Posts Tagged ‘Contemplation’
Our cultural moment has lost a classic insight. We have arrived at a place in history where we presume to know, straightforwardly, what we are talking about when we speak of God. Because of this, most Westerners think that religion is essentially a matter of whether or not we believe in this thing, the existence of God, let’s say. Combine this with the overwhelming advances in our scientific knowledge of the universe and you have a situation where most scientifically educated people see no real reason to believe in this thing, this God.
I’m one of them. That may seem odd since I’m a theologian by training. But that only demonstrates how confused the broader culture has become on this point, and therefore how confused the general meaning of “God” has become. In fact, my rejection of belief in this “God,” is not odd at all. My solidarity with the growing impulse in culture to disbelieve in this thing we call “God” is an essential feature of my discipline. We call this thing “an idol.” Forgive us for having not made this clear during the past few hundred years. Our ancient teachers, Augustine and Aquinas, have been notified of our behavior, and we have since received our due scolding.
The insight that has been lost, and which desperately needs to be recovered is as follows: God, as the eternal source of all temporal reality, is inconceivable. This is so because our conceptions follow from how we know things, and what we know is temporal reality, not, eternity. Thus, God, as eternal, is inconceivable. This has important implications for how we speak about God. Since our language represents concepts and our concepts are formed according to how we know things, this entails that our language about God will never rise to the level of what it seeks to name. There is no straightforward talk of God, which is to say that, strictly speaking, God is ineffable (That’s all straight out of Aristotle and Aquinas, in case you were curious).
An example of this confusion passed my way this morning. It was a beautiful interview with author Jorge Luis Borges on his beliefs pertaining to the transcendent and God. I found myself feeling sympathetic for him as he sought to find the right words to describe his outlook. He seemed to want very badly to speak of the divine, but felt that the way to do it was just not available to him.
In seeking to speak of the transcendent, Borges says,
I do think that it’s safer not to call it God. If we call it God, then we are thinking of an individual and that individual is mysteriously three, according to the doctrine of the Trinity, which to me is quite inconceivable.
Is this heresy? Not at all. It is an essential feature of Trinitarian thought that it is inconceivable. It’s not a description of things that exist in the world. It’s an inadequate formulation using temporal concepts that points to an indescribable reality beyond them. To see the inconceivability as a flaw in the construct is to miss the point. The great father of the church, Augustine, would have enthusiastically agreed with Borges on the inconceivability of the doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s Augustine after discussing the Trinity in “On Christian Teaching.”
Have we spoken or announced anything worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say. Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable? If what I said were ineffable, it would not be said. And for this reason God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable. This contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved verbally. For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken of Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words.
A final point is worth mentioning. Borges has what much of our culture has lost: a deep intuition of transcendence. It must be stressed that the early Christian doctrines were formed out of a culture that stimulated this sense. I’ve spoken of this repeatedly on this blog, and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. The early Christians were steeped in a contemplative form of life in which prayer was essentially the regular practice of ego death. The philosopher Wittgenstein came to hold a view quite similar to Aquinas in which he argued that the meaning of a word is in its use. The form of life from which the words emerge designates their meaning. It must be remembered, then, that early Christian words developed in a context of contemplative prayer that stripped the mind of all images and concepts out of a passion to love God as God is in God’s own eternity, unobstructed by the limitations of our concepts. That is why they were always careful to stress God’s ineffability. They spoke of God, but always with the recognition that their speech was inadequate, though offered in love and praise.
I have a feeling that Borges would rather like this idea. Can you imagine what the world would be like if such a language, born of such a practice, were widely adopted? Would we, all of us, together, speak the divinity we sense in all the various particularities of our life with gratitude and praise, and yet never banish each other on the basis of difference? I pray for the day when we enter a freedom born of knowing that while our particular utterances always fail to reach the mark, our hearts might still break free in a love whose voice sings beyond words.
If the elemental question, “Who am I?”, is one that resonates with you, this chapter is a gold mine. Here Merton begins to unfold the heart of, not only this particular book, but his life-long intellectual and spiritual obsession: the contrast between authentic and inauthentic human being, what he often calls the “false self” and the “true self.”
The Truth of Self and God via the Death of Self and the Gods
In talking about the self, Merton is talking about God. His God is framed by his quest for identity, and his quest for identity is framed by God. What is especially interesting is the way he connects these terms. It is often heard that we will find our true identity in God, but Merton recognizes that this is dangerous talk. How can we know that what claims to be the will of God really is God and not merely the egoism of yet another impostor, another false self?
Merton’s way of addressing this begins with the idea that God is a reality that we are both separated from and inescapably united with. In the same way our true self is a reality with which we are both separated and inescapably united. When we live out our lives in the realm of our false self we live under the dominion of false gods, false powers that make false promises and false demands. “Live here and you will be happy and safe.” “Work here and you will be respected.” “Make enough money, then you will know freedom.” When, however, we are reunited with our true self we simultaneously live out of the truth of ourself as well as God. Merton here calls this “a union of deep wills” in contrast to the superficial separation of our routine life. Merton’s trope of choice to describe the transition from this state of estrangement to reunion is “death.”
We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His incurable love seeks our awakening. True, since this awakening implies a kind of death to our exterior self, we will dread His coming in proportion as we are identified with this exterior self and attached to it. But when we understand the dialectic of life and death we will learn to take the risks implied by faith, to make the choices that deliver us from the routine self and open to us the door of a new being, a new reality (15-16).
The Contrary is Not the Truth
This talk of our “exterior self,” “routine self,” and “false self” that must be died to, however, easily misleads us. It conjures up the idea that the only true way of being is somehow removing ourselves from the limits of spatio-temporally determined being and flouting all routine. This is not likely what Merton meant given the fact that when he wrote these words he was living as a Trappist monk—a life of routine if there ever was one—which included the vow of stability that committed him to living out the rest of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
Merton evidently thought that living a life constituted by an intensification of routine and external limitations had something to do with connecting with his true identity, with God. He was convinced that the truth of both God and ourselves can only be received in freedom, spontaneity, and love. It is a tantalizing paradox, then, that to connect with this truth he committed himself to what looks like the very opposite of these qualities: obligation, routine, and isolation.
Salvific Death by Normalizing the Abnormal
The genius of monastic life is the way it both recognizes that conventional life is founded upon the determined quest for freedom, spontaneity and love, and upon recognizing this, it systematically frustrates this quest. But why? Outside the monastery we are living every moment of our lives trying to attain these qualities. We are working hard. We are praying. And yet each moment we think that we have grasped satisfaction, it fades away. We are left unhappy, frustrated, tired, empty. What the monastic life does is remove the illusion that we will ever attain true satisfaction via our attempts to possess true satisfaction. The monastic life is arranged from the inside out to render the very quest impossible.*
Does it seem depressing to you? Your days of being off on a whim to travel the world are forever over. Your clothes are the same every day… and the same as what everyone around you wears. The routine is unrelenting. Do you see why the idea of “death” comes naturally to mind in describing this way to the truth of self and God? Listen now to his words:
The mind that is the prisoner of conventional ideas, and the will that is the captive of its own desire cannot accept the seeds of an unfamiliar truth and a supernatural desire. For how can I receive the seeds of freedom if I am in love with slavery and how can I cherish the desire of God if I am filled with another and an opposite desire?… I must learn therefore to let go of the familiar and the usual and consent to what is new and unknown to me. I must learn to ‘leave myself’ in order to find myself by yielding to the love of God. If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of His life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest (16).
Can you begin to hear what he is after? The answer to the question “who am I?”, the answer to the question “Who is God?”, is received in every moment as new life. It is unknown to us. It is like the joy of an unexpected present that doesn’t fade upon opening it, for we never stop opening it. Our sin is that we grab at it; we strive to make it known, make it ours to control, a possession. The gift of our life becomes like a small holiday bonus put toward paying off already incurred credit card debts.
The Dead and the Living
It’s a strange thing that the dead should be most fully alive. But Merton and those few like him certainly give that impression. It makes a certain kind of sense, for who is the most free to be spontaneously present to the moment in love but the one who has nothing to lose by being there.
May we be open the the courage that sheds all these false-securities and so awakens us to the gift that is ourself, fully present in the center of God’s love.
*As an aside, that monasticism cultivates detachment by means of ascetic practices might well be simply an accident of history. In a culture dominated by ascetic practices it might be imagined that salvific detachment might better come via a hedonistic practices that risk tarnishing the carefully crafted ascetic image. If the reigning metaphor was death, salvation would come by way of life. The point is that neither asceticism nor hedonism are ends in themselves; rather, each of them, under the right circumstances, might serve to open one to the ever abundant love in which we live.
Update: This paper has now been completed and published. You can view the paper in its entirety here.
Consider a mother praying to God for the life of her desperately ill child. Or maybe it’s a son, screaming at God to help his mother, the one person in the world whose love for him was unconditional, as she slips further into dementia. An uninvolved bystander may ask—though they themselves almost certainly will not—”Will their prayers work?” Now consider the title of a paper I am preparing to write: “Prayer Doesn’t Work.”
I was recently invited to write an article for the journal “Word and World,” a periodical devoted to the relation of contemporary theology to the demands of ministry. Ministers are familiar with the heart-broken plea of their congregants who come to them asking, “does prayer really work?” Prayer is often proclaimed as the lifeblood of a spiritual community, but for many, such talk seems at least cheap and often deeply wounding. The following is the proposal I submitted. I’ll be working on it over the summer, but I’ll be sure to post the results once I get it wrapped up. It’s a difficult topic, and one that I can’t look at from a distance. Hopefully I can manage something that will be more than simply “provocative.”
Lutherans have historically been ever watchful of “works righteousness” in their spiritual lives, and rightly so. Yet a strange thing has happened in my own prayer life. I have come to discover a typically Catholic form of prayer through the work of a Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich. Though, in its contemporary form, this mode of prayer was after his time, it remains deeply resonant with his thought. I’m speaking here of Centering Prayer and I’ve come to see it as an interesting way between a crude form of sanctification by moral effort and the lazy caricature of “let go and let God.” In either case, I’d want to argue, prayer simply “doesn’t work.” In fact, the very term “work,” I’d wish to show, is a bad metaphor for what happens in prayer. I’d like to show how Centering Prayer subverts our usual notions of “work” and “submission” by a fundamental paradox that is God’s arrival in our own release which is at once our own true arrival in God’s release.
How much of life do we miss simply because, though we are bodily present, our minds are worrying away in either the past or the future? How much do we miss by being beyond even those mental stirrings, placing our minds on auto-pilot? It’s hard to blame us, really; this life is often an anxiety producing experience. We carry guilt for our actions in the past. We worry about the possibility of a fulfilling life in the future. And often times all this worrying and longing strikes us as so fruitless that we’d just rather drown it all out with mindless noise. Notice, while alone in the car, how quickly we move to fill the silence with the radio. To be alone with ourselves is often a painful experience. And yet, to lose yourself by tuning out is boring. Life becomes little more than another trip to work, a sitcom, a beer, and bed.
We Are All Self-Absorbed
The basic problem is what those in the world of psychotherapy and spiritual direction call “self-absorption.” Self-absorbtion is the basic human problem of being trapped inside your ego-organized self. But this is a funny thing, because to be trapped inside yourself (your ego-organized self), is, in another sense, to be separated from yourself (your fuller self, the self that is deeply integrated and connected with the world around you).
Often, we prefer life this way. The reason is that life within our ego-organized self has at least one thing going for it: It’s predictable. And to that extent, it’s safe. But the catch is that it’s predictable only because it’s the mental world we’ve personally crafted or bought in to. It’s filled not with the world that emerges as mystery, around us and from within us, but with our concepts of the world around us and with our concept of our own identity. It’s not the immediate experience of this moment, this light, this smell, this texture, but instead it’s “another tree,” “another trip to work,” another “white evangelical.” We’ve constructed this world since birth to deal with the chaotic unpredictability of life. To a certain extent, it even works, but its limits begin to show themselves in a brooding sense of dissatisfaction, boredom, and self-loathing. Underneath it all is the sense of a fuller life, of excitement, of a desire for that which we know not what, of adventure.
Wanting What We’re Scared of
The trouble is, getting in touch with that fuller sense requires courage. We need to learn to leave, at least occasionally, the relative safety of our ego-organized self, of our concepts. A tolerance for an encounter with the unknown, the unpredictable, the chaotic in life, must be developed. In short: We must have a capacity to endure the danger of adventure if we are to embark on the adventure of life that calls to us. It is for this reason that spiritual directors William Connolly and William Barry suggest that “Self-absorption is a concentration on weakness. The effort to help a person to look beyond herself is part of the appeal to strength that is the task of the spiritual director. [emphasis, mine]” (The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 51.)
Quit the Neurotics of Normalcy
The good news is that you don’t need to go to a therapist or a spiritual director to begin to develop this capacity for the unpredictable, and therefore to more easily take hold of the fuller life that is so often buried within you. Here’s a few things I can recommend.
- If you are the outdoorsy type (and perhaps especially if you are not!), consider Alastair Humphreys’ philosophy of “micro-adventures.” The genius of his thinking here is that he helps you to get past giving excuses for never living adventurously because of the daunting nature of large-scale adventures.
- Unplug. We’ve all heard this before, but it’s true. Do it. Every now and again, try to drive, walk, or just sit without a steady input of artificial stimulation. If you looking for a serious challenge, attempt to take a detached stance to the mental train of thoughts that will immediately rush in to fill the void of silence (for a bit more on the benefits of silence, see my recent post here).
- Take Leo Buscaglia’s advice and jump out your bedroom window (at 37:03).
- Work on moving your relationship with your spouse from a relation of dependency to interdependency. Nothing will force you to endure the unpredictable than actual intimacy with another human being. And nobody is better at helping committed relationships on this journey than David Schnarch. His book “Passionate Marriage” is revolutionary (Note: not for the prudish, Esp. Chapter 10).
- Quit your job (self explanatory).
- Consider contemplative prayer or a practice of meditation: Think number 2. on steroids. If the problem is being trapped inside your ego-organized self, contemplative prayer is the daily discipline in encountering God not in the known contents of your mind, but in the unknown mystery that comes before and stretches beyond you. Thomas Keating’s classic “Open Heart Open Mind” is a great place to begin.
- Ride your bike across Europe and Asia.
- Raise chickens in your backyard. The interactions you’ll soon have with your neighbors will alone bring all kinds of fun unpredictability.
The Spirituality of Adventure
Whatever you do, be gentle with yourself. All of us, simply by being born and growing up into this world, regularly live within the safety of our constructed worlds. And to a certain extent, such living is normal, natural, and healthy. But on the other hand, we also live in an era where our technological grasp on reality has given us the ability to fashion our very environment according to the whims of our mental constructions. It has become ever more easy, by virtue of the rapid changes in social and mass media, to mistake our constructions for “all that there is.” It is a rare thing for the natural world to break in upon us and force us to wake up to the unpredictable mystery in which we find ourselves. As a consequence, we find it ever easier to live merely within the limits of our constructions. We are bored. We are vaguely dissatisfied. But it needn’t be so. Life itself is danger and adventure! Sometimes all it takes is stepping outside the role culture has crafted for us for that feeling of wonder, awe, and an aching desire for that which we know not what to come rushing back to us.
May you live the adventure from which you flow and to which you are called!
It is difficult in our day to understand the God that contemplative prayer encounters. When Merton says things like, “The question [of God] is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both.”, (4) it seems as though Merton is simply assuming the existence of God, then naming our reality as a divine reality. Yet what if one denies such an assumption, as many in our day do? Contemplative prayer then seems to become a sort of refined practice in wishful naval gazing.
It is impossible to escape this charge according to the prevailing categories of the modern mind. This is why Merton says “The only way to get rid of the misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in his [sic] own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it.” (6) The reason for this lies, at least in part, in the fact that the experience of contemplative prayer breaks open the very heart of the modern mental approach to existence.
In this meditation Merton goes straight to the cognitive heart of modernity. “Nothing could be more alien to contemplation”, he says, “than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. ‘I think, therefore I am.’ This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence(!) based upon the observation that he ‘thinks.'” (8) The very same thing applies to the God that Descartes discovers. To the extent that God is for us the conclusion of an argument, God remains forever an external, ever-dubious thing.
“For the contemplative there is no cogito (“I think”) and no ergo (“therefore”) but only SUM, I Am.” This is not the assumption of God, like a premise assumed in an argument. It is an awakening to the realization that we are are “grasped” before we even attempt to grasp God. Strangely, there is an important sense in which this realization does not bring solace to our lives. In awakening to this reality we realize that, unlike the assumptions in our old arguments, we no longer know what God is.
Here we “…may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because ‘God is not a what,” not a “thing.” That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.” He is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am.”(13)
Not too long ago I read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Though I thought it was a beautiful book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, spiritually, it was a sort of young man’s book. It struck me as overly excited about Catholicism and relatively quick to criticize other traditions. (but this may say more about my own concerns than the book’s potential) I had heard a great deal about Merton the spiritual master, so I was somewhat disappointed. At the same time, this is to be forgiven, I think, as Merton really was a very young man when he penned that now classic work. Realizing this, I was eager to get my hands on some of his more mature works.
Just yesterday I received my copy of New Seeds of Contemplation, a much later collection of spiritual reflections. Merton grew up indeed! Here is the figure I was expecting to find. Granted I have only just begun reading it, but all narrowness seems to have vanished and every ounce of passion appears as the passion for God as through yet beyond all concrete being. This is worth spending some time with.
Chapter 1 is a brief meditation on the meaning of “contemplation.” After painting the beautiful image of creation as God asking God’s self a question and contemplation as God’s answer to God’s question he continues…
The life of contemplation implies two levels of awareness: first, awareness of the question, and second awareness of the answer. Though these are two distinct and enormously different levels, yet they are in fact and awareness of the same thing. The question is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both. But we cannot know this until we have moved into the second kind of awareness. We awaken, not to find an answer absolutely distinct form the question, but to realize that the question is its own answer. And all it summed up in the one awareness—not a proposition, but an experience: “I Am.”
Before Paul Tillich opened my eyes to the classical theological tradition, this sort of language would have made no sense to me. It’s not rational in any linear sense. Merton is here speaking the language of paradox. Under usual rational circumstances questions are not, by definition, answers. Questions seek to gain new knowledge about things from which we are separated. But in the classical tradition when when it comes to God, God is not something from which we are separated, at least not in the usual sense. Prepositions and articles become tricky at this point. Here God is not a being, but being-itself. In the language of Aquinas, God is simple. God is God’s own existence in contrast to all creatures whose existence is dependent upon something other than themselves. For us, this means that to the extent that we have being, we participate in God. God is the end of the chain of dependency, though not as the final link in the chain, but rather as the unnameable mystery that grounds the entire chain from the first link to the last. In this way of understanding, to ask the question of God cannot be anything other than an expression of God’s self, for all that is has its source, subsistence, and end there.
This is why “[c]ontemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His.”
Merton thus calls us not to a new argument, demonstration, or proof, for such operations only make sense if God is separate from us. Instead we are called to a new awareness, an awareness of the sacred within both ourselves and all that is. The deep question behind our deep questions is thus an expression of eternal Being within created being. And to this extent there can be no creaturely answer, for only the eternal can answer the eternal. The best we can manage is to be encountered by (made aware of) this mystery while ever remaining the limited creatures that we are. To achieve this form of awareness we must release all efforts to accept anything creaturely as eternal, including and especially our conceptual ideas about God and ourselves (Think of what Jesus did to the concepts of divinity that his disciples nurtured). This is part of the way that the eternal question contains its own keys, for the eternal within us will expose the pretensions of all creaturely contenders for divinity. The moment of awakening occurs once the field has been totally cleared, when every last false security has been unmasked or released, this is the moment of realization that only the eternal can ask the eternal question and that we are its voice. Such is not an entrance into creaturely security, for there is none, rather it is the acceptance of eternal mystery and the curious sort of freedom it brings.