to sustain any deep relationships, he experiences both a fragmentation of himself and an isolation from wider communion.

Roller coaster existence

Friday, March 14th, 2008

The trouble with us is that we live a fractured existence. We are moved, not only by relationships and events, but also by mind and intentions. All this as a body on a roller coaster ride of feelings and emotions, never being able to predict the swerves and the curves, the ups and the downs; always longing for a smooth, high ride, putting up with the bumpy judder at rock bottom. We never seem to be able to learn to ride this roller coaster well, dreading the next change in direction, the next sudden dip. If only we could learn, like surfers, to achieve a balance keeping the mind and will steady and constant while we negotiate turbulent days.

Seeing and looking

Monday, March 10th, 2008

It struck me, walking today, that a big part of the problem is that we are able only to see tiny fractions of the picture and that of course is why they don’t make sense. How can the mystic say that all is one? Or Julian of Norwich say that all is well, all manner of thing is well, when there is so much suffering and waste. Reality is like one of those newspaper photographs made up of thousands of tiny dots of various sizes. Under a magnifying glass all one can see are the various dots. Seen as a whole from a distance the dots form a picture. We live at the micro level and can only see our own particular piece of reality, a very tiny slice limited geographically, temporally and culturally. We cannot see the whole. All we can do is look at our particular bit. That is why many scientists and others get it so wrong. They do not understand the difference between seeing and looking. They are expert at looking and brilliant at analysing the individual bits, but they are not able to see the whole. We can intuit that there is a whole, though we do not understand it. Chaos theory can show that there is a connection between a butterfly alighting on a flower in England and a tornado in Kansas. Even more bizarre, quantum theory suggests there is a connection between the butterfly and the Orion Nebula. All is connected, but we cannot see how, nor can we  understand. Even when we do have that overwhelming intuition that all is one, and when we feel oned with all that is, we do not understand the why, nor the how. We know only that  that is how it is. And that is why the greed, the hatred and malevolence and the rejection of others by so many people is so painful. If only we could all realise what it means to be a person, how much we are each part of one other. If our relationships are not positive and nurturing they are destructive. There is no middle way. Indifference is a rejection, a denial of love.

Living and dying

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

I am beginning to realise that living  a spiritual life is a question of finding a very fine balance, like walking a tightrope, only more difficult because the rope to be walked is not visible. In fact it is not even manufactured. That you have to do yourself as you go along. And the raw material for it is each new day’s events, relationships and challenges. It is very easy, and fatal, to take one grand attitude, say for example the Ignatian agere contra. From then on you choose the least pleasant, or the most disagreeable option every time. That is taking a sledgehammer to kill the very subtle and universally pervasive working of the self and it is very inflexible. The gross instincts – fine, these you can clobber, but they are not the problem. They are so obvious that no self respecting novice would tolerate them. The self is so clever, sly and elusive that it is very good at subverting the weapons used against it. So before the unsophisticated Ignatian realises it his suffering (though greatly expanded) ego is taking a great deal of masochistic pride in denying itself everything remotely pleasurable. 

Living the spiritual life intelligently requires understanding. This does not come easily. It comes haltingly and retrospectively and is always imperfect. The important thing is to be aware of this, to be resigned to the darkness and always prepared to make revisions. One thing that is certain is that you will not be able to keep to the tightrope. You will make mistakes and fall off, perhaps again and again. You will feel ashamed and disheartened and wonder whether or not this is not all a waste of time and you are getting nowhere. You just have to pick your self up, brush the mud and the dirt off and get back on the tightrope again. And then there are the distractions. These are the thoughts, feelings and ideas – like colourful and attractive skateboards, they come out of nowhere – immensely appealing and attractive, and it is so easy just to step onto one and be carried away from the tiresome inching forward into the darkness. The most dangerous are those labelled ‘Important’, or ‘Significant Insight’, or ‘BRILLIANT IDEA’. These are almost irresistible because they give the impression that they will get you where you want to go more quickly and being so brightly illuminated they are far more attractive than the darkness. Then there are the armchairs at regular intervals. These invite you to step off and sink into them to relax and rest, perhaps to sleep, or read a book, or watch TV. This option is especially attractive when boredom descends. That can take all the colour and interest out of the day, laying over everything like a pall, weighing you down with lassitude and ennui.

You begin to wonder what is the point of all this. Prayer, meditation and the spiritual life do not seem to be getting you anywhere. After all Pelagianism, in both its full- and half-blown varieties, does not work, according to orthodox teaching. Only God can divinise us. So why not more of a helping hand from God, why the need for such prolonged and thankless efforts? There have been times in the past when the going was easy, when the air was filled with the presence of God and all of life was translucent. Virtue, and the generosity that went with it, was not an imposition, or a burden. It was an easy melody that one danced to. Those times are now a memory. So why has the grace appeared to dry up? Why has God hidden himself? The only reason I can think of is that it is a process of growth. Do you want to remain in the bright sunshine of childhood, but remain a child, or do you want to grow and become what it is in you to be?

If, as St. Athanasius says, God became man so that man might become God, that becoming is going to involve a transformation, more than a transformation – more than a metamorphosis. It is going to involve a death, perhaps many deaths, and a resurrection. So it is not just a question of change and growth. It is far more than that. The main obstacle in all of this is the self. The last thing the self wants is death. It cannot imagine a beyond-death. Oh, it can imagine death of the body, but then the self is not the body. It can imagine a disembodied existence. It can imagine union with God. It has, perhaps, had experience of a union with all of nature, even with God. But it cannot imagine a beyond-its-own-annihilation. The self clings to existence. The self and existence are synonymous. No self, no existence. So whatever the self desires, whatever it aspires to, no matter how high-minded and altruistic, however generous and self-giving, it does it from within its own, self-inclusive perspective. And that is the problem because, although the self is not the still-point, not the centre of gravity about which everything turns, in its own experience it is. So, until the self is removed from the centre reality will not be seen for what it is. 

This is what the darkness is all about. There is nothing of self in it. There is no perspective from which to see because there is nothing to be seen. There is nothing of interest, nothing self-satisfying. Within the darkness is the Void. The self is terrified of the Void because there is nothing to cling to, no support of any kind. One is suspended in a vast, empty darkness. There is no up, or down; no before, or after; no past, or future. This is the dark night of pure faith. It is beyond the verge of the empirical world. This is the terrible place where God is encountered. Terribilis est locus iste. [Gen 28:17]


Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

Continuing to read Etty Hillesum’s diaries. She is very good at describing her moods and feelings and situating them in the context of her day to day life – something I am not very good at. But then as a man I suppose I give less importance to these feelings and concentrate more on understanding and meaning. Feelings are to be enjoyed when they are pleasant and to be endured when they are not, but there is no going into why this feeling now rather than that feeling, and why do I feel this towards X rather than that. One tends to accept that feelings come and go, largely determined by chemistry not in our control and that they are not of primary importance. The significant thing is that they are ephemeral. Whatever you feel now you can be certain that soon you will feel quite differently. Therefore, they are not as important as the real events which  are another determining factor. What is important is how one acts and this should be determined rationally. Only then can one live consistently according to a moral code.

And yet, Etty reminds me, feelings are important. Feelings and intuition are closely linked and this is one reason why women are often more intuitive than men. By paying attention to feelings and to the subtle changes in mood induced by different situations – sunlight, a smile, a dull grey day, an angry voice, the sound of the sea, a song, sudden laughter, a weeping woman, a child’s conversation,  etc. – one can become more aware of the intangible linkages by which we are connected each to each other and each to the world of which we are  part. This awareness can then extend to an even more subtle intuition of how these linkages are rooted in a transcendent  unity… with God(?), with the Wholly Other, with…? It cannot be articulated. There are no labels. There is just a profound sense of depth and that all this empirical reality, which we take so seriously, is just the thin surface of an unfathomable mystery.


Saturday, February 16th, 2008

I am reading – very slowly – Heisig’s book on the Kyoto philosophers*. I am very attracted by their insights into nothingness, the void, sunyata, etc. The more I think about it the more the apophatic approach, or negative theology, seems to be the right one for today. It is interesting that Rowan Williams is being criticised by the evangelical wing of his Church precisely for his negative theology. There are many reasons why I think it is right for now – the most important being that it situates God where he actually is. It answers all those ‘If God is good, or all-powerful, or just, why…’ questions by showing that such questions do not apply. It does not answer the question which wonders how an utterly transcendent and/or transcendentally immanent God can be approached. But the unanswerability of such a question does force us to re-examine our assumptions and especially to search for those hidden assumptions which prevent us from seeing and questioning. Negative theologians are a bit like the little boy who saw that the emperor had no clothes. All our God talk is not about God at all but about our conceptions and our ideas. This is not to say that the cataphatic approach is wrong and that there is no room for symbol, image, metaphor and analogy. Scriptural theology is essential. It is propaedeutic, introducing us to the history of our search for God and leading us, hopefully, into the desert to find him. Unfortunately, as Denys Turner has pointed out, we have tended to cling too tightly to the hand which has led us to the edge of the desert, refusing to let it go, afraid to leave our ideas behind – not just about God but also about ourselves – and set out into the solitary darkness. Theology should lead to prayer, and prayer should lead us into the darkness. There are two aspects to faith. There is fides quaerens intellectum, which is theology, and there is fides qua, the unseeing trust which allows us to let go of the known and the comforting and step out into the unknown.   

The trouble with the dark desert is that you cannot see where you are. You don’t know how far you have come, or where you are going. You might be going round in circles, or just marking time on the same spot. You have nothing to guide you except what The Cloud calls a ‘blind stirring’, of love?.. hope?.. a desperate longing?.. something inarticulate in us which feels right when we persist and feels wrong when we stop. 

*(James W Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School (Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture),   University of Hawaii Press, 2001)

Tangible events

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Reading Eckhart and thinking of the question of human nature. I think that generally speaking we put things the wrong way round and take the existential self, or the self of experience, as the primary reality situated over and against God. Whereas it is the true self, or as E would put it, the ground of the soul, which is primary and this does not exist over and against God but in God. This is fine for contemplatives, inside or outside the cloister, but what about the vast majority of people. I talked to –during the day and he is finding it very tough with no money and a succession of job rejections and failed interviews. I really felt for him. And then there is — shortly to be out of work and no ideas for the future. Finally there is the situation in Palestine, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hypocritical cynicism of most politicians. How does all this fit into E’s highly abstract and esoteric ideas about human nature? He has quite a lot to say about Christ as the Word, his relationship within the Trinity and his kenosis in communicating God to us – but what about the human Jesus and his suffering? How does that fit in? I can quiet see that the suffering of Jesus, given his divine connection, has an ontological, indeed a transcendental, dimension which reverberates through all that is, ever has been or will be. And I suppose, on a lesser scale, something similar applies to each human person given his or her existential ground in God.  But these are esoteric concepts, the fruit of uncommon experience and erudite speculation. How can they be made relevant? Most people are immersed in the practical details of daily living and striving. Many face excruciating suffering and intractable problems. Even if they could all be brought to appreciate the meaning of these concepts, as concepts they would still have little weight to bear against the pressure of tangible events. 

The traditional solution for those who become aware of the significance of our divine connection, and who have a contemplative disposition, has been to flee from the pressure of tangible events and attention preoccupying occupations into the solitude of the desert and the silence of the cloister. And these people have been an invaluable sign, reminding us of the ephemeral character of material values and of the transforming presence of the Spirit. But I cannot help feeling that in sidestepping the material world with all its beauty and ugliness, its joys and sorrows, something important is being missed. Granted the awesome implications of the ground of our being in the ground of God, but this does not mean that our daily striving with suffering and joy is not relevant. On the contrary, it should infuse the most insignificant actions, our dealings with washing and shopping, making and mending and, even more, our struggles for justice and against exploitation, with a transcendental significance.  And at some deep, inarticulate level we know this. But how do we make this knowledge more explicit? How can we use it against the mesmerising attraction of wealth and power and the pressure to conform? I’m sure Marx was right when he said that it was the social being of man which determines his consciousness. So Eckhart’s ideas are not going to carry much weight in a consumer oriented society of possessive individualists.


Thursday, February 14th, 2008

This morning while meditating the idea of acceptance came into my mind. It suddenly seemed very important simply to accept – what? Everything. State of health, the weather, financial situation, injustice in the world, the state of rural Ireland – all the things we complain about and moan about, simply the way things are. This is very Buddhist of course. It is very easy to give an intellectual acceptance to Buddhist philosophy, to acknowledge the validity of much of it. It is another matter entirely to welcome without resistance the slings and arrows that reality throws at you. To say simply about all the things over which you have no control that that is the way things are – and to move on.


It must not stop with acceptance. That is only the first step. The second step is to realise that your being is not circumscribed by the material events of everyday. Nor is your being circumscribed by the people in your life, important though they may be, part of your very being though they may be. They are not the whole of you. There is a deep part, a core, a kernel, so deep down that it is not accessible even to you. This is the cave of the heart, the guha, as the Hindus call it. It is the aidagara, the betweeness of my relationship with God, where God and I merge. ‘Merge’ is much too big a word, implying some sort of parity. God is. I am not, except in so far as I am in Him.


Acceptance is important because it is only when the empirical realities in life have been accepted, the good and the bad, that they can, mentally, be put to one side. Until then they are a distraction, a big distraction, drawing the mind, feelings and emotions into a futile struggle. Meanwhile what is important, that which will remain when empirical reality ceases to be for me, is ignored. I don’t want to give the impression that I am advocating some sort of retreat to the desert and solitary contemplation. Of course empirical reality is important and it is important that we deal with it. But it should never achieve a sort of absolute importance where one is devastated when things go wrong and ecstatic when they go well. Paradoxically, it is only when these are seen for what they are, temporary and ephemeral, that they can be dealt with ease and confidence, without being overwhelmed by them. And when they are not pressing for immediate attention the mind can all the more easily turn to contemplation. 


It is so important not to be afraid of silence, not to shun the dark. Let the distractions go. Let the cares and worries go. Deal with them when they have to be dealt with. Learn to listen to the silence. Learn the descent into the cave where all is darkness but there is nothing to fear. There in the stillness be still.


Why no! I never thought other than 

That God is that great absence

In our lives, the empty silence

Within, the place where we go

Seeking, not in hope to 

Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices

In our knowledge, the darkness

Between stars. His are the echoes

We follow, the footprints he has just

Left. We put our hands in

His side hoping to find

It warm. We look at people

And places as though he had looked

At them, too; but miss the reflection.

(R. S. Thomas: Via Negativa)

Like water boatmen insects we only dimple the surface of reality as we scurry about our lives oblivious of the depths beneath. 

Everyday mysticism

Monday, February 4th, 2008

I am much taken with Rahner’s idea of everyday mysticism and also with Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowledge. The two merge. There is a tacit awareness. Of what… it is not possible to say. Sometimes it is a sense of presence, sometimes a connectedness, sometimes a feeling of bliss, or unaccountable joy, i.e. the feeling emerges from nowhere and has no apparent referent. This awareness is most obvious when the body is engaged in routine activity and the mind is unoccupied – walking, working in the garden, doing the washing up, etc. Once I engage in mental activity it disappears. During meditation, not only is it not there, it seems unattainable.

I am beginning to think that the mystical journey is not just progress in knowledge, or awareness. It is a whole person thing. A phrase by Polanyi struck me vividly the other day. He gives as an example of tacit knowledge a blind person using a stick to find his way around. At first all his attention is focused on the sensations in his hand as he probes with the stick. Eventually, however, his attention switches, first to the tip of the stick and then to the reality that the stick touches. He decodes, as it were, tacitly the sensations in his hand into three-dimensional objects out there. In this way the stick becomes something from which the attention proceeds, and not something which attracts attention. Polanyi calls this a process of incorporation. He writes: “…we incorporate it in our body – or extend our body to include it – so that we come to dwell in it”.

 At first the sensations in the hand are explicit and say nothing more than, ‘This is what my hand is sensing.’ Eventually this explicitness fades and becomes tacit as the mind learns to interpret, or decodes, what is felt as the environment the tip is probing. 

… if we now regard the integration of particulars as an interiorization, … [it] now becomes a means of making certain things function as the proximal terms of tacit knowing, so that instead of observing them in themselves, we may be aware of them in their bearing on the comprehensive entity of which they constitute. It brings home to us that it is not by looking at things, but by dwelling in them, that we understand their meaning.

This is analogous to religious experience. The feelings – joy, bliss, union, awe, love – are explicit at first, but they lack a context. Or rather, they do not fit the empirical context within which we live, our normal everyday reality. We have to learn to incorporate them so that we can extend from them into the reality to which they belong. This reality is transcendent, that is, it is not accessible to our senses, nor to any tools or instruments we might use to augment or senses. 


Friday, February 1st, 2008

Reading Forman on Eckhart – evil is the absence of being, it does not exist. This is good scholastic theology but I have always felt that it is a ridiculous thing to say when one is confronted by the appalling reality of evil and suffering. It struck me today, however, that in a very real sense Augustine and Thomas are right – evil is really the absence of being – if you look at things sub specie aeternitate, or from a mystical perspective. The empirical world is an ephemeral world, continually coming into and passing out of existence, replicating itself and evolving as it does so. It is contingent, empty, sunya as the Buddhists put it. What being it has it has from God and, to a greater or lesser extent, reflects something of God. Evil does not emanate from God but from human beings. It spite of its terrible ability to destroy and cause suffering, its existence derives from human perversion. It is doubly contingent, contingent on persons who are themselves contingent on God. If one cannot see beneath the surface of reality then evil is most horribly real. If one can see that reality is translucent and that, however dimly, something of God shines through, then evil (without detracting anything from its power to destroy and pervert what is good) is seen as ultimately insubstantial and unreal.

Evil is parasitic, dependent on corrupted good. When the host dies, evil dies with it. As long as evil has a host it has the power to spread and corrupt others making them hosts. What is good is constantly replicating itself but evil cannot do that. It cannot produce offspring as good can. It can only infect others. Evil is sterile. It leads nowhere. It can produce nothing but suffering, death and destruction.