Living in the dark

November 12th, 2012

I did not go to Mass today. I am so angry at the Church, angry at myself too that I did not see through the self-serving hype – but then neither did anyone else. A Fr. McVerry put it well the other day. He said how can you expect people

“to commit themselves to a male-dominated, authoritarian institution which suppresses dissent and attempts to control what its members may even discuss?”

I am reading Christian Beginnings by Geza Vermes and also Jesus: An Historical Approximation by José Pagola. It is so refreshing to get back to the historical Christ (in so far as one can) before all the accretions, the glosses, the aggrandisment imposed by the Church from the second century on. It is the simplicity of the relationship between self and God, the directness of it, no intermediaries, that is so compelling, and this is what he preached. It is what he lived.

But people love the smells and the bells, the dressing up and the elaborate ceremonies. They like their talismans and their little rituals, their holy pictures, their statues and candles, all the things which diminish the impact of cold, hard reality. They need reassurance. They need something which insulates from the void, that sheer fall just there out of sight where one dare not look. Something tangible, something which comes with assurance that if you do this and that and avoid sin, all will be well. For many this is enough. They accept what is handed to them. And there is a simple beauty in this placid acceptance. Questions can be unsettling and raise doubts. Best not go there.

But, for all of us, darkness lurks just there at the edges of vision and many are afraid of the dark, though God is there in the darkness. And they are afraid of silence, even more than they are afraid of darkness, though one can only really listen when there is silence. I sometimes think we are like sparks thrown up by a bonfire. We flash briefly in the dark and are gone. Life is so ephemeral and as one approaches the end there is a tendency to ask, ‘Is that it?’ And yet, looking back, I felt there were times when I touched something so enduring, so fundamental, so reassuring that the passage of time had no meaning. Those times are only a memory now. Darkness pervades but, strangely, it is not the aweful black of the void with its terrifying vertigo. The darkness is close, comforting and, somehow, even luminous at times.


May 27th, 2012

“… it probably sounds very pretentious when I say the I feel impelled to explain my inner processes to all mankind. Not to some individual in a private conversation but to all mankind, yes, to all of them… It is nonsense of course, sitting at my desk and making a fool of myself because I can’t find the right words, but sometimes I feel as if everything I experience deep down is not just for me, that I have no right to keep it to myself, that I must account for it… As if in this tiny slice of human history I were one of the many receiving sets which have to retransmit messages.”

(Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesom 1941 – 1943, Smelik, K.A.D ed, Eerdmans, Cambridge 2002, p. 393)

Reading Etty this morning this suddenly struck me. Whence this impulse to communicate?  No human experience is without interest. We really are all parts of a greater whole and whatever affects another affects me. Often I think many of us spend our lives avoiding experience. Wary of the highs, fearful of the lows, we settle for an anodyne equanimity. Or, we allow ourselves to drift with the prevailing generality, passively accepting whatever comes our way. Or, we become trapped in an addiction, drink, drugs, sex, or some all-consuming and determining compulsion. For many introspection is difficult. It forces them to look at their experience, which raises questions, awkward, perhaps, and difficult questions one is not always willing to face.

This is why the diaries of someone like Etty Hillesum are so valuable. Like most of us she has her compulsions. Unlike most of us she is not afraid to look at them, however unpleasant or embarrassing, and describe them as objectively as possible. Her gaze is unflinchingly honest and direct. She allows it to lead her in a direction totally at variance with her upbringing and previous inclinations because that seems the right thing to do. To her astonishment one day she, an agnostic, nominal Jew, finds herself kneeling to pray

To know the dark

May 15th, 2012

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Wendell Berry

I don’t know whether this applies to all who hunger for God and take prayer seriously – I know it has applied to many, like Thérese of Lisieux, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton – that, after early mystical experiences, the lights go out and an all-enveloping darkness, or dense fog descends. Whether darkness or fog, the result is the same. Where before there were perspectives, illumination, above all awareness of a union that transcended bodily boundaries, now there is isolation, solitude, alone in the dark. This is hard to take. It is bewildering and disorientating. One is constantly searching for some chink, some glimmer in the darkness, for reassurance. And occasionally, very occasionally, there might be the briefest of glimmers, but never enough to lift the all-pervading gloom.

Discovering Wendell Berry’s poem above made me realise that the constant searching and yearning for light in the darkness is a failure to recognise reality as it presents itself to us. It is a failure to move on, to realise that the time of illuminating experiences was simply the beginning of the journey. It is a failure to realise that the illuminating experiences were not REALITY. An awareness, yes. An awareness of the horizon of this reality and in being aware of the horizon one is aware of a beyond but not of the beyond itself. That has been left behind now and one should not be constantly looking back, wishing that one was not where one is. The darkness is the new reality and it has much, much more to reveal.

The Present Moment

February 16th, 2012

I am conscious that I have yet to finish the Phronema entry on God Within. I want to see if I can explain immanence using Nishida’s idea of ‘front structure’. Interestingly it, ties in very well with Simone Weil’s idea that what separates us is also that which connects us. And with Polanyi’s explanation of tacit knowledge using the analogy of a blind man’s stick.

Meanwhile, I came across a very interesting interview with Jane Hirshfield,

Zen and the Art of Poetry (

Interesting, not just because of what she had to say about the influence of Zen on poetry, but also because of her mention of a poet I had never heard of before, whose discovery was for her like Chapman’s Homer to Keats – Czeslaw Milosz. So I looked up the poem of his she first encountered, titled appropriately enough Encounter.

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.

A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.

One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,

Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going

The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

The poem has all the immediacy and emotional punch of a haiku focusing on the present moment. So it is easy to see why it would appeal to anyone immersed in Zen. What appears at first to be a nostalgic reflection, a little sad perhaps, is transformed by the last line, ‘I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder,’ which refocuses the attention on a moment in that wonderful winter dawn.

Which raises again, it comes up again and again, the significance of the present moment. A moment so fleeting, suddenly… now… then gone. Not to be repeated, but neither quite forever. Because with the glimpse of a photograph, the surfacing of a memory sparked by a taste, a sound, smell, voice, or some other trigger and that moment is there again in all its immediacy. The moment was, and has gone, but its emotional impact has transcended time.


December 19th, 2011

En faisant de Dieu un événement de l’histoire, en inscrivant sa Présence au cœur de l’humanité, Jésus-Christ a intériorisé Dieu. Dieu n’est plus une puissance cachée derrière les étoiles, Dieu est au-dedans de nous. (Maurice Zundel)

[08-16/10/11 – Droits de l’homme, droits de propriété.]

This idea of God, a power hidden behind the stars, is quite striking, and pretty traditional.  It is a simple graphic idea, quite easy to grasp and it deals nicely with the problems of coming to grips with a God who is utterly transcendent – the idea of a being beyond, but relating to, the visible cosmos. A problem occurs, however, when it comes to Jesus Christ. Even though we have may have accepted the idea of the Incarnation – that this being has become man – we don’t really dwell on the utter contradiction of Jesus Christ, God and man. Either God, or man, but God/man – that is the greatest contradiction of terms. God is infinite self-sufficiency; man is contingent matter. To say that one is the other does not make sense. The cognitive dissonance involved in such a gross contradiction means that, rather than grappling with it and trying to understand its consequences, we tend to accept that God, the transcendent power hidden behind the stars, is present in some way we don’t understand in Jesus Christ. And that, probably, for most of us is as far as it goes.

But Zundel does not look away. He follows the logic. If God is in Christ then God is immanent. He is within humanity. He is within us. This is a novel and startling idea. It is not, first of all, our common experience. Indeed, we would look very suspiciously at anyone who claimed that they were aware that God was within them. Yet Zundel is quite serious, as Paul was quite serious when he said, ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Gal 2:20) One might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this might be the case but that it applies only to a selected few great mystics. However, the tenor of the New Testament implies that God’s immanence in humanity is universal. The presence of God within us is not just for the select few but for all. In what way, then, is God within us? And what does it mean – especially since it is not our common experience?

Zundel does not pose this question, neither does he answer it directly. Instead he comes at it in a roundabout way by looking at what it means to exist as a human person. He says, Exister, c’est être l’origine et la source de soi-même.’ (To exist is to be the origin and source of oneself.) The emphasis here is on the self. Only God is the origin and source of his own being. But for us, to exist as human persons in the fullest sense consists first in becoming aware of what it is that makes us persons. This awareness is not necessarily conscious and explicit. More often than not it is instinctive and implicit. It is the awareness that I, the person me, am an amalgam, a nexus of relationships. And secondly, that the person I am is determined by the manner in which I reciprocate in, respond to these relationships. Our modern consumerist culture, with its attendant social changes and secularisation of religion has led to the dominant idea (at least in the West) of possessive individualism.  C. B. McPherson described this as,

Every man is naturally the sole proprietor of his own person and capacities (the absolute proprietor in that he owes nothing to society for them).*

By the mid-twentieth century, after two devastating wars, the old societal bonds and values were crumbling and their value open to question. At its best the possessive attitude is neatly summed up in Fritz Perls Gestalt Prayer

I do my thing, and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you and I am I

And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.**

This is a sad distortion of the nature of things. It is not the way we are, although it does reflect the way which the impersonal anomie of our urban culture often forces us to be. John Donne is much nearer the mark when he says,

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as a manor of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The truth is that we, as persons, are interdependent. We are social beings. We depend for our existence as mentally and emotionally healthy persons on the quality of our relationships with others. One of the worst things one can do to another person is to imprison him or her in solitary confinement. One of the worst things that can happen to a child is to suffer neglect and rejection. Without human interaction we cannot grow, or flourish. Without love we become empty husks, shadows of what might have been.

For some time in my younger days I worked for a market gardner in Burgundy, Pierre Oriol. He was a home-grown philosopher. When I asked him once what philosophers he read, he said, ‘Je ne lis pas. Je pense.’ Perhaps it was because he did not read that his thinking was so fresh and original. After the Saturday morning’s work he would invite us up to his house to be paid and over a glass or two of pastis he would challenge us with some of the ideas he had been mulling over. One Saturday the argument extended well into the afternoon. Pierre challenged us, ‘L’amour n’existe pas.’ Of course love exists, was the reaction. But for Pierre love, essentially, is pure self-giving with no hint of self-interest. All that we generally call love, as far as he could see, is inherently selfish and therefore is not, properly speaking, love. I did not have much experience of life then and could not refute his argument. Since then I have seen the unsparing commitment of individuals to the sick, the vulnerable and the suffering. Since then I have experienced what it is like to love and to be loved. I would not now try to refute his argument but rather take it to another level. Perhaps there is no such thing as the pure love Pierre intends and of course there is no love which does not involve self, but as the Japanese philosopher Nishida explains, ‘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.’*** Which brings us back to Zundel. The self of the Father is within the Son, the lover within the beloved.

(To be continued.)

* Mapherson, C. B.  The Political Theory of Possesive Individualism, OUP, Oxford, 1962,  270

** PERLS, F.  Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Bantam Books, London, 1971

*** Nishida Kitaro, Zen no Kenkyu 1921. Translated as An Enquiry into the Good by Masao Abe and Christopher Ives. Newhaven CN: Yale University Press 1990.

On the existence of God

September 2nd, 2011

Attended a talk the other night on whether it was possible to demonstrate the existence of God. Very rambling – but he was one of those speakers whose digressions are interesting. He ran out of time but he seemed to be suggesting that, with an unusual combination of platonic idealism, Anselm’s Ontological argument and Descartes’ Meditations, one could demonstrate the existence of God.

I would have taken a different route. I think that philosophically all one can do is demonstrate that belief in God can be reasonable. Because God is transcendent he does not exist in any sense that we can understand existence. Therefore his existence cannot be demonstrated. To paraphrase Luis Nordstrom

transcendence leaves no conceptual (or conceptualizable) trace – no trace of what has been transcended, what it has been transcended toward, nor any trace of the experience itself. True transcendence can neither be understood in terms of anything else nor in terms of itself.

Which is to say more or less the same, in less elegant terms, that Taoism, the Upanishads, Zen, Eckhart etc. say.

I would have gone down the religious experience road. With regard to the religious experience argument Caroline Franks Davis in her The Evidential Force of Religious Experience concludes –

If the evidence other than that of religious experience does not show theism to be improbable, then the evidence of the many religious experiences which escape pathological and other challenges will be sufficient to make some relatively unramified theistic claims probable.

However you explain it religious experience has been a factor in human awareness as far back as we can go. There are many kinds of altered states of awareness (why they always call them ‘altered states’ I don’t know. They are just different.) of which some are mystical, i.e. they are an experience of God. This is the extraordinary thing. The transcendent God somehow enters human awareness.

Lonergan explains it this way – that there is a distinction between knowledge and experience. Mystic experiences are precisely those that are conscious but unmediated, conscious but unknown. Consciousness refers to experience, whereas knowledge is a composite of experience, insight and judgement. Knowledge occurs only when experience is mediated by images and ideas and brought to reflective awareness.

To say that dynamic state [of mystic awareness] is conscious is not to say it is known. What is conscious is indeed experiences. But human knowing is not just experiencing. Human knowledge includes experiencing but adds to it scrutiny, insight, conception, naming, reflection, checking judging… the gift of God’s love ordinarily is not objectified in knowledge, but remains within subjectivity as a dynamic vector, a mysterious undertow, a fateful call to dreaded holiness. Because that dynamic state is conscious without being known, it is an experience of mystery. (Lonergan, Bernard, Method in Theology, Herder & Herder, New York 1972  p. 106)

Mystical experience, because it transcends conceptual knowledge, leaves no trace of itself within the memory, except a sort of aftertaste, a fading glow. This is that of which one cannot speak. This subliminal awareness sometimes hovers at the threshold, there but not there, a sort of corner of the eye experience which, when looked at is not there. These experiences do not come with any labels, like God, or Jesus, Krishna, or whatever. Labels are the product of later reflection, efforts to understand and make some sort of sense of what really is ineffable. This is why above all others I prefer the Buddha’s approach.

Bright darkness

August 15th, 2011

Gustave Thibon referring to charismatics –

“Always this need for revelations, for miracles, for living and palpable proofs of faith. I don’t judge it but I instinctively turn away. I can no longer do other than adore the dark and silent face of God. An essence without impact on existence – except perhaps that of total night on the bright-darkness of the Cave… My prayer is not a cry for light but an acceptance of the night. I can do no other. I no longer want to drag in my cowardly, my impure need for assurance and consolation. I would rather drown in an ocean with neither a lighthouse, nor a port, than anchor myself to a God too much like myself.”

L’expérience de Dieu avec Gustave Thibon By Gustave Thibon, Benoît Lemaire, Fides, Quebec, 2004 p. 102f (my translation)

It seems like everyone I read lately, Thibon, Zundel, Hillesum, Weil, Merton – all people seriously seeking God – find, not a God that can be expressed or experienced, but a dense and penetrating darkness. And with the darkness the conviction that in his absence God is more real than in any palpable presence. That sounds paradoxical. How can absence be more real than presence? A question impossible to answer in a coherent way. The only way I can express it is by saying that in the broad sweep of the attention, in conscious thought and ratiocination, in feelings and emotions, in ordinary everyday life God is absent – not just absent – he doesn’t exist. But in the interstices, in a fleeting moment of distraction, of absent mindedness, as a grace note to some pressing emotion, a presence is felt. But just for a moment, a fleeting intuition like something half seen out of the corner of the eye which disappears when looked at. The strange thing is that the flavour of that moment persists. It resonates like a forgotten memory which will not come to the surface. These are moments for wordless prayer because prayer itself and meditation have become impossible.

That art thou

June 19th, 2011

Reading Joseph O Leary

I came across one of those tantalising pieces of information that spark off a whole series of thoughts. Beethoven apparently had the phrase tat tvam asi above his desk. I wouldn’t have thought that knowledge of the Upanishads was very prevalent in Europe in his time, but there you are. It is not altogether surprising though, when you consider his music (especially the 6th and the 9th symphonies), that B was so struck by this idea that he had it before him as he worked. The Chandogya Upanishad tells story of Uddâlaka and how he gently leads his son Svetaketu to the realisation that Ultimate Reality, that whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere, is within. Life is not about acquiring that which one does not have, or becoming that which one is not, or not yet. Life is a journey of discovery, the discovery of what one is and always has been. Tat tvam asi – That art thou.

This goes right to the heart of the problem of subjective experience. Of what value are our lives? There are (rare?) days when we seem to touch the heights. There are days when the crushing weight of existence itself stifles the will to live. Most days, however, are the uneventful round of daily living, ordinary, banal even and, for the most part, unmemorable. Of what use are these lives, these days, hours of routine existence? Time passes. It seeps away like water into sand, as in a Beckett play.

Even more to the point, what about those days that are full of pain, lives that are filled with suffering? The mystery of suffering and evil is one of those factors that abrades the sense of well being and turns the gaze inward. Pain inhibits every thought but the desire that the suffering should cease. All the more shocking then, to come across these lines of Rilke

How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner ear–, not only a season
in time–, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.*

Squander? Wish them gone? How can one accept suffering as part of the normal scheme of things, built in to the fabric of our existence and as much part of reality as happiness, or health, or joy? Rilke’s words shock. They are a reality check which forces us to stand back and look again, forces us to hold up our unquestioned assumptions and examine them. Happiness/unhappiness, health/sickness, joy/sadness, pleasure/pain – these are the coinage of our lives. The present moment, and only this present moment, is where we touch reality.

* The Duino Elegies, No. 10

Blind loving

February 22nd, 2010

Both Simone Weil and Michael Polanyi use the concept of a blind person’s stick as a metaphor for a kind of knowing.

Anyone using a probe for the first time will feel its impact against his fingers and palm. But as we learn to use a probe, or to use a stick for feeling our way, our awareness of its impact on our hand is transformed into a sense of its point touching the objects we are exploring. This is how an interpretative effort transposes meaningless feelings into meaningful ones. (Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, Routledge Keganan Paul, London 1966, 11-12

If my eyes are blindfolded and my hands are chained to a stick, this stick separates me from things but I can explore them by means of it. It is only the stick which I feel, it is only the wall which I perceive. It is the same with creatures and the faculty of love. Supernatural love touches only creatures and goes only to God.  (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Routledge, London 2002, p. 62)

We can only know the object the stick touches indirectly by means of the sensations it makes in our hands. So too with loving God. We probe the darkness with our love and most of the time feel only the emptiness of the void. “Tap, tap,” goes the blind man’s stick, but the wand of love only produces silence. No contact, no reverberations, no palpable touch. One reaches out into the silent darkness, into the void. A dark, empty space, but enclosed, like being in a cathedral. Enclosed by breathtaking beauty, if only one could see.

Sometimes a contact is made. Sometimes there is a touch, just a touch, in the darkness and the heart responds.

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 . . . R S Thomas

Why Religion

August 30th, 2009

(Notes for a talk given to the Kilkee Civic Trust 19/08/2009)

For someone born and brought up here in the forties and fifties the question ‘Why religion?’ was a nonsense question. One no more questioned the why of religion than one questioned the sea, or the sky, or the fact that there were people. It was there, a fact of life, and belief was absorbed in much the same way as language, or manners. Nevertheless, there was an explanation for religion, just as there were answers for all the those impenetrable questions that young children ask – like, ‘Where was I before I was born?’. The answer is a story Christians know as ‘salvation history’.

The View from Inside

This story begins, appropriately enough, in the beginning with the creation of the world by God, then the creation of the first man and woman, followed by the story of their descendants and their long, often problematic, relationship with God. It is a story we all know well.
The story culminates, for Christians anyway, in the birth of God’s son, Jesus. He is the final revelation of God, God himself in human form. Interestingly enough, Jesus never says that he is divine. Nor does anybody, neither his followers nor his enemies, suspect for a minute, that he is anything other than a man. An extraordinary man, but a man nonetheless. It was only later, after his  resurrection, that it began to dawn on his followers that ‘God was in Christ’.
After his death his followers, the Apostles, spread his teaching which caught on with people to such an extent that in less than three hundred years the Church had become accepted throughout the Roman Empire and for the next twelve hundred years was to dominate European life, culture, politics and history. Today it has spread throughout the world and over the course of that time has produced many remarkable men and women.
That’s the Catholic story. I was quite proud to be a member of this privileged institution and happy with its answer to the question, ‘Why religion?’ Until, that is, shortly after I left school. I was in New York. I came to know a Jewish girl called Stephanie who was studying comparative religion at Columbia University. She was delighted to come across a cradle Catholic who, she hoped, might be able to explain some of the anomalies of Catholicism. It turned out that Stephanie knew more about my religion and religion in general than I did and that my answers to her questions were inadequate, to say the least. Wherever I went, America, the Far East, the UK, I found that I was a member of a small group of Catholics, sometimes the only member. I had become one of those slightly odd religious people. I did come across other religious people but I found their religion strange, just as they did mine.
I eventually ended up teaching in England. I often think you learn more from your pupils than they do from you. In one of my classes there was a girl from India, a Hindu.  She was very bright and unlike many of the other girls she was not vapid, or shallow, or bitchy. She had a deep faith and fasted one day a week. She sat at the back of the class and I often caught her shaking her head sadly at me as I explained some Catholic teaching or other. So one day I held her back after class and asked her why she shook her head. ‘Mr. Glynn’, she said, ‘you Catholics think you know it all.’ And I suddenly saw myself as she must have seen me – caught up in a very narrow mindset. And I caught a glimpse of another religion, Hinduism, a religion I then knew very little about, which had produced this remarkable person with such a deep spirituality. So what was the origin of Hinduism? God, we Catholics had been taught, had only revealed himself to the Jews and to Christians. Yet here was an undoubtedly holy person with a deeper and more profound faith than any of her Christian contemporaries – a Hindu. Educated in a Catholic convent school she knew as much about Catholicism as any of the other girls, yet it held no attractions for her. The level at which she lived her faith put pretty well everyone else in the school, myself included, to shame. I suddenly saw that thinking along the lines – true religion – false religion – (and the Catholic religion is the only true religion, we were taught – all the others are false) was to go about things the wrong way. There is no such thing as religion – true or false. Religion is an abstract concept. It exists only as an idea in the mind. What there is is religious people, people who are religious.
My encounters with these two girls, although there were years between them, were a reality check. They made me realise that mentally I was living in quite a small bubble and very ignorant of the mindsets, the thoughts, feelings, hopes and aspirations of my fellow human beings. Read the rest of this entry »