If one lives his/her life in the world rather than in the cloister it is apparent that there is a daily struggle to somehow integrate the sacred with the profane. I expect that there is something of this that’s unavoidable even in the cloister. We are faced with ourselves, firmly planted on this planet, amidst all the things of life that just happen. The messiness of many things in our lives tends to push any thought of You aside. The “messier” our lives the harder it seems to find anything about them that is sacred.
To integrate an inner spiritual life into the profanities of poverty, serious health problems, divorce or separation, substance abuse, anger, depression, anxiety, fear, joblessness, alienation and feelings of powerlessness seems futile. Even during short, isolated bouts with any of these, it seems most difficult to integrate the sacred with the profane. If one willed it to be so - that is, if one desired to integrate You with all the profanities of his/her life, how would one go about it?
Within the grasp of any or all of the profanities mentioned above, it is very difficult – and maybe that’s why it seems not many make the effort.
To view the detachment from material advantages or even material subsistence as a situation that can actually improve our ability to draw closer to You is difficult because we tend to be concerned with our immediate need for survival in some form. We do not naturally connect it with a need for You. Yet, if we could only get ourselves to reflect on our poverty, we might begin to see it as a spiritual advantage. In the throes of serious or even hopeless health problems, it is terribly difficult not to think of our plight. Yet in sickness, powerlessness, or alienation, it is our own self-image as healthy, powerful and connected that suffers. Your relationship with us does not change. You are there as always. In sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, You are there. It is we who are not.
Within the profanities of our anger, anxieties and fears You are there and we grow in Your love in correlation to our ability and desire to reach out and touch You at these times – to overcome the great power of “self” – to look for You. That is how the sacred can be integrated with the profane.
There is a statement once made by Thomas Merton that, on its surface, seems shocking: “I have renounced spirituality to find God.” But when fully considered this may just be the logical expression of the next step in the evolution of our relationship with You. When I was a child I acted like a child, but now . . .
Without the right mix of prayer, thoughtfulness, and self-transcendence we indeed can become stuck at one stage of our growth and remain there. But when our aim is to draw ourselves closer to God each day in new, different, and ever-changing ways, we hitch ourselves to a dynamic shooting star that veers unpredictably through infinity.
I do not actually know what any one individual understands by the word “spirituality.” I am not even sure what I understand by it. Perhaps prayer, meditation, contemplation and writing all figure into it in some way. This, of course, is not bad at all. It is good to get to the “next step.” The next step, however, requires a renunciation of the self which still casts its aura over the elements of “spirituality.”
For the great saints it’s apparent that they found something beyond spirituality – something that so transcended self as to relegate their understanding of spirituality to irrelevance.
I have written to You in the past about grappling with aspects of this notion. The discovery of the Merton statement has caused me to revisit those thoughts. I think, as far as You’re concerned, it’s pretty much up to us what we do with our faith in You and the love generated by that faith. This is all You desire: belief and love. The latter indeed follows the former. It is us who invent, create, revise and renew the modes by which we do this. Spirituality is a human invention tinged with the grace of the divine. It is an effort You bless. But spirituality is never perfect because of those in whom it rests. We cannot totally annihilate self or else the relationship would be one of a pantheistic part to its whole – eliminating the unique, individual “me” I bring to the relationship; and that is what You love!
The true self is never eliminated, but I think when we succeed at eliminating all the false selves, we have accomplished the goal of spirituality and we can move on. This, however, is not to trivialize the chemistry of self- transcendence and Your grace that is needed for it. To get the effects of this mixture we experiment with the “ingredients” of spirituality: the praying, reading, meditating, etc. But when the formula bears the desired results, it urges us on to a next step, another level to our ever-seeking spirit.
Maybe the most important, yet most difficult, aspect of the loving search is to abandon ourselves totally and put ourselves trustingly in God’s hands. Only when we are able to do this can the search progress.
There are so many things with which we allow ourselves to clutter our lives. These things push against the loving search. They push against abandoning ourselves and they push against trusting You. For instance, Anthony DeMello talks about what he calls our dependency on the drugs of approval, appreciation, acceptance and popularity by which we allow ourselves to be controlled. Under the powerful sway of these “drugs” a clear-headed approach to life and love is harmfully altered. And it truly is these drugs that push against the inclination to abandon ourselves totally to You. The powerful residue of approval and acceptance – even when we try to toss it out – still works its effects on us, still clouds the purity of our intentions and supports the very self we are trying to abandon. It controls us. We, to varying degrees, let it do this because we are respecters of people. We want to put ourselves in positions to be popular with others, to be accepted and approved by them, to be appreciated by them.
Our efforts to do this control us – and we allow it almost without thought. They point us toward this life and this world whereas if we abandon ourselves to seeing You in all things we would be seeing You first in other people. We would be considering not how they look upon us but how You do, and we could feel sure about trusting Your love.
To fully attain truth is beyond our power, but it is important that we continue to seek it. We do it in two ways: from others and by study. To not seek is to not love. To despairingly throw up our hands and abandon our studies and observations liquidates the de facto acts of love in them; it barricades us from inching closer to the truth. Therefore it is not impractical, silly or futile to persist in this quest.
The evidence of Your constant love for us is overwhelming. What little we can do to show our love in return should be pursued. Fully knowing we will never understand, we must never stop trying to do so because in so doing we are saying we need and want truth – we need and want You. If the sum total of our lives is being loved by You and loving You in return, then this seeking to understand what we cannot is the core of our existence. It nourishes us and moves us toward the truth.
We read of and observe the struggles of others who are more deeply loving and spiritual than we and we learn that their closeness to the truth is closer than ours, but still far away. But their closeness to it gives us something more to aim for. At some point in their lives they felt this same way and decided to continue the quest, often with increased effort. The compulsion to do this comes from the truth itself as gift. It is directed by design through the channels that most powerfully touch us where we are each individually at.
The effort to do this contrasts sharply with efforts to obtain material goods, possessions, worldly comfort and happiness. In fact, efforts in this direction seem to act as blinders to the truth. We do not, ultimately, possess such things. They possess us. So we must cleanse the ways we perceive and willingly accept the gift of the quest.
Nicholas of Cusa has observed that the capacity that warrants union is likeness. I like the word “warrants” here because it is not too strong and not too weak. I think it describes that natural urge latent in all of us toward oneness. It is warranted by the Godly image of our nature to be one with its source. Our capacity for this is developed as we grow and thus correlates with our movements in seeking union. We lean toward discovering the unity within ourselves that is identifiable with our likeness to God. It is an oneness with the true self warranted by its likeness to that with which it seeks to be one.
So often, in our other relationships, we speak of what we have in common with others. This likeness attracts us and we are very much aware of it on an exterior level. Such likeness warrants our attraction and draws us nearer to union with another. If this is so on the patently exterior level of our senses, it is even more so on the hidden level of our interior life. The problem is that most of us choose to dwell exclusively at the exterior level of the senses.
The urge toward this union, however slight we may have let it become, is always there. Once we recognize it we may ignore it or “tool up” in our own way to enhance and pursue it. It would seem that this urge for which “likeness” is the catalyst is best served by quiet emptiness. It may even be that the major element of this “likeness” is simply being. The closer we get to what is the essence of being, the closer we are to the likeness that draws us nearer to union. This “likeness” is something that exists of itself by virtue of Your will. It is Your Spirit. It emanates from You. It is You! And so, I think that the “likeness” Nicholas of Cusa says warrants union is that touch of You that is in each of us – a touch we wish to return.
In a book on sacred reading I recently read this passage: “…neither lectio divina nor, indeed, life itself is a walk through the rainforest looking for photo-ops…” The author is on to a particular spiritual mentality here that strikes very close to home with me. In my spiritual reading I am most uncomfortable unless I have a pencil or marker in my hand while I am reading in order to highlight “snapshots” that are, in some way, striking. In a sense, it’s like walking down the aisles of a large supermarket without a shopping list – putting in one’s cart whatever looks good.
There is no way I can deny the efficacy to spiritual formation of glomming on to those gems of wisdom that give us pause. They have been the stone and mortar of my meditations. What I think the above mentioned author is cautioning about is the frequent lack of a “shopping list” in this regard. A shopping list is not drawn up on whim but rather on need. It is a plan. Our spiritual shopping list should be need-based, not whim-based.
Generally our spiritual need can be expressed simply as wanting to decrease one’s self so that You can increase in our lives and be more present to us. A shopping list can be made for this plan. Then, with that general idea in mind, a shopping list for smaller more specific needs (like learning about and cultivating humility in one’s daily life) can be made. It is at this juncture then that our “snapshots” must be judged against our shopping list.
If one thinks about the larger picture of one’s whole life, we often do our snapshot taking according to a whole handful of different shopping lists; and these lists themselves are under constant revision to meet our current needs. But, underlying all lists there is really only one. According to that list it’s not what we see as looking good in itself that matters but what, whether beautiful or ugly, conforms us to the need expressed in order to know, love and serve God in this world. Hence we should be selective in our “photo-ops.” So, I’m thinking the “rainforest” is more a metaphor for the distractions along the way rather than for the journey itself. Thus, neither lectio nor life is something we do for itself but rather each is a means to something else.
It seems to me that there are a lot of spiritual concepts that so defy verbal description that, ironically, we write books about them. Those of us who read those books get tons of information but often end up with no more understanding than when we began reading.
Over the last few years my Holy Grail has been an understanding of contemplative life. I have nearly drained the internet of its resources. I have read many of the classic spiritual writers from the dessert fathers through the middle ages to the present.I have seen contemporary accounts by monks who live their entire lives as contemplatives and still don’t entirely understand it.
We often spend a lot of time searching for just the right word or for a catchy meaningful phrase that comes closest in our impoverished language to capturing the soul of what we seek to define. I love these kinds of words or phrases and I constantly underline and highlight them in what I read. They give me something to latch onto concerning otherwise nebulous ideas.
Not long ago, in a book I was reading, I came across a description of contemplation that jumped out at me. It said that contemplation was “resting in the Divine Presence beyond thought or feeling.”I like this because it is a description of why contemplation is so hard to describe – it goes beyond thoughts or feelings. Centering prayer, which attempts to do just this, has become synonymous with contemplation for me. Yet, in my heart of hearts I know that prayer is just an aspect of the absorption into Your being that contemplation seeks.
Contemplative life may be indefinable, but nonetheless it is descriptive of a whole life not just bits and pieces of a life or a series of isolated exercises or practices contained therein. When, somehow, from breath to breath, we rest in Your presence beyond all our own thoughts or the influence of the thoughts of others, beyond all the demands shouted at us by our senses, then we are contemplative. The sense of loss operates peacefully here as gain. To totally accept and revel in shucking off what is intellectual and what is sentient is to empower the will without obstruction to rest in You.
EvelynUnderhill, in her book Mysticism, calls for nothing less than the overthrow of reason to reach a state of “nothingness.” This practice she calls “introversion” and holds it as a voluntary, deliberate and difficult process the continual practice of which established contemplative powers among our normal faculties. This seems to be descriptive of the difference between contemplation and the contemplative life. The influence of these powers ideally extends to all the conscious activity of our daily lives – even those involving thought and feeling – so that contemplation is the source of contemplative life.
I have mentioned many times to You that I see my life as a seeking endeavor; an ongoing search for You, the ebb and flow of which colors my life. While this is true, there is something not quite right about a monomaniacal approach to the whole thing. Yes, I am searching and seeking for You in many different ways. But far more important than this realization is the realization that You are searching and seeking for me. I am a novice in the matter, but no one does it better than You.
You seek me by encouraging, supporting and loving my seeking for You; yet, unfortunately, I do not always encourage, support, and love the ways You seek me. With me it’s often more like a game of hide-and-go-seek, or ” Where’s Waldo?” as if the trick was to methodically solve the mystery of where You are. I think that this might be an approach that many people take and, upon reflection, I think it’s dangerous to our relationship with You. You’re not hiding!
From an early age we are taught that there is nothing God can’t do. But I suggest the one thing God can’t do is hide.” Where’s Waldo?” applies much more to me than You because I often try to hide from Your presence by ignoring it, or, worse, forgetting it. When I’m in this mode I construct a barrier against Your seeking me. I seek You with Your help, but I often ignore Your help and don’t seek You. At such a point it may seem to me that You are hiding.Yet, if we are truly aware; if we truly see and feel and touch, smell and taste – then You are present in every moment; and, not only that, but that very presence beckons to me in gentle whispers all day long.
You seek me through the graces imparted by Your spirit. This is constant. You are not hiding. You build no barriers – I provide them. Thus You have put my search in my own hands – and that’s the dilemma.
In considering the things I do to draw myself closer to You spiritually it gives me great pauseto reflect on what took place one day to Thomas Merton at 4th and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky. By his own account Merton was a man who dozed for nearly 20 years in a world of “renunciation and supposed holiness,” only at that moment, in a flash of enlightenment as he stood on that corner, to realize that the true self is a point of nothingness untouched by sin or illusion that belongs entirely to God and is inaccessible to the whims of our will; and it is this that connects us all. It is this that makes us belong to each other. It is this which prevents us from being alien to each other though we might be total strangers living totally different lives – lives of our own creation far removed from that center.
With this as a background I’m further struck by the truth that the words we say, think or write (like now) sometimes don’t mesh with what is in our hearts, at the center of our being. It is true that, over time, we become very good at putting on different masks for different people. Often we perceive what another needs or wants us to be and we comply. We treat You this way too, as though our being depended on how many coats of paint we can apply upon that point of nothingness beyond our wills. We do this to ourselves as well. We create the persona that suits our needs or wants and we become convinced that this is who we are. Our words and our actions convince us because that is what they are calculated to do. Who am I fooling when I say I am writing these letters to You? It is far more likely that I am writing them to build up a persona (a false self) that I have somehow come to believe You want to see in me. This makes my relationship with You, in my eyes, dependent upon what I do, or say, or write.
The fallacy is in believing in this dependency. In us, the true center is You. So, in writing to You it’s not important what I say, but rather what I hear. In all the things I do in our relationship it’s not about me finding You. It’s about letting go and allowing You to find me.
On that street corner many years ago Merton had a flash that brought this home to him. For that moment he was fully aware of his true being. Everything else he had so carefully cultivated was stripped aside.
So then, are we to give up the false selves we construct in our relationships with You, with others, with ourselves? It is both ironic and paradoxical that we must perceive and work around our inevitable false selves in order to arrive at awareness that they are false, and under them is a true self. It is the way of being human. If we might presume to characterize, in our own way, what You expect of us, I think it’s probably our will to overcome, in some measure, these false selves in order to provide a window for the true self to shine through – a window like Merton’s 4th and Walnut.
Everything about being born into this world, living here and sharing it with others encourages, supports and rewards selves which, essentially, are not true. But the fact is our true center cannot exist on this planet in any other way. No one here exists purely at the center of his/her being. But at our own 4th and Walnut we catch glimpses of it. It is our destiny beyond this life. It is union with You, our true self.
In considering the notion of how I perceive others and how they perceive me, it may be a help to consider others exactly as I perceive myself – as a seeker. We are a race of seekers mired by the pitfalls of being disappointed in our seeking, of seeking foolishly, and, most of all, of seeking selfishly. To realize that each one of the countless hordes of humans – more numerous than the sprouting and dying leaves upon all the world’s trees – is a seeker, is to realize the thread that binds all humanity. From birth to death we are constantly seeking one thing or another: money, pleasure, power, fame, knowledge, understanding, etc. Conflict and confrontation are often the result of the individual importance attached to particular requests without regard to the fact that seeking something is most human. The act of seeking is a common human denominator. It seems also inevitably human to try to convince another that what one seeks should also be sought by others. It is odd though how this common denominator separates rather than unites us. I think it would be well for us to recognize that every individual with whom we come in contact is also a seeker – just as we are; however, not only that which we seek but also the way that we seek it divides us.
It’s important for us to recall the life You lived and the things You taught which showed us how and what to seek. When we do not seek, we negate the movement of Your spirit, for we are, by the nature of Your gift of life, stirred to seek. Sometimes it takes a whole lifetime to bring into clear focus that for which we seek.