We strive mightily to understand God; to know God; to imagine God; to fathom the being of God. Our thinking about this, even though we know better, is always touched in some way by the notion that God is “out there” somewhere. So much of what might be called the mythology of God puts God at a distance from us that we even refer to the spiritual life as a journey, as if to get to God we had to traverse a great distance. This notion of a dimensional gap, a space, a chasm, or a grand canyon of distance between us and God, even if we believe differently, pervades our thoughts about God. Yet, someone once wisely explained the paradox of this “distance” by saying that, in reality, the closeness of God is too close to be explained.
Degrees of “closeness” are far more nebulous and difficult to explain than distances to which our imaginations can relate in more measurable terms. But the statement bears contemplation: the closeness of God is too close to be explained. “Too close,” – What does that mean? I think that it’s the closeness that we consider as distance. This is the paradox. We miss by a mile because we look in the wrong places.
If our being is a reflection of the image of God then Socrates’ “know thyself” seems nearer the truth about God. If we indeed ever pause amidst the busyness of life to know ourselves, we will see that the self we know is what keeps God at a distance. It’s the self we don’t know very well that is God within us. He’s that close! He is the image of the self we seldom penetrate, the self which is buried at our core, the true self. He’s that close! But we don’t really know that self very well because we’ve pushed it into a closet and piled lots of junk upon it.
God is at a “distance’ from us because our true self is kept at a distance from us. The characteristic readily identifiable with our flawed human nature is that we create the barrier of a baggage-laden self that we idolize. We become so infatuated with its care and feeding that what is most real about us fades into a mist – and, as that fades, the essence of God in us fades too. Scuttling all our baggage and resting ourselves in the center of our being takes practice, but, in time closes the “distance” and brings knowledge of You.
Another paradox: that which makes us present to others is also that which separates us. First on the intellectual level and second on the spiritual level there are things about each of us that draw others nearer to us and, at the same time, distance them from us.
On the intellectual level, as our knowledge grows through expanded perception and conceptualization we learn more about ourselves and others and about the world we live in. But this enlightenment which clarifies and makes more lucid our role in life and our understanding of other people and things, leaves in the dust those who are not on the same track, and so separates us from them. It may even construct barriers.
This works as well on the spiritual level. As we grow in our perception and understanding of loving relationships, it does not mean that those whom we love grow along with us at the same rate. Thus we may even be avoided or dismissed because of going beyond or falling behind the level at which we were originally an attraction to others.
There is much that attracts me to You, or to particular saints or spiritual writers, but there is equally much that separates me from all these. In one sense, the distance I am frustratingly unable to make up can become something of a hindrance. It does not, all of a sudden, seem so important that others accept us where we’re at as it is for us to accept ourselves where we’re at during any given period – and to keep moving.
Our relationship with You has been compared to a dance. I find it an apt comparison. Sometimes You lead. Sometimes I lead. Often I’m out of step or step on Your toes. Sometimes I fox trot to a waltz and waltz to a polka. And then there are times I go looking for another partner. But I always keep coming back to You. This pleases You because I am always seeking something in that dance. When I find it, it pleases me. When I seek it, it pleases You.
Sometimes what I seek is fuzzy, but what I find is always the same. It is the music of the dance which I find; and the music of the dance is love. You Yourself are the love and, hence, the music. I am not a good dancer, but I want to dance. I am enthralled by the music.
Our whole life is this dance. You are constantly the willing partner who waits patiently even when I chose to be a wallflower. You have promised us that when the dance is over, the music doesn’t stop; rather, we become one with the music forever. I am not a good dancer, but You love my efforts. To be a good dancer takes practice and a good partner, both moving as one to the music.
All my life I have listened to the words You spoke to Peter and the apostles at the Last Supper: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” All my life I have taken it as a bit of counseling about where the lines were drawn regarding forgiveness and service to others and how that affects man’s relationship with God. But maybe what You were actually doing was stating a simple fact: How can you be a part of me when you won’t allow me to be a part of you? Maybe, in this instance, we look too hard for metaphorical meaning in the water, the washing, or the cleansing.
I am strongly attracted to the idea that what we should take from this encounter is a message of the bond between people that cannot exist where airs of pride or superiority exist. The apostles, like us, could have uttered the same words to You. Our service to others allows us to be part of them and they to be part of us; and, if we insist on extracting metaphorical meaning, this service is love. Love makes us part of each other.
I can only imagine what must have gone through Your mind when objections were raised to Your washing their feet: ‘Can these men who are my friends not see that to be friends and love is to give of self?’ As if they could not figure it out, You had to tell them, “Go, and do likewise.” And the part that seems so easily missed here is that it’s not just about doing but also about receiving. To become one with You, or with another, we must not only give of our self but we must be open and welcoming to receiving the selves of others – just as we must be open and welcoming to receiving Your action in our lives. Learning to allow You to do
for us is, somehow, a whole lot harder than doing for You.
We struggle mightily to construct metaphors, analogies, and images that help us understand You. The fact that most of them only brush the tip of the iceberg or, more likely, miss completely, does not deter us from trying.
Here’s another futile attempt: Why is it that we seldom, if ever, picture God as someone who is saying, “Can I have a little help here?” You have put all of creation as we know it in our care. We have been made the custodians of LIFE in capital letters. We have been given each other to care for and love, yet in all these instances we keep putting it all back on You. I can’t help but picturing You saying, “Can I have a little help here?” I also can’t help picturing how many times we ignore such a request.
There is a reason attached to redemption for which Your father sent You into the midst of humanity – that we might learn how to participate in our own redemption. In reality God needs no help but by sending You to teach us how to live He demonstrates, I think, that He welcomes our help. If that were not so why would You have taught us what You did?
The old saying, ”God helps those who help themselves,” [and others] is homespun wisdom derived from the conclusion that God, indeed, could use a little help here. The controversy of the efficacy of faith over actions, or vice versa, comes into play too. God wants us to believe in Him, but He does not want us to do nothing about it. To make Him present in the world by what we say and do is the help God wants.
Any regular church-goer or Bible-reader has more than a passing familiarity with the parables You related to Your followers. The parable was a vehicle You chose for its simplicity and universality in teaching. I’ve been familiar with them all my life but it never struck me till recently that each fictional individual in the parables is a metaphor for mankind: the debtors, the hired hands, the prodigal son, his father, the Samaritan, the widow, the neighbor, the rich man, the host, the steward, the tax collector, and the maidens; each of them stands for different aspects of mankind’s relationship to God. The general metaphor can easily be narrowed to apply individually since they speak of the universal ebb and flow of our relationship with God. In the parable of the Good Samaritan we see mankind’s inclination to not get involved – an inclination I can individually identify with. But we also see the enormous need to give and receive compassion and overcome the fear of involvement.
All of the parables treat of some aspect of the great commandment to love God and love our neighbor and the stories often reflect how they mesh as in the debtors and their creditors, the rich man, and the host. The stories were simple because what they taught was simple – how we should live. Each is descriptive of some aspect of how it’s supposed to be. I’ve read bunches of philosophy, theology, spiritual and mystical writings, but the parables contain everything we need to know in its simplest most learnable form.
Finally, a point we may miss: though we may regard them as simple teaching tools, they have great depth. This is true of many things that are simple. It is only man who tends to complicate things. The path to our relationship with You is not complicated.
The stories You told to help teach people about their relationship with God and others are full of similes and metaphors. You knew that sometimes we learn better about ourselves through things around us which we know better than ourselves – things we study, ponder and deal with in our outer world more than things we ignore within us. You used things like: leaven, a pearl, sheep, a banquet, and a coin to help people understand what seemed mysterious. By category the greatest number of metaphors You used came from “growing things,” probably because this was an area of familiarity with the greatest number of people of Your time. There were fig trees, soil, vineyards, and weeds that You used. And within this category Your most used metaphor was that of a seed. It is that image which catches me now and makes me reflect upon how I am a seed planted on this earth.
Seeing oneself as a seed planted on earth conjures up images of all that is needed for that seed to flourish, and all that fights against that seed’s flourishing. The world is the soil in which we grow or perish. It is the medium that contains everything we need to grow as well as everything that can prevent that growth. It is good soil. It is bad soil. That which makes the soil good is our accepting it and using it for our growth. That which makes it bad is embracing it as an end in itself. In that case it offers not fertility and good for others but only self-gratification.
Light and rain are like the various forms of Your grace in our lives. If we shelter ourselves in the shade where these cannot touch us, we cannot take root. We wither. So many of the conditions by which our seed might flourish are dependent upon our disposition toward them. To spiritually take root, grow, and blossom is what we were meant to do and, ultimately, dying, to have our seed live on. Just as the seed must go into the ground dead in order to rise, so must we. But it is more than just the death that ends physical life. It is the constant dying to self by which we are reborn daily within life. The seed that is me comes from and returns to the root or the vine that is You. I am a seed planted on this earth.
One of the many themes to which I keep returning in these letters is their ultimate inadequacy to capture who You are. In fact, words themselves are a frustrating failure at expressing who, not only You are, but who I am. Words are all we’ve got but they invariably reach a dimension beyond which they crash in flames. Words themselves have led me to know this – then abandoned me. If my own words and the words of others are inadequate to contain You, my own words and the words of others are also inadequate to contain me because, at center, though I may not fully understand it, our spirits are one.
So what is there beyond words to which we have recourse? Even my innermost thoughts are hemmed-in by words. I have control over the words I use therefore I can manipulate how I use them. My words, however, are not me, nor, no matter how succinctly I use them, are they You. So they fail! But what is left? By what other means can I come to know You and know myself?
I like to think of instrumental music as a spiritual language, but what it communicates about You and me is more emotional than words. However, who You are and who I am is more than emotional and so music fails in its own way. Maybe there is just no means available to limited, fallible humans by which to perceive anything differently or more completely than the obvious ones.
There are things in our hearts that we simply cannot express, yet we insist upon trying to put them into words. Scripture is a written record of how men tried to put those feelings into words. Yet we know by instinct or some extra sense that there must be something greater than words. Maybe immersing our presence into silent contemplative stillness is the way to get beyond words; to allow the “Word of God” to fill us in its own way – in ways beyond words.
Every word has its own boundaries because it is an agreed-upon symbol for something else. A word tries to capture that “something else” and contain it. Even then it usually fails because of so many shades of meaning. Are we, then, humanly capable of grasping what is meant by a word? I think not. Concepts of pure spirituality must shed what shackles us to a single mode of perception and that does not come till we rest in You.
I’ve written a lot to You about “words.” Their benefits and liabilities are unavoidable. They form the river of consciousness upon which we navigate life. They become so common to us, so taken-for-granted, and so heedless sometimes that we become very adept at filtering out what we are tired of hearing or reading and only perk up when our attention is caught by what we deem important. Yet, in this regard, it strikes me that it is better to have a heart without words than words without heart.
I am of the opinion that very often the words a person speaks are not an accurate reflection of the heart within that person. I have known my share of rough, tough, gruff, trash-talking loudmouths with hearts willing to give the shirts off their backs at the drop of a hat.
When we look at someone else it’s important that we see beyond what they say, for what they say often masks who they are. To see You in them it is necessary to sweep their words aside. And it is the same for when they look at me. I’d prefer to not be judged by my words but by my heart. I think this is the way You look at us. You see past the know-it-all preaching. You see past the words of heedless prayer. You see past the dire words of despair and disappointment, or even past the words of hope and consolation. You see past the words of anger and revenge; and past the words of praise and love. You see past all these and more because words are often just a veneer for what is truly within our hearts – and that’s the place You look.
There’s no doubt that we are formed very much by words, yet it is not the words but what is formed by the words that really matters. We fool ourselves with our words. We would like to believe that what we say or write is what characterizes us; but it isn’t. Both with ourselves and with others we must look beyond our words more deeply into our hearts. Do the words we say or write really reflect our hearts or do we use words to paint a desirable picture of ourselves?
How many times in the past have I decried the frailty of words! How many times have I been frustrated by the deficiencies of language to transcend the sentient realm! On further reflection I’m coming to realize that it might not be quite fair. The frailty and deficiency is, to a degree, in the words themselves which are generated by the imperfections of my intellect. Furthermore, the frailty and deficiency is also due to my own failure to squeeze every drop of contextual meaning from them.
We swim in a sea of words that renders our attention somnolent toward anything but superfluous or pragmatic meaning. Like the air we breathe, we never consider the air itself. In daily commerce we can get by like this.
Words, however, are generated from the personal context of each speaker or writer and include: time, place, situation, emotion, want, need, etc. When we hear a word, we seldom consider these things. We hear the gospels so regularly that we seldom consider Your words in the context of all the elements in which they were spoken. We also do this with others whose voices we are accustomed to hearing regularly. We apprehend simply on the surface without considering all the contextual elements which enrich meaning. In the Mass and in prayer this is really important. It takes effort but is very rewarding. The same applies to others who are talking to us – especially those closest to us with whom we converse on a regular basis. We must regard context.
New light and life reflects back to me when I thoughtfully consider the words of the Ordinary of the Mass or of the prayers I so absent-mindedly recite every day, or of the emotion, want, or need expressed in the voice of another beyond their words. Words are vehicles that express our spirit. They are not precise. We realize this when we search for the right words to express ourselves and, having made the choice, are still uncertain that they convey what we truly wanted. We need to consider that this process also takes place in those to whom we listen. All entail a union for which we yet strive.