Archive for December, 2007

Holiness

Monday, December 31st, 2007

Brought up in a non-critical Catholic atmosphere, as I was, does not foster objectivity. Most of us felt repugnance at the ascetic excesses of many saints and the agere contra attitude of Ignation piety but felt that saints were not ordinary people and that the normal standards did not apply. Such was the Absolute Majesty of the Transcendent God that were he to demand extraordinary ascetic practices and total devotion to the exclusion of all else – even natural ties and duties – who was to question it. And so Francis de Sales’ protégé, Jeanne de Chantal, steps over the pleading body of her young son to enter a contemplative convent. Similar examples abound. Such people were to be revered. In them, somehow, the unbridgeable gulf between us and the Transcendent God had been transcended. In them God had come close. If they were impelled by God to live apart, fast and scourge themselves who were we to question them. God was an unfathomable mystery and, like Job, it was not for us to assume that He should fit in with our expectations. 

Today all has changed. The exemplary saint is Mother Teresa, famous for her compassion for the poor and the dying and not for her austerities, nor for her mystical experiences. Formerly holiness had numinous connotations. A holy person was someone who had about them an aura of mystery, someone close to God, in touch with God, a person apart, not concerned with, or fitting in with, this world; a person who evoked awe, living on the threshold of the supernatural. The holiness of saints like Mother Teresa, Archbishop Romero and John XXIII is of a different order. The thing that strikes you is their selflessness, their warmth, but above all the humanity of their love for all they encounter. Holiness is expressed by love, as John pointed out all those years ago in his letters.

Absent God

Friday, December 28th, 2007

 Why is the absence of God a problem? The Big Bang initiated time and space. Hydrogen is transmuted in the stars into the heavier elements of which we, and the world we live in, are composed. Tiny plankton are transmuted into mighty whales. People are born, live for a time and die. The process works fine and is not a problem except for us thinking reeds, le plus faible de la nature, as Pascal said. We wonder how the process came to be and then we wonder why. The ‘how’ we know a lot about and are learning more every day. The ‘why’ is another matter entirely. We don’t know why. Many believe, and nearly all the major religions teach, that God has something to do with the explanation. But what? The world and mankind is taken for granted. OK, God created it and us, but why he should do so is never made clear. It is simply accepted as a fact of life. Thomas Aquinas says that creation is an act of love. Love pours itself out. This may be true but it raises more problems than it solves. Traditionally the main problem has been the fact of evil. If God is all-powerful and if he loves us why does he allow evil? But equally difficult is the problem of the absence of God. If God made us to know and to love him, as the Catechism says, why is it impossible to do either of these things?

I used to think that St. John had it all sorted out. He said that no one has ever seen God but that in loving our neighbour we love God because God is love. He doesn’t say that in knowing our neighbour we know God although in the OT the two terms are often interchangeable. So how can loving our neighbour be loving God unless the act of loving itself is divine, is of the essence of God. In which case we need to ask what is love? 

But none of this solves the problem of the absence of God. Granted that in loving we may be loving God and granted too that God loves us, that his Spirit dwells within us, but none of this impinges on our consciousness. We are not aware that in loving we are engaged in a divine activity. Nor are we conscious of God’s love for us. When we pray our words fall into silence. When we sit, mute, attentive in the stillness for some sign of the loving presence within, or without, there is only an empty darkness. God is not there. Why? 

Bursting the bubble

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

I am still, after all the years of my life, trying to get a grip on myself. I should be getting better at it but it is still a struggle. My age helps. I can no longer dream the dreams of a young man. A year ago, less, that bothered me and I often wallowed in nostalgic ‘if only’ day dreams. No longer. I have caught a glimpse of the greatest goal of all and, unlike the adventures of youth, this one is within my reach. 

All my life it seems I have been pursuing God in one way or another. And many times, like the Zen parable, I have caught a glimpse of the ox. But it has always been my pursuit, my journey, my goal. Self has always intervened so that even the most self-sacrificial acts were in fact a disguised form of self-aggrandisement. This is why they all came to nothing. Now self has nothing to look forward to except diminishing faculties and eventual extinction. This was once the nightmare I could never bring myself to face. Sudden death? No problem – to be welcomed even. After all I believe in life after death. The gradual decline into the obscurity of senility – that was the nightmare. But now I know that (to paraphrase St. John) I must decrease so that He may increase. Self is the greatest obstacle to God realising himself in our humanity. The self is like a bubble, an inflated skin empty inside. It is often beautiful, with shifting iridescent colours. Dancing in the air above the waves it can rejoice in its freedom and think itself sufficient to itself. It does not realise that it came from the deep sea and that soon it will burst.

Sitting in the dark

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

It seems that in some ways my brain is getting duller. I am less well able to concentrate for prolonged periods of time on philosophical questions. This is not too disheartening though because I am more and more convinced that the answers I am seeking will be found through experience and not through reading and thinking. I am in any case put off by the academic predilection for discussing obscure and often controversial ideas in mind-numbing detail with endless qualifications of qualifications.

I feel like a new born baby that has not learned to open its eyes. I twist and turn, stretch and grope in the darkness. All the while I am surrounded by wonder and beauty. Opening the eyes is such a simple action. You don’t have to think about it. You just do it and the world is there in all its immediacy and splendour. But I can’t do it. I don’t even know whether it is in my power to do it. And so I close my eyes, my actual eyes, and sit in the darkness of the existential now and hope that something will happen. But nothing does. It is difficult to hold oneself there. Distractions and feelings keep intervening and drag the attention away and the empirical self wants only to respond to the emotive promptings of the body, its various social relationships and preoccupations. It is not surprising that contemplatives crave solitude. Unless one has had the graces of a Bernadette Roberts, living in what she calls the marketplace and contemplation do not go together. And yet there is something that drives me on. There is something that is happening at an unconscious level. This is not anything that I am aware of. It is just a conviction, a belief, but where that belief comes from I have no idea.

Prison

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

The prison of the empirical self is all encompassing. Again and again in meditation one is thrown back into the endo-cosmos of imaginings and fantasies. Holding the focus of attention in the detached awareness of the sitting, breathing body is like trying to get the little ball-bearings into the eyes of one of those childhood toys. Again and again they roll down, failing to find the precise point of balance. In any one session of meditation one can achieve a few moments, seconds, of being in the existential now. The centre of gravity is not there but in the discursive mind. The imperative to spend more and more time in meditation becomes ever greater. Even then there is no guarantee that one will pierce the all-enveloping weight of this empirical now. I never really understood the meaning of ‘God is dead,’ until now.

And yet I feel that this is the greatest adventure. Everyone is trapped in this empirical now – or in their private endo-cosmos. We comfort ourselves with religion and rehearse the ancient rituals, especially at this time of the year when the cold of poverty and helplessness is translated into the vision of a divine baby. The myths and rituals of faith may carry us a long way but eventually they will have to be discarded, leaving us with a blind and naked – and seemingly impossible – belief in our transcendence and the reality of God.

God

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

It is not possible fully to understand what it means to be human without having some understanding of God. At least we have an experiential understanding of what it means to be a person, but God, for the vast majority, is a matter of concepts and those concepts light years from the reality. ‘God may be loved but not thought,’ the Cloud of Unknowing says. So, it is possible to speak with authority only of one’s own experience. This is why the teaching of Jesus is so important. He spoke of what he knew. We too can only speak of what we know but, unlike Jesus, this does not include God.

Limits

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Thinking about limits. There is a difference between the natural limits of which we are all aware – I can run for so fast and for so long; I can lift just so much, etc. – and the limits experienced in the existential now. The trouble with my meditation at present is that I rarely seem to be able to get into the existential now. It requires a real effort of concentration, but even that isn’t enough. There is something more, something I do not possess and which I have to wait for. Sometimes it comes. More usually it doesn’t. It is a stillness, a suspension and an abandonment of everything so that there exists only this conscious awareness. It is a shift into the space between the phenomenal worlds 2, 3 and the Void. The phenomenal self hovers on the verge of awareness, accessible by a flicker of thought. Somehow there is a sense of perspective, an awareness of being suspended. Except for this flicker of thought there is absolute nothingness. The first time I felt terror. To go into the void would mean death. Immediately I was back in the phenomenal world thinking about what I had experienced. Somehow I know, how I know not, that there is nothing to fear.

Now

Monday, December 17th, 2007

Meditation is not easy. The inner dialogue rarely stops. On rare occasions there is just awareness for a moment or two. The interlocutor is always there in the background observing, asking, making mental notes. I can understand why the Vipassana meditation retreats insist that retreatants should bring no books or writing materials. Reasoning, questioning, speculating, reflecting has no place here.

While all this is very frustrating during meditation, outside that time I am not downhearted. I do not feel detached from God. The meaning of transcendence is that He is beyond all our perceptions and experience. If He were attainable by means of physical and mental procedures He would not be transcendent. I think of meditation as trying to be in the existential now. God does not exist in what Popper calls Worlds 2 and 3. He is not part of the psychological world of our consciousness, a concept, an image, a dream or a fantasy. Nor is he a human construct, a statue, a ritual, a piece of bread, a story, or a myth. God is none of these. In the existential now one leaves aside the elaborate structures of human devising and imagination and stands poised in the mystery of being, the ebb and flow of the breath reflecting the systole and dystole of life itself. There are no words here, only silence; no light, only darkness. The existential now is the negation of self. Self is alone, naked and defenceless. It has nothing to cling to, nowhere to shelter, no one to turn to. It deflates, shrinking to nothing. This is why the self finds it so hard to bear, why the interlocutor keeps intruding with comments and observations. Anything to break the silence and lighten the darkness. Anything to keep it from extinction. But the self has to die, disappear into this dark now.

Christ as matador

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

There was a programme on the other night of Michael Palin following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway. There was quite a bit of discussion about bullfighting and some of the ritual in the arena was shown, though not the actual kill. It struck me how little those who protest at the cruelty to the bull understand what is going on. Bullfighting is all about the triumph of the slender fragility of humanity over the wild and chaotic forces of nature. The matador represents us all. Beautiful in his suit of lights, elegant and graceful as a dancer, he faces the savage energy and brute ferocity of the bull. Alone on the open expanse of the arena, armed only with his intelligence and the dexterity of his movements, he channels the destructive charges of the bull, diverting them round himself. He choreographs a dance of life in the face of death. Again and again, black death fixes him in its sight and bears down on him only to be delicately diverted. Sometimes, so close is the encounter, death brushes him with its flank as it charges by staining him with its blood. Eventually death stands exhausted, head lowered, glowering. The matador provokes one last charge, leans over the horns of death and kills the bull.

This is not cruelty or wanton destruction. This ritual addresses the fears and hopes of us all and affirms that humanity can transcend the terrifying forces of nature. All identify with the matador, although few are brave or dextrous enough to be him. He wears our bright hopes as he walks out onto the arena of life and death. His fears are our fears, his wounds our wounds, his triumph ours too. No one likes to face up to the brute facts of existence. We feel too inadequate, too powerless. This is why we need heroes who will act on our behalf. This is what Jesus did. He walked out alone to face the greed, the vested interests and the inhumanity of the powers of his time. He opposed them and they killed him. That was the worst they could do to him, that was the extent of their destructive power. It was not enough. The forces of life are greater than the forces of death and by rising again Jesus deflated the power of death. He emptied it, voiding it of its fearfulness. He widened our perspective so that we could see beyond the circumscribed arena of our daily striving. He showed us that death is not terrifying, all-engulfing darkness but a door.

The contemplative stands before that door every day. He, or she, steps alone into silence, leaving aside the practicalities of living for a time, to stand before the darkness. Mute. Alone, entraining a skein of the relationships that make him who he is, he arrows into the darkness. Like a matador he carries the hopes and fears, the yearnings, voiced and unvoiced, of all and holds them up in the empty darkness at the boundary of existence. That is all he can do. That is all anyone can do. 

On prayer

Friday, December 14th, 2007

Hick on prayer (p. 18f) asserts that ‘we are all linked at deep unconscious levels in a universal network in which our thoughts, and even our emotions, are all the time affecting others as others are in turn affecting us.’ This is simply an assertion, an article of faith, and he admits that there is no evidence to support it. He gives the impression that the good wrought by prayer is simply the result of this human solidarity, unconscious and unfelt. No mention is made of God. Perhaps this last is an oversight and he does not intend to exclude divine influence.

Prayer is very mysterious and I think it does work in something like the way Hick describes. Although there is no empirical evidence for it, there does appear to be a network linking, not only we sentient humans, but also everything in the cosmos. Rupert Sheldrake, with his morphic fields, is quite convincing. There is also a wealth of anecdotal evidence of a bond between people, usually where there is an intimate relationship, such that when something significant or tragic happens to one the other is immediately aware that something has happened to the other even though they may be widely separated. This is the sort of thing to which Hick is referring. But prayer goes much deeper than what may simply be a natural bonding.

There is, first of all, the urge to pray. This is universal and has always been a factor in our religious behaviour. This is so deep rooted that even those who have never previously shown any religious commitment or belief often turn to prayer in life threatening situations. The cynic might say that here is an example of someone making Pascal’s wager. But I do not think so. This is no calculated gesture based on a rational assessment of the odds but a deep-seated emotional response to a limit situation. Prayer springs from the deepest roots of the self, from that zone in the affective system which straddles the conscious and the unconscious mind. Here situations, events and actions initiate emotions, feelings and moods, which are evaluated as meaningful and significant. Here we touch the foundations of our being. None of this is in the rational mind. It is not something we can conceptualise or argue with. It is a given, with the numinous quality of an ancient memory.

Here we sense not just the interlinking network which binds us all, although that is sensed. Here, obscurely and tentatively, we sense the Presence within. This is what prayer does. It brings this Presence to the surface of our minds. It opens the channels which link us and which have been narrowed and constricted by egotism and self-interest. God is active, not as a puppet master manipulating the strings of cause and effect. God acts in and through us. This I believe to be true, though I am not aware of it in any concrete sense, nor is there any empirical evidence of it. I will never forget one day when I was in the Little Brothers. Dominic Voillaume had come to make his annual retreat and had spent a week in a hermitage on San Capracio, the mountain above the village. I walked into the room where he was bent over a table reading the paper. He turned to greet me and his face was – transfigured, is the only word for it. There was joy, peace, beauty – impossible to describe. It was almost embarrassing to look him in the eye his face was so naked. The story of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai and having to hide his face behind a veil came to mind. Dominic had just come down from the mountain and his face reflected what he had experienced.

I think when people talk about prayer they concentrate too much on the knowing and rational activity and not enough on the emotive and feeling side. It is relatively easy to come quite quickly to the existential limit of the senses and to sit simply aware that one is sitting. If there are thoughts and images they run in the background like an unattended television screen. Emotionally one feels calm and at peace. There may have been emotional turbulence but that, like the thoughts, has been put to one side. One still has not reached the limits of being; knowing – yes, perhaps, being – no. One is still ensconced in the affective self. We are like the child who, when the events of the day become too much, sucks his thumb and hugs his comforter. These, insignificant in themselves, are the psychological substitute for the warmth and security of his mother’s breast. As long as we can snuggle into the comfort of withdrawing into ourselves we have not reached the limits of being. We have reached, perhaps, the foot of the mountain and before us is a long, hard climb into the obscurity and darkness of the clouds at the top.