Archive for April, 2008


Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Came across this in McGinn yesterday:

[Mystical] experience is presented as subjectively different insofar as it is affirmed as taking place on a level of the personality deeper and more fundamental than that objectifiable through the usual conscious activities of sensing, knowing and loving. There is also an objective difference to the extent that this mode of the divine presence is said to be given in a direct or immediate way, without the usual internal and external mediations found in other types of consciousness. [The Presence of God, p. xix.]

This is more or less what Lonergan says. It would be very easy to wax poetic and get carried away, but I think we need to be very circumspect in what we say about God. There is all the difference between the God of experience (or rather, non-experience) and the God of theology. The God of experience has no names or labels.


Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

I had never realised before how much time is spent on trivia. Elliot was right. We cannot bear too much reality. We flee from it and cultivate areas of interest which we invest with the utmost importance. ‘Oh, I couldn’t live without my….’ Or, ‘I must have my…’ I am no better than the next person. I do it just as much but I am also afflicted, if that is the right word, with the awareness that these preoccupations, in the greater scheme of things, count for nothing. They are pass-times – literally. 

At Mass on Sunday the priest spent long moments giving a eulogy of a parishioner who had just died. He went on and on about how much he had done for the parish, how much he would be missed. I wondered what this paragon had done when Father went on to describe the hours the man had spent working on the drains in front. It was a moment of pure bathos and it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. Of course, drains are important, especially if they are not working properly. I suppose this should remind me that I am being too extreme. When it comes to human activity intention is all important. The intention of the doer can elevate the utterly trivial to the sublime. The reverse is also true. This is the incredible thing about being human. We have the power to turn the dross of humdrum activity into the pure gold of love. I am reminded of two lines by Rimbaud

 Car j’ai de chaque chose extrait la quintessence;

To m’a donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or.

Absence of God

Monday, April 28th, 2008

On the face of it, the absence of God would seem to be the major problem for those who seek Him. Especially those who have started out on their journey as a result of religious experiences, those who have caught a glimpse of the footprints of the ox. These awaken something within, something previously unknown and unsuspected – a hunger, a yearning, an emptiness which nothing can fill. From time to time there are glimpses, a sense of a presence, a feather-light touch, of love undreamt.


And then comes darkness. One stands at the edge of a void and feels the vertigo of an irresistible attraction. And then there are only memories of what once was. The sense of presence fades and is gone. The desire and the hunger and the yearning fade and then are gone. There remains only emptiness and the absence of desire. And yet…


Friday, April 25th, 2008

Reading a lot of Eckhart lately, or rather, about him – Oliver Davies, McGinn, Joseph Milne. He is one of the few who make any sense to me at the moment. Milne has a long essay on Eckhart and human nature – really trying to tease out what E means by ‘soul’. I can remember a very heated argument when I was doing theology as to whether the soul was directly created by God and infused in the body at the moment of conception, or whether the parents engendered both the body and the soul. Our professor held to the former, the Thomistic position. I realise now that we should first have sorted out what we meant by soul. We were arguing about apples and pears, two different entities. The soul, for E, which is the Thomist view, is not the person, the self, (what I took at the time to be the soul) which of course is a product of genetic inheritance and social relationships (nature + nurture). And Thomas, were he alive today would not have argued with that. What he and E meant by soul is our inmost being, which is from God and in God. It is not correct to say we have souls, we are souls. 


Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Came across this by Rilke

What will you do, God, when I am dead?

I am your pitcher (what if I should break?)

I am your drink (what if I should perish?)

I am your robe, your craft,

You lose your meaning when I am no more.

When I am gone you have no home…

What will you do, God! I am afraid.

Rlike was very struck by these thoughts of a monk he encountered on his Russian trip. Prater* chides Rilke a bit for this conception of God as an artefact of the human imagination, but I think he has captured here something of the nature of God. Perhaps it derives from something he acquired in his exposure to Russian monasticism. It is not a million miles away from Athanasius’ remark that God became man so that man might become God. The idea is of God extending himself (if you can put it that way) into all of nature and especially into people. As we live, grow, mature, becoming less ego centric and more and more open to others, to the Other, to loving and being loved, God is born in us (as Eckhart puts it). Well, in many, perhaps countless thousands, who knows. Some do not respond. Some cannot bring themselves to respond and perhaps it is these who die to God. Read like this the poem points up the poignancy of God whose love is rejected by those he made.

*Prater, Donald; A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1986 p. 56


Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

I had a long talk with C last night about gnosticism and religious experience. He is very much into the Gospel of Mary Magdalen. He had a religious experience when he was about eight and in retrospect thinks it was of her. It is hard to get a word in edgeways when C starts talking but I tried to define the difference between the gnosticism of these apocryphal gospels and the message of the Gospels – salvation through the acquisition of secret knowledge, on the one hand, and through faith and love on the other. Of course it is not as black and white as that sounds. To love is to know, at least in the biblical sense, and one believes in order to understand as St. Anselm would have it. In fact he captures the subtle blending of the two attitudes when he says, Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. (Indeed I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.) 

C is convinced that Jesus married Mary Magdalen – amazing how a popular novel can influence. Why is the idea of marrying off Jesus so popular these days? It is as if the contradictions and paradoxes of the Jesus of the Gospels are too much and people want him to be someone they can understand. And what is wrong with a bit of romance, someone might say. It humanises him and, perhaps, makes him more accessible, but in doing so the mystery of who he is evaporates. Instead of being confronted by this extraordinarily compelling and mysterious man and being drawn through him towards the unfathomable depths of God we are faced merely with a good man, a brave and heroic teacher. It is as though the cognitive dissonance generated by the contradictory and paradoxical Jesus is too much to bear and the mind settles for a prophet with a romantic streak.

All of this distracts attention from the most significant fact about Jesus, namely the Resurrection.

Subjective eperience

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Subjective experience again. I look out the window rapt at the wonderful cloudscapes we have here, especially at sunrise and sunset, or I sit pondering on questions like this, or I sit trying to focus on the Jesus Prayer drifting from concentration to distraction to concentration again, or I offer a prayer for someone, or I think about the moment of death when subjectivity will cease and I wonder how these various experiences differ, and more importantly, what gives some greater significance than others. From somewhere, I do not know where, comes the idea that relationship is the key. Walking along the street bodies pass, physically close, sometimes touching, but no eye contact. There are no human relationships there. Close proximity but impersonal. Then eye-contact and immediately everything changes. I am no longer alone. There is another person and we relate. The relationship is perhaps just the minimal acknowledgement of another’s presence, or recognition of a friend, or an enemy, or merely an acquaintance. In each case the quality of the relationship will be different. The point of relationship is that the other changes my inner world, as I do his. How my inner world, my subjective experience, is changed depends on the kind of relationship, its quality and intensity. The point is that in a relationship the subjective experience of each is transcended and extends into that of the other. In the ordinary casual relationships of everyday this amounts to perhaps not more than feelings of pleasure or displeasure, affirmation or denigration. An intimate relationship, however, can be life-giving or life-denying with the power to change us radically.

What is this mysterious thing relationship? It is a connection, a link. This is not something material in the sense that it can be measured, or detected by any instrument, although it is obviously rooted in our physical bodies and can have dramatic physiological effects. 

Subjective experience, subjectivity – is complex. It denotes more than a subject’s inner awareness. It ranges from the awareness of a baby, where everything is experienced as an extension of its own body, to  the awareness of other-than-me, to empathy with others, to inter-subjectivity, to mystical experience. Concerning the latter, which Lonergan says is love without limits, he goes on to say, “This complete being-in-love, the gift of God’s grace, is the reason of the heart that reason does not know. It is a religious experience by which we enter into a subject-to-subject relationship with God.”*

 In person-with-person love there is a barrier, an interiority in the other that is always out of bounds. Likewise there is an interiority in the self, which even if one wills it, cannot be opened to the other. The inter-subjectivity of loving and being loved is always less than whole. In the experience of love of and by God there are no limits, at least on God’s part. He enters completely into the subjectivity of the other and, on very rare occasions, the individual finds himself within God, as it were. He is the presence within and perhaps once or twice in a lifetime one finds oneself within that presence within.

God never presents himself as object in any sense, and so he comes to us not as experience but in experience: not as that which we can appropriate, render proper to consciousness, but rather as a mystery that passes through our lives, a disturbance that opens our ways of being, doing and thinking to quite other perspectives and that cannot be positively identified by introspection.

*Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection, Darton Longaman & Todd, London 1974 p. 129 


Monday, April 21st, 2008

Suicide, particularly the suicide of young men, is something we have all become aware of lately. I have been reading Paul Lebeau’s book on Etty Hillesum and came across this quotation which seemed very appropriate.

Je vous ai dit ce que je pense d’une mort qui l’on s’infligerait volontairement, et je vais maintenant vous dire ce que je n’ai jamais exprimé jusqu’ici. Ensuite nous n’en parlerons plus jamais. J’ai moi-même, vers l’époque de votre naissance envisagé cette éventualité, que je dois aujourd’hui rejeter. Je considère qu’une telle fin est une injustice métaphysique, une offense a l’esprit. C’est un manque de confiance vis-a-vis du Bien éternel, une infidélité à l’égard de notre devoir le plus intime: celui d’obéir a une loi universelle. Celui qui se tue est un meurtrier, non seulement de lui-même, mais aussi d’autrui. Car l’homme ne se divise pas. Une telle mort, j’en suis profondément convaincu, n’est pas une libération, comme peut l’être une mort naturelle et innocente. Toute violence commise en ce monde prolifère, comme chacun de nos actes. Nous sommes ici pour porter une partie de la souffrance de monde, en lui offrant notre coeur, non pour l’aggraver par un acte de violence. [Walther Rathenau, Lettres à une amante, quoted in Paul Lebau, Etty Hillesum: Un itinéraire spirituel Amsterdam 1941 – Auschwitx 1943 Albin Michel, Paris 2001 pp. 98f]

The idea that we are all members one of another goes back a long, long way. I must look up what Paul had to say, and John Donne was very eloquent. But it is an idea that does not fit easily into our individualistic and consumerist society. We cannot bear the thought of any infringement of what we consider our freedom to live and be as we wish. Apart from the obvious attachments which bind us to family and friends there are also the hidden bonds which link all of humanity, a link that is not just between humans but with all of nature and, of course, with God himself.

 This is why Rathenau calls suicide a ‘metaphysical injustice’, an offence against the spirit. Of course, terms like links or bonds are very inadequate and imply that the individual elements in the chain of being have an existence prior to, or independent of their incorporation with others and that this incorporation is something in addition to their individual existence. Something added on. Something, in the case of we humans, that is optional and from which we can withdraw or, tragically in the case of many, something unknown and unsuspected. In fact, this relationship is not something in addition to our being but constitutes being. D. W. Mann expresses it very well looking simply from the level of material existence.

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

I love this idea of the self as a standing wave. It is powerful and dynamic and fits very well with Buddhist ideas. It connects the notion of unity and continuity with the image of movement and constant change. So, if this is a description of the self at a material level how much more does this unity with all being apply at the psychological, social, and, above all, spiritual levels. 

One of the things to be regretted about our modern society is the atomisation of the individual. Impersonal urban society with its anonymity and lack of a sense of community militates against a sense of belonging. Many welcome this and the feeling of freedom it gives them. Many more are damaged by it and find it difficult to sustain interpersonal relationships, let alone have any sense of connectedness. But, even for a person with strong family ties and a network of friendships, great suffering can reduce the parameters of their existence to the pain wracked contours of the body. So it is difficult to blame someone who is terminally ill and locked into a private world of suffering for wanting to end it all. For them, perhaps, there is no apparent connectedness, not at a physical, or a social, or a spiritual level. Maybe there is a malevolent connection at the physical level which has caused the disease or whatever is making them ill. Not only do they see no future, they see no value in their present life and certainly not in suffering. 

It is difficult for anyone to see virtue in suffering – a mother in labour, perhaps, will welcome suffering, not for itself but as a means to an end. So where does this idea that suffering can be salvific come from? As far as I can make out this idea is found only within the Christian context. For atheists and agnostics suffering is not problematic. It is simply the result of the three brute facts of existence – contingency, powerlessness and scarcity.

 The more control one can achieve over these the more one can avoid suffering, at least for a time. For Buddhists there is no question that suffering is evil. Their preoccupation is in overcoming it. Ultimately, they say, this can be achieved by attaining complete detachment (nirvana) from the illusory self (anatta). For Christians suffering presents a twofold problem. If God is infinitely powerful and infinitely good why does he allow suffering? And secondly, how, in what way, is suffering redemptive? Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it never was and that it wasn’t by his suffering that Christ redeemed us, but by his refusal to allow the prospect of suffering to divert him from his mission. 


Saturday, April 19th, 2008

I have been reading the Carthusian’s two articles on prayer and find them a great help. Not only for what he has to say but also because they are written from the experience of someone who has left everything for the silence and the solitude of the cloister, who has lived in this austerity for years and come to terms with it. God is a mystery which has hovered around the verges of my consciousness all my life. From time to time in the past He was a presence – a vague sense of being there. Lately, however, when I might have hoped that this intimacy would have developed He has been absent. Not just absent in the sense of gone away but still there somewhere else, but non-existent, dead, never was or could be. So, while intellectually I understand what is going on, this does not make it any easier to bear. And this is where faith comes in, about which the Carthusian has much to say. All we have is what he calls la lumière de foi, and it is a very dark light. He goes on to say, 

Tout le reste demeure en deçà de ce que Dieu nous offre depuis le jour où Jésus est ressuscité. Toutes les autres lumières de l’intelligence, toutes les autres expériences spirituelles sur lesquelles nous aimerions parfois prendre appui, sont respectables, dignes d’estime, mais finalement elles ne sont sources de vie que dans la mesure où elles sont porteuses de foi.*.

I like the idea that the various spiritual experiences we have during life ‘deliver/transport/carry’ faith, or perhaps better, carry us on our spiritual journey until we are well out into the dark desert. And then leave us, as much as to say, “OK, you’re grown up now and this is as far as we can go.”All the porters have gone leaving me with all my baggage. There is something funny, something slightly ridiculous at the idea of me sitting here  all the other ‘lumières’ having been extinguished and all I have now is faith, at times a very feeble candle in an all-enveloping darkness.



Friday, April 18th, 2008

I came across a very interesting passage in René Voillaume’s history of the Little Brothers.

Les petits frères doivent avoir cet amour de charité immense qui fera d’eux des apôtres: mais dans cette voie il n’y a pas de milieu…il faut être un saint, héroïque peut-être, mais en tout cas, comme sœur Thérèse, un petit enfant brûlé d’un amour sans limite. Un missionnaire ou un prêtre actif médiocre peut servir à Dieu d’instrument pour gagner des âmes: un contemplatif médiocre est inutile. Il est comme le sel affadi dont parle l’Évangile. Son rôle est d’attirer des trésors des grâce sur les âmes; est le moyen c’est l’amour, la souffrance et la sainteté.*


‘A mediocre contemplative is useless’, whereas a mediocre priest can be an instrument through which God can work. This is a fascinating insight which goes right to the heart of what being a contemplative means. He goes on to say that the rôle of the contemplative is to attract grace to people. That’s not quite how I would explain it. The contemplative does not preach, teach, or administer the sacraments. His life is hidden, focused on God. It is not a public life. It does not depend for its effectiveness on work, or social interaction. And that is why it is generally misunderstood and by many thought of as selfish escapism. On the contrary, as I suggested the other day, for the contemplative any turning away from the focus on God in the existential now would be escapist.

René Voillaume talks about attracting the treasures of grace. I would put it as opening up channels, or facilitating links. When I think about the meaning of the contemplative life two ideas come to mind. One is the Buddhist idea of pratityasamutpada.** Everything, and all of us humans, are co-dependent. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it ‘interbeing’. We are inter-linked at the deepest of deep levels. This applies even in nature and is one of the things that fascinates James Lovelock and has led to the ‘gaia’ hypothesis. We are not usually aware of these subliminal influences on us. This is one of the ways in which the Spirit operates, I believe. And it is at this level that the contemplative works. This is why René Voillaume stresses the need for sanctity.

But all this has to be taken on faith. When one is in solitary prayer, when one is suffering and consciously uniting oneself with the suffering of countless others and with the redemptive suffering of Christ, there is no evidence that anything is being accomplished or achieved. Is what one is doing better than reading a book, or going for a walk? Is it simply a delusion, a way of coping with suffering, with powerlessness? Is it (it needs to be said) a certain laziness, an unwillingness to get up off your backside and do something constructive like being of service to somebody?  Much better to help people would seem to be the conclusive answer. And yet… there is the tradition going back to the desert fathers in the fourth century, a tradition that is also very strong in Buddhism and Hinduism, and exists widely elsewhere.  This is a tradition that, while it does not deny that being of service to others is the highest of ideals, says that there is something just as important, which is generally not recognised, or even suspected by many. I am not talking here about conventional religious faith, about the belief in God and life after death. This, usually, is belief in a two (or three) tier universe – this world and the supernatural realm. For many, maybe for most people, I don’t know, this is enough. It answers their questions and provides meaning. But the contemplative is someone who is aware that none of our cognitive models of reality come near to the truth. Paradoxically, the more he becomes conscious of the impossibility of there being anything other than the hard empirical reality of everyday experience, the more he becomes aware of profound mystery. It seems that this hard empirical reality, so pressing, so immediate, is merely a thin surface beneath, or within, which there are depths upon depths. God is not out, or up, or beyond there. We are not just egos acting and interacting, atomised individuals. God is within, within everything but especially within us. Paul pointed all this out in his letter to the Romans. The whole of creation is in the process of giving birth. When we consider the cosmos we marvel at its complexity, its beauty and how it has evolved to produce life and self-consciousness. We marvel at the eco-system of the world we live in, at its intricacy, at its exquisitely delicate balance and at how efficiently everything interacts from the macro to the micro level (pratityasamutpada). What we don’t see, and are not usually aware of is the Spirit within, the Spirit giving birth to God within. Eckhart has the lovely idea of Christ being born in the soul. All past, all present and all future come together in the innermost depths of the soul. There the particular and the universal coincide, the Absolute and the individual unite.

God makes the world and all things in this present now. Time gone a thousand years ago is now as present and as near to God as this very instant. The soul who is in this present now, in her the Father bears his one-begotten Son and in that same birth the soul is born back into God. It is one birth; as fast as she is reborn into God the Father is begetting his only Son in her.

The contemplative is someone who lives this mystery and in living it, this is the other point I want to make, he, or she, becomes a sign of contradiction.

A rationalist cannot justify the contemplative life, cannot justify the oxymorons of the Sermon on the Mount, cannot justify the set of values, standards and attitudes which Jesus put forward. They run counter to the accepted norms of social behaviour. And that is precisely the point. People who live like that (too few) are a sign of contradiction. We live without really questioning the common sense laws, rules and procedures there to protect us from the Hobbesian vision of the default state of humanity – “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, bruti
sh, and short.” But we are not predators prevented only by social constraints from giving vent to our selfish desires. We emerge from God. We reflect Him, or not, by our manner of living.

* Voillaume, René; Charles de Foucauld et ses Premiers disciples: du désert Arabe au monde de cités, Bayard Éditions, Paris 1998 p. 177

**dependent origination’, ‘co-dependent arising’ ‘conditioned co-production’, according to which reality is seen as a boundless web of interrelations whose momentary nodes make up the ‘things’ of experience. It is pure relation without substance. It leaves covetous man with nothing to cling to, nothing to become attached to.

Interbeing is a relatively new term coined by Thây to describe the essential interconnectedness of the universe. It challenges us to look beyond the world of concepts and opposites. If we look deeply into the nature of our universe we can see all things as profoundly interdependent. In traditional Buddhism this was originally called dependent co-arising.]