Archive for February, 2008


Thursday, February 28th, 2008

It is interesting to compare Thomas Merton’s and Etty Hillesum’s diaries, both of which I am reading. Both mystics, but very different types. Merton yearns for solitude. He wants to be detached from all that is to do with the ordinary human interactions of everyday life. No shopping, socialising, listening to jazz in clubs, no involvement in work and projects with other people – he wants none of this. Like Thoreau, he wants to be alone in his beloved woods. His diaries are about his thoughts on being alone and about his writing. They, at least the earlier ones, are full of ‘spontaneous’ prayers and tend to give the impression that they were written with an eye to eventual publication. Interestingly they say little about his feelings, about his deepest longings and about the tides of his prayer. Etty, on the other hand, wants to immerse herself in people. Her major vocation is to love others, not just individually but collectively. She sees her relationship with S as important because, through it, she is learning to translate her intense feelings for him as an individual into love for all. As well as her emotional, often confused and always passionate relationships with others, there is developing a private and increasingly profound relationship with God. 

What is interesting for me just now are the different approaches to detachment by these two people, each  a mystic, each with an awareness of the presence of God, each seeking fulfilment in God. One adopts the traditional ascetic approach that goes all the way back to the Desert Fathers, whose way of life he sees as the ideal. The other knows nothing of the traditions of spirituality, or asceticism and has only her feelings and insight to guide her. She is involved in intimate relationships with several men, and may have had an abortion. Her sensuality and eroticism are as much part of the ordinary way of things for her as her love for others and her growing awareness of God. What does her life tell us about the role of asceticism in spiritual development? Asceticism is obviously just a means to an end. Ultimately, however  it is arrived at, this involves detachment from self and, although Etty is not an ascetic, she is prepared to make that ultimate sacrifice. This is shown when, out of love for them, she volunteered to share the fate of her compatriots in the concentration camp. 

 Merton lives by the traditional spiritual code of Cistercian monasticism but chafes against the rough edges that do not suit his temperament. He is torn between the support of monastic order and the beauty of the sung office; the desire for solitude in the hushed serenity of his beloved woods, and the seemingly haphazard pull of inchoate feelings and desires. Etty is guided by her feelings and these, as the days go by, run more and more strongly, drawn by the attractive force of love – love for God, love for others, love for both inextricably intermingled. With Merton God is, as often as not, absent and sought with longing. With Etty God is increasingly present as an undercurrent drawing her towards a more explicit awareness. What is becoming clear in all of this is that the action of God must be taken into account. I tended to think of Him as Love, universally bestowed on all, as light from the sun. And there is good NT evidence for this view. If any are not aware of this love it is not because it is withheld from them but because they are not sufficiently receptive to it – too self preoccupied perhaps, or their lifestyle prohibits it. It is obvious, however, just from looking at Merton and Etty, that this is much too simplistic. Although his benevolence is bestowed on all, God also intervenes on an individual basis. And this makes sense if our relationship with Him is to be personal rather than impersonal.


Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

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

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


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.


Friday, February 22nd, 2008

 I just started reading Etty Hillesum’s diaries, An Interrupted Life. She writes well. But the interesting thing about her is not her writing style but her personal and religious development. Unusually for a spiritual writer, because that is what she is, the sexual dimension of her life is an important factor, one that she  deals with openly and frankly. She was a Jew, a rather detached one until the Nazi attitude to the Jews made her aware of her racial and religious inheritance, so she was never exposed to Jansenist attitudes. She became a mystic with none of the negative feelings about sex which seem to infect Christians, especially Catholics. So I hope to learn something from her. 

There is an enormous chasm in Christian spirituality, which is only now beginning to be addressed. On the one hand there is the insistence on celibacy. Not just celibacy as in the married state but celibacy as in detachment from any sexual relationship. The mystic ideal – and every spiritual life is oriented towards the mystical in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, as far as I can gather – involves an absolute detachment, sooner or later, from everything that is not God. Later this is reversed when all that is egotistic and selfish has been detached from and the person is able to give her/himself in absolute freedom. The Ten Oxherding Pictures can be applied just as easily to Christianity as to Zen. This detachment  process is the cause of the two ‘nights’ and the depression which they often induce. It is also the reason why the spiritual life is such a struggle. It runs counter to the natural human instinct towards greater integration and involvement with others – which brings us to the other hand. 

We are social beings and our identity and consciousness of who and what we are is determined by our relationships. Each one of us is a nexus of relationships. This is where Christianity and Buddhism complement each other. The Buddhist insight is that when the knot of these relationships is unravelled nothing is left. There is nothing inside the knot, no hidden and enduring kernel such as a permanent self or soul. Which raises some very interesting questions. What is a relationship if the poles of the relationship are themselves ephemeral nexus of relationships? This is an impossible question which leads to the suspicion that its posing could only arise from a misunderstanding of what reality is, an understanding which is too mechanistic. Another question – what is the nothing which remains? Again this can be understood in a nihilistic way, which gets us nowhere, or in the sense of nothing which is not something, nothing in the sense of sunyata, emptiness, a void which is a dynamic process. This is as far as Buddhism goes. The Christian insight, revelation, is that the nothingness is God, the Transcendent Other. 


Now the journey from the beginning of the spiritual life, when one asks, ‘Who am I?; Where am I going?; What is the meaning of life?’ – to the realisation of the loss of self in God is a long one, a lifetime long. And it is a journey in a vehicle  with just a tiny window to the side. We cannot see what is ahead but we can see a little of where we are. Sometimes the vehicle  stops, sometimes it gets stuck on a side road, sometimes it even goes into reverse. But we think we know where we are going so we press on. We have plenty of guide books, many of them conflicting. As the journey progresses it gets darker and darker. Soon we can see nothing out of the side window and don’t know whether we are on the right road, or even whether we are still moving. There are a very few exceptional people who have a vehicle with lights so that they can see fairly clearly and their stories give us courage and reassurance. Eventually we are going to have to get out of the vehicle and go on without it but this is the last thing we want to do. We cannot even imagine ourselves doing it. The vehicle is all we have. We have no idea of what is outside, even if there is an outside. At least inside we have our books and can read about our journey and about the journeys of others. We can even talk to others in their vehicles and compare notes. We hope that eventually the vehicle will arrive and we’ll know, perhaps we’ll be told, it’s OK to get out now. But that is not going to happen. The vehicle is not going to get us to the end of the journey. It cannot. Sooner or later we are going to have to step out into the darkness. That’s when we encounter the biggest problem of all. We cannot remember getting into the vehicle and, on looking around it, we do not see a door. How do we get out? This reminds me of the Zen koan of the goose in the bottle, in fact it is the koan of the goose and the bottle. There is no concealed entrance, no hidden latch which will open a secret door. When we come to understand what the vehicle is and why we are in it, then it will no longer be a problem.

A Zen monk called Riko goes to his master Nansen and quotes the famous Zen koan.

‘You put a gosling into a bottle and the gosling grows up to be a goose. 

Master, how to get the goose out of the bottle without breaking the bottle?’

The master doesn’t answer.

Riko walks away from the master and then the master shouts out, ‘Riko!’

Riko replies, ‘Yes Master.’

And the master says, ‘There, the goose is out!’


I have strayed from the point I was trying to make – the conflict between the injunction to detachment, including celibacy and sex, and the human need to relate to others. I remember a story about an old abbot of a monastery in Ireland. When po
stulants came and asked to become monks he would say to them, ‘Have you ever been in love?’ More often than not they would indignantly deny that the thought of such a thing had ever crossed their mind. He would then send them away, telling them to find a girl and fall in love, and if after that they still wanted to be monks he would welcome them. No doubt the story is apocryphal but the point is a serious one. Becoming a person is a long, and for some, slow process of growth and development. It is a process of relating to and being related to, of giving and receiving, of giving up and receiving back, of being filled and of being emptied. Above all it is a process of opening up and allowing others in. It is the discovery that being is more important than having and that in order to be it is not necessary to have. In all of this sexual feelings and orientation are defining factors. There is a sexual dimension in all our relating. Men relate to men differently than they relate to women. A woman can give something to a man no other man can give simply because she is a woman and vice versa. Each relationship is unique but the sexual chemistry is always a factor, essential in order to become a lover, a father/mother, a son/daughter, a brother /sister, a friend, a companion. It is in these becomings that we discover who we are. It is in these becomings that we take possession of the self that we give in each relationship. Now to ask a person who has not yet achieved a measure of personal stability, who is still not quite sure who they are, to ask such a person to renounce the sexual dimension of themselves, because that is what the vow of celibacy amounts to in the Church, is to ask them to renounce personal fulfilment. It is no wonder that so many go off the rails. 

Absence of God

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

The absence of God. I am not sure how to describe this. It is not the ordinary, everyday absence. Normally people go around not thinking very much, if at all, about God. He is just not there, never has been and so there is no sense of absence. What has never been there cannot be absent. But for me there is a deep sense of absence – a sort of coming home to an empty house feeling. People ought to be there but they are not. God ought to be there but he isn’t. Because of the absence there is a sense of helplessness and powerlessness. There is a void where there ought to be a place to stand. 

God has no name. There is a difference between the Christian personalist approach to meditation and the Buddhist impersonalist approach. What would be the experience of Ultimate Reality for those coming from such different directions? Obviously an individual’s worldview and historical context is going to colour his perceptions. This reminded me of something I read by Denys Turner this morning – ‘the undetached person denatures her world and cannot even properly enjoy it. She cannot meet with reality on its own terms, but only on her own.’

 The possessive self gets in the way. We give things names, not because a name is something inherent in them, but for our benefit. By naming something we are asserting a certain propriety over that thing and it is then labelled and categorised and placed in our inventory of things. But God is not a thing among things. When Moses before the burning bush asked God his name the reply was, ‘I am who I am.’ This is not a name, though for the Jews it was to become a name, the tetragrammaton. But they always retained the intuition that it was not really a name by insisting that it should never be spoken. It is not a name because God does not have a name. We have names so that we may be identified, so that we may be distinguished one from another. In the encounter with God we do not meet a, or even the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. These are names we have applied to particular concepts. God is the wholly Other, utterly beyond any concept, or anything we could imagine. Language and concepts do not apply – only silence.

[Turner, The Darkness of God, p. 183]

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.

Etty Hillesum

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

I have come across Etty Hillesum. She is one of the examples used by Oliver Davies in his Theology of Compassion. The fascinating thing about her is that she is a natural mystic. Her religious background is agnostic – a nominal Jew – until the Germans began their extermination process in Holland. She reminds me of one girl I taught, whose name I have now forgotten, who was also a natural mystic with no religious background at all. I am looking forward to reading Etty’s diaries. The other interesting thing is that her mysticism leads her, not to solitary contemplation, or a rejection of all things worldly, but to immerse herself in the terrible suffering of her fellow Jews. She wants to be the seeing, caring, compassionate heart of the concentration camp, articulating, praying and witnessing.

I am also reading Thomas Merton’s journals and find it very interesting to compare his experience with Etty’s. He never uses one word where ten will do and is very pious in a Catholic sense – big on the Sacred Heart and Our Lady. It is interesting to see how, as he gets older, his prayer life becomes simpler, darker and more barren. Not that I have anything against devotion. It just never appealed to me. It always seemed to me as though it got in the way, like a lot of gaudy tinsel and fancy wrapping paper when the important thing is to get at the present underneath. Except that the box is empty and there is no present underneath – nothing that can be expressed or talked about. Merton loves all the monastic ritual, especially the sung Office. And he has his devotions but it is an imposed and acquired spirituality, put on, like the habit, when he entered the monastery. This is the early Merton. Later, he sees through the superficial externals and sets out into the desert of his solitary hermitage. That is why I am so interested in Etty’s spirituality. She knows nothing of theology, or ritual, or devotion. It is a spirituality immersed in people and relationships, in powerlessness and suffering. There are no ecclesiastical externals, no theologically determined rules about what is and is not correct. It is a discovery of God within herself and within the helpless suffering of her people.

The Listening Owl

Monday, February 18th, 2008

I was meditating this morning, dark and difficult as usual and afterwards I remembered the story of the Listening Owl. It is not like any other story I have read. I cannot remember where I came across it now – some book of stories for children – but this is no ordinary child’s story. It is a story for adults too, but only for those who can suspend belief and see and wonder with a child’s eyes. Here is the story:

The Listener

There was the Other Voice Owl of the World.  He sat in the world tree laughing in his front voice, only his other voice was not laughing.  His other voice was saying the silence.  He had a way of saying it.  He said it wide and far when he began.  He said it tiny when it came close.  He kept saying the silence like that in his other voice and when he finished the silence swallowed up the sounds of the world and the owl swallowed up the silence.

No one knew he was doing it.  He was trying to swallow all the sounds of the world and then there would be no more world because everything would follow its sound into the silence and then it would be gone.  What the owl had in mind was to get it all swallowed and then fly away.  He only did it at night.  He thought he’d get some of it swallowed every night until the whole world was gone away.

No one knew what the owl was doing except for a child.  He didn’t have any eyes.  He listened all the time.  When he heard the owl saying the silence in his other voice he heard the silence swallowing up the sounds of the world, little and big, from the wind sighing in the trees to the ants crying in their holes.  The child knew the owl was trying to say the whole world away and he knew it was up to him to stop the owl, so he began to listen everything back.  He listened far and wide when he began, he listened tiny when it came close.  The eye of the goat and the dance in the stone and the beetle digging a grave for the sparrow. He listened them into his ear holes and he kept them all safe there.  The foot steps of the moth and the sea foam hissing on the strand.  He listened everything back.

The child only kept the sounds in his ear holes at night.  He kept them safe till morning.  When the cock crowed in the middle of the night it never fooled him, nor when he crowed again before first light.  He kept the sounds safe in his ear holes till the day stood up and the cock of the morning crowed everything awake.  Then the child unheard the sounds and they went back to where they lived.  The child was laughing at the owl, but the owl didn’t know it.  He thought he had done a good night’s work.  He sat in the world tree grooling and smarling all day, thinking he would get the whole world gone, only he never did.

The owl keeps trying and he’ll do it one day.  All it takes is for no one to be listening everything back.  He will go the world away and himself with it and that’ll be the end of it.  But it may not be for a while yet.  Not as long as there is a child to listen.


It suddenly struck me that this is what contemplative prayer is all about. It is dark. There are no images, brilliant ideas, or wonderful thoughts. It is simply a dark night and sometimes there is a sense of presence but usually there isn’t. Yet, paradoxically – at least with me – there has been a profound awareness of others, especially of those suffering and struggling. The horror stories from all over the world that fill the news have a personal impact and fill me with sadness. It is as though all the joy, tolerance, love,  generosity and goodness  of people is being swallowed up by the dark forces who have the power to enforce their will on the rest of us. All the hypocritical ‘front voice’ rhetoric about freedom, democracy and the rule of law means nothing in the face of the ‘other voice’ exercise of overwhelming power in the service of selfishness and greed. 

This is why it is so important for the blind child in all of us to listen back the love, courage, generosity and goodness that the ‘other voice’ darkness is trying so desperately to swallow up. 


Saturday, February 16th, 2008

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

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

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

Tangible events

Friday, February 15th, 2008

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

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