Archive for February, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

It is customary during Lent to read a spiritual book, something to encourage introspection and a more consistent attitude to prayer, etc. I seem to have gone off anything to do with spirituality, theology or prayer. I find them impossible to read now. They do not speak to me. They have nothing to say that has any meaning. Once I devoured them, searching for knowledge. All that is gone. The knowledge they imparted seemed to make sense in a former life. I have gone beyond that. I no longer live there, or anywhere, really. I am a visitor constantly revisiting where I used to live and be. No longer belonging, yet not a stranger either. So, instead of scuffing through the sawdust of yet another book I will write my own, commenting on the only literature that seems to have any meaning for me now – poetry and in particular, that of R. S. Thomas.

Young and Old

Cold sea, cold sky;
This is how age looks
At a thing. The people natter,
The wind blows. Nothing they do
is of worth. The great problems
Remain, stubborn, unsolved.
Man leaves his footprints
Momentarily on a vast shore.

And the tide comes,
That the children play with.
Ours are the first questions
They shelve. The wind is the blood
In their veins. Above them the aircraft
Domesticate the huge sky.

Age does alienate. We find ourselves strangers in a familiar land. The vast universe of former times, then so full of promise, of adventure, of opportunity, of unknown marvels – has been domesticated. The crises, the struggles and challenges are ours no longer. Another generation has taken over.

And so I sit at the edge, out of play, observing the to-ing and fro-ing, my remarks lost in the gusts of general conversation. Meanwhile the children play, oblivious in the immediacy of their experience. All this is behind me. Before me the cliff falls sheer in the darkness.

This is the reality that conventional books on prayer and spirituality never seem to touch. This is life at the edge when there is no way back into the centre of things. The world has not lost its beauty. On the contrary, but never was one more aware of how ephemeral and fragile this beauty is. A beautiful face is more poignant than ever because like old photographs it no longer belongs to my reality. At the edge a fissure begins to open in even the most intimate of relationships.

God does not exist at the edge. He is not there in the centre of things. He is certainly not there beyond the sheer cliff fall. He was present once. You felt his touch… surely that was not your imagination. But now you stand alone before the cold sea, buffeted by a cold wind. You hear its sound. You certainly do not know where it comes from or where it goes. But you suspect that that is the way it is meant to be.


Monday, February 2nd, 2009

Thinking about God as I was going to sleep last night… The death of a cousin the other day had the effect of turning the mind towards attitudes to mortality and in Ireland death is not a secular event. I really do not like much religiosity. Most of it is false – both in the sense that it does not reflect the true nature of things, and false in the sense that a lot of it is a pose adopted because it is felt to be appropriate. Funerals are occasions where religiosity is much in evidence. I am not referring to the grieving family and friends now. Their grief is sincere and belief in God and the next life a great comfort. I am referring to those who otherwise never venture near a church and to those who thrive on rituals and ceremonies, gestures and incense. Ireland still loves its rosaries and medals, statues and holy water. These pious social rituals make me feel very uncomfortable and it is difficult to explain why because to do so would involve a discussion of the nature of God.

The problem with God is that he does not exist. This, of course needs to be explained. I am not an atheist. God is, but he does not exist. I suppose if you are not comfortable in dealing with paradoxes there is no point in embarking on this sort of conversation. To exist, literally, means to stand out, to appear over and against other beings. God is not a being like other beings. He is not even the greatest of all beings, the greatest being that could possibly be imagined, as St. Anselm would have it. God, literally, is nothing, no-thing.

And if He [God] is neither goodness nor being nor truth, what is He then? He is nothing [nihtes niht]. He is neither this or that. Any thought you still might have of what He might be – He is not such at all.  (Eckhart: German Sermon 23)

There is nothing new in any of this. It is negative, or apophatic theology, as opposed to positive, or cataphatic theology and it was all thrashed out hundreds of years ago by Maximus the Confessor and Dionysius the Areopagite among others. They were addressing the problem – how does one talk about the transcendent God? Their solution was first to approach the discussion of God in a positive way, piling superlative upon superlative until you realised that nothing you said, or could possibly say, bore any relation to God. Words, thoughts, concepts are all utterly inadequate and seen to be so. The only thing to do then is point out everything that God is not. God is not anything that could be thought, said or imagined. We are left with a vast emptiness, an emptiness filled with mystery. It is only then that we begin to approach God as he really is.

God is transcendent in the sense that he is totally other, beyond any reality that we could know or understand. Which means that he does not exist in the terms of our material existence, in terms of our cosmos. And yet he relates to us. He is, as Augustine puts it, intimior intimo meo, more intimate to me than I am to myself. This is the ultimate paradox. How can there be a relationship between the utterly transcendent God, the beyond the beyond, and this ephemeral, contingent ‘me’? This is not something that can be explained logically or by any metaphysical system. And yet there are times when it is a fact of experience. I can hear the sceptic saying, ‘What you think you experience cannot possibly be the transcendent God. It must be the result of your imagination, or some chemical imbalance in the brain. You cannot experience what is not there and by definition God cannot be there, or anywhere.’

My common sense self cannot refute the logic of this argument. And yet there have been the experiences, so real, so absorbing, so unlike anything anything hitherto experienced. And these experiences fit in with what I believe and with what others down the centuries have experienced and believed. So real are these experiences that one is left with the conviction that it is logic and philosophy which  are inadequate. And that would be OK if one’s daily life was filled with the experience of God but this is rarely, if ever, the case. There may have been just one, or two, a few such moments and then nothing. And not just nothing. Just as after a flash of brilliant light the darkness seems more impenetrable than before, so too now with regard to the possibility of God. For a while the darkness was luminous, numinous in its attractive yet terrifying intensity and then that faded to a sort of grey, foggy obscurity which deadens the feelings and dulls the mind.

And so, here I am in my dull everyday reality, a reality which, if you think about it, excludes the possibility of God, where some people perform their pious words, gestures and prayers – anachronistic behaviour, tolerated but not really understood by the majority, or perhaps even by themselves. A comforting blanket wrapped tight to keep out doubt. I do not doubt. I do not understand but I have no doubt. God is, but I am at a loss to explain why I find these pious rituals so distasteful, so unGodlike. I keep silent therefore. I acknowledge my ignorance, my inability to understand. Let R. S. Thomas say what I cannot.

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just