Archive for May, 2008

Prayer in the context of time III

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

With baggage

The default state of the human person is that we are laden with baggage. We come with all our baggage and lay it before God. This baggage consists of relationships, commitments,ties, links, worries, projects, problems, past history, guilt – a whole load of stuff. Much of it good. It is what goes towards making us what we are now. Some of it bad, or unwholesome. We would like to unload it onto God because it is heavy and burdensome. Both the good and the bad. We ask him to take it, or at least, to share the load, because it is weighing us down. Some of it we can bear, are happy to bear, but most of it, the older we get, we would like to let go. We have had enough and we no longer have the energy and the strength of our younger days. For many, this is enough. It is enough to present themselves before God and ask him to share the load. Eventually, though, we are going to have to let go because we soon discover that we cannot enter the inner room of the heart encumbered with it all. It is not just that there isn’t room for us and our baggage as well. The trouble is all this baggage gets in the way. It clutters up the mind. We need to let it go. 

Without baggage

There is a play by Jean Anouilh called ‘The Traveller without Luggage.’ It is about a man who loses his memory as a result of a wound during the First World War and is incarcerated in a mental hospital for 17 years. No one knows who he is. His family eventually discover him and bring him home. He recognises no one. The first thing his family does is to remind him of what he was like and the shame he has caused them. Three years of war, a wound which took away his memory and then, after twenty years, his return home and all they can do is to festoon him with his old self. There was not a single fault, bad behaviour, stupid incident that he wasn’t reminded of. All his relations were relentless in putting away the twenty odd years of his absence when here he was – a new person. But no – that wasn’t allowed. He was put back into his former unhappy life. “Have you never been happy with me?’ he asked his mother once when she was bitterly reminding him of his past. “No, never.’ she said. What he must have done for his family to refuse to give him credit or allow him a new start! His past, his old self had nothing to offer him. The only thing for him to do now was to leave, to look for some tenderness and affection in someone who had need of him and who didn’t care about his past.

So often we are to ourselves what that man’s family was to him. We will not allow ourselves to begin again. We are encumbered with a whole load of stuff and we can’t let it go.  We will not allow ourselves to come out of the darkness of the past into a new day. One of the stories in the NT which sticks in my mind is the story of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel in chapter 3. He came to Jesus at night. In other words – out of darkness. There follows a dialogue in which Jesus explains that it is necessary to be born again. The Catholic Church, no doubt as a result of the references to water and spirit, understands being born again as referring to Baptism and Confirmation. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians understand it in terms of a conversion experience. In the context of today’s talk on prayer I would like to understand it as getting back to the simple, uncomplicated, letting-go prayer of childhood at bedtime. 

There is a story of two Buddhist monks, one older, one younger, on a journey. They come to a ford in a river and there encounter an old woman too timid to cross by herself. They help her across and continue with their journey. After about an hour the younger says, ‘You know, our rule says we should never touch a woman.’ 

‘Are you still carrying her,’ replies the older one. ‘I left her back by the river an hour ago.’

The problem is letting go. It is not possible to dump all your baggage onto some conveyor belt and have it carted off to some black hole where it will never be seen again. You have to let go of each piece, individually, one by one. Sometimes you have to let go of it many times before it’s gone. Even then it’s not gone. But if you can get it gone enough to close the door of your inner room for a while you are doing well.

When we lived in Colchester we were quite near to a Greek Orthodox monastery in Tolleshunt D’Arcy. They have a little chapel which, I think, is one of the holiest places I have ever been. It is quite small, almost, but not completely, dark, a few icons barely seen in the light of the sanctuary lamp. The strange thing is that when one goes in and sits down you disappear in the darkness. You disappear to yourself, conscious only of this holy space, the flickering light of the lamp, the barely distinguishable icons, and a presence. 

Which brings us to God, who has only been mentioned in passing as it were. God – we use the word too glibly as though there was a general and uncontested agreement as to what it means. But of course there isn’t. When I was doing theology we used to laugh about the Athanasian Creed, which used to be said on Trinity Sunday. It makes a series of statements about God and immediately contradicts each statement. St. Augustine gives us a flavour of this when he describes God as

most hidden and most present; 

most beautiful and most strong, 

standing firm and elusive, 

unchangeable a
nd all-changing; 

never new, never old; 

ever working, ever at rest; 

In fact God is indescribable and very often paradoxes are the only appropriate way of saying anything at all about him. Eckhart said, 

All that you think and say about your God is more you than him; you blaspheme him, for all those wise masters of Paris cannot say what he really is.  If I had a God whom I could understand, I would never want to recognise him as my God.

The God of philosophers and descriptive terms is a conceptual God and not the God of reality. After Pascal’s death a piece of paper was found sown up in his coat and on it was written an account of an experience so profound that it marked him for life. 

The year of grace 1654,

Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement,.From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,

FIRE.

GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacobnot the god of philosophers and of the learned.Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.

But in the end this sort of experience, or Augustine’s experience of God within, is paradoxical because God is as far beyond experience as he is beyond words. There is a story in the Old Testament about Elijha which, to me at least, says more about God than any of these.

Elijah walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.

There he came to a cave, where he took shelter. But the word of the LORD came to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

He answered: “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.”

Then the LORD said, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD–but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake–but the LORD was not in the earthquake.

After the earthquake there was fire–but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak

The Hebrew is not easy to translate and there are various alternatives to ‘a tiny whispering sound’. The traditional translation is ‘a still small voice’, but the one I prefer is ‘a sound of gentle silence’. Ignatius of Antioch described God as “the silence out of which the word comes forth.” In the inner room we enter that silence. Sometimes in that dark silence we achieve the simple trust of childlike prayer and know that all shall be well. And sometimes, as R. S. Thomas puts it

 There are times

When a black frost is upon

One’s whole being, and the heart

In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

John Hick, the philosopher talking about prayer 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, describes morphic fields, and to me at least 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, as I have already said, 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. When meditating 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. Like the child at bedtime we put all our trust in God. As R S Thomas puts it

Young

I pronounced you. Older

I still do, but seldomer

now, leaning far out

over an immense depth, letting

your name go and waiting,

somewhere between faith and doubt,

for echoes of its arrival.

Prayer in the context of time II

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Adulthood

Hinduism considers that there are four stages to a person’s life. The first is that of the young student, whose duty it is to acquire the knowledge and skills he will need through life. The second is that of the householder, preoccupied with career, marriage and family life. Adulthood is a busy time. There is so much going on that, if they have not already been alienated from all things religious, people find it difficult to fit in time for prayer. Going to Mass, for those who still go, tends to become a routine social activity rather than a deeply spiritual experience. There are exceptions and for many the Charismatic Movement provides the excitement and fervour lacking in a tired institution struggling to come to terms with modern life. The birth of children, though, is a major event, a life-changing event, charged with awe and wonder at the profound mystery that is human life. The birth of a child strikes a major blow at the dominance of the magisterial self. Up until then self has probably had it pretty much all its own way. Now self yields second place to another, gladly, joyfully, with a deep sense of humility and inadequacy, prepared to give all, make any sacrifice, for this little person who has just emerged into life. As the Japanese philosopher Nishida puts it, ‘ The centre of the self is not limited to the interior of the individual; the self of a mother is to be found in her child.’ This is the beginning of a sort of reverse pedagogy as the child, children, lead the adults back, or maybe for the first time, into an awareness of the mystery at the heart of life, a sense of the indwelling Spirit.

I cannot stress too much the importance of this blow to the self. All the religious institutions have strategies for dealing with the domineering self. The most famous is probably the Ignatian ‘agere contra’, go against your natural feelings. Whenever presented with a choice choose the least preferred option. All these are self-defeating (no pun intended) because they are unnatural and more likely, if one is successful in living them, to lead to self aggrandisement than the opposite. On the other hand, nothing is more natural than loving another, and/or others, more than one loves self. Perfect training for prayer because in prayer, as we shall see, the biggest obstacle is self. With the birth of children we discover what it means to be for others, rather than, up till that moment, to be for oneself. The meaning of my being a self is found in this relationship to others who are more important to me than I am to myself. The experience of loving others in this way can develop our understanding of God. It can be excruciating to see those we love suffering, or in trouble, or in harm’s way. Even worse, to be ignored, or disdained, or rejected by those we love. There is a story about children playing hide and seek. One little boy hid himself so successfully that the others could not find him and eventually gave up. Tired of waiting the boy came out and found they had all gone off. Crying he went to his father, who was a rabbi, and explained what had happened. The old man wrapped his arms around the boy and said, ‘Now you know what it is like for God. He is everywhere hidden and no one is looking for him.’

Old Age

The third age after youth and adulthood comes with retirement, when the children have left home and when the first grandchildren appear. For many it is a time when at last they are free to pursue all those things they have long wanted to explore but never had the time. It is also a time when the immortality they were blessed with in youth evaporates and words like ‘decline’ reverberate unpleasantly. Existential questions which up till now we may have avoided; questions about meaning, about life, about death, force themselves upon us. A void opens up and we are not sure what to do about it. This is how R. S. Thomas describes it.

For me now

there is only the God-space 

into which I send out

my probes. I had looked forward

to old age as a time

of quietness, a time to draw

my horizons about me,

to watch memories ripening

in the sunlight of a walled garden.

But there is the void

over my head and the distance

within that the tireless signals

come from. And astronaut

on impossible journeys

to the far side of the self 

I return with messages

I cannot decipher . . .

In the beginning, when we were young, there was the self. Then we discovered others who became more important to us than self. Now, in this third age we begin to suspect that, like the far side of the moon, known to exist but never seen, there is a far side to the self. And we begin to wonder what it is that lies beyond self? When we were young the future stretched before us into a distance without end. Now that we are older the future has shrunk so much that we prefer to live in the now, appreciating each day as it comes. The third age is the age of now – this present moment. It is a reflective age, a contemplative age, the age of the inner room.

I would like to say something about the inner room. Jesus said, ‘When you pray go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret.’ The inner room is not any part of the house, though it is good to get away and be private. The inner room is within. It is what in India is called the cave of the heart. 

In this body, in this town of Spirit, there is a little house shaped like a lotus, and in that house there is a little space. One should know what is there. There is as much in that little space as there is in the whole world outside. Heaven, earth, fire, wind, sun, moon, lightning, stars; whatever is and whatever is not, everything is there. [From the Chandogya Upanishad]

It is customary to think of God as utterly transcendent – up in Heaven – beyond all thinking or imagining. We talk so glibly of God, but Eckhart told us off – ‘why prate you of God?,’ he said. ‘Whatever you say of him is untrue’. God is beyond all our imagining, all our concepts. But God is also immanent – transcendentally immanent. That is God is within. He is within in the sense that it is he who holds everything in being. God is not transcendent in the sense that he created everything that is and it exists over and against him and he sustains it there in existence. He is not transcendent in that sense. Simone Weil thought something like this when she said that the original sin was creation because then something came into existence which was not God. Creation was not the original sin in that sense but perhaps self comes near to being. I’ll come back to that.

God is immanent in the sense that he is intimior intimo meo, as St Augustine said, that is, more intimate to me than I am to myself.

“Too late have I loved you, O Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late I loved you! And behold, you were within, and I abroad, and there I searched for you; I was deformed, plunging amid those fair forms, which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you—things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odours and I drew in breath—and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace” [St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 27]

Unfortunately for us, Augustine’s experience is not that of the average person. And what he describes is like talking about landmarks to a blind person who has no way of verifying them. Nevertheless, in the depths of our subjective awareness God is present. We don’t know this. It is not something we can grasp. It is not part of our ordinary experience, but if we are going to pray, if our prayer has any meaning, we need to believe it.

Let me try to explain. Take a moment in a person’s life, a significant moment of heightened awareness. A person, for some reason, is suddenly acutely conscious of his environment –  sights, sounds, colours and smells, of beauty and of the coherence of everything, or he becomes aware of the tragic unfairness and impersonal cruelty of events. The person is conscious of this and of his mental state, which includes both awareness of involvement in and, at the same time, detachment from these events. Out of the sense of detachment rises the question: of what significance is this moment? Is it merely a moment of subjective consciousness, meaningful to me but of no consequence to others, or in the universal scheme of things? Or, is the significance of this moment something which transcends the purely individual and personal? Has it a significance which transcends the here and now?

If subjective experience has no transcendent or cosmic significance, if experience is trans-subjective only in the sense that it impinges on the subjective experience of certain related others, and then only in a way that affects the subjective experience of the other without any sharing in the subjectivity of the other, then human life has no meaning other than that which an individual, or a collective of individuals, chooses to assign to it. 

If there is no transcendent dimension to human experience then human life is only relatively more significant than that of ants and then only because of our enormous power to affect the existence of our own and other species, even the eco-system of the planet itself. Life is only worthwhile as long as the individual feels that it is. All values are relative, even those commonly agreed to be universal. But, if there is a transcendent dimension to our existence, if, as we believe, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and the Son, does dwell within, then each human person is priceless beyo
nd measure, holy, sacred, a temple to the indwelling God. 

Let me try and put what I have just said in the simplest possible terms. Mary Murphy is kneeling by her bed saying her prayers. Is what is going on in Mary’s head, and heart, just a personal and private experience, purely subjective, of no consequence to anyone or anything other than Mary, or is what she is doing something which reverberates far and wide? If Mary’s prayers count for anything it is because, there are depths and depths within of which Mary is not aware. Ruth Burrows says that there are two kinds of contemplative prayer – what she calls ‘light on’ and ‘light off’. There are a few who are aware of the presence of God within, people like Julian of Norwich. These are ‘light on’. But for most of us it is ‘lights off’. We are not aware. We cannot see. We have to trust, we have to believe that prayer is not wishful thinking, or words falling into silence.

We are not used to praying to the God within, or better, with the Spirit within. It can be difficult, almost impossible, to think that this person with all his warts and blemishes, both physical and moral, with all his failings, this very ordinary, nothing-special person, me, could be loved so much that God wants to dwell within him. Gerard Manley Hopkins felt this intensely.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree 

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me; 

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse. 

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see 

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be 

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

But we need to remember that however disgusting, or unattractive we may appear to ourselves at times, however ashamed we may be of what we are, we need to remember that God loves us more than we can ever know. There is a lovely little poem that I came across a long time ago from somewhere in the East, I am not sure where, about a barber, someone at the bottom of the social pecking order.

The Spirit of Blessing has passed before my house

   The house that belongs to me, the barber!

I ran, He turned and waited for me,

   Me, the barber!

I said, “May I speak to you, O Lord?”

   And he said, “Yes.”

And I said, “May I follow you?”

   And he said, “Yes.”

   Even me, the barber!

And I said, “May I stay near you, O Lord?”

   And he said, “You may.”

   Even me, the poor barber!

I remember reading a story about a political prisoner in Romania during the communist days who came across a copy of the Gospels for the first time. The thing that really impressed him, that completely bowled him over, was the fact that Jesus was such a gentleman. He went out of his way to be kind and considerate to the poor, the outcasts, the least respectable people. So this is why the inner room is so important. It is where, though we are not aware of it, where the Spirit dwells. The question is, do we enter with, or without all our baggage?

Prayer in the context of time I

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

 

What I would like to do is give a snapshot, brief picture of prayer as I see it at different stages in life. And then I will go on and talk about now, prayer in the present moment. I am very aware that the snapshots I have chosen are arbitrary. There are a myriad others that could be chosen and the ones I have chosen will not necessarily be those that another might choose. I am also very well aware that there is probably no one here for whom prayer is unfamiliar territory, that you all have your own experience, your own theologies of prayer. But bear with me. I am sure that some of these stories will resonate with some of you.

I think prayer comes to us naturally as children. We are small, pretty helpless, lacking in experience and totally dependent on others for all our needs. It is only a small step from petitioning parents to petitioning the supreme Parent in Heaven. I am sure that we have all been taught as children, and in turn have taught our children, bedtime prayers. Prayer and bedtime go naturally together. Preparing for sleep is a significant moment of transition at the end of the day. Outside dark night looms, mysterious and terrifying. We are about to enter sleep and neither Mummy nor Daddy will be there. So we pray God our soul to keep. We learn, without being able to articulate it, that God is someone who transcends the limitations of waking and sleeping, darkness and light, inside and outside, upstairs and down. God is present and will keep us safe. All will be well. We can let go and go to sleep.

This is childlike prayer but it is not childish. It is in fact quite sophisticated and not at all easy to achieve as we get older. There is a temptation to think that this kind of prayer belongs only to the innocent and sheltered world of childhood. But Julian of Norwich reiterated her famous phrase ‘all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well,’ in her Thirteenth Revelation in the context of sin and the pain it brings to humanity. She was no stranger to the terrors of the Black Death, to the horrors of the Peasants Revolt and the subsequent executions presided over personally by the bishop, or the execution of the Lollards within yards of her cell.  And yet she could say, ‘All will be well.’ How could she do that? How can anyone today equate the reality of a Baghdad market place after a car bomb, or the suffering of Darfur, with God’s love? There is a gulf, a chasm, a bottomless abyss that runs between the immediacy of these experiences and faith in God. For the young child tucked up in bed this gulf does not yet exist, but it will appear, eventually, inevitably. I’ll come back to this point later.

The strategies of family life have an impact on the way we pray. I promise I’ll be good if … and then comes the plea. As parents we can often be susceptible to this sort of plea but there is a general consensus among theologians and those who write about prayer that this sort of prayer is unworthy of God. This in spite of the fact that it has had a long history. Abraham bargained with God, as did Moses to name but two notable figures from our religious past. God is usually understood to be a sort of transcendental parental figure, generally benevolent but intolerant of breaches in the rules. This kind of bargaining prayer is entirely natural and it remains a deep-rooted psychological instinct right throughout our lives. Even people with no religious faith at all instinctively turn to prayer like this when faced with desperate need. Freud dismissed this attitude as a childish hangover into adulthood, something that the rational adult should have grown out of. I would not be so dismissive. I think it indicates something important about us as persons. It is more than a memory of instinctive childhood dependence. It is a tacit acknowledgement that there is another dimension to our existence, a spiritual dimension. One of the great things about childhood is that you have not yet learnt, or been taught, a distorted view of reality. Everything is new, for the first time and consequently, full of wonder. Maurice Zundel, an extraordinary French priest I came across recently, has this to say about wonder.

Only one experience can teach us. It is the easiest to grasp, the most common, also, that with the least intellectual baggage and that is the experience of wonder. We owe so much to wonder, which is quite intuitive. It makes us come out of ourselves. It detaches us from this biological me, this possessive me, this me which is the sum of all the people, relationships, events and decisions which make me what I am now. Wonder can do this because it turns our whole being towards another reality, a reality quite other yet so precious, so close, so intimate, so interior that it fills us, fulfills us, completes us. [www.adeauville.com—index.php]

Wordsworth was wrong when he said that

trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home 

 

But he was right when he said

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Children are naturally religious because they inhabit a world where everything is new, full of wonder and where much is mysterious. For them this physical world we inhabit is translucent and through it shines a deep and beautiful mystery. Edward Robinson in his book The Original Visi
on
gives many examples. One lady describes her childhood experience like this

 My first remembered experience of the numinous occurred when I was barely three. I recall walking down a little cul-de-sac lane behind our house in Shropshire. The sun was shining and as I walked along the dusty lane, I became acutely aware of the things around me. I noticed a group of dandelions on my left at the foot of a stone wall. Most of them were in full bloom, their golden heads irradiated by the sun, and suddenly I was overcome by an extraordinary feeling of wonder and joy. It was if I was part of the flowers, and stones, and dusty earth. I could feel the dandelions pulsating in the sunlight, and experience a timeless unity with all life. It is quite impossible to express this in words or to recall its intensity. All I know now is that I knew something profound and eternal then. [OV 49]

‘Then’ and ‘now’, unfortunately this early experience of the mystery at the heart of everything soon runs up against the conventions and received wisdom of our everyday world. One boy, aged 6, described how he felt a presence within him, and the words, ‘I am with you, every step you go.’ When he told his mother, wondering whether this was the Holy Spirit, she dismissed the idea, telling him that the Holy Spirit looks like a ball of fire. [SC 102] Another lady recalls

I remember sitting in my mother’s lap at the age of 5, while she affectionally explained that the idea of a God was a very nice and poetic way of explaining things, but just like a fairy tale. I felt embarrassed at what seemed abysmal blindness and ignorance and felt sorry for her. [OV 69]

Another lady said –

My mother did her best to give me an idea of God … I never spoke about my own ideas to her, out of a sense of shame, feeling that I knew who and how God was and that she did not yet have that understanding. [OV 70]

Adolescence

I think a sense of spiritual awareness is innate in us. We know – not always explicitly perhaps, not in a sense that we can articulate or easily describe – but there is a sort of subliminal awareness of a spiritual dimension, particularly in childhood. But, adolescence brings major changes. For some, a very small minority, it can be a time of intense religious fervour. But for the majority hormones kick in and a whole new world, undreamt of earlier, opens up. The attention is deflected away from the existential mystery towards the mysteries of the opposite sex and religious sensibilities soon run up against the rational materialism of the educational system and the conventional spirituality of society.  It is not fashionable for adolescents to pray, or to be active in church. As often as not young people are inoculated against conventional religion by the hypocrisy and double standards of church-going people. If this is what it is to be religious, they say, I want nothing to do with it. Self and self-consciousness loom large on the horizon. When existential questions force themselves on the attention – as in the case of the death of a relative or friend, or a blatant case of injustice – the response is more likely to be anger than awe or wonder. How could God do, or allow, such a thing? If God is the kind and loving father that people say he is, then why does he allow such things to happen? Powerful emotions come into play which overwhelm the much more subtle and gentle awareness we may have had as younger children and so spiritual awareness, existential wonder and awe go underground for a time, to resurface later – perhaps.

Anatta

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Thinking about anatta – the Buddhist concept of no-self. This needs to be tied in with the idea of process. There is no determined spiritual entity called a soul, incorporated at conception and evacuated at death. What there is is a process. It is becoming clear that what it means to be human cannot be understood by looking at the individual in isolation qua individual. If an individual is a process then that process can only be understood if one takes into account what gave rise to that particular process, what enables it to continue and develop and what brings it to completion. Not all processes are completed but some, I believe, are terminated prematurely and some become warped and distorted. Instead of looking at individuals as fixed entities we should look at them as dynamic processes, acting and interacting with others in a vast cosmic orchestra.

Nuala O Faolain has just died, three months to the day after she was diagnosed with cancer. The interview she gave about her impending death made a huge impression on the whole country. It is impossible not to see her life as a dynamic process, sometimes messy, often controversial, always fully engaged with others.  

Comparisons

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

I am reading William Johnston’s Mystical Theology and Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness. Johnston’s is a good survey, clear, concise and just the sort of book I could have done with when I was teaching. He has the knack of summarising brilliantly. Nishitani is a revelation. It is one of those books which gives a new insight into questions which have always been there and which you thought you understood. Reading Nishitani you realise that you were only skating on the surface.

Concerning W. Johnston’s Mystical Theology – I feel that he is avoiding coming to the point. On p.182 he says that the emptiness and nothingness of St. John of the Cross is not the same as the emptiness and nothingness of Zen. This is precisely what exercises me. If the underlying reality is One then surely, whatever tradition one comes from, there must come a time when the cultural wrappings, the labels and names we attach to ideas and experiences, are discarded. 

Johnston is annoying when he keeps talking from within the tradition he is writing about. I wish he would take a more objective approach. What the Christian tradition calls sin covers anything from murder to the human condition. Original sin is seen as evil. It is simply the human condition – contingency, powerlessness and scarcity. This is an area that needs much more thinking. I feel the Buddhist way of looking at all this is a much more healthy one.

Facing death

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

I listened recently to a podcast of Nuala O Faolain’s interview  about her approaching death.

Available here  http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2008/pc/pod-v-120408-40m53s-marianfinucane.mp3

She is a highly intelligent woman, a writer and has just discovered that she has terminal cancer and not very long to live. The interview explores her feelings at this time, how she reacted to the discovery and how it has affected her and her attitudes.

… as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life… It amazed me, Marian, how quickly life turned black, immediately almost… I can’t be consoled by mention of God. I can’t… though I respect and adore the art that arises from the love of God and though nearly everybody I love and respect themselves believe in God, it is meaningless to me, really meaningless……the very essence of this experience is aloneness … and you’re walking around and all you know is that whatever it is you are feeling or thinking is yours and nobody else’s. And there is nobody else to lay it off on and that aloneness is the centre and the thing that you never know when you are well ……I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me, the world said to me that’s enough of you now and what’s more we’re not going to give you any little treats at the end …

We all know that we are going to die sometime but normally this fact does not worry us or affect our attitude to life. It will happen sometime in the unforeseeable future. Death, extinction, did not bother Nuala until she unexpectedly learnt that for her it was going to occur within a few months. And then everything changed. Life became black and meaningless. Most of the things that she had enjoyed and that gave meaning to her life lost their savour. Two questions immediately intrigue me. Why? Why should the knowledge of imminent death deprive life of meaning? And, would belief in God and an afterlife have made a difference?

What gives meaning? Why should one thing, action, event have meaning while another does not? Part of the answer would seem to be significance. This wedding ring has meaning for me because of its significance. That pebble on the beach has no importance and therefore means nothing to me. The phrase ‘this bread’ in the context of the Eucharist has enormous significance for believers, in the context of a bakery it has no particular import. A kiss on the cheek when greeting a stranger means little. A kiss from a loved one means everything. Significance, it would seem, is determined by relationship and context.

Time is another major factor. We do not want our pleasure, joy, happiness to be limited by time. We do not want to be parted from what we love and those we love. There will be an end sometime, but no parameters have been set, no limits fixed and so we can look forward to a future stretching into forever. Because the future stretches forever there is no point in thinking about it. This allows us to focus on the present. The present is here now. It will always be here, here now and tomorrow it will be here again. This takes the pressure off the present. If the present is not quite as we would want it, that’s OK, we can work to improve things for tomorrow. We look forward to tomorrow. Tomorrow will be better. We look forward to enjoying the fruit of our labour, to working on projects, to holidays, to seeing our children grow. In fact life is a process projected into the future, working, growing, creating, discovering. We do not think about an end, only about going on and on. 

Until you are told that in six months time there will be no more tomorrows, that time for you will cease. And suddenly there is no looking forward to a future. There is only today and the next few days. There will be no more projects, no more growing, or creating, or discovering. It is like driving a fast car, exulting in the speed and the skill, and then it runs out of fuel and you are left sitting in a motionless vehicle, going nowhere. A car that can not go has lost its meaning. Life with no future has no meaning, or has it? Of what value is this moment now – not the past which led up to it, nor the moments to come, but this moment now? Can it be separated from the past and the future? They only exist in the mind. Only this now is real. Only this now exists. What, if anything, gives it value? This is the real question. For me now this moment, why should it matter? We may say that what happened in the past can affect our attitude to this now, enhance or detract from its significance, help or hinder our ability to grasp it. Likewise the now may be important because it is the springboard to the future. I suspect that this is one of the factors which led to Nuala’s sadness. She had had a full rich life, lived with exuberance and many achievements. In comparison her now is barren and sterile lacking, as it does, any possibility of a future.

The analogy that immediately comes to mind is that life is like a surfer riding a wave. It is lived at speed and to the full, balancing relationships, projects, experiences in an exciting onward rush. Then suddenly the shore is in sight and in a few moments one will be cast like flotsam onto the beach. The ride will be over, finished. There is nothing left to live for but these few last moments before extinction.

But the analogy cannot be carried very far because the wave of life does not come to an end in an explosion of white surf, but goes on and on. And the surfer? She ceases to ride the wave, certainly. But what happens then? Is she absorbed into the wave which continues on its onward journey? Again, the analogy fails. Nevertheless D. W. Mann’s description of life as a standing wave is very helpful.

With bodily birth the self is born.  The universe of self-experience comes into being through the severance act of birth.  But the resultant separateness, which I have said lies at the heart of the self-experience, is from a biophysical perspective more illusory than real.  While the body lives, it remains a standing wave of active earth, gathered and propelled by the happenstance channelling of genes into an amnesic emissary from the mineral world.  We are of earth but not within it, moving ever so slightly beyond it but always in its outstretched stream, borrowing and returning, dust to dust. Into this fabric each of us weaves, from earth, through man and woman, man into woman, out of woman aloft into life, and finally back into earth, our single stitch of life.  The generations quit the earth, like ragged seams.  In all but ecstatic moments we feel separate, but in physical fact our bodies join us to the earth, to one another, and to the seemingly separate universe that envelopes us.[Mann D.W., A Simple Theory of the Self, W.W. Norton, New York, 1994 p. 42f]

The feeling of separateness is an illusion. On the physical level our bodies are absorbed back into the wave. There is, however, much more than the physical process, though even on the physical level there are depths and depths that physicists and cosmologists are only beginning to understand. There is also the spiritual dimension, though some, including Nuala, might disagree. Yet testimony going back to the dawn of human history shows an awareness of ‘something there’, a dimension that transcends the physical and the human.*

  For some this awareness was always there. For others it may occur as the result of a significant experience. For still others it may have been part of the environment in which they grew up but, like fairy tales and belief in Father Christmas, evaporated with the social pressures and tensions of lived life. Finally, there are those for whom is was never a factor. Nuala, I think, falls into the third category.

Anyway, whether the awareness is there or not, there is nothing, as someone once said, like the prospect of death to concentrate the mind. And to focus it on this all too fleeting now, revealing it with its beauty, with its ugliness, but this time more as a spectacle in which one cannot really participate because there is no time. There is not time to get involved, to engage with others, to initiate anything because the time left is so fleeting, or so it seems. The end is approaching so quickly, faculties fading and the ability to engage as before so uncertain that all one can do is to stand helplessly, already a bystander, soon to be gone. One feels alienated already, in a sense, rejected by life. “… all you know is that whatever it is you are feeling or thinking is yours and nobody else’s,” as Nuala puts it. 

Formerly subjective and objective time merged seamlessly, as did subjective and objective experience. Formerly, for example, going for a walk with friends you interacted with them, engaging in conversation and all the while the road passed by under your feet. You could see the road stretching ahead and where you would be in five, or ten minutes time, and all the while your friends accompanied you. In the distance, perhaps, you could see mountains where you and your friends would be in a few hours. The journey is a shared experience, a merging of both the objective and the subjective. And then, all of a sudden you are sidelined. The world has ‘turned its back’. Your friends continue along the road but you can no longer see ahead, or share the common experience with them as before. The mountains still exist but you will never reach them. And so you stand there, intensely aware of your situation, of the world about you, a world as meaningless now as a broken down car. Except it is not the world that has broken down but you.

Now you have become a prisoner in your subjective experience, an experience that is shared with no one else that you know. You gaze out at the world as at a cinematic display. You no longer belong. It belongs to others, to your friends, those you love. Above all it belongs to the young, vibrant with life. You stand at life’s edge. Behind you all is movement, conversations, shouts, laughter and activity. Before you is the dark void and you stand at the crumbling edge. There is a Zen story which goes like this:

One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!

Apparently in the original it was a poisonous berry but D. T. Suzuki changed it thinking that this would not appeal to Westerners. Both versions are appropriate here and worth thinking about. The temptation to take poison must be great. It would quickly bring to an end a
n appalling situation. Death is certain. The only question is will it be now quickly, or soon, perhaps slowly with much suffering? Certainly Sartre would say, take the poison. Make your final act an authentic one in keeping with your status as a free and rational human being. 

But the strawberry version raises another question. Does subjective experience in itself have a value that transcends the here and now? The story implies that it does and that its value lies in moments of exquisite sensation. Most of us have probably experienced times of heightened awareness and profound happiness, perhaps on first falling in love, or before a beautiful sunset. There may have been other times when, in the company of friends, with talk and laughter flowing, all enjoying the pleasure of being together, we have felt such a simple and deep happiness that we wished this moment to continue forever. Such moments have a centrifugal effect, drawing us out of ourselves so that we feel that our being extends into that of others, into the wider world, into nature itself. While suffering has a centripetal effect, drawing us inward, enclosing us within this pain-full body. The point of the strawberry story is that this instant of pure pleasure allows the man to transcend his dire situation, if only for a few moments. 

Why some should have a sense of transcendence, while others do not, or very rarely; why some have faith in God and an afterlife, while others not, are questions with no easy answer. Nevertheless, faith or no faith, the approach of death means a closing in. Our dimensions begin to shrink to the extent of a failing body. We have been launched on a trajectory into the dark and all we can do is hope. Even if we cannot believe we can hope. And in hoping we can, perhaps, begin to transcend this dark now.

* cf Hardy, Alister; The Spiritual Nature of Man, OUP, Oxford,1979; Hay, David; Religious Experience Today, Mowbray, London 1990; Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit, Darton, Longman and Todd, London 2006 

Religion today

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

A recent survey in France has shown that most people now do not go to Church, or accept Church teaching.  They do not believe in Catholic dogma though there is belief and there is searching.  Unfortunately it tends to be a sort of religious consumerism, selecting a bit of this and a bit of that from among the varieties of religion on offer.  Eclecticism is anathema, of course, to the Church but we all practice it to some extent, within or without the Church.  I have been trying to think – how could one formulate a belief system, a religion, that would be inspiring and attractive and at the same time avoid the failures and mistakes of the established Churches.

The more I think about it the more it seems to me that what you are is more important than what you believe.  Buddhism is so right not to be dogmatic, not to define precisely or to construct an elaborate theology.  Its emphasis on practice is exactly right.  Do this; live in this manner and you will eventually arrive at enlightenment.  What is that psychological technique, Rogers I think, where the client is encouraged to act as if.. and behave in a particular way.  Behaviour eventually begins to affect thought and perceptions.  There is nothing new here.  Thomas Aquinas talked about the importance of good habits and I can see why the Church feels that actions and life-style flow from belief but it doesn’t work.  What we need is a religious Marx to stand the Holy Office and the New Catechism on its head.  No one respects dogmatism and fixed opinions but everyone respects and admires integrity and loving concern for all.  The Church’s love and concern is lost behind its narrow-minded dogmatism.

Our consciousness is shaped by our environment and any religion must take this into account.  It is no good spelling out what must be believed in great detail, especially if this is at variance with the prevailing weltenschaung.  Nor will the right idea, no matter how right or well expressed, prevail over social and cultural certainties except perhaps for a small number of exceptional people.  Religion must start in and with the social environment.  If it cannot change the environment, and it probably will not be able to, than it must reinterpret it.  It must expose the prevailing ideologies and be ready with alternatives.  The material structures uphold the ideologies.  It is no good exposing the ideologies and leaving the material structures in place.  It will not be long before everyone has reverted to the status prior.  The really hard part is how to build from the ground up alternative structures which will gradually take over.  We are so dependent on existing structures which affect every aspect of our lives that we cannot envisage any alternative which would not be more difficult and less comfortable.

It is interesting that I began talking about religion and ended up talking about politics, or sociology.  Religion and society are so intertwined that it is not possible to separate them.  One of the reasons why religion has declined is because it has, to a great extent, been privatised.  It is not for nothing that the cults find it necessary to create their own closed societies.  This is a vast subject.  

Buddhism begins with the question of suffering, how to overcome it.  Christianity begins with the good news that God is with us – opposite sides of the same coin.  Buddhism says, ‘Live the Eightfold Path and you will discover for yourself.’  Christianity says, ‘Put your trust (believe) in the Spirit within and you will discover him for yourself.’  This, at least, is the message of the Gospels.  It is not the message of the later Church.  Both Buddha and Jesus said, ‘Do what I say and you will discover for yourself.’  However while Buddhism has remained largely true to its original detached benevolence Christianity has been afflicted with the belief that it alone has the truth and that therefore it has the mission to convince everyone of this truth.  Not the simple original truth that God is with you but an elaborate and subtly articulated series of dogmas which say more about hierarchy than about love.  Christianity has shied away from and discouraged its followers from the inner search for the hidden God.  Where it could not do so it incarcerated its would be mystics in enclosed monasteries and convents and persecuted all those who would not conform.  Now, when as never before, there is a hunger for the Spirit within all the Church can offer are old rituals or happy-clappy froth.

The Sacred

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Just came across a very interesting book by Ervin Laszlo, The Creative Universe.  He seems to take Rupert Sheldrake’s ideas one step further.  It is ironic that just when so many scientific theories seem to be pointing in the direction of the unity of all, as religion has always done, and when action at a distance is no longer a dubious phenomenon investigated by would-be psychics, this is the time when non-locality has become a real problem.

We now live in a world where there is no escape from the all-pervasive West-Atlantic media culture.  Films, videos, music, magazines etc are all grabbing for attention wherever one turns; purveying images, moods, emotions, heroes, anti-heroes and their fashions.  Local customs, laws and ideals are seen to be parochial and not worthy of serious consideration.  Our children are lost before they can learn to discriminate.  

On worship – there seems no longer to be an awareness of the sacred.  Churches are no longer sacred places but meeting places.  There are no longer sacred movements, actions and liturgies but showy posturings and blatant entertainment.  The sacred only exists in the context of faith and in the encounter with the Wholly Other, the numinous.  It was real when I was young and growing up.  Ireland in those days had many faults and the Church was not what it should have been – has it ever? – but the numinous presence was real and not confined to the awesome whisper of consecration.  All that now has gone.  No doubt I have changed but it is not just that.  I don’t think young people generally feel the tingling shiver down the spine of being in the presence of the mysterium tremendum.

Spiritual life

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

I feel a great fellowship for all others who are searching and who are trying to be genuine.  I feel nothing for those who are shallow, hypocrites, or who are egoists.  I should.  They too are part of the whole, even if they are dancing to a different tune, but it is not always easy.  I can understand the Pope’s desire to have absolute control, but by the nature of things that is an impossible desire.  It is one thing to have a vision; it is another for others to interpret the vision in their way, give it a different tone and emphasis.  The only honourable choice for him is either to abdicate his absolutism (paradoxically, I think this would enhance his authority) or become a hermit.  The key is relationship.  Nothing is sole and of itself, not even God.  

I find it more and more difficult to pray to God as someone in Heaven or wherever.  God is subject, intimior intimo meo, as St. Augustine said.  Words help at times but wordless prayer goes deeper, goes to the heart.  To say that God does, plans, designs etc. is too crude.  More, it is false.  God is the ground of all relationships.  Not in the way that the Spirit is the relationship of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father.  Every loving relationship creates its spirit, the tertium pars which is the link, the bond.  Somehow the Spirit is interwoven with the weaving and interweaving of these myriads of relationships.  God is not outside making and directing.  He is within.

Relationship

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.