Archive for the ‘Becoming’ Category

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,


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


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


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. [—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
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]


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.


Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

I can understand Thomas Merton’s longing for solitude. Even though my day is my own, in theory, it is filled with incidental tasks, to-ings and fro-ings, and dealing with the wishes of the family. I also have my self imposed tasks. Not that I resent any of these but they interrupt the silence. The more I think about it the more I agree with Rahner’s idea of a primordial unthematic awareness of God – sometimes felt as a sense of presence, sometimes as a feeling that this tangible reality is merely the outer surface of an unfathomable mystery, most times unfelt, simply an emptiness, a hollow void. When there is a longish stretch of solitude and silence these unfelt feelings loom large in awareness and my self, my possessive self stands exposed and can be seen for what it is with its narrow preoccupations with anything that will lead to aggrandisement. Then it is easier to turn away, and the empty darkness becomes compellingly attractive.

New Ideas

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

 I wonder whether the idea of a process of spiritual evolution makes a lot of sense. Looking around the world today it is not easy to see that there has been any progress. The last century has probably been more violent and destructive than all those preceding it. Yet there is a growing consensus that violence does not provide a lasting solution and certainly not a just one. The world is becoming a smaller place in that it is now possible to know, more or less instantly, what is going on in the most remote places. The fact that we are moving towards becoming a global village and that, partly as a result, the various cultures are losing their distinctiveness is sad, even tragic, but, I am just beginning to realise, it can also be liberating. Every culture, however rich and benign,  imposes conceptual limitations which inhibit our freedom to think new ideas. If we can avoid being seduced – it may already be too late – by the attractions of the trans-atlantic, consumerist ‘culture’ imposed by the media machines of multi-national corporations we may be able to use that freedom. I don’t know how long it will take before the consumerist froth of this pop-culture is seen for what it is. There is plenty of evidence that its shallowness and its inability to meet our deepest needs are already being realised. The factors that attract Muslims and many non-Muslims to Islamic fundamentalism are operative everywhere.  This is a push-pull process – repulsion from consumerism and attraction to Islam. The repulsion is everywhere and widespread. However, the attractive alternatives,  apart from Islam, are not there, or are not seen as viable.  

This is a wonderful opportunity for the Church, an opportunity  all the more within her grasp because of the crisis she is presently enduring. As an institution the Church has lost, or is in the process of losing, credibility. Its structures do not fit in with our present day society. Bishops are not accountable to their flocks and too many politically sophisticated prelates pursue an agenda dictated by the putative needs of the institution rather than those of the Gospel. That the institution might be damaged was once the nightmare scenario which inhibited change and innovation, growth and development. We have now woken up. The nightmare has become a reality. The institution is seen for what it is and the world has not come to an end. The institution is not the Church. It never was. Forty odd years ago the Second Vatican Council gave the bishops an opportunity to demonstrate this. In spite of some inspiring documents and much enthusiasm at the time very little changed. Will there be any Ambroses, Augustines, or Gregorys in this millenium, I wonder.


Thursday, November 8th, 2007

It is becoming crystal clear that meditation is not just a matter of 20 or 40 minutes a day and the rest of the time one can carry on as normal. This is something I have thought about before. In the old days it was called metanoia, or conversion. Usually it was spoken about in terms of a religious experience. The individual is passive and perceives reality in a way he never has before. He becomes aware of God, or God’s love, or universal love, or the oneness of everything. The experience has a transforming effect. St. Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus is the classic example. St. Augustine’s experience, sparked off by hearing ‘Tolle lege’, is often compared to Paul’s but the two are very different. Augustine had been searching for God for a long time. His search was primarily an intellectual one as he agonised over the possibility of God, his nature, etc. As one would expect of someone steeped in the Greek philosophers, he believed that truth and understanding could be arrived at intellectually, that the highest form of knowledge (which must therefore include knowledge of God) was rational. Nevertheless, he had an instinctive feeling that the discovery of God required more than ratiocination, that it demanded a moral commitment. This is why he used to pray, ‘Oh God make me chaste, but not yet.’

For St. Paul, on the other hand, morality as enshrined in the Law, was the whole of religion. It defined the Covenant relationship of the Jews with God. ‘God’ was not an intellectual problem but a fact of life. His experience on the road to Damascus showed him that the ‘God’ he believed in, the God of the Old Testament, was not in fact God. The God of the Old Testament, Father, Creator, Judge who punishes the wicked and rewards the good, bore no resemblance to God who is Love.

Both Paul and Augustine, although they came to their experiences from very different directions and with different preconceptions, were both overwhelmed by love. They responded by committing themselves totally to God. Broadly speaking their experiences have been reflected by mystics since then. There are those, like Paul, who are not looking for God, who may even have been atheists and hostile the idea of God, like Simone Weil, whose lives are totally changed by the encounter with him. And there are those, like Augustine, who have spent years searching, praying and meditating without success when, suddenly, they too are overwhelmed. One cannot do anything to bring about an experience of the first kind. Can one, I wonder, do anything to bring about an experience of the second kind?

According to Zaehner there are three types of mystical experience – nature, soul and theistic mysticism. The first is relatively common and probably can be induced given the right circumstances. The second would seem to correspond to the experiences of some types of meditation and almost certainly can be induced. Very often the first merges into the second, for example Richard Jeffrey. The third, however, is pure grace; entirely the gift of God and nothing the individual does can initiate it. My feeling is that this last point is a bit too simplistic. It depends on a particular view of God – that he is totally transcendent and wholly other. McGinn thinks that Zaehner is too restrictive in limiting himself to three types of mysticism and I am inclined to agree with him

I think too that, given the ontological link between God and man, there must be something in human experience which opens out into God. I think that Zen in particular, and Buddhism in general, lead to the threshold of the transcendent. The perception of this threshold is not purely a rational, or mental awareness. It requires self-sacrificial love. We are not usually aware of how our perceptions are coloured by emotions, feelings and hidden assumptions. The whole point of Buddhist meditation is to cut these out and arrive at a simple awareness. I am becoming more and more convinced that while a simple awareness may be arrived at solely by means of disciplined and concentrated meditation, unless this is accompanied by a radical moral conversion to self-sacrificial love the awareness will remain on an empirical level – awareness of being aware – no more. I think the reason for this is that at an unconscious level selfishness and self-centredness still operate. Feelings moods and emotions run very deep and are only partially in the control of the rational mind. These are, more often than not, self-centred. I am unhappy, hungry, angry, vindictive etc. I want, hope, hate, love, recoil from… etc. These emotions reinforce the assumption that there is an independent and imperial self whose wishes and demands have priority over all else and which must be satisfied in order to achieve peace, happiness and security. Such a self is a myth. It is what the Sufis call the Commanding Self and it is at the root of the Buddhist concept of anatman (no-self). Such a self with its deep roots in the unconscious, over which we have no conscious control, colours all our perceptions including those in meditation. It is not the True Self that comes to meditation but the Imperial Self and it is the Imperial Self who sits and wills that the mind should simply observe thoughts and feelings as they come and go. After meditation it is the Imperial Self which gets up and goes about the everyday tasks. One cannot, by conscious activity, get at the unconscious, to examine it and alter it. Someone once said,

‘The Unconscious is not unconscious, only the Conscious is unconscious of what the Unconscious is conscious of’.

And the unconscious makes its presence felt, shaping our perceptions and colouring our awareness all unknown to the Conscious. This is why by meditation alone one cannot shed this false assumption and come to see reality as it is. It is why sila, morality as spelled out in the first six steps of the Noble Eightfold Path, is the essential prerequisite. A conscious commitment to radical and self-sacrificial love, because it goes against the grain, because it runs counter to our instinct for self-survival, will gradually alter the hidden assumptions of the unconscious.

Drinking from our own wells

Saturday, July 21st, 2007

Gustavo Gutierrez, quoting St. Bernard, says we must drink from our own wells. The fount of living water is within us. The problem is the Church. It does not encourage us to be anything other than consumers of the Sacraments. I do not want to downplay the importance of the Sacraments but if they are what they are claimed to be, and if they work ex opere operato, then how come that priests and religious can receive the Eucharist day after day, every day of their lives without being transformed. The Church encourages people to remain at the synthetic conventional stage of faith; to accept what ‘they’ say; to be religious consumers of comforting and undemanding platitudes; to be cultivators of the inner gardens of their souls. It does not lead them out into the desert; show them how to be strangers in a strange land, how to find the inner well of living water which will nourish their journey both into and out from the centre of their being.

The Church has externalised the journey we all have to make. It has placed the goal outside us and beyond even this life. Only in Heaven, it tells us, do we come to the end of all our searching, discover who we really are in the discovery of the transcendent God. Until then we must make do with words and symbols, we must live and act in the blindness of faith. Knowledge is the knowledge of stories handed down for generations. It is second-hand abstract concepts passed on by people who are often more concerned with the niceties of logic and the problems of hermeneutics than with living reality. You cannot know. You will never know until you die. That is why you have to accept what we say. Such pride and arrogance! What a distance we have come from the New Testament.

Only if we can find the Spirit within will we be able to face up to the problem of alienation which all who really search for God must feel in this society of ours. Only when we can hear the inner song will we be able to dance to a different tune and it is only when we are dancing, caught up in the music, that we can draw others after us.

Giving birth

Saturday, June 30th, 2007

Life seems to be about giving birth. Paul talks about all creation groaning in travail as what is to be struggles to become.
Giving birth is not a momentary event which happens once at the beginning. It is not just the emergence of the new born from the old, and then the two exist, new and old, side by side.
Giving birth is a process, a long drawn out process of gradual emergence of the new from the old, of new drawing its being from the old, of the new drawing out the being of the old, changing it and transforming it.
Giving birth can be a painful experience when the being of the old is caught up in the new which has not learnt to see and blindly wheels, stumbles and gropes, wounded and bleeding. It is also a joyful process but, more often than not, the joy is mixed with suffering.